History, the Internet and the Voynich manuscript

Nick Pelling has written an interesting post about his views of the internet (which he thinks is a wonderful form of communication), history (which he describes evidence-driven hypotheses about the past behaviour of real people), and “the importance of disagreement” which he says is necessary but undesirable in certain cases.

I recommend the post: it makes interesting if somewhat confusing reading, since there is an evident gap between Pelling’s hypothetical joy and tolerance towards other points of view and his manifest intolerance of sites which he thinks are too tolerant. I hope I have not read too much into his comments about “some blogs and forums” because there are only  two places other than his own blog where conversation is active – so far as I’ve seen. One is Stephen Bax’ blog and the other is the new Voynich forum. I understand that some efforts have recently been made to have persons not conforming to the “all European” theory prevented from commenting even there.  I doubt that Pelling would be responsible.

Pelling does complain about letting the thousand flowers bloom, but what’s the alternative – a blasted heath with a couple of triffids and the passing ghost?

About the new forum, I have nothing but good to say.  Yes, it is true that anything goes except abuse, and that some of the longest-maintained theoretical histories are not treated as if they were holy writ, divinely conferred on the Voynich world. Both being very fine things, in my own opinion, and especially given the increasing suppression of all dissent elsewhere.

I’m not saying I don’t experience similar conflict  about free expression versus sensible discourse as Pelling does..

For me, though, the conflict arises because on the one hand I am an adamant supporter of the right of persons to speak their point of view about this artefact, and on the other I feel a deep contempt for persons whose idea of an effective means to protect their pet hypothesis is to find some way to silence objections without actually addressing factual evidence or argument informing the objection.

Over the past few years, I’ve noticed how newcomers whose views diverge from one or two  of the older and more tired theories have been  countered less by any process of discussion than by stubborn silence, personal disparagement or something closer to back-room lobbying.

I want to make it very clear  that I am NOT including Nick Pelling in this small group of “theory-lobbyists”, whose habit is to use personal contacts to defame, disparage, flame, denigrate or censor individuals whose opinions and intelligent commentary show up the fundamental weakness one or other widely espoused theoretical history. Pelling himself, I expect, will be strongly encouraged to abandon his own historical ‘take’ and adopt one of the more dominant. After all, he was for many years the last man standing, having survived being flamed off the mailing list, repeatedly attacked, then ignored for years, and only recently paid attention by any but his most loyal readers. If and when he renounces his former beliefs and is accepted into another fold, it will be a sad day, even if I was never persuaded of his ‘Averlino’ hypothesis.

Far from being a ‘lobbyist’,  Pelling’s approach to contrary opinion has always been a pugnacious and very open disparagement of those who dispute his facts or opinions – unless he believes that in general they do not disagree with his ideal style for historical study and theory-making.  His attacks are made directly, and in his own name on his blog or in a public arena.  He may sneer, but I should not think him a type of person to enjoy a group-snigger;  or propagandise to reduce the avenues in which contrary evaluations of the manuscript might be seen and engaged with.  It would certainly be in the interests of the lobbyists if every dissenting voice were denied a hearing except on a myriad of discrete personal blogs. A smaller matter then to dissuade others from reading anything but the chosen few.

Such a tactic cannot be intended to aid understanding of this manuscript – but only to lessen the evidence of dissent from one or another of the dominant theories. “If you can’t silence, then isolate the opposition” is hardly the reflection of a balanced scholarly mind.

For shifting the wheat from the chaff, my bottom line is this:

“Show me the evidence which led any historian to form their basic premises, their “givens” about this manuscript. I don’t care how logically they constructed from those premises their houses (or castle complexes) of circumstantial evidence.”

My “givens’ are that the manuscript really exists, that it is a genuinely old arefact, and that no-one has yet successfully placed, or read it.

Otherwise, you will find no ‘theory’ or theoretical history of the manuscript here — something which often puzzles and even alienates those who can think of no other approach save the ‘theory-driven’.

What these blog-posts do is share the results of my own research and explain my conclusions about the manuscript’s imagery: style, intended meaning, evidence of cultural or chronological impacts and so forth. It is a provenancing of content, not a hypothetical history along the “kings and things” line.

I include some historical data and comparative imagery, just so that readers can get an idea of the materials, their nature and range, which have informed my conclusions. What is presented is not argument and all the evidence, but commentary and – I suppose – exegesis, with short historical notes as background for people who may know nothing about the matter under discussion.

Since I started writing up my work here, comments made led me to omit the bibliography which I had originally added to each post. I was informed that to add a bibliography to an online blog was considered by some to be arrogant ~ like setting my readers ‘homework’ .

Other comments led me to stop citing the sources I have actually used in my research, and instead find some equivalent matter or summary in a source online which readers could access through a link.

The more foolish comments were also taken into account.  The stunning critique offered by one reader was that the format ‘gave him a headache’ – a very old, old ploy of the lobbyist-type. Never addressing evidence or argument but creating some general air of the thing being “wrong”.

To Bdid1dr’s difficulty in getting her comments to appear, I paid more attention, and finally changed to a new theme.

Acceding to these various wishes has been uncomfortable in some cases, and very demanding on my research time in others.  In fact, the online sources which I use are, as a rule, limited to articles published through avenues such as JSTOR, academia/edu, the internet archive and some library collections of manuscripts.

But since I chose to write for the wider public, I think it important to respond to  readers’ wishes, as thanks for their attention if nothing else.

Most difficult to adjust to was a view that posts should be limited to about 1500 words, but that places such an extreme limit on the amount of  evidence one can cite in each that I decided to let those who found longer essays too difficult to concentrate on make their own choice.  In some cases, an essay is broken up to form a series, but in other instances this was impractical.

Let’s hope the atmosphere in Voynich studies  remains open, and that there is a general intention to resist the suggestions of lobbyists that one drop one’s own views and adopt a group’s, or delete comments by those the lobbyists’ dislike, and that the new wave of Voynich researchers will be less impressed by hypothetical histories and circumstantial arguments than by well-informed argument and civil debate. Perhaps we might change the legend that in Voynich studies (as one writer said) “It’s all about ego”.

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