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New attempt to decipher the Voynich manuscript.
February 4, 2014 8:41 AM   Subscribe

A new attempt to decipher the Voynich manuscript has been made - this time from a botanical perspective. The Voynich manuscript, is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The book has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438), and may have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who purchased it in 1912.[Wiki].

Previously on Metafilter [1,2,3].

Previous mathematical analysis has cast doubt that the manuscript is written in a natural language and suggested that the manuscript may be a hoax and may contain just gibberish. But recent papers suggest that there may be indeed an underlying message [4,5,6]
posted by yoyo_nyc (89 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
Old coded codex or the first instance of time traveller trolling, a horrific new meme coming to soon to a statue of Dear Leader Zuul near you?
posted by Slackermagee at 8:49 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


I can't quite figure out what the authors mean by "transliterate." They seem to be simply asserting that the word in the Voynich MS must be the plant name they've come up with, but I can't see on what basis. Absent a decoding of the language, how do we know what word is being "transliterated" here?
posted by yoink at 8:55 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


From the conclusion: "Loan-words for the plant and animal names have been identified from Classical Nahuatl, Spanish, Taino, and Mixtec. The main text, however, seems to be in an extinct dialect of Nahuatl from central Mexico, possibly Morelos or Puebla."

It's going to be super weird if the text that people thought was "gibberish" actually turns out to be an extinct language. Thanks for the link.
posted by jessamyn at 8:56 AM on February 4 [25 favorites]


Interesting way of looking at it from a different angle (identify the plants, then identify where the plants grow, then look for local languages that may have been used).

I wanted to snark on source (hurf durf "reliable herbal medicine"), but for this, the authors did put a lot of work into trying to figure it out via a novel way to look at the book, be they on the right track or way out of left field remains to be seen.
posted by k5.user at 9:06 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


I'm trying to understand how a manuscript composed pre-1492 could possibly include a dialect of Nahuatl.

Or do they mean the physical book itself was created in the early 15th and it's a palimpsest?

I believe that is the first time I have ever actually gotten to use that word. Item 18483 on the bucket list crossed off.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:08 AM on February 4 [26 favorites]


It's just the parchment the book is written on that's been dated to the 15th century; the writing could have been done any time after that by someone with access to 15th-century parchment.
posted by gubo at 9:11 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


yoink - it's easier to tell from the PDF version where they reproduced Voynich characters in line with the text, but in the section "Sources of Calligraphy in the Voynich ms." they compare the character being used for the sound "tl" to one in another Mexican document, the Codex Osuna and they seem to have been able to work out some of the text by comparing that against the known Nahuatl names for some of the plants.
posted by capricorn at 9:13 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


...the writing could have been done any time after that by someone with access to 15th-century parchment.

The McCrone report indicated that the ink and paper were most likely contemporaneous.
posted by griphus at 9:15 AM on February 4


Also, apropos of nothing but I've actually seen the Voynich Manuscript. Anyone who is in New Haven can go to the Beinecke and have them bring it out and show it to you. You don't have to be a scholar or anything, just curious.
posted by jessamyn at 9:15 AM on February 4 [49 favorites]


Of course, the drawings of the plants could have been copied from other sources.
posted by dhruva at 9:16 AM on February 4


Never mind, totally misread that, the ink and paint were contemporaneous. I could've sworn I read somewhere that the McCrone report indicated that the ink and parchment were most likely to have been made around the same time.
posted by griphus at 9:18 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


I believe that is the first time I have ever actually gotten to use that word. Item 18483 on the bucket list crossed off.

I got to complain that people were reusing our webpage markup system over and over and creating an unreadable palimpsest and I felt like the fucking king of vocabulary

posted by COBRA! at 9:22 AM on February 4 [16 favorites]


"The Aztec elite were highly educated and hygienic."

I think the guy plagiarized my daughter's fifth grade term paper.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:30 AM on February 4 [12 favorites]


I assume by now we're all familiar with the relevant XKCD?
posted by Naberius at 9:31 AM on February 4 [4 favorites]


I file this under "fun but extremely dubious."
posted by languagehat at 9:31 AM on February 4 [7 favorites]


it's easier to tell from the PDF version where they reproduced Voynich characters in line with the text,

Thanks, capricorn--that does, indeed, make all the difference.
posted by yoink at 9:32 AM on February 4


Wow. Definitely read the PDF version of the article (linked at the top of the web page version).
posted by aught at 9:34 AM on February 4


I file this under "fun but extremely dubious."

One of the two main categories of Voynich theories. The other being "tragic", e.g. Newbold's anagramming microletters.
posted by frimble at 9:35 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


It's very frustrating that, even in the PDF version, there is no table listing the individual Voynich glyphs and what sounds the authors think they might correspond to. Or am I just not seeing a link somewhere?
posted by gubo at 9:43 AM on February 4


The Voynich manuscript is authentic. It is we who are not.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:46 AM on February 4 [10 favorites]


Here's an image from the Codex Osuna, the work referenced as a possible analog to the Voynich.

Reading this reminds me again of the tragedy the Christian savages wrecked on the culture of the New World, systematically destroying all Mayan written works.
We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.
May Bishop Diego de Landa rot in his ignorant hell.
posted by Nelson at 10:00 AM on February 4 [30 favorites]


Some criticism of this new Mexican origin theory.
posted by beagle at 10:00 AM on February 4 [7 favorites]


Gordon Rugg of Keele University in the UK remains sceptical. He thinks a careful forger could have made up plausible-looking plants.
"It's pretty good odds that you'll find plants in the world that happen to look like the Voynich manuscript just by chance," he says. "If I sat down with a random plant generator software and got it to generate 50 completely fictitious plants, I'm pretty sure I could find 20 real plants that happen to look like 20 of the made up plants."
The counter is that one of the Voynich plants it looks similar to Viola bicolor, the American field pansy, which only grows in North America, which was not known until after the Voynich was discovered. It's a weak counter, as the European relative, Viola tricolor, appears quite similar, except for the color variations (and bicolor may be a variant of Viola kitaibeliana, a British native).

So voilà, paint a slightly different Viola, and you have seen into far distant lands/times.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:08 AM on February 4 [4 favorites]


you fools! Yon't you realize the manuscript is actually a- *falls to ground dead with a blow dart to the neck*
posted by The Whelk at 10:10 AM on February 4 [21 favorites]


I'm trying to understand how a manuscript composed pre-1492 could possibly include a dialect of Nahuatl.

It's a side effect of a common error that occurs when git is used improperly to merge parallel timelines.
posted by XMLicious at 10:11 AM on February 4 [22 favorites]


It would be instantly understandable if they simply would fold the pages together.
posted by Atreides at 10:15 AM on February 4 [23 favorites]


That would be the Aragones theory?
posted by kyrademon at 10:24 AM on February 4 [20 favorites]


Some criticism of this new Mexican origin theory.

Ouch.
posted by yoink at 10:35 AM on February 4


The Jaffee theory.

According to the Aragones theory, the entire manuscript makes sense if you tilt it sharply away from you so that your view is nearly parallel to the page.
posted by Wolfdog at 10:55 AM on February 4 [12 favorites]


The forgery section of the New Scientist article linked above is so confusing! Apparently Rugg is one of the scholars who believes that the manuscript is a forgery, and the last section is his defense of that theory in light of this new conjecture.

At least, I think that's what it is...it's so bizarre that the article takes this detour while making no connection between the two parts.
posted by Ian A.T. at 10:59 AM on February 4


The McCrone report indicated that the ink and paper were most likely contemporaneous.

I think it says that the ink and paint are contemporaneous. One of the citations in the wikipedia article says they were unable to date the ink.
posted by Hoopo at 11:10 AM on February 4


frimble: "I file this under "fun but extremely dubious."

One of the two main categories of Voynich theories
pretty much all attempts to solve ancient mysteries."

Which is their appeal. Lovin' the journey!
posted by IAmBroom at 11:11 AM on February 4


Some criticism of this new Mexican origin theory.

I find the criticism relatively weak. The source of the criticism is Nick Pelling, a computer game inventor with a self-published book on the Voynich manuscript, which he includes as a "recommended book" on his own website. If you follow the link to the website hawking Pelling's self-published book, he includes a review blurb from Fortean Times, which has about as much academic credibility as the Weekly World News.

Pelling's criticism generally focuses on the authors' use of a "sixty-dollar term" like "abductive reasoning" (I guess "inductive" would have been less pretentious, but so what?) and his insistence on a 15th century origin for the manuscript (with no citations). Pelling also criticizes the article as "botany-centric," even though the authors identify a previously unidentified mineral and several animals in the manuscript in addition to the dozens of plants they identify. Given a choice between a peer-reviewed article co-written by a Ph.D. ethnobotanist and a "Fortean" with a self-published book, I'm going to go with the peer-reviewed Ph.D.

The authors may not have proven all their case yet, but their hypothesis sounds more plausible than any other alternatives. Their hypothesis is both parsimoniously simple ("It's not in code at all. It's a 16th century Mexican list of some plants written in an extinct dialect of Nahuatl.") and yet explains a wide range of phenomena (i.e., many plants and other items now appear to be identifiable). The best theory by the standards of Occam's Razor is typically what explains the most with the least. If another explanation of the Voynich manuscript survives the test of Occam's Razor with less cuts, then fine. But I don't think a better explanation is going to come along. Or if a better explanation comes along, it'll be based on tweaking this original hypothesis.
posted by jonp72 at 11:12 AM on February 4 [16 favorites]


Oh my gosh, that chart with "Fortran" right below "Yeast DNA" just almost killed me.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:12 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


From beagle's link:

What they didn’t consider: the demonstrably 15th century vellum in play (radiocarbon dating), 15th century digit shapes (in the quiration), 15th century number forms (in the quiration), 15th century contractions (on the zodiac roundel hand) and 15th century parallel hatching (in several drawings). So, that’s evidence from the domains of codicology, palaeography, and Art History immediately consigned to their great big wastepaper basket of Not Examined Here Stuff.

Ouch.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:17 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


The "hoax" theorists are in the most warm and comfortable camp, as they're basically saying "I don't actually have to prove a negative, everybody else has to disprove it." And then in response to any evidence, correlation or fact, just respond "anybody could fake that! Look, here's me faking that right now with just this here pencil and paper!"
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:17 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


I'm with jonp72 - that critique seems pretty empty to me. 90% of it seemed to be:

a) a mischaracterization of the Tucker/Talbert paper (no, they did not base their entire theory on one plant)

b) a mischaracterization of how Tucker and Talbert define "abductive logic" (since Tucker and Talbert basically start off their paper by saying "we'll take into account as much evidence as possible") and a critique of the fact that they are only familiar with their own field of study, which is mentioned repeatedly in the paper itself

and

c) "someone else already suggested Nahuatl" which is somehow supposed to be an argument against the hypothesis?

What they didn’t consider: the demonstrably 15th century vellum in play (radiocarbon dating), 15th century digit shapes (in the quiration), 15th century number forms (in the quiration), 15th century contractions (on the zodiac roundel hand) and 15th century parallel hatching (in several drawings).

A critique that went into detail about these items, compared contemporary manuscripts from the Old World and New World and showed fairly definitively that these items would not be present in a 16th century manuscript would be of much more interest to me.
posted by capricorn at 11:19 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


Re: the 15th-century claims. I found his citations on another page. Haven't examined them, but there they are if someone wants to cross-check him.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:21 AM on February 4


And re: the Mexican language theorists.... This declaration of theirs puts them pretty firmly in the "Can't you see it? It's SOOO obvious, man!" camp of deductive reasoning:

"This illustration (fol. 100r) is obviously a cactus pad or fruit"

Um, no; it's not. It might be, but that assumes the artist really sucked at drawing spines. I've never seen rose stems portrayed that... childishly. And it /could/ be a lot of other things: a bulbous plant with buds, an oddly serrated (fictionally stylized) leaf, a plant with sepals or somesuch on it...
posted by IAmBroom at 11:26 AM on February 4


unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, the codicological and palaeographical starting point for study of the VMs should be that it dates to between 1450 and 1500, probably favouring the earlier end of the range: and so the popular claim that it is some kind of late 16th century hoax therefore seems inconsistent with the basic art history

Eh...so we're saying it's not possible someone used parallel hatching and old number forms in the 16th century? Especially if they're intentionally making a hoax?
posted by Hoopo at 11:31 AM on February 4


a mischaracterization of how Tucker and Talbert define "abductive logic" (since Tucker and Talbert basically start off their paper by saying "we'll take into account as much evidence as possible")

But then they point out that there's a pile of evidence they don't bother to consider. I mean if you're going to say "let's look at all the evidence" (which is an absurd claim to make, of course, because that's simply impossible--one's time and attention is limited and there will always be evidence that might be relevant to which one cannot attend) you'd think you'd at least have to find some way to attend to commonly cited evidence pertaining to the dating of the MS.
posted by yoink at 11:38 AM on February 4


Judging by the colors, it would seem to have been created by a time-traveling Henry Darger.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:38 AM on February 4 [4 favorites]


yeah this Nick Pelling guy...

Because of the introduction of new paints and writing materials, there were numerous far easier ways for artists to represent mid-tones directly in their sketches: and so hatching became technically redundant.


Hatching is a stylistic choice people still use today and I'm willing to wager did not disappear with the advent of a new paint or writing material in the 16th century. If it did, it certainly came back in a big way. I'm not sure why this counts as evidence of anything.
posted by Hoopo at 11:40 AM on February 4 [4 favorites]


c) "someone else already suggested Nahuatl" which is somehow supposed to be an argument against the hypothesis?

No, but it also weighs against the "well, we just looked at the plants, ma'am and they lead us--much to our surprise and amazement--to Mexico" claim that the authors advance. If Nahuatl had already been in the mix and if the authors knew that (but chose not to reveal it) that tells us that they didn't necessarily look dispassionately and objectively at those plants but, rather, already had something of a finger on the scale (consciously or not) sending them looking for Sth American analogues to the plants in the MS.
posted by yoink at 11:42 AM on February 4 [2 favorites]


Um, no; it's not. It might be, but that assumes the artist really sucked at drawing spines.

Yeah, it's on a page showing different kinds of leaf serrations. I think its a just a leaf with an odd pattern of serrations.
posted by yoink at 11:44 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


It looks like the glyph-sound correspondences shown in the paper cover about 90% of the glyphs appearing in running Voynich text. So the next step would be to transcribe a big chunk of Voynich text into their system and see if any Nahuatlists can make anything out of it. If it's really written in a dialect of Nahuatl, surely many words, phrases and sentences will jump out at the reader and confirm the system. Even if the system needs a lot of tweaking, there should be some intelligibility in a text with 90% of the letters transcribed.
posted by gubo at 11:51 AM on February 4 [1 favorite]


Oh c'mon Hoopo, be reasonable. Everything we know about naturalists working in the field in 16C Central America tells us that they'd die before using hatching. All illustrators in the world irrespective of training, experience, availablilty of materials and location on the globe stopped hatching in lockstep at the stroke of midnight 31 Dec 1499, because "new paints and materials". Available at finer shops everywhere on the isthmus.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:53 AM on February 4 [6 favorites]


Eh...so we're saying it's not possible someone used parallel hatching and old number forms in the 16th century? Especially if they're intentionally making a hoax?

So...is it a hoax, or is it a genuine, straightforward herbal that just happens to be written in a dead language?
posted by yoink at 12:05 PM on February 4


> It looks like the glyph-sound correspondences shown in the paper cover about 90% of the glyphs appearing in running Voynich text. So the next step would be to transcribe a big chunk of Voynich text into their system and see if any Nahuatlists can make anything out of it. If it's really written in a dialect of Nahuatl, surely many words, phrases and sentences will jump out at the reader and confirm the system. Even if the system needs a lot of tweaking, there should be some intelligibility in a text with 90% of the letters transcribed.

Exactly, and I will bet CASH MONEY* that that is not going to happen.

*one US penny
posted by languagehat at 12:09 PM on February 4 [8 favorites]


So...is it a hoax, or is it a genuine, straightforward herbal that just happens to be written in a dead language?

what are you asking me for? I'm just a guy on the internet.

Seriously though my issue is that the "art history FACTS" put forward as evidence are questionable at face value. The artist was not exactly a master to begin with and didn't have a lot of materials at his disposal based on the limited colors displayed in the images. That he may have used a technique other artists known to us might have started moving away from proves nothing. Beyond the fact it doesn't help as much with the dating of the book as Pelling seems to think, it also doesn't put clever fakery out of the realm of possibility.
posted by Hoopo at 12:24 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


The counter is that one of the Voynich plants it looks similar to Viola bicolor, the American field pansy, which only grows in North America, which was not known until after the Voynich was discovered. It's a weak counter, as the European relative, Viola tricolor, appears quite similar, except for the color variations (and bicolor may be a variant of Viola kitaibeliana, a British native).

Botanically speaking, they have significant morphological differences. If you don't know what to look for they look similar, but they are not the same plant. The petals of V. bicolor are clearly longer than the sepals, while the petals of V. tricolor are nearly the same length or shorter (scroll down), and hairless. The flower color is distinctly different, with V. tricolor having two darker blue upper petals. The flower of V. tricolor is also larger than V. bicolor. I think the drawing does look more like V. bicolor than V. tricolor because the darker upper petals are highly characteristic of V. tricolor, and not at all of V. bicolor. However, the sepals in the drawing appear to be fairly long, longer than the norm for V. bicolor. Generally, V. bicolor has a fernier overall appearance to the leaves than V. tricolor, which is more in line with the drawing. I'm not sure it's conclusive evidence that the Voynich is of Western Hemisphere origin, but I don't think that's a drawing of Viola tricolor.

As far as originally being from Eurasia, most botanists tend not to think this anymore:

In the past, there has been some controversy regarding whether or not the Field Pansy is native to North America as it shares many characteristics with annual Viola spp. from Eurasia. More recently, there is a growing consensus among botanists that the Field Pansy is sufficiently distinct to be considered a native species of North America. The Field Pansy is rather similar to the introduced Viola tricolor (Johnny Jump-Up). However, this latter species has larger tricolored flowers about ½–1" across and the terminal lobes of its stipules tend to have more teeth.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:29 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]


I don't think the hoax story is logical. If it's a hoax, what is it a hoax *of*? The Aztec story makes a lot more sense to me.
posted by empath at 12:48 PM on February 4


Beyond the fact it doesn't help as much with the dating of the book as Pelling seems to think

Not that Pelling thinks it's all that determinative:
Furthermore, given that parallel hatching died out not long after the end of the fifteenth century, it seems probable (if not quite as certain) that the Voynich Manuscript originated during the same 1440-1510 period that saw the hatching flourish, with a more likely date range (from the lack of cross-hatching or zigzag hatching) being 1450-1480.
He mostly thinks that the hatching gives us a likely "no older than" date (i.e., he thinks it improbable that the VM contains the oldest known example of hatched shading. You'll note, too, that it's not actually hatching per se which he thinks somehow disappeared after 1480, it's the sole reliance on parallel hatching without any cross or zigzag hatching thrown in. I agree he writes a little sloppily at times which muddles his argument, but if you read the whole piece he's not, in fact, saying anything that takes him beyond the available evidence. The hatching is just one of the things he considers points to a C15th origin for the MS, but he's not, by any means, saying that by itself it is conclusive proof of that dating.
posted by yoink at 12:49 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


This is really mysterious, I too am curious about the many holes in this story. But also why are all the maya codexes in europe? Don't the living Mayans want them? If this text is part of aztec history I'm not sure it belongs in Italy. Maybe the people with actual links to the linguistic history could better help decoding it if that proposal is true.
posted by xarnop at 1:07 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


From a studio art perspective, I find it wholly plausible that someone with very little formal training was trying to grossly copy some other artist's renderings, which seems to be part of this guy's premise. The drawing, while aesthetically pleasing, is not very accurate or skilled (someone upthread mentioned Darger -- I totally get that vibe of beautifully-naive copying, don't you?).
posted by Mooseli at 1:31 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


I don't think the hoax story is logical. If it's a hoax, what is it a hoax *of*?

It didn't have to be a hoax of any specific, named document; if it was a hoax, it was likely created and initially sold -- apparently to no less than Rudolf II! -- as a rare scientific volume from a foreign land. Nobles bought such stuff even if they couldn't read it themselves, partly as a show of wealth and partly out of a sense that they might generate and guard some sort of cultural legacy.

Considering that it was allegedly bought for 600 gold ducats, it would've been a rather profitable hoax. Remember, authentication and book cataloguing weren't exactly advanced specializations at the dawn of European printing; the possibility of a heretofore unknown book turning up, especially one that appeared to come from Somewhere Else, wouldn't have required any particular, known "original" in Europe to be a potentially valuable thing.
posted by kewb at 1:31 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]


He mostly thinks that the hatching gives us a likely "no older than" date

The earliest, "no older than" date would have been established by carbon dating, no? He certainly sounds like he is trying to make the case it could not have been written/drawn later than 1510:

"Yet beyond about 1500-1510, this whole artistic vogue for parallel hatching - right at the zenith of which Leonardo had been born – faded completely away...

....it seems probable (if not quite as certain) that the Voynich Manuscript originated during the same 1440-1510 period that saw the hatching flourish, with a more likely date range (from the lack of cross-hatching or zigzag hatching) being 1450-1480."

You'll note, too, that it's not actually hatching per se which he thinks somehow disappeared after 1480, it's the sole reliance on parallel hatching without any cross or zigzag hatching thrown in"

His evidence is crap, though. The examples of "parallel hatching" in the Voynich manuscript may not even be attempts at creating shade or depth, but rather suggestive of of filaments or longitudinal features of whatever he is trying to represent. The lines are spaced far apart and they're thick, in somewhat crude drawings. I guess I'm left wondering...why do we expect trends noted in Venice in 1510 in famous, outstanding works executed by celebrated artists to be present in this manuscript? Why would this artist attempt cross-hatching in the examples he pulls out when cross hatching would result in a dark mess?
posted by Hoopo at 1:47 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


Like many VM hypotheses, this one too is not new; see the title of this 2001 self-published book.

This summary (PDF) of "what we know" is interesting for its technical points.
posted by Twang at 1:50 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


> a review blurb from Fortean Times, which has about as much academic credibility as the Weekly World News.

Clearly, this is not a magazine you've ever read. While they print a lot of things about the paranormal, they are relentless with their use of footnoting and references, and extremely careful about their scholarship. Many things about the paranormal are only "personal report" - this comes with the field, but that doesn't mean that you must automatically think of a magazine that prints articles about these reports as without credibility, as long as they are careful to show all their sources.

There are numerous articles I've read in that magazine that I were convinced were bogus - BECAUSE there was enough information there to allow me to rationally make that decision.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:51 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


Hoopo, I really can't understand how you can say this:
He certainly sounds like he is trying to make the case it could not have been written/drawn later than 1510
immediately prior to quoting this:
it seems probable (if not quite as certain) that the Voynich Manuscript originated during the same 1440-1510 period that saw the hatching flourish, with a more likely date range (from the lack of cross-hatching or zigzag hatching) being 1450-1480
I agree with you, by the way, that the "hatchings" he's finding don't look much like shading, on the whole. But it's simply demonstrably untrue that he's making a claim that the hatchings prove that the work could not have been made later than any given date. He says, simply, that he thinks it "probable" but not "certain."
posted by yoink at 1:51 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


Hoopo, I really can't understand how you can say this:

because he throws the word "probable" in there you don't think this is an idea he is putting forward?
posted by Hoopo at 1:55 PM on February 4


The hatching thing makes me think immediately of Ghostbusters:
Dr Ray Stantz: Symmetrical book stacking. Just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947.
Dr. Peter Venkman: You're right, no human being would stack books like this.
xarnop writes: But also why are all the maya codexes in europe?

You mean the remaining three codices? Being sent to Europe may be the only thing that saved them from being burned. See Nelson's blood-boiling observation above.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:56 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


because he throws the word "probable" in there you don't think this is an idea he is putting forward?

I think the word "probable" doesn't mean "certain," yes. I don't think that's a very controversial opinion. I can give you some cites from a number of different dictionaries if that would help.
posted by yoink at 2:12 PM on February 4


Well yes, BY europeans. I mean, isn't that threat over now?
posted by xarnop at 2:17 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


Sorry I think that might be a derail, I just find it puzzling returning them hasn't been considered-- or that there are no Aztec scholars interested in weighing in.
posted by xarnop at 2:25 PM on February 4


I think the word "probable" doesn't mean "certain," yes. I don't think that's a very controversial opinion. I can give you some cites from a number of different dictionaries if that would help.

OK, he's brought it up in the context of the Mexico theory being unlikely. Because the hatching (among other things) dates from before Europeans had been in Mexico. It's clearly his intention to place a "latest date", not an "earliest date". And no one said anything about "certain".
posted by Hoopo at 2:30 PM on February 4


Thanks for so many comments about my observations about parallel hatching, I wondered why my ears were burning all day today. :-)

Firstly: "pure" parallel hatching had a very narrow window of usage, simply because cross-hatching was more expressive, versatile and useful. While parallel hatching began to appear around 1440 in Florence (a little earlier in Germany, a little later in Venice and elsewhere), cross-hatching began to take over somewhere between 1465 and 1489. By about 1500, parallel hatching had (literally) fallen out of the picture. Even Leonardo stopped using parallel hatching.

Anyway, here's my 2012 page on parallel hatching.

But an art historian would also point to the roughness and unsubtlety of the parallel hatching in the Voynich Manuscript, and would likely say (with good justification) that this would probably indicate that it falls into the earlier part of the date range. Hence a reasonable inference - simply from this piece of evidence alone - would be that though parallel hatching was in use from (say) 1440 to 1500 (and that latter date only at a stretch), the Voynich Manuscript's parallel hatching seems to be from the earlier part of the date range, say 1440-1460.

And that's just one piece of evidence in isolation: I've done the same for all sorts of other completely independent pieces of Voynich evidence, many of which have been mentioned in comments above. Combine these with a radiocarbon dating of the first half of the 15th century and with a manuscript whose bright clean writing surface shows no sign whatsoever of being a palimpsest at all (sorry, guys, but it doesn't), and you've got a rounded set of evidence that says "mid-15th century" in a wide variety of ways, all at the same time.

Of course, all of this is thoroughly inconvenient for 16th century Voynich theories (and 16th century Voynich theorists), which is why such people are now trying all kinds of ad hominem attacks on me. (It's no surprise that my minimal Wikipedia page has been nominated for deletion in the last few days).

Look, I'm just a cryptography historian patiently cutting away the vines from these wonderful old mysteries, and people are now hating on me because I posted about 15th century hatching techniques? Ridiculous.

As far as the Voynich Manuscript goes in general, there remains plenty of room for a lot of opinions, and I'm ok that people have such a variety of opinions. But... at some point, you have to look at what basic details (such as the handwriting, the hatching, etc) actually mean in terms of dating - and sticking your fingers in your ears and going la-la-la (as the two authors of the Aztec paper seem to do) just isn't good enough.
posted by nickpelling at 2:31 PM on February 4 [16 favorites]


OK, he's brought it up in the context of the Mexico theory being unlikely. Because the hatching (among other things) date from before Europeans had been in Mexico. It's clearly his intention to place a "latest date", not an "earliest date". And no one said anything about "certain".

It could only place a "latest possible date" if it was "certain" that linear hatching would not be used post-1510. He does not say it is "certain"; he says it is "probable" but "not...certain" that the linear hatching in this work dates it to before 1510. Therefore he thinks it possible, if not probable, that the work could date from after, 1510. I.e., he does not think that the parallel hatching disproves the thesis in the FPP. He thinks it is one of a number of elements tending to show that the Voynich MS dates from the C15th which the authors of the linked piece fail to adequately consider.

On Pelling's own blog when he announced this latest contribution to his Voynich MS research, he described it purely as setting an "earliest" date for the MS:
It’s been a good while coming, but here it (finally) is: my page arguing for an earliest date for the VMs of 1440 (if Florence) or 1450 (if not).
posted by yoink at 2:37 PM on February 4


Hey, Nick, welcome. MetaFilter is collectively good at hating on things but a lot of it's just kind of large group behavior. Individuals exhibit signs of thoughtful behaviors here sometimes even upwards of a few times per day. Thanks for adding to the discussion.
posted by Wolfdog at 2:40 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]


I'll go out on a limb and propose that the manuscript (on expensive vellum) is actually a copy (the only) of a very very ancient manuscript, about which the 15th-century wizards had many, many violent eruptions of ideation and literally tore one another to figurative shreds over.

That ancient manuscript was, similarly, a copy ...
posted by Twang at 3:31 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]


All joking aside, the pristine surface of the manuscript, without erasures or strikeouts, does argue in favor of it being a copy of an original.
posted by SPrintF at 4:20 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


Hello Mr Pelling

Sorry if my doubt of your "hatching" argument is taken as ad hominem. I don't think the examples you've picked out of the Voynich Manuscript appear to be attempts or examples of what you're calling "parallel hatching" at all, and in more than one case looks less like an attempt at shading than actually directly representing a feature of the object depicted--indentations, filaments, contours, etc. Also, linear hatching using parallel lines that don't cross is still a thing people do, so I'm not sure you could really use it to date something. This does not appear to be an artist with elite-level skill and technique, here, in any event, and to expect they would be at the forefront of contemporary shading techniques in Italy is quite possibly off the mark.

For the record, I am not a 16th Century Voynich theorist, or any kind of Voynich theorist at all for that matter. I simply found this particular piece of evidence very unconvincing and not really correct, and singled it out. That's all there is to it. But then I got in an internet fight.

yoink:

On Pelling's own blog when he announced this latest contribution to his Voynich MS research, he described it purely as setting an "earliest" date for the MS

And here he is behind you using hatching to support an argument on how it is unlikely to be from the 16th century. No, he doesn't say "certain." Just finished acknowledging that in the comment you replied to. What I was pointing out was that it is being used not to set the earliest date it could have been made, but that it is probably not something that was made in/inspired by Mexico (16th C). That's all. Some of the other evidence? Much more convincing to me! Like the really outdated numerals! The "hatching" argument as evidence to rule out a 16th century origin? Not very good!
posted by Hoopo at 4:40 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


The "hatching" argument as evidence to rule out a 16th century origin?

And, as I have extensively documented, nobody--certainly not Mr Pelling--claims that it "rules out" a 16th century origin. Thus you are arguing against a straw man.
posted by yoink at 4:44 PM on February 4


Oh FFS. Replace "rule out" with "to support and argument against". That is very pedantic
posted by Hoopo at 4:50 PM on February 4


Oh FFS. Replace "rule out" with "to support and argument against". That is very pedantic

You haven't actually read one of my previous comments, right? The difference between "rule out" and "argue against" is the whole point of dispute. The only point I've been trying to get you to understand from the start is that Pelling does not regard the hatching thing as dispositive. The only claim he advances is that it is among a number of factors that point to a C15th origin for the text. So when you say "rule out" a C16th origin you are mis-stating his argument. When you say "argue against" a C16th origin, you are fairly summarizing his argument. But when you accept that that is what he is saying, you also have to realize that your comments about how its possible some C16th artist was using parallel hatching or that the drawings aren't actually using hatching at all are not particularly telling points against Pelling's argument, which does not lean very heavily on the "hatchings" as setting any kind of firm "no later than" boundary.
posted by yoink at 5:04 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


The only point I've been trying to get you to understand from the start is that Pelling does not regard the hatching thing as dispositive.

And the fact I've agreed with this and acknowledged it repeatedly?
posted by Hoopo at 5:45 PM on February 4


yoink, Hoopo, once one of you has eliminated the other from the thread, you promise to give us the final definitive decryption, right? I'm mean, it's in Azeri, rght?
posted by nangar at 6:28 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]


It's a phonetic representation of a passage in Kandarian. You do NOT want to read it out loud.
posted by Hoopo at 7:46 PM on February 4


Neat.
posted by homunculus at 11:41 PM on February 4


Anyone who is in New Haven can go to the Beinecke and have them bring it out and show it to you. You don't have to be a scholar or anything, just curious.

That's refreshingly civilized.
posted by homunculus at 1:05 AM on February 5


I'll go out on a limb and propose that the manuscript (on expensive vellum) is actually a copy (the only) of a very very ancient manuscript, about which the 15th-century wizards had many, many violent eruptions of ideation and literally tore one another to figurative shreds over.

That ancient manuscript was, similarly, a copy ...


Wow, okay there's a potentially decent novel in this, a Marquez-Calvino-Dan Brown (sorry I mean Eco) type deal where each section jumps a century or so back in time to explore then-contemporary debate over the nature of the document. Spoiler: the earliest-set chapter reveals how the text prophesies each phase of the debate as well as the time and manner of its own eventual destruction.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 1:20 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


Working title: Cloud Codex
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 1:21 AM on February 5 [1 favorite]


So...anyone here speak Nahuatl?
posted by capricorn at 9:18 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


Another purported partial decipherment: 600 year old mystery manuscript decoded by University of Bedfordshire professor.
posted by misteraitch at 2:41 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]


Another story on the Bedfordshire (Stephen Bax) Voynich decipher claim. He's "seeking input".
posted by Twang at 6:21 PM on February 21


An article discussing the recent efforts
posted by dhruva at 1:30 PM on February 24 [1 favorite]


Hoopo: "Hatching is a stylistic choice people still use today and I'm willing to wager did not disappear with the advent of a new paint or writing material in the 16th century. If it did, it certainly came back in a big way. I'm not sure why this counts as evidence of anything."

You are correct: it never went away. That opinion is unsupported by any historical fact.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:04 AM on February 26


nickpelling: "Firstly: "pure" parallel hatching had a very narrow window of usage, "

Now that distinction bears merit: hatching never went away (as you had sloppily insisted), but a particular style certainly could have (and did, I trust, by your scholarship).

EDIT: I've screwed a lot up here: NickPelling's name, the fact that he provided both the original and followup context on hatching, etc.

Sigh, not my day.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:09 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


A new article on the Verge: Decrypting the most mysterious book in the world. After 600 years, the secret language of the Voynich manuscript may finally be understood
posted by homunculus at 3:14 PM on February 28


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