“Komm mir nicht mit Logik: Mit Logik kannst du alles beweisen.” — “Ja, aber nicht jeder.” (Me and a colleague of mine)
Lately, the marginalia of the VM have received more attention again, last but not least due to Dana Scott’s project to give them a thorough examination.*) You remember, the marginalia are the apparently latin letters on several of the VM folios, which, for the better part, are readable, but refuse to yield sense whatsoever. Now, Ye Olde Nick Pelling has presented his own theories to explain the features of the marginalia, which runs as follows, IIUC:
- Once upon a time, the author of the VM wrote down the marginalia in plain text. We may only speculate what he wrote, but, as marginalia are wont to be, it was probably the least cryptic part of the VM.
- Over time, these writings got weathered, and were only poorly legible anymore.
- Some renaissance or baroque whippersnapper came along and decided to emend the marginalia, “restoring” their meaning. Unfortunately, he had no idea what this meaning was, and erred considerably.
This is why we today are left with unreadable strings of gibberish alongside the regular VM text (which are unreadable strings of hopefully meangingful content).
Now, while not wanting to defame Nick’s merits regarding VM research in general I’m under the vague impression that here he has fallen victim to a logical fallacy. One question is, why should the marginalia have degraded so much more strongly than the regular text, which is still in reasonably good condition. (Even the VM letters within the marginalia of f116v are still quite legible.) But this is forgivable. The much more serious question is:
Why don’t the emendations make sense?
If we assume Mr. Whippersnapper restored what he thought was the original text, why is it anchiton oladabas, of all possibilities, rather than “Kilroy was here”, or “The King is a fink”? No matter what the state of the VM was when Monsieur or perhaps Signore Whippersnapper (vielleicht Herr Jungspund) decided to intervene, the current state of the marginalia is good enough for the better part of the letters to be clearly legible, ie if there was an emendation, we should still be able to read and understand it.
I’m afraid, one of the reasons Nick might want to stick to this theory is — knowingly or unknowingly — because it introduces a “meat grinder” in the interpretation, a technique all too common in VM studies. The trick then is to use a process of any kind which will convert some input to output, while introducing “degrees of freedom” in the interpretation.
“Degree of freedom” in this context means the chance to arrive at different outputs starting from the same input. A notorious example would be the use of anagramming, which allows one to arrive at a lot of different possible solutions from the same input (in this case the ciphertext), with no means to distinguish what the correct of these solutions would be. The more degrees of freedom any interpretation or decipherment introduces, the more arbitrary the results become, and the more possible scenarios exist with which the results would fit in.**)
In this case, if we take the marginalia at face value, we’ll be hard pressed to make sense of them. But if we say, “Hey, there’s been some correction, and here a wrong addition, and there …”, voilá, we arrive at legible text. Unfortunately, at pretty much any legible text that suits our fancies…
*) Not to be so easily bested, I decided to launch a similar project myself which I had pondered for some time, but never mustered the energy to do…
**) I feel I have overextended my grasp of English grammar with that sentence. Bear with me, please.