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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.
Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:
“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”
We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.
No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.
Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe. In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2. For the online link see ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography – top bar).
Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in European-and-Armenian style. McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments. There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of any Voynichese cipher was either European or resident in Europe – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress) may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily- but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript – it might not.
A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.
It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’. And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense. It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake… And so on.
Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”
So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.
This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted John Tiltman. When, at last, on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures:
“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early Middle Ages right through into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)
He did not continue the thought to its conclusion – at least, not in words.
More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’, seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back, resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player.
Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:
“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…
In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.
It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s intellectual history”. Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:
Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?
Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.
Today, a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things. Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance at that time would still have demanded some important person as ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn, supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.
Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.
As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.
Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.
For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its text must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility, then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder – greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.
Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”, I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it. We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’.
Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.
It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.
BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS
Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals, methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.
James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.
Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)
William Eamon, ‘Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science’, Sudhoffs Archiv, Bd. 69, H. 1 (1985), pp. 26-49.
_______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.
Erik Anton Heinrichs, ‘The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler: Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany’, The Sixteenth Century Journal Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 417-440
Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.
Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,
Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai, Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.
“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.
adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.
The practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921. Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s. Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.
Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens.
As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” – Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?
It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they considered.
Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens). If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything in Beinecke MS 408 an artisan’s handbook or notebook.
Practical skill = practical value.
Such information could even be imagined recorded in cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) – books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such information as that about plant-derived pigments. Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’
Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how. So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it, he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.
image – The rape of Damascus.
“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.” From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.” (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand took three years.
Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).
To speak of textiles – how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429. In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass on his knowledge. One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased.
[Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.
for additional vocabularies:
Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with
Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).
A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through botanical.com but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.
Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century- through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.
Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.
They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater). At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill of women.
Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.
The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning.
Similarly, Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:
Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).
As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.
Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v. Relevant to our understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference, this anomaly obliges us to consider too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.
The research question is framed as:
Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?
Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.
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 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’.
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:
If 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.
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.
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.
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).
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, fromThe 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.
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.
Notes 2, 3 & 4: dating and provenancing ‘shapely ladies’
second edition, edited and updated – 15th. Feb. 2019
Anne Nill wrote:
[on first seeing the copy, Panofsky] became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century2 … but as he came to the female figures3 in connection with the colours used in the manuscript4 he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century!
*’colours’ – he was first shown worn black-and-white negative copies.
“13thC? …..15th? ….
Anne Nill conflates a question about dating manufacture (‘range of colours’), with one about dating content ( ‘shapely ladies’) though it’s true that both together had caused Panofsky’s hesitation.
Eight decades on, the revisionist can consider each item separately and Panofsky’s original judgement appears justified on both counts: manufacture, 15thC; matter gained from older sources. Some of those sources may indeed have been thirteenth-century.
‘Colours’ – The manuscript’s Palette:
Panofsky’s first dating manufacture of the manuscript to ‘not earlier than the fifteenth century’ would eventually become the consensus among persons whose work was in evaluating manuscripts. By the early 1960s, as d’Imperio recorded:
“Helmut Lehmann-Haupt..stated in a letter to Tiltman dated 1 November 1963 that “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400”.
Elegant Enigma (1978) p.8*
*note – typographic error in the original. Properly – ‘Hellmut…’. [note added 26 April 2019]
These unnamed specialists, and Panofsky before them, were validated finally in 2011 by the vellum’s radiocarbon range : 1404-1438.
I’ll leave the subject of pigments for a later post, where I’ll compare Panofsky’s statement with Dr. Carter’s descriptive list of the palette (recorded by d’Imperio), and by reference to a scientific study which was included in the Yale facsimile edition. Since the 1930s, and indeed since 1954 – we have developed more precise techniques for analysis and identification.
Comment – Shapely figures
Panofsky was quite right to say that ‘shapely’ women (whom we’ll define by their swelled bellies) would not become a Latin fashion until the fifteenth century, but with more medieval manuscripts known today, we can say his original opinion may not have needed second-thoughts on this account, for research into the imagery in Spanish-and-Jewish manuscripts indicates that the form does occur there earlier, though interestingly only to represent metaphorical or allegorical ‘bodies’. The closest comparison found so far – since we must take both stylistics and apparent subject into account – is the ‘Gemini’ in MS Sassoon 823 (now: UPenn MS LJS 057). The remarkably close similarity suggests a need to revise much of what has been generally assumed about the Voynich ‘ladies’.
As our header shows, the ‘swelled belly’ emerged as an effort to imitate drawings in the first (pre-Ulugh Beg) illustrations found in copies of al-Sufi’s Book of the Constellations. Those images in turn had reflected the traditions of pre-Islamic peoples, including but not limited to, those of the Greeks and Romans. The rounded belly was most characteristic of an Indo-Persian style and we must consider that the works of al-Biruni may have had some part to play in first formulation of the drawings illustrating al-Sufi’s tenth-century composition.
That remains to be seen. However, the header for this post illustrates the progression of the style; the left panel shows a detail from the ‘Gemini’ in an eleventh-century Iraqi copy of al-Sufi’s text; the centre shows the Gemini from MS Sassoon 823, whose content is a compilation of astronomical works, out together in 1361 in Catalonia, and the third panel is from another compilation, in a manuscript made (as we know) during the early decades of the fifteenth century.
The fourteenth-century Catalonian-Jewish figure has more in common with the Voynich manuscript’s unclothed figures than just the quirk which sees many of the bellies given a slightly-angular form.
They also have in common their curiously-formed ankles, flat feet and boneless-looking arms – none of which elements appear in extant Islamic copies of al-Sufi’s constellation-illustrations, and none of which mars the later, more literal, fifteenth century ‘shapely women’ of Latin (i.e. western Christian) art.
There are differences evident, too. A majority of the Voynich figures have heads disproportionately large, as the Catalonian figure does not. More importantly (because even rarer ) many are drawn with overly large thighs in combination with bone-thin shanks, something shown most clearly in the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ sub-section, and which again is present neither in the Catalonian figure, nor in any remaining copies of al-Sufi’s work of which I’m aware.
That stylistic habit is not absolutely unknown, though since it speaks more to the route by which the material had reached the west than our present subject, I leave it aside.
On the matter of proportions, which topic I’d brought forward quite early for its significance, the general indifference saw it ignored at that time, but more recently we have had a lucid ‘revisionist’ post on the subject by Koen Gheuens, which I recommend:
the chief point to be taken from this is that Panofsky’s judgement of ‘southern and Jewish’ content again finds support in the style of that drawing in a manuscript predating the Voynich manuscript’s manufacture by at least forty years, and perhaps as much as sixty.
The possibility that its precedents could date from as early as the the reign of Alfonso X (1254-1282) relies on the context in which the Sassoon ‘Gemini’ occurs, for even in Sassoon 823 its style of drawing stands apart. To clarify, I rely on a paper by Fischer, Langermann and Kunitzsch, describing in detail the sections comprising the compilation of Sassoon 823/LJS 057. The optional Preface clarifies another ‘ground hog day’ issue but skipping it will not lose anything from the main topic.
Optional preface:History of Sassoon 823/LJS 057 in Voynich studies.
I came across a notice of sale and acquisition for MS Sassoon 823 in 2011 in the course of my principal (non-Voynich-related) research.
Its description contained a greater-than-usual number of points in common with the Voynich manuscript – though at that time I was still the only person in the second mailing list to hold that Beinecke MS 408 was also a compilation from several earlier sources. (Today, I daresay, most would claim it general knowledge, and some would assert having known it all along. Perhaps, if so, they might have lent a word of support at the time.) Hunting more details of the manuscript, I had only an abstract of the article by Fischer et.al. when I posted a note (in my old blogger blog, Findings) on Nov. 21st., 2011, listing the features I considered it had in common with the Voynich manuscript. (At the time, a couple of the ‘German’ theorists were disputing use of the term ‘vellum’ and claiming the material could just as easily be described as German parchment.. which isn’t so, but they’ve come right on that matter since.)
A codex – probably fourteenth century – from the Iberian peninsula or thereabouts (Ceuta?) contains illustrations with human figures drawn short, and with distended bellies. One of these illustrations (for Gemini) is shown on p.288 of the article cited below. That same article, written in 1988, provides the few details about the ms…
Article: Karl A. F. Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch and Y. Tzvi Langermann, “The Hebrew Astronomical Codex MS. Sassoon 823” The Jewish Quarterly Review , New Series, Vol. 78, No. 3/4 (Jan. – Apr., 1988), pp. 253-292
which says that the ms in question is:
*Inscribed in an ‘early’ Spanish hand.
*A florilegium – i.e. a collection of extracts.
*Vellum (?) rather than parchment.
*Total number of pages is greater than the Vms… but
*quires are also 8 pages each.
There is also apparently a book [which could be an intro. plus facsimile, at 292 pages]: Karl Adolf Franz Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch, Yitzhak Tzvi Langermann, The Hebrew astronomical codex ms. Sassoon 823, Center for advanced Judaic studies, University of Pennsylvania, (1994) – 292 pages.
As you’ll see, some of those details were mistaken: the provenance is now established as Catalonia and the library presently holding it is clear about the date: 1361.
The next year, still unable to get hold of a copy of the larger study, and with the manuscript not (yet) online, I put out the word again – through my still-fairly-new wordpress blog, voynichimagery (‘Curiosities’, Friday, Nov.2nd., 2012)
Still no response from any of the thousand or so who read that post.
By 2013, I was about to give it up, but because I had not found anywhere a drawing so like in both form and style to the Voynich ‘ladies’ as the Sassoon manuscript’s ‘Gemini’, I followed that manuscript’s progress after its purchase by the University of Pennyslvania (where it would be re-classified Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection, MS 057).
By 2013 I was also frustrated that no other Voynich researcher had yet investigated exactly where and when ‘swelled belly’ figures begin appearing in Europe’s Latin (western Christian) art, so I set out to investigate both topics in parallel and in earnest. I acquired a photocopy of Sassoon 823/LJS 057… which was later digitised by UPenn.
Some of my research and results I shared in the context of posts about Beinecke MS 408, published at voynichimagery through 2013-2014. Two, for example, are:
D.N. O’Donovan, ‘The ‘beastly’ Lombardy Herbal Pt1 – female forms’ (22nd July 2013); and then (e.g.)
__________________, ‘ Talking about art and codicology’, ( 26th October 2014).
I referenced the paper of 1988 which I’d first read in 2011 – and from which I quote again further below.
Karl A. F. Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch, Tzvi Langermann, ‘The Hebrew Astronomical Codex MS Sassoon 823’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, LXXVIII, Nos. 3-4 (January-April, 1988) 253-292.
The most important discovery, in my opinion, was that the Sassoon ‘Gemini’ served as support not only for Panofsky’s location and character for the Voynich manuscript, but also for my own conclusions (published as early as 2011) that it is not only the ‘ladies’ in the calendar’s tiers, but all of them (and associated males) which were intended for celestial/immaterial ‘bodies’/souls. To some extent, Nick Pelling (among others?) had sensed something of this in calling the figures “nymphs” – but it was also understood or intuited as early as 1921, by Professor Romaine Newbold, albeit he had interpreted that idea within the terms of late-classical neoPlatonist philosophy, rather than those of pragmatic astronomies. (Some years later, Koen Gheuens would do something of the same, but in terms of the Latin mainstream and its standard texts: For the record, my own view is that we are seeing an older, more pragmatic tradition whose closest ‘cousins’ in the western Mediterranean are those of the navigator and chart-maker, whose terrestrial and celestial grids are constantly superimposed on one another. However…
Having followed the trail of Sassoon 823 after its sale, corresponded with the new owner, written about it in posts (which were then still online and with the blog’s ranking, highly likely to turn up on any search), I was disappointed to see that Darren Worley failed to refer to the precedent when, in 2017, he left a comment at Stephen Bax’ site announcing the existence of Sassoon 823/LJS 057 in a way suggesting it a newly idea within the study.
At that time I had a manuscript – a set of twelve essays – in the last stages of preparation for publication at that time; and since academic editors do prefer no doubt should exist about the originality of work they have commissioned, I asked Darren to acknowledge the precedent for form’s sake. He did not. No-one wants to be put in the position of being asked, in effect, why if their work is original, the same material is now seen everywhere (including voynich.nu and wikipedia) with not a mention of one’s own name as the first to have contributed the research, conclusions or insight.
Given that this relatively minor incident was only one of the great many similar – and worse instances that I’d had to deal with over almost a decade, I had no option but to stop sharing original material online, and to close voynichimagery from the public – which I did soon after. The issue has nothing to do with money, or copyright; it has to do with transparency and the honest mapping of the subject’s development over time. (see the ‘About’ page)
On a brighter note, Worley’s comment itself had value. I recommend it for his observation about the quire signatures which I have not seen made before.
The TEXTS IN MS SASSOON 823 AND THEIR PICTURES: Bar Hiyya, al-Sufi and anonymous. NON-LATIN LINEAGE.
Sassoon 823/LJS 057 was made almost forty years earlier than the posited ‘1400’, and fully half a century before the Voynich manuscript was made.
Whether Panofsky was right or not in first attributing the content in Beinecke MS 408 to the thirteenth century, its ‘swelled-belly’ figures offer no objection to a ‘southern and Jewish’ character ‘with Arabic influences’ – for that is precisely how the manuscript is described which offers our closest-known comparison for the unclothed Voynich ‘ladies’.
Of the astronomical drawings in Sassoon 823, Fisher et.al. comment:
… the figures found in the Sassoon manuscript cannot have been copied from a manuscript of the Sufi latinus corpus, and equally not from an Islamic celestial globe. The only remaining possibility is that they were selected and copied from an Arabic manuscript of al-Sufi’s treatise.”
The text accompanying the Gemini figure (p.225) comes from an unnamed source, and the ‘Gemini’ image itself is not drawn in a way closely akin to any other, even in that manuscript.
The content in pages 195-228 is described altogether as “Astronomical Tables by Abraham bar Hiyya and others” and In bold letters at the top of page 195 is written: “From here onwards, from the Jerusalem Tables of the Nasi’ R. Hiyya the Spaniard, of blessed memory”
Kunitzsch adding his comment:
‘I know of no medieval astronomer by that name; however, the Nasi’ R. Abraham bar Hiyya is, of course, very well known, and in fact the tables in this entry up to page 214 are indeed his tables. On the other hand, I know of no other reference to Bar Hiyya’s tables as the “Jerusalem Tables.” …
The ‘Gemini’ image (p.225) belongs to the additional, anonymous, material occupying pp. 215-28 which “deals mainly with astrology. Some of these tables are found in at least two other manuscripts which contain Bar Hiyya’s tables: Chicago, Newberry Library Or. 101, and Vatican Heb. 393. Other items are unique to our manuscript…
The ‘Gemini’ image may then have been brought into the Sassoon compendium with its anonymous(?) tables, not designed by Bar Hiyya but found with his in at least two other manuscripts. What is not known is how early the sources were joined – nor where – though ultimately the ‘Gemini’ (which we accept as deriving from an Arabic manuscript copy of al-Sufi’s ‘Book of the Constellations’ ) has to derive from the versions made before the time of Ulugh Beg, after which Gemini is differently represented.
Bar Hiyya was known to the Latins as Abraham Judeus, and was born three generations after al-Sufi’s death. (Al-Sufi 903-986; Bar Hiyya 1065—1136 AD).
Those manuscripts cited as containing the same tables, together with Bar Hiyya’s are not both presently accessible online, and Vatican Ebr.393 (1497 AD) though digitised contains contains no constellation drawings. (Catalogue entry here.) The Newberry Library informs me that the article by Fischer et.al. is mistaken. They have no ‘MS Or.101’, but they do have Heb.MS 2, whose content appears to be as described in that article. There are no constellation drawings in this copy. At right, a reduced copy of one of the images very kindly sent me by the library.
Sidenote – ‘Jerusalem’. David King demonstrated that in al-Andalus some at least had knowledge of Jerusalem latitudes; an astrolabe dated c.1300 has all its inscriptions save one in Arabic, the exception transliterating into Hebrew script the Arabic ” لعرض بیت المقدس لب li-ʿarḍ Bayti ‘l-Maqdis lām bā’” – “for the latitude of Jerusalem, 32°”.
Abu Zayed & King & Schmidl, “From a heavenly Arabic poem to an enigmatic Judaeo-Arabic astrolabe” (2011), crediting the Khalili Collection, London for the image.
David A. King, ‘Astronomy in medieval Jerusalem’ (Pt.2), revised and shortened 2018, available through academia.edu
On Stephen Bax’ site (now in other hands) you will find various comments referring to Spain and to Spanish manuscripts, the work (chiefly by Darren Worley and Marco Ponzi) reviving and expanding the long-neglected opinion of Panofsky, and later variation in Fr.Theodore Petersen’s work.
Checking the files of Reeds’ mailing list is always worthwhile; and I’d also suggest searching Nick Pelling’s long-running blog, ciphermysteries. Running a search there before pursuing a ‘new line’ too far can often save you much time and effort – because even if Pelling has not looked at the subject himself, he may well mention that another researcher did.
A revisionist will want to revise past ideas and efforts, but it is always as well to begin by knowing what those were.
With regard to the ‘shapely ladies’ in Beinecke MS 408, I should mention that the opinion of Fischer et. al. appears to preclude any close connection between them and the ‘2312 virgins’ which appear in a 9thC Byzantine diagram within Vat.Lat. gr. 1291.[Vatican City, Lateran Palace collection, Greek ms 1291]. The comparison has often – in fact continually – been re-produced since 2001 though without any effort to produce a formal argument, so far as I can discover. It would appear to have been introduced to the study by Dana Scott in a post to Reeds’ mailing list (Mon. 12th. Feb. 2001), because ten days later (Thurs, 22nd. Feb 2001) Adam McLean refers to the diagram as if only recently mentioned. The point remains a little uncertain because link to the image which Dana attached and labelled ‘Ptolemy’ no longer works.
an overlooked typo corrected, with apologies to readers, on Nov.23rd., 2019.
Note: Swelled bellies in fourteenth century Bohemia.
Probably irrelevant to Beinecke MS 408, I include this for the Voynicheros fascinated by Rudolf and his world.
The same essay continues:
To which globe are the (hemisphere) illustrations in the Sassoon manuscript most closely related? The answer is probably the globe of the King of Bohemia, Wenceslaus II (or III ?), which is now kept in Bernkastel-Kues and was first described by Hartmann.
The Spanish origin of the star catalogue in Sassoon 823 has already been established in Part I of this article (i.e. by Fischer, Kunitzsch and Langermann), .
Since the star illustrations in the Sassoon manuscript are similar to both Vienna codex 5318[not digitised] which is considered to belong to the same family as Catania 87 [not found online] and the two hemispheres on pp. 112-13 of Vienna Codex 5415 [see Warburg database], and since both of these Latin manuscripts now located at Vienna originate from Prague, one ought to consider the possibility of Spanish influence on the manuscripts executed at Prague.
In the middle ages there were relations between the royal courts at Prague and Castile. The father of the present writer conducted research in Spanish archives before the civil war in that country which were destroyed in that conflict. He found there that the first known astronomer in Prague was sent as a “gift” by King Alfonso of Castille to Premysl Ottakar II King of Bohemia. … Previous scholars have frequently noted that Prague was the place of origin of many astronomical atlases.
(Premysl Ottokar II was King of Bohemia 1253 -1278; – D)
The Bohemian line of development shows an absence of some characteristics shared by the Voynich figures and those in Sassoon 823. Nor does the Voynich calendar show Gemini in this form But for the ‘ladies’ in the Vms’ bathy-section and for some of the surrounding figures in the calendar, we may suggest as one explanation, common emergence from that earlier, non-Latin al-Sufi textual tradition current in Spain, the Bohemian works having been gained by second-hand exposure to them. Of three examples illustrated by Fischer in another paper, it is only that dated c.1350 which distinguishes the female figure by small, high breasts and none shows similar style for the limbs and hair as we see in the Sassoon manuscript.
Another section Sassoon 823 (pp. 25-29) contains extracts from Abraham Ibn Ezra’s astrological works – interesting in view of our earlier reference to the Voynich calendar’s month-names and their orthography.
Ibn Ezra, who also translated Ibn al-Muthanna’s commentary on the tables of al-Khwarizmi, is recorded – in the Parma version – as saying “The tables in the Almagest are useless”
above quoted from p.255 of Fisher et.al., ‘Hebrew Astronomical Codex….’
and just to show that the eastern ‘swelled belly’ was often difficult for Latins to interpret, here’s what was made of it c.1300 by a draughtsman in Paris: the belly becomes a rib-cage, twisted sideways.
Few heeded the distinction between dates of composition and those of manufacture:
The point is that this distinction between dates for manufacture and for content, when considered in concert with other items of evidence, (some of which have already been mentioned in these posts) obliges us to take seriously the possibility that our manuscript is a fifteenth-century copy of material gained from sources which may date to the thirteenth century – or earlier.
This is something which had been suggested even while the cryptanalysts were involved, half a century ago. In 1969 Tiltman seems to attribute to both Panofsky and the keeper of manuscripts his saying:
… the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.
Quotation above from [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘(1968).
Other than John Tiltman, the record of d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma shows that the cryptanalysts around William Friedman evince a lack of regard for opinions of specialists in their own subjects. Friedman is recorded complaining of the ‘naivety’ of university men and his behaviour towards Newbold and towards Panofsky reinforces this impression.
That curious indifference may be due partly to the diversity of those opinions, partly to individual bias, and in the case of Erwin Panofsky partly his uncooperative response in 1954, but more than those – so it appears to me – was the dichotomy presented by those opinions versus the cryptanalysts’ confidence that they had a role, and an important role, to play in the manuscript’s study.
Had they accepted the opinion of early fifteenth century date, they would have had to abandon their fixed belief that the written part of the text was ciphertext – one so resistant to their cryptological attacks that they must presume it the invention of a highly sophisticated Latin, one having access to techniques not attested until the … late fifteenth century… early sixteenth century… late sixteenth century… early seventeenth century…
Marcus Marci’s reporting the Rudolf-rumour had one clear benefit for this study. It set a definite limit on such rovings. Rudolf’s death occured in 1621.
Today, the ‘cipher-or-language… or other’ question remains unresolved, but the date for manufacture is set within narrow limits and obliges us to date the content, therefore, before that period 1404-1438.
And the content, like the ‘shapely ladies’ may derive from sources considerably earlier – as two of those specialists had pointed out.
In sum: Panofsky dated the pigments – and hence manufacture – in the fifteenth century. He was right. By reference to the ‘swelled belly’ figures, Panofsky felt his initial view of the content as “early… perhaps as early as the thirteenth century” could not be correct, and since he had no knowledge of that custom in art of the western Mediterranean before the fifteenth century, so he felt he must shift the date for content to co-incide with than of manufacture: 15thC. Given the resources available today, we are able to say he was right about a pre=fifteenth-century date for composition,* since the ‘Gemini’ in Sassoon 823 is in a manuscript dated 1361, and made as he said by Jews of ‘Spain or somewhere southern’.
*the ‘pre=‘ dropped out during editing. Replaced today (15th Feb. 2019) with apologies to readers.
Moreover, that image occurs in a manuscript whose matter dates to a much earlier period and some of which is, in fact, dated to the thirteenth century and the time of Alfonzo X, a court in which (again as Panofsky said) you find influence from Islamic art in Jewish – and in Christian – art.
Header Illustration: detail of plate on p.11 of the Supplemental Volume of De Re Diplomatica. Issued in 1707. following Mabillon’s De re diplomatica libri VI, published Paris, Louis Billaine, (1681). Note – the example is chosen at random; no argument should be inferred.
I’ve spent the last three posts explaining the background to Friedman’s questions and Panofsky’s responses. The aim is to understand why Panofsky says so little about the manuscript’s pictures and why his responses lack his usual warmth and erudition.
In the next post, when we look at Panofsky’s replies in full, we see that the questions caused offence: some by ignorance of good manners; others of art, of manuscript studies and of Panofsky’s work. (Remember, everyone had two years to think about the meeting).
A number of the questions have nothing to do with Panofsky’s interests, but are just about Friedman and his theories. Some assume Wilfrid’s narrative as ‘given’. Others make clear that Friedman had scarcely attended to what Panofsky had already told him. And others show extraordinary lack of awareness – as e.g. Q.3, Q.7, Q.10, Q.13 (!!!) and Q,15.
Take Q.13 for example: d’Imperio says (Elegant Enigma p.42) that William Friedman was “a devoted student of the Voynich manuscript from the early 1920s on”, yet Q.13 shows that thirty years later the ‘devoted student’ had not even heard of the (then-) fundamental texts in European palaeography: Mabillon’s De re diplomatica and Capelli’s Dizionario di Abbreviature Latini ed Italiani (Milan, 1912).
No matter that neither includes any simple comparison alphabet; the point is that in thirty years Friedman had not advanced his study as far as the introduction to ‘manuscript studies 101’. Nor does he seem to have realised, to that time, that dating and (if possible) placing the script is a vital part of provenancing any manuscript. [see earlier post, ‘Provenance: Wilfrid-style and real-world.’ (November 24, 2018)].
Friedman’s exaggerated sense of self-importance and expectation that others should serve his needs does not seem unusual for him. A number of comparable incidents are recorded by d’Imperio.
“On 25th May, 1944 William F. Friedman wrote a letter to the widow of Dr. Wilfrid Voynich .. requesting a photostat copy [of the entire manuscript]. The request was granted.” (Elegant Enigma p.39)
The war had not ended; Friedman was – according to the NSA biography – Colonel Friedman, Director, Communications Research, Signal Intelligence Service, (later Army Security Agency). During war-time the army has power to requisition, and one does not refuse a Colonel’s ‘request’. The inconvenience and expense was not minor – the cost about that of a week’s wages for a man. Mrs. Voynich first wrote to Friedman, pointing out that copies existed already, among them one in the New York Library and another with Fr. Petersen – but Friedman clearly preferred to have her bear the cost and trouble of providing him with his own copy; she complied. (Later we learn that Friedman also obtained Fr. Petersen’s copy ‘on loan’ – effectively preventing that scholar from continuing his own decades’ research).
So – again in connection with ‘making sport’ of Newbold – d’Imperio reports (p.42) that Elizebeth Friedman gave “an amusing account of the sport which she, William and Manly had together in demonstrating the ‘decipherments’ that could be had from Newbold’s texts…’
It was an insensitive thing to do to involve Manly, Newbold’s friend, in such ‘sport’ whether before, or after, Newbold’s suicide in 1926.
At the time, it was not done to refer openly to suicide. The act was considered a crime by the state, a shame upon the family, and a deadly sin by the Christian churches, so the usual practice was to add the oblique ‘suddenly’ to an obituary’s regular formula -such as ‘died in hospital’; ‘died at his home’ etc. This I take too as the implication of Newbold’s not being recorded as buried from a church, but only that “A memorial service was held for him in College Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus.”
Works other than d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma use “died suddenly.”
.. My point is not that Friedman had faults, but that when he commandeered the study from about 1952 or so, all commentary from better qualified people ceased. In fact the study of the manuscript itself ceased, and NOTHING by way of research was published for almost a decade, from 1953 until 1962 when Mrs. Voynich sold the manuscript to H.P. Kraus. What research was done was being circulated among the NSA cryptanalysts in-house or issued as very general popular articles. As we’ve seen, some of the NSA documents, including Tiltman’s paper, remained classified “top-secret” until the early 2000s. In Jim Reeds’ Voynich Bibliography publications for 1953-1962 include only these:
1953 E. Westacott, Roger Bacon in Life and Legend. New York: [Publisher?],1953. [A balanced writer whose errors are flaws in his sources rather than his apprehension of them. The text is online through the internet archive. – D.]
? W.F. and E.S. Friedman, ‘Acrostics, Anagrams, and Chaucer’, Philological Quarterly 38 (1959), pp.1-20.
1959 Jose Ruysschaert, Codices Vaticani Latini 11414 – 11709. Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, (1959). [Describes the MSs acquired by the Vatican from the Collegium Romanum, and mentions that W. Voynich bought a number of them which have been transferred to various American libraries, including the VMS.].
Note the above item, first noticed and commented on by Reeds, has recently been brought again to notice and much emphasised by Rene Zandbergen under the rubric ‘ 1903 catalogue’ because a lost document which was not a catalogue but which listed a number of books and was – as Zandbergen describes it – dated to 1903 was photographed at some later time and t(as Zandbergen describes it), the list or that photograph was what Ruysschaert was referring in 1959. Zandbergen has shown a certain impatience with persons trying to clarify his line of argument and evidence on this point, and I recommend any revisionist attempt the task for him/herself. (Richard Santacoloma’s puzzled comments are perhaps a little more indignant than the confusion warrants – but you must judge that for yourself).
1962 H.P. Kraus, Catalogue 100. Thirty-five manuscripts: including the St. Blasien psalter, the Llangattock hours, the Gotha missal, the Roger Bacon (Voynich) cipher ms. New York: H.P. Kraus,1962. [Beautiful reproductions of several leaves of VMS.]
and in the same year (1962)
June 25th., ‘Kraus Marks Anniversary With Catalog of Treasures’, Publishers’ Weekly, 181 (25 June1962) pp. 39-40. [Kraus auction – Vms listed but didn’t sell.]
June 26th., David Kahn, ‘The Secret Book’, Newsday. 26 June1962.
July 18th., Sanka Knox, ‘700-Year-Old Book For Sale; Contents, In Code, Still Mystery’, New York Times, 18 July1962, p 27, col 2. [Kraus auction. Includes picture of 85/86r4. .]
August 5th., Elizebeth S. Friedman, “The Most Mysterious Manuscript” still an Enigma’, The Washington Post, 5 August 1962, sec. E, pp. 1,5.
1963 Jan. Alfred Werner, ‘The Most Mysterious Manuscript”, Horizon, 5 (January,1963), pp.4-9.
… in all, nothing was published which might return the study to normal channels…
For those who believe the text is in cipher, all the above may seem fair enough. For those who doubt it, Friedman’s involvement and the long ‘block’ on the manuscript’s research hardly helped.
His ill-informed (and historically un-balanced) assumptions infused those of the NSA, as we’ll see later, by considering d’Imperio’s work, including its Table of Contents and Index (which will highlight their assumptions, and their information-gaps, respectively).
Those privvy to the NSA groups’ efforts, and who contributed something of lasting value, were those who contented themselves with making observations that they tested rigorously before sharing them: Currier’s work is well known; some of John Tiltman’s observations were much to the point.
Friedman’s ‘teams’ looked at what his own inclinations dictated; his ignorance of, and indifference to, anything but cryptology when combined with his arrogance alienated the more learned – and surely lost us the chance to have two early and expert commentaries in particular: Panofsky on the manuscript’s imagery and codicology, and Salomon on the script. (It is also noticeable that d’Imperio’s Index lists Charles Singer but makes no mention of Dorothea.).
Lacking the weight which such scholars might have brought to the study, Wilfrid’s first imaginative ‘history’ was soon to spiral into pure fantasy about the content.
Apart from individuals such as Currier, the Friedman groups early came to imagine that the manuscript must belong to the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and for the supposed connection to the mad emperor Rudolf II, that its content must relate to occult-alchemical ideas fashionable among the nobility in Prague at that time – several generations after the manuscript had been made in a clearly different environment.*
* four samples of vellum taken from the top 11 quires returned an adjusted radiocarbon range of 1404-1438 and the volume has been assessed recently as being made in northern Italy.
Lost opportunity: Richard Salomon on the script…
In d’Imperio’s book we find no sign that from the 1940s to her own time (1978) any of those working under Friedman even knew, let alone understood the significance, of Salomon’s having studied Latin palaeography under Michael Tangl (1861-1921), one of the main editors of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, nor that Salomon had made his doctoral dissertation under Tangl’s supervision. Its title was Studien zur normannisch-italischen Diplomatik (Studies in Norman-Italic diplomacy).
Had Salomon’s opinion been sought, it would have been an opinion with weight, and surely commenting on e.g. an apparent similarity between the Voynich ‘gallows’ glyphs and forms used in earlier religio-legal documents and diplomatic script.
‘Gallows’ glyphs – .
‘Gallows’ figures proper do not occur before the sixteenth century and are set in letters to warn the carrier to make haste. The forms which are habitually mis-called ‘gallows glyphs’ or ‘gallows’ letters in Voynich writings have no such intent – so far as we know.
Jim Reeds investigated Capelli’s Dictionary in 1994, sharing what he saw in Plate IV (Mon Jun 9th 1997), and quoting its Italian caption. Salomon and Panofsky had doubtless seen this illustration before Panofsky put it in his reading list for Friedman.
Thus Reeds: “Tavola IV … shows a letter ‘1172, Giugno 13 — Savino abbate del monastero di S. Savino in Piacenza investe il mugnaio Gerardo Albarola per se e suoi eredi maschi in perpetuo, di un mulio di ragione del detto moasstero — Scritura carolina. — Pergamena origen., conservata nell’Archivio di Stato di Parma, monastero di S. Savino.” with glorious gallows letters all over it.”
Jorge Stolfi (Fri, 6 Oct 2000), gave that information again to someone who’d missed it, translating “The date is on the “letter” itself, 13 june 1172. It is actually a notarial document recording the concession by the abbey of S. Savino in Piacenza of a mill of theirs to miller Gerardo Albarola and his heirs in perpetuity etc. etc. As I remember, it is signed by the abbot, several monks as witnesses, the miller (not sure), and the public scribe / notary who prepared it .”
Reeds’ find is now seen everywhere, though rarely with any mention of him – which omission inevitably leads to the newcomer’s supposing the careless copyist, rather than the researcher, should be credited with a particular contribution to this research; failing to go to the original discussion and so (not rarely) to waste their time re-researching and re-discovering things long ago discovered. Pelling once called this the Voynich ‘ground-hog day’ phenomenon and it is due almost entirely to absent or erroneous attribution.
The same example shown above, together with other items appear on a page from Rene Zandbergen’s website, re-presenting a selection of material from the past century’s shared research.
Stolfi’s last phrase provides the key:: “public scribe/notary”. Such elongated ascenders are most often found in documents of this type i.e. deeds of gift; deeds of establishment and other property-related matters and can be traced to similarly religio-legal documents as early as the tenth century in Spain. For a time a more ornate variant was used by scribes in the imperial scriptorium, but as I noted when treating this point and introducing the early examples from Iberia:
“The eleventh and twelfth centuries, lingering into the fourteenth, are when we see such forms in various parts of Europe, usually as part of some official decree or charter”.
‘Who wrote the ‘gallows’, voynichimagery, Oct. 7th., 2015.
If the apparent similarity between some Voynich glyphs and these earlier scripts is not deceptive (something which Salomon might have told us), then it is another item indicating that the content in the Voynich manuscript predates by some time the present volume’s manufacture in the early decades of the fifteenth century.
Capelli, Lexicon abbreviaturarum: Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane, 6th ed. (Milan: Ulrico Hoepli, 1979).
[pdf] Heimann and Kay (trans.), Capelli’s ‘Dictionary… ‘ (1982). This pdf has no plates.
[read online or pdf] the internet archive has an edition in German to the front, and Heimann and Kay’s translation to the back. Includes between them Capelli’s Plates.
To that matter, I think, Panofsky was quietly directing Friedman by mentioning then-basic texts on palaeography and referring to just one comment by Salomon – on an item of marginalia. As far as the evidence shows, Friedman did nothing about either for, apart from a vague discourse about Salomon’s later study of Opicinus Canistris, d’Imperio’s book says nothing of him other than to repeat that same fragment cited by Panofsky twenty years earlier. Even then, d’Imperio sets it after her own, subjective, impressions.
Friedman’s character and self-important attitude could be predicted to alienate Erwin Panofsky and others of his standing in their own fields. His errors – including uncritical acceptance of much of Wilfrid’s quasi-history and Newbold’s categories – then created error exponentially.
Excessive reverence for Holy Roman Emperors and for the Friedmans – and for d’Imperio’s book – thereafter magnified those errors, to inform much of the baseless matter still asserted about this manuscript.
…. but to return to 1954 – all things considered (and though you are free to differ) – it seems to me that Panofsky had reason enough to give Friedman responses which said as little as possible, being restrained by caution; by awareness of the temper of the times; and by knowledge of by whom, and to what end, his statements might be used. Whether Friedman already had access to Panofsky’s assessment of 1931 1932, or whether Panofsky knew he did, if so, are other questions still undetermined and unaddressed.
Note: By 1954, Panofsky seems to have mis-remembered; Nill’s correspondence suggests he had seen the ms on the 5th Feb. 1932. the memory seems to have slippedCryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1932.
The list of Friedman’s ‘Questions for Professor Panofsky’ (below) comes from Jim Reeds’ original paraphrase (Reeds’mailing list, Friday April 15th., 1994).
Have you examined the VMS itself?
What is it written on; with what writing tool?
What’s the date?
Why do you think so?
What’s it about?
Are there any plain text books sort of like the VMS?
What plain text have you found in the VMS?
What plants, astronomical, etc, things have you recognized?
Is it all in the same hand?
Why was it written?
Where & when?
What do you think of the Roger Bacon theory?
[provide Friedman with…] Full title of the Dictionary of Abbreviations. Title of Hans Titze’s book on forgeries, & of Mibillon’s history of diplomatics.
What other scholars are interested in the VMS?
What do you think of the artificial language theory?
Afterword: What’s Wrong with that?
It is understandable that a reader with little prior background might wonder if there’s really very much wrong with those questions. For those not asking this rhetorically, I provide more detail. (click the small black arrow).
As always, the things not understood manifest in absence, and silence, so let me illustrate Panofsky’s capacity for analytical-critical commentary, and then consider what we might have had from him if Friedman had better understood the discipline of iconographic analysis, or the calibre of the man to whom he had been introduced.
Consider, for example, the “ladies” pages in the manuscript, and their curious gestures. Now, here’s Panofsky’s commentary on one, simple, everyday gesture – a ‘snapshot’ from daily life: a man lifts his hat.
[Introduction] Studies in Iconology: Humanistic themes in the art of the Renaissance.
It makes no difference for our needs that modern scholars differ about the relative value of Panofsky’s analytical system, or debate his preference for ‘authorial’ art, nor even debate the relative value of scholarship he produced during his German period as against his time in America. It should be obvious enough from that one example what a depth of commentary he might have made had he been simply asked to share his thoughts on the manuscript’s imagery, or even just on the figures of the ‘ladies’. Had he not been approached in the way he was, or sent that prescriptive ‘quiz’, the manuscript’s study might have advanced far more rapidly, and along very different lines, than it did after 1954.
Friedman’s single-minded focus on the written text; his implicit belief that he was the most important person to study the manuscript; his belief that it was ‘enciphered’ or ‘encoded’ reflect habits of mind which made him such an effective code-breaker (self-confidence; self-reference; self-sufficiency; single-mindedness; unswerving determination and a habit of organising information into neat categories for cross-reference) also made him utterly unsuited to conceiving of the range and depth of learning which might be needed to understand so problematic a manuscript – or even to have Panofsky open up on the subject.
I find it telling that even Brigadier Tiltman’s paper of 1968 misspells Panofsky’s name and that, despite the amount of time Tiltman spends talking about the imagery, he refers in that paper more often to Charles Singer – a writer of popular histories of medicine and science- than to Panofsky.[note] One remark – unattributed – may be Panofsky’s, because it is the first instance I’ve seen so far of any cryptanalyst recognising the fundamental distinction between provenancing manufacture and provenancing content. (on which see ‘Provenance: Wilfrid-style and real-world’. (November 24, 2018).
Professor Panoffsky [in the questionnaire] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.
In fact this mis-represents the case. What Panofsky said is that if it hadn’t been for [O’Neill’s claim to have identified] the sunflower as the subject of one image, he would have dated it to no later than 1470.
[pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘(1968). Paper released by the NSA under the Freedom of Information Act, 23rd April 2002.
Note added Jan.17th., 2009. I’ll come back to Charles Singer, in connection with the ‘S.E.P.’ phenomenon, and do him more justice than the brief mention above. Since my first degree was a double major in art and in the archaeology of industry, Singer (editor of the first encyclopaedic ‘History of Technology’) happens to be one of my early heroes.