Perhaps I’m being over-optimistic, but there may be an improvement in the air when it comes to issuing ‘Voynich’ books.
We’ve seen so many books produced in recent years that are aimed at an uncritical popular audience that it looked as if the manuscript were never to be treated as seriously as any other 600-year old and exceptionally difficult manuscript would normally be treated.
But perhaps (let us hope) some publishers are considering moving from the ‘anything goes’ attitude to one that accords the manuscript, and its study, a little more dignity.
What prompts these remarks is that I was approached recently by a publisher asking if I’d be interested in giving an opinion, before publication, about a work still unfinished but planned for publication (I may not say when).
Now, it is true that I’ve been interested in Beinecke MS 408 for some time and also that – so far as either the publisher or I am aware – I’m the only person with experience in this manuscript who is also formally qualified and experienced in analysing and researching imagery. The person who sent me the invitation was also kind enough to say they appreciated my ability to avoid using the jargon of our trade when addressing a general audience.
All very nice, of course, but I declined. To have accepted would have been inconsistent with the advice I gave them. Since readers might be interested in that advice, let me provide an edited version of it. I’ve removed my references to specific individuals, to specific ‘Voynich’ publications, their authors and publishers.
- Reviewers of any prospective publication should have no prior connection to this manuscript, nor to any persons or organisation directly associated with it.
- The reviewers should be specialists in a particular field (such as palaeography) but specialists in comparative studies.
- The reviewers should include specialists able to evaluate the authors’ ideas in terms of medieval historical scholarship and preferably, again, not in the history of one region but at least of the wider Mediterranean world.
- That reviewers should include independent specialists in areas relevant to the authors’ theoretical interpretation of one, or of another, section.
- That reviewers ensure (given the level of plagiarism in this field) that the authors are able to explain, and document, the research which led them to present their views on one or another matter (as, for example, their interpretation of a given plant picture).
- That the reviewers should include a codicologist, palaeographer, specialist in evaluating and provenancing attitudes to image-making, and at least one historian with a range wider than that suiting the authors’ theory. In my opinion, an ability to recognise and rightly interpret cultural influence in the images and script is critical.
- That reviewers should be asked to comment equally on the authors’ omissions as on any positive errors and to note especially whether the authors’ ideas are supported by research of appropriate range, depth, breadth and balance.
- I stated my opinion that there is no person entitled to be described as a ‘Voynich expert’ and particularly not persons having neither formal training nor professional experience in fields such as historiography, linguistics, palaeography, art history and or in manuscript studies. Ill-qualified ‘experts’ are, in the main, experts only in re-cycling second-hand information much of which is dubious either in terms of its being factual or its not being due to an author’s own study. (I did stress that this was, obviously, a comment on the state of the study in general, not on the specific work I was being invited to review). In connection with flawed, if prevalent, premises, I referred the editors to the history of the study which I’ve traced in earlier posts to this blog.
In short – I gave it as my opinion that the authors’ work should be treated as if it were being presented as a doctoral thesis, no allowance to be made for absence of suitable prior studies and professional experience in any areas on which an opinion was presented, whether in regard to medieval history, iconology, art history, linguistics, codicology or any other subject.
I added that, while it is not usual in my experience for reviewers to consult with one another, in this case I felt it advisable, since a flawed interpretation of a given plant- drawing (for example) might escape notice by a specialist in modern botany, and similarly a specialist in iconographic analysis might be unable to judge whether a proposed plant-identification was feasible. Consultation could assist both.
I was clear that in making those recommendations, my hope is that some day this particular medieval manuscript might be treated with the same level of seriousness as any other medieval manuscript, and persons presenting opinions about it be subjected to the same level of cross-examination as if theorising about the Book of Kells or the Vienna Dioscorides.
I mentioned the name of some specialists in specific areas such as the comparative history of formal and informal astronomical learning.
I suggested that reviewers be cautioned that in Voynich writings in general there is an extraordinarily lax attitude to normal standards and ethics with regard to co-opting research by previous writers, whether that was published online or in print, and that for the sake of the publisher’s reputation, reviewers should be invited to comment if they notice that a writer’s footnotes and bibliography fail to justify one, or another, assertion made.
To end with, I directed the publisher to Magnus Pharao Hansen’s review of one Voynich-related book, saying that many of Hansen’s criticisms of that work apply more generally to Voynich-related writings.
I’ve no idea if any of that advice will be taken up by the publisher, or whether the publisher will be able to find any ‘cleanskin’ specialist willing to touch the subject.
It was certainly a disappointment that so few contributed to the Yale facsimile edition. As a rule facsimile volumes attract essays from the most eminent scholars in one and another related discipline.
And there’s money. The publishers might simply decide that a scholarly audience is too small, and a popularist work more likely to turn a profit.
The good news is just that there is some possibility that editorial staff are thinking about higher standards.
Wouldn’t that be a fine thing? It wouldn’t just cheer me up. It might also brighten Thony Christie’s day.
Afterword – As readers will surely notice, I made no comment about the ‘ciphertext’ question. My impression is that solving ciphers is a natural talent; you either have it or you don’t. But it’s just an impression. I have no skill, or interest, in that aspect of the study.