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.

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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:
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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.

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

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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).