What magic, where magic? 5a: ‘occulted’ blind spots and artisans.

Two prior

Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.starry band stretched


Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:

“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.

No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.

Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if  ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.  In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2.  For the online link see  ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography  –  top bar).

Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in  European-and-Armenian  style.  McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments.  There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of  any Voynichese cipher  was either European or resident in Europe  – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress)  may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily-  but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript  – it might not.

A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.

It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’.  And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense.  It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or   is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake…  And so on. 

Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”

So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.

This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted  John Tiltman.  When, at last,  on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures: 

tiltman in scots uniform“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early Middle Ages right through into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)

He did not continue the thought  to its conclusion – at least, not in words.

More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’,  seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back,  resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player. 

Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:

“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and  foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…

In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European  ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.

It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s  intellectual history”.  Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a  rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?

  • Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.

Today,  a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things.  Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance  at that time would still have demanded some important person as  ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an  ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn,  supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.

Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.

As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.

detail from front page of Saxl's work 1915Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first  created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.

For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its textRuritanian romance must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility,  then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder –  greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.

Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”,  I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it.  We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’. 

Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.

It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s  ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals,  methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist  – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.

  • James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.

  • Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)

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

  • _______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.

  • Erik Anton Heinrichs, ‘The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler: Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany’, The Sixteenth Century Journal Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 417-440

  • Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,

Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece
Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai,
Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.

“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.

adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture  .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.

The  practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921.  Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s.  Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.

Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens. 

As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” –  Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?

It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that  question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they  considered.

Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures  must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens).  If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything  in Beinecke MS 408  an artisan’s handbook or notebook.

 Practical skill = practical value.

Such information could even be imagined recorded in  cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) –  books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such  information as that about plant-derived pigments.  Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’


Access to secrets – relocation.

Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how.   So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it,  he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.”  From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.”  (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand  took three years.

  • Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).

To speak of textiles –  how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first  revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429.  In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass  on his knowledge.   One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased. 

  • [Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.

for additional vocabularies:

  • Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with

  • Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).

A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through botanical.com but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.

Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century-   through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.

They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater).  At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from  Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill  of women. 

Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.

The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning. 

Similarly,  Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might  guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good  article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:

  • Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).

As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.

starry band stretched


Folio 67v

Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v.  Relevant to our  understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference,  this anomaly obliges us to consider  too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.

The research question is framed as:

Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?

Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.  

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.


What magic? Where magic? 3c-time shifts.

Two prior posts

Afterword to this post.

d'ImperioI had always thought that Mary d’Imperio’s work was to sort and summarise material accumulated during the years that William Friedman directed the Voynich study groups, and that the entire content in Elegant Enigma was, therefore, a reflection of Friedman’s thinking.

As this series of posts progressed, it occurred to me to look at relative distributions for the entries in d’Imperio’s bibliography, and on doing so I found a rather different picture emerge. I now believe I may owe Wilfrid Friedman, and possibly also his wife Elizebeth, an apology.  It  looks very much as if the ‘occult’ theme which occupies so much of d’Imperio’s Table of Contents expresses her own ideas, which may or may not have been shared by Elizebeth. There’s no doubt that Friedman did drift forward to as late as the seventeenth century, but his retirement was in 1955 and he died in 1969, whereas the ‘occult’ sources in d’Imperio’s bibliography are chiefly publications of the late 1960s and 1970s.

I’ve left the first posts in the series as I wrote  them, though, so you can see how it went. Another and less obvious point to emerge is how greatly O’Neill’s careless paper contributed to the firming shift in external research towards the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  At least, back then, people religiously cited the precedents they built on, so there’s no doubt who influenced e.g. Brumbaugh’s shift in the same direction. In correcting the first item in the chain, then, and knowing that the later writers were not speaking to any other research, we can automatically correct that  post-Columban dating all along the line.  It should also be kept in mind that scholars of the earlier generation meant the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when they spoke of the Renaissance. These days, writers begin the ‘Renaissance’ much earlier, from about the time Byzantine representatives came, and stayed, in Italy.


Seventeenth-century mindset – Friedman and artificial languages.

I have attributed the origin of the ‘Germanic-Dee-occult’ theme* to William Friedman220px-Agrippa_von_Nettesheim because he was the formal leader of the various teams who studied the manuscript at the NSA.

*which is where Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa comes in.

However, if you look at d’Imperio’s Bibliography and then (if this sort of thing is to your liking) make  distribution-graphs by three criteria – date of publication. lifetime of the author, and whether the central focus is on the time of Roger Bacon or  of Dee-and-later, an interesting pattern emerges.

Focus does not really shift towards the later period and an ‘occult’ theme until quite late in the course of the Friedman groups’ efforts, and from what we know of Friedman’s delicate mental health, the shift may have occurred during his absence. A  letter written to  Friedman’s biographer in 1976 tells us that Friedman was “hospitalized with mental illness five separate times beginning in 1940. His last hospitalization was in late 1963”.* 

*References already given – here.

Friedman Wm 1917
William Friedman in 1917 from files at the George C,Marshall Foundation

Friedman’s official service record reflects a steady decline in his official status from 1942, and reduction in his responsibilities from 1949 –  from leader of a team to consultant on cryptography, to ‘research consultant’ to ‘special assistant to the director’ and retirement in 1955. After 1955, Friedman was simply a ‘member of the advisory board’ until 1969 and one suspects that his duties from 1955-1969 were nominal.

Chief, Communications Research Section, Army Security Agency, 1947-1949;
Cryptologic Consultant, Army Security Agency, 1949;
Research Consultant, Armed Forces Security Agency, 1949-1951;
Research Consultant, National Security Agency, 1951-1954;
Special Assistant to the Director, NSA, 1954-1955 (retirement);
Member, NSA Scientific Advisory Board, 1954-1969;
Special Consultant, National Security Agency, 1955-1969.

Questions of influence.

Apart from Fr. Theodore Petersen and John Manly,  Friedman does not seem to havedetail portrait of John Matthews Manly cared to get the opinions of external specialists until the 1950s, by which time he had been interested in the manuscript for thirty years, while remaining ignorant of the basics needed to  study  medieval manuscripts, as his interview with Erwin Panofsky would make clear in 1954.

In the following passage, Reeds supposes that the defacement of Fr. Petersen’s work was done by Petersen himself, but this now seems unlikely. Petersen’s work shows him to have been a meticulous, neat and painstaking researcher –  besides which his formal duties would have prevented his devoting time to work in the NSA, and Friedman treated the project as a ‘national secret’, from an idea that so difficult a cipher (as he imagined must inform the Voynich text) might prove of national importance.  Reeds reports the matter this way:

[The Friedmans] became interested in the VMS as soon as Newbold began publicizing his theories about the VMS in the 1920s, and started an extensive correspondence on the subject with their friend John M. Manly, the University of Chicago Chaucer expert who, like Friedman, had served as a cryptanalyst in World War I. Friedman obtained photostats from Mrs. Voynich, and through her, started a correspondence with Father Theodore C. Petersen which lasted until the latter’s death in 1966. Petersen’s hand-made tracing onto onion-skin paper is now item 1620 in the collection, and is amply described on page 41 of D’Imperio’s book. After making the copy, Petersen prepared elaborate indexes and frequency counts (both into notebooks and onto index cards — all now in the Friedman collection — but in the process scribbled up his copy with underlinings, colored pencil marks, and so on, to the extent that photocopies of his copy are often hard to make out.

  • Jim Reeds, Transcription.. op.cit. p.4  [pdf]

It may be due to John Tiltman’s influence that there began to be some greater effort made to seek advice from persons external to the Friedman circle but after hearing Tiltman’s opinions on the manuscript in 1951, Friedman had spoken of what was already a set idea – that Voynichese was an artificial language.  He was already looking to the mid-seventeenth century to explain a medieval manuscript.

Towards the seventeenth century,

Reeds’ version of events is in Transcription… (p. 6).

Here’s Tiltman’s account of what had happened in 1951:

After reading my report, Mr. Friedman disclosed to me his belief that the basis of the script was a very primitive form of synthetic universal language such as was developed in the form of a philosophical classification of ideas by Bishop Wilkins in 1667 and Dalgarno a little later. It was clear that the productions of these two men were much too systematic, and anything of the kind would have been almost instantly recognisable. My analysis seemed to me to reveal a cumbersome mixture of different kinds of substitution. When I was attempting to trace back the idea of universal language, I came upon a printed book entitled The Universal Character by Cave Beck, London 1657 (also printed in French in the same year). Cave Beck was one of the original members of the British Royal Society and his system was certainly a cumbersome mixture…

  • John Tiltman,  ‘The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World’  [NSA gov.site pdf] pp.9-10, Plates 21-23.

Friedman began pushing to meet Professor Panofsky from 1952, but as we’ve seen was prevented until 1954, after which his Questionnaire elicited from Panofsky this answer to its Question 15:

I do not feel qualified to pronounce about the probability of your  “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…

– -which is perfectly true.

Unsurprisingly, Panofsky’s caution had no impact on Friedman, and five years later – and thus even after Singer had introduced the  ‘occult-Germanic-Dee-sixteenth century’ notion, Friedman would include his ‘artificial language’ idea as a footnote to an article written by his wife and published under both their names. 

  • Friedman, William F. and Elizebeth S., ‘Acrostics Anagrams and Chaucer’, Philological Quarterly, Vol 38 (1959), pp.1-21.

By that time, Friedman had been officially retired from the NSA for four years and it is not clear if, or how, the agency’s offices were being used but Tiltman and, apparently, Elizebeth Friedman served as the “informal” leaders, with  Tiltman’s paper of 1968 and his introduction to Elegant Enigma showing that he remained connected to the NSA’s cryptological effort until after Friedman’s death in November 1969.

Which brings us back to d’Imperio’s bibliography.

Other than works dated to the seventeenth century that are listed without mention of a later re-printing, the overwhelming majority of entries that are not about Roger Bacon, are listed in copies dating to the 1960s and 1970s,  between the time of Friedman’s last hospitalization for mental illness and his death. Here’s one listing:

  • Shumaker. Wayne. (1972). The Occult Sciences in Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns,  University of California Press, Berkley.

For the earlier decades, there had been little more than Lionell Strong’s short article asserting that the manuscript was the work of Anthony Askham,

  • Lionell C. Strong, (1945), ‘Anthony Askham, the Author of the Voynich Manuscript’, Science, New Series, Vol. 101, No. 2633 (Jun. 15, 1945), pp. 608-609

Strong begins by presuming O’Neill’s ideas are confirmed, draws in Leonardo da Vinci and takes it from there.  The paper is usually judged nonsense, and no doubt its solution was, but at least it was properly footnoted and referenced, so we can see how he got his ideas; the superscript numerals are removed from this clip.

Strong on the Voynich

and so on and so forth.  d’Imperio’s Bibliography lists five books by Anthony Askham.

Robert Brumbaugh again. 

Robert S.BrumbaughBrumbaugh would also claim that the written text was decrypted by using numbers.  He seems to be reaching for the idea of some form of volvelle, in which one fixed wheel has the numerals and the (presumably outer) concentric wheels have diverse alphabets.  I hope I interpret him correctly.  In 1975 he would write, ,

But on folio 66r, the compiler tipped his hand too far. In the left  margin (see illustration) he set up groups of characters in patterns: three or four written horizontally, then next to them three or four vertically. Since I had seen a number of these characters in another cipher in Milan, where they represented numerals, I suspected an arithmetical game. And, sure enough, the horizontal symbols give equations, to which the vertical symbols are the solutions. (For example, the last puzzle “2a2a4 8” gives “8” as the solution of “2 plus 2 plus 4”). This gave away the “alphabet”; the cipher is written in numerals, not letters, and each numeral turns out- as we solve the equations- to be represented by from two to four distinct designs. Seven, for instance, is either an Arabic 7, a Greek pi, or a Roman d, indifferently. And it became possible to tell which characters are the same and which are different; for example, a -11- compendium with two loops is a 3, while the very similar -tl- with one loop is 8; 7 is 7, all right, but narrowed and more styled as ? it is 2 ; an is a single numeral equal to 8; and so on.

  • 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.

Nothing occult in that.

By 1987, Brumbaugh would still not have questioned or checked his secondary sources of information, and his confidence was not greatly lessened by the continuing lack of any endorsement of his claim to have “found the cipher key”.    Thirteen years later, he’s been exposed to the ‘occult’ idea. Asked in that year to bring the librarians up-to-date, he wrote:

From 1912 on, we have indeed learned progressively more. A letter which accompanied the manuscript said that it had been bought in 1586[sic!], by the Emperor Rudolph II, who thought it was the work of “Roger Bacon, the Englishman.” Bacon’s name was one to conjure with in Prague at this time, which would explain the high price (six hundred ducats) the letter says Rudolph paid. By what is surely more than a coincidence, this same date saw a change in the fortunes at Prague of two English alchemists and Bacon enthusiasts, John Dee and Edward Kelley. From poverty, they moved to fortune: Dee and his family going home in style, Kelley remaining to be knighted at Rudolph’s court. My friend S. W. Dunwell informed me that there is a note in Dee’s diary referring to 630 ducats at this time. Note or not, it seems likely that the persons who sold the Emperor this document were Dee and Kelley; no other even remotely likely candidates have been defended….

  • 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.

Need I say that O’Neill’s dating was nonsense and that “the letter” is not dated 1568, and  does not say that Rudolf bought the manuscript, or bought it in that year, but Marci adds at the end of the letter to Kircher – and as a piece of hearsay – matter that the person from whom he had it could only have got as hearsay himself.

Nothing has ever been discovered in the records of Rudolf’s exchequer or accounts to support that tenuous rumour;  there is no evidence for that oddly anonymous “carrier” – not that he existed, or was given 600 ducats, or  anything else.  Marci  makes a point of not endorsing or supporting the story, which he reports in an offhand way.

Had the rumour named anyone but Rudolf, it would be recognised as no more than ‘a bloke heard from some bloke that some bloke brought the manuscript and was given heaps of money for it.’   An historical footnote of no value.

Showers of kingly gold.

John Dee drawingSince Dee’s name has come up, and that legendary sum of 600 ducats (a staggering amount to pay for a manuscript, when Rudolf had no real interest in anything but the latest printed publications about the latest science), yet it would have been a derisory sum for anyone wanting Elizabeth I’s counsellor and former tutor to work for them.  Dee was, in fact, accused of accepting payments from foreign kings.  Here’s his reaction.

I’m quoting,  as Trattner does, from Dee’s ‘Autobiographical Tracts’:

To be most briefe . . . as concerning my forraine credit, . . I might have served five Christian Emporers; namely, Charles the Fifth, Ferdinand, Maximilian, this Rudulph, and this present Moschovite: of every one their stipends directly or indirectly offered, amounting greater each, then other: as from 500 dollars yearely stipend to a 1000, 2000, 3000; and lastly, by a Messenger from this Russian or Moschovite Emporer, purposely sent, unto me at Trebona castle . . . of my coming to his court at Moskow . . . there to enjoy at his Imperial handes £2000 sterling yearely stipende; . …

On which Trattner commented, “if Dee was interested in financial betterment would he not have accepted any one of these positions rather than die in poverty, as he did?”

  • Walter I. Trattner, God and Expansion in Elizabethan England: John Dee, 1527-1583, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar.,1964), pp. 17-34.

Can you imagine a man of such pride and such disdain for ‘forraine credit’ hawking a manuscript as ratty-looking as the Voynich manuscript to an imperial court and having the poor taste to ask the Emperor to pay him for it? I have difficulty imagining it.

But I think no-one currently choses to believe that Dee or his associate brought the manuscript to Prague.  Rumours reaching my own ears would have it that the ‘Germanic-central European’ theorists have decided to dump all the original expert opinions, and the English provenance, and the Anglo-French month names etc., and just settle for a theory that it was always Germanic-central-European, born and bred.

By the way, if you’re wondering how to define ‘central European’, I’m told (another unendorsed bit of hearsay) it means medieval Bohemia “minus the Slavic element”. And that’s about the value of third-hand hearsay.

ego judicium meum hic suspendo.

map routes trade medieval London to Prague

It looks more and more as if it is wrong to assign the rise of that anachronistic ‘sixteenth-seventeenth century Germanic occult’ narrative to Wilfrid, though it plainly emerges from the Friedman groups.

It arises too late to have been any theory to which Friedman was personally attached, but to judge from that outburst from d’Imperio after Elizebeth Friedman spoke of how an academic board had refused funds for the project, it looks as if Mary d’Imperio and/or Elizebeth Friedman were actually responsible for its flourishing.

We see that although Brumbaugh doesn’t consider it even as late as 1975, by which time the manuscript was held at his university’s Beinecke library, he takes the ‘occult’ narrative more or less for granted by 1987. By that time, d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma had been released with almost half its content focused on occult themes.


I’m inclined now to look to three woman, and one centre of studies to uncover the origin of what has these days become a full-blown ‘Sixteenth-or-seventeenth-century-Christian-Germanic-occult-alchemical’ narrative only tenuously linked to our early fifteenth-century product. Speculation, back-projection, and rather poor ‘compared images’ is, as far as what appears on the web is concerned,  its chief means of survival.

Those three-and-one are – Elizebeth Friedman, Mary d’Imperio, Frances Yates and the Warburg Institute. I have written to the last, enquiring whether they have an archive of correspondence covering 1969-1978. (Poachers – hang back).

In the last paragraphs of text in Elegant Enigma, writing in 1978, d’Imperio says:

I feel that alchemical writings. in particular. deserve closer attention. since they may not have been so thoroughly studied by Voynich researchers as have herbal, medical and astrological sources. More attention to early cryptographic writings of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries [sic!] might also richly repay our efforts… In fact,  determined, thorough and painstaking attempt to search through manuscript collections and early printed books on almost any of the topics sketched in chapters 8 and 9 of this monograph could still turn up  up a new and illuminating bit of evidence for a student searching specifically for a parallel to the Voynich manuscript.

Elegant Enigma p. 77.

Remember Chapters 8 and 9?

d'Imperio section 8

d'Imperio sections 9 & 10


Whatever bees were in William Friedman’s bonnet, it’s looking more and more as if occultism wasn’t one of them and that Mary d’Imperio did more than just organise material accumulated during the Friedman years in making Elegant Enigma.