This blog is unlike most others. My posts merely offer background for the Bibliography, not vice versa. My aim is to assist those interested in understanding the form and content of one particular fifteenth-century manuscript. It is not aimed at promoting a ‘Voynich theory’ and it will be of little use if you haven’t time or interest for studying things not  Voynich-specific or online.

The ‘Skies above’ series is an exception to the usual format. It includes a good deal of my own research and the sources which I used in researching the month-folios.  I felt it would be misleading to present readers with the usual ‘summary-and-bibliography’ for that section, knowing full well that the usual theory* – though maintained since 1912 – was invalid.  I had intended that series to be no more than five or six posts, but precisely because so much of the information was new, readers were entitled to be given a full explanation of the evidence and reasoning. I’m not a fan of the “how dare you doubt me” school. 🙂

*The traditionalist theory might be defined as  ‘its-a-zodiac-and-zodiac-means-astrology’.

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.

The idea that you can approach this manuscript by first creating an imaginative scenario, call it a ‘theory’ and then set about trying to convince others to believe you began in 1921 when Wilfrid Voynich spun his own tale.  His hearers were given no means by which to check the truth of his assertions; their only role was to believe.  And they did.  Much of what is still asserted as if it were fact is based in nothing but his imagination.  And those of his notions which persist, having been adopted entirely on faith, I describe as ‘Voynich doctrines’.

Here’s Wilfrid’s paper:

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.

For the next thirty years, most of what was written about this manuscript either parroted his assertions, or presented some alternative notion in exactly the same assertive  ‘Wilfrid-style’.  Thanks to Jim Reeds’ Voynich Bibliography, you can follow the work published to 2001:

Whatever their personal ideas, the majority of writers had one thing in common: they drew a clear line between what others said and thought, and their own opinions and conclusions.

This means that even now, in 2019, you can follow to its original source any idea about the manuscript that was current before the early 2000s.  So if you ask, ‘Who first associated Christopher Columbus with this manuscript?’ any who mentioned that notion – whether adopting the idea or not – will point you towards a paper that was published by Hugh O’Neill in 1944.   The ‘stemma’ were kept clean and clear – as is essential for ongoing study.

After 2004, though, those standards began to be abandoned, and not only because it proved difficult to keep up with the  proliferation of comments in blogs, websites and YouTube videos.

Some few who went online after about 2004 quite deliberately abandoned the practice of distinguishing between others’ insights or research conclusion and what thoughts they might have had themselves.

A comment made by Nick Pelling at his own blog (on February 22, 2011 at 12:14 am) describes his ‘Voynich’ experience in different context, but taken generally well describes the feelings of those systematically  ‘air-brushed out’ of the picture while the results of their hard work are simultaneously pillaged.

I knew at the time [they] weren’t ‘playing fair’, but it was only [later] that I realised quite how unfair that actually was. It wasn’t even that they were ignoring me, but rather that they gave every impression of trying to re-create my results by other means so as to avoid having to credit (or even name-check) me.

Those working on the text’s written part have avoided the contamination:    I cannot even imagine that (for example)  Emma May Smith would try to co-opt credit due to Philip Neal by the simple means of repeating his observations while omitting mention of his name.  Nor would Neal treat Julian Bunn’s research so, nor Julian abuse the work of either of the other two.  In that area, then, the researcher’s task is not hindered.  If he or she should ask who first observed or concluded this or that, the answer will be given (if known) or else tracked to its source without much time wasted.

Some few who have long-running blogs and websites also still meticulously observe the line between their own work and ideas and those of other people – as far as my experience over the past decade indicates.   Among those I’ve found trustworthy in this regard I would name Nick Pelling, Rich Santacoloma and (more recently) Koen Gheuens.  None subscribes to the same theory as any of the others, so far as I can see, but integrity depends on unity of principle; not conformity of belief.

What effect the abandonment of ethics in attribution and documentation has on the progress of research is fairly easily demonstrated.

Here’s a very simple example:

This picture (left) I happened upon most recently on Edith Sherwood’s website.

There is no credit given so in the normal way, you’d suppose that this ‘pairing’ is Edith’s brainchild.  However, I’ve seen it presented in other places, without Edith’s name attached to it, so it may, or may not, be Sherwood’s work.

If Sherwood’s, it is not an illustration from any research-paper;  if not Sherwood’s, it might have been part of someone’s research and argument, giving the reader some reason to believe they should consider the two objects ‘like’.

Before c.2004, anyone saying the  manuscript showed a picture ‘like’ a sunflower would immediately point you to O’Neill as the source for that idea, but in this case, trying to find the source for this picture’s inference/insinuation that the container pictured in the Voynich manuscript is ‘like’ something made in late fifteenth-century Germany is made difficult.  The paths of research are being confused and muddied.  How can you know if, or what, argument for that idea first used this image?  Was any evidence or argument so much as offered by the unnamed person? How can you know?

Well… try it.

Try asking on one of the Voynich forums.

Try asking Sherwood.  (Let me know how you go).

Leaving that dead-end and leaving aside the use of pictorial ‘argument by insinuation’… take a long close look at the supposedly ‘similar’ pair.

The fact is that two images have not a single point in common: not  form, nor medium, not in style of drawing, nor  materials… nothing.

Common purpose, perhaps?

The detail taken from the manuscript and labelled [a] has been tagged ‘apothecary jar’.

Now, you may want to know who first said these were ‘apothecary jars’, so you can decide whether their evidence justified that conclusion.  Unlike the question about who first said one of the manuscript’s pictures looked like a sunflower, this question is unlikely to be answered readily or easily because it is intrinsic to many dearly-loved theories, and to so much as ask about its source suggests an unwelcome doubt.  If the assertion was made between  1921- c.2004, or if the issue has cropped up on Nick Pelling’s site, you have a fair chance of being answered.

Otherwise…   ‘Good luck’.  But please don’t take my word for it. Try  to find what paper, or evidence-based argument introduced the notion that the Vms containers are ‘European apothecary jars’ – let alone German apothecary jars.  (The ‘German’ theory was scarcely seen until 2004, but has very dedicated adherents today).

(Take your time… check back in a few days…)

So now (back again) you’re found that what happened was that various ideas and assumptions and bits of guesswork created ideas whose ‘logical’ extension was that these containers were ‘apothecary jars’; that the ‘European-‘ was simply presumed and taken as given, and that the implication ‘by insinuation’ that the containers are more like ‘German apothecary jars’ than any others, rests on nothing but determined theory-promotion.

Being a revisionist, you find this sort of sloppiness unacceptable, and ask the very old fashioned question:

‘European Apothecary jar’ – Is that true?

Now you find yourself with three options – the same three we always have with  ‘Wilfridisms’.  You can believe what everyone says, without being provided solid evidence; or you can disbelieve it without reason, or you can ask the fundamental questions and do the research needed to settle them.

First – is the ‘argument by insinuation’ valid – should we believe the Voynich containers most like German objects … I say ‘No’, but don’t let my opinion affect you.

Second – is it true that within the date-range for the manuscript (1404-1438), apothecary shops in Europe (anywhere in Europe) were using containers like that labelled [a]?

Since the research-lines have become so badly messed about by those refusing to acknowledge what sources they’ve used, you find now that you have to waste a couple of weeks doing this work because you cannot find any indication that it has been done before (though in fact the present writer did)

So after you’ve spent a couple of weeks studying all the iconographic evidence within your reach; hunting histories of technology and of pharmacy; and finally the  archaeological and textual sources – what do you find?

For me, the conclusion was unavoidable that the notion of the Voynich containers as objects used in European apothecary shops before 1440 (and indeed until much later) is baseless.   There’s not a scrap of evidence for it.

The reason you have had to go to all that effort, and duplicate the work already done (by the present author certainly but by who knows which others, even earlier) is that it does not suit persons promoting a particular theory to admit the existence of research and evidence plainly opposing their favoured ideas.  It is either not mentioned at all – or you are not mentioned, though some or all of your work might be co-opted and re-used or mis-used, sometimes with a different person’s name attached.

Not unlike the ‘pairing’ above.  We are left ignorant of the person who made that association; denied the opportunity to read any justification or evidence they might have offered, and naturally in those circumstances we would tend to credit whoever’s site the thing appears on.   But especially with adherents of the ‘German’ theory and its cousins,  abandonment of ethical practice is now endemic.  Apparently it is being presented to them as form of civic duty; the ‘nameless’ soldier is the good soldier sort of thing.

Nevertheless, since you’ve now gone to the time and trouble of doing, or re-doing the work needed to judge the historical merit of that ‘pairing’, you’ve found that anyone assuming accurate this  ‘European apothecary jar’ notion is absolutely on the wrong track.

So what do you do? (Let’s suppose you don’t reduce it to a tweet).

If your research had been done before 2004, you could have shared your evidence and conclusions on Reeds’ mailing list and people interested in getting things right would (probably) have listened and when repeating your conclusions, they would have kept things clean by attributed the conclusion and research to you, so others could then go back and check whether your evidence was valid and your argument sound.  That, of course, is how our understanding of a topic, or a manuscript, evolves.

These days, what would happen if you published your evidence and reasoning for disputing the ‘European apothecary jar’ idea is anyone’s guess. (If you had supported it, you’d be feted).

If you put the argument against on a blog or website of your own, two things are fairly likely to happen; you may hear the ‘word on the street’ is to  ‘just ignore’ your work. It’s  possible that the same persons spreading that ‘word’ are going to take up just the conclusion, call it ‘an idea’ and put it about, or incorporate it unacknowledged into their own site, or randomly bestow credit for it on some mate who (unlike you) basically agrees with the pilferer’s pet theory.

Sad for you, but worse for the study as a whole and for the next person who, seeing that same ‘pairing’ picture is inclined to ask the same questions: Who says this? Where do I find their evidence (if any) and … above all… is that true?

They might be lucky; they might fall over your own work under its imposed ‘blanket of silence’.

They might give up and just presume  that someone, somewhere, once proved the ‘German apothecary jars’ inference.

They may decide to disbelieve that, but without any more reason.  Or they may decide to investigate,  quite unaware that this work has been done  – though if they knew of it they might think it needed improvement.  So they start all over again. Wasting weeks of their research-time.

Chances are that someone will later dismiss their work on the grounds it is  ‘not original’.

What they have experienced is that phenomenon  Pelling once described as the ‘Voynich ground-hog day’… and the extraordinary waste of time and intelligence which results from abandoning ethical standards in crediting and documentation is the principal cause for the endless re-discovering of things already investigated.  Intellectual dishonesty does have benefits for individuals, but has none at all for the manuscript’s study.

What’s to be done?

I think the time has come for a root-and-branch revision.  I suggest that other revisionists follow the study’s path from its beginnings = something not to difficult to do before the early 2000s, while the paths of now-common beliefs were still kept clean and clear.

We can check, and correct, past ideas and assertions, improve on the standard of evidence for or against, and so armed with that revised history for the study, better assess the theories and methodologies adopted today. Asking ‘Is that true?’ may not please post-modernist historians, but I think it’s an important question for the revisionist.

The aim is to keep what is solid; throw away the accumulated rubbish, and then work to return the study of this manuscript to the normal standards of manuscript studies: from evidence towards conclusions. Let others worry about plausible theories; the revisionist has to first determine what is demonstrably true – of the object and in earlier qualified opinions.

The Bibliographical references are not an exhaustive reading list.

Posts  will sketch the background to one or another problematic item or subject – sometimes pronounced  ‘beyond doubt’  though few are.  The references are meant only to start the revisionist on his or her way, not to limit the range of their investigation.

As we go, I’ll point to examples of distortion  – created by anachronism or poor method. I’ll mention cases where unproven ideas were fossilised by faith and by repetition; or deliberately repeated as if undeniable simply because they suited some semi-fantastic ‘history’.

I’ll  draw attention, at times, to the impact of individual bias since 1921.

Postscript:  Simple cylindrical containers have been made by every people on earth since neolithic times. They have been made of birch-bark, of stone, of pottery and of woven and lacquered materials.  Such universal forms tell us nothing about the origin or intention of the various containers in the Voynich ‘leaf and root’ section; it is the others, with their distinctive forms, which speak to the important questions.  If anything, a picture such as that below only tells us that those used in sixteenth-century Germany were often decorated with heraldic-style designs and the lid provided with a knob or loop.. unlike the simple cylinders in the Vms.

pharmacy W detail
(detail) Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (Strasbourg, 1512), fol. 6v

2 thoughts on “About

  1. Ms. O’Donovan, my name is Dave Ladley, and I’m a small town family physician from the northeastern US and longtime lurker of all things Voynich. I recently started posting at Voynich.ninja under the username RenegadeHealer. I wanted to introduce myself to you over at the Ninja after reading a lot of your posts, and thinking that you add a valuable perspective to the discussion. But it soon became clear to me that you are no longer active in that community. I just wanted to say that I respect the way you remind all of us of the importance of adhering to the scientific and historical methods. Ditto to your courage to call out breaches of intellectual ethics and unkindness in scholarly debate. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem: which came first, the flaky reputation of the field of study, or the attraction of flakes to it?

    I’ve spent a good bit of my life on the margins and the fringes, and in my experience they have two kinds of local inhabitants: 1) Harmless weirdos, and 2) Toxic people whose weirdness includes a lack of empathy. Teddy Roosevelt’s advice about “walk softly and carry a big stick” applies here: Be openminded and accepting of others’ weirdness, but don’t leave yourself open to exploitation, and draw a firm line at any unkind behavior. I first picked up on this theme reading the Chinese classic “Outlaws of the Marsh” and seeing strong thematic parallels to American movies set in the Old West, as well as my own experiences with scenes far removed from mainstream society.

    I find the expertise of many of the quality contributors to Voynich scholarship awe-inspiring and humbling. I’m a very verbal thinker and a lifelong language and linguistics buff, so the text of the VMS is my main area of interest, in addition to the overall mystery. I realized the other day that if I found the solution to the VMS’s text, and had my name attached to this accomplishment, most of my soundbytes to the media would just be thanking the many past and contemporary researchers whose shoulders I stood on to reach that prize. Because to me, it’s not about the glory of solving it. It’s about bonding with other people, across the world, over a true treasure hunt which is in many ways a microcosm of the Human Condition.


    1. Dave, Thanks for the comment and encouraging words. I hope you will enjoy taking part in Voynich discussions online.
      PS – if you must use a title, ‘Dr’ is the one, but as a Quaker I prefer not to use titles unless it’s quite unavoidable – so just ‘Diane’.


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