For me, Voynich research is one of those things that grind slowly onwards for long periods of time, punctuated by occasional testosteronal fist-clenching-in-the-air moments of elation, a bit like a prisoner being unexpectedly set free. OK, I know it’s a bit cliched: but I do it anyway.

For “The Curse of the Voynich“, I forensically examined the manuscript itself, travelled to all the places, critically read all the secondary sources, and from all that reconstructed the story as best I could. In short, I’d done an OK job: but though readers told me they liked it, it hadn’t set the world on fire. Though it ticked all the right boxes, it was obvious I had to go away and try harder. But what could I do better?

At first, I bought a pile of books on the history of cryptography, such as David Kahn’s “The Codebreakers”: all fascinating, but the question I’m trying to answer – “at the Quattrocento birth of mathematical cryptography, what kind of cryptography died?” – only features marginally (if at all) in the generally rather positivistic accounts presented there.

And then I realised what I had been missing. Sure, I had read plenty on Quattrocento individuals such as Filarete, Alberti, Brunelleschi, Taccola: but there was one gigantic motherlode of information which most historians seem to pay lip service to (rather than have to set aside several months to read): Lynn Thorndike’s epic multi-volume “History of Magic and Experimental Science”.

I therefore bought volumes III and IV (for the 14th and 15th centuries) and have now reached halfway through the latter. What continually amazes me is the amount of ground Thorndike covered that has apparently not been touched by anyone since: though there is a large literature tree cascading off it, it is very deep in places and non-existent in others.

From what I have read, I am now quite sure that virtually all of the Voynich Manuscript’s roots will turn out to be directly traceable from the late 14th and early 15th century: which means that we might in time be able to reconstruct or predict plaintexts for some sections. But these are still very early days in this ultra-long-term research programme. *sigh*

However, the good news is that I also bought a copy of “Science and Thought in the Fifteenth Century” by Lynn Thorndike: and one obscure page from that gave me precisely the clenching-both-fists-in-the-air-YESSSSS-moment I mentioned at the start. The details are too convoluted to go through here, but trust me, it’s a peach.

At an upcoming skeptical conference in Darmstadt from 1-3 May 2008 (with a loosely Creationist / Intelligent Design / paranormal theme), the “scientist [and] author” Klaus Schmeh will be giving a talk on the Voynich Manuscript. There’s a German blog entry here, in which Schmeh sets out his stall: which is that, basically, the VMs is (just as Gordon Rugg & Andreas Schinner have claimed) a 16th century hoax.

This kind of superficial category error sets my teeth on edge every time I encounter it: such people seem to think that a “hoax” explanation must somehow also be the most “skeptical”. Actually, if they would bother to look at the object (rather than at the EVA transcriptions), they would find that the VMs has 15th century quire numbers, and a complex codicological history. Sixteenth century hoax theories requires that all those many layers of evidence be part of the hoax too: of course this is a “possibility”, but multiplying the various unlikelinesses together, you end up with a dwindlingly small final probability.

Instead, a properly skeptical reading would say: “the presence of 15th century hand-writing in the quire numbers is a strong indication that the manuscript was made no later than 1500, while the presence of various art history features in the drawings points to an earliest date of around 1440. Explanations significantly outside this date range would require strong evidence to support them, which has not yet been found or demonstrated. And that’s about as far as we can reasonably go at the moment.”

What I’m getting at is that the hoax hypothesis displays the wrong kind of incredulity to be genuinely skeptical: it portrays the evidence itself as incredible, rather than “typical” Voynichian hypotheses (Cathar, Alien End-Times, Old Ukrainian, Baconian telescopy and microscopy, Leonardo etc) themselves as incredible. The curious Voynich solution mentioned in one of the comments to the German web-page on Schmeh seems to fall into this general category, sadly.

Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about the “Hero’s Journey”, his condensation of mythology into the single ur-story (often referred to as the “monomyth“)beneath it all. In recent decades, Campbell’s work was popularized by Chris Vogler in his book “The Writer’s Journey”, that distilled the original 17 stages to a 12-stage / 3-act writing template. All of which makes the recent Hollywood writer’s strike seem to me potentially anachronistic: in 10 years time, the [Auto-Plot] button will probably have put them all out of a job anyway.

Incidentally, if you’re familiar with the “Patterns” literature (where recurring patterns of behaviour are given names in order that people can recognize them and manage their causes, rather than simply fire-fighting their consequences), you should be very comfortable with the monomyth: it’s basically a pattern template for mythological behaviours.

The first of Campbell’s stages is the “Call To Adventure“: someone (a Herald) or something (a Macguffin, say) challenges the Hero (and, behind the scenes, often the Anti-Hero too) to take temporary leave of his Ordinary World (DullWorld) to enter the Special World of the Macguffin (DangerWorld). Stage Two is where the Hero says: errrm, thanks… but no thanks, I’m actually quite happy here sweeping the floors [A.K.A. “Refusal of the Call“], while Stage Three is where the unseen writing Gods swoosh the Hero up like the miserable piece of snot he is and propel him onwards to his adventure in DangerWorld, whether he likes it or not [A.K.A. “Supernatural Aid“]. Because, let’s face it, only a nutter would place themselves in danger for no reason.

In the case of the Voynich Manuscript, most people are happy to enjoy the frisson of danger that comes with the Refusal of the Call: a cipher manuscript is all too obviously a Macguffin, a siren call to a mad textual adventure that you simply wouldn’t wish on anyone (let alone yourself). Anyone (such as myself) who has spent any significant time in the VMs’ World Of Research Agony will readily verify that this is basically the case.

But I find it fascinating that the founding mythology of the 19th century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was built around claimed cipher manuscripts. These had been owned by masonic scholar Kenneth Mackenzie, then found in a cupboard by Rev. A.F.A. Woodford in 1885, and then deciphered by William Wynn Westcott – the plaintext was in English, but had apparently been encrypted using a 15th century Trithemian-style cipher. Westcott then supposedly wrote to someone called Fraulein Anna Sprengel (whose contact details had helpfully been enciphered, though I can see no sign of them in the 56 released folios), who made him and his two collaborators “Exempt Adepts”: and gave them a charter to work the five initiatory grades described in the cipher manuscripts.

Are the cipher manuscripts in any way genuine? Though the paper used for the 60 folios of the cipher was watermarked 1809, the association it mentions between the Tarot trumps and the Tree of Life was first proposed by Eliphas Levi only in 1855. And, for me, the simple act of using 45-year-old paper (never mind the constantly changing story surrounding the object, and the continued inability to find Anna Sprengel) makes me suspect that deception (or, at the very least, some kind of misleading myth-making) was intended right from the start.

Doubtless many of the hundreds of initiates who felt compelled by the unseen Gods to accept this Call to Adventure heartily enjoyed their foray into the Golden Dawn’s DangerWorld. But regardless, the Cipher Manuscript at the heart of the constructed myth seems to have been nothing more than a Macguffin: Refusal of the Call is often exactly the right place to stop.

Once upon a time, history was a really hard subject to enjoy: a dreary rollcall of [macho/loser] kings and [powerful/scheming] queens, endlessly (a) conspiring against other, (b) fighting expensive wars where both sides tended to lose, and/or (c) endlessly frittering extorted tax money on self-glorifying monuments masquerading as high culture.

Then along came a new generation of “social historians”, who despised the superficial cheesiness of relying on historical records left by the victors, and wanted instead to read “history from below“. To do this, they sought out “authentic” (i.e. non-propagandized) documents to try to give a voice to ordinary people through the centuries and so reconstruct histories of the mundane, the plebeian – the salt rather than the spice.

Of course, each of these two kinds of history is no more or less a lie than the other. For all the self-aggrandizement and posturing implicit in ‘Big Man’ history, the truth of any matter will normally find a way of squeezing through the cracks in the text, particularly with the big-brain close readings of the modern linguistic turn to help it on its way. And even supposedly non-propagandistic items such as wills, inventories and account books are subject to understatement in the age-old “sport” of tax evasion. And so attempts to reduce history to a totalising big picture (whether from above or from below) simply don’t work: historians cannot avoid having to “sweat the small stuff“, because the answer all too often lies in simply getting the details right.

It is in the tension between these two extrema that I look at Evelyn Welch’s “Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy 1400-1600” (2005, Yale University Press). When I was researching my own book on Filarete, her “Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan” (1995, also Yale University Press) was permanently by my elbow, always at the ready to prevent me becoming entrapped by the sticky bubble of historical propaganda inflated around the Sforza court by Cicco Simonetta (and all too readily accepted as fact by older historians): so I had high hopes for her “Shopping”.

On the one hand, Welch’s book is a slab of social history par excellence, teasing out numerous otherwise marginal strands of ordinary life in the early Renaissance – street-sellers, auctions, lotteries, indulgences, fairs, shoes, shopping hours, pawnshops, feast days, credit, charlatans, and so forth. Yet on the other, Chapter Nine (“Shopping with Isabella d’Este”) is from the diametric opposite end of the social scale, an account of the elitist shopping habits of someone who would have been aghast to find out she had been born 350 years too soon for haute couture. After 240 textured pages of closely observed text riffing on various social historical shopping themes (richly illustrated with wonderful images of the ordinary), I felt somehow betrayed by the abrupt switch: a (quite literally) materialist snob like Isabella d’Este had no right to be there.

As is typical with horizontal historical studies, if you stick with them long enough you’ll find a prize to return home with: in my (Voynichological) case, pp.151-158 contained splendid descriptions and images of apothecaries’ shops, many including the kind of albarelli I put so much time into researching six years ago. A very pleasant surprise!

The one thing I found irritating about the text itself was the jarring style used for the incipits and desinits in each chapter. Rather than using the elegant yet spare historical prose of the chapter bodies themselves, these chatter with the abstracted, vacuous tokens of contemporary sociology-speak: space, surveillance, visibility, environment, transience, consumption, embedded, relations, networks, production. It is as if these were written by another hand, perhaps one attempting to weave together the threads of a decade’s-worth of individual papers into a tangibly coherent theoretical tapestry. If so, I think it was a failed experiment: social history is an activity based not around synthesizing the kind of vaguely structural frameworks beloved by sociologists, but around reconstructing the texture of ordinary lives. Essentially, the rich tapestry was already fully present, so there was no need to embellish the edges as well. Oh well!

I recently posted about the image of Voynich Manuscript page f56r on the Wikipedia page for the plant Sundew, and idly wondered where this new identification had come from.

Well… the answer turns out to be page 9 of the, errrm, snappily-titled 2007 book “The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants: A Comprehensive Guide to their Biology and Cultivation” (Timber Press) by Wilhelm Barthlott, Stefan Porembski, Rudiger Seine and Inge Theisen. Pretty much as I guessed, it was the plant’s set of (apparently thigmotropic) tentacles that convinced them of the match, which is fair enough.

This is consistent with the conclusions I drew in my book, which would indeed predict that (as a Herbal A page) the plant depicted probably is a plant (as opposed to something completely different disguised as a plant). You can also see where the heavy blue paint on the page has been contact transferred across to the facing page f55v (and in the opposite direction too): which is interesting, because f55v is a Herbal B page, and so the two pages were probably bound out of order. And so whereas the blue paint would very probably have been added after being misbound, the green paint might well be original (but it’s hard to be sure).

Incidentally, it was the oddly geometrical layout of the sundew-like tentacles on f56r that reminded Stan Tenen of the “1/r” spiral (the inverse or hyperbolic spiral), apparently a useful way of visualising the kind of whole-number fractions used by Ancient Egyptians for their maths. As a yet-further aside, this kind of inverse sequence reminds me of Keely‘s amazing claims, which form a part of Andrea Peters‘ book “The Voynich Solution” which I briefly mentioned here. All grist for the Voynichological mill!

Here’s another (and actually quite good) example of the Voynich meme eking its elliptical way into the collective cultural consciousness: courtesy of MySpace, a Californian duo in Hollister have put out a couple of tracks inspired by (and under the name of) the Voynich Manuscript. I’m actually a musician/composer myself, so I thought I’d review them here for you, in case you’re deaf or allergic to MP3s etc.

Their first track “Painted Lines of Perception” is a piece of electronica lightly daubed over a recording of ambient wind, with occasional urban-themed half-samples for colour. Voynichologically, I think the contrast between the wind (drawing?) and the music (paint?) does manage to evoke the kind of mismatched overpainting you get in the Herbal section, which came as a very pleasant surprise to me. It occasionally drifts into early 90s territory (slightly metally string pads), but it generally does its thing very nicely.

Having said that, their second track “Zodiacal Transmission” (a broadly similar ambient affair) doesn’t quite work as well. My guess is that the pinging synth motif in the middle section is supposed to evoke the stars in the Astro section, but I’m having to work fairly hard to get this registering on my Voynichometer. The guys have worked hard on the mix, and I really like the stereo imaging they achieved: but it’s not really as good as their “Painted Lines”.

Good luck to them!

The Saturday Guardian “Review” section contained a fascinating summary of “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; or, the Murder at Road Hill House” (2008, Bloomsbury) by its author Kate Summerscale. In it, she argues that the gruesome events at a country house in Road Hill in Wiltshire (and the police response to them) formed the template for English detective novels, such as in Wilkie Collins’ well-known novel “The Moonstone” (1868).

The London detective sent to Road Hill, Inspector Jonathan Whicher, quickly “developed an ingenious solution to the mystery”: however, when his theory became publicly known, he was “reviled in the press and the House of Commons”, causing him to have a nervous breakdown and to retire from the force. Yet when, five years later, the murderer confessed, the grisly details were essentially as the detective had thought. All too late for poor Whicher, though.

What particularly caught my (Voynichological) eye in Summerscale’s article was the Road Hill case’s echo in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s (1862) novel “Lady Audley’s Secret“. Braddon’s “tormented amateur detective Robert Audley” fearfully wonders who is the real madman – the woman he suspects of murder, or Audley himself caught in some kind of “obsessive delusion”:-

“What if I am wrong after all? What if this chain of evidence which I have constructed link by link is constructed out of my own folly? What if this edifice of horror and suspicion is a mere collection of crotchets – the nervous fancies of a hypochondriacal bachelor? Oh, my God, if it should be in myself all this time that the misery lies.”

All of which I think near-perfectly expresses the self-reflective terror that is (or at least should be) ever-present in the Voynichologist: reconstructive imagination perched on a precipice.

Before “The Moonstone”, the American history of the detective story goes back to Edgar Allan Poe’s (1841) “The Murders in the rue Morgue“, a locked room mystery with a surprising twist: but there is something about the English country house – its self-enclosed world of servants, class, envy, superficiality, insularity, etc – that lends itself to novel-length fiction.

Yet this is a false kind of knowledge, as the real Road Hill case demonstrates (Kate Summerscale reveals that Whicher believed two people were complicit in the murder, though only one confessed). In the context of constructing a 250-page book with neat closure, it is attractive: but the real world rarely fits into neatly filed boxes, carefully abstracted case-studies like the ones Harvard Business School professors famously used to construct in the 1960s and 1970s.

To me, this whole Victorian quest for smoking guns – for Holmesian certainty – is a kind of adolescent fantasy thinking, a pipedream of pure causality. In the real world, all we can actually do is sign up for the chase and give it our best shot: perhaps we will reach a satisfactory resolution in our attempts, perhaps we will not. But we must continue to try, all the same.

Voynich News just raced past the 2000 visitor mark (not counting mails sent to email/blog subscribers), which is nice: time to take stock and aim for a million visitors now, surely?

Over the last few days, I’ve been trying to do too many things at once, particularly with the arrival of a truly fabulous book from the American Philosophical Society (Vincent Ilardi’s “Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes”), which has somehow even been able to displace Thorndike Volume IV from the top of my reading list. I’ve also been writing an article, writing up more of the Treadwell’s Magic Circles evening, reviewing both Evelyn Welch’s “Shopping in the Renaissance” and an incredible web-based “booklet” that has to be seen to be believed… but I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ll see soon enough!

Someone with more confidence than I have in Voynichian botanical identification has put an image of f56r on the Wikipedia page for Sundew. Presumably the key feature match was the plant’s alien-style sticky tentacles, that bend forward when they’re touched by prey to entrap it (yes, it’s a carnivorous plant), a mechanism you’ll be delighted to know goes by the name of thigmotropism.

Hmmm… what if there are other carnivorous plants depicted in the VMs? All of a sudden, might our manuscript have acquired a “Little Shop of Horrors” cachet? Altogether now: “Feed me, Seymour… feed me now!

Here’s a claimed solution to the Beale Papers (but press Cancel on the login popup, and if browsing there under Windows, I wouldn’t advise installing the ActiveX control that pops up) which I didn’t know about until very recently. I thought I’d mention it here because, as any fule kno, the Beale Papers are one of the few encrypted historical mysteries to parallel the Voynich Manuscript to any significant degree.

To be precise, the Beale Papers comprise not one long ciphertext (putting the VMs’ thorny Currier A-B language continuum issue to one side) but three short codetexts, all allegedly dating from 1819-1821: part 2 was publicly announced in 1885 already solved (for its codebook, the encoder used a slightly mangled/miscopied version of the Declaration of Independence)… but the directions to the buried treasure were in the undecoded part 1, while the shorter (and also undecoded) part 3 listed the people involved. Of course, only someone who has broken the two remaining codes would know if all of this is true or not. 🙂

So, it’s basically a kind of Wild West bandit take on a pirate treasure map (which to me sounds like an Alias Smith and Jones script, oh well) but made obscure with some kind of dictionary code: all of which is reassuringly familiar if you’ve just read PopCo. Confusingly, some people argue that the Beale Papers are a fake (possibly by the promoter of the 1885 pamphlet, or even by Edgar Allen Poe, etc), claiming justification from statistical aspects of the cryptography and/or on claimed anachronisms in the language, etc: but a definitive answer either way has yet to be found.

For what it’s worth… my opinion is that, as with the VMs, cries of hoax are more Chicken Licken than anything approaching an ironic postmodernist reading. Really, it does look and feel basically how a home-cooked Victorian code-text ought to, with an emphasis towards lowish numbers (up to 350) plus a sprinkling of higher numbers (possibly for rare or awkward letters): Jim Gillogly’s observation (in October 1980 Cryptologia) of an alphabet-like pattern in part 1 (if you apply part 2’s codebook) seems to me more like a clue than a reason to reject the whole object as a hoax. As an aside, a few years ago I heard (off-Net) whispers of one particular cryptographic solution that had yet to be made public: but Louis Kruh in Cryptologia reported several such plausible-looking solutions as far back as 1982, so what can you say?

However, all of this is an entirely different claim to the “Beale Solved” code solution linked above, which was (re)constructed by Beale treasure hunter Daniel Cole (who died in 2001). Even though the dig that was carried out as a result of Cole’s decryption revealed an empty chamber (the website claims), the cryptographic details (ie, of how the codetext links with the plaintext) have yet to be released… which is a tad fishy.

A quick check of the first page of Cole’s version of part 3 reveals that he didn’t read it as a simple cipher or codebook, because repeated code-numbers only rarely get decoded as the same letter (for example, the five instances of ’96’ get decoded as “s / e / r / h / n”). Yet this seems somewhat odd: if there was some kind of strange offsetting going on, the distribution of code-numbers would not need to so closely resemble the kind of distribution you see in code book ciphers.

But once you confess to having taken a single step down the whole “it’s actually a strange cipher pretending to be a codebook code” route, nobody will believe a word you say, right?