Revisionists’ Voynich International conference.

Yes, ok ok. I took the post down after reading the ‘List of Topics’ on the website – it’s so depressing!

  • History of the Voynich Manuscript (historical approaches, ciphers). Why would anyone attending an international Conference need this? It’s in any Voynich wiki article and Zandbergen’s version occupies pages and pages and pages of his website. Most old-timers could reel it off in their sleep.

And then we just shift to the same-old-same-old re-definition of the manuscript as nothing more than a vehicle for a difficult cipher. This, apparently, only needs a good machine to solve it.

  • Natural Language Processing techniques applied to the Voynich Manuscript.
  • Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning techniques applied to the Voynich Manuscript.

And it looks as if the awful ‘match-the-picture’ style of the Index of Medieval Art data-base, first imposed on the Voynich manuscript as a method by a writer called JKPetersen, is now going to be touted as ‘the way to go’. Unless we’re going to be given an insight into how the facsimile editions were made.

  • Image Processing of the Voynich Manuscript folios.
  • Works around whether or not [the manuscript] is a hoax, a natural language, or enciphered.
  • Works that draw on methods from Digital Humanities. (Digital humanities? Really?!)

You know where this puts the manuscript’s study? Back in 1952, pretty much.

So I took down my post. In two hours I have had six queries as emails and two as comments.

I suppose the only way to avoid getting more queries is to put the dam thing up again.

My concern is that the very basics of manuscript studies have never been addressed. Nothing in that list of suggested topics is going to provide anything other than the assumptions and theoretical structures we have already.

But ok, since readers want the post back, here’s the gist of what it said.

This blog’s aim has been to re-consider the history of this manuscript’s study and discover where, when, and how the study of this one medieval manuscript went (so to speak) rogue.

That it did so, and from as early as 1921, has been recognised widely outside the Voynich community, and by some within it. In In 2014, for example, Brian Cham put it this way:

We all do agree that there’s something fundamentally flawed about what the “Voynichology” field is doing and how it’s doing it, that has held us back from substantial breakthroughs in its 102 (and counting) year existence.”

Dec.7th., 2014 – comment to a post at Nick Pelling’s blog, ciphermysteries.

What went wrong in the case of Beinecke MS 408?

Part of the problem has been the curious deference shown by people better qualified towards amateur theorists; of the wider public towards Wilfrid Voynich and his confidently-asserted ‘history’ for the manuscript. There was also the tame acceptance, by many, of O’Neill’s ill-informed effort to address a few of the plant-pictures. When William Friedman finally got effective possession of the study, his level of ignorance about medieval studies and manuscripts was so great that despite already having been ‘interested’ in the manuscript since the 1920s, he had not even heard of the standard text for medieval palaeography.

Brumbaugh’s investigations were so poor that he adopted O’Neill’s (wrong) dating without troubling to test the worth of O’Neill’s ideas, yet for many years the Beineke librarians referred to Brumbaugh’s Voynich writings as preferred references.

People who define this manuscript solely in terms of its written text, and who pay no attention to the questions raised by its palaeography, codicology and images make the same mistake which was made by Wilfrid, by Friedman, by O’Neill and by Brumbaugh – they forget that there’s a difference between an hypothesis and a conclusion. And all too few test the foundation upon which their theories are built.

The whole history of this study shows that mass opinion has been wrong opinion, and the most confidently-asserted theories have been the least effective in explaining how the manuscript is as it is, and what is on its pages.

What I imagine is that, at last, we might have a first effort to create a body of solid foundational studies – the sort of thing which would normally have been done a hundred years ago, if (say) the British Library had acquired the manuscript from Wilfrid before 1916.

Medieval manuscripts are assessed, given their time and place of manufacture as a routine practice in holding libraries all around the world. The Voynich manuscript was accurately dated to the early fifteenth century, in 1963. Why on earth should it have been thought necessary to use a destructive radiocarbon-14 dating just to confirm that date provided to John Tiltman, and to the Beinecke library, as a ‘near consensus’ by professional evaluators decades earlier?

However, the ‘Conference 2022’ doesn’t look designed to attract new insights or anything likely to mean re-writing the standard ‘wiki’ or improving the abysmal ignorance which imagines that a computer can interpret the intended meaning in one image of a lamb over another. If it turns left and is in a German manuscript, I’m betting it will be in the data they process. If it turns left and comes from a north African rock-carving, not. But cerastes are found in North Africa – not in Germany. A ‘Rudolf’ nut would just invent another bit of historical fiction as ‘patch’ and have a cerastes “probably, very likely” in Rudolf’s cabinet. So what? Rudolf hadn’t been born in 1400.

So ok – I had the call for papers as follows:

Conference: “Yale, Beinecke MS 408 in Context”: Call for Papers.

  1. Papers on the manuscript-as-artefact: Suitably qualified and experienced persons in the fields of codicology and conservation are invited to comment on Beinecke MS 408. Priority will be given to specialists in comparative and cross-cultural studies within those fields. Commentary on features a-typical for European manuscripts will be particularly welcome. These features include, but are not limited to, the manuscript’s including long fold-ins; use of bast fibre in the sewing-supports; quinions and a septenion.
  2. Papers on the written text per se. Suitably qualified and experienced persons in the study of scripts attested prior to c.1420 are invited to comment on the written text’s layout, general appearance and characters (‘glyphs’) and on such specifics as the presence or absence of diacritics. Once again, priority is given to papers which take a cross-cultural and comparative approach, or address the question of whether the ‘Voynichese’ script is an invented, an adapted, or a known set of characters. The aim is to provide this written text with a better-than-theoretical cultural context.
  3. Pigments. [a commissioned paper] Conservators from Yale’s Beinecke Library and from the University of Pennsylvania’s Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection will present a joint paper, the first presenting scientific data on the full range of the Voynich palette and the second offering commentary on its significance and implications.
  4. Papers on the pictorial text. People suitably qualified and experienced are invited to comment on the disposition and forms found in the pictorial text. Individual studies are welcome but, as before, a wider perspective and emphasis on cross-cultural comparisons is preferred. Technical and specific discussion, appropriately documented, will be preferred over the hypothetical.
  5. Reading and critique of amateur papers. By ‘amateurs’ we mean persons addressing matter outside their formal training or professional experience. This description may include specialists in one discipline, such as botanical science, commenting on images in Beinecke MS 408, which are accepted as being other than drawings of the sort on which scientific botany relies. Each paper will be followed by a longer than usual period for commentary, with formal critique offered from specialists in the relevant discipline as well as questions from the audience. The aim is to assist those working outside their formal studies to get a better perspective on current methods and the status of scholarship in a particular field. We accept that as Givens, Reeds and Touwaide put it, “common knowledge in one field may be arcana in another“. (quoted from ‘Introduction’, in Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550. (2006)
  6. Statistical papers. We anticipate that a majority of the statistical papers will relate to the manuscript’s written text, to cryptology and linguistics. Persons submitting papers of this kind are asked to provide their data in a form that can be distributed to attendees so that the data and conclusions can be studied at leisure by all after the oral presentation.
  7. ‘New directions’ – Proposals for new avenues in researching the materials, text or images of Beinecke MS 408.

ALL submissions are to be accompanied by a signed declaration that the person submitting the paper has faithfully cited and documented precedent studies reflected in their paper. Amateurs are reminded that this requires them to state the original contributor of information or opinion within Voynich studies, and not a preferred but later re-user of that information or opinion. Wiki articles, as anonymous, are not acceptable sources. Phrases such as ‘some people think…’ will not do. See the attached paper on ‘Research methods and ethics’.

The preferred language for the Conference is English. Papers in other languages are acceptable but an authorised English translation is to be provided for the translator serving the needs of deaf and hearing-impaired attendees.

It is anticipated that most, if not all papers delivered will be published in a Conference Volume within 12 months. Authors wishing to publish elsewhere should give permission for an abstract of their paper to be included in the Conference volume.

So – that’s my idea of an engaging program. What’s yours?

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