Here are some among the questions formulated as part of my research plan, and which then gave structure to the work which I did on this manuscript, publishing selected items online, in blog form, between 2008-2017. Given the extent to which the results obtained have proven so stimulating to tired imaginations, I hope the questions may prove useful to people who enjoy the actual work of research.
- Consider the most frequently-repeated assertions and assumptions made about this manuscript. Can each be tracked to origin in a specific body of research – historical, palaeographic or iconographic? Is it possible to name the first person to give expression to one of the assertions now (2009) so widely repeated, sans evidence or reference? Is it possible to read the grounds from which the view first emerged that (e.g.) the manuscript should be deemed a German cultural product or that it is the product of an Italian architect’s imagination, and so on. If there is an original thesis argued rationally – can its proponent be identified, and can one read his or her body of evidence?
- Given that the imagery in this manuscript has defied reading for a century, is it reasonable to presume it is a product of the Latin manuscript tradition?
- Task: find a set of 5-10 examples of medieval Latin or other manuscripts from which all the usual marks of punctuation are absent.
- Consider the manuscript’s dimensions. Do these point to a work tailor-made, or folios obtained from a stationer? Where and when do we find such dimensions as standard for works either on paper or on membrane? [Note – this question was only valid if the manuscript’s quires had never been trimmed in subsequent binding. That assurance was given in an online response by R. Zandbergen, who was unaware of its implications].
- Consider particular elements in the iconography which run contrary to standard customs and beliefs in fifteenth century Latin Europe (an obvious example: depiction of two distinctly different animals sharing one head). Where do such motifs occur?
- Given the appearance of the ‘nymphs’ in the botanical and the ‘bathy-‘ section – is there any known manuscript related to astronomical and/or related matters in which figures of these proportions and in such a style do occur?
- Does the internal evidence support the often-repeated idea that the draughtsman/ men were mad, infantile or incompetent?
- If not, then what reason is there for details habitually overlooked or dismissed on such grounds (e.g. the position of the archer’s hands, the construction of the botanical images).
- Is it possible to interpret some or all these drawings in terms of a particular set of languages? [Note – I’m referring to languages known to the first makers of the various images, not necessarily to any informing the manuscript’s written text.]
- How many of the routine assumptions find clear support from the imagery? e.g. the roundels inscribed with month names are routinely described as astrological and as forming ‘a zodiac’. Separate the items which do, and which do not find justification in the primary source.
- Is there evidence of an homogenous (i.e authorial) composition, or do the images contain embedded evidence of composition at definable, and different, periods? Consider this question in parallel with evidence of cultural affect.
- The manuscript is still  universally asserted and presumed – as it has been since 1912 – the original creation of a fifteenth century Latin European author, a Christian by definition. Map the extent to which this idea (a) has been simply assumed or adopted (a) formally argued from the primary evidence (c) is denied by the primary source. [Note – these questions were formulated in early 2009; my research concluded there was no evidence for Christian influence in the imagery before its very latest stage. Absence of Christian imagery is now taken as a ‘fact’ and often repeated in a way plainly ill-informed by any detailed study or even by detailed study of my published evidence and argument, but it was not an opinion heard elsewhere until after I’d spent some years pressing the point and explaining it repeatedly, with evidence from both the history and theory of art and by showing comparative evidence which offered a positive rebuttal of the ‘Christian European author’ scenarios. From 1912-2016 or so, there was no alternative view save those indicated by Jorge Stolfi, and Panofsky’s bare opinion of a non-Christian ‘authorship’.) Both had been ignored or derided by writers who followed them, until I set about forcing reconsideration of Panofsky’s position.]
- Anyway, those were the first dozen items on my research plan’s agenda by 2009; I see from my log-books that the plan of research was written up on April 16th. in that year.
One result of conducting the following investigation was unhappy: I found it increasingly difficulty to feel any interest in, or respect for, the most prevalent, popularised and emphatically asserted “theories” – for the basis of which I had hunted, and found quite lacking in substance. The oft-proferred and widely followed ‘histories’ are rarely other than a variation of Wilfrid Voynich’s unsupported narrative, mutated to suit particular hobby-horse of some individual or group. It saves having to learn much that is new, I suppose.
Such matter as is produced and deemed ‘evidence’ in support of the quasi-historical scenarios is not, at basis, any evidence about the manuscript’s origins or character evinced, but circumstantial items intended to make an historically-tinged fantasy story internally consistent.
I was often driven to pause long enough to explain in detail just why e.g. the ‘cloudband’ is simply not evidence of Germanic cultural character – or why presence of more-or-less parallel lines to indicate modelling cannot be taken as evidence for the whole as the original work of a Renaissance Italian author. Not that such demonstrable truths proved welcome – or even merited recognition when the nonsensical item was dropped. More recently I found to my amazement that one crowd of Voyncheros seemed happy to accept a proposition that medieval southern Italy and the Greek islands were culturally ‘Germanic’ !!
I’ve often puzzled often over why such mad notions come to be promoted in the total absence of historical or other evidence, and why neither the promoter nor his adherents are ever called to account. After all, we have libraries for checking assertions made about history or about art – yet the basic response: ‘Is that true’? seems deadened by the desire of most to enjoy an illusion of progress and the chimerical feeling of belonging to some online
google gang mini-community.
I don’t claim to understand believers.
On the positive side: the research did last long enough for me to gain ever-deepening respect for the methods and collegial attitudes that prevail among those labouring to understand the text’s written part. To them I offer compliments that are completely sincere.
I do regret that having a high level of skill in cryptographic analysis seems still, as in Friedman’s time, to prelude having any natural analytical skill when it comes to treating imagery.
My experience has been that few with skills in cryptanalysis and cryptography can even begin to grasp that a pre-modern picture is primarily just that: a picture; and that a picture which shows a plant, or a map, or a man with a crossbow as part of its design is still a whole picture. It is not the better or worse attempt to take a snapshot of just one object: plant, map or crossbow. One may not presume that the detail of interest to us is the reason for the picture’s existence: the painter’s object in earlier times was rarely the object per se.
But this inability with regard to pictures manifests constantly in a genuine inability to recognise, let alone understand the significance of, differences in style and presentation. They may easily distinguish the form of a longbow from that of a crossbow, but think one is fussing over trivia in objecting to the presentation of supposedly ‘similar’ imagery as a string of items not only plainly unlike the target from the Voynich manuscript, but wholly different from each other in all the most important ways: cultural expression, stylistics, clothing, posture and so forth. You cannot make arguments about an image’s provenance by reference to block-book pictures made several generations later than the manuscript which is supposedly the object of study. What you might do, perhaps, is attempt some argument about dissemination.
Never mind – it just shows cryptographers have their speciality and that it might be helpful if it were more generally understood that it is no more true that ‘anyone with two eyes’ can rightly read old pictures than that having learned the ABC is sufficient pre-requisite for decoding the Voynich manuscript’s written text. It’s bout knowing your stuff: history, techniques of expression, accidental and other ‘tells’ and so forth. That much, at least, the two disciplines might have in common.