Anyone with a reasonably capacious memory for Voynich trivia will probably recall Tim Mervyn’s name. He has appeared in various Voynich TV documentaries, and has been grinding away on his ‘K:D:P’ (Kelley:Dee:Pucci) theory for many years (this was briefly summarized in Kennedy & Churchill’s book).

He has now resurfaced with six reasonably substantial essays (though not yet fully published yet, I think) giving his version of his three protagonists’ stories, as well as how he believes that these separate strands came together to yield the twisted and tangled shape of the Voynich Manuscript. In short, he thinks that it was Kelley:Dee:Pucci who created it, but that rather than being a hoax (e.g. via Gordon Rugg’s CompSci-inspired Cardan grilles), it’s actually a real cipher (albeit a rather complicated one).

I have to say that one hugely annoying thing about the way he presents his arguments is that he spends a whole lot of time specifically rubbishing Rene Zandbergen, for reasons that are neither accurate nor fair. Mervyn seems to believe (a) that Rene is hugely dogmatic about a 15th century dating (he really isn’t), and (b) that the only evidence Rene could possibly rely on to support such a dogmatic dating is the radiocarbon dating (it isn’t).

In fact, Mervyn’s arguments against a 15th century origin for the Voynich Manuscript are particularly superficial (he comes across as thinking that everything after D’Imperio is essentially nonsense), while his external arguments (e.g. against people proposing such obviously-crazy non-16th-century dating) are of the “well-they-would-say-that-wouldn’t-they” variety. This unfortunately weakens and cheapens what he’s trying to do, whereas I think he’s got quite an interesting story to tell, one which will take me a fair while to properly deal with here. For what it’s worth, I think he should have put more effort into bullet-proofing his own arguments rather than airily dismissing everyone else’s.

Still, I’m really excited about what Mervyn is doing, though for a reason he might not have expected. Without going all TL;DR on you, I have long argued that almost all John Dee literature tends to fall into exactly one of only two very precisely defined camps:

* “John Dee the magus, astrologer, angel summoner and esoteric magician”
* “Dr John Dee, the independent scholar and wannabe Elizabethan courtier”

Yet for me, though, there’s a third side of Dee that has almost no literature at all:

* John Dee, the would-be Court cryptographer

For example, many sections of Dee & Kelley’s angel séance texts boil down, in my opinion, to nothing more complex than accounts of experimental cryptography, a reading which fits both main camps extremely badly. And yet nobody has stepped forward to write about this at all, which I think is a large lacuna in the literature landscape.

So to my eyes, then, even if Mervyn’s six essays fail to give a satisfying account of the Voynich Manuscript (which I have to say from my first read-through looks broadly to be the case, though there is much of specific 16th century interest there all the same), they may well prove to be the first modern examples of the cryptographic Dee literature I’ve been waiting for for such a terribly long time.

…or are there more Dee-as-cryptographer books out there? My old friend and virtual sparring partner Glen Claston was himself very much taken with Dee’s cryptography, but never published anything (to my knowledge): so please let me know via the comments sections here if you know of any papers, articles or even book sections that cover this. Thanks!

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. 🙂

This coming Friday, well-known Voynich Manuscript researcher Rene Zandbergen will (briefly) be in London, hence this impromptu Voynich pub meet announcement. 🙂


If you’d like to come along, Rene, Philip Neal and I will be – from 5.30pm to 6pm onwards – at the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, an historic London pub with its own riverside gallows especially for pirates. So if you do happen to have a wooden leg, an eye-patch and a bag bulging with pieces of eight, be aware of the potential for mishap. 🙂

If it’s a nice-ish day (i.e. not raining torrentially), the chances are that we’ll be in the beer garden / patio area – go through the pub, turn left after the main bar, and continue forward to an outside area. Good for dogs, too (particularly if you’re John Kozak, *hint*).

But if it’s a wet day (and let’s face it, that’s the English summer to a ‘T’), be aware that we could end up anywhere in the pub’s two floors. If so, mooch around looking for a table with a slightly tattered copy of “Le Code Voynich” on, and you’re almost certainly in the right place. Hope to see some of you there!

…though not at all from the nice Frascati DOC we were pleasantly plied with at lunchtime on the Friday.

No: rather, my head is still buzzing from the giant mass of tangled, fascinating stuff that came my way – some from the presentations, but a lot from conversations and spirited debates. So alas, anyone hoping that I’ll post some kind of a conference-in-a-nutshell micro-report here is going to be sadly disappointed: it’s going to take me months to work through it all, there’s just too much.

So, in no particular order, what you broadly have to look forward to is:
* My reflections on the radiocarbon dating
* Voynich and the Rosicrucians (yes, really!)
* Rich SantaColoma’s ‘Optical Instruments Hypothesis’ (but radically revisited)
* Claudio Foti’s new ‘Poggio Bracciolini’ hypothesis
* Rafal Prinke’s news on Baresch & Sinapius
* Rene Zandbergen’s discussion of Carl Widemann
* Johannes Albus’s new angle on f116v’s maddening marginalia
* Why I think Voynich statistics are a roadblock, not a bridge
* The three next big challenges – scans, error rates, language mapping
* etc

PS: having said all that, if you were there and have any neat photographs you’d like to share, please upload them to one of the many filesharing sites out there and send me through a link to them, as it would be quite nice to put together a bit of a visual walkthrough here. (Thanks Karsten for your photos!)

A Happy New Year to all Cipher Mysteries readers, for it might well be a good year for historical cipher mystery research!

As doubtless most of you know, 1912 was the year when Wilfrid Voynich [very probably] bought the “ugly duckling” artefact now named after him from the Villa Mondragone in Frascati in Italy, making this year (in the absence of any specific dating evidence) its modern centenary.

Now, the media love centenaries (e.g. Charles Dickens’ 2012 bicentenary) because it’s news that they can project manage in advance; and so this Voynich Manuscript centenary is bound to inspire plenty of glossy magazine articles and perhaps even documentaries and films. In fact, I know there’s at least 22 minutes of new Voynich TV documentary coming this Autumn, because the director had me running round in an Italian heatwave to make it (though as normal, I’m not allowed to talk about it until it’s all announced la-la-la).

But how should we best celebrate a hundred years of patchy history, failed cryptology and hallucinogenic theorizing? [Well, apart from cracking its cipher, of course. 😉 ] The longstanding joke on Jim Reeds’ VMs Mailing List (before it lost both its momentum and its way) was that we’d all share a pizza to celebrate breaking the Voynich, with the slices loosely signifying the many contributions different people made. Yet as the decades have accumulated, this jokey pizza base has worn rather thin: the Voynichian collaborational camaraderie dwindled long ago, to the point that we now have little or no consensus on even basic aspects: the sweet taste of Voynich success pizza looks likely to elude us for some time.

All the same, I’ve long thought it would be really great if we could collectively do something for 2012, if only to stop lazy journalists and bloggers cutting-and-pasting the Wikipedia Voynich Manuscript article for the thousandth time. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could conjure up – however fleetingly – a real-world forum where well-informed, thoughtful people could, well, just talk sensibly and openly about the manuscript, its curious text, its odd drawings, its murky history, its codicology… a bit like a “Voynich pub meet” but to the nth degree…

And so it is with very great pleasure that I am delighted to announce that an international Voynich conference has been organized for 11th May 2012 at the Sala degli Svizzeri at the Villa Mondragone itself, no less. The organizers are Claudio Foti (author of an Italian Voynich book) and Voynich researchers Michelle Smith and Rene Zandbergen: even though booking for attendees doesn’t open till 1st February 2012, would it be forward of me to hope that I see many of you there?

It’s entirely true that I’ve agreed to give one of the presentations: but don’t let that put you off 😀 , there are plenty of high-calibre attendees who may well be speaking too, such as (though none of these are yet confirmed):-
* Rene Zandbergen – long-term Voynich researcher, & creator of the excellent
* Greg Hodgins – carried out the recent vellum radiocarbon dating
* Joe Barabe – performed the ink and paint analysis for McCrone Associates
* Paula Zyats – Assistant Chief Conservator at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
* Rafal Prinke – expert on the history of alchemy (and all kinds of other wonderful stuff)
* Philip Neal – long-term Voynich researcher and Latinist (translated many Kircher letters)
* etc

I don’t yet know if the whole day is going to be podcasted, webinared, or Twitter hashtagged. Frankly, I hope that it is, because I do appreciate that not everyone can afford to take a couple of days off from their working life to engorge (on fantastic Italian food) and engage (in Voynich-related chat). All the same, all credit to Messers Foti, Smith & Zandbergen for making this splendid thing possible – and let’s hope that it encourages someone with sufficient leverage to convince the Beinecke curators to allow a multispectral scan for Paula Zyats to announce at the conference… wouldn’t that be great! 😀

I recently found an old email from Sander Manche mentioning his Voynich blog: going through its pages just now, one particular post on letters hidden in Voynich plants jumped out at me. To be precise, it discussed a single symbol that appears to have been hidden in the middle of the plant drawings on both f20r…

…and f32r…

Sander wondered whether this might be an ultra-rare Voynichese letter. It’s not, but I think it’s something even better: a “p”-like letter that appears both in the marginalia and hidden in a separate Voynich plant drawing. I discussed this subject at some length back in 2010, but the upshot is that f9v (the “viola tricolor” page, A.K.A. “love in idleness), the marginalia on f66r (once) and the marginalia on f116v (twice) all contain this same character. Here’s what they look like (ignore the f4r part):-

Incidentally, there’s an interesting 2011 page from P. Han describing the viola on f9v, concluding (as I think others have done) that it was drawn upside down from life by an artist rather than a botanist, who tried to depict both the front and back views of the plant.

What are these “p”-like shapes for? Why did the author(s) bother to add them? I don’t necessarily buy into René Zandbergen’s idea that the letter-triple on f9v reads “rot”, an instruction to a German-speaking colourist to paint the drawing’s petals red. (For a start, viola tricolor isn’t even slightly red.) But all the same, I’d really like to see multispectral scans of f9v so that we can better work out exactly what is going on there. For now, f9v remains a mystery.

All three appear in Currier A / Hand 1 herbal pages, but otherwise have no obvious connection: I’d suggest that these might have been the first (“primum“) pages of individual quires in the original plaintext. That is, I suspect that these “p”-shapes might in some way be encrypted ‘Herbal A’ quire marks. Fascinatingly, the shapes appear to have been added in a slightly different ink (as per the McCrone report,), so perhaps at a different time: which means that a multispectral scan should probably be able to de-layer all such writing.

Personally, I think the presence of Voynichese in the marginalia (both on f116v and on f17r, with the latter only visible under a UV black-lamp) was already pretty close to a slam-dunk proof that most of the marginalia were added by the original author. But in my opinion, also finding the same “p”-like shape apparently concealed in three plant drawings basically makes this whole link a dead cert.

The bigger point here is that at some time, my long-standing inference that nearly all the Voynich Manuscript’s marginalia were added by the original author(s) will probably become some kind of grudgingly-held mainstream opinion: but what of it? So what?

Personally, I think this is a really big deal, because it elevates the whole “michiton oladabas” tangled mess on f116v from a secondary issue (i.e. “it’s something that could conceivably have just happened to the Voynich Manuscript, so we needn’t really worry about it”) to a primary issue (i.e. “it’s an integral part of the original manuscript and we need to understand it”).

A single multispectral scan of f116v would take less than 10 seconds to perform, and might well open a completely different set of research doors to us. Of course, I’m still a bit disappointed that the Beinecke turned my multispectral proposals down in 2006, but hey: doubtless they’ll catch up with me in the end. I’m normally eight years or so ahead of the game, so set your alarm clock for 2013! 🙂

Update: having put all this together, I discovered that (of course) some of it was anticipated by a nice page posted by Reuben Ogburn in 2004. Oh well!

I’ve just watched the National Geographic / Naked Science documentary on the Voynich Manuscript, courtesy of a Stateside friend (thanks!). Regular Cipher Mysteries readers will already know how my review of it is supposed to go – ‘that, despite a few inaccuracies, it was great to see the Voynich Manuscript being brought to a popular audience‘.

But actually, the whole thing made me utterly furious: it was like watching yourself being airbrushed out of a family photograph. Let me get this straight: I researched the history like crazy, reasoned my way to the mid-15th century, stuck my neck out by writing the first properly new book on the Voynich for 30 years, talked with the documentary producers, sent lists of Voynich details for them to look at, got asked to fly out to Austria (though they later withdrew that at the last minute without explanation), kept confidences when asked, etc.

And then, once the film-makers got the radiocarbon dating in their hands, my Milan/Venice Averlino/Filarete theory became the last man standing (Voynich theory-wise). So why did it not get even a passing mention, when just before the end, they thought to edit in a map of Northern Italy with swallowtail-merloned castles and the narrator starts (apropros of nothing) to wonder what will be found in the archives “between Milan and Venice”. Perhaps I’m just being a bit shallow here, but that did feel particularly shabby on their part.

However pleased I am for Edith Sherwood that her Leonardo-made-the-Voynich-so-he-did nonsense merited both screentime and an angelic child actor pretending to be young Leonardo, the fact remains that it was guff before the radiocarbon dating (and arguably double guff afterwards): while much the same goes for all the Dee/Kelly hoax rubbish, which has accreted support more from its longstandingness than anything approaching evidence.

Perhaps the worst thing is that we’re all now supposed to bow down to the radiocarbon dating and start trawling the archives for candidates in the 1404-1438 timeframe. Yet even Rene Zandbergen himself has supplied the evidence for a pretty convincing terminus post quem: MS Vat Gr 1291 was completely unknown in Italy before being bought by Bartolomeo Malipiero as Bishop of Brescia, and so its stylistics could not sensibly have influenced the Voynich before 1457. In fact, 1465 – when the manuscript was carried from Brescia to Rome and became much better known – might even be a more sensible TPQ. And that’s without the cipher alphabet dating (post-1455 or so) and the parallel hatching dating (post-1440 if Florence, post-1450 if elsewhere in Italy).

And I’ll leave you with another thought: a couple of seconds after hearing the Beinecke’s Paula Zyats say “I don’t see any corrections”, the following image got edited in – a part of the f17r marginalia that looks to my eyes precisely like an emendation.

Voynich Manuscript f17r marginalia

Really, what am I supposed to think? *sigh*

For a while, I’ve had an itch (a Voyn-itch, if you prefer) I couldn’t work out how to scratch.

You see… about six years ago, I found an old history book digitized on (if I remember correctly): it related how Francesco Sforza assembled an ongoing ad hoc council of representatives of various city-states surrounding Milan, told them all the inside news of what was going on, and even asked their opinions on what Milan should do – Big Tent politics, Quattrocento-style. These representatives then wrote copious letters back to their rulers, passing on as many of Milan’s secrets as they could remember. Fascinating stuff, so I made a mental note to look the reference up again, because it would be a great place to see if I could find a critical edition of whichever of those despatches still existed, to use them to read around critical dates in my reconstructed Averlino/Voynich narrative, to see if any detail either strengthened or refuted my hypothesis.

But do you think I could ever find that book again? That’s right – not a hope.

So anyway, I’d practically given up on finding those despatches when, while (inevitably) looking for something completely different  this evening, I stumbled upon one stonkingly huge set of them. The sixteen volume series is entitled Carteggio degli oratori mantovani alla Corte Sforzesca (1450-1500), with each slab containing 500 to 700 pages of letters sent from Milan back to the Gonzaga court in Mantua. The ones that seem to have been published so far are:-

1. 1450-1459 / 2. 1460 / 3. 1461 / 4. 1462 / edited by Isabella Lazzarini
5. 1463 / edited by Marco Folin
6. 1464-1465 / 7. 1466-1467 / 8. 1468-1471 / edited by Maria Nadia Covini
10. 1475-1477 / edited by Gianluca Battioni
11. 1478-1479 / edited by Marcello Simonetta
12. 1480-1482 / edited by Gianluca Battioni
15. 1495-1498 / edited by Antonella Grati, Arturo Pacini 

For me, the two most interesting things to look at would be the reception in Milan of the De Re Militari incident which happened sometime in 1461 [Vol.3]; and also August / September  1465 [Vol.6], which is when Domenic Dominici the Bishop of Brescia rode into Milan with his copy of what is now known as ‘Vat. Gr. 1291’ (René Zandbergen’s favourite circular Byzantine nymph-fest, which Fulvio Orsini would then buy), before then leaving  for Rome with (I strongly suspect) Antonio Averlino in tow.

Of course, any other fleeting mention of Antonio Averlino / Filarete in the 1450-1465 volumes of these despatches could well turn out to be extraordinarily useful, never mind any rumours or talk of a mysterious unreadable herbal as well! 🙂 One day I’ll get a chance to go through these myself (because the British Library has a copy of all of the above), and who as yet knows what’s there to be found?

In the meantime, please leave a comment here to tell me if there are any other sets of despatches published or currently being edited that were sent out from Francesco Sforza’s ‘Big Tent’ in Milan circa 1450-1465, thanks very much!

At the start of my own VMs research path, I thought it was important to consider everyone’s observations and interpretations (however, errrm, ‘fruity’) as each one may just possibly contain that single mythical seed of truth which could be nurtured and grown into a substantial tree of knowledge. Sadly, however, it has become progressively clearer to me as time has passed that any resemblance between most Voynich researchers’ interpretations (i.e. not you, dear reader) and what the VMs actually contains is likely to be purely coincidental.

Why is this so? It’s not because Voynich researchers are any less perceptive or any more credulous than ‘mainstream’ historians (who are indeed just as able to make fools of themselves when the evidence gets murky, as Voynich evidence most certainly is). Rather, I think it is because there are some ghosts in our path – illusory notions that mislead and hinder us as we try to move forward.

So: in a brave (but probably futile) bid to exorcise these haunted souls, here is my field guide to what I consider the four main ghosts who gently steer people off the (already difficult) road into the vast tracts of quagmire just beside it…

Ghost #1:  “the marginalia must be enciphered, and so it is a waste of time to try to read them”

I’ve heard this from plenty of people, and recently even from a top-tier palaeographer (though it wasn’t David Ganz, if you’re asking). I’d fully agree that…

  • The Voynich Manuscript’s marginalia are in a mess
  • To be precise, they are in a near-unreadable state
  • They appear to be composed of fragments of different languages
  • There’s not a lot of them to work with, yet…
  • There is a high chance that these were written by the author or by someone remarkably close to the author’s project

As with most non-trick coins, there are two quite different sides you can spin all this: either as (a) good reasons to run away at high speed, or as (b) heralds calling us to great adventure. But all the same, running away should be for properly rational reasons: whereas simply dismissing the marginalia as fragments of an eternally-unreadable ciphertext seems to be simply an alibi for not rising to their challenge – there seems (the smattering of Voynichese embedded in them aside) no good reason to think that this is written in cipher.

Furthermore, the awkward question here is that given that the VMs’ author was able to construct such a sophisticated cipher alphabet and sustain it over several hundred pages in clearly readable text, why add a quite different (but hugely obscure) one on the back page in such unreadable text?

(My preferred explanation is that later owners emended the marginalia to try to salvage its (already noticeably faded) text: but for all their good intentions, they left it in a worse mess than the one they inherited. And this is a hypothesis that can be tested directly with multispectral and/or Raman scanning.)

Ghost  #2: “the current page order was the original page order, or at least was the direct intention of the original author”

As evidence for this, you could point out that the quire numbers and folio numbers are basically in order, and that pretty much all the obvious paint transfers between pages occurred in the present binding order (i.e. the gathering and nesting order): so why should the bifolio order be wrong?

Actually, there are several good reasons: for one, Q13 (“Quire 13”) has a drawing that was originally rendered across the central fold of a bifolio as an inside bifolio. Also, a few long downstrokes on some early Herbal quires reappear in the wrong quire completely. And the (presumably later) rebinding of Q9 has made the quire numbering subtly inconsistent with the folio numbering. Also, the way that Herbal A and Herbal B pages are mixed up, and the way that the handwriting on adjacent pages often changes styles dramatically would seem to indicate some kind of scrambling has taken place right through the herbal quires. Finally, it seems highly likely that the original second innermost bifolio on Q13 was Q13’s current outer bifolio (but inside out!), which would imply that at least some bifolio scrambling took place even before the quire numbers were added.

Yet some smart people (most notably Glen Claston) continue to argue that this ghost is a reality: and why would GC be wrong about this when he is so meticulous about other things? I suspect that the silent partner to his argument here is Leonell Strong’s claimed decipherment: and that some aspect of that decipherment requires that the page order we now see can only be the original. It, of course, would be wonderful if this were true: but given that I remain unconvinced that Strong’s “(0)135797531474” offset key is correct (or even historically plausible for the mid-15th century, particularly when combined with a putative set of orthographic rules that the encipherer is deemed to be trying to follow), I have yet to accept this as de facto codicological evidence.

To be fair, GC now asserts that the original author consciously reordered the pages according to some unknown guiding principle, deliberately reversing bifolios, swapping them round and inserting extra bifolios so that their content would follow some organizational plan we currently have no real idea about. Though this is a pretty sophisticated attempt at a save, I’m just not convinced: I’m pretty sure (for example) that Q9 and the pharma quires were rebound for handling convenience – in Q9’s case, this involved rebinding it along a different fold to make it less lopsided, while in the pharma quires’ case, I suspect that all the wide bifolios from the herbal section were simply stitched together for convenience.

Ghost #3: “Voynichese is a single language that remained static during the writing process”

If you stand at the foot of a cliff and de-focus your gaze to take in the whole vertical face in one go, you’d never be able to climb it: you’d be overawed by the entire vast assembly. No: the way to make such an ascent is to strategize an overall approach and tackle it one hand- and foot-hold at a time. Similarly, I think many Voynich researchers seem to stand agog at the vastness of the overall ciphertext challenge they face: whereas in fact, with the right set of ideas (and a good methodology) it should really be possible to crack it one page (or one paragraph, line, word, or perhaps even letter) at a time.

Yet the problem is that many researchers rely on aggregating statistics calculated over the entire manuscript, when common sense shows that different parts have very different profiles – not just Currier A and Currier B, but also labels, radial lines, circular fragments, etc. I also think it extraordinarily likely that a number of “space insertion ciphers” have been used in various places to break up long words and repeating patterns (both of which are key cryptographic tells). Therefore, I would caution all Voynich researchers relying on statistical evidence for their observations that they should be extremely careful about selecting pragmatic subsets of the VMs when trying to draw conclusions.

Happily, some people (most notably Marke Fincher and Rene Zandbergen) have come round to the idea that the Voynichese system evolved over the course of the writing process – but even they don’t yet seem comfortable with taking this idea right to its limit. Which is this: that if we properly understood the dynamics by which the Voynichese system evolved, we would be able to re-sequence the pages into their original order of construction (which should be hugely revealing in its own right), and then start to reach towards an understanding of the reasons for that evolution – specfically, what type of cipher “tells” the author was trying to avoid presenting.

For example: “early” pages neither have word-initial “l-” nor do we see the word “qol” appear, yet this is very common later. If we compare the Markov states for early and late pages, could we identify what early-page structure that late-page “l-” is standing in for? If we can do this, then I think we would get a very different perspective on the stats – and on the nature of the ‘language’ itself. And similarly for other tokens such as “cXh” (strikethrough gallows), etc.

Ghost #4: “the text and paints we see have remained essentially unchanged over time”

It is easy to just take the entire artefact as a fait accompli – something presented to our modern eyes as a perfect expression of an unknown intention (this is usually supported by arguments about the apparently low number of corrections). If you do, the trap you can then fall headlong in is to try to rationalize every feature as deliberate. But is that necessarily so?

Jorge Stolfi has pointed out a number of places where it looks as though corrections and emendations have been made, both to the text and to the drawings, with perhaps the most notorious “layerer” of all being his putative “heavy painter” – someone who appears to have come in at a late stage (say, late 16th century) to beautify the mostly-unadorned drawings with a fairly slapdash paint job.

Many pages also make me wonder about the assumption of perfection, and possibly none more so than f55r. This is the herbal page with the red lead lines still in the flowers which I gently parodied here: it is also (unusually) has two EVA ‘x’ characters on line 8. There’s also an unusual word-terminal “-ai” on line 10 (qokar or arai o ar odaiiin) [one of only three in the VMs?], a standalone “dl” word on line 12 [sure, dl appears 70+ times, but it still looks odd to me], and a good number of ambiguous o/a characters. To my eye, there’s something unfinished and imperfectly corrected about both the text and the pictures here that I can’t shake off, as if the author had fallen ill while composing it, and tidied it up in a state of distress or discomfort: it just doesn’t feel as slick as most pages.

I have also had a stab at assessing likely error rates in the VMs (though I can’t now find the post, must have noted it down wrong) and concluded that the VMs is, just as Tony Gaffney points out with printed ciphers, probably riddled with copying errors.

No: unlike Paul McCartney’s portable Buddha statue, the Voynich Manuscript’s inscrutability neither implies inner perfection nor gives us a glimmer of peace. Rather, it shouts “Mu!” and forces us to microscopically focus on its imperfections so that we can move past its numerous paradoxes – all of which arguably makes the VMs the biggest koan ever constructed. Just so you know! 🙂

As should be pretty clear from my posts over the years, I’m a big fan of René Zandbergen: he’s one of the very few Voynich researchers that have managed to keep a consistently clear head over the years, and it is his generally even-handed approach that casts a pleasantly affable shadow over, the website he put together many years ago and still one of the few genuinely useful general-purpose Voynich research resources in Internetland. (Please don’t get me started on the uselessness of the Wikipedia page, I want to keep this under 1000 words).

And so in many ways the news that René has now taken back control of (he stopped updating it in 2004, and then handed it over to Dana Scott to look after for a few years) and begun an HTML makeover on it comes as a very pleasant surprise. It’s already looking much better, and no doubt it will carry on improving for a while yet.

I suppose the key question, though, boils down to this: really, what have we learnt about the VMs in the last six years? And how does the whole programme fit in with where we are now?

It’s important to remember that René’s website, for all its substance, is not some kind of “Encyclopaedia Voynichiana“, trying to compile every comment ever made on every feature, drawing, paragraph, line, word, letter. Rather, it concerns itself at least as much with the historiography of the VMs as with the VMs itself. For some people, that is a strength: yet for me, that remains its central weakness. The basic historiographic problem is that the VMs’ provenance shudders to an awkward halt circa 1608, even though it is (demonstrably, I believe) significantly older than this – in fact, if the recent radiocarbon dating is broadly reliable, the VMs probably predates its appearance at the Rudolfine court by more than 150 years. Which is a bit like trying to use Twitter to grasp the dynamics of Queen Victoria’s court.

What, then, should a 2010 look like? In many important ways, we’ve lost all the major archival battles: Marci pointed us to Kircher and Kircher pointed us to Baresch (and that was the end of that), while Rudolph II and WMV jointly got us to Sinapius (and that was the end of that). All of which formed a pleasant historical pear tree to climb, but ultimately one with no fruit, low-hanging or otherwise. We have all the pathology of a history, but none of the substance: for all the patient research fun trawling the archives can be, this approach has not helped us.

And from where I’m sitting, the minute we start defocussing to allow the tsunami of historical possibilities and dead-end theories to wash over us (Wikipedia, anyone?), we’ve basically lost the epistemological fight too. The annoying thing about the VMs is that even though it really is, as I once noted, like a million piece jigsaw, it would probably only take 20 or 30 carefully chosen observations about Voynichese to unlock its cipher. But which 20 or 30 would be the key? We’ll only know in retrospect, I guess. 🙂

Perhaps a revised circa 2010 should focus not on its (let’s face it, fairly damaged and unhelpful) historiography, but rather on what we’ve genuinely learnt about the VMs in and of itself: by which I mean things like…

  • the difference between Currier A and Currier B (and all the shades inbetween)
  • reconstructing the original page order
  • places where the cipher breaks down and/or is hacked (such as space insertion ciphers)
  • apparent copying errors
  • letter stroke construction and variations
  • document constructional details, gatherings vs quires
  • marginalia
  • internal layering
  • the various painters
  • handwriting differences and evolution

All of which is very “Voynich 2.0”, but there you go. Really, we do now know a great deal about the VMs that isn’t to do with Marci, Newbold, Brumbaugh, etc: in fact, we have plenty of reasons to be optimistic if we but allow ourselves to be!