Crackpots, sharks and scholars

With a stunning directness, Nick Pelling said during an interview with the BBC World Service News (here) that the Voynich manuscript is

… kyptonite for academics.. a thing that destroys reputations rather than builds them. People [i.e. scholars] steer away from the Voynich manuscript because if you’re accurate, you still get savaged by people and what can happen is that you just end up falling into a pit of sharks. It’s a bad place for an academic to be. And this really doesn’t suit the Beinecke, I think..

There are really two issues here: one being the destruction of a scholar’s reputation by particular members of the Elasmobranchii and the other that ‘pit of sharks’  per se which will attack any person not conforming to their preferred narrative line, their “theory”.  One way in which the attack is achieved is by never addressing argument or evidence which leads to a conclusion different from the shark’s.  Another is the lower road which responds by ignoring the research while attempting to debase the opponent’s character.  Neither is a means to help elucidate the manuscript.

But from such practices, persons are not exempt simply because they hold a  degree in something-or-other.

The two issues  are united by one common phenomenon: a strange notion that the aim of speaking about this manuscript is less to  better understand it than to triumph in a form of testosterone-driven competition:  “my brain is bigger and more virile than your brain, therefore you will conform to my theory.”

Sharks do not play fair with anyone: not with people who hold a different opinion, nor with their readers.  As example of fair play, let me illustrate from an article by a normal, un-shark like academic. I chose an article about the Book of Kells, because as far as I know, no-one has yet proposed an Irish-Voynich theory:

Paul Meyvaert, ‘The Book of Kells and Iona’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 6-19.

First, he defines the limits to a specific question that he wants to address:

No agreement exists on the place of origin of the Book of Kells: Northumbria, Eastern Scotland, and the monastery of Hy (our lona) have all been suggested. This article explores three new lines of argument, all leading to the island monastery of Hy. ..

Now here’s where we separate the scholars from the sharks.

Fair play.

Suppose that you, the reader, want to know more about that “Eastern Scotland” idea that Meyvaert obviously disagrees with.  If he is a genuine scholar, you should find that he will make a point of naming the original proponent of the other opinion, and will tell you just where you can read their evidence and argument.

and of course, Meyvaert does.  Fairly, fully and in detail in his footnote 6.  He does so with such meticulous detail that it will bore you if I put it here – so it’s at the end of this post.

  • but that’s fair play.

For examples of the opposite in Voynich studies, we can begin as early as the 1940s.

Hugh O’Neill. ‘Botanical Observations on the Voynich MS’, Speculum,Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1944), p. 126.

Hugh O’Neill mentions no previous research or opinion; he omits mention of the fact that he had been told his “sunflower” idea inconsistent with palaeography and codicology before he published!.

While some of the drawings appear to be conventionalized or otherwise altered (perhaps designedly) beyond recognition, other drawings can easily be assigned to one of several species and sometimes to only one species; e.g., fol. 25 is a species of nettle (Urtica) as shown by the opposite, ovate, serrate leaves with the axillary catkins; fol. 100v has a plainly drawn figure of Botrychium Lunaria L. The most startling identification, however, was fol. 93, which is quite plainly the common sunflower, Helianthus annuus L. Six botanists have agreed with me on this determination. This immediately recalls the date 1493, when the seeds of this plant were brought to Europe for the first time (by Columbus on his return from his second voyage). Again fol. 101v shows a drawing which does not resemble any native European fruit, but suggests plainly Capsicum, a genus strictly American in origin, known in Europe only after the above date. Inasmuch as the pages of the Ms. on which these drawings appear have the drawings and accompanying text in a handwriting not obviously different than the other pages, it seems necessary to consider this Ms. as having been written after 1493.

O.Neill may well be right about the ‘Nettle’ picture, but his “sunflower” is untenable, misled his audience and he already knew that well-informed and experienced persons objected to it before the article was published.  His refusal to mention them is pure Voynichero!

Another of similar type was Robert Brumbaugh.  In 1987, and although no botanist, no codicologist or art historian,  but a professor of Philosophy, he wrote an article for the Yale Library in-house journal with a most ambitious title and made all the same mistakes as O’Neill.

Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich Cipher Manuscript: A current report’, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 61, No. 3/4 (April 1987), pp. 92-95.

His botanical sources reduce to one: Hugh O’Neill. He chose O’Neill because it suited his own theory, and no alternative views to his own are referenced – not even the obvious “Roger Bacon theory” opinions, and no mention is made of any views opposing O’Neill’s either.

..One strand of the case did unravel. A group of botanists, led by Hugh O’Neill, agreed in identifying four of the plants in the Voynich drawings – two from the first and two from the fourth section – as having first been brought to Europe in 1493. This established the date of composition as the sixteenth century, not the thirteenth. And various other minor illustration details suggested the same attribution. (So, of course, had the suspected role of Kelley and Dee.)

Brumbaugh then moved from mere ‘Voynichero” arrogance to what I’d call the full crack-pot level:

Now, on fol. 100r, there was a drawing of a pepper,[1] and its label gave, with my puzzle numbers, 757752 – just right for PEPPER.[2] Other herbal labels could be read as well, and it turned out that the cipher here was taken from numerology.[3]  Each letter, that is, was assigned a value from 1 to 9 and “enciphered” by its number (remember, however, that each number could be written with either of two designs). What confirmed this was that my cipher box read the names in the second section of the manuscript, which consists of twelve maps of stars: these had no text, but only the star maps. I published an article on the pepper label and one on the first three star maps, with decipherments of the latter. All that remained was to apply the cipher to the text. This gave interesting results at once.

  • For one later evaluation of Brumbaugh’s ideas see Nicholas Pelling, The Curse of the Voynich (2006) pp.158-9.

[1] Here, he should have offered a citation, with details of the person who first said that drawing was of a pepper plant, and specifying which of the various  “pepper” plants he meant.

[2] Here he should have added detail about when the word “pepper” is first found in that particular spelling (orthography), and where. and whether it was then used of the new world capsicum or not.

[3] The reader is entitled to see Brambaugh’s “working-out”.


O’Neill and Brumbaugh were academics, but their attitude to their readers, lack of perspective, lack of interest in any ideas incompatible with their own show that indifference to their readers’ rights, which insults both the readers and those holding contrary but informed opinions adduced from evidence. The “shark” mentality isn’t of recent growth.


In the BBC interview, the interviewer tried a few times to get Pelling to tell the listeners about research into the botanical section. Pelling might have mentioned one or more of, say,  Fr. Theodore Petersen, O’Neill, Torasella, Sherwood, Dana Scott, me or Ellie Velinska, but as it happens the  response he gave might have given listeners the idea that we are all still completely bewildered by those drawings.

Four starsGreat interview, nonetheless and  highly recommended.

Due modesty – a Footnote from: Paul Meyvaert, ‘The Book of Kells and Iona’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 6-19.

6.  I. Henderson, “Pictish Art and the Book of Kells,” Ireland in Early Medieval Europe, ed. D. Whitelock, R. McKitterick, and D. Dumville, Cambridge, 1982, 79-105, on the basis of the points of contact she has discovered between Pictish art and the Book of Kells, has suggested Dunkeld on the east coast of Scotland as a possible place where the Book of Kells could have been produced. Though no evidence survives to show that a vigorous scriptorium ever existed at Dunkeld, the Old English list of saints’ resting places, known as the Secgan – whose two manuscripts date from the 11th century – lists Duncachan (Dunkeld) as the resting place of Columcylle (see D.W. Rollason, “Lists of Saints’ Resting-Places in Anglo-Saxon England,” Anglo-Saxon England, vii, 1987, 87). There is an ancient Scottish chronicle contained, among other items, in the 14th-century Popleton manuscript (Paris, Bibl. Nat. lat. 4126), which records that Kenneth Mac Alpine “septimo anno regni sui [i.e. 849] reliquias sancti Columbae transportavit ad ecclesiam quam construxit” (see M.O. Anderson, Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland, Edinburgh, 1980, 250). The suggestion that the church alluded to here was that of Dunkeld goes back to W.E Skene, Celtic Scotland, I, Edinburgh, 1876, 310, 316. That some relics of Columba were taken to Scotland at the time of the enshrining in the 8th century or at a later period seems very likely.


4 thoughts on “Crackpots, sharks and scholars

  1. You know what this makes me think? That maybe the whole atmosphere in the “community” would be different if the researchers met each other in real life more often (which is practically impossible). Hearing Nick with his nice accent, it’s just a bit different than dry text on a web comment 🙂

    The only thing I disagree with is his saying that we know nothing about it apart from technical data about the physical object. Though then again, if knowledge is defined as “some degree of consensus”, he’s probably right.

    But there are signs of a tipping point 🙂


    • Koen,
      Every now and then Nick has a Voynich ‘pub meet.’ Perhaps you should set aside some holiday time for the next one.

      I’m only glad that Nick’s attitude doesn’t prevail in the wider world, or people like me would be out of a job, and Christies catalogues would contain nothing but scientific assessments of the canvas and pigments. 🙂


  2. For what it’s worth, I tried to stick with the facts for what was only a very short interview about the facsimile, and the Voynich’s plant pages are desperately short of consensus, let alone facts. 😐


    • Nick, You can self-deprecate all you like but I liked the interview – I suppose you could say I ranked it one star-per-minute. 🙂

      From the sudden hike in visitors, I think you stimulated new interest in the manuscript.

      Hmmn – about the idea of consensus – I have strong reservations= in this context.


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