Wilfrid’s spell-binder: 7

Error #7 Narrational legerdemain

Keep in mind while reading this that the only evidence presented to this time was:

1.  an inscription of Jakub Horckicy/Tepenecz’* name in the manuscript;

2.  a letter from Barsch to Kircher about it in the 1630s,** and

3.  Marci’s letter of gift to Kircher in c.1665/6.**  Oh – and

4.  that the general presentation is like that of Franciscan and/or English and Spanish works from the thirteenth and/or fourteenth centuries.

Absolutely everything else is from Wilfrid’s imagination.  Don’t loose your grip, now…

* I follow Neal’s romanisation for the surname.

** translations by Philip Neal.



Wilfrid continues to relate his entrancing line of provenance – already drawn from his imagined auteur Roger Bacon  to John Dudley – now extended to include John Dee:

The “dark ages” of the manuscript end about 1547, when the manuscript is pretty well established to have come into the hands of John Dee, then about 18 years old and a protegé of the Northumberland family. Dee, who was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, was not a genius or a man of great creative ability, according to Mr. de Voynich. Proofs are not forthcoming so far as to establish that as a youth he acquired these secrets from some Bacon manuscript, but the circumstantial evidence is very strong.

detail from

details from an etching and line engraving published 1659. After Francis Cleyn (Franz Klein). Nat.Portrait Gallery.


The cipher manuscript, according to strong evidence discovered by Mr. de Voynich, was presented by Dee to the Emperor Rudolph of the Holy Roman Empire, in 1584 or 1588, after which a century of continental scholars sought in vain to decipher it.

The reader will be scarcely astonished, by now, to hear that every word of this minor novella, though unsubstantiated in many of its details, and in none as relating to our manuscript, was adopted  completely and uncritically. Thorndike’s judgement – that the manuscript had no relevance to Latin medieval works of science or magic – was again, as so often in this field, ignored.  And it appears that no-one had thought to ask before or after Wilfrid’s death, the most basic question: “Where is the evidence?”

And so into the imagined mixture of rare intelligence, anachronistic science and whatnot, post-Reformation style  magic  is now imposed on our ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, before there has been any formal analysis done of its vellum, inks, pigments or writing style.

Forget the basics, though, the story’s a riot.

Here’s Wilfrid in person, continuing a tale as entrancing as Scheherazade’s, about to paint for us the image of intense devotion felt by one hero martyr-scientist of the sixteenth century (John Dee) for the earlier example of that stock type (Roger Bacon):

Dee seems to have been silent about Bacon for the most part in England, probably because his own sufferings from the reputation of being a necromancer showed him the unwisdom of linking his name up with that of Bacon, whose reputation with the common people of England was that of the greatest of all necromancers. But on the Continent it was different. There Dee performed a service for Bacon almost like that which Boswell did for Dr. Johnson. Bacon manuscripts presented by Dee to scientists and dignitaries of Europe are still coming to light.

Few Voynich writers now seem to know that their idea of what is “certain” about MS Beinecke 408 often has no basis in fact, but came from Wilfrid Voynich’s imagination alone  – or if they do know it, these writers refer instead to some second-tier source apparently less dubious – although its information has the same origin.

In proof, one need only search for  ‘Voynich’ AND  ‘Magic’.

Had study of this manuscript begun and continued as it is with any other, assertions of its being “first composed” in sixteenth century central Europe, of containing biology, magic or anachronistic levels of  ‘science’ would have been rejected faster than the idea of Bacon’s having a microscope.

On this point of the supposed transmission of a Baconian manuscript to Prague, Newbold, though he accepted the narrative, offered a different and rather interesting version.


W.R. Newbold

E. Westacott recounts with admirable moderation, both Newbold’s version and that more effectively spread by Wilfrid. Though Westacott does not plainly distinguish the two, or try to reconcile their contradictions, we may be grateful that he referred to both.  Newbold’s reconstruction at least derives from documents which still exist, where the same cannot be said for Wilfrid’s.

Newbold recognised the firmly-attested link between manuscript copies of Bacon’s works and Thomas Allen, as he did the equally well-attested connection, via Robert Dudley, Chancellor of Oxford University, between Allen and John Dee. He had then imagined the manuscript [gained from one or the other, presumably] carried by Dee, not to Rudolf but to Jakub Hořčický/Tepenecz, the pharmacist-physician whose name is inscribed on f.1r of the manuscript.

The suggestion to be found in [Newbold’s] The Cipher of Roger Bacon is that the manuscript came into the possession of Jacobus from the hands of the Elizabethan alchemist, Dr. John Dee. Dee was an authority on Bacon and his works, and it is thought [i.e. still unproven, in 1953 -D] that he presented to libraries on the Continent manuscripts now retained in them. Dee was a friend of Thomas Allen who had been acquainted with the ninth Earl of Northumberland [i.e. ‘Harry’ Percy 1564-1632 -D] and it is surmised [~ by Wilfrid – D] that, during the rifling of monasteries by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, collections may have passed into his hands and, presumably, from him to Dee, the wandering necromancer, who may have made a present of the cipher manuscript to the Emperor Rudolph. From the possession of Kircher it is possible that the cipher passed to one of the ruling families in Italy, remaining there with others till it was discovered by Mr. Voynich.

E.Westacott, Roger Bacon, his life and Legend (1953) p.111.

So here the two stories are combined:(i)  Newbold’s, which implies that Dee presented a Bacon manuscript to Jakub.   (ii) Wilfrid’s, which omits Allen, replaces Harry Percy with John Dudley, and has Dee deliver the manuscript to the Emperor Rudolf II.

Wilfrid was a seller of rare books and manuscripts; he knew full well that, in America, the name Thomas Allen was unknown and Jacub Horckicy was a nobody – whereas an Earl and an Emperor, and such figures as the admired Roger Bacon and the chills-up-the-spine John Dee would make potential buyers prick up their ears.  His version has far more  ‘pulling-power’, shall we say.

Whether either tale comes remotely close to what actually occurred we do not know and probably never shall.  There is no acceptable evidence for any of it, in relation to our manuscript. What we have here, and often find still proffered by Voynich researchers, is a parallel historical narrative without any links demonstrable between the events it relates and the artefact in question.

These are effectively ‘scenarios’ – historical backgrounds into which an historical novel might set the manuscript, but they are not histories of the manuscript in any real sense. At present, the manuscript’s biographical style of history begins only with letters written to and from Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth century, and does not resume before Wilfrid first saw it, in about 1910.

Newbold’s scenario is demonstrably better grounded in the historical records of sixteenth century England, but it is still a story and none of these historical cameos from the later centuries can be relevant to any study of the manuscript itself, its substances, content, imagery, script or language – with a possible exception made for the hint of alchemical pharmacy seen in letters written about the manuscript to Kircher – by Barsch and by Marci.  

Details of the private or public lives of persons imagined as having owned it, or even those who actually owned it but for whom it was not specifically designed, are entirely peripheral to description of a medieval manuscript.

Such considerations, however, were to have no effect on the direction of Voynich studies in the post-war period, when the cipher people became involved.

But in any case, there was someone who had already compared our manuscript with a large number of earlier Latin manuscripts  namely, Lynn Thorndike, and his conclusion was that its relevance to the Latins’ body of science, pseudo-science and magic was less than negligible, that in those terms it was:

 “An anonymous manuscript of dubious value”.

continued ….


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