Emerge from Shadow: 1943-2000 Pt2

By my reckoning, the chief result of the  half-century after c.1945 was to split the field into eight classes of writing ~ at least in the published papers. We find:

1. Those repeating Wilfrid’s ‘history’ of the manuscript as if it were established as fact, then adding many “ooo-er” noises and references to “mystery”.

2. Those repeating the same ‘history’  briefly, as prelude to expounding their own theories scenarios –  these  range from the merely inconclusive to the fantastic. Few appear to have been based on sober or uncoloured examination of the primary document. Most are focussed on biographies, personalities and the supposed cipher, in the now-classic “Wilfrid-Newbold” model.

3. Those proposing ideas that are frankly mad. I omit specifics.

4. Those discussing and arguing items of history from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

5. Those suggesting one might jemmy open the meaning of the text’s written part (only) by naming stars in the astronomical section or plants in the botanical section. Potentially a valid approach, the latter was initiated by Fr. Theodore Petersen (whose four decades of research notes are said to have been all but destroyed by Friedman), the approach was de-railed by those who later took it up – by national colouring, by ignorance of the period or of iconographic analysis, and by an assumption adopted without proof that the manuscript must in some way belong to (rather than perhaps intersect with) the mainstream Latin astronomical corpus and Dioscoridan herbal genre. (Sprague’s reaction was rarely pondered upon, except perhaps by Tiltman).

Preliminary research to re-evaluate whether or not the most basic assumptions were true was very rarely (read: ‘never’) undertaken as far as I can discover. To suggest any but mainstream Latin European origin for the content, let alone for the manuscript’s manufacture, was by now treated as irrational, though in fact neither had been proven by comparative study but had merely been assumed. At the present time, there are many working in Voynich studies who appear quite unaware that writings on vellum, in iron-gall ink, occur as far as Persia and the Yemen.

Over the period, no advance is made in codicological analysis, or evaluation of the pigments. Attitudes to the imagery deteriorate noticeably, with no effort at thorough or consistent interpretation in terms of contextualised stylistics. (As example, one researcher imagined that a three-dot design on f.86v was a clock – ignoring the style and content of any other part of that folio.)

There is a general failure to register any of the cultural indicators and allusions with which the imagery is replete. (This does not include Panofsky whose opinion, as far as the wider world was concerned, had not been offered).

That inability to “get one’s bearings”when trying to read the imagery in the visual grammar of western Latin art led to some extraordinary exercises in transference: the reader claimed inability because the imagined ‘author’ though evidently perfectly competent at wielding a pen, and able to draw clocks and sunflowers well enough (supposedly), was otherwise deemed a child prodigy, or a sex-crazed herbalist obsessed with baths, and so on and so forth.  The “authorial” notion was still an idée fixe.  Compared with the hallucinatory and excitable quality of comments about the imagery,  efforts by the cryptanalysists to identify the possibly-phantom  ‘white European male author’ have so much internal logic that they seem almost real.

6. “Challenge of the cipher” articles.

Technical arguments which are meticulous in procedure but which proceed from the usual “givens” which – ultimately – derive from Wilfrid’s narrative romance.

A surprising number of the cryptanalysts appear ignorant of, or indifferent to, such things as the medieval context(s) in which books were made; older social and religious norms; different attitudes to encoding and encrypting in earlier times; to the possibility that the “plain text” might not conform to the genres of western prose or poetry, including alchemical prose;  of image-making, of book-making; of chronological  indicators offered by parchment sizes and finish;  of comparative history; of even the basic knowledge of eastern and/or western religious cultures; of anything touching on analysis of a thirteenth- to early fifteenth- century manuscript. 

All these fundamental  considerations  appear to have been assumed ancillary to ‘breaking the cipher’.  One is tempted almost to ask “what cipher?” though many researchers still argue for the text’s being enciphered in some way, and it may well be encoded even if not formally enciphered.

The creature which is the written text is, however, being lifted from its jungle and made to jump hoops in a cage with a false-floor coated in concrete (to become visual about it). This total divorce of one element from the rest would prove another major, and possibly permanent flaw in continuing studies supposedly of this artefact.

With that removal of the written part of the text, and translation of its forms into little more than numerical values, the importance of context even in regard to dating was largely abandoned. Hunting the  ‘Latin-style cipher’ or the probably-imaginary ‘auteur’ through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries became routine.That the manuscript had been dated, very early, was ignored or forgotten and the ‘lack of date’ became an excuse for these anachronisms.

In more recent efforts of the cryptanalysists to as late as 2010-12, one finds rare mention of the manuscript’s being judged by competent experts as inscribed between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, in England, Spain or ‘somewhere southern’.

Had the manuscript been defined as, say, a odd-job gardener’s notebook, approaches to it might have been more conventional, but it had been elevated to the status of an imperial mystery.

7. The book by Barbara Shailor.  The medieval book. A librarian’s contribution, though reference to MS Beinecke 408 is brief.

8. Mary d’Imperio’s writings.  Though often adopting uncritically the usual fictions created by Wilfrid these stand with John Tiltman’s few, if highly astute, personal observations as the only bright spots in this benighted period – in my opinion. (I despaired that I might get through to others writing in this field, in 2010, that each image in the botanical section is formed as a composite for perceived classes of plant, until I read that Tiltman had a similar insight, and much earlier.) Not unexpectedly –  since images of that sort do not occur in Latin herbals –  Tiltman’s conclusion was scarcely mentioned, which lack of recognition had only the benefit that my own results, reached half a century later had been gained of necessity without reference to his.

If you think I’m being a little hasty in evaluating these decades between 1943-2000  – think of the result in total. No substantial advance in our ability to read the manuscript – either its text or its imagery, and no conclusive provenance.

I should go so far as to say that overall the direction taken during the period impacted negatively on the subject.  

The manuscript was no longer perceived as a whole, historical object, in which all aspects of it indicated origin, time and place of manufacture and so forth, but as hardly more than a medium for the cipher supposed embedded in the written text.   To this day, some “Voynich” cryptographers express only complete indifference, and even contempt, for the idea that anything substantial can be learned about the artefact, its origins or meaning by any form of  textual analysis not primarily cryptographic.  

That happy-go-lucky attitude towards the manuscript’s material and iconographic evidence means, therefore, that opinions tend to to be adopted or rejected chiefly according to whether the results accord (or not) with a general theory to which a given sub-group feels attracted, rather than to the parameters set by the artefact itself.   Those wishing for an all-Latin content naturally tend towards interpretations of the botanical imagery, for example, which attempt to match its folios to the Latin herbal corpus, as some workers make great efforts to do. Others pass over the vellum’s characteristics and insist on an inappropriate locus for composition.

Unfortunately, if interpretation of the imagery or the codicology is erroneous, but is then applied to the cipher-breaking efforts, errors become exponential, results gained by those working on the written text are inconclusive or worse, and the field is thus fractured into what I have described as its number of  ‘parallel universes’.

Co-ordination of research is rendered impossible by the determination of each sub-group to hold to their preferred ‘theory’ in despite of all contrary evidence. It is not remarkable to find, in defense of a scenario, the distorting of dates given for the manuscript; an insistence  on attitudes and objects unattested in the early fifteenth century, or on some provenance at odds with the physical evidence.  In the worst cases, informed and independent opinion is ‘countered’ or re-worked by particular commission.

In all of this, from about 2002, the observations and translations made by Philip Neal, and the work of Nick Pelling through his blog ciphermysteries were to become an exception.  Pelling’s efforts to re-awaken interest in manuscript studies and its ancillary areas of palaeography and codicology, together with his generosity in publicising not only views compatible with his own, but those dissenting from them,  ensured that genuine investigation was not finally stifled by any dominant paradigm.

Otherwise, many cryptanalysists even today seem oblivious to the fact that, over time, an increasing number of independent specialists and amateur researchers have come to hold an opinion that the matter contained – as distinct from the manufacture – is not what Wilfrid supposed: not authorial, not Latin, not originating from mainland Europe.

One wonders whether the root cause of the more usual indifference to all beyond Latin Europe’s admitted debts to Christian Greeks or generic ‘Arabs’ is not due to some fear that, once venturing beyond those confines, they may be ill-equipped to deal with what they find.   But let’s not get too far ahead. This survey ends with the year 2000.


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