Whether we like it or not, history as practised nowadays is a tower built upon textuality, upon the implicit evidentiality striped within and through texts. Even archaeology (of all but the obscenely distant past) and Art History rely heavily on texts for their reconstructions.

Alternative, explicitly visual approaches to history have lost the battle to control the locus of meaning. The mid-twentieth century Warburg/Saxl/Panofsky dream that highly evolved iconography/iconology might be able to surgically extract the inner semantic life of symbols from their drab syntatical carapaces now seems hopelessly over-optimistic, fit only for the Hollywood cartoons of Dan Brown novels. Sorry, but Text won.

What, then, are contemporary historians to make of the Voynich Manuscript, a barque adrift in a wine-dark sea of textlessness? In VoynichLand, we have letters, letters everywhere, and not a jot for them to read: and without close reading’s robotic exoskeleton to work with, where could such a text-centric generation of scholars begin?

Well, given that the Voynich Manuscript’s text-like writing has so failed yielded nothing of obvious substance to linguists or cryptologists (apart from long lists of things that they are sure it is not), historians are only comfortably left with a single door leading to the disco floor…

“Step #1. Start with the pictures.”

Yes, they could indeed start with the pictures: the Voynich’s beguiling, misleading, and crisply non-religious images. These contain plants that are real, distorted, imaginary, and/or impossible; strange circular diagrams; oddly-posed nymphs arranged in tubes and pools; and curious map-like diagrams. They famously lead everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, like a bad mirror-room fight-scene in 1960s Avengers TV episodes.

Without the comforting crutch of referentiality to lean on, we can’t tell whether a given picture happens to parallel one of the plants in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s famous (so-called) “alchemical herbals” (which unfortunately seem to be neither alchemical nor particularly herbal); or whether we’re just imagining that it echoes a specific plant in this week’s interesting Arabic book of wonders; or whether its roots were drawn from a dried sample but its body was imagined; or whether a different one of the remaining three hundred and eighty post-rationalizations that have been made for that page happens to hold true.

But on the bright side, it’s not as if we’re talking about a set of drawings that has previously made fools of just about everyone who has tried to form a sensible opinion about them, right? [*hollow laugh*]

So, “start with the pictures” it is. But what should we do then? Again, there seems little choice:

“Step #2. Find a telling detail.”

In my opinion, here’s where it all start to go wrong: where the road leads only to a cliff-edge, and one that has a sizeable drop below it into the sea.

The elephant-in-the-room question here is this: if looking for telling details is such a good idea, why is it that more then a century’s worth of looking for telling details has revealed practically nothing?

Is it because everyone who has ever looked at the Voynich Manuscript has been stupid, or inexperienced, or foolish, or delusional, or crazy, or marginal, or naive? Because that’s essentially what would need to be true for your own contribution to bring a new bottle to the party, if all you’re going to do yourself is look for telling details.

The thing that almost nobody seems to grasp is that we collectively have already applied an extraordinary amount of eyeballs at this issue.

Even though the Voynich’s imagery has been seen and ‘closely read’ for over a century by all manner of people, to date this has – in terms of finding the single telling detail that can place even part of it within an illustrative or semantic tradition – achieved nothing, zilch, nada.

Incidentally, this leads (I think) to one of only two basic constructional models: (a) the drawings in the Voynich Manuscript are from a self-contained culture whose internal frame of reference sits quite apart from anything we’re used to looking at [a suggestion which I’m certain the palaeography refutes completely]; or (b) the process of making the drawings for the Voynich Manuscript somehow consciously stripped out their referentiality.

But I’m not imagining for a moment that what I’m pointing out will stop anyone else from reinventing this same square wheel: all I’m saying is that this is how people approach the Voynich Manuscript, and why they then get themselves into a one-way tangle.

“Step #3. Draw a big conclusion.”

Finally, this is the point in the chain of the argument where the cart rolls properly over the cliff: though it’s a long way down, at least gravity’s accelerative force means anybody in it won’t have very long to wait before the sea comes up to meet them (relatively speaking).

How is it that anyone can comfortably draw a step #3 macro-conclusion from the itty-bitty (and horrendously uncertain) detail they latched onto in step #2? As proofs go, this step is completely contingent on at least three different things:
(a) on perfect identification of the detail itself,
(b) on perfect correlation with essentially the same thing but in an external tradition, and
(c) on the logical presumption that this is necessarily the only feasible explanation for the correlation

Each of these three would be extremely difficult to prove on its own, never mind when all three are required to be true at the same time for their sum to be true.

In my experience, when people put forward a Voynich manuscript macro-conclusion based on local correlation with some micro-detail they have noticed, they almost always haven’t noticed how weakly supported their overall argument is. Not only that, but why is it – given the image-rich source their external tradition normally is – that they can typically only point to a single image in it that supports their claimed correlation? That is fairly bankrupt, intellectually speaking.

How can we fix this issue?

This is a really hard problem. Art History tends to furnish historians with the illusion that they can use its conceptual tricks and technical ‘flow’ to tackle the Voynich Manuscript one single isolated detail at a time, but this isn’t really true in any useful sense.

A picture is a connected constellation of techniques, formed not only of ways of expressing things, but also of ways of seeing things. And so it’s a mystery why there should be such an otherness to the Voynich Manuscript’s drawings that deconstructing any part of it leaves us with next to nothing in our hands.

Part of this problem is easy to spot, insofar as there are plenty of places where we still can’t tell content from decoration from elaboration from emendation. Even a cursory look at pages such as the nine-rosette page or f116v should elicit the conclusion that they are made up of multiple layers, i.e. multiple codicological contributions.

For me, until someone uses tricks such as DNA analysis and Raman imaging to properly analyze the manuscript’s codicological layers, internal construction, and/or the original bifolio order of each of the sections, too many people will continue trying to read not “the unreadable”, but “the not-yet readable”: all of which will continue to lead to all manner of foolish reasoning and conclusions, as it has done for many decades.

I really want you understand that this isn’t because people are inherently foolish: rather, it’s because they almost all want to kid themselves that they can draw a solid macro-conclusion from an isolated and uncertain micro-similarity. And all the while that this continues to be the collective research norm, I have little doubt that we’re going to get nowhere.

Alexandra Marraccini’s presentation

You can see the slides and the draft article accompanying Alexandra Marracini’s recent talk here (courtesy of academia.edu).

The core of Marraccini’s argument seems to reduce to this: that if one or more of the circular castle roundels in the Voynich Manuscript’s nine-rosette foldout is in fact the same flattened city that appears in BL Sloane MS 4016 f.8v and/or Vat.Chig. F.VII 158 f.12r and/or BNF Lat 6823 f.13r (the first two of which also have a little dragon in one herbal root), then we might be able to place the Voynich Manuscript in one branch of the Tractatus de Herbis tradition (all of which derive from Firenze Biblioteca dipartemental e di Botanica MS 106).

Even though this is arguably a reasonable starting point for future investigation, I’m not yet seeing a lot of methodological ‘air’ between what she’s doing and the mass of detail-driven Voynich single-image theories Marraccini would doubtless wish to distance herself from. The structural weakness of their arguments are still – to a very large degree – her argument’s weakness too.

Going forward, this amounts to a theoretical lacuna which I think she might do well to address: that there is no obvious historical / analytical methodology to apply here that satisfactorily bridges the gap between micro-similarities and macro-conclusion in the absence of accompanying texts. OK, pointing to an absence is perhaps a bit more of a problematique than most historians these days are comfortable with, but I’m only the messenger here, sorry.

Anyway, there’s a nice transcription of the Q&A session she gave after her presentation (courtesy of VViews) here, which I’m sure many Voynich researchers will find interesting.

Oddly, though, the questions from an audience Voynichero with my 2006 book “The Curse of the Voynich” in mind were almost exactly the opposite of what I would myself have asked (had I been there). The single most important question is: why is your argument structurally any better than all the other similar arguments that have been put forward?

So, what is missing here?

The answer to this certainly isn’t working hypotheses about the Voynich Manuscript, because there’s no obvious shortage of those. Even the suggestion that there might be some stemmatic relation (however vague and ill-defined) between the drawings in Voynich Manuscript and BL Sloane MS 4016 has been floating around for some years.

Instead, what I think is missing is a whole set of evidential basics: for example, physical data and associated reasoning that tell us without almost no doubt which paints were original (answer: not many of them) and which were added later; or (perhaps more importantly) what the original bifolio nesting order was.

With these to work with, we could reject many, many incorrect hypotheses: and we might – with just a little bit of luck – possibly be able to use one or two as fixed points to pivot the whole discourse round, like an Archimedean Lever.

The alternative, sadly, is a long sequence of more badly-structured arguments, Groundhog Day-stylee. Even if my ice-carving technique has got stupendously good, it would be nice to have a change, right?

49 thoughts on “Alexandra Marraccini, and the problem of textlessness…

  1. Mark Knowles on April 6, 2017 at 12:37 pm said:

    Dear Nick

    I believe I am the “Voynichero” referred to, although I can’t remember what questions I asked. Though as far as I can recall those questions related to your book were fairly-nonspecific whilst other questions may have related more to my own developing line of enquiry. I remember first of all just asking her if she was familiar with your book. I do recall that whilst I have very significant problems with certain aspects of your book, particularly the identification of the author, I extolled what I, personally, see as the real achievements in it.

    However I also felt that Alexandra made a valiant attempt to bring the manuscript into the academic mainstream. Whilst I certainly would have certain reservations about her analysis I am really glad she presented it. I also thought by looking at the manuscript as though the text wasn’t there is a way academics can study it without the obstacle of trying to understand the text.

    The problem with the Voynich manuscript overall is that generally most people have a high degree of scepticism about all theories other than their own. Ultimately a theory will only become widely accepted in the Voynich community when someone can produce a thorough and consistent decryption; which no one has yet done. However clearly people should continue to come up with new theories and develop existing theories. One can be in danger of trying to stifle research, because everybody else’s theory is rubbish except one’s own; which seems the standard mantra. Criticism is a good thing, but I must confess personally I am really glad Alexandra is doing what she’s particularly as it may help to bring the Voynich into the respectable academic community.

    As an aside, do we feel there is a widely acceptable standard we can come to as far as identification of the author by means of handwriting? For example, do we rate Forensic handwriting specialists? I am no expert in this area obviously and don’t have a huge amount of trust in the ability of a non-expert, such as myself, to make a correct identification or non-identification.

    All the Best


  2. Jim Shilliday on April 6, 2017 at 8:02 pm said:

    At a first glance, Marraccini’s two “bathing women” comparisons seem off the mark. Neither is about bathing. In the first, the woman isn’t bathing; she’s crushing grapes (fully-dressed with her sleeves rolled up!) to make wine (brandy, from the look of those retorts) to go with the bread they’re baking. The juice is collected in the “kiddie pool” to her left. The second one isn’t really “about” a bathing woman, it strikes me more as a description of a collapsible tent and a contraption to keep the water hot. To say that these resemble the women in the VM seems like a stretch.

  3. Mark: as I tried to get across in my TL;DR post, it seems to me that Voynich research is held back neither by the number of people looking at the manuscript nor by the number of theories that get proposed, but by the way that almost all those theories start from a micro-detail and a micro-similarity before lurching optimistically to a macro-theory. And with that in mind, the problem with Marraccini’s asphalt and bitumen is that what she is currently doing is methodologically identical to all the rest of ’em, however much that doesn’t suit her.

    There is a huge theoretical opportunity here to do something great, something really epistemologically interesting that “breaks the frame” of this continual micro-macro lurchiness. I tried to do something like that with all my “block paradigm” posts (how else can you read a cipher you can’t break?), but there has to be a better alternative way of moving forward.

  4. Mark Knowles on April 8, 2017 at 4:35 pm said:

    Micro versus Macro

    You are absolutely right that’s the nub of it. Going from micro-details to macro-theory is the perennial problem and we all think we are not doing that, but then we would think that. Maybe we are too ambitious and should aim for reliable micro-theories rather than macro ones, but for some people there is no fun in that. Research is not always glamorous and so we should not try to imbue our theories with an overall significance they may not deserve.


    In fact I think the micro-macro problem is common in many of human failings in reasoning. All too often we are prepared to jump to grand conclusions on the basis of little more than anecdotal evidence. This explains superstitious beliefs well I think.

    Small Steps

    Also I think we should be much more prepared to make small tentative steps rather than rush to a big conclusion. This manuscript is obviously a tough nut to crack and maybe chipping away at it slowly and lightly may be the right way. Given that this is such a big manuscript I think there is something to be said for trying to handle it in more manageable chunks.

    Prosaic versus Grandiose

    I think one has to be prepared to accept a prosaic theory rather than the grandiose; which I strongly fear many people have a bias towards. With a grandiose theory you can get a quick fix, but it may be unsustainable in the long run. If you take as a silly example someone who describes the manuscript as being “An account of Marco Polo’s discovery of the elixir of life in the garden of Eden and his contact with the aliens who live there.” That sounds really exciting and amazing and wonderful, rather than “An account of a not hugely famous person with a great interest in herbal medicine and astrology who’s excessive paranoia made them keen to keep their ideas secret” which sounds really dull by comparison. Yet, which is more plausible?

    I will look at your “block paradigm” posts.

    More to follow…

  5. Mark: we do have several “manageable chunks” to consider, such as the two halves of Quire 13, Quire 20 (which again might actually have been written in two parts), the zodiac pages, the astronomical pages, the Herbal A pages, the Herbal B pages, the Pharma pages, the nine-rosette page [more on which soon], and indeed the 2/3 magic circle pages.

    Any one of these sections would make for a fascinating cipher mystery all on its own: but we have all of them, so we are spoilt rotten! 🙂

  6. Mark Knowles on April 9, 2017 at 12:24 pm said:

    Building a Model

    I feel one needs to try to develop a model/framework within which one works on specific parts of the manuscript. I think it is important where possible to gradually develop testable predictions from the model/framework. With my analysis I like to think that I, to some extent have done this, and been able to develop, what appear to me, to be better predictions over time with my framework. So in the case of the Voynich map foldout, this means predicting real-world locations of features or predictions as to the representations of imagery on the map and then being able to support them by means of other subsequently discovered evidence. Overall obviously the internal consistency of the theory is absolutely vital.

    When developing a theory it is all too easy to try to bend the model to new evidence all the time to force evidence to fit existing theories. It can be hard to distinguish between developing a model as new evidence comes and making evidence fit regardless of the logic. If every new piece of evidence forces one to radically alter the model then maybe there are fundamental problems at the core of the model.

  7. Mark: the obvious problem with nearly all Voynich theories is that they are indistinguishable from the kind of “cipher backfill” I wrote about recently, insofar as they function as hallucinatory elaborations, riffing around such quasi-historical skeletal details as are deemed mainstream at the time. And even if (in the unlikely possibility that) they are true, they don’t actually help us decrypt the text etc.

    What was radically different about my Aversion hypothesis was that it started from a completely external position: that because the Voynich Manuscript was clearly a fifteenth century artefact whose cipher alphabet had very specific similarities with others from Northern Italy, the possibility that it enciphered the books of secrets described by Antonio Averlino was worth considering.

    That is, the direction of the argument I laid out went from the outside in, in (what I think was) a properly art history way. By way of comparison, just about every other Voynich theory I’ve seen (and I’ve endured more of them than any one person should have to suffer) starts from internal evidence and elaborates outwards.

  8. Mark Knowles on April 9, 2017 at 6:57 pm said:

    I agree that your idea that the Voynich was a 15th century manuscript as a result of similarities you observed with Northern Italian ciphers of the period is to me compelling (no pun intended). This is a position I have come to. And frankly to a large extent your ideas have been confirmed by carbon dating; just a difference of a couple of decades. So I greatly value the work that you have done. However I just can’t agree that Antonio Averlino was the author; I just don’t think there is the evidence to support that and there is evidence which goes against it,

    Chiefly, because there is a mismatch between the quality of architectural drawings of Averlino and the drawings on the Voynich map. But also, because of the inaccurate drawing of what you regard as “Sforzesco Castle” (and I regard as “Porta Di Giova”).

    It is certainly possible for me greatly to value some of your work whilst not taking on board some of your other ideas. The work you have done has greatly influenced me and some of that research subsequently I have observed fits neatly with evidence I have found.

  9. Mark Knowles on April 9, 2017 at 7:21 pm said:

    I hope I don’t sound defensive.

    My approach was initially to investigate the hypothesis that the top right rosette represents Milan and see if that makes sense. This hypothesis lead me to explore systematically what I saw as the implications for other parts of the Voynich map and I believe this has brought to a theory of the map which I feel evidentially has become pretty tight, neat and allowed me to make predictions which I don’t think are coincidental. I am, at present, trying to obtain specific evidence to support or contradict who I believe to be the author. I hope the evidence will prove conclusive one way or the other as it will either firmly establish my theory or greatly damage it. I am really hoping to have all the evidence I need in the next couple of months though getting information in archives and other places in Italy is taxing.

    Obviously authorship does not solve the cipher. However I personally think within my model knowledge of the author could be of very great help.

  10. Mark Knowles on April 9, 2017 at 7:30 pm said:

    The most important piece of evidence I would really hope to be able to obtain is a certain quantity of handwriting by the individual I believe to be the author. I am inclined to think some bona fide handwriting expert ought to be able to tell if there is a match or not. I would have thought a forensic handwriting specialist would be the best you can get. This is all contingent on being able to obtain a sample of handwriting as my candidate is not nearly as famous as yours though he was certainly an important person.

  11. Mark: you do realise that (Curse p.47) the merlons in the Porta di Giova were square at the time of the Visconti, and were only rebuilt as swallowtail merlons by Francesco Sforza after he took over the city in 1450?

    I have never proposed that Averlino himself was the scribe for the text or the drawings: the writing in particular seems to have been by a professional scribe, because the ‘humanistic’ letter shapes strongly echo the curves of high-culture 15th century writing.

    If there is some handwriting you would like to get hold of, I’m more than happy to help (in confidence or not as you wish): I’m delighted to help anyone test any Voynich theory, and would equally be delighted if anyone were to find a way to disprove my Averlino theory, because this would mean that we were making progress. 🙂

  12. Mark Knowles on April 9, 2017 at 8:11 pm said:

    You have highlighted a very important point, you say: “the merlons in the Porta di Giova were square at the time of the Visconti”. If true this would certainly be problematic for my theory as it challenges my dating hugely. If that;s true then the top right rosette cannot represent Milan in 1431 which as far as I can see demolishes my theory. I have tended to doubt this piece of research as the original drawing of a map which you show in reduced form on page 41 of your book isn’t clearly detailed enough to determine the nature of the battlements. Also you didn’t seem to present any specific evidence that backs this assertion. As it is a very important point it would be really appreciated if you let me know what specific evidence you have to support your assertion.

  13. Mark Knowles on April 9, 2017 at 8:18 pm said:

    My identification of the author is associated with a specific location on the map namely the bottom right rosette. That individual is very closely tied to the location. The Bottom Centre rosette and the Centre Right Rosette are associated with the family of my author(not the Visconti family of course).

    I will email you the name and more details.

  14. Mark: I still have all my books on the history of Milan, including the insanely oversize one by Vergilio Vercelloni:
    * The Pianta di Milano from Galvano Flamma’s Chronica Extravagans seems to have square merlons above six of the gates (Curse p.38)
    * The drawing of Milano fantastico, da “Historia Evangelica et actos apostolorum cum alijs illorum temporum eventibus cum figuris crebioribus delineatis” ca 1380 (f. 74) has square merlons
    * The 1428 circular map of Milan has square merlons (as per the 1457 copy reproduced in Curse p.41)
    * The 1548 Pianta di Milano, “disegno a inchiostro su carta con tracce di colore turchino scuro sui canali” has swallowtail merlons.
    * “La roggia Vettabia tra Milano e l’abbazia di Chiaravalle”, (secolo XVI) very clearly has swallowtail merlons marked “Muri della Citta di Milano”

    A (just about) possible fly in the ointment is that Hartmann Schedel drew Milan with square merlons in 1493: but then again, my understanding is that he drew pictures of many places he had never seen. 🙂

    I’ll get you some scans over the next few days, I’m now out of time this evening. 🙁

  15. Mark Knowles on April 9, 2017 at 9:11 pm said:

    I must say I researched the merlons of Porta Di Giova before and could find no clear evidence either way as to what they looked like. But maybe you have evidence I did not find.

  16. Patagon on April 9, 2017 at 11:16 pm said:

    Something I havent seen mentioned here with respect to the ghibelline merlons (apologies if I have simply missed it) is that the 15th and early 16th century saw a number of italian architects (Pietro Antonio Solari, Marco Ruffo, Aloisio de Milano, Aristotele Fiorovanti and others) head east to work on the Moscow Kremlin where they built fortifications with swallowtail merlons, rounded towers with conical or pyramidal wooden tops and general construction reminiscent of the earlier part of the 15th century in Italy. This ties in nicely not only with the fortifications and towers on the rosettes page, but also with the onion shapes with crosses on top (ie orthodox churches or cathedrals) in the center rosette whilst still maintaining the 15th century Italian connection.

  17. Mark Knowles on April 10, 2017 at 9:51 am said:

    I will explain my thought process as follows:

    I came to believe for a variety of reasons that Milan was represented by the Top Right Rosette.

    Now what deeply troubled me on looking into it was that the Sforzesco castle has a very obvious front tower and yet on the map the tower seems to be clearly drawn as being at the back or centre of the castle. It is certainly possible with this manuscript or I am sure many others of the period that the drawing is not wholly accurate. However nevertheless that was a serious point of concern for me.

    The previous castle, I will call Giova castle, did have a rear/central tower consistent with the drawing. However then the question remained of the swallow-tail battlements. Well having looked into this I felt this was far from cut and dried. I noted you stated that it did not have swallow-tailed battlements. However I questioned, and I think still question, the body of evidence to support that. It seemed to me that first of all the question is not just did it have SWT battlements, but did it have these battlements at the time of writing of the manuscript. I imagine that changing or upgrading battlements was something that could have relatively easily be done at any time.

    Whilst I did not have access to some of the books you do, I did Google quite thoroughly, particularly for drawings of the castle. All the drawings I could find, did not I felt provide conclusive evidence that the castle did not have swallow-tail battlements in 1431. The drawings were either very simplistic and lacking in detail or did not provide a clear view of the battlements. (It should be noted I am obviously considering just the castle rather than other Visconti architecture or other architecture in Milan.)

    On the basis of that I concluded that, whilst I would be significantly more comfortable if I could find a drawing which underpins my case, there was not a good enough reason to reject the hypothesis that the castle was Giova and I felt seemed to me more plausible than Sforzesco.

    I look forward to your scans.

    (Previous comment posted before reading your reply)

  18. Mark: another side of this you need to know is that the Castello Sforzesco we see nowadays is what some historians think is a rather inaccurate reinterpretation, arguably reconstructed more for political theatre than for historical accuracy. As with cipher mysteries, the state it’s in now isn’t always an accurate guide to its original state. 😐

  19. Mark Knowles on April 10, 2017 at 11:42 am said:

    Nick: So, I guess, we probably have to conclude that we can’t be certain if the castle is Giova or Sforza. Some people, of course, would say it is neither of them . However I now find the other work you have done which supports a Milan location persuasive and I would say that to the best of my ability I believe the analysis I have done of the rest of the map backs up the Milan identification, Again I am prepared to go through the specifics of my analysis, although I warn you that there is a certain amount to wade through.

  20. Mark: probably wouldn’t hurt for me to do a blog post summing up the current literature on the Castello Sforzesco, then. 🙂

  21. Mark Knowles on April 10, 2017 at 2:43 pm said:

    Nick: If you have the time it sounds like a good idea. From my point of view the more evidence I have to work with the better. At the moment what I find trying is the difficulty in obtaining some of the evidence I am looking for to test my predictions/analysis; however this is the difficulty in trying to obtain evidence about people and places roughly 600 years ago. Apart from the obvious who wrote the Voynich and what does it say, there are many very specific factual questions I would like to have the answer to, yet obtaining this information varies from difficult to well nigh impossible in some cases. As with the subject we have discussed being absolutely certain of what a given place or building looked like at a certain time is at least hard; this is not to say I don’t have real confidence in most of my numerous identifications on the map (I have tried to identify even the smallest buildings and most minor geographical features, as well. as far as possible, every other small detail of the map), merely that there is room for doubt which is obviously frustrating. I would like to say that given my theory my most important identification on the map I find particularly visually consistent.

    In general referring to our other discussion obviously we all need to be prepared to change our perspective in the light of other evidence, however uncomfortable it may be; I like to think I have done that.

  22. Nick, old mate, a question: but first.
    I’ve given up on theorising on the images, believe me , there are more than enough speculative sites about to satisfy the curious, although I can see value in more than a couple. Later for that.
    The Cathar / heretic view.
    If someone was to judge any of the manuscript images heretic, then they must be in a position to know what heresy is. That being the case, it places them on an inquistor’s judgement seat, one of his hands upraised. When it falls the torture on the heretic begins. When it is raised the torture ceases.
    My point being, perhaps that may have been in the mind of the person(s) who created the manuscript, to write their message in a way that avoids such a judgement.
    But it’s only early days.

  23. peteb: if you’re trying to build up the materiel for your next book, then that’s all fine and dandy. But until you start reading the transcripts of Inquisitorial trials (where the Church actually tried to defend people) rather than relying on your imagination, you’re not going to achieve much. Start with Montaillou and you’ll see what I mean.

  24. You a religious sort of bloke, Nick, or a little bit of this and that?

  25. Petebowes: if there’s a religious bone in my body, I’ve yet to find it. But perhaps I’ll have a deathbed conversion to Pastafarianism, who can tell? 😉

  26. I’m accumulating the names of heretic groups going back to Adam, there are as many of them as there opinions of what is behind the MS. So it’s not a book, Nick, one is enough. I just want to see where another chain of thought leads me.

  27. Mark Knowles on April 11, 2017 at 9:28 am said:

    Nick: If you do a blog post summing up the current literature on the Castello Sforzesco it would be great if you could include your Porta Giova Castle scans and your full argument as to why the castle on the map can’t be Porta Giova. I believe evidence is king and the more argument and evidence the better, so the more you have to offer is greatly appreciated. I am always prepared to change my opinion if I believe the evidence merits it. Thanks!

  28. Pete: the best book to scratch that itch might well be Heresies of the High Middle Ages by Walter Wakefield. Montaillou would be good too. 🙂

  29. I’m with you there, Nick, but am finding that riding on the back of such a wealth of research has great benefits. I’m just a minnow in these waters, but I’m not drowning.

  30. Petebowes: all I’m trying to get across is that when you find yourself becoming interested in subjects where there is a good literature base, you pretty much have a duty to try to read that. And moreover, what you’ll normally find is that the depth of what you’ll find in good books will hugely enrich what you know.

    If I sound unashamedly pro-books, it’s because I am. But the alternative is relying on the detritus and delusion that gets passed off as knowledge on the Internet, and too often there aren’t bargepoles long enough to not touch that with. 😐

  31. Years, Nick, how many do you measure as lost in a lifetime’s research? I would rather find a path no one has trod, and smell along it like a bloodhound until the trail runs cold. So far, not so.
    You have your way, I have mine, and as I wished you earlier, and again now, good luck.
    Let’s see where the gypsies lead us.

  32. Petebowes: the chances that you have found an unexplored Voynich research avenue to bloodhound your way along are really tiny. The page I just linked to on your site has links on to Derek Vogt’s Romany theories, and there are plenty of others out there.

    Of course, they’re all rubbish (basically), but it’s your life to waste, not mine. Just don’t kid yourself you’ve found something new, because speculative heresy / Cathars / Romany links to the Voynich manuscript are so old hat they’re already in several novels.

    e.g. you might want to read “The Cadence of Gypsies” by Barbara Casey. I bought a copy several years ago but didn’t enjoy the writing enough to finish reading it, and so never reviewed it here.

  33. I’ve only ‘wasted’ six days and the Romany trail has gone as far as Pakistan. Two new languages have emerged, a new publication, three travelling groups split up on the eastern Byzantine border in early 1100.
    Where is this ‘old hat’, old boy?

  34. Petebowes: juxtaposition of historical strands is a useful trick to help stimulate imaginative leaps – pulling pairs of random words from a hat can similarly be a good way of overcoming writer’s block.

    But it’s only a stimulus for creating knowledge, not knowledge itself.

    You have your own blog, and your own ideas about what should go on it, and that’s fine. On Cipher Mysteries, I try to make sure that every post leaves the reader genuinely knowing more than they did before. So I don’t just juxtapose stuff, I try to critically evaluate and follow things through to the end, because that’s what knowledge is about.

  35. In that case you are invited to critically examine the next post, it might leave you knowing more than you did. Assuming you have lead a reasonably sheltered life.

  36. Petebowes: your assumption must be wrong, because I didn’t end up knowing more than I did.

    There’s a big difference between facts and knowledge.

  37. “There’s a big difference between facts and knowledge.”

    Yes Nick, of course there is, despite that knowledge can only be built on a foundation of facts. But let’s not go there again old mate. A man never likes his own argument turned against himself.

  38. Mark Knowles on April 15, 2017 at 6:21 pm said:

    Pete Bowes:

    “The Romany trail has gone as far as Pakistan. Two new languages have emerged, a new publication, three travelling groups split up on the eastern Byzantine border in early 1100.”

    I love this theory! It sounds so much more exciting than my own. There are some many wonderful theories out there. Tales of Arabian Nights, Tibet and so many more. There is a small part of me that wishes one of these theories is true and not my own rather dull, by comparison, theory. However even my own story has some interest and adventure in it. Whoever wrote the Voynich it will be an amazing tale.

  39. You’re on, MK. We share the same hypothesis. So I’ve pinched yours.

  40. petebowes: I doubt there’s a huge amount of overlap between Tamil and Switzerland, but what’s 8000km between friends?

  41. I’d rather look at the amount of overlap between Tanunu and what the wandering Gypsies wrote, trouble is, they didn’t write anything.
    So, to follow the logic: on the one hand we have a book no-one can read, and on the other a people who didn’t write.
    Though there may have been one.

  42. Petebowes: trying to link a book to people who don’t write is like trying to find the cat that barked.

    Normally at this point I’d say “good luck” but I’m pretty sure the words won’t stretch that far. :-/

  43. Perhaps that’s why you good folks are having such a hard time of it.

  44. Pete: I try to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, sorry if you can’t tell the two apart.

  45. Look east, old son, if you fancy yourself on the bridge of the good ship Voynich, you should look at all points of the compass. And on that convivial note, I’ll sign off.

  46. Petebowes: if you think after a century of study we can’t tell which points of the compass are land and which are sea, your telescope is probably back to front. 🙂

  47. Mark Knowles on November 3, 2017 at 3:07 pm said:

    Nick: This is a little question, but I was curious about it:

    On page 13? of BL Sloane 4016 there is a walled area and in front of it are 2 soldiers each with a banner. One has the familiar banner of a black eagle with a crown whilst the other has a banner with a different drawing maybe a lantern on it. I raise this question as I was curious if I could find any herbal manuscripts from the early 15th century Novara region. This Tractetus de Herbis (I have probably misspelt Tractetus) is dated from the 1440s and Lombardy, but figuring out the second banner might provide a clue. This is not a priority as it is a digression to say the least.

    Also some herbal manuscripts show the roots of plants depicted as animals. Do you know when and where this form of representation comes from? It might serve to narrow down the geographical origins of the Voynich. Probably this is something that has been debated and resolved by others long ago that I am completely ignorant of.

  48. Mark: as a general thing, I’ve been meaning for some years to try to find a list of 15th century herbal manuscripts, but have never got round to doing this in a systematic way. It’s definitely something I should take on sooner rather than later, as it would probably answer many questions (such as yours here).

    As for the whole subject of animals in herbal depictions of roots, I don’t recall any single work collating these into a single focused study. I’ll have a look later, see what I can find.

  49. Mark Knowles on November 3, 2017 at 3:38 pm said:

    Nick: As you know, herbal or astrological manuscripts are not my main focus, but I thought I would dip by toe into area out of curiousity.

    In terms of manuscripts I feel quite lucky to be in Oxford as the Bodleian like the British Museum seems to be quite a good resource for these amongst other things.

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