Here’s an upcoming talk at Cambridge’s Sidney Sainsbury’s Sussex College on 12th October 2011 at 5pm which might be of interest to Voynich researchers. Harvard Professor George Grabowicz promises an interesting couple of hours with his lecture “The Eternal Return of National Mystifications: the Voynich Manuscript, the Book of Vles and the Igor Tale“. (It seems to be a follow-on to a talk he gave to the ASEES 42nd Annual National Convention in November 2010called Code and Message in Slavic Mystifications: the Book of Vles, the Voynich Manuscript and the Igor Tale.)

You’d be forgiven for not having heard about the other two named manuscripts: I’d only heard of the first one – the Book of V[e]les because it is generally believed (from its faked-up use of modern Slavic language) to be a literary forgery, and not the ancient Slavic battlefest written on mysterious planks as was originally claimed. Unless Grabowicz has some surprising new angle on this, I guess this part will be pretty straightforward.

But you’ll probably be unshocked to hear that there is a long-running debate over the authenticity of the final manuscript of the trio, “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” (which, incidentally, Borodin used as the basis for his opera “Prince Igor”, historical trivia buffs). While Wikipedia would have us believe that the “current scholarly consensus” on the Ms is that it’s a genuine 12th century manuscript, there’s a vocal cadre of Harvard historians (led by [former?] Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus Edward L. Keenan) who actually think it’s a goddamn fake. I can only presume, ummm, Harvard Professor Grabowicz has his own opinion on this matter. 🙂

“The Eternal Return” part of Grabowicz’s talk’s title, then, would seem to be about how some people would love these stories to be true almost in a religious way, so as to return to some mythically / nationalistically pure primordial state (following Mircea Eliade’s use of the term). But… what has all that got to do with the Voynich Manuscript?

Directly with the VMs itself, not a lot, I’d say: the claims that the Voynich is a fake or hoax remain extremely lightweight, and fail to sit comfortably with the radiocarbon dating, codicology, palaeography, and art history (all of which point fairly unequivocally to the 15th century). But then again, there is also a rich loam of faux historical retrospective storytelling that various people have projected back onto the VMs, most notably (in my opinion) John Stojko’s hilariously fruity “Letter to God’s Eye”.

It turns out that Grabowicz covered Stojko’s nonsense (admittedly tangentially on p.21, but it’s there none the less) way back when in a nice little article from 2001. What he also mentions – somewhat scarily – is that Stojko’s Voynich theory also appeared to be inching its way into nationalist accounts of Ukrainian history. It’s probably this that “Michael the friend of D” was talking about in 2007, that I mentioned somewhat cursorily here.

OK, it’s true that I tend to talk about these hallucinatory nationalist back-projections as if they’re high comedy, but the reality is that they’re desperately low tragedy, weapons of mass mystification used to trigger slow-motion car crashes between nations and factions. So, if Grabowicz can stoutly resist the postmodernist temptation to trashtalk the VMs’ authenticity (a swamp every sensible academic should actively avoid) and focus instead on the quasi-militant use of stupid theories in troubled times, it should be a great talk. 😉

2 thoughts on “Harvard Professor nearly wades into Voynich swamp…

  1. Nick,

    On that topic of returning the offspring of Noah’s sons to their “original homes” – horrid idea that it was, and quite distinct from the religion of Mani et al…

    I recall a detailed treatment in several works, though all were specialised studies of the Jewish communities, not so much of the period to 1492.

    I may have a couple of works from the studies I did back in 92-3. Will check if you draw a blank.

  2. Diane O'Donovan on September 18, 2011 at 4:04 am said:


    I seem to have a problem with emails at the moment – up to 23 hrs delay posting to Vms, and new posts from me seem to go into limbo, though responses to existing posts are ok.

    So – did you get a note from me about Dalche, re Pellegrino? Was sent September 12th. No attachments or links in it.


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