O’Donovan notes #2a. Limits.

This past week was spent reading Voynich-related material available online, including a random sample of the two hundred and forty -something ‘Voynich’ items published through the site Academia.edu – once academic but more mixed these days.

As a result, I’ve decided to change the format of this ‘Notes’ series. I will publish a pair of posts on the one day, one describing a common pitfall and the other outlining some question still unresolved.

To avoid misunderstandings let me say once more that, because I have no talent or competence in cryptology or linguistics, my comments don’t refer to those topics except where the researcher seems to have been affected by general errors and presumptions.

Fortunately, people competent in cryptology and linguistics are inclined to respond when opinions are published about the manuscript’s written text, but well-informed commentary and critique have been very rare when theorists speak about the images and diagrams.


Inverted vision – one early persistent flaw.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens)

If you imagine the sum of a person’s information and ideas to the time just before they encountered the Voynich manuscript as:

(which is what I mean by a person’s intellectual horizon)

Then what we find, from the very beginning of modern interest in this manuscript, is that people engaging with it presumed that its history, nature and ‘solution’ could be understood from within their previous interests and habits – like this.

From Wilfrid Voynich and William Newbold to the Friedmans to Brumbaugh or Tucker, the pattern of activity was to first mistake an ‘idea’ for inspired knowledge, then to adopt as givens items for which no verifiable evidence had been offered, and thereafter to hunt only within their own intellectual comfort zone for whatever might lend their theories a greater air of credibility.

Generations of researchers thus adopted Newbold’s ‘herbal’ idea, or ‘astrological’ idea or ‘pharma-‘ idea without further pause for thought nor considering any alternatives. That the content (not just the manufacture) was western European was presumed, as was contemporaneousness between manufacture and first enunciation of the content – so western Christian Europe was the horizon-limit assumed in common.

The basic problem was – to rephrase Augustine- that “a person can’t be reasoned out of an idea they’ve adopted without reason.”

So these ideas were not tested, or even questioned, as they are not much questioned even today and those doubting may need to use tact.

So, the ‘Latins’ herbal’ idea was one the Friedmans plainly believed and which was evidently maintained within the NSA until the 1970s, despite about thirty years’ failure to find any comparison between European herbals and the Voynich pictures. When John Tiltman expressed his doubts to an audience and subsequent NSA readers in the late 1960s, he was extremely tactful:

Illustrations of herbals of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Centuries are a most interesting part of the background of this odd book. [‘but..’?] To the best of my knowledge no one has seen any [European] book, certainly no illustrated book of the period which covers the wide range suggested by the drawings in it.

  • John Tiltman ‘The Voynich Manuscript: “The most mysterious manuscript in the world” ‘.p.13

As another example – compare the frequency with which Voynich writers focus on the month-folios’ central emblems compared with their silence when it comes to explaining the month-diagrams as a whole.

Once again it was John Tiltman whose observations were most acute and tactfully expressed, though then ignored. In that same talk, he refers to the ‘so-called zodiac’ and it is the fact that the series of those central emblems does not form a zodiac, or part of one. Emblems of the constellations marking each month are not necessarily ‘astrological’ in their purpose. The reason they seem so has more to do with the traditional limits than the intentions of those who first formed these diagrams.

On this and other points, the history of this study has always proceeded more by what the traditional writers ignored than by what they addressed, or what problems they resolved well. For more details, see earlier posts here: Posts 1-27; 51-59; 63-73 – all easily accessed using links in the ‘Table of Contents’ page here.

Worse for the study, I think, is a fairly recent practice of circulating an idea unsupported by evidence of any sort, and with whoever proposes it being unnamed.

One fairly recent example was a notion circulated as if a ‘commonsense’ assertion, and which said that the month-diagrams were ‘astrological charts’.

The idea being credited to no-one, with no links given to any paper or blogpost where any such argument was laid out presenting that as its conclusion from the historical record, so anyone touched by this rumour had one of two choices, equally irrational: believe or disbelieve.

At the point where the idea looked about to be elevated to the status of another ‘Voynich doctrine’, I felt it time that someone published a reality-check, so asked two specialists in the history of comparative astrologies for an opinion – each independent of the other, and neither told my own assessment of the idea.

Each replied clearly, and definitely in the negative. The month-diagrams are not astrological charts. At least not from the western European, nor the Byzantine, Indian, Arabic or Chinese astrological traditions.

I was fortunate that both specialists were willing to let me have not only their opinion but permission to quote.

What was rather depressing about the whole thing was that whoever floated the ‘astrological charts’ notion had shown such contempt for other researchers that they had not made the slightest effort to avoid circulating a rubbish idea, confident that claiming it ‘commonsense’ would be enough to see it accepted. And they were not altogether mistaken about how uncritical most Voynicheros would be.

The lesson to be taken from that example, as from so much of this study’s history is that a researcher needs to double-check before accepting any traditional assertion, and constantly to keep in mind that the limits assumed by Wilfrid and maintained by Friedman, may be unable to provide the answers being sought. That is, that the situation may not be like this…

but more like …

– SCROLL DOWN for the second part of this Note –


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