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.

 

Specialist Opinions – Richard Salomon

Header Illustration, composite: (left) Washington, Library of Congress; (right) Warburg Institute London. Photos (left) courtesy Library of Congress (right) Ethan Doyle and English wikipedia.
Two previous:

Richard Salomon at Kenyon College in 1955. courtesy Kenyon College

Salomon’s interest in Beinecke MS 408 is best told through Anne Nill’s correspondence, transcribed further below.

Summary

In 1932 Professor Richard Salomon received in Hamburg a full photostat copy of the Voynich manuscript, brought from America by Erwin Panofsky.  At the time, Salomon was the tenured Professor of Diplomatics and Palaeography at Hamburg University and Dean of the Faculty at the Warburg Institute. The copy would remain in his keeping for twenty years.

A few months after receiving it, however,  Salomon had been forced to leave.  Administrators who had resisted the  ‘indignation’-lobby finally bowed to pressure in 1933 when representatives of the Nazi Party complained in person that scholars of Jewish descent should still be there when they were now officially ‘undesirable’. (A number of other academics were affected, including Panofsky, compulsorily retired in absentia). Perhaps because Salomon had earlier converted to Lutheran Christianity his forced retirement was imposed in the following year, 1934.

Seeking refuge elsewhere was not as simple as booking the passage for  England or America. Each refugee had to be sponsored by an English or an American institution. Salomon’s experience was less happy than Panofsky’s.

Salomon’s first, temporary, appointment  to lecture in America was not gained until 1936, and then for the Spring – during which time he went to the Library of Congress, where  Anne Nill happened to be working and she was introduced to him – delighted to discover that he was the scholar to whom the photostat copies had been given. Salomon then went on to England to deliver a course of lectures on Latin palaeography at the London Warburg Institute. No offer of further employment forthcoming from either country, Salomon was obliged to return to Germany where Hitler had been in power, now, for three years.  Salomon sent a letter to Nill from his home in Hamburg and received her reply, which was doubtless a relief in those days.  Soon afterwards he accepted a ‘rotating lectureship’ at  the University of Pennsylvania and two of its subsidiary colleges –  but as he later told Nill, they informed him – in 1939 – that his services were no longer required.

Gordon Chalmers saved him, offering a post at Kenyon College, Ohio.

The re-location took Salomon hundreds of miles from the east coast, from New York or Washington, and his initial lectures on papyrology saw him addressing students who asked him to explain the difference between papyrus and parchment and were not inspired by his enthusiasm, as we learn from the student paper, the Kenyon Collegian.

The different intellectual climate brought a radical shift in Salomon’s research: by the 1950s (when Nill renewed contact) most of what he is publishing are articles for local Church History Society.  It appears that in the meantime – over most of the time between 1939 and the early 1950s – he had lost contact with his former colleagues, including Panofsky, though in a letter of  ?1953 mentions that he returned the photostats to him ‘about a year ago’.  It must have been earlier, since in writing to Friedman in December 1951, von Neumann mentions that Panofsky has one. We know that every copy made was  accounted for by Anne Nill – to the point where she asks Salomon,  in the 1950s –  twenty years, a world war, and translocation notwithstanding – if he knew where his might be!

Early in the 1960s, by a happy chance, Salomon’s pre-war research into relations between the city Council of Hamburg and the Avignon Papal Court, left unfinished,  was re-discovered by the city, which asked him to complete it and responded to his  initial refusal by sending him all the original historical documents and his notes, which had been found with them.  The study was completed by the end of January, 1966.  Salomon died on February 10th. Panofsky would die two years later. Thus, in writing up the Friedman groups’ index to make her summary, Elegant Enigma, Mary d’Imperio was unable to consult either man.

  • Die Korrespondenz zwischen dem Hamburger Rat und seinen Vertretern an der päpstlichen Kurie in Avignon 1337 bis 1359. Bearb. von Richard Salomon. Veröffentlichungen aus dem Staatsarchiv der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg, Bd.9, T.1, ca. 1966.

and see:

  • Catherine Epstein, A Past Renewed: A Catalog of German-Speaking Refugee Historians in then the United States After 1933. (1993) pp.285-291.
  • The wiki biography isn’t too bad.
(c) D. N O’Donovan.

 

THE CORRESPONDENCE

1932

On February 8th., 1932,  in New York, Anne Nill had left a full photostat copy of the Voynich ‘cipher-manuscript’ at Panofsky’s temporary residence, with a covering letter which reads in part:

Erwin Panofsky from Heckscher

“I am leaving for you, herewith, a complete set of photostats of our cipher manuscript. And here you have our address, in case you wish to have additional information about the manuscript, or will some day be able to write to us that your institute has succeeded where so many have failed.
Mrs. Voynich and I feel that, even if nothing comes of your efforts, we have gained much from your visit. We learned many things from you last week, and are greatly indebted to you.
—–

Panofsky replied the next day,

My dear Miss Niel (sic)
I can hardly express my gratitude both to you and Mrs. Voynich for your generous gift. I shall do my very best to contribute to the solution of the problem… [though] I must repeat that I am very doubtful as to the success of our efforts….
—-
Writing to Professor Thompson – in a letter undated but the same year, Mrs. Voynich says Panofsky intends particularly to ask Salomon’s advice. She mentions that Panofsky had spent two full hours examining the manuscript (in early February), and ..

“… went back to Hamburg, taking with him a complete set of photostats and promising to ask some of his colleagues there (including Prof. Salomon, who has deciphered a famous puzzle ms. For the Vatican) to try if they can solve the problem.

She also notes that Panofsky had (in 1932!) dated it “somewhere about 1410-20-30”; had said it was written in the “southwest corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia or Provence; but most probably Spain”; that “It shows Jewish or Arab influence, probably in connection with the Kabbala” and that
except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him

If he said ‘probably in connection with the Kabbala’, Panofsky believed the manuscript Jewish; there is no Arab ‘kabbala’. The ‘Arab’ influence would be reflected in the drawing-style or the manuscript’s format.  His mentioning “Alfonso’s manuscript” followed from Mrs.Voynich’s showing him a photostat copy of some part of the Voynich calendar in advance of Panofsky’s seeing the original, so it seems fair to suppose he meant that one of those diagrams resembled in part some diagram in  Libros del saber de astronomía.  Which diagrams he meant, in either manuscript,  iI can’t say, but link below is to a high res. copy of the whole of the Libros de saber de astronomic, which you can downoad and study for yourself.  Do leave a comment for others to read if you think you have found the partial match.

  • [pdf] Libros del saber de astronomía  (University of Madrid, BHI BH MSS 156)
  • William S. Heckscher, ‘Erwin Panofsky: A Curriculum Vitae’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 28, No. 1, Erwin Panofsky: In Memoriam (1969), pp. 4-21.

1936

On March 14th., 1936, in Washington, Anne Nill writes to Mrs. Voynich (E.L.V) in New York. The letter  provides a vivid picture of Salomon’s character and scholarly standing at that time:

‘alcoves’. photo  Library of Congress

“I must get today’s rather dramatic little episode (which was in the true Voynich style) off my chest at once…This morning I vaguely noticed that Dr. Jameson was taking a visitor, who looked obviously Jewish and obviously a scholar, through the manuscript division, and was introducing him to the more important members thereof. I paid little attention to them since, I, of course, was not introduced. …. … absorbed in my Index [I] forgot all about them. Suddenly I realised that the visitor was being brought by Wilson into “my” alcove. The latter looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Miss Nill, I’d like to have you meet Dr. Salomon (pause……) of the Warburg Institute!

It seems (though I was blissfully unware of it) that as soon as Wilson learned that Dr. Salomon was connected with the Warburg Institute he asked him if he knew about the Voynich Cipher Ms.; and, as Wilson afterwards put it to me, as soon as Dr. Salomon learned of my presence in the Library [¬of Congress, where Nill was then employed] he became more interested in meeting me than in doing anything else there.

Well, to make a long story short, Wilson left us alone together, and we talked and talked, and the entire Manuscript Division was mystified as to why a distinguished visitor who had been taken about and introduced to all the high and mighty ones should wind up in my alcove and remain there in earnest conversation with me. It was all very funny.

To get back to more important matters. Dr. Salomon is none other than the very person for whom Dr. Panofsky took back our set of photostats…When he returned to Hamburg he laid them on Dr. Salomon’s desk (as I heard today), and said: “Here is something for you.” Do you remember Panofsky telling us that he wanted them for his colleague who was then working on a mysterious Vatican MS. (I wrongly got the impression that he meant Prof. Liebeschutz, the author of the book on Hildegard of Bingen). Well, Dr. Salomon is the one who has been working on the said Vatican Ms., and his book on it, by the way, is just about to be issued. He is coming back to the Library of Congress on Monday to show me the page proof (there will be more excitement in the Division when that happens).

  • R. G. Salomon mit beiträgen von A. Heimann und R. Krautheimer, Opicinus de Canistris; Weltbild und Bekenntnisse eines avignonesischen Klerikers des 14, Jahrhunderts, London, The Warburg Institute [Leipzig, Druck von B. G. Teubner] 1936

We talked about the Cipher Ms., German, the position of the Jews there, etc.

It appears that he has done considerable work on the Ms. (he says he takes it up every few months). He thinks it may be German (you will recall that Dr. Panofsky told me something of that when I ran across him in the Morgan Library in 1934), but that he is not yet absolutely certain of this. He is convinced it was written in the 15thC, possibly as late as 1450, possibly earlier in that century. He told me some interesting things about it but I have not had time to think about his remarks sufficiently to put them down clearly. .. Dr. Salomon thinks possibly this text may be of no great significance, but cautiously adds that until it is deciphered one cannot tell….

I asked Dr. Salomon whether he expects to be in New York and, if so, whether he would like to see the Ms. He says he plans to be there during the latter part of April, and that he would very much like to see it. I explained that you would be glad to show it to him. He has your address and will get in touch with you…

I think I shall also sound him out about Dr. Petersen. If he shows a desire to meet him I shall write to Dr. Petersen who could, undoubtedly go to New York for that purpose if he, on his part, wishes to meet Dr. Salomon. It would be a good thing if I could get those two together..

Isn’t all this amazing? To think of meeting unexpectedly here at the Library of Congress the unknown Hamburg scholar who has had our photostats since 1933, and just as I was thinking for the umpteenth time what a dull and unscholarly (for the most part) place the Library of Congress is.

… Oh, one more thing. I asked Dr. Salomon point blank whether he thought the Ms. could possibly be the work of a madman. He said very seriously that he thought that until it could be proved otherwise one should assume that it is not..
_______

July 9th., 1936 To Nill, from Salomon in Hamburg.

Richard Salomon’s former residence in Altona, Hamburg.

Dear Miss Nill, … Some weeks ago, in London, I had a brief talk about the MS. with Mr. P .E. Goldschmidt, the antiquarian. I was astonished to learn that this eminent connoisseur of mss is inclined to put the Ms. as far back as the 13th century or, at least, not to deny the possibility of so early an origin. Nevertheless I, personally, stick to my opinions about the date as about the very method of investigation in this case … I am convinced that the only possibility of deciphering would be given by finding an older series of plant pictures corresponding in its sequence to the arrangement of pictures in the Voynich manuscript.

  • E. Weil, ‘In Memoriam: E. P. Goldschmidt—Bookseller and Scholar’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 9, No. 2 (April 1954),pp. 224-232.
  • R.O. Dougan, ‘E. Ph. Goldschmidt, 1887-1954’, The Library, Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, June 1954/ pp.75-84

That letter is interesting as another instance of the constant split in opinion: 13thC or early 15thC.    In general – though not in Salomon’s case – we find independent specialists who had not seen the original tend towards the former, while those who had (and there were not many) hold to the latter.  The difference seems due to the strong impression made by the manuscript’s materials and palette where they were seen, and thus refer chiefly to date of manufacture. Those seeing only the black-and-white photostats necessarily focused on the layout, script and images alone. They are evaluating nothing but the content. It  took a surprisingly long time before those interested in the manuscript realised that the ’13thC’/’15thC’ split was not mutually exclusive; the logical resolution being that the manuscript is a very close copy, made in the fifteenth century, from 13thC exemplars. In Salomon’s case, the problem may again be his having only black-and-white photostats, because he had no way to distinguish between the main text and marginalia, thus provenancing the whole text by reference to what we (and Panofsky) knew were post-manufacture additions.  Had they both remained at the Warburg in Hamburg, no doubt Panofsky and Salomon might have conferred, but circumstances prevented.

Postscript: I have recently seen it asserted (without argument or evidence included) that the German marginalia are contemporary with the main text,  but enquiries as to where one might find the first argument, and evidence, which permits this conclusion have met with determined silence.  For me, then, it remains a ‘Wilfridism’ but should anyone else be met with a clear answer, do share in a comment.  Our motto is: what can be tested, is good.


Reply from Anne Nill (November 7th., 1936 ) addressed to Salomon in Germany.

Next week, while in New York, I expect to have an opportunity to show the Ms to M. Seymour de Ricci, the editor-in-chief of the Census of Manuscripts in the United States and Canada, who is at present in this country. Needless to say, I shall be interested to his opinion as to its probable date.

. . . . . . . . 

1953

(Anne Nill happened on a mention of Salomon in one of the files she was working on, and wrote to that address on the offchance… He replied)

To Anne Nill from R. Saloman at Kenyon College (April 29th., 1953)

Dear Miss Nill, It was a great joy to see your friendly note. It is very kind of you to remember me… I still am a member of the Kenyon faculty, now teaching here for the 14th year… I came here in 1939, really by chance, in a rather precarious moment when after a two-year stretch at Swarthmore I was no longer wanted there. I accepted an invitation to Kenyon for one year, and after that for a second year.. most of my recent publications are in American Church history…
The Voynich ms. Of which for a long time I had a photo(copy) lent me by Dr. Panofsky, came up time and time again during these years. I must acknowledge defeat – the heap of notes and jotting which I still keep only indicate that I have not come beyond the two statements which I made at my first acquaintance with the ms; it is 15thC and probably from Germany (the notorious geis mi(l) ch!). But you know that anyhow.

===Dear Ms. Nill,

Many thanks for sending the Feely opus – here it is, for well-deserved slumber in your collection. I duplicated Father Petersens’s half hour [reading it] with an identical result. Somewhere in Faust Mephistopheles says, ‘I feel as if I were listening to a full chorus of one hundred thousand fools….” What ideas [Feely has] about medieval Latin!
… The complete set of photos [i.e. photographic copies] is in Panofsky’s hands. I returned it to him about a year ago..

Note: It may be this set of bound photostats which Jim Reeds’ noticed in 1994. He describes it as appearing to come directly from the 1920s and not – as d’Imperio says of those used by the cryptanalysts – off-prints of the offprints which Fr. Petersen had made in the 1930s.  Of the copy taken to Salomon, and later returned to Panofsky in c.1952 as Friedman was urging a meeting – we see that Nill constantly refers to it as ‘our copy’ and it may have been Mrs. Voynich’s own.  I have written to the archive to see if it is still to be found, but there is some suggestion that items from that particular file have been removed or lost.  At one stage, a black-and-white copy of the ms was available through archive.org, but I cannot find it today.

——-

and finally – from Anne Nill’s note-to-self,  after Prof. Salomon had come to New York on July 16th., 1953. Whether he  saw the manuscript I don’t know – there appears to be no evidence of anything except NIll’s effort to arrange it in 1936.

Herbals. Sequence of plants important. Even if we find only two plants in the same sequence this might help to determine archetype – or something of the sort. Prof.S. apparently has done a lot of work on herbals – in connection with our ms – and probably many lists of sequences. Said he consulted many herbals at Coll. Of Physicians (during his first years in U/S.),

  • Seymour De Ricci, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Mss in the United States and Canada. (Kraus reprinted it in 1961). 2 vols. (see Vol.2, pp.1845-1847.]

My thanks to the Librarians of the Beinecke Library for their assistance in locating the Salomon-Nill-ELV correspondence. Any errors in transcription are mine.

 

 

Next post: Expert Opinions – the ‘S.E.P’ phenomenon.