Pharma? – What’s the problem?

I began writing this post in September, after I’d decided to spike two more posts about the artefacts seen in the leaf-and-root section. One (‘Finials’) had been scheduled for September 14th and the other (Dots, bosses and ornament’) for September 20th.

My problem is that in the absence of any earlier analytical-critical studies of this section – and I found none – I’d had once more to use my own research, examples, sources and illustrations to discuss those details. This blog is not meant to display my work.

The reason for starting the blog was to help serious students who needed to be sure that their own work was based on solid first premises, when so much of what is commonly said to be “what we know” is not ‘what we know’ but century-old guesswork, flights of ill-informed imagination or exaggerated hearsay adopted uncritically by later writers – either because they had not thought to question what was widely repeated, or because they had a particular storyline which appealed to them but which was built from faith in common ‘Voynich doctrines’.

Posts to this blog were to identify one of these many ‘doctrines’, trace it to its origin, sketch the history of its transmission, and add a few bibliographic references to start scholars on their way who were interested in working on a specific question or section.

Voynich ‘doctrines’ treated so far, with bibliographies, are listed and linked in the cumulative TABLE of CONTENTS page (see top bar).

In practice the plan was less easy to keep to. I found time and again that there were no critical-analytical studies for a particular ‘doctrine’ than my own, undertaken between 2009-2017.

The ‘leaf and root’ section’s description as ‘pharmaceutical’ is another instance of an idea which, unexamined and untested against the non-Voynich scholarship has been maintained as an article of faith by Voynich theorists – to the detriment of our better understanding this manuscript.

One very obvious research question among the many never asked, is whether or not we find a comparable range of artefacts as those pictured in the ‘leaf and root’ section attested in western Europe at all before 1450, and if so whether they occur as apothecary jars (or as one other tale has it, alchemical equipment).

How such fundamental questions were never so much as asked is a very interesting historical question in itself, but such is the fact.

It seems to me equally curious, though equally true, that it seems not to occur to the online Voynich community today that if the ‘leaf and root’ section’s artefacts had been apothecary and/or alchemical containers, it would have been noticed and some physical or documentary evidence offered, as early as 1921 when Lynn Thorndike’s survey of medieval European manuscripts about magic, science and pseudo-sciences was available.

By the trick of calling the products of fantasy ‘historical logic’ when it is not any logic of history but the internal logic of historical fiction, some theorists have spurned specialists’ opinions about the manuscript in favour of the imagined character of their theoretical object.

With regard to the leaf-and-root section, this occurred in the early 2000s, when a specialist in the history of European alchemy and its images was asked whether anything in the Voynich manuscript ‘looked alchemical’ and he answered in the negative. After a slight pause, the ‘alchemical Voynich’ theorists simply picked up where they left off.

For theorists of that sort, the theory is the truth, and the manuscript and any effort at research is aimed at developing or ‘patching’ the theory.

It would have been easy enough to take a copy of this section of the manuscript, make an appointment with the curators of some major cross-disciplinary collections (say the British Museum and -Library) and ask the two basic, essential questions apparently never asked before 2009:

  • ‘Where and when do we find closely comparable page-layouts for these fold-ins’?”
  • ‘Where and when do we find artefacts of these forms and range?

I can find no evidence that anyone had asked even those questions between 1921 and the twenty-first century.

The most theory-driven have also developed a habit of creating more fiction as a ‘patch’ when another hole in their theory becomes too obvious to keep ignoring.

Here as example, I might mention the sudden circulation of a bald assertion that Jakub Hořčický  had the manuscript as a “bequest” from Rudolf II.

For an ethical historian to say that, he or she would have to have seen, and to refer others to, some physical document or, at the very least, a document recording first-hand contemporary account of Rudolf’s last will and testament.

Not so for the most dedicated ‘Rudolfine’ Voynicheros, who not only fail to put their evidence where their assertions are, but who greet requests for information about evidence by pretending to take offence, adopting a pose of hauteur, and refusing to reply. Not so scholarly.

But this novel ‘bequest’ meme is a fairly new creation, replacing an earlier and equally fictional assertion that “the manuscript was probably stolen by Jesuits from Rudolf’s library” and that invention, in turn, was formed to replace an earlier assertion that the manuscript had been stolen during the Thirty Years’ War.

In each case the ‘patch’ is no product of better information, but just a workaround for the Rudolfine theorists’ elephant in the room, viz that (a) there is no evidence but a scrap of third-hand hearsay to associate the manuscript at all with Rudolf and (b) there is no evidence among all the records and inventories of Rudolf’s court to support that scrap of hearsay. Pace Clemens, it is false to say that the manuscript is “known to have been in Rudolf’s library”. All we know is that in an offhand comment written by a man who was suffering progressive loss of memory, it is alleged that Mnishovsky – who had died almost thirty years earlier – had once related a rumour to the effect that an anonymous carrier had been given 600 ducats for the manuscript. That’s what we know – that an allegation was made that such a rumour had been relayed long after Rudolf’s death by Mnishovsky, who (as Neal rightly observed) could not have witnessed any such event.

Yet for some long-hauler Voynich theorists, the ‘Rudolfine’ rumour is their one immovable article of faith in an endlessly ‘adjustable’ narrative.

Nick Pelling had made some effort to see how well his theoretical narrative agreed with physical fact when he went to the Murano Glass Museum in Venice.

His aim, however, was not to ask whether Newbold’s “pharma-” idea were justified, but to seek confirmation for his overall (probably correct) idea that the manuscript had been manufactured in fifteenth-century Italy.

Because he did not spend much time asking whether Wilfrid was correct in attributing the manuscript’s content to a western Christian (‘Latin’) author, nor in asking whether Newbold’s “pharma-” notion were justified, so his aim was only to see if a museum dedicated to glass produced from Mura would confirm his idea of the containers as Italian pharmacy ‘jars’. As so often, neither Pelling as Voynich researcher, nor the curator of the Murano museum paused first to ask whether or not their assumption of the drawings as efforts at ‘portrait’ imagery was valid. I’m sorry to say that the curator at Murano showed rather too much flexibility in the matter of chronology, but it was before the radiocarbon-14 range was published.

Pelling’s book, Curse of the Voynich (2006) is now out of print, but basically consisted of two very different types of research: investigation of the manuscript itself, and research to find items which supported, or which he felt supported, his preferred theory.

The first were, and I think remain, valuable original contributions to the study.

Unfortunately there was yet another utterly basic error into which Wilfrid and later Voynich theorists fell. It is what I think of as the ‘French psalter’ fallacy – an assumption that whatever is found inside the manuscript was first created at the time the manuscript was made. If professionals in the field of manuscript studies had the same bad habit, we’d have a ‘history’ for the psalter which had King David composing the Psalms in fifteenth century France.

(Legend ascribes composition of the Psalms to King David of Judah, who lived about a thousand years BC. The Psalms were first written in Hebrew, not in Latin).

My present problem is twofold: first, that I don’t wish to use my own work, its conclusions and illustrations in these posts though for many topics I can find no previous analytical-critical study. Secondly, the Bibliography is not being accessed so often as is my latest post, which suggests to me (correct me if you know better), that the blog is not being used as a research-resource but only as a kind of news bulletin.

So now I’m going to take a little time off to take stock and try to discover whether this manuscript’s study includes enough people who, being interested in the manuscript, have also the time and means to research it in depth, and in the way medieval manuscripts are normally approached and investigated.

To end this post, three propositions which I’d ask readers to consider as they read Voynich-related writings, whether past- or present-day:

  • How a problem is defined determines how the desired solution is defined.
  • How the desired solution is defined determines the choice of method.
  • Definition and method can never be better, nor more valid, than the researcher’s ‘givens’.

Postscript – see again Richard Feynman’s description of scientific method in the video (right bar).

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