An experiment in terror.
Every now and then, a decipherment of the VM will be attempted which is based on the disctinction of very small differences between the individual characters. (One notorious example consists of the various accents found over the “ch” letter pairs.) These distinctions expand the VM character set and hence the degrees of freedom in translation attempts.
But where is the reasonable limit for this? How much must be attributed to variations in handwriting, and how much is actually an intended distinction? Follow me to the vaults, and study a little experiment in terror…
First of all, the hard facts: The VM is about 9 inches in height, which makes it a little more than 20 cm for us metric guys. A full page of text in the VM will consists of something around 40 lines, and if we spare some space for the top and bottom margin, we find that the line spacing on average is about 0.5 cm — depsite the impresson the SIDs are giving us, the VM is actually written in a fairly small script!
Now I tried to reproduce the handwriting of the VM with my own handwriting on paper with a half-centimeter grid. I didn’t use a quill, because none was at hand, and I used latin letters rather than the VM characters, because I’m more fluent in them — as fluent as apparently the VM scribe was. And I set down and wrote a piece of text in decent speed, much like obviously was done with the VM.
And here’s the result (it should show up on your monitors in about real size):
As you can immediately tell, the same letters quite often come out in different shapes.
For example, here we have three different examples of “R”:
The middle and the right sample look certainly different, especially with the middle “R” having a loop to the left of the vertical stroke, and the right “R” with the vertical stroke standing nearly “isolated”.
The same holds for the “S”:
Certainly, these must be different characters, with the one having a top horizontal stroke and the other missing it.
It gets even worse when letters begin to run together:
From left to right you’ve got —
- The letters “CH” seperated,
- The letters “CH” running together,
- The sequence “ICH”, and
- The letter “K”.
To us, it’s not too difficult to overcome these ambiguities, because we can reconstruct questionable letter sequences from their context, and, most of all, because we know the character set. With the VM, we’re in a different position.
So, what does this prove?
Not a whole lot, actually. I do have a sloppy handwriting, and I could have been a little more careful to avoid the random alterations. I didn’t even use a quill. And I know fairly well that there were copyists out there in period who could have written in a minuscule and still readable handwriting.
On the other hand, how careful would the VM author have been? After all, he had set out to write quite a bunch of text, and even though he knew his character set, I don’t think he was “fluent” in his writings (in the sense that he would have been able to decipher the contents back on the fly). The whole appearance of the writing doesn’t give the impression of meticuolous crafting. In my opinion, the authoer had to design a script which would forgive “slips of the pen”. This tends to speak against “micrographical” theories which rely on minute distinctions of the handwriting.
Overall, my gut feeling is that we’re well advised to assume a rather small character set at the core of the VM, and not put too fine a point on it. (If you pardon the pun.)