What magic, where magic? 5a: ‘occulted’ blind spots and artisans.

Two prior

Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.starry band stretched


Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:

“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.

No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.

Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if  ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.  In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2.  For the online link see  ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography  –  top bar).

Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in  European-and-Armenian  style.  McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments.  There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of  any Voynichese cipher  was either European or resident in Europe  – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress)  may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily-  but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript  – it might not.

A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.

It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’.  And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense.  It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or   is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake…  And so on. 

Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”

So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.

This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted  John Tiltman.  When, at last,  on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures: 

tiltman in scots uniform“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early Middle Ages right through into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)

He did not continue the thought  to its conclusion – at least, not in words.

More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’,  seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back,  resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player. 

Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:

“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and  foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…

In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European  ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.

It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s  intellectual history”.  Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a  rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?

  • Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.

Today,  a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things.  Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance  at that time would still have demanded some important person as  ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an  ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn,  supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.

Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.

As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.

detail from front page of Saxl's work 1915Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first  created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.

For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its textRuritanian romance must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility,  then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder –  greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.

Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”,  I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it.  We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’. 

Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.

It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s  ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals,  methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist  – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.

  • James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.

  • Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)

  • William Eamon, ‘Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science’, Sudhoffs Archiv, Bd. 69, H. 1 (1985), pp. 26-49.

  • _______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.

  • Erik Anton Heinrichs, ‘The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler: Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany’, The Sixteenth Century Journal Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 417-440

  • Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,

Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece
Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai,
Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.

“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.

adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture  .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.

The  practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921.  Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s.  Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.

Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens. 

As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” –  Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?

It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that  question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they  considered.

Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures  must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens).  If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything  in Beinecke MS 408  an artisan’s handbook or notebook.

 Practical skill = practical value.

Such information could even be imagined recorded in  cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) –  books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such  information as that about plant-derived pigments.  Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’


Access to secrets – relocation.

Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how.   So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it,  he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.”  From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.”  (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand  took three years.

  • Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).

To speak of textiles –  how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first  revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429.  In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass  on his knowledge.   One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased. 

  • [Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.

for additional vocabularies:

  • Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with

  • Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).

A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through botanical.com but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.

Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century-   through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.

They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater).  At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from  Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill  of women. 

Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.

The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning. 

Similarly,  Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might  guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good  article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:

  • Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).

As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.

starry band stretched


Folio 67v

Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v.  Relevant to our  understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference,  this anomaly obliges us to consider  too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.

The research question is framed as:

Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?

Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.  

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.


Fear of the unknown – and raft ‘Elegant’

Two previous:
Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine(
Specialist Opinions – Richard Salomon (
Header Illustration: advertisement for white-water rafting in Thailand.


This post considers the effect on the manuscript’s study of excessive confidence when combined with social bias.

One of the most interesting aspects of the work done by William and Elizebeth Friedman, and the military cryptanalysts who formed their study groups, is that they seem to have founded their entire study on the unquestioned adoption of three items from Wilfrid Voynich’s narrative. These three ideas were that the written part of the text was in cipher;  that the content was connected to science or pseudo-science, and that the manuscript had belonged to Rudolf II.

None of those items had then – or has yet – been proven true. The first was a guess; the second mere speculation and for the third, as I’ve said before, the only evidence that Rudolf so much as saw the manuscript in his life is a second-hand report of a rumour which even the person reporting it declined to endorse. When I say ‘the only evidence’ I mean that then, and still to this day, no evidence has been produced which lends it credence.   Yet d’Imperio would later include this among ‘known facts’ about the manuscript, reflecting the unwavering faith in that idea on the Friedmans’ part.

And with d’Imperio’s book serving as a life-raft to those bewildered by the manuscript since the 1970s, it is a rumour that has often and with determination been maintained as indisputable.

No matter how logically they proceeded from this unreasonable basis, the Friedmans’ theoretical argument could never be more reliable than its ‘givens’. We see the resulting blind spots in d’Imperio’s Section 8.

Imagine for a moment that the manuscript were a technical or commercial notebook: say made by a dyer.  Imagine that the botanical imagery were the regularly-needed dye-plants, the ‘bathy’ section a technical description of processes and so on. Imagine the dyer one of an underclass in medieval Europe: a Muslim from Spain, a Jew in the Balearics or a slave born in the Baltic or in North Africa resident in Sicily.

In such a case, it would never have appeared on the Friedmans’ horizon.  The cryptanalysts’ limited vision has an historical and cultural explanation too, but here is Section 8 from d’Imperio’s ‘Table of Contents’.


Note that the only form of literature being associated with the Jews is the type the Friedmans would describe as superstition – and that although d’Imperio herself (p.8) quotes Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt’s information that by 1963 “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400” her focus remains fixed on the ‘Rudolfine’ era and its interests, as had the Friedmans’.

Note too the omission from the headings in Section 8 of other categories of medieval writings, even within western Europe: commercial, mundane, artisanal, pedagogic or standard religious devotional. With copies of Biblical texts, or certain standard references (such as bestiaries or Isidore’s Etymologies etc.) these form the great majority of medieval Latins’ texts.

The text is imagined ‘secretive’ in the sense of occult or surreptitious for the most part, rather than simply obscure.  Nor does the scheme allow for anything but a Latin (western Christian) mediation of any non-Latin matter before it might enter the current manuscript.

A short passage in d’Imperio’s book sheds light on this, though the modern reader may want a little background to the Friedmans’ time and its attitudes.

As  Wilfrid Voynich was well aware, a medieval manuscript had value at that time because it looked pretty or by others because it was deemed important, but the only things which made it ‘an important manuscript’ in the earlier part of the twentieth century was that (a) its former owners had been of high social rank in European society and/or (b) it belonged in the European vision of its own intellectual evolution, a vision which placed greatest value on the Protestant-Enlightenment period.

The Friedmans were people of their time, born late in the nineteenth century and heirs to the ‘social Darwinism’ which came to infuse popular ideas in the European world and its colonies; this saw none but the Anglo-German European Protestant as truly capable of rational and scientific thought and subsumed the history of the classical era into its own.  To appeal to such ideas together with Europeans’ regard for its aristocracy was second-nature for a seller like Wilfrid, but in adopting the triad of  ‘Science-Rudolf-ciphertext’  from his sales pitch, the Friedmans also validated their showing interest in an otherwise unprepossessing manuscript of unknown origin and unreadable content.

How far these ideas took them from verifiable opinions and historically valid conclusions is demonstrated vividly by a passage from d’Imperio’s book.   (pp. 5-6):

Elizebeth Friedman indicates that the lack of serious interest in the manuscript on the part of scholars was, on at least one occasion, a cause of disappointment to her husband in his research: It appears to be gibberish to many serious-minded academics, who are apt to scoff at the idea that its solution would be of any value to science or learning, as did a great foundation to which [William] Friedman once applied for a grant for the detailed study of the manuscript. In the opinion of the board, a solution would not advance human knowledge. “The manuscript probably contains only trivia”, the board said.

to which d’Imperio adds:

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

Now, not only is this largely speculative, but it shows that between 1944 and 1978, the military cryptanalysts had not developed any more solid understanding of the range of medieval writings,  nor investigated the possibility that the text might indeed be of a sort likely to be dismissed as ‘unimportant’ before the rise of economic history,  social history and the history of technologies – disciplines whose development occurred later than the second world war.

That the earlier academic board had not seen the manuscript as important but ‘probably trivial’ had not been taken by the Friedmans as a reason to re-think their  three ‘givens’ but only to deride those whose opinion opposed their own. The normally cool, clear-minded d’Imperio has, in this case, reacted with open hostility and even a hint of the vicious.

No evidence informs her insinuation that the  board’s members were not qualified  – d’Imperio’s air-quotes have no purpose but to express and to inculcate in the reader a belief that their combined opinion should be given less weight than that of a military cryptographer.

Use of the  ‘sneer-smear’ to diminish attention paid to views opposing ones which, though preferred, lack the evidentiary basis needed for reasoned debate, is a phenomenon familiar enough today from its regular use by think-tanks (‘if you can’t discredit the science, discredit the scientist’). In Voynich studies, its employment has increased since about 2006 or so, among those espousing a particular Voynich theory online.

It is this behaviour, more than any difficulties posed by the manuscript, which has made the study a by-word in the academic world.  It is well-known that one takes an interest in it, or contributes information from one’s own area of specialisation only at some risk.  My own experience obliges me to agree with that view, though I do not see that it applied during the time when Jim Reeds’ mailing list flourished.  Ambition and its shadow, plagiarism, were unknown. The members were generally accustomed to scholarly debate and moderators kept the standards high for most of the years it survived.

d’Imperio offers no reason for us to believe that the academic board approached by William Friedman  had given the manuscript ‘only  the most superficial’ attention.  It might be so, or might not, but does run contrary to the usual practice of funding bodies, who usually consider very carefully any manuscript for which research funding is sought.  Many projects are in need of funding and the claims of each are, usually, carefully weighed.

Again, one must ask what evidence justifies supposing the manuscript “a fabrication ….or  associated “with the court and familiars of Rudolf II”.  Only one person whose name is certainly tied to the manuscript had any contact with Rudolf at all, and  nowhere is he recorded as being a member of court or one of Rudolf’s personal ‘familiars’. He was a chemist-physician who treated Rudolf successfully on at least one occasion and who on another lent the emperor money.

detail from a 16thC copy of the Ripley Scroll

And so with the rest.. No evidence or preliminary research had established that the manuscript’s content was magical, or alchemical or medical. As we’ve seen, scholars and experts in reject two of those suggestions and Singer offered no proof for the third. Baresch, who first suggested a medical purpose for it, admitted that it was just a guess.

That Voynich researchers to this day labour to create post-facto justification for each item in that list from Section 8 of d’Imperio’s book says more about their dependence on it, and limited background in medieval and renaissance studies, than it says about the manuscript’s internal evidence or current historical and other studies. Not all allusions to the stars and calendar are ‘astrological’.

There is no rational reason to believe, either, that the manuscript had any influence on Rudolf, his court, or Europe’s scheme for its intellectual history. There is still no proof even that the text is a ‘ciphertext’ or that it would ever yield a neat ‘plain text’ of the type they imagined it should.

The whole construct is no more than the extrapolation from those three unproven notions which the Friedmans adopted on faith from Wildrid’s sales pitch and it represents not just d’Imperio’s views but those of the majority  led by Wilfrid or by Elizebeth Friedman. The idea of the manuscript as reflecting Rudolfine interests became an idée fixe.

Brigadier Tiltman, and Private Currier are the only two of the Friedman/NSA cryptanalysts on record as maintaining an independent view on any of these ideas.  Tiltman said he doubted the content would prove important (in the way the term was then defined) and while still presuming exclusively Latin agency, even allowed the possibility that the material had come from as far as Asia. His opinion is noted, then ignored, by d’Imperio.   Currier approached his analysis without adopting the Friedmans’ assumptions.

When Mary d’Imperio’s book became available to the wider public online, it was valued by the new generation of cryptanalysts and by others whose chief interest was in sixteenth and seventeenth century Prague and its nobility.  The book offered a way to orient themselves and to escape the immediate sense of bewilderment – a life-raft whose comfort was a reassurance that this manuscript was not really strange: just a nice, ordinary, European Christian work whose ‘mysteriousness’ was nothing but the effect of the maker’s obscurantism, mental derangement, deliberate deceit or incompetence and so forth.

To contemplate that its content might indeed be something from a very different culture or time would have been to make clear just how ill-equipped most were to contribute anything of value to its discussion – a loss of face no less dreaded by the Friedmans last century than it is by many ‘Voynicheros’ online today.

Tiltman’s paper of 1968 calls this the ‘most mysterious manuscript in the world’ but I believe we do better to called it most  ‘mysterious-ed’ of manuscripts.  When its obvious non-compatibility with the stemmata of Latin works becomes too obvious, few dare say as plainly as Erwin Panofsky did that this is a manuscript unlike any manuscript known to him, or even as Tiltman said, more cautiously, in relation to the plant pictures:

illustrations of herbals of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Centuries are a most interesting part of the background … To the best of my knowledge no one has seen any book, certainly no illustrated book of the period which covers the wide range suggested by the drawings in it. 

With an admission of inability to recognise what type of manuscript  Beinecke MS 408 might be comes the potential for a new sort of study, one which does not begin from the same three ‘givens’ or by treating d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma with the reverence due holy writ, but rather from efforts to explain and rightly contextualise the primary evidence.  The world beyond ‘Voynichland’ has much to offer – and more than just digitised medieval manuscripts.

Unhappily, at the time of writing, there is little chance many will leave the safety of d’Imperio’s life-raft. Adding to the primal fear of the unknown is a far more obvious fear of what might follow.    ‘Conform or else’ is an atmosphere prevalent throughout the social media, and it is found in online discussions of this manuscript today.  Such attitudes have made the field a toxic one, but have certainly proven effective in stifling the sort of open intellectual curiosity and well-informed debate which was so admirable a feature of Jim Reeds’ mailing list for most of its life.




Next post:  ‘Elegant life-raft Pt 2:  Faking and forging.


Notes on Panofsky’s comments 3 – hesitations

Header Illustration: (left) detail from Bodleian Library MS Marsh 144  p.211 11thC ; (centre) detail from Sassoon MS 823 / UPenn LJS 057 Catalonia 1361 AD; (right) detail from Beinecke MS 408.

Two previous


Notes 2, 3 & 4: dating and provenancing ‘shapely ladies’

second edition, edited and updated  – 15th. Feb. 2019

Anne Nill?  detail (reversed) from a photo posted at voynich.nu No source given.

Anne Nill wrote:

[on first seeing the copy, Panofsky]  became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century2  … but as he came to the female figures3 in connection with the colours used in the manuscript4  he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century!

*’colours’ – he was first shown worn black-and-white negative copies.

“13thC? …..15th? …. 

Anne Nill conflates a question about dating manufacture (‘range of colours’), with one about dating content ( ‘shapely ladies’)  though it’s true that both together had caused Panofsky’s hesitation.

Eight decades on, the revisionist can consider each item separately and  Panofsky’s original judgement appears justified on both counts: manufacture, 15thC;  matter gained from older sources.  Some of those sources may indeed have been thirteenth-century.



‘Colours’ – The manuscript’s Palette:

detail from: Bexur, Driscoll, Lemay, Mysak, Stenger and Zyats, ‘Physical Findings’ in the Yale facsimile edition pp.23-37. original caption slightly edited but not altered.

Panofsky’s first dating manufacture of the manuscript to ‘not earlier than the fifteenth century’ would eventually become the consensus among persons whose work was in evaluating manuscripts.  By the early 1960s, as d’Imperio recorded:

“Helmut Lehmann-Haupt..stated in a letter to Tiltman dated 1 November 1963 that “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400”.

Elegant Enigma (1978) p.8*

*note – typographic error in the original. Properly –  ‘Hellmut…’. [note added 26 April 2019]

These unnamed specialists, and Panofsky before them, were validated finally in 2011 by the vellum’s radiocarbon range : 1404-1438.

I’ll leave the subject of pigments for a later post, where I’ll compare Panofsky’s statement with Dr. Carter’s descriptive list of the palette  (recorded by d’Imperio), and by reference to a scientific study which was included in the Yale facsimile edition. Since the 1930s, and indeed since 1954 –  we have developed more precise techniques for analysis and identification.



Comment – Shapely figures

Panofsky was quite right to say that ‘shapely’ women (whom we’ll define by their swelled bellies) would not become a Latin fashion until the fifteenth century, but with more medieval manuscripts known today, we can say his original opinion may not have needed second-thoughts on this account, for research into the imagery in Spanish-and-Jewish manuscripts indicates that the form does occur there earlier, though interestingly only to represent metaphorical or allegorical ‘bodies’.  The closest comparison  found so far – since we must take  both stylistics and apparent subject into account  – is the ‘Gemini’ in MS Sassoon 823 (now: UPenn MS LJS 057).  The remarkably close similarity suggests a need to revise much of what has been generally assumed about the Voynich ‘ladies’.

(detail) f.77r

As our header shows, the ‘swelled belly’ emerged as an effort to imitate drawings in the first (pre-Ulugh Beg)  illustrations found in copies of al-Sufi’s Book of the Constellations. Those images in turn had reflected the traditions of  pre-Islamic peoples, including but not limited to, those of the Greeks and Romans. The rounded belly was most characteristic of an Indo-Persian style and we must consider that the works of al-Biruni may have had some part to play in  first formulation of the drawings illustrating al-Sufi’s tenth-century composition.

That remains to be seen.  However, the header for this post illustrates the progression of the style; the left panel shows a detail from  the ‘Gemini’ in an eleventh-century Iraqi copy of al-Sufi’s text; the centre shows the Gemini from MS Sassoon 823, whose content is a compilation of astronomical works, out together in 1361 in Catalonia, and the third panel is from another compilation, in a manuscript made (as we know) during the early decades of the fifteenth century.

The fourteenth-century Catalonian-Jewish figure has more in common with the Voynich manuscript’s unclothed figures than just the quirk which sees many of the bellies given a slightly-angular form.

They also have in common their curiously-formed ankles, flat feet and boneless-looking arms –  none of which elements appear in extant Islamic copies of al-Sufi’s constellation-illustrations, and none of which mars the later, more literal, fifteenth century ‘shapely women’ of Latin (i.e. western Christian) art.

There are differences evident, too.  A majority of the Voynich figures have heads disproportionately large, as the Catalonian figure does not.  More importantly (because even rarer ) many are drawn with overly large thighs in combination with bone-thin shanks, something shown most clearly in the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ sub-section, and which again is present neither in the Catalonian figure, nor in any remaining copies of al-Sufi’s work of which I’m aware.

That stylistic habit is not absolutely unknown, though  since it speaks more to the route by which the material had reached the west than our present subject, I leave it aside.

On the matter of proportions, which topic I’d brought forward quite early for its significance, the general indifference saw it ignored at that time, but more recently we have had a  lucid ‘revisionist’ post on the subject by Koen Gheuens, which I recommend:

. . . . . . . . . .

the chief point to be taken from this is that Panofsky’s judgement of ‘southern and Jewish’ content again finds support in the style of that drawing in a manuscript  predating the Voynich manuscript’s manufacture by at least forty years, and perhaps as much as sixty.

The possibility that its precedents could date from as early as the  the reign of Alfonso X (1254-1282) relies on the context in which the Sassoon ‘Gemini’ occurs, for even in Sassoon 823 its style of drawing stands apart.  To clarify, I rely on a paper by Fischer, Langermann and Kunitzsch, describing in detail the sections comprising the compilation of Sassoon 823/LJS 057.   The optional Preface clarifies another ‘ground hog day’ issue but skipping it will not lose anything from the main topic.



Optional preface: History of Sassoon 823/LJS 057 in Voynich studies.

I came across a notice of sale and acquisition for MS Sassoon 823 in 2011 in the course of my principal (non-Voynich-related) research.

Its description contained a greater-than-usual number of points in common with the Voynich manuscript – though at that time I was still the only person in the second mailing list to hold that Beinecke MS 408 was also a compilation from several earlier sources. (Today, I daresay, most would claim it general knowledge, and some would assert having known it all along.  Perhaps, if so, they might have lent a word of support at the time.)  Hunting more details of the manuscript, I had only an abstract of the article by  Fischer et.al. when I posted a note (in my old blogger blog, Findings) on Nov. 21st., 2011, listing the features I considered it had in common with the Voynich manuscript.  (At the time, a couple of the ‘German’ theorists were disputing use of the term ‘vellum’ and claiming the material could just as easily be described as German parchment.. which isn’t so, but they’ve come right on that matter since.)

A codex – probably fourteenth century – from the Iberian peninsula or thereabouts (Ceuta?) contains illustrations with human figures drawn short, and with distended bellies. One of these illustrations (for Gemini) is shown on p.288 of the article cited below.   That same article, written in 1988, provides the few details about the ms…

Article: Karl A. F. Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch and Y. Tzvi Langermann, “The Hebrew Astronomical Codex MS. Sassoon 823” The Jewish Quarterly Review , New Series, Vol. 78, No. 3/4 (Jan. – Apr., 1988), pp. 253-292

which says that the ms in question is:
*Inscribed in an ‘early’ Spanish hand.

*A florilegium – i.e. a collection of extracts.
*Vellum (?) rather than parchment.
*Total number of pages is greater than the Vms… but
*quires are also 8 pages each.


There is also apparently a  book [which could be an intro. plus facsimile, at 292 pages]: Karl Adolf Franz Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch, Yitzhak Tzvi Langermann, The Hebrew astronomical codex ms. Sassoon 823, Center for advanced Judaic studies, University of Pennsylvania, (1994) – 292 pages.

As you’ll see, some of those details were mistaken: the provenance is now established as Catalonia and the library presently holding it is clear about the date: 1361.

The next year, still unable to get hold of a copy of the larger study, and with the manuscript not (yet) online, I put out the word again –  through my still-fairly-new wordpress blog, voynichimagery (‘Curiosities’, Friday, Nov.2nd., 2012)

Still no response from any of the thousand or so who read that post.

By  2013, I was about to give it up, but because I had not found anywhere a drawing so like in both form and style to the Voynich ‘ladies’ as the Sassoon manuscript’s ‘Gemini’, I followed that manuscript’s progress after its purchase by the University of Pennyslvania (where it would be re-classified  Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection, MS 057).

By 2013 I was also frustrated that no other Voynich researcher had yet investigated exactly where and when ‘swelled belly’ figures begin appearing in Europe’s Latin (western Christian) art, so I set out to investigate both topics in parallel and in earnest.  I acquired a photocopy of Sassoon 823/LJS 057… which was later digitised by UPenn.

Some of my research and results I shared in the context of posts about Beinecke MS 408, published at voynichimagery through 2013-2014.  Two, for example, are:

  • D.N. O’Donovan, ‘The ‘beastly’ Lombardy Herbal Pt1 – female forms’ (22nd July 2013); and then (e.g.)
  • __________________,   ‘ Talking about art and codicology’, 26th October 2014).

I referenced the paper of 1988 which I’d first read in 2011 – and from which I quote again further below.

  • Karl A. F. Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch, Tzvi Langermann, ‘The Hebrew Astronomical Codex MS Sassoon 823’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, LXXVIII, Nos. 3-4 (January-April, 1988) 253-292.

The most important discovery, in my opinion, was that the Sassoon ‘Gemini’ served as support not only for Panofsky’s location and character for the Voynich manuscript, but also for my own conclusions (published as early as 2011) that it is not only the ‘ladies’ in the calendar’s tiers, but all of them (and associated males) which were intended for celestial/immaterial ‘bodies’/souls.  To some extent, Nick Pelling (among others?) had sensed something of this in calling the figures “nymphs” – but it was also understood or intuited as early as 1921, by Professor Romaine Newbold, albeit he had interpreted that idea within the terms of  late-classical  neoPlatonist philosophy, rather than those of pragmatic astronomies.  (Some years later, Koen Gheuens would do something of the same, but in terms of the Latin mainstream and its standard texts: For the record, my own view is that we are seeing an older, more pragmatic tradition whose closest ‘cousins’ in the western Mediterranean are those of the navigator and chart-maker, whose terrestrial and celestial grids are constantly superimposed on one another.  However…

Having followed the trail of Sassoon 823 after its sale, corresponded with the new owner, written about it in posts (which were then still online and with the blog’s ranking, highly likely to turn up on any search),  I was disappointed to see that Darren Worley failed to refer to the precedent when, in 2017, he left a comment at Stephen Bax’ site announcing  the existence of Sassoon 823/LJS 057 in a way suggesting it a newly idea within the study.

At that time I  had a manuscript – a set of twelve essays – in the last stages of preparation for publication at that time;  and since academic editors do prefer no doubt should exist about the originality of work they have commissioned,  I asked Darren to acknowledge the precedent for form’s sake.  He did not.   No-one wants to be put in the position of being asked, in effect, why if their work is original, the same material is now seen everywhere (including voynich.nu and wikipedia) with not a mention of one’s own name as the first to have contributed the research, conclusions or insight.

Given that this relatively minor incident was only one of the great many similar – and worse instances that I’d had to deal with over almost a decade, I had no option but to stop sharing original material online, and to close voynichimagery from the public  – which I did soon after.  The issue has nothing to do with money, or copyright; it has to do with transparency and the honest mapping of the subject’s development over time.  (see the ‘About’ page)

On a brighter note, Worley’s comment itself had value.  I recommend it for his observation about the  quire signatures which I have not seen made before.


  The TEXTS IN MS SASSOON 823 AND THEIR PICTURES: Bar Hiyya, al-Sufi and anonymous. NON-LATIN LINEAGE.

Sassoon 823/LJS 057 was made almost forty years earlier than the posited ‘1400’, and fully half a century before the Voynich manuscript was made.

Whether Panofsky was right or not in first attributing the content in Beinecke MS 408 to the thirteenth century, its ‘swelled-belly’ figures offer no objection to a ‘southern and Jewish’ character ‘with Arabic influences’  – for that is precisely how the manuscript is described which offers our closest-known comparison for the unclothed  Voynich ‘ladies’.

Of the astronomical drawings in Sassoon 823, Fisher et.al. comment:

 the figures found in the Sassoon manuscript cannot have been copied from a manuscript of the Sufi latinus corpus, and equally not from an Islamic celestial globe. The only remaining possibility is that they were selected and copied from an Arabic manuscript of al-Sufi’s treatise.”

The text accompanying the Gemini figure (p.225) comes from an unnamed source, and the ‘Gemini’ image itself is not drawn in a way closely akin to any other, even in that manuscript.

The content in pages 195-228 is  described altogether as  “Astronomical Tables by Abraham bar Hiyya and others” and  In bold letters at the top of page 195 is written:  “From here onwards, from the Jerusalem Tables of the Nasi’  R. Hiyya the Spaniard, of blessed memory”

Kunitzsch adding his comment:

‘I know of no medieval astronomer by that name; however, the Nasi’ R. Abraham bar Hiyya is, of course, very well known, and in fact the tables in this entry up to page 214 are indeed his tables. On the other hand, I know of no other reference to Bar Hiyya’s tables as the “Jerusalem Tables.” … 

The ‘Gemini’ image (p.225) belongs to the additional, anonymous, material occupying pp. 215-28  which “deals mainly with astrology. Some of these tables are found in at least two other manuscripts which contain Bar Hiyya’s tables: Chicago, Newberry Library Or. 101, and Vatican Heb. 393.   Other items are unique to our manuscript…

ibid. p.272.

Chicago, Newberry Library Heb.MS 2 (unfoliated)

The ‘Gemini’ image may then have been brought into the Sassoon compendium with its anonymous(?) tables, not designed by Bar Hiyya but  found with his in at least two other manuscripts.   What is not known is how early the sources were joined – nor where – though ultimately the ‘Gemini’ (which we accept as deriving from an Arabic manuscript copy of al-Sufi’s ‘Book of the Constellations’ ) has to derive from the versions made before the time of Ulugh Beg, after which Gemini is differently represented.

Bar Hiyya  was known to the Latins as Abraham Judeus, and was born  three generations after al-Sufi’s death. (Al-Sufi  903-986; Bar Hiyya 1065—1136 AD).

Those manuscripts cited as containing the same tables, together with Bar Hiyya’s are not both presently accessible online, and Vatican Ebr.393 (1497 AD) though  digitised contains contains no constellation drawings. (Catalogue entry here.)  The Newberry Library informs me that the article by Fischer et.al. is mistaken. They have no ‘MS Or.101’, but they do have Heb.MS 2, whose content appears to be as described in that article. There are no constellation drawings in this copy.  At right, a reduced copy of one of the images very kindly sent me by the library.

Sidenote – ‘Jerusalem’.   David King demonstrated that in al-Andalus some at least had knowledge of Jerusalem latitudes;  an astrolabe  dated c.1300 has all its inscriptions save one in Arabic, the exception transliterating into Hebrew script the Arabic ” لعرض بیت المقدس لب li-ʿarḍ Bayti ‘l-Maqdis lām bā’” –  “for the latitude of Jerusalem, 32°”.

  • Abu Zayed & King & Schmidl, “From a heavenly Arabic poem to an enigmatic Judaeo-Arabic astrolabe” (2011), crediting  the Khalili Collection, London for the image.
  • David A. King, ‘Astronomy in medieval Jerusalem’ (Pt.2), revised and shortened 2018, available through academia.edu

On Stephen Bax’ site (now in other hands) you will find various comments referring to Spain and to Spanish manuscripts, the work (chiefly by Darren Worley and Marco Ponzi) reviving and expanding the long-neglected opinion of  Panofsky, and later variation in Fr.Theodore Petersen’s work.

Checking the files of Reeds’ mailing list is always worthwhile; and I’d also suggest searching Nick Pelling’s long-running blog, ciphermysteries.   Running a search there before pursuing a ‘new line’ too far can often save you much time and effort – because even if Pelling has not looked at the subject himself, he may well mention that another researcher did.

A revisionist will want to revise past ideas and efforts, but it is always as well to begin by knowing what those were.

With regard to the ‘shapely ladies’ in Beinecke MS 408,  I should mention that the opinion of Fischer et. al. appears to preclude any close connection between them and the ‘23 12 virgins’ which appear in a 9thC Byzantine diagram within Vat.Lat. gr. 1291.[Vatican City, Lateran Palace collection, Greek ms 1291]. The comparison has often – in fact continually – been re-produced since 2001 though without any effort to produce a formal argument, so far as I can discover.   It would appear to have been introduced to the study by Dana Scott in a post to Reeds’ mailing list (Mon. 12th. Feb. 2001), because ten days later (Thurs, 22nd. Feb 2001) Adam McLean refers to the diagram as if only recently mentioned.  The point remains a little uncertain because link to the image which Dana attached and labelled ‘Ptolemy’ no longer works.

an overlooked typo corrected, with apologies to readers, on Nov.23rd., 2019.



Note: Swelled bellies in fourteenth century Bohemia.

Probably irrelevant to Beinecke MS 408,  I include this for the Voynicheros fascinated by Rudolf and his world.

The same essay continues:

To which globe are the (hemisphere) illustrations in the Sassoon manuscript most closely related? The answer is probably the globe of the King of Bohemia, Wenceslaus II (or III ?), which is now kept in Bernkastel-Kues and was first described by Hartmann.

The Spanish origin of the star catalogue in Sassoon 823 has already been established in Part I of this article (i.e. by Fischer, Kunitzsch and Langermann), .

Since the star illustrations in the Sassoon manuscript are similar to both Vienna codex 5318 [not digitised] which is considered to belong to the same family as Catania 87 [not found online] and the two hemispheres on pp. 112-13 of Vienna Codex 5415 [see Warburg database], and since both of these Latin manuscripts now located at Vienna originate from Prague, one ought to consider the possibility of Spanish influence on the manuscripts executed at Prague.

In the middle ages there were relations between the royal courts at Prague and Castile. The father of the present writer conducted research in Spanish archives before the civil war in that country which were destroyed in that conflict. He found there that the first known astronomer in Prague was sent as a “gift” by King Alfonso of Castille to Premysl Ottakar II King of Bohemia. … Previous scholars have frequently noted that Prague was the place of origin of many astronomical atlases.

 ibid. p.284

(Premysl Ottokar II was King of Bohemia 1253 -1278;  – D)

The Bohemian line of development shows an absence of some characteristics shared by the Voynich figures and those in Sassoon 823. Nor does the Voynich calendar show Gemini in this form But for the ‘ladies’ in the Vms’ bathy-section and for some of the surrounding figures in the calendar, we may suggest as one explanation, common emergence from that earlier, non-Latin al-Sufi textual tradition current in Spain,  the Bohemian works having been gained by second-hand exposure to them.  Of three examples illustrated by Fischer in another paper, it is only that  dated c.1350 which distinguishes the female figure by small, high breasts and none shows similar style for the limbs and hair as we see in the Sassoon manuscript.


Another section Sassoon 823 (pp. 25-29) contains extracts from Abraham Ibn Ezra’s astrological works – interesting in view of our earlier reference to the Voynich calendar’s month-names and their orthography.

Ibn Ezra, who also translated Ibn al-Muthanna’s commentary on the tables of al-Khwarizmi,  is recorded – in the Parma version –  as saying “The tables in the Almagest are useless”

  • above quoted from p.255 of Fisher et.al., ‘Hebrew Astronomical Codex….’

and just to show that the eastern ‘swelled belly’ was often difficult for Latins to interpret, here’s what was made of it c.1300 by a draughtsman in Paris: the belly becomes a rib-cage, twisted sideways.



Prague 1350 AD



Few heeded the distinction between dates of composition and those of manufacture

The point is that this distinction between dates for manufacture and for content, when considered in concert with other items of evidence, (some of which have already been mentioned in these posts) obliges us to take seriously the possibility that our manuscript is a fifteenth-century copy of material gained from sources which may date to the thirteenth century – or earlier.

This is something which had been suggested even while the cryptanalysts were involved, half a century ago. In 1969 Tiltman seems to attribute to both Panofsky and the keeper of manuscripts his saying:

… the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

Quotation above from [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘(1968).



Other than John Tiltman, the record of d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma shows that the cryptanalysts around William Friedman evince a lack of regard for opinions of specialists in their own subjects.  Friedman is recorded complaining of the ‘naivety’ of university men and his behaviour towards Newbold and towards Panofsky reinforces this impression.

That curious indifference may be due partly to the diversity of those opinions, partly to individual bias, and in the case of Erwin Panofsky partly his uncooperative response in 1954, but more than those – so it appears to me – was the dichotomy presented by those opinions versus the cryptanalysts’ confidence that they had a role, and an important role, to play in the manuscript’s study.

Had they accepted the opinion of early fifteenth century date, they would have had to abandon their fixed belief that the written part of the text was ciphertext – one so resistant to their cryptological attacks  that they must presume it the invention of a highly sophisticated Latin, one having access to techniques not attested until the …  late fifteenth century…  early sixteenth century…   late sixteenth century… early seventeenth century…

Marcus Marci’s reporting the Rudolf-rumour had one clear benefit for this study. It set a definite limit on such rovings. Rudolf’s death occured in 1621.

Today, the ‘cipher-or-language… or other’ question remains unresolved, but the date for manufacture is set within narrow limits and obliges us to date the content, therefore, before that period 1404-1438.

And the content, like the ‘shapely ladies’ may derive from sources considerably earlier – as two of those specialists had pointed out.

In sum: Panofsky dated the pigments – and hence manufacture – in the fifteenth century.  He was right.  By reference to the ‘swelled belly’ figures, Panofsky felt his initial view of the content as “early… perhaps as early as the thirteenth century” could not be correct, and since he had no knowledge of that custom in art of the western Mediterranean before the fifteenth century, so he felt he must shift the date for content to co-incide with than of manufacture: 15thC.   Given the resources available today, we are able to say he was right about a pre=fifteenth-century date for composition,* since the ‘Gemini’ in Sassoon 823 is in a manuscript dated 1361, and made as he said by Jews of ‘Spain or somewhere southern’.

*the ‘pre=‘ dropped out during editing. Replaced today (15th Feb. 2019) with apologies to readers.

Moreover, that image occurs in a manuscript whose matter dates to a much earlier period and some of which is, in fact, dated to the thirteenth century and the time of Alfonzo X, a court in which (again as Panofsky said) you find influence from Islamic art in Jewish – and in Christian – art.


Notes 6 & 7  ... shows strong Arabic 6and Jewish influences.7 “

So far  little to oppose, but much to support this part of Panofsky’s original assessment.

*header picture’s caption corrected – 24th July 2019.


Next post:  Notes 8 ‘Kabbala’; Notes 12 & 13:  Salomon and Liebeschutz.


Military cryptanalysts: Friedman and his questions

Header Illustration: detail of plate on p.11 of the Supplemental Volume of De Re Diplomatica. Issued in 1707. following Mabillon’s De re diplomatica libri VI, published Paris, Louis Billaine, (1681). Note – the example is chosen at random; no argument should be inferred.
Previous two posts


Friedman’s questions:

courtesy of the artist.

I’ve spent the last three posts explaining the background to Friedman’s questions and Panofsky’s responses. The aim is to understand  why Panofsky says so little about the manuscript’s pictures and why his responses lack his usual warmth and erudition.

In the next post, when we look at Panofsky’s replies in full, we see that the questions caused offence: some by ignorance of good manners; others of art, of manuscript studies and of Panofsky’s work.  (Remember, everyone had two years to think about the meeting).

A number of the questions have nothing to do with Panofsky’s interests, but are just about Friedman and his theories. Some assume Wilfrid’s narrative as ‘given’.  Others make clear that Friedman had scarcely attended to what Panofsky had already told him.  And others show extraordinary lack of awareness –  as e.g. Q.3, Q.7, Q.10,  Q.13 (!!!)  and Q,15.

Take Q.13 for example:   d’Imperio says (Elegant Enigma p.42) that William Friedman was “a devoted student of the Voynich manuscript from the early 1920s on”, yet Q.13 shows that thirty years later the ‘devoted student’ had not even heard of  the (then-) fundamental texts in European palaeography:  Mabillon’s De re diplomatica and Capelli’s Dizionario di Abbreviature Latini ed Italiani (Milan, 1912).

No matter that neither includes any simple comparison alphabet; the point is that in thirty years Friedman had not advanced his study as far as the introduction to ‘manuscript studies 101’.  Nor does he seem to have realised, to that time, that dating and (if possible) placing the  script is a vital part of provenancing any manuscript.   [see earlier post, ‘Provenance: Wilfrid-style and real-world.’ (November 24, 2018)].

Friedman’s exaggerated sense of self-importance and expectation that others should serve his needs does not seem unusual for him.  A number of comparable incidents are recorded by d’Imperio.



“On 25th May, 1944 William F. Friedman wrote a letter to the widow of Dr. Wilfrid Voynich  .. requesting a photostat copy [of the entire manuscript]. The request was granted.” (Elegant Enigma p.39)

Ethel Voynich (1864-1960) photo courtesy Kotbeber

The war had not ended; Friedman was –  according to the NSA biography –  Colonel Friedman, Director, Communications Research, Signal Intelligence Service, (later Army Security Agency).  During war-time the army has power to requisition, and one does not refuse a Colonel’s ‘request’.  The inconvenience and expense was not minor – the cost about that of a week’s wages for a man.   Mrs. Voynich first wrote to Friedman, pointing out that copies existed already, among them one in the New York Library and another with Fr. Petersen – but   Friedman clearly preferred  to have her bear the cost and trouble of providing him with his own copy; she complied. (Later we learn that Friedman  also obtained Fr. Petersen’s copy ‘on loan’ – effectively preventing that scholar from continuing his own decades’ research).

So – again in connection with ‘making sport’ of Newbold –  d’Imperio reports (p.42) that Elizebeth Friedman gave “an amusing account of the sport which she, William and Manly had together in demonstrating the ‘decipherments’ that could be had from Newbold’s texts…’

It was an insensitive thing to do to involve Manly, Newbold’s friend, in such ‘sport’  whether before, or after, Newbold’s suicide in 1926.


Newbold’s suicide:

At the time, it was not done to refer openly to suicide.  The act was considered a crime by the state, a shame upon the family, and a deadly sin by the Christian churches, so the usual practice was to add the oblique  ‘suddenly’ to an obituary’s regular formula  -such as  ‘died in hospital’;  ‘died at his home’ etc.  This I take too as the implication of Newbold’s not being recorded as buried from a church, but only that “A memorial service was held for him in College Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus.”

Works other than d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma  use “died suddenly.”

e.g. IN MEMORIAM, The Phi Beta Kappa Key, Vol. 6, No. 8 (May 1927), pp. 526-537. Entry for Newbold is p.535. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42914067


.. My point is not that Friedman had faults, but that when he commandeered the study from about 1952 or so,  all commentary from better qualified people ceased.  In fact the study of the manuscript itself ceased, and NOTHING by way of research was published for almost a decade, from 1953 until 1962 when Mrs. Voynich sold the manuscript to H.P. Kraus. What research was done was being circulated among the NSA cryptanalysts in-house or issued as very general popular articles.   As we’ve seen,  some of the NSA documents, including Tiltman’s paper, remained classified “top-secret” until the early 2000s.  In Jim Reeds’ Voynich Bibliography  publications for 1953-1962 include only these:

  • 1953   E. Westacott, Roger Bacon in Life and Legend. New York: [Publisher?],1953. [A balanced writer whose errors are flaws in his sources rather than his apprehension of them. The text is online through the internet archive. – D.]
  • ? W.F. and E.S. Friedman, ‘Acrostics, Anagrams, and Chaucer’, Philological Quarterly 38 (1959), pp.1-20.
  • 1959   Jose Ruysschaert, Codices Vaticani Latini 11414 – 11709. Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, (1959). [Describes the MSs acquired by the Vatican from the Collegium Romanum, and mentions that W. Voynich bought a number of them which have been transferred to various American libraries, including the VMS.].

Note the above item, first noticed and commented on by Reeds,  has recently been brought again to notice and much emphasised by Rene Zandbergen under the rubric ‘ 1903 catalogue’ because a lost document which was not a catalogue but which listed a number of books and was – as Zandbergen describes it – dated to 1903 was photographed at some later time and t(as Zandbergen describes it), the list or that photograph was what Ruysschaert was referring in 1959.   Zandbergen has shown a certain impatience with persons trying to clarify his line of argument and evidence on this point, and I recommend any revisionist attempt the task for him/herself.   (Richard Santacoloma’s puzzled comments are perhaps a little more indignant than the confusion warrants – but you must judge that for yourself).

1962 H.P. Kraus, Catalogue 100. Thirty-five manuscripts: including the St. Blasien psalter, the Llangattock hours, the Gotha missal, the Roger Bacon (Voynich) cipher ms. New York: H.P. Kraus,1962. [Beautiful reproductions of several leaves of VMS.]

and in the same year (1962)

  • June 25th., ‘Kraus Marks Anniversary With Catalog of Treasures’, Publishers’ Weekly, 181 (25 June1962) pp. 39-40. [Kraus auction – Vms listed but didn’t sell.]
  • June 26th., David Kahn, ‘The Secret Book’, Newsday. 26 June1962.
  • July 18th., Sanka Knox, ‘700-Year-Old Book For Sale; Contents, In Code, Still Mystery’, New York Times, 18 July1962, p 27, col 2. [Kraus auction. Includes picture of 85/86r4. .]
  • August 5th., Elizebeth S. Friedman, “The Most Mysterious Manuscript” still an Enigma’, The Washington Post, 5 August 1962, sec. E, pp. 1,5.
  • 1963 Jan. Alfred Werner, ‘The Most Mysterious Manuscript”, Horizon, 5 (January,1963), pp.4-9.

… in all, nothing was published which might return the study to normal channels…

For those who believe the text is in cipher, all the above may seem fair enough.  For those who doubt it, Friedman’s involvement and the long ‘block’ on the manuscript’s research hardly helped.

His ill-informed (and historically un-balanced) assumptions infused those of the NSA, as we’ll see later, by considering d’Imperio’s work, including its Table of Contents and Index (which will highlight their assumptions, and their information-gaps, respectively).

Those privvy to the NSA groups’ efforts, and who contributed something of lasting value, were those who contented themselves with making observations that they tested rigorously before sharing them: Currier’s work is well known; some of John Tiltman’s observations were much to the point.

Friedman’s ‘teams’ looked at what his own inclinations dictated; his ignorance of, and indifference to, anything but cryptology when combined  with his arrogance alienated the more learned –  and  surely lost us the chance to have two early and expert commentaries in particular:  Panofsky on the manuscript’s imagery and codicology, and Salomon on the script. (It is also noticeable that d’Imperio’s Index lists Charles Singer but makes no mention of Dorothea.).

Lacking the weight which such scholars might have brought to the study,  Wilfrid’s first imaginative ‘history’ was soon to spiral into pure fantasy about the content.

Apart from individuals such as Currier, the Friedman groups early came to imagine that the manuscript must belong to the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and for the supposed connection to the mad emperor Rudolf II, that its content must relate to occult-alchemical ideas fashionable among the nobility in Prague at that time –   several generations after the manuscript had been made in a clearly different environment.*

* four samples of vellum taken from the top 11 quires returned an adjusted radiocarbon range of 1404-1438 and the volume has been assessed recently as being made  in northern Italy.


Lost opportunity: Richard Salomon on the script…

Michael Tangl. photo courtesy of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences.

Richard Georg Salomon (1884-1966). Source unspecified.

‘Gallows’ glyphs – .

‘Gallows’ figures proper do not occur before the sixteenth century and are set in letters to warn the carrier to make haste.  The forms which are habitually mis-called ‘gallows glyphs’ or ‘gallows’ letters in  Voynich writings have no such intent  – so far as we know.

Jim Reeds investigated Capelli’s Dictionary in 1994, sharing what he saw in Plate IV  (Mon Jun 9th 1997), and quoting its Italian caption.  Salomon and Panofsky had doubtless seen this illustration before Panofsky put it in his reading list for Friedman.

Thus Reeds: “Tavola IV … shows a letter  ‘1172, Giugno 13 — Savino abbate del monastero di S. Savino in Piacenza investe il mugnaio Gerardo Albarola per se e suoi eredi maschi in perpetuo, di un mulio di ragione del detto moasstero — Scritura carolina. — Pergamena origen., conservata nell’Archivio di Stato di Parma, monastero di S. Savino.” with glorious gallows letters all over it.”

Jorge Stolfi (Fri, 6 Oct 2000),  gave that information again to someone who’d missed it, translating  “The date is on the “letter” itself, 13 june 1172. It is actually a notarial document recording the concession by the abbey of S. Savino in Piacenza of a mill of theirs to miller Gerardo Albarola and his heirs in perpetuity etc. etc. As I remember, it is signed by the abbot, several monks as witnesses, the miller (not sure), and the public  scribe / notary who prepared it .”

Reeds’ find is now seen everywhere, though rarely with any mention of him  – which omission inevitably leads to the newcomer’s supposing the careless copyist, rather than the researcher, should be credited with a particular contribution to this research;  failing to go to the original discussion and so (not rarely) to waste their time re-researching and re-discovering things long ago discovered.  Pelling once called this the Voynich ‘ground-hog day’ phenomenon and it is due almost entirely to absent or erroneous attribution.

The same example shown above, together with other items appear on a page from Rene Zandbergen’s website, re-presenting a selection of material from the past century’s shared research.

Stolfi’s last phrase provides the key:: “public scribe/notary”. Such elongated ascenders are most often found in documents of this type i.e. deeds of gift; deeds of establishment and other property-related matters and can be traced to similarly religio-legal documents as early as the tenth century in Spain.  For a time a more ornate variant was used by scribes in the imperial scriptorium, but as I noted when treating this point and introducing the early examples from Iberia:

“The eleventh and twelfth centuries, lingering into the fourteenth, are when we see such forms in various parts of Europe, usually as part of some official decree or charter”.

  • ‘Who wrote the ‘gallows’, voynichimagery, Oct. 7th., 2015.

If the apparent similarity between some Voynich glyphs and these earlier scripts is not deceptive (something which Salomon might have told us), then it is another item indicating that the content in the Voynich manuscript predates by some time the present volume’s manufacture in the early decades of the fifteenth century.

  • Capelli, Lexicon abbreviaturarum: Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane, 6th ed. (Milan: Ulrico Hoepli, 1979).
  • [pdf] Heimann and Kay (trans.),  Capelli’s ‘Dictionary… ‘ (1982). This pdf has no plates.
  • [read online or pdf] the internet archive has an edition in German to the front, and Heimann and Kay’s translation to the back.  Includes between them Capelli’s Plates.

Friedman’s  character and self-important attitude could be predicted to alienate Erwin Panofsky and others of his standing in their own fields. His errors – including uncritical acceptance of much of Wilfrid’s quasi-history and Newbold’s categories – then created error exponentially.


…. but to return to 1954 – all things considered (and though you are free to differ) –  it seems to me that Panofsky had reason enough to give Friedman responses which said as little as possible, being restrained by caution; by awareness of the temper of the times; and by   knowledge of by whom, and to what end, his statements might be used. Whether Friedman already had access to Panofsky’s assessment of 1931 1932, or whether Panofsky knew he did, if so, are other questions still undetermined and unaddressed.

Note:  By 1954, Panofsky seems to have mis-remembered; Nill’s correspondence suggests he had seen the ms on the 5th Feb. 1932.  the  memory seems to have slippedCryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1932.

The list of Friedman’s ‘Questions for Professor Panofsky’ (below) comes from Jim Reeds’ original paraphrase  (Reeds’mailing list, Friday April 15th., 1994).

The Questions

  1. Have you examined the VMS itself?
  2. What is it written on; with what writing tool?
  3. What’s the date?
  4. Why do you think so?
  5. What’s it about?
  6. Are there any plain text books sort of like the VMS?
  7. What plain text have you found in the VMS?
  8.  What plants, astronomical, etc, things have you recognized?
  9.  Is it all in the same hand?
  10. Why was it written?
  11.  Where & when?
  12.  What do you think of the Roger Bacon theory?
  13.  [provide Friedman with…] Full title of the Dictionary of Abbreviations. Title of Hans Titze’s book on forgeries, & of Mibillon’s history of diplomatics.
  14. What other scholars are interested in the VMS?
  15. What do you think of the artificial language theory?

Afterword: What’s Wrong with that?

It is understandable that a reader with little prior background might wonder if there’s really very much wrong with those questions. For those not asking this rhetorically, I provide more detail. (click the small black arrow).

As always, the things not understood manifest in absence, and silence, so let me illustrate Panofsky’s capacity for analytical-critical commentary, and then consider what we might have had from him if Friedman had better understood the discipline of iconographic analysis, or the calibre of the man to whom he had been introduced.

Consider, for example, the “ladies” pages in the manuscript, and their curious gestures.  Now, here’s Panofsky’s commentary on one, simple, everyday gesture – a ‘snapshot’ from daily life: a man lifts his hat.

  • [Introduction] Studies in Iconology: Humanistic themes in the art of the Renaissance.

It makes no difference for our needs that modern scholars differ about the relative value of Panofsky’s analytical system, or debate his preference for ‘authorial’ art, nor even debate the relative value of scholarship he produced during his German period as against his time in America.  It should be obvious enough from that one example what a depth of commentary he might have made had he been simply asked to share his thoughts on the manuscript’s imagery, or even just on the figures of the ‘ladies’.   Had he not been approached in the way he was, or sent that prescriptive ‘quiz’, the manuscript’s study might have advanced far more rapidly, and along very different lines, than it did after 1954.

Friedman’s single-minded focus on the written text; his implicit belief that he was the most important person to study the manuscript;  his belief that it was ‘enciphered’ or ‘encoded’ reflect habits of mind which made him such an effective code-breaker (self-confidence; self-reference; self-sufficiency;  single-mindedness; unswerving determination and a habit of organising information into neat categories for cross-reference) also made him utterly unsuited to conceiving of the range and depth of learning which might be needed to understand so problematic a manuscript –   or even to have Panofsky open up on the subject.

I find it telling that even Brigadier Tiltman’s paper of 1968 misspells Panofsky’s name and that, despite the amount of time Tiltman spends talking about the imagery, he refers in that paper more often to Charles Singer – a writer of popular histories of medicine and science- than to Panofsky.[note]   One remark – unattributed – may be Panofsky’s, because it is  the first instance I’ve seen so far of any cryptanalyst recognising the fundamental distinction  between provenancing manufacture and provenancing content. (on which see  ‘Provenance: Wilfrid-style and real-world’. ().

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

In fact this mis-represents the case. What Panofsky said is that if it hadn’t been for [O’Neill’s claim to have identified] the sunflower as the subject of one image, he would have dated it to no later than 1470.

  • [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘(1968). Paper released by the NSA under the Freedom of Information Act, 23rd April 2002.

Note added Jan.17th., 2009.  I’ll come back to Charles Singer, in connection with the ‘S.E.P.’ phenomenon, and do him more justice than the brief mention above. Since my first degree was a double major in art and in the archaeology of industry, Singer (editor of the first encyclopaedic ‘History of Technology’) happens to be one of my early heroes.


Military cryptanalysts: the ‘Art-Group Four’

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

Two prior posts:

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

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

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

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

Reeds’ entry  in his  Voynich Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Group of Four”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What fun! 



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


see also:

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

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

A recent and revealing study of Fuch’s activity:

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


Next post:  The ‘quiz’.


Military cryptanalysts: Interrogatories of 1954

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

Two posts previous:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correspondence 1952-1954

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The file continues:

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

And that was that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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