O’Donovan notes #2b: the ‘4o’ Revised and updated edition.

math numerals 40 in 1375 Majorca
Header image. Numeral ’40’ –  c.1375 AD.    Majorca.   Jewish work. Made for the court of France, attributed to Abraham Cresques. The present writer has already, in work previously published, explained in detail the points of connection between the Voynich map and Cresques’ masterly work. This was an original contribution to the study, and its source in the present author’s work, should be credited in the normal way.

Original post published November 19th., 2021. Updated and revised version – November 25th., 2021.

READERS PLEASE NOTE – this post contains original work and references to an ongoing research ‘conversation’ between three researchers. Be good enough not to pretend the findings are just an ‘idea’ but if you wish to repeat the information, attribute it correctly and give the source accurately. To do otherwise is dishonest.


Unresolved problem – the ‘4o’ glyph.

Some very recent comments made in a conversation between Mark Knowles and Nick Pelling, together with a little cross-checking of my own on other points, together leads me now to issue a revised and corrected version of this post’s second part.  

This post considers comments made about the still-unresolved question of the ‘4o’ glyph or string.

A paper up at academia.edu dismisses the question in a single short paragraph.

Hannig is saying that it ‘seemed obvious’ that the sign ‘4o’ was Latin and represented the sound ‘qu’ [sic] but that if you regard it as deriving from Hebrew ….

A reader would not gain from this any sense that the ‘4o’ had ever been studied in depth. Though Rainer Hannig is described as a Faculty member at Philipps University, Marburg, he has provided nothing by way of footnotes or references to help his readers get a clear idea of what has been said before. The impression given is that this posited ‘Latin’ rendering is owed to no-one and is not supported by any research. ‘It seemed commonsense’ is not a reasonable argument but another of those annoying ‘believe it or else’ statements.

In fact, the ‘4o’ is mentioned in d’Imperio’s book (1978), in conversations at Reeds’ mailing list etc. (for these, see ‘Constant References’ in the Table of Contents page).

The most informative comments I’ve seen about it, in Voynich writings from the first hundred years of this manuscript’s study were those in Pelling’s book of 2006. If any reader thinks I should mention another researcher’s discussion please leave a comment.

Written before the radiocarbon dating, Pelling’s work identifies an early example of non-numerical use for a ‘4o’ glyph or string in Urbino, in a ledger dated 1440. In that example, the reading is given: “quo”.

So the Latin reading wasn’t a product of ‘commonsense’ but of historical investigation, with a specific historical document explaining why the reading ‘quo’ was offered in Italy in 1440. Pelling wrote:

“Though you might think it fortuitous to find it [the ‘4o’] even once, it actually turns up in two [cipher-] ledgers, and in at least four separate [northern Italian] ciphers. The earliest mention is in the Urbino cipher ledger (in a cipher dated 1440), as well as in the main Milanese cipher ledger in ciphers dated 1450, 1455 … and 1456.   Later on, the same shape crops up in numerous other number-based ciphers, but by then it was used simply as a number. By contrast, the four earlier ciphers are all linked, because although they contain both ‘4’ and ‘4o’ symbols, relatively few other numbers appear. (p.177).

Hannig’s failing to direct readers to the sources he consulted was unfortunate, but worse is that he cites not a single source, medieval or later, to support his theory that the ‘4o’ is an abbreviation from Hebrew. A scholarly paper provides readers with the means to check whether the writer has done his ‘homework’ and explains how an opinion was first arrived at by giving details of the author’s background reading, and documents in proof.

As Pelling’s commentary did but Hannig’s. did not.

NOTE. (added 22 Nov. 2021). My point in the paragraph above was that scholars should not lower their standards when commenting on Beinecke MS 408.  I gather some individuals have created or adopted a theory that my paragraph was designed to cast doubt on Hannig’s position in Marburg.  It would have been better, from my point of view, to have that bit of fantasy put here as a comment, and I given the chance to set the memers straight.  That meme has merely produced a theoretical interpretation about a comment made about a theoretical comment,  in one paragraph of one paper, and concerning a single Voynich string/glyph.  *sigh*.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that either Pelling or Hannig is right, and the other wrong, Their opinions are not necessarily exclusive of one another.

The example from Urbino (1440 AD) may be the earliest example of non-numerical use known so far for that closed ‘4’ like form, but there may be earlier examples to be found and – these may occur in diplomatic or commercial documents involving merchants or diplomats from anywhere within a very wide geographic range.

Interested in whether the non-numerical ‘4’ form came from the example of printing, a check against Smith’s History of Mathematics and pers.comm. with a master printer said the same – not before 1440.

However, I find reason to think that use of the closed ‘4’ occurs in a commercial context during the fourteenth century. More on that below.

As regards the Jewish population of Urbino during the time of interest to us, the entry at JVL says in part:

URBINO, town in central Italy, formerly capital of an independent duchy. The earliest record of Jews dates from the beginning of the 14th century, when Daniel of Viterbo was authorized to trade and open a loan bank. His family long continued to head the community. Other loan bankers, ultimately eight in number, received authorization to operate later. .. In the 15th century the dukes of the house of Montefeltro favored Jewish scholars and were interested in Jewish scholarship; Federico II [Montefeltro] collected Hebrew manuscripts.

Urbino had unusually strong and constant connection to the Iberian peninsula, and directly linked by an old road to Florence and the Mediterranean.

As for MILAN, (this comes from JVL)

In 1387, Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti granted privileges to the Jews in the whole of Lombardy; these were confirmed by Francesco Sforza and his successors. An important court Jew was Elia di Sabato da Fermo, who, in 1435, became the personal physician of the duke Filippo Maria Visconti. When in 1452 Pope Nicholas V approved the Jewish right of residence in the duchy, he specifically authorized the construction of a synagogue in Milan.

Which shows that about the time the content was gathered that is now in Beinecke MS 408, conditions were especially favourable (and in the case of Milan, suddenly so) for commercial and diplomatic or political links across the religious barriers.

Pelling kindly clarified details of the Milanese cipher ledgers recently, because I was unclear whether they were only a record of ciphers used, or were enciphered commercial ledgers or ledgers recording items of diplomatic correspondence. He replied that “one is an ambassadorial ledger and the other is more of a local cipher ledger. So the story is a mix of both”.

So it is quite possible that there are, or were, earlier ledgers of some kind in which non-numerical ‘4o’ forms might be found, though not necessarily only the Italian ledgers. The practice might have been adopted by Urbino from some earlier, and other, example and from that example, later, by Milan.

It is no offence against history or logic to suggest, as a possibility to be investigated, that the instance in Urbino might have derived from commercial or diplomatic writings of Jews, but while that possibility might inspire some researcher to investigate in more depth, Hannig’s omitting to cite a single item of historical evidence means that for the meantime his idea can bear no weight, whatever its real merits might be.

We can be sure that within commercial and trade schools, in some Italian states at least, ‘4’ like numerals were in use by the fourteenth century. A merchant’s handbook now in the Beinecke Library (as MS 327) is one to which I’ve been referring Voynich researchers for a decade or more, for one reason after another – and here it is again helpful:

One thing of which we can also be sure, is that the ‘4’ does not derive from works produced by European printers. On this point, Smith’s History of Mathematics is clear and because that was first published almost a century ago, I’ve checked with a master printer who confirms it. The printed ‘4’ form comes much later.

On the political front, Milan’s relations with the two trading cities of Venice and Genoa are of particular interest. As a basic outline, and one that can be checked against any solid history of the period, I’ll quote briefly from a non-Voynich wiki article:

The tide of the war [between Genoa and Venice] reversed when in 1353 the Genoese navy suffered a defeat .. [loss of a fleet then] sparked civil unrest in Genoa, …. To combat this discord, the republic was temporarily dissolved and Genoa came under the rule of the Duke of Milan. …

A peace treaty was signed between Venice and Milan in 1355 [but hostilities between Genoa and Venice continued] ..Genoa broke free from Milanese control following the conclusion of the war, [specifically in December 1435] and the republic was reestablished. – from wiki article, ‘Genoese navy

Historians today refer often to ‘entanglements’ and place less emphasis on quasi-national boundaries than was the habit in nineteenth-century histories. The connections of Urbino and f Milan, of Milan and Venice, and those to Genoa, are as mutable as diplomatic chess between nations and more enlightening than focus on supposing ‘the Latin’ necessarily opposed to ‘the Jewish’ interpretations of ‘4o’.

In this case, we see that there is no reason to deny a possibility that the ‘4o’ form’s non-numerical use, might have originated among persons literate in Hebrew and so been adopted by patrons or commercial partners as a Latin ‘cipher’.

But that’s all it is – a possibility. Pelling’s opinion is derived from specific historical example and so must be granted greater weight than the self-referential and theoretical explanation by Henning. For all that, the two opinions are not necessarily opposed, but might prove complementary.

Only research can clarify the still-unresolved problem.

Should any reader feels attracted by the idea of investigating it, I’d suggest thinking about possible reasons why the ‘4o’ should have been employed as a non-numerical string or glyph. Among the possibilities are:

  • habit – the scribe was accustomed to writing the ‘4’ style numeral, and used it for the number and for ‘q’. This is a palaeographic question.
  • the Voynich ms ‘4o’ is unrelated to the numerical ’40’ but might have been deliberately adopted as form for ‘q’ for reasons unknown.
  • It may have been adopted – as a cipher – for the sound associated with that form, or pair. A correspondent suggests that it may have been used to remind readers that the ‘q’ was to be read as a glottal stop, not like the softer ‘q’ of quo, or quatre etc.
  • In the Vms, use of the ‘4’ shape might indicate a cipher in which forms from foreign or rare (or even imaginary) alphabets* were employed. Mixing alphabets was a well-known custom, both in aiding memorisation of texts and as a form of encipherment – the method is fourth among those described by Roger Bacon in the fourteenth century (See earlier post ‘here).
  • It may have been adopted by some for the number ’40’s significance. Personally, I don’t think it likely, in the Vms, but to illustrate what I mean by significance, I add an example below. I’ll give an example further below.
  • In the Voynich manuscript, it may not indicate cipher, but simply a ‘q’. Statistical analyses of the Voynich text, however, present objection to that idea.
  • I recommend those interested in recent discussion about the Milanese cipher ledgers see M.R. Knowles’ recent comment to Nick Pelling’s post ‘New Paper on Fifteenth century Cryptography‘ ciphermysteries, (July 8th., 2017). Knowles’ comment is date-stamped November 22, 2021 at 8:21 pm, the conversation between himself and Pelling continuing to the time of writing.

On rare and imaginary alphabets used in medieval Europe see ‘alphabets’ in Mary Carruthers’ The Book of Memory. 

One earlier alphabet (at least) contained a ‘4’ shape, the alphabet known as ‘Old Hungarian’ or as  Székely-Hungarian Rovás, derived from a Turkic script of inner Asia. Another ‘Rovas’ alphabet was the Khazarian, of which very little is known, though according to Omniglot it was ‘possibly used as late as the thirteenth century’.  Both links given above are to the Omniglot entries.  Personally, I like the idea of the numeral ‘4’ form having origins distinct from use in cipher, and the use in cipher deriving from a rare alphabet – seems to connect pretty well with other pointers to the Black Sea region and various Turkic languages… but questions about the Voynich manuscript’s written text are for others to explore. Not my field.  

This is the point at which it’s a good idea to check your skill-set against those possibilities – and others which may occur to you.

‘Commercial …’.

For someone unfazed by technicalities of commerce and accounting, a broader context for fifteenth-century Urbino and Milan can be found in e.g.

  • Raymond de Roover, Banking and Credit in Mediaeval Bruges (1948).
  • Quentin van Doosselaere, Commercial Agreements and Social Dynamics in Medieval Genoa. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Don’t be offput by the publication date for the first reference. Herbert Heaton’s review, published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 263, (May, 1949), p. 230, says,

[de Roover] found about 2,400 folios of ledgers or journals belonging to two Bruges money-changers, dated between 1367 and 1370. To decipher, interpret, and convert into living story this dry as dust collection, it was necessary not merely to scour the Belgian archives for further data but also to search in those Italian cities-Florence, Genoa, Lucca, and the rest-from which Italian traders came to trade in Bruges.

with regard to numerals in commercial bookkeeping of late medieval Europe, I notice that john Durham concludes than in account-books from medieval Europe, Arabic numerals are found ‘at least’ by the early fourteenth century, when he sees it as an innovation in European book-keeping and ‘probably a Pisan innovation’.  He’s not speaking specifically of the ‘4’ shape.  

  • John W. Durham, ‘The Introduction of “Arabic” numerals in European Accounting’, The Accounting Historians Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2 (December 1992), pp. 25-55.[JSTOR}.

Byzantine accounting.

  • Edward Peragallo, ‘The Ledger of Jachomo Badoer: Constantinople September 2, 1436 to February 26, 1440’, The Accounting Review, Oct., 1977, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Oct., 1977), pp. 881-892. [JSTOR]

Location of later diplomatic documents:

  • Vincent Ilardi, ‘Fifteenth-Century Diplomatic Documents in Western European Archives and Libraries (1450-1494)’, Studies in the Renaissance, Vol. 9 (1962), pp. 64-112 (49 pages) [JSTOR]

Sound’ and Linguistics.

What sound (apart from a Latin ‘quo’) might have been linked with the ‘4o’ by those who used it? If anyone has investigated this question, their findings haven’t yet hit the headlines, so if your skills and inclinations suit this angle of approach, you might find helpful E.M. Smith’s posts:

Associations for the number ’40’.

As I say, I don’t think the form likely to have been adopted for its significance but with cryptology you never know, so I’ll Hopper as illustration of cultural significance for number. He is not the first or last source that might be consulted.

“The forty days of Christ’s temptation harks back to the 40 days of Elijah’s solitude, or the forty days of trial by flood” (p.71) see also p.13, 15, 25, 26, 127.

  • Vincent Foster Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism. (various editions)

If any researcher does find examples of non-numerical uses for the ‘4o’ before the example from Urbino, we may be very close to understanding the context from which we have matter now in the Voynich manuscript’s written text.


Any Voynich writer who presumes that you will accept some proposition with no shred of historical evidence offered is a person who may have a transmissible case of ignorance. Treat with caution.

Item from the present author’s research. Fifteenth-century copy of a thirteenth-century text. England.

Postscript – ,my apologies to Rainer Hannig. The mis-spellings of his surname in the earlier version of this post was due entirely to my own dreadful handwriting, not the typist’s occasional errors in reading it.

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.

Military cryptanalysts: Friedman and his questions

Header Illustration: detail of plate on p.11 of the Supplemental Volume of De Re Diplomatica. Issued in 1707. following Mabillon’s De re diplomatica libri VI, published Paris, Louis Billaine, (1681). Note – the example is chosen at random; no argument should be inferred.
Previous two posts


Friedman’s questions:

courtesy of the artist.

I’ve spent the last three posts explaining the background to Friedman’s questions and Panofsky’s responses. The aim is to understand  why Panofsky says so little about the manuscript’s pictures and why his responses lack his usual warmth and erudition.

In the next post, when we look at Panofsky’s replies in full, we see that the questions caused offence: some by ignorance of good manners; others of art, of manuscript studies and of Panofsky’s work.  (Remember, everyone had two years to think about the meeting).

A number of the questions have nothing to do with Panofsky’s interests, but are just about Friedman and his theories. Some assume Wilfrid’s narrative as ‘given’.  Others make clear that Friedman had scarcely attended to what Panofsky had already told him.  And others show extraordinary lack of awareness –  as e.g. Q.3, Q.7, Q.10,  Q.13 (!!!)  and Q,15.

Take Q.13 for example:   d’Imperio says (Elegant Enigma p.42) that William Friedman was “a devoted student of the Voynich manuscript from the early 1920s on”, yet Q.13 shows that thirty years later the ‘devoted student’ had not even heard of  the (then-) fundamental texts in European palaeography:  Mabillon’s De re diplomatica and Capelli’s Dizionario di Abbreviature Latini ed Italiani (Milan, 1912).

No matter that neither includes any simple comparison alphabet; the point is that in thirty years Friedman had not advanced his study as far as the introduction to ‘manuscript studies 101’.  Nor does he seem to have realised, to that time, that dating and (if possible) placing the  script is a vital part of provenancing any manuscript.   [see earlier post, ‘Provenance: Wilfrid-style and real-world.’ (November 24, 2018)].

Friedman’s exaggerated sense of self-importance and expectation that others should serve his needs does not seem unusual for him.  A number of comparable incidents are recorded by d’Imperio.



“On 25th May, 1944 William F. Friedman wrote a letter to the widow of Dr. Wilfrid Voynich  .. requesting a photostat copy [of the entire manuscript]. The request was granted.” (Elegant Enigma p.39)

Ethel Voynich (1864-1960) photo courtesy Kotbeber

The war had not ended; Friedman was –  according to the NSA biography –  Colonel Friedman, Director, Communications Research, Signal Intelligence Service, (later Army Security Agency).  During war-time the army has power to requisition, and one does not refuse a Colonel’s ‘request’.  The inconvenience and expense was not minor – the cost about that of a week’s wages for a man.   Mrs. Voynich first wrote to Friedman, pointing out that copies existed already, among them one in the New York Library and another with Fr. Petersen – but   Friedman clearly preferred  to have her bear the cost and trouble of providing him with his own copy; she complied. (Later we learn that Friedman  also obtained Fr. Petersen’s copy ‘on loan’ – effectively preventing that scholar from continuing his own decades’ research).

So – again in connection with ‘making sport’ of Newbold –  d’Imperio reports (p.42) that Elizebeth Friedman gave “an amusing account of the sport which she, William and Manly had together in demonstrating the ‘decipherments’ that could be had from Newbold’s texts…’

It was an insensitive thing to do to involve Manly, Newbold’s friend, in such ‘sport’  whether before, or after, Newbold’s suicide in 1926.


Newbold’s suicide:

At the time, it was not done to refer openly to suicide.  The act was considered a crime by the state, a shame upon the family, and a deadly sin by the Christian churches, so the usual practice was to add the oblique  ‘suddenly’ to an obituary’s regular formula  -such as  ‘died in hospital’;  ‘died at his home’ etc.  This I take too as the implication of Newbold’s not being recorded as buried from a church, but only that “A memorial service was held for him in College Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus.”

Works other than d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma  use “died suddenly.”

e.g. IN MEMORIAM, The Phi Beta Kappa Key, Vol. 6, No. 8 (May 1927), pp. 526-537. Entry for Newbold is p.535. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42914067


.. My point is not that Friedman had faults, but that when he commandeered the study from about 1952 or so,  all commentary from better qualified people ceased.  In fact the study of the manuscript itself ceased, and NOTHING by way of research was published for almost a decade, from 1953 until 1962 when Mrs. Voynich sold the manuscript to H.P. Kraus. What research was done was being circulated among the NSA cryptanalysts in-house or issued as very general popular articles.   As we’ve seen,  some of the NSA documents, including Tiltman’s paper, remained classified “top-secret” until the early 2000s.  In Jim Reeds’ Voynich Bibliography  publications for 1953-1962 include only these:

  • 1953   E. Westacott, Roger Bacon in Life and Legend. New York: [Publisher?],1953. [A balanced writer whose errors are flaws in his sources rather than his apprehension of them. The text is online through the internet archive. – D.]
  • ? W.F. and E.S. Friedman, ‘Acrostics, Anagrams, and Chaucer’, Philological Quarterly 38 (1959), pp.1-20.
  • 1959   Jose Ruysschaert, Codices Vaticani Latini 11414 – 11709. Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, (1959). [Describes the MSs acquired by the Vatican from the Collegium Romanum, and mentions that W. Voynich bought a number of them which have been transferred to various American libraries, including the VMS.].

Note the above item, first noticed and commented on by Reeds,  has recently been brought again to notice and much emphasised by Rene Zandbergen under the rubric ‘ 1903 catalogue’ because a lost document which was not a catalogue but which listed a number of books and was – as Zandbergen describes it – dated to 1903 was photographed at some later time and t(as Zandbergen describes it), the list or that photograph was what Ruysschaert was referring in 1959.   Zandbergen has shown a certain impatience with persons trying to clarify his line of argument and evidence on this point, and I recommend any revisionist attempt the task for him/herself.   (Richard Santacoloma’s puzzled comments are perhaps a little more indignant than the confusion warrants – but you must judge that for yourself).

1962 H.P. Kraus, Catalogue 100. Thirty-five manuscripts: including the St. Blasien psalter, the Llangattock hours, the Gotha missal, the Roger Bacon (Voynich) cipher ms. New York: H.P. Kraus,1962. [Beautiful reproductions of several leaves of VMS.]

and in the same year (1962)

  • June 25th., ‘Kraus Marks Anniversary With Catalog of Treasures’, Publishers’ Weekly, 181 (25 June1962) pp. 39-40. [Kraus auction – Vms listed but didn’t sell.]
  • June 26th., David Kahn, ‘The Secret Book’, Newsday. 26 June1962.
  • July 18th., Sanka Knox, ‘700-Year-Old Book For Sale; Contents, In Code, Still Mystery’, New York Times, 18 July1962, p 27, col 2. [Kraus auction. Includes picture of 85/86r4. .]
  • August 5th., Elizebeth S. Friedman, “The Most Mysterious Manuscript” still an Enigma’, The Washington Post, 5 August 1962, sec. E, pp. 1,5.
  • 1963 Jan. Alfred Werner, ‘The Most Mysterious Manuscript”, Horizon, 5 (January,1963), pp.4-9.

… in all, nothing was published which might return the study to normal channels…

For those who believe the text is in cipher, all the above may seem fair enough.  For those who doubt it, Friedman’s involvement and the long ‘block’ on the manuscript’s research hardly helped.

His ill-informed (and historically un-balanced) assumptions infused those of the NSA, as we’ll see later, by considering d’Imperio’s work, including its Table of Contents and Index (which will highlight their assumptions, and their information-gaps, respectively).

Those privvy to the NSA groups’ efforts, and who contributed something of lasting value, were those who contented themselves with making observations that they tested rigorously before sharing them: Currier’s work is well known; some of John Tiltman’s observations were much to the point.

Friedman’s ‘teams’ looked at what his own inclinations dictated; his ignorance of, and indifference to, anything but cryptology when combined  with his arrogance alienated the more learned –  and  surely lost us the chance to have two early and expert commentaries in particular:  Panofsky on the manuscript’s imagery and codicology, and Salomon on the script. (It is also noticeable that d’Imperio’s Index lists Charles Singer but makes no mention of Dorothea.).

Lacking the weight which such scholars might have brought to the study,  Wilfrid’s first imaginative ‘history’ was soon to spiral into pure fantasy about the content.

Apart from individuals such as Currier, the Friedman groups early came to imagine that the manuscript must belong to the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and for the supposed connection to the mad emperor Rudolf II, that its content must relate to occult-alchemical ideas fashionable among the nobility in Prague at that time –   several generations after the manuscript had been made in a clearly different environment.*

* four samples of vellum taken from the top 11 quires returned an adjusted radiocarbon range of 1404-1438 and the volume has been assessed recently as being made  in northern Italy.


Lost opportunity: Richard Salomon on the script…

Michael Tangl. photo courtesy of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences.

Richard Georg Salomon (1884-1966). Source unspecified.

‘Gallows’ glyphs – .

‘Gallows’ figures proper do not occur before the sixteenth century and are set in letters to warn the carrier to make haste.  The forms which are habitually mis-called ‘gallows glyphs’ or ‘gallows’ letters in  Voynich writings have no such intent  – so far as we know.

Jim Reeds investigated Capelli’s Dictionary in 1994, sharing what he saw in Plate IV  (Mon Jun 9th 1997), and quoting its Italian caption.  Salomon and Panofsky had doubtless seen this illustration before Panofsky put it in his reading list for Friedman.

Thus Reeds: “Tavola IV … shows a letter  ‘1172, Giugno 13 — Savino abbate del monastero di S. Savino in Piacenza investe il mugnaio Gerardo Albarola per se e suoi eredi maschi in perpetuo, di un mulio di ragione del detto moasstero — Scritura carolina. — Pergamena origen., conservata nell’Archivio di Stato di Parma, monastero di S. Savino.” with glorious gallows letters all over it.”

Jorge Stolfi (Fri, 6 Oct 2000),  gave that information again to someone who’d missed it, translating  “The date is on the “letter” itself, 13 june 1172. It is actually a notarial document recording the concession by the abbey of S. Savino in Piacenza of a mill of theirs to miller Gerardo Albarola and his heirs in perpetuity etc. etc. As I remember, it is signed by the abbot, several monks as witnesses, the miller (not sure), and the public  scribe / notary who prepared it .”

Reeds’ find is now seen everywhere, though rarely with any mention of him  – which omission inevitably leads to the newcomer’s supposing the careless copyist, rather than the researcher, should be credited with a particular contribution to this research;  failing to go to the original discussion and so (not rarely) to waste their time re-researching and re-discovering things long ago discovered.  Pelling once called this the Voynich ‘ground-hog day’ phenomenon and it is due almost entirely to absent or erroneous attribution.

The same example shown above, together with other items appear on a page from Rene Zandbergen’s website, re-presenting a selection of material from the past century’s shared research.

Stolfi’s last phrase provides the key:: “public scribe/notary”. Such elongated ascenders are most often found in documents of this type i.e. deeds of gift; deeds of establishment and other property-related matters and can be traced to similarly religio-legal documents as early as the tenth century in Spain.  For a time a more ornate variant was used by scribes in the imperial scriptorium, but as I noted when treating this point and introducing the early examples from Iberia:

“The eleventh and twelfth centuries, lingering into the fourteenth, are when we see such forms in various parts of Europe, usually as part of some official decree or charter”.

  • ‘Who wrote the ‘gallows’, voynichimagery, Oct. 7th., 2015.

If the apparent similarity between some Voynich glyphs and these earlier scripts is not deceptive (something which Salomon might have told us), then it is another item indicating that the content in the Voynich manuscript predates by some time the present volume’s manufacture in the early decades of the fifteenth century.

  • Capelli, Lexicon abbreviaturarum: Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane, 6th ed. (Milan: Ulrico Hoepli, 1979).
  • [pdf] Heimann and Kay (trans.),  Capelli’s ‘Dictionary… ‘ (1982). This pdf has no plates.
  • [read online or pdf] the internet archive has an edition in German to the front, and Heimann and Kay’s translation to the back.  Includes between them Capelli’s Plates.

Friedman’s  character and self-important attitude could be predicted to alienate Erwin Panofsky and others of his standing in their own fields. His errors – including uncritical acceptance of much of Wilfrid’s quasi-history and Newbold’s categories – then created error exponentially.


…. but to return to 1954 – all things considered (and though you are free to differ) –  it seems to me that Panofsky had reason enough to give Friedman responses which said as little as possible, being restrained by caution; by awareness of the temper of the times; and by   knowledge of by whom, and to what end, his statements might be used. Whether Friedman already had access to Panofsky’s assessment of 1931 1932, or whether Panofsky knew he did, if so, are other questions still undetermined and unaddressed.

Note:  By 1954, Panofsky seems to have mis-remembered; Nill’s correspondence suggests he had seen the ms on the 5th Feb. 1932.  the  memory seems to have slippedCryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1932.

The list of Friedman’s ‘Questions for Professor Panofsky’ (below) comes from Jim Reeds’ original paraphrase  (Reeds’mailing list, Friday April 15th., 1994).

The Questions

  1. Have you examined the VMS itself?
  2. What is it written on; with what writing tool?
  3. What’s the date?
  4. Why do you think so?
  5. What’s it about?
  6. Are there any plain text books sort of like the VMS?
  7. What plain text have you found in the VMS?
  8.  What plants, astronomical, etc, things have you recognized?
  9.  Is it all in the same hand?
  10. Why was it written?
  11.  Where & when?
  12.  What do you think of the Roger Bacon theory?
  13.  [provide Friedman with…] Full title of the Dictionary of Abbreviations. Title of Hans Titze’s book on forgeries, & of Mibillon’s history of diplomatics.
  14. What other scholars are interested in the VMS?
  15. What do you think of the artificial language theory?

Afterword: What’s Wrong with that?

It is understandable that a reader with little prior background might wonder if there’s really very much wrong with those questions. For those not asking this rhetorically, I provide more detail. (click the small black arrow).

As always, the things not understood manifest in absence, and silence, so let me illustrate Panofsky’s capacity for analytical-critical commentary, and then consider what we might have had from him if Friedman had better understood the discipline of iconographic analysis, or the calibre of the man to whom he had been introduced.

Consider, for example, the “ladies” pages in the manuscript, and their curious gestures.  Now, here’s Panofsky’s commentary on one, simple, everyday gesture – a ‘snapshot’ from daily life: a man lifts his hat.

  • [Introduction] Studies in Iconology: Humanistic themes in the art of the Renaissance.

It makes no difference for our needs that modern scholars differ about the relative value of Panofsky’s analytical system, or debate his preference for ‘authorial’ art, nor even debate the relative value of scholarship he produced during his German period as against his time in America.  It should be obvious enough from that one example what a depth of commentary he might have made had he been simply asked to share his thoughts on the manuscript’s imagery, or even just on the figures of the ‘ladies’.   Had he not been approached in the way he was, or sent that prescriptive ‘quiz’, the manuscript’s study might have advanced far more rapidly, and along very different lines, than it did after 1954.

Friedman’s single-minded focus on the written text; his implicit belief that he was the most important person to study the manuscript;  his belief that it was ‘enciphered’ or ‘encoded’ reflect habits of mind which made him such an effective code-breaker (self-confidence; self-reference; self-sufficiency;  single-mindedness; unswerving determination and a habit of organising information into neat categories for cross-reference) also made him utterly unsuited to conceiving of the range and depth of learning which might be needed to understand so problematic a manuscript –   or even to have Panofsky open up on the subject.

I find it telling that even Brigadier Tiltman’s paper of 1968 misspells Panofsky’s name and that, despite the amount of time Tiltman spends talking about the imagery, he refers in that paper more often to Charles Singer – a writer of popular histories of medicine and science- than to Panofsky.[note]   One remark – unattributed – may be Panofsky’s, because it is  the first instance I’ve seen so far of any cryptanalyst recognising the fundamental distinction  between provenancing manufacture and provenancing content. (on which see  ‘Provenance: Wilfrid-style and real-world’. ().

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

In fact this mis-represents the case. What Panofsky said is that if it hadn’t been for [O’Neill’s claim to have identified] the sunflower as the subject of one image, he would have dated it to no later than 1470.

  • [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘(1968). Paper released by the NSA under the Freedom of Information Act, 23rd April 2002.

Note added Jan.17th., 2009.  I’ll come back to Charles Singer, in connection with the ‘S.E.P.’ phenomenon, and do him more justice than the brief mention above. Since my first degree was a double major in art and in the archaeology of industry, Singer (editor of the first encyclopaedic ‘History of Technology’) happens to be one of my early heroes.


Military cryptanalysts: Interrogatories of 1954

Header picture: Erwin Panofsky (left); William Friedman (right). Photo sources linked,

Two posts previous:

I’ve decided to treat the background in some depth because Panofsky is the most learned historian of art to have commented on the manuscript, and because there is a marked discrepancy between the tone, content and  style of responses he made to a ‘quiz’ sent him by William Friedman in 1954, and what we would normally think characteristic of Panofsky’s approach to correspondence, to art and to manuscripts, whether during his German- or his American period.

This post and the next looks at the circumstances leading up to Erwin Panofsky’s meeting with Friedman in 1954, after which that ‘quiz’ was sent to him and his responses returned by post.

There is also another surprising discrepancy:  between these answers of 1954 and an  opinion Panofsky had earlier given, freely and in private, to Mrs. Voynich and Anne Nill in 1930/31 1932 – the only time he saw the manuscript though we learn from the correspondence that Panofsky was the given a complete photo-copy of the manuscript, which he lent to Salomon but had returned to him by 1952 and possibly from as early as 1931. Since Panofsky was acquainted – in Hamburg and in America – with a scholar having expertise in palaeography (Richard Salomon), it is possible that the later opinion reflects information gained after 1932.

  • Jim Reeds speaks of what may be another, and a written evaluation by Panofsky.  Reporting to his mailing list (13 Jul 94) the results of a visit to Yale’s Beinecke library, Reeds mentioned seeing:  “A report on the VMS from Panofsky to Voynich ca. 1930, with different conclusions from his 1950’s report to Friedman“. The account of Panofsky’s opinion as given by Anne Nill in a letter to Herbert Garland – put online by Santacoloma in 2013 –  was found (in 2008) in Box #5 at the Grolier Club archives. While  waiting on the Beinecke to send me copy of their document , I’ll compare the responses of 1954 with Nill’s letter.

Unless we are able to explain the marked discrepancy in content and in tone between the assessment of 1931 1932 and Panofsky’s responses to Friedman’s  ‘quiz’ in 1954,  the researcher must be left uncertain as to whether they do better to seek comparable imagery and/or informing texts though sixteenth century German art or  Jewish art of pre-fifteenth century ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ (or neither) though no-one acquainted with Panofsky’s writings on art – as the cryptanalysts evidently were not – can do what they did and merely presume that the later document contains the better information.

Note – a recent find from Anne Nill’s correspondence, leading me to think Panofsky in 1954 misremembered the date he saw the ms, is treated later in the post ‘Cryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1932’

What Friedman and his cryptanalysts clearly failed to appreciate is that a specialist’s opinion is formed out of the evidence not from a ‘theory’, and it is formed by reference to a mass of prior study which contextualises the example to hand.   That evidence, practical experience and comparative material cannot be willed out of existence;  a person of Panofsky’s ability and experience does not as a rule assess a work one day as evincing the characteristics of  pre-fifteenth century southern (Sephardi) Jewish art with Arabic influence, and then without seeing the original again, twenty years later decide that it is  sixteenth-century and German. His first opinion was already that of the mature scholar, whose Studies in Iconology would appear in print eight years later, in 1939.

Explaining the paradox (and Panofsky’s curiously uncharacteristic tone and style in 1954)  means considering the context in which the later responses were written: not just America’s political climate during the 1950s –   outlined in the previous post – but  a meeting which occurred immediately before Friedman sent his ‘quiz’.

Between Friedman’s first seeking an introduction to Panofsky, and that meeting, there intervenes two years’ correspondence. We have a record of it thanks to  Jim Reeds,  who in 1994 went to the archives at the George C. Marshall Foundation, had xerox copies made at his own expense, and shared the information with other members of his mailing list.

The rest of this post summarises and adds references and comments for that correspondence. It  makes this post rather long, but will be helpful I hope.

The next post considers the situations of each of the four participants in the meeting which eventually took place: Friedman, Tiltman, Panofsky and von Neumann.

Later posts will turn to Friedman’s Questions; then look in detail at Panofsky’s responses; and finally see what the military cryptanalysts did with the information they had. It was this last which had such stong impact  later on the nature, assumptions and direction of the manuscript’s study.

Organising the ‘sit down’.. (March 1952 – March 1954)

The ‘questionnaire’ might never have been presented, and Panofsky might never have heard of Friedman, had not John von Neumann, in writing to ask Friedman for Mrs. Voynich’s address, mentioned that a colleague had some interest in the manuscript.

Friedman began pushing to meet that colleague – without even knowing the man’s name.  The way he broached the subject is revealing.  He did not ask von Neumann to see if his colleague was willing to meet, but in a footnote wrote:  “You might let me have his name, as it is quite possible he and I could get together for a discussion of the problem.” That the person might not wish to be named, or might refuse to meet Friedman doesn’t seem to have occurred to him, and Friedman’s  insensitivity becomes one of the most noticeable aspects of his character to infuse the record of his connection to this manuscript.  Similarly, his inability to consider both sides of a question once he had taken his own position would mar his efforts to understand it  – and so magnify Wilfrid’s errors and further distort the manuscript’s study, as we’ll see later.

After an initially cordial response, von Neumann’s correspondence soon shifts to refusals – expressed urbanely, as deferments – but though these ‘deferments’ continue for two full years (March 1952-March 1954) Friedman seemed oblivious.  During that time,  von Neumann’s letters never once encourage Friedman to contact Panofsky directly; nor is there any suggestion that Panofsky wished direct contact with Friedman.  But Friedman simply wasn’t the sort of person who takes ‘no’ for an answer – a character-trait doubtless helpful in his cryptographic work – and in March 1954, he finally did get to meet Panofsky – who after that meeting and having filled out Friedman’s ‘Questions for Professor Panofsky’ had nothing more to do with Friedman or with Tiltman, so far as I know.

Again – it is due to Jim Reeds’ generosity that we can reconstruct the events.  Before visiting the George C. Marshall archives, he asked  members of his Voynich mailing list (31 March 1994) if there was anything  they’d like him to look for in particular while he was there.  Karl Kluge suggested, “‘The correspondence with Panofsky re: the Voynich.”

So, in addition to the research he intended to pursue*,   Reeds spent the time needed to find the ‘Panofsky’ letter file;  to make a summary of the many letters it contained;  to summarise Friedman’s questions and  to transcribe Panofsky’s replies in full.

  • *and which he soon shared. [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘William F. Friedman’s Transcription of the Voynich Manuscript’ (7th. September 1994).
  • Jim Reeds’  Voynich mailing list (also described as the ‘first mailing list’) was run through  -x-voynich@rand.org.
  • The earlier archives (1991- 2001) are available zip files, ordered by year, at http://voynich.net/reeds/vmail.html
  • Archives for 2000-2005  are still up as webpages, ordered by year, month and thread (or date). Index at  http://www.voynich.net/Arch/
Voynich.net  is maintained – so I’m told –  by Rich Santacoloma who ran the second mailing list. That second list died some time ago  but for one reason and another, its files are not yet available to researchers online.  Santacoloma has promised to see to it  soon. Let’s hope nothing interferes.
Some years later, Zandbergen would copy Reeds’ summary of the questions and Reeds’  transcription of the answers to his own website, voynich.nu, though at present those pages lack full details of the sources  made use of.

Correspondence 1952-1954

Reeds’ summary of the  correspondence begins with a letter from Friedman to von Neumann:

  1. “Here is Mrs Voynich’s address. “…you may wish to communicate it to  your colleague* who is interested in that rather remarkable mystery. [Footnote] You might let me have his name, as it is quite possible he and I could get together for a discussion of the problem.” “With cordial greetings and best wishes for the New Year, I am, Sincerely…”[William F. Friedman]

Soon, von Neumann  does give Panofsky’s name or initials (Reeds reduced the chief names to initials in his summaries):

2.  JvN to WFF (24 Dec 1951) Thanks for Mrs Voynich’s address. I’ll tell it to EP, whom I talked with about the VMS. He has a photocopy. The subject is certainly very interesting and     intriguing. I hope you can visit EP and me.

Note – Reeds mentions that in the same file there is “A complete bound set of photostats of the VMS, printed, I think, from negatives made by Voynich in the early 1920’s. These are labeled with “page numbers” which are the same as the page numbers found in rand.org:/pub/voynich/voynich.orig“.    (Is it Panofsky’s copy?  Among the six original copies made by Voynich – as far as d’Imperio knew – was one given ” to a scholar whom Mrs. Voynich did not identify”, while in another place she notes that  “:.. The copies used by Friedman, Tiltman, Krisher, and Currier, and the copy available to me, all derive ultimately from a photocopy made by Father Petersen of Catholic University on April 29. 1931  from a set of photostats provided by Mrs. Voynich.” Elegant Enigma p. 31; p.21.

-Apparently an appointment was offered Friedman for March 7th. ?by phone? because…

3. WFF to JvN (22 Feb 1952) Alas, 7 March is out. How about after 15 March? Hope to bring my friend JT, “who has taken a considerable avocational interest in the Voynich  manuscript.”

Friedman would not realise, I think,  that he has caused alarm as well as been impolite. Impolite first, in rejecting the date offered him by Panofsky;  secondly in doing it so abruptly  without even a token apology for possible inconvenience and thirdly by announcing that he will bring a third person to be introduced to Panofsky. ‘Hope’ here is more likely to mean that he hopes ‘JT’ is free than that he hopes Panofsky will not object to the imposition.

Friedman’s suddenly including  ‘JT’ (Brigadier John Tiltman)  might well have alarmed von Neumann once he knew who Tiltman was:  namely, the senior British liaison officer between the British and the American military intelligence agencies.

The correspondence between von Neumann and Friedman, initially amiable, now changes tone from March 1952.  von Neumann maintains an impression of friendliness and willingness, while putting Friedman off  for two full years.  In my estimate, this was not due to personal concern on von Neumann’s part so much as to the realisation that his own position at Los Alamos, and  Panofsky’s position as a German Jew made it perhaps a bad idea: for him to meet in a private setting the representative of a foreign government, and for Panofsky to endure any sort of questioning by two men connected to military intelligence.  Panofsky left Germany in 1933, but bad experiences are slow to fade.

At the time, tensions existed not only among McCarthyists and others; they were also high between the American and British military-intelligence organisations, each of whom wanted frank disclosure from the other on matters military, while being very unwilling to give it.

Tiltman is also likely to have been sensitive to the unwisdom of meeting von Neumann in private.  Whatever the reason, mention of Tiltman is soon met by stonewalling from von Neumann, and then both of them –  first the one and then the other – make their excuses until 1954, the year Tiltman formally retired from British GCHQ.

  1. JvN to WFF 25 Feb 1952.. Thanks for yours of 22 Feb. Sorry we (?) cannot get together on 2 March. Lets plan on a later get-together with you and JT.
  2. JvN to WFF. 29 Feb 1952. Please excuse delay in answering yours of 25 Jan. Would have liked to come before 12/13 March. “I talked with my friend and colleague, Professor Panofsky, about the Voynich manuscript, and he is very much looking forward to making your acquaintance. Could you name a period during which a  get-together with him would suit you?”
  3. WFF to JvN. 20 March 1952. Thanks for the phone call. JT and I were planning to come up on 26 March, but JT just said  it was impractical. How about 4 April, 11 April, 25 April or 2 May? “Still hopeful of making our visit in the not too distant future and looking forward to it, I am, Sincerely,…”
  4. JvN to WFF. 21 March 1952. Thanks for yours of 20 March. Sorry to postpone, but I’ve got to go to Los Alamos and Las Vegas. [I/we?] Free on April 26, also on May 2 and 3.
  5.  WFF to JvN. 29 Aug 1952.”With the coming of Labor Day and the  ending of the summer vacation period, my thoughts turn once again in your direction and to the idea of making a visit to Princeton for the purpose of taking with Professor E. Panovsky [sic] and you about the Voynich manuscript.” A weekend after 13 Sept would be best for me and JT.
  6.  JvN to WFF. 8 Sept. 1952.Thanks for yours of 29 August. I am away to Cambridge, Mass, and then out West. I will call EP. Hope [sic] that I  can meet you and JT; so is EP.
  7. JvN to WFF. 15 June 1953. Excuse delay in answering yours of 29 May; I was away from Princeton. I will be in Santa Monica 25 June-25 July, EP will leave Princeton for Maine from 6 July through August; maybe we can meet in September?
  8. WFF to JvN. 25 Feb 1954.  Can JT and I see EP in March or April? PS: JT says April bad; how about March?

Then suddenly, in March 1954, the four men have met, apparently one evening  somewhere in Princeton. Von Neumann and Tiltman were both present at what Friedman describes as a ‘a conference’.

The file continues:

  1. Questions for Prof. E. Panofsky as a result of Conference with him and Prof. John von Neumann at Princeton on 9 March 1954. By List of 15 numbered questions by WFF. Q15 was what did EP think of the artificial language theory.  9 March 1954.
  2. WFF to EP. Thanks for spending evening with me & JT, talking about VMS; am enclosing list of questions. JT says hi.  16 March 1954.
  3. WFF to JvN. FYI, copy of previous letter & enclosure. 16 March 1954.
  4. JvN to WFF.  Thanks for yours of 12 March, and for copy of your letter to EP.  Nice sitting in on meeting between WFF, JT and EP.  Will see you on 20-21 April.  Tell JT that I didn’t attend Linear B lecture after all. (note that von Neumann doesn’t agree that he was active in the ‘Conference’.) 19 March 1954.
  5. EP to WFF. Thanks for the letter of 16 March; here are the answers to your questions. 19 March 1954.
  6. WFF to EP. Thanks for yours of 19 March, answering my questions. Am sending copy to JT. 23 March 1954.
  7. WFF to JvN.  Thanks for yours of 9 March; I’ve sent a copy to JT.  Come to my house for drinks on 20-21 April.  29 March 1954.

And that was that.

It would be good to have a photocopy of the first document from that group of seven.

The perfunctory tone of the single letter in this file from Panofsky to Friedman is most unusual.

Thanks for the letter of 16 March; here are the answers to your questions.

It contrasts markedly  with what we know, from numerous accounts, was  Panofsky’s usual practice of responding with civility  – and more:

“Anything that arrived by mail – an inquiry, an offprint, a casual greeting – would bring a prompt and delightful response; the inquiry had started a train of thought, the offprint had been read with genuine interest, the greeting had evoked memories. Often, a more personal note would be added, a comment on the current state of the world or a discourse-in-brief on some scholarly  problem that Panofsky was pursuing at the moment, and always as well-phrased, as full of wit and insight as his published writings. Such letters asked to be saved. Most  of them have been (there must be many thousands)

Keenan, quoting Stechow (among several others)  on this matter.  pp.19-20

  • Daniel Keenan,  Kultur and acculturation: Erwin Panofsky in the United States of America. (PhD thesis) University of Glasgow, (2014)
  • Panofsky’s correspondence is in various archives and personal collections, including Archives of American Art which hold letters written between 1920 and 1968.