O’Donovan Notes – #8.3 Angles of approach – Medicine, Newbold and ‘astral spirits’ in the VMS (Pt 1)

Ways of belief, of expectation, of judgment … are not easily modified after they have once taken shape. – John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct.

c.1280 words. The author’s rights are asserted.


The previous post was little more than a bridge which would allow us to connect the same themes across the period from the early centuries AD, to the fifteenth. That is, from the period to which the same assignments of month-to-sign is attested as in the Voynich calendar, to dates appropriate for the Voynich manuscript’s vellum. While doing so, we may introduce a hint of that theme we’ll consider later – an idea of secret medicine.

Let me say again here that I have seen nothing to justify the now deeply-entrenched idea that the Voynich manuscript is focused on medicine, nor that the calendar was intended to serve astrology, nor that the ‘leaf-and-root’ section is about medicinal pharmacy.

Many newer-come Voynicheros will not realise that was passes for “what everyone knows” are very largely products of Wilfrid Voynich’s imagination or that of William Romaine Newbold. It is unfortunate that so many of their unfounded notions came to be embedded in the traditionalist narrative and even – during the late 1960s and 70s – incorporated into what was written up as the Beinecke library’s catalogue entry.

That is why, for example, you’ll see a pre-set slate of options for understanding the work – those being ‘science, medicine or magic’.

We owe to Newbold not only his subjective description of the manuscript in terms of thematic sections, but also the first effort to understand the manuscript’s anthropoform figures and an intimation that they are not necessarily meant literally.

Unlike Wilfrid, who may have had some Latin but seems ignorant of Greek, of ancient and of medieval history, Newbold certainly studied both those languages and related literature, both secular and religious. (The Upenn site’s biography is excellent; that in the wiki article worse than merely bad).

Newbold’s great mistake had been to accept on faith various assertions made with enormous self-confidence by Wilfrid Voynich.

If – as I think – Wilfrid himself was early convinced by his own imaginative tale, until he could not distinguish between the offerings of his imagination and those of evidence and reason, so we may regard him as the first modern Voynich theorist, and Newbold the first of those whose aim was nothing more than to hunt for items that might support to another’s theory after the fact.

Even so, it wasn’t Wilfrid, but Newbold who first offered a classification of the manuscript’s sections, and described the anthropoform figures as meant for disembodied souls or spirits – daimones.

Given what we’ve seen in Hague, MMW 10 A 11 and what is to be seen in another, slightly earlier French manuscript, (Oxford, Bodleian, St. John’s College MS 18) we should not dismiss Newbold’s views without some consideration, at least.

(detail) Oxford, Bodleian, St.John’s College MS 18 f. 1r. Roland of Lisbon’s Reductorium physiognomie.. Second quarter of the fifteenth century. Image copyright, Bodleian Library. Reproduced here by express permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College Oxford..

Newbold’s opinions about the Voynich figures were already set by 1921, being included in his lecture given in April of that year, and as part of his description of the manuscript’s sections:

I’ve underlined one sentence in red because it shows that by 1921 Newbold had already placed greater faith in Wilfrid’s theoretical narrative than in the historical evidence.

Newbold knows there is no evidence in any of Bacon’s extant writings suggestive of any particular interest in the idea of transmigration of souls – which idea is contrary to Bacon’s religious allegiance – but Newbold is already so dedicated to Wilfrid’s theory of Baconian authorship (for which there was no evidence, either, save a scrap of unsupported rumour) that Newbold now imagines that proof must exist somewhere; that the theory cannot be wrong.

The underlined sentence implies, I think, that he imagined the missing ‘somewhere’ to be in Wilfrid Voynich’s ugly ducking manuscript.

Three months after he had delivered that lecture, Newbold wrote to ask assistance in hunting the imagined evidence that might support his own theory.

Dated July 21st., that letter was published in the Catholic Review in October of that year, and separated by several pages from its illustration.

NOTE: Looking again at this folio (75r) I realise that it contains what is near-enough to single hatching ‘in the strict sense’ – in which it is exceptional but because of which I owe my regular readers an apology.

The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Oct., 1921), p.407.

Whether Newbold received any response to that letter I do not know, but once again and as with his choice of topic for the lecture he had delivered in April to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia*, Newbold seems to have been oblivious to the expectations, interests or sensibilities of his audience.

*Mary Scott Newbold lectures were intended to present to the College recent technical advances in the practice of scientific medicine. See Lectures 4 and 6 published in the same volume of the Transactions.


What led Newbold to think the figures were souls or ‘astral spirits’?

As so often, one must ask about a Voynich theory what evidence could have led the creator to suggest it. Few deign to reply to such a question, but in Newbold’s case it might just possibly be answered, even now, ninety years and more after his death.

We know that he had studied both Latin and Greek. The authors who are named in his April lecture provide some idea of his range of reading. And I daresay we may take it that his use of such terms as ‘souls’ and ‘astral souls’ approximate to the Greek daimones or daemones.

Trepanier’s recent paper, in which he attempts to reconstruct Empedocles’ views, has a comment on this point:

“Part one [of Trepanier’s paper] reviews Empedocles on soul and argues that the identification of the transmigrating daimon of [fragment] B115 with the soul found in our Platonist sources is correct enough, pending some important qualifications” (p.131).

Further, and still in regard to Fragment B115, he says, “This insistence on longevity but not everlastingness for both daimones and gods [in B115] is notable precisely because it goes against, respectively, for souls, the Platonic doctrine of the immortal soul, and, for gods, the traditional Homeric notion of “gods who are forever,” θεοὶ αἰὲν ἐόντες” –

which last comment accords well with Augustine’s position, as we saw it expressed in Civitate dei.

As I’ve said, I cannot agree that anything in the manuscript’s drawings justifies assuming medical purpose, but I may be mistaken. Newbold’s undoubted erudition means that we should not dismiss his comments on the older and neoplatonic works without the courtesy of consideration.

We also note that despite the uncharacteristically satirical, impatient and even contemptuous tone and “code-purple-prose” of Panofsky’s responses to Friedman’s list of simple-minded questions, Panofsky does seem to reference in his answer to Q.5 the earlier views expressed by Newbold’s views, as when Panofsky writes of “a general cosmological philosophy … celestial influences transmitted by astral radiation and those “spirits”…. (For the full text, see HERE).

If we place side by side, in chronological order, images dating from the days of Ausonius through those of Augustine, to the two fifteenth-century manuscripts cited above (Hague 10 11 and St.John’s 18), then I rather think we may be able to suggest some specific texts – even a specific manuscript – of which Newbold might, possibly, have been thinking.

to be continued..


  1. Professor Romaine Newbold, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Series 3: Vol.43, (1921)  pp. 431- 474. Section occurs pp.456ff.
  2. Oxford, Bodleian St.John’s College 18 was made by the Portuguese, Paris-trained physician Roland of Lisbon for John of Lancaster, while John was Prince Regent of France and England’s Duke of Bedford and shortly before or just after John purchased the entire French royal library at Louvre, as he did in 1424 following the death of Charles V.