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 voynich.nu, 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 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!

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).

A nice edition of “In Our Time” on Radio 4 this morning (a tip of the blogging hat to Chris R and Paul C, who both wished the morning Guildford traffic jam had been slightly worse so that they could have heard it all), all about our old Holy Roman Emperor pal, Rudolph II. You can also download the mp3 (20MB, 42 minutes) and listen to it off-line. Which is nice (genuinely).

Discussing the Rudolphine court with Melvyn Bragg were Peter Forshaw (always good value for money – Voynichians may remember him from the Mentorn Voynich documentary on BBC4), Howard Hotson, and Adam Mosley: the topics ranged across alchemy, the occult, Hussite heresy, astronomy, Cabinet of Wonders (including a dodo!), botanical collections, automata, natural magic, paintings, Cornelius Drebbel, Tycho Brahe, Charles University, astrology, John Dee, Kepler, etc etc… oh yes, and the Voynich Manuscript as well (about 5 minutes in), which Melvyn Bragg seemed particularly fascinated by. Maybe he’s seen the Big Fat List of forthcoming Voynich novels? 😮

The programme-makers thoughtfully included a Rudolph-centred bibliography here, which you may find useful (though with Hugh Trevor-Roper listed, I have to say it’s not particularly contemporary).

Today’s addition to The Big Fat List is “L’UOMO NELLA LUCE” by Walter Martinelli (2007), published on-demand by Lulu. Though I’m not quite sure whether bundling the Voynich Manuscript in with the Templars, the Masons, the Pyramids, Hitler, JFK, Christopher Columbus and the Bermuda Triangle is a brilliantly sensible idea: it sounds more like a kind of obsessive trainspotter take on conspiracies (why include one when you can include them all?)… but maybe they are all out to get us, so who knows? 346 pages, 6″ x 9″, $22.96.

However, you can buy the ebook version of it for a measly $4.66. Which is nice.

I just stumbled upon a January 2008 paper on translating nonsense texts in Translation Studies journal, written by Jean-Jacques Lecercle from the University of Nanterre, for the simple reason that it happened to discuss the (apparently nonsensical) Voynich Manuscript.

Plainly, Gordon Rugg’s hoax-theory fan-club (which I guess used to be Terence McKenna’s hoax-theory fan-club) has been all too successful in its drive for new members: but really, ’tis pity she’s no hoax.

Though I wasn’t quite intrigued enough by the article’s abstract to pay Informaworld the required £15 + VAT to download it, its mention of Callois’ ludus and paidia did get me thinking, particularly considering my background as a computer games programmer: Callois tries to categorise games along a continuum between fully structured games (ludus) and totally unstructured ones (paidia).

In the context of the Voynich, this has an additional resonance for me. The main VMs mailing list used to be a church broad enough to encompass both structured and unstructured contributions, broadly corresponding to people playing the Voynich research game as a ludus or as a paidia. But in recent years, it seems to me that this tolerance slowly disintegrated: as art historical and forensic evidence has started to encroach on the whole game, a number of the unstructured game-players have started to feel threatened. In fact, the idea that they might have to play by rules (even if those rules were laid down by the Voynich Manuscript’s own author/authors!) was so unappealing to them that they began to fight against the whole notion of evidence.

The whole hoax theory is in many ways symptomatic of this trend: roughly speaking, it says “every piece of VMs evidence might have been faked, and so the hoax hypothesis provides a complete explanation for every scenario that can be imagined… regardless of the evidence.” Such an acutely anti-evidential stance is perilously close to a kind of ‘creationist’-style take on the VMs, where the VMs sprung as a convincing, fully-rounded entity from the hoaxer’s imagination [like Athena from Zeus’ head?], in all its multi-layered forensic glory.

I simply don’t buy into this kind of armchair intellectual fantasy: there’s deception and misdirection at the heart of the VMs, for sure – but there’s also an overriding rationality behind it too, one that has structured it as a complex ludus to frustrate us (but which has become scrambled over time), not as a Rorschachian paidia, where every interpretation is equally true.

However unpopular it may sound, my judgment is that the anti-evidentialism on the main Voynich mailing list has now become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Just because we can glimpse the VMs’ rules does not mean that the game is over: instead, I think it signals that the game is moving from paidia to ludus… whether that suits you or not.