Wilfrid’s spell-binder: 4

In 1928, the University of Pennsylvania Press published two books which they advertised as companion volumes.  One is a translation into English of Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus. The other is the posthumous collection of Newbold’s papers.

Ad for edition of Newbold's work

Thorndike wrote a review:

These are two works of a different stripe. One really has something to do with Roger Bacon; the other only pretends to. One will save some students time by placing the Opus Majus, important in the history of science and the culture of the thirteenth century, before them in English translation. The other may mislead the curious into wasting time in idle effort to decipher an anonymous manuscript of dubious value. Our chief criticism of the one will be that it should have been more fully developed before publication. The other should never have been published at all…

Lynn Thorndike, The American Historical Review, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Jan., 1929), pp. 317-319

 The passage of another eight years had made Thorndike even less inclined to credit our manuscript with any relevance to Europe’s medieval scientific or ‘pseudo-scientific’ corpus – in which, I should add, we must include formal astrology.

But, in a pattern which would be repeated through the many decades to the present time, expert opinion failed to diminish public enthusiasm for Wilfrid’s romantic vision for the work.  By 1930, the manuscript was by most assumed  ‘proven’ the original composition of some educated Latin male; its subject ‘science’, and the language of its text – presumed enciphered – some language prevalent in works of the western Latin tradition.  The section inscribed with month-names was now habitually described as ‘astrological’.

There was no proof for any of it.

Even now the best that can be said is that Wilfrid’s initial appraisal, which identified the manuscript as an artefact made on the periphery of  Europe, has never been disproven, and appears confirmed by other and later attributions. Close similarity in its layout to thirteenth- to fifteenth-century Franciscan products, as between the quire numbers added later to the manuscript and the form used for quiration in other European manuscripts add weight to that probability of western manufacture, though again do not constitute proof of origin for any content, nor do they counterbalance evidence for contrary opinions on that last point.

Among the more serious objections to assertions of all-Latin European content – as distinct from manufacture –  is that no proponent of that view has yet demonstrated a consistent (some might say even a coherent) argument for any line of evolution within the Latin manuscript tradition which might account for  ‘Voynichese’ script and/or for  the manuscript’s corpus of imagery – that is to say, no  coherent account is offered by adducing Latin examples for style(s) or internal ‘flow’ across its disparate sections.  Those having an interest chiefly in cryptology may not be aware that this is any serious issue, but in manuscript studies it is an important aspect of  establishing correct provenance and, quite incidentally, of distinguishing fake from genuine works. To argue the imagery Italian, French, or German, one has to demonstrate the work’s position within that lineage – not just by pointing to a style of writing (scribes might travel), nor quiration (which can show time and place of a stage in manufacture) and certainly not by pointing to this or that small detail without explanation of the rest.

Efforts at retrospective or revisionist  ‘proofs’ for the “European cultural content” argument refer, routinely, to highly selective items from Latin manuscripts and books which were made a century or two after the date of our manuscript, which  practice is so very common in Voynich studies that it is now rarely even remarked upon, let alone rejected by reason of anachronism.

Earlier examples would be more appropriate, if there are any offering the necessary support for argument for wholly Latin European content. Such gaps are often ignored in practice, or obscured by ignoring the distinction between content and manufacture, as of general subject and specific stylistics, or are filled by vague assertions of personal creativity credited with a latitude inherently anachronistic for the period and having as its basis some lingering expectation of an auteur.

Considering the precision with which manuscripts are regularly classified and assigned today, it worth noting here that after investigating the vellum and pigments McCrone did not assign ours to any region.

Persons whose opinion might be supposed, in the normal way, to have influenced the direction taken by this study  but whose opinions and/or conclusions were simply ignored include:

  • Kircher, who suggested, or proposed, that the ‘Voynich’ script or language might be ‘Illyrian’ – admittedly an ambiguous term.
  • Tiltman, whose opinion,  like Friedman’s, was finally that the text is not in cipher…

To this day, the general presumption remains that Wilfrid’s story is to be preferred: that the text is enciphered, with Latin still the language most commonly assumed for the posited plain-text. Either assumption may one day be proven, but neither has been to date.

Before the end of the second world war, English or perhaps Greek or Hebrew had also been considered, though the last chiefly for its use in sixteenth and seventeenth century works of magic. I have seen no detailed investigation into the presence of similar script in e.g. the Kitab al Bulhan, though many have noted the similarity. I have seen many instances where ‘disproof’ of arguments for non-Latin provenance devolved upon the peculiar idea that neither a Jew nor any asiatic (for example) had an ability to write left-to-right, nor read or write in any language or script save one. Such ideas – need one say – are formulated without reference to the facts of history, even medieval Europe’s, but they do hark back to the atmosphere of Wilfrid’s story. The one exception is that the model was adjusted so as to attribute to generic ‘Arab’ influence some of the more prominent examples of eastern influence.

The tenacity with which some still keep to that framework is remarkable given the lack of evidence in support, and the existence of  weighty and/or detailed opinions to the contrary. At the time of writing, the ‘central European/Rudolfine’ idea remains the most prominent in public arenas, with various writers actively addressing any  alternative interpretations of the evidence, attempting to demonstrate that the same matter can be provided with a more ‘sensible’ (i.e. mainstream Greco-Latin) explanation.*

*and see Postscript

It is fair to say, then, that Wilfrid’s imaginative narrative for the manuscript (minus its English Roger Bacon) has survived more than a century of informed and specific opposition: by Panofsky with regard to the imagery; by Thorndike with regard to medieval science or magic; by Professor McClung and others about supposed ‘biological’ content; by T.A. Sprague and others regarding the vegetable images, and by the united voices of William Friedman and  John Tiltman against the text’s being written in cipher.

Survival of Wilfrid’s unsupported fantasy against such opponents provides a remarkable example of the hypnotic power of narrative.





I note that the process of revisionism is now being engaged with regard to my analysis in 2010-11 of folio 86v and  of my conclusion that it represented a map of non-Latin European origins.

I am amused to note, in particular, that (i) none of the evidence which led to my conclusion is reported or addressed, so that the bald opinion (as related) might well seem  another of those flights of fancy so politely termed “a theory”; and (ii) that while  folio 86v manifestly does not take the form of a European ‘T-O’ schematic diagram, revisionist commentary simply asserts – with perfectly “Wilfridic” confidence – that it does. 🙂




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