I thought I’d share this online article on a curious 17th century cabinet book. Though it contains no cipher, its secret contents would definitely have been a surprise:

The (almost all poisonous) substances its eleven hidden drawers contain include:
* henbane
* opium poppy
* monkshood (wolf’s bane)
* Cicuta Virosa
* Byronia Alba
* the Devil’s snare (jimsonweed)
* valerian
* February daphne (spurge laurel)
* castor oil plant (Ricinus communis)
* Autumn crocus
* belladonna (deadly nightshade)

Italian scientists claim to have solved two mysterious deaths from the Quattrocento: those of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Agnolo Ambrogini, two big-brained Florentines at Lorenzo de’ Medici’s court who suddenly passed away within only a few weeks of each other in 1494.

Though some historians had conjectured the pair might have died of syphilis, the contemporary rumours of poisoning have apparently now been supported by the high levels of arsenic, mercury and lead found (very, very post mortem) “in Pico’s tissues and nails”, the report goes on. All fascinating forensic stuff, I’m sure. (With slightly more in the Telegraph’s coverage).

But… permission to speak, please, Mr Italian Scientists? The 15th century in Italy was full of hazards, no less from your friends than from your enemies. For example, the culinary fashion was for really undercooked meat (and lots of it), which can (quite literally) be a recipe for disaster – and whenever anyone died suddenly, the jabbing finger of retribution usually pointed at anywhere but the kitchen.

For the rich (i.e. those who could afford apothecaries), another major source of death-by-(mis)fortune was the arsenic-, lead- and quicksilver- (i.e. mercury-)based medicines that were sometimes in favour. I would say that the best thing about the medieval cure “theriac” was that its large number (often 70+) of ingredients usually meant that none of them came in a strong enough dose to kill you.

Put bluntly, I would be thoroughly unsurprised if other bones from similar Medici courtiers happened to exhibit precisely the same tox profile: but without actually killing them. And there are many reports of poisoning plots that failed – different groups used different poisons (the Borgias favoured inorganic ones, as I recall), often ineffectively. Did the two men’s similar deaths mean they shared the same enemy, or just the same apothecary and cook?

Merely pointing to the arsenic etc isn’t enough to tell the whole story: and this is why I sometimes despair at the sight of scientists’ trying to do history. Different types of evidence (and inquiry) yield different and complementary types of story, and it is usually only by linking all these together that the whole narrative emerges. These days, history is multimedia, or it is nothing.

Here, “historical documents that have only recently come to light” (suggesting that Piero de’ Medici was angered by Pico’s connection with mad preacher Savonarola) ought to give the inevitable documentary a spin in the right direction. However, only in Hollywood’s cheesier fringes might someone think that writing “kiiiiiill hiiiim” in a letter would be a good idea. Will the archives really have enough to hold it all together?

All the same, if someone could point to some coded letters written in 1493-1494 by Pico della Mirandola’s enemies, well, then we might just be in business… 😉

Here’s a quicky news story from the Mysterytopia mystery news-clipping website.

Medieval bones from six different Danish cemeteries reveal that monks who
wrote Biblical texts and other religious materials may have been exposed to
toxic mercury, which was used to formulate just one of their ink colors:

So, if you do happen to get a chance to look at the VMs at the Beinecke, remember not to lick your fingers after handling pages with red paint on…

You may possibly remember a similar monks-dying-with-black-tongues-and-a-black-finger schtick from Umberto Eco’s “Name of the Rose”. Doubtless our erudite semiotics professor friend lifted the idea from a nameless footnote somewhere in his personal Borgesian library: but all the same, it’s nice to read about it for real, right?

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 c::::.rs:.). 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!