Alain Touwaide and the Voynich manuscript.

As so many other eminent specialists have discovered in their turn, there appears to be no niche within Alain Touwaide’s area of specialisation for the voynich manuscript.*

* a recurring pattern in Voynich studies. The more eminent the specialist, the more likely they are to dismiss theories that the Vms should be assigned to the periods, regions, art and religious traditions with which they are most deeply informed, themselves.

I’ve even written a post on that subject here.

Touwaide’s areas of specialisation include the history of pharmacy and medicines, medicinal plants and herbals, hospitals and medical handbooks of  the Arabic, Byzantine and Latin traditions.

I’ve had to to say ‘it seems’ in the first paragraph because the text for neither of  two lectures delivered by Touwaide at the  Villa Mondragone is available; the first is out of print and for the second I must rely on a blogpost report from one of the attendees, Noemy Biagini.

Many thanks to Joe Francini, by the way, for putting me onto that; he says the same link was provided by Marco Ponzi  to members of a voynich forum, too.

I found the most interesting statement of those which Biagini attributes to Touwaide to be:  “twenty-five scientific studies have been carried out on the manuscript”.  That’s twenty-two more than I could describe in that way.

The three I’d call scientific – conducted by persons formally qualified and experienced in that specific scientific method and its standards are:

  • McCrone’s necessarily limited study of the pigments, and their full  study of the ink in 2008. (The Beinecke website mistakenly describes this as a ‘full chemical analysis’).
  •  the vellum’s radiocarbon dating range (1404-1438), undertaken by Greg Hodgins of the University of Arizona.   Though the UoA released this as a news item in 2011, the results had been known to Voynicheros not later than December 9th, 2009.
  • The ‘materials’ essay in the Yale facsimile edition with the caveat that one has to first go through that essay and blue-pencil all the extraneous and quasi-historical matter which an editorialising hand inserted into the compilation of strictly scientific report(s).

… which leaves at least twenty more unaccounted for…

If we include historical linguistics (as we should) it adds a few more to that number, reducing the number of ‘unknown’ to about seventeen or so.

A speciality in running statistics through a computer is rather more problematically defined as ‘scientific’, given the way statistical analyses are so very vulnerable to error and bias.

And when it comes to the Voynich manuscript, you have still greater risk of bias and error.  People constantly venture beyond their formal competencies.

In fact, any ambitious amateur might choose to describe his or her presentation of  any type of information as a  ‘scientific study’ even if completely ignorant of/ indifferent to  appropriate formal methods and standards. Some are equally indifferent to the whole question of evidence and feel that their task is merely to persuade others of a theory.

A Voynich enthusiast  might even call their theory  ‘scientific’ simply because they like to think of themselves as ‘scientific’ and sat in on biology classes in high school.

Or there may be, in fact,  23 other scientific studies out there.

Because I’ve been reading Alain Touwaide’s work for many years longer than I’ve known the existence of  Beinecke MS 408,  I found that report of his recent talk as depressing as it was occasionally shocking.

My jaw  dropped on reading Biagini’s last paragraph, and I’m hoping very much indeed that what I’ve got is badly distorted by the processes involved a member of the audience’s taking  notes,  then writing-up in one language, subsequently subjected to that auto-translate chosen by my browser and which I cannot persuade it to turn off permanently.

Could Prof. Touwaide really have said:

” …all that precision in the writing but at the same time imprecise drawings, seem to be just a result of a great deal of effort in making the manuscript a credible work.”

What I would hope is that Touwaide actually said something more like this:

“… precise script but an indifference to that interest in literalism and perspective which defines the art of late fifteenth century Europe…”

In the first case the implication is that the perceived disparity implies the manuscript a fake; in the second that it implies that theories which imagine the Voynich text and imagery just curious variations of mainstream  European (or Mediterranean) texts must now be abandoned or seriously re-thought –  despite having been the most popular sort of Voynich theory since an imaginative ‘theory’-fiction of that kind was offered by the amateur historian (but expert bookseller) Wilfrid Voynich, in the first decades of last century.

Indeed, the same message has been implied by every eminent specialist’s opinion since the 1930s.

A caution to fellow scholars in the fields of comparative historical and iconographic studies, and their related disciplines:

If you find yourself invited/lured into becoming or accepting a ‘Voynich chum’ try to remember that there is no such thing as a  ‘specialist in the Voynich manuscript’, or indeed any specialist in any single manuscript unable to claim formal training in, nor original research contributing to, any of the interlocking fields relevant to  study of ancient and medieval manuscripts.

I fear that Touwaide has accepted too many cups of water from quite the wrong fount, but perhaps you’ll think differently.  Here’s Biagini’s post.

The mystery of the “Voynich Manuscript”



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