What magic?Where magic? 3d: Germanic opinion and German scholars

Two prior posts

Header – detail from Saxl’s, Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer .. Vol.1 (1915); detail from a copy of ‘Antidotarium Nicolai’. Portrait photos as labelled.

________________________

This is a three-part post (or a three-in-one). The second part begins with the sub-heading ‘Before the NSA’ the third from the sub-heading ‘November 30th., 1976’.

Sorry I can’t collapse most of it for you as I used to do. It’s still long but reads a bit better than the first, hurried, version.

I wish the Voynich manuscript had come to light in 2019, not 1912.  We might have been spared the sort of ‘Ruritanian romance’ created by Wilfrid  as sales pitch and thus also the hundred years and more of its repetitions, re-runs and spin-offs.

So now, at this point in tracing the origin of the ‘occult Voynich’ myth (for myth it must be called) the present research question is:  When and how did the notion first enter the public  narrative stream?

And further to that – Is there any reason for it, or was it someone’s random thought parroted until it became ‘what everyone says’?  If we owe the story to some individual’s serious (i.e. fully documented) investigation of the manuscript, its materials or its written and/or pictorial text – by whom was that study done? Is it yet another example of a theory/fiction’s internal logic? Or due to error, sales gimmicks, or the fertile but innocent story-telling of some novelist who never meant the idea to be taken seriously?

How did we get here from 1912?

As example of where ‘here’ is – if you’ll allow 2017 as near enough to ‘here’  – we might  consider a book that was published in that year.

Co-authored by Stephen Skinner – whose area is western occult and eastern spiritual literature – with Rene Zandbergen – who took his higher degree in engineering; and Raphael Prinke – an historian with the Central European University in Prague, the book was published by Watkins Publishing, self-described as a publisher for ‘Mind-body-spirit’ books and which had already published various other books in that genre by  Stephen Skinner.

The publisher’s categories, intended to assist librarians and booksellers shelve and catalogue a title correctly, list this one under Ancient wisdom, Alchemy, Astrology, Astronomy, Esoteric, Herbal Medicine, Magic. 

The front cover displays, in bold, red caps the word ‘Occult’ while a blurb informs any prospective buyer that the authors  “… drawing on their extensive knowledge of the period, of other esoteric and alchemical works and of the curious history of the Voynich [manuscript] … explore its relationship to magic and alchemy… Dr. Stephen Skinner explores the parallels to the Voynich manuscript in the cryptography of Leonardo da Vinci and the angel language of John Dee.”

An unnamed blogger (here) gave the book a four-out-of-five star rating. The book’s cover quotes from what presents as two sentences of a review, where the ethnobotanic and mystic (his description) Terence McKenna writes,  ‘The Voynich manuscript is the limit text of Western occultism. It is a truly occult book – one that no one can read.’

That provides a pretty clear idea of where we are today with the ‘occult Voynich’ idea.

On the other hand:

  1. there’s nothing in the letter sent by Marci to Kircher in 1665/6 which suggests any magic or occult content.  The letter from Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher may be taken to imply that Baresch believed the content ‘ancient Egyptian wisdom’ through his ‘wisdom’ was know-how, and in this case he openly speculates that the content may embody medical know-how. A chemist-pharmacist himself, Baresch may have supposed something of alchemy was involved but if he thought so, he never said so.
  2. Wilfrid said from 1912 onwards that the work was a ‘Roger Bacon ciphertext’ but never said the content included magic.
  3. For the years 1910s-early 1950s Reeds’ Bibliography shows nothing to indicate that any ‘occult Voynich’ meme/rumour was gaining traction, or that anything of the kind had been argued by a scholar whose studies put them in a position to speak from real knowledge. (as e.g. Lynn Thorndike could have done).
  4. William Friedman is not on record (so far as I’ve seen – do correct me if I’m mistaken) as asserting the content was magical or occult.   From 1944 until Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma was completed in c.1978,  we encounter no more than a vague idea that the month folios may be ‘astrological’.  No concerted or detailed research was presented either to test, or to explain how the manuscript’s content could be interpreted as clear support for any such idea. Bits of plants beside a container do not mean ‘alchemy’. They mean ‘stuff made from plants, or from plant-extracts, or ‘the right sort of container for this type of plant’ or ‘plants of this class will be found sold in containers of this sort’ or… any one of a dozen more real, historical, possibilities.

Then, in 1978 (or more relevant in the early 2000s when the NSA released it as a pdf), Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma suddenly includes in its ‘Table of Contents’ listings for occult and magical alphabets, so many that their divisions occupy more than a third of the listings though not so much of her text as the Contents might lead you to expect. Her Bibliography also includes a large number of books on such topics, though the majority are imprints from the late 1960s and early 1970s. None is a scholarly study of the Voynich manuscript, its images, material or written text. None proves any ‘occult’ character for the manuscript.

The most obvious stimulant to Mary d’Imperio’s imagination turning in that direction, other than a cryptographer’s search for more alphabets and vocabularies, is Frances Yates’ controversial but hugely popular study of Giordano Bruno, who had been born about a century after the quires in Beinecke MS 408 are dated.

5. Elegant Enigma’s including the poor judgement of Charles Singer about the manuscript’s being ‘Germanic-occult-sixteenth-century’ and “connected with Dee and that sort of movement” is, I daresay, the only reason the wider public was ever afflicted with it. He was wrong about the manuscript’s date. He apparently couldn’t distinguish between the text proper and marginalia, and there’s nothing in the manuscript to tie it directly to John Dee, save the opinion of two later scholars specialising in the works of John Dee, that the manuscript’s page numbers are written in his hand. 

  • R.J. Roberts and Andrew G. Watson, eds., John Dee’s Library Catalogue. London: The Bibliographical Society, (1990). [Claim the folio numbers in the VMS are by John Dee’s hand. -J.R.]  I have this reference from Jim Reeds’ annotated Voynich Manuscript Bibliography. (for link, see ‘Constant references’ in my Cumulative Bibliography page. – D.)

Given the wide dissemination of the “‘Germanic-occult-sixteenth-century’ and “connected with Dee and that sort of movement” set of ideas, we might here repeat that

6.   the manuscript’s vellum (or more exactly samples  from four of the top eleven quires) produced a radiocarbon-14 dating range of 1404-1438, which was later than the majority of competent assessors had previously thought, but apparently it already had a consensus among  specialists of the post-war period before 1963, for d’Imperio herself reports (Elegant… p. 8)

Helmut Lehmann-Haupt (bibliographical consultant to H. P. Kraus) stated in a letter to Tiltman dated I November, l963. that “there is a near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400.

which was pretty much spot-on.

  7.  The manuscript’s only testimony to German contact is some marginalia – and chiefly the line on f.116v.

8.  John Dee was born in 1527 – again, at least a century too late to have any influence on the manuscript’s content.  The only reason for mentioning Dee at all is that Wilfrid deployed Dee as character in the role of the unnamed ‘carrier’ who –  according to that third-hand rumour – brought the manuscript to Prague. The speculative link was via the Digby collection (more precisely Allen’s collection) of manuscripts now in the Bodleian library at Oxford.

Before Hugh O’Neill’s erroneous note of 1944, it had been generally accepted that the manuscript belonged to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.

9.  It was later suggested that the manuscript might be a fifteenth-century copy of a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century manuscript.

While still unaware of that earlier guess/speculation, the present writer had come  to a similar conclusion and, when considering the script in this connection, offered readers of  voynichimagery the following illustration, also included earlier in this blog. (Voynich revisionist post of Dec.15th., 2018). This was the first time the question had been tested, as distinct from hypothesised or speculated,* though – as is not unusual – subsequent emulations may  be in other blogs or websites today.  (The Cambridge manuscript which I cited is not about  magic, nor ‘occult’ topics).

*as by Sola-Price in 1975 -see earlier post, linked above.

Cantimpre script Cambridge

So –

Singer was wrong about the manuscript’s probable date. He appears to have been unable to distinguish between lines of marginalia added post-production and the body of the Voynich text, and I doubt we should have heard anything of his ideas but d’Imperio recorded them in Elegant Enigma and they appealed to the inclinations of some who read d’Imperio’s booklet.

Though Hugh O’Neill made no assertion of magic or occult content for the manuscript, his saying it should be dated post-1494 was another impetus towards anachronism.  His assertions were included in copies of Manly’s posthumous publications and thereafter taken as a given by other writers to serve their own theoretical narratives.

Among such writers, we’ve already noted Lionell Strong and Professor Robert S. Brumbaugh, which latter had direct connection to members of the Beinecke library where, from 1969, the manuscript was held.

In that way  the ‘occult-sixteenth century’ idea became the holding library’s ‘official’ position and to as late as 2017,  the Beinecke’s recommended ‘further reading’ consisted of writings by Professor Brumbaugh, Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, and a website owned and edited by Rene Zandbergen.

The question now becomes whether one can identify the cause for d’Imperio’s taking up that  ‘occult’ theme and focusing on the sixteenth century and later – because there’s no evidence that it was ever derived from, or underpinned by, any formal scholarly enquiry whatever. None. At all.

There is an historical link between Charles Singer and Frances Yates, but (as I’ll explain in the next post second part of this post,  d’Imperio’s decision to include those chapters (8 and 9) outlines and the various post-Friedman references to magic and the occult in her Bibliography, may have been due to in-house speculation, capped off by a few sentences spoken at the conclusion of a certain four-hour, in-house seminar at the NSA in 1976.

Singer Dorothea and Charles Wellcome V0027864.jpg

photo – Dorothea Waley Singer and Charles Singer.

That link between Charles Singer and Frances Yates consisted of two strands – first, Charles’ wife, Dorothea Waley Singer,  the palaeographer named in Lynn Thorndike’s letter of June 1921,  had in 1936 introduced Yates to a member of the Warburg Institute after the re-location of the Institute to England..

Frances Yates from History Collections blogYates’ research interest was only on the high Renaissance era in England and in Italy, and her particular focus was on the figure of Giordano Bruno, who was born about a century later than the  Voynich manuscript’s radiocarbon range and between 150 and 250 years after most estimates of the manuscript’s appearance.

Photo (left) courtesy of ‘History Collections Blogs’ post Dec 3rd, 2018.

I’ve no evidence that Yates was asked to comment on the Voynich manuscript, but her books are in d’Imperio’s Bibliography and in the pre-war period, John Matthews Manly had written to that  Institute sending a full copyflo (‘photostat’) copy of the manuscript – which had then been seen by at least two eminent German scholars of their time- Fritz Saxl in Hamburg and Henry Sigerist in Leipzig.

It is important to understand why those specialists’ opinions should still carry great weight even though, as the best specialists tended to do – they responded by saying,  ‘not one of mine’.

I’ll be as brief as I can, but providing any clear idea of these scholars’ range and expertise can’t be done in a couple of paragraphs.  The most eminent in their field during the 1930s, they cast a very long shadow.

BEFORE THE NSA

detail portrait of John Matthews Manly John M. Manly is often described in a way that makes him seem a peripheral figure, but the more closely we consider his role, the more it is found to have been badly understated.  Manly died too soon to affect the direction taken later within the NSA groups. He died at the age of 75 in 1940.

A prodigy of learning, in mathematics and in the study of English literature, Manly had been Newbold’s friend, and friend to Wilfrid Voynich and through him William Friedman had initially  hoped – unsuccessfully – to gain access to the manuscript during the decades from the 1920s to 1944.  Friedman and Manly had met as cryptographers during World War I.

The Warburg Institute’s  ‘General correspondence’ archive proves that in 1928, two years after Newbold’s death (1926),  Manly had sent a full photostat copy of the manuscript to Fritz Saxl.

  • Ref No WIA GC/20727

from Fritz Saxl, Hamburg to John M. Manly, Chicago 16th/01/1928

He [Saxl] sent the photostats of the cipher manuscript with the bathing scenes to Professor H.E. Sigerist, but neither Sigerist nor Saxl can help.

  • Ref No WIA GC/23746. 

from John M. Manly, Chicago to Fritz Saxl, Hamburg. 14th/12/1929)

… reminds him [Saxl] of the photostats of the Voynich manuscript, which he [Manly] sent in October 1928 to Saxl who forwarded them to H.E. Sigerist in Leipzig; requests return of photostats to Dr. Platt, 29 Woburn Sq, London WC1.

  • WIA GC 1930/2074
    KBW, Hamburg to John Manly(18th/01/1930)
    London, 29 Woburn Square, c/o Dr. Platt
    Format typescript, carbon copy.

The secretary supposed the copy was of a carbon-copied typescript, when it consisted of photostats from a manuscript.  When you look at the quality of those early photostats (actually ‘copyflo’)  you see how that confusion might arise.  The  illustration (below) is part of the title page for that four-hour NSA ‘seminar’ in 1976 (see above).

NSA photostats

HENRY [H.E.] SIGERIST

Henry SigeristLittle more than five years after receiving that copy of the Voynich manuscript, Fritz Saxl would emigrate to England, and Henry Sigerist to America to take the post as head of John Hopkins University and, by 1944 (the year O’Neill’s spanner was dropped into the works and Friedman’s first study group set to work), to found  John Hopkins’ journal, Bulletin of the History of Medicine.

But despite Sigerist’s being in America from 1932, his name does not appear in d’Imperio’s Index nor in her bibliography and as far as I can discover, Sigerist was never again asked to give an opinion, never volunteered an opinion about it, and never wrote an article about it. A study of the Sigerist Papers archive (at Yale) might turn up some additional information from his personal correspondence.

Today, John Hopkins University describes Henry Sigerist as “the pre-eminent medical historian in the early part of this century“. True as it is, more detail is needed to show why Sigerist’s areas of  expertise might allow him to evaluate the Voynich manuscript, its form or any of its written- or pictorial- text. Having a degree – even a professorship – hardly matters if an individual’s special field isn’t one which assists in dating and placing manuscripts, or evaluating images or scripts.

So in what areas had Sigerist particular knowledge?

Herbals.

I take this passage from a lecture which Sigerist delivered in 1950, though it was not published until after his death.

My own studies were begun in Sudhoff’s Institute of the History of Medicine at the University of Leipzig. My starting point was the School of Salerno, the first mediaeval medical school, which flourished in the 12th century.

Salvatore de Renzi had claimed that the Salernitan literature showed no trace ofplants Herbal-pharmaceutical Nicolai Arabic influence.

In order to ascertain that [i.e whether] this assumption was correct, I thought that it would be easiest to consult the pharmacological literature of Salerno, such as is represented in the Antidotarium Nicolai. This is a book that contains such famous recipes as Hiera Galeni, Picra Galeni, Acharistum, and Hadrianum, prescriptions that are found in the Greek as well as the Arabic literature. And then I published seven antidotaria from manuscripts of the 9th and 10th centuries in order to find out what the tradition was, in what form the prescriptions survived in the Early Middle Ages.

As a result of my investigation I found that the Antidotarium Nicolai showed strong traces of Arabic influence, not only in that the individual recipes had many more ingredients, but in the fact that they contained outspokenly Arabic drugs. This was to be expected since Constantine of Africa resided at Monte Cassino where he translated many Greek and Arabic authors from the Arabic into Latin. Constantine lived about 1010-1087 A.D.; Monte Cassino was close to Salerno, and it was obvious that the School of Salerno would be the first to profit from this new literature which suddenly became available to the western world.

As a matter of fact, one half of the prescriptions that occur in the Salernitan Antidotarium can be found also in Book X of the Practica of the Pantegni of Constantine which is a somewhat abbreviated translation of the Liber regius of Ali ibn el-Abbas.

  • Henry E. Sigerist, ‘The Latin Medical Literature of the Early Middle Ages’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences , Vol. 13, No. 2 (April, 1958), pp. 127-146.

Sigerist’s early work and its conclusions are still largely accepted, save only that he neglected to enquire into the role played by the Jewish traders of Sicily, Cairo, Spain and North Africa, an area which has since received more scholarly attention.   But the important point, now, is that Sigerist had already published an account of his Italian studies, in English, by 1934.

  • Sigerist, H. E., ‘The medical literature of the early Middle Ages. A program— and a report of a summer of research in Italy. Bull. Inst. Hist. Med., 1934, No. 2, pp.26-50. A summer of research in European libraries. Ibid., 559-610.

Despite all efforts made since that time to insist that the Voynich manuscript’s plant pictures constitute a ‘herbal’ in the Latins’ tradition – and these efforts include a nicely illustrated article in the Yale facsimile edition – no place has ever been found for them in the Latins’ stemmata.  The idea is as general as it is – still – without any basis in fact.  It’s another of those base-less ‘Voynich doctrines’.

The next passage relates to medicine and the ‘occult’. It comes from an editorial which  Sigerist wrote in that pivotal year of 1944.

“In 1941, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Paracelsus, we published four Paracelsian treatises that illustrate four different aspects of his personality and work. The translations were the first ever attempted in English. They were made from the original 16th century German and presented considerable difficulties with regard to language and content. Each treatise was preceded by an introductory essay, and the whole volume was undoubtedly an interesting contribution to the history of Renaissance thought’.

  • Henry E. Sigerist, ‘Editorial: Classics of Medicine’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine , Vol.16, No. 1 (June, 1944), pp. 1-12.

So Sigerist was not only familiar with the medieval herbal tradition, but with sixteenth century German texts about magic-and-medicine, alchemy etc, and was in a position to  compile multilingual glossaries of terms, of a kind indispensable for twentieth-century cryptographers.

So again – why from 1944-1957 was Sigerist never approached by Friedman or by the NSA to comment on the notion of the manuscript as a ‘medicinal herbal’ or as related to ‘Paracelsan medicine’?  Sigerist was the expert at that time (along with Thorndike’s great study). More, the Friedmans’ groups had surely heard of Paracelsus by 1957 for in that year  Charles Singer wrote to Tiltman, saying “My own feeling -very vague -about the little figures of nude men and women in the organs of the body is that they are somehow connected with the ” archaei” of the Paracelcan or Spagyric School. This would fit well with my suggestion about John Dee and Bohemia.” (see Elegant Enigma p.21).

None of that was Singer’s original suggestion, and his re-formulation plainly owes more to his imagination than to his scholarship. His ‘very vague feeling’ is compounded of Wilfrid’s involving John Dee, and imitation – without  honest acknowledgement – of William Romaine Newbold’s views and I suspect also an admixture, by 1957, of reading Sigerist’s translations of Paracelsus.

Here’s Newbold, writing to ask assistance from Catholic scholars in 1921.

newbolds-letter-to editor of Franciscan News

.In the same year, the ‘biological’ idea was discussed, and dismissed by a certain Professor Clung,  in an editorial in Scientific American (May 28th., 1921)

.Newbold biol SciAm May 28 1921

Newbold is also credited with first discussing ‘alchemy’ but as we’ve seen, such writings never envisaged Roger Bacon as an occultist. This article is so difficult to access, I mention it only as one I’ve read, myself.

  • Sebastian Wenceslaus OFM, ‘The Voynich manuscript and its cipher’, Nos Cahiers, Vol.2, No.1, (1937) pp.48-67.
Note – The only remaining copy of that journal, and article, was sent to me privately by a member of the order in Canada, after I’d written to the head of the order asking if any copies still existed. I published some of its content at voynichimagery.  If you find any other Voynich writer’s mention of it, or reproduction of its content, you may assume that voynichimagery was their source, openly cited or not.)

In sum:

To say that Sigerist was, America’s most eminent specialist in the history of medieval Europe’s medicine and related sciences, equal only to Lynn Thorndike, is not hyperbole, but simple statement of fact.   He was already a ‘name’ when Manly sent the copy that reached Germany late in 1928.

Given that Manly had sought Gernan scholars’ advice from a distance, in 1927-8, and that from 1932 until 1957 Sigerist was in America as head of John Hopkins and editor the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, he should have been an obvious choice for the Friedmans if they needed  highly specialized vocabularies in (at least) Latin and English and German.  Yet from remarks made at the NSA seminar in 1976, it seems no such detailed advice had ever been sought from ‘outside’. As we’ll see a little further on.

—————–

FRITZ SAXL:  Astrology and myth

Photo below – Fritz Saxl and Gertud Bing.

Friz Saxl and his wife

Saxl was the person to whom Manly sent the copy.

A close associate of Aby Warburg, Saxl spent his post-graduate academic year in Rome, studying medieval texts on astrology and mythology.(1912-1913)

He had long been interested in the medieval period generally and in astrological manuscripts in particular before meeting Warburg, but the subjects took on new meaning now, and the first volume of Saxl’s Catalogue of astrological manuscripts appeared in 1915.

Do you think that after compiling two volumes listing and describing the contents in astrological and related manuscripts from German libraries that Saxl wouldn’t notice if there were any  astrological forms in the Voynich diagrams and, more particularly any peculiarly ‘Germanic’ quality to the text or images when he had the photostat copy from Manly in 1928-30?

Saxl’s volumes are in d’Imperio’s bibliography but these might have been in the NSA research notes for decades, since a number of persons having connection with the Voynich manuscript are recorded as having been sent copies of (at least) the second volume of Saxl’s Verzeichnis.., published in 1928.

I’ve highlighted some of those names likely to be familiar to my readers.

Ref No WIA GC/30746 (from the Warburg archives, general correspondence)

from Fritz Saxl, [names of scholars who received a copy of Saxl’s ‘Verzeichnis vol. 2′ illuminated astrological manuscripts in Vienna;] [after 24/01/1928]

DateNote n.d., refers to correspondence of 24/01/1928, in ‘Warburg/Saxl’ file
[Ottokar] Smital, [Anton] Haas [clerical officer],[Hans] Gerstinger, [Emil] Wallner, Julius von Schlosser, all in Vienna; Franz Cumont, Rome; Max Lehrs, Dresden; Reginald Lane Poole, Oxford; Charles H. Haskins, Cambridge Mass.; Lynn Thorndike, Cleveland Ohio; S.E. Cockerell, Cambridge UK; J.P.Gilson, London; Aarne M. Tallgren, Helsingfors [Helsinki]; Joachim Kirchner, [Hermann] Degering, Hans Wegener, all in Berlin; Albert Hartmann, A. Rehm, P. Lehmann, all in Munich; Ernst Zinner, Bamberg; [Julius] Ruska, Berlin; [Georg] Leidinger; [Armand] Delatte; Kurt Rotter; Robert Eisler; [Henry E.] Sigerist; [Richard] Salomon; Franz Schramm (son of Percy Ernst Schramm?); Edgar Breitenbach; [Konrad] Burdach; Richard Reitzenstein; [Erwin] Panofsky; [Hermann Julius] Hermann, Vienna; Wilhelm Gundel, Giessen; L. Münz, Vienna; [Antonio] Barzon, Padua; [Jesus] Bordona, Madrid; [Edgard] Blochet, Paris; [Andrea] Moschetti, Padua; libraries in Lyons and Madrid; Charles Singer, London; Fr. Fuchs, Munich; [Karl] Sudhoff, Leipzig; Hellmut Ritter, Constantinople; [Conrad] Borchling, H

_________

OTHERS – Erwin Panofsky and Richard Salomon

Anne Nill in ageIt might be worth repeating, here, that in 1932, Panofsky was also given a full photostat copy of the Voynich manuscript –  by Anne Nill. He took it to Germany and there asked Richard Salomon’s opinion about the script – Salomon then being an active researcher and specialist in medieval Germanic texts, legal documents and scribal hands.  The only part of the manuscript on which  Salomon felt able to comment was some marginalia on the back of the last quire (f.116v).

Nothing else struck him as familiar.

Panofsky’s own interest had been, initially, in the Christian art of medieval Europe, with emphasis on that of Germany.

Later and especially after 1933, when he emigrated to America, he turned his attention to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – then defined as the Renaissance period. Panofsky remains one of the great commentators and historians of European art and yet despite his vast reading and experience he could suggest only one possible comparison for anything in the Voynich manuscript. It’s not a particularly close comparison, either. Just a diagram from one work that had been made for Alfonso X of Castile. (and already discussed in an earlier post ).

So the ‘Germanic’ idea is opposed by their silence as early as the years 1928-1932 by  art historians Saxl and Panofsky, by Sigerist, a specialist in the history of  medicine, including herbals and Paracelsus’ medicine, and by Salomon, a specialist in medieval German scripts.  Their null-response must be regarded soberly. It is certainly of significance and should not be airily waved away to better serve the internal logic of an hypothetical/fictional narrative. 

Were the Voynich manuscript  ‘Germanic-astrological-occult-herbal-medical-alchemical’,  this interconnected group of German specialists – and Thorndike in America  – must surely between them have noticed  whatever-it-was that so much later led Singer to assert an idea that the manuscript’s content was “connected with Dee and that sort of movement”. Singer was wrong about too much, including the date-range, on which all else of his ‘feelings – very vague -‘ relied.

border blue on gold chequer Brit.Lib Add MS 42130 f80r long

November 30th., 1976: 

NSA stamp 1976It was now sixty-four years after Wilfrid had acquired the manuscript; thirty-two years after Friedman had gathered his first NSA study group; and the manuscript  had been in Yale’s Beinecke library for seven years.

A  four-hour, in-house seminar was held at the NSA.

After some opening remarks, the first short talk was given by a linguist named James Child, whose interest was aroused on hearing a talk by John Tiltman twelve months earlier. His area of specialisation was Germanic languages and languages of the Baltic states. He explained  why he thought certain features of the Voynich text appeared characteristic of Germanic-Baltic languages.

LANDMARK EXPOSITION

Next came  Captain Prescott Currier who delivered a landmark discussion of the text, from which we take the terms ‘Currier A’ and ‘Currier B’ as description of the written text.

N.B. – Careless omission of Currier’s name ( leading to misleading discussions of e.g. ‘herbal A’ and ‘herbal B’) is a cause of increasing error and confusion. Omission of Currier’s name means that newer- come students suppose those ‘A’ and ‘B’ distinctions, when used without the proper qualification, must refer to  codicological divisions, or imply the existence of some body of research whose conclusion was that the manuscript combines in the plant-pictures material from two distinct exemplars whose sources have been identified.  There has been no such formal study. More generally, about Voynicheros who omit, or deliberately obscure and represent the sources for their ideas, I feel pretty much as d’Imperio did in 1976 when speaking of Brumbaugh’s Voynich articles.

His explanations … are, unfortunately, very incomplete. They are convincing at first glance, but when I tried to look more closely at them and retrace the steps Brumbaugh claimed to have followed, they fell apart. To make matters worse, Brumbaugh offers no documentation or scholarly evidence of his sources other than a few off-hard, very vague words in passing….  He provides no further support, or explanation of his sources.” 

Ibid.p.39

  • A brief, official military biography of Prescott Currier by the US Department of Defense.  here.

[July 1st., 2021. I have edited my ‘note’ above which in its original form overstated the issue.]

HIS FINAL WORD

On that day in 1976,  the last person to speak was a somewhat enigmatic figure. His short address was not introduced in the normal way, nor any summary given of his  professional achievements. His name was not preceded by any formal title – not even ‘Mr’.  Nonetheless, he was given the last word, in every sense.

  • NSA,  ‘New Research on the Voynich Manuscript: Proceedings of a Seminar’, 30 November 1976 [pdf]

His name appears simply as Stuart H. Buck but whatever else he might have been, he was no historian of medieval art or sciences.

Some readers may not see much that is odd about his remarks (below), but any specialists in fields of medieval history and culture undoubtedly will, because this was being said in 1976.    Among other things, he said:

“Who today is steeped in the highly specialized vocabulary of alchemy, magic, astrology, cosmology, herbals and other topics suggested by the drawings in the Voynich manuscript?”

In 1976 the answer was –  anyone who cared to be. We’ve indicated the range of publications provided just by Thorndike and two of the scholars associated with the Warburg institute before 1957.

But I must make a critical point here.

When someone says that any Voynich drawings “suggest” something-or-other, don’t fall for it.  Drawings made in the pre-modern period were never meant to ‘suggest’ anything to their audience and the Voynich drawings are not the active agent. What is actively ‘suggesting’ whatever-it-is to the modern Voynichero is his/her own imagination, doing its best in the absence of any real knowledge of the item to compensate by throwing up ‘suggestions’ for a kind-of-nearest match from that individual’s  limited experience. A more accurate phrase is that an object or a detail from an object ‘recalls’ or ‘brings to mind’ some other matter. The task is then to discover from research whether what is ‘brought to mind’ is, or isn’t, a true account of the maker’s intention.

[July 1st., 2021. I have edited my comment by adding two sentences as clarification.]

Like d’Imperio’s outburst over the academic board’s refusing funding to William Friedman, Stuart H. Buck’s remarks permit us to suppose that already, among NSA cryptographers at least, there had been some theorising about the manuscript’s perhaps containing occult matter, if for no other reason than because they could think of no other avenue they had not yet explored.

And I rather think that the mysterious Stuart Buck’s comments led to Mary d’Imperio deciding to expand the material in her monograph, said to be ‘in the final stages of completion’ in 1976 but not presented even in final draft for another two years.   On this, I refer to Vera Filby’s remarks earlier in the same seminar, saying that d’Imperio is:

“in the final stages of completing a monograph on the history of research on the Voynich manuscript; she calls it ‘The Elegant Enigma’.

When d’Imperio did finally submit  the draft – it gave the ‘occult’ theme a great deal of space in the Table of Contents, and in the bibliography, yet within the main body of her monograph, those headings are scarcely treated and most show no evidence of any in-depth research.

At the seminar in 1976, d’Imperio had spoken in a way which tells us she hoped it would begin a new revival of Voynich studies in the NSA, but after that final word by the untitled, unintroduced Stuart H. Buck, the opposite seems to have been the verdict.   Perhaps d’Imperio hoped that her adding those occult titles to the bibliography, and a clearly laid out ‘plan’ in her Table of Contents that she would be assisting future cryptographers, but the NSA studies would appear to have ceased from that time.

We can’t know this certainly, of course. The NSA isn’t likely to say what research is still active, but Freedom of Information requests have been met, fairly easily, over the past decade with full copies of documents posted as pdf’s on the NSA site, and  access to many of the relevant archives  permitted for some  researchers.  Here’s that shorter quote from Stuart Buck in context:

…   what means do we [at the NSA in 1976] have of testing the validity of a decryption in any of the languages of that period? For example, who has access to a plain language study of medieval Latin? What statistical knowledge do we have of other languages that might have been used? Who today is steeped in the highly specialized vocabulary of alchemy, magic, astrology, cosmology, herbals and other topics suggested by the drawings in the Voynich manuscript?

Stuart H. Buck

Theories about the Voynich manuscript were -and many today still are  – as ungoverned by solid knowledge as are wild horses by bridles

border blue on gold chequer Brit.Lib Add MS 42130 f80r long

Postscript.

For fans of Lynn Thorndike  (author of History of Magic and Experimental Science – in 8 volumes).

Lynn ThorndikeWIA GC/24638
from Lynn Thorndike, Columbia Uni. New York to Fritz Saxl, Hamburg (14th/01/1929)
thanks him for a copy of ‘Verzeichnis 2’; finds it ‘exceedingly interesting’ and helpful; [Thorndike] informs him that ‘De naturis rerum’ is not by Pseudo-Lucretius, but, in fact, by Thomas of Cantimpré.

(and while we’re here,  why not throw in some Cabala?)

WIA GC/24939
Fritz Saxl to Aby Warburg, in Rome (28th./01/1929)
;  … one can trace a direct line from Ptolemy to the Latin astrologers of the 12th and 13th centuries and an indirect line via Arab scholars; … Lynn Thorndike sent a letter of thanks to Saxl for a copy of ‘Verzeichnis vol2’; forwards an article by G. Scholem on the origin of Cabbala, ‘Buch Bahir, die älteste klassische Schrift der kabbalistischen Literatur’; likes it very much, as it shows two levels of the older Cabbala texts, the older mythological one based on Gnosis and the younger one which reworks the gnostic texts from a Neo-platonic point of view; Cabbala rests on the ascent to heaven topic; it would have been good to have Scholem lecture on this topic; should Saxl ask him to contribute an article for ‘Vorträge’?..

But Thorndike was apparently another eminent specialist never consulted by Friedman or the NSA, as was the case for Sigerist, and Saxl and so many more. Their knowledge opposed the popular theories, and their judgement was ‘not one of ours’.

What magic? Where magic? 3c-time shifts.

Two prior posts

Afterword to this post.

d'ImperioI had always thought that Mary d’Imperio’s work was to sort and summarise material accumulated during the years that William Friedman directed the Voynich study groups, and that the entire content in Elegant Enigma was, therefore, a reflection of Friedman’s thinking.

As this series of posts progressed, it occurred to me to look at relative distributions for the entries in d’Imperio’s bibliography, and on doing so I found a rather different picture emerge. I now believe I may owe Wilfrid Friedman, and possibly also his wife Elizebeth, an apology.  It  looks very much as if the ‘occult’ theme which occupies so much of d’Imperio’s Table of Contents expresses her own ideas, which may or may not have been shared by Elizebeth. There’s no doubt that Friedman did drift forward to as late as the seventeenth century, but his retirement was in 1955 and he died in 1969, whereas the ‘occult’ sources in d’Imperio’s bibliography are chiefly publications of the late 1960s and 1970s.

I’ve left the first posts in the series as I wrote  them, though, so you can see how it went. Another and less obvious point to emerge is how greatly O’Neill’s careless paper contributed to the firming shift in external research towards the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  At least, back then, people religiously cited the precedents they built on, so there’s no doubt who influenced e.g. Brumbaugh’s shift in the same direction. In correcting the first item in the chain, then, and knowing that the later writers were not speaking to any other research, we can automatically correct that  post-Columban dating all along the line.  It should also be kept in mind that scholars of the earlier generation meant the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when they spoke of the Renaissance. These days, writers begin the ‘Renaissance’ much earlier, from about the time Byzantine representatives came, and stayed, in Italy.

__________

Seventeenth-century mindset – Friedman and artificial languages.

I have attributed the origin of the ‘Germanic-Dee-occult’ theme* to William Friedman220px-Agrippa_von_Nettesheim because he was the formal leader of the various teams who studied the manuscript at the NSA.

*which is where Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa comes in.

However, if you look at d’Imperio’s Bibliography and then (if this sort of thing is to your liking) make  distribution-graphs by three criteria – date of publication. lifetime of the author, and whether the central focus is on the time of Roger Bacon or  of Dee-and-later, an interesting pattern emerges.

Focus does not really shift towards the later period and an ‘occult’ theme until quite late in the course of the Friedman groups’ efforts, and from what we know of Friedman’s delicate mental health, the shift may have occurred during his absence. A  letter written to  Friedman’s biographer in 1976 tells us that Friedman was “hospitalized with mental illness five separate times beginning in 1940. His last hospitalization was in late 1963”.* 

*References already given – here.
Friedman Wm 1917
William Friedman in 1917 from files at the George C,Marshall Foundation

Friedman’s official service record reflects a steady decline in his official status from 1942, and reduction in his responsibilities from 1949 –  from leader of a team to consultant on cryptography, to ‘research consultant’ to ‘special assistant to the director’ and retirement in 1955. After 1955, Friedman was simply a ‘member of the advisory board’ until 1969 and one suspects that his duties from 1955-1969 were nominal.

Chief, Communications Research Section, Army Security Agency, 1947-1949;
Cryptologic Consultant, Army Security Agency, 1949;
Research Consultant, Armed Forces Security Agency, 1949-1951;
Research Consultant, National Security Agency, 1951-1954;
Special Assistant to the Director, NSA, 1954-1955 (retirement);
Member, NSA Scientific Advisory Board, 1954-1969;
Special Consultant, National Security Agency, 1955-1969.

Questions of influence.

Apart from Fr. Theodore Petersen and John Manly,  Friedman does not seem to havedetail portrait of John Matthews Manly cared to get the opinions of external specialists until the 1950s, by which time he had been interested in the manuscript for thirty years, while remaining ignorant of the basics needed to  study  medieval manuscripts, as his interview with Erwin Panofsky would make clear in 1954.

In the following passage, Reeds supposes that the defacement of Fr. Petersen’s work was done by Petersen himself, but this now seems unlikely. Petersen’s work shows him to have been a meticulous, neat and painstaking researcher –  besides which his formal duties would have prevented his devoting time to work in the NSA, and Friedman treated the project as a ‘national secret’, from an idea that so difficult a cipher (as he imagined must inform the Voynich text) might prove of national importance.  Reeds reports the matter this way:

[The Friedmans] became interested in the VMS as soon as Newbold began publicizing his theories about the VMS in the 1920s, and started an extensive correspondence on the subject with their friend John M. Manly, the University of Chicago Chaucer expert who, like Friedman, had served as a cryptanalyst in World War I. Friedman obtained photostats from Mrs. Voynich, and through her, started a correspondence with Father Theodore C. Petersen which lasted until the latter’s death in 1966. Petersen’s hand-made tracing onto onion-skin paper is now item 1620 in the collection, and is amply described on page 41 of D’Imperio’s book. After making the copy, Petersen prepared elaborate indexes and frequency counts (both into notebooks and onto index cards — all now in the Friedman collection — but in the process scribbled up his copy with underlinings, colored pencil marks, and so on, to the extent that photocopies of his copy are often hard to make out.

  • Jim Reeds, Transcription.. op.cit. p.4  [pdf]

It may be due to John Tiltman’s influence that there began to be some greater effort made to seek advice from persons external to the Friedman circle but after hearing Tiltman’s opinions on the manuscript in 1951, Friedman had spoken of what was already a set idea – that Voynichese was an artificial language.  He was already looking to the mid-seventeenth century to explain a medieval manuscript.

Towards the seventeenth century,

Reeds’ version of events is in Transcription… (p. 6).

Here’s Tiltman’s account of what had happened in 1951:

After reading my report, Mr. Friedman disclosed to me his belief that the basis of the script was a very primitive form of synthetic universal language such as was developed in the form of a philosophical classification of ideas by Bishop Wilkins in 1667 and Dalgarno a little later. It was clear that the productions of these two men were much too systematic, and anything of the kind would have been almost instantly recognisable. My analysis seemed to me to reveal a cumbersome mixture of different kinds of substitution. When I was attempting to trace back the idea of universal language, I came upon a printed book entitled The Universal Character by Cave Beck, London 1657 (also printed in French in the same year). Cave Beck was one of the original members of the British Royal Society and his system was certainly a cumbersome mixture…

  • John Tiltman,  ‘The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World’  [NSA gov.site pdf] pp.9-10, Plates 21-23.

Friedman began pushing to meet Professor Panofsky from 1952, but as we’ve seen was prevented until 1954, after which his Questionnaire elicited from Panofsky this answer to its Question 15:

I do not feel qualified to pronounce about the probability of your  “artificial language” theory. I must confess that, for the time being, I am a little skeptical in view of the fact that, so far as I know, no attempts to construct such an artificial language can be shown to have been made until the beginning of the seventeenth century…

– -which is perfectly true.

Unsurprisingly, Panofsky’s caution had no impact on Friedman, and five years later – and thus even after Singer had introduced the  ‘occult-Germanic-Dee-sixteenth century’ notion, Friedman would include his ‘artificial language’ idea as a footnote to an article written by his wife and published under both their names. 

  • Friedman, William F. and Elizebeth S., ‘Acrostics Anagrams and Chaucer’, Philological Quarterly, Vol 38 (1959), pp.1-21.

By that time, Friedman had been officially retired from the NSA for four years and it is not clear if, or how, the agency’s offices were being used but Tiltman and, apparently, Elizebeth Friedman served as the “informal” leaders, with  Tiltman’s paper of 1968 and his introduction to Elegant Enigma showing that he remained connected to the NSA’s cryptological effort until after Friedman’s death in November 1969.

Which brings us back to d’Imperio’s bibliography.

Other than works dated to the seventeenth century that are listed without mention of a later re-printing, the overwhelming majority of entries that are not about Roger Bacon, are listed in copies dating to the 1960s and 1970s,  between the time of Friedman’s last hospitalization for mental illness and his death. Here’s one listing:

  • Shumaker. Wayne. (1972). The Occult Sciences in Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns,  University of California Press, Berkley.

For the earlier decades, there had been little more than Lionell Strong’s short article asserting that the manuscript was the work of Anthony Askham,

  • Lionell C. Strong, (1945), ‘Anthony Askham, the Author of the Voynich Manuscript’, Science, New Series, Vol. 101, No. 2633 (Jun. 15, 1945), pp. 608-609

Strong begins by presuming O’Neill’s ideas are confirmed, draws in Leonardo da Vinci and takes it from there.  The paper is usually judged nonsense, and no doubt its solution was, but at least it was properly footnoted and referenced, so we can see how he got his ideas; the superscript numerals are removed from this clip.

Strong on the Voynich

and so on and so forth.  d’Imperio’s Bibliography lists five books by Anthony Askham.

Robert Brumbaugh again. 

Robert S.BrumbaughBrumbaugh would also claim that the written text was decrypted by using numbers.  He seems to be reaching for the idea of some form of volvelle, in which one fixed wheel has the numerals and the (presumably outer) concentric wheels have diverse alphabets.  I hope I interpret him correctly.  In 1975 he would write, ,

But on folio 66r, the compiler tipped his hand too far. In the left  margin (see illustration) he set up groups of characters in patterns: three or four written horizontally, then next to them three or four vertically. Since I had seen a number of these characters in another cipher in Milan, where they represented numerals, I suspected an arithmetical game. And, sure enough, the horizontal symbols give equations, to which the vertical symbols are the solutions. (For example, the last puzzle “2a2a4 8” gives “8” as the solution of “2 plus 2 plus 4”). This gave away the “alphabet”; the cipher is written in numerals, not letters, and each numeral turns out- as we solve the equations- to be represented by from two to four distinct designs. Seven, for instance, is either an Arabic 7, a Greek pi, or a Roman d, indifferently. And it became possible to tell which characters are the same and which are different; for example, a -11- compendium with two loops is a 3, while the very similar -tl- with one loop is 8; 7 is 7, all right, but narrowed and more styled as ? it is 2 ; an is a single numeral equal to 8; and so on.

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Solution of the Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher’, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 49, No. 4 (April 1975), pp. 347-355.

Nothing occult in that.

By 1987, Brumbaugh would still not have questioned or checked his secondary sources of information, and his confidence was not greatly lessened by the continuing lack of any endorsement of his claim to have “found the cipher key”.    Thirteen years later, he’s been exposed to the ‘occult’ idea. Asked in that year to bring the librarians up-to-date, he wrote:

From 1912 on, we have indeed learned progressively more. A letter which accompanied the manuscript said that it had been bought in 1586[sic!], by the Emperor Rudolph II, who thought it was the work of “Roger Bacon, the Englishman.” Bacon’s name was one to conjure with in Prague at this time, which would explain the high price (six hundred ducats) the letter says Rudolph paid. By what is surely more than a coincidence, this same date saw a change in the fortunes at Prague of two English alchemists and Bacon enthusiasts, John Dee and Edward Kelley. From poverty, they moved to fortune: Dee and his family going home in style, Kelley remaining to be knighted at Rudolph’s court. My friend S. W. Dunwell informed me that there is a note in Dee’s diary referring to 630 ducats at this time. Note or not, it seems likely that the persons who sold the Emperor this document were Dee and Kelley; no other even remotely likely candidates have been defended….

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich Cipher Manuscript: a current report’, The Yale University LIbrary Gazette, Vol. 61, No.3/4 (April 1987) pp. 92-95.

Need I say that O’Neill’s dating was nonsense and that “the letter” is not dated 1568, and  does not say that Rudolf bought the manuscript, or bought it in that year, but Marci adds at the end of the letter to Kircher – and as a piece of hearsay – matter that the person from whom he had it could only have got as hearsay himself.

Nothing has ever been discovered in the records of Rudolf’s exchequer or accounts to support that tenuous rumour;  there is no evidence for that oddly anonymous “carrier” – not that he existed, or was given 600 ducats, or  anything else.  Marci  makes a point of not endorsing or supporting the story, which he reports in an offhand way.

Had the rumour named anyone but Rudolf, it would be recognised as no more than ‘a bloke heard from some bloke that some bloke brought the manuscript and was given heaps of money for it.’   An historical footnote of no value.

Showers of kingly gold.

John Dee drawingSince Dee’s name has come up, and that legendary sum of 600 ducats (a staggering amount to pay for a manuscript, when Rudolf had no real interest in anything but the latest printed publications about the latest science), yet it would have been a derisory sum for anyone wanting Elizabeth I’s counsellor and former tutor to work for them.  Dee was, in fact, accused of accepting payments from foreign kings.  Here’s his reaction.

I’m quoting,  as Trattner does, from Dee’s ‘Autobiographical Tracts’:

To be most briefe . . . as concerning my forraine credit, . . I might have served five Christian Emporers; namely, Charles the Fifth, Ferdinand, Maximilian, this Rudulph, and this present Moschovite: of every one their stipends directly or indirectly offered, amounting greater each, then other: as from 500 dollars yearely stipend to a 1000, 2000, 3000; and lastly, by a Messenger from this Russian or Moschovite Emporer, purposely sent, unto me at Trebona castle . . . of my coming to his court at Moskow . . . there to enjoy at his Imperial handes £2000 sterling yearely stipende; . …

On which Trattner commented, “if Dee was interested in financial betterment would he not have accepted any one of these positions rather than die in poverty, as he did?”

  • Walter I. Trattner, God and Expansion in Elizabethan England: John Dee, 1527-1583, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar.,1964), pp. 17-34.

Can you imagine a man of such pride and such disdain for ‘forraine credit’ hawking a manuscript as ratty-looking as the Voynich manuscript to an imperial court and having the poor taste to ask the Emperor to pay him for it? I have difficulty imagining it.

But I think no-one currently choses to believe that Dee or his associate brought the manuscript to Prague.  Rumours reaching my own ears would have it that the ‘Germanic-central European’ theorists have decided to dump all the original expert opinions, and the English provenance, and the Anglo-French month names etc., and just settle for a theory that it was always Germanic-central-European, born and bred.

By the way, if you’re wondering how to define ‘central European’, I’m told (another unendorsed bit of hearsay) it means medieval Bohemia “minus the Slavic element”. And that’s about the value of third-hand hearsay.

ego judicium meum hic suspendo.

map routes trade medieval London to Prague

It looks more and more as if it is wrong to assign the rise of that anachronistic ‘sixteenth-seventeenth century Germanic occult’ narrative to Wilfrid, though it plainly emerges from the Friedman groups.

It arises too late to have been any theory to which Friedman was personally attached, but to judge from that outburst from d’Imperio after Elizebeth Friedman spoke of how an academic board had refused funds for the project, it looks as if Mary d’Imperio and/or Elizebeth Friedman were actually responsible for its flourishing.

We see that although Brumbaugh doesn’t consider it even as late as 1975, by which time the manuscript was held at his university’s Beinecke library, he takes the ‘occult’ narrative more or less for granted by 1987. By that time, d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma had been released with almost half its content focused on occult themes.

3+1

I’m inclined now to look to three woman, and one centre of studies to uncover the origin of what has these days become a full-blown ‘Sixteenth-or-seventeenth-century-Christian-Germanic-occult-alchemical’ narrative only tenuously linked to our early fifteenth-century product. Speculation, back-projection, and rather poor ‘compared images’ is, as far as what appears on the web is concerned,  its chief means of survival.

Those three-and-one are – Elizebeth Friedman, Mary d’Imperio, Frances Yates and the Warburg Institute. I have written to the last, enquiring whether they have an archive of correspondence covering 1969-1978. (Poachers – hang back).

In the last paragraphs of text in Elegant Enigma, writing in 1978, d’Imperio says:

I feel that alchemical writings. in particular. deserve closer attention. since they may not have been so thoroughly studied by Voynich researchers as have herbal, medical and astrological sources. More attention to early cryptographic writings of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries [sic!] might also richly repay our efforts… In fact,  determined, thorough and painstaking attempt to search through manuscript collections and early printed books on almost any of the topics sketched in chapters 8 and 9 of this monograph could still turn up  up a new and illuminating bit of evidence for a student searching specifically for a parallel to the Voynich manuscript.

Elegant Enigma p. 77.

Remember Chapters 8 and 9?

d'Imperio section 8

d'Imperio sections 9 & 10

OH MARY!

Whatever bees were in William Friedman’s bonnet, it’s looking more and more as if occultism wasn’t one of them and that Mary d’Imperio did more than just organise material accumulated during the Friedman years in making Elegant Enigma.

.