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

Two prior posts

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

________________________

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

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

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

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

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

How did we get here from 1912?

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

which was pretty much spot-on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cantimpre script Cambridge

So –

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singer Dorothea and Charles Wellcome V0027864.jpg

photo – Dorothea Waley Singer and Charles Singer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEFORE THE NSA

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

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

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

  • Ref No WIA GC/20727

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

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

  • Ref No WIA GC/23746. 

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

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

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

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

NSA photostats

HENRY [H.E.] SIGERIST

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

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

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

So in what areas had Sigerist particular knowledge?

Herbals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

newbolds-letter-to editor of Franciscan News

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

.Newbold biol SciAm May 28 1921

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

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

In sum:

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

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

—————–

FRITZ SAXL:  Astrology and myth

Photo below – Fritz Saxl and Gertud Bing.

Friz Saxl and his wife

Saxl was the person to whom Manly sent the copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________

OTHERS – Erwin Panofsky and Richard Salomon

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

Nothing else struck him as familiar.

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

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

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

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

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

November 30th., 1976: 

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

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

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

LANDMARK EXPOSITION

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

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

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

Ibid.p.39

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

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

HIS FINAL WORD

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I must make a critical point here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuart H. Buck

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

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

Postscript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What magic – where magic? 3b: historical consciousness.

Two previous posts.

To properly explain why William Friedman felt no constraint against entertaining about this manuscript ideas proper to the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,  despite  general consensus among the best qualified individuals that it presented as proper to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, I must to turn to what Erwin Panofsky once described as ‘historical consciousness’.

Lack of that particular form of awareness does much to explain why so many impossible, ill-founded and occasionally ridiculous ‘historical’ scenarios  have been, and continue to be, presented to the public. It also explains something of what has been called ‘the Voynich groundhog day’ where some work, or discovery by a past researcher is never read and absorbed before another newcomer sets off along the same line of enquiry.. and later another .. and then another..

Tracking the various ‘Voynich doctrines’ back to their root is hampered by the poor standards observed in much of the study’s history – or more exactly in its purported ‘histories’.  Documentation has been generally lamentable in substance, even when meticulous in form and has taken for its model, most often, Wilfrid’s yarn-spinning style. There are of course exceptions, but not many. The most valuable contributions have been based on clear observation, something which itself requires a degree of that same particular kind of awareness.

A lax approach to testing and checking what has earlier been said is certainly responsible for the survival of many ‘voynich doctrines’. The difficulty has been much increased in recent years by circulation of numerous brainless ‘memes’ which work against clarity in our understanding of how the study has unrolled. A particularly brainless meme ran that ‘to cite precedents is unnecessary’. I have no idea – of course – who first thought it up, but I had heard of it first from Rene Zandbergen.

Formal oversight, too, has often been lamentable when Voynich-related papers or books been submitted for publication.

If O’Neill’s ‘sunflower/Columbus’ paper (1944) had been submitted to a  journal of botanical science, or of American history, I doubt it would ever have appeared in print.

Technical editors would want it furnished with the citation of any precedents, and of his sources.  (Did he ever read accounts of Columbus’ voyages and what they brought back to Europe?)  The names of those six alleged supporters for his ideas would have been published, even if in a footnote, or printed as initials. A scientific publisher would normally have the material peer-reviewed before it went into print. In a case like O’Neill’s reviewers should include someone competent to confirm or deny his first premise – his assertion that Columbus brought sunflowers from the new world.  But none of that happened so far as I can discover. O’Neill’s paper was not only passed for publication as it was, but continued to be ‘passed’ in one way and another between 1944 and 2018,when I was astonished to find that no-one had bothered to check the grounds for any part of his paper.  So then, my research question being: ‘Is this basic premise factual?’, the conclusion I reached after looking into the problem was (short answer) ‘No, the Columbus theory is baseless’.  The long answer is here.

Speaking of O’Neill might be a good moment to let readers have a first glimpse of Robert Brumbaugh’s self-confident style.

“One strand of the [Voynich manuscript] case did unravel. A group of botanists, led by Hugh O’Neill, agreed in identifying four of the plants in the Voynich drawings – two from the first and two from the fourth section – as having first been brought to Europe in 1493. This established the date of composition as the sixteenth century, not the thirteenth. And various other minor illustration details suggested the same attribution. (So, of course, had the suspected role of Kelley and Dee.) 

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich Cipher Manuscript: a current report’, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 61, No.3/4 (April 1987) pp. 92-95. (p.94).

I can’t resist quoting Samuel Clemens here  – and it is to the point:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens)

Janick Tucker coverWhen, in about 2018, Tucker and Janick presented their effort to, as they say,  prove O’Neill’s notion correct, it looks as if their press also omitted peer-review.  Noone competent to assess (a) the Columban documents (b) the history of botanical illustration or at the very least (c) the claimed language –  Nahatl would have let it pass.

I’m at one with Thony Christie about this apparent decline in oversight:

I’ve been turning again to Lynn Thorndike’s letter to Scientific American because he was one of the very, very few who did ask the normal, sane, basic research questions – the same questions which can be asked today of any supposedly historical narrative for the Voynich manuscript.

Thorndike  asked .. What proof exists to permit the assertion?  What reason is there for suggesting thus-or-so?  Where is the evidence which led to this idea’s being formed in the first place?  Have you put it to the test against the corpus of primary evidence and secondary scholarship for medieval history and manuscripts? Putting something to the test does not mean hunting, within the limits set by the theory, for items which can be claimed as support for it.  To test a theory means to stress-test it by first presuming you are wrong – taking on the role of devil’s advocate.

The form of Wilfrid’s paper, its lack of any mention of sources or historical documents, and his inflating beyond reason the third-hand, unsupported ‘Rudolf’ rumour made me wonder whether his historical awareness had been enough to date and place the manuscript.  I decided to check that, too. If you know of any prior effort, please leave a comment so that I can do the right thing and acknowledge it as precedent.

It occurred to me that Wilfrid might have gone to the British Library when he arrived in England with the manuscript, and asked an opinion on it from his friend, mentor and future sponsor, Robert Garnett.*  If it were Garnett who had pronounced the manuscript English in appearance and appropriate for the thirteenth century or perhaps for the ‘1300s’ as per the article in Scientific American, then we might place more weight on that opinion.  Not for our present manuscript, which is certainly early 15thC, but for its nearest exemplars.

*I am indebted to Jackie Speel for the information that Garnett was one of the persons who served as guarantor in Wilfrid’s application for British citizenship. Another signatory was, as Speel says, a member of the  British Museum.

The research turned up a nice example.

Wilfrid had sold a certain item to an American collector named Robert Garrett, and apparently some suspicion about it arose later, for one of Morey’s students decided to subject the document to a dissection in the style that Morey advocated and which still informs the organisation of the Index of Christian Art.[now often called the ‘Index of Medieval Art’ though, to quote the Getty Museum, it still “documents primarily medieval  art from early apostolic times to approximately 1400 AD”]   Panofsky did not think so well of Morey’s approach but the Index itself thinks well of Panofsky.

Morey’s student, keen-eyed and suspicious, produced an excruciatingly detailed report, the upshot of which was –  Wilfrid’s provenance and description had been correct.

  • Holmes Van Mater Dennis, 3rd, ‘The Garrett Manuscript of Marcanova’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 6 (1927), pp. 113-126

I concluded that Wilfrid was competent at his job, but only within the limits of his job.  He was no historian.   As far as I could discover Wilfrid’s only Voynich ‘research’ was a biographical dictionary and an over-coloured and over-imaginative historical novel about Rudolf’s court.  Otherwise, he mainly echoes Newbold who – tellingly – never suggested that so inferior a manuscript would be offered to an emperor, but imagined it a gift for Rudolf’s gardener-pharmacist, which would be a suitable diplomatic gesture for those times.

The point here is that very few of those who, since 1912, have offered ‘historical’ scenarios for the Voynich manuscript or who have tried to interpret its drawings have shown evidence of what Panofsky once described as ‘historical consciousness.’

I quoted the next paragraph some time ago on the difficulty, in general, of reading images from another era. It is also a succinct criticism of Morey’s approach, and of the mindset informing his Index of Christian Art – a source to which some  present-day Voynicheros are clearly much indebted. Panofsky wrote:

“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 an historical consciousness could have provided.”

Developing a more acute historical consciousness should help the student recognise differences between claimed ‘matches’ for images in Beinecke MS 408 and to realise what significance might be signalled by those differences – which are sometimes apparently minor differences –  that occur between the products of one historical (and cultural) environment against another.  But also, and quite as importantly, historical consciousness serves to keep us aware of where earlier writers’ ‘blind spots’ –  and our own – may be distorting perception of the object.


Here’s an exercise. Skip it if you like. The new ‘block editor’ at wordpress doesn’t seem to have a ‘collapsed text’ option.

The following pairing I’ve drawn from the corpus of western Christian iconography, since few readers will then have difficulty in [A] deciding which of the two is meant for a queen of heaven and which for an earthly monarch.

Jadwiga and Mary

Now [B] go back and consider the two images more carefully to isolate exactly which  details led you to form that opinion – as I’m sure you did almost without conscious effort.  Next [C] make a list of points at which the two images appear ‘the same”. Then notice how many fewer and less prominent were those details which you  recognised  as signals of different intention.

Work out just how it was that you did recognise a different significance for (e.g.) the different forms of crown, or the different quality of the neck-veils, or of the colour of the background provided each figure’s head.   Now consider  [D] how you might explain those items convincingly to someone who has had no previous exposure to Europe’s Christian traditions and who protests that there is no substantive difference between the two images –  who might argue that even the two faces are alike and that the two pictures are also (as indeed they are) near-contemporary with one another.  Not as easy to explain as you might think, is it ?- because your historical consciousness in regard to western iconological conventions – style – is not theirs. And the other person might, quite literally, be unable to see what you’re talking about.  (As I said in the previous post, it isn’t the ‘compare’ but the ‘contrast’ phase that normally provides the most useful information about an artefact).

Within twentieth- and twenty-first century society, various individuals may have greater or less historical consciousness in general,  but in addition the simple ability to see what is on the page can differ widely been one individual and another. Not all the posited ‘comparisons’ for items in Beinecke MS 408 are a poor as this one, but far too many have been. And have been accepted without demur.

containers plate7 Sherwoods new pages

“…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 an historical consciousness could have provided.

Of course, by ‘historical consciousness’ Panofsky assumed not only an awareness of the past but a depth of concerted and continuing study of a period’s informing attitudes, thought and practices.

This is an area particularly difficult for modern, urban, secular people approaching medieval texts and imagery. Many cannot set aside attitudes which are now quite usual, but which were all but unthought-of during the medieval centuries.  There’s a reluctance to read such things as theology or devotional literature, to read the content of a breviary or of legal cases.   It is difficult to enter into the mind of someone whose whole environment, culture and history was an inseparable unity of religious with secular. The man whose father worked the fields, or whose father led armies, might come together as  monks in a monastery. The local inn might be called ‘Mary’s gate’ and no-one would ask, ‘Mary who?’ At a king’s coronation or a village fete, the songs would allude to Christian motifs and themes, and might be songs sung since the early centuries AD. Christianity was western European ‘Latin’ culture.  No-one who is reluctant today to read the things medieval people read or talked about, and to read about how they saw the world can hope to appreciate the temper of the times and how pictures produced from that environment were understood in their day.

At the same time, the modern revisionist must in fairness apply similar standards when asking  why William Friedman was able to drift so easily beyond that supposedly ‘certain’ dating of the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, into the sixteenth and seventeenth, or how he could apparently  maintaine simultaneously the ‘Bacon’ possibility and a particular  ‘seventeenth century’ possibility.

The Friedmans were not historians, or historians of art, or of palaeography. The sort of popular history written in their time was still unaware of  subjects we now take for granted, such as economic history, social history, women’s history, or even the history of technology. Economic history was a branch of commercial studies, for example, and a conception of national boundaries had not yet been recognised as inappropriate for the reality of the medieval centuries.

Medieval history itself was still in its early years as a separate discipline.  America’s first journal of medieval art would not appear until the 1970s.* Occasionally even now  publications emerge with such titles as  ‘Art of the medieval centuries’ but contain nothing in them but Christian art of England, Germany and France.  So too with Morey’s Index, which was exclusively composed of Christian imagery during his lifetime and has only recently included images from other sources, and changed its name to the ‘Index of Medieval Art’.

  • *Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1907-1951),Vol. 10, No. 2 (Feb., 1916), pp. 143-144.

In researching a medieval text, it is essential to read widely in contemporary documents, not least because the differences between then and now include different sensitivities, and in consideration of the modern reader’s feelings, secondary and popular texts, like older catalogues, regularly omit delicate and unpleasant matter.

Things that were openly spoken and written about in past times, and embodied in pictures of those times, are not always explained, or are treated superficially in works produced for the general reader.  This problem is not relevant to the Voynich manuscript’s images themselves, but it is very relevant indeed when medieval Christian images are selected and presented as ‘similar’ or as a theoretical explanation for what is in the manuscript.

For that reason, I’ll give an example. I’m sorry I can’t put it behind an ‘collapsed text’ arrow, but I apologise in advance for any disquiet it may cause.

Certain strands of imagery that gained prominence in Europe during the fourteenth- and fifteenth centuries, such as those focused on the wounds and instruments associated with the ‘passion of Christ’, carry quite  a horrible sub-text, for they were intended to pick up, echo and magnify certain  themes then being emphasised by certain preaching groups who, as they went from town to town, addressed crowds in public spaces – often producing those ‘passion’ images literally and not just verbally.

In some cases the aim was not only to justify but to positively incite  violent attacks against Europe’s Jewish population. They used formal training in rhetoric – oratory – to  stir up personal emotion – turning a crowd into a mob – and to keep active the desire for revenge that had always made the days before easter the most dangerous time of year for European Jews.

Obvious examples are the sudden increase in representations of  implements of torture, and of Christ’s wounds as a separate device from images of the Christ himself. These suggested that in torturing and wounding the Jews, it was justice of the  ‘eye for an eye’ type’ they were the ‘weapons of protection’ for the Christian faith, which believers held had been won by Christ’s suffering and death.    But there were less obvious polemical forms that those.

An older theological position was that the Jews should be protected by a king, or a Pope, because the Jews were the first (the head) of God’s chosen peoples –  Christians considering themselves the second. Thus, the image of Judith de-capitating Holofernes is one that suddenly becomes more prevalent and more graphically bloody during the time of the worst oppression of the Jews in the fifteenth century and that figure would become a major theme in late Renaissance and Baroque German art.

Nuremberg_chronicles_f_69r_2By the end of the Baroque period, many painters had come to regard that subject as no more than an interesting theme for religious painting, but in the fifteenth century the message conveyed had echoed the verbal images employed by the religious preachers – some, to the shame of their order, being Franciscans – and in Italy, Germany and France of that time, the image was very plainly meant to suggest a Biblical justification for defending what Europe then envisaged as its religio-cultural ‘purity’.

Note- One very interesting aspect of the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is that apart from some late-added marginalia, it contains none of the signs of religious prejudice nor of religious preference. For the long centuries when identity was inextricable from religious membership, whether in Europe or in Islam, Byzantium or even in India, this is most remarkable. A message of “we’re the good guys” is almost universal feature in the older traditions of art – as indeed it remains in public art today – but I cannot discern it in any of the Voynich manuscript’s images.

Another aspect of this intense escalation was a new use of ellipsis.  We have seen this in Oresme where he ceases to speak directly of Jews or of Muslims as he had earlier done, and comes to speak only of the  categories to which they are assigned, as  ‘the astrologers’ or the ‘diviners’ and so on.  The point should be made now because the same habit is found as late as the seventeenth century throughout much of Europe and may explain why, when an Italian named Ulisse Aldrovandi made a collection of herbals having unusual-looking pictures, he described them awkwardly as ‘herbals of the alchemists’ – not, as is so often said in recent Voynich writings as “alchemical herbals.” On the last point see the paradoxically-entitled article:

Philip Neal, ‘Alchemical herbals

My digressions and examples made this post longer than I meant it to be, so the near the rest will have to wait for Part (c).

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

Two prior posts

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singer's vague feeling German clip p.7

________________________________


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*quoted in next post.

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

Public discourse versus ‘national secrets’.

National Seecurity cleared d'Imperio Elegant 1978

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lutz, op.cit. p.49.

 

Friedmans and his ‘teams’.

American shaggy mushroom

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________

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

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

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

Thorndike volumes

 

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

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

from: Elegant Enigma –  ‘Table of Contents’

d'Imperio section 8

d'Imperio sections 9 & 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*a five-seconds’ pause*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[the] Ars notoria

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

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

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

 

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

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

Agrippa frontispiece for John French's translation of 1651

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002

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

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

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

 

What magic? Where magic? Imposition of the occult Pt2 -Newbold

Two previous posts:
Header image: (detail) MS Yates Thompson 13, f.68. Third quarter of the fourteenth century. A caption in Anglo-Norman French reads, ‘I begin the ladies’ game’.

Shortlink to this post.

————-

What magic?

Although ‘natural philosophy’ may be taken by a modern writer* as a description of magical attitudes, that equation does not apply to the perceptions of people who lived in Latin Europe during the thirteenth- to fifteenth centuries.

*e.g. introductory sentences in Sébastien Moureau, ‘Physics in the twelfth century: the ‘Porta Elementorum’ of PseudoAvicenna’s alchemical “de anima” and Marius’ “de elementis”, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age, Vol. 80 (2013), pp. 147-222.

Since we know now that MS Beinecke 408 cannot be an autograph by Roger Bacon, or even written to his direct dictation, so the revisionist is obliged to set aside not only the idea of the manuscript as a ‘Bacon autograph’ but also the string of  extrapolations derived from that premise – a premise based on nothing more than assessment of the materials and drawings as characteristic of the “third quarter of the thirteenth century” – as Wilfrid himself tells us. The rest was speculation on speculation.

Yet even now, when the ‘Bacon autograph’ idea has been ditched, many of the same extrapolations from it continue to be maintained by Voynich writers, including not just vague assertions of ‘magic’ but ideas developed without reference to the manuscript’s content. (For example the ‘European alchemy’ theory, which specialists in the history and imagery of western alchemical texts have dismissed already – but more of that in a  later post). 

In my opinion, the ‘occult’ notion is among those ‘Bacon ciphertext’ residues. I’ve yet to see it set forth in the usual way of scholarly argument, or even argued rather than asserted, or seen it supported by any material of the range and balance normally part of a reasoned argument from the body of material, historical and scholarly evidence to a conclusion.  

Full disclosure

The present author accidentally revived the ‘alchemy’ idea in 2011, after the opinion of a specialist and the radiocarbon dating had seen it ‘killed off’.  The revival was due to a post in which I was explaining the methodical design, and the subject of  one of the plant-drawings. My article never suggested that the ‘alchemy’ involved  was the highly elaborate and arcane style of European alchemists working the fifteenth century and later. Rather, I spoke of the double-gourd motif in that drawing as an allusion to distillation,  a motif and mnemonic added to the drawing of a plant which I did identify and whose only recorded use before the fifteenth century  had been in perfumery. I found no evidence of its having been employed at all in continental Europe, though the historical records of trade between east and west allow the possibility that, as well as importing the finished perfumes (manufactured from eastern plants in medieval Cairo during most of the medieval period), some centres in Sicily or in eastern Spain *may* have imported  raw ingredients for local manufacture. The trade in eastern plants as ‘spices’ is well-documented through the medieval centuries and shows especially good access into England for plants from as far as the south China sea. 
That plant identification in which I mentioned ‘alchemy’ as distillation was one of several dozen plant identifications which I made by recognising the consistently-applied informing system of the botanical drawings’ construction, and each observation was, as ever, tested against the historical record and cross-referenced against previous investigation of other sections in the manuscript. Where I found I could not offer a comprehensive explanation for a drawing, from lack of historical documentation or for any other reason, I did not attempt to offer it as an hypothetical one. I consider ‘guesses’  like superficial  picture-comparisons, unlikely to be of any positive  value and in fact a definite hindrance to the work of those labouring to understand the manuscript’s written text.   I do note that another Voynich writer then adopted the *idea* of perfumes and made an entire theory from it, one which I do not consider justified by the primary document.  The same is true of efforts made to imitate my exposition of the map while skewing the result to suit one or another variant of “all Latin European” hypothesis.
Of those subsequent efforts, but certainly not of my own, you may find acknowledgement of the author provided with matter taken up by Rene Zandbergen for inclusion in his website. Zandbergen’s attitude to others’ work has  in the past caused difficulties for my publisher and ultimately led to my shutting down from public readers all the research I had published online and to make no more available to researchers in that way.  I now regret having made any exception for posts here about the month-folios, even though I included only the barest minimum of titles from my research materials. 
Overall, however, my conclusion (supported as ever by the ordinary routine of testing against historical data, both documents and artefacts) was that a majority of the botanical drawings depict plants native to the maritime ‘silk routes’ and that images are constructed as ‘plant-groups’ defined by the constituent plants’ equivalent or complementary uses, the actual  ‘group’ depicted in each image being defined by terms for  ‘classes’ that are not the classes of modern botany, but which are attested in records of the medieval Yemen and in documents from the Cairo geniza. The article which mentioned ‘alchemy’ was of course presented with the most important of my primary and secondary scholarly sources too.
Knowing that my conclusions would be likely to cause uproar and outrage in the ‘Voynich community’ (as was indeed the case, since many could not understand what I meant by ‘conclusions of research’ and presumed that my commentaries were imaginative or hypothetical), I was glad to learn that John Tiltman had earlier sensed that some sort of ‘composite’ approach influenced the construction of at least some of the botanical images. 
Overall, after analysis and research into each of the sections in turn, and having completed the first analysis of the map (whose purpose until then had only elicited a couple of desultory comments in the history of this study),  was that the present manuscript (Beinecke MS 408) was compiled by meticulous copying of several distinct exemplars in which had been contained still older material, much of it Hellenistic in origin, though I gave it as my opinion before the radiocarbon dating was published that the nearest exemplars should be dated to about or before the mid-thirteenth century and to not later than c.1330.
I concluded, further, that the whole compilation as we have it in the fifteenth-century manuscript, constitutes a trader’s manual, though with the caveat that is not impossible  its description of the ‘ways east’ with routes and goods might have made the material useful to one of the missionary orders, among whom the most prominent order during the ‘Mongol century’ was the Franciscan order.
I do not find the idea impossible, then, that Roger Bacon might have owned one or more of the exemplars, but the possibility does not admit of proof, since I find nothing in the primary document to connect it or any of the contained matter directly to him.
While certain adherents of the  Prinke-Zandbergen ‘Germanic/central European’ theory have actively suppressed both research and researchers withholding their assent from it, I  remain more inclined to  Panofsky’s first assessment of the manuscript’s making, as  “Spain or somewhere southern”, though I do not deny the considerable evidence of Anglo-French influence in the manuscript’s late additions, exclusive of the post-production marginalia, because the latter  was then to be found throughout much of the coastal western Mediterranean. The historical picture is made more complex by the entanglements of peripatetic occupations, trade and of social and cultural dislocation which make simple definitions of ‘nationality’ historically inappropriate for the time.  One may, however, trace the link through the ‘Norman-Anglo-French’ areas from as far as the heel of Italy, including Sicily, then via the Italian peninsula, through France to as far as London in one direction by land and through the Mediterranean ports from Sicily through Spain to London and Antwerp or Bruges by sea. To this late phase of the content’s evolution I assign the month-folios’ central emblems, the inscription of the month-names, and certain other details.    Sailing north to Constantinople and the Black Sea and thence disembarking and travelling overland to as far as China was part of the great circular east-west ‘road’ and using the overland route was not as remarkable a feat as might be imagined, especially during the period of the ‘Pax mongolica’, though even then the proportion of Latins to other peoples was very small.  Contact was more usually through trading ports of the Black Sea and principally Caffa and Trebizond during the period of interest.
Constantinople is included, specifically, in the Voynich map but it is to what had once been the eastern limits of Alexander’s empire on those overland ‘high roads’ that I ascribe preservation of the Hellenistic material which forms the earliest chronological stratum displayed in drawings from some sections – primarily the astronomical and ‘ladies’ sections.  I should mention, too, that a number of people whose research interest was in the written text also looked to that same northern line, and to the same ‘Mongol’ period in discussing the probable language informing the manuscript’s written text.   Most of that research and/or opinion was  determinedly ‘eliminated’ from public conversations and forums, more often by sneer-smear campaigns and mindless, if catchy ‘memes’ than by careful and informed argument, and the work of those people is still consistently omitted or misrepresented in web-based accounts of the manuscript and what is believed about it. 
I hope in later posts to re-present for your consideration a few of those ‘dismissed’  opinions and studies, especially – but not only – when they were not just theoretical narratives but were supported by  evidence, data, and specialists’ opinion.

‘Bacon wrote it’

The ‘Bacon autograph’ idea should have been dismissed very early. Here is one of the few remaining samples of his hand, from his letter to Pope Clement IV, written in 1267.

script Letter Roger Bacon to Pope Clement

It can demand real effort for any Voynich researcher to keep focus firmly on the manuscript as the object of their study. The myriad will-o’-the wisps we call ‘Voynich theories’ are so much easier to understand than is the primary document and those published online are too often presented in a way aimed more at eliciting personal faith in the theorist than at setting fairly before the reader the precedents, documents and studies from which any historical and material theory about the object is normally expected to emerge.

“Just believe me” is the essence of the Wilfrid method.

In theory, of course it is possible that some part of the written text may one day be found to include ‘magical’ material or matter from one of Roger Bacon’s works – or indeed from any other text of any time or provenance up until 1440 – but to first assert an impression, and then focus solely on hunting circumstantial evidence for it is to neglect the fox for the rabbit. The aim of research should surely be the better understanding of this manuscript, not the public’s better understanding of an ‘idea’ spun about it.

Voynich studies is so plagued by that kind of ‘hare coursing’, and researchers so constantly distracted into hunting only for circumstantial support for one or another unfounded or ill-founded theory that (saving a few connected to the Beinecke library) scarcely a specialist in any relevant field will now let their name be associated with the manuscript, and those who have done in the past have often found the experience unpleasant. Theorists become over-attached to their visions of an imaginative past and a ‘theoretical’ version of the manuscript.

Wilfrid Voynich did not say that Roger Bacon practiced or wrote about magic, but his fantastic and undocumented ‘chain of ownership’ story, together with his impossible back-projection of seventeenth century Bohemian preoccupations onto a thirteenth-century English Franciscan friar had – and still has among the arch-traditionalists – a lasting influence.

Again – and still speaking generally – there is a good chance that the Voynich text contains something one might call ‘magical’, because scarcely a text produced anywhere in Europe or the wider Mediterranean before 1440 contains nothing that someone or other mightn’t regard as ‘magical thinking’.

Definitions of ‘magic’ vary and the word has been applied to everything from ordinary religious practices to classic necromancy. Perception of where a given item belongs in the spectrum of ‘not-magic’ to ‘really, really magic’ comes down to personal expectations – to when and where you happen to live.

As illustration – test your own reactions to these three objects:

As I mentioned in discussing a detail from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275 (here) it was initially left to the Church, in Europe, to arbitrate between acceptable and non-acceptable matter, but the medieval Church had no easy task either.

Assigning objects and practices their correct position on the spectrum between pious observance, poetic or spiritual sensibility, folk-superstition, simple investigation of natural phenomena, and ordinary ‘magic’ was always problematic and might alter with time and circumstance,* but one sort of magic was always forbidden – necromancy as the summoning of demons.

* Schmitt’s study of the cult of the ‘holy greyhound’ offers an excellent example. Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound Guinefort, healer of children since the thirteenth century. (Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture 6) CUP (1983).

Attempting to call up demons to do one’s bidding was unequivocally condemned within European Christian culture. Some theologians argued that trying to do it was just stupid, because an impossiblity; others held that it was possible but utterly wicked.

In either case, by the mid-sixteenth century in England, Roger Bacon could be popularly imagined a true necromancer, as we’ve seen* though Bale himself published his correction, as effective retraction, within a decade.

*in the previous post

What magic? – Roger Bacon’s according to Newbold.

 

Bacon2 coinThough he includes the dread term ‘necromancer’ Newbold’s idea of Roger Bacon had Bacon’s   ‘magic’  benevolent, and the latter idea is attested as early as 1487. For readers’ convenience, I’ll cite  Molland for this well-known fact.

  • A.G. Molland, ‘Roger Bacon as Magician’, Traditio, Vol. 30 (1974), pp. 445-460. (pp.445-446)

Just so did Newbold describe Bacon’s studies, introducing the theme at one remove by quoting Bacon’s praise of a friend in a letter of 1267 to Pope Clement IV – the same that I’ve illustrated (supra). Bacon has his idea of ‘philosophy’ by literal translation from the Greek, to mean ‘a lover of all wisdom/know-how’ – in this case, know-how about natural materials and phenomena.

Studying suspect matter “only to sort the true from the wrong” is exactly the same rationale that would be offered, much later, by the Dominican order as they tried to shift perceptions of Friar Albertus of Lauingen from ‘Albertus magus‘ to ‘Albertus magnus‘ and by the seemingly simple step of having the Church formally proclaim Albertus a saint.

In fact, AlbertusAlbert of Lauingen magus magnus modern wood carving displays much more interest in magic and borderline alchemical theories than did his contemporary, Roger Bacon. He was also far more intellectually dishonest, much of what readers perceive as his original thought having been lifted, unacknowledged, from other scholars, as modern researchers have shown. 

image of Albertus of Lauringen (left) from online re-publication of the Catholic Encyclopaedia (1913). 

The Dominicans’ efforts included composition of two distinctly different biographies and still did not entirely convince. Though eventually beatified (1622), Albertus was not formally added to the list of saints until 1931.* His annual feast-day, now, is November 15th., and he is the patron saint of scientists, philosophers, medical technicians and all students of the natural sciences.

*which is why the biography in the Catholic encyclopaedia of 1913 calls him merely ‘blessed’.

Note – a patron saint is a person recognised as worthy of emulation by those in circumstances similar to those of the saint’s life. By the same token, it is assumed by believers that the saint will feel a reciprocal empathy for (e.g.) a student about to go into a science exam, and who may therefore be inclined to put in a good word ‘upstairs’ if asked to help the student remember his facts.  The general definition of a saint is someone whose soul certainly went ‘up’ rather than ‘down’ when they died.

I add just a couple of my references:

  • David J Collins, ‘Albertus, Magnus or Magus? Magic, Natural Philosophy, and Religious Reform in the Late Middle Ages’, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-44.
  • Peter Grund, “Textual Alchemy: The Transformation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s Semita Recta into the Mirror of Lights.” Ambix: The Journal for the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry 56(3): 202–225.

On the other hand, Thorndike says unequivocally that Bacon’s work does include magical matter, according to definitions current in his – Thorndike’s – time. I’ll come back to that in the next post.

Where magic?

To date, there has been no connection clearly established between MS Beinecke 408 and any ‘occult’ subject-matter, or any such text. The closest anyone has come was Nick Pelling, who drew attention to the fact that in a book by Okasha el Daly, an illustration from an eighteenth-century manuscript displays ‘Voynich’-style glyphs.

  • Okasha el Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. El Daly’s book was published by Cambridge University Press in 2008, and limited access is offered through Cambridge Core (here).

Otherwise – Nothing. Not in more than a hundred years..

Had the manuscript’s study followed a rational course, the ‘occult’ idea should have been abandoned at the very latest in 2011 when the ‘Bacon autograph ciphertext’ notion was proven untenable.

Before that time, the notion of ‘occult’ purpose was never a conclusion drawn from concerted research, but ultimately dependent on the internal logic of those two imaginative narratives of 1921. And the subsequent efforts to justify the idea have always been, at base, just versions of that ‘blame the author, not me’ response which for so long served as reflexive defence when over-confident individuals found themselves defeated by the manuscript’s pictorial- and/or written text.

Neither of the 1921 narratives does, and no subsequent writer ever did, demonstrate that the ‘occult content’ idea is justified by the primary source or any solid historical evidence or any Latin Christian text created before – or even after – 1440.

Acceptance of Newbold’s narrative relied on an idealised view of ‘Bacon-as-anticlerical-scientist’ already popular with the general public, especially in America. To this, an evocative backdrop was added, evoking an atmosphere of mystery and ‘forbidden’ knowledge. Notice how Newbold presented Bacon’s life and works for the Physicians of Philadelphia in April of 1921.

On Bacon’s knowledge of Hebrew, there is just one dedicated study, so far as I know.

  • Reviewed by L. D. Barnett in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Jan., 1903), pp. 334-336.
  • and see also Horst Weinstock, ‘Roger Bacon’s Polyglot Alphabets’, Florilegium Vol. 11 (1992) pp. 160-178.

Wilfrid and Newbold delivered their papers in April of 1921, by which time the popularist myth of Bacon as “persecuted scientist” – echoing a thesis promulgated by Draper and by White, but which had already been refuted years before – was “what everyone knew”. It was a consensus of popular myth and infuses both popular journalism and the work of some contemporary scholars (as for example, the introduction written by Roland and Hirsch in their publication referenced above).

  • [pdf] Walsh, James Joseph, The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time, Fordam University Press, New York 1908.

But the refutation had less grip on the public imagination and the idea of the church as ‘scared of science’ would remain an underlying theme of Voynich writings into the present century.

Hydra-heads

Lynn ThorndikeAlready by June of 1921, with newspapers, journals and magazines advertising the Wilfrid-Newbold story and encouraging the proliferation of ancillary narratives,* Lynn Thorndike, who was then the eminent specialist in the history of European sciences and pseudo-sciences, attempted to return some level of reason to the clamour, but had little success.

*for which, see Jim Reeds’ Bibliography in the Cumulative Bibliography page.

His protests were evidently ignored in 1921 and the same stories were repeated through the thirties and the post-war period, and even throughout the period from 1952 when William Friedman effectively co-opted the study, and thus even to as late as 1978 when Mary d’Imperio produced ‘Elegant Enigma’.

I’ll consider that post-war period in the next post.

Meanwhile, here again is Thorndike’s letter to the editor of Scientific American in June 1921. This time I omit the formal compliment to the editor and add some paragraph spaces. Tellingly, Thorndike has already tried to stop a fiction that Roger Bacon invented gunpowder, and here he must focus on just one point as his target – so he ignores most of the nonsense to focus on the foundation for Wilfrid’s entire construction of narrative from conjecture and ‘logical’ inference: viz. the assertion that the manuscript is a ‘Bacon ciphertext’.

His letter has some other less obvious, but even more important implications, but I’ll leave that for the moment. In the meantime notice that while the passage which is cited from the ‘Wilfrid’ article speaks of the manuscript as being “with certainty dated to the 1300s”, is automatically corrected by Thorndike who knew that Roger Bacon had died some years before the ‘1300s’ began.

Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine’

Header Illustration: composite image. includes detail from Brit.Lib. Harley MS 5751  f.15
Two previous:

We are still considering the period 1912-2000, and matters other than ‘Voynichese’.

During those eighty years from 1912-2000,  scholars expert in one or another aspect of Europe’s intellectual and artistic heritage could suggest not a single close comparison for the Voynich manuscript’s content and imagery from among the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Latins’ (western Christian) manuscripts they had seen – no matter what their area of specialisation,

It was always over the fence;  ‘someone else’s problem’.

This is an interval post – just a pause for perspective.

not GERMAN-CHRISTIAN ART – Panofsky and Petersen

Erwin Panofsky and Theodore Petersen specialised in the Christian art of medieval and (northern) Renaissance Germany.  Neither saw the manuscript as in that tradition.

In 1932, after spending two hours examining the manuscript in New York, Panofsky had correctly dated its manufacture: ‘1410-1420-1430’, an evaluation whose precision would not be matched until 2011, when radiocarbon dating returned the range 1404-1438.

Panofsky attributed  its content not to Christian-German work but to “the southwest corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia or Provence; but most probably Spain” and to a Judeo-Arabic cultural environment. His reasons for saying otherwise in writing answers for Friedman’s ‘quiz’ questions in 1954 have already been discussed.

For Panofsky’s dating see the letter of ‘E.L.V’ to Professor Thompson transcribed in ‘Correspondence’ at the end of my post ‘Expert Opinions – Richard Salomon‘. The original letter is in the Beinecke Library, Yale.

…… and Panofsky was the first to cite any specific comparison but – as would thereafter become a constant in discussions of this manuscript – he compared just a single detail in it with a single detail from another manuscript, and did not even suggest the comparison close enough to call a ‘match’.

As Nill later wrote, “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript,  [the Vms] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”  The comparison was between one diagram from the Voynich calendar and one from Alfonso X‘s Libros del saber de astronomía.  That Panofsky knew the latter is an indication of his range, for it exists in a single manuscript, and that in Madrid.  Consider the range of exclusion implied.

 LATIN HANDS? – Salomon, Barrett and ‘not-saying-who’.

Richard Salomon, a specialist in Latin palaeography, recognised only one line of marginalia, which he read as medieval legal German – and whose date he then applied to the manuscript as a whole.

At that time, he had seen only a black and white photostat copy, and while an offer was made for him to see the original, I’ve found no record that he ever did.  His circumstances after 1932 were so disrupted and so distressing that he was never able to return to his chief area of interest, lacking access to appropriate texts and references.

Of the hand(s) within the main text, and of that which wrote the month-names, I’ve seen no evidence of his saying anything before or after 1932, though something may yet be found in others’ letters from him.

Some Voynich researchers have guessed a  Caroline hand; others as ‘influenced by the Humanist style’, but the specialists have said nothing, though not positively protesting Wilfrid’s opinion that the script was that of a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman scholar.

Remarkably little time or attention was paid to this matter of palaeography, and for my knowledge of these views I am indebted first to Nick Pelling, and through him to the sources he cited, including Reeds’ mailing list and articles by Barbara Barrett.  Pelling disagreed with the latter, but for the sake of balance referred to Barrett’s views anyway.  Other sites have, since then, copied (and sometimes rightly attributed) the same material.
who-knows-who 

an insubstantial argument

I’ve recently seen it asserted,  with no evidence offered and my  request for directions to the original argument refused with some vigour,  that someone has argued a case for considering inscription of the German (and only the German) marginalia so closely contemporary with the rest of the work that we should believe  the whole manuscript to be, in some sense, a product of German culture.

Given the non-German month-inscriptions, the character of the imagery overall, the Italian binding of the book-block, the opinion of consummate experts with no ‘guess’ to grind… and so on, it is not an idea I’m willing to take on faith. Perhaps someone would like to raise the question on a forum? Do leave a comment if you find a clear answer.

 

not EUROPEAN ALCHEMICAL – McLean

Adam McLean, a specialist in the history of alchemy, responded as the experts do: “S.E.P”.  Since non-specialists enthusiastic about the ‘alchemy’ idea have continued to push it (though the radiocarbon dating silenced them for a time), I’ll reproduce McLean’s comments, taking them from  Dennis Stallings’ report to the second mailing list: (09:40 AM 11/19/98 -0600)

Dennis had said: ‘Hello, Adam!..  Mary D’Imperio, in her survey of VMs studies up to 1978, thought that alchemy might be the key to understanding the VMs.  However, current [mailing-list] members, including myself, see little if any alchemical content in the VMs.  None of us, however, are experts. What is your opinion on this.  What alchemical imagery can you see in the VMs?

to which Adam replied:

Dear Dennis

All I can say is that I have never seen an alchemical manuscript with the same imagery and pictures as are found in the Voynich. …The main ‘alchemical’ resonance is supposed to be the ‘balneological’ section, but here I find no parallels with alchemical manuscripts, except in a very general way. If this was an alchemical work one would expect to find some other alchemical manuscript with similar drawings – but I do not know of one. …  I have an open mind on the subject, but have yet to see any real parallels. Perhaps one day I will find a manuscript that I recognize has common features with the Voynich – but not so far. I don’t think I could  find any way at present to use alchemical manuscripts or ideas to throw light on the ‘Balneological section.

and then:

The plant drawings in  the ‘Herbal section’ have many forerunners some going back centuries before the Voynich, as has been extensively documented. [This is still widely believed, but the ‘documentation’ is less, and less solid, than most suppose].    The drawings in the Astronomical section again seem to have many parallels in known manuscripts. [widely believed but ill-supported by evidence].…  

.. but, once again, the expert’s view is ‘Not one of mine’. And rightly so.  A specialist cannot blur the lines between what is demonstrably true, and what is desired true by others. Not that the others necessarily take heed.

A list of alchemical mss in the British Library, from Adam McLean’s website levity.com

‘alchemical’ notion revives,  five years later… My apologies.

The ‘alchemical’ text notion – killed off after McLean’s expert dismissal in the 1990s – was well and truly dead in early 2013. Unfortunately in presenting the analytical-critical study for folio 4v,  I gave it a whimsical title, ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent’ as summary of my findings.  In short, that the plant-group referred to by the drawing was that of the eastern clematis and that what had previously been imagined a curious form for the root was, in fact, a depiction of the double gourd, whose place in culture and iconography of the regions from east Africa to southern China (essentially the medieval trade routes) I summarised and illustrated, mentioning that clematis was not much used in eastern medicine (nor was western clematis in the Latin tradition), but the wood and root of eastern species were used to make scented substances (perfumes and incense etc.), and when formed in metal the double-gourd was also used as a type of ‘small a‘ alchemical receiver, just as the ordinary sort was used for liquids.

As usual, I accompanied the point-by-point analysis  with comparative imagery, textual and cultural notes, and in this case additional comments on the trade in scents and scented materials into Cairo for the Mediterranean trade and, further, on the important role of mathematics in this sort of compounding. It had originated in India, and the Indian model was employed in Cairo too, so as illustration I included a table from the Brht Samhita.  Updating the botanical nomenclature was tiresome, but that was done too, and I cross-referenced any plants mentioned that I had previously identified in the botanical folios.

Being, from the first, under an informal ‘pay no attention’ ban by one of the most avid, and yet ill-equipped of the Voynicheros,  who found it helpful to read, download and then disseminate my results verbally as anonymous ‘ideas’  yet to be explored, I did not expect my  post to receive quite such widespread attention as it did.  It received swarms of readers, throughout the period from 2013 until I closed voynichimagery in 2017.  Imitators were numerous; some took this element from the post and some that, but among them a few were honest about their source, and others so inept that they brought a touch of humour.

One chap especially –  a wild fan of Edith Sherwood, Rene Zandbergen and Sergio Toresella – was helping in some project aimed at producing ‘The Official Voynich Herbal’. His job was to collect and collate others’ work, omitting such details and names as were considered unnecessary by the project’s unnamed director/s.

Since very little new work was being done, just then, this chap got into the habit of taking nothing from my latest post but the name of the plant-group I’d given for the folio, reducing the name for a group  to one name (to suit the western style of herbal),  stripping out all the informing commentary, textual, iconographic, historical and cultural notes, archaeological studies (for proof of location and period), historical botany and information on use which provided evidence for the identification I’d offered.

That done, he would leap up in the second mailing list about a day later and proclaim with many marks of exclamation that a ‘new identification’ had been made.  But in this case, he was faced with the fact that the European clematis had no place in the Latin pharmacopoeia, does not have a bell-shaped flower, nor narrow leaves. And double gourds aren’t exactly standard motifs in medieval Latin art, let alone to be seen in any of the herbals.

Rene Zandbergen (as I recall) kindly came to his rescue on the ‘gourd’ problem, showing an image of a vegetable garden in a copy of the Tacuinum sanitatis.  Soon afterwards, the lad adopted the ‘foxy’ tactic of applying some new identification of mine to a different folio… more or less at random. The manuscript’s study is not only corrupted, but actively hindered by such practices, whose only benefit is to lend spurious credibility to persons or theories which have not deserved them.  Lately, the most common tactic seems to be to use the mantra:  ‘synchronicity’.

Another chap became excited about the ‘perfume’ thing – though I did tell him that it wouldn’t do; the botanical section contains many more plants than were used in any sort of perfume, scented powder, or insect repellent ( a use I’d identified for another of the pictured plants, and which then synchronistically appeared in a post by Ellie Velinska, another close associate of the old guard but whom I’m inclined one of the several innocents who simply believed, when handed an ‘idea’ that it sprang fully formed from the donor’s imagination).

It proved impossible to stem the  ‘alchemical’ tide, to which that post seems to have acted as the bolt of electricity on Frankenstein’s monster, reviving the pile of dead matter abandoned since the 1990s.   All I could do, and did, was to remind people of the more modest matter in my original post, which I re-published in a condensed and clearer form two years later, on  23rd August, 2015, under the title  ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent made more readable’.

The manuscript deserves more respect than it receives when used only to puff theories or personal ambition.  The way my analysis of folio 4v was misused is just an example of the great many so used, whether my work or others’ – since the early 2000s, and largely why the study fails to advance.  I suppose the lesson for us all is not to buy second-hand ‘ideas’; demand the donor provide his/her primary evidence and explain to you in detail his/her line of reasoning.  If they can’t, it might be as well to  tell them to go away and do their own work for a change.

 

 

A LATIN/ARABIC or BYZANTINE HERBAL? H’hmm. – T.A. Sprague (and Alain Touwaide, 2015)

 

Dr. T. A. Sprague had travelled in the Americas as a botanist and as a taxonomist,  spent time in northern India and served for forty-five years as a member of staff at Kew gardens,  fifteen of them as Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium, and whose particular study of the  Anicia Juliana codex required thorough knowledge of the Greek, Latin and Arabic herbals and their vocabularies. In 1947, shown some photostat copies of the plant-pictures, Sprague  positively recoiled and railed at John Tiltman, “I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to identify the plant drawings in the Juliana Anicia codex when the names of the plants are given in Greek, Latin and usually Arabic and you are asking me to identify these awful pictures.”   It seems clear that none of them looked immediately familiar.

Alain Touwaide (2015}

More recently (2015) Alain Touwaide, whose field of study covers the Latin, Arabic and Greek history of medicine, drugs, herbals and medical manuscripts , wrote a seventeen-page essay published by the Villa Mondragone in a volume now, alas, out of print.   There were no peer-reviews published in any Journal, so far as I can find, but the prominent enthusiast Rene Zandbergen sent a 1100-odd word summary-review to the late Stephen Bax’ site. The review began and ended with Zandbergen’s opinion that  Touwaide added ‘nothing new’ to the manuscript’s study but had repeatedly returned to the possibility that the manuscript might be a fake.

In which case of course it would be again (apparently) ‘someone else’s problem’.

  • Alain Touwaide,  ‘Il manoscritto piu misterioso – l’erbario Voynich’ in  Marina Formica (ed.), Villa Mondragone ‘Seconda Roma’, (2015) pp. 141-158. out of print.

I’m sorry to add that certain comparisons widely offered as closely similar to pages from the Vms, and in some cases attributed to Touwaide, do not bear close analysis, but perhaps I’ll return to that matter at a later stage.

not MEDIEVAL EUROPEAN TECHNOLOGY / PLUMBING – Charles Singer

 

Charles Singer, editor of an encyclopaedic  History of Technology had a number of ‘ideas’ about the manuscript, reported by d’Imperio.   None relate to the history of technology, or offer support for the ‘bathy-‘ section’s being describing a plumbing system.

 

MEDIEVAL EUROPEAN BIOLOGY?Charles Singer

D’Imperio reported that  “Singer sees tubes, pulpits and pipes as ‘organs of the body.'”  I’ve seen no evidence that he ever attempted to argue the case or –  more to out present point – that he offered a single text or illustration from the European corpus as comparison.  Nor, apparently, did his wife Dorothea suggest to him any among  the thousands she had inspected and catalogued in the British Library under the heading of Science and Pseudo-Science, as Lynn Thorndike reported in 1921.

D’Imperio seems to think little of Singer’s ‘biological’ idea,  saying in the same breath as she reports it that they recall ‘plant parts’ to her. (Elegant Enigma, p.21)

In recent years and beginning (so far as I can discover) with Ellie Velinska’s effort, this inherently anachronistic ‘biological’ notion – imagining the Vms contains biological drawings technical, and accurate to the microscope-level –  has proved intriguing for some, but once more none of the recent writers have produced –  no more than did Singer – any European manuscript or printed book made before 1438 which is claimed closely comparable.  Now that the manuscript has been dated, Singer’s notion is revealed to be, as one might say, anachronism of the first water.  🙂

  • On Singer see also Rich Santacoloma’s interesting research-post, ‘The Voynich in 1905′, proto57.wordpress.com (19th. August, 2012).

 

 

LATIN/ARABIC SCIENCE, PSEUDO-SCIENCE or MAGIC?

Lynn Thorndike who wrote a multi-volume history of medieval science and pseudo-sciences and had every reason, if he could, to set the Voynich manuscript squarely within a context that would refute Wilfrid’s ‘Roger Bacon’ guess, to which he felt great aversion, expressed more than once in print.

But Thorndike offered no such argument, and never produced any other manuscript as close comparison for anything in the Voynich manuscript.

 

 

ASTRONOMICAL/ASTROLOGICAL? – To my knowledge, the only specialist to offer a comparison with any astronomical/astrological manuscript between 1912 and 2000.was Panofsky (see above).

and see also the opinions of two contemporary specialists:

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Skies above – Not astrological’, voynichrevisionist, (Feb. 9th., 2020)

 

 

Summary: “Not one of mine” is what the experts on western (and Arabic) manuscripts said of works from their own field, even while expressing, all the while, a feeling in some obscure way  there’s something… Charles Singer, who claimed to see biology  appears never to have suggested any comparable manuscript either.

 

Postscript (14th. Feb. 2020)

It is characteristic of the Friedmans, and thus of d’Imperio, that the informed judgements of specialists scarcely affected their confidence in their own theories.  A passage from d’Imperio shows pretty well their intellectual ‘deafness’ to that message of ‘Not one of mine’.  It slides by and is re-interpreted to mean that the pictures are just ‘bizarre’ and ‘less conventional’ and  she shows no understanding that there is a *reason* that the images’ subject matter was so difficult to read.  Note too that she imagines the specialists’ reaction is only due to their spending too little time looking at the manuscript.  She is unaware that a specialist in medieval manuscripts  can usually provide a general date and place of manufacture from looking at just a few folios.  An inability to conceive of an ‘important’ text as other than European was fairly typical of America and Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, but here means that D’Imperio is inclined to blame the specialists and leaves her unable to abandon her own fixed ideas – which, of course were due to woring as part of a ‘team’ whose theories were dictated by Friedman, as leader.    ‘Team work’ so very easily becomes ‘group-think’ -one is simply not free to pursue questions, or form theories of outside the ‘team’s working brief.  And so the most basic questions were overlooked, and their own premises never questioned.

 

In any other field of study; if it were any other manuscript, there’s a logical inference that might be taken.

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

Header picture:     (detail)  Brit.Lib. MS Harley 3719  f.31v  (1275-1540), excerpt from the Secretum Secretorum
This post follows from ‘Wheat from Chaff – ‘Bacon ciphertext’ (Dec.15th., 2018)

 

…  investigat secreta naturae …- Roger Bacon, Opus Maius, II

As we do what Wilfrid should have done, testing his assertions severally against the secondary  evidence and the manuscript’s own testimony  –  it becomes clear that Wilfrid’s “history” for the manuscript is anything but. His failure to establish the truth of what he said about the manuscript  before making those assertions public – and the failure of others to do so before adopting them, meant that the manuscript’s study was misdirected from the first, and researchers diverted into innumerable dead-ends simply because their first premises – their ‘givens’ – were groundless.  The habit is still widespread by which  a fictional narrative ( habitually if wrongly called ‘theory’) is first promoted and  its success thereafter evaluated  by the number of believers – but not  by what demonstrable value it has for a more accurate understanding of the manuscript – not of its materials, nor of what it was intended to convey. We’ll look at this in more depth when considering false analogies, false equivalents and ‘argument from association’. (List of logical fallacies)

His imagining the text written in Bacon’s own hand is unjustified.   To suppose   Bacon or anyone else might encipher an entire book about  ‘natural history’ in the mid-thirteenth century runs counter to the historical evidence; there is no evidence to support the idea that Bacon ever enciphered an entire book, either  – not about natural history or anything else.  And the content which Wilfrid imagined (‘natural history’) cannot be accepted at face value,  given the lack of evidence for Bacon’s ever being afraid to speak of such matter  and the wide enthusiasm which met Cantimpré’s book on that subject – despite its using Aristotle and being written in 1230-1245, during the ‘ban’ years:  (see previous post).

To believe that Voynichese is unreadable because written in a Baconian cipher demands, today, not only suspension of disbelief but its elevation beyond this mortal world –  for if Bacon’s methods of encryption were unsophisticated, modern decryption algorithms are not.  And there is the other point – that whether or not our present manuscript was made in Latin Europe, there is no way to know yet where the content was first enunciated, nor whether the text’s underlying language (if any) is European.  Such things are also treated as ‘givens’ – maintained without critical scrutiny since 1921 and despite the very obvious fact that if the text or the imagery conformed to Latin European practice, the latter, in particular, would not have proven illegible in those terms – for a century.

And finally, as we’ve seen,  Bacon’s sentence from De secretis..  (‘he’d be a fool….’ ) is neither a text’s justification nor the manifesto which it is so often portrayed as being.  It is, rather, part of an introduction to a subject  which Bacon thought might prove useful at some later time.

On the other side of the scale, one item is potentially in favour. Bacon was much impressed by the Secretum Secretorum. It can be called a book of secrets, was attributed to Aristotle and its title might suggest a need to keep its content secret, even though it is just as much a text in the tradition of the ‘Mirrors of Princes’.

 

‘Books of Secrets’ genre.

 

Eamon describes it:

… To the modern reader expecting to encounter some mysterious, arcane wisdom, these works are bound to be disappointing. What was revealed, typically, was not the lore of ancient sages or magi, but recipes, formulae, and “experiments”, often of a fairly conventional sort, associated with one of the crafts or with medicine: e. g., quenching waters for hardening steel, recipes for dyes and pigments, instructions for making drugs, and “practical alchemical” formulae such as a jeweller or tinsmith might use. When a medieval or sixteenth century writer claimed to have discovered a “secret,” he often had this meaning in mind; and when a contemporary library catalogue referred to a “book of secrets,” it usually indicated a compilation of such recipes…

….They exist in countless medieval Latin and vernacular manuscripts, and in printed books of almost every European language. Nor did these writings disappear with the “triumph of modern science” in the seventeenth century. Despite [Thomas] Browne’s warning, books of secrets continued to be written, copied, published, and read by a sizeable portion of the reading public, and by some whom all would agree were among the leading scientific personalities of the day….

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

 

That’s exactly how Roger Bacon understood the matter, too.  His ‘scientist’ is master of practical techniques and know-how –  as we see in Bacon’s letter to Pope Clement (1267):

Hence he  has peered into all the processes of smelters, of goldsmiths, of silversmiths, and of other workers in metals and minerals; he knows everything pertaining to war, weapons and hunting; he has examined everything pertaining to agriculture, surveying and other occupations of the countryman; he has even taken into consideration the experiments of witches and their fortune-telling and charms and those of magicians in general, likewise the tricks and illusions of legerdemain — so that nothing worth knowing might remain unknown to him and that he might know what to condemn as due to sorcery or magic.

Nick Pelling is among those who have  believed  that the Voynich manuscript may be a ‘book of secrets’.  For details see (e.g.)

 

“Confounding demons”       detail from folio 51r,   Brit.Lib. Yates Thompson MS 28

Aristotle’s  ‘Secretum Secretorum’:

Today we deny Aristotle’s authorship, but Bacon and his successors did not, so I have omitted ‘pseudo-‘ from the heading.

One reason Bacon expended so much energy on his project  [an edition and commentary on the ‘Secretum Secretorum’] is that he valued [the text] as possibly Aristotle’s greatest production. Not only did it impart sage counsel on issues of morality, politics, and health: Bacon, for example, ate rhubarb on the Secretum‘s advice, and felt much the better for it!   In addition, Bacon believed the Secretum treated important subjects deliberately omitted in the books Aristotle wrote for a general audience.

  • quoted from Steven J. Williams, ‘Roger Bacon and His Edition of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum secretorum’, Speculum, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 57-73.. the passage  is pp. 64-65.

 

Origin of the Latin versions:

Salim Abu l-ʿAla’, secretary to the caliph Hisham ibn ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 724–743), initiated the translation of the pseudo-Aristotelian letters on government to Alexander the Great.  This collection forms the nucleus of the most famous among the “mirrors for princes”, the Sirr al-asrar…, known in the Latin Middle Ages and early modern times as the Secretum secretorum. One of the Arabic translations of the pseudo-Aristotelian De Mundo also traces back to this period… However, it was under the ʿAbbasids (750–1258), and in particular in the first two centuries of their caliphate, that the translations blossomed.

A different account is given by Robert Steele,

In the introduction to the work as we now have it we are told that it was translated from Greek into Rumi, and from Rumi into Arabic, by Yuhanna ibn el-Batrik (or Ibn Yahya al-Batrik). Rumi is the common word for Syriac, when it does not mean Greek, and Yuhanna, who died a.d. 815, was a well-known translator, physician of Al- Ma’mun, who is said to have rendered the Politics and the Historia Animalium into Syriac, and the De caelo et mundo and the De anima in epitome, with other works, into Arabic. There does not seem anything obviously unlikely about the statements that a Syrian text has existed, and that it was translated into Arabic about the beginning of the ninth century by Ibn al-Batrik, while it is to be hoped that English scholars, at any rate, have dropped the pose that a manuscript attribution is a decisive argument against the supposed author or translator having any connexion with the work.

A curious confirmation of the possible existence of a Syriac version has lately turned up in the publication by Dr. Budge of a thirteenth-century collection of medical treatises and receipts in Syriac (Syrian Anatomy, Pathology, and Therapeutics, 2 vols., London, 1913). Among them (ii. 540) is the formula for calculating victory by taking the numerical value of the names of the generals and casting out the nines (see pp. Ix, 250). This formula is identical with one which exists in both forms of the Arabic text, though it is omitted in the Vulgate Latin version.

It is unlikely that the Syriac text, if it should ever be found, will bear the name of the Secret of Secrets. Perhaps the traditional name preserved by Al-Makin, The Book of the knowledge of the ‘ Laws of Destiny, or the Kitab-al-siyasa of Ibn Khaldun, its alternative title in Arabic, may afford some clue.

  • Roger Bacon, Robert Steele, Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi V: Secretum Secretorum (1909) Latin text; Steele’s notes in Eng.
  • Roger Bacon, Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi, 5: Secretum secretorum cum glossis et notulis, ed. Robert Steele (Oxford, 1920).

See also:

  • Steven J. Williams, The Secret of Secrets: The Scholarly Career of a Pseudo-Aristotelian Text in the Latin Middle Ages. (2003).
  • Yela Schauwecker, Die Diätetik nach dem ‘ Secretum secretorum * in der Version von Jofroi de Waterford Teiledition und lexikalische Untersuchung, Würzburger medizinhistorische Forschungen 92   (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007).

Yela Schauwecker here presents us with an Old French translation of those sections of the pseudo-Aristotelian ‘Secretum secretorum’ pertaining to diatetics, detailing which items are beneficial for each part of the body, and the qualities of various foodstuffs.  The edited text also features the much briefer passages which precede these and which relate to the benefits of doctors, prayer and astrology.   The translation is of particular philological interest because it involves the collaboration of an Irish Dominican author (Geoffrey of Waterford), composing in Anglo-Norman, and his Walloon scribe, Servais Copale. Until recently, Schauwecker’s base manuscript BNF, fr. 1822 was believed to be the only extant manuscript preserving Geoffrey’s translation.

  • quoted from the review by Alex Stuart in  Medium Aevum, Vol. 79, No. 1 (2010) EDITIONS OF TEXTS, pp. 160-169. passage occurs on p.167.

and

  • L. Saif,  ‘Textual and Intellectual Reception of Arabic Astral Theories in the Twelfth Century’, in  The Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy. (2015)
  • Lynn Thorndike, ‘The Latin Pseudo-Aristotle and Medieval Occult Science‘,  The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Volume 21 No.4 (April 1922) pp.229-258.
  • M. Gaster, ‘The Hebrew Version of the “Secretum Secretorum,” a Mediæval Treatise Ascribed to Aristotle’.  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Oct., 1908), pp. 1065-1084 .
  • [pdf] Antònia Carré and Lluís Cifuentes, ‘Girolamo Manfredi’s Il Perché: II. The Secretum secretorum and the book’s publishing success’Medicina & Storia, X, 2010, 19-20, n.s., pp. 39-58.
  • Linda T. Darling, ‘Mirrors for Princes in Europe and the Middle East: A Case of Historiographical Incommensurability’ (no publication details given; paper available through academia.edu).

 

Next post: Bacon’s De Secretis in re  Hime’s “gunpowder cipher”