O’Donovan notes #6d: ‘not exact?’ – not exactly.

c.2500 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

Note – First part castigates ‘rule-by-meme’ in Voynich studies; second part is about an analytical approach to imagery.

I’ve sometimes ranted about the long-embedded, irrational Voynich ‘meme-maker(s)’. He/she/they are the study’s worst sort of hobble.

Over the past five weeks, as many correspondents have repeated one obviously mad ‘meme’ apparently of recent coining which says “there is no need to consult external sources” (one variant used the term ‘authorities’).

The implication is, I gather, that we should believe the whole universe of scholarship resides in the head(s) of a few Voynich theorists.

“I feel no need to consult external sources” – really? So your linked wiki articles are to be deemed some Voynichero’s possession?

But then again, if unexamined belief is facile, so too is disbelief, so why not put that meme to the test. Perhaps there really is some Voynichero, or some number of Voynicheros, who know already everything you’ll ever need to know for your Voynich research.

Now, looking down my own list of research questions outstanding …. Here’s one I shared with the Voynich community some time ago, without much result:

Question: “What extant records, if any, allow us to know what administrative and liturgical languages were employed in Amaligh over the period 1250-1350 AD”.

Any Voynicho out there now who is a specialist in the history of central Asia and its bureaucracies eight hundred years ago… ?

Thirteen years’ of seeing the memer/s at work leads me to expect that response to their latest could well spark invention of yet another – possibly along the lines that no true-hearted Voynichero would do research that needed to look further than the memers’ pet theory. Perhaps that if it should, it’s too far-fetched. That should get a snigger or two: pun, get it – hyuk, hyuk.


Over the years I’ve noticed that the crazy meme-maker is over-fond of the word “unnecessary” as in: “to read X’s research is unnecessary”; “codicology is unnecessary”; “looking at anything except illustrations in German fifteenth-century manuscripts is unnecessary”.. Yes, they’re all real examples. Watch out for catchy-sounding shite that includes the word ‘unnecessary’. What it signifies is that the memer can’t get their head around something and their greatest concerns are (i) their public image and (ii) their theory.

Another great stupidity is being revived. It was being parroted even in 2008 and I’ve spent time and effort correcting it more than once. (The memer is a great recycler of his own ideas). This meme runs, [understanding analytical method is unnecessary because] “any interpretation of the drawings is subjective.”

What most infuriates me isn’t the mad meme-r’s tiny mind and agenda, but that genuinely intelligent people who are perfectly capable of original research, repeat such stuff without stopping to ask if it’s food for thought, or rubbish.

Would you stand in Chartres cathedral and say that all its images and sculptures can be interpreted in any way you like? If the tour- guide said, while pointing to an image of the Virgin Mary, “this is a statue of the Buddha” would you muzzle any objection on the grounds that the guide’s entitled to an opinion and what about their feelings?

(Can we make meme-breath a thing?)

After writing the above, a couple of amiable and interesting comments from Karl Kluge saw my choler reduce somewhat (rage is also unproductive), so I began asking how I can treat the question of subjectivity and objectivity in describing images using only a 1,000 words more.

So – suppose I were to present the following image to my readers and ask each of them to tell me what they make of it. I’m fairly sure I’d receive a range of answers, some short and others more detailed. Fair enough.

If I showed it to a group I was training in techniques of iconographic analysis, however, the same answers might be offered but I’d put a ‘minus’ point against any that said “It’s obviously x…” .

Why? Because even if they use the word ‘picture’ in their answer, they are having difficulty keeping front-and-centre that crucial difference between a two-dimensional image and a three- dimensional object. It reveals a particular type of inflexibility, a reductionist cast of mind and one which experience shows denotes an individual ill-suited to this sort of work.

In treating of images which were given their form before the modern era, you need a more open and more generous mentality because you are constantly required to set aside the environment and era most comfortable for you, and do your best to see an image as it were through other eyes, and in a very different cultural and historical environment. That’s why it involves more reading than looking at pictures.

To someone who showed an ability to balance their own perception with a reasonable understanding of how others might see that image, I’d give a mental ‘plus’ .

They might say, for example, ‘I think it could be part of a G/gle maps satellite view’ or ‘I think it’s a piece of found-art, but it looks like the bits are electronic’. Or even ‘this looks like the model of a reactor to me’.

The reason the last person too would get a tick from me is that they haven’t confused subjective impression with objective fact in the way that over-confident and inflexible people – and Voynich meme-rs – do. On the contrary, all these three tacitly accepted that their personal impression is a personal impression and may not be objectively true – that’s good.

People whose attitude towards an image is “I think so, therefore it is” are not suited to this sort of work at all, and never will be. They should go make a new universe somewhere else.

What matters, as you’ll understand, is not the opinion but an ability to see the image as an image and whether you yet have the range and depth of knowledge required to set an image in its appropriate context- historical, cultural and technical.

To treat the first error – confusing an image for whichever three-dimensional object your imagination produces as a ‘match’. First, this error is another of those old, still-persistent and constant errors seen in Voynich writings. It’s why Newbold noticed some drawings in the leaf-and-root section, but said they ‘were’ apothecary jars, his proof no more than a reference to what could be seen, in 1921, in an American pharmacy.

Unreasonable certainty. Evidence? – wrong period, wrong place, wrong ‘backdrop’ – no match.

Nevertheless, that rank anachronism remained fixed in Voynich studies for almost a century. I believe I was the first to ask if the ‘apothecary jars’ interpretation of those drawings was true for medieval Latin Europe, did the research across historical, art-historical and archaeological studies, and summarised that work in some detail. The verdict was negative. If they are to be deemed apothecary jars, they’re not pre-1438 European.

In any other field, this would be considered a useful contribution for others’ ongoing work, but I don’t expect you’ll see mention of it in Voynich wiki articles or voynich.nu. At least not rightly attributed; my conclusion on that point and various others finds a disjunction between the primary evidence and the traditionalist narrative. No Voynich theorist has yet devised a plausible theory-patch for the old ‘European apothecary jar’ error, but they tried, and no doubt keep trying. The manuscript is not their primary interest.

In the same way that the image (above) is not a motherboard but a photographic image of a motherboard, so what serves as the central emblem for the Voynich manuscript’s November October diagram – for example – is not a balance, but an image of a balance.

And if you look at that image in the slow, analytical way, you may notice that it is drawn in a form so far unmatched by any image offered from any medieval European manuscript as support for a Voynich theory.

Differences matter because they carry information about time, place and cultural context for that image’s first enunciation. From these trig-points, we establish intended meaning, among other things.

Being unaware of, or deliberately refusing to accept, that distinction between an image and an object is why so many Voynicheros try to render their theory more plausible by loading the narrative with as many pictures as they can of (e.g.) a balance, regardless of medium, and sometimes regardless of era – so long as they suit the theory. They behave as if the point is to match whatever detail they subjectively define as the drawings’ chief object – such as the diagram’s small central emblem – whereas the point of researching historical drawings is to explain the context in which each was first given its form, and by what kind of person for what kind of audience. One hopes that more clarity on these matters may help those working on the written text. False, misleading or deliberately ignorant assertions are of no value to any but the theory-promoter.

I doubt there are many places on earth which never invented some form of balance; but how many knew a balance of just such a form – and where and when is one attested?

I hope you see that the ‘..entitled to their opinion..’ argument doesn’t apply in such a case. What matters is how well- or ill-informed the opinion may be.

Objective and context-dependent.

While it’s true of our example that the image is a photograph, and that photographed object was a motherboard, if the reader realised that, it was not by using their creative imagination. They recognised the image as a photographic one, and the photographed object as a motherboard because of what information they had previously acquired. They had the right background.

If you lived in fifteenth-century Spain, and by some miracle could be shown the same image, you couldn’t possibly say, ‘It’s the photo of a motherboard’. The work of iconographic analysis also involves consciously eliminating anachronisms which spring so naturally to mind for a person living in – for example – 1920s America or twenty-first century France. In reality, someone in twenty-first century France might not be able to recognise a motherboard either. Their opinion would have more chance of being valid than that of a fifteenth-century Spaniard, but less than the opinion of someone who had actually seen a motherboard or a photograph of one, wouldn’t you say?

It’s not having an opinion that matters; it’s whether you know enough to form a valid opinion.

So when we say that an image’s meaning is context-dependent we mean, too, that any individual’s capacity to read that image is context-dependent.

What’s relevant to research is whether a person knows enough to form a valid opinion and whether they yet know enough to realise that they don’t know enough and are willing and able to do the work needed to know more. If they want to provide commentary helpful to others working on a problematic medieval manuscript, that is.

Unlike many who work in museums or in galleries, I have never felt annoyed by hearing someone say, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”. That’s the norm, and always has been. Regrettable in some ways, certainly, because were things otherwise neither Rembrandt nor Van Gogh would have died destitute. But at the same time it means that such people really do enjoy and appreciate some works of art, and in that context no opinion but theirs matters. Private opinions for private purpose.

I do feel irritated by those who only like what they know. So often, all they know is what is offered by their own imagination.

You hear things said such as, ‘It’s all subjective, though, isn’t it’ – after you’ve just spent fifteen minutes explaining, at their request, the history and context in which some pre-modern work was formed and why it is formed as it is, including its materials.

But then, it turns out, they don’t want to believe it a seventeenth-century imaginative portrait of some medieval character; they want to stick with their initial impression-as-opinion that it’s a picture of the Biblical Queen of Sheba. So after you’ve clarified the question for them – out comes the response, ‘Oh well, in the end it’s all just subjective and everyone’s entitled to their opinion, aren’t they?’.

Which means they are more determined than ever to tell other people that it’s the Queen of Sheba. Which is when I see that a copy of my written report is stapled to their account.

The ‘artist is dead’

(the next paragraph’s more positive tone due again to Karl’s benign influence).

The thing to remember is that while the draughtsman or painter, as artist, may be dead, the artefact and its medium lives, and in that medium just as in writing, there are rules and conventions evident. Whether a given viewer has the means to read, and rightly interpret that record is quite another matter.

In pre-modern societies, image-making was above all a means of communication between members of a single community who already had the same background knowledge in common.

Imagination alone won’t get you to your right destination in that distant country of the past. The wider your background and the better the sources you study, the closer you might come.

External specialists.

Now, on my own I can get as far as saying that the image (illustrated above) is a photograph and the object photographed was a motherboard, but that’s the limit of my knowledge without turning to external sources, written, pictorial or in the form of a specialist.

If I take the same image to a couple of external specialists – say a couple of real computer-geeks, they could not only recognise that image immediately as the photo of a motherboard, but if they were very knowledgeable could probably provide the name of the company that made it, the name of every part and perhaps even the model number for each part, and then discourse – debate – between themselves the merits of that gaming motherboard against others they know equally well.

Some things are objectively true and check-able; others are informed opinion; specialists may differ.

But try telling those specialists that in your opinion it’s part of a G/gle satellite image!

Until the next time that old meme comes floating on the surface – that’s it for the Voynich meme, ‘It’s all subjective ..’


Specialists differ.

In the next post, I’ll demonstrate, as well as I can in a blogpost, the issue of qualitative differences, and using a genuine specialist well, or badly. If there’s no ‘final word’ to be hoped for, it is equally true that not all opinions have equal weight and, therefore, that not all statements passed off as authoritative by Voynich theorists should be believed a final word.

I’ll take as working example the two images of a crowned woman included in the post before last.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.