Here’s a nice piece of historical cryptography I hope you’ll appreciate: a piece of “pigpen ciphertext” engraved on a 1792 New York gravestone, on Flickr. But before you click anywhere, try and decode it for yourself from the transcription I’ve put above!

Hint: the single-dot box appears four times, and is (just as you’d expect) a vowel. 🙂

If you want to know more, the article mentioned on the page was from the Meyer Berger column on page 24 of the New York Times, January 2nd 1957, and is in the paper’s online archive: they charge non-subscribers $3.95 for a PDF, if you happen to be reaaaaaaally interested. But maybe this is a sensible place to stop…

Two big news stories today, both of them far more amazing than fiction…

Firstly, a story about a Nazi cipher, allegedly by Martin Bormann detailing the location of a cache of gold and diamonds hidden in 1945. Dutch journalist Karl Hammer has written a book called De tranen van de wolf (The Tears of the Wolf), published by Elmar, which is basically a dossier of his notes. Much copied in the blogs, but here’s the source page (with pictures of the so-called “runic” cipher hidden in the rests in a piece of sheet music, as well as a series of numerals at the bottom which is doubtless discussed in the book). 224 pages, 17.50 euros here.

And secondly, a fascinating Wall Street Journal story about a cache of microfilms of early copies of the Qur’an being unearthed. For decades it was thought that they had been destroyed in the bombing of the Bavarian Academy of Science (which was housed in a former Jesuit college in Munich) in 1944, but the truth turns out to be much more subtle and complex.

It’s one of those strange things: if a novelist had used either of these two stories for their plots, he/she would probably be ridiculed for over-egging their cake, for going too far. I mean, Nazis treasure and a cipher hidden in music, or Nazis and the lost origins of Islam, really?

Incidentally, I’ve mentioned how my stomach turns when I see the word “Jesuit” pop up in Voynich-themed novels, and – as a historical literary commentary on the penny dreadful Jesuit cliche – that’s perfectly OK. But as with every rule of thumb, there is bound to be an exception, and perhaps Enrique Joven’s book is that: now that I found a better description of it, I can see that the Jesuit connection he appropriates is probably based on real history (I’m guessing the movement around Europe of the various Jesuit trunks containing the VMs), and so for a surprising change his Jesuit plot connection there actually makes good sense.

But this is really not to endorse every other Jesuit/VMs so-called plot “twist” out there: repeat after me, “it almost certainly predates the Jesuit Order, which was founded in 1534“… *sigh*

After my recent (and unexpectedly extended) foray into Voynich-themed novels, I thought it would be a good idea to get back to proper manuscript research.

f112r-star-para1One small feature I’ve been mulling over is the “starred paragraphs” in Quire 20, the final gathering in the VMs (the one which famously ends with the “michiton oladabas” page). I posted about this section not long ago, discussing Vladimir Sazonov’s suggestion that it might originally have formed some kind of 365-paragraph calendar. But what I’m thinking about here is the possibility that the “tailed stars” used to mark the start of each paragraph here were actually comets, chosen on the basis of a Latin pun.

Back circa 1500, the named structures used for written works were often slightly different from now. What we moderns would call a chapter or part, would typically have been called a book: while a modern subsection (a block of continuous text with a descriptive header) would typically have been called a chapter, or capitulum (literally “diminutive caput“, “little head”). Ironically, the short punchy chapters in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” are closer in spirit to this medieval world of text than most other modern books.

What we therefore see in Quire 20 is what I think would have been understood in context to be not so much a series of paragraphs, but a series of “chapters” within a “book”. With this in mind, might those little shapes that have usually been called the “stars” or “tailed stars” be instead iconic comets?

Our word “comet” originally came from the Latin cometes, which itself was a loan-word from the Greek kometes, “wearing long hair” (it’s in Aristotle). Similarly, the Latin term crinis means hair, or tail of a comet, or rays of sun: and so a comet may be called a stella crinita, a ‘hairy star’ (yes, really!)

So, when I now look at the starred paragraphs, I do think that the “stars” there are very probably comets comprised of a little head (capitulum) and a deliberately hair-like tail. This kind of punning visual / Latin iconographic word-play would be consistent with the view of the VMs as a high-culture cipher: but perhaps seems a little too ornate or too conceptually ‘fancy’ for a mere hoax.

Modern astrologers (even such mainstream ones as Jonathan Cainer) are still sent into a tailspin (if you’ll forgive the pun) by comets, seeing in them omens for, well, all sorts of things, such as the death of Benazir Bhutto, etc: which is, of course, no different to ancient, medieval and Renaissance astrologers alike, for whom comets had the power to invite speculation, wonder, and fear.

But for the VMs, where should this research thread go next? As far as art history goes, Giotto famously depicted the 1301 appearance of Halley’s Comet in his Adoration of the Magi: and if you subscribe to a likely Quattrocento origin for the manuscript (as I do), I would guess that there is a lot more to find in Roberta Olson’s (2000) “The Florentine Tondo” (ISBN10: 019817425X, ISBN13: 9780198174257, £85) – pricy (but supposedly fascinating). I would also suggest “Cometary theory in Fifteenth Century Europe” (Kluwer, 1985, also £80 or so) by Jane L. Jervis, and Lynn Thorndike’s (1958) “Some tracts on Comets 1456-1500” (in Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Sciences 11 (1958) pp.225-260), none of which I’ve seen myself but perhaps will one day soon (if I spend a day at the BL, or win the lottery). I’ve also read that Galileo discussed (in his “Il Saggiatore“) the three comets that were seen in 1417: and so there was presumably much debate on this at the time.

I don’t know: it seems possibly too lightweight an issue to devote a great deal of time to. And yet there is much in the VMs that points to astronomical and astrological thinking – enough that I can empathize with Enrique Joven’s novel “Castle in the Stars“, where the VMs is imagined as being part of that general tradition (No! Enough with the novels, already!). Maybe there is enough there after all…

Sorry for posting like an overexcited puppy, but my Voynich book‘s first citation is surely worthy to me of a minor celebration: less than a backflip, but more than a raised eyebrow.

The just-published (January 2008) Cryptologia article where it is mentioned is “Cicco Simonetta’s Cipher-Breaking Rules“, by Augusto Buonafalce, who so generously reviewed my book in the same journal last year. It’s a nice little piece to introduce cryptologers and cryptography historians to Cicco Simonetta [there’s a nice Italian page on him here], with the added bonus of a good translation of his “regulae” (rules): it even has a black and white reproduction of a painting of Cicco I was not previously aware of.

Augusto rightly dismisses the thought of a powerful Milanese statesman “engaging in the encryption of the Voynich manuscript“: but that’s not really a summary of my book’s argument. What I actually argue is that the presence of the “4o” token in a good number of mid-Quattrocento Northern Italian cipher alphabets (including the Voynich Manuscript) points to a continuity of cipher thinking, one which seemed to travel around with the Sforza miltary caravan… just as Cicco Simonetta did from an early age.

To be precise, I don’t claim that Cicco wrote the VMs, or even designed its cipher alphabet. Far from it: rather, that its “4o” token points to a deep-rooted connection between its cipher-system and the ciphers constructed and used by the Milanese Chancellery. My book conjectures that this “4o” ‘verbose cipher’ trick may have been disclosed in the 1465 meeting between Antonio Averlino and Cicco Simonetta, at which the former placed his outstanding Milanese affairs in the hands of the latter before leaving Milan forever. But in the world of tenuous Voynichological hypotheses, this is one at least that did actually happen! 🙂

For all its merits, it would be wrong to characterize Augusto’s Cryptologia article as being the final word in the cryptographic history debate over Cicco Simonetta’s Regulae: the conclusions I (and others) draw from the available data are quite different, and (in the absence of more conclusive evidence) we can politely agree to differ – and that’s OK.

As a side-note here, when I cited (on my p.182) a 1970 article on Cicco’s Regulae, I contacted its very-much-still-alive author (Walter Hoeflechner) to see if anyone else in the intervening 36 years had shown an interest – and only the ubiquitous David Kahn had. From that, it’s easy to see that the discussion of the intriguing intersection between cryptography and politics offered by Simonetta is very much out of fashion: which is a bit of a shame.

And therefore, I think it would be very nice if Augusto’s article proved instead to be the first word in a rather more modern debate over the Regulae: the new generation of historians and researchers who have taken an interest in seeing what the Sforza-era bureaucratic archives have to tell us would almost certainly be bound to find new angles and approaches, and might well carry us all forward in new and interesting directions.

Finally… for me, what is nicest about Augusto’s citation is that it is one of those rarest of hen’s teeth: a Voynich-related book or paper getting cited outside of the Voynich literature. It is far too early to say that this marks the point where the VMs goes fully mainstream… but it’s a start, surely?

The proliferation of Voynich Manuscript-themed novels has gone way beyond being merely a vague pattern in my peripheral vision: it’s starting to become a bit of a plague.

Here’s another book, this time from Bilbao-based first-time novelist Iñaki Uriarte: published by Verbigracia in 2007, it’s called “La Piedra Filosofal” (The Philosopher’s Stone, if you hadn’t guessed), and weaves the Voynich Manuscript in with the Philosopher’s Stone and quantum physics. It is 394 pages long, has the plant from f2v and the top-left nymph from f82v on the cover, and there’s a sizeable (83-page!) extract here to whet your appetite. I can’t see an ISBN for it, and none of the book sites I looked at had a copy (even Amazon!), but if you fancy it you can buy it for 18 euros directly from the publisher via PayPal. Which is nice.

And there is yet another Spanish book (mentioned in passing by Enrique Joven) called “El quinto mandamiento” (The Fifth Commandment, which is thou shalt not kill” [of course]), by Eric Frattini, published by Espasa-Calpe, ISBN13 978-84-670-2442-5. It seems fairly standard mystery thriller fare, with an elderly professor uncovering the secrets of the VMs, while a conspiratorial circle of eight (led by a corrupt cardinal) tracks down and murders everyone who the professor has talked to. There’s a bit of f67r1 Photoshopped onto the cover, along with the Florence Duomo, but unless I’m really badly mistaken it only seems to engage with the VMs in a very superficial way. 360 pages, 19.90 euros. You can read a machine translation of the first chapter here (click on the 2 3 4 5 .. numbers at the bottom). But Lord, spare me from having to read about any more evil Jesuit priests!

So… we have:-

  • Enrique Joven’s forthcoming “Castle of the Stars
  • Iñaki Uriarte’s “La Piedra Filosofal
  • Eric Frattini’s “El quinto mandamiento
  • Thierry Maugenest’s “Manuscript MS408
  • Michael Cordy’s forthcoming “Garden of God
  • Richard D. Weber’s “The Voynich Covenant
  • Andrea Peters’ “I’m Sorry… Love Anne
  • William Michael Campbell’s “The Voynich Solution

…and even as I type there are doubtless 10-20 more writers out there feverishly word-pureeing their Dan Brown-esque Voynich-based mystery capers, with nearly all of them struggling to find exciting new synonyms for the word “evil” to put before the word “Jesuit”. 😮

In some ways, this is all very flattering, for it surely means that our overall Voynichological “research programme” (for want of a better phrase) over the last few years has blossomed in a broad cultural awareness of the manuscript, an inky sea of ideas into which novelists feel free to dip their fountain pens. However, I think it’s also fair to say that most of these books do not engage with the VMs in a very substantial way, which – given all the work that we’ve done – is a bit sad. So on balance, I’m not sure whether to be happy or sad, which of the two emotions is the stronger… you’ll have to make your own judgment on that, I’m afraid!

The French Voynich mailing list I half-remembered and mentioned before turned out to be an online discussion forum on François Almaleh’s website (his main Voynich site is here, which I guess is the skeleton of the Voynich book he was writing back in 2003). However, this died in 2004: you can see a copy in the Wayback Machine here. And therefore I don’t think there is an active French Voynich mailing list at the moment, which is a shame after all the publicity gained there by the launch of the [near-]facsimile edition of the VMs “Le Code Voynich“. You can even see this in the Google Trends curve for “Voynich”: the big spike in the middle was the book release, and France remains at the top of the list of countries Googling for “Voynich”.

Some people have posted bilingual Voynich websites: but even if your French is excellent (as Dennis Stallings’ plainly is), this is a hard path to take and stick to, and one that removes a lot of the spontaneity of posting and updating web-pages.

Perhaps the simplest modern way to get ideas across to non-native-language readers would be to add a [Translate this page] button to your blog (as I’ve just done). Recently, I was even pleasantly surprised by the quality of Google’s automatic translation from Chinese into English (though admittedly I was expecting it to come out like a mangled shopping list): and doubtless this will keep being improved. But given that quality issues remain, I’d really like to be able to embed translation hints in my text, particularly so that I can continue to post in my polyglot oral tongue stylee: but I somehow doubt that this is on Blogger’s radar. I’m probably too early to this ball: but in 10 years’ time, who knows…?

PS: I think a link to this blog was posted to the voynich.de Yahoo mailing list: a big Guten Tag to you all there!

Two interesting Voynich news stories…

Firstly, I’ve had a blog comment and some emails from a pleasantly surprised Enrique Joven, author of “El castello de las estrellas” (his blog is here): his big news is the book has been picked up by HarperCollins US, and is due for publication in September 2008 under the title “The castle of the stars“. According to one Internet site, Enrique received a low six-figure advance (“$100,000 to $300,000). I’m very much looking forward to it! 🙂

Secondly, another Voynich novel is on its way… and it could well be a big one.Its author is Michael Cordy, writer of the international bestsellers “The Messiah Code“, “The Lucifer Code“, “Crime Zero“, and “The Venus Conspiracy“. His next book (ISBN10 055215699X, ISBN13 9780552156998, AKA “Untitled Michael Cordy“) is due for hardback release in “January 2008” from Transworld Publishers. The original title was “The Garden Of God“, meaning Eden, though (curiously enough) it is also what “Baghdad” originally meant. What are the odds Transworld end up giving it the title “The Eden Code” instead?

The synopsis of the Michael Cordy book is here: basically, the main character’s beautiful wife Lauren decodes the Voynich Manuscript, but ends up in a coma after someone tries to steal her translation, and so the main character ends up racing against a fanatical priest to reach the mythical “Jardin del Dios”…

I’m already getting a bit sick of these Jesuits and mysterious meddling priests (particularly as the Jesuit order didn’t start up until many decades after the VMs was probably written), but hey – novelists have to start somewhere, right? [Also: I couldn’t help but be reminded not a little of Thierry Maugenest’s 2005 novel “Manuscrit MS 408“, where two academics decoding the Voynich mysteriously fall into a coma, setting the story in motion…]

Whatever you think of Voynich novels, these are two potentially big novels with our favourite manuscript in a starring role, both due for release by Serie A mega-publishers this year. Perhaps I’m misreading the tea-leaves, but I do get the overwhelming feeling from this that 2008 is somehow destined to be the “Year of the Voynich” – not necessarily the year when it gets solved, but the year when it goes fully mainstream.

As a handy (but inevitably bad) generalization, there are two kinds of Voynich researchers out there: (a) social ones (who do it in a crowd) and (b) anti-social ones (who do it alone). Broadly speaking, I’m now a (b) having first done a six-year stretch as an (a): but some people (like my old friend GC, who’s like my Voynichological twin brother, though without the goatee… hmmm…) manage to stay (b) with occasional flashes of (a), despite all the provocation they (inevitably?) receive online.

But when you add things like blogs to the mix, this cosy categorization starts to fall apart. Because I blog about what I’m thinking about, does that make me a kind of passive-aggressive (a), or perhaps a falsely socialized (b)? Are blogs actually social, or merely a kind of unconscious, self-aggrandizing auto-journalism? Answers on an e-postcard (to someone else), please.

Regardless, plenty of people put out their Voynich-related outsider viewpoints in varied ways: here are some you may have missed (but which my seine net picked up). Be grateful I only kept the good stuff! 🙂

(1) Richard Santa Coloma has posted up a set of long-ish posts by GC here: intriguingly, GC (who for years has winced at the thought of anything apart from a 16th century origin, largely because of Leonell Strong’s decryption / Askham attribution) is now mellowing towards the 15th century (though quite how the two centuries blend together is still a little wobbly).

Incidentally, the possibility (as proposed by Richard Santa Coloma) of Cornelius Drebbel-era (i.e. circa 1600) authorship for the Voynich remains interesting, though hard to square with the manuscript’s 15th century art history. But perhaps the truth will turn out to be far more magnificent. Telescope histories (such as this excellent one from the Galileo Project) will tell you that the glass in Venice produced around 1450 was being ground by Florentines (and others) into both convex and concave lenses for spectacles / bericles, and so anyone with access to both could have made telescopes and microscopes. Yet the first properly documented examples of each instrument appear 140+ years later. What is curious is that, according to the Galileo Project:

  • “In the literature of white magic, so popular in the sixteenth century, there are several tantalizing references to devices that would allow one to see one’s enemies or count coins from a great distance. But these allusions were cast in obscure language and were accompanied by fantastic claims; the telescope, when it came, was a very humble and simple device.” (http://galileo.rice.edu/sci/instruments/telescope.html para 4)

Could it be that various individuals invented and reinvented the microscope and telescope multiple times in that century-and-a-half gap? If you view the Voynich Manuscript’s quires 19 and 17 (in that order), you will see what looks for all the world like a lab notebook detailing the development of a sequence of microscopes (and possibly telescopes), seguing into speculative optical instruments. If only Richard Santa Coloma “dropped the Drebbel”, he might find a far more amazing story waiting to be uncovered…

(2) Sean B. Palmer has posted some interesting pages here (on “Michitonese”) and here (on the zodiac month names), though in both cases chasing behind work I had done six or so months previously. A nice resource he uses which I wasn’t aware of: the Xerox XRCE Language Guesser. You feed it 5 sentences of text, and it compares them with 47 languages (though doubtless a longer list in the commercial version) to determine the closest match. Kewl! (i.e. ‘fascinating technology but not actually very useful’).

(3) One of the quintessential twentieth century outsiders was Terence McKenna: though I can’t walk in his footsteps (largely because I’m allergic to mushrooms), it is hard not to feel some kind of admiration for his endless tilting against those powerful windmills who continue to blow us around. There’s an audio archive of his work here, with a long (but often terribly wrong, I’m sorry to say) discussion of the Voynich Manuscript from 1983 here

In it, he namechecks Mary D’Imperio’s “Elegant Enigma” (“this is what your tax dollars are being used for“), and notes that the VMs’ internal structuring probably indicates meaningful content However, McKenna understands that it’s not a Trithemius-derived code or cipher and suggests it should be compared by computer with the work of John Dee (which Leonell Strong also flagged), even though he’s very much into Dee-Kelley hoax hypotheses. Modern cryptographers may well be blind to the particular “weird quirky way” in which it was encoded/enciphered, he says: alternatively, “a chemical attack should be mounted” on the manuscript’s plants. Oh, and it’s “aaaaahbviously sixteenth century“. Around 20 minutes in, lots of Yatesian stuff gets namechecked [if you like that kind of thing]. At the time, McKenna was “advising a group of people in Santa Cruz” (almost certainly via Ralph Abraham, I guess) in their research into the VMs, “one of the great oddities of human thought“.

The problem with McKenna’s Voynichological heritage is his subsequent endorsement of Leo Levitov’s problematic 1987 Cathar decryption (about 24mins in, read from McKenna’s “Archaic Revival”), which now looks rather foolish. Oh well! By the way, the mp3 ends with about 10 minutes of frog croaking, which may or may not be meaningful (you choose). 🙂

Elias Schwerdtfeger has blogged some speculations on the plant on f3r – essentially that, based on its lack of flowers and various other features, the plant depicted on f3r appears to be some kind of “Nacktsamen” (which I think is German for Gymnospermae, the plant group which includes conifers [fir, spruce, etc], cycads [the sago palm and others], and ginkgo biloba [a plant all on its own]). As normal with the VMs, this is good observation and inference, marred (as he indeed notes) only by the problem that no such plant actually exists.

In general, what’s good about Elias’ readings is that he tries hard not to be fooled by the layers of paint: but for any rationalist reading, even if you strip back all the later paints to reveal that-which-was-originally-drawn, the innate mystery of what-was-being-depicted still remains, and perhaps even intensifies. For f3r, as indeed for nearly all the VMs’ “plant” pictures, we don’t know what is going on: is it a trance drawing, a hallucinogenic conjuring from the depths of a proto-botanist’s subconscious? Or were the two plants on facing pages originally “visually anagrammed”, a tricky decoding situation turned into a cryptographic catastrophic by the subsequent shufflings of the bifolios?

As yet, we simply can’t tell, which is why discussions of the herbal pictures can quickly descend into he-said-she-said bitchfests and yeah-but-no-but-yeah-but conflicted monologues. My contribution to the herbal debate (discussed at length elsewhere) concerns the structural differences I noticed between Herbal A pictures and Herbal B pictures, and my suspicion that the latter group “visually enciphers” certain types of machine contemporary to the mid-Quattrocento. Of course, you can argue with this (and if it would make you happy, go ahead, knock yourself out): but what would be the point?

Ultimately, we would like subtler types of information to resolve key unknowns in a more definitive way: for example, Raman imaging and/or multispectral imaging might help distinguish the materials used and layers of accretions, to the point that we might be able to reconstruct what the original raw “alpha” state of each page was. Furthermore, such kinds of imaging might well reveal non-visible (or non-obvious) contact transfers between pages: this might lead to being able to reconstruct many (if not all) of the original page ordering and gatherings. Being able to group vellum bifolios by individual animalskin might make it possible to reconstruct gatherings too. Then, being able to place individual pictures as part of an original sequence might reveal an informative pattern or sequence underlying them all…

But these are rational dreams, of using pure science for pure knowledge, and for now we don’t have this level of smarts to build upon: and so our destiny is to build castles not in the air but on sand, cunning architecture destined not to soar but to sink. Oh well! 🙁

For decades (at least!), groups of like-minded people have got together to discuss the VMs: even the various 17th century letters written to Athanasius Kircher (all apparently discussing the same manuscript) came from individuals within some kind of loose grouping – it’s not all lone gunmen theorists in the VMs world, I assure you. 🙂

Fast forward to the 20th century, and you find William Friedman forming and running the FSG (the “First Study Group”) in 1944-1946, followed (unsurprisingly) by the Second Study Group in 1962-1963. Incidentally, I don’t know if there is any connection between the Dr. Robert A. Caldwell who was part of the FSG and Ian Caldwell (co-author of the Rule of Four), but it would be elegant if so… just a thought! As always, there’s more (OK: much more) on the modern history of the VMs on Rene Zandbergen’s excellent VMs site.

In the Internet age, mailing lists have picked up this collaborative baton, and run with it in countless new directions. I couldn’t see any page that described these lists in an accessible way, which is why I’m posting about them here…

(1) The Voynich Mailing List – the daddy (if not granddaddy) of all modern VMS lists – started life hosted at rand.org (Jim Gillogly’s employer at the time) back in 1991, but has relatively recently moved to its own domain, voynich.net Lots of old-timers there, and its old list archives hold an amazing collection of ideas, observations and notions, from a diverse group of contributors: virtually everything you can think about the VMs has been posted there (I search them with grep, but you may prefer other tools). Of late, I think it’s fair to say that the discourse there hasn’t been quite so good (and it’s far from obvious why this should be the case): but it can be an excellent place to start. Recommended.

(2) The Journal of Voynich Studies (2007 list archive here, cumulative file and HTML archive here) is a newish mailing list, run by Berj N. Ensanian and Greg Stachowski. This set out to be more openly academic than the main voynich.net mailing list, but it unfortunately (I think it’s fair to say) still falls well short of the high academic ideals to which it initially aspired. The reason for this is obvious: there are, to my knowledge, no ‘true’ academics (in the ‘scarily and unchallengeably erudite academic‘ sense, how I imagine Panofsky or Grafton) out there studying the VMs. Really, the basic art history still hasn’t been done: Voynichology remains an amateur science at best.

(3) Quiet-ish groups, such as thevoynichmanuscript Yahoo Group may well be good in a different way. I’m not a member there, but it might be just right for you.

(4) Transient mailing lists (such as GC’s Strong Solution group from 2006, or the Voynich Forum) come and go, ebb and flow: this is inevitable on the Internet.

(5) Non-English mailing lists have started to appear in recent years: I’m thinking in particular of the German Yahoo Group voynich.de. I have a vague memory of Jan Hurych starting up a Czech-language mailing list at one point, though I don’t know if that is still going: his current Voynich blog is here. Similarly, there was a Spanish-language MS408 list back in 2003, and I half-remember a French-language mailing list flickering into existence too.

Doubtless there are/were/will be more: but that should be enough to get you started. 😉