The light of day – 2015

To describe the state of this field in 2015 in the best possible light, through the opinions of a lucid thinker, I should like to republish here with certain modifications – to remove any personal references –  a post written recently to the new Voynich mailing list.

Since posts are published through the internet, I trust that “Sam G.”  will not object to my republishing these selected excerpts.  I should have preferred to ask him first, but as things are I can only say that I feel his comments offer an excellent model for many newcomers to the study, and if he should object, I shall take down the post immediately.

“Sam G” clearly subscribes to the ‘European Latin’ view, but this idea is still the dominant model, and so is fairly seen as representative of this field of study at the present time, that opinion adopted and presented here by an informed and clear-minded researcher who has clearly formed an opinion only after close and careful consideration of all the various ideas and arguments. I do not think I have seen any clearer or fairer summary.

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There’s nothing about the physical aspects of the manuscript that suggests a modern hoax.  The vellum, inks, and colors are all consistent with the early 15th century.  … [N] obody with any qualifications (or even any highly knowledgeable amateurs, as far as I am aware) … shares [the] view that the inks are suspicious.  …

It’s worth emphasizing here that, unlike many other hoaxes which evaded recognition for a long time, many people have suspected that the VMS could be a hoax since the beginning, so it has been heavily scrutinized in this regard.  …
There’s also the aspect of many types of physical wear on the manuscript … there’s nothing wrong with portions of the manuscript being well-preserved..

Most of the “expert opinions” on the dating that have been offered over the years on both the text and the illustrations have not really been based on much, in terms of comparisons to known manuscripts; D’Imperio also complained about this.

Also, many of these experts seem to have started with a conclusion in mind and looked for evidence to back their preconceptions up, such as people seeing it as a Roger Bacon manuscript looking for evidence that it was made in the 13th century, or people wanting to force fit the manuscript into the familiar realm of Renaissance-era cryptography looking for 16th century connections.  I also wonder how much time these experts really spent with the VMS.  Did they study it deeply, or just take a quick look and render a verdict? That obviously matters a lot, too, and at least some of the opinions out there seem to have been made after only a cursory examination.

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So I don’t see the fact that “the experts” generally got it wrong as proving a whole lot.  In fact, it’s worth pointing out that most of the comparisons that have been made that are clearly not coincidental have been made by amateurs scouring old manuscripts on the web, and that  these comparisons generally come from the early 15th century or earlier.

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It’s clear to me that the marginalia on 17r, 66r, and 116v were added by the scribe who physically wrote the text and did the outlines of the illustrations.  I don’t agree that “pox leber” is an anachronism because I highly doubt that that bit of text actually says “pox leber” (aside from whether it would really be an anachronism at all).   I don’t agree that just because we can’t read the marginalia that it is therefore meaningless, and suspect that it will be read eventually once someone finds a manuscript made at roughly the same time and place containing similar marginalia …. .

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Look at the quire numbers, for instance – these were long thought to be entirely unique to the VMS until Thomas Sauvaget found some nearly identical ones in some digitized Swiss manuscripts a few years back.  I think we will come across more finds like this as people keep looking.
I also don’t buy [the] idea that small bits of marginalia are always readable without knowing anything about their context and I don’t think [one] can cite a source for that claim … .

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I don’t think that the “pharmaceutical jars” are based on microscopes, since many objects (including ordinary ceramic vessels) have simple cylindrical shapes like that.  … yet it is clear from the context that whatever these jars are, they are all in the same “class” of object – so if some of them are not microscopes, then probably none of them are.  (In general, I think many people would do well to adopt this “structural” way of thinking about the illustrations – i.e., valuing comparisons between illustrations in the manuscript to other illustrations  in the manuscript above comparisons to outside sources, which may of course be coincidental. .

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I do not agree that the diagram on 69r is an attempt to depict a diatom, since the comparison is not really that close, and many objects have a similar geometry with lines radiating out from a central point.  Again, this illustration is grouped with other illustrations which do not resemble diatoms, suggesting that if the others aren’t diatoms, then this one isn’t either..

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I don’t agree with the other interpretations of the cosmological diagrams …[mentioned].

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The Tepenecz signature could not have been “easily copied”, since unless I’m mistaken there are only several other known examples and they’re all in libraries in Prague, and have turned up after 2000 or so.  Doesn’t seem that plausible to me that Voynich somehow knew they existed and managed to track one down and copy it, but I guess it’s hard to prove that he couldn’t have..

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…. foldout pages … were apparently extremely rare in medieval European manuscripts.  More likely that the vellum we see in the manuscript was … prepared for this particular manuscript..

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The paradox regarding the apparent skill it would have taken to produce the manuscript on the one hand, with the sloppiness of execution on the other, is easily explained if the VMS is a “sloppy copy” of another manuscript, and quite a bit of evidence suggests that it is in fact a copy.
My guess is that the original had substantially nicer illustrations.*.
* a point on which I should see no reason to insist, myself – D.

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As far as the VMS text as cipher is concerned …  not only is it too complex to be 15th century, it’s too complex to be 21st century, since no one has ever created a cipher capable of replicating even a fraction of the properties we see in the VMS text.  So, it’s not a cipher, as eminent cryptographers like Friedman and Tiltman have also concluded.

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But whether the text is meaningful or not, it is clearly very language-like, yet has a decidedly non-European phonotactic structure.  While this wouldn’t be too hard to explain if produced today, with many constructed language enthusiasts out there inventing languages with all kinds of exotic features, it certainly would have been well ahead of its time …

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Again, the structure of the text is absolutely there, regardless of whether the text is gibberish or not. ..

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Even assuming [someone] could have come up with [a fake] structure, we still have to explain how the text was generated.  I think Cardan grilles or other methods of pseudo-random word generation can be ruled out, and “written glossolalia” doesn’t seem likely either – certainly there are no examples of such a thing in existence that can account for what we see in the VMS.  It’s clear to me that there’s at least some sort of “grammar” in the VMS, which I obviously think is the grammar of a genuine natural language, but whatever it is, it certainly adds to the complexity of what [anyone] would have had to go through to generate the text (again, whether it’s gibberish or not – different difficulties in either case though, perhaps).

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It’s not true that the Voynich manuscript exhibits no similarities to any known manuscript.  The script is plainly derived from the Roman alphabet** and symbols used in medieval Latin abbreviation, and the illustrations employ many conventions used in known European manuscripts; It’s only the language in which it’s written and the apparent content of the illustrations (i.e. what ideas the illustrations are attempts at conveying) that are foreign.

** in my own opinion, what is being seen is a more general resemblance to the family of scripts descended from Aramaic, many items of which co-incide with the Roman alphabet and which includes forms close to the Voynich glyphs that do not appear in the Roman alphabet. – D.

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This paradox is resolved if we take the VMS to be an attempt by some group of medieval Europeans to import the scientific knowledge of some foreign culture, and of course we see precisely the same combination of European stylistic features combined with foreign language and content in other known, later examples of Europeans importing foreign knowledge, such as in the early post-colonial Mesoamerican codices. (I realize that not many people here will agree with this part, but to me the VMS as European record of non-European culture is obviously the only explanation for the VMS that makes any sense and agrees with all the available evidence.

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I post this now, as prelude and antidote-in-advance, to the next month of posts (already written) in which I review the history of Voynich studies with a somewhat colder eye. -D.

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5 thoughts on “The light of day – 2015

  1. Some weak points here.

    “It’s not a cipher, because we can’t break it” – is a void argument. Neither can we say whether it’s simple or complex, until we break it. It may be simple, but clever. I think we should not consider middle ages as the time of simplicity, and people of 15th century as fools. Knowledge and technology do progress through ages, that’s true, but cunning perhaps does not.

    How can we speak of “phonotactic structure” if we are not able to discern a single syllable?

    The possibility that the VMS is a direct copy of an older source (or sources) should not be dismissed. But it well may be an enciphered copy.

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    • Anton, I understand your points. However, I believe that Sam G. is entitled to draw his own conclusions, and that they are fairly drawn. Since we do not have the answer to the problem posed by the written text, there is no ‘right answer’ to why we do not.

      It may be that the text is enciphered; it may simply be highly abbreviated (which is the view towards which I incline), or it may be something else again. Recently, I had reason to look at some Irish text, and if one had a phonetic transcription only, it would be extremely difficult to recognise that the phonetic text and the full transcription of Irish were the same. Perhaps we have something of that sort? I do not think Sam G. comes across as a thoughtless person. I feel pretty sure that he is not unaware that human intelligence varies by individuals, not over time, or anything else. But that’s a guess; I may be mistaken. Thanks for the comment.

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  2. Dear Diane, once again I refer to Fray Sahagun’s diary of his home place/monastery/education in the district of Leon Spain, small Franciscan monastery of the town of Sahagun — and his subesquent boat journey to the “New World”: the so-called “Voynich” manuscript (Boenicke 408). The rest of his story is contained as written and illustrated in his magnificent manuscript which has been given the name “Florentine Codex”.
    In other words, maybe clearer and easier to understand, When he first arrived in New Spain, he immediately engaged the attention and help of a few of his students (the Colegio) to translate and transcribe and illustrate some of the contents of his diary (drawings and identifications of botanicals native to New Spain. The result is fascinating reading, and can be found and read (entirely) online — folio by folio.
    I reiterate that the very first illustration in B-408 (folio 1v is ix-tom-a-tl — tomatillo NOT tomato. The tomatillo’s latin name is physalis ixocarpa.
    You will be able to find many botanical specimens being illustrated and discussed in Spanish AND Aztec Nahuatl in the Florentine Codex. If you can’t get the on-line book reader to work for you (folio by folio) Amazon.com offers the entire codex which was translated and published into 12 sections depending on the subject matter,
    deady-eyed-wonder-er

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  3. I’ve come full circle as far as trying to identify the dandelion. However, the dandelion may not have been mentioned by Fray Sahagun. The dandelion was native to Europe (including the province of Leon (whence came Fray Sahagun). So, if the dandelion (dent de leon or dent de lion) (tooth of the lion) may appear in B-408, but is not mentioned in the Florentine Manuscript, it could be proof that B-408 was Sahagun’s diary. The diary may have ended up in the hands of the Inquisition — and never returned to Sahagun; but rather filed away in the Papal archive of inquisitional documents. Maybe the folks in Frascati/Rome offered some of the contents of the derelict Inquisitional files. I understand that Mr. Voynich purchased B-408 along with several other contents (material from the re-taking of Granada?).

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    • I could agree with ‘Spain’ and ‘monastic’ – even ‘Franciscan’ for the manuscript’s present form. I’m fairly sure the source(s) were eastern, Jewish and very much older. For me, the dates are not possible as description of the materials and form: Frey Sahagun lived 1499 – 1590 (as you’ll know, but to save readers looking it up), and I just cannot see that the manuscript as made in that later period, unless there were evidence such as your translation’s being accepted and/or we had a full analysis of the pigments which revealed some that weren’t used until the sixteenth century.

      I think that the only way I could imagine our views being reconciled is to imagine that the manuscript had been prepared for the Franciscans’ eastern journeys and so taken along; To the day he died, Columbus insisted that he had found the route to India and not a new continent. If obliged to posit a western trip for the manuscript, I’d be far more inclined to believe that it was carried by one of the Jewish mariners – or more likely yet, the pilot – with Columbus. About the Inquisition – yes, I’ve sometimes dwelt on the sudden deterioration we see in the hand which wrote the month-roundels’ inscriptions. But Illness (including sea-sickness), or trying to write on the move might explain it just as well. The imagery just doesn’t seem to me influenced by Aztec style. Still, if you have made a full translation, and others accept it, argument is hardly needed.

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