How to Voynich – O’Donovan notes. #1

Over the years I’ve been interested in Beinecke MS 408, one of the more knotty problems has been the level of technical and specialist language I should use when publishing online. People as young as 8 years old and as old as 80 have commented on posts or sent emails. Some have been such eminent specialists in their own field that I’ve responded by asking if they’d be kind enough to give me their thoughts and any advice, because it would be ridiculous to pretend I know as much they do about some particular issue. Comparative historical studies of eastern and western pharmaceutical practice, for example.

Against that, some who’ve contacted me are people who left school before they were 18 years old and have spent their lives in business or in a trade and tend to feel a bit prickly about being referred to academic studies. They have no interest in the details of some tradition in drawing and don’t want to pay for Brill publications, or subscriptions to journals or to JSTOR.

Some have been led to think that, in any case, any critical science is easier than the pragmatic sciences, deemed ‘hard science’. So they assume that ‘anyone can have a go’ at this manuscript and its pictures – though they’d never suggest that a chemistry lab, a craftsman in furniture, or garage mechanics should allow ‘anyone’ to walk in and have a bash at it.

Given the emphasis I place on information from non-Voynich studies as reality-check, some readers may find it surprising that in my opinion most people, regardless of age, have the potential to add something of lasting value to our understanding of MS Beinecke MS 408.

This series of posts is for mainly for novices and for ‘Voynicheros’ who want to do worthwhile work.

The key is not to over-reach. It is that failing, more than any other, which explains why this manuscript’s study is still in its infancy after more than a century. People with neither training nor natural skills have constantly presumed to assert this, or that, about the manuscript’s date, place of manufacture, its pictorial or its written text, to ignore the opinion of specialists in relevant fields, and to invent their own historical-fictions as Voynich ‘theories’.

So my first point is that you should first know and then work within limits defined by your practical skills.

Don’t be tempted into areas where you have no formal training and where others could tell you (and will sooner or later) that you have less objective competence than you might imagine.

As a rule of thumb, levels of competence can be described in terms of method.

Anyone with a practical hobby knows, just as well as any scholar or scientist knows, that before a person becomes competent they must have a solid foundation of knowledge and good grasp of practical method.

A person has to be able to do things the (or ‘a’) right way, and also be able to explain why it IS the (or ‘a’) right way.

This is true whether you’re talking about loading, cleaning, storing or carrying a gun, or making a french-polished table, or mixing cement, or preparing an historical essay or performing a scientific experiment in the lab. First principles matter. Method matters.

The typical Voynich ‘method’ adopted by ambitious types, since 1912, just isn’t right for the task at hand. We don’t need another story illustrated by erroneous visions of the manuscript, its written or its pictorial text. We need to understand the real thing.

The reason my name is to be part of the title for this series of posts is to make quite clear that their observations and guidelines are the result of my own observations of the manuscript and the curious history of its discussion since 1912.

I’ve spent more than a decade working on the manuscript, myself, and came to it armed (if that’s the right word) with formal training, decades of experience, practical work and a bit of what could be called teaching, but which I think of as training apprentices. I thought I’d be able to produce a fair evaluation of the images within a couple of weeks. That was in 2008. It’s not an easy subject and, frankly, most of what you’ll find online and in ‘Voynich’ writings is .. how shall I put this .. not demonstrably true.

The great gap between ‘Voynich studies’ and other fields of study is that Voynich writers have often shown a surprising ignorance of even the basics in subjects about which they pronounce opinions. Some have not only shown ignorance of the basics of (say) palaeography, but very determined ignorance. You find people who have no Latin, and who can’t be bothered studying medieval society and history, yet they expect to be heard when they propound theories about the manuscript’s being in Latin and produced here, or there, by one imagined ‘author’ or another.

If a person wants to become a mechanic, they know that if all else fails there’s a manual they can consult. It’s objective information. They don’t start by creating an imaginary vehicle, and then argue that the specs. for that imaginary vehicle are more valid than those of the actual car they’re supposed to be working on. But since 1912 and especially in recent decades, Voynicheros have begun by inventing a theory and then arguing, in effect, that if the real manuscript offers objection to the theory, that the manuscript is wrong.

No, I’m not kidding. They get away with it, to greater or lesser degree, because there’s no body of solid, reliable observation for Voynich studies. There’s a lot of solid information about history and manuscript studies outside ‘Voynichland’ but Voynicheros seem rarely to understand why they should consult it. Luckily a few more specialists are now applying their knowledge to this example.

In chemistry, you have as your foundation the history of chemistry, its textbooks, and then ISOs and Standard Methods. In art history, apart from individual opinion, you have centuries of records and commentary which provide a reliable basis from which to begin your own investigation of some specific picture or, in this case, the images in one specific manuscript.

But there is almost nothing so solid within Voynich writings to serve as a foundation for people wanting to contribute to the study.

On the excuse of ‘theory’ or some other substitute word for ‘fiction’ Voynich writers have being saying, and getting away with saying, things that are simply untrue for a century. Since there’s no way to do a reality-check for most assertions within Voynich studies, the only option is to turn to the mass of external information about history, manuscripts, languages and so on.

Of course there are Voynich wiki articles, and ‘wiki fandom’ online. There are Voyich papers published through academia.edu. There personal websites where a theorist simply collects what they please from what others have said about the manuscript. The best known of sites like that is managed by Rene Zandbergen. It’s called ‘voynich.nu’ and Zandbergen adopts a tone that suggests the site should be regarded as authoritative. Many treat it that way. But readers should realise that Zandbergen is an amateur and a theorist. Just as any other individual does who writes online, he puts out what he chooses. So when you see some comment made there which sounds as if it’s reporting scholarly consensus – such as “this is not generally accepted”, you need to translate that, because it very often means something closer to “I, Zandbergen, don’t like/want/accept it.”

In scholarship, however, ‘generally accepted’ implies that, as a result of various specialists’ independent work in a field for which they are qualified, the results of another scholar’s work find general acceptance. People working independently find that the newcomer’s results are commensurate with their own, as products of their own labours and years of professional training. Independence in such cases really matters; otherwise, the sort of ‘consensus’ you get is that of one unit, like a lobby-group.

We have to judge what is done by its quality, not the number of people who find it easy to believe – easy because they have not the means to form any objective judgement of their own.

Zandbergen cheerfully admits that his field of professional expertise is in engineering and his Voynich work a hobby consisting chiefly of encouraging others, maintaining a network of personal contacts and having material from various other people’s work selected and collected for re-presentation in his website.

His chief interest has been in creating a plausible story for what happened to the manuscript between when it was made (c.1404-1438) and when Wilfrid Voynich first saw it.

But as for you, or Zandbergen, or me – the limits of a person’s skills are the limits within which they can, or can’t make valid qualitative judgements.

That’s why I think it essential, if any contribution is to be worthwhile, that people work within the limits of their real abilities.

Because I am utterly unqualified to decide what is, or isn’t, valid when it comes to claims about the manuscript’s written text being in Latin, or Cuman, or Nahuatl, whether enciphered or not in cipher, I offer no opinion about such things. There are others involved who do have formal training and experience in comparative linguistics and cryptology, so why dig my oar in unless a proposition is obviously contrary to what I know of history, archaeology, comparative cultural norms and iconology.

So, first item of the O’Donovan Guide.

You want to contribute something to a better understanding of Beinecke MS 408?

  1. Know your strengths.
  • What are you good at doing?

If you can’t be honest about this, you can’t produce worthwhile work. Bluffers may succeed for a while, and in Voynichland they last a lot longer than they would elsewhere. But in the end, they are no help because people who pretend to have skills and knowledge they don’t have are sooner or later discovered, and thereafter their name is mud, and everyone who has relied on their assertions is adversely affected. Build on unstable ground, and sooner or later the house cracks.

Your strengths don’t have to be spectacular. As an example of how a very simple skill can prove solid and genuinely valuable, one Voynichero whose name is hidden behind the pen-name ‘VViews’ has been producing item-counts, such as the number of ‘people’* drawn in the manuscript, how many people with shoes on, how many beast-like forms.. and so on.

*‘anthropoform figures’ would be the preferred technical description in my discipline, because one must first determine whether the first enunciator (the person who first gave this form to the informing idea) intended these figures to be understood literally, or as embodiments of myth or of inanimate things, or of  abstract qualities and so on. Calling the figures ‘people’ implies literalism and skips several important stages of analysis).

If you think that making lists of that sort was a trivial job, think again. (One of these days I may explain the message that was carried by a figure’s being represented shod or unshod in medieval western art). If correct, (and I expect they will prove to be pretty well right), Vviews’ count-lists have already improved my own work. He notes that four such figures are shod, and I had noted only two: the Archer and a figure on folio 80r. So – thank you Vviews. No, seriously, it’s valuable work and needs an ability to maintain concentration even when the work is utterly tedious and miscounting very easy.

So, start by making a list of the things you are really – objectively- good at doing.

Nothing about personality. You may think you’re brilliant, or not very clever. You may think your only real skill is P.R. The main thing here is to be absolutely realistic about your practical abilities and formal training. So if you know lot about music, its theory, history or technicalities, include that. It may or may not prove relevant, but the subject has cropped up from time to time and your existing knowledge means you would find it easier to do the research, and produce a balanced opinion, if a question arose about western and eastern music, or the specific forms of music written to accompany (say) the Romance poetry of medieval France.

So now, having made that list of your practical skills – cross off whatever you are good at doing but don’t enjoy doing.

Voynich research is a long-haul task and there’s no need to find yourself bored to the point of nausea half-way through.

In the next post, I’ll provide a checklist of sorts that you can run through and, I hope, define the area(s) in which your real skills are most likely to lead to a real contribution.

MOST IMPORTANT. Contrary to what is often thought, you do not have to begin with a ‘theory’, let alone a new theory.

The important thing is to have a desire to contribute something solid and reliable to the ongoing work.

Too many Voynicheros, since 1912, have aimed to leap to the top of the pile with a flimsy theory as some ultimate solution to the Voynich ‘problem’. The problem isn’t the manuscript. The problem is to reach a valid understanding of its form, materials and its pictorial and its written text.

Since the manuscript is no more a theoretical object than is a car, or a table, it doesn’t need a theoretical-fictional story invented for it.

On the other hand, if your talents lie is breaking ciphers, consider the formation of theoretical models part of standard method. 🙂

Voynich research is work. It’s a job which, for most, is not engaged for pay. What it needs are people who can do something useful and do it well.

So well, in fact, that they produce ‘steps’ solid enough for others to use as the basis from which to begin their own efforts. Think in terms of making an independent contribution, not becoming a drone, nor attempting to ‘own’ the study. Voynich club, not Voynich factory.

Take as your model Captain Currier.

He spoke once about the written text’s qualities, from his own observation as a qualified and experienced cryptologist. Just one contribution, made half a century go, but it remains rock-solid as far as I know. (Any cryptologist like to comment on that?)

Don’t suppose any aspect of this manuscript ‘easy’. Just as you’d need much more than a hammer to make a watch, you need more than two eyes and guesswork to rightly read and contextualise pre-modern imagery; more than a dictionary to make a translation, and more than a talent for fiction to make Voynich history. In the long run.

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