Put wrestling fan US President-elect Donald Trump in the ring with the Voynich Manuscript, and who would win? Actually, the two may be more evenly matched than you think…

For a start, both are surrounded by groups of people who claim to know what they mean (but almost certainly don’t), while remaining utterly unfathomable.

And as far as street cred go, both have appeared in the Marvel Universe: Trump in New Avengers Vol. 1 #47

…and the Voynich Manuscript in “Black Widow & The Avengers” #18:


It’s also hard not to notice that the Voynich Manuscript author’s apparent obsession with (mostly) naked nymphs…

…oddly parallels Trump’s long association with (and indeed ownership of) Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Universe (just try not to mention Miss Mexico, that might not end well):

Moreover, they are both big on the East Coast (New York and New Haven respectively), where both have achieved notoriety, each in their own unique way. Also, it’s hard not to find anyone commenting on either Donald Trump or the Voynich Manuscript who doesn’t in some way use them as blank canvases, projecting what they want (or perhaps fear) to see onto them.

Yet perhaps this hard-to-pin-downness and malleability (qualities eerily like those of the Voynich), ultimately, formed the core secret of Trump’s success at the presidential polls: given such a long series of mixed and often contradictory messages, people – like so many Voynich theorists – heard what they wanted or hoped to hear, who can say?

And finally, both arguably achieved their biggest public goals in November 2016: on the 1st, the Voynich Manuscript was published by Yale University Press in a sumptuous (if largely uncritical) edition…

…while on the 8th, The Donald defeated The Wicked Witch. Just like a fairy tale, right? (Which is, of course, not the same as a happy ending – the Brothers Grimm were often as grim as their name.)

To my eyes, perhaps the most unsettling comparison between Donald Trump and the Voynich Manuscript is that November 2016 also marked the end of a quest for them both: a quest for respectability, to become part of the Establishment… but on their own terms. By which I mean that they are both (I think) now starting to re-cast and reinvent the whole idea of what the Establishment means in 2017 and beyond.

Will it be long before swathes of politicians remould their ever-fickle personae in Trump’s image, or before history textbooks start to use the Voynich Manuscript as didactic material? Right now, I’m not sure I’m massively comfortable about either of these paths, to be honest: but perhaps both are now somehow inevitable.

Me, I’m neither a fan nor a critic of Donald Trump: yet I can’t help but be struck how his quest for the Presidency was effectively won via a prolonged gladiatorial beauty contest, much like a peculiar merger of both his love of wrestling (a televisual theatre of pre-teen anger) and Miss (Whatever) pageants (a televisual theatre of sexless beauty).

And I can’t help wondering if – like Voynich researchers, ever reaching for the apparently unattainable – it will turn out that he was more driven by winning the ultimate competition for political power than the idea of actually holding the reins (and the burdensome moral responsibilities) of high office. Similarly, would the Voynich Manuscript still hold its particular appeal if we could read it, if its quest for meaning was finally over?

I was mooching round the British Academy’s website a little earlier (I was trying to find the Neil Ker Memorial Fund, which I had forgotten the name of), when I noticed its page on British Academy Conferences – this is where ‘any’ UK citizen can propose a conference on any subject (as long as they’re prepared to run it themselves, and don’t mind being turned down with no reason being given).

And so the (as yet hypothetical) question naturally follows: if I was organizing a British Academy-hosted conference on the Voynich Manuscript, how would I approach the challenge? What should that kind of Voynich Manuscript conference look like?

What Isn’t Worth Looking At

It’s easy enough to list all the things I wouldn’t want to let onto the podium:
* Voynich theories [– too boring for words –]
* Voynich metatheories [– too sad for words –]
* Voynich iconography / iconology [– too free-floating for words –]
* Voynich linguistics [– sorry, but it’s just not written in an obscure language –]
* Voynich cryptology [– sorry, but it’s just not written in any obviously categorisable cipher –]

Some may be surprised that I would exclude both Voynich linguistics and Voynich cryptology. The simple reason for this is that I very strongly believe that we still don’t know enough about the Voynich’s basics to do meaningful analysis about either. For example, the existence of “Neal Key”-like behaviour offers a strong counter-argument not only against any kind of simple-minded linguistic take, but also against any kind of straightforward substitution cipher argument derived from a reading of cryptographic history.

The only reference to fifteenth century non-syllabic transposition ciphers I know of is a brief passage in Alberti’s book which I read as a reported speech account of a debate between Alberti and a transposition cipher practitioner. There is (unless you know better) not even one pre-1500 non-syllabic transposition cipher cryptogram still extant.

And so Voynich research is still in a position where neither linguistic approaches nor historical cryptological approaches have any ‘moral high ground’ to argue their respective cases. The Voynich Manuscript laughs pityingly at both camps’ feeble efforts.

So… what would I want attendees to be discussing, then?

The Joy Of The Concrete

As per my recent list of 100 Voynich (research) problems, there remains – despite all the excellent work that has been done since the Beinecke first released digital scans in 2004 – a huge amount of fundamental stuff that we still don’t know about the Voynich Manuscript.

The problem with not knowing how pages, paragraphs, lines, words, and even letters were constructed at a really basic level is that this makes it extremely difficult to know whether our transcriptions are a help or a hindrance. What order were lines written? (Philip Neal points to evidence that some line interleaving may have taken place in at least Q20.) What order were strokes in letters written? (Back in 2006 in “Curse”, I pointed to evidence that on some pages, the terminal EVA ‘n’ stroke of ‘daiin’ may have been added as a separate pass). And so forth.

Hence the core stuff I would want conference attendees to focus on is purely that-which-is-concrete: things that can be seen, highlighted, measured, cross-referenced, scanned, indexed, counted, etc. What were the original gatherings and their nesting orders? What happened to those gatherings to turn them into quires? What construction stages can we solidly identify? (There must be close to twenty of them, is my current best estimate). Can we order (or even date) these construction stages? What, ultimately, was the alpha state of the manuscript?

But this isn’t just a matter of assembling some codicological dream-team (even though many of the most basic unanswered questions are clearly codicological in nature). There’s also the tricky matter of the Currier Hands and the f116v marginalia (which would require a great deal of palaeographical expertise to untangle): and also the taxing matter of the differences between the various Currier languages, which is something closer to meta-linguistics than linguistics per se.

In all cases, the central include-it/don’t-include-it criterion would be whether any given analysis would advance our knowledge of the Voynich without having to assume any given historical narrative or theory far beyond the basic radiocarbon dating.

Never mind being carbon-neutral, could such a conference be theory-neutral? My hope is that it could, but I do appreciate that this is something many Voynich researchers could easily find difficult to work to, or to achieve.

Linguistics vs meta-linguistics

I think it’s fair to say that the long-term relationship between Voynich research and Voynich linguistic research has not been greatly productive. Given that the mainstream Voynich research position has for more than fifty years been that Voynichese is simply not a “language” in any straightforward sense of the term, it is dispiriting to see Stephen Bax continually raking over the same barren concrete surface, ever-announcing to the world that the few motes of dust he has accumulated do in fact do actually form the basis of some über-obscure hybridized historical linguistic system over and above mere statistical chance.

Would out-and-out linguistics researchers such as Stephen Bax be welcome at such a conference? With the putative roles reversed, Bax has certainly made it clear online that mainstream Voynich researchers (errrm… particularly me, it would seem) would be distinctly unwelcome at any Voynich-themed seminar he would organize.

But what annoys me so much about Bax isn’t that what he puts forward is just plain wrong (even though it is), but that by mistakenly telling all and sundry that the challenge of Voynichese is one where its beginning, middle and end all fall inside a purely linguistic domain, he utterly misrepresents the specific difficulties it poses.

Rather, what Voynichese does present to researchers is an overlapping combination of linguistics (e.g. actual language content), meta-linguistics (content transformation, e.g. abbreviations, codes, and transposition), and misdirection (e.g. substitution and steganography). Hence the primary difficulty we face with Voynichese is more one of determining its internal boundaries: what is misdirection, what is language, and what is meta-linguistics? If Voynich linguistic researchers could successfully accept that this question is the real one we need to answer before trying to push forward, then perhaps we could all start to work together in a reasonably productive way.

So I have to say I’m hugely encouraged that at least one Voynich linguistics researcher out there (Emma May Smith) has recently started looking in a genuinely agnostic way at all the difficult stuff that confounds those who try to stick to fairly simple-minded linguistics accounts. If only more linguistics researchers followed her example. *sigh*

Raman Imaging

There is a final twist: in the ideal world of my imagination, the conference stage would be part-laboratory too, with a live link between a Raman imaging device in New Haven looking at a series of pages of the Voynich Manuscript, sometimes through a microscope. The conference attendees would be able to discuss and propose different tests live, so that they could see “under the skin” (sometimes literally) of the manuscript.

But once you throw that into the mix, would this even qualify as a “conference” any more? Or would it actually be closer to some kind of Reality TV historical research happening, in a way that’s so acutely of-the-moment that it hasn’t even got its own annoying hashtag yet?

Put that way, should I be thinking in terms not of the British Academy, but of Channel 4 and Smithsonian TV?

It’s well known that f1r (the very first page of the Voynich Manuscript) has an erased ownership mark. Under UV light, you can see that it says (something along the lines of) “Jacobj à Tepenece / Prag” (Photo Credit: © ORF):

For everyone who isn’t heavily invested in some kind of hoax-centric Voynich Manuscript meta-theory, the presence of Jacob Tepenecz’s mark on the first page would seem to be a pretty good indication that he was an early Voynich owner. Combining that with the mention of Emperor Rudolf II in the Marci letter would suggest that the Emperor himself was quite likely also an early Voynich owner (though no direct evidence of that has yet been found).

What’s almost completely unknown is that the Voynich Manuscript seems to me to have probably also had a second ownership mark: only this time, the erasers physically excised the whole bottom section of the foldout page containing it.

The Voynich owner’s mark on f102?

The two-panel recto (front) of f102 looks like this…

…while the two-panel verso (back) of f102 looks like this:

Note that the folio number at the top rght of the left verso panel was obviously added while the panel was folded back: and that the number at the bottom right of the right verso panel is a quire number. Let’s look a little more closely at the recto side of the excision:

Here we can (I think) clearly see that this section was cut out after the plant drawings had been added to the page, and also after the paint had been added to them. And as for the verso side of the cut:

Looking closely at both sides, I think you can also see the difference in quality of cut between the original bifolio cut edge (bottom right, beneath the ’19’ quire mark) and the later excision’s edge: the former is nice and clean, while the latter is ragged, as if that cut was done with a cutting tool that was not quite as sharp.

Dating the Layers

Given that the paints used here are untidy (and, truth be told, a bit nasty), it would seem reasonable to infer that these were probably added by Jorge Stolfi’s putative “heavy painter” very late in the Voynich Manuscript’s life: say, not too far from 1600 or so. All of which would seem to imply that this section of vellum was removed after that date.

And given that the f1r ownership mark was erased some time after 1609, I think it would be reasonable to conclude that this section of the bifolio was probably excised at the same time. While it’s possible that Baresch cut this out when he was (apparently) cutting out various single pages from different sections to send to Kircher, my judgement is that that’s a far less likely scenario.

Missing pages and heavy paint aside, the only other thing in the manuscript that seems to have been messed around with in any significant way is the ownership mark on f1r: hence it seems likely to me that f102v had also had some kind of ownership mark added to it in the blank space next to the ’19’ mark, that was removed at the same time.

And that in turn suggests to me that this quire mark was not ’19’ (as in ‘the number after 18’), but that it was instead a fifteenth century ‘1-9’ (i.e. ‘prim-us‘). Which in turn suggests to me that this quire and the other pharma quire were a pair of freestanding quires / gatherings in a separate book, that was merged in with all the other quires. As I wrote in Curse in 2006, there seems strong visual evidence (from the sequence of jars that progress from simple to complex) that what is now Q17 originally came after Q19.

Furthermore, there seems to be evidence of stitching holes on the exposed (and somewhat worn and discoloured) fold of f102: the presence of these holes and discoloration suggests to me that f102 may originally have been folded and nested rather differently to what we see now.

This also suggests to me that Q20’s quire number was probably added by a different (and later) hand to the hand that added the Q19 quire number, but one trying to ape the style of the Q19 quire mark hand. I therefore predict that these will turn out to have been written in very different inks.

Reading the Invisible

At this point, you might ask: so what? Even if this was indeed an ownership mark that was excised, what does it matter? Who cares?

Well: what’s interesting is that I think there is a small chance that we will be able – with just the right imaging technique – to see traces of whatever was written on f102v1 faintly imprinted on f102r2. Alternatively, we might be able to detect the faintest of contact transfers carried across onto the facing page (i.e. f103r).

In both cases, these would probably be far too subtle to see with the naked eye: but if we are determined enough to find a way of looking at precisely the right piece of vellum in precisely the right way, who can tell what we’ll find there?

Inspired by Julian Bunn’s just-released “Puzzles of the Voynich Manuscript” ebook (review to follow), I decided to post a list of a hundred Voynich problems – that is, issues that researchers repeatedly bump into when trying to make sense of the Voynich Manuscript, and yet which nobody seems to have definitively resolved in the last century.

Unlike Julian’s ebook, this list is targeted squarely at existing Voynich researchers. If you are genuinely trying to make sense of the Voynich Manuscript and yet aren’t aware of pretty much all these problems, it could well be that you are not seeing the bigger picture.

Needless to say, good solutions will aim to resolve many (if not all) of these “Voynich problems”: while poor solutions (of which I’ve already seen far too many) tend to target only a few – in fact, I’ve seen a fair few alleged ‘solutions’ that don’t even attempt to resolve any of them.

Realistically, though, given that even the most basic Voynich problems – such as the existence of one or more ‘heavy painters’ – continue to be disputed, I don’t expect this list to dramatically shorten any time soon. But who can tell what the next twelve months will bring? 😉

Bifolio nesting / grouping problems

Herbal quires – were these originally split into A and B pages? [Probably, but we don’t know]
Herbal quires – what was their original layout?
What is the relationship between herbal pages and pharma pages? [Here’s one surprising thing Rene highlighted back in 2010]
Was Q9 originally bound in the way John Grove suggested (i.e. along a different fold) – or not?
Was Q13 originally a single quire, or was it (as Glen Claston proposed) in two Q13A / Q13B parts?
Was Q20 originally a single quire, or was it (as I proposed?) in two Q20A / Q20B parts?
Why are there apparently so many different quire number hands?
What was the relationship between Q8 and Q9?
Where did the nine rosette page originally sit?
Are the two pharma sections reversed relative to their original order?
Are pharma sections explicitly linked to herbal pages? [i.e. by handwriting or textual content]
Were there any intermediate bindings, and can we reconstruct them?
Can we reconstruct the original [possibly unbound] page order?

Ink / Paint Problems

Was there a heavy painter?
Were there multiple heavy painters?
Was the heavy paint added before or after the folio numbers? [Rene: there’s green paint over the “42” folio number]
What kind of paint is the heavy blue paint?
Can we use Raman imaging to separate codicological layers? [Particularly on f116v, but in many other places too]
Were the original paints all organic washes derived from plants etc?

Marginalia Problems

Why are the f17r marginalia unreadable?
Why are the f66r marginalia unreadable?
Why are the f116v marginalia unreadable?
What language were the Zodiac month names written in?
Were the “chicken scratch” marginalia originally grouped together?
Does the f57v marginalia read ‘ij'(with a bar across the top)?

Page Layout Problems

Why is the first letter of each page so often a gallows character?
Why is the first letter of each paragraph so often a gallows character?
What meaning do long gallows have?
Whay meaning do ornate gallows have?
What is the purpose or function of Horizontal Neal keys?
What is the purpose or function of vertical Neal keys?
Why do lines of text so often end with the EVA letter m?
Why should position on the page affect anything to do with the text?
John Grove called stray sections of text right-justified at the end of paragraphs “titles” – what are these for?
Are there any buried (concealed) titles in the Voynich Manuscript?
Are there any 15th century non-syllabic transposition ciphertexts extant?

Voynichese letter-shape problems

Why are the four gallows shaped in the specific way that they are?
Is the presence of ‘4o’ in 15th century Northern Italian ciphers telling or coincidental?
Is the similarity between ‘aiiv’ / ‘aiir’ and medieval page references telling or coincidental?
Was the ‘v’ (EVA ‘n’) shape written in one pass or two? [There are instances where the ink on the final stroke looks to have been added in a different ink]
Should c-gallows-h be read as one, two, or three glyphs?
Does any known 15th century cipher include steganographic tricks for hiding Roman numbers?
Or indeed for Arabic numerals?

Voynichese word structure problems

In a text of this size there must be numbers somewhere – so where are they?
Do we even know how to parse Voynichese?
Why are words ending in -9 (EVA “-y”) so common?
Might -9 be a token indicating truncation?
Why are words ending in -89 (EVA “-dy”) so common?
What could cause sequences such as “ororor” to appear in the text?
Might ‘or’ be ciphering ‘M’ ‘C’ or ‘X’ or ‘I’? (i.e. Roman numbers that appear repeated)
Why do A section words and B section words have such different average lengths?
Might this be (as Mark Perakh suggested) because of variable-length abbreviation?
Where are all the vowels?
Why is the ratio (number of unique words : number of words) so large compared to normal languages?
Where are all the short words?
Given that the alphabet is so small, could one or more of the letters really be nulls?
“Dain dain dain”, really?
“Qokedy qokedy”, really?
Is 4o- (EVA “qo-“) a freestanding word?
Why is there so little information in a typical Voynichese word?
Why are so many words so similar?

Language/dialect problems

What is driving the differences between Currier A and Currier B?
Can we definitively say that A pages came before B pages?
Can we definitively say that the B system evolved out of the A system?
Can we map A words / letters onto B words / letters?
Can we create an evolutionary order in which the system evolved?
Where does labelese fit into the A/B model?
Are localised vocabulary differences content-driven or system-driven?
Can we determine any unique words or phrases that map between A and B pages?
Is there an inbuilt error rate? (e.g. qo- -> qa-, or aiin -> oiin)
When low-frequence words cluster, is this because of the system, because of semantic reference or because of auto-copying?

Drawing problems

What are the four direction characters in the magic circle page?
What are the four direction characters in the hidden magic circle page?
What are the four direction characters in f57v?
Why is there a mix of real plants and imaginary plants?
Are similar diagrammatic balneo nymphs found in any other 15th century manuscript?
Were the zodiac nymphs inspired by the zodiac nymphs in Vat Gr 1291, or is that just coincidence?
Is the little dragon similarity to the little dragon in a Paris MS telling or coincidental?
Is the cluster of stars the Pleiades, or something else entirely?
Nine rosette page – what’s going on there?
Will we ever identify the freestanding castle in the nine rosette foldout page?
If we reorganize Q9 as per John Grove’s suggestion, a 7-page sequence of ‘planets’ appears – is this telling or merely coincidental?
What was the source of the Zodiac roundels?
Are there multiple drawing layers on the nine rosette page?
Were all the sunflower pages grouped together originally?
Is there any tangible relationship to other Quattrocento herbals?
More generally, why is there such a sustained absence of reference to existing manuscripts?

Dating / history problems

Given the links to Rudolf II’s court, why is there no Rudolfine documentation? Might we have been looking in the wrong places?
What might the supposed connection to Roger Bacon signify? Monastic ownership, perhaps?
Why has the radiocarbon dating range not been explicitly supported by even a single piece of art history?
Why, despite the large number of people who have looked at the Voynich Manuscript in great detail, is there no mainstream art history narrative for it?

Other Voynich problems

Currier thought that a number of different hands contributed to the Voynich Manuscript’s writing – was he correct?
What is the significance of the 17 x 4 ring sequence on f57v? Might it have been an 18 x 4 sequence (e.g. 5 degree steps) but where one pair of letter-shapes has been ‘fused’ to form a fake gallows-like character?
Why did the manuscript’s maker forcibly rub a hole through the vellum? [Not as easy as it sounds, because vellum is strong stuff]
Why use vellum at all?
Why were the two sides of the vellum so heavily equalized?
On f112, is the gap on the outside edge a vellum flaw, or a faithful copy of a vellum flaw in the original document from which it was copied?
Are the main marginalia (e.g. michitonese) by one of the Currier hands?
What are the “weirdos” on f1r all about?

PS: I may not have ended up with exactly 100 Voynich problems, but it’s pretty close to a hundred… and I may add some more along the way. :-p

Since the recent release of the Yale University Press photo-facsimile, a number of quite different takes on the Voynich Manuscript have appeared online. Here are a fair few, brutally summarized:

Voynich Review #1: Nature

Cryptography: Calligraphic conundrum” by Andrew Robinson is well-informed and clear: but having written books on Champollion, Young and Ventris, and on Indus scripts (as well as a whole load of other lost languages), he’s on the right side of most of the debates. For him, the Voynich Manuscript is at heart a cryptographic mystery rather than a linguistic one.

“What hope is there of decoding the script? Not much at present, I fear”, Robinson glumly concludes, though it has to be said that his follow-on assertion that “Professional cryptographers have been rightly wary of the Voynich manuscript ever since the disastrous self-delusion of Newbold” isn’t quite on the mark – the real answer would be far less reductive and indeed far more complicated.

Incidentally, if you put ‘Voynich’ into the search field at the top right of the Nature website, it brings up a link to a 1928 article by Robert Steele (though behind a paywall), with the unpromising-sounding incipit “It is known that Bacon was interested in ciphers…” Who says that mainstream media don’t give the Voynich Manuscript proper coverage, eh?

Voynich Review #2: Star Tribune

Review: ‘The Voynich Manuscript,’ edited by Raymond Clemens” by Peter Lewis starts with brio (“It is a fine morning in the Holy Roman Empire. The year: 1431”), before swiftly moving on to applaud the photo-facsimile’s accompanying essays as “absorbing squibs” (I always thought that was more of a satirical term, but perhaps he is using a short-burning firework metaphor here).

But after sustaining this for so long, he goes and spoils it somewhat:

But listen: An applied linguistician recently claimed to have deciphered the words “Taurus” and “centaury,” an herb. Also recently, the American Botanical Council published a paper suggesting one of its plant drawings intimates a Mexican connection. The Voynich likes nothing better than deepening its mystery.

*sigh* Oh, well. 😐

National Review: Bookmonger

This 13-minute podcast is a radio-style telephone interview with Ray Clemens. The Internet’s previous dearth of good images of Clemens is now somewhat assuaged by the picture of him the Bookmonger included:

He calls the Voynich Manuscript’s illustrations “beautiful” (which is perhaps a bit of a stretch), and seems to be particularly taken with the Voynich nymphs. Clemens is very pleased with the foldout sections and the quality of the colours in Yale’s photo-facsimile. The Voynich Manuscript was “one of the first manuscripts [that the Beinecke] digitized”, and it “receives far more attention than any other book on the website […] and that’s for many different reasons”.

Solving it would be nice, he thinks: but he also believes “at this point that that’s a fairly quixotic goal […] the chances of this actually being cracked in that sense are pretty remote […] my personal feeling is that I think it will remain an enigma for quite some time”.

Voynich Review #3: The New Yorker

The Unsolvable Mysteries of the Voynich Manuscript” by Josephine Livingstone appeared in the New Yorker a fortnight ago. For her, the hazy theories floating ethereally around the Voynich are the same kind of “speculative knowledge [that] flourishes in moments of uncertainty and fear”. She continues:

Humans are fond of weaving narratives like doilies around gaping holes, so that the holes won’t scare them. And objects from premodern history — like medieval manuscripts — are the perfect canvas on which to project our worries about the difficult and the frightening and the arcane, because these objects come from a time outside culture as we conceive of it.

Though Livingstone never quite says it directly, it seems reasonably clear to me that she sees study of the Voynich as being inevitably riddled with pseudohistory and pseudoscience, and that its blood brothers (and indeed sisters) are quasi-occult things such as conspiracy theories, astrology, alchemy, and tarot.

For her, the Voynich is unreadable period, and so thinks we should perhaps approach the photo-facsimile more as we might a Zen koan, as a way “to remember that there are ineluctable mysteries at the bottom of things whose meanings we will never know”.

Voynich Review #4: The Paris Review

In “The Pleasures of Incomprehensibility : Why we don’t need to decode ‘the world’s most mysterious book.’ “, Michael LaPointe takes our dissatisfaction with the Voynich Manuscript’s inscrutability as a sign of one of modernity’s shortcomings – that we moderns are somehow too restless to be truly comfortable with something that cannot be intellectually conquered and known.

Instead, he suggests we should look at it as if it were a work of art, one cloaked in the same incomprehensibility that the Dadaists celebrated. For as Tristan Tzara put it, “When a writer or artist is praised by the newspapers, it is proof of the intelligibility of his work: wretched lining of a coat for public use.” And so LaPointe concludes:

“At a time when even the most mysterious artist is subject to history and biography, it’s amazing to encounter a book that floats outside of all disciplines. The Voynich Manuscript exudes an aesthetic aura while squirming out of every category.”

In the end, though, LaPointe can’t help but be seduced by the suggestion of a hoax, a pre-modern postmodernist canard:

“It could very well have been composed as an elaborate lampoon of medieval knowledge, and it’s amusing to imagine that we’re still falling for the trick.”

Versopolis / Knight

Though the Versopolis website normally focuses on poems (errrm… the clue’s in the name), it has recently taken a step sideways into the Voynich world with two commissioned articles.

The first, by Kevin Knight, is a fairly straight-down-the-road factual review of Yale’s photo-facsimile, despite tarrying early on in full-on personal My-First-CopyFlo recollection mode:

My first copy of the Voynich was a black-and-white Christmas present from my father. It might have been a bootleg copy. He wrote “Good luck deciphering!” inside the front cover. I bit, and by the time I had paged through the low-quality scan, the hook was set.

Ultimately, even though Knight clearly has his own well-formed opinion about the Voynich Manuscript, on this particular occasion he chooses to toe the official Beinecke line, albeit with a friendly micro-dig at the photo-facsimile edition’s coffeetableitudinosity:

Perhaps one day, a person named X will uncover and assemble the right set of clues, and as happened with the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan carvings, the answer to Voynich will suddenly fall into place. Meanwhile, with the help of Yale University Press and Amazon.com, the enigma is busy spreading itself to coffee tables, bedsides, and offices throughout the world, trying to find its X.

Versopolis / Zandbergen

The second Versopolis article is “1. The Making of a Mystery” by none other than Rene Zandbergen.

Rene lays out the known provenance of the Voynich Manuscript in a (once again) straight-down-the-road manner, though his assertion that “its historical value is probably small” is perhaps a little early. I’d also probably take Rene slightly to task for writing an article about the manuscript’s origins while bracketing out its first 200 years: but then again, given that this is the period I’m most interested in reconstructing, I would say that, wouldn’t I? :-p

Futility Closet

In Episode #129, the Futility Closet podcast presenters take on the mystery of the Voynich Manuscript (though note this is only in the first 18 minutes of the podcast, after which they move on to various lateral thinking puzzles).

By and large, they do a pretty good job of the subject, though never quite managing to break through the layer of unloveable Wikipediaesque lacquer that tends to coat most online accounts. Oh, and personally, I didn’t quite manage to buy into the presenters’ interaction schtick thing, so for me it wasn’t really anything more than a nice-sounding recital. But make of it all what you will, that’s how the Internet works.

In Summary

If you already know a tolerable amount about the Voynich Manuscript, you’ll probably be left fairly cold by pretty much all of the above: once you have your copy of the Yale photo-facsimile, there’s really little more to be said.

And that, of course, is the key to the problem: that there is a heavy-hearted resignation to the coverage when viewed as a whole – a kind of glum nihilism that denies the Voynich Manuscript’s tricksy magic and curious interest. It is as if by asking people to buy their own copy, the Beinecke has brought it to their eyes in the context of its being an oddly undesirable artefact – that the paradox is now not about trying to read the unreadable, but about buying the unwantable.

For the Voynich Manuscript is, for all of Wilfrid Voynich’s hyperbolic antiquarian fluffery and Yale Universty Press’s best social media outreach / promotional efforts, still just as much an ‘ugly duckling’ as it was a century ago. While it is (and probably will continue to be) many things to many people, it is, just as Rene Zandbergen’s article (correctly) says, not beautiful. Even James Blunt couldn’t make it so, not even “an angel with a smile on her face” (errrm, and waist-deep in blue-daubed pipework).

What, when the spell rubs off, will non-Voynicheers actually think about the copy of the photo-facsimile their earnest cousin gave them for Christmas? I don’t know: we researchers all still have a mountain to climb before we reach the foothills of the real mountain, and I have no idea yet whether the photo-facsimile will be part of the solution or just another part of the problem. It’s pretty, though. 🙂

I’ve just been interviewed about the Voynich Manuscript for an article in an upcoming Sunday Times (apropos of the Yale University Press photo-facsimile, of course), which was a lot of fun.

Even so, while we were talking I became aware that there are a number of troubling things about the way almost everyone tends to talk about the Voynich MS that keep nagging at me. And one in particular needed a blog post all of its own…


The Heroic Outsider

Talk to almost anybody about the Voynich Manuscript, and you’ll quickly run into the presumption that glory awaits the keen-minded Champollion who enters the fray to rip away the Voynichian veils. That is to say, that decryption of the Voynich Manuscript will ‘inevitably’ be down to the solo travails of a brilliant cryptological outsider, whose keen eyes pierce through the fog of uncertainty, unhindered by the fashionably foolish blinkers everyone else involved happens to be wearing.

In fact, some researchers buy so heavily into this mystique that they take their outsiderness to an extreme: that if anyone else so much as hints at agreeing with them, it is a point of contrarian honour for them to disagree with themselves until they’re alone again. If you’ve studied the Voynich for any period of time, you probably have your own list of people who fit this template.

Personally, I think this mindset is unhelpful, nonsensical and self-destructive. Instead, when the blessèd day arrives when we finally manage to see past the Voynich’s surface misdirections and tricks to the plain-but-devious system beneath them, what we’ll almost certainly discover is that previous researchers had clearly and unambiguously flagged 90% or more of what was going on, but we were just too caught up with specific details to see how all the varied pieces slotted together.

All the same, the modern world seems to allow plenty of room for outsider narratives to flourish. One could reasonably argue that Nigel Farage primarily gained influence by dressing up his shallow one-trick-pony quasi-racist bar-room political schtick as an outsider narrative: and doubtless others would say much the same of Donald Trump. (Personally, DT’s presidency feels too recent to be sure of what’s actually going on there, so this will have to remain something for future historians to debate.)

For me, TV reality shows with (for example) charmless footballer-turned-slebchef Gordon Ramsay come across as unbearable nonsense, presenting pages 1-5 of a “How To Run A Successful Restaurant” ebook as a nauseating mix of confrontational Nietszchean catharsis and Stacey Dooleyesque empathizing. So is Gordon Ramsay genuinely an heroic outsider, or little more than an opportunistic self-promoting sleb famous for lobster ravioli and kicking people? You’ll have to make up your own mind.

I can’t help but conclude that the whole idea of the ‘heroic outsider’ is a Big Fat Fiction, a story-making lie used to dress up what is little more than an irrational, anti-science, antihistorical, anti-engineering, and anti-knowledge mindset. Which is presumably why TV and Hollywood both love it (i.e. for all the wrong reasons), because the outsider’s victory is the victory of the Little Guy against the Preening Establishment, the smug complacent know-nothings in their private clubs who get to decide What Is True and What Is False.

And so it goes for Voynich Manuscript research too. People seem to be far too busy with their personal mythopoiea, concerned more with who will play them in the film (i.e. where their glorious and dramatic code-breaking efforts are finally given the celluloid stardom they deserve) than with wondering whether their research direction makes even the slightest bit of sense.

In this way, Hollywood seems to be telling these people what to think: that cracking the Voynich Manuscript wouldn’t be a triumph of Good History or Good Science, but rather an act of personal redemption, showing the Voynich naysayers that they Had It All Wrong, and that the heroic outsider Had It Right All Along.

It’s all bullsh*t, of course.

An Army of Ants

The boring truth is that Voynich researchers circa 2016 may not be standing on the shoulders of giants, but we are held high by a vast army of ants working industriously and independently, yet who nonetheless have still managed to somehow make huge progress as a group.

It would be easy to reel off a list of more than a hundred people who have contributed in a positive way towards what we know about the Voynich Manuscript – John Matthews Manly, the Friedmans, John Tiltman, Prescott Currier, Mary D’Imperio, through to the two Jims, Gabriel Landini, Rene Zandbergen, and so forth.

The heroic outsider narrative, then, is just a tool for sneering at others whose contributions you’d rather belittle in an attempt to big yo’self up. And the sooner people stop this nonsense (and start being proud to be an ant), the better off we’ll all be.

Of all the text in the Voynich Manuscript, one section stands a particularly high chance of giving us information: f116v, the final page. This has a set of marginalia that (by all rights) ought to have been written unencrypted, but which we mysteriously are unable to read.


This text is often called ‘michitonese’, because William Romaine Newbold famously transcribed the first two words of the second line as “michiton oladabas”. There are snatches of clarity interspersed with what appears to be Voynichese, Latin, German, and even ‘+’ signs (normally used in written prayers to indicate when to make the sign of the cross when reciting the prayer). In short, it’s a bit of a mess.

The essay on imaging in Yale’s recently-released photo-facsimile edition mysteriously omitted to make any mention of this final page, nor of any recent attempts to try to read this page. And yet a couple of years ago, a group most certainly did try to use a range of multi-spectral imaging techniques to do precisely that.

I know this for certain because I found a set of low bitdepth JPEG files the team had accidentally left on one of the Beinecke library’s file servers: and – having recently installed BIMP, a simple automation plugin for GIMP – thought you might like to see them.

The quality admittedly isn’t good (the images would have been captured using a bitdepth closer to 16-bit, but these were stored as 8-bit JPEGs), but it might serve the purpose of goading the (as yet unnamed) team into finishing their paper, or (if it turned out they had nothing to say) releasing the full bitdepth images so that we can study them openly. 🙂

I’ve only included 26 of the 46 images they made of 116v, because the others were too noisy or too blank to be informative in their low bitdepth form. (I had to run an auto-equalize filter on all the images in order to make them even remotely visible).

Disappointingly, I was not able to refine my reading of the top line (usually called the “pox leber” line), because there was insufficient contrast in the JPEGs. Perhaps with a copy of the 16-bit scans, this might start to become clear…

The Multispectral Images

From 4pm to 5pm every Monday to Thursday on the France Culture radio station, Nicolas Martin hosts the programme La Méthode scientifique. This covers PopSci, ‘popular science’: you know, from genetics, VR, AI, evolution, dinosaurs, Star Trek to… whatever it feels like, really. 🙂

As you might expect, today’s programme (which will then be available online immediately) will include a 3-minute segment on the Voynich Manuscript. Which is nice.

I wouldn’t normally mention a 3-minute micro-broadcast on French radio 🙂 , but I thought I’d mention it because it has contributions from Antoine Casanova, who famously (errm… famous round here, that is) wrote a dissertation on Voynichese in 1999: Méthodes d’analyse du langage crypté : une contribution à l’étude du manuscrit de Voynich.

The other listed contributor is Professor Jacques Patarin, who famously (errm… what I said before) worked with Valérie Nachef to decrypt some enciphered letters written by Marie-Antoinette, in their 2009 paper I shall love you up to the death. Which not a lot of people seem to know about. 🙂

To my mind, there are two basic types of Voynich Manuscript researchers: (a) those who view Voynichese as a language composed of clearly legible individual letters (and who therefore tend to treat it either as a confounding linguistic puzzle or as an exercise in pure cryptology); and (b) those who believe that you would first need to work out how to parse groups of glyphs into tokens before you can even begin to make any sense of the text.

Despite having made the case for (b) back in “The Curse of the Voynich” (2006), I don’t honestly believe that this second group’s camp has ever had more than my tent in it. (An occasional marauding bear, perhaps, but that’s about it as far as it goes, company-wise.)

Why is “Camp B” so empty?

Strongly-paired Glyphs

The argument starts with the difference between strongly-linked glyph pairs and weakly-linked glyph pairs.

In Voynichese, EVA ‘q’ is almost always followed by EVA ‘o’ (5186 times, compared with about 120 for all other occurrences of ‘q’). The strength of this link suggests the presence of an underlying orthographic rule (i.e. “q is always followed by u”), and also that a fair few of the other (non-qo) instances may well prove to be copying slips.

Similarly, if we see the first half of a strike-through ‘ch’ character (i.e. ‘c’) in front of a gallows character, it is almost always matched by the second half of a strike-through ‘ch’ character (i.e. ‘h’). This too suggests that c+gallows+h is following some kind of underlying orthographic rule:

* cth 905:33
* ckh 876:26
* cph 212:6
* cfh 73:6

However, it then turns out that Voynichese is full of families of strongly-linked glyph pairs, and that (though I don’t have precise statistical evidence for asserting it) it is these strong links that drive much of the structure and statistical behaviour of Voynichese.

* ‘qo’
* ‘ol’, ‘al’, ‘or’, ‘ar’
* ‘ee’, ‘eee’, ‘eeee’
* ‘aiv’, ‘aiiv’, ‘aiiiv’
* ‘air’, ‘aiir’, ‘aiiir’
* ‘ok’, ‘ot’, ‘op’, ‘oh’
* ‘dy’ (though I suspect dy works in a different way to the others)

That is, the amount of genuine information inside these groups is very small: which conversely, in my opinion, means that we should not be trying to look for information inside these groups at all. The real information in the text lies in the choice between these strongly groups, not inside each strongly-linked group.

Reading Jelly vs Parsing Foam

As a result, when I look at Voynichese words such as ‘olchedy’ and ‘olcheey’ (which occur a respectable 71 and 17 times respectively), I can only sensibly parse them as “ol-ch-e-dy” and “ol-ch-ee-y” before even beginning to try to make sense of what is going on with them. And even once you have parsed them, they remain just as inscrutable as before.

All of which is to say that I think we cannot yet parse Voynichese reliably, which is the starting point for the single-tent Camp B described at the top of the post. Yet this does not mean that all is lost: it just means that we are still trying to find a reliable and strong way to get started on a difficult road.

But linguistically, this isn’t how languages work. Orthography is driven by issues such as consonance and assonance: but what we appear to be seeing here is more like a jelly of letters (i.e. more structured than soup, but still quite plastic), joined together into words by deeper rules we are still unaware of.

Yet perhaps a more useful (and visual) way of viewing Voynichese is as a ‘foam’ of small glyph-group bubbles, (e.g. ‘ol’, ‘qo’, etc), empty of meaning in the middle but with all the semantic content on their outside at the point where they touch other bubbles. What I’m trying to do is to decompose the foam of words into its constituent bubbles.

Like it or not, we find ourselves completely surrounded by Bad Voynich Theories: this is an unfortunate (and often dispiriting) state of affairs, and one that seems unlikely to change any time soon.

Having said that, everyone is entirely free to pursue their own foolish Voynich theory (though it sometimes seems as though this is close to becoming obligatory). But as long as you’re only wasting a small amount of your own time, that’s essentially fine, because you’ll probably learn a load of interesting stuff along the way. And if you can (eventually) get to the point where you truly understand the basic mistake that set you on the wrong track (and can actually accept it), you’ll probably have stretched your mind in an overall positive way.

However, the one thing that takes a Bad Voynich Theory and turns it into an outright tragedy is when it starts to gain followers – people who have no inkling of the basic historical/logical error the original theorist has almost certainly made. For if there are (say) a thousand Voynich theories out there (and the smart money is surely on the actual figure being a fair bit higher), that means that at least 999 of them are wrong: or, put another way, the chances of a randomly picked Voynich Theory being correct is no more than 0.1%.

I’ve written before that I think Tucker & Talbert’s “New Spain / Nahuatl” Voynich theory is demonstrably wrong, but their camp has now acquired a new ally who wants to take those ideas much further….

“The Annotated Voynich Codex”

Jules Janick at Purdue University has picked up Arthur O. Tucker’s Mesoamerican baton and done his best to hurtle forward down the same track with it. According to his freshly-minted Voynich project page (a longer PDF version including Janick’s transliteration tables and working examples of plant decryptions is here):

The two botanists who have published papers in refereed journals (Hugh O’Neil, 1944 and Arthur O. Tucker, 2013) have observed the presence of only New World plants. Tucker has demonstrated that this is a MesoAmerican codex based on identification of plants, animals, a mineral, language symbols, and heliocentrism.

(Of course, he means “Hugh O’Neill” here. *sigh*)

Subsequent analysis by Tucker and Jules Janick have demonstrated a direct connections to colonial Mexican history including illustrations of landmarks and cities and an allusion to the establishment in 1530 of the Celestial City of Jerusalem (Puebla de los Angeles) by the Franciscan friar Toribio of Benvente known as Motolinía (1482–1568). All our research to date indicates that the Voynich is a 16th century codex associated with indigenous Indians of Nueva España educated in schools established by the Spanish.

(He means Toribio de Benavente here, who arrived in New Spain in May 1524.)

Janick believes that the Voynich’s pharma section offers so many labels of herbs and plants that it can be used as a ‘Rosetta Stone’ for decrypting Voynichese. I’ve cut-and-pasted his transliteration table (below) into a form that Voynich researchers can quickly make sense of (note that I’ve given EVA t/k pride of place at top left, because it is the ‘tl’ from which every single Nahuatl Voynich theory ultimately seems to spring):


With the Voynich Manuscript so comprehensively solved, we should all now decamp to the bar for tequila shots (surely the only sensible way of ingesting agave), right? Well… no, not just yet. Janick continues:

However, the bulk of the manuscript defies translation, and it appears that a dialect or lost language associated with Classical Nahuatl is involved. This is being pursued. We are convinced that the Voynich codex is a document produced by Aztec descendants that has been unfiltered through Spanish editors. As such, we believe it may be a critically important manuscript to colonial Mexican history.

So despite the fragments of Voynichese that seem to be Nahuatl (if you squint at them in just the right way), there are huge sections of the text (I’m guessing this means 99% of the text) which even Janick’s clever transliteration table still makes no sense of. But to give him his dues, he would still appear to be several times further forward than Stephen Bax ever managed (numerically speaking, that is). 🙂

Puebla de los Angeles

Despite these significant (and, I suspect, insurmountable) linguistic shortcomings, Janick, Ryba & Tucker seem pretty convinced about their interpretation of the Voynich’s infamous nine-rosette page. Here’s a link to their paper Voynich Diagram 86v: An Interpretation, which excitedly concludes:

Page 86v of the Voynich Codex is a complex figure that involves two concepts: (1) a kabbalistic sephirothtic Tree of Life, and (2) a map associated with Puebla de los Angeles, the New Celestial City of Jerusalem established by the Franciscan Friars including Motolinia. It includes four encircling cities, Huejotzingo, Tlaxcalla, Tecamachalco, and Zempoala (Cempoala) Vera Cruz, all mentioned by Motolinia. The diagram is evidence that the artist of the Voynich Codex was involved with Catholic mysticism linked to Jewish kabbalah.

So… yet another nine-rosette spatial decryption to place atop what is already a tall and teetering pile. Anyone got a box of matches? The weather’s suddenly turned cold here and… (you know the rest).

Your Chance To Meet Jules Janick!

Regardless, if you’re just as excited as Janick et al. seem to be about this (and I can assure any disbelieving Cipher Mysteries readers that there are plenty of Voynichese/Nahuatl devotees out there) and can haul your sorry ass over to West Lafayette in Indiana this coming Wednesday lunchtime (21st September 2016), the very distinguished Jules Janick himself will be giving a talk on all this at Purdue University, hosted by the Jewish Studies Program:

Wednesday, September 21 ~ Beering Hall, Room B222 ~ 12:30
Jules Janick, James Troop Distinguished Professor of Horticulture, Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Purdue University, “A Kabbalah Sephirothic Tree, the New Jerusalem, and the Voynich Codex: Understanding a Bizarre 16th Century Manuscript of New Spain”

Personally, I think the probability that the Voynich Manuscript originated in New Spain is so close to zero that your desktop calculator would have to switch into scientific notation to display it. But given that nobody gives a monkey’s about what I happen to think, all I can say is: it is what it is.