What on earth, you may reasonably ask, is a Voynich “metatheory”? I use the term for a specific kind of Voynich Manuscript theory that seeks to explain more or less all its puzzling features by pointing to a single – usually surprising and/or counterintuitive – lateral step away from what we know (or, rather, what we think we know).

Because of the complexity of the manuscript, ‘normal’ Voynich theories tend to be a patchwork of simple explanations and tangled saving hypotheses (i.e. to try to explain why the simple explanations didn’t actually work): by way of contrast, metatheories instead assert that something really fundamental we tend to take for granted is wrong, and that all our confusions have arisen merely as a result of our treating the manuscript as entirely the wrong category of object.

In short, a theory tries to account for the difficulties we observe fairly directly, while a metatheory tries to explain away more or less the whole constellation of difficulties by pointing to (what it asserts is) a basic flaw in our mindset.

For example, Gordon Rugg’s hoax metatheory asserts that the Voynich Manuscript ‘could be’ or ‘is’ (depending on which journalist he’s talking to) a 16th century hoax (technically, a simulacrum) that was constructed at speed using sets of ingeniously-arranged tables and grilles: and hence that the entire statistical edifice of oddly-language-like textual behaviours that taxes Voynich researchers so greatly is no more than an incidental by-product of the hoax’s cleverly-structured meaninglessness. (It’s just a shame that the radiocarbon date for the manuscript’s vellum turned out to be a century earlier, or else he wouldn’t now look like a bit of a fool. Still, I did tell him so at the time. *sigh*)

Another long-running Voynich Manuscript metatheory is Richard SantaColoma’s 2012 proposal (having previously proposed various similar hoax theories) that Wilfrid Voynich himself created the Voynich Manuscript as a sort of fake or a hoax. Rich continues to write about this, and even gave a presentation called “Is the Voynich Manuscript a Modern Forgery? (And why it matters)” at the recent (2017) Symposium on Cryptologic History in Maryland. Here’s what he looks like:

As always with the Voynich Manuscript, broadly the same thing has been suggested numerous times before, e.g. Michael Barlow’s (1986) Cryptologia article “The Voynich Manuscript – by Voynich?”. But what has distinguished Rich’s presentation is his readiness to fight his corner against all-comers, even though the physical evidence, the historical evidence, the codicological evidence and indeed the palaeographic evidence each separately seems to weigh quite strongly against it. Oh, and the fact that Voynich spent so much time trying to get people to prove it was by Roger Bacon.

Anyway, given that so few people now seem to understand the actual nature of Rich’s hoax claims (and why refuting them matters), I thought a post was a little overdue. So here it is.

Not Probably, But Possibly

As mentioned above, the radiocarbon dating of the vellum points specifically to the early 15th century: to which Rich responds that there is some evidence that some forgers have sometimes used caches of unused old vellum as the support medium for their forgeries. So his argument runs: because some forgers have done this on some occasions, it could have been the case here too. And so the radiocarbon dating – though obviously opposing simple forgeries – cannot be used to absolutely disprove the suggestion that the person who (putatively) hoaxed the Voynich Manuscript.

Similarly, even though the codicological evidence directly implies that the Voynich Manuscript has been rebound and overpainted (leaving bifolios mis-coloured and out of context), Rich’s position is that this implies Wilfrid Voynich must have been not just a hoaxer, but a highly sophisticated hoaxer, deliberately shuffling the vellum bifolios and overpainting them to simulate what might have happened over time to such a document (had it been genuine). And, naturally, the more codicological details that you add to this list, the more sophisticated a hoaxer Wilfrid Voynich must surely have been, he would argue. Even though increasing the sophistication and complexity like this makes the hoax less probable, it remains a possibility: and the smaller the possibility, the more wondrous a deception it surely was.

The palaeographic evidence to do with the ultra-rare numbering system used to number the quires is a strange one: this specific (and rather cumbersome and impractical) system seems only to have been used for a few years during the mid-15th century in no more than a few parts of what is now Switzerland. Rich’s response here is that because Wilfrid Voynich was an antiquarian bookseller roaming Europe looking for rare books and manuscripts, he would surely have been well-placed to see such a system in action in the kind of rare manuscripts he regularly saw. Again, even if there is no evidence that Voynich himself actually bought a separate manuscript where this rare numbering system appears, this is a historical possibility that we cannot use to disprove Rich’s basic claim, despite its low intrinsic probability.

Despite the mathematical fact that multiplying two small probabilities together makes a much smaller net probability, Rich’s overall position as far as these contraindicating evidences goes is simply this: that if his proposal that Wilfrid Voynich faked/hoaxes the manuscript is correct, then the final probability that all these other things happened is actually 100%, however unlikely each may seem to an historian.

Some may say that this is a lot like explaining away the chocolate bar missing from the kitchen table as having been taken by hungry aliens who beamed it up to their mothership to eat it: but that’s perhaps a little too glibly sarcastic. Rather, I think the real situation is that Rich defends the possibility that Voynich faked/hoaxed his manuscript so avidly because he thinks that the weight of secondary explanations it yields balances out its net improbability, i.e. that the explanation’s high utility is in inverse proportion to its likelihood.

Document X

In my opinion, however, the place where Rich’s argumental train struggles to stay in contact with its logical rails is in its relationship with a complex of 17th century letters to and from Athanasius Kircher, that famously describe a document strikingly similar to the Voynich Manuscript.

In recent years, this set of letters has been documented and dissected in depth, from which prolonged study there now seems no doubt whatsoever that they are all referring to a single mysterious document (let us call this “Document X“) that was owned by Georg Baresch, passed to Johannes Marcus Marci after Baresch’s death, and then passed by Marci to Athanasius Kircher.

Rich SantaColoma firstly points out that we have no direct proof that Document X is the Voynich Manuscript, and that we should therefore be wary of assuming that the two are the same object. He further contends that in his opinion, the Voynich Manuscript was instead faked/hoaxed by Voynich specifically to make it resemble the description of (the presumably now long-lost) Document X.

For this to be true, it would seem that Wilfrid Voynich must have been aware of the contents of some or all of these letters in 1914 or before, so that he could design his hoax/fake to resemble their description of Document X.

However, even though Kircher’s thick volumes of letters were well-known during his lifetime (e.g. De Sepi’s 1678 description of Kircher’s museum in Rome), they were not listed in later Jesuit sources (such as Sommervogel and De Backer (1893)). Furthermore, the modern rediscovery of Kircher’s correspondence came about long after the Voynich Manuscript appeared on the world stage: until John Fletcher took on the mammoth task of reading and judiciously summarizing the more-than-2000 letters in the 1940s, there had been no more than passing mention of them at all since the 17th century.

For Wilfrid Voynich to have even seen these volumes would therefore have been highly surprising: and what is more, for him to have had sufficient time (and good enough Latin) to work his way through them enough to draw out the strands of the sub-network of letters around the Voynich Manuscript nearly a century before anyone else did is basically impossible.

Apologies to Rich SantaColoma, but there is therefore no way whatsoever that Wilfrid Voynich himself could have built up a description of Document X that would have been good enough to work as a template for him to use when (supposedly) forging/hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript.

Saving Hypotheses Aplenty

If that’s a bust, what other alternatives still remain open? Alas, the problem with imaginative historical interpolation is that there are almost always numerous ways to construct saving hypotheses to paper over the cracks in any wonky explanation’s wall, no matter how wide those cracks may be.

For example, it is possible that an entirely unknown group of people (let’s say, one or more 18th or 19th century Jesuit students) had access to Document X, and from that built up an entirely separate set of descriptions of it: and that it was this separate set of descriptions that Wilfrid Voynich had access to, which he used as the basis for his hoax/fake.

However, the way that the 1665 Marci letter (the one that Voynich said he found tucked into the manuscript) ties in so neatly with the rest of the 17th century Kircher correspondence then becomes very hard to reconcile. And so you would be left with the awkward conclusion that this unknown group of people must also have had access to Marci’s letter. In fact, I think you would be forced to conclude that this letter originally accompanied Document X, but that even though Document X was lost, the still-extant accompanying letter was inserted by Wilfrid Voynich into his faked-up version of Document X.

But this is starting to sound too unlikely even for Rich SantaColoma’s subtle taste for the barely possible. :-/

If you don’t like that, then another possibility could be that Wilfrid Voynich was shown (or saw) Document X itself (including Marci’s letter), but then created his own fake Document X while stealing Marci’s letter to attach to his own version… but this is all veering into the realms of the historically fantastical, and I don’t want to do Rich’s work for him. 😉

And So The Moral Of The Story Is…

In my opinion, what Rich SantaColoma offers up doesn’t really fall in the category of History, but is rather a kind of Debating Society take on historical certainty – for unless you can prove to him to his satisfaction that his argued scenario is impossible by his own criteria, he feels happy to announce that he has won the debate.

Moreover, because Rich seems to believe that the proposal that Wilfrid Voynich himself faked/hoaxed the Voynich Manuscript is itself enough to resolve all otherwise-difficult-to-explain issue, this is something against which he is happy to balance a homeopathically low level of probability, one lower than just about anybody else would consider acceptable.

Yet it seems to me from this that whereas most Voynich theories are based on some kind of psychological projection on the part of the theorist, there is something quite different going on here. Despite the sustained effort Rich has put into sustaining the dwindlingly small possibility side of his Wilfrid-Voynich-hoaxed-it-himself theory, there seems to be a thoroughly irrational component to the other half of his equation. That is to say: what exactly about the Voynich Manuscript would any modern hoax theory throw any light on? What would it explain about the manuscript’s strange text and hard-to-pin-down diagrams? How does the notion that it is a hoax help explain the intricacies of its patterns? If Voynich created it, how did he create it? But all such questions seem to trail off into an awkward silence.

Regardless, all the while Rich’s absolute-disproof-avoiding way of going about this is merely his idiosyncratic opinion, it is (of course) of no wider importance whatsoever: as always, people are free to hold whatever opinions they like, however odd or curious they may be. Given that we’re living in a postmodern world where even Stephen Bax is feted as a Voynich expert, rhyme and reason of the sort I happen to value would seem to be rare commodities indeed: so perhaps I’m simply a Victorian dad peering at Instagram and wondering why all the children depicted aren’t working up chimneys.

But if I were to be asked – as indeed sometimes happens – whether I think there is any merit in Rich’s suggestion of a modern hoax by Wilfrid Voynich, I would have to say: I haven’t seen any sign of it yet, and if I’d have held my breath waiting for it, I’d be long dead by now. Oh well.

95 thoughts on “Voynich metatheories, Rich SantaColoma, and Document X…

  1. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on November 27, 2017 at 9:17 pm said:

    Rich. There is, of course, one of those who do not read manuscript. I’ve already written to him several times. He knows it. So he started the new theory. That the handwriting is forgery. I am sorry.

  2. I find that a common feature of…”interesting”…conspiracy theories is that they involve plotters who alternate at stunning speed between being astonishingly clever and brilliant and mind-bendingly careless and moronic. In the case of Rich’s theory, we are left with the residue of all those (at the time supposedly utterly compelling) comparisons to items consistent with the dating implied by his New Atlantis prop theory which Voynich was supposedly foolish enough to forget to remove when he decided to make it a faux Bacon mss. (after, mind you, simulating all those codicological manipulations). My arguments regarding how he represents some of the mss composition date vs C-14 dating studies he cites were given exhaustively on the mailing list — his statement at https://proto57.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/modern-voynich-myths/ that “When C14 tested in the 1970’s, several works were found to be made as many as 153 years after material creation” is objectively a gross misrepresentation of the results of the study he points to there for reasons I explained in exhausting depth — he is interpreting ambiguous peaks caused by kinks in the C-14 calibration curve as potential earlier dates for the vellum and treating those theoretical possibilities [*could have (abstractly, implausibly) been made as many as*] as certainties [*were found to be made as many as*) despite the massive relative amount of really old vellum lying around that would imply — people do not endless accumulate stocks of consumables rather than use the existing supply.

  3. Koen Gheuens on November 28, 2017 at 2:17 am said:

    I appreciate the clarity of your post, Nick. Also had a good laugh at the image of Voynich destroying a genuine and valuable manuscript in order to make his own fake full of chubby naked ladies.

  4. I don’t see Rich’s approach as greatly different from the majority.

    His effort to persuade others that an idea built from untested preliminary assumptions IS the truth differs from the majority of Voynich storylines only in style of expression and the object of its narrative.

    Rich follows the usual pattern of Voynich studies since 1912. He asserts something to be so, apparently without much care taken to so much as identify his own basic assumptions, let alone subject them to scrutiny before adoption.
    He then hunts only for evidence which will lend that narrative an appearance of ‘plausibility’ to persons who, likewise, have not paused to examine the story’ fundamental premises.

    Then, when challenged, his reaction is to begin to hunt for something which will excuse a perceived disparity between the testimony offered by the primary source and the scheme he wishes to be deemed (or voted) as ‘consensual truth’.

    I really cannot see that Rich’s approach differs from many others, except in the smaller number of its adherents. I will say that he has overall been less vitriolic and less inclined to use personal attacks than have others when one mentions facts opposing his narrative (flaws historical, iconographic, palaeographic or cultural).

    The best advice I think anyone could offer those who think one should first form a theory and then try to prove it (or at least to thoroughly smash any opposition) is this:
    Be slow and careful about establishing the foundations.
    Do not erect on that foundation any structure of greater weight than it can bear.
    Do not hope to join two structural beams without secure connections.
    If the house falls down, it should fall on you first – and long before others are invited to join you.
    ‘Maintaining the premises’ is only part of the work, and the last one at that.


  5. Chris Jacobs on November 28, 2017 at 6:57 am said:

    I hope this is relevant and of interest to you and your readers.

    Ut hkskdkxt: Early Medieval Cryptography, Textual Errors, and Scribal Agency Benjamin A. Saltzman University of Chicago Forthcoming, Speculum (2018)

    If solving a riddle involves returning the obscured referent to a state of clarity, then what are we to do when we encounter in the margin of Aldhelm of Malmesbury’s Aenigma 100 a scribe’s solution that looks like this: ut hkskdkxt? Such playful cryptography was quite common in early medieval manuscripts, particularly in the context of didactic texts and riddles, but there is something peculiar about this example (and several of the others that surround it in Cambridge, University Library, Gg. 5. 35): it contains an error, a slip that has made it all but impossible for modern editors and…

  6. Perry D. Edwards on November 28, 2017 at 12:10 pm said:

    Wouldn’t it be a good starting point for a theory to reject uncertain assumptions?
    Unfortunately this is not what Richard SantaColoma is doing. Instead he is adding his own uncertain assumptions. Like many others SantaColoma just interprets something into the Voynich manuscript and argues that nobody was able to prove him wrong. The problem is therefore that he didn’t understand that it is on him to present proof for his theory.

  7. Mark Knowles on November 28, 2017 at 1:14 pm said:

    Nick: Clearly while his hypothesis is possible the point is, as you mention, that it seems highly improbable.

    However I wonder still, even after you have raised this point, if your energies and great analytic skill would be better applied pushing Voynich research forward rather than tackling outlandish theories.

    I realise that it was important to address Gerard’s theory and it is difficult to evaluate which theories merit discussion and which don’t.

  8. farmerjohn on November 28, 2017 at 1:31 pm said:

    2 Perry D. Edwards
    =Wouldn’t it be a good starting point for a theory to reject uncertain assumptions?=

    1) I’m afraid if we reject uncertainties then nothing remains in case of VMS…

    I’ve read somewhere the article named “10 properties VMS should *not* have” or smth like that. Nice article, but after reading it I suddenly understood why VMS is still undeciphered. Because if we take set of all theoretically possible solutions and start to remove subsets from it which “are uncertain”, “obviously wrong”, “don’t use stats”, “suggest hoax”, “suggest existing language”, “suggest invented language”, etc then we end up with empty set of solutions.

    And it’s very nice that there are people who are capable of exploring different theories. At least they show us that some direction is completely wrong (sometimes they are not capable of admitting this, but that’s question of personalities). At most we will have the solution. Miraculously. Somehow. Some time.

    2) Good starting point… For VMS even bad starting point is satisfactory:)

  9. farmerjohn: if we reject uncertainties, we know nothing outside a few parts of mathematics. In the real world (and in the world of history in general), great uncertainty is the only place where we can ever start, and if we’re lucky / persistent / smart we eventually manage to move to a lower level of uncertainty. 🙂

  10. Mark: I’ve put off writing the post for five years, it’s not as if it has been at the top of my list of things to do. 😉

  11. Perry,
    I’m afraid you’ve hit a nerve and I hope Nick will forgive my replying.

    “it is on him to present proof for his theory” sounds like a lazy attiude to this study. Surely if you want to know whether or not the storyline being offered you is helpful to the study of this manuscript, you should be asking and answering any questions you have, yourself.

    I don’t accept Santacoloma’s storyline either. Not because he has ‘failed to persuade me’ but because I’m in a position to recognise in the primary source’s imagery the reflection of certain ideas and depiction of certain objects unknown to western scholars until after Wilfrid died.

    For a similar reason, though less emphatically, I reject Pelling’s version of the ‘fake book’ tale, too. Not because that bit of fictional narrative was spun unconvincingly but because the primary source prevents its being true.

    I do not disagree with Rugg’s version of the ‘fake book’ idea. Not because he has ‘managed to persuade’ but because I know too little to have any chance of recognising or correcting his errors. I’m not ‘persuaded’ nor ‘unpersuaded’ – I’m just leaving that to people who know something about cryptology and text-generation. I do know the pictures aren’t fake.

  12. Mark Knowles on November 28, 2017 at 2:41 pm said:

    Nick: Fair enough. I didn’t want to be confrontational. It just sometimes feels like not much new/distinctive research is being done.

    My research may be erroneous or may not be, but it has given me an awful lot to follow up. So many theories feel like a rehash of other theories or variations on a theme. In my own case whether my theory is right or wrong I think I can say it is distinctive, particularly in terms of its initial approach. Whilst it certainly borrows something from your own research it had deviated, wisely or unwisely, significantly from that.

    I think it would be nice to see theories which are quite distinctive and may be employing a uinque approach whilst not entering the realms of absurdity.

    Note that I am NOT suggesting that your present line of enquiry in regard to astronomical block paradigms is lacking in value at all, but outside of that it doesn’t feel like much is going on. It feels like there are a lot of different angles to explore.

  13. Perry D. Edwards on November 28, 2017 at 2:48 pm said:

    @farmerjohn: It makes a difference if a theory is based on observations or assumptions. In the first case you would say something like the manuscript must be fake since a radiocarbon test dates the vellum or ink into modern times. In the second case you are just saying it was not possible to disproof my assumtion that maybe the manuscript is fake.

  14. Diane: I haven’t got a version of the fake book tale. What I presented in the post were examples of the kind of monstrous saving hypotheses you would be forced to accept if you pursue the idea to its logical conclusion.

  15. Mark: there’s actually a lot going on, but I don’t have time to write it all up.

  16. Mark Knowles on November 28, 2017 at 3:58 pm said:

    Nick: One thing that I don’t have time do, but as I mentioned, someone, not necessarily you, could do is track down where and also when herbal manuscript represent roots as animals. A very cursory look seems to indicate that this is a feature of Northern Italian or maybe just Italian manuscripts and possibly 15th century. (I will regard the drawing of Mandrake as an exception.) I may seem somewhat obsessed by geographical considerations, but I feel being able to narrow the broad geography even if a little mixed, for example Southern Germany/Northern Italy, is of great value. This renders theories of a completely different geographical basis appear less plausible though not necessarily impossible. So the more geographical markers we can bring to bear the better in my opinion.

  17. Mark Knowles on November 28, 2017 at 4:14 pm said:

    Nick: We do not even need to be very strict about it. For example we might find that if a herbal manuscript has roots represented as animals is most likely to be of Northern Italian origin. However, as a hypothetical, there might be 1 Belgian herbal manuscript with roots represented that way. So with geographical markers we do not need to be strict, high probabilities are still useful especially when combined with probabilities derived from other geographical markers.

  18. J.K. Petersen on November 29, 2017 at 1:49 am said:

    Mark, I have a great deal of research on the herbs that I haven’t posted yet, including timelines and examples that show commonalities for aspects that haven’t been discussed yet.

    I also have a great deal of research on the paleography (the plants and text are my primary interests). But, as Nick pointed out, finding the time to write it up (properly and with appropriate arguments) is incredibly difficult.

    Information that is easy to post and describe has already been presented by numerous researchers. What remains is topics that take a greater commitment of time to research and describe in a way that it is comprehensible to a lay audience. We are all “beginners” and “experts” in different disciplines, thus a lot of background information, and sometimes a lot of diagrams, have to be included to bridge those gaps.

  19. I was somewhat rushed in composing my previous comment, so apologies for convoluted sentence structure…

    I’ve met Rich; Rich is a nice guy; I admire the effort he has put into digging into primary sources. Criticism of a theory is not criticism of its proponent. I hope Rich realizes that and takes it that way.

    The zeroth order problem I have with Rich’s current theory is this: given the manner in which he presents and defends it, it is unfalsifiable (the alternately brilliant/careless forger issue is a symptom of this). That doesn’t somehow mean it’s automatically *wrong*, mind you. What it does mean, however, is that there is little point in engaging with the theory itself.

    Now, the “MS 408 is a 15th century document” family of hypotheses *is* falsifiable. That makes engaging with specific claims he makes in that regard of some value. Take, as an example, his list of the scattered dates put forward for the mss. pre-C14 dating by different people. Something (I think) Diane and I are in vehement agreement on is that there is limited utility in knowing *that* Person A claims X without knowing *why* Person A claims X. So (to pick a simple example) Strong’s claim for the date of the mss. is useless because it is rooted in his bogus decipherment. Dates rooted (sic) in supposed identifications of Western Hemisphere plants stand or fall on how sound those identifications are/were.

    Those two paragraphs (I think) explain a lot of the dynamic of how critics of Rich’s arguments engage with him. It’s not missing the forest for the trees — it’s recognizing the futility of dealing with the forest rather than individual trees at all.


  20. How far does a theory according to current knowledge and technology still hold? Everyone should think about it themselves and ask themselves, is that even possible?
    The book itself gives many hints where I can not ignore, just so that a theory has continued. Sometimes you have to throw something away, even though it took a lot of effort to carry it together.
    If you stick to facts and follow a theory without losing the thread, you will come to an end.

  21. Mark Knowles on November 29, 2017 at 12:07 pm said:

    J. K. Petersen: A summary of your research findings or a write up of what you see as your most important research discoveries/conclusions would be sufficient at this time. You can point out to the reader that a justification of your conclusions will be published at a later date and so unfortunately a supporting argument cannot be provided. It seems to me that it is better to publish it in this form than not at all.

  22. john sanders on November 29, 2017 at 11:56 pm said:

    To-day marks 69 years with ‘many ups & downs’ for you Mr.Unknown Somerton Man, in your long wait to retrieve your God given name, and to earn your rightful place in His grand scheme. Not that you seem to have lived a productive or useful life above ground as you would no doubt concede; though your mortal sins are not for us to judge too harshly, lest we be judged in kind. A little more patience and all the waiting should be over Heaven willing, perhaps even sooner than some might like to think, so if you can hang in there for a bit, we should be able to put things right for you old chap.

  23. Coming back to the more general topic of ‘meta-theories’ as defined here, and not specifically about the ‘modern fake’ theory, I fully agree that they tend to have numerous common aspects. Even though they are different. Let’s look at three or four of them:
    – it’s a modern fake by W.Voynich
    – it’s not European (more specifically not German), but rather Asian
    – it’s meso-american
    – it’s late 16th Century, meaningless, generated mechanically.

    The first generic point is that they don’t explain anything that cannot already be explained satisfactorily. They don’t add anything.
    (Having said that, the Cardan Grille theory at least attempts to explain the text properties that are not yet properly explained. However, it does not really work – only at first sight.)

    At the same time, they are ‘attractive’, or ‘cool’. They might appeal to the media and to general opinion of people who lack the necessary background information about the MS to see their faults.

    They also tend to ‘inject’ certain observations about the MS that cannot be explained by the ‘standard’ history, but only by the meta-theory. These observations are not ‘real’. They are not shared by the ‘academia’ (e.g. Beinecke, historians of art or science). Some examples:
    – one of the circular drawings represents a microscopic creature
    – the bathing ladies have mongolian traits
    – many plants and animals in the MS are uniquely new-world species

    As also correctly pointed out by Nick, all meta-theories are in contradiction with some or all of the strongest factual evidence that exists about the MS: the carbon dating and the references in letters.

    For the meso-american and cardan-grille theories, the Marci letter is not an issue, but for the other two it is, so both need to deal with it.
    One does it by arguing that it is also a modern fake, and the other that it was written while Marci had lost his memory. Both are untenable, but that doesn’t bother them.

    Three of the four meta-theories are at variance with the carbon dating, but for the cardan grille that isn’t actually necessary. There is no particular reason why this could not have been done much earlier, since the method is not really an application of a cardan grille, and could also have been done by rotating cipher disks. I may some day write it up.

    I only see one very major difference between these various meta-theories. This is that the meso-american theory tends to get the least attention of all in the various fora, but it is also the one that should be taken more seriously than the others.

    The authors of this theory do not interact in the fora of the amateur community, but present it at conferences and are writing (or have already published) a book about it. They are arguing with professionals. These professionals do not care about any of the other meta-theories, again with the possible exception of Gordon Rugg’s Cardan Grille.

  24. Rene: there is no obvious shortage of meso-american Voynich theories, sure, but I’m not sure I’d be comfortable classifying them as meta-theories – most seem to start by reading EVA k/t (which almost never appear as the last letter in a word) as Nahuatl’s distinctive ‘tl’ consonantal cluster (which almost always appears as the last letters in a word), and then go downhill from there, grabbing saving hypotheses aplenty as they go.

  25. Charlotte Auer on November 30, 2017 at 11:12 am said:


    I agree with your lucid explanation of these meta-theories, but I don’t really understand why the meso-american theory should be taken more seriously than the others.

    If we take the carbon dating seriously, as I do, then any new-world theory is ruled out in the first place.

  26. Dear Charlotte,

    I did not mean ‘more seriously’ in the sense that it has a higher likelihood of being correct. In fact, this is not for me to decide, not for anyone else contributing here. (Although we can all have our opinion).

    What I mean is that all the other ones basically only exist inside the bubble of the amateur community. The meso-american theory is much more present outside it.
    The scientific / historical community is not reading any of the blogs, I am fairly sure.

  27. Rene: …apart from Cipher Mysteries, of course. 😉

  28. Nick – about fake books. Perhaps my memory deceives me, in which case I apologise. I had associated with you an idea that the manuscript had been faked in some way to make it appear a foreign book when it was not.

    While I fully appreciate your reasons for calling all theories save your preferred storyline a ‘metatheory’ perhaps a little more precision would be helpful.
    Allow me..

    1. “it’s a modern fake by W.Voynich” – this is an all-embracing metatheory, that we know is a metatheory because Nick says so in the post above.

    2. “it’s late 16th Century, meaningless, generated mechanically.” Again, this is an all-embracing metatheory that can’t be bothered distinguishing between written and pictorial text, or discussions of vellum, hands and ink. We know it’s a metatheory because Nick says so, above, and because in other posts he has clearly and carefully explained for both experts and the cryptologically-impaired precisely why Rugg’s metatheory is flawed and his text-generation no key to the manuscript – not provenance, not interpretation… not anything.

    3. it’s meso-american. What you mean by ‘it’ here? I do not think the Nahuatl argument was that the vellum wasn’t made somewhere in western Europe, nor the inks and pigments, but that the written text recorded the Nahuatl language in Romanised characters, and the pictures recorded the lives and practices of the Aztecs (or someone). Since we do have books with such a provenance and character, the proponents’ reasoning or evaluation of text and pictures may be mistaken (I’m sure they are) but you’re mistaken in calling this a ‘metatheory’. I guess the reason for mentioning it is just to ensure that your reference to all and any evidence, argument or position that disputes your preferred “it’s German” notion will be defined by implication as unworthy of attention. I suppose insinuation and implication are the only sensible weapons to use, since the evidence is solid and no-one in their right minds, I think, is trying to argue that the Voynich text is written in German… or are they?

    Anyway, let’s break that other thing down; it’s a mess as it is:

    4 “It’s not European (more specifically not German) but rather Asian”

    Before I accept your assertion that there are some people who say ‘It’s not European’ – let alone swallow your insinuation that any opinion save ‘It’s German’ qualifies as metatheory, I would like a better idea of just what you mean by “IT” – do you mean the vellum, or the hand, or the inks, pigments, written text, first enunciation of the content in the written text, enciphering of the written text (if enciphered)… or what?

    I could say the Book of Job isn’t European and be right, even if I were looking at a copy of it written in Latin and made for a crown prince of Scandinavia.

    Which reminds me.. how do you define EUROPEAN? Obviously this is critical to our knowing just how much of a ‘metatheory’ you’re talking about. So do you count a work written in Arabic, in Muslim Spain, a ‘European’ work? How about one written in Ireland by a Jew? A Karaite in the Crimea … would they be ‘European?’ What about a Syrian brought back in the retinue of some French knight. Would something he wrote be ‘European’? Would it be a ‘metatheory’ if one believed the content in the manuscript to have come from elsewhere, but the fifteenth century manufacture to have occurred in mainland Europe? If you consider that a ‘metatheory’… well we have an awful lot of three dimensional, properly provenanced ‘metatheories’ in the British LIbrary.

    .. not German…

    Disputing your theory-of-preference is not equivalent to creating a metatheory. For definition of a metatheory, read the post above.

    .. Asian…
    Aldrovandi had a Ming bowl. Pegolotti happily wrote instructions for how to walk overland to China… Asian traders appear pictured in a certain Occitan manuscript.. Letters from China, and from the rulers of China are in the Vatican archives to this day. Mongols occupied central Europe for a while. Indian pepper was making the journey to as far as England – and brought by Radhanites – by the tenth century.

    Are you suggesting there was some sort of customs barrier which prevented any of those thousands of people bringing other things into Europe? Marco Polo’s story was transcribed in Europe, too.

    “It’s not German”. What isn’t German? The folio dimensions? The finish for the vellum? The hands? The written part of the text? The pictorial text?
    What of the scholars who gave it as their considered opinion that the work was not German. (btw, who before 2000 ever asserted that it was ‘German’ and where did they set out the technical and historical evidence that led to that conclusion?)

    4(iii) It’s not European… but Asian.

    So you realise that Asia starts at the Bosphorus? What exactly do you mean by ‘Asian’ and why do you imagine that no material from an Asian source could have come without permission into ‘Europe’ – when in fact the Asian Mongols occupied central Europe and Pegolotti described the overland route even for Latins, who were taking it.

    Are you defining the manuscript in terms of its content (pictorial? linguistic?) or its materials? the hands? styles of drawing? page layout? ,,,what?

    … Do you think that if the vellum were made somewhere in mainland Europe, it could record nothing but pure expressions of some parochial European culture?

    If an accurate map of the Chinese coast is included in a twelfth century work produced by a north African Muslim in Sicily under Frederick II, would that count as ‘European’ and ‘German’ ?

    Or would it count as ‘Asian’ if the map showed a fairly good image of the emperor of China? (As the Vms does, by the way).

    Taking advantage of Nick’s post to slip in a plug for your German theory by insinuation and association is quite clever in an odd sort of way, but for intelligent readers it doesn’t do your cause much good. An awful lot seem to be especially sharp. I know; some write to me to criticise my grammar. 🙂

  29. Mark Knowles on November 30, 2017 at 12:55 pm said:

    It worth noting that 2 of Rene’s examples relate to the question of dating i.e. time.
    And the other 2 relate to the question of geographical location i.e. space.

    As far as the question of space goes this fits with my point about isolating a set of geographical markers. As anyone who knows my analysis will appreciate I think pinning down the geography associated with the manuscript is very important.

  30. Charlotte Auer on November 30, 2017 at 1:52 pm said:

    Thank you, dear Rene! I’m not so familiar with the bubble, neither inside nor outside, you must know.

    Diane: even if I’m not so familiar with the bubble, I recognize that you really don’t miss the slightest opportunity to reject the idea of a German origin of the VMs with astonishing vehemence.

    For a better understanding of your point, I’d like to ask you some questions.

    1. Do you read German medieval manuscripts from the different German speaking regions in their origin and would you be able to transcribe them correctly?

    2. Where in the VM is a map showing “a fairly good image of the emperor of China”? This is really intriguing me because I have never seen such an image. Could you please give me the number of the folio? Thank you!

  31. Mark Knowles on November 30, 2017 at 2:18 pm said:

    Charlotte: When you talk about a German origin, the Germanic world is and I imagine was quite large at this time, so that sounds fairly non-specific. Are you thinking of a Southern German/Swiss German origin? Why do you think a Germanic origin is more plausible than a Northern Italian origin?

  32. What do we have in the VM?
    1. In some places we have German text. (Even the dialect is known to me).
    2. Building, architecturally typical Central Europe
    3. A castle, swallowtail, typical southern Europe (alpenrand)
    4. Crowns. (Persons known, Central Europe) third crown known to me book year 1375. 2 crowns visible outside St.Stephansdom Vienna.
    5. Clothing (Central Europe)
    6. plants, 80% alpine plants, (medicine classic Central Europe)

    Now should I include in America or Asia in my consideration?
    Even if I bring my Fatasie to the attack, hard to believe.
    And that’s just a small part of the reasons.

  33. The way I interpret Nick’s definition of meta-theories is that it is not so much *what* they say, but rather *how* they are argued and defended.

    One key element seems to be a preference of very shaky evidence that is in favour of the theory, over much more solid evidence that is against it.

    I have been mildly reprimanded (implicitly) for not sticking my neck out, by not having a theory. I can live with that.

  34. E.g. South Tyrol was – and is still – a German speaking region but (nowadays) belongs to (Northern) Italy. As to the Late Middle Ages ‘German’ and ‘Italian’ should only be used with respect to language, not geographically.

  35. Mark Knowles on November 30, 2017 at 5:58 pm said:

    Thomas: Italian is derived from the Tuscan dialect, I believe, and so probably wouldn’t have been widely spoken in much of the area associated with modern Italy, at that time.

    The use of the word “Northern” is necessarily vague; one could of course ask how far North is Northern?

    Italy as country in its own right did not exist until centuries later.

    So my use of the words “Northern Italy” was naturally intended as an approximate, but not precisely defined, area.

  36. There is this thing with theories (I can’t recall atm if Rich calls his a theory or a hypothesis). Ironically, since around 1912 a theory cannot be proven anymore, it can only turn to become accepted, if enough of the predictions it suggests can be proven right.
    I know too little about the greater contemporary knowledge of Kircher’s correspondence around that period, but a thought experiment about “the letter” seems possible: given that Kircher was widely regarded the sole authority on all matters “hieroglyphic” it is an acceptable thought that numerous people sent similar requests to him. So one could simply choose a circle of people known to have been in communication with Kircher in the right timeframe, and “give it a shot into the blue”. The chance supporting earlier correspondence to appear later on is not too small, and if not, no harm done. My ignorance could actually help in conducting such a test, had I the means & time at my disposal.
    IMHO the argument that the earlier correspondence must have been known to a potential forger to be able to fake that letter is not a very strong one (it simply doesn’t disprove anything, see above).
    A few peculiarities about the letter have been pointed out, one of which IMHO sticks out the most is the omission of the “friends” name, something which seems very uncommon for long term, long distance communication of that era (this has been noted by a historian, hence an expert, not my humble self).
    And it still bugs me why it took Voynich such a long time to notice the letter tucked in the manuscript he obviously showed great interest in from the beginning.

  37. Mark Knowles on November 30, 2017 at 7:29 pm said:

    It is funny as there is a lot of talk about the Kircher letter(s), but I can’t see that my theory or that of many others, though not all, would be any different if the letter referred to the Voynich or not. I can see its potential value with regard to the “hoax” theory and so of course in the specific context of this post. but in general there seems an excessive focus on it/them. I sense that they are spoke about so much as there a few agreed certainties when it comes to the Voynich and it is nice to have something, whatever it is, that is solid to hold on to. However I feel they are a bit like the biography of Wilfred Voynich. Now Wilfred Voynich’s life may be interesting, but it is not something I intended to study in a hurry as it unlikely to have any impact on my research. Similarly I must also confess I know very little about the Kircher letters as I haven’t taken the time to learn about them.

  38. Mark: it’s OK not to know the ins and outs of the Kircher correspondence archives, as long as you know enough to be sure that they disprove all but the most outlandish (and improbable) modern hoax theory.

  39. voynichbombe: the problem is that later letters refer to that letter. So it would have been very hard to construct a letter that slots into an existing network of letters (including dates, don’t forget) without knowing that that network exists.

  40. Rene: it’s not my interpretation, but new words rarely end up meaning precisely what the originator intended. :-/

  41. Diane: it is entirely true that I put forward the idea that the Voynich’s cipher system may well have been designed in such a way to make its covertext resemble an unknown language – but that is a matter of steganography rather than a hoax or a fake.

    Similarly, I also put forward the proposal that its Herbal B pages might be machine drawings obfuscated to resemble plants. But that too is a matter of visual steganography rather than of hoaxing or fakers.

    Quite a different category, in the end.

  42. Is there any study on artificially designed scripts in medieval manuscripts? The only examples of such scripts I’m aware of are two of the alphabets in Mandevilles Travels.

  43. bdid1dr on November 30, 2017 at 9:46 pm said:

    I have a book, which title is “The Man Who Broke Purple” ‘The Life of William F. Friedman, Who Deciphered the Japanese Code in World War II” by Ronald Clark
    A very interesting book. However, the deciphering was being done by his Friedman’s wife Elizabeth (Smith).

  44. Most recently, I’ve been reading a book about the purification of uranium (mostly being done in Saint Louis Missouri). Which ‘purification’ efforts eventually expanded to the extent of neighborhoods surrounding two dumpsites and the airport’s parking lot and runways. 50-gallon metal drums stacked two drums high under the Airport parking lot and runways.
    Another very interesting ‘dumpsite’ is a huge boulder-covered mound — upon which visitors can walk the stairs to the top of the mound — to a historic museum.
    Uh-hunh …. I don’t think so. Not me anyway. Not long after my birth, I was subjected to irradiation ‘therapy’ in the hope of closing my cleft soft palate. Then, when I was about three years old I had surgery to correct my crossed vision (lazy eye). Then when I was about ten years old I had CO-60 treatment, so long ago, I’ve forgotten the purpose of that experiment.

  45. Nick,
    Thanks for the correction. Point noted.

  46. voynichbombe,

    some of the points you raise are interesting questions by themselves. To answer them, or to see how they fit with one’s theory, one has to address both the pro’s and con’s, and not just look for an argument how they fit one’s own (meta-)theory.

    It is indeed necessary to know a lot about the details of the Kircher correspondence to fully appreciate its importance.

    At the same time, one also cannot take Voynich’s word for anything. At which time he really first saw the Marci letter, and whether his 1921 presentation was entirely accurate at this point, remains unclear.

    About pro’s and con’s: while it seems odd that Kircher did not mention Barschius’ name, this would be equally odd if it was a fake, and the faker knew the name. (Rich’s theory relies on the fact that he did). So, if one looks at both sides, it is clear that this is not an argument in favour of either option.

    Same with the multiple folds in the Marci letter. These could have been made on the blank paper before the letter was written, or on the completed letter after it was written. There is no way of telling. Just looking at one option is not valid. (Actually, the second is far more logical, but that remains a bit subjective).

    In April 1996 I devised my own “Voynich faked it” theory, based on a spy novel. In summary: the real Wilfrid Voynich died in the Russian prison camp. The person that came to the UK was a Russian spy taking his name. The Voynich MS was a Russian product, with the aim to divert the attention of the UK and US crytpographic experts. When he got rich, Anne Nill was annother russian plant put at his side to keep him under control.

    While I never took this seriously (of course), at the same time I decided it should be possible to figure out one way or the other what really happened. That was one of the things that drove me to research the history of the MS, in particular also the occasion of its ‘discovery’.

    The nice corollary of this is that in 2012 (16 years later), Rafal Prinke made a presentation at the Villa Mondragone in which he showed:
    – the time that Voynich disappeared from the Russian prison camp
    – the time he arrived in London.
    – the fact that ships needed more time than this to make the trip from Shanghai to Hamburg or London
    So, what stronger evidence could there be for my spy theory? If I only looked at ‘supporting evidence’, this would have settled it.

  47. J.K. Petersen on December 1, 2017 at 9:31 am said:

    There is an aura of secrecy in correspondence about the VMS (or what we believe to be correspondence about the VMS), but given the political climate, constant wars, charges of heresy, and the instability that always surrounds a “change in guard” (such as the transition to a new Holy Roman Emperor), it’s not surprising that details are scarce and names were not liberally dropped.

    Also, if the Emperor Rudolf II did own the manuscript, and Jacob Synapius did perhaps pilfer it after the emperor’s death, it’s quite possible someone told someone to keep quiet about it.

  48. Mark Knowles on December 1, 2017 at 11:42 am said:

    Expanding on my thoughts about geographical markers. I think potentially marker frequency analysis could have some value.

    So, for example, take the castle with swallow tall battlements, one could ask what the approximate frequency of castles of that kind would have been at the time period the manuscript dates from by geographical location by taking a crude look at castles we know of from that period with a sufficiently large sample. Then one could answer what the approximate probability that a castle with swallow tail battlements from that time period chosen at random would be in a given area.

    Then combining that frequently map with the frequency maps produced by other markers would give one an overall frequency map with most likely an even higher frequency concentration and so an even more precise idea of likely geographical origin/influences.

    Obviously this could be applied with other variables than geographical coordinates though other than time it is not immediately obvious to me what those other variables may be.

  49. Mark: it’s just not a very fruitful way of proceeding, because any drawing is as likely to have been copied from a secondary source rather than from life, if not more so.

  50. Mark Knowles on December 1, 2017 at 12:16 pm said:

    Another frequency thought. We could ask questions like: what is the probability the author was a merchant or a peasant or a politician or a cleric or ….? based on typical known authorship of other contemporary herbal manuscripts.

    I am sure there are other interesting frequency questions that could be asked. Unfortunately answering these questions to the best of one’s ability requires constructing and analysing sufficently large samples of manuscripts etc. for certain properties which does need some time effort and dedication.

  51. Mark Knowles on December 1, 2017 at 12:33 pm said:

    Nick: Good point.

    First question how do you know that “any drawing is as likely to have been copied from a secondary source”?

    Are you aware of any secondary source the drawing might have been copied from?

    Obviously the castle was just an example of where frequency analysis could be relevant, but I would there are many others.

    Secondly it doesn’t necessarily matter even if it was based on a secondary source. Supposing a drawing was copied from a secondary source one could ask what is the likely probability that the drawing in the secondary source was in a given location. Then there is the question of how far the copier would be from the place of origin of the secondary source i.e. how far the secondary source was likely to have drifted.

    I should also point out that your own analysis implies that the drawing was made from life.

  52. Mark Knowles on December 1, 2017 at 1:55 pm said:

    I do think it fair to point out in terms of frequency analysis that the Voynich manuscript is an extreme outlier in one sense given that it is an absolutely unique cipher manuscript. One could argue that it is probably an outlier in other respects such that frequency analysis of other properties would not be valuable. However I would argue that there is no strong reason to believe that it being an outlier in being a cipher manuscript would necessarily correlate with it being an outlier in other respects, though it might be in some instances.

  53. Mark: I suspect it correlates more closely with the idea that we really have no direct idea what the rationale and need behind it were. As such, we should continue to exercise caution and restraint with our conclusions, however limited we think they are. :-/

  54. Mark: the general source of the zodiac roundels I have explored in a number of posts, and there’s still a lot more to work through there just yet. Similarly, the ultimate source of the T-O shape + wolkenband combination seems to be BNF 565, though there seems a strong likelihood that one or more other manuscripts acted as intermediaries there. The nine-rosettes page is still a mystery as far as its sources go, however.

  55. Josef Zlatoděj Prof. on December 1, 2017 at 10:58 pm said:

    Nick and ants. So first. They are not rosettes.
    Eliška of Rosenberg writes : (cola) , kola – Czech language). English language – circle.
    Nick, look at whal’s written in the circle. Over the castle. I’ll show you what the word means. ( oqm ). Substitution = žít, Czech language.
    English language ( oqm ) žít = ! lives !
    Then the text continues. And there is the name of the castle.

    And Eliška writes that she lives the castle. 🙂

  56. Nick – as point of interest. The ‘T-O’ shape in Latin art is used to represent the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa in scheme, as a plane.

    Later some illuminators tried to add a bit of three-dimensionality to the continents, but it was still a planar view and is the reason for that myth that the Europeans thought the world flat.

    A ‘T-O’ look to an orb is seen, for a little while, but not in BNF fr.565 which shows a typical, and established form which mean ‘sphere’, whether as royal orb, floating ball, terrestrial- or celestial sphere.

    Anyone who saw it would have ‘got it’ at the time and the orb with the curved centre line can be seen in astronomical works from a much earlier period –
    in both Europe and in Islam we find it in manuscripts. For the latter in the twelfth century see eg. a copy of al-Biruni’s book al-Tafhim … (I taken that as example because it can be found easily (Plate 10 opp. p.415). in a book that I’d strongly recommend to any Voynich researcher wishing to offer opinions about the content of the manuscript’s images…
    M.J.L. Young et.al.(eds.). Religion, Learning and Science in the ‘Abbasid Period (CUP 1990).

    The text also includes a wonderful concentration of myth-busting material, otherwise scattered in separate papers and so forth.

    At random…
    “The scope of this [Islamic astronomical] literature has only become known during the past few decades .. Very little of the Islamic material was transmitted to Europe in the medieval period … and thus the traditional image of the Muslims as the torchbearers of classical astronomy to Europe is to be abandoned.” (p.274)

    I hasten to add that the point being made by that author is *not* that classical astronomy wasn’t preserved and enhanced in medieval Islam – only that so very little of the Islamic astronomical learning reached the west, that it cannot have been the chief driving force behind the much-later European acquisition of classical works on astronomy.

    About the sphere+cloudband combination. I’d be interested to know more of your saying that this originates with BNF fr.565. I expect it’s an end-result of someone’s assiduous hunt for earlier examples in Latin and non-Latin art (not just manuscript art) but finding absolutely nothing similar any earlier.

    Is it possible to read that research?

  57. Mark: If you follow this advice, (unfortunately only in German) you will find interesting.
    1. Why it is a dragon and not a scopion.
    2. Why the crossbowman and the dragon come from the same region.
    3. Where swallowtail, gunner and dragon share the same place.
    4. that the German dialect coincides with the place.
    5. and that it is with great badness to a pharmacist book.
    And finally, it fits somehow to the rosette

  58. Diane: as far as the T-O / wolkenband combination goes, if you have a better concrete example to work with than BNF MS Franc. 565, I’d be interested to work with that too. Alas, none of your posts on the subject seems to have yet brought forth such a thing.

  59. J.K. Petersen on December 2, 2017 at 10:11 am said:

    Peter, the VMS Scorpius-symbol is not a dragon-scorpio, it’s a lizard-scorpio. The dragon-scorpios were mostly from England and northern Europe. The lizard-scorpios were mostly from central Europe and France (I’ve posted a map of them). This is a generalization, but mostly holds true.

    There were also a few turtle-scorpios (as in Hildegard von Bingen’s zodiac symbols). I’m guessing the turtle-scorpios might be modeled after the mythical tarask, which was part turtle.

    If you look at a page-full of the Scorpius symbols, you get a sense of which is which. There is (or was) an actual lizard in Europe referred to as “scorpio” (I don’t know if it still exists, many reptiles and amphibians have gone extinct). In fact, when the colonists settled in North America, they quickly named one of the eastern North American lizards “scorpio”… maybe it resembled the one they knew in Europe or maybe they were using the word more generically to mean lizard, since they weren’t yet familiar with New World species.

  60. Actually, only the two star signs, the Latin scorpion and the Greek serpent bearer overlap. No star sign without the other’s star.
    The snake, Old German Lindworm, today referred to as a dragon, snake also a medical sign.
    Lindwurm also mollusk or reptile. See Wicki

  61. On this link you can see the reason why the book ends so suddenly.
    It was the Pleiades who made his life hell. 🙂


  62. Out*of*the*blue on December 3, 2017 at 12:21 am said:

    Let’s look at meta-theories that are really ‘meta’. Let’s call the first theory ‘valid and genuine’. The idealized version of this theory is that the VMs was created within the range of the parchment dates and that it contains written information, in either a natural or encrypted form that can be reliably translated, interpreted and read by the researcher. That has yet to happen because of numerous difficulties, but genuine and valid is still the expectation.

    In consideration of the difficulties found in the VMs, a century of proposed solutions that have failed, and a thorough investigation into the creation of forged historical documents and art objects, Mr. SantaColoma has proposed an alternative meta-theory, suggesting that the VMs is a ‘hoax’. In order to resolve the internal difficulties of the VMs, this investigation proposes an interpretation which is essentially the opposite of valid and genuine. The creation of the VMs is modern, its provenance is false and the intrigues of language are essentially moot.

    This is a case of thesis versus antithesis. Can the ‘genuine and valid’ theory withstand the challenge of the ‘hoax’ theory? Can the ‘hoax’ theory replace the ‘genuine and valid’ theory? Or is there a alternative, a third meta-theory – something in the area of a potential synthesis?

    A third meta-theory should help to resolve the problem of difficulties in the VMs. The general nature of these difficulties seems to relate to inconsistencies and ambiguities. And these qualities are anathema to the ‘genuine and valid’ interpretation and they are also the bane of forgery. Yet there are so many of them, these inconsistencies and ambiguities, in the VMs. Is there a potential meta-theorem where inconsistency and ambiguity might have value?

    A general assumption of the genuine and valid paradigm is that the VMs is expository. As in any normal text, information is conveyed to the reader. If the author has something to say, s/he just says it. One expects straight-forward statements of fact and opinion in a general form such as x + y = z. But what if that is not the case? What if the VMs is not expository, but something of a contrary type that might be called ‘inquisitory’. Something that would make demands on the reader’s current knowledge, rather than attempt to expand it. Something that would follow the general form such as x + what? = z. Of course the reader needs to know ‘x’ and ‘z’ to begin with, and that has also been a persistent difficulty.

    Now look at the investigation of cosmic correspondence from an inquisitory perspective. The VMs f68v cosmic representation plus what(?) equals the Oresme cosmic illustration of BNF fr. 565? The answer is: a scallop-shell patterned cloud band. Finding and joining the parts is a challenge created by the intentional use of ambiguity, in this case through separation of the elaborate cloud band (removed to the Central Rosette), and its replacement by a basic, nebuly line, cloud band.

    The nature of the third meta-theorem is that the VMs is a puzzle created by intentional visual ambiguity, verified by the objective evaluation of traditional placement, and the primary proof is found in the dual interpretation on VMs White Aries. The trick in this puzzle is to see both sides of an optical illusion and to know what is seen.

  63. I’ve always thought the Voynich critter like the ‘scorpion’ in Chartres’ north portal (west façade; archivolts) – though it’s such an obvious place to look for comparisons I’m sure others have often mentioned it.

  64. Nick,
    I agree, the problem is to find better comparisons for the detail in f.68v.

    The reason for finding close comparisons is to narrow the hunt for where and when the manuscript’s content entered the Latin horizon (or, if you like, when it was first composed).

    For that, what has to be matched is style as well as form, and by reference to all one knows already about imagery in this ms.

    So if no exact comparison can be found (and the detail in BNF fr.565 is not a match), then at least finding close comparison for the style of drawing and each of the two chief components (orb-like sphere and surrounding liminal border) is the best means to narrow that search… I should think.

    I’m looking at same time(s), place(s) and/or milieu.

    Oh dear – sounds like Omar Khayam.

    .. a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and a friend in the wilderness.


  65. SirHubert on December 3, 2017 at 11:15 am said:

    But even if Rich’s suggestion were correct, this still wouldn’t actually *explain* why the illustrations are as they are, or why the text is as it is. Or have I missed something?

  66. J.K. Petersen on December 3, 2017 at 12:17 pm said:

    D. if you mean the one with the dog-like face (long snout) rather than the one with the man face, yes, the tail is fairly similar, although it has three sets of legs rather than two. I’ve seen one on another church façade (French) that also has a curled tail, which has four legs.

    What’s interesting about the lizard-Scorpios on the French churches (especially in northeast France, is that they precede the zodiacs in manuscripts, at least as far as we know (there might be some in private collections that are earlier than those generally known).

  67. SirHubert: yes, that is essentially the irrational belief at the heart of his hoax theory – the idea that a hoax explanation magically explains all the awkward and difficult stuff away.

  68. Diane: my interest is in uncovering the concrete way that ideas flowed into the Voynich Manuscript’s curious container – in my opinion, their ultimate origin in cave paintings or wherever is not really germane to this kind of task.

  69. By the way, you should always look at both sides of Wiki, the English and the German. The differences in information are enormous.
    Here is a sample:

  70. Nick,

    We have no way to know what ‘ideas’ are in the written part of the text, and without establishing accurately what the sense and intention of the Vms images I should think hunting for copies of Oresme is more a Christmas holiday than anything else.

    To treat trivial, stylistic and clear cultural distinctions between two images is obviously not a great way to provenance the problematic one, as I’m sure you’ll see if you think about it. The reason we know that a sixteenth century Spanish picture of a solider is not a tenth-century North African picture of a soldier depends on paying attention to detail. To say ‘it’s a man with a spear’ in both cases, ignoring differences in form and content which are our signals to where when and by whom a picture was made, and the sort of significance it would have borne in that time, place and milieu.

    You seem to think that the clear differences between form, style, content and context between the centre of the diagram in f.68v and the lavish image in the BNF manuscript are insignificant.. but by that reasoning ( ‘a sun is a sun is a sun’) you would see as reasonable comparisons the sun as drawn in nineteenth century Africa; in twelfth century Baghdad; in fourteenth century Paris and in eighth-century Caergybi.

    Of course I’m not suggesting you may never have a break from researching the Vms; but mapping stemmae for Oresme’s text is a task entirely different and to suppose otherwise on the basis of a poorly defined ‘likeness’ between the detail in f.68v and that in the BNF would be a pity.

    In the hopes that the Oresme-story’s path may intersect again with the Vms, perhaps you might keep an open for the signpost: ‘Imago Mundi… 11thC’. From my side, the matter is already written up, and I’ve mentioned in a recent post that there is a direct link between a manuscript copy of the French translation of Imago Mundi (on the one hand) and the work of John Gower (on the other) – and also that that manuscript links to the Duc de Berry, in whom Ellie has long been very interested – even before coming to the study of the Vms.

    I do hope we’ll meet somewhere near crossroads before long.


  71. Diane: what I’m trying to do is to understand the textual and diagrammatic contents of the Oresme text in combination with the specific drawings (not just the T-O + wolkenband page) that seems to have surfaced in the Voynich Manuscript’s ‘astronomical’ section, with the idea that doing so may reveal an entirely separate angle for us to collectively pursue. If this seems too tangible and empirical for your tastes, all I can say is that it makes sense to me: and so I disagree with just about every sentence of your comment.

  72. Mark Knowles on December 4, 2017 at 12:31 pm said:

    Nick: “I suspect it correlates more closely with the idea that we really have no direct idea what the rationale and need behind it were.” – Don’t what I can say to that except obviously that is a creative use of the word “correlate” and the implication seems to be that we cannot really say anything about the Voynich. Caution and restraint are always a good idea as you say, but the application of this kind of approach given a sufficiently large sample looks to me to be of potential use. I will say of course I am no expert on historiography and the place of statistical approaches to historical questions.

    It seems reasonable to assume there are some patterns and that the Voynich did not emerge from a parallel universe with no connection to our world, so there ought to be meaningful correlations. The fact that frequencies and probabilities are not certainties is one advantage of this approach as it is less rigid.
    Where possible, and it often isn’t, I prefer objective statistics rather than subjective theories.

    Your theory, whether right or wrong, as to what the source text for the Zodiac sections is one thing. However I think one can conveniently sidestep the question of origin whether the source text was Ramses II little book of Zodiac drawings or Nicole Oresme’s book. I suppose my question is the distribution of the design features amongst all contemporary, rather than source, documents to the manuscript.

    As you well know I have my own idea what the rationale behind the 9 rosette foldout is. However I am perfectly happy to countenance the possibility that the overall design style was borrowed from another document; by that I mean the 9 circle 3×3 design and possibly the causeway design features, but not the contents. Though like the contents my suspicion is that the design style is largely original. Even though I have my own theory bringing more evidence to bear on more general questions adds value I think. And I have plenty of general questions I would love answers to.

    As I mentioned before I am somewhat uncomfortable with the idea that everything had an exact source as it removes the element of imagination by our highly inventive author, but certainly one would expect aspects to be similar to those in other documents. Essentially it seems you are implying the author just compiled work from other texts without his/her own input.

    I think one possible problem with the Block Paradigm/large crib approach is that it assumes there is a direct match with no element of creativity between the Voynich and the matching text. What point is there in enciphering something readily available elsewhere? You could then move towards the idea that the Manuscript is a copy of an earlier enciphered now lost manuscript.

    To imagine that the 9 nine rosette foldout is a reproduction of another document seems far fetched to me. I can see that your line of thinking is quite different from what it once was and that is a good thing as formulating new ideas is what keeps pushing things forward. It does however make it difficult to appreciate what your current analysis precisely is.

  73. Fair enough. 🙂

  74. Nick,
    To be honest, I got so bored re-reading the long blah from me (above, December 4, 2017 at 2:12 am) that I couldn’t finish it.

    Also I just had a sort of wet-fish slapping moment – turned an ordinary sort of corner and dang… there I was dumped right in the court of France, 12thC.

    Hadn’t expected that AT ALL.

    (.. see post just up about ‘zodiac issues and others)

  75. Mark: I have never proposed that everything in the Voynich manuscript has a direct source, but rather that in the few places that this seems to be a possibility, deciding not to pursue those leads (however slender) would surely be a triumph of ideological pigheadedness over common sense.

  76. Mark Knowles on December 4, 2017 at 7:33 pm said:

    Nick: I am certainly not trying to deter you from persuing any leads whatsoever and I am sure you are doing valuable work in that regard. My point was that statistical approaches might provide us with a useful summary of the information out there. I don’t know how much data there is out there to work with, but I find the idea of getting a clear geographically sense from aggregate data of the origin of the Voynich very valuable. I would love to know what we can say about the authors of these kinds of herbal manuscripts; statistically what background did they typical come from and so on.

  77. Mark Knowles on December 4, 2017 at 7:38 pm said:

    Nick: It reminds me of criminal profiling. Typically one hears on these true crime tv programmes things like:

    Most likely male
    Most likely 25-35
    Most likely white

    This doesn’t exclude the possibility that the criminal may not fit one of these bands, but it does give an overview of what one should broadly speaking be looking for.

  78. Mark: I don’t know if any such horizontal study has been done or published – most tend to be narrow vertical studies (i.e. looking at a single manuscript), with a few heroic exceptions such as Minta Collins’ book, which tends to receive an unjustified amount of sniffiness.

  79. Mark: one other point that I should make is that I’m not expecting to find a block paradigm match with a section of a well-copied manuscript. However, there are plenty of not-well-copied mss out there – and our ability to find those electronically is many times higher than it was in the mid-fifteenth century non-electronically.

  80. J.K. Petersen on December 5, 2017 at 3:00 am said:

    Mark K wrote: “I don’t know how much data there is out there to work with, but I find the idea of getting a clear geographically sense from aggregate data of the origin of the Voynich very valuable.”

    Mark, I don’t like mentioning (or posting links to) my blog on someone else’s blog, but in this case it’s almost impossible to respond to your comment without doing so.

    I’ve posted a series of blogs on the zodiac-symbols and other aspects of the VMS that include maps. The maps pinpoint where each of the sources originated. Green arrows are for locations that are definitely known, buff ones for those for which the general region is thought to be known (by historians and bibliographers).

    The whole purpose of the maps is to temporally and geographically locate probable VMS sources (and eventually, as the data accumulates, perhaps identify the source of the VMS itself). I put a lot of work into searching for examples and their sources (one has to go through many academic publications to find the dates and locations when the holding repository says nothing about it).

    I haven’t had time to upload the whole series, but if you look at the posted maps side-by-side there are already some important temporal and geographical patterns. There is also a significant degree of consistency. Certain “styles” (such as crossbowmen as zodiac symbols) fade in and fade out, and there is a high degree of correspondence between when certain styles for Virgo, for example, coincide with the VMS styles for Sagittarius and Scorpio. Some of these patterns are explicitly pointed out in the commentary accompanying individual maps and others become apparent if you look at them all together (I have been assuming a certain amount of common sense on the part of the viewer—that it should be obvious that the maps need to be evaluated in relation to one another to see the bigger picture).

    When I gather data, I look very hard for examples all over the world, so no assumptions were made about where I might find them. For the zodiac symbols, I looked at Tibetan, Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, African, Persian, and other documents even when I doubted there would be anything of relevance. I don’t care where the VMS was made, I only care about following the trail as honestly as possible, so the maps are not centered on Europe by design, the data shaped the maps.

    I’m doing the same kind of research on the paleography. It’s needle-in-a-haystack work, long-term, and very challenging, but patterns are emerging from this as well.

  81. Mark Knowles on December 5, 2017 at 10:21 am said:

    J. K. Petersen: I have seen some of your website and noticed that you are doing interesting work, although I was not aware that you are doing the work you describe here.

    I posted a comment against your Garden of Este post suggesting my very different interpretation.

    My email address is mark_r_knowles@hotmail.com

    Drop me an email as I think this will be easier and I will reply with some relevant info.

  82. JKP

    I’m not sure that you realise how little it assists your reputation to produce little diagrams and maps made of imagery which other people in this study found as a result of their own work, published even before your fairly recent arrival, and which others recognise as having been images offered in the course of detailed and entirely original exposition.

    Now, I recognised several images in your map that have been part of Rene Zandbergen’s site for years – and might even have been discovered first by him. I see others which were first produced and discussed by Darren WOrley. Others again after the exhaustive searches by Don Hoffman – not to mention your presuming to take pictures from my own research – which was not just ‘controversial’ when I published my analysis of the archer and traced the origin of the standing figure to the region of Tiberius. No-one who has been involved in his study for as much as five years won’t realise that you have co-opted the results of others work, and by the simple means of saying nothing about your sources, tried to pretend that credit not only for the little diagrams but for everything in them, should be given you. In the end, you would earn more respect by granting it to others who broke new ground and added to our common knowledge.

  83. Mark Knowles on December 5, 2017 at 11:51 am said:

    J. K. Petersen: Did you discover where there were herbal manuscripts with plant roots represented as animals during the time period from which the manuscript dates?
    Could you tell me what we know about the typical professions of the authors of this kind of manuscript?
    Roughly what percentage of the authors of this kind of manuscript were men and what percentage were women?
    Can you email me your distribution maps?

  84. J.K. Petersen on December 5, 2017 at 12:36 pm said:


    We are all studying the same manuscript, so we are all going to run across the same sources eventually. As far as I am aware I am the only one who has been mapping the zodiac symbols and presenting them in this specific pictorial way for the purpose of geolocating (“triangulating”, if you like) their origins, along with their temporal associations.

    As far as your research on the archer is concerned, what are you worried about? I didn’t copy anything you did, I did my own research, and my conclusions more than likely aren’t the same as yours since we disagree on almost everything. There is room for varying points of view. In fact, it’s better if problems are attacked from different angles. Scientists are still testing and retesting Einstein’s century-old theories.

    Stop insinuating that I am stealing other people’s work. I am not. I believe that I am presenting a good percentage of new information, offered in original ways, that are of interest to other researchers.

    If you truly believe only one person is allowed to discover an image and is not allowed to present it in a new and unique way, then there is a problem and it isn’t mine.

  85. JKP, I have no idea which “several images” have been at my site for years, but please be assured that I have no complaints at all in that direction. Quite to the contrary, I appreciate your many interesting blog entries.
    (It goes without saying that that applies to the present log too 🙂 ).

  86. Charlotte Auer on December 5, 2017 at 3:50 pm said:


    your cheeky allegation of JKP having ‘stolen’ images from other peoples work (i.e. yours) is really far from any decent scholarly behaviour!

    On your own blog you’re using images from public sources, and simultaneously you accuse others of doing the same? Absolutely no one needs your permission for publishing images as long as you’re not the holder of the copyright.

    Btw, I’m not surprised that you don’t answer my questions about your expertise in medieval German manuscripts, and that hidden little Chinese emperor. So I take your silence for the answer.

  87. bdid1dr on December 5, 2017 at 4:22 pm said:

    Well, I guess I will go ahead, and one item at a time, I WILL be explaining EVERY ITEM in that rough draft, the so-called “Voynich” manuscript. I won’t be posting that ‘stuff’ on your sites (Nick and Rene — nor Diane’s). You all seem to enjoy the argumentation which evolves from contradicting each other’s ‘stuff’.

    Long before I ever came across your blog, Nick, I had been visiting the monasteries up and down the West Coast of California. I started when I was 10 years old. Keep in mind that all of the California monasteries were established by the Pope in Rome.
    Good luck with your contrary discussions.


  88. My objection is not to JKP’s using other’s work, but failing to make clear to his readers what, if anything, of what he was ‘geolocating’ was his own discovery.

    If we are going to take specific issues, I may as well speak for myself, although my objection to such ‘sins of omission’ is an objection in principle, regardless of whose work has been mined.

    Nobody involved in Voynich studies – from 1912-2013 had ever thought to conceptually track and map the figure of the Voynich archer to its origins, and then to date and track its emergence in Latin art.

    I do not think it unfair to claim that work – which had never been done – as my own work. It involved a lot more than flicking through pictures on the internet: it involved historical, technical, archaeological and other academic papers (including, for example, technical scientific papers on the chemical composition of certain types of glass used in Opus Francigenum). My conclusions were that the type for the ‘standing archer’ had come into Latin Europe from prototypes of the 4th-6thC which existed in Palestine, and particularly the figure from Beth Alpha and S.Maryam. The former was more likely because … well, technical things to do with the red glass used in Opus Francigenum.

    In other words, my bringing mention of the Beth Alpha archer into the context of Voynich studies was not casual, but as a result of fairly hefty research, conducted over a fair time, and then the results donated to ‘Voynicheros’ – in return for which I expected only that if the work were re-used, I should be acknowledged and the work credited.

    It isn’t much, really to ask in return.

    Now – JKP has incorporated the Beth Alpha image on his map… and is asserting that since “we’re all studying the same manuscript, we’re all going to run into the same sources eventually”.

    You must forgive me if I suspect that the sources JKP “ran into” were my blogposts. Rene seems to have had a similar difficulty admitting that something in a diagram of his did not reflect any original research, discovery or knowledge of his own: it just ‘lifted’ mine.

    Amateurs do not realise that such ‘sins by omission’ can adversely affect the scholar whose work they re-use without permission or acknowledgement. Apart from anything else, I should have the right to publish the fruit of my own work in other media, and in journals and so on, without someone coming across Rene’s little diagram, or JKP’s and a doubt arising as to who has imitated whom.

    An amateur can make the excuse that they might one day have ‘run into’ the same matter; a scholar knows that this is not how we elucidate historical, iconographical or material questions.

    Thanks for your patience, Nick. None of this comments on your post, and it’s good of you to allow the comments.

  89. J.K. Petersen on December 6, 2017 at 3:54 pm said:

    Diane, I don’t know how many zodiac or archer blogs you’ve done. I’ve seen almost none of your early blogs, I’ve only paid attention to some of the more recent ones. I don’t search for blogs on the Web, I search for primary resources like manuscripts, mosaics, sculptures, and paintings. Nick’s blog is the only one I visit regularly.

    I found the Beth Alpha mosaic on my own. ANYONE who searches for the word zodiac on the Web sees it. It gets prominent search placement. I looked into the history of astrology long before I knew about the VMS so I was already familiar with historic astrology.

    It is inevitable, even necessary, that the Beth Alpha mosaic be included in my blog about the history of zodiacs and the individual zodiac-symbol blogs because zodiacs originated with the Chaldeans, in the same region of the world where the astrological mosaics were unearthed.

    For you to think that you have exclusive rights to talk about specific images from zodiac history is a little strange, and using Pelling’s blog to complain about it is unprofessional.

  90. For some reason I decided to look for a good definition of ‘internet troll’.
    The term seems to have gone out of fashion a bit, or else the net is flooded by automatic copies of minor news, like: ‘scientists have discovered a way to detect trolls with 80% accuracy’.

    It turned out that this is rather on topic for Nick’s original post.
    Troll type nr. 2 in the following link looks like a good profile for our meta-theorist.
    Other types are also easy to recognise.


  91. Rene: only five types of troll? *sigh* 🙁

  92. Hi Nick, actually, the link has ten, but it seems a bit arbitrary.
    Anyway, the type nr. 1 (The Insult Troll) includes:

    “These types of trolls will often pick on everyone and anyone – calling them names, accusing them of certain things, doing anything they can to get a negative emotional response from them – just because they can.”

  93. Rene: I must have lost the will to read any more after five.

  94. To @nickpelling and anyone else who would like to look at some manuscripts.

    I know of two more manuscript images with diagrammatic comparanda that I think you might be interested in. In the light of this discussion thread I would like to say that I’m not trying to have a theory or a hypothesis or anything like that 🙂 . I have seen that Nick is interested in a particular image and has asked for additional comparanda. I know of two manuscripts that he has not yet mentioned(?) and might wish to consider for his collection – Nick, my apologies if you already know of these items.

    Manuscript 1: BL Harley 334, of particular interest: a diagram of the creation on f. 34v that has proportional similarities with the inverted TO-map discussed elsewhere, but not quite the same elements (I think it is water/earth, day/night); f. 11r, f. 29r, and f. 40v have inverted TO ‘elemental maps’ similar to those discussed elsewhere on this site; f. 57r has an interesting illustration of mermaids and fish; f. 73v has a volkenband/star illustration. There are also enough interestingly crenellated castle illustrations to start a whole new Voynich-conspiracy-theory splinter faction.

    Images here http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_334

    Manuscript 2. BL Harley 4431. Interesting illustrations: ff. 95v seq. multiple illustrations of heavenly apparations surrounded by wolkenband nimbi; f. 183r ladies! bathing!; f. 189v astral diagram, stars, wolkenband (clothed) women.

    Digitised on the BL’s website here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Harley_MS_4431

  95. J.K. Petersen on December 8, 2017 at 7:43 am said:

    Harley 334 has one of my favorite medieval images of gravity (37v) where hands on four sides of the globe are dropping rocks that metaphorically travel to the center of the earth.

    It sometimes reminds me of the drawing of the “plummeting stone” on f116v. The context of 116v doesn’t seem right for a cosmology drawing (it seems more likely that it would be a kidney than a gravitational-force stone if the text turns out to be a charm), but I always try to consider what the page might have looked like if the drawings were done separately from the text/marginalia. The marginalia might have been added at some later date and worked into the available space, which means the roundish object with dots could be almost anything.

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