Consider this.. Lull, Kabbalah and ciphers.


Still speculation after all these years.”


Question-set 1:

Is it true that Ramon Llull was acquainted with Kabbalah? How long has the idea been around? Who first suggested it? Was there, then – or is there now – any evidence to justify the idea/assertion?

Question-set 2:

Is it true that Llull’s ‘combinatorial’ system was devised, or used by Lull, as a method for encryption? Who first suggested that use for it? Was there then, or is there now, any evidence to justify the idea?

Question-set #3.

Who first associated Ramon Llull with the Voynich manuscript? What reason did they give? Was there then, or is there now, any evidence dating from between c. 1260 (Lull’s maturity) and 1348 1438 which might lend support to that notion?

The short answer to all three ‘Is there any evidence..?’ questions is a simple “No”.

There is no evidence to support, and much to deny even the possibility that Ramon Lull was familiar with Kabbalah, or that his combinatorial system was ever devised from an idea that it might be used to encipher or encrypt text. There is no evidence that anything in Lull’s work influenced Alberti, his wheel, or the Voynich manuscript.

So before any revived “Llull-Voynich” notion transmutes into another faith-dependent ‘doctrine’, here’s the lineage for the three-link, circular, ‘Llull-Alberti-Voynichese’ storyline.


To break it down:

  1. Lull and … Kabbalism.

This speculation arose first in connection with a specific and unusual Kabbalist, the messianic Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia. But after almost five hundred years’ intermittent scholarly investigation, that imagined link has been found an idea without merit and rejected by a consensus very neatly summarised by Jan R. Veenstra’s note within his review of a book published in 2004 and whose author was attempting to justify the old idea. Veensta’s footnote reads:

The issue has been touched upon by a few scholars and was first raised in the fifteenth century by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola who, in one of his Conclusiones , suggested that Llull’s combinatory art resembles Abulafia’s ecstatic Kabbalah.

The systems, however, are too distinct to argue for any kind of substantial influence and any research focusing on a text-immanent reading of Llull and his possible sources will be bound to conclude that Kabbalah plays no significant role in his works ….. Explicit references to Kabbalah seem to be absent; parallels between Lullian and Kabbalistic concepts are often too vague or incomplete to warrant an undeniable influence.”

  • Jan R. Veenstra, [Review of] Harvey J. Hames, ‘The Art of Conversion: Christianity and Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century’. Vivarum,  Vol. 42, No. 2 (2004), pp. 262-266.

  •  David Abulafia’s review of Hames’ Like Angels on Jacob’s Ladder: Abraham Abulafia, the Franciscans, and Joachimism (2007), review published in Speculum, Vol. 87, No. 2 (April, 2012), pp. 561-562.

So the judgement of half a millennium’s investigation of Lull’s works and of Kabbalism rejects Pico della Mirandola’s impression of common character between Abulafia’s Kabbalism and Llull’s approach to preaching Christianity to Muslims.

To the first set of questions, therefore, the answers are:

The first person to ever suggest connection between Lull and Kabbalah was Pico della Mirandola, in a non-specific simile proffered without evidence and for which no support has been found to this day.


2. Lull … and cipher. (specifically, polyalphabetic substitution ciphers).

In 1980, David Kahn claimed responsibility for this one. Wanting to provide a different explanation for how Alberti came to invent his cipher-wheel, and while disputing an earlier posited explanation, Kahn wrote:

Alberti himself never said where he got the idea for his epoch-making invention. … the significant feature of [Alberti’s] cipher disk [is] the juxtaposition of two [alphabetic] sequences…. I propose [as its source]  the mechanism devised by the medieval Catalan mystic Ramon Lull (c. 1232-1315) to combine letters, which stand for philosophical concepts, in groups of three. Although it cannot be proved that Lull’s device inspired Alberti, there are grounds for suspecting that it did.

  • David Kahn, ‘On the Origin of Polyalphabetic Substitution’, Isis , Mar., 1980, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1980), pp. 122-127.

  • Note – 9th Jan. 2022 – I apologise for not having earlier noticed that Kahn’s name had been ‘autocorrected’ to Khan.  

I’m not sure how grounds for supposing so can be judged if they don’t admit of proof, but here I want to make the point that each of the three links in that Lull-Kabbalah-cipher chain has been introduced by persons interested in cryptography, and not by persons adducing such a connection from their close study of Lull’s life and works nor (on the other side of the coin) of medieval Kabbalism. It’s a cipher-guy (or gal) thing.

If Kahn ever suggested that the Voynich text is the product of an Alberti-style polyalphabetic cipher, I’ve not seen the article, so if you know of his ever making such an argument, please leave a comment and reference below and I’ll add a note of correction here.

Readers uninterested in cryptography and unlikely to buy Kahn’s books, will find a Voynich-context discussion of polyalphabetic substitution ciphers in a post by Nick Pelling (2016) and if the reader is disinclined to follow the following link and read the post, with or without its 891 comments (yes, that is eight hundred and ninety-one), I’ll quote you just a couple of paragraphs from it.

Since the Voynich Manuscript surfaced in about 1912, many of the best-known codebreaking experts have studied its writing (‘Voynichese’) in depth. Of them, many have concluded that it was written using a cipher system that was (a) stronger than a simple (monoalphabetic) substitution cipher, yet (b) mathematically weaker than a polyalphabetic cipher.

If the University of Arizona’s 2009 radiocarbon dating of the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum (which points to the first half of the fifteenth century) is correct, the most likely reason for (b) becomes blindingly obvious: polyalphabetic ciphers (such as those of Leon Battista Alberti, Abbot Trithemius, and Vigenère) hadn’t yet been invented.

To which I’d add “… in Latin Europe, so far as we know.”

The history of cryptography is still a little old-fashioned; a bit ‘Europe-and-its-important-men’. On the other hand, statistical analyses are indifferent to nationality and vested interest in any theory, so it looks as if the chief contrary argument isn’t whether Alberti was old enough to have made Voynichese as a polyalphabetic cipher, but that the statistics don’t support the idea of the text – if it is enciphered – as either or both a product of Latin Europe and of Alberti’s system.

Simple alphabetic substitution ciphers had been known for not less than five centuries by the thirteenth century when Roger Bacon described that system. For Roger Bacon’s text and (again) John Block Friedman’s important article, it’s easiest to just start from this post:

With regard to documentation in Voynich studies, and the ludicrous obedience of Voynicheros to ‘rule by meme’ asserting that to refer to precedents and sources is ‘unnecessary’, here is a perfect example of why documentation defines ideas as legitimate or otherwise. Pesic’s perfectly enunciated lineage for the “Lull and ciphers” storyline is how I came to know of David Kahn’s paper, too.

In the remoter background also lies Ramon Llull’s ‘Ars inventiva veritatis’, his “art of finding truth” through the symbolic use of letters to stand for philosophical concepts. Leibniz was interested in Llull, whom David Kahn has proposed as the source for the idea of polyalphabetic substitution, especially in the form of Alberti’s cipher disks. See David Kahn, “On the Origin of Polyalphabetic Substitution,” Isis, 1980, 71:122-127; rpt. in Kahn on Codes (New York: Macmillan, 1983), pp. 56-61. For Leibniz’s reading of Llull see Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1966), pp. 379-389; and Allison P. Coudert, Leibniz and the Kabbalah (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1995), pp. 148-149, 153-154. Beyond Llull lies the kabbalistic Sefer Yezirah, the Book of Creation, which for Vigenère gave an account of the divine cipher immanent in the creation and which he thought also was the source of polyalphabetics. On the Sefer Yezirah (ca. third-sixth centuries) see Gershom G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Scholem, 1969),pp. 166-169.

  • Peter Pesic, ‘Secrets, Symbols, and Systems. Parallels between Cryptanalysis and Algebra, 1580-1700’, Isis, Vol. 88, No. 4 (December, 1997), pp. 674-692. **highly recommended.

You see the point?  Vigenère thought that a Kabbalistic text, Sefer Yezirah,  was the source of polyalphabetics.  David Kahn thought, on the contrary, that Alberti had the idea for his  polyalphabetic cipher wheel from Ramon Llull.

But cryptologists often show an excessive preoccupation with the requirements of their craft – that a text be composed as ‘plaintext’ and transmitted encrypted in a form to which the intended recipient has not only the key but the same standards with regard to spelling, grammar, and a single target language. 

Yet in the real world, as anyone may know who has lived in an international student house abroad, or in a multicultural and multilingual community at home – mixed terms and even mixed forms of writing are the norm, not the exception.  We learn new terms from the mouth of someone who uses his/her own language to express them and, more or less often, others simply adopt that term rather than hunting to find their own.  As the joke has it, the English speaker asks ‘What is the French for je ne sais quoi?’ Or: ‘… the Italian for chiaroscuro?’ Where does Yiddish fit, or any other among the dozens of ‘combinatorial’ languages.. Among them one might include English if it hadn’t been elevated to the status of a true language rather than a heterogeneous patois, part Latin, part Greek, part Gaelic, part.. well, you get the idea. The classic etymologies tell only half the story.

And so now, at last, we consider the addition of the Voynich manuscript to that lineage of passing impressions, false assumptions, tenuous and even plainly disproven connections, the basic compounding of speculation, ignorance and error.

After Voynichese was stirred into the mix, the result just sat simmering for half a century. Not even tested. Just left to sit there.  


Llull … and Voynichese 

It is likely that to re-present d’Imperio’s mentions of Lull other than entire will lead some to suspect it may be over- or under-emphasised so here they are, in full. I apologise for the horrible quality of the print.  Perhaps one day we’ll see the text re-typed and put it up as a digital text. 

d’Imperio’s Index in Elegant Enigma spells Llull’s name ‘Lull’. (If you don’t have a touch-screen, you can open the image below in a new tab).

d'Imperio Llull

Note: Llull was never a Franciscan nor, according to the latest update of the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, a Dominican.

For the other side of the coin – to show just how badly mangled information can become when ideas are presented without any lineage in the form of precedents and cited sources, here’s a writer who plainly never read Pesic’s paper, or many of the sources Pesic included in his note.

Sieburth is here discussing a poem written by Quirinus Kuhlmann, born in 1651 in  Breslau (Silesia) and  executed for heresy in 1689, in Moscow. 

 Kuhlmann’s sonnet is accordingly entirely made up of monosyllabic Stammwdrter (stem-words) ? nouns, adjectives, interjections all treated here like those primal Chinese ideograms that Leibniz thought could be manipulated into the perfect conceptual components of the combinatory machinery of symbolic logic ? an idea that reached back toward the ecstatic thirteenth-century Christian Kabbalah of the Catalan Ramon Llull.

Quirinus Kuhlmann and Richard Sieburth, ‘Love-Kiss XLI’, Poetry, Vol. 194, No. 1, (April 2009) pp. 13-16.

Oh dear..

Another paper I’d recommend to anyone interested in how this curious idea arose that Ramon Llull had anything to do with Beinecke MS 408, is: 

  • Janet Zweig, ‘Ars Combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer’, Art Journal, Vol. 56 (1977): Digital Reflections: The Dialogue of Art and Technology, No. 3,  pp. 20-29. Recommended.

My recommending Zweig’s paper comes with a caution.  Readers should take as it’s pivotal sentence,” Contemporary with Abulafia, and not far away, Ramon Llull was born ...” and so be able to appreciate the way Zweig separates a discussion of Abulafia’s Kabbalism from discussion of  Ramon Lull’s Christian thought.

To end, a pictorial cipher from an image  included in Pesic’s paper, This cipher is said to be in a volume held by the Beinecke Library, but I found no mention of it today, and as you’ll see, no shelf-number was provided.  I hope that, under the circumstances, the library will forgive my reproducing it.

stars celestial cipher from Persic Beinecke quarter


Could any reader who visits the be kind enough to refer them to Ellie Velinska for her study and data about how many figures in the ‘ladies’ folios are made to resemble men, and how many, women.  She did that work several years ago; I don’t think it needs to be re-done as if for the first time.

Similarly, the whole discussion, a present, of the ‘ladies’ having been given one breast each, and then at some unknown time a second breast, is another instance of the ‘groundhog day’ fog which results from denying ideas their proper lineage by refusing to cite precedents and contemporary studies, even ones  whose conclusions a given Voynich theorist may not like.  

There are a few old-timers at the forum and they will know this perfectly well the true origin of those ideas and who should be credited with having contributed them to Voynich studies. It matters not at all whether the matter is still ‘in print’ – if you know, you know. If you pretend not to know, you are lying by omission,

Pelling’s observation about the originally one-breasted figures (he calls them nymphs) was part of his interview in 2009 and was referenced again – for example  – in a ciphermysteries post dated June 29th., 2015. 

I won’t pretend that Pelling  and I have often agreed when it comes to iconological analysis of the images in Beinecke MS 408,  but his confidence in his own powers of observation is not wholly unjustified and in this case certainly his observation is an original and valuable contribution to the study.

I do, absolutely, accept his observation that the ‘ladies’ had originally a single breast.  Where Pelling and I differ is in the inference drawn from that fact. About others of his comments in the same blogpost I’ll not comment here. 

But see:

What magic? Where magic? 3a: The Friedmans.

Two prior posts

Header:  portraits of William and Elizebeth Friedman (courtesy George C. Marshall Foundation);  magical alphabets (courtesy of Omniglot).


I’ll start by correcting one of my own errors, with thanks to a generous friend who took the trouble to remind me that the ‘Germanic/central European’ idea predates its adoption by Prinke and Zandbergen. It is easiest if I quote his letter. He prefers to remain anonymous.

it is true they  revived it in the first mailing list after it was pretty much a ‘dead letter’ but there is Charles Singer’s ‘feeling’ in 1957; E. Friedman said – no clue why – it was a probable [idea], though that wouldn’t mean it survived necessarily. Robert S. Brumbaugh kept it going in the 1960s or ’70s. He was professor of classical philosophy like Newbold. Like Newbold, settled on a ‘cipher solution’.  I guess the reason  Brumbaugh wasn’t so badly dumped on is Yale held both [ms. and Prof. Brumbaugh] pretty safe  and Y’s-B librarians seem to [have] been super-deferential to Brumbaugh.  The Beinecke site  repeating Brumbaugh’s ideas  for ‘introduction’ even after his death and years [bolded] after the radiocarbon range came out  still talking about ‘sixteenth or seventeenth century’ dating for the ms.  No reason given. Just embarrassing to read.

If I recall right, Singer’s feelings etc. were main basis for it. P&Z didn’t adopt it till late in the ’90s. I’m not sure you could say there is really a ‘P&Z theory’, because no one ever defines what it means, or its limits; no one defends it –  just by flying at anyone doubting it.  Definitions shifty as a Maine fog..

Tried to see if there was anything solid to him [Brumbaugh] acting like he had skills  to pronounce about manuscripts, drawings, codicology, palaeography or anything else like that. Found nothing. Have you tried – any better info? [no –  D]

Can’t believe all Yale conservators believed B’s ideas, but if not why let readers be sent off in wrong directions? Just sayin’.

Bottom line anyway, D., is you’re wrong about it starting with P&Z.   ‘Germanic theory’ has to start with Singer Charles at least his ‘feelings’. I’d  guess the thought would have died before 1980s, then Brumbaugh kept it above ground. When he died, along came P&Z with a writ for theory’s life-support. ha-ha. So it’s still here.  

All the above is one person’s opinion. Of course  I’m grateful for the correction and will call it  the ‘Germanic-central European’ theory from now on.

Here’s where d’Imperio mentions Charles Singer’s “feeling”. If you don’t have a smart screen, open it in a new tab.

Singer's vague feeling German clip p.7


Lynn ThorndikeThe previous post ended with the letter that Lynn Thorndike wrote to Scientific American in June of 1921 and about which, as I said, some less obvious aspects are even more interesting than what Thorndike actually says in it.

He made three points, two stated outright and one implied. 

First, he pointed out that there was no  evidence that Roger Bacon had been given to writing in cipher. Thorndike had closely studied Bacon’s works in manuscript copies and knew what he was talking about.

Secondly, he said that  [even accepting Newbold’s categories for the manuscript’s sections, just for argument’s sake] –  there was no reason to assert that Roger Bacon was the only possible author. 

Thorndike’s third point was implied, but serves the same argument against Wilfrid’s “Roger Bacon scientific ciphertext” story – namely, anyone tempted to believe that the manuscript’s content was ‘science or pseudo-science’ could –  perhaps should–  then test the idea against the evidence of those tens of thousands of manuscripts treating such matters that were held in the British libraries alone.*  He implies, too, that such persons might also consider his own forthcoming study.  When issued in print in 1923, that first volume would contain 835 printed pages and a late-added sentence on this same ‘Bacon wrote in cipher’ myth. 

*Each of Thorndike’s volumes includes a list of referenced manuscripts. His own studies were not limited to British collections. 
  • Lynn Thorndike, The History of Magic and Experimental Science  Vol.1. pp 766-767.

But the really interesting thing about Thorndike’s letter is something else again.

With Thorndike being, at that time, the pre-eminent specialist in the history of medieval magic, sciences and pseudo-sciences – including astrology and alchemy – you’d think that if he could have done so, he would have happily destroyed that ‘Roger Bacon ciphertext’ idea more efficiently.

All he had to do was to point to some other securely provenanced and dated manuscript, from some time and region other than Bacon’s, and show positively that the other manuscript’s diagrams, script or drawings were very closely similar in structure, form, stylistics and intention to something in the Voynich manuscript.

So long as the comparison was of substance, not superficial appearance, and was accurate, that would have been enough to disprove Wilfrid’s imaginative scenario.

Yet Thorndike never did, so far as I can discover.

For a scholar having Thorndike’s level of scholarship and expertise, who had the necessary languages and who had already spent years in close study of a particular class of European manuscripts, it would not be difficult to say of a manuscript, “these month-diagrams (or plant-drawings, or containers) look like versions of text x produced in time y within region z‘.  Professionals and scholars did the equivalent every day[within their own particular area of specialist studies – clarification added 16June].   By 1921, just as Thorndike says, tens of thousands of manuscripts in British libraries had already been catalogued and accurately described.  Only a small percentage of those tens of thousands which were acquired by the British Museum, and which are now accommodated at the British Library have needed their first description and dating corrected –   and as a rule it is place, rather than date, that has needed correction.*

* see for example, Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 821, acquired and catalgued in 1840 –  yes, 1840.   On the older website  ‘British Illuminated Manuscripts’ it is described as German, but in the light of recent research the newer site ‘British Library Digitised manuscripts’ corrects the record to ‘Southern France’. The dating stands.

So Thorndike’s silence is a resounding silence.   It is like that silence from Panofsky in 1932 or the silence underlying Tiltman’s comments* of 1968.

*quoted in next post.

While Thorndike might accept that the manuscript’s appearance was compatible with Wilfrid’s  suggested thirteenth-century English provenance, the manuscript’s content apparently found no comparison in his experience. If this inference is correct, then in Thorndike we have yet another instance of a genuinely qualified and eminent specialist saying – overtly or tacitly – “Not one of mine”. (See earlier post ).

Public discourse versus ‘national secrets’.

National Seecurity cleared d'Imperio Elegant 1978

At first it was only within the secretive environment of  Friedmans’   ‘national security’ project, during in the fevered years of McCarthy’s witch-hunt for ‘communists’ that  an idea of the Voynich manuscript’s containing  occult matter would be entertained and then mushroom until it had plainly become an idée fixe for William Friedman and his wife Elizebeth. Since they determined the limits and direction taken by their several different ‘study groups’, their fixation drove research and is thus embodied in Mary d’Imperio’s summary of the Friedmans’ – ultimately failed – efforts to ‘break the text’.

However it would not be until that summary was released in 1979 by the NSA  (established in 1952 within the Department of Defense) before that the inherently anachronistic notion could begin to affect a  wider public, and so become in time another unfounded ‘Voynich doctrine’.  As my correspondent rightly says, apart from the Friedmans, the other two driving influences were Robert S. Brumbaugh and the Beinecke librarians of half a century ago. [typo corrected and link added 16th June 2021]

DDC approval D'Imperio Voynich
d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, cleared for release by the NSA June 1979

It is easily forgotten that this idea of ‘magic and occult’ did not affect discussion of the manuscript until the 1970s.  From 1944 until that time, it was only within William Friedman’s circle that attention would shift from the first part of Wilfrid’s romantic tale to the second phase with its insertion of John Dee into the narrative. 

Roger Bacon died in c.1280 and Dee was not born until 1527. 

In the usual way, no one would suggest that a manuscript  not incompatible with a thirteenth- or fourteenth century date could include matter proper to the seventeenth, and neither  Wilfrid nor Newbold did.  But the Friedmans did, and the ‘occult’ idea was always anachronistic – as it still is – and was always tied to a peculiar set of unfounded ideas, centred on some fantasy-figure invariably imagined as a white Christian male, a member of the elite, usually one whose natural environment was a royal court,  whose interests were arcane and whose name, invariably, was presumed recorded in extant historical documents.   

Nothing about the manuscript – not the quality of its vellum, the organisation or layout of the page, and not even the binding offers support for ideas that kind. (Which is why, incidentally, any description of the scribal hands as ‘humanist’ begs a great many questions, given the radiocarbon range of 1404-1438).

There was no check on the Friedmans’ pursuing the idea because they acted independent of, and largely indifferent to, opinions from the best qualified and most experienced specialists – whether in Thorndike’s field of study, or in historical studies, art history or any of the disciplines that enabled a manuscript made in medieval Europe to be accurately dated and placed.

Indeed, when it comes to Thorndike,  the Friedmans did not just ignore him and his work – they positively ‘blanked’ both. And their attitude is found reflected in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – of which, more later

Bacon and Rubruk LUTZFor the rest of the world,  completely unaware of what the Friedmans were doing and who they were, the manuscript mostly continued to be supposed English and the written text ‘A Roger Bacon ciphertext’, as we see from entries in Jim Reeds’ ‘Voynich Bibliography’.

Nor was the general public  much interested in the idea of Roger Bacon as someone involved in magic, its theory or its practice.  

True, Wilfrid had embedded John Dee into his sales’ pitch and Newbold injected an air of mystery and magic into his talk to the Surgeons of Philadelphia in 1921, but the public weren’t buying it – not in the literal or in the metaphorical sense. Edward Lutz’ paper of 1936 is a good example of how even earnest efforts to write an objective account of Bacon’s life and works included, with solid information, much  romanticised history, imagination and credulity toward claims made by both Wilfrid and Newbold.

  • Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (June, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82. The image shown above, left is from Lutz’ paper.

It’s not difficult to understand why most people of that time rejected the ‘magical’ theme. 

Not only the public at large but  many contemporary scholars conceived of Roger Bacon as a ‘scientist before his time’ a little as if he’d been an earlier, and English version of Leonardo da Vinci. (Many Germans attempted to elevate Albertus of Lauingen in exactly the same way). 

Reverence for Science  (with a capital ‘s’) was never higher than during the first half of the twentieth century, and the Scientist was imagined some paragon of rationality, while believers of magic were relegated to an opposite extreme.   Only the few who had actually studied medieval writings understood that the line was not so clearly drawn in the days of Roger Bacon or, come to that, of Albertus.

So the popular, idealised view of Bacon could not be reconciled with notions of his being a ‘magician’ and  in discussions of the Voynich manuscript never took hold beyond an occasional mention of astrology or alchemy with a very very small ‘a’. To give you a sense of the times, here is a paragraph from Lutz’ paper.

Alchemy for Bacon formed merely the stepping stone to the higher science of chemistry, and so he correctly evaluated  the former’s worth. Hence, his comprehensive mind having grasped all the rudiments of the subject [i.e  alchemy’s technical skills] , Roger drafted principles of action whereby he employed the knowledge of those before him in his own inimitable way to arrive at many new discoveries…. Besides the ordinary metals known to the ancients Friar Roger appears to have isolated quite a few of the rarer elements; for in his writings have been found the formulae for extracting phosphorus, manganese, bismuth, and others from their compounds.

Lutz, op.cit. p.49.


Friedmans and his ‘teams’.

American shaggy mushroom

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002


There is a reason why ‘team spirit’ and group-work is associated chiefly with government organisations, the military, with commercial corporations,  and with sports. 

All are inclined to frame their purpose in terms of an  ‘us’ against ‘them’.  The very concept of the ‘team’ begins by assuming unity of attitude and purpose, and then actively promotes those ideas within the group’s members, the aim being to defeat the supposedly inferior – or even nefarious – aims of “the others”.

No matter how acute a thinker any individual within a ‘team’ may be, the ‘team’ itself is an inherently anti-intellectual structure.   At its worst it serves up less-than-truthful propaganda, or forms into a ‘think-tank’ whose charter is to fake, distort or misrepresent objective technical information to facilitate  particular commercial or other forms of exploitation.. and so forth.

Scholars having already achieved eminence in one of the critical sciences (as distinct from the pragmatic sciences) are inclined to resist pressure placed on them – no matter how subtlely – to become ‘team players’ in any situation short of war.   

In normal situations, scholars may confer; they may contribute to the organisation of a seminar, or to the production of collected studies, but in the last analysis a scholar whose profession has already recognised the quality of his or her work wants to work and think without intellectual- or social pressure exterted on them  to go along with some ‘median line’.

Error remains error no matter how many hands go up signalling assent to it.  One cannot ‘vote’ for an idea to become a fact.  Scholarly consensus doesn’t work that way.  

Let me put it more mildly by quoting a comment from ‘Sir Hubert’ at Nick Pelling’s blog:

.. breaking ciphers is all about testing hypotheses and finding *the* consistent solution, of which there will be only one. Historical research doesn’t admit of one neat solution and works very differently.

“SirHubert” ( comment to Ciphermysteries, December 10, 2013.

The Friedmans formed a team of two.  Those who came for a shorter or for a longer period worked at their direction and along the lines which Friedman decided, and decided without much effort to learn anything more about medieval history, manuscripts, codicology, palaeography.. or even medieval and later magic in Europe. As we shall see.


Lynn ThorndikeThe first volume of Lynn Thorndike’s great study  appeared in print in 1923. HIs eighth and final volume, covering the seventeenth century, was published in 1958.

It represented the first comprehensive. scholarly study of these matters in English, and was for decades the only substantial reference work for an English speaking public.

As you see from the illustration (below), the whole series covers a period from long before Bacon’s birth (c.1219 AD)  until after Rudolf’s death in 1522. 

Thorndike volumes


You might think, then, when noting the large proportion of d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma that is assigned to occult and magical matter,  that a great many mentions of Thorndike would be found within.  After all, he was in America, as they were, and was someone against whom, between 1944 and 1958,  an hypothesis about ‘magical matter’ could be checked to see if it accorded with the facts and documents of history.  After 1958, there was his magnum opus against which a theory the Friedmans had adopted could be checked in the same way.

You might think so  – but it isn’t so.  Thorndike is spared just a few sporadic sentences. 

from: Elegant Enigma –  ‘Table of Contents’

d'Imperio section 8

d'Imperio sections 9 & 10

If that fact is startling, their  tone  is still more disconcerting: 

Thorndike has, with characteristic emphasis, stated his opinion that “There is hardly one chance in fifty that Roger Bacon had any connection with the production of the Voynich manuscript.” (quoting a paper of 1929)…. p.6

Thorndike’s debunking of Bacon seems to be a shade more savage and thoroughgoing, doubtless as an over-reaction [sic] to the effusive and misplaced adulation of Bacon by some earlier writers…. p.50.

Thorndike .. characterises Ars Notoria as an art designed to gain knowledge of, and to communicate with God by the invocation of angels, unsung mystical characters and prayers; he also dismisses all the material as “meaningless jumbles of diagrams and magic words” without telling us much more about it. … p.59

Thorndike (1923-58) discusses alchemy in passing as he describes the writings of various ancient and medieval practitioners. (p.60)

The dismissive and faintly derogatory tone of these remarks makes them worse than actually incorrect, or an insult to the man, but wrong in the worst way.  It is almost enough to make the present writer resort to fiction, too, because I can almost see Willian Friedman, while still working on his initial ‘Bacon ciphertext’ premise, flicking through the first volume of Thorndike’s History… looking for ‘sets of alphabets or something’ which can be conveniently transferred to computer punch-cards and finding nothing so facile, tossing the book away with a supercilious expression and some sneering comment.

From time to time, d’Imperio gives us such a glimpse of the way in which the Friedmans had an excessive idea of their own importance and expressed it by denigrating specialists in all intellectual disciplines, save the practice of cryptography.

Before illustrating that fact, I want to explain its importance – that their inability to recognise the value of other areas of knowledge meant that their range of external checks for any idea about the manuscript’s date and evident character was very small, desultory and curiously ignorant of relative weight – that is, of whose opinion was worthy or greater or less attention, of whether a subject needed them to devote more, or less, time to learning about it before incorporating it into some theory or other.  As one looks down the list of those who are mentioned approvingly in d’Imperio’s summary of the Friedmans’ failed efforts to ‘break the text’, a pattern does emerge.  Greater weight is given the opinion of anyone who is willing to lend support to some idea which Friedman finds attractive and correspondingly less to those who cannot concur with his views.

Thus, Singer whose ability to judge a manuscript was far inferior to that of Panofsky or Thorndike, is given great weight, and no effort is made to use genuinely expert opinions to ascertain whether Singer’s “renaissance Germanic occult” notion is compatible with the palaeographic, codicological or iconographic evidence, or even with Thorndike’s information about the history of magic and pseudo-science.  The push was simply towards hunting evidence for the theory – never a balanced idea of its relevance to the manuscript.   Thus, the entire construction of the ‘Germanic-and-occult’ narrative is based on not much more than Wilfrid’s imaginative tale, Singer’s poor attempt to date and place the manuscript, and Friedman’s liking the idea while being over-confident about the superiority of his own opinions over all academic scholarship.

d'Imperiod’Imperio herself, though her writing usually suggests a person of calm, balanced and orderly mind, bursts out occasionally with the most astonishing, ill-founded ideas.  It was in that atmosphere that the ‘occult Voynich’ notion flourished, moved well beyond any reasonable chronological boundary, and would become inextricably, if inexplicably, linked to a ‘Germanic’ theory.

The very persons and sources that might have prevented Friedman from such irrational theories were unable to do so by reason of the fact that they offered him contradiction, and Friedman’s self-importance would not allow him to accept correction from anyone but – occasionally – John Tiltman.

We have seen how Friedman acted with regard to Professor Panofsky, and how the Friedmans reacted when an academic board advised them the manuscript’s content was unlikely to be of any importance.  Again, there are those few, cursory, dismissive references to Thorndike, and the cavalier way in which Fr. Theodore Petersen’s work was mistreated. The following passage was quoted in an earlier post but I include it again to show that not only Friedman himself behaved in that irrational way, but his attitude came to infect the team.  It is especially uncomfortable to have this from d’Imperio.  

The manuscript probably contains only trivia”, the board said.

to which d’Imperio adds, with sneering air-quotes, the following extraordinary farrago of baseless assertion, speculation and sheer fantasy. It is not clear the degree to which she is relaying Elizebeth Friedman’s views.

I must confess that I can see little justice in the reasoning of those “academics”… who dismiss the Voynich manuscript out of hand, after what can only be the most superficial attention. Even if it is, in fact, a fabrication … associated with the court of Rudolph II, an understanding of who wrote it, its passage from one to another of Rudolph’s familiars and the part it played in the remarkable congeries of religious and political activities at Prague in those times could prove to be of great interest. .. If the manuscript is a compilation , however “deranged” or idiosyncratic …drawn from earlier magical, alchemical, or medical works, it has at least as much intrinsic interest and “scientific’ import for the history of Western thought as do other similar manuscripts which are readable, and concern only one topic [i.e.. they are either astrological or alchemical or medical]. Reputable scholars apparently see no waste of time in studying “plaintext” manuscripts of this type and may spend much of their lives so occupied”.

For the notion that the manuscript is about astrology, alchemy or medicine there is, to the time of writing, no proven basis in fact.

Not one of those ideas has ever been introduced as an end-result of concerted and formal investigation of either the images or the written text. Every one of them is an assumption for which the underlying premise is that in some way or other the manuscript will be a flawed copy of some ‘normal’ Latin European text.

For that assumption there is no  basis established either though the idea has been constantly assumed since 1912.

Another instance of that astounding loss of proportion occurs after d’Imperio has related, as if they were of equal weight, opinions expressed by various people about the manuscript’s drawings.  She then says:

In sum: it appears as if no one has made or documented a really careful and systematic attempt to contrast and compare the style of the Voynich manuscript  drawings to other manuscripts of various origins and dates such as could answer some of our questions.

*a five-seconds’ pause*

Did she never ask herself – “Why on earth should they go to such lengths to answer some of our questions?”

The manuscript was Friedman’s project.  Even among the first lot of military cryptographers, some wanted nothing to do with it, as Jim Reeds relates.

Writing in 1994, Reeds says of Friedman’s  “first study group”[FSG] which operated from 1944-46:

Frank Lewis re Friedman and FSG VoynichAt the end of the war, the Army cryptanalysts headed by Friedman found themselves without any pressing tasks. Many were simply awaiting demobilization and return to their universities and civilian practices. Friedman took advantage of their momentarily free time and talent by organizing an effort to work on the Voynich problem. The group studied the available scholarly material, [sic!] discussed hypotheses, transcribed the VMS onto IBM cards, and disbanded. …It is known that Frank Lewis .. and Martin Joos … were in the right place at the right time to have been part of the FSG but Lewis was not attracted to the Voynich problem and Joos thought Friedman’s approach was misguided, so neither participated.

  • [pdf] Jim Reeds, ‘William F. Friedman’s Transcription of the Voynich Manuscript’ (1994). Frank Lewis assisted in breaking Soviet ciphers, as part of the ‘Venona’ project aimed at identifying active soviet agents. 

To imagine, in the 1950s, that someone like Panofsky, or even Singer, should set aside their own professional research and duties to undertake so massive a task as is implied by d’Imperio – and  merely to provide Friedman with pre-digested ‘answers’ for his often embarrassingly ignorant questions –  is beyond mere cheek. 

The best excuse I can suggest for d’Imperio is that her own ignorance prevented her being able to so much as imagine what such a task would entail. Perhaps the easiest way to make the point is by the reciprocal: it is as if Panofsky has expected Friedman to produce a translation of the written text within a fortnight so he could write a full explanation of the text’s images, their origin and purpose.

It’s no exaggeration to say that one might make an entire doctoral dissertation on the practical and philosophical  implications  of  “comparing and contrasting drawings in manuscripts of various origins and dates” .

Comparative studies are the life-work of those who specialise in this fairly small and difficult branch of iconological studies, and most who do, work for private clients and do not publish their professional research. 

I will say that such work  involves a great deal more than looking at pictures with a ‘pick the similarities’ attitude, because what is actually being compared are the things about which different peoples make pictures – they give form to their unique culture, embody in the picture ideas from proverbial sayings, religious beliefs, ideas about the heavens and earth, their oral and written literature, their tribal heritage, and memories of times so long ago that western culture cannot grasp such constancy. They make pictures from their own practical lore, including that about plants or stars.. and more. So too did medieval Latins, but since so much of that culture remains in modern western Christian society, the way of interpreting pictures from that environment seems ‘natural’ and easy to modern Europeans and, thanks to the colonial period, to much of the world where it was never natural. 

But at least d’Imperio understood that to ‘contrast’ is as important as to ‘compare’. Today,  even Kindergarten children learn how to ‘compare and contrast’ – it’s part of pre-literacy education, but for some inexplicable reason, it has never been part of, so to say, ‘Voynich studies 101’. In practice, it’s the ‘contrast’ phase which produces the most valuable information. 

  And Friedman himself was never interested in hearing  ‘unlike’ from  the historical record or as others’ opinions. Knowing that the number, and range, of those asked to submit ‘answers’ to Friedman was not only small, but were curiously ranked by the Friedmans and thus by d’Imperio, and the written sources were so summarily treated, it becomes easier to understand how Elegant Enigma came to contain  so many statements patently untrue and so many and various tyro-nian errors.

Take that reference to ‘Ars notoria’, for example.

[the] Ars notoria

frontispiece Ars nortoria Agrippa's interpretationd’Imperio says Thorndike had ‘nothing much to say’ about [the] Ars notoria, but he refers to it in many places, such as when speaking of Fontana in Vol.4, where his footnote reads, 

   “On the ars notoria and the sacred characters [see] ibid 17r, 99v, 73r.”

His reference is to the 1544 edition of a specific text (S. Marco VIII, 72 {Valentinelli XI, 93). 


  • Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic…  Vol.4 [Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries] p.169 n.99. (1934). 

If the Friedmans’ indifference to ‘external checks’ had been less pronounced, then even if they could spare no-one to travel to Europe to check that precise source, any  enquiry directed to, say,  a university library, the Library of Congress, or the British Library would have informed them that an English translation had been made of Cornelius Agrippa’s work of that name and had been published in 1657, by Robert Turner. Turner’s translation is not in d’Imperio’s bibliography, but the 1651 translation of Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy is. That translator, John French, is advertised as .. well, see for yourself.

Agrippa frontispiece for John French's translation of 1651

The content of Agrippa’s Ars Notoria is, indeed, much as Thorndike said.

Any reader here who likes to verify information may like to know that there online a fine transcription of that English translation, created by Benjamin Rowe who has offered it without charge as a pdf.

Of course one understands that as Friedman’s frustrations grew, he began pushing the chronological boundaries beyond the reasonable, towards a period when Latin Europe used ciphers of sufficient complexity to (as he hoped) equal the text’s intransigence, and similarly frustrated by the absence of any expert’s suggestion of a ‘similar’ manuscript to provide a way in, Friedman also moved his focus from the first, to the second phase of Wilfrid’s marvellous romance the age of Dee and occultism.

But Friedman’s ‘occult’ theory was always anachronistic, as you see from d’Imperio’s Table of Contents.  It was always focused on the sixteenth century and later, and on  preoccupations of the Renaissance elites.  Biography  becomes  central preoccupation of that theory, and among its string of unfounded premises and ‘logical’ extrapolations from baseless premises is an  assumption – often expressed as Wilfrid-style assertion –  that the whole content of the Voynich manuscript must be matter likely to have interested to some wealthy, white Christian male whose natural environment was an elegant circle of literati, of royal or of imperial persons sharing occult knowledge. We may blame Wilfrid for the notion’s genesis, but Friedman sowed the whole farm with it, and the present generation – thanks to Elegant Enigma, Brumbaugh and, yes, the Beinecke  – is still trying to pretend his cockles are corn.

In the next post, I’ll consider a couple of instances where we see a ‘break-though’ almost occur in Tiltman and in d’Imperio.  In Part 4 I’ll consider Brumbaugh’s ideas and the Beinecke library’s adoption of a Friedman-Brumbaugh ‘occult voynich’ theory as part of their official description for the manuscript. 

There is no issue about a cryptographer’s thinking up an hypothesis, and then testing it,  but at some stage s/he must ensure the theory has some anchor in the realities of history and the testimony offered by the object under study.  In this case, the reality is  that nothing about the manuscript ever justified the ideas related (see above) by d’Imperio. Not the materials, nor the binding, nor the quality of the vellum nor (for the most part) the pigments justify a date later than the radiocarbon range of 1404-1438.

Till next time, you might think on the following, because the second part of this judgement still holds, fifty years later.

Professor Panoffsky [sic.] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and [that] the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

  • John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10. (link in Cumulative Bibliography page)

Tiltman paper released by NSA 2002

or in the words of Patrick Lockerby, writing before the radiocarbon range was published:

My dating of the manuscript is 1350 to 1450. From that perspective, whatever happened .. after 1450 is of no relevance in formulating any theory about the Voynich ms.

Patrick never pretended expertise in codicology, palaeography or iconological analysis, but his judgment wasn’t bad, was it?


What magic? Where magic? Imposition of the occult Pt2 -Newbold

Two previous posts:
Header image: (detail) MS Yates Thompson 13, f.68. Third quarter of the fourteenth century. A caption in Anglo-Norman French reads, ‘I begin the ladies’ game’.

Shortlink to this post.


What magic?

Although ‘natural philosophy’ may be taken by a modern writer* as a description of magical attitudes, that equation does not apply to the perceptions of people who lived in Latin Europe during the thirteenth- to fifteenth centuries.

*e.g. introductory sentences in Sébastien Moureau, ‘Physics in the twelfth century: the ‘Porta Elementorum’ of PseudoAvicenna’s alchemical “de anima” and Marius’ “de elementis”, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age, Vol. 80 (2013), pp. 147-222.

Since we know now that MS Beinecke 408 cannot be an autograph by Roger Bacon, or even written to his direct dictation, so the revisionist is obliged to set aside not only the idea of the manuscript as a ‘Bacon autograph’ but also the string of  extrapolations derived from that premise – a premise based on nothing more than assessment of the materials and drawings as characteristic of the “third quarter of the thirteenth century” – as Wilfrid himself tells us. The rest was speculation on speculation.

Yet even now, when the ‘Bacon autograph’ idea has been ditched, many of the same extrapolations from it continue to be maintained by Voynich writers, including not just vague assertions of ‘magic’ but ideas developed without reference to the manuscript’s content. (For example the ‘European alchemy’ theory, which specialists in the history and imagery of western alchemical texts have dismissed already – but more of that in a  later post). 

In my opinion, the ‘occult’ notion is among those ‘Bacon ciphertext’ residues. I’ve yet to see it set forth in the usual way of scholarly argument, or even argued rather than asserted, or seen it supported by any material of the range and balance normally part of a reasoned argument from the body of material, historical and scholarly evidence to a conclusion.  

Full disclosure

The present author accidentally revived the ‘alchemy’ idea in 2011, after the opinion of a specialist and the radiocarbon dating had seen it ‘killed off’.  The revival was due to a post in which I was explaining the methodical design, and the subject of  one of the plant-drawings. My article never suggested that the ‘alchemy’ involved  was the highly elaborate and arcane style of European alchemists working the fifteenth century and later. Rather, I spoke of the double-gourd motif in that drawing as an allusion to distillation,  a motif and mnemonic added to the drawing of a plant which I did identify and whose only recorded use before the fifteenth century  had been in perfumery. I found no evidence of its having been employed at all in continental Europe, though the historical records of trade between east and west allow the possibility that, as well as importing the finished perfumes (manufactured from eastern plants in medieval Cairo during most of the medieval period), some centres in Sicily or in eastern Spain *may* have imported  raw ingredients for local manufacture. The trade in eastern plants as ‘spices’ is well-documented through the medieval centuries and shows especially good access into England for plants from as far as the south China sea. 
That plant identification in which I mentioned ‘alchemy’ as distillation was one of several dozen plant identifications which I made by recognising the consistently-applied informing system of the botanical drawings’ construction, and each observation was, as ever, tested against the historical record and cross-referenced against previous investigation of other sections in the manuscript. Where I found I could not offer a comprehensive explanation for a drawing, from lack of historical documentation or for any other reason, I did not attempt to offer it as an hypothetical one. I consider ‘guesses’  like superficial  picture-comparisons, unlikely to be of any positive  value and in fact a definite hindrance to the work of those labouring to understand the manuscript’s written text.   I do note that another Voynich writer then adopted the *idea* of perfumes and made an entire theory from it, one which I do not consider justified by the primary document.  The same is true of efforts made to imitate my exposition of the map while skewing the result to suit one or another variant of “all Latin European” hypothesis.
Of those subsequent efforts, but certainly not of my own, you may find acknowledgement of the author provided with matter taken up by Rene Zandbergen for inclusion in his website. Zandbergen’s attitude to others’ work has  in the past caused difficulties for my publisher and ultimately led to my shutting down from public readers all the research I had published online and to make no more available to researchers in that way.  I now regret having made any exception for posts here about the month-folios, even though I included only the barest minimum of titles from my research materials. 
Overall, however, my conclusion (supported as ever by the ordinary routine of testing against historical data, both documents and artefacts) was that a majority of the botanical drawings depict plants native to the maritime ‘silk routes’ and that images are constructed as ‘plant-groups’ defined by the constituent plants’ equivalent or complementary uses, the actual  ‘group’ depicted in each image being defined by terms for  ‘classes’ that are not the classes of modern botany, but which are attested in records of the medieval Yemen and in documents from the Cairo geniza. The article which mentioned ‘alchemy’ was of course presented with the most important of my primary and secondary scholarly sources too.
Knowing that my conclusions would be likely to cause uproar and outrage in the ‘Voynich community’ (as was indeed the case, since many could not understand what I meant by ‘conclusions of research’ and presumed that my commentaries were imaginative or hypothetical), I was glad to learn that John Tiltman had earlier sensed that some sort of ‘composite’ approach influenced the construction of at least some of the botanical images. 
Overall, after analysis and research into each of the sections in turn, and having completed the first analysis of the map (whose purpose until then had only elicited a couple of desultory comments in the history of this study),  was that the present manuscript (Beinecke MS 408) was compiled by meticulous copying of several distinct exemplars in which had been contained still older material, much of it Hellenistic in origin, though I gave it as my opinion before the radiocarbon dating was published that the nearest exemplars should be dated to about or before the mid-thirteenth century and to not later than c.1330.
I concluded, further, that the whole compilation as we have it in the fifteenth-century manuscript, constitutes a trader’s manual, though with the caveat that is not impossible  its description of the ‘ways east’ with routes and goods might have made the material useful to one of the missionary orders, among whom the most prominent order during the ‘Mongol century’ was the Franciscan order.
I do not find the idea impossible, then, that Roger Bacon might have owned one or more of the exemplars, but the possibility does not admit of proof, since I find nothing in the primary document to connect it or any of the contained matter directly to him.
While certain adherents of the  Prinke-Zandbergen ‘Germanic/central European’ theory have actively suppressed both research and researchers withholding their assent from it, I  remain more inclined to  Panofsky’s first assessment of the manuscript’s making, as  “Spain or somewhere southern”, though I do not deny the considerable evidence of Anglo-French influence in the manuscript’s late additions, exclusive of the post-production marginalia, because the latter  was then to be found throughout much of the coastal western Mediterranean. The historical picture is made more complex by the entanglements of peripatetic occupations, trade and of social and cultural dislocation which make simple definitions of ‘nationality’ historically inappropriate for the time.  One may, however, trace the link through the ‘Norman-Anglo-French’ areas from as far as the heel of Italy, including Sicily, then via the Italian peninsula, through France to as far as London in one direction by land and through the Mediterranean ports from Sicily through Spain to London and Antwerp or Bruges by sea. To this late phase of the content’s evolution I assign the month-folios’ central emblems, the inscription of the month-names, and certain other details.    Sailing north to Constantinople and the Black Sea and thence disembarking and travelling overland to as far as China was part of the great circular east-west ‘road’ and using the overland route was not as remarkable a feat as might be imagined, especially during the period of the ‘Pax mongolica’, though even then the proportion of Latins to other peoples was very small.  Contact was more usually through trading ports of the Black Sea and principally Caffa and Trebizond during the period of interest.
Constantinople is included, specifically, in the Voynich map but it is to what had once been the eastern limits of Alexander’s empire on those overland ‘high roads’ that I ascribe preservation of the Hellenistic material which forms the earliest chronological stratum displayed in drawings from some sections – primarily the astronomical and ‘ladies’ sections.  I should mention, too, that a number of people whose research interest was in the written text also looked to that same northern line, and to the same ‘Mongol’ period in discussing the probable language informing the manuscript’s written text.   Most of that research and/or opinion was  determinedly ‘eliminated’ from public conversations and forums, more often by sneer-smear campaigns and mindless, if catchy ‘memes’ than by careful and informed argument, and the work of those people is still consistently omitted or misrepresented in web-based accounts of the manuscript and what is believed about it. 
I hope in later posts to re-present for your consideration a few of those ‘dismissed’  opinions and studies, especially – but not only – when they were not just theoretical narratives but were supported by  evidence, data, and specialists’ opinion.

‘Bacon wrote it’

The ‘Bacon autograph’ idea should have been dismissed very early. Here is one of the few remaining samples of his hand, from his letter to Pope Clement IV, written in 1267.

script Letter Roger Bacon to Pope Clement

It can demand real effort for any Voynich researcher to keep focus firmly on the manuscript as the object of their study. The myriad will-o’-the wisps we call ‘Voynich theories’ are so much easier to understand than is the primary document and those published online are too often presented in a way aimed more at eliciting personal faith in the theorist than at setting fairly before the reader the precedents, documents and studies from which any historical and material theory about the object is normally expected to emerge.

“Just believe me” is the essence of the Wilfrid method.

In theory, of course it is possible that some part of the written text may one day be found to include ‘magical’ material or matter from one of Roger Bacon’s works – or indeed from any other text of any time or provenance up until 1440 – but to first assert an impression, and then focus solely on hunting circumstantial evidence for it is to neglect the fox for the rabbit. The aim of research should surely be the better understanding of this manuscript, not the public’s better understanding of an ‘idea’ spun about it.

Voynich studies is so plagued by that kind of ‘hare coursing’, and researchers so constantly distracted into hunting only for circumstantial support for one or another unfounded or ill-founded theory that (saving a few connected to the Beinecke library) scarcely a specialist in any relevant field will now let their name be associated with the manuscript, and those who have done in the past have often found the experience unpleasant. Theorists become over-attached to their visions of an imaginative past and a ‘theoretical’ version of the manuscript.

Wilfrid Voynich did not say that Roger Bacon practiced or wrote about magic, but his fantastic and undocumented ‘chain of ownership’ story, together with his impossible back-projection of seventeenth century Bohemian preoccupations onto a thirteenth-century English Franciscan friar had – and still has among the arch-traditionalists – a lasting influence.

Again – and still speaking generally – there is a good chance that the Voynich text contains something one might call ‘magical’, because scarcely a text produced anywhere in Europe or the wider Mediterranean before 1440 contains nothing that someone or other mightn’t regard as ‘magical thinking’.

Definitions of ‘magic’ vary and the word has been applied to everything from ordinary religious practices to classic necromancy. Perception of where a given item belongs in the spectrum of ‘not-magic’ to ‘really, really magic’ comes down to personal expectations – to when and where you happen to live.

As illustration – test your own reactions to these three objects:

As I mentioned in discussing a detail from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275 (here) it was initially left to the Church, in Europe, to arbitrate between acceptable and non-acceptable matter, but the medieval Church had no easy task either.

Assigning objects and practices their correct position on the spectrum between pious observance, poetic or spiritual sensibility, folk-superstition, simple investigation of natural phenomena, and ordinary ‘magic’ was always problematic and might alter with time and circumstance,* but one sort of magic was always forbidden – necromancy as the summoning of demons.

* Schmitt’s study of the cult of the ‘holy greyhound’ offers an excellent example. Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound Guinefort, healer of children since the thirteenth century. (Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture 6) CUP (1983).

Attempting to call up demons to do one’s bidding was unequivocally condemned within European Christian culture. Some theologians argued that trying to do it was just stupid, because an impossiblity; others held that it was possible but utterly wicked.

In either case, by the mid-sixteenth century in England, Roger Bacon could be popularly imagined a true necromancer, as we’ve seen* though Bale himself published his correction, as effective retraction, within a decade.

*in the previous post

What magic? – Roger Bacon’s according to Newbold.


Bacon2 coinThough he includes the dread term ‘necromancer’ Newbold’s idea of Roger Bacon had Bacon’s   ‘magic’  benevolent, and the latter idea is attested as early as 1487. For readers’ convenience, I’ll cite  Molland for this well-known fact.

  • A.G. Molland, ‘Roger Bacon as Magician’, Traditio, Vol. 30 (1974), pp. 445-460. (pp.445-446)

Just so did Newbold describe Bacon’s studies, introducing the theme at one remove by quoting Bacon’s praise of a friend in a letter of 1267 to Pope Clement IV – the same that I’ve illustrated (supra). Bacon has his idea of ‘philosophy’ by literal translation from the Greek, to mean ‘a lover of all wisdom/know-how’ – in this case, know-how about natural materials and phenomena.

Studying suspect matter “only to sort the true from the wrong” is exactly the same rationale that would be offered, much later, by the Dominican order as they tried to shift perceptions of Friar Albertus of Lauingen from ‘Albertus magus‘ to ‘Albertus magnus‘ and by the seemingly simple step of having the Church formally proclaim Albertus a saint.

In fact, AlbertusAlbert of Lauingen magus magnus modern wood carving displays much more interest in magic and borderline alchemical theories than did his contemporary, Roger Bacon. He was also far more intellectually dishonest, much of what readers perceive as his original thought having been lifted, unacknowledged, from other scholars, as modern researchers have shown. 

image of Albertus of Lauringen (left) from online re-publication of the Catholic Encyclopaedia (1913). 

The Dominicans’ efforts included composition of two distinctly different biographies and still did not entirely convince. Though eventually beatified (1622), Albertus was not formally added to the list of saints until 1931.* His annual feast-day, now, is November 15th., and he is the patron saint of scientists, philosophers, medical technicians and all students of the natural sciences.

*which is why the biography in the Catholic encyclopaedia of 1913 calls him merely ‘blessed’.

Note – a patron saint is a person recognised as worthy of emulation by those in circumstances similar to those of the saint’s life. By the same token, it is assumed by believers that the saint will feel a reciprocal empathy for (e.g.) a student about to go into a science exam, and who may therefore be inclined to put in a good word ‘upstairs’ if asked to help the student remember his facts.  The general definition of a saint is someone whose soul certainly went ‘up’ rather than ‘down’ when they died.

I add just a couple of my references:

  • David J Collins, ‘Albertus, Magnus or Magus? Magic, Natural Philosophy, and Religious Reform in the Late Middle Ages’, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-44.
  • Peter Grund, “Textual Alchemy: The Transformation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s Semita Recta into the Mirror of Lights.” Ambix: The Journal for the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry 56(3): 202–225.

On the other hand, Thorndike says unequivocally that Bacon’s work does include magical matter, according to definitions current in his – Thorndike’s – time. I’ll come back to that in the next post.

Where magic?

To date, there has been no connection clearly established between MS Beinecke 408 and any ‘occult’ subject-matter, or any such text. The closest anyone has come was Nick Pelling, who drew attention to the fact that in a book by Okasha el Daly, an illustration from an eighteenth-century manuscript displays ‘Voynich’-style glyphs.

  • Okasha el Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. El Daly’s book was published by Cambridge University Press in 2008, and limited access is offered through Cambridge Core (here).

Otherwise – Nothing. Not in more than a hundred years..

Had the manuscript’s study followed a rational course, the ‘occult’ idea should have been abandoned at the very latest in 2011 when the ‘Bacon autograph ciphertext’ notion was proven untenable.

Before that time, the notion of ‘occult’ purpose was never a conclusion drawn from concerted research, but ultimately dependent on the internal logic of those two imaginative narratives of 1921. And the subsequent efforts to justify the idea have always been, at base, just versions of that ‘blame the author, not me’ response which for so long served as reflexive defence when over-confident individuals found themselves defeated by the manuscript’s pictorial- and/or written text.

Neither of the 1921 narratives does, and no subsequent writer ever did, demonstrate that the ‘occult content’ idea is justified by the primary source or any solid historical evidence or any Latin Christian text created before – or even after – 1440.

Acceptance of Newbold’s narrative relied on an idealised view of ‘Bacon-as-anticlerical-scientist’ already popular with the general public, especially in America. To this, an evocative backdrop was added, evoking an atmosphere of mystery and ‘forbidden’ knowledge. Notice how Newbold presented Bacon’s life and works for the Physicians of Philadelphia in April of 1921.

On Bacon’s knowledge of Hebrew, there is just one dedicated study, so far as I know.

  • Reviewed by L. D. Barnett in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Jan., 1903), pp. 334-336.
  • and see also Horst Weinstock, ‘Roger Bacon’s Polyglot Alphabets’, Florilegium Vol. 11 (1992) pp. 160-178.

Wilfrid and Newbold delivered their papers in April of 1921, by which time the popularist myth of Bacon as “persecuted scientist” – echoing a thesis promulgated by Draper and by White, but which had already been refuted years before – was “what everyone knew”. It was a consensus of popular myth and infuses both popular journalism and the work of some contemporary scholars (as for example, the introduction written by Roland and Hirsch in their publication referenced above).

  • [pdf] Walsh, James Joseph, The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time, Fordam University Press, New York 1908.

But the refutation had less grip on the public imagination and the idea of the church as ‘scared of science’ would remain an underlying theme of Voynich writings into the present century.


Lynn ThorndikeAlready by June of 1921, with newspapers, journals and magazines advertising the Wilfrid-Newbold story and encouraging the proliferation of ancillary narratives,* Lynn Thorndike, who was then the eminent specialist in the history of European sciences and pseudo-sciences, attempted to return some level of reason to the clamour, but had little success.

*for which, see Jim Reeds’ Bibliography in the Cumulative Bibliography page.

His protests were evidently ignored in 1921 and the same stories were repeated through the thirties and the post-war period, and even throughout the period from 1952 when William Friedman effectively co-opted the study, and thus even to as late as 1978 when Mary d’Imperio produced ‘Elegant Enigma’.

I’ll consider that post-war period in the next post.

Meanwhile, here again is Thorndike’s letter to the editor of Scientific American in June 1921. This time I omit the formal compliment to the editor and add some paragraph spaces. Tellingly, Thorndike has already tried to stop a fiction that Roger Bacon invented gunpowder, and here he must focus on just one point as his target – so he ignores most of the nonsense to focus on the foundation for Wilfrid’s entire construction of narrative from conjecture and ‘logical’ inference: viz. the assertion that the manuscript is a ‘Bacon ciphertext’.

His letter has some other less obvious, but even more important implications, but I’ll leave that for the moment. In the meantime notice that while the passage which is cited from the ‘Wilfrid’ article speaks of the manuscript as being “with certainty dated to the 1300s”, is automatically corrected by Thorndike who knew that Roger Bacon had died some years before the ‘1300s’ began.

What magic? Where magic? imposition of the occult. Pt1- Wilfrid.

Header – detail from Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 821 f.41v.
Two previous posts
  • Ending the “skies above/certain measures” series. (May 31, 2021)
  • New Voynich research (May 24, 2021)


wilfrid_voynich1Wilfrid Voynich dated the manuscript (Beinecke MS 408) to the latter part of the thirteenth century. He ascribed both composition and inscription for the whole of its content to Roger Bacon, and for no better reason than that he supposed the pictures were about ‘natural philosophy’ – however Wilfrid understood that phrase – and with better reason because the manuscript’s materials looked to him like something from the thirteenth century.

But in his talk of 1921, Wilfrid never said that the pictures resembled any from a book about magic, nor that Bacon had practiced or approved of magic, but only that Bacon had been accused of practicing ‘black magic’ when practicing ‘science’.

magic Bacon

from: 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. 

Note Wilfrid’s saying ‘misrepresented’ – which is absolutely right. And of course, since the materials and form for the manuscript were not incompatible with productions from thirteenth century Europe, it never occurred to Wilfrid to look beyond it.

Wilfrid’s forward-driving, unchecked and associative style would set the pattern for the sort of logic that would, from 1912 onwards, be the typical style of quasi-historical theories about the manuscript.

You see how Wilfrid’s mind grasps at some impression of ‘nearest-fit’ for the images; this he then experiences as ‘recognition’ of something familiar despite being unable to read any, and from there he develops an irrational chain that runs .. “If then … then… then … then”…

One need look no further than O’Neill and the ‘sunflower’ theory to see how the pattern applies.

Impressions are all very well as a first phase of investigations and, within the compass of his/her own specialisation, a trained person’s impressions are often accurate, but experts routinely double- check impression against concrete examples and primary historical evidence. With a strongly self-critical eye!

Wilfrid’s ‘historical logic’ reads like someone who has misread a question in arithmetic and so argues that, ‘Given that 2+2=5. so then… and therefore.. and so probably… and therefore certainly…

We can ask questions of Wilfrid, but never answer them, such as – what exactly did he think “natural philosophy” meant? or ‘Did he ever have solid evidence to inform his ‘historical logic’? The only reference he mentions is a dictionary of sixteenth-century biographies.

Natural History and Natural Philosophy

In Latin Europe, until the twelfth century, ‘natural philosophy’ is closer to what we’d call natural history and comes down to the herbals, bestiaries and lapidaries and basic knowledge of the constellations – all of which might be taught as moralia. So when Wilfrid speaks of an encyclopaedic ‘variety’ of subjects, this could be what he meant. We’d call it a form of ‘natural history’. The first encyclopaedic work in the Latins tradition was Isidore of Seville‘s Etymologiae, compiled early in the 7th century AD but as we learn from such 12thC writers as Hugh of St.Victor, the encyclopaedic method existed as part of the art of memory before encyclopaedic writers such as Albertus, Bacon, Pierre d’Ailly or Peter Lombard began writing.

On Hugh of St.Victor and the art of memory, I recommend Mary Carruthers‘ works, beginning with

  • The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric. and the Making of Images. 400–1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1998).
  • The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1990. (Second Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2008.) First edition was published in 1980.

From about the fourteenth century, and within university environments, ‘natural philosophy’ would gradually become little more than commentaries on Aristotle.

To argue, in the twenty-first century, that either sort of ‘natural philosophy’ informs the content of the Voynich manuscript one would have to address the fairly obvious objection that so far the Voynich manuscript has found no comparison in any copy, text or extant notebook from any fourteenth-century or early fifteenth-century university student or teacher.

re illustrated student notebooks in general. The closest comparison presented for the Voynich manuscript, in very general terms, is an illustrated notebook which was brought to notice by Marco Ponzi. Ponzi cites the manuscript as Pistoia Biblioteca Forteguerriana Manoscritti A 33 and describes it as made by a fifteen-year old named Sozomeno, under the tutelage of a teacher from San.Geminiano. The drawings are not closely similar, but are placed in the margins and they embody in allusive and associative ‘mnemonic’ form the content of the written text.

(I regret that Marco Ponzi does not publish for the public at large, and will permit or deny any given reader access, so there’s little point in offering a direct link to his essay in Viridis Green. I do recommend reading his work, though, if you can.)

On the shifting emphasis and definition of ‘natural philosophy’ in Latin European learning, and the divide between medieval and modern phases, see

  • ‘Natural philosophy, medieval’, Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. (entry by
    Edith Dudley Sylla). see also the special edition of Vivarium, Vol.35, No.2 (1977) ‘Roger Bacon and Aristotelianism’ especially
  • Jeremiah Hackett, ‘Bacon, Aristotle, and the Parisian Condemnations of 1270, 1277’ (pp.283-314).

For our needs, the key point is that ‘natural philosophy’ was never a euphemism for magic or occult practice, even if some attempted to gain weight by attributing their content to such figures as Solomon, Aristotle, or Hermes tresmegistus – and were later to include Roger Bacon’s name. Magicians’ borrowed plumes were something Bacon himself protested. The following comes Thorndike:

Thorndike on Bacon's naming falsely attributed texts

Roger Bacon detail from WellcomeIf Wilfrid had wanted to suggest that the Voynich manuscript’s content was about occult matter, he would hardly attribute it to Roger Bacon,

Because he believed it was by Bacon, he was at least consistent in saying only that Bacon had been accused of ‘black arts’ – but not that the manuscript included magic.

‘Natural history’ is not ‘natural magic’.  Nor was ‘natural philosophy’.

At the same time, Wilfrid did try to invert the normal logic of cause and effect, insinuating – not arguing – that because occult matters were (in his view) a late sixteenth-century pre-occupation in Prague, such matter might in some way be back-projected onto the manuscript which he, himself, insisted the autograph of an English Franciscan who had died in c.1220. It’s an outrageous bit of manipulation, but one which had continuing affect in the manuscript’s study.

We know, today, that samples from four folios in the top eleven quires returned a radio-carbon range of 1404-1438, so we can discard the ‘Bacon autograph‘ idea, and (of course) that back-projection of magic in Rudolfine Prague.

Rudolf’s great-great-great grandfather* might have been born when the manuscript was made.

*Frederick III. born 1415. Frederick III, Rudolf's great-great-great grandfather


Laying aside the inclusion of Bacon’s name in rote lists of ‘ancients’ in later magical works, Molland reports that..

.. our major legendary sources are reduced to essentially two. The first is a prose romance written probably in the late-sixteenth century and entitled ‘The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon. Containing the Wonder full Things that he did in his Life: also the Manner of his Death; with the Lives and Deaths of the two Coniurers, Bungye and Vandermast. Very Pleasant and Delightfull to be Read’. This work, which I shall hereafter call the Famous Historie, formed the basis for Robert Greene’s play ‘The Honorable Historie of frier Bacon, and frier Bongay’, and the play contains no new legendary material of interest.

The second source is much earlier, but much shorter. It occurs in a recital of deeds of Franciscans written in Dubrovnik in 1384-85 by one Peter of Trau. In this Bacon is not explicitly spoken of as a magician, but as one who was more interested in performing experiments in real philosophy than in writing or teaching.

Nevertheless the deeds recounted are of a type that would later be termed magical. Both these accounts probably had a strong basis in oral tradition, and we may suspect that the uncertainties of orally transmitted stories formed the background to the volte-face made by the bibliographer John Bale.

In his Summarium of 1548 he [Bale] described Bacon as a ‘juggler and necromantic mage’ who was said to have performed great marvels at Oxford ‘not by the power of God but by the operation of evil spirits.’ But about ten years later, in his ‘Catalogue’, Bale wrote of Bacon, ‘He was possessed of incredible skill in mathematics, but devoid of necromancy, although many have slandered him with it”.

from: A.G. Molland, ‘Roger Bacon as Magician’, Traditio, Vol. 30 (1974), pp. 445-460

In sum: it looks as if the ‘occult content’ story is one of the few persistent legends that cannot be be attributed to the talk Wilfrid gave in  1921.

Instead, to discover its origin, we must turn to the talk delivered on the same occasion by Professor Romaine Newbold who, better informed about medieval history and more familiar with primary sources, associated Bacon’s ‘natural philosophy’ with Aristotle and experimental science.

What he might have thought or written had he first looked more critically at Wilfrid’s “Bacon-wrote-science-in-cipher” proposition, we’ll never know. His principal error was the same as came to infect study of the Voynich manuscript to the present day – he adopted his ‘givens’ without first subjecting them to rigorous cross-examination and imposed what he knew about his ‘given’ – a Roger Bacon ciphertext – onto the manuscript.

I’ll survey his paper in the next post.

Wheat from Chaff – Hime’s ‘gunpowder cipher’

Header picture: Mongols using grenades/bombs in 13thC Japan.

preceding posts:

Wheat from the Chaff – ‘Bacon ciphertext
Wheat from Chaff – Books of Secrets and the ‘Secretum secretorum

The “gunpowder recipe”  in Bacon’s  De secretis ..

The essential reference is:

  • H. W. L. Hime (Col.), “Roger Bacon and Gunpowder,” in Roger Bacon: Commemoration Essays, ed. by A. G. Little (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1914) pp.321-335.

In 2002, while discussing the range of early cipher methods, Pelling transcribed the passage and explained Hime’s rendering of it:

an anagrammatic cipher [which] supposedly transforms… ” luru vopo vir can utriet” into R. VII PART. V NOV. CORUL. V ET … which is allegedly short for…“recipe VII partes, V novellae coruli, V et..”   …the central part of his [i.e. Bacon’s] recipe for gunpowder.

To include mention of that passage from De Secretis in a more specifically ‘Voynich-‘ context would be to accept that some connection exists between Roger Bacon and the Voynich manuscript, and while some form of connection might exist, none has yet been argued from the primary evidence so the ‘gunpowder’ passage from De secretis should be irrelevant, shouldn’t it?

Reeds realised this,  and apparently  so too  did Robert Steele. Reeds’  Voynich Bibliography  includes none of  Hime’s essays and to the listing for Steele’s article (below), it adds a note:  “..about Bacon ‘gunpowder cipher’,  not VMS“.

  • Robert Steele, “Luru Vopo Vir Can Utriet.” Nature 121 (11 Feb. 1928), pp.208-9. The article’s abstract (which is all I’ve seen) mentions another item (NATURE, Sept. 4, 1926, p. 352).

Unfortunately, these are among the few since 1914 to recognise that distinction, the majority distracted first by Hime’s supposing  the passage in De secretis.. proved Bacon invented gunpowder.

A false connection

Combined with Wilfrid’s (also unproven) assertions that the Voynich text was written by Bacon and is in cipher, the topic of de Secretis’   ‘gunpowder cipher’ is included again and again in Voynich-related articles, books and theories to as late the present (2018), when mention is made of it in Dooley’s book:

  • John F. Dooley, History of Cryptography and Cryptanalysis: Codes, Ciphers, and Their Algorithms. (2018).

Dooley’s chosen sources are curious, but the second plainly implies supposing some link to Beinecke MS 408.

     #Brian Clegg, The First Scientist: A Life of Roger Bacon (2003).

     #Lawrence Goldstone & Nancy Goldstone, The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World (2005).

Essentially a biography which turned into a Voynich-themed historical novel, the Goldstones’ book offers no new insight into the imagery, text or manufacture of Beinecke MS  408. see Review by Kirkusthe final line of which is “Many scrambled historical eggs conceal the Bacon.” and The New York Times comment begins:

“When two Westport authors, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, decided to write a history of the 13th-century scientist Roger Bacon, they had no idea the trail would lead them to one of the world’s great mysteries. But when they discovered that the brilliant but reviled man of science might have hidden information in a strangely coded manuscript now at Yale University, that became the theme of their new book … ” NYT (Feb 20, 2005).

Seeing how this particular irrelevancy  survived will shed light on the way that other ideas long doubted, or modified, or weeded out entirely from reputable scholarship are still part of the ‘Voynichworld’ landscape.

It was a hundred and three years ago – and before Wilfrid’s talk to the Physicians of Philadelphia –  that Lynn Thorndike explained why the ‘gunpowder cipher’ is likely to be a late addition to Bacon’s original text Writing in 1915,  just a year after Hime’s essay appeared in print, Thorndike wrote:

Lynn Thorndike

“In the first place, the cipher [as asserted by Hime] is based upon chapters of the “Epistola de secretis operibus naturae et de nullitate magie” not found in the early manuscript of that work and considered doubtful by Charles* in his work on Roger Bacon. Indeed, the opening phrases of two chapters, ” Transactis annis Arabum sexcentis et duobus,” and ” Annis Arabum 630 transactis” suggest their source. Secondly. Roger Bacon openly alludes to gunpowder in 1267 in his ” Opus Tertium ” as already in common use in children’s toy explosives. Therefore Colonel Hime has to date the “De secretis” at 1248, and to hold that Bacon was at that time “driven to employ cryptic methods by fear of the Inquisition” (p. 334), but that by 1267

“circumstances had totally changed in the lapse of years; the composition of gunpowder . . . had been divulged, and the first use made of the deadly mixture was for the amusement of children” (p. 321).

But is there any good reason for dating the “De secretis” in 1248? Much of it sounds like a brief popular compilation from Bacon’s three works of 1267-8 concocted by some one else later; compare, for instance, the first paragraph of the sixth chapter of the “De secretis” with Duhem, “Un fragment inedit de l’Opus Tertium,” pp. 153-4 and Little, “Part of the Opus Tertium,” 50-51. The dedication of the “De secretis” to William, Bishop of Paris, who died in 1249, occurs first in the late edition of 1618 and has not been found by Little in any manuscript. Then the inquisition bug-a-boo is negligible. Has any one ever shown that the inquisition punished a practical invention? … it can not be shown that in the thirteenth century the church persecuted men of science. Rather, popes and prelates were their patrons.”

quoted passage above from:

  • Lynn Thorndike, ‘Bacon and Gunpowder‘, Science, New Series, Vol. 42, No. 1092 (Dec. 3, 1915), pp. 799-800. (p.799).

* ‘Charles…’ is presumably E. Charles, author of Roger Bacon: sa Vie, ses Ouvrages, ses Doctrines (Bordeaux, 1861) to whom Thorndike refers several times, not always approvingly.

For current opinion on authorship and dating for De secretis see:

  • Jeremiah Hackett, (ed.)  Roger Bacon and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays 1996 (Brill)

Thorndike’s protest had little effect and for the next half-century, the idea continued to circulate in European popular histories that the invention of gunpowder should be credited to a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman friar.  What is notable about these writings is an apparent inability to contemplate Europe’s being in debt to Asian, or even Arabic-speaking peoples. Sarton would be among the few exceptions and yet, despite Sarton’s discussion (in 1931),  Lutz  asserts (in 1936) any Oriental or Arabian origin ‘disproved'(!!). (Cf. header picture and illustration below, right).

Meanwhile, Six years after Thorndike’s first protest,  he had again (1921) objected to the constant repetition of the idea that Bacon invented gunpowder, in a letter to  Scientific American which I’ve already reproduced in part.

No noticeable diminution in the idea’s popularity followed, and then

20 years later (1936) , a paper by Edward Lutz again repeats as if they were facts established that  Roger Bacon wrote the Voynich manuscript, and invented the telescope,  the microscope… and gunpowder.

Friar Bacon and hypothetical telescope. From Lutz (1936)

Of gunpowder, Lutz wrote:

“Invention of Gunpowder: In this connection a few words about the invention of gunpowder seem to be in place. If nothing else, Friar Roger was the first European to make mention of gunpowder.[a]  Since its Chinese and Arabian origin has been disproved, we may add that good arguments exist for its actual invention or chance discovery by Bacon during his long life of research. He wrote about gunpowder’s main characteristics before anyone else [sic!] had even mentioned the substance. He possessed its exact chemical formula and hid it within a subtle cipher.[b]

[a] citing, (as n.244)  – W. W. R. Ball, History of Mathematics (1919), p. 174.  [b] citing  (as n.225)  W. R. Newbold,  Cipher of Roger Bacon, pp. 141-143; and Hime’s article  “Gunpowder” published in the Encyclopaedia Britannia (1929). Vol. 2  p. 890.

  • Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17, June, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82.

And , dear reader, if you’re thinking  Lutz  was an outlier  –   think again.

Thirty-five years after Thorndike’s critique, now (in 1950) a young Hochberg attempts to judge the matter without doing more than exercising logic on a prohibitively narrow range of data, and all at the level of secondary opinion. The result is erroneous conclusion.

detail from the ‘Mara Buddha’ –  foreign ‘demons’ attack Dunhuang’s Buddhist enclaves. (10thC AD). One fire-propelling item is understood to be a grenade and the other a fire-lance.

A further controversial question concerning [Roger] Bacon’s achievements is whether or not he discovered gunpowder. … Colonel Hime, in perhaps the most authoritative work on the question of Bacon and his relation to the discovery of gunpowder, concludes that Bacon, in the face of the evidence, must be considered to be the discoverer of gunpowder … While it is true that Hime’s conclusion depends upon a certain amount of hypothesizing and conjecture … the conclusion is far from being unreasonable. Nevertheless, both Thorndike and Sarton have challenged the theory that Bacon discovered gunpowder. Their attack centers on Hime’s proposed decipherment of the De Secretis (15, pp. 688- 691; 12, pp. 957-958, 1037-1038). Sarton, however, seems to admit that the issue is not decisive…

  • from Herbert Hochberg, ‘The Empirical Philosophy of Roger and Francis Bacon’. Philosophy of Science, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Oct., 1953), pp. 313-326.

The aim in referring to Hochberg’s essay from so long ago is not to criticise Professor Hochberg for youthful errors;  but to make clear that an exercise of logic cannot make up for a failure to determine the facts by research –  and further that to rely on no more than a limited sample-range – especially of secondary opinion – is to beg the questions they left unasked.  In this instance, the critical question was  not, as Hochberg supposed (more than half a century ago), “which of these secondary authors’ ideas do I think most plausible?” but ‘Where and when do we find our earliest testimony to the existence of gunpowder?”

Sixty-three years later, (in 1978) d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – whose subject is the Voynich manuscript – includes three of Hime’s essays in its bibliography,  though d’Imperio herself adopts a non-committal tone in the main text:

A considerable literature exists, dealing with ciphers attributed to Bacon in alchemical works.  An anagram in which Bacon is said to have hidden a formula for gunpowder [in de secretis] is explicated variously by some but debunked by others. [the sources are cited – Elegant Enigma, pp.66-67).

Note that d’Imperio does not ignore, but fails to credit to its source, Thorndike’s opinion that the cipher-passage is a later interpolation to De secretis, and also fails to see that the entire question is irrelevant to study of Beinecke MS 408, given lack of any positive evidence for correspondence between Bacon’s extant works and the Voynich manuscript.

Who did invent gunpowder? 

The question was settled beyond all reasonable doubt by Joseph Needham, whose 700-page study was published fully thirty years ago.

Yet …

One hundred and two years after Thorndike’s protest, and thirty-one years after Needham’s exhaustive study,  when Craig Bauer (rightly) asserts (2017) that Hime’s decipherment of the passage in De secretis remains in dispute – his footnote includes not only Hime’s publications about the passage from De secretis but also that Voynich-themed biography of Roger Bacon later referenced by Dooley!  What uncertainty exists is not, today, where gunpowder was first invented but only about which European friar ( Friar Roger or Friar Berthold) first knew its method for manufacture.   And that dispute has no demonstrable link to the Voynich manuscript, at all.

  • Craig P. Bauer, Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies (2017), p.23 (and notes p.532).

re: Friar Berthold – the legend persisted to 1911.  See the linked entry which cites

  • Hansjacob, Der Schwarze Berthold, Der Erfinder des Schiespulvers u. der Feuerwaffen (Freiburg, 1891).

from Needham, op.cit., (p.51).

[following paragraph added Jan 4th., 2019] Manly had provided a lucid dismissal of the ‘gunpowder cipher’ in 1931, writing:

a) The Gunpowder Formula. The briefest and simplest case of a decipherment obtained from a text not written by Roger Bacon is furnished by the famous ‘Gunpowder Formula’.. Here, in a letter attributed to Bacon, occurs, according to Brewer’s reprint from the printed text of 1542, the famous: ‘Sed tamen sal petrae LURU VOPO VIR CAN UTRIET sulphuris; et sic facies tonitruum et coruscationem, si scias artificium.’ I shall not now insist upon the probability that the last three chapters of this epistle are not the work of Bacon, or upon the fact that without any warrant Professor Newbold took a well-known symbol for Sed as Sume. The important fact is that the letters LURU VOPO VIR CAN UTRIET are not found in any extant MS., but are apparently due to a misreading of the distorted Greek letters occurring at this point in the MS. from which the 1542 edition was printed. Yet applying his system to this misreading, which originated more than three centuries after the death of Bacon, Professor Newbold got a thoroughly satisfactory decipherment.

  • John Matthews Manly, ‘Roger Bacon and the Voynich MS’, Speculum, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jul., 1931), pp. 345-391.
  • an anonymous but informative website on the history of gunpowder is here.

How did Bacon come to know something.. anything… of gunpowder,?

In terms of European knowledge, the usual opinion is that he learned it from Friar Berthold, or vice versa.  Not that the question has any demonstrable relevance to study of Beinecke MS 408,  but Needham’s view was that:

… Perhaps the most extraordinary fact is that all the stages, from the incendiary uses of the mixture right through to the metal-barrel hand-gun or bombard, with the projectile fully occluding the bore, were passed  through in China, before Europeans knew of the mixture itself. Probably there  were three comings. Roger Bacon by c.1260 or so was able to study fire-crackers, doubtless [sic] brought west by some of his brother friars; and the Arabian military engineers in the Chinese service must have let Hasan al-Rammah know about bombs and rockets by  c.1280. Then, within the following twenty years, came the cannon, quite possibly directly overland through Russia.

  •      Needham, op.cit., p. xxxi.

See also:

  • Lynn Thorndike, ‘The True Roger Bacon’ published in two parts in  The American Historical Review. Part 1 in Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jan., 1916), pp. 237-257; Part 2 in Vol. 21, No. 3 (Apr., 1916), pp. 468-480.
  • the current version of the wiki biography for Roger Bacon is good.(Dec. 2018)

Next post: The Military Cryptanalysts (Prelude).

Wheat from Chaff – Books of Secrets and the ‘Secretum secretorum’

Header picture:     (detail)  Brit.Lib. MS Harley 3719  f.31v  (1275-1540), excerpt from the Secretum Secretorum
This post follows from ‘Wheat from Chaff – ‘Bacon ciphertext’ (Dec.15th., 2018)


…  investigat secreta naturae …- Roger Bacon, Opus Maius, II

As we do what Wilfrid should have done, testing his assertions severally against the secondary  evidence and the manuscript’s own testimony  –  it becomes clear that Wilfrid’s “history” for the manuscript is anything but. His failure to establish the truth of what he said about the manuscript  before making those assertions public – and the failure of others to do so before adopting them, meant that the manuscript’s study was misdirected from the first, and researchers diverted into innumerable dead-ends simply because their first premises – their ‘givens’ – were groundless.  The habit is still widespread by which  a fictional narrative ( habitually if wrongly called ‘theory’) is first promoted and  its success thereafter evaluated  by the number of believers – but not  by what demonstrable value it has for a more accurate understanding of the manuscript – not of its materials, nor of what it was intended to convey. We’ll look at this in more depth when considering false analogies, false equivalents and ‘argument from association’. (List of logical fallacies)

His imagining the text written in Bacon’s own hand is unjustified.   To suppose   Bacon or anyone else might encipher an entire book about  ‘natural history’ in the mid-thirteenth century runs counter to the historical evidence; there is no evidence to support the idea that Bacon ever enciphered an entire book, either  – not about natural history or anything else.  And the content which Wilfrid imagined (‘natural history’) cannot be accepted at face value,  given the lack of evidence for Bacon’s ever being afraid to speak of such matter  and the wide enthusiasm which met Cantimpré’s book on that subject – despite its using Aristotle and being written in 1230-1245, during the ‘ban’ years:  (see previous post).

To believe that Voynichese is unreadable because written in a Baconian cipher demands, today, not only suspension of disbelief but its elevation beyond this mortal world –  for if Bacon’s methods of encryption were unsophisticated, modern decryption algorithms are not.  And there is the other point – that whether or not our present manuscript was made in Latin Europe, there is no way to know yet where the content was first enunciated, nor whether the text’s underlying language (if any) is European.  Such things are also treated as ‘givens’ – maintained without critical scrutiny since 1921 and despite the very obvious fact that if the text or the imagery conformed to Latin European practice, the latter, in particular, would not have proven illegible in those terms – for a century.

And finally, as we’ve seen,  Bacon’s sentence from De secretis..  (‘he’d be a fool….’ ) is neither a text’s justification nor the manifesto which it is so often portrayed as being.  It is, rather, part of an introduction to a subject  which Bacon thought might prove useful at some later time.

On the other side of the scale, one item is potentially in favour. Bacon was much impressed by the Secretum Secretorum. It can be called a book of secrets, was attributed to Aristotle and its title might suggest a need to keep its content secret, even though it is just as much a text in the tradition of the ‘Mirrors of Princes’.


‘Books of Secrets’ genre.


Eamon describes it:

… To the modern reader expecting to encounter some mysterious, arcane wisdom, these works are bound to be disappointing. What was revealed, typically, was not the lore of ancient sages or magi, but recipes, formulae, and “experiments”, often of a fairly conventional sort, associated with one of the crafts or with medicine: e. g., quenching waters for hardening steel, recipes for dyes and pigments, instructions for making drugs, and “practical alchemical” formulae such as a jeweller or tinsmith might use. When a medieval or sixteenth century writer claimed to have discovered a “secret,” he often had this meaning in mind; and when a contemporary library catalogue referred to a “book of secrets,” it usually indicated a compilation of such recipes…

….They exist in countless medieval Latin and vernacular manuscripts, and in printed books of almost every European language. Nor did these writings disappear with the “triumph of modern science” in the seventeenth century. Despite [Thomas] Browne’s warning, books of secrets continued to be written, copied, published, and read by a sizeable portion of the reading public, and by some whom all would agree were among the leading scientific personalities of the day….

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


That’s exactly how Roger Bacon understood the matter, too.  His ‘scientist’ is master of practical techniques and know-how –  as we see in Bacon’s letter to Pope Clement (1267):

Hence he  has peered into all the processes of smelters, of goldsmiths, of silversmiths, and of other workers in metals and minerals; he knows everything pertaining to war, weapons and hunting; he has examined everything pertaining to agriculture, surveying and other occupations of the countryman; he has even taken into consideration the experiments of witches and their fortune-telling and charms and those of magicians in general, likewise the tricks and illusions of legerdemain — so that nothing worth knowing might remain unknown to him and that he might know what to condemn as due to sorcery or magic.

Nick Pelling is among those who have  believed  that the Voynich manuscript may be a ‘book of secrets’.  For details see (e.g.)


“Confounding demons”       detail from folio 51r,   Brit.Lib. Yates Thompson MS 28

Aristotle’s  ‘Secretum Secretorum’:

Today we deny Aristotle’s authorship, but Bacon and his successors did not, so I have omitted ‘pseudo-‘ from the heading.

One reason Bacon expended so much energy on his project  [an edition and commentary on the ‘Secretum Secretorum’] is that he valued [the text] as possibly Aristotle’s greatest production. Not only did it impart sage counsel on issues of morality, politics, and health: Bacon, for example, ate rhubarb on the Secretum‘s advice, and felt much the better for it!   In addition, Bacon believed the Secretum treated important subjects deliberately omitted in the books Aristotle wrote for a general audience.

  • quoted from Steven J. Williams, ‘Roger Bacon and His Edition of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum secretorum’, Speculum, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Jan., 1994), pp. 57-73.. the passage  is pp. 64-65.


Origin of the Latin versions:

Salim Abu l-ʿAla’, secretary to the caliph Hisham ibn ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 724–743), initiated the translation of the pseudo-Aristotelian letters on government to Alexander the Great.  This collection forms the nucleus of the most famous among the “mirrors for princes”, the Sirr al-asrar…, known in the Latin Middle Ages and early modern times as the Secretum secretorum. One of the Arabic translations of the pseudo-Aristotelian De Mundo also traces back to this period… However, it was under the ʿAbbasids (750–1258), and in particular in the first two centuries of their caliphate, that the translations blossomed.

A different account is given by Robert Steele,

In the introduction to the work as we now have it we are told that it was translated from Greek into Rumi, and from Rumi into Arabic, by Yuhanna ibn el-Batrik (or Ibn Yahya al-Batrik). Rumi is the common word for Syriac, when it does not mean Greek, and Yuhanna, who died a.d. 815, was a well-known translator, physician of Al- Ma’mun, who is said to have rendered the Politics and the Historia Animalium into Syriac, and the De caelo et mundo and the De anima in epitome, with other works, into Arabic. There does not seem anything obviously unlikely about the statements that a Syrian text has existed, and that it was translated into Arabic about the beginning of the ninth century by Ibn al-Batrik, while it is to be hoped that English scholars, at any rate, have dropped the pose that a manuscript attribution is a decisive argument against the supposed author or translator having any connexion with the work.

A curious confirmation of the possible existence of a Syriac version has lately turned up in the publication by Dr. Budge of a thirteenth-century collection of medical treatises and receipts in Syriac (Syrian Anatomy, Pathology, and Therapeutics, 2 vols., London, 1913). Among them (ii. 540) is the formula for calculating victory by taking the numerical value of the names of the generals and casting out the nines (see pp. Ix, 250). This formula is identical with one which exists in both forms of the Arabic text, though it is omitted in the Vulgate Latin version.

It is unlikely that the Syriac text, if it should ever be found, will bear the name of the Secret of Secrets. Perhaps the traditional name preserved by Al-Makin, The Book of the knowledge of the ‘ Laws of Destiny, or the Kitab-al-siyasa of Ibn Khaldun, its alternative title in Arabic, may afford some clue.

  • Roger Bacon, Robert Steele, Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi V: Secretum Secretorum (1909) Latin text; Steele’s notes in Eng.
  • Roger Bacon, Opera hactenus inedita Rogeri Baconi, 5: Secretum secretorum cum glossis et notulis, ed. Robert Steele (Oxford, 1920).

See also:

  • Steven J. Williams, The Secret of Secrets: The Scholarly Career of a Pseudo-Aristotelian Text in the Latin Middle Ages. (2003).
  • Yela Schauwecker, Die Diätetik nach dem ‘ Secretum secretorum * in der Version von Jofroi de Waterford Teiledition und lexikalische Untersuchung, Würzburger medizinhistorische Forschungen 92   (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007).

Yela Schauwecker here presents us with an Old French translation of those sections of the pseudo-Aristotelian ‘Secretum secretorum’ pertaining to diatetics, detailing which items are beneficial for each part of the body, and the qualities of various foodstuffs.  The edited text also features the much briefer passages which precede these and which relate to the benefits of doctors, prayer and astrology.   The translation is of particular philological interest because it involves the collaboration of an Irish Dominican author (Geoffrey of Waterford), composing in Anglo-Norman, and his Walloon scribe, Servais Copale. Until recently, Schauwecker’s base manuscript BNF, fr. 1822 was believed to be the only extant manuscript preserving Geoffrey’s translation.

  • quoted from the review by Alex Stuart in  Medium Aevum, Vol. 79, No. 1 (2010) EDITIONS OF TEXTS, pp. 160-169. passage occurs on p.167.


  • L. Saif,  ‘Textual and Intellectual Reception of Arabic Astral Theories in the Twelfth Century’, in  The Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy. (2015)
  • Lynn Thorndike, ‘The Latin Pseudo-Aristotle and Medieval Occult Science‘,  The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Volume 21 No.4 (April 1922) pp.229-258.
  • M. Gaster, ‘The Hebrew Version of the “Secretum Secretorum,” a Mediæval Treatise Ascribed to Aristotle’.  Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Oct., 1908), pp. 1065-1084 .
  • [pdf] Antònia Carré and Lluís Cifuentes, ‘Girolamo Manfredi’s Il Perché: II. The Secretum secretorum and the book’s publishing success’Medicina & Storia, X, 2010, 19-20, n.s., pp. 39-58.
  • Linda T. Darling, ‘Mirrors for Princes in Europe and the Middle East: A Case of Historiographical Incommensurability’ (no publication details given; paper available through


Next post: Bacon’s De Secretis in re  Hime’s “gunpowder cipher”