First sight (for me at least) of the Codice Olindo’s cryptography: admittedly the quality is abysmal, but it’s better than no picture at all. I found it on the Corriere di Como’s website. Pieces of ciphertext are interspersed with cleartext: the third (clear) line appears to read “Rosa non posso e…” (Rosa is the wife of Olindo Romano, the main accused in the case).
For more background on the trial, here’s an article from The Scotsman (30th January 2008), and a Agenzia Giornalistica Italia page from yesterday (11th February 2008).
Massacring your noisy neighbours seems a little bit extreme to me: I think I’d prefer to send them unsettling notes, as in this wonderful true story from New York (called The Astoria Notes, from David Friedman’s Ironic Sans blog), with its surreal follow-up. Enjoy!

Here’s a book I’m really looking forward to reading: “The Montefeltro Conspiracy“, by Marcello Simonetta (due for hardcover release 3rd June 2008, 304 pages). Readers in Italy will get to see it earlier: Rizzoli will be publishing the Italian version first, on 26th April 2008… the 530th anniversary of the well-known Pazzi conspiracy.

And here is why I’m so excited…

Several years ago, I uncovered an apparent cryptographic link between the ‘4o’ letter pair in the Voynich Manuscript and a number of ciphers apparently constructed by Francesco Sforza’s cipher minions, both before and after his takeover of Milan. Sforza’s long-time chancellor was Cicco Simonetta: and so, I reasoned, if there was anything out there to be found, it would be sensible to start with him. However, as normal with the history of cryptography, most papers and articles on Cicco dated from the 19th century, when the subject was last in vogue. *sigh*

After a lot of trawling, the best recent book I found was “Rinascimento Segreto” (2004) by the historian Marcello Simonetta (FrancoAngeli Storia, Milan). Even though Marcello’s eruditely academic Italian was many levels beyond my lowly grasp of the language, I persisted: and my efforts were rewarded – the book’s chapters III.1 and IV.1 had everything I hoped for on Cicco.

Initially, Marcello Simonetta’s interests in Cicco Simonetta seem to have been stirred up simply by their shared surname, rather than by any focus on cryptography per se: but over time this developed into something much larger. And when Marcello found a ciphered 15th century letter in the private Ubaldini archive in Urbino, he couldn’t wait to try out Cicco’s Regule (rules) for cracking unknown ciphers, to see if they actually worked. And they did!

What he found was that it was in fact a letter detailing an inside view of the Pazzi Conspiracy, a 1478 plot to kill the heads of the Medici family (Lorenzo only just managed to get away). When Marcello’s discovery was announced (around 2004), there was a bit of a media scrum: but since then he has kept his head down and written an accessible book (I hope!), and got a deal with Random House (well done for that!).

Cryptographically, the supreme irony (which I hope Marcello picks up in his book) is that we have no evidence that Cicco Simonetta’s Regule were ever used to break real ciphers in the wild – to me, it seems likeliest that the Regule were instead mainly used to keep the Sforza’s code-clerks honest, as they spent their (probably abundant) spare hours cracking each others’ ciphers. But perhaps Marcello has more to say about this in his book… we shall see! 🙂

Here’s a cryptography story from Italy that is astounding (though perhaps not for good reasons). I found it thanks to an Italian blogger who called it the new Voynich (‘il nuovo Voynich’), but that’s perhaps a little bit strong.

While on trial accused of a “massacre” (‘strage Erba‘), the accused writes down a long series of enciphered notes in a bible… the cipher then gets broken (by Andrea Rizzi, Gregorio Guidi, and Roberto Frigerio), revealing the defendant’s thoughts on many (probably too many) aspects of the case. The trial continues: there is extensive coverage on the Wildgreta blog (in Italian). I’ve tried to find online pictures of the cipher (without success): but as it has already been definitively cracked (it would seem), there’s no huge sense of urgency.

Cryptographically, the tragedy is that it sounds (by all accounts) like a monoalphabetic cipher with a few nulls that even Cicco Simonetta’s Regule could have cracked 550 years ago (I’m sure Augusto Buonafalce and Marcello Simonetta would agree); while the Voynich Manuscript (from the same era) still can’t be decrypted today. Madness. 🙁

Every few days, I get asked to recommend a good introduction to the Voynich Manuscript (the ‘VMs’ for short). But each time this happens, my heart sinks a little: given the size and scope of historical research you’d need to have to properly grasp the subject, it’s a bit like being asked to recommend a good 5-page encyclopaedia. Or rather, as none such exists, like being asked to write one.

However, you can describe it in a paragraph: it’s a handwritten book that’s 230+ pages long, very probably about 500 years old, and filled with strange words and obscure pictures no-one can understand. I call it “a Scooby Doo mystery for grownups“, but one where everyone is trying to pin the blame on a different janitor: and so the story loops endlessly, as if on a lost satellite cartoon channel.

For once, the Wikipedia Voynich Manuscript page falls well short of being genuinely useful: the VMs is so contested, so politicized, so intensely rubbish that the whole neutral tone Wiki-thing fails to please (I gently satirized this in my VQ questionnaire). Bucketfuls of worthless opinions, and endless pussyfooting around: throw all that junk away, I say, and start from scratch. *sigh*

But if Wikipedia’s faux-scientific neutrality can’t get you started, what can? If (like me) you are a fan of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary” (1911), your ideal introduction to the Voynich Manuscript might well be succinct, partial, and cynical (in fact, almost toxically so). In this vein, I heartily recommend “Folly Follows the Script“, an article by Jacques Guy (AKA “Frogguy“) in the Times Higher Education supplement from 2004. While ostensibly reviewing Kennedy and Churchill’s recent book on the VMs, Guy rips apart a lot of the pretension and falsity that now surrounds the manuscript, in particular Gordon Rugg’s muchvaunted (but actually resoundingly hollow) hoax papers. Which is, errrm, nice.

If you prefer lots and lots (and did I say lots?) of data, the best introductory site by miles is Rene Zandbergen’s excellent, in particular his “short tour“, and the even shorter tour. But frankly, it’s hard for most people to care about Newbold, Petersen, Friedman, Strong, Brumbaugh, O’Neill, Feely, Manly, and even John “The Brig” Tiltman unless you’ve already lurched over the line into Voynich-obsessive mania: none of them could read a word of the VMs, and they’re all long dead.

Alternatively, if you prefer a kind of gentle postmodern defeatism, I could happily recommend a very readable article by Lev Grossman called “When Words Fail“, which first appeared in Lingua Franca magazine way back in April 1999: sadly, nothing much of substance has changed in the intervening decade (or, indeed, over several preceding decades too).

This might seem a horrible thing to say, given that so much ink has been spilled (and, more recently, so many HTML tags wasted) on the VMs over the last century in the honest pursuit of this wonderful (yet devastatingly cruel) enigma. But we still know next to nothing of any real use: the kind of intensely Warburgian art-historical research I’ve been slaving over for the last six years seems totally alien to most ‘Voynichologists’, a title that perpetually hovers too close to David Kahn’s Baconian “enigmatologists” (see “The Codebreakers” (1967), pp.878-9), with their “deliriums, the hallucinations of a sick cryptology“.

All of which is to say that both cynicism and nihilism are probably good starting points for reading up on the VMs: a century of careless credulity has got us all nowhere. But this is not to say that I am pessimistic about any advances being made. In fact, I would say that “the Devil’s in the details” or the alternative “God is in the details” (both of which are sometimes attributed to Aby Warburg!) to flag that, beyond the superficial flurry of foolish and wishful opinions out there, I think there are things we can (and eventually will!) know about the Voynich Manuscript; but that for the moment these remain hidden in its vellum margins.

All of which is another story entirely

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!

A quick update on Michael Cordy’s forthcoming Voynich-themed oeuvre: it has now been retitled “The Source” (let’s just pray it’s not re-released later on as “The Source Code”, that would be awful), is due for hardback and softback release in August 2008, and can already (inevitably) be pre-ordered from Amazon.

I also dug up a (possibly deleted?) snippet from Google’s cache of the My Irrationalities blog. This mentioned translations for France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Israel, and Poland: and Warner Bros optioning the film rights, with Akiva Goldman’s Weed Road to produce. It sounds like it’s all getting up a head of steam, let’s hope the book delivers the goods.

You know, I’d really like to write The Source screenplay: that would be a lot of fun. Any offers, Mr Goldman? 😉

Today, I stumbled across yet another Voynich book: which then led me to a whole cache of them, like a hidden nest of gremlin eggs high atop a mountain. Don’t give them any water, whatever you do…

First up was “Les Livres Maudits” (1971, J’ai Lu) by Jacques Bergier, chemical engineer and [al]chemist, French resistance fighter and spy, writer and journalist: in it, he painted a picture of the VMs as containing a secret so powerful that it could destroy the world. Could it have simply been an idea: like “being nice to people doesn’t work“? According to my old pal Jean-Yves Atero, Bergier was convinced this secret was so devastating that (basically) Men In Black will always track its progress, and will stop at nothing to keep the truth about it from being brought into the open. Errrm… hold on a minute, there’s someone at the door…

Rather more recently, there was “The Magician’s Death” (2004) [published in French as “Le livre du magicien” (2006)] by prolific historical mystery writer Paul C. Doherty, in his ‘Hugh Corbett’ series. This has Roger Bacon writing an unbreakable code, various English and French factions trying to crack it, and loads of people getting killed (or something along those lines).

Coming out in the same year was “Shattered Icon” (2004) (later re-released as “Splintered Icon” (2006), and published in German as “Der 77. Grad.” (2007)] by Bill Napier. As far as I can tell, this uses the deciphering of a Voynich-style 400-year-old journal / map to tease out a mystery thriller take on the Roanoke Island expedition.

Scarlett Thomas‘s novel PopCo (2004) also mentions the Voynich Manuscript (it claims on the German Wikipedia page), as part of a “richly allusive” [Independent on Sunday] pop-culture novelistic riff on cryptography. She now lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Kent in Canterbury. I find this a bit worrying: it conjures up an image of a classful of uber-literate proto-writers, all looking at the VMs and thinking “Hmmm… an ‘unreadable book’, eh? An excellently ironic leitmotif for my postmodern anti-novel…” [*], which I will then have to laboriously add to the Big Fat List, and perhaps even to try to read (Lord, protect me from any more Generation X knockoffs). Blogging can be hell, I’ll have you know.

Other VMs-linked novels mentioned on various language Wikipedia sites include:

  • “L’intrigue de Il Romanzo Di Nostradamus” by Valerio Evangelisti apparently has Nostradamus battling the VMs and its black magic ilk;
  • Dan Simmons’ 832-page epic “Olympos” (2006) apparently namechecks the Voynich as having been bought in 1586 by Rudolph II (though how this gets fitted in to a story about Helen of Troy is a matter for wonder: I’m sure it all makes sense, really I do); and
  • “Datura tai harha jonka jokainen näkee” (2001) by Finnish writer Leena Krohn (published in German as “Stechapfel”) is centred on the hallucinogenic plant Datura (AKA jimsonweed, Magicians’ weed”, or Sorcerors’ weed), and it is an easy step from there to the Voynich Manuscript. Back in 2002, I posted to the VMs mailing list about various plants such as Datura: so this is no great surprise.

Oh well, back to my day job (whatever that is)…

I just stumbled upon a French Yahoo Answers page that asks why 42 is the answer. Of course, it’s because Douglas Adams (I once met him, he went to the same school as me) thought it was the number with the greatest comedic potential: and possibly even because he half-remembered that John Cleese once thought it was a funny number.

But I digress.

One of the Yahoo answers suggested was that 42 was the number of missing pages in the Voynich Manuscript. Well… according to Rene Zandbergen’s splendiferous site, there are probably at least 14 folios missing, which would account for 28 or so missing pages (depending on how wide the folios were): but sorry to say, this is still a fair bit short of 42.

Nice try, though! 🙂

This 2006 oeuvre by Matthew Thomas Farrell in three PDF parts (1, 2 , and 3) seems destined for the Big Fat List of Voynich books/screenplays. Lots of mysterious international dealers in information, Referees, odd (code) names, odd conspiracies, a little bit of Area 51, you get the idea. It’s a bit hard to describe (and, frankly, to read): but maybe that’s the whole point.

*sigh* I think I’d better sit down and update the List soon, it’s starting to get out of control…

My copies of Eileen Reeves “Galileo’s Glassworks” and Matt Rubinstein’s “Vellum” have both arrived in the post: and so the inevitable book triage process sets in, whereby I work out which of the books I’m currently reading to put to one side to make time/space for the new arrivals.

Unfortunately, I’m so utterly captivated by Lynn Thorndike’s “History of Magic & Experimental Science” Vol III (covering the 14th century), I’ll probably have to finish that one first. Only a few hundred pages to go, then…

A Latin aside: I’ve been programming with a code library from 3Dlabs with a function that normally appears as “des.init()”. However, desinit is a proper Latin word meaning “it ceases”, and refers (as anyone who has read Thorndike will know) to the words at the end of manuscripts, just as incipit refers to the words at their start. What I didn’t know until this week was that there is also a nice saying from Horace desinit in piscem (or in full “desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne“), which refers to a statue that starts beautiful at the top but ends up as a ugly fish at the bottom (it even gets quoted in Asterix and the Secret Weapon) – a handy metaphor for things which seem to start out well but end up badly. Nothing at all to do with 3Dlabs, then.

On the subject of books, I recently found a reference on WorldCat to a a real (ie non-fiction) Voynich book I’d never heard of, written by VMs mailing list member Jim Comegys in 2001, and with the catchy title “Keys for the voynich scholar : necessary clues for the decipherment and reading of the world’s most mysterious manuscript which is a medical text in Nahuatl attributable to Francisco Hernández and his Aztec Ticiti collaborators.” I’ll see if I can get a copy from Jim (though I suspect he may not have properly published it per se).