A few years ago, people Googling for “Voynich” started to see a sponsored “AdWord” link on the right hand side provocatively posing the question of whether there might be some link between the Voynich Manuscript and Leonardo da Vinci, and pointing them to www.edithsherwood.com.

Naturally, I pointed out that this hypothesis was a load of rubbish, primarily because Leonardo was left-handed, and the VMs was written by someone right-handed – a pretty good prima facie reason to dismiss the claim. Edith also relied on a particularly partial reading of the month names in the zodiac section (one of them when mirrored looks a bit like “lionardo”): but failed to notice not only that they all read like Occitan month names (which there is absolutely no reason to think that a young Florentine like Leonardo would have used), but also that they were plainly written by someone else.

Still, unlike the majority of Voynich theory proponents out there, she is at least looking in the right century and (I believe) in the right physical milieu (and possibly even the right town, in a roundabout kind of way): and for that I am grateful. No, don’t be like that: I really am. honestly.

Since then, Edith’s website has had some ups and downs (of which being hacked by some kind of Russan spam harvester and having its mail inboxes overflow were probably some of the downs). But over the last month, she has returned to it and begun to fill it with many additional pages detailing her and her daughter’s thoughts on actual plants apparently matching the drawings in the VMs. They refer to some of Mr Dana Scott’s botanical identifications (but repeatedly refer to him as a her, which Dana doubtless finds irritating), though largely propose their own matches.

Unfortunately, at such a large historical distance, finding botanical equivalents is a hugely hazardous way of trying to move forward: and the secondary claim to have localized the VMs’ production to Italy and/or the Mediterranean from the resulting set of highly contentious / non-obvious plants is simply not methodologically sound, however they try to spin it.

Though many people have taken this same tack over the years, that doesn’t make it a sound methodology: in fact, the consistent lack of progress achieved by it is very probably a clear indicator that doing so is in fact brutally unsound.

What is going on? I think that what we see expressed in the herbal drawings is not metaphor (a symbolic equivalent to or conceptual parallel of an original object) so much as metonymy (where component parts stand in for the whole). One classic example linguists give of this is the way Cockney geezers call a car a motor (or, in its gloriously glottal-stopperish glory, a “mo’er”), where a key component (“the motor”) is sufficient to stand in for the whole (“the car”). You may also recall this from Alexei Sayle’s “‘‘allo John go’ a new mo’er… / I keep tropical fish / in my underpants” [etc etc]).

Despite all that, the possibility remains that Edith and Erica might have managed to make some good observations. As I’m not a botanist, all I can say is that I think their reading of colours in the VMs is once again codicologically naive (because there seem to be plenty of reasons to conclude that most of the strong “heavy” colours in the VMs were not added by the original author): which would unfortunately seem to point in the opposite direction.

19 thoughts on “Edith Sherwood’s Voynich plants…

  1. James Taylor on November 12, 2008 at 4:08 pm said:

    I think your observation that because LD was left handed … rubish … is in itself rubish.

    As a left handed person (and old enough to have communicated via writing) I have observed all of the tricks that lefties do the avoid smearing.

    Also a lefty, I have learned to use my right hand in ways the righties have not learned to use their left.

    The idea of the book being written by a child makes sense, first he draws plants, and latter he draws naked women. This is especially true if pages were mixed up.

    As for your young Florentine comment, my read would be to call him a young hillbilly. Some odd kid who doesn’t relate to his peers who has time on his hands to draw plants and experiment with secret writing.

    Maybe Edith Sherwood does have it wrong, but rubish is not the word I would use to pronounce it so.

  2. Hi James,

    The only bit of writing Edith Sherwood really flags as Leonardo-esque (his supposed “lionardo” signature) is demonstrably not part of the original document, but was added by a later owner. The main Voynichese writing itself was done in a brisk, well-organized left-to-right manner, with pronounced and very obvious top-left-to-bottom-right downstrokes, which any palaeographer would tell you is a convincing indication of right-handedness.

    There is also little or no visual continuity between any of the pictures in the VMs and any of the drawings in Leonardo’s extensive and well-documented corpus, nor between any of the subject matter to a significant degree. The nymphs are not Mona Lisa, not even close.

    I’m sure Edith Sherwood is a lovely person, but my calling her theory a “load of rubbish” is somewhat overgenerous, as it allows people to think I might just be being flippant, and that it’s actually OK. It’s not OK – it’s nonsense.

    I have absolutely nothing against lefties. It’s just that, for all the brilliant and interesting left-handers out there now and in history, it clearly wasn’t one who wrote the VMs.

    Cheers, …..Nick Pelling…..

  3. Hi Nick,

    I am not a handwriting expert nor for that matter an expert on ciphers, nor 2nd century Gnosticism. I did burn several hours reading thru Edith Sherwood’s website, (it does have a poor design which does not lead you to the meat of her thesis). But she does make many valid points, more than other sites regarding alternative explanations that I have encountered.

    Granted, VM is not my cup of tea, as I was looking for the Heptarchia Mystica when I came across it.

    I fail to comprehend why the no one thinks LD would have used his right hand for writing as a child. As recently as 1940, my left handed father was forced to use his right hand for penmanship under threat of broken knuckles, so was my left handed mother-in-law.

    As to the comment that these childish drawings are nothing like the Mona Lisa, I would agree. My original computer program produced “Hello World” and my daughter’s 8 years old art definitely lacks sophistication.

  4. Hi James,

    From the VMs’ handwriting and at history, Northern Italy circa 1450-1500 is a pretty safe bet, which is consistent with it being by Leonardo.

    But that’s only reduced the odds on Leonardo’s being the author to (say) 1 in 100,000. And given that it was apparently written by a right-hander, you’d have to say that the odds are increased to (say) 1 in 1,000,000.

    I would happily flag anything in Edith Sherwood’s presentation that would reduce these odds to a more manageable level of probability. But I couldn’t find any detail or argument there that did this.

    Even though the VMs world is full of people who seem to think that one in a million is an acceptable level of probability to be working with, please excuse me if I hold a different view.

    Fact: the VMs is written in a sophisticated, unbreakable cipher. Fact: when Leonardo wanted to encipher words, he simply transposed their syllables. A different thing entirely.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  5. giuseppe on February 26, 2009 at 4:42 pm said:

    Sono italiano, capisco poco l’inglese, ma ho capito abbastanza e ho riflettuto sulla faccenda degli anagrammi. Ipotizzando che la lingua sia italiana e va anagrammata, tutti gli anagrammi devono essere di senso compiuto, e non lasciare mai una lettera in sospeso. Inoltre, la signora Sherwood dovrebbe far caso all’etmologia della parola italiana: la figura da lei indicata col termine ROTOCALCO (tradotta da lei con Image) indica non certo una pianta, ma il MAGAZINE. E ancora, la parola rotocalco è documentata per la I volta nel 1939! Come potrebbe l’autore del Voynich aver…precorso i tempi e scritto la didascalia (relativa a un vegetale!) ROTOCALCO, sebbene in anagramma??

  6. Hi Giuseppe,

    I totally agree that anagrams should make sense, with no spare letters: but who is to say what the correct spelling of an Italian word was circa 1500? Yet historically, so many attempted Voynich decipherers have relied upon precisely this kind of uncertainty to prop up their creaky hypotheses – and it seems likely that Edith Sherwood’s recent attempt falls into this category.

    I would also agree that her grasp of Italian etymology and plant history may not be quite strong enough to support her claims: your example of “Rotocalco” seems, like the example of “soia”, to be but one of many.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  7. Richard Fidler on February 12, 2011 at 2:10 am said:

    I believe Edith Sherwood is correct. Let me add the following observation. What if the writer could not write the language he is speaking but is Phonetically writing in his own language so that he could read the text to his audience in the language expected or for his translator to verbally rewrite correctly?! This would explain the variances. Ex..if you try to speak Polish or Russian and you can only write English you could Phonetically write in English the Polish or Russian words and thus speak to your audience or interpreter. I speak Polish but cannot write it.

  8. Nick – is it possible to have a link which lets us know when you reply to a comment?

    But more to the point, I’d like to use this as a tag on a page about the Vms. May I?

    “Even though the VMs world is full of people who seem to think that one in a million is an acceptable level of probability to be working with, please excuse me if I hold a different view”

  9. Diane: you should already receive notifications when someone adds a comment to a post you’ve already commented on, I don’t know why that wouldn’t be happening. Use the tag, what’s there to disagree with? 🙂

  10. Nick, Diane:

    It’s a “cock-eyed” world from my point of view. I don’t remember who taught me to read. The same person who taught me to read probably also taught me to write. Today, I suspect it was my left-handed half-sister. What’s my point, you ask? I had surgery on my “wandering” left eye when I was 6 years old. In the meantime, I was reading at the level of a 10-12 year old. I was writing in the “typical” left-hander’s “upside-down” grip on the pen. Southpaw’s usually do this to avoid smearing the freshly-written letters. When my 5-th grade teacher realized my difficulties with writing in ink, she did a VERY KIND act rather than force me into writing right-handed. She very loosely tied a sash around my waist and the crook of my left elbow. She also put Webster’s Dictionary on my desk-seat. (I was tiny–still am.)

    What’s my point? Wal, I just got finished reproducing some of the Voynich botanical captioning/writings. I had no difficulty writing the VMs letters once I figured out the starting point and direction of the first stroke or loop. Now, if I can just figure out WHAT I’m writing!

    Happy New Year y’all!

  11. Has anybody else discussed the ramifications of medieval left-handedness (shieldry, for instance)?

  12. Diane O'Donovan on March 23, 2012 at 9:44 am said:

    Nick – I still don’t get notifications btw – I don’t quite see why Sherwood’s identifications get more air-time than Dana’s and even with the side-by-side pictures, I often don’t see the likeness. I’d like to know why a flower is taken as definitive but a root or leaf ignored etc.

    Also to get to the point. You speak of metonymy (where component parts stand in for the whole), but I’ve been wracking my brains for the complementary term: where the whole is made from component parts of several related plants. I know, ‘related’ is a relative term! 😀

  13. Diane O'Donovan on March 23, 2012 at 9:46 am said:

    perhaps there’s no word for it. One might consider Franco-botany or steinobotany.. Frankensteinobtany is just too long. Clonabotany?

    I’ve just ‘done’ fol.33v, and I think the relief is making me lightheaded..

  14. Diane O'Donovan on March 23, 2012 at 9:47 am said:


  15. Diane: Synecdoche could be reasonably close. Does Sherwoodian faux-botany get much air-time here? I don’t think so! 🙂

  16. Diane on June 23, 2012 at 8:11 am said:

    Nick – I don’t know how to get in touch with Dana scott, but I assume you do.

    Could you let him know that the page listing his identifications has been infected with referral spam, and visitors only get a split second before being shoved off to a dating site.
    No idea what one does about this, either.

  17. Diane on June 23, 2012 at 8:40 am said:

    Correction – the spam appears on to affect the link on ‘Computational attacks’ – if I look up Dana’s page in a separate search, it’s ok

  18. “Does Sherwoodian faux-botany get much air-time here?”

    ah, that takes me back.

    Sherwood seem to have become the ‘standard authority’ – and as for air-time here.. thanks for posting my first paper.

  19. Diane: the thought of Sherwoodian faux-botany becoming the standard Voynich authority on the subject makes me feel somewhat ill. Specifically, what seems to me to run through it is a kind of botanical ‘presentist’ fallacy, i.e. that the ways that present-day plants are known, drawn, represented, mapped, cultivated, owned, sold etc form a good starting point for how plants ‘worked’ 550 years ago. This is precisely what got Brumbaugh into such trouble with the sunflower identification: basically, what you end up with is a lousy basis for any historical reasoning, one which is overwhelmingly likely to lead anyone gullible enough to accept such presentist non-logic far astray.

    Apart from that, it’s not so bad. 🙂

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