Expert opinion: Myth vs. Materials Science Pt.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newbold and the Bacon’s telesope myth.

William Romaine Newbold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridges had actually written:

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

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

(Bridges, op.cit. p.xxxv)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from Rich’s post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Norm delivered the coup de grace as follows:

Voynich: Spiraling into Folly

© Norman Sperling, December 26, 2012

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

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

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

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

Taken from the wayback page


Next post:

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

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

Expert opinions: ‘Not one of mine’

Header Illustration: composite image. includes detail from Brit.Lib. Harley MS 5751  f.15
Two previous:

We are still considering the period 1912-2000, and matters other than ‘Voynichese’.

During those eighty years from 1912-2000,  scholars expert in one or another aspect of Europe’s intellectual and artistic heritage could suggest not a single close comparison for the Voynich manuscript’s content and imagery from among the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of Latins’ (western Christian) manuscripts they had seen – no matter what their area of specialisation,

It was always over the fence;  ‘someone else’s problem’.

This is an interval post – just a pause for perspective.

not GERMAN-CHRISTIAN ART – Panofsky and Petersen

Erwin Panofsky and Theodore Petersen specialised in the Christian art of medieval and (northern) Renaissance Germany.  Neither saw the manuscript as in that tradition.

In 1932, after spending two hours examining the manuscript in New York, Panofsky had correctly dated its manufacture: ‘1410-1420-1430’, an evaluation whose precision would not be matched until 2011, when radiocarbon dating returned the range 1404-1438.

Panofsky attributed  its content not to Christian-German work but to “the southwest corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia or Provence; but most probably Spain” and to a Judeo-Arabic cultural environment. His reasons for saying otherwise in writing answers for Friedman’s ‘quiz’ questions in 1954 have already been discussed.

For Panofsky’s dating see the letter of ‘E.L.V’ to Professor Thompson transcribed in ‘Correspondence’ at the end of my post ‘Expert Opinions – Richard Salomon‘. The original letter is in the Beinecke Library, Yale.

…… and Panofsky was the first to cite any specific comparison but – as would thereafter become a constant in discussions of this manuscript – he compared just a single detail in it with a single detail from another manuscript, and did not even suggest the comparison close enough to call a ‘match’.

As Nill later wrote, “except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s manuscript,  [the Vms] was entirely unlike any manuscript known to him.”  The comparison was between one diagram from the Voynich calendar and one from Alfonso X‘s Libros del saber de astronomía.  That Panofsky knew the latter is an indication of his range, for it exists in a single manuscript, and that in Madrid.  Consider the range of exclusion implied.

 LATIN HANDS? – Salomon, Barrett and ‘not-saying-who’.

Richard Salomon, a specialist in Latin palaeography, recognised only one line of marginalia, which he read as medieval legal German – and whose date he then applied to the manuscript as a whole.

At that time, he had seen only a black and white photostat copy, and while an offer was made for him to see the original, I’ve found no record that he ever did.  His circumstances after 1932 were so disrupted and so distressing that he was never able to return to his chief area of interest, lacking access to appropriate texts and references.

Of the hand(s) within the main text, and of that which wrote the month-names, I’ve seen no evidence of his saying anything before or after 1932, though something may yet be found in others’ letters from him.

Some Voynich researchers have guessed a  Caroline hand; others as ‘influenced by the Humanist style’, but the specialists have said nothing, though not positively protesting Wilfrid’s opinion that the script was that of a thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman scholar.

Remarkably little time or attention was paid to this matter of palaeography, and for my knowledge of these views I am indebted first to Nick Pelling, and through him to the sources he cited, including Reeds’ mailing list and articles by Barbara Barrett.  Pelling disagreed with the latter, but for the sake of balance referred to Barrett’s views anyway.  Other sites have, since then, copied (and sometimes rightly attributed) the same material.
an insubstantial argument

I’ve recently seen it asserted,  with no evidence offered and my  request for directions to the original argument refused with some vigour,  that someone has argued a case for considering inscription of the German (and only the German) marginalia so closely contemporary with the rest of the work that we should believe  the whole manuscript to be, in some sense, a product of German culture.

Given the non-German month-inscriptions, the character of the imagery overall, the Italian binding of the book-block, the opinion of consummate experts with no ‘guess’ to grind… and so on, it is not an idea I’m willing to take on faith. Perhaps someone would like to raise the question on a forum? Do leave a comment if you find a clear answer.



Adam McLean, a specialist in the history of alchemy, responded as the experts do: “S.E.P”.  Since non-specialists enthusiastic about the ‘alchemy’ idea have continued to push it (though the radiocarbon dating silenced them for a time), I’ll reproduce McLean’s comments, taking them from  Dennis Stallings’ report to the second mailing list: (09:40 AM 11/19/98 -0600)

Dennis had said: ‘Hello, Adam!..  Mary D’Imperio, in her survey of VMs studies up to 1978, thought that alchemy might be the key to understanding the VMs.  However, current [mailing-list] members, including myself, see little if any alchemical content in the VMs.  None of us, however, are experts. What is your opinion on this.  What alchemical imagery can you see in the VMs?

to which Adam replied:

Dear Dennis

All I can say is that I have never seen an alchemical manuscript with the same imagery and pictures as are found in the Voynich. …The main ‘alchemical’ resonance is supposed to be the ‘balneological’ section, but here I find no parallels with alchemical manuscripts, except in a very general way. If this was an alchemical work one would expect to find some other alchemical manuscript with similar drawings – but I do not know of one. …  I have an open mind on the subject, but have yet to see any real parallels. Perhaps one day I will find a manuscript that I recognize has common features with the Voynich – but not so far. I don’t think I could  find any way at present to use alchemical manuscripts or ideas to throw light on the ‘Balneological section.

and then:

The plant drawings in  the ‘Herbal section’ have many forerunners some going back centuries before the Voynich, as has been extensively documented. [This is still widely believed, but the ‘documentation’ is less, and less solid, than most suppose].    The drawings in the Astronomical section again seem to have many parallels in known manuscripts. [widely believed but ill-supported by evidence].…  

.. but, once again, the expert’s view is ‘Not one of mine’. And rightly so.  A specialist cannot blur the lines between what is demonstrably true, and what is desired true by others. Not that the others necessarily take heed.

A list of alchemical mss in the British Library, from Adam McLean’s website

‘alchemical’ notion revives,  five years later… My apologies.

The ‘alchemical’ text notion – killed off after McLean’s expert dismissal in the 1990s – was well and truly dead in early 2013. Unfortunately in presenting the analytical-critical study for folio 4v,  I gave it a whimsical title, ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent’ as summary of my findings.  In short, that the plant-group referred to by the drawing was that of the eastern clematis and that what had previously been imagined a curious form for the root was, in fact, a depiction of the double gourd, whose place in culture and iconography of the regions from east Africa to southern China (essentially the medieval trade routes) I summarised and illustrated, mentioning that clematis was not much used in eastern medicine (nor was western clematis in the Latin tradition), but the wood and root of eastern species were used to make scented substances (perfumes and incense etc.), and when formed in metal the double-gourd was also used as a type of ‘small a‘ alchemical receiver, just as the ordinary sort was used for liquids.

As usual, I accompanied the point-by-point analysis  with comparative imagery, textual and cultural notes, and in this case additional comments on the trade in scents and scented materials into Cairo for the Mediterranean trade and, further, on the important role of mathematics in this sort of compounding. It had originated in India, and the Indian model was employed in Cairo too, so as illustration I included a table from the Brht Samhita.  Updating the botanical nomenclature was tiresome, but that was done too, and I cross-referenced any plants mentioned that I had previously identified in the botanical folios.

Being, from the first, under an informal ‘pay no attention’ ban by one of the most avid, and yet ill-equipped of the Voynicheros,  who found it helpful to read, download and then disseminate my results verbally as anonymous ‘ideas’  yet to be explored, I did not expect my  post to receive quite such widespread attention as it did.  It received swarms of readers, throughout the period from 2013 until I closed voynichimagery in 2017.  Imitators were numerous; some took this element from the post and some that, but among them a few were honest about their source, and others so inept that they brought a touch of humour.

One chap especially –  a wild fan of Edith Sherwood, Rene Zandbergen and Sergio Toresella – was helping in some project aimed at producing ‘The Official Voynich Herbal’. His job was to collect and collate others’ work, omitting such details and names as were considered unnecessary by the project’s unnamed director/s.

Since very little new work was being done, just then, this chap got into the habit of taking nothing from my latest post but the name of the plant-group I’d given for the folio, reducing the name for a group  to one name (to suit the western style of herbal),  stripping out all the informing commentary, textual, iconographic, historical and cultural notes, archaeological studies (for proof of location and period), historical botany and information on use which provided evidence for the identification I’d offered.

That done, he would leap up in the second mailing list about a day later and proclaim with many marks of exclamation that a ‘new identification’ had been made.  But in this case, he was faced with the fact that the European clematis had no place in the Latin pharmacopoeia, does not have a bell-shaped flower, nor narrow leaves. And double gourds aren’t exactly standard motifs in medieval Latin art, let alone to be seen in any of the herbals.

Rene Zandbergen (as I recall) kindly came to his rescue on the ‘gourd’ problem, showing an image of a vegetable garden in a copy of the Tacuinum sanitatis.  Soon afterwards, the lad adopted the ‘foxy’ tactic of applying some new identification of mine to a different folio… more or less at random. The manuscript’s study is not only corrupted, but actively hindered by such practices, whose only benefit is to lend spurious credibility to persons or theories which have not deserved them.  Lately, the most common tactic seems to be to use the mantra:  ‘synchronicity’.

Another chap became excited about the ‘perfume’ thing – though I did tell him that it wouldn’t do; the botanical section contains many more plants than were used in any sort of perfume, scented powder, or insect repellent ( a use I’d identified for another of the pictured plants, and which then synchronistically appeared in a post by Ellie Velinska, another close associate of the old guard but whom I’m inclined one of the several innocents who simply believed, when handed an ‘idea’ that it sprang fully formed from the donor’s imagination).

It proved impossible to stem the  ‘alchemical’ tide, to which that post seems to have acted as the bolt of electricity on Frankenstein’s monster, reviving the pile of dead matter abandoned since the 1990s.   All I could do, and did, was to remind people of the more modest matter in my original post, which I re-published in a condensed and clearer form two years later, on  23rd August, 2015, under the title  ‘Alchemy’s sweet scent made more readable’.

The manuscript deserves more respect than it receives when used only to puff theories or personal ambition.  The way my analysis of folio 4v was misused is just an example of the great many so used, whether my work or others’ – since the early 2000s, and largely why the study fails to advance.  I suppose the lesson for us all is not to buy second-hand ‘ideas’; demand the donor provide his/her primary evidence and explain to you in detail his/her line of reasoning.  If they can’t, it might be as well to  tell them to go away and do their own work for a change.



A LATIN/ARABIC or BYZANTINE HERBAL? H’hmm. – T.A. Sprague (and Alain Touwaide, 2015)


Dr. T. A. Sprague had travelled in the Americas as a botanist and as a taxonomist,  spent time in northern India and served for forty-five years as a member of staff at Kew gardens,  fifteen of them as Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium, and whose particular study of the  Anicia Juliana codex required thorough knowledge of the Greek, Latin and Arabic herbals and their vocabularies. In 1947, shown some photostat copies of the plant-pictures, Sprague  positively recoiled and railed at John Tiltman, “I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to identify the plant drawings in the Juliana Anicia codex when the names of the plants are given in Greek, Latin and usually Arabic and you are asking me to identify these awful pictures.”   It seems clear that none of them looked immediately familiar.

Alain Touwaide (2015}

More recently (2015) Alain Touwaide, whose field of study covers the Latin, Arabic and Greek history of medicine, drugs, herbals and medical manuscripts , wrote a seventeen-page essay published by the Villa Mondragone in a volume now, alas, out of print.   There were no peer-reviews published in any Journal, so far as I can find, but the prominent enthusiast Rene Zandbergen sent a 1100-odd word summary-review to the late Stephen Bax’ site. The review began and ended with Zandbergen’s opinion that  Touwaide added ‘nothing new’ to the manuscript’s study but had repeatedly returned to the possibility that the manuscript might be a fake.

In which case of course it would be again (apparently) ‘someone else’s problem’.

  • Alain Touwaide,  ‘Il manoscritto piu misterioso – l’erbario Voynich’ in  Marina Formica (ed.), Villa Mondragone ‘Seconda Roma’, (2015) pp. 141-158. out of print.

I’m sorry to add that certain comparisons widely offered as closely similar to pages from the Vms, and in some cases attributed to Touwaide, do not bear close analysis, but perhaps I’ll return to that matter at a later stage.



Charles Singer, editor of an encyclopaedic  History of Technology had a number of ‘ideas’ about the manuscript, reported by d’Imperio.   None relate to the history of technology, or offer support for the ‘bathy-‘ section’s being describing a plumbing system.



D’Imperio reported that  “Singer sees tubes, pulpits and pipes as ‘organs of the body.'”  I’ve seen no evidence that he ever attempted to argue the case or –  more to out present point – that he offered a single text or illustration from the European corpus as comparison.  Nor, apparently, did his wife Dorothea suggest to him any among  the thousands she had inspected and catalogued in the British Library under the heading of Science and Pseudo-Science, as Lynn Thorndike reported in 1921.

D’Imperio seems to think little of Singer’s ‘biological’ idea,  saying in the same breath as she reports it that they recall ‘plant parts’ to her. (Elegant Enigma, p.21)

In recent years and beginning (so far as I can discover) with Ellie Velinska’s effort, this inherently anachronistic ‘biological’ notion – imagining the Vms contains biological drawings technical, and accurate to the microscope-level –  has proved intriguing for some, but once more none of the recent writers have produced –  no more than did Singer – any European manuscript or printed book made before 1438 which is claimed closely comparable.  Now that the manuscript has been dated, Singer’s notion is revealed to be, as one might say, anachronism of the first water.  🙂

  • On Singer see also Rich Santacoloma’s interesting research-post, ‘The Voynich in 1905′, (19th. August, 2012).




Lynn Thorndike who wrote a multi-volume history of medieval science and pseudo-sciences and had every reason, if he could, to set the Voynich manuscript squarely within a context that would refute Wilfrid’s ‘Roger Bacon’ guess, to which he felt great aversion, expressed more than once in print.

But Thorndike offered no such argument, and never produced any other manuscript as close comparison for anything in the Voynich manuscript.



ASTRONOMICAL/ASTROLOGICAL? – To my knowledge, the only specialist to offer a comparison with any astronomical/astrological manuscript between 1912 and 2000.was Panofsky (see above).

and see also the opinions of two contemporary specialists:

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Skies above – Not astrological’, voynichrevisionist, (Feb. 9th., 2020)



Summary: “Not one of mine” is what the experts on western (and Arabic) manuscripts said of works from their own field, even while expressing, all the while, a feeling in some obscure way  there’s something… Charles Singer, who claimed to see biology  appears never to have suggested any comparable manuscript either.


Postscript (14th. Feb. 2020)

It is characteristic of the Friedmans, and thus of d’Imperio, that the informed judgements of specialists scarcely affected their confidence in their own theories.  A passage from d’Imperio shows pretty well their intellectual ‘deafness’ to that message of ‘Not one of mine’.  It slides by and is re-interpreted to mean that the pictures are just ‘bizarre’ and ‘less conventional’ and  she shows no understanding that there is a *reason* that the images’ subject matter was so difficult to read.  Note too that she imagines the specialists’ reaction is only due to their spending too little time looking at the manuscript.  She is unaware that a specialist in medieval manuscripts  can usually provide a general date and place of manufacture from looking at just a few folios.  An inability to conceive of an ‘important’ text as other than European was fairly typical of America and Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, but here means that D’Imperio is inclined to blame the specialists and leaves her unable to abandon her own fixed ideas – which, of course were due to woring as part of a ‘team’ whose theories were dictated by Friedman, as leader.    ‘Team work’ so very easily becomes ‘group-think’ -one is simply not free to pursue questions, or form theories of outside the ‘team’s working brief.  And so the most basic questions were overlooked, and their own premises never questioned.


In any other field of study; if it were any other manuscript, there’s a logical inference that might be taken.