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

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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.

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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?