(I know what you are thinking: what an unoriginal article for a blog post. There must be hundreds of articles online with the same title.)
The internet has the potential to magnify new historical discoveries. A new piece of evidence or a new theory can quickly leap from historical journals and magazines into popular social media. We’ve seen a number of these cases recently, two of which demonstrate an egregious propensity of the public to believe without checking, and to want to believe new evidence to justify their priors.
First, on September 5, The Times Literary Supplement published an article by Nicholas Gibbs, who claimed to finally have cracked the code of the Voynich Manuscript, perhaps the most intriguing puzzle in historical crypotgraphy. Within a few days, this article had leapt to the front page of reddit and was reposted thousands of times on facebook. Gibbs argued that the lettering in the Voynich Manuscript consisted of ligatures, combined letters and abbreviations like æ , œ, and & (for et. cetera). The idea of a system of ligatures might have some merit, but it had already been discussed before in the odd-ball corners of the nerd internet where Voynichese is a daily topic. The two-line translation that Gibbs provided (which, by the way, is published in such a small text that it is barely decipherable itself!) seems little more convincing than the likes of Barry Fell interpreting a host of vertical lines on rocks in West Virginia as a form of Irish ogham.
Most concerning, however, is the way this Gibb’s theory is being reported. The always-overrated Atlas Obscura says “So much for the conspiracy theories, which may date back to its eponymous owner, who claimed it had previously belonged to 13th-century friar and philosopher Roger Bacon.” This new interpretation hardly provides good evidence, let alone “proof” that the manuscript did or did not have a connection with Bacon (or Narwahls for that matter!) In short, Gibbs says “this could be translated if we had the code” and people are reporting on this as if he said “I have the code!”
I have no horse in this race, nor in the next story, the recent discovery that a Viking warrior was a female!
What these two stories share, however, is the reader’s commitment to enjoy figuring out a historical puzzle vicariously, without real work, but feeling that slight rush of dopamine to imagine that they could have figured it out. Everyone is now reporting that the complicated Voynichese wasn’t so complicated after all, and that the Viking woman warrior was an obvious conclusion that we should have come to years ago if we weren’t so pig-headed and bigoted.
It appears now that the female Viking warrior discovery is not a settled case.
Evidence and proposed theories are meant to contribute to arguments, not shut them down. The great exposure of new ideas via the internet also runs the risk of promoting quick dismissal of old arguments in favor of the new. The hivemind wants to see progress, to believe in proof and finality, but historians should and must take pause (and take a deep breath) and say “calm down now….we haven’t figured this all out quite yet.”