© Norman Sperling, December 28, 2012
Part of a set on the Voynich Manuscript:
Great Stories from a Book You Can't Read: The Voynich Manuscript December 23, 2012
Voynich: Turkish? December 24, 2012
Voynich: 2 or More Handwritings? December 25, 2012
Voynich: Spiraling Into Folly December 26, 2012
Could 2 of Voynich's Oddities Cancel Each Other Out? December 27, 2012
Would You Like to Buy a Copy of the Voynich Manuscript? December 29, 2012
The book The Voynich Manuscript by Kennedy and Churchill (Orion, 2004), and some websites, repeatedly accuse Wilfrid Voynich of unethical dealing because the religious books he traded to the Catholics of Mondragone in return for 30 old manuscripts including this odd one, didn't cost a lot. Voynich, Kennedy, and Churchill all valued antiquarian things unusually highly. They didn't value those new books very much. The accusation makes several faulty assumptions.
From all we are told, nobody was forced into a deal. Nobody lied. They all had what they had, wanted what they wanted, and reached agreements. This is the principle of "a willing buyer and a willing seller": it just needs to make sense to the people involved in their own circumstances right then. How it would be regarded by others, elsewhen, with different circumstances, is not relevant.
I have experienced quite a number of things that I valued, selling for low prices, or not selling at all. In hurriedly clearing out our old house in preparing to sell it, we ended up giving away several thousand dollars worth of stuff. And I have experienced items fetching surprisingly high prices because they were worth a whole lot to someone else in their particular situation. Our house sold for a handsome profit that dwarfed the losses described 2 sentences ago.
Mondragone made no use of what they had, had no use for it, and had not even touched it for centuries. They did their religious duties, for which those 30 manuscripts were actually a drag. They also had no means to find out their specialty value (the antiquarian book dealers Voynich and Kraus didn't know, either: they speculated and lost). Mondragone had no experience in selling through specialists anyway, and no means to find and deal with dealers or collectors of antiquarian books, or they would already have done so.
Wilfrid Voynich acquired the knowledge to find Mondragone, exercised the energy and paid the cost to actually journey there, and took the risk to invest money with no surety of earning a profit. Voynich listened to them - what other merchant would? They wanted certain uncommon books they could actually use, but they didn't have money to get them, nor the knowhow to find and purchase them. We worldly people of 2012 could do that in a snap (well, a click), but buying their wants was beyond the abilities and resources of isolated members of a religious order in 1912, or they would already have done so.
Voynich took considerable trouble to fill Mondragone's shopping list and deliver to them what they really wanted - "concierge" service. Nobody else had, or would. Voynich performed several services that required his expertise and attitude, including the age-old commercial one of taking things from where they have low value to where they have high value.
A strongly parallel experience happened to me about 1990. A little, isolated college had an antique telescope. The occasional astronomy course was taught by a professor of something else. He saw an ad for a modern telescope, which would help him teach his course much better than the awkward old thing could. He was worldly enough to know how to buy the new one, but far from knowing how to sell the old one for enough money to pay for it. From a friend of a friend, he heard that I had studied antique telescopes. So he invited me to examine the old scope, appraise it, and sell it so he could buy the new one. Unfortunately, its lens was badly chipped, devastating its value. I never found a customer, no deal occurred, and I never heard from them again. I lost the value of that time and travel.
If I had succeeded in fulfilling that college's wants, Kennedy and Churchill would regard me as an unethical swindler for doing so. I regard Voynich as an enterprising, risk-taking expert bringing added value and new possibilities wherever he reached agreements.