I’ve had a dissatisfying, rubbish day today: but given that every day I’ve previously had that involved some kind of interaction with Stephen Bax had been a bad day, perhaps there should be no element of surprise involved.

Bax To The Future

In the case of the Voynich Manuscript, there are at least ten reasonable arguments I can see (even if I happen to disagree with all of them) for a linguistic reading: what frustrates me so much about Bax is that the arguments he puts forward aren’t any of them (or even close to them). Hence he inevitably finds the best form of defence is attack: and given that I’m just about the only person not fawning over him, guess who gets attacked?

Frankly, I’d rather stick flaming needles under my fingernails than experience any more of his wit, wisdom, and whatever in the absence of any effective moderation: so goodbye to voynich.ninja it has to be, sorry.

Doubt With The Old

Of course, Bax himself isn’t the root cause of all this: the real problem is that almost all genuine Voynich experts seem to doubt the depth of their confidence in what they know, and so choose silence over confrontation, no matter how foolish the provocation or how malformed the argument.

Yet even though I’ve been saying for over a decade that we now do know enough to take a principled stand against Voynich pseudoscience, pseudohistory, pseudolinguistics and enigmatology, it’s been a long wait for anyone to show any kind of solidarity with this point of view.

I therefore note with great interest that Rene Zandbergen has recently – after a decade of Rich SantaColoma’s incessant possibility-based argumentation – put up a page dismissing the modern hoax theory. This is, in my opinion, a huge milestone in Voynich discourse: but whether Rene or others will follow up with similarly comprehensive rebuttals of Rugg, Bax et al remains to be seen. When all you can see are vipers, where’s theriac when you really need it?

Dead Drunk On The Beach?

Cipher Mysteries readers will probably see a lot in common between the above and what passes for debate in The Somerton Man world. Even the straightforward disproof of the whole microwriting claim seems to have been overlooked by all the loudest shorts at the poolside: so please excuse me if I sip my Camilla Voodoo elsewhere.

Anyhoo, given that most historical-cipher-inspired songs seem happy to look no further than the Voynich’s surreality, today’s aural treat-ette for you all is a song from South London’s own JerkCurb called “Somerton Beach” (review here), where the wobbly guitars try to capture a kind of alcoholic pre-death haze. Which is nice, if oddly apposite, though I couldn’t easily explain why.

Here’s the evidence that the Zodiac Killer is alive and busy with a spray can in Cyprus, visual documentary evidence to which only the most obtuse could possibly object:

And if you think that’s the most ridiculous and/or foolish cipher theory you’ve encountered in the last seven days, you obviously haven’t been paying much attention. 🙁

The appearance of Nicholas Gibbs’ Voynich theory in the current Times Literary Supplement “Autumn Fiction Special” issue (and what deliciously outrageous irony that placement is) has caused all manner of mayhem behind the scenes here at Cipher Mysteries mansion.

Not only has my (frankly rather tired and uninterested) blog response to it been unexpectedly heavily Tweeted, his theory has also “inspired” a number of Wikipedia editors to enthusiastically bodge references to Gibbs into the Wikipedia Voynich Manuscript page. Which is, as just about everyone here would be happy to point out, close to a crime against common sense.

But it’s not really their fault: it turns out that there’s a much bigger problem at play here.


As a responsible (though far from regular) Wikipedia editor, I thought I ought to try to offer some kind of balance to the worst excesses of this sudden wave of pro-Gibbs enthusiasm: for example, by removing a reference to Gibbs that had been added to the very first paragraph. *sigh*

But then yet more Wikieditors kept popping up, not unlike Gremlinized versions of Whack-a-Moles or Lernaean Hydra heads, continually inserting yet more references to Gibbs from Smart-Ars Technica or whichever other secondary media source they happened to have just surfed their way to.

Annoying as that is, they’re just the surface symptoms of something that cuts far deeper. The issue here is that in very many ways they are absolutely right to add it in: the piece in the TLS does indeed – by Wikipedia’s very exact standards – make Gibbs’ theory notable. And this causes it to transcend from the mundane world of self-published “OR” (Original Research) into published (and hence notable) work. And anything notable is fair game for inclusion in Wikipedia: indeed, if it is relevant and “notable”, there is arguably a stronger case for inclusion than exclusion.

So it turns out that these Whack-a-Mole editors are indeed actually doing their best to pursue the whole Wikipedia ‘Project’ precisely as it was intended. Can you therefore blame them for doing something that seems quite nonsensical to researchers? Well… no, not really, mad as it seems.

The First Problem With Wikipedia

Perhaps the above should make it clear one of the things that is going wrong here: that the entire Wikipedia project is nothing more than a parasitic encyclopaedia, relying on the world’s knowledge being recycled into it via fact-checked external media, such as (in this case) the Times Literary Supplement. Without the fact-checking stage being done by the media, Wikipedia would be worse than useless: this is because it has no intrinsic quality control, only enforcing measures of notability which themselves depend completely on someone else (normally in the media) paying for the fact-checking stage. Wikipedia does not check facts, it checks published sources: its editors (largely) do not know things, they know how to verify the notability of sources.

So: what happens – as seems to have happened here – when a story goes to press without even the faintest semblance of fact checking? As should be obvious, the Wikipedia editors turn the page content into a credulous extension of the idiot media that put the story out in the first place. It’s “notable” and publicly visible, so what is their alternative?

Hence one big problem with Wikipedia is that where the media omits to do fact checking, Wikipedia can quickly end up looking really, really stupid. But have you not noticed that media fact checking is these days going the way of phrenology and phlogistons?

The wider-angle picture here is that the future of the media – increasingly under pressure from online newsfeeds – is only going to get dumber and ‘dumberer’: its dequality ratchet leads only in a downwards direction. And so the less fact-checking that happens, the worse Wikipedia will get. The case of Nicholas Gibbs’ theory should make this completely clear, albeit in an edge-case kind of way.

The Second Problem With Wikipedia

Arguably, though, the second problem with Wikipedia is much worse: which is that Wikipedia is only successful when it tries to map the known. In cases such as the Voynich Manuscript where the majority of the topic is to do with the unknown, there is no sensible way Wikieditors can decide what should be included or what should be left out. And without any way of deciding the topic boundaries, a kind of thermodynamic page decay sets in: the page just accumulates stuff indefinitely. Honestly, what kind of sad sack would read the current Wikipedia Voynich page from start to finish, as anything apart from a cautionary tale of how not to structure information?

In case you’re wondering, deep domain experts are rarely welcome as Wikipedia editors: and this cuts to the core of what’s going on here. As currently defined and steered, Wikipedia cannot offer a useful guide to the unknown. It is not about original research, or really about any research at all: it’s about mapping the cultural inflow of knowledge mediated via the shabby and slow mirror of media reporting.

If all of that strikes you as a horrible, (small-c) conservative, and superficial epistemology to be building such a large knowledge-based enterprise on, I can assure you that you’re really not alone.

The Third Problem With Wikipedia

Finally: in the case of subjects where there are an almost unimaginably large number of parallel (and only vaguely overlapping) theories, Wikipedia’s neutral point of view pretty much demands that all them should be visible. I’ve suggested numerous times that everything speculative or theory-based about the Voynich Manuscript should be broken out into one or more completely separate page(s), but this too kind of defeats the Wikipedia mindset, which is more about balance-through-primary-inclusivity than trying to evaluate or manage out rubbish theories. It turns out that even forcing a division between theory and non-theory is too fundamentally judgmental for the Wikipedia project to countenance.

And so the issue here is that where you are dealing with uncertain topics, theory inclusivity almost inevitably devolves into theory shopping lists, where the most glib and flippant YouTube theory can end up being listed alongside the most comprehensive and in-depth historical hypothesis. Wikipedia editors aren’t there to judge, they’re there to avoid having to judge: and the more theories that get proposed, the bigger the hole that not-judging digs those pages into.

And yes, there are now hundreds of Voynich theories.

What’s the “Birth” bit, Nick?

People sometimes conclude that I’m cross with Wikipedia, but that’s not really true at all. Rather, I’m cross with myself and the entire research community for not offering an alternative to Wikipedia. The work we do and the communities we form are served badly (if at all) by Wikipedia, because the two worldviews are almost entirely complementary – researchers try to create knowledge out of uncertainty, while Wikipedia recycles knowledge that the media try to pass off as certainty.

The last few days have made me so angry at my own inaction that I now want to go away and do something really drastic: to build something that empowers people working with the vast worlds of uncertain knowledge that Wikipedia has no business trying to deal with.

And so this is where I am. I don’t want to blog as a primary activity (though I may well, and I’m not planning to get rid of Cipher Mysteries any time soon): rather, I want to build something better than Wikipedia – something that helps people map and deal with difficult and emerging knowledge, rather than forcing them to pretend that neutral-sounding montages of crappy media accounts are good enough beyond a sketchy first approximation.

I want to build a whole way of thinking about and mapping difficult knowledge that doesn’t pretend that real knowledge is easy or certain: it is disingenuous and fake to think that it is.

I want to build knowledge-creating communities that can work together in richer, more interesting ways than antagonistic forums that treat theories as spinning Beyblades in toytown arenas.

I want to help people find ways to tease out difficult knowledge in all manner of subjects and topics, not just historical mysteries: I want to provide a place where a research worldview isn’t alien, but a key to a giant door of opportunity.

I want to treat research as the intellectual, cultural and economic powerhouse it exactly is, and to support it in ways that make what we currently do look like cavemen banging rocks together.

I want to build things that will make every kid on the planet want to be a researcher, to grasp that what we don’t know infinitely exceeds what we do know, and that knowledge doesn’t have to be passive, recycled, sham knowledge – basically, that the future is waiting for us to do better.

Right now, geekiness is cool but research is uncool: I think our culture has this arrangment back to front. Really, research is something everyone should do: research should be how we habitually deal with uncertain and difficult topics in our lives, not just in academia.

More than anything, I wish I could be in a situation where I can write down the above – all of which I consider to be a fundamental set of values – without it sounding like a manifesto. Because as of today, it really feels like I’m the only person who thinks the above in anything like a joined-up way: and more than anything I want that to change.

In August 2016, I spent a day at the British Library trawling through many of its palaeography books (as I described here). What I was specifically in search of was examples of handwriting that matched the handwriting in the Voynich Manuscript, along with its marginalia.

As mentioned before, the document I found was Basel University Library A X 132: it’s a Sammelband (anthology or collection), with sections copied from a number of different medieval authors. The section I was most interested in (dated 1465) was fol. 83r through to fol. 101r.

With a little help from Stefan Mathys (thanks, Stefan!), I ordered some pages, along with some from the start and end of other sections, just in case the same scribal hand reappeared and included a little biographical information about that scribe. I’ve just begun writing this up as a paper (heaven knows that so little of any authority has been written about the Voynich, so I want to do this properly): but as I was going through, I noticed something interesting that I thought I’d share separately.

One of the extra sections I asked for began on f202r: and I must admit to being surprised to see an oddly familiar piece of marginalia there. Recalling the tiny marginalia at the top of the Voynich Manuscript’s page f17r…

…now look at the tiny marginalia at the top of A X 132’s fol. 202r, a “vocabularij hebreicus et grecus” (according to this):

The listing remarks that f202r is covered in “Stegmüller, Rep.bibl.6,93 Nr.8665”, i.e. Friedrich Stegmüller, Repertorium biblicum medii aevi, 11 vols. (I don’t believe that volume 6 is online, but please let me know if you manage to find a copy.)

Have you found any better matches than this?

A tip of my monkey’s uncle’s Susquehanna hat to Derek Abbott for today’s cipher history link: a new Voynich theory by Nicholas Gibbs in the Times Literary Supplement. Gibbs explains the circumstances that brought him to the Voynich Manuscript:

I am also a muralist and war artist with an understanding of the workings of picture narration, an advantage I was able to capitalize on for my research. A chance remark just over three years ago brought me a com­mission from a television production company to analyse the illustrations of the Voynich manuscript and examine the commentators’ theories.

however… all the descriptive part of his solution seems to have been culled from those parts of commentators’ reading lists that caught his eye, but then vaguely linked together into a sort of fairly unconvincing-sounding narrative. The only linguistically technical part of his “solution” in the TLS is given in tiny letters in the following image, which you can make out if you click on it and squint:

Note that the image is marked “p16_Gibbs1.jpg”: which seems to imply we have a book to (sort of) look forward to. Errrm… hooray.

I could list a whole load of things that are wrong with this, but I’d be typing all night on a TL;DR post and nobody would care. *sigh*

I posted here a few weeks ago about whether the Cisiojanus mnemonic might be in the Voynich zodiac labels, and also about a possible July Cisiojanus crib to look for. Since then I’ve been thinking quite a lot further about this whole topic, and so I thought it was time to post a summary of Voynich labelese, a topic that hasn’t (to my knowledge) yet been covered satisfactorily on the web or in print.

Voynich labelese

Voynich researchers often talk quite loosely about “labelese”, by which they normally mean the variant of the Voynichese ‘language’ that appears in labels, particularly the labels written beside the nymphs in the zodiac section. These seems to operate according to different rules from the rest of the Voynichese text: which is one of the reasons I tell people running tests on Voynichese why they should run them on one section of text at a time (say, Q20 or Q13, or Herbal A pages).

The Voynichese zodiac labels have numerous features that are extremely awkward to account for:
* a disproportionately large number of zodiac labels start with EVA ‘ot’ or ‘ok’. [One recurring suggestion here is that if these represent stars, then one or both of these EVA letter pairs might encipher “Al”, a common star-name prefix which basically means “the” in Arabic.]
* words starting EVA ‘yk-‘ are also more common in zodiac labels than elsewhere
* most (but not all) zodiac labels are surprisingly short.
* many – despite their short length – terminate with EVA ‘-y’.
* a good number of zodiac labels occur multiple times. [This perhaps argues against their obviously being unique names.]
* almost no zodiac labels start with EVA ‘qo-‘
* in many places, the zodiac labels exhibit a particularly strong ‘paired’ structure (e.g. on the Pisces f70v2 page, otolal = ot-ol-al, otaral, otalar, otalam, dolaram, okaram, etc), far more strongly than elsewhere

That is, even though the basic ‘writing system’ seems to be the same in the zodiac labels as elsewhere, there are a number of very good reasons to suspect that something quite different is going on here – though whether that is a different Voynich ‘language’ or a type of content that is radically different from everything else is hard to tell.

Either way, the point remains that we should treat understanding the zodiac labels as a separate challenge to that of understanding other parts of the Voynch manuscript: regardless of whether the differences are semantic, syntactic, or cryptographic, different rules seem to apply here.

Voynich zodiac month names

If you look at 15th century German Volkskalender manuscripts, you’ll notice that their calendars (listing local feasts and saint’s days) typically start on January 1st: and that in those calendars with a zodiac roundel, January is always associated with an Aquarius roundel. Modern astrologically / calendrically astute readers might well wonder why this would be so, because the Sun enters the first degree of Aquarius around 21st January each year: so in fact the Sun is instead travelling through Capricon for most of January.

However, if you rewind your clock back to the fifteenth century, you would be using the Julian calendar, where the difference between the real length of the year and the calendrical length of the year had for centuries been causing the dates of the two systems to diverge. And so if we look at this image of the March calendar page from Österreich Nationalbibliotech Cod. 3085 Han. (a Volkskalender B manuscript from 1475 that I was looking at yesterday), we can see the Sun entering Aries on 11th March (rightmost column):

Note also that some Volkskalender authors seem to have got this detail wrong. 🙁

All of which is interesting for the Voynich Manuscript, because the Voynich zodiac month names associate the following month with the zodiac sign, e.g. Pisces is associated with March, not February (as per the Volkskalender), etc. This suggests to me (though doubtless this has been pointed out before, as with everything to do with the Voynich) that the Voynich zodiac month name annotations may well have been added after 1582, when the Grigorian calendar reforms took place.

Voynich labelese revisited

There’s a further point about Voynich labelese which gets mentioned rarely (if at all): in the two places where the 30-element roundels are split into two 15-element halves (dark Aries and light Aries, and light Taurus and dark Taurus), the labels get longer.

This would seem to support the long-proposed observation that Voynich text seems to expand or contract to fit the available space. It also seems to support the late Mark Perakh’s conclusion (from the difference in word length between A and B pages) that some kind of word abbreviation is going on.

And at the same time, even this pattern isn’t completely clear: the dark Aries 15-element roundel has both long labels (“otalchy taramdy”, “oteoeey otal okealar”, “oteo alols araly”) and really short labels (“otaly”), while whereas the light Aries has medium-sized labels, some are short despite there being a much larger space they could have extended into (“oteeol”, “otolchd”, “cheary”). Note also that the two Taurus 15-element roundels both follow the light Aries roundel in this general respect.

It therefore would seem that the most ‘linguistically’ telling individual page in the whole Voynich zodiac section would seem to be the dark Aries page. This is because even though it seems to use essentially the same Voynich labelese ‘language’ as the rest of the zodiac section, the labels are that much longer (or, perhaps, less subject to abbreviation than the other zodiac pages’ labels).

It is therefore an interesting (and very much open) question as to whether the ‘language’ of the text presented by the longer dark Aries labels matches the ‘language’ of the circular text sequences on the same page. If so, we might be able to start to answer the question of whether the Voynich labels are written in the same style of Voynichese as the circular text sequences on the same pages, though (with the exception of most of the dark Aries page) more abbreviated.

Speculation about ok- and ot-

When I wrote “The Curse of the Voynich”, I speculated that ok- / ot- / yk- / yt- might each verbosely encipher a specific letter or idea. For example, in the context of a calendar, we might now consider whether one of more of them might encipher the word “Saint” or “Saints”, a possibility that I hadn’t considered back in 2006.

Yet the more I now look at the Voynich zodiac pages, the more I wonder whether ok- and ot- have any extrinsic meaning at all. In information terms, the more frequently they occur, the more predictable they are, and so the less information they carry: and they certainly do occur very frequently indeed here.

And beyond a certain point, they contain so little information that they could contribute almost nothing to the semantic content, XXnot XXunlike XXadding XXtwo XXcrosses XXto XXthe XXstart XXof XXeach XXword.

So, putting yk- and yt- to one side for the moment, I’m now coming round to the idea that ok- and -ot- might well be operating solely in some “meta domain” (e.g. perhaps selecting between one of two mapping alphabets or dictionaries), and that we would do well to consider all the ok-initial and ot-initial words separately, i.e. that they might present different sets of properties. And moreover, that the remainder of the word is where the semantic content really lies, not in the ok- / ot- prefix prepended to it.

Something to think about, anyway.

Voynich abbreviation revisited

All of which raises another open question to do with abbreviation in the Voynich Manuscript. In most of the places where researchers such as Torsten Timm have invested a lot of time looking at sequences that ‘step’ from one Voynichese word to another (i.e. where ol changes to al), those researchers have often looked for sequences of words that fuzzily match one another.

Yet if there is abbreviation in play in the Voynich Manuscript, the two syntactic (or, arguably, orthographic) mechanisms that speak loudest for this are EVA -y and EVA -dy. If these both signify abbreviation by truncation in some way, then there is surely a strong case for looking for matches not by stepping glyph values, but by abbreviatory matches.

That is, might we do well to instead look for root-matching word sequences (e.g. where “otalchy taramdy” matches “otalcham tary”)? Given that Voynich labelese seems to mix not only labelese but abbreviation too, I suspect that trying to understand labelese without first understanding how Voynichese abbreviation works might well prove to be a waste of time. Just a thought.

Dark Aries, light Aries, and painting

As a final aside, if you find yourself looking at the dark Aries and light Aries images side by side, you may well notice that the two are painted quite differently:

To my mind, the most logical explanation for this is that the colourful painting on the light Aries was done at the start of a separate Quire 11 batch. That is, because Pisces and dark Aries appear at the end of the single long foldout sheet that makes up Quire 10, I suspect that they were originally folded left and so painted at the same time as f69r and f69v (which have broadly the same palette of blues and greens) – f70r1 and f70r2 may therefore well have been left folded inside (i.e. underneath Pisces / f70v2), and so were left untouched by the Quire 10 heavy painter. Quire 11 (which is also a single long foldout sheet, and contains light Aries, the Tauruses, etc) was quite probably painted separately and by a different ‘heavy painter’: moreover, this possibly suggests that the two quires may well not have been physically stitched together at that precise point.

Note that there is an ugly paint contact transfer between the two Aries halves (brown blobs travelling from right to left), but this looks to have been an accidental splodge (probably after stitching) rather than a sign that the two sides were painted while stitched together.

Just a quick visual idea for you to ponder on with regard to Voynich Manuscript page f57v: it’s something I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere.

Back in 2010, I posted a page here discussing astrolabes, nocturnals and Voynich Manuscript page f57v, in which I laid out some codicological reasoning why I thought the 4 x 17 = 68 single character ring was actually a 4 x 18 = 72 mark ring, i.e. marks spaced every (360 / 72) = 5 degrees. (I also didn’t explain nocturlabes as well as I should have done, so that’s something I ought to return to soon.)

One other anomalous feature of f57v is the text in the innermost ring, three quarters of which is also made up of single characters (marked in red below). This looks to me as though as though it too might be concealing a string of marks. But on what kind of device would marks only go three quarters of the way around?

So… your Voynich thought for the day is that there is indeed a very specific type of device of great interest in the fifteenth century where the marks only go 75% of the way around: a sundial (or solar clock), which very often only cover 18 hours of a day.

Now, I’m really not saying that f57v is ‘definitely’ a sundial (in the world of the Voynich Manuscript, nothing is ever that easy): but, rather, that the idea that at least one of the text rings on this page might well be somehow connected with a sundial ought (I think) to be considered here.

I don’t recall any other theory or suggestion that explains the curious string of characters on the innermost ring: nor why (for example) it should contain freestanding EVA ‘l’ shapes, even though these hardly ever appear elsewhere in the text, or various other unknown weird characters. My strong suspicion is therefore that these are just random letters added to cover up dots and dashes in the original diagram, and have no actual meaning beyond that.

For a long time, the accepted answer has been that “bloggers do things [and document what they do] so that you don’t have to“. In this worldview, bloggers are net-savvy individuals cursed by a craving for foolish adventure, but somehow redeemed (partially, at least) by their sense of openness.

But as a blogger, I get to see a lot of blogs: and I have to say that many (if not most) of the blogs I have seen emerging over the last 2-3 years are cut from a quite different cloth. Almost entirely gone is the sense of adventure (whether physical or cerebral): that entire urge seems to have lurched sideways into the “bucket list” fake world of Facebook. Also gone is the sense of vicarious and arbitrary participation, a kind of living-by-doing (and then documenting) ethic: this too seems to have been reduced in the Internet’s metaphorical sauté pan down to the rather mindless level of sharing pictures of restaurant lunches on Instagram.

The things that seem to have replaced both of these are instead shallower and rather less intense: barely-informed opinions, defensive snarkishness, an absence of any obvious critical thought, and jaw-juttingly defiant I-am-right-ness. You might disagree, but it seems to me that blogging has in general become a platform for the angrily unengaged: an opinionated echo chamber of prodigiously tiny dimensions, with no sign of any humility or experimentality.

In short, the blogger world circa mid-2017 seems to have lost its collective mojo: the pinnacle of the art has instead become a focus on Google Ads and paid-for reviews. Yeah, yeah, I know, you might think that I think that “it was all green fields here when I started blogging a decade ago“, but that’s honestly not the point I’m trying to make. Rather, it seems to me that in recent years society’s implicit contract with bloggers has changed: the more ambitious have moved on to propagandic vlogging (e.g. Stampy, Dan TDM, Zoella, PewDiePie, etc) or satirical tweeting (e.g. the ever-amusing Wor Cheryl), and it’s only the Adamsian B Ark left, sorry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I too am thinking of moving on from blogging: I’m at heart a very positive, creative and generative person, and I’m not currently finding blogging as supportive a platform for the positive, creative and generative things I want to do as I would like. As some will remember, I tried to step sideways into crowdfunded television a little while back: though that didn’t prove successful on that occasion, it’s perhaps still broadly the kind of direction that would perhaps make more sense in the current context than what I’m currently doing.

Incidentally, what I intensely dislike about the television historical documentary genre is its brutal formality, its almost koan-like edited rhythm of talking heads and nicely-shot places of faded beauty. Me, I want to make the road to history visible, not just a soft-focus glamorized version of the destination: personally, I’m fascinated not at all by the sofa-like comfort of that-which-has-been-found-and-understood-and-softened-into-a-societal-lullaby, but instead by the struggle of making history.

For anyone who wants to see the kind of documentary I’d like to make, I’d strongly recommend Icarus on Netflix. This is a completely awesome piece of film, like a forensic surgeon’s keyhole endoscope peering inside the rotting carcass of Sport – dead from the neck down, though its head seems blissfully unaware.

Vat. Gr. 1291 is a manuscript that has had a fair amount of Voynich-related attention over the years. A beautifully illustrated copy of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, its fol.9r contains a circular astrological / zodiacal diagram with some oddly-familiar carefully-posed naked nymphs:

Though this splendid Greek manuscript was made in the ninth century, it had one well-known bibliophile owner in the 16th century, Fulvio Orsini (1512-1600):

However, what I find intriguing is that the manuscript reappeared (or, to be a little more Renaissance-y, perhaps I should say “was reborn”) in Brescia in the middle of the fifteenth century. Which is (roughly) where we start…

Pietro del Monte (c.1400-1457), Bishop of Brescia

Though the bibliography listed by the BAV for Vat. Gr. 1291 contains over seventy entries, an accessible starting point for us is probably “A Renaissance bishop and his books: a preliminary survey of the manuscript collection of Pietro del Monte (c. 1400–57)” by David Rundle (British School at Rome, The Papers – Vol 69 (2001)). [It’s in JSTOR, if you have access to that.] Msgr Jose Ruysschaert (who we know from other Voynich studies) once planned to write a full study of Pietro del Monte, but never quite got round to it: Rundle took on the slightly more achievable task of reconstructing his library.

Rundle’s readable article paints a picture of (the perhaps quite flawed) papal apologist – who at his death was also Bishop of Brescia – as a resolute book collector much praised by (the admittedly often unreliable) book merchant and librarian Vespasiano da Bisticci. I’m sure book-sellers always liked to hear a “yes” from del Monte (*groan*). After the wannabe humanists’s death in Rome in 1457, the biggest beneficiary was Pietro Barbo (the future Pope Paul II), who seems to have inherited the bulk of del Monte’s huge library. Though some manuscripts (that Rundle speculates had been left behind in Brescia) also went to…

Bartolomeo Malapiero (d.1464), Bishop of Brescia

When Bartolomeo Malapiero was made Bishop of Brescia in 1457 on del Monte’s , he bought some of his books and manuscripts. Yes, Malapiero too was a book collector: Rundle directs us to M. L. Gatti Perer and M. Marubbi (eds), “Tesori miniati: codici e incunaboli dei fondi antichi di Bergamo e Brescia” (Cinisello Balsamo, 199), pp.151-167.

On Malapiero’s death in 1464, a good part of his library became the property of the next Bishop of Brescia…

Domenico de’ Domenichi (1416–1478), Bishop of Brescia

When Domenico de’ Domenichi, formerly Bishop of Torcello, was made Bishop of Brescia, he received (what is now known as) Vat. Gr. 1291 from Bartolomeo Malapiero, as we can see from this note added to it:

Hic liber e[st] mei dominici dedominicis ueneti epi[scopi] brixen[si] et fuit ex
libris. bonae memoriae dom[ini] bartolomej epi[scopi] predecesso[ris] mei et allatus est
mi[hi] ex brixia Roma[m] 1465 de mense septembris

We also know from this (now-lost but held on the Wayback Machine) web page I found back in 2002:

Before being acquired by Fulvio Orsini, the codex belonged to two bishops of Brescia, Bartalomeo Malipiero (1457-1464) and Domenic Dominici (1464-1478); the latter brought it to Rome in September 1465.

For the source of this information, the author (Luigi Michelini Tocci) cites “F. Boll. In « Sitzungsberichte der… Akad. Der Wissenshaften zu München », 1899, pp. 110-138; Lazarev, Pittura, cit., p. 110“.

However, there is no indication in the marginalia of where (or from whom) Bartolomeo Malapiero got it from. It could (possibly) have been Malapiero’s predecessor Pietro del Monte: but given that de’ Domenichi himself didn’t seem to know, perhaps we shall never know either.

De’ Domenichi was a very interesting character: as a well-known orator and theologian and yet also a humanist, he embodies many of the complexities of Renaissance thought. He was also a prolific book author and letter-writer, with an interest in astronomy and astrology: according to this online Italian biography of him:

He shared the general humanist interest in astronomy and astrology, and he himself wrote on these topics in some partly lost works. On 13th June 1456, upon the appearance of a comet, he wrote Iudicium comete visi in urbe romana, now conserved in two copies in the Herzog-August-Bibliothek of Wolfenbüttel (Germany): cod. Guelf. 42.3 Aug. fol. and cod. Guelf. 71.21 Aug. fol., in which he lays out his thoughts on these celestial phenomena. There is also a Quaestio de Sibyllis (Kristeller, Iter, I, p. 152). In his library could also be found manuscripts of astronomy, such as astronomical Tabulae and Ptolemy’s Almagest, Flores ex Almagesto and De astronomia of Geber Hispalensis, as well as the Tabulae [resolutae] of John of Gmunden.

Bibliography on Domenico de’ Domenichi (1416–1478)

De’ Domenichi was (I’m sure you’re seeing a pattern here) also a book collector: as a source on the bibliophilic side of his life, Rundle suggests C. Villa, “Brixiensia”, Italia Medioevale e Umanistica 20 (1977), pp. 243-275. (Which I haven’t yet seen.)

There are two other books I also haven’t yet seen, both of which are, inevitably, tremendously expensive:

* Hubert Jedin, Studien über Domenico de’Domenichi (1416–1478)
* Martin Ederer (2003) “Humanism, Scholasticism and the Theology and Preaching of Domenico De’ Domenichi in the Italian Renaissance” (Ederer tenaciously tracked down 105 of de’ Domenichi’s Latin sermons from archives scattered through Europe, and included two appendixes: “Domenico de’ Domenichi’s Treatises and Letters: Synopsis of Codices”, and “A Finding-List of Domenico de’ Domenichi’s Treatises and Letters”)

Where Next For de’ Domenichi?

What I’ve written above is as far as I reached on the subject: the next step would be to use Ederer’s Finding List to track down his letters, and to see if de’ Domenichi mentioned Vat. Gr. 1291 anywhere there. Given that Regiomontanus was in Rome at exactly the same time, I would have thought that a nice-looking copy of the Handy Tables would have been like astronomical catnip to him: so there might be plenty of interest there from a history of science and astronomy aspect that the more theological biographers might not have teased out to date.

But without a day at the British Library to go through Villa’s, Jedin’s, and Ederer’s works, that’s as far as this goes for now, sorry. 😐

There are now many people who would happily classify themselves as ‘online researchers’. You don’t usually have to peer too far beyond the end of your mouse to see their forum comments, web pages, blog posts, YouTube videos, and occasionally even self-published meisterwerke.

Even though most of these people probably consider that they are engaged in serious research, is that actually the case? What is the difference between serious research and non-serious research? Is there even a difference at all? And (as I heard proposed recently) if there is a difference, surely it’s nothing more than a matter of intelligence, persistence, and luck?

Well… I have to say that that’s a position I can’t agree with at all.

Pay Per Click

Someone clicking on thousands of web pages or running a load of statistical tests can certainly be said to be searching, but this is really not the same thing as researching.

Think about this: how would your behaviour change if every click were to cost you five pounds? Yet in many ways, each click probably does: in terms of the computers you use, the mice you burn up, the broadband you rent, and (arguably the costliest of all) the portion of your life it consumes without returning anything to you. You don’t have to be a full-blown Marxist economist to see that the main thing being eaten away by this kind of activity is you.

The first main difference between searching and researching, then, is that a researcher needs to have an aim to guide his or her actions: every click needs to earn its keep. And the two basic planning tools that help researchers achieve this are research questions and research programmes.

Research Questions

Luckily there is no shortage of web pages that define and discuss research questions, because research questions often have to be included in requests for academic funding. But in many ways, though, given that researching may (being brutally realistic) come to absorb so much of your spare time / life, perhaps you should think of forming a research question as part of making a funding request to your (rational) self. No funding body would ever back someone whose research plan was just to read / try a load of stuff, so why should you back yourself to do the same?

As this web page puts it:

You may have found your topic, but within that topic you must find a question, which identifies what you hope to learn. Finding a question sounds serendipitous, but research questions need to be shaped and crafted.

As a rule, making your research question too general, too wide-ranging or too ‘loose’ is almost always unhelpful, because it means that you will struggle to ever reach an answer for it: too tight and it can come close to being tautologous. There’s a further balance to be had between the availability of evidence and the ‘speculativeness’ of the question: though it has to be said that once you’ve put together your first research question, forming others becomes a lot easier.

Even if your chosen topic is a very evidence-sparse and/or epistemologically uncertain field, you can still form practical research questions (though admittedly doing so can be a little bit less straightforward than in other, more mainstream fields). For example, in the field of Voynich Manuscript research, a partial list of the research questions I personally have pursued over the past 15+ years could contain:

* Using best-in-class Art History dating techniques, when was the Voynich Manuscript made?
* What was the original order of the Voynich Manuscript’s bifolios?
* What did the Voynich Manuscript look like in its ‘alpha’ (original) state?
* Were any parts of the original Voynich text laid down in separate codicological passes?
* Is there a direct mapping relationship between Currier A text structures and Currier B text structures?
* Is there a relationship between the Voynich Manuscript’s zodiac section and the Volkskalender B family of manuscripts?
* What was the nature of fifteenth century cryptography?
* Might Antonio Averlino have been the author of the Voynich Manuscript?
* What happened between the vellum’s first being written on and the Voynich Manuscript’s reappearance in Prague?
* What did the f116v marginalia originally look like?
* Where did the f116v marginalia handwriting come from?
* Might there have been a relationship between the Voynich Manuscript and the Rosicrucian manifestos?

Note that none of the above is a ‘why’ question: all were specific enough – I hoped when I formed them – for an answer to be reached, though most have still proved to be slower to bring to a fully satisfactory conclusion than I would have chosen. 😐

Note also that a number of the above (though not all) are constructed around hypotheses: while some people are comfortable with hypotheses, others are less so. Regardless, I think it’s important to point out that a good research question need not explicitly include or rely on a hypothesis.

(I’ll leave it as an open question how many other Voynich Manuscript researchers have genuinely formed explicit research questions and research programmes: doubtless you will have your own view on this.)

Research Programmes

Following the logic through, it should be obvious that constructing a research question is only the first half of the planning stage. What you then need to do is to construct a research programme around that research question, to try to help you turn it into a focused series of practical actions you can work your way through in order to reach a worthwhile answer.

Here’s a useful list of questions to help you build this up:

* What literature should you review? (What kind of idiot would not build up a picture of the literature first?)
* What evidence can you rely on in your research?
* What similar research questions have been posed before?
* What answers did those researchers reach? (And what did approach did they follow to reach them?)
* Are there related or parallel fields where similarly-structured research questions have been posed?
* How much time and money do you want to invest in to answer this question?
* What process can you follow to move you closer to an answer?
* Are there others you can usefully collaborate with?
* Are there open source tools or data you can work with (or help develop) that would help?
* If your question is based on an hypothesis, what steps can you take to avoid presuming it is true along the way?
* How can you make sure the answer you reach will be based on causality and not merely on statistical correlation?

Trying to answer these questions (and others like it) should help you work out how you plan to reach a reliable, useful answer to your research question.

Note that “research projects” are the short term subsections you would typically decompose a medium term research programme into so as to make it achievable: project is to programme as chapter is to book.

Planning vs Action

At the end of this whole planning stage, you should have not only a research question that you’re trying to answer, but also a practical plan – i.e. some research means to help you try to reach an answer to your chosen research question.

And so it should be clear that the final difference between searching and researching is that researching requires both a pre-planning phase and some kind of systematic action.

Without conscious pre-planning and some kind of systematic research programme to guide you, you’re searching rather than researching, blindly casting your rod out into a vast evidential ocean. You might occasionally catch a fish, sure: but don’t be surprised if you go home hungry more often than not. :-/