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 voynich.nu. 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.

O’Donovan notes #6c: sources aren’t personalities.

Without examining the facts fully and fairly, there is no way of knowing whether vox populi is really vox dei, or merely vox asinorum. — Cyrus H. Gordon.

I have heard the laments of traditionalists who deplore the fact that in tracking the source and transmission of certain persistent errors in Voynich studies, I didn’t stop before 2000, but am following them in writings produced more recently.

The persons expressing such sentiments appear to me to be making two assumptions: first that in the field of historical studies and art history no objective standards exist; and secondly that there is no meaningful difference between objecting to a theoretical narrative’s construction and methodology, and attacking a person.

The first assumption would be demonstrably wrong, and the second no more than evidence of that over-attachment to a Voynich theory which leads theorists to lose their capacity to distinguish between a theory and a personality.

On the other hand, if that second assumption is now widespread, it helps explain why a certain theory-clique has always defended their theory by attacking any dissenter ad.hominem rather than having a reasonable debate about facts and methods.

Once a person starts believing that to disagree with their theory is equivalent to a personal attack, it’s not long before they start supposing that the way to eradicate the reasons for dissent is to attack the dissenter without addressing the substance of dissenting position.

It might also shed light on the very peculiar phenomenon by which, if one theory-clique dominates a given Voynich arena and its leaders make plain in one way and another that certain dissenters’ names “shall not be spoken”, people submit to that silent rule. No, I’m not kidding, it happens. Try expressing real enthusiasm for any matter incompatible with the ‘all-European-central-European’ storyline at voynich.ninja these days and test that out for yourself.

I must say, though, that when a group’s divorce from the normal world of medieval studies becomes too pronounced, the results can be very funny.

Imagine – you’re an ordinary member of some ‘Voynich community’ in which you’re simultaneously forbidden from naming dissenters, and obliged to show loyalty by denigrating all dissenters ad.hominem. Reasoned debate about details, data and method is prohibited if it involves mention of sources or persons non-conforming whether impartial academic sources or Voynich writings. So then you have the problem of how to show the necessary loyalty while pretending not to have read any but theory-supporting matter, and while also being prohibited from naming the persons you are expected to denigrate.

Tricky, huh?

One way is to ‘minimise’. If the person contributed a solid, original and academic study which explains some matter in depth, but their conclusions show your theory is lightweight, you say they’ve “written a lot” but never, ever give details of the publication or admit it was an original contribution from original research. Assert airily that ‘it’s not new’ and dare the others to ask you to provide the details.

There are better ways to work around the ‘must attack/must not name’ dilemma within a Voynich community. For his fine facility in using this two-edged genre, let me introduce someone whose skill I admire: Karl Kluge.

On April 1st of this year, Karl posted what follows and when I say I admire his work, I really do.

His introduction combines an evocation of the first lines of Dante’s Inferno with a hint of the [John] Dee Voynich myth and from there moves onto work done by a few current researchers whom he ‘does-not-name’ in quite the approved manner.

Here’s Karl:

I dreamt that I was looking at .. Dee’s scrying equipment .. I found myself standing in a mist-filled void .. and as I examined the page the snake in the root of the left plant turned to fix me with its steely gaze, speaking as follows:

“Though at first glance I seem mild snake,
T’would be a foolish error to make!
No garter snake, I! Don’t void your bladder —
I am, in fact, the loathsome Adder!

While I seem brown, I fade, alack!
So know, in truth, my hue is BLACK!
Heed me well, though ’tis hard to imagine it,
For I am the glorious serpent Plantagenet!

Think any member of that forum is going to refer openly to me, or to that ‘Cerastes’ post, or begin a stimulating discussion on the implications for this study of a cerastes’ depiction in the manuscript? IDTS

Fact is. there are Voynich theorists out there (not Karl) whose feelings are so exquisitely sensitive that if you critique anything they’ve ever said, they’ll smash your face. 😀

that’s ‘face’ in the metaphorical sense.

Seriously – what matters more to you? Beinecke MS 408 or getting warm fuzzies online?

Think it over.

O’Donovan notes #6a Weighing images – Reading.

c.2900 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

This post discusses the effect of some persistent errors in approaching the manuscript and its drawings..

I’ve modified this material knowing that a majority of Voynich writers not focused on the written text do begin by formulating some theoretical-fictional narrative.

This unfortunate habit began in 1921 and has since become normalised in this field of study, with unfortunate results.

Such Voynich theories are not theories in the scientific sense; ‘theory’ has become a euphemism any imaginative-fictional storyline and many are, as Wilfrid’s was, begun from nothing more than a gut-feeling elaborated from imagination, and then studded with historical bits the relevance of which is never quite explained.

In such narratives, the only role of the manuscript’s drawings is to serve as a kind of clip-art collection from which a detail here, or a drawing there, is deployed and interpreted in a way intended to add an air of greater plausibility to the storyline, not to shed more light on the origin or significance of that drawing for the original maker and his audience.

It is quite rare, even now, to find a researcher focus on what the drawings were intended to convey, but newly come researchers will find used still the same approach to the drawings as we find in Professor Romaine Newbold’s efforts, this style having become a kind of default in this study.

Breaking free of it can prove difficult, because it means not only declining to form a ‘Voynich theory’ narrative of your own, but declining to endorse any other.

Nevertheless I recommend you avoid creating such narratives or allowing yourself to adopt any if your aim is to research the drawings.

Hypothesis versus Wilfrid-style ‘theory’.

Forming an hypothesis can be useful so long as the hypothesis remains a disposable tool. It ceases to be useful if the researcher become emotionally attached to it. For a good use of hypothesis see again the previous post, linking to posts by Julian Bunn.

What are called ‘theories’ in Voynich writings are rarely theories in the scientific sense because they precede and determine the limits of data collection, as well as skewing perceptions and explanations of such data.

Indeed, not even the testimony of the manuscript itself is enough to dissuade a dedicated theorist, and Voynich writers have been ‘adjusting’ the primary evidence to suit a preferred theory-fiction ever since Wilfrid set the model for such behaviour in 1921.

If you are newly come to Voynich studies and have already a feeling that your theory is THE answer to every question you’ve never yet asked, you might consider just what makes a manuscript a manuscript, and how much of it your Voynich theory does illuminate:

  • Questions about – the form of the binding.
  • ditto -Quality and dimensions of the vellum
  • ditto – Quires’ form(s) including number of bifolios.
  • ditto – Page layout (including questions of ruling out, lines per page, disposition of image versus written text)
  • ditto – Quantifiable matter – e.g. radiocarbon-14 date range, statistical analyses.
  • ditto – the glyphs’ forms – and noting any comparable system(s)
  • ditto – Inks and pigments (full palette)

Some among the earlier specialists in manuscripts are likely to have routinely considered some or all of these matters when they accepted the possibility of a thirteenth-century date and English provenance or, later, an early fifteenth-century date and southern provenance. To quote part of Mary d’Imperios’ report of the latter:

“Hel[l]mut Lehmann-Haupt..stated in a letter to Tiltman dated 1 November 1963 that “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400”.

Mary d’Imperio, The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma (1978) p.8.

It was nothing but attachment to one or another theory which prevented that opinion being accepted between 1963 and 2011.

What few of the earlier commentators paid attention to, and which none of the modern researchers had yet paid attention to when I first came to consider this manuscript was that one is wrong simply to presume that the origin of any manuscript’s content must be coeval with the pages’ inscription and/or the work’s binding.

It is equally a mistake to presume that the origin of the content occurred first in the same place where the present work was made.

Both presumptions are endemic in Voynich theory-making. Neither has been tested and proven before such theories were made or adopted.

A century’s disastrous procession of Voynich ‘theories’ has not led to any abandonment of the theory-first approach but I do recommend those interested in the images, at least, try to leave off theory-making until enough research had been done to make a decent theory about.

The mere fact of having a ‘Voynich theory’ seems to affect adversely a person’s ability to address an image as one normally should – that is, by considering the whole image and doing the work needed to rightly place its present form, and identify its place in a conceptual grid of which one axis refers to time and the other to place.

There are unfortunate, if automatic, psychological effects which result from creating and espousing some theory in advance of collecting data. Most individuals form an instant emotional attachment to their theory which sees them react to any correction or objection with defense as immediate, fierce and personal as a parent’s defense of their child or a lover of their beloved. In short, its both irrational and natural, tenacious and blind.

People fall in love with their theories and since their attachment is all but absolute they refuse to accept that there can be anything badly wrong with it. On the contrary, a theorist will usually presume that any objection to their theory must be as personally motivated as their attachment. It follows that very few evaluate their own Voynich theories critically before urging others to believe.

But more to the point is that when a person is wholly convinced their theory must be right, and that all they need do is find evidence for it after the fact, the way they look at the manuscript’s drawings is affected by their search for confirmation.

I’ll give a couple of examples, though at the risk of being supposed a bad person.

When I came to consider this manuscript, I noted a couple of obvious errors, one of which was Rene Zandbergen’s claiming that the drawings’ including what he called the ‘wolkenband(en) offered positive support for the theory which he and Prinke had developed – namely that the manuscript expressed some uniquely German or Germanic or central European cultural character. Although he and Prinke developed this theory more than two decades ago, I’ve not seen any paper by one or both in which their theory is formally presented, and I admit I’m still not quite clear on what geographic limits it assumes..

To correct his evident misapprehension, I explained that these days, when writing in English, we don’t speak of the ‘wolkenband’ but of the ‘cloudband’ though in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth century, writers of the Anglo-German school used a lot more imported terms, including ‘wolkenband’. I also explained, with illustrations, that there was nothing characteristically German/Germanic/central European about it but ‘cloudband’ describes an Asian motif which was for a time popular in western art.

The information was ignored or met with expressions of disdain or indignation by various adherents of that theory, though none seems to have taken a moment to consult a history of art and check the facts. So I found it necessary to explain the same thing several times until 2017 when, finally, I realised that those so wrapped up in the mythos of ‘uniquely German/Germanic/central European’ character were unlikely to listen to any but a fellow theorist or to the words of some person they regarded as an authority figure, so after seeing another of that clique (JKPetersen) trying that line again (in 2017), I said the same by quoting a German author in the body of a post at voynichimagery:

Das Wolkenband fand als Ornament durch mongolische Vermittlung aus China Eingang in die islamische Kunst. In einem persischen Manuskript der Chester Beatty Library aus der Zeit um 1400 bilden reich bewegte Wolkenbiinder den Hintergrund fur die Darstellung eines Vogel Phoenix.

Volkmar Enderlein

What I knew, and had already shown by that time is that Enderlein wasn’t quite accurate either. We see the ‘cloudband’ in fourteenth century Italy and in that case the transmission may be more direct than he suggests. The following picture and caption is a bit blurred because I’ve taken it as a screen-print from the original post in voynichimagery.

The following comes from an English manuscript. I find this especially interesting because it shows again why Wilfrid’s asserting his manuscript was English provenance met no immediate protest from the best-qualified English specialists.

(detail) Bodleian MS Laud Misc. 719 (1425-1450)

The point is not that the ‘German-ish’ theory is bad, but that it is bad practice to begin by creating the imaginative-fictional sort of narrative which is called a Voynich theory.

Theories of that kind are pretty much guaranteed to skew your perceptions and lead you to mis-interpret elements in a drawing because, just as your theory is created from what you know already, so you will suffer from an expectation that everything in the manuscript will be not really unlike what is familiar to you. You will ignore or mis-interpret elements in a drawing or entire sections of a drawing and latch onto whatever seems to be familiar.

Take this detail for example. It comes from the top of folio 79v.

FOLIO NUMBERS may be incorrect . Since the Beinecke website removed its thumb-nails from the manuscript scans, the new pagination no longer appears and a reader must refer to whatever page number is visible on a folio. One hopes that sidebar will soon be re-instated avoiding confusion and saving readers’ time and risk of RSI.

To someone seeking support for the theory made by Prinke and Zandbergen, the wavy line might seem to jump from the page. To someone seeking support for an ‘all western Christian’ theory, the object held in the outstretched hand might seem the only vital detail because it was familiar and fitted that theory.

As precedent here, I should mention Ellie Velinska, who tried to create a positive argument for the traditionalists’ assumption of western Christian origin and character (something which, at the time of writing, Koen Gheuens and Cary Rappaport are trying to do by re-interpreting the Voynich map).

Having interpreted the cruciform object on f.79v as a Latin cross, Ellie didn’t ask whether the female figure had been intended to show a person or a mythical or a metaphorical figure, but presumed literalism and then – since there are few unclothed female forms in the corpus of medieval western Christian religious iconography – to identify the figure with Mary Magdalen who, as an former prostitute, was sometimes envisaged half-naked and clothed in a garment signifying penitence – often an animal skin. Ellie produced many images of Mary Magdalen, but none of those made before 1440 showed the Magdalen naked. She interpreted the roughly-parallel vertical lines in the detail from f.79v as light and showed many images (of varying dates) in which a cross placed at a distance from the Magdalen was the centre of radiating streams of light. What Ellie didn’t show and more importantly didn’t realise she had to produce to prove her idea true – was an image in which the radiant light fell from above the figure like water from a shower; in which the wholly naked figure held a cross at arm’s length and in which some explanation was provided for the Voynich figure’s being placed in what appears as a sort of basin.

This is what I mean by creating ‘allegorical’ stories for one or more images from the manuscript. The theory produces the story; the manuscript’s images are interpreted according to the story; illustrations illustrate the story; none of the questions raised by the image is addressed, not even the basic issue of its time and place of origin.

I should have said more clearly that when I speak of time and place for an image’s origin, I am speaking of the environment in which its informing words and ideas were first given this form. I do not for a moment doubt that, as we have them now, they were inscribed during the earlier decades of the fifteenth century. (note added 4th May 2022)

Ellie’s blog has since been removed, so I can’t link you to it, but it was in my reply to that post of hers that I gave it as my own opinion, after having studied the manuscript for some time, that it contained very little indicative of first creation in the environment of Latin Europe, and much which could only be explained in other terms. Since that time (about 2013, if I recall), the traditionalists have been attempting to create narratives which will return the conversation to the older Wilfrid-Friedman sort of ‘all white Latin Christian aristocracy’ theory.

I liked Ellie. She often made original and acute comments, but she was under the impression that though you might need to know a bit about cryptography to tackle the written text, and a bit about codicology to discuss the manuscript’s structure and materials, when it came to the drawings, no preliminary study was necessary – that all you needed was ‘two eyes and common sense’. The sad thing is that the detail on which her ‘Mary Magdalen’ idea depended isn’t actually drawn as a Latin cross. She’d been theory-blinded and, as a result, saw something familiar instead of what is actually there on the page.

(detail) f.v – enlarged

The object has a cruciform shape not unlike the Latins’ cross, but is so drawn that one of its arms is provided with a socket from which a smaller object protrudes vertically.

It is about this point in a theory-opposing description of any Voynich image that one can expect to hear some traditionalist start creating ex nihilo some new theory-patch, to deflect a potential threat. They might asserted, as if from authority (because they have no evidence) that the draughtsman erred; that the socket is just a bump caused by the vellum’s rough surface, or that they see no socket at all. Theorists contently invent theory-patches; you’ll get used to it. They will grasp at any possibility their imagination can produce, re-define the possible as fact, and thereafter claim they have ‘dismissed’ whatever information or data has revealed a weakness in their storyline.

However – they may be evidence of Christian influence here because it looks as if there has been a degree of erasure – accidental or deliberate – over that small vertical protrusion above the socket. If it were the result of some deliberate effort, then one might argue that erasure evidence of some Christian’s effort to make the object resemble more nearly a religious item with which they were more familiar. But first one would have to see the original and determine whether or not the effect was due to deliberate effort or not.

It’s so natural and instinctive a response in the human mind to hunt for the familiar that it is something we are taught to consciously register and process consciously in iconographic analysis and art studies.

Repeated exposure alone will lead us to register things which are not really familiar as if they were, and whether or not we actually understand them any better.

Mary d’Imperio describes this process, but does so unintentionally – which is much to the point. d’Imperio had very fixed ideas and a theory she could not relinquish. So she wrote:

The impression made upon the modern viewer first coming upon a photocopy of the manuscript (the form in which it has most frequently met the eye of students) is one of extreme oddity, quaintness. and foreignness-one might almost say unearthliness. To the reader who has seen pictures of more typical illuminated medieval manuscripts. these pages look very different indeed from what he expects to find in such a book. For me. at least. after working with the photocopy intensively for some weeks, the initial impression of ‘”queerness” lost its prominence and gave way to other. more considered reactions. (p.11)

She calls them “more considered reactions” but what they involved was a dismissal of all those characteristics which had initially seemed most obvious in order to re-define them in a way that fitted the theory which she and Elizebeth Friedman held – that the manuscript was a ciphertext of European cultural origin and important for the study of western intellectual history.

Had she not been theory-blinded, she might have said “the reader who has seen pictures of illuminated medieval European manuscripts…”… but for her, this manuscript had to be a medieval European manuscript because for her ‘medieval’ meant European and medieval illuminated manuscripts European by definition. She could only conceive of this manuscript as a sub-set of those.

The moral of these examples is not that any Voynichero with an historical-theoretical-fictional narrative must be a fool. The habit began a century ago, and has become normalised. Voynicheros positively expect newcomers to begin with a theory of that kind and are bewildered if you say you’ve no theory yet.

The moral is rather that if you want to make a lasting contribution, it would probably be better for you to start by close study of the primary document, move to the research needed to answer some specific question(s) and leave theory-formation aside until you have enough rock-solid information to form a theory about. Just as linguists and cryptographers might do.

O’Donovan notes. #4 Vocabularies.

3300 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

If you read comments made by Karl to Note #3, you’ll see genuine expertise on the history and methods of past and current approaches to the Voynich glyphs.

Voynich researchers, or would-be researchers, whose area of competence is mathematical-computistical deserve more attention than I’ve given them in the past, so this post offers a couple of suggestions for research topics needing those skills.

One major headache for the traditionalists – and since have no idea if Karl is traditionalist this comment isn’t about him – is that western cryptography wasn’t particularly sophisticated before 1435 and even then was developing only in a couple of regions in Europe – yet even the most sophisticated modern methods of decryption have failed to gain from the Voynich text the sort of ‘plaintext’ presumed to underlie any ciphertext.

Part of the problem might be the attitudes and assumptions embedded in the Friedmans’ approach – influenced not only by their conception of the way encipherment-and-decipherment should work, but also by their personal biases – reflecting the attitudes of their time and of the social class to which they aspired. We’ve already noted the waspish way in which Elizebeth Friedman and Mary d’Imperio met an academic board’s view that the matter might be trivial and the extraordinary over-emphasis which was placed on the merest rumour that at sometime in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries the manuscript might have been seen or purchased by Rudolf II.

Despite that fixation which led them ever further from the manuscript’s proposed date, they do not seem to have looked very closely at any body of Bohemian ciphertexts, or even to have enquired into what sort of ciphers were employed in fifteenth century and sixteenth century Bohemia – if any.

1.My ‘Colorni’ question.

The question of how anyone in Rudolfine Prague would have been able to make sense of Voynichese has not been considered, so far as I know. My efforts, from 2018-19, to engage the interest of a cryptographer in determining whether the informing method might be among those included by Abramo Colorni in a work he published in Prague met little response. Pity.

It ended a line in my research considering various persons known to have moved through, or from, Italy en route to Prague during the Rudolfine years. Colorni was there 1588-1594.

Unless the work of testing that possibility has been quietly taken up without any reference to me or to Nick Pelling, it’s still an open question in need of computistical and cryptological skills. (Nick mistakenly supposed I’d “fallen over” Colorni’s work; in fact it came about as an extension of earlier investigation into the historical links between Jews of the south-western Mediterranean and Italy.

As I began advertising for a cryptanalyst’s assistance – first by approaching the editor of Cryptologia – and after then making a post about it, Rene Zandbergen remembered having once mentioned Colorni in a list of alchemists, but since Rene had evidently not known of Colorni’s work on ciphers nor started any original research of his own, there’s no claim of precedence there.

As as far as I’m concerned, this line in my research is still on hold and – so long as Nick Pelling doesn’t mind – anyone willing to taking up and test this possibility is welcome, so long as they do the honourable thing and mention both Nick and me.

You might start by searching ‘Colorni’ at Pelling’s blog and reading the following post and comments made to it:

2. Text-types.

Another question which has apparently been always a blind spot for theorists is what kind of text or plaintext the Voynich text might be.

We really don’t know, and certainly don’t know enough to assume the usual ‘either prose-or-poetry’. That other kinds of text have not emerged on the Voynich research horizon is most easily explained as another manifestation of the ‘high culture’ and ‘high society’ fixations of last century.

So that’s another question worth looking into, and first of all a survey of what kinds of text are attested in the greater Mediterranean and in Europe before 1440. One which has been mentioned – by Alain Touwaide – is the semi-formal medical-magical notebooks of Iatrosophia.

In a vein half-humorous (but only half-), I once posted the following image to remind Voynicheros that there did exist writings of other kinds, including technical instructions.

  • from ‘Voynicheriana #16’, Sidenotes to the Voynich manuscript (Feb 4, 2013).

That ‘postcard’ was inspired by a series of posts which Julian Bunn had written which had led him conclude that the text ‘was not a language at all’.

By ‘a language’ I took him to mean one defined in terms of neatly grammatical prose or poetry. Though I considered a variety of ‘technical instruction’ sort of texts, I chose to imagine a knitting pattern because there, once more, Voynichese seems so neatly to accommodate to it just as it does to others of the technical instruction type. I chose knitting because Voynicheros have an unconscious but nonetheless deeply-rooted traditional bias against ‘lower class’ material, and an ingrained if equally unconscious chauvenism (nationalistic and gender-specific). Such unconscious bias, or to be more positive, such predelictions, determine and thus restrict their research-range and arbitrarily set its parameters.

There’s nothing a-historical about the possibility that some, or much, of the Voynich text might consist of technical instructions, including ones relating to, say, dyeing or weaving rather than alchemy or medicine. Having the secret of making those highly-technical patterns of silk-velvet and figured velvet was so vital to the Venetian economy that, like the glassblowers, those craftsmen were forbidden ever to leave the city and its environs. And, as we know, technical secrets were the most likely to be enciphered. So it’s not a random possibility and ‘technical instruction’ of any kind should be included as one group if anyone would like to survey the types of text appropriate to a period before fifteenth century and especially texts which had no need to conform to a model of nicely grammatical prose or poetry.

3. Alphabets – a comparative database.

I find it astounding that the most basic question anyone asks when confronted with an unreadable text is a question which has apparently never been asked in Voynich studies. That is, ‘Is this set of glyphs attested in use – as a set – in any writing system recorded before 1435?’

I expect that the work of compiling such a database might take a dedicated researcher a couple of years. It wouldn’t be enough to compile an list of standardised forms such as you find, say, at Omniglot, though they would provide a good first foundation from which to build. The researcher would also have to take into account actual historical examples and note the varying forms which letters took in practice.

I recall raising this very question – i.e. if the question itself ever been asked – only to receive inexplicably over-confident assertions that such comparisons were “unnecessary” because Voynichese “obviously looked like the Roman alphabet.”

Assertions of that sort, made without the speaker’s admitting it a personal instinct and no more, create an impression that one is hearing a pronouncement from on high, invested with unarguable authority, but looked at carefully, they’re just hypothesis-balloons.

The Voynich glyphs which are also found in a Roman alphabet occur in many non-Roman scripts too, while those which do not occur in a Roman alphabet make the pronouncement’s ‘obviously’ meaningless.

And accepting that the set of Voynich glyphs “looks” Roman to such a speaker it means no moe than that it looks like one of the family of scripts descended from Etruscan, Greek or Phoenician precedents because it certainly doesn’t resemble classical Roman script. Tempers can rise over the lineage of Roman script so I won’t go further into that here, and it’s not a subject where any online source will do.

To see how not-very-well educated Roman soldiers actually wrote in the 1stC AD, seethe tablets from Vindolanda, and for the ductus, this illustration copyrighted by the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies (here). That site has a nice term ‘sub-literary text’. 🙂

Then you might consider finding alphabets or abjads which include forms comparable to those glyphs which are in the Voynich set, but not in any version of the Roman (i.e. western Christian) alphabet.

A little nettled by the tone of that ‘unnecessary’ speaker, I decided that while the text isn’t my field, I’d see whether what I call the ‘ornate p’ form exists in any recorded alphabet.

‘Ornate p-forms’

I found it does occur, and in a variety of forms, in scripts classed of the Aramaic family of scripts – that’s scripts not languages. The ‘Aramaic-derived’ scripts, I should warn readers, is an absolutely enormous family. This sort of comparative research is not only data-base worthy but data-base essential.

I’ve taken the following from an online site because it seems close to the current scholarly consensus but here again you’ll find that linguists, palaeographers and epigraphers can be a disputatious lot.

The ancient Aramaic alphabet was adapted by Arameans from the Phoenician alphabet and became a distinct script by the 8th century BC. It was used to write the Aramaic language and had displaced the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, itself a derivative of the Phoenician alphabet, for the writing of Hebrew. The letters all represent consonants, some of which are also used as matres lectionis to indicate long vowels. The Aramaic alphabet is historically significant since virtually all modern Middle Eastern writing systems can be traced back to it as well as numerous non-Chinese writing systems of Central and East Asia. That is primarily from the widespread usage of the Aramaic language as both a lingua franca and the official language of the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Empires, and their successor, the Achaemenid Empire. Among the scripts in modern use, the Hebrew alphabet bears the closest relation to the Imperial Aramaic script of the 5th century BC, with an identical letter inventory and, for the most part, nearly identical letter shapes. The Aramaic alphabet was an ancestor to the Nabataean alphabet and the later Arabic alphabet. Writing systems (like the Aramaic one) that indicate consonants but do not indicate most vowels other than by means of matres lectionis or added diacritical signs, have been called abjads by Peter T. Daniels. The term [abjad] was coined to avoid the notion that a writing system that represents sounds must be either a syllabary or an alphabet, which would imply that a system like Aramaic must be either a syllabary (as argued by Ignace Gelb) or an incomplete or deficient alphabet (as most other writers have said). Rather, it is a different type.

from site DBpedia, article ‘Aramaic alphabet’.

Not all scripts in the Aramaic family use no vowels, but what a majority show is that the ‘ornate p’ with one loop and/or with two loops, consistently represent a sound within the ‘S-T’ shift. Here’s a table I included when posting a summary of that cursory survey. It shows a script variously said to be Ubyk or Abkhaz. Cidi Celebi recorded it as ‘Ubyk’; others identify it as a script used for Abkhaz. You’ll see it has an ornate ‘p’ form, a variant of the ‘ornate p’ we find in many, and widely separated, scripts derived from Aramaic forms.

Here’s another illustration from my posts, selected to demonstrate the geographic range of the Aramaic family. The previous example above came from the Black Sea region – the following one from older Arabia. It is known as ‘zabur’ or ‘psalm’ script and is said to derive from Sabaic – whose forms, again, derived from Aramaic script.

Attempting to provide a data-base able to address -let alone resolve – the question of whether the set of Voynich glyphs finds a counterpart in some other pre-1450 script is no trivial undertaking, unless you’re a specialist who has already years of training and experience in comparative palaeography.

4.Plant-pictures – (a)Vocabularies

By now, one would have thought, there’d be a substantial data-base created for Voynicheros in which as many plants as possible were listed with (at least) their names according to the Greek, Arabic, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Hebrew and Judeo- dialects and varying orthographies. The plants would be any of which knowledge is attested in the greater Mediterranean (at least) prior to c.1440.

As a first foundation, for anyone willing to make an historically-appropriate data-base, you might begin by collating the contents of Simon of Genoa’s Synonyma with, say, a Jewish list compiled in medieval Provence. Here are some initial resources.

  • Barbara. Zipser, Simon of Genoa’s Medical Lexicon (2013). https://doi.org/10.2478/9788376560236 – open access.
  • Simon Online‘ – the translation project. highly recommended
  • Gerrit Bos, Martha Hussein et.al.,(2011) Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tov ben Isaak of Tortosa: Sefer ha – Shimmush. (Book 29, Études Sur Le Judaïsme Médiéval), Multilingual Edition (English, … Aramaic, Arabic, Latin and Romance). Brill.

To be of real value for the hopeful decrypters of Voynichese, such a database should then moving outwards, in geographical and in linguistic terms, as well backwards in time to cover the possibility that the present text derives from one written very much earlier than the fifteenth century.

4 (b) .. as drawings.

Before 2009, the manuscript’s images had generally been treated much as Newbold treated them and with no effort made to understand how we go about treating problematic pictures today. The ‘method’ was a pretty basic ‘match-the-picture’ exercise and matches weren’t sought on the basis of preliminary analysis of the picture itself, but from whatever range was dictated by the Voynichero’s preferred theoretical-historical-fictional story. Here again, the paradigm of the traditionalist method – transferred to the New World – is ‘The Voynich Codex’ in which so many pictures are similarly ‘matched’ to suit a wholly theoretical tale.

After I’d been publishing analytical-critical research and summaries for a few years – that would be about 2012, a crop of newcomers appeared who seemed to have had it as their mission to create more Eurocentric and traditionalist-friendly ‘alternatives’. A detailed analysis and commentary of the Voynich map published from 2011 onwards saw ‘alternatives’ invented by several such newcomers but in the event they served the traditionalists scarcely at all, and served the study adversely.

Again, though I was not the first to recognise that one image refers to plants of the ‘banana’ group, and the identification had not met – and never was met – by any informed debate, suddenly there were efforts made to produce an ‘alternative’ in that same childish ‘match-the-picture’ style. Even pre-schoolers learn both to compare and to contrast, but not many Voynicheros attempt the same.

Assertions of ‘similarity’ were made without any evidence of the proposer’s having troubled with historical investigations or inconographic analysis. A Voynichero’s website might alter a title to read ‘analysis…’ but there too I found no evidence of any effort taken to grasp the principles and practice of iconographic analysis.

One certainly welcomes informed comment, debate and alternative conclusions – such things are essential to any field of study. But in Voynich studies, such artificial ‘alternatives’ have served only as obfuscation, not unlike that manufacturing of confusion which we associate with think-tank disinformation.

If you ever need to judge between one and another assertion made about the pictures, see how well or poorly the writer discusses the Voynich image, of itself, in terms of historical, geographical and cultural context. Since it is actually that context which is being ‘matched’, failure to contextualise the chief item makes any comparison dubious.

And check their bibliography – in ‘Findings’ that bibliography filled a separately posted page.

In my opinion, the fact that so few Voynicheros show evidence that they have the time and the inclination to study – to read – is a significant problem.

To judge from what has been said to me directly, and from what has been produced and presented as explanation for the manuscript’s images, I can only suppose there are very few Voynich writers aware that there is such a discipline as iconographic analysis, and fewer who understand that it involves far more reading, and continual study, than is spent in just ‘looking at’ pictures.

It may be a common idea that pictures are easy and written text is difficult, but that’s an illusion.

No less than do written works, pre-modern pictures express the habits, spoken language, ideas and beliefs, customs and daily practice of the community for whom they are first formed. In the case of the Voynich pictures, that first community is still unidentified, as is the first composition of its written text.

There is certainly very little in the Voynich pictures which conforms to the traditionalists’ theory of an all-western-Christian origin for the whole. I’ve explained this in its positive and its negative aspects several times, as well as outlining aspects of human psychology which affect reactions to, and interpretations of ‘the foreign’ in images.

All we can agree on as “what we know”, or surely think we know, is that these images were copied on to these sheets of vellum during the first decades of the fifteenth century.

Any occasional similarity between a Voynich image and something seen in a western manuscript – such as a herbal – may be due to the fifteenth-century copyist’s resorting to his own local habits in drawing, or may relate more distantly to some common ancestor – perhaps from north Africa or from 9thC Baghdad, or from one of the great many works and manuscripts whose original is now lost. It would be interesting to see a debate on the question of whether or not Latin Europe ever had an indigenous herbal tradition.

When we develop ‘genealogies’ for manuscripts or for images, the parameters are usually quite clear and tight because we begin by knowing enough to limit the parameters fairly well. This can’t be said for any aspect of Voynich studies because we don’t know enough and the old presumptions, magnified by traditionalists’ maintaining social attitudes and attitudes to history characteristic of the Anglo-German school during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, seem to triumph only because backed by that same tradition. Objective validity would be shown – as it has never yet been – by that narrative’s having solved (rather than determinedly ignored) the great many questions raised by this manuscript, including the nature of its written text.

People ignorant of cryptography usually refrain from trying to decrypt the Voynich text. The same is true – usually – for people asserting that Voynichese is written in one or another language. One might wish that a similar level of restraint was shown to images in the manuscript, or alternatively that those interested in them would find the time needed to learn the work of iconographic analysis and to do the amount of reading required for any opinion to be considered well-informed and balanced by suitably qualified external scholars.

[end of rant].

To end on a more text-oriented note – here’s a thought-provoking passage from another of Pelling’s posts.

Even back in 1962, Elizebeth Friedman – having been a top US Government code-breaker for several decades – was able to note that all attempts to decrypt the Voynich Manuscript as if it were a simple language or single-substitution alphabet were “doomed to utter frustration”. That is, if you wind the clock back half a century from the present day, it was already clear then that Voynichese’s curious lack of flatness was strongly incompatible with:

  • natural languages
  • exotic languages
  • lost languages
  • monoalphabetic (simple) substitution ciphers, and even
  • straightforward hoaxes

from: Nick Pelling, ‘Voynich Statistics, And Why Voynichese Is Not Flat‘, ciphermysteries, (January 21st., 2016).

I haven’t checked Pelling’s source(s) for myself in this case – as one usually must with Voynich writers – because in thirteen years I’ve never found an instance of Pelling’s attempting to claim (tacitly or overtly) credit for another person’s contribution to the study, nor of dishonesty in giving details of original contributions and sources. I cannot at present think of another Voynich topic on which we wholeheartedly agree. 🙂

O’Donovan notes #3 Selecting a question.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Postscript – I should make this two separate posts, I suppose, but I’ll just wait twice as long before posting again. 🙂

earlier posts in the series

1. How to Voynich

2a. Limits.

2b. The ‘4o’ (updated and revised)

Before being interrupted by revisiting folio 5v, we were considering how to approach the manuscript while still avoiding the constantly-recurring errors of the study’s last hundred years.

Among the most persistent recurring errors noted were

  • (i) confusion of ‘gut feeling’ with evidence-derived opinion;
  • (ii) guesses mis-called hypotheses – wrongly identifying an idea which has no foundation in fact with an opinion about solid preliminary data or precedent studies;
  • (iii) over-estimation of abilities and skills;
  • (iiii) expounding a fictional narrative as if laying out a logical or plausible argument, and
  • (v) personal weakness which led various individuals to attempt – often successfully – to cover deficiencies in their knowledge, abilities or work by adopting a tone of authority and/or social superiority and
  • (vi) unreasonable certainty.

Pronouncements made by Elizebeth Friedman offer an interesting example of (v) and (vi) combined.

N.B. In historical research what you think is less important what first led you to think so.

For those methodological errors, the first and most enduring model was Wilfrid Voynich’s narrative delivered in 1921. The vast majority who approached the manuscript later either adopted his assertions or his flawed methodology, or both.

From the available evidence, Mr. Voynich was a professional and competent evaluator of a manuscript-as-object (a question which had never been asked, so far as I can discover, until I looked into it a few years ago).

*The example I discovered, and discussed in detail, concerned a doubt that arose over whether an item which Voynich sold to Robert Garrett of Baltimore had been accurately dated and described. Before publishing a summary of my research into this question of Wilfrid’s competence, I looked for any precedent and for any previous mention of that item in Voynich writings. There was none.

However, Wilfrid was no historian – not by training or by inclination.

The crafting of history is called a discipline for good reason: it requires talent and training to be honed by keeping up with current studies and work from the historical documents. It also requires the researcher to constantly consider and to show that he/she has formed their opinions from a wide range of primary evidence and secondary sources. It is the range, nature and balance of evidence which marks good research. That’s why we add footnotes and bibliographies – so that an informed historian of the subject or period will have a clear picture of a work’s limits and omissions, as well as what we have taken into account.

Very little of what Wilfrid said on that day appears to be outcome of his own research, but is only material adopted and arbitrarily adapted from Newbold’s work – which Newbold presented in a lecture delivered on the same occasion in 1921. Wilfrid did not acknowledge the debt.

These days, among historians, to avoid honestly admitting where information or new insights came from is regarded even more seriously than it was in 1921.

Wilfrid says almost nothing about the manuscript’s history, apart from his having decided on seeing the manuscript that it was an original text written and enciphered by a thirteenth-century Englishman named Roger Bacon. .

Then, supposing his flash of imagination had been a flash of inspired insight, Wilfrid ran with that unfounded and still unsupported notion. It is not beyond all possibility that he might yet be proven right, at least about the current text’s copying a thirteenth-century one. At present, though, the balance of evidence is against an origin in England.

Provenience vs. History

The bulk of what Wilfrid presented in 1921 was not a ‘history’ for the manuscript but a quasi-historical story imagining its subsequent travels – the sort of information which, when accurate, was called in his day ‘provenience‘.

Let me clarify that.

Properly speaking, a manuscript’s history consists of the history of those things which make up the the manuscript: the materials, the history of techniques in writing-styles and image-making; and such precedent works as are directly reflected in the manuscript’s written text and images.

In this strict sense, then, manuscript’s history ends when the pages were inscribed though might continue to the time when those pages were bound.

The object’s provenience describes the finished (or more-or-less finished) item’s subsequent travels and vicissitudes.

*re: ‘provenience’. I’ve used the older term, seen as late d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, because it makes this distinction quite clear. The present-day habit is to speak of ‘provenance’ which simply means where something came from, and can refer both the manuscript’s provenience and to the history of e.g. an image used in it.

Describing an object’s provenience has always been part of the seller’s task, and of the librarian’s. It doesn’t aim to explain the lineage of text or imagery now in the manuscript, so much as to describe, owner by owner, how the (more or less) finished object came to be where it is now.

This is why a library’s catalogue description may describe a manuscript as a fifteenth-century French Psalter, but will not explain the history or origins of the membrane, nor technical details of inks and pigments, nor the Psalms’ history and origin. That Psalter’s provenience, but not its history, begins in fifteenth century France.

The history of the same manuscript, if investigated, may find that the membrane had been imported from England; that the scribe had been trained in Picardy; and that the written text originated in the near east, individual Psalms having been composed 1800 or 1500 etc. years BC.

Were a manuscript’s history identical with its provenience, we’d be asserting that the Psalms were invented in fifteenth-century France by a previously unknown French king David.

So a history of how the manuscript came to be is rather different from a provenience which says what happened to the object after it was made.

Most Voynich storylines focus on the time the vellum was inscribed or concentrate on that section of its provenience which occurred, or is alleged to have occurred, between the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

It should be fairly obvious that calling provenience-narratives the manuscript’s “history” is inappropriate and an unfortunate habit because it has often seen assertions about provenience, and especially seventeenth-century and later provenience, back-projected onto the manuscript’s materials and content as a means to explain them.

With the quasi-historical provenience narratives forming the single largest group of Voynich-related writings today, and serving as basis for the creation of still more tenuous guesses as hypotheses, I think the most pressing need at present in this study is a development of solid historical research in the strict sense of the word.

,That is to say, I think it would be to the study’s benefit if ‘where did the manuscript go?’ gave way to a focus on ‘where did the content come from?’

To illustrate why ‘match the picture’ isn’t that sort of investigation, I’ll revisit the Voynich archer (again, *sigh*) in a later post.

I do accept, absolutely, that formation of working hypotheses is essential to the research being done by those who are convinced (rightly or wrongly) that the written text is enciphered, I see no reason for research into the manuscript’s history to begin by inventing or adopting a quasi-historical narrative as theory.

Which brings me to another distortion resulting from supposing other aspects of Voynich research should use techniques employed by those who see the Voynich text as a cipher-text.

To sum up what has been said so far:

First, that there is a distinction to be made between the manuscript’s history on the one hand – defined as prelude to manufacture, and on the other hand narratives about the finished manuscript’s travels. The ‘travel-history’ is provenience.

Second, there is a distinction to be made between the methods of cryptography and those of translation.

Failure to observe the second distinction is why, for example, Mr. Ardiç’s attempting to explain the written text in terms of spoken language is meeting fairly aggressive opposition from individuals whose way of compiling statistical data about the written text has as its basic theory a one-to-one correlation between sound-values and subjectively-defined (and possibly erroneous) interpretations of the glyphs.

The potential for error is magnified by cryptologists’ habitual use of a Roman-alphabet analogy [EVA] for the Voynich script.

Late edit: (10th March 2022) I’ve just seen this same point made by Darius in a comment to Nick Pelling’s latest post, ‘Voynich Paper Suggestion #4: Unpicking the k/t Gallows‘, ciphermysteries, (March 9th 2022). I rather think it will prove to be an observation made earlier and more often. If I find a precedent in posts to Reeds’ mailing list, or if a kind ciphermysteries reader knows who should be credited as first, I’ll add a comment below this post.)

To appreciate the distinction, you might consider how a person trained in reading and writing English, French, Spanish, Italian or German perceives the relationship between the spoken and the written versions of their own language. They expect it to be fairly close, one sound to one glyph, though that has not always been the case.

In German, before library catalogues were computerised the sign for ‘sch’ was considered a single glyph and was listed last among the ‘s’ entries.

To impose that same expectation about the relationship between written and spoken Irish, however, would be foolish.

If you compiled statistical data from written Irish, minus (say) vowels and diacritics, there is little chance it could be read off by a novice to sound and sense as spoken Irish does.

On the other hand, a native speaker might be able to correct the errors and omissions of the transcription. The same is true of pointed and unpointed Hebrew texts where in addition to pointing you might have to consider cantillation.

What we’re seeing happen at present with Mr. Ardiç, is a not-exactly-bullying effort to force him to make his reading of the text conform to the observations and statistics of people working at one, or at two full removes – by first transcribing and then rendering as EVA a text whose language they do not know.

That they cannot get any consistent or intelligible results from the ‘transcribe, create Roman script analogy – match and translate’ method suggests the problem at present might be less Mr. Ardiç’s translation than that the model to which he is being all-but- ordered to conform is inadequate.

A speaker can elucidate the written representation of language, but the opposite isn’t necessarily true. I mean – can you, using EVA, write the sound “Ardiç” with no more than five symbols?

To the Conference organisers, I’d say “Do let the man speak his piece” and leave the critical comments to competent specialists attending. Is there any Voynichero claiming competence in medieval Turkic languages?

Something Positive.

Since this series of ‘Notes’ is meant to suggest positive avenues for newer researchers, I’ll move on.

I think it’s entirely possible to engage in researching the manuscript’s history (sensu strictu) without having an preliminary new, or second-hand theory to follow.

One alternative is to look for a detail which intrigues you about the manuscript, its materials, writing or images and start looking more deeply into that.

It doesn’t have to be a grand, all-encompassing theme. It can be quite simple such as – how many scripts which existed before 1435 contained one or more ‘4’ shaped letters/glyphs and what sounds did they represent in those scripts?

Then, after you’ve done that, another question is likely to arise? How, if at all, are the scripts in my list related to one another? There should be a mass of historical evidence and discussion about those things. You don’t have to contribute something wholly without precedent to contribute valuable material to this study for the first time..

Another approach is to look for items where the usual story doesn’t seem to match the manuscript’s own testimony. For example, the usual story is that the Voynich calendar is a ‘zodiac’. If you actually look at it though, it is not. It contains only ten months, not twelve and while theorists will wave that way and just say the (imagined) missing months were cut away, that offers no reasonable evidence for why only ten-months of the year would be wanted. I can bear witness to the fact that this is no easy question to research.

Somewhat easier is the question of why the Voynich calendar has some doubled months. That they are not accidental duplications is clear enough; there are differences between the organisation of the tiered figures and also way the month-name is written differently on each of a pair.

There’s a lot of solid scholarship on the history of calendars in the world beyond Voynich studies and wiki articles, so attempting to discover where and when those particular months were, or might be, doubled in a pre-1435 calendar from somewhere in the world should prove interesting and if it’s hard work you may get a solid result – say a list of regional and religious calendars in which the same months are doubled. So there you have another contribution to the study. That list, properly researched and documented, is a contribution in itself. You don’t have to make it fit any Voynich theory. You don’t have to use it to create a Voynich theory. You’re doing the important work of putting what is actually in the manuscript into a still-fairly-general historical context.

What you can expect to find in doing original work of this sort, starting from ‘external’ (i.e. non-Voynich focused) historical studies is that each question researched will usually throw up additional questions about the manuscript and about the ‘provenience-narrative’ sort of assertions made about it.

You needn’t try to create, reject or endorse existing theories about, say, whether the calendar was supposed to serve astrology.

I think it helps, as you work, to keep in mind that the manuscript isn’t the problem. The problem is our ignorance; and that’s what you’re working to alleviate.

I suppose I should illustrate how a Question-First approach works in practice.

Here, in outline, is one question I’ve been working on intermittently for some time. Theorists tend to gravitate towards things they perceive as ‘similar’ to their theoretical norm, but in iconographic analysis I find that attention to differences is more interesting and is usually more informative. And this can apply to historical research as such.


Specialists and Wilfrid’s ’13thC England’.

I’ve always wondered why, when Wilfrid asserted the manuscript made in thirteenth century England, there was no outcry about that dating or provenance (origin) offered by the best-qualified and experienced commentators from whom opinions are recorded between1921 and c.1952.

Among the persons who thought that sounded a fair attribution of date and place (not authorship or content) were Goldschmidt, Panofsky, Thorndike and perhaps even Richard Garnett – then keeper of what is now the British Library’s collection of medieval manuscripts but which were held, in Wilfrid’s time, by the British Museum (which still owns them).

Garnett guided and advised Wilfrid, who came to London as a refugee and bookseller, specifically advising him to set up a shop in London rather than hawking volumes about to potential buyers. Garnett’s name is also on Wilfrid’s application for British citizenship.

*’Garnett’s name..citizenship’ see e.g. Colin MacKinnon, ‘The Naturalisation Papers of Wilfrid Michael Voynich'(2013). (online as a pdf). His sources are given.

Now we know the vellum dates to the early fifteenth century, so one has to ask what it was that prevented those specialists openly doubting or rejecting Wilfrid’s thirteenth-century date?

Was it the second-rate quality of the vellum? the manuscript’s dimensions? The absence of, say, logwood ‘pink’ in the palette? The unflattering depictions of female figures which most saw as ‘crude drawings’ because they are unlike anything we see in western Christian art during the thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth centuries?

We know that Panofsky insisted it pre-Renaissance, though in his time the ‘Renaissance’ was often treated as covering the mid- fifteenth and earlier sixteenth centuries.

This question – why did they not dispute Wifrid’s date and assignment to England – is why I looked into that question ‘ Was Wilfrid a competent evaluator of medieval manuscripts?’ I concluded that he was, but simply as someone who could give a fair attribution to date and place.

So should we conclude (as in fact was earlier done) that what we have is a fifteenth century copy of a thirteenth-century work?

But competent and experienced evaluators looked everything – the materials, the finish, the range of colours used, the disposition of material on the page and so on.

So what was it about the manuscript which led them all to see the Voynich manuscript as a thirteenth-century and probably English work?

And the question which intrigued me most was that none offered the objection by which Fr. Theodore Petersen rejected O’Neill’s ‘Columbus theory’ – palaeography.

It has become the norm that the Voynich script (‘hands’) are said to most resemble the humanist hand (so called) whose origin is ascribed to Poggio Bracciolini and other early students of Greek in medieval Italy. But if the flow of the Voynich script were obviously unlike any seen before the early 1400s, why didn’t those specialists, or Wilfrid himself, instantly opt for a date and attribution in early fifteenth century northern Italy?

The people I’ve named were pre-eminent in medieval manuscript (and art) studies. Goldschmidt’s two-volume study of Renaissance bindings is a classic. Panofsky was a specialist in medieval art and literature, who moved later into focus on Renaissance art and culture. We know from his correspondence, his published works and even his terse and information-neutral responses to Friedman’s embarrassing ‘questions’ that Panofsky studied palaeography too.

So why did not object, before 1952, to Wilfrid’s ‘thirteenth-century English’ attribution?

Robert Steele had reservations. He describes the velum as ‘coarse, even for the thirteenth century’. Though he, of course, also presumed a wholly Latin European origin for the manuscript and everything in it.

I made a list – vellum? palaeography? images? text-block’s dimensions? and when there was no more pressing issue to deal with, I researched one after another to discover what those specialists saw about the manuscript which suggest to them all that a thirteenth-century English origin looked ok to them.

I would have liked to add ‘colours’ but we must look to the Beinecke library for a full technical description of the Voynich palette. If we ever get it, the information could as easily be ‘ho-hum’ as rivetting and deeply informative. It all depends on the results.

To speak first of the dimensions – to see if there was something characteristically thirteenth century and/or English about the manuscript’s dimensions, I made a fairly rough survey of the British library holdings with results leading me to focus on a period from 1350AD to 1450 AD, and I took into account both folio dimensions but and text-box dimension, because a later copyist had no obligation to copy empty margins precisely.

In the usual way a survey of that type would be a waste of time; many manuscripts have text-blocks whose dimensions are no longer original, having been trimmed down in a later re-binding.

Had the Voynich manuscript shown signs of such uniform trimming, I’d not have troubled with that question unless I happened to find myself with weeks to spare and near some great library, However, on Rene Zandbergen’s asserting that the Voynich text-block had never been trimmed (the only time I had a question answered from that source), I went ahead.

Barbara Shailor, wrote the description for the Beinecke catalogue in 1967, giving the dimensions as 225mm x 160mm. I’ve seen other numbers on Voynich sites, though none with any explanation or evidence for their departing from these measurements.

Parchment. ff. 102 (foliation, s. xvi, Arabic numerals; not every
leaf foliated) + i (paper), including 5 double-folio, 3 triple-folio, 1
quadruple-folio and 1 sextuple-folio folding leaves. 225 x 160 mm.

The results of my survey were more interesting than I’d expected and led on to research into the parchminers’ networks operating across Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth century, especially that of the Jewish parchminers whose work is best documented for Avignon during the third quarter of the fourteenth century.

Two points in particular were of interest: one is that manuscripts having the longer measure of 225mm are* chiefly Jewish works and not only ones originating in the south-western Mediterranean, but in the Greek-speaking Aegean.

*within the British Library’s collection of mss dated 1250-1420 AD

My posts published through voynichimagery on this topic were: ‘Dimensions 160mm x 225 mm’ (Mar 6, 2015); ‘Dimensions and Proportions Brit.Lib. Mss 1340-1450 AD’ (20th June, 2013); a focus on Brit.Lib. MS Harley 623 – ‘Dimensions and Places’ (10th June, 2013). The posts cover both membrane and paper.

Points of interest were that (i) membrane sheets were subject to standardisation in some regions of Europe with dimensions for membrane and paper being brought into alignment and (ii) evidence exists for researching further the question of whether the Voynich dimensions’ agreeing so closely with those for certain non-Latin papers may be evidence that the parchminer rather than the person commissioning the copying is responsible for the present manuscript’s dimensions – that is, the dimensions of the text-block. Here, needless to say, I had to consult any recent studies of the pecia system.

*summaries of all the above research were published through voynichimagery.

Studying the parchminer’s networks and the text-block’s dimensions (or, more fruitfully relative proportions) had allowed me to resolve the question of why Panofsky said “Spain or somewhere southern with evidence of Jewish-Arabic influence” and to understand that it wasn’t irreconcilable with the opinion of other specialists who concluded the work made in England by one or more Latin scribes.

The work led me think, increasingly, that the flow of the Voynich script, its general if not compete absence of diacritics/cantillation and its evenness was due to interaction with Jewish scribes and more likely Sephardic than Ahkenazi script. It wasn’t a firm conclusion – more an sense of the research’s direction.

And there I left the problem. I’m not a trained codicologist or palaeograper and amateur efforts shouldn’t try to push too far, as I see it.

The best result from that research was the consistency with which three intertwined themes constantly recurred: the regions of Anglo-French culture; the Jews of the Aegean and south-western Mediterranean; the inter-actions of paper and of membrane suppliers in the south-western Mediterranean. This all linked easily with information gained by researching other sections of the manuscript. Perhaps these maps will help clarify why a provenance ‘English’ ‘French’ or ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ aren’t necessarily incompatible. England in France; Majorca in ‘France’.

A note included in ‘Dimensions 225mm x160mm’ reads:

“a leaf (vellum?) described by  as “of Hugh of St.Victor, De sacramentis, II,6:V (Migne, Pat.Lat. 176, col.587D), 225mm. by 160mm., remains of double column, 35 lines in a fine early gothic bookhand, capitals touched in red, still mounted on a binding, France, mid twelfth century” – quoted from a Southeby’s catalogue of 2014

Hugh of St.Victor, who died in 1141, had developed a new system of mnemonics, fully described by Carruthers.

and into ..2022

As a result of looking further into the curious lack of ruled lines in the Voynich manuscript – the ‘difference’ in this case being between some of my earlier observation and description of points of comparison between details in the Voynich map and those in a couple of early cartes marine gridded ‘by the Rose’.

The current question was ‘Why are there no neat, Euclidian geometric forms in the Voynich manuscript?’ Compiling a preliminary reading list for Euclid’s geometry in medieval Europe, I came across this seminal paper by John Murdoch:

  • John E. Murdoch, ‘Euclides Graeco-Latinus: a Hitherto Unknown Medieval Latin Translation of the Elements Made Directly from the Greek’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 71 (1967), pp. 249-302. [JSTOR]

The article can be read online through JSTOR, but here I’ll first repeat that manuscript’s description… Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, Fonds latin 7373, 178 fols., 18 x 27 cm., vellum, 13thC AD.

Then note that Murdoch attributes its making to ‘northern Spain/southern France’.

and finally show an example of what Murdoch describes as an ‘artificial humanist hand’ but which I prefer to consider a proto-humanist hand, one reflecting that fusion of Sephardic, Greek and (to a lesser extent) Latin scribal traditions:

So altogether, I think I have now a better idea of why none raised objection to a thirteenth-century English provenance. Leaves of vellum were being produced in the thirteenth century which came from the Anglo-French or ‘Norman’ regions, in which there were Jewish communities involved in a Greek-to-Latin translation movement and in the making and distributing of both membrane and paper for manuscript production. Only Panofsky had immediate second thoughts – because he knew you don’t get ‘shapely’ female forms in the west until somewhat later than the thirteenth century.

Even then, though, you don’t find in western art images of females having over-large heads, small high breasts, very thin arms, and heavy thighs but very thin, sometimes almost bone-thin shanks. It’s an odd combination but – to answer another research question – no, not altogether unknown. Here’s one example of images using similar forms as an established habit (and notice the ‘armoured’ fish. This isn’t the only region or period we find comparable forms, but there aren’t many.