Do I have a problem with the fact that the Internet appears to have a machine continuously cranking out second-rate stories about the Voynich Manuscript? No, not really – an “unreadable historical manuscript” presses many of the cultural buttons left exposed by large numbers of mainstream Netizens.

What does annoy me, however, is that virtually every VMs account ever written fails to come close to grasping the complex (and actually very interesting, I suspect) nature and character of poor old Wilfrid Michael Voynich (WMV) himself. It’s rather like reading a five-line wartime biography of Winston Churchill and expecting that to suffice for everything else he ever did: but what about the rest of Voynich’s life?

In many ways, you have to understand that WMV is doubly occulted: on one side, he’s forever in the shadow of his accursed manuscript, while on the other side, he’s in the shadow of his blessèd wife Ethel. Though he could charm the birds down from the trees (and, more importantly for him, the books down off unwilling shelves) in eighteen-ish languages, he didn’t leave a substantial written record for biographers to work with. Ultimately, do we really know much of importance about Voynich? I think the honest answer would be ‘no’.

For example, I don’t think we have a clue about his sexual orientation: family lore has it that Ethel was attracted more to women than to men, and (allegedly) lived with Anne Nill in New York as a couple for decades, yet WMV and ELV were also notably a devoted couple prior to WMV’s death. Did they initially marry for love, for revolutionary support, for reasons of practicality, or for some other reason? Is it just me, or do you also hate it when you know that the 10% you know about a subject is actually the least important 10%?

All of which musings were prompted by a nice email from historical researcher & writer Jackie Speel, who asked if I knew that Wilfrid Voynich’s naturalization papers were in the National Archive. (“HO 144/751/117022”, to be precise). Ummm: no, I didn’t – but thanks very much for pointing this out! 🙂

It’s a good find – but I suspect that the real archival pay dirt would be WMV’s Special Branch file. Circa 1900, there was a lot of terrorist paranoia (sounds familiar?): the Special Irish Branch had only recently morphed into Special Branch, and was now tracking Russian revolutionaries and dissidents in London as well as Irish republicans. Andrew Cook’s (2002) Ace of Spies has a nice bit of useful stuff on this period (particularly Chapter Two “The Man From Nowhere”) and on Ethel Voynich (mainly in Appendix One), if you haven’t already seen this. So, Wilfrid Voynich almost certainly had a Special Branch file on him and his links with Stepniak etc: but what did it say? Perhaps there’s a similar secret file on him in New York archives? I wish someone was looking for this stuff, I really do.

Basically, I think that the recent vellum dating (to the early 15th century) should end any lingering romantic or postmodern notion that WMV forged his (now eponymous) manuscript: honestly, isn’t it a good enough Early Modern mystery as it is without any additional confounding nonsense to muddy the waters? Oh well!

8 thoughts on “The (Wilfrid) Voynich Files…

  1. Jackie Speel on February 12, 2010 at 4:58 pm said:

    There is a brief piece on WMV at The History Files as a starting point.

  2. Hi Jackie,

    …and here’s a direct link to your WMV piece! 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  3. Diane O'Donovan on June 15, 2012 at 6:23 am said:

    I’ve included a link to Jackie Speel’s article in voynichimagery blog.

  4. xplor on May 28, 2013 at 12:44 am said:

    Who is Wilfrid Michael Voynich and can he be trusted?
    W.R. Newbold was told by WMV in 1915 it was found in an Austrian Castle. He told Mr. G. Orioli, the Italian, quotes WMV in his book “Adventures Of A Bookseller” found in a convent
    Now we link to Villa Mondragone. If there was a letter to or from Athanasius Kircher, should have been first offered for sale to Museo Kircheriano as it was a part of its letter collection and not to be just sold to a foreign antiquarian, especially since there was apparently no refusal to buy by Museo Kirhceriano found.

  5. xplor: I don’t really see why there should be an issue about trusting WMV or not. The Voynich manuscript simply isn’t a 20th century fake or a 20th century hoax, so it wasn’t WMV “who dun it”. Everything else is just normal antiquarian bookseller schtick. 😉

  6. Diane on April 5, 2015 at 3:16 pm said:

    I’m sure you know this already, but readers may not: the BOI (American Bureau, prelude to the FBI) file is available online.

    Also, in a bibliography of works and persons associated with medicine, I found an entry recently for an M.L. Voynich, described as a Polish revolutionary, and pharmacist. The really interesting thing is that the dates given are 1865-1930.

    reference is: Margot Juterbock, ‘Zeitschriftenshau’ Medizinhistorisches Journal, Bd.12, H.4 (1977) p.365.

    From time to time I’ve wondered if Wilfrid didn’t adopt another person’s id – just wondering, you know – because his earliest presentation in America was (to quote the BOI file) as a Galician Jew. The term Galicia is nicely ambivalent, but he also called himself, at first “de Voynich” and also said that he had used ‘the whole of his inheritance’ to buy the manuscripts and books he took to England. But as a refugee, escaped from a prisoner of war camp and having to pawn his spectacles etc. to get to England, I kind of wonder… what inheritance? How could he collect anything from his homeland.. so had he a rel. elsewhere?

    Fruitless speculation.

  7. Diane on April 5, 2015 at 3:27 pm said:

    Oh yes – and then there’s that fascinating photograph which is in the National Portrait Gallery, which shows him in a kind of wrapped turban, with a single very thin plait as a kind of sidelock. I was told that he is dressed like an Orthodox priest, but I really should see if it isn’t what Galician Jews wore – either the French or the central European Galicians.

    Don’t suppose anyone knows, offhand?

  8. xplor on April 7, 2015 at 11:04 pm said:

    With a name like Ivan Klecevsky what’s not to trust ?

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