Theory wars – an illustration

When readers comment via the contact form, I answer the first couple, but if more are about the same sort of thing, it’s worth a post.

Comments on the previous post were along the lines:  ‘theory wars – so what?’ or ‘it will be a good thing when there’s just one opinion’ or ‘complaining about lots of opinions is just your resentment’.

The one I thought worth a post is the  ‘theory war, so what?’. It means deferring mention of Rich Santacoloma’s work, but it’s obviously an issue readers think about.   I’ve had to spend a few days thinking  how best to illustrate the effect of a  ‘theory-war’ on attitudes to the manuscript’s research.

There’s also the fact that decade’s close study of the primary document has naturally led me to form  opinions from that evidence, so it would be right to say that I have a theory too, but I’d say it is a theory in the stricter sense of the term. I have no hesitation in changing my views should better and more solidly-based information turn up,   The aim is to ‘get it right’ not to adopt the pose of Delphic oracle.

So then, perfectly aware that the old saying about stones and glass houses might apply,  I’ve taken a tiny detail from folio 102, and traced the attitudes informing its discussion before, and then since 2012, when  ‘theory-war’ really took hold.   In my opinion, this very interesting manuscript deserves more care and more respect than it receives.

It isn’t easy, knowing how one flounders in the early stages, to now criticise offerings from people further back on the road. It seems hypocritical but then confusing discussion of method and standards in this study with attacks on personality is a particular habit of the theory-driven sort, and we mustn’t fall into that trap.

The sections average a bit over 1,000 words each.

I’d suggest you read one ‘phase’  and then take some time – perhaps a day –  to think about that before reading the next.

But it’s up to you.

 

Phase 1:  Scott and O’Donovan (a conversation – ‘book’?  ‘block of indigo’?).

Folio 102 is part of the manuscript’s ‘root and leaf’ section, yet it includes the small drawing of a block, directly below which is another detail also coloured blue, though in an even deeper hue and whose tag has three or four glyphs in common with that above the block. (‘Four’ if it were supposed that the last glyph of the block’s tag were a final form of the other’s fourth glyph).

Apart from these details, and a couple  discoloured, the remainder of that folio shows  ‘leaf and root’ details in the usual colours of green and brown. The block thus presents an anomaly.

 

It would seem reasonable to begin by expecting both ‘blue details’ on folio 102 to be in some way  connected to plants and to materials derived from them, and further that the draughtsman/painter intended his readers to understand that some more direct connection exists between these two blue items. Yet – though having a brushful of the blue to colour the block – the draughtsman/painter took another, and much deeper, blue to paint the lower detail.  They are thus linked in one sense but distinguished in another.

top – detail of object on f.102; centre – detail of vessel. Shang dynasty; detail 17thC Chinese silver.

In the left hand margin, level with these registers is an object set on ‘knife-blade’* legs of a sort not European, but attested in the east from a very early period indeed, and revived to as late as the seventeenth century.

*described in some sources as ‘tiger-claw’ legs. They are seen on objects intended to stand over a fire.

These items of information conveyed through the imagery, made sense in terms of indigo, its trade and use (as I’ll explain below), and though I read more before offering an opinion publicly,  by 2011  I was ready to make a brief comment to the second mailing list.  What I said was that I thought the block meant for a block of indigo.

Readers may find it useful to know that as a dyestuff, indigo is extracted from leaves of indigo tinctofera in the east, though another type of indigo plant, native to north Africa, had been brought into medieval Sicily.   I knew that the dyestuff  was sold in pressed blocks –  wrapped and stitched into cloth during the medieval period* – and that it had still been brought into the Mediterranean at that time from further east, just as  during  the earlier Christian centuries – which last is attested by the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a work written in execrable semi-Greek around the 1stC AD and often called the ‘Periplus of the Erythraean_Sea’.

* today it is sold held together just by a lattice of thread – as in our header.

§39. The ships lie at anchor at Barbaricum but all their cargoes are carried up to the metropolis by the river, to the King. There are imported into this market a great deal of thin clothing, and a little spurious; figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine. On the other hand there are exported costus, bdellium, lycium, nard, turquoise, lapis lazuli, Seric skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, and indigo. ..

No-one from the mailing list asked to know more of my reasons or evidence but Dana Scott was  kind enough to reply, at least,  saying he thought, rather, that it looked like a codex*, and linking to the illustration shown at left.

*BL MS Royal 19 D II – Bible Historiale of John the Good. Made in Central France (Paris) c. 1350-before 1356.

So far so good.

While I believe Dana thought  -and perhaps still thinks – the manuscript reflects a Norman Anglo-French environment (and I’d agree that its later phases reflect that character), the conversation was not a theory-war about nationalities or personalities, but a discussion of what a draughtsman had intended his audience to see in a particular small drawing. It was a conversation about the primary evidence.

And that’s as far as it went in the mailing list.  Though my comment elicited little response, there was no sniping or efforts at ‘put down’ in that brief conversation.

As I recall, it ended by being turned back to the central European theme by Zanbergen’s mentioning a herbal owned by a Bohemian king in which was reference to papyrus.

I did make a post for readers of my old ‘blogger’ blog Findings, (September 19, 2011) and later put a brief note about it at voynichimagery.  There I gave a list of references and explained that the context in which the block appears on folio 102 was an essential part of my reasoning and the item’s location in terms of both history and geography.

This was done because, before the ‘theory-war’ took hold, it was expected that a case should be presented fairly and with enough detail to show it wasn’t just a flight of imagination but potentially something on which others could rely and use in their own research.

I showed why the identification was compatible with the internal and external evidence, including the testimony provided by other details from the ‘leaf and root’ section, and how it is that, altogether, these indicate first composition for the content during the earlier, rather than later centuries AD – but within the environment of an east-west network that could reasonably have brought such matter to western Europe before 1440 1400-1440.

I added that,  if the draughtsman had wanted the block to be read as ‘indigo’ it would make sense to leave it pale save the dash of lighter blue, because not only was indigo pressed and sold stitched into a cloth wrapper, but the first stage of the process when the matter is extracted from the leaves results in what is known as  ‘white indigo’ (the pure dyestuff). It is then combined with liquid in the vat,   the cloths soaked, but only when they are removed and the dye re-oxygenates do they display that deep colour we call ‘indigo’.   The dyed fabric (which I think the subject of the detail under the block) has its deeper colour then reasonably explained..

I went into the question more deeply  – because it was still a question – finding in one medieval trader’s account – which I’m sorry to say I did not record in my notes –  that traders were permitted to make a small hole in the cloth wrapper to test the content’s quality (and, I suspect, its identity) .    This offered a reasonable explanation for the draughtsman’s troubling to add upon a drawing no more than a centimetre square, the two small circles we see placed at the seam-line in the upper middle and left-hand corner of the facing side (left). It might be meant to serve as reminder that with this good, one was permitted to inspect.

I won’t include much of my original reading list, but add a few first sources, and others I’ve noticed today.

A good first, overall view online in 2011 and  still going – is  here:

Jenny Balfour-Paul is the expert on Indigo in the Islamic world

  • Balfour-Paul J.,”The indigo industry of the Yemen”,  in Serjeant, R.B., Bidwell, R.L., ed(s). Arabian studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1990) pp. 39-62. and then
  • Jenny Balfour-Paul, lndigo in the Arab World (1997).
  • On Jews of the medieval Yemen, see ‘Habbani Jews

and today I’d add:

  • India Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (Publications Division), India – Govt. and Economic Life in Ancient and Medieval Periods. (2017).
  • Sarah Davis-Secord, Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (2017).
  • Šelomō Simonsohn (ed.), The Jews in Sicily: 383-1300.  Two good recent sources.

 

… and that was that.

 

********

Move forward a few years…

 

Phase 2: Velinska  (‘believe me… it’s easy’)

Ellie Velinska is a respected member of the ‘central European’ theory group, with a leaning towards the Duc du* Berry and one suspects largely responsible for the elasticity now given that group’s re-definition of ‘central Europe.’ (corr. *sp. ‘de’)

In October of 2016, she picked up Dana’s ‘codex’ idea, first offered (as we saw) on the mailing list in the presence of a leader of that central European theory, Rene Zandbergen.  Neglecting to mention Dana as precedent, Velinska’s post adds  circumstantial detail to Dana’s proposal, mentioning others only in a final cursory comment:  “there are other interpretations of the cube drawing – most often it is perceived as a mineral.”

Nothing is provided that might help readers find and weigh those ‘other interpretations’ and in 2011, so far as I’m aware, there had been none save Dana’s ‘codex’ and my own ‘indigo’. Indigotin is not a mineral.  Readers who know of earlier or other views published before 2016 are welcome to leave a comment here; I’m always happy to receive better information.

Keeping readers’ attention ‘on message’ and taking care not to let them be distracted by ‘unhelpful’ information is typical of the theory-war.  It is a different thing from offering detailed commentary on some aspect of a six-hundred year old manuscript, and different again from setting out a personal opinion with some, at least of its informing evidence, as proof of honest intent.

The theory-first style relies on assertion and persuasion, of suggesting that ‘ideas’ unsupported by evidence can be accepted on the basis of sounding sensible or plausible. It relies to an extraordinary extent on personalities.  The theorists think one should believe a team-member one of ‘the good guys’ and damn the others as ‘bad guys’ (bad, mad, or stupid – it’s all the same).

Velinska convinces because understanding her material takes so very little effort. Her posts offer a short, pleasant, undemanding read,  clearly informed by belief in the unmentioned ‘theory’.

Her comments don’t try to engage the reader’s brain, but their emotions –  and there’s little  so emotionally convincing as conviction, especially when combined with a light-hearted  fraternal nudge and grin at the expense of the ‘opposition’ – at all of which Velinska is very good.

For the Eurocentric crew, whose theory has a bloodline which can be traced through d’Imperio directly to Wilfrid Voynich’s tale of 1921, the theory-war is not unlike the weekly football match.  Lots of team spirit;  furious efforts to keep total possession of the ball; cheers from the crowd, hi-fives at every point scored against the ‘others’ … and not a moment’s thought spared for the ball’s opinion of it all.  In this case the ‘ball’ is the manuscript.

Velinska interprets the faint yellow wash on the block’s edges as ‘faded yellow’ and then without further reason given, and without any apparent need to do so,  extrapolates that impression into an argument that it was meant for gilded page-edges.   As support for this implication that manuscripts were provided with gilded edges by central European binders before 1438, Velinska offers no evidence at all.  She includes  one composite illustration, formed of undated and unprovenanced details, and one image which is probably a modern reproduction* labelled  “Bridgeman Art Library, Italian 15thC”.

*Bridgeman describes itself as “one of the largest archives for reproductions of works of art in the world”.

As ‘evidence’ for an opinion about a medieval manuscript, it is a positive insult to readers’ intelligence.

Having thus asserted (caveats notwithstanding) that the block is a book, and a book with gilded pages, Velinska next explains the oddly-positioned circles as holes for  book-clasps, although offering no example of a medieval European manuscript having two clasps, one positioned at top centre and one at its extreme edge.  Perhaps Velinska knows one, but if so she should have referenced it, because I should think it quite rare.

Though phased as a tentative suggestion, Velinska’s post implies throughout that it is the only suggestion a sensible person should accept.  For the ‘clasps’ idea she says this:

If we imagine for a moment “the blue cube” to be a book these dotted details could represent some kind of book clasps.

Dana did not go that far, and Velinska’s use of the speculative mood serves less as caution to the reader that the idea may be baseless, than as means to deflect  criticism or demands for solid evidence. You don’t fall into line because the argument is valid, but because… well, because Ellie’s a nice person and she’s not saying you have to believe her.

One may believe, or not, but in the theory-war  it becomes a form of ill-manners to withhold belief pending the presentation of evidence. That is, if the speaker is a member of a major theory-group who is supposed to need not to prove anything which adds another pebble to the mound.   On the other hand, the theory-driven see dissenters and non-believers as if members of a lower stratum of society – and  in seeing them off,  ‘manners’ don’t apply.   It’s a war, after all.

One may wonder if Velinska troubled even to establish whether central European bookbinders did, in fact, gild page-edges before 1438.  Gilding page-edges was binder’s work, not the scribe’s.

The Director of the Milanese Historical Archives and Trivulziana Library, Giulia Bologna, says this:

In Northern Italy, above all in Milan, the influence of Leonardo da Vinci extended in no small degree even to this minor art form. Thus, to attain a more exquisite effect, new die stamps styled with leaves and flowers were constantly being designed. They were called aldi after Aldo Manuzio: aldi pieni, vuoti and al tratteggio (solid, blank and broken line). Combined with spirals and volutes they were applied to the empty spaces in geometrical patterns of lines and friezes with striking and stylistically perfect results. Up to the end of the 16th century, bindings with this kind of goldwork were found all over Europe, most of them from Italian prototypes originating in Venice, Milan, Mantua, Turin, Genoa, Ferrara, Bologna, Florence and Rome. Some were quite magnificent, classical but original in composition, endless in variety and harmonious in general appearance. The décors included structural compositions, scrolls and plaques in goldwork, intervening sections with gold dots, lively colour effects obtained with leather appliqué work and lacquer paint. All this gave resplendence to 16th century bindings. It was during this period that decorative work was first used on inside covers and the edges finely gilded.

Da Vinci wasn’t born until 1452 and died in 1519, Bologna is talking about the sixteenth century.

How can Velinska suggest, and invite readers to adopt the idea,  that a manuscript made during the first four decades of the fifteenth century, before Leonardo was born – and containing matter demonstrably earlier than our present manuscript’s manufacture –  should be believed to include in the ‘root and leaf’ section an image of a book with gilded page-edges?

Easily. It suits the theory.

Failures in rigor do not necessarily mean that the ‘answer’ is wrong: that’s the difference between the pragmatic and critical sciences.  It is still possible that Dana and she are right in general; the ‘cube’  might have been meant for a book, but in that case readers are entitled to some informed explanation for the item’s being in the ‘leaf and root’ section,  the presence of those  ‘knife-blade’ legs on an object in the same register, and the possible linguistic connection between the block and the item directly below it.

Nor is it beyond possibility that the Director of the Milanese Historical Archives and Trivulziana Library is mistaken, and that another source might provide evidence that binders in some part of Europe were gilding pages before 1438.  If the question we ask  of others’ proposals  is, ‘Is that true?’ rather than ‘does it suit my theory’ it is right to be as slow to disbelieve as to believe, and the manuscript’s study is better served.

We cannot accept Velinska’s composite illustration as contradiction of Bologna’s account, because none of its details were provided with  date and source. Neither has Velinska considered literal against purely aesthetic elements.  Items gilded in a picture may or may not have been gilded in reality.  In this case, documentary evidence and/or reference to an extant example was required. (Consideration of e.g.  Brit.Lib. Arundel 131 is enough* to show this).

*an impression of its having gilded pages soon  dispelled by consulting the Library’s catalogue entry:  “Binding: B[ritish] M[useum]/BL in-house. Edges yellow; rebound in 1962.”

I haven’t much time to do this myself on her behalf, but I do note that in 1928, there was published in London and in Boston a two-volume work entitled  Gothic & Renaissance Bookbindings Exemplified and Illustrated from the Author’s Collection. Its author was E.Ph. Goldschmidt, the same who eight years later told Richard Salomon that he was “inclined to put the [Voynich] Ms. as far back as the 13th century or, at least, not to deny the possibility of so early an origin”. (Salomon accidentally transposed Goldschmidt’s initials in his letter reporting this to Anne Nill).

I am told that somewhere in those volumes (to which I have no easy access at present), Goldschmidt mentions in passing that edges of a medieval manuscript were, very rarely, gilded.  That’s all the information I have, but it leaves the window open a little, and  Velinska or those inclined also to hope the ‘block’ meant for a book might care to see if they can find evidence for Velinska’s ‘gilded page edges’.   Failing that, the practice of creating a montage or mosaic of undated and unprovenanced details as if the sheer number of inappropriately selected items were sufficient to argue and prove a theoretical argument, is much to be regretted.  It seems to have begun with the ‘new crop’ of Eurocentric Voynich bloggers who arrived in 2012, but from whence comes its ‘Warhol’ style, one cannot say.

  • [pdf] Giulia Bologna, “Gold in Book Binding: the origins of the craft”, The Gold Bulletin, 1982, Vol. 15, (1).  pdf accessible through SpringerLInk.
  • Henry Bohn’s Catalogue of books and printed works (1847) includes reproductions of numerous medieval books of hours described as if they were originals, and which were provided with lovely morocco bindings and gilded edges.

Note – Responding to a comment by Nick Pelling below her post, Velinska said,  “in war and Voynich manuscript studies all is fair 🙂

There’s another proverb, isn’t there –  about war’s first casualty?

 

********

 

Phase 3: Jules Janick and Arthur O. Tucker (… no alternative)

In 2006, Nick Pelling published a book called ‘Curse of the Voynich’.  If the manuscript has been cursed, it’s with theory-driven individuals and, more recently, this ‘theory-war’ mentality.

Before turning to the way Janick and Tucker treat that detail on folio 102, let’s have a minute’s silence for the first, consummate expounder of a ‘Voynich’ theory, Wilfrid Voynich himself.

In ‘Voynich’ usage, thanks to Wilfrid’s example, ‘theory’ means some idee fixe  elaborated, then adorned with oddments of historical fact but never formally argued, devoid of documentary evidence for its tenets, disdainful of debate and presented with  an air of authority and a certain internal consistency. Thus Wilfrid:

 To summarize, then … we  must conclude that, [composed by Roger Bacon], it rested in some monastery in England, where Roger Bacon’s manuscripts remained until the dissolution of the religious houses in the sixteenth century. At that time, together with other treasures from these disbanded libraries, it probably passed into the hands of one of the receivers of this spoil, the Duke of Northumberland. It was very likely one of the manuscripts probably found in this family’s possession by John Dee, who certainly early in his career obtained a collection of Bacon manuscripts. During one of his visits to Prague, Dee undoubtedly presented it to Emperor Rudolph II, from whose possession it passed into the hands of Jacobus de Tepenecz not earlier than 1608.

in which, not one of the assertions made about the manuscript is worth a grain of salt, save its association with  Jakub  who became -‘de’ or -‘z’ Tepenecz thanks to Rudolf and before 1622.

So now to Janick and Tucker, who make no pretence of objectivity. They say  plainly that their aim is neither to study the manuscript, nor to evaluate O’Neill’s speculation, but  merely ‘to confirm’ it.  Their indifference to the manuscript-as-manuscript (codicology, palaeography etc.) is staggering.

 

At first, they described the detail on folio 102 as ‘most probably’ boleite. If this is their idea of hard evidence, I’m in the wrong office…)

though later they dropped the ‘probably’:

Pure Wilfridism.

These authors don’t even try to rationalise the cube’s being in the  ‘pharmacy’ section.    A central European-ist convert would at least say something like:  ‘Mexicans ‘probably’ used boleite in medicine’.

By the time we get to Ch.4 of their book, they’re saying no other explanation is possible:

‘Plate 56’ from Janick and Tucker, ‘Unravelling the Voynich Codex’

1. Folio 102r #4 Boleite (Plate 56). This image  includes a cubic (isometric) blue mineral resembling a blue bouillon cube. This can only (sic!) be boleite ….. The only sources for large crystals of this quality and quantity are three closely related mines in Baja California Sur, Mexico, …

What quantity? What quality? A specimen measuring 8 millimeters – yes millimetres – square is above average size.  I know this because the authors’ ‘Plate 56 was taken from the following advertisement, which they duly footnoted.

from a commercial site.

So –  the authors omitted mention of the fact that (a)  no-one seems to have known boleite .. at all … until 1891 and (b) there is no record of any use for the indigo-blue type, and for the clear type none until the end of the nineteenth century,

But it fits the theory!! 

There’s a certain beauty to this non-argument in a way.

It is ‘Voynich’ theorising in purest form, unfussed by evidence, by reason, by effort to contextualise details, by any sense that one has to justify assertions made about a medieval manuscript.

Or even that their subject is a medieval manuscript.

Quite beautiful, if you like abstraction.

Postscript – thinking hard as to what might be said for the ‘boleite’ idea, I can only think of one thing.  We know that Columbus equated whatever he found in the New World with valuable items  imported into Europe from the east.  Among Europe’s prized eastern imports was Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli which, when ground into a powder became the pigment  Latins called ‘ultramarine’ -‘over the sea’.  A wiki article shows boleite in association with malachite and atacamite (a copper-derived mineral created by dessication).However, Europeans also used  a different copper-derived mineral which they called azurite, and it was this which McCrone’s tests identified in the manuscript in 2009. Admittedly they were obliged to work within the pre-emptive limits set by the client who commissioned the study, and further by the limits which were inevitable given the destructive methods specified by the same client.McCrone’s letter to the Beinecke library can be downloaded from its site.

And that’s what you get with a theory-war.

********

 

(preamble shortened – 8th April.)

Fear of the unknown – and raft ‘Elegant’

Two previous:
Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine(
Specialist Opinions – Richard Salomon (
Header Illustration: advertisement for white-water rafting in Thailand.

 

This post considers the effect on the manuscript’s study of excessive confidence when combined with social bias.

One of the most interesting aspects of the work done by William and Elizebeth Friedman, and the military cryptanalysts who formed their study groups, is that they seem to have founded their entire study on the unquestioned adoption of three items from Wilfrid Voynich’s narrative. These three ideas were that the written part of the text was in cipher;  that the content was connected to science or pseudo-science, and that the manuscript had belonged to Rudolf II.

None of those items had then – or has yet – been proven true. The first was a guess; the second mere speculation and for the third, as I’ve said before, the only evidence that Rudolf so much as saw the manuscript in his life is a second-hand report of a rumour which even the person reporting it declined to endorse. When I say ‘the only evidence’ I mean that then, and still to this day, no evidence has been produced which lends it credence.   Yet d’Imperio would later include this among ‘known facts’ about the manuscript, reflecting the unwavering faith in that idea on the Friedmans’ part.

And with d’Imperio’s book serving as a life-raft to those bewildered by the manuscript since the 1970s, it is a rumour that has often and with determination been maintained as indisputable.

No matter how logically they proceeded from this unreasonable basis, the Friedmans’ theoretical argument could never be more reliable than its ‘givens’. We see the resulting blind spots in d’Imperio’s Section 8.

Imagine for a moment that the manuscript were a technical or commercial notebook: say made by a dyer.  Imagine that the botanical imagery were the regularly-needed dye-plants, the ‘bathy’ section a technical description of processes and so on. Imagine the dyer one of an underclass in medieval Europe: a Muslim from Spain, a Jew in the Balearics or a slave born in the Baltic or in North Africa resident in Sicily.

In such a case, it would never have appeared on the Friedmans’ horizon.  The cryptanalysts’ limited vision has an historical and cultural explanation too, but here is Section 8 from d’Imperio’s ‘Table of Contents’.

 

Note that the only form of literature being associated with the Jews is the type the Friedmans would describe as superstition – and that although d’Imperio herself (p.8) quotes Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt’s information that by 1963 “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400” her focus remains fixed on the ‘Rudolfine’ era and its interests, as had the Friedmans’.

Note too the omission from the headings in Section 8 of other categories of medieval writings, even within western Europe: commercial, mundane, artisanal, pedagogic or standard religious devotional. With copies of Biblical texts, or certain standard references (such as bestiaries or Isidore’s Etymologies etc.) these form the great majority of medieval Latins’ texts.

The text is imagined ‘secretive’ in the sense of occult or surreptitious for the most part, rather than simply obscure.  Nor does the scheme allow for anything but a Latin (western Christian) mediation of any non-Latin matter before it might enter the current manuscript.

A short passage in d’Imperio’s book sheds light on this, though the modern reader may want a little background to the Friedmans’ time and its attitudes.

As  Wilfrid Voynich was well aware, a medieval manuscript had value at that time because it looked pretty or by others because it was deemed important, but the only things which made it ‘an important manuscript’ in the earlier part of the twentieth century was that (a) its former owners had been of high social rank in European society and/or (b) it belonged in the European vision of its own intellectual evolution, a vision which placed greatest value on the Protestant-Enlightenment period.

The Friedmans were people of their time, born late in the nineteenth century and heirs to the ‘social Darwinism’ which came to infuse popular ideas in the European world and its colonies; this saw none but the Anglo-German European Protestant as truly capable of rational and scientific thought and subsumed the history of the classical era into its own.  To appeal to such ideas together with Europeans’ regard for its aristocracy was second-nature for a seller like Wilfrid, but in adopting the triad of  ‘Science-Rudolf-ciphertext’  from his sales pitch, the Friedmans also validated their showing interest in an otherwise unprepossessing manuscript of unknown origin and unreadable content.

How far these ideas took them from verifiable opinions and historically valid conclusions is demonstrated vividly by a passage from d’Imperio’s book.   (pp. 5-6):

Elizebeth Friedman indicates that the lack of serious interest in the manuscript on the part of scholars was, on at least one occasion, a cause of disappointment to her husband in his research: It appears to be gibberish to many serious-minded academics, who are apt to scoff at the idea that its solution would be of any value to science or learning, as did a great foundation to which [William] Friedman once applied for a grant for the detailed study of the manuscript. In the opinion of the board, a solution would not advance human knowledge. “The manuscript probably contains only trivia”, the board said.

to which d’Imperio adds:

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”.

Now, not only is this largely speculative, but it shows that between 1944 and 1978, the military cryptanalysts had not developed any more solid understanding of the range of medieval writings,  nor investigated the possibility that the text might indeed be of a sort likely to be dismissed as ‘unimportant’ before the rise of economic history,  social history and the history of technologies – disciplines whose development occurred later than the second world war.

That the earlier academic board had not seen the manuscript as important but ‘probably trivial’ had not been taken by the Friedmans as a reason to re-think their  three ‘givens’ but only to deride those whose opinion opposed their own. The normally cool, clear-minded d’Imperio has, in this case, reacted with open hostility and even a hint of the vicious.

No evidence informs her insinuation that the  board’s members were not qualified  – d’Imperio’s air-quotes have no purpose but to express and to inculcate in the reader a belief that their combined opinion should be given less weight than that of a military cryptographer.

Use of the  ‘sneer-smear’ to diminish attention paid to views opposing ones which, though preferred, lack the evidentiary basis needed for reasoned debate, is a phenomenon familiar enough today from its regular use by think-tanks (‘if you can’t discredit the science, discredit the scientist’). In Voynich studies, its employment has increased since about 2006 or so, among those espousing a particular Voynich theory online.

It is this behaviour, more than any difficulties posed by the manuscript, which has made the study a by-word in the academic world.  It is well-known that one takes an interest in it, or contributes information from one’s own area of specialisation only at some risk.  My own experience obliges me to agree with that view, though I do not see that it applied during the time when Jim Reeds’ mailing list flourished.  Ambition and its shadow, plagiarism, were unknown. The members were generally accustomed to scholarly debate and moderators kept the standards high for most of the years it survived.

d’Imperio offers no reason for us to believe that the academic board approached by William Friedman  had given the manuscript ‘only  the most superficial’ attention.  It might be so, or might not, but does run contrary to the usual practice of funding bodies, who usually consider very carefully any manuscript for which research funding is sought.  Many projects are in need of funding and the claims of each are, usually, carefully weighed.

Again, one must ask what evidence justifies supposing the manuscript “a fabrication ….or  associated “with the court and familiars of Rudolf II”.  Only one person whose name is certainly tied to the manuscript had any contact with Rudolf at all, and  nowhere is he recorded as being a member of court or one of Rudolf’s personal ‘familiars’. He was a chemist-physician who treated Rudolf successfully on at least one occasion and who on another lent the emperor money.

detail from a 16thC copy of the Ripley Scroll

And so with the rest.. No evidence or preliminary research had established that the manuscript’s content was magical, or alchemical or medical. As we’ve seen, scholars and experts in reject two of those suggestions and Singer offered no proof for the third. Baresch, who first suggested a medical purpose for it, admitted that it was just a guess.

That Voynich researchers to this day labour to create post-facto justification for each item in that list from Section 8 of d’Imperio’s book says more about their dependence on it, and limited background in medieval and renaissance studies, than it says about the manuscript’s internal evidence or current historical and other studies. Not all allusions to the stars and calendar are ‘astrological’.

There is no rational reason to believe, either, that the manuscript had any influence on Rudolf, his court, or Europe’s scheme for its intellectual history. There is still no proof even that the text is a ‘ciphertext’ or that it would ever yield a neat ‘plain text’ of the type they imagined it should.

The whole construct is no more than the extrapolation from those three unproven notions which the Friedmans adopted on faith from Wildrid’s sales pitch and it represents not just d’Imperio’s views but those of the majority  led by Wilfrid or by Elizebeth Friedman. The idea of the manuscript as reflecting Rudolfine interests became an idée fixe.

Brigadier Tiltman, and Private Currier are the only two of the Friedman/NSA cryptanalysts on record as maintaining an independent view on any of these ideas.  Tiltman said he doubted the content would prove important (in the way the term was then defined) and while still presuming exclusively Latin agency, even allowed the possibility that the material had come from as far as Asia. His opinion is noted, then ignored, by d’Imperio.   Currier approached his analysis without adopting the Friedmans’ assumptions.

When Mary d’Imperio’s book became available to the wider public online, it was valued by the new generation of cryptanalysts and by others whose chief interest was in sixteenth and seventeenth century Prague and its nobility.  The book offered a way to orient themselves and to escape the immediate sense of bewilderment – a life-raft whose comfort was a reassurance that this manuscript was not really strange: just a nice, ordinary, European Christian work whose ‘mysteriousness’ was nothing but the effect of the maker’s obscurantism, mental derangement, deliberate deceit or incompetence and so forth.

To contemplate that its content might indeed be something from a very different culture or time would have been to make clear just how ill-equipped most were to contribute anything of value to its discussion – a loss of face no less dreaded by the Friedmans last century than it is by many ‘Voynicheros’ online today.

Tiltman’s paper of 1968 calls this the ‘most mysterious manuscript in the world’ but I believe we do better to called it most  ‘mysterious-ed’ of manuscripts.  When its obvious non-compatibility with the stemmata of Latin works becomes too obvious, few dare say as plainly as Erwin Panofsky did that this is a manuscript unlike any manuscript known to him, or even as Tiltman said, more cautiously, in relation to the plant pictures:

illustrations of herbals of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Centuries are a most interesting part of the background … To the best of my knowledge no one has seen any book, certainly no illustrated book of the period which covers the wide range suggested by the drawings in it. 

With an admission of inability to recognise what type of manuscript  Beinecke MS 408 might be comes the potential for a new sort of study, one which does not begin from the same three ‘givens’ or by treating d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma with the reverence due holy writ, but rather from efforts to explain and rightly contextualise the primary evidence.  The world beyond ‘Voynichland’ has much to offer – and more than just digitised medieval manuscripts.

Unhappily, at the time of writing, there is little chance many will leave the safety of d’Imperio’s life-raft. Adding to the primal fear of the unknown is a far more obvious fear of what might follow.    ‘Conform or else’ is an atmosphere prevalent throughout the social media, and it is found in online discussions of this manuscript today.  Such attitudes have made the field a toxic one, but have certainly proven effective in stifling the sort of open intellectual curiosity and well-informed debate which was so admirable a feature of Jim Reeds’ mailing list for most of its life.

 

 

 

Next post:  ‘Elegant life-raft Pt 2:  Faking and forging.