Theory wars – an illustration

When readers comment via the contact form, I answer the first couple, but if more are about the same sort of thing, it’s worth a post.

Comments on the previous post were along the lines:  ‘theory wars – so what?’ or ‘it will be a good thing when there’s just one opinion’ or ‘complaining about lots of opinions is just your resentment’.

The one I thought worth a post is the  ‘theory war, so what?’. It means deferring mention of Rich Santacoloma’s work, but it’s obviously an issue readers think about.   I’ve had to spend a few days thinking  how best to illustrate the effect of a  ‘theory-war’ on attitudes to the manuscript’s research.

There’s also the fact that decade’s close study of the primary document has naturally led me to form  opinions from that evidence, so it would be right to say that I have a theory too, but I’d say it is a theory in the stricter sense of the term. I have no hesitation in changing my views should better and more solidly-based information turn up,   The aim is to ‘get it right’ not to adopt the pose of Delphic oracle.

So then, perfectly aware that the old saying about stones and glass houses might apply,  I’ve taken a tiny detail from folio 102, and traced the attitudes informing its discussion before, and then since 2012, when  ‘theory-war’ really took hold.   In my opinion, this very interesting manuscript deserves more care and more respect than it receives.

It isn’t easy, knowing how one flounders in the early stages, to now criticise offerings from people further back on the road. It seems hypocritical but then confusing discussion of method and standards in this study with attacks on personality is a particular habit of the theory-driven sort, and we mustn’t fall into that trap.

The sections average a bit over 1,000 words each.

I’d suggest you read one ‘phase’  and then take some time – perhaps a day –  to think about that before reading the next.

But it’s up to you.


Phase 1:  Scott and O’Donovan (a conversation – ‘book’?  ‘block of indigo’?).

Folio 102 is part of the manuscript’s ‘root and leaf’ section, yet it includes the small drawing of a block, directly below which is another detail also coloured blue, though in an even deeper hue and whose tag has three or four glyphs in common with that above the block. (‘Four’ if it were supposed that the last glyph of the block’s tag were a final form of the other’s fourth glyph).

Apart from these details, and a couple  discoloured, the remainder of that folio shows  ‘leaf and root’ details in the usual colours of green and brown. The block thus presents an anomaly.


It would seem reasonable to begin by expecting both ‘blue details’ on folio 102 to be in some way  connected to plants and to materials derived from them, and further that the draughtsman/painter intended his readers to understand that some more direct connection exists between these two blue items. Yet – though having a brushful of the blue to colour the block – the draughtsman/painter took another, and much deeper, blue to paint the lower detail.  They are thus linked in one sense but distinguished in another.

top – detail of object on f.102; centre – detail of vessel. Shang dynasty; detail 17thC Chinese silver.

In the left hand margin, level with these registers is an object set on ‘knife-blade’* legs of a sort not European, but attested in the east from a very early period indeed, and revived to as late as the seventeenth century.

*described in some sources as ‘tiger-claw’ legs. They are seen on objects intended to stand over a fire.

These items of information conveyed through the imagery, made sense in terms of indigo, its trade and use (as I’ll explain below), and though I read more before offering an opinion publicly,  by 2011  I was ready to make a brief comment to the second mailing list.  What I said was that I thought the block meant for a block of indigo.

Readers may find it useful to know that as a dyestuff, indigo is extracted from leaves of indigo tinctofera in the east, though another type of indigo plant, native to north Africa, had been brought into medieval Sicily.   I knew that the dyestuff  was sold in pressed blocks –  wrapped and stitched into cloth during the medieval period* – and that it had still been brought into the Mediterranean at that time from further east, just as  during  the earlier Christian centuries – which last is attested by the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a work written in execrable semi-Greek around the 1stC AD and often called the ‘Periplus of the Erythraean_Sea’.

* today it is sold held together just by a lattice of thread – as in our header.

§39. The ships lie at anchor at Barbaricum but all their cargoes are carried up to the metropolis by the river, to the King. There are imported into this market a great deal of thin clothing, and a little spurious; figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine. On the other hand there are exported costus, bdellium, lycium, nard, turquoise, lapis lazuli, Seric skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, and indigo. ..

No-one from the mailing list asked to know more of my reasons or evidence but Dana Scott was  kind enough to reply, at least,  saying he thought, rather, that it looked like a codex*, and linking to the illustration shown at left.

*BL MS Royal 19 D II – Bible Historiale of John the Good. Made in Central France (Paris) c. 1350-before 1356.

So far so good.

While I believe Dana thought  -and perhaps still thinks – the manuscript reflects a Norman Anglo-French environment (and I’d agree that its later phases reflect that character), the conversation was not a theory-war about nationalities or personalities, but a discussion of what a draughtsman had intended his audience to see in a particular small drawing. It was a conversation about the primary evidence.

And that’s as far as it went in the mailing list.  Though my comment elicited little response, there was no sniping or efforts at ‘put down’ in that brief conversation.

As I recall, it ended by being turned back to the central European theme by Zanbergen’s mentioning a herbal owned by a Bohemian king in which was reference to papyrus.

I did make a post for readers of my old ‘blogger’ blog Findings, (September 19, 2011) and later put a brief note about it at voynichimagery.  There I gave a list of references and explained that the context in which the block appears on folio 102 was an essential part of my reasoning and the item’s location in terms of both history and geography.

This was done because, before the ‘theory-war’ took hold, it was expected that a case should be presented fairly and with enough detail to show it wasn’t just a flight of imagination but potentially something on which others could rely and use in their own research.

I showed why the identification was compatible with the internal and external evidence, including the testimony provided by other details from the ‘leaf and root’ section, and how it is that, altogether, these indicate first composition for the content during the earlier, rather than later centuries AD – but within the environment of an east-west network that could reasonably have brought such matter to western Europe before 1440 1400-1440.

I added that,  if the draughtsman had wanted the block to be read as ‘indigo’ it would make sense to leave it pale save the dash of lighter blue, because not only was indigo pressed and sold stitched into a cloth wrapper, but the first stage of the process when the matter is extracted from the leaves results in what is known as  ‘white indigo’ (the pure dyestuff). It is then combined with liquid in the vat,   the cloths soaked, but only when they are removed and the dye re-oxygenates do they display that deep colour we call ‘indigo’.   The dyed fabric (which I think the subject of the detail under the block) has its deeper colour then reasonably explained..

I went into the question more deeply  – because it was still a question – finding in one medieval trader’s account – which I’m sorry to say I did not record in my notes –  that traders were permitted to make a small hole in the cloth wrapper to test the content’s quality (and, I suspect, its identity) .    This offered a reasonable explanation for the draughtsman’s troubling to add upon a drawing no more than a centimetre square, the two small circles we see placed at the seam-line in the upper middle and left-hand corner of the facing side (left). It might be meant to serve as reminder that with this good, one was permitted to inspect.

I won’t include much of my original reading list, but add a few first sources, and others I’ve noticed today.

A good first, overall view online in 2011 and  still going – is  here:

Jenny Balfour-Paul is the expert on Indigo in the Islamic world

  • Balfour-Paul J.,”The indigo industry of the Yemen”,  in Serjeant, R.B., Bidwell, R.L., ed(s). Arabian studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1990) pp. 39-62. and then
  • Jenny Balfour-Paul, lndigo in the Arab World (1997).
  • On Jews of the medieval Yemen, see ‘Habbani Jews

and today I’d add:

  • India Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (Publications Division), India – Govt. and Economic Life in Ancient and Medieval Periods. (2017).
  • Sarah Davis-Secord, Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (2017).
  • Šelomō Simonsohn (ed.), The Jews in Sicily: 383-1300.  Two good recent sources.


… and that was that.



Move forward a few years…


Phase 2: Velinska  (‘believe me… it’s easy’)

Ellie Velinska is a respected member of the ‘central European’ theory group, with a leaning towards the Duc du* Berry and one suspects largely responsible for the elasticity now given that group’s re-definition of ‘central Europe.’ (corr. *sp. ‘de’)

In October of 2016, she picked up Dana’s ‘codex’ idea, first offered (as we saw) on the mailing list in the presence of a leader of that central European theory, Rene Zandbergen.  Neglecting to mention Dana as precedent, Velinska’s post adds  circumstantial detail to Dana’s proposal, mentioning others only in a final cursory comment:  “there are other interpretations of the cube drawing – most often it is perceived as a mineral.”

Nothing is provided that might help readers find and weigh those ‘other interpretations’ and in 2011, so far as I’m aware, there had been none save Dana’s ‘codex’ and my own ‘indigo’. Indigotin is not a mineral.  Readers who know of earlier or other views published before 2016 are welcome to leave a comment here; I’m always happy to receive better information.

Keeping readers’ attention ‘on message’ and taking care not to let them be distracted by ‘unhelpful’ information is typical of the theory-war.  It is a different thing from offering detailed commentary on some aspect of a six-hundred year old manuscript, and different again from setting out a personal opinion with some, at least of its informing evidence, as proof of honest intent.

The theory-first style relies on assertion and persuasion, of suggesting that ‘ideas’ unsupported by evidence can be accepted on the basis of sounding sensible or plausible. It relies to an extraordinary extent on personalities.  The theorists think one should believe a team-member one of ‘the good guys’ and damn the others as ‘bad guys’ (bad, mad, or stupid – it’s all the same).

Velinska convinces because understanding her material takes so very little effort. Her posts offer a short, pleasant, undemanding read,  clearly informed by belief in the unmentioned ‘theory’.

Her comments don’t try to engage the reader’s brain, but their emotions –  and there’s little  so emotionally convincing as conviction, especially when combined with a light-hearted  fraternal nudge and grin at the expense of the ‘opposition’ – at all of which Velinska is very good.

For the Eurocentric crew, whose theory has a bloodline which can be traced through d’Imperio directly to Wilfrid Voynich’s tale of 1921, the theory-war is not unlike the weekly football match.  Lots of team spirit;  furious efforts to keep total possession of the ball; cheers from the crowd, hi-fives at every point scored against the ‘others’ … and not a moment’s thought spared for the ball’s opinion of it all.  In this case the ‘ball’ is the manuscript.

Velinska interprets the faint yellow wash on the block’s edges as ‘faded yellow’ and then without further reason given, and without any apparent need to do so,  extrapolates that impression into an argument that it was meant for gilded page-edges.   As support for this implication that manuscripts were provided with gilded edges by central European binders before 1438, Velinska offers no evidence at all.  She includes  one composite illustration, formed of undated and unprovenanced details, and one image which is probably a modern reproduction* labelled  “Bridgeman Art Library, Italian 15thC”.

*Bridgeman describes itself as “one of the largest archives for reproductions of works of art in the world”.

As ‘evidence’ for an opinion about a medieval manuscript, it is a positive insult to readers’ intelligence.

Having thus asserted (caveats notwithstanding) that the block is a book, and a book with gilded pages, Velinska next explains the oddly-positioned circles as holes for  book-clasps, although offering no example of a medieval European manuscript having two clasps, one positioned at top centre and one at its extreme edge.  Perhaps Velinska knows one, but if so she should have referenced it, because I should think it quite rare.

Though phased as a tentative suggestion, Velinska’s post implies throughout that it is the only suggestion a sensible person should accept.  For the ‘clasps’ idea she says this:

If we imagine for a moment “the blue cube” to be a book these dotted details could represent some kind of book clasps.

Dana did not go that far, and Velinska’s use of the speculative mood serves less as caution to the reader that the idea may be baseless, than as means to deflect  criticism or demands for solid evidence. You don’t fall into line because the argument is valid, but because… well, because Ellie’s a nice person and she’s not saying you have to believe her.

One may believe, or not, but in the theory-war  it becomes a form of ill-manners to withhold belief pending the presentation of evidence. That is, if the speaker is a member of a major theory-group who is supposed to need not to prove anything which adds another pebble to the mound.   On the other hand, the theory-driven see dissenters and non-believers as if members of a lower stratum of society – and  in seeing them off,  ‘manners’ don’t apply.   It’s a war, after all.

One may wonder if Velinska troubled even to establish whether central European bookbinders did, in fact, gild page-edges before 1438.  Gilding page-edges was binder’s work, not the scribe’s.

The Director of the Milanese Historical Archives and Trivulziana Library, Giulia Bologna, says this:

In Northern Italy, above all in Milan, the influence of Leonardo da Vinci extended in no small degree even to this minor art form. Thus, to attain a more exquisite effect, new die stamps styled with leaves and flowers were constantly being designed. They were called aldi after Aldo Manuzio: aldi pieni, vuoti and al tratteggio (solid, blank and broken line). Combined with spirals and volutes they were applied to the empty spaces in geometrical patterns of lines and friezes with striking and stylistically perfect results. Up to the end of the 16th century, bindings with this kind of goldwork were found all over Europe, most of them from Italian prototypes originating in Venice, Milan, Mantua, Turin, Genoa, Ferrara, Bologna, Florence and Rome. Some were quite magnificent, classical but original in composition, endless in variety and harmonious in general appearance. The décors included structural compositions, scrolls and plaques in goldwork, intervening sections with gold dots, lively colour effects obtained with leather appliqué work and lacquer paint. All this gave resplendence to 16th century bindings. It was during this period that decorative work was first used on inside covers and the edges finely gilded.

Da Vinci wasn’t born until 1452 and died in 1519, Bologna is talking about the sixteenth century.

How can Velinska suggest, and invite readers to adopt the idea,  that a manuscript made during the first four decades of the fifteenth century, before Leonardo was born – and containing matter demonstrably earlier than our present manuscript’s manufacture –  should be believed to include in the ‘root and leaf’ section an image of a book with gilded page-edges?

Easily. It suits the theory.

Failures in rigor do not necessarily mean that the ‘answer’ is wrong: that’s the difference between the pragmatic and critical sciences.  It is still possible that Dana and she are right in general; the ‘cube’  might have been meant for a book, but in that case readers are entitled to some informed explanation for the item’s being in the ‘leaf and root’ section,  the presence of those  ‘knife-blade’ legs on an object in the same register, and the possible linguistic connection between the block and the item directly below it.

Nor is it beyond possibility that the Director of the Milanese Historical Archives and Trivulziana Library is mistaken, and that another source might provide evidence that binders in some part of Europe were gilding pages before 1438.  If the question we ask  of others’ proposals  is, ‘Is that true?’ rather than ‘does it suit my theory’ it is right to be as slow to disbelieve as to believe, and the manuscript’s study is better served.

We cannot accept Velinska’s composite illustration as contradiction of Bologna’s account, because none of its details were provided with  date and source. Neither has Velinska considered literal against purely aesthetic elements.  Items gilded in a picture may or may not have been gilded in reality.  In this case, documentary evidence and/or reference to an extant example was required. (Consideration of e.g.  Brit.Lib. Arundel 131 is enough* to show this).

*an impression of its having gilded pages soon  dispelled by consulting the Library’s catalogue entry:  “Binding: B[ritish] M[useum]/BL in-house. Edges yellow; rebound in 1962.”

I haven’t much time to do this myself on her behalf, but I do note that in 1928, there was published in London and in Boston a two-volume work entitled  Gothic & Renaissance Bookbindings Exemplified and Illustrated from the Author’s Collection. Its author was E.Ph. Goldschmidt, the same who eight years later told Richard Salomon that he was “inclined to put the [Voynich] Ms. as far back as the 13th century or, at least, not to deny the possibility of so early an origin”. (Salomon accidentally transposed Goldschmidt’s initials in his letter reporting this to Anne Nill).

I am told that somewhere in those volumes (to which I have no easy access at present), Goldschmidt mentions in passing that edges of a medieval manuscript were, very rarely, gilded.  That’s all the information I have, but it leaves the window open a little, and  Velinska or those inclined also to hope the ‘block’ meant for a book might care to see if they can find evidence for Velinska’s ‘gilded page edges’.   Failing that, the practice of creating a montage or mosaic of undated and unprovenanced details as if the sheer number of inappropriately selected items were sufficient to argue and prove a theoretical argument, is much to be regretted.  It seems to have begun with the ‘new crop’ of Eurocentric Voynich bloggers who arrived in 2012, but from whence comes its ‘Warhol’ style, one cannot say.

  • [pdf] Giulia Bologna, “Gold in Book Binding: the origins of the craft”, The Gold Bulletin, 1982, Vol. 15, (1).  pdf accessible through SpringerLInk.
  • Henry Bohn’s Catalogue of books and printed works (1847) includes reproductions of numerous medieval books of hours described as if they were originals, and which were provided with lovely morocco bindings and gilded edges.

Note – Responding to a comment by Nick Pelling below her post, Velinska said,  “in war and Voynich manuscript studies all is fair 🙂

There’s another proverb, isn’t there –  about war’s first casualty?




Phase 3: Jules Janick and Arthur O. Tucker (… no alternative)

In 2006, Nick Pelling published a book called ‘Curse of the Voynich’.  If the manuscript has been cursed, it’s with theory-driven individuals and, more recently, this ‘theory-war’ mentality.

Before turning to the way Janick and Tucker treat that detail on folio 102, let’s have a minute’s silence for the first, consummate expounder of a ‘Voynich’ theory, Wilfrid Voynich himself.

In ‘Voynich’ usage, thanks to Wilfrid’s example, ‘theory’ means some idee fixe  elaborated, then adorned with oddments of historical fact but never formally argued, devoid of documentary evidence for its tenets, disdainful of debate and presented with  an air of authority and a certain internal consistency. Thus Wilfrid:

 To summarize, then … we  must conclude that, [composed by Roger Bacon], it rested in some monastery in England, where Roger Bacon’s manuscripts remained until the dissolution of the religious houses in the sixteenth century. At that time, together with other treasures from these disbanded libraries, it probably passed into the hands of one of the receivers of this spoil, the Duke of Northumberland. It was very likely one of the manuscripts probably found in this family’s possession by John Dee, who certainly early in his career obtained a collection of Bacon manuscripts. During one of his visits to Prague, Dee undoubtedly presented it to Emperor Rudolph II, from whose possession it passed into the hands of Jacobus de Tepenecz not earlier than 1608.

in which, not one of the assertions made about the manuscript is worth a grain of salt, save its association with  Jakub  who became -‘de’ or -‘z’ Tepenecz thanks to Rudolf and before 1622.

So now to Janick and Tucker, who make no pretence of objectivity. They say  plainly that their aim is neither to study the manuscript, nor to evaluate O’Neill’s speculation, but  merely ‘to confirm’ it.  Their indifference to the manuscript-as-manuscript (codicology, palaeography etc.) is staggering.


At first, they described the detail on folio 102 as ‘most probably’ boleite. If this is their idea of hard evidence, I’m in the wrong office…)

though later they dropped the ‘probably’:

Pure Wilfridism.

These authors don’t even try to rationalise the cube’s being in the  ‘pharmacy’ section.    A central European-ist convert would at least say something like:  ‘Mexicans ‘probably’ used boleite in medicine’.

By the time we get to Ch.4 of their book, they’re saying no other explanation is possible:

‘Plate 56’ from Janick and Tucker, ‘Unravelling the Voynich Codex’

1. Folio 102r #4 Boleite (Plate 56). This image  includes a cubic (isometric) blue mineral resembling a blue bouillon cube. This can only (sic!) be boleite ….. The only sources for large crystals of this quality and quantity are three closely related mines in Baja California Sur, Mexico, …

What quantity? What quality? A specimen measuring 8 millimeters – yes millimetres – square is above average size.  I know this because the authors’ ‘Plate 56 was taken from the following advertisement, which they duly footnoted.

from a commercial site.

So –  the authors omitted mention of the fact that (a)  no-one seems to have known boleite .. at all … until 1891 and (b) there is no record of any use for the indigo-blue type, and for the clear type none until the end of the nineteenth century,

But it fits the theory!! 

There’s a certain beauty to this non-argument in a way.

It is ‘Voynich’ theorising in purest form, unfussed by evidence, by reason, by effort to contextualise details, by any sense that one has to justify assertions made about a medieval manuscript.

Or even that their subject is a medieval manuscript.

Quite beautiful, if you like abstraction.

Postscript – thinking hard as to what might be said for the ‘boleite’ idea, I can only think of one thing.  We know that Columbus equated whatever he found in the New World with valuable items  imported into Europe from the east.  Among Europe’s prized eastern imports was Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli which, when ground into a powder became the pigment  Latins called ‘ultramarine’ -‘over the sea’.  A wiki article shows boleite in association with malachite and atacamite (a copper-derived mineral created by dessication).However, Europeans also used  a different copper-derived mineral which they called azurite, and it was this which McCrone’s tests identified in the manuscript in 2009. Admittedly they were obliged to work within the pre-emptive limits set by the client who commissioned the study, and further by the limits which were inevitable given the destructive methods specified by the same client.McCrone’s letter to the Beinecke library can be downloaded from its site.

And that’s what you get with a theory-war.



(preamble shortened – 8th April.)

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