What magic? Where magic? 3a: The Friedmans.

Two prior posts

Header:  portraits of William and Elizebeth Friedman (courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation);  magical alphabets (courtesy of Omniglot).


I’ll start by correcting one of my own errors, with thanks to a generous friend who took the trouble to remind me that the ‘Germanic/central European’ idea predates its adoption by Prinke and Zandbergen. It is easiest if I quote his letter. He prefers to remain anonymous.

it is true they  revived it in the first mailing list after it was pretty much a ‘dead letter’ but there is Charles Singer’s ‘feeling’ in 1957; E. Friedman said – no clue why – it was a probable [idea], though that wouldn’t mean it survived necessarily. Robert S. Brumbaugh kept it going in the 1960s or ’70s. He was professor of classical philosophy like Newbold. Like Newbold, settled on a ‘cipher solution’.  I guess the reason  Brumbaugh wasn’t so badly dumped on is Yale held both [ms. and Prof. Brumbaugh] pretty safe  and Y’s-B librarians seem to [have] been super-deferential to Brumbaugh.  The Beinecke site  repeating Brumbaugh’s ideas  for ‘introduction’ even after his death and years [bolded] after the radiocarbon range came out  still talking about ‘sixteenth or seventeenth century’ dating for the ms.  No reason given. Just embarrassing to read.

If I recall right, Singer’s feelings etc. were main basis for it. P&Z didn’t adopt it till late in the ’90s. I’m not sure you could say there is really a ‘P&Z theory’, because no one ever defines what it means, or its limits; no one defends it –  just by flying at anyone doubting it.  Definitions shifty as a Maine fog..

Tried to see if there was anything solid to him [Brumbaugh] acting like he had skills  to pronounce about manuscripts, drawings, codicology, palaeography or anything else like that. Found nothing. Have you tried – any better info? [no –  D]

Can’t believe all Yale conservators believed B’s ideas, but if not why let readers be sent off in wrong directions? Just sayin’.

Bottom line anyway, D., is you’re wrong about it starting with P&Z.   ‘Germanic theory’ has to start with Singer Charles at least his ‘feelings’. I’d  guess the thought would have died before 1980s, then Brumbaugh kept it above ground. When he died, along came P&Z with a writ for theory’s life-support. ha-ha. So it’s still here.  

All the above is one person’s opinion. Of course  I’m grateful for the correction and will call it  the ‘Germanic-central European’ theory from now on.

Here’s where d’Imperio mentions Charles Singer’s “feeling”. If you don’t have a smart screen, open it in a new tab.

Singer's vague feeling German clip p.7


Lynn ThorndikeThe previous post ended with the letter that Lynn Thorndike wrote to Scientific American in June of 1921 and about which, as I said, some less obvious aspects are even more interesting than what Thorndike actually says in it.

He made three points, two stated outright and one implied. 

First, he pointed out that there was no  evidence that Roger Bacon had been given to writing in cipher. Thorndike had closely studied Bacon’s works in manuscript copies and knew what he was talking about.

Secondly, he said that  [even accepting Newbold’s categories for the manuscript’s sections, just for argument’s sake] –  there was no reason to assert that Roger Bacon was the only possible author. 

Thorndike’s third point was implied, but serves the same argument against Wilfrid’s “Roger Bacon scientific ciphertext” story – namely, anyone tempted to believe that the manuscript’s content was ‘science or pseudo-science’ could –  perhaps should–  then test the idea against the evidence of those tens of thousands of manuscripts treating such matters that were held in the British libraries alone.*  He implies, too, that such persons might also consider his own forthcoming study.  When issued in print in 1923, that first volume would contain 835 printed pages and a late-added sentence on this same ‘Bacon wrote in cipher’ myth. 

*Each of Thorndike’s volumes includes a list of referenced manuscripts. His own studies were not limited to British collections. 
  • Lynn Thorndike, The History of Magic and Experimental Science  Vol.1. pp 766-767.

But the really interesting thing about Thorndike’s letter is something else again.

With Thorndike being, at that time, the pre-eminent specialist in the history of medieval magic, sciences and pseudo-sciences – including astrology and alchemy – you’d think that if he could have done so, he would have happily destroyed that ‘Roger Bacon ciphertext’ idea more efficiently.

All he had to do was to point to some other securely provenanced and dated manuscript, from some time and region other than Bacon’s, and show positively that the other manuscript’s diagrams, script or drawings were very closely similar in structure, form, stylistics and intention to something in the Voynich manuscript.

So long as the comparison was of substance, not superficial appearance, and was accurate, that would have been enough to disprove Wilfrid’s imaginative scenario.

Yet Thorndike never did, so far as I can discover.

For a scholar having Thorndike’s level of scholarship and expertise, who had the necessary languages and who had already spent years in close study of a particular class of European manuscripts, it would not be difficult to say of a manuscript, “these month-diagrams (or plant-drawings, or containers) look like versions of text x produced in time y within region z‘.  Professionals and scholars did the equivalent every day[within their own particular area of specialist studies – clarification added 16June].   By 1921, just as Thorndike says, tens of thousands of manuscripts in British libraries had already been catalogued and accurately described.  Only a small percentage of those tens of thousands which were acquired by the British Museum, and which are now accommodated at the British Library have needed their first description and dating corrected –   and as a rule it is place, rather than date, that has needed correction.*

* see for example, Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 821, acquired and catalgued in 1840 –  yes, 1840.   On the older website  ‘British Illuminated Manuscripts’ it is described as German, but in the light of recent research the newer site ‘British Library Digitised manuscripts’ corrects the record to ‘Southern France’. The dating stands.

So Thorndike’s silence is a resounding silence.   It is like that silence from Panofsky in 1932 or the silence underlying Tiltman’s comments* of 1968.

*quoted in next post.

While Thorndike might accept that the manuscript’s appearance was compatible with Wilfrid’s  suggested thirteenth-century English provenance, the manuscript’s content apparently found no comparison in his experience. If this inference is correct, then in Thorndike we have yet another instance of a genuinely qualified and eminent specialist saying – overtly or tacitly – “Not one of mine”. (See earlier post ).

Public discourse versus ‘national secrets’.

National Seecurity cleared d'Imperio Elegant 1978

At first it was only within the secretive environment of  Friedmans’   ‘national security’ project, during in the fevered years of McCarthy’s witch-hunt for ‘communists’ that  an idea of the Voynich manuscript’s containing  occult matter would be entertained and then mushroom until it had plainly become an idée fixe for William Friedman and his wife Elizebeth. Since they determined the limits and direction taken by their several different ‘study groups’, their fixation drove research and is thus embodied in Mary d’Imperio’s summary of the Friedmans’ – ultimately failed – efforts to ‘break the text’.

However it would not be until that summary was released in 1979 by the NSA  (established in 1952 within the Department of Defense) before that the inherently anachronistic notion could begin to affect a  wider public, and so become in time another unfounded ‘Voynich doctrine’.  As my correspondent rightly says, apart from the Friedmans, the other two driving influences were Robert S. Brumbaugh and the Beinecke librarians of half a century ago. [typo corrected and link added 16th June 2021]

DDC approval D'Imperio Voynich
d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, cleared for release by the NSA June 1979

It is easily forgotten that this idea of ‘magic and occult’ did not affect discussion of the manuscript until the 1970s.  From 1944 until that time, it was only within William Friedman’s circle that attention would shift from the first part of Wilfrid’s romantic tale to the second phase with its insertion of John Dee into the narrative. 

Roger Bacon died in c.1280 and Dee was not born until 1527. 

In the usual way, no one would suggest that a manuscript  not incompatible with a thirteenth- or fourteenth century date could include matter proper to the seventeenth, and neither  Wilfrid nor Newbold did.  But the Friedmans did, and the ‘occult’ idea was always anachronistic – as it still is – and was always tied to a peculiar set of unfounded ideas, centred on some fantasy-figure invariably imagined as a white Christian male, a member of the elite, usually one whose natural environment was a royal court,  whose interests were arcane and whose name, invariably, was presumed recorded in extant historical documents.   

Nothing about the manuscript – not the quality of its vellum, the organisation or layout of the page, and not even the binding offers support for ideas that kind. (Which is why, incidentally, any description of the scribal hands as ‘humanist’ begs a great many questions, given the radiocarbon range of 1404-1438).

There was no check on the Friedmans’ pursuing the idea because they acted independent of, and largely indifferent to, opinions from the best qualified and most experienced specialists – whether in Thorndike’s field of study, or in historical studies, art history or any of the disciplines that enabled a manuscript made in medieval Europe to be accurately dated and placed.

Indeed, when it comes to Thorndike,  the Friedmans did not just ignore him and his work – they positively ‘blanked’ both. And their attitude is found reflected in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – of which, more later

Bacon and Rubruk LUTZFor the rest of the world,  completely unaware of what the Friedmans were doing and who they were, the manuscript mostly continued to be supposed English and the written text ‘A Roger Bacon ciphertext’, as we see from entries in Jim Reeds’ ‘Voynich Bibliography’.

Nor was the general public  much interested in the idea of Roger Bacon as someone involved in magic, its theory or its practice.  

True, Wilfrid had embedded John Dee into his sales’ pitch and Newbold injected an air of mystery and magic into his talk to the Surgeons of Philadelphia in 1921, but the public weren’t buying it – not in the literal or in the metaphorical sense. Edward Lutz’ paper of 1936 is a good example of how even earnest efforts to write an objective account of Bacon’s life and works included, with solid information, much  romanticised history, imagination and credulity toward claims made by both Wilfrid and Newbold.

  • Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (June, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82. The image shown above, left is from Lutz’ paper.

It’s not difficult to understand why most people of that time rejected the ‘magical’ theme. 

Not only the public at large but  many contemporary scholars conceived of Roger Bacon as a ‘scientist before his time’ a little as if he’d been an earlier, and English version of Leonardo da Vinci. (Many Germans attempted to elevate Albertus of Lauingen in exactly the same way). 

Reverence for Science  (with a capital ‘s’) was never higher than during the first half of the twentieth century, and the Scientist was imagined some paragon of rationality, while believers of magic were relegated to an opposite extreme.   Only the few who had actually studied medieval writings understood that the line was not so clearly drawn in the days of Roger Bacon or, come to that, of Albertus.

So the popular, idealised view of Bacon could not be reconciled with notions of his being a ‘magician’ and  in discussions of the Voynich manuscript never took hold beyond an occasional mention of astrology or alchemy with a very very small ‘a’. To give you a sense of the times, here is a paragraph from Lutz’ paper.

Alchemy for Bacon formed merely the stepping stone to the higher science of chemistry, and so he correctly evaluated  the former’s worth. Hence, his comprehensive mind having grasped all the rudiments of the subject [i.e  alchemy’s technical skills] , Roger drafted principles of action whereby he employed the knowledge of those before him in his own inimitable way to arrive at many new discoveries…. Besides the ordinary metals known to the ancients Friar Roger appears to have isolated quite a few of the rarer elements; for in his writings have been found the formulae for extracting phosphorus, manganese, bismuth, and others from their compounds.

Lutz, op.cit. p.49.


Friedmans and his ‘teams’.

American shaggy mushroom

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002


There is a reason why ‘team spirit’ and group-work is associated chiefly with government organisations, the military, with commercial corporations,  and with sports. 

All are inclined to frame their purpose in terms of an  ‘us’ against ‘them’.  The very concept of the ‘team’ begins by assuming unity of attitude and purpose, and then actively promotes those ideas within the group’s members, the aim being to defeat the supposedly inferior – or even nefarious – aims of “the others”.

No matter how acute a thinker any individual within a ‘team’ may be, the ‘team’ itself is an inherently anti-intellectual structure.   At its worst it serves up less-than-truthful propaganda, or forms into a ‘think-tank’ whose charter is to fake, distort or misrepresent objective technical information to facilitate  particular commercial or other forms of exploitation.. and so forth.

Scholars having already achieved eminence in one of the critical sciences (as distinct from the pragmatic sciences) are inclined to resist pressure placed on them – no matter how subtlely – to become ‘team players’ in any situation short of war.   

In normal situations, scholars may confer; they may contribute to the organisation of a seminar, or to the production of collected studies, but in the last analysis a scholar whose profession has already recognised the quality of his or her work wants to work and think without intellectual- or social pressure exterted on them  to go along with some ‘median line’.

Error remains error no matter how many hands go up signalling assent to it.  One cannot ‘vote’ for an idea to become a fact.  Scholarly consensus doesn’t work that way.  

Let me put it more mildly by quoting a comment from ‘Sir Hubert’ at Nick Pelling’s blog:

.. breaking ciphers is all about testing hypotheses and finding *the* consistent solution, of which there will be only one. Historical research doesn’t admit of one neat solution and works very differently.

“SirHubert” ( comment to Ciphermysteries, December 10, 2013.

The Friedmans formed a team of two.  Those who came for a shorter or for a longer period worked at their direction and along the lines which Friedman decided, and decided without much effort to learn anything more about medieval history, manuscripts, codicology, palaeography.. or even medieval and later magic in Europe. As we shall see.


Lynn ThorndikeThe first volume of Lynn Thorndike’s great study  appeared in print in 1923. HIs eighth and final volume, covering the seventeenth century, was published in 1958.

It represented the first comprehensive. scholarly study of these matters in English, and was for decades the only substantial reference work for an English speaking public.

As you see from the illustration (below), the whole series covers a period from long before Bacon’s birth (c.1219 AD)  until after Rudolf’s death in 1522. 

Thorndike volumes


You might think, then, when noting the large proportion of d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma that is assigned to occult and magical matter,  that a great many mentions of Thorndike would be found within.  After all, he was in America, as they were, and was someone against whom, between 1944 and 1958,  an hypothesis about ‘magical matter’ could be checked to see if it accorded with the facts and documents of history.  After 1958, there was his magnum opus against which a theory the Friedmans had adopted could be checked in the same way.

You might think so  – but it isn’t so.  Thorndike is spared just a few sporadic sentences. 

from: Elegant Enigma –  ‘Table of Contents’

d'Imperio section 8

d'Imperio sections 9 & 10

If that fact is startling, their  tone  is still more disconcerting: 

Thorndike has, with characteristic emphasis, stated his opinion that “There is hardly one chance in fifty that Roger Bacon had any connection with the production of the Voynich manuscript.” (quoting a paper of 1929)…. p.6

Thorndike’s debunking of Bacon seems to be a shade more savage and thoroughgoing, doubtless as an over-reaction [sic] to the effusive and misplaced adulation of Bacon by some earlier writers…. p.50.

Thorndike .. characterises Ars Notoria as an art designed to gain knowledge of, and to communicate with God by the invocation of angels, unsung mystical characters and prayers; he also dismisses all the material as “meaningless jumbles of diagrams and magic words” without telling us much more about it. … p.59

Thorndike (1923-58) discusses alchemy in passing as he describes the writings of various ancient and medieval practitioners. (p.60)

The dismissive and faintly derogatory tone of these remarks makes them worse than actually incorrect, or an insult to the man, but wrong in the worst way.  It is almost enough to make the present writer resort to fiction, too, because I can almost see Willian Friedman, while still working on his initial ‘Bacon ciphertext’ premise, flicking through the first volume of Thorndike’s History… looking for ‘sets of alphabets or something’ which can be conveniently transferred to computer punch-cards and finding nothing so facile, tossing the book away with a supercilious expression and some sneering comment.

From time to time, d’Imperio gives us such a glimpse of the way in which the Friedmans had an excessive idea of their own importance and expressed it by denigrating specialists in all intellectual disciplines, save the practice of cryptography.

Before illustrating that fact, I want to explain its importance – that their inability to recognise the value of other areas of knowledge meant that their range of external checks for any idea about the manuscript’s date and evident character was very small, desultory and curiously ignorant of relative weight – that is, of whose opinion was worthy or greater or less attention, of whether a subject needed them to devote more, or less, time to learning about it before incorporating it into some theory or other.  As one looks down the list of those who are mentioned approvingly in d’Imperio’s summary of the Friedmans’ failed efforts to ‘break the text’, a pattern does emerge.  Greater weight is given the opinion of anyone who is willing to lend support to some idea which Friedman finds attractive and correspondingly less to those who cannot concur with his views.

Thus, Singer whose ability to judge a manuscript was far inferior to that of Panofsky or Thorndike, is given great weight, and no effort is made to use genuinely expert opinions to ascertain whether Singer’s “renaissance Germanic occult” notion is compatible with the palaeographic, codicological or iconographic evidence, or even with Thorndike’s information about the history of magic and pseudo-science.  The push was simply towards hunting evidence for the theory – never a balanced idea of its relevance to the manuscript.   Thus, the entire construction of the ‘Germanic-and-occult’ narrative is based on not much more than Wilfrid’s imaginative tale, Singer’s poor attempt to date and place the manuscript, and Friedman’s liking the idea while being over-confident about the superiority of his own opinions over all academic scholarship.

d'Imperiod’Imperio herself, though her writing usually suggests a person of calm, balanced and orderly mind, bursts out occasionally with the most astonishing, ill-founded ideas.  It was in that atmosphere that the ‘occult Voynich’ notion flourished, moved well beyond any reasonable chronological boundary, and would become inextricably, if inexplicably, linked to a ‘Germanic’ theory.

The very persons and sources that might have prevented Friedman from such irrational theories were unable to do so by reason of the fact that they offered him contradiction, and Friedman’s self-importance would not allow him to accept correction from anyone but – occasionally – John Tiltman.

We have seen how Friedman acted with regard to Professor Panofsky, and how the Friedmans reacted when an academic board advised them the manuscript’s content was unlikely to be of any importance.  Again, there are those few, cursory, dismissive references to Thorndike, and the cavalier way in which Fr. Theodore Petersen’s work was mistreated. The following passage was quoted in an earlier post but I include it again to show that not only Friedman himself behaved in that irrational way, but his attitude came to infect the team.  It is especially uncomfortable to have this from d’Imperio.  

The manuscript probably contains only trivia”, the board said.

to which d’Imperio adds, with sneering air-quotes, the following extraordinary farrago of baseless assertion, speculation and sheer fantasy. It is not clear the degree to which she is relaying Elizebeth Friedman’s views.

I must confess that I can see little justice in the reasoning of those “academics”… who dismiss the Voynich manuscript out of hand, after what can only be the most superficial attention. Even if it is, in fact, a fabrication … associated with the court of Rudolph II, an understanding of who wrote it, its passage from one to another of Rudolph’s familiars and the part it played in the remarkable congeries of religious and political activities at Prague in those times could prove to be of great interest. .. If the manuscript is a compilation , however “deranged” or idiosyncratic …drawn from earlier magical, alchemical, or medical works, it has at least as much intrinsic interest and “scientific’ import for the history of Western thought as do other similar manuscripts which are readable, and concern only one topic [i.e.. they are either astrological or alchemical or medical]. Reputable scholars apparently see no waste of time in studying “plaintext” manuscripts of this type and may spend much of their lives so occupied”.

For the notion that the manuscript is about astrology, alchemy or medicine there is, to the time of writing, no proven basis in fact.

Not one of those ideas has ever been introduced as an end-result of concerted and formal investigation of either the images or the written text. Every one of them is an assumption for which the underlying premise is that in some way or other the manuscript will be a flawed copy of some ‘normal’ Latin European text.

For that assumption there is no  basis established either though the idea has been constantly assumed since 1912.

Another instance of that astounding loss of proportion occurs after d’Imperio has related, as if they were of equal weight, opinions expressed by various people about the manuscript’s drawings.  She then says:

In sum: it appears as if no one has made or documented a really careful and systematic attempt to contrast and compare the style of the Voynich manuscript  drawings to other manuscripts of various origins and dates such as could answer some of our questions.

*a five-seconds’ pause*

Did she never ask herself – “Why on earth should they go to such lengths to answer some of our questions?”

The manuscript was Friedman’s project.  Even among the first lot of military cryptographers, some wanted nothing to do with it, as Jim Reeds relates.

Writing in 1994, Reeds says of Friedman’s  “first study group”[FSG] which operated from 1944-46:

Frank Lewis re Friedman and FSG VoynichAt the end of the war, the Army cryptanalysts headed by Friedman found themselves without any pressing tasks. Many were simply awaiting demobilization and return to their universities and civilian practices. Friedman took advantage of their momentarily free time and talent by organizing an effort to work on the Voynich problem. The group studied the available scholarly material, [sic!] discussed hypotheses, transcribed the VMS onto IBM cards, and disbanded. …It is known that Frank Lewis .. and Martin Joos … were in the right place at the right time to have been part of the FSG but Lewis was not attracted to the Voynich problem and Joos thought Friedman’s approach was misguided, so neither participated.

  • [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘William F. Friedman’s Transcription of the Voynich Manuscript’ (1994). Frank Lewis assisted in breaking Soviet ciphers, as part of the ‘Venona’ project aimed at identifying active soviet agents. 

To imagine, in the 1950s, that someone like Panofsky, or even Singer, should set aside their own professional research and duties to undertake so massive a task as is implied by d’Imperio – and  merely to provide Friedman with pre-digested ‘answers’ for his often embarrassingly ignorant questions –  is beyond mere cheek. 

The best excuse I can suggest for d’Imperio is that her own ignorance prevented her being able to so much as imagine what such a task would entail. Perhaps the easiest way to make the point is by the reciprocal: it is as if Panofsky has expected Friedman to produce a translation of the written text within a fortnight so he could write a full explanation of the text’s images, their origin and purpose.

It’s no exaggeration to say that one might make an entire doctoral dissertation on the practical and philosophical  implications  of  “comparing and contrasting drawings in manuscripts of various origins and dates” .

Comparative studies are the life-work of those who specialise in this fairly small and difficult branch of iconological studies, and most who do, work for private clients and do not publish their professional research. 

I will say that such work  involves a great deal more than looking at pictures with a ‘pick the similarities’ attitude, because what is actually being compared are the things about which different peoples make pictures – they give form to their unique culture, embody in the picture ideas from proverbial sayings, religious beliefs, ideas about the heavens and earth, their oral and written literature, their tribal heritage, and memories of times so long ago that western culture cannot grasp such constancy. They make pictures from their own practical lore, including that about plants or stars.. and more. So too did medieval Latins, but since so much of that culture remains in modern western Christian society, the way of interpreting pictures from that environment seems ‘natural’ and easy to modern Europeans and, thanks to the colonial period, to much of the world where it was never natural. 

But at least d’Imperio understood that to ‘contrast’ is as important as to ‘compare’. Today,  even Kindergarten children learn how to ‘compare and contrast’ – it’s part of pre-literacy education, but for some inexplicable reason, it has never been part of, so to say, ‘Voynich studies 101’. In practice, it’s the ‘contrast’ phase which produces the most valuable information. 

  And Friedman himself was never interested in hearing  ‘unlike’ from  the historical record or as others’ opinions. Knowing that the number, and range, of those asked to submit ‘answers’ to Friedman was not only small, but were curiously ranked by the Friedmans and thus by d’Imperio, and the written sources were so summarily treated, it becomes easier to understand how Elegant Enigma came to contain  so many statements patently untrue and so many and various tyro-nian errors.

Take that reference to ‘Ars notoria’, for example.

[the] Ars notoria

frontispiece Ars nortoria Agrippa's interpretationd’Imperio says Thorndike had ‘nothing much to say’ about [the] Ars notoria, but he refers to it in many places, such as when speaking of Fontana in Vol.4, where his footnote reads, 

   “On the ars notoria and the sacred characters [see] ibid 17r, 99v, 73r.”

His reference is to the 1544 edition of a specific text (S. Marco VIII, 72 {Valentinelli XI, 93). 


  • Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic…  Vol.4 [Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries] p.169 n.99. (1934). 

If the Friedmans’ indifference to ‘external checks’ had been less pronounced, then even if they could spare no-one to travel to Europe to check that precise source, any  enquiry directed to, say,  a university library, the Library of Congress, or the British Library would have informed them that an English translation had been made of Cornelius Agrippa’s work of that name and had been published in 1657, by Robert Turner. Turner’s translation is not in d’Imperio’s bibliography, but the 1651 translation of Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy is. That translator, John French, is advertised as .. well, see for yourself.

Agrippa frontispiece for John French's translation of 1651

The content of Agrippa’s Ars Notoria is, indeed, much as Thorndike said.

Any reader here who likes to verify information may like to know that there online a fine transcription of that English translation, created by Benjamin Rowe who has offered it without charge as a pdf.

Of course one understands that as Friedman’s frustrations grew, he began pushing the chronological boundaries beyond the reasonable, towards a period when Latin Europe used ciphers of sufficient complexity to (as he hoped) equal the text’s intransigence, and similarly frustrated by the absence of any expert’s suggestion of a ‘similar’ manuscript to provide a way in, Friedman also moved his focus from the first, to the second phase of Wilfrid’s marvellous romance the age of Dee and occultism.

But Friedman’s ‘occult’ theory was always anachronistic, as you see from d’Imperio’s Table of Contents.  It was always focused on the sixteenth century and later, and on  preoccupations of the Renaissance elites.  Biography  becomes  central preoccupation of that theory, and among its string of unfounded premises and ‘logical’ extrapolations from baseless premises is an  assumption – often expressed as Wilfrid-style assertion –  that the whole content of the Voynich manuscript must be matter likely to have interested to some wealthy, white Christian male whose natural environment was an elegant circle of literati, of royal or of imperial persons sharing occult knowledge. We may blame Wilfrid for the notion’s genesis, but Friedman sowed the whole farm with it, and the present generation – thanks to Elegant Enigma, Brumbaugh and, yes, the Beinecke  – is still trying to pretend his cockles are corn.

In the next post, I’ll consider a couple of instances where we see a ‘break-though’ almost occur in Tiltman and in d’Imperio.  In Part 4 I’ll consider Brumbaugh’s ideas and the Beinecke library’s adoption of a Friedman-Brumbaugh ‘occult voynich’ theory as part of their official description for the manuscript. 

There is no issue about a cryptographer’s thinking up an hypothesis, and then testing it,  but at some stage s/he must ensure the theory has some anchor in the realities of history and the testimony offered by the object under study.  In this case, the reality is  that nothing about the manuscript ever justified the ideas related (see above) by d’Imperio. Not the materials, nor the binding, nor the quality of the vellum nor (for the most part) the pigments justify a date later than the radiocarbon range of 1404-1438.

Till next time, you might think on the following, because the second part of this judgement still holds, fifty years later.

Professor Panoffsky [sic.] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and [that] the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

  • John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10. (link in Cumulative Bibliography page)

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002

or in the words of Patrick Lockerby, writing before the radiocarbon range was published:

My dating of the manuscript is 1350 to 1450. From that perspective, whatever happened .. after 1450 is of no relevance in formulating any theory about the Voynich ms.

Patrick never pretended expertise in codicology, palaeography or iconological analysis, but his judgment wasn’t bad, was it?


What magic? Where magic? Imposition of the occult Pt2 -Newbold

Two previous posts:
Header image: (detail) MS Yates Thompson 13, f.68. Third quarter of the fourteenth century. A caption in Anglo-Norman French reads, ‘I begin the ladies’ game’.

Shortlink to this post.


What magic?

Although ‘natural philosophy’ may be taken by a modern writer* as a description of magical attitudes, that equation does not apply to the perceptions of people who lived in Latin Europe during the thirteenth- to fifteenth centuries.

*e.g. introductory sentences in Sébastien Moureau, ‘Physics in the twelfth century: the ‘Porta Elementorum’ of PseudoAvicenna’s alchemical “de anima” and Marius’ “de elementis”, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age, Vol. 80 (2013), pp. 147-222.

Since we know now that MS Beinecke 408 cannot be an autograph by Roger Bacon, or even written to his direct dictation, so the revisionist is obliged to set aside not only the idea of the manuscript as a ‘Bacon autograph’ but also the string of  extrapolations derived from that premise – a premise based on nothing more than assessment of the materials and drawings as characteristic of the “third quarter of the thirteenth century” – as Wilfrid himself tells us. The rest was speculation on speculation.

Yet even now, when the ‘Bacon autograph’ idea has been ditched, many of the same extrapolations from it continue to be maintained by Voynich writers, including not just vague assertions of ‘magic’ but ideas developed without reference to the manuscript’s content. (For example the ‘European alchemy’ theory, which specialists in the history and imagery of western alchemical texts have dismissed already – but more of that in a  later post). 

In my opinion, the ‘occult’ notion is among those ‘Bacon ciphertext’ residues. I’ve yet to see it set forth in the usual way of scholarly argument, or even argued rather than asserted, or seen it supported by any material of the range and balance normally part of a reasoned argument from the body of material, historical and scholarly evidence to a conclusion.  

Full disclosure

The present author accidentally revived the ‘alchemy’ idea in 2011, after the opinion of a specialist and the radiocarbon dating had seen it ‘killed off’.  The revival was due to a post in which I was explaining the methodical design, and the subject of  one of the plant-drawings. My article never suggested that the ‘alchemy’ involved  was the highly elaborate and arcane style of European alchemists working the fifteenth century and later. Rather, I spoke of the double-gourd motif in that drawing as an allusion to distillation,  a motif and mnemonic added to the drawing of a plant which I did identify and whose only recorded use before the fifteenth century  had been in perfumery. I found no evidence of its having been employed at all in continental Europe, though the historical records of trade between east and west allow the possibility that, as well as importing the finished perfumes (manufactured from eastern plants in medieval Cairo during most of the medieval period), some centres in Sicily or in eastern Spain *may* have imported  raw ingredients for local manufacture. The trade in eastern plants as ‘spices’ is well-documented through the medieval centuries and shows especially good access into England for plants from as far as the south China sea. 
That plant identification in which I mentioned ‘alchemy’ as distillation was one of several dozen plant identifications which I made by recognising the consistently-applied informing system of the botanical drawings’ construction, and each observation was, as ever, tested against the historical record and cross-referenced against previous investigation of other sections in the manuscript. Where I found I could not offer a comprehensive explanation for a drawing, from lack of historical documentation or for any other reason, I did not attempt to offer it as an hypothetical one. I consider ‘guesses’  like superficial  picture-comparisons, unlikely to be of any positive  value and in fact a definite hindrance to the work of those labouring to understand the manuscript’s written text.   I do note that another Voynich writer then adopted the *idea* of perfumes and made an entire theory from it, one which I do not consider justified by the primary document.  The same is true of efforts made to imitate my exposition of the map while skewing the result to suit one or another variant of “all Latin European” hypothesis.
Of those subsequent efforts, but certainly not of my own, you may find acknowledgement of the author provided with matter taken up by Rene Zandbergen for inclusion in his website. Zandbergen’s attitude to others’ work has  in the past caused difficulties for my publisher and ultimately led to my shutting down from public readers all the research I had published online and to make no more available to researchers in that way.  I now regret having made any exception for posts here about the month-folios, even though I included only the barest minimum of titles from my research materials. 
Overall, however, my conclusion (supported as ever by the ordinary routine of testing against historical data, both documents and artefacts) was that a majority of the botanical drawings depict plants native to the maritime ‘silk routes’ and that images are constructed as ‘plant-groups’ defined by the constituent plants’ equivalent or complementary uses, the actual  ‘group’ depicted in each image being defined by terms for  ‘classes’ that are not the classes of modern botany, but which are attested in records of the medieval Yemen and in documents from the Cairo geniza. The article which mentioned ‘alchemy’ was of course presented with the most important of my primary and secondary scholarly sources too.
Knowing that my conclusions would be likely to cause uproar and outrage in the ‘Voynich community’ (as was indeed the case, since many could not understand what I meant by ‘conclusions of research’ and presumed that my commentaries were imaginative or hypothetical), I was glad to learn that John Tiltman had earlier sensed that some sort of ‘composite’ approach influenced the construction of at least some of the botanical images. 
Overall, after analysis and research into each of the sections in turn, and having completed the first analysis of the map (whose purpose until then had only elicited a couple of desultory comments in the history of this study),  was that the present manuscript (Beinecke MS 408) was compiled by meticulous copying of several distinct exemplars in which had been contained still older material, much of it Hellenistic in origin, though I gave it as my opinion before the radiocarbon dating was published that the nearest exemplars should be dated to about or before the mid-thirteenth century and to not later than c.1330.
I concluded, further, that the whole compilation as we have it in the fifteenth-century manuscript, constitutes a trader’s manual, though with the caveat that is not impossible  its description of the ‘ways east’ with routes and goods might have made the material useful to one of the missionary orders, among whom the most prominent order during the ‘Mongol century’ was the Franciscan order.
I do not find the idea impossible, then, that Roger Bacon might have owned one or more of the exemplars, but the possibility does not admit of proof, since I find nothing in the primary document to connect it or any of the contained matter directly to him.
While certain adherents of the  Prinke-Zandbergen ‘Germanic/central European’ theory have actively suppressed both research and researchers withholding their assent from it, I  remain more inclined to  Panofsky’s first assessment of the manuscript’s making, as  “Spain or somewhere southern”, though I do not deny the considerable evidence of Anglo-French influence in the manuscript’s late additions, exclusive of the post-production marginalia, because the latter  was then to be found throughout much of the coastal western Mediterranean. The historical picture is made more complex by the entanglements of peripatetic occupations, trade and of social and cultural dislocation which make simple definitions of ‘nationality’ historically inappropriate for the time.  One may, however, trace the link through the ‘Norman-Anglo-French’ areas from as far as the heel of Italy, including Sicily, then via the Italian peninsula, through France to as far as London in one direction by land and through the Mediterranean ports from Sicily through Spain to London and Antwerp or Bruges by sea. To this late phase of the content’s evolution I assign the month-folios’ central emblems, the inscription of the month-names, and certain other details.    Sailing north to Constantinople and the Black Sea and thence disembarking and travelling overland to as far as China was part of the great circular east-west ‘road’ and using the overland route was not as remarkable a feat as might be imagined, especially during the period of the ‘Pax mongolica’, though even then the proportion of Latins to other peoples was very small.  Contact was more usually through trading ports of the Black Sea and principally Caffa and Trebizond during the period of interest.
Constantinople is included, specifically, in the Voynich map but it is to what had once been the eastern limits of Alexander’s empire on those overland ‘high roads’ that I ascribe preservation of the Hellenistic material which forms the earliest chronological stratum displayed in drawings from some sections – primarily the astronomical and ‘ladies’ sections.  I should mention, too, that a number of people whose research interest was in the written text also looked to that same northern line, and to the same ‘Mongol’ period in discussing the probable language informing the manuscript’s written text.   Most of that research and/or opinion was  determinedly ‘eliminated’ from public conversations and forums, more often by sneer-smear campaigns and mindless, if catchy ‘memes’ than by careful and informed argument, and the work of those people is still consistently omitted or misrepresented in web-based accounts of the manuscript and what is believed about it. 
I hope in later posts to re-present for your consideration a few of those ‘dismissed’  opinions and studies, especially – but not only – when they were not just theoretical narratives but were supported by  evidence, data, and specialists’ opinion.

‘Bacon wrote it’

The ‘Bacon autograph’ idea should have been dismissed very early. Here is one of the few remaining samples of his hand, from his letter to Pope Clement IV, written in 1267.

script Letter Roger Bacon to Pope Clement

It can demand real effort for any Voynich researcher to keep focus firmly on the manuscript as the object of their study. The myriad will-o’-the wisps we call ‘Voynich theories’ are so much easier to understand than is the primary document and those published online are too often presented in a way aimed more at eliciting personal faith in the theorist than at setting fairly before the reader the precedents, documents and studies from which any historical and material theory about the object is normally expected to emerge.

“Just believe me” is the essence of the Wilfrid method.

In theory, of course it is possible that some part of the written text may one day be found to include ‘magical’ material or matter from one of Roger Bacon’s works – or indeed from any other text of any time or provenance up until 1440 – but to first assert an impression, and then focus solely on hunting circumstantial evidence for it is to neglect the fox for the rabbit. The aim of research should surely be the better understanding of this manuscript, not the public’s better understanding of an ‘idea’ spun about it.

Voynich studies is so plagued by that kind of ‘hare coursing’, and researchers so constantly distracted into hunting only for circumstantial support for one or another unfounded or ill-founded theory that (saving a few connected to the Beinecke library) scarcely a specialist in any relevant field will now let their name be associated with the manuscript, and those who have done in the past have often found the experience unpleasant. Theorists become over-attached to their visions of an imaginative past and a ‘theoretical’ version of the manuscript.

Wilfrid Voynich did not say that Roger Bacon practiced or wrote about magic, but his fantastic and undocumented ‘chain of ownership’ story, together with his impossible back-projection of seventeenth century Bohemian preoccupations onto a thirteenth-century English Franciscan friar had – and still has among the arch-traditionalists – a lasting influence.

Again – and still speaking generally – there is a good chance that the Voynich text contains something one might call ‘magical’, because scarcely a text produced anywhere in Europe or the wider Mediterranean before 1440 contains nothing that someone or other mightn’t regard as ‘magical thinking’.

Definitions of ‘magic’ vary and the word has been applied to everything from ordinary religious practices to classic necromancy. Perception of where a given item belongs in the spectrum of ‘not-magic’ to ‘really, really magic’ comes down to personal expectations – to when and where you happen to live.

As illustration – test your own reactions to these three objects:

As I mentioned in discussing a detail from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275 (here) it was initially left to the Church, in Europe, to arbitrate between acceptable and non-acceptable matter, but the medieval Church had no easy task either.

Assigning objects and practices their correct position on the spectrum between pious observance, poetic or spiritual sensibility, folk-superstition, simple investigation of natural phenomena, and ordinary ‘magic’ was always problematic and might alter with time and circumstance,* but one sort of magic was always forbidden – necromancy as the summoning of demons.

* Schmitt’s study of the cult of the ‘holy greyhound’ offers an excellent example. Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound Guinefort, healer of children since the thirteenth century. (Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture 6) CUP (1983).

Attempting to call up demons to do one’s bidding was unequivocally condemned within European Christian culture. Some theologians argued that trying to do it was just stupid, because an impossiblity; others held that it was possible but utterly wicked.

In either case, by the mid-sixteenth century in England, Roger Bacon could be popularly imagined a true necromancer, as we’ve seen* though Bale himself published his correction, as effective retraction, within a decade.

*in the previous post

What magic? – Roger Bacon’s according to Newbold.


Bacon2 coinThough he includes the dread term ‘necromancer’ Newbold’s idea of Roger Bacon had Bacon’s   ‘magic’  benevolent, and the latter idea is attested as early as 1487. For readers’ convenience, I’ll cite  Molland for this well-known fact.

  • A.G. Molland, ‘Roger Bacon as Magician’, Traditio, Vol. 30 (1974), pp. 445-460. (pp.445-446)

Just so did Newbold describe Bacon’s studies, introducing the theme at one remove by quoting Bacon’s praise of a friend in a letter of 1267 to Pope Clement IV – the same that I’ve illustrated (supra). Bacon has his idea of ‘philosophy’ by literal translation from the Greek, to mean ‘a lover of all wisdom/know-how’ – in this case, know-how about natural materials and phenomena.

Studying suspect matter “only to sort the true from the wrong” is exactly the same rationale that would be offered, much later, by the Dominican order as they tried to shift perceptions of Friar Albertus of Lauingen from ‘Albertus magus‘ to ‘Albertus magnus‘ and by the seemingly simple step of having the Church formally proclaim Albertus a saint.

In fact, AlbertusAlbert of Lauingen magus magnus modern wood carving displays much more interest in magic and borderline alchemical theories than did his contemporary, Roger Bacon. He was also far more intellectually dishonest, much of what readers perceive as his original thought having been lifted, unacknowledged, from other scholars, as modern researchers have shown. 

image of Albertus of Lauringen (left) from online re-publication of the Catholic Encyclopaedia (1913). 

The Dominicans’ efforts included composition of two distinctly different biographies and still did not entirely convince. Though eventually beatified (1622), Albertus was not formally added to the list of saints until 1931.* His annual feast-day, now, is November 15th., and he is the patron saint of scientists, philosophers, medical technicians and all students of the natural sciences.

*which is why the biography in the Catholic encyclopaedia of 1913 calls him merely ‘blessed’.

Note – a patron saint is a person recognised as worthy of emulation by those in circumstances similar to those of the saint’s life. By the same token, it is assumed by believers that the saint will feel a reciprocal empathy for (e.g.) a student about to go into a science exam, and who may therefore be inclined to put in a good word ‘upstairs’ if asked to help the student remember his facts.  The general definition of a saint is someone whose soul certainly went ‘up’ rather than ‘down’ when they died.

I add just a couple of my references:

  • David J Collins, ‘Albertus, Magnus or Magus? Magic, Natural Philosophy, and Religious Reform in the Late Middle Ages’, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-44.
  • Peter Grund, “Textual Alchemy: The Transformation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s Semita Recta into the Mirror of Lights.” Ambix: The Journal for the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry 56(3): 202–225.

On the other hand, Thorndike says unequivocally that Bacon’s work does include magical matter, according to definitions current in his – Thorndike’s – time. I’ll come back to that in the next post.

Where magic?

To date, there has been no connection clearly established between MS Beinecke 408 and any ‘occult’ subject-matter, or any such text. The closest anyone has come was Nick Pelling, who drew attention to the fact that in a book by Okasha el Daly, an illustration from an eighteenth-century manuscript displays ‘Voynich’-style glyphs.

  • Okasha el Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. El Daly’s book was published by Cambridge University Press in 2008, and limited access is offered through Cambridge Core (here).

Otherwise – Nothing. Not in more than a hundred years..

Had the manuscript’s study followed a rational course, the ‘occult’ idea should have been abandoned at the very latest in 2011 when the ‘Bacon autograph ciphertext’ notion was proven untenable.

Before that time, the notion of ‘occult’ purpose was never a conclusion drawn from concerted research, but ultimately dependent on the internal logic of those two imaginative narratives of 1921. And the subsequent efforts to justify the idea have always been, at base, just versions of that ‘blame the author, not me’ response which for so long served as reflexive defence when over-confident individuals found themselves defeated by the manuscript’s pictorial- and/or written text.

Neither of the 1921 narratives does, and no subsequent writer ever did, demonstrate that the ‘occult content’ idea is justified by the primary source or any solid historical evidence or any Latin Christian text created before – or even after – 1440.

Acceptance of Newbold’s narrative relied on an idealised view of ‘Bacon-as-anticlerical-scientist’ already popular with the general public, especially in America. To this, an evocative backdrop was added, evoking an atmosphere of mystery and ‘forbidden’ knowledge. Notice how Newbold presented Bacon’s life and works for the Physicians of Philadelphia in April of 1921.

On Bacon’s knowledge of Hebrew, there is just one dedicated study, so far as I know.

  • Reviewed by L. D. Barnett in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Jan., 1903), pp. 334-336.
  • and see also Horst Weinstock, ‘Roger Bacon’s Polyglot Alphabets’, Florilegium Vol. 11 (1992) pp. 160-178.

Wilfrid and Newbold delivered their papers in April of 1921, by which time the popularist myth of Bacon as “persecuted scientist” – echoing a thesis promulgated by Draper and by White, but which had already been refuted years before – was “what everyone knew”. It was a consensus of popular myth and infuses both popular journalism and the work of some contemporary scholars (as for example, the introduction written by Roland and Hirsch in their publication referenced above).

  • [pdf] Walsh, James Joseph, The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time, Fordam University Press, New York 1908.

But the refutation had less grip on the public imagination and the idea of the church as ‘scared of science’ would remain an underlying theme of Voynich writings into the present century.


Lynn ThorndikeAlready by June of 1921, with newspapers, journals and magazines advertising the Wilfrid-Newbold story and encouraging the proliferation of ancillary narratives,* Lynn Thorndike, who was then the eminent specialist in the history of European sciences and pseudo-sciences, attempted to return some level of reason to the clamour, but had little success.

*for which, see Jim Reeds’ Bibliography in the Cumulative Bibliography page.

His protests were evidently ignored in 1921 and the same stories were repeated through the thirties and the post-war period, and even throughout the period from 1952 when William Friedman effectively co-opted the study, and thus even to as late as 1978 when Mary d’Imperio produced ‘Elegant Enigma’.

I’ll consider that post-war period in the next post.

Meanwhile, here again is Thorndike’s letter to the editor of Scientific American in June 1921. This time I omit the formal compliment to the editor and add some paragraph spaces. Tellingly, Thorndike has already tried to stop a fiction that Roger Bacon invented gunpowder, and here he must focus on just one point as his target – so he ignores most of the nonsense to focus on the foundation for Wilfrid’s entire construction of narrative from conjecture and ‘logical’ inference: viz. the assertion that the manuscript is a ‘Bacon ciphertext’.

His letter has some other less obvious, but even more important implications, but I’ll leave that for the moment. In the meantime notice that while the passage which is cited from the ‘Wilfrid’ article speaks of the manuscript as being “with certainty dated to the 1300s”, is automatically corrected by Thorndike who knew that Roger Bacon had died some years before the ‘1300s’ began.