I’ve just been interviewed about the Voynich Manuscript for an article in an upcoming Sunday Times (apropos of the Yale University Press photo-facsimile, of course), which was a lot of fun.

Even so, while we were talking I became aware that there are a number of troubling things about the way almost everyone tends to talk about the Voynich MS that keep nagging at me. And one in particular needed a blog post all of its own…

lone-ranger-cut-out

The Heroic Outsider

Talk to almost anybody about the Voynich Manuscript, and you’ll quickly run into the presumption that glory awaits the keen-minded Champollion who enters the fray to rip away the Voynichian veils. That is to say, that decryption of the Voynich Manuscript will ‘inevitably’ be down to the solo travails of a brilliant cryptological outsider, whose keen eyes pierce through the fog of uncertainty, unhindered by the fashionably foolish blinkers everyone else involved happens to be wearing.

In fact, some researchers buy so heavily into this mystique that they take their outsiderness to an extreme: that if anyone else so much as hints at agreeing with them, it is a point of contrarian honour for them to disagree with themselves until they’re alone again. If you’ve studied the Voynich for any period of time, you probably have your own list of people who fit this template.

Personally, I think this mindset is unhelpful, nonsensical and self-destructive. Instead, when the blessèd day arrives when we finally manage to see past the Voynich’s surface misdirections and tricks to the plain-but-devious system beneath them, what we’ll almost certainly discover is that previous researchers had clearly and unambiguously flagged 90% or more of what was going on, but we were just too caught up with specific details to see how all the varied pieces slotted together.

All the same, the modern world seems to allow plenty of room for outsider narratives to flourish. One could reasonably argue that Nigel Farage primarily gained influence by dressing up his shallow one-trick-pony quasi-racist bar-room political schtick as an outsider narrative: and doubtless others would say much the same of Donald Trump. (Personally, DT’s presidency feels too recent to be sure of what’s actually going on there, so this will have to remain something for future historians to debate.)

For me, TV reality shows with (for example) charmless footballer-turned-slebchef Gordon Ramsay come across as unbearable nonsense, presenting pages 1-5 of a “How To Run A Successful Restaurant” ebook as a nauseating mix of confrontational Nietszchean catharsis and Stacey Dooleyesque empathizing. So is Gordon Ramsay genuinely an heroic outsider, or little more than an opportunistic self-promoting sleb famous for lobster ravioli and kicking people? You’ll have to make up your own mind.

I can’t help but conclude that the whole idea of the ‘heroic outsider’ is a Big Fat Fiction, a story-making lie used to dress up what is little more than an irrational, anti-science, antihistorical, anti-engineering, and anti-knowledge mindset. Which is presumably why TV and Hollywood both love it (i.e. for all the wrong reasons), because the outsider’s victory is the victory of the Little Guy against the Preening Establishment, the smug complacent know-nothings in their private clubs who get to decide What Is True and What Is False.

And so it goes for Voynich Manuscript research too. People seem to be far too busy with their personal mythopoiea, concerned more with who will play them in the film (i.e. where their glorious and dramatic code-breaking efforts are finally given the celluloid stardom they deserve) than with wondering whether their research direction makes even the slightest bit of sense.

In this way, Hollywood seems to be telling these people what to think: that cracking the Voynich Manuscript wouldn’t be a triumph of Good History or Good Science, but rather an act of personal redemption, showing the Voynich naysayers that they Had It All Wrong, and that the heroic outsider Had It Right All Along.

It’s all bullsh*t, of course.

An Army of Ants

The boring truth is that Voynich researchers circa 2016 may not be standing on the shoulders of giants, but we are held high by a vast army of ants working industriously and independently, yet who nonetheless have still managed to somehow make huge progress as a group.

It would be easy to reel off a list of more than a hundred people who have contributed in a positive way towards what we know about the Voynich Manuscript – John Matthews Manly, the Friedmans, John Tiltman, Prescott Currier, Mary D’Imperio, through to the two Jims, Gabriel Landini, Rene Zandbergen, and so forth.

The heroic outsider narrative, then, is just a tool for sneering at others whose contributions you’d rather belittle in an attempt to big yo’self up. And the sooner people stop this nonsense (and start being proud to be an ant), the better off we’ll all be.

Of all the text in the Voynich Manuscript, one section stands a particularly high chance of giving us information: f116v, the final page. This has a set of marginalia that (by all rights) ought to have been written unencrypted, but which we mysteriously are unable to read.

voynich-f116v-top

This text is often called ‘michitonese’, because William Romaine Newbold famously transcribed the first two words of the second line as “michiton oladabas”. There are snatches of clarity interspersed with what appears to be Voynichese, Latin, German, and even ‘+’ signs (normally used in written prayers to indicate when to make the sign of the cross when reciting the prayer). In short, it’s a bit of a mess.

The essay on imaging in Yale’s recently-released photo-facsimile edition mysteriously omitted to make any mention of this final page, nor of any recent attempts to try to read this page. And yet a couple of years ago, a group most certainly did try to use a range of multi-spectral imaging techniques to do precisely that.

I know this for certain because I found a set of low bitdepth JPEG files the team had accidentally left on one of the Beinecke library’s file servers: and – having recently installed BIMP, a simple automation plugin for GIMP – thought you might like to see them.

The quality admittedly isn’t good (the images would have been captured using a bitdepth closer to 16-bit, but these were stored as 8-bit JPEGs), but it might serve the purpose of goading the (as yet unnamed) team into finishing their paper, or (if it turned out they had nothing to say) releasing the full bitdepth images so that we can study them openly. 🙂

I’ve only included 26 of the 46 images they made of 116v, because the others were too noisy or too blank to be informative in their low bitdepth form. (I had to run an auto-equalize filter on all the images in order to make them even remotely visible).

Disappointingly, I was not able to refine my reading of the top line (usually called the “pox leber” line), because there was insufficient contrast in the JPEGs. Perhaps with a copy of the 16-bit scans, this might start to become clear…

The Multispectral Images

Cipher mysteries usually offer us multiple bubbles of probability to work with, e.g. whether the Somerton Man was Charles Mikkelsen (close but no cigar, despite the former’s nicotine-stained fingers), or even poor old H. C. Reynolds (and what a waste of time that bubble was, eh?). Yet these bubbles tend to be fragile and elusive, and we catch only indirect glimpses of them through the cracked mirrors of historical archives. For would not future historians also struggle to pin down and reconcile the vagaries and scattered events of our own tangled lives?

And so it was that while trying to reconstruct the history of Joachim Vieillard before his time on Robert Surcouf’s La Confiance, I took another look at Lhermitte’s ship La Preneuse, because Louis Garneray said that Vieillard had been on it. (Of course, though we can’t take anything attributed to Garneray as a fact in and of itself, we can use it as a stepping stone to point us in a plausible direction to look for genuinely verifiable evidence.)

In case you’re still not sufficiently steeped in Indian Ocean maritime history, La Preneuse sank in the Battle of Port Louis on 11th December 1799: you can buy a halfway-decent print of Garneray’s painting here:

la-preneuse

Anyway, while going through all that, it struck me that BN3’s Captain “Hamon” / “Harmon” could feasibly have been not Captain Hamelin (as I have long suspected, and which lead pointed me in the direction of Vieillard) but instead Captain Lhermitte. And I thought I ought to look a little closer…

Jean-Marthe-Adrien Lhermitte

Though the linguistic match is admittedly a little worse, the timing is better – for by the time Hamelin and the others were inducted into the Légion d’Honneur in 1810, Napoleon was no longer the “Premier Consul” but “Sa Majesté” or “l’Empereur”.

After being defeated at the Battle of Port Louis, Lhermitte was (along with a good number of his men) captured by the British and returned to France. Subsequently, Lhermitte was brought to the Tuileries in October 1801 and honoured in the highest terms by Napoleon. Henceforth he would be referred to as “Lhermitte le Brave“. Which is nice.

So… might someone sailing under Lhermitte have also been honoured by Premier Consul for his part in the same naval action, in the same way that Joachim Vieillard and various other valiant enseignes de vaisseau were made Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in December 1810? It’s certainly possible, though I have to say that there’s a distinct lack of external documentation to be found.

Further, one might possibly try to reason (from the lack of reference to “Chevalier” etc in BN3, though I admit that this is still a little bit of a stretch) that whatever event was being referred to, it happened after the position of Premier Consul was put in place (17 November 1799) and also probably after when weapons of honour were first “awarded as military awards for feats of arms” (25 December 1799), and yet before the Légion d’Honneur itself was founded (in 1802, replacing weapons of honour). Which is quite a narrow window. 🙂

Remember that BN3 says:

“Avec la bienveillance que le premier consul m’a témoigné, après un fait d’armes glorieux, je serais parvenu.”

Hence I think it is entirely possible that the person who wrote BN3 received a weapon of honour from Napoleon, and was thus made a légionnaire (though not yet a Chevalier, because that naming style only began in 1802).

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on weapons of honour says that “recipients […] automatically received the Legion of Honour after its inception”. For example, Lhermitte was made an early member of the Légion d’Honneur for that specific reason.

Lhermitte’s record there is LH/1632/62 (his date of birth is 1766/09/29), which says that he was upgraded to Chevalier on 5th February 1804, and then swiftly to Officier on 14th June 1804.

So… we have a date to look for, it would seem.

5th February 1804

On a webpage entitled “Pierre Callens, Le dernier Corsaire Dunkerquois“, we find a corsair “Qui fut décoré de la Légion d’Honneur sous le numéro 280 le 5 Février 1804, 15 Pluviôse An XII de la République” listed by Pierre Van Eccloo in 1996:

L’HERMIT[T]E qui commande à bord a pour second DEHAU, Pierre PLUCKET Lieutenant de Vaisseau, Pierre CALLENS Enseigne de Vaisseau, Pierre AUDIBERT Aspirant. Ce sont des “durs”. Une grande aventure commence.

(Though note Pierre Callens was listed with a later date in the Leonore database, which is a little confusing.) However, if you look a little more closely, you’ll see that these people were on le Tigre under Lhermitte, and that they seem not to have sailed to the Indian Ocean with him.

What’s more, if you do a websearch for “15 pluviôse an XII” or “5 fevrier 1804” with related keywords, you’ll rapidly find plenty of other French mariners people who were made Chevaliers on that same day, e.g.
* Louis-Antoine-Cyprien Infernet (1757–1815)
* André Jules François de Martineng (1776-1860)
* Yves Marie Gabriel Pierre LE COAT, baron de SAINT-HAOUEN (1756-1826)
* Guy Pierre de Coëtnempren, comte de Kersaint (1747-1822)
* Claude Vincent Polony (1756/1828)
* Pierre-François Violette (1759-1836)
* Pierre-Paulin Gourrege (1749–1805)
* Jacques Épron des Jardins
* Théodat Jean-Baptiste Le Bastier de Rivry (1785-1829)

…none of whom seems to have served with Lhermitte, unfortunately. So we still have plenty to look at here before we can properly evaluate whether or not this is a workable bubble to be examining (or indeed popping). Oh well!

For a few weeks, I’ve been trying to reconcile the reference in BN3 (the third of the papers associated with Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang, but which I firmly believe was written much later by someone I call the Missing Corsair) to the “Apollon” with any of the Legionnaires d’Honneur who fit the reference to being honoured for a “glorious feat of arms” (also in BN3).

The issue is that none of these men is also in the crew list for the Apollon’s final journey in 1798: I’ve gone over it numerous times, but there is simply no overlap. It seems to be an intractable problem that might even – in the worst case – point away from the whole Missing Corsair narrative.

Yet, of all the Indian Ocean Legionnaires d’Honneur honoured on 20th December 1810, the best candidate by far for our Missing Corsair is Joachim Vieillard. Vieillard was, without any real doubt, a corsair: and there is documentary evidence (in Charles Cunat’s account, which I’ve seen quoted but have yet to read for myself) that Vieillard served under the famous corsair captain Robert Surcouf on La Confiance.

Here’s the famous picture of La Confiance as painted by Louis Garneray:

confiance_kent_fight

Garneray – for all his wobbliness and unreliability – does also mention Vieillard as having been on La Confiance in his (1851) Voyages (p.101):

Je restai assez intimidé en me trouvant dans un grand salon rempli de monde ; mais je me remis bientôt en reconnaissant parmi les personnes présentes plusieurs de mes connaissances, entre autres les enseignes Roux, Fournier et Viellard, et le contremaître Gilbert, qui tous avaient navigué avec moi sur la Preneuse.

(Note that Garneray spells Vieillard’s surname “Viellard”, which is why I didn’t spot it first time round. Garneray mentions Vieillard at least four more times.)

So: even if (heeding Auguste Toussaint’s warning) we keep our reliance on Garneray’s account to a minimum, I’d still say that we have enough other evidence to firmly place Vieillard on La Confiance under Robert Surcouf.

The Crew List for La Confiance

Hence this morning I went looking for a crew list for La Confiance: and the first port of call (as almost always) was H.C.M.Austen’s “Sea Fights and Corsairs of the Indian Ocean”. Helpful to a fault, Austen writes (p.85):

The first voyage of the Confiance under Surcouf began in April, 1800. His chief officer on this occasion was Captain Drieu. […] Serving on board as officers were Louvel-Desvaux (lieutenant of the watch), Le Nouvel (surgeon-major) – all three fellow citizens and friends of their captain: ensigns Fournier, Roux, and Vieillard, and Gilbert the boatswain, (formerly boatswain’s mate in the frigate Preneuse) and Le Goff, the pilot […]. Amongst the new officers were the first lieutenant, Dumaine de la Josserie (of St Malo), Millien, the second surgeon, lieutenants Laboire, Plasan, and Puche, ensigns Boarbon, Bléas, and the pilots d’Autichamp and d’Amphernet.

Austen’s account of Surcouf was “mainly abstracted” (p.74) from ‘Robert Surcouf d’après des documents authentiques’, written by Surcouf’s nephew (also called Robert Surcouf) and published in Paris in 1889, though also with ‘assists’ from Louis Garneray’s colourful (but frequently fanciful) memoirs.

The source for this particular part, however, can also be found in “Les marins français : vies et récits dramatiques, d’après les documents originaux” by Bathild Bouniol (which I found behind a geneanet.org paywall, but once again is supposedly in the Internet Archive), pp.284-285:

L’équipage se composait de cent soixante Européens, vingt-cinq volontaires du bataillon de Bourbon, et quelques nègres domestiques, tous de ces hommes trempés d’acier comme il en fallait à Surcouf. L’état-major ne comptait que des officiers d’élite : Drieux, second capitaine, Louvel Desvaux, lieutenant de garde, Lenouvel, chirurgien-major, Fournier, Roux, Vieillard, enseignes; dans la maistrance, maitre Gilbert, ancien contre-maître de La Preneuse; le pilote Le Goff, breton, laissé à l’île de France par l’escadre victorieuse du bailli de Suffren.

Bouniol then immediately recaps the anecdote about Surcouf and the shark as given by Charles Cunat, so there is a fairly high chance that this crew list was directly recapped by Cunat in his book, because it doesn’t seem to appear in Garneray’s account. All the same, I’ll confirm this when my copy of Cunat’s book arrives in a few days’ time.

“L’Apollon des Oceans”?

Much as I hate to rely upon Louis Garneray for anything (Toussaint would surely throw up his hands in disdain at this point), Garneray does proffer one small piece of relevant-sounding information that might tie up many of the loose strands.

In his “Voyages“, Garneray recalls a conversation with Ripeau de Montaudevert (p.104):

— Eh bien, me dit Monteaudevert lorsque nous sortîmes ensemble, êtes-vous content ? Vous voilà attaché en qualité d’aide de camp au seul homme qui puisse et sache dominer la chance et commander au hasard ! Que le diable m’emporte si une seule croisière avec lui ne vous dédommage pas amplement de vos ennuis passés… Mais voulez-vous venir à présent avec moi à la Pointe-aux-Forges, où l’on s’occupe à réespalmer la Confiance, c’est le nom du navire que commande Surcouf… cette vue vous fera plaisir, car je ne connais rien qui approche, pour la perfection des formes, de ce navire, que l’on a surnommé l’Apollon de l’Océan.

So it would seem – reservations about Garneray notwithstanding – that La Confiance was also known as “L’Apollon de l’Océan”. (Note that the French Wikipedia page for La Confiance incorrectly notes this as “l’Apollon des Océans”).

And if this is correct, then it does offer a very satisfying alternative explanation as to what Joachim Vieillard (if, as I suspect, he was indeed the Missing Corsair) was referring to in BN3:

In my adventurous life before embarking on the Apollon, I was one of those pirates who did so much harm to our enemies Spain and England.

According to the only obituary notice we have, Joachim Vieillard was born in 1782, and would have joined La Confiance in 1800 at the age of 18: so could easily have had several years’ worth of piracy under his belt by then. Which would all seem to join up into a sensible narrative.

But the ship he was on immediately before joining La Confiance would seem to be (if we sup with a long enough spoon) La Preneuse, according to Garneray. Which is where we shall go next…

…yes, on a Sunday afternoon.

It’s a slick piece of publishing, well-scanned and well-printed with top-notch images that are the crispest I’ve seen. The foldouts (something every previous photo-facsimile I’ve seen has stumbled on) are lovely, and include miniature versions on the lower margin of each page to help you navigate your way around.

The-Voynich-Manuscript

As a piece of collectable printing, then, it’s a top-notch piece of work, something that many bibliophiles would be delighted to find in their Christmas stocking: the jolly elves who produced it seem to be more Folio Society than Penguin, let’s say (though not quite Taschen elves).

Is This Photo-Facsimile The Ultimate Voynich Research Tool?

It’s the question that the Beinecke people seem to want people to be asking: but the answer, in a word, is no. The reproductions are so lovely that Ray Clemens’ suggestion that owners might fill their margins with their thoughts seems unduly barbarous: a bit like scribbling on a Jaguar’s leather seats.

And the included essays (Rene Zandbergen’s aside) all have an oddly early-1970s retro feel to them, as if this whole effort was a stopgap for researchers until such time as Mary D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma” comes out.

In each case, you (the reader) get to the end of the essay just at the point where you want it to start: and so each finishes with a jarring emptiness, an <insert-good-research-here> lurch downwards, culminating in a mental picture of knowledgeable writers throwing up their hands in dismay. For example, when Jennifer M. Rampling writes (in her essay on alchemical imagery) “[a]lthough the content of this manuscript is almost certainly not alchemical in nature…” (p.46), it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the futility of the entire exercise.

By way of comparison, what I try to do with Cipher Mysteries is to write each post in such a way that a reader ends each post genuinely knowing more than when they began, and also with an idea of where future archival or research trails from there might lead: something one might reasonably call “Open Source History”.

Compare this with Yale’s photo-facsimile essays, and you’d see that what they offer is very much a closed book: none seems to grasp that the key to making progress with these Sphinxes is to give not only good quality images, but also good quality conceptual tools to work with those images.

Sadly, this is a bus-sized hole in the Voynich dam this present volume doesn’t even attempt to fill.

The Missing Book About The Book

Over the last few years, I’ve been consistently disappointed with the ever-decreasing quality of Voynich discourse. An all-too-common refrain is that new researchers now routinely ignore everything that has gone before in favour of ‘seeing things through their own eyes’. Yet in practice they almost always end up seeing it through exactly the same kind of cracked lens (whether linguistic, cryptographic, or whatever) that countless others have suffered from before: so, not so much “reinventing the wheel” as “reinventing the flat tyre“.

But this is just a superficial rationalization for their laziness and lack of commitment when faced by a sprawling and unfocused research landscape. Few even bother to read D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma”, even though it is available for free download on the NSA website. Many of them are convinced that Voynichese is no more than a language protected entirely by obscurity: counting grains of sand would be a more productive use of their time.

All the same, anyone – from amateur to academic – arriving on the Voynich Manuscript’s shores would surely start with the idea in their head that there must be something out there that would give them a good basic introduction. Yet D’Imperio’s workbook-style book came out in 1978, roughly a thousand Internet years in the past: while my own “The Curse of The Voynich” came out a decade ago (and I may as well have carved it on a rock on the far side of the moon for all the effect that it has had). Similarly Churchill and Kennedy’s (2006) book did a good job of answering all the least interesting questions about the manuscript… and so on.

What’s missing is something closer to a “user guide”: that is, something that not only helps readers navigate around and within the Voynich Manuscript’s pages, but also provides a properly foundational set of insights into how its pages were constructed; how to visually parse its content; what the genuine core debates over its features are; and where the edges of the last forty years of research lie. The stuff, in short, that everyone shooting from their hip on a Voynich blog seems to have collectively forgotten.

I shudder to think what anyone from the current generation of researchers might produce in response to such a “user guide” challenge: perhaps a hundred pages of Bax-stylee linguistic noodling, followed by a further fifty pages of Rugg-themed hoaxery? What a horrible thought: Lord save us all from even a paragraph more of each than we have already suffered. 🙁

The Missing Documentary About The Book

A while back, I had the idea to produce a TV documentary on the Voynich Manuscript from the inside out. That is, rather than build up an account of it by peering at it through a long succession of wacky theories (with the by-now obligatory long succession of wacky theorists as talking heads), to instead start from the ink, strokes, and paint and build a fresh evidence-only account of it from the ground up.

A large part of me genuinely wants to transform the cack-handed way people have come to look at these wonderfully edgy subjects, to help them see through the lies and the difficulties to the interesting artefact beneath the mythology and bullsh*t.

Maybe one day I’ll find a way of doing this… but I do somewhat despair at how poxy and formulaic TV history has become that something as genuinely interesting as this looks even remotely left-field.

I guess all I’m trying to say is that I don’t really blame Yale for the yawning hole at the centre of their book: it’s a hole at the centre of the entire way people look at mysterious ciphers. But if I were to say that their beautifully-produced photo-facsimile even begins to tackle the problems of getting academics to look at the Voynich Manuscript in a useful or constructive way, it would be a big fat lie. Because right now, nothing comes even remotely close to doing this: and we’re all the worse for that. 🙁

Of all the Légionnaires d’Honneur whose full names first appeared just a few days ago, I have to say that Joachim Vieillard currently seems to me – even though we have no family tree for him, so no tell-tale brother “Etienne” – to be our strongest candidate for the Missing Corsair.

I’ll explain why.

Joachim Vieillard: Life and Death

As previously noted, Joachim Vieillard was an enseigne de vaisseau on La Vénus (famously captained by Jean-Jacques-Emmanuel Hamelin) in 1810. His zeal is described here:

Par la vivacité de ses mouvements, du feu de son artillerie et de sa mousqueterie, l’ennemi paraît mieux armé que la Vénus, car il manœuvre, combat, et fait fusillade en même temps ; tandis qu’Hamelin, malgré le zèle des officiers Longueville, Viellard et Mauclerc, est obligé pour brasser, d’appeler ses canonniers, lesquels se multiplient à force de courage et d’activités.

Moreover, Vieillard was wounded in the Battle of Grand Port (though the punctuation looks a little erratic):

Personnel de Marine venant du Port Napoléon en renfort: l’aspirant Prosper tué, blessé l’enseigne de la frégate La Vénus, Vieillard, les aspirants Fautrel blessé et Descombes tué.

Not too surprisingly, Vieillard had previously served as an enseigne de vaisseau on La Manche (see p.49 of this book, and this report by Duperré from September 1810).

Subsequently, Vieillard was promoted to Lieutenant de Vaisseau on 31st July 1816, according to the Annales maritimes et coloniales, Année 1817, part 1 (p.35).

(Note that the entry immediately above Vieillard is for Auguste-Alexandre Mauclerc, one of his fellow Légionnaires d’Honneur from the Indian Ocean, and who we haven’t yet eliminated.)

Knowing that, I was then able to find a reference to a later edition of Annales maritimes et coloniales (supposedly on archive.org, but I only found it behind a geneanet.org paywall), where a paragraph on p.1066 gave the dates both of his birth and of his death:

Joachim Vieillard, lieutenant de vaisseau en activité, né à i’ile Bourbon le 18 avril 1782, mort à Bordeaux le 21 février 1821.

Given that ‘Bourbon’ is, of course, modern-day Réunion, I then went to the British Library to look at the three volumes (and indeed the 2881 pages) of “Dictionnaire généalogique des familles de l’Ile Bourbon (La Réunion) 1665-1810” by Lucien-Jacques-Camille Ricquebourg. However, I found no trace of any Vieillard family members there, which was a bit disappointing.

So… might Vieillard have instead been born in Mauritius? Henri Maurel cites a reference to a testament left by a ‘Vieillard’ dated 20/08/1787 (with the notarial reference “BELIN 1785 – 1809 – Cote CAOM : MAUR 100”), but that’s as far as I got with that thread.

As a result, it seemed for a while that this whole line of enquiry might turn out to be a dead end. But then…

Might Alexandre Dumas Have Saved The Day?

The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon” is a book that was written (and published) in serial form by Alexandre Dumas in the years before his death, though never quite finished: it was recently rediscovered, completed, translated into English, and published as a novel for the first time in 2008.

To a modern book-reading audience, though, it has to be said that the titular protagonist is excessively cartoony (wrestling cayman, sharks, snakes, fencing like a Bond villain, capturing ships, giving his hard-fought winnings away to widows etc). So how it is that Hollywood hasn’t yet snapped it up is arguably a mystery as great as that of any historical cipher. 🙂

In The Last Cavalier, Dumas places Ensign Joachim Vieillard on a pirogue with his captain, the famous corsair Robert Surcouf. When their pirogue is attacked by a huge shark, Surcouf (in Dumas’ story) throws an egg down the monster’s gullet: apparently satisfied, the shark swims off, leaving them in peace.

Moreover, another (somewhat fanciful) piece in the Revue de Paris seems to also link Surcouf to Vieillard… but, unlike Dumas, the author there drops a heavy hint as to one of the sources: the painter Louis Garneray. So: might this link have come from Garneray?

The Louis Garneray Problem

I first encountered Louis Garneray in the context of the 1799 sea-battle between the Iphigénie, Comet, Trincomalee, and Pearl which Garneray’s memoirs claimed he took part in.

The problem is that he simply wasn’t anywhere near any of those ships at the time, and so the account is full of hopeful mistakes which are at odds with the genuine accounts of the battle.

In fact, what almost certainly happened is that some genuine episodes from Garneray’s life at sea that were published in newspapers in the 1840s were picked up by some hack writer(s) and progressively embellished into a book size account until Garneray was (imaginatively) “present” at just about every interesting sea incident of his time. This kind of derring-do sea-faring account was wildly popular in France in the 1860s, which I guess is also probably why Dumas sent his Last Cavalier hero to the Indian Ocean.

All the same, the ever-sober (and ever-reliable) Auguste Toussainte has this to say (in his (1978) “Histoires des Corsaires”, p.113, quoted in Laurent Maneouvre’s “Louis Garneray: 1783-1857: Peintre. Ecrivain. Aventurier”(1997)) about Garneray:

Il y a aussi les mémoires fantaisistes comme ceux d’Edward Trelawny et de Louis Garneray […] De tous les engagements qu’il a décrits, il n’a pu assister qu’à seul, et encore n’est-ce pas certain.

For example, was Garneray on Surcouf’s crew of La Confiance for the battle against the Kent that he so ably painted?

confiance_kent_fight

Possibly yes… but almost certainly not. Perhaps, then, it is just as well that – having dredged my way through Garneray’s three memoirs – the link between Surcouf and Vieillard seems not to have originated from Garneray, or else we could easily dismiss it as 1860s derring-do nonsense.

Vieillard the Corsair

Other authors are convinced that Vieillard was a pirate or privateer. Denis Piat, in his splendidly illustrated “Pirates and Privateers in Mauritius” (2014) lists “Vieillard” (no first name) as the final privateer of a long (alphabetical) list (on p.115), but (I believe) does not mention the name anywhere else.

But it turns out that Alexandre Dumas actually dredged his story from the pages of French marine historian Charles Cunat. Having scoured my library at length, I eventually found this referred to on page 123 of Alain Roman’s “Robert Surcouf et ses frères” (2007), where he is referred to as “Joachim Veillard”.

C’est pendant ce séjour aux Seychelles qu’eut lieu une anecdote apportée par Cunat et qi’il certifie avoir entendue de la bouche d’un des témoins, Joachim Veillard. Après une journée passée chez un ami installé dans l’archipel, Surcouf revenait à son bord dans une pirogue conduite par son hôte en compagnie de son second chirurgien et de l’enseigne Joachim Veillard. L’embarcation fut alors attaquée par un énorme requin qui faillit la faire chavirer. Les coups de pagaie at d’aviron ne parvenant pas à le faire sur, Surcouf s’empera d’un oeuf et le lança dans la gueule de l’animal qui disparut aussitôt. Vraie ou fausse, l’histoire permet d’asseoir un peu plus la réputation de sang-froid et d’habileté du corsaire malouin.

My (occasionally over-)free translation would be something like:

It was during this particular stay in the Seychelles that a strange event took place reported by [Charles] Cunat, who attested that he heard it from the mouth of a direct witness, Joachim Veillard. Having spent a day with a friend who lived in the [Seychelles] archipelago, Surcouf was returning to his ship in a small pirogue guided by his host and with his second surgeon and his ensign Joachim Veillard in tow. The little vessel was then attacked by a huge shark, which nearly managed to capsize it. Once it became clear that their frantic oar strokes were failing to get them clear of the danger, Surcouf took an egg and threw it into the mouth of the animal, at which point it suddenly disappeared beneath the water. Whether true or false, this story allows us to grasp a little more clearly Surcouf’s reputation for cool-headedness and skillfulness.

So it seems that if we would like to know more about Joachim Vieillard, we should look at the works of Charles Cunat, who talked with him first-hand. Unfortunately, Gallica doesn’t seem to have a copy of Cunat’s book on Robert Surcouf (the one to which I believe Alain Roman referred): so I have, yet again, ordered myself a copy, and will pick up this particular thread when it arrives from France in 7-10 days.

But all the same, it now does seem likely that Joachim Viellard was indeed an enseigne de vaisseau for Surcouf: which in turn sharply raises the probability that he was our Missing Corsair. For Vieillard was, after all, a corsair, was he not?

I’m delighted to be able to report that I have received (from the very nice people at the Musée de la Légion d’Honneur) the page of the original Légion d’Honneur register that I’ve been trying to reconstruct. Or rather, a PDF scan of a microfiche of a handwritten copy of the handwritten original: but you get the basic idea.

Musée de la Légion d’honneur

To be precise, both pages appear here courtesy of: Archives du Musée de la Légion d’honneur et des ordres de chevalerie, ampliation de décret de nomination de chevaliers de la Légion d’honneur du 20 décembre 1810 – i.e. it is a duplicate of the decree dated 20th December 1810 nominating a number of knights for induction into the Légion d’Honneur, held by the Archives du Musée de la Légion d’honneur et des ordres de chevalerie.

The first page has Baron Jean-Jacques-Emmanuel Hamelin and Baron Duperré:

legion-dhonneur-hamelin-duperre

The second page has all the rest, including all the first names that were missing from the Journal de Paris summary that I uncovered a fortnight ago:

legion-dhonneur-liste

Capitaine de vaisseau:
28302 René Constant Le Marant de Kerdaniel (LH/1576/58)
28303 Pierre François Henry Étienne Bouvet de Maisonneuve (LH/342/61)

Capitaine de frégate:
28304 Nicolas Morice (LH/1937/17)
28305 Alexandre Louis Ducrest de Villeneuve (LH/827/53)
28306 Albin Roussin (LH/2407/38)
28307 Thomas Julien Fougeray du Coudray (LH/1007/55)

Chef de bataillon d’artillerie de marine:
28308 Etienne-Elisabeth Mourgues (LH/1955/28) (1774-1833)

Lieutenant de vaisseau:
28309 Henri-Félix Moisson (LH/1896/27) (1784-1832)
28310 François-Auguste Costé (LH/598/79) (1770-????)
28311 Bonaventure Thirot (LH/2595/10) (1781-1850)
28312 Edouard Victor Longueville (LH/1657/4) (1784-1862)
28313 René Decaen (LH/403/27)

Capitaine des chasseurs des colonies:
28314 Duplessis

Enseigne de vaisseau:
28315 Michel-Joseph-Guillaume de Rabaudy (LH/2252/38) (1784-1837)

Lieutenant de vaisseau:
28316 Camille Joseph de Roquefeuille-Cahuzac (1781-1831)

Enseigne de vaisseau:
28317 Isaïe Alexis de Longueville (LH/1657/8) (1788-1838)
28318 Auguste-Alexandre Mauclerc (~1767-1835)
28319 Joachim Vieillard (1782-1821)
28320 Vincent-Marie Moulac (LH/1949/55) (1778/1780-1836)
28321 Robert-Nicolas Lefébure (LH/1548/23) (1788-????)
28322 Jean-Baptiste Jardin (LH/1354/77) (1788-????)

Capitaine d’artillerie de Marine:
28323 Ackman

Aspirant de 1ère classe:
28324 Louis Augustin Médéric Malavoie (1793-1836)

So… Which One Is The Missing Corsair, Then?

Someone like Camille Joseph de Roquefeuille-Cahuzac would be an excellent candidate, were it not for the awkward fact that he seems not to have had a brother called Etienne.

Joachim Vieillard at first looks like a plausible fit for the “Joachim Joseph, portuguais” on the Apollon. However, if you search Memoires des Hommes, you’ll find Joachim Joseph and his (possibly twin?) brother Isydor / Ignace as ‘mousses’ (very young sailors) on the Bonhomme Richard two years before Joachim Vieillard was even born. (An older man by the same name – quite possibly their father – was killed on the same ship).

Louis Augustin Médéric Malavoie would also be a good candidate, were he not too young to have sailed on the Apollon. And so it goes on.

In retrospect, my initial hope (that all we would need to do is cross-reference this list of names and the list of names on the Apollon crew-list, and verify the result by finding a brother called Etienne) seems slightly over-optimistic.

However, there are plenty more dice to roll before this game of archival chance is over. For example:
* there may be a second list of the Apollon’s captured crew in British archives
* there may be lists of corsair Freemasons in Ile de Bourbon and/or Ile de France
* there may be other Indian Ocean Freemason archives to go through
* the crew list of La Vénus (in Mauritius) might tell us more
* and so on.

From 4pm to 5pm every Monday to Thursday on the France Culture radio station, Nicolas Martin hosts the programme La Méthode scientifique. This covers PopSci, ‘popular science’: you know, from genetics, VR, AI, evolution, dinosaurs, Star Trek to… whatever it feels like, really. 🙂

As you might expect, today’s programme (which will then be available online immediately) will include a 3-minute segment on the Voynich Manuscript. Which is nice.

I wouldn’t normally mention a 3-minute micro-broadcast on French radio 🙂 , but I thought I’d mention it because it has contributions from Antoine Casanova, who famously (errm… famous round here, that is) wrote a dissertation on Voynichese in 1999: Méthodes d’analyse du langage crypté : une contribution à l’étude du manuscrit de Voynich.

The other listed contributor is Professor Jacques Patarin, who famously (errm… what I said before) worked with Valérie Nachef to decrypt some enciphered letters written by Marie-Antoinette, in their 2009 paper I shall love you up to the death. Which not a lot of people seem to know about. 🙂

Too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel, some might say that The Voynich Affair by Linnet Moss suffers from both problematic elongation and improper positioning.

But given that Google (until today) yielded precisely zero hits for the phrase “Voynich erotica”, Moss is clearly reaming out a niche untouched by few (if any) previous hands.

Voynich Erotica

But has she hit the spot?

I must confess that I found reading “The Voynich Affair” on a Kindle on the bus towards Staines in the morning rush hour more than a bit unsettling. Coming to the genre for the first time (so to speak), what I found oddest was that it seems to be written by people scared to death of physical intimacy, and aimed at readers who are also scared to death of physical intimacy. No, really.

I don’t know, it’s like it was typed by someone wearing gloves: chic, distantly-perfumed Italian leather gloves, sure, but gloves nonetheless. And for all the shudderingly implausible physical encounters described in the text, the whole endeavour came across as being locked within a resolutely lonely world, sans any flicker of Sartrean authenticity.

As a result, I can’t claim to have liked (or even mildly empathised with) any of the protagonists: but given that there are plenty of Internationally Acclaimed Bestsellers which failed that same test even more dramatically (Digital Fortress, anyone? *sigh*), that hardly amounts to a serious criticism. And anyway, that’s probably not the point of erotica, right?

At this point, a traditional review would tell you about how the story is based around extra missing pages of the manuscript in a French chateau, and involves various broodingly mysterious (and sociopathic) Voynich researchers: but frankly that’s a bit pointless. By now, you’ve almost certainly decided whether or not you’re interested, so all I can usefully add is that all fifteen chapters are freely available online, starting here.

The Selfish Reason

At this point, I have to ‘fess up to the real reason I bought a copy of The Voynich Affair (which Linnet Moss published as part of “The Mind-Body Problem: Stories of Desire and Love in Academe” (2012), complete with Voynich page on the (virtual) front cover)…

mind-body-problem

…which is that I wanted to see if the various Voynich researchers in the story were loosely based on any real-world Voynich researchers.

OK, OK: I wanted to see if I had been parodied. Not that I can’t take a joke, it’s just that I’d rather know about the joke than find out about it a decade later. 🙂

Happily, though, I can exclusively reveal that no Voynich researcher seems to have been openly parodied (no Randy Zenbergen, no Donna Via-Odeon, and no sign of the infamous Len Pickling), nor were any Voynichians’ sexual proclivities (errrm, to the best of my knowledge) turned into sort-of-page-turning Voynich-themed erotic encounters.

Unless you know better, that is? 😉

But… Who Would Write Such A Thing?

Author Linnet Moss claims to be:

“a college professor who writes fiction in her spare time. She adores old books, new books, cats, frogs, miniature books, wine, Trappist ales, tea from Ceylon, vegetarian gourmet food, London, Rome, Art Deco skyscrapers, and beautiful men.”

Of course, while some (or indeed all) of this may be true, it remains just as possible that Moss is a short balding non-professor bloke from Deptford with OCD, conceptually not too far removed from “paradee man woman” Wor Cheryl, pet.

As a result, I can (just about) see how some readers might possibly see decrypting the author’s identity, age, and/or indeed gender from the text as a worthwhile challenge.

For me, though, I’m sticking with the Voynich Manuscript: that has more than enough strangely inscrutable nymphs to worry about for one lifetime. 😉

German cipher blogger/author Klaus Schmeh will be in London this weekend, so I’m setting up a Voynich pub meet in his honour. As long as he promises not to make Lego tableaux of the participants, as he did for Henry Debosnys

nsa-symposium-01-debosnys

…and the Zodiac Killer (link in German)…

nsa-symposium-03-zodiac

Not that we’re all, errrm, cipher-obsessed serial killers or anything. 😉

Anyway, the plan is to meet up around 7pm on Sunday (i.e. 30th October 2016) at the historic Thameside Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, not too far from where pirates were hung in the bad old days. (Though these days, the biggest pirates in London seem to get ever higher CEO salaries, please don’t ask me to explain how that works.) Princess Margaret, Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys all visited the Prospect of Whitby (says Wikipedia), a sleb list that is hard to argue with. 🙂

As to where we’ll be: if you go from the street into the pub, carry straight ahead then turn left just past the bar, then in front of you at the end, you should see a set of doors leading out to a pub garden / patio area. Which is where (if the weather is tolerably OK) we’ll meet up. Unless it’s all been redeveloped into chi-chi flats since we were last there.

Alternatively, if it’s raining so hard that it looks like the Gods want everyone in London to be washed into the Thames, we’ll be indoors somewhere, hopefully admiring someone’s shiny new copy of Yale University Press’s “The Voynich Manuscript” photo-facsimile, and arguing about exactly how bad/good/meh the essays are.

Hope to see you there! 🙂