Contrary to what some Voynich people like to assert, the point of History is really not to allow a thousand speculative flowers to bloom. Rather, the idea is to work so closely with the available evidence that we can cull bad theories inconsistent with it. So for the Voynich Manuscript, where pseudohistorical theories run amok (typically blindfolded, and with a Japanese carving knife in each hand), the Voynich battle is only just beginning.
What I’m trying to say is this: because History is primarily the study of what actually happened, it is by nature a cruelly eliminative mistress – its heart is one of disproof, and that’s OK. Yet in the case of the Voynich Manuscript, the ongoing absence of incontestable evidence (let alone “smoking gun” proofs) has meant that her machete has rarely been employed in the Voynichian garden. By this measure, I’d say that there has been little done to date that would be worthy of the title “Voynich History” (understanding its post-Rudolfine provenance has, though often fascinating, so far been more of an exercise in historiography than in actual History).
Sorry, people, but this is going to have to change.
Radiocarbon Dating? *shrug*
You might reasonably have thought that the 2009 University of Arizona radiocarbon dating of the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum (to 1404-1438 with 95% statistical confidence) should surely have brought some kind of veridicality to the whole arena. Yet it has apparently achieved nothing: Rich SantaColoma merely shrugs forwards (asserting that if the vellum was used one or more centuries after it was manufactured, who cares? So what?), while Diane O’Donovan merely shrugs backwards (asserting that the date of its actual writing-down-ness is meaningless; and given that the origins of its contents ‘clearly’ lie centuries if not millennia earlier, who cares? So what?).
These two are good examples of the rampant denialism that currently passes for normality in the Voynich world. So, have any Voynich theories been modified as a result of the radiocarbon dating? My guess is that so far no, probably not even one has.
As for me: even though I have a technical criticism of one of the test’s four samples (the apparently-earliest radiocarbon dating sample was taken from one of the most contaminated parts of the manuscript, I strongly suspect affecting the very consistent results yielded by the other three), I’m far from a critic of radiocarbon dating. If we broaden slightly to the wider dating range implied by the three most consistent samples alone, that range does sit comfortably with other solid dating evidences I have pointed to over the last decade.
So I don’t see the radiocarbon dating as inherently problematic (beyond a technical quibble over its claimed precision). Yet it has made not a ripple: why?
“I Am Your Father”? Riiiight…
In the mixed up world of Voynich research, even though there is no “mainstream” central account of the Voynich Manuscript and its 15th century origins, people such as Rich SantaColoma and Diane O’Donovan invest much of their efforts into kicking back against figures they perceive as representing that mainstream (usually either me or Rene Zandbergen, whose fact-centred Voynich website I have nothing but praise for).
A lot of the time this comes across as a kind of rage against the Evil Empire: as if Rene Zandbergen and I are Darth Sidious and Darth Vader, darkly paternalistic forces looming over them all, conspiring against their Rebel Alliance’s plucky fight for historical freedom of expression. I guess this would also paint Rich and Diane as Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, twin mystery researchers mysteriously separated at birth, but fighting on the same side: I doubt I’m even close to being the first person to note this.
But really: me? I’m certainly not their father, and I’m definitely not the mainstream. All I’ve done for the last fifteen-odd years is to try to date tiny features of the Voynich Manuscript by isolating them and locating them within their individual micro-histories. All of which has been worthy but boringly mundane; and about as far from constructing some kind of theory-zapping epistemological Death Star as you can get.
[Yes, I did put forward a theory about one possible author back in 2006: but if I had found other candidates that matched the dating evidence even half as well I’d have written about them too. All the dating evidence remains.]
The Voynich Mainstream
Whether or not it suits Voynich denialists, the things that actually form the Voynich mainstream are those historical dating observations that chime most solidly with the (I would suggest slightly wider-range) radiocarbon dating. This is because radiocarbon dating is almost never used in isolation: it is at its strongest when carefully combined with other kind of dating evidence. In the case of the Voynich Manuscript:
* The presence of 15th century marginalia in the zodiac section (the “zodiac hand”) suggests a latest date of 1500
* The presence of 15th century number forms in the quire numbers suggests a latest date of 1500
* The transitionary numbering style used for the quire numbers suggests a latest date of 1500
* The presence of parallel hatching suggests a earliest dating in Germany from 1425, in Florence from 1440, in Venice from 1450 or later: and a latest dating of about 1480 / 1490 everywhere
* The presence of Islamic-influenced geometric designs on the albarelli-like “barrels” in the zodiac section suggest a date range of 1450-1475
* The dot pattern on some of the ‘pharma’ glassware (i.e. f89r1 and f89r2) is strongly reminiscent of post-1450 Murano glass decoration, and (to the best of my knowledge) is found nowhere else until significantly later
* The baths in the balneo quire suggest a dating of not later than 1500, because that was when baths sharply fell from fashion in Europe because of their [incorrect, but persuasive] association with syphilis (Klebs, 1916)
So the Voynich mainstream is not so much a set of paternalistic individual theorists for the denialists to kick back against, but rather a constellation of specific ideas that point to dating ranges consistent with the radiocarbon dating. The reason I’m forever in the Voynich denialist firing line is that I happened to latch onto much of this group of ideas a number of years before the radiocarbon dating was carried out, and gave many of them an airing in my 2006 book.
Of course, based on what has happened over the last decade, nobody in Voynich Land will accept any of this from me without more evidence turning up. But regardless of whether I’m alive or dead or flying my TIE Advanced x1 through space, the ideas that make up the Voynich mainstream are now what they are.
Yet what kind of an Intellectual Historian would want to take any of this Voynich battle on board? Or has the Voynich Manuscript gone beyond the point where there is any real hope of its being reclaimed by mainstream historians as a genuinely interesting artefact?