Here it is, the Austrian Voynich documentary we’ve been waiting so eagerly for – and you don’t even need to have a satellite dish to watch it (as long as you hurry, it’ll probably only be online for a few days).

(Hint and tip: if you click on the diagonal arrow button just above the video, you can watch it in your own media player – and if that happens to be Windows Media Player (*sigh*), don’t forget that you can turn on the (German) subtitles with the unforgettable key combination CTRL-SHIFT-C.)

The documentary features Micky Bet Rene Zandbergen chatting amiably with 21st century Voynich stalwarts Gordon Rugg and Richard SantaColoma, lots of “flying-low”-style rostrum sequences of the Voynich Manuscript, together with other historical / forensic talking heads you may not have heard of, such as Paula Zyats, Kevin Repp, Joseph Barabe, Gerhard Strasser and Greg Hodgins.

My German isn’t really industrial strength, but I’m reasonably sure I picked up most of the research-relevant stuff: a blue pigment that was tested was azurite, a red was red ochre (but I wasn’t sure about the green). And the 1404-1438 range was indeed 2-sigma (95%), and there’s a nice graph showing the peaks against the C14 dating curve.

The documentary showed Greg Hodgins slicing a fine edge off from the Quire 9 sexfolio: which I would argue is a Very Good Thing, because that is one of the bifolios least likely to be old vellum. Doubtless we shall hear more about this over the next few days…

I don’t know, though: at the end of the whole beautiful-looking documentary, the researcher part of me felt a tiny bit cheated – that for all their hard work, the documentary makers hadn’t really managed to engage with the last decade of proper Voynich research (and I don’t really include Gordon Rugg in that), but rather had steered their televisual plough along what I would call a resolutely “Voynich 1.0” furrow. Basically, whenever I hear keywords like “inquisition”, “alchemy”, “allegorical”, “Doctor Mirabilis” and “heresy”, something in me switches off: rather, I want to be hearing words like “layer”, “spectroscopic”, “multispectral”, “ductus”, “hands”, “composition”, “sequence”, “Raman”, “DNA”, “pollen”, “Urbino”, “ledger”, etc.

What do you think? Were Andreas Sulzer and his team wide of the target or did they actually hit the spot?

28 thoughts on “Das Voynich-Rätsel – now viewable online (but hurry!)

  1. Vytautas on December 12, 2009 at 10:13 am said:

    I think it is some breakthrough in historical aspect, but nothing for cryptographic solution 🙂

  2. On the contrary, I believe that getting the history locked down is probably going to be an absolutely necessary step for us to stand any chance at all with the cryptology! 🙂

  3. Marke Fincher on December 12, 2009 at 3:05 pm said:

    I know what you mean Nick. But then it would be unrealistic of us to expect a TV documentary to be targetted at anything other than a mass public audience.
    They wouldn’t get funding for it otherwise would they? And in the modern documentary genre that means dramatic background music, helpful (or perhaps misleading?) scene-setting historical reconstructions, flashy animations and zooming graphics, etc.

    These days documentaries are all 70% entertainment and only 30% educational. And it was a very slick and impressive bit of work….I was successfully entertained and enjoyed the programme a lot – apart from the spinning folio 68 which morphs into a spiral galaxy which I’m now sick of seeing! 😉

    it IS a nice juicy taster for people unfamiliar with the VMs. Should get a fair number of new people onto the path. Reality is always less sugar coated than in the brochure, init?

    Personally I miss 1970s ‘open university’ style science programs with bearded experts talking straight to camera presenting the facts without a production team dressing it all up into a performance. But then I’m a nerd. And we did have Rene Zandbergen as the bearded expert in this case. 🙂

    so I say “nice job guys”. Especially for succeeding where others have failed in getting the manuscript dated….you should get several medals just for that!

  4. I know what you’re saying, but I don’t think TV choices have to be quite that binary. Perhaps, as you say, the historical drama (I did like the sets and costumes, I have to say), Matrix-stylee graphics, zoetrope-y nymphs etc are simply the boxes producers need to tick to get decent funding: but perching the whole enterprise on the shoulders of Wilfrid Voynich’s historical narrative from circa 1912 (and then expressing surprise that it was proven wrong by the dating) seems just a little bit shaky to me.

    Back in 1931 (as you know), John Matthews Manly very sensibly pointed to the 15th century quire numbers, and that’s one of the pieces of historical evidence that has always seemed basically “non-negotiable” to me (and for which I seem to have endured a fairly long-term barrage of flak): so why is it that I seem to be the only person not vastly surprised by the dating? I’m merely a bit irritated that the art history evidence seems to date it 30 years or so later than the C14 dating, and that the two don’t (yet) seem to be obviously reconcilable. Maybe I’m missing something obvious… 😮

  5. Do you think there is any chance for an eventual English translation? I have a small bit of German, but it’s not going to cut it here.

  6. Hi Nick! My German is zilch. Joseph Barabe mentions “spectrographic and crystallographic” analyses. Do we know exactly which methods were used? Were such methods as Raman or IR spectrography used? Visible light spectrography? X-ray crystallography? ISTR that examination of the Shroud of Turin showed that the image was made up of two common types of iron pigment, but this determination was made by expert visual examination under an optical microscope. Is that the case here? A bit more than that seems to be implied, though the televised sequence doesn’t make it clear.

    I don’t hear anything but “the pigments are consistent with 15-16th century.” Could expert visual forensic examination tell roughly how long after vellum production the ink was applied?

    I agree with Marke, they deserve several medals for getting the C14 analysis and microscope analyses done!

  7. Paul Jacob on December 13, 2009 at 7:20 am said:

    I have just watched the Voynich documentary online. I had thought at first that the content might not be available outside of Austria (I live in Germany currently). I see it seems to have been an “Arte Channel” co-production, which I do receive here, so I hope to be able to record it, if it is ever shown on that channel.
    First off, I have to agree that the documentary’s production values were rather good, clearly a lot of time and effort has gone into its production. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Beinecke Library has clearly co-operated fully in this production, even down to the little cameo with Rene Zandbergen being greeted by the security officer at the library with an over-the-shoulder shot! I myself saw the Voynich Manuscript back in October 2005, when a rather reluctant staff eventually allowed me to view (but not touch!) the pages. I am still immensely pleased and grateful at the time to have had the privilege of seeing this manuscript, especially as the library’s viewing policy in respect of this particular object was (and probably still is, understandably) very restricted.
    That said, the programme was largely directed at those who know little or nothing about the manuscript, its mysterious contents, discovery and deciphering attempts over the years. I have no problem with that, but for quite a part of the programme of course, i was not being tolkd anything really new. That’s not a criticism, as many will have seen and heard about the book for the first time and it was informative and concise for just such an audience.
    Th real value of this documentary and what sets it apart from the laudable BBC effort 5-6 years ago, was the scientific dating of the pigments used in colouring the various illustrations and the more especially the vellum to between 1404-1438. That was the real breakthrough. I have sat through so many documentaries about various historical matters which raise all the questions, but ultimately dissappoint by being unable to provide few answers. Here at least we now know that the manuscript is a genuine 15th Century one and not as I feared a fake by Dee/Kelly, by W. Voynich himself, or what was in any case unlikely, a Roger Bacon product. This to me is terribly exciting, because it whittles down the clutter surrounding the manuscript’s provenance, admittedly whilst still not identifying its author(s) or the mysterious text. Again the focus returns to the core questions of the matter, who wrote the manuscript and what was he/she trying to say (if anything).
    Towards the end, when the focus was set briefly on the “swallow-tailed” turrets, as displaying the one of the few seemingly non-fantastical elements in the manuscript and stating that these were only to be found in Northern Italy in the early 15th Century, I was sure Nick your time had come. But not a peep. That was rather disappointing, because they seemed to leave a lead hanging, tantilisingly in the air. There was no mention of the extensive discussion of these architectural clues in your book. So to finish, here is a question that someone should be able to answer; were the documentary producers aware of your (Nick Pelling’s) work, but unable or unwilling to include it, or did you only learn about this documentary after it had been largely completed?

  8. Ken: as I understand it, one of the documentary’s backers was the Smithsonian Channel, so the chances of its appearing in English in the near future would seem to be high. 🙂

    Dennis: as I understand it, there is a lot more detailed technical information to be released that arose from the forensic study that would be of great interest to us, though it is not yet clear when or where this will be published. I suspect that if they could have drawn stronger conclusions about the interval between vellum production and writing, they would have dearly loved to do so: but that they weren’t. Still, perhaps when these are combined with other art historical observations, perhaps something genuinenly new will emerge, who knows?

    Paul: “unable or unwilling” I can’t say, but I can confirm that the documentary producers were fully aware of my work, my art history, my arguments, and even the specific forensic tests I was advocating. Early into the production, they even invited me over to Linz to go with them to Prague (but then withdrew the invitation at the last minute). I don’t know why they ultimately chose to interview Gordon Rugg and Richard SantaColoma: I suspect that they may have been focussing on a much later dating throughout their production, and that perhaps the C14 dating came as a bigger surprise to them than to anyone else? Or perhaps there would be no dramatic value in having me on-screen being unsurprised by any of their results, who knows? 🙂

  9. Michelle on December 13, 2009 at 10:23 am said:

    Nick ( Quire numbers), don’t you think it possible that the Vms may have come apart and someone quite intelligently thought they’d add the quire numbers just incase it happened again?

  10. Michelle: of course! This is the kind of basic codicological thing I spend my time proposing and defending. The alternative (that the quire numbers were added by the author, or by someone else who had a full understanding of the VMs) seems to me simply untenable, given that Q13’s quire number is on the wrong side of the wrong bifolio.

    So… yes, I’m pretty sure that the quire numbers were indeed added after the bifolios fell into a random heap in mid-Quattrocento, with only occasional bifolios left sitting beside their original neighbour. But don’t expect every Voynich researcher to agree with this (because they won’t, shame on them).

  11. Rene Zandbergen on December 13, 2009 at 11:41 am said:

    I have to add a little bit to this as well, of course.
    For this TV production I see three types of audience:
    – those who have no prior knowledge of the MS
    – those who know the basics (usually through the internet)
    – those who are very familiar and read and write in fora like this one.
    There’s probably a ratio of 50:1 to 100:1 from the size of one group to
    the next. For the second group, the basics could have been shortened
    considerably. The biggest risk, however, was to ‘lose’ the largest
    audience by incomprehensible details. I’m not a TV maker, and I didn’t
    feel any urge to argue about these decisions.

    I am not so sure which results of the last ten years should have been
    included. Gordon Rugg’s work is clearly comprehensible. Stolfi’s
    work (10 years ago now!), critically important, would be completely out
    of scope. Andreas Schinner’s work has not even been properly analysed
    by the ‘group 3’ people and I also assume it is relevant until proven
    otherwise. A lot of the work of Nick presented here, while extremely
    interesting to the ‘initiated’, is of a secondary level compared to the
    forensic results, and still quite debatable.

    Anyway, the one bit I think was unfortunately left out of the programme
    was the discussion about the time between parchment creation and
    MS writing. It was of course addressed, and now hangs as a missing link.
    Apart from that, I am (of course) strongly in favour that a proper
    report of the forensic examinations is published without too much delay.

  12. I think the decision to focus mainly on the “Voynich mythology” seems wedded to a very old-fashioned conception of what history is about, one which doesn’t really sit comfortably with the new-fangled forensic angle. I’m all for forensics: it’s just that it seems they didn’t really do enough of it to definitively falsify some of the worst Voynich theories. 🙂

    Yes, my stuff is debatable: but at least it’s not plain wrong. 🙂

  13. Excellent, Nick …and in your response, I think we have the first “toe in the door” of “old vellum use”. Are you re-considering your theory, and that your time frame is viable again? If you think 30 to 50 year old vellum may have been used by Averlino, it will give hope to other mid and later 15th century theorists. I personally would agree with you… I do not think it would be all that unusual a concept to see such use, at such a time.

  14. Rene writes,

    “Anyway, the one bit I think was unfortunately left out of the programme
    was the discussion about the time between parchment creation and MS writing. It was of course addressed, and now hangs as a missing link.

    The longest time I have been able to find so far is a vellum text of 1523, which was continuously written on until 1839. A church ledger. So 319 years in that case. It has entries from the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It was then put away with 44 blank leaves, for 88 blank vellum pages, which avoided ink until today…

  15. To be honest, I’m not at all sure what to think at the moment – there’s more to come out from Austria (before very long, I hope), so we’ll have to see where that all leads us next…

  16. Rene Zandbergen on December 13, 2009 at 4:11 pm said:

    It is clear that it is still possible to maintain that the parchment was kept
    for a while before being written on to. There is a lot of grey area. The
    uncertainty of the dating is already several decades though, and
    the general statement is that *normally* parchment would not be
    lying around for decades. Therefore, “normally”, this lying-around time would
    not add much to the probability curve for the manuscript writing time.
    But how ‘abnormal’ would still be possible?

    If at a later date someone would be searching for old parchment, would he
    get a complete batch all from the same date? Would a faker need to worry
    that the parchment could be dated accurately by his contemporaries?

    If I had to revise the script of the programme, every second line (or more)
    would have a ‘probaby’, ‘possibly’ or ‘maybe’ in it. That doesn’t really work…

  17. Rene Zandbergen on December 13, 2009 at 4:49 pm said:

    Sorry, one more….

    When the forensic tests were planned, the outcome was not yet known.
    Anything from the late 14th to the early 17th C (with a small blip at
    the end of the 19th C) was possible. They were not planned to highlight
    or exclude certain specific time frames. One thing was certain though:
    the vellum was fresh, not written onto before, and there are barely any
    erasures (if at all). Multispectral imaging, so effectively used for the
    Archimedes palimpsest, was therefore not particularly interesting.

    We have also been quite fortunate. If the parchment was really
    from the second half of the 15th C (as I would have expected), the
    95% time frame would have been much wider, and included much of
    the 16th C due to the shape of the radiocarbon calibration curve.

  18. NOTE: If you want to download the whole video, someone, I think Michael Jonne, put it on this file-sharing service:

  19. Paul Jacob on December 13, 2009 at 11:26 pm said:

    Thanks for the clarification, Nick! Guess there’s enough material for a follow-up programme then!! A pity your planned inclusion was cancelled without explanation …

  20. Hi René! I’m glad you pointed out the matter about the C-14 curve’s being much clearer on time determination in the first half of the 15th century that for the second half. We had always expected the second half, so that’s why we weren’t optimistic about C-14 dating – I think this was in an old post by Gabriel Landini on his website.

    I think Nick’s and Barbara’s remarks about the demand and use of parchment and paper during this period are relevant. Parchment was always scarce, demand for it was high, and it was likely to be used as quickly as produced. OTOH, paper use was climbing rapidly – but exactly when? The first or second half of the 15th century?

    More historical and economic info would help. Of course, the whole 15th century was the beginning of the Renaissance – quite a period of transition! Sometimes that will make things easy to identify, sometimes the contrary!

  21. Dennis: Actually, I don’t think parchment was ever “scarce”, because to a very large degree it was made to order – parchment makers simply weren’t rich enough to hold a lot of stock. The first Italian paper mill dated to 1340 (I think), while paper use increased significantly from about 1400 onwards, before really exploding with the introduction of the printing press circa 1450.

    With the VMs’ four C14 dates, what I will be looking for in particular is the date of the Q9 vellum sliver. Remember that the statistics we have been given relate to the mean C14 ratio for the four samples… yet I suspect that samples from the unusual format bifolios will be a more accurate indication of age than samples from more conventional format bifolios (which could very possibly be “old (pre-cut) vellum”). We shall see! =:-o

  22. On the contrary, I would say that multispectral imaging or Raman imaging is an absolute necessity to make further codicological progress with the VMs: both the marginalia and a number of key pages (such as f1r, f48v, f57v, the zodiac nymphs, etc) need to be separated into writing layers / phases. But you knew that already! 🙂

  23. Rene Zandbergen on December 14, 2009 at 9:59 am said:

    Hi Nick,

    of course I am not at all against doing multi-spectral imaging, quite
    the contrary 🙂 Compared to the other two types of analyses, it is for
    me understandably of a secondary importance.

    Anyway, w.r.t. the dates of the individual samples, the film states
    that all four samples point to the same time, which is why they may
    be treated as four observations of the same quantity, thereby
    combining (and narrowing) the uncertainty. The differences between the
    individual samples are statistically insignificant.

    I personally find that an absolutely key result.

  24. The documentary does indeed state that all four samples point to the same time, but the graph that was shown had a great big Gaussian bell-shape on the left, which (to my eyes) indicates that the variance of the four samples may well be greater than zero. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to see the (bi)folio references and the corresponding C14 numbers and make up my own mind… 🙂

  25. So my fears of inaccessibility were proved wrong. I am glad.
    My German isn’t better than your average high school student’s, but I still managed to get more than just the gist of the program. I think the (included) forensic side was slightly disappointing: not compared to what I actually expected from a television documentary on an obscure subject meant to earn back more than it cost to make, but compared to my ideal dream-version of the program.

    I really enjoyed it, though. The program. The reconstructions were exquisite. I especially liked the Bacon ones where he is using the water lens. It was also great to see the VMS on tape. In the Mr. Sids, you don’t really get a feeling of how dry, thick or brittle the vellum is. In the program, I held my breath whenever they bent a page or folded out the sexfolio, fearing that the vellum would snap like a grissini* whenever too much strain was put on the folds. If ever presented with the VMS before me, I would barely dare to touch it out of fear of it spontaneously combusting at my touch.

    It’s going to get interesting when the remaining forensic data gets published.

    Rich (#14): While I guess it counts, I still think there’s a huge difference between using old vellum already bound into quires/folios used in a continuous ledger spanning several centuries, and storing the vellum unused. Especially with the diary-like property of the ledger; blank when you buy it, awaiting your pen.

    René (#16): The same thought occurred to me. The probability curve we have from carbon-dating is 95%. Maybe, the odds that the VMS vellum wasn’t stored for a significant amount of time before use is also around the same. Maybe it’s 80%. If it’s 80%, doesn’t that then imply that the probability that the VMS was created around the 1420’s is really 20% smaller? This would correct the 95% to 94% (6% of it being wrong instead of 5%: 20% more). Note that I am of course not disputing the carbon dating, I’m just creating a main dating probability separate from the C-14 one by adding together the probabilities. Now, if we keep adding together probabilities (the 94% only include carbon dating and vellum storage, you could also include a lot of art history clues, whatever marginalia you think significant etc), we’ll probably (heh) end up with a 1404-1438 date probability of much less than 95%. Still more than 50% I think, but much less than 95%.

    This number will then have been calculated using a large amount of approximations, some of which may vary hugely depending on who interprets the evidence, and thus the process itself would contribute to the probabilistic indeterminacy.

    …My head is spinning.

    * Is there a singular form of grissini? It sounds so much like a plural form and I keep wanting to spell its (probably imagined) singular form as the Latin-analogous “grissinus”.

  26. Christopher: because we’re still waiting for the numbers, the only useful piece of information I have for you is “grissino” 🙂

    Oh, and yes: when I handled the VMs at the Beinecke, I left the job of opening the nine-rosette page till last… far too hair-raising to do on Day One! 🙂

  27. Rene Zandbergen on December 18, 2009 at 7:59 am said:

    Just for the record:
    the on-line version of the film was indeed removed after a week.

  28. Re #27: the download version of the film on RapidShare is still there:

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