Q: Who first said that? A: Wilfrid Voynich (Pt 4)

Keeping in mind that in 1921, Panofsky had no knowledge of the manuscript, and would not see it or appraise it for another decade, so it is interesting to see that Wilfrid’s paper to the Physicians includes mention of another eminent scholar from sixteenth century Prague –  and this one certainly met Rudolf II.

Wilfrid mentions him two-thirds the way into his talk (p.426), giving his name as “Rabbi Bezolel Lowe of Prague”.  It would appear that some Latin-educated Christian scholars (if that’s not tautological) had conferred on Rabbi Loew the epithet  ‘Bachone Minor‘ –  in much the way that  English public schools were once wont to describe the later sibling of a given family.  The wit, however, is lost in German, so what Wilfrid reports is the more stolid:  ‘der kleine Bacon’.

Wilfrid introduces the Rabbi’s name not as possible former possessor of the manuscript, but only to illustrate how widely Roger Bacon’s fame spread on the Continent. He writes:

Swatek, (6) the Bohemian historian, records and the American chemist, Henry Carrington Bolton, repeats after him that during his various visits to Prague (1584-1588), Dee talked with Emperor Rudolph for hours about the secrets and inventions of Roger Bacon. Apparently his conversations on this theme were not confined to the Emperor’s presence but were heard elsewhere, for about this time the name of Roger Bacon became a token of wisdom and learning in the intellectual circles of Prague. An interesting instance of this is found in the fact that a contemporary, the great Rabbi Bezolel Loew, of Prague, famous for his cabalistic learning, was called “Der kleine Bacon”.

Footnotes provided by Voynich for that paragraph on p.426 are very general, viz. 6). Swatek, Josef: Obrazy z julturnich dejin ceskych, Prague, 1891 and 7). Bolton, Henry Carrington: The Follies of Science, Milwaukee, 1904.

Now, would some person with knowledge of relevant languages comment on whether it isn’t possible that Missowsky might wrongly recall, decades years, a description of the manuscript not as  “the Bacon Minor manuscript” but as “the little Bacon manuscript“.

One sighs for Philip Neal and his caustic comments on Guess-Latin. 🙂


Voynich’s spelling for that Rabbi’s name is not the one used today.  Judah Loew ben Bezalel is more usual.

Rabbi Loew lived c. 1520 – 17 September 1609 and met Rudolf II (of Austria) in 1592.

On 23 February 1592, he [Rabbi Loew] had an audience with Emperor Rudolf II, which he attended together with his brother Sinai and his son-in-law Isaac Cohen; Prince Bertier was present with the emperor. The conversation seems to have been related to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism, Hebrew: קַבָּלָה) a subject which held much fascination for the emperor.

– that’s direct from a wiki article, which provides no reference (*sigh*).

When, in 1931,  Panofsky gave freely his considered opinion that the manuscript was Jewish, and Kabbalistic, why did no-one connect it to this reference in Wilfrid’s paper delivered nine years earlier in Philadelphia? Was there no copy retained in the Voynich correspondence, and no complementary copy of the Journal in his ordinary library?.

I myself have mixed feelings about the emphasis given some parts of Wilfrid’s half-imaginary provenance for the work.  On the one hand, it left me at the mercy of the standard all-European white male ‘Rudolf owned it’ story so prevalent online and even assumed by d’Imperio’s An Elegant Enigma.

A better balanced, or better credited re-presentation of Voynich’s ideas might have saved me some months’ research.  On the other hand, since it was evident to me that the usual story was contradicted by every page and image in the manuscript, it meant that I had to come to my own conclusions after contextualising every individual folio.  And in the end, after years’ of that kind of slog, I formed my conclusions* only to discover, far too late, that in essence they had been enunciated decades before my birth by by Erwin Panofsky.

*viz. that the work was Jewish, and the manuscript we have has been derived from the southern rather than the more northern regions of medieval Europe. I consider it a copy of transmitted texts  very long maintained by certain eastern traders who, I rather think, were ‘mizrahi’ Jews. Some hint of confirmation may exist in Barsch’s letter, especially his description of the people who left it with him, and its being about ‘Egyptian’ medicine. The Hebrew for ‘Egypt’ is transliterated variously as Mitsrayim or Mizraim, while the Jews of the eastern sphere are known as Mizrahi, many having travelled into Spain and southern Europe as Islamic pressures increased in their older eastern homelands.

In my own opinion, the Voynich manuscript’s subject-matter only seems to vary widely. It is united, in my opinion, by its constant reference to the eastern routes, their trade, natural produce, products, modes of production and of travel which had existed and been actively used from before the dawn of the Roman empire.  The manuscript is, as it were, an ancient version of ‘Cathay and the Ways Thither’, our version’s compilers very probably having been by the twelfth or thirteenth century or earlier, Jewish by faith –  regardless of more ancient antecedents within the regions of England, Spain, Sicily, Egypt, India or the far east.

Whether or not the content is cabbalistic I cannot say, having no learning in that area.  I think it regrettable that Panofsky never elaborated on the point.

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