My position on the manuscript is that…
We should be seeking less to ‘break’ the text, or ‘solve’ the manuscript than to understand it. The manuscript isn’t the problem; the problem is that some basic flaws in the manuscript’s past study leave us still – after more than a century – unable to rightly interpret the evidence embodied in the manuscript’s form, materials, script and content. I’d suggest a prospective revisionist always keep two questions to the fore when reading what has been, or is being said of the manuscript’s content: ‘Where’s the evidence for that idea?’ and ‘Is that inference valid?’.
The aim of this blog is to inspect the premises, assumptions and evidence (if any) which led to the formation of ideas now repeated everywhere.
The reason for beginning this blog – and my chief interest these days – is to better 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, how it 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.
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.
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.
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.
2 thoughts on “About”
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.
David, 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’.