Wilfrid’s spell-binder: 1

… By 1921, the study was already aberrant but only Newbold was made to feel it.


William_Romaine_Newbold by Sachs

Error #1. Pre-emptive vision.

Newbold’s first error was to approach the manuscript having already adopted, uncritically, Wilfrid’s confident assertions about the manuscript’s age (13thC),  about an imagined authorship (Roger Bacon), and the following idea that the content must be  ‘scientific’.  Roger Bacon was popularly believed, in those days, a “heroic Latin-rationalist-genius” – the same legend attaching to Leonardo da Vinci and others.

Set expectations and preconceptions necessarily affected Newbold’s ability to treat the manuscript – its form, materials and content – as a whole. They prevented his treating the text’s written and pictorial components objectively and on their own terms, something which is normally the first stage in investigating  any manuscript having an uncertain provenance, written in an unknown script and perhaps in a language unknown.

Error #1.2 Myopic focus on the “cipher”

To Newbold all the unknowns were presumed no more than a means by which  ‘Baconian science’ had been concealed from the vulgar – so from the beginning, his efforts had no aim save extraction of that type of information from the text’s written part, to which its imagery was presumed ancillary and merely illustrative – without investigation and chiefly by  hypothetical analogy to typical western texts ~ which neither the script nor the imagery resemble.

By 1921, the same story which Newbold had accepted was to be found repeated everywhere, and often plainly quoted direct from Wilfrid’s expositions.  That second-hand estimation of the manuscript was almost unavoidable, because Wilfrid simply did not produce evidence for his assertions, not by reference to the manuscript’s physical properties, nor to comparative examples from other medieval works, nor by reference to any secondary sources or persons  whom he might have consulted in first developing his extraordinarily detailed  fantasy of the manuscript’s origin and history of transmission. 

None of it is justified and in the absence of evidence (now, as then), the whole of his narrative, and all its circumstantial argument, should have been read from beginning to end as fiction. It wasn’t.

Error #2. Citing second-tier references.

Paradoxically it was Wilfrid’s failure to produce evidence, or cite sources, which made published articles reproduce, by necessity, nothing but Wilfrid’s spiel when describing the manuscript.  There was nothing else.  Even his habit of masking  the great many uncertain links in his narrative chain by a faintly aggressive use of terms such as  “certain”, “logical”,  “very probable”,  “… plausible” or  “adequately investigated” is reproduced verbatim in those pre-war articles.

Later writers – who did just the same – then began citing each other rather than returning to the primary and most often the sole source – Wilfrid.  These things in combination created a false impression of general consensus, which made objection to any part of the tale seem obscurely ill-informed or ill-mannered, as the gripe of a ‘minority’ view, easily ignored.

The same habits, techniques and attitudes persist to this day.

Voynich Bacon telescope LUTZ 36
“…  widely imagined ….”

An early example of this reflected use can be seen in an article published in Scientific American (May 28th., 1921and subsequently (June 25th, 1921), quoted within a letter written immediately by Lynn Thorndike – one of the very few persons to say openly that there were substantial flaws in the story told about this “Roger Bacon cipher manuscript”.

Thorndike SciAm June25 1921 with comment

There is another important point here. 

Thorndike’s researches to that time, and his collaboration with others studying medieval manuscripts, meant that if the manuscript really had been first created (as is often asserted now) in sixteenth-century “central Europe” the discrepancy would not have escaped him. Nor was it only Thorndike who tacitly or overtly said that the manuscript looked like those made ‘early’ – possibly thirteenth or fourteenth century. And it does.  Most of those early assessments of form and finish assigned the manuscript to the fringes of the continent, not its heart – and although one sees it repeated today that the manuscript was made in “central Europe, at the end of the fifteenth or in the sixteenth century” this too is a legend first formulated to suit a preferred narrative, then accepted without sufficient scrutiny: another  ‘theoretical history’.

Radiocarbon dating now places the manuscript’s vellum in the range 1404-1438, this distinction between material and appearance adding to other indications that what we have is a close copy, made in the early fifteenth century, of one or more items  inscribed in the earlier period.

Thorndike chose in his letter of 1921 to emphasise just one point: that Wilfrid’s focus on the glamour of an imagined auteur was unjustified. He did not argue, in 1921, that the imagery contradicted assumptions of ‘scientific or pseudo-scientific content’ – but neither did he claim that he had ever come across any closely similar instance either of imagery or written text.

In any case,  Thorndike’s protests could not halt the enthusiasm of those times for the popular legend of Roger Bacon as a thirteenth century rationalist and scientist far in advance of his time; the “Roger Bacon cipher text” is how it continued to be described and worked upon for another forty years, with all the attendant presumption and resulting errors.








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