Expert opinion: Myth vs. Materials Science Pt.1

Two previous:
Header illustration: (left) detail of Bacon’s letter to Pope Clement; (right) page from Newbold’s notes.


Wilfrid Voynich didn’t mean to start the ‘theory war’ but he did.

He was an expert in attributing a manuscript as an object to its proper region and period,  but  had no sense of the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction.  The only type of provenance he practiced was the ‘type 1′ sort.

That discrepancy introduced the first, initially minor, distortion in others’ perception of this manuscript because he created a ‘history’ for it which lacks historical rigor, which adduces no evidence from the primary document, neither form nor materials nor informed commentary on its content – and refers only to such historical facts as might lend colour to his  ‘chain of ownership’ story. This attitude provided a model – and a very bad one – for how the manuscript should be approached.

Over time the practice of separating the manuscript from a narrative espoused in advance of research and then imposed on it,  would splinter the study into its many mutually incompatible simulacra: one informed by a tale of early Scandinavia, another of sixteenth-century Germany, a third  of seventeenth century Prague, a fourth of Renaissance Italy, a fifth of the ‘New World’; one occult, another cultic, another pragmatic and so forth, with none sufficiently well founded to disprove any other.

The theoretical narrative has now become, for most, the focus of Voynich research – to the point where to say an observation is an end-result of research into one or another question raised by the primary document  is to meet with skepticism or incomprehension – though rarely with enquiry. Thus, while the issue of myth-creation is treated more easily  (and more gently) with examples taken from the earlier period, the same habits inform the study today.  I know that at some stage, I’ll have to provide would-be revisionists with examples more recent than are in this post, but I hope readers will understand that it isn’t something I look forward to doing.

Wilfrid had been less militant and far less defensive  that are dedicated theorists today,  but he freely admitted that the basis for his own narrative was a  ‘gut instinct’ that the manuscript was an autograph by Roger Bacon.  The rest followed from that. In fact, that idea of the text as composed by Roger Bacon has never been disproven – it was elbowed aside in favour of other  ‘theories’ once it became clear that the manuscript had been made after Bacon’s death.

Newbold and the Bacon myth.

William Romaine Newbold.

William Romaine Newbold’s paper places Roger Bacon’s biography central to it, and for no better reason, but  is not wholly dependent on Wilfrid’s imagination or his own. Newbold’s chief source, as he says, was Brewer (1859)*; though had he read Bridges (1875) his own narrative might have been less flawed. The two historians wrote less than twenty years apart, but stand  on opposite sides of a scholarly watershed.

* in an edition of 1900, as Newbold says in his paper (p. 433 n.1).

Brewer’s ‘Life of Roger Bacon’ is a work of the Regency/Georgian era,  full of sensibility, empathy and adverbs.   By contrast, Bridges displays already that combination of judicious evaluation, precision in detail and ‘backbone’ which became the hallmark of England’s great Victorian dons.

  • John Sherren Brewer, Rogeri Bacon Opera quædamhactenus inedita. London : Longman, Green, and Roberts, 1859.  Vol. I. containing I.–Opus tertium. II.–Opus minus. III.–Compendium philosophiæ. (Bacon’s biography is included in the Preface  pp. xi-lxxxiv).
  • John Henry Bridges, The ‘Opus majus’ of Roger Bacon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873. Vol.1, Introduction § 1. ‘Bacon’s Life’ pp. xxi-xxxvi.

Since we are here concerned with the effect of ‘canonised myth’ in distorting the manuscript’s study, I’ll take the example of the ‘Bacon’s telescope’ myth, which existed already by 1875, when Bridges addressed it:

Of the magnifying powers of convex lenses Bacon had a clear comprehension.  He imagined, and was within measurable distance of effecting the combination of lenses which was to bring far things near, but which was not to be realized till the time of Galileo.

In 1614, four years after the invention of the telescope, Combach, professor of philosophy in the University of Marpurg, published this great work of Bacon, ‘viri eminentissimi.’ It would be interesting to know whether the allusion in the Novum Organum (lib. i. 80) to the work of an obscure monk (‘ monachi alicujus in cellula’) has reference to this work. The Cogitata et Visa was written before Combach’s edition was published ; but examples of the Perspectiva were numerous, and it can hardly have been unknown to Francis Bacon. In any case it must have been known to Descartes, to whose epoch-making researches on Dioptrique it assuredly contributed a stimulating influence. This at least they have in common, that light is looked upon as correlated with other modes of propagation of force through the Ether.

(Bridges, op.cit. p.xxxv)

  • John Henry Bridges, Obituary, from The Times (-of London), Tuesday, Jun 26, 1906; pg. 14; Issue 38056. Explains that Bridges’ work was not well received.

Almost half a century later, and still in ignorance of that passage, Newbold was to write in 1921:

The telescope has extended the range of vision far out into the depths of space; the microscope has revealed the existence of the unimagined realm of the infinitely little …That both of these indispensable instruments were known to and probably discovered by Roger Bacon, and that by their means he made discoveries of the utmost importance, the Voynich manuscript puts beyond the range of reasonable doubt. (p.432)

  • William Romaine Newbold, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Series 3: Vol.43, (1921)  pp. 431- 474. Section occurs pp.456ff.

Lack of better information cannot wholly explain continuance of this, and so many other ‘Voynich’ myths.  They have not survived, either, by their simple  repetition.  Myths which prove immune to both evidence and reason must offer believers something comforting and appear to them instantly attractive.

Thus, Stokely’s paper,  though written in 1928 and again denying the ‘telescope’ myth, had no more power to influence the public than any previous effort had, and the myth of Bacon’s telescope very nearly achieved the status of ‘canonised myth’, surviving into our present decade.

  • James Stokley, ‘Did Roger Bacon Have a Telescope?’, The Science News-Letter, Vol. 14, No. 386 (Sep. 1, 1928), pp. 125-126+133-134.

In 1936, when Edward Lutz repeats the ‘telescope’ story,  it is clearly not from ignorance of Bridges, for beneath his illustration his caption is a quotation from him.

  • Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (June, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82.

D’Imperio attributes the phenomenon to a residual guilt among Catholics about Bacon’s earlier treatment, but that doesn’t explain the “telescope” myth’s persistence to at least 2015, when the present writer was obliged to ask readers of voynichimagery to kindly read Norm Sperling’s brief and brilliant post. Its first sentence is one of which Lynn Thorndike would surely approve:

“William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk.”

When finally laid to rest, a myth may seem quaintly amusing but so long as myths are maintained, they distort perception of the object of study, misdirect research and may positively hamper investigation as believers make their own objections felt to arguments which deny their well-loved illusions.

Less amusing is the quite recent practice of creating support for a speculative ‘history’ by consciously easing an item of guesswork to the status of  ‘canonised myth’.  it is a practice which has largely passed beneath notice within the  ‘mythic’ atmosphere of the theory-wars in general, but in January of this year, Santacoloma spoke of it in a post entitled, ‘ Birth of a New Mythology’.

With Rich’s permission, I’ve quoted below those of his observations with which I can agree wholeheartedly.  For the rest –  and to avoid the impression that his opinions are identical to mine –   the passages omitted (and indicated by ellipses) can be read by following that link.

I’d like to say here that Rich is among the few who have so far stood apart from the anti-intellectual culture induced by ‘theory war’.  Remaining always civil, Rich appears to place a higher value on common interest in Beinecke MS 408 than on whether a person does, or doesn’t agree with his views about it.   While that rational attitude was the norm in the first mailing list, it is increasingly rare now.

Santacoloma maintains that the manuscript was forged.  I  think, rather, that  what has been ‘forged’ – in a slightly different sense – are the conceptual moulds into which the manuscript is forced, and has been forced by one person after another since 1912.

I don’t expect Rich to change his opinion; I hope he doesn’t expect me to change mine.  We have our reasons.

Note: Santacoloma did not “invent ” the  theory that the manuscript is a forged document. It was among the ideas proposed by William Friedman by the early 1950s, prompting Panofsky’s strong statement to the contrary. Despite this, Mary d’Imperio still treated it as a real possibility.

from Rich’s post:

There are many, previously accepted (and stubbornly accepted by most, still), “truisms” about the provenance, construction/substance, and content of the Voynich manuscript …. unsupportable by the facts, and at worst, demonstrably false. Both rise to the level of mythologies. These are too numerous to mention, or explain, in [one] post …

But how do these myths arise? I don’t mean that in the sense of one’s motivation for starting them …  but by what path, what series of events, did these myths originate? …

…. In some cases they were created by Wilfrid himself. Or, soon after his death, added innocently by speculation on the part of Anne Nill and Ethel Voynich. Later, a vast army of well-meaning researchers, by digging deep for any shred of evidence …. the results were either presented as, or later morphed into, “facts”.

….  But in my time studying the Voynich… a bit over ten years now… I’ve seen at least a dozen or so new myths created, and become accepted by the mainstream “understanding” of the Voynich. As an example of these, I will outline one … its origin, its metamorphosis into fact, and then, its canonization into the supposed “fact base” of the Voynich’s story.

…  Yale publication of the (facsimile edition) book, The Voynich Manuscript,* … was edited by the erudite, informative and kind Raymond Clemens … But I’m sorry to say that I cannot recommend the work as a source text for information about the reality …, because in many respects it is a biased advertisement …  it side-steps and/or “rationalizes” some of the many serious anomalies of the Voynich, and it does so in some very obvious, and even sometimes unintentionally humorous ways.”

**Raymond Clemens (ed.), The Voynich manuscript, Yale University Press (2016).

[minor edit to replace dropped phrase –  17th April 2019]



Next post:

There have been three scientific studies conducted since 2000.  These are:

  • McCrone’s analysis of the ink and a few selected pigments (2009);
  • Radiocarbon dating of four samples of the vellum (2011);  some tables and commentary by Nick Pelling here.
  • Codicological studies whose results were amalgamated and edited to produce the most valuable essay in the Yale facsimile edition:  ‘Physical Materials’ (2016).


One thought on “Expert opinion: Myth vs. Materials Science Pt.1

  1. Marcus Marci’s letter, giving the manuscript to Athanasius Kircher (and thus to the Jesuit Order), does report the rumour of Baconian authorship – but according to Wilfrid, he had almost instantly settled on the idea of Roger Bacon as ‘author’ – he presumed the ms an autograph – before becoming aware of the letter, which (as he says) he did not pay attention to then, nor for some time after having bought the manuscript.

    In response to a comment – the paragraph where I had to replaced dropped text wasn’t the last in the post. It happened when adding the ‘Bacon telescope’ picture from Lutz’ article, and lost just enough from the para. about Stokley’s paper to quite change the sense of it.


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