I’m staying with our example of a photographed motherboard. It’s a fairly undemanding example for readers who may have no previous relevant studies.
Consider this question, “When was it made?”
Extra ticks to anyone who said, ‘When was what made?’
In that image there are two obvious, and one less obvious levels of artifice. (An artefact is a made thing; artifice is the work that has deliberately contributed to a thing’s present form)*
If colleagues wonder why I’m using these terms, it’s to clarify basic concepts while avoiding jargon.
The two obvious levels are (1.) the photograph as artefact; (2) the thing photographed as artefact. But if you have the sort of curiosity that led you to open in another tab and then expand that image shown in post #6d, you might have noticed a third level of action/artifice – three horizonal bars, two black and the other red-brown, that have been added either to the photographed image or to the photographed object or to the digitised version of the photograph, before the last-named appeared in context of a blogpost dated to May 2022. I’ve ringed the three bars here (below).
For the moment, we’ll leave aside those three bars, and concentrate on whether the problem is to be defined as ‘When was the photograph made?’ or as ‘When was the photographed object made?
This is equivalent to the distinction between asking when the drawing was set down on its vellum in our present manuscript, as against when the image’s informing words and ideas were first given such a form. It’s another case where differences really matter. It’s the difference between when and where Leonardo completed his ‘Mona Lisa’, against when and where a pillowcase carrying that image was made. The original was made by someone who spoke a dialect of Italian; the latter made by someone who spoke e.g. a language of east Asia. Though we don’t know whether Voynichese was first created when the present folios were inscribed, or when the images were first enunciated, it is important not to presume (as so many do) that the medium’s date and place of origin are the same as those for first enunciation of the images or written text.
Our two external specialists, the two who knew so much about motherboards (see last few paragraphs of #6d), might agree on a date when that motherboard was put on the market, and as a result of knowing that, might be able to offer an earliest-possible date, too, for the photograph’s being made.
This ‘earliest possible date from when..’ is called a terminus a quo. In manuscript’s studies, the reciprocal is possible. Hugh O’Neill’s mis-reading of some images from the manuscript led him to assert the manuscript had been made no earlier than 1492 – that’s a ‘terminus a quo’ of 1492. He was in error about the one, and transferred that error to the other, with lasting ill-effects for the study.
This is why it is vital not to confuse the radiocarbon dating for the manuscript’s vellum with a date for first creation of all matter now in the manuscript. It is why superficial, trivial and imaginative storylines have proven not merely unhelpful to others working on the manuscript, but positively counterproductive to them and to the manuscript’s study overall.
Among other things, they lead people to ask information from people whose area is irrelevant. A specialist in eighteenth-century English texts on astronomy will surely have a background in astronomy and medieval studies of astronomy, but it’s too much to expect them to recognise the intention of a small detail you’ve extracted from a manuscript made, say, in 12thC Syria and whose connection to astronomy might exist only in your theory.
What the two computer specialists couldn’t know about that photograph, is whether the photograph might be of some prototype, and thus taken rather earlier than the model became available on the market.
To discover when the photograph-as-photograph was made, and whether the photo shows a prototype pre-dating emergence on the market, you’d need documentary evidence from the company – and that information may be permanently unavailable. The lesson here being that if your assumptions create inappropriate questions, the specialists you approach will respond in the terms your question is framed; that no specialist will know everything; that no specialist’s opinion, however well informed, should be later pretended some ultimate and final word after which all others should concur or forever be silent. Such an attitude does justice neither to the subject nor to the specialist.
Of our example photograph, we’d say that there is an approximate terminus a quo for the photographed artefact – say, a date two or three years or so before this board appeared on the market. For the photograph, too the larger range might apply and you might decide that as end-date it is impossible to give any date save that of the date-stamped blogpost – May 2022. ‘Latest possible date’ can be expressed as the terminus ad quem.
If you become involved in disciplines such as archaeology, you’ll find I’ve used these terms a bit loosely, but they’re easy to remember in this form and they’ll do for now.
The thing to keep in mind when researching drawings is that as response to my question ‘When was it made?’ the response ‘When was what made?’ is entirely reasonable. It’s a good response. If you’re asking ‘when was the photographed object made’ a specialist is likely to give you the date-range over which that particular motherboard was being produced for the market. As you’ve seen, that can differ considerably from a valid answer if the question is ‘When was the photograph made?’ There’s no evidence as to whether the photograph was taken prior to production or, alternatively, years after production had ceased.
The traditionalists have inherited and maintained the error first introduced by Wilfrid in 1921, whereby the date-range offered for the manuscript-as-artefact is presumed identical to that for the matter inscribed and if researchers erred it was in attempting to move (as the Friedmans did) to ever-later and more unlikely dates, rather than taking the sensible view that the date of inscription is the default terminus ad quem for that inscription or drawing.
Overconfidence in their own ideas is most likely to lead amateurs to treat poorly specialists in a subject of which the Voynichero-with-theory might know less than they imagine.
Let me provide a negative model. It’s typical enough of what one sees in reality, but I’ve made this example hypothetical.
Suppose that, on seeing the photograph, the first idea tossed up by my memory was that the thing photographed was like a board-game. Transforming that, immediately, into a gut-certainty, I find I have a ‘boardgame theory’ and thereafter drop all effort at careful study of the image and set off hunting things to add an air of plausibility to what is now my theory. (This is today the classic ‘Voynich method’).
I explain to the world at large, with illustrations gathered from any source and any period, in any medium, that the offset squares to the left side of the photograph are pieces taken off the board; I produce parallels to such games as Ludo, perhaps quoting at length from the instructions brochure, as I assert that the red lines are the paths along which pieces move and that the large central square is ‘home’, while the area lowest on the right is “obviously” a Jail (by analogy with Monopoly, with illustrations), and so “logically” those radiating white lines you see apparently connecting the paths to the Jail operate like images of snakes in games of Snakes-and-Ladders.
Since my internally-consistent storyline fits together so neatly, I’m then sure that anyone who remains unconvinced is simply stubborn, stupid, theory-fixated on a different theory or even that the non-believer is akin to an enemy of some religion – a heretic against whom the anathema is rightly pronounced.
Anathema – involves insisting the person be expelled from the society of believers and requiring that none among the believers shall speak to, assist, or deal with that person, mention of whose very name may have consequences. It is the most likely reason that mainland Europe never benefitted from the research which al-Idrisi did in the Sicilian court, whose kings Roger and Frederick were anathematised more than once and why, for a time, none but Genoa was permitted to trade between Sicily and mainland Europe.
Theory-fanatics, in Voynich studies, rarely understand the idea of rational debate, or informed dissent. Sorry, but that’s how it is. Luckily there aren’t too many outright fanatics on the scene at present.
Anyway, that way of using the images in Beinecke MS 408 as inspiration for some fictional scenario as ‘theory’ has become the norm since about 2010, having its roots in Wilfrid’s idea of an historical storyline and is why I speak of the Wilfrid-Friedman model.
Without providing a shred of solid research or evidence, but liberally sprinkling my theory- narrative with such words as ‘obviously’ and ‘logically’ and ‘common sense’ and so on, suppose I manage to induce a suspension of analytical thought in 98% of those within reach. With sniffs and indications of self-importance, I then dismiss the other 2% while indicating to that 98% (most of whom couldn’t care less about the pictorial text), that the other 2% must be insignificant persons because 2% is an insignificant number.
But now, just suppose the other 2% won’t lie down, and won’t go away. Efforts to instruct believers to ‘just ignore’ and so forth aren’t wholly effective, and since I don’t want the audience’s attention distracted from my hypnotic spiel, I have to do something. Answer? Get some authoritative word I can use as a means to shut them up.
I ask a group of fellow board-game players if the image doesn’t look to them like a game board and get an amiable ‘Hmmm’ or ‘yes it does’.
I then announce that all five specialists in board-games have endorsed my theory.
This has also become a counter-productive habit, embedded in the traditionalists’ idea of ‘Voynich method’ and it is certainly at least so early as 1944 when Hugh O’Neill, a botanist with no particular knowledge of pre-modern botanical images mis-read very badly a couple of details from the manuscript and then turned to some unnamed fellow botanists and claimed that they supported his ideas. He included no objective evidence; no documentary evidence; no named specialists in any relevant field and he clearly hadn’t bothered to read what remained, by then, from documents relevant to Christopher Columbus’ voyages.
The specialist who could have accurately evaluated his theory would have been (a) a specialist in the history of the Columban period and (b) a specialist in comparative botanical images. Or he could have listened to Fr. Petersen.
The lesson being – if you must ask help from a person, rather than studying what they’ve contributed to their field, then you should not be seeking confirmation but an impartial critique.
Back to the hypothetical example: after some time in which I reap admiring comments about my ‘game-board’ theory, some bright newcomer says that he thinks the photo shows something electronic. I’m certainly not going to surrender my theory. A Voynichero’s theory is defended against all opponents, including evidence and reason.
So I invent a ‘theory-patch’ or invent a meme intended to ridicule or demean the newcomer before witnesses. (which is, by the way, part of the legal definition of slander in England).
I then drop in on a personal contact who understands electronics and ask in a casual, friend-to-friend way, whether the object in the photograph was used for playing games. ‘Yes’, he says, ‘its a type of motherboard used for playing computer-games’.
Do I admit to being in error, and thank the newcomer? Not if I’m a Voynichero-with-theory, I don’t.
Since the truth doesn’t quite suit my theory, and being a Voynichero I regard my theory as myself, so to avoid losing face I simply announce that such-and-such an expert has said that the thing in the photograph was a board used for playing games.
Should that person learn how they’ve been misused, and protest in public, the worst sort of Voynichero resorts again to facile labels, tossing about words like ‘pedantic’ and so on.
In most theorists, though, bias isn’t quite so active and may be quite unintentional.
A person convinced of their own storyline doesn’t stop to ask if their questions are reasonable or if the persons they seek out for an authoritative-sounding statement works within an appropriate discipline or, within that, an appropriate area of specialisation.
Had Newbold walked to his local pharmacy, shown the pharmacist a few items in the leaf-and-root section and asked the pharmacist if the drawings didn’t look to him like pharmacy bottles, he would have got the agreement he sought.
Had he gone to an historian of pharmacy, or to some major Museum in 1921 he might, or might not, have found someone to agree with him.
Had he asked a specialist in the history of thirteenth-century art and manuscripts, or in Roger Bacon’s writings the same question, I would expect the answer to be ‘Not to the best of our knowledge’.
Newbold believed Wilfrid’s theory that the manuscript had been hand-written by Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century Englishman.
People deeply devoted to some Voynich theory, of their own invention or not, do not use genuine specialists well.
Let me illustrate this using a less modern and less hypothetical example.
Suppose some Voynichero develops a theory that the Voynich month-diagrams were intended as a means to predict days on which a woman might become pregnant. The theory itself leads them to choose an historian of western medicine who has focused on (specialised in) works of women’s medicine. The theorist’s aim is to get that specialist to agree that you sometimes find calendars, and the zodiac series, in works of that kind.
The historian who has specialised in that area does agree. This the theorist announces as endorsement of their ideas by an ‘expert’ in women’s medicine.
That historian has no way to know that the theorist’s question is all wrong. Their answer is not wrong, but it may be irrelevant for anyone seriously interested in Beinecke MS 408.
The theorist having long before shifted focus from the manuscript to their quasi-historical storyline-as-theory, they won’t ask any of the important questions: such as, do you find in such medical works calendars having doubled or alternative months? Do any include diagrams whose form, structure and style of drawing is closely comparable the month-folios in Beinecke MS 408? They might neglect to inform the specialist that the terminus ad quem is (so far as we know) 1405-1438. They are likely to ignore codicological considerations altogether.
Asking a specialist’s advice. My advice is:
If you think that a detail in the manuscript shows e.g. a type of ritual vessel only found in medieval German churches, you should first do the work needed to discover whether or not the detail/s you’re considering were intended to be read as literal (realistic), and then to search more broadly than your theory’s boundary to get a clear idea of the range in which images similar form, style and detail are attested. That range and its boundaries should not be dictated by your theory. You theory might be about Germany, and Christian ritual objects, but you may be mistaken, and so far at least, you’re still researching the images that are in Beinecke MS 408. Today’s political boundaries or concepts of nationality shouldn’t be presumed to apply even in the early fifteenth-century.
After doing the indepth preliminary research, if you then conclude from the evidence you’ve amassed that such images and/or objects occur no-where else but in twelfth-century Christian churches in Germany, you might request a specialist in twelfth-century German religious objects (say from a major Museum) to evaluate both your evidence and your argument.
The specialist’s role is to provide a dispassionate critique, not to produce some sound-bite for theory-promotion. A specialist with a Voynich theory is not well-suited to that role of impartial and dispassionate critic.
If you don’t want to impose on someone whose job doesn’t include answering random questions from the public, the correct form is to put your question in a way that avoids forcing your ideas on them, trying to convince them of your theory, or implying they must provide the answer your theory demands.
A professor with a chair in medieval studies has no obligation to reply to such a request from you, or even from a colleague. You are asking a favour and, in most cases, from someone to whom you’ve never been introduced.
I can’t speak other than hypothetically about other people’s experiences, so I’ll have to use my own as a practical example. It is only one example, from one researcher.
Hoping for advice from that palaeographer who had specialised in the history of Hebrew palaeography, I began by apologising for writing without a formal introduction. I said I had a problem which had cropped up during my research into a medieval manuscript and that if they would care to see the problematic detail, I’d be most grateful for any comment they might care to make. Note – “any comment they might care to make.”
If they had refused – as was their right – or had directed me to some textbook on palaeography, that would have been the end of my contact with them.
One says thank-you for their kind reply and leaves.
That specialist did not refuse, so a copy of the detail was sent and with it a question phrased as neutrally as possible: ‘Do you think these lines are writing?’
Had the answer been ‘No’, I’d have cheerfully accepted that verdict, knowing the person’s eminence in their field and the range and depth of their published scholarship.
It is poor form, and a sign of amateurishness to approach a specialist without having first read the work they’ve published within their own professional sphere. If you receive an answer saying, ‘Read my paper’ it’s your own fault.
Had the person been less eminent in that discipline, I might have sought a second opinion.
In the event, that specialist was kind, answering that question in detail after first saying that in their opinion the marks I’d ringed were writing and others which could be seen in that detail from the image were not writing.
Quoting a specialist.
At that stage I asked if I might have permission to include the specialist’s comments in the posts summarising my own research into that particular drawing. Permission was given.
It is very bad form to ask a specialist, as if in an informal way, for their opinion only to publish their comments and/or their name without their having given you their specific and informed consent in writing.
So at that stage, I told the specialist that the drawing was one from the Voynich manuscript and asked – as a wholly separate question – if I might duly credit the specialist by name. To that second request, the reply was ‘No’ – as it so often is once the phrase ‘Voynich manuscript’ crops up. If, on reflection, the specialist had also withdrawn permission to quote them directly, their wish would have been honoured, too.
It is not because the manuscript is difficult that the topic ‘Voynich manuscript’ has a very poor reputation within medieval and manuscript studies.
A combination of arrogance, ignorance and dishonesty has marked the behaviour of certain Voynich theorists, now, for more than a decade and while the nature of scholarship in the English-speaking world makes it more egalitarian than you find, say, in Germany, it is not so egalitarian that manners don’t matter.
Less-than- meticulous book-keeping where other people’s contributions to the study are concerned; a habit of focusing on ‘who’ a person is while disregarding the ‘what’ of their scholarly work; a practice of attacking ad.hominem any person or information opposing your pet theory’s promotion are among the real reason that Voynich studies is now regarded with such distaste by the wider scholarly world.
A theorist may develop a theory that one, or another, person is a ‘nobody’ and subject them to abuse, highly inventive slander-by-meme, and all the rest of it, but others who observe such behaviour think worst of the persons from whom such behaviour spreads, and resolve to contribute nothing of their own to this environment.
Plagiarism in various guises – a matter I’ll discuss later – displays a level of ignorance that is, in terms of the scholarly world, the equivalent of loutish behaviour and to see some Voynicheros actively promoting and practicing forms of plagiarism has rendered Voynich studies abhorrent. In terms of the wider scholarly community, it’s a form of intellectual embezzlement.
The thing to remember is that study of Beinecke MS 408 is not a world unto itself, or even a scholarly discipline. It’s just a topic.
To that topic, specialists in historical research, in codicology, palaeography, comparative historical linguistics and so on may chose to give some attention. If you have no prior stu dies in any relevant discipline, however, you’re an amateur and no ‘specialist’ even if you have little interest in anything save e.g. the manuscript’s calendar. It doesn’t make you a ‘Voynich-calendar’ specialist. To be a specialist you apply your earlier and formal study of calendars, or of astronomical imagery to e.g. European calendars or religious calendars as a specialist in those subjects. The Voynich manuscript isn’t a discipline; it isn’t a ‘subject’ in the scholarly sense. It’s just one fairly unimportant manuscript.
To pretend competence in a field you’ve never studied or practiced in the wider world is not the done thing in scholarly circles; you don’t lie about or omit mention of the sources you’ve made use of. To speak metaphorically – you may be the latest man to climb a mountain; you might even be the first to reach the top. But you don’t pretend to be the first person ever to have noticed that mountain and say or imply that you made every road leading to it. Nor do you attempt to erase from the historical record the name of those whose work you’ve used, and for no better reason that they weren’t in your team.
Scholars do notice such things, sooner or later.