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

Two prior posts

Afterword to this post.

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

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

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


Seventeenth-century mindset – Friedman and artificial languages.

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

*which is where Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa comes in.

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

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

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

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

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

Questions of influence.

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

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

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

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

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

Towards the seventeenth century,

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

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

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

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

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

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

– -which is perfectly true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong on the Voynich

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

Robert Brumbaugh again. 

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

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

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

Nothing occult in that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Showers of kingly gold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ego judicium meum hic suspendo.

map routes trade medieval London to Prague

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Elegant Enigma p. 77.

Remember Chapters 8 and 9?

d'Imperio section 8

d'Imperio sections 9 & 10


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


What magic? Where magic? 3a: The Friedmans.

Two prior posts

Header:  portraits of William and Elizebeth Friedman (courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation);  magical alphabets (courtesy of Omniglot).


I’ll start by correcting one of my own errors, with thanks to a generous friend who took the trouble to remind me that the ‘Germanic/central European’ idea predates its adoption by Prinke and Zandbergen. It is easiest if I quote his letter. He prefers to remain anonymous.

it is true they  revived it in the first mailing list after it was pretty much a ‘dead letter’ but there is Charles Singer’s ‘feeling’ in 1957; E. Friedman said – no clue why – it was a probable [idea], though that wouldn’t mean it survived necessarily. Robert S. Brumbaugh kept it going in the 1960s or ’70s. He was professor of classical philosophy like Newbold. Like Newbold, settled on a ‘cipher solution’.  I guess the reason  Brumbaugh wasn’t so badly dumped on is Yale held both [ms. and Prof. Brumbaugh] pretty safe  and Y’s-B librarians seem to [have] been super-deferential to Brumbaugh.  The Beinecke site  repeating Brumbaugh’s ideas  for ‘introduction’ even after his death and years [bolded] after the radiocarbon range came out  still talking about ‘sixteenth or seventeenth century’ dating for the ms.  No reason given. Just embarrassing to read.

If I recall right, Singer’s feelings etc. were main basis for it. P&Z didn’t adopt it till late in the ’90s. I’m not sure you could say there is really a ‘P&Z theory’, because no one ever defines what it means, or its limits; no one defends it –  just by flying at anyone doubting it.  Definitions shifty as a Maine fog..

Tried to see if there was anything solid to him [Brumbaugh] acting like he had skills  to pronounce about manuscripts, drawings, codicology, palaeography or anything else like that. Found nothing. Have you tried – any better info? [no –  D]

Can’t believe all Yale conservators believed B’s ideas, but if not why let readers be sent off in wrong directions? Just sayin’.

Bottom line anyway, D., is you’re wrong about it starting with P&Z.   ‘Germanic theory’ has to start with Singer Charles at least his ‘feelings’. I’d  guess the thought would have died before 1980s, then Brumbaugh kept it above ground. When he died, along came P&Z with a writ for theory’s life-support. ha-ha. So it’s still here.  

All the above is one person’s opinion. Of course  I’m grateful for the correction and will call it  the ‘Germanic-central European’ theory from now on.

Here’s where d’Imperio mentions Charles Singer’s “feeling”. If you don’t have a smart screen, open it in a new tab.

Singer's vague feeling German clip p.7


Lynn ThorndikeThe previous post ended with the letter that Lynn Thorndike wrote to Scientific American in June of 1921 and about which, as I said, some less obvious aspects are even more interesting than what Thorndike actually says in it.

He made three points, two stated outright and one implied. 

First, he pointed out that there was no  evidence that Roger Bacon had been given to writing in cipher. Thorndike had closely studied Bacon’s works in manuscript copies and knew what he was talking about.

Secondly, he said that  [even accepting Newbold’s categories for the manuscript’s sections, just for argument’s sake] –  there was no reason to assert that Roger Bacon was the only possible author. 

Thorndike’s third point was implied, but serves the same argument against Wilfrid’s “Roger Bacon scientific ciphertext” story – namely, anyone tempted to believe that the manuscript’s content was ‘science or pseudo-science’ could –  perhaps should–  then test the idea against the evidence of those tens of thousands of manuscripts treating such matters that were held in the British libraries alone.*  He implies, too, that such persons might also consider his own forthcoming study.  When issued in print in 1923, that first volume would contain 835 printed pages and a late-added sentence on this same ‘Bacon wrote in cipher’ myth. 

*Each of Thorndike’s volumes includes a list of referenced manuscripts. His own studies were not limited to British collections. 
  • Lynn Thorndike, The History of Magic and Experimental Science  Vol.1. pp 766-767.

But the really interesting thing about Thorndike’s letter is something else again.

With Thorndike being, at that time, the pre-eminent specialist in the history of medieval magic, sciences and pseudo-sciences – including astrology and alchemy – you’d think that if he could have done so, he would have happily destroyed that ‘Roger Bacon ciphertext’ idea more efficiently.

All he had to do was to point to some other securely provenanced and dated manuscript, from some time and region other than Bacon’s, and show positively that the other manuscript’s diagrams, script or drawings were very closely similar in structure, form, stylistics and intention to something in the Voynich manuscript.

So long as the comparison was of substance, not superficial appearance, and was accurate, that would have been enough to disprove Wilfrid’s imaginative scenario.

Yet Thorndike never did, so far as I can discover.

For a scholar having Thorndike’s level of scholarship and expertise, who had the necessary languages and who had already spent years in close study of a particular class of European manuscripts, it would not be difficult to say of a manuscript, “these month-diagrams (or plant-drawings, or containers) look like versions of text x produced in time y within region z‘.  Professionals and scholars did the equivalent every day[within their own particular area of specialist studies – clarification added 16June].   By 1921, just as Thorndike says, tens of thousands of manuscripts in British libraries had already been catalogued and accurately described.  Only a small percentage of those tens of thousands which were acquired by the British Museum, and which are now accommodated at the British Library have needed their first description and dating corrected –   and as a rule it is place, rather than date, that has needed correction.*

* see for example, Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 821, acquired and catalgued in 1840 –  yes, 1840.   On the older website  ‘British Illuminated Manuscripts’ it is described as German, but in the light of recent research the newer site ‘British Library Digitised manuscripts’ corrects the record to ‘Southern France’. The dating stands.

So Thorndike’s silence is a resounding silence.   It is like that silence from Panofsky in 1932 or the silence underlying Tiltman’s comments* of 1968.

*quoted in next post.

While Thorndike might accept that the manuscript’s appearance was compatible with Wilfrid’s  suggested thirteenth-century English provenance, the manuscript’s content apparently found no comparison in his experience. If this inference is correct, then in Thorndike we have yet another instance of a genuinely qualified and eminent specialist saying – overtly or tacitly – “Not one of mine”. (See earlier post ).

Public discourse versus ‘national secrets’.

National Seecurity cleared d'Imperio Elegant 1978

At first it was only within the secretive environment of  Friedmans’   ‘national security’ project, during in the fevered years of McCarthy’s witch-hunt for ‘communists’ that  an idea of the Voynich manuscript’s containing  occult matter would be entertained and then mushroom until it had plainly become an idée fixe for William Friedman and his wife Elizebeth. Since they determined the limits and direction taken by their several different ‘study groups’, their fixation drove research and is thus embodied in Mary d’Imperio’s summary of the Friedmans’ – ultimately failed – efforts to ‘break the text’.

However it would not be until that summary was released in 1979 by the NSA  (established in 1952 within the Department of Defense) before that the inherently anachronistic notion could begin to affect a  wider public, and so become in time another unfounded ‘Voynich doctrine’.  As my correspondent rightly says, apart from the Friedmans, the other two driving influences were Robert S. Brumbaugh and the Beinecke librarians of half a century ago. [typo corrected and link added 16th June 2021]

DDC approval D'Imperio Voynich
d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, cleared for release by the NSA June 1979

It is easily forgotten that this idea of ‘magic and occult’ did not affect discussion of the manuscript until the 1970s.  From 1944 until that time, it was only within William Friedman’s circle that attention would shift from the first part of Wilfrid’s romantic tale to the second phase with its insertion of John Dee into the narrative. 

Roger Bacon died in c.1280 and Dee was not born until 1527. 

In the usual way, no one would suggest that a manuscript  not incompatible with a thirteenth- or fourteenth century date could include matter proper to the seventeenth, and neither  Wilfrid nor Newbold did.  But the Friedmans did, and the ‘occult’ idea was always anachronistic – as it still is – and was always tied to a peculiar set of unfounded ideas, centred on some fantasy-figure invariably imagined as a white Christian male, a member of the elite, usually one whose natural environment was a royal court,  whose interests were arcane and whose name, invariably, was presumed recorded in extant historical documents.   

Nothing about the manuscript – not the quality of its vellum, the organisation or layout of the page, and not even the binding offers support for ideas that kind. (Which is why, incidentally, any description of the scribal hands as ‘humanist’ begs a great many questions, given the radiocarbon range of 1404-1438).

There was no check on the Friedmans’ pursuing the idea because they acted independent of, and largely indifferent to, opinions from the best qualified and most experienced specialists – whether in Thorndike’s field of study, or in historical studies, art history or any of the disciplines that enabled a manuscript made in medieval Europe to be accurately dated and placed.

Indeed, when it comes to Thorndike,  the Friedmans did not just ignore him and his work – they positively ‘blanked’ both. And their attitude is found reflected in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – of which, more later

Bacon and Rubruk LUTZFor the rest of the world,  completely unaware of what the Friedmans were doing and who they were, the manuscript mostly continued to be supposed English and the written text ‘A Roger Bacon ciphertext’, as we see from entries in Jim Reeds’ ‘Voynich Bibliography’.

Nor was the general public  much interested in the idea of Roger Bacon as someone involved in magic, its theory or its practice.  

True, Wilfrid had embedded John Dee into his sales’ pitch and Newbold injected an air of mystery and magic into his talk to the Surgeons of Philadelphia in 1921, but the public weren’t buying it – not in the literal or in the metaphorical sense. Edward Lutz’ paper of 1936 is a good example of how even earnest efforts to write an objective account of Bacon’s life and works included, with solid information, much  romanticised history, imagination and credulity toward claims made by both Wilfrid and Newbold.

  • Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (June, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82. The image shown above, left is from Lutz’ paper.

It’s not difficult to understand why most people of that time rejected the ‘magical’ theme. 

Not only the public at large but  many contemporary scholars conceived of Roger Bacon as a ‘scientist before his time’ a little as if he’d been an earlier, and English version of Leonardo da Vinci. (Many Germans attempted to elevate Albertus of Lauingen in exactly the same way). 

Reverence for Science  (with a capital ‘s’) was never higher than during the first half of the twentieth century, and the Scientist was imagined some paragon of rationality, while believers of magic were relegated to an opposite extreme.   Only the few who had actually studied medieval writings understood that the line was not so clearly drawn in the days of Roger Bacon or, come to that, of Albertus.

So the popular, idealised view of Bacon could not be reconciled with notions of his being a ‘magician’ and  in discussions of the Voynich manuscript never took hold beyond an occasional mention of astrology or alchemy with a very very small ‘a’. To give you a sense of the times, here is a paragraph from Lutz’ paper.

Alchemy for Bacon formed merely the stepping stone to the higher science of chemistry, and so he correctly evaluated  the former’s worth. Hence, his comprehensive mind having grasped all the rudiments of the subject [i.e  alchemy’s technical skills] , Roger drafted principles of action whereby he employed the knowledge of those before him in his own inimitable way to arrive at many new discoveries…. Besides the ordinary metals known to the ancients Friar Roger appears to have isolated quite a few of the rarer elements; for in his writings have been found the formulae for extracting phosphorus, manganese, bismuth, and others from their compounds.

Lutz, op.cit. p.49.


Friedmans and his ‘teams’.

American shaggy mushroom

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002


There is a reason why ‘team spirit’ and group-work is associated chiefly with government organisations, the military, with commercial corporations,  and with sports. 

All are inclined to frame their purpose in terms of an  ‘us’ against ‘them’.  The very concept of the ‘team’ begins by assuming unity of attitude and purpose, and then actively promotes those ideas within the group’s members, the aim being to defeat the supposedly inferior – or even nefarious – aims of “the others”.

No matter how acute a thinker any individual within a ‘team’ may be, the ‘team’ itself is an inherently anti-intellectual structure.   At its worst it serves up less-than-truthful propaganda, or forms into a ‘think-tank’ whose charter is to fake, distort or misrepresent objective technical information to facilitate  particular commercial or other forms of exploitation.. and so forth.

Scholars having already achieved eminence in one of the critical sciences (as distinct from the pragmatic sciences) are inclined to resist pressure placed on them – no matter how subtlely – to become ‘team players’ in any situation short of war.   

In normal situations, scholars may confer; they may contribute to the organisation of a seminar, or to the production of collected studies, but in the last analysis a scholar whose profession has already recognised the quality of his or her work wants to work and think without intellectual- or social pressure exterted on them  to go along with some ‘median line’.

Error remains error no matter how many hands go up signalling assent to it.  One cannot ‘vote’ for an idea to become a fact.  Scholarly consensus doesn’t work that way.  

Let me put it more mildly by quoting a comment from ‘Sir Hubert’ at Nick Pelling’s blog:

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

“SirHubert” ( comment to Ciphermysteries, December 10, 2013.

The Friedmans formed a team of two.  Those who came for a shorter or for a longer period worked at their direction and along the lines which Friedman decided, and decided without much effort to learn anything more about medieval history, manuscripts, codicology, palaeography.. or even medieval and later magic in Europe. As we shall see.


Lynn ThorndikeThe first volume of Lynn Thorndike’s great study  appeared in print in 1923. HIs eighth and final volume, covering the seventeenth century, was published in 1958.

It represented the first comprehensive. scholarly study of these matters in English, and was for decades the only substantial reference work for an English speaking public.

As you see from the illustration (below), the whole series covers a period from long before Bacon’s birth (c.1219 AD)  until after Rudolf’s death in 1522. 

Thorndike volumes


You might think, then, when noting the large proportion of d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma that is assigned to occult and magical matter,  that a great many mentions of Thorndike would be found within.  After all, he was in America, as they were, and was someone against whom, between 1944 and 1958,  an hypothesis about ‘magical matter’ could be checked to see if it accorded with the facts and documents of history.  After 1958, there was his magnum opus against which a theory the Friedmans had adopted could be checked in the same way.

You might think so  – but it isn’t so.  Thorndike is spared just a few sporadic sentences. 

from: Elegant Enigma –  ‘Table of Contents’

d'Imperio section 8

d'Imperio sections 9 & 10

If that fact is startling, their  tone  is still more disconcerting: 

Thorndike has, with characteristic emphasis, stated his opinion that “There is hardly one chance in fifty that Roger Bacon had any connection with the production of the Voynich manuscript.” (quoting a paper of 1929)…. p.6

Thorndike’s debunking of Bacon seems to be a shade more savage and thoroughgoing, doubtless as an over-reaction [sic] to the effusive and misplaced adulation of Bacon by some earlier writers…. p.50.

Thorndike .. characterises Ars Notoria as an art designed to gain knowledge of, and to communicate with God by the invocation of angels, unsung mystical characters and prayers; he also dismisses all the material as “meaningless jumbles of diagrams and magic words” without telling us much more about it. … p.59

Thorndike (1923-58) discusses alchemy in passing as he describes the writings of various ancient and medieval practitioners. (p.60)

The dismissive and faintly derogatory tone of these remarks makes them worse than actually incorrect, or an insult to the man, but wrong in the worst way.  It is almost enough to make the present writer resort to fiction, too, because I can almost see Willian Friedman, while still working on his initial ‘Bacon ciphertext’ premise, flicking through the first volume of Thorndike’s History… looking for ‘sets of alphabets or something’ which can be conveniently transferred to computer punch-cards and finding nothing so facile, tossing the book away with a supercilious expression and some sneering comment.

From time to time, d’Imperio gives us such a glimpse of the way in which the Friedmans had an excessive idea of their own importance and expressed it by denigrating specialists in all intellectual disciplines, save the practice of cryptography.

Before illustrating that fact, I want to explain its importance – that their inability to recognise the value of other areas of knowledge meant that their range of external checks for any idea about the manuscript’s date and evident character was very small, desultory and curiously ignorant of relative weight – that is, of whose opinion was worthy or greater or less attention, of whether a subject needed them to devote more, or less, time to learning about it before incorporating it into some theory or other.  As one looks down the list of those who are mentioned approvingly in d’Imperio’s summary of the Friedmans’ failed efforts to ‘break the text’, a pattern does emerge.  Greater weight is given the opinion of anyone who is willing to lend support to some idea which Friedman finds attractive and correspondingly less to those who cannot concur with his views.

Thus, Singer whose ability to judge a manuscript was far inferior to that of Panofsky or Thorndike, is given great weight, and no effort is made to use genuinely expert opinions to ascertain whether Singer’s “renaissance Germanic occult” notion is compatible with the palaeographic, codicological or iconographic evidence, or even with Thorndike’s information about the history of magic and pseudo-science.  The push was simply towards hunting evidence for the theory – never a balanced idea of its relevance to the manuscript.   Thus, the entire construction of the ‘Germanic-and-occult’ narrative is based on not much more than Wilfrid’s imaginative tale, Singer’s poor attempt to date and place the manuscript, and Friedman’s liking the idea while being over-confident about the superiority of his own opinions over all academic scholarship.

d'Imperiod’Imperio herself, though her writing usually suggests a person of calm, balanced and orderly mind, bursts out occasionally with the most astonishing, ill-founded ideas.  It was in that atmosphere that the ‘occult Voynich’ notion flourished, moved well beyond any reasonable chronological boundary, and would become inextricably, if inexplicably, linked to a ‘Germanic’ theory.

The very persons and sources that might have prevented Friedman from such irrational theories were unable to do so by reason of the fact that they offered him contradiction, and Friedman’s self-importance would not allow him to accept correction from anyone but – occasionally – John Tiltman.

We have seen how Friedman acted with regard to Professor Panofsky, and how the Friedmans reacted when an academic board advised them the manuscript’s content was unlikely to be of any importance.  Again, there are those few, cursory, dismissive references to Thorndike, and the cavalier way in which Fr. Theodore Petersen’s work was mistreated. The following passage was quoted in an earlier post but I include it again to show that not only Friedman himself behaved in that irrational way, but his attitude came to infect the team.  It is especially uncomfortable to have this from d’Imperio.  

The manuscript probably contains only trivia”, the board said.

to which d’Imperio adds, with sneering air-quotes, the following extraordinary farrago of baseless assertion, speculation and sheer fantasy. It is not clear the degree to which she is relaying Elizebeth Friedman’s views.

I must confess that I can see little justice in the reasoning of those “academics”… who dismiss the Voynich manuscript out of hand, after what can only be the most superficial attention. Even if it is, in fact, a fabrication … associated with the court of Rudolph II, an understanding of who wrote it, its passage from one to another of Rudolph’s familiars and the part it played in the remarkable congeries of religious and political activities at Prague in those times could prove to be of great interest. .. If the manuscript is a compilation , however “deranged” or idiosyncratic …drawn from earlier magical, alchemical, or medical works, it has at least as much intrinsic interest and “scientific’ import for the history of Western thought as do other similar manuscripts which are readable, and concern only one topic [i.e.. they are either astrological or alchemical or medical]. Reputable scholars apparently see no waste of time in studying “plaintext” manuscripts of this type and may spend much of their lives so occupied”.

For the notion that the manuscript is about astrology, alchemy or medicine there is, to the time of writing, no proven basis in fact.

Not one of those ideas has ever been introduced as an end-result of concerted and formal investigation of either the images or the written text. Every one of them is an assumption for which the underlying premise is that in some way or other the manuscript will be a flawed copy of some ‘normal’ Latin European text.

For that assumption there is no  basis established either though the idea has been constantly assumed since 1912.

Another instance of that astounding loss of proportion occurs after d’Imperio has related, as if they were of equal weight, opinions expressed by various people about the manuscript’s drawings.  She then says:

In sum: it appears as if no one has made or documented a really careful and systematic attempt to contrast and compare the style of the Voynich manuscript  drawings to other manuscripts of various origins and dates such as could answer some of our questions.

*a five-seconds’ pause*

Did she never ask herself – “Why on earth should they go to such lengths to answer some of our questions?”

The manuscript was Friedman’s project.  Even among the first lot of military cryptographers, some wanted nothing to do with it, as Jim Reeds relates.

Writing in 1994, Reeds says of Friedman’s  “first study group”[FSG] which operated from 1944-46:

Frank Lewis re Friedman and FSG VoynichAt the end of the war, the Army cryptanalysts headed by Friedman found themselves without any pressing tasks. Many were simply awaiting demobilization and return to their universities and civilian practices. Friedman took advantage of their momentarily free time and talent by organizing an effort to work on the Voynich problem. The group studied the available scholarly material, [sic!] discussed hypotheses, transcribed the VMS onto IBM cards, and disbanded. …It is known that Frank Lewis .. and Martin Joos … were in the right place at the right time to have been part of the FSG but Lewis was not attracted to the Voynich problem and Joos thought Friedman’s approach was misguided, so neither participated.

  • [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘William F. Friedman’s Transcription of the Voynich Manuscript’ (1994). Frank Lewis assisted in breaking Soviet ciphers, as part of the ‘Venona’ project aimed at identifying active soviet agents. 

To imagine, in the 1950s, that someone like Panofsky, or even Singer, should set aside their own professional research and duties to undertake so massive a task as is implied by d’Imperio – and  merely to provide Friedman with pre-digested ‘answers’ for his often embarrassingly ignorant questions –  is beyond mere cheek. 

The best excuse I can suggest for d’Imperio is that her own ignorance prevented her being able to so much as imagine what such a task would entail. Perhaps the easiest way to make the point is by the reciprocal: it is as if Panofsky has expected Friedman to produce a translation of the written text within a fortnight so he could write a full explanation of the text’s images, their origin and purpose.

It’s no exaggeration to say that one might make an entire doctoral dissertation on the practical and philosophical  implications  of  “comparing and contrasting drawings in manuscripts of various origins and dates” .

Comparative studies are the life-work of those who specialise in this fairly small and difficult branch of iconological studies, and most who do, work for private clients and do not publish their professional research. 

I will say that such work  involves a great deal more than looking at pictures with a ‘pick the similarities’ attitude, because what is actually being compared are the things about which different peoples make pictures – they give form to their unique culture, embody in the picture ideas from proverbial sayings, religious beliefs, ideas about the heavens and earth, their oral and written literature, their tribal heritage, and memories of times so long ago that western culture cannot grasp such constancy. They make pictures from their own practical lore, including that about plants or stars.. and more. So too did medieval Latins, but since so much of that culture remains in modern western Christian society, the way of interpreting pictures from that environment seems ‘natural’ and easy to modern Europeans and, thanks to the colonial period, to much of the world where it was never natural. 

But at least d’Imperio understood that to ‘contrast’ is as important as to ‘compare’. Today,  even Kindergarten children learn how to ‘compare and contrast’ – it’s part of pre-literacy education, but for some inexplicable reason, it has never been part of, so to say, ‘Voynich studies 101’. In practice, it’s the ‘contrast’ phase which produces the most valuable information. 

  And Friedman himself was never interested in hearing  ‘unlike’ from  the historical record or as others’ opinions. Knowing that the number, and range, of those asked to submit ‘answers’ to Friedman was not only small, but were curiously ranked by the Friedmans and thus by d’Imperio, and the written sources were so summarily treated, it becomes easier to understand how Elegant Enigma came to contain  so many statements patently untrue and so many and various tyro-nian errors.

Take that reference to ‘Ars notoria’, for example.

[the] Ars notoria

frontispiece Ars nortoria Agrippa's interpretationd’Imperio says Thorndike had ‘nothing much to say’ about [the] Ars notoria, but he refers to it in many places, such as when speaking of Fontana in Vol.4, where his footnote reads, 

   “On the ars notoria and the sacred characters [see] ibid 17r, 99v, 73r.”

His reference is to the 1544 edition of a specific text (S. Marco VIII, 72 {Valentinelli XI, 93). 


  • Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic…  Vol.4 [Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries] p.169 n.99. (1934). 

If the Friedmans’ indifference to ‘external checks’ had been less pronounced, then even if they could spare no-one to travel to Europe to check that precise source, any  enquiry directed to, say,  a university library, the Library of Congress, or the British Library would have informed them that an English translation had been made of Cornelius Agrippa’s work of that name and had been published in 1657, by Robert Turner. Turner’s translation is not in d’Imperio’s bibliography, but the 1651 translation of Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy is. That translator, John French, is advertised as .. well, see for yourself.

Agrippa frontispiece for John French's translation of 1651

The content of Agrippa’s Ars Notoria is, indeed, much as Thorndike said.

Any reader here who likes to verify information may like to know that there online a fine transcription of that English translation, created by Benjamin Rowe who has offered it without charge as a pdf.

Of course one understands that as Friedman’s frustrations grew, he began pushing the chronological boundaries beyond the reasonable, towards a period when Latin Europe used ciphers of sufficient complexity to (as he hoped) equal the text’s intransigence, and similarly frustrated by the absence of any expert’s suggestion of a ‘similar’ manuscript to provide a way in, Friedman also moved his focus from the first, to the second phase of Wilfrid’s marvellous romance the age of Dee and occultism.

But Friedman’s ‘occult’ theory was always anachronistic, as you see from d’Imperio’s Table of Contents.  It was always focused on the sixteenth century and later, and on  preoccupations of the Renaissance elites.  Biography  becomes  central preoccupation of that theory, and among its string of unfounded premises and ‘logical’ extrapolations from baseless premises is an  assumption – often expressed as Wilfrid-style assertion –  that the whole content of the Voynich manuscript must be matter likely to have interested to some wealthy, white Christian male whose natural environment was an elegant circle of literati, of royal or of imperial persons sharing occult knowledge. We may blame Wilfrid for the notion’s genesis, but Friedman sowed the whole farm with it, and the present generation – thanks to Elegant Enigma, Brumbaugh and, yes, the Beinecke  – is still trying to pretend his cockles are corn.

In the next post, I’ll consider a couple of instances where we see a ‘break-though’ almost occur in Tiltman and in d’Imperio.  In Part 4 I’ll consider Brumbaugh’s ideas and the Beinecke library’s adoption of a Friedman-Brumbaugh ‘occult voynich’ theory as part of their official description for the manuscript. 

There is no issue about a cryptographer’s thinking up an hypothesis, and then testing it,  but at some stage s/he must ensure the theory has some anchor in the realities of history and the testimony offered by the object under study.  In this case, the reality is  that nothing about the manuscript ever justified the ideas related (see above) by d’Imperio. Not the materials, nor the binding, nor the quality of the vellum nor (for the most part) the pigments justify a date later than the radiocarbon range of 1404-1438.

Till next time, you might think on the following, because the second part of this judgement still holds, fifty years later.

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

  • John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10. (link in Cumulative Bibliography page)

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002

or in the words of Patrick Lockerby, writing before the radiocarbon range was published:

My dating of the manuscript is 1350 to 1450. From that perspective, whatever happened .. after 1450 is of no relevance in formulating any theory about the Voynich ms.

Patrick never pretended expertise in codicology, palaeography or iconological analysis, but his judgment wasn’t bad, was it?