Interim post – poor Beinecke

Many things about the Voynich manuscript are described as ‘mysterious’ – which is a way to avoid saying that so far efforts to understand them have not been made by people with the ability to understand them.

An Anglophone trying to avoid saying they’ve not bothered trying to learn Chinese or Sanskrit might, in the same way, call those scripts ‘mysterious’. People ignorant of the visual language of non-European peoples might – and do – describe those images as ‘mysterious’. They weren’t mysterious to the people who made them. Mystery is in the eye of the beholder.

What I do consider ‘mysterious’ and have never been able to understand is why the Beinecke library has been so desperately dependent on unqualified, ill-qualified and theory-driven types for its ideas about its manuscript 408.

Still more difficult to understand is why its website introduces the manuscript by repeating a list of apparently baseless ideas – and to external scholars and keepers of other manuscript collection, such practice reflects very badly upon the library and upon Yale itself.

Such as – “Written in Central Europe at the end of the 15th or during the 16th century.”

is this a reasonable assessment ?

Run the normal checklist, as any curator does on acquiring or being offered another medieval work.

Vellum. Anything uniquely ‘central European’ or post-1440 about the vellum? The vellum’s finish? The dimensions of the octavo quires? The inclusion of the fold-outs? What exactly about the vellum led to the Beinecke’s concluding this manuscript a product of that date or region? The choice is between ‘no evidence’ and ‘a bloke told me’ because no suitably qualified or experienced external specialist ever said so. And the Beinecke knows that.

Ink and Pigments. If there anything about the ink which says it must have been made post-1440? Any pigment whose use is unattested in western Europe before 1440, and afterwards only in ‘central Europe’ – however that vague term might be defined.

Written text. Is there something uniquely Germanic-central European about the handwriting (we speak of ‘hands’)? Is there something uniquely post-1440 about that handwriting? One doesn’t define a manuscript by a line of marginalia, a late addition by definition.

How about the language(s) of Voynichese?

Any statistical linguistic or cryptographic analysis identify the underlying language(s) as unique to middle Europe and if so which of its many languages and dialects?

How about the pictorial text – has any independent, professional evaluator of art (say one of the curators from the Louvre, or from the Vatican, or from the British National Gallery.. or indeed any other…) asserted that the manuscript’s drawings are in a style characteristic of post-1440 ‘central Europe’?

To the best of my knowledge the answer to every one of those questions is a simple, flat ‘NO’.

The radiocarbon date-range for the vellum is 1405-1438.

The few informed public comments about the vellum have noted it was coarse, even for the thirteenth century, and/or have attributed it to Italy or ‘Spain or somewhere southern’.

The hands have been identified, variously, as somewhat like Carolingian minuscule, or as influenced by humanist style, or as reminiscent of informal Sephardi scripts of the thirteenth-century.

Of the extraordinarily careless and ill-informed use to which the manuscript’s drawings have been put by Voynich theorists, I won’t even try to speak. It is so very poor, biased and not merely ill-informed but determinedly ignorant that it leaves me speechless.

Amateur efforts to assert (by creating distribution-charts) that a certain type of motif is found only in one or another part of central Europe have not always been biased, but have invariably been distorted by the fact that such charts had no purpose but to add an air of greater credibility to some theory of which the maker had already been persuaded. Time and again, if one tests the historical facts, one finds such efforts reach inaccurate conclusions – as we’ve seen recently in investigating the ‘lobster-Cancer’ and in considering the cloud-band.

A manuscript is made of physical materials, and upon those an opinion of origin, date and provenance must succeed or fail.

Reegardless of whether anyone has yet read the written or pictorial texts, the materials themselves set appropriate limits.

Does the manuscript’s palette include smalt, copper resinate, lead tin yellow, or naples yellow? What materials form each of its various reds?

And then of course one must address the evident fact that the ‘heavy painter’ was later-come than the earlier painter who had used line and wash.

How about the language informing the written text?

What objective linguistic, statistical or even cryptological efforts have concluded that the informing language is one of the Germanic group?

Perhaps the Beinecke library is unaware that the ‘central European Renaissance’ theory which now dominates every public arena, ignoring and suppressing all other informed voices, was invented by two persons in advance of any discovery of evidence.

After two decades of attempting to find matter which might be claimed to support that theory, determinedly ignoring even the best-informed opinions if they denied its validity, and tireless networking by its two inventors – Rene Zandbergen and Rafel Prinke of the Central European University – we had a situation arise some time ago where it was said by a number of other scholars that the Beinecke had been given the impression there existed some sort of club entitled the ‘Voynich community’ and of which Zandbergen was imagined the official representative, so that the library been responding to all research questions sent to the library by turning to him either for answers or to relay the library’s response. I understand, too, that the error had been corrected by the time Clemens was appointed chief librarian.

The fellows at Malta whose work Zandbergen proposed showcasing by initiating a “Voynich 2022” are again linked directly to Prinke and Zandbergen, both of whom are listed as conference organisers and presumably had some voice in deciding what material will be presented and what will be excluded.

One naturally hopes that ‘Voynich 2022’ may bring in people from outside the Voynichero bubble, and help the Voynich manuscript be treated as any other medieval manuscript is. One would hope that opinions about it will come from persons whose qualifications and scholarship can place this manuscript in its correct context – in terms of manuscript studies, palaeography, codicology and perhaps even with input from persons accustomed to identifying and reading problematic images – say, from the Louvre, the British Museum or UPenn’s libraries and collections.

Assertions made under Yale’s name reflect on Yale, and if the Beinecke is to have the reputation its collection deserves – on par with that of the British Museum Library, the BNF and so on, the keepers of its manuscripts must be recognised by Yale as scholars, not as form-fillers or book-shelvers. A collection of such value and range requires for its holding library a greater level of independence than an ordinary library, more research-time for its members and if necessary more training in the sort of technical studies needed to maintain and provide reliable comment on the collection. Second-hand speculations and theories just aren’t good enough. A fellow wanting to write on the subject of aberrant imagery in medieval Europe, for example, wants information which he or she can safely quote, with the Beinecke as authority. For such things subjective definitions of ‘plausible’ just won’t do.

Reference to the best scholarly opinion creates a mutual respect, because specialists recognise the opinion of an eminent scholar in their own field. Great libraries do seek opinions from their own universities, but also from abroad. One wonders if the keepers of the Beinecke’s collection are encouraged and funded to do that. Surely if they had been, the library would not have continued promoting Hugh O’Neill’s theories for decades; any competent historian of the Columban voyages would have laid the idea to rest immediately.

Still – you never know. ‘Voynich 2022’ might turn a corner and this manuscript’s study start resembling study of any other.

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