Fear of the Unknown and raft ‘Elegant’. Pt 2 – the white wall (April 1, 2019)
Fear of the unknown – and raft ‘Elegant’ (March 16, 2019)
Header illustration: (left) detail of Bacon’s letter to Pope Clement; (right) page from Newbold’s notes.
Wilfrid Voynich didn’t mean to start the ‘theory war’ but he did.
He was an expert in attributing a manuscript as an object to its proper region and period, but had no sense of the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction. The only type of provenance he practiced was the ‘type 1′ sort.
That discrepancy introduced the first, initially minor, distortion in others’ perception of this manuscript because he created a ‘history’ for it which lacks historical rigor, which adduces no evidence from the primary document, neither form nor materials nor informed commentary on its content – and refers only to such historical facts as might lend colour to his ‘chain of ownership’ story. This attitude provided a model – and a very bad one – for how the manuscript should be approached.
Over time the practice of separating the manuscript from a narrative espoused in advance of research and then imposed on it, would splinter the study into its many mutually incompatible simulacra: one informed by a tale of early Scandinavia, another of sixteenth-century Germany, a third of seventeenth century Prague, a fourth of Renaissance Italy, a fifth of the ‘New World’; one occult, another cultic, another pragmatic and so forth, with none sufficiently well founded to disprove any other.
Pushing a pet theoretical narrative has now become, for most Voynicheros, the unifying theme for their tours through history and their sole reason for being involved in the study – to the point where for anyone to say that an observation is the end-result of research into one or another question raised by the primary document is to meet with open derision, scepticism or incomprehension – though rarely with enquiry – from those who are not primarily focused on analysis of the text’s written part. What passes for ‘Voynich studies’ has become a sort of social-media version of reality tv, where boos and hisses drive out one unproven theory while mass acclaim serves as if, alone, it were equal to scholarly endorsement.
While this most crucial issue of myth-creation is treated in this post by taking an example originating in the 1920s, the same phenomena which saw its survival till (a least) 2015 are still in operation today and few of even the most widely adopted Voynich ‘histories’ and ‘theories’ have any more validity than did the ‘Bacon telescope’ story. I know that, at some stage, I’ll have to provide would-be revisionists with more recent examples of persistent Voynich flummery, but I hope readers will understand that critiquing current Voynich theorists isn’t something I look forward to doing and as illustration of how fiction becomes ‘theory’ becomes canonised myth, this example will do very well.
The ‘Bacon’s telescope’ myth – and the ‘nebula/galaxy’ fantasy: 1920s to 2012 (and, alas, beyond).
Dedicated Voynich theorists today are far more defensive-offensive than Wilfrid Voynich was, and less willing to admit – as he freely did – that the basis for their ‘theory’ is no more than some ‘gut instinct’. Voynich said openly enough that this is the only reason he described the manuscript an autograph by Roger Bacon. The rest of his fantastic ‘history’ as a largely imaginary chain-of-ownership novella simply followed from that first ‘instinct’. In fact, he also had in his favour a recognition affirmed by other specialists in medieval manuscripts of the time, that the volume presents as a manuscript of the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.
Since today we know the vellum is dated later, the conclusion would seem fairly obvious that the present volume reproduced material from some one or more works made (if not first composed) during that earlier period.
The radiocarbon dating, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, finally disposed of any suggestion that the Voynich text was hand-written by Roger Bacon, but the idea that the material might have been from some work composed by, or copied by Roger Bacon has never been disproven – it was simply elbowed aside as theorists jostled for online popularity via the specious, and implied, idea that if Bacon didn’t inscribe this manuscript, it couldn’t contain material derived from Norman France or Norman England of Bacon’s time.
- Wilfrid M. Voynich, ‘A Preliminary Sketch of the History of the Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript’, Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Vol. 43 (1921). p.415.
Newbold and the Bacon’s telesope myth.
William Romaine Newbold’s paper of 1921 also has Roger Bacon’s biography central to its narrative, and for no better reason than does Wilfrid’s, but Newbold was not wholly dependent on Wilfrid’s imagination, nor his own.
Newbold’s chief source, as he says, was Brewer (1859)*; though had Newbold instead read Bridges’ study (1875) his own narrative might have been less flawed.
The two historians, Brewer and Bridges, wrote less than twenty years apart, but they stand on opposite sides of a scholarly watershed.
* in an edition of 1900, as Newbold says in his paper (p. 433 n.1).
Brewer’s ‘Life of Roger Bacon’ is a work of the Regency/Georgian era, full of sensibility, empathy and adverbs. By contrast, Bridges displays already that combination of judicious evaluation, precision in detail and ‘backbone’ which became the hallmark of England’s great Victorian dons.
- John Sherren Brewer, Rogeri Bacon Opera quædamhactenus inedita. London : Longman, Green, and Roberts, 1859. Vol. I. containing I.–Opus tertium. II.–Opus minus. III.–Compendium philosophiæ. (Bacon’s biography is included in the Preface pp. xi-lxxxiv).
- John Henry Bridges, The ‘Opus majus’ of Roger Bacon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873. Vol.1, Introduction § 1. ‘Bacon’s Life’ pp. xxi-xxxvi.
Since we are here concerned with the effect of ‘canonised myth’ upon the manuscript’s study, I’ll take the ‘Bacon’s telescope’ myth, which had existed already in 1875, was then taken up and applied by Newbold to argue that the image on folio 68v* was Bacon’s drawing of a spiral galaxy. (see left)
*folio 68v(part) is the latest description of this image by the Beinecke Library; the same was earlier described as folio 68r, and/or 67v by various sources, the additional ‘1’ or ‘i’ being informal).
This notion that Roger Bacon invented the telescope was immediately embraced, then, by the first wave of ‘Voynich researchers’, who soon began repeating as if fact Newbold’s notion that Bacon had seen, and now drawn, a spiral galaxy. It was a ‘Voynichero’ notion that was to endure despite all reason and argument to as late as 2015 when I saw to my astonishment that it had survived even Norm Sperling’s thorough debunking of 2012 and was on the verge of joining the list of “canonised myths which you may deny only at your peril”.
However.. here s the more cautious passage direct from Bridges’ biography of Bacon (1875). You will note that here is no complete rejection of the ‘Bacon telescope’ notion but no over-confident assertion either. It is from this germ that Newbold would subsequently seek support for his interpretation of many images in the Voynich manuscript, including that on folio 68v.
Bridges had actually written:
Of the magnifying powers of convex lenses [Roger] Bacon had a clear comprehension. He imagined, and was within measurable distance of effecting the combination of lenses which was to bring far things near, but which was not to be realized till the time of Galileo.
In 1614, four years after the invention of the telescope, Combach, professor of philosophy in the University of Marpurg, published this great work of Bacon, ‘viri eminentissimi.’ It would be interesting to know whether the allusion in the Novum Organum (lib. i. 80) to the work of an obscure monk (‘ monachi alicujus in cellula’) has reference to this work. The Cogitata et Visa was written before Combach’s edition was published ; but examples of the Perspectiva were numerous, and it can hardly have been unknown to Francis Bacon. In any case it must have been known to Descartes, to whose epoch-making researches on Dioptrique it assuredly contributed a stimulating influence. This at least they have in common, that light is looked upon as correlated with other modes of propagation of force through the Ether.
(Bridges, op.cit. p.xxxv)
- John Henry Bridges, Obituary, from The Times (-of London), Tuesday, Jun 26, 1906; pg. 14; Issue 38056. Explains that Bridges’ work was not well received.
And – though still ignorant of Bridges – Newbold says in his paper delivered in 1921:
The telescope has extended the range of vision far out into the depths of space; the microscope has revealed the existence of the unimagined realm of the infinitely little …That both of these indispensable instruments were known to and probably discovered by Roger Bacon, and that by their means he made discoveries of the utmost importance, the Voynich manuscript puts beyond the range of reasonable doubt. (p.432)
- William 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.
As would so often happen, a Voynich ‘theory’ was soon opposed by arguments informed by fact and reason only to be ignored.
For example, James Stokley’s paper of 1928 plainly denies that ‘Bacon telescope’ myth – denies the idea in itself AND in the context of Voynich writings, but his essay had no more power to influence the general run of Voynich ‘fans’ and Voynich writings than had any previous effort… or indeed any subsequent effort to halt the popular practive of inventing some Wilfrid-style ‘history’ and call it a ‘Voynich theory’.
- James Stokley, ‘Did Roger Bacon Have a Telescope?’, The Science News-Letter, Vol. 14, No. 386 (Sep. 1, 1928), pp. 125-126+133-134.
Perception of the poor manuscript is so chronically distorted by the invention, and unthinking adoption of such myths that a single popular tale of this sort can prevent any advance of the manuscript’s study for decades.
That so many of these ‘canonised myths’ still prove resistant to both evidence and reason and proponents’ still respond with personal hostility rather than intelligent debate shows how far Voynich studies has descended to the level of social-media’s quasi-religious association-by-common-biases.
But to continue the history of this particular theory’s resistance to fact and reason…
Eight years after Stokley’s paper of 1928 had been published, a reasonable-sounding paper was published by Edward Lutz, who had clearly done a fair amount of reading, though not with any critical eye.
Lutz repeats and even illustrates the story of Bacon’s supposed ‘telescope’ and though it is clear that he relied largely on Newbold’s paper of 1921, it is also clear that – unlike Newbold – he was not ignorant of Bridges’ work. We know this because Lutz added a quotation from Bridges below his own imaginative depiction of that mythical ‘Bacon telescope’.
- Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (June, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82.
And still, almost half a century later, in her summary of the Friedmans’ failed efforts to wring meaning from the Voynich text, Mary d’Imperio supposes the long decades’ of excessive western admiration for Roger Bacon due to some residual guilt among Catholics over the (largely imaginary) ‘persecution of science by the church’, but that cannot be accepted as an adequate explanation for persistence of this “telescope” myth into Voynich talk even into the twenty-first century.
As late as 2015, the present writer was obliged to ask certain readers of her blog voynichimagery to go and read Norm Sperling’s brief and brilliant post of 2012 in which the whole idea was firmly and – one had hoped finally – been despatched to oblivion.
Lynn Thorndike would surely have approved of Sperling’s first sentene:
“William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk.”
- Norman Sperling, ‘Voynich: ‘Spiraling into Folly’ everythingintheuniverse (December 26, 2012).
Note (Dec.31st.2020). Checking the link today, I find that Sperling’s original article no longer on the web. I did find it through the waybackmachine, and in the hope of preserving it conveniently for my readers I have now added the text to the end of this post.
When finally laid to rest, any myth may seem quaint and a little amusing but so long as myths are maintained in what should be an area of formal scholarship, they distort perception of the object of study, misdirect research and may positively hamper investigation as believers make their own objections felt towards arguments or scholars opposing such long-lived and well-loved fictions.
Less quaint, more recent, and far less amusing is the social-media PR sort of Voynichero who manufactures support for a speculative ‘history’ by deliberately inserting some item of guesswork into a supposedly objective narrative, and then sponsoring its elevation to the status of ‘canonised myth’. This abhorrent practice has largely passed beneath notice within the ‘mythic’ atmosphere of Voynich theory-wars, but in January of this year, Santacoloma spoke of it in a post entitled, ‘ Birth of a New Mythology’.
- Richard Santacoloma, ‘Birth of a New Mythology’, proto57, (Jan. 3rd., 2019)
With Rich’s permission, I’ve quoted below those of his observations with which I can agree wholeheartedly. For the rest – and to avoid the impression that his opinions are identical to mine – the passages omitted (and indicated by ellipses) can be read by following that link.
I’d like to say here that Rich is among the few who have so far stood apart from the anti-intellectual culture induced by ‘theory war’. Remaining always civil, Rich appears to place a higher value on common interest in Beinecke MS 408 than on whether a person does, or doesn’t agree with his views about it. While that rational attitude was the norm in the first mailing list, it is increasingly rare now.
Santacoloma maintains that the manuscript was forged. I think, rather, that what has been ‘forged’ – in a slightly different sense – are the conceptual moulds into which the manuscript is forced, and has been forced by one person after another since 1912.
I don’t expect Rich to change his opinion; I hope he doesn’t expect me to change mine. We have our reasons.
Note: Santacoloma did not “invent ” the theory that the manuscript is a forged document. It was among the ideas proposed by William Friedman by the early 1950s, prompting Panofsky’s strong statement to the contrary. Despite this, Mary d’Imperio still treated it as a real possibility.
from Rich’s post:
There are many, previously accepted (and stubbornly accepted by most, still), “truisms” about the provenance, construction/substance, and content of the Voynich manuscript …. unsupportable by the facts, and at worst, demonstrably false. Both rise to the level of mythologies. These are too numerous to mention, or explain, in [one] post …
But how do these myths arise? I don’t mean that in the sense of one’s motivation for starting them … but by what path, what series of events, did these myths originate? …
…. In some cases they were created by Wilfrid himself. Or, soon after his death, added innocently by speculation on the part of Anne Nill and Ethel Voynich. Later, a vast army of well-meaning researchers, by digging deep for any shred of evidence …. the results were either presented as, or later morphed into, “facts”.
…. But in my time studying the Voynich… a bit over ten years now… I’ve seen at least a dozen or so new myths created, and become accepted by the mainstream “understanding” of the Voynich. As an example of these, I will outline one … its origin, its metamorphosis into fact, and then, its canonization into the supposed “fact base” of the Voynich’s story.
… Yale publication of the (facsimile edition) book, The Voynich Manuscript,* … was edited by the erudite, informative and kind Raymond Clemens … But I’m sorry to say that I cannot recommend the work as a source text for information about the reality …, because in many respects it is a biased advertisement … it side-steps and/or “rationalizes” some of the many serious anomalies of the Voynich, and it does so in some very obvious, and even sometimes unintentionally humorous ways.”
**Raymond Clemens (ed.), The Voynich manuscript, Yale University Press (2016).
[minor edit to replace dropped phrase – 17th April 2019]
That single ‘myth’ was embedded in Voynich studies from 1921 to at least as late as 2015. What is notable about the way in which it survived so long, and despite informed and detailed opposition is that where the first generations of Voynich writers merely adopted Newbold’s opinion with or without mention of its origin, later generations of the internet-social-media period (post 2004) were content to parrot unnamed and unacknowledged sources. Thus mere gossip was enough – if widely enough repeated – to turn fantasy into something ‘everyone knows’. History, to be history, has to BE a history of the study’s evolution. Any Voynich writer who refused to acknowledge his or her sources of information actively corrupts this manuscript’s study. Most do it these days because, being amateurs in the age of social media, they fear that by admitting their debt to others they may lose the public acclaim on social media to which their whole ‘study’ of Beinecke MS 408 is aimed.
Added December 31st. 2020. Norm Sperling’s debunk re 68v-i.
Today (Dec 31st. 2020) Since I consider Sperling’s summary of the evidence a landmark in Voynich studies – a formal de-bunking of a Voynich myth that had persisted for almost a century by the time he wrote, I’ve decided to reproduce it here – minus its illustrations.
Norm delivered the coup de grace as follows:
Voynich: Spiraling into Folly
© Norman Sperling, December 26, 2012
William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk. The spiral nebula concept was suggested to Newbold by astronomer Eric Doolittle, who really should have known much better. Doolittle was a diligent and much-appreciated expert on double stars, but at f/20 his telescope gave some of the poorest, faintest, least-contrasty views of nebulae (the category from which galaxies had not yet been separated). To be blunt, Doolittle was out of his specialty and didn’t know what he was talking about.
While the Great Galaxy in Andromeda is visible to the naked eye as an oval smudge, it does not look spiral through even today’s visual telescopes. It doesn’t even appear face-on, but is strongly tilted to our view. It was first recognized as a spiral in 1899, by pioneering astrophotographer Isaac Roberts: “[the object is] a left-handed spiral, and not annular as I at first suspected”. Photographs of Stars II, p63. Newbold’s own book says as much (William Romaine Newbold, edited by Roland Grubb Kent: The Cipher of Roger Bacon, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1928, Chapter XI, p 123).
The very first time any celestial object was recognized as a spiral was 1843, using the world’s then-largest telescope, Lord Rosse’s new 72-inch-wide “Leviathan of Parsonstown”. Even with highly improved telescopes in the 2010s, visual observers are hard-put to distinguish spirality in the highest-contrast, most-vivid spiral – the Whirlpool galaxy in Canes Venatici, M51 – with any telescope narrower than 12 inches. Even then, the focal ratio must be f/8 or less to concentrate light enough. Early-1600s telescopes by Lippershey, Galileo, and others were less than 2 inches wide, and typically f/20-f/40, with notoriously imperfect lenses that smeared light around. For a deeper explanation of focal ratio and surface-brightness, read my essay Of Pupils & Brightness. NO primitive telescope of the Renaissance, let alone some speculated pioneer of the Middle Ages, had the slightest chance of revealing spirality in any object, to any observer, under any conditions.
Newbold speculated about the changes a nebula might show over the 650 years from Roger Bacon’s time to his own. We now know that the spirals are galaxies, so wide that light takes tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years to traverse them. The sharpest photographs of the last century have not revealed any measurable rotation. The only changes are sudden appearances of supernovae, which fade back down. The spiral in 68r is NOT a galaxy.
Taken from the wayback page
There have been three scientific studies conducted since 2000. These are:
- McCrone’s analysis of the ink and a few selected pigments (2009);
- Radiocarbon dating of four samples of the vellum (2011); some tables and commentary by Nick Pelling here.
- Codicological studies whose results were amalgamated and edited to produce the most valuable essay in the Yale facsimile edition: ‘Physical Materials’ (2016).