Specialist Opinions – Richard Salomon

Header Illustration, composite: (left) Washington, Library of Congress; (right) Warburg Institute London. Photos (left) courtesy Library of Congress (right) Ethan Doyle and English wikipedia.
Two previous:

Richard Salomon at Kenyon College in 1955. courtesy Kenyon College

Salomon’s interest in Beinecke MS 408 is best told through Anne Nill’s correspondence, transcribed further below.

Summary

In 1932 Professor Richard Salomon received in Hamburg a full photostat copy of the Voynich manuscript, brought from America by Erwin Panofsky.  At the time, Salomon was the tenured Professor of Diplomatics and Palaeography at Hamburg University and Dean of the Faculty at the Warburg Institute. The copy would remain in his keeping for twenty years.

A few months after receiving it, however,  Salomon had been forced to leave.  Administrators who had resisted the  ‘indignation’-lobby finally bowed to pressure in 1933 when representatives of the Nazi Party complained in person that scholars of Jewish descent should still be there when they were now officially ‘undesirable’. (A number of other academics were affected, including Panofsky, compulsorily retired in absentia). Perhaps because Salomon had earlier converted to Lutheran Christianity his forced retirement was imposed in the following year, 1934.

Seeking refuge elsewhere was not as simple as booking the passage for  England or America. Each refugee had to be sponsored by an English or an American institution. Salomon’s experience was less happy than Panofsky’s.

Salomon’s first, temporary, appointment  to lecture in America was not gained until 1936, and then for the Spring – during which time he went to the Library of Congress, where  Anne Nill happened to be working and she was introduced to him – delighted to discover that he was the scholar to whom the photostat copies had been given. Salomon then went on to England to deliver a course of lectures on Latin palaeography at the London Warburg Institute. No offer of further employment forthcoming from either country, Salomon was obliged to return to Germany where Hitler had been in power, now, for three years.  Salomon sent a letter to Nill from his home in Hamburg and received her reply, which was doubtless a relief in those days.  Soon afterwards he accepted a ‘rotating lectureship’ at  the University of Pennsylvania and two of its subsidiary colleges –  but as he later told Nill, they informed him – in 1939 – that his services were no longer required.

Gordon Chalmers saved him, offering a post at Kenyon College, Ohio.

The re-location took Salomon hundreds of miles from the east coast, from New York or Washington, and his initial lectures on papyrology saw him addressing students who asked him to explain the difference between papyrus and parchment and were not inspired by his enthusiasm, as we learn from the student paper, the Kenyon Collegian.

The different intellectual climate brought a radical shift in Salomon’s research: by the 1950s (when Nill renewed contact) most of what he is publishing are articles for local Church History Society.  It appears that in the meantime – over most of the time between 1939 and the early 1950s – he had lost contact with his former colleagues, including Panofsky, though in a letter of  ?1953 mentions that he returned the photostats to him ‘about a year ago’.  It must have been earlier, since in writing to Friedman in December 1951, von Neumann mentions that Panofsky has one. We know that every copy made was  accounted for by Anne Nill – to the point where she asks Salomon,  in the 1950s –  twenty years, a world war, and translocation notwithstanding – if he knew where his might be!

Early in the 1960s, by a happy chance, Salomon’s pre-war research into relations between the city Council of Hamburg and the Avignon Papal Court, left unfinished,  was re-discovered by the city, which asked him to complete it and responded to his  initial refusal by sending him all the original historical documents and his notes, which had been found with them.  The study was completed by the end of January, 1966.  Salomon died on February 10th. Panofsky would die two years later. Thus, in writing up the Friedman groups’ index to make her summary, Elegant Enigma, Mary d’Imperio was unable to consult either man.

  • Die Korrespondenz zwischen dem Hamburger Rat und seinen Vertretern an der päpstlichen Kurie in Avignon 1337 bis 1359. Bearb. von Richard Salomon. Veröffentlichungen aus dem Staatsarchiv der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg, Bd.9, T.1, ca. 1966.

and see:

  • Catherine Epstein, A Past Renewed: A Catalog of German-Speaking Refugee Historians in then the United States After 1933. (1993) pp.285-291.
  • The wiki biography isn’t too bad.
(c) D. N O’Donovan.

 

THE CORRESPONDENCE

1932

On February 8th., 1932,  in New York, Anne Nill had left a full photostat copy of the Voynich ‘cipher-manuscript’ at Panofsky’s temporary residence, with a covering letter which reads in part:

Erwin Panofsky from Heckscher

“I am leaving for you, herewith, a complete set of photostats of our cipher manuscript. And here you have our address, in case you wish to have additional information about the manuscript, or will some day be able to write to us that your institute has succeeded where so many have failed.
Mrs. Voynich and I feel that, even if nothing comes of your efforts, we have gained much from your visit. We learned many things from you last week, and are greatly indebted to you.
—–

Panofsky replied the next day,

My dear Miss Niel (sic)
I can hardly express my gratitude both to you and Mrs. Voynich for your generous gift. I shall do my very best to contribute to the solution of the problem… [though] I must repeat that I am very doubtful as to the success of our efforts….
—-
Writing to Professor Thompson – in a letter undated but the same year, Mrs. Voynich says Panofsky intends particularly to ask Salomon’s advice. She mentions that Panofsky had spent two full hours examining the manuscript (in early February), and ..

“… went back to Hamburg, taking with him a complete set of photostats and promising to ask some of his colleagues there (including Prof. Salomon, who has deciphered a famous puzzle ms. For the Vatican) to try if they can solve the problem.

She also notes that Panofsky had (in 1932!) dated it “somewhere about 1410-20-30”; had said it was written in the “southwest corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia or Provence; but most probably Spain”; that “It shows Jewish or Arab influence, probably in connection with the Kabbala” and that
except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him

If he said ‘probably in connection with the Kabbala’, Panofsky believed the manuscript Jewish; there is no Arab ‘kabbala’. The ‘Arab’ influence would be reflected in the drawing-style or the manuscript’s format.  His mentioning “Alfonso’s manuscript” followed from Mrs.Voynich’s showing him a photostat copy of some part of the Voynich calendar in advance of Panofsky’s seeing the original, so it seems fair to suppose he meant that one of those diagrams resembled in part some diagram in  Libros del saber de astronomía.  Which diagrams he meant, in either manuscript,  iI can’t say, but link below is to a high res. copy of the whole of the Libros de saber de astronomic, which you can downoad and study for yourself.  Do leave a comment for others to read if you think you have found the partial match.

  • [pdf] Libros del saber de astronomía  (University of Madrid, BHI BH MSS 156)
  • William S. Heckscher, ‘Erwin Panofsky: A Curriculum Vitae’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 28, No. 1, Erwin Panofsky: In Memoriam (1969), pp. 4-21.

1936

On March 14th., 1936, in Washington, Anne Nill writes to Mrs. Voynich (E.L.V) in New York. The letter  provides a vivid picture of Salomon’s character and scholarly standing at that time:

‘alcoves’. photo  Library of Congress

“I must get today’s rather dramatic little episode (which was in the true Voynich style) off my chest at once…This morning I vaguely noticed that Dr. Jameson was taking a visitor, who looked obviously Jewish and obviously a scholar, through the manuscript division, and was introducing him to the more important members thereof. I paid little attention to them since, I, of course, was not introduced. …. … absorbed in my Index [I] forgot all about them. Suddenly I realised that the visitor was being brought by Wilson into “my” alcove. The latter looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Miss Nill, I’d like to have you meet Dr. Salomon (pause……) of the Warburg Institute!

It seems (though I was blissfully unware of it) that as soon as Wilson learned that Dr. Salomon was connected with the Warburg Institute he asked him if he knew about the Voynich Cipher Ms.; and, as Wilson afterwards put it to me, as soon as Dr. Salomon learned of my presence in the Library [¬of Congress, where Nill was then employed] he became more interested in meeting me than in doing anything else there.

Well, to make a long story short, Wilson left us alone together, and we talked and talked, and the entire Manuscript Division was mystified as to why a distinguished visitor who had been taken about and introduced to all the high and mighty ones should wind up in my alcove and remain there in earnest conversation with me. It was all very funny.

To get back to more important matters. Dr. Salomon is none other than the very person for whom Dr. Panofsky took back our set of photostats…When he returned to Hamburg he laid them on Dr. Salomon’s desk (as I heard today), and said: “Here is something for you.” Do you remember Panofsky telling us that he wanted them for his colleague who was then working on a mysterious Vatican MS. (I wrongly got the impression that he meant Prof. Liebeschutz, the author of the book on Hildegard of Bingen). Well, Dr. Salomon is the one who has been working on the said Vatican Ms., and his book on it, by the way, is just about to be issued. He is coming back to the Library of Congress on Monday to show me the page proof (there will be more excitement in the Division when that happens).

  • R. G. Salomon mit beiträgen von A. Heimann und R. Krautheimer, Opicinus de Canistris; Weltbild und Bekenntnisse eines avignonesischen Klerikers des 14, Jahrhunderts, London, The Warburg Institute [Leipzig, Druck von B. G. Teubner] 1936

We talked about the Cipher Ms., German, the position of the Jews there, etc.

It appears that he has done considerable work on the Ms. (he says he takes it up every few months). He thinks it may be German (you will recall that Dr. Panofsky told me something of that when I ran across him in the Morgan Library in 1934), but that he is not yet absolutely certain of this. He is convinced it was written in the 15thC, possibly as late as 1450, possibly earlier in that century. He told me some interesting things about it but I have not had time to think about his remarks sufficiently to put them down clearly. .. Dr. Salomon thinks possibly this text may be of no great significance, but cautiously adds that until it is deciphered one cannot tell….

I asked Dr. Salomon whether he expects to be in New York and, if so, whether he would like to see the Ms. He says he plans to be there during the latter part of April, and that he would very much like to see it. I explained that you would be glad to show it to him. He has your address and will get in touch with you…

I think I shall also sound him out about Dr. Petersen. If he shows a desire to meet him I shall write to Dr. Petersen who could, undoubtedly go to New York for that purpose if he, on his part, wishes to meet Dr. Salomon. It would be a good thing if I could get those two together..

Isn’t all this amazing? To think of meeting unexpectedly here at the Library of Congress the unknown Hamburg scholar who has had our photostats since 1933, and just as I was thinking for the umpteenth time what a dull and unscholarly (for the most part) place the Library of Congress is.

… Oh, one more thing. I asked Dr. Salomon point blank whether he thought the Ms. could possibly be the work of a madman. He said very seriously that he thought that until it could be proved otherwise one should assume that it is not..
_______

July 9th., 1936 To Nill, from Salomon in Hamburg.

Richard Salomon’s former residence in Altona, Hamburg.

Dear Miss Nill, … Some weeks ago, in London, I had a brief talk about the MS. with Mr. P .E. Goldschmidt, the antiquarian. I was astonished to learn that this eminent connoisseur of mss is inclined to put the Ms. as far back as the 13th century or, at least, not to deny the possibility of so early an origin. Nevertheless I, personally, stick to my opinions about the date as about the very method of investigation in this case … I am convinced that the only possibility of deciphering would be given by finding an older series of plant pictures corresponding in its sequence to the arrangement of pictures in the Voynich manuscript.

  • E. Weil, ‘In Memoriam: E. P. Goldschmidt—Bookseller and Scholar’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 9, No. 2 (April 1954),pp. 224-232.
  • R.O. Dougan, ‘E. Ph. Goldschmidt, 1887-1954’, The Library, Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, June 1954/ pp.75-84

That letter is interesting as another instance of the constant split in opinion: 13thC or early 15thC.    In general – though not in Salomon’s case – we find independent specialists who had not seen the original tend towards the former, while those who had (and there were not many) hold to the latter.  The difference seems due to the strong impression made by the manuscript’s materials and palette where they were seen, and thus refer chiefly to date of manufacture. Those seeing only the black-and-white photostats necessarily focused on the layout, script and images alone. They are evaluating nothing but the content. It  took a surprisingly long time before those interested in the manuscript realised that the ’13thC’/’15thC’ split was not mutually exclusive; the logical resolution being that the manuscript is a very close copy, made in the fifteenth century, from 13thC exemplars. In Salomon’s case, the problem may again be his having only black-and-white photostats, because he had no way to distinguish between the main text and marginalia, thus provenancing the whole text by reference to what we (and Panofsky) knew were post-manufacture additions.  Had they both remained at the Warburg in Hamburg, no doubt Panofsky and Salomon might have conferred, but circumstances prevented.

Postscript: I have recently seen it asserted (without argument or evidence included) that the German marginalia are contemporary with the main text,  but enquiries as to where one might find the first argument, and evidence, which permits this conclusion have met with determined silence.  For me, then, it remains a ‘Wilfridism’ but should anyone else be met with a clear answer, do share in a comment.  Our motto is: what can be tested, is good.


Reply from Anne Nill (November 7th., 1936 ) addressed to Salomon in Germany.

Next week, while in New York, I expect to have an opportunity to show the Ms to M. Seymour de Ricci, the editor-in-chief of the Census of Manuscripts in the United States and Canada, who is at present in this country. Needless to say, I shall be interested to his opinion as to its probable date.

. . . . . . . . 

1953

(Anne Nill happened on a mention of Salomon in one of the files she was working on, and wrote to that address on the offchance… He replied)

To Anne Nill from R. Saloman at Kenyon College (April 29th., 1953)

Dear Miss Nill, It was a great joy to see your friendly note. It is very kind of you to remember me… I still am a member of the Kenyon faculty, now teaching here for the 14th year… I came here in 1939, really by chance, in a rather precarious moment when after a two-year stretch at Swarthmore I was no longer wanted there. I accepted an invitation to Kenyon for one year, and after that for a second year.. most of my recent publications are in American Church history…
The Voynich ms. Of which for a long time I had a photo(copy) lent me by Dr. Panofsky, came up time and time again during these years. I must acknowledge defeat – the heap of notes and jotting which I still keep only indicate that I have not come beyond the two statements which I made at my first acquaintance with the ms; it is 15thC and probably from Germany (the notorious geis mi(l) ch!). But you know that anyhow.

===Dear Ms. Nill,

Many thanks for sending the Feely opus – here it is, for well-deserved slumber in your collection. I duplicated Father Petersens’s half hour [reading it] with an identical result. Somewhere in Faust Mephistopheles says, ‘I feel as if I were listening to a full chorus of one hundred thousand fools….” What ideas [Feely has] about medieval Latin!
… The complete set of photos [i.e. photographic copies] is in Panofsky’s hands. I returned it to him about a year ago..

Note: It may be this set of bound photostats which Jim Reeds’ noticed in 1994. He describes it as appearing to come directly from the 1920s and not – as d’Imperio says of those used by the cryptanalysts – off-prints of the offprints which Fr. Petersen had made in the 1930s.  Of the copy taken to Salomon, and later returned to Panofsky in c.1952 as Friedman was urging a meeting – we see that Nill constantly refers to it as ‘our copy’ and it may have been Mrs. Voynich’s own.  I have written to the archive to see if it is still to be found, but there is some suggestion that items from that particular file have been removed or lost.  At one stage, a black-and-white copy of the ms was available through archive.org, but I cannot find it today.

——-

and finally – from Anne Nill’s note-to-self,  after Prof. Salomon had come to New York on July 16th., 1953. Whether he  saw the manuscript I don’t know – there appears to be no evidence of anything except NIll’s effort to arrange it in 1936.

Herbals. Sequence of plants important. Even if we find only two plants in the same sequence this might help to determine archetype – or something of the sort. Prof.S. apparently has done a lot of work on herbals – in connection with our ms – and probably many lists of sequences. Said he consulted many herbals at Coll. Of Physicians (during his first years in U/S.),

  • Seymour De Ricci, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Mss in the United States and Canada. (Kraus reprinted it in 1961). 2 vols. (see Vol.2, pp.1845-1847.]

My thanks to the Librarians of the Beinecke Library for their assistance in locating the Salomon-Nill-ELV correspondence. Any errors in transcription are mine.

 

 

Next post: Expert Opinions – the ‘S.E.P’ phenomenon.

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