O’Donovan notes #2a. Limits.

This past week was spent reading Voynich-related material available online, including a random sample of the two hundred and forty -something ‘Voynich’ items published through the site Academia.edu – once academic but more mixed these days.

As a result, I’ve decided to change the format of this ‘Notes’ series. I will publish a pair of posts on the one day, one describing a common pitfall and the other outlining some question still unresolved.

To avoid misunderstandings let me say once more that, because I have no talent or competence in cryptology or linguistics, my comments don’t refer to those topics except where the researcher seems to have been affected by general errors and presumptions.

Fortunately, people competent in cryptology and linguistics are inclined to respond when opinions are published about the manuscript’s written text, but well-informed commentary and critique have been very rare when theorists speak about the images and diagrams.


Inverted vision – one early persistent flaw.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens)

If you imagine the sum of a person’s information and ideas to the time just before they encountered the Voynich manuscript as:

(which is what I mean by a person’s intellectual horizon)

Then what we find, from the very beginning of modern interest in this manuscript, is that people engaging with it presumed that its history, nature and ‘solution’ could be understood from within their previous interests and habits – like this.

From Wilfrid Voynich and William Newbold to the Friedmans to Brumbaugh or Tucker, the pattern of activity was to first mistake an ‘idea’ for inspired knowledge, then to adopt as givens items for which no verifiable evidence had been offered, and thereafter to hunt only within their own intellectual comfort zone for whatever might lend their theories a greater air of credibility.

Generations of researchers thus adopted Newbold’s ‘herbal’ idea, or ‘astrological’ idea or ‘pharma-‘ idea without further pause for thought nor considering any alternatives. That the content (not just the manufacture) was western European was presumed, as was contemporaneousness between manufacture and first enunciation of the content – so western Christian Europe was the horizon-limit assumed in common.

The basic problem was – to rephrase Augustine- that “a person can’t be reasoned out of an idea they’ve adopted without reason.”

So these ideas were not tested, or even questioned, as they are not much questioned even today and those doubting may need to use tact.

So, the ‘Latins’ herbal’ idea was one the Friedmans plainly believed and which was evidently maintained within the NSA until the 1970s, despite about thirty years’ failure to find any comparison between European herbals and the Voynich pictures. When John Tiltman expressed his doubts to an audience and subsequent NSA readers in the late 1960s, he was extremely tactful:

Illustrations of herbals of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Centuries are a most interesting part of the background of this odd book. [‘but..’?] To the best of my knowledge no one has seen any [European] book, certainly no illustrated book of the period which covers the wide range suggested by the drawings in it.

  • John Tiltman ‘The Voynich Manuscript: “The most mysterious manuscript in the world” ‘.p.13

As another example – compare the frequency with which Voynich writers focus on the month-folios’ central emblems compared with their silence when it comes to explaining the month-diagrams as a whole.

Once again it was John Tiltman whose observations were most acute and tactfully expressed, though then ignored. In that same talk, he refers to the ‘so-called zodiac’ and it is the fact that the series of those central emblems does not form a zodiac, or part of one. Emblems of the constellations marking each month are not necessarily ‘astrological’ in their purpose. The reason they seem so has more to do with the traditional limits than the intentions of those who first formed these diagrams.

On this and other points, the history of this study has always proceeded more by what the traditional writers ignored than by what they addressed, or what problems they resolved well. For more details, see earlier posts here: Posts 1-27; 51-59; 63-73 – all easily accessed using links in the ‘Table of Contents’ page here.

Worse for the study, I think, is a fairly recent practice of circulating an idea unsupported by evidence of any sort, and with whoever proposes it being unnamed.

One fairly recent example was a notion circulated as if a ‘commonsense’ assertion, and which said that the month-diagrams were ‘astrological charts’.

The idea being credited to no-one, with no links given to any paper or blogpost where any such argument was laid out presenting that as its conclusion from the historical record, so anyone touched by this rumour had one of two choices, equally irrational: believe or disbelieve.

At the point where the idea looked about to be elevated to the status of another ‘Voynich doctrine’, I felt it time that someone published a reality-check, so asked two specialists in the history of comparative astrologies for an opinion – each independent of the other, and neither told my own assessment of the idea.

Each replied clearly, and definitely in the negative. The month-diagrams are not astrological charts. At least not from the western European, nor the Byzantine, Indian, Arabic or Chinese astrological traditions.

I was fortunate that both specialists were willing to let me have not only their opinion but permission to quote.

What was rather depressing about the whole thing was that whoever floated the ‘astrological charts’ notion had shown such contempt for other researchers that they had not made the slightest effort to avoid circulating a rubbish idea, confident that claiming it ‘commonsense’ would be enough to see it accepted. And they were not altogether mistaken about how uncritical most Voynicheros would be.

The lesson to be taken from that example, as from so much of this study’s history is that a researcher needs to double-check before accepting any traditional assertion, and constantly to keep in mind that the limits assumed by Wilfrid and maintained by Friedman, may be unable to provide the answers being sought. That is, that the situation may not be like this…

but more like …

– SCROLL DOWN for the second part of this Note –


O’Donovan notes #2b: the ‘4o’ Revised and updated edition.

math numerals 40 in 1375 Majorca
Header image. Numeral ’40’ –  c.1375 AD.    Majorca.   Jewish work. Made for the court of France, attributed to Abraham Cresques. The present writer has already, in work previously published, explained in detail the points of connection between the Voynich map and Cresques’ masterly work. This was an original contribution to the study, and its source in the present author’s work, should be credited in the normal way.

Original post published November 19th., 2021. Updated and revised version – November 25th., 2021.

READERS PLEASE NOTE – this post contains original work and references to an ongoing research ‘conversation’ between three researchers. Be good enough not to pretend the findings are just an ‘idea’ but if you wish to repeat the information, attribute it correctly and give the source accurately. To do otherwise is dishonest.


Unresolved problem – the ‘4o’ glyph.

Some very recent comments made in a conversation between Mark Knowles and Nick Pelling, together with a little cross-checking of my own on other points, together leads me now to issue a revised and corrected version of this post’s second part.  

This post considers comments made about the still-unresolved question of the ‘4o’ glyph or string.

A paper up at academia.edu dismisses the question in a single short paragraph.

Hannig is saying that it ‘seemed obvious’ that the sign ‘4o’ was Latin and represented the sound ‘qu’ [sic] but that if you regard it as deriving from Hebrew ….

A reader would not gain from this any sense that the ‘4o’ had ever been studied in depth. Though Rainer Hannig is described as a Faculty member at Philipps University, Marburg, he has provided nothing by way of footnotes or references to help his readers get a clear idea of what has been said before. The impression given is that this posited ‘Latin’ rendering is owed to no-one and is not supported by any research. ‘It seemed commonsense’ is not a reasonable argument but another of those annoying ‘believe it or else’ statements.

In fact, the ‘4o’ is mentioned in d’Imperio’s book (1978), in conversations at Reeds’ mailing list etc. (for these, see ‘Constant References’ in the Table of Contents page).

The most informative comments I’ve seen about it, in Voynich writings from the first hundred years of this manuscript’s study were those in Pelling’s book of 2006. If any reader thinks I should mention another researcher’s discussion please leave a comment.

Written before the radiocarbon dating, Pelling’s work identifies an early example of non-numerical use for a ‘4o’ glyph or string in Urbino, in a ledger dated 1440. In that example, the reading is given: “quo”.

So the Latin reading wasn’t a product of ‘commonsense’ but of historical investigation, with a specific historical document explaining why the reading ‘quo’ was offered in Italy in 1440. Pelling wrote:

“Though you might think it fortuitous to find it [the ‘4o’] even once, it actually turns up in two [cipher-] ledgers, and in at least four separate [northern Italian] ciphers. The earliest mention is in the Urbino cipher ledger (in a cipher dated 1440), as well as in the main Milanese cipher ledger in ciphers dated 1450, 1455 … and 1456.   Later on, the same shape crops up in numerous other number-based ciphers, but by then it was used simply as a number. By contrast, the four earlier ciphers are all linked, because although they contain both ‘4’ and ‘4o’ symbols, relatively few other numbers appear. (p.177).

Hannig’s failing to direct readers to the sources he consulted was unfortunate, but worse is that he cites not a single source, medieval or later, to support his theory that the ‘4o’ is an abbreviation from Hebrew. A scholarly paper provides readers with the means to check whether the writer has done his ‘homework’ and explains how an opinion was first arrived at by giving details of the author’s background reading, and documents in proof.

As Pelling’s commentary did but Hannig’s. did not.

NOTE. (added 22 Nov. 2021). My point in the paragraph above was that scholars should not lower their standards when commenting on Beinecke MS 408.  I gather some individuals have created or adopted a theory that my paragraph was designed to cast doubt on Hannig’s position in Marburg.  It would have been better, from my point of view, to have that bit of fantasy put here as a comment, and I given the chance to set the memers straight.  That meme has merely produced a theoretical interpretation about a comment made about a theoretical comment,  in one paragraph of one paper, and concerning a single Voynich string/glyph.  *sigh*.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that either Pelling or Hannig is right, and the other wrong, Their opinions are not necessarily exclusive of one another.

The example from Urbino (1440 AD) may be the earliest example of non-numerical use known so far for that closed ‘4’ like form, but there may be earlier examples to be found and – these may occur in diplomatic or commercial documents involving merchants or diplomats from anywhere within a very wide geographic range.

Interested in whether the non-numerical ‘4’ form came from the example of printing, a check against Smith’s History of Mathematics and pers.comm. with a master printer said the same – not before 1440.

However, I find reason to think that use of the closed ‘4’ occurs in a commercial context during the fourteenth century. More on that below.

As regards the Jewish population of Urbino during the time of interest to us, the entry at JVL says in part:

URBINO, town in central Italy, formerly capital of an independent duchy. The earliest record of Jews dates from the beginning of the 14th century, when Daniel of Viterbo was authorized to trade and open a loan bank. His family long continued to head the community. Other loan bankers, ultimately eight in number, received authorization to operate later. .. In the 15th century the dukes of the house of Montefeltro favored Jewish scholars and were interested in Jewish scholarship; Federico II [Montefeltro] collected Hebrew manuscripts.

Urbino had unusually strong and constant connection to the Iberian peninsula, and directly linked by an old road to Florence and the Mediterranean.

As for MILAN, (this comes from JVL)

In 1387, Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti granted privileges to the Jews in the whole of Lombardy; these were confirmed by Francesco Sforza and his successors. An important court Jew was Elia di Sabato da Fermo, who, in 1435, became the personal physician of the duke Filippo Maria Visconti. When in 1452 Pope Nicholas V approved the Jewish right of residence in the duchy, he specifically authorized the construction of a synagogue in Milan.

Which shows that about the time the content was gathered that is now in Beinecke MS 408, conditions were especially favourable (and in the case of Milan, suddenly so) for commercial and diplomatic or political links across the religious barriers.

Pelling kindly clarified details of the Milanese cipher ledgers recently, because I was unclear whether they were only a record of ciphers used, or were enciphered commercial ledgers or ledgers recording items of diplomatic correspondence. He replied that “one is an ambassadorial ledger and the other is more of a local cipher ledger. So the story is a mix of both”.

So it is quite possible that there are, or were, earlier ledgers of some kind in which non-numerical ‘4o’ forms might be found, though not necessarily only the Italian ledgers. The practice might have been adopted by Urbino from some earlier, and other, example and from that example, later, by Milan.

It is no offence against history or logic to suggest, as a possibility to be investigated, that the instance in Urbino might have derived from commercial or diplomatic writings of Jews, but while that possibility might inspire some researcher to investigate in more depth, Hannig’s omitting to cite a single item of historical evidence means that for the meantime his idea can bear no weight, whatever its real merits might be.

We can be sure that within commercial and trade schools, in some Italian states at least, ‘4’ like numerals were in use by the fourteenth century. A merchant’s handbook now in the Beinecke Library (as MS 327) is one to which I’ve been referring Voynich researchers for a decade or more, for one reason after another – and here it is again helpful:

One thing of which we can also be sure, is that the ‘4’ does not derive from works produced by European printers. On this point, Smith’s History of Mathematics is clear and because that was first published almost a century ago, I’ve checked with a master printer who confirms it. The printed ‘4’ form comes much later.

On the political front, Milan’s relations with the two trading cities of Venice and Genoa are of particular interest. As a basic outline, and one that can be checked against any solid history of the period, I’ll quote briefly from a non-Voynich wiki article:

The tide of the war [between Genoa and Venice] reversed when in 1353 the Genoese navy suffered a defeat .. [loss of a fleet then] sparked civil unrest in Genoa, …. To combat this discord, the republic was temporarily dissolved and Genoa came under the rule of the Duke of Milan. …

A peace treaty was signed between Venice and Milan in 1355 [but hostilities between Genoa and Venice continued] ..Genoa broke free from Milanese control following the conclusion of the war, [specifically in December 1435] and the republic was reestablished. – from wiki article, ‘Genoese navy

Historians today refer often to ‘entanglements’ and place less emphasis on quasi-national boundaries than was the habit in nineteenth-century histories. The connections of Urbino and f Milan, of Milan and Venice, and those to Genoa, are as mutable as diplomatic chess between nations and more enlightening than focus on supposing ‘the Latin’ necessarily opposed to ‘the Jewish’ interpretations of ‘4o’.

In this case, we see that there is no reason to deny a possibility that the ‘4o’ form’s non-numerical use, might have originated among persons literate in Hebrew and so been adopted by patrons or commercial partners as a Latin ‘cipher’.

But that’s all it is – a possibility. Pelling’s opinion is derived from specific historical example and so must be granted greater weight than the self-referential and theoretical explanation by Henning. For all that, the two opinions are not necessarily opposed, but might prove complementary.

Only research can clarify the still-unresolved problem.

Should any reader feels attracted by the idea of investigating it, I’d suggest thinking about possible reasons why the ‘4o’ should have been employed as a non-numerical string or glyph. Among the possibilities are:

  • habit – the scribe was accustomed to writing the ‘4’ style numeral, and used it for the number and for ‘q’. This is a palaeographic question.
  • the Voynich ms ‘4o’ is unrelated to the numerical ’40’ but might have been deliberately adopted as form for ‘q’ for reasons unknown.
  • It may have been adopted – as a cipher – for the sound associated with that form, or pair. A correspondent suggests that it may have been used to remind readers that the ‘q’ was to be read as a glottal stop, not like the softer ‘q’ of quo, or quatre etc.
  • In the Vms, use of the ‘4’ shape might indicate a cipher in which forms from foreign or rare (or even imaginary) alphabets* were employed. Mixing alphabets was a well-known custom, both in aiding memorisation of texts and as a form of encipherment – the method is fourth among those described by Roger Bacon in the fourteenth century (See earlier post ‘here).
  • It may have been adopted by some for the number ’40’s significance. Personally, I don’t think it likely, in the Vms, but to illustrate what I mean by significance, I add an example below. I’ll give an example further below.
  • In the Voynich manuscript, it may not indicate cipher, but simply a ‘q’. Statistical analyses of the Voynich text, however, present objection to that idea.
  • I recommend those interested in recent discussion about the Milanese cipher ledgers see M.R. Knowles’ recent comment to Nick Pelling’s post ‘New Paper on Fifteenth century Cryptography‘ ciphermysteries, (July 8th., 2017). Knowles’ comment is date-stamped November 22, 2021 at 8:21 pm, the conversation between himself and Pelling continuing to the time of writing.

On rare and imaginary alphabets used in medieval Europe see ‘alphabets’ in Mary Carruthers’ The Book of Memory. 

One earlier alphabet (at least) contained a ‘4’ shape, the alphabet known as ‘Old Hungarian’ or as  Székely-Hungarian Rovás, derived from a Turkic script of inner Asia. Another ‘Rovas’ alphabet was the Khazarian, of which very little is known, though according to Omniglot it was ‘possibly used as late as the thirteenth century’.  Both links given above are to the Omniglot entries.  Personally, I like the idea of the numeral ‘4’ form having origins distinct from use in cipher, and the use in cipher deriving from a rare alphabet – seems to connect pretty well with other pointers to the Black Sea region and various Turkic languages… but questions about the Voynich manuscript’s written text are for others to explore. Not my field.  

This is the point at which it’s a good idea to check your skill-set against those possibilities – and others which may occur to you.

‘Commercial …’.

For someone unfazed by technicalities of commerce and accounting, a broader context for fifteenth-century Urbino and Milan can be found in e.g.

  • Raymond de Roover, Banking and Credit in Mediaeval Bruges (1948).
  • Quentin van Doosselaere, Commercial Agreements and Social Dynamics in Medieval Genoa. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Don’t be offput by the publication date for the first reference. Herbert Heaton’s review, published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 263, (May, 1949), p. 230, says,

[de Roover] found about 2,400 folios of ledgers or journals belonging to two Bruges money-changers, dated between 1367 and 1370. To decipher, interpret, and convert into living story this dry as dust collection, it was necessary not merely to scour the Belgian archives for further data but also to search in those Italian cities-Florence, Genoa, Lucca, and the rest-from which Italian traders came to trade in Bruges.

with regard to numerals in commercial bookkeeping of late medieval Europe, I notice that john Durham concludes than in account-books from medieval Europe, Arabic numerals are found ‘at least’ by the early fourteenth century, when he sees it as an innovation in European book-keeping and ‘probably a Pisan innovation’.  He’s not speaking specifically of the ‘4’ shape.  

  • John W. Durham, ‘The Introduction of “Arabic” numerals in European Accounting’, The Accounting Historians Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2 (December 1992), pp. 25-55.[JSTOR}.

Byzantine accounting.

  • Edward Peragallo, ‘The Ledger of Jachomo Badoer: Constantinople September 2, 1436 to February 26, 1440’, The Accounting Review, Oct., 1977, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Oct., 1977), pp. 881-892. [JSTOR]

Location of later diplomatic documents:

  • Vincent Ilardi, ‘Fifteenth-Century Diplomatic Documents in Western European Archives and Libraries (1450-1494)’, Studies in the Renaissance, Vol. 9 (1962), pp. 64-112 (49 pages) [JSTOR]

Sound’ and Linguistics.

What sound (apart from a Latin ‘quo’) might have been linked with the ‘4o’ by those who used it? If anyone has investigated this question, their findings haven’t yet hit the headlines, so if your skills and inclinations suit this angle of approach, you might find helpful E.M. Smith’s posts:

Associations for the number ’40’.

As I say, I don’t think the form likely to have been adopted for its significance but with cryptology you never know, so I’ll Hopper as illustration of cultural significance for number. He is not the first or last source that might be consulted.

“The forty days of Christ’s temptation harks back to the 40 days of Elijah’s solitude, or the forty days of trial by flood” (p.71) see also p.13, 15, 25, 26, 127.

  • Vincent Foster Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism. (various editions)

If any researcher does find examples of non-numerical uses for the ‘4o’ before the example from Urbino, we may be very close to understanding the context from which we have matter now in the Voynich manuscript’s written text.


Any Voynich writer who presumes that you will accept some proposition with no shred of historical evidence offered is a person who may have a transmissible case of ignorance. Treat with caution.

Item from the present author’s research. Fifteenth-century copy of a thirteenth-century text. England.

Postscript – ,my apologies to Rainer Hannig. The mis-spellings of his surname in the earlier version of this post was due entirely to my own dreadful handwriting, not the typist’s occasional errors in reading it.

How to Voynich – O’Donovan notes. #1

Over the years I’ve been interested in Beinecke MS 408, one of the more knotty problems has been the level of technical and specialist language I should use when publishing online. People as young as 8 years old and as old as 80 have commented on posts or sent emails. Some have been such eminent specialists in their own field that I’ve responded by asking if they’d be kind enough to give me their thoughts and any advice, because it would be ridiculous to pretend I know as much they do about some particular issue. Comparative historical studies of eastern and western pharmaceutical practice, for example.

Against that, some who’ve contacted me are people who left school before they were 18 years old and have spent their lives in business or in a trade and tend to feel a bit prickly about being referred to academic studies. They have no interest in the details of some tradition in drawing and don’t want to pay for Brill publications, or subscriptions to journals or to JSTOR.

Some have been led to think that, in any case, any critical science is easier than the pragmatic sciences, deemed ‘hard science’. So they assume that ‘anyone can have a go’ at this manuscript and its pictures – though they’d never suggest that a chemistry lab, a craftsman in furniture, or garage mechanics should allow ‘anyone’ to walk in and have a bash at it.

Given the emphasis I place on information from non-Voynich studies as reality-check, some readers may find it surprising that in my opinion most people, regardless of age, have the potential to add something of lasting value to our understanding of MS Beinecke MS 408.

This series of posts is for mainly for novices and for ‘Voynicheros’ who want to do worthwhile work.

The key is not to over-reach. It is that failing, more than any other, which explains why this manuscript’s study is still in its infancy after more than a century. People with neither training nor natural skills have constantly presumed to assert this, or that, about the manuscript’s date, place of manufacture, its pictorial or its written text, to ignore the opinion of specialists in relevant fields, and to invent their own historical-fictions as Voynich ‘theories’.

So my first point is that you should first know and then work within limits defined by your practical skills.

Don’t be tempted into areas where you have no formal training and where others could tell you (and will sooner or later) that you have less objective competence than you might imagine.

As a rule of thumb, levels of competence can be described in terms of method.

Anyone with a practical hobby knows, just as well as any scholar or scientist knows, that before a person becomes competent they must have a solid foundation of knowledge and good grasp of practical method.

A person has to be able to do things the (or ‘a’) right way, and also be able to explain why it IS the (or ‘a’) right way.

This is true whether you’re talking about loading, cleaning, storing or carrying a gun, or making a french-polished table, or mixing cement, or preparing an historical essay or performing a scientific experiment in the lab. First principles matter. Method matters.

The typical Voynich ‘method’ adopted by ambitious types, since 1912, just isn’t right for the task at hand. We don’t need another story illustrated by erroneous visions of the manuscript, its written or its pictorial text. We need to understand the real thing.

The reason my name is to be part of the title for this series of posts is to make quite clear that their observations and guidelines are the result of my own observations of the manuscript and the curious history of its discussion since 1912.

I’ve spent more than a decade working on the manuscript, myself, and came to it armed (if that’s the right word) with formal training, decades of experience, practical work and a bit of what could be called teaching, but which I think of as training apprentices. I thought I’d be able to produce a fair evaluation of the images within a couple of weeks. That was in 2008. It’s not an easy subject and, frankly, most of what you’ll find online and in ‘Voynich’ writings is .. how shall I put this .. not demonstrably true.

The great gap between ‘Voynich studies’ and other fields of study is that Voynich writers have often shown a surprising ignorance of even the basics in subjects about which they pronounce opinions. Some have not only shown ignorance of the basics of (say) palaeography, but very determined ignorance. You find people who have no Latin, and who can’t be bothered studying medieval society and history, yet they expect to be heard when they propound theories about the manuscript’s being in Latin and produced here, or there, by one imagined ‘author’ or another.

If a person wants to become a mechanic, they know that if all else fails there’s a manual they can consult. It’s objective information. They don’t start by creating an imaginary vehicle, and then argue that the specs. for that imaginary vehicle are more valid than those of the actual car they’re supposed to be working on. But since 1912 and especially in recent decades, Voynicheros have begun by inventing a theory and then arguing, in effect, that if the real manuscript offers objection to the theory, that the manuscript is wrong.

No, I’m not kidding. They get away with it, to greater or lesser degree, because there’s no body of solid, reliable observation for Voynich studies. There’s a lot of solid information about history and manuscript studies outside ‘Voynichland’ but Voynicheros seem rarely to understand why they should consult it. Luckily a few more specialists are now applying their knowledge to this example.

In chemistry, you have as your foundation the history of chemistry, its textbooks, and then ISOs and Standard Methods. In art history, apart from individual opinion, you have centuries of records and commentary which provide a reliable basis from which to begin your own investigation of some specific picture or, in this case, the images in one specific manuscript.

But there is almost nothing so solid within Voynich writings to serve as a foundation for people wanting to contribute to the study.

On the excuse of ‘theory’ or some other substitute word for ‘fiction’ Voynich writers have being saying, and getting away with saying, things that are simply untrue for a century. Since there’s no way to do a reality-check for most assertions within Voynich studies, the only option is to turn to the mass of external information about history, manuscripts, languages and so on.

Of course there are Voynich wiki articles, and ‘wiki fandom’ online. There are Voyich papers published through academia.edu. There personal websites where a theorist simply collects what they please from what others have said about the manuscript. The best known of sites like that is managed by Rene Zandbergen. It’s called ‘voynich.nu’ and Zandbergen adopts a tone that suggests the site should be regarded as authoritative. Many treat it that way. But readers should realise that Zandbergen is an amateur and a theorist. Just as any other individual does who writes online, he puts out what he chooses. So when you see some comment made there which sounds as if it’s reporting scholarly consensus – such as “this is not generally accepted”, you need to translate that, because it very often means something closer to “I, Zandbergen, don’t like/want/accept it.”

In scholarship, however, ‘generally accepted’ implies that, as a result of various specialists’ independent work in a field for which they are qualified, the results of another scholar’s work find general acceptance. People working independently find that the newcomer’s results are commensurate with their own, as products of their own labours and years of professional training. Independence in such cases really matters; otherwise, the sort of ‘consensus’ you get is that of one unit, like a lobby-group.

We have to judge what is done by its quality, not the number of people who find it easy to believe – easy because they have not the means to form any objective judgement of their own.

Zandbergen cheerfully admits that his field of professional expertise is in engineering and his Voynich work a hobby consisting chiefly of encouraging others, maintaining a network of personal contacts and having material from various other people’s work selected and collected for re-presentation in his website.

His chief interest has been in creating a plausible story for what happened to the manuscript between when it was made (c.1404-1438) and when Wilfrid Voynich first saw it.

But as for you, or Zandbergen, or me – the limits of a person’s skills are the limits within which they can, or can’t make valid qualitative judgements.

That’s why I think it essential, if any contribution is to be worthwhile, that people work within the limits of their real abilities.

Because I am utterly unqualified to decide what is, or isn’t, valid when it comes to claims about the manuscript’s written text being in Latin, or Cuman, or Nahuatl, whether enciphered or not in cipher, I offer no opinion about such things. There are others involved who do have formal training and experience in comparative linguistics and cryptology, so why dig my oar in unless a proposition is obviously contrary to what I know of history, archaeology, comparative cultural norms and iconology.

So, first item of the O’Donovan Guide.

You want to contribute something to a better understanding of Beinecke MS 408?

  1. Know your strengths.
  • What are you good at doing?

If you can’t be honest about this, you can’t produce worthwhile work. Bluffers may succeed for a while, and in Voynichland they last a lot longer than they would elsewhere. But in the end, they are no help because people who pretend to have skills and knowledge they don’t have are sooner or later discovered, and thereafter their name is mud, and everyone who has relied on their assertions is adversely affected. Build on unstable ground, and sooner or later the house cracks.

Your strengths don’t have to be spectacular. As an example of how a very simple skill can prove solid and genuinely valuable, one Voynichero whose name is hidden behind the pen-name ‘VViews’ has been producing item-counts, such as the number of ‘people’* drawn in the manuscript, how many people with shoes on, how many beast-like forms.. and so on.

*‘anthropoform figures’ would be the preferred technical description in my discipline, because one must first determine whether the first enunciator (the person who first gave this form to the informing idea) intended these figures to be understood literally, or as embodiments of myth or of inanimate things, or of  abstract qualities and so on. Calling the figures ‘people’ implies literalism and skips several important stages of analysis).

If you think that making lists of that sort was a trivial job, think again. (One of these days I may explain the message that was carried by a figure’s being represented shod or unshod in medieval western art). If correct, (and I expect they will prove to be pretty well right), Vviews’ count-lists have already improved my own work. He notes that four such figures are shod, and I had noted only two: the Archer and a figure on folio 80r. So – thank you Vviews. No, seriously, it’s valuable work and needs an ability to maintain concentration even when the work is utterly tedious and miscounting very easy.

So, start by making a list of the things you are really – objectively- good at doing.

Nothing about personality. You may think you’re brilliant, or not very clever. You may think your only real skill is P.R. The main thing here is to be absolutely realistic about your practical abilities and formal training. So if you know lot about music, its theory, history or technicalities, include that. It may or may not prove relevant, but the subject has cropped up from time to time and your existing knowledge means you would find it easier to do the research, and produce a balanced opinion, if a question arose about western and eastern music, or the specific forms of music written to accompany (say) the Romance poetry of medieval France.

So now, having made that list of your practical skills – cross off whatever you are good at doing but don’t enjoy doing.

Voynich research is a long-haul task and there’s no need to find yourself bored to the point of nausea half-way through.

In the next post, I’ll provide a checklist of sorts that you can run through and, I hope, define the area(s) in which your real skills are most likely to lead to a real contribution.

MOST IMPORTANT. Contrary to what is often thought, you do not have to begin with a ‘theory’, let alone a new theory.

The important thing is to have a desire to contribute something solid and reliable to the ongoing work.

Too many Voynicheros, since 1912, have aimed to leap to the top of the pile with a flimsy theory as some ultimate solution to the Voynich ‘problem’. The problem isn’t the manuscript. The problem is to reach a valid understanding of its form, materials and its pictorial and its written text.

Since the manuscript is no more a theoretical object than is a car, or a table, it doesn’t need a theoretical-fictional story invented for it.

On the other hand, if your talents lie is breaking ciphers, consider the formation of theoretical models part of standard method. 🙂

Voynich research is work. It’s a job which, for most, is not engaged for pay. What it needs are people who can do something useful and do it well.

So well, in fact, that they produce ‘steps’ solid enough for others to use as the basis from which to begin their own efforts. Think in terms of making an independent contribution, not becoming a drone, nor attempting to ‘own’ the study. Voynich club, not Voynich factory.

Take as your model Captain Currier.

He spoke once about the written text’s qualities, from his own observation as a qualified and experienced cryptologist. Just one contribution, made half a century go, but it remains rock-solid as far as I know. (Any cryptologist like to comment on that?)

Don’t suppose any aspect of this manuscript ‘easy’. Just as you’d need much more than a hammer to make a watch, you need more than two eyes and guesswork to rightly read and contextualise pre-modern imagery; more than a dictionary to make a translation, and more than a talent for fiction to make Voynich history. In the long run.

Meme of the month: ‘Move on’.

Heard it yet? This Voynich meme emerged from who-knows-where to pass like fog through the ‘ community’. I’ve waited a while until it seemed likely most people with an ongoing interest in the manuscript would have been touched by it.

As with the many other simple-sounding mindless Voynich ‘memes’ it carries a sub-text along the lines of, “Adopt this slogan or you’re ‘not one of us’ “. Such memes are common enough in the school yard and are usually aimed at some individual or group. You can describe it as bullying, or as a bonding mechanism – after all, defining the ‘in group’ means first defining the ‘out group’, doesn’t it?

But when post-school age people do the equivalent, especially in social media, such memes work as a crowd-control chain-mail letter. On receipt, you are expected to signal obedience by uttering the meme yourself, and thus passing it along. It’s then worn like a membership badge, or a special handshake. Unless you won’t..

However, in the context of what ought surely to be an intellectual activity, such as the investigation and explication of a medieval manuscript, it is hardly intelligent for would-be historians to create, adopt or disseminate that meme. Abandon the past, own the future? Is that it?

About as stupid as a meme could be if applied to study of Beinecke MS 408.

But let’s take it differently; let’s suppose it represents a theory of how we should engage with the manuscript.

Would ‘moving on’ be a useful theory?

How shall we define ‘moving on’? As simple chronology?

In that case, we’d have to prefer Gerard Cheshire’s opinions, published in 2018, over Captain Prescott Currier’s observations, presented in 1976. Cheshire had certainly ‘moved on’ and away from them.

Or how about.. dating the manuscript’s manufacture?

Writing in the 1970s, Robert S. Brumbaugh certainly ‘moved on’ in both senses from the dating offered by Panofsky in 1932 and the support subsequently given that opinion by Helmut Lehmann-Haupt in 1963 when he spoke of a general consensus … among specialists in medieval manuscripts. Important point, that.

I should say that Brumbaugh’s ‘moving on’ was unhelpful – and yet with the curious and not entirely abandoned habit of deference which the Beinecke library has shown people far less qualified than the library staff, the Beinecke did for decades advertise Brumbaugh’s work, adopt his ideas – including his erroneous dating – and continued to do so this well after the radiocarbon-14 range had been published in 2011.

In what sense would that be ‘moving on?’

How about moving on from disproven theories and/or items claimed as evidence for them?

How about moving on from the Prinke-Zandbergen theory? They began promoting a ‘German’ theory in the early 2000s, well in advance of any efforts to produce bits and pieces later adduced as circumstantial evidence for it.

About a decade later, still, the proffered ‘evidence’ consisted chiefly of ill-informed assertions made about cherry-picked details from the pictorial text. Efforts to provide a little balance by explaining that the custom of braiding hair was never uniquely ‘German’; that the cloudband pattern was not a product of ‘Germanic’ culture, even if nineteenth-century art historians used the German word ‘wolkenbanden’ to describe it. Ditto assertions made about crossbows and the Voynich Sagittario .. and so on and so on. Nothing ‘moved on’ – at least not during daylight.

Stubborn silence, refusal to so much as open a book, and the inevitable invention of another ‘pay no attention’ sort of meme was the usual response of those attracted by the theory.


Is it time to ‘move on’ from the lamentable and not-quite-laughable methods maintained by those and other theorists? They are surely ‘old’ and owe most to the template of Wilfrid Voynich’s salespitch in the early decades of last century.

But perhaps one should be less ambitious. How about ‘moving on’ from sub-theories, such as that the Voynich plant-pictures are part of the western herbal manuscript tradition?

Think you could persuade a ‘western herbal’ theorist to admit it’s time to move on from the older guesses and start by asking questions rather than adopting assumptions?

Or try something even smaller – how about suggesting that the traditionists’ re-consider the relative merits of Georg Baresch’s views over that rumour allegedly repeated by Rafael Mnishovsky?

Traditionalists ‘Moving on’ … You think?

What is needed is not any more crowd-control memes but a better quality controls. At present this field of study is so littered with theory-junk that not even good seed can prosper. How that came about is not found by mindlessly ‘moving on’ but by taking a long, hard, look at the study’s history and a meme-free approach to better contributions.