Expert opinion vs materials science 4

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Specialist opinions – notes to Panofsky’s comments of 1932.

Header Illustration: detail from an astrolabe dated c.1400, showing month-names in Picard orthography.  illustrated by David A. King in Ciphers of the Monks: a forgotten notation system (2001). See also clip at the end of this post.
Two posts previous:

– – NOTES to Panofsky’s 1932 assessment, grouped by subject —

Notes  5, 6, 7, & 11    re: ‘Spanish’/”provincial French’ calendar month-names. Occitan; Catalan; Judeo-Catalan)

IN 1932, Panofsky said the manuscript seemed to him to be from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and that “the names of the months … undoubtedly by a later hand, seem to suggest Spanish”; while in 1954, answering Friedman’s Q.7, he described those (later-added) calendar’s month-names as ‘provincial French’.  The two are not necessarily incompatible, and while it has become the custom today to suppose the month-names  Occitan, southern dialects – on which I concentrate here – include a range of  Occitan-affected variants, merging with Catalan-related forms near the border and – as example – in old Genoese.  The map shows the general range for various Occitan-related dialects. I would also mention that while here I am only concerned to elucidate Panofsky’s thinking, some researchers (e.g.  Thomas Sauvaget), do not think the month-names are in a southern dialect at all. There is also the curious, recurring hint of some link between the month-names and (northern) Picardy or at least to some PIcard scribe/s living c.1400.  The last element, so-far unexplained, occurs again in my last Comment in this post.

For any revisionist who might be interested, the dialect and orthography of the month-names still deserves careful study and I add a starting-list of references. However, as I said, this post is about Panofsky’s localisation of the manuscript. and his view of the month-names.

Dialect map courtesy of Quora

Pelling in 2009, thought the month-names’ dialect might be that of Toulouse, while in 2011  a Catalan named Arthur Sixto put the case for Catalan.

  •  ‘Old Occitan‘ – brief wiki article recommended for its bibliography.
  • Notes on ‘Occitan’ included in  ‘Military cryptanalysts: Panofsky’s responses of 1954‘ (January 19th., 2019) in Comments to Q 7.
  • Pierre Bec, ‘Occitan’ in Rebecca Posner and John N. Green, Language and Philology in Romance (1982).  pp.115-130. Technical, philological. Good maps.
  • a resource for comparing medieval French orthographies: Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (1330-1500)
  • for Anglo-Norman (which gives  e.g. septembre; setembre, setumbre).

Spanish dialects affected by Arabic in regions also affected by Catalan and Genoese see.

re: Genoese (locally called zeneize).

  • Carrie E. Beneš (ed.),  A Companion to Medieval Genoa, (Vol. 15 in the series: Brill’s Companions to European History).
  • Schiaffini, A. (1929). Il mercante genovese nel medio evo e il suo linguaggio. Genoa, Italy: SIAG

the reference to Schiaffini I owe to Franz Rainer, ‘The Language of the Economy and Business in the Romance Languages‘, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics.

The case for Catalan –  Sixto, Ridura and Erica


I’ve quoted Artur Sixto‘s comment before, but here for convenience:

“To me the months [names] seem to correspond slightly better to Catalan than Occitan. June for instance, spelled with “ou” corresponds to Catalan pronunciation, in French writing. “ny” would be Catalan relative to Occitan “nh” or French/Italian “gn”. So the person might have ties with the North of Catalonia (and could have a French influence) …. Interestingly, many Jews in Catalonia spoke Catalanic, a Catalan dialect close to Shuadit, i.e. Judaeo-Provençal (i.e. Judaeo-Occitan).”

-comment made to ciphermysteries (February 17, 2011).

Soon after, Sergei Ridura left a further comment (February 17, 2011). Translated, it reads in part..“It is possible that MS-408 was owned by some Catalan, possibly in Naples, since … there is a word that is more typical of Italian than  Occitan..”

Why Ridura chose Naples, I don’t know. I should have thought Genoa more likely, since Genoese is recognised as having more in common with Occitan and Catalan than with Italian. In addition, Genoa had constant connection with the Occitan and Catalan-speaking centres as a consequence of Genoa’s monopoly of that sea-route, which then extended around the peninsula to England and Flanders.  in the map below, Genoa’s routes in orange; Venice’s in dark green.

detail of map from Farrellworldcultures wiki site

However – Ridura’s comment, and Sixto’s were made to this post at ciphermysteries.

So again, thoughts shared by Erica that Pelling published on Nov. 24th., 2018 under a post about ‘quire numbers‘.(link is to a copyright image from Pelling’s book of 2006).

Here’s what Erica had said:

Nick, I think that what you call a 9 is actually an “a”. This seems to correspond with the way we abbreviate numerals in Spanish: (I start with quire 4) 4ta (cuarta), 5ta (quinta), 6ta (sexta), 7ma (septima) 8va (octava), 9na (novena), 10ma (decima) etc. The “a” indicates that the noun being modified by the numeral adjective is feminine. If it was masculine, you would use an o as in cuarto, quinto, sexto, etc (4to, 5to, 6to). I think the 9 shaped a is an “a” occurring in a final position in a word. This same symbol is also found throughout the manuscript’s cipher alphabet (also almost always occurring in a final position?) Something to think about. Also note that the 8th quite reads 8ua. Back then “u” was used instead of “v”…..

comment to ciphermysteries (November 24, 2018). (Pelling’s interpretation of the non-standard forms is that while thinking in Latin, the scribe “was actually writing … an ugly mixture of Arabic numerals and late medieval -9 Latin abbreviations: pm9, 29, 39, 49, 5t9, 6t9, 7m9, 8u9, 9n9, 10m9, 11m9, [12 missing], 139, 149, 159, [16 missing], 179, [18 missing], 19, 20.”

Note: I have always found Pelling’s site a valuable resource when hunting the origin and/or precedents for a well-disseminated idea. HIs posts are helpful, not least for their accurate documentation- which can help limit the ‘ground-hog day’ phenomenon – and because Pelling still allows opinions to be aired that imply doubt about his views.  (Not that his belief in free expression inhibits his own!). Pelling’s site, and  Reeds’ mailing list and bibliography, have proven most helpful to mapping the origin of current opinions about the manuscript, and I expect to refer to them often.
  • Variant forms within Catalan. See e.g. ‘Mallorcan, Menorcan, Ibizan and Formenteran‘, Rio Wang (Oct. 7th., 2010)
  • and for other mentions of Catalan and Occitan, of course, consult Jim Reeds’ mailing list (see cumulative bibliography Page).

Before any discussion about Erica’s thought could occur, it was so vigorously rejected by another contributor that she withdrew it, apologetically.  It happens too often that a potentially interesting line of thought is being quashed in this way, as if whatever does not serve a currently-popular theory becomes  “off topic” by definition.

Obviously, a Spanish- or a  ‘Catalan’ discussion might develop along lines which raise doubt about other theories – honestly and deeply believed by those promoting them – but  silencing a discussion by adopting a tone of absolute authority is pure ‘Wilfridism’. In this case, what are usually seen as ‘quire marks’ in Latin style may be so, and are widely supposed so, but it is not beyond question. And, after all,  Erica is Spanish, just as Sixto and Ridura are Catalan. Presumably they have reasons for their views, ones which may be considered and reasonably debated, but others deserve the chance to engage with them.

Apropos of quire signatures, it’s certainly ‘off-topic’ here, but it should be noted that their location and style differs between regions and periods, and so they too serve as aids to provenance. I have chosen this extract because written by the Beinecke librarian (later Vice-Provost) who wrote the catalogue entry for Beinecke MS 408. The first edition of her book appeared in 1991.

Note on Andorra – spoke Catalan before Catalonia at large:

“While the Catalan Pyrenees were embryonic of the Catalan language at the end of the 11th century Andorra was influenced by the appearance of that language where it was adopted by proximity and influence even decades before it was expanded by the rest of the Crown of Aragon”.

The local population based its economy during the Middle Ages in livestock and agriculture, as well as in furs and weavers. Later, at the end of the 11th century, the first iron foundries began to appear in Northern Parishes like Ordino, much appreciated by the master artisans who developed the art of the forges, an important economic activity in the country from the 15th century. wikipedia article.

Ramón Llull the Majorcan, father of literary Catalan.

The speech of Majorca has been recognised as separate from, though related to, Catalan.  Despite this, Lull’s treaties on philosophy, the sciences and poetry have seen him regarded as the father of literary Catalan.

When  ‘name-an-author’ was still an regular aspect of the Voynich manuscript’s study, as it was for a century, several persons (including Petersen) wondered if it might have been written by Ramón Lull. The idea was floated before the NSA’s involvement, but still circulated during those years (1944-1978) and has since re-emerged periodically.


Nothing has ever come of the idea to my knowledge and most discussions involving Llull have been driven by the assumption that the text is enciphered (which may be so, but it is not proven); or that Llull invented an artificial language and/or wrote in cipher (which ideas I’ve never seen supported by evidence);  or by a curious – because anachronistic – focus on the figure of Rudolf II, who as you may know is alleged by just one, fairly insubstantial (and never substantiated) item of second-hand hearsay to have bought our less-than-royal-standard manuscript for a fantastic price at some time between 1583-1612.

We know only that the name of a physician ennobled by Rudolf was at some time inscribed on the manuscript’s first folio. The inscription has never been suggested written in Rudolf’s hand and it is a foolish assumption to suppose that every book owned by anyone coming near Rudolf must once been his.   My (minority) opinion of the ‘Rudolf’ rumour – whose only source is exactly the same as that for the ‘Roger Bacon’ notion – is as Salomon’s judgement on the latter:

short list of Lull-Voynich references
  • from Les Enluminures website (Item sold but images still available online at present)L

RAMON LLULL, Ars brevis, and Ars abbreviata praedicanda, versio latinus II   In Latin, decorated manuscript on paper, Southern Netherlands, c. 1490-1550; and Germany, c. 1490-1520

  • The three references in d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma (open in a new tab to enlarge)

The Ferguson Collection at the University of Scotland includes many of Llull’s works.

Jacques Guy mentioned on the first Voynich mailing list (Wed, 12 Jun 1996) that one Llull MS in that collection was owned by Wilfrid Voynich. Guy lists it correctly as Glasgow University Ferguson MS 192, but the website address he gave is now out of date.  It is currently:

Guy, quoting the catalogue description, dated that manuscript to the 15thC, and noted that the north Italian scribe is named in MS. 76 as “John Visio”.

Lull was a desultory subject in that mailing list, chiefly in relation to themes of artificial language and cipher.

Joao Leao considered him, together with Hildegarde of Bingen (who had also been considered earlier by Manly and Petersen).  See e.g. Leao’s post of 24 Aug 1994.

On Thurs, 30 Oct 1997 Jorge Stolfi mentions that one of Llull’s books contains moveable paper wheels “to help the reader generate word pairs”.

Such forms are sometimes called ‘preaching wheels’ today (cf. Rota Virgili). Their purpose was to aid  retention and retrieval of texts committed to memory – in an age largely reliant on memorisation. Their heyday was the thirteenth century.   On diagrams of this type and Llull – see especially:

  • Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (second, revised and updated second edition 2008) pp. 329-338.

NOTE: It is a reflexive habit for modern Voynicheros to imagine that subtlety and complexity of thought had ‘evolved’ as European culture aged, but this is very far from the reality, and I would strongly recommend for those whose only knowledge of medieval attitudes is passing acquaintance with digitised manuscripts,  that they should read cover-to-cover Carruther’s Book of Memory as a crash-course in medieval Europe’s “ways of seeing”.

Other references:

In general, the English and Scots seem to have cared  most for Llull’s Ordre of Chyvalry, translated and printed by William Caxton from a French version of Ramon Lull’s ‘Le libre del ordre de cavayleria’ together with Adam Loutfut’s Scottish Transcript (British Library, MS Harley 6149), ed. by Alfred T. P. Byles (London: Early English Text Society, 1926), pp. xxvi-xxx [concerns the texSt at ff. 83-109 in Brit.Lib. MS Harley 6149. The foregoing from the British Library catalogue entry].


Note on Judeo-Catalan and Judeo-Occitan/Judeo-French. (and Picard).

There has been some debate about whether Judeo-Catalan existed, a current wiki article (tagged ‘this has multiple issues’) asserts it did not.  I have not looked into the question. though I note the following paper can be downloaded from  If read online, the automatic translator does a fair job if you don’t have Spanish.

entry for ‘‘Cervera’ in the Encyclopaedia Judaica includes the following:

An inventory from 1422 suggests familiarity of Jews with Judeo-Arabic philosophy and Greco-Arabic sciences. That this was typical of Catalan communities in general we can deduce from another library that originated in Perpignan and ended up in Cervera in 1484. The discovery of some sources in Hebrew and Judeo-Catalan has immensely enriched our knowledge of the Jews of Cervera. 

That article has no footnotes; bibliographic references are abbreviated.


An paper published in 1947 suggested that while Jews in medieval France spoke the vernacular as a matter of course, Jews did not necessarily know the Latin scribal conventions.  I include this chiefly for its reference to a Picard in association with an astronomical work (because it has been noted by many since Pelling* first mentioned it, and independently found by more than one later writer  – I can think of Don Hoffmann and the late Stephen Bax offhand – that the closest orthography we have for the Voynich calendar’s month-names occurs on an astronomical instrument made in Picardy and discussed by David King in his Cipher of the Monks: a forgotten notation system. (2001).  I add a clip at the end of this post.

*Pelling first….‘  or so I had thought, but today cannot see a post about it on ciphermysteries.

In 1947 Levy wrote,

There is only one document extant in Old French that is to be attributed to a Jew. At Malines in 1273 Hagin le Juif translated the astrological treatises of Abraham ibn Ezra from Hebrew into French. He did it at the behest of his patron, Henry Bate, who wanted to render it into Latin.  Even so, it was not Hagin who wrote it down. He was forced, by his calligraphical inability [i.e. to write formal Latin style], to dictate the translation to a Christian scribe, Obert de Montdidier. While the language makes this work an integral part of the Judeo-French genre, the dialectal peculiarities reflect the Picard origin of the scribe.

  • from: Raphael Levy, ‘The Background and the Significance of Judeo-French’, Modern Philology, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Aug., 1947), pp. 1-7.
  • On medieval Picard orthography and pronunciation see catalogue commentary to Brit.Lib. MSs Additional 10292, 10293 and 10294.

A reference often mentioned in the scholarly literature, and which discusses the Greek element in Judeo-Catalan is:

  • Paul Wexler, Three Heirs to a Judeo-Latin Legacy: Judeo-Ibero-Romance, Yiddish and Rotwelsch (1988). Wexler does not ascribe this element to the dispersal of Jews from formerly Byzantine Sicily or southern Italy, nor to the often repeated statement that before the revival of Hebrew from purely liturgical language to one in daily use, Greek had been the lingua franca of Mediterranean Jews.

For the very keenest linguists, papers fifteen and sixteen may be of interest, from

  • Yedida K. Stillman, George K. Zucker (eds.), New Horizons in Sephardic Studies (SUNY Press, 2012)


Next post: further notes to Panofsky’s original assessment in 1932.