Fear of the unknown – and raft ‘Elegant’

Two previous:
Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine(
Specialist Opinions – Richard Salomon (
Header Illustration: advertisement for white-water rafting in Thailand.


This post considers the effect on the manuscript’s study of excessive confidence when combined with social bias.

One of the most interesting aspects of the work done by William and Elizebeth Friedman, and the military cryptanalysts who formed their study groups, is that they seem to have founded their entire study on the unquestioned adoption of three items from Wilfrid Voynich’s narrative. These three ideas were that the written part of the text was in cipher;  that the content was connected to science or pseudo-science, and that the manuscript had belonged to Rudolf II.

None of those items had then – or has yet – been proven true. The first was a guess; the second mere speculation and for the third, as I’ve said before, the only evidence that Rudolf so much as saw the manuscript in his life is a second-hand report of a rumour which even the person reporting it declined to endorse. When I say ‘the only evidence’ I mean that then, and still to this day, no evidence has been produced which lends it credence.   Yet d’Imperio would later include this among ‘known facts’ about the manuscript, reflecting the unwavering faith in that idea on the Friedmans’ part.

And with d’Imperio’s book serving as a life-raft to those bewildered by the manuscript since the 1970s, it is a rumour that has often and with determination been maintained as indisputable.

No matter how logically they proceeded from this unreasonable basis, the Friedmans’ theoretical argument could never be more reliable than its ‘givens’. We see the resulting blind spots in d’Imperio’s Section 8.

Imagine for a moment that the manuscript were a technical or commercial notebook: say made by a dyer.  Imagine that the botanical imagery were the regularly-needed dye-plants, the ‘bathy’ section a technical description of processes and so on. Imagine the dyer one of an underclass in medieval Europe: a Muslim from Spain, a Jew in the Balearics or a slave born in the Baltic or in North Africa resident in Sicily.

In such a case, it would never have appeared on the Friedmans’ horizon.  The cryptanalysts’ limited vision has an historical and cultural explanation too, but here is Section 8 from d’Imperio’s ‘Table of Contents’.


Note that the only form of literature being associated with the Jews is the type the Friedmans would describe as superstition – and that although d’Imperio herself (p.8) quotes Helmut Lehmann-Haupt’s information that by 1963 “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400” her focus remains fixed on the ‘Rudolfine’ era and its interests, as had the Friedmans’.

Note too the omission from the headings in Section 8 of other categories of medieval writings, even within western Europe: commercial, mundane, artisanal, pedagogic or standard religious devotional. With copies of Biblical texts, or certain standard references (such as bestiaries or Isidore’s Etymologies etc.) these form the great majority of medieval Latins’ texts.

The text is imagined ‘secretive’ in the sense of occult or surreptitious for the most part, rather than simply obscure.  Nor does the scheme allow for anything but a Latin (western Christian) mediation of any non-Latin matter before it might enter the current manuscript.

A short passage in d’Imperio’s book sheds light on this, though the modern reader may want a little background to the Friedmans’ time and its attitudes.

As  Wilfrid Voynich was well aware, a medieval manuscript had value at that time because it looked pretty or by others because it was deemed important, but the only things which made it ‘an important manuscript’ in the earlier part of the twentieth century was that (a) its former owners had been of high social rank in European society and/or (b) it belonged in the European vision of its own intellectual evolution, a vision which placed greatest value on the Protestant-Enlightenment period.

The Friedmans were people of their time, born late in the nineteenth century and heirs to the ‘social Darwinism’ which came to infuse popular ideas in the European world and its colonies; this saw none but the Anglo-German European Protestant as truly capable of rational and scientific thought and subsumed the history of the classical era into its own.  To appeal to such ideas together with Europeans’ regard for its aristocracy was second-nature for a seller like Wilfrid, but in adopting the triad of  ‘Science-Rudolf-ciphertext’  from his sales pitch, the Friedmans also validated their showing interest in an otherwise unprepossessing manuscript of unknown origin and unreadable content.

How far these ideas took them from verifiable opinions and historically valid conclusions is demonstrated vividly by a passage from d’Imperio’s book.   (pp. 5-6):

Elizebeth Friedman indicates that the lack of serious interest in the manuscript on the part of scholars was, on at least one occasion, a cause of disappointment to her husband in his research: It appears to be gibberish to many serious-minded academics, who are apt to scoff at the idea that its solution would be of any value to science or learning, as did a great foundation to which [William] Friedman once applied for a grant for the detailed study of the manuscript. In the opinion of the board, a solution would not advance human knowledge. “The manuscript probably contains only trivia”, the board said.

to which d’Imperio adds:

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”.

Now, not only is this largely speculative, but it shows that between 1944 and 1978, the military cryptanalysts had not developed any more solid understanding of the range of medieval writings,  nor investigated the possibility that the text might indeed be of a sort likely to be dismissed as ‘unimportant’ before the rise of economic history,  social history and the history of technologies – disciplines whose development occurred later than the second world war.

That the earlier academic board had not seen the manuscript as important but ‘probably trivial’ had not been taken by the Friedmans as a reason to re-think their  three ‘givens’ but only to deride those whose opinion opposed their own. The normally cool, clear-minded d’Imperio has, in this case, reacted with open hostility and even a hint of the vicious.

No evidence informs her insinuation that the  board’s members were not qualified  – d’Imperio’s air-quotes have no purpose but to express and to inculcate in the reader a belief that their combined opinion should be given less weight than that of a military cryptographer.

Use of the  ‘sneer-smear’ to diminish attention paid to views opposing ones which, though preferred, lack the evidentiary basis needed for reasoned debate, is a phenomenon familiar enough today from its regular use by think-tanks (‘if you can’t discredit the science, discredit the scientist’). In Voynich studies, its employment has increased since about 2006 or so, among those espousing a particular Voynich theory online.

It is this behaviour, more than any difficulties posed by the manuscript, which has made the study a by-word in the academic world.  It is well-known that one takes an interest in it, or contributes information from one’s own area of specialisation only at some risk.  My own experience obliges me to agree with that view, though I do not see that it applied during the time when Jim Reeds’ mailing list flourished.  Ambition and its shadow, plagiarism, were unknown. The members were generally accustomed to scholarly debate and moderators kept the standards high for most of the years it survived.

d’Imperio offers no reason for us to believe that the academic board approached by William Friedman  had given the manuscript ‘only  the most superficial’ attention.  It might be so, or might not, but does run contrary to the usual practice of funding bodies, who usually consider very carefully any manuscript for which research funding is sought.  Many projects are in need of funding and the claims of each are, usually, carefully weighed.

Again, one must ask what evidence justifies supposing the manuscript “a fabrication ….or  associated “with the court and familiars of Rudolf II”.  Only one person whose name is certainly tied to the manuscript had any contact with Rudolf at all, and  nowhere is he recorded as being a member of court or one of Rudolf’s personal ‘familiars’. He was a chemist-physician who treated Rudolf successfully on at least one occasion and who on another lent the emperor money.

detail from a 16thC copy of the Ripley Scroll

And so with the rest.. No evidence or preliminary research had established that the manuscript’s content was magical, or alchemical or medical. As we’ve seen, scholars and experts in reject two of those suggestions and Singer offered no proof for the third. Baresch, who first suggested a medical purpose for it, admitted that it was just a guess.

That Voynich researchers to this day labour to create post-facto justification for each item in that list from Section 8 of d’Imperio’s book says more about their dependence on it, and limited background in medieval and renaissance studies, than it says about the manuscript’s internal evidence or current historical and other studies. Not all allusions to the stars and calendar are ‘astrological’.

There is no rational reason to believe, either, that the manuscript had any influence on Rudolf, his court, or Europe’s scheme for its intellectual history. There is still no proof even that the text is a ‘ciphertext’ or that it would ever yield a neat ‘plain text’ of the type they imagined it should.

The whole construct is no more than the extrapolation from those three unproven notions which the Friedmans adopted on faith from Wildrid’s sales pitch and it represents not just d’Imperio’s views but those of the majority  led by Wilfrid or by Elizebeth Friedman. The idea of the manuscript as reflecting Rudolfine interests became an idée fixe.

Brigadier Tiltman, and Private Currier are the only two of the Friedman/NSA cryptanalysts on record as maintaining an independent view on any of these ideas.  Tiltman said he doubted the content would prove important (in the way the term was then defined) and while still presuming exclusively Latin agency, even allowed the possibility that the material had come from as far as Asia. His opinion is noted, then ignored, by d’Imperio.   Currier approached his analysis without adopting the Friedmans’ assumptions.

When Mary d’Imperio’s book became available to the wider public online, it was valued by the new generation of cryptanalysts and by others whose chief interest was in sixteenth and seventeenth century Prague and its nobility.  The book offered a way to orient themselves and to escape the immediate sense of bewilderment – a life-raft whose comfort was a reassurance that this manuscript was not really strange: just a nice, ordinary, European Christian work whose ‘mysteriousness’ was nothing but the effect of the maker’s obscurantism, mental derangement, deliberate deceit or incompetence and so forth.

To contemplate that its content might indeed be something from a very different culture or time would have been to make clear just how ill-equipped most were to contribute anything of value to its discussion – a loss of face no less dreaded by the Friedmans last century than it is by many ‘Voynicheros’ online today.

Tiltman’s paper of 1968 calls this the ‘most mysterious manuscript in the world’ but I believe we do better to called it most  ‘mysterious-ed’ of manuscripts.  When its obvious non-compatibility with the stemmata of Latin works becomes too obvious, few dare say as plainly as Erwin Panofsky did that this is a manuscript unlike any manuscript known to him, or even as Tiltman said, more cautiously, in relation to the plant pictures:

illustrations of herbals of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Centuries are a most interesting part of the background … To the best of my knowledge no one has seen any book, certainly no illustrated book of the period which covers the wide range suggested by the drawings in it. 

With an admission of inability to recognise what type of manuscript  Beinecke MS 408 might be comes the potential for a new sort of study, one which does not begin from the same three ‘givens’ or by treating d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma with the reverence due holy writ, but rather from efforts to explain and rightly contextualise the primary evidence.  The world beyond ‘Voynichland’ has much to offer – and more than just digitised medieval manuscripts.

Unhappily, at the time of writing, there is little chance many will leave the safety of d’Imperio’s life-raft. Adding to the primal fear of the unknown is a far more obvious fear of what might follow.    ‘Conform or else’ is an atmosphere prevalent throughout the social media, and it is found in online discussions of this manuscript today.  Such attitudes have made the field a toxic one, but have certainly proven effective in stifling the sort of open intellectual curiosity and well-informed debate which was so admirable a feature of Jim Reeds’ mailing list for most of its life.




Next post:  ‘Elegant life-raft Pt 2:  Faking and forging.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.