Tag Archives: Kislak Center for Special Collections

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

Manuscript Road Trip: The Digital Walters

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

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

For the past year, I’ve been using the image at the left – Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus on their road trip to Egypt – as a metaphoric representation of my virtual road trip. The only reason I can do so is because the image has been made available for downloading and use under a Creative Commons license by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. It might surprise you to learn that the Walters was an early adapter of open access platforms and continues to lead the way in making free, high quality images available online. But before we get to Walters the Digital, we have to start with Walters the Collector.

working map

William T. Walters in his "Picture Gallery," 1884

William T. Walters in his “Picture Gallery,” 1884

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, railway tycoon William Thompson Walters (1819 – 1894) and his son Henry (1848 – 1931) amassed a collection of more than 20,000 art objects from around the world, eventually founding the museum that bears their family name. This from the Walters Art Museum website: “When William died in 1894, he bequeathed his collection to his son. Henry Walters would not only follow in his father’s footsteps in business—investing and managing railroads—but would carry on the family interest in art as well. He greatly expanded the scope of acquisitions, including his astounding purchase of the contents of a palace in Rome that contained over 1,700 pieces. This acquisition added Roman and Etruscan antiquities, early Italian paintings, and Renaissance and Baroque works of art to his holdings. Although he spent little time in his native city, Henry continued the work his father had begun by opening his collection to the public. In 1900, he bought three houses on Charles Street adjoining a property he already owned. Henry had the site transformed into a palazzo-like building, which opened to the public in 1909. He died in 1931, bequeathing the building and its contents to the mayor and city council of Baltimore ‘for the benefit of the public.’ The Walters Art Gallery, now the Walters Art Museum, opened its doors for the first time as a public institution on November 3, 1934.”

Along the way, the Walters men acquired a nearly-unparalleled collection of several hundred illuminated manuscripts, a collection that has grown through strategic acquisitions over the years, each one a masterpiece of its kind. Like his contemporary Pierpont Morgan, whose collection in New York is equally legendary, Walters had a taste for the finer things. The manuscript collection is full of extraordinary art. In looking through the digitized images, I found it nearly impossible to choose which examples to share with you, so I am including just a few of my personal favorites, one per century.

St. Matthew writing his Gospel (WAG W.17, ff. 8v/9) (ca. 1100)

St. Matthew writing his Gospel (WAM W.17, ff. 8v/9) (ca. 1100)

First up, a late eleventh/early twelfth-century Gospel book (W.17), possibly from northern Spain or France. St. Matthew is hard at work writing his Gospel, as an angel (his attribute) descends from the heavenly aperture above with a modelbook for him to copy. On the right, the rubric and first verse of the Gospel of St. Matthew, with the letters [Li] in “Liber” formed by the interlaced initials at the left. Two soldiers in armor inhabit the initial [L], one standing on the shoulders of the other to watch the Evangelist at work.

The Daughter of Babylon (WAG W.29, f. 43v) (Lambach, Austria, s. XII 3/4)

The Daughter of Babylon (WAM W.29, f. 43v) (Lambach, Austria, s. XII 3/4)

Here’s one I simply couldn’t let pass by. Manuscript W.29 records three treatises by Honorius of Autun and was illustrated by Gottschalk of Lambach, the scribe/artist who was the subject of my first book. Gottschalk didn’t write this one, but his illustrative work in W.29 is remarkable. Above, illustrating Honorius’ Commentary on the Song of Songs, the Daughter of Babylon rides beneath a blazing sun, escorted by Martyrs, Apostles, and Philosophers, her steeds helpfully identified below her footrest as “cameli.” The Daughter of Babylon represents the second of Honorius’ Four Epochs of the allegorical marriage described in the Song of Songs, the epoch “sub lege,” or “beneath the law.” The style is typical of Gottschalk, with his red and black penwork, distinctive long graceful fingers, and carefully articulated facial features.


Christ and King David within the letter [B] (WAM W.151, f. 250v) (Bologna, early 13th c.)

 This initial comes from the early thirteenth-century Bolognese glory known as the Bentivoglio Bible, also known as manuscript W.151. Within the initial [B] of “Beatus vir” (the beginning of Psalm 1) we find Christ in the upper compartment holding an open book in his left hand, his right raised in blessing. King David – the supposed author of the Psalms – inhabits the lower compartment, strumming his harp.


St. Peter enthroned (WAM W.153, f. 5v)

As we make our way through the fourteenth century, things really start to get lush and golden. Here’s St. Peter enthroned (holding the key to Heaven in his left hand, blessing with his right) within the letter [N], in a late fourteenth-century antiphonal. In the lower register, an angel leads him from a Roman prison. The antiphonal was made for the use of the Chapel of Saint Nicholas of Bari in the church of St. Peter Major in Florence; hence, it is illustrated with eight scenes from the life of St. Peter, including his inverted crucifixion, below, within the letter [H].

St. Peter crucified (WAM W.153, f. 19v)

St. Peter crucified (WAM W.153, f. 19v)

The images above were all taken from manuscripts designed to be used by monks or in a church setting. Beginning in the late fourteenth century, the rise of private devotion necessitated the creation of private prayerbooks, resulting in a proliferation of Books of Hours in the fifteenth century such as the manuscript illustrated below. This Book of Hours was written for the use of Troyes around the year 1470 and has the distinction of having once been owned by Wilfred Voynich, for whom the infamous Voynich Manuscript was named (Google it and you will quickly enter a dark and scary corner of the internet…but it’s worth the trip!). At left, an illustration of the  Annunciation accompanies Matins for the Hours of the Virgin, the central text of a Book of Hours. The marginal miniatures illustrate other scenes from the life of the Virgin (clockwise from the upper right): being taught to read by her mother, St. Anne; being presented in the Temple; playing a stringed instrument; at prayer in a church; greeting the also-pregnant St. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. At right, St. Luke writes his Gospel, a quill in his right hand and a scraping implement in his left, copying from a model on a bookstand before him. His attribute, a bull, crouches at his feet, and a number of completed manuscripts are visible in the storage compartment below his writing desk. The two statues in the niches above, a man and a woman, may represent the initial commissioners of the manuscript.

The Annunciation with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin (WAM W.249, f. 37) (Troyes, ca. 1470)

The Annunciation with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin (WAM W.249, f. 37) (Troyes, ca. 1470)

St. Luke writing his Gospel (WAM W.249, f. 19) (Troyes, ca. 1470)

St. Luke writing his Gospel (WAM W.249, f. 19) (Troyes, ca. 1470)

Finally, we reach the apex of manuscript illumination in the early sixteenth century. Although I am somewhat partial to the penwork and charm of twelfth-century monastic manuscripts, these noble commissions of the early 1500s really take my breath away:

The Annunciation (WAM W.449, f. 32v) (Tours?, ca. 1524, attr. Jean de Mauléon)

The Annunciation (WAM W.449, f. 32v) (Tours?, ca. 1524, attr. Jean de Mauléon)

The Flight into Egypt (WAM W.452, f. 79v) (Tours?, ca. 1520, attr. Jean Pichore)

The Flight into Egypt (WAM W.452, f. 79v) (Tours?, ca. 1520, attr. Jean Pichore)


As users and admirers of medieval manuscripts, we have to step back and appreciate how extraordinary the digital collection at the Walters truly is. The Walters has always been a leader in cataloguing and access to medieval manuscripts: the multi-volume Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Walters Art Gallery authored by former curator Lilian M. C. Randall remains the gold standard in its breadth, depth, and attention to detail. Her successor, former curator William Noel, is perhaps best known for his work with the Archimedes Palimpsest (if you want a great introduction to the project and the importance of Open Access data, check out Will’s 2012 TED Talk). He applied the Open Access model used in that project to the Walters collection to establish a digital presence that includes not only the Walters website but a Flickr site as well, and, although he has since left to become the founding Director of the Kislak Center for Special Collections at the University of Pennsylvania, the Walters Art Museum remains committed to that model.

True Open Access is about a lot more than simply being able to freely download high-resolution un-watermarked JPGs, TIFFs, or PDFs. The Digital Walters provides several tiers of access points to these manuscripts: you can download the entire manuscript as a PDF; you can page through it online using a page-turner interface; you can download individual images; and, for those of you who really love your data raw, you can get behind the scenes at the Digital Walters, strip away the pretty interface, and interact with the data in a folder-file structure, pure and simple. Here, in this “behind-the-scenes” space, you can access the multiple layers that make up each image and dataset, see the data in its purist form, and download the raw data to do with as you please. This is the real thing. You might never have a good reason to interact with data this raw, but the fact that it’s there for the taking is unique and extraordinary.

Will Noel was honored last year by the White House as a “Champion of Change” for his work in advocating for open data, work he continues to pursue at what will be our next stop, the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.



Filed under Medieval Manuscripts, Uncategorized