I’ve just heard back from the British Library Manuscript department about BL MS Add. 10035, “The Subtelty of Witches”, which I mentioned here a few days ago: “unfortunately it does not begin in English. The whole of the manuscript is written in cipher.

So: was Eric Sams mistaken? Might the British Library actually have two unreadable books? Well… after a rather longer trawl through the various BL catalogues, I’ll say that “The Subtelty of Witches” is still the best candidate. There are plenty of enciphered letters there, but nothing else of any major size: all the same, I should probably consult Sheila Richards’ (1973) book “Secret writing in the public records, Henry VIII-George II” (actually 1519-1738), just in case there’s any fleeting reference to it there.

Incidentally, Eric Sams wrote a piece for Musical Times in 1970 (now online) on Edward Elgar’s ‘Dorabella’ Cipher, where he suggested the 87 encrypted symbols could be decrypted to read…


Sorry, but somehow I just don’t think Sams quite nailed it on this particular occasion. Sams also wrote a 1987 note explaining his reasoning in more detail: but that just seems a bit too eager to tie things up. All the same, he wraps up the final note by pretty much coming round to my opinion:-

[…] But what if that cipher-table served another purpose?

Dr. Percy Young’s standard biography tells us that Elgar used a music cipher; the names of people he disliked were thus consigned to the Demon’s Chorus in The Dream of Gerontius. An Oxford professor of music, Sir Jack Westrup, has suggested that Elgar used cipher in the Enigma Variations.

Perhaps interested readers would like to consider on what lines (or spaces) ex 3 might make a music cipher?

However, a musicological Ventris has yet to take up this challenge: what haunting melody might be encrypted there? As Elgar said to Dora Penny, “I thought you of all people would guess it“… but what was her favourite song? 😉

6 thoughts on “BL cipher manuscript update…

  1. What about Dr. Dee’s Mona? Would it qualify?

  2. Hi Luis,

    John Dee’s “Monas Hieroglyphica” has been described as “possibly the most obscure work ever written by an Englishman”, with even a 2005 paper by Peter Forshaw not really able to deny its opacity.

    But might (as you suggest) the Monas actually be coded or ciphered alchemy? No, not really: to me, it has something of the blurred (and false) geometric clarity momentarily attained by drug trip philosophers. There are flashes of something like insight within the haze: but if you can make sense of it all (I frankly can’t), please feel free to tell the world. 😮

    As the Monas itself concludes, “Here the vulgar eye will see nothing but Obscurity and will despair considerably.” You’re not wrong there, Mr Dee. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick P….

  3. Tony Gaffney on October 27, 2008 at 1:57 pm said:

    Hi Nick

    I know of 3 books in the British Library written entirely in cipher –

    MS Add. 10035, “The Subtelty of Witches”
    4783.a.30. “Ebpob es byo Utlub” (Order of the Alter)
    944.c.19. “Nyflob es Woflu” (Mysteries of Vesta)

    All are simple substitution, the first in Latin the other two English
    “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.”
    I am not certain but I seem to recollect reading this at the start of one of John Dee’s books found in the Integrated cat. rather than the Manuscripts cat.

    PS I see from your home page you used to play chess for Hackney in the 80’s – I may have left by the time you joined but if you played any tournaments then you’ll probably remember me as a player/organiser/arbiter.

    Tony Gaffney
    Tony Baloney on the Ancient Cryptography Website
    Jean Palmer ‘The Agony Column Codes & Ciphers’

    PPS If you ever solve the Voynich I hope it receives a better reception than my Dorabella solution has.

  4. Hi Tony,

    I remember you well, very nice to hear from you!

    Thanks very much for the tips on the three books in cipher – that’s saved me a wasted day in the BL. 😉

    I presume your Dorabella decipherment is just as you described in comment #13 here? Compared to just about every other claimed solution I’ve seen, yours has many merits – I wouldn’t like to bet against it. 🙂

    Incidentally, I didn’t know about your 2006 book “The Agony Column Codes & Ciphers” (I’m a bit more of a pre-1600 cipher guy myself), but I’ve ordered a POD copy, & will review it here before too long. 🙂

    Best regards, ….Nick Pelling….

  5. Tony Gaffney on October 27, 2008 at 3:28 pm said:

    Hi Nick,

    My decipherment in that link contains a couple of errors – you’ll find a more up to date solution on the ‘Ancient Cryptography’ website or I could email it if you send me your address. (It contains a few diagrams I can’t post here)

    Regards Tony

  6. Hi Tony,

    What with Dorabella, Ancient Cryptography, The Subtelty of Witches, & the Agony Column, this is all growing too large for such a small margin… so I’ll post a new message on the blog very shortly – though not tonight, as I’m playing chess against Kingston. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

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