Convergence, co-incidence and imitation

My first analysis of a folio from the Voynich manuscript took the form of an academic paper (more or less) and was partly published on Nick Pelling’s blog – way back when.

In one sense that paper was a fortnight’s work; in another of half a lifetime.

I identified the Soqotran Dracaena cinnabari on f. 25v – an identification to which I still hold, though these days I should say the image was a composite of this and the Mediterranean plant.

That paper included my reasoning, some critical apparatus and comparative imagery. I explained the nature of mnemonic devices and commented on their inclusion there.

In making that paper I consulted only the primary source and academic works.  Of the secondary Voynich resources I considered only the Beinecke library’s introduction and a wiki article. It was clear that no-one had previously noted any connection to the world beyond the medieval west, nor any place east of the Bosphorus.  (I did not learn of  Stolfi’s work for some time).

So it came as something of a shock when part of the paper went up  – though it would not surprise me now – that the  response was tepid, and that so notable a figure in Voynich research as Philip Neal commented simply that there was ‘nothing original in it.’

As far as I was (and am)  concerned, nothing could have been further from the truth. And the paper, had it appeared in full* would have had its apparatus and partial bibliography in proof. (That it was not is no fault of ciphermysteries, and I later asked that the incomplete paper be deleted; I moved it to an early blog).

But what had happened, as I soon realised, was that a convergence of opinion had been confused for something else: a prior opinion imitated ‘with a twist’. As I have learned since then, it is a common phenomenon in matter published about this manuscript, whether in blogs or in mailing lists, or even in conversations among the smaller sort of groups.

Neal supposed that I must know, as he did from his long years in this field, that a couple of people had identified folio 25v as showing the Mediterranean’s Dracaena,  Dracaena draco.

Now, in the usual way it is a good thing when two people working independently reach similar conclusions about a poorly-provenanced object. It is even better than the kind of artificial agreement which can be forced by the reverence felt for an ‘authoritative voice’ such as those which for a time dictated our understanding of early astronomical science.

Convergence is a sign that the primary evidence itself, being investigated independently by able people, supports the view reached separately by each.

The acid test is whether or not the sources consulted and the chain of reasoning are both acceptable and available.

In blogs about the Voynich this is not often the case.

Most people do not want footnotes and full bibliography in a blog-post and since the holidays have arrived and I’ve stopped writing long, serious, analytical papers here, my readership has risen exponentially ~ an example in point.

So I do sympathise with people who have come to conclusions similar to mine without knowing it; and understand how easily convergence, imitation and co-incidence can be mistaken for one another in this particular area of research.

For the most part, if we  are to focus chiefly on the manuscript and not on various historical hypotheses about the supposed author, it is necessary to rely on comments from readers to address any oversights since it would be a thesis in itself to cover all the different ideas that have been floated over the past century.

Some people become lost in the attempt, and one or two have quite forgotten the manuscript in their efforts to obtain as much information as possible about prior and contemporary researchers.

One of the reasons that I urge people to avoid forming hypotheses is that once formed they become closely identified with their author, and vice versa, making it more difficult for the researcher to adapt their opinions as more information is discovered. In a sense, an hypothesis tends to become an opinion and the opinion in some sense a possession of the individual researcher.

This can have all sorts of ramifications, including a confusion between ‘my’ hypothesis and ‘my’ contributing sources.

So, for example, if I built an argument that the manuscript was a zibaldone, I might treat every other mention of those handbooks as something of an infrigement, unless it was matched by agreement with ‘my’ hypothesis about the manuscript’s authorship.

About the hypothesis as such, a degree of possessiveness is reasonable enough.

SantaColoma’s Drebbel thesis, for example, is one of which he is, or was, rightly possessive because it was entirely his idea.

Similarly, Pelling’s Averlino thesis.

I tend to think of  ‘my’ original contribution a broadening of the chronological and geographical parameters; a first consistent explanation for the method informing the construction of the botanical images; interpretation of f.86v as a map, and the first association of matter in the manuscript with the history and goods of what are often termed the ‘silk’ and ‘spice’ roads.

However: that is quite a different matter from becoming possessive(as has occurred in the past) about the primary source itself let alone possessive about others’ citing similar secondary sources. Those cannot be ‘owned’ by reason of consulting them.

I will admit  that  I was a little disgruntled when I realised, on receiving at last a  copy of Nick Pelling’s Curse of the Voynich, that some researchers may have seen my references to astrolabes and volvelles as little more than a reprise of matter in Pelling’s book.

I plead just cause in feeling miffed, even if it was less than reasonable. :The fact is that I am rather older, and have been interested in such things as astrolabes, volvelles, maritime and monastic instruments and so on for almost forty years.

The subject  is that known as ‘folk-astronomy’  and I’d become involved with its study when it was as  yet a  small and very obscure subject.  (I’ve even tried to obtain, and see printed, a new translation of Gregory of Tours’ work on stars, but the Latin is almost unintelligible – and not only to me).

But then again, why shouldn’t Voynich researchers’ paths of study coincide?

In relation to astronomy, for example, how many ways can the stars be considered?

Apart from mapping and navigation (about which I know a bit), there is time-keeping and calendars on the one hand and prognostication on the other.

The amount of  academic writing available is surely considerable, but standard authorities are generally the same on any list and  parallel research and even parallel views are inevitable. That is what the aim of research is – to independently reach a true idea of the subject, not acquiescence with a personal theory.

But for all the excuses, and rationalisation, it is still disheartening (isn’t it) to find one’s hard (and original) work dismissed.

I’m intending soon  to put up a post about ‘stars and stones’, a post I’ve been meaning to write ever since I wondered first about the likely use of the barrel-patterns to refer to different types of stone (that was an idea raised first on the old blog – about two years ago now, I think).

It is surely possible that, in the meantime,  someone else may have followed up the academic references and the ideas I outlined in that old blogpost but without troubling to mention that fact to me, or in any public forum.

Which makes me wonder if my finally take up that projected topic mightn’t result, once more, in the idea that I have plagiarised my own work!

Avoiding that sort of unnecessary discomfort is the reason that  scholars insist on properly crediting sources, and on being properly acknowledged. Whoever saves an individual additional research time, or provides them with a new direction, and sources for their study, deserves to be acknowledged if only to prevent their being retrospectively suspected of imitating the imitator.

And that – in answer to some queries – is probably why Nick Pelling’s blog though I  describe it as a “Voynich-pedia” contains no entry under my name among the listed researchers.

It is not that my botanical identifications are derived from anyone else’s but that Nick’s blog discusses the Voynich manuscript as one believed a  ‘cipher manuscript’.

On the subject of ciphers, opinions have been offered by other Voynich manuscript researchers, but not by me.

Nor has Nick used my work in his own.

So no acknowledgement required.

The same is true for discussions by others of astrology and western alchemy, neither of which I can see reflected in the imagery and so I do not mention that research.

Otherwise – I ask again – please leave comments  if you think some earlier researcher’s work deserves a mention it has not received here.

And perhaps do the same on my behalf as occasion warrants.


One Reply to “Convergence, co-incidence and imitation”

  1. Originally, when I posted an analysis of the folio I concluded it referred to Dracaena cinnabaris (formerly known as Dracaena socotrana etc.). Later, I realised that the majority of botanical folios show not a single plant but a group. So today, I’d say rather that it depicts the two major ‘dragonsblood’ trees, not only Dracaena cinnabaris – though I’d still say that is the chief focus for this folio – but also Dracaena draco – which once grew more widely from the south-western Mediterranean and Balerics to the Canary islands, but which is now fairly rare.

    I haven’t yet posted on f.25v here.

    Hope that answers your question.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s