Vms Research and responses 1931-1944: unusual form

IN THIS cheerful and variegated age, is it a rash undertaking to establish study of a period so gloomy ..?

– with proper apologies to E. K. Rand

If a scholar of Newbold’s impressive reputation and knowledge of medieval philosophy could be made to appear so deluded and foolish after so many years of painstaking effort, it is easy to understand the reluctance of other scholars to risk their own reputations and peace of mind on the project.”

Mary d’Imperio, An Elegant Enigma (p.35)

Between the time of Wilfrid’s death and the post-war period, some residual interest is found, the most important figures working out of the limelight. Such articles and books as emerge in print  cluster in that same curious pattern found in the periods before and after his death: a long silence followed by a short burst of interest, which then again fades to silence, often lasting years.

Their frequency does not produce the bell curve of a small discovery’s announcement, investigation, argument and resolution.

That odd pattern cannot be attributed to “controversy over Newbold’s work, the amount of publicity it received, and its complete destruction so closely following upon its uncritical acceptance by many prominent experts who should have known better.” (Elegant Enigma, loc.cit.) The same pattern was evident before 1921.  And now the range of interest in the manuscript reduces to discussion of the supposed cipher – whether with, or without, the idea of Roger Bacon as author.

From Wilfrid’s death in 1930 to the end of World War II, the articles (as given in Jim reeds’ list) run:


July   Manly, John M., ‘Roger Bacon and the Voynich Manuscript’, Speculum 6 (July1931): 345-91.

“It is now more than fifteen years since the late Wilfred M. Voynich brought to America a mysterious manuscript which he had found hidden in the treasure chest of a south European castle. With characteristic generosity, he not only showed it to many American scholars, as he had shown it to those of Europe, but also gave photo- stats of many pages to those who professed a serious intention to undertake the solution of its mysteries…..the more I studied the nature and operation of the cipher system attributed to Bacon [by Newbold], the more clearly did I see that it was incapable of being used as a medium of communication, and was indeed not Bacon’s work but the subconscious creation of Professor Newbold’s own enthusiasm and ingenuity. I told Professor Newbold my conclusions and gave my reasons for them in several letters.” (p.347)



Jan.   Dorothea Waley Singer, ‘Alchemical Writings Attributed to Roger Bacon’, Speculum, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Jan., 1932), pp. 80-86. [no reference to the manuscript, but one to Robert Steele: Bacon was in the air – D.]

“Mr Robert Steele, who is editing the texts of the printed alchemical collection Sanioris medicinae magistri D. Rogeri Baconis angli de arte chymiae scripta believes that all of the [Epistola de potestate artis et nature] may with almost equal certainty be attributed to Roger” (p.80)

April   Garland, Herbert, ‘Notes on the Firm of W. M. Voynich’,  Library World. 34 (April1932) pp.225-8. [not seen – D]



Richard Salomon, [Review] ‘Manly’s Critique of Newbold’s Decipherment’, Bibliotek Warburg, Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliographie zum Nachleben der Antike 1 (1934), p.96. [not seen – J.r/D] Jim reeds also mentions that among the Friedman papers are ‘Letters from Richard Salomon to Erwin Panofsky and Gertrud Bing. WFF 1614’ [no dates mentioned. How Friedman obtained this private correspondence (in the 50s or 60s?) would be interesting to learn.



June   Edward Lutz, ‘Roger Bacon’s Contributions to Knowledge’, Franciscan Studies, No. 17 (JUNE, 1936), pp. ii-v, vii-xi, 1-82.  [Includes three imaginative drawings: 1) Friar Roger Bacon’s Telescope (Frontispiece); 2) Friar Roger Bacon Consults Friar William Rubruk for his World Map and 3) Friar Roger Bacon’s Microscope.  But the text itself is fair, given the times and the subject – D].

Bacon and Rubruck cropped

“Roger Bacon had already interviewed a Franciscan missionary, William of Rubruck, who had been at the court of Mongke Khan in..1253. Bacon records the various writing systems of the court, including Chinese in his Opus Majus (Bridges ed. Opus Majus, pg. 374.” Note added at ciphermysteries by Nicholas Jacobson 12/11/2014 (who I see also acknowledges some of my work – for which my belated thanks).



  • Seymour De Ricci, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Mss in the United States and Canada. (Kraus reprinted it in 1961). 2 vols. (see Vol.2, pp.1845-1847.]

? Sebastian Wencelas , ‘The Voynich manuscript; its history and cipher’,  Nos Cahiers, Montreal, 2 (1937), pp.47-69.

Comment: A reviewer [G. L. N.] for the Minnesota Local History Times  (Dec. 1939 p.423-424) mentions ‘Nos Cahiers’ in passing, as a journal of the Franciscans, issued in Montreal.  I have given the surname as spelled in Jim reeds’ bibliography, but note that a Sebastian Wenceslas was a Franciscan writing in French and in English on various religious topics, one publication dated to the 1950s.  – D].



  • Fletcher Pratt, Secret and Urgent. New York: Bobbs Merrill,1939. [VMS on pp.30-38.]



1941 … nothing

1942 … nothing.


and then… .



  • Joseph M. Feely, Roger Bacon’s Cipher: The Right Key Found, Rochester, NY.,1943.

Comment: Interestingly, this is possibly the first suggestion that the text is highly abbreviated. As cited by d’Imperio, Elizebeth Friedman in 1962 had written, “In 1943, a Rochester lawyer  Joseph Martin Feely, published [Roger Bacon’s Cipher… ]  Feely was the author of “Shakespeare’s Maze,” “Deciphering Shakespeare”, and other books catalogued in the the Friedman collection under the heading ‘Cryptologic Follies’.” To which d’Imperio’s paragraph adds:  “However unacceptable his results may have been, he started his researches in a sensible manner … He remarks, with obvious exasperation, that the Latin in Bacon’s manuscripts was highly abbreviated; he estimates the text to have been reduced by thirty percent through this practice.” – M.E. d’Imperio, An Elegant Enigma (1978/81). p.35



? –   Hugh O’Neill,  ‘Botanical Remarks on the Voynich MS’ Speculum, 19 (1944): 126. [‘a prominent American botanist’ according to d’Imperio, who adds, “Other scholars, however, completely reject O’Neill’s identification[s] … and are as emphatic in their claim that none of the plants pictured in the manuscript are of New World origin.” d’Imperio, op.cit. p.8

July 29th., Hugh O’Neill,  ‘Voynich Manuscript. Botanical Clue, Evidence indicating Roger Bacon could not have written the Voynich manuscript…’,  Science News Letter, July 29,1944, p.69. [see above -D]

Comment: And that was it…  eleven years more of nothing-much.



* “…Rand” –  my heading deliberately misquotes the first line from a speech (as ‘Presidential address’) which Rand delivered to the first meeting of the Medieval Academy of America on April 24th., 1926.

* “… Robert Steele’s contributions… An informed eye is at work in his comments. “The usual methods of dating a MS. fail us: the writing cannot be placed, the vellum is coarse for the thirteenth century, but not impossible, the ink is good. Only the drawings remain, and owing to their complete absence of style the difficulty of dating is but increased; it is strange that the draughtsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influences”. Abstract to his article ‘Science in medieval cipher’, Nature 122, 563-565 (13 October 1928). The original article can be read there, but is behind a paywall.

*Jim reeds’ original Bibliography at:




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