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.

Writer (and University of Bristol PhD student) Gerard Cheshire has recently been asking people to look at his paper “Linguistic missing links: instruction in decrypting, translating and transliterating the only document known to use both proto-Romance language and proto-Italic symbols for its writing system“. (Note that this is actually a draft, but dressed up to look as though it is to be published in “Science Survey (2017) 1” when, as far as I can tell, there is no such journal as “Science Survey”.)

His paper breathlessly reveals that Voynichese is nothing more than Vulgar Latin (though without any obvious grammar or structure). He then proposes a scheme mapping Voynich letters to normal letters (though this lacks “b/f, c/k, ch/sh, g/gh, h/j/ym v/w, x/z” [p.17]), which he then uses to “transliterate” some sentences (though shaped out of strings of words assembled from God-only-knows-how-many different European languages) into something approaching modern-day English. These sentences ‘demonstrate’ that the Voynich Manuscript is (running counter to the radiocarbon dating) actually from the 16th century, and is nothing more than a courtly woman’s health and bathing manual, a fact which every other Voynich Manuscript researcher to date has been too short-sighted to see or recognise, bla bla bla bla bla bla bla.

Errrm… really? Really? Really?

Vulgar Latin

First thing I have to point out is that there is no such (single) thing as Vulgar Latin: rather, the phrase denotes a vast family of vulgar / pidgin / hybrid Latin-ish spoken languages sprawled across all of Europe and over most of a millennium.

Every single version of Vulgar Latin was a purely local affair, nobody spoke them all at the same time – Vulgar Latin wasn’t a universal lingua franca, it was a heterogenous set of hacky vulgar dialects that helped people get by locally. And I simply don’t believe for a moment Cheshire’s implicit claim (completely necessary to his argument, but not expressed anywhere I can see) that this kind of Vulgar Latin had no structure, that each specific instance of Vulgar Latin was no more than language expressed as a diarrhoeal deluge of words that listeners teased meaning out of.

As a result, the entire linguistics mindset running through Cheshire’s paper (i.e. the comparison between a single concerted instance of a script and a vast cloud of unwritten potentialities diffusely surrounding a huge family of languages, each of which is presumed to have no structure) seems utterly wrongheaded.

As such, it makes no sense at all to compare a single slab of written Voynichese text (which gives every sign of having been written in a single time and place) with a wide set of different language potentialities (that, further, were almost never written down, and – further still – would in every instance have had a basic rationale and structure [because that’s how language works] that he requires to be absent).

A Monstrous Mash-up

Even though Cheshire puts forward his speculative translations (which he repeatedly calls “transliterations”, as if that somehow brackets out the mile-wide interpretational chasms he repeatedly has to swing across) of several sections of the Voynichese text, I’m going to give as my example here the top three lines of f82v that he discusses on pp.20-21. This is because f82v is a nice, bright, easy-to-read page in the “Balneo” quire (Q13), which means that the various EVA transcriptions speak almost with a single voice:


Cheshire’s own transcription of these lines (according to his conversion-to-letters-scheme) is as follows:

molor orqueina doleina dolinar æor domar om nar nar or æina,
dolina ræina domor nor æina æina na nas omina eimina rolasa,
nais oe eina domina domeina etna domar doma dolar dolina ro.

Let’s take each line apart in turn to see what he’s trying to get at:

molor = mollor = (soften/calm/pacify) [Latin] – because molor (grind/mill/wear) [Latin] “would be inappropriate”
orqueina = ?
doleina = therapeutic [Catalan]
dolina/dolinar = bath/bathe [Romance languages]
æor = ?
domar = to tame/control [Catalan and Portuguese]
om = hom (homine) = man [Latin]
nar nar = foolish/crazy/up-tight [Romansch]
or = ?
æina = wife [Catalan]

Cheshire’s “reasonable transliteration” (i.e. speculative translation) for this first line is: “Calming with therapeutic bathing is always certain to tame the tense man and wife“.

dolina/dolinar = bath/bathe [Romance languages]
ræina (reina) = queen [Romance languages]
domor = [domar] = to tame/control [Catalan and Portuguese]
nor = daughter-in-law [Aromanian]
æina = wife [Catalan]
æina = wife [Catalan]
na = ?
nas = ?
omina = omen [Latin]
eimina = to eliminate [Spanish and Portuguese]
rolasa = ?

His translation of the second line is: “A queen’s bath always relaxes the daughter-in-law and wife to eliminate the omen, for it to happen“.

nais = to begin/commence/create [French]
oe = ?
eina = ?
domina = lady [Latin]
dome[i]na = domain/room [Latin]
etna (ætna) = to heat/burn [Latin/Greek]
domar = to tame/control [Catalan and Portuguese]
doma = ?
dolar = ?
dolina/dolinar = bath/bathe [Romance languages]
ro = abbreviation for rogo = to ask/request [Latin]

His third line of translation runs: “Begin now the method for the lady’s domain, and heat the room to make the bathing smooth, please!

Cheshire sums up what these three lines mean as follows:

So, the passage appears to be advice for the mother (queen) of a prince to impart to her daughter-in-law as guidance for seducing her son and becoming pregnant.

Like a badly mislabeled lift, this is wrong on so many levels. Nobody reading the above should need to look through Latin, Catalan, Portuguese, Romansch, Aromanian, French, Greek, and “Romance languages” dictionaries to find words to describe this fantastical nonsense. (Though you might find Partridge’s “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” most fruitily germane to the task.)

Disastrous Dog’s Dinners

What Cheshire has been seduced by here is the beguiling notion that the numerous textual difficulties that Voynichese presents might all be magically explained away by a wave of the polyglot fairy’s wand, e.g. that the Voynich’s tightly-knit buzz of similar words might simply be a result of a large number of active component languages somehow feeding into the plaintext. However, it should be no surprise that these polyglot sirens appear rather different when you take a closer look at them:

For all the undoubted cleverness of Leo Levitov PhD, his particular polyglot reading of the Voynich was (as seasoned Voynich Manuscript researchers will happily attest) more or less exactly the same kind of dog’s dinner as Cheshire’s is. And this was for exactly the same reason, which is that the Voynich Manuscript’s curious text presents so many different kinds of non-language-like behaviours all at the same time that trying to read it as if it were a simple language (even a polyglot mash-up “simple language”) is never, ever going to work.

Specifically, the kind of challenging textual behaviours I’m talking about here are:
– 1) Low entropy (highly predictable, babble-like text)
– 2) Highly structured letter placement rules (e.g. highly stylized word beginnings and endings)
– 3) Two or more significant language variants
– 4) A surprisingly high (dictionary size) : (corpus size) ratio.
– 5) A generative dictionary (i.e. covering many more permutations than normal languages do)
– 6) Only sporadic word adjacency pattern matches
– 7) Neal keys (both vertical and horizontal)
– 8) Where are common words like “the” and “and”?
– 9) Where are the number shapes, number clusters, or number patterns?
– (etc)

My point here is that while it is possible to construct a proof-of-concept plaintext language to partially get around one or two of these issues, all the other pesky behaviours will then cause that ‘solution’ to sink like a Chicago Mafia whistleblower. This is all pretty much what Elizebeth Friedman was talking about in 1962 about people seeking such solutions being “doomed to utter frustration”: it’s a horrible shame that in 2017 people continue to fail to even begin to grasp what is such a basic message.

In the case of Cheshire, a polyglot Vulgar Latin reading would aim to get around points 4) and 5), but would then collapse in a miserable heap at the hands of all the other points. Anyone following Stephen Bax’s miserable lead to try to come up with their own ingenious linguistic reading of Voynichese should wise up to the whole list, because – unless you are even trying to satisfy all these oddly non-language-like constraints all at the same time – you’re plainly wasting both your own time and that of everyone else you try to convince.

Laughable linguistics

When I read nonsensical papers like this (and I can assure you that this is not an outlier, because there are plenty more of them out there), I feel a deep sadness for historical linguistics. Even for unbelievably bright people such as George Steiner (who at his peak was clearly a hugely inspirational speaker, and whose books oddly summon to mind Ioan Couliano’s syncretic layerings), far too many linguists lard their writing with speculative etymological riffs anyone else would be embarrassed to put their name to, even if they were walking home from a beer festival drunk and wearing a foolish hat. (For his sins, Cheshire throws a fair few of these soggy prawns onto his linguistic barbecue.)

And whenever I see linguistics people rap about Ur-languages while constructing metronomically-timelined millennia-spanning etymology trees (yet again), I just despair. All the while modern linguists can’t construct solid etymologies for the words we use in the 21st century, what chance do historical linguistics people really stand going back X hundred years? Honestly, some things lie beyond the limits of useful reconstruction, and trying to claim otherwise is a collective (and discipline-wide) failure.

To me, the structural problem with historical linguistics, then, is that if you remove all the brazenly bullshit stuff, what little is left is perilously close to a tree-less tundra: it remains an academic discipline, sure, but one whose grasp of history is all too often paper-thin (as is its actual use to historians), and whose pretensions to science are largely laughable.

And so I really don’t think that Gerard Cheshire should feel bad about having ended up down a garden path here, when it’s actually historical linguistics that has marched down that garden path en masse. The entire conceptual toolkit that he brought to bear on the Voynich Manuscript was as much use as a Swiss Army Knife made of soft-set jelly: sorry to have to say it in such flat terms, but the poor bugger never really stood a chance.

A tip of my monkey’s uncle’s Susquehanna hat to Derek Abbott for today’s cipher history link: a new Voynich theory by Nicholas Gibbs in the Times Literary Supplement. Gibbs explains the circumstances that brought him to the Voynich Manuscript:

I am also a muralist and war artist with an understanding of the workings of picture narration, an advantage I was able to capitalize on for my research. A chance remark just over three years ago brought me a com­mission from a television production company to analyse the illustrations of the Voynich manuscript and examine the commentators’ theories.

however… all the descriptive part of his solution seems to have been culled from those parts of commentators’ reading lists that caught his eye, but then vaguely linked together into a sort of fairly unconvincing-sounding narrative. The only linguistically technical part of his “solution” in the TLS is given in tiny letters in the following image, which you can make out if you click on it and squint:

Note that the image is marked “p16_Gibbs1.jpg”: which seems to imply we have a book to (sort of) look forward to. Errrm… hooray.

I could list a whole load of things that are wrong with this, but I’d be typing all night on a TL;DR post and nobody would care. *sigh*


You might instead ask: “Was the author of the Voynich Manuscript a nymphomaniac lesbian from Baden Baden obsessed with clysters?”

Or how about: “Was the author of the Voynich Manuscript a medieval psychoactive drugs harvester from (the place now known as) Milton Keynes?”

Or: “Was the author of the Voynich Manuscript a Somalian Humiliatus obsessed with mis-shapen vegetables starting with the letter ‘A’, writing down the results of a six-year-long trek through the Amazon rainforest in a perversely private language?”

The answers to these are, errrm, no, no, and no (respectively).

When the Voynich Manuscript contains so many unexplained points of data (a thousand? Ten thousand?), why on earth should I or anyone else spend more than a minimal amount of time evaluating a Voynich theory that seems to attempt to join together just two of them with what can only be described as the flimsiest of thread?

What – a – waste – of – time – that – would – be.

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I thought I’d share with you the following email I recently received via an anonymous remailing service:

This is being written to you on behalf of a large group of Voynich theorists. Even though we disagree amongst ourselves on everything to do with the Voynich Manuscript itself (which some of us prefer to refer to as the “so-called Voynich so-called Manuscript”), the two things we do all whole-heartedly agree about are (1) how much we despise your pathetic crusade against us, and (2) how much we abhor your ridiculous insistence on primary evidence and testable hypotheses.

Be assured that when one of us does eventually manage to prove definitively that it is a Mongolian shamanic handbook, a heretical medieval suicide manual, or a stranded alien’s diary, the short term pain of finding out that the rest of us was wrong will be amply wiped out by the long term pleasure of mocking you derisively for the rest of your stupid, pointless life.

You just don’t seem to realise that proper ‘Voynich research’ is in no way historical or scientific. Don’t you understand that it is we who established the one basic ‘fact’ of the discourse long ago? The thing that we made true (by repeating it so many times that it became a fact) is that nobody knows anything definite about the Voynich Manuscript. This is the frame of reference everyone is now compelled to use, and neither you, Wikipedia, René so-called Zandbergen, or indeed anyone else can move outside it: howl at the moon all you like, you’ll achieve nothing.

So you’re just wasting your time trying to make (what you conceitedly and falsely like to think of as) ‘progress’. Anything you try to assert, we deny immediately: it’s just physics, stupid. Moreover, anything you can conceive of asserting, we have probably already denied ten times over. Assert/deny, assert/deny, assert/deny: you really bore us.

Look, can’t you get it into your thick head that we theorists pwn the Voynich big-time? The Beinecke may be the institution who owns the Voynich Manuscript, but that means diddly squat against our total pwnage. Why, when there’s no obvious shortage of rent-a-mouth academics out there, do you think Yale struggled so badly to find anyone to write anything remotely sensible in their recent so-called photofacsimile? They were wasting their time swimming against our tide, just like you’re wasting yours.

OK, we’ll admit there was a brief period during which you were marginally useful to us: that was back when having a post in Cipher Mysteries putting down one of our theories was a bit like a badge of honour. We even had special gamified medals produced, to show off which one of us had had the smarmy Cipher Mysteries treatment (how we laughed): but since you’ve stopped doing even that, we’ve all got tired of your meanderings and not-so-funny posts.

So this is just a collective email from us to say goodbye to you. Even though Voynich research is still stalled in the same cul-de-sac it ever was (which is, by our reckoning, is about a perfect a scenario as can be hoped for), we’ve all moved on from you and your stupid blog. You’re yesterday’s man, if not the day-before-yesterday’s man: not interested, la la la.

Why don’t you go research the Phaistos disk or something else unbelievably lame, and leave the Voynich to the people who really own it? Maybe you’ll find some saddo historians out there who want to read your useless drivel: we certainly don’t.

What is the difference between theories and metatheories? Given that the former can sensibly range from hand-wavy general theories (“the Voynich Manuscript was written by a mad alchemist“) to specific theories (“the Voynich Manuscript was written by a young Leonardo da Vinci, using his right hand“), the debate is more whether we can usefully differentiate between metatheories and general theories.

For me, however, the key attribute that distinguishes Voynich metatheories is that they have a certain ‘turn’ to them, a kind of pivoting self-referentiality that their proponents use to explain away just about everything difficult. For example, hoax theorists (such as Gordon Rugg) respond to almost any attempted historical objections (e.g. those surrounding the apparent paradox of using a 16th century mechanism to create an apparently 15th century manuscript) by saying that “well, obviously the hoaxer was so clever that he/she deliberately made those apparently discordant details look that way”.

They then often go on to point out that the more discordant details the hoaxer had to fake, the more obviously brilliant the hoax: and therefore the more we should admire the brilliance both of the hoax and of the man (yes, it’s normally a man) who was clever enough to notice such a brilliant hoax. And so a Voynich metatheory is a thing that arguably focuses more on explaining away that which doesn’t fit than positively accounting for anything it does sort of fit.


It shouldn’t require particularly deep contemplation before you notice more than a flicker of similarity between the structure of this argument and Omphalos creationism, courtesy of the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse in his 1857 book Omphalos.

“Omphalos” is the Greek word for navel: at the time of Gosse’s book, it was widely believed that Adam (in the Garden of Eden) had a navel despite not having come from a mother’s womb. The conclusion that Gosse famously drew from that is that when God made Adam, He made him complete with a navel: an argument that Gosse then triumphantly upscales to all the geological and fossil evidence that superficially seems to argue against the clearly well-proven Biblical History that showed that the Earth was created in 4004 B.C.

God, then, was something like the ultimate hoaxer: for rather than merely hoaxing some ‘ugly duckling’ unreadable book, He actually hoaxed the entirety of time and space to make it look as though the Earth was older than its ‘actual’ age (6021 years or so). As hoaxes go, you’d have to admit that this is top drawer stuff.

Of course, modern creationists have (ironically enough) evolved far more sophisticated arguments than Gosse ever did: but, frankly, I have to say that I’m not wildly interested in either Gosse or them. All that’s important for us here is that Creationism is, similarly, designed far more to explain away that which doesn’t fit the Bible than to explain that which does.

And what holds for Voynich hoax theories broadly goes for other Voynich metatheories focused on explaining all the difficult stuff away: for example, that the Voynich is glossolalia, or channelled, or some kind of otherwise inspired gibberish, or even a shipwrecked alien’s diary (I kid you not, *sigh*). Or even, with more than a half-nod in Stephen Bax’s direction, that Voynichese is composed of the scattered polyglot fragments of so many different languages that we can only recognise a tiny handful of words here and there: all of which anti-linguistic turn is also a metatheory, because it seeks not to explain the few words it grabs but to explain away the 99.9% or more of the other words it fails to account for. Foolishness.

There is, of course, already a large literature on a large field of constructivist mental endeavouring very similar to these metatheories: it is, by another name, pseudoscience. There, the whole point of pseudoscience isn’t to produce theories that can be tested (and possibly disproven), but instead to produce metatheories that are logically impervious to criticism – i.e. that use their central ‘turn’ to invalidate counterarguments.

This also has the effect of making those metatheories impervious to testing, and to refining, and to improving: and thus leaves them far more akin to something handed down in a Very Important Book Indeed. But you knew that already.

In the end, the only thing that separates Voynich metatheories from pseudoscience is that the people putting forward Voynich metatheories tend to be more interested in the postmodernist self-amusement of their ‘turn’ (a kind of awesome wonder that nobody else seems to have noticed how much their metatheory explains away) than in actually engaging with proof or disproof.

And if that’s a good thing, I’m a monkey’s uncle. Or he’s mine. 🙂

Surely hoping to emulate the stunning success of sideburns and urban beards in recent years, Gordon Rugg is now apparently trying to revive his old papers on the Voynich Manuscript, along with the fame on the world stage that they brought him before.

He has therefore recently co-authored a paper in Cryptologia – Gordon Rugg & Gavin Taylor (2016): Hoaxing statistical features of the Voynich Manuscript, Cryptologia, DOI: 10.1080/01611194.2016.1206753 – which I’m perfectly happy to cite, simply because I immediately append my opinion of it, both then and now: that it is specious quasi-academic nonsense that only an idiot would be convinced by. And any academic referee who read the paper and thought it sensible is an idiot too: sorry, Cryptologia, but it’s just plain true.

Rugg once again argues – just as he did 12 years ago – that the Voynich Manuscript must surely have been hoaxed using a set of tables and grilles (broadly similar to Cardan grilles, a mainstay of popular books glossing 16th century cryptography) to ‘randomly’ select word-fragments from those tables, while yielding the visual appearance of the ‘Currier Languages’, specifically the Voynich Manuscript’s two main ‘dialects’ (or, as Currier himself would have preferred to say to avoid being misunderstood, ‘statistical groupings’).

Because these tables and grilles allow people to quickly generate hoaxed text mimicking the structure and statistics of Voynichese, he and his co-author Gavin Taylor triumphantly conclude (much as Rugg did before):

“The main unusual qualitative and quantitative features of the Voynich Manuscript are therefore explicable as products of a low-technology hoax, with no need to invoke an undiscovered new type of code and/or the presence of meaningful text in the manuscript.”

In my opinion, this was a dud argument in 2004, and – given all we have learned about the Voynich Manuscript in the decade and more since – it’s an even bigger dud in 2016. Specifically, I think there are Four Big Reasons why this is so:

Reason #1: Rugg’s History Doesn’t Work

Given that nobody used a Cardan grille before Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) invented it in 1550, Rugg’s requirement that his putative Voynich hoaxer’s “low-technology” mechanism uses a sophisticated Cardan grille variant necessitates a post-1550 date.

But opposing that is (a) the radiocarbon dating of the vellum to the first half of the 15th century, (b) the mid-15th century ‘humanistic’ handwriting that is used on every page, (c) the 15th century handwriting used for the quire numbers, (d) the 15th century handwriting used for the back page, and (e) numerous Art History arguments pointing to a 15th century origin (which I get bored of reprising, and of defending against Diane O’Donovan’s endless sniping).

So, to shore up his wonky historical timeline, Rugg has to start by saying that the Voynich Manuscript is not only a hoax, but also an extraordinarily sophisticated late-16th century literary forgery, where all these distinctive 15th century features were codicologically layered on top of one another (and using century-old vellum) in order that the finished hoax artefact resemble some unknown kind of 15th century herbal manuscript.

In 2004, we already knew enough to say that this made no sense and was manifestly wrong (I certainly did so, even if nobody else did): but by 2016, this side of Rugg’s claim alone shouldn’t stand up for even a New York second.

So… does his 2016 paper fix this problem in any obvious way? No, sorry, it doesn’t. (Italian playing cards, really? I don’t think so.)

Reason #2: Digital Mimicry Is Insufficient

Unlike the recent herds of Bax-inspired historical linguists roaming wild across the arid Voynichese plains, a-hunting for dry tufts of linguistic tumbleweed lodged in the statistical cracks to feed upon, Rugg initially constructed his clever tables ex nihilo: for a long time, he considered the problem of Voynichese as a purely forward construction issue. That is, all he was trying to do was to mimic the statistics of Voynichese: his claim was therefore not that he could reproduce Voynichese, but that his tables and grilles could produce something that resembled Voynichese (if you didn’t look too closely).

This was, of course, an extremely lame ta-da to be passing off as any kind of über-theory. And so, after a great deal of prodding, he then went on to claim that it should be possible to work backwards from the Voynich Manuscript to try to reconstruct the tables that were used locally. But – to the best of my knowledge – he has retrofitted not even a single paragraph’s worth of tables and grilles in all those years, let alone an entire bookful. (It turns out that Voynichese is much less regular and well-formed than it at first looks.)

Rugg then back-pedalled once again, saying that all he was trying to do was to prove the possibility that a mechanism along these lines could conceivably have been used to generate the Voynich Manuscript.

Yes, and the Voynich Manuscript could conceivably have been found in the middle of a giant golden egg, laid by a space turkey on the Pope’s lap. “Conceivability” isn’t a particularly useful metric, let’s say.

Reason #3: Rugg’s Computer Science Doesn’t Work

At its core, Rugg’s idea of using tables to generate the ghostly immanence of historical signal is a kind of anachronistic computer game hack (and I speak as someone who wrote computer games for 20 years). Beyond the comforting surroundings of his basic word-model, he adapts each and every exception case (and Voynichese has plenty of these: paragraph-initial, line-initial, line-final, A, B, Pharma-A, Bio-B, labelese, etc) with layer upon layer of yet further improvised explanatory hacks.

But even if you – somewhat trustingly – accept that these multi-layered CompSci hacks will collectively coordinate with each other to do the overall job Rugg claims they will, they still all fall foul of the basic problem: that prior to computers, nobody used tables to generate text in such a futilely complicated manner.

Don’t get me wrong, using tables to simulate cleverness is a great hack (and Rugg understands completely that a Cardan grille is nothing more than an indirection method for selecting a subset of a two-dimensional table), and one that sat at the heart of countless late-1980s and 1990s computer games (the Bitmap Brothers were particular masters of this art).

But it’s at heart a great modern hack, not a 16th, 17th, 18th, or even 19th century hack.

Reason #4: Rugg’s Arguments Don’t Work

Even though the preceding three reasons are each gnarly enough to throw their own Herculean spanner into Rugg’s works, this fourth reason is about a problem with the entire structure of his argument.

Rugg claims that his solution of Voynich Manuscript verifies his “Verifier Method”, the approach he claimed to have used to crack it (and on top of which he has built his career). But all he has actually proved is his ability to retrofit a single bad solution to it that is, though not historically or practically credible, conceivably true. This is, in other words, an extraordinarily weak conclusion to be drawing from a hugely rich and complicated dataset, comprising not only the Voynichese text but also all the physical evidence and provenance information we have.

I’ll happily admit that he has produced a possible solution to the Voynich Manuscript’s mystery: but this has come at the cost of discarding any vestige of historical or practical likelihood, an aspect which was just about visible in 2004 but which should be glaringly obvious in 2016.

And if that’s what the poster child for his Verifier Method looks like, I shudder to think what the rest of it looks like.