Expert Opinion: Myth vs. Materials Science Pt.2

, Two previous:
Header Illustration: composite (far left) detail from Beinecke MS 408 f. 80v;( far right) detail from Brit Lib., MS Add 25724, folio 50a  – an 18thC ms copy of a 13thC text; Background – external and internal views of the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts LIbrary, Yale University.  Portraits (upper) Roger Bacon; (lower) R.S. Brumbaugh.

The Beinecke Library page.

Introduction (website)

Removing the speculative and the ‘canonised myth’ from the Beinecke Library’s description of the manuscript in its online Introduction – as it stands when this post is written – will leave you with the following sentence:

Nearly every page contains drawings drawn in ink with … various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue and red… and continuous pages of text  with star-like flowers… in the margins.

Written in central Europe during the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries…… a magical or scientific text, nearly every page contains botanical, figurative, and scientific drawings of a provincial but lively character drawn in ink  vibrant washes in various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red. (Note – some pigments are thicker than a wash and one, at least, is said by Carter to resemble wax crayon – D).Based on the subject matter of the drawings, the contents of the manuscript falls into six sections: 1) botanicals containing drawings of 113 unidentified plant species; 2) astronomical and astrological drawings including astral charts with radiating circles, suns and moons, Zodiac symbols such as fish (Pisces), a bull (Taurus), and an archer (Sagittarius), nude females emerging from pipes or chimneys, and courtly figures; 3) a biological section containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules; 4) an elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions, many drawn across several folded folios and depicting possible geographical forms; 5) pharmaceutical drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots portrayed with jars or vessels in red, blue, or green, and 6) continuous pages of text, possibly recipes, with star-like flowers marking each entry in the margins.The reason for rejecting so much is explained in brief:

  1.  …  “Written” is a hangover from the  earlier period when the work was believed an autograph, and thus written at the time it was made, more or less.  To conflate composition of the text(s) with manufacture of the object is a basic error, avoidance of which is drummed into the novice in ‘manuscript studies 101’.  ‘Made’ or ‘compiled’ would be appropriate.
  2. during the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries.  The Beinecke library must have some reason other than credulity, reliance on amateur preferences, or deference to past members of staff to justify its including this apparent error. If so, I haven’t seen that explanation  The radiocarbon dating of 1404-1438,  which agrees with Panofsky’s opinion in 1932, and with the ‘expert consensus’ of which Lehmann-Haupt spoke in 1963,  would all seem to demand that to add a century to that range should not be done arbitrarily but from the basis of concrete information – from codicology or materials science. (Lehmann-Haupt’s comment is reported by d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma (1978) p.8
    *’central Europe‘. The phrase is uselessly vague and there has been no technical or historical study which proved the manuscript to have been “written in central Europe”.  The ‘central Europe’ theory was always an anchronism, and was initially focused on the German-speaking centre of Europe and on Rudolf’s court.  When the radiocarbon dating established the work as early fifteenth century, there was not a man of the ‘central European’ theorists left standing.  (As a matter of interest, those who were left standing were Patrick Lockerby, Nick Pelling, Philip Neal, and the present writer’.
    Some of the most dedicated ‘central European’ theorists  tried at first to ignore the radiocarbon dating; then to say that ‘1404-1438’ could be redefined as 1470 and later. Ideas that ‘the manuscript was made in about 1480’… nearly became another ‘canonised myth’. The latest tactic has been to re-define ‘central Europe’ to include England, northern France and northern Italy… which makes the whole ‘central Europe’ tag meaningless.
  3. magical or scientific text – experts in those texts and subjects have either denied any link exists between the Voynich manuscript and European works of that kind, or have failed to produce any comparison from the Latin corpus to justify the idea.   It is speculation, and nothing more.
  4. …113 plant species.  ‘113 pictures’ would be accurate.  To assume that each image is a ‘portrait’ of a single species is another canonised myth, unproven and contraindicated by the fact that the Voynich plant pictures are matched neither in  form nor in sequence by the imagery in medieval herbals.  Many spurious ‘pairings’ have been offered over the years, but none can bear analytical examination.
  5. * astronomical and astrological drawings.  The sense in which this phrase is meant presumes, again, that some place exists for these drawings in the Latin European corpus or in ‘acceptable’ introductions to that corpus from the Islamic astronomical works. The basic forms, and elements in Latin astrological works are absent from the Voynich manuscript, or if present are not yet demonstrated present. The angular horoscope drawings, and reference to the planets are among the most obvious discrepancies. If they are astronomical, the specific type of ‘astronomical’ writing in general needs to be identified, especially given that the ‘zodiac’  contained in the Voynich calendar does not depict the 12 constellations or even ten of the twelve.  It includes 2 ‘bulls’ and 2 ‘goats’ but no sheep drawn in the usual Latin manner with over-curled horns.  It is however true that in parts of France (the same where the standing archer first appears as ‘Saggitario’) one finds occasional depiction of Aries as a goat.  More on this later.
  6. biological section.  This description is no more than the subjective impression expressed by William Romaine Newbold.  Others, just as arbitrarily, describe the same drawings as ‘balneological’.
  7. nudes.  The term is pre-emptive.   The term ‘nude’ describes a drawing from life, meant to represent a living figure.  At present, there is as great a probability that the figures were intended to be metaphorical or allegorical as literal, and the more neutral term ‘unclothed’ or ‘naked’ is appropriate here.  The figures are shown partly covered (or not) but to say ‘they wade’ is to assume greater literalism than is justified by the evidence.
  8. …. an elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions.  Once again, the description fails to maintain the neutral tone appropriate to description of images whose content is – or is believed – unknown.  Whether or not the Beinecke librarians have time to keep abreast of current writings, there is nothing to explain or to justify use of the word ‘cosmological;’.  Others may speculate and argue over the intention behind the drawing, but the Beinecke’s information is expected to have a solid basis in fact.
  9. … pharmaceutical drawings.  Speculation which has all but achieved the status of ‘canonised myth’ despite its being apparently denied by the form of the more ornate containers and the failure of any researcher to discover a ‘phamaceutical’ text having this form within the Latin (western European) corpus.
  10. …. *medical – another widespread assumption, arrived at by analogy with, and assumption of, European models, and still without proof that the analogy is apt.

 

Catalogue record by Barbara Shailor (1967)

Speculative matter also affects its Catalogue record, particularly the preamble.

The Preamble reads:

Scientific or magical text in an unidentified language, in cipher, apparently based on Roman minuscule characters; the text is believed by some scholars to be the work of Roger Bacon since the themes of the illustrations seem to represent topics known to have interested Bacon …  A history of the numerous attempts to decipher the manuscript can be found in a volume edited by R. S. Brumbaugh, The Most Mysterious Manuscript: The Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher Manuscript (Carbondale, Illinois, 1978). Although several scholars have claimed decipherments of the manuscript, for the most part the text remains an unsolved puzzle. R. S. Brumbaugh has, however, suggested a decipherment that establishes readings for the star names and plant labels; see his “Botany and the Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Manuscript Once More,” Speculum 49 (1974) pp. 546-48; “The Solution of the Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher,” [Yale Library] Gazette 49 (1975) pp. 347-55; “The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 39 (1976) pp. 139-50.

 

The Beinecke’s ‘Recommended reading’.

The Beinecke’s  ‘Bibliography’ – in its Introduction and in the Catalogue record – reflects the state of the study as it was half a century ago.  It accords the writings of Robert S. Brumbaugh a prominence hardly merited by their contribution to this field.  As Professor Bax rightly said  (in 2014) Brumbaugh’s conception of the text “did not find favour with other scholars…and his scheme of decipherment is now largely forgotten”. Brumbaugh had made the tyro’s mistake of supposing that he came to the manuscript already equipped with sufficient knowledge to understand it.

The bibliography refers to only one item published later than 1978 -a book written in 2005 which one reviewer described as ‘a love affair with Roger Bacon’.

The library’s reliance on Brumbaugh’s ideas may explain its description of the manuscript as   “written in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century” though the radiocarbon dating – obtained earlier but announced in print in 2011 – provided a range for the vellum of 1404-1438 AD agreeing with specialist opinions from the earlier period, and with more recent technical analyses. The latter are discussed later in the present series.

Professor Brumbaugh was Professor of Philosophy at Yale from 1952 and became Professor Emeritus in 1988, He died in 1992.  Specialists received his last publication, summarising the rest, with reviews which were polite, but cool.

Guzman’s review was among the more positive, saying (among other things):

Brumbaugh concludes that the manuscript is a sixteenth-century product, probably put together by the Englishman John Dee rather than the thirteenth-century Roger Bacon. He divides the manuscript into five parts and says that possibly two sections go back to the thirteenth century but that the other three and this compilation definitely date from the sixteenth century.

He also identifies the alphabet used in the cipher; with this alphabet he read the planet [sic.] and star labels. Brumbaugh concludes that the cipher originated in some type of numerology and that it is probably some type of artificial language. Thus the reader knows where work on the manuscript and its cipher stands today, the areas and avenues future research will follow, and what the manuscript will probably reveal if and when all parts of it are completely deciphered. Brumbaugh’s compilation places the Voynich Cipher Manuscript in its proper historical context ,,
Gregory S. Guzman (Bradley University),  The Historian, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Nov. 1979), pp. 120-121.

d’Imperio was polite but concluded:

“There is just enough plausibility in [Brumbaugh’s] process to lead one on. but not enough to leave one satisfied.” (D’Imperio 1978 p38)

Vera Filby said the same:

 Brumbaugh’s solution, though presented in a most interesting way, is disappointing, since the evidence he offers is incomplete, and proof -unambiguously readable text- is lacking.

It is unfortunate that he did not have the benefit of recent analyses of the script by Captain Prescott Currier and Mary E. D’Imperio, described in Manuscripts, Winter 1978. For readers unacquainted with the history of the manuscript and its remarkable provenance-from the first known reference to it in 16th-century [read ’17thC] Bohemia, to its rediscovery in 1912 in Italy by the rare-book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, and finally to the Beinecke this attractive book, with illustrations of representative manuscript pages, provides a thorough, even somewhat repetitious, overview. …

Vera Ruth Filby, (Department of Defence, in Washington).  Her review was published in  American Scientist, Vol. 67, No. 2 (March-April 1979), p. 249.

Filby’s opinion remains the general one, Brumbaugh’s claimed decryption method having been generally rejected.

 

More recent comment on Brumbaugh’s ideas are more strongly negative. As examples, I include Pelling’s comment on Brumbaugh’s claimed decipherments  (2012) and Bax on Brumbaugh’s  “star-names” (2014).

Commenting on Walter Grosse’s efforts, Pelling said:

Brumbaugh similarly converted Voynichese to digits …and tried to salvage text from the resulting digit stream, though ultimately accepting somewhat grudgingly that the digit stream was not meaningful.  Claude Martin travelled much the same path as Brumbaugh, proposing instead that it was constructed from a deliberately nonsensical digit stream. In my opinion, both Brumbaugh’s and Martin’s digit stream theories explained nothing whatsoever about the nature and structure of Voynichese, and so have nothing to commend them: and σαν ετι I don’t see any reason why I should think differently about Grosse’s superverbose digit stream theory. Sorry to have to point it out, but “it’s like that, that’s the way it is”.

Nick Pelling, ‘First Voynich Theory of 2012…’ (Jan. 28th., 2012)

Professor Bax went into detail on Brumbaugh’s claims of decipherment  (October 19th., 2014).

In the 1970’s (in fact before D’Imperio’s monograph) Brumbaugh produced a series of claims that he had ‘cracked the code’, among them an article on the VM star names which he claimed he had deciphered . In that article he boldly states: “In 1972 I finally solved the Voynich cipher” (Brumbaugh 1976:140).

Before addressing his decipherments themselves, it is interesting to reproduce a few of Brumbaugh’s observations concerning what he terms the ‘star names’, to give a flavour of his work:

“The star-map section raises problems. The star maps are a set of twelve, representing ten signs of the zodiac; originally there must have been at least one for each sign of the zodiac, but if so, two have been lost. Each ‘map’ has a central medallion with a picture of the zodiacal constellation, with the month name written beneath in plain text. Around this, in an inner circle, the maps have a ring of female figures, each attached by a line to a star. An outer circle has more such figures. A group of numerals is written next to each star.” (Brumbaugh 1976:141)

On the next page he [Brumbaugh] continues as follows:

“A group of cipher numerals is written next to each star. A first try at decipherment gave the name of Alfred for the star in the Pisces medallion, with Urifydes just above and Alfansus Purus on to the right. The names are therefore those of the great men whose souls are attached to stars, rather than anything else they might be—Arabic star names, or a numerical Messier listing, for example.” (Brumbaugh 1976:142)

Brumbaugh does not give details about his decipherment, and it is even not clear from this which precise words he was deciphering (e.g. in the Pisces ‘medallion’). Unfortunately, partly because of this sort of vagueness, his resulting decipherment did not find favour with other scholars…and his scheme of decipherment is now largely forgotten.

In terms of his analysis of the star names, I would further argue that he made a number of fundamental assumptions which are questionable, even untenable. In the quotations above, for example, he assumes that what we now call the Zodiac pages are in fact ‘star maps’. This involves the assumption that the drawings of star-shaped objects attached to lines or strings are necessarily meant to represent stars, as he says on pages 140 and 141, although by page 142 he has revised this to suggest they represent not stars themselves but ‘great men whose souls are attached to stars‘.

This raises a crucial question which to my mind (and again to my surprise) has not been carefully addressed in Voynich scholarship so far, neither by D’Imperio, nor by Brumbaugh, nor apparently by anyone else, namely which star-like drawings with labels in the manuscript should we take with confidence to represent stars, and which should we exclude from our analysis …

Stephen Bax, ‘Voynich star names: an analysis (1)‘, (October 18th., 2014)

Reviews of the Goldstones’ book, The Friar and the Cipher see it is an interesting history of Roger Bacon’s time, but include comments such that below ..

Ostensibly the book is about the Voynich Manuscript,….[but] this debate begins on page 223 of the edition I have. The book runs just over 300 pages, which presents kind of a problem. The rest of the book is a history of Western thought and the constant struggle between science and religion in the Middle Ages, Which brings me to the ultimate problem with this book and how it was marketed (and even titled). The Friar and the Cipher is a wonderful book on Western philosophy. However, there is nothing really new in the book when it comes to the manuscript. It takes no sides in the controversy, only saying that it seems likely that Bacon did write it. The authors raise questions but do not really provide anything new to readers with any knowledge of the subject. The book seems to be a way to gather a bunch of different sources into one volume, sort of a “this is where we’re at” kind of thing. It also is almost a love letter to Roger Bacon…

from Dave Roy, ‘Curled up’ reviews (2006),

 

Codicological description.

In the Catalogue record, impressionistic matter and ‘canonised myth’ infuse even the  codicological description, and include (again) the statement that the categories by which the manuscript is described are  ‘based on the subject matter of the drawings…’  The correct statement is that the categories “adopt William Romaine Newbold’s  subjective impressions of the imagery….”  The original makers’ intention remains open to debate.

Details:Almost every page contains botanical and scientific drawings, many full-page, of a provincial but lively character, in ink with washes in various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue and red. Based on the subject matter of the drawings, the contents of the manuscript falls into six sections:
Part I. ff. 1r-66v Botanical sections containing drawings of 113 unidentified plant [drawings] species. Special care is taken in the representation of
the flowers, leaves and the root systems of the individual plants.Part II. ff. 67r-73v.  Astronomical or astrological section containing 25 astral diagrams in the form of circles, concentric or with radiating segments, some with the sun or the moon in the center; the segments filled with stars and inscriptions, some with the signs of the zodiac and concentric circles of nude females, some free-standing, others emerging from objects similar to cans or tubes. Little continuous text.
Part III. ff. 75r-84v “Biological” section containing drawings of small-scale female nudes [figures], most with bulging abdomens and exaggerated hips, immersed or emerging from fluids, or interconnecting tubes and capsules. These drawings are the most enigmatic in the manuscript and it has been suggested that they symbolically represent the process of human reproduction and the procedure by which the soul becomes united with the body (cf. W. Newbold and R. Kent, The Cipher of Roger Bacon [Philadelphia, 1928] p. 46).
Part IV. ff. 85r-86v This sextuple-folio folding leaf contains an elaborate array of nine medallions, filled with stars and cell-like shapes, with fibrous structures linking the circles. Some medallions with petal-like arrangements of rays filled with stars, some with structures resembling bundles of pipes.
Part V. ff. 87r-102v Pharmaceutical section containing drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs [plant parts] and roots, all with identifying inscriptions. On almost every page drawings of pharmaceutical jars, [objects] resembling vases, in red, green and yellow, or blue and green. Accompanied by some continuous text.
Part VI. ff. 103r-117v Continuous text, with stars in inner margin on recto and outer margins of verso. Folio 117v includes a 3-line presumed “key” opening with a reference to Roger Bacon in anagram and cipher.
Binding: s. xviii-xix. Vellum case. Remains of early paper pastedowns.

________________________

Postscript –  Nick Pelling – and I daresay numerous other researchers who have not committed themselves to print – have offered criticisms comparable to those seen in this post. My position is this: that knowing the public will suppose whatever appears under the prestigious ‘Yale’ name must be – if not vox dei at least vox academiae– the Beinecke’s page should assert nothing about the manuscript not demonstrably and objectively true.  If this means  that the manuscript’s description is reduced to a single sentence; that reference to Roger Bacon is acknowledged as  ‘speculative’ and that reference to Rudolf II is consigned to a footnote reporting the third-hand rumour of purchase,  then well and good.

Expert opinion: Myth vs. Materials Science Pt.1

Two previous:
Header illustration: (left) detail of Bacon’s letter to Pope Clement; (right) page from Newbold’s notes.

Wilfrid Voynich didn’t mean to start the ‘theory war’ but he did.

He was an expert in attributing a manuscript as an object to its proper region and period,  but  had no sense of the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction.  The only type of provenance he practiced was the ‘type 1′ sort.

That discrepancy introduced the first, initially minor, distortion in others’ perception of this manuscript because he created a ‘history’ for it which lacks historical rigor, which adduces no evidence from the primary document, neither form nor materials nor informed commentary on its content – and refers only to such historical facts as might lend colour to his  ‘chain of ownership’ story. This attitude provided a model – and a very bad one – for how the manuscript should be approached.

Over time the practice of separating the manuscript from a narrative espoused in advance of research and then imposed on it,  would splinter the study into its many mutually incompatible simulacra: one informed by a tale of early Scandinavia, another of sixteenth-century Germany, a third  of seventeenth century Prague, a fourth of Renaissance Italy, a fifth of the ‘New World’; one occult, another cultic, another pragmatic and so forth, with none sufficiently well founded to disprove any other.

Pushing a pet theoretical narrative has now become, for most Voynicheros, the unifying theme for their tours through history and their sole reason for being involved in the study  – to the point where for anyone to say that an observation is the end-result of research into one or another question raised by the primary document  is to meet with open derision, scepticism or incomprehension – though rarely with enquiry – from those who are not primarily focused on analysis of the text’s written part. What passes for ‘Voynich studies’ has become a sort of social-media version of reality tv, where boos and hisses drive out one unproven theory while mass acclaim serves as if, alone, it were equal to  scholarly endorsement.

While this most crucial issue of myth-creation is treated in this post by taking an example originating in the 1920s, the same phenomena which saw its survival till (a least) 2015 are still in operation today and few of even the most widely adopted Voynich ‘histories’ and ‘theories’ have any more validity than did the ‘Bacon telescope’ story.  I know that, at some stage, I’ll have to provide would-be revisionists with more recent examples of persistent Voynich flummery, but I hope readers will understand that critiquing current Voynich theorists isn’t something I look forward to doing and as illustration of how fiction becomes ‘theory’ becomes canonised myth, this example will do very well.

The ‘Bacon’s telescope’ myth – and the ‘nebula/galaxy’ fantasy: 1920s to   2012 (and, alas, beyond).

Dedicated Voynich theorists today are far more defensive-offensive than Wilfrid Voynich was, and less willing to admit – as he freely did – that the basis for their ‘theory’ is no more than   some  ‘gut instinct’.  Voynich said openly enough that this is the only reason he described the manuscript  an autograph by Roger Bacon.  The rest of his fantastic ‘history’ as a largely imaginary chain-of-ownership novella simply followed from that first ‘instinct’. In fact, he also had in his favour a recognition affirmed by other specialists in medieval manuscripts of the time, that the volume presents as a manuscript of the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.

Since today we know the vellum is dated later, the conclusion would seem fairly obvious that the present volume reproduced material from some one or more works made (if not first composed) during that earlier period.

The radiocarbon dating, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, finally disposed of any suggestion that the Voynich text was hand-written by Roger Bacon, but the idea that the material might have been from some work composed by, or copied by Roger Bacon has never been disproven – it was simply elbowed aside as theorists jostled for online popularity via the specious, and implied, idea that if Bacon didn’t inscribe this manuscript, it couldn’t contain material derived from Norman France or Norman England of Bacon’s time.

Newbold and the Bacon’s telesope myth.

William Romaine Newbold.

William Romaine Newbold’s paper of 1921 also has Roger Bacon’s biography central to its narrative, and for no better reason than does Wilfrid’s, but  Newbold was not wholly dependent on Wilfrid’s imagination, nor his own.

Newbold’s chief source, as he says, was Brewer (1859)*; though had Newbold instead read Bridges’ study (1875) his own narrative might have been less flawed.

The two historians, Brewer and Bridges, wrote less than twenty years apart, but they stand  on opposite sides of a scholarly watershed.

* in an edition of 1900, as Newbold says in his paper (p. 433 n.1).

Brewer’s ‘Life of Roger Bacon’ is a work of the Regency/Georgian era,  full of sensibility, empathy and adverbs.   By contrast, Bridges displays already that combination of judicious evaluation, precision in detail and ‘backbone’ which became the hallmark of England’s great Victorian dons.

  • John Sherren Brewer, Rogeri Bacon Opera quædamhactenus inedita. London : Longman, Green, and Roberts, 1859.  Vol. I. containing I.–Opus tertium. II.–Opus minus. III.–Compendium philosophiæ. (Bacon’s biography is included in the Preface  pp. xi-lxxxiv).
  • John Henry Bridges, The ‘Opus majus’ of Roger Bacon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873. Vol.1, Introduction § 1. ‘Bacon’s Life’ pp. xxi-xxxvi.

Since we are here concerned with the effect of ‘canonised myth’ upon the manuscript’s study, I’ll take the ‘Bacon’s telescope’ myth, which had existed already in 1875, was then taken up and applied by Newbold to  argue that the image on folio 68v* was Bacon’s drawing of a spiral galaxy. (see left)

*folio 68v(part) is the latest description of  this image by the Beinecke Library; the same was earlier described as folio  68r, and/or 67v by various sources, the additional ‘1’ or ‘i’ being informal).

This notion that Roger Bacon invented the telescope was immediately  embraced, then, by the first wave of ‘Voynich researchers’, who soon began repeating as if fact Newbold’s notion that Bacon had seen, and now drawn, a spiral galaxy.  It was a ‘Voynichero’ notion that was to endure despite all reason and argument to as late as 2015 when I saw to my astonishment that it had survived  even Norm Sperling’s thorough debunking of 2012 and was on the verge of joining the list of “canonised myths which you may deny only at your peril”.

However.. here s the more cautious passage direct from Bridges’ biography of Bacon (1875). You will note that here is no complete rejection of the ‘Bacon telescope’ notion but no over-confident assertion either.  It is from this germ that  Newbold would subsequently seek support for his interpretation of many images in the Voynich manuscript, including that on folio 68v.

Bridges had actually written:

Of the magnifying powers of convex lenses [Roger] Bacon had a clear comprehension.  He imagined, and was within measurable distance of effecting the combination of lenses which was to bring far things near, but which was not to be realized till the time of Galileo.

In 1614, four years after the invention of the telescope, Combach, professor of philosophy in the University of Marpurg, published this great work of Bacon, ‘viri eminentissimi.’ It would be interesting to know whether the allusion in the Novum Organum (lib. i. 80) to the work of an obscure monk (‘ monachi alicujus in cellula’) has reference to this work. The Cogitata et Visa was written before Combach’s edition was published ; but examples of the Perspectiva were numerous, and it can hardly have been unknown to Francis Bacon. In any case it must have been known to Descartes, to whose epoch-making researches on Dioptrique it assuredly contributed a stimulating influence. This at least they have in common, that light is looked upon as correlated with other modes of propagation of force through the Ether.

(Bridges, op.cit. p.xxxv)

  • John Henry Bridges, Obituary, from The Times (-of London), Tuesday, Jun 26, 1906; pg. 14; Issue 38056. Explains that Bridges’ work was not well received.

And – though still ignorant of Bridges – Newbold says in his paper delivered in 1921:

The telescope has extended the range of vision far out into the depths of space; the microscope has revealed the existence of the unimagined realm of the infinitely little …That both of these indispensable instruments were known to and probably discovered by Roger Bacon, and that by their means he made discoveries of the utmost importance, the Voynich manuscript puts beyond the range of reasonable doubt. (p.432)

  • William Romaine Newbold, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Series 3: Vol.43, (1921)  pp. 431- 474. Section occurs pp.456ff.

As would so often happen, a Voynich ‘theory’ was soon opposed by arguments informed by fact and reason  only to be ignored.

For example, James Stokley’s paper of 1928 plainly denies that ‘Bacon telescope’ myth – denies the idea in itself AND  in the context of Voynich writings, but his essay had no more power to influence the general run of Voynich ‘fans’ and Voynich writings than had any previous effort… or indeed any subsequent effort to halt the popular practive of inventing some Wilfrid-style ‘history’ and call it a  ‘Voynich theory’.

  • James Stokley, ‘Did Roger Bacon Have a Telescope?’, The Science News-Letter, Vol. 14, No. 386 (Sep. 1, 1928), pp. 125-126+133-134.

Perception of the poor manuscript is so chronically distorted by the invention, and unthinking adoption of such myths that a single popular tale of this sort can prevent any advance of the manuscript’s study for decades.

That so many of these ‘canonised myths’ still prove resistant to both evidence and reason and proponents’ still respond with personal hostility rather than intelligent debate shows how far Voynich studies has descended to the level of  social-media’s quasi-religious association-by-common-biases.

But to continue the history of this particular theory’s resistance to fact and reason…

Eight years after Stokley’s paper of 1928 had been published, a reasonable-sounding paper was published by Edward Lutz, who had clearly done a fair amount of reading, though not with any critical eye.

Lutz repeats and even illustrates the story of Bacon’s supposed ‘telescope’ and though it is clear that he relied largely on Newbold’s paper of 1921,  it is also clear that – unlike Newbold –  he was not ignorant of Bridges’ work.  We know this because Lutz added a quotation from Bridges below his own imaginative depiction of that mythical ‘Bacon telescope’.

  • Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (June, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82.

And still, almost half a century later, in her summary of the Friedmans’ failed efforts to wring meaning from the Voynich text, Mary d’Imperio supposes the long decades’ of excessive western admiration for Roger Bacon  due to some residual guilt among Catholics over the (largely imaginary) ‘persecution of science by the church’, but that cannot be accepted as an adequate explanation for persistence of this “telescope” myth into Voynich talk even into the twenty-first century.

As late as 2015, the present writer was obliged to ask certain readers of her blog voynichimagery to  go and read Norm Sperling’s brief and brilliant post of 2012 in which the whole idea was firmly and –  one had hoped finally – been despatched to oblivion.

Lynn Thorndike would surely have approved of Sperling’s first sentene:

“William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk.”

Note (Dec.31st.2020).  Checking the link today, I find that Sperling’s original article no longer on the web. I did find it through the waybackmachine, and in the hope of preserving it conveniently for my readers I have now added the text to the end of this post.

When finally laid to rest, any myth may seem quaint and a little amusing but so long as myths are maintained in what should be an area of formal scholarship, they distort perception of the object of study, misdirect research and may positively hamper investigation as believers make their own objections felt towards arguments or scholars opposing such long-lived and well-loved fictions.

Less quaint, more recent, and far less amusing is the social-media PR sort of Voynichero who manufactures support for a speculative ‘history’ by deliberately inserting some item of guesswork into a supposedly objective narrative, and then sponsoring its elevation to the status of  ‘canonised myth’. This abhorrent practice  has largely passed beneath notice within the  ‘mythic’ atmosphere of Voynich theory-wars, but in January of this year, Santacoloma spoke of it in a post entitled, ‘ Birth of a New Mythology’.

With Rich’s permission, I’ve quoted below those of his observations with which I can agree wholeheartedly.  For the rest –  and to avoid the impression that his opinions are identical to mine –   the passages omitted (and indicated by ellipses) can be read by following that link.

I’d like to say here that Rich is among the few who have so far stood apart from the anti-intellectual culture induced by ‘theory war’.  Remaining always civil, Rich appears to place a higher value on common interest in Beinecke MS 408 than on whether a person does, or doesn’t agree with his views about it.   While that rational attitude was the norm in the first mailing list, it is increasingly rare now.

Santacoloma maintains that the manuscript was forged.  I  think, rather, that  what has been ‘forged’ – in a slightly different sense – are the conceptual moulds into which the manuscript is forced, and has been forced by one person after another since 1912.

I don’t expect Rich to change his opinion; I hope he doesn’t expect me to change mine.  We have our reasons.

Note: Santacoloma did not “invent ” the  theory that the manuscript is a forged document. It was among the ideas proposed by William Friedman by the early 1950s, prompting Panofsky’s strong statement to the contrary. Despite this, Mary d’Imperio still treated it as a real possibility.

from Rich’s post:

There are many, previously accepted (and stubbornly accepted by most, still), “truisms” about the provenance, construction/substance, and content of the Voynich manuscript …. unsupportable by the facts, and at worst, demonstrably false. Both rise to the level of mythologies. These are too numerous to mention, or explain, in [one] post …

But how do these myths arise? I don’t mean that in the sense of one’s motivation for starting them …  but by what path, what series of events, did these myths originate? …

…. In some cases they were created by Wilfrid himself. Or, soon after his death, added innocently by speculation on the part of Anne Nill and Ethel Voynich. Later, a vast army of well-meaning researchers, by digging deep for any shred of evidence …. the results were either presented as, or later morphed into, “facts”.

….  But in my time studying the Voynich… a bit over ten years now… I’ve seen at least a dozen or so new myths created, and become accepted by the mainstream “understanding” of the Voynich. As an example of these, I will outline one … its origin, its metamorphosis into fact, and then, its canonization into the supposed “fact base” of the Voynich’s story.

…  Yale publication of the (facsimile edition) book, The Voynich Manuscript,* … was edited by the erudite, informative and kind Raymond Clemens … But I’m sorry to say that I cannot recommend the work as a source text for information about the reality …, because in many respects it is a biased advertisement …  it side-steps and/or “rationalizes” some of the many serious anomalies of the Voynich, and it does so in some very obvious, and even sometimes unintentionally humorous ways.”

**Raymond Clemens (ed.), The Voynich manuscript, Yale University Press (2016).

[minor edit to replace dropped phrase –  17th April 2019]

That single ‘myth’ was embedded in Voynich studies from 1921 to at least as late as 2015.  What is notable about the way in which it survived so long, and despite informed and detailed opposition is that where the first generations of Voynich writers merely adopted Newbold’s opinion with or without mention of its origin, later generations of the internet-social-media period (post 2004) were content to parrot unnamed and unacknowledged sources. Thus mere gossip was enough – if widely enough repeated – to turn fantasy into something ‘everyone knows’.  History, to be history, has to BE a history of the study’s evolution.  Any Voynich writer who refused to acknowledge his or her sources of information actively corrupts this manuscript’s study.  Most do it these days because, being amateurs in the age of social media, they fear that by admitting their debt to others they may lose the public acclaim on social media to which their whole ‘study’ of Beinecke MS 408 is aimed.

___________

Added December 31st. 2020. Norm Sperling’s debunk re 68v-i.

Today (Dec 31st. 2020) Since I consider Sperling’s summary of the evidence a landmark in Voynich studies – a formal de-bunking of a Voynich myth that had persisted for almost a century by the time he wrote, I’ve decided to reproduce it here – minus its illustrations.

Norm delivered the coup de grace as follows:
————

Voynich: Spiraling into Folly

© Norman Sperling, December 26, 2012

William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk. The spiral nebula concept was suggested to Newbold by astronomer Eric Doolittle, who really should have known much better. Doolittle was a diligent and much-appreciated expert on double stars, but at f/20 his telescope gave some of the poorest, faintest, least-contrasty views of nebulae (the category from which galaxies had not yet been separated). To be blunt, Doolittle was out of his specialty and didn’t know what he was talking about.

While the Great Galaxy in Andromeda is visible to the naked eye as an oval smudge, it does not look spiral through even today’s visual telescopes. It doesn’t even appear face-on, but is strongly tilted to our view. It was first recognized as a spiral in 1899, by pioneering astrophotographer Isaac Roberts: “[the object is] a left-handed spiral, and not annular as I at first suspected”. Photographs of Stars II, p63. Newbold’s own book says as much (William Romaine Newbold, edited by Roland Grubb Kent: The Cipher of Roger Bacon, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1928, Chapter XI, p 123).

The very first time any celestial object was recognized as a spiral was 1843, using the world’s then-largest telescope, Lord Rosse’s new 72-inch-wide “Leviathan of Parsonstown”. Even with highly improved telescopes in the 2010s, visual observers are hard-put to distinguish spirality in the highest-contrast, most-vivid spiral – the Whirlpool galaxy in Canes Venatici, M51 – with any telescope narrower than 12 inches. Even then, the focal ratio must be f/8 or less to concentrate light enough. Early-1600s telescopes by Lippershey, Galileo, and others were less than 2 inches wide, and typically f/20-f/40, with notoriously imperfect lenses that smeared light around. For a deeper explanation of focal ratio and surface-brightness, read my essay Of Pupils & Brightness. NO primitive telescope of the Renaissance, let alone some speculated pioneer of the Middle Ages, had the slightest chance of revealing spirality in any object, to any observer, under any conditions.

Newbold speculated about the changes a nebula might show over the 650 years from Roger Bacon’s time to his own. We now know that the spirals are galaxies, so wide that light takes tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years to traverse them. The sharpest photographs of the last century have not revealed any measurable rotation. The only changes are sudden appearances of supernovae, which fade back down. The spiral in 68r is NOT a galaxy.

—–
Taken from the wayback page
https://web.archive.org/web/20130705184151/http://everythingintheuniverse.com/blog/voynich-spiraling-into-folly

___________

Next post:

There have been three scientific studies conducted since 2000.  These are:

  • McCrone’s analysis of the ink and a few selected pigments (2009);
  • Radiocarbon dating of four samples of the vellum (2011);  some tables and commentary by Nick Pelling here.
  • Codicological studies whose results were amalgamated and edited to produce the most valuable essay in the Yale facsimile edition:  ‘Physical Materials’ (2016).

Theory wars – an illustration

When readers comment via the contact form, I answer the first couple, but if more are about the same sort of thing, it’s worth a post.

Comments on the previous post were along the lines:  ‘theory wars – so what?’ or ‘it will be a good thing when there’s just one opinion’ or ‘complaining about lots of opinions is just your resentment’.

The one I thought worth a post is the  ‘theory war, so what?’. It means deferring mention of Rich Santacoloma’s work, but it’s obviously an issue readers think about.   I’ve had to spend a few days thinking  how best to illustrate the effect of a  ‘theory-war’ on attitudes to the manuscript’s research.

There’s also the fact that decade’s close study of the primary document has naturally led me to form  opinions from that evidence, so it would be right to say that I have a theory too, but I’d say it is a theory in the stricter sense of the term. I have no hesitation in changing my views should better and more solidly-based information turn up,   The aim is to ‘get it right’ not to adopt the pose of Delphic oracle.

So then, perfectly aware that the old saying about stones and glass houses might apply,  I’ve taken a tiny detail from folio 102, and traced the attitudes informing its discussion before, and then since 2012, when  ‘theory-war’ really took hold.   In my opinion, this very interesting manuscript deserves more care and more respect than it receives.

It isn’t easy, knowing how one flounders in the early stages, to now criticise offerings from people further back on the road. It seems hypocritical but then confusing discussion of method and standards in this study with attacks on personality is a particular habit of the theory-driven sort, and we mustn’t fall into that trap.

The sections average a bit over 1,000 words each.

I’d suggest you read one ‘phase’  and then take some time – perhaps a day –  to think about that before reading the next.

But it’s up to you.

 

Phase 1:  Scott and O’Donovan (a conversation – ‘book’?  ‘block of indigo’?).

Folio 102 is part of the manuscript’s ‘root and leaf’ section, yet it includes the small drawing of a block, directly below which is another detail also coloured blue, though in an even deeper hue and whose tag has three or four glyphs in common with that above the block. (‘Four’ if it were supposed that the last glyph of the block’s tag were a final form of the other’s fourth glyph).

Apart from these details, and a couple  discoloured, the remainder of that folio shows  ‘leaf and root’ details in the usual colours of green and brown. The block thus presents an anomaly.

 

It would seem reasonable to begin by expecting both ‘blue details’ on folio 102 to be in some way  connected to plants and to materials derived from them, and further that the draughtsman/painter intended his readers to understand that some more direct connection exists between these two blue items. Yet – though having a brushful of the blue to colour the block – the draughtsman/painter took another, and much deeper, blue to paint the lower detail.  They are thus linked in one sense but distinguished in another.

top – detail of object on f.102; centre – detail of vessel. Shang dynasty; detail 17thC Chinese silver.

In the left hand margin, level with these registers is an object set on ‘knife-blade’* legs of a sort not European, but attested in the east from a very early period indeed, and revived to as late as the seventeenth century.

*described in some sources as ‘tiger-claw’ legs. They are seen on objects intended to stand over a fire.

These items of information conveyed through the imagery, made sense in terms of indigo, its trade and use (as I’ll explain below), and though I read more before offering an opinion publicly,  by 2011  I was ready to make a brief comment to the second mailing list.  What I said was that I thought the block meant for a block of indigo.

Readers may find it useful to know that as a dyestuff, indigo is extracted from leaves of indigo tinctofera in the east, though another type of indigo plant, native to north Africa, had been brought into medieval Sicily.   I knew that the dyestuff  was sold in pressed blocks –  wrapped and stitched into cloth during the medieval period* – and that it had still been brought into the Mediterranean at that time from further east, just as  during  the earlier Christian centuries – which last is attested by the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a work written in execrable semi-Greek around the 1stC AD and often called the ‘Periplus of the Erythraean_Sea’.

* today it is sold held together just by a lattice of thread – as in our header.

§39. The ships lie at anchor at Barbaricum but all their cargoes are carried up to the metropolis by the river, to the King. There are imported into this market a great deal of thin clothing, and a little spurious; figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine. On the other hand there are exported costus, bdellium, lycium, nard, turquoise, lapis lazuli, Seric skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, and indigo. ..

No-one from the mailing list asked to know more of my reasons or evidence but Dana Scott was  kind enough to reply, at least,  saying he thought, rather, that it looked like a codex*, and linking to the illustration shown at left.

*BL MS Royal 19 D II – Bible Historiale of John the Good. Made in Central France (Paris) c. 1350-before 1356.

So far so good.

While I believe Dana thought  -and perhaps still thinks – the manuscript reflects a Norman Anglo-French environment (and I’d agree that its later phases reflect that character), the conversation was not a theory-war about nationalities or personalities, but a discussion of what a draughtsman had intended his audience to see in a particular small drawing. It was a conversation about the primary evidence.

And that’s as far as it went in the mailing list.  Though my comment elicited little response, there was no sniping or efforts at ‘put down’ in that brief conversation.

As I recall, it ended by being turned back to the central European theme by Zanbergen’s mentioning a herbal owned by a Bohemian king in which was reference to papyrus.

I did make a post for readers of my old ‘blogger’ blog Findings, (September 19, 2011) and later put a brief note about it at voynichimagery.  There I gave a list of references and explained that the context in which the block appears on folio 102 was an essential part of my reasoning and the item’s location in terms of both history and geography.

This was done because, before the ‘theory-war’ took hold, it was expected that a case should be presented fairly and with enough detail to show it wasn’t just a flight of imagination but potentially something on which others could rely and use in their own research.

I showed why the identification was compatible with the internal and external evidence, including the testimony provided by other details from the ‘leaf and root’ section, and how it is that, altogether, these indicate first composition for the content during the earlier, rather than later centuries AD – but within the environment of an east-west network that could reasonably have brought such matter to western Europe before 1440 1400-1440.

I added that,  if the draughtsman had wanted the block to be read as ‘indigo’ it would make sense to leave it pale save the dash of lighter blue, because not only was indigo pressed and sold stitched into a cloth wrapper, but the first stage of the process when the matter is extracted from the leaves results in what is known as  ‘white indigo’ (the pure dyestuff). It is then combined with liquid in the vat,   the cloths soaked, but only when they are removed and the dye re-oxygenates do they display that deep colour we call ‘indigo’.   The dyed fabric (which I think the subject of the detail under the block) has its deeper colour then reasonably explained..

I went into the question more deeply  – because it was still a question – finding in one medieval trader’s account – which I’m sorry to say I did not record in my notes –  that traders were permitted to make a small hole in the cloth wrapper to test the content’s quality (and, I suspect, its identity) .    This offered a reasonable explanation for the draughtsman’s troubling to add upon a drawing no more than a centimetre square, the two small circles we see placed at the seam-line in the upper middle and left-hand corner of the facing side (left). It might be meant to serve as reminder that with this good, one was permitted to inspect.

I won’t include much of my original reading list, but add a few first sources, and others I’ve noticed today.

A good first, overall view online in 2011 and  still going – is  here:

Jenny Balfour-Paul is the expert on Indigo in the Islamic world

  • Balfour-Paul J.,”The indigo industry of the Yemen”,  in Serjeant, R.B., Bidwell, R.L., ed(s). Arabian studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1990) pp. 39-62. and then
  • Jenny Balfour-Paul, lndigo in the Arab World (1997).
  • On Jews of the medieval Yemen, see ‘Habbani Jews

and today I’d add:

  • India Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (Publications Division), India – Govt. and Economic Life in Ancient and Medieval Periods. (2017).
  • Sarah Davis-Secord, Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (2017).
  • Šelomō Simonsohn (ed.), The Jews in Sicily: 383-1300.  Two good recent sources.

 

… and that was that.

 

********

Move forward a few years…

 

Phase 2: Velinska  (‘believe me… it’s easy’)

Ellie Velinska is a respected member of the ‘central European’ theory group, with a leaning towards the Duc du* Berry and one suspects largely responsible for the elasticity now given that group’s re-definition of ‘central Europe.’ (corr. *sp. ‘de’)

In October of 2016, she picked up Dana’s ‘codex’ idea, first offered (as we saw) on the mailing list in the presence of a leader of that central European theory, Rene Zandbergen.  Neglecting to mention Dana as precedent, Velinska’s post adds  circumstantial detail to Dana’s proposal, mentioning others only in a final cursory comment:  “there are other interpretations of the cube drawing – most often it is perceived as a mineral.”

Nothing is provided that might help readers find and weigh those ‘other interpretations’ and in 2011, so far as I’m aware, there had been none save Dana’s ‘codex’ and my own ‘indigo’. Indigotin is not a mineral.  Readers who know of earlier or other views published before 2016 are welcome to leave a comment here; I’m always happy to receive better information.

Keeping readers’ attention ‘on message’ and taking care not to let them be distracted by ‘unhelpful’ information is typical of the theory-war.  It is a different thing from offering detailed commentary on some aspect of a six-hundred year old manuscript, and different again from setting out a personal opinion with some, at least of its informing evidence, as proof of honest intent.

The theory-first style relies on assertion and persuasion, of suggesting that ‘ideas’ unsupported by evidence can be accepted on the basis of sounding sensible or plausible. It relies to an extraordinary extent on personalities.  The theorists think one should believe a team-member one of ‘the good guys’ and damn the others as ‘bad guys’ (bad, mad, or stupid – it’s all the same).

Velinska convinces because understanding her material takes so very little effort. Her posts offer a short, pleasant, undemanding read,  clearly informed by belief in the unmentioned ‘theory’.

Her comments don’t try to engage the reader’s brain, but their emotions –  and there’s little  so emotionally convincing as conviction, especially when combined with a light-hearted  fraternal nudge and grin at the expense of the ‘opposition’ – at all of which Velinska is very good.

For the Eurocentric crew, whose theory has a bloodline which can be traced through d’Imperio directly to Wilfrid Voynich’s tale of 1921, the theory-war is not unlike the weekly football match.  Lots of team spirit;  furious efforts to keep total possession of the ball; cheers from the crowd, hi-fives at every point scored against the ‘others’ … and not a moment’s thought spared for the ball’s opinion of it all.  In this case the ‘ball’ is the manuscript.

Velinska interprets the faint yellow wash on the block’s edges as ‘faded yellow’ and then without further reason given, and without any apparent need to do so,  extrapolates that impression into an argument that it was meant for gilded page-edges.   As support for this implication that manuscripts were provided with gilded edges by central European binders before 1438, Velinska offers no evidence at all.  She includes  one composite illustration, formed of undated and unprovenanced details, and one image which is probably a modern reproduction* labelled  “Bridgeman Art Library, Italian 15thC”.

*Bridgeman describes itself as “one of the largest archives for reproductions of works of art in the world”.

As ‘evidence’ for an opinion about a medieval manuscript, it is a positive insult to readers’ intelligence.

Having thus asserted (caveats notwithstanding) that the block is a book, and a book with gilded pages, Velinska next explains the oddly-positioned circles as holes for  book-clasps, although offering no example of a medieval European manuscript having two clasps, one positioned at top centre and one at its extreme edge.  Perhaps Velinska knows one, but if so she should have referenced it, because I should think it quite rare.

Though phased as a tentative suggestion, Velinska’s post implies throughout that it is the only suggestion a sensible person should accept.  For the ‘clasps’ idea she says this:

If we imagine for a moment “the blue cube” to be a book these dotted details could represent some kind of book clasps.

Dana did not go that far, and Velinska’s use of the speculative mood serves less as caution to the reader that the idea may be baseless, than as means to deflect  criticism or demands for solid evidence. You don’t fall into line because the argument is valid, but because… well, because Ellie’s a nice person and she’s not saying you have to believe her.

One may believe, or not, but in the theory-war  it becomes a form of ill-manners to withhold belief pending the presentation of evidence. That is, if the speaker is a member of a major theory-group who is supposed to need not to prove anything which adds another pebble to the mound.   On the other hand, the theory-driven see dissenters and non-believers as if members of a lower stratum of society – and  in seeing them off,  ‘manners’ don’t apply.   It’s a war, after all.

One may wonder if Velinska troubled even to establish whether central European bookbinders did, in fact, gild page-edges before 1438.  Gilding page-edges was binder’s work, not the scribe’s.

The Director of the Milanese Historical Archives and Trivulziana Library, Giulia Bologna, says this:

In Northern Italy, above all in Milan, the influence of Leonardo da Vinci extended in no small degree even to this minor art form. Thus, to attain a more exquisite effect, new die stamps styled with leaves and flowers were constantly being designed. They were called aldi after Aldo Manuzio: aldi pieni, vuoti and al tratteggio (solid, blank and broken line). Combined with spirals and volutes they were applied to the empty spaces in geometrical patterns of lines and friezes with striking and stylistically perfect results. Up to the end of the 16th century, bindings with this kind of goldwork were found all over Europe, most of them from Italian prototypes originating in Venice, Milan, Mantua, Turin, Genoa, Ferrara, Bologna, Florence and Rome. Some were quite magnificent, classical but original in composition, endless in variety and harmonious in general appearance. The décors included structural compositions, scrolls and plaques in goldwork, intervening sections with gold dots, lively colour effects obtained with leather appliqué work and lacquer paint. All this gave resplendence to 16th century bindings. It was during this period that decorative work was first used on inside covers and the edges finely gilded.

Da Vinci wasn’t born until 1452 and died in 1519, Bologna is talking about the sixteenth century.

How can Velinska suggest, and invite readers to adopt the idea,  that a manuscript made during the first four decades of the fifteenth century, before Leonardo was born – and containing matter demonstrably earlier than our present manuscript’s manufacture –  should be believed to include in the ‘root and leaf’ section an image of a book with gilded page-edges?

Easily. It suits the theory.

Failures in rigor do not necessarily mean that the ‘answer’ is wrong: that’s the difference between the pragmatic and critical sciences.  It is still possible that Dana and she are right in general; the ‘cube’  might have been meant for a book, but in that case readers are entitled to some informed explanation for the item’s being in the ‘leaf and root’ section,  the presence of those  ‘knife-blade’ legs on an object in the same register, and the possible linguistic connection between the block and the item directly below it.

Nor is it beyond possibility that the Director of the Milanese Historical Archives and Trivulziana Library is mistaken, and that another source might provide evidence that binders in some part of Europe were gilding pages before 1438.  If the question we ask  of others’ proposals  is, ‘Is that true?’ rather than ‘does it suit my theory’ it is right to be as slow to disbelieve as to believe, and the manuscript’s study is better served.

We cannot accept Velinska’s composite illustration as contradiction of Bologna’s account, because none of its details were provided with  date and source. Neither has Velinska considered literal against purely aesthetic elements.  Items gilded in a picture may or may not have been gilded in reality.  In this case, documentary evidence and/or reference to an extant example was required. (Consideration of e.g.  Brit.Lib. Arundel 131 is enough* to show this).

*an impression of its having gilded pages soon  dispelled by consulting the Library’s catalogue entry:  “Binding: B[ritish] M[useum]/BL in-house. Edges yellow; rebound in 1962.”

I haven’t much time to do this myself on her behalf, but I do note that in 1928, there was published in London and in Boston a two-volume work entitled  Gothic & Renaissance Bookbindings Exemplified and Illustrated from the Author’s Collection. Its author was E.Ph. Goldschmidt, the same who eight years later told Richard Salomon that he was “inclined to put the [Voynich] Ms. as far back as the 13th century or, at least, not to deny the possibility of so early an origin”. (Salomon accidentally transposed Goldschmidt’s initials in his letter reporting this to Anne Nill).

I am told that somewhere in those volumes (to which I have no easy access at present), Goldschmidt mentions in passing that edges of a medieval manuscript were, very rarely, gilded.  That’s all the information I have, but it leaves the window open a little, and  Velinska or those inclined also to hope the ‘block’ meant for a book might care to see if they can find evidence for Velinska’s ‘gilded page edges’.   Failing that, the practice of creating a montage or mosaic of undated and unprovenanced details as if the sheer number of inappropriately selected items were sufficient to argue and prove a theoretical argument, is much to be regretted.  It seems to have begun with the ‘new crop’ of Eurocentric Voynich bloggers who arrived in 2012, but from whence comes its ‘Warhol’ style, one cannot say.

  • [pdf] Giulia Bologna, “Gold in Book Binding: the origins of the craft”, The Gold Bulletin, 1982, Vol. 15, (1).  pdf accessible through SpringerLInk.
  • Henry Bohn’s Catalogue of books and printed works (1847) includes reproductions of numerous medieval books of hours described as if they were originals, and which were provided with lovely morocco bindings and gilded edges.

Note – Responding to a comment by Nick Pelling below her post, Velinska said,  “in war and Voynich manuscript studies all is fair 🙂

There’s another proverb, isn’t there –  about war’s first casualty?

 

********

 

Phase 3: Jules Janick and Arthur O. Tucker (… no alternative)

In 2006, Nick Pelling published a book called ‘Curse of the Voynich’.  If the manuscript has been cursed, it’s with theory-driven individuals and, more recently, this ‘theory-war’ mentality.

Before turning to the way Janick and Tucker treat that detail on folio 102, let’s have a minute’s silence for the first, consummate expounder of a ‘Voynich’ theory, Wilfrid Voynich himself.

In ‘Voynich’ usage, thanks to Wilfrid’s example, ‘theory’ means some idee fixe  elaborated, then adorned with oddments of historical fact but never formally argued, devoid of documentary evidence for its tenets, disdainful of debate and presented with  an air of authority and a certain internal consistency. Thus Wilfrid:

 To summarize, then … we  must conclude that, [composed by Roger Bacon], it rested in some monastery in England, where Roger Bacon’s manuscripts remained until the dissolution of the religious houses in the sixteenth century. At that time, together with other treasures from these disbanded libraries, it probably passed into the hands of one of the receivers of this spoil, the Duke of Northumberland. It was very likely one of the manuscripts probably found in this family’s possession by John Dee, who certainly early in his career obtained a collection of Bacon manuscripts. During one of his visits to Prague, Dee undoubtedly presented it to Emperor Rudolph II, from whose possession it passed into the hands of Jacobus de Tepenecz not earlier than 1608.

in which, not one of the assertions made about the manuscript is worth a grain of salt, save its association with  Jakub  who became -‘de’ or -‘z’ Tepenecz thanks to Rudolf and before 1622.

So now to Janick and Tucker, who make no pretence of objectivity. They say  plainly that their aim is neither to study the manuscript, nor to evaluate O’Neill’s speculation, but  merely ‘to confirm’ it.  Their indifference to the manuscript-as-manuscript (codicology, palaeography etc.) is staggering.

 

At first, they described the detail on folio 102 as ‘most probably’ boleite. If this is their idea of hard evidence, I’m in the wrong office…)

though later they dropped the ‘probably’:

Pure Wilfridism.

These authors don’t even try to rationalise the cube’s being in the  ‘pharmacy’ section.    A central European-ist convert would at least say something like:  ‘Mexicans ‘probably’ used boleite in medicine’.

By the time we get to Ch.4 of their book, they’re saying no other explanation is possible:

‘Plate 56’ from Janick and Tucker, ‘Unravelling the Voynich Codex’

1. Folio 102r #4 Boleite (Plate 56). This image  includes a cubic (isometric) blue mineral resembling a blue bouillon cube. This can only (sic!) be boleite ….. The only sources for large crystals of this quality and quantity are three closely related mines in Baja California Sur, Mexico, …

What quantity? What quality? A specimen measuring 8 millimeters – yes millimetres – square is above average size.  I know this because the authors’ ‘Plate 56 was taken from the following advertisement, which they duly footnoted.

from a commercial site.

So –  the authors omitted mention of the fact that (a)  no-one seems to have known boleite .. at all … until 1891 and (b) there is no record of any use for the indigo-blue type, and for the clear type none until the end of the nineteenth century,

But it fits the theory!! 

There’s a certain beauty to this non-argument in a way.

It is ‘Voynich’ theorising in purest form, unfussed by evidence, by reason, by effort to contextualise details, by any sense that one has to justify assertions made about a medieval manuscript.

Or even that their subject is a medieval manuscript.

Quite beautiful, if you like abstraction.

Postscript – thinking hard as to what might be said for the ‘boleite’ idea, I can only think of one thing.  We know that Columbus equated whatever he found in the New World with valuable items  imported into Europe from the east.  Among Europe’s prized eastern imports was Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli which, when ground into a powder became the pigment  Latins called ‘ultramarine’ -‘over the sea’.  A wiki article shows boleite in association with malachite and atacamite (a copper-derived mineral created by dessication).However, Europeans also used  a different copper-derived mineral which they called azurite, and it was this which McCrone’s tests identified in the manuscript in 2009. Admittedly they were obliged to work within the pre-emptive limits set by the client who commissioned the study, and further by the limits which were inevitable given the destructive methods specified by the same client.McCrone’s letter to the Beinecke library can be downloaded from its site.

And that’s what you get with a theory-war.

********

 

(preamble shortened – 8th April.)

Fear of the unknown – and raft ‘Elegant’

Two previous:
Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine(
Specialist Opinions – Richard Salomon (
Header Illustration: advertisement for white-water rafting in Thailand.

 

This post considers the effect on the manuscript’s study of excessive confidence when combined with social bias.

One of the most interesting aspects of the work done by William and Elizebeth Friedman, and the military cryptanalysts who formed their study groups, is that they seem to have founded their entire study on the unquestioned adoption of three items from Wilfrid Voynich’s narrative. These three ideas were that the written part of the text was in cipher;  that the content was connected to science or pseudo-science, and that the manuscript had belonged to Rudolf II.

None of those items had then – or has yet – been proven true. The first was a guess; the second mere speculation and for the third, as I’ve said before, the only evidence that Rudolf so much as saw the manuscript in his life is a second-hand report of a rumour which even the person reporting it declined to endorse. When I say ‘the only evidence’ I mean that then, and still to this day, no evidence has been produced which lends it credence.   Yet d’Imperio would later include this among ‘known facts’ about the manuscript, reflecting the unwavering faith in that idea on the Friedmans’ part.

And with d’Imperio’s book serving as a life-raft to those bewildered by the manuscript since the 1970s, it is a rumour that has often and with determination been maintained as indisputable.

No matter how logically they proceeded from this unreasonable basis, the Friedmans’ theoretical argument could never be more reliable than its ‘givens’. We see the resulting blind spots in d’Imperio’s Section 8.

Imagine for a moment that the manuscript were a technical or commercial notebook: say made by a dyer.  Imagine that the botanical imagery were the regularly-needed dye-plants, the ‘bathy’ section a technical description of processes and so on. Imagine the dyer one of an underclass in medieval Europe: a Muslim from Spain, a Jew in the Balearics or a slave born in the Baltic or in North Africa resident in Sicily.

In such a case, it would never have appeared on the Friedmans’ horizon.  The cryptanalysts’ limited vision has an historical and cultural explanation too, but here is Section 8 from d’Imperio’s ‘Table of Contents’.

 

Note that the only form of literature being associated with the Jews is the type the Friedmans would describe as superstition – and that although d’Imperio herself (p.8) quotes Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt’s information that by 1963 “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400” her focus remains fixed on the ‘Rudolfine’ era and its interests, as had the Friedmans’.

Note too the omission from the headings in Section 8 of other categories of medieval writings, even within western Europe: commercial, mundane, artisanal, pedagogic or standard religious devotional. With copies of Biblical texts, or certain standard references (such as bestiaries or Isidore’s Etymologies etc.) these form the great majority of medieval Latins’ texts.

The text is imagined ‘secretive’ in the sense of occult or surreptitious for the most part, rather than simply obscure.  Nor does the scheme allow for anything but a Latin (western Christian) mediation of any non-Latin matter before it might enter the current manuscript.

A short passage in d’Imperio’s book sheds light on this, though the modern reader may want a little background to the Friedmans’ time and its attitudes.

As  Wilfrid Voynich was well aware, a medieval manuscript had value at that time because it looked pretty or by others because it was deemed important, but the only things which made it ‘an important manuscript’ in the earlier part of the twentieth century was that (a) its former owners had been of high social rank in European society and/or (b) it belonged in the European vision of its own intellectual evolution, a vision which placed greatest value on the Protestant-Enlightenment period.

The Friedmans were people of their time, born late in the nineteenth century and heirs to the ‘social Darwinism’ which came to infuse popular ideas in the European world and its colonies; this saw none but the Anglo-German European Protestant as truly capable of rational and scientific thought and subsumed the history of the classical era into its own.  To appeal to such ideas together with Europeans’ regard for its aristocracy was second-nature for a seller like Wilfrid, but in adopting the triad of  ‘Science-Rudolf-ciphertext’  from his sales pitch, the Friedmans also validated their showing interest in an otherwise unprepossessing manuscript of unknown origin and unreadable content.

How far these ideas took them from verifiable opinions and historically valid conclusions is demonstrated vividly by a passage from d’Imperio’s book.   (pp. 5-6):

Elizebeth Friedman indicates that the lack of serious interest in the manuscript on the part of scholars was, on at least one occasion, a cause of disappointment to her husband in his research: It appears to be gibberish to many serious-minded academics, who are apt to scoff at the idea that its solution would be of any value to science or learning, as did a great foundation to which [William] Friedman once applied for a grant for the detailed study of the manuscript. In the opinion of the board, a solution would not advance human knowledge. “The manuscript probably contains only trivia”, the board said.

to which d’Imperio adds:

I must confess that I can see little justice in the reasoning of those “academics”… who dismiss the Voynich manuscript out of hand, after what can only be the most superficial attention. Even if it is, in fact, a fabrication … associated with the court of Rudolph II,  an understanding of who wrote it,  its passage from one to another of Rudolph’s familiars and the part it played in the remarkable congeries of religious and political activities at Prague in those times could prove to be of great interest. .. If the manuscript is a compilation , however “deranged”  or idiosyncratic …drawn from earlier magical, alchemical, or medical works,  it has at least as much intrinsic interest and “scientific’ import for the history of Western thought as do other similar manuscripts which are readable, and concern only one topic (i.e.. they are either astrological  or alchemical  or medical). Reputable scholars apparently see no waste of time in studying “plaintext” manuscripts of this type and may spend much of their lives so occupied”.

Now, not only is this largely speculative, but it shows that between 1944 and 1978, the military cryptanalysts had not developed any more solid understanding of the range of medieval writings,  nor investigated the possibility that the text might indeed be of a sort likely to be dismissed as ‘unimportant’ before the rise of economic history,  social history and the history of technologies – disciplines whose development occurred later than the second world war.

That the earlier academic board had not seen the manuscript as important but ‘probably trivial’ had not been taken by the Friedmans as a reason to re-think their  three ‘givens’ but only to deride those whose opinion opposed their own. The normally cool, clear-minded d’Imperio has, in this case, reacted with open hostility and even a hint of the vicious.

No evidence informs her insinuation that the  board’s members were not qualified  – d’Imperio’s air-quotes have no purpose but to express and to inculcate in the reader a belief that their combined opinion should be given less weight than that of a military cryptographer.

Use of the  ‘sneer-smear’ to diminish attention paid to views opposing ones which, though preferred, lack the evidentiary basis needed for reasoned debate, is a phenomenon familiar enough today from its regular use by think-tanks (‘if you can’t discredit the science, discredit the scientist’). In Voynich studies, its employment has increased since about 2006 or so, among those espousing a particular Voynich theory online.

It is this behaviour, more than any difficulties posed by the manuscript, which has made the study a by-word in the academic world.  It is well-known that one takes an interest in it, or contributes information from one’s own area of specialisation only at some risk.  My own experience obliges me to agree with that view, though I do not see that it applied during the time when Jim Reeds’ mailing list flourished.  Ambition and its shadow, plagiarism, were unknown. The members were generally accustomed to scholarly debate and moderators kept the standards high for most of the years it survived.

d’Imperio offers no reason for us to believe that the academic board approached by William Friedman  had given the manuscript ‘only  the most superficial’ attention.  It might be so, or might not, but does run contrary to the usual practice of funding bodies, who usually consider very carefully any manuscript for which research funding is sought.  Many projects are in need of funding and the claims of each are, usually, carefully weighed.

Again, one must ask what evidence justifies supposing the manuscript “a fabrication ….or  associated “with the court and familiars of Rudolf II”.  Only one person whose name is certainly tied to the manuscript had any contact with Rudolf at all, and  nowhere is he recorded as being a member of court or one of Rudolf’s personal ‘familiars’. He was a chemist-physician who treated Rudolf successfully on at least one occasion and who on another lent the emperor money.

detail from a 16thC copy of the Ripley Scroll

And so with the rest.. No evidence or preliminary research had established that the manuscript’s content was magical, or alchemical or medical. As we’ve seen, scholars and experts in reject two of those suggestions and Singer offered no proof for the third. Baresch, who first suggested a medical purpose for it, admitted that it was just a guess.

That Voynich researchers to this day labour to create post-facto justification for each item in that list from Section 8 of d’Imperio’s book says more about their dependence on it, and limited background in medieval and renaissance studies, than it says about the manuscript’s internal evidence or current historical and other studies. Not all allusions to the stars and calendar are ‘astrological’.

There is no rational reason to believe, either, that the manuscript had any influence on Rudolf, his court, or Europe’s scheme for its intellectual history. There is still no proof even that the text is a ‘ciphertext’ or that it would ever yield a neat ‘plain text’ of the type they imagined it should.

The whole construct is no more than the extrapolation from those three unproven notions which the Friedmans adopted on faith from Wildrid’s sales pitch and it represents not just d’Imperio’s views but those of the majority  led by Wilfrid or by Elizebeth Friedman. The idea of the manuscript as reflecting Rudolfine interests became an idée fixe.

Brigadier Tiltman, and Private Currier are the only two of the Friedman/NSA cryptanalysts on record as maintaining an independent view on any of these ideas.  Tiltman said he doubted the content would prove important (in the way the term was then defined) and while still presuming exclusively Latin agency, even allowed the possibility that the material had come from as far as Asia. His opinion is noted, then ignored, by d’Imperio.   Currier approached his analysis without adopting the Friedmans’ assumptions.

When Mary d’Imperio’s book became available to the wider public online, it was valued by the new generation of cryptanalysts and by others whose chief interest was in sixteenth and seventeenth century Prague and its nobility.  The book offered a way to orient themselves and to escape the immediate sense of bewilderment – a life-raft whose comfort was a reassurance that this manuscript was not really strange: just a nice, ordinary, European Christian work whose ‘mysteriousness’ was nothing but the effect of the maker’s obscurantism, mental derangement, deliberate deceit or incompetence and so forth.

To contemplate that its content might indeed be something from a very different culture or time would have been to make clear just how ill-equipped most were to contribute anything of value to its discussion – a loss of face no less dreaded by the Friedmans last century than it is by many ‘Voynicheros’ online today.

Tiltman’s paper of 1968 calls this the ‘most mysterious manuscript in the world’ but I believe we do better to called it most  ‘mysterious-ed’ of manuscripts.  When its obvious non-compatibility with the stemmata of Latin works becomes too obvious, few dare say as plainly as Erwin Panofsky did that this is a manuscript unlike any manuscript known to him, or even as Tiltman said, more cautiously, in relation to the plant pictures:

illustrations of herbals of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Centuries are a most interesting part of the background … To the best of my knowledge no one has seen any book, certainly no illustrated book of the period which covers the wide range suggested by the drawings in it. 

With an admission of inability to recognise what type of manuscript  Beinecke MS 408 might be comes the potential for a new sort of study, one which does not begin from the same three ‘givens’ or by treating d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma with the reverence due holy writ, but rather from efforts to explain and rightly contextualise the primary evidence.  The world beyond ‘Voynichland’ has much to offer – and more than just digitised medieval manuscripts.

Unhappily, at the time of writing, there is little chance many will leave the safety of d’Imperio’s life-raft. Adding to the primal fear of the unknown is a far more obvious fear of what might follow.    ‘Conform or else’ is an atmosphere prevalent throughout the social media, and it is found in online discussions of this manuscript today.  Such attitudes have made the field a toxic one, but have certainly proven effective in stifling the sort of open intellectual curiosity and well-informed debate which was so admirable a feature of Jim Reeds’ mailing list for most of its life.

 

 

 

Next post:  ‘Elegant life-raft Pt 2:  Faking and forging.

 

Military cryptanalysts – Prelude

Header picture: Senator Joseph McCarthy maps  subversives in 1950 America. courtesy Colorado State University Archives.

previous posts:

Prelude:

Wilfrid had acquired the manuscript by 1912.

In 1914, Hime published his claimed decryption of the  ‘gunpowder cipher’ from  Roger Bacon’s De secretis..

By 1917, in New York,  Wilfrid was touting his own “Bacon ciphertext” as having value for the American War department.

If he hoped in that way to get a high price for his manuscript, Wilfrid’s plan back-fired. His comments (and comments misinterpreted) alarmed some of his acquaintance and brought upon Wilfrid and his circle the attention of the American Bureau of Investigation (the BOI, which would become the FBI in 1935).   By 1917 there was a BOI file on Wilfrid, and it describes him as:

“An Austrian or a Russian Pole (Jew) & and pro-German & an anti-British naturalized British subject & a pretty slick article”

That file was not closed until 1920 by which time Wilfrid and various associates and acquaintances had been questioned.

It is not surprising, then, that by 1921 Wilfrid was concentrating on a different pitch, omitting any mention of military uses or of gunpowder ciphers in his talk, in that year, to the College of Physician of Philadelphia …  but it was a little late to change tack.

William Friedman in 1917
detail from a photograph in files held by the George C. Marshall Foundation

Already, a geneticist named William Friedman, who would be promoted through the Signals corps to become a cryptanalyst for the War Department in 1930, was curious about Wilfrid’s supposed ‘ciphertext’.  Though initially rebuffed by Wilfrid and his wife, Friedman attained the rank of Colonel and strong connections with military intelligence during the second world war, and by 1944 – before demobilisation and amid the rising ‘McCarthyist‘ atmosphere –  Colonel Friedman was able to acquire a full photostat copy of the manuscript and, eventually,  access to private correspondence and research notes generated within the Voynich family’s circle of friends and correspondents.

Friedman’s only interest in the manuscript lay in breaking the cipher which he supposed to inform the written part of the text. The investigations conducted by himself, his chosen assistants, and other members of the National Security Agency would have little impact on the study until 1978, when Mary d’Imperio summarised their (ultimately failed) efforts to ‘crack the text’.  Among the few who knew it before 2009, that book was already elevated to the status of a sort of ‘Voynich Gospel’ but its impact became ubiquitous after 2009, when it was put online as a pdf.

That event was communicated to Nick Pelling, who advertised it through a post headed. ‘d’Imperio’s “Elegant Enigma” now a downloadable pdf!‘, ciphermysteries, (March 22nd., 2009).

Since then, d’Imperio’s small book has informed every account given of the manuscript – from wiki articles to published volumes, blog- and forum-discussions and upon the basis of its text, innumerable theories, still-current, depend.

Thus, forty years after its publication, and more than half a century since Friedman’s first group began their work,  d’Imperio’s summary of their efforts is fundamental reference for the majority of Voynicheros.   Any revisionist daring to engage a root-and-branch re-evaluation of its worth for our ability to understand the manuscript must expect to run the gauntlet.

I’ll look at some of the cryptanalysts’ errors in coming posts.

  • [pdf] Mary d’Imperio, The Voynich Manuscript: an elegant Enigma, NSA. The original file, in a cleaned-up copy, was later made available. [pdf]
  • [pdf] Mary d’Imperio, ‘An Application of PTAH to the Voynich Manuscript (U)‘. Originally classified ‘Top Secret’ the paper was also released as a pdf in 2009 – minus a number of excised passages.  The illustration below is slightly edited, to make a more compact image.

 

William Friedman:

According to a publication by the National Security Agency, Friedman retired in 1955 “after thirty-five years of service with U.S. cryptologic activities”.

  • [pdf] ‘Friedman Legacy’, Sources in Cryptologic History, Number 3. National Security Agency.  3rd. printing, 2006.  (The pdf may be slow to load).

There, his duties are listed as:

  1. Director, Department of Ciphers, Riverbank Laboratories,1919-1920;
  2. Cryptographer, Office of the Chief Signal Officer (OCSigO), Washington, D.C., 1921;
  3. Chief Cryptographer, U.S. Signal Corps, 1922-1929;
  4. Cryptanalyst, War Department, 1930-1942;
  5. Director, Communications Research, Signal Intelligence Service, later Army Security Agency, 1942-1947;
  6. Chief, Communications Research Section, Army Security Agency, 1947-1949;
  7. Cryptologic Consultant, Army Security Agency, 1949;
  8. Research Consultant, Armed Forces Security Agency, 1949-1951;
  9. Research Consultant, National Security Agency, 1951-1954;
  10. Special Assistant to the Director, NSA, 1954-1955 (retirement);
  11. Member, NSA Scientific Advisory Board, 1954-1969;
  12. Special Consultant, National Security Agency, 1955-1969.
postscript 1: [Jan 5th., 2019].  After WW II, Friedman sought permission from the Army (NSA) to claim patent over unspecified ‘inventions’ for the Signals Corps which the need for secrecy had prevented being patented earlier.  The question went as high as the Army’s Judge Advocate General, whose request for advice from the NSA  was met by Col.Marcey’s asserting (8th. Feb 1953) that “‘from 1933-1942, Mr.(sic) Friedman was a civilian.”.   The document was posted at the Internet Archive.

John Matthews Manly

Playing a central, if quiet, role in the earlier events had been John Matthews Manly, a medievalist and a cryptographer, a friend to Newbold, and a scholar interested in the Voynich manuscript. He had been a member of MI-B (sometimes seen as MI-8) during World War I and had defended Wilfrid to the BOI (see MacKinnon, above). In 1931, shortly after Manly  published a paper about the Voynich manuscript in Speculum, a series of letters passed between Friedman and himself. for details of which see:-

  • David Kahn, The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet (1996).  Manly-Friedman correspondance for 1931 – entries numbered 361 and 362 in Khan’s ‘Notes to Text’ .

Manly died in 1940; Wilfrid had died a decade before.

  • John Matthews Manly, ‘Roger Bacon and the Voynich MS’, Speculum Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jul., 1931), pp. 345-391.
  • John Dooley and Elizabeth Anne King, ‘John Matthews Manly: The Collier’s Articles’, Cryptologia, Vol. 38 No.1 (January 2014) pp. 77-88. doi: 10.1080/01611194.2013.797049.
[postscript 2. Jan 5th., 2019] – I am grateful to a correspondent who refers to a book in the George C. Marshall Research Library, whose margins and flyleaves were filled with  William Friedman’s own comments and criticisms – written in ink.  On p. 39, Friedman disputes Yardley’s praise for  Manly’s ability as a cryptographer at MIB.   The same volume  has – a little ironically – a Mayan-design image as bookplate.  (see above, right).

and see

 

Rising hysteria – McCarthyism

In 1938, while Friedman worked as a cryptographer in the War Department,  the HUAC (House of UnAmerican Activites) was established “to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of having Fascist or Communist ties”.

According to d’Imperio, the ‘first Friedman group’ worked on the Voynich ‘ciphertext’ manuscript between 1944-1946, while Friedman held the post of Director, Communications Research, Signal Intelligence Service, (later Army Security Agency).

Julius Rosenberg, 1951. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c17772

From the end of the 1940s, a latent xenophobia  had blossomed in America into ‘the second red scare’ and by the 1950s public expression was now common of sentiments similar to those reflected in the earlier BOI file on Wilfrid. Any foreign-born person – and a Jew of even the second or third generation –  was at risk of being targeted as ‘un-American’ –  something increasingly  identified with ‘Communist leanings’. Adding to  public actions by the HUAC and by McCarthy’s followers at this time were those of the  FBI ‘combating the  enemies within’. President Roosevelt gave the FBI a sweeping mandate to investigate fascism and communism in the United States, and to this end Hoover increased surveillance of those suspected, not excluding the use of  wiretapping.

It is, therefore, important to realise that when Brigadier John Tiltman‘s help was enlisted by Friedman in 1951, and Tiltman began to repair certain omissions in the earlier efforts – such as  actively seeking specialists’ opinions about the imagery –  Friedman had been thirty years in service to the US government and Senator McCarthy was the height of his public influence.  1951 was also the year  the Rosenburgs were condemned for ‘conspiracy to commit espionage”. Both man and wife were executed in 1953.

This temper of the times does much to explain why (for example) Mrs. Voynich now acquiesced to Friedman’s renewed demands.  Though a private person and not a Jew she had lived for a time in Russia and openly supported  revolutionary causes, though perhaps only until 1898. The BOI file of 1917 makes  clear that she was a better-known figure than her husband.

It also helps explain why  Erwin Panofsky should consent to reply to Friedman’s interogatory of 1954.

Neither Panofsky nor anyone else could predict, at the peak of the McCarthy era, that “only about hundred” academics would actually be dismissed from their posts, and those on the grounds of having held membership in the Communist party.  The ‘witch-hunt’ was in progress and Panofsky could not have been unware  that in the course of pursuing an ‘anti-Communist’ witch-hunt against Jewish actors, writers and film-makers, the first director of HUAC had invoked the so-called ‘Sedition Act’ of 1918 – one which expanded the  anti-Espionage Act, permitting classification of any foreign-born person – even if a naturalised American – as a ‘non-citizen.’ Panofsky had come to the US as an adult, a refugee from Nazi Germany. He had seen such things happen before.

On the number of academics dismissed, see Hooke’s hostile review of Ellen Schrecker’s  No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities:

  • Sidney Hook,  ‘McCarthy and American Universities’, Minerva, Vol. 25, No. 3 (September 1987), pp. 331-348.

Hook’s own book was severely criticised.

  • [pdf] Mark deWolfe Howe, (review) ‘Heresy, yes – Conspiracy, no by Sidney Hook.. (1953)’, Yale Law Journal, Volume 63 (1953), Issue 1 pp.132-137.

More recent studies:

  • Melvin Rader, False Witness (re-publication with afterword by Leonard Shroeter), 1997.
    In the summer of 1948, with Cold War tensions rising, a young state legislator from Spokane, Washington, named Albert Canwell set out to combat the “communist menace” through a state version of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. University of Washington professor Melvin Rader was a victim of the Canwell Committee’s rush to judgment, but he fought back. False Witness tells of his struggle to clear his name. It is a testament of personal courage in the face of mass hysteria and a cautionary example of how basic freedoms can rapidly erode when the powers of the state are allowed to serve a rigid ideological agenda.

 

  • David R. Holmes, McCarthyism and Academic Freedom : Stalking the Academic Communist: Intellectual Freedom and the Firing of Alex Novikoff, (University Press of New England: 1989 and 1990)
  • Holmes’ book received a long review by Russell Jacob in the New York Times, (April 09, 1989).

 

Next post: Military cryptanalysts and Panofsky at Princeton.