I haven’t really put as much time into the Rohonc Codex as I would like: but in my defence, this has been because the available scans are fairly miserable. For example, here’s the scan of the drawing on the page marked ’83’:-


However, a recent post from the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (‘CSMC’) at the University of Hamburg offers us a glimpse of what might be possible with better quality Rohonc scans. (This whole story was broken by Klaus Schmeh’s Krypto Kolumne a few days ago, well done Klaus!)


With this scan, you can clearly make out that this drawing is depicting some kind of curious clockwork device, though – as cipher mysteries connoisseurs would perhaps expect – it’s still as clear as mud what is going on with it.

If only the rest of the Rohonc Codex could be scanned in broadly the same quality, and a proper codicological description of its construction put together! Then we could all really go to town on it, not just Benedek Lang. 🙂

I’ve had a nice email from Marius-Adrian Oancea, asking me if I would look at his interesting Rohonc Codex site. While working for the EU in Fiji between 2009 and 2011 (it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it, I suppose), Marius-Adrian filled his spare time making notes on the Rohonc Codex, and has now written them up in a series of web-pages.

For example, he sets out some persuasive arguments that the text is written from right-to-left (along each line), from top-to-bottom (for lines within each page) and from back-to-front (from page to page).

What is interesting about this is that because I don’t currently believe that the folios (folded pairs of pages) have ended up in the correct order (simply because the chronology of the Biblical pictures seems strangely out of order), it may be possible to identify some candidate facing pages based on matching incomplete half-phrases on the bottom of the right-hand page with incomplete half-phrases on the top of the left-hand page. (I’m not sure that anyone has done this yet.)

He has also found a pair of intriguing repetitive word-skipping sequences on 162L and 162R, where the two instances are each padded out with a different filler “letter” / “word”.

However, I think there is a far simpler explanation for this problematic text than his conclusion that “existing paragraphs were repeated or repeated with insertions […] to create a larger book without making the effort to produce original, non-repetitive text“. What if these inserted filler shapes are both cryptographic nulls? They certainly don’t seem likely to be meaningful, so perhaps they are purely meaningless (nulls): and the fact that the phrase without the nulls also appears on 162L also seems to point that way. It would be interesting to revisit the stats if those two (possibly) null characters were excised from the text stream.

Alternatively, the apparent presence of nulls in the Rohonc Codex’s text might instead mean that the author was trying to duplicate the page structure of an existing manuscript, and that those pages didn’t originally have much text on (and hence needed padding). We’re still not necessarily looking at an enciphered document: we still have no definitive proof of that, but the presence of nulls would seem to be a very strong indication of the presence of encipherment (to my eyes, at least).

Similarly, on the same facing page pair (162L/162R), the author seems to repeat a block of text: though I should also point out that a straightforward explanation for this could be that the encipherer lost their position in the text and ended up enciphering the same block twice in a row. It’s certainly easy to do if you’re not hugely experienced at enciphering.

All in all, I’m not (yet) convinced that “The Codex is written in Hungarian, or at least transliterates words in Hungarian, using a version of the rovásírás (Old Hungarian Alphabet) also known as székely rovásírás or székely-magyar rovás.”. Up to that point in his pages I was feeling quite comfortable with his overall argument, but decomposing symbols into pieces and then anagramming them to get transliterated old Hungarian is a bit more than I was personally able to chew on without choking. Even so, there are plenty of tasty things on Marius-Adrian’s site to get your teeth into. 🙂

I’ve looked at the Rohonc Codex numerous times in the past, though my conclusions so far haven’t exactly amounted to what I’d consider headline news:-
* its drawings are plainly Judeo-Christian, though often viewed through a distorting lens;
* the presence in its text of both pictograms and ridiculously repetitive sequences points to some kind of hacky nomenclator cipher;
* frankly, it’s a bit of a mess, with many folios stitched together out of order.

Being brutally honest, I’ve been waiting for Benedek Lang’s book on it to get translated into English (and I’d be delighted to publish such a splendid thing myself) before throwing myself off the Rohonc Codex’s cliff-top with only my cipher mystery experience to bungee back to the top. For if you were planning on exploring a bear cave, wouldn’t you want a torch to help steer you past previous adventurers’ rotting bones, hmmm?

All the same, I was recently delighted to find a genuinely sane Rohonc Codex website courtesy of Delia Huegel from Arad in Western Romania. She has – much to her own surprise, it would seem – spent several years trying to find and understand the religious dimension of the Rohonc Codex’s drawings. I’ve gone through (and enjoyed) every webpage: she writes with wit and verve, and – unlike much of the Rohoncology out there – she is happy to fess up to the issues her approach faces. It’s a tricky old thing, fer sher, and such honesty helps a great deal.

For me, the two highlights of her site were (a) her comparison of Albrecht Dürer’s hellmouth with the Rohonc Codex’s hellmouth, which I agree is a solid indication that North-Western European religious iconography was a specific influence on the Rohonc Codex’s author: and (b) her identification of King David praying to God and the back-to-front rendering of YHWH in Hebrew. Both are pretty much historical slam-dunks, but both raise more questions than they set out answer. Which is what the best answers nearly always do, IMO.

But most magnificently of all, her site is brought to life by the direct inclusion of a significant amount of imagery she has collected along the way while developing her ideas: I can imagine that the site sits very much as a kind of visual / iconic complement to Lang’s more obviously textual approach. Recommended! 🙂

As an afterthought, a question struck me: what if the pages were written in a back-to-front order, but a later owner then tried to rebind them so that the drawings instead appeared in a more conventional-looking front-to-back order? Just a thought!

I thought I’d take a brief sideways step over to the Beale Papers, a cipher mystery I haven’t mentioned in a while here. Most of you probably already know about my Big Fat List of Voynich Novels, expanding almost monthly with yet more Voynich-appropriating titles. But is there much fiction based around other well-known cipher mysteries?

Well… I recently bought a copy of Tom Harper’s (2007) “Lost Temple” solely because of the Phaistos Disk lookalike overlaying the front cover… but that was as close as it got. It’s actually quite a good read, with the first Minoan half touching on the same kind of sources as Gavin Menzies “The Lost Empire of Atlantis” (but more believable), and the second half moving onto Greek mythology, Achilles’ shield, and Harper’s version of Unobtainium. Sorry Tom, the house rule here is: no cipher, no review. 😉

Which reminds me that at some point, I really need to read Stephen King’s “The Colorado Kid”, as that gives every impression of having been inspired by the Somerton Man “Tamam Shud” case.

And here’s another novel that does count: Alexis Tappendorf and the Search for Beale’s Treasure (Volume 1), by Becca C. Smith.

[…] Upon arriving in Virginia, Alexis discovers that for the last hundred years the townspeople of Summervale and Bedford County have been searching for a lost treasure buried somewhere in the area by a man named Thomas J. Beale. More importantly, the only clues to finding the fortune are in the form of cryptograms, codes that, when properly translated, tell the exact location of the bounty. In a heart-pounding race to Beale’s Treasure, Alexis and her new friend, Olivia Boyd, join forces to solve the Beale ciphers before the dangerous family, the Woodmores, beat them to it…

So, yet another cipher mystery gets subsumed into the Young Adult Fiction cultural Borg. (No, I still haven’t managed to finish The Cadence of Gypsies, or The Book of Blood & Shadow.) What will be next, Alexis Tappendorf and the Vaguely Heretical Rohonc Codex? [*shudders in a sudden cold draft*]

However, such cultural flimflam may well all be in vain, because – according to the webcomic ‘I Can Barely Draw’, the Beale Cipher has finally been solved. Apparently, it reads: “I accidentally the rest of it“. Well, well, well – who’d have thunk it, eh? 🙂

Of late, I’ve been gradually getting into the whole culture surrounding the Zodiac Killer cipher. One pretty good source of information is ZodiacKiller.com, where to my great surprise I found a link to a November 2007 Daily Star article (how did I ever miss this?), claiming that troubled dance-pop queen Britney Spears was heavily into the whole Zodiac Killer mystery, and “is convinced she can crack the case as many people believe the culprit is still alive”.

Like, ummm, wowza.

If this Daily Star story is indeed true (hint: the answer’s probably in the question), then what’s next? Justin Timberlake retaliating by publishing a critical monograph on Le Livre Des Sauvages? Madonna announcing her own transcription of the Rohonc Codex? Or – possibly most likely – Christina Aguilera actually solving the Tamam Shud mystery but still selling fewer tour tickets than Britney?

Watch this space, cipher mystery pop funsters…

Just a quick note to say that I’ve been working behind the scenes for a few weeks on a revised Cipher Mysteries home page, incorporating a nice clickable list of what I think are the top unsolved cipher mysteries of all time, some of which you may not have heard of:-

  1. (–Top secret, yet to be announced–)
  2. The Voynich Manuscript
  3. The Anthon Transcript
  4. The Beale Papers
  5. The Rohonc Codex
  6. The HMAS Sydney Ciphers
  7. The Tamam Shud Cipher
  8. The D’Agapeyeff Cipher
  9. The Codex Seraphinianus
  10. The Dorabella Cipher
  11. The Phaistos Disk

Note that the HMAS Sydney Ciphers part isn’t yet live, because I haven’t written the post yet (probably later this week). 🙂  I may update the list later to insert the Vinland Map at #7, but that’s another story entirely…

Incidentally, the reason I ranked the Voynich Manuscript at #2 is because the top spot will be filled (hopefully fairly soon) with an awesome centuries-old cipher mystery I’ve been chipping away at for a while, one that will be eerily familiar to many CM readers. Don’t hold your breath, but I do think you’re going to like it a lot… 🙂

I’ve waited a decade to find anything good on the Rohonc Codex (and don’t get me started on Wikipedia yet again), so it is with great delight that I read Benedek Lang’s April 2010 Cryptologia article “Why Don’t We Decipher an Outdated Cipher System? The Codex of Rohonc” that he kindly mentioned in a comment on this site a few days ago.

Despite the slightly clunky title, I think it is fair to say that Lang’s piece utterly replaces pretty much all the previous writing on the subject, and arguably moves the Rohonc Codex very nearly on a par with the Voynich Manuscript. Really, it is almost unnerving to find out that the RC suffers from precisely the same issues bedevilling VMs research:

  • wide possible date range (1530s [from the Venetian paper] to 1838 [when it was donated by Count Gusztáv Batthyány])
  • uncertain provenance (one possible mention in a 1743 inventory, but that’s it)
  • inability to narrow down the plaintext language (Old Hungarian? Latin? or what?)
  • apparently unhelpful drawings (probably representing a life of Christ, but offering very few cribs)
  • non-trivial cipher nomenclator / shorthand combination (in my opinion)
  • dominant hoax narrative (but which is at odds with the early dating of the support medium)
  • unsubstantiated links to murky historical figures (forger Sámuel Literáti Nemes rather than Dee & Kelley)
  • inadequate codicological and palaeographical analyses (by modern standards)
  • multiple hands contributing to the object’s construction (two in the case of the RC, it would appear)

To me, the RC and the VMs (and their complicated mad ecologies of attempted decryptions) seem like two expressions of the same underlying historical pathology – when the aspirational desire to reconstruct the what overwhelms the grounding need to look for the how. Hence I asked Benedek Lang the same kind of “Voynich 2.0” questions I try (in vain) to start from these days, to round out the parts of his article that are less obviously cryptological (yet still important). Here are his responses (very lightly edited)…

* * * * * * *

[NP] (1) Has anyone done a codicological analysis of the Rohonc Codex? That is, how confident should we be that the bifolios remain in their original gatherings/quires and nesting order and that no bifolios have been lost, and when was the cover added, etc? Are there any signs of multiple rebindings? Are there any fingerprints?

[BL] No fingerprints, but basically anyone can touch it in the library, and some people in the 19th century even made notes in it. There had been a little research regarding the watermark, which I largely confirmed with my own research, though this however says nothing about the writing itself (which might of course be a later addition). The beginning and the end of the book are quite destroyed, to the point that the first and last 20 pages are no longer bound into the book, hence their (19th century) numbering might well be wrong. I think the book is in its original binding, which is not a real binding, just a piece of leather.

(2) Has there been a systematic study of any apparent corrections by the author(s)? For example, I notice a line apparently crossed out in Figure 5, or is that just boxed for emphasis?

No, nothing. My impression is that the corrections do not say anything that makes sense to me, but I should perhaps pay more attention to this.

(3) Has there been a palaeographic study of the text itself? For example, might it have (Leonardo-style) been written right-to-left for convenience by a left-hander? And have the palaeographic differences between the hands been described carefully? For example, did all the hands form the letters in the same way?

No, nothing, although it would be good to know whether there really are two hands – as it appears to me – and whether the text was written by one left handed person (or two), or just in the other direction by a right handed person.

(4) Has there been a palaeographic study of the marginalia and (what appear to be) interlinear notes? As with the VMs’ 15th century quire numbers and marginalia, dating the folio numbers might give a far more limiting (if pragmatic) terminus ante quem – really, there ought to be _some_ internal evidence that can help improve on 1838, which in historical terms is practically yesterday.

These marginalia were made by one of the less clever late 19th century “scholars” who believed that they were able to decipher the text.

(5) Apart from the introduction of new symbols, are there any signs of evolution or development of the core writing system through the 450 pages? As new symbols are added, are they progressively more ornate (which would argue for them being improvised, rather than as part of a pre-existing system)? Furthermore, are there any places where a new symbol is added in a left-right textual context which recurs around a word earlier in the document? (This would again argue for a nomenclator being improvised during the writing process).

There are certainly some occasional changes – for example, one of the symbols (the winged one) becomes less ornate – but apart from this I do not see any systematic changes. It is also true that new signs are introduced when there is a new person in the text (Pilate, for example). But I have not done serious research into that question.

(6) Did the Battyhany family ever compile inventories of their library? Has anyone looked for provenance in this kind of way?

Yes! There are several partial inventories of this very large library, and some earlier Rohonc Codex scholars thought that a book entitled “Hungarian prayers” in a 18th century inventory referred to this book. However, I remain skeptical, for I would be more satisfied by an inventory entry along the lines of “a book with unknown signs”. Such a description, however, is absent from the catalogues, the last one of which is dated exactly 100 years before 1838, when the codex first appeared.

As a general comment, I’d say that the lacuna in your account of shorthand is between Tironian notae and Bright’s Characterie. In Italy, Quattrocento scribes built up local traditions of abbreviations, with “underbars” and (macron-like) “overbars” for contraction and abbreviation (there are even some of these in Alberti’s facade for Santa Maria Novella). Isaac Pitman’s history of shorthand also mentions (p.6) a (probably 16th century) “Mr Radcliff, of Plymouth” whose version of the Lord’s Prayer – “Our Fth wch rt n hvn : hlwd b y Nm” – looks rather like modern SMS txtspk! What links many of these, then, is that they were ugly systems of abbreviation mainly intended to capture charismatic sermons as they were spoken: and so Bright’s innovation was to make the strokes easy to write, rather like Greek tachygraphy (which, though it was used in antiquity and in the Byzantine Empire, never seems to have crossed over into Europe).

Thanks! I was not aware of that.

In this context, then, the Rohonc Codex’s awkwardly angular letter forms seem to me quite independent of the many post-Bright shorthands: and also seem to have nothing structurally corresponding to the characteristic underbars or overbars of Quattrocento scribal practice. Hence to my eyes, it seems unlikely to fall within any known shorthand tradition, save that of pure abbreviation / contraction.

Yes, I agree.

As with the Voynich, I think the most likely scenario for the Rohonc Codex is that it is formed of a combination of (specifically abbreviating  / contracting) shorthand and non-polyalphabetic cryptography (though it seems very likely that the VMs’ cryptographic aspect is many times more sophisticated than the Rohonc Codex’s): and it is this pairing when also combined with the lack of knowledge about the underlying language that makes it impractical to crack in a conventional way. In both cases, I suspect that the necessary first step will be to crack the history first!

Yes, but what can be done when almost nothing is known about its history? The Batthyány family might well have purchased it anywhere. In my mind, I imagine that it is a combination of a shorthand and a cipher, though lately however I am convinced that it is a consonant writing (due to a possible Turkish or Hebrew origin) and a cipher applied to that consonant language. (In fact, this is almost the same as saying that it is a cipher and a shorthand, because shorthands are usually composed of consonants.) I do not believe that it is a hoax because it is an ugly book, and I do not really know of any similar hoaxes from the pre-19th century period. I was, however, convinced that the Voynich Manuscript was itself a late 19th century hoax until I learned about its new dating. Hence I remain puzzled!

 PS: do you have a picture of yourself I could include in the post? Thanks!

Benedek Lang

* * * * * * *

So there you have it – the Rohonc Codex is very probably, as Lang’s piece implies, just as uncertain as the VMs. Yet where are the massed ranks of me-too US documentary-makers clamouring to go to Budapest to view it? Why can’t we hear William Shatner’s voiceover ringing in our ears? 

To me, the central mystery of the Rohonc Codex is therefore why its ‘ugly duckling’ cousin [the Voynich Manuscript] gets all the mad heresy theories when it’s the Rohonc Codex that has all the pictures of Christ. (Note to novelists & film companies: Budapest is much prettier than New Haven). Go figure!

Next Sunday (8th November 2009), $99 should get you into a one-day mini-conference in LA focusing on “hidden history, signs, symbols, and secrets”, hosted by Simon Cox, author of the brand new book “Decoding The Lost Symbol”…

OK, I’m sure you’ve rumbled the secret already: that it’s basically a one-day press launch for Simon Cox’s book, with a load of sort-of-relevant speakers doing their thing (and not a cipher mystery in sight, as far as I could see). I’m sure there are plenty of people who would enjoy this, but I personally won’t be red-eyeing over to the West Coast for this. (But please leave a comment here if you do happen to go.)

All of which does raise the question of whether I should organize my own proper cipher mysteries / secret histories conference (not to promote a book, but just to have some fun) and where. After all, there are plenty of nicely evocative places in Ye Quainte Olde Londonne Towne that I could hire for the day at less than staggering expense, and finding places to put speakers up should be straightforward. The kind of stuff I’d expect it to cover should come as no big surprise:-

  • The Voynich Manuscript
  • The Rohonc Codex
  • John Dee’s secret history (a perennial favourite!)
  • Rosicrucianism and Alchemy
  • Historical code-breaking – a practical guide
  • Armchair treasure-hunting / Treasure maps / The greatest (real) treasures never found
  • Panel: “Renaissance Symbolism – True or False?”
  • The Secret History of Renaissance Astrology
  • The Phaistos Disc (possibly)
  • (…and so on)

Would that be your idea of a perfect day out? Feel free to tell me what’s missing from the agenda!

One fascinating (if hard to pin down) cipher mystery that I’ve been meaning to get to grips with is the Rohonc Codex. This is a vaguely Bible-like book, written on Venetian paper with a watermark dating it to circa 1529-1540, but looks like it ought to have been written centuries earlier. And (you’ll be unsurprised to hear) nobody can read it.

Well, until such time as I find some credible source on the statistical properties of the text (which is where I’d personally want to start from), here’s a nice Passing Strangeness blog entry that describes the Rohonc Codex pretty darn well. Enjoy! 😉

…or, in all its prolixitous glory, “The Six Unsolved Ciphers: Inside the Mysterious Codes That Have Confounded the World’s Greatest Cryptographers“, by Richard Belfield (2007). It was previously published by Orion in the UK as “Can You Crack the Enigma Code?” in 2006.

You’d have thought I’d be delighted by this offering: after all, it covers the Voynich Manuscript, the Beale Papers, Elgar’s “Dorabella” cipher, the CIA’s Kryptos sculpture, the Shepherd’s Monument at Shugborough, and the “Zodiac Killer” ciphers, all things that a Cipher Mysteries blogger ought to get excited about. But there was something oddly disconsonant about it all for me: and working out quite why proved quite difficult…

For a start, if I were compiling a top six list of uncracked historical ciphers, only the Voynich Manuscript and the Beale Papers would have made the cut from Belfield’s set – I don’t think anyone out there could (unless they happened to have cracked either of the two) sensibly nitpick about these being included.

Yet as far the other four go, it’s not nearly so clear. I’ve always thought that the Dorabella cipher was a minor jeu d’esprit on Elgar’s part in a note to a dear friend, and most likely to be something like an enciphered tune. The Kryptos sculpture was intended to bamboozle the CIA and NSA’s crypto squads: and though it relies on classical cryptographic techniques, there’s something a bit too self-consciously knowing about it (its appropriation by The Da Vinci Code cover doesn’t help in this regard). And while the Shugborough Shepherd’s Monument (Belfield’s best chapter by far) indeed has hidden writing, placing its ten brief letters into the category of cipher or code is perhaps a bit strong.

Finally: the Zodiac Killer ciphers, which I know have occupied my old friend Glen Claston in the past, forms just about the only borderline case: its place in the top six is arguable (and it has a good procedural police yarn accompanying it), so I’d kind of grudgingly accept that (at gunpoint, if you will). Regardless, I’d still want to place the Codex Seraphinianus above it, for example.

Belfield’s book reminds me a lot of Kennedy & Churchill’s book on the Voynich Manuscript: even though it is a good, solid, journalistic take on some intriguing cipher stories, I’m not convinced by the choice of the six, and in only one (the Shugborough Shepherd’s Monument) do I think Belfield really gets under the skin of the subject matter. While he musters a lot of interest in the whole subject, it rarely amounts to what you might call passion: and that is really what this kind of mystery-themed book needs to enliven its basically dry subject matter.

It’s hard to fault it as an introduction to six interesting unbroken historical codes and ciphers (it does indeed cover exactly what it says on the tin), and perhaps I’m unfair to judge it against the kind of quality bar I try to apply to my own writing: but try as I may, I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it over (for example) Simon Singh’s “The Code Book” (for all its faults!) as a readable introduction to historical cryptography.

PS: my personal “top six” unsolved historical codes/ciphers would be:-

  1. The Voynich Manuscript (the granddaddy of them all)
  2. The Beale Papers (might be a fake, but it’s a great story)
  3. The Rohonc Codex (too little known, but a fascinating object all the same)
  4. John Dee’s “Enochian” texts (in fact, everything written by John Dee)
  5. William Shakespeare’s work (there’s a massive literature on this, why ignore it?)
  6. Bellaso’s ciphers (but more on this in a later post…)

Feel free to agree or disagree! 😉