What magic? Where magic? imposition of the occult. Pt1- Wilfrid.

Header – detail from Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 821 f.41v.
Two previous posts
  • Ending the “skies above/certain measures” series. (May 31, 2021)
  • New Voynich research (May 24, 2021)


wilfrid_voynich1Wilfrid Voynich dated the manuscript (Beinecke MS 408) to the latter part of the thirteenth century. He ascribed both composition and inscription for the whole of its content to Roger Bacon, and for no better reason than that he supposed the pictures were about ‘natural philosophy’ – however Wilfrid understood that phrase – and with better reason because the manuscript’s materials looked to him like something from the thirteenth century.

But in his talk of 1921, Wilfrid never said that the pictures resembled any from a book about magic, nor that Bacon had practiced or approved of magic, but only that Bacon had been accused of practicing ‘black magic’ when practicing ‘science’.

magic Bacon

from: Wilfrid M. Voynich, ‘A Preliminary Sketch of the History of the Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript’, Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Vol. 43 (1921). p.415. 

Note Wilfrid’s saying ‘misrepresented’ – which is absolutely right. And of course, since the materials and form for the manuscript were not incompatible with productions from thirteenth century Europe, it never occurred to Wilfrid to look beyond it.

Wilfrid’s forward-driving, unchecked and associative style would set the pattern for the sort of logic that would, from 1912 onwards, be the typical style of quasi-historical theories about the manuscript.

You see how Wilfrid’s mind grasps at some impression of ‘nearest-fit’ for the images; this he then experiences as ‘recognition’ of something familiar despite being unable to read any, and from there he develops an irrational chain that runs .. “If then … then… then … then”…

One need look no further than O’Neill and the ‘sunflower’ theory to see how the pattern applies.

Impressions are all very well as a first phase of investigations and, within the compass of his/her own specialisation, a trained person’s impressions are often accurate, but experts routinely double- check impression against concrete examples and primary historical evidence. With a strongly self-critical eye!

Wilfrid’s ‘historical logic’ reads like someone who has misread a question in arithmetic and so argues that, ‘Given that 2+2=5. so then… and therefore.. and so probably… and therefore certainly…

We can ask questions of Wilfrid, but never answer them, such as – what exactly did he think “natural philosophy” meant? or ‘Did he ever have solid evidence to inform his ‘historical logic’? The only reference he mentions is a dictionary of sixteenth-century biographies.

Natural History and Natural Philosophy

In Latin Europe, until the twelfth century, ‘natural philosophy’ is closer to what we’d call natural history and comes down to the herbals, bestiaries and lapidaries and basic knowledge of the constellations – all of which might be taught as moralia. So when Wilfrid speaks of an encyclopaedic ‘variety’ of subjects, this could be what he meant. We’d call it a form of ‘natural history’. The first encyclopaedic work in the Latins tradition was Isidore of Seville‘s Etymologiae, compiled early in the 7th century AD but as we learn from such 12thC writers as Hugh of St.Victor, the encyclopaedic method existed as part of the art of memory before encyclopaedic writers such as Albertus, Bacon, Pierre d’Ailly or Peter Lombard began writing.

On Hugh of St.Victor and the art of memory, I recommend Mary Carruthers‘ works, beginning with

  • The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric. and the Making of Images. 400–1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1998).
  • The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1990. (Second Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2008.) First edition was published in 1980.

From about the fourteenth century, and within university environments, ‘natural philosophy’ would gradually become little more than commentaries on Aristotle.

To argue, in the twenty-first century, that either sort of ‘natural philosophy’ informs the content of the Voynich manuscript one would have to address the fairly obvious objection that so far the Voynich manuscript has found no comparison in any copy, text or extant notebook from any fourteenth-century or early fifteenth-century university student or teacher.

re illustrated student notebooks in general. The closest comparison presented for the Voynich manuscript, in very general terms, is an illustrated notebook which was brought to notice by Marco Ponzi. Ponzi cites the manuscript as Pistoia Biblioteca Forteguerriana Manoscritti A 33 and describes it as made by a fifteen-year old named Sozomeno, under the tutelage of a teacher from San.Geminiano. The drawings are not closely similar, but are placed in the margins and they embody in allusive and associative ‘mnemonic’ form the content of the written text.

(I regret that Marco Ponzi does not publish for the public at large, and will permit or deny any given reader access, so there’s little point in offering a direct link to his essay in Viridis Green. I do recommend reading his work, though, if you can.)

On the shifting emphasis and definition of ‘natural philosophy’ in Latin European learning, and the divide between medieval and modern phases, see

  • ‘Natural philosophy, medieval’, Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. (entry by
    Edith Dudley Sylla). see also the special edition of Vivarium, Vol.35, No.2 (1977) ‘Roger Bacon and Aristotelianism’ especially
  • Jeremiah Hackett, ‘Bacon, Aristotle, and the Parisian Condemnations of 1270, 1277’ (pp.283-314).

For our needs, the key point is that ‘natural philosophy’ was never a euphemism for magic or occult practice, even if some attempted to gain weight by attributing their content to such figures as Solomon, Aristotle, or Hermes tresmegistus – and were later to include Roger Bacon’s name. Magicians’ borrowed plumes were something Bacon himself protested. The following comes Thorndike:

Thorndike on Bacon's naming falsely attributed texts

Roger Bacon detail from WellcomeIf Wilfrid had wanted to suggest that the Voynich manuscript’s content was about occult matter, he would hardly attribute it to Roger Bacon,

Because he believed it was by Bacon, he was at least consistent in saying only that Bacon had been accused of ‘black arts’ – but not that the manuscript included magic.

‘Natural history’ is not ‘natural magic’.  Nor was ‘natural philosophy’.

At the same time, Wilfrid did try to invert the normal logic of cause and effect, insinuating – not arguing – that because occult matters were (in his view) a late sixteenth-century pre-occupation in Prague, such matter might in some way be back-projected onto the manuscript which he, himself, insisted the autograph of an English Franciscan who had died in c.1220. It’s an outrageous bit of manipulation, but one which had continuing affect in the manuscript’s study.

We know, today, that samples from four folios in the top eleven quires returned a radio-carbon range of 1404-1438, so we can discard the ‘Bacon autograph‘ idea, and (of course) that back-projection of magic in Rudolfine Prague.

Rudolf’s great-great-great grandfather* might have been born when the manuscript was made.

*Frederick III. born 1415. Frederick III, Rudolf's great-great-great grandfather


Laying aside the inclusion of Bacon’s name in rote lists of ‘ancients’ in later magical works, Molland reports that..

.. our major legendary sources are reduced to essentially two. The first is a prose romance written probably in the late-sixteenth century and entitled ‘The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon. Containing the Wonder full Things that he did in his Life: also the Manner of his Death; with the Lives and Deaths of the two Coniurers, Bungye and Vandermast. Very Pleasant and Delightfull to be Read’. This work, which I shall hereafter call the Famous Historie, formed the basis for Robert Greene’s play ‘The Honorable Historie of frier Bacon, and frier Bongay’, and the play contains no new legendary material of interest.

The second source is much earlier, but much shorter. It occurs in a recital of deeds of Franciscans written in Dubrovnik in 1384-85 by one Peter of Trau. In this Bacon is not explicitly spoken of as a magician, but as one who was more interested in performing experiments in real philosophy than in writing or teaching.

Nevertheless the deeds recounted are of a type that would later be termed magical. Both these accounts probably had a strong basis in oral tradition, and we may suspect that the uncertainties of orally transmitted stories formed the background to the volte-face made by the bibliographer John Bale.

In his Summarium of 1548 he [Bale] described Bacon as a ‘juggler and necromantic mage’ who was said to have performed great marvels at Oxford ‘not by the power of God but by the operation of evil spirits.’ But about ten years later, in his ‘Catalogue’, Bale wrote of Bacon, ‘He was possessed of incredible skill in mathematics, but devoid of necromancy, although many have slandered him with it”.

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

In sum: it looks as if the ‘occult content’ story is one of the few persistent legends that cannot be be attributed to the talk Wilfrid gave in  1921.

Instead, to discover its origin, we must turn to the talk delivered on the same occasion by Professor Romaine Newbold who, better informed about medieval history and more familiar with primary sources, associated Bacon’s ‘natural philosophy’ with Aristotle and experimental science.

What he might have thought or written had he first looked more critically at Wilfrid’s “Bacon-wrote-science-in-cipher” proposition, we’ll never know. His principal error was the same as came to infect study of the Voynich manuscript to the present day – he adopted his ‘givens’ without first subjecting them to rigorous cross-examination and imposed what he knew about his ‘given’ – a Roger Bacon ciphertext – onto the manuscript.

I’ll survey his paper in the next post.

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