O’Donovan notes #6c: sources aren’t personalities.

Without examining the facts fully and fairly, there is no way of knowing whether vox populi is really vox dei, or merely vox asinorum. — Cyrus H. Gordon.

I have heard the laments of traditionalists who deplore the fact that in tracking the source and transmission of certain persistent errors in Voynich studies, I didn’t stop before 2000, but am following them in writings produced more recently.

The persons expressing such sentiments appear to me to be making two assumptions: first that in the field of historical studies and art history no objective standards exist; and secondly that there is no meaningful difference between objecting to a theoretical narrative’s construction and methodology, and attacking a person.

The first assumption would be demonstrably wrong, and the second no more than evidence of that over-attachment to a Voynich theory which leads theorists to lose their capacity to distinguish between a theory and a personality.

On the other hand, if that second assumption is now widespread, it helps explain why a certain theory-clique has always defended their theory by attacking any dissenter ad.hominem rather than having a reasonable debate about facts and methods.

Once a person starts believing that to disagree with their theory is equivalent to a personal attack, it’s not long before they start supposing that the way to eradicate the reasons for dissent is to attack the dissenter without addressing the substance of dissenting position.

It might also shed light on the very peculiar phenomenon by which, if one theory-clique dominates a given Voynich arena and its leaders make plain in one way and another that certain dissenters’ names “shall not be spoken”, people submit to that silent rule. No, I’m not kidding, it happens. Try expressing real enthusiasm for any matter incompatible with the ‘all-European-central-European’ storyline at voynich.ninja these days and test that out for yourself.

I must say, though, that when a group’s divorce from the normal world of medieval studies becomes too pronounced, the results can be very funny.

Imagine – you’re an ordinary member of some ‘Voynich community’ in which you’re simultaneously forbidden from naming dissenters, and obliged to show loyalty by denigrating all dissenters ad.hominem. Reasoned debate about details, data and method is prohibited if it involves mention of sources or persons non-conforming whether impartial academic sources or Voynich writings. So then you have the problem of how to show the necessary loyalty while pretending not to have read any but theory-supporting matter, and while also being prohibited from naming the persons you are expected to denigrate.

Tricky, huh?

One way is to ‘minimise’. If the person contributed a solid, original and academic study which explains some matter in depth, but their conclusions show your theory is lightweight, you say they’ve “written a lot” but never, ever give details of the publication or admit it was an original contribution from original research. Assert airily that ‘it’s not new’ and dare the others to ask you to provide the details.

There are better ways to work around the ‘must attack/must not name’ dilemma within a Voynich community. For his fine facility in using this two-edged genre, let me introduce someone whose skill I admire: Karl Kluge.

On April 1st of this year, Karl posted what follows and when I say I admire his work, I really do.

His introduction combines an evocation of the first lines of Dante’s Inferno with a hint of the [John] Dee Voynich myth and from there moves onto work done by a few current researchers whom he ‘does-not-name’ in quite the approved manner.

Here’s Karl:

I dreamt that I was looking at .. Dee’s scrying equipment .. I found myself standing in a mist-filled void .. and as I examined the page the snake in the root of the left plant turned to fix me with its steely gaze, speaking as follows:

“Though at first glance I seem mild snake,
T’would be a foolish error to make!
No garter snake, I! Don’t void your bladder —
I am, in fact, the loathsome Adder!

While I seem brown, I fade, alack!
So know, in truth, my hue is BLACK!
Heed me well, though ’tis hard to imagine it,
For I am the glorious serpent Plantagenet!

Think any member of that forum is going to refer openly to me, or to that ‘Cerastes’ post, or begin a stimulating discussion on the implications for this study of a cerastes’ depiction in the manuscript? IDTS

Fact is. there are Voynich theorists out there (not Karl) whose feelings are so exquisitely sensitive that if you critique anything they’ve ever said, they’ll smash your face. 😀

that’s ‘face’ in the metaphorical sense.

Seriously – what matters more to you? Beinecke MS 408 or getting warm fuzzies online?

Think it over.

5 thoughts on “O’Donovan notes #6c: sources aren’t personalities.

  1. Given the “Death of the Author” (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DeathOfTheAuthor), I think the most reasonable thing I can do is point interested readers to the full post in question, “Breaking Apr 1st news! MS 408 proves Blackadder actually existed!” (https://voynich.ninja/thread-3763.html) and allow them to judge for themselves what significance (if any) failing to point/link to Diane’s your Cerastes post had in the context of interpreting the snake root as the heraldic emblem of a fictitious historical character from a 1983 BBC sitcom as part of an April Fools joke. YMMV.

    Note -I’ve corrected Karl’s comment so that my own readers are clear about whose post he means. Another person with that forename has published Voynich-related material online.


    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Karl. Was the similarity to Dante’s style accidental? I read the first verse as about that cerastes (adder) post, but the second as about the theory of someone whose blog is called the Captains (b)log, and who has Scottish-Plantagenet Voynich theory. In any case, I thought that little poem very clever when a correspondent sent it to me.

      btw – it may seem pedantic but I’m not complaining that people aren’t commenting on *my* post, but that because it was I who pointed out that detail, no-one affected by the phenomenon I’ve described will feel able to pay that detail the attention it deserves. The point of this post is that there’s a distinction between a person and a source. Denigrating a person’s imagined character or motives as a way to suggest no-one should pay attention to their contributions to the study may be common enough within the ‘Voynich community’ but it’s a symptom of misdirected energy.


      1. Any echo of Dante was inadvertent — although now that you mention it I’m slapping my forehead that I didn’t think of it: the dream opening with finding myself lost in a misty forest and encountering someone like Manly or Tiltman who leads me into a cave with a sign over the entrance reading “okeeey.keey.keeor.okeey.daiin.okeols [Abandon all hope, ye who enter here…]”

        No specific individual theory was being targeted — I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard of the “Scottish-Plantagenet Voynich theory” you mention. The target of the satire was a broader class of “solutions” of a certain type which pop up with dismaying frequency. No ill-spirited personal attack on any particular individual was intended (although I suppose that if someone’s specific theory falls into that class they could take it as one). As Shakespeare might put it

        “If this poster has offended,
        Think but this, and all is mended,
        That you have but slumbered here
        While this April Fools jest did appear.
        And, as I am an honest Puck,
        If we have unearned luck
        Now to ‘scape the f43v serpent’s tongue,
        We will make amends ere long;
        Else the Puck a liar call;
        So, good night unto you all.
        Give me your hands, if we be friends,
        And Robin shall restore amends.”


      2. Karl, that’s such a beautifully civil comment. Thank you.
        The blog in question is very interesting – as interesting as it is peculiar. I’ve actually wondered if it isn’t an exercise in AI. The makers seem .. I stress seem.. to have piled in all earlier material not incompatible with what I call for want of a better term, an Anglo-German vision, and from that to generate stuff that at first seems ok, and even responds to queries, but which has the weirdest gaps and signs of ignorance. I won’t say more. You might like to go there and play. Don’t forget the parentheses; leaving them out will take you to a very different sort of site.
        Captain’s (b)log


  2. applying that ‘Death of an Author’ idea.

    Dear Mr. Bloggs,
    I have received your missive of the 10th., inst.
    Although I see that you’ve written saying that my bill for $US 500 dollars has now been overdue for six months, your input ended when I received your letter, and as the reader, I’m entitled to use my personal, creative, imagination to interpret it any way that might occur to me.

    This is to inform you that although what is on the page reads $US 500, I interpret that to mean $HK 5. oo and where I see that you wrote ‘six months overdue’ I’ll take this as metaphor meaning 6/9 of the normal gestation period, i.e. two-thirds of the stated time, or perhaps two thirds of a season (we speak of a baby as ‘born in due season’) which means you’ve had to wait only two months. Nevertheless, please find enclosed a cheque for $US 0.63694624 which is, according to my interpretation of your letter, exactly and precisely what I owe.
    Yours etc.,


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