Vms Research and responses to 1931: Roger Bacon

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book.[1]


So on the one hand, we see that Wilfrid’s ability immediately to date and place a manuscript by its general appearance was good, though in his earlier days he had been a little too trusting.  By 1924, his skills appear to be as exceptional as his collection of rare manuscripts and books.[2]

The seeming paradox of his ability to identify periods and styles, while yet indulging in “kings and things” constructs for history is no paradox at all, but a sign that he was a man of his time. One ability made him enjoy research and produce good information, while the second affected the style of historical  narrative in which he set that information. One might cite any number of professional histories in that mould, but perhaps Edward Gibbons’ The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire may serve.

Wilfrid joined in the general belief of his time that Bacon had been a proto-‘modern’, a human bridge between what people of his time in America imagined as a “quaint” medieval world, and the equally idealised world of  ‘Science’.

Romantic telescope science

(left) detail. ‘Lady of Shallott’ (1916) John Williams Waterhouse.   (centre) Frontispiece. Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contribution to Science’ [1936];  (right) ‘The Progress of Science’, Popular Science Monthly, Vol.81, (October 1912) pp.4090-416

 Very few published comments describe the manuscript otherwise than as the ‘Roger Bacon cipher’ manuscript, from 1913 to 1950.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the scholarly world was generally silent; those who wrote publicly about the manuscript during Wilfrid’s lifetime did so through popular papers and magazines.  The manuscript simply failed to ‘connect’ with the specialists.  The world of collectors and public institutions declined to add it to their collections.  It  remained with Wilfrid to the day he died, and his Will, which directed it “be sold” expresses only a continuation of that hope in which he had been disappointed for almost twenty years.

Though fairly called radical when Bacon joined it, by 1921 controversy had long passed from Bacon’s Franciscan order, a consciously unassuming tone investing all their works, including their articles in the Catholic Historical Review. Beneath that simplicity of tone, many articles are simplistic, but others show a genuine depth in learning, carefully presented to avoid self-importance.  This attitude is exemplified by an article published in 1928, about medieval manuscripts. (Its first sentence appears at the head of this post) The culture and custom of these Franciscans offers insight into the reactions to Bacon in his own time.

Altogether –  Newbold knew what he was doing when he wrote to the Franciscans in 1921, asking assistance. The previous edition had paved the way by outlining the progress of research – Wilfrid’s and Newbold’s.  One folio (72v) was reproduced in the same edition which published Newbold’s letter (below) though the two items are separated by a good number of pages, folio 72v  appearing first, set in the middle of an article about hopes for a Jewish homeland. Newbold’s letter describes his interpretation of that folio.

Newbold's letter extracted

‘Notes and Comments’ column, The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Oct., 1921), p.407.

[Perhaps I should add here that I read f.72v as description of the sailing from the head of the Red Sea to about Aden – D.]

Because so little of lasting value informs the following public responses, the most interesting aspects of those articles is their pattern, which is that of (1) impetus provided by Wilfrid or Newbold (2) a brief flurry of writings which are, in essence, longer or shorter book-reviews (3) a falling off into silence.

Then the cycle begins again after some time, and again after a stimulus provided by some publication or event provided by Wilfrid or Newbold, who do not appear to have worked very closely together.

One might compare this ‘hiccough-ing’ progress with that swift interest, concerted scholarship, and rapid appearance of formal scholarly publications after Aurel Stein’s discoveries in 1912.  And those were fragments; many in unknown scripts; some in hitherto unknown scripts and unknown languages.  The seeming barriers to recognition and interpretation – of clear transcription, philological and linguistic comparison, of re-construction, translation and publication were accomplished rapidly and near seamlessly. But nothing of the sort marks the progress of the ‘Roger Bacon’ manuscript.

You can see the pattern of discussion, and its quality, by considering the list of published articles. What follows is based on a critical bibliography published some time ago by Jim reeds’.  I have added to it, and re-organised it by date and type of publication so that you can follow the ebb and flow of interest, and see more clearly what inspires each flurry of writing, whether a recent publication, or as response to comments by another writer, or by insight into the manuscript itself. The last is rare. “Comments” below are by the present writer.


Comment: The earliest items are simply about Voynich as bibliophile whose collection of rare books is being sold.  The impression given is that he comes as noble, and as unhappy emigre.  By 1916, he is describing the manuscript by reference to royalty, Roger Bacon, science, ciphers and so forth, but the spark he is trying to start simply doesn’t “take”. Nothing happens for years… save the BOI file which was unpublished. -D.


July 23rd., ‘The Voynich Collection of Unknown Books”, Times [of London] 23 Jul. 1906, p 4 col 6.

    n/d      Von Schleinitz, Otto. “Die Bibliophilen W. M. Voynich.” Zeitschrift fur Bucherfreunde, 10 (1906/7) pp.481-7. [inc. biog. information – D.N.]



19 Oct ‘Books not in the British Museum Sale’, Times [of London],19 Oct 1907, p 7 col 3.



July 8th.  ‘Catalog of Prints and Rare Books’, Times [ of London], 8 July, 1913, p 15 col 4.



9 Oct    ‘Art Works Worth $1,500,000 Arrive to Escape War’, Chicago Daily Tribune. 9 Oct 1915, p 1, Col 2. [Exhibition of WMV’s books are said now to include  “one … by Roger Bacon in cipher to which the key has never been discovered.” J.r./D]

10 Oct   ‘Antique Books Worth $500,000’,  Chicago Sunday Tribune. 10 Oct. 1915, sec II, p 1, col 5. [Repeats the history which Voynich already believes: that Bacon wrote it, Rudolf bought it and his successor, Ferdinand of Bohemia had it too. – D]

Nov. 1st.,  ‘The Voynich Collection’,  Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago,Vol. 9, No. 7 (Nov. 1, 1915), pp. 97-100 [notice of manuscript and books display, with quotes from W.M.V – D.]

Dec. 3rd., Lynn Thorndike, ‘Roger Bacon and Gunpowder’, Science, New Series, Vol. 42, No. 1092 (Dec. 3, 1915), pp. 799-800. [trying to stem the romantic idea of Bacon as oppressed scientist. Indirectly, I think, aiming at the fuss around the ms. – D]



Feb 24th.,   Export of English Furniture and Pictures’, Times [of London]. 24 Feb 1916, p 11 col 5. [ WMV’s success in exporting books to America – J.r.]

Feb.       ‘Notes’ –  Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1907-1951),Vol. 10, No. 2 (Feb., 1916), p. 144 [mentions manuscripts purchased from the ‘Voynich collection’ and donated to the Toledo Museum – D.].

 May 11th., Cathedral Library Thefts: Old Volumes Traced’, Times [of London], 11 May 1916, p 4 col 1. [Book in WMV’s possession one stolen by John Tinkler – D.]

May 11th.,  [article about or by Wilfrid Michael Voynich], Library World vol.14, Issue 11.


1917 – 1918 – 1919 – 1920.. nothing.

“The U.S. Bureau of Information File” on Wilfrid Voynich. [ released by the FBI in 2013, ‘copyright to C. McKinnon’, but available online – D]



APRIL 20th [~ first reading of] Newbold, William R. ‘The Cipher of Roger Bacon’,  to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Philadelphia.

APRIL 20th [~ first reading of] Voynich, Wilfrid M. ‘A Preliminary Sketch of the History of the Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript.”

?   At some time after April 20th., both Newbold’s paper and Wilfrid’s paper were published in the Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (Third Series, Volume 3. Online – see Table of Contents here).

Comment .. and so again, and after years of silence, the impetus to new discussion of the manuscript comes from Wilfrid. Most of the ensuing articles do no more than repeat, or criticise, the content of those two papers – chiefly Newbold’s. The responses offer no alternative or lasting insight into the nature of the manuscript, its origins, materials or probable content.  It’s supposed “biological” imagery is no more than an idea derived by assumption of ‘scientific’ content, and owes its existence only to a failure in Wilfrid’s imagination and range of investigation.  Newbold accepted it without criticism, as he appears to have accepted all such information from Voynich. In this way, it has become fossilised in Voynich studies.

  Some couple of the articles may be by authors hoping to join a ‘bandwagon’ – but it did not develop for another eighty years. As far as scholarly reactions are concerned, the only article is a brief review of Manly’s criticism in Sarton’s  ‘Critical Bibliography..’ for 1928, where Sarton notes that he agrees with Manly’s scepticism about Newbold’s work.   Otherwise, to 1928, we have only Robert Steele’s gentle and oblique articles, published in Nature. [if readers know of other items, please leave a note. – D].

?   Montrose J. Moses, ‘A Cinderella on Parchment: The Romance of the New 600 Year-Old Bacon Manuscript’,  Hearst’s International, 1921, pp.16-17, 75.

March-April.  [series of articles]  New York Times26 Mar.1921, p 6, col 1;  27 Mar 1921, sec II, p 1, col 1; 21 Apr 1921, p 3, col 1; 22 Apr 1921, p 13, col 1. [All on Newbold’s findings.]

April 24th.Sunday Times (London)  p.15.

May 7th., ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript’, Scientific American 124 (May 7th.,1921) p.362.

May 27th.,   Kent, Roland G. ‘Deciphers Roger Bacon Manuscripts’, Pennsylvania Gazette.19 (May 27,1921) pp.851-853. [‘Official’ summary of Newbold’s work by one of his colleagues.]

May 28th.,   ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript: What It Looks Like, and a Discussion of the Possibilities of Decipherment’, Scientific American 124 n.22 (May 28,1921) p.421[?], 432, 439, 440.

June        Bird, J. Malcolm, ‘The Roger Bacon Manuscript: Investigation into its History, and the Efforts to Decipher it’, Scientific American Monthly  3  (June1921): 492-96.

June 25th.,  [Letter to the Editor by Lynn Thorndike] ‘The “Bacon” Manuscript’, Scientific American 124 (June 25,1921) p.509.

July    Manly, John M. [?]., ‘Roger Bacon’s Cypher manuscript”, American[?] Review of Reviews 64 (July 1921) pp.105-6.

July?   Manly, John M., ‘The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World”, Harper’s Monthly Magazine 143 (July?,1921): 186-97. [Title uncertain – J.R.]

Oct      Garland, Herbert, ‘The Mystery of the Roger Bacon Cipher MS‘,  Bookman’s Journal and Print Collector (London) 5, (October 1921), pp.11-16.

Oct   [listing] under ‘Manly, John-M.’ in the ‘Eleventh Critical Bibliography of the History and Philosophy of Science and of the History of Civilization’, published in Isis, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Oct., 1921),pp. 390-453. Header lists Manly’s article in Harper’s Monthly Magazine [see above] and recaps Manly’s opinions on Newbold’s work-in-progress.  Written by George Sarton, it concludes, “Manly discusses Newbold’s system and is rather skeptical of it. I fully share his scepticism.”(p.404) – D.



Feb 4th.,   Cons, Louis, ‘Un manuscrit mystérieux: Un traité scientifique du treizième siècle, attribué a Roger Bacon’,  L’Illustration 159 (Number 4118, 4 Feb 1922) p. 112. [Copy in BL Facs 439. J.R.]

May 1st.,  B. W. Mitchell, ‘The Classical Club of Philadelphia’, The Classical Weekly, Vol. 15, No. 24 (May 1, 1922), p. 192. [short account of a talk on the ms. given by Newbold – D]

May 20th.,   Garland, Herbert. ‘A Literary Puzzle Solved?’ Illustrated London News 160, (20 May1922), pp.740-742.

? Dr. R. Loeser. “Roger Bacons Chiffremanuskript.” Die Umschau. 26 (1922), pp.115-117.


Comment .. that flurry over, the matter seems again to be gliding towards a final halt .. – D.



– nothing



Jan. John M. Lenhart, ‘Science in the Franciscan Order: a historical sketch’, Franciscan Studies, No. 1 (January, 1924), pp. 5-44. [Romanticised, with telescope, but not uninformed. – D]



– nothing



Sept. 6th.,  Death of William Romaine Newbold, by choice.

December 2nd., 3rd and 12th., ‘Roger Bacon’s Formula Yields Copper Salts, Proving Newbold Secret Cipher Translation’, New York Times. 2 Dec 1926, p 5, col 4.   Follow-up articles 3 Dec, p 22, col 4; 12 Dec, sec XX, p 12, col 6.



Jan.-Mar. [obituary and short biog] ‘William Romaine Newbold’ ~ by Edward H. Heffner, J. A. M. and E. P. B., American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1927), pp. 99-127 [p.101) – D]

May  ‘IN MEMORIAM’ ~ byThe Phi Beta Kappa Key, American Scholar, Vol. 6, No. 8 (May 1927), pp. 526-537 [obituaries. incl. Newbold p.535 – D.]

CommentNo-one had more to add. Or so it appeared after six years of silence.



Comment – BUT now another publication! Newbold’s colleague edited and published Newbold’s papers about the manuscript,  thus defining Newbold’s sixty years by his one great folly. Whether or not Wilfrid encouraged him, I do not know.   Lynn Thorndike’s review was short and to the point: “this book should never have been published at all”.  For a while, though,  the manuscript’s “study” did lurch forward again ..  -D.

  • Roland Grubb Kent, (ed., Forward and notes), [The work of] William Romaine Newbold, The Cipher of Roger Bacon,  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; London, Oxford University Press,1928.


Feb 11th.,   Steele, Robert. “Luru Vopo Vir Can Utriet.” Nature 121 (11 Feb.1928), pp.208-9. [About Bacon “gunpowder cipher” – example of Bacon’s level of sophistication in such things – D.]

May 1st., [reviews] ‘First Glances at New Books’, The Science News-Letter, Vol. 13, No. 370 (May 12, 1928), p. 303 [two short, restrained pieces about Newbold’s work and conclusions – D.]

June 30th.,   [Review] ‘Newbold’s Cipher of Roger Bacon‘, Boston Transcript. 30 June 1928, p 2.

Aug. Gilson, Étienne. [Review] ‘Newbold’s The Cipher of Roger Bacon’, Révue critique d’histoire et de littérature (Paris) 62 (August1928) pp.378-383.

Aug. 29th.,   [Review] ‘Roger Bacon’, [by Richard McKeon] The Nation 127 (August 29,1928) pp.205-6. [Review]

Sept. 1st., Stokley, James. ‘Did Roger Bacon Have a Telescope?’, Science News Letter 14 (Sept. 1,1928), pp.125-26, 133-34.

Oct 13th., Steele, Robert. ‘Science in medieval Cipher’, Nature 122 (13 October1928), pp.563-65.

Oct 27th., [Review] Cons, Louis. ‘Newbold’s Trail’, Saturday Review of Literature 5 (Oct. 27,1928), p.292.

Dec. 3rd.,   Review of ‘The Cipher of Roger Bacon (Newbold)’ Quarterly Review of Biology (Baltimore, Md.) 3 (December,1928) pp.595-596.

1928 Sarton, George. [ Review of] Newbold’s Cipher of Roger Bacon. Isis 11 (1928) pp. 141-5. [Critical of Newbold’s decipherment, even more so of those who were taken in by it. .]



Jan.   [Review] ‘Newbold’s Cipher of Roger Bacon‘ ~ by Lynn Thorndike,  American Historical Review, 34 (1929): 317-19. [merciless, but not wrong. – D]

Feb. Gerard of Cremona and Robert Steele, ‘Practical Chemistry in the Twelfth Century Rasis de aluminibus et salibus’,  Isis, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp.10-46.

[Steele presents translations of “de aluminibus” with introduction and a short paragraph noting that Bacon “quotes this treatise in his Opus Minus occasionally as ‘De spiritibus et corporibus’, expressly saying, in a passage of the recently discovered part, that this is another name for the “De aluminibus”… [references] seem to show that Bacon used a very much enlarged text..” – D.]

?  [ Review of Newbold’s Cipher of Roger Bacon] Brooke, Tucker, ‘Doctor mirabilis’, Yale Review 19 (1929) p.207-8.

?   [review?] Carton, Raoul, ‘Le Chiffre de Roger Bacon’, Révue d’Histoire de la Philosophie 3 (1929): pp.31-66, 165-79.

?  [Review and speculation] ‘Newbold’s Cipher of Roger Bacon’ ~ by Charles Johnson,  English Historical Review 44 (Oct1929) pp. 677-8. [“ guesses 15c Italian source for VMS” . Unread. – J.r.]



March 22nd [obituary]   ‘Mr. W. M. Voynich’, Times [of London]. 22th Mar. 1930, p 17 col 2; 25th Mar. p.21 col 2; 26th Mar. p 18 col 4. [Obituary. .]

April 15th.,  ‘Will Orders Sale of Bacon Cipher” New York Times, 15th Apr1930, p 40, col 1. [Voynich’s will – J.R.]


 Comment … and that seemed to be that.  The ‘Bacon cipher manuscript’ had been largely ignored by the scholarly world. The wealthy collectors of America and public institutions had opted to add other volumes to their collections. The “cipher” which Wilfrid thought might prove an invaluable asset to the American state had not been offered for, and after fifteen years of his best efforts had not been securely provenanced – at least not enough to persuade anyone it was worth the asking price.  Wilfrid’s will ‘instructing it be sold’ was no more than a continuation of the same hopes.



[1]   Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review,Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.(p.237)

[2] ‘exceptional…’ . After writing up this post, I found a thread in the old mailing list which directed me to the online ‘Journal of Voynich Studies‘. There you can read mention of Voynich in various published texts and archived correspondence as members found, and communicated them to the Journal or the old mailing list. The amount of original research is staggering, and that it has not been widely acknowledged or used, still more so.  See in particular: Communication #309Vol. III, 2009; for Wilfrid’s acquisition of the old Libreria [Pietro] Franceschini, whose address is there given as Palazzo Borghese,Via Ghibellina 110, in Florence;  Comm. #335 (et.sqqVol.IV, 2010 where Berj Ensanian  includes cross-references to other sites, including an account (kindly transcribed by Dana Scott) of Voynich’s rooms in England.  Though the original author’s writing reeks of various points of bias (age, Jewishness, Poles etc.), it also contains a curious mention of a “convent” where the “monks” showed Voynich a valuable collection of old manuscripts and early printed works.  A “convent” is the equivalent for women of the male “monastery”.  The explanation may be simply that males were appointed to show outsiders (especially male ones) through the convent grounds and buildings,  but there are also cases where a site  originally established as a convent was transferred to other orders.  See Dana Scott’s  message and transcription on the old mailing list, (Mon, 19 Jul 2004).  Also  the long and valuable Communication #336 at the JVS ‘Some Wilfrid Voynich matters across ten years before and after the Libreria Franceshini acquisition’ by Berj N. Ensanian (07-12-2009); and a fascinating discussion of Wilfrid’s links to the medical fraternity which had opened the way to delivery of those talks in 1921. Comm. #309 JVS Vol. III, 2009. Berj N. Ensanian (11-08-2009).


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