A Revisionist Revisits the Revisions: the matter of Canterbury

Long before it was proven that Roger Bacon’s hand could not have written Beinecke MS 408, most researchers had abandoned that point in Mnishovsky’s tale – one which had also been maintained by Wilfrid Voynich. It might have been better had researchers abandoned their idea that the manuscript was an original ‘autograph’ whose first composition was evidenced by Beinecke MS 408.

But by then, the idea of the ‘auteur’ had become a fixed idea which neither evidence nor reason appeared able to shift, so that when it became clear that Roger Bacon could not have inscribed these pages, everything associated with Bacon was dropped: by 2008, one could scarcely refer to England, nor to the thirteenth century, nor to Franciscans nor to Bacon – neither his own works nor any which he might have owned – without being accused of attempting to revive the dead donkey of a “Bacon autograph” hypothesis.

As late as 2012 – after I’d been writing for some time about the Franciscans’ role in west-to-east communication, from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries – I learned that most readers of ‘Findings’ thought I was simply behind the times, when I was actually seeking some reason why the eastern influence I had noted in the botanical imagery would appear in a fifteenth-century manuscript probably made in Latin Europe.  I admit that I was also seeking some evidence that the first independent appraisals of the manuscript had not been set aside arbitrarily by Voynich researchers. Until about the time when William Friedman became involved in study of this manuscript, the near-universal consensus of medieval scholars, as of keepers of and dealers in medieval manuscripts had been that the work presented as one of the thirteenth century or so, and none found any obvious objection to the proposal of English provenance – an opinion with which Panofsky’s original assessment, attributing it to southern Sephardi Jews, is not incompatible as I hope I have shown.

I could not think that such weighty opinions could be set aside arbitrarily, especially for so trivial a reason as that Bacon could not have personally inscribed the pages.

But that was the case. A secondary argument, depending upon the assertion that the written part of the text was encrypted, held that no text from the thirteenth century could pose such a problem for cryptanalysts.  Of course, there is also the possibility that one or more thirteenth-century works might be closely copied in the fifteenth century, and the written text then encrypted. That possibility was one among many which seemed never to have been considered – perhaps because the notion of an ‘author’ still filled the horizon.

One item from Wilfrid’s ‘English’ provenance survived a little longer -his assertion that John Dee had carried the manuscript to Prague in about 1586.

Whether  Wilfrid  simply ‘took up’ that idea from Professor William Romaine Newbold’s researches we do not know; Wilfrid was not accustomed to providing his opinions with footnotes. However by 1997 it was known to members of the first Voynich mailing list that this opinion had received some support from an expert in Dee’s somewhat variable handwriting.  Andrew Watson had given it as his opinion that the Arabic numerals used as foliation in Beinecke MS 408 had been written by Dee himself. [1]

This news happened to coincide with the first rise of a variant on a new  ‘continental European’ idea, one which was about to begin its surprising rise to prominence, and to achieve and then maintain a dominance in the field from the early 2000s until very recently indeed.  That variation which we describe as the ‘central European’ idea was so consistently maintained and positively urged through every available avenue, including personal networks and public media, web pages, and comments to blogs – and combined with very public deterrent offered those suggesting an alternative view –  that the original ‘English’ provenance was not so much argued, disproved, or rationally dismantled as swamped into near-oblivion. Though on the face of it still a rational option as source for the manuscript’s content, the ‘English’ hypothesis was spoken of in a tone suggesting it had long been superseded.

That this could happen was  due not least to Wilfrid Voynich’s  having very early conflated the proposal that Dee carried the manuscript to Prague with a rumour known only by attribution to Mnishovsky, that some nameless person, described without reference to any native country, had come to Prague with the manuscript and there allegedly received from the Emperor Rudolf the amount of 600 ducats.

Proponents of the  ‘central European’ hypothesis then argued that since there was no record of Dee’s having received 600 ducats from Rudolf, so Dee could not have brought the manuscript to Prague.  The fact that no-where is there any record of Rudolf’s ever paying such an extraordinary sum for any manuscript tells us only that Dee’s not having received such an amount, either, is unremarkable. It does not disprove the idea that Dee brought the manuscript to Prague, but does add to the number of reasons why one might reasonably doubt the  ‘Mnishovsky rumour’.

Such doubt was evidently not felt by many and the ‘Mnishovsky rumour’ has become the foundation text (as it were) for the ‘central European’ hypothesis, with various subsidiary arguments made for deeming the content in some way a unique expression of Germanic culture.

Not even Marcus Marci, our sole source for what Mnishovsky is supposed to have said, added anything by way of support or so much as suggested that he believed the story.  His tone is offhand; a last fragment of information which, true or not,  refers to the manuscript he is sending Kircher.

It might, theoretically, be entirely true, along with a myriad of other storylines which could, theoretically, find some evidence in support one of these days.

At present it has none.

For the extraordinary amount of credence which is accorded Mnishovsky’s scarcely-believable tale, the most obvious explanation is its reference to royalty, an immediate appeal to that general fascination felt by the public at large.  Mnishovsky’s nameless and featureless ‘traveller’ also offers better elbow-room for those preferring to argue for a continental (and  ‘central European’) storyline.

There is some evidence that Rudolf’s pharmacist-physician may have once have owned the manuscript There is none for the  often-repeated assertion that any interesting book owned by Jakub Horcicky “must have been given him by Rudolf.” It might just as easily have been a gift, or an inherited manuscript, or one which Jakub himself had bought.  His name’s being written on folio 1 does not make it a signature; it might as easily have written by a conscientious man to whom it had once been lent, for Jakub had died unexpectedly after a fall, and even today there are people so scrupulous that they will write the owner’s name in a borrowed book if its return becomes impossible or delay unavoidable. It would not do to be mistaken for a thief.  Georg Baresch also made clear that he was not the owner though the manuscript lay taking up space (as he put it) on his shelves.

As a bookseller, Wilfrid Voynich certainly found association with royalty just as attractive as the idea that Roger Bacon personally inscribed its pages, but while his approach to history-writing is looser than one might hope, and he knew how to tell a sparkling story, there is no evidence to suggest that he would intentionally deceive prospective clients.

He was not a poor provenancer and genuinely believed (as so many others also did) that the manuscript’s appearance, hand and vellum were appropriate for a thirteenth-century, English, and Franciscan provenance.

For one reason, or for another, Voynich researchers having a prominent online presence seemed to preferred the story of the “anonymous traveller given 600 ducats by the Emperor’ to that less remarkable narrative proposed by Newbold, which had Dee give the manuscript directly to Jakub Horcicky.  In terms of sixteenth century courtly manners, this is the more believable scenario, and it should not be forgotten that Dee had spent a considerable part of his life as tutor and scholar advising Elizabeth I.  He would certainly appreciate that an act of generosity to one of Rudolf’s most trusted subjects was more likely to earn the Emperor’s approval than any stranger’s showing him a poor looking manuscript for which the virtual  price-tag was more than a king’s ransom, yet whose script (so far as we know) could be read by no-one in Europe. Rudolf may have been mad, but he was notably careful about where and on what he spent large amounts of money and, in the usual way of monarchs, he left the sordid business of handing over cash and receiving goods to the court administrators, who in turn kept records of what came and went across their desks.  Tomorrow, perhaps, someone will find a copy of receipt, or of payment – but the evidence in support of Mnishovsky’s “600 ducat” story is so far … zero.

There’s a certain unreality, then, about encountering the Mnishovsky rumour everywhere, and seeing it so continually and consistently  urged, and with such apparently authoritative air, as if it were solid fact, that few stop to ask about what evidence informs such certainty.

There is none.

For  the ‘Dee’ scenario, the only item certainly in evidence (for we do not know the details of Newbold’s research nor of Wilfrid’s) is Watson’s opinion.

Today, few believe other than that the present manuscript is most likely to have been made in northern Italy between 1405 and 1438, give or take a little.  The object’s manufacture does not tell us when or where the content originated or evolved.

So overall, the balance of evidence and informed opinion remains, still, with the earlier specialists, who said that the manuscript presents like one made in Iberia ‘or somewhere southern’ and/or in England during the twelfth or thirteenth century.

One obvious way to reconcile these various opinions and facts is to posit that our present manuscript is, essentially, a copy of near-facsimile quality from precedents dating to as early as the twelfth or thirteenth centuries.

This, just by the way, is not my own opinion; I should date the posited exemplars to the time of the Avignon Papacy, but we are talking about the weight of evidence and the cursory dismissal of what had been a generally accepted appraisal of the manuscript’s appearance.

It is time, I think, to re-consider  ‘revisionist’ view which may itself be in need of revision.


So now again to England, but this time not to Oxford but to Canterbury and “Thomas-the-Healer”.





[1] information communicated to the first Voynich mailing list by P.Neal, Tuesday, 28th. January 1997 (search or scroll the page here).


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