O’Donovan notes #6h: Appreciation and critique.

c.1600 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Just as there is no one ‘Science’ so there is no one approach to ‘Art history’.

But just as a biologist and a geologist may have common ground and areas in which their disciplines interact, so writings about pictures may have points of connection though differing pretty widely in their angle of approach.

One type of art history is popularist ‘Art appreciation‘. It aims to help people look more understandingly and approvingly on a given work, or style.

It tends towards a pleasant, informal almost gossipy style and as a rule will include quite a lot of biographical tid-bits. It certainly will refer to some historical matters, but the commentator is also likely, in this style, to float some of his or her personal guesses and ideas without providing evidence in proof. It’s more or less the ‘who’ of art history – about interesting characters producing individual works and personal ideas. That style is the norm for televised programs, guided tours, and many (not all) such matter you’ll find on Utube.

Art criticism can be no less appreciative, but aims at a more technical commentary. It’s about evaluating the merits and the deficiencies of a given work, genre or period. It too is a branch of art history and one which lays more emphasis on historical background and cultural environment including discussion of literary allusions and so forth. Its more about how people thought about their world; how a person thought about his work; how well or badly the image was realised. For convenience, then, we can describe this as the ‘how’ style.

Iconographic analysis includes art history but not so much of the ‘art appreciation’ sort. its primary aim is not to inculcate appreciation for art in a general audience, but to know how and why a given image or artefact has just the form it does, using the materials it does. I suppose you might call it art history of the ‘why’ type because it seeks objectively verifiable answers to questions of the ‘why’ kind – such as ‘Why are this figure’s hands clasped?’ Why is the figure’s clothing represented as it is?’ ‘What is the intended significance, if any, of that line around its neck?’ ‘Why are the hands so much smaller than the face?’ For such questions, answers are not plucked from the air; nor are guesses treated as items of faith. You have to know. That takes work. Sometimes less, sometimes more work – but anyone claiming all answers lie already within their own head (which is what the two-eyes-and-commonsense school of Voynich non-thought implies) hasn’t even thought through their own proposition.

To illustrate the difference between the analytical method and what has become the standard approach of Voynich traditionalists, I’ll offer an analogy rather than the ideas of any one Voynich writer, past or present.

So – suppose the object pictured here (left) had turned up in an old trunk, in an even older Italian building.

Suppose too that the finder discovered with it a seventeenth century letter reporting, (but not lending support to) a bit of gossip alleging this had been owned by one of England’s Tudor rulers, Elizabeth I.

In Voynichland, things would have then developed along these lines.

One theorist (probably English) finds this English-Tudor idea easy to believe – that is, plausible- then adopts it without further thought as their ‘theory’. On no better basis than that, they turn to trying to persuade others to believe the same. They assert as proof for the theory that Tudors wore flat caps and that what she’s wearing around her neck is a string of river pearls – adding lots of documentation about Tudors and how they wore pearls obtained from the Thames.

where fresh-water pearls were in fact obtained in Tudor times.

However another individual is then gripped, as if by divine inspiration, with utter conviction that the figure is Irish and says “Look, she’s wearing a torque; so she’s Irish”.

Another has an Italian theory and, after sneering at the other two, claims that to describe it as Italian is only logical, since it was found in Italy and that sixteenth-century Italians also wore flat caps.

All of them agree, however, in liking an ‘all-Christian-European’ theory so assert in unison that the figure is obviously Christian, because as they see it the figure’s hands are clasped in prayer and (as they all think) none but Christians clasped hands in prayer. The ‘Christian hands’ notion then becomes something everyone says and for that reason alone is elevated to the status of dogma.

But someone with a Turkish theory now comes along and says the Christian idea is wrong because the figure’s shoes have turned-up toes and everyone knows that Turkish slippers do this, adding that Turks might wear flat-topped caps if they felt like it, and it isn’t necessary to interpret clasped hands as praying.

Those having a ‘German-ic’ sort of theory say, instead, that big-bosomed women are typically Germanic and show examples from none but sixteenth-century German books to ‘prove’ big-bosomed women with hands clasped in prayer are ‘obviously’ German because you find them in so many German books.

Everyone, regardless of their regional theory, produces pictures in support, while ignoring all other times and regions – apparently holding some notion that whatever occurs in their preferred environment and time can have occurred in no other.

This last is, by the way, the most prevalent error made by present-day promoters of the German-ish theory.

In the feverish hunt, now, to have their own theory triumph over all others, the theorists move from forming theories to forming theories about theories, oblivious to the fact that they’ve stopped researching the artefact itself.

After some decades (about 9 decades in the case of the Voynich manuscript) a peculiar atmosphere arises in which, without conscious argument made, an idea circulates which suggests that the artefact will become whatever the victorious theory says it is, regardless of the range, nature or objective quality of evidence offered as support for that theory.

It’s a good start to have two eyes, a desire to learn and a rational mind. but a rational mind says that if the Voynich drawings were so easily read that it can be done by persons having nothing but two eyes and whatever they call ‘commonsense’, then the drawings would have been understood at least half a century ago.

You had Erwin Panofsky comment on the manuscript in 1932. A keeper of manuscripts in England commented on the manuscript before 1960. The manuscript was in the Beinecke Library’s collection at Yale before 1970.

What interfered, in every case, with the normal work of dating and placing images in a medieval manuscript was some Voynichero’s asserting their theory indisputable – Wilfrid’s Roger Bacon theory, O’Neill’s new world theory, the Friedmans’ all-European theory.. and so on.

In the wider world, this isn’t how it’s done.

There are objective criteria which apply and which mean that regardless of when or where it came to light again, the figure providing our analogy would be assigned its proper time and place of origin. As it was in 1927.

Notice the figure’s over-large head compared with its tiny hands?

That the artefact was discovered in its original home certainly helped curators, but such work is still regularly needed as artefacts turn up which have been displaced as a result of natural or of man-made disasters, or because traded or for some other reason.

Amateurs, and here I mean amateurs in Voynich studies, do not realise how narrowly an image can be placed and dated. The assumption is widespread that medieval images without accompanying text become meaningless and must be assigned their origins by means of historical fictions as ‘theories’. These ideas are simply wrong. There are people at work as I write whose chief activity is in dating and placing images formerly cut from some medieval manuscript. These, for example, come from fourteenth century north-eastern Italy.

Specialists draw on a wide range of scholarly studies, past and present, and across subjects as diverse as the history of technology, archaeology, art history, materials science, comparative cultural studies, comparative religious and secular literatures and more.

Meme-rs get away with saying so many brainless things that I’ve almost stopped wondering why so few of those who hear them seen to realise how brainless they are. “All you need are two eyes and commonsense” is among the most stupid, but they are all just wishful thinking. In that case, the memer’s subtext reads “I wish I needn’t learn anything to claim I’m an expert on the Voynich drawings”.

That those initials were made in fourteenth century Italy, or that the female figure was made in the 5th-4thC BC is not information produced by someone’s inventing a bit of historical-fiction and calling it a theory. It wasn’t any product of ‘commonsense’ but of prior study and real experience.

Of course it is understandable that people who haven’t had any relevant formal studies or experience will have nothing to turn to at first but whatever their memory might suggest as a ‘nearest fit’, but it is not so easy to understand how they could imagine their own ignorance sufficient to answer every question presented by the Voynich manuscript’s problematic drawings.

What Voynich studies really needs is a counterpart for Tim O’Neill, dedicated to exploding the sort of pseudo-historical ideas that spread by common consent and common gossip in defiance of both reason and evidence.

Note: in speaking of Voynich theories, I’m not speaking about cryptographic or linguistic theories.

Tim O’Neill writes a blog entitled ‘History for Atheists‘. He also has a podcast and a video channel.

Cipher versus language – assertions and bundles

Note added May 6th., 2021.

During my year’s absence, wordpress seems to have made an arbitrary decision to remove the black arrow-marker pointing to paragraphs of supplementary data, text or details, replacing that arrow with a simple mark of elipsis (—-).  In some of my posts, half the information was found by clicking on the arrows, so readers are advised now to click on any line of that sort. In some cases, it may be my ornamental division between parts of the post, but now in other cases it will reveal much more information.  One of these days, if I can find the time, I’ll go through all the 50-plus posts and put in some other graphic, though it won’t be clickable.

(that’s just a mark of division between the note and the main text)

_____________________ (ordinary text-division line)

In the ‘About’ page, I explained a habit of ‘Wilfrid-style’ narratives.  By surrounding a baseless assertion with  distracting bits-and-pieces from history, scrutiny of the principal item is avoided.   I compared this to the way the case-moth uses twigs  to pass detection.

The phenomenon in Voynich studies is perfectly illustrated by the question of whether or not the Voynich text is in cipher.  That idea is found in Wilfrid’s first public description of the manuscript, and was repeated in the paper which he presented in 1921.  Yet the notion had no foundation in fact or preliminary research.  It is nothing more than a flight of Wilfrid’s imagination – as he says:

And that’s all there was to it.  No research. No alternative possibilities investigated. No process of elimination. No effort to demonstrate the validity of the idea.  Just a bit of kite-flying, plain and simple. Wilfrid lends it dignity by saying that he ‘found’ the text was in cipher – although in fact all he ‘found’ was that he couldn’t read it.

What is extraordinary, though, is not that Wilfrid indulged his imagination in this way, but that his contemporaries immediately adopted the assertion as if were a fact established;  as an item of faith  and apparently did so  without hesitation, scrutiny, demur or any effort to test the idea or to provide it with some formal defence.  This remained the case for almost a hundred years.

Over that period, persons interested in the manuscript included not only interested laymen but persons trained in analytical method and scientific expectations of evidence to inform conclusions. They included academics and cryptographers, medieval historians and specialists in medieval manuscripts.  To see their apparent gullibility – their setting aside their own standards of critical thinking –  is astonishing.  But that’s what happened, and this item of faith hardened into a standard ‘doctrine’ because the ‘ciphertext’ immediately became a chief focus for interest and discussion.  Until very recently, to so much as suggest the text might be of another kind was to risk ridicule and animosity  – especially during the last decades of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first.

Thanks to Jim Reeds who compiled a bibliography of Voynich writings composed between 1914-2001, you can follow the course of the manuscript’s study through those years, and see how the great majority focus exclusively on ‘cracking the cipher text’.

Formal arguments in favour.  

There may have been  earlier efforts to provide the ‘ciphertext’ idea with a formal argument in its favour but the first of which I know wasn’t published until 2011, when Pelling put his view into a  blog-post:

I won’t comment on that argument because linguistics and cryptography are not my field.  However, in 2016, E.M. Smith was trying to get a clear statement of why the ‘ciphertext’ idea was so widely held.  The responses received display a lessening of faith in the idea.  This is a selection of the more salient comments.

Comments selected from thread  ‘The Voynich Manuscript is a cipher because…..? ‘, Voynich.ninja forum (online).  Comments to the forum are publicly visible at the time of writing.

Job: It can be difficult to separate a cipher from a constructed language. Maybe a better question would be, why is the Voynich Manuscript not a natural language? (February 15th, 2016)

Emma: It’s really not better to phrase it that way. I want positive reasons for the Voynich manuscript being a cipher. If folks’ beliefs truly boil down to, “it’s a cipher because I don’t think it’s a language”, then I think the whole side of cipher research on the VM has a serious problem.(February 15th, 2016)

Sam G: As of 2016, nobody has ever developed a cipher capable of replicating even a fraction of the VMS text’s properties, despite the enormous advances in cryptography that have been made since the VMS was produced, and the fact that some of the best cryptographers in the world have worked specifically on the VMS.(February 20th, 2016)

 Anton I would like to mention some arguments in favour of the cipher hypothesis [sic.] *… 1) Here and there the text bears evidence of having been put down not in a single pass. ….  2) There is that curious phenomenon of “gallows coverage” there…..  3) There is at least one label consisting of only one character. … (March 23rd, 2016)

Emma: Of your three points in favour of a cipher, I agree that point 2) is good. But point 1) is ambiguous, and point 3) is incredibly thin.(March 24th, 2016)

Note: *the ‘ciphertext’ was not ever an ‘hypothesis’. From the first it was no more than an assertion, adopted on faith.

See also:

E.M. Smith, ‘Why the Voynich Text is not Linguistic’, Agnostic Voynich (blog) January 5th, 2016

The most reasonable explanation for the apparent gullibility displayed by highly intelligent, professionally competent, and formally trained analytical minds over the decades after 1914 is, I think, the skill with which Wilfrid bundled his ‘cipher text’ idea. It was that which apparently froze his readers’ critical intelligence over this item and several others which also became items of ‘Voynich doctrine’.

Wilfrid-style “bundling”

Between 1912-2012 the three most common topics driving discussion of the manuscript were:

  • (a) the ‘cipher-text’;
  • (b) the ‘Roger Bacon’ tale or that of some other posited  ‘author’.
  • (c) a presumption that the manuscript can only be worthy of study if it is an expression of western Christian (‘Latin’) culture.

None of these notions or presumptions was soundly based, to judge from Wilfrid’s own account.  Yet all three became cornerstones of ‘Voynich doctrine’ and to as late as 2011 all energies remained focused on ‘breaking the cipher’ and on identifying the (possibly-imaginary) ‘author’.   To this latter notion, and the bias towards Latin European culture I attribute the fact that Wilfrid seems never to have asked, nor to have been asked, the most obvious question of all, ‘Why can it not be unreadable simply because it’s in a foreign language?’

I am not arguing, here, that the text is not in cipher or that it is in a foreign language.  I’m considering the impact on the nature and direction of the study of  such adoption of ideas on the basis of faith alone, and their hardening into determinedly-maintained ‘doctrines’.

Here’s the origin of those other two ideas. They are part of Wilfrid’s bundle for the ‘ciphertext’ notion:

Note: Wilfrid again merely asserts and implies that he is able to define the nature of the manuscript’s content as ‘natural history’ in the European tradition. He has considered no other possible explanation for the curious style of the plant-drawings for example, though it takes only a moment’s reflection to list several other possibilities – such as (e.g.) designs for textiles, or murals, or ornamental stonework – or a non-European origin. A habit of adopting an authoritative air and unreasonable certainty are other characteristics of the ‘Wilfrid-style’ which became the norm when this manuscript was the subject.

‘Natural history’ enciphered ..?

I’ll return in another post to treat in more detail  Wilfrid’s assertions about the nature of the text. Here it is enough to say the idea depends, yet again, on nothing but personal impressions, lack of critical investigation, and appeals to deeply rooted contemporary assumptions.

His only explanation for the text’s being (supposedly) enciphered depends on his audience’s acquaintance with a particular – now discarded – idea of medieval history: the notion that the church and ‘science’ (in the generic) were naturally opposed to one another.  It was an idea propounded and elaborated during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth: first by a chap named Draper and then by another named White.  The idea still lingers in popular imagination, but its refutation I’ll leave to Thony Christie and Tim O’Neill.

The point is that without the Draper-White thesis, the grounds for imagining that Bacon (or anyone else) would encipher a book about natural history are annulled.

  •  Thony Christie, ‘Perpetuating the Myths’, Renaissance Mathematicus (blog) May 17th  2017. Dismisses the Draper-White thesis in discussing Giordano Bruno and others.

The Condemnations of 1210-1277 that he [‘Skep’] refers to in his mangled reference to Roger Bacon above actually illustrate this point quite neatly. If, as “Skep” claims, the medieval Church stifled proto-scientific inquiry so completely we should have no trouble finding this reflected in clear statements by the Church delineating what was off limits for inquiry. After all, it’s not like the medieval Church was shy about making its position on what could or could not be believed or questioned clear. And it seems “Skep” thinks the Condemnations of 1210-1277 represent just such statements.

But do they? To begin with, if they do we would expect these statements to be made in some kind of proclamation that applied to the whole of Christendom: in, say, a canon of an ecumenical council or at least a Papal bull. But no such statements exist. The 1210-1277 Condemnations, on the contrary, are very specific and highly local in their application: they apply only to the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris and nowhere else. This is hardly surprising, since they arose out of an academic squabble between that university’s Faculty of Theology and the upstarts in the Faculty of Arts, who the theologians thought were intruding on their hallowed turf. Not only did they not apply to anyone outside of the Arts Faculty or the University of Paris, there is little evidence of them having much impact on anyone or any other institution at all. On the contrary, in 1210 rival universities seized on them gleefully and tried to use them to lure students away from Paris, with the University of Toulouse advertising itself as a place to “hear the books of Aristotle which were forbidden at Paris”. When it comes to student recruitment to universities, not much has changed.

But not only did these condemnations apply only to Paris’ Arts Faculty and have no effect at all elsewhere, but they were also very specifically aimed at ideas found in the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle that were brought back to Catholic Europe from Islamic Spain and Sicily in the preceding century. The 1210 Condemnation was broad in its restriction, but still specific to particular works by Aristotle:

“Neither the books of Aristotle on natural philosophy or their commentaries are to be read at Paris in public or secret, and this we forbid under penalty of excommunication.”

To be fair, in 1210 those “new” works by Aristotle and the mainly Muslim commentaries on them did represent a substantial portion of all “natural philosophy”. Which could explain why the 1210 Condemnation was … almost completely ignored. By 1255 all of Aristotle’s works then available plus a range of commentaries and expansions of his ideas were not only widely read in Paris but were prescribed texts in the Arts Faculty. So much for the terrible restrictive power of the medieval Church. With the total failure of the 1210 Condemnation in restricting those naughty Arts professors, in 1270 the Paris Faculty of Theology tried again.