One of Google’s more interesting experimental engines is Google Trends: this aggregates data on keyword searches, to let you compare the relative popularity of different keywords over time: for example, “Paris Hilton” and “Star Wars” are (Google-wise) just about as popular as each other. From the graph, you can see that interest in Star Wars spiked up in May 2005, which Google guesses (correctly) was from the Star Wars film opening: while the Paris Hilton volume spiked somewhat when she left jail in June 2007. This reveals other non-obvious search aspects, such as the apparent cargo cult worship of Ms Hilton in Indonesia and Mexico. 🙂

But I digress.

For the graph for “Voynich”, Google Trends’ algorithms gamely suggest to the SciAm 2008 online re-release of Gordon Rugg’s 2004 article (marked “[A]”) as a possible cause of Voynich interest (but this is plainly wrong). The twin peaks actually correspond (a) to a surge in Voynich interest in France caused by Jean-Claude Gawsewitch’s (2005) “Le Code Voynich”, and (b) to the (2009) Voynich gag in webcomic XKCD.


If we look solely at the June 2009 numbers, the scale of the XKCD peak is even clearer: Google search traffic for “Voynich” apparently spiked by more than 50x over baseline traffic levels. Whoosh.


This massive XKCD spike is what lies behind the battle raging in the Wikipedia Voynich Manuscript Talk page. On the one hand, you have Wikipedia editors who think the Voynich page is basically OK (yes, there used to be a section on VMs in popular culture, but it got culled over a year ago) – and on the other, you have an army of vociferous XKCD fans who think that there should be at least some mention of XKCD squeezed in there, surely?

I think it’s important to point out that neither side is entirely blameless in this dispute. Wikipedia editors deliberately use its neutral voice and juxtaposing header templates as a way of fusing (achingly) high and (shudderingly) low cultural references together under a banner of supposed universality: though this syncretism helps to differentiate it (as a project) from traditional encyclopaedias, nobody involved is quite sure whether ultimately to privilege high or low culture – both are important at different times and for different reasons.

Similarly, the XKCD fanbase (which seems centred on Seattle, according to Google Trends?) has done itself no favours by the large number of inane troll-like edits attempted on the Voynich page. And none of them has so far really explained (in the Discussion page) why it is they collectively feel the urge to stitch XKCD’s web of cultural referentiality into Wikipedia’s fabric. From the outside, it certainly looks like a kind of drive-past L337 grafitti being daubed on Wikipedia’s walls: if there is a genuine point to the whole activity, I’ve yet to find it.

Ultimately, I suspect that the basic problem is that there is no consistently useful dividing line between high and low culture: when you have Wikipedia pages on Immanuel Kant and Brian Cant (and every silly cant inbetween), who’s to say where to draw it?

Finally, a brief Wikipedia aside. A fair while ago, someone (I’m pretty sure it was “Syzygy”, Elmar Vogt’s Wikipedia editor nom-de-plume) very kindly added a mention of my ‘Averlino’ theory to the Wikipedia Voynich page. I’m pleased that it is mentioned there, because – unlike a lot of theories – I did try hard to produce a working hypothesis consistent with the facts, rather than blatantly defying them (which seems to be the norm some days, sadly). Even if you happen to disagree with it, it does at least have the merit of pointing towards a sensible template: I’m quite sure that, if not Averlino, the real author will turn out to be remarkably similar.

Yet Elmar’s description of my theory wasn’t hugely accurate: and so I thought I ought to take the opportunity to correct and update the final two sentences. Just in case anyone is tempted to revert the changes, here are links to the research I’ve published since “The Curse of the Voynich” to back it up:-

If Pelling is right, then the manuscript is enciphered with an extremely convoluted cascade of methods, mixed together to make the resulting cipher text appear to have the properties of an unknown medieval language (such as consonant-vowel pairing, folio references, etc).

I discussed this archaic language covertext in more detail in this recent blog post. And also:-

He claims most of the non-zodiac marginalia were originally added by the document’s author(s), but have ended up unreadable because of incorrectly-guessed alterations superimposed by multiple later owners.

Recent posts on the mystery of the VMs’ unreadable marginalia (for why should they be unreadable, given that marginalia are normally added to explain or remind?) are here and here: but most of the discussion is still relatively unchanged since The Curse.

33 thoughts on “Wikipedia, XKCD and the Voynich Manuscript…

  1. Hi Nick,

    Indeed, I was the one who introduced Averlino in the WP’s VM entry. (I think I even fiddled with your bio there.)

    As for the XKCD thing, my take is the question is not high or low culture — low culture as well should be incorporated in an encycolpaedia. The important criterion is rather “relevance”: In how far is the VM being mentioned in XKCD relevant for the VM? What is the probability that someone reading about the VM will like to read the XKCD comic?

    In my opinion, relevance is rather low, so I was and am opposed to the inclusion. I’m under the vague feeling (which is obviously wrong, because we from the WP always assume good faith) that the push for inclusion of the XKCD reference is simply a fannish attempt to boost XKCD’s perceived importance.

    As for your edits, though in general I’m wary of pro domo action, I don’t see a problem with you clarifying your stance. But I’m afraid,phrases like “an unknown medieval language (such as consonant-vowel pairing, folio references…)” will tend to confuse the average reader: In how far is a folio reference characteristic for a language, an unknown language to boot? (I think I see what you’re aiming for, but the wording is a bit foggy.)

    (And, if I really wanted to be picky, “appears to have the properties” is redundant: If it appears to be a language, it also has its properties. Otherwise it wouldn’t appear… 😉

    Give me a day, and I will try to come up with something better which is true to the spirit!


  2. Hi Elmar,

    Please think of my edit not as a pro domo action, but rather as an iterative (and definitely incomplete) step towards a better entry. As you know, I’m not a big fan of neutral voice writing (frankly, I’d rather people declared their agendas and were passionate about their subject), so I’m probably not the best person to be editing Wikipedia. 😉

    For example, the consonant-vowel thing is a pretty important factor. I think it is undeniable that Voynichese ‘o’, ‘a’ and ‘e’ function so as to resemble vowels – and this is, to a very large degree, why Voynichese appears to have “language-like” properties. But that’s the point of divergence between linguistics and cryptology: if these are not vowels, then you really have to conclude that the code-maker is playing some kind of funny linguistic game with the covertext. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  3. OTOH, please bear in mind these two factors when editing at WP:

    *) WP is supposed to be a concise repository of information — Brevity is the wit. It’s not meant to discuss theories in depth, but give an oversight over what there is, and provide links to more in-depth information.

    *) No original research, but a directory of existing research. Presenting your theory is already pushing the envelope somewhat (since CotV is self-published, but I can justify that to myself by saying, “That’s the way VM research is done.”) But your blog is certainly off limits as a WP source. In other words, strictly speaking it would only be appropriate to represent what you published in CotV, but not any further theories developed here.

    Not that I would run WP this way if it was my project, but that’s simply the way the rules are set.


  4. Hi Elmar,

    Thanks for (presumably) your WP edit, which (for the record) now reads:-

    If he is right, then the manuscript is enciphered with an extremely convoluted cascade of methods, designed to render the resulting cipher text similar to a medieval document in an unknown language, complete with apparent consonant-vowel pairing of letters and fake page references. Pelling claims most of the marginalia were part of the original document, but have ended up corrupt because later owners tried to emend the faded text, when they incorrectly guessed the original meaning.

    It’s still not perfect, but it’s certainly much more representative of what I wrote in The Curse (as well as of what I conclude now), so thanks again. 🙂

    But I don’t really understand this part of your comment:-

    But your blog is certainly off limits as a WP source. In other words, strictly speaking it would only be appropriate to represent what you published in CotV, but not any further theories developed here.

    Ummm… more than half of the Notes on the WP VMs page are to online-only sources (and not just, either), so I don’t really understand why my book is OK but my blog pages aren’t. If this is the policy, strip out all those links and those unsupported statements, the page is probably 3x too long anyway. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  5. Rene Zandbergen on July 15, 2009 at 7:21 am said:

    As regards Wiki and on-line resources, I fear that will quickly lose
    relevance as it is not being updated anymore. Even the ‘history’ area is getting
    out of date.

    I guess you two are talking about the central Wikipedia entry, not about a
    Voynich-dedicated Wiki? The second one would be the ideal place for me to
    have more details and more personal opinions (which I think blogs are)
    while the central wikipedia could be kept brief, and should refer to the
    dedicated wiki.

    But I won’t say too much, since I am not myself putting any effort in editing these.
    (And I know sentences should not start with but or and 😉 )

    Cheers, Rene

  6. Nick,

    Ummm… more than half of the Notes on the WP VMs page are to online-only sources (and not just, either), so I don’t really understand why my book is OK but my blog pages aren’t.

    Online-ony sources in itself are not a problem; the culprits are blogs, forums, and personal web pages. The first two have the problem of being too transient, the third one has a problem of “reliability”, or reputation.

    Personally, I’ve always thought this is too strict. I see nothing wrong in linking to a dedicated forum for rock band Soandso from their WP page if you look for further information on them. (Of course, it’s a different thing if you want to provide reference for a particular fact.) And some theories about the VM are — while relevant — only out there on personal blogs…

    But for the time being, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

    (CotV is, since being self-published, strictly speaking not a reliable source, and using it as reference is the exception to the rule.)

  7. Hi Rene, remains a staggeringly useful online reference, even if it is becoming slightly stale through neglect. 😮

    Yes, we’re talking about the Wikipedia page: but as far as a Voynich Wiki goes, I’m not convinced that current Voynich researchers have effectively demonstrated their ability to share nicely. Had there been a Voynich Wiki a decade ago, I would have heartily endorsed the idea – but now I think the time is right for new brooms. If it were down to me, I’d rename the Wikipedia VMs page “Voynich Manuscript (speculations)” and start afresh with a page about what we actually know about the VMs now.

    And I agree with St Paul that starting a sentence with and or but is fine. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  8. Hi Elmar,

    Having looked at the pages linked at by the Wikipedia VMs page’s Notes section, the selection policy still seems somewhat arbitrary to me. Dennis Stallings, Sean B. Palmer, Claude Martin, Jan Hurych – these are all personal web pages. Yet these are arguably far more relevant and balanced than almost all of the published sources cited there. And as for Gordon Rugg’s intrinsically unreliable theory: that too, is improved not a jot by all his published interviews and articles.

    The point I’m making here is that rather than help reduce readers’ exposure to unreliability, the Wikipedia VMs page is – by inconsistent use of its sources – actually increasing it. Arguably, a proper critical summary of the VMs would say:-

    The mysterious, unreadable Voynich Manuscript has endured at least four centuries of idle speculation about its content. Reproducing any of this here would be an exercise in equal parts vanity and futility, so we’ve locked the page. Despite the postmodern nature of its challenge, it awaits a proper, concerted multidisciplinary assault to understand its actual history – perhaps then its cipher or language will be broken. The Beinecke Library has very kindly released colour scans of its pictures. Here are some of them for you to enjoy. PS: no, we’re not interested in your new theory.

    I’m not sure how well that would go down with VMs fans, though. 😮

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  9. Well, the problem of course is that people with different amounts of experience and expertise and different interpretations of the guidelines work there. Hence, what one editor considers reasonable is outright madness to the next — What do you expect form a fundamentally democratic project like WP? (I’ve grown experienced enough to stay out of edit wars as much as I can, but it ain’t always easy…)

    All we can do is try to find a consensus of opinion without compromising quality too much.

    But I personally think Rugg et al have their place there too, even if I think they’re on the wrong track. (Heck, Nick, you should know. 😉 WP is not a fact database, but its mission is to cover all aspects of its topics. Even if we agree that Rugg is wrong, he has had an influence on the way the VM is received in public, hence he should be noted, and his influence explained.

    Though I think the Apollo landings were real, I’m also convinced that an article covering the various hoax hypotheses should be there.

  10. Hi Elmar,

    But… don’t you think there’s abundant evidence of feature creep in the VMs Wikipedia page? It has surely now got to the stage where it is many times larger than is actually usable, no matter how clearly its plucky, valiant editors try to rephrase any given sentence. Is anyone who lands on that page actually able to learn anything useful from it?

    Look, of course I’m happy to be on there: but that is outweighed by the vast weight of unhelpful misanalysis that has accumulated. On balance, I’d rather all the speculation (mine, Rugg’s, Brumbaugh’s, everyone’s) was dropped, and the page rewritten to factually describe the cipher weaknesses and odd codicological features of the VMs which most likely contain the most information any code-breaker or historical puzzle-solver should take on board.

    For all the VBI points I’ve accumulated looking at the Voynich Manuscript over the years 🙂 , I can’t help but feel that the Wikipedia page is actually a poor ambassador for the VMs. Oh well!

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  11. Hi Elmar,

    Thinking about it overnight, perhaps my basic gripe with the Wikipedia Voynich page is that the overwhelming majority of it is historiographic – not unlike going to a page on Star Wars and finding it devoted entirely to Star Wars fan films.

    You of all people should appreciate that this confuses the mystery of the Voynich Manuscript (i.e. that which is on the page) with the curse of the Voynich Manuscript (i.e. the enduring confusion in people’s heads). That is, the WP VMs page fetishes the cultural confusion while sidelining the cultural object itself. And that is all so “Voynich 1.0”, if you ask me.

    Look, I understand that things grow over time – but all I’m doing is pointing out that sometimes things need pruning too. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  12. Nick,

    Again, I think it’s imperative to look at the article from the point of view of the average reader rather than from the researcher’s POV: The WP article is not there to support the VM or VM research, but to inform the layman.

    Assume you’ve just come across the VM for the first time in the fateful XKCD comic (…), or some movie or novel or whatever, and want to find out more about it. Assume you’ve read in a story about the VM a side remark, that “Since Brumbaugh, Bacon has been thoroughly discredited,” and later read in a forum that “Rugg’s work has done more to damage VM research than to help it.”

    If we stuck strictly with the facts, the WP article would omit both and not give the reader the background necessary to gain any insight into what all these allusions mean — but this is IMHO precisely the purpose of the WP: The aim is to give you exactly the information required to enter a meaningful conversation about the subject you read up on. WP is not a database of facts. Not a research tool.

    I’m not saying the article is perfect, and I grudgingly have to admit that it doesn’t fulfill the standards for featured article anymore. OTOH, I think the editors have done a fair job on a difficult topic, and while the article is on the upper limit of the useful length, it provides a balanced and overall comprehensible summary of the “state-of-the-art” of Voynichology.

    P.S.: If we really dropped everything which is speculation about the VM, the article would be a direly laconic piece of work, like… “It’s an old book.”

  13. Hi Elmar,

    My opinion is that the WP Voynich page has drifted far, far away from the subject of the manuscript itself, by fixating on four centuries’ accumulated hallucinatory / half-baked theories. As such, I think it has become a prime example of the least useful kind of Wikipedia page.

    Dropping every single bit of the [Voynich 1.0] speculation about what the manuscript might be about (or moving it all to a “Voynich Manuscript (Speculation)” page, where it can sprawl all it likes) would be a very good thing if the same space were used to refocus on the [Voynich 2.0] issues of what the VMs actually is, vis-a-vis:-
    * a codicological mystery
    * a palaeographic mystery
    * a historical mystery
    * a linguistic mystery
    * a cryptographic mystery
    * an art history mystery
    * an astronomical mystery
    * an astrological mystery
    If the page was (for example) restructured around these basic headers (where each section concentrated on the primary evidence and reasons for the mystery), then you would have something that actually approached Wikipedia’s ideals.

    Something to consider?

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  14. I don’t think the WP article warrants splitting it up in two seperate articles, and I still don’t think reducing it to all the “evidence” we’ve got (How much is there? What are the facts that we all can really agree upon?) is not going to help.

    Besides, I also still think most readers will like to hear about the “speculation” as well as about the “facts”. Let me repeat myself: WP is not a starting place for research, but general information about the topic. The speculations surrounding the VM are partart of that information.

    But, you’re more than welcome…

  15. I think that the Wikipedia page fails to explain to interested readers what the Voynich Manuscript is (i.e. it’s a multi-level mystery) and why (i.e. what specific evidence and observations make it such a mystery): and that the page instead acts as a repository for historiographic hallucinations, the kind of thing that Kahn so famously dismissed as ‘enigmatology’. Not so much ‘Voynichology‘ as ‘Voynichography‘, or perhaps ‘Voynichographology‘ (the study of that which has been written about the Voynich Manuscript). Whichever label you prefer, it’s Voynich 1.0 stuff through and through.

    I’m a “Voynich 2.0” kind of guy: and so I don’t even begin to share your pessimism about the current state of VMs knowledge. Drop all the speculations, and you end up with an almost-certainly-500-year-old cultural artefact constructed with the same techniques and materials as countless other 500-year-old cultural artefacts. The essential “Voynich 1.0” fallacy lies in thinking that the VMs is something so special that it lies beyond knowability: and hence yielding instead to looking for infinitesimal flashes of insight within the overwhelming tsunami of weak, possibilitistic thinking that continues to characterize nearly all VMs writing.

    In my opinion, you’ve demonstrated countless times that you’re sharp, observant, logical, and with good critical thinking skills. But why do I also get the impression that pessimism is in that mix too? Might it be the case that you’ve spent too long on the mailing list? 😮

  16. Rene Zandbergen on July 16, 2009 at 1:24 pm said:

    For me, optimism and pessimism are cyclic moods 🙂
    I can of course only judge my own. Even though I’m officially labeled as ‘optimist’
    in the German dedicated Wiki ( )
    I am currently rather pessimistic about on-going research in the VMs ‘language’.

  17. It’s true that recent years have seen little of value published about Voynichese itself. But I suspect rhe larger problem isn’t pessimism, but rather a strange kind of passive-aggressive ennui, which rapidly turns hostile when any kind of probable knowledge presents itself. It is a postmodern (and curiously anti-epistemological) frame of mind, which seems to be at its most comfortable when it believes that there is nothing that can be known about the VMs. 🙁

  18. Drop all the speculations, and you end up with an almost-certainly-500-year-old cultural artefact constructed with the same techniques and materials as countless other 500-year-old cultural artefacts.

    But of course, that, too, is speculation. I know it is the firmly held belief of you, and others… but the readership of Wiki should not, in my opinion, be presented with speculations advertised as facts. Anyone in this, successful at having their speculations accepted as proven, is standing in the way of solving the mystery… unless they happen to be right. Big risk, IMO.

    As for the criteria for exclusion and inclusion, as seen by the Wiki editors… yes, there are rules… but they are not followed with any consistency. Of course I was dropped… an issue I had argued, fought for, and lost… but before even my article be cited (a paid article, not self-published, in a magazine which covers Renaissance history, not just “faires”… blah blah blah…)… before I would be cited, I would argue that Jan Hurych and some others be included. And I have publicly stated that reference to Nick’s book should be kept, and Rene’s site returned. I believe both “violate” the rules… but should be included, because I agree that readers should be given the state of the investigation, including speculation and self-published theories. If the Wiki rules were applied evenly and correctly, as Elmar said, the article would have little more than “It’s an old book”.

    As it stands now, the Wikipedia article strives to present itself as something which really does not exist… a fact-based consensus. Rich.

  19. Hi Rich,

    If I had to whittle the (depressingly long) list of things standing in the way of Voynich Manuscript research down to a single entry, it would be this: the thoroughly mistaken belief that historical research is all about proving things beyond doubt.

    Calling the VMs “almost-certainly-500-year[s]-old” is speculative only if you judge the palaeographic evidence behind it to be inconclusive. And there is indeed a small chance that someone in the early 17th century with an acutely sophisticated (and remarkably prescient) grasp of a discipline that had not yet been invented (codicology) might have faked the marginalia to look that way, and in that sense you are correct.

    However, even you would have to admit that the 1450-1500 date range is (a) the simplest explanation for the presence of multiple 15th century hands in the marginalia, and (b) what any working historian would use as the default interpretation of what is presented on the page. Given the basic evidence, other proposed explanations would have to fit the template of “these marks were deliberately constructed so as to resemble writing by multiple hands added in the 1450-1500 date range“.

    However, to use this possibility to argue that the 1450-1500 date range is not worth acting upon in good faith would be to significantly overstate the second position’s relative probability.

    And this is why I say that Elmar has it wrong. As far as the VMs goes, we do now know enough to assemble a good set of basic facts: not “facts” in the sense of mathematical facts (which are normally tautologies, anyway), but historical facts – pieces of evidence whose individual probabilities are high enough to work with on a pragmatic basis.

    Is this some kind of radical, voodoo take on history? I hardly think so: but I contend that, followed through to its logical end, it leads to the conclusion that the current Wikipedia VMs page should be retitled “Voynich Manuscript (Speculations)“, and started afresh with the VMs’ historical facts – things we can say about it that are probably true, can be tested, and therefore stand a reasonable chance of ultimately advancing our knowledge.

    Of course, you have every right to follow your own research path (and I heartily encourage you to do so) – but to actively do so at the expense of the entire discipline seems not to be a good choice.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  20. Of course, you have every right to follow your own research path (and I heartily encourage you to do so) – but to actively do so at the expense of the entire discipline seems not to be a good choice.

    Nick: I’m not sure how anything I do would be, or is, at the “expense of the entire discipline”. I love the discipline. I never counter anyone else’s theory or premise, I only work positively on my own. And I help and support other’s efforts whenever I am able.

    I think there is every chance that you have it right (not Averlino, but your dating), or that someone else who counters your dating may also have it right. I’m of an opinion that I would not want to choose between them: you, or myself, or someone else. I would not deign myself, or anyone I have met in this, capable of choosing one over the other, as a basis for someone else’s understanding of the VMs. People should see all views, and then decide where they want to spend their time researching. Rich.

  21. Hi Rich,

    Every time people (not just you) confuse hypothetical possibility with historical probability in a public forum (specifically by actively misrepresenting the balance of probabilities so as to keep all the possibilities alive), the more the quality of the overall debate is diluted and debased – and the worse off we all are for it. Using phrases such as “there is every chance” do your constructive arguments and detailed research a grave disservice, as they openly demonstrate that you are not critically assessing the historical probabilities.

    All the while you do not deign yourself “capable of choosing one over another”, you are not doing history in any useful sense of the word, but are instead filling your time with speculative, emptily possibilistic research. Historical research isn’t about constructing arbitrary or engaging hypotheses about historical events or people (that’s a job earmarked for novelists and conspiracy theorists): rather, it is about seeking out evidence (secondary as a start, but primary if you can), actively verifying and testing that evidence against such contextual frames as you can reasonably build up, and devising interesting and reliable ways to reason about the past from that evidence within the practical probabilistic limits of that evidence.

    Your conscious decision has been not to assess probabilities, but it is no victory to attack people who do not share this approach. Done well, properly pluralistic historical research is a win-win situation, where the encounters between different approaches/angles lead to cross-fertilization and mutually strengthened arguments. But to fight to undermine others as a primary strategy for your own limited “success” is a way of ensuring that everyone loses out.

    Of course, in any absolute sense, historical research is impossible – the “CSI”-like conceit that you can forensically reconstruct what was going on yesterday (let alone several hundred years ago) with great precision only holds true in movies. Luckily, history really isn’t about absolutes: it’s about assessing probabilities as a useful heuristic for getting iteratively closer to some kind of underlying truth. And so historians have to maintain a degree of constructive optimism in their heart, in order to believe that there is at least some chance (against the odds) they will be able to pull all the fragments together and thereby reach some kind of closure.

    Proselytizing against the possibility of probabilities paints a paradoxical picture of an empty-hearted historian. Be a full-hearted historian, and we will all win.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  22. Your conscious decision has been not to assess probabilities, but it is no victory to attack people who do not share this approach.

    It is not that I do not assess probabilities, it’s that I do not publicly project them on other’s work. Of course I have my own personal opinions as to what is probable, and what is not… but I do not use those opinions to decide what I will help with, and what I will work against (considering I work against no one, that is an obvious call). So I’m not sure why you think I am attacking anyone? I was giving my opinion as to what I thought the Wikipedia article should contain, and why. Since that is most everything, I am far from adversarial there.

    But to fight to undermine others as a primary strategy for your own limited “success” is a way of ensuring that everyone loses out.

    What are you referring to? I fight with no one, and undermine no one’s work. I work hard on my own personal theory, support others, and support the generic whole of the research, when I can.

    Besides, this concept of “success” I don’t share with you. I do work toward being more visible, because I think it is helpful to my research. More eyes out there, who might notice some bit of information I might never see… that is the goal. But these concepts I see of a “fight”, a competition, of “success”, of winning and losing… in my opinion, have nothing at all to do with learning about the Voynich, and are actually very hurtful to the investigation.

    So I am sorry if you feel I am undermining or attacking you in some way… I’m only happily going along with my own investigation, and joining in on the debate when I have input. And I’m always there to help you or anyone in their research, no matter what I feel the probabilities are that they are correct. That’s “full hearted”, in my opinion, and also helpful to the field. Rich.

  23. Hi Rich,

    History is not about the private assessment of historical probabilities, it is about the public airing of probabilistic judgements: and as an intrinsic part of their job, historians are completely comfortable with the notion that those who follow will assess many fundamental probabilities quite differently.

    Nor is being an historian about projecting one’s own assessments onto other people’s work: rather, it is about making an informed, balanced stand on the evidence, and debating that with peers so as to advance everyone’s knowledge of past events. The process of doing history is about negotiation and debate, about compromise and adjustment, all done in the open. Without that open historical debate of probabilities and judgments, all we have is an accumulation of empty possibilistic thoughts… something you might recognize from the Voynich mailing list over the last few years.

    Are you sure that the picture you would like to paint of yourself is really shared by any of the people you have fought with in public at such protracted length over the last few years? And even your comment here, for all its attempts at defensive rhetoric, fails to address any of the substantive points I make about the nature and practice of history.

    Look, there are two basic ways of trying to do historical research: (a) moving from the evidence taken as a whole to an hypothesis, and then looking for ways to critically test that hypothesis (which is the right way); and (b) constructing a speculative hypothesis based on a fragmentary piece of evidence and then looking for correlative evidence to support it while publicly working to undermine the perception of the reliability of any evidence that happens to conflict with that hypothesis (which is the wrong way). Given that (a) has unfortunately been the path far less trodden in Voynichology, I would encourage you to find ways of pursuing your interesting theories that don’t so obviously resemble path (b).

    As an aside, I don’t think you’ve managed to undermine me at all to any appreciable degree: but you have managed to undermine your own credibility as far as considering yourself anything like an historian, and have also managed to reduce the usefulness of the Voynich mailing list to an all-time low.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  24. Hello Nick. I am away on holiday (“vacation” over here) and so have not had the chance to respond before now.

    Are you sure that the picture you would like to paint of yourself is really shared by any of the people you have fought with in public at such protracted length over the last few years?

    Well I don’t know if it is shared by others or not… but the image of me, whether as you say is “painted” by me, or genuine, must vary from the perspective of the individual reading my work. But the numbers either way will not change what is, and what is not, historically accurate. I can only do my best to explore my area, and post my observations and findings. I urge anyone to read my work, and decide for themselves (link at top!).

    As for “fought with”, I think you still miscast this… perhaps my arguing with you may feel that I am fighting, while when others do it, it is somehow “debating with peers”. But I can only hold true to my investigation, and discuss it with others, and yes, argue my points. I can’t control your perception of what that means to you.

    …publicly working to undermine the perception of the reliability of any evidence that happens to conflict with that hypothesis

    I like that you used the phrase “perception of the reliability of any evidence”. Almost all the evidence is a matter of perception, and as such, is open to debate. And so, yes, I will continue to discuss the points with which I feel the perception is incorrect, or at least, debatable. Perceptions are not facts, if they were, your theories and mine and many others would vaporize, and the general perception would prevail. Rather than an artifact of fiction or an architectural work, the Voyinch would be seen only as a 1420-1460 herbal, and that would be the end of that. And by the way, I accept that it could be just that…

    …and have also managed to reduce the usefulness of the Voynich mailing list to an all-time low.

    Well that is assigning just a bit to much to my evil powers! I think you overstate my influence. The list is chugging along quite well, I think, whether I offer input or not. Some great stuff going on over there, and as always, I hope and wish that you will return from your long hiatus. I agree open debate… not fighting… is healthy, and the list is a great place to find it. I have almost zero followers there… except for a few supportive lurkers who write to me from time to time, to lend support. But I do stay there, because I do want to hear constructive feedback, and test my ideas, in such an intelligent and informed forum.

    All the best, and keep up the good work… as I, too, intend to do… Rich.

  25. Hi Rich,

    Questioning the reliability of evidence based on genuine doubts arising from the subtle interplay of historical knowledges is one thing.
    Questioning the reliability of evidence simply because an extremely improbable alternative can be constructed is another entirely.

    Whereas the first is nuanced, balanced, probabilistic, and even holistic, the second is superficial, sniping, demeaning, and unhelpful.

    The main reason I left the VMs mailing list was because what had long ago been (1) had descended into a constant barrage of (2), replete with emptily possibilistic flame-wars, an antihistorical culture of which you seemed to be a vigorous proponent.

    It seems little has changed. 🙁

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  26. Hi Nick,

    Don’t you think you’re going a little over the top here?

    Whatever the state of the VM list is (I don’t think it’s degraded that much from when I started in 2003, and interestingly I found the greatest drop in quality *after* the advent of the HiRes scans), it’s a bit tough to blame Rich for it all. He may be a man with his faults, but what he did is propose a slightly exotic hypothesis about the VM and taking a stance to defend it — *if* the list wasn’t able to cope with that kind of thing (I think to the contrary it is), that’s the list’s problem, rather than Rich’s.

    As for the stringency of methods, frankly — I don’t see that much difference between the two of you. Rich’s microscopes in the VM, your wind wagons in its illustrations or “TOA F” signatures in the plants… a tad of speculation on either side, isn’t it?

    P.S. — I’m not a native speaker, but are you sure a word like “possibilistic” exists?


  27. Hi Elmar,

    You’re a bright guy, but you’re barking up completely the wrong tree here. 🙁

    Having spent years directly engaging with every aspect of the evidence so as to work out what can be said with near certainty about the VMs, I _then_ began to build up my hypothesis, so that it was derived from and consistent with that evidence, i.e. [All of the evidence] –> [hypothesis]. Whether you agree with my conclusions and the proposed narrative is irrelevant, but at least acknowledge that my reasoning is based on primary evidence, and on strongly probabilistic historical inferences based on that evidence (such as dating the marginalia, the circular maps of Milan, the view from the Campanile in Venice, the 4o pattern in Sforza ciphers up to 1465, etc).

    By way of comparison, Rich SantaColoma’s hypothesis was inspired solely by his claimed “microscopes”, for all his sustained elaboration on this theme: his only apparent strategy for supporting his claim is not to point to evidence, but to undermine the whole notion of evidence. ~[Hypothesis] –> ~[any of the evidence]. His repeated claim that all possible alternative readings should be accorded the same status is utterly symptomatic of the antihistorical depths which the VMs list now plumbs.

    What you seem to be missing here is that the last 3-4 years has actually seen an explosion of positive, well-supported knowledge about the VMs – but you wouldn’t know it from the list, which has long been a self-referential, empty, anti-evidential game. Many of its participants happily tell me off-list how much they secretly loathe it, while all the time feeling compelled to stay subscribed just in case something genuinely transformational to Voynich research gets posted there.

    Errrm… fat chance.

    By directly comparing my conclusions built on all the evidence with an hypothesis built on the slimmest of observational reeds by someone who actively seeks to discredit the whole troublesome idea of evidence, you make an abysmal category error. Only an utterly uncritical eye could classed both as historical research at the same time.

    So: if you truly think that the two end-points are so equal, all I can say is – you’ve spent far, far too much time on the mailing list.

    Really, the moment that critical thought degenerates into cynicism about knowledge itself, I think you lose your soul. And this isn’t some bullsnot optimistic-vs-pessimistic good-cop-bad-cop riff: if you can’t see by now that the strategy of relying on unsupported possibilities gets you basically nowhere in historical research, you really haven’t got with the programme, whatever you might think.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

    PS: “possibilistic” is not only a perfectly good word, it is the correct one to describe the vacuous focus on possibility that has come to dominate the list. At some stage, real knowledge – which is about fighting battles over carefully chosen probabilities – has to step forward.

  28. Nick,

    If you chose to answer arguments rather than simply shifting your stance, this whole conversation would be much pointfuller.*)


    *)If you can make up words, so can I.

  29. Hi Elmar,

    When you start making arguments, I’ll start answering them. For example, I somehow doubt that saying “a tad of speculation on either side, isn’t it?” is the most constructive thing you’ve ever posted. In fact, a good word to describe it would be “flamebait”. But don’t worry, there are plenty of people on the VMs list who don’t mind being trolled, feel free to bait them all you like.

    Googling +possibilistic: 247,000 hits (most of which seem to be full-on papers on logic and reasoning)
    Googling +pointfuller: 2 hits
    Googling +flamebait: 233,000 hits

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  30. Rene Zandbergen on July 21, 2009 at 1:34 pm said:

    Hi guys 🙂

    Well, here’s another “neutral” opinion. I certainly feel that Nick’s hypothesis is quite a
    lot more probable than that of Rich, but I would add that it (Nick’s) feels like a large
    structure built on a small foundation. This is hardly a very strong form of criticism,
    since this small foundation is all we have got. Surely, there are lots and lots of
    new observations, but for each there are multiple possible explanations.

    To be more precise about it, I find that the evidence is strong enough to show that
    Rich’s theory is almost certainly incorrect, and the evidence is not strong enough to
    support the identification of the author of the VMs as one Averlino.

    The only way to win here, is to have no theory of one’s own, and this rather cowardly
    approach is mine, nowadays. I console myself that this is also the result of the amount
    of time I am willing to spend on the MS.

    Cheers, Rene

  31. Hi Rene,

    Thanks for that vote of (very slight) confidence, much appreciated. 🙂

    Of course, unless someone happens to decipher the VMs, I can’t currently see any sign of a “smoking gun” proof of anyone’s authorship emerging for a good while. But all things considered, I do believe there is far more of the VMs’ early history to be extracted from the marginalia than there is in any Prague archive. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

    PS: conversely, having no opinion is merely the safest way to lose. :-/

  32. Diane on June 21, 2012 at 5:29 pm said:

    Three years later: quality of list is the same. Number of people willing to say anything at all approx. zero.

    waiting for the jungle to regenerate.

  33. Pingback: Who said that?… a growing collection of quotes | Voynich trivia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post navigation