Parallel universes in Voynich studies

Flammerion detailI won’t say that I’ve spent as many hours hunting for an explanation for this problem as for any that the manuscript presents, but it has been a constant question – why doesn’t the internet’s “open-house” method seem to advance Voynich studies?

I don’t think anyone can believe it works: there’s been no real sense of movement since the early 2000’s when the old mailing list closed.

One proof of this is that even that beautifully balanced “Manuscript Road Trip” writer began by repeating an assertion that has no basis in fact and would, in the normal way, merit no more than a footnote ~ I mean the second-hand report of an alleged comment asserting that Rudolf II had once owned the manuscript.

On this issue of immobility and systemic flaws in Voynich studies, a comment posted here recently by Nick Pelling is worth repeating:

“The underlying problem is about laziness, stereotyped thinking and school systems that teach people nothing about history or critical thinking. Frankly, even medieval scholasticism seems a hundred times more disciplined and useful than the gullible, shallow, sentimental, superstitious and supercilious mental toolboxes most 21st Century people seem to leave school with.”

He may be right.  From my point of view, the most basic problem is not just shallow thinking but a failure to distinguish between logic and reason.

And that comes down, in the end, to an unwillingness to take time and trouble to establish the foundations on which the logical – even ornately detailed and carefully crafted – edifice is then built.

Because those initial beliefs are no more than beliefs, and are never tested with any rigour, so the ‘chain of reasoning’ quickly loses touch with reality: I mean not only the reality of the historical situation, but the reality which is the physical object of the manuscript.

It seems to me that this is why we find so many highly elaborated theories existing as it were in parallel universes: scarcely touching and never being affected by the basic tenet that two objects cannot simultaneously occupy the same points in time and space.

Take the astronomical diagrams.

We have at least two websites in which mutually incompatible theories have been elaborated and illustrated for quite some time, neither addressing the ideas of the other, and neither considered eliminated by the other’s work.

The botanical imagery inhabits an even greater number of parallel realities, but let’s keep this simple.

Folio 67r2 will do as example.

fol 67r2

I’ve described it by considering the diagram’s structure, and the factors informing it – together with comparative imagery suited to those factors, concluding altogether that it is a chart having a long history of use and replication, and which served in calculation of tides.

Robert Teague began from an assumption that the attitudes of the manuscript’s maker/s are those of the European scientific community and that objective recording of star positions was a reasonable activity when the manuscript was made.  Though such attitudes are ones we normally associate with a much later period – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – Robert may have taken that into account. His historical studies(as basis for the initial premise)  are not set out in his blog, “Voynichology”.

But Robert supposes that the diagrams will be constructed with such an attitude, and will represent the careful effort to place stars and objects with such precision that he himself can then project backwards to the time the diagram was created.  Those projections are published in his blogposts.

On January 15th this year, Robert updated his comment on folio 67r-2, in a post called “Voynich Geography” where he asserts that its components are arranged to create a grid whose centre is Vienna, and that the labels seen in the diagram refer to places.

Now this idea isn’t unreasonable; it would suit me quite well, in a general sort of way, because I’ve been saying for quite a while that when the matter in the manuscript eventually came into the west, it appears to have passed to the makers of that new sort of marine chart often called a “portolan” chart. I’ve also shown the links between the style of maritime grid on those charts and a work of Kabbalah, whose influence Panofsky recognised in the manuscript’s imagery. More – as I’ve noted recently, the chords of geography and astronomy were correlated by such chart-makers, while the astrolabe had stars upon its face, and often a list of cities with latitude and longitude inscribed on the instrument’s back.

So in principle, I see no objection to Teague’s findings.  I cannot accept them in practice because his initial premise seems to have sprung fully formed from his imagination, and is not (as far as I can see) adduced from the manuscript’s form, materials, or dating, nor modified by any constant consideration of the manuscript’s other sections.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I do like to see a determining theory first emerge from patterns found in evidence gained by preliminary research.  Athena-ic theories make me nervous.

About folio 67r-2, Robert wrote here:

This folio takes the waxing gibbous phase of the moon when concurrent with the Aries/Taurus part of the sky and makes it circular. It is a recurring event.

This is also the connection between the event in the sky at 07Tau on 7 December 1486 and the earth: the star labels are the “realm of the stars”, the moons the “realm of the planets”, and inside the circle is “the circles of the world”.

The twelve words just below the moons were decoded as places in Europe, and a map showing them has been added at the bottom. Lines drawn between them form a hexagon whose center point is Vienna, Austria.

The meaning of the words below them has not been determined.

If you start to wonder just how those twelve words were decoded, I recommend you visit ‘Voynichology’.

So if I occupy the universe in which f.67r-2 is a tidal chart whose design is of considerable antiquity but whose mode of use is demonstrably found in early fifteenth-century European maritime traditions, Teague occupies one where the folio describes a grid over Vienna in 1486.

Meanwhile, in the third of these parallel universes we have P.Han, whose work has been developed over a very long time and relates all the astronomical diagrams to events in eleventh century China. Of folio 67r-2 he says:

“possibly … a [Chinese star-] calendar of the year 1054 AD”. He likens its centre to the form of a supernova, though I’ve seen him offer no comparable image from eleventh-century Chinese art. 

(To gain access to Han’s work,  you must sign a copyright agreement. Folio 67r-2 is discussed here)

Once more, I should be quite pleased to believe P.Han correct,  but once again, see no evidence of any preliminary research having led him to the final point of concluding that the manuscript is concerned with Chinese mathematical astronomy.

Nor do I have evidence that any aspect of the manuscript-as-manuscript (i.e. its vellum, binding or pigments) indicates that the fifteenth century object originated in China. What sort of vellum, if any, was used there? I had not thought any, but there may exist some solid evidence for it, and if that is Han’s argument he should have offered the evidence by now.

I do not know if he thinks the manuscript was made in China, or what explanation he might have for an eleventh-century supernova, recorded in China, being included in a fifteenth century manuscript which was apparently – only ‘apparently’ is sure – made in Europe?

When people speak about a “chain of logic” I cannot help but wonder whether it is also a reasonable chain of ideas. Logic is not reason.

Ideally, one would hope to see each link in a given chain of logic pegged firmly to some hard fact about the manuscript, even comparative and supporting evidence from other sections;   it would be a major improvement in the majority of cases to have even to have the first link in a “logical chain” firmly bolted to something concrete.

So that is the longstanding and still- unresolved paradox of Voynich studies: the open-house atmosphere of the internet means that the three of us –   Teague, Han and me – can (as it were) continue indefinitely to occupy the same point in space and time, each within our parallel universe.  What Voynich studies probably needs is some disinterested party able to disprove the validity of two interpretations of the three, or better yet to provide some paradigm in which each is shown to be one part of the greater elephant.* We need – instead of usual situation whereby a single researcher is monitored by few ‘peer’ reviewers – one where the various clusters of writers are overseen by a competent peer.

I really don’t see that as possible – not only because I doubt that any sufficiently accomplished astronomer will know enough about codicology, ancient history, Chinese art, western astrology and iconography, but because anyone who did would scarcely be wasting time (sorry) on the Voynich manuscript’s diagrams.

And anyone who did care enough about the Voynich diagrams, and had such intellectual authority, would surely have a high degree of well-lit self-interest… and thus his or her own theory with so much invested in it that to sanction any work not compatible with it would be an act of extraordinary integrity, or great foolishness.

Or is there a flaw in my reasoning here?


* “part of the greater elephant”: a reference to a famous allegory made into a poem by John Godfrey Saxe.






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