Internalism & defining ‘notebook’.

c.2300 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

I promised to re-print a series called ‘Pegs, Poles and Parasols’ and other material on motifs addressed more recently by Cary Rapaport and Koen Gheuens at the 2022 zoom conference.

That will have to wait a bit longer, because those posts were written about a decade ago and reprinting past contributions isn’t as interesting for me as what’s happening now. It also means having to point out, yet again, that citing as reference the inclusion of matter in is about as helpful as quoting from a doco made for the History channel. Quick info., good in parts, but not an original source.

My chief interest these days – and the reason for beginning this blog – has been to understand how the study of this one manuscript – Beinecke MS 408 – diverged very early from the normal course of manuscript studies and during the early twenty-first century finally went ‘rogue’, with assertions made and obeyed as anonymous ‘dicta’ that are contrary not only to formal methods and ethics in scholarship but sometimes positively oppose them.

By about 2008, in Voynich arenas the dictum was pronounced that “in Voynich studies, it is unnecessary to cite precedents” and by about 2014 that “all you need to understand the drawings are two eyes and commonsense” while any effort to discuss where the contents might have come from was being pronounced ‘off-topic’ if it looked like addressing regions or times beyond the limits of a narrowly defined ‘medieval Europe’. So narrowly defined that at one stage it was a widely parroted meme that “it is unnecessary to consider anything but fifteenth century German works” – although that was one meme-law which, happily, failed elevation to the level of Voynich doctrine.

Such bizarre notions did not only circulate as anonymous catchy sound-bite memes, but were actualy enforced in public arenas – resulting in threads locked and conversation prohibited, complaints to management when the meme-law was breeched, dissenting individuals harried and so on.

In a complete reversal of normal scholarly method, Voynich arenas came to permit attacks on persons, but not attacks on theoretical narratives presented as forms of history.

Among the items which one could not so much as question was the ‘pharmacy’ idea; another the ‘herbal medicine’ idea.. and with it the idea that all plant-pictures must constitute a herbal of the Latin tradition.. and on, and on.. Like floating trees, traditionalist Voynich theories might be groundless but they flourished and became ever more elaborate until to do even so much as request references for some statement made by a determined traditionalist had – as they say – ‘consequences’. To this day I’m yet to see any formal argument presented for a number of the popular quasi-historical narratives.

Gradually, there emerged three points which seem to me most urgently in need of correction if study of this medieval manuscript is ever to return to anything like normal scholarly method.

  1. that practice initiated by Wilfrid Voynich and by which the manuscript’s history and character is first asserted and only afterwards adorned with bits and pieces lending some air credibility. Published examples of this now-entrenched but curious methodology include at one end of the time-scale Wilfrid’s spellbinding tale of 1921 and at the other too many to mention but notably a book by Janick and Tucker which Springer published in 2018, with the title Unravelling the Voynich Codex. Whether Springer ever troubled to get a qualified person to review that manuscript we don’t know, but such pre-press reviewers (if any) can have included no-one qualified in the history of Spanish missions to the New World, nor anyone deeply acquainted with Friar Sahagun’s work, nor any suitably well acquainted with the language of Nahuatl, or indeed with manuscript studies as such.
  2. the habit – again more than a century entrenched and exacerbated by the Friedmans and by d’Imperio’s little book – of treating this medieval manuscript as if it were nothing more than a vehicle for some cryptological problem.
  3. refusal to debate a Voynich theory of the traditionalist type, or to explain how a specific variation – as theory – came to be formed in the first place. This is another habit that sent the study off the rails very early; you will look in vain for footnotes and references to explain much of Wilfrid’s talk. The same refusal to engage with non-believers pervades the Friedmans’ work and is evidenced even more by considering who they might have consulted, but did not, as by those few whose names appear in in d’Imperio’s book. I touched on this point in discussing the work of Henry [H.E.] Sigerist, described by John Hopkins University as ““the pre-eminent medical historian in the early part of this century“ and who, as head of John Hopkins founded the Bulletin for the History of Medicine. See this post for more information.

Above all, traditionalists have failed to re-examine the early Euro-chauvenism which regarded the ‘medieval world’ as medieval western Christian Europe and even more narrowly as England, France, and Germany with a vague nod towards Italy. The rest of the medieval world, for them, was a blank.

As a simple matter of fact: we do not know that the Voynich manuscript was made in western Europe at all, let alone where the matter was gained or first enunciated that now forms its contents. The ‘western Christian Europe’ idea was just that – an idea.

By the time the manuscript was given to the Beinecke library, it was an idea that had been repeated as if undeniable fact for more than half a century, and like everyone else, the recipients found the work so bewildering that the catalogue entry apart from the collation, is little more than a combination of previous speculations, to which those of Robert S. Brumbaugh were added. Most curiously, it omitted the best-informed comments of all – those by the bookseller Kraus, whose assistant said plainly enough that a consensus of (presumably professional) opinion had dated the manuscript’s manufacture to the early fifteenth century.

My first fifty posts to Voynich Revisionist test the value of various among those earlier guesses, and then in subsequent posts we’ve tested one, and then another of the usual assertions against the testimony offered by the primary document and that of scholarship in the wider world beyond the Voynich ‘bubble’.

So far, I have tried to ease readers along by focusing on those few drawings – or few details – which do speak a visual language compatible, more or less, with that of medieval western Europe. I should emphasise, though, that overall these are a very small proportion of the whole and that the majority do not ‘speak European’ at all.

That the opposite impression has been widely given is due chiefly to the fact that amateurs attempting to use little more than “two eyes and common sense” have begun by presuming a Latin origin, and then limited their investigation to Latin Christian works and finally defined what they saw in the manuscript by that expectation. We’ve seen numerous examples of how that circular logic and confirmation-bias have affected perception of various Voynich drawings, among them the calendar’s emblem for December, which shows a figure holding a crossbow.

Even in our twenty-first century, most of what is said and written about the Voynich manuscript, and which presents as an historical-theoretical narrative is both determinedly Eurocentric and determinedly internalist.

If you’re not clear on what that word implies in historiography, you may enjoy a post written by Thony Christie. His interest is the history of sciences in Europe, particularly during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and often focusses on German-speaking regions.



Reading the Dunin-Schmeh paper to the 2022 zoom conference, I was puzzled at first by the seemingly careless dismissal of what I’d considered a reasonable possibility – namely that the varied styles and ‘languages’ of the Voynich manuscript reflected its development as the sort of collection of matter that can be described as a miscellany, a handbook, a notebook, a commonplace book or even a manual, depending on the purpose for which the collected ‘notes’ were brought together.

In the Dunin-Schmeh paper, though, the possibility is dismissed in what seems at first that all-too-common mixture of cavalier attitude and ‘commonsense’ tone which among too many Voynich writers passes for the pronouncement of indisputable fact.

But now I think we might just have a difference in terminologies.

Comparing their concept of ‘a notebook’ with their definition of a diary, the authors conclude:

For several reasons it is very unlikely that the Voynich Manuscript is an encrypted notebook. In particular, the writing in the manuscript, which is generally considered to be copied from a master text, is almost by definition not consistent with a notebook. In addition, notebooks usually contain short paragraphs, sketches, and numerous corrections, none of which can be found in the Voynich Manuscript.

Now – I don’t know why those writers believe that it is generally believed the whole content was copied from a single master-work. Like assertions that an idea is ‘commonsense’ for which no evidence is offered, so in this case ‘generally believed’ seems to be a way to pass off as unarguable some idea for which, again, there is support from neither the primary document nor any study making a serious effort to investigate that question.

Who are the people who ‘generally’ believe this? I can’t think of any, and no ‘master work’ which has been suggested in recent years. Those who ‘generally believe’ it don’t include the present author of course, in whose opinion such an idea is opposed by the distinctly different styles evinced by the manuscript’s drawings. I suspect it’s another of those anonymous assertions which hope to pass as fact in the way social-media creates ‘fact’ – by simple assertion and repetition of baseless notions.

However… we must leave that item hanging, too, since the Dunin-Schmeh paper doesn’t offer any source(s) for it.

More to the point is that the authors defined a notebook as containing only short paragraphs (Why?) and ‘numerous corrections'(Why?) – and sketches (Why?), while at the same time deciding that none of the Voynich drawings or diagrams qualify for description as ‘sketches’ of that kind (Why not?)

Despite their seemingly odd definition of a medieval ‘notebook’ I felt there would be some sort of explanation because while it seems to me the authors have placed undue reliance on one or more less than reliable informants, they are not people who generally resort to their own imagination. Since I wasn’t able to sit in on that zoom meeting, I don’t know what questions might have been put to them, and they may have answered the same questions.

However, in the course of preparing another post today, I went to check details of a few articles published by the Hamburg Centre for Comparative Manuscript Studies (as it used to be), and happened on a notice there about a newly-defined research topic called “Keeping Notebooks”.

The following image accompanied that notice. I’ve translated it to .gif but the better jpg version is in the linked page. [HERE]

(Remind me sometime to tell you about indigo and Thai script).

from the Achan Singkha Wannasai Collection (Lamphun province, Thailand) from 1960. Photo: Ubonphan Wannasai

I should describe that book as a student’s exercise book, or perhaps a lab-book, but it includes all those characteristic which, for Dunin and Schmeh, define the ‘notebook’.

So, perhaps all the problem was, in the end, just a matter of translation.

Still, it does bring up the historical question – whether such a definition applies to works produced in the early fifteenth century or earlier, even by students. For example, was it the custom of medieval teachers (in Europe or elsewhere) to inspect and check students’ notebooks in the way that, today, we check students’ lab-books as part of their assessment?

Also – notice the tailed beanie on the figure writing in the front row.

Bologna, Civic Museum. Students in fourteenth-century Bologna. by Jacobello & Pier Paolo dalle Masegne (fl.1383 – 1409).

Before leaving Hamburg University – here are a few free-access articles from the Centre for Manuscript studies. Clicking the link will immediately open the pdf.

Unfortunately, the Centre’s Journal became, with its New Series, accessible only by subscription or by direct purchase – and the prices are quite high.

I’d especially recommend the paper by Wimmer et. al. I had intended quoting its definition of a manuscript, as balance for common Voynich ideas which can be summed up by what one person said in response to comments that the primary document gives evidence of its historical and social context. Airily dismissing the fields of manuscript studies, historical studies, and art-historical and iconological analyses, he wrote:

“Cipher folks (or linguists) will always have the trump card … there will obviously be some necessity, once the text is cracked, to fit it into some sort of context.”

The really sad thing, in fact, is that a great many Voynicheros will hear that comment as one that is fair, reasonable and ‘commonsense’. For that reason, and to spare his blushes, I won’t repeat the chap’s name.

As readers will understand, we re-visionists have still a long and difficult task ahead.



If anyone attended the Conference entitled ‘The Pen, the Page, the Book’ held in El Escorial in October 2022, and knows where one can read the paper delivered by Michele Bernardini, ‘Safavid Magic Bowls as Portable Metal Books’, I’d like to hear from you.

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