Monthly Archives: March 2019

Manuscript Road Trip: A Little Bit of Voynich on the Side

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

If you read my blog, or follow me on Twitter, or have spent five minutes talking to me at a conference, you will know that I am – to put it mildly – fascinated by the Voynich Manuscript, also known as Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library MS 408 (Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut). For the uninitiated, take a minute to read this blogpost so you’ll be caught up.

[n.b.: I am not here to decode or read or translate or otherwise interpret the contents of the manuscript. I am not a linguist, cryptologist, or conspiracy-theorist. I am a medievalist specializing in the materiality of medieval manuscripts…what they are, how they’re made, who owned them, how they got from there and then to here and now, and how they can help us understand book culture in the Middle Ages, later collecting and connoisseurship, and modern engagement with the medieval era. I am particularly interested in Pre-1600 manuscripts in North American collections, an intersection in which the Voynich Manuscript at the Beinecke Library solidly stands]

70r detail

f. 70r detail

As I write this, I am in Philadelphia attending the annual conference of the organization I run, the Medieval Academy of America. Meeting at the University of Pennsylvania is a homecoming of sorts for me, since my first job after completing my PhD was in the Rare Book Room at the Van Pelt Library, where I was hired to catalogue medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. In the brief calm between my arrival in Philadelphia and the two days I spent in pre-meeting meetings, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spend a few hours at the library, Voynich-ing (yes, that’s a verb, at least it is at my house).

This part of the story begins back in 1912, when Wilfrid Voynich purchased the manuscript from the Jesuits at Villa Mondragone near Rome. Upon his return to the United States, he began promoting his mysterious acquisition, boasting to friends and colleagues about the book no one could read. Cryptologists, linguists, and statisticians were intrigued, and several came to study the manuscript in hopes of solving the puzzle. The most intrepid of these was William Romaine Newbold (1865-1926), a professor of Latin and Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Newbold died before completing his study, but in 1928 his friend and colleague Roland Grubb Kent edited his work and published it posthumously under the title The Cipher of Roger Bacon.

Screenshot (689)The Cipher of Roger Bacon is, quite frankly, a terrible piece of research. Presented as a formal and detailed linguistic and historical analysis, his logic is flawed and circular and his historical discussions are often not only bizarre but also anachronistic. The crux of his “solution” is the theory that each Voynich letter (or “grapheme,” more appropriately, since we don’t know for sure that they ARE letters…each character, for example, could be a phoneme) is actually a connected series of microscopic Latin letters strung together, written by none other than the thirteenth-century scholar and scientist Roger Bacon using an extraordinarily high-powered microscope, apparently of his own invention. There is absolutely no material forensic evidence to support this theory, which Newbold bases not only on his own microscopic investigations but on a lengthy and equally improbable argument claiming that Bacon had the knowledge, skill, and equipment to create a powerful microscope. And that’s just the first of a series of increasingly unlikely claims.

Screenshot (696)

The Cipher of Roger Bacon, plate XIIIa and b, demonstrating Newbold’s micrographic method

Newbold announced his solution in a lecture titled “The Voynich Roger Bacon Manuscript” delivered at the April 1921 meeting of the American Philosophical Society and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

f. 68

The “Nebula” page (f. 68r, leftmost panel)

His work focused on the “Nebula” page (folio 68r), which he claimed represented Bacon’s (and thus the earliest known) drawing of the Andromeda Nebula as seen through a telescope. He also used his method to interpret several of the illustrations in the biological section of the manuscript. Newbold’s conclusion that the Voynich Manuscript demonstrated Bacon’s (hitherto unknown) advanced understanding of science, astronomy, and biology immediately propelled him to national, albeit short-lived, fame, with articles in outlets as varied as Bookman’s Journal and The New York Times trumpeting the news. Screenshot (688)Montrose J. Moses’ “A Cinderella in Parchment: The Romance of the New 600 Year-Old Bacon Manuscript” in Hearst’s International (June 1921, pp.16-17, 75) is a typical example. [These pieces are among the first of a genre of breathless and premature announcements that still appear with shocking regularity today, in which someone claims to have “solved” the Voynich, the claim is published online, and the news spreads virally across the globe before it can be critically reviewed.]

If I’m not here to tell you how to read the Voynich Manuscript,  I am also not here to tear down Newbold’s work. That task was taken up quite effectively in the 1931 issue of Speculum, the renowned journal of Medieval Studies published, in fact, by the very same Medieval Academy of America of which I am Executive Director. John Manfred Manly’s article “Roger Bacon and Voynich Manuscript” (Speculum VI (1931), 345-391) is a savage takedown of Newbold’s research.

IMG_20190311_125634290It was precisely because of Newbold’s widespread fame that Manly felt a moral imperative to publicly denounce his work, in the “interests of scientific truth.” “In my opinion,” he wrote, “the Newbold claims are entirely baseless and should be definitely and absolutely rejected” (Manly, p. 347). He goes on to spend fifty pages dismantling Newbold’s argument and methodology.

Regarding Newbold’s attribution of the manuscript’s authorship to Bacon, Manly has this to say: “[Newbold] credited [Bacon] with palaeographical knowledge of the most recondite sort and asserted that the MS was a document in which this thirteenth century friar, to avoid the dangers then awaiting the unconventional thinker, had secretly recorded discoveries made with a compound microscope – constructed centuries before its known invention – discoveries in which this unparalleled genius had anticipated the theories of twentieth century biologists and histologists concerning germ cells, ova, spermatozoa, and the general mechanism of organic life.” (Manly, p. 346)

Manly’s critiques go much further than a simple accusation of anachronism, however. He follows Newbold’s decryption step by step, pointing out numerous flaws and transcription errors, noting at one point that “The correct conclusion undoubtedly is that the ‘microscopic shorthand signs’ have, as such, no objective existence, but are the creatures of Professor Newbold’s imagination.” (Manly, p. 354).

Manly’s criticism of Newbold’s interpretation of the biological illustration on folio 78 questions not only his decryption method but his biological reading of the scene:

“…[Newbold’s] interpretation of the drawings (shown in his Plate V) is very puzzling. One might accept ‘the schematized ovaries,’ and the Fallopian tubes, but why are there streams of ova descending into the uterus? Why are there two connected uteri? And why seven or eight’ souls (spermatozoa)’ and eight ova in a uterus? As to the legend itself, I might be less skeptical of the reading but for the fact that in this, as in many similar cases, I cannot find the shorthand signs shown at the foot of page 48 in the legend shown in Plate V. In fact, this legend, like the rest of the groups of symbols in the manuscript, seems to me to have been written with free hand strokes, not built up…” (Manly, p. 390). I’ll let you judge for yourself both the interpretation of the image and Newbold’s micrographic reading of the word in the upper right corner:


Newbold, p. 48 detail (decoding the word in the upper right corner of f. 78r)

And on and on it goes.

As a result of Manly’s article, Newbold was posthumously and utterly discredited.

So what does any of this have to do with the Kislak Center for Special Collections at the University of Pennsylvania? Because Newbold was a professor at Penn, the Library owns at least a part of his papers, including several folders of annotated and sometimes handcolored proofs of illustrations from the 1928 book. The plates themselves are not particularly interesting, but I did find something else. I decided to see if the main library had a copy of Newbold’s book so that I could compare the final printed version with the proofs. Turns out they have a copy in the rare book room (RBR) itself, so I could easily compare them side-by-side. Unfortunately, that comparison was not very enlightening. But I did find another something-else.

When I had the  RBR copy of Newbold’s book on my research desk, I noticed that it had been signed by an early owner, cryptologist and mathematician Charles J. Mendelsohn.  Mendelsohn ran in the same cryptoanalytical circles as Manly and famed WWII US Army cryptologist William F. Friedman, and, early Voynichologists all, they had been quite critical of Newbold at one point or another. Friedman and his wife, US Navy cryptologist Elizebeth Smith Friedman, devoted four decades of fruitless study to the Voynich, and it was Manly who wrote the devastating takedown of The Cipher of Roger Bacon in Speculum (for more on these early efforts to make sense out of the Voynich Manuscript, see William Sherman’s essay “Cryptographic Attempts” in Raymond Clemens, ed., The Voynich Manuscript (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 39-43).

Until now, it has never been noted that Mendelsohn annotated his copy of Newbold’s book. The margins are full of rather snarky comments alongside detailed criticisms of the argument, methodology, and results. These critiques mirror Manly’s, and the two cryptologists likely corresponded about Newbold’s work.

Screenshot (691)

“Usually, the decipherment reveals the sense; here the sense dictates the decipherment!” (Mendelsohn annotation, p. 60)


Above, a Selection of Mendelsohn Annotations…

Manly concludes his Speculum article somewhat more gently and with regret for his role in discrediting a man he clearly considered a friend and colleague: “That [this] judgment must be passed upon the work of so learned and brilliant scholar and so sincere and attractive a personality as Professor Newbold is almost tragic. I say, ‘almost,’ for after all, this record of defeat is none the less a record of scholastic heroism. Confronted with a manuscript, which, though obviously interesting and important for the history of science, had baffled experts of the twentieth century as it had those of the sixteenth and seventeenth, he refused to admit that it could not be read. Eight months he labored before he obtained what he regarded as the first verification of his theories; and eight years – the whole remainder, indeed, of his all too brief life – he devoted with feverish energy to the application of them…He was of the stuff of which heroes and martyrs are made.” (Manly, p. 391)

I am in full enthusiastic agreement with Manly when he concludes, “We can only hope that some one with equal courage and devotion but with a sounder method will be found to renew the attack upon the mysterious cipher of the Voynich manuscript…It is greatly to be desired that…scholars equipped with the necessary armament of knowledge and ingenuity and patience should renew the attack upon the mysterious manuscript.” (Manly, p. 391)

Both critics justifiably accuse Newbold of the same flaws in methodology that afflict many would-be Voynich-solvers today: wishful thinking and inverted logic. To those of you out there in Voynich-land who are even now working on decrypting or deciphering this “elegant enigma,” please take heed of Manly and Mendelsohn’s words of caution: in order to be accepted as legitimate, your solution must be logical, repeatable, take into account the verifiable published scientific analyses, and result in a reading that makes sense both intellectually and chronologically.

voynich detail

Bona fortuna, my fellow Voynichologists!


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts, Uncategorized