Notes on Panofsky’s comments 2

Panofsky had been in America since September of 1931, invited as guest lecturer by Professor Cook:

Two years before the enforced exodus of the intellectual élite that followed the advent of Hitler, Panofsky became a regular guest professor in the United States, at the invitation of Professor Cook. He [Panofsky] lectured in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the auspices of what was to become the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University’s graduate department of art history, and immediately made a deep impression on his American colleagues and students.

  • 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. (p.13).
  • [Biography] Dr. Walter S. Cook, in whose honour annual lectures are presented at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts.

The meeting with Mrs. Voynich is most easily explained by positing that both were consulting medieval and renaissance manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library, for it was a worker there (the librarian?)  Ms.Greene who offered to introduce Mrs. Voynich to the Professor.

“Mrs. Voynich has been working at the Morgan Library, and Miss Greene continues to be most friendly and helpful. A short time ago she volunteered the opinion that she did not think any scholar in this country would be able to help us with the problem … [but now] a certain Dr. Erwin Panofsky … is at present in New York and Miss Greene suggested that she bring him and Mrs. Voynich together- very decent of her don’t you think.” – Letter from Anne Nill to H.Garland, (Feb 10th., 1932).

Mrs. Voynich first showed Panofsky the worn negative photostats, perhaps late in 1931, but he saw the manuscript itself the next year – on Feb. 5th 1932. (see first post in this series)


Panofsky’s subsequent career in America; the value of his private (1932) assessment of the manuscript.

or Panofsky’s earlier approach to art, see

On Panofsky in America, I’ll cite Gaston:

 Panofsky’s appointment to the Institute of Fine Arts in New York in 1933 and to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1935, together with his extraordinary productivity and high profile as public lecturer in the following three decades guaranteed him a stellar career, and an influence within the discipline, and the humanities in general, that was then unrivalled for an art historian. …One of the serious shortcomings of Panofsky’s approach to images was his unwillingness to explore the social matrices in which [pictures] were produced and used.

  • (review) Irving Lavin (ed.), Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside. A Centennial Commemoration of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) (1995) reviewed by Robert W.Gaston in  International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Spring, 1998), pp. 613-623.

Panofsky wrote primarily on late medieval and Renaissance art in northern Europe and Italy, and mostly, but by no means exclusively, on painting.

He was not omniscient, nor dispassionate.  He revered humanism and like the majority of his own time, idealised the model of the auteur as creative spirit gifted with  superior sensitivity, perception and so forth. It is the more appealing, humanist and individualist, counterpart for that obsession with the dominant white male which infused the whole of medieval Latin art and remained a preoccupation of historians in the European tradition for most of the twentieth century.


Where Panofsky’s opinion differed from the majority.
  • Non-Latin

Absence of the ‘dominant white male’ theme – and numerous other defining themes of Latin (i.e. western Christian) art – from the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 is a powerful argument for the content’s non-Latin origin – something Panofsky recognised. He attributed it to southern (Sephardi?) Jewish origin saying he recognised influence from Islamic style and from Kabbalah. If he ever elaborated on these things in writing, no record of it has come to light.

There are details in the manuscript which express the Mediterranean and/or Latin (i.e. western European) traditions – but in the present writer’s view these are plainly late-phase additions. They include (of course) post-manufacture items such as marginalia, but some details in the body of the work – principally the central motifs in the calendar’s diagrams.

It never occurred to Wilfrid Voynich to suppose the work other than the individual creation (autograph) of an individual, ‘superior type’ and a white male European.  Nor, apparently did others look much further than southern Europe and the figure of Ramon Llull.

This phenomenon,by which the world is effectively defined as Europe – and into which nothing comes except by the authority and choice of a Latin European male – was usual among nineteenth century historians and particularly the Anglo-German school.  It affected assumptions then, and is still with us, having deeply impacted on the course, nature and direction of the manuscript’s study for most of the period from 1912-2015.

The present author found, still, in 2014, that the majority of Voynicheros imagine it impossible that anything of non-European origin could be found in Europe except that Latin European had fetched it or commissioned its being brought.  This is what we call the ‘White Wall’ phenomenon, and that it should persist to the present day would surely distress Lynn White – a pioneer in the history of cross-cultural exchange upon whose pioneering studies so much more has now been built.

  • .Lynn White, Jr., ‘Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages’, Speculum, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 1940), pp. 141-159
  • ________________, ‘Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 515-526.
  • ________________, ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221

Panofsky does not suggest the manuscript’s content came from any great distance, but the very fact that he could see the content does not evince the culture of Latin Europe sets his opinion of the manuscript apart from the majority.

Though apparently Panofsky’s 1932 assessment came to be known to the Friedman group, neither it nor his responses of 1954 were given much weight by the cryptanalysts.  In 1978 d’Imperio knows so little of Panofsky’s work that she imagines him unaware of the work of Albertus Magnus (!)

  • Non-authorial

Panofsky differs again from the reflexive assumptions made by those writing about the manuscript from 1912-1954.

He does not imagine any  ‘author’ for the whole work in 1933 and even in 1945, speaks of a nameless figure, almost a generic one: the man writing down his life-time’s learning for his son. Even that idea seems to imply that much of what is written is to be seen as inherited from an earlier time.

The majority simply presumed the work the creation of a Latin ‘author’ and the matter contemporaneous with the present manuscript’s inscription.

On the other hand, Panofsky no more than anyone else during the twentieth century imagined that the work could be entirely derivative.

In 1932 he saw it emerging from a community rather than an individual. BY 1954, in answer to Q.10, he speaks of “a doctor or quack trying to impart what he considered secret knowledge to a son or heir”.

Social history did not exist as yet, except as a means to make lessons attractive for children or by way of that idealisation of medieval artisans reflected by the ‘arts and crafts movement‘.

The first English-language History of Technology – its first volume –  was published only in 1954, under Charles’ Singer’s editorship.

The interaction between the history of events and the history of economic factors has always been in flux, and though England is given much credit for the study’s development, even in the 1950s it was often dismissed as  ‘mere commerce’.

Social history as a scholarly discipline only gained general recognition in the 1960s (initially termed ‘laundry-list history’) and women’s history gained its place still later.

Comparative cultural studies were almost unheard of, and Lynn White struggled against the ‘white wall’ phenomenon for thirty years and more.

In the context of his time, Panofsky’s approach to the manuscript and his forming opinions solely from the primary evidence – though by reference to his own wide range of substantial study – makes his the most important commentary we have on the subject of the imagery, even now.

Because it suited the Friedmans believe that the text was a very clever, unique, cipher, they were obliged to adopt an ‘authorial’ idea of the manuscript, and this has proven a persistent habit in the study, though less emphasised since about 2011.

  • Composite of earlier matter.

I take as implied by the answer he gave to Friedman’s Q.10 that Panofsky saw the manuscript as deriving from earlier matter;  something of the same implication might be taken from his alluding to Kabbalah in 1932.

The ‘authorial’ idea carried an   expectation of the homogenous autograph, an idea found in most commentaries on the manuscript to as late as 2010-2011, when the present author was obliged to ‘run the gauntlet’ in the second mailing list for saying the content could be no autograph, nor the work of a single author, because the stylistic variations indicated derivation from at least three earlier sources, each manifesting a distinct history and line of transmission to Europe.

That opinion is now widely accepted – without reference to the present author’s evidence and argument – because after some months, one contributor to that mailing list recalled that the word ‘compilation’ is found somewhere in the ‘Voynich gospel’ – d’Imperio’s booklet of 1978. This official ‘sanction’ permitted the then-radical shift from the traditional ‘authorial’ to ‘non-authorial’ approach. ( My thanks to Don Hoffman for being the first to brave the picket-line and adopt the conclusions of my work, even use of the technical term ‘florilegium’ – which in medieval times meant a collection of textual, not botanical, items).

  • Setting aside Newbold’s categories.

Panofsky was among the very few to offer any explanation of the manuscript and of its content by reference to the primary document itself, and he never adopted  Newbold’s impressionistic categories  as others did – including the cryptanalysts’ who merely elaborated  them.

He avoided  both the ‘authorial’ notion and Newbold’s idea of a specifically ‘biological’ section.

Once again, neither Panofsky’s opinion, (nor the substantial evidence and argument provided by the present writer from 2009) saw the abandonment of Newbold’s and Friedman’s “categories” – with the result that one still sees Voynich narratives produced and adopted which unsupported by the historical evidence.

On efforts to justify the ‘biological’ idea see e.g.

I am told, though have not the details, that a contributor to is presently (Jan-Feb 2019) reprising Velinksa’s ideas and approach, though whether properly acknowledging the precedents, including Velinska’s work, you must discover for yourself.  In either case, it is a nonsense within any theory insisting the manuscript entirely the product of Latin European culture. Da Vinci was a hundred years before his time, and he wasn’t born until 1519: at best eighty years after the manuscript was made, and at worst (for such ideas) almost a century.

But the persistence of such notions relies, ultimately on an impression expressed by William Romaine Newbold.


  • Opinions as conclusions from evidence.

Unlike the majority of Voynich writers, before him or since, Panofsky derived his opinions from the primary source and solid historical and iconographic evidence.

Every extant study by him displays a consistent rigor and his sense of obligation to the reader: he will explain how he reached each point in his conclusions by reference to direct, specific, and verifiable reference across a wide range of historical, textual and art-historical material – always with a focus on the primary evidence.  One may differ, but one is never asked simply ‘to believe’.  His aim is not persuasion but elucidation.  It constitutes a forensic approach which was to that time, and is largely still, scarcely employed in discussions of Beinecke MS 408.

One must suppose that had he been asked to do so, Panofsky could have produced a study of the manuscript –  its form and imagery –  which would have substantially altered our understanding of its content.

But all he was asked to do was fill out  Friedman’s questionnaire.

A brief outline of Panofsky’s usual practice is offered here.

Next post: Panofsky’s hesitations.

minor corrections 8th Feb. 2019

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.


Military cryptanalysts – Prelude

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

previous posts:


Wilfrid had acquired the manuscript by 1912.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


William Friedman:

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

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

There, his duties are listed as:

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

John Matthews Manly

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

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

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

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

and see


Rising hysteria – McCarthyism

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

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

Julius Rosenberg, 1951.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hook’s own book was severely criticised.

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

More recent studies:

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


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


Next post: Military cryptanalysts and Panofsky at Princeton.