Emerge from shadow: 1943-2000 Pt1

Philosophies which have laid most stress on the a priori elements in knowledge have in general tended to turn for supporting arguments to mathematics, and, conversely, systems which seem primarily to draw inspiration from mathematical models have usually been led into elaborating theories of the a priori.

I.R.F. Calder, John Dee: Studied as an English Neoplatonist, University of London (1952), Ch.9

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 I’m tempted to summarise the entire period from 1943 – 2000 in one sentence:


end of topic.



Friedman in London Marshallfoundationlibrary

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In terms of what I’m tracking here,which is not the history of efforts made, but the directions in which the study moved, and which led ultimately to the present situation, this period was one of no positive change. I say this not to offend readers who are still convinced that the manuscript is written in cipher, nor to belittle those who tried to decipher it in those years, but one has to admit that by the end of the period, what was ‘certainly known’ about the manuscript – other than negatives – was no more than had been known by 1931. 

There was no noticeable review of the “givens”; such items from Wilfrid’s story which were altered were altered by argument about some detail, such as substituting some other name for Wilfrid’s “Bacon-as-author”.

Cryptanalysts added to their list of things which the written text couldn’t be, or probably wasn’t.

Much activity occurred within a circle that remained closed until after the manuscript had been deposited with Yale in the late 1960s.

We do see articles and books appear, but nothing conclusive.  

Where the writers between 1921 and 1943 had focussed on the manuscript as the Roger Bacon cipher text, it soon became “the cipher text”, to which the adjective ‘mysterious’ was added – carrying an implicit suggestion that failure to decipher it was due to an inherent quality within the manuscript, not to any wrong premises, narrow horizons, methodological flaws, or skills wanting in those making the attempt.

The most noticeable aspect of the period is that Wilfrid’s habit of speaking, not about the manuscript but about his own hypotheses and various historical personalities, became not just the dominant model but the only form of published discourse. Narratives published from 1943-2000 drive towards their own conclusions looking neither right nor left.  This had been Wilfrid’s method from the beginning (and see bibliography offered in the next post).

Never mentioned in the formal accounts, the older BOI file, in which doubts were raised about Mr. and Mrs. Voynich’s political stance, may have had something to do with revived interest shown in the 1950s by the military and intelligence sectors, though Colonel William Friedman (head of the 1950s “study group”) had an old interest in revealing codes and ciphers embedded actually or supposedly in works of literature by famous English authors. He had come to the manuscript, initially, because it promised to be another of that type. In the earlier stages, he too presumed it the “cipher manuscript of Roger Bacon.”

His breaking this cipher-in-work-by-a-famous-English-author was to add another to his triumphs of that sort, although his work led him, as Newbold’s had, down a path ending only at cross-roads. His final view, like that of Brigadier Tiltman, was that the text was probably not in cipher.

The most positive light in which Friedman’s work and that of his group  can be presented is offered within three publications: Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma; John Tiltman’s paper(s), ‘The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World’ and a magazine article written by Elizebeth Friedman for the ‘Washington Post’ (Aug 5, 1962, Section E pp1,5).

As always, the pattern of open publications maintains its odd and intermittent pattern. The most interesting items are perhaps the revival by Hugh O’Neill of Fr. Petersen’s efforts to identify plants from the botanical section. Unfortunately, the now-ingrained assumptions derived from Wilfrid’s narrative, together with a presumption that the botanical imagery was ‘awful’ only because it fails to closely approximate herbals of the Latin type and/or to present with ‘scientific’ realism, meant that most identifications suggested for the manuscript’s plants resulted in ‘botany’  as ephemeral as Newbold’s ‘biology’. This is still the case, by and large.

The habit is not only entrenched, but positively supported, of ignoring stylistics and of treating each image as if it were an incompetent attempt at realistic depiction of something from the (often later-) Latin corpus. Apparently or certainly anachronistic “identifications” are routine, although for this we have an early example in O’Neill’s identifying the plant on folio 93r  [not 33v as is often said] as a sunflower from the Americas. Characteristically, he never doubted his identification,  re-dating the manuscript accordingly.  A more usual approach would be to take the manuscript’s date as reasonably established, and instead re-consider his identification. However, he did not rely on himself alone, and some others among his identifications (such as Urtica sp. for folio 25) still appear viable.

Professionals expert in an external or ancillary field of study have too often been unwilling to investigate the manuscript as a whole, and place their proposals in that context. As a rule, one sees that they merely adopt the ideas about the manuscript which are most prevalent in their own time, forgetting that an idea’s being dominant (like that of association with Roger Bacon) does not of itself make it fact.  (Error #1: Preemptive vision)

About Brumbaugh’s attempt at definitive utterance on the manuscript’s history and imagery, the less said is perhaps the best said, although one should note that his opinions appear to have had an effect on the holding library’s catalogue description.

Some acute personal observations by Tiltman, the generally calm and rational tone of d’Imperio’s and of Elizebeth Friedman’s writings, are the brightest spots in the whole period –  at the end of which another sixty years, near enough, had passed.


… continued in part b







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