Alphabet&numeral – updating d’Imperio

I should like readers’ help in discovering which modern Voynich writer explained the importance of identifying numerals in text that is to be analysed and deciphered. I had thought it was in Pelling’s ‘Curse of the Voynich’ (which does, btw, have an interesting discussion of what Pelling interprets as quire-numbers, reading the forms as a curious mix of Latin alphanumerics and Arabic numerals).

Otherwise, that very basic exercise – that is, discovering which, if any, among the Voynich glyphs might be meant for numerals – seems not to have been done in fifty years and d’Imperio’s Figure 16 which seems to have had no source save Hill (1915) presents so cursory a summary that the task really needs to done now as if from scratch. Anyone interested in that work is welcome to it!.

Note that I’ve checked the manuscript Hill cites for his “4” in early 14thC Italy and think he’s in error, but it’s possible I missed the detail he means. Below, minus her ’16thC’ column is d’Imperio’s table. I’d suggest any new study include a column for the 12thC.

To illustrate both the range within which Hill sought his examples, and the limits which affected his study, including dependence on other informants, here’s another of his tables. These examples came chiefly from German-speaking regions. Note that tis inverted form for ‘7’ makes it resemble a Greek ν (nu – ‘n’), which is perhaps co-incidental. Also co-incidental, perhaps, is that this shape is another seen among the Voynich glyphs.

The business of history-writing is an effort to present a chaotic system in a linear narrative, much as drawing reduces a three-dimensional world to two dimensions. Lest we forget that the patterns of human activity are chaotic, not linear, here’s a ‘4’ numeral cropping up in fifteenth-century Thames-side church in London.

Consider this .. Jerome, Illyrian (brief note).

less than 500 words

This series of posts are notes of work in progress, trying to shed some light on why the Voynich script apparently contains both ‘elongated ascenders’ in the body of its text – something scarcely seen in Latin works after c.9thC AD – but also what appears to be a ‘4’ form unattested in Latin works before it emerges as a numeral form, first in the south-western Mediterranean and Italy and there only from the middle, or the last quarter, of the fourteenth century.

Because this series simply tracks my own effort to resolve this problem, I hope readers won’t be surprised if added information leads to changes of opinions and attitudes. I’m not trying to expound a Vms theory.

so, work done over the past few days means I now think rather better of Kircher’s calling ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’ the script sent to him on a separate sheet with, or after, he’d been sent copies from the Vms.

I’m fairly sure, now, that Kircher identified the script on that printed sheet not just as Glagolitic script in general but as it was used in Dalmatia, where a cult of St.Jerome in Dalmatia saw that saint credited there with having invented Glagolitic script. Elsewhere it was, and still is, credited to ‘Cyril’ and that Cyril regularly identified with the Cyril who created the Cyrillic script.

Kircher’s ‘Ilyrian’ doesn’t necessarily mean the Serbo-Croatian language, either.

The history of Dalmatia is the history of a four-way struggle to control that part of the Adriatic coast. Italian city states (earlier Rome and later most notably Venice), as well as Constantinople, Prague and powers occupying the hinterland all fought to exert direct or indirect control over Dalmatia, occupying as it does an important strategic position on the Adriatic coast.

When a group of Dalmatian Glagolitic monks of the Benedictine order were invited to found a monastery in Prague (see previous post) we may doubt that Charles’ motive was entirely religious.

Recent items from the web:

  • I’ve now seen the same illustration I used in 2011 for ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’ in one wiki article.
  • Another provides a comparison of ‘Jerome’s’ script with its ‘block’ form, and with an example of cursive script, though the history and evolution of the last is not a question for me. It’s one for specialists in palaeography.

I can say that the (modern?) cursive script shown in that illustration shows two forms that might appear to a copyist like the Latins’ “q-o” or the numerical “4-o”.

Whether such cursive forms existed before c.1440, and what dialects they might have recorded, I won’t even try to research. I do know that the Lesina ‘portolan’ chart (now lost), found in a Dalmatian Franciscan monastery, is said to record names according to dialects spoken, in medieval times, around the Black Sea and in Georgia, the last being, both then and now linguistically and ethnically the most diverse region in the world.*

An analysis of the forms used for ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’ shows derivation from a number of other scripts, including Phoenician, Hebrew and Latin.

Postscript: I’ll have more to say about the Black Sea and Georgia, including its demographics, languages and place-names, in a later post.

Meme of the month: ‘Move on’.

Heard it yet? This Voynich meme emerged from who-knows-where to pass like fog through the ‘ community’. I’ve waited a while until it seemed likely most people with an ongoing interest in the manuscript would have been touched by it.

As with the many other simple-sounding mindless Voynich ‘memes’ it carries a sub-text along the lines of, “Adopt this slogan or you’re ‘not one of us’ “. Such memes are common enough in the school yard and are usually aimed at some individual or group. You can describe it as bullying, or as a bonding mechanism – after all, defining the ‘in group’ means first defining the ‘out group’, doesn’t it?

But when post-school age people do the equivalent, especially in social media, such memes work as a crowd-control chain-mail letter. On receipt, you are expected to signal obedience by uttering the meme yourself, and thus passing it along. It’s then worn like a membership badge, or a special handshake. Unless you won’t..

However, in the context of what ought surely to be an intellectual activity, such as the investigation and explication of a medieval manuscript, it is hardly intelligent for would-be historians to create, adopt or disseminate that meme. Abandon the past, own the future? Is that it?

About as stupid as a meme could be if applied to study of Beinecke MS 408.

But let’s take it differently; let’s suppose it represents a theory of how we should engage with the manuscript.

Would ‘moving on’ be a useful theory?

How shall we define ‘moving on’? As simple chronology?

In that case, we’d have to prefer Gerard Cheshire’s opinions, published in 2018, over Captain Prescott Currier’s observations, presented in 1976. Cheshire had certainly ‘moved on’ and away from them.

Or how about.. dating the manuscript’s manufacture?

Writing in the 1970s, Robert S. Brumbaugh certainly ‘moved on’ in both senses from the dating offered by Panofsky in 1932 and the support subsequently given that opinion by Helmut Lehmann-Haupt in 1963 when he spoke of a general consensus … among specialists in medieval manuscripts. Important point, that.

I should say that Brumbaugh’s ‘moving on’ was unhelpful – and yet with the curious and not entirely abandoned habit of deference which the Beinecke library has shown people far less qualified than the library staff, the Beinecke did for decades advertise Brumbaugh’s work, adopt his ideas – including his erroneous dating – and continued to do so this well after the radiocarbon-14 range had been published in 2011.

In what sense would that be ‘moving on?’

How about moving on from disproven theories and/or items claimed as evidence for them?

How about moving on from the Prinke-Zandbergen theory? They began promoting a ‘German’ theory in the early 2000s, well in advance of any efforts to produce bits and pieces later adduced as circumstantial evidence for it.

About a decade later, still, the proffered ‘evidence’ consisted chiefly of ill-informed assertions made about cherry-picked details from the pictorial text. Efforts to provide a little balance by explaining that the custom of braiding hair was never uniquely ‘German’; that the cloudband pattern was not a product of ‘Germanic’ culture, even if nineteenth-century art historians used the German word ‘wolkenbanden’ to describe it. Ditto assertions made about crossbows and the Voynich Sagittario .. and so on and so on. Nothing ‘moved on’ – at least not during daylight.

Stubborn silence, refusal to so much as open a book, and the inevitable invention of another ‘pay no attention’ sort of meme was the usual response of those attracted by the theory.


Is it time to ‘move on’ from the lamentable and not-quite-laughable methods maintained by those and other theorists? They are surely ‘old’ and owe most to the template of Wilfrid Voynich’s salespitch in the early decades of last century.

But perhaps one should be less ambitious. How about ‘moving on’ from sub-theories, such as that the Voynich plant-pictures are part of the western herbal manuscript tradition?

Think you could persuade a ‘western herbal’ theorist to admit it’s time to move on from the older guesses and start by asking questions rather than adopting assumptions?

Or try something even smaller – how about suggesting that the traditionists’ re-consider the relative merits of Georg Baresch’s views over that rumour allegedly repeated by Rafael Mnishovsky?

Traditionalists ‘Moving on’ … You think?

What is needed is not any more crowd-control memes but a better quality controls. At present this field of study is so littered with theory-junk that not even good seed can prosper. How that came about is not found by mindlessly ‘moving on’ but by taking a long, hard, look at the study’s history and a meme-free approach to better contributions.

Good news. 2. Publishers’ review

Perhaps I’m being over-optimistic, but there may be an improvement in the air when it comes to issuing ‘Voynich’ books.

We’ve seen so many books produced in recent years that are aimed at an uncritical popular audience that it looked as if the manuscript were never to be treated as seriously as any other 600-year old and exceptionally difficult manuscript would normally be treated.

But perhaps (let us hope) some publishers are considering moving from the ‘anything goes’ attitude to one that accords the manuscript, and its study, a little more dignity.

What prompts these remarks is that I was approached recently by a publisher asking if I’d be interested in giving an opinion, before publication, about a work still unfinished but planned for publication (I may not say when).

Now, it is true that I’ve been interested in Beinecke MS 408 for some time and also that – so far as either the publisher or I am aware – I’m the only person with experience in this manuscript who is also formally qualified and experienced in analysing and researching imagery. The person who sent me the invitation was also kind enough to say they appreciated my ability to avoid using the jargon of our trade when addressing a general audience.

All very nice, of course, but I declined. To have accepted would have been inconsistent with the advice I gave them. Since readers might be interested in that advice, let me provide an edited version of it. I’ve removed my references to specific individuals, to specific ‘Voynich’ publications, their authors and publishers.

  • Reviewers of any prospective publication should have no prior connection to this manuscript, nor to any persons or organisation directly associated with it.
  • The reviewers should be specialists in a particular field (such as palaeography) but specialists in comparative studies.
  • The reviewers should include specialists able to evaluate the authors’ ideas in terms of medieval historical scholarship and preferably, again, not in the history of one region but at least of the wider Mediterranean world.
  • That reviewers should include independent specialists in areas relevant to the authors’ theoretical interpretation of one, or of another, section.
  • That reviewers ensure (given the level of plagiarism in this field) that the authors are able to explain, and document, the research which led them to present their views on one or another matter (as, for example, their interpretation of a given plant picture).
  • That the reviewers should include a codicologist, palaeographer, specialist in evaluating and provenancing attitudes to image-making, and at least one historian with a range wider than that suiting the authors’ theory. In my opinion, an ability to recognise and rightly interpret cultural influence in the images and script is critical.
  • That reviewers should be asked to comment equally on the authors’ omissions as on any positive errors and to note especially whether the authors’ ideas are supported by research of appropriate range, depth, breadth and balance.
  • I stated my opinion that there is no person entitled to be described as a ‘Voynich expert’ and particularly not persons having neither formal training nor professional experience in fields such as historiography, linguistics, palaeography, art history and or in manuscript studies. Ill-qualified ‘experts’ are, in the main, experts only in re-cycling second-hand information much of which is dubious either in terms of its being factual or its not being due to an author’s own study. (I did stress that this was, obviously, a comment on the state of the study in general, not on the specific work I was being invited to review). In connection with flawed, if prevalent, premises, I referred the editors to the history of the study which I’ve traced in earlier posts to this blog.

In short – I gave it as my opinion that the authors’ work should be treated as if it were being presented as a doctoral thesis, no allowance to be made for absence of suitable prior studies and professional experience in any areas on which an opinion was presented, whether in regard to medieval history, iconology, art history, linguistics, codicology or any other subject.

I added that, while it is not usual in my experience for reviewers to consult with one another, in this case I felt it advisable, since a flawed interpretation of a given plant- drawing (for example) might escape notice by a specialist in modern botany, and similarly a specialist in iconographic analysis might be unable to judge whether a proposed plant-identification was feasible. Consultation could assist both.

I was clear that in making those recommendations, my hope is that some day this particular medieval manuscript might be treated with the same level of seriousness as any other medieval manuscript, and persons presenting opinions about it be subjected to the same level of cross-examination as if theorising about the Book of Kells or the Vienna Dioscorides.

I mentioned the name of some specialists in specific areas such as the comparative history of formal and informal astronomical learning.

I suggested that reviewers be cautioned that in Voynich writings in general there is an extraordinarily lax attitude to normal standards and ethics with regard to co-opting research by previous writers, whether that was published online or in print, and that for the sake of the publisher’s reputation, reviewers should be invited to comment if they notice that a writer’s footnotes and bibliography fail to justify one, or another, assertion made.

To end with, I directed the publisher to Magnus Pharao Hansen’s review of one Voynich-related book, saying that many of Hansen’s criticisms of that work apply more generally to Voynich-related writings.

I’ve no idea if any of that advice will be taken up by the publisher, or whether the publisher will be able to find any ‘cleanskin’ specialist willing to touch the subject.

It was certainly a disappointment that so few contributed to the Yale facsimile edition. As a rule facsimile volumes attract essays from the most eminent scholars in one and another related discipline.

And there’s money. The publishers might simply decide that a scholarly audience is too small, and a popularist work more likely to turn a profit.

The good news is just that there is some possibility that editorial staff are thinking about higher standards.

Wouldn’t that be a fine thing? It wouldn’t just cheer me up. It might also brighten Thony Christie’s day.

Afterword – As readers will surely notice, I made no comment about the ‘ciphertext’ question. My impression is that solving ciphers is a natural talent; you either have it or you don’t. But it’s just an impression. I have no skill, or interest, in that aspect of the study.

Dear email correspondents #2 – Method

Among the recent crop of emails, a few have expressed sentiments along the lines, “I don’t know why you quoted Feynman about scientific method. It’s exactly what I/we always do.”

In case you haven’t seen the short video in the right hand column, Feynman says that when a physicist is looking for a new scientific law, the first stage is the ‘Guess’, then an extrapolation from that guess, and finally testing both guess and extrapolation against ‘observation’ or ‘experience’ or ‘experiment’. He ends by saying that no matter how clever a guess might seem, if it is contradicted by physical reality (in the third stage), the theory is wrong.

It is true, in a way, that most Voynich writers have begun with a ‘guess’ and then hunted for material as extrapolation from that guess, and then hunted more material in the name of ‘experiment’.

The difference is that in scientific method, the guess is about solid, verifiable data and the conclusion is also subject to verification.

As example of why ‘Voynich method’ today is not really comparable to scientific method – here’s a wholly imaginary example.

The newbie is flicking through the manuscript, feeling utterly bewildered (as all newcomers are still aware of being), and a little chagrined because used to thinking of himself* as pretty smart.

*statistically, the typical ‘Voynichero’ is male, is aged between 24-60, is of European descent, and works/worked in a technical job – computers, engineering, linguistics… that sort of thing.

His job is in IT and his other interests are Scottish history, Scottish folk-lore, legends, battle re-creation and the history of Scottish costume. These are what you might call the bounds of his intellectual comfort zone.

Suddenly, on reaching folio 80r, he is struck as if by a bolt of inspiration. His imagination-as-memory just produced ‘match’ for one detail.

His eyes light up. His jaw drops. “That fellow’s wearing a kilt”! And then… “And the woman’s wearing a Scots’ style of bonnet, pretty much”.

From nothing but this, mixed with various untested ‘Voynich doctrines’, he forms his initial ‘Guess’ – a ‘Scottish Voynich’ theory.

Not that he feels it’s just a ‘guess’. He experiences it as gut-certainty and ‘knows’ that he alone has obtained a glimpse of *the secret* hitherto hidden from lesser minds.

At that moment, his attention shifts from an ambition to understand the manuscript to an ambition to have as many other people as possible believe in his ‘theory’.

And that’s another major difference between scientific method and what has become the traditionalists’ ‘Voynich method’.

If you think I’m creating a caricature, I’d remind readers that the most prevalent, persistent and influential Voynich ‘theories’ were of similar sort. Wilfrid’s Voynich’s whole storyline does not explain a single thing about the manuscript – not its materials, form, script or images.

Hugh O’Neill’s ‘New World’ notion is nothing but his poor interpretation of just one image; the ‘Germanic’ theory has only a line of marginalia to support it … and so on, and so on.

For our ‘Scottish Voynichero’ the second stage, which in scientific method would be the stage of extrapolation, becomes instead a hunt for support, and a hunt only within the limits defined by his own ‘guess’ and his comfort zone.

He’ll say something along the lines of, ‘Since this manuscript is about things Scottish, looking through Scottish manuscripts will surely turn up ‘matches’ for other details in the manuscript’.

Adopting the usual (but erroneous) description of the month-folios as ‘a zodiac’ … he hunts through nothing but medieval Scottish manuscripts and … behold! … zodiacs!

In what should be the third or ‘experimental’ stage, where a scientific theory is tested by reality and solid data, the Voynichero simply extends his matching, asking for example, ‘How about the many other ladies in the water-works drawings?

Immediately, he notices on the facing page (folio 79v) a detail that makes his hair stand on end. Right… right… (he’s thinking). “The captive and bonneted female is obviously a Selkie, and here’s another one in the act of dropping her seal-skin. Wow. Selkies.

Later, noticing that the captive woman’s feet are oddly formed, and seeing another which has ‘forked feet’, he is sure beyond doubt that this section of the manuscript is about Scottish stories about the Selkie.

More experiment? Sure. How about the plant-pictures?

Go no further than folio 2r. “It’s obviously a Scottish thistle”, he says and when he asks five mates if they agree with him all five do. How much more proof do you need? Object that it’s not purple? No problem there.

Many Voynicheros give no details at all about the date, region or source from which they have their ‘matches.

So if you have a man in a kilt, and numerous Selkies, then ‘obviously’ the manuscript’s ‘plant pictures’ will be about the plants needed for tartan cloth. So he finds ‘matches’ between those plants and various Voynich plant-pictures.

His aim is no longer to understand the intention of the manuscript’s maker/s but only to collect local colour which might persuade others to believe in, and adopt, his ‘guess’.

In case you feel like making a game of my fake ‘Scottish Voynich’ theory,…

Here are Scotland’s dye- plants.

And here some lichens.

The most perfect model of what has become classic traditionalist Voynich method is, in my opinion, provided by Jules Janick and Talbot O. Tucker’s book Unravelling the Voynich Codex (2018).

It’s worth having a copy because it is, in fact, a classic ‘European-Voynich’ theory, developed using the classic traditionalist ‘method’ but re-located to the Americas.

If you ask of that book ‘…. what was your question?’ you’ll find the answer is ‘No question at all’.

In the end, the authors have not added a jot to our understanding of the manuscript’s form, materials, hands, language or the stylistic questions aimed at elucidating images. Its argument works only within the self-created environment of that ‘guess’ and when tested against the verifiable historical and scientific data, the theory just evaporates. As Voynich theories of the picture-book-history type usually do.

Postscript (6th Nov.)

Such theories survive and prosper not least because neither the initial proponent, nor those adopting the narrative, nor even editors approving publication ask for external evaluation – the ‘experiment’ stage. This is why, for example, the book by Janick and Tucker appeared in print without anyone’s having pointed out that there was nothing about the manuscript’s form, materials or binding to justify a date so late as that they posited, nor that the authors’ argument about the text being in Nahuatl was untenable. When the last point – the Nahuatl question – was finally addressed by a specialist, it was not because the authors, adherents, or publishers had sought any objective, external, assessment but because the specialist (Magnus Pharao Hansen) provided it voluntarily.

In Voynich arenas today, it is considered ‘poor form’ to point out errors in a popular storyline, just as to request information about sources, or precedents.