The Daily Grail has today’s hot cipher history story: that Dan Brown’s soon-to-be-released novel “Inferno” is somehow based around the Voynich Manuscript. Apparently, the proof of this particular pudding is, well, a cipher, one apparently hidden in plain sight on Brown’s website:-


In Rolf Harris’ immortal phrase, “Can you tell what it is yet?” I hope you can, because all it is is… a 4×4 transposition cipher of “MS 408 YALE LIBRARY”. Yes, that’s it. Which is in itself a fairly underwhelming starting point, considering that the Voynich Manuscript isn’t MS 408 in “Yale Library”, but in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. But (of course) that wouldn’t fit in 16 letters. 🙂

So, the story of the story is that Dan Brown will once again be wheeling out his “symbologist” Robert Langdon in a Renaissance-art-history-conspiracy-somehow-impinges-on-the-present-day-with-terrible-consequences schtick, but this time in Florence with Dante’s “Inferno” right at the heart of it (hence the title), with only the poor, much-abused Voynich Manuscript for company.

One part I’m not looking forward to is what Brown will have Robert Langdon make of the Voynich: for of all the mysteries I’ve ever seen, the Voynich is surely the least obviously symbol-laden. There’s no “sacred geometry” there, no gematria, no heresy, in fact no religion at all: just about all you could do is tie in the Voynich ‘nymphs’ with the same kind of alt.history “goddess” thing that Brown tried to stripmine in The Da Vinci Code… but all the same, that looks fairly hollow to me. I guess we’ll have to see what angle he does take… at least we won’t have long to wait (14th May 2013).

For me, the central contrast between Dante’s Inferno and the Voynich Manuscript is that they are diametrically opposite in referentiality: while the Inferno (and in fact the whole Divine Comedy) reaches out to touch and even include all of human culture, the Voynich Manuscript’s author seems to have worked with the same kind of monastic intensity to ensure it appears to refer to nothing at all. So, when Dan Brown collides the everything-book with the nothing-book, what kind of po-faced bathos-fest are we in for?

As an aside, I don’t see any numerology in the (original) Inferno: and considering the amount of effort Dante put into satirizing astrologers, alchemists, politicians, liars, frauds and the like in their aptly tortured circles of hell, I’m reasonably sure he’d mete out the same kind of punishment to numerologists. And probably to symbologists, too. And (if we’re lucky) to bad novelists… though you’ll have to put your own candidates forward for that, I’m far too polite. 😉

However, the bit I dread most is when people start to realize that Dante Alighieri’s Inferno was only the first part (of three) of his Divine Comedy: and with the current Hollywood craze for trilogies (The Hobbit trilogy, really?), what are the odds Dan Brown will extend any success with this book out into his own money$pinning Dante-based series, hmmm? The “Ka’chingferno” three-parter, no less!

Update: Erni Lillie upbraids me (and rightly so) in a comment here for omitting to mention his substantial 2004 (though the Wayback Machine only has a copy from 2007) Voynich Inferno essay, where he proposed that the nine “rosettes” on the Voynich Manuscript’s nine-rosette page might well represent the nine layers of Dante’s Inferno. My own experience of working on that particular page would place it closer to Purgatory, but perhaps we’re closer than medieval theologians would have it. 🙂

Truth be told, I did remember that I had forgotten something to do with Dante and the Voynich, but couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was I’d forgotten. And now that I’ve found it again, I was delighted to read it all over again, Renaissance warts and all. So, hoping that it’s OK with Erni to bring his work to a new generation of interested readers, here’s a link to a copy of his paper The Voynich Manuscript as an Illustrated Commentary of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Maybe it will turn out to be what Dan Brown’s new book plagiarizes was amply inspired by this time round, who knows? 😉

Personally, I suspect the smart money is indeed on Brown’s having the Voynich’s nine-rosette map turn out to be a map: with the devastating twist *yawn* that it actually represents a physical map of Dante-related locations in Florence, which Robert Langdon is then able to decode at speed thanks to his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things symbolic and Florentine, which ultimately leads him to the dark secret at the heart of a centuries-old conspiracy which he and his unexpected accomplice must choose whether to reveal to the horror of the world.

You know, basically the same as all his other books. 😉

Anyway, looking forward to the launch party at the Duomo, darling. Of course I’d like more olives, thanks for asking, and isn’t the San Giovese simply, errrm, Divine? 🙂

18 thoughts on “Dan Brown’s “Inferno” and the Voynich Manuscript…

  1. Ernest on March 8, 2013 at 8:46 pm said:

    Now where did I hear that idea before — oh yeah . . . back when I posted my paper “The Voynich Manuscript as an Illustrated Commentary of Dante’s Divine Comedy”, back in 2004. Let me guess, the Vms will contain the true ending of the Comedy, not the sanitized version 🙂

  2. Nick
    If Brown has the Inferno, surely you may claim the Comedy.

  3. Ernest
    I deeply understand, but Mr. Brown is a very busy and important man. If he had to research the manuscript for himself, he’d have no time for creative writing and its his inspiration that put him where he is today. Persons such as you and I provide him but with the raw clay for his Hagia triada (as it were).

  4. Very exciting news! I will certainly check this one out… and look forward to your review, Nick.

  5. Ernest on March 9, 2013 at 3:49 am said:

    Hi Nick.

    Sorry if my earlier comment seemed in anyway negative — I was just shocked at the future prospect of any updates I do to my earlier work being seen as copied from Dan Brown. That’s one thing that I regret not getting around to doing — updating the earlier version — several times over 🙂

    No time like the present!

    On rereading it myself, the first thing I can see is that I shouldn’t have tried to force every bit of the VMs into some aspect of my theory, whether it fit or not. I should have stayed away from the “herbal” and “recipe” sections. Trying to manufacture a context for them only served to weaken the heart of my ideas, that of the “bath” section representing the valleys of Purgatory and the 9 Rosette sheet and its obverse charting Dante’s route through Paradise and the 3 Visions he experienced.
    A good case for needing an editor.
    So, some time in the hopefully not-to-distant future — I’ll provide you with a link to an updated, hopefully wart-free(er) version that is a whole lot easier to follow than my original. . . with illustrations.


  6. Nick
    Off-topic – I want to link to one of your posts on codicology. Which would you like to be taken as representative these days?

  7. Rene Zandbergen on March 9, 2013 at 11:52 am said:

    Fortunately for Dan Brown, you can get just about anything you want from the Voynich MS illustrations. Let’s see what he selects.
    If he manages to never ever mention John Dee or Edward Kelly in his book, I’ll buy him a beer. Virtually of course.

  8. Ernest… your comments didn’t seem negative to me. And it will be fun to compare the concepts in the book and your theory, so I’ll re-read your work, too. I’ve got the book on order, I don’t want to have to wait a minute to find out.

  9. bdid1dr on March 9, 2013 at 10:51 pm said:

    Nick, Rene, and Rich,

    Were you able to understand my reference, several months ago, to Boenicke 408 folio 86r3 (which you seem to have labeled as being cosmological)?

    I did the best I could to give you all (Rene, especially) a Latin translation of the discussion which appears on all four sides of that folio.

    Besides differentiating between the “look-alike” mushrooms (both of which were considered choice edibles) the writer/lecturer was also discussing the origin of the word “hallucin/hallucination” — the myth of Alcyone and Ceyx.

    I’m hoping one of you might follow up on my contribution to this discussion. I am entirely sympathetic with all of your efforts to solve the V-mystery which I choose to refer as Boenicke 408. If my offerings are tedious to read, Nick, please let me know (rather than bury me in the back pages of “That Which Brings Your …….Down)”

    You might also like to take a look at Boenicke 408, folio 83v: the labels which appear beneath those “globes” are indicating the effects of the diluted FRUIT juice of the mandrake plant, as far as easing the aches and pains of childbirth (for one instance).

    I found no mention of the battlefield surgeons use of the rest of the plant for “on-the-field-of-battle surgery and amputations.

    I hope you’ll be able to update your discussions, Rene. Your work is meticulous! Because of health reasons, I was not able complete my medical studies some 40 years ago.

    So, Nick, is it possible for me to re-activate “my” forum topic of “Round n’ Round”, which got lost during the past Summer’s crash? I’ll still be hanging around, regardless.

    beady-eyed-wonder (sometimes “wonder-er”! 🙂

  10. bdid1dr: I’ll try to resurrect the Forum in the next few days… I don’t bury anyone anywhere. 🙂

  11. Rene: having thought about this for a couple of days, I’m reasonably convinced that Brown won’t have his pet symbologist decrypt the Voynich’s text (perhaps leave that for parts 2 and/or 3 of his Divine Comedy trilogy), but will instead use Langdon’s extraordinary powers of recall and attention to detail to cross-reference Dante-related details as depicted in the nine drawings to cookie-crumb his way round Florence. So, more Art History detective stuff than cryptologist extraordinaire. 🙂

    But of course John Dee had worked all that out first, which is how The Conspiracy got to find out about it centuries before Langdon. 😉

  12. I thought your readers would find this curiosity of interest… a youtube site, using Dan Brown’s logo, called “”, seems to be his site. But it only has two videos uploaded, under 200 hits total, and this one on the Voynich has been up since last September! Strange.

  13. Rich: yup, saw that, it was mentioned in the Daily Grail article… looks like a professional production, but I don’t really see the point of it. Maybe it will all become clear in time…

  14. Today is the release date, and it seems that the hints of an inclusion of the Voynich were a red herring. There is no mention, that I could find, of the Voynich in the book… or so far, any book that might be describing the Voynich, by another name. It seems the “Voynich Community” has “been had”, and only used as a publicity gimmick.

  15. Sam Dalhed on May 21, 2013 at 11:07 pm said:

    Does anyone know the significance of “saligia”, a mnemonic for the seven deadly sins, which is “encoded” as bold letters on the inside of the dust jacket of “Inferno”?

  16. Pingback: The Uncrackable Code: of Polish Revolutionaries, Vatican libraries and Dan Brown | Kate Shrewsday

  17. Tricia on May 31, 2013 at 9:16 am said:

    Numbers and Dante

    whole chapter

    Hopper’s a solid source.

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