O’Donovan notes #5. Selecting your sources.

c. 2,000 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Reminder these ‘Notes’ are mainly for people unused to researching in a cross-disciplinary area of study; who want to avoid repeating Voynich studies’ past mistakes, and who would like to begin from a foundation more solid than guesswork-as-theory.

SO now – having thought long and hard about your own strengths and weaknesses, your natural talents and trained skills, and found some specific question that appeals to you, it’s time to compile a list of material that will give your effort as solid a grounding as possible and help you avoid wasting time on re-inventing wheels.

The more precise the question you want to tackle, the more detailed will be the material you’ll need to have under your belt before you begin.

Suppose for example you were to take up the ‘ten-month-calendar’ question, side-stepping interference from Voynich theorists trying to suggest you’re asking ‘unnecessary’ questions. There are two questions here, one more difficult than the other. The more difficult question is why certain months are doubled. One might first consider lunar calendars which often had intercalary months to bring them into line with the solar year. There are also liturgical calendars which had optional schemes for (e.g.) years in which Easter did, or didn’t, fall in a given month. But that’s just an example. It would be a mistake to restrict your exploration to any one region or period, if the aim is to put the Voynich calendar in its proper context and learn more of its original home. It has to be remembered that we don’t know where, or when, the calendar diagrams were first given their form.*

*The central emblems are a different question, because a a number of display characteristics and attitudes distinctly different from the main part of these diagrams.

I don’t recommend relying on wiki articles or Voynich-specific materials for your foundational reading. The question is about calendars and intercalated, doubled or alternative months, so you’ll need to see what is already known about such things and that means reading the opinion of scholars who’ve specialised in that area.

Don’t try to wing it. If you haven’t time or opportunity to access specialist studies or fairly high-tech databases, it would be better to pick another question.

You might look at the easier question of why the calendar has been reduced to a ten-month period. Here again, look out for interference in the form of ‘top-of-the-head’ bits of imagining by theorists who don’t like to see people asking questions and doing work that might show up a flaw in their preferred theory. Any question to which there’s not an answer able to stand up to (non-Voynich) peer-review is a question still deserving investigation.

To be sure that it hasn’t been treated in depth already, you will have to survey past Voynich writings and see if anyone has asked the ‘doubled months’ question and answered it from something better than guesswork or an intention to support some theoretical narrative. Test their assumptions, the range and depth of their evidence adduced, and also test the writers’ balance.

One way to do this is to look at the writer’s bibliography – does it look as if they’ve done enough background study themselves? Another way is to see who they, themselves, name-check. If the only names they mention are cronies, wiki articles and theory-supporting material, it’s not a good sign.

Here you will encounter a major difference between the standards of documentation expected in the pragmatic sciences as against the higher standards expected in the critical sciences.

It’s a difference of which many Voynich writers appear to be unaware, which means that when someone whose training has been in the pragmatic sciences (chemistry, cryptography, computer sciences etc.) attempts to produce material touching on the critical sciences (history, art history, iconographic analysis etc.), they often produce material that seems pretty woeful in its lack of evidence, slack attitudes to citing precedents, thin and biased bibliographies and so on.

There’s a good reason for the difference, though.

In one sense, the pragmatic sciences are less demanding than are the critical sciences, because if you’re working a problem, you’re normally working from a basis of data that has already been independently tested and verified, and which can still be subjected to verification independently of any previous hypothesis or theory.

Darwin’s birds were real birds; to establish that they were real and not a product of Darwin’s imagination, poor memory, poor range of knowledge, mis-perception or were pseudo-facts invented to give his theory a better impression of plausibility, you didn’t have to start by subscribing to any theory about them, including Darwin’s. Their existence was objective fact. You could ask the simple question, ‘Is that true’ about his description of those creatures and find a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

But the critical sciences – which include most of the subjects bearing on questions raised about a medieval manuscript – aren’t like that.

Once more, SirHubert put it best when he addressed cryptographers:

.. breaking ciphers is all about testing hypotheses and finding the consistent solution, of which there will be only one. Historical research doesn’t admit of one neat solution and works very differently.

“SirHubert” – comment to ciphermysteries, (December 10, 2013)

When you find a combination of historical and scientific matter, the usual rule is to follow the stricter rules for documentation that apply in the critical sciences. You must show by citing precedent studies that you are aware of them, and by referring to more than one point of view that you have formed a balanced opinion on a given topic. This is done in the body of the text, in the bibliography and in footnotes whose purpose is to answer some additional question likely to arise for the reader.

The aim of scholarly apparatus (bibliography and footnotes) is not to convince a reader to accept your opinion, but to provide them the means to consider your work critically. They are entitled to know what background work you’ve done, where you got your information, and whether you have dealt fairly with previous work by other scholars, with the material itself, and with the core question.

For people trained in the pragmatic sciences, it is quite common to refer only to the specific sources which provided data and methodology for the specific paper or essay, and to include only sources which verify data used in that paper and support the paper’s conclusions or theory.

But in terms of the critical sciences that’s just not good enough. Which is probably why so many Voynicheros produce material which would not survive for a minute if exposed to the heat of external scholarly review.

So how can you decide if a Voynich writer’s work is good enough to add to your own initial reading list, the foundation on which you intend to build?

It’s easiest to give an example of a computer scientist whose work shows both range and balance even if its actual documentation seems a bit sparse at first.

IN August of last year, Julian Bunn wrote an essay, published through his blog, on the subject of cipherwheels and the Voynich text.

It was the fifth post in a series and if you’re interested in cryptography and statistical studies of Voynichese, I suggest you pause long enough to read his post before reading the rest of mine.

Julian Bunn, ‘The Wheels hit a bump’, Computational Attacks on the Voynich Manuscript (blog), August 22nd., 2021.

A most important question which any reader is bound to ask of a writer is “What first suggested this idea to you?”

If the answer is ‘It just came to me’ or ‘It is a theory’ or they say nothing but adopt a pose of hauteur, then you’re entitled to consider their argument to be, in the most literal sense, base-less.

Julian does answer that question, because readers can follow the train of thought through the preceding four posts in that same series. In reverse order, they are:

I don’t think Julian will object to my describing him as a ‘Voynich traditionalist’ in the general sense, but as you’ll see he doesn’t admit, or blank, other research according to whether it does or doesn’t conform to a preferred theoretical narrative.

Bunn’s bibliography might look a bit sparse, but the text shows that he has studied carefully both the methods of statistical analysis in the broader context, and earlier studies by other Voynich writers.

He can appreciate and acknowledge Jorge Stolfi’s statistical studies, though I’ve never seen any suggestion that he agrees with Stolfi’s conclusion that Voynichese was an inner Asian language (Stolfi suggested perhaps Jurchen). Again, though I’ve not seen Emma May Smith campaign for adoption of any theoretical narrative, Bunn easily and naturally refers to her work as a linguist. So that indicates an honest and balanced attitude and while Bunn might just add a link to another researcher’s work, this has become usual for the sciences.

If I were researching some question about historically appropriate cipher-methods, Bunn’s work would be included in my preliminary bibliography.

Whether his findings are right, wrong, or a bit of each is a different matter. The work is solidly based, fairly documented, shows balance and range (within limits) and Bunn is plainly no theory-fanatic.

His work aims at making a contribution to our understanding of Beinecke MS 408.

There is another type of Voynich writing which is the antithesis of the ‘contribution’ sort. I think of it as aiming only to puff up a Voynichero’s self-image – wanna-be ‘owners of‘ the study.

Ideally, now, I’d find an example to contrast with Bunn’s study, and one which also talks about cipher-wheels, Grove words and word-distribution but I haven’t the taste for it, so I’ll instead quote someone who has expressed better than I can how it feels to read material of that kind.

“What particularly frustrates me is that …there are plenty of ways Voynich researchers can make genuine progress towards understanding what is going on: but ..they instead persist in trying to airball their own personal Voynich match-winner from the other end of the basketball court. They seem seduced by the glamour of being The One Who Solved The Voynich, instead of getting on with the graft of making a difference to what we know

I still think it a pity that the moderator of a certain forum was lobbied to gag discussion of methodology, and did so without so much as taking a vote on the subject.

Ignorance of appropriate method is one reason that so much that is produced by Voynich writers presents the wider world with an image of the study as foolish, dishonest and generally ill-informed when it comes to those subjects which belong to the critical- rather than the pragmatic sciences.

These are why Jacques Guy’s remarks made almost twenty years ago remain true today:

Much of what has been written on the subject [of this manuscript] would have been laughed out of court under normal circumstances. Why it has not been is another enigma.

Jacques Guy, ‘Folly Follows the Script: the Voynich Manuscript’, Times Higher Education Supplement, September 17, 2004.

In the next post, I’ll outline ways to weigh the worth of comments made about images in the manuscript using the criteria of an analytical-critical approach.

Just remember the basic issue – a reader is entitled to ask of anything you assert about this manuscript. “Is that true?” and is also entitled to an informed answer to that question.

As a rule of thumb, I downgrade the value of assertions made by any person who relies more on their imagination than on research; any person who tries to suggest that to even to accept that fundamental question, let alone to provide an honest answer for it, is beneath their dignity. Reputable scholars just don’t do that.

Expert opinion vs materials science 4

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, give Brumbaugh some credit for keenness in observation.  As I write this, I see that I may cite him as precedent for noting as Dana Scott, and then I would later do, that the Voynich ‘aries’ are drawn as goats, not sheep, for he wrote in another paper the paper above that they are “[as] much like a goat as like a ram…”. See Robert S. Brumbaugh,’The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150.  (p.147)..  That the same observation had to be made independently in 1976, and (by Dana) about thirty years later, and again by me forty and more years afterwards can be attributed to two things: first, that a goat did not fit the usual theories and secondly the ‘groundhog day’ phenomenon which sees little accounting for precedence – an error which becomes exponential.  Today (in August 2019), the fact is being absorbed and repeated (if not explained) in a number of blog-posts and chat-rooms.  (Note corrected and expanded –  19thAugust 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“.. breaking ciphers is all about testing hypotheses and finding *the* consistent solution, of which there will be only one. Historical research doesn’t admit of one neat solution and works very differently.”

SirHubert” in a comment to Ciphermysteries, December 10, 2013)

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

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

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