Wishful Thinking and Automatic Rejections: Erdnase and Voynich

An early quest in Genii Magazine

This fascinating article by medieval scholar Lisa Fagin Davis published in The Washington Post was brought to my attention the other day via a post over at the Genii Forum.

Dealing with the annoying recurrent and premature claims by various authors for having solved the riddle of the legendary Voynich manuscript, Davis shares a number of critical observations and very reasonable recommendations. With striking similarity they also match the proceedings and the heated discussions over new “findings” about the Erdnase authorship in our field of interest.

Thus, I have extracted the relevant paragraphs from the article below and added the corresponding Erdnase references, so ((double brackets)) around original text and bold additions are mine:

Why do people keep convincing themselves they’ve solved this ((medieval)) mystery?

For ((centuries)) decades, the ((Voynich Manuscript)) Erdnase authorship has resisted ((interpretation)) discovery, which hasn’t stopped a host of would-be readers from claiming they’ve solved it.

Every few months, it seems, a new theory is trumpeted ((by the new media)) beneath a breathless headline.

But most would-be interpreters make the same mistake ((as Newbold)): By beginning with their own preconceptions of ((what)) whom they want ((the Voynich)) Erdnase to be, their conclusions take them further from the truth.

Like others before them, ((these)) authors tend to go public prematurely–and without proper review by the real experts. Word of each new solution spreads across the ((globe)) Genii Forum in minutes.

Almost Dozens of solutions have been proposed in the past ((century)) decades alone, most of them more aspirational than they are substantive.

I recently received an ugly and threatening direct message . . . referring in detail to my critique . . . For some, apparently, the stakes appear to be irrationally high.

. . . undercooked solutions presented without context lead readers down a rabbit hole of misinformation . . .

Every new ((Voynich)) Erdnase theory offers an opportunity for readers to exercise healthy, critical skepticism . . . Proposed solutions shouldn’t automatically be rejected (the default reaction of most ((medievalists)) Erdnasians), but they should be approached with caution. Seek out expert opinions, and do some follow-up reading. It shouldn’t take ((a Voynichologist)) an Expert expert to spot a leap of logic or an argument based on wishful thinking instead of solid facts.

. . . we tend to bring our preconceptions with us to the table. The more we burden the manuscript with what we want it to be, the more buried the truth becomes.

To truly understand the past, we have to let it speak for itself. The ((Voynich)) Erdnase Manuscript has a voice–we just need to listen.

Chapeau, Ms Davis, I’d say you’ve nailed it! For Voynich, Erdnase, and beyond.

I think it would be fun and revealing to browse through the Erdnase thread over at the Genii Forum again with this checklist in hand.

This brief text should be required reading for all (amateur) historians and over-enthusiastic secret-solvers, don’t you think? Please help spread the word!


Here’s a related article by the same author. It ends with this plea:

To those of you out there in Voynich-land who are even now working on decrypting or deciphering this “elegant enigma,” please take heed of Manly and Mendelsohn’s words of caution: in order to be accepted as legitimate, your solution must be logical, repeatable, take into account the verifiable published scientific analyses, and result in a reading that makes sense both intellectually and chronologically.

Solid advice!

Ah, were it not for the chronological discrepancy, I might have solved the Erdnase puzzle back here… 😉