As promised, here are some preliminary slides for my upcoming Villa Mondragone / Voynich 2012 presentation, though not yet with any pictures to illustrate them (boo! hiss!).

Essentially, I’ve wrapped together all my various codicological analyses from the last decade into a single mega-sequence: these explain the step-by-step transformations that I’m fairly certain the Voynich Manuscript underwent once people started adding extra layers (quire numbers, marginalia, folio numbers, etc) to it.

Download the slides here: Between Vellum and Prague.

There’s also a mega-diagram handout to go with it: click on the following picture to expand it out into something you can navigate more effectively. The key graphic convention to note is that I’ve used underlines to denote where quire numbers were physically added (and on which individual digit!)

Ultimately, I think I’ve now managed to reach a level of codicological narrative that explains more or less everything that happened to the manuscript once it landed on the first quire numberer’s desk (though a question mark remains hanging over ‘Q6’, Quire #6 *sigh*). Having said that, I’m perfectly happy for you all to try to shoot any part of it down in flames… I wouldn’t present it to an international conference if I wasn’t reasonably convinced it was basically bulletproof. 🙂

Further reading:
* For basic background, my introduction to the Voynich Manuscript’s quire numbering
* For much, much more on the ‘chicken scratch’ marginalia (and on Q8 and Q14), take a look at these posts: 1, 2, 3, and 4.

“Alien Embryo” has just now put forward a new transcription (and translation) of the ‘Michitonese’ on page f116v of the Voynich Manuscript. Without any further ado, it is:-

Pot leber u mon poti fer
Mihi con dabas tetar tere tum altos portas
Sic mar, sic mar vic alta maria
Valde ub vento mi (g?) almi (ho?) .

Bring the cup, (pot, cauldron) that it may be drunk on the mountain
To give me the right to rejoice at the gates of the high
It (the mountain?) marks, it marks the victory by the high seas,
Very much my blessing under strong winds.

Long-suffering Cipher Mysteries regulars will no doubt recall Esther Molen’s f116v transcription and translation, along with Edith Sherwood’s crinkly Italian take on the top line (“povere leter rimon mist(e) ispero”, “Plain letter reassemble mixed inspire”).

There’s also Marcin Ciura’s reversal of michiton oladabas to reveal the Czech-like “sa badalo No Tichim” (‘was studied by No Tichy’). And of course, the grand-daddy of them all is William Romaine Newbold’s “michiton oladabas multos te tccr cerc portas”, de-nulled into “michi dabas multas portas”, and then translated into the broadly English-like “To me thou gavest many gates”.

I’m not going to try listing all the others or I’d be here all night (and for what, really?)

Personally, I don’t buy into (or even like very much) any of these transcriptions: I’ve written here plenty of times about how I think most of the text on f116v has apparently been overwritten by a later owner, making transcription a hazardous process, let alone translation. But still people keep on trying… =:-o

As many Cipher Mysteries regulars will know, the two reasons I focused my Voynich Manuscript research on the 15th century were (a) the Voynichese ‘4o’ sign reappears in a number of (far less sophisticated) 15th century cipher alphabets, thus pointing to a post-1400 date; while (b), as John Matthews Manly pointed out in 1931, the manuscript’s 15th century quire numbers strongly imply a pre-1500 date. (Though it was nice that the radiocarbon dating didn’t contradict this, the evidence was actually there all along. *sigh*)

All the same, numerous aspects of the codicology and palaeography of the Voynich Manuscript remain unresolved: for example, my presentation at next month’s Villa Mondragone Voynich centenary conference will revolve (at great speed) around quire numbers. Fascinatingly, a whole lot of interesting quire-number-related stuff has emerged over the last few weeks, thanks to French Voynich blogger Thomas Sauvaget.

You see, Thomas decided a while back to see whether he could dig up examples of Voynich-like features in scans of manuscripts available online, i.e. zodiac month names, gallows characters, the odd ij mark on f57v, and (of course) the quire numbers.

While trawling through St Gallen’s online manuscript collection, Thomas found something I’d missed when looking there (shame on me, but probably because I was looking for quire numbers at the bottom of pages) – a ‘pm9’ [primus] in the top margin of f176r of Cod[ex] Sang[allensis] 839 that is pretty similar to the ‘pm9’ used to number the Voynich Manuscript’s first quire. (The jpeg at the top shows the two overlaid).

Now… Cod Sang 839 [a copy of Nicolas Oresme’s five books of commentary on Aristotle’s Physics] was a copy made in 1459 by the same (according to Scherrer’s 1875 catalogue) scribe who wrote Cod Sang 840 in 1459 and Cod Sang 841 in 1462. Yet the ‘pm9’ appears not in the text, nor even in the scribe’s colophon, but in a table of contents added later, in a different hand.

Thomas concludes (from the back-to-front shape of the ‘4’ digit) that this table-of-contents scribe was not the same person who added the quire numbers to the Voynich: and that’s perfectly reasonable. Yet at the same time, it remains a pretty strong match, which I think in and of itself broadly points to the conclusion Thomas ultimately comes to (which I’ll get to further below).

Incidentally, Cod Sang 841 has an ownership note added by a Johannes [Hans] Lippis:

Johanes Lippis possessor h. libri bin uff Gais gsin und do hand mir die Heren das buch geben und hand es mir geschenkt.”

It was far from clear to me exactly what this was saying, so I passed it over to the ever-careful Philip Neal, who very kindly and lucidly translated it as follows:-

“I, Johannes Lippis, owner of this book, was at Gais, and there the lords gave me the book and made a present of it to me.”

This seems to be consistent with the Johannes Lippis mentioned as a lawyer in a 1441 charter, who was perhaps representing the St Gallen abbey’s local interest in the town of Gais. Might it have been some kind of sweetener or (dare I say it) bribe? Possibly! Even so, it also seems unlikely to me that Lippis was given all three as a gift, while his clunky text seems rather at odds with the person patiently trawling through Oresme’s commentary to produce an index.

I strongly suspect that all three manuscripts ended up at St Gall simply because they were from a single local hand, and that a fairly senior librarian in St Gall probably added the table of contents. However, you’ll have to make your own mind up in the absence of any better evidence – I emailed St Gallen’s manuscript cataloguer to ask about this, but didn’t get a definitive enough reply either way to confirm or deny this.

Anyway, Thomas carried on searching and found yet more pm9 marginalia in a 1467 music book by Hugo Spechtshart in Esslingen in Southern Germany, this time along with Voynich-like abbreviations for secundus, tertius and quartus… though once again, not as quire numbers.

Putting all the pieces together, Thomas thinks that they all point to a ‘Lake Constance hypothesis’: that the quire numbers were examples of an abbreviatory style that flourished 1450-1500 on the various edges of Lake Constance, where we now see Southern Germany, Switzerland (St Gallen isn’t far away at all), Austria, and even Liechtenstein (pretty much).

Al perfectly reasonable. Of course, rewind the clock 550 years and Switzerland was actually the Confederacy, with the conflict with the Habsburgs in the Swabian War (1499) yet to come. I’m not entirely certain, but it seems that the angsty neighbours around Lake Constance circa 1460 were:-
* the Prince-Bishopric of Constance to the North
* Thurgau to the West
* the Prince-Abbacy of St Gall to the South West
* the Federation of Three Leagues (i.e. the League of the Ten Jurisdictions, the League of God’s House, and the Grey League) to the South-East

[All of which sounds to me more like the turbulent political setting for an Iain M. Banks ‘Culture’ space opera novel, but there you go.]

Heaven only knows where all the archives for these ended up! Good luck to Thomas trying to find them! Myself, I’m following another (far simpler) research lead entirely… but more on that later! 😉

Here’s what I think the Voynich Wikipedia page ought to look like. Enjoy! 🙂

* * * * * * *

History of a Mystery

Once upon a time (in 1912) in a crumbling Jesuit college near Rome, an antiquarian bookseller called Wilfrid Voynich bought a mysterious enciphered handwritten book. Despite its length (240 pages) it was an ugly, badly-painted little thing, for sure: but its strange text and drawings caught his imagination — and that was that.

Having quickly convinced himself that it could only have been written by one particular smart-arse medieval monk by the name of Roger Bacon, Voynich then spent the rest of his life trying to persuade gullible and/or overspeculative academics to ‘prove’ that his hunch was right. All of which amounted to a waste of twenty years, because it hadn’t even slightly been written by Bacon. D’oh!

Oh, so you’d like to see some pictures of his ‘Voynich Manuscript’, would you? Well… go ahead, knock yourself out. First up, here’s some of its ‘Voynichese’ script, which people only tend to recognize if they had stopped taking their meds a few days previously:

A nice clear example of Voynichese

Secondly, here’s one of the Voynich Manuscript’s many herbal drawings, almost all of which resemble mad scientist random hybrids of bits of other plants:-

Finally, here’s a close-up of one of its bizarre naked ladies (researchers call them ‘nymphs’, obviously trying not to mix business and pleasure), in this case apparently connected up to some odd-looking plumbing / tubing. Yup, the right word is indeed ‘bizarre’:

voynich f77v central nymph Q13 and Voynich balneology sources...?

Did any of that help at all? No, probably not. So perhaps you can explain it now? No, I didn’t think so. Don’t worry, none of us can either. *sigh*

Back to the History Bit

Anyhow, tucked inside the manuscript was a letter dated 1665 from Johannes Marcus Marci in Prague, and addressed to the well-known delusional Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. Marci’s letter said that he was giving the manuscript to Kircher both because of their friendship and because of Kircher’s reputation for being able to break any cipher. The manuscript seems then to have entered the Jesuit archives, which is presumably why the Jesuit college near Rome had it to sell to Wilfrid Voynich several centuries later, just as in all the best mystery novels.

But hold on a minute… might Wilfrid Voynich have forged his manuscript? Actually, a few years back researchers diligently dug up several other 17th century letters to Kircher almost certainly referring to the same thing, all of which makes the Voynich Manuscript at least 200 years older than Wilfrid Voynich. So no, he couldn’t have forged it, not without using Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. (Or possibly the time machine depicted in Quire 13. Unless that’s impossible.)

Incidentally, one of those other letters was from an obscure Prague alchemist called Georg Baresch, who seems to have wasted twenty or so years of his life pondering this curious object before giving it to Marci. So it would seem that twenty lost years is the de facto standard duration for Voynich research. Depressing, eh?

So, Where Did Baresch Get It From?

Well… Marci had heard it said that the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II had bought the manuscript for the ultra-tidy sum of 600 gold ducats, probably enough to buy a small castle. Similarly, Wilfrid Voynich discovered an erased signature for Sinapius (i.e. Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, Rudolf II’s Imperial Distiller) on its front page. You can usefully assemble all these boring fragments of half-knowledge into a hugely unconvincing chain of ownership going all the way back to 1600-1610 or so, that would look something not entirely unlike this:-

Which is a bit of a shame, because in 2009 the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum was radiocarbon dated to 1404-1438 with 95% confidence. Hence it still has a gap of roughly 150 years on its reconstructed CV that we can’t account for at all – you know, the kind of hole that leads to those awkward pauses at job interviews, right before they shake your hand and say “We’ll let you know…

Hence, The Real Question Is…

Fast-forward to 2012, and Wilfrid Voynich’s manuscript has ended up in New Haven at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yet many Voynichologists seemed to have learnt little from all that has gone before, in that – just as with Wilfrid himself – they continue to waste decades of their life trying to prove that it is an [insert-theory-here] written by [insert-historical-figure-here].

If repeatedly pressed, such theorists tend to claim that:
* the ‘quest’ is everything;
* it is better to travel than to arrive; and even
* cracking the Voynich might somehow spoil its perfect inscrutability.
All of which, of course, makes no real sense to anyone but a Zen Master: but if their earnest wish is to remain armchair mountaineers with slippers for crampons, then so be it.

Yet ultimately, if you strip back the inevitable vanity and posturing, the only genuine question most people have at this point is:

How can I crack the Voynich Manuscript and become an eternal intellectual hero?

The answer is: unless you’re demonstrably a polymathic Intellectual History Renaissance Man or Woman with high-tensile steel cable for nerves, a supercomputer cluster the size of Peru for a brain, and who just happens to have read every book ever written on medieval/Renaissance history and examined every scratchy document in every archive, your chances are basically nil. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Honestly, it’s a blatant exaggeration but near enough to the truth true: so please try to get over it, OK?

Look, people have been analyzing the Voynich with computers since World War Two and still can’t reliably interpret a single letter – not a vowel, consonant, digit, punctuation mark, nothing. [A possible hyphen is about as good as it gets, honestly.] Nobody’s even sure if the spaces between words are genuinely spaces, if Voynichese ‘words’ are indeed actual words. *sigh*

Cryptologically, we can’t even properly tell what kind of an enciphering system was used – and if you can’t get that far, it should be no great surprise that applying massive computing power will yield no significant benefit. Basically, you can’t force your way into a castle with a battering ram if you don’t even know where its walls are. For the global community of clever-clogs codebreakers, can you even conceive of how embarrassing a failure this is, hmmm?

So, How Do We Crack It, Then?

If we do end up breaking the Voynich’s cipher, it looks unlikely that it will have been thanks to the superhuman efforts of a single Champollion-like person. Rather, it will most likely have come about from a succession of small things that get uncovered that all somehow cumulatively add up into some much bigger things. You could try to crack it yourself but… really, is there much sense in trying to climb Everest if everyone in the army of mountaineers that went before you has failed to work out even where base camp should go? It’s not hugely clear that even half of them even were looking at the right mountain.

All the same, there are dozens of open questions ranging across a wide set of fields (e.g. codicology, palaeography, statistical analysis, cryptanalysis, etc), each of which might help to move our collective understanding of the Voynich Manuscript forward if we could only answer them. For example…
* Can we find a handwriting match for the marginalia? [More details here & here]
* Can we find a reliable way of reading the wonky marginalia (particularly on f116v, the endmost page)? [More details here]
* Can we find another document using the same unusual quire numbering scheme (‘abbreviated longhand Roman ordinals’)? [More details here].
* Precisely how do state machine models of the Voynich’s two ‘Currier language’s differ? Moreover, why do they differ? [More details here]
* etc

The basic idea here is that if you can’t do big at all, do us all a favour and try to do small well instead. But nobody’s listening: and so it all goes on, year after year. What a waste of time. 🙁

A Warning From History

Finally: I completely understand that you’re a busy person with lots on your mind, so the chances are you’ll forget almost all of the above within a matter of minutes. Possibly even seconds. And that’s OK. But if you can only spare sufficient mental capacity to remember a seven-word soundbite from this whole dismal summary, perhaps they ought to be:

Underestimate the Voynich Manuscript at your peril!

Now ain’t that the truth!?

I’m just starting to put together my talk for the upcoming Voynich centenary conference. The session is provisionally titled “Between Vellum and Prague”, with a summary along the lines of…

“The Voynich Manuscript first pinged on the cultural radar in Prague circa 1600, yet its vellum has recently been radiocarbon dated to the first half of the 15th century. So… what happened inbetween? Nick Pelling has long been intrigued by this wide-open question, and in this session presents a summary of a wide range of codicological evidence that holds the promise of answering it.”

In many important ways, I don’t care much for Voynich theories (not even my own): the important thing for me has long been developing an evidence base that we can use to eliminate bad theories (long-time Cipher Mysteries readers will no doubt recall various times I’ve ranted about Popperian ‘falsification’, Karl Popper’s notion that theories are there to be knocked down, not puffed up).

But what would such usable ‘evidence’ look like? Mainstream history as currently practised is predominantly based on close reading of original documents within the context of large bodies of parallel evidence – even Art History falls within this methodology, as it places tiny observed details within an overall historical canon of evolving technique and materials.

The Beinecke’s splendid scans have enabled us to closely read the original document’s surface, so in some ways we’re halfway there: but as for “the large bodies of parallel evidence” part of the equation, we have at the same time too many and too few such bodies to choose from – by which I mean too many possible, too few probable.

As a result, the Voynich Manuscript remains an uncomfortable topic for historians, because even after a century of study it resolutely resists being pigeonholed within any cladistic strand or tradition. Basically, it is this core uncertainty about its internal nature and external tradition that dissuades many academics from wading too deeply into the Voynichian swamp… and frankly, I don’t blame them, because you’d need a wetsuit, not wellies.

It therefore seems much more prudent to me to go hunting for evidence than for yet more speculative theories. However, you need to have a really clear research question in mind when you do it, or it is likely that your efforts will be for nothing. For me, the best questions by a mile all relate to the Voynich Manuscript’s life before its apparent appearance at Rudolf’s Imperial Court in Prague: and so the class of evidence to look for is that which helps to bring out this otherwise invisible history.

As a result, I’m not hugely worried about things such as letters hidden in Voynich plants except insofar as they suggest links between the Voynichese hand and the marginalia hand. Similarly, the parallel hatching used in some of the drawings is not in itself important except for the way that it apparently directly conflicts with the radiocarbon dating (and indeed it would seem we have various 15th century hands in play, as John Matthews Manly noted over 80 years ago, which would seem to stop any kind of 16th century theory dead in its tracks).

The Voynich’s unusual quire numbers are puzzling too, and perfectly consonant with a mid-to-late 15th century dating. Yet frustratingly nobody has yet discovered a single example of another document with the same abbreviated longhand Latin ordinal numbering scheme: finding even one document using that same numbering style would surely open up a fascinating door into the manuscript’s early past.

But personally, I think there’s a high chance that the final page (f116v) marginalia will turn out to be some kind of scrappy French Secretary Hand, with “michiton oladabas” perhaps even saying nichil or even nichil obstat. The top marginalia line of f116v could also be a dedication or note to a “Simon Sint”, it’s hard to tell. These offer such tangible promise of connecting the Voynich to real people or places, yet so many speculative readings have been proposed that it’s all too easy to just ignore them.

And yet all the same, perhaps the richest vein to tap has been the raw internal codicology of the Voynich drawings themselves. If we could only find some ingenious way of connecting pages together (comparing DNA fingerprints of different bifolios, multispectral scans of inks or vellum, mapping the varying thicknesses of pages along their edges, etc), we could make a really great stab at reconstructing the original page order.

As examples, I discussed Q9 (“Quire 9”), Q13 and various out-of-order herbal pages at length in “The Curse of the Voynich”, while I’ve also discussed Q8 and Q20 here (as well as Q20’s paragraph stars), and indeed on Glen Claston’s thoughts on the nine-rosette foldout Q14 as well the ‘chicken scratch’ marginalia on its back.

But as should be apparent from the constellation of links strung through the preceding paragraphs like fairy lights, this remains an utterly fragmented research area. In each individual case, I can tell a speculative story about what I think happened to the manuscript to leave a particular set of details in the curious manner we find them arranged today, but I’m completely aware that that’s simply not good enough, even if I do try to take the totality of evidence into consideration at each point.

All the same, I continue to be of the opinion that it may not be to everyone’s tastes but studying the Voynich Manuscript’s codicology is pretty much as good as we can get – that finding historical parallels for individual drawings or indeed matching the roots of individual plants will never be enough to snip through its Gordian knot. Finding out what happened is the most pragmatic stepping stone back in time we have – so we should try harder to make what we have solid enough to step on, right?

With 2012 – the centenary of Wilfrid Voynich’s 1912 purchase of his subsequently-eponymous manuscript – inching ever closer, we will doubtless soon see a broad international wave of quick-turnaround documentary makers sniffing around its margins, snuffling for pungent historical truffles in the florilegial undergrowth of the Interweb.

If, dear reader, that thumbnail profile just happens to describe you, then here’s what you need: a brief guide on how to make a worthwhile Voynich Manuscript documentary that should continue to earn you money for years, regardless of whether its secrets somehow (and, frankly, against the run of play) get cracked in the meantime. Follow these basic rules, and I think you should do OK…

  1. The first rule of Voynich Fight Club is: evidence kicks theories. Don’t get tempted by fancy/fanciful hypotheses, just stick to the evidence – simply because it’s brilliant, confusing, paradoxical, splendidly detailed and evocative evidence. Sorry to point it out, but if you think Voynich theories are more fun than Voynich evidence, you’re probably the wrong person to be making the documentary. It’s a million-piece jigsaw, and everyone loves intricate puzzles!
  2. Don’t allow your own theories about the Voynich to guide you in any way whatsoever: they’re almost certainly wrong, and will just get in everyone’s way throughout production. And don’t trust Wikipedia to inform you (because it won’t)!
  3. The Voynich’s post-1600 history is worth no more than three minutes of anyone’s viewing experience. Don’t bother with overdressed period reconstructions of Rudolf II’s court, Sinapius, John Dee, Edward Kelley – by their time, the VMs had probably already had ten or more owners, none of whom showed any sign of their being able to read a word.
  4. Keep in mind at all times that there is no external pre-1600 evidence linking the VMs with anything, anyone or anywhere – yet radiocarbon dating indicates that the manuscript is 150+ years older. The only evidence we have to help us bridge that gap is hidden inside the manuscript itself – its pages, its inks, its design, its accidents, its execution, its forensic inner life.
  5. Hence, as early as possible, get high-calibre international experts on board to focus on the only two issues that really matter:-
    * codicology (How was the VMs constructed? What was its original state? What happened to it since?); and….
    * palaeography (What language are the marginalia written in? What do they say? What do the Voynichese letter shapes tell us? What structural similarities does Voynichese share with 15th century abbreviating Northern Italian scribal shorthands?)
  6. Once you have top-end experts on board, make friends with the Beinecke as quickly as you can. Go there; engage with the curators. Dismiss all theories (specifically don’t talk about alchemy or heresy, either would make you look speculative and foolish), while showing an appreciation of the limitations of the current evidence, and an active desire to improve academic knowledge.
  7. The viewer’s guide – the historical narrator – should be someone who can dive deep into a roiling mass of multi-faceted, heterogenous evidence and yet emerge the other side smelling of roses, all the while managing to make the (apparently contradictory) subject matter clear and accessible. An intellectual historian, in other words.
  8. Your challenge, therefore, is to produce a documentary that merges cunning forensic vision with big-brained intellectual history – essentially, “CSI: Voynich” meets Anthony Grafton. Can you do this? Really?

OK, it’s no big secret that the above basically describes the Voynich Manuscript documentary I’d really like to make. But all the same, I’d be utterly delighted if anyone else stepped up to the line (and in any language). But… will anyone ever do this? I’m not so sure… 🙁

PS:  I lied about there being ten rules – you’ll have to make up the last two yourself. 😉

Last week  (3rd February 2011) saw the US premiere of “The Book That Can’t Be Read”, the long-awaited National Geographic channel airing of the recent ORF documentary on the Voynich Manuscript. Though it prominently features the benign beardiness of everyone’s favourite Voynich expert Rene Zandbergen, for a pleasant change the star of the show is undoubtedly the manuscript itself, with the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s acquiescence to radiocarbon dating of the vellum the shining jewel in the Austrian documentary makers’ crown. If you missed it, it’s showing again shortly (10th February 2011, 4PM): it’s a fairly up-to-the-minute introduction to the VMs, so you should definitely fetch a mid-sized bag of toffee popcorn and settle down on your sofa for this one.

Interestingly, I don’t know if they significantly re-edited the programme for an American audience, but I was pleased – no: delighted, actually – to see some scans of the manuscript the film researchers had taken dotted among the set of low resolution Voynich promo photos on the NatGeo webpage (all © ORF). For example, slide #11 has the infamous erased signature on f1r (the frontmost page of the manuscript), which – with a bit of low-impact Gimp-fu – looks like this:-

Voynich Manuscript f1r, "Jacobj a Tepenece" signature, uv, enhanced

Voynich Manuscript f1r, erased signature

Having long ago slaved to produce not-quite-as-good versions of this from the RGB scans, it’s a pleasure to finally see this in its non-visible ultra-violet glory: to my eyes, it reads “Jacobj à Tepenece / Prag”, but I’ll happily defer to palaeographers working from higher resolution scans.

Slide #12 contains another UV scan, this time of my personal favourite piece of Voynich marginalia – the tiny letters at the top of f17r. Despite its ridiculously low resolution, what should be clear from the image (again, slightly Gimp-enhanced) is that the Voynich letters at the end (“oteeeol aim”, as per The Curse of the Voynich pp.24-25, 30) are an integral part of the writing, just as I claimed when I first saw them in 2006. The point being that if you accept that, then it becomes very likely that this and (by implication) the “michiton” marginalia on the end page were added not by a later owner, but by the encipherer of the VMs himself/herself. All fascinating stuff that, in my opinion, cuts deep to the heart of the VMs’ historical nature, but I’d be a little surprised if the documentary has been edited to cover it.

Voynich Manuscript, f17r marginalia, uv, enhanced

The "meilhor aller" marginalia from f17r of the Voynich Manuscript

Finally, the last photo of immediate interest to Voynich researchers is slide #13, which shows a close-up of the exposed quire bindings (i.e. with the manuscript’s cover partially removed). This kind of view offers a lot of information that you can’t normally see, because the bifolios are so firmly bound together that you can’t get at all close to the sewing holes in the spine of each quire – which is good for conservation, but bad for codicology.

Voynich Manuscript binding, close-up

View of the Voynich Manuscript's binding

Here, the features that particularly intrigue me are the faint writing on the inside cover (bottom left arrow); the non-continuous line of marks across the quire spines (mid-right arrow); and the many redundant sewing stations (needle holes from earlier bindings, indicated by short red underlines). These inexorably point to the manuscript’s complex reordering and rebinding history, i.e. where its quires and bifolios have danced a complicated quadrille over time to end up in their final order. What I don’t really understand is why codicologists don’t have entire conferences devoted to the Voynich Manuscript, because to my eyes it is surely the Everest of codicology – a complex, multi-layered artefact whose secret inner history can only practically be revealed through prolonged, collaborative, non-textual forensic analysis. And yet it’s only me who seems to have published anything substantial on it!

Anyway, set your PVRs to stun record and let me know what you think of the Naked Science documentary. Hopefully the documentary makers will now celebrate the occasion by releasing more information,data and photos on the Voynich Manuscript that they took during their research (hint: high quality versions of the above three images would be a very good start)!

…writing a letter? In what is probably the hidden-writing news story of the year, “The UK spy agency MI6 experimented with using semen as invisible ink“, under the steady hand of department head Mansfield Cumming. “Next time you’re banging out a message, 007, use a pen.”

(As James Bond himself would say, “this stuff writes itself“).

The original story is here, but you’ll probably enjoy reading the comments on Cory Doctorow’s BoingBoing post more, as they basically run through most of the spy-who-loved-me seminal puns you’re ever likely to come across.

Just so you know, this is one of the newspaper-friendly saucy tidbits culled from the just-published MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 by Keith Jeffery, who is no doubt fully aware that the pen is (indeed) mightier than the sword. 🙂

It’s time for a new Voynich research direction!

Thanks to Benedek Lang’s “Unlocked Books”, I’m starting to realise that I’ve perhaps spent too long thinking solely about codicology of the single text, when what is often as important is the ‘codicological context’ – i.e. the collection of other (but presumably conceptually related in some way) texts that were bound alongside by the owners and users of the text. Just because the Voynich Manuscript has come to us without any such informative context doesn’t automatically mean it would have been “so ronery” in its very early life too.

So… given that the Voynich Manuscript is (quite probably) a 15th century herbal / astronomical / astrological / recipe manuscript with both Occitan marginalia [the zodiac months] and possibly Occitan marginalia [f17r, f66r, f116v] in another hand, I suspect that the place to hunt for external codicological clues would surely be late medieval / early modern Occitan Provençal herbals and recipe books, for the simple reason that of all the documents we could think of, these are surely most likely to have shared one or more owners with the VMs, right?

And so I would like to thank Professoressa Maria Sofia Corradini at the University of Pisa for putting such a terrific amount of effort into collecting, editing and publishing a whole set of late medieval Occitan / Provençal herbals and recipe books back in 2004: here are the online versions of her edited texts (click on the headings below “Letteratura medico-farmaceutica” on the left to get started). The works she lists are:-

  • The Princeton Ricettario
    • Ms.: Princeton, Garrett 80, ff. 1r-9v;14r-18r; 21v-23v; 31v-36r.
  • The Auch Ricettari
    • Ms.: Auch, Archives départementales du Gers I 4066, ff. 15r-19v; ff. 71r-79v.
  • The Chantilly Ricettari
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 33r-37v; f. 53r; ff. 59v-62r; f. 71v.
  • Las vertutz de las herbas
    • Ms.: Princeton, Garrett 80, ff. 15v-21v.
    • Ms.: Auch, Archives départementales du Gers I 4066, ff. 2r-14v.
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 46r-52v.   [in verse]
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 53v-59v.  [in prose]
  • Letter from Hippocrates to Caesar
    • Ms.: Princeton, Garrett 80, ff. 9v-14r (seconda parte); ff. 23v-31v (prima parte).
    • Ms.: Auch, Archives départementales du Gers I 4066, ff. 67r-68v; 72v-73r; 77r-v;69r-71r.
  • The Thesaur de pauvres
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 1r-22r.
  • Appendix to the Thesaur de pauvres
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 26v-33r.
  • Rimedi per le febbri 
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 22v-26v.

Which is to say that while there are only three actual Occitan sources (Princeton, Auch, and Chantilly), each one comprises multiple documents, which presumably were copied from various sources (possibly overlapping, but let’s not get hung up on stemmatics here). In her preface, Prof.ssa Corradini notes the link between the medical schools around Montpellier and Toulouse and vernacular copies of texts, a local tradition to which these three books of Occitan would seem to attest.

Unfortunately, if you’re hoping at this point I’m going to include images or even some more detailed bibliographic information for these three items, you are sadly out of luck. I couldn’t find MS 330 at the Musée de Condé; the archive at Auch seems to have no online access at all; and the arcane front-end to Princeton’s legacy manuscript database quite defeated my search for MS Garrett 80. Perhaps someone else will do better in finding any of these?

Incidentally, the only secondary literature Prof.ssa Corradini mentions is a 1956 book by Clovis Brunel called “Recettes médicales alchimiques et astrologiques du XVe siècle en langue vulgaire des Pyrénées [beginning “Aysso es lo libre que fec lo mege Arcemis”]. Publiées [from the manuscript I 4066 of the Archives départementales du Gers]” according to the British Library, which has a copy (thank heavens), shelfmark

Meanwhile, according to this page of links to related researchers, 54 years later “I[laria] Zamuner (Univ. di Chieti) is cataloguing all scientific texts in medieval Occitan, a task that will bring the work of Cl[ovis] Brunel up to date“. Central to this study is the Provençal vernacular version of the Secretum Secretorum, the one mentioned by Benedek Lang  (p.61) which helped set this whole train of thought in motion for me. But apparently J. Rodríguez Guerrero is also looking at some unpublished Occitania-area alchemical manuscripts from this period, which might also be very interesting; and there’s possibly more from Professor Peter Ricketts, too.

Might there be some kind of Occitan repository for scans of these documents, as part of the RIALTO project or something? I’ll ask around, but it may take some time to determine… please let me know or leave a comment here if you happen to find out! 🙂

Many historians and palaeographers have concluded that the interleaved ‘+’ signs added to the Voynich Manuscript’s back page indicate that the containing text is some kind of spell, incantation, chant, charm, curse, pious utterance, etc. Well, it’s completely true that ‘+’ was used in all of the preceding forms to indicate that the (non-silent) reader should physically trace out the sign of the cross at the same time, so this would seem a perfectly reasonable suggestion (if perhaps a little non-specific).

Here I’m particularly interested in the (apparently heavily emended) third line of text on f116v, where I have strongly enhanced the image to make the tangled textual mess I think this has ended up in clear. Note that (as I have discussed several times elsewhere, this line of text seems to end “ahia maria“, which I think pretty much confirms that the ‘+’ shapes are indeed crosses.

So, do we have any idea what the first part of the line originally said? It is certainly striking that all four words at the start of the line seem to end with the letter ‘x’, which gives the overall impression of some kind of magical chant. But what might that chant be?

This is where I wheel in Benedek Lang’s fascinating “Unlocked Books” (2008), which focuses on medieval magical manuscripts from Central Europe (and which you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I’m currently reading). As part of his discussion (p.65) of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (Maximianus, Martinianus, Malchus, Constantinus, Dionisius, Serapion & Johannes, since you’re asking) who were walled up for two hundred years but magically awoke during the reigh of Theodosius, Lang mentions a 14th century Czech amulet with the seven sleepers’ names as well as the text “pax + nax vax“, all used as a healing magic charm against fever.

Incidentally, I should note that “hax pax max adimax” is another piece of nonsense Latin that (for example) appears in Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, and which some wobbly etymological sources give as the possible origin of the phrase “hocus pocus” (though I have to say I’d probably tend more towards the idea that it’s a corruption of [the genuine Latin] “hoc est corpus). But regardless, I don’t think “hax pax max” is what we’re looking at here.

pax nax vax“, then, is basically the right kind of phrase, with the right kind of structure, from the right kind of period. I’m not saying it’s definitely 100% right (history is rarely that simple): but even if it’s wrong, it may well turn out to be a very revealing attempt at an answer.

All in all, I’m really rather intrigued by the possibility that this line originally read (or read something remarkably close to) “six + pax + nax + vax + ahia + mar+ia +“: it’s just a shame that the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library doesn’t have finer wavelength (i.e. multispectral) scans of this contentious feature so that we could test this kind of hypothesis out. One day, though…