What magic? Where magic? imposition of the occult. Pt1- Wilfrid.

Header – detail from Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 821 f.41v.
Two previous posts
  • Ending the “skies above/certain measures” series. (May 31, 2021)
  • New Voynich research (May 24, 2021)

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wilfrid_voynich1Wilfrid Voynich dated the manuscript (Beinecke MS 408) to the latter part of the thirteenth century. He ascribed both composition and inscription for the whole of its content to Roger Bacon, and for no better reason than that he supposed the pictures were about ‘natural philosophy’ – however Wilfrid understood that phrase – and with better reason because the manuscript’s materials looked to him like something from the thirteenth century.

But in his talk of 1921, Wilfrid never said that the pictures resembled any from a book about magic, nor that Bacon had practiced or approved of magic, but only that Bacon had been accused of practicing ‘black magic’ when practicing ‘science’.

magic Bacon

from: Wilfrid M. Voynich, ‘A Preliminary Sketch of the History of the Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript’, Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Vol. 43 (1921). p.415. 

Note Wilfrid’s saying ‘misrepresented’ – which is absolutely right. And of course, since the materials and form for the manuscript were not incompatible with productions from thirteenth century Europe, it never occurred to Wilfrid to look beyond it.

Wilfrid’s forward-driving, unchecked and associative style would set the pattern for the sort of logic that would, from 1912 onwards, be the typical style of quasi-historical theories about the manuscript.

You see how Wilfrid’s mind grasps at some impression of ‘nearest-fit’ for the images; this he then experiences as ‘recognition’ of something familiar despite being unable to read any, and from there he develops an irrational chain that runs .. “If then … then… then … then”…

One need look no further than O’Neill and the ‘sunflower’ theory to see how the pattern applies.

Impressions are all very well as a first phase of investigations and, within the compass of his/her own specialisation, a trained person’s impressions are often accurate, but experts routinely double- check impression against concrete examples and primary historical evidence. With a strongly self-critical eye!

Wilfrid’s ‘historical logic’ reads like someone who has misread a question in arithmetic and so argues that, ‘Given that 2+2=5. so then… and therefore.. and so probably… and therefore certainly…

We can ask questions of Wilfrid, but never answer them, such as – what exactly did he think “natural philosophy” meant? or ‘Did he ever have solid evidence to inform his ‘historical logic’? The only reference he mentions is a dictionary of sixteenth-century biographies.

Natural History and Natural Philosophy

In Latin Europe, until the twelfth century, ‘natural philosophy’ is closer to what we’d call natural history and comes down to the herbals, bestiaries and lapidaries and basic knowledge of the constellations – all of which might be taught as moralia. So when Wilfrid speaks of an encyclopaedic ‘variety’ of subjects, this could be what he meant. We’d call it a form of ‘natural history’. The first encyclopaedic work in the Latins tradition was Isidore of Seville‘s Etymologiae, compiled early in the 7th century AD but as we learn from such 12thC writers as Hugh of St.Victor, the encyclopaedic method existed as part of the art of memory before encyclopaedic writers such as Albertus, Bacon, Pierre d’Ailly or Peter Lombard began writing.

On Hugh of St.Victor and the art of memory, I recommend Mary Carruthers‘ works, beginning with

  • The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric. and the Making of Images. 400–1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1998).
  • The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1990. (Second Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2008.) First edition was published in 1980.

From about the fourteenth century, and within university environments, ‘natural philosophy’ would gradually become little more than commentaries on Aristotle.

To argue, in the twenty-first century, that either sort of ‘natural philosophy’ informs the content of the Voynich manuscript one would have to address the fairly obvious objection that so far the Voynich manuscript has found no comparison in any copy, text or extant notebook from any fourteenth-century or early fifteenth-century university student or teacher.

re illustrated student notebooks in general. The closest comparison presented for the Voynich manuscript, in very general terms, is an illustrated notebook which was brought to notice by Marco Ponzi. Ponzi cites the manuscript as Pistoia Biblioteca Forteguerriana Manoscritti A 33 and describes it as made by a fifteen-year old named Sozomeno, under the tutelage of a teacher from San.Geminiano. The drawings are not closely similar, but are placed in the margins and they embody in allusive and associative ‘mnemonic’ form the content of the written text.

(I regret that Marco Ponzi does not publish for the public at large, and will permit or deny any given reader access, so there’s little point in offering a direct link to his essay in Viridis Green. I do recommend reading his work, though, if you can.)

On the shifting emphasis and definition of ‘natural philosophy’ in Latin European learning, and the divide between medieval and modern phases, see

  • ‘Natural philosophy, medieval’, Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. (entry by
    Edith Dudley Sylla). see also the special edition of Vivarium, Vol.35, No.2 (1977) ‘Roger Bacon and Aristotelianism’ especially
  • Jeremiah Hackett, ‘Bacon, Aristotle, and the Parisian Condemnations of 1270, 1277’ (pp.283-314).

For our needs, the key point is that ‘natural philosophy’ was never a euphemism for magic or occult practice, even if some attempted to gain weight by attributing their content to such figures as Solomon, Aristotle, or Hermes tresmegistus – and were later to include Roger Bacon’s name. Magicians’ borrowed plumes were something Bacon himself protested. The following comes Thorndike:

Thorndike on Bacon's naming falsely attributed texts

Roger Bacon detail from WellcomeIf Wilfrid had wanted to suggest that the Voynich manuscript’s content was about occult matter, he would hardly attribute it to Roger Bacon,

Because he believed it was by Bacon, he was at least consistent in saying only that Bacon had been accused of ‘black arts’ – but not that the manuscript included magic.

‘Natural history’ is not ‘natural magic’.  Nor was ‘natural philosophy’.

At the same time, Wilfrid did try to invert the normal logic of cause and effect, insinuating – not arguing – that because occult matters were (in his view) a late sixteenth-century pre-occupation in Prague, such matter might in some way be back-projected onto the manuscript which he, himself, insisted the autograph of an English Franciscan who had died in c.1220. It’s an outrageous bit of manipulation, but one which had continuing affect in the manuscript’s study.

We know, today, that samples from four folios in the top eleven quires returned a radio-carbon range of 1404-1438, so we can discard the ‘Bacon autograph‘ idea, and (of course) that back-projection of magic in Rudolfine Prague.

Rudolf’s great-great-great grandfather* might have been born when the manuscript was made.

*Frederick III. born 1415. Frederick III, Rudolf's great-great-great grandfather

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Laying aside the inclusion of Bacon’s name in rote lists of ‘ancients’ in later magical works, Molland reports that..

.. our major legendary sources are reduced to essentially two. The first is a prose romance written probably in the late-sixteenth century and entitled ‘The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon. Containing the Wonder full Things that he did in his Life: also the Manner of his Death; with the Lives and Deaths of the two Coniurers, Bungye and Vandermast. Very Pleasant and Delightfull to be Read’. This work, which I shall hereafter call the Famous Historie, formed the basis for Robert Greene’s play ‘The Honorable Historie of frier Bacon, and frier Bongay’, and the play contains no new legendary material of interest.

The second source is much earlier, but much shorter. It occurs in a recital of deeds of Franciscans written in Dubrovnik in 1384-85 by one Peter of Trau. In this Bacon is not explicitly spoken of as a magician, but as one who was more interested in performing experiments in real philosophy than in writing or teaching.

Nevertheless the deeds recounted are of a type that would later be termed magical. Both these accounts probably had a strong basis in oral tradition, and we may suspect that the uncertainties of orally transmitted stories formed the background to the volte-face made by the bibliographer John Bale.

In his Summarium of 1548 he [Bale] described Bacon as a ‘juggler and necromantic mage’ who was said to have performed great marvels at Oxford ‘not by the power of God but by the operation of evil spirits.’ But about ten years later, in his ‘Catalogue’, Bale wrote of Bacon, ‘He was possessed of incredible skill in mathematics, but devoid of necromancy, although many have slandered him with it”.

from: A.G. Molland, ‘Roger Bacon as Magician’, Traditio, Vol. 30 (1974), pp. 445-460

In sum: it looks as if the ‘occult content’ story is one of the few persistent legends that cannot be be attributed to the talk Wilfrid gave in  1921.

Instead, to discover its origin, we must turn to the talk delivered on the same occasion by Professor Romaine Newbold who, better informed about medieval history and more familiar with primary sources, associated Bacon’s ‘natural philosophy’ with Aristotle and experimental science.

What he might have thought or written had he first looked more critically at Wilfrid’s “Bacon-wrote-science-in-cipher” proposition, we’ll never know. His principal error was the same as came to infect study of the Voynich manuscript to the present day – he adopted his ‘givens’ without first subjecting them to rigorous cross-examination and imposed what he knew about his ‘given’ – a Roger Bacon ciphertext – onto the manuscript.

I’ll survey his paper in the next post.

Expert opinion vs materials science 4

Header illustration: (left) A swiss pocket-watch, the most complicated in the world; (inset) ‘no hammers’ sign; (right) bench of Swiss watchmakers’ tools. And for the smart-guys who immediately look for a hammer among the watchmaker’s equipment: that’s not a hammer but a very small mallet.
two previous:

This post is about the equipment, chiefly intellectual equipment, needed to treat with a manuscript as problematic as Beinecke MS 408 – so it’s  more about expertise than about materials science; I’ll get back to codicology in the next post.

I expect that my broaching this subject may cause hackles to rise on some readers, while others will think it self-evident that any person who knows too little can only misinform those who know still less.

But from the range of matter on the internet, in papers issued as pdfs and even books in print, it is evident that the idea is general that with this medieval manuscript anyone can ‘have a go’ .

The bar for newcomers is certainly set highest for cryptological theories, of which few survive unless the proponent has taken time to study the history of cryptology and of methods already tried.

 

Next are studies that involve linguistics and statistical analyses. New readers should consider the work done by Julian Bunn, E.M. Smith and Koen Gheuens‘ latest post (and comments made to it) to get a clear idea of the present level of discussion in that subject.  Nick Pelling‘s recent post on ‘Currier A’ and ‘Currier B’ should also prove illuminating.

The bar against novices is less high when translations are claimed – hence the regular claims that the text has been translated.  Part of the problem in this case is the lack of persons with the time, languages and inclination (Voynicheros or not) to test and review such claims.  One wonders what sort of ‘peer reviewer’ is being invited by the publishers today; the book by Tucker and Janick was published by Springer (no less) but it is only thanks to the kindness of Magnus Pharao Hansen  that we know their claimed “Nahuatl” is not.

A neat illustration of the fact that it is inherent value, nor format, which makes information valuable.   Tucker and Janick’s book appeared in print;  Hansen’s refutation of their ‘Nahuatl’ translation in a blogpost.  The benefit of information published as book or blogpost is that it comes with a date-stamp – very helpful when trying to clarify questions of precedence, originality and attribution. 

Poorest of all are standards for accepting or rejecting assertions made about the manuscript’s iconography or quasi-historical narratives.  Some adopt the form of scholarly papers while lacking such quality. Others don’t bother. Some few are by scholars who (like Newbold) made the basic error of accepting, untested, other persons’  unfounded or ill-founded assertions as their ‘givens’.

I am not suggesting everyone must leave the field who hasn’t formal qualifications in manuscript studies, materials sciences, comparative cultural history, or cryptography… or anything else.

A doctorate is no promise of  a balanced attitude and the history of Voynich studies shows its course regularly de-railed or misdirected by individuals who, being qualified in one field, imagine themselves omni-competent.

William Friedman is one of the earliest examples; his skill in cryptography is a matter of record but he was mistaken in supposing that all other matters – codicology palaeography, and the pictorial text – were inherently inferior studies which might be treated as ancillary to his own.

Where he might have set reasonable  limits for his search for ‘the cipher method’ by accepting the opinions of those better qualified to date and provenance manuscripts, his narrow focus meant that on the one hand he accepted many of Wilfrid’s assertions uncritically and, on the other, pursued his imagined ‘author’ as far as the seventeenth century.   He treated persons such as Fr. Petersen and Erwin Panofsky less as valuable guides than as sources from which to extract computable ‘yes-no’ data and overall showed that lack of balance and over-confidence that ensures failure, barring a miracle.

Again, Hugh O’Neill was a qualified  botanist, but his area of competence was the native flora of  Canada – and to a lesser extent, of Alaska.  Nothing in his writings, or in what others said of him during his lifetime  indicates any particular knowledge of, or interest in, medieval history, art, or manuscripts.  Nor does he seem to have paid due attention to Fr. Petersen, who had told him plainly and repeatedly that no palaeographer could support O’Neill’s bright idea.  O’Neill himself had so little interest in the question of historical context that he cannot have even tested the  ‘Columbus brought sunflowers’ theory against primary documents relating to Columbus’ voyages.  As for his ability to read the manuscript’s imagery  …  well, let’s call it naive.

And again,  Robert Brumbaugh.   A professor of philosophy with a chair at Yale, his area was the philosophers of classical Greece and, to a lesser extent, of Rome.  Presumably he knew something of classical history and languages as necessary adjunct to those studies, but his papers about the Voynich manuscript show no evidence that he was at pains to learn more about manuscripts, medieval history, botany, or the range and variety of star-lore and -science known in the medieval (or earlier) periods   What he read of cryptography seems only to have been in connection Voynich theories.  His acknowledgements reinforce the impression that he, too, imagined himself competent in all things because formally qualified in one.    His paper on ‘Voynich botany’ credits Hugh O’Neill’s paper, his own nephew Mr Eric Arnould and “a Mr Pero, of Syracuse, New York”.  Not a single colleague in botany or any other relevant discipline, not even from those at Yale.

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘Botany and the Voynich “Roger Bacon” Manuscript Once More’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Jul., 1974), pp. 546-548

Claiming to have ‘solved’ the text, Brumbaugh mentions Marjorie Wynne and Louis Martz, one being the Beinecke’s head librarian and the other its honorary director, a Professor of English.  But neither is mentioned as helping him learn more of codicology, medieval manuscripts or even medieval English texts –  but only for their ‘encouraging’ him.

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

However, give Brumbaugh some credit for keenness in observation.  As I write this, I see that I may cite him as precedent for noting as Dana Scott, and then I would later do, that the Voynich ‘aries’ are drawn as goats, not sheep, for he wrote in another paper the paper above that they are “[as] much like a goat as like a ram…”. See Robert S. Brumbaugh,’The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150.  (p.147)..  That the same observation had to be made independently in 1976, and (by Dana) about thirty years later, and again by me forty and more years afterwards can be attributed to two things: first, that a goat did not fit the usual theories and secondly the ‘groundhog day’ phenomenon which sees little accounting for precedence – an error which becomes exponential.  Today (in August 2019), the fact is being absorbed and repeated (if not explained) in a number of blog-posts and chat-rooms.  (Note corrected and expanded –  19thAugust 2019)

The issue, then, is not about qualified as against unqualified Voynicheros, but rather of an individual’s unreasonable self-confidence in their capacities, despite their limited range of intellectual tools, and their underestimating the complexity of problems and evidence presented by this manuscript.

To say that ‘anyone with two eyes’ can understand the imagery in the Voynich manuscript, or date its hands, or correctly attribute its manufacture to a time and place is as stupid as  a carpenter’s saying that because he has two hands and a hammer  he can put together a plane as good as any now flying.

To have one skill and a theory may be enough to make a useful contribution, but to suppose that instills the capacity for all other skills is to act like a child who claims they can fix a broken clock with just a  hammer.

The task of understanding this particularly difficult manuscript is better compared to the work of an old-fashioned watchmaker, who must put together a great many separate, interlocking elements, aware of how each relates to and contributes to the workings – and whether each has been accurately formed by the makers. In this case the parts are explanations for those cues embodied in manuscript’s materials, structure and iconography; in connecting the historical and cultural cues with the evidence of linguistics, palaeography .. and quite possibly cryptography…

It is not a simple process.  It requires solid evidence and input from a range of competencies.  It is not as simple as theory-creation, effective theory-promotion, relying on the age of ‘canonised myths’, nor simply of logical thinking.  As one of my students once said, “This is hard because you have to know so much stuff”,

Logic is the pride of many Voynicheros, but logic is a tool which produces results no better than its ‘givens’.  Nor should people with an ability in the critical sciences suppose those of the pragmatic sciences are less intellectually demanding or easier than their own – or vice versa.

As one scholar said, in speaking to a group of cryptologists in 2013:

“.. breaking ciphers is all about testing hypotheses and finding *the* consistent solution, of which there will be only one. Historical research doesn’t admit of one neat solution and works very differently.”

SirHubert” in a comment to Ciphermysteries, December 10, 2013)

We should be seeking less to ‘break’ the text, or ‘solve’ the manuscript than to understand it.  The manuscript isn’t the problem; the problem is that some basic flaws in the manuscript’s past study leave us still – after more than a century –  unable to rightly interpret the evidence  embodied in the manuscript’s form, materials, script and content.  I’d suggest a prospective revisionist always keep two questions to the fore when reading what has been, or is being said of the manuscript’s content: ‘Where’s the evidence for that idea?’ and ‘Is that inference valid?’.

Because, to repeat the revisionist’s theme-song:

It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful the guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”