What magic? Where magic? Imposition of the occult Pt2 -Newbold

Two previous posts:
Header image: (detail) MS Yates Thompson 13, f.68. Third quarter of the fourteenth century. A caption in Anglo-Norman French reads, ‘I begin the ladies’ game’.

Shortlink to this post.


What magic?

Although ‘natural philosophy’ may be taken by a modern writer* as a description of magical attitudes, that equation does not apply to the perceptions of people who lived in Latin Europe during the thirteenth- to fifteenth centuries.

*e.g. introductory sentences in Sébastien Moureau, ‘Physics in the twelfth century: the ‘Porta Elementorum’ of PseudoAvicenna’s alchemical “de anima” and Marius’ “de elementis”, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age, Vol. 80 (2013), pp. 147-222.

Since we know now that MS Beinecke 408 cannot be an autograph by Roger Bacon, or even written to his direct dictation, so the revisionist is obliged to set aside not only the idea of the manuscript as a ‘Bacon autograph’ but also the string of  extrapolations derived from that premise – a premise based on nothing more than assessment of the materials and drawings as characteristic of the “third quarter of the thirteenth century” – as Wilfrid himself tells us. The rest was speculation on speculation.

Yet even now, when the ‘Bacon autograph’ idea has been ditched, many of the same extrapolations from it continue to be maintained by Voynich writers, including not just vague assertions of ‘magic’ but ideas developed without reference to the manuscript’s content. (For example the ‘European alchemy’ theory, which specialists in the history and imagery of western alchemical texts have dismissed already – but more of that in a  later post). 

In my opinion, the ‘occult’ notion is among those ‘Bacon ciphertext’ residues. I’ve yet to see it set forth in the usual way of scholarly argument, or even argued rather than asserted, or seen it supported by any material of the range and balance normally part of a reasoned argument from the body of material, historical and scholarly evidence to a conclusion.  

Full disclosure

The present author accidentally revived the ‘alchemy’ idea in 2011, after the opinion of a specialist and the radiocarbon dating had seen it ‘killed off’.  The revival was due to a post in which I was explaining the methodical design, and the subject of  one of the plant-drawings. My article never suggested that the ‘alchemy’ involved  was the highly elaborate and arcane style of European alchemists working the fifteenth century and later. Rather, I spoke of the double-gourd motif in that drawing as an allusion to distillation,  a motif and mnemonic added to the drawing of a plant which I did identify and whose only recorded use before the fifteenth century  had been in perfumery. I found no evidence of its having been employed at all in continental Europe, though the historical records of trade between east and west allow the possibility that, as well as importing the finished perfumes (manufactured from eastern plants in medieval Cairo during most of the medieval period), some centres in Sicily or in eastern Spain *may* have imported  raw ingredients for local manufacture. The trade in eastern plants as ‘spices’ is well-documented through the medieval centuries and shows especially good access into England for plants from as far as the south China sea. 
That plant identification in which I mentioned ‘alchemy’ as distillation was one of several dozen plant identifications which I made by recognising the consistently-applied informing system of the botanical drawings’ construction, and each observation was, as ever, tested against the historical record and cross-referenced against previous investigation of other sections in the manuscript. Where I found I could not offer a comprehensive explanation for a drawing, from lack of historical documentation or for any other reason, I did not attempt to offer it as an hypothetical one. I consider ‘guesses’  like superficial  picture-comparisons, unlikely to be of any positive  value and in fact a definite hindrance to the work of those labouring to understand the manuscript’s written text.   I do note that another Voynich writer then adopted the *idea* of perfumes and made an entire theory from it, one which I do not consider justified by the primary document.  The same is true of efforts made to imitate my exposition of the map while skewing the result to suit one or another variant of “all Latin European” hypothesis.
Of those subsequent efforts, but certainly not of my own, you may find acknowledgement of the author provided with matter taken up by Rene Zandbergen for inclusion in his website. Zandbergen’s attitude to others’ work has  in the past caused difficulties for my publisher and ultimately led to my shutting down from public readers all the research I had published online and to make no more available to researchers in that way.  I now regret having made any exception for posts here about the month-folios, even though I included only the barest minimum of titles from my research materials. 
Overall, however, my conclusion (supported as ever by the ordinary routine of testing against historical data, both documents and artefacts) was that a majority of the botanical drawings depict plants native to the maritime ‘silk routes’ and that images are constructed as ‘plant-groups’ defined by the constituent plants’ equivalent or complementary uses, the actual  ‘group’ depicted in each image being defined by terms for  ‘classes’ that are not the classes of modern botany, but which are attested in records of the medieval Yemen and in documents from the Cairo geniza. The article which mentioned ‘alchemy’ was of course presented with the most important of my primary and secondary scholarly sources too.
Knowing that my conclusions would be likely to cause uproar and outrage in the ‘Voynich community’ (as was indeed the case, since many could not understand what I meant by ‘conclusions of research’ and presumed that my commentaries were imaginative or hypothetical), I was glad to learn that John Tiltman had earlier sensed that some sort of ‘composite’ approach influenced the construction of at least some of the botanical images. 
Overall, after analysis and research into each of the sections in turn, and having completed the first analysis of the map (whose purpose until then had only elicited a couple of desultory comments in the history of this study),  was that the present manuscript (Beinecke MS 408) was compiled by meticulous copying of several distinct exemplars in which had been contained still older material, much of it Hellenistic in origin, though I gave it as my opinion before the radiocarbon dating was published that the nearest exemplars should be dated to about or before the mid-thirteenth century and to not later than c.1330.
I concluded, further, that the whole compilation as we have it in the fifteenth-century manuscript, constitutes a trader’s manual, though with the caveat that is not impossible  its description of the ‘ways east’ with routes and goods might have made the material useful to one of the missionary orders, among whom the most prominent order during the ‘Mongol century’ was the Franciscan order.
I do not find the idea impossible, then, that Roger Bacon might have owned one or more of the exemplars, but the possibility does not admit of proof, since I find nothing in the primary document to connect it or any of the contained matter directly to him.
While certain adherents of the  Prinke-Zandbergen ‘Germanic/central European’ theory have actively suppressed both research and researchers withholding their assent from it, I  remain more inclined to  Panofsky’s first assessment of the manuscript’s making, as  “Spain or somewhere southern”, though I do not deny the considerable evidence of Anglo-French influence in the manuscript’s late additions, exclusive of the post-production marginalia, because the latter  was then to be found throughout much of the coastal western Mediterranean. The historical picture is made more complex by the entanglements of peripatetic occupations, trade and of social and cultural dislocation which make simple definitions of ‘nationality’ historically inappropriate for the time.  One may, however, trace the link through the ‘Norman-Anglo-French’ areas from as far as the heel of Italy, including Sicily, then via the Italian peninsula, through France to as far as London in one direction by land and through the Mediterranean ports from Sicily through Spain to London and Antwerp or Bruges by sea. To this late phase of the content’s evolution I assign the month-folios’ central emblems, the inscription of the month-names, and certain other details.    Sailing north to Constantinople and the Black Sea and thence disembarking and travelling overland to as far as China was part of the great circular east-west ‘road’ and using the overland route was not as remarkable a feat as might be imagined, especially during the period of the ‘Pax mongolica’, though even then the proportion of Latins to other peoples was very small.  Contact was more usually through trading ports of the Black Sea and principally Caffa and Trebizond during the period of interest.
Constantinople is included, specifically, in the Voynich map but it is to what had once been the eastern limits of Alexander’s empire on those overland ‘high roads’ that I ascribe preservation of the Hellenistic material which forms the earliest chronological stratum displayed in drawings from some sections – primarily the astronomical and ‘ladies’ sections.  I should mention, too, that a number of people whose research interest was in the written text also looked to that same northern line, and to the same ‘Mongol’ period in discussing the probable language informing the manuscript’s written text.   Most of that research and/or opinion was  determinedly ‘eliminated’ from public conversations and forums, more often by sneer-smear campaigns and mindless, if catchy ‘memes’ than by careful and informed argument, and the work of those people is still consistently omitted or misrepresented in web-based accounts of the manuscript and what is believed about it. 
I hope in later posts to re-present for your consideration a few of those ‘dismissed’  opinions and studies, especially – but not only – when they were not just theoretical narratives but were supported by  evidence, data, and specialists’ opinion.

‘Bacon wrote it’

The ‘Bacon autograph’ idea should have been dismissed very early. Here is one of the few remaining samples of his hand, from his letter to Pope Clement IV, written in 1267.

script Letter Roger Bacon to Pope Clement

It can demand real effort for any Voynich researcher to keep focus firmly on the manuscript as the object of their study. The myriad will-o’-the wisps we call ‘Voynich theories’ are so much easier to understand than is the primary document and those published online are too often presented in a way aimed more at eliciting personal faith in the theorist than at setting fairly before the reader the precedents, documents and studies from which any historical and material theory about the object is normally expected to emerge.

“Just believe me” is the essence of the Wilfrid method.

In theory, of course it is possible that some part of the written text may one day be found to include ‘magical’ material or matter from one of Roger Bacon’s works – or indeed from any other text of any time or provenance up until 1440 – but to first assert an impression, and then focus solely on hunting circumstantial evidence for it is to neglect the fox for the rabbit. The aim of research should surely be the better understanding of this manuscript, not the public’s better understanding of an ‘idea’ spun about it.

Voynich studies is so plagued by that kind of ‘hare coursing’, and researchers so constantly distracted into hunting only for circumstantial support for one or another unfounded or ill-founded theory that (saving a few connected to the Beinecke library) scarcely a specialist in any relevant field will now let their name be associated with the manuscript, and those who have done in the past have often found the experience unpleasant. Theorists become over-attached to their visions of an imaginative past and a ‘theoretical’ version of the manuscript.

Wilfrid Voynich did not say that Roger Bacon practiced or wrote about magic, but his fantastic and undocumented ‘chain of ownership’ story, together with his impossible back-projection of seventeenth century Bohemian preoccupations onto a thirteenth-century English Franciscan friar had – and still has among the arch-traditionalists – a lasting influence.

Again – and still speaking generally – there is a good chance that the Voynich text contains something one might call ‘magical’, because scarcely a text produced anywhere in Europe or the wider Mediterranean before 1440 contains nothing that someone or other mightn’t regard as ‘magical thinking’.

Definitions of ‘magic’ vary and the word has been applied to everything from ordinary religious practices to classic necromancy. Perception of where a given item belongs in the spectrum of ‘not-magic’ to ‘really, really magic’ comes down to personal expectations – to when and where you happen to live.

As illustration – test your own reactions to these three objects:

As I mentioned in discussing a detail from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275 (here) it was initially left to the Church, in Europe, to arbitrate between acceptable and non-acceptable matter, but the medieval Church had no easy task either.

Assigning objects and practices their correct position on the spectrum between pious observance, poetic or spiritual sensibility, folk-superstition, simple investigation of natural phenomena, and ordinary ‘magic’ was always problematic and might alter with time and circumstance,* but one sort of magic was always forbidden – necromancy as the summoning of demons.

* Schmitt’s study of the cult of the ‘holy greyhound’ offers an excellent example. Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound Guinefort, healer of children since the thirteenth century. (Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture 6) CUP (1983).

Attempting to call up demons to do one’s bidding was unequivocally condemned within European Christian culture. Some theologians argued that trying to do it was just stupid, because an impossiblity; others held that it was possible but utterly wicked.

In either case, by the mid-sixteenth century in England, Roger Bacon could be popularly imagined a true necromancer, as we’ve seen* though Bale himself published his correction, as effective retraction, within a decade.

*in the previous post

What magic? – Roger Bacon’s according to Newbold.


Bacon2 coinThough he includes the dread term ‘necromancer’ Newbold’s idea of Roger Bacon had Bacon’s   ‘magic’  benevolent, and the latter idea is attested as early as 1487. For readers’ convenience, I’ll cite  Molland for this well-known fact.

  • A.G. Molland, ‘Roger Bacon as Magician’, Traditio, Vol. 30 (1974), pp. 445-460. (pp.445-446)

Just so did Newbold describe Bacon’s studies, introducing the theme at one remove by quoting Bacon’s praise of a friend in a letter of 1267 to Pope Clement IV – the same that I’ve illustrated (supra). Bacon has his idea of ‘philosophy’ by literal translation from the Greek, to mean ‘a lover of all wisdom/know-how’ – in this case, know-how about natural materials and phenomena.

Studying suspect matter “only to sort the true from the wrong” is exactly the same rationale that would be offered, much later, by the Dominican order as they tried to shift perceptions of Friar Albertus of Lauingen from ‘Albertus magus‘ to ‘Albertus magnus‘ and by the seemingly simple step of having the Church formally proclaim Albertus a saint.

In fact, AlbertusAlbert of Lauingen magus magnus modern wood carving displays much more interest in magic and borderline alchemical theories than did his contemporary, Roger Bacon. He was also far more intellectually dishonest, much of what readers perceive as his original thought having been lifted, unacknowledged, from other scholars, as modern researchers have shown. 

image of Albertus of Lauringen (left) from online re-publication of the Catholic Encyclopaedia (1913). 

The Dominicans’ efforts included composition of two distinctly different biographies and still did not entirely convince. Though eventually beatified (1622), Albertus was not formally added to the list of saints until 1931.* His annual feast-day, now, is November 15th., and he is the patron saint of scientists, philosophers, medical technicians and all students of the natural sciences.

*which is why the biography in the Catholic encyclopaedia of 1913 calls him merely ‘blessed’.

Note – a patron saint is a person recognised as worthy of emulation by those in circumstances similar to those of the saint’s life. By the same token, it is assumed by believers that the saint will feel a reciprocal empathy for (e.g.) a student about to go into a science exam, and who may therefore be inclined to put in a good word ‘upstairs’ if asked to help the student remember his facts.  The general definition of a saint is someone whose soul certainly went ‘up’ rather than ‘down’ when they died.

I add just a couple of my references:

  • David J Collins, ‘Albertus, Magnus or Magus? Magic, Natural Philosophy, and Religious Reform in the Late Middle Ages’, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-44.
  • Peter Grund, “Textual Alchemy: The Transformation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s Semita Recta into the Mirror of Lights.” Ambix: The Journal for the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry 56(3): 202–225.

On the other hand, Thorndike says unequivocally that Bacon’s work does include magical matter, according to definitions current in his – Thorndike’s – time. I’ll come back to that in the next post.

Where magic?

To date, there has been no connection clearly established between MS Beinecke 408 and any ‘occult’ subject-matter, or any such text. The closest anyone has come was Nick Pelling, who drew attention to the fact that in a book by Okasha el Daly, an illustration from an eighteenth-century manuscript displays ‘Voynich’-style glyphs.

  • Okasha el Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. El Daly’s book was published by Cambridge University Press in 2008, and limited access is offered through Cambridge Core (here).

Otherwise – Nothing. Not in more than a hundred years..

Had the manuscript’s study followed a rational course, the ‘occult’ idea should have been abandoned at the very latest in 2011 when the ‘Bacon autograph ciphertext’ notion was proven untenable.

Before that time, the notion of ‘occult’ purpose was never a conclusion drawn from concerted research, but ultimately dependent on the internal logic of those two imaginative narratives of 1921. And the subsequent efforts to justify the idea have always been, at base, just versions of that ‘blame the author, not me’ response which for so long served as reflexive defence when over-confident individuals found themselves defeated by the manuscript’s pictorial- and/or written text.

Neither of the 1921 narratives does, and no subsequent writer ever did, demonstrate that the ‘occult content’ idea is justified by the primary source or any solid historical evidence or any Latin Christian text created before – or even after – 1440.

Acceptance of Newbold’s narrative relied on an idealised view of ‘Bacon-as-anticlerical-scientist’ already popular with the general public, especially in America. To this, an evocative backdrop was added, evoking an atmosphere of mystery and ‘forbidden’ knowledge. Notice how Newbold presented Bacon’s life and works for the Physicians of Philadelphia in April of 1921.

On Bacon’s knowledge of Hebrew, there is just one dedicated study, so far as I know.

  • Reviewed by L. D. Barnett in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Jan., 1903), pp. 334-336.
  • and see also Horst Weinstock, ‘Roger Bacon’s Polyglot Alphabets’, Florilegium Vol. 11 (1992) pp. 160-178.

Wilfrid and Newbold delivered their papers in April of 1921, by which time the popularist myth of Bacon as “persecuted scientist” – echoing a thesis promulgated by Draper and by White, but which had already been refuted years before – was “what everyone knew”. It was a consensus of popular myth and infuses both popular journalism and the work of some contemporary scholars (as for example, the introduction written by Roland and Hirsch in their publication referenced above).

  • [pdf] Walsh, James Joseph, The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time, Fordam University Press, New York 1908.

But the refutation had less grip on the public imagination and the idea of the church as ‘scared of science’ would remain an underlying theme of Voynich writings into the present century.


Lynn ThorndikeAlready by June of 1921, with newspapers, journals and magazines advertising the Wilfrid-Newbold story and encouraging the proliferation of ancillary narratives,* Lynn Thorndike, who was then the eminent specialist in the history of European sciences and pseudo-sciences, attempted to return some level of reason to the clamour, but had little success.

*for which, see Jim Reeds’ Bibliography in the Cumulative Bibliography page.

His protests were evidently ignored in 1921 and the same stories were repeated through the thirties and the post-war period, and even throughout the period from 1952 when William Friedman effectively co-opted the study, and thus even to as late as 1978 when Mary d’Imperio produced ‘Elegant Enigma’.

I’ll consider that post-war period in the next post.

Meanwhile, here again is Thorndike’s letter to the editor of Scientific American in June 1921. This time I omit the formal compliment to the editor and add some paragraph spaces. Tellingly, Thorndike has already tried to stop a fiction that Roger Bacon invented gunpowder, and here he must focus on just one point as his target – so he ignores most of the nonsense to focus on the foundation for Wilfrid’s entire construction of narrative from conjecture and ‘logical’ inference: viz. the assertion that the manuscript is a ‘Bacon ciphertext’.

His letter has some other less obvious, but even more important implications, but I’ll leave that for the moment. In the meantime notice that while the passage which is cited from the ‘Wilfrid’ article speaks of the manuscript as being “with certainty dated to the 1300s”, is automatically corrected by Thorndike who knew that Roger Bacon had died some years before the ‘1300s’ began.

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