Consider this – ‘4’ as numeral (concluded).

I’ve spent the past three weeks looking into occurrences of the ‘4’ shape as an alphabetic (and alphanumeric), attested before 1440. The research wasn’t difficult, though it was tedious and necessarily included scripts for which I found no sure identification, but overall it was not so difficult that it needs a whole blogpost here. The most time-consuming part is not collecting formal versions of scripts, but testing the homogenised ‘official’ version against historical examples. Omniglot is a convenient place to begin, if you are interested to follow that question.

Here are two illustrations showing unidentifed script, and both – if they are different scripts – have been mentioned by Voynich writers.


I wouldn’t say that my investigation of the ‘4’-shape as numeral is complete. There are examples from Armenian, Syrian and Byzantine mss which I haven’t addressed but it was gratifying to find, after back-checking and cross-checking what I had done that my findings accord with the best-qualified commentators’ opinions on the manuscript before imagination and speculation came finally to supplant informed opinion as preferred basis for ‘Voynich’ narratives.

Specifically: the results accord with the views of Georg Baresch who had the longest certain familiarity with the manuscript and who said its contents had not originated in the culture of western Europe. In his time, of course, and even to as late as the twentieth century – as witness works catalogued by British and French libraries – Jewish works were classed as ‘oriental’.

Again, the findings accord with the view of Erwin Panofsky, as it was given in 1932, that the manuscript was from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and displayed characteristics both Arabic and Jewish with (perhaps) something of Kabbalah in it.

And finally, they accord with the opinion relayed by H.P. Kraus’ assistant in the early 1960s, and which said that specialists had agreed on a date of manufacture “about 1400” and focused on Italy as most likely place of manufacture.

The early occurrence for that ‘4’ shape as numeral; the pattern of its subsequent dissemination, and the lines of diaspora from the south-western Mediterranean during the last decades of the fourteenth century, allow us to see how those those separate evaluations need not be supposed incompatible with the manuscript’s internal evidence, given the historical events, lines of regular travel and population movement over the period from c.1350-c.1430 AD. I have supposed, and may be proven mistaken in supposing, that whoever wrote the Voynich glyph had a hand accustomed to writing the numeral so.

The same events promise to shed light on the manuscript’s codicology, but I won’t elaborate on that point.

In the next post, I’ll resume the series ‘How to Voynich’ which was broken off to look more closely at the ‘4o’ after noting* Rainer Hanig’s passing comment that “it “seemed obvious” the Voynichese ‘4’ was meant for the letter ‘q’.

*passage was reproduced in earlier post.

I had intended to pursue the question of the ‘gallows’ glyphs, but as you’ll see from those two ‘unknown’ scripts illustrated above, the solution to that question may be better left to specialists in palaeography.

Since my survey considered only some of the areas in which we see Italian-and-Jewish interaction, and omitted other important centres where use of the ‘Arabic’ numerals occurs during the century from 1350-1450 AD, I can only offer a conditional conclusion about the ‘4’-shape as numeral and as Voynich glyph: I’d suggest those who are chiefly interested in Voynichese should be wary of assuming that the ‘4’ shape denotes the letter ‘q’ in any instance let alone in all; and also be very careful about supposing that the usual transcription into Roman letters is ‘as good as’ reproducing the original. As one example of why I reached that conclusion – the illustration below shows forms for ‘8’ and ‘9’ as they are found on a single folio of a manuscript cited by Hill. Just one example, I know, but enough to make the point. In EVA transcription, its use of ‘q’ might obscure distinction in the original between (say) the letter ‘q’, the numeral ‘4’ and even the numeral ‘8’ – just for a start. Some alphabets include two or more letters whose forms, to an untrained eye, appear similar to each other, to this ‘8’ and to the Voynich ‘4’ shape(s).


Just by the way – here’s a cipher alphabet from the eastern Mediterranean. Early 14thC.

Consider this… (cont). Kircher, scripts, languages & Aramaic.

Header image: ‘Alphabet iliricum sclavor’ included in a model book of 1561 . Libellus valde doctus elegans, & vtilis, multa et varia scribendarum literarum genera complectens. –

approx. 3300 words.

Taking the ‘4’-shaped glyph as the constant, the last few posts have sketched out roughly the patterns of connection, movement and exchange – affecting peoples, ideas, and skills – throughout the south-western Mediterranean and most particularly during that half-century from c.1350-1410 when (pace Hill), we first find the numeral ‘4’ written with that same simple, open-eyed shape as is used for one of the Voynichese glyphs.

The situations in which that exact form occurs, before the Voynich manuscript’s date-range, were found to be practical rather than intellectual – the world of traders and artisans, and particularly of Jews and Italians involved in maritime matters, and notably cartography.

Then, at just the same time when Beinecke MS 408 was being put together, we find a first use of that ‘4’-shape in a cipher-key, that cipher using the Jewish ‘atbash’ method to encipher a secular document in Italy.

The date-range for da Crema’s cipher-key coincides with our manuscript’s, and with a period when Italy saw an influx of Jews from territories owned by the kings of France and of Aragon, who between them now owned what had been the territories composing the kingdom of Majorca.

However, da Crema’s script does not resemble that in the Voynich manuscript, and so this post is about the problem of scripts and languages.

It should be kept in mind that the same Genoese, or Pisan, who had access to a Majorcan-Jewish carte marine might also take ship for Egypt, Tunis, or Trebizond, and at this same time, if a Genoese, might have relatives living in Baghdad, in India, or in Constantinople or Caffa on the Black Sea.

It is not a small matter that, as late as the seventeenth century and over a period of no less than thirty years, Athanasius Kircher should have failed even to identify what script or scripts have provided the Voynich glyphs.

So now, before turning to Girona (Gerona) and the matter of Kabbalah in medieval and later Europe, I’d like readers to consider this problem, and while keeping in mind that for just as long a period, NSA cryptographers failed in the same way – either to identify the source of the Voynichese glyphs, or to extract any ‘plain text’.

It seems to me, altogether, that those working on the written text would do well in future to avoid simply presuming that the Voynich text must prove ‘underneath it all’ a literary* plaintext in a western European language – including Latin.

*By a ‘literary’ text, I mean one composed of sentences more grammatical than ungrammatical –  including subject, verb and object –  employing a fairly standardised orthography, and forming altogether a narrative whose parts can be classed as prose and/or poetry. A shopping list, for example, is normally not a literary text.

From 1633 onwards, Kircher’s position and high-level patrons meant he had access to an extraordinary range of information relative to scripts and languages. Baresch was not wrong to choose Kircher when, trying to find someone who might recognise the origin of the Voynich script, he commissioned and sent careful copies of sections from the manuscript to Kircher, asking only that the script be identified.

To most people of his time, it would have seemed that if anyone could do that, Kircher could. .

Kircher was already, by 1633, interested in other matters of current (and recurrent) interest to Voynich researchers, including cryptography, Kabbalah and Ramon Llull.*

*I don’t propose to say much here about Llull, having now seen the excellent, updated. entry in Stanford University’s Encylopaedia of Philosophy website. (here),.  though see also ‘Postscript #2’ at the end of this post.

A letter which Kircher sent to Pieresc tells how a first interview with the immensely influential Cardinal Francesco Barberini – who would remain Kircher’s sponsor for the next five years -turned into a conversation about “the interpretation of hieroglyphs, Kabbalah and Arabic literature”. 

*Letter from Kircher to Peiresc, Rome, 1 December 1633, BNP FF 9538, fol. 234r. I have this reference from Stolzenberg. 

And to about this same time (1633-4), Daniel Stolzenberg dates a plan for a ‘universal history’, written in Kircher’s own hand, among the Barberini collection and which Stolzenberg found, then transcribed, translated and commented on. That plan has a section for cryptography (mainly Trithemius’ method) and another for Kabbalah and Lull, whose ‘combinatorial method’ we may suppose Kircher had at least heard of by then.

  • Daniel Stolzenberg, ‘ “Universal History of the Characters of Letters and Languages”: An Unknown manuscript by Athanasius Kircher’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome , Vol. 56/57 (2011/2012), pp. 305-321.

  • Alexander Boxer is producing a parallel Latin-English translation of Trithemius’ text for those interested in the history of cryptology. See

Of interest to us now, though, is the section laying out the languages and scripts which were known to Kircher four years before Baresch’s request reached him.

The plan looks like nothing so much as the sort of ‘map’ or key you might find on a printer’s wall. The comparison is not arbitrary.

Here is Stolzenberg’s translation, from his transcription of the original (folios 33-4 in Vatican Library, Barb. Lat. 2617).

The range, and the organisation of these scripts/languages and the table’s otherwise surprising omissions, shows it organised according to the ideas of western European Christianity (i.e. Latin Christianity) and doctrinally Catholic. Consider for example how ‘Greek’ is classed as the language and script of an ‘oriental doctrine’ and imagined descended from Hebrew.

Kircher’s allusion to ‘missals and holy books’, quoted further below, serves to re-inforce the suggestion that Kircher gained this information because, thanks to Barberini and others, he had the entrée to the Vatican printeries in whose work scholars, native speakers and missionaries were all involved in different ways, composing, producing, proof-reading and disseminating those products throughout the world – which by the seventeenth century meant from as far as China to the most distant parts of the Americas.

We needn’t suppose Kircher knew more than the names for most of these scripts and languages but when, in about 1637, he received via Theodore Moretus’ posts, the copied sections of the unreadable manuscript and a request to identify the script, you’d expect that Kircher had access to persons and sources that could provide him with the answer more or less immediately.

For a full eighteen months, however, Kircher was silent – apparently. Not a civil note thanking Baresch for the gift and his enquiry; not so much as a brief note sent on receipt, unprompted, to reassure Moretus that the package hadn’t gone astray.

When, finally, Kircher did respond in 1639, it is clear that his silence was due simply to his continuing failure and consequent chagrin, for he seems only to have written then to Moretus, refusing in that letter to so much as acknowledge Baresch’s existence. And after eighteen months, Kircher could say nothing about the script except what he had plainly gained from some other person and, trying to pretend it an utterance from his own authority, he clearly failed properly to understand.

At first, certainly, Kircher’s letter sounds authoritative, but if one fact-checks, it is shown a faintly pathetic attempt to present what had been beyond him as merely ‘beneath’ him. He even uses the childish excuse ‘I could have if I wanted to, but…’

His letter includes no apology for delay but begins with the “you-and-I-are-superior-types” ploy (a form of ‘cosying up’ not unknown today) then after a few paragraphs about magnets, Kircher pretends he has only just looked at ‘the book’, writing:

As for the book … which you enclosed with your letter, I have looked at it and have concluded that it requires application rather than insight in its solver. I can recall solving many writings of this kind when the occasion presented itself, and the itch of my mind working would have tried out some ideas on it if only many very urgent tasks did not call me away from unsuitable [sic!] work of this kind. However, when I have more free time and can take advantage of a more suitable moment, I expect I shall try to solve it when the mood and inspiration take me.

Finally, I can let you know that the other sheet which appeared to be written in the same unknown script is printed in the Illyrian language in the script commonly called St Jerome’s, and they use the same script here in Rome to print missals and other holy books in the Illyrian language.

Kircher never did solve it, in thirty years, though he still wanted the manuscript when he finally gained the original in 1666 or so. That he was determined to have it may be inferred by Marci’s oddly-apologetic tone in his letter of gift.

But in his earlier letter to Moretus, Kircher revealed his source for the ‘Jerome/Illyrian’ idea as the Vatican printery and those associated with producing foreign-language ‘missals and holy books’. All the same, it sounds good, doesn’t it? The script – ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’. The language ‘Illyrian.’

But nothing followed – not during Kircher’s lifetime, nor apparently up until 2011 when I was somewhat surprised to learn there had still been no follow-up on that ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’ identification.

You may find the following illustration, today, on some other Voynich site/s, but in 2011, there was nothing of the kind. The Voynich script and language are not my area, but I felt it had to be asked – What exactly was ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’ script? For what languages was that script being used in ‘missals and holy books’ during the 17thC?.

The following comes from my post of 2011. Since the image is the important item, I’ve included just a couple of sentences from the post and, in square brackets, clarifications for what is omitted.



  • D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A few curiosities: “Illyrian” said Kircher’,  published first in ‘Findings‘ (blogger blog) Sunday, Nov. 11th., 2011; reprinted ‘Voynich imagery‘ (wordpress blog), Nov. 2nd., 2012.

… not too long before Kircher’s time, late in the sixteenth century, the Vatican issued a book in which was a copy from a manuscript showing this “Illyrican” script credited to Jerome – who lived fully four centuries before Cyril, but while ‘Illyricum’ remained the name of that province [on the Adriatic coast, about Dalmatia].

So when Kircher thought ‘Illyrian’ script, he could have been thinking of [and confusing] this ‘Illyrican’ script for the Cyrillic, or Glagolitic.


  • text and image first published in ‘Findings‘ (blogger blog), Sunday, Nov. 11th., 2011; reprinted in ‘Voynich imagery‘ (wordpress blog), Nov. 2nd., 2012. Click to enlarge.


The signs used in Jerome’s Illyrican (not ‘Illyrian’) script have little in common with those of Voynichese, as you see. Taken at face value, Kircher’s airy and seemingly off-the-cuff statement sounds wonderfully authoritative – unless you fact-check – and the same is true for much else that is asserted with an air of certainty about this manuscript today.

It is certainly possible that Jerome’s script was used to print some language called ‘Illyrican’ in the sixteenth century (I’ve included another ‘Illyrican’ script as header for this post), Kircher’s saying it was used to print the ‘Illyrian’ language raises certain other difficulties. Here, the wiki article is nicely succinct:

The Illyrian language was a language or group of languages spoken in the western Balkans in Southeast Europe during antiquity. The language is unattested with the exception of personal names and placenames… In the early modern era and up to the 19th century, the term “Illyrian” was also applied to the modern South Slavic language of Dalmatia, today identified as Serbo-Croatian. This language is only distantly related to ancient Illyrian and is not descended from it.

Could Voynichese be Serbo-Croatian? If so, why did Kircher not ever claim to have ‘broken’ the text. Has anyone ever suggested such a thing in more recent times, or claimed to have produced a translation of the Voynich text as Serbo-Croatian? More to the point – has any non-Voynich-related person, competent in Serbo-Croatian, offered a balanced assessment of some such translation? Anyone wanting to can just search Voynich+Serbo-Croatian to find an example to examine.

I will say that the same formerly Illyrian region  – around Dalmatia – cropped up a few times during the course of my own research: in connection with a map found in a Franciscan monastery and whose place-names, as discussed by Goldschmidt and Crone, were a mixture of several different local dialects from the Black Sea region; second in connection with the figure of the Voynich archer, his clothing and other matters maritime, and thirdly in connection with other letters in the Kircher archive –  but I published summaries of these things at the time, and they are beside the point at present. 

The problem is, of course, that whoever identified the Voynich script as supposedly ‘Jerome’s Illyrian'(sic) presumably also knew the languages for which it was then being used, and could have directed Kircher to one of the native speakers, or scholars, who oversaw works produced in that language. But that seems never to have happened, or to have drawn a blank. Kircher was not a modest man. His silence must be taken, in the absence of other evidence, as signalling failure, and for thirty years.

What seemed another obvious approach again, I found had never been tried, at least not as far as I could learn by about 2010: that is, to run a statistical survey to discover when, and where, glyphs closely similar to the set of Voynich glyphs are attested in alphabets or abjads.

I would suppose there’d be little point in collecting data about such ubiquitous signs such as ‘o’ but it seemed to me that a pattern of distribution for some of the more unusual forms should be enlightening.

Again – not my field, but I did attempt one amateurish test-run, my target being the glyph I describe as an ‘ornate ‘P’. I found that scripts in which such a form occurs – or occurred- mark a path from the eastern shore of the Black Sea, inward for a distance, and then turning south towards the Persian Gulf, extending as far as southern Arabia.

I found, further, that the form occurs with a fairly consistent phonetic (or should I say phonemic?) value within an ‘s-to-t’ shift.

But what tied those gleanings together was learning that all those scripts had evolved from, or were consciously developed after the model of, imperial Aramaic.

That made sense of the distribution pattern and here again, because it will be easiest for readers to check, I’ll quote a wiki article rather than the more academic sources I used in those posts published in 2012.


Since I have explained that the earliest stratum informing the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is one whose origins I date to the Hellenistic period, I’ll start from the period immediately before Alexander’s arrival on the scene.

The Achaemenid Empire (539–323 BC) continued this tradition [of using Imperial Aramaic], and the extensive influence of these empires led to Aramaic gradually becoming the lingua franca of most of western Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Egypt.

And so that explained the otherwise odd-looking distribution for scripts containing an ‘ornate P’.   Here’s another of the examples I found as part of that research. It comes from southern Arabia and is popularly known as zabur or ‘psalm’ script. It’s not the best of my examples, but I still have the digitised image.

On this script again, I’ll quote a wiki article:.

“Zabur writings were used for religious scripts or to record daily transactions among ancient Yemenis. Zabur writings could be found in palimpsest form written on papyri or palm-leaf stalks.”

In that same article,* there’s another and better illustration of the script. The writer of that wiki article associates zabur script with monumental Sabaean script – itself derived from Aramaic.

*’Ancient South Arabian script‘ – wikipedia

I’m not offering any theory that the Voynich script originated in the Yemen, or is Sabaean or anything else – zabur is just one example of the numerous informal scripts which, developed from imperial Aramaic, include a form of “ornate P” as one of their letters. As does the Voynich script.


This Image (below) added 20th December 2021. I’d not intended to include it because the accompanying files were among wildfire losses in 2013 and I cannot provide the usual bibliographic information.  I’m adding it after three correspondents’ kindly let me know that discussion of ‘ornate P’ forms makes no sense without an illustration.   


A wiki article, ‘Aramaic’, was evidently written by someone for whom the whole point was that it was the ‘language Jesus spoke’ and it omits a number of important matters, including the continuing use of Aramaic by Jewish scholars, including ones in medieval western Europe and, also, that the Kabbalistic Zohar is written in a form of Aramaic, though not, I understand, in old Aramaic script.

For those linguists who’d like to tackle Aramaic and/or the Zohar…

  • According to this website – “If you’re looking for The Book of Zohar PDF or the wisdom of The Zohar PDF, then here it is in its original Aramaic language, with Hebrew commentary by Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag.”  The PDF (which I haven’t downloaded) sounds as if it may be an interlinear Aramaic-English main text, with Hebrew commentary. Caveat downloader.

  • Other resources listed here.

  • N.B. For Aramaic’s history, script(s), evolution, grammar, morphology, pronunciation and orthographies – not to mention a full text of grammar – there is a very comprehensive entry at JVL (here).

  • Interestingly enough, that comprehensive article about Aramaic, from the Encyclopaedia Judaica, doesn’t refer at all to Kabbalah or to the Zohar. For that, there’s another article – here.

Kircher’s table, written up in 1633-4, did not include Aramaic, but by 1652, in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus he includes it in the list of languages he claims to have.

Still, even by 1667, he could not answer Aloysius Kinner’s question about whether he had yet ‘proven an Oedipus’ in regard to the Voynich manuscript which, by that time, Kircher had had in his possession in copies for thirty years and in the original manuscript for about six months. It seems that in that case, too, Kircher had made no acknowledgement of the gift. He was not a man to be modest about his accomplishments or honest about his sources. Failure he met by stubborn refusal to engage, as he refused to engage during that three decades with any question about his progress in understanding the Voynich text.

Wanting to set himself up as an ultimate authority, before whom none mattered and after whom none should utter, Kircher succeeded in persuading some people of his own time that he was a marvel. Things that he claimed falsely as his own invention, or more slyly allowed others to attribute to his genius by neglecting to credit his source, were more accurately credited after his death, and today the judgement of scholarship may be represented by one sentence from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2007):

Kircher is not now considered to have made any significant original contributions, although a number of discoveries and inventions (e.g., the magic lantern) have sometimes been mistakenly attributed to him.

And so now, at last, back to North Africa, Kabbalah and Gerona.



1.- Illyrian and Illyrican.

Kircher would appear to have confused ‘Illyrian’ for ‘Illyrican’ and further confused the script attributed to St. Jerome (4thC AD) with what we now call Glagolitic, at that time sometimes also termed ‘Illyrican’ – as was Cyrillic, whose creation (9thC AD) is traditionally credited to Cyril and Methodius who lived half a millennium later than Jerome, and who based their work on “the local dialect of the Slavic tribes from the Byzantine theme of Thessalonica.” Thessalonika is not near ancient Illyria or Dalmatia but  in Macedonia, where it faces not the Adriatic sea but the Aegean. (corrected 21.12.2021.  See note 3, below on the cult of St.Jerome in Dalmatia where Glagolitic script seems to have remained in liturgical use to the fifteenth century, though little is extant as physical evidence.)

2. Llull’s Ars brevis in Hebrew

It may interest readers to know, that, just as Llull showed an interest in Kabbala and studied it to the best of his ability, so we have evidence of the reciprocal – Llull’s Ars brevis was translated into Hebrew in 1474, in Senigallia on the Adriatic coast of Italy.

What we don’t know is whether the translation was made by persons wanting to debate with Jews in Hebrew, or by Jews wanting to understand Lull’s thought. James assumes the latter.

  • Harvey J. Hames, ‘Jewish Magic with a Christian Text: A Hebrew Translation of Ramon Lull’s ‘Ars Brevis’, Traditio, 1999, Vol. 54 (1999), pp. 283-300.[JSTOR]

3. (added Dec. 20th., 2012).  

” After the papal blessing of 1248, the story of St. Jerome’s Slavic heritage also received recognition outside of Croatia. The liturgy in a sacred Slavonic tongue according to the Roman rite drew the attention of the Czech king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. In 1347 he invited a group of eighty Benedictine Glagolite monks from the island of Pašman to establish a Slavonic Glagolitic monastery in Prague’s New Town, which became known first as the Slavonic Monastery (Monasterium Slavorum in Latin documents) and from the seventeenth century as the Emmaus Monastery.”

  • from:  Julia Verkholantsev, ‘St. Jerome, Apostle to the Slavs, and the Roman Slavonic Rite’, Speculum, Vol. 87, No. 1 (JANUARY 2012), pp. 37-61. 

Verkholantsev’s historical perspective is a little simplistic – she appears to accept as if valid the forgery known as the  ‘Donation of Constantine’ for example – but these small flaws (and some of mine in the post above) are easily repaired, by reference to Ilievski’s excellent analytical history of the Cyrillic and the Glaglolitic scripts. Both papers can be accessed through JSTOR.

  • Petar Hr. Ilievski, ‘GLAGOLICA: An Iconic Script for Visual Evangelic Preaching’, Illinois Classical Studies , Vol. 27/28 (2002-2003), pp. 153-164


from: Libellus valde doctus elegans, & vtilis, multa et varia scribendarum literarum genera complectens (1561)

Consider this.. (cont.). Numerals, networks, Spain and something of Kabbalah.

This post is almost 2800 words.

The earliest close examples of an upright ‘4’ numeral noted so far come from Florence at the beginning of the fourteenth century and then in Cresques’ great pictorial compendium of 1375, which includes various diagrams and a great worldmap, gridded by the ‘rose’ and containing what is still the first known inset ‘compass rose’ (see further below).

Contrary to what you might find said elsewhere, Cresques’ map is not a ‘mappamundi’ and its connection to the rutters or ‘portolans’ is certainly debateable, given that the same notion was rejected on technical grounds as early as the mid-twentieth century.

The recent, astounding assertion by one writer, on a nicely presented and official looking website was that Cresques had all his information from a couple of northern European Christian missionaries and that is surely pure invention. The sources of Cresques’ inscriptions for that map are already known, and include sources such as Ibn Jubayr’s journeys and the Alf Layla wa Laya. Allusions are also made to Jewish legends, such as that Noah settled north Africa after the flood and began viticulture again from there.

One cannot now discover how that modern author came to entertain the ‘Christian missionaries’ notion, for he died during the pandemic and I know only that he claimed some connection to the Central European university of Prague. With both authors of that project now lost, the translation of all the labels into English may be stopped or at least halted for the foreseeable future, but we do not have to rely on that material to consider the problem of the ‘4’.

IN the same way that Genoa was under Milanese control by the time the Voynich manuscript was made, so it was with two more of the four once-independent Italian maritime states.

Amalfi had earlier been taken by Pisa (August 6th., 1136) and in 1406 Pisa itself was taken, by stealth, by the Florentines. Amalfi had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Naples during the late fourteenth century.

Oddly enough, Florence did not develop Pisa as its maritime arm, but on the contrary suppressed the naval activity of both Amalfi and Pisa.

The significance of Florentine control of Pisa, Neapolitan control of Amalfi and Milanese rule in Genoa, is that direct political power meant access to all technical secrets, skills and any system of ciphers earlier held exclusively by the neighbour. Trade secrets were treasure then, just as now.

When we find the ‘4’ form appear briefly in Florence, early in the fourteenth century, within a copy of the Pisan ‘Liber abaci’ we know the exemplar might have been a local copy, or an earlier one acquired directly from Pisa or indeed from Amalfi, noted for its schools of mathematics. The best copies were known to be ones closest to the date of composition.

It should be noted here too that (to quote an online tourist site) “by about the 1230s Amalfi became one of the first locations in Europe to produce paper…. [which] was soon sold all over the Mediterranean. Paper making continued as an important local trade throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.”

My own view of the ‘4’ numeral’s history, at present, is that we shall probably never know absolutely who first wrote the numeral as ‘4’ in Europe and that if there were a single key to the problem it may well have been lost in 1343, when a tidal wave obliterated Amalfi’s harbour and lower town, ushering in a period of decline from which the town never recovered. It s relevant, in my opinion, that all four – Genoa, Amalfi, Pisa and Venice had allotted quarters in medieval Constantinople. (see interactive map by Saffran and Nicolescu)

However, we may still regard Amalfi or Genoa as likely to have brought that ‘4’ form to Italy, because of a demonstrable connection between those maritime states and Cresques’ great work.

The semi-legendary Amalfitan surnamed ‘Gioia’ is popularly credited with having first placed a magnetised needle over a diagram of the western wind-rose and enclosed all in a glass-covered box. Properly, that was not the ‘compass’ but the bussola (buxula), and the true navigational compass (as qumbas) the eastern navigator’s ‘rose’ whose points were named for stars. In my opinion it was in that sense Cresques describes himself as ‘master of bussola and compass’. The islands of Majorca and Minorca were remarkably cosmopolitan at that time and Arabic had been the island’s official language until just 70 years before. What is more, the original ‘Barbary’ pirates of the north African coast around Sicily, who were Berber and Arabs, are said by Ibn Majid to share the same skills and know-how as he – an Arabs master of the eastern seas.

Seen in daylight, Cresques’ great worldmap shows the world below, but at night with no illumination save a few candles what one sees is as if a veil scattered with golden dots were laid over the darkened world. Makers of terrestrial maps and marine charts also made maps of the heavens. Bussola and qumbas.

You may think such technicalities aren’t needed here but, as I first discussed some years ago in the course of providing a detailed analysis and commentary for the Voynich map, there is a precedent for Cresques’ inclusion of his ‘angel of the rose’ and for his map’s mirroring along its centre line. I won’t elaborate on the last point here, but refer again to the fourteenth century Genoese cartographer, Pietro Vesconte (sometimes found as ‘Vesconti’).

In one of his ‘rose-gridded’ charts, composed in 1311 1318 – that is, about or shortly after the time of that Florentine ‘4’ – there is another faint allusion to the same motif found in Cresques’ work and in the Voynich map and in all three cases – that is, the Vesconte carte marine, Cresques’, and the Voynich map, the motif of its ‘surveying angel’ is even placed within the same – north-west – quarter.

Note (added 5th. Dec. 2021] Pietro Vesconte’s date of birth is uncertain, but he is described as ‘flourishing’ c.1310-1330. Genoese by birth and education, his earlier charts and maps were produced there, but most of his extant work was produced in Venice.

This is less obvious in the Voynich map because it presents with its east and west reversed from the European norm. Western custom permits such east-west reversal with a constant North only in literal representations of the night sky.

I apologise to long term readers for again repeating points first made by me and in research published before 2020, but some of that research was treated as if its conclusions were just ‘an idea’ to be imitated, and its illustrations to be re-used without their context – so what was ‘lifted’ by the imitators was invariably – perhaps inevitably – badly mangled, and has never been well used by Voynich theorists and so must be repeated here. I regret having to deface the illustration for the same reason.

(left) detail from the Voyich map, its North-west roundel (upper right) detail from Abraham Cresques rose-gridded world-map, its north-western quadrant; (lower right) detail from a chart by Pietro Vesconte (sometimes found as ‘Vesctonti’, its upper-west corner). From the 1318 Vesconte atlas (Museo Correr, Venice)

and so, again..:

Since I have already said that the final recension of the Voynich map should be dated to c.1350, with our present copy dated to the early fifteenth, I think here again we may narrow the environment for the ‘4’ shape as numeral and, just possibly its use in the Voynich manuscript, to the specific environment of calculation and geometry gained in service to navigation and trade.

In other words to apprenticeships and the ‘abaco’ school rather than in schools offering a more literary, theoretical or philosophical education. More evidence may demand that opinion be altered, but that’s where I stand so far.

It might even be that the Voynich ‘4’ shape is meant in the manuscript as a numeral, even if also used, or originating, as an alphabetic sign, though I should be wary of assuming that the Voynich script’s other glyph of similar form – that with a more curved ‘eye’ – is necessarily to be read as it is.*

*a question I’ve not ever looked into, but which arises from time to time, is a possible origin for the ‘Cistercian’ numerals in a version of Syriac script. See later note on a mixed alphanumeric system.

For those who enjoy the slog of using pictorial archives of kind typified by the Index of Christian Art (as was), it might be fun to see what else turns up for ‘4’ in European sources around 1300.

In any case, the story which puts Leonardo of Pisa and his ‘Liber abaci’ centre stage is an over-simplified one. That story’s short version runs something like ‘Arabs brought the Hindu numerals westwards. Leonardo (‘Fibonacci) saw them, and brought them to Europe’.

But Leonardo didn’t use that ‘4’ shape. His relevance to our present problem is rather the pattern of his travels, which illustrate nicely contemporary networks of trade and travel.

The Pisan Leonardo first learned Arabic numerals in a major Berber-speaking city of North Africa, during the last decade of the twelfth century. His sobriquet ‘the traveller’ was well earned.

Fibonacci states that his father wanted him to stay and be taught “for some days” in a “calculation school” in Bejaïa, where he was introduced to the “art [of calculation] by the nine figures of the Indians”. The knowledge of this art pleased him so much that he learned all he could about how it was studied in Egypt, Syria, Greece, Sicily and Provence when going there for the sake of trade.

So there it is. Those ‘Indian’ numerals were already known in Greece, in Sicily and in Provence before the end of the twelfth century. I’ve used the quote only so I can reference:

  • Charles Burnett, Numerals and Arithmetic in the Middle Ages (Variorum Collected Studies Series CS967) 2010.

There were especially close ties between Pisa and Béjaïa during the twelfth century. In c.1350, it was rather with Tunis and Cairo that the Venetian traded who wrote the zibaldone now Beinecke MS 327.

Béjaïa, formerly Bougie and Bugia was by Roman times known as  Saldae.    Béjaïa is still among the centres where the Berber language Kabyle is in daily use.  

Poor Ramon Lull would arrive in Béjaïa during the early fourteenth century (in 1314) as an 81 year old Dominican friar hoping to make converts to the Latin Christian church. He was dead within a twelvemonth, though accounts of his death differ, some saying he was executed for trying to persuade Muslims to become apostates to their faith – something prohibited in every region under Muslim governance as indeed it would have been in regions under Latin Christian governance had the reciprocal occurred.

Other accounts have Llull dying on the ship returning him to Majorca.


Correction. (December 15th., 2021).

I see that my sources are out of date, superseded by an updated (Feb.2021) entry in Stamford University’s Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, where it says that Llull did not enter the Dominican order, nor the Franciscans’ and gives the following account of his fruitless trip to Béjaïa.

‘De vita’ narrates this trip in detail. Llull spent most of the time in prison. Instead of seeking to meet intellectuals, as he did on his first trip to Tunisia, right after disembarkation, he went to the main square and harangued passersby and anyone present at the time. The crowd was infuriated, and Llull was placed under arrest. The authorities questioned and imprisoned him. He would stay there for six months, receiving visits from sages who sought to convert him to Islam. He was later expelled from the city, but his hardships would not end there. His ship sank on the trip back to Genoa, but Llull and another passenger managed to survive by reaching the coast. He would then remain in Pisa, where he would finish texts he had previously began writing, such as ‘Ars generalis ultima’.


Llull has his place in western Europe’s history, but unless one of his works contains examples of Majorcan-Florentine ‘4’ he is less relevant to our present question than the more congenial, secular, interactions between Berbers, Jews, Arabs and Italians before 1300, including within the naval, commercial and cartographic schools.

Voynich writers interested in the possibility that the Voynich ‘alphabet’ may be composed of elements taken from a number of other systems may be interested in an account of the invention, during second quarter of the twelfth century, of a new mixed system of mathematical notation.

Burnett writes:

*Charles Burnett, ‘The Semantic of Indian Numerals in Arabic, Greek and Latin’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 34, No. 1/2 (April 2006) pp.15-30. [JSTOR]

 For those who’d like to see what Greek script of the fourteenth century looked like, here’s a detail from a Greek fourteenth-century map in Codex Vatopedinus 655.

“Europe gained its numerals from the Jews”

“The Jewish community… reconstituted in 1306” from ‘Amalfi’ in the Encyclopaedia Judaica JVL online. 2005.

As early as 1891, when European scholars were just beginning to enquire into the history of the forms for their numerals, it was already being accepted as fact that they had come from Spain. (See for example the off-hand “or rather, from Spain” in a review published in the Scottish Antiquary (Vol. 6, No. 22, (1891) p.54).

But even more unexpectedly, an association was made with Kabbalah as early as 1839!

I’ve just learned the last fact thanks to Phineas Mordell’s meticulous documentation of his sources and precedents in a very brief note of 1925. For its historical value, I’ve reproduced this note in full.

  • Phineas Mordell, ‘Note on the Theory of the Kabbalistic Origin of “Arabic” Numerals’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Oct., 1925), p. 207.

Of course it is possible that by 1932, Erwin Panofsky had read one or more of those sources listed above, or even an article published late in 1931; in addressing Friedman’s list of Questions more than twenty years later, Panofsky mis-remembered the year in which he’d seen the manuscript – writing ‘1931’ when it can only have been in 1932, as explained in an earlier post.

  • Solomon Gandz, ‘The Origin of the Ghubār Numerals, or the Arabian Abacus and the Articuli’, Isis, Nov., 1931, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Nov., 1931), pp. 393-424.

Panofsky was never so vapid as to mistake for an ‘idea’ the conclusions of genuine research, nor was he obliged to parrot others’ assertions for want of ability to form balanced and well-informed opinions of his own – but he may well have read one or more of those articles for the same reason that G.F. Hill wrote his monograph (see previous post) that is – to assist in accurately provenancing artefacts and quickly identifying fakes.

I think Panofsky could have known those precedents- not that he would say anything of the sort unless it were suggested to him by aspects of the materials, pigments, imagery and vellum which he observed during the two hours he spent studying the manuscript itself. But now to that list of things observed we may add (with a query) the form of one or more of the Voynich glyphs – perhaps even the ‘4’. We don’t know. All we do know is what some long-term readers of my blogs probably know by heart now, but for newcomers..

Panofsky’ freely-given opinion was given to Mrs. Voynich and Anne Nill, the latter soon reporting it in a letter to her friend, Herbert Garland. She wrote*

“he is convinced that the MS. is Spanish (or something southern near Spain) and shows strong Arabic and Jewish influences. He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!!

**for details of Nill’s letter, see the transcription made by Rich Santacoloma which I believe was the first published transcription. See his post. ‘Anne Nill speaks‘.  For my earlier comments, in this blog, about the letter and about Rich’s thoughts see here. 

To the question,  ‘What exactly had Panofsky seen in the manuscript which led him to mention Kabbalah’? I never did find a clear answer, and ran into unexpected difficulties, such as the lack of modern scholarly articles about the medieval commentaries or even modern translations of those commentaries that I could quote in an English-language blog.

As with many other research questions, one sometimes has to leave a problem aside for a time, until new information or pure serendipity offers a way forward.  Very recently, a single article in n online journal has explained the apparent barriers and, quite incidentally, offered a line to another and quite different question that I’d laid aside pending better information. I’ll try to get to that journal article in the next post.

For a short comment and an initial bibliography for the question of any influence from Kabbalah in Beinecke MS 408 see  (Post #15). 

With this question, as with the history of European forms for its numerals and most other fields of historical research, the public’s idea of a positivistic ‘forward march’ is deceptive.

Very often a study moves over time more like a pretty complicated sort of quickstep, involving  not a few trodden toes, losses of direction and ‘excuse-me’ interruptions, backwards moving which takes one forwards and some few straight-forward passages.  In the history of European numerals, for example, there was a period in the 1950s and in America, where the story was badly misdirected by an ideological fixation on the Babylonians and a transmission-theory gone berzerk.  As example, here’s one such paper, though if you don’t feel like reading it all, here’s a taste of that author’s ‘commonsense amateur theory’ approach.

… a casual inspection of the Arabic numerals suggested that these symbols might have evolved from forms such as are shown in Fig. 10, hereafter termed Ancestral Arabic numerals. It is evident that they are a variation of the Prototype numerals which the writer later derived from hand-signs, and still later discovered had been widely employed..

from: W. Clyde Richey, ‘On the Origin and Development of the Arabic Numerals’,  Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science , Vol. 26 (1952), pp. 134-146. [quote shortened .. 5th Dec. 2021]

Not ‘handsigns’ but methods of finger-calculation may, in fact, prove relevant to our efforts to read Voynichese.

But I digress.

When quite early insights are overlooked or shrugged away in favour of worse ones, as happens more often than laymen suppose, it is also true that they may be recovered or re- discovered again later thanks to properly documented work in the meantime, or because the sum of historical evidence requires it.  

As example, here’s Charles Burnett, writing in 2006, and after years of close study of the question…  and evidently arriving at a view held by at least one person in 1891, in Scotland. 

One can observe, too, that, during the course of the twelfth century, alternative forms of the Indian numerals dropped out of use, especially the ‘eastern forms’ which were briefly shared by Arabic scholars in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greek scholars, and Latin scholars in Italy. The forms which drove out their competitors (in my view) were developed by scholars in Toledo, and quickly spread to northern Italy, where they were used by Fibonacci. (p.21)

  • Charles Burnett, ‘The Semantic …’ op.cit

except for that form of ‘4’, which Fibonacci did not use….

(detail and enlargement) Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275 f. 334

MS Burney 275 is described as

Scholastic miscellany, Central France (Paris), 1309-1316. Priscian, Cicero, and Pseudo-Cicero, Boethius, Aristotle, Euclid, Adelard of Bath, Ptolemy, translated [nominally – D.] by Gerard of Cremona.

Note – after some thought, I’ve altered the spelling of the Genoese cartographer’s name from ‘Vesconti’ to ‘Vesconte‘ as less likely to create confusion with the Milanese Visconti family, though researchers hunting secondary sources should search both versions of Pietro’s name.

Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine’

Header Illustration: composite image. includes detail from Brit.Lib. Harley MS 5751  f.15
Two previous:

We are still considering the period 1912-2000, and matters other than ‘Voynichese’.

During those eighty years from 1912-2000,  scholars expert in one or another aspect of Europe’s intellectual and artistic heritage could suggest not a single close comparison for the Voynich manuscript’s content and imagery from among the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Latins’ (western Christian) manuscripts they had seen – no matter what their area of specialisation,

It was always over the fence;  ‘someone else’s problem’.

This is an interval post – just a pause for perspective.

not GERMAN-CHRISTIAN ART – Panofsky and Petersen

Erwin Panofsky and Theodore Petersen specialised in the Christian art of medieval and (northern) Renaissance Germany.  Neither saw the manuscript as in that tradition.

In 1932, after spending two hours examining the manuscript in New York, Panofsky had correctly dated its manufacture: ‘1410-1420-1430’, an evaluation whose precision would not be matched until 2011, when radiocarbon dating returned the range 1404-1438.

Panofsky attributed  its content not to Christian-German work but to “the southwest corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia or Provence; but most probably Spain” and to a Judeo-Arabic cultural environment. His reasons for saying otherwise in writing answers for Friedman’s ‘quiz’ questions in 1954 have already been discussed.

For Panofsky’s dating see the letter of ‘E.L.V’ to Professor Thompson transcribed in ‘Correspondence’ at the end of my post ‘Expert Opinions – Richard Salomon‘. The original letter is in the Beinecke Library, Yale.

…… and Panofsky was the first to cite any specific comparison but – as would thereafter become a constant in discussions of this manuscript – he compared just a single detail in it with a single detail from another manuscript, and did not even suggest the comparison close enough to call a ‘match’.

As Nill later wrote, “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript,  [the Vms] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”  The comparison was between one diagram from the Voynich calendar and one from Alfonso X‘s Libros del saber de astronomía.  That Panofsky knew the latter is an indication of his range, for it exists in a single manuscript, and that in Madrid.  Consider the range of exclusion implied.

 LATIN HANDS? – Salomon, Barrett and ‘not-saying-who’.

Richard Salomon, a specialist in Latin palaeography, recognised only one line of marginalia, which he read as medieval legal German – and whose date he then applied to the manuscript as a whole.

At that time, he had seen only a black and white photostat copy, and while an offer was made for him to see the original, I’ve found no record that he ever did.  His circumstances after 1932 were so disrupted and so distressing that he was never able to return to his chief area of interest, lacking access to appropriate texts and references.

Of the hand(s) within the main text, and of that which wrote the month-names, I’ve seen no evidence of his saying anything before or after 1932, though something may yet be found in others’ letters from him.

Some Voynich researchers have guessed a  Caroline hand; others as ‘influenced by the Humanist style’, but the specialists have said nothing, though not positively protesting Wilfrid’s opinion that the script was that of a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman scholar.

Remarkably little time or attention was paid to this matter of palaeography, and for my knowledge of these views I am indebted first to Nick Pelling, and through him to the sources he cited, including Reeds’ mailing list and articles by Barbara Barrett.  Pelling disagreed with the latter, but for the sake of balance referred to Barrett’s views anyway.  Other sites have, since then, copied (and sometimes rightly attributed) the same material.

an insubstantial argument

I’ve recently seen it asserted,  with no evidence offered and my  request for directions to the original argument refused with some vigour,  that someone has argued a case for considering inscription of the German (and only the German) marginalia so closely contemporary with the rest of the work that we should believe  the whole manuscript to be, in some sense, a product of German culture.

Given the non-German month-inscriptions, the character of the imagery overall, the Italian binding of the book-block, the opinion of consummate experts with no ‘guess’ to grind… and so on, it is not an idea I’m willing to take on faith. Perhaps someone would like to raise the question on a forum? Do leave a comment if you find a clear answer.



Adam McLean, a specialist in the history of alchemy, responded as the experts do: “S.E.P”.  Since non-specialists enthusiastic about the ‘alchemy’ idea have continued to push it (though the radiocarbon dating silenced them for a time), I’ll reproduce McLean’s comments, taking them from  Dennis Stallings’ report to the second mailing list: (09:40 AM 11/19/98 -0600)

Dennis had said: ‘Hello, Adam!..  Mary D’Imperio, in her survey of VMs studies up to 1978, thought that alchemy might be the key to understanding the VMs.  However, current [mailing-list] members, including myself, see little if any alchemical content in the VMs.  None of us, however, are experts. What is your opinion on this.  What alchemical imagery can you see in the VMs?

to which Adam replied:

Dear Dennis

All I can say is that I have never seen an alchemical manuscript with the same imagery and pictures as are found in the Voynich. …The main ‘alchemical’ resonance is supposed to be the ‘balneological’ section, but here I find no parallels with alchemical manuscripts, except in a very general way. If this was an alchemical work one would expect to find some other alchemical manuscript with similar drawings – but I do not know of one. …  I have an open mind on the subject, but have yet to see any real parallels. Perhaps one day I will find a manuscript that I recognize has common features with the Voynich – but not so far. I don’t think I could  find any way at present to use alchemical manuscripts or ideas to throw light on the ‘Balneological section.

and then:

The plant drawings in  the ‘Herbal section’ have many forerunners some going back centuries before the Voynich, as has been extensively documented. [This is still widely believed, but the ‘documentation’ is less, and less solid, than most suppose].    The drawings in the Astronomical section again seem to have many parallels in known manuscripts. [widely believed but ill-supported by evidence].…  

.. but, once again, the expert’s view is ‘Not one of mine’. And rightly so.  A specialist cannot blur the lines between what is demonstrably true, and what is desired true by others. Not that the others necessarily take heed.

A list of alchemical mss in the British Library, from Adam McLean’s website

‘alchemical’ notion revives,  five years later… My apologies.

The ‘alchemical’ text notion – killed off after McLean’s expert dismissal in the 1990s – was well and truly dead in early 2013. Unfortunately in presenting the analytical-critical study for folio 4v,  I gave it a whimsical title, ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent’ as summary of my findings.  In short, that the plant-group referred to by the drawing was that of the eastern clematis and that what had previously been imagined a curious form for the root was, in fact, a depiction of the double gourd, whose place in culture and iconography of the regions from east Africa to southern China (essentially the medieval trade routes) I summarised and illustrated, mentioning that clematis was not much used in eastern medicine (nor was western clematis in the Latin tradition), but the wood and root of eastern species were used to make scented substances (perfumes and incense etc.), and when formed in metal the double-gourd was also used as a type of ‘small a‘ alchemical receiver, just as the ordinary sort was used for liquids.

As usual, I accompanied the point-by-point analysis  with comparative imagery, textual and cultural notes, and in this case additional comments on the trade in scents and scented materials into Cairo for the Mediterranean trade and, further, on the important role of mathematics in this sort of compounding. It had originated in India, and the Indian model was employed in Cairo too, so as illustration I included a table from the Brht Samhita.  Updating the botanical nomenclature was tiresome, but that was done too, and I cross-referenced any plants mentioned that I had previously identified in the botanical folios.

Being, from the first, under an informal ‘pay no attention’ ban by one of the most avid, and yet ill-equipped of the Voynicheros,  who found it helpful to read, download and then disseminate my results verbally as anonymous ‘ideas’  yet to be explored, I did not expect my  post to receive quite such widespread attention as it did.  It received swarms of readers, throughout the period from 2013 until I closed voynichimagery in 2017.  Imitators were numerous; some took this element from the post and some that, but among them a few were honest about their source, and others so inept that they brought a touch of humour.

One chap especially –  a wild fan of Edith Sherwood, Rene Zandbergen and Sergio Toresella – was helping in some project aimed at producing ‘The Official Voynich Herbal’. His job was to collect and collate others’ work, omitting such details and names as were considered unnecessary by the project’s unnamed director/s.

Since very little new work was being done, just then, this chap got into the habit of taking nothing from my latest post but the name of the plant-group I’d given for the folio, reducing the name for a group  to one name (to suit the western style of herbal),  stripping out all the informing commentary, textual, iconographic, historical and cultural notes, archaeological studies (for proof of location and period), historical botany and information on use which provided evidence for the identification I’d offered.

That done, he would leap up in the second mailing list about a day later and proclaim with many marks of exclamation that a ‘new identification’ had been made.  But in this case, he was faced with the fact that the European clematis had no place in the Latin pharmacopoeia, does not have a bell-shaped flower, nor narrow leaves. And double gourds aren’t exactly standard motifs in medieval Latin art, let alone to be seen in any of the herbals.

Rene Zandbergen (as I recall) kindly came to his rescue on the ‘gourd’ problem, showing an image of a vegetable garden in a copy of the Tacuinum sanitatis.  Soon afterwards, the lad adopted the ‘foxy’ tactic of applying some new identification of mine to a different folio… more or less at random. The manuscript’s study is not only corrupted, but actively hindered by such practices, whose only benefit is to lend spurious credibility to persons or theories which have not deserved them.  Lately, the most common tactic seems to be to use the mantra:  ‘synchronicity’.

Another chap became excited about the ‘perfume’ thing – though I did tell him that it wouldn’t do; the botanical section contains many more plants than were used in any sort of perfume, scented powder, or insect repellent ( a use I’d identified for another of the pictured plants, and which then synchronistically appeared in a post by Ellie Velinska, another close associate of the old guard but whom I’m inclined one of the several innocents who simply believed, when handed an ‘idea’ that it sprang fully formed from the donor’s imagination).

It proved impossible to stem the  ‘alchemical’ tide, to which that post seems to have acted as the bolt of electricity on Frankenstein’s monster, reviving the pile of dead matter abandoned since the 1990s.   All I could do, and did, was to remind people of the more modest matter in my original post, which I re-published in a condensed and clearer form two years later, on  23rd August, 2015, under the title  ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent made more readable’.

The manuscript deserves more respect than it receives when used only to puff theories or personal ambition.  The way my analysis of folio 4v was misused is just an example of the great many so used, whether my work or others’ – since the early 2000s, and largely why the study fails to advance.  I suppose the lesson for us all is not to buy second-hand ‘ideas’; demand the donor provide his/her primary evidence and explain to you in detail his/her line of reasoning.  If they can’t, it might be as well to  tell them to go away and do their own work for a change.



A LATIN/ARABIC or BYZANTINE HERBAL? H’hmm. – T.A. Sprague (and Alain Touwaide, 2015)


Dr. T. A. Sprague had travelled in the Americas as a botanist and as a taxonomist,  spent time in northern India and served for forty-five years as a member of staff at Kew gardens,  fifteen of them as Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium, and whose particular study of the  Anicia Juliana codex required thorough knowledge of the Greek, Latin and Arabic herbals and their vocabularies. In 1947, shown some photostat copies of the plant-pictures, Sprague  positively recoiled and railed at John Tiltman, “I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to identify the plant drawings in the Juliana Anicia codex when the names of the plants are given in Greek, Latin and usually Arabic and you are asking me to identify these awful pictures.”   It seems clear that none of them looked immediately familiar.

Alain Touwaide (2015}

More recently (2015) Alain Touwaide, whose field of study covers the Latin, Arabic and Greek history of medicine, drugs, herbals and medical manuscripts , wrote a seventeen-page essay published by the Villa Mondragone in a volume now, alas, out of print.   There were no peer-reviews published in any Journal, so far as I can find, but the prominent enthusiast Rene Zandbergen sent a 1100-odd word summary-review to the late Stephen Bax’ site. The review began and ended with Zandbergen’s opinion that  Touwaide added ‘nothing new’ to the manuscript’s study but had repeatedly returned to the possibility that the manuscript might be a fake.

In which case of course it would be again (apparently) ‘someone else’s problem’.

  • Alain Touwaide,  ‘Il manoscritto piu misterioso – l’erbario Voynich’ in  Marina Formica (ed.), Villa Mondragone ‘Seconda Roma’, (2015) pp. 141-158. out of print.

I’m sorry to add that certain comparisons widely offered as closely similar to pages from the Vms, and in some cases attributed to Touwaide, do not bear close analysis, but perhaps I’ll return to that matter at a later stage.



Charles Singer, editor of an encyclopaedic  History of Technology had a number of ‘ideas’ about the manuscript, reported by d’Imperio.   None relate to the history of technology, or offer support for the ‘bathy-‘ section’s being describing a plumbing system.



D’Imperio reported that  “Singer sees tubes, pulpits and pipes as ‘organs of the body.'”  I’ve seen no evidence that he ever attempted to argue the case or –  more to out present point – that he offered a single text or illustration from the European corpus as comparison.  Nor, apparently, did his wife Dorothea suggest to him any among  the thousands she had inspected and catalogued in the British Library under the heading of Science and Pseudo-Science, as Lynn Thorndike reported in 1921.

D’Imperio seems to think little of Singer’s ‘biological’ idea,  saying in the same breath as she reports it that they recall ‘plant parts’ to her. (Elegant Enigma, p.21)

In recent years and beginning (so far as I can discover) with Ellie Velinska’s effort, this inherently anachronistic ‘biological’ notion – imagining the Vms contains biological drawings technical, and accurate to the microscope-level –  has proved intriguing for some, but once more none of the recent writers have produced –  no more than did Singer – any European manuscript or printed book made before 1438 which is claimed closely comparable.  Now that the manuscript has been dated, Singer’s notion is revealed to be, as one might say, anachronism of the first water.  🙂

  • On Singer see also Rich Santacoloma’s interesting research-post, ‘The Voynich in 1905′, (19th. August, 2012).




Lynn Thorndike who wrote a multi-volume history of medieval science and pseudo-sciences and had every reason, if he could, to set the Voynich manuscript squarely within a context that would refute Wilfrid’s ‘Roger Bacon’ guess, to which he felt great aversion, expressed more than once in print.

But Thorndike offered no such argument, and never produced any other manuscript as close comparison for anything in the Voynich manuscript.



ASTRONOMICAL/ASTROLOGICAL? – To my knowledge, the only specialist to offer a comparison with any astronomical/astrological manuscript between 1912 and 2000.was Panofsky (see above).

and see also the opinions of two contemporary specialists:

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Skies above – Not astrological’, voynichrevisionist, (Feb. 9th., 2020)



Summary: “Not one of mine” is what the experts on western (and Arabic) manuscripts said of works from their own field, even while expressing, all the while, a feeling in some obscure way  there’s something… Charles Singer, who claimed to see biology  appears never to have suggested any comparable manuscript either.


Postscript (14th. Feb. 2020)

It is characteristic of the Friedmans, and thus of d’Imperio, that the informed judgements of specialists scarcely affected their confidence in their own theories.  A passage from d’Imperio shows pretty well their intellectual ‘deafness’ to that message of ‘Not one of mine’.  It slides by and is re-interpreted to mean that the pictures are just ‘bizarre’ and ‘less conventional’ and  she shows no understanding that there is a *reason* that the images’ subject matter was so difficult to read.  Note too that she imagines the specialists’ reaction is only due to their spending too little time looking at the manuscript.  She is unaware that a specialist in medieval manuscripts  can usually provide a general date and place of manufacture from looking at just a few folios.  An inability to conceive of an ‘important’ text as other than European was fairly typical of America and Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, but here means that D’Imperio is inclined to blame the specialists and leaves her unable to abandon her own fixed ideas – which, of course were due to woring as part of a ‘team’ whose theories were dictated by Friedman, as leader.    ‘Team work’ so very easily becomes ‘group-think’ -one is simply not free to pursue questions, or form theories of outside the ‘team’s working brief.  And so the most basic questions were overlooked, and their own premises never questioned.


In any other field of study; if it were any other manuscript, there’s a logical inference that might be taken.

Specialist Opinions – Richard Salomon

Header Illustration, composite: (left) Washington, Library of Congress; (right) Warburg Institute London. Photos (left) courtesy Library of Congress (right) Ethan Doyle and English wikipedia.
Two previous:

Richard Salomon at Kenyon College in 1955. courtesy Kenyon College

Salomon’s interest in Beinecke MS 408 is best told through Anne Nill’s correspondence, transcribed further below.


In 1932 Professor Richard Salomon received in Hamburg a full photostat copy of the Voynich manuscript, brought from America by Erwin Panofsky.  At the time, Salomon was the tenured Professor of Diplomatics and Palaeography at Hamburg University and Dean of the Faculty at the Warburg Institute. The copy would remain in his keeping for twenty years.

A few months after receiving it, however,  Salomon had been forced to leave.  Administrators who had resisted the  ‘indignation’-lobby finally bowed to pressure in 1933 when representatives of the Nazi Party complained in person that scholars of Jewish descent should still be there when they were now officially ‘undesirable’. (A number of other academics were affected, including Panofsky, compulsorily retired in absentia). Perhaps because Salomon had earlier converted to Lutheran Christianity his forced retirement was imposed in the following year, 1934.

Seeking refuge elsewhere was not as simple as booking the passage for  England or America. Each refugee had to be sponsored by an English or an American institution. Salomon’s experience was less happy than Panofsky’s.

Salomon’s first, temporary, appointment  to lecture in America was not gained until 1936, and then for the Spring – during which time he went to the Library of Congress, where  Anne Nill happened to be working and she was introduced to him – delighted to discover that he was the scholar to whom the photostat copies had been given. Salomon then went on to England to deliver a course of lectures on Latin palaeography at the London Warburg Institute. No offer of further employment forthcoming from either country, Salomon was obliged to return to Germany where Hitler had been in power, now, for three years.  Salomon sent a letter to Nill from his home in Hamburg and received her reply, which was doubtless a relief in those days.  Soon afterwards he accepted a ‘rotating lectureship’ at  the University of Pennsylvania and two of its subsidiary colleges –  but as he later told Nill, they informed him – in 1939 – that his services were no longer required.

Gordon Chalmers saved him, offering a post at Kenyon College, Ohio.

The re-location took Salomon hundreds of miles from the east coast, from New York or Washington, and his initial lectures on papyrology saw him addressing students who asked him to explain the difference between papyrus and parchment and were not inspired by his enthusiasm, as we learn from the student paper, the Kenyon Collegian.

The different intellectual climate brought a radical shift in Salomon’s research: by the 1950s (when Nill renewed contact) most of what he is publishing are articles for local Church History Society.  It appears that in the meantime – over most of the time between 1939 and the early 1950s – he had lost contact with his former colleagues, including Panofsky, though in a letter of  ?1953 mentions that he returned the photostats to him ‘about a year ago’.  It must have been earlier, since in writing to Friedman in December 1951, von Neumann mentions that Panofsky has one. We know that every copy made was  accounted for by Anne Nill – to the point where she asks Salomon,  in the 1950s –  twenty years, a world war, and translocation notwithstanding – if he knew where his might be!

Early in the 1960s, by a happy chance, Salomon’s pre-war research into relations between the city Council of Hamburg and the Avignon Papal Court, left unfinished,  was re-discovered by the city, which asked him to complete it and responded to his  initial refusal by sending him all the original historical documents and his notes, which had been found with them.  The study was completed by the end of January, 1966.  Salomon died on February 10th. Panofsky would die two years later. Thus, in writing up the Friedman groups’ index to make her summary, Elegant Enigma, Mary d’Imperio was unable to consult either man.

  • Die Korrespondenz zwischen dem Hamburger Rat und seinen Vertretern an der päpstlichen Kurie in Avignon 1337 bis 1359. Bearb. von Richard Salomon. Veröffentlichungen aus dem Staatsarchiv der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg, Bd.9, T.1, ca. 1966.

and see:

  • Catherine Epstein, A Past Renewed: A Catalog of German-Speaking Refugee Historians in then the United States After 1933. (1993) pp.285-291.
  • The wiki biography isn’t too bad.
(c) D. N O’Donovan.




On February 8th., 1932,  in New York, Anne Nill had left a full photostat copy of the Voynich ‘cipher-manuscript’ at Panofsky’s temporary residence, with a covering letter which reads in part:

Erwin Panofsky from Heckscher

“I am leaving for you, herewith, a complete set of photostats of our cipher manuscript. And here you have our address, in case you wish to have additional information about the manuscript, or will some day be able to write to us that your institute has succeeded where so many have failed.
Mrs. Voynich and I feel that, even if nothing comes of your efforts, we have gained much from your visit. We learned many things from you last week, and are greatly indebted to you.

Panofsky replied the next day,

My dear Miss Niel (sic)
I can hardly express my gratitude both to you and Mrs. Voynich for your generous gift. I shall do my very best to contribute to the solution of the problem… [though] I must repeat that I am very doubtful as to the success of our efforts….
Writing to Professor Thompson – in a letter undated but the same year, Mrs. Voynich says Panofsky intends particularly to ask Salomon’s advice. She mentions that Panofsky had spent two full hours examining the manuscript (in early February), and ..

“… went back to Hamburg, taking with him a complete set of photostats and promising to ask some of his colleagues there (including Prof. Salomon, who has deciphered a famous puzzle ms. For the Vatican) to try if they can solve the problem.

She also notes that Panofsky had (in 1932!) dated it “somewhere about 1410-20-30”; had said it was written in the “southwest corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia or Provence; but most probably Spain”; that “It shows Jewish or Arab influence, probably in connection with the Kabbala” and that
except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him

If he said ‘probably in connection with the Kabbala’, Panofsky believed the manuscript Jewish; there is no Arab ‘kabbala’. The ‘Arab’ influence would be reflected in the drawing-style or the manuscript’s format.  His mentioning “Alfonso’s manuscript” followed from Mrs.Voynich’s showing him a photostat copy of some part of the Voynich calendar in advance of Panofsky’s seeing the original, so it seems fair to suppose he meant that one of those diagrams resembled in part some diagram in  Libros del saber de astronomía.  Which diagrams he meant, in either manuscript,  iI can’t say, but link below is to a high res. copy of the whole of the Libros de saber de astronomic, which you can downoad and study for yourself.  Do leave a comment for others to read if you think you have found the partial match.

  • [pdf] Libros del saber de astronomía  (University of Madrid, BHI BH MSS 156)
  • William S. Heckscher, ‘Erwin Panofsky: A Curriculum Vitae’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 28, No. 1, Erwin Panofsky: In Memoriam (1969), pp. 4-21.


On March 14th., 1936, in Washington, Anne Nill writes to Mrs. Voynich (E.L.V) in New York. The letter  provides a vivid picture of Salomon’s character and scholarly standing at that time:

‘alcoves’. photo  Library of Congress

“I must get today’s rather dramatic little episode (which was in the true Voynich style) off my chest at once…This morning I vaguely noticed that Dr. Jameson was taking a visitor, who looked obviously Jewish and obviously a scholar, through the manuscript division, and was introducing him to the more important members thereof. I paid little attention to them since, I, of course, was not introduced. …. … absorbed in my Index [I] forgot all about them. Suddenly I realised that the visitor was being brought by Wilson into “my” alcove. The latter looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Miss Nill, I’d like to have you meet Dr. Salomon (pause……) of the Warburg Institute!

It seems (though I was blissfully unware of it) that as soon as Wilson learned that Dr. Salomon was connected with the Warburg Institute he asked him if he knew about the Voynich Cipher Ms.; and, as Wilson afterwards put it to me, as soon as Dr. Salomon learned of my presence in the Library [¬of Congress, where Nill was then employed] he became more interested in meeting me than in doing anything else there.

Well, to make a long story short, Wilson left us alone together, and we talked and talked, and the entire Manuscript Division was mystified as to why a distinguished visitor who had been taken about and introduced to all the high and mighty ones should wind up in my alcove and remain there in earnest conversation with me. It was all very funny.

To get back to more important matters. Dr. Salomon is none other than the very person for whom Dr. Panofsky took back our set of photostats…When he returned to Hamburg he laid them on Dr. Salomon’s desk (as I heard today), and said: “Here is something for you.” Do you remember Panofsky telling us that he wanted them for his colleague who was then working on a mysterious Vatican MS. (I wrongly got the impression that he meant Prof. Liebeschutz, the author of the book on Hildegard of Bingen). Well, Dr. Salomon is the one who has been working on the said Vatican Ms., and his book on it, by the way, is just about to be issued. He is coming back to the Library of Congress on Monday to show me the page proof (there will be more excitement in the Division when that happens).

  • R. G. Salomon mit beiträgen von A. Heimann und R. Krautheimer, Opicinus de Canistris; Weltbild und Bekenntnisse eines avignonesischen Klerikers des 14, Jahrhunderts, London, The Warburg Institute [Leipzig, Druck von B. G. Teubner] 1936

We talked about the Cipher Ms., German, the position of the Jews there, etc.

It appears that he has done considerable work on the Ms. (he says he takes it up every few months). He thinks it may be German (you will recall that Dr. Panofsky told me something of that when I ran across him in the Morgan Library in 1934), but that he is not yet absolutely certain of this. He is convinced it was written in the 15thC, possibly as late as 1450, possibly earlier in that century. He told me some interesting things about it but I have not had time to think about his remarks sufficiently to put them down clearly. .. Dr. Salomon thinks possibly this text may be of no great significance, but cautiously adds that until it is deciphered one cannot tell….

I asked Dr. Salomon whether he expects to be in New York and, if so, whether he would like to see the Ms. He says he plans to be there during the latter part of April, and that he would very much like to see it. I explained that you would be glad to show it to him. He has your address and will get in touch with you…

I think I shall also sound him out about Dr. Petersen. If he shows a desire to meet him I shall write to Dr. Petersen who could, undoubtedly go to New York for that purpose if he, on his part, wishes to meet Dr. Salomon. It would be a good thing if I could get those two together..

Isn’t all this amazing? To think of meeting unexpectedly here at the Library of Congress the unknown Hamburg scholar who has had our photostats since 1933, and just as I was thinking for the umpteenth time what a dull and unscholarly (for the most part) place the Library of Congress is.

… Oh, one more thing. I asked Dr. Salomon point blank whether he thought the Ms. could possibly be the work of a madman. He said very seriously that he thought that until it could be proved otherwise one should assume that it is not..

July 9th., 1936 To Nill, from Salomon in Hamburg.

Richard Salomon’s former residence in Altona, Hamburg.

Dear Miss Nill, … Some weeks ago, in London, I had a brief talk about the MS. with Mr. P .E. Goldschmidt, the antiquarian. I was astonished to learn that this eminent connoisseur of mss is inclined to put the Ms. as far back as the 13th century or, at least, not to deny the possibility of so early an origin. Nevertheless I, personally, stick to my opinions about the date as about the very method of investigation in this case … I am convinced that the only possibility of deciphering would be given by finding an older series of plant pictures corresponding in its sequence to the arrangement of pictures in the Voynich manuscript.

  • E. Weil, ‘In Memoriam: E. P. Goldschmidt—Bookseller and Scholar’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 9, No. 2 (April 1954),pp. 224-232.
  • R.O. Dougan, ‘E. Ph. Goldschmidt, 1887-1954’, The Library, Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, June 1954/ pp.75-84

That letter is interesting as another instance of the constant split in opinion: 13thC or early 15thC.    In general – though not in Salomon’s case – we find independent specialists who had not seen the original tend towards the former, while those who had (and there were not many) hold to the latter.  The difference seems due to the strong impression made by the manuscript’s materials and palette where they were seen, and thus refer chiefly to date of manufacture. Those seeing only the black-and-white photostats necessarily focused on the layout, script and images alone. They are evaluating nothing but the content. It  took a surprisingly long time before those interested in the manuscript realised that the ’13thC’/’15thC’ split was not mutually exclusive; the logical resolution being that the manuscript is a very close copy, made in the fifteenth century, from 13thC exemplars. In Salomon’s case, the problem may again be his having only black-and-white photostats, because he had no way to distinguish between the main text and marginalia, thus provenancing the whole text by reference to what we (and Panofsky) knew were post-manufacture additions.  Had they both remained at the Warburg in Hamburg, no doubt Panofsky and Salomon might have conferred, but circumstances prevented.

Postscript: I have recently seen it asserted (without argument or evidence included) that the German marginalia are contemporary with the main text,  but enquiries as to where one might find the first argument, and evidence, which permits this conclusion have met with determined silence.  For me, then, it remains a ‘Wilfridism’ but should anyone else be met with a clear answer, do share in a comment.  Our motto is: what can be tested, is good.

Reply from Anne Nill (November 7th., 1936 ) addressed to Salomon in Germany.

Next week, while in New York, I expect to have an opportunity to show the Ms to M. Seymour de Ricci, the editor-in-chief of the Census of Manuscripts in the United States and Canada, who is at present in this country. Needless to say, I shall be interested to his opinion as to its probable date.

. . . . . . . . 


(Anne Nill happened on a mention of Salomon in one of the files she was working on, and wrote to that address on the offchance… He replied)

To Anne Nill from R. Saloman Salomon at Kenyon College (April 29th., 1953)

Dear Miss Nill, It was a great joy to see your friendly note. It is very kind of you to remember me… I still am a member of the Kenyon faculty, now teaching here for the 14th year… I came here in 1939, really by chance, in a rather precarious moment when after a two-year stretch at Swarthmore I was no longer wanted there. I accepted an invitation to Kenyon for one year, and after that for a second year.. most of my recent publications are in American Church history…
The Voynich ms. Of which for a long time I had a photo(copy) lent me by Dr. Panofsky, came up time and time again during these years. I must acknowledge defeat – the heap of notes and jotting which I still keep only indicate that I have not come beyond the two statements which I made at my first acquaintance with the ms; it is 15thC and probably from Germany (the notorious geis mi(l) ch!). But you know that anyhow.

===Dear Ms. Nill,

Many thanks for sending the Feely opus – here it is, for well-deserved slumber in your collection. I duplicated Father Petersens’s half hour [reading it] with an identical result. Somewhere in Faust Mephistopheles says, ‘I feel as if I were listening to a full chorus of one hundred thousand fools….” What ideas [Feely has] about medieval Latin!
… The complete set of photos [i.e. photographic copies] is in Panofsky’s hands. I returned it to him about a year ago..

Note: It may be this set of bound photostats which Jim Reeds’ noticed in 1994. He describes it as appearing to come directly from the 1920s and not – as d’Imperio says of those used by the cryptanalysts – off-prints of the offprints which Fr. Petersen had made in the 1930s.  Of the copy taken to Salomon, and later returned to Panofsky in c.1952 as Friedman was urging a meeting – we see that Nill constantly refers to it as ‘our copy’ and it may have been Mrs. Voynich’s own.  I have written to the archive to see if it is still to be found, but there is some suggestion that items from that particular file have been removed or lost.  At one stage, a black-and-white copy of the ms was available through, but I cannot find it today.


and finally – from Anne Nill’s note-to-self,  after Prof. Salomon had come to New York on July 16th., 1953. Whether he  saw the manuscript I don’t know – there appears to be no evidence of anything except NIll’s effort to arrange it in 1936.

Herbals. Sequence of plants important. Even if we find only two plants in the same sequence this might help to determine archetype – or something of the sort. Prof.S. apparently has done a lot of work on herbals – in connection with our ms – and probably many lists of sequences. Said he consulted many herbals at Coll. Of Physicians (during his first years in U/S.),

  • Seymour De Ricci, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Mss in the United States and Canada. (Kraus reprinted it in 1961). 2 vols. (see Vol.2, pp.1845-1847.]

My thanks to the Librarians of the Beinecke Library for their assistance in locating the Salomon-Nill-ELV correspondence. Any errors in transcription are mine.



Next post: Expert Opinions – the ‘S.E.P’ phenomenon.

Military cryptanalysts: Friedman and his questions

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


Friedman’s questions:

courtesy of the artist.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Ethel Voynich (1864-1960) photo courtesy Kotbeber

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

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

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


Newbold’s suicide:

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

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

e.g. IN MEMORIAM, The Phi Beta Kappa Key, Vol. 6, No. 8 (May 1927), pp. 526-537. Entry for Newbold is p.535.


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

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

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

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

and in the same year (1962)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lost opportunity: Richard Salomon on the script…

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

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

‘Gallows’ glyphs – .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Questions

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

Afterword: What’s Wrong with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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