Why did it all go wrong? – Abstract and Introduction

Abstract: Most problematic aspects of Voynich studies today find their forgotten origin in Wilfrid Voynich’s circumstantial but fictional ‘history’ for the manuscript he acquired in 1912.  A large proportion of his imaginative notions are now supposed “known facts”.

The following posts parallel the growth of that story and its effects in published works, from 1921 – 20xx.  The result is pretty grim, as I tell it, but the antidote to this downside is already posted as a page (above) entitled, ‘Newbies’ best introduction’.   That will show the good news, that we are at last moving towards better understanding of the manuscript.  These posts explain why it has taken a century to get there.



Having estimated by the manuscript's general appearance – its vellum, inks and stitching – that it was thirteenth-century and [probably] Franciscan  –  not an unreasonable initial assessment, as you see from examples below, and one well within his range of skills –  Wilfrid then made the first fundamental error which would reverberate through Voynich studies for a century.

Voynich decided, without further thought, that it was entirely the original composition of an<em> auteur </em> rather than, say, a production by copyists or redactors, and in those first moments – according to his own account – he felt a certainty that his supposed 'author' could be none other than Roger Bacon.

With time, the identification was dropped, but the assumption that the manuscript contained an original text composed by its 'author' became so quickly and deeply entrenched, that it effectively dictated the line taken in research from that time onwards, into the twenty-first century.  The 'hunt for the author' became a fixation: an <em>idée fixe</em>.

<a href="https://voynichimagery.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/les-enlumineurs-w_779_f172v-173_l.jpg"><img class="wp-image-12621 size-large" src="https://voynichimagery.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/les-enlumineurs-w_779_f172v-173_l.jpg?w=594&quot; alt="Les enlumineurs w_779_f172v-173_L" width="594" height="389" /></a> Franciscan, thirteenth or fourteenth century. Parchment. (c. 1300- ?1350). Attributed to southern Italy, or perhaps Southern France.

<a href="https://voynichimagery.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/folios.jpg"><img class="aligncenter size-large wp-image-12819" src="https://voynichimagery.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/folios.jpg?w=594&quot; alt="folios" width="594" height="308" /></a>

<a href="https://voynichimagery.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/f66r-top.jpg"><img class="wp-image-12783 size-large" src="https://voynichimagery.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/f66r-top.jpg?w=594&quot; alt="f66r top" width="594" height="369" /></a> (detail) MS Beinecke 408 f.66r
<p style="text-align:center;">(Notice the size of the script and the similar allowances for upper and side margins)</p>
<p style="text-align:center;">~~~~~~~~
Wilfrid Voynich said, repeatedly, that he had decided so much of the manuscript’s character and history even before seeing the letter from Marci to Kircher in which there is a highly tenuous assertion of some connection to the Franciscan friar. Wilfrid’s presentation and argument for Baconian authorship was presented as a logical sequence, its plausibility enhanced by the fact that he never cited any sources, so that those writing the various articles which subsequently appeared in print were obliged, of necessity, simply to quote his story verbatim.  In the early decades of the twentieth century, the story seemed more plausible; it invoked contemporary expectations of Science and common legends about Bacon as a hero persecuted for ‘being scientific’. In fact Wilfrid’s chain of ideas had factual support only from the manuscript’s general appearance when he made his imaginative leap.

By 1921, his ‘intuition’ had been spun into a much more circumstantial narrative, one extending from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century.  The manuscript was now imagined having passed from hand to hand along a string of glittering historical personages: from Bacon to an Earl of Northumberland, then to the ‘Magus’ John Dee, whom Wilfrid then identified with that anonymous ‘bearer’ rumoured to have carried it personally to Prague,  supposedly delivering there to the Emperor Rudolf in person, and receiving immediately – and most unusually if it were Rudolf – the fantastic sum of six hundred ducats in cash – in modern reckoning about $US75,000.[1]

Interestingly, Newbold envisaged the manuscript passing instead from Thomas Allen of Oxford to Dee, and Dee taking it to  Jakub Hořčický, a pharmacist-physician whose name is inscribed on f.1r –  that story being better grounded in history and thus more credible (though still just a story) but quite passed over for the more glamorous scenario offered by Wilfrid.


Though this seventeenth-century matter has absolutely no relevance or bearing for the study of our manuscript now dated to 1404-c.1438, Wilfrid emphasised the imperial glamour together with that surrounding Bacon in his extraordinary tale of the ‘Bacon manuscript’ and its supposedly ‘advanced science’.  The whole was accepted from the beginning and almost without demur, which meant that study of the manuscript was fundamentally mis-directed from the first. Wilfrid’s story was one spun from air, and for it there has been no documentary or other support found to this day.

The dating wasn’t an issue; our manuscript might still reproduce the content of thirteenth- or fourteenth century predecessor(s). The problem is that so few people seem to have noticed the systemic errors and absence of factual support for Wilfrid’s story-telling ‘history’, except when those flaws later came to be magnified in secondary writings – and  first in Newbold’s interpretation of the imagery and text.

Newbold’s efforts

Newbold’s attempted decipherment of what everyone (or almost everyone) called the “cipher text of Roger Bacon” was in many ways a predictable result of his accepting Wilfrid’s assertions about it. However while Newbold was ridiculed as soon as his interpretation of imagery and text became known (c.1921), Wilfrid’s narrative became the norm: adopted, praised, found ‘plausible’ and maintained in that same form for six decades or more, changing only superficially from that time to the opening of the twenty-first century.

… and later..

To this day many writers approach the manuscript believing, as Newbold did, that their primary task is to extract important, secret or ‘scientific’ matter of Latin European origin from the text and imagery.

Others are so entranced by the vague allegation that an emperor once owned it that they have spent years, quite literally, attempting to find, or persuade others of, post hoc justification for it.  In such schemes of research the manuscript’s internal evidence has little place and has rarely, if ever, been first evaluated dispassionately.

What is most difficult to explain is why no such evaluation was ever offered, in writing, by an independent appraiser of medieval manuscripts within the first century after Wilfrid bought the manuscript. A report of that sort might have provided a counter-weight to the proliferation of the myths. But it just didn’t happen.


1. In the time of Leonardo, six hundred ducats [or perhaps three each] was considered a staggeringly generous  pension/purchase price for the two men who found the Laocoön, and an amount worthy of the historical record,  the marvel of an entire city.

The linked website says that 600 ducats equates to about $US 75,000 today!.  In Prague, we are expected to believe, no one but Mnishovsky even noticed the transfer of such an amount to a ‘bearer’ – apparently. At any rate, any such purchase would appear to have missed the attention of Rudolph’s bursars, and even of his cataloguers. Tsk.

In the sixteenth century, and in Český Krumlov, the first Jesuits arrived in 1584, and as late as 1692 when M. Ondřej Freyberger cashed in his claim on any inheritance from his father for that same amount, he needed assign only two hundred ducts for “purchase of valuable books” for the College, while a mere one hundred sufficed  “to buy books for … professors in the Latin school at the College”. One understands the off-hand tone in which Marci adds a mention of Mnishovsky’s assertion, as a kind of afterthought.  I do not think anyone had been inclined to believe it before Wilfrid Voynich did. Despite the strenuous efforts of various researches, over the past fifteen years and more, to find some evidence in support, the item remains no more substantial than a late, off-hand note of an incident reported many years after the conversation, by a man who did not himself offer it any support.



Wilfrid’s spell-binding tale and consequent errors:-

§1. (10/04/2015)

Error #1: Preemptive vision;

Error #1b Myopic focus on the ‘cipher’;

Error #2: Citing second-tier references.

§ 2.   (12/04/2015)

Error #3: Chimerical ‘modern science’ – subset biology;

Error #3.1:  Blinding expectations.

§ 3.   (14/04/15)

 “Biological” imagery dismissed – Professor McClung. (1921)

3b Comment: (15/04/2015)

§ 4.   (17/04/2015)

 “Scientific” and “pseudo-scientific” (i.e. astrological, Alchemical and ‘magical’) content dismissed – Lynn Thorndike (1928)

§ 5.  (19/04/2015)

 Error #4: Ignoring independent assessments.

Error #5: Fact dismissed to maintain theory.

Interlude: Standing at the Corner (between WWI and WWII). (19/04/2015) 

§ 6.  (23/04/2015)

Error #6: “It could have happened..”

6b: Footnotes (23/04/2015)

§ 7.   (25/04/2015)

Error #7: Narrational Legerdemain

§ 8.   (27/04/2015)

  Error #8: Irresistible irrelevance

§ 9.   (30/04/2015)

Error #9: Wandering into the distant future.

Research and Responses 1931-1944: unusual form (2/05/2015)

Emerge from Shadow: 1940s – 2000 Pt 1 (3/05/2015)

____________________________ Pt 2 (3/05/2015)

1940s-2000 ~ Summary. (4/05/2015)

(Publication dates adjusted 27/04/2015)


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