I’m just starting to put together my talk for the upcoming Voynich centenary conference. The session is provisionally titled “Between Vellum and Prague”, with a summary along the lines of…
“The Voynich Manuscript first pinged on the cultural radar in Prague circa 1600, yet its vellum has recently been radiocarbon dated to the first half of the 15th century. So… what happened inbetween? Nick Pelling has long been intrigued by this wide-open question, and in this session presents a summary of a wide range of codicological evidence that holds the promise of answering it.”
In many important ways, I don’t care much for Voynich theories (not even my own): the important thing for me has long been developing an evidence base that we can use to eliminate bad theories (long-time Cipher Mysteries readers will no doubt recall various times I’ve ranted about Popperian ‘falsification’, Karl Popper’s notion that theories are there to be knocked down, not puffed up).
But what would such usable ‘evidence’ look like? Mainstream history as currently practised is predominantly based on close reading of original documents within the context of large bodies of parallel evidence – even Art History falls within this methodology, as it places tiny observed details within an overall historical canon of evolving technique and materials.
The Beinecke’s splendid scans have enabled us to closely read the original document’s surface, so in some ways we’re halfway there: but as for “the large bodies of parallel evidence” part of the equation, we have at the same time too many and too few such bodies to choose from – by which I mean too many possible, too few probable.
As a result, the Voynich Manuscript remains an uncomfortable topic for historians, because even after a century of study it resolutely resists being pigeonholed within any cladistic strand or tradition. Basically, it is this core uncertainty about its internal nature and external tradition that dissuades many academics from wading too deeply into the Voynichian swamp… and frankly, I don’t blame them, because you’d need a wetsuit, not wellies.
It therefore seems much more prudent to me to go hunting for evidence than for yet more speculative theories. However, you need to have a really clear research question in mind when you do it, or it is likely that your efforts will be for nothing. For me, the best questions by a mile all relate to the Voynich Manuscript’s life before its apparent appearance at Rudolf’s Imperial Court in Prague: and so the class of evidence to look for is that which helps to bring out this otherwise invisible history.
As a result, I’m not hugely worried about things such as letters hidden in Voynich plants except insofar as they suggest links between the Voynichese hand and the marginalia hand. Similarly, the parallel hatching used in some of the drawings is not in itself important except for the way that it apparently directly conflicts with the radiocarbon dating (and indeed it would seem we have various 15th century hands in play, as John Matthews Manly noted over 80 years ago, which would seem to stop any kind of 16th century theory dead in its tracks).
The Voynich’s unusual quire numbers are puzzling too, and perfectly consonant with a mid-to-late 15th century dating. Yet frustratingly nobody has yet discovered a single example of another document with the same abbreviated longhand Latin ordinal numbering scheme: finding even one document using that same numbering style would surely open up a fascinating door into the manuscript’s early past.
But personally, I think there’s a high chance that the final page (f116v) marginalia will turn out to be some kind of scrappy French Secretary Hand, with “michiton oladabas” perhaps even saying nichil or even nichil obstat. The top marginalia line of f116v could also be a dedication or note to a “Simon Sint”, it’s hard to tell. These offer such tangible promise of connecting the Voynich to real people or places, yet so many speculative readings have been proposed that it’s all too easy to just ignore them.
And yet all the same, perhaps the richest vein to tap has been the raw internal codicology of the Voynich drawings themselves. If we could only find some ingenious way of connecting pages together (comparing DNA fingerprints of different bifolios, multispectral scans of inks or vellum, mapping the varying thicknesses of pages along their edges, etc), we could make a really great stab at reconstructing the original page order.
As examples, I discussed Q9 (“Quire 9”), Q13 and various out-of-order herbal pages at length in “The Curse of the Voynich”, while I’ve also discussed Q8 and Q20 here (as well as Q20’s paragraph stars), and indeed on Glen Claston’s thoughts on the nine-rosette foldout Q14 as well the ‘chicken scratch’ marginalia on its back.
But as should be apparent from the constellation of links strung through the preceding paragraphs like fairy lights, this remains an utterly fragmented research area. In each individual case, I can tell a speculative story about what I think happened to the manuscript to leave a particular set of details in the curious manner we find them arranged today, but I’m completely aware that that’s simply not good enough, even if I do try to take the totality of evidence into consideration at each point.
All the same, I continue to be of the opinion that it may not be to everyone’s tastes but studying the Voynich Manuscript’s codicology is pretty much as good as we can get – that finding historical parallels for individual drawings or indeed matching the roots of individual plants will never be enough to snip through its Gordian knot. Finding out what happened is the most pragmatic stepping stone back in time we have – so we should try harder to make what we have solid enough to step on, right?