Are you an historian with an enciphered document you want to read? If so, here’s a link to an article you really ought to have a look at: “Cryptanalysis and Historical Research” by Eric Sams, from Archivaria 21 (1985-1986) [it’s actually an extended version of two earlier articles he wrote for the TLS in 1977 and 1980].

There’s tons of good stuff in Sams’ article, such as a mention of the table of early shorthands in Isaac Pitman’s book “The History of Shorthand” (which I saw in Leeds University’s Brotherton Collection): this table really ought to be on the web somewhere (please let me know if you happen to find a copy). Incidentally, The Shorthand Place website has a fantastic list of shorthand collections in UK libraries.

But I know what you’re thinking at this point: “What does Sams think of the Voynich Manuscript?” And the answer is, well, not an awful lot:-

“Of course some archives are likely to remain dark and impenetrable. William Friedman, one of the world’s greatest cryptanalysts, spent many a fruitless hour on the Voynich manuscript, attributed to Roger Bacon, which is fluently written in a natural-looking yet wholly unintelligible language.”

AKA, “if it looks tricky, don’t even go there”. But wait: Sams isn’t finished yet…

“The British Library […] also owns an original volume of an equally obscure manuscript which begins by saying in plain English that no one will ever unravel the meaning of what follows.”

But… which manuscript would that be, Eric? Unfortunately, Sams – the teasing swine! – fails to say. (Please email me if you do know!) Flicking through the British Library’s manuscript catalogue, the best candidate appears to be “The Subtelty of Witches” by Ben Ezra Aseph (1657) [British Library MS. Add. 10035], written entirely in cipher… might that be it? Also: BL Ms Add 32305 contains 39 folios of “unidentified cipher keys”: which sounds like a lot of fun. 😉 But I digress! Sams finishes his discussion thus:-

So be it; many tracks lead into such caves. but none ever come out. The true treasure-chests are much more likely to be those which clearly once had real keys, later lost or mislaid. 

Well… speaking as a long-term denizen of the Voynich Manuscript cave, I have to admit that Sams might just have a point here. But no sense of romance, damnit! 🙂

PS: fans of Sams can find a list of his cryptological papers here.

6 thoughts on “British Library cipher manuscript…?

  1. fastercat on October 3, 2008 at 2:32 pm said:

    Thank you for another great post! It would be an interesting list of historical encoded documents like Sams has hinted at. Perhaps your call to other readers to fill in the blanks will be the start! Many of the current ‘unsolved ciphers’ like the Beale and Voynich may never be ‘solved’ due to the fact that perhaps their creators looked at them as a way to make money or be something of a 15th century Dr. Seuss. I agree with Sams’ quote and find the documents that had a purpose to be the ones worthy of attack. The trouble is finding them. It is so much more rewarding to decode something that had inherent meaning at one time. Friedman’s book on decoding ‘real’ war intercepts is one of my favorites. So much of ‘The Cryptogram’ like publications are simply famous quotes and although sometimes interesting, are not very rewarding. Along with your soon to be started list of ‘real’ historical ciphers, I would love to see other similar types of lists made available. The effort to decode previously uudecoded Enigma intercepts is one example. Reading the declassified papers from Russian intercepts is another. I only wish they would provide the raw data as well.

    How about a collection of criminal codes? A book of the Unabomber’s elaborate code would be one I’d buy. Just because it has been decoded by others does not take away the fun of attacking a code and seeing it unravel before your eyes. Unsolved ciphers are not the only excitement out there. The U.S. has a long list of periods when codes where used that would make an excellent collection. Rum Runners, Dope smugglers, business secrets. Surely there is some excitement to be found in their records. It is frustrating to read about criminals using codes but never getting to see any actual ‘intercepts.’

    How about a collection of failed codes? Friedman and Poe talk about the codes they were sent that they easily decoded. That would be an interesting peak inside their lives and the ones that sent them in.

    How about a collection of personal codes? ‘The Cryptogram’ had an article on a secret affair that one of the members decoded. The ACA was approached with some coded documents from the estate looking for help in decoding them. Perhaps this is the type of tracks that Sams was referring to. Surely there are others out there waiting discovery.

    I like the new format of your site. I found it just before the change and have been an avid reader since. I’ve only just gone through many of the highlights and have enjoyed all the bunny trails your posts have taken me. Thank you and keep up the great work!

  2. Great entry, Nick!
    Interesting random stuff you might think worth browsing:
    Catch of the day: Augusto Buonafalce’s “Cicco Simonetta’s Cipher-Breaking Rules” (Cryptologia, V.32, 2008).
    Also this:
    -Urszula Szulakowska’s The Alchemy of Light (at least partially on Google Books?)
    -Andrew Robinson’s Lost Languages.
    Carpe Diem,

  3. Rene Zandbergen on October 6, 2008 at 10:15 am said:

    Just a short comment on the first comment…

    A list of ‘real historical ciphers’ was already composed by Bernhard Bischoff, and
    may be found on the web site of Philip Neal:

    Best wishes, René

  4. Thanks fastercat, Luis, & Rene: obviously this post must have pressed some kind of collective button. 🙂

    What excited me most was the idea that there might be other sizeable cipher manuscripts out there: as it stands, we have Fontana’s (only lightly-) ciphered mss, the Voynich Manuscript, and then a huge leap forward in time to the Codex Seraphinianus. Oh, unless you count private shorthand diaries, of course. 🙂

    Bischoff’s excellent list is, of course, only for medieval manuscripts: no great surprise given the massive oversupply of 17th century cipher letters. 🙂 But all the same, it’s nice to see pigpen creeping in there at the bottom. 🙂

    Just so you know, my plan for this site (such as it is) is to dig up (and make available) unbroken ciphers, that people stand a chance of deciphering – of reading something that hasn’t previously been read. But we’ll see how it goes…

  5. Rene Zandbergen on October 6, 2008 at 2:59 pm said:

    Looking forward to the site.

    Especially if it has pictures – lots of pictures 🙂


  6. fastercat on October 7, 2008 at 6:54 pm said:

    Rene, thanks for the link. I didn’t see any easy way to see the texts mentioned but will look into it.
    nickpelling, I like the idea and look forward to seeing it unfold. It would also be interesting to see ones that have been created and cracked even if just as a side note.

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