The Voynich in 1905?

Update, June 18, 2013: Rene Zandbergen had suggested that I check the Voynich archives at the Beinecke Library, to see if there were any letters by or about Charles Singer. I finally had an opportunity to do this, and found the below letter. It is from Singer, to Manly, dated May 11, 1931. Manly then forwarded it to Anne Nill and Ethel Voynich:

Dear Professor Manly,

There appears to be some misunderstanding in America about my views on the Voynich MS.  I have never written anything about it, and any remarks I may have made in conversation represented only impressions of a long past event. From what you tell me, it is obvious that the MS that I remember seeing in Germany many years ago could not have been that of Mr. Voynich.

Though I did not know Mr. Voynich personally, I have heard the highest reports of his integrity as a man and as a dealer from those who knew him well, and I should be very sorry to be thought to reflect on his memory in anything whatever.

Yours very sincerely, Charles Singer

So this clears up the matter. It was a simple misunderstanding all around. The trouble for me was that the Voynich collections are split between the Beinecke and the Grolier Club, and so the question was left hanging by seeing only the one.

Ethel was very pleased with the revelation, and thanked Singer for clearing up the question with a hand-written letter by May 26th:

Professor Manly has forwarded to me your very kind letter, the generous spirit of which I deeply appreciate.

You will, I am sure, understand my having felt anxious that any accidental confusion of my husband’s MS. with some other one should be cleared up, in order to prevent the possibility of any distressing misunderstandings later. Your letter has been a great relief to my mind, and I beg you to accept my thanks for it.

Believe me,

Sincerely yours, E.L. Voynich.

Although the question is now settled… Charles Singer never saw the Voynich before 1912, and actually only saw copies, years later… I will leave the blog post up (for the time being, at least), for general interest.

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I’ve not yet finished writing up my reflections on the Anne Nill and Herbert Garland letters in the Grolier Voynich collection, but before I did,  I’ve been anxious to relate a very interesting story which I discovered in that correspondence. I investigated this story… a rumor really… as far as I could, here in New York State, and on the internet, but if it can be taken any further it will have to be by someone in Europe. Even so, it will probably turn out to be a dead end, whether true or not, and never be resolved. But the implications of the rumor are important enough to explore as far as possible, in my opinion.

The first mention of this issue is in Anne’s letter to Garland dated July 18th, 1930. She admits the letter is “full of odds and ends”, and proceeds to discuss various issues such as insurance payments, money owed to different people, and so on. One person they owe to is Joseph Baer of Frankfurt, a very well known rare book dealer. She hopes that the account is paid up, so that she can ask a few questions about the following incident:

“This morning Professor Thompson of the University of Chicago called to say that Singer, who has been lecturing all over the United States, was in Chicago where he, Prof. Thompson, met him and discussed the cipher MS. with him. he has circulated all over the U.S. the story that it is a 16th century – a Paracelsan kind of MS. At this point I remarked to Professor Thompson that I thought it was amazing that a person who posed as a scholar could make such statements about a MS. he had never seen. ‘That is just why I came to see you,’ said Professor Thompson, ‘he claims he has seen it – that 20 or 25 years ago Baer of Frankfurt showed it to him and told him it came from Prague.’ That, apparently, is the origin of Singer’s Paracelsan theory.”

Of course that is a fairly stunning rumor. It is also, in my opinion, a pretty solid one, and worth looking into. Consider that Thompson thought it was important enough to make a special visit to Nill, and Nill was interested enough to try and figure out if it was true. The 1930 date of the letter, and the fact that Thompson was previously in Chicago, means that Singer claimed Baer had the Voynich as early as 1905 to 1910. Even if Voynich had loaned it to him, this predates the 1912 “ancient castle in Southern Europe” and “Villa Mondragone” claims by at least two years, and as much as seven. But why would Voynich lend it to Baer in the first place? In the years Voynich owned it, he was very careful to whom he allowed access to the images of it. To leave it in Frankfurt, in the hands of a competitor, seems unlikely. Or did he actually get it from Baer? If so, where did Baer get it?

Another important implication to this is that Anne Nill was writing this during the “castle in Southern Europe origin” timeframe, but nevertheless was ready to distrust her recently deceased employer, mentor and friend’s word on that claimed provenance enough to have her ears perk up, and want to investigate, when Thomson dropped this in her lap. And further, years later when she gave information to Ricci for his catalog… and she and Ethel substituted “Villa Mondragone” for “ancient castle in Southern Europe”, there was no mention of this old Frankfurt/Baer rumor. This, although (as you will see) she seemed somewhat unsatisfied with the results of her investigation. But she did try to get to the bottom of it, so even Nill thought the provenance Wilfred offered was something to question. She continued,

“So what I want to do, as soon as we get Baer’s account settled, if there is still something owing on it, is to write him a nice tactful friendly letter and try to get out of him what MS. they actually did have, from Prague, of a Paracelsan nature, which might have been shown to Singer 20 or 25 years ago. Thompson pointed out that in the 16tch century MSS. were not written on vellum, and that it was much more likely that our MS. might turn out to be by Raymond Lully, which, he said, more or less made Singer sit up. “Why, I never thought of that.” said S. The Crummers saw Singer in California, so I expect to get the real “low-down” on him when I see them.”

For some reason or another, it turned out that the “Crummers” were not able to enlighten Anne on the Singer issue. But it also seems that Anne was attempting to reason away the Singer claim, by assuming that the manuscript could not have been the beloved “Bacon”, but some other. This seems to be a bit of rationalization on her part, as Thomspon was quite clear that Singer was lecturing on the Voynich, and both Thompson and Nill were quite sure Singer had not seen it, or copies of it, while in the possession of the Voynichs. The only choices were that Singer had seen another manuscript he confused with the Voynich, or that he was telling the truth, and saw it in the possession of Baer, 1905 to 1910.

But what of this Singer? What do we know, he knew, of the Voynich? This is almost certainly the same Charles Joseph Singer (1876-1960) who lectured, wrote and theorized on the Voynich Ms. He is quoted in Mary D’Imperio’s “The Voynich Manuscript- An Elegant Enigma” from two letters he wrote in 1957. One, to Tiltman in November 1957, mentions the Paracelsian ideas, “My own feeling- again somewhat vague- about the little figures of nude men and women in the organs of the body is that they are somehow connected with the ‘archaei’ of the Paracelsan or Spagyric School. This would fit in well with my suggestion about John Dee and Bohemia.”

So again, or still, in 1957, Singer is thinking “Prague” and “Paracelsus”. Again, we have choices in determining the implications of this. Either Singer really did see the Voynich in the possession of Baer pre-1910, and continued to believe as he did from the start these points; or that he was mistaken, and saw another manuscript with Baer (as Nill seemed to hope), which just happened to give him the same exact impression as the later, now revealed as the correct, Voynich Ms. did! For he must have, by 1957, seen images from the actual Voynich. I think that Dr. Singer held to the same views as expressed to Thompson in 1930, and in his lectures at that time, all the way op to 1957, is a strong indication that he did see the actual Voynich Manuscript pre-1910.

Anne Nill seems to have settled whatever account they owed Baer fairly quickly, for by October 21st, 1930, she was able to report to Garland,

“Yesterday I had a reply from Baer to my letter on the subject which says, ‘As to the question you are asking us, we cannot remember that we had any Paracelsan manuscript and we cannot find in the cards of books we sold, any reference to such a manuscript.’ That seems to take care of the matter unless Baer prefers to stay out of the matter so as not to offend a possible client. I referred (perhaps unwisely as I know [sp?] think) to the fact that it was Singer of Oxford who said that Baer and Co. had the Paracelsan MS. from Prague 25 years ago, and that he has stated that that is our Cipher Ms. Well, anyway, I wrote a tactful letter and perhaps it is just as well that the fact is on record in Germany, for Sudhoff also said it might be Paracelsan and he (he is not a paleographer) may have had a fixed opinion about it before he looked at the MS. last autumn, for, as you know, he and Singer have collaborated on something or other (at least I seem to remember that they have.”

Again I see in that a sense that Anne was hoping for some “wiggle room”, and wishing that the rumor was not true. Her reasoning, however, seems slim to me. She is again hoping that Singer may have come to his conclusions not from seeing the Voynich by 1910, in Germany, but by having discussions with others, at a later date. The only way this could be would be to call Singer a liar, however, which she only indirectly implies. Singer would have had to make up the story, to Thompson, and to have been publicly discussing the “cipher ms.” under false pretenses. I do not believe this is so, from what I read of Charles Singer… that is, I believe he and Thompson were correct and truthful.

And, at the same time, she seems to question Baer’s credibility… insinuating he was lying to her, in order “not to offend a possible client”. From what I have been reading about the internal practices of the rare book trade at this time, with the fudging of provenance, the shill bidding, the manipulations of prices at auction, the forgeries and deceptions… I would not consider, as even Anne Nill apparently did not, a small lie about owning this manuscript- the Voynich- as so unusual on the part of Baer. And if so, who was this “possible client”? Was Nill thinking, as I did when I read that line, of Wilfred himself? So it was Baer’s word against Singer’s, at that point, and really, it still is.

As it stands, I see this rumor as fairly credible. Really the only way to dismiss it would be to prove, as Nill tried, that Singer saw a different manuscript with Baer, and this carried him through the years until he saw the actual Voynich, and he either happened to think the same things about both… an unbelievable coincidence, really… or that he did not want to destroy his credibility, and so when he finally saw the “correct manuscript” he simply applied his previous theory to it.

I doubt both of those possibilities. I think there is something to this. But what can I do? For one thing, it turned out that I had access to the Baer catalogs from the first volume, in 1899, through his last, in the 1920’s, thanks to the New York Public Library. They are available from off-site storage by previous arrangement, so of course I arranged it… and saw them on Friday, August 17, 2012. I spent a good four hours poring through every page, from 1899 until well into 1914. Of course I did not expect to see the Voynich itself listed here, although I admit I did wonder at that happening. Perhaps, I thought, there was some mention of it under a different description, or some other ms. which Singer could have mistaken for it. But of course since the Voynich concern must have had these catalogs, I would imagine Anne Nill did exactly the same thing as I did last Friday. Nonetheless, it had to be done, so I did it. One interesting manuscript I did see was in his 1899 catalog, volume 2-3, page 20… which describes (thanks to Ernest Lillie for his translation help, which I did my best to further clarify),

“Interesting Manuscript, Italian labor. It contains plant and animal-illustrations, drawing executed in quill a watercolor, in alphabetical arrangement with notes Latin names. The drawing is very careful, very lifelike, but it something stilisirt [?]. We have before us the factory of an artist who was considered perhaps the surnames of the involuntary nature of symmetry of the drawing. The plant are represented on most rich, the codex contains about 480 plant illustrations, mostly the entire height of the leaves. . take between about 85 beasts are depicted. The whole work is a scientific purpose to note everywhere but make stops at the joy on the Visual artist and by invent stories, and where it may concern, he takes action in the miniatures. so with Cerasia he paints a cherry on which are two men that the Cherries a young woman with flowing blond hair throw in the dress pulled up. balsamus is in a high wall surrounded by a courtyard to keep before his gate two armed guard, and a third is on his shield, and falls asleep. is followed by a wildlife arc protect. Terebintus the tree, “ex quo nascitur Terbentina” is a man depicted in a barrel of turpentine absorbs etc., the costum points for Italy, the architecture has that broken down windows in the style of high Gothic, of the 14-hundreds.”

Clearly not the Voynich, but whether or not this interesting manuscript was similar enough to confuse Singer, is something we might consider. I would also be very interested in seeing this work, should anyone recognize it from this description. There was nothing else even remotely close to the Voynich that I could see in these catalogs.

I also looked for a Paracelsan Ms., which Baer clearly said he never owned or sold. And Baer did own and offer several copies of Paracelsus, although no manuscripts that I could find. So I think the catalog angle has been explored well enough to close that door. But that does not mean that this is a dead end. Far from it, as I still feel that the rumor has enough credence to warrant further investigation. Should anyone reading this agree with me, and I truly hope they do, perhaps they could look for any possible collections of Joseph Baer and his enterprise, perhaps in Frankfurt, for evidence in private letters and papers, of our “cipher ms.”. Similarly, the papers of Dr. Charles Singer ought to be examined, if they are available, for any mention of the Voynich pre-1910. I think these are worthy missions, considering the tremendous implications of the 1905 Frankfurt rumor to the field of Voynich research.

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9 Responses to “The Voynich in 1905?”

  1. Rourke Decker Says:

    The image of the catalog in the original German is low resolution and difficult to read. Is it possible you could provide a higher-resolution version of the image, so that I can more comfortably translate it? The translation you provide above is fairly poor, not much better than a machine translation, and I would like to improve it if you don’t mind.

  2. Ernest Lillie Says:

    Charles Singer is the author of the well known article: ‘The Herbal in Antiquity and Its Transmission to Later Ages’ in ” The Journal of Hellenic Studies #47, pages 1 – 52″. I took a look at the Internet archive to see if any of his books were available there:

    http://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%28charles%20singer%29

    and found a few on subjects from Shakespeare study to the history science and medicine. I was not able to find one called “From Magic to Science: Essays on the Scientific Twilight”.

    I didn’t find anything obvious about a Paracelsian cipher manuscript yet. Perhaps he confined his speculation/mention of this to his lectures.

    • proto57 Says:

      Thanks, Ernest. He deserves some more scrutiny I think, and that is a start. Rich.

      • Rene Zandbergen Says:

        Charles Singer was one of the leading experts on the history of the Dioscurides herbals (from his publication quoted above), but most of his work has been superseded by later research. For this see also Minta Collins: Medieval Herbals.

        He clearly refers to the Voynich MS as being a Paracelsan MS, in particular mentioning the nymphs (cited by D’Imperio). I doubt that D’Imperio ever spoke with SInger, but she used all material available in the Beinecke, and from memory I am certain that there are letters from/to SInger there.

  3. Rene Zandbergen Says:

    I just started to look into this, and it is truly fascinating.
    While Voynich was a successful antiquarian book dealer, he was really a very small fish in the pond compared to Baer.
    Baer’s stock included 600,000 volumes and he published more than 700 catalogues. Baer’s family business started before Voynich was born.
    Since this business was located about 40 km from where I now live, I think I am in a fairly good position to find out more.
    This may not be very fast, though……

  4. Rene Zandbergen Says:

    On the 14th C MS of which you found a German description, this is almost certainly a copy of ‘Tractatus de Herbis’ about which I spoke at some length in Frascati.
    About 480 plants, a number of animals, alphabetic, balsamus inside walls, this all fits perfectly.
    Most of the extant copies of this herbal can be well traced, and most are from after 1400. If it is really from the 14th Century, either it is now in private possession, and not well documented, or this is now in the Pierpont Morgan library (Morgan M 873),
    Interestingly, the Morgan library was dealing a lot with Voynich.

    Minta Collins writes about this book:
    “This MS was conceived for illustrations only, but there may have been a separate volume of text. The 488 pen-and-wash drawings of the plants and figurative scenes of the Tractatus de Herbis on the whole follow the order of those in Paris, Lat. 6823. On the basis of the style and the costumes and the script Morgan M.873 has been located to Nothern Italy, perhaps to the Veneto, and dated to the third quarter of the 14th Century”

    • proto57 Says:

      Thank you for clearing that up. As for Voynich dealing a lot with the Morgan, he seems (and Nill by the time of the Depression) to have seen the libraries as a reliable source of revenue through the purchase of his books, when the market affected the habits of private collectors more directly. He, and later Nill, often approached Museums and libraries with their stock, proactively trying to sell them.

      I’ll bet it is no different today.

      I’ve been tracking down manuscripts which Voynich personally found… and three of them are in Columbia University Library (so far, there may be more there).

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