A few weeks ago, some new ciphertexts pinged on my Cipher Mysteries radar: the story goes that they had been found just after WWII in wooden boxes concealed in the wall of an East London cellar that German bombing had exposed. Hence I’ve called them “The Blitz Ciphers”, but they’re probably much older than the 1940s…

They were handed down to the discoverer’s nephew (the present owner), who now finds himself caught between a desire for relative anonymity and a desire to know what they say. So far, he has been good enough to release three tolerably OK photos from a much larger set he took: but will these be enough for us to crack their cipher?

[Of course, despite the story’s plausibility, I have to point out that this might conceivably still be a hoax designed to make cryptographic fools of us: but if so, it’s such a classy job that I really don’t mind. 🙂 ]


Generally, the Blitz Ciphers’ writing appears to have been added in two hands: a larger, paler, more calligraphic presentation hand, and a smaller, darker, tighter annotation hand. While the presentation hand serves to establish the content and layout structure, the annotation hand is restricted to supplementary paragraphs and additional short notes apparently explaining key letters or terms.

Broadly speaking, the text on the first page (the ‘title page’, above) seems to have been laid down in three sequential phases:-
* #1: the circular ‘boss’ / ‘plaque’ and the two large paragraphs – large presentation hand, brown ink, quite faded in places.
* #2: the third large paragraph at the bottom – mid-sized annotation hand, brown ink.
* #3: the annotations to the other paragraphs – small-sized annotation hand, darker ink.
This general construction sequence seems to hold true for the other pages too.

The second page we have contains two curious diagrams: one a drawing of an octagon (though note that there is a square missing from the lines connecting all the vertices of the octagon), and the other an abstract tree-like representation of something unknown.

Our third page contains a large “John Dee”-like 20×20 square table, where each grid square contains individual cipher letters. The table has an array of red dots gridded within it, where each of the 16 internal red dots is surrounded by a letter repeated four times in a 2×2 block. Red dots near the sides all have two dotted square characters on the edge beside them, apart from a single one near the top right, suggesting a possible copying error. There is also a single correction (near the top left of the 20×20 table) made in the presentation hand.

The support material appears to be handmade paper (I don’t have access to them to look for a watermark, sorry!), while the inks for the two hands appear to be quite different. Though I can’t prove it, I suspect that the larger presentation hand was written using a quill pen (suggesting genuine age or some kind of ceremonial presentation aspect) while the smaller annotation hand was written several decades later with a metal nib. They could possibly have been written by the same person using different pens, but differences between the two hands argue against this.

My initial dating hunch was the first layer could well be 16th century and the second layer 17th century: but having said that, the whole thing could just as well be much more recent and instead have been deliberately written in that way to make it appear ‘venerable’ and old-looking. (More on this below.)

The Blitz Cipher Alphabet

The letter forms are clear, distinct, and upright: the presence of triangles, squares and circles and various inversions perhaps points to a cryptographer with a mathematical or geometric education. It’s closer to a demonstration alphabet (designed for show) than a tachygraphic script (designed for repeated large scale use). Here’s the provisional transcription key I’ve been working with:-

Despite some apparent ambiguities in how to parse or transcribe the various cipher shapes used, the fact that the 20×20 table has only a single letter in each cell is a fairly strong indication that each table cell contains a single cipher glyph, suggesting that about 50 distinct characters are in use. The text has a language-like character frequency distribution, with “:” [E] being the most frequently used character (the “tilted Jupiter glyph” [B] and the “joined-up-II glyph” [D] are #2 and #3 respectively). The “Greek phi glyph” [S] often appears at the start of lines and paragraphs.

I’ve shown all this to some cipher historians and codebreakers for their early reactions. Glen Claston notes that “the alphabet is based on the types of symbols used by astrologers, with a few I recognize as alchemical symbols“, though – inevitably contrariwise – I suspect this might well be a coincidence arising from the simple shapes and symmetries employed. Peter Forshaw suggests parallels with some geometric cipher shapes used in Della Porta’s “De furtivis literarum notis“, though Tony Gaffney similarly cautions that such “shapes were very common back then, the numerous ‘ciphers of diplomatic papers’ in the British Library are full of them“.

The Blitz Cipher System

As with the Voynich Manuscript, the peaky frequency distribution probably rules out complex polyalphabetic ciphers (such as Alberti’s code wheel and Vigenere cipher): yet it doesn’t obviously seem to be a simple monoalphabetic substitution in either English or Latin (but please correct me if I’m wrong!)

Unlike the Voynich manuscript, however, I can’t see any obvious verbose cipher patterns significantly above chance: so the main techniques left on the cryptographic smorgasbord would seem to be:
* a homophonic cipher, like the Copiale Cipher (but if so, the encipherer didn’t flatten the stats for “:” [E] very well)
* a nomenclator cipher (i.e. using symbols for common words, like “the”, “Rex”, or “Mason” 🙂 )
* an acrostic / abbreviatory / shorthand cipher.

All the same, there are some intriguing patterns to be found: David Oranchak points out that “‘SBDBlDMDBl’ is an interesting sequence, since it is length 10 but only consists of 5 unique symbols.” I suspect that the presentation hand uses a slightly different enciphering strategy to the annotation hand, which possibly implies that there may be some kind of homophone mapping going on. The fact that there is also an annotation applied to a single letter [c] on the title page may also point to a nomenclator or acrostic cipher.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the circular ‘boss’ at the top of the title page: this has three letters (C, M and E) calligraphically arranged, i.e. the two dots of the colon have been separated above and below the M. To my eyes, this looks suspiciously like a cryptographic conceit – might it be the case that “:” (E) is in fact a kind of letter modifier? For example, it might encipher a repeat-last-letter token (if the text had a lot of Roman numbers), or perhaps a macron-like “overbar” superscript denoting a scribal abbreviation (i.e. contraction or truncation). Something to think about, anyway!

As for the plaintext language: if this was indeed found concealed in an East London cellar, English and Latin would surely be the main suspects, though Tony Gaffney tried Latin and couldn’t find any kind of match.

Blitz Cipher Theories & Hunches

If you’re expecting me to start speculating that these documents were from a 16th century Elizabethan secret society frequented by John Dee and/or William Shakespeare, sadly you’ll be quickly disappointed. Similarly, though I concur heartily with Glen Claston that these genuinely intriguing ciphertexts may well ultimately prove to be high-ranking 18th century Mason or Freemason ciphers, it is just too early to start saying. We simply don’t know as yet enough of the basics.

What I personally have learned from the tragically fruitless, long-term debacle that is Voynich Manuscript research is that speculative theories are almost always a hopeless way of trying to decipher such objects. Hunches are cool and useful, but they need to stay restrained, or everything goes bad. Please, no theories, let’s try to crack these using the proper historical tools at our disposal!

For a decade, I’ve wondered whether any of the Voynich Manuscript’s circular drawings depict astronomical instruments – for before satnav there was celnav (“celestial navigation”). Here’s a brief guide to three key instrument types from the VMs’ timeframe, and my current thoughts on the enigmatic circular diagram on f57v…

* * * * * * *

A key navigational problem of the 15th century was determining your latitude. Though many different instruments (such as the quadrant, the cross staff, and the back staff) came to be used to do this around this time, I’m restricting my observations here to the three purely circular ones – the astrolabe, the mariner’s astrolabe, and the nocturnal.

(1) Though astrolabes were originally used for determining the positions of planets and stars, people realised that they could also be used for telling the time (if you knew your latitude), or for working out your latitude (if you knew what time of day it was). Astrolabes were constructed from a complex (but well-known and well-documented) set of multilayered rotating components:-

  • A backplate (the mater) whose edge (the limb) is marked round with 24 hours or 360 degrees
  • A large circular central recess (the matrix, or womb) in the mater, into which you insert…
  • A disk (the tympan) containing a stereographically projected map of the sky for a particular latitude
  • On top of the tympan goes a rotating spidery net-like thing (the rete) containing easily recognizable stars;
  • On top of the rete goes a long rotating rule (the rule)
  • On the back goes a second rotating rule-like thing with two sighting holes / marks (the alidade)

If you haven’t seen an astrolabe dissected, there’s a nice annotated diagram on the Whipple Museum website.

My understanding is that most medieval European astrolabes were inaccurate because they were made of wood, though this improved when they started to be made of metal (an innovation which I understand mainly began in the 15th century). Yet even with well made astrolabes to hand, using them can be a bit tricky, particularly when you are at sea: and they’re not very convenient to use at night either.

(2) So, step forward the mariner’s astrolabe (or sea astrolabe or ring). Though this was little more than a cut-down version of the astrolabe, its key design feature was that it was built to be particularly heavy (and so was much more stable at sea). In contrast to the thousands of astrolabes out there, only 21 mariner’s astrolabes are known: the earliest description of one is from 1551, while historians suspect they came into use in the late 15th century.

Really, this was little more than a superheavy astrolabe limb hanging from a ring and with an alidade on the front: but it did the job, so all credit to its inventor… whoever that may be. The Wikipedia mariner’s astrolabe page notes that it might possibly have been Martin Behaim (1459-1507), but because it seems he was adept at relabeling other people’s discoveries and inventions as his own, probably the most we can pragmatically say is that the idea for the mariner’s astrolabe was ‘in the air’ in the mid-to-late 15th century.

(3) Solving the astrolabe’s other major shortcoming, the nocturnal (or nocturlabe, nocturlabium, or horologium noctis) was specifically designed to be used at night. A 2003 paper notes that the first evidence of nocturlabes was not a textual mention in 1524 (as was long thought), but rather a series of actual devices made by Falcono of Bergamo and dating from 1504 to 1507 (who also made astrolabes, such as this one from the British Museum). For a nice picture, the National Maritime Museum has a 17th century nocturnal here (D9091).

As far as construction goes, a nocturnal consisted of: a rotating outer ring marked both with the months of the year and with the 24-hour time; a hole in the middle of the central pivot that you could see through; and a second rotating ring with one, two, or three pointers. Once you had rotated the outer ring to closely match that day’s date, you would hold your nocturnal at arm’s length, line Polaris up through the central hole, and then align the second rotating ring so that its pointers pointed at some well-known stars (normally Shedar [α Cassiopeia], Dubhe [α Ursa Major], and Kochab [ß Ursa Minor]): there’s some nice discussion here on why these were chosen.) Once you had done all that, you would find (as if by high-tech magic) that the major pointer on the second ring would be pointing to the current time of day marked on the first ring. (Well… pretty much, anyway.)

Here’s a simplified look at the night sky, highlighting the four key stars referred to on a typical nocturnal:-

Incidentally, an open history of science question is whether Columbus had a nocturnal on his well-equipped voyages of discovery. This well-informed page seems to imply that he did, and that it was used to determine midnight – the ship’s boy would then turn over an “ampoleta” (a little sand-glass that would take half-an-hour to empty) to start counting out the daily cycle of shifts. Unfortunately, it turns out that Columbus didn’t properly understand how to use his various astronomical instruments, and that he faked a number of his latitude records. Oh well!

To summarize: though the astrolabe had been used and developed since antiquity, there was little about it that was secret circa 1450. However, this was the moment in history when people were starting to apply their formidably Burckhardtian Renaissance ingenuity to get around the limitations of the traditional astrolabe, by adapting the basic design for use at sea and at night. Yet for both the mariner’s astrolabe and the nocturnal, the documentary evidence is silent on who made them first.

* * * * * * *

What, then, of the Voynich Manuscript?

I have been trying to get under the skin of the ringed diagram on f57v for many years: even by the VMs’ consistently high level of (well) anomalousness, this page has numerous anomalies on display that seem to promise a way in for the determined Voynich researcher:-

  • Its drawings most closely matches the circular astronomical drawings in Q9 (‘Quire #9‘), yet its bifolio is bound in the middle of the herbal Q8
  • It has a curious piece of marginalia at the bottom right
  • There’s a spare ‘overflow’ word at the top left [marked green below]
  • The second ring comprises essentially the same 17-character sequence repeated four times
  • Each 17-character sequence contains an over-ornate anomalous “gallows” character [marked red below]
  • The 17-character sequence contains a number of low-instance-count letter-shapes
  • The fourth ring contains another long sequence of single characters [marked blue below]
  • It has four strange ‘personifications’ drawn around its centre (seasons? winds? directional spirits?)
  • It is far from clear what the four personifications are depicting, let alone representing
  • Finally, it has a ‘sol’-like dotted sun at the centre

I therefore think that any proper account of f57v should therefore not only offer a high-level explanation of its intent and content, but also a low-level explanation of these anomalous features. The problem is that any reasoning chain to cover this much ground will almost inevitably require a mix of codicology, palaeography, history, astronomy, and historical cryptography… so bear with me while I build this up one step at a time.

First up is codicology: Glen Claston and I agree that f57v was probably the very first page of the astronomical section Q9 – by this, we mean that the two bifolios currently forming Q8 have ended up bound upside-down. So, even though the current folio order is f57-f58-(missing pages)-f65-f66, the original folio order ran f65-f66-(missing)-f57-f58. The page immediately preceding f57v (i.e. f57r) has a herbal picture on it, which is why Glen and I are pretty sure that f57v formed the first page of the astronomical section: while both sides of f58 have starred paragraphs (and no herbal drawings), which also makes it seem misplaced in the herbal section.

A second clue that this is the case is the marginalia mark at the bottom: I think this is a scrawly “ij” with a bar above it (i.e. secundum), indicating the start of Book II (i.e. where Book I would have been the herbal) – this probably isn’t a quire mark because it doesn’t appear on the end folio of a quire. And a third clue is that the page we believe originally facing f57v (i.e. f58r) has an inserted blank block at the start of the first paragraph, which I suspect is a lacuna [highlighted blue below] deliberately left empty to remind the encipherer that the unenciphered version of this page began with an ornamented capital.

As for the odd word at the top left, the odds are that this is no more than an overflow from the outermost text ring: a similar overflow word appears in one of the necromantic magic circles famously described by Richard Kieckhefer as I described in “The Curse” (though of course this doesn’t prove that this page depicts a magic circle).

I think codicology can also help us to understand the mysterious 17-glyph repeating sequence, a pattern that has inspired many a high-concept numerological riff over the years: for if you look carefully at the four over-ornate gallows, you might notice something a bit unexpected…

Even though I’d prefer to be making this judgment on the basis of better scans (which seem unlikely to be arriving any time soon, unfortunately), I’m pretty sure that what we’re seeing here is a pair of characters which have been joined together to resemble a non-existent gallows. I’d even go so far as to say that I think that the decision to make this change was probably made while the author was still writing the page: from which I infer that 18 x 4 would have been too obvious, but 17 x 4 was obscure.

If you accept that this is right, then this changes the number patterns completely, because whereas 4 x 17 = 68 doesn’t really have much numerical (as opposed to numerological) significance, 4 x 18 = 72 does – for you see, 72 x 5° = 360°. And if we are looking at some kind of 360° division of the circle, then all of a sudden this page becomes a strong candidate for being some kind of enciphered or steganographically concealed astronomical instrument, because division into 360° has been a conceptual cornerstone of Western astronomical computing for millennia.

For several years, I therefore wondered if f57v might be depicting an astrolabe: but I have to say that the comparison never really gained any traction, however hard I tried. However… the question now comes round as to whether f57v’s circular drawing might instead depict a mariner’s astrolabe or a nocturnal.

That this might be a mariner’s astrolabe is perfectly plausible. The ‘overflow word’ might denote a ring, the second 360° ring could be the scale round the edge, and the four people in the middle could simply be decorative “fillers” for the four holes normally placed in the middle.

Comparing f57v with a nocturnal, however, is particularly interesting. The obvious thing to hide in the central design would be depictions or denotations of the constellations and the sighting stars so crucial to the operations. Given that there are plenty of different strength lines and curious shapes in the four characters to be found there, let’s take a closer look…

Now, the four elements we’d expect to see in a description of a nocturnal are Cassiopeia, Ursa Major, Ursa, Minor and Polaris: and I suspect that this is what we have here. Look again at the woman’s face on the left, and I wonder whether her name has been quite literally written across her face:-

As for the top and bottom characters here on this page, they have long puzzled Voynich researchers – why are they so wildly hairy and apparently facing away? What kind of a person is being shown here? Perhaps the answer is simply that these represent not people but bears, specifically the Great Bear (Ursa Major) at the top and the Smaller Bear (Ursa Minor) at the bottom.

The final character of the four would represent Polaris (short for stella polaris), which in the 16th Century (?) came to be called ‘Cynosura’ (the Greek mountain nymph who nursed Zeus in Crete). I have to say that I don’t really know what is going on here – perhaps other people better versed in astronomical history or mythology might be able to tell me why this person should be carrying a ring or an egg (?), and what the character’s curious strong lines (nose and top of upper arm) might be denoting.

Yet perhaps the biggest clincher of all, though, is the ‘sol’-like shape right at the centre of f57v. We might be able to discount the possibility that this represents the astrologers’ glyph for the sun, because this only came into use around 1480 (as I recall). For in the context of a drawing of a circular astronomical instrument, is this not – almost unmistakeably – a depiction of Polaris (the dot) as viewed through a hole in the pivot (the circle)?

As always, the evidence is far from complete so you’ll have to make up your own mind on this. But it’s an interesting chain of reasoning, hmmm?

Spookily, the kind of analogue computing embedded in nocturnals has a thoroughly modern equivalent. Polaris does not sit precisely on the Earth’s pole but rather rotates around it very slightly, and so requires a correction in order to be used as a reference for true North (on a ship, say). Hence a spreadsheet can be constructed to make this fine adjustment – essentially, this is a nocturnal simplified and adapted to yield the north correction required. Some good ideas can remain useful for hundreds of years!

Just to let you know that a Voynich Manuscript radio interview I gave a few days ago (either download it, or click on the Flash Player play button [half a screen down on the right] to hear it) has just gone live on the Red Ice Creations website. They wanted me to chat about all things Voynich… and an hour later I eventually ran out of steam. 🙂

Pretty much all the fashionable VMs research topics you’d expect to me to crank out – Wilfrid Voynich, John Dee, Rudolf II, Rene Zandbergen, Sinapius, Newbold, dating, TV documentaries, the nine-rosette page, page references, the evolution of Voynichese, cipher history, Trithemius, Leon Battista Alberti, unbreakable ciphers, intellectual history, books of secrets, Brunelleschi’s hoist, enciphered machines, Voynich Bullshit Index, Quattrocento intellectual paranoia, patents, even quantum computing! – get covered, so there should be something there for nearly everyone. 🙂

And if that’s not enough for you, Red Ice Radio has a 45-minute follow-on interview with me in their member-only area: this covers cryptology, intractability, alchemy, Adam Maclean, hoax theories, Gordon Rugg, Cardan grilles, postmodernism, astronomy, astrology (lunar and solar), calendars, Antonio Averlino / Filarete, canals, water-powered machines, (not) the head of John the Baptist, Alan Turing, Enigma, Pascal, the Antikythera Mechanism, Fourier analysis, Ptolemaic epicycles, Copernicus, Kepler, Kryptos sculpture, Tamam Shud, Adrenalini Brothers, steganography, copy vs original, wax tablets, even al-Qaeda!

OK, I’m not a professional broadcaster, and it’s all impromptu (so there are a handful of pauses), but it does bring plenty of Voynich-related stuff that’s appeared here over the last 18 months together into a single place. Enjoy!

For the recent Hungarian Voynich summer camp, I offered to do a couple of IM sessions over Skype, both of which seemed to go down very well. I thought many Cipher Mysteries readers might enjoy going over the transcript, so here it is (lightly edited for house style, as usual, and with after-the-event section dividers to make it not quite so unwieldy). I’ll be posting the Sagittarius spreadsheet mentioned here to the the blog very shortly, have no fear! 🙂

Note: Skype IM session on 27/08/2009
vc = “voynich camp”
NP = “Nick Pelling”

o. Introduction

[19:01:42] vc: Thank you very much for the possibility.
[19:01:57] NP: No problem – may I ask who is there this evening?
[19:02:41] vc: We are currently five pople but we are six and tomorrow we will be seven.
[19:02:50] NP: five is fine 🙂
[19:03:11] NP: Do you have names, or are you Devo?
[19:03:19] vc: Two linguists, and 3 geekz.
[19:03:46] NP: I’m not sure who would win the fight. Best to work together.
[19:03:57] vc: Zsolt, Ancsi, Norbi, Miklos, Anna, Andris.
[19:04:13] NP: OK, got it. Where shall I begin?

1. Page Reference Discussion

[19:04:49] vc: can you speak about your own theory about the seem to be page links?
[19:05:29] NP: OK – the apparent page references
[19:08:00] NP: Large medieval documents were bound into quires, and the quires were numbered
[19:08:16] NP: But for centuries, people used letters rather than numbers
[19:08:21] NP: a b c d e etc
[19:08:46] NP: folio numbers were then given in roman numerals for that quire
[19:08:50] NP: i ii iii iv v etc
[19:09:11] NP: The side of the page was also given, with r for recto, v for verso
[19:09:57] NP: So, for centuries people referred to page numbers pimarily in tiny little letter patterns of the form: air, aiv, aiir, aiiv, aiiir, aiiiv
[19:10:38] NP: Few people nowadays (apart from codicologists) bear this in mind, but this was the primary way in which books were structured circa 1400
[19:11:22] NP: So, if we were to look at the VMs through the eyes of someone living 500 years ago, the aiiv / aiir patterns would immediately jump out a t them as being page references.
[19:12:05] NP: Specifically, page references to the first bound quire of a book (for there is no bir biv biir biiv pattern in the VMs)
[19:12:30] NP: So, you might say, what if these are indeed page references to the first quire?
[19:13:09] NP: Well… if they are page references, they’re quite strange ones: references to recto (r) pages would then be vastly outnumbered by references to verso (v) pages
[19:13:51] NP: Ultimately, it comes down to a paradox of vision – we’re presented with something that *looks* like page numbers, but which does not have the statistical profile of page numbers. How can that be?
[19:14:26] vc: We are listening, go on
[19:14:36] NP: Once you start saying “well, these are only designed to resemble page numbers”, then you’re into the realms of cryptography and steganography
[19:15:36] NP: I think that the presence of these non-page-number page numbers is a persuasive reason to look for cryptographic solutions in preference to linguistic solutions
[19:15:43] NP: But then…
[19:16:13] NP: You have to ask the question, what are these non-page-number page numbers actually doing? What is their function?
[19:16:43] NP: When I went to the Beinecke in May 2006, I spent an hour looking at a single page of the VMs trying to work it out.
[19:16:58] NP: f38v
[19:17:32] NP: I had borrowed a magnifying glass from the front desk and went over every aiiv-style pattern on the page, over and over again, looking for a clue
[19:17:46] NP: And then I noticed it, one tiny piece at a time
[19:18:15] NP: And in the two years since, I’ve fleshed it out into a complete story of how they came about, and why they have the shape they do.
[19:19:20] NP: In the first phase, the author wrote a simple “v” shape and added a carefully placed dot above the row of i’s. This indicated one of the Arabic numerals 1-9 (I think)
[19:19:55] NP: However, after that early Herbal A phase, the author revisited it and thought it was too obvious, and so added scribal flourishes.
[19:20:20] NP: These loops start from the dot, go up and around, and rejoin the unflourished “v” shape at the top right
[19:20:54] NP: In the Currier B phase, the author used a completely different way of enciphering numbers (but using the same aiiiv family pattern)
[19:21:13] vc: Yes, we can see it in Psp
[19:21:26] NP: So, you can see the layers of development of the cipher over time. Voynichese wasn’t a static system, it was an evolving system
[19:22:13] NP: The problem with using statistical tools on Voynichese is that the system moves over time, which is why it is important to apply tests to each phase in turn
[19:22:21] vc: That’s why you are so eager about to reconstruct the original binding order…….
[19:22:32] NP: That’s one of the reasons, yes
[19:23:02] NP: Mainly it comes back to the evolution of the cipher, though. By tracking the evolution, we can perhaps find a way into it
[19:23:08] vc: because the question arises – why one can observe this on 38 v first?
[19:23:37] NP: I chose the page because it was clearly written and had plenty of aiiv patterns on to work with.
[19:23:54] NP: Some herbal pages are clear but don’t have much text
[19:24:50] NP: I suppose one of the cutting edge research things I’d like you all to come away with from this is the idea that the Voynich grew and developed
[19:25:13] vc: Is it observable on other pages? for example, on a page written by another Currier hand?
[19:25:14] NP: It was not a “fait accompli”, a huge static thing.
[19:25:24] NP: Only on Currier A pages
[19:25:31] NP: Hand 1 pages
[19:25:40] vc: Hmmm…
[19:25:58] NP: On Hand 2 pages, the “v” flourish is written in one go, but takes a number of shapes
[19:26:11] NP: I think that the Arabic numeral is enciphered using those shapes
[19:26:17] NP: Look for yourself
[19:26:41] NP: I should say: “the v and the scribal flourish are written together in one go”

2. The vertical column on f49v

[19:27:15] vc: Speakin’ bout arabic numerals, have you checked with your own eyes on the real thing F49v?
[19:27:20] NP: yes
[19:27:27] NP: not original
[19:27:31] vc: There are arabic numbers on the left margin.
[19:27:40] NP: Yes, 16th century Arabic numerals
[19:27:52] NP: Yet the quire numbers have 15th century Arabic numerals
[19:28:09] vc: It seems on the reproductions that they are about the same color and style as the Voynichese letters nearby
[19:28:10] NP: Doesn’t add up, unless the f49v letters were added later
[19:28:19] NP: They’re pretty close, but they’re not the same
[19:28:28] vc: 🙁
[19:28:44] NP: It fooled Brumbaugh – he erected a huge theory on that alone
[19:28:54] vc: Next Q from us:
[19:29:22] vc: Then how would you interpret these single character lists on the left of some pages?
[19:29:56] NP: (1) Page titles
[19:30:00] NP: (2) cipher keys
[19:30:02] NP: (3) both
[19:30:05] NP: (4) neither
[19:30:07] NP: 🙂
[19:30:10] vc: XD
[19:30:46] vc: …So you were able to turn the original pages with your bare hands?
[19:30:49] NP: Oh yes
[19:30:52] vc: Jeez…
[19:31:00] NP: They were clean
[19:31:01] NP: 🙂
[19:31:20] NP: Seriously, the Beinecke loves people to look at its books
[19:31:36] NP: But they do insist you take your tinfoil hat off at the door
[19:32:26] NP: Actually, I looked at the VMs for three whole days, which was extremely generous of them, and that was much appreciated

3. Steganography or cryptography?

[19:32:20] vc: Right. So: (we haven’t read your book…yet) Steganography or cryptography?
[19:32:30] NP: Both
[19:32:55] NP: It is a cipher that has been disguised as a language
[19:34:05] NP: One of the back-end ciphers (the verbose ciphers I blogged about earlier today) turns a dense, information-rich series of tokens and turns it into an information-sparse language-like entity
[19:34:21] NP: XYZ –> BABEBI
[19:34:33] NP: is a trivial example
[19:34:57] NP: where X –> BA, Y –> BE, Z –> BI
[19:35:38] vc: Right -we have just thinking about the same conception.
[19:35:44] NP: This gives the apparent CVCVCV behaviour that makes the VMs seem so language-like
[19:35:56] vc: Just to reveal some of our works —
[19:36:03] NP: ok…
[19:36:14] NP: http://ciphermysteries.com/2009/08/27/voynich-cipher-structure
[19:37:36] NP: And here’s a test I did in 2003, so I’m pretty consistent: http://voynichcentral.com/users/nickpelling/pairs.gif
[19:37:45] vc: We will definitely read your article later…
[19:38:41] NP: And here’s the article I couldn’t find earlier: http://ciphermysteries.com/2009/06/06/the-voynich-cipher-for-code-breakers
[19:41:27] vc: Ok, we have just made a quick look on them for some of us have’nt seen these before.
[19:41:49] NP: There’s lots of good stuff on my blog. Lots!
[19:42:06] vc: The author knows 🙂
[19:42:25] NP: I wouldn’t post it if it wasn’t good. 😉
[19:42:42] NP: You should see the stuff I don’t post! ;-o
[19:42:57] vc: We downloaded your whole blog and copied it to identical CD’s

4. Occitan sources?

[19:43:17] vc: Ok. Next q:
[19:43:36] vc: About the Occitan language.
[19:44:06] vc: Where does the info on the month names come from?
[19:44:30] NP: Jorge Stolfi asked a load of Occitan researchers back in 1997
[19:44:46] NP: There’s a page on it, it’s certainly in the 1997 vms-list archive
[19:45:29] NP: Here’s this week’s post on it: http://ciphermysteries.com/2009/08/22/jaume-deydiers-livre-de-raison
[19:45:36] vc: hmm…
[19:45:53] NP: Basically, the closest match was with Toulon Occitan
[19:46:05] NP: But with a bit of German thrown in (for “augst”)
[19:46:26] vc: (also: “may”)
[19:46:36] NP: But is it maij or may?
[19:47:41] NP: However, it’s very likely that the Toulon Occitan was merely one person (Jaume Deydier) so it’s a bit of a small sample to be doing inferences from
[19:48:17] NP: Unless anyone knows better, there aren’t that many written examples of pre-1600 Occitan to be found anywhere
[19:48:34] NP: And spelling was a bit of a fluid thing back then, too
[19:48:58] vc: yes, our lingusist here told us 🙂
[19:49:03] NP: I’ve just read a book on artisan autobiographies, and many artisans deliberately spelt things how they sounded
[19:49:22] NP: a kind of anti-academic independent spirit

5. Voynich Marginalia questions

[19:50:27] vc: Do you think that the marginalia and other features written with latin alphabet originate from more than one person?
[19:50:40] NP: Yes, but perhaps not in the way that you might think
[19:50:51] vc: ?
[19:51:03] NP: The problem with the marginalia is that they have Voynichese embedded in them
[19:51:18] vc: This is not a problem. 🙂
[19:51:36] NP: Well.. you’ll see why it might be…
[19:51:48] NP: If you look at f17r under an ultraviolet black lamp, there’s a piece of Voynichese tacked on the end
[19:52:04] NP: it reads: oteeeolair
[19:52:28] NP: Rene Zandbergen independently observed it earlier this year, so I didn’t just imagine it
[19:52:30] NP: 🙂
[19:52:48] vc: Do one usually have a portable ultraviolet black lamp when you go to the Beinecke? 🙂
[19:53:00] NP: Luckily they have one behind the desk you can borrow
[19:53:06] NP: I left mine in the car
[19:53:07] NP: 🙂
[19:53:36] NP: Similarly, there’s Voynichese embedded in the f116v marginalia
[19:53:48] vc: But that can be seen.
[19:54:02] vc: It would be really nice if they could be used as cribs
[19:54:23] NP: That’s what Newbold thought…
[19:54:37] NP: But why can’t we read the marginalia on f116v?
[19:54:47] vc: Yes… Why?
[19:55:10] NP: I think the answer is that successive owners have emended (altered incorrectly) the text, trying to rescue fading words
[19:55:52] NP: And so f17r, f66r, and f116v have all been rescued but worsened
[19:56:44] NP: Unfortunately, the Beinecke’s scans aren’t good enough for us to be able to do forensic uber-restoration on these
[19:56:56] NP: I’ve tried, though, believe me I’ve tried
[19:57:25] vc: We have consulted with a hungarian medieval scholer who suggested that text on the 116v is actually a prayer or something like that in the realm of magic
[19:57:31] vc: a rune
[19:57:38] NP: Well, a prayer is close
[19:57:46] NP: ahia maria
[19:57:51] NP: + + +
[19:57:57] vc: the characters like + as separators justifiy this theory.
[19:58:00] NP: yes
[19:58:35] NP: However, if you look at the “rescued” letters at the beginning of the same line, you can see the contrast with the faded “ahia maria” letters
[19:58:57] vc: He said that this is usual at medieval spells. At these places one might draw a cross in the air. how is it said in english?
[19:59:20] NP: the same, probably “trace a cross shape in the air”
[19:59:33] NP: “trace out a cross shape in the air” probably better
[19:59:49] vc: As Catholics still do
[20:00:16] NP: It could be a prayer, or a curse, or a spell (protection?) or anything
[20:00:52] NP: Remember that the boundaires between magic and liturgy in the 15th century was painfully thin – both were usually carried out by broadly the same people.
[20:01:17] NP: See Richard Kieckhefer’s book “Forbidden Rites”, recommended
[20:01:19] vc: (What is lighter than a witch? A stone perhaps? Or a duck?)
[20:02:00] NP: I’m getting that sinking feeling
[20:02:47] NP: necromancy, charm, spell, prayer – pretty fluid lines between them all
[20:02:58] vc: Whatever the main language of the spell, the last words seem to be in german. What is your opinion about this?
[20:03:31] NP: I think that this was probably added by the first obsessive Voynichologist (who just happened to be German)
[20:03:34] vc: (The duck comes from Monthy Python and the holy Grail…)
[20:03:39] NP: Georg Baresch
[20:03:44] NP: 🙂
[20:04:17] NP: I think it was probably Baresch who is responsible for most of the attempted rescuing of the marginalia
[20:04:32] vc: So you are saying that this last page is from at least 2 or 3 hands?
[20:04:39] NP: But it was Baresch who ensured that it got passed down to us, so we should be grateful to him
[20:05:03] NP: Yes, but on top of each other rather than side by side
[20:05:20] NP: Blow the page up and look again at the varying density of the ink and quills
[20:05:33] vc: We will certainly do that.
[20:06:34] NP: Also, put the various marginalia side by side to scale (all blown up), it’s an interesting viewpoint
[20:06:53] NP: Print them out at A1 scale – huge!

6. About the Hungarians…

[20:06:59] vc: We still have a lot of questions… do you still have some time?
[20:07:14] NP: I have about half an hour now
[20:07:50] vc: Great.
[20:07:51] NP: but I’d like to rest my fingers for five minutes – so, please, tell me what you each think of the VMs (one sentence each, please!)
[20:09:22] vc: (Miklos): Hi. I personally think that this is a kind of constructed language or maybe a written glossolalia.
[20:10:04] NP: it’s still 100x more rational than believing the moon landings were faked 🙂
[20:10:26] NP: even if it is wrong. 🙂
[20:12:57] vc: We are by the way started our searches on a few different pathes. One group is investigating the mythological context of the drawings with girls (if there’s any). The geekz are rather trying to draw some consequences using the digram and trigram entropies, and comparing our results with various 17th century documents, on different languages (and even as exotiic stuffs as Tamil and Hebrew)
[20:13:29] vc: On the other hand
[20:14:23] vc: we’d like to produce some “grammar” here, as well, so, we decided (similarly as Stolfi did it once) to look at the distributions of different words.
[20:14:26] NP: http://ciphermysteries.com/2009/06/18/q13-and-voynich-balneology-sources
[20:14:58] vc: If we concider the first words in the herbal the names of the plants, than maybe that could bring us somewhere.
[20:15:22] NP: There have been many grammars proposed over the years – though I would strongly caution you to treat Currier A and Currier B separately, as the language changed along the way
[20:15:56] vc: Also, we are comparing the Hungarian flora with the drawings, and meanwhile with other old herbals (e. g. ashmole codex). We also about to address a hungarian herbelist in this topic.
[20:16:22] vc: Sure, we’d like to treat the two couriers differently.
[20:16:29] NP: Have you seen the “De Aqua” Voynich theory that was posted to YouTube last month? Its German author has invested a lot of time trying to identify the plants depicted. http://ciphermysteries.com/2009/08/24/de-aqua-voynich-theory-on-youtube
[20:16:48] NP: Erm, don’t shoot the Currier 😉
[20:16:49] vc: Not yet, but we are most curious about it
[20:17:20] NP: If you can read German quickly, there’s plenty of interesting stuff (but a lot of filler too)

7. The f1r paragraph “titles”…

[20:18:13] vc: You can see on f1r that the text is separated to 3 paragraphs.
[20:18:54] vc: Each paragraph ends with some words flushed right.
[20:19:06] NP: Yes… and let’s not forget what John Grove called “titles”, short pieces of text appended to the bottom right of the paragraphs
[20:19:14] vc: is it possible that these are quotations?
[20:19:20] NP: could be anything, who knows?
[20:19:43] NP: As an aside, I should say that the word “possible” sets my teeth on edge
[20:19:50] vc: quotations and the name of the persons who said them
[20:19:58] NP: Probably not
[20:20:28] vc: Not matches with the age?
[20:20:28] NP: My prediction is that they are section titles
[20:21:09] NP: book 1 – agriculture
book 2 – astronomy
book 3 – water
[20:21:10] NP: etc
[20:21:24] vc: hmmmmm
[20:21:43] NP: I would also predict that they relate to the first phase of the VMs’ production
[20:22:20] NP: because the final object has many more sections
[20:22:27] NP: they’re also in A, not B
[20:22:44] NP: but you don’t have to believe me
[20:23:13] NP: I don’t have a gun to your heads
[20:23:28] NP: 🙂

8. Plaintezt language?

[20:23:29] vc: Personally what do you think abozt the plaintext language and the plaintext alphabet length?
[20:23:48] NP: Plaintext language: Italian.
[20:24:05] NP: Maybe German, but if pressed I’ll stick to Italian
[20:24:24] NP: Plaintext alphabet length: just normal, nothing fancy
[20:24:41] NP: I do, however, think that there is something quite special about the enciphering
[20:24:54] vc: namely?
[20:25:21] NP: I think that it was enciphered on wax tablets using a combination of shorthand (to compress it) and verbose cipher (to expand it), such that the overall size of the text matched the original

9. Copy or original?

[20:26:11] NP: I think that there is evidence that the original layout and manuscript features were duplicated, even though the text was enciphered – and so I think that each line of ciphertext corresponds to a line of plaintext
[20:26:23] NP: key evidence for this:-
[20:27:13] NP: (1) the fake vellum hole on f34r – this is a hole that was made in the vellum to copy a a hole that was present in the original copy
[20:27:58] vc: (VBI index of this very feature of your theory?)
[20:28:01] NP: (finding a page number for you…)
[20:28:09] vc: Sorry, could’n miss that one
[20:28:51] NP: (2) f112 has a space on the right hand side. I think that this was a vellum flaw in the original, which was faithfully copied as part of the enciphering
[20:29:35] NP: 10000 VBI points! Ding ding ding!
[20:30:12] NP: Look up close at the hole on f34 – it was rubbed through the vellum, but why?
[20:30:53] NP: Sergio Toresella suggested that the author rubbed through the vellum in some kind of sexual frenzy, but I think he may just have got that wrong
[20:30:55] NP: :O
[20:31:31] vc: VBI index of THIS one is not small.
[20:31:38] NP: Plenty of people have proposed that the VMs is some kind of copy – I just added in some other evidence to say what kind of a copy
[20:31:57] vc: Yes, We have the same opinion.
[20:32:15] vc: It can’t be done in one iteration.
[20:32:28] NP: Essentially, that it’s an enciphered copy but one retaining many aspects of the original layout
[20:33:12] NP: There are also a number of places (particularly in Q13 and the pharma section) where you can see two layers…
[20:33:36] vc: Checkin’…
[20:34:38] NP: f77v (the house at the top)
[20:34:57] NP: f79v (the woman in the pool)
[20:36:39] NP: f88v or the page next to it (curious two-layered spherical jar)
[20:37:13] NP: Sagittarius page – the top left nymph and her odd barrel
[20:37:22] vc: So how these two layers point to the original layout?
[20:37:33] NP: I also think f57v was written in two or more passes
[20:37:50] NP: It’s hard to tell what to think
[20:38:26] NP: What I *suspect* is that there is an odd game of expressing and hiding going on here
[20:39:06] NP: I don’t honestly think that most of the water nymphs have any function apart from distracting your eye from what is really going on on the page
[20:39:22] vc: Mhm

10. The Sagittarius spreadsheet…

[20:39:30] NP: The zodiac nymphs’ poses probably do encode some kind of information, though
[20:40:06] NP: I’m sure a page full of naked women was probably even more distracting to the eye 500 years ago
[20:40:23] NP: talking of which…
[20:40:31] NP: I have a spreadsheet you might like to see
[20:40:41] vc: Sure
[20:40:50] NP: It’s taken from the Sagittarius page of a 14th century manuscript
[20:41:15] NP: and it might just contain basically the same data that is enciphered on the VMs’ sagittarius page
[20:41:42] NP: would you all like to have a look?
[20:41:53] vc: YES
[20:42:06] vc: Take a Y! an E! an S!
[20:42:25] NP: I heard you the first time. 😉
[20:43:27] NP: I should mention that what you have here is an annotated version of a scan of a photocopy of an old b&w photograph that is copyrighted by the Warburg Institute
[20:43:57] NP: I added in the red lines to try to reconstruct the table.
[20:44:24] NP: Which means “please don’t post this on the internet or I’ll get busted”
[20:44:21] vc: Ok, we are seeing the reference. Now what?
[20:44:33] NP: Now, here’s the clever bit
[20:45:00] NP: What the table is encoding is an astrological table per degree.
[20:45:00] vc: ok… won’t post
[20:45:45] NP: That is, each of the 30 degrees has a specific planet, fortune, gender, unlucky day assigned to it
[20:45:58] vc: aham
[20:46:32] vc: so if i transform it into circles, I basically get something very similar semantically to the VMS astro circles?
[20:46:48] NP: Theoretically – the tricky bit is working out how that mapping works
[20:47:32] NP: What it needs is a bunch of clever people looking at it and throwing around ideas for a couple of days
[20:47:49] NP: Which I why I thought of you lot 🙂
[20:48:25] vc: I think we are getting your suggestion. 🙂
[20:48:58] vc: Psp: rectangular to polar
[20:49:20] vc: my very first idea
[20:49:21] NP: The other tables didn’t align half as well as Sagittarius, so it would introduce too much uncertainty into the range of maps to choose from
[20:49:24] vc: of course it’s just me
[20:49:33] vc: Ok, ok
[20:49:42] NP: I think… it might not be the answer
[20:49:52] NP: …but it’s a start 🙂
[20:50:20] NP: Sagittarius is interesting because all the nymphs are facing right
[20:51:02] NP: If there is stuff being encoded in poses / clothes / accessories… look for crossed legs, outstretched arms, arm behind hip
[20:51:15] NP: head-dresses, stars
[20:52:21] NP: Incidentally, I think most of the breasts on the page were added in the second phase.
[20:53:11] NP: However… it may be that the breasts from the first phase (I can barely believe that I’m typing this as a sentence) encoded some kind of information. So you might usefully look for breasts that weren’t added later. :O
[20:53:33] vc: (VBI)
[20:53:50] NP: Bearing in mind that the author seems to have a predilection for adding dots in the first phase and hiding them later
[20:53:55] NP: VBI 100000!
[20:53:59] NP: off the scale
[20:54:12] NP: But… look at it for yourself, and make up your own mind
[20:54:29] vc: ROTF
[20:54:52] NP: At least you have something to compare with the page that nobody else (apart from me) has seen in the last 550 years
[20:55:04] NP: Real data (even if does have drawn on breasts)

11. Finishing up…

[20:55:41] NP: OK, team Voynich Budapest
[20:55:50] NP: I have to go now
[20:56:03] NP: I hope you’ve all broadened your view of the VMs
[20:56:12] NP: And not been exposed to too much VBI
[20:56:22] NP: 🙂
[20:56:23] vc: Thank You very much indeed for the most fruitful conversation.
[20:56:36] vc: Not enough i must say
[20:56:46] NP: Plan A is to return for a second session on Sunday
[20:56:55] NP: Is that correct?
[20:57:11] vc: Yes
[21:01:06] NP: Right – good luck, everyone & talk with you on Sunday!
[21:02:02] vc: Ok, all the best until then
[21:02:06] NP: byeeeeeee
[21:02:13] vc: bye 🙂

Following six years of arduous research, an unnamed 44-year-old German industrial technician has been trying (unsuccessfully) since 2005 to get his/her Voynich theory “De Aqua” published, either as a book or as an article. Frustrated by the lack of progress, last month he/she placed thirty-three sizeable chunks of it onto YouTube.

Of course, I fully understand that a busy person like you can’t really spare the time to trawl through several hours of German-text video presentation. So, to save you the bother, I’ve compiled a great big list of all highlights as seen from my chair [though here’s the final part (#33), which is a visual montage of all the interesting claims from the first 32 parts].

(1) Part #1 sets off with the basic format we’ll see throughout – endless pages of (almost entirely) German text fading in and out on a coloured background. Firstly, the top-level description of the theory gets presented: that the Voynich is actually entitled “De Aqua” (i.e. “concerning water“) and that the EVA transcription “otork” somehow translates as “aqua”. It then lists page after page of late-medieval things related to water. Part #2 asserts the author’s historical conclusions – that the VMs was written between 1525 and 1608 by four authors (in four writing systems), and that the underlying plaintext is German & Italian – before outlining the VMs’ known provenance since then.

(2) Part #3 is a bit of a scattergun attack on the 16th and early 17th centuries, with Kepler, Dee, Kelly, Paracelsus, Sir Francis Drake, Nostradamus, Isabella Cortese (who probably didn’t exist, incidentally), German mathematician Adam Ries, the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books, etc etc all name-dropped in quick succession. Part #4 (only three minutes long, most of the others are closer to ten minutes each) links the three red shapes on f1r to (a) “Astrologie / Astronomie“, (b) “Fauna / Flora“, and (c) “Medizin“. No proof, no evidence, just presented as fact.

(3) Part #5 begins a lengthy discussion of medieval herbals, concluding that f2r depicts Lactuca virosa, f3r depicts a Spanish pepper, that f4v depicts an aubergine (i.e. that the VMs must post-date 1500). Part #6 continues in the same vein, while Part #7 argues that f33v depicts maize (which is where the claimed earliest date of 1525 comes in). Part #8 is broadly similar, lots more of the same.

(4) Part #9 has some nice pictures of things resembling the jars in the pharmacological section (though I couldn’t see references or dates for these?), as well as lots of parallels for details, including a nice little dragon (was this from the same Paris manuscript Sergio Toresella once mentioned?). Part #10 has many more parallels (including the famous “armadillo” [hah!] and the Novara coat of arms, etc), as does Part #11 which again returns to the VMs’ f25v dragon.

(5) Part #12 goes off the rails a bit, with claimed resemblances to body parts; Part #13 covers menstruation and the spongum somniferum (for which Caterina Sforza included a recipe, as I recall), though I can’t make out the yellow annotations to the marginalia on f66r (2:41 into the video); while Part #14 reads f77r as depicting the four elements.

(6) Part #15 gets back on track with astronomical parallels; Part #16 looks closely at the rather strange page f67v2 and proposes that the corner shapes are actually constellations (such as Pegasus); Part #17 goes off on a fairly pointless Giordano Bruno tangent; Part #18 looks at the zodiac pages (including a little discussion on the month names); Part #19 focuses mainly on the month names such as the Leo page (because of its Germanic-looking “augst” month name), though it beats me what Al Pacino is doing in there (4:02). 😮

(7) Part #20 looks at crowns and golden fleeces; Part #21 goes back to the zodiac nymphs, looking more at the structure of the pages, before moving on to discuss the 15th century “De Sphaera” by the deaf Milanese illustrator Cristoforo de Predis, who worked for the Sforza family (ah, them again).

(8) Part #22 (are you still reading this? Just checking!) compares the drawings in Quire 13 with Roman aqueducts and similar water structures; while Part #23 looks at Leonardo da Vinci’s take on water, compares (at 1:21) a detail on f79r with a sextant (Rich SantaColoma recently blogged that the same detail reminded him of early “swimming girdles”, though I suspect neither have it right), and discusses rainbows too. Part #24 discusses water nymph details (poses, rings, cross, horseshoe, spinning top, nail, etc).

(9) Part #25 focuses (rather unsatisfactorily, it has to be said) on various tenuous links with alchemy, with the only high point being the comparison between the balneo section’s “giant grapes” page (f83v) and a page in Das Buch der waren Kunst zu distillieren (1512).

(10) Part #26 is pretty thin apart from a fascinating parallel (0:53) between a detail of f76v and a drawing of Mercurius in Liber II of Giordano Bruno’s (1591) De Imaginum Compositione; Part #27 is even thinner; while Part #28 proposes that the nine-rosette page is a map of Italy with Venice in the middle (yes, I’d say) and Pompeii in the top left (no, as it was only rediscovered in 1748). [I’m not convinced by Valdarno and the Wasserturm, either.]

(11) Part #29 (Perfume and Plague) didn’t really work for me at all; while Part #30 (Hidden Characters in the Manuscript) only briefly gets interesting when looking (1:53) at similarities between our beloved MS408 and Medeltidshandskrift 47 (at Lund University in Sweden) – the discussion of the f17r and f116v marginalia seems superficial and unconvincing to me.

(12) Finally, in Part #31, our anonymous author gets to the point of his whole book – that (unless I’ve misunderstood him/her, which is always possible) some clever computer programmer out there should be able to make use of all the clever cribs he/she has amassed as a result of his/her long journey into the heart of the VMs’ pictures. Part #32 has his/her (fairly diffuse, it has to be said) bibliography; and Part #33, as mentioned above, is a sequential montage of all the visual identifications proposed in parts 1 to 32.

Quite why neither of the German Voynich E-bloggers (hi Elmar, hi Elias) has yet blogged about this I don’t know (perhaps they’re on holiday?): but from where I’m sitting in the UK, there’s plenty to say about it.

Firstly, it is pretty clear that the author has for some years sustained an intense (and independent-minded) assault on the VMs’ pictures – yet at the same time he/she seems quite unaware of many long-running problematic debates, such as the whole “heavy painter” issue. Had the plant on f4v not been overpainted blue, would his/her identification with “aubergine” have been so clear-cut?

In addition, while it’s fantastic to see someone wise to hidden details (such as the concealed people in f86v4, even though this is mislabelled as f68v4 in Part#7), overall I just don’t accept the idea that the VMs’ plants can be identified as solidly as he/she thinks – we’ve now had three or four generations of herbal researchers look at it, with each finding it bewildering in a new way. Furthermore, comparing drawings with modern plants (or even with interpretative drawings of modern plants) is of little use, as virtually every plant you can name has been extensively adapted and altered over the centuries by, ummm, cunning breeders.

While I’m sympathetic to the author’s project and research programme (it is, after all, more or less identical in intention to what I was trying to do with my own “The Curse of the Voynich”), where it falls down is in historical methodology: in this instance, you just can’t get the level of proof you would like from visual similarities, however many of them you try to amass. Has our unnamed author provided coherent and powerful evidence supporting the identification of MS408 as “De Aqua“? I don’t really think so – plants aside, the overwhelming bulk of the discussion is fairly lightweight, and does not gain any real traction on the real history of the manuscript despite the sheer mass of intertextual references.

All the same, there’s plenty of food for thought here (though I wish many of the manuscripts where so many of the nice illustrations were taken from had MS and page references to back them up) – but for all “WilfridVoynich“‘s hard work, the end result simply fails to produce the set of cribs he/she was aiming for. Sorry, but it’s not “De Aqua” as claimed (though, to be honest, I would be hugely unsurprised if the vertical column of letters on f76r does indeed somehow encipher “de aqua”).

The end result, though, is plainly a great personal achievement – and I would be delighted if some of the intriguing and bold visual connections he/she has drawn in it ultimately lead onwards to genuinely productive and useful future research within the overall VMs community. For all its faults and limitations, this is definitely the (virtual) Voynich book of the year for 2009! 😉

For years, it has been suggested that the structure of the Voynich Manuscript’s “zodiac” section (where each 30-degree sign has 30 nymphs / 30 stars linked to it) might be encoding some kind of per-degree astrology information. Famously, Steve Ekwall claimed that an “Excitant Spirit” had told him the types of star here denoted the outcome of conception (i.e. a male birth or female birth). This would have been either from the precise degree that the moon was passing through at the time of conception, or from the precise time when the question was asked of the astrologer.

Voynich Manuscript page f72v1 – Libra (contrast-enhanced)

Interestingly, there is also a substantial modern literature on per-degree astrology, usually known as “Sabian Symbols”. The best-known set of these was drawn up by Marc Edmund Jones in San Diego in 1925 (you can see it on pp.10-26 of this Italian PDF): this was later refined and popularized by Dane Rudhyar (and others).

Yet Jones was building (to a certain degree, one might say) on the work of two nineteenth century astrologers / psychics: Charubel [John Thomas] (1828-1908) and the colourful Theosophist Sephariel [Dr Walter Gorn Old] (1864-1929). There’s a 1998 biography of the latter by Kim Farnell called “Astral Tramp” (Blavatsky’s nickname for Walter Old). [Review] Charubel & Sephariel’s 1898 “The Degrees of The Zodiac Symbolized” contains two 360-degree lists that are, it has to be said, wildly different.

On the surface, this would appear to be two completely parallel, relatively modern, and entirely unconnected re-inventions of the sort of (probably originally Arabic) per-degree astrology described by Pietro d’Abano – and so something Voynich researchers should perhaps strive to walk around rather than to engage with.

Certainly, Charubel’s list was specifically described as having been channeled:  yet Sephariel claimed that he had actually translated the symbols from a very old book called “La Volasfera”, by Antonio Borelli (or Bonelli) – and so there is, right at the core of the whole modern Sabian Symbol tradition, a very specific claim to a lost Renaissance parentage. Unfortunately, nobody has (as far as I can tell) since tracked down this lost author or this lost book, so Sephariel’s claim might… just… possibly… not be entirely truthful. Really, it’s hard to say, particularly as Sephariel was so, well, unreliable. Oh well!

If you want to read more about Sabian Symbols, there is a surprisingly large amount of literature: the Astrological Center of America maintains a pair of webpages (here and here) listing numerous books on Sabian Symbols and on other per-degree systems (respectively).

Finally, here’s an example of modern astrologers’ describing and using Sabian symbols, which might help make it clear how they are broadly intended to be used.

Nick: here’s another full-on guest post from Glen Claston, with a little bit of friendly banter from me in blue…

The different ways some little detail can be viewed is so much of the fun we have with the VMS.  Until supporting [or refuting] information can be found for either view, neither is more valid than the other; and indeed, we weigh the validity of one over the other based on common perception.

My view on the binding had to do with the placement of the quire mark, and as you see, I used a minimal amount of information to formulate an hypothetical scenario that may or may not be wrong.  I didn’t do this to be contrary, I did it to explain some of the things I’m seeing, and of course this may not be the right explanation, or only portions of it may be correct.  That’s sort of why it’s only an hypothesis.
What I need to do next is to search these pages for some evidence that either supports or refutes this hypothesis, and this is usually where one of my hypotheses falls out of my own favor and gets replaced with something else, something like Ernie’s common sense idea, which is the one I originally held until I had problems with the placement of both the foldout and the quire mark.  The good thing about it is that there is usually more information to be gathered from the pages – as Nick said, a million fragmentary clues…..

Nick: for example, I think we can still see some tiny original sewing holes along Glen’s secondary vertical fold on the nine-rosette page. Further, if you reorder Q8 with its astronomical pages at the back and insert the nine-rosette section, you rejoin the “magic circle” on f57v with the two other “magic circle”-like pages on the back of the nine-rosette sexfolio. And it may possibly be no coincidence that doing this happens to move the very similar marginalia / doodlings / signatures on f86v3 and f66v closer together.

But herein lies one of the major problems with this sort of research (and it’s only a problem to those who don’t recognize that everyone, including themselves, is prone to this type of thinking) – we tend to reason out large scenarios based on a minimal set of information, and when something doesn’t exactly agree with that scenario, we don’t modify it or throw it out.  I am no different in that when necessary, I tend to modify before discarding, but I admit that in 23 years of research, I’ve discarded almost everything but the most basic concepts numerous times.  It was only after the MrSids images were made available that I was able to revisit some old ideas and gain substantial ground in this endeavor… and even now, some things are still in the hypothetical stage.  But when you change one leg of an hypothesis that stands on only two or three, the whole thing usually comes crashing down with a thunderous sound – I can hear that sound from clear across the ocean on occasion. 🙂

Nick: that’s strange, I get to hear that same noise too from time to time, also coming across the same ocean. 🙂

To me it’s rather easy to demonstrate through parallel texts that the rosettes page is firmly a part of the astronomical discussion, and should be placed before the celestial part of that discussion, and I have a good deal of professional opinion, (historical and contemporary) that agrees.  The Astronomical discussion falls appropriately just before the astrological discussion and begins with the terrestrial portion of the astronomical discussion, so when the rosettes is placed back into its proper place, the terrestrial discussion precedes the celestial discussion and then transitions into astrology, as it should.  The book then falls into an order that is in line with the order of presentation given in the parallel texts and commentaries.  The book transitions from herbs to astronomical, and astronomical to astrological, on mixed bifolios, physical codicological information that establishes within reason that this particular order was chosen by the author him/herself.  This is the higher level of argument, since this is part of a theory that encompasses the entire content and original purpose of the manuscript.  That’s the general theory of relativity, but some other source of information is required to extract a specialized theory of relativity.  This requires a gathering and interpretation of the physical codicological information, not as easy as it appears.
We’re faced with the obvious fact that some bifolios and foldouts in this book are currently bound out of order, and some students have gone so far as to suggest that it looks like the pages were dropped on the floor and recollated randomly.

Nick: to be precise, I’d say that a few bifolios did probably manage to cling together despite being dropped 🙂 , but for the greatest part I don’t see much retained structure in Quires 2 through 7, in Q13, Q15, Q19 and even Q20 (if Elmar is right), while Q8 seems back to front and Q9 and Q14 are misbound. And I’m not 100% convinced by Q1 either!

To me it’s not that drastic, most things are in their category, if not their proper order, but the question of original collation has so much bearing on so many aspects of this study that it needs to be addressed in a very serious manner, and by that I mean the gathering of codicological evidence that can be molded into a working hypothesis or theory regarding the original construction and collation of the book.  Historical scenarios that are based on a great deal of codicological information have many legs to stand on, so they don’t topple simply because one ‘fact’ or observation changes or gets reinterpreted.  Ergo, collect all the codicological information possible, and collect it in one place so it can be easily referenced when trying to formulate hypotheses.  No, no one after D’Imperio has done that – Rene has tried on one level of the manuscript, but no one has collected all the physical observations into a single database.  Is this a task too large to be accomplished?  It’s done routinely in other scientific disciplines, why not here?

Nick: well… I did try to do precisely this in the ‘Jumbled Jigsaws’ chapter of “The Curse” to a far greater degree than D’Imperio was ever able to, but I would certainly agree that it would take 500 fairly specialized pages to begin to do the topic justice. 🙂

I give you an example of how much codicological evidence matters, and I’ll provide an example that only requires a slight modification in Nick’s hypothesis of multiple painters, an hypothesis I don’t accept on other evidence, but I’ll give an example that buys into his hypothesis nonetheless, just so I’m not viewed entirely as a “contrarian”.  There are three fresh-paint transfer marks near the bottom of f87v that come from the upper middle portion of f16v.  Don’t get all worked up at the distance between these pages, because we know (or at least I know) that the herbals and the pharmaceuticals were once connected.  The point of discussion here is that these offset transfers could not have taken place if these pages were bound before this red paint was applied.  Nick is able to modify his hypothesis to say that the binding was only at the quirization stage, and that these outside folios can lay on top of one another at this stage of binding when the paint transfer occurred.  That’s correct, that’s one scenario, and Nick only has to remove one leg of his hypothesis in order to accommodate this information – instead of being entirely pre-bound, now it’s bound only in quires.   That works for Nick, and frankly works for me until I find something that says it doesn’t.
But I draw something else from this that Nick doesn’t address, and that is that the same red pigment is present on the two pages, as well as on the foldout which contains f87r.  That leads me to a one-legged hypothesis that the guy went through his pages and painted one color, then went through again to apply another color, as opposed to our modern view of an artist who would paint in various colors simultaneously.  We’re not on different wavelengths in our thinking, Nick and I, we’re just liable to reach different conclusions based on the same information, and that because we filter the information differently.   You see, I have another category of research which includes unfinished drawings and paintings, and I see this through a different filter than Nick sees it.

Nick: I have no huge problem with the idea of someone applying paints one at a time. It would be consistent with my view that (for example) the heavy blue painter mixed his/her blue paint suitable for painting on paper (rather than on vellum) and rushed through the (already finally-bound) manuscript daubing it wherever he/she saw fit… only realising later that it hadn’t dried quickly enough, leaving a mess all over the facing pages.

The answer to such a simple question as to when and how the paints were applied may be more complicated than either Nick or I presently presume, and no matter what, we will both be modifying our opinions when the information is finally gathered and tabulated.  I assume at present that because so much of the painting falls into gutters, it was done unbound.  Nick thinks it was done pre-bound.  I see now that some specialized paints were an after-work, possibly quire-bound, possibly not, while the common watercolors had to have been applied in an unbound state.  Neither of us are entirely right, neither of us are entirely wrong, and there is more to be learned before the final tally can be made.  Choose this red pigment, is there at least one place where it could not have been applied after the manuscript was bound?  I don’t know, I haven’t done that study yet, the question has only recently arisen.  And what frakking bit of difference does this make anyway?  ;-{
It’s that hypothesis with only two or three legs thing again, that’s where this makes a big difference.  I get so irritated with the “multiple painter” thing I simply want to scream, simply because it introduces multiple and extraneous unproven human elements into an hitherto unresolved picture, without first following evidentiary procedure.  This particular fresh-paint transfer is in the A-herbal range, simply another connection between the pharmaceutical section and the herbal section, something I’ve been quite clear about – these were once connected.  Post-bound painting as Nick suggests means that I should find evidence that this red pigment was also applied to pages that are written in the B script, and applied at a time where the A’s and B’s were already bound together.  Does that evidence exist?  I’m good at lists of codicological evidence, we’ll see if it does or not.  And does Nick’s ‘quirized binding’ approach hold water against other evidence?  We’ll find out, and these things will be discovered through gathering and collating the codicological evidence available to us.  It’s a wonderful thing, that we have at our fingertips the information to do this in scientific fashion.
I remember the reaction on the old list when Nick and I went to logger-heads over something as apparently meaningless as blue paint, and that for me was what separated Nick from the pack in many ways.  It wasn’t the love of argument or the basic disagreement, but the fact that Nick was willing to study and research in support of his claim.  He was not a simple defender of his stance, he was an active participant in the argument, and though we both still disagree on this one point, the amount of new codicological information and rational thought generated in the course of this simple argument has never been exceeded in the history of VMS research.
I hope that this gives Emily and others some idea of why the simplest of observations can have the most profound impact in this line of research, and I welcome anyone that wishes to add to our base of knowledge, no matter how small.  Collaboration can be a great deal of fun, and it’s guaranteed to hone your perception skills.  When you start you’re going to get shot down a lot, just like a video game, but as you progress your impact will be much greater, just like a video game.  This is your chance to hone a set of skills you didn’t think you had.

While snooping around the (mostly empty) user subsites on Glen Claston’s Voynich Central, I came across a page by someone called Robin devoted solely to the Scorpio “Scorpion” page in the VMs. This has an unusual drawing of a scorpion (or salamander) at the centre, and which I agree demands closer attention…

Voynich Manuscript f73r, detail of scorpion/salamander at centre of Scorpio zodiac circle

My first observation is that, while the paint in the 8-pointed star is very probably original, the green paint on the animal below is very likely an example of what is known as a “heavy painter” layer, probably added later. But what lies beneath that?

Luckily, there exists a tool for (at least partially) removing colour from pictures, based on a “colour deconvolution” algorithm originally devised (I believe) by Voynich researcher Gabriel Landini, and implemented as a Photoshop plugin by Voynich researcher Jon Grove. And so the first thing I wanted to do was to run Jon’s plugin, which should be simple enough (you’d have thought, anyway).

However… having bought a new PC earlier in the year and lost my (admittedly ancient) Adobe Photoshop installation CD, Photoshop wasn’t an easy option. I also hadn’t yet re-installed Debabelizer Pro, another workhorse batch image processing programme from the beginning of time that I used to thrash to death when writing computer games. If not them, then what?

Well, like many people, I had the Gimp already installed, and so went looking for a <Photoshop .8bf plugin>-loading plugin for that: I found pspi and gimpuserfilter. However, the latter is only for Linux, while the former only handles a subset of .8bf files… apparently not including Jon Grove’s .8bf (I think he used the excellent FilterMeister to write it), because this didn’t work when I tried it.

For a pleasant change, Wikipedia now galloped to the rescue: it’s .8bf page suggested that Helicon Filter – a relatively little-known non-layered graphics app from the Ukraine – happily runs Photoshop plugins. I downloaded the free version, copied Jon Grove’s filter into the Plug-ins subdirectory, and it worked first time. Neat! Well… having said that, Helicon Filter is quite (ready: “very”) idiosyncratic, and does take a bit of getting used to: but once you get the gist, it does do the job well, and is pleasantly swift.

And so (finally!) back to that VMs scorpion. What does lie beneath?

Voynich manuscript f73r detail, but with the green paint removed

And no, I wasn’t particularly expecting to find a bright blue line and a row of six or seven dots along its body either. Let’s use Jon’s plugin to try to remove the blue as well (and why not?):-

Voynich Manuscript f73r central detail, green and blue removed

Well, although this is admittedly not a hugely exact process, it looks to me to be the case that the row of dots was in the original drawing. Several of the other zodiac pictures (Gemini, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Sagittarius) have what appears to be rather ‘raggedy’ blue paint, so it would be consistent if Scorpio had originally had a little bit of blue paint too, later overpainted by the heavy green paint.

And so my best guess is that the original picture was (like the others I listed above) fairly plain with just a light bit of raggedy blue paint added, and with a row of six or seven dots along its body. But what do the dots mean?

I strongly suspect that these dots represent a line of stars in the constellation of Scorpio. Pulling a handy copy of Peter Whitfield’s (1995) “The Mapping of the Heavens” down from my bookshelf, a couple of quick parallels present themselves. Firstly, in the image of Scorpio in Gallucci’s Theatrum Mundi (1588) on p.74 of Whitfield, there’s a nice clear row of six or seven stars. Also, p.44 has a picture of Bede’s “widely-used” De Signis Coeli (MS Laud 644, f.8v), in which Scorpio’s scorpion has 4 stars running in a line down its back: while p.45 has an image from a late Latin version of the Ptolemy’s Almagest (BL Arundel MS 66, circa 1490, f.41) which also has a line of stars running down the scorpion’s back. A Scorpio scorpion copied from a 14th century manuscript by astrologer Andalo di Negro (BL MS Add. 23770, circa 1500, f.17v) similarly has a line of stars running down its spine.

In short, in all the years that we’ve been looking at the iconographic matches for the drawings at the centre of these zodiac diagrams, should we have instead been looking for steganographic matches for constellations of dots hidden in them?

Incidentally, another interesting thing about the Scorpio/Sagittarius folio is that the scribe changed his/her quill halfway through: which lets us reconstruct the order in which the text in those two pages was written.

Firstly, the circular rings of text and the nymphs were drawn for both the Scorpio and Sagittarius pages. The scribe then returned to the Scorpio page, and started adding the nymph labels for the two inner rings, (probably) going clockwise around from the 12 o’clock mark, filling in the labels for both circular rows of nymphs as he/she went. (Mysteriously, the scribe also added breasts to the nymphs during this second run). Then, when the quill was changed at around the 3 o’clock mark, the scribe carried on going, as you can see from the following image:-

Voynich manuscript f73r, label details (just to the right of centre)

What does all this mean? I don’t know for sure: but it’s nice to have even a moderate idea of how these pages were actually constructed, right? For what it’s worth, my guess is that these pages had a scribe #1 writing down the rings and the circular text first, before handing over to a scribe #2 to add the nymphs and stars: then, once those were drawn in, the pages were handed back to scribe #1 to add the labels (and, bizarrely, the breasts and probably some of the hair-styles too).

It’s a bit hard to explain why the author (who I suspect was also scribe #1) should have chosen this arrangement: the only sensible explanation I can think of is that perhaps there was a change in plan once scribe #1 saw the nymphs that had been drawn by scribe #2, and so decided to make them a little more elaborate. You have a better theory about this? Please feel free to tell us all! 🙂