This blog is unlike most others. Its posts serve as background commentary to the Bibliography, not vice versa. It will be of no use to you if you have no time or inclination to read much that isn’t Voynich-specific and online.
The study as it is…
It is begun because even now, more than a century after the Voynich manuscript came to public attention, there are perhaps a handful of studies which add to our understanding of the manuscript itself. The vast majority, from any source no matter how notable, are creating or maintaining a quasi-historical narrative for it. One of the most astonishing features of the study today is that very little of what is said, or announced as a ‘new idea’ hadn’t been considered as early as 1940. So, for example, Panofsky had assessed the month names as ‘regional French’ in the 1930s, an idea (now as Occitan) revived or re-discovered by Reeds in the early 90s, explored further by Stolfi.. and so on.
The premise informing this blog is fairly obvious: if, after a century, most of the things asserted as advances are either items known early, or items early disproved, or mere ‘Wilfrid-style’ exercises of imaginative history-writing (accompanied since c.2006 by active hostility to informed dissent), then some fundamental error of logic, fact or method continues to affect the study that had begun distorting it very early.
I cannot share with Richard Santacoloma his view that the manuscript is a twentieth-century forgery, but the new-ish habit of”ad.hominem argument” – defining a dissenter as ‘not one of us’ – has seen a failure in the majority to dare consider seriously anything of his work or to honestly credit him as the source for an ‘idea’ taken up, for fear of being, themselves, subjected to the ‘sneer-smear’ attacks that presently meet any opposition to an air-borne ‘Germanic’ theory, though only to that theory.
Among the number of paradoxes and anomalies to which Santacoloma has drawn attention, some are justly observed. And while one may differ from him about what inferences may reasonably be drawn from those observations, there is surely no ‘Voynichero’ living who has not failed in logic or reasoning during their virtual careers.
The popular success of any proposed narrative for the manuscript is no measure of its worth. When independent thought meets reprisals by attacks on the dissenter, I take it as an indication that the narrative so defended cannot be defended by more rational means. The most baseless assertions are thus permitted to pass unchallenged into the set of ‘Voynich doctrines’; even to invite explanation or debate over some notion – for example that long held by Prinke and Zandbergen that the manuscript came from Matthias Corvinus’ library – is to risk ad.hominem attacks by supporters, and assertions that in failing to believe one is motivated by malice or stupidity. In this way to question, let alone actively to dissent, is effectively if tacitly prohibited by simple fear. Ostracism is a tool well understood, long-used, and employed ‘lobby-style’ in online ‘Voynich studies’ today. Conformity lifts the ban.
For a number of years, Nick Pelling was marginalised (in the usual way, by lobbying and unsolicited advice to ‘pay no attention’/’just ignore’) for insisting on the value of palaeography and codicology, and for attributing the manuscript to the early fifteenth century, and to Italy. His views having been confirmed by external scientific evaluations, he is now accepted warmly into the ‘Germanic’ crowd and being convinced by some of their arguments, too, he has himself modified his ideas to accord more closely with that theory. His book of 2006 was withdrawn.
One of the paradoxes noted and emphasised by Santacoloma I think important enough to deserve a post here. That is, the inverse proportion in certainty which we find, throughout the study’s history, between specialists in a given field and unqualified persons without any such experience. In Voynich studies, it is the less qualified and less experienced in a specific field who express the greater certainty.
It was not long ago that, after making the general recommendation that those commenting on the imagery might read more non-Voynich studies in art, one person responded that the only qualification needed was “two eyes”, while on another occasion, an equally general suggestion that study might benefit from more academic references was met by a hostile assertion (ad hominem, of course) that I “thought academics were better people.”
Attempting to discredit any information by ‘discrediting’ the speaker has become an argument of choice for far too many today, and principally those espousing a ‘Germanic’ theory whose foundation is little more than Charles’ Singer’s “vague feelings” of 1957 combined with the disputed interpretation of a item of marginalia. Asserted ‘matches’ for the imagery are of a standard which, outside the closed environment of online Voynich discussions, would not pass muster for a moment.
Here (left) is one of the myriad. The implied ‘similarity’ is a phantasm: the two objects have no point of similarity and reference to the historical, archaeological, iconographic and technical histories all makes clear that nothing like the object labelled [a] has been attested used by pharmacies (apothecary shops) of Latin (western Christian) Europe before the manuscript was manufactured (1404-1438). Sherwood is not to be blamed; this sort of ‘match’ was being widely advertised and handed to bloggers and others to promote. It’s purpose is to create a near subliminal feeling that a ‘Germanic’ character for the manuscript is certain.
Setting aside the study’s current state, to consider how it should be in so parlous a condition after a century, the point remains this: that if we keep finding that proposed hypotheses don’t meet with solid confirmation, then something about those hypotheses is wrong. They are built from ‘givens’ ill-founded – sometimes quite baseless – or on tenuous inferences taken from purely circumstantial evidence.
It seems to be high time to retrace our steps and see where the study went off-track.
As it began…
So I begin with the tale which began it all – Wilfrid Voynich’s. It was he who first asserted that the manuscript was in cipher. His evidence? Only that he couldn’t read it. The question of ‘cipher versus language’ is still unresolved. What happened was that most people took his assertion as if it were something already proven, and for the first hundred years or so exhausted their energies in trying to ‘break’ the text without asking the most basic question, “Ciphertext… Is that true?” It may be; it may not. But if not, the idea derailed the manuscript’s study from the first.
Worse, Wilfrid’s very angle of approach – to spin a tale studded with historical bits-and-pieces linked to the manuscript more by faith and inference than any proof – became a defacto standard for discussing the manuscript, and even people accustomed to more rigor in their own field adopted the ‘Wilfrid-style’ when it came to this manuscript. (A prime example that we’ll later encounter is O’Neill’s imagining he saw an American sunflower among the botanical images).
The paper which began it all is Wilfrid’s presentation of 1921, which can be read online.
Wilfrid M. Voynich, ‘A Preliminary Sketch of the History of the Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript’, Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Vol. 43 (1921). p.415.
A number of Wilfrid’s assertions, not just the ‘ciphertext’ one, were taken on faith and so often repeated that they now form a set of ‘Voynich doctrines’ though having no more factual basis now than in 1921.
The study has never been able to return to the normal methods by which a manuscript is provenanced and understood. Why? Partly because any challenging the core ‘doctrines’ is at risk of being attacked en masse by believers and partly because when people have become strongly attached to a particular story – such as imagining that the manuscript is an occult-alchemical production from late sixteenth-century Prague – they tend to feel annoyed when told they’re mistaken, or that radiocarbon dating says the manuscript was made in the early fifteenth century, and non-Voynich-related specialists pronounce the binding a style associated with northern Italy.
The craziest might decide to exercise their option to “pay no attention” to annoying things like disproof or debate; the less crazy try to manipulate the facts … to say that when the radiocarbon dating says 1404-1438, what it *really* means is 1520 or something. Or when Adam McLean says (as he did)
“The main ‘alchemical’ resonance is supposed to be the ‘balneological’ section, but here I find no parallels with alchemical manuscripts, except in a very general way. If this was an alchemical work one would expect to find some other alchemical manuscript with similar drawings – but I do not know of one. “
… the believers just press on regardless.
- Adam McLean’s letter in response to a question from Dennis Stallings, quoted on the first mailing list (11/19/98).
My own touchstone is that the manuscript’s testimony is the final word.
If the vellum is dated to the early fifteenth century, that’s it! It is possible that the material was inscribed later – but the manuscript offers no support for the idea. It’s possible that an Italian binder was working in outer Mongolia – but to date the manuscript has offered no support for that idea. And ‘New World’… no.
The Bibliographical references included are not an exhaustive reading list.
The posts sketch the background to one or another problematic item or subject which has been pronounced ‘beyond doubt’ when it isn’t – and the readings are there to start the revisionist on his or her own lines of investigation.
I’ll give examples of where anachronisms and poor method distorted an earlier line of study; where unproven ideas have been fossilised by faith and by repetition; and note the effect of contemporary popularist histories and individual bias. Don’t underestimate the last. ‘What everyone knows’ may be no more than a shared delusion.
What is ‘Wilfrid Style’ history?
As you’ll see from the 1921 article, Wilfrid presents ‘history’ as a string of assertions connected by inference more than evidence and which placed undue weight on items which suggest support for the theoretical history. He makes no effort to prove that his bundle of historical bits-and-pieces have any direct connection to the manuscript, or even that they are not a-historical notions. In fact, his habit is to beg all the questions fundamental to his narrative, while distracting the reader in ways which avoid attention being drawn to these feats of legerdemain. For him, the reader’s only role was to believe.
In short, Wilfrid’s narrative has a relationship to history rather like the case-moth’s relationship to a tree: less substantial that it first appears.
photo courtesy of Sarah Lloyd
Readers are welcome to contribute comments, guest posts, and bibliographic items here, but should be aware that revisionist studies are unlikely to be greeted with pleasure by those bent on maintaining one or another Wilfrid-style narrative.
That those maintaining ideas based chiefly in faith will react with hostility to any questioning is a phenomenon well known, and often remarked as (with apologies to Swift):
Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reason he never acquired: for in the course of things, men will always grow vicious before they will become unbelievers. . .
The other side of the balances – the believers’ case – may be explained by Augustine:
What we have neither had experience of through our bodily senses, nor have been able to reach through the intellect, must undoubtedly be believed on the testimony of those witnesses by whom the Scriptures were written.
Augustine of Hippo, Enchiridion, IV