Evidence, evidence, evidence.

We’ve recently seen a rash of Polls at voynich.ninja, the aim of which is to reach ‘consensus’ about the sort of things “we all agree on” – and which of course will thereafter been deemed indisputable.

First this one:

The manuscript does not contain standard religious iconography from any of the three main Abrahamic religions known to 15th century Europe….With the single exception of one nymph holding a cross ( f79v ), there are no examples of 15th century Catholic, Jewish or Islamic religious imagery within the manuscript.

Is the “one exception” actually an exception – is what she holds intended to be a cross of the religious sort or is it an instinctive interpretation by a person of Christian antecedents? How do you define “religious: imagery?  Is the lulav a religious image?   Is  avoidance of natural forms expressive of religious culture?

What on earth is the aim of asking such a question?  More importantly what are the likely consequences of taking a ‘vote’ without any links to evidence or argument for any of these propositions?

Will it now be deemed “irrelevant” to refer to the evidence of Jewish and Christian culture within the manuscript?

Why should “we” all agree about something which a majority have never considered in any depth?

Now this one:  “wrong” in every conceivable way, again including implications for later parameters permitted in discussion”

  • The leaves of the manuscript are parchment made of calfskin.
  • The quality of the parchment is of average quality, neither being fine nor course.

I arrived to find that every person before me had voted that “we can all agree on both propositions”.

The first proposition is plain wrong.  The animal from which the membrane came may well have been a calf, but to agree to call the membrane ‘calfskin’ is just wrong.  Not one of the previous voters knew enough to recognise that, yet voted anyway.  Evidence-based opinions are not all that strong outside discussions of the written text.

“The quality of the parchment is of average quality, neither being fine nor course”

Everyone voted for that too, although the constant description of the membrane (bar errors) is that it is not parchment, but vellum.

Specialists may quibble – after all, that’s why we normally opt for ‘membrane’ but since 1912 every qualified person evaluating the manuscript described the material as ‘vellum’

But if everyone votes ‘yes’ then what is not calfskin will be ‘deemed agreed’ to be calfskin, and the vellum “agreed” not to be vellum.

No evidence, documentary or otherwise seems to have been consulted here. ~ except perhaps something written in the wiki or on voynich.nu (?)

So now we come to the third point:

“of average quality, neither being fine nor course” (read: coarse).

here again, as with the parchment or vellum thing, experts can and will quibble.  But basically the important issue is how well equalised the membrane is – because it’s an important clue to where the thing was made.  Spanish and southern Italian manuscripts have notably poorer finish – more visible hair-follicles, especially in the corners, and that sort of thing – where German parchment and vellum was really beautifully equalised by the fourteenth century.  You can scarcely tell the hair-side from the flesh-side (that’s what ‘equalised’ means).

Steele

Robert Steele, who was well-qualified and experienced as a professional evaluator of medieval manuscripts remarked on the vellum before the manuscript moved into a library and said:

“The vellum is coarse, even for the thirteenth century” – Robert Steele

Robert Steele, ‘Science in Medieval Cipher’, Nature 122, (13 October 1928)  pp. 563-565 .

Dana Scott, spent a full week visiting the Beinecke daily in 2006 and wrote:

At least one (probably 2) of the folios have a very fine peach fuzz feel to the touch. Folios where there had been prior stitching were interesting because the skin is tough and the holes are just fine the way they are now without the prior stitching. If one looks very closely at the VMs folios, you may find tiny “black” dots scattered around a number of the folios. These are actually hair follicle holes in that remained after the hair was removed.
I spent a week visiting the VMs. …  I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Beinecke Library in September 2006….

On the other hand, in that same year Nick Pelling’s book includes the comment that”:

“… it is very hard to distinguish between its hair and flesh sides…”

Curse of the Voynich (2006) p.53

The overall impression given by these accounts ( I do not know whether Pelling had actually seen the manuscript)  is not of a first-grade, book-quality vellum which has been equalised to the highest – i.e. German – standard but perhaps appropriate to southern France or Italy or (as most people had agreed before 1931) England – where follicles and ‘peach fuzz’ were typically still in evidence.

NOW – today, and referring to some documents unpublished, Rene Zandbergen says he has information direct from the Beinecke librarians that the persons who worked on the vellum “tried very hard” to smooth it.

This seems to mean that no, it isn’t perfectly equalised (which is of considerable importance for codicological assessments and provenancing) but that the vellum itself has a fairly good writing surface even if as some have said, it is coarse “even for the thirteenth century”.

So what do you think?  Do you feel you know enough to form any useful opinion?

But I hope you’ll see now why I object to the idea that voting for “what we can all agree on” serves any useful purpose in the absence of preliminary research.

Not just a quick consult with the wiki, or with Rene’s own website – real digging.

This sort of polling, in my view, only creates an artificial pressure within the group to forever after conform to ideas initially  promoted and presented for whatever reason, for approval by a group whose individual members may have nothing to go on but gut-feeling.

That’s not likely to produce anything but “group-think” in which investigation and consideration of evidence, or the raising of valid questions is discouraged.  “we” can be a very dangerous state of mind when intellectual enquiry is the aim.

And imagine if “we all agree” to deem the manuscript’s leaves calfskin?!

We’d be the laughing stock of every serious scholar, every codicologist, librarian and appraiser.

But guess what – it may be “what we all agree on”.

In the absence of evidence…

POSTSCRIPT – Misled by referring to too few, or wrong earlier researchers, my own earlier post also called the vellum “parchment”.  🙂

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9 Replies to “Evidence, evidence, evidence.”

  1. When I proposed this project my main idea was to reconsider everything and find out what we actually know.

    To some extent that actually works, and the fact that people debate everything is nice.

    However the ‘democracy’ part is very, very problematic. Much more so than I anticipated.

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    1. Ironic, isn’t it that the ‘majority rules’ idea so easily becomes “who influenced the majority dictates..’ while, on the other hand tribal systems where everyone has one chance to speak, and no right to reply, creates a more genuinely ‘democratic’ system than any other yet known. I chose anarchism years ago, but find I have to keep practicing or I forget. 🙂

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    2. Koen,
      These days I’m reluctant to ask former colleagues to become involved in anything to do with Voynich studies, because to be perfectly fair, Nick was perfectly right in saying that it can easily become just a shark-pit. Actually I see it as people dropping the book to go cheer the football team, and everything becomes more about team-spirit than independent research. However, I’ve asked three people – an appraiser, a curator and a conservator if they would be willing to write a guest post on the niceties of distinguishing vellum from England, France, Italy, Germany and Spain-southern-Italy (because the last is almost impossible to provenance more specifically) and hopefully one may be kind enough to agree. It would be extra kind if they would permit their name to be published, though after what happened to Stephen Bax and sort of thing others have been obliged to deal with, including rumours passed about their moral character, professional capacity and mental competence – all in public forums and comments – I rather doubt any will agree.

      As a sort of second string, I’ve suggested that if they feel they could make a paper of that kind, that they might post it through academia.edu or to one of the major Conservation journals. I expect the last would be the wisest course, but in that case we might have to wait a couple of years longer.

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  2. Koen,
    It just occurs to me. Each of the topics would be a great starting-question for a round-table debate. Instead of “Can we all agree on…” it could be “What do members know about… (eg. the vellum)” and an emphasis placed on evidence being presented. Then maybe, after all the information was in, we could forumulate a short statement, rather than the Yes/No sort of thing, which isn’t so appropriate here imo.
    What do you think? Worth putting forward?

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    1. My initial idea had this in mind: what do we know at the moment, and what is the proof? It was the point to debate and rephrase until the statement was problem free. I’m not too happy with the way it turns out, and the whole voting thing doesn’t work… clearly some people don’t even know what ‘iconography’ means, how are they supposed to determine whether a statement about it is correct. If the voting is replaced by something else, the whole thing would be quite nice. All cards on the table, bo taboos, all arguments and assumptions reconsidered, all evidence weighed anew.

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      1. I think you might need to make a sign to hang outside that virtual conference-room. “All Theories to be left by the door – by Order of the Sheriff” 😀

        You know, I’ve been wondering whether it mightn’t be a good start to add a “library” thread to the technical forums: you know, astronomy with astronomy and codicology resources in that forum. The way the library is, it tends to be overlooked unless something special turns up. Just a thought.

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  3. Yes, of course I saw the Voynich Manuscript before I described it – the Beinecke curators very kindly allowed me to spend three whole days examining it closely. And the support medium – though there are a few (less than five, as I recall) pages that are very slightly different – is very strongly equalized, just as Rene subsequently confirmed.

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    1. Nick,
      Did you notice which folios were different in quality? And can you give any insight to why so many of the earlier appraisers thought it looked English? How does the vellum compare with that used e.g. for the French Pocket Bibles’. It’s really great to be able to ask these questions of someone who saw it (and I’d guess you also took notes?)

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    2. Nick – just a small thing, but when two amateurs hold the same view, we would usually say they agree. An eminent, qualified professional whose opinion is sought as a second opinion, is the sort of person who is said to “confirm” an initial opinion. Just a matter of form; I might offer an opinion on a picture, and my opinion might be confirmed by the chief curator of the Tate … or something of that kind. Less a matter of semantics than respect for professional protocol. In fact, given your keen interest in codicology – a subject which you surely pioneered in Voynich studies, I’d tend to reverse the order in which you set yourself, with such characteristic modesty.

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