Among the huge amounts of feature in the VM which have stumped its students, there is one which is perhaps of even bigger stumpitude than the average stumpster, and this are the tags or “labels” which the author/illustrator of the VM so copiously added to the book. But perhaps these labels aren’t words as is usually thought.
Welcome to the whacky world of Wilfrid Voynich…
Not long ago, the writer of these lines, “in the mad pride of intellectuality”, underwent the enterprise of setting up this blog.
Shortly thereafter (obviously, else it would be an event of the future) Nick Pelling wrote a very kind review about my blog. He even went as far as calling me “a friend”, regardless of the fact that he still makes me pay for his books.
Anyway, in a side remark he suggested I might delve into a discussion of the Sagittarius’ archer’s crossbow. (Hope I got the apostrophe’s right.) I’m not sure what might qualify me for this topic, except for a certain tendency of rhetorically sniping other people’s ideas. But I recalled having colaborated some time ago in the translation of Jens Sensfelder’s article on this very subject. (Jens’ conclusion was, in a nutshell, that it’s probably a late medieval/early renaissance crossbow with few spectacular features.) So I dug into my digital cellars, came finally up with the scans of a crumpled printout of Jens’ manuscript (the original file long since having been lost), and without much ado posted it in this blog.
Four days later Nick himself announced that he has posted the original article himself in his blog. Power to the man, because back in 2003 he was involved in the translation of the article as well (which I had completely forgotten), so he has every right to do that. (And he even still has the original files, because he’s better organized than I am.) But what escapes me is why he asked me about the article in the first place.
Sometimes I feel the people attracted to the Voynich are as hard to understand as the Voynich itself…
Anyway, in a nutshell, read all about the Crossbow here!
P.S.: I will not call Nick a friend, unless he starts buying my books.
170,000 — perhaps not nearly enough
Give or take a few thousand, the VM consists of about 170,000 glyphs.
This is comparatively much. More than enough to start statistics on it.
On the other hand, it’s not really that much. For really complex statistics, the text will be to short and the results meaningless.
What I mean is: Frequency analysis on a text of several kByte enciphered with a simple substitution will most likely reveal the underlying key. The same analysis on a text of 100 letters probably won’t result in much useful.
What is reasonable (and what is not)
Sometimes in VM research, logic is employed in the place of fact. “It would have been logical for the VM author to do this or that”, or “It wouldn’t make sense…”
Tacitly, these assertions assume —
- The VM author was sane and acted in a completely logical and rational manner
- We have a complete and thorough understanding of what he wanted to achieve with the VM
- We have full insight in his mindset, ie how he planned to achieve what he wanted to achieve
Hm. Now look again at the VM and probe your heart.
The deceptive nature of invented deceptions
It is a bad habit to discard parts of the VM which don’t fit with your theories or ideas as “deceptions” by the author, intended to distract wannabe codebreakers and to throw us off track.
While it actually might be the case, resorting to this stunt is technically simply an excuse for not explaining VM features.
Unless this tool is used with utmost self-restraint (some folks discard all illustrations in the VM because they don’t fit their “translations”), one will start to “explain” away each and everything, and can then arrive at any preconceived or desired conclusion.
Aside of the notorious sunflower, there are precious few plants from the VM’s herbal section which have been identified with any degree of certainty.
Here’s one from the German edition of the Wikipedia:
f56r (top) is associated with Drosera intermedia (bottom):
When browsing the VM, I noticed that f53r also bears a certain resemblance:
But what do I know about plantography…?
Does size matter?
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…
“Words” (don’t come easy to me…)
I’ll admit, I keep using the term word for groups of VM characters out of negligence and laziness. Of course, in all probability VM “words” are not the equivalent to plaintext words.
Who’s your tailor?
Do these two guys share the same tailor?
(Left: Crossbow archer from Sagittarius f73v, right: “Poor man” from Germany, middle of the 15th century, source: Hottenroth: Handbuch der deutschen Tracht. I’ll try to come up with a better scan.)
Note the headdo with the “scarf” protruding, the shape of the sleeves, the length of the frock, and the tight legs.
For a detailled discussion of the crossbow itself, see Jens Sensfelder’s analysis!
Edit: Okay, I’ve found the source, it’s the “Basel Danse Macabre” (Basler Totentanz), second row from the bottom, the leftmost “pair”. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia explains that the Danse Macabre was thoroughly “renovated” several times and adapted to the contemporary fashion each time, before it was essentially demolished in the early nineteenth century. All Hottenroth probably had access to was a copy from the time just before the demolition (which seems to be the picture in the WP), so its value as a source appears questionable. Dang it.
(Not to mention that it’s not a “poor man” but rather a musician.)
The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact. (Thoms Henry Huxley)
Top totty headdo
Are these two babes wearing the same headdo?
(Left: “Nymph” from f71r, right: “Triptych of Jean Braque”, detail, Rogier van der Weyden (attrib.)
The Virgin Mary seems to stem from around 1450, fitting the period assumed for the VM nicely. (Note the ointment jar in her hands, which resembles the VM “jars” as well.)