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 their judgement was ‘not one of ours’.

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).