Around the start of the new year (2017), I organized a small survey on the Voynich.ninja forum. The aim was to create a snapshot of the beliefs held by the members of the most active (mainstream?) online Voynich community at that moment. For this poll, members were encouraged to choose one option even when they were not very certain. It was about likelihood and best guesses, not about evidence or absolute certainty.
Of course, such a snapshot is entirely dependent of the members who participated, and has little statistical merit. It was meant as a fun way for members to be able to keep track of how their own ideas and those of “the community” evolved year by year.
Today I discovered that back in 2003, a somewhat similar survey had been conducted among the members of the Voynich mailing list. Even though different questions were asked, I will try in this post to compare both surveys to see how general views on the manuscript have evolved over the last decade.
The mailing list survey was posted on 20 July 2003. Members were required to answer the following open questions:
The “When” question was more relevant then than it is now, since no carbon dating had been done yet.
Fourteen members participated: Dennis, Larry Roux, Matthew Platts, Robert Antony Hicks, anonymous, Jeff Haley, Peter Riis, Rene Zandbergen, John Stojko, Berned Neuner, Gordon Rugg, Matrt Welnicki, Nick Pelling and Francois Almaleh.
The Voynich.ninja survey followed a different format: users were required to answer a number of specific yes/no questions. Sixteen members participated, a similar sample size as in the 2003 survey.
These were the questions, preceded by the percentage of participants who answered YES to the question:
0% Is the manuscript any kind of hoax?
15% Is alchemy an important part of the manuscript?
20% Have the images been made ambiguous or otherwise strange to conceal their true meaning?
23% Is the majority of the plants exotic from a European perspective?
23% Is the manuscript authored by a known historical figure?
67% Has the text been purposefully enciphered to conceal its meaning?
67% Is medicine an important part of the manuscript?
67% Is the manuscript the creative product of one mind, i.e. an author?
87% Is astronomy and/or astrology an important part of the manuscript?
93% Are the plants meant to refer to real plants?
93% Will there be any breakthrough in Voynich studies in 2017?
100% Does the text contain any meaning?
100% Do the images match the text?
100% Will we ever be able to read the manuscript?
Comparing both surveys
Since our polls don’t have the same format, an exact comparison is impossible. Still, some tendencies can be teased out.
One difference is the presence of fraud- or hoax-theories in the mailing list results. Leaving aside some ambiguous answer, 23% of participants clearly adhere to a medieval or modern hoax theory. In the Voynich.ninja poll, not a single participant answered “yes” on the question “is the manuscript any kind of hoax?”.
Additionally, in the mailing list poll there is quite some talk about the Voynich author’s mental health issues. This was not questioned in the Voynich ninja poll, but my personal impression is that “crazy author” beliefs are less common now.
The “when” question is also interesting, since it reveals the impact the carbon dating results have had on our perception of the manuscript. Not a single year answered in the mailing list poll falls outside of the 1450-1600 range. Nowadays, we know that the manuscript was likely fashioned earlier, in the early 15th century.
While many people favored a date later than the mid-15th century, Rene Zandbergen did mention that he’d think the MS was older if it weren’t for expert opinions. So perhaps his personal feeling was the most precise out of the participants in the 2003 poll.
I trust the experts so believe 1450-1499. (If I didn’t, I could believe that it was older
rather than younger).
Ignoring “fraud or hoax” theories, people’s impression about the contents of the Voynich have remained stable. Generalizing a bit, most participants in both surveys believe the manuscript to be a scientific work of some kind.
The languages mentioned in the mailing list survey are the following:
- Latin (3)
- European vernacular (4)
- Artificial language or gibberish (4)
Language guesses for the Voynich.ninja forum:
- Latin (6)
- Non-European language (6)
- European vernacular (4)
- Greek (3)
This is a big difference, and might show how the times have evolved. The 2003 poll participants were Eurocentric in their language preferences, while non-European languages peak next to Latin in 2017. It is possible that a number of researchers have made the possibility of non-European languages more acceptable since 2003.
Finally, let’s compare to what extent people believed the VM was the work of one author rather than the product of a culture or tradition. In 2017, 63% of participants answered YES to the question “is the manuscript the creative product of one mind, i.e. an author?“. In the mailing list poll, 86% of participants express belief in creative authors – often mentioned by name. Only one respondent sees the VM as the result of a culture’s tradition.
This post compares two polls with a relatively small sample size (14 and 16). Hence, it is up to the reader to what extent he wishes to take the results as representative for online Voynich discussions. That said, both polls were conducted in the most active Voynich communities at the time, and in my opinion do reflect some changes in attitude over the last decade.
Perhaps the largest shift was caused by the scientific dating of the manuscript. The early 15th century date closed the door on a number of popular theories. Additionally, theories which see the author as a mentally deranged person or (related to) a known historical figure appear to be somewhat in decline.
But maybe all that will change again in the January 2018 poll 🙂
PS: a whopping 93% of respondents expected a “breakthrough in Voynich studies in 2017”. It’s early September at the time of writing this post, so we’ve got about four months left…