Honour and Shame: Manly and others

RADICAL – late Middle English (in the senses ‘forming the root’ and ‘inherent’): from late Latin radicalis, from Latin radix, radic– ‘root’

It is never easy to set out the reasons why work produced with infinite pains, by people one personally respects, and within a discipline in which you and they are both engaged, requires radical revision.

It was not easy, I am sure, for Manly to explain to Newbold exactly where he believed that Newbold’s work had gone astray in the matter of the ‘Bacon cipher’. Neither is it altogether easy now to set out the evolution and proliferation of writings about MS Beinecke 408, and show why this area of study needs radical re-thinking, without experiencing those mingled feelings of obligation and – well, shame.

On the one hand, recognising the roots of a problem in any area of research brings with it an obligation to speak.  On the other, the details and systematic errors which invest the study, more generally, are ones that nobody (including a present writer) can hope, or believe, they have avoided altogether themselves. The niggling feeling that one’s honest intention comes mingled with a degree of hypocrisy only adds to the process’s discomfort.

General criticism of a subject, in general, is not so awkward  –  but inevitably one begins addressing details, and with it comes the probability that one more fellow researchers will take this remark, or that, as aimed particularly at themselves. Sometimes, and unavoidably, that may be so, but in general the writer who suggests that deep-rooted problems exist in the abstract is vulnerable to that same reaction often reported by novelists: that no matter how clear the demur, there will always be some persons whose conviction is absolute that *they* were the model taken.

Such things do not make the business of writing the past track of Voynich studies any easier, let alone presenting an argument that the entire field will remain in stasis (or acting in separate universes) unless its most basic and now-unquestioned premises are not revisited – and many discarded.

Having worked on this manuscript for some time, and spent some years engaged in discussions “in the field”, it is my conclusion that if study of MS Beinecke 408 is ever to achieve a genuine advance, a number of very deep-rooted assumptions, habits and approaches will have to be abandoned.  In the end, whether each individual is able to contemplate doing so will come down to whether their deepest attachment is to their personal ‘theory’ and body of work, or whether it is to the manuscript and its honest exegesis.

These posts in which I am re-examining the history and evolution of Voynich studies are not written from personal chagrin; they are presented as much in hope that future research will not enter the two current states-of-being in Voynich studies: stasis or the inhabiting of an artificial ‘parallel universe’ in which all the arguments fit logically, and none are true.  If one has set in mind, from the day one begins learning number, that an arithmetical “2+2” equals “5”, then no matter how long you labour over a given arithmetical problem having those factors, nor how logical and methodical you are, the results will always seem self-evidently correct, while being invariably wrong ~ in the real world.

The root of the problem, as I see it, is the idea we entertain of what constitutes ‘evidence’, and the degree to which the primary document is artificially interpreted so as to appear in agreement with secondary sources chosen to suit a pet ‘theory’.

So what these posts track are the deep roots of  many “given”s in  Voynich studies: where and how they arose, their inherent flaws, and why those initially small errors have broadened over time. To use a metaphor – as if the entire field has been riven until each person toiling over his strip of land is divided from the next by an ever-widening gulf, and the whole can never produce enough to maintain any, let alone their successors.

Newbold was the first identified in that situation, and from it Manly’s criticism could not return him, because he could not abandon his past ideas and methods.  Attachment is natural; criticism is not easy, and the process too often creates embarrassment and shame on both sides.

So, as an early lecturer was in the habit of reminding us: “Humility is the scholar’s first duty; the other is self-criticism –  if only to save any other chap the trouble – you see?”

Romantic telescope science

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