O’Donovan notes #6e: Is this your talent?

c.1800 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

As some people have a natural aptitude and inclination for mathematics, and even then some will make better mathematicians than others, so too with this sort of work.

For a person hoping to offer an informed opinion about images, including those in Beinecke MS 408, what’s needed are a capacity for clear perception, for empathy, for reasoning, and near-limitless intellectual curiosity.

Character-traits contra-indicated include egotism, greater intellectual inclination to ‘know’ than to understand; inability to distinguish between reason and logic, inability to think through the nature of the problem or even accurately to define what is meant by ‘a problem’ in this discipline.

To avoid upsetting individual Voynicheros, I’m returning to the example of four semi-fictionalised* former students (or trainees, as I like to call them). Their responses, good and poor, were as given.

*semi-fictionalised. I’ve made them all ‘he’ and put them all into the same small group.

Counterparts for these four will be found, again and again, among Voynich theorists both past and present-day. Sadly most come closest in their attitudes to those ranked third or fourth of the four, for reasons explained below.

After being shown that photographic image,* the four give responses in this order:

*see previous post

  1. ‘this looks like the model of a reactor to me’.
  2. ‘I think it could be part of a G/gle maps satellite view’
  3. ‘I think it’s a piece of found-art, but it looks like the bits are electronic’.
  4. “It’s obviously x…” .

Now, even though the fourth person said, “It’s obviously a motherboard”, here’s their ranking after that first question.

++ #1.‘this looks like the model of a reactor to me’.

+ #2. I think it could be part of a G/gle maps satellite view’.

– #3. ‘I think it’s a piece of found-art, but it looks like the bits are electronic’.

– – #4. “It’s obviously a motherboard” .

Some readers might be puzzled by that, thinking the fourth had the ‘right answer’.

Not so. He not only failed to distinguish between an image and any object represented,* but failed even to hear the question, which was not “What is the object shown in this photograph?” but “What do you make of this?” – neither the medium nor the subject matter being specified. Another person might say, ‘It’s a photograph’ and do better.

*see previous post.

The others had heard the question and then, just as that fourth person did, their memories did a faster-than-thought scan of what was already familiar to them and each then told me what his memory had presented to him. So far so good.

That one of them already had ‘motherboard’ in his memory is a minor distinction between these four people, levelled out in a second.

I asked for responses, and what mattered was not only how they responded to the image but – this is important – reacted to each others’ responses. Among the things I considered were each person’s body-language, tone of voice and if, when, and for what reason, their eyes lit up.

Number four’s eye lit up the moment he saw the picture. You could almost hear him thinking, “I know what that is – a motherboard”. While each of other three before him spoke, his body language said “wrong.. irrelevant.. pay no attention. When I speak they’ll know I’m the best.” Not good in a novice/amateur in our field.

The person who spoke first had heard the question and in that answer quite unconsciously showed that he had registered such important things as point-of-view, perspective/depth of field, sensed that it was not just a photo, or a ‘building’ photographed, but that there was about the image something that reflected another sort of scale and human manufacture – he described it as a model.

The second answer, again, told me the speaker had unconsciously registered many of the same factors. They could read these things and process them as aspects of an image even when aware that their memory has sent up no exact match. That’s good.

Perspective or lack of it, and signs of the matter’s being direct or indirect information – these are among the markers which may tell us the general period when an image was formed and whether we should suppose the image is, or isn’t one created contemporary with its current form. (that is – e.g. “is this fifteenth century image of fifteenth-century origin or is there something indicative of intervening influence?”). The first student wasn’t consciously aware of registering those things; at that stage, his perceptions were still way ahead of his conscious thinking.

The reason the first speaker became first-ranked is that when the second person spoke, his eyes brightened again. He was able to re-view the image as if through that second person’s eyes – and could see it as they were seeing it. Good. And then he turned to that second person and said, ‘yeh, I can see that’ without implying that he thought either of them was wrong or right. Very, very good indeed in terms of aptitude.

Generosity of spirit. It’s not just a moral quality. It’s just the right cast of mind for someone who has to be able to appreciate that the way a Chinese Christian of the seventeenth century will envisage Virgin-and-child differs – sometimes in quite subtle ways – from the vision of that type in Russia or Spain. We speak often about “ways of seeing” and they are why we don’t suppose all images of a cat – or, if you like, of crossbowmen – are commutable.

The way the question was framed, the only right answer was a true statement of the result after you weighed the information that was before your eyes with what your memory offered as potential matches, because in most cases more than one possibility will come to mind. Number four didn’t actually address the image -as-image at all; only what his memory proffered.

And “whatever the memory proferred” is all too often the sole foundation for what a Voynich writer calls his/her ‘theory’ and tries to find ornament for, after the fact.

The third trainee’s answer raises a faint doubt, because it may indicate someone who thinks in category-boxes. I mean that because we were supposed to be there about art, that person imagined the answer should come from the ‘art-box’ in his memory. This is another trait pervasive in Voynich writings since 1912. A theorist will begin by presuming or by imagining the work by Roger Bacon, or about alchemy or something else they’re familiar with, and thereafter focus on the ‘English-‘ or the ‘alchemy-box’ for something to match to some detail in some folio of the manuscript. Not a good sign. In that student’s case, though, turning to the mental comfort-zone as response to a first test might reflect some passing nervousness. Only time would tell if it were a set habit.

The consequences of that habit, in Voynich studies, have been disastrous and persistent. It is also why, after more than a hundred years, and despite the enormous range of plant-images found across all media and in every period, within and without Latin Europe, stylised and otherwise, and despite Tiltman’s comments half a century ago, Voynicheros are still behaving like bees endlessly trying to fly through the same closed window, hunting and hunting in nothing but western herbal manuscripts for ‘matches’. The theorist who invents scenarios thinks he knows already the answer he’s allegedly seeking – for a problem he has poorly defined.

The reason number four dropped to the last place is, first, that he didn’t think. He didn’t think about the question, didn’t think about the image and. while each of the others was speaking, his body language expressed egotism combined with indifference. He wasn’t thinking about anything except when he could earn admiration and feel the most important in the group by announcing his ‘right answer’.

So at the end of that first test, he stood very badly on all the things that really matter. Perceptiveness simplistic; not reasonable, nor empathetic and no intellectual curiosity evident. Had he even said, “I think it’s a motherboard, but I don’t know what kind” he might have done a little better. After receiving an objective confirmation.. let me repeat that: after receiving objective confirmation… that the photographed object was indeed a motherboard, there might have been some hope he’d hunt more information about that kind of motherboard. He displayed no active curiosity – not about the image, nor the object photographed, not about what led the others to interpret the image as they had. Not why a motherboard was relevant to the subject. Not even a pause to check if he’d rightly defined the question.

He hadn’t that absolutely essential factor – a driving desire to understand.

Not to crack, not to break, not to solve – to understand.

About a Voynichero’s storyline, there may not be much to understand. The manuscript’s images are far more engaging, if you’re so inclined.

In a recent brief conversation with Darius, I said that in my experience people whose natural talents and training make them good mathematicians or mechanics rarely have an aptitude for this sort of work.

I’m not suggesting that you need an academic degree in art studies to research the drawings in Beinecke MS 408. I’m saying that you shouldn’t suppose that all the necessary tools and information are to be found already within yourself, as if all you need are “two eyes and common sense” – as another of those pesky Voynich memes once had it.

Actually, two of the best trainees I recall were students of law and of accounting, respectively.

The first was English and immediately appreciated our work’s emphasis on evidence-first; he was quite used to having masses of previously-unknown material to read before forming any opinion, and understood perfectly the importance of referring to precedents and a basic rule that any image is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ of whatever has been said about it.

In English law, the aim is not to get the client off but to honour the law. If you learn from the weight and balance of evidence – including the accused’s testimony – that the allegations are true, or indeed false, then you don’t pretend otherwise.

The accountant was very clear-eyed and rational in weighing up one aspect of an image against another, and of one opinion against another. Most admirable, I thought, was that he was meticulous about never confusing contributions made to a topic by one person with anyone else’s. If some other student put to him a question about the views of a third, he’d redirect the enquiry, and where he found cases of intellectual embezzlement I think he’d have called the police if he could. 🙂 Neither ever mentioned the Voynich manuscript to me and may still never have heard of it. MS Beineke 408 isn’t an important topic in the larger scheme of things.

I’ll break here – next post, those notes on how to treat specialists decently and not misuse their opinions .

PS – Seems to me that last week’s Voynich meme ‘everyone’s entitled…’ is being superseded by ‘opinionated.’ 😀

O’Donovan notes #6d: ‘not exact?’ – not exactly.

c.2500 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

Note – First part castigates ‘rule-by-meme’ in Voynich studies; second part is about an analytical approach to imagery.

I’ve sometimes ranted about the long-embedded, irrational Voynich ‘meme-maker(s)’. He/she/they are the study’s worst sort of hobble.

Over the past five weeks, as many correspondents have repeated one obviously mad ‘meme’ apparently of recent coining which says “there is no need to consult external sources” (one variant used the term ‘authorities’).

The implication is, I gather, that we should believe the whole universe of scholarship resides in the head(s) of a few Voynich theorists.

“I feel no need to consult external sources” – really? So your linked wiki articles are to be deemed some Voynichero’s possession?

But then again, if unexamined belief is facile, so too is disbelief, so why not put that meme to the test. Perhaps there really is some Voynichero, or some number of Voynicheros, who know already everything you’ll ever need to know for your Voynich research.

Now, looking down my own list of research questions outstanding …. Here’s one I shared with the Voynich community some time ago, without much result:

Question: “What extant records, if any, allow us to know what administrative and liturgical languages were employed in Amaligh over the period 1250-1350 AD”.

Any Voynicho out there now who is a specialist in the history of central Asia and its bureaucracies eight hundred years ago… ?

Thirteen years’ of seeing the memer/s at work leads me to expect that response to their latest could well spark invention of yet another – possibly along the lines that no true-hearted Voynichero would do research that needed to look further than the memers’ pet theory. Perhaps that if it should, it’s too far-fetched. That should get a snigger or two: pun, get it – hyuk, hyuk.


Over the years I’ve noticed that the crazy meme-maker is over-fond of the word “unnecessary” as in: “to read X’s research is unnecessary”; “codicology is unnecessary”; “looking at anything except illustrations in German fifteenth-century manuscripts is unnecessary”.. Yes, they’re all real examples. Watch out for catchy-sounding shite that includes the word ‘unnecessary’. What it signifies is that the memer can’t get their head around something and their greatest concerns are (i) their public image and (ii) their theory.

Another great stupidity is being revived. It was being parroted even in 2008 and I’ve spent time and effort correcting it more than once. (The memer is a great recycler of his own ideas). This meme runs, [understanding analytical method is unnecessary because] “any interpretation of the drawings is subjective.”

What most infuriates me isn’t the mad meme-r’s tiny mind and agenda, but that genuinely intelligent people who are perfectly capable of original research, repeat such stuff without stopping to ask if it’s food for thought, or rubbish.

Would you stand in Chartres cathedral and say that all its images and sculptures can be interpreted in any way you like? If the tour- guide said, while pointing to an image of the Virgin Mary, “this is a statue of the Buddha” would you muzzle any objection on the grounds that the guide’s entitled to an opinion and what about their feelings?

(Can we make meme-breath a thing?)

After writing the above, a couple of amiable and interesting comments from Karl Kluge saw my choler reduce somewhat (rage is also unproductive), so I began asking how I can treat the question of subjectivity and objectivity in describing images using only a 1,000 words more.

So – suppose I were to present the following image to my readers and ask each of them to tell me what they make of it. I’m fairly sure I’d receive a range of answers, some short and others more detailed. Fair enough.

If I showed it to a group I was training in techniques of iconographic analysis, however, the same answers might be offered but I’d put a ‘minus’ point against any that said “It’s obviously x…” .

Why? Because even if they use the word ‘picture’ in their answer, they are having difficulty keeping front-and-centre that crucial difference between a two-dimensional image and a three- dimensional object. It reveals a particular type of inflexibility, a reductionist cast of mind and one which experience shows denotes an individual ill-suited to this sort of work.

In treating of images which were given their form before the modern era, you need a more open and more generous mentality because you are constantly required to set aside the environment and era most comfortable for you, and do your best to see an image as it were through other eyes, and in a very different cultural and historical environment. That’s why it involves more reading than looking at pictures.

To someone who showed an ability to balance their own perception with a reasonable understanding of how others might see that image, I’d give a mental ‘plus’ .

They might say, for example, ‘I think it could be part of a G/gle maps satellite view’ or ‘I think it’s a piece of found-art, but it looks like the bits are electronic’. Or even ‘this looks like the model of a reactor to me’.

The reason the last person too would get a tick from me is that they haven’t confused subjective impression with objective fact in the way that over-confident and inflexible people – and Voynich meme-rs – do. On the contrary, all these three tacitly accepted that their personal impression is a personal impression and may not be objectively true – that’s good.

People whose attitude towards an image is “I think so, therefore it is” are not suited to this sort of work at all, and never will be. They should go make a new universe somewhere else.

What matters, as you’ll understand, is not the opinion but an ability to see the image as an image and whether you yet have the range and depth of knowledge required to set an image in its appropriate context- historical, cultural and technical.

To treat the first error – confusing an image for whichever three-dimensional object your imagination produces as a ‘match’. First, this error is another of those old, still-persistent and constant errors seen in Voynich writings. It’s why Newbold noticed some drawings in the leaf-and-root section, but said they ‘were’ apothecary jars, his proof no more than a reference to what could be seen, in 1921, in an American pharmacy.

Unreasonable certainty. Evidence? – wrong period, wrong place, wrong ‘backdrop’ – no match.

Nevertheless, that rank anachronism remained fixed in Voynich studies for almost a century. I believe I was the first to ask if the ‘apothecary jars’ interpretation of those drawings was true for medieval Latin Europe, did the research across historical, art-historical and archaeological studies, and summarised that work in some detail. The verdict was negative. If they are to be deemed apothecary jars, they’re not pre-1438 European.

In any other field, this would be considered a useful contribution for others’ ongoing work, but I don’t expect you’ll see mention of it in Voynich wiki articles or voynich.nu. At least not rightly attributed; my conclusion on that point and various others finds a disjunction between the primary evidence and the traditionalist narrative. No Voynich theorist has yet devised a plausible theory-patch for the old ‘European apothecary jar’ error, but they tried, and no doubt keep trying. The manuscript is not their primary interest.

In the same way that the image (above) is not a motherboard but a photographic image of a motherboard, so what serves as the central emblem for the Voynich manuscript’s November October diagram – for example – is not a balance, but an image of a balance.

And if you look at that image in the slow, analytical way, you may notice that it is drawn in a form so far unmatched by any image offered from any medieval European manuscript as support for a Voynich theory.

Differences matter because they carry information about time, place and cultural context for that image’s first enunciation. From these trig-points, we establish intended meaning, among other things.

Being unaware of, or deliberately refusing to accept, that distinction between an image and an object is why so many Voynicheros try to render their theory more plausible by loading the narrative with as many pictures as they can of (e.g.) a balance, regardless of medium, and sometimes regardless of era – so long as they suit the theory. They behave as if the point is to match whatever detail they subjectively define as the drawings’ chief object – such as the diagram’s small central emblem – whereas the point of researching historical drawings is to explain the context in which each was first given its form, and by what kind of person for what kind of audience. One hopes that more clarity on these matters may help those working on the written text. False, misleading or deliberately ignorant assertions are of no value to any but the theory-promoter.

I doubt there are many places on earth which never invented some form of balance; but how many knew a balance of just such a form – and where and when is one attested?

I hope you see that the ‘..entitled to their opinion..’ argument doesn’t apply in such a case. What matters is how well- or ill-informed the opinion may be.

Objective and context-dependent.

While it’s true of our example that the image is a photograph, and that photographed object was a motherboard, if the reader realised that, it was not by using their creative imagination. They recognised the image as a photographic one, and the photographed object as a motherboard because of what information they had previously acquired. They had the right background.

If you lived in fifteenth-century Spain, and by some miracle could be shown the same image, you couldn’t possibly say, ‘It’s the photo of a motherboard’. The work of iconographic analysis also involves consciously eliminating anachronisms which spring so naturally to mind for a person living in – for example – 1920s America or twenty-first century France. In reality, someone in twenty-first century France might not be able to recognise a motherboard either. Their opinion would have more chance of being valid than that of a fifteenth-century Spaniard, but less than the opinion of someone who had actually seen a motherboard or a photograph of one, wouldn’t you say?

It’s not having an opinion that matters; it’s whether you know enough to form a valid opinion.

So when we say that an image’s meaning is context-dependent we mean, too, that any individual’s capacity to read that image is context-dependent.

What’s relevant to research is whether a person knows enough to form a valid opinion and whether they yet know enough to realise that they don’t know enough and are willing and able to do the work needed to know more. If they want to provide commentary helpful to others working on a problematic medieval manuscript, that is.

Unlike many who work in museums or in galleries, I have never felt annoyed by hearing someone say, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”. That’s the norm, and always has been. Regrettable in some ways, certainly, because were things otherwise neither Rembrandt nor Van Gogh would have died destitute. But at the same time it means that such people really do enjoy and appreciate some works of art, and in that context no opinion but theirs matters. Private opinions for private purpose.

I do feel irritated by those who only like what they know. So often, all they know is what is offered by their own imagination.

You hear things said such as, ‘It’s all subjective, though, isn’t it’ – after you’ve just spent fifteen minutes explaining, at their request, the history and context in which some pre-modern work was formed and why it is formed as it is, including its materials.

But then, it turns out, they don’t want to believe it a seventeenth-century imaginative portrait of some medieval character; they want to stick with their initial impression-as-opinion that it’s a picture of the Biblical Queen of Sheba. So after you’ve clarified the question for them – out comes the response, ‘Oh well, in the end it’s all just subjective and everyone’s entitled to their opinion, aren’t they?’.

Which means they are more determined than ever to tell other people that it’s the Queen of Sheba. Which is when I see that a copy of my written report is stapled to their account.

The ‘artist is dead’

(the next paragraph’s more positive tone due again to Karl’s benign influence).

The thing to remember is that while the draughtsman or painter, as artist, may be dead, the artefact and its medium lives, and in that medium just as in writing, there are rules and conventions evident. Whether a given viewer has the means to read, and rightly interpret that record is quite another matter.

In pre-modern societies, image-making was above all a means of communication between members of a single community who already had the same background knowledge in common.

Imagination alone won’t get you to your right destination in that distant country of the past. The wider your background and the better the sources you study, the closer you might come.

External specialists.

Now, on my own I can get as far as saying that the image (illustrated above) is a photograph and the object photographed was a motherboard, but that’s the limit of my knowledge without turning to external sources, written, pictorial or in the form of a specialist.

If I take the same image to a couple of external specialists – say a couple of real computer-geeks, they could not only recognise that image immediately as the photo of a motherboard, but if they were very knowledgeable could probably provide the name of the company that made it, the name of every part and perhaps even the model number for each part, and then discourse – debate – between themselves the merits of that gaming motherboard against others they know equally well.

Some things are objectively true and check-able; others are informed opinion; specialists may differ.

But try telling those specialists that in your opinion it’s part of a G/gle satellite image!

Until the next time that old meme comes floating on the surface – that’s it for the Voynich meme, ‘It’s all subjective ..’


Specialists differ.

In the next post, I’ll demonstrate, as well as I can in a blogpost, the issue of qualitative differences, and using a genuine specialist well, or badly. If there’s no ‘final word’ to be hoped for, it is equally true that not all opinions have equal weight and, therefore, that not all statements passed off as authoritative by Voynich theorists should be believed a final word.

I’ll take as working example the two images of a crowned woman included in the post before last.

O’Donovan notes #6c: sources aren’t personalities.

Without examining the facts fully and fairly, there is no way of knowing whether vox populi is really vox dei, or merely vox asinorum. — Cyrus H. Gordon.

I have heard the laments of traditionalists who deplore the fact that in tracking the source and transmission of certain persistent errors in Voynich studies, I didn’t stop before 2000, but am following them in writings produced more recently.

The persons expressing such sentiments appear to me to be making two assumptions: first that in the field of historical studies and art history no objective standards exist; and secondly that there is no meaningful difference between objecting to a theoretical narrative’s construction and methodology, and attacking a person.

The first assumption would be demonstrably wrong, and the second no more than evidence of that over-attachment to a Voynich theory which leads theorists to lose their capacity to distinguish between a theory and a personality.

On the other hand, if that second assumption is now widespread, it helps explain why a certain theory-clique has always defended their theory by attacking any dissenter ad.hominem rather than having a reasonable debate about facts and methods.

Once a person starts believing that to disagree with their theory is equivalent to a personal attack, it’s not long before they start supposing that the way to eradicate the reasons for dissent is to attack the dissenter without addressing the substance of dissenting position.

It might also shed light on the very peculiar phenomenon by which, if one theory-clique dominates a given Voynich arena and its leaders make plain in one way and another that certain dissenters’ names “shall not be spoken”, people submit to that silent rule. No, I’m not kidding, it happens. Try expressing real enthusiasm for any matter incompatible with the ‘all-European-central-European’ storyline at voynich.ninja these days and test that out for yourself.

I must say, though, that when a group’s divorce from the normal world of medieval studies becomes too pronounced, the results can be very funny.

Imagine – you’re an ordinary member of some ‘Voynich community’ in which you’re simultaneously forbidden from naming dissenters, and obliged to show loyalty by denigrating all dissenters ad.hominem. Reasoned debate about details, data and method is prohibited if it involves mention of sources or persons non-conforming whether impartial academic sources or Voynich writings. So then you have the problem of how to show the necessary loyalty while pretending not to have read any but theory-supporting matter, and while also being prohibited from naming the persons you are expected to denigrate.

Tricky, huh?

One way is to ‘minimise’. If the person contributed a solid, original and academic study which explains some matter in depth, but their conclusions show your theory is lightweight, you say they’ve “written a lot” but never, ever give details of the publication or admit it was an original contribution from original research. Assert airily that ‘it’s not new’ and dare the others to ask you to provide the details.

There are better ways to work around the ‘must attack/must not name’ dilemma within a Voynich community. For his fine facility in using this two-edged genre, let me introduce someone whose skill I admire: Karl Kluge.

On April 1st of this year, Karl posted what follows and when I say I admire his work, I really do.

His introduction combines an evocation of the first lines of Dante’s Inferno with a hint of the [John] Dee Voynich myth and from there moves onto work done by a few current researchers whom he ‘does-not-name’ in quite the approved manner.

Here’s Karl:

I dreamt that I was looking at .. Dee’s scrying equipment .. I found myself standing in a mist-filled void .. and as I examined the page the snake in the root of the left plant turned to fix me with its steely gaze, speaking as follows:

“Though at first glance I seem mild snake,
T’would be a foolish error to make!
No garter snake, I! Don’t void your bladder —
I am, in fact, the loathsome Adder!

While I seem brown, I fade, alack!
So know, in truth, my hue is BLACK!
Heed me well, though ’tis hard to imagine it,
For I am the glorious serpent Plantagenet!

Think any member of that forum is going to refer openly to me, or to that ‘Cerastes’ post, or begin a stimulating discussion on the implications for this study of a cerastes’ depiction in the manuscript? IDTS

Fact is. there are Voynich theorists out there (not Karl) whose feelings are so exquisitely sensitive that if you critique anything they’ve ever said, they’ll smash your face. 😀

that’s ‘face’ in the metaphorical sense.

Seriously – what matters more to you? Beinecke MS 408 or getting warm fuzzies online?

Think it over.

O’Donovan notes #6b – Weighing images; the analytical-critical approach.

c.3200 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

At some level everyone knows, or at least remembers, that their first response to the drawings in this manuscript was simple bewilderment. They made no sense; you couldn’t read them.

In response to that immediate feeling of disorientation you might have started skimming past dozens of drawings and dozens of pages seeking something, one image or one detail, that did seem to make sense – to chime with something already familiar. As I’ve said before, this is an instinctive response to a strange environment and unfamiliar surroundings; it’s how we can narrow our vision so that we ‘see’ none but the one familiar face among the crowds at a railway station in rush-hour.

We’re hard-wired to recognise the familiar, or seemingly-familiar.

To an extent, this is central to the cryptographer’s work, too. The difference is that cryptographers pay just a much attention to differences, where in Voynich studies those using the images as support for a theory don’t.

Another reaction against that first sense of bewilderment is to say to ourselves the equivalent of ‘Hush, dear, it’s alright. It’s just Dad in a Santa suit.’ We imagine that the unreadable *is* really normal underneath it all and never pause to examine whether our idea of ‘normal’ isn’t pre-judged. That presumption of the normal as western Christian European was the Friedmans’ flaw. It’s still embedded in the traditionalists’ approach.

A third reaction is to blame the object for being as it is, and for not being more comfortable and familiar. It’s not our fault the pictures bewilder us, we say. Hence the earlier invention of a lone fictional character called ‘the artist’ on whose imaginary head was piled blame and various calumnies – he was a child said some, a child-genius said others, a mad-man asserted another, a deeply devious individual out to mislead us… etc.etc.

By means of one – sometimes all – of these defensive reactions, that initial true recognition that these images are NOT much like forms seen in medieval Latin (i.e. western Christian) manuscripts was covered over, dispelled, rationalised or just ignored.

Theories also served to reduce feelings of bewilderment. In creating a theory, an individual felt once more in control. The all-at-sea feeling passed; rationalisation replaced enquiry and reason was quite unconsciously replaced by mere logic, operating from premises which were untested, doubtful, historically inaccurate or otherwise less than useful.

That’s what happened with Mary d’Imperio, as she persuaded herself that the images “of extreme oddity, quaintness. and foreignness …” were really just quirky versions of what she’d expected the manuscript should be, underneath it all: an ordinary western Christian composition. Its plants should find matches in the Latin herbals and so on.

The images didn’t change; she had suppressed her immediate perceptions and thereafter saw the images clearly no longer, but through the screen provided by the groups’ fixed assumptions.

d’Imperio was not stupid; she was a highly intelligent person who prided herself on an ability to think coolly and clearly. Perhaps the kindest thing to say is that she had no appropriate prior studies, didn’t appreciate the vital importance of stylistics, and never went outside the cryptographers’ group to get better information. She couldn’t. The study was classified by the NSA.

The sweep of human history shows that almost everything human beings do is done for the sake of comfort – physical, emotional or spiritual- so we can hardly blame others or ourselves for being inclined towards the comfortable and familiar. Yet since, at some level, we cannot forget our first perception that these images aren’t nice and normal products of European culture, the first critical question to ask is – what am I presuming is ‘normal’? and secondly, why -exactly – are these images not ‘normal’ in those terms?

Bad artist?

Let’s start with the old story that the ‘artist’ was incompetent. (pause: what evidence is there for supposing these are original creations and not ones copied? What evidence is there for supposing all were made by just one person? ..).

Instead of trying to run away from the ‘I-can’t-understand’ sort of problem, we move close up and cross-examine it.

Using the same example from folio 79v, we ask about it- Exactly what about this image is making it unreadable for me? What, exactly seems ‘wrong’? If you assume a European norm – what is it that differs so much from the conventions of Europe’s medieval art that I while I can read those pictures pretty easily (Latin language text or not) I’m struggling with this one?

(Form, disposition, stylistics, spoken tongue, cultural-artistic conventions and subject-matter usually lie at the heart of such problems, but since this is a first exercise, I’ll take things easier. For the same reason and though one must, as a rule, comment on the whole of any image, I’ll just speak about this female figure rather than have a post three times as long,).

Exactly why doesn’t it/she look like a figure from a medieval European manuscript made earlier than 1435?

Again, to answer that question as a professional would, you’d have to locate this image against the wider landscape of historical and cross-cultural studies, and read papers having such titles as, ‘Attitudes to the human body in Europe’s medieval art prior to 1440 AD’ – but for the exercise, assume that’s been done.

No harm in testing the validity of a previous idea, so we start with the idea earlier common that the ‘artist’ was incompetent. Does the primary evidence agree?

Look at the finer details – the way the hair is shown as being swept back from the head, the hint of shadow included to distinguish the line of the head-veil from the hair. If you consider the face alone, you see that the spacing of eye-to-eyebrow, and these to the top of the nose and mouth are remarkably good. I say ‘remarkably’ because the face measures no more than 5mm square (yes, five millimeters). That’s 13/64ths (0.2) of an inch each way.

You find that level of practiced precision and hand-eye co-ordination in people whose work is cartography, gem-engraving, ivory-carving and a few other trades. It’s not necessarily found in every manuscript illuminator. Jewish artists in micrography (extremely small-written letters that are formed to create the impression of a drawn image) also had the necessary practice and skill.

Some years ago I asked the advice of an eminent specialist in Hebrew palaeography if the micrographic letters on some petals of the violas (folio 9v) made any sense. The specialist’s opinion was that they did not spell out words, but read as if an untrained person had attempted to copy Hebrew micrography. The individual letters were intelligible, and the specialist read them off, but remarked that the forms were untutored so that e.g. vav and yod were not clearly distinguished as they would be by a Hebrew scribe and the string(s) as they appear there make no sense. One of the same illustrations I used in those posts happens to be included in Koen Gheuen’s recent post about ‘Spirals’; additional examples can be found in the very poor wiki article ‘Micrography’.

Next, we consider the lines which form the figure’s torso.

Can you see what firm, sure, skillful lines they are which shape the curves of the figure’s back and belly so economically?

See how the figure’s right armpit is indicated by a single, practiced, effortless line met by that which gives – in good proportion – the line of the right breast, and the other line (which no unskilled draughtsman would include) which extends the line of inner right leg to suggest the small hollow between hip and belly?

The combination of effortlessness and accuracy at such a minute scale leaves little room to doubt that this fifteenth-century draftsman was highly competent and practiced – and we may add to those markers just noticed the relative proportions given the torso and lower body down to just above the knee. So why not draw the whole figure ‘normally’? The most obvious possibilities are that (i) what we are seeing here reflects non-European custom (ii) the draughtsman didn’t want to make it all ‘normal’ (ii) the person paying for the materials didn’t want that. Most medieval manuscripts are copies of older works.

However, comparing this figure to others in the month-folios and ‘bathy-‘ section brings to notice two interesting points about this figure’s right arm.

First, that the fifteenth-century draughtsman seems to have forgotten, in drawing that limb, that these figures were supposed to have broken- or boneless limbs arms (i.e. deprived of strength in the idiom of certain languages), and he has drawn it with its proportions pretty right, and evoking an underlying bone structure. More remarkable still for this manuscript, if it’s intentional and not co-incidental, is that the figure’s right hand seems – almost – perhaps – to be drawn foreshortened!

One can’t be sure of the last; there’s not enough detail to be sure, but given the general absence from these drawings of any hint of that movement towards literalism or the styles for rendering perspective which mark Europe’s later medieval art, even a hint of possible foreshortening is worth mention.

Fixing things.

If we were to isolate this figure, give it/her another head, fix her left arm to look more like the right arm.. we might end up with something more nearly compatible with art of Italy, France or Spain between c.1350-1430 AD. The ‘swollen belly’ came via strands of imported astronomical imagery, to appear in art of the Latin west as a marker of celestial/heavenly ‘bodies’ (not, initially, related to the planets). In that way we start to see it in a couple of medical texts, or (as Ellie and I happened to notice at much the same time) in illustrations produced in regions under English or French control during the early 1400s, after which it soon became a fad in western art. So the swollen belly isn’t a problem even for those having all-Latin theories. But to make the whole figure suit the theory, the limbs and the head would have to be ‘fixed’ rather than be paid attention.

And that’s exactly what so many Voynich writers do.

The Voynich manuscript’s drawings have constantly been treated as if their form and stylistics could be arbitrarily ‘fixed up’ the better to suit a theory. The theory says they ‘ought to be…’ Aztec, or European or whatever, so the theorist produces comparisons that are Aztec or whatever as if the two were close equivalents.

Most of the writers who do that do not seem, to me, to be conscious of what they’re doing. Rather, they appear to just imagine/filter the Voynich manuscript’s images so they see them as if images first given form in the environment the theorist prefers.

The usual technique that you’ll see employed to encourage others’ belief in a theory is the presentation of alleged ‘matches’ – pairings of a detail from the manuscript with one selected from within parameters demanded by the theory, and very often with no effort whatever made to treat of the Voynich drawing itself. Commentary thus becomes a commentary on the theory, not on the manuscript. All the important aspects of art-commentary such as date and place of making; origins; stylistics and so on, are ignored or presumed covered by the theory.

That’s how it has been, almost without exception, since the end of that brief period when Jim Reeds mailing list for Friends of the Voynich manuscript was marked by a spirit of enquiry rather than theory-formation.

To explain how propagandist-style ‘matches’ work, let me give as example an idea popular for a time, but which hasn’t been revived recently – so this should offend fewer current Voynicheros.

When attempting to explain the unclothed figures around the month-folios and in the ‘bathy-‘ section, those determined on a theory of medieval Latin (i.e. western Christian) European origin for the images had only a limited choice from which to pick their proposed matches, because other than the often salacious images found in copies of that innocent poem ‘Balneis Puteolanis’ there were relatively few unclothed female types in pre-Renaissance Europe – the most obvious being Eve, Magdalen (half-clothed/hair-shirted), and Melusine.

Melusine became a popular choice for a time. In Latin art, she is often depicted in a bath that is barrel- or tub-like and her legend is one native to central Europe and France.

Below is an image of Melusine from a manuscript made around, or after c.1435. Notice the elongated torso, low-slung belly, long nose, elongated and slender neck, defined chin, the network ‘fez’ on her head and the stave-made tub. Not characteristic of the Voynich drawings and none of those details agrees with this ‘match’, does it? – but theorists are generally positivistic in their approach – taking the attitude that we should hunt similarities, and that to mention differences is just spoil-sport behaviour which should not be allowed to interrupt. And some quite honestly cannot see differences at all. Strange but true.


Pairings no less casual than that (above) were, and still are, presented by theorists who believe – and whose sole aim has been to persuade the audience to believe – that their pairings are so similar that you could, in effect, substitute the ‘match’ for the Voynich image itself – thus tacitly claiming the Voynich manuscript’s visual language translated without its being considered.

A theorist doesn’t experience their creating such pairings as a practice misleading, erroneous or illusory. The positive comparison is a product of their theory, and thus supports their theory, so they regard it as a good thing, and in that sense a good match.

Having no experience of what is the usual methodology in the wider world, and no very deep prior study of such matters to inform their ideas, it is not surprising that they find this work fairly easy.

Once a given theorist believes they’ve found a couple of matches between their theory and the Voynich pictures, they’re past the tipping point. I say this from years of constant association with the online ‘Voynich world’.

Once, it was expected that any theory about the drawings would convert into a valid theory about the written text, but after so many years during which theory-driven narratives have proliferated and been elaborated, the two areas of Voynich studies are now pretty much divorced. Objective standards and rigor are expected by one but actively opposed by the other. To discuss methodology in treating the written text is accepted in any Voynich arena; to so much as invite interested persons to discuss it in relation to historical-pictorial narratives has been, quite literally, prohibited. Not because it had caused dissent at any previous time, but because if people weren’t prevented from talking about it, some theorists might feel upset. Nobody got to vote, and the manuscript never gets to.

For anyone interested in the images and in taking a different approach, here are two vital principles.

Meaning is context-dependent. Differences really matter.

Let’s put that image of Melusine back in its proper context.

Look at the differences between that page and folio 79v from the Voynich manuscript.

Consider the Melusine page’s layout and its having ruling-out; the script’s strong and emphasised verticals, the illustration’s attempt at literalism, the costumes, the way those head-veils are designed, the effort at perspective, emphasis on furniture, rich clothing and individuals’ relative social standing… all typical of western Christian manuscripts of its time. These things aren’t characteristics of the Voynich manuscript or of its drawings. One has to consider the question, ‘How much has to match before you ascribe the origin of a drawing, or set of drawings, to a certain cultural environment?

(If you’ve never heard of Melusine before, the wiki article will do for basic information. For an illuminated manuscript copy (incomplete) of the fourteenth-century Roman de Mélusine in which she looks, when dressed, as if she had legs – see British Library MS Harley 4418.

One obvious difference between images of Melusine and ‘ladies’ from the Voynich month- and bathy- sections is that Melusine was a hybrid creature whose lower half was dragon-like, sometimes drawn more serpentine, sometimes having clawed feet on a dragon body. Only when dressed could she pass for someone who had legs.

Our figure in folio 79v has legs, even if the shanks look far too thin. The tokens – the markers – which told a medieval Latin audience that a figure was Melusine are not there. So if meant for Melusine, the maker was not part of the Latins’ tradition and if he were, this is not Melusine. The same applies to other figures, including those shown unclothed and in roughly-cylindrical containers around the month-folio’s diagrams.

And now we come to another, and a most important difference between the norms of western medieval art, and what we have in the Voynich manuscript.


In relation to the human body..

Among the set conventions of pre-modern western Christian art is that the proportion of a human figure’s head to its torso shall be literal. The length of your face (hairline to chin) is normally about the same as the distance from the hollow of your throat to about the middle of your chest where the rib-cage meets. Test that out; don’t just believe me.

Medieval draughtsmen typically maintain those proportions, even in drawings small enough to appear in ornament bas de page. Here’s another Melusine, now as mermaid. The mark for the hollow of her throat is set a little low but I think you’ll see what I mean about those proportions – in the European image they are pretty right.

The Voynich figure’s face is much larger than the conventions of medieval Latin art allow – almost double the literal length, for the face is as large as the distance from the throat-hollow to below the position where you’d place the navel.

Koen Gheuens once produced a long and detailed post which concluded that the Voynich figures’ proportions were ok. It was a case argued so very well that I was quite persuaded by it too – until next I looked at the manuscript. I do agree with him that the figures in some of the ‘ladies’ drawings have faces less disproportionate than this example.

Differences matter.

The Voynich figure is unclothed yet has legs. Only the right arm’s proportions accord with Melusine figures in western Christian art. To argue as so many do by these ‘pairings’ that e.g. ‘Melusine=Voynich figure’ may create an illusion sufficient to persuade others of a theory, but cannot do justice to the Voynich drawings, assist those working on the written text, or deal fairly with the manuscript itself.

Knowledge of comparative studies in culture and art provide a better ability to recognise stylistic and cultural indicators, and train a person to take account of both similarities and differences. Such preliminary study enables a person, without any additional information, to know that the image shown below, for example, is no product of Chinese work, but a European painter’s work. The Chinese accept and understand that the surface is two dimensional – they ‘wrote’ paintings. After re-discovery of the techniques of literalism (with a small ‘l’), Europeans fought that two-dimensional reality and tried to have things look moulded, as if they were working with cloth, stone or clay. Look at the leaves this image.

I’m using Asian versus European examples below because they provide comparisons-and-differences which a predominantly western audience should find easy to recognise; not as support for any theory.

In the same way, a knowledge of comparative customs and cultures is how we know that while both the following items were found in Italy and both had been owned by the same person, here again one was made in China and the other in Europe.

The bowl was owned by, and the book written by Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 -1605) often described as “the moving force behind Bologna’s botanical garden” and it was he who invented a phrase “herbals of the alchemists” for a genre of foreign-influenced European herbals.

Another example: you see (below, left) a figure of the Simurgh/Phoenix whose form and expressed character shows the maker was native to the east, where the type is celebrated in art, literature and popular culture – from Persia to China. By contrast, the other (below, right) is a very nicely-presented and well-rendered form, but one plainly ill-informed, produced by someone from a very different cultural environment. The version on the right is so clearly a European work that an experienced analyst could say so before being provided with any more information. Differences matter because they carry important information about distinctions in time, place and cultural context.

and you know they do.

So long as you’re dealing with images expressing matters natural to a culture with which you’re comfortable, differences and their significance are apparent to you so easily that they seem self-evident. For example – which of these two self-contained paintings (below) is a religious character, do you think, and which a secular one?


And now, at last, the whole point of this post.

How do you know that?

If you didn’t need to go hunting wiki articles to answer the first question you don’t need them to answer this one, either.

Just by carefully, systematically and slowly scanning each picture, noting both similarities and differences, you can bring to your conscious mind the points of difference you processed so fast that you didn’t consciously list them.

How – exactly – did you recognise one as a religious figure and the other as secular?

That done – imagine the opposite opinion, and how an argument between the two might run. You’ll find that the correct opinion is more difficult to explain than you expected.

And that little problem was your first exercise in iconographic analysis.


O’Donovan notes #6a Weighing images – Reading.

c.2900 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

This post discusses the effect of some persistent errors in approaching the manuscript and its drawings..

I’ve modified this material knowing that a majority of Voynich writers not focused on the written text do begin by formulating some theoretical-fictional narrative.

This unfortunate habit began in 1921 and has since become normalised in this field of study, with unfortunate results.

Such Voynich theories are not theories in the scientific sense; ‘theory’ has become a euphemism any imaginative-fictional storyline and many are, as Wilfrid’s was, begun from nothing more than a gut-feeling elaborated from imagination, and then studded with historical bits the relevance of which is never quite explained.

In such narratives, the only role of the manuscript’s drawings is to serve as a kind of clip-art collection from which a detail here, or a drawing there, is deployed and interpreted in a way intended to add an air of greater plausibility to the storyline, not to shed more light on the origin or significance of that drawing for the original maker and his audience.

It is quite rare, even now, to find a researcher focus on what the drawings were intended to convey, but newly come researchers will find used still the same approach to the drawings as we find in Professor Romaine Newbold’s efforts, this style having become a kind of default in this study.

Breaking free of it can prove difficult, because it means not only declining to form a ‘Voynich theory’ narrative of your own, but declining to endorse any other.

Nevertheless I recommend you avoid creating such narratives or allowing yourself to adopt any if your aim is to research the drawings.

Hypothesis versus Wilfrid-style ‘theory’.

Forming an hypothesis can be useful so long as the hypothesis remains a disposable tool. It ceases to be useful if the researcher become emotionally attached to it. For a good use of hypothesis see again the previous post, linking to posts by Julian Bunn.

What are called ‘theories’ in Voynich writings are rarely theories in the scientific sense because they precede and determine the limits of data collection, as well as skewing perceptions and explanations of such data.

Indeed, not even the testimony of the manuscript itself is enough to dissuade a dedicated theorist, and Voynich writers have been ‘adjusting’ the primary evidence to suit a preferred theory-fiction ever since Wilfrid set the model for such behaviour in 1921.

If you are newly come to Voynich studies and have already a feeling that your theory is THE answer to every question you’ve never yet asked, you might consider just what makes a manuscript a manuscript, and how much of it your Voynich theory does illuminate:

  • Questions about – the form of the binding.
  • ditto -Quality and dimensions of the vellum
  • ditto – Quires’ form(s) including number of bifolios.
  • ditto – Page layout (including questions of ruling out, lines per page, disposition of image versus written text)
  • ditto – Quantifiable matter – e.g. radiocarbon-14 date range, statistical analyses.
  • ditto – the glyphs’ forms – and noting any comparable system(s)
  • ditto – Inks and pigments (full palette)

Some among the earlier specialists in manuscripts are likely to have routinely considered some or all of these matters when they accepted the possibility of a thirteenth-century date and English provenance or, later, an early fifteenth-century date and southern provenance. To quote part of Mary d’Imperios’ report of the latter:

“Hel[l]mut Lehmann-Haupt..stated in a letter to Tiltman dated 1 November 1963 that “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400”.

Mary d’Imperio, The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma (1978) p.8.

It was nothing but attachment to one or another theory which prevented that opinion being accepted between 1963 and 2011.

What few of the earlier commentators paid attention to, and which none of the modern researchers had yet paid attention to when I first came to consider this manuscript was that one is wrong simply to presume that the origin of any manuscript’s content must be coeval with the pages’ inscription and/or the work’s binding.

It is equally a mistake to presume that the origin of the content occurred first in the same place where the present work was made.

Both presumptions are endemic in Voynich theory-making. Neither has been tested and proven before such theories were made or adopted.

A century’s disastrous procession of Voynich ‘theories’ has not led to any abandonment of the theory-first approach but I do recommend those interested in the images, at least, try to leave off theory-making until enough research had been done to make a decent theory about.

The mere fact of having a ‘Voynich theory’ seems to affect adversely a person’s ability to address an image as one normally should – that is, by considering the whole image and doing the work needed to rightly place its present form, and identify its place in a conceptual grid of which one axis refers to time and the other to place.

There are unfortunate, if automatic, psychological effects which result from creating and espousing some theory in advance of collecting data. Most individuals form an instant emotional attachment to their theory which sees them react to any correction or objection with defense as immediate, fierce and personal as a parent’s defense of their child or a lover of their beloved. In short, its both irrational and natural, tenacious and blind.

People fall in love with their theories and since their attachment is all but absolute they refuse to accept that there can be anything badly wrong with it. On the contrary, a theorist will usually presume that any objection to their theory must be as personally motivated as their attachment. It follows that very few evaluate their own Voynich theories critically before urging others to believe.

But more to the point is that when a person is wholly convinced their theory must be right, and that all they need do is find evidence for it after the fact, the way they look at the manuscript’s drawings is affected by their search for confirmation.

I’ll give a couple of examples, though at the risk of being supposed a bad person.

When I came to consider this manuscript, I noted a couple of obvious errors, one of which was Rene Zandbergen’s claiming that the drawings’ including what he called the ‘wolkenband(en) offered positive support for the theory which he and Prinke had developed – namely that the manuscript expressed some uniquely German or Germanic or central European cultural character. Although he and Prinke developed this theory more than two decades ago, I’ve not seen any paper by one or both in which their theory is formally presented, and I admit I’m still not quite clear on what geographic limits it assumes..

To correct his evident misapprehension, I explained that these days, when writing in English, we don’t speak of the ‘wolkenband’ but of the ‘cloudband’ though in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth century, writers of the Anglo-German school used a lot more imported terms, including ‘wolkenband’. I also explained, with illustrations, that there was nothing characteristically German/Germanic/central European about it but ‘cloudband’ describes an Asian motif which was for a time popular in western art.

The information was ignored or met with expressions of disdain or indignation by various adherents of that theory, though none seems to have taken a moment to consult a history of art and check the facts. So I found it necessary to explain the same thing several times until 2017 when, finally, I realised that those so wrapped up in the mythos of ‘uniquely German/Germanic/central European’ character were unlikely to listen to any but a fellow theorist or to the words of some person they regarded as an authority figure, so after seeing another of that clique (JKPetersen) trying that line again (in 2017), I said the same by quoting a German author in the body of a post at voynichimagery:

Das Wolkenband fand als Ornament durch mongolische Vermittlung aus China Eingang in die islamische Kunst. In einem persischen Manuskript der Chester Beatty Library aus der Zeit um 1400 bilden reich bewegte Wolkenbiinder den Hintergrund fur die Darstellung eines Vogel Phoenix.

Volkmar Enderlein

What I knew, and had already shown by that time is that Enderlein wasn’t quite accurate either. We see the ‘cloudband’ in fourteenth century Italy and in that case the transmission may be more direct than he suggests. The following picture and caption is a bit blurred because I’ve taken it as a screen-print from the original post in voynichimagery.

The following comes from an English manuscript. I find this especially interesting because it shows again why Wilfrid’s asserting his manuscript was English provenance met no immediate protest from the best-qualified English specialists.

(detail) Bodleian MS Laud Misc. 719 (1425-1450)

The point is not that the ‘German-ish’ theory is bad, but that it is bad practice to begin by creating the imaginative-fictional sort of narrative which is called a Voynich theory.

Theories of that kind are pretty much guaranteed to skew your perceptions and lead you to mis-interpret elements in a drawing because, just as your theory is created from what you know already, so you will suffer from an expectation that everything in the manuscript will be not really unlike what is familiar to you. You will ignore or mis-interpret elements in a drawing or entire sections of a drawing and latch onto whatever seems to be familiar.

Take this detail for example. It comes from the top of folio 79v.

FOLIO NUMBERS may be incorrect . Since the Beinecke website removed its thumb-nails from the manuscript scans, the new pagination no longer appears and a reader must refer to whatever page number is visible on a folio. One hopes that sidebar will soon be re-instated avoiding confusion and saving readers’ time and risk of RSI.

To someone seeking support for the theory made by Prinke and Zandbergen, the wavy line might seem to jump from the page. To someone seeking support for an ‘all western Christian’ theory, the object held in the outstretched hand might seem the only vital detail because it was familiar and fitted that theory.

As precedent here, I should mention Ellie Velinska, who tried to create a positive argument for the traditionalists’ assumption of western Christian origin and character (something which, at the time of writing, Koen Gheuens and Cary Rappaport are trying to do by re-interpreting the Voynich map).

Having interpreted the cruciform object on f.79v as a Latin cross, Ellie didn’t ask whether the female figure had been intended to show a person or a mythical or a metaphorical figure, but presumed literalism and then – since there are few unclothed female forms in the corpus of medieval western Christian religious iconography – to identify the figure with Mary Magdalen who, as an former prostitute, was sometimes envisaged half-naked and clothed in a garment signifying penitence – often an animal skin. Ellie produced many images of Mary Magdalen, but none of those made before 1440 showed the Magdalen naked. She interpreted the roughly-parallel vertical lines in the detail from f.79v as light and showed many images (of varying dates) in which a cross placed at a distance from the Magdalen was the centre of radiating streams of light. What Ellie didn’t show and more importantly didn’t realise she had to produce to prove her idea true – was an image in which the radiant light fell from above the figure like water from a shower; in which the wholly naked figure held a cross at arm’s length and in which some explanation was provided for the Voynich figure’s being placed in what appears as a sort of basin.

This is what I mean by creating ‘allegorical’ stories for one or more images from the manuscript. The theory produces the story; the manuscript’s images are interpreted according to the story; illustrations illustrate the story; none of the questions raised by the image is addressed, not even the basic issue of its time and place of origin.

I should have said more clearly that when I speak of time and place for an image’s origin, I am speaking of the environment in which its informing words and ideas were first given this form. I do not for a moment doubt that, as we have them now, they were inscribed during the earlier decades of the fifteenth century. (note added 4th May 2022)

Ellie’s blog has since been removed, so I can’t link you to it, but it was in my reply to that post of hers that I gave it as my own opinion, after having studied the manuscript for some time, that it contained very little indicative of first creation in the environment of Latin Europe, and much which could only be explained in other terms. Since that time (about 2013, if I recall), the traditionalists have been attempting to create narratives which will return the conversation to the older Wilfrid-Friedman sort of ‘all white Latin Christian aristocracy’ theory.

I liked Ellie. She often made original and acute comments, but she was under the impression that though you might need to know a bit about cryptography to tackle the written text, and a bit about codicology to discuss the manuscript’s structure and materials, when it came to the drawings, no preliminary study was necessary – that all you needed was ‘two eyes and common sense’. The sad thing is that the detail on which her ‘Mary Magdalen’ idea depended isn’t actually drawn as a Latin cross. She’d been theory-blinded and, as a result, saw something familiar instead of what is actually there on the page.

(detail) f.v – enlarged

The object has a cruciform shape not unlike the Latins’ cross, but is so drawn that one of its arms is provided with a socket from which a smaller object protrudes vertically.

It is about this point in a theory-opposing description of any Voynich image that one can expect to hear some traditionalist start creating ex nihilo some new theory-patch, to deflect a potential threat. They might asserted, as if from authority (because they have no evidence) that the draughtsman erred; that the socket is just a bump caused by the vellum’s rough surface, or that they see no socket at all. Theorists contently invent theory-patches; you’ll get used to it. They will grasp at any possibility their imagination can produce, re-define the possible as fact, and thereafter claim they have ‘dismissed’ whatever information or data has revealed a weakness in their storyline.

However – they may be evidence of Christian influence here because it looks as if there has been a degree of erasure – accidental or deliberate – over that small vertical protrusion above the socket. If it were the result of some deliberate effort, then one might argue that erasure evidence of some Christian’s effort to make the object resemble more nearly a religious item with which they were more familiar. But first one would have to see the original and determine whether or not the effect was due to deliberate effort or not.

It’s so natural and instinctive a response in the human mind to hunt for the familiar that it is something we are taught to consciously register and process consciously in iconographic analysis and art studies.

Repeated exposure alone will lead us to register things which are not really familiar as if they were, and whether or not we actually understand them any better.

Mary d’Imperio describes this process, but does so unintentionally – which is much to the point. d’Imperio had very fixed ideas and a theory she could not relinquish. So she wrote:

The impression made upon the modern viewer first coming upon a photocopy of the manuscript (the form in which it has most frequently met the eye of students) is one of extreme oddity, quaintness. and foreignness-one might almost say unearthliness. To the reader who has seen pictures of more typical illuminated medieval manuscripts. these pages look very different indeed from what he expects to find in such a book. For me. at least. after working with the photocopy intensively for some weeks, the initial impression of ‘”queerness” lost its prominence and gave way to other. more considered reactions. (p.11)

She calls them “more considered reactions” but what they involved was a dismissal of all those characteristics which had initially seemed most obvious in order to re-define them in a way that fitted the theory which she and Elizebeth Friedman held – that the manuscript was a ciphertext of European cultural origin and important for the study of western intellectual history.

Had she not been theory-blinded, she might have said “the reader who has seen pictures of illuminated medieval European manuscripts…”… but for her, this manuscript had to be a medieval European manuscript because for her ‘medieval’ meant European and medieval illuminated manuscripts European by definition. She could only conceive of this manuscript as a sub-set of those.

The moral of these examples is not that any Voynichero with an historical-theoretical-fictional narrative must be a fool. The habit began a century ago, and has become normalised. Voynicheros positively expect newcomers to begin with a theory of that kind and are bewildered if you say you’ve no theory yet.

The moral is rather that if you want to make a lasting contribution, it would probably be better for you to start by close study of the primary document, move to the research needed to answer some specific question(s) and leave theory-formation aside until you have enough rock-solid information to form a theory about. Just as linguists and cryptographers might do.