Swallowtails – foreword.

Some time ago I quoted SirHubert’s comment:

.. 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)

To unpack it a little, we can speak of ‘left-brain’ and ‘right brain’ strengths. The following comes from a discussion about computer programs, but it’s nicely short and clear.

The left brain is the bully brain. It doesn’t just complicate things with its logic, it goes one step further. It drowns out the free-thinking nature of the right brain. But first let’s deal with logic.

The left brain is mathematical and logical. So like all maths problems it likes to be correct every time. Which is fine when you’re dealing with maths and 7 + 3=10 (and can never be 11). Every thing has to be black and white.

It’s different when you’re drawing, or playing music or writing an article. You can have your black and whites and a range of rainbow colours. This of course drives your bully brain totally crazy. It’s trying desperately to pigeon-hole what you do into black and white. And of course, it fails. (Sean d’Souza)

Sometimes the right brain is described as the ‘creative’ or as the ‘feminine’ and the left brain as the ‘logical’ or ‘masculine’.

We all have both a left- and a right-brain, and ideally they should complement one another, but for historical reasons modern western society associated ‘left brain’ behaviour with ‘the superior sort’ – as a cultural, gender, national typecasting – and right-brain behaviour with ‘inferior types’ – as individuals or as groups. You know the sort of thing – ‘Foreigners/women are so very emotional’… ‘their sect of Christianity is superstitious; ours is rational’.

Throughout Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma you can see an (often-unconscious) suppression of the ‘inferior’ in the attitudes expressed both to people and to ideas, to the point where even wildest flights of unsupported guesswork and ‘historical’ fantasy are presented as if they were a left-brain product: that is, supposedly ‘logical’ inferences. I’ve provided examples in earlier posts about the Friedmans and d’Imperio’s book.

This confused mentality, which mis-identifies ideas springing from the imagination and presents them as if a product of logic, are the worst type to have engage with and attempt to discuss images.

True left-brainers have problems. They often develop enormous ‘blind spots’ in their idea of reality. They look for, and like, ‘the similar’ while tending to dislike and even not recognise ‘the different’. Right-brain skills are the most helpful when it comes to understanding images of any sort, but for rigorous analysis, both left- and right- should operate in concert.

Much of Wilfrid Voynich’s seminal talk of 1921 was of the ‘confused’ type – imagination presented as if the product of solid information and well-informed logic. He spins chains of speculation and sets historical fact side-by-side with his fictional history for the manuscript. The implied congruencies are an illusion.

The problem of misrepresenting imagination as ‘logic’ thus began early to infect studies of Beinecke MS 408. It was not only that people presented a baseless fiction as if a product of logic, but that they, themselves, believed it was so.

Because they believed their logical left-brain skills had produced an idea, and not their inventive right-brain skills, requests for the evidence and for an explanation of their reasoning were often met by silence, by dismissive noises, contempt and/or expressions of indignation.

If you think that’s an odd reaction for ‘left-brainers’ – because mathematics, computer programming and other ‘left-brain’ occupations expect any problem to be presented with both its solution and its working-out, I can only suggest that image-making and historical studies are regarded as easy, as ‘soft science’ and ‘mere right-brain stuff’ by the sort of person who identifies as a pure left-brainer.

So, while it is possible for some mathematicians to just gaze at the sky and produce the answer to a long and difficult set of equations, if you ask them to provide the evidence and a logical exposition, the best will do so without raising an eyebrow. None of the ‘how-dare-you-question-me’ about such experts. Of course if the person asking is a six-year old who has yet to hear the word algebra, the expert may decide to condense. The point is that an iconological analyst will offer the same depth of explanation too.

Provision of an answer with its working-out is also how the written part of the Voynich text is usually discussed – statistics and arguments from those statistics informing any posited ‘answer’. But the infuriating thing is that the very same people often accept (and what is worse, produce) very sloppy work when the subject shifts to the manuscript’s drawings.

It is as if they had an ‘either/or’ attitude, and switched off their analytical left-brain the moment the subject changed. Most show no sign of understanding the range of preliminary studies, or the appropriate methods needed to read accurately pictures made at least six hundred years ago, and whose time and place of first enunciation are as yet unknown.

Robert S. Brumbaugh is a good example of a person who regarded himself as a superior type -a ‘left-brainer’. If you read his essays, you might try to identify the ideas he adopts without evidence adduced; the extent to which he relies on imagination; on others’ untested assertions; the absence of any reference to histories of medieval and earlier art; the absence of analytical and comparative evidence in his exposition of one drawing or another. My own impression is that he had no idea how to determine whether a particular detail in the manuscript was intended to be read literally, metaphorically, symbolically, or allegorically.

His ‘blind spots’ are often the same as those informing the Friedmans’ work, and d’Imperio’s account of it.

Extreme left-brainers are comfortable with quantification, and least comfortable with matters requiring balanced judgement of qualities. They can easily compare things in pictures – “these are pictures of cats” – but are at a loss when asked, for example, to decide and explain which of the pictures best conveys ‘feline nature’ – and how the maker did that.

In my experience, as I say, it is not the natural ‘left-brainers’, nor predominantly ‘right-brain’ types who are worst at reading pre-modern pictures. It is those ‘confused’ ones who identify as left-brainers and logicians but whose logic is badly flawed and who constantly mis-interpret, and so mis-represent the products of their imagination as products of evidence-dependent logic.

Often perceptive in social situations, they make very poor analysts. In fact, if they manage to qualify, they can prove a real menace to the profession because they deceive their clients.

Being able to convince themselves that anything produced by their mind must be a product of ‘logic’, but also adept at persuasion, they persuade their clients to believe that some bit of their own historical-fantasy is a valid description of the object for whose assessment the client is paying. The hardest sentence for such types to utter is: ‘I can offer no informed comment’.

Otherwise, most people can learn to develop the skills natural to both left- and right- brain. The right-brainer is the most direct and acute in observation and more interested in learning more, the left-brainer more inclined to shy away from the uncomfortable or hitherto unfamiliar.

That may seem counter-intuitive but imagine the situation – it’s the middle of the night. The person awakes with an impression that they’ve heard a noise. The right-brain says ‘burglars’ and wants to investigate to see whether or not that is so. The left-brain says ‘Nonsense – probably the dog playing with its ball’ and wants to go back to sleep. A balanced mind might – might – say ‘It might be burglars; it might just be the dog’, then curb any impulse to go downstairs but instead pick up their phone, move into a room with a lock on the door, and notify the police. That sort of reaction is not wholly impulsive, nor wholly ‘logical’ but it is eminently reasonable.

Most people not in the grip of some theory can be taught to recognise the difference between a painting made in fifteenth-century Venice and a manuscript illumination made in thirteenth-century Constantinople. They can memorise the tokens which distinguish one saint from another in Christian art. But the ‘confused’ types won’t want to do the necessary reading; they’ll want quite complex matter reduced to bullet-point slides – everything ‘right’ and simple. I’m sure you’ve met the type. Not stupid, exactly, but not clever in the right way.

The sort of question which seems to bring their mind to a complete stop are ones requiring informed, but qualitative judgement, such as: “what inference would you take from the use of pink in a fifteenth century painting?”, or if you simply ask them to ‘read and explain’ a particular picture, they cannot do it. The fear of ‘being wrong’ – as ‘not logical’ – is overwhelming because they suppose the definition of the ‘superior’ left-brainer is ‘never wrong’. Oddly enough I’ve found that many can relate well to images of the most overtly literal propagandist sort, and are most comfortable with early twentieth century poster-art of that type.

In my experience, when the questions mentioned above are asked, such persons habitually either produce an answer at random and when asked to explain it say something like, ‘It stands to reason’ or turn towards some other person for an indication of the ‘right’ answer.

Extreme left-brainers have persistent difficulties if the aim is to understand without producing any sort of ‘answer’. It’s good training, though, because it helps break the habit of assuming any question is a ‘problem’ in need of solution.

One encounters in Voynich studies, but less often in daily work, the curious situation where a left-brainer simply presumes that the ‘right answer’ can be determined by a simple head-count. This is much what Friedman did in issuing his ‘questionnaire’ or when Voynicheros use meaningless phrases such as ‘generally accepted’ or ‘not generally accepted’ to obscure an inability to offer an informed opinion of their own. The obvious, if impolite, rejoinder is ‘Sez who?’ and the scholarly one, ‘Why?’

For a century it was ‘generally accepted’ that the work was an autograph written by Roger Bacon. In 2011, promotion of ‘seventeenth-century Prague’ theory had seen the manuscript’s dating ‘generally accepted’ as sixteenth or seventeenth century and its subject ‘generally accepted’ as about pharmacy and alchemy. None of it was a result of consensus among formally qualified specialists, and dissenters’ views were considered outliers. Until the radiocarbon dating confirmed the informed consensus reported decades earlier by Kraus’ agent.

Truth-by-numbers may seem ‘democratic’ but it’s rubbish when the numbers are a random collection of persons, persons repeating untested ideas, and the subject is a medieval manuscript.

One of the questions which, over the years, has produced many interesting and illuminating answers as (non-Voynich) students were being encouraged develop both left- and right- brain skills, may also interest some present readers as something to mull over:

“Would you describe the doctrine of papal infallibility as the product of left-brain or of right-brain thinking?”

Hint: if your first instinct is to turn towards some other person and try to get ‘the answer’ from them, consider yourself one of the ‘confused’. If your first instinct is to learn as much as you can about the history of arguments about papal infallibility before saying anything, your right-brain skills are probably well developed. If your first instinct is to ask, ‘What has papal infallibility got to do with  pictures?’ then you’re probably a left-brainer with a lot of reading ahead of you.


Voynich ‘ciphertext’ attracts left-brainers.

When Wilfrid Voynich found the manuscript and realised he could read neither the written nor the pictorial text, he arbitrarily defined the written text as a ‘ciphertext’ just as he arbitrarily assigned the whole work to a single author, imagining ‘logically’ the imagined author of this imagined ciphertext must be Roger Bacon, and when he arrived in America, he tried first to promote the ‘ciphertext’ as potentially valuable for the military.

The result was that Wilfrid became a person of interest, as possible subversive, and a file was opened by the BOI, precursor to the FBI. That response, by the way, is a nice example of how logic may operate without evidence, and unchecked by reason.

So Wilfrid then changed tack and began emphasising the ‘Roger Bacon, scientific genius’ line, as you see from his talk in 1921.

But in a sense, it was too late.

Cryptography and military matters in general thereafter provided, with computer programmers, most of those interested in the manuscript, and such professions tend to attract ‘left-brainers’. While I’d certainly not deny that cryptographers and mathematicians are capable of imaginative leaps, they tend to be uncomfortable with situations where a question simply doesn’t have any yes/no ‘answer’ and the value of an opinion is the range and quality of an individual’s understanding.

This is why, I think, Friedman imagined that the Voynich text could be approached as contemporary ciphers were. He presumed a consistent orthography, an ‘official’ grammar, and that the aim of any enciphered text was to send a disguised but neat, monolingual, ‘plain text’ to persons at a distance from the person who composed a message.

None of those assumptions – including the assumption of encipherment – had been a conclusion from solid historical evidence, but it explains why Friedman saw nothing ridiculous about presenting Erwin Panofsky with a pre-determined set of seventeen ‘questions’, the aim of which was to collate all such answers as if the number of ‘yeas’ and ‘nays’ could decide whether an opinion was or wasn’t right.

I think it also explains why Friedman was unable to give Panofsky’s first opinion (given to the Voynichs via Anne Nill) the weight it deserved. He didn’t know how to decide relative weight due one ‘expert’ opinion over another.

For more than a century, the idea of the Voynich text as a ‘ciphertext’ became one of the study’s ‘doctrines’ and as far as I can determine no-one formally qualified to analyse images had contributed to the study at all between 1932 and 2009. It was a ‘left-brain’ field.

By 2009, it had become another “Voynich meme” that “until the written text is deciphered, any comment about the drawings is subjective”.

Like so many other Voynich memes, it’s rubbish, of course, but a perfect example of ‘left-brain’ irrationality.

First, as a moment’s thought will show, every major city in the world has art galleries and museums filled with items that were not produced and appreciated by means of any explanatory screed, and secondly because the implicit, and unrecognised ‘given’ behind that dictum is that we may impose the habits of modern western art on these pre-modern drawings.

It’s not unreasonable to approach a piece of modern art with the expectation that it might be described by one of just two categories namely, ‘portraits of things’, or “subjective expression of an artist’s worldview”. In the first case, the artist is imagined ‘drawing what s/he sees’ and this is supposed to be accessible to every viewer. In the second case, the viewer supposes that they can only access meaning by resorting to their own emotional responses and/or reading a written description.

But just as Newbold was wrong to suppose the medieval pharmacy like an early-twentieth century American drugstore, so this notion of image-making isn’t appropriate to the pre-modern world or to non-European tradition.

As well as ‘portraits’ of things (pictures ‘of’), and individual ‘expressions of ideas’ there were ‘pictures about’ and they were ‘about’ the things known and shared by the first maker of an image and his intended audience. In a different time and a very different environment.

Which is why the habit of ‘matching pictures’ by defining all pictures in terms of a single object in them is so prevalent a habit in modern Voynich writings, and so very inappropriate without the provision of historical and technical explanations of precisely how and why the images juxtaposed should be considered ‘alike’.

Here’s a concrete example of why simplistic ‘picture matching’ is useless to explain any image included in such composites.

Quite apart from a need to recognise and describe stylistics – which tell the informed viewer that the pictures (from left to right) are Japanese, Egyptian, and German – and without the background studies of history which will allow the analyst to offer an informed opinion that the first is probably seventeenth-century AD, the second probably second millennium BC and the third, fifteenth-century AD, the iconological analyst must be able to key those matters to the most vital issue – intended significance.

That sort of work needs both left-brain and right-brain skills, in coordination.

Readers should be alert to alleged ‘comparisons’ relying on the viewer to invent a ‘logical’ link to justify side-by-side juxtapositions and be cautious about accepting tacit arguments from such asserted ‘similarity’.

It is not unreasonable to ask a theorist presenting such efforts at silent persuasion: ‘Why do you think so?’ ‘Where’s the evidence?’ ‘What are your precedents’? ‘Explain your thinking’ – such questions are ones that professionals expect any client or any fellow to ask, and which is addressed, as a matter of routine, in any written report.

What happens in Voynich studies, all too often, would be unacceptable in any other context.

If a person who inherited a picture comes asking for its explanation, you don’t say ‘its a man on a horse’, lay it beside a picture of a mounted Napoleon, and tacitly invite the client to infer that their picture should be dated to the nineteenth century and supposed French. But the equivalent is constantly done in Voynich studies and, by long usage, that appalling habit has come to be regarded as normal methodology in this study.

In the next post I’ll reproduce some of the earliest contributions to discussion of the ‘swallowtail merlons’. I’d like readers to consider what ‘givens’ are assumed, what ‘blind spots’ they can identify, what basic errors of reasoning are evident, and whether they think the topic deserves a thorough re-consideration.

Dear email-correspondents … Pt 1.

This post has been shortened and edited, after the author was ‘eldered’ by older and kinder (and non-Voynich-connected) friends.

The last couple of weeks have brought some interesting correspondence.

Some of the email-writers complain that they can hardly refer to original work I published online if it’s no longer online. One describes me as ‘the Gordon Ramsay of Voynich studies’ and a couple more echo the sentiment with less humour. The most interesting invites me to write an addendum for their planned paper about the Voynich plant pictures. The subject is ‘mnemonic elements’.

While I declined the offer, I appreciate the fact that those authors got the timeline right. It is quite true that I was the first to describe the plant-pictures as containing – usually in the position of the ‘roots’ – mnemonic devices which serve as additional commentary on the plants forming the subject of each drawing. The information was not well received at the time. Somewhat later, Don of Tallahassee began using the word, was brave enough to mention his source, and while he received a poor reception, the ‘idea’ began to become more popular although those using it seemed to think that a mnemonic was little more than a simple ‘associative doodle’. One person hunted d’Imperio, found a reference to Frances Yates’ book about Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and claimed that the analytical studies I’d published were ‘nothing new’. This made the word ‘mnemonics’ acceptable to many, though I’d already explained that Yates’ book had nothing to offer, and that readers hoping to understand how these elements work in plant drawings should begin with the studies by Mary Carruthers, which would not explain the Voynich pictures but would give some idea of the complexity and sophistication of mnemonic techniques in a world before printing, and where many remained illiterate all their lives.

The reason I cannot provide the commentary those authors want is that the details in the Voynich plant pictures are devised to supplement information about the plants referenced by a given drawing, so that if the authors’ analyses and identification is flawed, the mnemonic will either make no sense or will conflict with their posited identifications. There is no easy set of correspondences, and the mnemonic elements are no key to understanding a drawing, but are a helpful means to cross-check a developing analysis of any Voynich plant-drawing because they are very well informed and refer to the plants’ common uses and value for commerce. They are quite unlike the simplistic devices used in western herbals of the type Aldrovandi called ‘the alchemists’ herbals’ which (by comparison) read as a bit flat-footed and leaden.

I won’t name those authors yet, but once their paper is published and the risk of its content’s ‘co-opted’ that much less, I’ll direct readers to that paper.

In terms of the manuscript’s story, one can map the rise of poor practice in parallel with the rise of a ‘central European’ theory, and the consequent shift of focus from investigation and research aimed at better understanding the manuscript to a focus on promoting and attempting to persuade others, of that imaginative story, or of some other.

But the effort to promote a theory was accompanied for the first time by a refusal to engage with persons whose research (and I mean research beyond picture-matching) constituted opposition to the theory. Again, purely as a matter of fact, those who refused to discuss or engage in debate and who behaved as if their theory was the only ‘logical’ position were promoting the ‘central European Rudolfine’ sort of story.

I’m not sure whether they also brought to the study a particularly obnoxious practice, one which might be described as plagiarism at one remove or ‘deniable plagiarism’.

I’ve been watching its affects in this study for more than a decade, though it certainly began before 2008, and before Nick Pelling’s experience in 2011.

What happened in 2011?

Well, Nick was gob-smacked by a particularly glaring example of the most sickening of all forms of plagiarism- what you might call ‘plagiarism at one remove’ or ‘disownable plagiarism’. It involves conning some third party to ‘launder’ the stolen property and the phenomenon has become so common in Voynich studies that it is an important reason so few eminent and independent scholars are now willing to address problems presented by Beinecke MS 408.

Nick described his experience so well that I won’t try to improve on it.

In his case, the (fairly-) innocent third-parties weren’t Voynicheros but employees of a television company.

Here’s the crux (emphasis is mine):

 It wasn’t even that they were ignoring me, but rather that they gave every impression of trying to re-create my results by other means so as to avoid having to credit (or even name-check) me.

Nick treats the issue by normal standards of fair and unfair.

I tend to see it in terms of its corrupting the normal, and formal standards of scholarly research – of integrity versus corrupt practice.

I’m not criticising ‘new comers’ who’ve been conned into thinking they are exploring for the first time some ‘idea’ presented to them as if never before explored.

On the contrary, I think the amateurs are being badly misused, their enthusiasm abused and their reputations as honest individuals likely to be demeaned in the long run.

It also means that the study sees an endless ‘re-invention’ of matter already studied, but of which studies a majority are left in ignorance.

I should probably offer a current example so I’ll take a fairly easy and current topic – the ‘swallowtail merlons’ theme which is undergoing another revival.

I’d like to say that the topic was being ‘revisited’ or ‘re-considered’ but it’s shaping up as another of those ‘groundhog day’ conversations, whose only joy is ‘team spirit’ and where all involved appear to be oblivious of what has been said, thought and argued about it since 1996.

Some of the guys engaged in the ‘revisiting’ are very nice people. It’s rather depressing to see them repeating mistakes made quarter of a century ago.

But you might like to consider what Koen reports of it, in his latest post, and then compare that material with what turns up if you search Reeds’ mailing list and Pelling’s blog for ‘swallowtail’ ‘fishtail’ ‘dovetail’ and ‘Ghibbeline’ (Reeds list) and ‘merlons’ and ‘castle’ (Pelling’s blog). Most of the references in those sources, reflecting individuals’ ongoing research come with their cited sources.

It’s a pity that the posts from Rich Santacoloma’s mailing list haven’t yet been issued as a searchable database.

With many – even most – of Nick’s opinions I disagree. I find his efforts at iconological analysis ill-informed. But I’d bet there’s not a single instance of his trying to pretend another person’s insight his own, or any instance of his pretending that the research conclusions reached by any other person was just an ‘idea’ wafted to him on the wind by reason of some innate ‘genius’. He does not expect others to do the work of researching ‘an idea’ for him, or engage in ‘deniable plagiarism’ either.

I have a high opinion of Koen’s intellectual integrity, too, and if so much of what is being offered now by his forum- team reads to other readers as earlier research ‘label-stripped’, I’d lay odds he doesn’t know it is.

In the next post, I’ll treat the earliest phase of the ‘swallowtail’ discussion in Voynich studies and comment on some of the more common errors in the way the Voynich drawing has been treated. The oldest and most persistent error has been to forget that the subject of study is supposed to be a drawing in a six-hundred year old manuscript, and what significance might be implied by this motif. One can hardly determine this fairly complex question by a tour of such ‘Ghibbeline’ battlements as happen to survive in the twenty-first century. Sorry.