Birth of a New Mythology

There are many, previously accepted (and stubbornly accepted by most, still), “truisms” about the provenance, construction/substance, and content of the Voynich manuscript, and the associated histories of literature, forgery, and the life of Wilfrid Voynich himself, which I’ve addressed over time as being at best, unsupportable by the facts, and at worst, demonstrably false. Both rise to the level of mythologies. These are too numerous to mention, or explain, in this post, but the most important can be found on this list: Modern Voynich Myths.

But how do these myths arise? I don’t mean that in the sense of one’s motivation for starting them, because that is a subject for another blog post… the motivations are many and varied. But by what path, what series of events, did these myths originate?

In some cases they were created by Wilfrid himself. Or, soon after his death, added innocently by speculation on the part of Anne Nill and Ethel Voynich. Later, a vast army of well-meaning researchers, by digging deep for any shred of evidence in defense of the “Voynich as real”, then selectively retaining those desirable finds, and coloring the filtered results using the hopeful prism of a genuine Voynich, the results were either presented as, or later morphed into, “facts”.

And, as I said, I’ve identified, and addressed, many of these mythologies in the past. I’ve pointed to the origins, and sometimes the motivations, which brought them into existence. But in my time studying the Voynich… a bit over ten years now… I’ve seen at least a dozen or so new myths created, and become accepted by the mainstream “understanding” of the Voynich. As an example of these, I will outline one here: The “1903 Reference Mythology”. I will demonstrate its origin, its metamorphosis into fact, and then, its canonization into the supposed “fact base” of the Voynich’s story.

René Zandbergen relates the discovery of a catalog entry from 1903, on his page, “Manuscripts Voynich acquired in 1911-1912“, under “2.3. Source 2: the 1903 catalogue”. Under that heading, Mr. Zandbergen states,

“Each entry in the catalogue is a short description, usually just one line, giving author(s), title(s), whether the MS is on parchment or paper, and from which century it dates (which is occasionally given as ‘uncertain’). Of particular interest for us is of course the description of the Voynich MS, but unfortunately this is so unspecific that it would not have been possible to identify the MS by this desc[r]iption alone. It is simply described as:

“Miscellanea, c.m.s.XV

“where the abbreviation means: codex membranacaeus saec. XV. It is the only item in the entire list that has neither author nor title”

And I do agree that it “would not have been possible to identify the MS by this description alone”. But I would strongly add that there is no way to identify it as any specific MS, let alone the Voynich. Nonetheless it is implied this is the Voynich, both by inclusion here, and further added information in supposed support of this contention.

Let’s look at the footnote qualifier (#9), the claimed supporting evidence:

“It is somewhat unsatisfactory not to see any reference to the unknown writing. On what basis Ruysschaert decided to make this identification is not yet understood, and further research in the papers of Carusi might be enlightening. In any case, the anecdote reported by Kraus further clearly suggests Ruysschaert’s conviction about the identity of this MS.”

Wait? What? When did Ruysschaert “make this identification”, which he was “convinced” about? If you scroll back up, you will see this,

“The right margin has a handwritten reference to the Census p. 1846 (see note 6), which lists the Voynich MS, also in accordance with Ruysschaert (1959).”

And this “note 6” refers to, “De Ricci, Seymour, with the assistance of W. J. Wilson: Census of medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada, 1937.”, which of course does include the Voynich manuscript. But is this the point being made, then, that Ruysschaert had somehow “identified” this 1903 catalog entry as the Voynich? If so, then it is through a “handwritten reference” to 1937 census, and I am unclear as to how this handwritten note is attributable to Ruysschaert in the first place. Perhaps it is. But neither Ricci nor Ruysschaert, at least in the cited works, mentions the Voynich manuscript in the context of of the 1903 catalog or sale.

But let us assume that I am incorrect, and that this is not the additional evidence. In that case, I am unclear where on this page such supporting evidence exists. That is, if I am incorrect that Ruysschaert is being implicated as believing the entry was the Voynich, I don’t see how the very “slim to nothing” reference of codex membranacaeus saec. XV is at all buttressed here. Either way, it is obviously nothing, or less than nothing, to base any connection to the Voynich on. It remains an opinion only, and one I would contend, on very shaky grounds. And opinions are fine… we all have them. It is only when they morph into accepted facts that they become mythologies. And below we have the next step in that process.

A couple of years ago, was lucky to be able to attend the introduction of the marvelous Yale publication of the book, The Voynich Manuscript, at the University, with a nice wine and cheese at the Beinecke, afterwards. The book was edited by the erudite, informative and kind Raymond Clemens, who I was pleased to meet in person. And, I can recommend the book, for one’s Voynich collection, if you, like me, so indulge. But I’m sorry to say that I cannot recommend the work as a source text for information about the reality of the history, provenance nor construction of the Voynich, because in many respects it is a biased advertisement for the “genuineness” of the famous acquisition (owned by the very publishers of this book, of course). As such it side-steps and/or “rationalizes” some of the many serious anomalies of the Voynich, and it does so in some very obvious, and even sometimes unintentionally humorous ways. I liken the work to that other notorious Yale publication (which I also own), the 1964 edition of “The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation”. History now tells us that (also beautiful work) was mostly an attempt to cement a positive, and genuine, take on the Vinland Map, and thus assure that Mr. Mellon would concede to purchase it for Yale… for the publishers. But that is another story, for another time.

yale_voynich_vinland_1200x

Suffice it to say that the Yale Voynich book is rife with anomalies of its own, many purposeful, some inadvertent, all in its attempt to project the Voynich Manuscript as a bona fide and respectable “non-forgery”.  But I am concerned only with this particular “New Mythology”, the supposed 1903 Voynich catalog entry. As seen above, it is represented on the webpage as an opinion, with little or no supporting evidence, “as” the actual Voynich Manuscript. However, this has now morphed into hard fact, in the permanent and impressive pages of the Yale publication. In the included essay by the same René Zandbergen titled, “Earliest Owners”, René writes (pp. 7-8),

“In 1903 the Jesuits decided to sell a collection of around 380 manuscripts to the Vatican library. Mainly fifteenth-century classical and humanist works, the group also included two items from Kircher’s library, one of which was the Voynich manuscript. The entries in the catalogue prepared for this sale are very brief, and Beinecke MS 408 is describe as a miscellaneous fifteenth-century vellum manuscript: ‘Miscellanea / c[odex] m[embranacaeus] s[aeculae] XV”

And there you have it. What was once opinion is now stated as fact, and permanently affixed to the official, endorsed, recorded history of the Voynich manuscript. It is no longer hopeful or imaginative speculation, or wishful thinking, that the meager 1903 entry might be referring to the Voynich manuscript, now it is stated as absolute fact.

But let us now see how this invented “fact”, this new mythology, has begun to fuse itself to the known history of the Voynich manuscript. Here are a few cases:

In a November 30th, 2016 article, The Unsolvable Mysteries of the Voynich Manuscript, by Josephine Livingstone in the New Yorker (ironically the site has a pop up declaring that magazine is “Fighting Fake News with Real Stories”), the author states, “In 1903, the Jesuits decided to sell a group of texts from the Collegio Romano collection to the Vatican; the sale took nine years to complete. For reasons unknown, and under conditions of total secrecy, Voynich managed to procure some of the books before they entered the Vatican Library. One of them was the Voynich Manuscript.”

Of course, as to be expected, many reviews of, and/or ads for, the above cited Yale publication, may have some version of this new “myth stated as fact”. Here is just one of many examples, in the review by the LA Review of Books, from 2016, “In 1903, as the Jesuits were arranging the sale of roughly 380 manuscripts to the Vatican Library, Voynich somehow managed to come away with a small subset of the lot, “under conditions of absolute secrecy.” His share included the now-eponymous cipher text.”

… and of course, as to be expected, the unwary Raymond Clemens, in his talk circuit, has possibly been adding the myth to his repertoire. For the description of his lecture on June 19th, 2017 at the Southbury, Connecticut Library, the author of the webpage seems to quote the Yale page, advertising the book, “The manuscript appears and disappears throughout history, from the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to a secret sale of books in 1903 by the Society of Jesus in Rome.” And therein we have not one, but two myths… one very old, and one very new. But whether or not Mr. Clemens stated this in his actual lecture, I do not know.

This page on the Puzzle Nation website, also quotes the Yale website advertising the book, “The manuscript appears and disappears throughout history, from the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to a secret sale of books in 1903 by the Society of Jesus in Rome.

And our new myth has even snagged some hardened skeptics! In this case, we see a blogger dismissing “Another pseudo-decipherment of the Voynich manuscript (Hauer & Kondrak)”. And I agree with the premise of the post, BTW… bad translations can be as virulent and rampant as any other mythologies. But to our present myth, the author has written, “It is first mentioned in the 16th century, then largely disappears from the record for several centuries, only to resurface in for sale in 1903.” I would also call that “two myths”, as somehow the author mentioned “16th century”… a century devoid of any supposed Voynich references (unless another myth has sneaked in there, unbeknownst to me… hard to keep up, really). But I think they probably meant the supposed references to the Voynich in the letters of the Kircher Carteggio, which claim is at best, speculation based on very slim evidence, and at worst, another happy myth.

No, not the Vinland Map. Another map forgery, sold by you-know-who.

And I could go on with dozens, maybe hundreds, of these… for that matter, so can the reader. And it won’t stop spreading. You will see this unsupportable mythology, presented as fact, for the rest of all your lives. Thanks to the permanence of print, and the rampant dissemination of all knowledge, whether true, false, great, small, we will all be told, and our descendants will be told, that the Voynich was listed in a 1903 catalog, and then sold a few years later, to Wilfrid Voynich.

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26 Responses to “Birth of a New Mythology”

  1. D.N. O'Donovan Says:

    Rich I agree with a number of the points you make, including
    “I would strongly add that there is no way to identify it as any specific MS, let alone the Voynich”
    and that
    “the Yale Voynich [facsimile] book is rife with anomalies of its own, many purposeful, some inadvertent”
    but this applies to just some of the essays in the Yale volume.

    The facsimile itself is good -if a bit bleached out – and the technical essay is very good indeed (if you go through it removing the annoying editorialising bits of Wilfrid-style ‘history’ inserted into it).

    As you know, of course, I cannot think the balance of evidence in favour of the manuscript’s being an early 20thC fake, but I agree that a lot of what is said is wrong, or a string of assertions with no demonstrable link to the object.

    But whether we hold an identical opinion or not – good to see you writing again.

    • proto57 Says:

      Thank you, Diane. And nice to hear from you, also.

      At some point I may write up a detailed review of the Yale volume, the pro’s and con’s, as I see it. And yes, the problems really only apply to the editorials, and they are, for the most part, still valuable and interesting. But for the lay person, picking up this book and subject for the first time, they would not be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, and come away with many false impressions.

      So, in short, I think we agree here.

      • D.N. O'Donovan Says:

        I’d certainly agree that you and I are among the growing number troubled by realising the degree to which ‘histories’ created for this manuscript have relied on fictional/theoretical narratives relying over-much on assertion and inference and too little on explaining evidence. It has been the habit since 1921 and – basically – I blame Wilfrid. 🙂

  2. D.N. O'Donovan Says:

    Rich – could you clarify… just whose catalogue is quoted as dating from 1903? The usual impression we’re given is that in 1903, the ms was still in Fr.Beckx’ trunk where it had lain undisturbed (with Beckx’ labels lying there too) since B’s return from Fiesole, decades before. In any case, I don’t see how it could be listed in one of Wilfrid’s catalogues in 1903, without doing violence to the ‘1912-first-appearance’ thing. And even if it were his, it wouldn’t be dated 15thC but 13thC by reason of Wilfrid’s ‘Bacon’ story. Is it supposed to be de Ricci’s catalogue: if so, in what library is it said to have been? Or is the catalogue one of those produced by booksellers for auctions.. *shakes head*

    • proto57 Says:

      VERY good point about the Beckxx issue… I had not thought of that. But whether or not this affects your observation, it was not a Voynich catalog.

      As for which catalog is being cited by Mr. Zandbergen, I go back to his site to find his description, “The catalogue is preserved as Arch.Bibl.109 in the Vatican archives. This manuscript was mentioned by Ruysschaert in the introduction to his catalogue. It is also briefly described in Kristeller (1998)”

      You can go to the site to read more details:

      http://www.voynich.nu/extra/coll_rom_mss.html#vat109

  3. D.N. O'Donovan Says:

    Ps – If it were an auction catalogue, some indication of the owner or at least of the auction house should be given. Even if it were the Jesuit’s own list of mss for sale, ‘fifteenth-century manuscript on parchment or vellum’ is hardly distinctive or rare. I’ve often wished I could ask the Yale publisher what external reviewers (i.e. non-Voynich specialists) the editors had do the peer-review.

  4. JP Floyd Says:

    “But that is another story, for another time…” I can’t help thinking that you might be interested in my recently-published book about the Vinland Map, which lifts the veil of obscurity in more than one respect: https://www.finebooksmagazine.com/fine_books_blog/2018/12/the-vinland-map-saga-an-interview-with-author-john-paul-floyd.phtml

    • proto57 Says:

      Well I’ll be damned. Mr. Floyd… do you know that not ten minutes before I sat down to respond to the comments here, that I was reading your book? I woke up, got my coffee, fed the cats, and spent a good 2 hours reading through the 300’s (page-wise).

      I have the Kindle version (converted to ePub, as I have a Nook), and have been intending to write an in-depth, and positive, review of your book for the Amazon site. I hope to finish your book and get to doing that within the next few days.

      I’ve even thought it would be wonderful to have a chance for a discussion with you. Are you in the north east USA? The Vinland Map is another of my great interests, which you and your wonderful, in depth book has rekindled… and I would love to share some thoughts with you at some point.

      In any case, thank you for an extraordinary resource, in your work. It was sorely needed.

      All the best… Rich.

      • JP Floyd Says:

        Well, that’s certainly a coincidence and a half! How strange, and many thanks for the kind comments. I really appreciate your intention to write a review, Rich – the book could do with a few of those to stop it slowly slipping down the sales rankings. I only wish I could reduce the paperback price to something more sensible, but I’m constrained by Amazon’s printing costs.

        I think this is the first time i’ve commented here, but it isn’t by any means the first time i’ve visited your site. I’ve always considered your theory to be highly credible, although I can’t claim to be as familiar with the Voynich Manuscript as i am with the Vinland Map.

        Your thoughts and insights on the map would be of great value to me. The only thing is, I’m on the other side of the Atlantic! Feel free to drop me an email at any time, though.

        Best regards,

        John Paul

      • proto57 Says:

        Well then I will definitely be staying in touch (although I doubt I can be of much value with your VM work… you seem to have crossed all “T’s” and dotted all “I’s”). And also, I do intend on purchasing a hard copy of your book in the near future.

        I’ll “talk” to you soon.. all the best, Rich.

      • proto57 Says:

        … I’ve added my review to the Amazon listing for “A Sorry Saga…”: https://www.amazon.com/Sorry-Saga-Forgery-Scholarship-Vinland-ebook/dp/B07G8XQSYV

        Hopefully it is appropriate, and I have not missed anything important, without giving anything away.

        I just finished it yesterday, and found the whole thing very inspiring. I doubt my own work will rise to the quality level of writing, detail and precision yours has, but still it gives me encouragement to finish my book on the Voynich. It is important to have all the fact out there, so people have the tools to make up their own minds (you accomplished that very well)…. and I shouldn’t delay.

        Best of luck with the book!

      • JP Floyd Says:

        Rich,

        I’ve just read your review and I am overwhelmed. I can’t even begin to thank you – I’m truly lost for words. If it has encouraged you to finish your Voynich book, then that alone would make it all worthwhile.

        JP

      • proto57 Says:

        Well I think the review is certainly deserved. Not only for bringing together the whole story of the controversy in your book, but for outlining what is to me the definitive proof of the Map’s forgery. It is an inarguable proof, and I’ve been surprised it has not gotten, and seems to still not be getting, more attention. I mean, that’s kind of important, knowing that this problem is solved! It’s been a long time coming.

        But I think that over time, and hopefully sooner than later, your work will get the attention it deserves.

        I’ll drop you a note soon, if you don’t mind, with some things I wanted to discuss with you. You probably can suspect, to some extent, what they relate to… but perhaps not. Anyway, until then, all the best…

        Rich.

      • JP Floyd Says:

        Rich – your review is so extraordinarily generous, it’s simply amazing. I’m sure it will give the book the boost it needs (as long as people don’t get to thinking I wrote it myself!).

        I never expected the book to be a best-seller, to be honest. I suppose I ought to promote it more actively, but for the moment I’m just glad it’s finally finished and out there for people to read. I know the map comes up for discussion in college courses from time to time, so hopefully the word will gradually spread..

        It’ll be great to hear from you – I’m certainly looking forward to getting your note!

  5. D.N. O'Donovan Says:

    Thanks Rich – I followed the link but still found the line of thought a bit foggy, with the source of the clip left ambivalent (Kristeller? or Ruyschaert?) and the subject of each sentence also unclear in some cases e.g. the sentence that I’ve made into a separate third paragraph in quoting it:

    “The original which, according to Kristeller, should be in the Università Gregoriana has not been found, but Arch.Bibl.109 is a photographic copy of it.

    Its title page says: “Catalogo di codici e stampe acquistate dalla Biblioteca vaticana nel 1903” or: ‘catalogue of manuscripts and prints acquired by the Vatican Library in 1903.’

    This is the same text as in the above description by Kristeller, except that he had the year (incorrectly) as 1913 instead of 1903.
    _____________

    … Rich perhaps you can make sense of this, but I confess I can’t. What are are we supposed to take from: ‘this is the same text…(but) with a different year’…

    Surely, if he Gregorian University/Library or anyone else keeps a list of acquisitions, year by year, the title is likely to remain constant except for the changing year?

    Or – do you think, maybe, it’s supposed to mean that if the 1903 catalogue hadn’t been lost, there would be some precise correspondence between its *contents* and that in the existing 1913 catalogue?

    But surely that’s no argument, since Zandbergen himself gives us no reason or evidence that might lead us to accept that he knows anything about the 1903 catalogue save that one sentence and he admits there is no such catalogue known know. I’d assume it had been lost or destroyed but Zandbergen’s mind is more ingenious.

    First he mentions ‘1903’ then later says the ‘1903’ should actually be read as ‘1913’ – an obvious impossibility since by 1913 Wilfrid already had it.

    Sorry, a line of glass beads is one thing, but of bubbles another.

    • proto57 Says:

      I share your confusion, and had many of the same thoughts on this. You can see I admit some confusion over the claimed supporting evidence for the reference, in my post. But I am, as you, unclear on many of the details, as outlined on the webpage. This only undermines still further the attempt to use this reference as any sort of provenance for the Voynich Manuscript, and even further, condemns its use in the Yale publication, when stated as cold, hard, fact.

  6. D.N. O'Donovan Says:

    Rich I left a comment relaying Rene’s clarification of the ‘1903’ catalogue (actually a list) but it hasn’t appeared (yet?). If it is in cue, please delete this comment. Otherwise, if you or your readers visit voynich.ninja, they’ll find it there. Cheers.

    • proto57 Says:

      Sorry I have not seen it “in the hopper”… but any comments from you skip the approval process, and should (and usually do) simply appear to everyone, as soon as you post them on my blog.

      That being said, I would be interested to hear what he says about this.. whether he can amend the webpage from opinion to factual, or would like to change the Yale book essay from factual back to opinion… if there is another option, I can’t think of it at the moment. but I’ll go look… thanks for the tip.

    • proto57 Says:

      I went to the Ninja forum, and found Rene’s comment, and rebutted it myself. I see nothing in Rene’s comment to explain his morphing the opinion, based on the most barest of “evidence”, into the fact in his Yale book essay. Perhaps he will at some point, if possible. Here is a link to the Ninja thread:

      https://www.voynich.ninja/thread-2618.html

  7. Military cryptanalysts: Friedman and his questions – Voynich Revisionist Says:

    […] Santacoloma, ‘Birth of a New Mythology‘ (Jan. 3rd., […]

  8. D.N. O'Donovan Says:

    Rich I don’t know why the title of a post has appeared as if it were my name.. Is it a glitch… or maybe the way ping-backs look in your format?

    • proto57 Says:

      Hi Diane: I am not sure what you are seeing that would explain this:
      “… the title of a post has appeared as if it were my name…”

      You mean a “pingback” on your site? Or something you are seeing when you visit mine? I’m sorry, I can’t find anything that fits this description, so I don’t know what this is about. There are no posts nor comments on this end that relate to you name, that I can see, and certainly any that I have so written or designed. The most I’ve ever done relating to you and my blog is to “approve” the comments you add.

      So yes, I would guess maybe it has to do with the way you received notice of a “pingback”, but probably only if you linked me somehow or like that.

      Send me a screenshot if you like, and perhaps that would help figure it out. But so you know, I don’t have anything linked to you.

  9. D.N. O'Donovan Says:

    Rich, the comment (just above that one of mine you’re replying to) – has

    ‘Military cryptanalysts: Friedman and his questions – Voynich Revisionist’ says …

    But that’s the title of a post I’ve published – I mean ‘Military crypanalysts… questions’

    So I wondered if that’s how ping-backs look in your chosen ‘theme’.

    • proto57 Says:

      I see what you mean then. Yes, the comments section of this (and many) blogs lists all the external references that others made to the original post, such as yours. I suppose they do that so that we all can discuss things, which only helps their “bottom line” by keeping users interconnected.

      But I don’t think anyone would confuse our work, as it is common to see this… if that was your concern. When I saw the comment you are referring to, I knew it was simply that “Voynich Revisionist” had linked me… but I admit I didn’t know it was you! I know a couple of your blog titles, but don’t think I was aware that was you.

      Good blog, BTW.

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