Skies above. 6c: Methods, ideas and attitudes – and the ‘foreign’ in Voynich studies.

Header: (left) Precession and the northern circumpolar stars; (centre) night sky over Paris, Aug.22nd., 1420; (right) Precession and the southern circumpolar stars.

Two previous posts in this series:

update 11th November to show skies as calculated for Alexandria in 1420 AD, (August 22nd.).  readers comments and any correction most welcome.

The reason for spending so much time on the historical ‘backdrop’ is that when text and images are both problematic, as they are in the Voynich manuscript, we need to identify the ideas that will (one hopes) direct us towards the time, place and languages common to the first enuciator and his – presumably contemporary – audience.

How this is done: a thumnail guide to method and technique (1,500 wds)

As example: by merely looking at this small image (below, right) we might say that it is  “a bear, writing”.  That’s called treating an image as a “picture of..” Since the 1920s it has been the standard approach adopted by Voynich writers.

Against this approach, the analyst’s aims to – as it were – listen in on the communication  between the maker and his first audience, and assumes that their communication will be about their shared environment and languages – both verbal and visual.  We can do this for images produced in the pre-modern period because individual self-expression was not then perceived as the chief purpose of art  nor was ‘the artist’ the chief focus of attention.

So although this little detail could be imagined to be all about bears,  the form given it here depends on knowledge of [St.} Ursula‘s legend  (her name means a dear ‘little bear'(f.) combined with a specific error made by Geoffrey of Monmouth in relating her biography,  in twelfth century England. It is that error which is reflected in the conjunction of a little bear, and  writing.  (see details further below).

Recognising the tenor of this ‘conversation’, the researcher can now provide an upper (earlier) date for  first enunciation (a terminus a quo) and simultaneously identify a region within which maker and audience would be ‘speaking the same language’.

This, in turn, limits the range of spoken and written languages embodied in the accompanying text.  It must be one of those attested in the region and period where Geoffrey’s error had affect.

And this will be so  whether or not the accompanying text is legible.

Stylistics must then be taken into account. If they are not compatible with the information which an iconological analyst has ‘read’ from the image so far, that analyst must re-think the way they have read the image. It is quite unacceptable  to address opposition between the historical record and a personal impression by making statements which begin “the painter could have been/done…”.

In this case, the inclusion  of  a French-influenced bryony/’ivy’ border gives us the lower (i.e. later) limit for first enunciation: terminus ad quem.

The image cannot have been formed earlier than Geoffrey of Monmouth’s error;  the style of the bryony ornament makes it unlikely it was first enunciated later than the fourteenth century.

We can conclude with some confidence therefore –  whether or not the accompanying text is legible – that the manuscript’s content and specifically its written text came from a source available in the range 12thC-14thC and this detail was first given form in England and/or in 14thC France, a time when England and France were very closely connected by both popular and learned culture – and by politics.

I thus reach a conclusion that the ‘conversation’ between the first enunciator and his intended audience occurred in an Anglo-Norman environment and that it employs languages (visual and written-verbal) which were shared in that time and region:  Latin or one of the vernaculars employed at that time in England and/or in France would be indicated as the language of any accompanying text.

So now, having explained both  ‘why’ and ‘how’ the conclusions were reached, I must emphasise the the next step as the most vital when an opinion is to be shared, especially in a formal assessment of any object, and most particularly if (as is the case for most Voynich researchers) one has no access to raw data from laboratory tests or even to the physical object.

This step is where conclusions are tested against external scholarship and verifiable fact before being offered the reader, colleague or client.  And once again – if the evidence opposes an analyst’s opinion, it is they who must reconsider the matter.

To obscure disparities between one’s opinion and the objective historical record by creating stories or indulging in speculation is frowned upon,  and not least because it shifts attention from the object at issue,  to the researcher.   It alters a process of understanding to one of credulity.  It alters the relative roles of researcher and client or colleague – because instead of assisting their better understanding the object, it demands an act of faith from them to the researcher.  I should much prefer that a reader or colleague reacted to the information I provided by saying,  “I accept your evidence and understand your reasoning, but I won’t believe your conclusions” than “I don’t understand the thing any better, but I  will believe whatever you say.”

In this case, conclusions drawn from our reading of the ‘bear’ detail are very easily checked.  We have the manuscript’s catalogue record (Brit.Lib. MS  Egerton MS 3277), a very solid source because while no catalogue is perfect, it has always been the British Library’s practice  to exclude speculative matter.   Informed differences of opinion, where they exist, are always from well-informed persons; are clearly marked as items debated and the catalogue entry includes a bibiography which allows the reader to weigh the grounds on which each opinion was built.

So.. testing against the catalogue record (or other historical sources) shows that the ‘little bear’ on folio 13r is indeed in an Anglo-Norman work, one made in England,  and that the manuscript’s written text is in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, the whole manuscript being dated to the second half of 14th century.

Because the written text on folio 13r is legible, we can add further to our description and say the ‘little bear’ serves as illustration, specifically, for verses 6-8 of that Psalm. (Psalm 15 in the Vulgate; 16 in modern translations).

Here the iconological analyst would stop, even if privately they thought that, in addition to the rest, the image might also convey an indirect compliment to the scribe.

Why might the analyst think so?

In the western European Christian (Latins’) manuscript tradition, the usual order of production was that the scribe first ruled out the page and then inscribed the written part of the text. before the page was passed on down to the ‘pictors’ – whose available space, and its shapes, the scribe had effectively determined.  And  verse 6 of that Psalm reads:  “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance..”  🙂

Why would the analyst not say this to the client or colleague?

Because there is no objective source against which that idea/insight can be tested. Simple as that. To prove an idea is to test it – to stress-test it – and in our discipline, the default must be that whatever cannot be tested must be presumed untrue. Others have different standards.


Monmouth and Ursula

In 12thC England, Geoffrey of Monmouth appears to have mis-read “Deo notus”(?) as Dianotus, and then supposed it the name of Ursula’s father. ‘Dia notus’ can be punningly rendered as a ‘record of days’ or ‘book of hours’ or even of the months (dian-notus).  On which point see entry ‘Saint Ursula’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia of 1917 or the wiki article in which much of the same information is repeated. On ‘Dianotus’ see Geoffrey of Monmouth’s  (Historia.., Bk 5 Ch.14 ). Cusack credits a fifteenth-century Englishman, Edmund Hatfield with the form ‘Deonotus’, though Hatfield himself refers to a lost Latin sermon. In any case, Hatfield’s slip is clearly inspired by existing connection made between Ursula and literacy.

  • Carole Cusack, ‘Hagiography and History: the Legend of Saint Ursula’, in Carole M. Cusack and Peter Oldmeadow (eds), This Immense Panorama Studies in Honour of Eric J. Sharpe, [Sydney Studies in Religion 2], 1999, pp. 89-104.  (p.96)

There exists little on ‘the monk of Rochester’ Edmund Hatfield, though he is thought to have died in 1502.  My sources were

  • Cecil Henry Fielding (compiler), The Records of Rochester (1910)  p.246.
  • W.B. Rye, ‘Catalogue of the Library of the Priory of St.Andrew, Rochester AD.1202’, Archaeolgia Cantiana, Vol.3 (1860) pp. 47-64 (p.53). He notes the alternative spelling ‘Hatfeld’.

Though the explanation of Ursula’s true origin would take us too far from our subject, it is to the point that Ursula was associated with women’s education, and  in later Italy was chosen as role model (patron saint) for a community of nuns whose charter was to promote literacy and learning for women.

I hope I’ve shown in this example that analytical method is valuable whether or not the accompanying written text can be read.

Analysis of one small detail couldn’t provide the title of the text written on this page of Egerton 3277, not even the fact that it came from the Bible – though if one were to consider every image in that manuscript, or if one were a medieval person whose literacy began with memorising the Psalter, we might.  (Note that our aim is not only to say where and when a  manuscript, as object, was manufactured).

Today, what analysis of this type can do is to define the range in which those who are attempting to read an illegible text may concentrate their efforts with reasonable confidence.  The image of the little bear was fairly easily read but those in the  Voynich manuscript display a variety of influences and disparity between times and places of first enunciation. The work is clearly a compilation; its  images have been affected by time and by transmission. They incorporate evidence of distinctly different ‘conversations’  between one section and another, and even at times in a single page.  The whole then presents a fascinating range of questions which must be addressed first by analysis and then (as always) by ‘stress-testing’ any initial opinion or impression against the solid information provided by external scholarship.

Naturally, if one’s conclusions agree with those of an earlier Voynich writer, it is essential to credit that precedent – if you can be certain you have seen the original statement.


The language of art is compounded of a particular people’s shared culture, ideas and formalised conventions in expression – and of the verbal and visual languages proper to them.  These things together both inform and limit, first,  the mental image and then the range of its physical expression.

Because the imagery in the Voynich manuscript includes very few details exhibiting the customs of medieval western Europe’s common culture, we must work from a  wider historical ‘backdrop’ to identify the narrower historical context(s) which will make the manuscript’s content less unintelligible for a modern reader.

To this point, the backdrop now extends from the Hellenistic to the medieval centuries, and from Asia minor to the south-western Mediterranean and has shown how certain themes and concepts were maintained but variously expressed though that range.   What is now to be done is – so to speak – to move a problematic image across that backdrop until its form and content no longer appear remarkable.  It should look quite at home; still individual but not uncomfortably different, and most importantly no longer unreadable.

Connection to spoken language is a factor often overlooked in discussions of the imagery in this manuscript, though it is certainly true that when  the sense depends on some pun in the vernacular, or some event of only local and temporary interest, the meaning may be lost quite rapidly, even within the same traditions.

example – snails and knights.

Today many are puzzled by the frequent marginal images in books of hours where an armed knight is shown fighting a snail. Now, this might be an allusion to the centuries-long ongoing struggle called the  [re-]’conquista’ –  by way of allusion to Pliny’s term for a snail: concha.  But alternatively, or indeed, simultaneously, it may refer to the sort of things Crusaders had in mind when they set off to go a-conquering.  (to clarify this further might imperil the blog’s ‘G’ rating).

Or, again, it might be paralleling the adults’ battles with the children’s game of conkers, once played “using snail-shells, hazelnuts and the like (as Southey wrote in his memoirs in 1821).  Children’s games weren’t  of interest to medieval writers, and only Southey’s much later comment and the conjectured etymology offers support for that possibility.

[Conkers] have come from the dialect word for ‘hard nut’ (perhaps from the French for ‘a conch’ – ‘conque’), maybe from the old game using shells and nuts (‘conquerors’), or again from the French ‘cogner’ (to hit).

(I am indebted  to Jane Struthers’ blogpost (here) for that information.

Or, of course, it may allude (in addition or exclusively) to a pun on armour/armor – Amo(u)r vincit omnia.


The most problematic images – and the most intriguing for the specialist –  are ones whose  first enuciation clearly occurred in one period and culture, but which now include details indicative of  very different time(s) and attitudes. Images of this type bring  to the analyst’s calculations a  third, and dynamic, factor: affect from transmission.  Now, instead of a simple, linear structure for the research – such as that needed for the ‘bear’ in Egerton 3277 (see above ‘How this is done’) –  we have a sort of  historical 3-D chess problem with ‘transformations’ between one level (historical-cultural stratum) and the next.

This may occur when a new text conflicts with established conceptions of the world for a particular community, but we are principally concerned with the other side of that coin – when imagery itself was transmitted into evironments where it could not be ‘read’ as originally intended.  One must then take into account the probability that an original  detail  was accorded  different relative weight and value in one plane as against in the next.  Ideally, one aims to explain this too, but it isn’t always possible. History doesn’t always relate.

As example

we have a clearly Indian ‘Lakshmi’ statuette, of ivory, which was recovered from ruins of Roman Pompeii. How the native Romans interpreted it we don’t know: as the image of a slave, perhaps?  as the goddess ‘Venus? as an ordinary ‘dancing girl’? as the personal ‘idol’ of a bride brought from India? – or did some actually know the story of Lakshmi? History just doesn’t relate, and there is no basis for choosing one over another bit of guesswork..

Similarly, at present, we cannot explain the inclusion in the Rohan Hours of characteristically Buddhist-Hindu forms for the ring of guarding ‘angels’ on folio 159r, though the presence of similarly blue-faced angels in an Armenian church in Jerusalem suggests the idea and characteristics might, possibly, have arrived via Armenia. One cannot say – there’s no record, and too few examples in the western sphere to allow any sure conclusion. Interestingly, Armenian Christians had come, by this time (c.1420s) to bind their manuscripts in Latin style, i.e. with stitch-supports.

Problems of this kind are why researching really problematic imagery is the most fun for specialists of a certain type.  🙂

Some of the ‘angels’ still display the epicanthal fold, and most retain characteristically Buddhist rolls of fat on their necks. Some also display what we should call a double chin. One possibility among several is that the maker had seen some work in which an effort had been made to equate Christian with non-Christian ideas. Manichaeans and Nestorians did this and the first community to call itself Christian – the Community of Thomas in southern India – had believed it was founded in the 1stC by Christ’s apostle Thomas, a second wave of Christians arriving from Syria in about the third century owed allegiance to the ‘Nestorian’ patriarch, whose two capitals were in the fertile crescent.  All of which is suggestive, and nothing conclusive.

A further difficulty is presented when the receivers of transmitted imagery or text react negatively simply because information in it, or about it, seems to present an offence to their sense of what is personally right – their amour propre – and thus their allegiance to their own hierarchical ordering of persons or of ideas.

We have seen a hint of this mechanism at work in the way that Wilfrid Voynich, and even more William F. Friedman, approached the Voynich manuscript.

To either of them it was an idea intolerable (and thus instinctively seen as preposterous) that the manuscript’s content could be of non-European character and be a worthwhile study unless by, or at least mediated by, or owned by some high-ranking European male.

Just so, information and reasoning alone will not persuade a man who believes he has bought a seventeenth-century Cremona violin that he has an instrument sounding quite as fine but made by a nineteenth century emigre from Hungary.  His self-image is invested in the other idea, and since he is driven primarily by his beliefs, the only recourse is to refer him to some text, or person, in which he is predisposed to feel faith. He will often then accept ‘on faith’ precisely the same information.

History shows, repeatedly, that the strongest rejection of new information comes from the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy; from those with greatest self-regard and those who think truth is defined by “what everyone knows”.  Consider reactions to  the platypus, or to Darwin’s explanation of natural selection; or to a solution for the determination of Longitude.. This allows us to apply a (discardable) rule of thumb that ‘foreign matter’ will not have been first intended for the highest or lowest people in the new environment, something apparently borne out in the case of the Voynich manuscript by its materials, codicology and general presentation.

I do not think it true that personality-based decisions are necessarily a sign of the small-minded, but the pattern of history suggests that over-emphasis on personality has been one of the greatest hindrances to any intellectual advance.  It distorts the usual sense of the maxim that information is as good as its source.

Unhappily for the study, it seems that in William Friedman’s case, there was no person nor any academic field in which he placed more faith than he had in himself.  His aim was chiefly to prove his first ideas right and to ‘break’ the text.  I find no evidence  that he had any interest in the manuscript as such, nor troubled to learn anything much of manuscript studies, paleography, codicology, medieval art or even of medieval history.  And since he determined the line taken by his study groups, and thus the content, implicit biases and all, in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, his approach deeply affected what followed after just as Wilfrid’s affected it throughout most of the twentieth century.

Happily, the study is moving on, but a milder version of that ‘Cremona vs Hungarian’ reaction is still apparent.

In illustration I’ll treat a couple of astronomical motifs from two folios in other parts of the manuscript.  The one offers a nice example of alteration – in this case addition – to its original diagram. The other appears scarcely affected by the process of transmission, and occurs in another ‘ladies’ section.  Both display knowledge of the southern skies – and that is the information which seems preposterous to some.

Stars beyond the book: Crux and false Crux in the Voynich manuscript.

In English writings, and specifically in Voynich studies, there lingers a habit of taking ‘Europe’ to mean the world, a habit still so general and so ingrained that one finds entirely nonsensical generalisations made, and regularly  assented to without pause for thought.

Scarcely an eyebrow is raised, for example, by such assertions as that  “the stars of Crux were lost” or   “most star-names are Arab star names” though even a moment’s pause for thought, or turning  to read even a wiki article, should have given that speaker pause.

For a bit of perspective, the introduction by Chamberlain and Young provides a pleasant first exposure to the wider view:

  • Von Del Chamberlain and M. Jane Young (eds), Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World, pp. 49-64.(2005)

And for an idea of how complex even the idea of ‘Arab star-names’ is and what variety such imagery could take:

On the basis of accepting the bald statement that “the stars of Crux were lost” I have seen dismissed the fact that one or both of Crux and ‘false crux’ are depicted in the Voynich manuscript.

The unvoiced chain of thought among some theorists seems to run:, ‘Since my theory is inconsistent with depiction of Crux, therefore Crux cannot be depicted in the manuscript. I shall find some way to explain it which agrees with my theory, because my theory – which is mine – cannot be wrong.” (The usual alternative produced – or more exactly created as reaction to my first publishing this information –  has been Gregory of Tours‘ cross in Cygnus, but that has never marked ‘south’ in any system, not even the Europeans’.  Efforts to hastily manufacture ‘patches’ of this sort for a theory opposed by new evidence will normally forget to consider context, or to treat as one the critical elements of  context, function  and stylistics).

A more reasonable response in such a case might be:  ‘Since no reference to Crux has been noted in any European astronomical text dated before 1440, then if Crux is depicted in the Voynich manuscript, and if the manuscript was indeed manufactured in western Europe, this knowledge would have had to come from a different type of source –  written, oral or representational.”

To say that  ‘most star-names are Arab star-names’ is also – need one say – untrue.

The Arabs did have a name for Crux – Sulbar, meaning the beam of crucifixion, but this appears to be a result of early naturalisation of an older, Tamil term Sulba, meaning the knotted measuring cord.  The illustration shown (right) may serve as mnemonic.  It is from an old fresco showing a motif of older Nubian Christianity; cross and kombologion. Below (left) is Schiller’s (reversed) image of Sulbar, from one version of his astonishingly well-informed and constantly misinterpreted and underrated ‘Christianised Heavens’.

Sulbar – a binding and weight about the wrist of Abraham in one version of Schiller’s ‘Christianised’ Heavens’

Throughout that half of the world where it was seen each night, Crux served as practical marker of the night hours, and indicator of the unmarked Southern celestial Pole. In folio 67v-i it is used as an emblem for ‘South’ – and is complemented, correctly, by the other three astronomical emblems present in that diagram.  All four are actually superfluous – the directions already marked by other emblems – and employ a very different style of drawing to the rest.

More, while the assignments of its four asterisms are not wrong in astronomical terms they are a little odd in terms of traditional custom in those regions where Crux was a well known. The tradition of the eastern Arabs was to speak of Canopus as the proverbial ‘southern Pole’ for example.  So the four astronomical emblems on that diagram are a little odd – academic and  noticeably ‘foreign’ as if taken from a globe rather than from personal habit – but still, they are not wrong.  What they are is later additions.

I date their addition  to about the 13thC, not only – but not least  -because to represent stars as detached ‘heads’ is out of keeping with the regular practice of images in this manuscript.  Here I deal with only one of the four on folio 67v-i,  the emblem for south – Crux.(upper register in illustration, below).

False Crux (lower register in illustration above).

When I spoke first of the crosses in the manuscript, I identified the form on folio 79v-i again as Crux but going over these notes almost ten years later, I should now say this second is more likely meant for what we call  ‘false crux’ and which was certainly known, if confusedly, to medieval Europe.  The older pictorial traditions in depicting it may be divided into those which envisage it as the ‘shield of the face’ (I use the longer expression deliberately), and those which have it the cover of an entry to the world below and/or as a seal upon that entry from which the dead who are not truly dead will emerge again on the last day.

‘False crux’ lies in fact between Argo ratis and Canis major but is variously positioned in the European and Arabic imagery.

It has never been included among the official constellations but was very well known. In the older traditions it receives two interpretations, each given  various expressions.  In one strand, it appears as the cover of the cavern (‘mouth’) or entryway to the world below.  Bayer seems to have understood it so, though to have been uncertain about the difference between Crux and the false crux.

In the other strand of tradition, false crux is the seal and protection of the ship and may appear as a veil, shield other barrier set between the crew and the elements.  These images often betray uncertainty about how to show the ship, going ‘backwards’ can yet being drawn by Sirius (as Aratus say it is).

The asterism’s character –  if not its form – was clearly if surprisingly best understood in medieval Europe by the illustrator who created the following image, now in an early monastic copy of Cicero’s Aratea, Brit.Lib.Harley MS 647. That section’s manufacture is attributed to northern France, possibly Rheims, though to form images of words was not a custom native to Latin Europe, and is now associated earliest with works of roughly the same date made by the Karaite Jews of Syria (near Lake Tiberius) and of Egypt. And one mustn’t forget, since this is a copy of the Aratea, that when Harranian ‘star-worshippers’ were obliged to produce their holy books, or convert to Islam, or die during the first wave of Arab conquest, Aratus’ text was among those they produced, and their knowledge of astronomy was such that members of their community  established the study in Baghdad. In latin Europe this conception of Argo ratis soon devolves.

compare with

By contrast, a celestial globe made in Mashhad, as late as the seventeenth century, preserves memory of Argo as bird-headed, and more exactly here phoenix-headed and also of the ‘veil’ as shield against the dog whose rising theoretically marked Egypt’s annual inundation and drew the ship onwards (whether by stem or stern differs). This example takes additional sigificance from the fact that certain iconographic and stylistics found in the Voynich plant pictures occur also in a few leaves within the Mashhad Dioscorides.

In this connection, the comments made by Sadeh about the links between Mosul and Diyabakir, and use of parchment in the latter during the 12thC are of considerable interest, though the role of Nestorian and other Christian scholars in those regions, and specifically in connection with the transmission of knowledge about plants and medicines passes below Sadeh’s historical horizon.

  • M.M. Sadeh, The Arabic ‘Materia Medica’ of Dioscorides (1983) esp. Ch.2 (pp. 7-19)

About those stylistic connections to the plant-pictures in Beinecke MS 408, I’m can cite no prior ‘Voynichero’, and my sources were all academic ones. I daresday one might now find examples posterior to my study, and.or illustrations re-used illustrations from my posts to Voynichimagery


I repeat…


To help with orientation… The view from the northern hemisphere –  skies visible in Alexandria,  August 22nd., 1420 AD.

‘star atlas’ style…:

The glorious reality..

Postscript:  The next post, ‘Elevated souls Pt.1’ returns to the month folios. Once this series, focused on folio 70v-i ends, I;ll return to the short ‘reading-guide’ format with relief and pleasure which, I hope, my readers will share.

A much modified, ‘planispheric’, version of Schiller’s ‘Christianised Heavens’ can be seen here.



Expert opinion: Myth vs. Materials Science Pt.1

Two previous:
Header illustration: (left) detail of Bacon’s letter to Pope Clement; (right) page from Newbold’s notes.

Wilfrid Voynich didn’t mean to start the ‘theory war’ but he did.

He was an expert in attributing a manuscript as an object to its proper region and period,  but  had no sense of the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction.  The only type of provenance he practiced was the ‘type 1′ sort.

That discrepancy introduced the first, initially minor, distortion in others’ perception of this manuscript because he created a ‘history’ for it which lacks historical rigor, which adduces no evidence from the primary document, neither form nor materials nor informed commentary on its content – and refers only to such historical facts as might lend colour to his  ‘chain of ownership’ story. This attitude provided a model – and a very bad one – for how the manuscript should be approached.

Over time the practice of separating the manuscript from a narrative espoused in advance of research and then imposed on it,  would splinter the study into its many mutually incompatible simulacra: one informed by a tale of early Scandinavia, another of sixteenth-century Germany, a third  of seventeenth century Prague, a fourth of Renaissance Italy, a fifth of the ‘New World’; one occult, another cultic, another pragmatic and so forth, with none sufficiently well founded to disprove any other.

Pushing a pet theoretical narrative has now become, for most Voynicheros, the unifying theme for their tours through history and their sole reason for being involved in the study  – to the point where for anyone to say that an observation is the end-result of research into one or another question raised by the primary document  is to meet with open derision, scepticism or incomprehension – though rarely with enquiry – from those who are not primarily focused on analysis of the text’s written part. What passes for ‘Voynich studies’ has become a sort of social-media version of reality tv, where boos and hisses drive out one unproven theory while mass acclaim serves as if, alone, it were equal to  scholarly endorsement.

While this most crucial issue of myth-creation is treated in this post by taking an example originating in the 1920s, the same phenomena which saw its survival till (a least) 2015 are still in operation today and few of even the most widely adopted Voynich ‘histories’ and ‘theories’ have any more validity than did the ‘Bacon telescope’ story.  I know that, at some stage, I’ll have to provide would-be revisionists with more recent examples of persistent Voynich flummery, but I hope readers will understand that critiquing current Voynich theorists isn’t something I look forward to doing and as illustration of how fiction becomes ‘theory’ becomes canonised myth, this example will do very well.

The ‘Bacon’s telescope’ myth – and the ‘nebula/galaxy’ fantasy: 1920s to   2012 (and, alas, beyond).

Dedicated Voynich theorists today are far more defensive-offensive than Wilfrid Voynich was, and less willing to admit – as he freely did – that the basis for their ‘theory’ is no more than   some  ‘gut instinct’.  Voynich said openly enough that this is the only reason he described the manuscript  an autograph by Roger Bacon.  The rest of his fantastic ‘history’ as a largely imaginary chain-of-ownership novella simply followed from that first ‘instinct’. In fact, he also had in his favour a recognition affirmed by other specialists in medieval manuscripts of the time, that the volume presents as a manuscript of the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries.

Since today we know the vellum is dated later, the conclusion would seem fairly obvious that the present volume reproduced material from some one or more works made (if not first composed) during that earlier period.

The radiocarbon dating, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, finally disposed of any suggestion that the Voynich text was hand-written by Roger Bacon, but the idea that the material might have been from some work composed by, or copied by Roger Bacon has never been disproven – it was simply elbowed aside as theorists jostled for online popularity via the specious, and implied, idea that if Bacon didn’t inscribe this manuscript, it couldn’t contain material derived from Norman France or Norman England of Bacon’s time.

Newbold and the Bacon’s telesope myth.

William Romaine Newbold.

William Romaine Newbold’s paper of 1921 also has Roger Bacon’s biography central to its narrative, and for no better reason than does Wilfrid’s, but  Newbold was not wholly dependent on Wilfrid’s imagination, nor his own.

Newbold’s chief source, as he says, was Brewer (1859)*; though had Newbold instead read Bridges’ study (1875) his own narrative might have been less flawed.

The two historians, Brewer and Bridges, wrote less than twenty years apart, but they stand  on opposite sides of a scholarly watershed.

* in an edition of 1900, as Newbold says in his paper (p. 433 n.1).

Brewer’s ‘Life of Roger Bacon’ is a work of the Regency/Georgian era,  full of sensibility, empathy and adverbs.   By contrast, Bridges displays already that combination of judicious evaluation, precision in detail and ‘backbone’ which became the hallmark of England’s great Victorian dons.

  • John Sherren Brewer, Rogeri Bacon Opera quædamhactenus inedita. London : Longman, Green, and Roberts, 1859.  Vol. I. containing I.–Opus tertium. II.–Opus minus. III.–Compendium philosophiæ. (Bacon’s biography is included in the Preface  pp. xi-lxxxiv).
  • John Henry Bridges, The ‘Opus majus’ of Roger Bacon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873. Vol.1, Introduction § 1. ‘Bacon’s Life’ pp. xxi-xxxvi.

Since we are here concerned with the effect of ‘canonised myth’ upon the manuscript’s study, I’ll take the ‘Bacon’s telescope’ myth, which had existed already in 1875, was then taken up and applied by Newbold to  argue that the image on folio 68v* was Bacon’s drawing of a spiral galaxy. (see left)

*folio 68v(part) is the latest description of  this image by the Beinecke Library; the same was earlier described as folio  68r, and/or 67v by various sources, the additional ‘1’ or ‘i’ being informal).

This notion that Roger Bacon invented the telescope was immediately  embraced, then, by the first wave of ‘Voynich researchers’, who soon began repeating as if fact Newbold’s notion that Bacon had seen, and now drawn, a spiral galaxy.  It was a ‘Voynichero’ notion that was to endure despite all reason and argument to as late as 2015 when I saw to my astonishment that it had survived  even Norm Sperling’s thorough debunking of 2012 and was on the verge of joining the list of “canonised myths which you may deny only at your peril”.

However.. here s the more cautious passage direct from Bridges’ biography of Bacon (1875). You will note that here is no complete rejection of the ‘Bacon telescope’ notion but no over-confident assertion either.  It is from this germ that  Newbold would subsequently seek support for his interpretation of many images in the Voynich manuscript, including that on folio 68v.

Bridges had actually written:

Of the magnifying powers of convex lenses [Roger] Bacon had a clear comprehension.  He imagined, and was within measurable distance of effecting the combination of lenses which was to bring far things near, but which was not to be realized till the time of Galileo.

In 1614, four years after the invention of the telescope, Combach, professor of philosophy in the University of Marpurg, published this great work of Bacon, ‘viri eminentissimi.’ It would be interesting to know whether the allusion in the Novum Organum (lib. i. 80) to the work of an obscure monk (‘ monachi alicujus in cellula’) has reference to this work. The Cogitata et Visa was written before Combach’s edition was published ; but examples of the Perspectiva were numerous, and it can hardly have been unknown to Francis Bacon. In any case it must have been known to Descartes, to whose epoch-making researches on Dioptrique it assuredly contributed a stimulating influence. This at least they have in common, that light is looked upon as correlated with other modes of propagation of force through the Ether.

(Bridges, op.cit. p.xxxv)

  • John Henry Bridges, Obituary, from The Times (-of London), Tuesday, Jun 26, 1906; pg. 14; Issue 38056. Explains that Bridges’ work was not well received.

And – though still ignorant of Bridges – Newbold says in his paper delivered in 1921:

The telescope has extended the range of vision far out into the depths of space; the microscope has revealed the existence of the unimagined realm of the infinitely little …That both of these indispensable instruments were known to and probably discovered by Roger Bacon, and that by their means he made discoveries of the utmost importance, the Voynich manuscript puts beyond the range of reasonable doubt. (p.432)

  • William Romaine Newbold, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Series 3: Vol.43, (1921)  pp. 431- 474. Section occurs pp.456ff.

As would so often happen, a Voynich ‘theory’ was soon opposed by arguments informed by fact and reason  only to be ignored.

For example, James Stokley’s paper of 1928 plainly denies that ‘Bacon telescope’ myth – denies the idea in itself AND  in the context of Voynich writings, but his essay had no more power to influence the general run of Voynich ‘fans’ and Voynich writings than had any previous effort… or indeed any subsequent effort to halt the popular practive of inventing some Wilfrid-style ‘history’ and call it a  ‘Voynich theory’.

  • James Stokley, ‘Did Roger Bacon Have a Telescope?’, The Science News-Letter, Vol. 14, No. 386 (Sep. 1, 1928), pp. 125-126+133-134.

Perception of the poor manuscript is so chronically distorted by the invention, and unthinking adoption of such myths that a single popular tale of this sort can prevent any advance of the manuscript’s study for decades.

That so many of these ‘canonised myths’ still prove resistant to both evidence and reason and proponents’ still respond with personal hostility rather than intelligent debate shows how far Voynich studies has descended to the level of  social-media’s quasi-religious association-by-common-biases.

But to continue the history of this particular theory’s resistance to fact and reason…

Eight years after Stokley’s paper of 1928 had been published, a reasonable-sounding paper was published by Edward Lutz, who had clearly done a fair amount of reading, though not with any critical eye.

Lutz repeats and even illustrates the story of Bacon’s supposed ‘telescope’ and though it is clear that he relied largely on Newbold’s paper of 1921,  it is also clear that – unlike Newbold –  he was not ignorant of Bridges’ work.  We know this because Lutz added a quotation from Bridges below his own imaginative depiction of that mythical ‘Bacon telescope’.

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

And still, almost half a century later, in her summary of the Friedmans’ failed efforts to wring meaning from the Voynich text, Mary d’Imperio supposes the long decades’ of excessive western admiration for Roger Bacon  due to some residual guilt among Catholics over the (largely imaginary) ‘persecution of science by the church’, but that cannot be accepted as an adequate explanation for persistence of this “telescope” myth into Voynich talk even into the twenty-first century.

As late as 2015, the present writer was obliged to ask certain readers of her blog voynichimagery to  go and read Norm Sperling’s brief and brilliant post of 2012 in which the whole idea was firmly and –  one had hoped finally – been despatched to oblivion.

Lynn Thorndike would surely have approved of Sperling’s first sentene:

“William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk.”

Note (Dec.31st.2020).  Checking the link today, I find that Sperling’s original article no longer on the web. I did find it through the waybackmachine, and in the hope of preserving it conveniently for my readers I have now added the text to the end of this post.

When finally laid to rest, any myth may seem quaint and a little amusing but so long as myths are maintained in what should be an area of formal scholarship, they distort perception of the object of study, misdirect research and may positively hamper investigation as believers make their own objections felt towards arguments or scholars opposing such long-lived and well-loved fictions.

Less quaint, more recent, and far less amusing is the social-media PR sort of Voynichero who manufactures support for a speculative ‘history’ by deliberately inserting some item of guesswork into a supposedly objective narrative, and then sponsoring its elevation to the status of  ‘canonised myth’. This abhorrent practice  has largely passed beneath notice within the  ‘mythic’ atmosphere of Voynich theory-wars, but in January of this year, Santacoloma spoke of it in a post entitled, ‘ Birth of a New Mythology’.

With Rich’s permission, I’ve quoted below those of his observations with which I can agree wholeheartedly.  For the rest –  and to avoid the impression that his opinions are identical to mine –   the passages omitted (and indicated by ellipses) can be read by following that link.

I’d like to say here that Rich is among the few who have so far stood apart from the anti-intellectual culture induced by ‘theory war’.  Remaining always civil, Rich appears to place a higher value on common interest in Beinecke MS 408 than on whether a person does, or doesn’t agree with his views about it.   While that rational attitude was the norm in the first mailing list, it is increasingly rare now.

Santacoloma maintains that the manuscript was forged.  I  think, rather, that  what has been ‘forged’ – in a slightly different sense – are the conceptual moulds into which the manuscript is forced, and has been forced by one person after another since 1912.

I don’t expect Rich to change his opinion; I hope he doesn’t expect me to change mine.  We have our reasons.

Note: Santacoloma did not “invent ” the  theory that the manuscript is a forged document. It was among the ideas proposed by William Friedman by the early 1950s, prompting Panofsky’s strong statement to the contrary. Despite this, Mary d’Imperio still treated it as a real possibility.

from Rich’s post:

There are many, previously accepted (and stubbornly accepted by most, still), “truisms” about the provenance, construction/substance, and content of the Voynich manuscript …. unsupportable by the facts, and at worst, demonstrably false. Both rise to the level of mythologies. These are too numerous to mention, or explain, in [one] post …

But how do these myths arise? I don’t mean that in the sense of one’s motivation for starting them …  but by what path, what series of events, did these myths originate? …

…. In some cases they were created by Wilfrid himself. Or, soon after his death, added innocently by speculation on the part of Anne Nill and Ethel Voynich. Later, a vast army of well-meaning researchers, by digging deep for any shred of evidence …. the results were either presented as, or later morphed into, “facts”.

….  But in my time studying the Voynich… a bit over ten years now… I’ve seen at least a dozen or so new myths created, and become accepted by the mainstream “understanding” of the Voynich. As an example of these, I will outline one … its origin, its metamorphosis into fact, and then, its canonization into the supposed “fact base” of the Voynich’s story.

…  Yale publication of the (facsimile edition) book, The Voynich Manuscript,* … was edited by the erudite, informative and kind Raymond Clemens … But I’m sorry to say that I cannot recommend the work as a source text for information about the reality …, because in many respects it is a biased advertisement …  it side-steps and/or “rationalizes” some of the many serious anomalies of the Voynich, and it does so in some very obvious, and even sometimes unintentionally humorous ways.”

**Raymond Clemens (ed.), The Voynich manuscript, Yale University Press (2016).

[minor edit to replace dropped phrase –  17th April 2019]

That single ‘myth’ was embedded in Voynich studies from 1921 to at least as late as 2015.  What is notable about the way in which it survived so long, and despite informed and detailed opposition is that where the first generations of Voynich writers merely adopted Newbold’s opinion with or without mention of its origin, later generations of the internet-social-media period (post 2004) were content to parrot unnamed and unacknowledged sources. Thus mere gossip was enough – if widely enough repeated – to turn fantasy into something ‘everyone knows’.  History, to be history, has to BE a history of the study’s evolution.  Any Voynich writer who refused to acknowledge his or her sources of information actively corrupts this manuscript’s study.  Most do it these days because, being amateurs in the age of social media, they fear that by admitting their debt to others they may lose the public acclaim on social media to which their whole ‘study’ of Beinecke MS 408 is aimed.


Added December 31st. 2020. Norm Sperling’s debunk re 68v-i.

Today (Dec 31st. 2020) Since I consider Sperling’s summary of the evidence a landmark in Voynich studies – a formal de-bunking of a Voynich myth that had persisted for almost a century by the time he wrote, I’ve decided to reproduce it here – minus its illustrations.

Norm delivered the coup de grace as follows:

Voynich: Spiraling into Folly

© Norman Sperling, December 26, 2012

William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk. The spiral nebula concept was suggested to Newbold by astronomer Eric Doolittle, who really should have known much better. Doolittle was a diligent and much-appreciated expert on double stars, but at f/20 his telescope gave some of the poorest, faintest, least-contrasty views of nebulae (the category from which galaxies had not yet been separated). To be blunt, Doolittle was out of his specialty and didn’t know what he was talking about.

While the Great Galaxy in Andromeda is visible to the naked eye as an oval smudge, it does not look spiral through even today’s visual telescopes. It doesn’t even appear face-on, but is strongly tilted to our view. It was first recognized as a spiral in 1899, by pioneering astrophotographer Isaac Roberts: “[the object is] a left-handed spiral, and not annular as I at first suspected”. Photographs of Stars II, p63. Newbold’s own book says as much (William Romaine Newbold, edited by Roland Grubb Kent: The Cipher of Roger Bacon, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1928, Chapter XI, p 123).

The very first time any celestial object was recognized as a spiral was 1843, using the world’s then-largest telescope, Lord Rosse’s new 72-inch-wide “Leviathan of Parsonstown”. Even with highly improved telescopes in the 2010s, visual observers are hard-put to distinguish spirality in the highest-contrast, most-vivid spiral – the Whirlpool galaxy in Canes Venatici, M51 – with any telescope narrower than 12 inches. Even then, the focal ratio must be f/8 or less to concentrate light enough. Early-1600s telescopes by Lippershey, Galileo, and others were less than 2 inches wide, and typically f/20-f/40, with notoriously imperfect lenses that smeared light around. For a deeper explanation of focal ratio and surface-brightness, read my essay Of Pupils & Brightness. NO primitive telescope of the Renaissance, let alone some speculated pioneer of the Middle Ages, had the slightest chance of revealing spirality in any object, to any observer, under any conditions.

Newbold speculated about the changes a nebula might show over the 650 years from Roger Bacon’s time to his own. We now know that the spirals are galaxies, so wide that light takes tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years to traverse them. The sharpest photographs of the last century have not revealed any measurable rotation. The only changes are sudden appearances of supernovae, which fade back down. The spiral in 68r is NOT a galaxy.

Taken from the wayback page


Next post:

There have been three scientific studies conducted since 2000.  These are:

  • McCrone’s analysis of the ink and a few selected pigments (2009);
  • Radiocarbon dating of four samples of the vellum (2011);  some tables and commentary by Nick Pelling here.
  • Codicological studies whose results were amalgamated and edited to produce the most valuable essay in the Yale facsimile edition:  ‘Physical Materials’ (2016).