Two prior posts
- What magic – where magic? 3b: historical consciousness. (June 22, 2021)
- What magic? Where magic? 3a: The Friedmans. (June 15, 2021)
Afterword to this post.
I had always thought that Mary d’Imperio’s work was to sort and summarise material accumulated during the years that William Friedman directed the Voynich study groups, and that the entire content in Elegant Enigma was, therefore, a reflection of Friedman’s thinking.
As this series of posts progressed, it occurred to me to look at relative distributions for the entries in d’Imperio’s bibliography, and on doing so I found a rather different picture emerge. I now believe I may owe Wilfrid Friedman, and possibly also his wife Elizebeth, an apology. It looks very much as if the ‘occult’ theme which occupies so much of d’Imperio’s Table of Contents expresses her own ideas, which may or may not have been shared by Elizebeth. There’s no doubt that Friedman did drift forward to as late as the seventeenth century, but his retirement was in 1955 and he died in 1969, whereas the ‘occult’ sources in d’Imperio’s bibliography are chiefly publications of the late 1960s and 1970s.
I’ve left the first posts in the series as I wrote them, though, so you can see how it went. Another and less obvious point to emerge is how greatly O’Neill’s careless paper contributed to the firming shift in external research towards the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At least, back then, people religiously cited the precedents they built on, so there’s no doubt who influenced e.g. Brumbaugh’s shift in the same direction. In correcting the first item in the chain, then, and knowing that the later writers were not speaking to any other research, we can automatically correct that post-Columban dating all along the line. It should also be kept in mind that scholars of the earlier generation meant the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries when they spoke of the Renaissance. These days, writers begin the ‘Renaissance’ much earlier, from about the time Byzantine representatives came, and stayed, in Italy.
Seventeenth-century mindset – Friedman and artificial languages.
I have attributed the origin of the ‘Germanic-Dee-occult’ theme* to William Friedman because he was the formal leader of the various teams who studied the manuscript at the NSA.
*which is where Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa comes in.
However, if you look at d’Imperio’s Bibliography and then (if this sort of thing is to your liking) make distribution-graphs by three criteria – date of publication. lifetime of the author, and whether the central focus is on the time of Roger Bacon or of Dee-and-later, an interesting pattern emerges.
Focus does not really shift towards the later period and an ‘occult’ theme until quite late in the course of the Friedman groups’ efforts, and from what we know of Friedman’s delicate mental health, the shift may have occurred during his absence. A letter written to Friedman’s biographer in 1976 tells us that Friedman was “hospitalized with mental illness five separate times beginning in 1940. His last hospitalization was in late 1963”.*
*References already given – here.
Friedman’s official service record reflects a steady decline in his official status from 1942, and reduction in his responsibilities from 1949 – from leader of a team to consultant on cryptography, to ‘research consultant’ to ‘special assistant to the director’ and retirement in 1955. After 1955, Friedman was simply a ‘member of the advisory board’ until 1969 and one suspects that his duties from 1955-1969 were nominal.
Chief, Communications Research Section, Army Security Agency, 1947-1949;
Cryptologic Consultant, Army Security Agency, 1949;
Research Consultant, Armed Forces Security Agency, 1949-1951;
Research Consultant, National Security Agency, 1951-1954;
Special Assistant to the Director, NSA, 1954-1955 (retirement);
Member, NSA Scientific Advisory Board, 1954-1969;
Special Consultant, National Security Agency, 1955-1969.
Questions of influence.
Apart from Fr. Theodore Petersen and John Manly, Friedman does not seem to have cared to get the opinions of external specialists until the 1950s, by which time he had been interested in the manuscript for thirty years, while remaining ignorant of the basics needed to study medieval manuscripts, as his interview with Erwin Panofsky would make clear in 1954.
In the following passage, Reeds supposes that the defacement of Fr. Petersen’s work was done by Petersen himself, but this now seems unlikely. Petersen’s work shows him to have been a meticulous, neat and painstaking researcher – besides which his formal duties would have prevented his devoting time to work in the NSA, and Friedman treated the project as a ‘national secret’, from an idea that so difficult a cipher (as he imagined must inform the Voynich text) might prove of national importance. Reeds reports the matter this way:
[The Friedmans] became interested in the VMS as soon as Newbold began publicizing his theories about the VMS in the 1920s, and started an extensive correspondence on the subject with their friend John M. Manly, the University of Chicago Chaucer expert who, like Friedman, had served as a cryptanalyst in World War I. Friedman obtained photostats from Mrs. Voynich, and through her, started a correspondence with Father Theodore C. Petersen which lasted until the latter’s death in 1966. Petersen’s hand-made tracing onto onion-skin paper is now item 1620 in the collection, and is amply described on page 41 of D’Imperio’s book. After making the copy, Petersen prepared elaborate indexes and frequency counts (both into notebooks and onto index cards — all now in the Friedman collection — but in the process scribbled up his copy with underlinings, colored pencil marks, and so on, to the extent that photocopies of his copy are often hard to make out.
- Jim Reeds, Transcription.. op.cit. p.4 [pdf]
It may be due to John Tiltman’s influence that there began to be some greater effort made to seek advice from persons external to the Friedman circle but after hearing Tiltman’s opinions on the manuscript in 1951, Friedman had spoken of what was already a set idea – that Voynichese was an artificial language. He was already looking to the mid-seventeenth century to explain a medieval manuscript.
Towards the seventeenth century,
Reeds’ version of events is in Transcription… (p. 6).
Here’s Tiltman’s account of what had happened in 1951:
After reading my report, Mr. Friedman disclosed to me his belief that the basis of the script was a very primitive form of synthetic universal language such as was developed in the form of a philosophical classification of ideas by Bishop Wilkins in 1667 and Dalgarno a little later. It was clear that the productions of these two men were much too systematic, and anything of the kind would have been almost instantly recognisable. My analysis seemed to me to reveal a cumbersome mixture of different kinds of substitution. When I was attempting to trace back the idea of universal language, I came upon a printed book entitled The Universal Character by Cave Beck, London 1657 (also printed in French in the same year). Cave Beck was one of the original members of the British Royal Society and his system was certainly a cumbersome mixture…
- John Tiltman, ‘The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World’ [NSA gov.site pdf] pp.9-10, Plates 21-23.
Friedman began pushing to meet Professor Panofsky from 1952, but as we’ve seen was prevented until 1954, after which his Questionnaire elicited from Panofsky this answer to its Question 15:
I do not feel qualified to pronounce about the probability of your “artificial language” theory. I must confess that, for the time being, I am a little skeptical in view of the fact that, so far as I know, no attempts to construct such an artificial language can be shown to have been made until the beginning of the seventeenth century…
– -which is perfectly true.
Unsurprisingly, Panofsky’s caution had no impact on Friedman, and five years later – and thus even after Singer had introduced the ‘occult-Germanic-Dee-sixteenth century’ notion, Friedman would include his ‘artificial language’ idea as a footnote to an article written by his wife and published under both their names.
- Friedman, William F. and Elizebeth S., ‘Acrostics Anagrams and Chaucer’, Philological Quarterly, Vol 38 (1959), pp.1-21.
By that time, Friedman had been officially retired from the NSA for four years and it is not clear if, or how, the agency’s offices were being used but Tiltman and, apparently, Elizebeth Friedman served as the “informal” leaders, with Tiltman’s paper of 1968 and his introduction to Elegant Enigma showing that he remained connected to the NSA’s cryptological effort until after Friedman’s death in November 1969.
Which brings us back to d’Imperio’s bibliography.
Other than works dated to the seventeenth century that are listed without mention of a later re-printing, the overwhelming majority of entries that are not about Roger Bacon, are listed in copies dating to the 1960s and 1970s, between the time of Friedman’s last hospitalization for mental illness and his death. Here’s one listing:
- Shumaker. Wayne. (1972). The Occult Sciences in Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns, University of California Press, Berkley.
For the earlier decades, there had been little more than Lionell Strong’s short article asserting that the manuscript was the work of Anthony Askham,
- Lionell C. Strong, (1945), ‘Anthony Askham, the Author of the Voynich Manuscript’, Science, New Series, Vol. 101, No. 2633 (Jun. 15, 1945), pp. 608-609
Strong begins by presuming O’Neill’s ideas are confirmed, draws in Leonardo da Vinci and takes it from there. The paper is usually judged nonsense, and no doubt its solution was, but at least it was properly footnoted and referenced, so we can see how he got his ideas; the superscript numerals are removed from this clip.
and so on and so forth. d’Imperio’s Bibliography lists five books by Anthony Askham.
Robert Brumbaugh again.
Brumbaugh would also claim that the written text was decrypted by using numbers. He seems to be reaching for the idea of some form of volvelle, in which one fixed wheel has the numerals and the (presumably outer) concentric wheels have diverse alphabets. I hope I interpret him correctly. In 1975 he would write, ,
But on folio 66r, the compiler tipped his hand too far. In the left margin (see illustration) he set up groups of characters in patterns: three or four written horizontally, then next to them three or four vertically. Since I had seen a number of these characters in another cipher in Milan, where they represented numerals, I suspected an arithmetical game. And, sure enough, the horizontal symbols give equations, to which the vertical symbols are the solutions. (For example, the last puzzle “2a2a4 8” gives “8” as the solution of “2 plus 2 plus 4”). This gave away the “alphabet”; the cipher is written in numerals, not letters, and each numeral turns out- as we solve the equations- to be represented by from two to four distinct designs. Seven, for instance, is either an Arabic 7, a Greek pi, or a Roman d, indifferently. And it became possible to tell which characters are the same and which are different; for example, a -11- compendium with two loops is a 3, while the very similar -tl- with one loop is 8; 7 is 7, all right, but narrowed and more styled as ? it is 2 ; an is a single numeral equal to 8; and so on.
- Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Solution of the Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher’, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 49, No. 4 (April 1975), pp. 347-355.
Nothing occult in that.
By 1987, Brumbaugh would still not have questioned or checked his secondary sources of information, and his confidence was not greatly lessened by the continuing lack of any endorsement of his claim to have “found the cipher key”. Thirteen years later, he’s been exposed to the ‘occult’ idea. Asked in that year to bring the librarians up-to-date, he wrote:
From 1912 on, we have indeed learned progressively more. A letter which accompanied the manuscript said that it had been bought in 1586[sic!], by the Emperor Rudolph II, who thought it was the work of “Roger Bacon, the Englishman.” Bacon’s name was one to conjure with in Prague at this time, which would explain the high price (six hundred ducats) the letter says Rudolph paid. By what is surely more than a coincidence, this same date saw a change in the fortunes at Prague of two English alchemists and Bacon enthusiasts, John Dee and Edward Kelley. From poverty, they moved to fortune: Dee and his family going home in style, Kelley remaining to be knighted at Rudolph’s court. My friend S. W. Dunwell informed me that there is a note in Dee’s diary referring to 630 ducats at this time. Note or not, it seems likely that the persons who sold the Emperor this document were Dee and Kelley; no other even remotely likely candidates have been defended….
- Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich Cipher Manuscript: a current report’, The Yale University LIbrary Gazette, Vol. 61, No.3/4 (April 1987) pp. 92-95.
Need I say that O’Neill’s dating was nonsense and that “the letter” is not dated 1568, and does not say that Rudolf bought the manuscript, or bought it in that year, but Marci adds at the end of the letter to Kircher – and as a piece of hearsay – matter that the person from whom he had it could only have got as hearsay himself.
Nothing has ever been discovered in the records of Rudolf’s exchequer or accounts to support that tenuous rumour; there is no evidence for that oddly anonymous “carrier” – not that he existed, or was given 600 ducats, or anything else. Marci makes a point of not endorsing or supporting the story, which he reports in an offhand way.
Had the rumour named anyone but Rudolf, it would be recognised as no more than ‘a bloke heard from some bloke that some bloke brought the manuscript and was given heaps of money for it.’ An historical footnote of no value.
Showers of kingly gold.
Since Dee’s name has come up, and that legendary sum of 600 ducats (a staggering amount to pay for a manuscript, when Rudolf had no real interest in anything but the latest printed publications about the latest science), yet it would have been a derisory sum for anyone wanting Elizabeth I’s counsellor and former tutor to work for them. Dee was, in fact, accused of accepting payments from foreign kings. Here’s his reaction.
I’m quoting, as Trattner does, from Dee’s ‘Autobiographical Tracts’:
To be most briefe . . . as concerning my forraine credit, . . I might have served five Christian Emporers; namely, Charles the Fifth, Ferdinand, Maximilian, this Rudulph, and this present Moschovite: of every one their stipends directly or indirectly offered, amounting greater each, then other: as from 500 dollars yearely stipend to a 1000, 2000, 3000; and lastly, by a Messenger from this Russian or Moschovite Emporer, purposely sent, unto me at Trebona castle . . . of my coming to his court at Moskow . . . there to enjoy at his Imperial handes £2000 sterling yearely stipende; . …
On which Trattner commented, “if Dee was interested in financial betterment would he not have accepted any one of these positions rather than die in poverty, as he did?”
- Walter I. Trattner, God and Expansion in Elizabethan England: John Dee, 1527-1583, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar.,1964), pp. 17-34.
Can you imagine a man of such pride and such disdain for ‘forraine credit’ hawking a manuscript as ratty-looking as the Voynich manuscript to an imperial court and having the poor taste to ask the Emperor to pay him for it? I have difficulty imagining it.
But I think no-one currently choses to believe that Dee or his associate brought the manuscript to Prague. Rumours reaching my own ears would have it that the ‘Germanic-central European’ theorists have decided to dump all the original expert opinions, and the English provenance, and the Anglo-French month names etc., and just settle for a theory that it was always Germanic-central-European, born and bred.
By the way, if you’re wondering how to define ‘central European’, I’m told (another unendorsed bit of hearsay) it means medieval Bohemia “minus the Slavic element”. And that’s about the value of third-hand hearsay.
ego judicium meum hic suspendo.
It looks more and more as if it is wrong to assign the rise of that anachronistic ‘sixteenth-seventeenth century Germanic occult’ narrative to Wilfrid, though it plainly emerges from the Friedman groups.
It arises too late to have been any theory to which Friedman was personally attached, but to judge from that outburst from d’Imperio after Elizebeth Friedman spoke of how an academic board had refused funds for the project, it looks as if Mary d’Imperio and/or Elizebeth Friedman were actually responsible for its flourishing.
We see that although Brumbaugh doesn’t consider it even as late as 1975, by which time the manuscript was held at his university’s Beinecke library, he takes the ‘occult’ narrative more or less for granted by 1987. By that time, d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma had been released with almost half its content focused on occult themes.
I’m inclined now to look to three woman, and one centre of studies to uncover the origin of what has these days become a full-blown ‘Sixteenth-or-seventeenth-century-Christian-Germanic-occult-alchemical’ narrative only tenuously linked to our early fifteenth-century product. Speculation, back-projection, and rather poor ‘compared images’ is, as far as what appears on the web is concerned, its chief means of survival.
Those three-and-one are – Elizebeth Friedman, Mary d’Imperio, Frances Yates and the Warburg Institute. I have written to the last, enquiring whether they have an archive of correspondence covering 1969-1978. (Poachers – hang back).
In the last paragraphs of text in Elegant Enigma, writing in 1978, d’Imperio says:
I feel that alchemical writings. in particular. deserve closer attention. since they may not have been so thoroughly studied by Voynich researchers as have herbal, medical and astrological sources. More attention to early cryptographic writings of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries [sic!] might also richly repay our efforts… In fact, determined, thorough and painstaking attempt to search through manuscript collections and early printed books on almost any of the topics sketched in chapters 8 and 9 of this monograph could still turn up up a new and illuminating bit of evidence for a student searching specifically for a parallel to the Voynich manuscript.
Elegant Enigma p. 77.
Remember Chapters 8 and 9?
Whatever bees were in William Friedman’s bonnet, it’s looking more and more as if occultism wasn’t one of them and that Mary d’Imperio did more than just organise material accumulated during the Friedman years in making Elegant Enigma.