Notice to the authors…

My publisher has asked me to provide certain information to the authors of another blog, and to my own readers.

Sorry about this. In a week or so I’ll make the notice into a separate page. The point is that I want to be able to continue using the results of my own work without the nuisance of being accused of plagiarising matter closely-imitating mine. My publisher has already been put to some trouble as first one and then another effort has been made to create ‘alternative versions’ for the original matter I shared online between 2009-2017. Whatever I shared in blogposts is also copyright and is also considered ‘published research’. If you didn’t know, now you know.

Comment left (June 23rd., 2022) at the blogpost whose author gives the name Katie Tucker.

Katie- Just as information you may need to know in future.
My publisher wishes me to let you know the following:

that since my work explaining the Voynich map was published before 2012, and my connecting it with Abraham Cresques’ Majorcan Atlas (also known as the Atlas Catala) was published, with illustrations and explanations over the period from 2012-2015 and. further, that my identification of the plants in the Voynich botanical section as native to the eastern maritime routes dates back as far as 2008 and – in addition – that my associating these routes with the Genoese (and thus with the Genoese ‘eye map’) was documented as it developed and was published online between 2009-2017, there is a high probability that your claim of copyright and implied moral rights from claimed originality will not stand.

About your reading of the manuscript’s written text, I have no dispute.

In my work, I’ve cited and quoted from numerous works on navigation, but have never claimed to have the necessary competencies to address the written part of the text in Beinecke MS 408.

Efforts to duplicate/replicate and create more Eurocentric ‘alternatives’ for my work began as early as 2013, when a colleague in Spain let me know that a certain ‘Voynichero’ had presented him with the conclusions of my own work, but pretended they were just an ‘idea’ which the colleague was invited to ‘explore’. That colleague, knowing my own work on the history of navigation, charts and navigational astronomy had been reading my contributions to Voynich studies and got in touch with me. Efforts at duplication and ‘re-invention’ have scarcely ceased since that time.

Tell me, is your father the same Tucker who co-authored ‘The Voynich Codex’?

I’ve been asked to notify my own readers of these things too, so a copy of this will appear at ‘Voynich revisionist’ – the blog I began after 2017, when the level of plagiarism convinced me to close ‘Voynichimagery’.

O’Donovan notes – interim caution.

Because this series of posts is a demonstration of an analytical-critical approach, not an exposition of my own research, I’ve built into the two examples treated so far two very common errors found in Voynich writings since 1912 and just as prevalent now as then.

1st – the habit of thinking in terms of a parochial ‘nationality’, which carries with it a fixed idea that whatever happens in one region must be somehow native to that area and occur no-where else.

2nd – a failure to test, re-test and test again information gained at second hand.

Pausing to check, to correct, and to re-appraise a developing analysis is a vital stage of an analytical-critical approach.

I thought I’d post this caution now, in case any reader became too enthusiastic about the previous two posts and started disseminating the material in them.

I didn’t make the errors huge ones. I wasn’t aiming to mislead, but to explain that it isn’t just about making a ‘plausible’ explanation; its about working to understand the mentality and intentions of someone who lived more than half a millennium ago, in some place and some cultural environment yet to be determined.

I’ll come back next week and show how, after a first phase of research, we move to that utterly vital stage of checking, doubting, cross-examining and testing our initial assessments.

O’Donovan notes – additional to post #6i

These are the footnotes and comments to post #6i (cont 2), re-arranged by subject-matter.

East-West Contact

  1. It is often forgotten that there were Chinese explorers, too. In the Chinese historical records are a number of accounts of the barbarian lands, some showing overland exploration to as far as Alexandria. For these records see transcriptions and translations maintained on the Silk Road Seattle site.)

2. Marco Polo. Readers should keep in mind that what we have is not written by Marco Polo but by a person who recorded, arranged and issued material gathered by interviewing Polo while he lay in prison.

3. Other cities and merchants attempted to take an active part but are habitually overlooked in secondary accounts. Prazniak writes, for example:

“In 1266 the merchant Arnaldo Marinario, who did business in the vicinity of Trebizond on the Black Sea, adjacent to lands of the Ilkhanate, approached Sicilian king Carlos I on a political mission to establish communications with the Ilkhanate” –

Prazniak, ‘Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol Global Century, 1250-1350’, Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 177-217 (p.183)

The Mongols.

  1. The Mongol tribes’ aggressive expansion westward is usually said to begin from early in the thirteenth century, the hordes reaching Baghdad and the Black Sea by the mid-thirteenth.
  2. The Mongols as ‘sons of the giant’ – a notion reinforced by matter in the widely-popular ‘Romance of Alexander’. for which see e.g. Richard Stoneman, The Greek Alexander Romance (1991).
  3. René Grousset’s book, repeating what was earlier expressed by Bar Hebreus and others,that Prester (priest) John was a Nestorian religious leader of a group of east Asian Mongols: Grousset, René (1970). The Empire of the Steppes.
  4. The Yuan dynasty survived until 1368.
  5. A correspondent, “L.L” commented (recorded below post #6i) that the forms which divide these quadrants resemble the form of a fly-whisk – a sign of religious and/or secular dignity from Africa to the Far East – though unknown to Europe. In this context, I draw attention to the following image, dated to the thirteenth century, and which shows a Mongol rider in the character of Perseus ‘the slayer’, with two similar objects attached to his cap, like feathers.


The coin made for Qaidu II

Modern numismatists refer to these coins by the Arab term ‘dinar’, though for people who had come west from inner or further Asia, they might be described generically by the Chinese word for a coin: yuan.

Amaligh – and Howorth.

I quote Howorth only for his providing the range assigned to Jagathai [Chagathai] and noting it includes along its northern boundary, “the countries of Kayalic, Amalig, and Bishbalig . (page 173).

When I first wrote about Amaligh in connection with the Voynich manuscript, no Voynich writer had considered this region; there was no wiki article on Amaligh and few mentions of the town anywhere to be found – only one other using the fairly unusual spelling that I chose to adopt. Today (June 4th 2022), there are two rather poor wiki entries, and a very poor article ‘Kaidu’ which appears to rely on little but the Marco Polo narrative and H.H. Howorth’s book – published in 1876 – History of the Mongols from the 9th to the 19th Century: Pt 1 The Mongols Proper and the Kalmyks.

**NB** – An unrevised copy of Howorth’s book is presently (June 2022) being offered through Amazon with a publication date likely to mislead the unwary into assuming it a product of recent scholarship. It is not.

The Church of the East in medieval China

Because the next matter is undisputed, I’ll quote from a wiki article for readers’ convenience:

[The X’ian Stele] reveals that the initial Church of the East had met recognition by the Tang Emperor Taizong, due to efforts of the Christian missionary Alopen in 635 AD. According to the Stele, Alopen and his fellow Syriac missionaries came to China from Daqin (the Eastern Roman Empire) in the ninth year of Emperor Taizong (Tai Tsung) (635 AD), bringing sacred books and images.

The Pope of the Church of the East (conventionally, if inaccurately, known as the Nestorian Church) was called its Patriarch. The succession of patriarchs lived, at different times, in different cities within what is now Iraq. Nestorian Christianity was well-established along the length of the overland ‘silk’ roads well before even the time of Benjamin of Tudela, as they were in regions closer to the Mediterranean. The same is true for Christians in India and in South-east Asia before the bellicose Portuguese arrived by sea – after the Voynich date-range.

The Il-Khan Arghun.

Initially, the territory allotted the Il-Khans centred in Baghdad coincided closely with that of the old Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom, though by the time Arghun sent letters and then an embassy westward to ask Latins’ assistance in pursuing a war against the Mamluks of Egypt, the area under his control was much smaller.

Most European sources today credit the Il-Khan Arghun as initiating contact with the west, though some lighter sources (including the wiki article ‘Arghun’) seem to have difficulty imagining Europeans as passive recipients of any other peoples’ knowledge or initiatives. That attitude was common enough last century and was taken up as part of the Voynich traditionalists’ inheritance. Unfortunately, that attitude has not always broadened with time but narrowed and as a result many Voynich theories exhibit assumptions badly out-of-step with current scholarly opinion.

Arghun wrote to Pope Honorius IV in 1285. He wrote again in 1287 and on that occasion sent both civil and religious representatives, the religious being Nestorian Christians who had arrived in Baghdad en route from inner Asia to Jerusalem, but who were given elevated positions within the Nestorian church and required to turn to other duties.

The Embassy of 1278.

The former monk- now ambassador-prelate – who went towards Europe in 1287 on behalf of both Arghun and the Nestorian Christians was named Mar- or Rabban Sawma.

Escorted by Genoese, the embassy wintered over in Genoa and Mar Sawma succeeded in meeting the newly-elected Pope, the king of Sicily (who was also emperor of the west) and two other western kings, namely Edward I of England and Philip IV of France. Mar Sawma survived a cross-examination of his religious beliefs in Rome, as we know that other Nestorians did not.

In order to cross beyond Chinese-held territory at all, Rabban Sawma and his fellow monk, named Mark, had had first to travel to the Chinese capital and gain the Emperor’s personal consent for their proposed pilgrimage. The permission, even then, had not been readily given.

We are fortunate that a record of Mar Sawma’s journeys survived in the Nestorians’ literary and liturgical language of Syriac, and that Wallis Budge discovered and translated it. Without that, our understanding of this critical period would be even more Eurocentric than it has tended to be.

For reasons which the few longer-term Voynich researchers will understand, though I won’t elaborate further here, I’ll quote this paragraph from the translation:

And in the days when they arrived at Loton it happened that a war was raging between the King of Kings, Kublai Khan and King Oko [translator’s note – ‘O-‘ho, Commander-in-chief of the army of Mien?]. And Oko had fled [from Kublai] and had entered [this] country, and destroyed thousands of men therein. The caravan roads and ways had been cut, and grain (?) was scarce and could not be found; and many died of hunger and perished through want.

from E.A. Wallis Budge (ed. and trans.), The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma, translated from the Syriac.pp43-44. Copies of the English version exist online, including at

A note adds – Loton [? Khotan, or Ho-Thian, or Yuthian, a city between Tangoth and Kashgar]. Kashgar, near the western end of the Tarim basin, has now been annexed by China but was not Chinese territory then.

When I introduced the figure of Rabban Sawma to Voynich studies, there was no interest in any matter not focused on European elites.

Westerners in the east (Baghdad to China)

The energy and narrow focus with which certain Voynich theories are pursued, create a misleading impression of the events leading up to the period 1400-1440. Adherents of the Prinke-Zandbergen theory today hold an undisputed position as the arch-traditionalists, maintaining ideas and attitudes somewhat inconsistent with medieval scholarship today.

As balance, I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs from Ciocîltan’s magisterial study. Here he speaking of relations between Arghun and the west. This, of course, occurred two centuries before the Portuguese entered the eastern seas.

In summing the data on Italian merchants on the south Asian sea route, we reach an apparently paradoxical conclusion: although the route was known to some extent in Europe, along with other invaluable information (largely thanks to the “revelations” of Marco Polo) for the first half of the fourteenth century it was overwhelmingly a Genoese creation. The Genoese kept it a closely-guarded secret, thereby defending it for their own exclusive use.

The unique position which the Ligurians enjoyed in the Indian Ocean was merely an extension of their practical monopoly on trade in the Ilkhanate, dating to their co-operation with Arghun. We may see how strong a position they occupied from the fact that it endured even after the initial conditions had vanished…. The Genoese star [began] to wane in Mongol Persia once the Republic signed a truce with the Mamluks in May 1290…

Virgil Ciocîltan, The Mongols and the Black Sea Trade in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (Brill:2012) p.128 and see its n.300.

I found no previous mention of Rabban Mar Sawma in Voynich-related writings before mentioning him in a comment to one of Nick Pelling’s blogposts. The first mention at voynichimagery was in a post dated September 2012: ‘Trade Routes and Scripts’ -and which proved so popular I had to make it a separate, permanent, Page.

Of Genoese efforts to control the trade along the overland route which shifted to pass north, towards Europe via the Black Sea and the maritime routes of the Mediterranean, I’ll speak another time.

In China.

Various civilians and traders from western Europe made the journey eastwards, overland and/or by sea. Some settled in the re-established but much older multi-national port of Guangzho (which Latins called Cayton), this having been assigned centuries earlier as the port to which all foreign traders who traded by sea were confined. It fell into disuse for some decades, or centuries, after a massacre of its foreign residents in the 9thC.

Exactly when it was re-occupied is unclear, but certainly well before the arrival of John of Montecorvino, because in India he met up with an already-established Italian trader named Peter of Lucolongo who served thereafter as his guide and helper in China.

Evidence for Europeans resident in Yuan China include records of Latin ambassador-missionaries sent to the east. John of Montecorvino had become a Franciscan monk in order to accept the role of ambassador,. In earlier times the Dominican order had been charged with the dual role of providing foreign diplomats and missionaries, but by this time the Franciscans were increasingly preferred for their less militant attitude towards persons of other faiths. For sources, again, see ‘Texts’ at the Silk Road Seattle site.

We know that Italian civilian traders were resident in Guangzhou before the Voynich manuscript was made, though records are few. A tombstone discovered there records the death, in 1342, of a Katerina Villioni, though this article on Katerina’s tombstone makes some curious inferences, and choices. It mentions Odoric of Pordenone but omits mention of John of Montecorvino who had remained in China for the rest of his life. It does mention the Keraites.

With regard to early reactions and correspondence with the west –

  • Jacques Paviot, ‘England and the Mongols (c. 1260-1330)’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Nov., 2000), pp. 305-318.

Additional note

A commonly-repeated error in secondary and tertiary accounts takes some such form as this:

The first official communications between Western Europe and the Mongol Empire occurred between Pope Innocent IV (fl. 1243–1254) and the Great Khans, via letters and envoys that were sent overland and could take years to arrive at their destination. The communications initiated what was to become a regular pattern in European–Mongol communications: the Europeans would ask the Mongols to convert to Christianity, and the Mongols would respond with demands for submission.

I hope I’ve included enough information in the post, and here, to show such statements inaccurate.

Why I refer so often to Nick Pelling.

This isn’t a note I want to write, but I’ve finally had enough of correspondents asking me, in a tone suggesting that I shouldn’t, why I refer so often to Nick Pelling and his site ciphermysteries.

They usually add ‘why not’ but I’ll stick to the positive – why I do refer readers and correspondents to Pelling’s work and his site.

It comes down to attitudes, methodology and ethics.

Anyone who has certain basic assumptions about the manuscript and who also develops or adopts a theoretical historical scenario will have a degree of bias in favour of matter which seems to lend greater credibility to that theory. That’s a given.

Pelling’s historical research led him to posit the manuscript as one produced in fifteenth-century Milan.

His Averlino storyline was a separate, if connected, aspect of his contribution to the manuscript’s study. It’s not why I refer others to his blog, book or to him for an opinion.

When Pelling refers to any matter produced by another researcher, so far as I’ve observed since 2008, he invariably informs his readers of whose work produced that data, opinion or conclusion. It means that if I refer a correspondent to him, I know the correspondent’s own work will be treated ethically.

Pelling also understands that his readers are entitled to follow back the path of a topic to its source, to test the evidence adduced by the original researcher who contributed an original insight or body of research, and in that way to receive a true and clear understanding of how that particular line of thought is advancing, and where Pelling’s own work and investigations fit in the discussion overall. Whether the original is still in print or still view-able is beside the point. Fairly treated, a researcher can always get in direct contact with that material, either by going to a library source or by contacting the author.

This is the normal, ethical method in scholarship and is why most fields of research don’t end up in the tangled, obfuscated and plagiarist mess that marks writings about this one manuscript today.

Pelling’s observing those objective standards and ethics of itself argues a higher level of background scholarship and a greater interest in advancing the manuscript’s study than, say, in promoting a theoretical narrative or a personal image.

Pelling’s original research, and posts to his blog, never represent his personal views as if they were the pronouncements of some unarguable authority akin to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His personal opinions may be wrong, or expressed with hostility or with vehemence, but never slyly or indirectly, or via a third person. You know he’s honest about that, too. Pelling doesn’t demand reverence or gratitude. He doesn’t expect to be credited as co-author if he so much as reads your work. He doesn’t re-present other people’s work in some different format, then copyright it to himself. He doesn’t pull ‘facts’ out of the ether… there’s no ‘junk Voynich’ about it.

Which is not to say he’s never wrong. I assume everyone’s wrong, including me, but research is the effort made, by the work of research into primary and secondary sources, to be a little less wrong tomorrow than you surely are today. How you go about that work is what counts with me, because in the end a researcher’s work is no more valuable than its integrity.

Altogether, then, when a correspondent asks me to comment on some matter concerned with the study’s history or with Voynichese or with cipher-methods (and other particular matters), I let them know it’s not my field and feel confident that in suggesting they ask Pelling I’m referring them to someone who’s been around long enough, who has seriously researched this manuscript, who has produced tens of thousands of words of original papers and articles and who observes certain ethical standards, If he makes negative comments on matter within his areas of competence, they will be open, plain-speaking and well-informed. He’s no snide inventor of toxic memes.

I’ve often thought he would have done better to release Curse of the Voynich in two parts: one concerned with his research into codicology, palaeography, ciphers and so on, and the other his ‘Averlino’ theory. His decision to withdraw the book from publication meant that the record was lost (apart from his blogposts) which show that between Reeds’ departure from the first mailing list and the recent advent of two codicologists – Wladimir Dulov and Lisa Fagin Davis – Pelling alone resisted that Voynich meme-dictat which asserted that discussion of the manuscript’s codicology was ‘unnecessary’ and ‘too complicated’. That notion, as with so many that circulate in the Voynich community, was so divorced from any understanding of the priorities in manuscript studies in the real world that one can only feel bemused by the number who conform.

To a lesser extent, the same was true for Pelling’s comments on palaeography. On that topic again, it is evident that what he said reflected his own research into the primary and secondary sources, not duplicating others’ work while omitting mention of the precedent, nor by just by skimming and co-opting work at third-level, by cherry-picking research shared by other Voynich researchers. He has actually read the books to which he refers. His work on the palaeography of the month-names long pre-dated later efforts which you might see as sole reference elsewhere.

My criteria for a trustworthy person to refer correspondents is not linked, therefore, to any shared theory, or to any personal connection – I’ve never met or been personally introduced to Nick Pelling. Nor has it anything to do with whether a person understands or appreciates my own sort of work. It’s about whether a person puts the manuscript’s study above purely personal or vested interests; about being truthful about sources; about treating honestly with others’ research; it’s about having the intelligence and knowledge needed to offer well-informed opinions about quite specific aspects of this manuscript’s study.

Whether Pelling is even interested in Beinecke MS 408 these days, and to what extent, I don’t know.

I have asked him recently if he would care to write a compare-and-contrast-with-historical background sort of review about two recent re-investigations of the ‘cipher-by-wheels’ possibility because I’m not qualified to offer an informed opinion on how they fit within that line of study. Whether he will feel inclined to take that trouble, or have the time to do it, I simply don’t know.

I’d like to mention, too, a few of his original observations that were in Curse of the Voynich, but I think the above should be enough to answer that question so often asked me by my correspondents.

And now, back to the analytical-critical approach and images in Beinecke MS 408.

O’Donovan notes #6g: Enthroned.

In medieval Europe, what we’d call a picture’s background was called ‘the throne’.

In this post, I might be attempting the impossible, but I’ll try to explain why the rumour is wrong which says that to read the Voynich drawings takes only ‘two eyes and commonsense’.

I won’t use jargon such as sign, signifier and signified because in my experience the more jargon is used, the less inclined are people to believe art-commentary is down-to-earth.

Instead, I’ll ask you – How many of these items are sunflowers?

Answer – NONE is a sunflower.

They are nine images – lines arranged in various ways, all of which were intended to trigger memory, among the intended audience, of matters already learned.

In each of those 9 images, the lines are arranged in accordance with a set of formal conventions. You have to understand those conventions if the image is to be intelligible, whether formed of the written- or the drawn line.

Anyone who claims they can read all nine images with ease must explain how they came by that knowledge, and address the big question of the disjunction between form and intended meaning, since we’ve agreed that none of the nine is a sunflower in fact, and none is formed in a way very closely similar to the form of any other.

O’Donovan notes #6d: ‘not exact?’ – not exactly.

c.2500 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

Note – First part castigates ‘rule-by-meme’ in Voynich studies; second part is about an analytical approach to imagery.

I’ve sometimes ranted about the long-embedded, irrational Voynich ‘meme-maker(s)’. He/she/they are the study’s worst sort of hobble.

Over the past five weeks, as many correspondents have repeated one obviously mad ‘meme’ apparently of recent coining which says “there is no need to consult external sources” (one variant used the term ‘authorities’).

The implication is, I gather, that we should believe the whole universe of scholarship resides in the head(s) of a few Voynich theorists.

“I feel no need to consult external sources” – really? So your linked wiki articles are to be deemed some Voynichero’s possession?

But then again, if unexamined belief is facile, so too is disbelief, so why not put that meme to the test. Perhaps there really is some Voynichero, or some number of Voynicheros, who know already everything you’ll ever need to know for your Voynich research.

Now, looking down my own list of research questions outstanding …. Here’s one I shared with the Voynich community some time ago, without much result:

Question: “What extant records, if any, allow us to know what administrative and liturgical languages were employed in Amaligh over the period 1250-1350 AD”.

Any Voynicho out there now who is a specialist in the history of central Asia and its bureaucracies eight hundred years ago… ?

Thirteen years’ of seeing the memer/s at work leads me to expect that response to their latest could well spark invention of yet another – possibly along the lines that no true-hearted Voynichero would do research that needed to look further than the memers’ pet theory. Perhaps that if it should, it’s too far-fetched. That should get a snigger or two: pun, get it – hyuk, hyuk.


Over the years I’ve noticed that the crazy meme-maker is over-fond of the word “unnecessary” as in: “to read X’s research is unnecessary”; “codicology is unnecessary”; “looking at anything except illustrations in German fifteenth-century manuscripts is unnecessary”.. Yes, they’re all real examples. Watch out for catchy-sounding shite that includes the word ‘unnecessary’. What it signifies is that the memer can’t get their head around something and their greatest concerns are (i) their public image and (ii) their theory.

Another great stupidity is being revived. It was being parroted even in 2008 and I’ve spent time and effort correcting it more than once. (The memer is a great recycler of his own ideas). This meme runs, [understanding analytical method is unnecessary because] “any interpretation of the drawings is subjective.”

What most infuriates me isn’t the mad meme-r’s tiny mind and agenda, but that genuinely intelligent people who are perfectly capable of original research, repeat such stuff without stopping to ask if it’s food for thought, or rubbish.

Would you stand in Chartres cathedral and say that all its images and sculptures can be interpreted in any way you like? If the tour- guide said, while pointing to an image of the Virgin Mary, “this is a statue of the Buddha” would you muzzle any objection on the grounds that the guide’s entitled to an opinion and what about their feelings?

(Can we make meme-breath a thing?)

After writing the above, a couple of amiable and interesting comments from Karl Kluge saw my choler reduce somewhat (rage is also unproductive), so I began asking how I can treat the question of subjectivity and objectivity in describing images using only a 1,000 words more.

So – suppose I were to present the following image to my readers and ask each of them to tell me what they make of it. I’m fairly sure I’d receive a range of answers, some short and others more detailed. Fair enough.

If I showed it to a group I was training in techniques of iconographic analysis, however, the same answers might be offered but I’d put a ‘minus’ point against any that said “It’s obviously x…” .

Why? Because even if they use the word ‘picture’ in their answer, they are having difficulty keeping front-and-centre that crucial difference between a two-dimensional image and a three- dimensional object. It reveals a particular type of inflexibility, a reductionist cast of mind and one which experience shows denotes an individual ill-suited to this sort of work.

In treating of images which were given their form before the modern era, you need a more open and more generous mentality because you are constantly required to set aside the environment and era most comfortable for you, and do your best to see an image as it were through other eyes, and in a very different cultural and historical environment. That’s why it involves more reading than looking at pictures.

To someone who showed an ability to balance their own perception with a reasonable understanding of how others might see that image, I’d give a mental ‘plus’ .

They might say, for example, ‘I think it could be part of a G/gle maps satellite view’ or ‘I think it’s a piece of found-art, but it looks like the bits are electronic’. Or even ‘this looks like the model of a reactor to me’.

The reason the last person too would get a tick from me is that they haven’t confused subjective impression with objective fact in the way that over-confident and inflexible people – and Voynich meme-rs – do. On the contrary, all these three tacitly accepted that their personal impression is a personal impression and may not be objectively true – that’s good.

People whose attitude towards an image is “I think so, therefore it is” are not suited to this sort of work at all, and never will be. They should go make a new universe somewhere else.

What matters, as you’ll understand, is not the opinion but an ability to see the image as an image and whether you yet have the range and depth of knowledge required to set an image in its appropriate context- historical, cultural and technical.

To treat the first error – confusing an image for whichever three-dimensional object your imagination produces as a ‘match’. First, this error is another of those old, still-persistent and constant errors seen in Voynich writings. It’s why Newbold noticed some drawings in the leaf-and-root section, but said they ‘were’ apothecary jars, his proof no more than a reference to what could be seen, in 1921, in an American pharmacy.

Unreasonable certainty. Evidence? – wrong period, wrong place, wrong ‘backdrop’ – no match.

Nevertheless, that rank anachronism remained fixed in Voynich studies for almost a century. I believe I was the first to ask if the ‘apothecary jars’ interpretation of those drawings was true for medieval Latin Europe, did the research across historical, art-historical and archaeological studies, and summarised that work in some detail. The verdict was negative. If they are to be deemed apothecary jars, they’re not pre-1438 European.

In any other field, this would be considered a useful contribution for others’ ongoing work, but I don’t expect you’ll see mention of it in Voynich wiki articles or At least not rightly attributed; my conclusion on that point and various others finds a disjunction between the primary evidence and the traditionalist narrative. No Voynich theorist has yet devised a plausible theory-patch for the old ‘European apothecary jar’ error, but they tried, and no doubt keep trying. The manuscript is not their primary interest.

In the same way that the image (above) is not a motherboard but a photographic image of a motherboard, so what serves as the central emblem for the Voynich manuscript’s November October diagram – for example – is not a balance, but an image of a balance.

And if you look at that image in the slow, analytical way, you may notice that it is drawn in a form so far unmatched by any image offered from any medieval European manuscript as support for a Voynich theory.

Differences matter because they carry information about time, place and cultural context for that image’s first enunciation. From these trig-points, we establish intended meaning, among other things.

Being unaware of, or deliberately refusing to accept, that distinction between an image and an object is why so many Voynicheros try to render their theory more plausible by loading the narrative with as many pictures as they can of (e.g.) a balance, regardless of medium, and sometimes regardless of era – so long as they suit the theory. They behave as if the point is to match whatever detail they subjectively define as the drawings’ chief object – such as the diagram’s small central emblem – whereas the point of researching historical drawings is to explain the context in which each was first given its form, and by what kind of person for what kind of audience. One hopes that more clarity on these matters may help those working on the written text. False, misleading or deliberately ignorant assertions are of no value to any but the theory-promoter.

I doubt there are many places on earth which never invented some form of balance; but how many knew a balance of just such a form – and where and when is one attested?

I hope you see that the ‘..entitled to their opinion..’ argument doesn’t apply in such a case. What matters is how well- or ill-informed the opinion may be.

Objective and context-dependent.

While it’s true of our example that the image is a photograph, and that photographed object was a motherboard, if the reader realised that, it was not by using their creative imagination. They recognised the image as a photographic one, and the photographed object as a motherboard because of what information they had previously acquired. They had the right background.

If you lived in fifteenth-century Spain, and by some miracle could be shown the same image, you couldn’t possibly say, ‘It’s the photo of a motherboard’. The work of iconographic analysis also involves consciously eliminating anachronisms which spring so naturally to mind for a person living in – for example – 1920s America or twenty-first century France. In reality, someone in twenty-first century France might not be able to recognise a motherboard either. Their opinion would have more chance of being valid than that of a fifteenth-century Spaniard, but less than the opinion of someone who had actually seen a motherboard or a photograph of one, wouldn’t you say?

It’s not having an opinion that matters; it’s whether you know enough to form a valid opinion.

So when we say that an image’s meaning is context-dependent we mean, too, that any individual’s capacity to read that image is context-dependent.

What’s relevant to research is whether a person knows enough to form a valid opinion and whether they yet know enough to realise that they don’t know enough and are willing and able to do the work needed to know more. If they want to provide commentary helpful to others working on a problematic medieval manuscript, that is.

Unlike many who work in museums or in galleries, I have never felt annoyed by hearing someone say, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”. That’s the norm, and always has been. Regrettable in some ways, certainly, because were things otherwise neither Rembrandt nor Van Gogh would have died destitute. But at the same time it means that such people really do enjoy and appreciate some works of art, and in that context no opinion but theirs matters. Private opinions for private purpose.

I do feel irritated by those who only like what they know. So often, all they know is what is offered by their own imagination.

You hear things said such as, ‘It’s all subjective, though, isn’t it’ – after you’ve just spent fifteen minutes explaining, at their request, the history and context in which some pre-modern work was formed and why it is formed as it is, including its materials.

But then, it turns out, they don’t want to believe it a seventeenth-century imaginative portrait of some medieval character; they want to stick with their initial impression-as-opinion that it’s a picture of the Biblical Queen of Sheba. So after you’ve clarified the question for them – out comes the response, ‘Oh well, in the end it’s all just subjective and everyone’s entitled to their opinion, aren’t they?’.

Which means they are more determined than ever to tell other people that it’s the Queen of Sheba. Which is when I see that a copy of my written report is stapled to their account.

The ‘artist is dead’

(the next paragraph’s more positive tone due again to Karl’s benign influence).

The thing to remember is that while the draughtsman or painter, as artist, may be dead, the artefact and its medium lives, and in that medium just as in writing, there are rules and conventions evident. Whether a given viewer has the means to read, and rightly interpret that record is quite another matter.

In pre-modern societies, image-making was above all a means of communication between members of a single community who already had the same background knowledge in common.

Imagination alone won’t get you to your right destination in that distant country of the past. The wider your background and the better the sources you study, the closer you might come.

External specialists.

Now, on my own I can get as far as saying that the image (illustrated above) is a photograph and the object photographed was a motherboard, but that’s the limit of my knowledge without turning to external sources, written, pictorial or in the form of a specialist.

If I take the same image to a couple of external specialists – say a couple of real computer-geeks, they could not only recognise that image immediately as the photo of a motherboard, but if they were very knowledgeable could probably provide the name of the company that made it, the name of every part and perhaps even the model number for each part, and then discourse – debate – between themselves the merits of that gaming motherboard against others they know equally well.

Some things are objectively true and check-able; others are informed opinion; specialists may differ.

But try telling those specialists that in your opinion it’s part of a G/gle satellite image!

Until the next time that old meme comes floating on the surface – that’s it for the Voynich meme, ‘It’s all subjective ..’


Specialists differ.

In the next post, I’ll demonstrate, as well as I can in a blogpost, the issue of qualitative differences, and using a genuine specialist well, or badly. If there’s no ‘final word’ to be hoped for, it is equally true that not all opinions have equal weight and, therefore, that not all statements passed off as authoritative by Voynich theorists should be believed a final word.

I’ll take as working example the two images of a crowned woman included in the post before last.