Wilfrid’s spell-binder: 2

Error #3. Chimerical ‘modern science’ – subset: biology.

Bacon microscope LUTZ
from E. Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contributions to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (JUNE, 1936).


Newbold  was not the first to imagine he saw scientific matter in the manuscript, but he was the first to describe some drawings as advanced  ‘biology’ and others as astronomical objects invisible to the naked eye.  Like Wilfrid, Newbold was too sure and his certainty then “logically” (but not reasonably) required positing a microscope and a telescope in thirteenth-century Oxford.

This frame of mind, which we’ve seen mislead Wilfrid, and now Newbold, is one I think of as the “IF>>>THEN>>>THEN>>>   ” loop.

Wilfrid, once more, provided the paradigm for Voynich studies:

IF this manuscript is thirteenth-century and IF it is English and IF it was written by Bacon and IF Dee gave it to Rudolf … etc.

It’s an algorithm which never  pauses but loops on.

With such Voynich writing, I keep waiting for the moment when the writer says, “and on the other hand……”  or ” Otherwise, it could be….”.

Should have happened; should happen.  Didn’t happen and too rarely does now.

Today, you can still find sites setting text-book medical diagrams side by side with images from the fifteenth century manuscript. and others where the ‘spiral’ from MS Beinecke 408 is set by a satellite photo of the Andromeda nebula.

Q: How do we stop that nonsense?   A: No one knows.

Thorndike tried in 1921.  Again after the posthumous edition of Newbold’s papers – and this time he was positively savage.  In the usual way, you’d expect the “biological” argument to have stopped there.  I think it continues chiefly because in this field, unlike any other I’ve ever known, people are positively discouraged from attempting to search the precedents for work they are engaging or intend to engage.  Actually some Voynicheros are more than emphatic on the point that to acknowledge precedents is unnecessary, and one is often referred – instead of to the first source of an opinion, idea or insight – to some secondary source of more recent date, such as the Voynich wiki article, or voynich.nu  etc.

Here’s what Lutz wrote eight years after, in 1936.  (If Thorndike ever saw it he would have been apoplectic, one would think).

Embryology and Histology:  Plate VIII [in Newbold’s book, The Cipher of Roger Bacon] depicting the development of the ovum merits special attention, because the person who drew it possessed a very simple or more probably a compound microscope. If  this were not the case, we simply leave to the reader the explanation, how the single, orderly, differentiated rows of cells, even topped by curved cilia, could have been sufficiently distinguished by any other means.

E. Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contributions to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (JUNE, 1936) p.54.

Newbold Plate VIII
detail from f.86v, shown as Plate VIII in Newbold’s Cipher of Roger Bacon (thanks due to Nick Pelling for consulting his copy).


3.1 Blinding expectations.

The most important point here is not that Newbold was mistaken – though he was – but that he could be so mistaken.

If the work were, indeed, merely an enciphered manuscript from the mainstream Latin tradition of the thirteenth century (or so), its imagery would not have been so universally bewildering as to evoke, after Newbold’s interpretation, no response more informed than those he received; reactions were either a general but intense interest, or an equally general an unspecific scepticism. Those who accepted his interpretation, and those who did not, offered no alternative save their own flights of imagination, and none (including Newbold) was able to produce comparative examples within any corpus of western texts or art.

Absence of such informed response implies first, that the manuscript may be assumed by default the only example of its script or imagery* in Europe.  Whether there ever were more, we may find out eventually.  The more important message, though, is that this manuscript’s imagery employs a form of visual grammar and a visual vocabulary which was, and which generally remains, inaccessible to those trained only in traditions where literalism is expected, by default, in the rendering of any object, including those with metaphorical or abstract associations.

* including style of drawing and evidence of certain tabus and avoidances etc.

But this signal warning that the work was not of that type passed under the notice of anyone, it seems, before 1931 – when Panofsky would ‘read’ the signs clearly and immediately.

As far as Newbold’s interpretation goes,  is not impossible in theory that Bacon might, conceivably, have tried to draw with the same extraordinary detail recorded by Aristotle, detail which would only be confirmed when microscopes were first used in seventeenth-century Europe, but there is no evidence of Bacon’s having a microscope himself, not even a version of that water-tube and lens of which we hear (according to Bardell) from an ancient Chinese text – and knowledge of which had evidently been lost even to the Chinese by the thirteenth century AD.[2]

[2] David Bardell, ‘The Biologists’ Forum: The invention of the microscope’, BIOS, Vol. 75, (2004), Issue 2 pp. 78-84.

It is characteristic of Voynich studies’ unusual evolution that even though this idea of a microscope in thirteenth-century Oxford is mutually dependent on that of imagining “biological science” in the manuscript, dependent in turn on Wilfrid’s ‘Baconian’ narrative, that narrative was very widely accepted even the same articles which ridicule Newbold as early as 1921.  None of those propositions is better supported by evidence than any other, nor was any gained from the manuscript but imposed upon it.  In demonstration of which, one need only refer to the fact that Newbold’s ‘ovum’ has to one side an easily-read image of the rising sun and on the other quite literal depictions of landscape and of man-made architectural structures. Expectations, you see.

detail 86v towers
detail folio 86v (Eastern quarter)

Theories of “biological” content were not read from the manuscript.  The idea was simply projected, in toto, from the imaginations of Wilfrid Voynich and William Newbold.

Wilfrid asserted the content ‘scientific’; Newbold produced in all good faith, nothing more than ‘proof’ post-hoc, the first in a long line of Voynich researchers to adopt exactly the same risk-laden methodology.









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