Whether or not the Voynich manuscript was a fake from beginning to end was a current question when I first came to consider this manuscript.
The C-14 dating had not been done, and it would be some years before we had its benefit.
About the script and its posited encipherment, I can offer no more opinion now than then, but about the imagery I was soon reassured. This is surely a copy of older matter, but one genuine in intent and mostly accurate in form. It is no ‘fake’ and its imagery may be addressed as an original.
For a time Rich Santacoloma argued that it might be a ‘perfect fake’ -by which I think he meant one manufactured by perfectly replicating fifteenth century materials and techniques.
I am obliged to adopt a contrary position.
In a sense, a forgery or deliberate fake is like a plagiarist. Its imagery displays a bankrupt intelligence – by which I mean that its aim is to create a convincing form, rather than the expression of any active interest in the nature of its subject, reality as such, or the aim of a given visual ‘language’.
A fake becomes confused (as it were) when asked to demonstrate the path by which it came to this specific result, although in the first instance its answer may seem sensible enough. The line is thus-and-so because from a fifteenth-century instrument (e.g. brush or quill).
And this constant reference to basic sources and materials may extend to many other technical tests, just as in the case of a student’s plagiarism, a copied working-out may be retrospectively understood after being copied along with the original answer. Just so the parchment or canvas may be technically identical or near-identical, the forger having mastered that subsidiary matter.
What distinguishes the forgery, or synthetic, is not lack of ‘originality’ so much as lack of informing intelligence: a certain lack of interest in the questions for which the original imagery was both expression and but one of a myriad answers possible.
I referred to this matter of informing intelligence in an earlier post, with an example from the Rutland Psalter.
Primary sources are a poor indication of forgery, because they are the forger’s mainstay. The ‘fakers’ mind lacks the energy required to seek and understand the broader context. The faker may – to give an example – replicate a fourteenth-century Madonna, but will feel no need to understand Christian doctrine.
And so the rule is that the faker’s product must halt at the point where its last ‘mine’ was exhausted. Tomorrow, we might find a late picture by Leonardo but it can be predicted with confidence that no forger’s work will have predicted accurately the manner in which his painting and thinking developed past the last previously known example.
And from much the same principle, a teacher does not try to distinguish the cheating student from the genuine by asking each to explain an answer already given, but first to comment on the principle informing the set question and then formulate, and answer, a comparable one while giving a running commentary on the process.
To such – equivalent – questions the Voynich manuscript provided answers accurate and consistent, in terms of form and style certainly, but more importantly in terms of that informing intelligence, which consistently explained the very disparate appearance of its sections and the differing styles evident in one or more.
“If this is your answer, what was your question?” is something most fakes find near-impossible to answer.
But in cross-examining the Voynich manuscript (so to speak), when asked for an explanation of why it had included both a bearded sun and Asiatic face, the answers were consistent: I mean in keeping with the style of drawing, the content alluded to, their meaning, and context offered not only by closely comparable imagery from external sources, but with the historical and archaeological sources and (as applicable) with modern secondary discussions too.
” What train of thought led you to adopt this form, these precedent types and sources over others?” “What is the meaning of this detail (or motif) what is meant by it, and why is it in this section and folio rather than in any other?”
And just as the plagiarist’s bibliography is always their weakest point, for it is merely copied and not selected, so here again the precedent imagery as ‘source’ might have proved a potential weakness but instead proved instead an added strength.
If you prefer metaphors from the pragmatic sciences: it is like asking a student in maths or chemistry ‘Explain the nature of the problem which was set’ and then ‘Can you formulate and answer an equivalent problem from the same basis?”
The genuine does so easily, as the merely synthetic-acquisitive form cannot.
If this approach to the imagery interests you, you may enjoy the next few posts, where I’ll show some points from that ‘cross-examination’.
I can assure you that the manuscript itself provides answers which are detailed and consistent: in artistic style, as by reference to appropriate times, places, cultural customs, technical purposes, and the historical and archaeological record – plus, of course, other comparative imagery.
I won’t be giving the answers, though – at least not here in the foreseeable future. But the manuscript’s imagery is not fake.
And if you (like me) care most for the ‘why’ of it all, then I can say that I’ve found the questioning conducted over
four nearly five years a pleasure chiefly because this manuscript is so intelligent, well-informed and (in its own language) articulate …IMO