What magic?Where magic? 3d: Germanic opinion and German scholars

Two prior posts

Header – detail from Saxl’s, Verzeichnis astrologischer und mythologischer .. Vol.1 (1915); detail from a copy of ‘Antidotarium Nicolai’. Portrait photos as labelled.


This is a three-part post (or a three-in-one). The second part begins with the sub-heading ‘Before the NSA’ the third from the sub-heading ‘November 30th., 1976’.

Sorry I can’t collapse most of it for you as I used to do. It’s still long but reads a bit better than the first, hurried, version.

I wish the Voynich manuscript had come to light in 2019, not 1912.  We might have been spared the sort of ‘Ruritanian romance’ created by Wilfrid  as sales pitch and thus also the hundred years and more of its repetitions, re-runs and spin-offs.

So now, at this point in tracing the origin of the ‘occult Voynich’ myth (for myth it must be called) the present research question is:  When and how did the notion first enter the public  narrative stream?

And further to that – Is there any reason for it, or was it someone’s random thought parroted until it became ‘what everyone says’?  If we owe the story to some individual’s serious (i.e. fully documented) investigation of the manuscript, its materials or its written and/or pictorial text – by whom was that study done? Is it yet another example of a theory/fiction’s internal logic? Or due to error, sales gimmicks, or the fertile but innocent story-telling of some novelist who never meant the idea to be taken seriously?

How did we get here from 1912?

As example of where ‘here’ is – if you’ll allow 2017 as near enough to ‘here’  – we might  consider a book that was published in that year.

Co-authored by Stephen Skinner – whose area is western occult and eastern spiritual literature – with Rene Zandbergen – who took his higher degree in engineering; and Raphael Prinke – an historian with the Central European University in Prague, the book was published by Watkins Publishing, self-described as a publisher for ‘Mind-body-spirit’ books and which had already published various other books in that genre by  Stephen Skinner.

The publisher’s categories, intended to assist librarians and booksellers shelve and catalogue a title correctly, list this one under Ancient wisdom, Alchemy, Astrology, Astronomy, Esoteric, Herbal Medicine, Magic. 

The front cover displays, in bold, red caps the word ‘Occult’ while a blurb informs any prospective buyer that the authors  “… drawing on their extensive knowledge of the period, of other esoteric and alchemical works and of the curious history of the Voynich [manuscript] … explore its relationship to magic and alchemy… Dr. Stephen Skinner explores the parallels to the Voynich manuscript in the cryptography of Leonardo da Vinci and the angel language of John Dee.”

An unnamed blogger (here) gave the book a four-out-of-five star rating. The book’s cover quotes from what presents as two sentences of a review, where the ethnobotanic and mystic (his description) Terence McKenna writes,  ‘The Voynich manuscript is the limit text of Western occultism. It is a truly occult book – one that no one can read.’

That provides a pretty clear idea of where we are today with the ‘occult Voynich’ idea.

On the other hand:

  1. there’s nothing in the letter sent by Marci to Kircher in 1665/6 which suggests any magic or occult content.  The letter from Georg Baresch to Athanasius Kircher may be taken to imply that Baresch believed the content ‘ancient Egyptian wisdom’ through his ‘wisdom’ was know-how, and in this case he openly speculates that the content may embody medical know-how. A chemist-pharmacist himself, Baresch may have supposed something of alchemy was involved but if he thought so, he never said so.
  2. Wilfrid said from 1912 onwards that the work was a ‘Roger Bacon ciphertext’ but never said the content included magic.
  3. For the years 1910s-early 1950s Reeds’ Bibliography shows nothing to indicate that any ‘occult Voynich’ meme/rumour was gaining traction, or that anything of the kind had been argued by a scholar whose studies put them in a position to speak from real knowledge. (as e.g. Lynn Thorndike could have done).
  4. William Friedman is not on record (so far as I’ve seen – do correct me if I’m mistaken) as asserting the content was magical or occult.   From 1944 until Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma was completed in c.1978,  we encounter no more than a vague idea that the month folios may be ‘astrological’.  No concerted or detailed research was presented either to test, or to explain how the manuscript’s content could be interpreted as clear support for any such idea. Bits of plants beside a container do not mean ‘alchemy’. They mean ‘stuff made from plants, or from plant-extracts, or ‘the right sort of container for this type of plant’ or ‘plants of this class will be found sold in containers of this sort’ or… any one of a dozen more real, historical, possibilities.

Then, in 1978 (or more relevant in the early 2000s when the NSA released it as a pdf), Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma suddenly includes in its ‘Table of Contents’ listings for occult and magical alphabets, so many that their divisions occupy more than a third of the listings though not so much of her text as the Contents might lead you to expect. Her Bibliography also includes a large number of books on such topics, though the majority are imprints from the late 1960s and early 1970s. None is a scholarly study of the Voynich manuscript, its images, material or written text. None proves any ‘occult’ character for the manuscript.

The most obvious stimulant to Mary d’Imperio’s imagination turning in that direction, other than a cryptographer’s search for more alphabets and vocabularies, is Frances Yates’ controversial but hugely popular study of Giordano Bruno, who had been born about a century after the quires in Beinecke MS 408 are dated.

5. Elegant Enigma’s including the poor judgement of Charles Singer about the manuscript’s being ‘Germanic-occult-sixteenth-century’ and “connected with Dee and that sort of movement” is, I daresay, the only reason the wider public was ever afflicted with it. He was wrong about the manuscript’s date. He apparently couldn’t distinguish between the text proper and marginalia, and there’s nothing in the manuscript to tie it directly to John Dee, save the opinion of two later scholars specialising in the works of John Dee, that the manuscript’s page numbers are written in his hand. 

  • R.J. Roberts and Andrew G. Watson, eds., John Dee’s Library Catalogue. London: The Bibliographical Society, (1990). [Claim the folio numbers in the VMS are by John Dee’s hand. -J.R.]  I have this reference from Jim Reeds’ annotated Voynich Manuscript Bibliography. (for link, see ‘Constant references’ in my Cumulative Bibliography page. – D.)

Given the wide dissemination of the “‘Germanic-occult-sixteenth-century’ and “connected with Dee and that sort of movement” set of ideas, we might here repeat that

6.   the manuscript’s vellum (or more exactly samples  from four of the top eleven quires) produced a radiocarbon-14 dating range of 1404-1438, which was later than the majority of competent assessors had previously thought, but apparently it already had a consensus among  specialists of the post-war period before 1963, for d’Imperio herself reports (Elegant… p. 8)

Helmut Lehmann-Haupt (bibliographical consultant to H. P. Kraus) stated in a letter to Tiltman dated I November, l963. that “there is a near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400.

which was pretty much spot-on.

  7.  The manuscript’s only testimony to German contact is some marginalia – and chiefly the line on f.116v.

8.  John Dee was born in 1527 – again, at least a century too late to have any influence on the manuscript’s content.  The only reason for mentioning Dee at all is that Wilfrid deployed Dee as character in the role of the unnamed ‘carrier’ who –  according to that third-hand rumour – brought the manuscript to Prague. The speculative link was via the Digby collection (more precisely Allen’s collection) of manuscripts now in the Bodleian library at Oxford.

Before Hugh O’Neill’s erroneous note of 1944, it had been generally accepted that the manuscript belonged to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.

9.  It was later suggested that the manuscript might be a fifteenth-century copy of a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century manuscript.

While still unaware of that earlier guess/speculation, the present writer had come  to a similar conclusion and, when considering the script in this connection, offered readers of  voynichimagery the following illustration, also included earlier in this blog. (Voynich revisionist post of Dec.15th., 2018). This was the first time the question had been tested, as distinct from hypothesised or speculated,* though – as is not unusual – subsequent emulations may  be in other blogs or websites today.  (The Cambridge manuscript which I cited is not about  magic, nor ‘occult’ topics).

*as by Sola-Price in 1975 -see earlier post, linked above.

Cantimpre script Cambridge

So –

Singer was wrong about the manuscript’s probable date. He appears to have been unable to distinguish between lines of marginalia added post-production and the body of the Voynich text, and I doubt we should have heard anything of his ideas but d’Imperio recorded them in Elegant Enigma and they appealed to the inclinations of some who read d’Imperio’s booklet.

Though Hugh O’Neill made no assertion of magic or occult content for the manuscript, his saying it should be dated post-1494 was another impetus towards anachronism.  His assertions were included in copies of Manly’s posthumous publications and thereafter taken as a given by other writers to serve their own theoretical narratives.

Among such writers, we’ve already noted Lionell Strong and Professor Robert S. Brumbaugh, which latter had direct connection to members of the Beinecke library where, from 1969, the manuscript was held.

In that way  the ‘occult-sixteenth century’ idea became the holding library’s ‘official’ position and to as late as 2017,  the Beinecke’s recommended ‘further reading’ consisted of writings by Professor Brumbaugh, Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, and a website owned and edited by Rene Zandbergen.

The question now becomes whether one can identify the cause for d’Imperio’s taking up that  ‘occult’ theme and focusing on the sixteenth century and later – because there’s no evidence that it was ever derived from, or underpinned by, any formal scholarly enquiry whatever. None. At all.

There is an historical link between Charles Singer and Frances Yates, but (as I’ll explain in the next post second part of this post,  d’Imperio’s decision to include those chapters (8 and 9) outlines and the various post-Friedman references to magic and the occult in her Bibliography, may have been due to in-house speculation, capped off by a few sentences spoken at the conclusion of a certain four-hour, in-house seminar at the NSA in 1976.

Singer Dorothea and Charles Wellcome V0027864.jpg

photo – Dorothea Waley Singer and Charles Singer.

That link between Charles Singer and Frances Yates consisted of two strands – first, Charles’ wife, Dorothea Waley Singer,  the palaeographer named in Lynn Thorndike’s letter of June 1921,  had in 1936 introduced Yates to a member of the Warburg Institute after the re-location of the Institute to England..

Frances Yates from History Collections blogYates’ research interest was only on the high Renaissance era in England and in Italy, and her particular focus was on the figure of Giordano Bruno, who was born about a century later than the  Voynich manuscript’s radiocarbon range and between 150 and 250 years after most estimates of the manuscript’s appearance.

Photo (left) courtesy of ‘History Collections Blogs’ post Dec 3rd, 2018.

I’ve no evidence that Yates was asked to comment on the Voynich manuscript, but her books are in d’Imperio’s Bibliography and in the pre-war period, John Matthews Manly had written to that  Institute sending a full copyflo (‘photostat’) copy of the manuscript – which had then been seen by at least two eminent German scholars of their time- Fritz Saxl in Hamburg and Henry Sigerist in Leipzig.

It is important to understand why those specialists’ opinions should still carry great weight even though, as the best specialists tended to do – they responded by saying,  ‘not one of mine’.

I’ll be as brief as I can, but providing any clear idea of these scholars’ range and expertise can’t be done in a couple of paragraphs.  The most eminent in their field during the 1930s, they cast a very long shadow.


detail portrait of John Matthews Manly John M. Manly is often described in a way that makes him seem a peripheral figure, but the more closely we consider his role, the more it is found to have been badly understated.  Manly died too soon to affect the direction taken later within the NSA groups. He died at the age of 75 in 1940.

A prodigy of learning, in mathematics and in the study of English literature, Manly had been Newbold’s friend, and friend to Wilfrid Voynich and through him William Friedman had initially  hoped – unsuccessfully – to gain access to the manuscript during the decades from the 1920s to 1944.  Friedman and Manly had met as cryptographers during World War I.

The Warburg Institute’s  ‘General correspondence’ archive proves that in 1928, two years after Newbold’s death (1926),  Manly had sent a full photostat copy of the manuscript to Fritz Saxl.

  • Ref No WIA GC/20727

from Fritz Saxl, Hamburg to John M. Manly, Chicago 16th/01/1928

He [Saxl] sent the photostats of the cipher manuscript with the bathing scenes to Professor H.E. Sigerist, but neither Sigerist nor Saxl can help.

  • Ref No WIA GC/23746. 

from John M. Manly, Chicago to Fritz Saxl, Hamburg. 14th/12/1929)

… reminds him [Saxl] of the photostats of the Voynich manuscript, which he [Manly] sent in October 1928 to Saxl who forwarded them to H.E. Sigerist in Leipzig; requests return of photostats to Dr. Platt, 29 Woburn Sq, London WC1.

  • WIA GC 1930/2074
    KBW, Hamburg to John Manly(18th/01/1930)
    London, 29 Woburn Square, c/o Dr. Platt
    Format typescript, carbon copy.

The secretary supposed the copy was of a carbon-copied typescript, when it consisted of photostats from a manuscript.  When you look at the quality of those early photostats (actually ‘copyflo’)  you see how that confusion might arise.  The  illustration (below) is part of the title page for that four-hour NSA ‘seminar’ in 1976 (see above).

NSA photostats


Henry SigeristLittle more than five years after receiving that copy of the Voynich manuscript, Fritz Saxl would emigrate to England, and Henry Sigerist to America to take the post as head of John Hopkins University and, by 1944 (the year O’Neill’s spanner was dropped into the works and Friedman’s first study group set to work), to found  John Hopkins’ journal, Bulletin of the History of Medicine.

But despite Sigerist’s being in America from 1932, his name does not appear in d’Imperio’s Index nor in her bibliography and as far as I can discover, Sigerist was never again asked to give an opinion, never volunteered an opinion about it, and never wrote an article about it. A study of the Sigerist Papers archive (at Yale) might turn up some additional information from his personal correspondence.

Today, John Hopkins University describes Henry Sigerist as “the pre-eminent medical historian in the early part of this century“. True as it is, more detail is needed to show why Sigerist’s areas of  expertise might allow him to evaluate the Voynich manuscript, its form or any of its written- or pictorial- text. Having a degree – even a professorship – hardly matters if an individual’s special field isn’t one which assists in dating and placing manuscripts, or evaluating images or scripts.

So in what areas had Sigerist particular knowledge?


I take this passage from a lecture which Sigerist delivered in 1950, though it was not published until after his death.

My own studies were begun in Sudhoff’s Institute of the History of Medicine at the University of Leipzig. My starting point was the School of Salerno, the first mediaeval medical school, which flourished in the 12th century.

Salvatore de Renzi had claimed that the Salernitan literature showed no trace ofplants Herbal-pharmaceutical Nicolai Arabic influence.

In order to ascertain that [i.e whether] this assumption was correct, I thought that it would be easiest to consult the pharmacological literature of Salerno, such as is represented in the Antidotarium Nicolai. This is a book that contains such famous recipes as Hiera Galeni, Picra Galeni, Acharistum, and Hadrianum, prescriptions that are found in the Greek as well as the Arabic literature. And then I published seven antidotaria from manuscripts of the 9th and 10th centuries in order to find out what the tradition was, in what form the prescriptions survived in the Early Middle Ages.

As a result of my investigation I found that the Antidotarium Nicolai showed strong traces of Arabic influence, not only in that the individual recipes had many more ingredients, but in the fact that they contained outspokenly Arabic drugs. This was to be expected since Constantine of Africa resided at Monte Cassino where he translated many Greek and Arabic authors from the Arabic into Latin. Constantine lived about 1010-1087 A.D.; Monte Cassino was close to Salerno, and it was obvious that the School of Salerno would be the first to profit from this new literature which suddenly became available to the western world.

As a matter of fact, one half of the prescriptions that occur in the Salernitan Antidotarium can be found also in Book X of the Practica of the Pantegni of Constantine which is a somewhat abbreviated translation of the Liber regius of Ali ibn el-Abbas.

  • Henry E. Sigerist, ‘The Latin Medical Literature of the Early Middle Ages’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences , Vol. 13, No. 2 (April, 1958), pp. 127-146.

Sigerist’s early work and its conclusions are still largely accepted, save only that he neglected to enquire into the role played by the Jewish traders of Sicily, Cairo, Spain and North Africa, an area which has since received more scholarly attention.   But the important point, now, is that Sigerist had already published an account of his Italian studies, in English, by 1934.

  • Sigerist, H. E., ‘The medical literature of the early Middle Ages. A program— and a report of a summer of research in Italy. Bull. Inst. Hist. Med., 1934, No. 2, pp.26-50. A summer of research in European libraries. Ibid., 559-610.

Despite all efforts made since that time to insist that the Voynich manuscript’s plant pictures constitute a ‘herbal’ in the Latins’ tradition – and these efforts include a nicely illustrated article in the Yale facsimile edition – no place has ever been found for them in the Latins’ stemmata.  The idea is as general as it is – still – without any basis in fact.  It’s another of those base-less ‘Voynich doctrines’.

The next passage relates to medicine and the ‘occult’. It comes from an editorial which  Sigerist wrote in that pivotal year of 1944.

“In 1941, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of Paracelsus, we published four Paracelsian treatises that illustrate four different aspects of his personality and work. The translations were the first ever attempted in English. They were made from the original 16th century German and presented considerable difficulties with regard to language and content. Each treatise was preceded by an introductory essay, and the whole volume was undoubtedly an interesting contribution to the history of Renaissance thought’.

  • Henry E. Sigerist, ‘Editorial: Classics of Medicine’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine , Vol.16, No. 1 (June, 1944), pp. 1-12.

So Sigerist was not only familiar with the medieval herbal tradition, but with sixteenth century German texts about magic-and-medicine, alchemy etc, and was in a position to  compile multilingual glossaries of terms, of a kind indispensable for twentieth-century cryptographers.

So again – why from 1944-1957 was Sigerist never approached by Friedman or by the NSA to comment on the notion of the manuscript as a ‘medicinal herbal’ or as related to ‘Paracelsan medicine’?  Sigerist was the expert at that time (along with Thorndike’s great study). More, the Friedmans’ groups had surely heard of Paracelsus by 1957 for in that year  Charles Singer wrote to Tiltman, saying “My own feeling -very vague -about the little figures of nude men and women in the organs of the body is that they are somehow connected with the ” archaei” of the Paracelcan or Spagyric School. This would fit well with my suggestion about John Dee and Bohemia.” (see Elegant Enigma p.21).

None of that was Singer’s original suggestion, and his re-formulation plainly owes more to his imagination than to his scholarship. His ‘very vague feeling’ is compounded of Wilfrid’s involving John Dee, and imitation – without  honest acknowledgement – of William Romaine Newbold’s views and I suspect also an admixture, by 1957, of reading Sigerist’s translations of Paracelsus.

Here’s Newbold, writing to ask assistance from Catholic scholars in 1921.

newbolds-letter-to editor of Franciscan News

.In the same year, the ‘biological’ idea was discussed, and dismissed by a certain Professor Clung,  in an editorial in Scientific American (May 28th., 1921)

.Newbold biol SciAm May 28 1921

Newbold is also credited with first discussing ‘alchemy’ but as we’ve seen, such writings never envisaged Roger Bacon as an occultist. This article is so difficult to access, I mention it only as one I’ve read, myself.

  • Sebastian Wenceslaus OFM, ‘The Voynich manuscript and its cipher’, Nos Cahiers, Vol.2, No.1, (1937) pp.48-67.
Note – The only remaining copy of that journal, and article, was sent to me privately by a member of the order in Canada, after I’d written to the head of the order asking if any copies still existed. I published some of its content at voynichimagery.  If you find any other Voynich writer’s mention of it, or reproduction of its content, you may assume that voynichimagery was their source, openly cited or not.)

In sum:

To say that Sigerist was, America’s most eminent specialist in the history of medieval Europe’s medicine and related sciences, equal only to Lynn Thorndike, is not hyperbole, but simple statement of fact.   He was already a ‘name’ when Manly sent the copy that reached Germany late in 1928.

Given that Manly had sought Gernan scholars’ advice from a distance, in 1927-8, and that from 1932 until 1957 Sigerist was in America as head of John Hopkins and editor the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, he should have been an obvious choice for the Friedmans if they needed  highly specialized vocabularies in (at least) Latin and English and German.  Yet from remarks made at the NSA seminar in 1976, it seems no such detailed advice had ever been sought from ‘outside’. As we’ll see a little further on.


FRITZ SAXL:  Astrology and myth

Photo below – Fritz Saxl and Gertud Bing.

Friz Saxl and his wife

Saxl was the person to whom Manly sent the copy.

A close associate of Aby Warburg, Saxl spent his post-graduate academic year in Rome, studying medieval texts on astrology and mythology.(1912-1913)

He had long been interested in the medieval period generally and in astrological manuscripts in particular before meeting Warburg, but the subjects took on new meaning now, and the first volume of Saxl’s Catalogue of astrological manuscripts appeared in 1915.

Do you think that after compiling two volumes listing and describing the contents in astrological and related manuscripts from German libraries that Saxl wouldn’t notice if there were any  astrological forms in the Voynich diagrams and, more particularly any peculiarly ‘Germanic’ quality to the text or images when he had the photostat copy from Manly in 1928-30?

Saxl’s volumes are in d’Imperio’s bibliography but these might have been in the NSA research notes for decades, since a number of persons having connection with the Voynich manuscript are recorded as having been sent copies of (at least) the second volume of Saxl’s Verzeichnis.., published in 1928.

I’ve highlighted some of those names likely to be familiar to my readers.

Ref No WIA GC/30746 (from the Warburg archives, general correspondence)

from Fritz Saxl, [names of scholars who received a copy of Saxl’s ‘Verzeichnis vol. 2′ illuminated astrological manuscripts in Vienna;] [after 24/01/1928]

DateNote n.d., refers to correspondence of 24/01/1928, in ‘Warburg/Saxl’ file
[Ottokar] Smital, [Anton] Haas [clerical officer],[Hans] Gerstinger, [Emil] Wallner, Julius von Schlosser, all in Vienna; Franz Cumont, Rome; Max Lehrs, Dresden; Reginald Lane Poole, Oxford; Charles H. Haskins, Cambridge Mass.; Lynn Thorndike, Cleveland Ohio; S.E. Cockerell, Cambridge UK; J.P.Gilson, London; Aarne M. Tallgren, Helsingfors [Helsinki]; Joachim Kirchner, [Hermann] Degering, Hans Wegener, all in Berlin; Albert Hartmann, A. Rehm, P. Lehmann, all in Munich; Ernst Zinner, Bamberg; [Julius] Ruska, Berlin; [Georg] Leidinger; [Armand] Delatte; Kurt Rotter; Robert Eisler; [Henry E.] Sigerist; [Richard] Salomon; Franz Schramm (son of Percy Ernst Schramm?); Edgar Breitenbach; [Konrad] Burdach; Richard Reitzenstein; [Erwin] Panofsky; [Hermann Julius] Hermann, Vienna; Wilhelm Gundel, Giessen; L. Münz, Vienna; [Antonio] Barzon, Padua; [Jesus] Bordona, Madrid; [Edgard] Blochet, Paris; [Andrea] Moschetti, Padua; libraries in Lyons and Madrid; Charles Singer, London; Fr. Fuchs, Munich; [Karl] Sudhoff, Leipzig; Hellmut Ritter, Constantinople; [Conrad] Borchling, H


OTHERS – Erwin Panofsky and Richard Salomon

Anne Nill in ageIt might be worth repeating, here, that in 1932, Panofsky was also given a full photostat copy of the Voynich manuscript –  by Anne Nill. He took it to Germany and there asked Richard Salomon’s opinion about the script – Salomon then being an active researcher and specialist in medieval Germanic texts, legal documents and scribal hands.  The only part of the manuscript on which  Salomon felt able to comment was some marginalia on the back of the last quire (f.116v).

Nothing else struck him as familiar.

Panofsky’s own interest had been, initially, in the Christian art of medieval Europe, with emphasis on that of Germany.

Later and especially after 1933, when he emigrated to America, he turned his attention to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – then defined as the Renaissance period. Panofsky remains one of the great commentators and historians of European art and yet despite his vast reading and experience he could suggest only one possible comparison for anything in the Voynich manuscript. It’s not a particularly close comparison, either. Just a diagram from one work that had been made for Alfonso X of Castile. (and already discussed in an earlier post ).

So the ‘Germanic’ idea is opposed by their silence as early as the years 1928-1932 by  art historians Saxl and Panofsky, by Sigerist, a specialist in the history of  medicine, including herbals and Paracelsus’ medicine, and by Salomon, a specialist in medieval German scripts.  Their null-response must be regarded soberly. It is certainly of significance and should not be airily waved away to better serve the internal logic of an hypothetical/fictional narrative. 

Were the Voynich manuscript  ‘Germanic-astrological-occult-herbal-medical-alchemical’,  this interconnected group of German specialists – and Thorndike in America  – must surely between them have noticed  whatever-it-was that so much later led Singer to assert an idea that the manuscript’s content was “connected with Dee and that sort of movement”. Singer was wrong about too much, including the date-range, on which all else of his ‘feelings – very vague -‘ relied.

border blue on gold chequer Brit.Lib Add MS 42130 f80r long

November 30th., 1976: 

NSA stamp 1976It was now sixty-four years after Wilfrid had acquired the manuscript; thirty-two years after Friedman had gathered his first NSA study group; and the manuscript  had been in Yale’s Beinecke library for seven years.

A  four-hour, in-house seminar was held at the NSA.

After some opening remarks, the first short talk was given by a linguist named James Child, whose interest was aroused on hearing a talk by John Tiltman twelve months earlier. His area of specialisation was Germanic languages and languages of the Baltic states. He explained  why he thought certain features of the Voynich text appeared characteristic of Germanic-Baltic languages.


Next came  Captain Prescott Currier who delivered a landmark discussion of the text, from which we take the terms ‘Currier A’ and ‘Currier B’ as description of the written text.

N.B. – Careless omission of Currier’s name ( leading to misleading discussions of e.g. ‘herbal A’ and ‘herbal B’) is a cause of increasing error and confusion. Omission of Currier’s name means that newer- come students suppose those ‘A’ and ‘B’ distinctions, when used without the proper qualification, must refer to  codicological divisions, or imply the existence of some body of research whose conclusion was that the manuscript combines in the plant-pictures material from two distinct exemplars whose sources have been identified.  There has been no such formal study. More generally, about Voynicheros who omit, or deliberately obscure and represent the sources for their ideas, I feel pretty much as d’Imperio did in 1976 when speaking of Brumbaugh’s Voynich articles.

His explanations … are, unfortunately, very incomplete. They are convincing at first glance, but when I tried to look more closely at them and retrace the steps Brumbaugh claimed to have followed, they fell apart. To make matters worse, Brumbaugh offers no documentation or scholarly evidence of his sources other than a few off-hard, very vague words in passing….  He provides no further support, or explanation of his sources.” 


  • A brief, official military biography of Prescott Currier by the US Department of Defense.  here.

[July 1st., 2021. I have edited my ‘note’ above which in its original form overstated the issue.]


On that day in 1976,  the last person to speak was a somewhat enigmatic figure. His short address was not introduced in the normal way, nor any summary given of his  professional achievements. His name was not preceded by any formal title – not even ‘Mr’.  Nonetheless, he was given the last word, in every sense.

  • NSA,  ‘New Research on the Voynich Manuscript: Proceedings of a Seminar’, 30 November 1976 [pdf]

His name appears simply as Stuart H. Buck but whatever else he might have been, he was no historian of medieval art or sciences.

Some readers may not see much that is odd about his remarks (below), but any specialists in fields of medieval history and culture undoubtedly will, because this was being said in 1976.    Among other things, he said:

“Who today is steeped in the highly specialized vocabulary of alchemy, magic, astrology, cosmology, herbals and other topics suggested by the drawings in the Voynich manuscript?”

In 1976 the answer was –  anyone who cared to be. We’ve indicated the range of publications provided just by Thorndike and two of the scholars associated with the Warburg institute before 1957.

But I must make a critical point here.

When someone says that any Voynich drawings “suggest” something-or-other, don’t fall for it.  Drawings made in the pre-modern period were never meant to ‘suggest’ anything to their audience and the Voynich drawings are not the active agent. What is actively ‘suggesting’ whatever-it-is to the modern Voynichero is his/her own imagination, doing its best in the absence of any real knowledge of the item to compensate by throwing up ‘suggestions’ for a kind-of-nearest match from that individual’s  limited experience. A more accurate phrase is that an object or a detail from an object ‘recalls’ or ‘brings to mind’ some other matter. The task is then to discover from research whether what is ‘brought to mind’ is, or isn’t, a true account of the maker’s intention.

[July 1st., 2021. I have edited my comment by adding two sentences as clarification.]

Like d’Imperio’s outburst over the academic board’s refusing funding to William Friedman, Stuart H. Buck’s remarks permit us to suppose that already, among NSA cryptographers at least, there had been some theorising about the manuscript’s perhaps containing occult matter, if for no other reason than because they could think of no other avenue they had not yet explored.

And I rather think that the mysterious Stuart Buck’s comments led to Mary d’Imperio deciding to expand the material in her monograph, said to be ‘in the final stages of completion’ in 1976 but not presented even in final draft for another two years.   On this, I refer to Vera Filby’s remarks earlier in the same seminar, saying that d’Imperio is:

“in the final stages of completing a monograph on the history of research on the Voynich manuscript; she calls it ‘The Elegant Enigma’.

When d’Imperio did finally submit  the draft – it gave the ‘occult’ theme a great deal of space in the Table of Contents, and in the bibliography, yet within the main body of her monograph, those headings are scarcely treated and most show no evidence of any in-depth research.

At the seminar in 1976, d’Imperio had spoken in a way which tells us she hoped it would begin a new revival of Voynich studies in the NSA, but after that final word by the untitled, unintroduced Stuart H. Buck, the opposite seems to have been the verdict.   Perhaps d’Imperio hoped that her adding those occult titles to the bibliography, and a clearly laid out ‘plan’ in her Table of Contents that she would be assisting future cryptographers, but the NSA studies would appear to have ceased from that time.

We can’t know this certainly, of course. The NSA isn’t likely to say what research is still active, but Freedom of Information requests have been met, fairly easily, over the past decade with full copies of documents posted as pdf’s on the NSA site, and  access to many of the relevant archives  permitted for some  researchers.  Here’s that shorter quote from Stuart Buck in context:

…   what means do we [at the NSA in 1976] have of testing the validity of a decryption in any of the languages of that period? For example, who has access to a plain language study of medieval Latin? What statistical knowledge do we have of other languages that might have been used? Who today is steeped in the highly specialized vocabulary of alchemy, magic, astrology, cosmology, herbals and other topics suggested by the drawings in the Voynich manuscript?

Stuart H. Buck

Theories about the Voynich manuscript were -and many today still are  – as ungoverned by solid knowledge as are wild horses by bridles

border blue on gold chequer Brit.Lib Add MS 42130 f80r long


For fans of Lynn Thorndike  (author of History of Magic and Experimental Science – in 8 volumes).

Lynn ThorndikeWIA GC/24638
from Lynn Thorndike, Columbia Uni. New York to Fritz Saxl, Hamburg (14th/01/1929)
thanks him for a copy of ‘Verzeichnis 2’; finds it ‘exceedingly interesting’ and helpful; [Thorndike] informs him that ‘De naturis rerum’ is not by Pseudo-Lucretius, but, in fact, by Thomas of Cantimpré.

(and while we’re here,  why not throw in some Cabala?)

WIA GC/24939
Fritz Saxl to Aby Warburg, in Rome (28th./01/1929)
;  … one can trace a direct line from Ptolemy to the Latin astrologers of the 12th and 13th centuries and an indirect line via Arab scholars; … Lynn Thorndike sent a letter of thanks to Saxl for a copy of ‘Verzeichnis vol2’; forwards an article by G. Scholem on the origin of Cabbala, ‘Buch Bahir, die älteste klassische Schrift der kabbalistischen Literatur’; likes it very much, as it shows two levels of the older Cabbala texts, the older mythological one based on Gnosis and the younger one which reworks the gnostic texts from a Neo-platonic point of view; Cabbala rests on the ascent to heaven topic; it would have been good to have Scholem lecture on this topic; should Saxl ask him to contribute an article for ‘Vorträge’?..

But Thorndike was apparently another eminent specialist never consulted by Friedman or the NSA, as was the case for Sigerist, and Saxl and so many more. Their knowledge opposed the popular theories, and the judgement of these scholars – expert in medieval history, art, scripts, astrological texts. medicine, and pseudo-sciences was in every case  ‘not one of mine’.

When scholars of such calibre are set in the balance against Singer’s “very vague feeling” the outcome should surely have been that Singer was mistaken, and d’Imperio needn’t have bothered including ‘occult’ references in Elegant Enigma.  

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 Matthews 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.


Specialist opinions – notes to Panofsky’s comments of 1932.

Header Illustration: detail from an astrolabe dated c.1400, showing month-names in Picard orthography.  illustrated by David A. King in Ciphers of the Monks: a forgotten notation system (2001). See also clip at the end of this post.
Two posts previous:

– – NOTES to Panofsky’s 1932 assessment, grouped by subject —

Notes  5, 6, 7, & 11    re: ‘Spanish’/”provincial French’ calendar month-names. Occitan; Catalan; Judeo-Catalan)

IN 1932, Panofsky said the manuscript seemed to him to be from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and that “the names of the months … undoubtedly by a later hand, seem to suggest Spanish”; while in 1954, answering Friedman’s Q.7, he described those (later-added) calendar’s month-names as ‘provincial French’.  The two are not necessarily incompatible, and while it has become the custom today to suppose the month-names  Occitan, southern dialects – on which I concentrate here – include a range of  Occitan-affected variants, merging with Catalan-related forms near the border and – as example – in old Genoese.  The map shows the general range for various Occitan-related dialects. I would also mention that while here I am only concerned to elucidate Panofsky’s thinking, some researchers (e.g.  Thomas Sauvaget), do not think the month-names are in a southern dialect at all. There is also the curious, recurring hint of some link between the month-names and (northern) Picardy or at least to some PIcard scribe/s living c.1400.  The last element, so-far unexplained, occurs again in my last Comment in this post.

For any revisionist who might be interested, the dialect and orthography of the month-names still deserves careful study and I add a starting-list of references. However, as I said, this post is about Panofsky’s localisation of the manuscript. and his view of the month-names.

Dialect map courtesy of Quora

Pelling in 2009, thought the month-names’ dialect might be that of Toulouse, while in 2011  a Catalan named Arthur Sixto put the case for Catalan.

  •  ‘Old Occitan‘ – brief wiki article recommended for its bibliography.
  • Notes on ‘Occitan’ included in  ‘Military cryptanalysts: Panofsky’s responses of 1954‘ (January 19th., 2019) in Comments to Q 7.
  • Pierre Bec, ‘Occitan’ in Rebecca Posner and John N. Green, Language and Philology in Romance (1982).  pp.115-130. Technical, philological. Good maps.
  • a resource for comparing medieval French orthographies: Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (1330-1500)
  • for Anglo-Norman (which gives  e.g. septembre; setembre, setumbre).

Spanish dialects affected by Arabic in regions also affected by Catalan and Genoese see.

re: Genoese (locally called zeneize).

  • Carrie E. Beneš (ed.),  A Companion to Medieval Genoa, (Vol. 15 in the series: Brill’s Companions to European History).
  • Schiaffini, A. (1929). Il mercante genovese nel medio evo e il suo linguaggio. Genoa, Italy: SIAG

the reference to Schiaffini I owe to Franz Rainer, ‘The Language of the Economy and Business in the Romance Languages‘, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics.

The case for Catalan –  Sixto, Ridura and Erica


I’ve quoted Artur Sixto‘s comment before, but here for convenience:

“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).”

-comment made to ciphermysteries (February 17, 2011).

Soon after, Sergei Ridura left a further comment (February 17, 2011). Translated, it reads in part..“It is possible that MS-408 was owned by some Catalan, possibly in Naples, since … there is a word that is more typical of Italian than  Occitan..”

Why Ridura chose Naples, I don’t know. I should have thought Genoa more likely, since Genoese is recognised as having more in common with Occitan and Catalan than with Italian. In addition, Genoa had constant connection with the Occitan and Catalan-speaking centres as a consequence of Genoa’s monopoly of that sea-route, which then extended around the peninsula to England and Flanders.  in the map below, Genoa’s routes in orange; Venice’s in dark green.

detail of map from Farrellworldcultures wiki site

However – Ridura’s comment, and Sixto’s were made to this post at ciphermysteries.

So again, thoughts shared by Erica that Pelling published on Nov. 24th., 2018 under a post about ‘quire numbers‘.(link is to a copyright image from Pelling’s book of 2006).

Here’s what Erica had said:

Nick, I think that what you call a 9 is actually an “a”. This seems to correspond with the way we abbreviate numerals in Spanish: (I start with quire 4) 4ta (cuarta), 5ta (quinta), 6ta (sexta), 7ma (septima) 8va (octava), 9na (novena), 10ma (decima) etc. The “a” indicates that the noun being modified by the numeral adjective is feminine. If it was masculine, you would use an o as in cuarto, quinto, sexto, etc (4to, 5to, 6to). I think the 9 shaped a is an “a” occurring in a final position in a word. This same symbol is also found throughout the manuscript’s cipher alphabet (also almost always occurring in a final position?) Something to think about. Also note that the 8th quite reads 8ua. Back then “u” was used instead of “v”…..

comment to ciphermysteries (November 24, 2018). (Pelling’s interpretation of the non-standard forms is that while thinking in Latin, the scribe “was actually writing … an ugly mixture of Arabic numerals and late medieval -9 Latin abbreviations: pm9, 29, 39, 49, 5t9, 6t9, 7m9, 8u9, 9n9, 10m9, 11m9, [12 missing], 139, 149, 159, [16 missing], 179, [18 missing], 19, 20.”

Note: I have always found Pelling’s site a valuable resource when hunting the origin and/or precedents for a well-disseminated idea. HIs posts are helpful, not least for their accurate documentation- which can help limit the ‘ground-hog day’ phenomenon – and because Pelling still allows opinions to be aired that imply doubt about his views.  (Not that his belief in free expression inhibits his own!). Pelling’s site, and  Reeds’ mailing list and bibliography, have proven most helpful to mapping the origin of current opinions about the manuscript, and I expect to refer to them often.
  • Variant forms within Catalan. See e.g. ‘Mallorcan, Menorcan, Ibizan and Formenteran‘, Rio Wang (Oct. 7th., 2010)
  • and for other mentions of Catalan and Occitan, of course, consult Jim Reeds’ mailing list (see cumulative bibliography Page).

Before any discussion about Erica’s thought could occur, it was so vigorously rejected by another contributor that she withdrew it, apologetically.  It happens too often that a potentially interesting line of thought is being quashed in this way, as if whatever does not serve a currently-popular theory becomes  “off topic” by definition.

Obviously, a Spanish- or a  ‘Catalan’ discussion might develop along lines which raise doubt about other theories – honestly and deeply believed by those promoting them – but  silencing a discussion by adopting a tone of absolute authority is pure ‘Wilfridism’. In this case, what are usually seen as ‘quire marks’ in Latin style may be so, and are widely supposed so, but it is not beyond question. And, after all,  Erica is Spanish, just as Sixto and Ridura are Catalan. Presumably they have reasons for their views, ones which may be considered and reasonably debated, but others deserve the chance to engage with them.

Apropos of quire signatures, it’s certainly ‘off-topic’ here, but it should be noted that their location and style differs between regions and periods, and so they too serve as aids to provenance. I have chosen this extract because written by the Beinecke librarian (later Vice-Provost) who wrote the catalogue entry for Beinecke MS 408. The first edition of her book appeared in 1991.

Note on Andorra – spoke Catalan before Catalonia at large:

“While the Catalan Pyrenees were embryonic of the Catalan language at the end of the 11th century Andorra was influenced by the appearance of that language where it was adopted by proximity and influence even decades before it was expanded by the rest of the Crown of Aragon”.

The local population based its economy during the Middle Ages in livestock and agriculture, as well as in furs and weavers. Later, at the end of the 11th century, the first iron foundries began to appear in Northern Parishes like Ordino, much appreciated by the master artisans who developed the art of the forges, an important economic activity in the country from the 15th century. wikipedia article.

Ramón Llull the Majorcan, father of literary Catalan.

The speech of Majorca has been recognised as separate from, though related to, Catalan.  Despite this, Lull’s treaties on philosophy, the sciences and poetry have seen him regarded as the father of literary Catalan.

When  ‘name-an-author’ was still an regular aspect of the Voynich manuscript’s study, as it was for a century, several persons (including Petersen) wondered if it might have been written by Ramón Lull. The idea was floated before the NSA’s involvement, but still circulated during those years (1944-1978) and has since re-emerged periodically.


Nothing has ever come of the idea to my knowledge and most discussions involving Llull have been driven by the assumption that the text is enciphered (which may be so, but it is not proven); or that Llull invented an artificial language and/or wrote in cipher (which ideas I’ve never seen supported by evidence);  or by a curious – because anachronistic – focus on the figure of Rudolf II, who as you may know is alleged by just one, fairly insubstantial (and never substantiated) item of second-hand hearsay to have bought our less-than-royal-standard manuscript for a fantastic price at some time between 1583-1612.

We know only that the name of a physician ennobled by Rudolf was at some time inscribed on the manuscript’s first folio. The inscription has never been suggested written in Rudolf’s hand and it is a foolish assumption to suppose that every book owned by anyone coming near Rudolf must once been his.   My (minority) opinion of the ‘Rudolf’ rumour – whose only source is exactly the same as that for the ‘Roger Bacon’ notion – is as Salomon’s judgement on the latter:

short list of Lull-Voynich references
  • from Les Enluminures website (Item sold but images still available online at present)L

RAMON LLULL, Ars brevis, and Ars abbreviata praedicanda, versio latinus II   In Latin, decorated manuscript on paper, Southern Netherlands, c. 1490-1550; and Germany, c. 1490-1520

  • The three references in d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma (open in a new tab to enlarge)

The Ferguson Collection at the University of Scotland includes many of Llull’s works.

Jacques Guy mentioned on the first Voynich mailing list (Wed, 12 Jun 1996) that one Llull MS in that collection was owned by Wilfrid Voynich. Guy lists it correctly as Glasgow University Ferguson MS 192, but the website address he gave is now out of date.  It is currently: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/manuscripts/search/detail_c.cfm?ID=44369

Guy, quoting the catalogue description, dated that manuscript to the 15thC, and noted that the north Italian scribe is named in MS. 76 as “John Visio”.

Lull was a desultory subject in that mailing list, chiefly in relation to themes of artificial language and cipher.

Joao Leao considered him, together with Hildegarde of Bingen (who had also been considered earlier by Manly and Petersen).  See e.g. Leao’s post of 24 Aug 1994.

On Thurs, 30 Oct 1997 Jorge Stolfi mentions that one of Llull’s books contains moveable paper wheels “to help the reader generate word pairs”.

Such forms are sometimes called ‘preaching wheels’ today (cf. Rota Virgili). Their purpose was to aid  retention and retrieval of texts committed to memory – in an age largely reliant on memorisation. Their heyday was the thirteenth century.   Technically, the ‘rota Virgili’ referred to (as it were) changing gears, from less to more elevated forms in oratory, but the ‘peachers wheels’ came to be popularly referred to by the same term. (Added note on the formal and informal use of the phrase ‘rota Virgili’ added Nov. 11th., 2021).

On diagrams of this type and Llull – see especially:

  • Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (second, revised and updated second edition 2008) pp. 329-338.

NOTE: It is a reflexive habit for modern Voynicheros to imagine that subtlety and complexity of thought had ‘evolved’ as European culture aged, but this is very far from the reality, and I would strongly recommend for those whose only knowledge of medieval attitudes is passing acquaintance with digitised manuscripts,  that they should read cover-to-cover Carruther’s Book of Memory as a crash-course in medieval Europe’s “ways of seeing”.

Other references:

In general, the English and Scots seem to have cared  most for Llull’s Ordre of Chyvalry, translated and printed by William Caxton from a French version of Ramon Lull’s ‘Le libre del ordre de cavayleria’ together with Adam Loutfut’s Scottish Transcript (British Library, MS Harley 6149), ed. by Alfred T. P. Byles (London: Early English Text Society, 1926), pp. xxvi-xxx [concerns the texSt at ff. 83-109 in Brit.Lib. MS Harley 6149. The foregoing from the British Library catalogue entry].

Note on Judeo-Catalan and Judeo-Occitan/Judeo-French. (and Picard).

There has been some debate about whether Judeo-Catalan existed, a current wiki article (tagged ‘this has multiple issues’) asserts it did not.  I have not looked into the question. though I note the following paper can be downloaded from academia.edu.  If read online, the automatic translator does a fair job if you don’t have Spanish.

entry for ‘‘Cervera’ in the Encyclopaedia Judaica includes the following:

An inventory from 1422 suggests familiarity of Jews with Judeo-Arabic philosophy and Greco-Arabic sciences. That this was typical of Catalan communities in general we can deduce from another library that originated in Perpignan and ended up in Cervera in 1484. The discovery of some sources in Hebrew and Judeo-Catalan has immensely enriched our knowledge of the Jews of Cervera. 

That article has no footnotes; bibliographic references are abbreviated.

An paper published in 1947 suggested that while Jews in medieval France spoke the vernacular as a matter of course, Jews did not necessarily know the Latin scribal conventions.  I include this chiefly for its reference to a Picard in association with an astronomical work (because it has been noted by many since Pelling* first mentioned it, and independently found by more than one later writer  – I can think of Don Hoffmann and the late Stephen Bax offhand – that the closest orthography we have for the Voynich calendar’s month-names occurs on an astronomical instrument made in Picardy and discussed by David King in his Cipher of the Monks: a forgotten notation system. (2001).  I add a clip at the end of this post.

*Pelling first….‘  or so I had thought, but today cannot see a post about it on ciphermysteries.

In 1947 Levy wrote,

There is only one document extant in Old French that is to be attributed to a Jew. At Malines in 1273 Hagin le Juif translated the astrological treatises of Abraham ibn Ezra from Hebrew into French. He did it at the behest of his patron, Henry Bate, who wanted to render it into Latin.  Even so, it was not Hagin who wrote it down. He was forced, by his calligraphical inability [i.e. to write formal Latin style], to dictate the translation to a Christian scribe, Obert de Montdidier. While the language makes this work an integral part of the Judeo-French genre, the dialectal peculiarities reflect the Picard origin of the scribe.

  • from: Raphael Levy, ‘The Background and the Significance of Judeo-French’, Modern Philology, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Aug., 1947), pp. 1-7.
  • On medieval Picard orthography and pronunciation see catalogue commentary to Brit.Lib. MSs Additional 10292, 10293 and 10294.

A reference often mentioned in the scholarly literature, and which discusses the Greek element in Judeo-Catalan is:

  • Paul Wexler, Three Heirs to a Judeo-Latin Legacy: Judeo-Ibero-Romance, Yiddish and Rotwelsch (1988). Wexler does not ascribe this element to the dispersal of Jews from formerly Byzantine Sicily or southern Italy, nor to the often repeated statement that before the revival of Hebrew from purely liturgical language to one in daily use, Greek had been the lingua franca of Mediterranean Jews.

For the very keenest linguists, papers fifteen and sixteen may be of interest, from

  • Yedida K. Stillman, George K. Zucker (eds.), New Horizons in Sephardic Studies (SUNY Press, 2012)

Next post: further notes to Panofsky’s original assessment in 1932.

Specialist opinions. Panofsky’s comments of 1932.

Header Illustration: detail from a 12thC Islamic juglet in the Mallorca museum.
Two previous posts:

Thanks to Rich Santacoloma for permission to quote from his transcription of Anne Nill’s letter.


[To Herbert Garland, Feb 10th., 1932] 1.

…. the upshot of it was that a certain Dr. Erwin Panofsky of that institute is at present in New York and Miss Greene suggested that she bring him and Mrs. Voynich together- very decent of her don’t you think. So Mrs. Voynich met him at the Morgan Library where she showed him the photostats (note that they are negatives and now in poor condition, having greatly faded in some parts). He became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century.2 He asked to see the original, which we showed to him last Friday [= Feb.5th., 1932 -D.      Rich adds: “they must have taken him to the safe deposit box”].

(detail) fol 70v

[On seeing the original, Panofsky’s] first impression was that it was early, but as he came to the female figures3 (in conjunction with the colors used in the manuscript)4 he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century! The more I think of it (always making allowance for my slender knowledge of art) the more I think that his contention is sound. I cannot think of a single early MS. or painting which contains such “shapely” female figures as those in the MS. (See 3)

Furthermore he is convinced that the MS. is Spanish (or something southern near Spain)5 and shows strong Arabic 6 and Jewish influences.7 He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!!8

Well, all that would make it interesting, anyway.  You know both Professor Thompson*  and Professor Manly* have been suggesting Spanish for some time (thought there might be something Lullian in it)…

*”Professor Thompson” is James Westfall Thompson (University of Chicago 1895-1933; UCBerkely 1933-1941).
**”Professor Manly is John Matthews Manly, an American Professor of English Literature (chiefly Shakespeare and Chaucer) .

Dr. Panofsky examined the two more-or-less visible sentences (one on the key page and one on page 17 [r]) 9 … which are apparently not in cipher and seemed to think they were Spanish rather than Latin (or rather something that had to do with Spanish).10

details from folio 17r. Comparison of script-sizes. The larger script is standard ‘Voynichese’ while the smaller (inset) is the ‘plain text’ marginal inscription whose regional dialect is still not certainly identified.

I am inclined to think he is right. He also noticed, what I am pleased to say I had noticed before, that the names of the months written in the plates of the signs of the Zodiac, and undoubtedly by a later hand, seem to suggest Spanish. For example April is written “Abril”. October is “Octembre” (or Octember I forget which), which certainly suggest some form of Spanish, rather than Latin or French or Italian.11

The upshot of it is that we have given him a whole set of photostats for his institute, as he wants two men there to work on it. One of them (I think Professor Salomon or Liebeschutz)12  seems identified some remarkable Vatican manuscript (written in a senseless sort of Latin if I remember rightly) which had defied scholars for a long time.13

Perhaps they will not react to it as he seems to think they will, but if they do, we have achieved at least one of the things Mr. Voynich wanted- it was just this method of attack, in an institute, that he always hoped for and didn’t think was possible to secure for it unless the MS. was sold to an Institution. It now looks as if it might be possible to start some work of this sort on it even if we cannot sell the MS. at this time.”

Anticipating material to be part of later posts, here (below) is a map shows the  region of which Panofsky was evidently thinking.  And so too were Manly, Thompson and Fr. Petersen, because  Ramon Llull was born in  the  shortlived independent kingdom of Majorca.  But in this western limit of the Mediterranean we find it all; Occitan and Catalan; Pronounced Jewish and ‘Arab’ influence, early Kabbalah and so on.

erratum for ‘Lull’ read ‘Llull’


Variant forms of  Occitan occur, some blending with varieties of Catalan.

Pelling once suggested  the calendar’s month-names were in the dialect of Toulouse.

Gerona (mod. Girona) was an early flourishing centre of Kabbalah, and is still noted for that reason. Here Rabbi Jacob ben Sheshet of Gerona  composed (between 1230-1240) the book called ‘Responding with Correct Answers (Response of Correct Answers)’.  Its Chapter 2 is included, in English translation, in

  • Joseph Dan et.al., The Early Kabbalah, Classics in Western Spirituality series (1986). pp.133-150

Avignon, Montpellier, Perpingnan were all centres of Jewish learning and relative safety.

Joint Muslim and Byzantine rule over the Balearics had been followed by sole Muslim governance before the islands were taken once more by the Latins.  Evidence of Islamic presence and lingering influence continues there to this day.

  • On this point see e.g.  posts published by ‘Hesperides‘ at Poemas Del Río Wang in 2010. An extract from one:

That period, the age of the Arabic caliphates was the golden age of the Balearic islands – al-Yaza‘ir al-Sharqiya, “the Western Islands.” The memories of it are preserved by the stone drainage ditches enmeshing all Mallorca and in use even today, by the gorgeous fountains and painted beams with Arabic inscriptions of the ancient mountain estates, as well as by the names of most settlements – Binissalem, Banyalbufar, Alcúdia – and of several families. And of course by the vineyards. Among them especially by the estate Can Majoral, whose Butibalausí wines still preserve the former Arabic name of the vineyard, and each bottle of them has on its back label the poem ‘Goblets’ by Idris Ibn al-Yamani.

  • from: ‘Butibalausi‘, Poemas del Rio Wang, Dec. 31st., 2008.

To provide readers with even the minimum by way of preliminary notes, and sources needed to research Panofsky’s assessment of the manuscript will take more than one post and must look beyond Voynich-theory narratives.

Some fairly important matter will have to wait.  Later, we’ll come to the issue of strategies adopted by past and present  Voynicheros when some widely accepted ‘theory’ comes up against scientific or other evidence opposing it.

Among technical matters which Panofsky raised are the vellum’s finish and the manuscript’s palette.  The last is yet to be comprehensively documented but we will consider a certain organic yellow pigment.

Military cryptanalysts – Prelude

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

previous posts:


Wilfrid had acquired the manuscript by 1912.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


William Friedman:

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

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

There, his duties are listed as:

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

John Matthews Manly

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

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

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

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

and see


Rising hysteria – McCarthyism

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

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

Julius Rosenberg, 1951. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c17772

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hook’s own book was severely criticised.

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

More recent studies:

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


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


Next post: Military cryptanalysts and Panofsky at Princeton.



Wheat from Chaff – Hime’s ‘gunpowder cipher’

Header picture: Mongols using grenades/bombs in 13thC Japan.

preceding posts:

Wheat from the Chaff – ‘Bacon ciphertext
Wheat from Chaff – Books of Secrets and the ‘Secretum secretorum

The “gunpowder recipe”  in Bacon’s  De secretis ..

The essential reference is:

  • H. W. L. Hime (Col.), “Roger Bacon and Gunpowder,” in Roger Bacon: Commemoration Essays, ed. by A. G. Little (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1914) pp.321-335.

In 2002, while discussing the range of early cipher methods, Pelling transcribed the passage and explained Hime’s rendering of it:

an anagrammatic cipher [which] supposedly transforms… ” luru vopo vir can utriet” into R. VII PART. V NOV. CORUL. V ET … which is allegedly short for…“recipe VII partes, V novellae coruli, V et..”   …the central part of his [i.e. Bacon’s] recipe for gunpowder.

To include mention of that passage from De Secretis in a more specifically ‘Voynich-‘ context would be to accept that some connection exists between Roger Bacon and the Voynich manuscript, and while some form of connection might exist, none has yet been argued from the primary evidence so the ‘gunpowder’ passage from De secretis should be irrelevant, shouldn’t it?

Reeds realised this,  and apparently  so too  did Robert Steele. Reeds’  Voynich Bibliography  includes none of  Hime’s essays and to the listing for Steele’s article (below), it adds a note:  “..about Bacon ‘gunpowder cipher’,  not VMS“.

  • Robert Steele, “Luru Vopo Vir Can Utriet.” Nature 121 (11 Feb. 1928), pp.208-9. The article’s abstract (which is all I’ve seen) mentions another item (NATURE, Sept. 4, 1926, p. 352).

Unfortunately, these are among the few since 1914 to recognise that distinction, the majority distracted first by Hime’s supposing  the passage in De secretis.. proved Bacon invented gunpowder.

A false connection

Combined with Wilfrid’s (also unproven) assertions that the Voynich text was written by Bacon and is in cipher, the topic of de Secretis’   ‘gunpowder cipher’ is included again and again in Voynich-related articles, books and theories to as late the present (2018), when mention is made of it in Dooley’s book:

  • John F. Dooley, History of Cryptography and Cryptanalysis: Codes, Ciphers, and Their Algorithms. (2018).

Dooley’s chosen sources are curious, but the second plainly implies supposing some link to Beinecke MS 408.

     #Brian Clegg, The First Scientist: A Life of Roger Bacon (2003).

     #Lawrence Goldstone & Nancy Goldstone, The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World (2005).

Essentially a biography which turned into a Voynich-themed historical novel, the Goldstones’ book offers no new insight into the imagery, text or manufacture of Beinecke MS  408. see Review by Kirkusthe final line of which is “Many scrambled historical eggs conceal the Bacon.” and The New York Times comment begins:

“When two Westport authors, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, decided to write a history of the 13th-century scientist Roger Bacon, they had no idea the trail would lead them to one of the world’s great mysteries. But when they discovered that the brilliant but reviled man of science might have hidden information in a strangely coded manuscript now at Yale University, that became the theme of their new book … ” NYT (Feb 20, 2005).

Seeing how this particular irrelevancy  survived will shed light on the way that other ideas long doubted, or modified, or weeded out entirely from reputable scholarship are still part of the ‘Voynichworld’ landscape.

It was a hundred and three years ago – and before Wilfrid’s talk to the Physicians of Philadelphia –  that Lynn Thorndike explained why the ‘gunpowder cipher’ is likely to be a late addition to Bacon’s original text Writing in 1915,  just a year after Hime’s essay appeared in print, Thorndike wrote:

Lynn Thorndike

“In the first place, the cipher [as asserted by Hime] is based upon chapters of the “Epistola de secretis operibus naturae et de nullitate magie” not found in the early manuscript of that work and considered doubtful by Charles* in his work on Roger Bacon. Indeed, the opening phrases of two chapters, ” Transactis annis Arabum sexcentis et duobus,” and ” Annis Arabum 630 transactis” suggest their source. Secondly. Roger Bacon openly alludes to gunpowder in 1267 in his ” Opus Tertium ” as already in common use in children’s toy explosives. Therefore Colonel Hime has to date the “De secretis” at 1248, and to hold that Bacon was at that time “driven to employ cryptic methods by fear of the Inquisition” (p. 334), but that by 1267

“circumstances had totally changed in the lapse of years; the composition of gunpowder . . . had been divulged, and the first use made of the deadly mixture was for the amusement of children” (p. 321).

But is there any good reason for dating the “De secretis” in 1248? Much of it sounds like a brief popular compilation from Bacon’s three works of 1267-8 concocted by some one else later; compare, for instance, the first paragraph of the sixth chapter of the “De secretis” with Duhem, “Un fragment inedit de l’Opus Tertium,” pp. 153-4 and Little, “Part of the Opus Tertium,” 50-51. The dedication of the “De secretis” to William, Bishop of Paris, who died in 1249, occurs first in the late edition of 1618 and has not been found by Little in any manuscript. Then the inquisition bug-a-boo is negligible. Has any one ever shown that the inquisition punished a practical invention? … it can not be shown that in the thirteenth century the church persecuted men of science. Rather, popes and prelates were their patrons.”

quoted passage above from:

  • Lynn Thorndike, ‘Bacon and Gunpowder‘, Science, New Series, Vol. 42, No. 1092 (Dec. 3, 1915), pp. 799-800. (p.799).

* ‘Charles…’ is presumably E. Charles, author of Roger Bacon: sa Vie, ses Ouvrages, ses Doctrines (Bordeaux, 1861) to whom Thorndike refers several times, not always approvingly.

For current opinion on authorship and dating for De secretis see:

  • Jeremiah Hackett, (ed.)  Roger Bacon and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays 1996 (Brill)

Thorndike’s protest had little effect and for the next half-century, the idea continued to circulate in European popular histories that the invention of gunpowder should be credited to a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman friar.  What is notable about these writings is an apparent inability to contemplate Europe’s being in debt to Asian, or even Arabic-speaking peoples. Sarton would be among the few exceptions and yet, despite Sarton’s discussion (in 1931),  Lutz  asserts (in 1936) any Oriental or Arabian origin ‘disproved'(!!). (Cf. header picture and illustration below, right).

Meanwhile, Six years after Thorndike’s first protest,  he had again (1921) objected to the constant repetition of the idea that Bacon invented gunpowder, in a letter to  Scientific American which I’ve already reproduced in part.

No noticeable diminution in the idea’s popularity followed, and then

20 years later (1936) , a paper by Edward Lutz again repeats as if they were facts established that  Roger Bacon wrote the Voynich manuscript, and invented the telescope,  the microscope… and gunpowder.

Friar Bacon and hypothetical telescope. From Lutz (1936)

Of gunpowder, Lutz wrote:

“Invention of Gunpowder: In this connection a few words about the invention of gunpowder seem to be in place. If nothing else, Friar Roger was the first European to make mention of gunpowder.[a]  Since its Chinese and Arabian origin has been disproved, we may add that good arguments exist for its actual invention or chance discovery by Bacon during his long life of research. He wrote about gunpowder’s main characteristics before anyone else [sic!] had even mentioned the substance. He possessed its exact chemical formula and hid it within a subtle cipher.[b]

[a] citing, (as n.244)  – W. W. R. Ball, History of Mathematics (1919), p. 174.  [b] citing  (as n.225)  W. R. Newbold,  Cipher of Roger Bacon, pp. 141-143; and Hime’s article  “Gunpowder” published in the Encyclopaedia Britannia (1929). Vol. 2  p. 890.

  • Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17, June, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82.

And , dear reader, if you’re thinking  Lutz  was an outlier  –   think again.

Thirty-five years after Thorndike’s critique, now (in 1950) a young Hochberg attempts to judge the matter without doing more than exercising logic on a prohibitively narrow range of data, and all at the level of secondary opinion. The result is erroneous conclusion.

detail from the ‘Mara Buddha’ –  foreign ‘demons’ attack Dunhuang’s Buddhist enclaves. (10thC AD). One fire-propelling item is understood to be a grenade and the other a fire-lance.

A further controversial question concerning [Roger] Bacon’s achievements is whether or not he discovered gunpowder. … Colonel Hime, in perhaps the most authoritative work on the question of Bacon and his relation to the discovery of gunpowder, concludes that Bacon, in the face of the evidence, must be considered to be the discoverer of gunpowder … While it is true that Hime’s conclusion depends upon a certain amount of hypothesizing and conjecture … the conclusion is far from being unreasonable. Nevertheless, both Thorndike and Sarton have challenged the theory that Bacon discovered gunpowder. Their attack centers on Hime’s proposed decipherment of the De Secretis (15, pp. 688- 691; 12, pp. 957-958, 1037-1038). Sarton, however, seems to admit that the issue is not decisive…

  • from Herbert Hochberg, ‘The Empirical Philosophy of Roger and Francis Bacon’. Philosophy of Science, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct., 1953), pp. 313-326.

The aim in referring to Hochberg’s essay from so long ago is not to criticise Professor Hochberg for youthful errors;  but to make clear that an exercise of logic cannot make up for a failure to determine the facts by research –  and further that to rely on no more than a limited sample-range – especially of secondary opinion – is to beg the questions they left unasked.  In this instance, the critical question was  not, as Hochberg supposed (more than half a century ago), “which of these secondary authors’ ideas do I think most plausible?” but ‘Where and when do we find our earliest testimony to the existence of gunpowder?”

Sixty-three years later, (in 1978) d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – whose subject is the Voynich manuscript – includes three of Hime’s essays in its bibliography,  though d’Imperio herself adopts a non-committal tone in the main text:

A considerable literature exists, dealing with ciphers attributed to Bacon in alchemical works.  An anagram in which Bacon is said to have hidden a formula for gunpowder [in de secretis] is explicated variously by some but debunked by others. [the sources are cited – Elegant Enigma, pp.66-67).

Note that d’Imperio does not ignore, but fails to credit to its source, Thorndike’s opinion that the cipher-passage is a later interpolation to De secretis, and also fails to see that the entire question is irrelevant to study of Beinecke MS 408, given lack of any positive evidence for correspondence between Bacon’s extant works and the Voynich manuscript.

Who did invent gunpowder? 

The question was settled beyond all reasonable doubt by Joseph Needham, whose 700-page study was published fully thirty years ago.

Yet …

One hundred and two years after Thorndike’s protest, and thirty-one years after Needham’s exhaustive study,  when Craig Bauer (rightly) asserts (2017) that Hime’s decipherment of the passage in De secretis remains in dispute – his footnote includes not only Hime’s publications about the passage from De secretis but also that Voynich-themed biography of Roger Bacon later referenced by Dooley!  What uncertainty exists is not, today, where gunpowder was first invented but only about which European friar ( Friar Roger or Friar Berthold) first knew its method for manufacture.   And that dispute has no demonstrable link to the Voynich manuscript, at all.

  • Craig P. Bauer, Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies (2017), p.23 (and notes p.532).

re: Friar Berthold – the legend persisted to 1911.  See the linked entry which cites

  • Hansjacob, Der Schwarze Berthold, Der Erfinder des Schiespulvers u. der Feuerwaffen (Freiburg, 1891).

from Needham, op.cit., (p.51).

[following paragraph added Jan 4th., 2019] Manly had provided a lucid dismissal of the ‘gunpowder cipher’ in 1931, writing:

a) The Gunpowder Formula. The briefest and simplest case of a decipherment obtained from a text not written by Roger Bacon is furnished by the famous ‘Gunpowder Formula’.. Here, in a letter attributed to Bacon, occurs, according to Brewer’s reprint from the printed text of 1542, the famous: ‘Sed tamen sal petrae LURU VOPO VIR CAN UTRIET sulphuris; et sic facies tonitruum et coruscationem, si scias artificium.’ I shall not now insist upon the probability that the last three chapters of this epistle are not the work of Bacon, or upon the fact that without any warrant Professor Newbold took a well-known symbol for Sed as Sume. The important fact is that the letters LURU VOPO VIR CAN UTRIET are not found in any extant MS., but are apparently due to a misreading of the distorted Greek letters occurring at this point in the MS. from which the 1542 edition was printed. Yet applying his system to this misreading, which originated more than three centuries after the death of Bacon, Professor Newbold got a thoroughly satisfactory decipherment.

  • John Matthews Manly, ‘Roger Bacon and the Voynich MS’, Speculum, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jul., 1931), pp. 345-391.
  • an anonymous but informative website on the history of gunpowder is here.

How did Bacon come to know something.. anything… of gunpowder,?

In terms of European knowledge, the usual opinion is that he learned it from Friar Berthold, or vice versa.  Not that the question has any demonstrable relevance to study of Beinecke MS 408,  but Needham’s view was that:

… Perhaps the most extraordinary fact is that all the stages, from the incendiary uses of the mixture right through to the metal-barrel hand-gun or bombard, with the projectile fully occluding the bore, were passed  through in China, before Europeans knew of the mixture itself. Probably there  were three comings. Roger Bacon by c.1260 or so was able to study fire-crackers, doubtless [sic] brought west by some of his brother friars; and the Arabian military engineers in the Chinese service must have let Hasan al-Rammah know about bombs and rockets by  c.1280. Then, within the following twenty years, came the cannon, quite possibly directly overland through Russia.

  •      Needham, op.cit., p. xxxi.

See also:

  • Lynn Thorndike, ‘The True Roger Bacon’ published in two parts in  The American Historical Review. Part 1 in Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jan., 1916), pp. 237-257; Part 2 in Vol. 21, No. 3 (Apr., 1916), pp. 468-480.
  • the current version of the wiki biography for Roger Bacon is good.(Dec. 2018)

Next post: The Military Cryptanalysts (Prelude).