Of all the text in the Voynich Manuscript, one section stands a particularly high chance of giving us information: f116v, the final page. This has a set of marginalia that (by all rights) ought to have been written unencrypted, but which we mysteriously are unable to read.


This text is often called ‘michitonese’, because William Romaine Newbold famously transcribed the first two words of the second line as “michiton oladabas”. There are snatches of clarity interspersed with what appears to be Voynichese, Latin, German, and even ‘+’ signs (normally used in written prayers to indicate when to make the sign of the cross when reciting the prayer). In short, it’s a bit of a mess.

The essay on imaging in Yale’s recently-released photo-facsimile edition mysteriously omitted to make any mention of this final page, nor of any recent attempts to try to read this page. And yet a couple of years ago, a group most certainly did try to use a range of multi-spectral imaging techniques to do precisely that.

I know this for certain because I found a set of low bitdepth JPEG files the team had accidentally left on one of the Beinecke library’s file servers: and – having recently installed BIMP, a simple automation plugin for GIMP – thought you might like to see them.

The quality admittedly isn’t good (the images would have been captured using a bitdepth closer to 16-bit, but these were stored as 8-bit JPEGs), but it might serve the purpose of goading the (as yet unnamed) team into finishing their paper, or (if it turned out they had nothing to say) releasing the full bitdepth images so that we can study them openly. 🙂

I’ve only included 26 of the 46 images they made of 116v, because the others were too noisy or too blank to be informative in their low bitdepth form. (I had to run an auto-equalize filter on all the images in order to make them even remotely visible).

Disappointingly, I was not able to refine my reading of the top line (usually called the “pox leber” line), because there was insufficient contrast in the JPEGs. Perhaps with a copy of the 16-bit scans, this might start to become clear…

The Multispectral Images

…yes, on a Sunday afternoon.

It’s a slick piece of publishing, well-scanned and well-printed with top-notch images that are the crispest I’ve seen. The foldouts (something every previous photo-facsimile I’ve seen has stumbled on) are lovely, and include miniature versions on the lower margin of each page to help you navigate your way around.


As a piece of collectable printing, then, it’s a top-notch piece of work, something that many bibliophiles would be delighted to find in their Christmas stocking: the jolly elves who produced it seem to be more Folio Society than Penguin, let’s say (though not quite Taschen elves).

Is This Photo-Facsimile The Ultimate Voynich Research Tool?

It’s the question that the Beinecke people seem to want people to be asking: but the answer, in a word, is no. The reproductions are so lovely that Ray Clemens’ suggestion that owners might fill their margins with their thoughts seems unduly barbarous: a bit like scribbling on a Jaguar’s leather seats.

And the included essays (Rene Zandbergen’s aside) all have an oddly early-1970s retro feel to them, as if this whole effort was a stopgap for researchers until such time as Mary D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma” comes out.

In each case, you (the reader) get to the end of the essay just at the point where you want it to start: and so each finishes with a jarring emptiness, an <insert-good-research-here> lurch downwards, culminating in a mental picture of knowledgeable writers throwing up their hands in dismay. For example, when Jennifer M. Rampling writes (in her essay on alchemical imagery) “[a]lthough the content of this manuscript is almost certainly not alchemical in nature…” (p.46), it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the futility of the entire exercise.

By way of comparison, what I try to do with Cipher Mysteries is to write each post in such a way that a reader ends each post genuinely knowing more than when they began, and also with an idea of where future archival or research trails from there might lead: something one might reasonably call “Open Source History”.

Compare this with Yale’s photo-facsimile essays, and you’d see that what they offer is very much a closed book: none seems to grasp that the key to making progress with these Sphinxes is to give not only good quality images, but also good quality conceptual tools to work with those images.

Sadly, this is a bus-sized hole in the Voynich dam this present volume doesn’t even attempt to fill.

The Missing Book About The Book

Over the last few years, I’ve been consistently disappointed with the ever-decreasing quality of Voynich discourse. An all-too-common refrain is that new researchers now routinely ignore everything that has gone before in favour of ‘seeing things through their own eyes’. Yet in practice they almost always end up seeing it through exactly the same kind of cracked lens (whether linguistic, cryptographic, or whatever) that countless others have suffered from before: so, not so much “reinventing the wheel” as “reinventing the flat tyre“.

But this is just a superficial rationalization for their laziness and lack of commitment when faced by a sprawling and unfocused research landscape. Few even bother to read D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma”, even though it is available for free download on the NSA website. Many of them are convinced that Voynichese is no more than a language protected entirely by obscurity: counting grains of sand would be a more productive use of their time.

All the same, anyone – from amateur to academic – arriving on the Voynich Manuscript’s shores would surely start with the idea in their head that there must be something out there that would give them a good basic introduction. Yet D’Imperio’s workbook-style book came out in 1978, roughly a thousand Internet years in the past: while my own “The Curse of The Voynich” came out a decade ago (and I may as well have carved it on a rock on the far side of the moon for all the effect that it has had). Similarly Churchill and Kennedy’s (2006) book did a good job of answering all the least interesting questions about the manuscript… and so on.

What’s missing is something closer to a “user guide”: that is, something that not only helps readers navigate around and within the Voynich Manuscript’s pages, but also provides a properly foundational set of insights into how its pages were constructed; how to visually parse its content; what the genuine core debates over its features are; and where the edges of the last forty years of research lie. The stuff, in short, that everyone shooting from their hip on a Voynich blog seems to have collectively forgotten.

I shudder to think what anyone from the current generation of researchers might produce in response to such a “user guide” challenge: perhaps a hundred pages of Bax-stylee linguistic noodling, followed by a further fifty pages of Rugg-themed hoaxery? What a horrible thought: Lord save us all from even a paragraph more of each than we have already suffered. 🙁

The Missing Documentary About The Book

A while back, I had the idea to produce a TV documentary on the Voynich Manuscript from the inside out. That is, rather than build up an account of it by peering at it through a long succession of wacky theories (with the by-now obligatory long succession of wacky theorists as talking heads), to instead start from the ink, strokes, and paint and build a fresh evidence-only account of it from the ground up.

A large part of me genuinely wants to transform the cack-handed way people have come to look at these wonderfully edgy subjects, to help them see through the lies and the difficulties to the interesting artefact beneath the mythology and bullsh*t.

Maybe one day I’ll find a way of doing this… but I do somewhat despair at how poxy and formulaic TV history has become that something as genuinely interesting as this looks even remotely left-field.

I guess all I’m trying to say is that I don’t really blame Yale for the yawning hole at the centre of their book: it’s a hole at the centre of the entire way people look at mysterious ciphers. But if I were to say that their beautifully-produced photo-facsimile even begins to tackle the problems of getting academics to look at the Voynich Manuscript in a useful or constructive way, it would be a big fat lie. Because right now, nothing comes even remotely close to doing this: and we’re all the worse for that. 🙁

By now, even occasional Cipher Mysteries readers may well know that Yale University Press is about to release a photo-facsimile version of the Voynich Manuscript, its $50 price-point rather less stratospheric than that of the schwizzy Spanish Voynich facsimile that so intrigued the media a few months back. (And for that, if you need to ask the price, you almost certainly can’t afford it.)

So, in anticipation of YUP’s version’s release on 1st November 2016, we now have the start of a mild flurry of promotional activity. For example, if you just happen to be near Yale Law School [it’s just across the street from the Beinecke] at 4pm-5pm this Wednesday (26th October 2016), there’ll be a talk focusing “on how the publishing process works”:

Beinecke Modern Books & Manuscripts Curator and Publications Director Timothy Young will talk with Joseph Calamia, editor at Yale University Press, about the challenges of creating a facsimile of an increasingly popular book and with Beinecke Early Books & Manuscripts Curator Ray Clemens on scholarship related to the Voynich.

And here’s an action shot of Ray Clemens, much more fun than the sub-passport-photo stuff you tend to find in online staff directories:


Oh, and here’s a photo of Glen S. Miranker having his brains vacuumed out while being shown the Voynich Manuscript by Paula Zyatz (it’s some non-disclosure clause, I think):


Not entirely relevant, but I thought you’d like to see it. 🙂

The Highs And The Lows

In most ways, a facsimile edition is – in these decorously digital days – an unnecessary slab of bourgeoisiana. The Beinecke has already released two completely independent sets of full-colour digital scans of the pages (both at reasonably good resolution), so I’d be one of the last people to argue that the YUP’s reproductions will themselves add anything of significant value to the overall Voynichological discourse.

(Sure, it’s annoying for Voynich purists that Jean-Claude Gawsewitch trimmed off many margins in his (2005) mostly-photographic-facsimile “Le Code Voynich”: but that was hardly fatal for what was effectively a coffee-table edition, and the Yale version’s plates – and even fold-out pages – seem unlikely to be ‘academically transformative’, let’s say).

Yet what of the essays at the front? Will these be enough to achieve the Beinecke’s goal of legimitizing the Voynich Manuscript as (a) a genuinely old object, and/or (b) an artefact worthy of serious scholarly study?

Personally, I don’t think so. Even though the Beinecke was given the Voynich Manuscript nearly fifty years ago, my opinion is that there is still painfully little genuine foundational research into it. For instance, we still have no idea what the original page order was; what the original quiration was; which paints were original (and which ones were added later); which parts of the various drawings were original (and which were added later); what the writing on the final (non-enciphered) page f116v originally said; nor even from which specific scribal milieu the main body of the writing came from.

Hence the core problem is this: even now, when academics approach the Voynich Manuscript, they do not have sufficient codicological factuality – i.e. about what happened to the manuscript to leave it in its current state – to build anything worthwhile on top of. All of which means that they might easily (but wrongly) be persuaded to place their trust in one of the numerous academic travesties currently being passed off as theories… and for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

One classic academic story used to be about the Professor of German who was well-versed in all the secondary sources, yet couldn’t actually speak German. But here, the scenario is arguably even worse: a whole host of academics trying to understand the Voynich Manuscript not through primary evidence, close observation and tight physical reasoning, but through the distorted funfair mirrors of Voynich theories.

All the same, I’ve ordered myself a copy (arguably with money I should be squirrelling away for Mauritian car hire, *sigh*), and I have little doubt that many Cipher Mysteries readers will be doing the same. Personally, I’d have been happier if the Beinecke had put the effort into getting the basic codicology and science right in time for the manuscript’s 50th anniversary in their curatorial hands than into producing what will probably be the tenth or maybe fifteenth coffee-table edition. But… you knew I was going to say that.

Ever since Hans P. Kraus donated the Voynich Manuscript to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1969, it has been on an exceedingly short leash. (Has it even left New Haven? I don’t believe so.)

Well, that’s about to change. As part of a special “Decoding the Renaissance” exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library from 11th November 2014 to 1st March 2015, the Voynich Manuscript will be on show in Washington (free admittance, too!). The Folger people haven’t yet said how they plan to display it or illustrate it, but I’m sure they will be eager to make the most of this hens’-teethingly rare opportunity.

STC 20118a, p.73

The overall exhibition is curated by Renaissance historian Bill Sherman (his excellent “John Dee: the Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance” sits on the shelf next to me as I type), who will be giving a ‘public panel’ discussion with Rene Zandbergen at 7.30pm on 11th November 2014 to open the exhibition (tickets to the talk at $10/$15 are already on sale).

But… why the Folger, why Washington, why the Voynich Manuscript? The answer is simple: what links all the parts of the exhibition is the famous Washington-based code-breaker William F. Friedman. From his early days working on Baconian claims at Colonel George Fabyan’s “Riverbank” complex, to his Index of Coincidence, to his work breaking the Japanese “Purple” code, and right through to his long-standing interest in the Voynich Manuscript, Friedman was a fascinating and complex character.


Hence anyone wanting to get the most out of the exhibition should probably prepare themselves with a second-hand copy of Ronald W. Clark’s (1977) “The Man Who Broke Purple”, a biography of William Friedman. It’s not the whole story (government codebreaker stories rarely are), and it skirts unsubtly around Friedman’s depression and related problems during WW2: but even so, it’s far from a bare-bones sketch, with plenty of meat for interested readers to sink their teeth into.

Do I wish I had got the public panel gig with Bill and Rene? Of course I do, I’m only human. But it turns out that even though this is all fascinating news in its own right, there’s much, much more afoot to do with the Voynich Manuscript that is planned to be played out during the remainder of 2014. So, much as I applaud the Folger’s exhibition’s honouring and celebrating the man who (very probably) was the greatest code-breaker of all time, this is in many ways merely the antipasto for a very much larger cryptological feast that is approaching…

…but more on that as it happens. Don’t say I don’t spoil you. 🙂

Just a quick heads up for you, that Yale Assistant Chief Conservator Paula Zyats (who you may remember having a tete-a-tete with Rene Zandbergen in the 2009 Austrian Voynich Manuscript documentary) will be giving a talk entitled The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript: Collaboration Yields New Insights.

Paula Zyats

It’ll be on Thursday July 10th 2014 at The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107, from 5.30pm to 7.30pm, followed by the opening of an exhibition of miniature books made by the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers (it says here). If you go, let me know how it goes (and no heckling, ok?) 🙂

Hillary Raimo has something big to smile about: a few weeks ago she got to spend some time with the Voynich Manuscript (assuming those Beinecke curators didn’t cheekily swap it for Klaus Schmeh’s prop version), taking 600 photos in preparation for writing an article to be published in a French magazine in 2014:-


She has also been adding Voynich-related articles to her blog The Yin Factor, including a new one that explains her idea of how the Voynich Manuscript is tied in with the Dogon tribe’s ‘Nommo’ gods. In case you don’t know, the Nommo are hermaphrodite amphibians from the binary star Sirius, giving them “the best of both worlds” in just about every permutation of the phrase.

She starts her piece with a long quote from Jason King’s “The Cannabible III” (summarizing the whole Dogon / Sirius mythology thing popularized in Robert Temple’s (1976) The Sirius Mystery). However, her view goes much further: that the manuscript “traces the star map of human origins. Through the plants harvested from them.” Essentially, she thinks that naturally occurring DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) in cannabis was brought here from Sirius (along with the human race), and that the Voynich Manuscript is one of the documents that can magnificently reconnect us to the raw ancestral (and interstellar) reality we moderns are so divorced from.

Raimo is also fascinated by the apparent occurrence of the Pleiades in the Voynich Manuscript (on f68r3), a featurette that has already inspired several generations of Voynich theorists (perhaps most notably Robert Teague, P. Han, etc), though this doesn’t seem to be anything to do with Sirius. (Incidentally, the Voynich-Pleiades connection also has a modern fan-base in the form of Wayne Herschel, Michelle L. Hanks, etc.)

Of course, there may be some problems here both with Raimo’s evidence and with her conclusions.

If I were a rich junkie burning my way through an inheritance and I really, really wanted to know where to find a type of cannabis that had a natural lychee and guava aftertaste, The Cannabible series of books is probably the first place I’d go. However, as a source of historical information it seems decidedly unsatisfactory, particularly where it credulously quotes Robert Temple’s work on the Dogon tribe.

Moreover, my own opinion on Temple’s book on the Dogon is that it is an historical crock, based as it is upon Marcel Griaule’s ethnologically crocked research. And if you want a good summary of why that was crocked, I suggest you read Michael Heiser’s long-ish 2011 web-page on the subject.

Do I therefore think that there is the remotest possibility that there is a star map of the Nommo-esque origins of the human race / cannabis hidden in the Voynich Manuscript? Errrm… no, not really, sorry. But please feel free to form your own opinion.

Lynn Thorndike (1882-1965)

In this postmodern, post-macho era, you’re not supposed to have heroes – to the point that most modern kids’ heroes are lame (Ash in Pokemon, Mickey Mouse, Mario, Ben 10, dare I say Harry Potter for most of the books?). Who now doesn’t honestly prefer antiheroes like Team Rocket, Bugs Bunny, Wario, Kevin 11, Voldemort?

Well, I don’t care much for trends: my #1 historian hero is Lynn Thorndike. Hence, as a Voynich manuscript researcher, I always wanted to know what he thought of this troublesome artefact: and while trawling through his (1929) “Science & Thought in the Fifteenth Century” in 2008 was delighted to discover that Thorndike thought Newbold’s claimed decryption was, frankly, nonsense.

But now I can go one better: on the Roger Bacon wikipedia page, someone recently edited in a link to a 1929 review Thorndike wrote in American Historical Review Vol. 34, No. 2 (Jan., 1929), pp. 317-319 on JSTOR. Oooh, I tell ya, that Mr Thorndike didn’t think that his late friend Professor Newbold would have wanted to see his notes published like that; and he wasn’t at all impressed that it went out under the august auspices of the University of Pennsylvania.

You also get a sense of Thorndike’s frustration at constantly being asked his opinion on “an anonymous manuscript of dubious value”. If I had stepped out of the Tardis to ask him about the Voynich Manuscript circa 1929, he might very well have grouchily punched my lights out.

“I should like to be able to force every one who asks me my opinion of the Voynich manuscript to read [Newbold’s] book from cover to cover. I think it will either kill or cure.”

Even though Thorndike’s review doesn’t go so far as to offer his own opinion, he does ironically predict the whole sad demented future of Voynich research, for which we should perhaps be grateful:-

“I would offer the ironic suggestion that the illegible writing is only a blind, and the the pictures should be interpreted symbolically, were I not afraid that some self-constituted successor to Newbold would take the suggestion seriously.”

Now ain’t that the truth, brothers and sisters of the faith? Oh, well! *sigh*

I’m just starting to put together my talk for the upcoming Voynich centenary conference. The session is provisionally titled “Between Vellum and Prague”, with a summary along the lines of…

“The Voynich Manuscript first pinged on the cultural radar in Prague circa 1600, yet its vellum has recently been radiocarbon dated to the first half of the 15th century. So… what happened inbetween? Nick Pelling has long been intrigued by this wide-open question, and in this session presents a summary of a wide range of codicological evidence that holds the promise of answering it.”

In many important ways, I don’t care much for Voynich theories (not even my own): the important thing for me has long been developing an evidence base that we can use to eliminate bad theories (long-time Cipher Mysteries readers will no doubt recall various times I’ve ranted about Popperian ‘falsification’, Karl Popper’s notion that theories are there to be knocked down, not puffed up).

But what would such usable ‘evidence’ look like? Mainstream history as currently practised is predominantly based on close reading of original documents within the context of large bodies of parallel evidence – even Art History falls within this methodology, as it places tiny observed details within an overall historical canon of evolving technique and materials.

The Beinecke’s splendid scans have enabled us to closely read the original document’s surface, so in some ways we’re halfway there: but as for “the large bodies of parallel evidence” part of the equation, we have at the same time too many and too few such bodies to choose from – by which I mean too many possible, too few probable.

As a result, the Voynich Manuscript remains an uncomfortable topic for historians, because even after a century of study it resolutely resists being pigeonholed within any cladistic strand or tradition. Basically, it is this core uncertainty about its internal nature and external tradition that dissuades many academics from wading too deeply into the Voynichian swamp… and frankly, I don’t blame them, because you’d need a wetsuit, not wellies.

It therefore seems much more prudent to me to go hunting for evidence than for yet more speculative theories. However, you need to have a really clear research question in mind when you do it, or it is likely that your efforts will be for nothing. For me, the best questions by a mile all relate to the Voynich Manuscript’s life before its apparent appearance at Rudolf’s Imperial Court in Prague: and so the class of evidence to look for is that which helps to bring out this otherwise invisible history.

As a result, I’m not hugely worried about things such as letters hidden in Voynich plants except insofar as they suggest links between the Voynichese hand and the marginalia hand. Similarly, the parallel hatching used in some of the drawings is not in itself important except for the way that it apparently directly conflicts with the radiocarbon dating (and indeed it would seem we have various 15th century hands in play, as John Matthews Manly noted over 80 years ago, which would seem to stop any kind of 16th century theory dead in its tracks).

The Voynich’s unusual quire numbers are puzzling too, and perfectly consonant with a mid-to-late 15th century dating. Yet frustratingly nobody has yet discovered a single example of another document with the same abbreviated longhand Latin ordinal numbering scheme: finding even one document using that same numbering style would surely open up a fascinating door into the manuscript’s early past.

But personally, I think there’s a high chance that the final page (f116v) marginalia will turn out to be some kind of scrappy French Secretary Hand, with “michiton oladabas” perhaps even saying nichil or even nichil obstat. The top marginalia line of f116v could also be a dedication or note to a “Simon Sint”, it’s hard to tell. These offer such tangible promise of connecting the Voynich to real people or places, yet so many speculative readings have been proposed that it’s all too easy to just ignore them.

And yet all the same, perhaps the richest vein to tap has been the raw internal codicology of the Voynich drawings themselves. If we could only find some ingenious way of connecting pages together (comparing DNA fingerprints of different bifolios, multispectral scans of inks or vellum, mapping the varying thicknesses of pages along their edges, etc), we could make a really great stab at reconstructing the original page order.

As examples, I discussed Q9 (“Quire 9”), Q13 and various out-of-order herbal pages at length in “The Curse of the Voynich”, while I’ve also discussed Q8 and Q20 here (as well as Q20’s paragraph stars), and indeed on Glen Claston’s thoughts on the nine-rosette foldout Q14 as well the ‘chicken scratch’ marginalia on its back.

But as should be apparent from the constellation of links strung through the preceding paragraphs like fairy lights, this remains an utterly fragmented research area. In each individual case, I can tell a speculative story about what I think happened to the manuscript to leave a particular set of details in the curious manner we find them arranged today, but I’m completely aware that that’s simply not good enough, even if I do try to take the totality of evidence into consideration at each point.

All the same, I continue to be of the opinion that it may not be to everyone’s tastes but studying the Voynich Manuscript’s codicology is pretty much as good as we can get – that finding historical parallels for individual drawings or indeed matching the roots of individual plants will never be enough to snip through its Gordian knot. Finding out what happened is the most pragmatic stepping stone back in time we have – so we should try harder to make what we have solid enough to step on, right?

[Here are links to chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Enjoy!]

* * * * * * *

The crew were spending the rest of the day on those interminable fly-past shots of the Voynich Manuscript all modern documentary editors demand, their rostrum camera a microlight buzzing across a lightly-inked vellum landscape. But Marina Lyonne would be interviewing Mrs Kurtz tomorrow morning, which was when the real fun would begin.

Graydon shifted uncomfortably in his chair, looking sideways at Emm. “So… dare I ask why Mrs Kurtz is so bothered?”, he asked.

“It’s more than just her”, Emm explained, “it’s all the curators. On the one hand, they completely grasp that while the Voynich is ‘Beinecke MS 408’, they’ll never truly be free of the alien artefact, Knights Templar & Rennes-le-Chateau nutjobs.”

“Yeah”, he said, “they do go with the territory, I guess.”

“OK: but on the other hand it’s the hoax theorist academics who annoy them much more. To the curators, whatever the Voynich turns out to be, it’s still a genuinely old historical object: so those hoaxologists ought to know better than to treat it as some kind of postmodernist joke. Which is why the Beinecke tried hard to shut its metal and glass front doors to the French film makers.”

“So, they then – let me guess – brought on board the impeccably-connected Marina…”

“…who managed to pull some stratospherically high-up strings within Yale, right. Et puis“, Emm continued, gesturing expansively in the general direction of the film crew downstairs, “voici tout le monde. Still, none of that means the curators appreciate being powerplayed by her… or, indeed, that they will necessarily play boules.”

“So”, mused Graydon scratching his head, “my job now is to give Mrs Kurtz plenty of powerful petards to place under the whole hoax argument. I’m happy to do my best: I just wish I knew what would give the biggest bang.”

He stood up slowly, pausing as the scale of the challenge hove slowly into view. How on earth could he prove that it wasn’t a hoax? Given the pervasive fog of uncertainty that surrounds nearly aspect of the Voynich, how can anyone prove anything about it at all?

“Perhaps we should start with the dating evidence?”, suggested Emm: she took notes as Graydon patiently went through the early 15th century radiocarbon dating, the mid-15th century parallel hatching, the late-15th century quire numbers, the 14th century hunting crossbow, and the mid 14th to early 15th century Savoy-like marginalia handwriting. They all told much the same story: the Voynich was an object rooted in 14th and 15th century ideas, but written on early 15th century vellum.

Emm shook her head. “Marina’s bound to point to the disparities between the dates. Surely a 16th century hoaxer making something mysteriously old-looking would just copy lots of plausible bits onto old vellum?”

“It’s not really like that”, said Graydon. “None of these dates are exact, not even the radiocarbon dating. Yet they come from such different directions – radiocarbon, Art History, palaeography, history of science. A hoaxer would need a very much more multimedia notion of what it means to be old than was in play during the 16th century. Piece all those fragments together, and an overall story does emerge: it’s just that it’s not a 16th century story. Hence we can basically rule out John Dee and Edward Kelly as authors.”

“Oooh, your ex-wife definitely won’t like that“, smiled Emm. “But I don’t think it’s going to be enough to sink her ship. What about the cryptography – can you prove it’s a cipher?”

Graydon’s face dropped. “Really, that’s what’s been bothering me for the last couple of years or so – it’s why my PhD has taken so long. Pass those new scans, let’s see what Mrs Kurtz has got for me…”

The first one was something he’d asked for five years ago: multispectral scans of the “michiton oladabas” marginalia, highlighting the different inks used. Mapping iron, carbon and phosphorus to red, green and blue, the page came alive with layered detail, laying out what was clearly… a tangled, gritty mess.

“Oh no“, he groaned, “we don’t have anything like the weeks it would take to sort this out. But at least the ‘nichil obstat‘ part is reasonably clear now.”

Emm shrugged blankly. “Which means…?”

“…’that it contains nothing contrary to faith or morals’. Essentially, it would seem that a 15th century church censor – possibly a bishop – has examined the manuscript and decided that its contents weren’t anti the Church. Nice to know, but not hugely informative.”

On they went to the next scan, and to the next, and the next, only to find that they all told the same tangled ur-story. Though there were plenty of subtly-sedimented ink layers in all the trickiest sections, there was nothing to be found that could obviously be used to disprove hoax theories… really, nothing at all. It was evening now, almost time for the Beinecke to shut for the day: Emm idly looked across to Mrs Kurtz’s cameo-lapelled grey coat hung up in the corner, and wondered where she was.

“Let’s try that first scan again”, Graydon sighed wearily. The pair of them looked again at the back page’s spectrally-enhanced marginalia, their faces pressed close to each other, both now squinting at the mysterious top line, tracing out the ductus, weft and weave of the letters with their fingers.

Graydon could feel the skin on Emm’s cheek buzzing hot with their intensely shared concentration: he was sharply reminded of the intensity of his marriage to Marina. For all the sexual bravado and defensive sparkiness of Emm’s verbal fencing, working with her in this way was provoking feelings in Graydon that nobody since Marina had managed. The timing was just plain wrong, and he hated to admit it, but right now his mind was turned on.

“It all makes sense apart from that last word”, Emm was saying, several thousand miles away from his runaway train of thought. “Por le bon Simon Sint… what?” She grabbed his hand and started carefully tracing out the super-enlarged letters with his index finger, as if he was the quill, her quill. However, her attempt at reconstructive history was having a dramatically different effect on Graydon from the one intended. It now wasn’t just his mind that was turned on.

For a minute that seemed to stretch out into an hour or a day, his gaze tennis-matched back and forth between the word she was tracing out imperfectly with his finger and her implausibly attractive face. Even though time was rapidly running out, he felt there was something he really had to tell her. “Emm”, he began, dredging the words out, “I really think we should…”

And then the door burst open: it was the security guard Davis, with a wrecked, slapped look to his face. “You better come quick. Mrs Kurtz is in trouble. Miss Lyonne gave her the kiss of life: an ambulance is on its way.”

They ran, taking ten steps at a time down the stairs to the reading room area. And there she was, lying on the floor by the desk, glasses askew but still on the chain round her neck, her skin white-grey as high winter cloud. Marina, sitting on the floor next to the librarian and holding her limp hand, looked wearily up at Emm and Graydon. “Heart attack”, she mouthed at them.

For a few moments, they all stuck in position in an awkward tableau, unsure what to say or do: then Davis reappeared with the paramedics in tow, and the whole resuscitatory logic took over.

Before long, Gray, Emm, and Marina found themselves outside the Beinecke in the cool evening air, an odd silence having fallen over them all. The Voynich didn’t seem important any more.

“So, this your new girlfriend?”, Marina sniped artlessly at Graydon.

“Why, yes she is”, interjected Emm, and before Gray could say a word had dragged him into an intensely full-on kiss. “Still, no time to rake over old ground, lots of new furrows to plough, we’ll see you in the morning, Miss Lyonne.” She swiftly yanked Graydon away from Marina’s burning red gape and off into the night.

As they marched away from the library, Graydon whispered to her “Err… am I going to regret asking you what that was all about?”

Emm paused: “It originally was a spur of the moment thing, but the more I think about it, the more support you’re going to need. After all, tomorrow will probably be the hardest day of your life.”

“Errr… sorry?” Graydon stammered.

Emm sighed. “For a bright bloke, you’re not very fast, are you? With poor Mrs Kurtz in hospital…”

But their conversation was interrupted in stereo by the same text message arriving at both their mobile phones:

Dear lovebirds (smile, you’re on CCTV), the Provost needs to see you ASAP. Perhaps you’ll join him for dinner at the Skull & Bones club at 8pm? A.Friend.

[Here are links to chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Enjoy!]

* * * * * * *

Absent-mindedly dusting breadcrumbs off a beard no longer there, Graydon Harvitz paused in thought at the glass doors of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Was the building a sublime symphony in concrete for keeping old books alive, or a big ugly mausoleum for entombing struggling grads?

More immediately, was his ex-wife Marina there to bury the hatchet or to twist the knife?

He tried – not entirely successfully, it has to be said – to console himself that she was almost certainly far too busy servicing her own self-gratificatory academic career to try to destroy his rapidly withering vineage. Taking a deep breath and holding grimly on to that reassuring feeling of irrelevance, he launched himself inside: but, as had always been the case, Marina caught sight of him within microseconds and marched over, her red hair and sharp eyes a visual siren, ringing alarm bells deep in his soul.

“Graydon, you useless ass,” she spat, missing neither a semiquaver nor a beat, “if you’ve checked into Planet Yale to rain on my freakin’ parade…”

“Nice to see you too, Marina”, he soothed, “glad those anger management classes are finally paying off.”

They stood there in the lobby, gladiatorially nose to nose. The time that they’d loved each other so intensely, feasting on each other’s rich minds and young bodies in an intellectual and physical fugue, was so long ago now – it may as well have been another life entirely. Everyone had said they’d been mad to get married while still at college: and yes, everyone had indeed been proved right. Guess that’s what happens when you surround yourself with clever bastards, he mused.

“So”, she glared, “still using blank maps to hunt for a snark?”

“I prefer to think of it”, Graydon murmured, “as trying to pick the right snark. A lot of fish in that sea.”

It was, of course, the Voynich Manuscript that had ripped them apart. Right at the height of their mutual obsession, Marina had seen a lecture on the tables and grilles Gordon Rugg asserted had been used to construct its “Voynichese” text, and had been simply electrified. In a moment, the polarities of all the mysterious deep magnetisms holding the couple together – the passion, the logic, the sheer quest-iness – had been dramatically reversed. Everything that had joined them so tightly suddenly divided them with equal force.

And now it was the Voynich Manuscript that had brought them back together, if only for a day. Or rather, for however long during that day Graydon could manage to avoid being killed by her.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the film crew surreptitiously filming their spat. “You’d better get back to your Quattrocento Candid Camera”, he said to her, methodically rotating a middle finger to the vertical in the direction of the cameraman. “The French love their romans historiques, don’t they?”

“Actually, it’s part of a series on the science of meaninglessness and hoaxes”, she sniffed, “not that a mid-ranking historian such as you would recognise capital-S ‘Science’ if it stamped on your damn foot.”

Oh yes: hadn’t she just loved leaping on C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” Arts vs Science bandwagon, as yet another way of post-rationalizing and institutionalizing their separation. Really, Marina was not unlike the “little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead”: when she was good, she was very very good – but when she was bad, she was utterly horrid. In that way, her logic was resolutely Aristotelian: unable to even exist in the excluded middle between the two extrema of true and false.

Yet since their divorce, Graydon had found himself becoming ever greyer: though not in the sense of being dull, but rather that he found his belief in the black and white certainties that Marina worked with gradually fading. Working so long with the Voynich Manuscript’s overlapping uncertainties had stripped him of his ability to see things in absolute terms.

And then – suddenly jolting them both out of bullet-time back to the present – Mrs Kurtz came over and gently took Marina’s arm, leading her off towards the stairs, to the room downstairs that had inevitably been prepped up for the filming. And as they turned to move away, Graydon could swear – for one curious moment – that he saw the formidable Mrs Kurtz wink at him. What? Mrs Kurtz, winking at him? What was that all about?

As the building quickly swallowed up the two women and the crew, the elderly security guard came over from the front desk and silently handed him a note. Graydon opened it out:

“Davis will let you through to the staff room. Lots to do! Emm x”

The guard wordlessly guided him round to the door and keyed in the access code. As he went through, Graydon was amazed to see the staff room table filled with dossiers, scans, diagrams, graphs, and even pictures of him. Behind them sat Emm deep in beautiful thought, running her fingers over ultra-high-resolution micro-photographs of the Voynich Manuscript he didn’t know existed. The unexpected notion that the Beinecke curators had some Voynich secrets they didn’t want let out began to form in his mind… but all the same, it did have the air of a somewhat creepy job interview.

“Do you expect me to talk, Miss Goldfinger?”, he said.

“No, Mr Harvitz, I expect you to die!”, Emm replied, “particularly if you keep butting up against your ex-wife like that.”

“OK… but would it be rude of me to ask, ummm… what the heck’s going on here?”

“It’s very simple”, Emm plonked. “Marina’s here to prove that the Beinecke’s star exhibit is garbage. But Mrs Kurtz has other ideas. And, much as we all hate the concept, right now you’re probably the library’s only hope.”

“You mean, Mrs Kurtz wants li’l ol’ me to find a way to rescue the Voynich Manuscript’s reputation while simultaneously destroying my bitter ex-wife’s international TV career and getting my PhD?”

“Yup, that’s basically it. So, behind your back over the last few weeks, Mrs Kurtz has been secretly getting you all the ammunition you’ll need. As long as you load the gun, she’s more than happy to fire it. Sorry, I thought you’d worked all that out already.”

Graydon paused, perplexed, the politics and permutations pirouetting precipitously in his washing-machine mind.

“I… guess I only really have one question. Where do I sign?”