Expert opinion Myth versus materials science Pt.5a

Two previous:

 

Codicology  and conservation are technical disciplines and a specialist’s opinion must be regarded as expert opinion.  (See previous post)

As one writer said of codicology:

…. The vast variety of binding techniques, the diversity of the material and the artistic element demand deep understanding of books ….

I’d ask readers to keep that in mind, and the fact that in what follows, I am not criticising the technical matter in the Yale facsimile edition essay ‘Physical Materials’ but objecting to certain editorialising comment inserted into that technical essay.  Nor is my point that this person or that is wrong – but that the revisionist has to be aware that when the old myths meet scientific data at the coal-face, the myths don’t necessarily give way.

The  ‘editorialising hand’ who has inserted comments into the scientific report I will refer to as ‘e.h.’ Whose hand(s) these were is irrelevant; as we’ll see the problem is that in attempting to harmonise the new information with the speculative narratives, that editorialising hand does a disservice to the reader, the researcher and  – one might even argue – to Yale, under whose imprint the essay appears.  ‘

In this post, the issue concerns the text-block’s binding and before going further I want to make clear that I’m not a codicologist, though I’ve had laboratory experience in the analysis of materials  as part of my own field.

A good first introduction to bookbinding, its history and materials is found in a booklet the Beinecke published for its ‘Travelling scriptorium‘ project.

  • [pdf] Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts: Bookbinding terms, materials, methods and models, (issued by) Special Collections Conservation Preservation Department, Yale University Library (February 2015).

To gain an idea of how much complex matter has been condensed to form the booklet, Szirmai’s book still serves as a kind of ‘conservator’s bible’.

  • J.A. Szirmai, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. 

Other sources:

  • Georgios Boudalis (et.al., eds.), Historical Book Binding Techniques in Conservation (2016).
  • A general guide by The British Library [pdf]. David Pearson, English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800, chapter 2,
  • PJM Marks, The British Library Guide to Bookbinding: History and Techniques. A comprehensive glossary by Don Etherington and Matt T Roberts
  • [pdf] David Pearson, John Mumford, Alison Walker, Bookbindings (British Library Preservation Guide)

and

 

The textblock’s binding

It doesn’t take much experience before you get used to the way medieval manuscripts are described in most catalogues.  Some give more, and others less detail but I think few include as much speculative matter and sheer guesswork as the Beinecke’s description of the Voynich manuscript’s content.  The description of its codicology is nearer the norm.

The usual form for a manuscript runs something like this: ‘Origin: southern France or  Spain’;  Date: Fourteenth century.  Binding: sixteenth century Italian’.. ”    The description is normally brief, direct and where precision isn’t possible the parameters are given (e.g. southern France or northern Spain”.)

In the Yale facsimile essay, the text-block’s binding isn’t described in that way, but uses a curiously convoluted expression:

…quires held together in a binding technique typically in use in the 15thC “.

Why not just  ‘textblock binding – 15thC’?  – because that is obviously the impression which the writer wants readers to take.   When a curious phrasing such as this occurs, implying but not saying the binding is fifteenth century, the revisionist must ask why, and what distinction is implied here between  ‘ binding’ and ‘binding technique in use’…  and why no location is offered.

In general terms, we can say that the manuscript’s binder had been trained in European style, a style also adopted for Armenian manuscripts after the Crusader period.  In terms of bookbinding styles, the period from the 8th-12thC is termed ‘Carolingian’; overlapping with the ‘Romaneque’ which is dated mid-11thC to the end of the 14thC, overlapped again by the ‘Gothic’ which is dated early 14thC – 17thC.

The European (or ‘Latin’) style is distinguished by the use of sewing supports: strips of material which support the threads binding the quires of the textblock together.

But when we look at the sewing supports of the Voynich manuscript, we see that they are not ‘typically 15thC European’ at all.

See also

Sewing supports were normally made of skin, but those in the Voynich manuscript are made of bast-fibre which the scientific crew identified as probably flax.

The technical study is clear that, on this point at least, the binding is not ‘typically fifteenth century’.  It is the editorialising hand which is responsible for blurring that information by using the roundabout phrase we saw above: ‘a binding technique typically in use in the 15thC’ .

How unusual are flax supports for the fifteenth century?

Below is a diagram from the Beinecke’s ‘Travelling Scriptorium’ booklet’s section on Gothic Romanesque bindings, which are dated (from the second half of the 11thC – end of the 14thC).

It mentions vegetable-fibre supports, but adds the slightly cryptic “later”.

In the British Library’s bookbinding guide there is no mention of vegetable-fibre supports other than in connection with books made after about 1650:

The supports in early books are commonly strips of leather or tawed skin, and from the mid-seventeenth century cords made of cotton, linen, hemp or silk were used.

So although the samples of vellum which were radiocarbon dated gave a range of 1404-1438 (within the ‘Gothic’ period in bookbinders’ terms), there must be some question about whether or not the quires were bound at that time.

And now we find another editorialising, soothing, and non-specific comment by ‘e.h.’ which effectively says, ‘Ah, well, no… not typically fifteenth-century, but don’t you worry about that’.  It says:

…  it is not unheard of for a fifteenth-century  manuscript to be sewn onto flax supports, as the Voynich manuscript is, [but] it is less usual than the use of leather supports.

So now having first been guided to think the binding ‘typically 15thC’, we are shepherded towards thinking it merely ‘less usual’ – by way of “not-unheard-of'”, a phase which usually means ‘very rare’.

The message from ‘e.h.’  seems to be – in effect- that we shouldn’t worry our little heads about the fact that the scientific study doesn’t match up with the theoretical narratives.   ‘e.h.’ simply asserts it is just ‘less usual’ without providing a single comparative instance to justify that statement.   What is one to think? That vegetable-fibre supports are just ‘less usual’ or that they are very unusual but ‘not unheard of’ or that they are really ‘typically in use in the fifteenth century?

The Grove Encyclopaedia’s entry under ‘Bookbinding’ describes  tawed leather as the most common form of support from the eleventh to sixteenth century, referring in general to ‘Carolingian bindings’ as using flax supports (not just those found in St.Gall by Szirmai) and in that context adds in passing that “cords were re-introduced in the fifteenth century” though without any details or added comment.

  • Gerald W. R. Ward (ed.), The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art (2008) p.42.

What is being omitted is anything explaining the significance of this disparity.  Might it tell us more about where the manuscript was made, or by whom?

So the revisionist him/herself must ask the questions and hope to find informed answers elsewhere, and from an up-to-date specialist, for preference.  This is not as easy as it might once have been.  Over the past fifteen years or so, the manuscript has become notorious: less for its inherent difficulty than for the fact that a few hard-core theorists aren’t keen on specialists who have no interest in becoming a ‘team players’.  A specialist might comment in private but few for publication.

Finally,  I decided to ask this question about how ‘not unheard of’ flax supports are at  Erik Kwakkel’s codicology blog.  To keep other readers’ attention on it as a technical question about codicology, I phrased it in neutral terms – that is, without  the ‘V’ word.

Professor Kwakkel was kind enough to respond himself (also letting me know that Szirmai’s book might be had through Scribd):

I did not know anything about flax used for this purpose, but your query prompted me to consult Szirmai … and he discusses the materials at various locations. At [p.]117, importantly, while discussing Carolingian bindings, he describes a sample research he undertook based on St Gall manuscripts, 9th-12th. Flax is found in 15 samples. More data at p. 190. I would check that out.

 Carolingian? As said above, in bookbinding terms the Carolingian period is 8thC -12thC .  Not ‘typical 15thC’.

We can also be pretty sure that if Prof. Kwakkel has never encountered flax sewing supports, that ‘e.h.’s    “not-unheard-of”  may be interpreted as “extremely unusual indeed“t least until someone produces fifteenth-century examples. And they should prove interesting and informative,

Meanwhile it seems that the use of  vegetable fibre sewing-supports is normally associated with either  the Carolingian period (8th-12thC) or with books of the early modern period “from the mid-seventeenth century onwards”.

In that case, to argue that they were also used … somewhere or other, by some binders or other… in the fifteenth century, ‘e.h.’ would have done better to cite examples than trying, as s/he did, to slide over this anomaly, another among the many which the manuscript presents.

Why ‘e.h.’ took the other course, one can only guess.  I certainly don’t imagine that the Beinecke staff sit huddled about in cowls  ‘conspiring’ to delude the public.

Perhaps ‘e.h.’ has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to maintain the old narratives found fossilised in the Beinecke’s sixty-year old catalogue entry and  its current website ‘Introduction’ – labouring to harmonise those ‘canonised myths’ with the new technical information that offers objections to those stories.  But the new information is precisely what we need to know what to discard.

Reading through the ‘Physical Materials’ essay, the editorialising comments evoke both sympathy for that dilemma and a certain quiet outrage.   ‘e.h.’ seems to imagine readers as if members of a family among whom any difference of opinion is on par with a personal quarrel, and ‘e.h.’ in the role of parent, keeping everything nice and calm, creating a ‘middle ground’.

Hence – the radiocarbon dating has the vellum early fifteenth century, so while the binding is far from being ‘typically fifteenth century’  ‘e.h.’ finds a nice middle way:  ‘binding technique typically in use in the fifteenth century’.  It really won’t do.

But should anyone notice the ‘fudge’ and what it implies that the sewing-supports are not skin, but fibre… well, ok. (says ‘e.h.’) but they are still sort of fifteenth century… well, ‘not unheard of’… just ‘less usual’.

But that does not seem to be true, does it?

No mention in Szirmai, or in any other reference that I could find…  but I’m not a codicologist.  If anyone locates some, do let us know.  We may learn a little more about where the manuscript was made.

It seems to me that what was better to  have been said – perhaps ought to have been said  –  if ‘e.h.’ had to editorialise at all – is that  Voynich manuscript’s bookblock is not bound in the way typical of fifteenth-century European manuscripts, but its use of vegetable fibre for the sewing supports finds comparison in Carolingian-period manuscripts and again in the seventeenth-century style for binding books. And – if ‘e.h.’ knew of another instance, what it was, and where that manuscript was bound.

Doubtless there is something about the  binding ‘technique’  found in common with fifteenth-century bindings, but we’re left to guess what that might be.  The number or distance of stations, perhaps?  Type of stitch?

But when ‘e.h.’s efforts to ‘harmonise’ cross the line from just soothing noises to plain misrepresentation of fact, it’s a bit much.

Another interpolation in the scientific report says that the manuscript “was known to have been in Rudolf’s library”.   Now, that’s just not true.  No-one ever claimed to have seen it there and no document has ever been found from Rudolf’s archives (or anywhere else) which substantiates that rumour.   At this point in the ‘Physical Materials’ essay  the revisionist takes their pencil and writes in the margin something along these lines:

“a third-hand rumour, unsubstantiated by the person relating it, or by any evidence since discovered.  The  allegation is that Mnishovsky repeated a rumour to the effect that Rudolf  allegedly had paid the person who brought the manuscript to Prague the sum of 600 ducats, had owned it, and that the text was by Roger Bacon, the Englishman etc.  To date, no documentary or other evidence supports any item of those three. See Marci letter of 1665/6”.

Why did ‘e.h.’ feel it necessary to insert that reference to Rudolf into the scientific report, whose subject is the manuscript’s pigments, inks and binding?  I don’t believe that anyone is trying to argue that the vellum, inks, pigments or binding are sixteenth or seventeenth-century… are they?

No, but as ‘e.h.’ might have realised, this issue with the sewing supports does have the potential to become a can of worms.

If a theorist were to opt for the ‘seventeenth-century’ use of flax sewing supports over the ‘Carolingian’,  it might raise doubt as to whether our present manuscript has just the same form as that owned by  Jakub  Hořčický.   Baresch does suggest that his volume was bound already, calling it a ‘book’ when writing to Athanasius Kircher in  c.1635-6:

“…And so I ordered a certain old book to be transcribed in part, with the writing closely imitated (the bearer of this letter will inform you that he saw it with his own eyes). A year and a half ago I sent that writing to your Reverence….. “

He doesn’t say how much was copied, or whether that bound, or even if the book was disbound to make the copies, but the technical essay says there is no sign of the quires’ having been bound earlier.  It is a surprising finding, given that the map seems to have been rebound, and the disorder observed in the manuscript has often been speculated a result of disbinding and rebinding.  But there you are.

And against any theory of a  ‘seventeenth-century binding’  I should think the fact that Wilfrid attributed the manuscript to the thirteenth century would be a fair argument.  Nor was his opinion denied by many specialists of that time, including  E. P. Goldschmidt, author of a two volume study on the subject:

  • E.Ph. Goldschmidt, Gothic & Renaissance Bookbindings Exemplified and Illustrated from the Author’s Collection.

That work was first published in 1928, but so well thought of that Degraaf reprinted in it a hard-back cased edition forty years later.

I’m content to accept the fifteenth-century dating for the ‘standard quires’, but have long thought the content suggests an effort at very close reproduction of material which pre-dates that period.

Who knows? Perhaps the persons told to ‘copy exactly’ copied the binding as exactly as they could, too.

Who knows?  No-one knows yet, and it won’t help us know more to do what ‘e.h.’ has done and obscure the significance of  newer and better information by ‘smoothing over’ the difference between that information and the old, tired guesses.

To treat fairly with researchers – and with those trusting the ‘Yale’ imprint when buying their copy of the facsimile edition –  accurate information, and accurate explanations of its significance is what the study needs.

 

Postscript –

re ‘linen or hemp’,  Szirmai notes (n.9  p.91) that while “There are no non-destructive methods available to distinguish between flax and hemp; the drying twist test (Textile institute 1985 p. 225) can be scaled down and carried out under a low-power microscope, but it requires a sample of a number of elementary fibres of 20 to 30 mm length.

  • Brenda Collins and Philip Ollerenshaw (eds.), The European Linen Industry in Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press, (2003).
  • Bert dewilde, Flax in Flanders throughout the centuries, history technical evolution folkore (1999).
  • The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, (2003).

edited and corrections made – 12th May 2019.

The ‘Physical Materials Essay’… to be continued…

 

Expert opinion vs materials science 4

Header illustration: (left) A swiss pocket-watch, the most complicated in the world; (inset) ‘no hammers’ sign; (right) bench of Swiss watchmakers’ tools. And for the smart-guys who immediately look for a hammer among the watchmaker’s equipment: that’s not a hammer but a very small mallet.
two previous:

This post is about the equipment, chiefly intellectual equipment, needed to treat with a manuscript as problematic as Beinecke MS 408 – so it’s  more about expertise than about materials science; I’ll get back to codicology in the next post.

I expect that my broaching this subject may cause hackles to rise on some readers, while others will think it self-evident that any person who knows too little can only misinform those who know still less.

But from the range of matter on the internet, in papers issued as pdfs and even books in print, it is evident that the idea is general that with this medieval manuscript anyone can ‘have a go’ .

The bar for newcomers is certainly set highest for cryptological theories, of which few survive unless the proponent has taken time to study the history of cryptology and of methods already tried.

 

Next are studies that involve linguistics and statistical analyses. New readers should consider the work done by Julian Bunn, E.M. Smith and Koen Gheuens‘ latest post (and comments made to it) to get a clear idea of the present level of discussion in that subject.  Nick Pelling‘s recent post on ‘Currier A’ and ‘Currier B’ should also prove illuminating.

The bar against novices is less high when translations are claimed – hence the regular claims that the text has been translated.  Part of the problem in this case is the lack of persons with the time, languages and inclination (Voynicheros or not) to test and review such claims.  One wonders what sort of ‘peer reviewer’ is being invited by the publishers today; the book by Tucker and Janick was published by Springer (no less) but it is only thanks to the kindness of Magnus Pharao Hansen  that we know their claimed “Nahuatl” is not.

A neat illustration of the fact that it is inherent value, nor format, which makes information valuable.   Tucker and Janick’s book appeared in print;  Hansen’s refutation of their ‘Nahuatl’ translation in a blogpost.  The benefit of information published as book or blogpost is that it comes with a date-stamp – very helpful when trying to clarify questions of precedence, originality and attribution. 

Poorest of all are standards for accepting or rejecting assertions made about the manuscript’s iconography or quasi-historical narratives.  Some adopt the form of scholarly papers while lacking such quality. Others don’t bother. Some few are by scholars who (like Newbold) made the basic error of accepting, untested, other persons’  unfounded or ill-founded assertions as their ‘givens’.

I am not suggesting everyone must leave the field who hasn’t formal qualifications in manuscript studies, materials sciences, comparative cultural history, or cryptography… or anything else.

A doctorate is no promise of  a balanced attitude and the history of Voynich studies shows its course regularly de-railed or misdirected by individuals who, being qualified in one field, imagine themselves omni-competent.

William Friedman is one of the earliest examples; his skill in cryptography is a matter of record but he was mistaken in supposing that all other matters – codicology palaeography, and the pictorial text – were inherently inferior studies which might be treated as ancillary to his own.

Where he might have set reasonable  limits for his search for ‘the cipher method’ by accepting the opinions of those better qualified to date and provenance manuscripts, his narrow focus meant that on the one hand he accepted many of Wilfrid’s assertions uncritically and, on the other, pursued his imagined ‘author’ as far as the seventeenth century.   He treated persons such as Fr. Petersen and Erwin Panofsky less as valuable guides than as sources from which to extract computable ‘yes-no’ data and overall showed that lack of balance and over-confidence that ensures failure, barring a miracle.

Again, Hugh O’Neill was a qualified  botanist, but his area of competence was the native flora of  Canada – and to a lesser extent, of Alaska.  Nothing in his writings, or in what others said of him during his lifetime  indicates any particular knowledge of, or interest in, medieval history, art, or manuscripts.  Nor does he seem to have paid due attention to Fr. Petersen, who had told him plainly and repeatedly that no palaeographer could support O’Neill’s bright idea.  O’Neill himself had so little interest in the question of historical context that he cannot have even tested the  ‘Columbus brought sunflowers’ theory against primary documents relating to Columbus’ voyages.  As for his ability to read the manuscript’s imagery  …  well, let’s call it naive.

And again,  Robert Brumbaugh.   A professor of philosophy with a chair at Yale, his area was the philosophers of classical Greece and, to a lesser extent, of Rome.  Presumably he knew something of classical history and languages as necessary adjunct to those studies, but his papers about the Voynich manuscript show no evidence that he was at pains to learn more about manuscripts, medieval history, botany, or the range and variety of star-lore and -science known in the medieval (or earlier) periods   What he read of cryptography seems only to have been in connection Voynich theories.  His acknowledgements reinforce the impression that he, too, imagined himself competent in all things because formally qualified in one.    His paper on ‘Voynich botany’ credits Hugh O’Neill’s paper, his own nephew Mr Eric Arnould and “a Mr Pero, of Syracuse, New York”.  Not a single colleague in botany or any other relevant discipline, not even from those at Yale.

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘Botany and the Voynich “Roger Bacon” Manuscript Once More’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Jul., 1974), pp. 546-548

Claiming to have ‘solved’ the text, Brumbaugh mentions Marjorie Wynne and Louis Martz, one being the Beinecke’s head librarian and the other its honorary director, a Professor of English.  But neither is mentioned as helping him learn more of codicology, medieval manuscripts or even medieval English texts –  but only for their ‘encouraging’ him.

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Solution of the Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher’, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 49, No. 4 (April 1975), pp. 347-355.

However, give Brumbaugh some credit for keenness in observation.  As I write this, I see that I may cite him as precedent for noting as I later did that the Voynich ‘aries’ are drawn as goats, not sheep, for he wrote in the paper above that they are “[as] much like a goat as like a ram…”(p.147)..

The issue, then, is not about qualified as against unqualified Voynicheros, but rather of an individual’s unreasonable self-confidence in their capacities, despite their limited range of intellectual tools, and their underestimating the complexity of problems and evidence presented by this manuscript.

To say that ‘anyone with two eyes’ can understand the imagery in the Voynich manuscript, or date its hands, or correctly attribute its manufacture to a time and place is as stupid as  a carpenter’s saying that because he has two hands and a hammer  he can put together a plane as good as any now flying.

To have one skill and a theory may be enough to make a useful contribution, but to suppose that instills the capacity for all other skills is to act like a child who claims they can fix a broken clock with just a  hammer.

The task of understanding this particularly difficult manuscript is better compared to the work of an old-fashioned watchmaker, who must put together a great many separate, interlocking elements, aware of how each relates to and contributes to the workings – and whether each has been accurately formed by the makers. In this case the parts are explanations for those cues embodied in manuscript’s materials, structure and iconography; in connecting the historical and cultural cues with the evidence of linguistics, palaeography .. and quite possibly cryptography…

It is not a simple process.  It requires solid evidence and input from a range of competencies.  It is not as simple as theory-creation, effective theory-promotion, relying on the age of ‘canonised myths’, nor simply of logical thinking.  As one of my students once said, “This is hard because you have to know so much stuff”,

Logic is the pride of many Voynicheros, but logic is a tool which produces results no better than its ‘givens’.  Nor should people with an ability in the critical sciences suppose those of the pragmatic sciences are less intellectually demanding or easier than their own – or vice versa.

As one scholar said, in speaking to a group of cryptologists in 2013:

“.. 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” in a comment to Ciphermysteries, December 10, 2013)

We should be seeking less to ‘break’ the text, or ‘solve’ the manuscript than to understand it.  The manuscript isn’t the problem; the problem is that some basic flaws in the manuscript’s past study leave us still – after more than a century –  unable to rightly interpret the evidence  embodied in the manuscript’s form, materials, script and content.  I’d suggest a prospective revisionist always keep two questions to the fore when reading what has been, or is being said of the manuscript’s content: ‘Where’s the evidence for that idea?’ and ‘Is that inference valid?’.

Because, to repeat the revisionist’s theme-song:

It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful the guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”