What magic, where magic? 5a: ‘occulted’ blind spots and artisans.

Two prior

Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.starry band stretched


Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:

“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.

No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.

Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if  ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.  In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2.  For the online link see  ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography  –  top bar).

Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in  European-and-Armenian  style.  McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments.  There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of  any Voynichese cipher  was either European or resident in Europe  – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress)  may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily-  but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript  – it might not.

A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.

It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’.  And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense.  It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or   is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake…  And so on. 

Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”

So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.

This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted  John Tiltman.  When, at last,  on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures: 

tiltman in scots uniform“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early Middle Ages right through into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)

He did not continue the thought  to its conclusion – at least, not in words.

More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’,  seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back,  resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player. 

Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:

“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and  foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…

In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European  ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.

It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s  intellectual history”.  Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a  rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?

  • Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.

Today,  a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things.  Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance  at that time would still have demanded some important person as  ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an  ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn,  supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.

Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.

As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.

detail from front page of Saxl's work 1915Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first  created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.

For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its textRuritanian romance must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility,  then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder –  greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.

Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”,  I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it.  We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’. 

Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.

It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s  ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals,  methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist  – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.

  • James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.

  • Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)

  • William Eamon, ‘Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science’, Sudhoffs Archiv, Bd. 69, H. 1 (1985), pp. 26-49.

  • _______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.

  • Erik Anton Heinrichs, ‘The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler: Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany’, The Sixteenth Century Journal Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 417-440

  • Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,

Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece
Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai,
Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.

“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.

adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture  .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.

The  practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921.  Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s.  Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.

Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens. 

As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” –  Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?

It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that  question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they  considered.

Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures  must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens).  If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything  in Beinecke MS 408  an artisan’s handbook or notebook.

 Practical skill = practical value.

Such information could even be imagined recorded in  cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) –  books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such  information as that about plant-derived pigments.  Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’


Access to secrets – relocation.

Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how.   So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it,  he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.”  From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.”  (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand  took three years.

  • Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).

To speak of textiles –  how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first  revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429.  In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass  on his knowledge.   One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased. 

  • [Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.

for additional vocabularies:

  • Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with

  • Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).

A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through botanical.com but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.

Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century-   through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.

They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater).  At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from  Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill  of women. 

Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.

The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning. 

Similarly,  Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might  guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good  article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:

  • Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).

As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.

starry band stretched


Folio 67v

Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v.  Relevant to our  understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference,  this anomaly obliges us to consider  too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.

The research question is framed as:

Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?

Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.  

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.


What magic?Where magic? 3d: Germanic opinion and German scholars

Two prior posts

Header – detail from Saxl’s, Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer .. Vol.1 (1915); detail from a copy of ‘Antidotarium Nicolai’. Portrait photos as labelled.


This is a three-part post (or a three-in-one). The second part begins with the sub-heading ‘Before the NSA’ the third from the sub-heading ‘November 30th., 1976’.

Sorry I can’t collapse most of it for you as I used to do. It’s still long but reads a bit better than the first, hurried, version.

I wish the Voynich manuscript had come to light in 2019, not 1912.  We might have been spared the sort of ‘Ruritanian romance’ created by Wilfrid  as sales pitch and thus also the hundred years and more of its repetitions, re-runs and spin-offs.

So now, at this point in tracing the origin of the ‘occult Voynich’ myth (for myth it must be called) the present research question is:  When and how did the notion first enter the public  narrative stream?

And further to that – Is there any reason for it, or was it someone’s random thought parroted until it became ‘what everyone says’?  If we owe the story to some individual’s serious (i.e. fully documented) investigation of the manuscript, its materials or its written and/or pictorial text – by whom was that study done? Is it yet another example of a theory/fiction’s internal logic? Or due to error, sales gimmicks, or the fertile but innocent story-telling of some novelist who never meant the idea to be taken seriously?

How did we get here from 1912?

As example of where ‘here’ is – if you’ll allow 2017 as near enough to ‘here’  – we might  consider a book that was published in that year.

Co-authored by Stephen Skinner – whose area is western occult and eastern spiritual literature – with Rene Zandbergen – who took his higher degree in engineering; and Raphael Prinke – an historian with the Central European University in Prague, the book was published by Watkins Publishing, self-described as a publisher for ‘Mind-body-spirit’ books and which had already published various other books in that genre by  Stephen Skinner.

The publisher’s categories, intended to assist librarians and booksellers shelve and catalogue a title correctly, list this one under Ancient wisdom, Alchemy, Astrology, Astronomy, Esoteric, Herbal Medicine, Magic. 

The front cover displays, in bold, red caps the word ‘Occult’ while a blurb informs any prospective buyer that the authors  “… drawing on their extensive knowledge of the period, of other esoteric and alchemical works and of the curious history of the Voynich [manuscript] … explore its relationship to magic and alchemy… Dr. Stephen Skinner explores the parallels to the Voynich manuscript in the cryptography of Leonardo da Vinci and the angel language of John Dee.”

An unnamed blogger (here) gave the book a four-out-of-five star rating. The book’s cover quotes from what presents as two sentences of a review, where the ethnobotanic and mystic (his description) Terence McKenna writes,  ‘The Voynich manuscript is the limit text of Western occultism. It is a truly occult book – one that no one can read.’

That provides a pretty clear idea of where we are today with the ‘occult Voynich’ idea.

On the other hand:

  1. there’s nothing in the letter sent by Marci to Kircher in 1665/6 which suggests any magic or occult content.  The letter from Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher may be taken to imply that Baresch believed the content ‘ancient Egyptian wisdom’ through his ‘wisdom’ was know-how, and in this case he openly speculates that the content may embody medical know-how. A chemist-pharmacist himself, Baresch may have supposed something of alchemy was involved but if he thought so, he never said so.
  2. Wilfrid said from 1912 onwards that the work was a ‘Roger Bacon ciphertext’ but never said the content included magic.
  3. For the years 1910s-early 1950s Reeds’ Bibliography shows nothing to indicate that any ‘occult Voynich’ meme/rumour was gaining traction, or that anything of the kind had been argued by a scholar whose studies put them in a position to speak from real knowledge. (as e.g. Lynn Thorndike could have done).
  4. William Friedman is not on record (so far as I’ve seen – do correct me if I’m mistaken) as asserting the content was magical or occult.   From 1944 until Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma was completed in c.1978,  we encounter no more than a vague idea that the month folios may be ‘astrological’.  No concerted or detailed research was presented either to test, or to explain how the manuscript’s content could be interpreted as clear support for any such idea. Bits of plants beside a container do not mean ‘alchemy’. They mean ‘stuff made from plants, or from plant-extracts, or ‘the right sort of container for this type of plant’ or ‘plants of this class will be found sold in containers of this sort’ or… any one of a dozen more real, historical, possibilities.

Then, in 1978 (or more relevant in the early 2000s when the NSA released it as a pdf), Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma suddenly includes in its ‘Table of Contents’ listings for occult and magical alphabets, so many that their divisions occupy more than a third of the listings though not so much of her text as the Contents might lead you to expect. Her Bibliography also includes a large number of books on such topics, though the majority are imprints from the late 1960s and early 1970s. None is a scholarly study of the Voynich manuscript, its images, material or written text. None proves any ‘occult’ character for the manuscript.

The most obvious stimulant to Mary d’Imperio’s imagination turning in that direction, other than a cryptographer’s search for more alphabets and vocabularies, is Frances Yates’ controversial but hugely popular study of Giordano Bruno, who had been born about a century after the quires in Beinecke MS 408 are dated.

5. Elegant Enigma’s including the poor judgement of Charles Singer about the manuscript’s being ‘Germanic-occult-sixteenth-century’ and “connected with Dee and that sort of movement” is, I daresay, the only reason the wider public was ever afflicted with it. He was wrong about the manuscript’s date. He apparently couldn’t distinguish between the text proper and marginalia, and there’s nothing in the manuscript to tie it directly to John Dee, save the opinion of two later scholars specialising in the works of John Dee, that the manuscript’s page numbers are written in his hand. 

  • R.J. Roberts and Andrew G. Watson, eds., John Dee’s Library Catalogue. London: The Bibliographical Society, (1990). [Claim the folio numbers in the VMS are by John Dee’s hand. -J.R.]  I have this reference from Jim Reeds’ annotated Voynich Manuscript Bibliography. (for link, see ‘Constant references’ in my Cumulative Bibliography page. – D.)

Given the wide dissemination of the “‘Germanic-occult-sixteenth-century’ and “connected with Dee and that sort of movement” set of ideas, we might here repeat that

6.   the manuscript’s vellum (or more exactly samples  from four of the top eleven quires) produced a radiocarbon-14 dating range of 1404-1438, which was later than the majority of competent assessors had previously thought, but apparently it already had a consensus among  specialists of the post-war period before 1963, for d’Imperio herself reports (Elegant… p. 8)

Helmut Lehmann-Haupt (bibliographical consultant to H. P. Kraus) stated in a letter to Tiltman dated I November, l963. that “there is a near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400.

which was pretty much spot-on.

  7.  The manuscript’s only testimony to German contact is some marginalia – and chiefly the line on f.116v.

8.  John Dee was born in 1527 – again, at least a century too late to have any influence on the manuscript’s content.  The only reason for mentioning Dee at all is that Wilfrid deployed Dee as character in the role of the unnamed ‘carrier’ who –  according to that third-hand rumour – brought the manuscript to Prague. The speculative link was via the Digby collection (more precisely Allen’s collection) of manuscripts now in the Bodleian library at Oxford.

Before Hugh O’Neill’s erroneous note of 1944, it had been generally accepted that the manuscript belonged to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.

9.  It was later suggested that the manuscript might be a fifteenth-century copy of a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century manuscript.

While still unaware of that earlier guess/speculation, the present writer had come  to a similar conclusion and, when considering the script in this connection, offered readers of  voynichimagery the following illustration, also included earlier in this blog. (Voynich revisionist post of Dec.15th., 2018). This was the first time the question had been tested, as distinct from hypothesised or speculated,* though – as is not unusual – subsequent emulations may  be in other blogs or websites today.  (The Cambridge manuscript which I cited is not about  magic, nor ‘occult’ topics).

*as by Sola-Price in 1975 -see earlier post, linked above.

Cantimpre script Cambridge

So –

Singer was wrong about the manuscript’s probable date. He appears to have been unable to distinguish between lines of marginalia added post-production and the body of the Voynich text, and I doubt we should have heard anything of his ideas but d’Imperio recorded them in Elegant Enigma and they appealed to the inclinations of some who read d’Imperio’s booklet.

Though Hugh O’Neill made no assertion of magic or occult content for the manuscript, his saying it should be dated post-1494 was another impetus towards anachronism.  His assertions were included in copies of Manly’s posthumous publications and thereafter taken as a given by other writers to serve their own theoretical narratives.

Among such writers, we’ve already noted Lionell Strong and Professor Robert S. Brumbaugh, which latter had direct connection to members of the Beinecke library where, from 1969, the manuscript was held.

In that way  the ‘occult-sixteenth century’ idea became the holding library’s ‘official’ position and to as late as 2017,  the Beinecke’s recommended ‘further reading’ consisted of writings by Professor Brumbaugh, Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, and a website owned and edited by Rene Zandbergen.

The question now becomes whether one can identify the cause for d’Imperio’s taking up that  ‘occult’ theme and focusing on the sixteenth century and later – because there’s no evidence that it was ever derived from, or underpinned by, any formal scholarly enquiry whatever. None. At all.

There is an historical link between Charles Singer and Frances Yates, but (as I’ll explain in the next post second part of this post,  d’Imperio’s decision to include those chapters (8 and 9) outlines and the various post-Friedman references to magic and the occult in her Bibliography, may have been due to in-house speculation, capped off by a few sentences spoken at the conclusion of a certain four-hour, in-house seminar at the NSA in 1976.

Singer Dorothea and Charles Wellcome V0027864.jpg

photo – Dorothea Waley Singer and Charles Singer.

That link between Charles Singer and Frances Yates consisted of two strands – first, Charles’ wife, Dorothea Waley Singer,  the palaeographer named in Lynn Thorndike’s letter of June 1921,  had in 1936 introduced Yates to a member of the Warburg Institute after the re-location of the Institute to England..

Frances Yates from History Collections blogYates’ research interest was only on the high Renaissance era in England and in Italy, and her particular focus was on the figure of Giordano Bruno, who was born about a century later than the  Voynich manuscript’s radiocarbon range and between 150 and 250 years after most estimates of the manuscript’s appearance.

Photo (left) courtesy of ‘History Collections Blogs’ post Dec 3rd, 2018.

I’ve no evidence that Yates was asked to comment on the Voynich manuscript, but her books are in d’Imperio’s Bibliography and in the pre-war period, John Matthews Manly had written to that  Institute sending a full copyflo (‘photostat’) copy of the manuscript – which had then been seen by at least two eminent German scholars of their time- Fritz Saxl in Hamburg and Henry Sigerist in Leipzig.

It is important to understand why those specialists’ opinions should still carry great weight even though, as the best specialists tended to do – they responded by saying,  ‘not one of mine’.

I’ll be as brief as I can, but providing any clear idea of these scholars’ range and expertise can’t be done in a couple of paragraphs.  The most eminent in their field during the 1930s, they cast a very long shadow.


detail portrait of John Matthews Manly John M. Manly is often described in a way that makes him seem a peripheral figure, but the more closely we consider his role, the more it is found to have been badly understated.  Manly died too soon to affect the direction taken later within the NSA groups. He died at the age of 75 in 1940.

A prodigy of learning, in mathematics and in the study of English literature, Manly had been Newbold’s friend, and friend to Wilfrid Voynich and through him William Friedman had initially  hoped – unsuccessfully – to gain access to the manuscript during the decades from the 1920s to 1944.  Friedman and Manly had met as cryptographers during World War I.

The Warburg Institute’s  ‘General correspondence’ archive proves that in 1928, two years after Newbold’s death (1926),  Manly had sent a full photostat copy of the manuscript to Fritz Saxl.

  • Ref No WIA GC/20727

from Fritz Saxl, Hamburg to John M. Manly, Chicago 16th/01/1928

He [Saxl] sent the photostats of the cipher manuscript with the bathing scenes to Professor H.E. Sigerist, but neither Sigerist nor Saxl can help.

  • Ref No WIA GC/23746. 

from John M. Manly, Chicago to Fritz Saxl, Hamburg. 14th/12/1929)

… reminds him [Saxl] of the photostats of the Voynich manuscript, which he [Manly] sent in October 1928 to Saxl who forwarded them to H.E. Sigerist in Leipzig; requests return of photostats to Dr. Platt, 29 Woburn Sq, London WC1.

  • WIA GC 1930/2074
    KBW, Hamburg to John Manly(18th/01/1930)
    London, 29 Woburn Square, c/o Dr. Platt
    Format typescript, carbon copy.

The secretary supposed the copy was of a carbon-copied typescript, when it consisted of photostats from a manuscript.  When you look at the quality of those early photostats (actually ‘copyflo’)  you see how that confusion might arise.  The  illustration (below) is part of the title page for that four-hour NSA ‘seminar’ in 1976 (see above).

NSA photostats


Henry SigeristLittle more than five years after receiving that copy of the Voynich manuscript, Fritz Saxl would emigrate to England, and Henry Sigerist to America to take the post as head of John Hopkins University and, by 1944 (the year O’Neill’s spanner was dropped into the works and Friedman’s first study group set to work), to found  John Hopkins’ journal, Bulletin of the History of Medicine.

But despite Sigerist’s being in America from 1932, his name does not appear in d’Imperio’s Index nor in her bibliography and as far as I can discover, Sigerist was never again asked to give an opinion, never volunteered an opinion about it, and never wrote an article about it. A study of the Sigerist Papers archive (at Yale) might turn up some additional information from his personal correspondence.

Today, John Hopkins University describes Henry Sigerist as “the pre-eminent medical historian in the early part of this century“. True as it is, more detail is needed to show why Sigerist’s areas of  expertise might allow him to evaluate the Voynich manuscript, its form or any of its written- or pictorial- text. Having a degree – even a professorship – hardly matters if an individual’s special field isn’t one which assists in dating and placing manuscripts, or evaluating images or scripts.

So in what areas had Sigerist particular knowledge?


I take this passage from a lecture which Sigerist delivered in 1950, though it was not published until after his death.

My own studies were begun in Sudhoff’s Institute of the History of Medicine at the University of Leipzig. My starting point was the School of Salerno, the first mediaeval medical school, which flourished in the 12th century.

Salvatore de Renzi had claimed that the Salernitan literature showed no trace ofplants Herbal-pharmaceutical Nicolai Arabic influence.

In order to ascertain that [i.e whether] this assumption was correct, I thought that it would be easiest to consult the pharmacological literature of Salerno, such as is represented in the Antidotarium Nicolai. This is a book that contains such famous recipes as Hiera Galeni, Picra Galeni, Acharistum, and Hadrianum, prescriptions that are found in the Greek as well as the Arabic literature. And then I published seven antidotaria from manuscripts of the 9th and 10th centuries in order to find out what the tradition was, in what form the prescriptions survived in the Early Middle Ages.

As a result of my investigation I found that the Antidotarium Nicolai showed strong traces of Arabic influence, not only in that the individual recipes had many more ingredients, but in the fact that they contained outspokenly Arabic drugs. This was to be expected since Constantine of Africa resided at Monte Cassino where he translated many Greek and Arabic authors from the Arabic into Latin. Constantine lived about 1010-1087 A.D.; Monte Cassino was close to Salerno, and it was obvious that the School of Salerno would be the first to profit from this new literature which suddenly became available to the western world.

As a matter of fact, one half of the prescriptions that occur in the Salernitan Antidotarium can be found also in Book X of the Practica of the Pantegni of Constantine which is a somewhat abbreviated translation of the Liber regius of Ali ibn el-Abbas.

  • Henry E. Sigerist, ‘The Latin Medical Literature of the Early Middle Ages’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences , Vol. 13, No. 2 (April, 1958), pp. 127-146.

Sigerist’s early work and its conclusions are still largely accepted, save only that he neglected to enquire into the role played by the Jewish traders of Sicily, Cairo, Spain and North Africa, an area which has since received more scholarly attention.   But the important point, now, is that Sigerist had already published an account of his Italian studies, in English, by 1934.

  • Sigerist, H. E., ‘The medical literature of the early Middle Ages. A program— and a report of a summer of research in Italy. Bull. Inst. Hist. Med., 1934, No. 2, pp.26-50. A summer of research in European libraries. Ibid., 559-610.

Despite all efforts made since that time to insist that the Voynich manuscript’s plant pictures constitute a ‘herbal’ in the Latins’ tradition – and these efforts include a nicely illustrated article in the Yale facsimile edition – no place has ever been found for them in the Latins’ stemmata.  The idea is as general as it is – still – without any basis in fact.  It’s another of those base-less ‘Voynich doctrines’.

The next passage relates to medicine and the ‘occult’. It comes from an editorial which  Sigerist wrote in that pivotal year of 1944.

“In 1941, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Paracelsus, we published four Paracelsian treatises that illustrate four different aspects of his personality and work. The translations were the first ever attempted in English. They were made from the original 16th century German and presented considerable difficulties with regard to language and content. Each treatise was preceded by an introductory essay, and the whole volume was undoubtedly an interesting contribution to the history of Renaissance thought’.

  • Henry E. Sigerist, ‘Editorial: Classics of Medicine’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine , Vol.16, No. 1 (June, 1944), pp. 1-12.

So Sigerist was not only familiar with the medieval herbal tradition, but with sixteenth century German texts about magic-and-medicine, alchemy etc, and was in a position to  compile multilingual glossaries of terms, of a kind indispensable for twentieth-century cryptographers.

So again – why from 1944-1957 was Sigerist never approached by Friedman or by the NSA to comment on the notion of the manuscript as a ‘medicinal herbal’ or as related to ‘Paracelsan medicine’?  Sigerist was the expert at that time (along with Thorndike’s great study). More, the Friedmans’ groups had surely heard of Paracelsus by 1957 for in that year  Charles Singer wrote to Tiltman, saying “My own feeling -very vague -about the little figures of nude men and women in the organs of the body is that they are somehow connected with the ” archaei” of the Paracelcan or Spagyric School. This would fit well with my suggestion about John Dee and Bohemia.” (see Elegant Enigma p.21).

None of that was Singer’s original suggestion, and his re-formulation plainly owes more to his imagination than to his scholarship. His ‘very vague feeling’ is compounded of Wilfrid’s involving John Dee, and imitation – without  honest acknowledgement – of William Romaine Newbold’s views and I suspect also an admixture, by 1957, of reading Sigerist’s translations of Paracelsus.

Here’s Newbold, writing to ask assistance from Catholic scholars in 1921.

newbolds-letter-to editor of Franciscan News

.In the same year, the ‘biological’ idea was discussed, and dismissed by a certain Professor Clung,  in an editorial in Scientific American (May 28th., 1921)

.Newbold biol SciAm May 28 1921

Newbold is also credited with first discussing ‘alchemy’ but as we’ve seen, such writings never envisaged Roger Bacon as an occultist. This article is so difficult to access, I mention it only as one I’ve read, myself.

  • Sebastian Wenceslaus OFM, ‘The Voynich manuscript and its cipher’, Nos Cahiers, Vol.2, No.1, (1937) pp.48-67.
Note – The only remaining copy of that journal, and article, was sent to me privately by a member of the order in Canada, after I’d written to the head of the order asking if any copies still existed. I published some of its content at voynichimagery.  If you find any other Voynich writer’s mention of it, or reproduction of its content, you may assume that voynichimagery was their source, openly cited or not.)

In sum:

To say that Sigerist was, America’s most eminent specialist in the history of medieval Europe’s medicine and related sciences, equal only to Lynn Thorndike, is not hyperbole, but simple statement of fact.   He was already a ‘name’ when Manly sent the copy that reached Germany late in 1928.

Given that Manly had sought Gernan scholars’ advice from a distance, in 1927-8, and that from 1932 until 1957 Sigerist was in America as head of John Hopkins and editor the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, he should have been an obvious choice for the Friedmans if they needed  highly specialized vocabularies in (at least) Latin and English and German.  Yet from remarks made at the NSA seminar in 1976, it seems no such detailed advice had ever been sought from ‘outside’. As we’ll see a little further on.


FRITZ SAXL:  Astrology and myth

Photo below – Fritz Saxl and Gertud Bing.

Friz Saxl and his wife

Saxl was the person to whom Manly sent the copy.

A close associate of Aby Warburg, Saxl spent his post-graduate academic year in Rome, studying medieval texts on astrology and mythology.(1912-1913)

He had long been interested in the medieval period generally and in astrological manuscripts in particular before meeting Warburg, but the subjects took on new meaning now, and the first volume of Saxl’s Catalogue of astrological manuscripts appeared in 1915.

Do you think that after compiling two volumes listing and describing the contents in astrological and related manuscripts from German libraries that Saxl wouldn’t notice if there were any  astrological forms in the Voynich diagrams and, more particularly any peculiarly ‘Germanic’ quality to the text or images when he had the photostat copy from Manly in 1928-30?

Saxl’s volumes are in d’Imperio’s bibliography but these might have been in the NSA research notes for decades, since a number of persons having connection with the Voynich manuscript are recorded as having been sent copies of (at least) the second volume of Saxl’s Verzeichnis.., published in 1928.

I’ve highlighted some of those names likely to be familiar to my readers.

Ref No WIA GC/30746 (from the Warburg archives, general correspondence)

from Fritz Saxl, [names of scholars who received a copy of Saxl’s ‘Verzeichnis vol. 2′ illuminated astrological manuscripts in Vienna;] [after 24/01/1928]

DateNote n.d., refers to correspondence of 24/01/1928, in ‘Warburg/Saxl’ file
[Ottokar] Smital, [Anton] Haas [clerical officer],[Hans] Gerstinger, [Emil] Wallner, Julius von Schlosser, all in Vienna; Franz Cumont, Rome; Max Lehrs, Dresden; Reginald Lane Poole, Oxford; Charles H. Haskins, Cambridge Mass.; Lynn Thorndike, Cleveland Ohio; S.E. Cockerell, Cambridge UK; J.P.Gilson, London; Aarne M. Tallgren, Helsingfors [Helsinki]; Joachim Kirchner, [Hermann] Degering, Hans Wegener, all in Berlin; Albert Hartmann, A. Rehm, P. Lehmann, all in Munich; Ernst Zinner, Bamberg; [Julius] Ruska, Berlin; [Georg] Leidinger; [Armand] Delatte; Kurt Rotter; Robert Eisler; [Henry E.] Sigerist; [Richard] Salomon; Franz Schramm (son of Percy Ernst Schramm?); Edgar Breitenbach; [Konrad] Burdach; Richard Reitzenstein; [Erwin] Panofsky; [Hermann Julius] Hermann, Vienna; Wilhelm Gundel, Giessen; L. Münz, Vienna; [Antonio] Barzon, Padua; [Jesus] Bordona, Madrid; [Edgard] Blochet, Paris; [Andrea] Moschetti, Padua; libraries in Lyons and Madrid; Charles Singer, London; Fr. Fuchs, Munich; [Karl] Sudhoff, Leipzig; Hellmut Ritter, Constantinople; [Conrad] Borchling, H


OTHERS – Erwin Panofsky and Richard Salomon

Anne Nill in ageIt might be worth repeating, here, that in 1932, Panofsky was also given a full photostat copy of the Voynich manuscript –  by Anne Nill. He took it to Germany and there asked Richard Salomon’s opinion about the script – Salomon then being an active researcher and specialist in medieval Germanic texts, legal documents and scribal hands.  The only part of the manuscript on which  Salomon felt able to comment was some marginalia on the back of the last quire (f.116v).

Nothing else struck him as familiar.

Panofsky’s own interest had been, initially, in the Christian art of medieval Europe, with emphasis on that of Germany.

Later and especially after 1933, when he emigrated to America, he turned his attention to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – then defined as the Renaissance period. Panofsky remains one of the great commentators and historians of European art and yet despite his vast reading and experience he could suggest only one possible comparison for anything in the Voynich manuscript. It’s not a particularly close comparison, either. Just a diagram from one work that had been made for Alfonso X of Castile. (and already discussed in an earlier post ).

So the ‘Germanic’ idea is opposed by their silence as early as the years 1928-1932 by  art historians Saxl and Panofsky, by Sigerist, a specialist in the history of  medicine, including herbals and Paracelsus’ medicine, and by Salomon, a specialist in medieval German scripts.  Their null-response must be regarded soberly. It is certainly of significance and should not be airily waved away to better serve the internal logic of an hypothetical/fictional narrative. 

Were the Voynich manuscript  ‘Germanic-astrological-occult-herbal-medical-alchemical’,  this interconnected group of German specialists – and Thorndike in America  – must surely between them have noticed  whatever-it-was that so much later led Singer to assert an idea that the manuscript’s content was “connected with Dee and that sort of movement”. Singer was wrong about too much, including the date-range, on which all else of his ‘feelings – very vague -‘ relied.

border blue on gold chequer Brit.Lib Add MS 42130 f80r long

November 30th., 1976: 

NSA stamp 1976It was now sixty-four years after Wilfrid had acquired the manuscript; thirty-two years after Friedman had gathered his first NSA study group; and the manuscript  had been in Yale’s Beinecke library for seven years.

A  four-hour, in-house seminar was held at the NSA.

After some opening remarks, the first short talk was given by a linguist named James Child, whose interest was aroused on hearing a talk by John Tiltman twelve months earlier. His area of specialisation was Germanic languages and languages of the Baltic states. He explained  why he thought certain features of the Voynich text appeared characteristic of Germanic-Baltic languages.


Next came  Captain Prescott Currier who delivered a landmark discussion of the text, from which we take the terms ‘Currier A’ and ‘Currier B’ as description of the written text.

N.B. – Careless omission of Currier’s name ( leading to misleading discussions of e.g. ‘herbal A’ and ‘herbal B’) is a cause of increasing error and confusion. Omission of Currier’s name means that newer- come students suppose those ‘A’ and ‘B’ distinctions, when used without the proper qualification, must refer to  codicological divisions, or imply the existence of some body of research whose conclusion was that the manuscript combines in the plant-pictures material from two distinct exemplars whose sources have been identified.  There has been no such formal study. More generally, about Voynicheros who omit, or deliberately obscure and represent the sources for their ideas, I feel pretty much as d’Imperio did in 1976 when speaking of Brumbaugh’s Voynich articles.

His explanations … are, unfortunately, very incomplete. They are convincing at first glance, but when I tried to look more closely at them and retrace the steps Brumbaugh claimed to have followed, they fell apart. To make matters worse, Brumbaugh offers no documentation or scholarly evidence of his sources other than a few off-hard, very vague words in passing….  He provides no further support, or explanation of his sources.” 


  • A brief, official military biography of Prescott Currier by the US Department of Defense.  here.

[July 1st., 2021. I have edited my ‘note’ above which in its original form overstated the issue.]


On that day in 1976,  the last person to speak was a somewhat enigmatic figure. His short address was not introduced in the normal way, nor any summary given of his  professional achievements. His name was not preceded by any formal title – not even ‘Mr’.  Nonetheless, he was given the last word, in every sense.

  • NSA,  ‘New Research on the Voynich Manuscript: Proceedings of a Seminar’, 30 November 1976 [pdf]

His name appears simply as Stuart H. Buck but whatever else he might have been, he was no historian of medieval art or sciences.

Some readers may not see much that is odd about his remarks (below), but any specialists in fields of medieval history and culture undoubtedly will, because this was being said in 1976.    Among other things, he said:

“Who today is steeped in the highly specialized vocabulary of alchemy, magic, astrology, cosmology, herbals and other topics suggested by the drawings in the Voynich manuscript?”

In 1976 the answer was –  anyone who cared to be. We’ve indicated the range of publications provided just by Thorndike and two of the scholars associated with the Warburg institute before 1957.

But I must make a critical point here.

When someone says that any Voynich drawings “suggest” something-or-other, don’t fall for it.  Drawings made in the pre-modern period were never meant to ‘suggest’ anything to their audience and the Voynich drawings are not the active agent. What is actively ‘suggesting’ whatever-it-is to the modern Voynichero is his/her own imagination, doing its best in the absence of any real knowledge of the item to compensate by throwing up ‘suggestions’ for a kind-of-nearest match from that individual’s  limited experience. A more accurate phrase is that an object or a detail from an object ‘recalls’ or ‘brings to mind’ some other matter. The task is then to discover from research whether what is ‘brought to mind’ is, or isn’t, a true account of the maker’s intention.

[July 1st., 2021. I have edited my comment by adding two sentences as clarification.]

Like d’Imperio’s outburst over the academic board’s refusing funding to William Friedman, Stuart H. Buck’s remarks permit us to suppose that already, among NSA cryptographers at least, there had been some theorising about the manuscript’s perhaps containing occult matter, if for no other reason than because they could think of no other avenue they had not yet explored.

And I rather think that the mysterious Stuart Buck’s comments led to Mary d’Imperio deciding to expand the material in her monograph, said to be ‘in the final stages of completion’ in 1976 but not presented even in final draft for another two years.   On this, I refer to Vera Filby’s remarks earlier in the same seminar, saying that d’Imperio is:

“in the final stages of completing a monograph on the history of research on the Voynich manuscript; she calls it ‘The Elegant Enigma’.

When d’Imperio did finally submit  the draft – it gave the ‘occult’ theme a great deal of space in the Table of Contents, and in the bibliography, yet within the main body of her monograph, those headings are scarcely treated and most show no evidence of any in-depth research.

At the seminar in 1976, d’Imperio had spoken in a way which tells us she hoped it would begin a new revival of Voynich studies in the NSA, but after that final word by the untitled, unintroduced Stuart H. Buck, the opposite seems to have been the verdict.   Perhaps d’Imperio hoped that her adding those occult titles to the bibliography, and a clearly laid out ‘plan’ in her Table of Contents that she would be assisting future cryptographers, but the NSA studies would appear to have ceased from that time.

We can’t know this certainly, of course. The NSA isn’t likely to say what research is still active, but Freedom of Information requests have been met, fairly easily, over the past decade with full copies of documents posted as pdf’s on the NSA site, and  access to many of the relevant archives  permitted for some  researchers.  Here’s that shorter quote from Stuart Buck in context:

…   what means do we [at the NSA in 1976] have of testing the validity of a decryption in any of the languages of that period? For example, who has access to a plain language study of medieval Latin? What statistical knowledge do we have of other languages that might have been used? Who today is steeped in the highly specialized vocabulary of alchemy, magic, astrology, cosmology, herbals and other topics suggested by the drawings in the Voynich manuscript?

Stuart H. Buck

Theories about the Voynich manuscript were -and many today still are  – as ungoverned by solid knowledge as are wild horses by bridles

border blue on gold chequer Brit.Lib Add MS 42130 f80r long


For fans of Lynn Thorndike  (author of History of Magic and Experimental Science – in 8 volumes).

Lynn ThorndikeWIA GC/24638
from Lynn Thorndike, Columbia Uni. New York to Fritz Saxl, Hamburg (14th/01/1929)
thanks him for a copy of ‘Verzeichnis 2’; finds it ‘exceedingly interesting’ and helpful; [Thorndike] informs him that ‘De naturis rerum’ is not by Pseudo-Lucretius, but, in fact, by Thomas of Cantimpré.

(and while we’re here,  why not throw in some Cabala?)

WIA GC/24939
Fritz Saxl to Aby Warburg, in Rome (28th./01/1929)
;  … one can trace a direct line from Ptolemy to the Latin astrologers of the 12th and 13th centuries and an indirect line via Arab scholars; … Lynn Thorndike sent a letter of thanks to Saxl for a copy of ‘Verzeichnis vol2’; forwards an article by G. Scholem on the origin of Cabbala, ‘Buch Bahir, die älteste klassische Schrift der kabbalistischen Literatur’; likes it very much, as it shows two levels of the older Cabbala texts, the older mythological one based on Gnosis and the younger one which reworks the gnostic texts from a Neo-platonic point of view; Cabbala rests on the ascent to heaven topic; it would have been good to have Scholem lecture on this topic; should Saxl ask him to contribute an article for ‘Vorträge’?..

But Thorndike was apparently another eminent specialist never consulted by Friedman or the NSA, as was the case for Sigerist, and Saxl and so many more. Their knowledge opposed the popular theories, and the judgement of these scholars – expert in medieval history, art, scripts, astrological texts. medicine, and pseudo-sciences was in every case  ‘not one of mine’.

When scholars of such calibre are set in the balance against Singer’s “very vague feeling” the outcome should surely have been that Singer was mistaken, and d’Imperio needn’t have bothered including ‘occult’ references in Elegant Enigma.  

What magic? Where magic? 3a: The Friedmans.

Two prior posts

Header:  portraits of William and Elizebeth Friedman (courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation);  magical alphabets (courtesy of Omniglot).


I’ll start by correcting one of my own errors, with thanks to a generous friend who took the trouble to remind me that the ‘Germanic/central European’ idea predates its adoption by Prinke and Zandbergen. It is easiest if I quote his letter. He prefers to remain anonymous.

it is true they  revived it in the first mailing list after it was pretty much a ‘dead letter’ but there is Charles Singer’s ‘feeling’ in 1957; E. Friedman said – no clue why – it was a probable [idea], though that wouldn’t mean it survived necessarily. Robert S. Brumbaugh kept it going in the 1960s or ’70s. He was professor of classical philosophy like Newbold. Like Newbold, settled on a ‘cipher solution’.  I guess the reason  Brumbaugh wasn’t so badly dumped on is Yale held both [ms. and Prof. Brumbaugh] pretty safe  and Y’s-B librarians seem to [have] been super-deferential to Brumbaugh.  The Beinecke site  repeating Brumbaugh’s ideas  for ‘introduction’ even after his death and years [bolded] after the radiocarbon range came out  still talking about ‘sixteenth or seventeenth century’ dating for the ms.  No reason given. Just embarrassing to read.

If I recall right, Singer’s feelings etc. were main basis for it. P&Z didn’t adopt it till late in the ’90s. I’m not sure you could say there is really a ‘P&Z theory’, because no one ever defines what it means, or its limits; no one defends it –  just by flying at anyone doubting it.  Definitions shifty as a Maine fog..

Tried to see if there was anything solid to him [Brumbaugh] acting like he had skills  to pronounce about manuscripts, drawings, codicology, palaeography or anything else like that. Found nothing. Have you tried – any better info? [no –  D]

Can’t believe all Yale conservators believed B’s ideas, but if not why let readers be sent off in wrong directions? Just sayin’.

Bottom line anyway, D., is you’re wrong about it starting with P&Z.   ‘Germanic theory’ has to start with Singer Charles at least his ‘feelings’. I’d  guess the thought would have died before 1980s, then Brumbaugh kept it above ground. When he died, along came P&Z with a writ for theory’s life-support. ha-ha. So it’s still here.  

All the above is one person’s opinion. Of course  I’m grateful for the correction and will call it  the ‘Germanic-central European’ theory from now on.

Here’s where d’Imperio mentions Charles Singer’s “feeling”. If you don’t have a smart screen, open it in a new tab.

Singer's vague feeling German clip p.7


Lynn ThorndikeThe previous post ended with the letter that Lynn Thorndike wrote to Scientific American in June of 1921 and about which, as I said, some less obvious aspects are even more interesting than what Thorndike actually says in it.

He made three points, two stated outright and one implied. 

First, he pointed out that there was no  evidence that Roger Bacon had been given to writing in cipher. Thorndike had closely studied Bacon’s works in manuscript copies and knew what he was talking about.

Secondly, he said that  [even accepting Newbold’s categories for the manuscript’s sections, just for argument’s sake] –  there was no reason to assert that Roger Bacon was the only possible author. 

Thorndike’s third point was implied, but serves the same argument against Wilfrid’s “Roger Bacon scientific ciphertext” story – namely, anyone tempted to believe that the manuscript’s content was ‘science or pseudo-science’ could –  perhaps should–  then test the idea against the evidence of those tens of thousands of manuscripts treating such matters that were held in the British libraries alone.*  He implies, too, that such persons might also consider his own forthcoming study.  When issued in print in 1923, that first volume would contain 835 printed pages and a late-added sentence on this same ‘Bacon wrote in cipher’ myth. 

*Each of Thorndike’s volumes includes a list of referenced manuscripts. His own studies were not limited to British collections. 
  • Lynn Thorndike, The History of Magic and Experimental Science  Vol.1. pp 766-767.

But the really interesting thing about Thorndike’s letter is something else again.

With Thorndike being, at that time, the pre-eminent specialist in the history of medieval magic, sciences and pseudo-sciences – including astrology and alchemy – you’d think that if he could have done so, he would have happily destroyed that ‘Roger Bacon ciphertext’ idea more efficiently.

All he had to do was to point to some other securely provenanced and dated manuscript, from some time and region other than Bacon’s, and show positively that the other manuscript’s diagrams, script or drawings were very closely similar in structure, form, stylistics and intention to something in the Voynich manuscript.

So long as the comparison was of substance, not superficial appearance, and was accurate, that would have been enough to disprove Wilfrid’s imaginative scenario.

Yet Thorndike never did, so far as I can discover.

For a scholar having Thorndike’s level of scholarship and expertise, who had the necessary languages and who had already spent years in close study of a particular class of European manuscripts, it would not be difficult to say of a manuscript, “these month-diagrams (or plant-drawings, or containers) look like versions of text x produced in time y within region z‘.  Professionals and scholars did the equivalent every day[within their own particular area of specialist studies – clarification added 16June].   By 1921, just as Thorndike says, tens of thousands of manuscripts in British libraries had already been catalogued and accurately described.  Only a small percentage of those tens of thousands which were acquired by the British Museum, and which are now accommodated at the British Library have needed their first description and dating corrected –   and as a rule it is place, rather than date, that has needed correction.*

* see for example, Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 821, acquired and catalgued in 1840 –  yes, 1840.   On the older website  ‘British Illuminated Manuscripts’ it is described as German, but in the light of recent research the newer site ‘British Library Digitised manuscripts’ corrects the record to ‘Southern France’. The dating stands.

So Thorndike’s silence is a resounding silence.   It is like that silence from Panofsky in 1932 or the silence underlying Tiltman’s comments* of 1968.

*quoted in next post.

While Thorndike might accept that the manuscript’s appearance was compatible with Wilfrid’s  suggested thirteenth-century English provenance, the manuscript’s content apparently found no comparison in his experience. If this inference is correct, then in Thorndike we have yet another instance of a genuinely qualified and eminent specialist saying – overtly or tacitly – “Not one of mine”. (See earlier post ).

Public discourse versus ‘national secrets’.

National Seecurity cleared d'Imperio Elegant 1978

At first it was only within the secretive environment of  Friedmans’   ‘national security’ project, during in the fevered years of McCarthy’s witch-hunt for ‘communists’ that  an idea of the Voynich manuscript’s containing  occult matter would be entertained and then mushroom until it had plainly become an idée fixe for William Friedman and his wife Elizebeth. Since they determined the limits and direction taken by their several different ‘study groups’, their fixation drove research and is thus embodied in Mary d’Imperio’s summary of the Friedmans’ – ultimately failed – efforts to ‘break the text’.

However it would not be until that summary was released in 1979 by the NSA  (established in 1952 within the Department of Defense) before that the inherently anachronistic notion could begin to affect a  wider public, and so become in time another unfounded ‘Voynich doctrine’.  As my correspondent rightly says, apart from the Friedmans, the other two driving influences were Robert S. Brumbaugh and the Beinecke librarians of half a century ago. [typo corrected and link added 16th June 2021]

DDC approval D'Imperio Voynich
d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, cleared for release by the NSA June 1979

It is easily forgotten that this idea of ‘magic and occult’ did not affect discussion of the manuscript until the 1970s.  From 1944 until that time, it was only within William Friedman’s circle that attention would shift from the first part of Wilfrid’s romantic tale to the second phase with its insertion of John Dee into the narrative. 

Roger Bacon died in c.1280 and Dee was not born until 1527. 

In the usual way, no one would suggest that a manuscript  not incompatible with a thirteenth- or fourteenth century date could include matter proper to the seventeenth, and neither  Wilfrid nor Newbold did.  But the Friedmans did, and the ‘occult’ idea was always anachronistic – as it still is – and was always tied to a peculiar set of unfounded ideas, centred on some fantasy-figure invariably imagined as a white Christian male, a member of the elite, usually one whose natural environment was a royal court,  whose interests were arcane and whose name, invariably, was presumed recorded in extant historical documents.   

Nothing about the manuscript – not the quality of its vellum, the organisation or layout of the page, and not even the binding offers support for ideas that kind. (Which is why, incidentally, any description of the scribal hands as ‘humanist’ begs a great many questions, given the radiocarbon range of 1404-1438).

There was no check on the Friedmans’ pursuing the idea because they acted independent of, and largely indifferent to, opinions from the best qualified and most experienced specialists – whether in Thorndike’s field of study, or in historical studies, art history or any of the disciplines that enabled a manuscript made in medieval Europe to be accurately dated and placed.

Indeed, when it comes to Thorndike,  the Friedmans did not just ignore him and his work – they positively ‘blanked’ both. And their attitude is found reflected in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – of which, more later

Bacon and Rubruk LUTZFor the rest of the world,  completely unaware of what the Friedmans were doing and who they were, the manuscript mostly continued to be supposed English and the written text ‘A Roger Bacon ciphertext’, as we see from entries in Jim Reeds’ ‘Voynich Bibliography’.

Nor was the general public  much interested in the idea of Roger Bacon as someone involved in magic, its theory or its practice.  

True, Wilfrid had embedded John Dee into his sales’ pitch and Newbold injected an air of mystery and magic into his talk to the Surgeons of Philadelphia in 1921, but the public weren’t buying it – not in the literal or in the metaphorical sense. Edward Lutz’ paper of 1936 is a good example of how even earnest efforts to write an objective account of Bacon’s life and works included, with solid information, much  romanticised history, imagination and credulity toward claims made by both Wilfrid and Newbold.

  • Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (June, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82. The image shown above, left is from Lutz’ paper.

It’s not difficult to understand why most people of that time rejected the ‘magical’ theme. 

Not only the public at large but  many contemporary scholars conceived of Roger Bacon as a ‘scientist before his time’ a little as if he’d been an earlier, and English version of Leonardo da Vinci. (Many Germans attempted to elevate Albertus of Lauingen in exactly the same way). 

Reverence for Science  (with a capital ‘s’) was never higher than during the first half of the twentieth century, and the Scientist was imagined some paragon of rationality, while believers of magic were relegated to an opposite extreme.   Only the few who had actually studied medieval writings understood that the line was not so clearly drawn in the days of Roger Bacon or, come to that, of Albertus.

So the popular, idealised view of Bacon could not be reconciled with notions of his being a ‘magician’ and  in discussions of the Voynich manuscript never took hold beyond an occasional mention of astrology or alchemy with a very very small ‘a’. To give you a sense of the times, here is a paragraph from Lutz’ paper.

Alchemy for Bacon formed merely the stepping stone to the higher science of chemistry, and so he correctly evaluated  the former’s worth. Hence, his comprehensive mind having grasped all the rudiments of the subject [i.e  alchemy’s technical skills] , Roger drafted principles of action whereby he employed the knowledge of those before him in his own inimitable way to arrive at many new discoveries…. Besides the ordinary metals known to the ancients Friar Roger appears to have isolated quite a few of the rarer elements; for in his writings have been found the formulae for extracting phosphorus, manganese, bismuth, and others from their compounds.

Lutz, op.cit. p.49.


Friedmans and his ‘teams’.

American shaggy mushroom

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002


There is a reason why ‘team spirit’ and group-work is associated chiefly with government organisations, the military, with commercial corporations,  and with sports. 

All are inclined to frame their purpose in terms of an  ‘us’ against ‘them’.  The very concept of the ‘team’ begins by assuming unity of attitude and purpose, and then actively promotes those ideas within the group’s members, the aim being to defeat the supposedly inferior – or even nefarious – aims of “the others”.

No matter how acute a thinker any individual within a ‘team’ may be, the ‘team’ itself is an inherently anti-intellectual structure.   At its worst it serves up less-than-truthful propaganda, or forms into a ‘think-tank’ whose charter is to fake, distort or misrepresent objective technical information to facilitate  particular commercial or other forms of exploitation.. and so forth.

Scholars having already achieved eminence in one of the critical sciences (as distinct from the pragmatic sciences) are inclined to resist pressure placed on them – no matter how subtlely – to become ‘team players’ in any situation short of war.   

In normal situations, scholars may confer; they may contribute to the organisation of a seminar, or to the production of collected studies, but in the last analysis a scholar whose profession has already recognised the quality of his or her work wants to work and think without intellectual- or social pressure exterted on them  to go along with some ‘median line’.

Error remains error no matter how many hands go up signalling assent to it.  One cannot ‘vote’ for an idea to become a fact.  Scholarly consensus doesn’t work that way.  

Let me put it more mildly by quoting a comment from ‘Sir Hubert’ at Nick Pelling’s blog:

.. breaking ciphers is all about testing hypotheses and finding *the* consistent solution, of which there will be only one. Historical research doesn’t admit of one neat solution and works very differently.

“SirHubert” ( comment to Ciphermysteries, December 10, 2013.

The Friedmans formed a team of two.  Those who came for a shorter or for a longer period worked at their direction and along the lines which Friedman decided, and decided without much effort to learn anything more about medieval history, manuscripts, codicology, palaeography.. or even medieval and later magic in Europe. As we shall see.


Lynn ThorndikeThe first volume of Lynn Thorndike’s great study  appeared in print in 1923. HIs eighth and final volume, covering the seventeenth century, was published in 1958.

It represented the first comprehensive. scholarly study of these matters in English, and was for decades the only substantial reference work for an English speaking public.

As you see from the illustration (below), the whole series covers a period from long before Bacon’s birth (c.1219 AD)  until after Rudolf’s death in 1522. 

Thorndike volumes


You might think, then, when noting the large proportion of d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma that is assigned to occult and magical matter,  that a great many mentions of Thorndike would be found within.  After all, he was in America, as they were, and was someone against whom, between 1944 and 1958,  an hypothesis about ‘magical matter’ could be checked to see if it accorded with the facts and documents of history.  After 1958, there was his magnum opus against which a theory the Friedmans had adopted could be checked in the same way.

You might think so  – but it isn’t so.  Thorndike is spared just a few sporadic sentences. 

from: Elegant Enigma –  ‘Table of Contents’

d'Imperio section 8

d'Imperio sections 9 & 10

If that fact is startling, their  tone  is still more disconcerting: 

Thorndike has, with characteristic emphasis, stated his opinion that “There is hardly one chance in fifty that Roger Bacon had any connection with the production of the Voynich manuscript.” (quoting a paper of 1929)…. p.6

Thorndike’s debunking of Bacon seems to be a shade more savage and thoroughgoing, doubtless as an over-reaction [sic] to the effusive and misplaced adulation of Bacon by some earlier writers…. p.50.

Thorndike .. characterises Ars Notoria as an art designed to gain knowledge of, and to communicate with God by the invocation of angels, unsung mystical characters and prayers; he also dismisses all the material as “meaningless jumbles of diagrams and magic words” without telling us much more about it. … p.59

Thorndike (1923-58) discusses alchemy in passing as he describes the writings of various ancient and medieval practitioners. (p.60)

The dismissive and faintly derogatory tone of these remarks makes them worse than actually incorrect, or an insult to the man, but wrong in the worst way.  It is almost enough to make the present writer resort to fiction, too, because I can almost see Willian Friedman, while still working on his initial ‘Bacon ciphertext’ premise, flicking through the first volume of Thorndike’s History… looking for ‘sets of alphabets or something’ which can be conveniently transferred to computer punch-cards and finding nothing so facile, tossing the book away with a supercilious expression and some sneering comment.

From time to time, d’Imperio gives us such a glimpse of the way in which the Friedmans had an excessive idea of their own importance and expressed it by denigrating specialists in all intellectual disciplines, save the practice of cryptography.

Before illustrating that fact, I want to explain its importance – that their inability to recognise the value of other areas of knowledge meant that their range of external checks for any idea about the manuscript’s date and evident character was very small, desultory and curiously ignorant of relative weight – that is, of whose opinion was worthy or greater or less attention, of whether a subject needed them to devote more, or less, time to learning about it before incorporating it into some theory or other.  As one looks down the list of those who are mentioned approvingly in d’Imperio’s summary of the Friedmans’ failed efforts to ‘break the text’, a pattern does emerge.  Greater weight is given the opinion of anyone who is willing to lend support to some idea which Friedman finds attractive and correspondingly less to those who cannot concur with his views.

Thus, Singer whose ability to judge a manuscript was far inferior to that of Panofsky or Thorndike, is given great weight, and no effort is made to use genuinely expert opinions to ascertain whether Singer’s “renaissance Germanic occult” notion is compatible with the palaeographic, codicological or iconographic evidence, or even with Thorndike’s information about the history of magic and pseudo-science.  The push was simply towards hunting evidence for the theory – never a balanced idea of its relevance to the manuscript.   Thus, the entire construction of the ‘Germanic-and-occult’ narrative is based on not much more than Wilfrid’s imaginative tale, Singer’s poor attempt to date and place the manuscript, and Friedman’s liking the idea while being over-confident about the superiority of his own opinions over all academic scholarship.

d'Imperiod’Imperio herself, though her writing usually suggests a person of calm, balanced and orderly mind, bursts out occasionally with the most astonishing, ill-founded ideas.  It was in that atmosphere that the ‘occult Voynich’ notion flourished, moved well beyond any reasonable chronological boundary, and would become inextricably, if inexplicably, linked to a ‘Germanic’ theory.

The very persons and sources that might have prevented Friedman from such irrational theories were unable to do so by reason of the fact that they offered him contradiction, and Friedman’s self-importance would not allow him to accept correction from anyone but – occasionally – John Tiltman.

We have seen how Friedman acted with regard to Professor Panofsky, and how the Friedmans reacted when an academic board advised them the manuscript’s content was unlikely to be of any importance.  Again, there are those few, cursory, dismissive references to Thorndike, and the cavalier way in which Fr. Theodore Petersen’s work was mistreated. The following passage was quoted in an earlier post but I include it again to show that not only Friedman himself behaved in that irrational way, but his attitude came to infect the team.  It is especially uncomfortable to have this from d’Imperio.  

The manuscript probably contains only trivia”, the board said.

to which d’Imperio adds, with sneering air-quotes, the following extraordinary farrago of baseless assertion, speculation and sheer fantasy. It is not clear the degree to which she is relaying Elizebeth Friedman’s views.

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”.

For the notion that the manuscript is about astrology, alchemy or medicine there is, to the time of writing, no proven basis in fact.

Not one of those ideas has ever been introduced as an end-result of concerted and formal investigation of either the images or the written text. Every one of them is an assumption for which the underlying premise is that in some way or other the manuscript will be a flawed copy of some ‘normal’ Latin European text.

For that assumption there is no  basis established either though the idea has been constantly assumed since 1912.

Another instance of that astounding loss of proportion occurs after d’Imperio has related, as if they were of equal weight, opinions expressed by various people about the manuscript’s drawings.  She then says:

In sum: it appears as if no one has made or documented a really careful and systematic attempt to contrast and compare the style of the Voynich manuscript  drawings to other manuscripts of various origins and dates such as could answer some of our questions.

*a five-seconds’ pause*

Did she never ask herself – “Why on earth should they go to such lengths to answer some of our questions?”

The manuscript was Friedman’s project.  Even among the first lot of military cryptographers, some wanted nothing to do with it, as Jim Reeds relates.

Writing in 1994, Reeds says of Friedman’s  “first study group”[FSG] which operated from 1944-46:

Frank Lewis re Friedman and FSG VoynichAt the end of the war, the Army cryptanalysts headed by Friedman found themselves without any pressing tasks. Many were simply awaiting demobilization and return to their universities and civilian practices. Friedman took advantage of their momentarily free time and talent by organizing an effort to work on the Voynich problem. The group studied the available scholarly material, [sic!] discussed hypotheses, transcribed the VMS onto IBM cards, and disbanded. …It is known that Frank Lewis .. and Martin Joos … were in the right place at the right time to have been part of the FSG but Lewis was not attracted to the Voynich problem and Joos thought Friedman’s approach was misguided, so neither participated.

  • [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘William F. Friedman’s Transcription of the Voynich Manuscript’ (1994). Frank Lewis assisted in breaking Soviet ciphers, as part of the ‘Venona’ project aimed at identifying active soviet agents. 

To imagine, in the 1950s, that someone like Panofsky, or even Singer, should set aside their own professional research and duties to undertake so massive a task as is implied by d’Imperio – and  merely to provide Friedman with pre-digested ‘answers’ for his often embarrassingly ignorant questions –  is beyond mere cheek. 

The best excuse I can suggest for d’Imperio is that her own ignorance prevented her being able to so much as imagine what such a task would entail. Perhaps the easiest way to make the point is by the reciprocal: it is as if Panofsky has expected Friedman to produce a translation of the written text within a fortnight so he could write a full explanation of the text’s images, their origin and purpose.

It’s no exaggeration to say that one might make an entire doctoral dissertation on the practical and philosophical  implications  of  “comparing and contrasting drawings in manuscripts of various origins and dates” .

Comparative studies are the life-work of those who specialise in this fairly small and difficult branch of iconological studies, and most who do, work for private clients and do not publish their professional research. 

I will say that such work  involves a great deal more than looking at pictures with a ‘pick the similarities’ attitude, because what is actually being compared are the things about which different peoples make pictures – they give form to their unique culture, embody in the picture ideas from proverbial sayings, religious beliefs, ideas about the heavens and earth, their oral and written literature, their tribal heritage, and memories of times so long ago that western culture cannot grasp such constancy. They make pictures from their own practical lore, including that about plants or stars.. and more. So too did medieval Latins, but since so much of that culture remains in modern western Christian society, the way of interpreting pictures from that environment seems ‘natural’ and easy to modern Europeans and, thanks to the colonial period, to much of the world where it was never natural. 

But at least d’Imperio understood that to ‘contrast’ is as important as to ‘compare’. Today,  even Kindergarten children learn how to ‘compare and contrast’ – it’s part of pre-literacy education, but for some inexplicable reason, it has never been part of, so to say, ‘Voynich studies 101’. In practice, it’s the ‘contrast’ phase which produces the most valuable information. 

  And Friedman himself was never interested in hearing  ‘unlike’ from  the historical record or as others’ opinions. Knowing that the number, and range, of those asked to submit ‘answers’ to Friedman was not only small, but were curiously ranked by the Friedmans and thus by d’Imperio, and the written sources were so summarily treated, it becomes easier to understand how Elegant Enigma came to contain  so many statements patently untrue and so many and various tyro-nian errors.

Take that reference to ‘Ars notoria’, for example.

[the] Ars notoria

frontispiece Ars nortoria Agrippa's interpretationd’Imperio says Thorndike had ‘nothing much to say’ about [the] Ars notoria, but he refers to it in many places, such as when speaking of Fontana in Vol.4, where his footnote reads, 

   “On the ars notoria and the sacred characters [see] ibid 17r, 99v, 73r.”

His reference is to the 1544 edition of a specific text (S. Marco VIII, 72 {Valentinelli XI, 93). 


  • Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic…  Vol.4 [Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries] p.169 n.99. (1934). 

If the Friedmans’ indifference to ‘external checks’ had been less pronounced, then even if they could spare no-one to travel to Europe to check that precise source, any  enquiry directed to, say,  a university library, the Library of Congress, or the British Library would have informed them that an English translation had been made of Cornelius Agrippa’s work of that name and had been published in 1657, by Robert Turner. Turner’s translation is not in d’Imperio’s bibliography, but the 1651 translation of Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy is. That translator, John French, is advertised as .. well, see for yourself.

Agrippa frontispiece for John French's translation of 1651

The content of Agrippa’s Ars Notoria is, indeed, much as Thorndike said.

Any reader here who likes to verify information may like to know that there online a fine transcription of that English translation, created by Benjamin Rowe who has offered it without charge as a pdf.

Of course one understands that as Friedman’s frustrations grew, he began pushing the chronological boundaries beyond the reasonable, towards a period when Latin Europe used ciphers of sufficient complexity to (as he hoped) equal the text’s intransigence, and similarly frustrated by the absence of any expert’s suggestion of a ‘similar’ manuscript to provide a way in, Friedman also moved his focus from the first, to the second phase of Wilfrid’s marvellous romance the age of Dee and occultism.

But Friedman’s ‘occult’ theory was always anachronistic, as you see from d’Imperio’s Table of Contents.  It was always focused on the sixteenth century and later, and on  preoccupations of the Renaissance elites.  Biography  becomes  central preoccupation of that theory, and among its string of unfounded premises and ‘logical’ extrapolations from baseless premises is an  assumption – often expressed as Wilfrid-style assertion –  that the whole content of the Voynich manuscript must be matter likely to have interested to some wealthy, white Christian male whose natural environment was an elegant circle of literati, of royal or of imperial persons sharing occult knowledge. We may blame Wilfrid for the notion’s genesis, but Friedman sowed the whole farm with it, and the present generation – thanks to Elegant Enigma, Brumbaugh and, yes, the Beinecke  – is still trying to pretend his cockles are corn.

In the next post, I’ll consider a couple of instances where we see a ‘break-though’ almost occur in Tiltman and in d’Imperio.  In Part 4 I’ll consider Brumbaugh’s ideas and the Beinecke library’s adoption of a Friedman-Brumbaugh ‘occult voynich’ theory as part of their official description for the manuscript. 

There is no issue about a cryptographer’s thinking up an hypothesis, and then testing it,  but at some stage s/he must ensure the theory has some anchor in the realities of history and the testimony offered by the object under study.  In this case, the reality is  that nothing about the manuscript ever justified the ideas related (see above) by d’Imperio. Not the materials, nor the binding, nor the quality of the vellum nor (for the most part) the pigments justify a date later than the radiocarbon range of 1404-1438.

Till next time, you might think on the following, because the second part of this judgement still holds, fifty years later.

Professor Panoffsky [sic.] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and [that] the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

  • John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10. (link in Cumulative Bibliography page)

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002

or in the words of Patrick Lockerby, writing before the radiocarbon range was published:

My dating of the manuscript is 1350 to 1450. From that perspective, whatever happened .. after 1450 is of no relevance in formulating any theory about the Voynich ms.

Patrick never pretended expertise in codicology, palaeography or iconological analysis, but his judgment wasn’t bad, was it?


Skies above: certain measures Pt 2: presence and absence

Two previous:

Header  (left) detail from Brit.Lib. Add. MS 22413; (right) detail from Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, manuscripts Sp.30.  (inset) portrait of William Romaine Newbold.


recap of Pt 1.

As explained in the previous post (here),  when presented with something never encountered before, our brain hunts for ‘nearest match’ from what we already know, but in doing that will ignore some or even many points of difference. The narrower the person’s range of knowledge/experience (or limits which they impose on the search) the greater the risk of mis-reading the image.

This isn’t such a problem in everyday life – a person may say that people from some region of the world ‘all look alike’ and so on, but if the task is to  understand the origin and intention of difficult images, the hardwired habit has to be consciously balanced out.  The  cues needed to understand a difficult image may lie in those very details.


Postscript – The only way I can thank readers for putting up with long posts is to include something original, so there’s a bit more unpublished research  in this post.  Enjoy.


Voynich studies was established in 1921 with the first research paper attempting both to describe and to explain the manuscript’s content.

Many ideas and habits still found in Voynich writings have their origin in that paper – as when those  ‘tags’ are re-used by which its author described his impression of images as    ‘pharmaceutical’ or ‘herbal’ or ‘zodiac’.

Indeed, so many items from that paper have been taken up as if so many facts that by far the greater proportion of what has been written about the Voynich manuscript since 1921 has been predicated on belief that the author’s perceptions and opinions were right about this point and others –  whether or not those later writers had been told the original source.  That paper is well worth reading. Not only as a landmark study but because it solves many of those  “where-did-that-idea-come-from” problems,  including the problem of why the idea took hold that the month folios were meant to serve an astrological purpose and why no-one seems later to have asked whether that was true.


That paper was presented by Professor  William Romaine Newbold, and its contents  –  or more exactly what is found in pages 461-474 of the printed version- entitles Newbold to be honoured as the founder of Voynich studies.

Unlike many who followed him, Newbold did realise that no picture can be defined by only one or two elements in it.  In speaking of the month-diagrams, he offered his explanation for more than just the central emblems; he considered the tiered figures, and why the tiers ( “bands”) should appear as they do. He describes them as:

“representing a lune of the celestial sphere formed by circles drawn through the extreme points of the sign and the poles of the zodiac”.

citing Bacon’s Opus Maius (see Bridges’ transcription  here).

He had apparently realised that geometry matters – and ‘geometries’ are the chief subject of this present post.  I begin with mention of his essay for that reason and – if one dare dream – in the hope of slightly reducing the number of persons who, being unaware of predecents, continue reduplicating ideas already proposed and even tested.

Again, his is the credit due for first mention of the lunar mansions (‘lunar stations’) in Voynich studies, as for positing Aldebaran as the subject of another detail.  This isn’t about whether he was right or wrong – just about making clear the line between an original contribution to the study and any later support for it (independent or otherwise) so to assist, rather than obstruct, others’ study of how ideas have developed about this manuscript.

Here is part of his commentary to slides shown the audience – including his brief description of the month-folios.

  • Professor Romaine Newbold, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Series 3: Vol.43, (1921)  pp. 431- 474. But see especially pp.461-474.

Like everyone else, then and now, Newbold had limits and biases which distorted his vision. There is no-one without any..

His focus on Roger Bacon shows that he, like everyone else of his time, believed the rumours allegedly repeated by Mnishovsky. That is no reason to think less of Newbold.  For all we know, the content does derive from some work known to, or even composed by Bacon, but to date there is no more real evidence for that piece of hearsay than for the other two attributed to Mnishovsky – not excluding his ‘Rudolf’ rumour to which some Voynich writers have been just as devoted, creating post-hoc circumstantial narratives in justification just as Newbold and Wilfrid did for the ‘Roger Bacon’ idea. It should not be forgotten that the ‘Roger Bacon’ theory remained current, ignoring dissent, until the vellum was radio-carbon dated, less than 20 years ago.

Also affecting Newbold’s perception was his specialised study of western philosophy and his sharing that typically nineteenth-century habit of reducing the history of the medieval Mediterranean world to what occurred in some parts of western Europe – chiefly in France, northern Italy, England and Germany.  Wilfrid’s saying he could ‘think of only two people’ who might have put the manuscript together, with his one being English and the other German, was another example of that narrow vision which, though embarrassing by comparison with what is known of the period today, was typical of his time.


Form and purpose

Ninty-nine years later,  it is impossible to know just what details were perceived as ‘first-level/essential’ for that nearest-match by every later writer, but if  we suppose they did rely on

edited from April II diagram (f.70v-ii)

(i) the ‘star-flowers’; (ii) the centre emblems and (iii) the inscribed month-names, then the amount of visual information omitted or disregarded would be  … most of each drawing. (see right)

In almost a century, the ‘astrological’ theory has failed to explain the organisation of these diagrams, the number of figures in each, their disposition in, and around tiers.

Which brings us to another important issue –  evident absence of  astrological  measures in the month-folios.   This  distinction didn’t escape Clark  or Campion, though the former expresses it more plainly (see post of Feb. 9th., 2020).

I’d rather approach the problem in a wider framework than astrology, and in terms of iconological analysis, where it can be  expressed in terms of a general rule that:

When a given practice,  involving calculations, produces ‘calculation diagrams’  the measures employed will be consistent and the diagrams will consistently imply and almost always display those standard measures and/or intervals.

When it comes to the heavens, a ‘calculation diagram’ is normally marked by arrangements of radial lines and ‘boxes’ (not necessarily rectangular).

At the same time, the presence of such forms is not necessarily evidence of astrological purpose, in illustration of which (see illustration below) we have a picture of the modern replica of an old tide-calculator.   It contains month-names, hours and degrees. It shows images of sun and moon. It includes schematic images of the 12 constellations of the Roman zodiac and even that notation which astrologers use for those 12 as ‘signs’.  But this object’s purpose was not to serve astrology; it was meant for a practical, workaday purpose.  It could, I suppose, be put to use to indicate the phases of the moon in their application to medieval-style medicine, but that isn’t the purpose for which it was made.    … source).


Even the clear presence of the Roman zodiac’s twelve constellations is not evidence of astrological purpose. 

For the moment, I’ll leave aside the problem of whether the month-folios’ central emblems are or are not a  Roman zodiac series, or truncated version of it,  keeping instead to this other problem of measures and ‘star-related’ pictures.

For convenience, here, we can use just four classes:

  1. Pictorial: the sky as ‘landscape’ with little (if any) effort to identify specific stars or groups of stars.
  2. Moralised/allegorised: the real disposition of stars is known but the image depicts them in such a way that emphasis is on another narrative and the astronomical subjects may be obscure to an untutored eye.
  3. Mensural* – stars’ disposition expressed in terms of measures.
  4. Mixed.

*mensural’ in the general sense of measurements – not specifically those of music.  I have omitted another type – the ‘narrative’ –  which relates to epic, allegory and moralised astronomy).

For the first two classes, indications of measure and calculation are optional.

Three of the four are present in the ‘mixed’ example shown below.   We have a section in starry ‘landscape’ style, and others displaying those radial divisions and ‘boxes’ denoting calculation and especially in connection with the heavens.

I’ll have reason to return to its Gemini and the female’s body-type, but for now note that even with the swelling belly which was then becoming a fad disseminated from France, the woman’s body still relates to that tradition of the elongated, even emaciated body which is so marked a feature of earlier medieval Latin art.

detail from the Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry – a work as widely known in medieval studies as the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) in Renaissance studies.


Absent measures – an exercise with folio 70v-ii

At this point, for readers interested in analytical method, I’ll add an exercise.

It’s another exercise in ‘musing’ – this time of the sort that art historians and critics are often doing when they just move back and gaze at a picture. The mood is not too far from day-dreaming – rather than ‘thinking’ –  but ‘musing’ seems to be the best way to describe it. And – as I hope you’ll see – it needn’t be waste of time.

It includes a LARGE (non-phone-friendly!!) jpeg.

Measures exercise

See what happens if you  print this picture and pin it on your wall,  in a place where you come and go – and can return to it for a couple of minutes at a time, over a few days.  And yes, the smallest room is ok. but a hallway or the other side of the room from where you work is probably better.  🙂

If you’re like most people, then you’ll find that as you look at it without any particular focus or theory-making, your mind will start to play with what you see.  It will envisage virtual ines of connection across and between the items.  And this sort of relaxed, nothing-invested-in-it approach lets the more flexible part of your brain come up with things that may be worth looking at in ‘thinking’ mode – that is, research mode.  

To show I’m not pulling your leg, here are a couple of illustrations showing a few of the results from my doing this a good while ago.  I won’t say more because commentary might contaminate your own experiment.

The first illustration below, centre) is of the March diagram (folio 70v-i). I haven’t erased the stars etc.  The radial lines were formed by taking the inner boundary’s ‘terminus-marks’*  as if they had been meant to show where a line would pass, between centre and perimeter.  The red lines indicate the folio’s true horizontal and vertical axes according to the Beinecke website’s presentation.

*The ‘terminus’ mark – (illustrated left) is is not present in every case where one type of marking meets another – which I think is significant.


The second experiment –  shown here in its first and purely schematic form – could be described as ‘sort-of-geodesic’ I suppose.  Not aesthetically pleasing, but engaging in other ways.

So now – what happens when you muse on the other folio?


Geo-metry and  astro-metry.  (With much of Euclid).

The illustration at left is not a sign I support Newbold’s theory about the telescope’s invention. It illustrates how angles were described in a Latin manuscript believed to date from the 12thC or early 13thC.

Thony Christie published a fine history of trigonometry while I was selecting material for this series, saving me the trouble of treating that, but co-incidentally using the title I’d intended for this post. 🙂

  • Thony Christie, ‘It’s All A Question of Angles‘, renaissance mathematicus (Feb. 12th., 2020).
  • With apologies to Thony and other mathematici, I’m going to group trigonometry within geometry in these posts.
Geometry in medieval Europe – references

If you start from the traditional view that everything in the Voynich manuscript originated in, or was accepted into medieval Europe by the authority of some Latin ‘author’ or other individual person, then you will have a comfortably narrow range of ‘geometry’ to consider up until AD 1438.

  • The reading list will consist of Euclid –   treatises by Euclid, or attributed to Euclid;  translations and excerpts from Euclid;   works derived from, or developed from Euclid and from pseudo-Euclidean texts –  by Latins or translated for Latin use from works written in Arabic and Hebrew.

Because I think it quite important for amateurs to learn something of how medieval Europe saw geometry’s role, I’m recommending a number of manuscripts of the type often called a ‘miscellany’ although these are better considered  theme-based anthologies. The sort of thing a modern publisher calls, ‘A Reader…’

These should also provide illustrations for the way technical diagrams’ notation changed  between the late thirteenth century and the early fifteenth century.

  • Euclid, The Thirteen Books – original Greek text online by  Dimitrios E. Mourmouras. N.B. Don’t forget to credit Mourmouras!
  • Brit.Lib. Add 20746.   Moses ben ibn Tibbon, ספר היסודות. (Sefer ha-yesodot), ibn Tibbon’s translation of the thirteen Books of Elements of Euclid, with the addition of two Books at the end which are ascribed to Hypsikles.
  • Brit.Lib. Harley MS 13. includes  [pseud.] Euclid, Catoprica, known as ‘Catoptrics‘ to distinguish it from Hieron of Alexandria’s ‘Mechanica and Catoptrica’.
  • MS Burney 275 iincludes Adelard of Bath’s translation of Euclid, and shows how conventions for notation had changed within a century.

The next I’ve chosen to show that the idea of connection between astronomy and music went beyond the purely philosophical.  Music and astronomy both required standard intervals.

and in connection with music, I must also mention:

  • Joscelyn Godwin, Harmony of the Spheres. A Sourcebook of the Pythagorean Tradition in Music. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1993; also published in Spanish (Girona: Atalanta, 2009).

An English translation of Euclid’s Thirteen Books at the Internet Archive

  • Thomas Little Heath (ed. and trans.), The thirteen books of Euclid’s Elements from the text of Heiberg (Cambridge Press 1908). Vol.1, Vol. 2, Vol 3.

A good historical overview of mathematical studies in medieval western Europe is described in a series of posts designed to help secondary-level teachers.


Finding stars using co-ordinates.

It is a curious fact that the ‘astrological purpose’ theory, by itself, led to a certain routine angle of approach towards the month-folios.

The diagrams were first assumed ‘astrological’ and of Latin European origin, and then the ‘star-names’ were assumed to be the Latins’ ‘Arab’ star-names, and finally the month-folios’ labels were assumed an enciphered version of some ‘star-name’ from those theoretical limits. And following exactly that pattern, step by step, efforts to read the ‘labels’ proceeded.

I haven’t been able to discover mention of any other approach being employed in a century, and over time it seems that the effort to explain these diagrams as they actually appear on these folios, was all but abandoned.  What we see today are efforts to persuade readers of some variation on the ‘astrological’ theory, often by producing appallingly bad ‘nearest-fit’ images.  There might be out there, somewhere, a large amount of alternative work but if so I’ve found no mention of it.

There are other ways to go about understanding these folios and geometrical relations are one way.

It means discarding the usual, and often unfruitful ‘What is it?’ sort of research question and re-framing it as:  ‘What are the measures?’ 

It’s not an easy way to approach the month-folios, but not impossible. It means identifying the stars’ position first and then finding which system of co-ordinates, if any, accords with what is depicted in each month-diagram. Co-ordinate systems differ, and not least by the measures employed, but the easiest to begin is to start with the sort of system a researcher’s environment has made them most used to.  If those are eliminated, it’s time enough to move on to researching others.

The idea of finding the locus, and from that identifying the reference of a given figure in the tiers may seem far-fetched or over-hopeful, and I’m not underestimating the amount of work needed, or suggesting it could be quickly done.  But I think it possible and considering the past century’s complete failure to explain these images by the now-usual methods, two or three years would not seem an unreasonable time to spend.

Before 1438, even in western Europe, there were various star-lists described by co-ordinates.   They might differ from one another, and manuscripts differ between versions, but they did exist and not all uses were abstract, astrological or hypothetical. The stars’ relative positions have not greatly changed and that’s good to know.

One can’t expect absolute precision in the Voynich drawings, either, but given the limited number of stars for each month-diagram, and the fact that they are arranged month-by-month, leads me to think that error might be within reasonable limits.

I suggest this method because though I’m fortunate in being able to approach them otherwise, I cannot pass on in these posts enough to allow others to have the same background – not if this series is to finish in a reasonable time and I can hardly expect readers to cope with too much reading that isn’t Voynich-specific.  So another way may appeal to some readers.

Suppose for argument’s sake that you accepted my identification of the ‘Amazon’ star as Bellatrix or even as Betelgeuse (see post of Dec. 19th., 2019).

And suppose further that for  the figure above it (in folio 70v-ii) you posit a star in Virgo – for reasons I’ll explain in the next post – then you might ask what the actual relationship is between the two, in terms of the maker’s intention and in terms of  astronomical geometry.

I can only outline the method I’d try. Each researcher must be free to work out their own.  But in fact I’d start with the March diagram rather than folio 70v-ii, which is a halved, or a doubled month.

My first reaction to any theory raising its head, including my own, is to test it immediately against the real world and the historical evidence – not to seek justification but to get rid of it as soon as possible if it’s anachronistic or plainly impossible. As readers know, I’m not keen on theoretical explanations for historical images.

I’d ask whether anyone could really have seen both Bellatrix and Virgo in the sky at the same month, and whether that month is the one named in the diagram, and ask this for each band of latitude beginning (say) with Lat.30 degrees north- and for a specific period (say AD 1330-1430 to begin with).  For this, historically accurate star-maps must be generated which  take account of precession and ideally also of proper motion.

(Since this is only a hypothetical example, I won’t generate the historical chart, but here’s the idea: (and note the east-west reversal  typical for earth-view of the heavens, but also found in the Voynich map).


So yes, both are visible and their relative positions in the sky in fact suggests two things: that one or more of my identifications is wrong, or that the relationship between the inner and outer rings in the diagram is not immediate but complementary.  When Virgo and Orion may be seen in the sky together,  Virgo has emerged in the east, but Orion is moving towards the west.

Once again, at this stage, I’d ask whether there is any historical evidence of a ‘complementary’ approach to astronomical or to astrological diagrams, or any other attested system of this kind, whether or not recorded in calculation diagrams.

As it happens, I know of two – though still bearing in mind that the identifications of Bellatix and [a star in] Virgo might be wrong.  It’s an easy trap, and one into which many have fallen, to mistake an hypothesis for the manuscript as the subject of one’s research.

However, the two systems I mean are the eastern seas’ sidereal compass where the assignment of star and point of direction is nominal, though the names appear in ‘opposites’ and the pre-Islamic Arabs’ anwa’ [ today often described as rain stars and associated with divination but they also marked periods in the calendar and assisted wayfinding]

The conceptual star-compass marked a point on the eastern horizon by  a star’s name (-‘rising’)and the opposite point on the western horizon by the same star (-‘setting’). Since the northern and southern points were unique, the compass could name 32 points with only seventeen stars: the Poles, and fifteen stars with a rising and setting for each. Of the two possibilities I know – without more research – the anwa’ seems the more reasonable of those two.

However, whether or not those posited identifications prove right, the first stage towards establishing a number of historically appropriate set of co-ordinates according to different systems then known, would be  to generate grids from contemporary documents, covering that initial test-period (say) AD 1330-1430, and preferably using Byzantine, Latin, Coptic, Arabic and as many other sources you can work with.

The next stage would be to produce a list of stars in order of apparent magnitude (i.e. how big and bright they look to people on earth). By being able to say which stars were known at a given time and place, and how the grids used in that time and place described stars relative to one another, in a given month, so you need only one or two identifications to ‘pin’ the grid and – hopefully- identify the actual identifications for the remaining stars in a diagram, without pre-empting ideas about purpose or what the ‘labels’ might mean. As a first test, the bightest stars (greatest apparent magnitude) are a sensible place to start because the brightest-looking stars are normally the first to be noticed and used.

‘Apparent Magnitude’ can be confusing at first because the brighter a star or planet appears to be, the lower its number.   So I’d have  Sirius (-1.49) and Aldebaran (0.75–0.95) top of the list and then move down the list of stars visible in a given month (through the target period) until the number in the list agreed with the number of stars (or barrels, or figures) in a given month-diagram.  (Bellatix in Orion is listed with apparent magnitude of (1.59 – 1.64), and Spica in Virgo as (0.97 – 1.04).

So none of these is so dim that it couldn’t be seen with the naked eye – and they are likely to have been included in most star-lists, you’d think, by the fourteenth century.

But here again, it isn’t theory but demonstrable evidence which matters.  What may seem ‘common sense’ or ‘logical’ to a modern urban person may simply not be true of the historical events.  Telling history it ought to be more logical is a waste of time. The evidence is either there, or it’s not in this sort of study.

‘Star-names’ and co-ordinates.

Even in Latin Europe, a co-ordinate system of ‘Latitude’and ‘Altitude’, based on the astrolabe’s design, was certainly known by the middle of the eleventh century, and in connection with the ‘Arab’ star-names (see below).  Despite this manuscript’s early (11thC) date, the star-names’ orthography is pretty close to what would become the norm for non-Arabic works and though there are indications that the scribe was transcribing phonetically, the number of times his star-names refer to stars in the next constellation to that named suggests either an effort to correlate a classical source with a contemporary one, or that he was defining regions of the sky in terms of a vertical slice like the section of an orange – as wide as the limit of the zodiac  constellation and bounded by meridians extending between the northern and southern celestial Poles. (which is one definition of the ‘hour’).  Thus, the name ‘Algorab’  listed for sign Virgo is – at least today – used for the delta star in Corvus, below (south) of Virgo, while ‘Rigel’ applies to a star in Orion, not in Gemini.   The term ‘sign’ can often have an astrological sense but can be used to mean an emblem, as we speak  of an inn’s “sign” and medieval people spoke of meeting “at the sign of the Boar’s Head”and so forth .so the ‘signs’ here mean that part of the sky whose chief emblem is a figure from the zodiac.

I do understand, very well, what an enormous amount of work would be required to begin working on the diagrams from data of historical co-ordinate systems and attested star-names – a ‘co-ordinate geometry’ method – and that it’s not as easy as collecting set lists and making virtual grids; one would have to check the sense of the originals, decide where divergence was significant or due to error, and so on, testing each step against every other and waiting for it to click into place – not unlike the way meaning was extracted from ‘Enigma’-encoded messages.  But as I hope I’ve shown, one is aided by the diagrams’ being labeled by the months, and to ‘fix’ a starting point might be possible with just one or two identifications in each diagram.

As for the labels, I’d not discount, either, Newbold’s belief (later used, uncredited, by Brumbaugh) that the ‘labels’ are personal names.  Dante himself speaks of including the ‘Arab’ star-names in a volume of his Cantos so that people  using foreign instruments could follow his narrative more easily.  (The reference is found in  Guther’s Introduction to his study of the Ashmolean astrolabes, if I recall, but I read it almost a quarter of a century ago and it is impractical to try checking the reference just now.  Brumbaugh – again –  mentioned Dante and footnotes Gunther, but never admits his debt to the latter for his connecting Dante and the stars.  tut-tut.

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’,  Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150

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 Hellmut 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.


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.




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.


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.

. . . . . . . . 


(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 Salomon 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.