Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine’

Header Illustration: composite image. includes detail from Brit.Lib. Harley MS 5751  f.15
Two previous:

We are still considering the period 1912-2000, and matters other than ‘Voynichese’.

During those eighty years from 1912-2000,  scholars expert in one or another aspect of Europe’s intellectual and artistic heritage could suggest not a single close comparison for the Voynich manuscript’s content and imagery from among the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Latins’ (western Christian) manuscripts they had seen – no matter what their area of specialisation,

It was always over the fence;  ‘someone else’s problem’.

This is an interval post – just a pause for perspective.

not GERMAN-CHRISTIAN ART – Panofsky and Petersen

Erwin Panofsky and Theodore Petersen specialised in the Christian art of medieval and (northern) Renaissance Germany.  Neither saw the manuscript as in that tradition.

In 1932, after spending two hours examining the manuscript in New York, Panofsky had correctly dated its manufacture: ‘1410-1420-1430’, an evaluation whose precision would not be matched until 2011, when radiocarbon dating returned the range 1404-1438.

Panofsky attributed  its content not to Christian-German work but to “the southwest corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia or Provence; but most probably Spain” and to a Judeo-Arabic cultural environment. His reasons for saying otherwise in writing answers for Friedman’s ‘quiz’ questions in 1954 have already been discussed.

For Panofsky’s dating see the letter of ‘E.L.V’ to Professor Thompson transcribed in ‘Correspondence’ at the end of my post ‘Expert Opinions – Richard Salomon‘. The original letter is in the Beinecke Library, Yale.

…… and Panofsky was the first to cite any specific comparison but – as would thereafter become a constant in discussions of this manuscript – he compared just a single detail in it with a single detail from another manuscript, and did not even suggest the comparison close enough to call a ‘match’.

As Nill later wrote, “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript,  [the Vms] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”  The comparison was between one diagram from the Voynich calendar and one from Alfonso X‘s Libros del saber de astronomía.  That Panofsky knew the latter is an indication of his range, for it exists in a single manuscript, and that in Madrid.  Consider the range of exclusion implied.

 LATIN HANDS? – Salomon, Barrett and ‘not-saying-who’.

Richard Salomon, a specialist in Latin palaeography, recognised only one line of marginalia, which he read as medieval legal German – and whose date he then applied to the manuscript as a whole.

At that time, he had seen only a black and white photostat copy, and while an offer was made for him to see the original, I’ve found no record that he ever did.  His circumstances after 1932 were so disrupted and so distressing that he was never able to return to his chief area of interest, lacking access to appropriate texts and references.

Of the hand(s) within the main text, and of that which wrote the month-names, I’ve seen no evidence of his saying anything before or after 1932, though something may yet be found in others’ letters from him.

Some Voynich researchers have guessed a  Caroline hand; others as ‘influenced by the Humanist style’, but the specialists have said nothing, though not positively protesting Wilfrid’s opinion that the script was that of a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman scholar.

Remarkably little time or attention was paid to this matter of palaeography, and for my knowledge of these views I am indebted first to Nick Pelling, and through him to the sources he cited, including Reeds’ mailing list and articles by Barbara Barrett.  Pelling disagreed with the latter, but for the sake of balance referred to Barrett’s views anyway.  Other sites have, since then, copied (and sometimes rightly attributed) the same material.
an insubstantial argument

I’ve recently seen it asserted,  with no evidence offered and my  request for directions to the original argument refused with some vigour,  that someone has argued a case for considering inscription of the German (and only the German) marginalia so closely contemporary with the rest of the work that we should believe  the whole manuscript to be, in some sense, a product of German culture.

Given the non-German month-inscriptions, the character of the imagery overall, the Italian binding of the book-block, the opinion of consummate experts with no ‘guess’ to grind… and so on, it is not an idea I’m willing to take on faith. Perhaps someone would like to raise the question on a forum? Do leave a comment if you find a clear answer.



Adam McLean, a specialist in the history of alchemy, responded as the experts do: “S.E.P”.  Since non-specialists enthusiastic about the ‘alchemy’ idea have continued to push it (though the radiocarbon dating silenced them for a time), I’ll reproduce McLean’s comments, taking them from  Dennis Stallings’ report to the second mailing list: (09:40 AM 11/19/98 -0600)

Dennis had said: ‘Hello, Adam!..  Mary D’Imperio, in her survey of VMs studies up to 1978, thought that alchemy might be the key to understanding the VMs.  However, current [mailing-list] members, including myself, see little if any alchemical content in the VMs.  None of us, however, are experts. What is your opinion on this.  What alchemical imagery can you see in the VMs?

to which Adam replied:

Dear Dennis

All I can say is that I have never seen an alchemical manuscript with the same imagery and pictures as are found in the Voynich. …The main ‘alchemical’ resonance is supposed to be the ‘balneological’ section, but here I find no parallels with alchemical manuscripts, except in a very general way. If this was an alchemical work one would expect to find some other alchemical manuscript with similar drawings – but I do not know of one. …  I have an open mind on the subject, but have yet to see any real parallels. Perhaps one day I will find a manuscript that I recognize has common features with the Voynich – but not so far. I don’t think I could  find any way at present to use alchemical manuscripts or ideas to throw light on the ‘Balneological section.

and then:

The plant drawings in  the ‘Herbal section’ have many forerunners some going back centuries before the Voynich, as has been extensively documented. [This is still widely believed, but the ‘documentation’ is less, and less solid, than most suppose].    The drawings in the Astronomical section again seem to have many parallels in known manuscripts. [widely believed but ill-supported by evidence].…  

.. but, once again, the expert’s view is ‘Not one of mine’. And rightly so.  A specialist cannot blur the lines between what is demonstrably true, and what is desired true by others. Not that the others necessarily take heed.

A list of alchemical mss in the British Library, from Adam McLean’s website

‘alchemical’ notion revives,  five years later… My apologies.

The ‘alchemical’ text notion – killed off after McLean’s expert dismissal in the 1990s – was well and truly dead in early 2013. Unfortunately in presenting the analytical-critical study for folio 4v,  I gave it a whimsical title, ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent’ as summary of my findings.  In short, that the plant-group referred to by the drawing was that of the eastern clematis and that what had previously been imagined a curious form for the root was, in fact, a depiction of the double gourd, whose place in culture and iconography of the regions from east Africa to southern China (essentially the medieval trade routes) I summarised and illustrated, mentioning that clematis was not much used in eastern medicine (nor was western clematis in the Latin tradition), but the wood and root of eastern species were used to make scented substances (perfumes and incense etc.), and when formed in metal the double-gourd was also used as a type of ‘small a‘ alchemical receiver, just as the ordinary sort was used for liquids.

As usual, I accompanied the point-by-point analysis  with comparative imagery, textual and cultural notes, and in this case additional comments on the trade in scents and scented materials into Cairo for the Mediterranean trade and, further, on the important role of mathematics in this sort of compounding. It had originated in India, and the Indian model was employed in Cairo too, so as illustration I included a table from the Brht Samhita.  Updating the botanical nomenclature was tiresome, but that was done too, and I cross-referenced any plants mentioned that I had previously identified in the botanical folios.

Being, from the first, under an informal ‘pay no attention’ ban by one of the most avid, and yet ill-equipped of the Voynicheros,  who found it helpful to read, download and then disseminate my results verbally as anonymous ‘ideas’  yet to be explored, I did not expect my  post to receive quite such widespread attention as it did.  It received swarms of readers, throughout the period from 2013 until I closed voynichimagery in 2017.  Imitators were numerous; some took this element from the post and some that, but among them a few were honest about their source, and others so inept that they brought a touch of humour.

One chap especially –  a wild fan of Edith Sherwood, Rene Zandbergen and Sergio Toresella – was helping in some project aimed at producing ‘The Official Voynich Herbal’. His job was to collect and collate others’ work, omitting such details and names as were considered unnecessary by the project’s unnamed director/s.

Since very little new work was being done, just then, this chap got into the habit of taking nothing from my latest post but the name of the plant-group I’d given for the folio, reducing the name for a group  to one name (to suit the western style of herbal),  stripping out all the informing commentary, textual, iconographic, historical and cultural notes, archaeological studies (for proof of location and period), historical botany and information on use which provided evidence for the identification I’d offered.

That done, he would leap up in the second mailing list about a day later and proclaim with many marks of exclamation that a ‘new identification’ had been made.  But in this case, he was faced with the fact that the European clematis had no place in the Latin pharmacopoeia, does not have a bell-shaped flower, nor narrow leaves. And double gourds aren’t exactly standard motifs in medieval Latin art, let alone to be seen in any of the herbals.

Rene Zandbergen (as I recall) kindly came to his rescue on the ‘gourd’ problem, showing an image of a vegetable garden in a copy of the Tacuinum sanitatis.  Soon afterwards, the lad adopted the ‘foxy’ tactic of applying some new identification of mine to a different folio… more or less at random. The manuscript’s study is not only corrupted, but actively hindered by such practices, whose only benefit is to lend spurious credibility to persons or theories which have not deserved them.  Lately, the most common tactic seems to be to use the mantra:  ‘synchronicity’.

Another chap became excited about the ‘perfume’ thing – though I did tell him that it wouldn’t do; the botanical section contains many more plants than were used in any sort of perfume, scented powder, or insect repellent ( a use I’d identified for another of the pictured plants, and which then synchronistically appeared in a post by Ellie Velinska, another close associate of the old guard but whom I’m inclined one of the several innocents who simply believed, when handed an ‘idea’ that it sprang fully formed from the donor’s imagination).

It proved impossible to stem the  ‘alchemical’ tide, to which that post seems to have acted as the bolt of electricity on Frankenstein’s monster, reviving the pile of dead matter abandoned since the 1990s.   All I could do, and did, was to remind people of the more modest matter in my original post, which I re-published in a condensed and clearer form two years later, on  23rd August, 2015, under the title  ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent made more readable’.

The manuscript deserves more respect than it receives when used only to puff theories or personal ambition.  The way my analysis of folio 4v was misused is just an example of the great many so used, whether my work or others’ – since the early 2000s, and largely why the study fails to advance.  I suppose the lesson for us all is not to buy second-hand ‘ideas’; demand the donor provide his/her primary evidence and explain to you in detail his/her line of reasoning.  If they can’t, it might be as well to  tell them to go away and do their own work for a change.



A LATIN/ARABIC or BYZANTINE HERBAL? H’hmm. – T.A. Sprague (and Alain Touwaide, 2015)


Dr. T. A. Sprague had travelled in the Americas as a botanist and as a taxonomist,  spent time in northern India and served for forty-five years as a member of staff at Kew gardens,  fifteen of them as Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium, and whose particular study of the  Anicia Juliana codex required thorough knowledge of the Greek, Latin and Arabic herbals and their vocabularies. In 1947, shown some photostat copies of the plant-pictures, Sprague  positively recoiled and railed at John Tiltman, “I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to identify the plant drawings in the Juliana Anicia codex when the names of the plants are given in Greek, Latin and usually Arabic and you are asking me to identify these awful pictures.”   It seems clear that none of them looked immediately familiar.

Alain Touwaide (2015}

More recently (2015) Alain Touwaide, whose field of study covers the Latin, Arabic and Greek history of medicine, drugs, herbals and medical manuscripts , wrote a seventeen-page essay published by the Villa Mondragone in a volume now, alas, out of print.   There were no peer-reviews published in any Journal, so far as I can find, but the prominent enthusiast Rene Zandbergen sent a 1100-odd word summary-review to the late Stephen Bax’ site. The review began and ended with Zandbergen’s opinion that  Touwaide added ‘nothing new’ to the manuscript’s study but had repeatedly returned to the possibility that the manuscript might be a fake.

In which case of course it would be again (apparently) ‘someone else’s problem’.

  • Alain Touwaide,  ‘Il manoscritto piu misterioso – l’erbario Voynich’ in  Marina Formica (ed.), Villa Mondragone ‘Seconda Roma’, (2015) pp. 141-158. out of print.

I’m sorry to add that certain comparisons widely offered as closely similar to pages from the Vms, and in some cases attributed to Touwaide, do not bear close analysis, but perhaps I’ll return to that matter at a later stage.



Charles Singer, editor of an encyclopaedic  History of Technology had a number of ‘ideas’ about the manuscript, reported by d’Imperio.   None relate to the history of technology, or offer support for the ‘bathy-‘ section’s being describing a plumbing system.



D’Imperio reported that  “Singer sees tubes, pulpits and pipes as ‘organs of the body.'”  I’ve seen no evidence that he ever attempted to argue the case or –  more to out present point – that he offered a single text or illustration from the European corpus as comparison.  Nor, apparently, did his wife Dorothea suggest to him any among  the thousands she had inspected and catalogued in the British Library under the heading of Science and Pseudo-Science, as Lynn Thorndike reported in 1921.

D’Imperio seems to think little of Singer’s ‘biological’ idea,  saying in the same breath as she reports it that they recall ‘plant parts’ to her. (Elegant Enigma, p.21)

In recent years and beginning (so far as I can discover) with Ellie Velinska’s effort, this inherently anachronistic ‘biological’ notion – imagining the Vms contains biological drawings technical, and accurate to the microscope-level –  has proved intriguing for some, but once more none of the recent writers have produced –  no more than did Singer – any European manuscript or printed book made before 1438 which is claimed closely comparable.  Now that the manuscript has been dated, Singer’s notion is revealed to be, as one might say, anachronism of the first water.  🙂

  • On Singer see also Rich Santacoloma’s interesting research-post, ‘The Voynich in 1905′, (19th. August, 2012).




Lynn Thorndike who wrote a multi-volume history of medieval science and pseudo-sciences and had every reason, if he could, to set the Voynich manuscript squarely within a context that would refute Wilfrid’s ‘Roger Bacon’ guess, to which he felt great aversion, expressed more than once in print.

But Thorndike offered no such argument, and never produced any other manuscript as close comparison for anything in the Voynich manuscript.



ASTRONOMICAL/ASTROLOGICAL? – To my knowledge, the only specialist to offer a comparison with any astronomical/astrological manuscript between 1912 and 2000.was Panofsky (see above).


Summary: “Not one of mine” is what the experts on western (and Arabic) manuscripts said of works from their own field, even while expressing, all the while, a feeling in some obscure way  there’s something… Charles Singer, who claimed to see biology  appears never to have suggested any comparable manuscript either.


In any other field of study; if it were any other manuscript, there’s a logical inference that might be taken.

2 thoughts on “Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine’

  1. Readers please note – after posting this, I learned of a post recently written by Marco Ponzi and which incidentally demonstrates that by no later than 1933 Panofsky had certainly been competent to recognise and interpret any alchemical symbolism in the manuscript had it been present.

    As I’ve said, Ponzi’s articles for ‘Medium” are, or are not, permitted to be read, on a case-by-case basis, so there’s no point in providing a link which may, but won’t necessarily, work.


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