O’Donovan notes #8.2. Compare and contrast f.67v-1 and f.85r (part).

c.3500 words

The author’s rights are asserted

STRUCTURE – folio 67v-1

Because the drawing on folio 67v-1 is a diagram, we may expect that its structure will speak to the type of information it was designed to convey.

Like the diagram on folio 85r, it is organised by two fourfold divisions.

We’ll consider now what is inside its larger circle, leaving aside for the present the four peripheral emblems (below).

CENTRAL MOTIFS.

The centre of folio 85r (part) shows a ‘leonine’ sun in a field that isn’t simply coloured, but formed as swirling lines. As we now have the drawing, those lines are coloured blue, but since we don’t yet know when the ‘heavy painter’ added that pigment, we focus on the basic line drawing.

These two central emblems tell us two important things: first, that the person(s) who first gave each drawing its form did not think of the heavens as a smooth dome, solid or crystalline, nor as as a tent, but chiefly in terms of this swirling movement or perhaps by comparison with some other form composed of a circuit of repeating lines/curves.

If we were considering the history of Mediterranean art, we might liken the centre in folio 67v-1 to a form of omphalos motif, but more about the drawing must be taken into account before trying to explain it.

Since we know the winds were a principal reference in the first diagram (folio 85r) and that the usual way to describe the circuit of direction during daylight hours was by naming the wind from that direction, the fact that the centre of 67v-1 shows a comparable swirling pattern but now has a six-point star at its centre, makes it reasonable to test as one possibility that it might describe how the directions were determined at night.

It’s just a possibility, one worth exploring but – as regular readers will know – our aim is not to come up with some novel or merely plausible theoretical explanation , but to correctly understand and explain what the original maker had intended.

Another axiom which applies here is that when there is an easier way to do something, but the first maker of an image chose a less convenient way, there’s usually some good reason for it – it’s usually meaningful. And, as you’ll probably tire of hearing before too long…

Differences really matter!

In this case, when a circle or a square is to be divided by two four-fold divisions, the easy way to do it, and the way one would expect it done in the symmetry-loving art of western Europe, would be like this:

In that case, if you wanted to associate wind-names with the points of sunrise and sunset, as they change through the year, your schematic diagram would look rather like this (below) whether the names were in Greek, in Latin or in some European vernacular:

adapted from ‘the Aristotelian winds’ illustration in an excellent wiki article ‘Classical Compass Winds‘.

But that isn’t how these two diagrams in Beinecke MS 408 were designed.

(detail) 85r (part)

In both diagrams, the main four-fold division has its lines offset. That is, the lines might ‘box’ the centre, but they aren’t made as two lines that intersect at the centre. Euclidian, it isn’t.

If this had occurred in just one of the two diagrams, we might shrug it off, but the same is done in both. So it’s purposeful.

(detail f.67v-1)

Details of this kind are what a novice instinctively turns their eye and mind away from, or tries immediately to invent some excuse for as they struggle to maintain our natural and deep-seated belief that “our ways are the right and normal”.

Throughout the history of this manuscript’s study, that habit of shying away and trying to ignore uncomfortable differences from Latin norms (or, still more narrowly from one’s pet theory) has resulted in unjustified assertions that the fifteenth-century copyists or the original draughtsmen were incompetent or devious. We don’t need to resort to such excuses because our ‘norm’ must be whatever was customary for those people by whom, and for whom, a drawing was first given form.

Our task is to understand the drawings, not to decide what habits and ideas ‘ought’ to have informed them.

And from such indications of how the original maker thought and what was normal in his/her time and place, we may identify where and when a given drawing was first formed.

It may seem strange at first to have no preliminary theory, but it does allow the researcher a much more impartial approach and a more relaxed response to unexpected phenomena, such as these offset lines of division.

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CONSONANCE

I think it is now generally accepted, as it was not a few years ago, that what we have in Beinecke MS 408 is a compilation, not a single homogenous work.

That means we can’t just assume that the time and place in which one drawing was formed will be the same for all, or for any other unless expressing similar forms, stylistics and what we might call cultural attitudes.

In both these diagrams, for example, we find a form for the sun which has it flame-haired rather than – as it might be – surrounded by spiked rays.

A diagram adjacent to our second example adds the remarkable information (folio 67v-2) that the ‘flaming’ corona is not simply a stylistic but is meaningful; that we are to consider those flaming locks artificial, with the beard (at least) tied about the face and perhaps also the head’s wild-looking curls.

(detail) folio 67v-2

That it is meant for the sun, not any such figure as Medusa or an alchemical character is evidenced by the fact that we find the same flame-haired form for the sun used throughout the manuscript’s diagrams and with it a repeated view that the sun’s daily emergence is associated with a flower.

In the Voynich map, that flower is included in the emblem marking the map’s ‘west’; the sun falls into a surface very economically shown as under water; from the water-marked mud there emerges the flower through which the sun will re-emerge next morning in the east.

Note – The Voynich map is drawn on one side of a single sheet of vellum. It was originally numbered ‘folio 86v‘ although it is certainly the first drawing placed on that sheet. The Beinecke’s subsequent re-foliation splits the map’s description in a way that reads as if it half the map had been drawn of the back of one bifolio and half on the front of another – but in is a single drawing, on one side of a single sheet.

The Voynich map’s West emblem:

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The map’s East emblem.

(detail) Voynich map

This detail is now so faint that I’ve had to use a data-rich image. Hope it doesn’t crash anyone’s phone. Even so, it is so very faded that it’s extremely difficult to read – though an XRF scan for iron (in the iron-gall ink) might one day make the form clear.

The same concept, though very differently drawn, informs these emblems in folio 67v-1, and that marked difference in stylistic habits as well as the existence of different attitudes to defining the directions mean that here we cannot assume assignment to sunrise or to sunset. My reason for saying so should be explained.

(details) folio 67v-1.

LEFT and/or RIGHT?

This next part gets a bit technical.

The question we must ask now is whether we can assume for folio 67v-1 that the ‘sun+flower’ means West there, simply because the map includes the flower in its west emblem.

I expect most readers habitually take ‘north-up’ as their default, and will assume without much pause for thought that if you stand facing North, East must lie on your right.

But “North orientation means east-right” is a convention, not a fact however much a modern person of European heritage might suppose it commonsensical.

Think of it this way:

Instead of imagining that you stand looking north, imagine yourself lying on the ground with your head towards the North.

Now, if you lie face-down, East will be on your right hand, but if you roll to lie on your back, looking up into the sky then East will be to your left-hand side.

Suppose now you’re able to do the same things, but hovering several feet or metres above ground. By daylight your bird’s eye view, looking down, would produce a map of the land which had East to your right, but when you rolled over to map the night sky, East will be on the left.

The point is that you can have an ‘east-left’ even if your primary direction is to the North. It can depend on whether you’re actually or conceptually defining directions by where you are, and then whether you’re turning towards the earth, or the sky.

Latin Europe only accepted this ‘east-left’ idea within the limited topic of representing the constellations (and then only occasionally) and for some instruments like our planispheres.

Since we already suspect a non-Latin origin for the diagram on folio 67v-1, thanks to those offset lines and adjacency to the curious sun on folio 67v-2, we can’t presume the same norms or limits will apply to this drawing as would if a drawing spoke the graphic language of medieval Latin Europe.

There’s a possibility, therefore, that though when turned North-up, the diagram on folio 85r had its East on the diagram’s right side, this may not. The diagram on folio 85r has the sun as its central emblem, and in daylight the directions were commonly named by winds, but this diagram has a star in its centre and so may be referring to divisions of the night-sky. Which means that whether or not originally designed North-up, it might have its East on the left. (With me so far?)

I understand that it’s tempting for some students of this manuscript, as they begin feeling confused or bewildered by its drawings, to brush aside both the ‘oddities’ and their investigation, resorting instead to adopting impatience as excuse for returning to an easier and more familiar cultural context. But it won’t do. The sun’s being reborn from a flower each day is no expression of medieval western Christian culture, whose nearest approach was the rite of baptism, once the font had replaced the river.

And, if this weren’t enough to cope with, the Voynich map’s east-west placements are the reverse of a European norm yet it is clearly a map showing part of the physical world and not the night sky.

Lotus and rebirth.

Some readers may know how widely the lotus was (and is) identified with re-birth, but might associate the source of that idea only Buddhism, with Hinduism, with ancient Egypt or with some other body of knowledge according to their own background.

So far as I can discover, none but the Egyptians ever actually believed that the sun was re-born daily from a lotus, or believed as if it had been true, that every lotus sinks into the mud at night yet rises fresh and clean each morning.

The Egyptian information is easily found, but in short:

It was believed that a giant lotus blossom came out of the primeval waters of Nun, and out of which the sun-god emerged. The Egyptian text whose transliterated name (rw nw prt m hrw), is translated as ‘Book of Coming Forth by Day’ or as ‘Book of Emerging Forth into the Light’ has come to be mis-named ‘Book of the Dead’ in English. It includes a spell to transform the deceased into a lotus, ensuring rebirth during the day for the deceased.

CAUTION: religious and cultural beliefs naturally influence how images are formed by a given community, but it is a mistake to imagine that every reflection of such ideas means that either the image or its accompanying text must be all about religion.

So when we find, in Persepolis, an image of the lotus with two buds, we need not suppose the figure holding them was a convert to the religion of Egypt.

An idea which one people regards as speaking to immortality can easily be translated, there or elsewhere, into a promise of never-ending power – ‘horizon to horizon’ – and this latter I take to be the sense of the lotus image (illustrated below) from Achaemenid Persepolis.

Buddhism took another message from the lotus, one not greatly different from the idea of emerging bright and unscathed despite immersion in mud and water – but now that idea of re-emergence was expressed in terms of the person’s soul and not their physical body. To quote a label written by the Art Institute of Chicago for an artefact made in China between 618 CE–906 AD:

From the time Buddhism came to China, the lotus—which emerges unstained from muddy water and therefore carries associations of purity and non-attachment to worldly concerns—had become a pervasive motif in secular as well as religious art.

The lotus also features in Hindu traditions.

It is usual for those three major traditions of the pre- and non-Roman world: the Egyptian, the Buddhist and the Hindu – to be discussed as if each was wholly independent of the other two, but there was a time when all three ways flourished in close proximity.

Indo-Hellenistic fusion with Egyptian input.

In the region about Gandhara, where Buddhism would first flourish, lay the easternmost borderlands of Persia’s Achaemenid Empire.

The Persians evidently had a custom (also seen in pre-Roman Egypt) where dangerous border-lands were peopled with foreign communities who were brought, or who came voluntarily, from elsewhere.

The Persians had populated this borderland with, among others, communities taken from Asia minor and from Greek-speakers in Egypt, both Carians and Phoenicians and peoples who had earlier been settled by Egypt along its own southern and western borders.

When Alexander of Macedon conquered and took the Persian empire, the same eastern border region which had marked the limit of that empire now became the eastern limit of his own, and after his death, remained as the eastern border of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom.

It is an amusing side-light to Voynich studies, that a mention of the Hellenistic kingdoms elicits snorts of derision from hard-core Voynich traditionalists, though the same persons will happily refer to Aristotle, who lived even earlier and was one of Alexander’s tutors. 🙂

it was during the period of closest interaction between the eastern ‘Greeks’ and India that the early Buddhist art of Gandhara developed and Buddhism came into its own. Taking with them the skill of paper-making, Buddhist teachers then carried their message throughout India and to as far as the east China sea, their own vision of the lotus with it.

‘WHERE AND WHEN’?

With literally half the world aware of the lotus as a symbol of re-emergence, how can one decide whether our debt is to one, or some combination of those traditions or (as Isidore is indebted to classical Roman poets) whether we’re looking at some later maintenance of the conceptual image quite divorced from the society which first expressed that image?

Consider that stylistic difference:

In the Voynich map, the flower is formed in a way that agrees with one among the long-enduring conventions found in Egyptian art. The following example is from a tomb-painting but other instances would have appeared in classical and in medieval times as carvings and paintings in publicly accessible areas. Here the lotus is drawn fan-like, the petals topped with dots as (or with) a narrow band. Notice also that the open flower is flanked by two others, not yet opened.

Here is how the lotus is drawn on the Voynich map – again with its petals topped by dots to form an upper boundary.

detail – West emblem, Voynich map.

Before anyone becomes heated with some Egyptian theory, I must point out that an artefact made in China during the Northern Song period (618-907 AD) also shows this way of depicting the lotus. The object was, admittedly, probably for export and was made during a period when there were diplomatic and trading ties between Persia, Baghdad, India and China.

detail from a vessel made during the time of the Northern Song. This image and associated research summary first published through Voynichimagery in, ‘Emblems of Direction – ‘West’ (July 29th., 2012).

Also found in common between ancient Egyptian, Achaemenid and later Asian representations is a type which does not show literally the flower’s physical appearance, but makes it resemble a cup.

Below, in the left column, one example from ancient Egypt and one from Achaemenid Persepolis. On the right side, illustrations to show that the cup-like form for ‘sunrise’/rebirth on folio 67v-1 has been drawn in a way that permits comparison with Chinese artefacts from (a) the 12th-13thC Yuan period and even much earlier (see further below) – from the 3rdC AD Jun [Jin] period.

The Jun period had seen the height of Indo-Greek fusion, with the flourishing of Buddhist culture in India.

During the time of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), relations between the Islamic world and China had been developing well. Baghdad was the Abbasid capital, and Siraf in the Persian Gulf was the chief terminus for the east-west trade.

Two separate incidents, costing the lives of resident foreign traders saw formal relations wither andfor some long time, trade was chiefly conducted by land.

incidents…’ massacres in Yangzhou in 760 AD, when a thousand ‘Arabs and Persians’ are said to have been massacred; Guangzhou in 878–879 AD when tens of thousands are reported massacred – including Arabs, Persians and Christians, the last presumably members of the Church of the East (Nestorians). No reference is made to Manichaeans though perhaps the historian classed them as Persian.

  • Tim Mackintosh-Smith and James E. Montgomery, Two Arabic Travel Books: Accounts of China and India and Mission to the Volga by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī and Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān, (NYU: 2014)

We know that by the end of the twelfth century, relations had been restored – because when John of Montecorvino travelled east as Europe’s first ambassador-missionary, he found Italians already resident and established there as trading families.

From all the above, we may fairly conclude that the drawing on folio 67v-1 was not first formed as any expression of western Christian culture and that the face emerging from that type of cup-shaped flower – or flower-shaped cup if you like – must signify East.

‘East’ in the diagram on fol. 67v-1

Though the emerging face here is turned to one side, where on the map it emerges full-face, does not appear to have been considered a significant change.

But between this image and that on the Voynich map, the style of drawing is very different and in my opinion the diagram on folio 67v-1 had a much later origin.

It is not impossible that as lines from Isidore’s Etymologies informed the final appearance of the drawing on folio 85r, so the final form for this drawing may be informed by lines from Hafiz who flourished at just the time of most interest to us – the mid-fourteenth century. (1325–1390):

Cupbearer, it is morning, fill my cup with wine.
Make haste, the heavenly sphere knows no delay.

The sun of the wine dawns in the east of the goblet.

Hafez (also seen as ‘Hafiz’ lived 1325-1390). translation by Bernard Lewis. For the spiritual interpretation of Hafiz’ work as a Sufi poem see e.g. commentary (here) by Ivan M. Granger.

So far, surveying the sun-born-from-flower idea, as religious belief, as metaphor, as reflected in artefacts and in purely poetic images, we have defined the range of our subject in terms of time and geography. The sun-emerging-from-lotus might occur as a physical and/or conceptual image from ancient Egypt to fourteenth-century China, not excluding Persia, India and much of south-east Asia. 😀

But our being able to gaining so much insight from just that one motif from f.67v-1 augers well. This drawing looks as if it won’t be too difficult to understand.

(below) – Underside of a lotus bowl, Yuan period. The overlapping petals result in a ‘swirl’ of the type we’re looking for.

The list of works consulted during my research into this diagram is very long and far too long to be listed here even if any Voynicheros could find the time or interest to read them.

For references for any particular point, do email me.

For this post, I replaced an older image of the ‘Egyptian marshes’ detail with the brighter version in a delightful blog which I sincerely recommend to my readers:

  • Monica Bowen (ed.), ‘Marshes in Ancient Egyptian Art’, Alberti’s Window (blog), (Tuesday, March 11th, 2014). The blog has been running since 2007 and is still posting.

Concerning the lotus motif in Gandharan art, one paper I had not seen until recently deserves mention, despite its author’s being apparently unaware of Egyptian influence on Mediterranean thought, including upon the Greeks’, and failing to mention of the Ashokan embassy which sparked the medical traditions of Cos and possible also its silk-making:

  • Kiran Shahid Siddiqui, ‘Significance of Lotus’ Depiction in Gandhara Art’, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society (2012), unpaginated. Illustrations. available through academia.edu

O’Donovan notes #2a. Limits.

This past week was spent reading Voynich-related material available online, including a random sample of the two hundred and forty -something ‘Voynich’ items published through the site Academia.edu – once academic but more mixed these days.

As a result, I’ve decided to change the format of this ‘Notes’ series. I will publish a pair of posts on the one day, one describing a common pitfall and the other outlining some question still unresolved.

To avoid misunderstandings let me say once more that, because I have no talent or competence in cryptology or linguistics, my comments don’t refer to those topics except where the researcher seems to have been affected by general errors and presumptions.

Fortunately, people competent in cryptology and linguistics are inclined to respond when opinions are published about the manuscript’s written text, but well-informed commentary and critique have been very rare when theorists speak about the images and diagrams.

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Inverted vision – one early persistent flaw.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens)

If you imagine the sum of a person’s information and ideas to the time just before they encountered the Voynich manuscript as:

(which is what I mean by a person’s intellectual horizon)

Then what we find, from the very beginning of modern interest in this manuscript, is that people engaging with it presumed that its history, nature and ‘solution’ could be understood from within their previous interests and habits – like this.

From Wilfrid Voynich and William Newbold to the Friedmans to Brumbaugh or Tucker, the pattern of activity was to first mistake an ‘idea’ for inspired knowledge, then to adopt as givens items for which no verifiable evidence had been offered, and thereafter to hunt only within their own intellectual comfort zone for whatever might lend their theories a greater air of credibility.

Generations of researchers thus adopted Newbold’s ‘herbal’ idea, or ‘astrological’ idea or ‘pharma-‘ idea without further pause for thought nor considering any alternatives. That the content (not just the manufacture) was western European was presumed, as was contemporaneousness between manufacture and first enunciation of the content – so western Christian Europe was the horizon-limit assumed in common.

The basic problem was – to rephrase Augustine- that “a person can’t be reasoned out of an idea they’ve adopted without reason.”

So these ideas were not tested, or even questioned, as they are not much questioned even today and those doubting may need to use tact.

So, the ‘Latins’ herbal’ idea was one the Friedmans plainly believed and which was evidently maintained within the NSA until the 1970s, despite about thirty years’ failure to find any comparison between European herbals and the Voynich pictures. When John Tiltman expressed his doubts to an audience and subsequent NSA readers in the late 1960s, he was extremely tactful:

Illustrations of herbals of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Centuries are a most interesting part of the background of this odd book. [‘but..’?] To the best of my knowledge no one has seen any [European] book, certainly no illustrated book of the period which covers the wide range suggested by the drawings in it.

  • John Tiltman ‘The Voynich Manuscript: “The most mysterious manuscript in the world” ‘.p.13

As another example – compare the frequency with which Voynich writers focus on the month-folios’ central emblems compared with their silence when it comes to explaining the month-diagrams as a whole.

Once again it was John Tiltman whose observations were most acute and tactfully expressed, though then ignored. In that same talk, he refers to the ‘so-called zodiac’ and it is the fact that the series of those central emblems does not form a zodiac, or part of one. Emblems of the constellations marking each month are not necessarily ‘astrological’ in their purpose. The reason they seem so has more to do with the traditional limits than the intentions of those who first formed these diagrams.

On this and other points, the history of this study has always proceeded more by what the traditional writers ignored than by what they addressed, or what problems they resolved well. For more details, see earlier posts here: Posts 1-27; 51-59; 63-73 – all easily accessed using links in the ‘Table of Contents’ page here.

Worse for the study, I think, is a fairly recent practice of circulating an idea unsupported by evidence of any sort, and with whoever proposes it being unnamed.

One fairly recent example was a notion circulated as if a ‘commonsense’ assertion, and which said that the month-diagrams were ‘astrological charts’.

The idea being credited to no-one, with no links given to any paper or blogpost where any such argument was laid out presenting that as its conclusion from the historical record, so anyone touched by this rumour had one of two choices, equally irrational: believe or disbelieve.

At the point where the idea looked about to be elevated to the status of another ‘Voynich doctrine’, I felt it time that someone published a reality-check, so asked two specialists in the history of comparative astrologies for an opinion – each independent of the other, and neither told my own assessment of the idea.

Each replied clearly, and definitely in the negative. The month-diagrams are not astrological charts. At least not from the western European, nor the Byzantine, Indian, Arabic or Chinese astrological traditions.

I was fortunate that both specialists were willing to let me have not only their opinion but permission to quote.

What was rather depressing about the whole thing was that whoever floated the ‘astrological charts’ notion had shown such contempt for other researchers that they had not made the slightest effort to avoid circulating a rubbish idea, confident that claiming it ‘commonsense’ would be enough to see it accepted. And they were not altogether mistaken about how uncritical most Voynicheros would be.

The lesson to be taken from that example, as from so much of this study’s history is that a researcher needs to double-check before accepting any traditional assertion, and constantly to keep in mind that the limits assumed by Wilfrid and maintained by Friedman, may be unable to provide the answers being sought. That is, that the situation may not be like this…

but more like …

– SCROLL DOWN for the second part of this Note –

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What magic? Where magic? 3a: The Friedmans.

Two prior posts

Header:  portraits of William and Elizebeth Friedman (courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation);  magical alphabets (courtesy of Omniglot).

 

I’ll start by correcting one of my own errors, with thanks to a generous friend who took the trouble to remind me that the ‘Germanic/central European’ idea predates its adoption by Prinke and Zandbergen. It is easiest if I quote his letter. He prefers to remain anonymous.

it is true they  revived it in the first mailing list after it was pretty much a ‘dead letter’ but there is Charles Singer’s ‘feeling’ in 1957; E. Friedman said – no clue why – it was a probable [idea], though that wouldn’t mean it survived necessarily. Robert S. Brumbaugh kept it going in the 1960s or ’70s. He was professor of classical philosophy like Newbold. Like Newbold, settled on a ‘cipher solution’.  I guess the reason  Brumbaugh wasn’t so badly dumped on is Yale held both [ms. and Prof. Brumbaugh] pretty safe  and Y’s-B librarians seem to [have] been super-deferential to Brumbaugh.  The Beinecke site  repeating Brumbaugh’s ideas  for ‘introduction’ even after his death and years [bolded] after the radiocarbon range came out  still talking about ‘sixteenth or seventeenth century’ dating for the ms.  No reason given. Just embarrassing to read.

If I recall right, Singer’s feelings etc. were main basis for it. P&Z didn’t adopt it till late in the ’90s. I’m not sure you could say there is really a ‘P&Z theory’, because no one ever defines what it means, or its limits; no one defends it –  just by flying at anyone doubting it.  Definitions shifty as a Maine fog..

Tried to see if there was anything solid to him [Brumbaugh] acting like he had skills  to pronounce about manuscripts, drawings, codicology, palaeography or anything else like that. Found nothing. Have you tried – any better info? [no –  D]

Can’t believe all Yale conservators believed B’s ideas, but if not why let readers be sent off in wrong directions? Just sayin’.

Bottom line anyway, D., is you’re wrong about it starting with P&Z.   ‘Germanic theory’ has to start with Singer Charles at least his ‘feelings’. I’d  guess the thought would have died before 1980s, then Brumbaugh kept it above ground. When he died, along came P&Z with a writ for theory’s life-support. ha-ha. So it’s still here.  

All the above is one person’s opinion. Of course  I’m grateful for the correction and will call it  the ‘Germanic-central European’ theory from now on.

Here’s where d’Imperio mentions Charles Singer’s “feeling”. If you don’t have a smart screen, open it in a new tab.

Singer's vague feeling German clip p.7

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Lynn ThorndikeThe previous post ended with the letter that Lynn Thorndike wrote to Scientific American in June of 1921 and about which, as I said, some less obvious aspects are even more interesting than what Thorndike actually says in it.

He made three points, two stated outright and one implied. 

First, he pointed out that there was no  evidence that Roger Bacon had been given to writing in cipher. Thorndike had closely studied Bacon’s works in manuscript copies and knew what he was talking about.

Secondly, he said that  [even accepting Newbold’s categories for the manuscript’s sections, just for argument’s sake] –  there was no reason to assert that Roger Bacon was the only possible author. 

Thorndike’s third point was implied, but serves the same argument against Wilfrid’s “Roger Bacon scientific ciphertext” story – namely, anyone tempted to believe that the manuscript’s content was ‘science or pseudo-science’ could –  perhaps should–  then test the idea against the evidence of those tens of thousands of manuscripts treating such matters that were held in the British libraries alone.*  He implies, too, that such persons might also consider his own forthcoming study.  When issued in print in 1923, that first volume would contain 835 printed pages and a late-added sentence on this same ‘Bacon wrote in cipher’ myth. 

*Each of Thorndike’s volumes includes a list of referenced manuscripts. His own studies were not limited to British collections. 
  • Lynn Thorndike, The History of Magic and Experimental Science  Vol.1. pp 766-767.

But the really interesting thing about Thorndike’s letter is something else again.

With Thorndike being, at that time, the pre-eminent specialist in the history of medieval magic, sciences and pseudo-sciences – including astrology and alchemy – you’d think that if he could have done so, he would have happily destroyed that ‘Roger Bacon ciphertext’ idea more efficiently.

All he had to do was to point to some other securely provenanced and dated manuscript, from some time and region other than Bacon’s, and show positively that the other manuscript’s diagrams, script or drawings were very closely similar in structure, form, stylistics and intention to something in the Voynich manuscript.

So long as the comparison was of substance, not superficial appearance, and was accurate, that would have been enough to disprove Wilfrid’s imaginative scenario.

Yet Thorndike never did, so far as I can discover.

For a scholar having Thorndike’s level of scholarship and expertise, who had the necessary languages and who had already spent years in close study of a particular class of European manuscripts, it would not be difficult to say of a manuscript, “these month-diagrams (or plant-drawings, or containers) look like versions of text x produced in time y within region z‘.  Professionals and scholars did the equivalent every day[within their own particular area of specialist studies – clarification added 16June].   By 1921, just as Thorndike says, tens of thousands of manuscripts in British libraries had already been catalogued and accurately described.  Only a small percentage of those tens of thousands which were acquired by the British Museum, and which are now accommodated at the British Library have needed their first description and dating corrected –   and as a rule it is place, rather than date, that has needed correction.*

* see for example, Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 821, acquired and catalgued in 1840 –  yes, 1840.   On the older website  ‘British Illuminated Manuscripts’ it is described as German, but in the light of recent research the newer site ‘British Library Digitised manuscripts’ corrects the record to ‘Southern France’. The dating stands.

So Thorndike’s silence is a resounding silence.   It is like that silence from Panofsky in 1932 or the silence underlying Tiltman’s comments* of 1968.

*quoted in next post.

While Thorndike might accept that the manuscript’s appearance was compatible with Wilfrid’s  suggested thirteenth-century English provenance, the manuscript’s content apparently found no comparison in his experience. If this inference is correct, then in Thorndike we have yet another instance of a genuinely qualified and eminent specialist saying – overtly or tacitly – “Not one of mine”. (See earlier post ).

Public discourse versus ‘national secrets’.

National Seecurity cleared d'Imperio Elegant 1978

At first it was only within the secretive environment of  Friedmans’   ‘national security’ project, during in the fevered years of McCarthy’s witch-hunt for ‘communists’ that  an idea of the Voynich manuscript’s containing  occult matter would be entertained and then mushroom until it had plainly become an idée fixe for William Friedman and his wife Elizebeth. Since they determined the limits and direction taken by their several different ‘study groups’, their fixation drove research and is thus embodied in Mary d’Imperio’s summary of the Friedmans’ – ultimately failed – efforts to ‘break the text’.

However it would not be until that summary was released in 1979 by the NSA  (established in 1952 within the Department of Defense) before that the inherently anachronistic notion could begin to affect a  wider public, and so become in time another unfounded ‘Voynich doctrine’.  As my correspondent rightly says, apart from the Friedmans, the other two driving influences were Robert S. Brumbaugh and the Beinecke librarians of half a century ago. [typo corrected and link added 16th June 2021]

DDC approval D'Imperio Voynich
d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, cleared for release by the NSA June 1979

It is easily forgotten that this idea of ‘magic and occult’ did not affect discussion of the manuscript until the 1970s.  From 1944 until that time, it was only within William Friedman’s circle that attention would shift from the first part of Wilfrid’s romantic tale to the second phase with its insertion of John Dee into the narrative. 

Roger Bacon died in c.1280 and Dee was not born until 1527. 

In the usual way, no one would suggest that a manuscript  not incompatible with a thirteenth- or fourteenth century date could include matter proper to the seventeenth, and neither  Wilfrid nor Newbold did.  But the Friedmans did, and the ‘occult’ idea was always anachronistic – as it still is – and was always tied to a peculiar set of unfounded ideas, centred on some fantasy-figure invariably imagined as a white Christian male, a member of the elite, usually one whose natural environment was a royal court,  whose interests were arcane and whose name, invariably, was presumed recorded in extant historical documents.   

Nothing about the manuscript – not the quality of its vellum, the organisation or layout of the page, and not even the binding offers support for ideas that kind. (Which is why, incidentally, any description of the scribal hands as ‘humanist’ begs a great many questions, given the radiocarbon range of 1404-1438).

There was no check on the Friedmans’ pursuing the idea because they acted independent of, and largely indifferent to, opinions from the best qualified and most experienced specialists – whether in Thorndike’s field of study, or in historical studies, art history or any of the disciplines that enabled a manuscript made in medieval Europe to be accurately dated and placed.

Indeed, when it comes to Thorndike,  the Friedmans did not just ignore him and his work – they positively ‘blanked’ both. And their attitude is found reflected in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – of which, more later

Bacon and Rubruk LUTZFor the rest of the world,  completely unaware of what the Friedmans were doing and who they were, the manuscript mostly continued to be supposed English and the written text ‘A Roger Bacon ciphertext’, as we see from entries in Jim Reeds’ ‘Voynich Bibliography’.

Nor was the general public  much interested in the idea of Roger Bacon as someone involved in magic, its theory or its practice.  

True, Wilfrid had embedded John Dee into his sales’ pitch and Newbold injected an air of mystery and magic into his talk to the Surgeons of Philadelphia in 1921, but the public weren’t buying it – not in the literal or in the metaphorical sense. Edward Lutz’ paper of 1936 is a good example of how even earnest efforts to write an objective account of Bacon’s life and works included, with solid information, much  romanticised history, imagination and credulity toward claims made by both Wilfrid and Newbold.

  • Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (June, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82. The image shown above, left is from Lutz’ paper.

It’s not difficult to understand why most people of that time rejected the ‘magical’ theme. 

Not only the public at large but  many contemporary scholars conceived of Roger Bacon as a ‘scientist before his time’ a little as if he’d been an earlier, and English version of Leonardo da Vinci. (Many Germans attempted to elevate Albertus of Lauingen in exactly the same way). 

Reverence for Science  (with a capital ‘s’) was never higher than during the first half of the twentieth century, and the Scientist was imagined some paragon of rationality, while believers of magic were relegated to an opposite extreme.   Only the few who had actually studied medieval writings understood that the line was not so clearly drawn in the days of Roger Bacon or, come to that, of Albertus.

So the popular, idealised view of Bacon could not be reconciled with notions of his being a ‘magician’ and  in discussions of the Voynich manuscript never took hold beyond an occasional mention of astrology or alchemy with a very very small ‘a’. To give you a sense of the times, here is a paragraph from Lutz’ paper.

Alchemy for Bacon formed merely the stepping stone to the higher science of chemistry, and so he correctly evaluated  the former’s worth. Hence, his comprehensive mind having grasped all the rudiments of the subject [i.e  alchemy’s technical skills] , Roger drafted principles of action whereby he employed the knowledge of those before him in his own inimitable way to arrive at many new discoveries…. Besides the ordinary metals known to the ancients Friar Roger appears to have isolated quite a few of the rarer elements; for in his writings have been found the formulae for extracting phosphorus, manganese, bismuth, and others from their compounds.

Lutz, op.cit. p.49.

 

Friedmans and his ‘teams’.

American shaggy mushroom

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002

 

There is a reason why ‘team spirit’ and group-work is associated chiefly with government organisations, the military, with commercial corporations,  and with sports. 

All are inclined to frame their purpose in terms of an  ‘us’ against ‘them’.  The very concept of the ‘team’ begins by assuming unity of attitude and purpose, and then actively promotes those ideas within the group’s members, the aim being to defeat the supposedly inferior – or even nefarious – aims of “the others”.

No matter how acute a thinker any individual within a ‘team’ may be, the ‘team’ itself is an inherently anti-intellectual structure.   At its worst it serves up less-than-truthful propaganda, or forms into a ‘think-tank’ whose charter is to fake, distort or misrepresent objective technical information to facilitate  particular commercial or other forms of exploitation.. and so forth.

Scholars having already achieved eminence in one of the critical sciences (as distinct from the pragmatic sciences) are inclined to resist pressure placed on them – no matter how subtlely – to become ‘team players’ in any situation short of war.   

In normal situations, scholars may confer; they may contribute to the organisation of a seminar, or to the production of collected studies, but in the last analysis a scholar whose profession has already recognised the quality of his or her work wants to work and think without intellectual- or social pressure exterted on them  to go along with some ‘median line’.

Error remains error no matter how many hands go up signalling assent to it.  One cannot ‘vote’ for an idea to become a fact.  Scholarly consensus doesn’t work that way.  

Let me put it more mildly by quoting a comment from ‘Sir Hubert’ at Nick Pelling’s blog:

.. breaking ciphers is all about testing hypotheses and finding *the* consistent solution, of which there will be only one. Historical research doesn’t admit of one neat solution and works very differently.

“SirHubert” ( comment to Ciphermysteries, December 10, 2013.

The Friedmans formed a team of two.  Those who came for a shorter or for a longer period worked at their direction and along the lines which Friedman decided, and decided without much effort to learn anything more about medieval history, manuscripts, codicology, palaeography.. or even medieval and later magic in Europe. As we shall see.

_________________________________

Lynn ThorndikeThe first volume of Lynn Thorndike’s great study  appeared in print in 1923. HIs eighth and final volume, covering the seventeenth century, was published in 1958.

It represented the first comprehensive. scholarly study of these matters in English, and was for decades the only substantial reference work for an English speaking public.

As you see from the illustration (below), the whole series covers a period from long before Bacon’s birth (c.1219 AD)  until after Rudolf’s death in 1522. 

Thorndike volumes

 

You might think, then, when noting the large proportion of d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma that is assigned to occult and magical matter,  that a great many mentions of Thorndike would be found within.  After all, he was in America, as they were, and was someone against whom, between 1944 and 1958,  an hypothesis about ‘magical matter’ could be checked to see if it accorded with the facts and documents of history.  After 1958, there was his magnum opus against which a theory the Friedmans had adopted could be checked in the same way.

You might think so  – but it isn’t so.  Thorndike is spared just a few sporadic sentences. 

from: Elegant Enigma –  ‘Table of Contents’

d'Imperio section 8

d'Imperio sections 9 & 10

If that fact is startling, their  tone  is still more disconcerting: 

Thorndike has, with characteristic emphasis, stated his opinion that “There is hardly one chance in fifty that Roger Bacon had any connection with the production of the Voynich manuscript.” (quoting a paper of 1929)…. p.6

Thorndike’s debunking of Bacon seems to be a shade more savage and thoroughgoing, doubtless as an over-reaction [sic] to the effusive and misplaced adulation of Bacon by some earlier writers…. p.50.

Thorndike .. characterises Ars Notoria as an art designed to gain knowledge of, and to communicate with God by the invocation of angels, unsung mystical characters and prayers; he also dismisses all the material as “meaningless jumbles of diagrams and magic words” without telling us much more about it. … p.59

Thorndike (1923-58) discusses alchemy in passing as he describes the writings of various ancient and medieval practitioners. (p.60)

The dismissive and faintly derogatory tone of these remarks makes them worse than actually incorrect, or an insult to the man, but wrong in the worst way.  It is almost enough to make the present writer resort to fiction, too, because I can almost see Willian Friedman, while still working on his initial ‘Bacon ciphertext’ premise, flicking through the first volume of Thorndike’s History… looking for ‘sets of alphabets or something’ which can be conveniently transferred to computer punch-cards and finding nothing so facile, tossing the book away with a supercilious expression and some sneering comment.

From time to time, d’Imperio gives us such a glimpse of the way in which the Friedmans had an excessive idea of their own importance and expressed it by denigrating specialists in all intellectual disciplines, save the practice of cryptography.

Before illustrating that fact, I want to explain its importance – that their inability to recognise the value of other areas of knowledge meant that their range of external checks for any idea about the manuscript’s date and evident character was very small, desultory and curiously ignorant of relative weight – that is, of whose opinion was worthy or greater or less attention, of whether a subject needed them to devote more, or less, time to learning about it before incorporating it into some theory or other.  As one looks down the list of those who are mentioned approvingly in d’Imperio’s summary of the Friedmans’ failed efforts to ‘break the text’, a pattern does emerge.  Greater weight is given the opinion of anyone who is willing to lend support to some idea which Friedman finds attractive and correspondingly less to those who cannot concur with his views.

Thus, Singer whose ability to judge a manuscript was far inferior to that of Panofsky or Thorndike, is given great weight, and no effort is made to use genuinely expert opinions to ascertain whether Singer’s “renaissance Germanic occult” notion is compatible with the palaeographic, codicological or iconographic evidence, or even with Thorndike’s information about the history of magic and pseudo-science.  The push was simply towards hunting evidence for the theory – never a balanced idea of its relevance to the manuscript.   Thus, the entire construction of the ‘Germanic-and-occult’ narrative is based on not much more than Wilfrid’s imaginative tale, Singer’s poor attempt to date and place the manuscript, and Friedman’s liking the idea while being over-confident about the superiority of his own opinions over all academic scholarship.

d'Imperiod’Imperio herself, though her writing usually suggests a person of calm, balanced and orderly mind, bursts out occasionally with the most astonishing, ill-founded ideas.  It was in that atmosphere that the ‘occult Voynich’ notion flourished, moved well beyond any reasonable chronological boundary, and would become inextricably, if inexplicably, linked to a ‘Germanic’ theory.

The very persons and sources that might have prevented Friedman from such irrational theories were unable to do so by reason of the fact that they offered him contradiction, and Friedman’s self-importance would not allow him to accept correction from anyone but – occasionally – John Tiltman.

We have seen how Friedman acted with regard to Professor Panofsky, and how the Friedmans reacted when an academic board advised them the manuscript’s content was unlikely to be of any importance.  Again, there are those few, cursory, dismissive references to Thorndike, and the cavalier way in which Fr. Theodore Petersen’s work was mistreated. The following passage was quoted in an earlier post but I include it again to show that not only Friedman himself behaved in that irrational way, but his attitude came to infect the team.  It is especially uncomfortable to have this from d’Imperio.  

The manuscript probably contains only trivia”, the board said.

to which d’Imperio adds, with sneering air-quotes, the following extraordinary farrago of baseless assertion, speculation and sheer fantasy. It is not clear the degree to which she is relaying Elizebeth Friedman’s views.

I must confess that I can see little justice in the reasoning of those “academics”… who dismiss the Voynich manuscript out of hand, after what can only be the most superficial attention. Even if it is, in fact, a fabrication … associated with the court of Rudolph II, an understanding of who wrote it, its passage from one to another of Rudolph’s familiars and the part it played in the remarkable congeries of religious and political activities at Prague in those times could prove to be of great interest. .. If the manuscript is a compilation , however “deranged” or idiosyncratic …drawn from earlier magical, alchemical, or medical works, it has at least as much intrinsic interest and “scientific’ import for the history of Western thought as do other similar manuscripts which are readable, and concern only one topic [i.e.. they are either astrological or alchemical or medical]. Reputable scholars apparently see no waste of time in studying “plaintext” manuscripts of this type and may spend much of their lives so occupied”.

For the notion that the manuscript is about astrology, alchemy or medicine there is, to the time of writing, no proven basis in fact.

Not one of those ideas has ever been introduced as an end-result of concerted and formal investigation of either the images or the written text. Every one of them is an assumption for which the underlying premise is that in some way or other the manuscript will be a flawed copy of some ‘normal’ Latin European text.

For that assumption there is no  basis established either though the idea has been constantly assumed since 1912.

Another instance of that astounding loss of proportion occurs after d’Imperio has related, as if they were of equal weight, opinions expressed by various people about the manuscript’s drawings.  She then says:

In sum: it appears as if no one has made or documented a really careful and systematic attempt to contrast and compare the style of the Voynich manuscript  drawings to other manuscripts of various origins and dates such as could answer some of our questions.

*a five-seconds’ pause*

Did she never ask herself – “Why on earth should they go to such lengths to answer some of our questions?”

The manuscript was Friedman’s project.  Even among the first lot of military cryptographers, some wanted nothing to do with it, as Jim Reeds relates.

Writing in 1994, Reeds says of Friedman’s  “first study group”[FSG] which operated from 1944-46:

Frank Lewis re Friedman and FSG VoynichAt the end of the war, the Army cryptanalysts headed by Friedman found themselves without any pressing tasks. Many were simply awaiting demobilization and return to their universities and civilian practices. Friedman took advantage of their momentarily free time and talent by organizing an effort to work on the Voynich problem. The group studied the available scholarly material, [sic!] discussed hypotheses, transcribed the VMS onto IBM cards, and disbanded. …It is known that Frank Lewis .. and Martin Joos … were in the right place at the right time to have been part of the FSG but Lewis was not attracted to the Voynich problem and Joos thought Friedman’s approach was misguided, so neither participated.

  • [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘William F. Friedman’s Transcription of the Voynich Manuscript’ (1994). Frank Lewis assisted in breaking Soviet ciphers, as part of the ‘Venona’ project aimed at identifying active soviet agents. 

To imagine, in the 1950s, that someone like Panofsky, or even Singer, should set aside their own professional research and duties to undertake so massive a task as is implied by d’Imperio – and  merely to provide Friedman with pre-digested ‘answers’ for his often embarrassingly ignorant questions –  is beyond mere cheek. 

The best excuse I can suggest for d’Imperio is that her own ignorance prevented her being able to so much as imagine what such a task would entail. Perhaps the easiest way to make the point is by the reciprocal: it is as if Panofsky has expected Friedman to produce a translation of the written text within a fortnight so he could write a full explanation of the text’s images, their origin and purpose.

It’s no exaggeration to say that one might make an entire doctoral dissertation on the practical and philosophical  implications  of  “comparing and contrasting drawings in manuscripts of various origins and dates” .

Comparative studies are the life-work of those who specialise in this fairly small and difficult branch of iconological studies, and most who do, work for private clients and do not publish their professional research. 

I will say that such work  involves a great deal more than looking at pictures with a ‘pick the similarities’ attitude, because what is actually being compared are the things about which different peoples make pictures – they give form to their unique culture, embody in the picture ideas from proverbial sayings, religious beliefs, ideas about the heavens and earth, their oral and written literature, their tribal heritage, and memories of times so long ago that western culture cannot grasp such constancy. They make pictures from their own practical lore, including that about plants or stars.. and more. So too did medieval Latins, but since so much of that culture remains in modern western Christian society, the way of interpreting pictures from that environment seems ‘natural’ and easy to modern Europeans and, thanks to the colonial period, to much of the world where it was never natural. 

But at least d’Imperio understood that to ‘contrast’ is as important as to ‘compare’. Today,  even Kindergarten children learn how to ‘compare and contrast’ – it’s part of pre-literacy education, but for some inexplicable reason, it has never been part of, so to say, ‘Voynich studies 101’. In practice, it’s the ‘contrast’ phase which produces the most valuable information. 

  And Friedman himself was never interested in hearing  ‘unlike’ from  the historical record or as others’ opinions. Knowing that the number, and range, of those asked to submit ‘answers’ to Friedman was not only small, but were curiously ranked by the Friedmans and thus by d’Imperio, and the written sources were so summarily treated, it becomes easier to understand how Elegant Enigma came to contain  so many statements patently untrue and so many and various tyro-nian errors.

Take that reference to ‘Ars notoria’, for example.

[the] Ars notoria

frontispiece Ars nortoria Agrippa's interpretationd’Imperio says Thorndike had ‘nothing much to say’ about [the] Ars notoria, but he refers to it in many places, such as when speaking of Fontana in Vol.4, where his footnote reads, 

   “On the ars notoria and the sacred characters [see] ibid 17r, 99v, 73r.”

His reference is to the 1544 edition of a specific text (S. Marco VIII, 72 {Valentinelli XI, 93). 

 

  • Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic…  Vol.4 [Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries] p.169 n.99. (1934). 

If the Friedmans’ indifference to ‘external checks’ had been less pronounced, then even if they could spare no-one to travel to Europe to check that precise source, any  enquiry directed to, say,  a university library, the Library of Congress, or the British Library would have informed them that an English translation had been made of Cornelius Agrippa’s work of that name and had been published in 1657, by Robert Turner. Turner’s translation is not in d’Imperio’s bibliography, but the 1651 translation of Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy is. That translator, John French, is advertised as .. well, see for yourself.

Agrippa frontispiece for John French's translation of 1651

The content of Agrippa’s Ars Notoria is, indeed, much as Thorndike said.

Any reader here who likes to verify information may like to know that there online a fine transcription of that English translation, created by Benjamin Rowe who has offered it without charge as a pdf.

Of course one understands that as Friedman’s frustrations grew, he began pushing the chronological boundaries beyond the reasonable, towards a period when Latin Europe used ciphers of sufficient complexity to (as he hoped) equal the text’s intransigence, and similarly frustrated by the absence of any expert’s suggestion of a ‘similar’ manuscript to provide a way in, Friedman also moved his focus from the first, to the second phase of Wilfrid’s marvellous romance the age of Dee and occultism.

But Friedman’s ‘occult’ theory was always anachronistic, as you see from d’Imperio’s Table of Contents.  It was always focused on the sixteenth century and later, and on  preoccupations of the Renaissance elites.  Biography  becomes  central preoccupation of that theory, and among its string of unfounded premises and ‘logical’ extrapolations from baseless premises is an  assumption – often expressed as Wilfrid-style assertion –  that the whole content of the Voynich manuscript must be matter likely to have interested to some wealthy, white Christian male whose natural environment was an elegant circle of literati, of royal or of imperial persons sharing occult knowledge. We may blame Wilfrid for the notion’s genesis, but Friedman sowed the whole farm with it, and the present generation – thanks to Elegant Enigma, Brumbaugh and, yes, the Beinecke  – is still trying to pretend his cockles are corn.

In the next post, I’ll consider a couple of instances where we see a ‘break-though’ almost occur in Tiltman and in d’Imperio.  In Part 4 I’ll consider Brumbaugh’s ideas and the Beinecke library’s adoption of a Friedman-Brumbaugh ‘occult voynich’ theory as part of their official description for the manuscript. 

There is no issue about a cryptographer’s thinking up an hypothesis, and then testing it,  but at some stage s/he must ensure the theory has some anchor in the realities of history and the testimony offered by the object under study.  In this case, the reality is  that nothing about the manuscript ever justified the ideas related (see above) by d’Imperio. Not the materials, nor the binding, nor the quality of the vellum nor (for the most part) the pigments justify a date later than the radiocarbon range of 1404-1438.

Till next time, you might think on the following, because the second part of this judgement still holds, fifty years later.

Professor Panoffsky [sic.] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and [that] the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

  • John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10. (link in Cumulative Bibliography page)

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002

or in the words of Patrick Lockerby, writing before the radiocarbon range was published:

My dating of the manuscript is 1350 to 1450. From that perspective, whatever happened .. after 1450 is of no relevance in formulating any theory about the Voynich ms.

Patrick never pretended expertise in codicology, palaeography or iconological analysis, but his judgment wasn’t bad, was it?

 

Certain measures Pt 3b – Preface

header revisionist medal

Preface

(written August 2019)

I almost wish I’d kept a record of the Voynich meme-makers’ slogans throughout this past decade.

The latest example of meme-making is astounding,  informing one that  ‘the Voynich manuscript isn’t an art book’ and that ‘images are trivial; writing is serious’ –  the sort of thing we find in the amateur attitudes of William Friedman in 1952.  He seems scarcely to have attended to anything – including recommended reading – from the widely read professional,  Professor Panofsky.

Here again, as with so much else in the heavily weed-seeded field of Voynich studies, very basic questions have to be asked, such as  ‘Where did that idea come from? and ‘Why are so many intelligent people now repeating this – apparently without a moment’s pause for critical thought?’

So.. once again.. the revisionist has to hold the reins on another bolting theory.  Energy it may have, but its motives and destination are not exactly helpful, and have an entirely internal rationale.

First question – what do those repeating the meme suppose is meant by the word  ‘art book’? Do they mean ‘a book filled with drawings?’ and assume we’ll accept that all drawings are “art” in a grand sense?  If they just mean ‘a book of drawings’ then it certainly is.  More than 50% of the surface covered is covered by drawings.

So maybe it is an ‘art book’.

Or do they think ‘art book’ means a history of art?

If that is what they mean, their underlying assumptions are – simply – anachronistic. At the time our manuscript was made (setting aside the still open question of when its content was first composed), there was no ‘art history’ in the modern sense.  What you have are histories of meaning.  It is that meaning which had to be understood (well or badly) and then re-embodied in works by more recent painters, sculptors, weavers, woodworkers and so on.   This need produced various practical ‘handbooks’ – things which both explained meaning and informed an artisan – say, a painter – how to ‘correctly’ present that meaning in what was supposed to be the classical manner.

So an ‘art book’ as a notebook made by an individual would include no less written text than a modern history of art.

The problem with that notion is, however, that the majority of images in the voynich manuscript are not drawings formed in the way western Europe produced drawings. That’s why it took more than a century’s debate to decide that the ‘green’ in the ladies’ sections denoted water and not e.g. air or amorphous ‘internal’ environment – as (for example) Newbold believed and explained in his letter asking help of Franciscan scholars.

Or are the meme-makers supposing that the Voynich manuscript is not an ‘art book’ of some other kind?  We don’t know. The origin of a meme remains carefully anonymous and invisible, but once his little foal is set to grow into another wild, galloping loco-beast, he may well repeat it as ‘something no-one doubts and god help them if they do’.

But let’s ask the last question.  If we consider the period, and adopt the still-unproven theory that all the content originated with Christians of Latin Europe in the fifteenth century (something I don’t for a minute believe the evidence permits), then there are several sorts of text we might classify as an ‘art book’.  The manuals made and used by students of learning, included not only those or academic ‘students’ but handbooks for/by an artisans and secular ‘vade mecum’ made for the merchant-and-traveller. In both those last types, text might again be subordinate to the pictures but in any case their pictures should only be viewed as ornament when all other possibilities have been exhausted. Until the mid-fifteenth century at least – we are speaking of manuscripts made for  Latin use, images should be approached as pictorial *text*, primarily intended to convey meaning, and not as a wysiwyg object-depiction.

So the meme about ‘it’s not an art book’ are not only fairly transparent efforts to ignore the preponderance of evidence in the primary text – Beinecke MS 408, but an effort to argue that we can dispense with the unreadable writing, and now also dispense with the pictures and rely entirely for our ideas about this manuscript on the hypothetical ‘histories’ which are thus built on sand and wishful thinking, for which a few bits and pieces are extracted from the original and used purely to adorn the romance so created.

In my experience of this manuscript’s study, I have not found that the best linguists wantonly impose wrong ideas on the imagery – they either admit their lack of skills in that area and concentrate on the text, or they make honest efforts to ‘read’ images whose historical origin and cultural style they do not know, but which they credit to some one or other of those hypothetical ‘histories’ created by enthusiasts and amateurs and – perhaps worst of all – professionals who imagine that competence in any field means competence in all.  We saw that in O’Neill’s assumption that he could read the images in the plants sections, and in Brumbaugh’s failures in treating both the month-folios and the plant pictures.

The meme about the manuscript being ‘not an art book’ again, as ever, conveys no real information  or any useful conclusion from some individual’s research.

It merely conveys an intimation that some others’ research, and those researchers, must be ignored by the ‘true believers’.  They need no longer distinguish between fireworks of pure imagination about the images, or  analytical and historical studies aimed at elucidating the meaning intended conveyed by the manuscript’s pictorial text.

It bears repeating that more than half the manuscript’s information is contained in line- -as-image, and less than half by line as written text.

We can’t even hear that meme as refutation of some articulated theory, so far as I know.  Has anyone asserted that Beinecke MS 408 was an “art book” and defined their intention by using that term?  If so, I’ve never seen it, though if such an argument has been made from evidence, I’ll happily read the research.

Altogether, we left only with a suspicion that whoever thought up the meme did so to push an agenda – viz. don’t listen to discussions about the images.

In  terms of Europe’s history,  however, you just don’t get texts with superficial ‘illustration’ apart from diagrams before the advent of printing.  In Germany the earliest products of printing were instructional works for small children. Cicero’s de Oratore is the first text known to have been printed in Italy.  Theories about the Voynich manuscript’s images being copied from German printed works are inherently anachronistic. But theorists often forget to check basic facts, such as dates or whether to suppose the images in the Voynich manuscript are ‘mere illustrations’ isn’t equally inappropriate.

I think that most Voynich writers realise that written text encodes speech, but I’ve noticed few who realise that the same must be said of pre-modern images.

Some represent encoded speech quite carefully, constituting one  form of mnemonic image but more often constitute a ‘conversation’ between maker and contemporary audience, and given that a century’s effort has found no way to read the written text, it does not seem unreasonable to attend to the pictorial text rather than waving it away by assuming it meaningless, or purely an act of self expression. Both notions are anachronistic, the second idea being a definition of ‘modern art’. The key to pre-modern art, and even art of the Renaissance, is meaning.  And whether you are talking about medieval western art or traditional art elsewhere, the point is that the maker could – and the viewer could expect to be given – detailed explanation of the work i n all its details, usually with literary sources (whether these were from oral or written tradition).

Since the intended audience for the Voynich manuscript, as indeed for images found in Latin medieval manuscripts, was not an audience of modern, secular, industrial-era urbanites, so the modern student must exert themselves learn and to compare how various peoples talked and thought about things which were then expressed in imagery using their own traditional visual ‘codes’.

The aim of Voynich research should not be to find bits which you can argue support your pet theory, but to try and understand what the original intended to say to its own audience.    To do this accurately, one must recognise cues to characteristic ideas, beliefs, social attitudes and so on, and more importantly (because so often disregarded by Voynicheros), the techniques and conventions of visual language characteristic of a given time and people: how they used form, gesture, positioning, and even such things as choice of colour to convey meaning.

Like a written text, a pictorial text was intended to convey meaning.  Meaning, not form is the key to rightly reading images such as these.

Perhaps readers would like to see how well-equipped they are to use the analytical approach so I append a specimen example for consideration.  So that even a newly come amateur will not feel too much out of his or her depth, the example comes not from the difficult images in Beinecke MS 408, but from the western traditions of art.  I’ve added a tailor-made guide to ‘method’ to show how to take the first steps in learning to analyse images from that ‘other country’ of the past.

Following that will be some few comments of my own, which no one is obliged to read.

What I’m hoping to do here is to show why the analytical method approaches a pictorial text more as a palaeographer  approaches written text than the way a modern art critic might.

Method 

  1. List elements in the image (below) which you take to be meaningful and which you’d consider ornamental.
  2. Have you any thoughts about the dark crescent-shape  painted below the top of the arch?
  3. The female figure is made to clutch the hand of the figure behind her. Why do you think that is? (you might think the reason compositional, meaningful, conventional or all three – but explain ..).
  4.  Why should the black-shod figure be shown with one arm – and only one arm –   covered by an extra-long sleeve?
  5. Would you say that the image is an original expression of Latin European culture, attitudes and beliefs, or not?

(Take your time.  And there’s no obligation to compare your thoughts with my analytical commentary, below.)

Click on the word ‘Commentary’ to open it.

Commentary

The principal theme here is a reminder that ‘the heavens’ may be studied in two ways, but only one is for ordinary humans to question, query or debate.

You see that this inhabited initial forms the letter as an upper and lower arch; the upper is meant to be read as a canopy – metaphorically pegged to the earth’s horizon –  for the heavens are ‘stretched out as a tent’ (Ps.102:4; Is.40:22 etc.).

The open lattice to left and right signifies those ‘gates through which mankind cannot pass but through which stars emerge from below the horizon into view of earth and then sink below it.

Just under the top of the letter’s upper curve, about where a lamp might hang,  you see the Pole star surrounded by a dark  [=”not able to be seen by human eyes”] circumpolar boundary, of which only half is depicted.

Most medieval Christians still believed that sight was a result of the  eye’s reaching out to grasp an object and so for the maker, and reader of this image, the invisible/dark limit spoke of a spiritual Heaven and its  ‘ramparts’ – the boundary of the circumpolar region which they envisaged guarded by angels also invisible to mortal eyes as a rule. It is the circumpolar line itself which, being entirely conceptual, neither drawn nor mentioned in the scriptures was thus manifest but not visible. They also envisaged at a point above the visible Pole star  a spiritual Throne – which term might carry different significance in different contexts, as I’ll explain in the next post.

What lay within the ‘tent’ as vault of the visible heavens and its stars was all that was permitted to be ‘grasped’ by human eye and mind – that is, the items about which they might indulge in study, speculation, debate and other forms of  intellectual enquiry .. within limits.

Again,  the red background alludes to the earth as the proper domain of human kind, ‘children of Adam’. (the word Adam is derived from the word for ‘red earth’).

That we are to consider the difference between the earthly, permitted learning and what is not for humans to speculate about is represented by use of the  ‘winding’ vine element –  ‘the vineyard of the text’   to use the phrase  Ivan Illich adopted as the title for one of his books (one I’d recommend, though its every line is not to be treated as gospel).

Beyond the limit of that arch which sets the limit of mundane, secular knowledge the ‘vine’ appears again, now painted in white.  It appears as ‘right’ opposed to ‘left’ and ‘upper’ opposed to ‘lower’.  The message here, for all four, is that while some persons may be granted wisdom and knowledge greater than earthly knowledge, it cannot  be acquired – or is forbidden to be acquired – by human reason. It is matter ordained as beyond the human domain,  and is not to be debated or investigated.

The vine motif is not always used to mean ‘learning, but here it reminds the viewer that enquiring into ‘the ways of heaven’ is of two sorts; the earthly and the spiritual/demonic.  Decisions over what was good and what was evil ‘occulted/occult’ knowledge was a matter for the eyes of faith; to be decided by the words of Christ and those of his appointed representatives.   (This is how the medieval west of that time saw the situation, you understand).

This is why the allegorical female figure points to the Pole Star while preventing the person behind from raising his hand against heaven.  Or, as children are still told, ‘it’s rude to point’.

.The letters in the right margin spell  ‘Vidam’ ( a form that does not occur in classical Latin) and that word  unites the elements in the picture proper and serves as an announcement of the theme elaborated within it.

And so too, the disposition of the vine motif exterior to the letter tells us that what is obscure or hidden (occult/occulted) may be righteous religious mystery or wicked/heretical (Lat. sinister) knowledge – only the church can decide.

That most people in medieval Latin Europe really did accept this division between permissible and impermissible learning wasn’t necessarily a good thing, of course, from our point of view today,  but it had its good points.  It sometimes allowed folk-practices to survive which we’d immediately describe as pre-Christian and pagan.  It certainly saved the life of a frightfully annoying woman named Margery Kemp.  One on occasion her fellow-pilgrims, driven beyond endurance by Marjorie’s behaviour, were  united in determining to “brun her for a witch”.   So Marjorie fled to the local bishop who, simply by pronouncing her behaviour not sinister but proof of religious sensibility, saved her life. The difference between the good and the evil in ‘occulted’ knowledge was a matter for theology, not personal or group- judgement.

The oldest rule had it that, in the western church, none save the elected head (the Pope) in person might adjudicate in cases of alleged heresy.  That rule  saved Francis of Assisi from being declared a heretic and papal protection was long the chief and best protection of the Jews in Latin Europe – if the election had put a decent man in Peter’s chair. When the secular authorities began involving themselves in questions of heresy, and when the old rule was set aside and agencies delegated – such as the Inquisition – or when the great splitting of western Christianity occurred, mass burnings followed both within and without the older church.  Burning people had been (as Marjorie’s case illustrates well) the equivalent of rabble-driven lynching; it was a practice much older than western Christianity.

But I hope this will show why one has to consider not only form, but informing thought in order to read an image as the maker expected it to be read in the days before printing.

What you find so often in Voynich writings is a superficial definition of an  image in terms of one item as ‘object’ and extreme literalism follow in the subjective response.

In this case, the ‘object’ might be the female figure and a person might say,  ‘Oh wow, they had female teachers of astronomy’ or, from some theory about magic assert that the same figure was meant for a witch. They might produce all sorts of comparative pictures, but they’d be pictures of teachers or of witches. You’d be treated to many instances of where red and blue was a ‘witchy’ combination and so forth.  The subject would be not the manuscript in question but a theory (in the sense of a fiction) and its elaboration.

Others, a little better acquainted with medieval manuscripts might again define the entire image in terms of that same single element as ‘object’ but now call it  ‘Astronomia’ and run a data-base search under ‘Astronomia’ which they’d then provide with commentary arguing that the nearest ‘astronomia’ to the target proves support for their theoretical provenance for the first manuscript.  Expositions of that sort tend to show a pre-emptive bias in definition of the image, in parameters for comparisons offered,  and a commentary only loosely related to the image or manuscript at issue.

Or again, a person might instantly turn to hunting copies of the written text found adjacent to the image,  re-define the image in those terms and, ignoring it thereafter, concentrate on tracking other copies of that written text, in the hope of again supporting some theory about where the first manuscript was made.

In this case, the last method would be of no help, because the accompanying text comes from a Greek work that had been composed a thousand years earlier in a different environment altogether and in a different language, having been translated into several languages, transmitted across cultural and historical generations with the image in question only adorning that text here.

It would not target the manuscript in question because the manuscript is not only a copy of the text illuminated by this image; it contains parts from a variety of sources.

On the other hand, the palaeographer, like the forensic type of iconological analyst would agree is that the image and associated script evince a Latin (western Christian) character expressive of the French style during the early 14thC.

Once you have  appropriate historical and cultural parameters, seeking comparisons is more likely to yield valid results.  One might, for example, read histories of the time to see what sort of new learning might have raised this issue of permitted enquiry in relation to studies of the stars.  Since the message of the image is of strongly conservative Christianity, so the text is more likely than not to be one from a doubtful (i.e. non Latin) origin, but accepted into the Latin curriculum by the early fourteenth century. We find the same, cautionary and salutary, message embodied in an illustration brought to notice by Ellie Velinska, and mentioned in an earlier post in this series.

This would limit the search quite satisfactorily and one might even discover that the manuscript in question is Burney MS 275.  It is always better to advance by increasing what you know than by building speculation on speculation.

Holding library’s description of Burney MS 275.

I almost forgot to say that the figure with the black shoe is  disapproved of.  He is shown transgressing the limit – trespassing – which is how sinning was perceived in Latin Christianity.  His having one sleeve exceedingly long derives from the Arab tradition, where it normally describes the boy at the mast-head. Here, I think, it is used as allusion to a specific tradition of non-Ptolemaic astronomical learning, apparently disapproved of by theologians in early fourteenth century France but of considerable interest in connection with Beinecke MS 408.

The above notes are by the present author.

 ‘Art history’ –  in the modern sense didn’t exist in western Europe when the Voynich manuscript was made.  Vitruvius’ great treatise on classical architecture existed in a manuscript taken from St.Gall by Bracciolini in 1415. The text was printed by Alberti in 1450 but an illustrated version was first produced by Cesare Cesariano in 1521.

Skies above: Certain measures Pt.3a absences and avoidances

This post treats issues of method and the  fraught question of when theory-formation is a benefit to the study and when a hindrance. I hope revisionists will find it food for thought, but anyone with an investment in some Voynich theory, and especially a theory focused on Latin European personalities, might like to stop reading now. Besides, it is a long essay, not much enlivened with pictures.

 I would actually prefer not to to treat this topic at all. Theorists’ responses are easily predicted.   But it must be done –  Fiat jūstitia ….  as the Roman said about Libra.

——

“Divided minds” – logic and illogic in Voynich research.

A belief that ‘images are easy’ is arguably the first and longest enduring systemic error in Voynich studies, but may explain why so little effort has been made to study techniques of analytical method (though Voynich sites may entitle their non-analytical matter  ‘analysis of the imagery’).  From 1912 to the present, the study’s history shows little sign of  efforts made to understand how  images are assigned to their place, time and social community.  Theory-driven ‘nearest fit’ has been constantly imagined sufficient whether the Voynich theory being posited had the manuscript a product of medieval or of modern times, and attributed it to some part of western Europe, to the Americas or elsewhere..

Such magnificent indifference to objective criteria  is not so prevalent in other facets of the study.

A competent cryptologist, when he or she crafts a theory about Voynichese, remains conscious of the theoretical model’s being no more than an analogy, and takes notice of both what does and what doesn’t accord with the primary evidence.  If the theoretical model proves a poor fit, it is discarded, although the aim is to devise one so close to the original that it will help explain what has been so far unexplained.

In the same way, a botanist might posit a theory about a plant’s identification, and test it by balancing points of similarity against points of difference between a textual description and the living plant.  A linguist will also balance points for, and against, a theoretical model.

There is no confusion in their minds between the actual object which constitutes the standard, and the theoretical model which may achieve or fail to agree with that standard.

Quite the opposite habit pervades assertions made about this manuscript’s images in almost everything written since 1921.   In that case, whenever the hypothetical model fails,  the usual practice has been to ignore the differences, deem the primary evidence flawed in failing to agree with the theoretical model and thus, in effect, the analogy is taken as the standard and the primary evidence discarded.   Whatever details are deemed a near-fit (right or not) are given an importance out of all proportion, while the details which don’t are treated as of no consequence.  At best they are merely ignored; at worst attributed to an equally hypothetical creation described as  ‘author’ or ‘artist’ and blamed for the work’s not conforming to the analogy.

What is most curious is that, in Voynich studies, a single researcher  may switch from the rational and analytical mode to the emotional and inverted mode, depending on whether they are thinking about the manuscript’s written or pictorial evidence.

The switch is signalled by the degree of interest expressed in the reasons and evidence informing dissent from the hypothetical model: in other words, in why the dissenter dissents.  As a linguist or cryptographer, that researcher is likely to be interested in comments about flaws in a given model.  In emotional mode – and historical scenarios seem to have a strong emotional factor – the response to similar comment is more likely to be little other than expressions of personal hostility.   The level of that researcher’s interest in the primary evidence’s divergence from that theory is also reduced to the minimum.

And, in fact, theoretical-historical models appear to render differences invisible to the theorist. You can explain those differences, describe them, illustrate them and provide a yard of documentary evidence – but the theorist may well see nothing and read nothing and absorb nothing which he or she interprets as a threat to their theory.  Over-identification with a theory is the point at which Beinecke MS 408 becomes the ostensible but not the real subject of a person’s interest.

It is theory-induced blindness which produces illustrations of a myriad zodiacs and the assertion that the ‘nearest fit’ is the one which suits the theory. Or which reduces the question to a single emblem only (as the German theory has done with the ‘archer’ figure).  The person is no longer thinking, ‘What were these images meant to mean?’ but something more like, ‘Since I know my theory is right, what about this part of the manuscript can be fitted to it?’  What is absent from such exercises, in connection with the month folios specifically, is any effort to explain those drawings as whole images, or to understand why its series of  central emblems doesn’t, in fact, form a zodiac sequence at all – not even a truncated zodiac sequence.

After a century in which Newbold’s impression has been echoed and reasserted without variation it is difficult for modern reader to perceive the series as other than a Roman zodiac, or to realise how much virtual violence must be done to maintain that theory.   Images which are there have to be imagined not there.  Pages which are not there have to be imagined as being there,  with non-existent pages imagined present, and their surfaces covered with hypothetical/imagined content.

One has also to conjure up a single ‘artist’ – when the evidence of several is plain enough – and then accuse that imagined figure or even all of them of  a staggering incompetence and ignorance while at the same time (to maintain such theories as the ‘German’ theory) of such superb competence that they could draw a crossbow to scale within the space of one centimetre square.  It has to be supposed that not only the imagined ‘artist’had managed to remain unaware that a Roman zodiac has 12 figures with none repeated and all in set order,  but everyone else connected with the manuscript’s production had also managed to remain ignorant of a series which was to be found, in the Latin environment, carved on the exterior of churches, made in mosaic in public places, and used to illustrate manuscripts and calendars both liturgical and secular.  Not only the artist(s) as I say, but the scribes and the overseer of work.  And then one must imagine, further, that this ignorance survived in all of them while one is asked, simultaneously, to suppose that the person(s) for whom the month-folios were being made was an astrologer of some sort.

It defies reason and the historical evidence.  But apparently did not quite beggar belief.

I’ll turn again in the next post to the matter of variant depictions for the zodiac in works produced in Latin Europe the immediate point being that, once again, the focus of attention  slid from the primary evidence to a theoretical model for which one’s credence is demanded (with penalties ad hominem for refusal)  and this despite any formal argument’s being presented, or any effort made to explain what is actually on the manuscript’s page.

The primary evidence’s failing to concur with the hypothetical model is treated in the same way. One is encouraged to ‘just ignore the nonsense’ or to blame the source itself.  It *ought* to conform to the theory.

Is it any wonder that a century’s elaboration of that ‘Latin origin’ theory has not elucidated a single phrase of the written text?

The non-zodiac shall be deemed “a zodiac”; the purpose for which the month-folios were made shall be deemed astrological.  The ‘logic’ invoked to persuade one to accept that what is not so shall be so is not (as often asserted) any historical logic but the sort of internal logic we find in the best historical fiction.

To suppose that scribes so obviously competent as those who made the written part of the text (at least) wouldn’t know the series of 12 constellations in order, and that the labours of the months linked just one to each of those 12 months is to defy the historical evidence.  The logical conclusion is, surely, that the series in the month folios diverges from the zodiac’s standard sequence and order of ’12’ (or, if you like, of 10) for a reason.

Discovering that reason must be part of researching the manuscript if the aim is to understand the primary document and that certainly can’t be done by pretending the primary source is other than it is.

Which is why, in my opinion,  creation of theory-driven historical scenarios which presume what is not known is known is an inappropriate method, no matter how traditional in this study.

It leads  to that unreasonable confidence which has  one theory claim some creature, or plant- picture shows a New world species while another says the month-folios must speak of Christianised astrology and magic, or which – finding itself stymied by the plant-pictures – resorts to airy declarations that whatever it has not provided with a theoretical ‘nearest fit’ is to be dismissed as ‘the artists’ fantasy or personal whim.  If such guesswork was presented by one person claiming responsibility for it, the matter might be debated rationally, but such things are often decided as if by some anonymous bureaucracy or by public acclaim,  disseminated by a general weed-seeding,  as produced out of analogy by god-knows-who, and then as something ‘everyone agrees to’ defended by the masses to the hilt –  belief defining dissent as heresy.

So the normal relationship between primary evidence and that posited analogy  is  inverted, the story elaborated and more impositions laid on the primary source, and while individuals are eager to accept credit for a ‘genius idea’ it is rarely that the same individuals produce any formal argument for which they accept all responsibility.  By ‘formal argument’  I mean one which balances arguments for and against a proposition, adduces verifiable evidence and accurately documents both sources and any precedent.

Traditional method, in Voynich theory-making, is fundamentally just poor method.  The way  the images are treated in service to such theories is not remotely like the way pictures are normally approached, described and assigned their time and place of first enunciation or of subsequent copying.

And I suppose that to show the foregoing remarks are not themselves just theory, I must now add an example, but since examples are often confused with personal attacks on whoever’s work the example comes  from – even if the person is dead –   the safest example is one I’ve already spoken about at voynichimagery.

Below is an illustration which Ellie Velinska produced for a post to her blog in 2014.  It sets the diagram from folio 68v next to a detail from one copy of Oresme’s Treatise on the Sphere and was very warmly received, as you’ll see from the comments made to that blogpost. ( here). I’ll leave my own comments to the end of this post, but as you’ll see if you follow that link, none of Velinska’s commentary addresses points of difference between the ‘clips’. She offers no analytical discussion of the Voynich drawing, nor tries to explain its intended purpose or its particular form.

 

Since I can’t treat every historical-theoretical narrative proposed since 1912, I’ll keep to the oldest  – that which interprets the manuscript, and specifically its pictures, by analogy with western Christian (‘Latin’) culture  during the thirteenth- or fourteenth- or early fifteenth-century.

Here, in brief, is the negative case:-

Hallmarks of medieval Latin (i.e. western Christian) imagery.

As did every other cultural community, that of medieval Latin Europe expressed its own world-view using a distinctive repertoire of graphic and painterly techniques – the ‘language’ of art.

The conversations between maker and intended audience speak of that world-view they shared, doing so by both the style and the content of an image.  It is by recognising both form and informing thought that an image may be described as an expression of medieval Latin culture and assigned its origin in some particular region.

That world view characteristic of medieval Latins was  informed by an idea of universal hierarchy, this vision including everything from heaven, through earth to hell –  all of which were equally ‘real’ for them.  Their fixation on relative position in that universal hierarchy meant that every visual conversation emphasises the ranking accorded each element in a picture, whether animal or person, cloud or fish, angel, devil, noble or peasant. Except when used symbolically – as the lily might be used as symbol for Mary, Christ’s mother – all natural things of earth were assumed subservient to mankind, and within mankind the western Christian was assumed ‘properly’ superior to all others.  (This heritage and pre-disposition is why European society was initially outraged by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and also why after a period of adjustment, Europe so easily translated it into what is a  ‘theory’ in the sense of a fiction: social Dawrinism).

But the medieval Latins’ attitude is expressed in imagery by showing man surveying as possessions the land and all it contains.  It also elevates the deeds of the male over those of the female; it sets nobles on thrones, on chairs, in high-towered castles and on horseback –  thus literally as well as conceptually over those deemed ‘lower orders’.   War is another constant: the struggle between the upper righteousness and lower sinfulness;  between Christianity and all other belief systems; between ruler by inheritance and the elected head of the church, between angels and devils.   Literally depicted forms, and allusion to beauty as expression of ‘higher’ rank, and goodness were among the techniques by which position in the universal hierarchy was envisaged and, so, communicated.

Images expressing this world-view occur even in Latin herbals, in their introductory images  (as in the Manfredus herbal and the Anicia Juliana), or in images scattered through it, and in such things as dedicatory inscriptions and colophon.

From the  Voynich manuscript,  those factors and themes and above all that perception of the world itself are overwhelmingly absent.  It is the most resounding silence and failure to appreciate its importance has been the single greatest failure of the many historical-theoretical models devised to explain the manuscript.

There is not one depiction of a king, of a throne, of a man on horseback, of a figure recognisably from the calendar of saints. There are no halos, none but late-added crowns; no bishops (though one preacher in a Mongol robe appears in one detail, an addition to the older material which I date to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, and one reason I date the material’s introduction to the Latins to that period.).   no massed armies, no servants in peasant costume, no image of a seated authority figure before a kneeling inferior. There is no allusion to Christian belief in the images, none of those emblems by which a saint was identified.  The only sign of war is a single small detail among those on folio 80v. It shows a male figure dressed in what appears to be Roman military dress, and in the act of enslaving a female).  There are no lovely noblewomen, no devils, no winged figures at all.  There is no reference to class distinction by the usual depiction of silk and ermine robes. The western preoccupation with fabrics is found only in the late-added heavy pigment laid over some figures in the month-folios – another indication of late translation into Latin domains. The arms and fingers of the great many female figures are unadorned with jewellery.  There are no interior scenes, no nuns or clerics, no travellers with staff and scrip, no vessels with handles and bellies; no emphasis on objects as tokens of status; no images of the hunt, no ‘horse, hound and falcon’ images and only one figure in the entire manuscript who is shod.

There are no vine borders, no interlace and knotwork designs, no drolleries formed by the fusion of human and beast into one creature –  in fact no evidence in any of it of an inclination to indulge in fantasy. This renders unlikely too,  the sort of excuses being invented at present to cover the fact that the old theory of the plant-pictures as a form of Latin herbal is bankrupt – something which Tiltman understood by the 1960s.  The latest rationalisation asserts whatever plant-pictures frustrate even the  ‘near-fit’  approach are merely the product of fantasy or whimsy.  For this new theoretical elaboration I find no evidence within the manuscript at all.  Symbolic, allusive and mnemonic devices certainly, but none without relevance and none personal whimsy.  They are not beyond understanding.   From what little is said in public, the ‘whimy’ idea seems to be another effort to find post-hoc justification for something in d’Imperio’s book, and to rely on arbitrarily transfering ideas which  Marco Ponzi offered about Cambridge Bodleian  Trinity MS O.2.48 to Yale, Beinecke MS 408. One would like to see that provided a formal argument.

Nor is there anything of officialdom in the Voynich images; no official figures’ granting gifts or meting out judgement. There is nothing of rule and government whether of religious or secular organisation. Not so much as a male holding a walking stick, a staff of office, a crozier, or a sceptre. (I’ve listed those in Latin order 🙂 )

____________

…in sum:  the entire fabric of the Latin Christian world, its culture, informing ideologies and world-view – the very means by which an image is assigned Latin origins –  are just not there.

THAT is why specialists in so many areas of medieval western culture have refused to endorse theoretical arguments, and denied overtly or tacitly that the manuscript is “one of theirs”.

See post of 25th. Feb., 2019.

It is remarkable, even astounding, that the logical inference has so rarely been taken: that the reason imagery in the Voynich manuscript doesn’t look like an expression of  Latin culture might be… because it isn’t.

The possibility  receives further support from what I describe as ‘avoidances’ in the imagery.

Apart from later accretions as e.g. the month-names;  additional images set onto the back of the Voynich map and a few other specifics, these avoidances are so pervasive across the various sections that I take them as indicating  a cultural norm, and one which was certainly not Latin and which represents an important phase in the content’s evolution and transmission: a chronological stratum.   The following details reproduce notes from my research log for July 13th., 2010,  with some of the marginal notes subsequently added as I began looking into the questions raised.  The notes were for personal use, as brief guide for research during the months to follow, and I daresay some will read a bit cryptic. But anyway here they are, verbatim. The first notes are in italics. Marginal notes in plain. Today’s comments in blue.

  1. No use of instrumentsneither ruler nor compasses. [exception: folio 57v.] Pages not ruled out.  No evident mark of wire, nor of pricking for this purpose- has textblock been trimmed for a later re-binding [later marginal note] – Rene Zandbergen says it hasn’t been and that he hopes I too may one day hold the manuscript in my hands, as he has done).   Folio 57v as late addition – possibly very late Cf drawing-style in illustration for  Kircher’s “Machauter” and note his source –  but perhaps the ink is against a date in the 17thC.  Other, less obvious, exceptions – some plainly informed by Latins’ traditions –  seen in drawings accommodated by using the map’s reverse. I’d date these to the fourteenth century.   [Further marginal note] In a post to second mailing list, in 2007, Rich Santacoloma notes that 57v shows the prick of a compass or dividers, and later that it has three distinct centres]. I would finally write extracts from this part of the research – that is, about f.57v -at voynichimagery over February-March, 2013.]

2. Not only no ruled lines but no perfectly straight drawn lines. This also reason for no ‘ruling out'(??)   Rapidity with which one scribe comes and goes from the ‘bathy-‘ section, after using some as ‘improvement’ on the original.  Effort to copy the original material so exactly… was the  15thC copying informed by any knowledge of the tabus, or not?  On this last point I think the balance of evidence is against the copyists understanding the earlier avoidances – a better definition than ‘tabus’.]

3. Avoidance of  crossed lines. No interlace, no ‘x’-form among the glyphs. Discounts the Insular, Coptic, Latin, mainstream Arabic,  Armenian as well as the Byzantine traditions (except in some superficial ornament, which  Pelling calls ‘cross-hatching’ and supposes invented in Renaissance Italy.   Re architectural structures added to the map –  c.13th(?) century – check comparisons.

4. No ‘boxes’including no triangles.  Nothing with sharp right-angles except a few late errors in copying and an (original) emblem for ‘south’ on the map – though even that is surrounded by an apotropaic ring – “shield against the fires implied”. North-oriented worship? cf. Harran.  (Tamara Green).  Containers in the root-and-leaf section, even simple cylinders, are bent to avoid the angular ‘box’.  Very unusual avoidance.  Perhaps related to observation that nothing natural to the world is ‘ruled line straight’? Arcs of horizon and heavens are conceptual, not physical.  Can’t identify the community. (must check ethnological studies – ugh!)

5. No literal depiction of any living creature. [perhaps one reason for the plant-pictures’ not showing specimens as we think characteristic of the Mediterranean world.  But it may have been just convenient to group by location and use].  ‘Violas’ image an obvious  ring-in – its maker clearly understood the principle but it wasn’t natural to him. He had no idea how to form a root-mnemonic or use the ‘shorthand’ motifs.  And he defines a plant by its flower(!).  His composite image is drawn as range of viola species occurring rom east to west (or vice versa?  A Latin, perhaps – his mind works differently from the original makers’.  The system (and key to text?) had been explained to him; but it isn’t his natural way, or training – doesn’t quite “get it”.  Get opinion on petals. micrography?  [ I later had the advice of an eminent specialist in the history of Jewish paleography about this posited micrography in f.9v but the reaction of the ‘Voynich community’, at that time, was strongly opposed to any suggestion of eastern or Jewish ‘authorship’ – so much so that I did not feel it right to name the specialist. Some years later,  Zandbergen and Prinke wouldproduce a book in collaboration with a writer named Stephen Skinner, who described a  ‘Jewish’ theory so appallingly ill-informed as to be offensive.  Since I’d been explaining for some years by that time, details indicative of Jewish influence, the specialists who’d been advising me were disconcerted and to ensure no connection was imagined between that essay and the work I’d published between 2009-2017 it added another item to my reasons for deciding to close voynichimagery soon after.]

6. No repetition [i.e. replication, in the images of the living creatures].  This is a remarkable achievement if you think about it, and realise how very many female figures had to be provided with distinctly different form-and- face without resembling a living, breathing, human.  Even in our present volume – which is reasonably supposed made by Latins who would have a very opposite inclination, we find only the occasional  ‘slip’ by which a face looks ‘real’.  [My favourite ‘shapely lady’ is one of those slips and it is a most valuable evidence that the draughtsman could have made them all just as ‘real’ if he’d been free to do so –  just as he might have fallen into an easy repetition for the figures around the month-folios’ tiers.   [Only some strong and probably religious principle would have prevented the earlier makers’ avoiding both literalism and replication. The fifteenth-century copyist who ‘slipped’ in making one very ‘shapely lady’ was certainly not working in monastic scriptorium. Nor, I should think in a fifteenth century European Jewish community.  I never found but two references to a prohibition against such  repetition [‘replication’] -one in connection with use of draw-loom fabrics in post-iconoclastic Byzantium, and another as a suggested reason for the fact that although knowledge of printing is attested within the Arab speaking world as early as the 10thC – it was almost immediately rejected and texts continued to be produced by hand for centuries more.  I’ll have reason to mention this another time and will add the references there. It implies an aversion to magical practice, by the way.]

I do not pretend to have found answers to all my own research questions, but enough avenues opened to allow a reasonable explanation for these non-Latin characteristics.

__________________

 

Example – Ellie Velinska and Oresme.

To my knowledge, none save the present author registered any hesitation about embracing Ellie’s proposed match.

 

Ellie was not trying to say that the two images came from the same artist, or even the same atelier.  Her argument – more implied than argued – was that similarities (only) between the two support an hypothetical Voynich history into which may be drawn the person of Nicolas Oresme, as well as the French royal court.

Ellie’s impression may one day be proven accurate in general, but to argue the ‘Oresme and Charles’ case, one would have to show that the manuscript’s vellum, its finish, dimensions and binding, its style of binding and much more are attested for that time and region or – if that is impossible – that the same detail occurs in earlier and in less formal, copies of Oresme’s Treatise.

Her case is weakened by the manuscript’s  unobserved and unmentioned differences from the ‘match’ but even more by the fact that we do not find that form in other and earlier copies of that Treatise. Given the style and technique displayed by her chosen copy ( BNF fr.565) it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the detail in question may have less to do with the treatise itself than to the stock repertoire of some particular atelier.  Below is the first image from a copy made during the first years of the fifteenth century ( BNF fr.1350)..

First illustration in a copy of Nicholas Oresme’s Treatise on the sphere. BNF fr.1350, dated 1400-1401.

As is usual with implied rather than stated inferences associated with ‘matched clips’, their appropriateness or otherwise is often shown by  re-contextualising the detail adduced as ‘nearest-fit’.   In this case, it becomes apparent that the chosen ‘match’ is from an mage entirely characteristic of Latin thought.  The chair tells us who is of the highest rank; the crown and sceptre denote royalty. The various types of hat refer to national and ethnic character. These are the ‘astrologers and diviners’ whom Oresme wishes the king to ‘put behind him’, echoing Christ’s words in the gospel.  There’s no doubt it’s a product of Latin culture as well as of Latin making.  Now consider the differences in attitudes, and forms for the human figures compared with what we see in the Voynich manuscript. The one aims at ‘realism’ as plainly as the other does not.  Here there are no ‘broken’ arms and shoulders or deformed faces. Certainly no avoidance of replication… and just look at those robes and fabrics.

On the positive side…

There is certainly other evidence which permits more general argument for the manuscript’s content having been, at some time, in French-owned territories.*

*or rather, of French cultural influence. (note added 16th.March)

We have the orthography of the month-names, which agrees closely with forms found in  Judeo-Catalan, Occitan and Norman French.  According to Sixto – and I haven’t checked this – there were Catalan Jews in north-western France.  The same orthography occurs on an astronomical instrument, made in Picardy, which was sent to England at some time. (I haven’t checked the object’s history yet).   Koen Gheuens’ discussion of the ‘double lobster’ indicates  dissemination of that form through Alsace and/or Flanders during the earlier decades of the fifteenth century and from an Anglo-Norman speaking source.  My own research into the standing, fully human archer as token for the constellation Sagittarius also led me to conclude that its first remaining expression – in a mosaic near Lake Tiberius – occurs several centuries earlier than its first extant example in Europe and the means by which it came was probably workers in glass, who brought with them the red tesserae found in quantity in that region and whose technical secret, according to a contemporary Latin’s account, was by then known only to one or two families or clans of the eastern Mediterranean shore.  The oldest western example is in a rich window originally in Braisne Abbey. Since that time, my illustration has been widely re-used by Voynich writers but minus reference to the associated evidence or argument as to what significance should be taken from the sudden appearance of this type, previously unattested in Latin art.

But altogether there is evidence enough to argue some link between the month-folios and France, but nothing like enough evidence to support a theory that the content originated there or that it has any connection to Oresme’s Treatise.

And that is without beginning to address the differences between her ‘matched’ clips or to explain the intention of the original image from folio 68v. Which last, surely, should have been attended to first.

On the history of Oresme and his works, and his detestation of astrology and divination see the short essay

  • Mackley, J. S., ‘Nicole Oresme’s treatises on cosmography and divination: a discussion of the Treatise of the Sphere’. Paper presented to: Starcraft: Watching the Heavens in the Early Middle Ages, University College London, 30 June – 1 July 2012. (available online as a pdf).

Nick Pelling recently revisited the ‘Oresme’ theme

  • Nicholas Pelling, ‘Nicole Oresme’s “Treatise on the Sphere” revisited’, ciphermysteries (Feb. 15th., 2020)

 

Skies above: Certain measures Pt.1

Previous two:

Header image: detail from Brit.Lib. Add. MS 20746 f.1r.

____________________

Some matters of method, comments on the psychology of perception and a particular set of unusual avoidances in the imagery need comment before I move on to post the second part of ‘Chronological Strata’.

The excursus will be in three parts (this post being the first) which will be published one each fortnight and then ‘Chronological Strata Pt 2’ about the end of April. Sorry about the hiatus.  Whether you read these essays is of course up to you but I doubt if the rest of Chronological Strata will make sense to most readers without the background.  I’ve made the discussion of  perception relevant to Voynich studies and attempted to make it accessible from the level of  secondary-school  upwards. Technical studies on this subject are classed as neuroscience as often as psychology and appear in scientific, not art-history journals.

_________________

Clark’s and Campion’s comments about the month-folios’ appearance (see post of Feb. 9th., 2020) contain three important reasons for rejecting the old theory that these drawings were designed to some ‘astrological/horosopic’ purpose.  The old theory is opposed by:

  • the spectrum of historical examples (historical studies);
  • the month-diagrams’ general appearance – e.g. its many ‘ladies’ and
  •  technical details such as numerical proportions, layout and presentation.

These are not discrete criticisms. Each magnifies the force of the other two.

The revisionist might then ask why an ‘astrological purpose’ idea should feel no natural and so sensible, at a subjective level, and why it seems never to have been opposed between 1912 and 2010 (or if you like, 1912-2020)..

I had hoped to avoid discussing the psychology of perception but can see no way around it,  because to explain why an idea so prevalent and apparently so natural might yet be mistaken one has to understand something of what happens when the brain processes impulses received from the eye, and especially when the object presented to a person’s sight is quite unlike anything they’ve seen before.  If you think back to your first view of the manuscript, you may recall how bewildered you felt and how disoriented – and then how you hunted for something familiar, and what a calming effect it had when some older ‘Voynichero’ told you what to think about this section, or that.   The messages were generally re-assuring, because they told you that what you had felt were images quite unlike anything familiar were ‘really’ not so strange after all.

I’d like you to go back to those initial impressions and accept that what then struck you as quite unlike anything familiar – was indeed. The reason you now think otherwise is explained by the psychology of perception and various additional filters and blinkers emerging from human emotional and social reactions.

____________________________

Eye to Brain. and Group-feelings {Psychology of perception  – 2500 wds]

Assumptions of ‘universal language’.  Many of those interested in Beinecke MS 408 come from a background in technical studies such as computer studies, engineering, mathematics or cryptography, where a problem is habitually solved without reference to the historical and social circumstances in which it was first framed.   It doesn’t matter to a mathematician whether a problem was formulated in England or in India, in the 10thC AD or in the 20thC.   The technical diagram, like the mathematical equation employs a ‘universal language’ differing only (as it were) by dialect. Astrological and horoscopic diagrams do belong in that category, which is why scholars specialising in the history of astrology and comparative astrology can say whether or not a diagram presents as of that type.

However, in Voynich studies we have theorists who are so accustomed to solving problems expressed in a ‘universal language’ such as mathematics that they tend to suppose that all imagery speaks  a ‘universal language’ and that is not true.  One cannot rightly interpret all images by using only the assumptions and habits implicit in images produced by one’s own culture, with its  traditional attitudes, hierarchies, forms and modes of expression.  Ignorance of this fact was a first, and is still a prevalent, error of perception in Voynich studies.

More curious yet is that people of intelligence and competence in computer studies, engineering and other logical disciplines become illogical when informed opinion opposes some theoretical model they like.  And do so even in the case of the month-folios not presenting as astrological diagrams.

This paradox is explicable partly in terms of the study’s history, and partly by the way the human mind works.  I’ll treat the history first.

From 1912-2012 the great majority of persons interested in the Voynich manuscript saw European and American urban society and  the Anglo-German school as admirable, the earliest having also inherited nineteenth century ideas about hierarchies within social, intellectual and national or racial ‘pyramids’.  Informed by the wealth and self-importance of the imperial nations, there came to be a belief that the ‘western’ way was the pinnacle of human development, and at once the larger as well as a qualitatively greater set.

So, for example, if someone pointed out that a pentatonic scale was characteristic of eastern modes, it would be pointed out that western music also includes a pentatonic scale. If, on the other hand, you pointed out that eastern art is indifferent to vanishing-point perspective, this would be taken as a sign that it was ‘less evolved’ than western art… and so on.

As we saw earlier, it was impossible at that time (i.e. before the end of World War II, and then in the Friedmans’ view of things) to imagine any manuscript ‘important’ unless imagined as “contributing to the intellectual history of western Europe”.  I have already spoken in general of this phenomenon (here) and the way in which it effectively blinded the Friedmans and, following them, Mary d’Imperio, when they were confronted with specialists’ assessments which denied their own expectation that the manuscript should be an expression of medieval western Christian (i.e. ‘Latins’) book-culture.  Specialists in a variety of areas said plainly that though bound in the Latin (and Armenian) style, the manuscript was not like western texts of e.g. alchemy or Christian art, but these opinions were brushed aside while the erroneous theory was maintained. And this is still largely the case, theory-focused approaches have become so normalised that for many in the ‘online community’ it has become impossible to imagine any opinion or information about this manuscript could be other than the result of some ‘theory’.

The interesting problem is then why highly intelligent people who consciously prided (and pride) themselves on thinking logically – whether intellectual, mechanical, cyrptographic or computer logic – should be  unable to accept  information from genuine specialists.

The shortest and bluntest answer is that the theorists didn’t know enough to doubt themselves.   A theory is formed from within the limits of what a person knows.  If the theorist’s knowledge doesn’t include the necessary information, they cannot form a viable and accurate explanation as ‘theory’.

The habit of assuming the Anglo-German tradition both the best and the ‘greater’ set also meant that things true of that tradition – such as interest in literalism, or depiction of single specimens in herbals – was presumed without any pause for thought – to be always and everywhere true.   And just so, it was assumed that all pictures speak a sort of ‘universal language’ for which no more is needed for their understanding than ‘two eyes’, a theory,  an agile imagination and a range of ‘comparative examples’ invariably selected by theory-driven criteria.

But that blunt explanation is far from being the whole story of why people can’t seem to see – let alone to read –  pictures. It isn’t about IQ.  It’s about what happens when the brain attempts to process something quite unparalleled in a person’s experience. And about how the viewer’s instinctive emotional and social links add further distortions.

When the brain receives from the eye a set of impulses for which no ‘match’ can be found in the person’s previous experience, the brain seeks a ‘nearest fit’.  This is absolutely practical and useful in everyday life and is something hard-wired into the brain because human beings have lived, through most of human history, within a fairly limited environment and exposed to relatively few moments when they saw something never encountered before by anyone in their small circle.

And ‘nearest fit’ was usually pretty right, even if it did mean ignoring certain points of difference in the hunt for ‘the next-like’.   I want to emphasise that it is not a bad thing; it has become hard-wired for a good reason, but it is not so good when the thing perceived is absolutely outside the person’s previous experience.  If the brain informs us of that – returns a ‘nothing remotely like…’ people may go into shock. The search for ‘nearest like’ has become hard-wired for good reason.

For example, in ordinary life, when a friend whom you saw yesterday with long hair and legs covered by blue jeans, turns up today with short hair and wearing shorts, you still recognise them.   The mind discards as irrelevant, or as second-level information, those differences of hair-length (or even hair-colour), of clothing and even such things as tone of voice or whether their eyes are covered.

It is this same capacity which allows us to develop scientific knowledge: we are able to create categories of things and at the same time to refine those categories.  We put ‘like-‘ness first, and ‘distinctions’ in second place.  This is so important that I’ll give examples.

An infant experiences each new ‘thing’ as unique, a ‘plant-thing’ (for example) but then the same thing comes gradually to be  recognised as a rose, while another plant-thing is classed vaguely as ‘not a rose’.  (Language assists, but is not essential).

Only later still, if inclined or permitted to learn more, might that person reach a point where they can remove weeds from a rose-garden without risk of uprooting the wanted plants.   And if inclined, or permitted, to expand the limits of their knowledge still further, that person may reach the stage of being able to identify and name minor differences between one type of rose and another.   But this may never happen, and (like many of us) their mental classifications may end at the simple stage of ‘red-flowered rose’ or ‘white-flowered rose’.

Within their area of speciality (if any) a person is able to recognise and understand the significance of small variations in appearance and to recognise what is, and isn’t a significant difference.  It is because their range of knowledge is greater that they can, when confronted with a hitherto unknown item, classify it correctly as ‘like’ or ‘unlike’. Their knowledge base being greater means their definition of ‘like’ is more precise and the number of ignored points of difference much smaller.

Since the number of specialists is small in proportion to a general population, the precision to be expected of any ‘majority’ will be less when an object is highly unusual – and yet, at the same time the fact that the majority are working roughly within the same, limited, range of experience means that the majority ‘consensus’ is more often an expression of general ignorance than a valid decision about what is true or false.   What ‘everyone says’ may be no better than village gossip.

Within a limited and shared environment, however, our brain’s hard-wired search for ‘like-ness’ works very well indeed.  It allows us to classify as similar objects which differ widely in appearance, forms, materials and ornament.  And it usually serves well.  It might enable a person to describe all the following artefacts as ‘coffee cups’.

 

 

But one of them isn’t.

The red ‘cup-like’ object is a filter,

 N.B. ‘Looks-like’ impressions aren’t enough to allow theories about an unfamiliar artefact’s origin and purpose. 

‘Group impression’ –  false consensus.

When the eye is presented with an unfamiliar object, and the brain receives impulses for which it finds no close match, we may not necessarily accept the ‘nearest fit’ but turn to our neighbour to compare his or her impressions with our own.  Social links may clarify the point – our neighbour may know more than we do – but it is important to realise that as social creatures we have this tendency to suppress our own perception if we find ourselves in a minority.  The difficulty is that our nearest contacts may well have closely-similar limits to their own experience and their ‘nearest fit’ may be no better than our own.

You might then think the natural inclination would be to seek better advice, but in practice this doesn’t happen so often.  In fact, forums will sometimes swamp or censure discussions which move beyond the ‘group opinion’. The dominant theory rather than the manuscript’s study, may even come to define what is deemed as ‘on-‘ or ‘off-topic’. Hard luck for the manuscript.

These social impacts on how we react to images are well illustrated by reactions to the  Rorschark ink-blots.  One person may describe their own ‘nearest fit’ impressions, but another who is present may be seen nodding, as if thinking, ‘Yes, that makes sense…’.

In fact, of course, it doesn’t ‘make sense’ at all.  What is happening is that the two persons’ having comparable social context and previous experience means that the ‘nearest fit’ for one person strikes a familiar chord in the other.   It is that social similarity, not any explanation of the image, which creates this feeling of consensus.  It tells one absolutely nothing about the origin or intended purpose for that ink-blot image.

And that is more-or-less how it happens that theory-groups form within Voynich studies.  One person asserts such-and-such; others find it easy to believe and so on… Social pressures prevent open dispute and even a specialist’s opinion may be treated as having little weight unless they are known to be loyal members of the group.

When a newcomer is instructed by other amateur Voynicheros to interpret a section of the manuscript in this way or that, it is socially and emotionally comforting for most newcomers. They are relieved of that stress involved in confronting the ‘nothing like’ feeling.  But what is being transmitted in fact is rarely factual and objectively verifiable information (which is one reason why citing sources is asserted ‘unnecessary’). What is being taught and promoted is the theoretical ‘nearest fit’ which seems plausible to a majority in that group.

The newcomer is often receiving no more than, so to speak, instructions on a party-line.  To test whether you are being given solid information about Beinecke MS 408, or an ‘approved line’, you need only ask to have and review the evidence and what debate (if any) led to the idea’s adoption.  If there’s nothing to it, there will be no non-Voynich source for the information, and no evidence of any informed debate.   So what you have will be speculation on guesswork on theory – and theory built more often than not on false perception of ‘like-‘ ness.

Because our minds themselves produce flawed comparisons at times, and our social impulses tend to see harmony given a higher priority than independent thought, the formalities of academic study have evolved, over the centuries, in ways providing a counterweight.

A scholar’s first loyalty is expected to be to their discipline of science or mathematics or history, and this means that the person is expected to know, and cite, precedent studies which affect the way a given subject is understood.  Next, their loyalty is to the particular object of their study: in the present case, Beinecke MS 408. This means that if something is asserted about the manuscript which your own research, or other studies in (say) cryptography or iconology show demonstrably untrue, you say so – citing sources for the opposing information and from the best and most solid external sources you can.  By this I mean that if the comment is about the manuscript’s vellum, you cite studies of codicology, not other Voynich writers.

Only after those two are one’s loyalties owed to colleagues and other fellows. If one or more of them disputes your own conclusions, the usual response is to accept (but check the references) for dissenting views and thank the other for the correction – because it has led you to a better understanding of your second-highest loyalty.  To  debate is not only acceptable, it is the meat-and-drink of scholarship, and one reason why Voynich forums tend to be counterproductive.  Debate is often perceived in a closed community as indistinguishable from dispute and spirited debate – even of the academic sort, without ad. hominem – may be terminated in the interests of harmony. I’m not suggesting you never join a forum; only that you do so understanding that the group-dynamic may be strongly influenced by a desire for agreement and conformity, along Henry Ford lines (‘they can have any colour they like, so long as it’s black’)

Nor am I saying that most Voynicheros are dishonest: only that a combination of limited knowledge, theory-driven approaches and social considerations serve to distort perception of these unfamiliar images.

To return to the ‘coffee cup’ example. Agreement between persons of closely similar, and limited, prior experience might lead a group to agree  that both objects shown below are, again,   ‘coffee cups’.  All have seen objects before which present as ‘nearest-fit’ and make that description  seem obvious, natural and consensual.

How far wrong may such decisions be about an artefact’s origin and intended purpose should be clear when I say that the container  on the left is a Mayan vessel made c. 7thC AD, while that on the right is a recent invention: an edible coffee-cup newly introduced in New Zealand in 2019.  (Need I add that the Maya had no knowledge of coffee?).

If the example above seems exaggerated, or unfair, consider the ‘matches’ which have been not only suggested but generally accepted and actively disseminated in the ‘Voynich community’.  As so often, the ‘pairing’ is not about explaining the manuscript’s image; it is about illustrating a theory – in this case of European Christian culture – and is aimed solely at persuasion. It is doing pretty much what a person’s brain might do if their range of knowledge was limited to the history of Germany.

Such errors of perception have affected study of the Voynich manuscript since 1912.  It is not a recent problem, nor the result of online forums.   It is a problem caused by our mind’s seeking ‘nearest-fit’ within too narrow a range of previous knowledge, together with the natural human tendency to maintain whatever opinions are found comfortable in the group regarded as the “us-group”.   The importance of the second is paramount for many and may alone be why an independent specialist’s assessment is rejected.  In fact, what we see in Voynicheros reactions to theory-opposing opinion from specialists may exceed the ‘just ignore’ response and become active denigration as the theorist continues to presume their theories must be right.   This pattern again is reflected in d’Imperio’s book, derived as it is from the theories shared by the Friedman groups.

In one place, she writes:

Balance

I expect that as well as understanding the issues, you may want some idea of how to correct for them.

The single best approach is to learn more – first about the discipline you want to engage – whether it is techniques of analysis in art or in cryptography and so on.

If your interest is in understanding the images in this manuscript, you might like to try a few exercises.  These are ones intended to help you become conscious of the ‘nearest-fit’ response and to help deal with the sort of emotional and social responses which arise when you are confronted by something quite unlike anything in your previous experience.

These exercises apply to images securely dated to the pre-modern period.

First,

Become interested in what makes the image ‘unlike’.  Actively seek to identify and to describe the very details that the ‘like-‘ seeking function has  automatically set aside or given a lesser importance.  

Don’t be persuaded by ‘matches’ in any Voynich writings – not even the essays (bar the materials essay) in the Yale facsimile edition.

As an example for countering the natural tendency to focus on apparent ‘like-‘ ness, you might consider one of those ‘matches’ offered between some detail from the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ section and illustrations from the Balneis Puteolanis.

Remember that you are comparing pictures, not objects or alleged subject-matter.    Now, look at the differences between the two ‘matched’ images and hand-write a description of the Voynich image, emphasising the points of difference from the alleged ‘match’.  This will also have an effect of calming you, because it puts that Voynich image securely within the range which your brain can recognise.  It gives a sense – false or not – that you are in control.  Slowly and carefully scanning and writing a description of the image is always a good practice in iconology, art history and especially in provenancing artefacts.

In this case, you might include among the observed differences – different attitudes to depiction of the human body; a different use of proportion; facial features (are males shown with or without beards, for example).  Note attitudes to perspective, the presence or absence of stylistic features (such as whether lines are drawn over areas of liquid to indicate ripples).  Is the maker interested in ‘realism’.  What about ways of representing landscape?  And so on.  You should also spend time thinking vaguely about the thing; ‘musing’ because this brings in the more flexible part of the brain’s activity.  It is when we most often realise some half-forming theory is untenable.

But do beware of any ‘lightning flash’ experience while you’re in the ‘musing’ mode.  You may experience it as a sudden flash of genius insight, but more often than not it’s the imagination going into overdrive and trying to stop the whole process by producing some ‘ultimate answer’ at random.

The task is to understand a difficult manuscript, not to create some ultimate theory.

And do keep the Mayan “coffee cup” in mind..