I’ve just watched the National Geographic / Naked Science documentary on the Voynich Manuscript, courtesy of a Stateside friend (thanks!). Regular Cipher Mysteries readers will already know how my review of it is supposed to go – ‘that, despite a few inaccuracies, it was great to see the Voynich Manuscript being brought to a popular audience‘.

But actually, the whole thing made me utterly furious: it was like watching yourself being airbrushed out of a family photograph. Let me get this straight: I researched the history like crazy, reasoned my way to the mid-15th century, stuck my neck out by writing the first properly new book on the Voynich for 30 years, talked with the documentary producers, sent lists of Voynich details for them to look at, got asked to fly out to Austria (though they later withdrew that at the last minute without explanation), kept confidences when asked, etc.

And then, once the film-makers got the radiocarbon dating in their hands, my Milan/Venice Averlino/Filarete theory became the last man standing (Voynich theory-wise). So why did it not get even a passing mention, when just before the end, they thought to edit in a map of Northern Italy with swallowtail-merloned castles and the narrator starts (apropros of nothing) to wonder what will be found in the archives “between Milan and Venice”. Perhaps I’m just being a bit shallow here, but that did feel particularly shabby on their part.

However pleased I am for Edith Sherwood that her Leonardo-made-the-Voynich-so-he-did nonsense merited both screentime and an angelic child actor pretending to be young Leonardo, the fact remains that it was guff before the radiocarbon dating (and arguably double guff afterwards): while much the same goes for all the Dee/Kelly hoax rubbish, which has accreted support more from its longstandingness than anything approaching evidence.

Perhaps the worst thing is that we’re all now supposed to bow down to the radiocarbon dating and start trawling the archives for candidates in the 1404-1438 timeframe. Yet even Rene Zandbergen himself has supplied the evidence for a pretty convincing terminus post quem: MS Vat Gr 1291 was completely unknown in Italy before being bought by Bartolomeo Malipiero as Bishop of Brescia, and so its stylistics could not sensibly have influenced the Voynich before 1457. In fact, 1465 – when the manuscript was carried from Brescia to Rome and became much better known – might even be a more sensible TPQ. And that’s without the cipher alphabet dating (post-1455 or so) and the parallel hatching dating (post-1440 if Florence, post-1450 if elsewhere in Italy).

And I’ll leave you with another thought: a couple of seconds after hearing the Beinecke’s Paula Zyats say “I don’t see any corrections”, the following image got edited in – a part of the f17r marginalia that looks to my eyes precisely like an emendation.

Voynich Manuscript f17r marginalia

Really, what am I supposed to think? *sigh*

21 thoughts on “Review of “The Book That Can’t Be Read” Voynich documentary…

  1. Hello, TV programs always spin stories one way or the other, it’s not the first time some documentary producers decide to altogether ignore somebody. Must be frustrating but should not be taken too personally I think. Btw, I’ve recently discovered your website, and while I don’t agree with everything, I find it quite informative.

    I too would be extremely interested by multispectral high-definitions pictures of a few key pages. In particular the right margin of f1r where some faint latin characters appear.

    From the Yale scan, I’m fairly certain that on that right margin there are the letters a, b, …, z in column, with the EVA letter d next to the a, and the EVA letter m next to the z (I’m refering to those http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Voynich_Alphabet )

    It’s probably well-known that these letters are there, and I’d be very interested to know if there’s a full correspondance waiting to be discovered under UV light: do you know if that’s ever been looked at?

  2. Thomas: I knew at the time the documentary makers weren’t ‘playing fair’, but it was only until I saw their final documentary that I realised quite how unfair that actually was. It wasn’t even that they were ignoring me, but rather that they gave every impression of trying to re-create my results by other means so as to avoid having to credit (or even name-check) me. Oh well, never mind: still, I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying Cipher Mysteries so far, I’m sure you’ll come to agree with me in the end. 🙂

    As far as f1r goes: as I recall, you can tell by the letter shapes (most notably the ‘a’) that this attempted cipher key was written in a 16th century hand, so was added probably a hundred years or so after the VMs was actually written: hence the chances of its yielding us any useful cryptological information is practically nil. Furthermore, I think you can tell that they gave up fairly quickly after discovering that it didn’t solve as swiftly as they had hoped.

  3. * Hola Nick: Creo que es mejor no aparecer, al lado de la teoría de Leonardo. 😉

    Pero entiendo tu enfado.

    Opino que: el documental es una teoría, la prueba de carbono no es infalible, el libro puede ser una copia, papel reciclado… Como bien sabes, no se sabe nada.

    En mi opinión, este documental se equivoca en todo, solo es posible que acierte por tema, del carbono 14.

    * Hi Nick: I think it’s best not to appear, alongside Leonardo theory. 😉

    But I understand your anger.

    I think that: the documentary is a theory, carbon test is not foolproof, the book can be a copy, recycled paper … As you know, nothing is known.

    In my opinion, this film is wrong at all, is only possible who hits per topic, carbon-14.

  4. Rene Zandbergen on February 22, 2011 at 9:00 am said:

    Hi Nick,

    there isn’t much I can say that will make you feel happier, except possibly that the theories that were shown in the programme were selected for their visual aspects. This is purely a TV argument.

    I remember feeling disappointed after the BBC doumentary some years ago, spending the better part of the day standing in front of the camera, and then finding all my words spread through the narrator’s text, and seeing myself for about 3 seconds in the programme…

    Best wishes, Rene

  5. Speaking of your book, any chance some more copies will be printed soon?

  6. K: I still have 20-ish copies in stock, I’ve been meaning to order another few hundred for while now (I’ll probably do that tomorrow, now you’ve reminded me). Order direct from me and I’ll add an anagrammatic dedication on the front page. 😉

  7. Rene: I know – TV isn’t science, TV isn’t history, it’s just a sequence of artfully chosen images. All the same, I’d love to make my own Voynich documentary for 2012 focusing not on theories but on what it actually is, in fact one opposite in almost every way to the ORF film. Perhaps that’s the real reason I was sidestepped, because my take on the VMs was (and continues to be) antithetical to the way the film-makers thought about the manuscript. Or perhaps it was easier to summarize Voynich researchers as a group of foolish straw men (and women) being collectively blown away by the mighty radiocarbon dating winds, rather than having to include a credible historical counterargument. Perhaps balance would have meant too much work? Who knows? =:-o

  8. Marke Fincher on February 23, 2011 at 7:29 pm said:

    You obviously need to sex it up a bit Nick. If you had told them about Averlino’s shameful obsession of bathing naked women in pea puree and that his booked was proof of herbal poisons ready to be deployed in 45 minutes…. by now you’d have Tom Hanks visiting you to study your mannerisms prior to the Hollywood Blockbuster.

    It’s always the hyperactive kid that keeps shouting that gets all the attention init? 🙂

  9. Marke: are you taking the pea? Sorry, gotta go, my agent’s on the phone… 🙂

  10. Philip Neal on February 24, 2011 at 9:35 pm said:

    Another irritating aspect of this affair is the way the carbon dating is only news when it is publicised in English. You would not think that it had been announced in a TV documentary in German a year ago.

  11. Philip: true, true. But what happened this time round is that a whole bunch of news channels – Daily Mail, Discovery News, MSNBC, etc – picked up on the story and turned the Voynich into a full-on meme-du-jour.

  12. “a hundred years or so after the VMs was actually written” is a phrase which continues to beg some important questions, Nick, as is the reflexive custom of supposing that the putative 15thC source was ‘author’ of the work.

    Until we are certain that the manuscript represents the efforts of some fifteenth-century individual, no single “author” can be assumed.

    In my view it is far more likely a work typical of the earlier period, and likely to attract the sort of money supposedly paid for it – that is, a rediscovery, or anthology, of more venerable matter.

  13. Diane: I think my phrase dates the writing, not the content. I’d be happy enough to know more about the writing! 🙂

  14. Rene Zandbergen on February 28, 2011 at 3:08 pm said:

    Due to the various peculiarities of the MS, it seems likely that it was ‘conceived’ by a single person. He may have reused (directly, from memory or even more indirectly) existing material.

    In the actual MS creation, it could still be that several people were involved (e.g. a text copyist, an illustrator, an ‘encoder’…).

    With ‘author’ I associate the person who conceived the MS…

  15. Bobbi on March 28, 2011 at 1:56 am said:

    Thanx guys for letting us know that the NG special on the VMss was rather feeble. I’ve been following your discussion as well as Edith’s. I’d like to point out some possible clues as to what the purpose of the VMss was:

    Naked ladies may have been bathing in heated sea water (green, algae, seaweed?) Depending on how hot the water could be heated, it may have been enough prevent the consequences of unprotected sex.

    Many of the plants were either medicinal, poisonous, or possibly used as abortifacients.

    I see what might have been a midwife’s attempt to educate her women friends/patients. Hmm?

    Don’t write off Edith’s efforts entirely. One last comment: Vellum/parchment was often “recycled” many times after it had been peeled off whatever animal was sacrificed for use as “paper”. Carbon dating a tiny scrap isn’t really going to tell much more than an approximate date for the killing of the animal and its skinning.

  16. Bobbi: codicologically, the green paint looks like a later addition to those pages, so I’d be particularly wary about forming an argument based on its presence or appearance. Abortifacients have an interesting Classical history, but I don’t know of any 15th century tradition on them, please let me know if there are some mss I should be looking at! Numerous codicologists have looked closely at the VMs’ vellum and found absolutely zero evidence of any kind of earlier, ‘scraped-off’ text layer: and, simultaneously, there is unreleased research that asserts that the VMs’ vellum was still relatively fresh and springy when it was written upon, which would seem to rule out significantly later writing dates. All stuff to bear in mind!

  17. Hi, again, Nick!
    Some computer upgrading delayed my response. Here are some other aspects of VM illustrations that seem to be directed at “educating” the women in “female” concerns with conception, treatments for venereal diseases (possibly brought home by their wandering spouses?), and contraception. I seem to remember that the Romans, in addition to building roads everywhere, were also master builders of heated soaking baths. Also, all those ladies in barrels, waving various colored cloths, whatever, may have simply been trying to illustrate how to keep track of their menses for either conception or contraception. I’m still pondering the possible connection of those illustrations with the various “astrological” charts. Ennyway, it is all “grist for the mill — my inquiring mind!

    Keep on keeping on!

  18. Bobbi: I have to say, I’ve yet to hear a Voynich theory that even begins to explains the nymph barrels satisfactorily. Unless you have an astonishingly strong intuition, all I can do is warn you that that way lies madness! 🙁

  19. I can think of one obvious explanation for the ‘barrels’ and that is that they represent hollow-crown towers; and that as everywhere through the manuscript, the ‘nymphs’ aren’t nymphs as such, but personifications in general: in this case, personifications of stars. Which they hold. So the towers are metaphorically observation towers, and more exactly the ‘ribats’ or towers of the lunar mansions, as they were known colloquially in some parts of Islam.

    Lunar mansions’ stars. or (as you suggest) the same ‘per-degree’ types as are described in early works of Indian origin and then so much later by people like Charibel, who really should have credited his/her sources.

  20. Diane O'Donovan on November 23, 2012 at 4:52 am said:

    Oh Nick,
    I’m in much this state of mind at the moment. Your post has restored a sense of proportion: if you can be elbowed out into the airbrushed ‘not really relevant’ zone, it can happen to anyone. I was beginning to wonder.

  21. Over the low spot.
    I don’t advertise, and even if I did your blog shouldn’t be used that way. On the other hand, I’m rather pleased about this post, which has joined a lot of dots, some effortlessly – usually a sign of research having finally entered the home strait.

    So, though I expect this will never be seen, please imagine me tossing my cap in the air and smiling broadly.

    This is what did it. (Dull reading, but not-so-dull matter)

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