Just the merest hint of a nudge to your collective set of virtual elbows, to remind you that the first Voynich London pub meet for basically ages is this evening (7th March 2013), at The Prospect of Whitby in Wapping. Though having said that, all cipher mysteries are fair game, not just the Voynich Manuscript: hence cipher pigeon fanciers and armchair treasure hunters are more than welcome to come along too. Plenty of room for everyone!

I’ll be there from 6.15pm or so, hoping to catch up on the latest Euro cipher gossip from Gotha and elsewhere, courtesy of Herr Cipher Skeptic himself, Klaus Schmeh, who’s on a flying visit to London having had a swift peek at the various enciphered books in the British Library (“The Subtlety of Witches”, etc). So if you can make your way to Wapping Wall for even half an hour, it would be really great to see you.

[Even stronger nudge: Tony Gaffney, what on earth do I have to do to persuade you to come along? I haven’t seen you in 25 years or so!]

Just so you know: if it’s a nice evening (or if someone happens to bring their dog along with them, John 🙂 ), the chances are we’ll be located in the terraced area through the pub to the back left (looking out over the Thames). Otherwise, we could be anywhere on the pub’s two floors, depending on how busy it happens to be. Looking forward to it!

Tony Gaffney, a chess player / tournament organizer I knew back in the early 1980s when playing for Hackney Chess Club, made some fascinating comments to my recent blog post on The Subtelty of Witches and Eric Sams’ attempted solution to the Dorabella Cipher.

Firstly: having spent a looong time in the British Library looking at ciphers (you’ll see why shortly), Tony was happy to tell me that it in fact has three encrypted books, all using simple monoalphabetic ciphers:
(1) MS Add. 10035 “The Subtelty of Witches” (Latin plaintext),
(2) Shelfmark 4783.a.30. “Ebpob es byo Utlub, Umgjoml Nýflobjof, etc. (Order of the Altar, Ancient Mysteries to which females were alone admissible: being part the first of the Secrets preserved in the Association of Maiden Unity and Attachment.)” London, 1835. (English plaintext)
(3) Shelfmark 944.c.19. “Nyflobjof es Woflu” (Mysteries of Vesta)pp.61, London 1850 (?). (English plaintext).

Secondly: without realising it, I had already seen an early version of Tony’s own proposed Dorabella decipherment in the comments to the Elgar article on the BBC Proms website, attributed to one “Jean Palmer”. You see, back in 2006, this was the pseudonum Tony used to write (and POD publish through authorsonline) a book containing a thousand (!) furtively ciphered messages that were placed in (mainly Victorian) newspapers’ personal columns: I shall (of course) post a review of this “Agony Column Codes & Ciphers” here once my freshly-printed copy arrives.

It turns out that Tony is also a frequent poster (under the name “Tony Baloney”) to an online code/cipher cracking forum called Ancient Cryptography I was previously unaware of (probably because its definition of “ancient” seems to extend only as far back as 1450, Bible Codes [pah!] excepted). The forum has specific threads devoted to the d’Agapeyeff Cipher, the Beale Papers, Zodiac Killer Ciphers, and the Kryptos Sculpture (for example), as well as some delightful oddities such as a link to recordings of shortwave Numbers Station broadcasts (coded intelligence messaging). If you want a friendly online forum for discussing attempts to break these historical ciphers, this seems like a sensible place to go.

But back to Tony Gaffney: given that he deciphered a thousand (admittedly mainly monoalphabetic substitution) messages, it should be clear that he is no slouch on the decrypting front. Which is why it is interesting to lookat the latest version of his proposed solution to the Dorabella Cipher. As far as I can tell, this involves simply using exactly the same cipher crib as appears in Elgar’s notebook (?), but interpreting the text that comes out as having been written in a kind of phonetic-style backslang. Here are the two stages (note that the hyphens are inserted as part of the interpretation, not part of the transcription):-

Deciphered:  B-ltac-ei-a-rw-unis-nf-nnellhs-yw-ydou
Anagrammed:  B-lcat-ie-a-wr-usin-fn-nshllen-wy-youd
Plaintext:   B hellcat i.e. a war using effin' henshells(en)? why your
Deciphered:  inieyarqatn-nte-dminuneho-m-syrr-yuo
Anagrammed:  intaqraycin-net-dminuenho-m-srry-you
Plaintext:   antiquarian net diminuendo?? am sorry you
Deciphered:  toeh-o-tsh-gdo-tneh-m-so-la-doe-ad-ya
Anagrammed:  theo-o-ths-god-then-m-so-la-deo-da-ay
Plaintext:   theo o' tis god then me so la deo da aye

On the one hand, I’d say it is more plausible than Eric Sams’ proposed solution: but on the (inevitably negative) other hand, it doesn’t quite manage to summon the kind of aha-ness (AKA “smoking-gunitude“) you’d generally hope for – as Tony’s book no doubt amply demonstrates, the point of a secret love note (which is surely what Elgar seems to have sent Dora Penny?) is to be both secret and to convey something which could not openly be said. But is this really it?

Some people like to say that the real point of tackling apparently unbreakable ciphers is to be found in the travelling rather than in the arriving – that the real prize is what we learn about ourselves from butting our horns against that which is impossible. To which I say: gvdl zpv, bttipmf.

I’ve just heard back from the British Library Manuscript department about BL MS Add. 10035, “The Subtelty of Witches”, which I mentioned here a few days ago: “unfortunately it does not begin in English. The whole of the manuscript is written in cipher.

So: was Eric Sams mistaken? Might the British Library actually have two unreadable books? Well… after a rather longer trawl through the various BL catalogues, I’ll say that “The Subtelty of Witches” is still the best candidate. There are plenty of enciphered letters there, but nothing else of any major size: all the same, I should probably consult Sheila Richards’ (1973) book “Secret writing in the public records, Henry VIII-George II” (actually 1519-1738), just in case there’s any fleeting reference to it there.

Incidentally, Eric Sams wrote a piece for Musical Times in 1970 (now online) on Edward Elgar’s ‘Dorabella’ Cipher, where he suggested the 87 encrypted symbols could be decrypted to read…


Sorry, but somehow I just don’t think Sams quite nailed it on this particular occasion. Sams also wrote a 1987 note explaining his reasoning in more detail: but that just seems a bit too eager to tie things up. All the same, he wraps up the final note by pretty much coming round to my opinion:-

[…] But what if that cipher-table served another purpose?

Dr. Percy Young’s standard biography tells us that Elgar used a music cipher; the names of people he disliked were thus consigned to the Demon’s Chorus in The Dream of Gerontius. An Oxford professor of music, Sir Jack Westrup, has suggested that Elgar used cipher in the Enigma Variations.

Perhaps interested readers would like to consider on what lines (or spaces) ex 3 might make a music cipher?

However, a musicological Ventris has yet to take up this challenge: what haunting melody might be encrypted there? As Elgar said to Dora Penny, “I thought you of all people would guess it“… but what was her favourite song? 😉

Are you an historian with an enciphered document you want to read? If so, here’s a link to an article you really ought to have a look at: “Cryptanalysis and Historical Research” by Eric Sams, from Archivaria 21 (1985-1986) [it’s actually an extended version of two earlier articles he wrote for the TLS in 1977 and 1980].

There’s tons of good stuff in Sams’ article, such as a mention of the table of early shorthands in Isaac Pitman’s book “The History of Shorthand” (which I saw in Leeds University’s Brotherton Collection): this table really ought to be on the web somewhere (please let me know if you happen to find a copy). Incidentally, The Shorthand Place website has a fantastic list of shorthand collections in UK libraries.

But I know what you’re thinking at this point: “What does Sams think of the Voynich Manuscript?” And the answer is, well, not an awful lot:-

“Of course some archives are likely to remain dark and impenetrable. William Friedman, one of the world’s greatest cryptanalysts, spent many a fruitless hour on the Voynich manuscript, attributed to Roger Bacon, which is fluently written in a natural-looking yet wholly unintelligible language.”

AKA, “if it looks tricky, don’t even go there”. But wait: Sams isn’t finished yet…

“The British Library […] also owns an original volume of an equally obscure manuscript which begins by saying in plain English that no one will ever unravel the meaning of what follows.”

But… which manuscript would that be, Eric? Unfortunately, Sams – the teasing swine! – fails to say. (Please email me if you do know!) Flicking through the British Library’s manuscript catalogue, the best candidate appears to be “The Subtelty of Witches” by Ben Ezra Aseph (1657) [British Library MS. Add. 10035], written entirely in cipher… might that be it? Also: BL Ms Add 32305 contains 39 folios of “unidentified cipher keys”: which sounds like a lot of fun. 😉 But I digress! Sams finishes his discussion thus:-

So be it; many tracks lead into such caves. but none ever come out. The true treasure-chests are much more likely to be those which clearly once had real keys, later lost or mislaid. 

Well… speaking as a long-term denizen of the Voynich Manuscript cave, I have to admit that Sams might just have a point here. But no sense of romance, damnit! 🙂

PS: fans of Sams can find a list of his cryptological papers here.