Q: Who first said that? A: Wilfrid Voynich (Pt. 3)

A set of three trumpeting headlines were set above an article published in the Detroit News-Tribune on December 12th., 1915

Books worth 8 Million

European Bibliophile brings his collection to America

Old manuscript Led to Discovery of Ancient Tomes, One of Them valued at $150,000, in an Austrian Castle

NB – the article will follow the custom seen in these headings, by which all the manuscripts Wilfrid took for display in America are deemed his personal ‘collection’. This point is important, as you’ll see.

The books which Mr. Voynich has brought to America to exhibit include many which were the treasures of Italian princely libraries. When Napoleon began to send the valuable collections of art works of Nothern Italy to Paris, the heads of the other states took fright. Many dukes and princes sent their possessions to Austria in the hope that there they would be safe. The few who knew of their disposition either died or forgot about them, or were rendered powerless to recover them.

A $150,000 BOOK

A century later Mr. Voynich discovered correspondence which related to the hiding of some of the rare manuscripts in Austria, and after considerable search he unearthed the chests which contained them. They had remained unopened in an Austrian castle whose owner was unaware of what they held. Mr. Voynich obtained the rights to them and he has sold many rare manuscripts and first editions to the art museums and private collections in America.

NB: By  the end of 1915, as you see, Voynich had already obtained exclusive rights to all those manuscripts found in Austria, so he had little need to obscure their origins as remained the case until his death concerning the source of his recently-acquired ‘Bacon cipher’ manuscript. So – to return to the American reporter’s account in 1915:

There are two wonder works in the collection of many hundreds that are prized above all the others. One is a “Lives of the martyrs”, written on vellum, with a water color drawing at the bottom of each page. Critics have attributed these drawings to Giotto. They represent the adventures of holy men with devils. This one book is valued at $150,000.

The focus of the 1915 exhibition tour was those religious manuscripts emphasised by the headers given the American news article – and they had been found in Austria.

Only at the very end of the news article, in that final paragraph which (as all journalists soon learn) is the first cut by any editor, is there a brief note about our manuscript of interest:

The other gem of the collection [whose collection?.. yees … Wilfrid’s ‘collection’! ] is a manuscript on rough parchment, supposed to have been written by Roger Bacon, in cipher. The drawings and water colour paintings show that the work treats of botany, astrology, the biology of plants and women, and astrology [sic]. Scholars have failed to find the key to the cipher.

(passages from the newspaper article above extracted from what is re-presented on Rene Zandbergen’s  site, voynich.nu.  A fourth heading appears there, but since I am unable to see anything in the article of 1915 to explain it, I omit it here.  For those interested, that header or heading reads: “A report about the origin of the Jesuit MSS, in the Kansas City Times, 12 November 1915”. )

For this manuscript, the newspaper names no price; no particular provenance is given, either. But six years later, as Wilfrid stood to read his paper before the Philadelphia Physicians, he was utterly certain that the work was by Bacon, and that its ‘cipher’ had been broken by Professor Romaine Newbold. He expected that a translation of the written text to soon be available to the public. Voynich believed that his own ‘storyline’ for the manuscript had been proven true after the fact.

In such circumstances, it was not only possible but essential to offer more of the work’s provenance, and in that speech he makes clear that this manuscript was not one of those he had bought rights to in Austria, but one from another grip found in ‘southern Europe’ and whose location he would not reveal because he still hoped to acquire more volumes from it.

Still and all, a College of Physicians in Philadelphia might well include members with the necessary interest and money to acquire the odd illuminated manuscript, and Wilfrid’s living was gained by their sale. Moreover, he was evidently a pretty competent judge and had some instincts of the used-book salesman, so even his discussion of the ‘Roger Bacon’ manuscripts dangles the more colourful and gilded sort of manuscript before his audience.  He says that most [sic] of the manuscripts which he took to America bore the arms of once-illustrious European families.  The ‘Bacon’ manuscript, of course, does not, but this is a seller’s spiel and a reasonable introduction in the circs. So he writes:

most of these manuscripts must formerly have belonged to the private libraries of various ruling houses of Italy, now extinct, since many of them were embellished the arms of such personages as the Dukes of Parma, [or of] Ferrara and Modena. [p.415]

That’s the same selling-line which had sold the Austrian manuscripts six years earlier, but don’t be mislead into thinking that Wilfrid believed even for one moment that his manuscript was one created for some  Duke of Parma, or of Ferrara and Modena.  It wasn’t possible. In Roger Bacon’s lifetime (1214/1220–1292), and even in the time-frame given for our manuscript’s parchment  (1404-1438), there had never existed a Duke of Parma, nor a Duchy of Ferrara and Modena. These were titles created after our manuscript was made.

No, this introduction by Voynich is just a bit of shimmer, a touch of lustre-by-association for the ugly duckling ‘Bacon’ manuscript which is his chief subject.

Exactly who had owned it late in the fifteenth century would be nice to know, but close study of the primary document is more to the point, and that is not a matter for conjecture but for informed commentary. In which connection I might add that Voynich’s initial impression that the manuscript resembled an English one of the thirteenth century or so is an impression gained by various other professionals in his day.

Voynich was a competent appraiser within his preferred range – beautifully illuminated manuscripts from the fourteenth century or so, and normally if not invariably religious and classical texts.

He was able to judge parchment and penmanship pretty well, I should think, given the rarity with which any manuscripts he sold have been suspected as forgeries.  Nor do I think his appraisal is necessarily mistaken, for I see no reason why the appearance of our manuscript should not be that of earlier exemplars, including ones made in the fourteenth or thirteenth centuries.

It is worth emphasising that numerous professionals, both dealers in manuscripts and curators of collections, saw nothing to object to in Voynich’s opinion that the parchment and inks looked English and mid-thirteenth century.

It was from the last quarter of the thirteenth century, and during Bacon’s lifetime that the king of England exiled his Jewish subjects as a means of avoiding his due debts. Similarly dishonest and dishonourable practices were soon to be imitated throughout most of Europe.  There is, therefore, no necessary conflict here between Voynich’s general impression of the manuscript, and the more highly informed opinion of Erwin Panofsky, provided to Anne Nill in the year Voynich died: that the manuscript (and presumably its imagery which was Panofsky’s specialty) marked it in his eyes as from ‘Spain, or somewhere southern’ and possibly even earlier than the thirteenth century. Panofsky was deeply puzzled by inclusion of what he terms ‘shapely ladies’, and amended his opinion as a result, but that emendation was unnecessary as I’ve explained elsewhere.

If we turn to the final paragraph, summarising the tale which Voynich had spun out of his own more solid research, we find the origin for most of those unsupported notions which are now seen regurgitated without credit on a multiplicity of web-sites, wiki-articles, popular journal articles and what not.

However, while its repetition has come to make the tale seem solidly established, if you turn back to the original paper it is clearly a castle built partly from fact, partly from imagination or ‘conjecture’, partly from airy nothings and not a little from wishful thinking. Voynich said:

To summarize, then, the history of this manuscript so far as at present can be ascertained or reasonably conjectured, we must [?!] conclude that it rested in some monastery in England, where Roger Bacon’s manuscripts remained until the dissolution of the religious houses in the sixteenth century. At that time, together with other treasures from these disbanded libraries, it probably passed into the hands of one of the receivers of this spoil, the Duke of Northumberland. It was very likely one of the manuscripts probably found in this family’s possession by John Dee, who certainly early in his career obtained a collection of Bacon manuscripts. During one of his visits to Prague, Dee undoubtedly presented it to Emperor Rudolf II, from whose possession it passed [?!] into the hands of Jacobus de Tepenecz not earlier than 1608. The manuscript then passed into the possession of a person whose name is at present unknown but who is known to have bequeathed it to Marcus Marci. It was given by Marci, in 1665 (or 1666), to Athanasius Kircher. Its subsequent history becomes again conjectural, and we may suppose that it was presented by Kircher to a patron in one of the ruling houses of Italy, after which it remained buried until it was discovered by me in 1912.

– most of the above being hardly more than moonshine, unsupported by anything unearthed before, during or since Wilfrid’s purchase.

Like so many who followed him, Voynich could not exercise a critical intelligence where his own hopes were concerned. Instantly convinced that the manuscript was English and thirteenth century, he also assumed something less demonstrable – namely that it came from the Latin tradition. As to whether the written text is enciphered I have not much opinion, other than one would have thought that if it were we’d be able to read the thing by now.

Believing so firmly that it was English, thirteenth-century, Latin and enciphered, Voynich was hypnotised by that mention of ‘Bacon’ which crops up in that letter from Marci to Kircher.  There is little evidence that Voynich ever changed his opinion from that which he formed in 1912 and which led him to offer to purchase the work.

Even if the manuscript does appear to be English, or Spanish, and thirteenth century, there is no doubt that it turned up in seventeenth-century Prague.  Voynich’s preferred carrier was the suitably important, glittering and royally-connected Dr. John Dee, but between the early thirteenth and the early seventeenth centuries there were a great many thousands of others who had travelled the same route.

Ultimately, it is to Wilfrid Voynich himself that we owe both the standard tale of imagined provenance and that less appealing habit which infects Voynich writing – confusing the processes of historical research with those of writing screen-plays.

One may argue the philosophical position that objective history is an ideal and no more, but to abandon that ideal to the point where elaborate structures are built from non-existent foundations is simply foolish.

I was going to say, now, that I regret that Wilfrid never questioned his own beliefs because it is clear that he had the interest, skills, sources, and practical resources to do pretty solid work on provenancing a manuscript.  But returning for a moment to that paper of 1921, I wonder if he had for a moment paused to re-think ..


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