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