This isn’t a note I want to write, but I’ve finally had enough of correspondents asking me, in a tone suggesting that I shouldn’t, why I refer so often to Nick Pelling and his site ciphermysteries.
They usually add ‘why not voynich.nu?’ but I’ll stick to the positive – why I do refer readers and correspondents to Pelling’s work and his site.
It comes down to attitudes, methodology and ethics.
Anyone who has certain basic assumptions about the manuscript and who also develops or adopts a theoretical historical scenario will have a degree of bias in favour of matter which seems to lend greater credibility to that theory. That’s a given.
Pelling’s historical research led him to posit the manuscript as one produced in fifteenth-century Milan.
His Averlino storyline was a separate, if connected, aspect of his contribution to the manuscript’s study. It’s not why I refer others to his blog, book or to him for an opinion.
When Pelling refers to any matter produced by another researcher, so far as I’ve observed since 2008, he invariably informs his readers of whose work produced that data, opinion or conclusion. It means that if I refer a correspondent to him, I know the correspondent’s own work will be treated ethically.
Pelling also understands that his readers are entitled to follow back the path of a topic to its source, to test the evidence adduced by the original researcher who contributed an original insight or body of research, and in that way to receive a true and clear understanding of how that particular line of thought is advancing, and where Pelling’s own work and investigations fit in the discussion overall. Whether the original is still in print or still view-able is beside the point. Fairly treated, a researcher can always get in direct contact with that material, either by going to a library source or by contacting the author.
This is the normal, ethical method in scholarship and is why most fields of research don’t end up in the tangled, obfuscated and plagiarist mess that marks writings about this one manuscript today.
Pelling’s observing those objective standards and ethics of itself argues a higher level of background scholarship and a greater interest in advancing the manuscript’s study than, say, in promoting a theoretical narrative or a personal image.
Pelling’s original research, and posts to his blog, never represent his personal views as if they were the pronouncements of some unarguable authority akin to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His personal opinions may be wrong, or expressed with hostility or with vehemence, but never slyly or indirectly, or via a third person. You know he’s honest about that, too. Pelling doesn’t demand reverence or gratitude. He doesn’t expect to be credited as co-author if he so much as reads your work. He doesn’t re-present other people’s work in some different format, then copyright it to himself. He doesn’t pull ‘facts’ out of the ether… there’s no ‘junk Voynich’ about it.
Which is not to say he’s never wrong. I assume everyone’s wrong, including me, but research is the effort made, by the work of research into primary and secondary sources, to be a little less wrong tomorrow than you surely are today. How you go about that work is what counts with me, because in the end a researcher’s work is no more valuable than its integrity.
Altogether, then, when a correspondent asks me to comment on some matter concerned with the study’s history or with Voynichese or with cipher-methods (and other particular matters), I let them know it’s not my field and feel confident that in suggesting they ask Pelling I’m referring them to someone who’s been around long enough, who has seriously researched this manuscript, who has produced tens of thousands of words of original papers and articles and who observes certain ethical standards, If he makes negative comments on matter within his areas of competence, they will be open, plain-speaking and well-informed. He’s no snide inventor of toxic memes.
I’ve often thought he would have done better to release Curse of the Voynich in two parts: one concerned with his research into codicology, palaeography, ciphers and so on, and the other his ‘Averlino’ theory. His decision to withdraw the book from publication meant that the record was lost (apart from his blogposts) which show that between Reeds’ departure from the first mailing list and the recent advent of two codicologists – Wladimir Dulov and Lisa Fagin Davis – Pelling alone resisted that Voynich meme-dictat which asserted that discussion of the manuscript’s codicology was ‘unnecessary’ and ‘too complicated’. That notion, as with so many that circulate in the Voynich community, was so divorced from any understanding of the priorities in manuscript studies in the real world that one can only feel bemused by the number who conform.
To a lesser extent, the same was true for Pelling’s comments on palaeography. On that topic again, it is evident that what he said reflected his own research into the primary and secondary sources, not duplicating others’ work while omitting mention of the precedent, nor by just by skimming and co-opting work at third-level, by cherry-picking research shared by other Voynich researchers. He has actually read the books to which he refers. His work on the palaeography of the month-names long pre-dated later efforts which you might see as sole reference elsewhere.
My criteria for a trustworthy person to refer correspondents is not linked, therefore, to any shared theory, or to any personal connection – I’ve never met or been personally introduced to Nick Pelling. Nor has it anything to do with whether a person understands or appreciates my own sort of work. It’s about whether a person puts the manuscript’s study above purely personal or vested interests; about being truthful about sources; about treating honestly with others’ research; it’s about having the intelligence and knowledge needed to offer well-informed opinions about quite specific aspects of this manuscript’s study.
Whether Pelling is even interested in Beinecke MS 408 these days, and to what extent, I don’t know.
I have asked him recently if he would care to write a compare-and-contrast-with-historical background sort of review about two recent re-investigations of the ‘cipher-by-wheels’ possibility because I’m not qualified to offer an informed opinion on how they fit within that line of study. Whether he will feel inclined to take that trouble, or have the time to do it, I simply don’t know.
I’d like to mention, too, a few of his original observations that were in Curse of the Voynich, but I think the above should be enough to answer that question so often asked me by my correspondents.
And now, back to the analytical-critical approach and images in Beinecke MS 408.