Our aim is not only to review the origin of ‘Voynich doctrines’ but to consider how Wilfrid’s approach distorted the study of this manuscript from the first, his errors of method and of fact being magnified thereafter by uncritical adoption. In this post we’ll consider a point of method which continues pervasive in Voynich-related writings.
The ‘history’ which Wilfrid presented in 1921 purports to explain the history and the nature of the manuscript. It is a tale full of over-drawn and flamboyant characters, scarcely referring to the manuscript at all, nor justifying his attribution of its content to a thirteenth century English Franciscan. Wilfrid’s notion of provenancing as something determined by biographies is the point at issue.
Definition: Provenancing is the process of determining how and from whence a matter or object has come to be where it now is.
As in Wilfrid’s time, so today, the cataloguer and salesman describe a manuscript’s ownership-chain as a convenience for buyers or readers and as proof that the item is genuine, not stolen, and worth its price.
Being a seller of books and manuscripts, Wilfrid was accustomed to offering this personality-centred sort of provenance, and it is only this which informs his dramatic adventure-tale of 1921. His narrative is essentially a salesman’s spiel filled with the names of notables having social status equal to the price he wanted for the manuscript.
What was actually needed to set study of Beinecke MS 408 and its content on the right track (and which is still largely needed) is provenancing of a different sort.
There are effectively three forms of provenance-research, which for convenience we can distinguish as the ‘Who?’, ‘What?’ and ‘Wherefore?’
The first type tracks the chain of possession, which need not (as Wilfrid did not) include any informed analytical study of the object’s form or content.
The second is concerned with the object-as-object: what is is, what it is made of. This type of provenance involves informed commentary on subjects such as codicology and palaeography, something scarcely mentioned in public commentaries until the establishment of Jim Reeds’ mailing list. Thereafter, it was urged upon ‘Voynicheros’ without effect by Nick Pelling from 2006, with the present writer lending support on this matter from 2009.
Since 2013 or so, we have seen some movement in this area, a considerable boost given it by the radiocarbon dating in 2011, and a more recent technical study of which I’ll have more to say later, when treating the ‘seeding’ phenomenon.
This second sort of provenancing – of the object qua object – was already employed by great libraries in Wilfrid’s time, which is why such collections rarely need their attributions corrected. They also checked provenance of the first sort, rejecting assertions not demonstrably true and supported by documentary evidence and external scholarly studies.
For a clearer understanding of methodologies employed in the second type, you may find helpful notes offered by Columbia University: ‘How to date and place a medieval manuscript‘.
For unusually problematic items, today, we might also consult the new(-ish) field of DNA identification, as well as employing laboratory techniques originally developed to assist conservation. When technical results are considered against the corpus of external scholarship, it allows the provenancer to cite more objective evidence and provides a means to test or prove their conclusions, which are primarily about the object’s manufacture: where was it made, for whom was it made and so on.
And now to the third sort:
Because it is not always true that a manuscript’s date, place and cultural origin for manufacture are identical with those for its content – specialists in other fields may be needed who can track the content’s provenance as a separate issue and delineate its line of transmission.
Relevant specialities are usually in comparative studies: of textual traditions, of economic history, of philosophies and religions, and of comparative iconography (which involves, among other things, the comparison of historical, cultural and intellectual traditions as reflected in form and stylistics). This is because the work involves (as it were) identifying the point on a very large map of potential answers, just where the anomalous content belongs: place of origin and informing culture and so forth.
In reporting results for this type of provenance-research, it is expected that the extent and nature of that contextual ‘blank map’ will be explained, and that in reporting results the explanation will be specific, detailed, and will offer analytical description of comparative examples cited, in addition to explaining the relevant contextual matter from history, art history and so on. That background matter is not selected to evoke belief in the reader, but to provide perspective and to show that the conclusions are compatible with the current state of knowledge in those areas. The purpose of documentation, too, is not to prove the researcher correct, or persuade readers to believe, but to enable others, if necessary, to refine or correct those findings in future. An opinion these days has to be explained to show how the conclusions were formed, and this ethical documentation – including footnotes and bibliography – are, I repeat, there not to elicit belief, but to assist others’ analytical and critical evaluation of one’s conclusions and line of thought.
That sort of meticulousness was not demanded of Wilfrid, whose account of this manuscript would not bear the scrutiny of external scholarship today. Within ‘Voynichland’ however, his fundamental error of conflating ownership-provenance with object- and content-provenance continues to infect Voynich-related writings with only a few recent exceptions. Wilfrid-style narratives still imagine, as he did, that a manuscript’s origins and content may be explained by imposing upon the manuscript whatever character and preoccupations they associate with some notable name, whether as imagined owner or imagined author or imagined bearer: Thus Wilfrid’s unfounded assumptions run ‘Bacon wrote it, so it’s about rare natural history’; I feel that Dee is the imagined bearer, so it’s about magic’; Rumour had it that Rudolf owned it, so it’s about alchemy’… of which variations remain the typical foundation for most Voynich writing and case-moth style history. On a foundation no more substantial, extraordinarily elaborate superstructures have been created of matter biographical, anachronistic and aimed only at persuasion: at inculcating belief that the still-unread content must be of this type or that. This, above all, has been the bane of this study, and the items which have most retarded it are surely faith in the ‘Rudolf’ rumour and fixed determination that all the content will have come from and be dictated by Latin (western Christian) intellectual history.
Provenancing of the first sort is expected to ‘name names’; provenancing of the second sort may, but does not have to; provenancing of the third sort rarely does. To use a different sort of example: a piece of fabric may be identified by the seller as having been owned by Marie de Medici; a provenancer of the second sort will identify it as a product of Venice – and may or may not identify the establishment which made it. The third sort of provenance will attend to its non-local and non-European dyes, pattern and weaving techniques and track them each to their time and place of origin, explaining the means by which (and when) they had entered the west. In this, to mention the name of any individual is optional and often irrelevant.
Provenance-research of the second type is still minimal in connection with Beinecke MS 408, though improving. Provenance-research of the third type has been done, but was mistaken for the sort of theory-creation which has become, since Wilfrid, the approach assumed to inform all Voynich writing: it is all deemed ‘theory’ and treated accordingly.
Soon we’ll see how Wilfrid’s erroneous idea of provenancing content misdirected a group of military cryptanalysts who undertook to ‘crack the ciphertext’ and succeeded only by magnifying the ‘Wilfrisms’ they had taken as first premises. As introduction, we look at what Roger Bacon actually knew about methods for rending a text obscure.