Wilfrid’s spell-binder: 8

Error #8. Irresistible irrelevance.

Fifty years later, in the 1970s, there is no sign that this manuscript’s study had returned to less exciting but more dependable methods, nor that intelligence had, as yet, managed to dispel the hypnotic fog of Wilfrid’s narrative style. 

Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma repeats, as if it were fact, this totally unfounded yet seductive story of Dee as messenger. It also repeats the rumour of Rudolf’s supposedly paying the extraordinary sum of 600 ducats for it, and a fifth of the book’s content is devoted to Dee’s biography and (by tacit reference to him) reproductions of fifteenth- and sixteenthcentury magical and other alphabets.It even ventures to mention Rosicrucians, whose first historical mention occurs in the seventeenth century. Voynich studies had apparently wandered quite beyond recall.

John Dee

Whether or not the manuscript spent some time in Rudolf’s possession is a hypothetical issue, with no bearing on its origin, form or content, nor even if one day proven true, likely to illuminate the question of where and when the content of text and imagery were first enunciated, for or by whom.

A modern historian might allow the story of Rudolf’s temporary ownership a footnote, but Wilfrid made it ‘headline news’ and so did a string of later writers, until this retrospective glamour came to define the manuscript and even to determine what would be deemed  ‘probable’ in later research, and which lines of historical or cryptographic investigation might be acknowledged or pursued. A silent standard became ” … but would it suit the Emperor?”  

I have encountered this attitude even quite recently, in presenting the historical, and internal evidence, which does not point to central Europe for the manuscript’s manufacture, nor to Latin culture for the first enunciation of its contained matter.  Regardless of whether the scribe(s) who wrote the present version had been trained to write in this style or that, my conclusions are most closely matched by those reached quite early in the twentieth century: namely that the manuscript’s form reflects the environment of southern Europe, or England, and from its imagery any influence from the Latin world’s renaissance style is absent.

Assertions that Dee delivered a copy of any manuscript to Prague remain unsubstantiated. That asserting our manuscript delivered to Rudolf, as reportedly asserted by a man who could never have witnessed the exchange, has been so often repeated since the 1920s that it is still routinely presented as if it were solid fact.

But, as I’ve said, the present survey is not only a recounting of early errors, but a tracing of current ones to what is frequently their only source: Wilfrid’s exciting story.


~ Pure Magic ~

Impetus to believing that the manuscript might concern magic was no more than Wilfrid’s airy  idea that it was a ciphered work written by Roger Bacon, and connecting it in his imagination to  John Dee and so to casting Dee in the role of that alleged (anonymous) ‘bearer’ who carried it to an imperial personage. For none of this, and especially its fundamental premise, is there any evidence whatever.  None.

As to the ‘bearer’, there is the single, unsupported assertion, reported of  a man who appears to have been indulging his own imagination, or at best reporting hearsay himself. As Neal pointed out some time ago, Mnishovsky could not have witnessed the exchange.

It seems almost incredible that no-one called Wilfrid’s bluff about the ‘novella’, but if any did notice it a fictional tale, not an historical one, I find no sign that their opinion limited the tale’s adoption.  

Dee’s biography is so placed in Elegant Enigma that the reader gains an impression that some independent reason exists for supposing, now, that the manuscript refers to Latin European, post-reformation style magic, and despite the fact that the expert in this subject had thought otherwise, and said so with considerable emphasis. 

Dee appears in d’Imperio’s book rather late, set in  Section 8: “Collateral Research:  Medieval and Renaissance Cosmology and Iconography” as a sub-set of ‘Magical Systems’.  Kabbalah, a religious philosophical tradition of some sectors in Jewry, is relegated to the same section. 

8.1 Ars Memorativa: The Art of Memory. (Note – Francis Yates is the chief reference – her treatment is less appropriate for the period before 1500).
8.2 The Hermetic Tradition
8.3 Astrology and Astronomy
8.4 Magical Systems
8.4.1 Picatrix
8.4.2 Solomonian Magical Tradition
8.4.3 Abramelinian Magical System
8.4.4 John Dee’s System of Spiritual Magic
8.5 The Galenic Medical Tradition
8.6 Ars Notoria: Demonic and Angelic Magic
8.7 Cabala
8.8 Alchemy
8.9 The Rosicrucian Movement and John Dee
8.10  The History of the Hindu-Arabic Numerals
8.11 Medieval and Renaissance Costume

Another ‘magical’ transformation had occurred in Voynich studies between 1921 and the late 1960s: our manuscript, though early recognised as from the thirteenth- to early-fifteenth centuries, had become supposed filled with sixteenth and seventeenth century matter, and not only to derive from a wholly European Latin culture – but now to one supposed postReformation that is, late fifteenth century onwards. 

The ex- (or not ex-) military cipher people who became involved from the 1950s onwards had little interest in the manuscript per se, so that the early date accorded it had no weight in their minds, while their focus being concentrated on the supposed cipher influenced their own preferences and inclinations towards a later time-frame, and a cultural context made so narrow that it now even excluded, by and large, Latin Europe’s own pre-reformation history and culture.

It never seems to have occurred to anyone that it might be worth at least ranging more widely than within the circle of works produced for, or completely absorbed into, the dominant culture of western Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

They didn’t just look.

 Wilfrid’s involving Dee had been extrapolated from sources which, none of them, refer to Dee at all:

(i) an inscription of Jacub Horckicy/Tepenecz’ name in the manuscript;

(ii) a letter from Barsch to Kircher about it in the 1630s;

(iii) Marci’s letter of gift to Kircher in c.1665/6 …

Though not evident in d’Imperio’s work, yet another factor was to distort approaches to the manuscript: a determination to assign it to a writer’s preferred nation. I do not wish to deal with this aspect of the ongoing divisions in Voynich studies, but readers should be aware that to impose modern national visions, and borders, on the character of thirteenth- to fifteenth-century Europe is anachronistic.

NPG D29012; Anthony Ascham by Robert Cooper
Antony Ascham (c. 1614 – 1650). National Portrait Gallery

A perfect model of the post-war mindset, its presumptions and extrapolations is offered by a paper written in 1945 by an eminent physician, geneticist and cancer researcher (but not an historian, codicologist, or iconographic analyst) Dr. Leonell C. Stong.

Entitled, ‘Anthony Askham, the Author of the Voynich Manuscript’, the paper was published (ironically enough) in Science, New Series, Vol. 101, No. 2633 (Jun. 15, 1945) pp.608-609. Characteristically, it supposes that a contemporary must be “more right” than an earlier specialist, and is unable to distinguish between  botanist’s ability to identify a plant and that of determining the subject of an image.  He treats O’Neill’s plant identifications as if they required no further comment, and his own cipher solution in much the same way.

I would urge you to read Leonell Strong’s article for the salutary example it offers, and its parallel to much of the cross-disciplinary writing about the manuscript to the present time.

The imagery remained ‘puzzling’ – a dilemma commonly addressed by defining its subject matter ad.lib. and then finding ‘matches’ for that subject matter while ignoring any issues of style and presentation. That is just what O’Neill did, and is fairly said typical of much Voynich writing. Some awful ‘howlers’ have resulted, and not a few persist into the twenty-first century, adoption of the prevalent narrative, or attachment to a given theory often proving stronger than the ability to absorb or account for any evidence contra-indicative.

The cipher’s proving so difficult was taken as reinforcement for the ‘authorial’ notion, and certain ingrained assumptions among people of the post-war era who were focussed on cipher-breaking prevented their positing other than an elevated member of society as  ‘author’; no other type supposed competent to create a ‘cipher text’ having the perceived level of complexity. Similar assumptions persist, although there is still doubt as to whether the text is, actually, in cipher. Brigadier John Tiltman and Colonel William Friedman both concluded that it wasn’t. Despite the enormous regard in which both men are held by cryptologists, their conclusion has been more-or-less glossed over and ‘excused’ rather than accepted as authoritative.

From the time the manuscript was presented to Yale in the 1960s, those original assessments of the manuscript which had noted that it presents with a thirteenth-century appearance were no longer being referenced in articles available to the public.

In the same way, any reference to possible influence from pre-Reformation scholarship or religious culture was increasingly limited to the the equivalent of d’Imperio’s sub-section”8.4″, though Ramon Llull and the Italian ‘renaissance’ etc. were excepted, due to a curious habit found in western Christianity, whereby ‘rationalism’ is sometimes imagined a faculty reserved to members of certain sects, but denied others.  Where an obvious conflict occurs within that scheme, one sees a habit of granting ‘quasi-membership’ to the supposed anomalies.

Overall, a majority of the matter cited in d’Imperio supposes attitudes to the text appropriate to the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth centuries rather than the thirteenth- to fifteenth.  Focus by now had shifted to as much as  four centuries after the date to which the earliest appraisals had assigned the manuscript, and as much as two centuries after its radiocarbon date.(which is, again … 1404-1438).

The great value of d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma lies in its recording and summarising previous and current arguments and ideas about the manuscript.  In that way, it remains essential reading and provides valuable insights into the post-war state of mind.


O’Neill’s ‘New world plants’. O’Neill never explained why the folio he supposed a ‘sunflower’ bears so little resemblance to the image in Doedens’ Florum et Coronarium, (1568, 1569), the first known botanical illustration of the plant known in Europe. Nor did O’Neill address the implied discrepancy between his identification and the manuscript’s material evidence: vellum, pigments and ‘hands’. Less surprising is O’Neill’s using the flower –  not the leaf – as defining element, but the leaves on folio 93r are plainly not the sun-flower’s rough, heart-shaped leaves.  If one supposes the draughtsman able to draw a seed-head accurately enough for precise taxonomic description, the same should apply to his depiction of the leaf; conversely, if his drawing of the one is considered incompetent, so (logically) should the other.



(I’ve made no identification for f.93r, though I should think the plants Asteraceae, and more exactly those yielding red dye. I illustrate the seed-head with a dandelion, Bobette Douglas having recently mentioned it).


dandelion-headfol 93r detail head


… continued…




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