I’ve been a bit quiet (in the ‘not-posting-much-on-the-blog’ sense of the word) of late, and thought I ought to say a bit about what’s going on, just in case you were worried I’d tripped and fallen headlong into an over-full boxfile of voracious Voynich Theories, never to be seen again. 🙂

Right now, the #1 thing filling my thoughts is a one-off lecture I’m due to give in three weeks’ time at the London Rare Book School summer seminar series. Basically, I’m covering the history of shorthand and ciphers: but rather than romantically twiddling around with unsolved mystery texts, what I’m aiming to get across is practical knowledge that historians can make direct use of when faced with a text in an unknown alphabet.

For all their span and depth, books like David Kahn’s “The Codebreakers” don’t really help in this regard: and anyway, to be perfectly honest, from where I’m sitting the history of cryptography now looks rather different. So right now it feels as if I’m having to build up a reasonably new kind of body of knowledge – practical cryptography for historians. All of which is probably why it has taken much more effort than I thought… oh well!

One nice thing is that I have a devilish (if somewhat small) new cipher mystery kindly sent through to me by Zodiac Cipher researcher Dave Oranchak to use as a worked example, which I’ll post about here very soon (I’ll also get round to mentioning Dave O’s shiny new Zodiac blog very shortly, I promise!)

I’m also scratching my head about what to do with another cipher-related mystery I’ve been working on. It all started out as a footnote, but the more I discover about it, the bigger and bigger it gets. Anybody know any film producers who want to tell the Second Greatest Story Ever Told?

14 thoughts on “Update on Cipher Mysteries…

  1. Diane O'Donovan on June 14, 2012 at 6:10 am said:

    If you see Keith Houston there (by any chance), shake his hand for me.

    He traced the origins of the ampersand, a version of which I have sometimes thought provides one of the Vms characters.

    Here follows a shameless ad by a shameless fan

  2. Diane O'Donovan on June 14, 2012 at 6:14 am said:

    PS Betcha someone asks how you can be *absolutely sure* you’re dealing with a cipher, and not some otherwise unknown ancient language. (We do keep turning them up, and sometimes as no more than half-a-dozen partial inscriptions).

  3. Diane: betcha I do get asked too. 🙂 Three main reasons – (1) because the Voynich uses manuscript page numbering signs that aren’t manuscript page numbers (aiiv / aiir / etc); (2) because the composite ‘4o’ glyph-pair appears in a good number of Northern Italian ciphers; and (3) because of the places where spaces are inserted inside high-frequency pair chains (AKA “space tranposition cipher”). These only really make proper sense in the context of a cipher.

  4. Diane O'Donovan on June 14, 2012 at 10:36 am said:

    The ’40’ was applied to the creation of ciphers, but then an historian would ask – where did they get it from? Not only more recently, but more remotely. And then there’s the reflective angle: are we seeing what we think we’re seeing when we identify a form as such-and-such? That’s more an art-historians question perhaps. Classical example of foggy glass phenomenon in the Voynich – the cruciform object which westerners immediately “see” as a Christian cross, quite ignoring context, and the anomalous elements in the imagery which positively scream a non-European and non-Christian origin for the image. What if the same is happening with the ‘4o’. What if (again) it’s a co-incidence, only written that way because European-trained scribes ‘saw’ it so, having something similar already in their own repertoire of forms.

    (Actually I don’t much care either way, but arguing against one’s own ideas is pretty much standard training..)

  5. bdid1dr on June 14, 2012 at 5:38 pm said:

    “Shady Characters” : Incredible! Several items of maybe related info: Not too long ago, courtroom recorders (human) used a narrow “spooling tape” upon which they punched/impressed their “shorthand” in combinations of various letter groups. I don’t recall if they had type keys for quote or sentence punctuation.

    I’m going back to visit “Shady Characters” after lunch. My early (high school) experience with taking dictation with handwritten Gregg shorthand was tedious. I had to read lips while trying to “scribble” the Gregg characters. Kinda like trying to pat one’s head while rubbing one’s stomach.

  6. Hello, Nick. I wish I could attend your lecture. It looks promising.
    Just yesterday, at an Spanish cryptography website I came across an unsolved cypher mistery I’m not sure if you are familiar with. The Sirtori Document. It dates from the times of the Spanish monarch Philipp II (XVI century) more than 100 years after the Voynich dating.
    Within the document in question (a PhD paper) there are many references to cypher systems of the time (not only in Spain but all across Europe) and all of them, all of them, are based on three principles:
    -Nomenklator (letter substitution based on a new alphabet, several alternatives for some letters)
    -Sillabarium(for bi-gram or tri-gram substitution)
    -Dictionary (for complete word substitution(most common words))
    When I visited Lux in Arcana, just before the Frascati event, I saw the system the Borgia pope used, just at the end of the 15th century, and it was again the same structure.
    If the Voynich has a message, the author must have had God knows what intention, but he must have been a man of his time. His cypher surely doesn’t go beyond
    Sure you knew about Philipp II’s bad intentions regarding England (religious trouble is always the worst kind), but here is a link to a study on cypher during his time “in office”. I hope it is interesting.

  7. Jeremy Winchester on June 14, 2012 at 7:02 pm said:

    Nick, I was wondering if you will be making available a transcript of your lecture? Or perhaps you should just write a book to bring Cryptography into the 21st Century and beyond.

  8. Jeremy: I’ll certainly post the lecture slides up here beforehand, as per normal. It’s a nice idea to turn it into a book, but I’ll see how the lecture goes first! Having now put in a few more hours on the slides, I think it’s fair to say that overall I’m more interested in the non-mathematical sides of historical cryptography, and perhaps that’s what differentiates my angle most from other accounts. Not yet sure how it’ll go, but we’ll see soon enough! 🙂

  9. Eloy: thanks for that! I knew a lot about Girolamo Sirtori already (he wrote a book on the origins of the telescope that I discussed elsewhere on this blog), so I’ll post up his unbroken cipher here straight away! 🙂

  10. Diane: I’m pretty sure ‘4o’ was a 14th century Northern Italian scribal abbreviation, already archaic enough by 1420 or so to appear in numerous ciphers all over the place (not just Milan, as it turns out). My guess is that it stands in for a legal term – in fact, it might even share one of the supposed origins of the question mark ‘?’, which I’m sure will be discussed on Shady Characters somewhere. 🙂

  11. Diane O'Donovan on June 15, 2012 at 12:34 am said:

    If you ever decide to take up the idea of a book on this topic, I’d like to be on the pre-publication subscription list. It would also be nice to have something (anything!) in English on how European cipher-systems compare with those used in the other 3/4 of the world about the same time (?)

  12. bdid1dr on June 18, 2012 at 8:16 pm said:

    Re discussion “4o” figure: Have we, in more recent times, seen this abbreviation used for various venues terminology for “quarto”?

  13. bdid1dr on June 26, 2012 at 10:10 pm said:

    Nick, I’m doing my best to keep a low profile. It seems that I’ve been barred from making entries on your new forum pages. (?)

    So, I’ll pose just one more Q and then back off for a while. Rembert Dodoens aka: Doderus. Have you already discussed him ad nauseum?

    I’ll be purchasing your “Curse” in a bit. Have a good conference.

  14. bdid1dr on July 4, 2012 at 6:23 pm said:

    OK, have I given you enough time to catch your breath? How did the Rare Books symposium go? What reaction did you get to your “closing” pictorial? My last reference to the stars and stripes the ladies were flouriishing in the VMss was meant to be a hint toward the “Aldobrandini” cheering section of your audience.

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