Header illustration: (left) A swiss pocket-watch, the most complicated in the world; (inset) ‘no hammers’ sign; (right) bench of Swiss watchmakers’ tools. And for the smart-guys who immediately look for a hammer among the watchmaker’s equipment: that’s not a hammer but a very small mallet.
This post is about the equipment, chiefly intellectual equipment, needed to treat with a manuscript as problematic as Beinecke MS 408 – so it’s more about expertise than about materials science; I’ll get back to codicology in the next post.
I expect that my broaching this subject may cause hackles to rise on some readers, while others will think it self-evident that any person who knows too little can only misinform those who know still less.
But from the range of matter on the internet, in papers issued as pdfs and even books in print, it is evident that the idea is general that with this medieval manuscript anyone can ‘have a go’ .
The bar for newcomers is certainly set highest for cryptological theories, of which few survive unless the proponent has taken time to study the history of cryptology and of methods already tried.
Next are studies that involve linguistics and statistical analyses. New readers should consider the work done by Julian Bunn, E.M. Smith and Koen Gheuens‘ latest post (and comments made to it) to get a clear idea of the present level of discussion in that subject. Nick Pelling‘s recent post on ‘Currier A’ and ‘Currier B’ should also prove illuminating.
The bar against novices is less high when translations are claimed – hence the regular claims that the text has been translated. Part of the problem in this case is the lack of persons with the time, languages and inclination (Voynicheros or not) to test and review such claims. One wonders what sort of ‘peer reviewer’ is being invited by the publishers today; the book by Tucker and Janick was published by Springer (no less) but it is only thanks to the kindness of Magnus Pharao Hansen that we know their claimed “Nahuatl” is not.
A neat illustration of the fact that it is inherent value, nor format, which makes information valuable. Tucker and Janick’s book appeared in print; Hansen’s refutation of their ‘Nahuatl’ translation in a blogpost. The benefit of information published as book or blogpost is that it comes with a date-stamp – very helpful when trying to clarify questions of precedence, originality and attribution.
Poorest of all are standards for accepting or rejecting assertions made about the manuscript’s iconography or quasi-historical narratives. Some adopt the form of scholarly papers while lacking such quality. Others don’t bother. Some few are by scholars who (like Newbold) made the basic error of accepting, untested, other persons’ unfounded or ill-founded assertions as their ‘givens’.
I am not suggesting everyone must leave the field who hasn’t formal qualifications in manuscript studies, materials sciences, comparative cultural history, or cryptography… or anything else.
A doctorate is no promise of a balanced attitude and the history of Voynich studies shows its course regularly de-railed or misdirected by individuals who, being qualified in one field, imagine themselves omni-competent.
William Friedman is one of the earliest examples; his skill in cryptography is a matter of record but he was mistaken in supposing that all other matters – codicology palaeography, and the pictorial text – were inherently inferior studies which might be treated as ancillary to his own.
Where he might have set reasonable limits for his search for ‘the cipher method’ by accepting the opinions of those better qualified to date and provenance manuscripts, his narrow focus meant that on the one hand he accepted many of Wilfrid’s assertions uncritically and, on the other, pursued his imagined ‘author’ as far as the seventeenth century. He treated persons such as Fr. Petersen and Erwin Panofsky less as valuable guides than as sources from which to extract computable ‘yes-no’ data and overall showed that lack of balance and over-confidence that ensures failure, barring a miracle.
Again, Hugh O’Neill was a qualified botanist, but his area of competence was the native flora of Canada – and to a lesser extent, of Alaska. Nothing in his writings, or in what others said of him during his lifetime indicates any particular knowledge of, or interest in, medieval history, art, or manuscripts. Nor does he seem to have paid due attention to Fr. Petersen, who had told him plainly and repeatedly that no palaeographer could support O’Neill’s bright idea. O’Neill himself had so little interest in the question of historical context that he cannot have even tested the ‘Columbus brought sunflowers’ theory against primary documents relating to Columbus’ voyages. As for his ability to read the manuscript’s imagery … well, let’s call it naive.
And again, Robert Brumbaugh. A professor of philosophy with a chair at Yale, his area was the philosophers of classical Greece and, to a lesser extent, of Rome. Presumably he knew something of classical history and languages as necessary adjunct to those studies, but his papers about the Voynich manuscript show no evidence that he was at pains to learn more about manuscripts, medieval history, botany, or the range and variety of star-lore and -science known in the medieval (or earlier) periods What he read of cryptography seems only to have been in connection Voynich theories. His acknowledgements reinforce the impression that he, too, imagined himself competent in all things because formally qualified in one. His paper on ‘Voynich botany’ credits Hugh O’Neill’s paper, his own nephew Mr Eric Arnould and “a Mr Pero, of Syracuse, New York”. Not a single colleague in botany or any other relevant discipline, not even from those at Yale.
Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘Botany and the Voynich “Roger Bacon” Manuscript Once More’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Jul., 1974), pp. 546-548
Claiming to have ‘solved’ the text, Brumbaugh mentions Marjorie Wynne and Louis Martz, one being the Beinecke’s head librarian and the other its honorary director, a Professor of English. But neither is mentioned as helping him learn more of codicology, medieval manuscripts or even medieval English texts – but only for their ‘encouraging’ him.
Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Solution of the Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher’, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 49, No. 4 (April 1975), pp. 347-355.
However, give Brumbaugh some credit for keenness in observation. As I write this, I see that I may cite him as precedent for noting as Dana Scott, and then I would later do, that the Voynich ‘aries’ are drawn as goats, not sheep, for he wrote in another paper the paper above that they are “[as] much like a goat as like a ram…”. See Robert S. Brumbaugh,’The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150. (p.147).. That the same observation had to be made independently in 1976, and (by Dana) about thirty years later, and again by me forty and more years afterwards can be attributed to two things: first, that a goat did not fit the usual theories and secondly the ‘groundhog day’ phenomenon which sees little accounting for precedence – an error which becomes exponential. Today (in August 2019), the fact is being absorbed and repeated (if not explained) in a number of blog-posts and chat-rooms. (Note corrected and expanded – 19thAugust 2019)
The issue, then, is not about qualified as against unqualified Voynicheros, but rather of an individual’s unreasonable self-confidence in their capacities, despite their limited range of intellectual tools, and their underestimating the complexity of problems and evidence presented by this manuscript.
To say that ‘anyone with two eyes’ can understand the imagery in the Voynich manuscript, or date its hands, or correctly attribute its manufacture to a time and place is as stupid as a carpenter’s saying that because he has two hands and a hammer he can put together a plane as good as any now flying.
To have one skill and a theory may be enough to make a useful contribution, but to suppose that instills the capacity for all other skills is to act like a child who claims they can fix a broken clock with just a hammer.
The task of understanding this particularly difficult manuscript is better compared to the work of an old-fashioned watchmaker, who must put together a great many separate, interlocking elements, aware of how each relates to and contributes to the workings – and whether each has been accurately formed by the makers. In this case the parts are explanations for those cues embodied in manuscript’s materials, structure and iconography; in connecting the historical and cultural cues with the evidence of linguistics, palaeography .. and quite possibly cryptography…
It is not a simple process. It requires solid evidence and input from a range of competencies. It is not as simple as theory-creation, effective theory-promotion, relying on the age of ‘canonised myths’, nor simply of logical thinking. As one of my students once said, “This is hard because you have to know so much stuff”,
Logic is the pride of many Voynicheros, but logic is a tool which produces results no better than its ‘givens’. Nor should people with an ability in the critical sciences suppose those of the pragmatic sciences are less intellectually demanding or easier than their own – or vice versa.
As one scholar said, in speaking to a group of cryptologists in 2013:
“.. 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” in a comment to Ciphermysteries, December 10, 2013)
We should be seeking less to ‘break’ the text, or ‘solve’ the manuscript than to understand it. The manuscript isn’t the problem; the problem is that some basic flaws in the manuscript’s past study leave us still – after more than a century – unable to rightly interpret the evidence embodied in the manuscript’s form, materials, script and content. I’d suggest a prospective revisionist always keep two questions to the fore when reading what has been, or is being said of the manuscript’s content: ‘Where’s the evidence for that idea?’ and ‘Is that inference valid?’.
Because, to repeat the revisionist’s theme-song:
It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful the guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
My thanks to Professor Bill Sherman, Director of the Warburg Institute and Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, for permission to re-print his transcription of Panofsky’s answers.
In 2014, at the Folger Library, Professor Sherman curated an exhibition in which Beinecke MS 408 was included. Some of Professor Sherman’s publications are cited in:
G. Stuart Smith, A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman (2017). see e.g. p.220.
Everyone’s thanks is due to Jim Reeds for first finding and transcribing the 1950s material and to Rich Santacoloma for doing the same for Anne Nill’s letter. (I should say now that I’m hunting another document whose content – if found – might make this whole post redundant. Fingers crossed!)
In what follows, my own commentary and its documentation is behind the black arrows. The post altogether is very long: more than 6,000 words if you expand it fully. But you can bypass the comments which make more than half of it, or come back some other time when you think they might be useful. The posts are published as notes and framework for the Bibliography.
What I have not fully described in this post is the early, keen interest felt by both Erwin Panofsky and Richard Salomon, Panofsky having been offered (in 1933) a complete photostat copy of the ms, taking it to Germany where he consulted gave it to Saloman. The latter showed keen interest in the puzzle and later came with Panofsky to talk with met Anne Nill at the Library of Congress (where Nill worked). I think it telling that Panofsky declines to speak of his own opinion in answering Friedman’s quiz.
Q – W. Friedman; A – E.Panofsky
Q 1: Have you examined the VMS itself.
A: I saw the Voynich manuscript in 1931. Panofsky doesn’t say that he was presented with a full photostat copy in 1933, lent it to colleagues (including Salomon) but had it returned to him at some time before 1953. I’ll come back to that in another post.
Note – Panofsky arrived in New York in September 1931, but Nill’s correspondence suggests he did not see the manuscript itself until early the next year. Twenty years later, Panofsky seems to have mis-remembered. The correspondence is detailed in a coming post, ‘Cryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1932.’
Q 2: What is it written on; with what writing tool?
A: If you apply the words “parchment” and “vellum” in the strict sense (that “vellum” has to be made of the skin of calves* rather than other animals) I am not sure . However, the medium was certainly vellum in the more general sense and characterised by a fairly coarse-grained texture which in places caused individual strokes to appear like a series of dots when looked at with a magnifying glass. This, incidentally, may have caused the late Professor Newbold to believe that each of these dots stood for a letter and each letter for a whole word. The instrument used was doubtless a quill pen, the writing and the contours of the drawings being done in ink, the coloring, so far as I remember, in the kind of pigment usually described as “wash.”
Note: *the term ‘calfskin’ is sometimes seen used instead of vellum, but this can cause confusion given that ‘calfskin’ is often used, by itself, to mean calfskin leather. If using ‘vellum’ there is no need to add ‘calf-skin’ in front of it; vellum is made of calves’ skins by default. Uterine vellum is different again.
Q 3: What’s the date?
A: Were it not for the sunflower which, if correctly identified, would date the manuscript after 1492, I should have thought that it was executed a little earlier, say, about 1470. However, since the style of the drawings is fairly provincial, a somewhat later date, even the first years of the sixteenth century, would not seem[sic!] to be excluded. I should not go lower than ca. 1510-1520 because no influence of the Italian Renaissance style is evident.
(At my second reading through these responses, I laughed out loud here… -D)
It is a delightful moment of Panofsky wit – but since none of the cryptanalysts ‘got’ it and d’Imperio takes this answer at face value, as did Tiltman in 1968 and as current Voynich writers still do, I’ll spell out Panofsky’s ‘dig’ briefly here, having already discussed the “sunflower in the Vms” issue in a separate Page.
You should know first that no-one took O’Neill’s ideas seriously at the time. So, for example, Nill, had said in writing to Salomon in the previous year (April 28th., 1953) telling him of it and saying, “We do not think it is a sunflower, and neither does Fr. Petersen.”
Here, in answer to question 3, Panofsky says he could go as far as ‘even the first years of the sixteenth century’. Normally that would mean not after 1510. (otherwise, you’d say ‘early decades…’
Now – see how his response to Question 8 says that the ‘sunflower’ is the only plant Panofsky ‘recognises’? How can that be, because what he has to recognise first is the style of drawing, and it’s not that of the European drawings of the sunflower, the first of which appears in Dodoens’ book of 1568 – as Panofsky surely knew. The illustration had even been reproduced as recently as 1951 in an American journal. (see below)
Is Panofsky confused?… I don’t think so… because here’s the thing. … Dodoens described the plant as ‘Peruvian Chrysanthemum’. And guess when Europeans first invaded Peru.?.. yep. 1510. … Talk about ‘fairly provincial….’ 🙂
So as I read it, Panofsky’s underlying message is: “If that’s a sunflower, I’m a Dutchman”.. or a Peruvian. [yes, I know Dodoens was actually a Fleming… and we shouldn’t take ‘Peruvian’ too literally. But that’s how it was described by Dodoens and for some time afterwards]
So Panofsky’s pulling Friedman’s leg, knowing perfectly well that Friedman won’t realise it. There’s no other way to reconcile the answers given to questions 3 and 8 save a tongue-in-cheek logic which implies that for a manuscript to be ‘no later than the first years of the sixteenth century’ AND to show the ‘Peruvian chrysanthemum’ the draughtsman would have to be in Peru.
… Dodoens wasn’t born until 1517.
Luckily, Panofsky was not to see Tucker and Janick later insisting (Springer, 2018) that O’Neill was right to imagine a sunflower in the Voynich manuscript, and further that Voynichese was – if not Peruvian – some lost dialect of Nahuatl. On the other hand, I think Magnus Pharao Hansen’s swift, cool and learned rebuttal of their ‘Nahuatl-dialect’ argument might have pleased the Professor well. ( And really – the Voynich-books coming out of Springer of late make one wonder what that press is coming to!)
Hugh O’Neill, ‘Botanical Observations on the Voynich MS.’, Speculum, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1944).
Charles B. Heiser, Jr., ‘The Sunflower among the North American Indians’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 95, No. 4 (Aug. 17, 1951), pp. 432-448.
Charles B. Heiser, Jnr., ‘Origin and Development of the Cultivated Sunflower’, The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 17, No. 5 (May, 1955), pp. 161-167.
But (now on the alert) back to the responses…
Q 4: Why do you think so?
A: The above date is based on the character of the script, the style of drawing and on such costumes as are in evidence on certain pages, for example folio 72 recto.
Panofsky indicates the criteria for dating content in a manuscript, but says nothing specific. Without further explanations given – or asked – the answer is one that would apply equally to whatever dates a person offered for any manuscript….We need to know how the ‘character of the script’ is perceived to accord with posited dates and, as importantly, with those of the place to which the item is being ascribed. The ‘style of drawing’, similarly… And just which dates (1470 or 1520 here, or fourteenth century as offered in 1931 1932) does he really think confirmed by the costume? He says the manuscript displays nothing of Italian Renaissance character.
The majority of more recent writers, however, who have shared with us their perception of the figures’ costumes argue that they are High [and thus Italian] Renaissance. To be clear, it is a position which the present writer does not share. However, most recent writers have also focused to a surprising degree, almost obsessive, on the calendar’s ‘Archer’ emblem where Panofsky draws attention instead to f.72r, Once again, it seems to me, Panofsky is making an oblique joke at Friedman’s expense though – I sense – also offering a genuine bit of information even if only for the specialist in philology and comparative palaeography.
Q 5: What’s it about?
After first turning the spotlight on that figure with a wand, Panofsky now says:
A: So far as can be made out before the manuscript has been decoded, its content would comprise: first, a general cosmological philosophy explaining the medical properties of terrestrial objects, particularly plants, by celestial influences transmitted by astral radiation and those “spirits” which were frequently believed to transmit the occult powers of the stars to the earth; second, a kind of herbal describing the individual plants used for medical and, conceivably, magical purposes; third, a description of such compounds as may be produced by combining individual plants in various ways .
‘Before the manuscript has been decoded’ is a slightly mocking comment; Panofsky’s life was spent ‘decoding’ pictures, for many of which no accompanying text was present. The error of supposing imagery’s understanding depends on accompanying text is another of those nonsensical ideas endemic in Voynich studies, and will be asserted by persons who, not knowing a word of Latin, still hunt manuscripts for images which they expect to find legible… and, of course, do find legible in a way they never find imagery from the Vms legible.
The lesson which should be taken from this is that (a) when imagery derives from a familiar culture, it is legible and (b) when it is not legible it’s not because some accompanying text can’t be read.
The fact is that Friedman did presume all about the manuscript was dependent on the text’s translation, and in 2008, when the present writer first came to the study and began explaining the imagery in terms of cultural and stylistic expression, she was informed that all comments on the imagery were “personal and subjective” or “theoretical” and that nothing certain could be said until the written part of the text had been read.
As to Panofsky’s speaking of “general cosmological philosophy…” etc. – he has made a fairly obvious collation, heaping together bits from Newbold’s paper of 1921, and standard medieval ideas, but then ‘occulting’ them by means of what I’d describe as a purple-prose code. With delicious wit, he plays on ideas and terms proper to cryptography, while referencing medieval ideas and Newbold’s neo-Platonic speculations in a way you might well describe as contrapuntal.
Panofsky is verbose; he uses substitutions (e.g. “astral radiation” for al_Kindi’s radii stellarum; “spirits” for angels)… and so on. This is typical of his multi-faceted commentaries on art and his well-known humour.
So now, bearing in mind that the figure from f.72r is likely to be ‘read’ by any European as bearing a magic wand, and that the Americans called ‘Magic’ the system of coded messages generated by the Japanese ‘purple’ machine – and Friedman’s involvement in breaking that cipher, so Panofsky writes, verbose, with substitutions, Magic-Purple (prose).. about the rotas of heaven and earth… combining individual ‘elements’ in various ways.. In short, envisaging a cosmic, yet elegant, ‘enigma’. Quite beautiful!
It wasn’t entirely nice of Panofsky, I suppose, to make sport of Friedman in that way, but it is a just parallel for the ‘sport’ which Friedman and his wife had made of Newbold.
Nor had Friedman quite broken ‘Purple’ before It had broken him. His mind had given way in the first year of the war (1939) and while he was institutionalised, others in his team continued the work, with Lt.Francis A. Raven completing it.
about Raven: various sources refer to an NSA publication (issued online as pdf), some sources even including the link, but these do not seem to be current. In case you may fare better, here are the details:
Mowry, D. P., “Cryptologic Almanac 50th Anniversary Series – Francis A. Raven.” NSA/Center for Cryptologic History, released Jun 12, 2009, FOIA Case# 52567.
Friedman again broke down while trying to ‘break’ the Voynich text, and again had to leave the effort to others including Tiltman and Currier. In the end, the Voynich text defeated all who tried to ‘break it’, but those who – like Currier, Tiltman and others – were content to make careful observations of script and text-distributions etc. did make a lasting contribution.
To see how Panofsky’s response to Q.5 reprised Newbold’s ideas is easy enough; the resources are online.
Some may not be able to recognise the ‘purple prose’ encoding of ordinary medieval ideas, though, so here are a couple of passages showing how the virtu in things of earth, each conferred in its turn during the year, was believed transmitted from the Divine to earth by the intermediary stars, identified by some Christians – and not by others – with the angels. The first passage is chosen only because it’s the neatest, and despite Tester’s having neglected to name the fifteenth-century German cleric who preached this:
As God gave their power to stones and to herbs and to words, so also he gave power to the stars, that they have power over all things, except over one thing. They have power over trees and over vines, over leaves and grasses, over vegetables and herbs, over grains and all such things; over the birds in the air, over the animals in the forests, and over the fishes in the waters and over the worms in the earth: over all such things that are under heaven, over them our Lord gave power to the stars, except over one thing. … man’s free will: over that no man has any authority save thyself.
Berthold of Regensberg. Cited from Tester, A History of Western Astrology (1987) p.178. edit Feb, 26th., 2019 – apologies to Tester; it was I who had omitted the speaker’s name from my own notes.
and see e.g. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1, Q.73, Article 1, reply to Objection 3;
“…Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning…”
or even the 2nd C eastern Christian, Theophilus of Antioch, contemplating the year’s interlocked rotas:
Consider, O man, His works — the timely rotation of the seasons, and the changes of temperature; the regular march of the stars; the well-ordered course of days and nights, and months, and years; the various beauty of seeds, and plants, and fruits; and the various species of quadrupeds, and birds, and reptiles, and fishes, both of the rivers and of the sea; or consider the instinct implanted in these animals to beget and rear offspring, not for their own profit, but for the use of man; and the providence with which God provides…
and especially see:
Edward Grant, chapter ‘Celestial Motion and its Causes’ in Grant, E., Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687. (1996)
NB Alan B. Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars (OUP 1991)
Q 6: Are there any plain text books sort of [sic.] like the VMS?
A: Manuscripts in plain language remotely comparable to the Voynich manuscript are, unfortunately, of at least four kinds: first, herbals; second, cosmological and astrological treatises; third, medical treatises in the narrower sense of the term; fourth, possibly treatises on alchemy. As for the first kind, you seem to have more knowledge than I can claim. As for the second, I should advise to consult Sir Charles Singer, From Magic to Science, London 1928, and various publications by the same author; furthermore, it may be useful to consult Richard Salomon, Opicinus de Canistris, London, 1936; and F. Boll and G. von Bezold, Sternglaube und Sterndeutung, Second Edition (F. Gundel, Ed.), Berlin and Leipzig, 1926. As for the third kind, ample material is found in two serial publications, both edited by the late Carl Sudoff: Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin and Studien zur Geschichte der Medizin; of alchemy I know very little and can only refer you to the Entstehung und Ausbreitung der Alchemie by E.O. von Lippmann, Berlin, 1919 ff., as well as a fairly recent book by the famous psychologist C.O. Jung.
Don’t overlook the first conditional: ‘remotely comparable’. Again, Panofsky merely behaves as a Professor might towards a first-year student whose ‘theories’ outrun his basic knowledge. Panofsky here declines to discuss a single image from the Vms, or a single manuscript as ‘comparison’ for it, nor for a single detail in any drawing. As before, the basic message is, ‘Go away and read’.
So in this answer – as I interpret it, anyway – Panofsky has no intention of doing more than pointing Friedman towards basic texts and to certain individuals whose positions were secure. Panofsky’s conferring a knighthood on Singer is either a mistake or, as I think, an oblique comment on Friedman’s social pretensions, acting (for that reason) as antidote to any assumption of Singer’s inferiority by reason of Jewish inheritance. This bias is clearly reflected, though probably unconsciously, in d’Imperio’s account of the cryptanalysts’ “plan of Attack” in her Table of Contents, which I’ll treat later. Interestingly, Panofsky does not refer to Dorothea Singer, who was a fine medieval scholar, and who was referenced by Lynn Thorndike in 1921. Charles Singer’s book of 1928, however, makes no mention of Thorndike even though the first and second volumes of Thorndike’s A History of Science and Experimental Magic had been published five years earlier, in 1923.
Charles Singer wrote studies in the history of medicine for the first part of his career and then turned to writing history – notably editing the encyclopaedic History of Technology. What Panofsky doesn’t say, and perhaps didn’t know, is that Singer also knew Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He had been born in London. His father Simeon Singer was a rabbi and scholar. Singer was another scholar who had left his home to come with his wife in the 1930s to take up a post in America (UCLA), remaining until 1942. In that year, despite the great risk it entailed, he and his wife re-crossed the Atlantic to return to England. (British naval losses; American naval losses).
Singer’s ideas about the Voynich manuscript were apparently developed and communicated only by post and after 1954. What d’Imperio never says is whether such opinions were merely answers given a quiz such as that presented to Panofsky. It is quite likely they were; by 1957 Singer was in England and Friedman shows no interest in reading or learning about medieval art and manuscripts; he likes to have others do that sort of work, and then extract from them answers to set questions of his own devising, in way suited to ‘number-crunching’ and puzzle solving. Friedman relied heavily on feeding quantifiable data-bites into a computer as a means to ‘break the text’. So I think it probable that, rather than buy and read the recommended books, Friedman simply contacted the authors expecting short, easy answers to his own short, ‘baby-steps’ questions.
In Singer’s own Evolution of Anatomy, he says he will omit …
“Paracelsus, and Helmont, and their followers, since the movement they represent did not become important until the second part of the seventeenth century”…
yet he opines to Friedman by letter (responding to a quiz?) that his vague ‘feeling’ is that the Voynich manuscript might be of a Paracelsan and occult-alchemical character, and composed by an ‘author’ living in sixteenth-century Prague. As always, there seems to have been no effort made by the theorist to check whether their ideas were compatible with reality: that is, in this case, to see whether the manuscript’s materials, style of construction or ‘hand’ suited such an idea. (A: they don’t).
None of those “feelings” which Singer says more than once are vague impressions finds support from the manuscript itself, but they have found determined support among a group of Voynicheros whose members are quite determined upon.
I find Singer’s testimony most interesting as one more of the many instances where a scholar of eminence and wide knowledge of European medieval works can suggest no manuscript at all as close comparison for Beinecke MS 408. This is a point so widely un-noticed, and still less rarely considered for its implications, that it deserves a post of its own. I’ll call it ‘Angels and Fools’.
Two volumes of essays, dedicated to Singer, had been published in the year before Friedman was introduced to Panofsky.
E. Ashworth Underwood (ed.), Science, Medicine, and History: Essays on. the Evolution of Scientific Thought and Medical Practice. Written in honour of Charles Singer. Volumes I and Il. (1953).
Geoffrey Keynes’ review for the British Medical Journal neatly describes Singer’s character and publications. The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4873 (May 29, 1954), p. 1247.
Charles Singer, The Evolution of Anatomy: A Short History of Anatomical and Physiological Discovery to Harvey: Being the Substance of the Fitzpatrick Lectures Delivered at The Royal College of Physicians of London in the years 1923 and 1924.
Richard Georg [sometimes seen as George] Salomon (1894-1966) – converted to Christianity in 1902; escaped Nazi Germany in 1937. At the University of Berlin, Salomon had studied eastern European history under Theodor Schiemann (1847-1921), Byzantine history under Karl Krumbacher (1856-1909), the history of medieval law under Karl Zeurmer (1849-1914), and Latin paleography under Michael Tangl (1861-1921), under whom he completed his doctoral dissertation in February 1907: Studien zur normannisch-italischen Diplomatik. His name was among the six (with Panofsky’s) listed for expulsion from Hamburg University in 1934.
Panofsky’s pointing Friedman in the direction of these men, and texts, was not only wise, but kind. If all Friedman wanted was quiz-answers and easy ‘sound-bites’ the men might provide them; if he he was seriously interested in the manuscript as a late medieval product, studying the texts would begin his education.
d’Imperio is dismissive of Charles Singer, though including in her Bibliography five of Singer’s works (p.130) and two articles by Salomon. (p.129). I add a further note on Charles Singer’s theory further below.
Q 7: What plain text have you found in the VMS?
A: So far as I know, plain language writing is found: first on the pages showing the signs of the zodiac (folio 70 ff.) which seems to be provincial French; second, on folio 66; and third, on the last page, folio 116 verso. The entry on folio 66 reads, as discovered by Professor Salomon of Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, “der mus del,” which seems to be ancient German for “der Mussteil,” which is a legal term referring to household implements and stock of victuals which, after the death of a husband, cannot be withheld from his widow. The little figure and receptacles accompanying this entry may or may not refer to this idea. The entry on the last page reads: “So nim geismi[l]ch o.” This is again old German, the first word generally introducing a sentence following a conditional clause; the translation would be: “[If such and such a condition prevails], then take goat’s milk.” The last letter “o” is most probably to be completed into “oder,” which means “or.” The inference is that the sentence is unfinished and that some alternative substance was proposed in case goat’s milk should not be available. I may add that recipes of this kind are quite customary in mediaeval and Renaissance medicine.
Granted that Panofsky may, or may not, have agreed with Salomon’s reading of that marginalia – extraneous by definition to provenancing the manuscript’s original content as Panofsky realised (“The little figure …. may or may not refer to this idea”) – there has been a recurring discussion/dispute of Salomon’s reading, with Koen Gheuens’ summary of the ‘pro-‘ position neatly put and illustrated (together with his own thoughts) in his post of July 11th., 2017: Note also that Panofsky is as rigorous as ever in his principles – attributing Salomon’s insights to their author; his very meticulousness in such matters permits us now to credit Panofsky with first attributing to a ‘regional French’ dialect (Occitan?) the inscriptions over the central emblems in the Voynich calendar.
Occitan became a topic on the first mailing list during discussion of a book whose narrative attributed this manuscript to the Cathars of Langedoc. The question of Occitan then became one in its own right.
1997 Dennis Stallings published a list of bibliographic and other items relating to Occitan in the first mailing list (10 Feb 1997) including the important note (which was later independently stated by Artur Sixto in a comment to ciphermysteries, (February 17, 2011) that Occitan and Catalan – or Judeo-Catalan – are closely similar.
2009, Pelling credited Stolfi. In other posts, Pelling thought it most like the dialect of Toulouse – though he may have changed his views since then. Pelling first, and others including Don Hoffman later, noted a closely similar orthography on astrolabe inscriptions dating to c.1400. I’ll return to this matter when we come to the astronomical themes.
2011Artur Sixto’s comment was made (February 17, 2011) at ciphermysteries.com, saying he thought the forms closer to Judeo-Catalan, and commenting on use of that dialect among emigrees into north-western France. Because so many comments were made to the same post by Pelling I quote here the whole of Sixto’s comment:
Sixto wrote, “To me the months [names] seem to correspond slightly better to Catalan than Occitan. June for instance, spelled with “ou” corresponds to Catalan pronunciation, in French writing. “ny” would be Catalan relative to Occitan “nh” or French/Italian “gn”. So the person might have ties with the North of Catalonia (and could have a French influence) …. Interestingly, many Jews in Catalonia spoke Catalanic, a Catalan dialect close to Shuadit, i.e. Judaeo-Provençal (i.e. Judaeo-Occitan).”
2015Commenting at Stephen Bax’s blog (May 18, 2015 – 11:14 pm) ‘Don of Tallahassee’ [Don Hoffman] noted similar forms for month-names used in Picardy, his examples taken from calendars in fifteenth-century Books of Hours.
Various others have reached similar opinions, often independently as a result of the ‘Voynich ground-hog day’ phenomenon.
On Salomon’s reading “der Mussteil,” see the lucid commentary by Koen Gheuens:
Salomon had consulted several secondary sources (which he cited in a letter of March 14th., 1936 to Panofsky or to Mrs.Voynich per Anne Nill), quoting in full an entry from:Der Sachsenspiegel (Landrecht) nach der ältesten Leipziger Handschrift herausgegeben von Prof. Dr. Julius Weiske. Neubearbeitet von weil. Professor Dr. Hildebrand. 8th.ed. Leipzig, O.R. Reisland, 1905 (Glossary p.28.)
Q 8: What plants, astronomical, etc, things have been recognised so far?
A: To the best of my knowledge, only the sunflower has been identified thus far.
To this I should have protested at first – had I been there – that Professor Panofsky must be joking, but then asked more of what he thought that might imply, if he really meant it.
Infuriatingly, if this is another reprise of things he had said at the meeting, it is another case of Friedman’s “blind spot” at work. An iconographic analyst of Panofsky’s calibre is (so to speak) the theoretical physicist of the art world; he has to know pretty much everything about everything expressed in visual form through the periods in which he specialises, and that includes the way plants and creatures are depicted in a given place at a given time AND what the depiction indicates about the signfiicance embedded in forms and details: that is, what non-superficial messages the image conveyed for persons of that time and environment. He would have to know the traditions of the bestiaries as well as the place of a creature in the schemes of Christian theology and moralia, as well as classical Greek and Roman lore. And so too for plants: is a rose intended as allusion to the Virgin Mary; to ‘Roman de la Rose’; to the physical rosa mundi; to an intended parallel between the pure soul of Mary as antidote to spiritual ills and the Rose as supposed protection against Plague … and so forth. This issue of intended significance is the one most noticeable by its absence in writings by persons who claim to ‘analyse’ imagery but who know nothing about it.
As regards plants, Panofsky’s well-known statement that “the rise of those particular branches of natural science which may be called observational or descriptive—zoology, botany, paleontology, several aspects of physics and, first and foremost, anatomy — was . . . directly predicated upon the rise of the representational techniques.” could not have been enunciated without a prior and thorough grounding in the way those fields of learning were illustrated before and during the period of the Renaissance.
Erwin Panofsky, Artist, Scientist, Genius: Notes on the “Renaissance-Dämmerung”, Lecture Given May 10, 1952 at the Fogg Museum Before the New England Conference on Renaissance-Studies. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1953). also included in Wallace K. Ferguson (et.al.), Six Essays on the Renaissance (1962).
[pdf] Claudia Swan, ‘Illustrated Natural History’ in Susan Dackerman (ed.), Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge , exhibition catalogue, Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp.186-191.
On flowers, their perception, depiction and attitudes to cultivation from ancient to modern times, with emphasis on Europe’s medieval and Renaissance periods, see also
Jack Goody, The Culture of Flowers (CUP Archive, 1993).
reviewed by Chandra Mukerji in Theory and Society, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Aug., 1996), pp. 590-594
And quite apart from his professional studies, in which he discussed the symbolism intended by depiction of scarlet lilies, iris and honeysuckle, Panofsky’s correspondence shows a keen interest in the very practical aspect of botany: gardening.
Did he honestly mean that he could recognise not a single plant in the Vms? Not even in 9v, with its widely-accepted representation of one or more members of the viola-group?
Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: its origins and character (1953) Vol. 1 pp. 333 and note 6 to p.416.
‘Nothing but the sunflower’?? Hmmmm.
Q 9: Is it all in the same hand?
A: In my opinion the whole manuscript is by the same hand with the possible exception of the last page; but I am by no means sure of that.
(Another answer that says nothing.. -D)
Q 10: Why was it written’?
A: My idea always was that the manuscript was written by a doctor or quack trying to impart what he considered secret knowledge to a son or heir.
I have no idea whether Panofsky really believed this. It echoes a view first put forward (whether Panofsky knew it or not) by Georg Baresch who said in his letter to Kircher, “… it is not inconceivable that some good man…”.etc. Panofsky does seem, overall, to have shared the usual assumption of contemporary and later Voynich writers in imagining the work to be all the product of a single ‘author-artist’. The solution to this problem may lie in that as-yet unseen report which Reeds mentioned in the 90s, and described as written by Panofsky to Voynich.
A: My guess is that the manuscript was produced in Germany, which is supported by the fact that the goat’s milk sentence is continuous with the text of at least the last page of the manuscript.
(I prefer to comment on this in the context of the first (1931 1932) evaluation. -D)
Q 12: What do you think of the Roger Bacon theory?
A: Quatsch. The Roger Bacon theory is in my opinion at variance with all the available facts and has been convincingly disproved by Mr. Manly. Further endorsement of Mr. Manly’s adverse criticism is found in a brief review of his article by the above-mentioned Professor Salomon which appeared in: Bibliothek Warburg, Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliographie zum Nachleben der Antike, I, Leipzig and Berlin, 1934, page 96, No. 386.
I can reproduce Salomon’s review here, thanks to the patience of the Beinecke staff who found it among Anne Nill’s files (July 9th. 1936) as a clipping to which Salomon added that there was “no one else save you, Dr. Wilson and Dr. Petersen who could possibly be interested in it”. HIs view was that finding an exactly similar sequence of plants was the only practicable key, and perhaps this inspired Petersen’s concerted efforts to identify the plants. D)
Q 13: Full title of the Dictionary of Abbreviations. Title of Hans Titze’s book on forgeries, & of Mibillon’s history of diplomatics.
A: The dictionary of abbreviations is by Adriano Cappelli, Dizionario delle Abbreviature Latine ed Italiane; my edition is the second, published 1912, but there may be more recent ones. The book on forgery in art is by Hans Tietze and entitled Genuine and False; Copies, Imitations, Forgeries, New York, 1948. As far as the book by Mabillon is concerned, I am afraid that I did not express myself with sufficient clarity. He did not write a book on “The History of Diplomatics” but his famous De re Diplomatica of 1681 laid the foundations of palaeography starting out with the investigation of documents which were supposed to be genuine and which he proved to be forgeries by studying the development of script. I should like to reiterate my opinion that the Voynich manuscript, whichever its place of origin, date and purpose, is certainly a perfectly authentic document.
I do not think anyone could mistake here the asperity with which Panofsky’s answers this question. His “I am afraid that I did not express myself with sufficient clarity’ is a very formal and very cold English- and European form of insult: there is everywhere a point at which extreme politeness becomes an insult. In modern American the equivalent might be: ‘Are you a total fool?’ Panofsky’s then explaining, in words of one syllable, the importance of Mabillon’s book (of which no genuine ‘student’ of medieval manuscripts could have passed three decades in ignorance), tells us yet again that Panofsky has been driven to the point of outrage: this is a venting of professorial wrath. And, need I say, Friedman remained quite unable to weigh the relative merits of amateurs against specialists; Panofsky had said, categorically, that the manuscript was genuine, and yet d’Imperio – who hasn’t any relevant training or experience to judge the matter – decides (as we see later) to keep the option open. The reason has nothing to do with the manuscript itself, but with two fixed yet unproven assertions: that the text is in cipher and that it is entirely the product of Latin (western) Christian culture.
Q14: What other scholars are interested in the VMS?
A: The only scholar who still takes some interest in the Voynich manuscript is, so far as I know, Professor Salomon, already mentioned twice.
“already mentioned twice.” (and doubtless also in the ‘conference’ shortly before). Panofsky has now quite lost patience with Friedman and his ‘quiz’. That Panofsky omits mention of Charles (or of Dorothea) Singer here, again suggests that they had not yet, to his knowledge, been involved with the study. Charles Singer’s opinions, as quoted by d’Imperio, come from letters dating to 1957 or so.
Q15: What do you think of the artificial language theory?
A: I do not feel qualified to pronounce about the probability of your [sic!] “artificial language” theory. I must confess that, for the time being, I am a little skeptical in view of the fact that, so far as I know, no attempts to construct such an artificial language can be shown to have been made until the beginning of the seventeenth century, whereas cipher scripts were developed and employed at a very much earlier date. As I mentioned in conversation, the Italian humanist, Leone Battista Alberti, welcomed the newly discovered “hieroglyphs” as a kind of writing that was independent of language differences and was therefore understandable to all initiated; but this would seem a rather different proposition because the hieroglyphs were not an artificial language developed, on systematic grounds, by a contemporary author but were reputed to be a sign language actually used by the Egyptians and therefore particularly attractive to the humanists who credited the Egyptians with a wisdom even more profound than that of the Greeks and Romans.
Panofsky’s comment about the dates being wrong for a deliberately-constructed artificial language (as such; not including newly-created scripts or alphabets to render a language) is absolutely right, and Friedman’s ignorance of even that – his own field – is once more evident. It is another item in proof that Panofsky was already better acquainted with the history than was Friedman. Panofsky also knows of O’Neill’s paper, published in 1944, though his knowledge of Alberti had long been part of his own scholarly repertoire. As, I expect, was his knowledge of medieval and Renaissance palaeography, essential to provenancing manuscripts and evinced by his familiarity with the books of which Friedman was still ignorant, though already had referred to them during their talk. His allusion to hieroglyphics is most likely to refer to the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo which has made such an impression on Dürer (among others). The edition by Boas includes some of Dürer’s drawings and an essay on the subject.
George Boas (ed. and trans.), The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo. (Boas’ translation was first published in 1950 but my copy is the 1993 edition which I think to be preferred. It includes a new foreword by Anthony T. Grafton)
SUMMATION: In my view, the assumptions made by Friedman, and the ‘theory’ on which his mind was already set – combined with his arrogance and ignorance of the basics needed to form a valid preliminary assessment of any medieval manuscript, but especially one whose content was obscure and imagery anomalous, effectively deterred Panofsky from bothering to provide Friedman with any informed comment on the manuscript’s imagery. It also – in my opinion- led him to avoid giving his personal assessment of the manuscript’s cultural origin, script or iconography. I read his responses chiefly as intended to ensure Friedman had no further excuse for contact.
Erwin Panofsky, Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1968. Eine kommentierte Auswahl in fünf Bänden, hrsg. von Dieter Wuttke (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag): Bd. I,Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1936 (2001); Bd. II,Korrespondenz 1936–1949 (2003). English reviews e.g. International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol.11 (2004) Dec (Issue 2), pp. 280-292.
NOTE: This document is reproduced by the present author by permission and should not be taken and re-used without (1) reference to the present author (as ‘finder’); (2) to this blog-post and (3) seeking permission for re-use from Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts library. A fee may be required.
Next post: Cryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1931 1932.