Wilfrid’s spell-binder: 6

For those who came in late …. Having gone far beyond basic assignment of the manuscript to place and probable period, Wilfrid had very soon fixed on the idea that the work had been composed and written by a single auteur whom he identified with Roger Bacon.  Not content with stopping there, Wilfrid now embarked on a long and largely ephemeral secondary narrative, which seems to me an effort to explain two specific items included in a letter that he found with the manuscript (read it  here.)* These items were,  first,  the second-hand and off-hand report of a dubious account of its supposed arrival in seventeenth century Prague and secondly, a more reliable one of its transmission from Prague to Rome late in the seventeenth century.

* Wilfrid himself first translated the letter; the link is to Philip Neal’s translation.

By another of those peculiarities in Voynich studies, this second part of Wilfrid’s narrative is the one about which more interest has been shown, and more written over the last forty or fifty years than was ever written about the  “Bacon cipher” story, and its points are ones about which some researchers are noticeably passionate. It is difficult to see why such effort should be put into these discurses, which must be irrelevant to any study of the manuscript unless the writers have evidence for a seventeenth century composition.

Wilfrid himself never ascribed the manuscript’s origin to northern or central Europe, and realised perfectly well that by the time Jacub Hořčický/Tepenecz’ name was inscribed on folio 1r, the manuscript had been in existence for a considerable length of time.

Error #6. “It could have happened” – the exciting narrative exceeds its evidence.

An article was published reporting research done to that time (1921) by both Newbold and Voynich.  Much of its text is in quotes; some seems to come from personal conversation.  This being among the earliest accounts, it is worth seeing how elaborate Wilfrid’s tale was already, just a decade after his acquiring the manuscript. His story describes a ‘chain of heroes’ whose portraits I include. 

As yet, Thorndike’s adverse comments had no effect; there is no sign of public doubt about Wilfrid’s bald and unsupported assertions that the manuscript was a unique composition, by a famous auteur, about advanced science.

Bacon2 coin
Portrait medal of Roger Bacon made by Ramond Gayrard and minted in Paris in 1818. (V&A Museum)

The early twentieth century was such an optimistic sort of time that the idea of a microscope in a thirteenth-century monastic study was not difficult to accept.  ‘Science’ was being idealised as a means to create a future in which no-one would be poor, no-one would need to labour, and no premature death from illness would occur. The public attitude to Science was, in effect, religious. And given that Leonardo da Vinci, in the fifteenth century, had produced a design for a submarine boat, it was not too much of a stretch to imagine the effective miracle of Bacon’s having a telescope, or even a microscope, in the thirteenth.  “It could have happened” was the attitude, one which became characteristic of subsequent narratives created by reference to the manuscript.

But part of that approach involved another idea never consciously enunciated – a deep-seated expectation that if the manuscript’s vellum looked like that produced in the west during the thirteenth century (or so), yet if the pictorial and written parts of the text were equally inaccessible to a European reader, it must be a function of secrecy and thus of the content’s importance, so that by extension any persons linked to the manuscript were expected to be  “important people”.[1]

It is impossible to exaggerate the degree to which the combination of Wilfrid’s idea of an ‘author’ combined with this emphasis on ‘important’ Europeans influenced and limited the scope of investigations into the manuscript. Any survey of works published in books and journals before 2000, and thereafter of those published online, including discussions on blogs and mailing lists, shows their pervasive effect.  The ‘authorial’ presumption only began fading about a decade into the twenty-first century, while all the usual references found online are still overweighted with speculations and various biographical details about one or another ‘important personage’.  Yet as far the evidence goes, the manuscript might as easily prove to have been inscribed, and all its content composed, by persons of whom no mention survives in an historical record.

However, the second part of Wilfrid’s narrative satisfied such enthusiasms and expectations, so that it survived more informed comment even though compounded of unconsidered premise, real historical research, pure imagination, inference and ‘plausible’ argument. Most failed to realise that we find ‘plausible’ anything that appeals to prior assumptions. Notice in the following passages how Wilfrid uses terms such as  ‘probably’ and ‘fairly well’ and speaks of ‘indications’ where one would expect to see ‘evidence’ etc.:

 …  the history of the manuscript has been fairly well pieced together from about 1547 to 1680.

One big event in the history of the interesting manuscript was probably its seizure during the pillage of the religious houses under Henry VIII in about 1538.[2] Mr. de Voynich has found indications that the volume now at the University of Pennsylvania became an item in the great harvest of spoils gathered by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, from the monasteries.[3]


Dudley head
John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1504-1553) courtesy of  ‘Britannia’.  Online

One can understand Bacon.  But why John Dudley? Is this another fantasy, or something based in serious efforts to establish provenance?  There’s no doubt that Wilfrid handled and sold at least  one manuscript originating in a thirteenth-century English monastery. [4] It is also true that on their various lands, the Dukes of Northumberland had monasteries, abbeys or convents.[3] So relevant or not to our manuscript’s past, the general scene is believable. It does seem to reflect the process of research.

Wilfrid, though, is still compounding his initial error in asserting without evidence that the work was homogenous and authorial. His nominating Bacon imposed one prior filter to perceptions of the manuscript, then another pertaining to ‘scientific’ content. Now he creates an entire chain of similar filters in the form of yet more archetypal ‘heroic science martyrs’, and we hear nothing at all about how any of it is adduced from the primary document, or from any source relevant to its explication.

Why did Wilfrid  posit a connection to the Dudley family?  And why to John Dudley in particular?

Perhaps it was based on genuine knowledge, though his habit of omitting sources means we shall probably never know.  It has often been pointed out, though, that Wilfrid would remove bindings from manuscripts he had decided to discard, in order to see whether (as often happens) the binders had used older works of greater historical value.  Giglielmo Libri, the mathematician-book-thief, reportedly did the same. 

It is possible that, somewhere along the line, Wilfrid  had found something connecting the manuscript plainly to the Dudleys, and to John in particular, because a far more obvious connection would have been to three men associated with Oxford, where Bacon spent most of his life. One was Robert Dudley, Chancellor of the University; another was Kenelm Digby, and the link between them was the renowned Thomas Allen. Two of the three certainly had manuscript copies of Roger Bacon’s works.

"Thomas Allen" by James Bretherton - fl. c.1770-post 1781. V&A Museum
“Thomas Allen” (1542 – 1632) V&A Museum

Thomas Allen has a lengthy and laudatory biography in Athenae Oxoniensis[5]. We are told of the high regard in which he was held by Robert Dudley when the latter served as Chancellor of Oxford (1564-1585)* none knowing him better, though John Dee the next named. We also hear of an invitation given him by Albertus L’askie to live in Poland. (the same Adelbert Laski who had much to do with John Dee)[6]

* though nominally retaining the post, Dudley’s duties were performed by a deputy from 1585 to 1588.

However, preferring a more retired life, Allen had left Oxford to become a private scholar, though again often invited by Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. 

Roger Bacon manuscript
folios from an early manuscript of Roger Bacon’s formal scholarly work. Note the format – double column. His comments on the rainbow suggest acquaintance with the work of a Yemeni astronomer and mathematician al-Firisi (1267- 1319), often cited by Jewish scholars of the time.

Nonetheless, it was to Kenelm Digby, his former student, that Allen bequeathed his Roger Bacon manuscripts – as we know not only from the biography, but from the catalogue of the Bodleian library, to which Kenelm gave them soon after (between 1634-9). The collection is still maintained as the Digby collection, the catalogue repeating that Allen’s bequest to Kenelm consisted of:

“the whole of [Allen’s] collection of scientific and historical manuscripts, including several valuable volumes of Roger Bacon’s works”

– also noting that MS Digby 237 [Roger Bacon, Communia naturalium] [7] was given to the Library in 1905. (see Bodleian catalogue entry for the Digby Collection)

This seems to be, in general, the time and group of people which form the setting for Wilfrid’s narrative, but why he should have felt obliged to involve John Dudley rather than (say) Robert, is a little puzzling.

Apart from the fact that Kenelm himself comes a tad late to be the ‘bearer’ of any manuscript, being only nine years old when Rudolph died, and never, in the course of his wandering life[8] having been to Prague, he would have been an ideal candidate for the archetypal “Voynich” hero and some ‘Voynichero’ may yet decide to include him in the now fairly solidly entrenched, if fantastic ‘history’ created for this manuscript. 


continued …


Footnotes ~ see following post







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