O’Donovan Notes – #8.3 Angles of approach – Medicine, Newbold and ‘astral spirits’ in the VMS (Pt 2)

c.2800 words.

[update – 10th January. Persistent format error finally fixed, a caption added, couple of minor typos corrected.]

The author’s rights are asserted.

Sections – Neoplatonic stars and biology – Whose idea? Neoplatonist anatomy??; de duodecim portis; Cotton MS Galba E IV; comparing styles; Newbold’s contribution.

It is a nice question whether Newbold gained his ideas of neoplatonic influence from his own imagination, or whether that idea too had come from Wilfrid along with the ‘Roger Bacon autograph’ theory.

Wilfrid had lived in England for a quarter of a century before moving to New York, having arrived in London in the autumn of 1890. He had been granted British citizenship in 1906 when his sponsors included Richard Garnett,* Keeper of Printed Books in the British Museum and who, under the pseudonym ‘G.R.Kent’, had published in the early 1890s a monograph entitled The Soul and the Stars.

  • Colin MacKinnon, ‘The Naturalization Papers of Wilfrid Michael Voynich’ (2013).
Richard Garnett

Richard died before Wilfrid acquired the manuscript, but Richard’s son Robert succeeded to the post and since at this time the Museum’s collection of medieval manuscripts had not been re-housed in the British Library, it does not seem unreasonable to think that Wilfrid would know Richard’s monograph, and even the manuscript Cotton MS Galba E IV which we’ll mention later, and which was then still in the Museum’s library.

Some further reason to believe this association of the manuscript’s figures with ‘souls’ predates Wilfrid’s first contact with Newbold is offered by what Kahn reports of Wilfrid’s approaching various persons in England during the period between 1912 and 1916. Kahn says these included a vice president of the Royal astronomical society and Andrew George Little, a medieval history professor whose special interest was the Franciscan religious order. Little had been until 1901 Professor of History at the University College of South Wales, but by the time Wilfrid acquired the manuscript was serving as professor of palaeography at Manchester.

After Wilfrid moved to New York, he at some time contacted the very wealthy and somewhat eccentric businessman George Fabyan, among whose funded projects was the Riverbank Laboratories (so termed) where William Friedman and his future wife Elizebeth first met. Three years before Wilfrid would settle in New York, Fabyan directed his Riverbank establishment to build an acoustical levitation machine, using specifications allegedly gained by decoding some of Francis Bacon’s writings and with technical assistance from Wallace Clement Sabine. On the surface of it, Fabyan must have seemed a perfect potential buyer for the manuscript – but neither he or anyone else would buy it.

But for all these reasons and others, it appears that Newbold had met Wilfrid early – perhaps as early as 1916 – and from that time onwards Newbold worked on the assumption that he was researching a ‘Bacon scientific autograph’. Wilfrid’s persuasive character clearly had its effect on Newbold’s more pliant one, to the point where by 1921 Newbold had so lost his sense of proportion that he not only brought to the scheduled lecture for the College of Physicians a person who was not a member, had no relevant qualifications or experience in medicine, and who was plainly a bookseller hunting a rich client but he permitted Voynich to address the assembled scientists and take up a third of the allotted time.

About a month later, Scientific American published an editorial based on the content in that lecture. It shows that even with the best will – even conceding such impossibilities as the manuscript’s including a drawing of a spiral galaxy – the meeting’s atmosphere had not remained solemn.

This is all there is to the still-persistent notion of a ‘biological Voynich’ story and it must have gone hard for Newbold because by then he had come to believe his own imagination, and Wilfrid’s, and was particularly sensitive to ridicule – as remarks made even in that lecture make clear.

In 1921, there was no protective bubble or ‘Voynich-R-us’ community that might insulate him from opinions voiced by the public at large or by more objective academic or scientific specialists. Below (right) is how the New Scientist editorial closed.

NOTE – when sections of text are reproduced as images in these posts, it is not only to save my time.

Sometimes it is important that readers see for themselves that a passage is represented precisely as published, free of any editorialising and in some cases too – as in this case – it avoids excessive attention from bots.

This effort to describe a Neoplatonic biology formed the medical part of Newbold’s lecture. Here are his comments on the drawing he labelled Plate IV. And before anyone laughs, just think how many other writers, since 1921, have relied on exactly the same flawed method, imposing on the drawings in just this same way the fruits of sheer imagination and without the slightest effort made to demonstrate that at any time, in any place or by any group of people, drawings of such a kind were ever made to convey the posited meaning.

Neoplatonist anatomy?!?

For people of Newbold’s time, an obvious objection was that neoplatonic philosophies were regarded as in every way antithetical to a focus on the material, especially when it came to the human body. A ‘neoplatonic physician’ seemed a contradiction in terms; and so a manuscript of neoplatonic biology would seem immediately ridiculous.

In preparing to oppose that long-held view of neoplatonism, James Wilberding recently described it well:

The true object of care for a Neoplatonist is one’s soul; one’s body is at best an object of indifference and at worst an obstacle to one’s philosophical ascent. Why, then, should a Neoplatonist engage with a field whose goal is the health and preservation of the body?

In 1921, Newbold was likely to find that most historians – whether of science or of religion – would object to the idea that a thirteenth-century Franciscan friar would produce a work combining reference to ‘astral spirits’, the rebirth of souls (a non-Christian belief) and explicit description of human generation.

But in fact, and in fairness to Newbold, there had been a philosophical-medical treatise on sperm circulating in England by, and indeed before, the thirteenth century.

de duodecim portis

For general background on that text, here’s Merisalo:

Along with Galen’s authentic texts revolutionizing Western medicine, less well-known ones gain popularity in the thirteenth century, not least thanks to being attributed to the [some?] great authority on Ancient medicine. One of these texts is a Latin treatise variously titled ‘Liber spermatis/De spermate/Microtegni/de duodecim portis’ etc., consisting of an embryological and an astrological part.

It starts circulating in the middle of the twelfth century in England and Southern France together with late Antique and early Mediaeval texts of philosophical, scientific and medical content. It appears at the end of the twelfth century in Bavaria, attributed to Galen as author and Constantine the African as translator.

The attribution to Galen, however, ensured the success of the treatise in its [most extended] form as a recurrent element in the Northern French Galenic omnibus volumes, with variable sets of texts, such as nos. 7-10 and 12. Apart from no. 7, which shows affinities both to the “Bavarian” and the Northern French texts, these volumes transmit a remarkably unified Galba + Berlin version.
It is, however, quite obvious that as late as the end of the thirteenth century, the
[most extended] text circulated in more than one version in Northern France, and that shorter extracts would be copied as well.

from: Outi Merisalo, ‘The Early Tradition of the Pseudo-Galenic De spermate (Twelfth-Thirteenth Centuries’, Scripta, Vol 5 (2012) pp. 99-109. [now accessible through JSTOR]

That reference to ‘Galba’ is to a manuscript once owned by John Dee, who wrote for it a table of Contents which allows us to see exactly which extracts were later removed.

British Library, Cotton MS Galba E IV.

This manuscript was already in the British Museum’s collection when Richard Garnett was there, and thus throughout the time Wilfrid lived in London – Cotton MS Galba E IV is now held in the British Library.

The contents range in date from 1175-1350 AD, and the volume is described by the Library as “a composite manuscript made up of two parts” the second part “produced in South-East England in the last quarter of the 12th century. It contains a collection of scientific texts” – which I’ll list in tabular form:

  • An anonymous text on natural philosophy, beginning:‘Sciendum est quid sit philosophia’.
  • Marius (fl. 1160), De Elementis (On the Elements), beginning: ‘[Natura] aque que est’.
  • Nemesius of Emesa (fl. 390), De Natura Hominis; the chapter De Elementis (On the Elements)
  • Hippocrates (b. c. 460 BC, d. c. 380 BC), De Aere, Aqua et Regionibus (The Book on Water, Air and the Regions).
  • Nemesius of Emesa, De Natura Hominis (On the Nature of Man), translated by Alfanus of Salerno (d. 1085).
  • Adelard of Bath (fl. 12th century), Questiones Naturales (Questions on Nature).ff. 228r-233v:
  • Pseudo-Aristotle (fl. 4th century BC), De Phisionomia (About Physiognomy).ff. 233v-238v:
  • Pseudo-Galen, De Spermate (On Sperm).
  • Soranus of Ephesus (fl. early 2nd century), Questiones Medicinales (Medical Questions)

In John Dee’s list; not in the present manuscript.

I owe the following to Thomson and include his apparatus:

  • De phisionomia; extracts from “Aristotle,” “Loxus,” “Palemon.” (TKI 538; several MSS, one of the eleventh century.) and, among various other extracts,
  • A commentary on part of Hippocrates’ Epidimiarum, entitled ‘Expositio quintae incisionis epidemiarum Hippocratis’
  • Dioscorides, De herbis femineis. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 59, without incipit and explicit. As he mentions illustrations, his source might well have been Bodl. MS 130, made at Bury, eleventh-twelfth century. TKI 182 etc.)
  • Oribasius, De herbarum virtutibus. (TKI 6 etc.)
  • Odo de Meung, Versus de virtutibus herbarum, or Macer. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 107, as Macer, De viribus herbarum; inc. as in TKI 610.)
  • Palladius, De agricultura. (Kirkestede, Catalogus 113; incipit
    as in TKI 1026, and also explicit of complete work.)
  • Liber de simplici medicina’; Platearius?

For readers without Latin I should add that “De herbis femineis” does not mean ‘herbs for women’ but describes plants having characteristics associated with feminine character: such as roundness or softness of leaf and so on. If ‘feminine’ bothers you, think of it as ‘Yin’.

Had Newbold known of this manuscript, and it is evident that he dug into the question of what books had once been owned by Dee since this was another element in Wilfrid’s spell-binding but unsupported tale of genius science, misunderstood magician and pinnacle of European social aspiration, so it is possible that Newbold came to know something of Cotton MS Galba E IV and its earlier contents having included works on herbs and epidemics etc., I say it’s possible, but I’ve seen no evidence that he did know it.*

*Cotton MS Galba E IV is referenced in Burkhardt (1891-1902) and again in (1917); its contents would be described briefly by Haskins in 1927. For details of these publications see British Library Catalogue and Richard C. Dales, ‘Anonymi De elementis: From a Twelfth-Century Collection Scientific Works in British Museum MS Cotton Galba E. IV’, Isis, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Summer, 1965), pp. 174-189 (JSTOR)

Hague MMW A 10 11, Oxford, St.John’s MS 18, Beinecke MS 408 – How similar?

Though the format for those two fifteenth-century images was comparable, the context of each was very different: the Hague manuscript being a copy of a theological text by Augustine, and the St.John’s a text which moderns would call pseudo-science – a treatise on physiognomy.

But in what are the contents of Cotton MS Galba E IV, and what were, one does see adjacent texts from ancient and from more recent authors, from Christian and pre- or non-Christian writers, from treatises on generation to works about plants, and meteorology – all found together in this one English manuscript apparently complete half a century before the Voynich quires were inscribed.

What Newbold saw in the Voynich drawings may have been – and I think was – very largely a product of his following up a single good observation that the star-holders are meant for disembodied characters. One may call them souls, or pre-Christian daimons or deities but ‘demons’ seems inapt. Newbold was also reasonable in expecting that what would be so about the type in one section would be true in all.

His fundamental error was to adopt another person’s theory without careful scrutiny.

But then, after identifying the figures as disembodied characters, not to then turn and seek to discover where, when and in what context such forms are actually attested in any medieval art.

Instead, possessed of unreasonable certainty, he turned his eyes inward (as it were) and began to impose on the drawings whatever appeared consistent with that theory – one whose foundations were (and are) dubious in the extreme.

A scholar is expected to scrutinise carefully the foundation on which he/she intends to build. This is one reason that precedents are cited for any assertion made about a medieval manuscript.

However, from there he began seeking one, and then another detail he could be interpreted as consonant with that theory, in the back-to-front process still endemic in Voynich studies and which is known as allegoresis,

Consider his comments on folio 75. Questions of stylistics, of layout, of proportions in the figures, and all else – and whether or not these characteristics accord with his posited thirteenth-century English context are questions he never pauses to ask.

Why his heavens (it is ‘the heavens’ not Heaven which the bible describes as spread out lie a tent) should have sections carved from its boundary Newbold does not explain, nor why a birth canal should be coloured green; though the joy of allegoresis is that the perpetrator can always pull up some explanation for anything and everything, being freed of the normal constraints imposed by history, art history, manuscript studies and the general standards of proof.

I do think Newbold’s first insight was reasonable, and though I’ve described the anthropoform figures, myself, as ‘hours’ and ‘tyches’ I see no reason to believe that the first enunciator mightn’t have called them daimons – or even ‘demons’ as Augustine did.

Two images and human forms in the Vms.

Clearly by the time that the images in Oxford, St.John’s MS 18 and Hague MMW 10 A 11 – Augustine’s City of God were painted, ideas so strongly opposed by Augustine met less objection from John of Bedford or contemporary painters in France and England.

One scholar argues the frontispiece for Roland’s text is taken directly from Bedford’s presentation copy (now Lisbon, Biblioteca d’Ajuda MS 52,XII,18), and another attributes it to the London illuminator (“lymnour”) William Arbell. For more on that, see the Bodleian’s catalogue entry.

The point is that with such patterns of circulation and exchange, one can say no more yet than that both belong to that ‘southern’ region of western Europe earlier defined.

There are differences between those two paintings, and still more points of difference between the way these bodies appear, and the form given the Voynich manuscript’s anthropoform figures. What the first two allow us to say is that during the fifteenth century, in southern Europe, unclothed bodies pictured in ranks along an horizon, or walking elevated paths, can refer to stars or daimons and their supposed influence..

Notice how, in both those manuscripts, the males are given the same ‘pudding-bowl’ haircut as we see on John of Bedford himself in the Bedford Hours. All the Hague manuscript’s elevated, unclothed figures are clean shaven; the figures placed on earth in the Roland frontispiece include one (second from left) that is bearded and another (second from right) which, like John, has a kind of five-o-clock shadow.

Otherwise, though these two images may resemble each other in some ways, they have not very much in common with the Voynich drawings as drawings.

(detail at right) shows “The text prefaced with a painted frontispiece on four levels: the signs of the zodiac, twelve men exhibiting the influence of these constellations, the stars (or planets generally), and seven men with rays shining on them exhibiting the appropriate influence.” Bodleian Catalogue of manuscripts in Oxford.

True, St.Johns’ manuscript shows a similar inclination to draw over-large heads, but we saw the same in an earlier post, in some illustrations from an Italian copy of Dante’s Cantos.

(detail) Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Holkham misc. 48 p.4. Italy (Genoa?) c 1350–1375

In sum

Despite Newbold’s efforts, and despite his range of reading and honest intentions, his solid contribution to the manuscript’s study comes down to a simple recognition that the Voynich figures should not be presumed literal. To that we may add that in a few known fifteenth-century works, elevated and unclothed figures are intended for what we may call, until we know better, ‘daimons’.

The original sense of that term:

Daimon: ” a lesser deity or guiding spirit such as the daimons of ancient Greek religion and mythology, and of later Hellenistic religion and philosophy.”

I can’t be sure, but it does not seem that this male from the Voynich calendar has a pudding-bowl haircut under his magnificent cap – the type of headwear I’ve called a tailed beanie.

Nice ‘tailed beanie’.

Here are some more examples, from 6thC Toledo, through the fifteenth century and sixteenth century until today. This type of headwear is still around. The most recent version nicely illustrates why one might have an end that looked pointed or more-or-less squared off. It depends on the type of fabric and, in examples formed by hook or needles, how the maker chooses to shape it and end it off.

Some recommended sources:

Simon Trépanier, ‘From Hades to the Stars’, Classical Antiquity, Vol. 36, No. 1 (April 2017), pp. 130-182. [JSTOR].

Alan Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford Early Christian Studies) . Essential reading. If you decide to buy a copy, I suggest getting the hardcopy first edition.

Rodney M. Thomson, ‘ “Liber Marii de Elementis”; the work of a hitherto unknown Saliternian Master?‘, Viator, Vol. 3 (1972) pp.179-189. [pdf]

For the very keen:

Merisalo, O., & Pahta, P. (2008). ‘Tracing the trail of transmission: The pseudo-Galenic De spermate in Latin’. In M. Goyens, P. de Leemans, & A. Smets (Eds.), Science Translated: Latin and Vernacular Translations of Scientific Treatises in Medieval Europe (pp. 91-104). (Medievalia Lovaniensia). Leuven University Press.


D’Imperio reported that “Singer sees tubes, pulpits and pipes as ‘organs of the body.’” but I’m yet to see any evidence he relied on other than imagination and guesswork, his knowledge of Newbold’s views, and his own inclination to civilly accommodate the opinions of others. Lynn Thorndike he wasn’t. I think the more telling fact is that although his area of specialisation was medieval technology – including mechanics, plumbing and hydraulics etc., he suggests those ‘tubes and pipes’ might be someone else’s problem: organs of the body. One more item for the ‘Not One of Mine’ set.

2 thoughts on “O’Donovan Notes – #8.3 Angles of approach – Medicine, Newbold and ‘astral spirits’ in the VMS (Pt 2)

  1. I would have liked to devote more time to restoring something of Newbold’s reputation, so unfairly represented in Voynich-related writings since the time the Friedmans became involved. Unfortunately, to do justice to Newbold’s scholarship would take more space than is fair, given that I obviously do not think his talents included iconographic analysis and our subject at present is the voynich drawings.

    That his opinions were wrong, and in some cases simply impossible, does not mean they were inherently unreasonable in his time and the context in which they were offered. It wasn’t only Newbold who accepted uncritically Wilfrid’s ‘Roger Bacon and Rudolf’ theory, even though both derive from the same tenuous rumour. Wildrid’s entire yarn was very widely believed, and believed for many decades.
    In that general atmosphere of belief, what we find is that Newbold, a scholar very well versed in Bacon’s thought and writings, is attempting to discern those ideas reflected in the manuscript’s drawings. Precisely the same method continued to be applied to this day, and for much the same reason – the theorist imagines that Dee, or Rudolf, or Bacon or some other historical figure must be behind the manuscript and hunts for matter likely to have been of interest to that character, as magic for Dee, or alchemy for Rudolf, or.. whatever.

    The point is not that Newbold used the same flawed approach and was not gifted when it came to iconograpic analysis.
    The point is that he did know, and understand, his subject of Classical and Moral Philosophy. That he knew Bacon’s writings thoroughly is obvious from the ease with which he “sees” this or that saying of Bacon’s in some drawing, and the ease with which his knowledge of Bacon’s writings throws up some seemingly apt comparison. His references to Bacon’s Communia naturalium is a case in point.

    Numerous others of Newbold’s mistakes remain present, and are prevalent, in Voynich studies today.

    For example, his ‘spiral galaxy’ notion wasn’t his own, but was due to his supposing that all workers in a given field outside his own were equal and were ‘experts’.

    Anyone working in the field of astronomy, or of medieval history, or the history of science, or of botany was by Newbold, and is by many present-day Voynicheros, termed an ‘expert’ in that field and having gained one theory-supporting comment from one such ‘expert’ many will still do just as Newbold did, and look no further. No range of opinions, no balance of opinion, no ability to rank a number of opinions by relative weight.

    If you see a bird you’ve not seen before, it is possible that a geologist might be able to name it for you, having seen it during field-trips. A botanist, too, and for the same reason. But if an ornithologist whose speciality is species identification for birds in this part of the world, then although all three can be called ‘experts’, it is the last whose opinion carries more weight in the first instance. Even in so small a matter you need more than two eyes and guesswork.

    Of course I am unable to accept or recommend Newbold’s interpretations of the Voynich drawings, but that is no rejection of his undoubted scholarship and intellect. His opinions may be mistaken, even when not due to his placing excessive trust in some alleged ‘expert’, but they are never without their reasons and his errors are still very common errors, and were as common in the Friedmans’ work as that of the man they so mercilessly ridiculed for being unable to break the cipher – though they never broke it either.

    An up-to-date introduction to Bacon’s philosophy, and context for his Communia naturalium may be found in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy‘s entry ‘Roger Bacon’ esp. Section 4.5 sqq


  2. Readers better acquainted with allegoresis as the term is used in classical philosophy and modern debates about such terms, might be confused by the way it is used in different types of study.

    ‘Exegesis’ is defined here as explaining, or attempting to explain and to document, what an image or text would mean in the context of its first enunciation at a given time, in a particular place and in a specific community – such as e.g. mid-fourteenth century, western Europe, Christian.

    Allegoresis, on the other hand, is typically indifferent to questions of time, place or cultural context except in the most general way, and rarely tests its narrative carefully against either the primary evidence offered by the artefact, or against current scholarship in medieval history or the history of art and so on. Allegoresis can be imposed on any type of art or text, including ones which were designed as allegory.

    Newbold’s impressions of his Plate IV is a perfect example of allegoresis.

    Allegoresis applied to an intentionally allegorical work is what you see in many modern assertions made about the Apocalypse of John, otherwise known as the Book of Revelation.


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