Modern Voynich Myths

When I first learned of the Voynich Manuscript back in 2006, there was a certain, accepted baseline understanding of what it might be. This foundation was supported by many different factors, both real and assumed, or some combination of both. As my theories progressed, and as I examined the theories of others, part of the process of doing so was to examine that foundation, and the reasons it existed.

But over time I came to realize that many of the commonly accepted, and widely repeated, claims about the Voynich… often stated as facts… were not facts at all. In some cases they were simply wrong. In other cases, they turned out to be assumptions, and the assumptions were either based on errors, or simply guesses, based on the preconceptions of those stating them. Nonetheless, many of these errors are still “in print” on the internet, remain uncorrected, and are therefore a serious impediment to anyone trying to learn about the Voynich ms.. This is not to say that many of them are not still possible, only that the importance of them, and any belief in them as fact, is largely unwarranted. I call these, “Modern Voynich Myths”, and list them, here. I may still add to this list, as more of them occur to me and others.

1) Athanasius Kircher described the Voynich script as “Illyrian” in his 1639 letter to Th. Moretus: Not true, he was describing another work in this way, and possibly a printed sheet at that. In a 2014 translation of the letter by André Szabolcs Szelp, agreed upon by others, this is now clear. However, this untruth is continually repeated to support the fact that Kircher actually did see the Voynich, as many have thought the script shows a similarity to Illyrian, or Glagolitic.

2) That vellum/parchment was very expensive: It can be shown that vellum and parchment has, throughout history, often been rather inexpensive. Using the cost of vellum to create one of the first Gutenberg bibles, the material for the Voynich may have cost only a dozen shillings or so.

3) Vellum/Parchment was always used soon after preparation: Not true. I and others have been able to find dozens of cases of blank parchment being unused for centuries…. up to 400 years, and used up to 350 years after creation. When C14 tested in the 1970’s, several works were found to be made as many as 153 years after material creation.

4) The Kircher Carteggio (letters) was under “lock and seal”, so Wilfrid could not have seen it: Not known, in any case. There is no evidence that the Jesuits did, or would have, treated the Letters any differently than the Voynich (if they ever owned it, which is also not known), or the other books they sold to Voynich in 1911. In fact, the Villa Mondragone… where both the Voynich and the letters were stored… was a popular and respected college, which took students from the general (even non-Jesuit) population. In the summer it was a retreat for high ranking Jesuits, and even, a tourist attraction. Really anyone could get permission to visit. The photographer who took pictures of it for a 1912 tourist book was the same photographer who took pictures of Voynich’s bookstore in 1908. And Voynich was close friends with Father Joseph Strickland, the head of the Mondragone. And also, considering the great importance of Kircher to the Jesuits, it is implausible to consider they did not have some interest, and probably studied, his letters… while in their care.

5) Arthur Dee described the Voynich, which his father, John Dee, owned: Voynich posited this theory in his 1921 Philadelphia talk, and it has lingered ever since. But Voynich was well aware… as we know from his own notes on the transcript of the talk, because he cited the works that explain this… that Dee was describing an entirely different work, and even, what that work was. This “Dee Myth” took root way back then, becoming the basis for the idea that Rudolf II bought the Voynich from Dee as early as 1586. The thing is, even though a false claim, with no basis whatsoever, it has a life of its own. That is, although many do not realize the origin of the myth was in a purposeful error in a 1921 speech, the “idea” that Dee owned the Voynich continues to this day.

6) The Letters of the Carteggio describe the Voynich: The 1639 Baresch letter describes a manuscript, but it is too incomplete and poor a description to be known that he meant the Voynich. The other letters to not make a physical description at all, while are describing whatever Baresch saw. But the Baresch description only mentions “plants unknown to the Germans”, “stars”, “unknown script” or language, and possible chemical symbolism. This would describe many other herbals and pharmas of the time, in many of the languages unknown to these men, at the time. Left out are the Zodiac, the baths, the nude women, the weird animals, the strange cylinders, and really hundreds of other features that would have been of great interest and importance to anyone trying to impart even a hint of what the nature of the Voynich is. Could the Baresch Manuscript be the Voynich? Yes. But stating it is the Voynich is incorrect, and based on poor evidence.

7) The Voynich was owned by Tepenencz, or Horcicky, botanist and physician to Rudolf II: This is based on the name of Tepenencz written on the first page of the Voynich. But this is not provably a signature at all, and of course easily copied by anyone with minimal skills who may have seen one of the several copies of the true signature. And there is reason to believe it was not actually there at one point, since Baresch/Kinner/Marci/Kircher did not mention it, and Voynich himself says it was not visible… when it was. But today we still read, over and over, “Tepenenz owned it”, and, “Tepenencz was the first known author”. Read Jan Hurych’s excellent analysis before making up your own mind: http://hurontaria.baf.cz/CVM/b9.htm

8) The C14 dating shows the vellum/parchment is from 1420-1438: The published range is actually a conclusion determined by combining the very different results of the four samples tested. But when looked at separately, as would have been done if not found bound together, nor assumed to be made as the same time, the results show they could be 50 to 60 years apart. And taking into account the extremes of the error range of the samples, they actually could date to as much as 132 years apart:

Folio 8: 490±37, which works out to 1423 to 1497
Folio 26: 514±35, which works out to 1401 to 1471
Folio 47: 506±35, which works out to 1409 to 1479
Folio 68 (cleaned): 550±35, which works out to 1365 to 1435

The assumptions used to combine the results were clearly explained by Rene Zandbergen:

“A combined dating of the Voynich MS

The dating of each folio doesn’t allow a very precise dating of the MS. The uncertainty in age for each folio is some 50-60 years, and in the case of fol.68 even spans two centuries due to the above-mentioned inversions of the calibration curve. The book production process is likely to have taken considerably less time than these 50-60 years. Under the assumptions that:

– The MS was indeed created over a time span not exceeding (e.g.) 10 years
– It was not using parchment that was prepared many years ago

each sheet provides a measurement or ‘observation’ of the MS creation. Since they are likely to be from different animal hides, these are indeed independent observations. Combining these observations leads to a combined un-calibrated age of 1435 ± 26 years (1 sigma).”

From http://voynich.nu/extra/carbon.html (explanation since removed). From the above, it is clear that various unknowns were “assumed”, in order to “combine” the results into one, palatable range. These assumptions included a short range of creation time, and the use of fresh vellum… both things we may or may not assume, at our discretion, and which are in any case, not known (see points #2 and #3, above).

9) When the dates were revealed, it showed that the experts were correct about the age of the Voynich: Incorrect. Tallying the expert opinions, pre-C14, the majority of experts… I think it works out to about 14 out of 16 of them, by D’Imperio’s book, were dead wrong. In fact this was noted soon after the C14 was announced, in the 2009 ORF documentary, and its surrounding promotions: the results were touted as toppling the previous expert opinion, and being a total surprise. It was a surprise. But in a very short time, this reality morphed into “The experts got it right”, by using the two or so experts who did happen to have opinions near or in the C14 range, and ignoring the majority that were wrong. This new mythology is often used to support the false premise, “It cannot be a forgery, because how could a pre-C14 forger have happened to choose the ‘right parchment’?”. The thing is, they did not choose “the right parchment” for the work they laid on it, if forged.

10) Voynich found the book in the Villa Mondragone: This is still stated as fact, when most mainstream researchers understand this is not known, and, at best, based on shaky ground. Voynich himself claimed several, mutually exclusive places of origin for the ms., including “Castle in Southern Europe” and “Austrian Castle”. “Villa Mondragone” was to Ethel, in private, and only to be revealed after her death.

11) It was part of the Beckx library: There is no Beckx reference in or about the Voynich Manuscript, nor any written, descriptive tag assuring this. Only a printed Beclx “ex libris” tag, claimed by Voynich to be with the Voynich when he found it. The problem is, he owned many of these printed tags, known because a pile of them were found loose in his papers after his death. And, for that matter, also found were many of the written tags for other Beckx books… but none for the Voynich. That is, there is absolutely no evidence that the Voynich was part of this collection, yet it continues to be repeated as a known fact.

12) The Voynich contains structure of language: Well, it may… but we don’t know if the structure found… by Dr Marcelo A Montemurro, Tucker & Talbot, and others, cannot also be attributable to random written human output (RWHO). This, because RWHO has never been tested for its possible structure, and/or to see it is resembles actual language structure in any way. It may, it may not, contain said structucture. But evidence that it could is found in the compelling observations by different researchers interested in Glossolalia, such as the one of Hélène Smith, who believed she was channeling Martian in the late 19th century. There are other cases… but in short, it has been noted that the random spoken outputs resemble language structure to some degree. That is a hint it may be so, for RWHO. But the point is, we don’t know, and therefore immediately renders any claim that the Voynich must have an underlying meaning, because of any language structure found, moot.

13) The Voynich Ms. Cover was added in the 17th Century: While generally accepted that the cover supposedly found on the Voynich ms. does not date to the time of calfskin manufacture of the leaves, just how old, or when and where this cover was added is not known. It was never tested, and so any statements about any age of the cover, or when it was added… often claimed as known… simply are not known (thanks Berj Ensanian).

14) It is not a palimpsest: It may not be one. But I have been having trouble determining the basis for this claim, except for the observation that the signs of scraping of the surface, usual in palimpsests, are not there. However, there were various later chemical processes used to “bleach”, or erase writing on documents, and I worry that these were assumed to not be applicable, based on the preconceptions that the writing was applied long ago. Whether or not it is possible to test for the chemicals, I do not know.

15) Wilfrid Voynich never tried to sell the Voynich: In the strictest sense, that he did not list the ms. in his catalogs, nor otherwise publicly advertise the ms., this is true. But this becomes a myth in the way in which it is used: To imply that he did not intend to sell it eventually, nor intend to profit from it, and so stated so as to imply that he could not have forged it, because he didn’t want any money for it. But this is incorrect: Wilfrid wanted as much as $160,000 for it. And in a letter, he promised Romaine Newbold that if he, Newbold, could make a case for Roger Bacon as author, Wilfrid would pay him 10% of the first $100,000 realized, and 50% of any amount over that.

16) The ink was dated to the time of the calfskin: The McCrone report on the ink composition does not date the ink. There were no radiocarbon dating tests performed on the ink samples, perhaps because of their inorganic composition makes this impossible. So although it is frequently reported that the ink tests dated the ink to the 15th century, this is based on the fact that reviewers of the McCrone report have noted that the compositions found are consistent with ink formulas used during that time, and determined that no modern substances were found. However, such ink could have been produced at any time since the manufacture of the Voynich calfskin, up until the announced discovery, by Voynich himself. In fact, such inks were normally used for centuries after the C14 date ranges of the calfskin leaves. Furthermore, the report does include various tantalizing suggestions, such as the discovery of “copper and zinc” which are “a little unusual”, and an unidentified “titanium compound”. These are not explained, either by McCrone (and I have written to them about both, and not received a reply), or any reviewer of the report.

17) The Voynich would be time consuming and/or difficult to pen: (added to the list, May 25, 2015) In the few attempts I and others have made, it is clear that this it incorrect. Gordon Rugg took under two hours to make a fairly complex “botanical” page. I drew a much cruder, simpler, page in 13 minutes. When we were up in Toronto, helping with the Shatner “Weird or What?” episode on the Voynich, the professional calligraphers all blazed through a very good simulation of Voynichese, using Gordon’s grille method. And just this morning, I made the below practice sheet in under 15 minutes… coloring and all. And that is a short time, considering I was trying to emulate the style of the Voynich author… they didn’t have to, as it was their style. I made this with the intent to continue practicing, and eventually make a large, rosettes fold-out size complex page in the style of the Voynich.

First, fast, practice sheet: 15 minutes

First, fast, practice sheet: 15 minutes

There are many other beliefs and misconceptions about the Voynich, some unique and some related to the above, which may not rise to the level of outright myths. Perhaps they could be deemed “opinions misstated as certainties”. But many of those opinions are based on the above, not knowing they are formulating opinions based on chimeras. Eventually, blog posts, articles, and even documentaries and books state these falsehoods and opinions as known, true facts. I feel it does a grave disservice to present and future researchers by forcing them to expend untold hours, and even years, never realizing that the foundation they are basing their hard work on may not be as sturdy as long presented to them.

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3 Responses to “Modern Voynich Myths”

  1. david Says:

    Good summary of several bases for skepticism, Rich. And you point out some likely fallacies.
    However, the “truth” of the VMs relates to its meaning , which, I believe, will be found to persist whether it is found to be a fake , or be riddled with inconsistencies such as those you describe. That is because I think it belongs to a long-standing “genre”, and is only one of many artifacts with a similar theme; if indeed, for instance, it is a “fake”, it will prove to be a faking of something quite real and significant .
    I expect that this will finally be established by correlations made ultimately by human art-historical studies amplified by robust AI and pattern recognition applications. So it may happen soon!
    David S.

  2. proto57 Says:

    Yes the meaning, whatever that is, will answer all questions… we hope. Thanks for the feedback, David.

  3. The Modern Forgery Hypothesis | The Voynich-New Atlantis Theory Says:

    […] Counter arguments: The idea that Wilfrid may have forged the Voynich Manuscript has long been one of great controversy. I had thought it impossible until about 2012, when various events and discoveries caused me to begin to consider it possible. Ironically, one major factor is because my critics pointed out that the optics I noted as comparisons were often “too new” for my early 17th century theories. I eventually agreed… they are too new, and I moved forward in time. In doing so, I began to see that all of the previously, seemingly, insurmountable “walls” to modern forgery were actually built on very shaky, and sometimes, non-existent, grounds. That is, much of what was known and claimed of the Voynich Manuscript, and of Voynich himself, turned out to be so mere speculation, and hopeful thinking. I list many of these in another post. […]

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