Anomalies – consider this…

This post – call it an essay – is a little over 3,000 words long.

In the later years of my studying Beinecke MS 408, I found that most of the digging was about reconciling and explaining apparent contradictions and anomalies in the primary evidence or secondary Voynich narratives. Sometimes the problem proved to be a consequence of old ‘Voynich doctrines’, theories accepted without scrutiny and so on. At other times the problem evaporated as I learned more. The ‘Mark Twain’ situation.

At the moment, I’m interested in another such knot -part palaeographic, part historical, and part contextual. I could stop blogging while I try to sort it out, but most of it isn’t in my field and I’m not sure I will be able to sort this one. But perhaps you may.

So welcome (I suppose) to my current ‘anomaly’.

The problem.

The ‘4’ shape, whether as numeral or as cipher-form is not attested, in the western side of the Mediterranean or in western Christian Europe (i.e. ‘Latin’ Europe) earlier than about the mid-fourteenth century, with just one exception known to me so far.

However, that closed, upright ‘4’ shape – whether or not as numeral – is present in the Voynich manuscript and (this is the issue) with glyphs having what I described in a voynichimagery post of 2015 as ‘elongated ascenders’ -observing the trend towards plain English.

(detail) Yale University, Beinecke Library MS 408 f.5r

Here’s what I mean by glyphs with elongated ascenders. As you see, they occur in the Voynich script in positions apparently other than the initial, and they occur in close proximity to glyphs of that upright ‘4’ shape – and others very similar but having the left side of the ‘eye’ a little more curved. (I don’t mean the ‘9’ shape).

The term ‘gallows’ by which the ascender glyphs are known today in Voynich studies is a complete misnomer. The true “gallows sign” describes a motif used in letters from Tudor England, urging the recipient to reply on the instant. It doesn’t look much like these.

In passing, I’d like to draw attention to the mark (diacritic or vocalisation?) over the glyph you see as the second of the second paragraph in the clip above from folio 5r, and then as the first glyph of the following line. A mark similar to that in the second instance appears among the central inscriptions in the month-folios.

The easiest way for me to explain why I regard a ‘4’ shape in proximity to elongated ascenders as a problem, is to first indicate the date-range for ‘4’ shaped numerals, then refer to Hill on the history of Arabic numerals in parts of Europe, and then return to the issue of elongated ascenders – as well as I can from my own research into their history within Europe.

I’m fairly sure that anyone competent in comparative studies in palaeography might dispose of the whole problem in a sentence or two, but none were publicly involved in the study in 2015, and I have no introduction to any now.

The earlier post that I’ll quote from, further below, was entitled ‘Who wrote the gallows?’, and was published in October 2015 through the voynichimagery blog.

I’ve had little difficulty in finding examples of a ‘4’ shape compatible with even the earliest date returned by the Vms’ vellum samples, one of which returned a raw date of 1400 AD. I’ve shown two of these early instances already, but to save scrolling back, here they are again:

detail from: Abraham Cresques’ pictorial compendium, made in Minorca for the court of France. completed 1375. Known as the ‘Catalan Atlas’.

I also consulted Smith’s History of Mathematics (2 vols), but now must express my intense gratitude to the friend and master printer who has sent me a copy of a rare monograph:

  • G.F. Hill, The Development of Arabic numerals in Europe (Oxford: Clarendon, 1915).

Hill’s work, like most products of the nineteenth-century Anglo-German school of thought, has definite benefits for this study, but certain deficits too of which readers should be aware.

On the positive side: In 1915 an English scholar might still take his time to amass information for a projected monograph or book, taking ten, twenty or even forty years to finally produce as complete a study as possible, one to be of value for decades to come. As a result, one may still find that a book written last century contains information of greater detail, depth and range than one published last week when it comes to technical and historical studies.

Hill also had the advantage of living in Europe before European countries adopted the Mongols’ ‘total war’ approach, so he was able to consult scholars, manuscripts, libraries and collections which, by the end of the second world war, would exist no longer.

On the negative side, Hill’s study suffers from the same presumptions as those affecting his contemporaries Wilfrid Voynich, William Newbold and William Friedman, all of whom were born in the nineteenth century and reached maturity before the beginning of the twentieth.

Like them, Hill defines ‘Europe’ as England, Germany and Italy, with a just glance towards France and no reference made to the Iberian Peninsula, the Balkans, or elsewhere unless an Englishman, Italian or German was involved. Italy was included by virtue of the Renaissance and ancient Rome, and Ramon Llull was acceptable to the older Voynich theorists only because the Voynich text was presumed encoded or enciphered and his was the only name that came to mind in relation to Panofsky’s saying (in 1932) that he attributed the manuscript to ‘Spain or somewhere southern’. Llull’s name has been floated, intermittently, since the 1920s and is risen to the surface again recently – who knows why – but I doubt if one in a couple of hundred Voynich writers has bothered to read anything of Lull’s writings. There is absolutely nothing of his worldview in the Voynich images, and his system for memorising texts has about as much connection to the Voynich plant-pictures as a greeting card to the Boboli gardens.

Spaniards and even the French were simply not considered in weaving a Voynich narrative and that remained so from 1912 almost to the present day. As for writings of non-Europeans, or even of European Jews, they are not included in Hill’s work, any more than in the Friedman’s idea of medieval Europe, or the names considered as the Voynich manuscript’s possible ‘authors’. d’Imperio’s including medieval Jews assumes their work relevant only to religious/magical/superstitious matter and even then envisages it having been filtered and ‘translated’ by some Christian intermediary. What is embarrassing to us, these days, is her being evidently oblivious of the Jews’ scientific literature and their role as scholars and not merely as hired translators.

However, one simply has to strive to correct such old and sadly persistent blind spots in relation to Voynich studies, while observing a solemn silence over the still more embarrassing and ill-informed, if mercifully few, pseudo-Jewish ‘Voynich’ theories.

It was precisely because I’d come to know where the older writers’ blind spots were that I went to those areas first – the Iberian peninsula, the Balearics, the artisans and masters of crafts, the Jews and the mariners, the traders and cartographers, .. and found those two early examples immediately, though admittedly both are sources I know well and to which I’ve had reason to refer before in explaining drawings from the Voynich manuscript. There are surely more fourteenth-century example to be found, but those two suffice for now.

Within Hill’s predictable limits, his study remains very valuable indeed. Here’s a clip from his annotated Tables – which I’ve also sent to Nick Pelling in case the cryptographers would like more information from it.

Cross-check.

My own research into the manuscript concluded with a date for the final recension of the imagery, save a few peripheral additions and marginalia, around 1350 (it had been 1330 but the form of the ‘tower’ in the north roundel, which is not the North emblem, adds 2 decades to that date. The tower, which I identify as the Galata, gained its form in three stories in 1348/9 and ceased to have that quite that form after 1445. As it happens the latter date is useful marker too, as we’ll see. I accept, of course, the radiocarbon-14 range for our present manuscript.

Evidence from Hill.

It has become my habit, when quoting matter likely to upset adherents of a theoretical ‘Voynich’ narrative, to reproduce the passage rather than transcribing it.

So here’s Hill on the ‘4’ shape as numeral in England, Italy and Germany.

Although Hill tried, as he says elsewhere in that introduction, to ‘sweep into his net all examples to 1500’ he, like Friedman, was oriented to think of history as determined by official and ‘high’ works, rather than the works of artisans or commerce. Breviaries rather than invoices. So earlier examples may still turn up if anyone cares to investigate German documents.

Here’s Hill’s entry for that early 14thC manuscript from Florence.

*NOTE – Hill has a number of thirteenth-century examples which verge on becoming a similar form but which represent ‘five’)

Without pausing to explain why the following might excite old die-hards like me, here’s another set of numerals together with Hill’s note.

The more traditional form for the numeral ‘four’ resembles another Voynich glyph.

In the version above (from a digitised ‘Voynich alphabet’) the thickened stroke should be ignored. It doesn’t appear for the old ‘four’ as a rule, nor for the Vms glyph.

The range over which Hill collected his examples included copies of textbooks, religious handbooks such as breviaries, texts on mathematics including compotus, and coins, monumental work and church-bells. But no informal notebooks, no financial documents, nothing from the trades or commerce. Of artisans, only painters as ‘artists’ were included, and these chiefly from Italy. The nineteenth-century Anglo-German idea of ‘Europe’s intellectual history’ – yet again.

While it might well be said that cryptographers need skill in mathematics, I do wonder now whether the Urbino ledger of 1440 was rendering ‘4’ as a cipher, or simply translating a form for ‘quo’ unfamiliar at that time to Italians and in a time when the ‘qo’ might yet be mistaken for ’98’ or ’96’ or ’48’ or ’46” or even ’58’ or ’56’. This clip illustrates forms in a fifteenth-century English manuscript. Regular readers will have seen the illustration before, but it will do.

Untidy-ing the theory.

If we suppose any relationship exists between the ‘4’-shaped Voynich glyph and the similar form for the numeral ‘4’, whether direct, or employed as cipher, or anything else, then the seemingly obvious conclusion is that the text ought to have gained its present form in the fourteenth or earlier fifteenth century, up until 1438, in which case it is most unlikely to be of German Christian origin, only a little less unlikely to be of English origin and even if Italian not yet likely to be in any cipher-ledger known so far in Voynich studies. One must have some doubt about the relevance of the Urbino ledger, and it is too early for the Milanese ciphers noted by Pelling in 2006. Of course here too, it may simply be that no-one has yet investigated, or if investigated, not yet published other records.

We may say, at least, that the form is most likely to belong within the same general area in which we’ve noted instances of western MSS containing, as does the VMS, quires both septenion and quinion.*

*for details, see earlier post, ‘What magic? Where Magic? 4: Whose magic?’ (July 5th., 2021) 

We might describe that region in the most general terms as south-western Mediterranean, but with an accent on places linked directly to the maritime trading routes initially dominated by Genoa and Venice and their entanglements both by sea and within Italy.

In order of date, we have the ‘4’ shape in a Florentine MS of the early fourteenth century, the Venetian mercantile handbook MS Beinecke 327 in the mid-fourteenth century, and the Jewish cartographer of Minorca in 1375, then a similar form, certainly, in a cipher-ledger of Urbino in 1440 and somewhat later, in ciphers used in Milan, though the last post-date manufacture of our manuscript.

It is almost neat. Except.

Except for those glyphs with elongated ascenders.

In 2015 my aim was to only to track the history and context in which such forms occur in the west.

The first historical example came to notice in Voynich studies thanks to Jim Reeds who provided it and, at the same time, re-introduced* Cappelli’s Dictionary to Voynich studies, Yet someone had already described these as ‘gallows’ letters or glyphs, for it was as ‘gallows’ he described them.

*Aficionados may recall Erwin Panofsky’s acidic response to Question 13 of Friedman’s preposterous ‘Questionnaire”.

The following, in blue, from that post of 2015:

That first example (above) comes from an official charter, now in Parma but from the monastery of San Savino, in Piacenza. When this example was introduced to the Voynich world by Jim Reeds, via the old mailing list, he added this:

But I can refer to one of the few photographic facsimilies in … Cappelli’s Dizionario (the 1967 reprint of what appears to be the 1929 edition), namely “Tavola IV”, which shows a letter [of] 1172 [AD], 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.”

So it’s not just a letter, but a charter.  And the script is described as Caroline, despite being late 12thC.

Pelling, whom experience has shown invariably accurate in crediting original sources of information, even if they oppose his theories and opinions, mentioned that Barbara Barrett argued for the Voynich script’s being derived from a Caroline hand and not – as Pelling has long held – that the Voynich script was written by a scribe influenced by the humanist style.

I’ve not yet seen Barrett’s articles (I’m now trying again to see if the Fortean Times can supply a copy), but I note that neither Barrett, nor Pelling, considered any other form of script save a Latin script as informing the manuscript’s written text as we now have it.

I should like to see the opinion of someone expert in comparative palaeography, and one day perhaps we shall see a detailed palaeographic study of the Voynich script in print.

Such elongated ascenders don’t occur in the body of a humanist text. The time-frame is wrong. By the early fifteenth-century, only the faintest trace remains of the style informing that charter from Piacenza and even in that twelfth-century charter, such forms were used only for the headers and not within the body of a text.

The Caroline hand is certainly earlier – the standard limits for it that you’ll find in the text-books, wiki articles and so on is “8thC-11thC inclusive“.

At this point a theorist might be inclined to invent a theory-patch by saying something like, ‘OK, so a fifteenth-century Italian scribe copied/enciphered a tenth-century text’ – but such anodynes won’t do.

Our maxim as revisionists remains, “No evidence, no exposition – no case”

On the other hand that ‘patch’ might be expressed as a question, or rather a group of questions, and so begin a potentially useful line of enquiry.

As I hunted other examples of similarly formed letters, ignoring the distraction of an over-elaborate variation adopted by the chancery of the Holy Roman emperors, I found that they were all (that is, all that I could find, not all there may be), issued from the papal chancery or scribes of papal delegates and all but one – which I’ll mention later – were of similar type, not letters but charters.

To find another text from the Latin domains in which elongated ascenders of any kind occcur within the body of a text, I had to go to an ever-earlier period and it was thanks to Jonathan Barrett and his blog, ‘A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe: Early medievalist’s thoughts and ponderings” that I had the following – again a charter, and again from a Papal delegate. It’s the authority to establish a Spanish convent, in Ripol (mod. Ripoli) in the province of Girona (medieval Gerona). It is dated to the tenth century.

I’m fairly sure that here again a professional palaeographer might have done better, and quicker, but from the 1990s until very recently, we had none who were publicly engaging with Voynich research, so one did what one could.

Papal establishment charters continued evoking the style of elongated headers to as late as August 1412, but this late example shows only a faint echo of the twelfth-century one noticed by Jim Reeds. It is among a set of documents sent to Scotland after a local bishop had, somewhat presumptuously for the time, already granted a charter for the establishment of the University of St.Andrews. The papal documents therefore just confirmed that charter and added to it, including the official ‘Blessing’ in which the vestigal form appears. A somewhat blurry photo of it be seen here.

Against this, a Papal letter ( bull) of 1216, though addressing the rights to which the Order of St.John Hospitaller were entitled, contains no ascenders save the ordinary ‘f’ and old form of ‘s’.

So that’s the problem. What appears to be a ‘4’ form which we should date to not earlier than the beginning of the fourteenth century, combined with glyphs having elongated ascenders that appear within the body of the text, like something written in the tenth century.

An anomaly if we suppose the written text first composed by a Latin in western Europe. And what Latin, in tenth-century Europe, or even early fourteenth century Europe, could have produced the drawing on folio 13r?

Other restrictions.

I’m hoping now to get access to material in the Fondo Datini to see how commercial documents were being written in fourteenth century France and in his hometown of Prato, as well as hoping there might be some way to see examples of commercial and financial ledgers from the papal court in Avignon, whether under the accepted Popes or their successors in the region after 1376, the so-called ‘antiPopes’. I’d also be interested in seeing any form of ’emissary letter’ which might exist from before 1450.

While I’m strongly inclined to agree with Panosky’s initial assessment of the manuscript, when he classed it as a product of ‘Spain or somewhere southern’,* it is with the caveat that I do not think the whole content created by any single person, nor originating from that region. I consider ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ an important. late, halt in the route of transmission, though distance and through time.

*by which, as I read his comments, he meant the appearance of the contents.  Whether or not he was considering the vellum’s relatively rough finish (as another early commentator remarked) and its binding, I think at present the weight of evidence for the current work’s manufacture lies with Italy, or a region with strong influence from one or more of the Italian city states.  Again, the judgement of professionals in comparative codicology, and those with years of practical experience analysing the structure and materials of medieval manuscripts, are best able to judge that.  – Note added 29th Nov. 2021.

It may be written text in Beinecke MS 408 was composed between 1350 and when our current manuscript was put together, but I cannot think so while this apparent anomaly remains unexplained.

Feel free to leave a comment here, or a link to your own work if the problem interests you.

(detail) Yale, Beinecke MS 408 f.4v

Notes on Panofsky’s comments 4. Kabbalah

Header Illustration: detail from a Kabbalist scroll.  Brit.Lib.  Or 6465 (1556)
Two previous:     Notes on Panofsky’s comments 3 – hesitations (
Notes on Panofsky’s comments 2 – (

 

Note 8: … ‘Kabbala’

When Anne Nill wrote to her friend Herbert Garland in 1932 about Panofsky’s viewing the manuscript, she said, “He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!!8

The question has been hanging ever since. I know of no further comment by Panofsky, though something may be buried in the archive of his correspondence.

Elegant Enigma includes a  few paragraphs under ‘Cabala’ in the section titled ‘Collateral Research’, where it is placed between Angelic magic and Alchemy.

Notice d’Imperio’s use of the past tense:

” [Cabala] depended heavily on manipulation of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and lists of sacred words and was in general highly ‘verbal’ and abstract in character in contrast to the iconic and ‘visual’ character of other magical [sic!] systems,… the manipulations of Cabala may have inspired at least some cryptographic devices’     (d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma. p.60).

Both her spelling for the word as ‘Cabala’ and her few comments suggest that d’Imperio relied on an article in the  1901-6 edition of   Encyclopaedia Judaica.  If so, she didn’t take to heart its authors’  admonition:

most modern scholars … have treated the Cabala with a certain bias and from a rationalistic rather than from a psychologico-historical point of view; applying the name of “Cabala” only to the speculative systems which appeared since the thirteenth century, under pretentious titles and with fictitious claims, but not to the mystic lore of the geonic and Talmudic times. Such distinction and partiality, however, prevent a deeper understanding of the nature and progress of the Cabala, which, on closer observation, shows a continuous line of development from the same [religious] roots and elements.

What d’Imperio calls  ‘word-manipulation’ and thinks the mark of a magical system owed most to Abraham Abulafia, a conscious rationalist and follower of Moses Maimonides (who is sometimes called the ‘arch-rationalist’). Maimonides’ thought was – and still is –  respected across the religious and sectarian divides.  Of him, the  Catholic Encyclopaedia writes:

“through his “Guide of the Perplexed” and the philosophical introductions to sections of his commentaries on the Mishna … [Maimonides] exerted a very important influence on the Scholastic philosophers, especially on Albert the Great, St. Thomas [Aquinas], and Duns Scotus.”

speaking of perplexity, and though off topic, I’d like to mention a paper I’ve just seen online:

  • [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘Solved: The Ciphers in Book iii of Trithemius’s Steganographia’, (DRAFT: 26 March 1998).

‘Voynich’ thoughts and Kabbalah

detail of miniature in a Greek Kabbalist manuscript.       Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana Ottieni. courtesy Lehigh University.

An online search for ‘Voynich’ plus ‘Kabbalah’ turns up nothing to help us understand Panofsky’s remark.  It may seem harsh to say that nothing said so far about the Voynich manuscript and Kabbalah has been other than trivial – but see for yourself:

  • In 2009, Pelling mentioned (here) that Pater Castell saw the  sephiroth in  one of the botanical drawings (Pelling’s illustration).
  • In 2013 Donald Goodell began a thread on the arch.net mailing list managed by Rich Santacoloma.  See that thread here.
  • A conversation was begun some years ago in the online ‘Journal of Voynich Studies‘  but – as so often – the talk soon veered  back to its contributors’ chief interest: the nobility and seventeenth-century Prague.
  • On July 5th., 2015,  Marco Ponzi left a comment on Stephen Bax’s site, citing an image from a sixteenth-century Kabbalistic Greek text. (It was Ponzi’s find, but a detail from the same diagram can be seen above).   Darren Worley soon provided the picture’s caption, “Influence of the moon on reading the signs of the cabala (kabbalah), miniature from the Cabalistic treatise, Greek manuscript, 16th century…etc.  Ponzi doubted the caption’s accuracy, but  I’m assured it’s correct.
  • Jan.26th., 2016, a thread opened on the forum ‘voynich.ninja’.  The subject was actually Jules Janick’s published theory (with or without his name mentioned). The exchange followed the usual course.

Otherwise, Arthur O. Tucker‘s co-author, Jules Janick has made most of the general idea, pulling into Tucker’s ‘New World Voynich’ narrative the late and Christianised style of Kabbalah, knowledge of which he attributes to the missionaries.  However, in overlaying  the tree of Sephiroth on the Voynich map, Janick failed to notice that the quarter he designates ‘North’ is marked clearly with the rising sun which signifies East.

Texts and resources

(detailBrit.Lib. MS Or 11791 f.8v ‘Perush Sefer Yetzirah’ cf.  Brit.Lib. Add MS 26929.

As readers will realise, we are still entirely at a loss to know what about the manuscript or in it, could have led Panofsky to say he thought there was some influence from Kabbalah.  Of course, he might not have expressed himself as definitely as Nill reports, but hers is the only account we have.  He might simply have been musing…’Spain or somewhere southern’… Jewish… thirteenth to fifteenth century… could well be some influence from Kabbalah..’  We don’t know. The whole question is still, effectively, unexplored.

Any reader inspired with determination to solve the problem, one way or another, might like to begin with  Sefer Yetzirah, (‘The Book of Formation’ (or: ‘- Creation’) which is the earliest and perhaps best known of works described as Kabbalistic, though in this case the description is debated.

“Composed in (c.200 BCE – c.200 CE). Sefer Yezirah (Book of Formation) is the title of the earliest extant book on Jewish esotericism, although some early commentators treated it as a treatise on mathematical and linguistic theory as opposed to Kabbalah.”

– from the Sefaria site‘s introduction to the parallel Hebrew/English text.

  • British Library MS Or.11791 Parchment codex.  Commentaries on the Sefer Yetzirah (14th-15thC).
    The Library recommends the following article – and so do I.

The catalogue entry for another volume highlights the need to forget parochial thinking. The various hands are described:

Script (summary): Spanish and Italian semi-cursive script;  Italian semi-cursive script of the 15th century;  Italian/Byzantine semi-cursive of approximately 15th century; Spanish semi-cursive of approximately 15th century; Italian/Byzantine semi-cursive of approximately 15th century. 

For the  total novice (as I am), a couple of easy first meetings with Kabbalist thought:

  • George Robinson, ‘Kabbalah in Spain‘, (undated online article). Sub-title reads, “From the 13th through the 15th century, the Iberian Peninsula was the home of most major kabbalists.”
  • A modern orthodox rabbi,  Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser, explains Kabbalah for modern believers –  youtube video.
  • An article by Ephraim Rubin which looks like a very solid introduction to the Zohar.  published as a blogpost at Kinkatso & Co.

 

See also:

edited from the original.

  •  Joseph Dan, ‘Gershom Scholem’s Reconstruction of Early Kabbalah’, Modern Judaism, Vol. 5, No. 1, Gershom Scholem Memorial Issue (Feb., 1985), pp.39-66.
  • Hartley Lachter, ‘Spreading Secrets: Kabbalah and Esotericism in Isaac ibn Sahula’s Meshal ha-kadmoni’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 100, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 111-138.
  • Moshe Idel, ‘Ramon Lull and Ecstatic Kabbalah: Preliminary Observation’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 51 (1988), pp. 170-174.
  • Moshe Idel, ‘Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed” and the Kabbalah’,  Jewish History, Vol. 18, No. 2/3, Commemorating the Eight Hundredth Anniversary of Maimonides’ Death (2004), pp. 197-226
  • Shaul Magid, ‘From Theosophy to Midrash: Lurianic Exegesis and the Garden of Eden’, AJS Review, Vol. 22, No. 1 (1997), pp. 37-75.
  •  Daniel Jütte, ‘Trading in Secrets: Jews and the Early Modern Quest for Clandestine Knowledge’,  Isis , Vol. 103, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 668-686. (This paper includes the discursus on Abramo Colorni – regarding whom see N.Pelling, ‘Abraham Colorni’s Cryptography…’ ciphermysteries, (Feb.9th., 2019).
  • The Zohar – first edition published in Mantua 1558-60 is in the Library of Congress, Hebraic Section.  (Sefer ha-Zohar, 3 volumes, Mantua, 1558-60 )

 

Next post:  Salomon and Liebeschutz

Military Cryptanalysts: Panofsky’s responses of 1954

Header illustration: Green card –  for the Exposition des oeuvres d’art refusées à l’exposition officielle de 1873 (Champs-Élysées)
Two previous:

My thanks to Professor Bill Sherman, Director of the Warburg Institute and Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, for permission to re-print his transcription of Panofsky’s answers.

In 2014, at the Folger Library,  Professor Sherman curated an exhibition in which Beinecke MS 408 was included. Some of Professor Sherman’s publications are cited in:

  • G. Stuart Smith, A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman (2017). see e.g. p.220.

Everyone’s thanks is due to Jim Reeds for first finding and transcribing the 1950s material and to Rich Santacoloma for  doing the same for Anne Nill’s letter.  (I should say now that I’m hunting another document whose content – if found – might make this whole post redundant.  Fingers crossed!)

In what follows, my own commentary and its documentation is behind the black arrows. The post altogether is very long: more than 6,000 words if you expand it fully.  But you can bypass the comments which make more than half of it, or come back some other time when you think they might be useful.  The posts are published as notes and framework for the Bibliography.

What I have not fully described in this post is the early, keen interest felt by both Erwin Panofsky and Richard Salomon, Panofsky having been offered (in 1933) a complete photostat copy of the ms, taking it to Germany where he consulted gave it to Salomon. The latter showed keen interest in the puzzle and later came with Panofsky to talk with met Anne Nill at the Library of Congress (where Nill worked).  I think it telling that Panofsky declines to speak of his own opinion in answering Friedman’s quiz.

 

Q – W. Friedman;    A – E.Panofsky

.

Q 1: Have you examined the VMS itself.

A:      I saw the Voynich manuscript in 1931. Panofsky doesn’t say that he was presented with a full photostat copy in 1933, lent it to colleagues (including Salomon) but had it returned to him at some time before 1953. I’ll come back to that in another post.

Note – Panofsky arrived in New York in September 1931, but Nill’s correspondence suggests he did not see the manuscript itself until early the next year.  Twenty years later, Panofsky seems to have mis-remembered. The correspondence is detailed in a coming post, ‘Cryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1932.’

 

 

Q 2:  What is it written on; with what writing tool?

A:          If you apply the words “parchment” and “vellum” in the strict sense (that “vellum” has to be made of the skin of calves* rather than other animals) I am not sure . However, the medium was certainly vellum in the more general sense and characterised by a fairly coarse-grained texture which in places caused individual strokes to appear like a series of dots when looked at with a magnifying glass. This, incidentally, may have caused the late Professor Newbold to believe that each of these dots stood for a letter and each letter for a whole word. The instrument used was doubtless a quill pen, the writing and the contours of the drawings being done in ink, the coloring, so far as I remember, in the kind of pigment usually described as “wash.”

Note: *the term ‘calfskin’ is sometimes seen used instead of vellum,  but this can cause confusion given that ‘calfskin’ is often used,  by itself,  to mean calfskin leather.  If using ‘vellum’ there is no need to add ‘calf-skin’ in front of it; vellum is made of calves’ skins by default. Uterine vellum is different again.

 

 

Q 3:  What’s the date?

A:           Were it not for the sunflower which, if correctly identified, would date the manuscript after 1492, I should have thought that it was executed a little earlier, say, about 1470. However, since the style of the drawings is fairly provincial, a somewhat later date, even the first years of the sixteenth century, would not seem[sic!]  to be excluded. I should not go lower than ca. 1510-1520 because no influence of the Italian Renaissance style is evident.

(At my second reading through these responses,  I laughed out loud here… -D)

Comment.

It is a delightful moment of Panofsky wit – but since none of the  cryptanalysts ‘got’ it and d’Imperio takes this answer at face value, as did Tiltman in 1968 and as current Voynich writers still do, I’ll spell  out Panofsky’s ‘dig’  briefly here, having already discussed the “sunflower in the Vms” issue in a separate Page.

You should know first that no-one took O’Neill’s ideas seriously at the time.  So, for example,  Nill, had said in writing to Salomon in the previous year (April 28th., 1953) telling him of it and saying, “We do not think it is a sunflower, and neither does Fr. Petersen.”

Here, in answer to question 3, Panofsky says he could go as far as ‘even the first years of the sixteenth century’. Normally that would mean not after 1510. (otherwise, you’d say ‘early decades…’

Now – see how his response to Question 8 says that the ‘sunflower’ is the only plant Panofsky ‘recognises’?  How can that be,  because what he has to recognise first is the style of drawing, and it’s not that of the European drawings of the sunflower, the first of which appears in Dodoens’ book of 1568 – as Panofsky surely knew.  The illustration had even been reproduced as recently as 1951 in an American journal. (see below)

Is Panofsky confused?… I don’t think so…  because here’s the thing. … Dodoens described the plant as  ‘Peruvian Chrysanthemum’. And guess when Europeans first invaded Peru.?..  yep.  1510.  … Talk about ‘fairly provincial….’ 🙂

Here Perunianum means ‘Peruvian, not ‘of Perignano’, See e.g. M.A. d’Aronco, ‘From Heliotrope to Helianthus: an overview’, Biotechnology and Wild Species,ISA#1109

So as I read it, Panofsky’s underlying message is:  “If that’s a sunflower, I’m a Dutchman”.. or a Peruvian.  [yes, I know Dodoens was actually a Fleming… and we shouldn’t take ‘Peruvian’ too literally. But that’s how it was described by Dodoens and for some time afterwards]

So Panofsky’s pulling Friedman’s leg, knowing perfectly well that Friedman won’t realise it.  There’s no other  way to reconcile the answers given to questions 3 and 8 save a  tongue-in-cheek logic which implies that for a manuscript to be ‘no later than the first years of the sixteenth century’ AND to show the ‘Peruvian chrysanthemum’ the draughtsman would have to be in Peru.

… Dodoens wasn’t born until 1517.

Luckily, Panofsky was not to see Tucker and Janick later insisting (Springer, 2018) that O’Neill was right  to imagine a sunflower in the Voynich manuscript, and further that Voynichese was – if not Peruvian –  some lost dialect of Nahuatl. On the other hand, I think Magnus Pharao Hansen’s swift, cool and learned rebuttal of their ‘Nahuatl-dialect’ argument might have pleased the Professor well. ( And really – the Voynich-books coming out of Springer of late make one wonder what that press is coming to!)

  • Hugh O’Neill, ‘Botanical Observations on the Voynich MS.’, Speculum, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1944).
  • Charles B. Heiser, Jr., ‘The Sunflower among the North American Indians’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 95, No. 4 (Aug. 17, 1951), pp. 432-448.
  • Charles B. Heiser, Jnr.,  ‘Origin and Development of the Cultivated Sunflower’, The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 17, No. 5 (May, 1955), pp. 161-167.
But (now on the alert) back to the responses…

 

Q 4:  Why do you think so?

A:        The above date is based on the character of the script, the style of drawing and on such costumes as are in evidence on certain pages, for example folio 72 recto.

Comment

Panofsky indicates the criteria for dating content in a manuscript, but says nothing specific. Without further explanations given – or asked – the answer is one that would apply equally to whatever dates a person offered for any manuscript….We need to know how the ‘character of the script’ is perceived to accord with posited dates and, as importantly, with those of the place to which the item is being ascribed.  The ‘style of drawing’, similarly… And just which dates (1470 or 1520 here, or fourteenth century as offered in 1931 1932) does he really think confirmed by the costume? He says the manuscript displays nothing of  Italian Renaissance character.

The majority of more recent writers, however, who have shared with us their perception of the figures’ costumes  argue that they are High [and thus Italian] Renaissance. To be clear, it is a position which the present writer does not share.  However, most recent writers have also focused to a surprising degree, almost obsessive, on the calendar’s  ‘Archer’ emblem where Panofsky draws attention instead to   f.72r,    Once again, it seems to me,  Panofsky is making an oblique joke at Friedman’s expense though – I sense – also offering a genuine bit of information even if only for the specialist in philology and comparative palaeography.

(detail) f.72r Yale, Beinecke MS 408.

(detail) f.72r Yale, Beinecke MS 408.

 

 

Q 5:  What’s it about?

After first turning the spotlight on that figure with a wand, Panofsky now says:

A:        So far as can be made out before the manuscript has been decoded, its content would comprise: first, a general cosmological philosophy explaining the medical properties of terrestrial objects, particularly plants, by celestial influences transmitted by astral radiation and those “spirits” which were frequently believed to transmit the occult powers of the stars to the earth; second, a kind of herbal describing the individual plants used for medical and, conceivably, magical purposes; third, a description of such compounds as may be produced by combining individual plants in various ways .

Comment.

‘Before the manuscript has been decoded’ is a slightly mocking comment; Panofsky’s life was spent ‘decoding’ pictures, for many of which no accompanying text was present. The error of supposing imagery’s understanding depends on accompanying text is another of those nonsensical ideas endemic in Voynich studies, and will be asserted by persons who, not knowing a word of Latin, still hunt manuscripts for images which they expect to find legible… and, of course, do find legible in a way they never find imagery from the Vms legible.

The lesson which should be taken from this is that (a) when imagery derives from a familiar culture, it is legible and (b) when it is not legible it’s not because some accompanying text can’t be read.

The fact is that Friedman did presume all about the manuscript was dependent on the text’s translation, and in 2008, when the present writer first came to the study and began explaining the imagery in terms of cultural and stylistic expression, she was informed that all comments on the imagery were “personal and subjective” or “theoretical” and that nothing certain could be said until the written part of the text had been read.

As to Panofsky’s speaking of “general cosmological philosophy…” etc. –  he has made a fairly obvious collation, heaping together bits from Newbold’s paper of 1921, and  standard medieval ideas, but then ‘occulting’ them by means of what I’d describe as a  purple-prose code.  With delicious wit, he plays on ideas and terms proper to cryptography, while referencing medieval ideas and Newbold’s neo-Platonic speculations in a way you might well describe as contrapuntal.

Panofsky is verbose; he uses substitutions (e.g. “astral radiation” for al_Kindi’s radii stellarum; “spirits” for angels)… and so on.  This is typical of his multi-faceted commentaries on art and his well-known humour.

So now, bearing in mind that the figure from f.72r is likely to be ‘read’ by any European as bearing a magic wand, and that the Americans called ‘Magic’ the system of coded messages generated by the Japanese ‘purple’ machine – and Friedman’s involvement in breaking that cipher, so  Panofsky writes, verbose, with substitutions,  Magic-Purple (prose).. about the rotas of heaven and earth… combining individual ‘elements’ in various ways.. In short, envisaging a  cosmic, yet elegant, ‘enigma’.   Quite beautiful!

It wasn’t entirely nice of Panofsky, I suppose, to make sport of Friedman in that way, but it is a just parallel for the ‘sport’ which Friedman and his wife had made of Newbold.

Nor had Friedman quite broken ‘Purple’ before It had broken him.   His mind had given way in the first year of the war (1939) and while he was institutionalised, others in his team continued the work, with Lt.Francis A. Raven completing it.

about Raven: various sources refer to an NSA publication (issued online as pdf), some sources even including the link, but these do not seem to be current.  In case you may fare better, here are the details:

  • Mowry, D. P., “Cryptologic Almanac 50th Anniversary Series – Francis A. Raven.” NSA/Center for Cryptologic History, released Jun 12, 2009, FOIA Case# 52567.

Friedman again broke down while trying to ‘break’ the Voynich text, and again had to leave the effort to others including Tiltman and Currier.  In the end, the Voynich text defeated all who tried to ‘break it’, but those who – like Currier, Tiltman and others – were content to make  careful observations of script and text-distributions etc. did make a lasting contribution.

To see how Panofsky’s response to Q.5 reprised Newbold’s ideas is easy enough; the resources are online.

Some may not be able to recognise the ‘purple prose’ encoding of ordinary medieval ideas, though, so here are a couple of passages showing how the virtu in things of earth, each conferred in its turn during the year,  was believed transmitted from the Divine to earth by the intermediary stars, identified by some Christians – and not by others – with the angels.  The first passage is chosen only because it’s the neatest, and despite  Tester’s having neglected to name the fifteenth-century German cleric who preached this:

As God gave their power to stones and to herbs and to words, so also he gave power to the stars, that they have power over all things, except over one thing. They have power over trees and over vines, over leaves and grasses, over vegetables and herbs, over grains and all such things; over the birds in the air, over the animals in the forests, and over the fishes in the waters and over the worms in the earth: over all such things that are under heaven, over them our Lord gave power to the stars, except over one thing. … man’s free will: over that no man has any authority save thyself.

  • Berthold of Regensberg. Cited from Tester, A History of Western Astrology (1987) p.178.  edit Feb, 26th., 2019 – apologies to Tester; it was I who had omitted the speaker’s name from my own notes.

and see e.g. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1,  Q.73, Article 1, reply to Objection 3;

“…Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning…”

or even the 2nd C eastern Christian, Theophilus of Antioch, contemplating the year’s interlocked rotas:

Consider, O man, His works — the timely rotation of the seasons, and the changes of temperature; the regular march of the stars; the well-ordered course of days and nights, and months, and years; the various beauty of seeds, and plants, and fruits; and the various species of quadrupeds, and birds, and reptiles, and fishes, both of the rivers and of the sea; or consider the instinct implanted in these animals to beget and rear offspring, not for their own profit, but for the use of man; and the providence with which God provides…

and especially see:

  • Edward Grant, chapter ‘Celestial Motion and its Causes’ in Grant, E., Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687. (1996)

and

  • NB Alan B. Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars (OUP 1991)

 

 

Q 6:  Are there any plain text books sort of [sic.] like the VMS?

A:         Manuscripts in plain language remotely comparable to the Voynich manuscript are, unfortunately, of at least four kinds: first, herbals; second, cosmological and astrological treatises; third, medical treatises in the narrower sense of the term; fourth, possibly treatises on alchemy. As for the first kind, you seem to have more knowledge than I can claim. As for the second, I should advise to consult Sir Charles Singer, From Magic to Science, London 1928, and various publications by the same author; furthermore, it may be useful to consult Richard Salomon, Opicinus de Canistris, London, 1936; and F. Boll and G. von Bezold, Sternglaube und Sterndeutung, Second Edition (F. Gundel, Ed.), Berlin and Leipzig, 1926. As for the third kind, ample material is found in two serial publications, both edited by the late Carl Sudoff: Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin and Studien zur Geschichte der Medizin; of alchemy I know very little and can only refer you to the Entstehung und Ausbreitung der Alchemie by E.O. von Lippmann, Berlin, 1919 ff., as well as a fairly recent book by the famous psychologist C.O. Jung.

Comment

Don’t overlook the first conditional: ‘remotely comparable’.  Again, Panofsky merely behaves as a Professor might towards a first-year student whose ‘theories’ outrun his basic knowledge.  Panofsky here declines to discuss a single image from the Vms, or a single manuscript as ‘comparison’ for it,  nor for a single detail in any drawing. As before, the basic message is, ‘Go away and read’.

So in this answer  – as I interpret it, anyway – Panofsky has no intention of doing more than pointing Friedman  towards basic texts and to certain individuals whose positions were secure.  Panofsky’s conferring a knighthood on Singer is either a mistake or, as I think, an oblique comment on Friedman’s social pretensions, acting (for that reason) as antidote to any assumption of Singer’s inferiority by reason of Jewish inheritance.  This bias is  clearly reflected, though probably unconsciously, in d’Imperio’s account of the cryptanalysts’  “plan of Attack” in her Table of Contents, which I’ll treat later.  Interestingly, Panofsky does not refer to Dorothea Singer, who was a fine medieval scholar, and who was referenced by Lynn Thorndike in 1921.  Charles Singer’s book of 1928, however, makes no mention of Thorndike even though the first and second volumes of Thorndike’s A History of Science and Experimental Magic had been published five years earlier, in 1923.

Charles Singer wrote studies in the history of medicine for the first part of his career and then turned to writing history – notably editing the encyclopaedic History of Technology. What Panofsky doesn’t say, and perhaps didn’t know, is that Singer also knew Hebrew, Greek and Latin.  He had been born in London. His father Simeon Singer was a rabbi and scholar. Singer was another scholar who had left his home to come with his wife in the 1930s to take up a post in America (UCLA), remaining until 1942. In that year, despite the great risk it entailed, he and his wife re-crossed the Atlantic to return to England. (British naval losses; American naval losses).

Singer’s ideas about the Voynich manuscript were apparently developed and communicated only by post and after 1954. What d’Imperio never says is whether such opinions were merely answers given a quiz such as that presented to Panofsky.  It is quite likely they were; by 1957 Singer was in England and Friedman shows no interest in reading or learning about medieval art and manuscripts; he likes to have others do that sort of work, and then extract from them answers to set questions of his own devising, in way suited to ‘number-crunching’ and puzzle solving. Friedman relied heavily on feeding quantifiable data-bites into a computer as a means to ‘break the text’. So I think it probable that, rather than buy and read the recommended books, Friedman simply contacted the  authors expecting short, easy answers to his own short, ‘baby-steps’ questions.

In Singer’s own Evolution of Anatomy, he says he will  omit …

“Paracelsus, and Helmont, and their followers, since the movement they represent did not become important until the second part of the seventeenth century”…

yet he opines to Friedman by letter (responding to a quiz?) that his vague ‘feeling’ is that the Voynich manuscript might be of a Paracelsan and occult-alchemical character, and composed by an ‘author’ living in sixteenth-century Prague.  As always, there seems to have been no effort made by the theorist to check whether their ideas were compatible with reality: that is, in this case, to see whether the manuscript’s materials, style of construction or ‘hand’  suited such an idea. (A: they don’t).

None of those “feelings”  which Singer says more than once are  vague impressions  finds support from the manuscript itself, but they have found  determined support among a group of Voynicheros whose members  are quite determined upon.

I find Singer’s testimony most interesting as one more of the many instances where a scholar of eminence and wide knowledge of European medieval works can suggest no manuscript at all as  close comparison for Beinecke MS 408.  This is a point so widely un-noticed, and still less rarely considered for its implications, that it deserves a post of its own. I’ll call it ‘Angels and Fools’.

Two volumes of essays, dedicated to Singer, had been published in the year before Friedman was introduced to Panofsky.

  • E. Ashworth Underwood (ed.), Science, Medicine, and History: Essays on. the Evolution of Scientific Thought and Medical Practice. Written in honour of Charles Singer.  Volumes I and Il. (1953).
  • Geoffrey Keynes’ review for the British Medical Journal neatly describes Singer’s character and publications.  The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4873 (May 29, 1954), p. 1247.
  • Charles Singer,  The Evolution of Anatomy: A Short History of Anatomical and Physiological Discovery to Harvey: Being the Substance of the Fitzpatrick Lectures Delivered at The Royal College of Physicians of London in the years 1923 and 1924.
  • _______________, Studies in the history and method of science (1917)

Richard Georg [sometimes seen as George] Salomon (1894-1966) – converted to Christianity in 1902; escaped Nazi Germany in 1937.  At the University of Berlin, Salomon had studied eastern European history under Theodor Schiemann (1847-1921), Byzantine history under Karl Krumbacher (1856-1909), the history of medieval law under Karl Zeurmer (1849-1914), and Latin paleography under Michael Tangl (1861-1921), under whom he completed his doctoral dissertation in February 1907: Studien zur normannisch-italischen Diplomatik. His name was among the six (with Panofsky’s) listed for expulsion from Hamburg University in 1934.

Panofsky’s pointing Friedman in the  direction of these men, and texts, was not only wise, but kind. If all Friedman wanted was quiz-answers and easy ‘sound-bites’ the men might provide them; if he he was seriously interested in the manuscript as a late medieval product, studying the texts would begin his education.

d’Imperio is dismissive of Charles Singer, though including in her Bibliography  five of Singer’s works (p.130) and two articles by Salomon. (p.129). I add a further note on Charles Singer’s theory further below.

 

 

Q 7:  What plain text have you found in the VMS?

 

A:   So far as I know, plain language writing is found: first on the pages showing the signs of the zodiac (folio 70 ff.) which seems to be provincial French; second, on folio 66; and third, on the last page, folio 116 verso. The entry on folio 66 reads, as discovered by Professor Salomon of Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, “der mus del,” which seems to be ancient German for “der Mussteil,” which is a legal term referring to household implements and stock of victuals which, after the death of a husband, cannot be withheld from his widow. The little figure and receptacles accompanying this entry may or may not refer to this idea. The entry on the last page reads: “So nim geismi[l]ch o.” This is again old German, the first word generally introducing a sentence following a conditional clause; the translation would be: “[If such and such a condition prevails], then take goat’s milk.” The last letter “o” is most probably to be completed into “oder,” which means “or.” The inference is that the sentence is unfinished and that some alternative substance was proposed in case goat’s milk should not be available. I may add that recipes of this kind are quite customary in mediaeval and Renaissance medicine.

Comment

 

Granted that Panofsky may, or may not, have agreed with Salomon’s reading of that marginalia – extraneous by definition to provenancing the manuscript’s original content as Panofsky realised (“The little figure …. may or may not refer to this idea”) – there has been a recurring discussion/dispute of Salomon’s reading, with Koen Gheuens’ summary of the ‘pro-‘ position neatly put and illustrated (together with his own thoughts) in his post of July 11th., 2017: Note also that Panofsky is as rigorous as ever in his principles  – attributing Salomon’s insights to their author; his very meticulousness in such matters permits us now to credit Panofsky with first attributing to a ‘regional French’ dialect (Occitan?) the inscriptions over the central emblems in the Voynich calendar.

Occitan became a topic on the first mailing list during discussion of a book whose narrative attributed this manuscript to the Cathars of Langedoc. The question of Occitan then became one in its own right.

  • 1997 Dennis Stallings published a list of bibliographic and other items relating to Occitan in the first mailing list (10 Feb 1997) including the important note (which was later independently stated by Artur Sixto  in a comment to ciphermysteries, (February 17, 2011)  that Occitan and Catalan – or Judeo-Catalan – are closely similar.
  • 2004 Shaun Palmer looked at the orthography in detail in 2004.
  • 2009, Pelling credited Stolfi.   In other posts, Pelling thought it most like the dialect of Toulouse – though he may have changed his views since then.  Pelling first, and others including Don Hoffman later, noted a closely similar orthography on astrolabe inscriptions dating to c.1400.  I’ll return to this matter when we come to the astronomical themes.
  • 2011 Artur Sixto’s comment was made (February 17, 2011) at ciphermysteries.com, saying he thought the forms closer to Judeo-Catalan, and commenting on use of that dialect among emigrees into north-western France. Because so many comments were made to the same post by Pelling I quote here the whole of Sixto’s comment:

Sixto wrote, “To me the months [names] seem to correspond slightly better to Catalan than Occitan. June for instance, spelled with “ou” corresponds to Catalan pronunciation, in French writing. “ny” would be Catalan relative to Occitan “nh” or French/Italian “gn”. So the person might have ties with the North of Catalonia (and could have a French influence) …. Interestingly, many Jews in Catalonia spoke Catalanic, a Catalan dialect close to Shuadit, i.e. Judaeo-Provençal (i.e. Judaeo-Occitan).”

  • 2015 Commenting at Stephen Bax’s blog (May 18, 2015 – 11:14 pm) ‘Don of Tallahassee’ [Don Hoffman] noted similar forms for month-names used in Picardy, his examples taken from calendars in fifteenth-century Books of Hours.

Various others have reached similar opinions, often independently as a result of the ‘Voynich ground-hog day’ phenomenon.

On Salomon’s reading “der Mussteil,” see the  lucid commentary by Koen Gheuens:

and

  • Heidelberg University Library, UBH Cod.Pal.germ. 164 Heidelberger Sachsenspiegel (dated to 1305)
  • Salomon had consulted several secondary sources  (which he cited in a letter of March 14th., 1936 to Panofsky or to Mrs.Voynich per Anne Nill), quoting in full an entry from:Der Sachsenspiegel (Landrecht) nach der ältesten Leipziger Handschrift herausgegeben von Prof. Dr. Julius Weiske. Neubearbeitet von weil. Professor Dr. Hildebrand. 8th.ed. Leipzig, O.R. Reisland, 1905 (Glossary p.28.)

 

Q 8:  What plants, astronomical, etc, things have been recognised so far?

A: To the best of my knowledge, only the sunflower has been identified thus far.

Comment.

To this I should have protested at first – had I been there – that Professor Panofsky must be joking, but then asked more of what he thought that might imply, if he really meant it.

Infuriatingly, if this is another reprise of things he had said at the meeting, it is another case of Friedman’s “blind spot” at work.  An iconographic analyst of Panofsky’s calibre is (so to speak) the theoretical physicist of the art world; he has to know pretty much everything about everything expressed in visual form through the periods in which he specialises, and that includes the way plants and creatures are depicted in a given place at a given time AND what the depiction indicates about the signfiicance embedded in forms and details: that is, what non-superficial messages the image conveyed for persons of that time and environment.  He would have to know the traditions of the bestiaries as well as the place of a creature in the schemes of Christian theology and moralia, as well as classical Greek and Roman lore. And so too for plants: is a rose intended as allusion to the Virgin Mary; to ‘Roman de la Rose’; to the physical rosa mundi; to an intended parallel between the pure soul of Mary as antidote to spiritual ills and the Rose as supposed protection against Plague … and so forth. This issue of intended significance is the one most noticeable by its absence in writings by persons who claim to ‘analyse’ imagery but who know nothing about it.

As regards plants, Panofsky’s well-known statement that   “the rise of those particular branches of natural science which may be called observational or descriptive—zoology, botany, paleontology, several aspects of physics and, first and foremost, anatomy — was . . . directly predicated upon the rise of the representational techniques.” could not have been enunciated without a prior and thorough grounding in the way those fields of learning were illustrated before and during the period of the Renaissance.

  • Erwin Panofsky, Artist, Scientist, Genius: Notes on the “Renaissance-Dämmerung”, Lecture Given May 10, 1952 at the Fogg Museum Before the New England Conference on Renaissance-Studies. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1953). also included in Wallace K. Ferguson (et.al.), Six Essays on the Renaissance (1962).
  • [pdf] Claudia Swan, ‘Illustrated Natural History’ in Susan Dackerman (ed.), Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge , exhibition catalogue, Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp.186-191.

On flowers, their perception, depiction and attitudes to cultivation from ancient to modern times, with emphasis on Europe’s medieval and Renaissance periods, see also

  • Jack Goody, The Culture of Flowers (CUP Archive, 1993).
  • reviewed by Chandra Mukerji in Theory and Society, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Aug., 1996), pp. 590-594

And quite apart from his professional studies, in which he discussed the symbolism intended by depiction of scarlet lilies, iris and honeysuckle, Panofsky’s correspondence shows a keen interest in the very practical aspect of botany: gardening.

Did he honestly mean that he could recognise not a single plant in the Vms?  Not even in 9v, with its widely-accepted representation of one or more members of the  viola-group?

  • Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: its origins and character (1953) Vol. 1 pp. 333 and note 6 to p.416.

‘Nothing but the sunflower’?? Hmmmm.

 

Q 9:  Is it all in the same hand?

A: In my opinion the whole manuscript is by the same hand with the possible exception of the last page; but I am by no means sure of that.

(Another answer that says nothing.. -D)

 

Q 10:  Why was it written’?

A: My idea always was that the manuscript was written by a doctor or quack trying to impart what he considered secret knowledge to a son or heir.

Comment.

I have no idea whether Panofsky really believed this. It echoes a view first put forward (whether Panofsky knew it or not) by Georg Baresch who said in his letter to Kircher,  “… it is not inconceivable that some good man…”.etc.   Panofsky does seem, overall, to have shared the usual assumption of contemporary and later Voynich writers in imagining the work to be all the  product of a single ‘author-artist’.  The solution to this problem may lie in that as-yet unseen report which Reeds mentioned in the 90s, and  described as written by Panofsky to Voynich.

 

Q 11:  Where & when?

A:    My guess is that the manuscript was produced in Germany, which is supported by the fact that the goat’s milk sentence is continuous with the text of at least the last page of the manuscript.

(I prefer to comment on this in the context of the first (1931 1932) evaluation. -D)

 

Q 12:  What do you think of the Roger Bacon theory?

A:      Quatsch. The Roger Bacon theory is in my opinion at variance with all the available facts and has been convincingly disproved by Mr. Manly. Further endorsement of Mr. Manly’s adverse criticism is found in a brief review of his article by the above-mentioned Professor Salomon which appeared in: Bibliothek Warburg, Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliographie zum Nachleben der Antike, I, Leipzig and Berlin, 1934, page 96, No. 386.

I can reproduce Salomon’s review here, thanks to the patience of the Beinecke staff who found it among Anne Nill’s files (July 9th. 1936) as a clipping to which Salomon added that there was “no one else save you, Dr. Wilson and Dr. Petersen who could possibly be interested in it”. HIs view was that finding an exactly similar sequence of plants was the only practicable key, and perhaps this inspired Petersen’s concerted efforts to identify the plants.  D)

 

Q 13:  Full title of the Dictionary of Abbreviations.  Title of Hans Titze’s book on forgeries, & of Mibillon’s history of diplomatics.

 

A:          The dictionary of abbreviations is by Adriano Cappelli, Dizionario delle Abbreviature Latine ed Italiane; my edition is the second, published 1912, but there may be more recent ones. The book on forgery in art is by Hans Tietze and entitled Genuine and False; Copies, Imitations, Forgeries, New York, 1948. As far as the book by Mabillon is concerned, I am afraid that I did not express myself with sufficient clarity. He did not write a book on “The History of Diplomatics” but his famous De re Diplomatica of 1681 laid the foundations of palaeography starting out with the investigation of documents which were supposed to be genuine and which he proved to be forgeries by studying the development of script. I should like to reiterate my opinion that the Voynich manuscript, whichever its place of origin, date and purpose, is certainly a perfectly authentic document.

Comment

I do not think anyone could mistake here the asperity with which Panofsky’s answers this question. His “I am afraid that I did not express myself with sufficient clarity’ is a very formal and very cold English- and European form of insult: there is everywhere a point at which extreme politeness becomes an insult.   In modern American the equivalent might be: ‘Are you a total fool?’  Panofsky’s then explaining, in words of one syllable, the importance of Mabillon’s book (of which no  genuine ‘student’ of medieval manuscripts could have passed three decades in ignorance), tells us yet again that Panofsky has been driven to the point of outrage: this is a venting of professorial wrath.   And, need I say, Friedman remained quite unable to weigh the relative merits of amateurs against specialists;  Panofsky had said, categorically, that the manuscript was genuine, and yet d’Imperio – who hasn’t any relevant training or experience to judge the matter – decides (as we see later) to keep the option open. The reason has nothing to do with the manuscript itself, but with two fixed yet unproven assertions: that the text is in cipher and that it is entirely the product of Latin (western) Christian culture.

 

Q14:  What other scholars are interested in the VMS?

 

A:      The only scholar who still takes some interest in the Voynich manuscript is, so far as I know, Professor Salomon, already mentioned twice.

Comment

“already mentioned twice.” (and doubtless also in the ‘conference’ shortly before).   Panofsky has now quite lost patience with Friedman and his  ‘quiz’.  That Panofsky omits mention of Charles (or of Dorothea) Singer here, again suggests that they had not yet, to his knowledge, been involved with the study.   Charles Singer’s opinions, as quoted by d’Imperio, come from letters dating to 1957 or so.

Q15:  What do you think of the artificial language theory?

 

A:    I do not feel qualified to pronounce about the probability of your [sic!] “artificial language” theory. I must confess that, for the time being, I am a little skeptical in view of the fact that, so far as I know, no attempts to construct such an artificial language can be shown to have been made until the beginning of the seventeenth century, whereas cipher scripts were developed and employed at a very much earlier date. As I mentioned in conversation, the Italian humanist, Leone Battista Alberti, welcomed the newly discovered “hieroglyphs” as a kind of writing that was independent of language differences and was therefore understandable to all initiated; but this would seem a rather different proposition because the hieroglyphs were not an artificial language developed, on systematic grounds, by a contemporary author but were reputed to be a sign language actually used by the Egyptians and therefore particularly attractive to the humanists who credited the Egyptians with a wisdom even more profound than that of the Greeks and Romans.

Comment.

Panofsky’s comment about the dates being wrong for a deliberately-constructed artificial language (as such; not including newly-created scripts or alphabets to render a language) is absolutely right, and Friedman’s ignorance of even that – his own field – is once more evident.  It is another item in proof that Panofsky was already better acquainted with the history than was Friedman.  Panofsky also knows of O’Neill’s paper, published in 1944, though his knowledge of Alberti had long been part of his own scholarly repertoire. As, I expect, was his knowledge of medieval and Renaissance palaeography, essential to provenancing manuscripts and evinced by his familiarity with the books of which Friedman was still ignorant, though already had referred to them during their talk. His allusion to hieroglyphics is most likely to refer to the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo which has made such an impression on Dürer (among others). The edition by Boas includes some of Dürer’s drawings and an essay on the subject.

  • George Boas (ed. and trans.), The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo. (Boas’ translation was first published in 1950 but my copy is the 1993 edition which I think to be preferred. It includes a new foreword by Anthony T. Grafton)

SUMMATION:  In my view, the assumptions made by Friedman, and the ‘theory’ on which his mind was already set – combined with his arrogance and ignorance of the basics needed to form a valid preliminary assessment of any medieval manuscript, but especially one whose content was obscure and imagery anomalous, effectively deterred Panofsky from bothering to provide Friedman with any informed comment on the manuscript’s imagery. It also – in my opinion- led him to avoid giving his personal assessment of the manuscript’s cultural origin, script or iconography. I read his responses chiefly as intended to ensure Friedman had no further excuse for contact.

See also:

  • Erwin Panofsky, Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1968. Eine kommentierte Auswahl in fünf Bänden, hrsg. von Dieter Wuttke (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag):  Bd. I,Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1936 (2001); Bd. II,Korrespondenz 1936–1949 (2003).  English reviews e.g. International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol.11 (2004) Dec (Issue 2), pp. 280-292.

 

Bibliothek Warburg, Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliographie zum Nachleben der Antike, I, Leipzig and Berlin, 1934, page 96, No. 386.

NOTE: This document is reproduced by the present author by permission and should not be taken and re-used without (1) reference to the present author (as ‘finder’); (2) to this blog-post and (3) seeking permission for re-use from Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts library. A fee may be required.

Next post: Cryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance  1931 1932.

 

Military cryptanalysts: the ‘Art-Group Four’

Header Picture: public domain image of Princeton, IAS, Huld hall

Two prior posts:

Military cryptanalysts – Prelude (
Military cryptanalysts: Interrogatories of 1954 (

After his first, brief survey of the Friedman-von Neumann letter-file, Jim Reeds told other list-members (9th. April 1994):

…A[p]parently Friedman and John v. Neumann had a chat with Panofsky and wrote down a list of questions, and Panofsky wrote a letter answering them. I will summarize their contents when I get the xeroxes..

Closer inspection showed otherwise:   Von Neumann was Panofsky’s colleague who for two years (March 1952-March 1954) effectively stood between Panofsky and the somewhat importunate Friedman.  von Neumann later made a point of saying  that he just ‘sat in’ on their eventual meeting in March 1954.

Reeds’ entry  in his  Voynich Bibliography:

  • Panofsky, Erwin. “Answers to Questions for Prof. E. Panofsky.” Letter to William F. Friedman, March 19, 1954. Correspondence between Friedman, Panofsky, and J. v. Neumann. Letters from Richard Salomon to Erwin Panofsky and Gertrud Bing. WFF 1614.  (i.e.: George Marshall Foundation (library?) William F. Friedman Collection,  file no. 1614.)

Though Bauer (2017 p.558) also mentions this correspondence between Salomon and Panofsky, it is not referred to by Sheldon

It is interesting to imagine how news of the planned meeting might have affected members of the FBI or HUAC.  The  ‘ciphertext’ had been touted by the late Wilfrid Voynich as of value to the military; its present owner, his widow,  was known to have lived in Russia and sympathised with revolutionaries.  Wilfrid’s BOI file presumably became an FBI file in 1938, and the FBI had already had reason to ‘chat’ with Panofsky, in 1950.

Add to this the fact that Friedman had a history of instability, that Tiltman represented a foreign government, and that von Neumann worked on America’s nuclear weapons program at Los Alamos, and you can see why the thought of their meeting would have raised hair on the neck of the good FBI man.  Some surely doubted that they were intending to meet only to chat about  medieval art.

Hostility towards Jewish academics did not come only from external agencies; some otherwise intelligent men and academics were bigots too.  It has been pointed out to me that  in the early 1950s, Revilo Oliver attempted to renew an early acquaintance with Friedman

George David Birkhoff – another of similar mind – headed the maths department at Harvard through the first and second world war (1912 to 1944). Birkhoff’s anti-Semitic views and remarks are well-documented but not unequivocal. Siegmund-Schultze discovered a letter of 1928 which shows that Birkhoff interviewed von Neumann in Paris in 1928. (see excerpt below). Birkhoff was interested in astronomy, as was Van der Waerden.

And while Panofsky was the last man in the world to be paranoid,  it is understandable that he should prefer to keep to the world of colleagues students and the IAS, having as little as possible to do with bureaucrats. men in fedoras, and military chaps of the spies-and-ciphers sort.

We are  looking into this to understand why, in writing responses to a ‘quiz’ framed by Friedman, Panofsky’s replies are so derivative and laconic.

If we take those responses  at face value, we must suppose Panofsky considered the manuscript the work of a sixteenth-century  German;  it not, we must return to the privately-given opinion of 1931 1932 and suppose Panofsky’s opinion to be that the manuscript was  Jewish and from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’.   A southern locus better agrees with the orthography of the month-names; on the other hand some of the marginal inscriptions have been interpreted as German.  (How much later they were added is uncertain).

“The Group of Four”

William Friedman was employed by the National Security Agency (See prior post, ‘Prelude’.)

Though a fine cryptographer he also had a history of instability. I’ll illustrate with a couple of quotations, the first describing an early incident involving John Tiltman.

 [During Tiltman’s voyage to America by sea in 1942] he was made party to what amounted to a breach of security by the communications officer of the ship. Knowing something of Tiltman’s mission (the officer handled enciphered messages), he took it upon himself to show Tiltman the secure communications gear he was responsible for. Tiltman promised himself to cover the officer’s well-intentioned indiscretion by acting as if he had never seen the gear when he would be shown it officially. Upon his arrival in the U.S., both the Navy (in the person of Joseph Wenger) and the Army (through William Friedman) demonstrated the gear for him, each independently of the other. As it turned out, Wenger had received authorization for his actions. Friedman, much like the naval officer aboard ship, discussed the equipment on his own authority. This, according to Tiltman, led to a confrontation between Friedman and General Strong, the staff intelligence officer (G-2) for General Marshall, which may have led to one of Friedman’s breakdowns. (p.45)

There can be no doubt about that instability; most modern accounts of Friedman’s life speak of it, e.g.

Friedman’s life-long mental problems, particularly his depression, insomnia, and alcoholism, are summarized in a letter to his biographer, Ronald Clark, written by Friedman’s last psychiatrist (he’d consulted at least three for varying periods over the years), Zigmond M. Lebensohn, dated 10 May 1976. (Papers of Elizebeth S. Friedman, Box 13, File 30, George C. Marshall Library, Lexington, Virginia). Lebensohn’s letter notes that Friedman had been hospitalized with mental illness five separate times beginning in 1940. His last hospitalization was in late 1963.

  • [pdf] Colin MacKinnon, ‘William Friedman’s Bletchley Park Diary: A New Source for the History of Anglo-American Intelligence Cooperation’, Intelligence and National Security, (December 2005) note 9, pp.4-5.

In 1952 John Tiltman was still a member of CGHQ.  The meeting with Panofsky was continually deferred by him, or by von Neumann until March 1954 – about the time Tiltman retired from GCHQ though still  based at the British Embassy in Washington and still the senior British (UK) liaison officer to the United States.

Tiltman’s work in America was chiefly to assist the sharing of sensitive military intelligence between two of the three war-time allies, America and Britain,  at a time when neither side  felt  complete confidence in the other…

The third participant was the true civilian, Erwin Panofsky.  For those without previous knowledge of Panofsky’s work, I add a passage about perspective – in more senses than one – from a paper which he wrote in 1932, the same year he saw the Voynich manuscript.

  • Erwin Panofsky,‘ZumProblemder Beschreibung und Inhaltsdeutung von Werken der bildenden Kunst’, Logos 21 (1932): 103–19;
  • above paper, translated by Jas´ Elsner and Katharina Lorenz under the title ‘On the Problem of Describing and Interpreting Works of the Visual Arts’, Critical Inquiry 38 (Spring 2012): 467–82.

[For Lucian] to have been unambiguous would have been to have understood the work of art not from the vantage point of the second century AD but from that of the fifth century BC. He would also have needed to bring to mind identical comparable cases and thus to have been aware of changes in the possibilities of spatial expression over the period.  In short, he would have to have modeled his description not on the immediate perception of a given object within the picture but on the knowledge of general principles of depiction, that include an understanding of style which only a historical consciousness could have provided.

In my work (both here, and in general), when I speak of ‘stylistics’ I’m referring to those things bolded in the quotation above.

  • A lecture by Panofsky: “The Value of Error in the History of Art” (youtube)
  • Amos Morris-Reich, Race and Photography: Racial Photography as Scientific Evidence, 1876-1980. p.239 (note 165). A very interesting footnote shedding light on how Carl Neumann and Panofsky each regarded  Dürer’s view of the Jews – when both men were in Germany and  Hitler was coming to power.

John von Neumann, was Panofsky’s colleague and friend  should not be confused with Carl Neumann.

Los Alamos identification badge for John von Neumann. Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory. via Alex Wellerstein’s blog.

Leaving Germany in the 1930s he had come to work, as Panofsky had done from 1933, at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies.  One difference between them was that in 1943, von Neumann was personally invited by Oppenheimer to participate in the Manhattan Project. By 1952,  von Neumann had effectively two sets of ‘colleagues’.

Still more likely to create a frisson among the McCarthyists and others if they heard of the meeting was that  John von Neumann shared  rights with Karl Fuchs for the patent on a top secret nuclear mechanism which Fuchs had certainly shared with America’s other (and now even more distrusted) war-time ally, Communist Russia!   Fuchs had been convicted of spying just two years before Friedman started pushing to meet von Neumann’s ‘colleague’.

Given their  positions, their eminence, their specialisations and the atmosphere of the time, one cannot suppose that  any outsider – or that most of the insiders – could quite believe that none of the four had motives other than a desire to ‘have a chat’ about art.

Mutual uncertainty  about motives might also explain why, for those two years, any proposed meeting date was found impossible either by von Neumann or by Tiltman. A disinclination for further involvement with Friedman (or Tiltman) and awareness for the need for care and discretion might do much to explain Panofsky’s  responses, both to Friedman and to his ‘quiz’, which we’ll now turn to consider in the next two posts.

After Friedman informed von Neumann that he wanted to include ‘JT’ in the proposed meeting – or rather once  von Neumann had time to learn  ‘JT’s’ “avocation’ – the tone of the Friedman-von Neumann correspondence changes suddenly: from March 1952.

What fun! 

 

 

I am not implying any conspiracy between the four to exchange military secrets, but describing the context within which Friedman framed, and Panofsky responded to,  the ‘Questions for Professor Panofsky’.

 

see also:

  • [pdf] Daniel Keenan, Kultur and acculturation: Erwin Panofsky in the United States of America, (PhD thesis), Glasgow University, 2014.

For insight into von Neumann’s presence at Los Alamos see e.g.

A recent and revealing study of Fuch’s activity:

  • Michael S. Goodman, ‘The grandfather of the hydrogen bomb?: Anglo-American intelligence and Klaus Fuchs’, Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences , Vol. 34, No. 1 (2003), pp. 1-22.

 

Next post:  The ‘quiz’.

 

Military cryptanalysts: Interrogatories of 1954

Header picture: Erwin Panofsky (left); William Friedman (right). Photo sources linked,

Two posts previous:

I’ve decided to treat the background in some depth because Panofsky is the most learned historian of art to have commented on the manuscript, and because there is a marked discrepancy between the tone, content and  style of responses he made to a ‘quiz’ sent him by William Friedman in 1954, and what we would normally think characteristic of Panofsky’s approach to correspondence, to art and to manuscripts, whether during his German- or his American period.

This post and the next looks at the circumstances leading up to Erwin Panofsky’s meeting with Friedman in 1954, after which that ‘quiz’ was sent to him and his responses returned by post.

There is also another surprising discrepancy:  between these answers of 1954 and an  opinion Panofsky had earlier given, freely and in private, to Mrs. Voynich and Anne Nill in 1930/31 1932 – the only time he saw the manuscript though we learn from the correspondence that Panofsky was the given a complete photo-copy of the manuscript, which he lent to Salomon but had returned to him by 1952 and possibly from as early as 1931. Since Panofsky was acquainted – in Hamburg and in America – with a scholar having expertise in palaeography (Richard Salomon), it is possible that the later opinion reflects information gained after 1932.

  • Jim Reeds speaks of what may be another, and a written evaluation by Panofsky.  Reporting to his mailing list (13 Jul 94) the results of a visit to Yale’s Beinecke library, Reeds mentioned seeing:  “A report on the VMS from Panofsky to Voynich ca. 1930, with different conclusions from his 1950’s report to Friedman“. The account of Panofsky’s opinion as given by Anne Nill in a letter to Herbert Garland – put online by Santacoloma in 2013 –  was found (in 2008) in Box #5 at the Grolier Club archives. While  waiting on the Beinecke to send me copy of their document , I’ll compare the responses of 1954 with Nill’s letter.

Unless we are able to explain the marked discrepancy in content and in tone between the assessment of 1931 1932 and Panofsky’s responses to Friedman’s  ‘quiz’ in 1954,  the researcher must be left uncertain as to whether they do better to seek comparable imagery and/or informing texts though sixteenth century German art or  Jewish art of pre-fifteenth century ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ (or neither) though no-one acquainted with Panofsky’s writings on art – as the cryptanalysts evidently were not – can do what they did and merely presume that the later document contains the better information.

Note – a recent find from Anne Nill’s correspondence, leading me to think Panofsky in 1954 misremembered the date he saw the ms, is treated later in the post ‘Cryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1932’

What Friedman and his cryptanalysts clearly failed to appreciate is that a specialist’s opinion is formed out of the evidence not from a ‘theory’, and it is formed by reference to a mass of prior study which contextualises the example to hand.   That evidence, practical experience and comparative material cannot be willed out of existence;  a person of Panofsky’s ability and experience does not as a rule assess a work one day as evincing the characteristics of  pre-fifteenth century southern (Sephardi) Jewish art with Arabic influence, and then without seeing the original again, twenty years later decide that it is  sixteenth-century and German. His first opinion was already that of the mature scholar, whose Studies in Iconology would appear in print eight years later, in 1939.

Explaining the paradox (and Panofsky’s curiously uncharacteristic tone and style in 1954)  means considering the context in which the later responses were written: not just America’s political climate during the 1950s –   outlined in the previous post – but  a meeting which occurred immediately before Friedman sent his ‘quiz’.

Between Friedman’s first seeking an introduction to Panofsky, and that meeting, there intervenes two years’ correspondence. We have a record of it thanks to  Jim Reeds,  who in 1994 went to the archives at the George C. Marshall Foundation, had xerox copies made at his own expense, and shared the information with other members of his mailing list.

The rest of this post summarises and adds references and comments for that correspondence. It  makes this post rather long, but will be helpful I hope.

The next post considers the situations of each of the four participants in the meeting which eventually took place: Friedman, Tiltman, Panofsky and von Neumann.

Later posts will turn to Friedman’s Questions; then look in detail at Panofsky’s responses; and finally see what the military cryptanalysts did with the information they had. It was this last which had such stong impact  later on the nature, assumptions and direction of the manuscript’s study.

Organising the ‘sit down’.. (March 1952 – March 1954)

The ‘questionnaire’ might never have been presented, and Panofsky might never have heard of Friedman, had not John von Neumann, in writing to ask Friedman for Mrs. Voynich’s address, mentioned that a colleague had some interest in the manuscript.

Friedman began pushing to meet that colleague – without even knowing the man’s name.  The way he broached the subject is revealing.  He did not ask von Neumann to see if his colleague was willing to meet, but in a footnote wrote:  “You might let me have his name, as it is quite possible he and I could get together for a discussion of the problem.” That the person might not wish to be named, or might refuse to meet Friedman doesn’t seem to have occurred to him, and Friedman’s  insensitivity becomes one of the most noticeable aspects of his character to infuse the record of his connection to this manuscript.  Similarly, his inability to consider both sides of a question once he had taken his own position would mar his efforts to understand it  – and so magnify Wilfrid’s errors and further distort the manuscript’s study, as we’ll see later.

After an initially cordial response, von Neumann’s correspondence soon shifts to refusals – expressed urbanely, as deferments – but though these ‘deferments’ continue for two full years (March 1952-March 1954) Friedman seemed oblivious.  During that time,  von Neumann’s letters never once encourage Friedman to contact Panofsky directly; nor is there any suggestion that Panofsky wished direct contact with Friedman.  But Friedman simply wasn’t the sort of person who takes ‘no’ for an answer – a character-trait doubtless helpful in his cryptographic work – and in March 1954, he finally did get to meet Panofsky – who after that meeting and having filled out Friedman’s ‘Questions for Professor Panofsky’ had nothing more to do with Friedman or with Tiltman, so far as I know.

Again – it is due to Jim Reeds’ generosity that we can reconstruct the events.  Before visiting the George C. Marshall archives, he asked  members of his Voynich mailing list (31 March 1994) if there was anything  they’d like him to look for in particular while he was there.  Karl Kluge suggested, “‘The correspondence with Panofsky re: the Voynich.”

So, in addition to the research he intended to pursue*,   Reeds spent the time needed to find the ‘Panofsky’ letter file;  to make a summary of the many letters it contained;  to summarise Friedman’s questions and  to transcribe Panofsky’s replies in full.

  • *and which he soon shared. [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘William F. Friedman’s Transcription of the Voynich Manuscript’ (7th. September 1994).
  • Jim Reeds’  Voynich mailing list (also described as the ‘first mailing list’) was run through  -x-voynich@rand.org.
  • The earlier archives (1991- 2001) are available zip files, ordered by year, at http://voynich.net/reeds/vmail.html
  • Archives for 2000-2005  are still up as webpages, ordered by year, month and thread (or date). Index at  http://www.voynich.net/Arch/
Voynich.net  is maintained – so I’m told –  by Rich Santacoloma who ran the second mailing list. That second list died some time ago  but for one reason and another, its files are not yet available to researchers online.  Santacoloma has promised to see to it  soon. Let’s hope nothing interferes.
Some years later, Zandbergen would copy Reeds’ summary of the questions and Reeds’  transcription of the answers to his own website, voynich.nu, though at present those pages lack full details of the sources  made use of.

Correspondence 1952-1954

Reeds’ summary of the  correspondence begins with a letter from Friedman to von Neumann:

  1. “Here is Mrs Voynich’s address. “…you may wish to communicate it to  your colleague* who is interested in that rather remarkable mystery. [Footnote] You might let me have his name, as it is quite possible he and I could get together for a discussion of the problem.” “With cordial greetings and best wishes for the New Year, I am, Sincerely…”[William F. Friedman]

Soon, von Neumann  does give Panofsky’s name or initials (Reeds reduced the chief names to initials in his summaries):

2.  JvN to WFF (24 Dec 1951) Thanks for Mrs Voynich’s address. I’ll tell it to EP, whom I talked with about the VMS. He has a photocopy. The subject is certainly very interesting and     intriguing. I hope you can visit EP and me.

Note – Reeds mentions that in the same file there is “A complete bound set of photostats of the VMS, printed, I think, from negatives made by Voynich in the early 1920’s. These are labeled with “page numbers” which are the same as the page numbers found in rand.org:/pub/voynich/voynich.orig“.    (Is it Panofsky’s copy?  Among the six original copies made by Voynich – as far as d’Imperio knew – was one given ” to a scholar whom Mrs. Voynich did not identify”, while in another place she notes that  “:.. The copies used by Friedman, Tiltman, Krisher, and Currier, and the copy available to me, all derive ultimately from a photocopy made by Father Petersen of Catholic University on April 29. 1931  from a set of photostats provided by Mrs. Voynich.” Elegant Enigma p. 31; p.21.

-Apparently an appointment was offered Friedman for March 7th. ?by phone? because…

3. WFF to JvN (22 Feb 1952) Alas, 7 March is out. How about after 15 March? Hope to bring my friend JT, “who has taken a considerable avocational interest in the Voynich  manuscript.”

Friedman would not realise, I think,  that he has caused alarm as well as been impolite. Impolite first, in rejecting the date offered him by Panofsky;  secondly in doing it so abruptly  without even a token apology for possible inconvenience and thirdly by announcing that he will bring a third person to be introduced to Panofsky. ‘Hope’ here is more likely to mean that he hopes ‘JT’ is free than that he hopes Panofsky will not object to the imposition.

Friedman’s suddenly including  ‘JT’ (Brigadier John Tiltman)  might well have alarmed von Neumann once he knew who Tiltman was:  namely, the senior British liaison officer between the British and the American military intelligence agencies.

The correspondence between von Neumann and Friedman, initially amiable, now changes tone from March 1952.  von Neumann maintains an impression of friendliness and willingness, while putting Friedman off  for two full years.  In my estimate, this was not due to personal concern on von Neumann’s part so much as to the realisation that his own position at Los Alamos, and  Panofsky’s position as a German Jew made it perhaps a bad idea: for him to meet in a private setting the representative of a foreign government, and for Panofsky to endure any sort of questioning by two men connected to military intelligence.  Panofsky left Germany in 1933, but bad experiences are slow to fade.

At the time, tensions existed not only among McCarthyists and others; they were also high between the American and British military-intelligence organisations, each of whom wanted frank disclosure from the other on matters military, while being very unwilling to give it.

Tiltman is also likely to have been sensitive to the unwisdom of meeting von Neumann in private.  Whatever the reason, mention of Tiltman is soon met by stonewalling from von Neumann, and then both of them –  first the one and then the other – make their excuses until 1954, the year Tiltman formally retired from British GCHQ.

  1. JvN to WFF 25 Feb 1952.. Thanks for yours of 22 Feb. Sorry we (?) cannot get together on 2 March. Lets plan on a later get-together with you and JT.
  2. JvN to WFF. 29 Feb 1952. Please excuse delay in answering yours of 25 Jan. Would have liked to come before 12/13 March. “I talked with my friend and colleague, Professor Panofsky, about the Voynich manuscript, and he is very much looking forward to making your acquaintance. Could you name a period during which a  get-together with him would suit you?”
  3. WFF to JvN. 20 March 1952. Thanks for the phone call. JT and I were planning to come up on 26 March, but JT just said  it was impractical. How about 4 April, 11 April, 25 April or 2 May? “Still hopeful of making our visit in the not too distant future and looking forward to it, I am, Sincerely,…”
  4. JvN to WFF. 21 March 1952. Thanks for yours of 20 March. Sorry to postpone, but I’ve got to go to Los Alamos and Las Vegas. [I/we?] Free on April 26, also on May 2 and 3.
  5.  WFF to JvN. 29 Aug 1952.”With the coming of Labor Day and the  ending of the summer vacation period, my thoughts turn once again in your direction and to the idea of making a visit to Princeton for the purpose of taking with Professor E. Panovsky [sic] and you about the Voynich manuscript.” A weekend after 13 Sept would be best for me and JT.
  6.  JvN to WFF. 8 Sept. 1952.Thanks for yours of 29 August. I am away to Cambridge, Mass, and then out West. I will call EP. Hope [sic] that I  can meet you and JT; so is EP.
  7. JvN to WFF. 15 June 1953. Excuse delay in answering yours of 29 May; I was away from Princeton. I will be in Santa Monica 25 June-25 July, EP will leave Princeton for Maine from 6 July through August; maybe we can meet in September?
  8. WFF to JvN. 25 Feb 1954.  Can JT and I see EP in March or April? PS: JT says April bad; how about March?

Then suddenly, in March 1954, the four men have met, apparently one evening  somewhere in Princeton. Von Neumann and Tiltman were both present at what Friedman describes as a ‘a conference’.

The file continues:

  1. Questions for Prof. E. Panofsky as a result of Conference with him and Prof. John von Neumann at Princeton on 9 March 1954. By List of 15 numbered questions by WFF. Q15 was what did EP think of the artificial language theory.  9 March 1954.
  2. WFF to EP. Thanks for spending evening with me & JT, talking about VMS; am enclosing list of questions. JT says hi.  16 March 1954.
  3. WFF to JvN. FYI, copy of previous letter & enclosure. 16 March 1954.
  4. JvN to WFF.  Thanks for yours of 12 March, and for copy of your letter to EP.  Nice sitting in on meeting between WFF, JT and EP.  Will see you on 20-21 April.  Tell JT that I didn’t attend Linear B lecture after all. (note that von Neumann doesn’t agree that he was active in the ‘Conference’.) 19 March 1954.
  5. EP to WFF. Thanks for the letter of 16 March; here are the answers to your questions. 19 March 1954.
  6. WFF to EP. Thanks for yours of 19 March, answering my questions. Am sending copy to JT. 23 March 1954.
  7. WFF to JvN.  Thanks for yours of 9 March; I’ve sent a copy to JT.  Come to my house for drinks on 20-21 April.  29 March 1954.

And that was that.

It would be good to have a photocopy of the first document from that group of seven.

The perfunctory tone of the single letter in this file from Panofsky to Friedman is most unusual.

Thanks for the letter of 16 March; here are the answers to your questions.

It contrasts markedly  with what we know, from numerous accounts, was  Panofsky’s usual practice of responding with civility  – and more:

“Anything that arrived by mail – an inquiry, an offprint, a casual greeting – would bring a prompt and delightful response; the inquiry had started a train of thought, the offprint had been read with genuine interest, the greeting had evoked memories. Often, a more personal note would be added, a comment on the current state of the world or a discourse-in-brief on some scholarly  problem that Panofsky was pursuing at the moment, and always as well-phrased, as full of wit and insight as his published writings. Such letters asked to be saved. Most  of them have been (there must be many thousands)

Keenan, quoting Stechow (among several others)  on this matter.  pp.19-20

  • Daniel Keenan,  Kultur and acculturation: Erwin Panofsky in the United States of America. (PhD thesis) University of Glasgow, (2014)
  • Panofsky’s correspondence is in various archives and personal collections, including Archives of American Art which hold letters written between 1920 and 1968.