Notes on Panofsky’s comments 4. Kabbalah

Header Illustration: detail from a Kabbalist scroll.  Brit.Lib.  Or 6465 (1556)
Two previous:     Notes on Panofsky’s comments 3 – hesitations (
Notes on Panofsky’s comments 2 – (


Note 8: … ‘Kabbala’

When Anne Nill wrote to her friend Herbert Garland in 1932 about Panofsky’s viewing the manuscript, she said, “He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!!8

The question has been hanging ever since. I know of no further comment by Panofsky, though something may be buried in the archive of his correspondence.

Elegant Enigma includes a  few paragraphs under ‘Cabala’ in the section titled ‘Collateral Research’, where it is placed between Angelic magic and Alchemy.

Notice d’Imperio’s use of the past tense:

” [Cabala] depended heavily on manipulation of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and lists of sacred words and was in general highly ‘verbal’ and abstract in character in contrast to the iconic and ‘visual’ character of other magical [sic!] systems,… the manipulations of Cabala may have inspired at least some cryptographic devices’     (d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma. p.60).

Both her spelling for the word as ‘Cabala’ and her few comments suggest that d’Imperio relied on an article in the  1901-6 edition of   Encyclopaedia Judaica.  If so, she didn’t take to heart its authors’  admonition:

most modern scholars … have treated the Cabala with a certain bias and from a rationalistic rather than from a psychologico-historical point of view; applying the name of “Cabala” only to the speculative systems which appeared since the thirteenth century, under pretentious titles and with fictitious claims, but not to the mystic lore of the geonic and Talmudic times. Such distinction and partiality, however, prevent a deeper understanding of the nature and progress of the Cabala, which, on closer observation, shows a continuous line of development from the same [religious] roots and elements.

What d’Imperio calls  ‘word-manipulation’ and thinks the mark of a magical system owed most to Abraham Abulafia, a conscious rationalist and follower of Moses Maimonides (who is sometimes called the ‘arch-rationalist’). Maimonides’ thought was – and still is –  respected across the religious and sectarian divides.  Of him, the  Catholic Encyclopaedia writes:

“through his “Guide of the Perplexed” and the philosophical introductions to sections of his commentaries on the Mishna … [Maimonides] exerted a very important influence on the Scholastic philosophers, especially on Albert the Great, St. Thomas [Aquinas], and Duns Scotus.”

speaking of perplexity, and though off topic, I’d like to mention a paper I’ve just seen online:

  • [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘Solved: The Ciphers in Book iii of Trithemius’s Steganographia’, (DRAFT: 26 March 1998).

‘Voynich’ thoughts and Kabbalah

detail of miniature in a Greek Kabbalist manuscript.       Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana Ottieni. courtesy Lehigh University.

An online search for ‘Voynich’ plus ‘Kabbalah’ turns up nothing to help us understand Panofsky’s remark.  It may seem harsh to say that nothing said so far about the Voynich manuscript and Kabbalah has been other than trivial – but see for yourself:

  • In 2009, Pelling mentioned (here) that Pater Castell saw the  sephiroth in  one of the botanical drawings (Pelling’s illustration).
  • In 2013 Donald Goodell began a thread on the mailing list managed by Rich Santacoloma.  See that thread here.
  • A conversation was begun some years ago in the online ‘Journal of Voynich Studies‘  but – as so often – the talk soon veered  back to its contributors’ chief interest: the nobility and seventeenth-century Prague.
  • On July 5th., 2015,  Marco Ponzi left a comment on Stephen Bax’s site, citing an image from a sixteenth-century Kabbalistic Greek text. (It was Ponzi’s find, but a detail from the same diagram can be seen above).   Darren Worley soon provided the picture’s caption, “Influence of the moon on reading the signs of the cabala (kabbalah), miniature from the Cabalistic treatise, Greek manuscript, 16th century…etc.  Ponzi doubted the caption’s accuracy, but  I’m assured it’s correct.
  • Jan.26th., 2016, a thread opened on the forum ‘’.  The subject was actually Jules Janick’s published theory (with or without his name mentioned). The exchange followed the usual course.

Otherwise, Arthur O. Tucker‘s co-author, Jules Janick has made most of the general idea, pulling into Tucker’s ‘New World Voynich’ narrative the late and Christianised style of Kabbalah, knowledge of which he attributes to the missionaries.  However, in overlaying  the tree of Sephiroth on the Voynich map, Janick failed to notice that the quarter he designates ‘North’ is marked clearly with the rising sun which signifies East.

Texts and resources

(detailBrit.Lib. MS Or 11791 f.8v ‘Perush Sefer Yetzirah’ cf.  Brit.Lib. Add MS 26929.

As readers will realise, we are still entirely at a loss to know what about the manuscript or in it, could have led Panofsky to say he thought there was some influence from Kabbalah.  Of course, he might not have expressed himself as definitely as Nill reports, but hers is the only account we have.  He might simply have been musing…’Spain or somewhere southern’… Jewish… thirteenth to fifteenth century… could well be some influence from Kabbalah..’  We don’t know. The whole question is still, effectively, unexplored.

Any reader inspired with determination to solve the problem, one way or another, might like to begin with  Sefer Yetzirah, (‘The Book of Formation’ (or: ‘- Creation’) which is the earliest and perhaps best known of works described as Kabbalistic, though in this case the description is debated.

“Composed in (c.200 BCE – c.200 CE). Sefer Yezirah (Book of Formation) is the title of the earliest extant book on Jewish esotericism, although some early commentators treated it as a treatise on mathematical and linguistic theory as opposed to Kabbalah.”

– from the Sefaria site‘s introduction to the parallel Hebrew/English text.

  • British Library MS Or.11791 Parchment codex.  Commentaries on the Sefer Yetzirah (14th-15thC).
    The Library recommends the following article – and so do I.

The catalogue entry for another volume highlights the need to forget parochial thinking. The various hands are described:

Script (summary): Spanish and Italian semi-cursive script;  Italian semi-cursive script of the 15th century;  Italian/Byzantine semi-cursive of approximately 15th century; Spanish semi-cursive of approximately 15th century; Italian/Byzantine semi-cursive of approximately 15th century. 

For the  total novice (as I am), a couple of easy first meetings with Kabbalist thought:

  • George Robinson, ‘Kabbalah in Spain‘, (undated online article). Sub-title reads, “From the 13th through the 15th century, the Iberian Peninsula was the home of most major kabbalists.”
  • A modern orthodox rabbi,  Rabbi Yom Tov Glaser, explains Kabbalah for modern believers –  youtube video.
  • An article by Ephraim Rubin which looks like a very solid introduction to the Zohar.  published as a blogpost at Kinkatso & Co.


See also:

edited from the original.
  •  Joseph Dan, ‘Gershom Scholem’s Reconstruction of Early Kabbalah’, Modern Judaism, Vol. 5, No. 1, Gershom Scholem Memorial Issue (Feb., 1985), pp.39-66.
  • Hartley Lachter, ‘Spreading Secrets: Kabbalah and Esotericism in Isaac ibn Sahula’s Meshal ha-kadmoni’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 100, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 111-138.
  • Moshe Idel, ‘Ramon Lull and Ecstatic Kabbalah: Preliminary Observation’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 51 (1988), pp. 170-174.
  • Moshe Idel, ‘Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed” and the Kabbalah’,  Jewish History, Vol. 18, No. 2/3, Commemorating the Eight Hundredth Anniversary of Maimonides’ Death (2004), pp. 197-226
  • Shaul Magid, ‘From Theosophy to Midrash: Lurianic Exegesis and the Garden of Eden’, AJS Review, Vol. 22, No. 1 (1997), pp. 37-75.
  •  Daniel Jütte, ‘Trading in Secrets: Jews and the Early Modern Quest for Clandestine Knowledge’,  Isis , Vol. 103, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 668-686. (This paper includes the discursus on Abramo Colorni – regarding whom see N.Pelling, ‘Abraham Colorni’s Cryptography…’ ciphermysteries, (Feb.9th., 2019).
  • The Zohar – first edition published in Mantua 1558-60 is in the Library of Congress, Hebraic Section.  (Sefer ha-Zohar, 3 volumes, Mantua, 1558-60 )


Next post:  Salomon and Liebeschutz

Wheat from the Chaff – ‘Bacon ciphertext’

Header picture: detail from Brit.Lib. Add MS 21917 f.71v

The two posts previous to this are:-

The radiocarbon dating which, in 2011, finally ended efforts to describe the Voynich manuscript as an autograph by Roger Bacon, also saw the perhaps arbitrary abandoning of his view that the appearance of the manuscript, and the content, suggested origin in works from the thirteenth century.  No-one has taken on the task of testing whether the content mightn’t be a fifteenth-century copy of a thirteenth-century text (by Bacon or anyone else) but another problem with Wilfrid’s narrative is the limited range and type of techniques for enciphering that were known in Europe before 1400. Not that we necessarily accept that the written part of the text is in cipher.

I add the above paragraph as clarification today (29th Dec. 2018) because I hear on the grapevine that this blog, whose aim is to demonstrate the need for a re-visiting and revising of ideas long-held or tenaciously maintained about the manuscript,  is  being rumoured an effort to  re-instate  Wilfrid’s ‘Bacon ciphertext ‘ idea. ….  **sigh**

Bacon’s cipher methods

Note (updated 18th. Jan. 2019).  Whether it still applies, or was just a touch of influenza, just before this post originally went up, Nick Pelling  had said that he felt discussion of  methodologies inappropriate for his site.  Time mellows many opinions, of course.


Bacon  described seven methods by which a text might be rendered obscure in his  De Epistola de Secretis …  (“Letter concerning the marvellous power of art and of nature and concerning the nullity of magic“).

I’ve transcribed the  section in a separate Page (‘see right: Addendum…’). adding some explanatory notes from  John Dooley’s book[J.D.]  and a couple of my own. [D]

The same Page illustrates and links to Aethicus/Ethicus’ alphabet.

Newbold said in 1921, and Power remarks more recently, that Bacon felt great admiration for Aethicus.

( Wilfrid addressed the Philadelphia College of Physicians on the same occasion that  Prof. Newbold delivered the  Fifth ‘Mary Scott Newbold’ lecture.  Newbold held the chair of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, and speaking dates are planned well in advance, so it seems a reasonable assumption that Wilfrid’s invitation was due to Newbold’s good graces.)

  •  Roger Bacon and ciphers. Addendum to…’
  • John Dooley, History of Cryptography and Cryptanalysis: Codes, Ciphers, and Their Algorithms. (2018)
  • Amanda Power,  Roger Bacon and the Defence of Christendom, ( 2013) pp.221-2.
  • Professor Romaine Newbold, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’, Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Series 3: Vol.43, (1921)  pp. 431- 474. Section occurs pp.456ff.

Illustration: (detail)  Roger Bacon, Wellcome Image V0000284

Some early ciphers

Scholars are yet to pay much attention to European ciphers pre-1400, and the seminal paper is still regularly cited:

  • Bernhard Bischoff, « Ûbersicht ûber die nichtdiplomatischen Geheimschriften des Mittelalters», Mitteilungen des instituts fur Osterreichische Geschichtsforschung 62 (1954) 1-27.

but see also:

  • Katherine Ellison and Susan Kim, ‘Introduction: Ciphers and the Material History of Literacy’, in Ellison and Kim (eds.), A Material History of Medieval and Early Modern Ciphers: Cryptography and the History of Literacy.  (New York: Routledge, 2018).

The best known study of early cipher available in English is surely

  • David A.King, The Cipher of the Monks. (2001) The table of contents is (here). King’s work was introduced to public Voynich discussions online by Nick Pelling in 2010, while discussing a 14thC astrolabe from Picardy. (here).

An English cipher, in de Foxton’s Liber Cosmographiae (composed in Oxford in 1408):

  • John Block Friedman, “The Cipher Alphabet of John de Foxton’s Liber Cosmographiae,” Scriptorium 36 (1982), 219-35. accessible as a pdf through Persee.   I have now also found a note by (the honorable) Marco Ponzi who says (here) that de Foxton’s cipher was introduced to  Voynich studies by  Nick Pelling, in a comment to the first mailing list (in 2002).


The history of ciphers is older than Bacon, of course.

The cipher, part of which is shown in the header dates to the late tenth century, from the Abbey of Luxeuil and according to the catalogue entry at the British Library reads:

Hbfc Stfphbnxs scrkpskt p[er] prfcfptb brchkinb[er]tk mbgkctrk’ – solved by Sir Frederic Madden to read:  ‘Haec Stephanus scripsit per precepta Archimberti magistri’ (‘This was written by Stephanus at the command of Master Archimbertus’).

The first reference below describes an ostracon (MMA 14.1.219)  said to date from before the eighth century AD.  I have chosen this example partly for its age,  and partly because the editors describe the cipher as one formed by ‘the mixture of several types of letters’ – which is the fourth method described by Bacon in thirteenth-century England.  That ostracon also lets me send a nod to  Georg Baresch,  who believed the Voynich manuscript contained  ‘ancient’ and ‘Egyptian’ matter  as he made clear when asking Athanasius Kircher’s help to identify  the Voynich script.

  • Paulinus Bellet, ‘Anthologia Palatina 9.538, ‘The Alphabet and the Calligraphic Examination in the Coptic Scriptorium’,  The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, Vol. 19, No. 1/2 (1982), pp.1-7.
  • cf. Liv Ingeborg Lied, Hugo Lundhaug, Snapshots of Evolving Traditions: Jewish and Christian Manuscript Culture, Textual Fluidity, and New Philology (2017) p.157 & note.
  • Letter of Georgius Barschius to Athanasius Kircher (1639). Transcription, translation and notes by Philip Neal.

Apropos of Baresch’s ‘guess’ that the manuscript’s content relates to medicine:

  • George W. Corner, ‘A Thirteenth-Century Medical Cryptogram’, Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine 4 (1936) 745-750.

Several researchers have commented on similarities between the Voynich script and other scripts, including Coptic. One sometimes sees observations of this sort collected – sometimes with attributions included – at agglomerative sites such as


Why would Bacon want to write in cipher?

“the Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon, an infinitely greater scholar, who had been persecuted on account of his writings and whose scientific discoveries had been misrepresented as black magic. Moreover, for many years he had been forbidden by his Order to write, and he himself referred in his works to the necessity of hiding his great secrets in cipher.”

As far as I know we have not a  scrap of evidence to show that Roger Bacon ever wrote at length in cipher, and Wilfrid appears not to have known that his conception of Bacon as ‘persecuted scientist’ derived ultimately from the Draper-White thesis, which had been refuted in print four years before Wilfrid laid eyes on his ‘Bacon ciphertext’.

James Walsh had written in 1908,

That Dr. White’s book, contradicted as it is so directly by all serious histories of medicine and of science, should have been read by so many thousands in this country, and should have been taken seriously by educated men, physicians, teachers, and even professors of science … only shows how easily even supposedly educated men may be led to follow their prejudices rather than their mental faculties …

And in 1921, Lynn Thorndike  again objected to that ‘persecuted scientist’ notion when writing to Scientific American (see end of post).

Despite objections from persons both intelligent and well-informed, the myth/’theory’ of Bacon’s persecution ‘for science’ continued to be promoted and thus to infect writings for the rest of the twentieth century.  As example of their tone I list the publications from 1922 ( from Reeds’ Bibliography).

  • Feb 4th., Cons, Louis, ‘Un manuscrit mystérieux: Un traité scientifique du treizième siècle, attribué a Roger Bacon’, L’Illustration 159 (Number 4118, 4 Feb 1922) p. 112. [Copy in BL Facs 439. J.R.]
  • May 20th., Garland, Herbert. ‘A Literary Puzzle Solved?’ Illustrated London News 160, (20 May1922), pp.740-742.
  •  Dr. R. Loeser. “Roger Bacons Chiffremanuskript.” Die Umschau. 26 (1922), pp.115-117.

When Bacon was censured, it was in England, and as a result of his serving as ‘whistleblower’ when requested by the Pope to write about poor management and practice in the church in England. Others claim Bacon incurred displeasure by taking it on himself to criticise the system of education decided by ‘elders and betters’ in the church hierarchy.

Natural History?

Bacon’s contemporary, Thomas of Cantimpré (1201 –1272), wrote at great length about natural history, in his ‘De naturis rerum‘, a text that was (so to speak) ‘an instant run-away best seller’, being soon  translated into French, Belgian and German vernaculars.  Clearly, ‘natural history’ didn’t have to be hidden in cipher during Bacon’s lifetime.

The following illustration, comparing script in a fifteenth-century copy of  Cantimpré’s thirteenth-century text with script taken from one folio of Beinecke MS 408, was first published by the present author in May 2016.   That post was one item in a  more detailed exposition of  the internal evidence which indicates the content’s evolution over time. The last substantial stratum, prior to the present volume’s manufacture,  I have dated to the period between 1250 and 1330 AD, that conclusion confirming an earlier opinion (by the present author) which had been reached and shared in posts online by 2011.  Certain minor alterations, additions and marginal inscriptions were treated separately.

illustration from D.N. O’Donovan, ”An early 15th C copy of a 13th C text: Thomas of Cantimpré’, voynichimagery (blog), May 9th., 2016. I regret that in 2017, after almost a decade of being obliged to protest plagiarism and  other abuses, I withdrew from  public access the research I’d shared online.

Postscript:  I am indebted to correspondent for reference to a comment made by Derek J. de Solla Price in 1975, indicating that some had earlier wondered if this might be the case:

Scholars … have surmised that it may well be a copy of a lost original— a fifteenth-century copy of a thirteenth-century text.

  •  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Secular Spirit: Life and Art at the End of the Middle Ages (1975) p.203
  • The interesting work recently done by Koen Gheuens, tracing examples of an anomalous form of  ‘lobster-style’ Cancer, refers to Cantimpré’s work. It is worth readers’ attention, though here will be left for a later series.

Aristotle prohibited?

In theory –  only in theory –  it could be argued that there is a period of about ten years when Bacon might (just ‘might’) have needed to encipher some text attributed to  Aristotle.

As mentioned in the previous post, the Arts Faculty of the University of Paris were told in 1210 that:

 “Neither the books of Aristotle on natural philosophy or their commentaries are to be read at Paris in public or secret, and this we forbid under penalty of excommunication.”

On the other hand, members of the Faculty of Theology could read what they liked, and no prohibition existed at all in England.

Bacon came to Paris while the ban was in place (at least nominally), arriving in 1233/4 and remaining until 1250, according to some accounts.  But the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy says Bacon was already “teaching Aristotle’s works on natural philosophy and metaphysics by the 1240s”, and a ‘British Heritage’ article says Bacon was invited to Paris in 1241 “to present a lecture series on the Aristotelian corpus.”

Which would leave only the period between 1233-c.1243(?) when it might have been necessary to obscure the content of a notebook or some Aristotelian text.

In Paris again by 1257, Bacon would have now found Aristotle’s works freely available:

By 1255,  all of Aristotle’s works were available plus a range of commentaries and expansions of his ideas. [These] were not only widely read in Paris but were prescribed texts in the Arts Faculty.


Next post:   medieval ‘Books of Secrets‘; Aristotle’s Secreta Secretorum; and Roger Bacon’s ‘De Secretis