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?


Certain measures Pt 3b – Preface

header revisionist medal


(written August 2019)

I almost wish I’d kept a record of the Voynich meme-makers’ slogans throughout this past decade.

The latest example of meme-making is astounding,  informing one that  ‘the Voynich manuscript isn’t an art book’ and that ‘images are trivial; writing is serious’ –  the sort of thing we find in the amateur attitudes of William Friedman in 1952.  He seems scarcely to have attended to anything – including recommended reading – from the widely read professional,  Professor Panofsky.

Here again, as with so much else in the heavily weed-seeded field of Voynich studies, very basic questions have to be asked, such as  ‘Where did that idea come from? and ‘Why are so many intelligent people now repeating this – apparently without a moment’s pause for critical thought?’

So.. once again.. the revisionist has to hold the reins on another bolting theory.  Energy it may have, but its motives and destination are not exactly helpful, and have an entirely internal rationale.

First question – what do those repeating the meme suppose is meant by the word  ‘art book’? Do they mean ‘a book filled with drawings?’ and assume we’ll accept that all drawings are “art” in a grand sense?  If they just mean ‘a book of drawings’ then it certainly is.  More than 50% of the surface covered is covered by drawings.

So maybe it is an ‘art book’.

Or do they think ‘art book’ means a history of art?

If that is what they mean, their underlying assumptions are – simply – anachronistic. At the time our manuscript was made (setting aside the still open question of when its content was first composed), there was no ‘art history’ in the modern sense.  What you have are histories of meaning.  It is that meaning which had to be understood (well or badly) and then re-embodied in works by more recent painters, sculptors, weavers, woodworkers and so on.   This need produced various practical ‘handbooks’ – things which both explained meaning and informed an artisan – say, a painter – how to ‘correctly’ present that meaning in what was supposed to be the classical manner.

So an ‘art book’ as a notebook made by an individual would include no less written text than a modern history of art.

The problem with that notion is, however, that the majority of images in the voynich manuscript are not drawings formed in the way western Europe produced drawings. That’s why it took more than a century’s debate to decide that the ‘green’ in the ladies’ sections denoted water and not e.g. air or amorphous ‘internal’ environment – as (for example) Newbold believed and explained in his letter asking help of Franciscan scholars.

Or are the meme-makers supposing that the Voynich manuscript is not an ‘art book’ of some other kind?  We don’t know. The origin of a meme remains carefully anonymous and invisible, but once his little foal is set to grow into another wild, galloping loco-beast, he may well repeat it as ‘something no-one doubts and god help them if they do’.

But let’s ask the last question.  If we consider the period, and adopt the still-unproven theory that all the content originated with Christians of Latin Europe in the fifteenth century (something I don’t for a minute believe the evidence permits), then there are several sorts of text we might classify as an ‘art book’.  The manuals made and used by students of learning, included not only those or academic ‘students’ but handbooks for/by an artisans and secular ‘vade mecum’ made for the merchant-and-traveller. In both those last types, text might again be subordinate to the pictures but in any case their pictures should only be viewed as ornament when all other possibilities have been exhausted. Until the mid-fifteenth century at least – we are speaking of manuscripts made for  Latin use, images should be approached as pictorial *text*, primarily intended to convey meaning, and not as a wysiwyg object-depiction.

So the meme about ‘it’s not an art book’ are not only fairly transparent efforts to ignore the preponderance of evidence in the primary text – Beinecke MS 408, but an effort to argue that we can dispense with the unreadable writing, and now also dispense with the pictures and rely entirely for our ideas about this manuscript on the hypothetical ‘histories’ which are thus built on sand and wishful thinking, for which a few bits and pieces are extracted from the original and used purely to adorn the romance so created.

In my experience of this manuscript’s study, I have not found that the best linguists wantonly impose wrong ideas on the imagery – they either admit their lack of skills in that area and concentrate on the text, or they make honest efforts to ‘read’ images whose historical origin and cultural style they do not know, but which they credit to some one or other of those hypothetical ‘histories’ created by enthusiasts and amateurs and – perhaps worst of all – professionals who imagine that competence in any field means competence in all.  We saw that in O’Neill’s assumption that he could read the images in the plants sections, and in Brumbaugh’s failures in treating both the month-folios and the plant pictures.

The meme about the manuscript being ‘not an art book’ again, as ever, conveys no real information  or any useful conclusion from some individual’s research.

It merely conveys an intimation that some others’ research, and those researchers, must be ignored by the ‘true believers’.  They need no longer distinguish between fireworks of pure imagination about the images, or  analytical and historical studies aimed at elucidating the meaning intended conveyed by the manuscript’s pictorial text.

It bears repeating that more than half the manuscript’s information is contained in line- -as-image, and less than half by line as written text.

We can’t even hear that meme as refutation of some articulated theory, so far as I know.  Has anyone asserted that Beinecke MS 408 was an “art book” and defined their intention by using that term?  If so, I’ve never seen it, though if such an argument has been made from evidence, I’ll happily read the research.

Altogether, we left only with a suspicion that whoever thought up the meme did so to push an agenda – viz. don’t listen to discussions about the images.

In  terms of Europe’s history,  however, you just don’t get texts with superficial ‘illustration’ apart from diagrams before the advent of printing.  In Germany the earliest products of printing were instructional works for small children. Cicero’s de Oratore is the first text known to have been printed in Italy.  Theories about the Voynich manuscript’s images being copied from German printed works are inherently anachronistic. But theorists often forget to check basic facts, such as dates or whether to suppose the images in the Voynich manuscript are ‘mere illustrations’ isn’t equally inappropriate.

I think that most Voynich writers realise that written text encodes speech, but I’ve noticed few who realise that the same must be said of pre-modern images.

Some represent encoded speech quite carefully, constituting one  form of mnemonic image but more often constitute a ‘conversation’ between maker and contemporary audience, and given that a century’s effort has found no way to read the written text, it does not seem unreasonable to attend to the pictorial text rather than waving it away by assuming it meaningless, or purely an act of self expression. Both notions are anachronistic, the second idea being a definition of ‘modern art’. The key to pre-modern art, and even art of the Renaissance, is meaning.  And whether you are talking about medieval western art or traditional art elsewhere, the point is that the maker could – and the viewer could expect to be given – detailed explanation of the work i n all its details, usually with literary sources (whether these were from oral or written tradition).

Since the intended audience for the Voynich manuscript, as indeed for images found in Latin medieval manuscripts, was not an audience of modern, secular, industrial-era urbanites, so the modern student must exert themselves learn and to compare how various peoples talked and thought about things which were then expressed in imagery using their own traditional visual ‘codes’.

The aim of Voynich research should not be to find bits which you can argue support your pet theory, but to try and understand what the original intended to say to its own audience.    To do this accurately, one must recognise cues to characteristic ideas, beliefs, social attitudes and so on, and more importantly (because so often disregarded by Voynicheros), the techniques and conventions of visual language characteristic of a given time and people: how they used form, gesture, positioning, and even such things as choice of colour to convey meaning.

Like a written text, a pictorial text was intended to convey meaning.  Meaning, not form is the key to rightly reading images such as these.

Perhaps readers would like to see how well-equipped they are to use the analytical approach so I append a specimen example for consideration.  So that even a newly come amateur will not feel too much out of his or her depth, the example comes not from the difficult images in Beinecke MS 408, but from the western traditions of art.  I’ve added a tailor-made guide to ‘method’ to show how to take the first steps in learning to analyse images from that ‘other country’ of the past.

Following that will be some few comments of my own, which no one is obliged to read.

What I’m hoping to do here is to show why the analytical method approaches a pictorial text more as a palaeographer  approaches written text than the way a modern art critic might.


  1. List elements in the image (below) which you take to be meaningful and which you’d consider ornamental.
  2. Have you any thoughts about the dark crescent-shape  painted below the top of the arch?
  3. The female figure is made to clutch the hand of the figure behind her. Why do you think that is? (you might think the reason compositional, meaningful, conventional or all three – but explain ..).
  4.  Why should the black-shod figure be shown with one arm – and only one arm –   covered by an extra-long sleeve?
  5. Would you say that the image is an original expression of Latin European culture, attitudes and beliefs, or not?

(Take your time.  And there’s no obligation to compare your thoughts with my analytical commentary, below.)

Click on the word ‘Commentary’ to open it.


The principal theme here is a reminder that ‘the heavens’ may be studied in two ways, but only one is for ordinary humans to question, query or debate.

You see that this inhabited initial forms the letter as an upper and lower arch; the upper is meant to be read as a canopy – metaphorically pegged to the earth’s horizon –  for the heavens are ‘stretched out as a tent’ (Ps.102:4; Is.40:22 etc.).

The open lattice to left and right signifies those ‘gates through which mankind cannot pass but through which stars emerge from below the horizon into view of earth and then sink below it.

Just under the top of the letter’s upper curve, about where a lamp might hang,  you see the Pole star surrounded by a dark  [=”not able to be seen by human eyes”] circumpolar boundary, of which only half is depicted.

Most medieval Christians still believed that sight was a result of the  eye’s reaching out to grasp an object and so for the maker, and reader of this image, the invisible/dark limit spoke of a spiritual Heaven and its  ‘ramparts’ – the boundary of the circumpolar region which they envisaged guarded by angels also invisible to mortal eyes as a rule. It is the circumpolar line itself which, being entirely conceptual, neither drawn nor mentioned in the scriptures was thus manifest but not visible. They also envisaged at a point above the visible Pole star  a spiritual Throne – which term might carry different significance in different contexts, as I’ll explain in the next post.

What lay within the ‘tent’ as vault of the visible heavens and its stars was all that was permitted to be ‘grasped’ by human eye and mind – that is, the items about which they might indulge in study, speculation, debate and other forms of  intellectual enquiry .. within limits.

Again,  the red background alludes to the earth as the proper domain of human kind, ‘children of Adam’. (the word Adam is derived from the word for ‘red earth’).

That we are to consider the difference between the earthly, permitted learning and what is not for humans to speculate about is represented by use of the  ‘winding’ vine element –  ‘the vineyard of the text’   to use the phrase  Ivan Illich adopted as the title for one of his books (one I’d recommend, though its every line is not to be treated as gospel).

Beyond the limit of that arch which sets the limit of mundane, secular knowledge the ‘vine’ appears again, now painted in white.  It appears as ‘right’ opposed to ‘left’ and ‘upper’ opposed to ‘lower’.  The message here, for all four, is that while some persons may be granted wisdom and knowledge greater than earthly knowledge, it cannot  be acquired – or is forbidden to be acquired – by human reason. It is matter ordained as beyond the human domain,  and is not to be debated or investigated.

The vine motif is not always used to mean ‘learning, but here it reminds the viewer that enquiring into ‘the ways of heaven’ is of two sorts; the earthly and the spiritual/demonic.  Decisions over what was good and what was evil ‘occulted/occult’ knowledge was a matter for the eyes of faith; to be decided by the words of Christ and those of his appointed representatives.   (This is how the medieval west of that time saw the situation, you understand).

This is why the allegorical female figure points to the Pole Star while preventing the person behind from raising his hand against heaven.  Or, as children are still told, ‘it’s rude to point’.

.The letters in the right margin spell  ‘Vidam’ ( a form that does not occur in classical Latin) and that word  unites the elements in the picture proper and serves as an announcement of the theme elaborated within it.

And so too, the disposition of the vine motif exterior to the letter tells us that what is obscure or hidden (occult/occulted) may be righteous religious mystery or wicked/heretical (Lat. sinister) knowledge – only the church can decide.

That most people in medieval Latin Europe really did accept this division between permissible and impermissible learning wasn’t necessarily a good thing, of course, from our point of view today,  but it had its good points.  It sometimes allowed folk-practices to survive which we’d immediately describe as pre-Christian and pagan.  It certainly saved the life of a frightfully annoying woman named Margery Kemp.  One on occasion her fellow-pilgrims, driven beyond endurance by Marjorie’s behaviour, were  united in determining to “brun her for a witch”.   So Marjorie fled to the local bishop who, simply by pronouncing her behaviour not sinister but proof of religious sensibility, saved her life. The difference between the good and the evil in ‘occulted’ knowledge was a matter for theology, not personal or group- judgement.

The oldest rule had it that, in the western church, none save the elected head (the Pope) in person might adjudicate in cases of alleged heresy.  That rule  saved Francis of Assisi from being declared a heretic and papal protection was long the chief and best protection of the Jews in Latin Europe – if the election had put a decent man in Peter’s chair. When the secular authorities began involving themselves in questions of heresy, and when the old rule was set aside and agencies delegated – such as the Inquisition – or when the great splitting of western Christianity occurred, mass burnings followed both within and without the older church.  Burning people had been (as Marjorie’s case illustrates well) the equivalent of rabble-driven lynching; it was a practice much older than western Christianity.

But I hope this will show why one has to consider not only form, but informing thought in order to read an image as the maker expected it to be read in the days before printing.

What you find so often in Voynich writings is a superficial definition of an  image in terms of one item as ‘object’ and extreme literalism follow in the subjective response.

In this case, the ‘object’ might be the female figure and a person might say,  ‘Oh wow, they had female teachers of astronomy’ or, from some theory about magic assert that the same figure was meant for a witch. They might produce all sorts of comparative pictures, but they’d be pictures of teachers or of witches. You’d be treated to many instances of where red and blue was a ‘witchy’ combination and so forth.  The subject would be not the manuscript in question but a theory (in the sense of a fiction) and its elaboration.

Others, a little better acquainted with medieval manuscripts might again define the entire image in terms of that same single element as ‘object’ but now call it  ‘Astronomia’ and run a data-base search under ‘Astronomia’ which they’d then provide with commentary arguing that the nearest ‘astronomia’ to the target proves support for their theoretical provenance for the first manuscript.  Expositions of that sort tend to show a pre-emptive bias in definition of the image, in parameters for comparisons offered,  and a commentary only loosely related to the image or manuscript at issue.

Or again, a person might instantly turn to hunting copies of the written text found adjacent to the image,  re-define the image in those terms and, ignoring it thereafter, concentrate on tracking other copies of that written text, in the hope of again supporting some theory about where the first manuscript was made.

In this case, the last method would be of no help, because the accompanying text comes from a Greek work that had been composed a thousand years earlier in a different environment altogether and in a different language, having been translated into several languages, transmitted across cultural and historical generations with the image in question only adorning that text here.

It would not target the manuscript in question because the manuscript is not only a copy of the text illuminated by this image; it contains parts from a variety of sources.

On the other hand, the palaeographer, like the forensic type of iconological analyst would agree is that the image and associated script evince a Latin (western Christian) character expressive of the French style during the early 14thC.

Once you have  appropriate historical and cultural parameters, seeking comparisons is more likely to yield valid results.  One might, for example, read histories of the time to see what sort of new learning might have raised this issue of permitted enquiry in relation to studies of the stars.  Since the message of the image is of strongly conservative Christianity, so the text is more likely than not to be one from a doubtful (i.e. non Latin) origin, but accepted into the Latin curriculum by the early fourteenth century. We find the same, cautionary and salutary, message embodied in an illustration brought to notice by Ellie Velinska, and mentioned in an earlier post in this series.

This would limit the search quite satisfactorily and one might even discover that the manuscript in question is Burney MS 275.  It is always better to advance by increasing what you know than by building speculation on speculation.

Holding library’s description of Burney MS 275.

I almost forgot to say that the figure with the black shoe is  disapproved of.  He is shown transgressing the limit – trespassing – which is how sinning was perceived in Latin Christianity.  His having one sleeve exceedingly long derives from the Arab tradition, where it normally describes the boy at the mast-head. Here, I think, it is used as allusion to a specific tradition of non-Ptolemaic astronomical learning, apparently disapproved of by theologians in early fourteenth century France but of considerable interest in connection with Beinecke MS 408.

The above notes are by the present author.

 ‘Art history’ –  in the modern sense didn’t exist in western Europe when the Voynich manuscript was made.  Vitruvius’ great treatise on classical architecture existed in a manuscript taken from St.Gall by Bracciolini in 1415. The text was printed by Alberti in 1450 but an illustrated version was first produced by Cesare Cesariano in 1521.