My big Voynich theory day

The great strangeness about Voynich studies is not so much its intransigent addiction to theory-spinning, nor its regular failure to address contrary evidence save by ignoring the evidence or flaming the researcher who draws attention to it, nor even a constant confusion of observations with theory, but the fact that such woolly thinking ceases as soon as the topic is a statistical analysis of the text’s written part.  As if a line made into script was any more objective or informative than one made into a picture.

But it is quite remarkable to see how, with the change of focus, the very same torch-carrying wolves in bovver-boots who have just mercilessly attacked a linguist, or an art historian, or a palaeographer, or codicologist, become suddenly quite calm, rational thinkers who would never in a million years confuse an “idea” with a conclusion from research, nor call a data set a “theory” or an ‘idea’.

In processing statistical  information the wolf becomes the lamb. A wonderous transformation.

Why does that dichotomy exist among Voynicheros?

Speaking of which – of late, some otherwise intelligent persons have been conned into thinking that my having recognised a single line of  micrographic script in one folio (f.9v) should be interpreted, not as possible evidence for Jewish influence, but as proof that I am a “neo-Newboldian”.

If the notion began from some newbie’s ignorance of what a ‘micrographic script’ is, surely someone else might have referred them to the  fifteen examples offered by the British Library’s online catalogue, or perhaps  this page from the Bodleian, or even the primary evidence – in this case my post?

It seems to me that it’s theory-making that appeals to most Voynicheros, and since the old theories are tired, let’s create another of equal quality, but do so with more originality and  élan. Nonsense should be fun, shouldn’t it?

So here’s how it’s done.

Let’s imagine…

Let’s suppose..

  1. that there is a group, or an individual, who hasn’t yet been cowed, and who holds that Stolfi’s analysis of the text was correct and that the underlying language is probably Jurchen.


2.  another group, or individual, insufficiently deterred as yet, who dares say in public that they think  the cursive and monumental forms of middle Sabaic might explain many or most glyphs used for the Voynich script.

Now –

These two parties might then argue their case round and round for years, each trying to disprove the other’s views and resorting to insinuations of everything from publicity-seeking to pareidolia  to gain brownie-points  in a  ‘theory-war’.

For the historian, however, the question will probably not be which party deserves his vote but – say – why there is so little consensus on the data: the materials, script, or other content which should permit a balanced observer to decide between these two narrative-lines.

What does the object itself say, and what does history say, by which one might judge the one idea justified but not the other, or which might show that both are impossible, or that the two are not inconsistent with each other?

Our (theoretical) historian is able to say:

As it happens, we do know that during the Yemeni diaspora, some of those obliged to leave did  settle around Oman and the mouth of the Indus river, and that others went further up that valley, into what is modern day Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that people whose roots lay in the Yemen also participated in  trade and travel across the northern roads from that time onwards.

It is not impossible, then, that these might have retained their older script for centuries, just as we see the Copts kept theirs, the Jews or the Nestorians theirs, and the Latins theirs, despite the original languages’ falling from daily use. It happens. And just by the way, there’s more evidence for it’s happening than for Rudolf’s laying out twice a king’s ransom to some anonymous random with a ratty looking manuscript, or that a formally-trained Renaissance architect would forget how to draw a straight line.

But to resume:

During the century just before the rise of the Mongols,  a group known to history as the Qara Khitai left China and moved west into central Asia, remaining Chinese in culture and religion, but ruling over a people already converted to Islam.

Both the rulers and the ruled retained their own religion and customs. Jurchen was one of the kingdom’s official languages.

And so – in theory –  the local population could have used a non-Chinese script to write Jurchen.  In theory, such a script might have been that derived from that older Yemeni one we call middle Sabaic.

If one wished – though I wouldn’t in fact – one might here refer to a detail from the manuscript, allowing readers to infer that it proved support for a theory embracing the other two. See? One ruling class (Qara Khitai) to three non-ruling class.

green man

Proves nothing?


But wasn’t it fun? And so easy. It’s all just inference.

You need only pay attention to things which serve to support the theory, which saves all the bother of dealing with antithetical evidence.

Most satisfactory.

(Funny if it proved true..)


9 thoughts on “My big Voynich theory day

  1. Hey! I didn’t know today was free theory day. Let me come up with something fast.

    Ok, so this woman on the bottom left is digging something up, probably gold or a stash of potatoes, and the others are quite interested. Gossipy! Or even jealous!
    That, or she’s about to hand out the sponges.

    This woman represents Venice:
    Also, her chest is drawn differently (without Voynich “sideboob”) so she’s actually a man.

    Oh this is fun. And so much easier 😀


    • On second thoughts, I’m really bad at this: I forgot to come up with a grand theory based on my random observations. I’ll leave this aspect of Voynich studies to brighter minds.


      • Koen,
        It’s easy for us; but the really serious theorists fight tooth and nail for their theory. Some even do research, and spend years if not decades urging their argument. Look at Wilfrid Voynich – he pushed his theory with nothing offered in support save ‘I say so’ but circumstantial evidence (it looks like something made in late thirteenth century England, apparently) plus sheer persistence, saw that idea survive and remain ‘the story’ for fifty years. He might not have been wrong. For all we know, the material copied in the fifteenth century had come from his library. There’s no evidence at all that it was, or wasn’t made in England, as Wilfrid and almost everyone else believed.

        I certainly wouldn’t be willing to waste twenty years as Wilfrid did on promotional advertising. But then, of course, I’m not trying to sell it.


  2. “Some even do research” – Haha!

    Now, I actually liked the one “nymph” *wink wink* digging up something precious and the other ones showing interest. But I’m really not going there 😉

    Also, I always kind of assumed the vellum being Italian implied that the manuscript was made somewhere in the vicinity. So we’re actually not too sure about that? I think in the light of my current studies, the question of where and by whom MS Beinecke 408 was manufactured has become less important to me 🙂

    Seriously though, I can understand Wilfrid Voynich. Times were different and overselling books was kind of his job. Makes me wonder what modern Willies have to gain though.

    This reminds me of the “Oera Linda Book”, a medieval mythical history of Frisia which was soon proven to be a late 19th century (badly made) forgery. It’s often mentioned in one breath with the Voynich manuscript in articles about mystery books. About a decade and a half after it first emerged, people generally accepted it was a fake, in the face of overwhelming evidence. For example, the paper was clearly way too modern and could be traced to a certain factory. Despite that, some stubbornly held on to their theories. The most famous advocate for the manuscript’s authenticity was Jan Gerhardus Ottema, who even translated the work.

    I appears that the “Oera Linda is real” theory had become a part of his identity. It was his greatest desire and defending it had become his life’s work. When even he realized his theory could no longer be defended, he ended up committing suicide. Of course, other factors in his life contributed to this decision as well, but still… Just to say how passionate people can get about what they *want* to believe, and the effects these mystery manuscripts have on otherwise intelligent individuals.


    • Where on earth did you hear that the vellum was “Italian’?
      Was there any evidence offered for the idea?

      I’m sorry to say that Voynich studies has also claimed at least one life. People tend to forget (and for some reason, cryptanalysts and CIA types especially) that we’re all real.

      PS – I’m very concerned about the ‘strangling’ of free speech in Voynichland, everyone not holding the ‘cental European’ faith being shoved or indirectly nudged out of blogs such as Pellings and Bax’s.

      It’s going to be a soap-box sort of blog. I won’t be writing much to it, but people will be free to post anything they like which doesn’t break the usual internet laws.

      So if you do develop a case of “theory”, you can expound upon it there – I’ll write a header-post, and you can add all the comments you like.



  3. Voynich studies claimed a life? I’m not even sure if I want to know… And the Italian vellum.. Not sure where I got that idea, I read it long ago and it stuck, apparently. So we can’t actually say anything for certain about the physical object’s origin, apart from the fact that it popped up in Prague much later?

    It sure would be great to have some neutral ground where new ideas can be discussed. And kind of leave it up to the community whether they find an idea worth reacting to or not. The idea of giving each his own “playground” on a centralized site would surely solve a lot of problems! (Extreme fragmentation of the field and biased admins).


    • The new blog isn’t a forum. I’m not trying to compete with that sort of space, which has a different tone and purpose.

      The new blog is just a virtual Hyde Park, or Central Park, where anyone who wants can post in the comments section under their own introductory heading.

      I guess it’s a sort of personal rant-place.

      Anyway, it’s somewhere that people doing progressive translations and that sort of thing can post as often, and as little or as much as they like, and invite comments on their own particular take on the manuscript. There’ll be no ‘loopy’ filter. If someone wants to argue the thing came from outerspace, they can. Article 19, you know.


  4. Hey, I like it! Think you chose a good layout as well, with new posts and comments clearly visible.
    Makes me curious to see what an open dialogue between theorists would look like. You’ll need some early adopters to get things going though.


    • Koen,
      I don’t mind if no-one uses it. But at least it’s there. I’m hoping that the Nahuatl translations might go up there, at least. But another poster was recently told not to post any more to Stephen Bax’ site, so he might turn up too. This could be fun. Who knows?


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