O’Donovan notes #6a Weighing images – Reading.

c.2900 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

This post discusses the effect of some persistent errors in approaching the manuscript and its drawings..

I’ve modified this material knowing that a majority of Voynich writers not focused on the written text do begin by formulating some theoretical-fictional narrative.

This unfortunate habit began in 1921 and has since become normalised in this field of study, with unfortunate results.

Such Voynich theories are not theories in the scientific sense; ‘theory’ has become a euphemism any imaginative-fictional storyline and many are, as Wilfrid’s was, begun from nothing more than a gut-feeling elaborated from imagination, and then studded with historical bits the relevance of which is never quite explained.

In such narratives, the only role of the manuscript’s drawings is to serve as a kind of clip-art collection from which a detail here, or a drawing there, is deployed and interpreted in a way intended to add an air of greater plausibility to the storyline, not to shed more light on the origin or significance of that drawing for the original maker and his audience.

It is quite rare, even now, to find a researcher focus on what the drawings were intended to convey, but newly come researchers will find used still the same approach to the drawings as we find in Professor Romaine Newbold’s efforts, this style having become a kind of default in this study.

Breaking free of it can prove difficult, because it means not only declining to form a ‘Voynich theory’ narrative of your own, but declining to endorse any other.

Nevertheless I recommend you avoid creating such narratives or allowing yourself to adopt any if your aim is to research the drawings.

Hypothesis versus Wilfrid-style ‘theory’.

Forming an hypothesis can be useful so long as the hypothesis remains a disposable tool. It ceases to be useful if the researcher become emotionally attached to it. For a good use of hypothesis see again the previous post, linking to posts by Julian Bunn.

What are called ‘theories’ in Voynich writings are rarely theories in the scientific sense because they precede and determine the limits of data collection, as well as skewing perceptions and explanations of such data.

Indeed, not even the testimony of the manuscript itself is enough to dissuade a dedicated theorist, and Voynich writers have been ‘adjusting’ the primary evidence to suit a preferred theory-fiction ever since Wilfrid set the model for such behaviour in 1921.

If you are newly come to Voynich studies and have already a feeling that your theory is THE answer to every question you’ve never yet asked, you might consider just what makes a manuscript a manuscript, and how much of it your Voynich theory does illuminate:

  • Questions about – the form of the binding.
  • ditto -Quality and dimensions of the vellum
  • ditto – Quires’ form(s) including number of bifolios.
  • ditto – Page layout (including questions of ruling out, lines per page, disposition of image versus written text)
  • ditto – Quantifiable matter – e.g. radiocarbon-14 date range, statistical analyses.
  • ditto – the glyphs’ forms – and noting any comparable system(s)
  • ditto – Inks and pigments (full palette)

Some among the earlier specialists in manuscripts are likely to have routinely considered some or all of these matters when they accepted the possibility of a thirteenth-century date and English provenance or, later, an early fifteenth-century date and southern provenance. To quote part of Mary d’Imperios’ report of the latter:

“Hel[l]mut Lehmann-Haupt..stated in a letter to Tiltman dated 1 November 1963 that “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400”.

Mary d’Imperio, The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma (1978) p.8.

It was nothing but attachment to one or another theory which prevented that opinion being accepted between 1963 and 2011.

What few of the earlier commentators paid attention to, and which none of the modern researchers had yet paid attention to when I first came to consider this manuscript was that one is wrong simply to presume that the origin of any manuscript’s content must be coeval with the pages’ inscription and/or the work’s binding.

It is equally a mistake to presume that the origin of the content occurred first in the same place where the present work was made.

Both presumptions are endemic in Voynich theory-making. Neither has been tested and proven before such theories were made or adopted.

A century’s disastrous procession of Voynich ‘theories’ has not led to any abandonment of the theory-first approach but I do recommend those interested in the images, at least, try to leave off theory-making until enough research had been done to make a decent theory about.

The mere fact of having a ‘Voynich theory’ seems to affect adversely a person’s ability to address an image as one normally should – that is, by considering the whole image and doing the work needed to rightly place its present form, and identify its place in a conceptual grid of which one axis refers to time and the other to place.

There are unfortunate, if automatic, psychological effects which result from creating and espousing some theory in advance of collecting data. Most individuals form an instant emotional attachment to their theory which sees them react to any correction or objection with defense as immediate, fierce and personal as a parent’s defense of their child or a lover of their beloved. In short, its both irrational and natural, tenacious and blind.

People fall in love with their theories and since their attachment is all but absolute they refuse to accept that there can be anything badly wrong with it. On the contrary, a theorist will usually presume that any objection to their theory must be as personally motivated as their attachment. It follows that very few evaluate their own Voynich theories critically before urging others to believe.

But more to the point is that when a person is wholly convinced their theory must be right, and that all they need do is find evidence for it after the fact, the way they look at the manuscript’s drawings is affected by their search for confirmation.

I’ll give a couple of examples, though at the risk of being supposed a bad person.

When I came to consider this manuscript, I noted a couple of obvious errors, one of which was Rene Zandbergen’s claiming that the drawings’ including what he called the ‘wolkenband(en) offered positive support for the theory which he and Prinke had developed – namely that the manuscript expressed some uniquely German or Germanic or central European cultural character. Although he and Prinke developed this theory more than two decades ago, I’ve not seen any paper by one or both in which their theory is formally presented, and I admit I’m still not quite clear on what geographic limits it assumes..

To correct his evident misapprehension, I explained that these days, when writing in English, we don’t speak of the ‘wolkenband’ but of the ‘cloudband’ though in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth century, writers of the Anglo-German school used a lot more imported terms, including ‘wolkenband’. I also explained, with illustrations, that there was nothing characteristically German/Germanic/central European about it but ‘cloudband’ describes an Asian motif which was for a time popular in western art.

The information was ignored or met with expressions of disdain or indignation by various adherents of that theory, though none seems to have taken a moment to consult a history of art and check the facts. So I found it necessary to explain the same thing several times until 2017 when, finally, I realised that those so wrapped up in the mythos of ‘uniquely German/Germanic/central European’ character were unlikely to listen to any but a fellow theorist or to the words of some person they regarded as an authority figure, so after seeing another of that clique (JKPetersen) trying that line again (in 2017), I said the same by quoting a German author in the body of a post at voynichimagery:

Das Wolkenband fand als Ornament durch mongolische Vermittlung aus China Eingang in die islamische Kunst. In einem persischen Manuskript der Chester Beatty Library aus der Zeit um 1400 bilden reich bewegte Wolkenbiinder den Hintergrund fur die Darstellung eines Vogel Phoenix.

Volkmar Enderlein

What I knew, and had already shown by that time is that Enderlein wasn’t quite accurate either. We see the ‘cloudband’ in fourteenth century Italy and in that case the transmission may be more direct than he suggests. The following picture and caption is a bit blurred because I’ve taken it as a screen-print from the original post in voynichimagery.

The following comes from an English manuscript. I find this especially interesting because it shows again why Wilfrid’s asserting his manuscript was English provenance met no immediate protest from the best-qualified English specialists.

(detail) Bodleian MS Laud Misc. 719 (1425-1450)

The point is not that the ‘German-ish’ theory is bad, but that it is bad practice to begin by creating the imaginative-fictional sort of narrative which is called a Voynich theory.

Theories of that kind are pretty much guaranteed to skew your perceptions and lead you to mis-interpret elements in a drawing because, just as your theory is created from what you know already, so you will suffer from an expectation that everything in the manuscript will be not really unlike what is familiar to you. You will ignore or mis-interpret elements in a drawing or entire sections of a drawing and latch onto whatever seems to be familiar.

Take this detail for example. It comes from the top of folio 79v.

FOLIO NUMBERS may be incorrect . Since the Beinecke website removed its thumb-nails from the manuscript scans, the new pagination no longer appears and a reader must refer to whatever page number is visible on a folio. One hopes that sidebar will soon be re-instated avoiding confusion and saving readers’ time and risk of RSI.

To someone seeking support for the theory made by Prinke and Zandbergen, the wavy line might seem to jump from the page. To someone seeking support for an ‘all western Christian’ theory, the object held in the outstretched hand might seem the only vital detail because it was familiar and fitted that theory.

As precedent here, I should mention Ellie Velinska, who tried to create a positive argument for the traditionalists’ assumption of western Christian origin and character (something which, at the time of writing, Koen Gheuens and Cary Rappaport are trying to do by re-interpreting the Voynich map).

Having interpreted the cruciform object on f.79v as a Latin cross, Ellie didn’t ask whether the female figure had been intended to show a person or a mythical or a metaphorical figure, but presumed literalism and then – since there are few unclothed female forms in the corpus of medieval western Christian religious iconography – to identify the figure with Mary Magdalen who, as an former prostitute, was sometimes envisaged half-naked and clothed in a garment signifying penitence – often an animal skin. Ellie produced many images of Mary Magdalen, but none of those made before 1440 showed the Magdalen naked. She interpreted the roughly-parallel vertical lines in the detail from f.79v as light and showed many images (of varying dates) in which a cross placed at a distance from the Magdalen was the centre of radiating streams of light. What Ellie didn’t show and more importantly didn’t realise she had to produce to prove her idea true – was an image in which the radiant light fell from above the figure like water from a shower; in which the wholly naked figure held a cross at arm’s length and in which some explanation was provided for the Voynich figure’s being placed in what appears as a sort of basin.

This is what I mean by creating ‘allegorical’ stories for one or more images from the manuscript. The theory produces the story; the manuscript’s images are interpreted according to the story; illustrations illustrate the story; none of the questions raised by the image is addressed, not even the basic issue of its time and place of origin.

I should have said more clearly that when I speak of time and place for an image’s origin, I am speaking of the environment in which its informing words and ideas were first given this form. I do not for a moment doubt that, as we have them now, they were inscribed during the earlier decades of the fifteenth century. (note added 4th May 2022)

Ellie’s blog has since been removed, so I can’t link you to it, but it was in my reply to that post of hers that I gave it as my own opinion, after having studied the manuscript for some time, that it contained very little indicative of first creation in the environment of Latin Europe, and much which could only be explained in other terms. Since that time (about 2013, if I recall), the traditionalists have been attempting to create narratives which will return the conversation to the older Wilfrid-Friedman sort of ‘all white Latin Christian aristocracy’ theory.

I liked Ellie. She often made original and acute comments, but she was under the impression that though you might need to know a bit about cryptography to tackle the written text, and a bit about codicology to discuss the manuscript’s structure and materials, when it came to the drawings, no preliminary study was necessary – that all you needed was ‘two eyes and common sense’. The sad thing is that the detail on which her ‘Mary Magdalen’ idea depended isn’t actually drawn as a Latin cross. She’d been theory-blinded and, as a result, saw something familiar instead of what is actually there on the page.

(detail) f.v – enlarged

The object has a cruciform shape not unlike the Latins’ cross, but is so drawn that one of its arms is provided with a socket from which a smaller object protrudes vertically.

It is about this point in a theory-opposing description of any Voynich image that one can expect to hear some traditionalist start creating ex nihilo some new theory-patch, to deflect a potential threat. They might asserted, as if from authority (because they have no evidence) that the draughtsman erred; that the socket is just a bump caused by the vellum’s rough surface, or that they see no socket at all. Theorists contently invent theory-patches; you’ll get used to it. They will grasp at any possibility their imagination can produce, re-define the possible as fact, and thereafter claim they have ‘dismissed’ whatever information or data has revealed a weakness in their storyline.

However – they may be evidence of Christian influence here because it looks as if there has been a degree of erasure – accidental or deliberate – over that small vertical protrusion above the socket. If it were the result of some deliberate effort, then one might argue that erasure evidence of some Christian’s effort to make the object resemble more nearly a religious item with which they were more familiar. But first one would have to see the original and determine whether or not the effect was due to deliberate effort or not.

It’s so natural and instinctive a response in the human mind to hunt for the familiar that it is something we are taught to consciously register and process consciously in iconographic analysis and art studies.

Repeated exposure alone will lead us to register things which are not really familiar as if they were, and whether or not we actually understand them any better.

Mary d’Imperio describes this process, but does so unintentionally – which is much to the point. d’Imperio had very fixed ideas and a theory she could not relinquish. So she wrote:

The impression made upon the modern viewer first coming upon a photocopy of the manuscript (the form in which it has most frequently met the eye of students) is one of extreme oddity, quaintness. and foreignness-one might almost say unearthliness. To the reader who has seen pictures of more typical illuminated medieval manuscripts. these pages look very different indeed from what he expects to find in such a book. For me. at least. after working with the photocopy intensively for some weeks, the initial impression of ‘”queerness” lost its prominence and gave way to other. more considered reactions. (p.11)

She calls them “more considered reactions” but what they involved was a dismissal of all those characteristics which had initially seemed most obvious in order to re-define them in a way that fitted the theory which she and Elizebeth Friedman held – that the manuscript was a ciphertext of European cultural origin and important for the study of western intellectual history.

Had she not been theory-blinded, she might have said “the reader who has seen pictures of illuminated medieval European manuscripts…”… but for her, this manuscript had to be a medieval European manuscript because for her ‘medieval’ meant European and medieval illuminated manuscripts European by definition. She could only conceive of this manuscript as a sub-set of those.

The moral of these examples is not that any Voynichero with an historical-theoretical-fictional narrative must be a fool. The habit began a century ago, and has become normalised. Voynicheros positively expect newcomers to begin with a theory of that kind and are bewildered if you say you’ve no theory yet.

The moral is rather that if you want to make a lasting contribution, it would probably be better for you to start by close study of the primary document, move to the research needed to answer some specific question(s) and leave theory-formation aside until you have enough rock-solid information to form a theory about. Just as linguists and cryptographers might do.

4 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes #6a Weighing images – Reading.

  1. I’ve not been able to find Ellie’s ‘Magdalen’ post, but on going back to my early Blogger blog, I find that my reply-post is dated Wednesday, May 12, 2010. I reprinted it entire at Voynichimagery in 2017 noting that in the intervening seven years the lack of Christian images style and allusions in the Vms had come to be so widely accepted that it was repeated by then as a commonplace, whereas it had caused quite a bit of agitation in my audience in 2010. I wish now I’d mentioned Ellie and linked her post, but at that time I felt that she might take it personally if I did.


  2. May 3rd – a correspondent has texted, saying that they recall the original ‘Magdalen’ post, and that it was by a woman, but they think I have mis-remembered the author. It’s quite possible that after 12 years my memory is at fault. I’d be grateful to any reader able to resolve this question.


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