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…

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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.

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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!

I’ve just had a nice email from my old friend GC, asking what I think happened with Quire 8 (“Q8”). You see, the problem is that Q8 contains a whole heap of codicological oddities, all of which fail to join together in a satisfactory way:-

  • f57v has a bottom-right piece of marginalia that (I think) looks rather like “ij” with a bar above it – yet it’s not one of the quire numbers, and doesn’t appear on the back of a quire.
  • f66r has some bottom-left marginalia (the “mus del” nymph): yet unlike most similar Voynich Ms marginalia doesn’t appear on the front or back of a quire.
  • The first (f57 + f66) bifolio contains both circular diagrams and plants
  • The second (f58 + f65) bifolio contains two text-only pages and two herbal pages
  • f58r and f58v have stars linked to most of the paragraphs: but these have no tails, and hence are more like the “starfish” and “stars” found in Quire 9 (Q9) than the paragraph stars used in the recipe section at the end.
  • The page numbers on f65, f66, and f67 all appear to have been emended by a later owner (you can still see the old faint 67 to the right of the new 67)
  • And don’t even get me started about the circular diagram on f57v (with the repeated sequence on one of the rings). Put simply, I think it’s not a magic circle, but rather something else completely masquerading as a magic circle.
  • But sure: at the very least, f57v’s circular diagram would seem to have much more in common with the circular diagrams in Q9 than with herbal quires 1-7.

Generally speaking, though, Q8 seems to be broadly in the right kind of place within the manuscript as a whole. Because its bifolios contain both herbal and diagrammatic stuff, it seems to “belong” between the herbal section and the astronomical section. However, the bifolios’ contents (as we now see them) appear to be rather back-to-front – the circular diagram and the stars are at the front (next to the herbal section), while the herbal drawings are at the back (next to the astronomical section).

This does suggest that the pages are out of order. And if you also look for continuity in the handwriting between originally consecutive pages, I think that only one original page order makes proper sense: f65-f66-f57-f58. When you try this out, the content becomes:

herbal, herbal, text, herbal, herbal, // circle, stars + text, star + text

Where I’ve put the two slashes is where I think the first (herbal) book stops and the second (astronomical) book begins: and I believe the “ij-bar” piece of marginalia on the circle page is one owner’s note that this is the start of “book ij” (book #2).

So, I strongly suspect that what happened to Q8 was a sequence very much like this:-
1. The original page order was f65-f66-x-x-x-x-x-x-f57-f58
2. The bottom right piece of marginalia was added to f57v (start of book “ij”, I believe)
3. The pages were mis-/re-bound to f66-f65-x-x-x-x-x-x-f58-f57 -OR- (more likely) the front folio (f65) simply got folded over to the back of the quire, leaving f66r at the front: f66-x-x-x-x-x-x-f57-f58-f65
4. The nymph & text marginalia were added to f66r.
5. The pages were mis-/re-bound to f57-f58-x-x-x-x-x-x-f65-f66.
6. The quire numbers were added to f66v.
7. The page numbers were added to all the pages.
8. The central three bifolios were removed / lost.

But what happened to pages 59 to 64, which apparently got lost along the way?

Currently, my best guess is that these were never actually there to be lost: there is practically no difference in quill or handwriting between f58v and f65r, which suggests to me that they originally sat adjacent to each other… that is to say, that Q8 probably only ever contained two bifolios. And so, the proper page numbers added (at 7 above) were probably 57-58-59-60, which would make perfect sense.

So… why were they later emended to 57-58-65-66?

My suspicion is that, temporarily bound between Q8 and Q9, there was an extra tricky set of pages, which the page-numberer skipped past before continuing with 67 (in the astronomical section). But what tricky block might that be?

Could it have been the nine-rosette fold-out section? Might the page-numberer have skipped past that, before subsequently noticing that an earlier owner had given it a higher quire number, and so moving it forward to its proper place? It’s a bit of a tricky one to argue for, but I do strongly suspect that something in someone’s system broke down right around here, causing more confusion than we can easily sort out.

However, I’ll leave the nine-rosette section for later: that’s quite enough codicology for one day! 🙂

Peter Marshall’s (2006) “The Mercurial Emperor: The Magic Circle of Rudolf II in Renaissance Prague” takes a sideways look at everyone’s favourite mad Holy Roman Emperor, by using those around him as a kind of slightly wonky mirror. The choice of who makes the cut is a bit arbitrary in places: John Dee (who never came close to gaining Rudolf’s favour) gets rather more coverage than I think justified, however much some Voynicheros happen to like him. 😉

By using the Imperial court to cast light on the man in the middle, it is reminiscent (and perhaps consciously so?) of John Christanson’s “On Tycho’s Island”, which does much the same thing for Tycho Brahe (who features here too, of course).

Even though Marshall does sometimes feel compelled to thicken up his text with Wikipedificatory asides, overall you can’t help but enjoy the ride – it’s a basically good book. What you end up with is a feeling for Rudolf’s overall character arc, from his ultra-stiff Spanish upbringing, through the alchemical / astronomical / allegorical golden years, to the slow-motion showdown with his bluff soldier brother Matthias (which Rudolf lost, if you didn’t already know).

For me, the biggest takeaway I got from the book came from the raking light it cast onto Rudolf’s relationship with art. His collection of paintings was not, as Warburgian historians formerly liked to believe, imbued with Neoplatonist symbolic power, their artists digging deep into the cultural psyche to tease out deeper archetypes from myth and legend, which only heroic modern ‘symbologists’ (*ack* *spit*) could ever decode. Oh, no: it’s far worse than that; and perhaps worse even than Charles Hope’s art historical cynicism would put it. I think Rudolf’s all-star proto-Mannerist painters spent their time constructing his Imperial Internet pr0n browser: the vision that is conjured up for me is of them feverishly thumbing through their emblem books (etc) finding stories that prominently featured young women, and then ‘artfully’ arranging them on the canvas for maximum fleshly exposure. Shame on me for even thinking it, but ultimately Rudolf’s gallery reeks more of “Beavis and Butthead Win The Lotto” than anything else. Uh huh, huh. *sigh*

But I digress. 🙂

Marshall’s book did have one complete laugh-out-loud moment for me, which made my wife chuckle too (no mean feat). The engraving on p.151 depicts Nostradamus in a magic circle, conjuring up a procession of future kings of France for Catherine de Medicis in a “magic mirror” (not much to do with Rudolf II, but a fun picture all the same). I looked at it and thought – that’s not a mirror, that’s a bloody big plasma TV he’s got there. But perhaps you disagree?

Nostradamus showing off his widescreen TV to the Queen of France

Enjoy! 😉

If (like me) you enjoyed Roman Polanski’s film “The Ninth Gate” (I happened to see it in a hotel room in New Haven, giving it a particular resonance for me) which I mentioned recently, you might think about reading the novel from which it sprang, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s “The Dumas Club”.

Its main protagonist, Lucas Corso, gets described early on as a “book detective”: but he is closer to the romantic archetype of a charmingly ruthless European antiquarian book-hunter for which Wilfrid Voynich and Hans Kraus both felt nostalgic. Whenever short-sighted, boyish-looking Corso takes off his glasses and puts on his “innocent rabbit” face, everyone seems to give him what he wants: perhaps Wilfrid Voynich used much the same kind of trick, who knows?

But it’s not simply a cherchez-la-livre romance: there are two stories intertwined, one concerning various Spanish book-dealers’ passions for Alexander Dumas’ pulpy (but vastly popular) bestsellers such as “The Three Musketeers”; and the other about the three remaining copies of a mysterious 17th century printed book for summoning the Devil, written in heavily abbreviated/coded Latin and with nine Tarot-like drawings, and whose printer (Aristide Torchia) was supposedly burned at the stake for creating it.

Structurally, this reminds me a lot of the TV show “CSI” (the proper Las Vegas one), which typically fills its hour-long slot by telling two forensic detective stories (each roughly half-hour long), and leaving it as a point of suspense whether the two strands are connected or not. Lucas Corso struggles gamely to see the link, but ultimately none materialises in the way that he expects. Despite the reader’s (and Corso’s) sense of a buzzing conspiratorial coherency in the early few chapters, the book actually ends up more like two intertwined extended short stories (one horror, one literary) than a single majestic novel, which is a shame.

For the film adaptation, Polanski simply ditched the whole Dumas connection, and instead concentrated on the “Book of Nine Gates” half of the book – essentially, whereas he optioned “The Dumas Club”, he actually filmed “The Non-Dumas Club”.

Yet the first hundred pages are simply brilliant, inspiring, edgy, like peering anxiously through Montecristo cigar fug to make out the looming shape of an unknown menace. But then Perez-Reverte (quite literally) loses the plot: the writing disintegrates into a mess of intertextuality and clunky self-referentiality, with the novelist having Corso continually feel as if he is a character in a serial novel – essentially, in a remake of a Dumas novel. Whether that’s true or not, having it rammed down my, errrm, eyes so many times completely broke the spell.

One glaringly missed opportunity throughout is the aspect of whether the unidentified young girl (who takes the name “Irene Adler” from a Sherlock Holmes novel) actually exists, or is merely some kind of strange hallucinatory being, conjured up by Corso himself: a kind of “Dumas Club” meets “Fight Club”, if you like. Kudos to Polanski for picking up this angle more strongly in his film. Perhaps she had to physically exist in the book as a result of Perez-Reverte’s (I think wrong) decision to have to have one of the characters (Boris Balkan) as the storyteller. And so in the book, Irene’s ambiguity centres not on whether or not she exists outside Corso’ mind, but on whether for him she acts as a force for good or evil – an angel, succubus or demon.

All in all, I have to say that I really wish Perez-Reverte had found sufficient writing courage to take the horror through to its logical conclusion, rather than pull up short at the final hurdle. Though Polanski’s literary take on the novel was (perhaps necessarily) quite superficial, his filmic instinct to raise the stakes yet higher than the book worked fabulously well.

For the full literary effect, I’d recommend reading “The Three Musketeers” first, then “Twenty Years After”, then “The Dumas Club”, and then watching “The Ninth Gate” late at night, with the curtains drawn, and a bottle of Bols gin by your side. Enjoy!

Incidentally, looking at the book with my Voynich research hat on, it was nice to see Perez-Reverte pick up on things like “The art of locking devils inside bottles or books is very ancient… Gervase of Tilbury and Gerson both mentioned it in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries” (p.202), and to have Torchia trawling around Prague for the cabalistic secrets of an unknown brotherhood (p.203). The uber-convoluted magic circle in the final chapter (p.312) is quite fun, too.

Of the three magic circles in the Voynich Manuscript, it is interesting that both sun and moon ones depict people holding bottles: here’s the left man from the “hidden moon” magic circle – the “S” in his face probably denotes “Septentrio” (i.e. North). I’ll write more about these another day: here’s a link to an earlier post I made on William Kiesel’s lecture at Treadwell’s. Suffice it to say that this picture might simply refer to water and hyssop, both used to purify magic circles for millennia… unless you know better?

I’ve often wondered what Lynn Thorndike thought of the Voynich Manuscript: after all, he (his first name came from the town of Lynn, Massachusetts) lived from 1882 to 1965, and continued to publish long after his retirement in 1950, and so was active before, during and after the 1920s when Wilfrid Voynich’s cipher manuscript mania/hype was at its peak. As a well-known writer on alchemy, magic and science, my guess is that Thorndike would surely have been one of those distinguished American academics and historians whom Voynich tried so hard to court after his move from Europe to New York.

One of my ongoing projects is to work my way through all of Thorndike’s works, as it seems to me that his science/magic research programme carved a trail through the jungle of mostly-unread proto-scientific manuscripts that probably falls close to where the Voynich Manuscript is situated: and few historians since him have felt any pressing need to build on his work except in generally quite specific ways. All of which is why I happened to be reading Chapter VII “Nicholas of Cusa and the Triple Motion of the Earth” in Thorndike’s “Science & Thought in the Fifteenth Century” (1929).

Firstly, you need to understand that Thorndike thought that the whole Burckhardtian notion of the (supposedly fabulous and extraordinary) Renaissance was plain ridiculous: there were countless examples of ingenuity, invention, and insight throughout the Middle Ages (and, indeed, throughout all history) to be found, if you just bothered to take the time and effort to place events and writings within their own context.

Furthermore, Thorndike believed that lazy historians, having set up this false opposition between (high) Renaissance culture and (low) medieval scholasticism, then went looking for exceptional individuals who somehow bucked that trend, “forerunners, predictors, or martyrs of the glorious age of modern science that was to come.” (p.133) The list of usual suspects Thorndike suggests – “Roger Bacon, Nicholas of Cusa, Peurbach and Regiomontanus, Leonardo da Vinci” – appears to me not far from how the fake table of Priory of Sion Grand Masters would have looked, if Pierre Plantard been a tad more receptive to non-French history.

Of course, Thorndike – being Thorndike – then goes on to demonstrate precisely how the whole myth around Nicholas of Cusa arose: basically, German historians looking out for a German ‘forerunner, predictor, or martyr‘ plucked three marginal fragments from Nicholas’s work and wove them together to tell a story that was, frankly, not there to be told. Then you can almost feel the fever rising in Thorndike’s genuinely angry brow when he continues:

“Could anything, even the most childish of medieval superstitions, be more unscientific, unhistorical, and lacking in common sense than this absurd misappreciation and acceptation of inadequate evidence, not to say outright misrepresentation, by modern investigators and historians of science?” (p.137)

Punchy (and grouchy) stuff: but he’s far from finished yet. He has an example of something even more scandalous which he feels compelled to share with us:-

“When are we ever going to come out of it? To stop approaching the study of medieval science by such occult methods as the scrutiny of a manuscript supposed to have been written by Roger Bacon in cipher, instead of by reading the numerous scientific manuscripts that are expressed in straightforward and coherent, albeit somewhat abbreviated, Latin?” (p.137)

So there you have it. In 1929, while Wilfrid Voynich was still alive, Thorndike took a measured look at Voynich’s and Newbold’s “Roger Bacon Manuscript” nonsense, and placed it straight in the category of “absurd misappreciation and acceptation of inadequate evidence, not to say outright misrepresentation“.

John Manly may have been more dismissive of Newboldian cryptography in his article in Speculum 6 (July 1931), but Thorndike was no less dismissive of Newboldian history in print in 1929. Just so you know!

I’m just collecting my thoughts after an exhilarating lecture by William Kiesel (the publisher and editor of Ouroboros Press) on magic circles at Treadwell’s in Covent Garden (Christina’s post-lecture blog entry is here). William presented a long series of images of magic circles (manuscripts diagrams, woodcuts, paintings, etc) from the Middle Ages right through to the 19th century, including many of John Dee’s strange diagrams.

Voynich Manuscript, page f57v (the ‘magic circle’ page)

The reason I’ve been trying to find out about magic circles for years is because, as you can see above, page f57v in the Voynich Manuscript apparently contains one. Or (more precisely), whatever f57v actually contains, it seems on the surface to follow the constructional rules and layout of genuine magic circles. However, this is hard to research because the topic of magic circles has attracted relatively little academic interest over the years, Richard Kieckhefer’s (1997) Forbidden Rites (an in-depth study of a 15th century necromancer’s manual) being one of the few honourable exceptions. Which is why I was so excited about the lecture.

Having said that, there are many things about f57v that cast doubts on its ‘magic circle-itude’. For example, I could find no other magic circle with the directional spirits given faces rather than simply named: depictions in every other magic circle I had seen were instead abstract diagrammatic renderings (swords, pentacles, rings, sigils, etc), and names of the directions (to help orient the circle, the first thing any proper necromancer would want to do). But even more brutally: when magic circles are all about the power of names, why ever would someone want to replace them with images?

And so… after the lecture, I asked William for his thoughts on f57v (which, delightfully, he had looked at before). As far as the directional faces go, he agreed that this was pretty much a unique feature: though a tiny number of magic circles he had seen do have sigils shaped to broadly resemble faces, that would seem to be a completely different strand of development to that which we see in the VMs. Overall, even though he did note that it was intriguing that the postures of the four “people” on f57v were all different, the main impression the page left him with was that each of the four faces faced in a different direction (though he didn’t know what that meant).

On the train home, I sat there wondering what this might have caused this, letting all the various aspects swirl around me (though, no, I didn’t have any of Treadwell’s wine that night). And then all the bits clunked into place, with that sound very familiar to any Simpsons fan: “d’oh!

I should explain. Perhaps the biggest trap Voynichologists fall into is that of overthinking issues: when many complex explanations for a given phenomenon exist, sometimes simple ones gets overlooked, or (worse) rejected for appearing too simple. And the simplest explanation here is that, because almost every magic circle has the directions of the compass written on it, that would be both the first thing you would want to keep and the first thing you would want to hide. And so it seems highly likely to me that the four faces on f57v code for N/E/S/W. In short, I think that (like the VMs’ “Naked Lady Code” I described in my book) the four faces employ a misleadingly elaborate way of enciphering something very simple – the compass directions. But which is which – and how – and why?

  • The left figure is facing forward-left
  • The top figure is facing backward-right
  • The right figure is facing forward-right (and holding a ring / egg)
  • The bottom figure is facing backward-left

But how do these four map onto N/S/E/W? The first thing to notice is that magic circles are very often written in Latin, with the four points written Oriens [E], Meridies [S], Occidens [W], Septentrio [N]: and so an encipherer would only need to hide one in order to hide them all.

While I don’t know for sure… I do predict that the nose and eyebrow of the left figure’s face was elaborated around an “S” to denote “Septentrio” [i.e. North]: and that the only useful information is that a ring (as rings are far more common than eggs in magic circles, The Black Pullet notwithstanding) should be placed opposite it [i.e. South]. The flower-like shape at the centre is probably an elaborated shape around the central o-shapes, which probably denote locus magistri, the place where the exorcist / conjuror / master of the magic circle should stand. Finally: might the heavily-drawn straight line on the shoulder of the ring-carrying person denote a sword? Very possibly.


Voynich Manuscript, page f57v – four central figures

This doesn’t answer every question about f57v (how could it?): but it does give a good snapshot of my current thoughts on how (beneath all the deception) it is actually a magic circle (though perhaps not as complex a magic circle as you might initially think).

Part 2 will move on to the VMs’ other magic circles…

One very early cipher involved replacing the vowels with dots. In his “Codes and Ciphers” (1939/1949) p.15, Alexander d’Agapeyeff asserts that this was a “Benedictine tradition”, in that the Benedictine order of monks (of which Trithemius was later an Abbot) had long used it as a cipher. The first direct mention we have of it was in a ninth century Benedictine “Treatise of Diplomacy“, where it worked like this:-

  • i = .
  • a = :
  • e = :.
  • o = ::
  • u = ::.

R:.:lly“, you might well say, “wh:t : l:::d ::f b::ll::cks” (and you’d be r.ght, ::f But for all its uselessness, this was a very long-lived idea: David Kahn’s “The Codebreakers” (1967) [the 1164-page version, of course!] mentions the earlier St Boniface taking a dots-for-vowels system from England over to Germany in the eighth century (p.89), a “faint political cryptography” in Venice circa 1226, where the vowels in a few documents were replaced by “dots or crosses” (p.106), as well as vowels being enciphered in 1363 by the Archbishop of Naples, Pietro di Grazie (p.106).

However, perhaps the best story on the dots-for-vowels cipher comes from Lynn Thorndike, in his “History of Magic & Experimental Science” Volume III, pp.24-26. In 1320, a Milanese cleric called Bartholomew Canholati told the papal court at Avignon that Matteo Visconti’s underlings had asked him to suffumigate a silver human statuette engraved with “Jacobus Papa Johannes” (the name of the Pope), as well as the sigil for Saturn and “the name of the spirit Amaymom” (he refused). He was then asked for some zuccum de napello (aconite), the most common poison in the Middle Ages (he refused). He was then asked to decipher some “‘experiments for love and hate, and discovering thefts and the like’, which were written without vowels which had been replaced by points” (he again refused). The pope thought it unwise to rely on a single witness, and sent Bartholomew back to Milan; the Viscontis claimed it was all a misunderstanding (though they tortured the cleric for a while, just to be sure); all in all, nobody comes out of the whole farrago smelling of roses.

(Incidentally, the only citation I could find on this was from 1972, when William R. Jones wrote an article on “Political Uses of Sorcery in Medieval Europe” in The Historian: clearly, this has well and truly fallen out of historical fashion.)

All of which I perhaps should have included in Chapter 12 of “The Curse of the Voynich“, where I predicted that various “c / cc / ccc / cccc” patterns in Voynichese are used to cipher the plaintext vowels. After all, this would be little more than a steganographically-obscured version of the same dots-for-vowels cipher that had been in use for more than half a millennium.

As another aside, I once mentioned Amaymon as one of the four possible compass spirits on the Voynich manuscript f57v (on p.124 of my book) magic circle: on p.169 of Richard Kieckhefer’s “Magic in the Middle Ages”, he mentions Cecco d’Ascoli as having used N = Paymon, E = Oriens, S = Egim, and W = Amaymen (which is often written Amaymon). May not be relevant, but I thought I’d mention it, especially seeing as there’s the talk on magic circles at Treadwell’s next month (which I’m still looking forward to).

Finally, here’s a picture of Voynichese text with some annotations of how I think it is divided up into tokens. My predictions: vowels are red, verbose pairs (which encipher a single token) are green, numbers are blue, characters or marks which are unexpected or improvised (such as the arch over the ‘4o’ pair at bottom left, which I guess denotes a contraction between two adjacent pairs) are purple. Make of it all what you will!

Anyone of a Voynichological leaning who is near London on Wednesday 19th March should consider popping by Treadwell’s in Covent Garden for a lecture by William Kiesel on “The Circle of Arte – Magic Circles in the Western Grimoire Tradition” (Ouroboros Press). It’s £5 (though reserve a place earlier if you can, it’s only fair): as normal with Treadwell’s, arrive there at 7.15pm for a 7.30pm start.

The reason, if you don’t already know it, is that there is a mysterious magic circle in the Voynich itself, on page f57v. In my book, I briefly (pp.124-125) discussed a number of similarities between this and folio 105v of Clm 849, the 15th century Munich manuscript analyzed in Richard Kieckhefer’s reasonably well-known book “Forbidden Rites“: but despite my best efforts, this probably only scratched the surface. I am thoroughly looking forward to learning more about this fascinating subject: let me know if you’re coming, and I hope to see you there!