Given that most Voynich furrows have been heavily overploughed over the last two decades, it has become rare for something novel to pop up on my Voynich radar. On those rare occasions such a thing does happen (e.g. the Sagittarius crossbowman, etc), I do try to use my posts to communicate a sense of enthusiasm and excitement.

And so here’s something that might well prove to be interesting: an “Honors senior thesis presentation” courtesy of Adam Lewis at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma in Washington, entitled “An Anatomy of Failure: Analysis Attempts to Decode the Voynich Manuscript” – 6pm-7pm on 21st February 2018, at UPS’s Wyatt Hall, Room 109.

Incidentally, here’s a picture of the University of Puget Sound’s mascot “Grizz the Logger” in action:

So… why is it that the floor around the VMs is littered with so many dead bodies, so many foolish theories, indeed so many grotesquely idiotic theories? What is it about the Voynich Manuscript that draws out the airiest and least tethered of speculations from people? It’s certainly a topic I’ve thought a lot about over the years, and so I look forward to (eventually) reading Adam Lewis’s senior thesis: it should be fun.

Incidentally, I don’t believe I’ve ever talked with Adam, but I suspect this is his LinkedIn profile here.

On the down side, however, I should point out that the talk is marked as “Campus Only” on the website, so even if you do want to go along, you may not actually get in: hence I’d certainly advise phoning or emailing beforehand if you are considering this.

As a sidenote, fans of Alex Scarrow’s books will probably remember that “Timeriders: The Doomsday Code” features a computer hacker called Alex Lewis, who finds his name hidden in the Voynich Manuscript. That’s probably just coincidental (or possibly some time travelling geocache trickery), but I thought I’d mention it anyway. 😉

Incidental news: Cipher Mysteries recently had its 25,000th comment, while it has now also had close to three million page views. Which is nice. (Just thought I’d mention it in passing.) The remainder of the post is for tying up various Voynich threads that aren’t each enough for a whole post of their own.

Edith Zimmerman

Here’s a Voynich amuse-bouche: any page with drawings taken from the Voynich Manuscript’s Quire 13 that includes the following quote is more than OK by me:

Anyway, so then we got to the part in our performance where Shelly and Mathilde stand in giant pipes covered with rhinestones. They hold up large balloons that have fishtails dangling off them, Chinese dragon-style.

Voynich LOL

An example of the per-section language use in Voynichese is that the word EVA “lol” appears far more often in quires Q13 and Q20 than anywhere else. Here’s the lol cluster in the top paragraph of f77r (1 x loly, 3 x lol, all at the end of lines):

Aside from Q13, EVA lol also appears here: f48v f86v6 f103r/v f106r f107r/v f111v f113v f115r f116r. Incidentally, the first word of the last paragraph of f116r (which I suspect contains a colophon from the author) seems to me to be the same kind of thing as the heavily digraph-structured labelese words, though with the extra twist of EVA l sometimes standing in for ol, as I discussed elsewhere):

Brian Hendley

The recent talk of Canadian academics’ rogue AI’s preparing for the enslavement of Mankind by solving Voynichese triggered some memories in the head of Brian Hendley, a philosophy professor at the University of Waterloo:

Your recent story about deciphering the mysterious Voynich manuscript took me back to my graduate school days at Yale and my dissertation supervisor, Bob Brumbaugh. Bob was a recognized Plato scholar but he did have a crack at deciphering the Voynich manuscript, resulting in some published articles and a book, “The Most Mysterious Manuscript: The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript.” I recall Bob saying that you could spend your entire scholarly career trying to decipher the Voynich.

Ain’t that the truth, eh? *sigh*

Gerard Cheshire (yes, again)

Polyglot linguistic Voynich theorist Gerard Cheshire (whose theory I discussed here back in 2017) has hurtled into 2018 even more convinced of his utter rightness (and of everyone else’s abject wrongheadedness).

If you really, really want to read his all-new polyglot interpretation of the nine rosette page (which he calls “Tabula regio novem”, which I don’t believe is grammatical Latin, whatever Google Translate may say) which is all about Italian volcanoes, it is online here.

For those whose appetite for such things would be easily assuaged by a single dim sum, here is Cheshire’s elucidation (I hesitate to call it a decryption or translation) of the text around the bottom-left (SW) rosette:

om é naus (people and ship)
o’monas (in unity)
o’menas (take charge)
omas (mothers/babies)
o’naus (of ship)
orlaus [orlas] (to protect)
omr v asaæe [vasaie] (life-force pots: pregnant bellies)
or as (yet in)
a ele/elle a (he/she at)
a inaus [inauspitica] (inauspicious/unfavourable),
o ele e na (he/she is in)
æina (a/one)
omina (omen)
olinar (to look)
n os aus (it is)
omo na moos (man not mouse)
é ep [epousee] as (and embrace)
or e ele a opénas (an opening)
os as ar vas (thus you go)
opas (but carefully)
a réina (to the queen)
ol ar sa os aquar aisu na (to facilitate not getting wet with seawater).

J. Michael Herrmann

One little-noted Voynich theory from last year was J. Michael Herrmann’s The Voynich Manuscript is Written in Natural Language: The Pahlavi Hypothesis. Exactly as it says on the tin, it’s a linguistic Voynich theory:

Here, we provide evidence that the VM is written in natural language by establishing a relation of the Voynich alphabet and the Iranian Pahlavi script. Many of the Voynich characters are upside-down versions of their Pahlavi counterparts, which may be an effect of different writing directions. Other Voynich letters can be explained as ligatures or departures from Pahlavi with the intent to cope with known problems due to the stupendous ambiguity of Pahlavi text.

Herrmann followed that with his 2018 paper The Cannabis Page of the Voynich Manuscript. This finesses some of the claims in the 2017 paper, now suggesting that Voynichese uses an “alphabet that has similarities to Pahlavi and Mandaic script”.

The “Cannabis Page” referred to in the title is f16r:

In Herrmann’s translation (which is accompanied by extensive notes, presumably to help readers overcome the “stupendous ambiguity” of Pahlavi), the first paragraph of f16r emerges as a tirade against the evils of cannabis:

Cannabis [is] vain. Stay away from the impudent crowing man. The pipe is a debasement. Jaundice [is] the overly happy face of the adherent. [He is] puffed up with pride. Security does not come [to him]. In the evening peace of mind does not come [to him, as] the serpent of nightly lust spoils him. [What is] concealed,
will become public.

If you are interested, Herrmann’s rendering of the first paragraph of f1r is as follows:

(1) The humble grass shames you. Obediently hold the law. You cry for help for the tribunal commanded (2) for being insolent. Verily, you are frightened out of your wits by the troops in fury. Crowds and crowds of abled ones. (3) Woe, the well ordered line (of troops) is driving forward. If you see this, you will. Don’t start to count and to number the men, woe! (4) Refrain form [sic] the uneducated baldhead, the storyteller, the teaching of the “light bringer”. Remember the time of the fathers. (5) Heaven shield those who are weak for debasement. The man of doubt guide right.

If only I had an open letter I could use, if only… :-/

(Please excuse the impersonality of what follows, but so many linguistic Voynich theories are popping up at the moment that responding to them all individually would be an even greater waste of my life than trawling through their sad attempts at ‘research’: sorry, hope you understand, etc.)

Dear linguistic Voynich theorist,

Thank you so much for your fascinating [1] and generally well-researched [2] paper. Unfortunately, it seems that in your enthusiasm to publish [3], you may well have skipped past some important details that would have presented your evidence, reasoning, and conclusions in a somewhat different light.

For example, your literature review somehow omitted to mention any of the fifty-plus [4] linguistic Voynich theories that had been published previously: only the most eagle-eyed of barristers would be able to highlight how these differed from yours to any significant degree.

I was interested to note [5] that you repeated the late Stephen Bax’s opinion (perhaps without even knowing that he was the source) that it is OK for linguistic Voynich theorists to disregard all previous statistical and analytical work carried out on the Voynich Manuscript’s text. However, given that almost all of that evidence and observation runs directly counter to your linguistic Voynich theory (and indeed Bax’s as well), it is hard not to draw the conclusion that you have been more than a little [6] selective. By stepping past all the practical difficulties with reconciling Voynichese with natural languages that have been pointed out from 1950s onwards by the Friedmans and many others, it seems as though you have taken a particularly blinkered view of the challenge involved.

As to what you think comprises evidence that supports your particular linguistic reading, I’m sorry to have to point out that neither optimistically plucking words from all manner of dictionaries nor running your fragmentary and non-grammatical [7] output through Google Translate for validation constitutes ‘evidence’ in any normal sense of the word. Instead, these merely show that you are willing to throw darts at a map bindfolded and then claim to have invented the satnav. [8]

Your attempted argument as to how Voynichese’s word-forms structurally map onto the plaintext forms you highlight would have been more persuasive had you looked for evidence beyond the two or three pages from the Voynich Manuscript you restricted your attention to. In reality, had you done so you would have realized that the ‘language’ apparently employed in the Voynich Manuscript varies significantly between sections, between bifolios, and also between different page and line positions (line-initial, word-initial, word-final, line-final, labels, etc): and it turns out that the tiny subset into which you put your time is not at all representative of the rest. So your supposed ‘translation’ fails to scale up in any way at all.

Finally: given that in your paper you were unable to sustain your ‘translation’ of the (supposed) plaintext language(s) of the Voynich Manuscript beyond a handful of somewhat optimistic [9] readings, and that this is almost exactly the same level of (un)convincingness that other near-identical linguistic Voynich theories manage, it is hard [10] to feel persuaded by your claims that you have “finally peeled back the veils of secrecy on this most mysterious of manuscripts“. Instead, it seems overwhelmingly likely that you have fallen headlong into the same shallow logical traps as pretty much every linguistic Voynich theorist ever.

At this point, it would be a wonderful thing to be able to say that despite some methodological flaws and over-enthusiastic leaps to conclusion, your paper has still managed to advance our knowledge of the Voynich Manuscript. But this would not be entirely true. [11] Instead, all you have actually achieved is wasting your own time along with that of everyone else unfortunate enough to read your miserable offering: ultimately, your paper is a bland and tepid mix of pseudohistory, pseudoscience and pseudolinguistics that moves us all backwards rather than forwards in any perceivable way.

Sorry, hope you don’t mind too much, best wishes, etc, Nick

Notes:

[1] This is a lie.
[2] This is a bigger lie.
[3] i.e. “slapdash haste”.
[4] Perhaps even a hundred.
[5] This is an even bigger lie.
[6] OK, “obscenely”
[7] OK, “pathetically nonsensical”
[8] It’s a good job I toned this sentence down, the first draft was a bit too strong.
[9] OK, “laughable and utterly random”
[10] OK, “so close to impossible as to make no practical difference”
[11] In fact, this would be a lie big enough to blot out the sun.

Thanks to Newsweek, Fox News, The Daily Mail and The Independent [*sigh*], some techy Canadian Voynich research is currently enjoying its day in the media sun. (Hint to authors: sorry, but based on recent evidence, it would seem that you have ~48 hours to get your next funding request submitted and approved before everyone currently cheering starts booing.)

CompSci professor Greg Kondrak and graduate student Bradley Hauer presented their research at the 2017 ACL conference, and their paper “Decoding Anagrammed Texts Written in an Unknown Language and Script” appeared in Transactions of the Association for Computational Linguistics Volume 4, Issue 1, pages 75–86 [though the PDF is freely downloadable, at least for now].

From the press coverage so far, you might think that they had CARMELed the Voynich (i.e. thrown a tame supercomputer and some kind clever-arse AI libraries at the problem): for, as the media incessantly repeat at the moment, All Human Problems Will Inevitably Yield To The Scythed Mega-Bulldozer That Is AI. But… is any of that true? Or useful? What’s actually going on here?

Behind the Kondrak and Hauer headlines

The initial question is obvious: what did Kondrak and Hauer actually do to try to crack the Voynich’s mysterious secrets that (they thought) nobody else had tried before? A quick snoop reveals that Bradley Hauer is a pretty smart crypto cookie: the simple substitution cipher solver presented in his 2014 paper “Solving Substitution Ciphers with Combined Language Models” outperforms many competing academic solutions. It does this by using both letter statistics and word lists at the same time (a) to solve Aristocrat cryptograms (i.e. ones where you know where the word boundaries are) even under mildly noisy conditions, and (b) to solve Patristocrat cryptograms (i.e. ciphertexts without spaces, though the recursive approach used to turn Patristocrats into candidate Aristocrats seems somewhat heavy-handed), before finally moving on to trying (unsuccessfully) to reproduce the kind of deniable encryption loosely proposed in Stanislaw Lem’s (1973) “Memoirs found in a bathtub”.

And here’s what Hauer looks like in real life:

So what happened before the Voynich paper was even written was that Hauer had built up a lot of software machinery for solving nicely-word-boundaried simple substitution ciphers at speed, and where some kind of mild text mangling had optionally taken place. And so it should not be a surprise that he carried this technology and approach forward, insofar as the 2016 paper tries to solve Voynichese as if it were a nicely-word-boundaried simple substitution cipher that had had its text mangled via anagramming plus optional abjad-style vowel removal. Given that as the paper’s founding presumption, all it is trying to do is evaluate which plaintext language was used if that entire presumption just happened to be correct (oh, and the transcription used was accurate).

Incidentally, the Voynich corpus used was 43 pages (“17,597 words and 95,465 characters”) of Currier-B text in the Currier transcription that one or both of Knight & Reddy had supplied, but the authors did not seem to have questioned the reliability or parsing choices behind that particular transcription. (More on this below.)

Voynich anagramming

Unlike Stephen Bax’s well-known Voynich 2014 paper (which began by gleefully flipping the bird at nearly all previous Voynich research), Kondrak and Hauer’s Voynich paper begins by covering what they consider related Voynich work (section 2.1) in a level-headed, if somewhat brief, way. The most relevant source they have for the notion that we might be looking at anagrammed text is Gordon Rugg’s 2004 paper: this floated the idea that there might be a similarity between alphabetically ordered anagrams (‘alphagrams’) and what we see in the Voynich Manuscript’s text.

Yet much has already been written about Voynich anagramming beyond this, not least William Romaine Newbold’s monstrously tangled ‘decryption’ (*shudder*). More recently, Edith Sherwood claimed both that it was a young Leonardo da Vinci who wrote the Voynich Manuscript, and that the Voynich text was written in anagrammed Italian (though so far she has mainly only tried to reconstruct Voynich plant names using her proposed scheme). As I pointed out in 2009 this seems extraordinarily unlikely to work in the way she proposes.

Arguably the most interesting previous Voynich research into anagrams (again, not mentioned by Hauer) has been that of London-based researcher and translator Philip Neal. In a (now long-lost) page he posted many years ago on the late Glen Claston’s voynichcentral.com website, Philip proposed:

Here is a transformation of plaintext into ciphertext which explains certain features of the Voynich “language”.

1. Divide a plaintext into lines
2. Sort the words of each line into alphabetical order
3. Sort the letters of each word into alphabetical order

1. one thing led to another thing last night
2. another last led night one to thing thing
3. aehnort alst del ghint eno ot ghint ghint

The result has some of the statistical properties of the Voynich text.

A. The frequency distribution of words and letters is the same as in the natural language plaintext, but the distribution of two-letter groups and two-word groups is significantly altered.
B. Words at the beginning of a ciphertext line tend to start with letters at the beginning of the alphabet. Compare the high frequency of Voynich “d” at the beginning of a line.
C. If a letter near the end of the alphabet has a tendency to be word-initial in the plaintext (e.g. German “w”), it will have a strong tendency to be the last word in a line. Compare the high frequency of Voynich “m” at the end of a line.
D. The ciphertext versions of frequent words will tend to cluster together in a line. That is, where a word such as “thing” occurs twice in the plaintext line (as in the above example) the two word sequence “ighnt ighnt” will occur, but “ighnt” may also occur elsewhere in the line as an anagram of “night”.
E. A one-letter word of ciphertext can only be an anagram of a single word of plaintext (“a” can only be an anagram of “a”) and a two-letter word of ciphertext can only be an anagram of two possible words of plaintext (“et” can only be an anagram of “et” and “te”). This means that you cannot have a ciphertext line of the pattern “… i … i … ” or of the pattern “… et … et … et …”. This principle largely holds good in the Voynich text: there are only six exceptions in the corpus of Currier’s language B.

To his credit, Philip then immediately pointed out some problems with this suggestion:

1. Voynichese words do not conform to a strict alphabetical ordering of letters (there are quite a lot of words of the pattern dshedy).
2. Voynichese words have a strong tendency to contain only one instance of a given letter, unlike any obvious candidate language for the plaintext.
3. The enciphering described is not unambiguously reversible (however I think it would work as a private aide-memoire, or as a means of establishing priority like Galileo’s well known anagram announcing his discovery of the phases of Venus)

(Philip has since instead proposed a possible grid-like constraint on the position of Voynichese letters within Voynichese ‘words’, though problems with that alternative explanation remain.)

Incidentally, Philip has also pointed to a number of places within the Voynich Manuscript where entire lines appear to have been written in a non-one-after-the-other way (i.e. unexpected line transpositions): while nobody has yet come up with a powerfully convincing explanation for the presence of “Neal keys” (sections of text typically delimited by pairs of single-leg gallows) in the top lines of pages (typically embedded ⅔ of the way across). He is a sharp observer, and these anomalies are all inconsistent with the widely-held presumption that the text we are looking at here is completely unmangled.

Ultimately, though, it remains a sizeable step (or three, or indeed more) to go from anywhere here to Hauer’s presumption that what we are looking at is straightforwardly anagrammed text in a conventional European language, whether abjad or not.

The actual Voynich research gap

If asked for the single largest methodological problem with Voynich research, I would point to the way that Voynich researchers tend to make a series of unfounded assumptions:
(a) the transcription they are using is perfectly reliable;
(b) the way that they parse that transcription (i.e. into tokens) is correct – there are many hidden linkages here which are each probably sufficient to derail any decryption attempt;
(c) the candidate plaintext languages they consider are genuinely representative of the Voynich Manuscript’s plaintext;
(d) no other textual transformations are present;
(e) the putative hypothetical transformation that they just happen to have plucked from the air and which they are testing is precisely that which is present in the Voynich Manuscript; and
(f) the output of their reverse transformation will be straightforward text that can be read and marvelled over by historians.

In the case of Kondrak and Hauer, I hope it should be clear that they have fallen foul of every one of these issues in turn: and their paper is all the worse for it. It is one thing to note in passing that Esperanto’s “extreme morphological regularity […] yields an unusual bigram character language model which fits the repetitive nature of the VMS words” (p.83), but it would be quite another to point out that this might easily have arisen from the way that Voynichese needs to be parsed in order for it to make sense: and it is this apparent lack of perception of the practical difficulties that all Voynich decryptors face that devalues the genuinely good work that went into their paper.

What particularly frustrates me is that in spite of these many issues, there are plenty of ways Voynich researchers can make genuine progress towards understanding what is going on: but, rather, they instead persist in trying to airball their own personal Voynich match-winner from the other end of the basketball court. They seem seduced by the glamour of being The One Who Solved The Voynich, instead of getting on with the graft of making a difference to what we know. 🙁

Yet computational linguistics has such a rich toolbox (of which CARMEL is merely one small screwdriver) that it surely has ample capacity to at least try to bridge all the actual research gaps that people are falling into, e.g.:

* What is the right way to parse EVA into tokens? (e.g. is EVA ‘or’ two tokens or one? is EVA ‘cth’ three tokens, two tokens, or one? etc)
* How does Currier A map to Currier B? And what about all the subtypes of each of these?
* What are the differences between them and “Currier C”? (Rene Zandbergen’s term for labelese)
* Can we determine whether line-initial letters are likely reliable or unreliable?
* Are words abbreviated (e.g. is EVA y some kind of truncation symbol)? If so, are A and B abbreviated in exactly the same way?
* etc

If people had the intellectual good sense to stop trying to fly over all these separate hurdles all at the same time in a Steve Austin-style 100m leap of misplaced faith, we might start to make real progress. However, even when researchers do have the necessary brains to make progress (as Hauer clearly has), it seems they have insufficient strength of mind to not be tempted by the glamour of the big ticket “Researchers Crack Voynich Manuscript” headline. 🙁

Because last year’s Voynich research brought me a step closer to German calendars, I finally got round to reading Ernst Zinner’s epic “Regiomontanus: His Life and Works” (or, rather, to Ezra Brown’s 1990 translation of the same).

On the one hand, Zinner is crushingly magisterial, in both tone and deep attention to detail (though the appendices by other scholars do sometimes highlight Zinner’s occasional dependence on others’ unreliable translations). Yet on the other hand, it is a style of writing characterized by what is clearly a passionate drive to understand Regiomontanus within his cultural, scientific, and mathematical context.

Say what you like about Zinner, but you could never accuse him of skimming the surface of the subject: as the old joke goes, he’s definitely more bacon than eggs (i.e. where “the chicken is involved but the pig is committed”).

Peuerbach and nocturnals

I’ve written a number of times before about how I strongly suspect that the circular drawing on f57v had a ring of letter groups that was originally made up of 4 x 18 symbols, but where the first two letter shapes of each set of eighteen were subsequently joined together into odd gallows-like characters to turn the sequence into a (far more mysterious) 4 x 17 letter-group sequence. Quite why the author did that is not known, but it would seem to me to have been done to conceal the extrinsic 4 x 18 structure.

Why, you may ask, would a 4 x 18 ring be a giveaway? This, in my opinion, is because 360 degrees / (4 x 18) = 5 degrees, which is the kind of explicit marking you would see on an astrolabe-like instrument of some sort. And because one of the secret astrolabe-like instruments of the mid-fifteenth century was the “nocturnal”, “nocturlabe” or “stardial” (astrolabes themselves were hardly secret by that time), I have long wondered whether what was depicted here was this specific instrument.

And so I was fascinated to read the following brief note in Zinner (pp.26-26), in his discussion of Georg Peuerbach (Regiomontanus’ mentor and teacher):

From 1455 on, there existed “stardials” [nocturnals] to tell time at night by means of the Pole Star and two stars {the “pointers”} in Ursa Major.

The footnote reference Zinner gives for this is: “Ernst von Bassermann-Jordan. Uhren. Berlin, 1922. Figure on page 21.” And so I went off (eventually) to have a look for this specific edition.

It turns out that von Bassermann-Jordan was a well-known clock and watch collector, whose classic book (“Uhren”) on the subject was reprinted many times. I was therefore delighted to find out that I could order a relatively cheap print-on-demand copy of the exact same 1922 version that Zinner referenced, and speedily sent off my money.

I must admit to having been a little bit surprised when a padded envelope appeared covered in Indian stamps (I must admit to having wondered whether it was a coincidence that “Uhren” was an anagram of “Nehru”), but that’s globalization for you.

Even though the print-on-demand book cover was really quite nice, the quality of the scans inside was unfortunately more than a little disappointing in places. But even so, I could now try to find what von Bassermann-Jordan said on page 21 that Zinner remarked upon. Sadly, this was one of the many places where the scans became somewhat unrecognizable by the right-hand edge.

Yet because I was able to use Google to search for “Orientierung der Horizontalsonnenuhren” on the same page, this yielded three hits on archive.org, including the 1922 edition I had just bought. (There was also a 1914 edition and a 1920 edition). Unsurprisingly, the 1922 edition was (without any real doubt) the source of the somewhat mangled scans for the Indian POD company, so I can show you what I was trying to read, direct from the source:

Even so, this meant that I was able to find the same thing in the (much clearer, and significantly more readable) 1920 edition of “Uhren”, so that you can hopefully see the structure of the nocturnal (dated “1456”) much more clearly:

I presume that this is referring to the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich, which (encouragingly) has a collection of scientific instruments. However, I wasn’t able to find the one depicted in its object database (and I suspect Zinner wasn’t able to find it either), but perhaps one of my German readers will have more luck than me. 🙂

Other nocturnals

A very good source for the history of the nocturnal is Günther Oestmann’s (2001) “On The History of the Nocturnal“. Oestmann notes that the idea that the nocturnal was first invented in China has been comprehensively debunked, and that it is instead a European invention – there are no Arabic nocturnals from the Middle Ages. There was also a predecessor to the nocturnal (a sighting tube and disk, described by Pacificus in the 10th century), but the more compact hand-held nocturnal was clearly a far more usable version of the same thing.

The “V2.0” idea of nocturnals had actually been discussed as early as the 12th century (though few seem to have been actually built). Raymon Lull mentions the nocturnal in his Nova geometria (1299), and the device was made famous by Peter Apian’s 16th century printed book:

But documentation on nocturnals between Lull and the 1456 nocturnal noted by von Bassermann-Jordan and Zinner seems quite thin. Oestmann lists all the 15th century nocturnal manuscripts he is aware of, together with references (not included here) to where they are mentioned in Zinner’s (1925) “Verzeichnis der astronomischen Handschriften des deutschen Kulturgebietes“:

* Wolfenbüttel, HAB: Cod. Guelf. 81.26 Aug. 2°, fol. 144v (Use of the Nocturnal, Latin 1461)
* Göttingen, UB: 2° Philos. 42m, fol. 55r/v .00 (Johann v. Gmunden [?], Construction of the Nocturnal, in a collection of astronomical texts, 15th cent.)
* Würzburg, UB: M. ch. q. 132, fol. 153v-154v, 155v (Construction of the Nocturnal, Latin, in a collection of astronomical texts, late 15th cent.)
* Leipzig, UB: Cod. 1469, fol. 201r-207r (Construction of the Nocturnal, Latin, in a collection of astronomical texis, 14-15th cent.)
* Munich, Bayer. StB: Clm 24105, fol.65v-67r (Use of the Nocturnal, German, in a collection of astronomical texts, 15/16th cent.)
* Munich, Bayer. StB: Clm 214, fol. 167r-185v (Construction of the Nocturnal, Latin, in a collection of astronomical tables, 15th cent.)
* Bern, Burgerbibl.: Cod. 157 fol. 27v-28v (Construction and Use of the Nocturnal, Latin, 15th cent.)
* Zürich, Zentralbibl.: Ms. C 107, fol. 107r/v (Wilhelm Hofer, Carthusian monk and pupil of Georg Peuerbach), Construction and Use of the Nocturnal, Latin, Gaming (Lower Austria) 1472/79); see L. C. Mohlberg, Mittelalterliche Handschriften (= Katalog der Zentralbibliothek Zürich, vol. I), Zürich 1951, p.55f., 361).
* Ottobeuren, Klosterbibl.: Ms. II, 319, fol. 122-123 (Construction of the Nocturnal, 15th cent.)
* Meiningen, Landesbibl.: Pd 32.44, fol. 92r-98v, 104r-105v (Construction of the Nocturnal, 15th cent.)

Oestmann also mentions Chartres MS 214 (olim 173; destroyed in 1944), which looked like this, though note that it actually belongs to the earlier “sighting tube” tradition from Pacificus:

But because Oestmann relies on Zinner, who in turn was only looking at astronomical manuscripts within the German cultural orbit, there are doubtless many more to be found. For example, there’s a nice volvelle nocturnal in fol. 25r of MS Ashmole 370, an English manuscript dated ~1424 that I’d really like to see the rest of one day:

If anyone is aware of a better / more recent / more pan-European source on the 12th-15th century history of the nocturnal / nocturlabe than Oestmann, please let me know!

“Stretched out arms”

For Voynich researchers, I would argue that the single most extraordinarily interesting paragraph in Oestmann’s paper is as follows:

Closely connected with the history of the nocturnal are certain diagrams in nautical texts, which served as mnemonic devices for the correction of the measured altitude of the Pole Star. The position of α and β Ursae minoris respectively α and β Ursae maioris, often called ‘Guards’, indicated the correction to reduce the observed Pole Star altitude to obtain latitude. A man with stretched out arms standing in the Pole was used. If the Guards were found over his head the Pole Star stood 3°5′ under the Celestial Pole and vice versa. The two arms marked the side deviations and also intermediate positions were recorded in mnemonic verses.

Given that f57v specifically depicts people with stretched out arms (at the top and the bottom), I suspect that this is an avenue of research that is well worth pursuing further:

Oestmann’s footnote #17 gives as his source:

See for example the Regimento do Norte (probably composed in the 15th century; München, Bayer, StB: 4° Inc., 1551). On the nautical ‘Regiments’ see Joaquim Bensaude, L’astronomie nautique au Portugal à l’époque des grandes de couvertes (Bern, 1912/17, repr. Amterdam 1967), pp. 136-145, 223f.; Hermann Wagner ‘Die Entwicklung der wissenschaftlichen Nautik im Beginn des Zeitalters der Entdeckungen nach neuern Anschauungen’, Annalen der Hydrographie und Maritimen Meteorologie, 46 (1918), pp. 215-220.

I learned, via an email from Rene Zandbergen today, that Voynich theorist Stephen Bax died a few days ago. It was only last month that he and Rene jointly formed the Voynich research presence at the Siloe press launch (he is on the left below, next to Rene):

I’m sure there are plenty whom he taught or that worked with him that have fond, positive memories: the obituaries will surely be safe in their hands. My thoughts – and I hope those of other Voynicheros – are with his family.

If you think what the world really needs right now is yet another Voynich theory, preferably one that’s been stewing in some guy’s head for more than a decade and that could well emerge in book form during the next twelve months, then please feel free to advance to the edge of your seat, because this is without any real doubt absolutely the right post for you.

(Everyone else can just get ready to shake their head while exhaling slowly and sadly, as per normal.)

And no, it’s not muralist and war artist Nicholas Gibbs’ wonky Latinistic theory I’m talking about here, and it’s not even Gerard Cheshire’s polyglottal mess, though I have little doubt that we will hear more Sturm Und Drang from these two self-proclaimed Voynich giants before too long.

Really, if the number of nutty Voynich Manuscript theory/manifestoes currently being promised is a measure of an idea’s currency, then right now the Voynich Manuscript’s stock – NASDAQ:VOYM, perhaps? – would seem to be trading at an all-time high.

Jim Handlin

So, does anyone here not too far from Woodstock want to spend eight dollars to hear about Jim Handlin’s decryption of the Voynich Manuscript (his talk is called “The Voynich Manuscript Dechipered [sic], Part 2“, because it followed an introductory talk by Handlin in the same venue the preceding month)? Then you might consider heading over to Mountain View Studio, 20 Mountain View Ave, Woodstock, NY 12498 on 9th December 2017 between 5pm and 6:30pm.

The event blurb tells us:

Emerging from a 12-year engagement within cryptic language uses in western civilization, Handlin’s solution — if verifiable — is a mind-blowing revelation at a nexus of Jewish and Coptic mysticism and alchemy. […]

But Handlin’s crack of the Voynich Manuscript came about (it says here) almost as a secondary thing:

In 2004, Handlin discovered an ancient code used to hide and protect a system of thought he believes goes back to the creation of the alphabet. He has spent the last twelve years working with that system, which he calls the Rotas Code, applying it to decipher antiquarian texts that have defied translation. Recently he has used the Rotas Code to translate the Word Squares in the Abramelin Manuscript (1459 CE) and has made significant progress in translating the contemporaneous Voynich Manuscript.

You probably already know whether or not you’re even remotely interested in what Handlin has to say, so I’ll end the post there. But just so you know, I’ll post separately about the Book of Abramelin, because that’s a genuinely interesting topic for another day (though not a cipher).

What on earth, you may reasonably ask, is a Voynich “metatheory”? I use the term for a specific kind of Voynich Manuscript theory that seeks to explain more or less all its puzzling features by pointing to a single – usually surprising and/or counterintuitive – lateral step away from what we know (or, rather, what we think we know).

Because of the complexity of the manuscript, ‘normal’ Voynich theories tend to be a patchwork of simple explanations and tangled saving hypotheses (i.e. to try to explain why the simple explanations didn’t actually work): by way of contrast, metatheories instead assert that something really fundamental we tend to take for granted is wrong, and that all our confusions have arisen merely as a result of our treating the manuscript as entirely the wrong category of object.

In short, a theory tries to account for the difficulties we observe fairly directly, while a metatheory tries to explain away more or less the whole constellation of difficulties by pointing to (what it asserts is) a basic flaw in our mindset.

For example, Gordon Rugg’s hoax metatheory asserts that the Voynich Manuscript ‘could be’ or ‘is’ (depending on which journalist he’s talking to) a 16th century hoax (technically, a simulacrum) that was constructed at speed using sets of ingeniously-arranged tables and grilles: and hence that the entire statistical edifice of oddly-language-like textual behaviours that taxes Voynich researchers so greatly is no more than an incidental by-product of the hoax’s cleverly-structured meaninglessness. (It’s just a shame that the radiocarbon date for the manuscript’s vellum turned out to be a century earlier, or else he wouldn’t now look like a bit of a fool. Still, I did tell him so at the time. *sigh*)

Another long-running Voynich Manuscript metatheory is Richard SantaColoma’s 2012 proposal (having previously proposed various similar hoax theories) that Wilfrid Voynich himself created the Voynich Manuscript as a sort of fake or a hoax. Rich continues to write about this, and even gave a presentation called “Is the Voynich Manuscript a Modern Forgery? (And why it matters)” at the recent (2017) Symposium on Cryptologic History in Maryland. Here’s what he looks like:

As always with the Voynich Manuscript, broadly the same thing has been suggested numerous times before, e.g. Michael Barlow’s (1986) Cryptologia article “The Voynich Manuscript – by Voynich?”. But what has distinguished Rich’s presentation is his readiness to fight his corner against all-comers, even though the physical evidence, the historical evidence, the codicological evidence and indeed the palaeographic evidence each separately seems to weigh quite strongly against it. Oh, and the fact that Voynich spent so much time trying to get people to prove it was by Roger Bacon.

Anyway, given that so few people now seem to understand the actual nature of Rich’s hoax claims (and why refuting them matters), I thought a post was a little overdue. So here it is.

Not Probably, But Possibly

As mentioned above, the radiocarbon dating of the vellum points specifically to the early 15th century: to which Rich responds that there is some evidence that some forgers have sometimes used caches of unused old vellum as the support medium for their forgeries. So his argument runs: because some forgers have done this on some occasions, it could have been the case here too. And so the radiocarbon dating – though obviously opposing simple forgeries – cannot be used to absolutely disprove the suggestion that the person who (putatively) hoaxed the Voynich Manuscript.

Similarly, even though the codicological evidence directly implies that the Voynich Manuscript has been rebound and overpainted (leaving bifolios mis-coloured and out of context), Rich’s position is that this implies Wilfrid Voynich must have been not just a hoaxer, but a highly sophisticated hoaxer, deliberately shuffling the vellum bifolios and overpainting them to simulate what might have happened over time to such a document (had it been genuine). And, naturally, the more codicological details that you add to this list, the more sophisticated a hoaxer Wilfrid Voynich must surely have been, he would argue. Even though increasing the sophistication and complexity like this makes the hoax less probable, it remains a possibility: and the smaller the possibility, the more wondrous a deception it surely was.

The palaeographic evidence to do with the ultra-rare numbering system used to number the quires is a strange one: this specific (and rather cumbersome and impractical) system seems only to have been used for a few years during the mid-15th century in no more than a few parts of what is now Switzerland. Rich’s response here is that because Wilfrid Voynich was an antiquarian bookseller roaming Europe looking for rare books and manuscripts, he would surely have been well-placed to see such a system in action in the kind of rare manuscripts he regularly saw. Again, even if there is no evidence that Voynich himself actually bought a separate manuscript where this rare numbering system appears, this is a historical possibility that we cannot use to disprove Rich’s basic claim, despite its low intrinsic probability.

Despite the mathematical fact that multiplying two small probabilities together makes a much smaller net probability, Rich’s overall position as far as these contraindicating evidences goes is simply this: that if his proposal that Wilfrid Voynich faked/hoaxes the manuscript is correct, then the final probability that all these other things happened is actually 100%, however unlikely each may seem to an historian.

Some may say that this is a lot like explaining away the chocolate bar missing from the kitchen table as having been taken by hungry aliens who beamed it up to their mothership to eat it: but that’s perhaps a little too glibly sarcastic. Rather, I think the real situation is that Rich defends the possibility that Voynich faked/hoaxed his manuscript so avidly because he thinks that the weight of secondary explanations it yields balances out its net improbability, i.e. that the explanation’s high utility is in inverse proportion to its likelihood.

Document X

In my opinion, however, the place where Rich’s argumental train struggles to stay in contact with its logical rails is in its relationship with a complex of 17th century letters to and from Athanasius Kircher, that famously describe a document strikingly similar to the Voynich Manuscript.

In recent years, this set of letters has been documented and dissected in depth, from which prolonged study there now seems no doubt whatsoever that they are all referring to a single mysterious document (let us call this “Document X“) that was owned by Georg Baresch, passed to Johannes Marcus Marci after Baresch’s death, and then passed by Marci to Athanasius Kircher.

Rich SantaColoma firstly points out that we have no direct proof that Document X is the Voynich Manuscript, and that we should therefore be wary of assuming that the two are the same object. He further contends that in his opinion, the Voynich Manuscript was instead faked/hoaxed by Voynich specifically to make it resemble the description of (the presumably now long-lost) Document X.

For this to be true, it would seem that Wilfrid Voynich must have been aware of the contents of some or all of these letters in 1914 or before, so that he could design his hoax/fake to resemble their description of Document X.

However, even though Kircher’s thick volumes of letters were well-known during his lifetime (e.g. De Sepi’s 1678 description of Kircher’s museum in Rome), they were not listed in later Jesuit sources (such as Sommervogel and De Backer (1893)). Furthermore, the modern rediscovery of Kircher’s correspondence came about long after the Voynich Manuscript appeared on the world stage: until John Fletcher took on the mammoth task of reading and judiciously summarizing the more-than-2000 letters in the 1940s, there had been no more than passing mention of them at all since the 17th century.

For Wilfrid Voynich to have even seen these volumes would therefore have been highly surprising: and what is more, for him to have had sufficient time (and good enough Latin) to work his way through them enough to draw out the strands of the sub-network of letters around the Voynich Manuscript nearly a century before anyone else did is basically impossible.

Apologies to Rich SantaColoma, but there is therefore no way whatsoever that Wilfrid Voynich himself could have built up a description of Document X that would have been good enough to work as a template for him to use when (supposedly) forging/hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript.

Saving Hypotheses Aplenty

If that’s a bust, what other alternatives still remain open? Alas, the problem with imaginative historical interpolation is that there are almost always numerous ways to construct saving hypotheses to paper over the cracks in any wonky explanation’s wall, no matter how wide those cracks may be.

For example, it is possible that an entirely unknown group of people (let’s say, one or more 18th or 19th century Jesuit students) had access to Document X, and from that built up an entirely separate set of descriptions of it: and that it was this separate set of descriptions that Wilfrid Voynich had access to, which he used as the basis for his hoax/fake.

However, the way that the 1665 Marci letter (the one that Voynich said he found tucked into the manuscript) ties in so neatly with the rest of the 17th century Kircher correspondence then becomes very hard to reconcile. And so you would be left with the awkward conclusion that this unknown group of people must also have had access to Marci’s letter. In fact, I think you would be forced to conclude that this letter originally accompanied Document X, but that even though Document X was lost, the still-extant accompanying letter was inserted by Wilfrid Voynich into his faked-up version of Document X.

But this is starting to sound too unlikely even for Rich SantaColoma’s subtle taste for the barely possible. :-/

If you don’t like that, then another possibility could be that Wilfrid Voynich was shown (or saw) Document X itself (including Marci’s letter), but then created his own fake Document X while stealing Marci’s letter to attach to his own version… but this is all veering into the realms of the historically fantastical, and I don’t want to do Rich’s work for him. 😉

And So The Moral Of The Story Is…

In my opinion, what Rich SantaColoma offers up doesn’t really fall in the category of History, but is rather a kind of Debating Society take on historical certainty – for unless you can prove to him to his satisfaction that his argued scenario is impossible by his own criteria, he feels happy to announce that he has won the debate.

Moreover, because Rich seems to believe that the proposal that Wilfrid Voynich himself faked/hoaxed the Voynich Manuscript is itself enough to resolve all otherwise-difficult-to-explain issue, this is something against which he is happy to balance a homeopathically low level of probability, one lower than just about anybody else would consider acceptable.

Yet it seems to me from this that whereas most Voynich theories are based on some kind of psychological projection on the part of the theorist, there is something quite different going on here. Despite the sustained effort Rich has put into sustaining the dwindlingly small possibility side of his Wilfrid-Voynich-hoaxed-it-himself theory, there seems to be a thoroughly irrational component to the other half of his equation. That is to say: what exactly about the Voynich Manuscript would any modern hoax theory throw any light on? What would it explain about the manuscript’s strange text and hard-to-pin-down diagrams? How does the notion that it is a hoax help explain the intricacies of its patterns? If Voynich created it, how did he create it? But all such questions seem to trail off into an awkward silence.

Regardless, all the while Rich’s absolute-disproof-avoiding way of going about this is merely his idiosyncratic opinion, it is (of course) of no wider importance whatsoever: as always, people are free to hold whatever opinions they like, however odd or curious they may be. Given that we’re living in a postmodern world where even Stephen Bax is feted as a Voynich expert, rhyme and reason of the sort I happen to value would seem to be rare commodities indeed: so perhaps I’m simply a Victorian dad peering at Instagram and wondering why all the children depicted aren’t working up chimneys.

But if I were to be asked – as indeed sometimes happens – whether I think there is any merit in Rich’s suggestion of a modern hoax by Wilfrid Voynich, I would have to say: I haven’t seen any sign of it yet, and if I’d have held my breath waiting for it, I’d be long dead by now. Oh well.

Here’s another Voynich-themed art show to add to what is already a medium-sized list: “Drawing Close – Voynich Series”, by Sabina Sallis. It’s at the Customs House art centre in Mill Dam conservation area in South Shields, close to the River Tyne south bank ferry landing until March 2018.

Helen Shaddock seems to like it, noting that “Sabina uses drawing, video, performance, sculpture and narrative in a multimedia transdisciplinary approach that interweaves fact and fiction”, and that her Voynich Series “attempts to bring forward knowledge and thoughts that are enmeshed with life processes and invites the audience to decipher their own meaning”.

In some ways, we already have more than enough people ‘deciphering their own meaning’ from the Voynich Manuscript: even if (miraculously) one of the existing set of Voynich theories turns out to be essentially correct, that would still mean that the other 999+ theories out there are just plain nonsense.

But if artists want to do the same thing in the name of Art, that’s fine by me: at least it’s not like a certain anonymous Italian writer who claimed that his fanciful Voynich novel revealed the true nature of both the Voynich Manuscript and the Titanic disaster etc etc. What a mess. 🙁

Elsewhere on Tyneside

I wonder what Tynesider Wor Cheryl would make of all this: though she does sometimes lurch a bit close to Cockney Star Trek, as in this reicent puurst…

Reinventin meiself az a grime awtist.
Look oot faw a new album bein released bei Cherylzee

🎼Gannin oot
Oot an aboot
Coppah divint shoot!🎼

…Wor Cheryl would surely have sumthin ta sei: mebbe…

Tha Voynich manyiscript, Pet? Izunt that some medicul instruckshun manyual fer medyievul womun, leik? It wuz in tha TLS, so it merst be true, uthaweiz therra bunch uv reit idyits.

Well, all ah can say is that ah wunce hadda groin itch, but dinna leik menshunin it in perleit compny. An ah certainly wouldna reit a herl buik about it.

A week or more ago, I started writing up a fairly hefty post on John of Sacrobosco’s famous “De Sphaera” (which is one of the books Nicole Oresme translated into French, adding his commentary). I was particularly interested in the diagrams that appear in many of the manuscripts, and so began with Lynn Thorndike’s account “The Sphere of Sacrobosco and Its Commentators”, which describes the drawings found in three specific “De Sphaera” manuscripts:

* Oxford, Bodleian, Canon. Misc. 161, fols. 9r-19r
* Princeton University, Garrett MS 99, fols. 124ra-136vb [‘a’/’b’ means 1st/2nd column] [may have been sold to Garrett by Wilfrid Voynich!]
* Cambridge, University Library Ii.III.3, fols. 25r-35v

“Most excellent!”, I thought (thankfully silently) to myself, and so went off to try to find copies of any of the three to illustrate the post. Which… proved impossible, despite trying quite hard. And so the help I’d really like is – if anyone can find such a thing, which I have singularly failed to do – a link to an online illustrated copy of John of Sacrobosco’s “De Sphaera“.

Note that because I’d like to specifically compare these diagrams with the (slightly different) diagrams that appear in Nicole Oresme’s French translation (of which, oddly, I have a good number of illustrated copies), I’m focused on illustrations of the original Latin version that appear in the context of the text.

All That I Have

No prizes for guessing the subheading reference: but all that I have so far isn’t a great deal.

Firstly, there’s BNF MS Latin 7197 that Ellie Velinska kindly linked to a few days ago: this was (mostly) copied by 15th century Zurich physician Conrad Heingarter, and the De Sphaera is on ff.39-50, e.g. this from fol. 39r:

Unfortunately, Heingarter seems to have been copying from a largely unillustrated manuscript, because that was the only diagram there. 🙁

The other interesting set of De Sphaera illustrations is from the fascinating and beautiful Estense “De Sphaera” manuscript. However, the PDF of this available online only includes the drawings, not the drawings in their textual context. (Note: technical description here.)

Can anyone help? All tips and suggestions gratefully received! 🙂