Following the Volkskalender and Cisiojanus logical train of thought to its next station along, the question comes whether there might be any other information we have about the Voynich zodiac nymphs that could give us a second angle to drive down, to form a kind of pincer attack.

Alert Cipher Mysteries readers might swiftly point out here that there is indeed one particular zodiac nymph that might be of interest. This is the crowned nymph on the Leo page, which I first discussed here back in 2015.


(Note that the Voynich Manuscript has two other crowned zodiac nymphs, one in Cancer and the other in Libra: but in both of these cases, the crown seems to have been added as a separate codicological layer.)

If (as I’m currently wondering) the zodiac section is ultimately some kind of embellished Volkskalender month tables, then it might well prove to be that case that this crowned Leo nymph is flagging a saint’s day or a feast day that had particular significance to the Voynich Manuscript’s composer / author / compiler.

And given that the fifteenth century Volkskalender tradition normally placed the Leo zodiac roundel on the page for July, a reasonable starting point would surely be examining Saint’s days (memorials) or feast days in July during the fifteenth century.

Saint’s Days in July

So what feast days are there in July? Sadly, the scribe of the Volkskalender I was looking at before got bored of copying the Cisiojanus syllables by the time he got to July, so we’ll instead start with the version from the German Cisiojanus Wikipedia page:

júl proces údal oc wíl ¦ kili frá bene márgar apóst al
árnolfús prax mág ¦ ap chríst jacobíque sim ábdon

The (1430) Kalendarium in Ms. GkS 79 2° in Copenhagen’s Royal Library has a nice clear Cisiojanus July list, transcribed here by Erik Drigsdahl as:

1. Iul – (Jul(i))
2. **** pro – Processio Marie
3. ces
4. o – (Odalrici
5. dal
6. oc – (Octava apostolorum)
7. et – @@@@
8. ki – (Kiliani m.)
9. li
10. fra – (Septem fratrum)
11. be – (Benedicti abb.)
12. ne
13. **** mar – Margarete v.
14. gar
15. **** ap – Divisio apostolorum
16. pos-
17. tol – @@@@
18. Ar – (Arnulphi ep.)
19. nol-
20. phus
21. prax – (Praxedis v.)
22. **** Mag – Maria Magdalene
23. ap – (Apollinaris ep.)
24. cris – (Cristine v.)
25. **** ia – Jacobi ap.
26. co-
27. bi
28. pan – (Pantaleonis m.) – @@@@
29. **** oll – (Ollego) – @@@@
30. ab – Abdon (et Sennen mr.)
31. don.

For the sake of clarity, lines with @@@@ are slightly different from the Wikipedia Cisiojanus, while lines starting **** and marked here in bold were originally marked in red (“rubricated”) in the 1430 Kalendarium to indicate that they were feast days:
* 2nd July – The Visitation of The Blessed Virgin Mary
* 13th July – St Margaret of Antioch (I believe “v.” is short here for ‘virginis et martyris’)
* 15th July – The Dispersion of the Apostles
* 22nd July – St Mary Magdalene
* 25th July – St James the Greater (the Apostle)
* 29th July – St Ollego (a saint local to the Hainaut region, according to this analysis of Ms. GkS 79 2°, but given that the Cisiojanus mnemonics were copied and adapted all across Europe, I’d point out that it’s difficult to know whether this was added here or copied as-is from a previous document’s Cisiojanus mnemonic)

The Candidates

2nd July: The Visitation of The Blessed Virgin Mary is always going to be a likely feast to link a crowned nymph to: but there are other Marian feasts throughout the year, and why don’t they too have a similar crown?

13th July: this is the Greek feast day of St Margaret of Antioch (known there as St Marina, but normally celebrated in the West on 20th July). St Margaret was one of the saints who spoke (posthumously) to Joan of Arc. “Her remains were […] divided between shrines in Montefiascone and Venice”: many cults grew up around her, Exeter also claiming to have her skull, for example.

According to this site:

She prayed at her death that women in childbirth would, upon calling on her, be safely delivered of their child as she had been delivered from the belly of the dragon. She is also known as the patron saint of women, nurses, and peasants. She also intercedes for those who call on her from their deathbed.

15th July: The Dispersion of the Apostles doesn’t strike me as a particularly crownable feast: but perhaps some may think otherwise. It is what it is.

22nd July: oddly, even though in the modern Catholic Church this is a feast day (St Mary Magdalene), this was only made so by Pope Francis: before 2013, it was only a memorial day. Yet from the above, it would seem that it was (locally) considered to be a feast day.

“Da Vinci Code” and “Holy Blood Holy Grail” (etc) aside, there would seem to be moderately good reason to consider that what we are looking at here might be specifically to do with Mary Magdalene. She was, according to this Catholic site:

Patron of contemplative life, converts, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, people ridiculed for their piety, perfumeries, pharmacists, sexual temptation, tanners, women.

25th July: St James the Greater. He was “the patron saint of veterinarians and pharmacists”. So it would seem as though late medieval pharmacists were spoilt for choice as to which Saint to place their trust in. But was he crownable? I’m not sure.

29th July: St Ollego (presumably Oleg, perhaps a Polish saint?) I don’t know anything about.

And So My Candidate Cribs Are…

Putting all the above together, the most likely crib for the crowned Leo nymph’s label would seem to be one of:
* “pro” (for “Processio Marie”), [though I suspect this may be the weakest of the three]
* “mar” (for St Margaret of Antioch), or
* “mag” (for St Mary Magdalene)

This may not sound like much at first, but when you combine these possibilities with the labels that appear for adjacent nymphs, it may well yield surprisingly fruitful results. Hopefully we shall see… 🙂

I thought I’d post up a quick thought that came to me just now while looking at Fribourg Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire Ms. L 309 (which is yet another volkskalender, naturally). There, the page for January (f2r) begins as follows (top left):

Here, underlined in green (by me), you can see the first two big feasts of the year – 1st January (“Circumcisio Domini”) and 6th January (“Epiphania Domini”). You can also see (beneath the green arrow) the famous “Cisiojanus” mnemonic, one syllable per day.


I first posted about “Cisiojanus” back in 2009, after Steve Herbelin had suggested that the circular diagram on Voynich Manuscript page f67r2 might possibly contain at least some of it in its text. What’s particularly interesting here is that while the usual version of the mnemonic begins…

  1. cí → circumcisio domini, the Feast of the Circumcision
  2. si → (continuation)
  3. o → (continuation)
  4. ján(a reminder that this is the couplet for January)
  5. us(a reminder that this is the couplet for January)
  6. ep → epiphanias, Epiphany
  7. í → (continuation)
  8. si → (null)
  9. bi → (null)

…what we see in Ms L 309 is subtly different…

  1. cí → circumcisio domini, the Feast of the Circumcision
  2. si → (continuation)
  3. o → (continuation)
  4. ján(a reminder that this is the couplet for January)
  5. us(a reminder that this is the couplet for January)
  6. ep → epiphanias, Epiphany
  7. í → (continuation)
  8. er → erhard, short for St. Erhard of Regensburg (whose feast day is 8th January)
  9. hard → (continuation)

What seems to me to have happened here is that the Cisiojanus mnemonic had, in a previous version of the same calendar, been adapted for a south-western German audience. That is, the otherwise meaningless “si-bi” syllable pair in the original version had been replaced by “er-hard” to include the local saint’s name, so that his 8th January feast day would be remembered and celebrated in the couplet. And yet the scribe copying this particular manuscript didn’t seem to know who St Erhard was (he was an Irish missionary to Bavaria, who later became “auxiliary bishop of Ratisbon and possibly the abbot of Ebersheimmunstet Abbey“), because he miscopied the feast name as “Erhandi”. *sigh*

As background, the Fribourg description for Ms L 309 says that it came from “Sud-ouest de l’Allemagne“, and that the calendar section (starting on f2r) was “Très probablement du diocèse de Constance ou de Bâle; une main cursive du XVe s. a introduit dans les mois d’octobre et novembre des célébrations typiquement lausannoises (par exemple la dédicace de Lausanne au 20 oct. et S. Himier au 12 nov.).” So if this is correct, it would seem that we can loosely map the transmission path from this document from south-east Germany (where Regensburg is, in Bavaria) to south / south-west Germany, purely on the basis of the Cisiojanus adaptation.

Hence what I’m starting to think is that, zodiac crossbowmen aside, there may well be a large number of internal local features – e.g. local adaptations to the Cisiojanus mnemonic, along with local feasts and many others – that we could sensibly use to determine the transmission paths and relationships between Volkskalender B documents. It’ll need a little more consideration, for sure, but this could very easily be moving in the right kind of direction.

And finally… Voynich labels, perhaps?

Doubtless this has been suggested before (though a brief check revealed nothing)… but could it be that the Voynich zodiac labels actually hold nothing more than the syllables of a Cisiojanus mnemonic? If so, then as long as you have the right month – and the right local adaptation of the mnemonic, of course – a modern codebreaker might possibly be able to use the zodiac labels on that page as a “block paradigm” match (though you’d also need some good guesses about the correct order and direction of the circular rings of labels to follow).

For example: even though the Voynich Pisces zodiac page has “marc / mars” written over it, I suspect that the month accompanying it is in fact more likely (based on those places where Volkskalender B zodiac roundels accompany months) to be February. In which case, one version (given on the German Cisiojanus Wikipedia page) of the February Cisiojanus rhyme is:

brí pur blásus ag dór ¦ febru áp scolástica válent
júli cónjungé ¦ tunc pétrum mátthiam índe

Don’t say I don’t spoil you with good stuff. 🙂

A few days ago, when discussing the way that the Sagittarius crossbowman appears in similar fifteenth century manuscripts, I wrote that it was clear to methat we are looking at a family of manuscripts with many similar features“, and that I suspected “the real historical heavy lifting – building a complete list of these fifteenth century manuscripts, and then deriving a cladistic tree linking them all together – must have been done already“.

With some initial help from Jürgen W. in Cambridge (thank you very much!), and then a little further assistance from (the now-retired) Professor Francis B. Brévart himself, I believe I now have the basic literature framework in place that forms the backdrop to what we seem to be looking at. It will take a lot more work to fill out the picture more satisfactorily, but what follows should bring anyone interested in what I’m writing about up to speed.

German Volkskalender

There are a large number of (largely fifteenth century) manuscripts and incunabula that cover broadly the same set of material: tables of Saints days, tables for calculating the position of the moon over its 19-year Metonic cycle, tables showing unlucky days (e.g. when not to undergo bloodletting, cupping, etc), lucky days (e.g. “guldin zal”), days to take baths, days to avoid hot baths, etc. Some also have extensive sections on the signs of the zodiac and the planets: many are bound along with similar documents. As a genre, this is almost exclusively German, though a handful of Old French versions have survived.

The first person to try to properly catalogue these documents was Ernst Zinner, in his (1925) “Verzeichnis der astronomischen Handschriften des deutschen Kulturgebietes” (though with three later addenda in 1952, 1962, 1964). Their contents were often copied one from the other (though with frequent differences), but as I understand it Zinner was more interested in collating the raw bibliographical data rather than trying to offer a cladistic synthesis of them all.

The specific name Zinner gave to these fifteenth century texts was “Volkskalender“, as a loose analogy to a separate series of much later (mainly 18th century) calendars. Despite the many substantial differences between the two series of documents (and the protests from other historians, who rightly point out that these calendars were necessarily expensive, and so probably had little to do with ordinary volks at all), the name has stuck.

All the same, the bibliographic references for individual documents may well refer to them as “Iatromathematisches Hausbuch”, or “Hausbuch”, or any number of different names. Brévart (1996) is fairly scathing about the definitional hole some historians have dug themselves into here: but all that needs to be said is that they’re all essentially talking about the same group.

Brévart’s two families

Professor Francis B. Brévart spent many years looking at these specific manuscripts. From our point of view, his two most significant publications were:

* “The German Volkskalender of the Fifteenth Century” [via JSTOR], in Speculum 63 (1988), pp.312-342.
* “Chronology and Cosmology. A German Volkskalender of the Fifteenth Century,” The Princeton Library Chronicle (1996), pp.225-265.

While Brévart 1988 discusses the contents of the manuscripts and introduces the two main families these fall into, Brévart 1996 includes a substantial list of the manuscripts in the two families. You really need to read both papers to get a clear picture of these manuscripts. Thankfully they combine erudition, attention to detail, and clarity of expression: very highly recommended.

The single document from which all the others ultimately derived was an extended Kalendarium compiled by Johannes Wissbier of Gmund between 1404 and 1405. Brévart refers to the more than thirty manuscripts directly descended from this as his “Volkskalender A” family. However, Brévart 1988 continues:

“During the third decade of the fifteenth century a totally different version of the Volkskalender came into being. In addition to the Kalendarium and the treatises on cosmology, the signs, and the planets found in Wissbier’s work, it included various other texts- for example, on the labors of the months, the four temperaments, phlebotomy, bathing, purging, and the unlucky days.”

This separate set, comprising more than twenty documents, is what Brévart calls the “Volkskalender B” family. This is the family we should be most interested in.

Brévart’s “Volkskalender B” family

Brévart 1996 lists (pp.250-254) twenty-six Volkskalender B documents (though also giving a useful mini-bibliography on each one, which I have not reproduced here):

* Berlin: Staatsbibliothek Ms. germ. 2° 1069 [link]
* Berlin: Staatsbibliothek Ms. germ. 4° 20 [link?]
* Berlin: Staatsbibliothek Hdschr. 319 [link]
* Edinburgh: The Library of the Royal Observatory, Ms. Crawford 4.6. (olim 9.14-5.14) [1478]
* Einsiedeln: Stiftsbibliothek Hs. 297 [1498] [link]
* Erlangen: Universitätsbibliothek Cod. B 27 (olim Irm. 1365) [link]
* Frankfurt: Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek Ms germ, qu. 17 [link]
* Heidelberg: Universitätsbibliothek Cpg 291
* Heidelberg: Universitätsbibliothek Cpg 298 (“and 831” [?])
* Heidelberg: Universitätsbibliothek Cpg 557
* Karlsruhe: Badische Landesbibliothek Cod. 494 (olim Donaüschingen, Fürstlich-Fürstenbergische Hofbibliothek) [1443]
* London: British Library Ms. Add. 17987 [Warburg lo-res photos] [1446] [link]
* London: University College Ms germ. 1 [1471] [link] [UCL description]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 28 [c.1440] [link]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 349 [c.1480] [link]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 730 [c.1500] [link]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 736 [c.1465] [link]
* Munich: Universitätsbibliothek 2° Cod. ms. 578 [1474] [link]
* Nuremberg: Staatsarchiv Hs. 426 [1430] [link]
* Prag: Narodni Muzeum Schlossbibliothek Krivoklat Cod. Ie7 (51.996)
* St. Gallen: Stiftsbibliothek Cod. 760
* Tübingen: Evangelisches Stift Msc. 17 [1462]
* Vienna: Oesterrichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. 3085
* Wolfenbüttel: Herzog August Bibliothek Cod. 264.5 Extravagantes [1491] [link]
* Würzburg: Universitätsbibliothek Cod. [c.1450] [link]
* Zurich: Zentralbibliothek Ms. C 54 [c.1465] [link]

It’s possible that there are several more manuscripts in this family that escaped Brévart’s roving eye, e.g. this one as mentioned by René Zandbergen (though Brévart categorises it as a Volkskalender A family member):

* Planeten-Buch – BSB Cgm 7269, Konstanz, [BSB-Hss Cgm 7269] [1463]

The Sagittarius Crossbowman link

Why should anyone be interested in this family of documents? Simply because these contain almost all the roundel images of Sagittarius-the-zodiac-sign where what is normally depicted as an archer is instead depicted as a crossbowman.

Personally, I’m very much convinced by the previously-made suggestion that the crossbowman image in some of these documents was accidentally copied from a roundel of Sagittarius-the-constellation: and so it seems to be a very strong possibility that the Sagittarius crossbowman depicted in the Voynich Manuscript was copied from a member of the Volkskalender B family.

Moving forward, the idea would be to try to work out the relationships between these 26+ documents, and then see how the Voynich Manuscript’s section fits in to that tree. There are bound to be copies missing from the tree, for sure: but it seems to me that just about the surest way we will ever have to understand the Voynich Manuscript’s “zodiac” section is by carefully placing it in the context of Brévart’s “Volkskalender B” family, and seeing what we learn.

Because Trove holds newspaper articles all the way up to 1954, you occasionally stumble across interesting stories from around the world picked up by Australian newspapers. And because I’ve been raking over the various editions of the Truth, my virtual path has recently been littered with such things (though admittedly slightly racier and more gossipy than the dear old Adelaide ‘Tizer).

We surely all know about the Somerton Man: so here’s a link to the Truth’s take on the story, including this photo:

Another mysterious man was found near a beach on 2nd July 1949 (said the Truth elsewhere). However, this quickly turned out to be 23-year-old ex-soldier David John Wicks. He had been working as a yardsman at the Pineapple Hotel on Kangaroo Point: it seemed likely he had died as a result of having previously contracted malaria. Doubtless people will construct conspiracy stories around Kangaroo Point (which has appeared a fair few times here). *sigh*

Much more recently, yet another mysterious man found at Poona Dam at Nambour, 9th September 2008: “apart from the smiley face message, the only other thing in his wallet was an old Plains Video Kingaroy rental card.” A reconstructed picture of his face looked like this:

Again, a possible breakthrough was made earlier this year, when a man came forward to report that his brother Charles Rawlins was missing:

But what about the pigeon, Nick?

Ah, yes, sorry about that. The Truth related the tale of a pigeon-based cipher mystery so straightforwardly that it would be churlish not to quote it in full:

The Brisbane Truth 28th September 1952, p.34


LONDON, Sat.— A carrier pigeon landed on the deck of an American cruiser during the recent ‘Exercise Mainbrace,’ the North Atlantic Treaty Powers’ manoeuvres. It bore a peculiar message.
No cyphers could be found to fit it. So the captain decided to rush it to headquarters. There, code experts got to work on it.
After seven hours it remained unbroken. It was a perfect code. Code breaking machines were put to work on it — no result!
Then it came into the hands of a Scottish sub-lieutenant: ‘It’s written in Gaelic,’ he pronounced.

A few years ago, while giving a talk at Westminster Under School on the WW2 pigeon cipher, I mentioned that (a) Typex messages were sent in groups of five letters; and (b) when some German codebreakers looked at intercepted Typex messages early on in the war, they noticed that the last letter of each cryptogram was almost never X.

I then asked the Westminster boys what the Germans inferred from this (which was actually an incredibly subtle and difficult question). I was thoroughly delighted when a quiet high voice at the back suggested that the Germans could have concluded that they were looking at an Enigma-class machine encryption, where the last letter group was padded out with Xs.

Indeed, our young future head of GCHQ was right: the space bar on the Typex keyboard was attached to the X key, and operators typically used spaces (i.e. Xs) to pad out the final message group to a multiple of five letters.

Separately, German codebreaker Otto Buggisch also noticed early on in the war that the first three letters of RAF Typex messages were almost never A, I, and R respectively: though Buggisch deemed his obervation to have “no practical significance”.

All the same, this is a good example of bad enciphering practice (because stereotyped contents such as HEILHITLER or KEINEBESONDERENEREIGNISSE leave all cipher systems exposed), and goes to show that Britain started the war with cipher practices that were essentially no better or worse than Germany’s.

Yet if we have a look at the secret history of the QQQQQ group as used in Typex messages, we find something that might help us to (eventually) reveal the contents of a well-known cipher mystery…

The British Navy and Typex

ADM 1-27186 tells us in good detail how Typex cipher practice changed in the British Navy through the war years.

The Navy started with the same set of five black rotors used by the Army: the machine setting keys specified which drums to use, and were initially constant for a week, but on 2nd September 1940 were changed every day. A further two red rotors were added on 1st June 1941, giving a choice of seven rotors.

At first, the per-message drum settings were chosen at random by the operator and “the actual initial setting of the drums was transmitted as the first and last groups of the message or message section”. “Message sections were limited, for security reasons, to 60-70 groups, after which a new message section was chosen. Sections were separated by groups of five Q’s.”

Hence the first appearance of QQQQQ in Naval Typex messages was as a plaintext separator between message sections. That is, a typical long message would look as follows, where ABCDE was the (raw) indicator of the first message section and LMNOP was the (raw) indicator of the second message section:

ABCDE ….. [60+ groups] ….. ABCDE QQQQQ LMNOP ….. [more groups] ….. LMNOP

Buggisch also recalled that some Typex-related documents found at Dunkirk (along with a rotor-less Typex machine, and perhaps a reflector) mentioned “an English cipher security officer point[ing] out that he has noticed frequent breaches of the strict regulation that wheels should be turned on at random after a message has been enciphered”.

On 1st November 1941, however, Navy operators’ freedom to choose their own settings was curtailed, and books of disguised message settings were introduced in the Navy: at the same time, the practice of using QQQQQ as a section separator ceased.

After 1st March 1942, the optional use of Typex plugboards was indicated by FIELD at the start of messages.

1st February 1943 saw the introduction of two sets of seven new rotors wired specifically for the Navy, called “Code X” (for normal secure traffic) and “Cypher X” (for more secure traffic with plugboards), and where the original seven drums were still used for Inter-service traffic. Then:

On the 29th December, 1943, following a further review of Typex security, which amongst other things showed this system was particularly vulnerable to cryptographic attack from stereotyped beginnings, a revised procedure for concealing the start of the text was brought into force. From this date, the first ten to fifteen words of the subject matter were buried in the text, in addition to the address.

A new (and somewhat cumbersome) doubly-enciphered message setting procedure was introduced on 1st February 1944: but this was broadly balanced out by extra latitude when dealing with multiple message sections. Now “message sections were once again distinguished by the self-evidence group of five Q’s with the added proviso, however, that after each such group the right hand drum must be rotated one place before encyphering was continued.”


In April 1944, the cyclic procedure was introduced as a security measure in the cyphering of short messages which, by reason of their brevity, were unsuited to the “buried address” procedure.

I don’t know what “the cyclic procedure” was, all suggestions gratefully received. 🙂

The British Army and Typex

Christos has a good page on the Typex, with scans of HW 40/89: ‘Typex questionnaire’:

From this, we know that at the very start of the war, each Typex rotor contained 14 “large” letters (of 26), where operator-set random settings could only use these large letters: but this restriction disappeared in mid-1940.

Codress burying (i.e. concealed coded addresses) was introduced on 1st January 1941, while disguised message settings were introduced on 19th May 1941, some six months before the Navy did the same.

A letter-shift procedure was introduced on 1st Feb 1944, and a figure/letter shift procedure on 1st September 1944: these were introduced in the Navy on the same dates.

The Royal Air Force and Typex

It was the RAF who invented Typex: but the amount of RAF-related Typex information I have found is quite small.

However, Stuart Rutter once posted some scans (now only in the Wayback Machine) from the February 1943 user manual for the (mostly) portable Typex Mk VI (which is what I suspect was used in the field for the Pigeon Cipher):

Preparation of message for transmission – Withdraw and detach the tape from the message printer and insert in manuscript, as the first group, the disguised message setting used at the commencement of the message. If the message is complete in one section write this disguised message setting and groups of five Q’s must be inserted appropriately in the spaces left for that purpose. Each section must begin and end with the disguised message setting, in manuscript, appropriate to it. The tape should then be gummed to a message form so that there are ten groups in each line. This is done in order to facilitate the counting of the total number of groups.

It’s not as clear as in the other cases how the QQQQQ section should be used, but it’s there nonetheless.

Can Love Conquer All?

Dufty recounts (chapter 43) a charming “cryptological love story” about two lovelorn Typex operators separated by General McArthur’s push North, who would occasionally hide messages to each other at the start of Typex messages.

The way they had been trained to use Typex was to write some filler nonsense text at the start (presumably the “ten to fifteen words” mentioned in the Navy account), followed by an (enciphered) QQQQQ separator, followed by the address and finally the actual message contents. Because the filler text was stripped out of the message at the far end before being passed onwards, the operators had just enough latitude to insert their own messages.

Incidentally, it’s not clear to me whether this QQQQQ was always added at a five-letter boundary or whether it could appear at any position: I strongly suspect the former, so it could prove valuable to find out from any still-living Typex operators if this is correct. (Perhaps I’ll ask David Dufty if he would be so kind as to ask one of the Australian Typex operators he interviewed.)

The reason this might be interesting to us is that if (as has seemed reasonably likely to me for some time) the Pigeon Cipher was sent on D-Day (6th June 1944), their Australian love messages in the margins were being sent at about the same time.

And so it may well be that the Pigeon Cipher’s internal structure includes a short filler section and a (plaintext) QQQQQ block, followed by a single extra step on the rightmost rotor: and only then the actual message.

Cryptanalyzing QQQQQ?

The introduction of a filler header plus a QQQQQ separator to Typex messages certainly had the effect of hiding stereotyped beginnings, which was a positive lesson learned from attacking Enigma.

Yet had German cryptanalysts had a reflector and a set of Typex rotors to work with (which they very nearly did on a number of occasions, most notably in Dunkirk and in Tobruk, and there was even a “North African Story” that claimed that they did), could they have exploited (later in the war) the presence of plaintext QQQQQ to crack messages, perhaps with some Bombe-like machine assistance?

Kelly Chang’s (2012) dissertation on the cryptanalysis of Typex is silent on this: Chang treats Typex messages as if they were flat, uniform text messages (i.e. ‘pure’ Typex), which – as we can see from all the above – they were often not.

So, if a Typex message contains plaintext QQQQQ, where would it be? A first trick is to note that because we also know that Q cannot encipher to itself on both Enigma and Typex machines, we need not search for QQQQQ anywhere in a Typex message where Q appears: that is, we can sometimes see where QQQQQ isn’t. And if it turns out that the practice was to only place QQQQQ on five-letter boundaries in the plaintext, we need not check any ciphertext block containing a Q.

Furthermore, given a day’s collection of intercepted Typex messages (which would all have the same rotors selected), a German codebreaker could select the message with the most (random) instances of Q in the top part of the message, so as to sharply reduce the number of places to brute-force search for QQQQQ (because each Q instance in the ciphertext would ‘knock out’ itself and four preceding positions to check).

Curiously, in the case of the Pigeon Cipher, if we colour blue the five-letter indicator groups at the start and end, and colour red all the instances of the letter Q…

…you immediately notice that the third line (“PABUZ WYYNP …..”) contains no letter Q instances at all. This may just be a coincidence, of course: but I personally would be unsurprised if that line turned out to contain QQQQQ in the plaintext somewhere.

If this is right, do we now have enough to break the Pigeon Cipher? I’m not yet sure: but I suspect we’re starting to move closer to a position where we can reduce the search space by millions (if not billions) of times. And at some point, perhaps we’ll have reduced it enough to be able to sensibly set a search in motion… we shall see, fingers crossed!

An interesting-sounding document referred to by Alfred Martin in 1906 (pp.174-175, thanks to Stefan Mathys!) is Cod. Sang. 760, the contents of which the St Gallen archivists describe as follows:

This manuscript, illustrated with numerous colored pen drawings, originated in a secular environment in Southern Germany or in Switzerland around the middle of the 15th century. It describes the signs of the zodiac, the planets, the four temperaments, and the four seasons regarding their influence on human health. This is followed by dietary guidelines primarily regarding bloodletting, but also regarding eating, drinking, sleeping, waking, resting and moving, as well as, in concrete terms, regarding bathing (illustration p. 101) or defecating (illustration p. 120)

As to the manuscript’s origins, the archivists suggest:

Most likely an amateur doctor with an interest in astronomy, from the Southern region of Germany, wrote the original text around 1400 and assembled it into a compendium. Later the text was repeatedly supplemented and modified.

There are numerous reasons why I’m intrigued by Cod. Sang. 760: not only its zodiac roundels, but also the sun-moon roundels on adjacent pages, and the textual focus on all the things I’ve recently been wondering whether the Voynich zodiac pages encode – blood-letting, baths, clysters (enemas), etc.

“Iatromathematisches Hausbuch” manuscripts

Yet Cod. Sang. 760 (which was only digitized in 2014) is but one of a series of “Iatromathematisches Hausbuch” manuscripts, some of which were discussed on Stephen Bax’s site back in 2015, e.g.:

* Cod. Pal. Germ. 291

* Cod. Pal. Germ. 557

…and so forth. The 30-element list of Saint’s Days that appear on twelve pages at the start of these also appear in other manuscripts, perhaps most notably this one from Konstanz in 1463 (as mentioned by Rene):

* Planeten-Buch – BSB Cgm 7269, Konstanz, Anfang 15. Jh. bis 17. Jh. [BSB-Hss Cgm 7269]

What is interesting in CGM 7269 is that not only does the Sagittarius crossbowman appear, but also the image of two people in a bath (previously used to illustrate bathing) has been appropriated for the Gemini zodiac sign.

(There’s also Tübingen Md 2, MS Cod Sang 827, and Strasbourg Ms.2.120 to consider, etc.)

I could go on, but I hope the basic point – that we are looking at a family of manuscripts with many similar features – is clear.

The copied crossbowman hypothesis

I’m acutely aware that what follows is less of an outright answer than a provocation towards approaching an answer.

The first step is hypothesizing the origins of the Sagittarius crossbowman: I now feel quite sure that it was a copying error within the basic Iatromathematisches Hausbuch manuscript family, where a crossbowman roundel originally drawn to accompany the constellation Sagittarius was miscopied into the zodiac roundel accompanying the zodiac sign Sagittarius.

This is hardly a huge departure from what has been noted before, specifically when Rafal Prinke and Rene Zandbergen asked Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and Prof. Dieter Blume (respectively) about this.

However, by positing the crossbowman drawing as a copying error, we can start to view the Voynich Manuscript’s zodiac section not just as something visually influenced by a set of manuscripts, but as a member of the cladistic tree of a specific family of manuscripts.

The iatromathematical table/label hypothesis

Structurally, these iatromathematical housebooks have quite stylized layouts and contents. For example, they typically start with a nineteen-column computus table (which was no secret at all), followed by a set of twelve tables of Saint’s Days (I believe), with 30 elements in each list.

In the Planeten-Buch, these lists have further become associated with zodiac signs, in much the same way that we see in the Voynich Manuscript (albeit in a non-obvious way).

It would therefore seem reasonable to secondly hypothesize that the contents of these tables might have (in some way) ended up as the Voynich zodiac labels (e.g. using some combination of abbreviation and acrostic), i.e. from tables to labels.

Incidentally, this would be the kind of “block paradigm” match I’ve talked about for some time here. The reason I think it is of particular cryptographic interest is that there is good cryptanalytical reason to suspect that the Voynich’s “labelese” (i.e. the version of the text used to write labels) is only a subset of the ‘language(s)’ used to write the main text. As such, labelese may well be weaker and hence easier to break.

Where next?

So far, I have only looked at a handful of manuscripts, and from these have elicited only the outline of a research angle.

But the real historical heavy lifting – building a complete list of these fifteenth century manuscripts, and then deriving a cladistic tree linking them all together – must have been done already, surely?

Can I therefore again ask my German-speaking readers for their help, this time to dig up any literature looking at this family of manuscripts as a whole?

I’m sure it’s out there, but I haven’t yet found it. All pointers, tips and suggestions gratefully received! 🙂

The Voynich Manuscript’s zodiac roundel section has long frustrated researchers’ efforts to make sense of it at a high level, never mind determining what any specific zodiac nymph’s label means.

However, I can now see the outline of a new hypothesis that might explain what we’re seeing here…

A Stylistic Impasse?

The fact that each zodiac sign has thirty nymphs, thirty stars and thirty labels (all bar one?) would seem to be a good indication that some kind of per-degree astrology is going on here: and this is a lead I have pursued for many years.

The literature on this, from Pietro d’Abano to Andalo di Negro to (the as yet unseen) Volasfera, is uniformly Italian: so it would seem a relatively safe bet that the source of this section is also from that same Italian document tree.

At the same time, the observation that the drawings in the zodiac roundels are stylistically quite distinct from the rest of the Voynich Manuscript’s drawings has been made many times.

Combine this with the fourteenth century technological dating for the (unusual) Sagittarius crossbow, and you get loosely driven towards a working hypothesis that at least the central figures were copied from a (still unknown) late 14th century or early 15th century woodcut almanach, of the type that was most commonly found in Germany and Switzerland.

However, this leads to an awkward stylistic impasse: how can this zodiac section be both Italian and German at the same time?

Klebs and Martin

Back in 2009, I mentioned Arnold Klebs’ very interesting 1916 article on the history of balneology in the context of discussing Quire 13. However, there was another intriguing quote there that I only got round to chasing up a few days ago:

The yearly pilgrimages to the healing springs in the month of May, the baths of the women on St. John’s Day, which Petrarca describes so picturesquely in one of his letters from Cologne, were ancient survivals, indications of a deeply rooted love for and belief in the purifying powers of the liquid element. These seasonal wanderings to the healing springs were naturally brought into relation with astral conjunctions, a tendency soon exploited by the calendar makers and astrological physicians. Days and hours were set for bathing, blood-letting, cupping, and purging, carefully ascertained by the position of the stars. Martin in his book gives a great variety of such instances which offer interest from many points of view.

The author and book to whom Klebs is referring here is Alfred Martin and his immense (1906) “Deutsches Badewesen in vergangenen Tagen“, Jena : Diederichs. (The link is to .)

It turns out that Klebs sourced a great deal of his article from Martin’s labour of love (with its 159 illustrations and its 700-entry bibliography), which covers public baths, private baths, Jewish baths, bath-related legislation, mineral baths, bath architecture, bath technology, spas, saunas, and so forth, ranging from Roman times all the way up to 1900, and with a dominant focus on German and Swiss archival sources.

The Zodiac Bath Hypothesis

You can by now surely see where I’m heading with this: a zodiac bath hypothesis, where the Voynich’s zodiac section was in some way a copy of a German/Swiss original, which itself brought together the two traditions of per-degree astrology and good/bad times for “bathing, blood-letting, cupping, and purging” (as described by Klebs).

In some ways, this should be no surprise to anyone, given that the first few nymphs are all sitting in barrels, which were essentially what medieval private baths were (well, half-barrels, anyway).

And perhaps, in the context of clysters (enemas), it’s not inviting too much trouble to speculate what legs drawn apart / together might be representing. 🙂

The problem is that – probably because of my only fragmentary German – I can’t find any mention of “Days and hours were set for bathing, blood-letting, cupping, and purging, carefully ascertained by the position of the stars” in Martin’s German text.

I can see plenty of references to blood-letting (“aderlass”) etc, but pinning down the exact part that Klebs robbed out has proved to be beyond me.

Can I therefore please ask a favour of (one or more of) my German readers; which is simply to find the section in Alfred Martin’s book to which Krebs was referring? Thanks! 🙂

It would seem likely that this will then refer to a book in Martin’s capacious bibliography, at which point the game is (hopefully) afoot!

Having now reread Ian Pfennigwerth’s “Man of Intelligence” and gone through various files at the NAA, I now have slightly more solid dates framing what Captain Nave was doing in 1949.

Nave’s Career

Having started work in the South Australian Railways (where his father Thomas worked), Eric Nave signed up for the Royal Australian Navy in 1917. He stayed there until 1930, when he was moved to the Royal Navy.

However, Nave’s RN personnel file is not only fairly brief (he was cheerful and intelligent), but only runs to 1948.

A large proportion of the papers in his NAA ASIO file relate to his pension, because his Royal Navy pension was not transferable to his wife. Because the Naves had four children, this issue required a fair bit of administrative attention. Redactions are merely senior officers’ names.

I incidentally found out that Nave owned a Holden sedan, and that his parents lived at 5b Arlington Terrace, Allenby Gardens, Adelaide.

Captain Nave’s 1949 Timeline

From the papers in the files, we can say definitively that Captain Nave: [page numbers from the ASIO file NAA: A6119, 3576]

* finished formal work with the RN in March 1949 (p.80)

* was allocated to the Terror “18.3.49 for dispersal” (Navy service record)

* had 160 days of untaken / carried over holiday (Pfennigwerth), though the Navy service record says “48 days N.S.L.  28 days E.O.W.L.  56 days release + RAN F.S.L.”

* was courted by ASIO as early as 13th May 1949 (p.87)

* officially retired on 22nd August 1949   (when his pension started) (pp.30-31)

* started with ASIO on 20th October 1949  (pp.30-31)

All of which means that Adelaide-born-and-bred Captain Nave was still (technically) in the Royal Navy in July 1949, when the Adelaide newspapers reported that a “local Navy decoder” was having a look at the Rubaiyat.

Are any of his children still alive?

In July 1949, Australia’s greatest code-breaker Captain Eric Nave was enjoying his 160 days of accumulated holidays before starting a new job with (the newly formed) ASIO on 15th December 1949. I suspect he was at his house in Adelaide Melbourne at the time, but asked over by his father in Adelaide, where he had lived until early on in the war.

Hence I strongly believe that the “local naval decoder” referred to in reference #4 below was Eric Nave. I would be delighted if anybody has suggestions as to how this could be tested or pursued further in the archives.

(1) The Adelaide Advertiser, 26th July 1949, p.3

Yesterday the police interviewed two suburban telephone subscribers whose numbers corresponded with those on the back of the book, but they knew nothing of the matter.

(2) Adelaide News, 26th July 1949, p.1

Phone number found on cover of book

[…]The woman whose telephone number appears in pencil on the cover of the book told police that when she was nursing at North Shore hospital in Sydney about three and a half years ago, she gave a similar copy to a lieutenant who served in the Water Transport section of the Army.

Later, she said, the lieutenant wrote to her mother’s home in Melbourne. She replied to his letter, telling him she was married.
Subsequently, the woman told police, she and her husband settled in Adelaide. Last year a man called at the house of a neighbor, inquiring for a nurse he once knew.

This afternoon the woman is being shown the plaster cast of the Somerton victim, which is now in a storeroom at Adelaide Museum.

Acting on the possibility that the “Rubalyat” in their possession did belong to the lieutenant, police set out to decipher a number of block letters pencilled on the back of the book.

Although the lettering was faint, police managed to read it by using ultra-violet light. In the belief that the lettering might be a code, a copy has been sent to decoding experts at Army Headquarters, Melbourne.

(3a) The Adelaide Advertiser, 27th July 1949, p.1

Army Officer Sought To Help Solve Somerton Body Case

[…]The police have also forwarded to Army Headquarters, Melbourne, a copy of a series of letters printed in pencil on the back of the book. They believe that it is possible that the letters may be some coded message. Police located the woman from a telephone number, also written in pencil on the back the book.[…]

(3b) Adelaide News, 27th July 1949, p.1

Yesterday police traced a telephone number pencilled on the cover to the Adelaide woman who gave a similar copy of the book to the Army lieutenant.

Efforts to decipher several rows of block letters, believed to be a code, on the back of the book are continuing. A Navy “code cracker”, is tackling the task this afternoon.

(4) Adelaide News, 25th August 1949, p.22


Police were told today that Australia’s top cipher experts had failed to crack the code in the back of a copy of Omar Khayyam’s “Rubaiyat’ believed to be connected with the Somerton body mystery.

A naval spokesman said experts in Melbourne had worked on the code for weeks. Melbourne authorities had informed him that the frequency of the occurrence of letters, while inconclusive, corresponded more favorably with the table of frequencies of initial letters of words in English than with any other table.

A reasonable explanation would be that the lines were initial letters of words of a verse of poetry or something like that.

Before a copy of the code was sent to Melbourne, a local naval decoder expressed similar views.

The code, printed in pencil in the back of a copy of the “Rubaiyat” from which the words “Tamam Shud” – meaning “The End” – were torn, was thrown into the back of an unattended car at Glenelg about the time the body of an unknown man was found on Somerton beach on December 1, 1948. In the clothing on the body was a neatly trimmed piece of paper with the words “Tamam Shud.”

(5) Adelaide News, 27th August 1949, p.2

Many try to solve Somerton code

[…]Expert opinion is that the code was made up of initial
letters of words from a verse of poetry or something similar.

The code is:
M R G O A D A B D [sic]

Vic. man’s claim

Melbourne. – A former newspaper seller, Mr. Ernest Jessup, of Caulfield, thinks he may have solved part of the code.
This is how he worked it out:
MRGOADABD [sic] – Mr. Goddard
MTBIMPANETP – Pantryman(?).
MLIABOAIAQC – Mail-boat-AQC (AQC, A class quarters?)
Mr. Jessup believes this hides the name of a ship – his guess is an Indian ship.

Here’s something a little unusual for you all – a feature-length 1971 episode of a Sci-Fi series called “Name of the Game” on YouTube, and set in “A.D. 2017” (also the name of the episode):

Interestingly, the director was a young Stephen Spielberg (it was one of his earliest pieces of work); while its author was American writer Philip Wylie, whose career moved from screenplays to slushy novels to non-fiction to dystopian fiction (and then dotted around between them for several decades).

But more about Wylie (and his connection to a cipher mystery) in a separate post. For now, on with the show! Enjoy! 🙂