O’Donovan notes #6g: Enthroned.

In medieval Europe, what we’d call a picture’s background was called ‘the throne’.

In this post, I might be attempting the impossible, but I’ll try to explain why the rumour is wrong which says that to read the Voynich drawings takes only ‘two eyes and commonsense’.

I won’t use jargon such as sign, signifier and signified because in my experience the more jargon is used, the less inclined are people to believe art-commentary is down-to-earth.

Instead, I’ll ask you – How many of these items are sunflowers?

Answer – NONE is a sunflower.

They are nine images – lines arranged in various ways, all of which were intended to trigger memory, among the intended audience, of matters already learned.

In each of those 9 images, the lines are arranged in accordance with a set of formal conventions. You have to understand those conventions if the image is to be intelligible, whether formed of the written- or the drawn line.

Anyone who claims they can read all nine images with ease must explain how they came by that knowledge, and address the big question of the disjunction between form and intended meaning, since we’ve agreed that none of the nine is a sunflower in fact, and none is formed in a way very closely similar to the form of any other.

O’Donovan notes #6f: Uses and abuses.

I’m staying with our example of a photographed motherboard. It’s a fairly undemanding example for readers who may have no previous relevant studies.

Consider this question, “When was it made?”

Extra ticks to anyone who said, ‘When was what made?’

In that image there are two obvious, and one less obvious levels of artifice. (An artefact is a made thing; artifice is the work that has deliberately contributed to a thing’s present form)*

If colleagues wonder why I’m using these terms, it’s to clarify basic concepts while avoiding jargon.

The two obvious levels are (1.) the photograph as artefact; (2) the thing photographed as artefact. But if you have the sort of curiosity that led you to open in another tab and then expand that image shown in post #6d, you might have noticed a third level of action/artifice – three horizonal bars, two black and the other red-brown, that have been added either to the photographed image or to the photographed object or to the digitised version of the photograph, before the last-named appeared in context of a blogpost dated to May 2022. I’ve ringed the three bars here (below).

For the moment, we’ll leave aside those three bars, and concentrate on whether the problem is to be defined as ‘When was the photograph made?’ or as ‘When was the photographed object made?

This is equivalent to the distinction between asking when the drawing was set down on its vellum in our present manuscript, as against when the image’s informing words and ideas were first given such a form. It’s another case where differences really matter. It’s the difference between when and where Leonardo completed his ‘Mona Lisa’, against when and where a pillowcase carrying that image was made. The original was made by someone who spoke a dialect of Italian; the latter made by someone who spoke e.g. a language of east Asia. Though we don’t know whether Voynichese was first created when the present folios were inscribed, or when the images were first enunciated, it is important not to presume (as so many do) that the medium’s date and place of origin are the same as those for first enunciation of the images or written text.

Our two external specialists, the two who knew so much about motherboards (see last few paragraphs of #6d), might agree on a date when that motherboard was put on the market, and as a result of knowing that, might be able to offer an earliest-possible date, too, for the photograph’s being made.

This ‘earliest possible date from when..’ is called a terminus a quo. In manuscript’s studies, the reciprocal is possible. Hugh O’Neill’s mis-reading of some images from the manuscript led him to assert the manuscript had been made no earlier than 1492 – that’s a ‘terminus a quo’ of 1492. He was in error about the one, and transferred that error to the other, with lasting ill-effects for the study.

This is why it is vital not to confuse the radiocarbon dating for the manuscript’s vellum with a date for first creation of all matter now in the manuscript. It is why superficial, trivial and imaginative storylines have proven not merely unhelpful to others working on the manuscript, but positively counterproductive to them and to the manuscript’s study overall.

Among other things, they lead people to ask information from people whose area is irrelevant. A specialist in eighteenth-century English texts on astronomy will surely have a background in astronomy and medieval studies of astronomy, but it’s too much to expect them to recognise the intention of a small detail you’ve extracted from a manuscript made, say, in 12thC Syria and whose connection to astronomy might exist only in your theory.

What the two computer specialists couldn’t know about that photograph, is whether the photograph might be of some prototype, and thus taken rather earlier than the model became available on the market.

To discover when the photograph-as-photograph was made, and whether the photo shows a prototype pre-dating emergence on the market, you’d need documentary evidence from the company – and that information may be permanently unavailable. The lesson here being that if your assumptions create inappropriate questions, the specialists you approach will respond in the terms your question is framed; that no specialist will know everything; that no specialist’s opinion, however well informed, should be later pretended some ultimate and final word after which all others should concur or forever be silent. Such an attitude does justice neither to the subject nor to the specialist.

Of our example photograph, we’d say that there is an approximate terminus a quo for the photographed artefact – say, a date two or three years or so before this board appeared on the market. For the photograph, too the larger range might apply and you might decide that as end-date it is impossible to give any date save that of the date-stamped blogpost – May 2022. ‘Latest possible date’ can be expressed as the terminus ad quem.

If you become involved in disciplines such as archaeology, you’ll find I’ve used these terms a bit loosely, but they’re easy to remember in this form and they’ll do for now.

The thing to keep in mind when researching drawings is that as response to my question ‘When was it made?’ the response ‘When was what made?’ is entirely reasonable. It’s a good response. If you’re asking ‘when was the photographed object made’ a specialist is likely to give you the date-range over which that particular motherboard was being produced for the market. As you’ve seen, that can differ considerably from a valid answer if the question is ‘When was the photograph made?’ There’s no evidence as to whether the photograph was taken prior to production or, alternatively, years after production had ceased.

The traditionalists have inherited and maintained the error first introduced by Wilfrid in 1921, whereby the date-range offered for the manuscript-as-artefact is presumed identical to that for the matter inscribed and if researchers erred it was in attempting to move (as the Friedmans did) to ever-later and more unlikely dates, rather than taking the sensible view that the date of inscription is the default terminus ad quem for that inscription or drawing.

Approaching specialists.

Overconfidence in their own ideas is most likely to lead amateurs to treat poorly specialists in a subject of which the Voynichero-with-theory might know less than they imagine.

Let me provide a negative model. It’s typical enough of what one sees in reality, but I’ve made this example hypothetical.

Suppose that, on seeing the photograph, the first idea tossed up by my memory was that the thing photographed was like a board-game. Transforming that, immediately, into a gut-certainty, I find I have a ‘boardgame theory’ and thereafter drop all effort at careful study of the image and set off hunting things to add an air of plausibility to what is now my theory. (This is today the classic ‘Voynich method’).

I explain to the world at large, with illustrations gathered from any source and any period, in any medium, that the offset squares to the left side of the photograph are pieces taken off the board; I produce parallels to such games as Ludo, perhaps quoting at length from the instructions brochure, as I assert that the red lines are the paths along which pieces move and that the large central square is ‘home’, while the area lowest on the right is “obviously” a Jail (by analogy with Monopoly, with illustrations), and so “logically” those radiating white lines you see apparently connecting the paths to the Jail operate like images of snakes in games of Snakes-and-Ladders.

Since my internally-consistent storyline fits together so neatly, I’m then sure that anyone who remains unconvinced is simply stubborn, stupid, theory-fixated on a different theory or even that the non-believer is akin to an enemy of some religion – a heretic against whom the anathema is rightly pronounced.

Anathema – involves insisting the person be expelled from the society of believers and requiring that none among the believers shall speak to, assist, or deal with that person, mention of whose very name may have consequences. It is the most likely reason that mainland Europe never benefitted from the research which al-Idrisi did in the Sicilian court, whose kings Roger and Frederick were anathematised more than once and why, for a time, none but Genoa was permitted to trade between Sicily and mainland Europe.

Theory-fanatics, in Voynich studies, rarely understand the idea of rational debate, or informed dissent. Sorry, but that’s how it is. Luckily there aren’t too many outright fanatics on the scene at present.

Anyway, that way of using the images in Beinecke MS 408 as inspiration for some fictional scenario as ‘theory’ has become the norm since about 2010, having its roots in Wilfrid’s idea of an historical storyline and is why I speak of the Wilfrid-Friedman model.

Without providing a shred of solid research or evidence, but liberally sprinkling my theory- narrative with such words as ‘obviously’ and ‘logically’ and ‘common sense’ and so on, suppose I manage to induce a suspension of analytical thought in 98% of those within reach. With sniffs and indications of self-importance, I then dismiss the other 2% while indicating to that 98% (most of whom couldn’t care less about the pictorial text), that the other 2% must be insignificant persons because 2% is an insignificant number.

But now, just suppose the other 2% won’t lie down, and won’t go away. Efforts to instruct believers to ‘just ignore’ and so forth aren’t wholly effective, and since I don’t want the audience’s attention distracted from my hypnotic spiel, I have to do something. Answer? Get some authoritative word I can use as a means to shut them up.

I ask a group of fellow board-game players if the image doesn’t look to them like a game board and get an amiable ‘Hmmm’ or ‘yes it does’.

I then announce that all five specialists in board-games have endorsed my theory.

This has also become a counter-productive habit, embedded in the traditionalists’ idea of ‘Voynich method’ and it is certainly at least so early as 1944 when Hugh O’Neill, a botanist with no particular knowledge of pre-modern botanical images mis-read very badly a couple of details from the manuscript and then turned to some unnamed fellow botanists and claimed that they supported his ideas. He included no objective evidence; no documentary evidence; no named specialists in any relevant field and he clearly hadn’t bothered to read what remained, by then, from documents relevant to Christopher Columbus’ voyages.

The specialist who could have accurately evaluated his theory would have been (a) a specialist in the history of the Columban period and (b) a specialist in comparative botanical images. Or he could have listened to Fr. Petersen.

The lesson being – if you must ask help from a person, rather than studying what they’ve contributed to their field, then you should not be seeking confirmation but an impartial critique.

Back to the hypothetical example: after some time in which I reap admiring comments about my ‘game-board’ theory, some bright newcomer says that he thinks the photo shows something electronic. I’m certainly not going to surrender my theory. A Voynichero’s theory is defended against all opponents, including evidence and reason.

So I invent a ‘theory-patch’ or invent a meme intended to ridicule or demean the newcomer before witnesses. (which is, by the way, part of the legal definition of slander in England).

I then drop in on a personal contact who understands electronics and ask in a casual, friend-to-friend way, whether the object in the photograph was used for playing games. ‘Yes’, he says, ‘its a type of motherboard used for playing computer-games’.

Do I admit to being in error, and thank the newcomer? Not if I’m a Voynichero-with-theory, I don’t.

Since the truth doesn’t quite suit my theory, and being a Voynichero I regard my theory as myself, so to avoid losing face I simply announce that such-and-such an expert has said that the thing in the photograph was a board used for playing games.

Should that person learn how they’ve been misused, and protest in public, the worst sort of Voynichero resorts again to facile labels, tossing about words like ‘pedantic’ and so on.

In most theorists, though, bias isn’t quite so active and may be quite unintentional.

A person convinced of their own storyline doesn’t stop to ask if their questions are reasonable or if the persons they seek out for an authoritative-sounding statement works within an appropriate discipline or, within that, an appropriate area of specialisation.

Had Newbold walked to his local pharmacy, shown the pharmacist a few items in the leaf-and-root section and asked the pharmacist if the drawings didn’t look to him like pharmacy bottles, he would have got the agreement he sought.

Had he gone to an historian of pharmacy, or to some major Museum in 1921 he might, or might not, have found someone to agree with him.

Had he asked a specialist in the history of thirteenth-century art and manuscripts, or in Roger Bacon’s writings the same question, I would expect the answer to be ‘Not to the best of our knowledge’.

Newbold believed Wilfrid’s theory that the manuscript had been hand-written by Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century Englishman.

People deeply devoted to some Voynich theory, of their own invention or not, do not use genuine specialists well.

Let me illustrate this using a less modern and less hypothetical example.

Suppose some Voynichero develops a theory that the Voynich month-diagrams were intended as a means to predict days on which a woman might become pregnant. The theory itself leads them to choose an historian of western medicine who has focused on (specialised in) works of women’s medicine. The theorist’s aim is to get that specialist to agree that you sometimes find calendars, and the zodiac series, in works of that kind.

The historian who has specialised in that area does agree. This the theorist announces as endorsement of their ideas by an ‘expert’ in women’s medicine.

That historian has no way to know that the theorist’s question is all wrong. Their answer is not wrong, but it may be irrelevant for anyone seriously interested in Beinecke MS 408.

The theorist having long before shifted focus from the manuscript to their quasi-historical storyline-as-theory, they won’t ask any of the important questions: such as, do you find in such medical works calendars having doubled or alternative months? Do any include diagrams whose form, structure and style of drawing is closely comparable the month-folios in Beinecke MS 408? They might neglect to inform the specialist that the terminus ad quem is (so far as we know) 1405-1438. They are likely to ignore codicological considerations altogether.

Asking a specialist’s advice. My advice is:

If you think that a detail in the manuscript shows e.g. a type of ritual vessel only found in medieval German churches, you should first do the work needed to discover whether or not the detail/s you’re considering were intended to be read as literal (realistic), and then to search more broadly than your theory’s boundary to get a clear idea of the range in which images similar form, style and detail are attested. That range and its boundaries should not be dictated by your theory. You theory might be about Germany, and Christian ritual objects, but you may be mistaken, and so far at least, you’re still researching the images that are in Beinecke MS 408. Today’s political boundaries or concepts of nationality shouldn’t be presumed to apply even in the early fifteenth-century.

After doing the indepth preliminary research, if you then conclude from the evidence you’ve amassed that such images and/or objects occur no-where else but in twelfth-century Christian churches in Germany, you might request a specialist in twelfth-century German religious objects (say from a major Museum) to evaluate both your evidence and your argument.

The specialist’s role is to provide a dispassionate critique, not to produce some sound-bite for theory-promotion. A specialist with a Voynich theory is not well-suited to that role of impartial and dispassionate critic.

If you don’t want to impose on someone whose job doesn’t include answering random questions from the public, the correct form is to put your question in a way that avoids forcing your ideas on them, trying to convince them of your theory, or implying they must provide the answer your theory demands.

A professor with a chair in medieval studies has no obligation to reply to such a request from you, or even from a colleague. You are asking a favour and, in most cases, from someone to whom you’ve never been introduced.

I can’t speak other than hypothetically about other people’s experiences, so I’ll have to use my own as a practical example. It is only one example, from one researcher.

Hoping for advice from that palaeographer who had specialised in the history of Hebrew palaeography, I began by apologising for writing without a formal introduction. I said I had a problem which had cropped up during my research into a medieval manuscript and that if they would care to see the problematic detail, I’d be most grateful for any comment they might care to make. Note – “any comment they might care to make.”

If they had refused – as was their right – or had directed me to some textbook on palaeography, that would have been the end of my contact with them.

One says thank-you for their kind reply and leaves.

That specialist did not refuse, so a copy of the detail was sent and with it a question phrased as neutrally as possible: ‘Do you think these lines are writing?’

Had the answer been ‘No’, I’d have cheerfully accepted that verdict, knowing the person’s eminence in their field and the range and depth of their published scholarship.

It is poor form, and a sign of amateurishness to approach a specialist without having first read the work they’ve published within their own professional sphere. If you receive an answer saying, ‘Read my paper’ it’s your own fault.

Had the person been less eminent in that discipline, I might have sought a second opinion.

In the event, that specialist was kind, answering that question in detail after first saying that in their opinion the marks I’d ringed were writing and others which could be seen in that detail from the image were not writing.

Quoting a specialist.

At that stage I asked if I might have permission to include the specialist’s comments in the posts summarising my own research into that particular drawing. Permission was given.

It is very bad form to ask a specialist, as if in an informal way, for their opinion only to publish their comments and/or their name without their having given you their specific and informed consent in writing.

So at that stage, I told the specialist that the drawing was one from the Voynich manuscript and asked – as a wholly separate question – if I might duly credit the specialist by name. To that second request, the reply was ‘No’ – as it so often is once the phrase ‘Voynich manuscript’ crops up. If, on reflection, the specialist had also withdrawn permission to quote them directly, their wish would have been honoured, too.

It is not because the manuscript is difficult that the topic ‘Voynich manuscript’ has a very poor reputation within medieval and manuscript studies.

A combination of arrogance, ignorance and dishonesty has marked the behaviour of certain Voynich theorists, now, for more than a decade and while the nature of scholarship in the English-speaking world makes it more egalitarian than you find, say, in Germany, it is not so egalitarian that manners don’t matter.

Less-than- meticulous book-keeping where other people’s contributions to the study are concerned; a habit of focusing on ‘who’ a person is while disregarding the ‘what’ of their scholarly work; a practice of attacking ad.hominem any person or information opposing your pet theory’s promotion are among the real reason that Voynich studies is now regarded with such distaste by the wider scholarly world.

A theorist may develop a theory that one, or another, person is a ‘nobody’ and subject them to abuse, highly inventive slander-by-meme, and all the rest of it, but others who observe such behaviour think worst of the persons from whom such behaviour spreads, and resolve to contribute nothing of their own to this environment.

Plagiarism in various guises – a matter I’ll discuss later – displays a level of ignorance that is, in terms of the scholarly world, the equivalent of loutish behaviour and to see some Voynicheros actively promoting and practicing forms of plagiarism has rendered Voynich studies abhorrent. In terms of the wider scholarly community, it’s a form of intellectual embezzlement.

The thing to remember is that study of Beinecke MS 408 is not a world unto itself, or even a scholarly discipline. It’s just a topic.

To that topic, specialists in historical research, in codicology, palaeography, comparative historical linguistics and so on may chose to give some attention. If you have no prior stu dies in any relevant discipline, however, you’re an amateur and no ‘specialist’ even if you have little interest in anything save e.g. the manuscript’s calendar. It doesn’t make you a ‘Voynich-calendar’ specialist. To be a specialist you apply your earlier and formal study of calendars, or of astronomical imagery to e.g. European calendars or religious calendars as a specialist in those subjects. The Voynich manuscript isn’t a discipline; it isn’t a ‘subject’ in the scholarly sense. It’s just one fairly unimportant manuscript.

To pretend competence in a field you’ve never studied or practiced in the wider world is not the done thing in scholarly circles; you don’t lie about or omit mention of the sources you’ve made use of. To speak metaphorically – you may be the latest man to climb a mountain; you might even be the first to reach the top. But you don’t pretend to be the first person ever to have noticed that mountain and say or imply that you made every road leading to it. Nor do you attempt to erase from the historical record the name of those whose work you’ve used, and for no better reason that they weren’t in your team.

Scholars do notice such things, sooner or later.

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.