Wilfrid’s spell-binder: 3

Here’s the evidence that this part of  Newbold’s justification for Wilfrid’s imagined  ‘scientific’ content was dismissed in 1921 – i.e. ninety-four years ago. About the sophistication imagined for the manuscript’s “scientific astronomy” I won’t go into detail but why we should see, still, in 2015 continual references to a  “biological” section, you may well wonder. What follows is that notion’s first enunciation, and entire foundation.

These extracts come from that article in American Scientist to which Thorndike was responding in his Letter to the Editor, quoted in the earlier post. [click to enlarge]

Newbold biol SciAm May 28 1921

excerpts from: ‘The Roger Bacon cipher manuscript’, Scientific American, May 28th., 1921 p.421; 432; 439-440

and that, ladies and gentlemen, should have been the end of expectations that MS Beinecke 408 contains ‘biological science’. 


It is of no use to wish that some competent art analyst had been kind enough to let Newbold know, in 1920, that to depict women with curved bellies was stylistic – a fashion. It occurs even in Latin manuscripts by the mid-fifteenth century and earlier still in non-Latin texts, even those produced in the Latin sphere.

The “swelled abdomens” are no indication of any biological content in the accompanying text. Any keeper of manuscripts could have said so.  None did – at least, not in print. And so the idea was maintained as a general belief.

‘Biological content’ after Newbold

The untutored but exceptionally acute observer, John Tiltman, was clearly doubtful about the supposed ‘biology’, but failed to attribute the idea clearly to its inventor/s when he wrote:

28 of so-called biological drawings… [but, later, he says] …  illustrations in the biological (sic!) part of the book. I have not myself studied these pages, and ideas as to their meaning advanced by specialists in medieval and early Renaissance history are completely outside my field.

Notice that by the 1950s, the story of the “Latin European” content has become so pervasive that neither Tiltman nor d’Imperio examined its validity.  It had now become a ‘given’ which survived chiefly because few stopped to consider an important distinction between any object’s place of manufacture and development of its contained or iconographic matter. Part of the reason for that omission is a continued effect from Wilfrid’s describing the manuscript as authorial, and it is not uncommon even now to see arguments that if the style of handwriting (‘the hand’) appears to be European, so the work must reflect only European culture.  It is not at all a good argument, but gains plausibility because of the long-standing idea that the scribe was ‘author’ of everything in the manuscript.

Mary d’Imperio, whose Elegant Enigma is often treated as the bench-mark for beginners in this field makes two references to the ‘biological’ theme – first in the general description:

42 (biological?) drawings, most of which include human figures

and later, in reporting the opinions of Charles Singer (a second-tier reference). Here her tone turns out to be due, in part, to her having developed a theory of her own, and one no less independent of chronological or iconographic context than Singer’s was: 

Singer, in his letter to Tiltman (12 November 1957) puts forward a different, though related, suggestion: [saying] “My own feeling again very vague about the little figures of nude men and women in the organs of the body (!!) is that they are somehow connected with the ‘archaci” of the Paracelsan or Spagyric School. This would fit in well with my suggestion about John Dee and Bohemia.’

It would have been better had Singer’s idea “fitted well” with the date indicated by the manuscript’s appearance, or the context implied by inscriptions in fairly clear text on the month roundels.

However, after reporting those remarks, d’Imperio added:

Note that Singer sees the tubes, pulpits, and pipes in which the figures sit as “organs of the body” rather than as the plant parts they recall to me.(emphasis by present writer -D).

In 1921, the man in the street was perfectly willing to believe that Roger Bacon had a microscope, and due not least to the silence of better qualified persons, the current of popular thought came to direct the course of Voynich studies, from the 1920s to the present decade.

Those few who raised objections about the direction which ‘Voynich studies’  was taking were largely ignored and were mostly forgotten by the end of the second world war.  If the truth be told, not a few of those who should have thought more clearly about the manuscript succumbed the prevailing assumptions and resulting habits of wild surmise and ‘theory-first’ as cure for plain bewilderment.

Peculiar from its earliest days, ‘Voynich studies’ thus continued evolving along ever-more-labyrinthine lines, never returning (until these past few years) to examine fundamental assumptions and commonly accepting whatever secondary notions, deriving from Wilfrid’s fiction, happened to chime with their personal inclination.



To this day in the holding library’s catalogue one reads:

3) a biological section (sic!) containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens…


…continued as Part 3b which is not in the Introduction’s list  … then part 4.

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