Expert opinion: Myth vs. Materials Science Pt.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newbold and the Bacon’s telesope myth.

William Romaine Newbold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridges had actually written:

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

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

(Bridges, op.cit. p.xxxv)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from Rich’s post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________

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

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

Norm delivered the coup de grace as follows:
————

Voynich: Spiraling into Folly

© Norman Sperling, December 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

—–
Taken from the wayback page
https://web.archive.org/web/20130705184151/http://everythingintheuniverse.com/blog/voynich-spiraling-into-folly

___________

Next post:

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

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

Notes on Panofsky’s comments 3 – hesitations

Header Illustration: (left) detail from Bodleian Library MS Marsh 144  p.211 11thC ; (centre) detail from Sassoon MS 823 / UPenn LJS 057 Catalonia 1361 AD; (right) detail from Beinecke MS 408.

Two previous

 

Notes 2, 3 & 4: dating and provenancing ‘shapely ladies’

second edition, edited and updated  – 15th. Feb. 2019

Anne Nill?  detail (reversed) from a photo posted at voynich.nu No source given.

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:

detail from: Bexur, Driscoll, Lemay, Mysak, Stenger and Zyats, ‘Physical Findings’ in the Yale facsimile edition pp.23-37. original caption slightly edited but not altered.

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’.

(detail) f.77r

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.

adding:

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…

ibid. p.272.

Chicago, Newberry Library Heb.MS 2 (unfoliated)

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 ‘23 12 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.

 ibid. p.284

(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.

 

 

Prague 1350 AD

 

 

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).

 

Afterword:

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.

 

Notes 6 & 7  ... shows strong Arabic 6and Jewish influences.7 “

So far  little to oppose, but much to support this part of Panofsky’s original assessment.

*header picture’s caption corrected – 24th July 2019.

 

Next post:  Notes 8 ‘Kabbala’; Notes 12 & 13:  Salomon and Liebeschutz.