How did I manage not to notice this conference before now? “Secrets and Knowledge: Medicine, Science and Commerce 1500-1800” runs from 15th-16th February 2008 at CRASSH at Cambridge University, featuring such stars as William Eamon (whose epic “Science and the Secrets of Nature” sits by my right shoulder) and Lauren Kassell (with whom I briefly corresponded about the Book of Dunstan back in 2001).

It sounds like a fascinating, fantastic mini-event, and I just can’t wait… even though I’ll probably be the only Voynichologist there. Does anyone else see the VMs as a mid-Quattrocento example of the “books of secrets” genre too? Apparently not… *sigh*

A quick digression on the title of Enrique Joven’s forthcoming Voynich book, “The Castle of the Stars” (originally published as El Castillo de las Estrellas): and it’s all tied up with Tycho Brahe

Once upon a time in 1572 (according to the article here), a supernova appeared in the constellation of Cassiopeia (you know, the big W-shaped one). Watching this in Denmark, Brahe realised that this was not a near-Earth object, but was in fact as far away as all the other stars, at a time when it was generally thought that this was impossible. Revolutionary stuff, and the book he wrote on the subject dramatically launched Brahe’s career into orbit.

Frederick II was so desperate to make sure his brand new star astronomer did not leave Denmark that he gave Brahe the island of Hven, the huge financial backing to build Uraniborg (“the castle of Urania“, named after the Greek Muse who was the patron saint of astronomy) to house his instruments, and then an observatory called Stjerneborg (“the castle of the stars“)… from which (I guess) Enrique Joven took the name for his novel.

Brahe also used the grounds of Uraniborg to grow herbs for his “medicinal chemistry experiments” (according to Wikipedia): Voynichologically, this seems somehow right, doesn’t it?

Incidentally, there was a short story in French by Al Nath called “Le chateau des etoiles” from Ciel in 1986: this was about Tyco Brahe.

Alternatively, there’s a place in Teba in Andalucia called “El castillo de estrella” (it says here) that commemorates a battle fought in 1330, with a confused (and mythological-sounding) linked story about Robert the Bruce’s heart in a silver casket being taken to the Holy Land. Errrrm… you had to be there, I guess. But I think I’ll stick with the Brahe version, if that’s OK with you?

I’ll admit it: I spend so much time (and money) servicing my 100-a-year non-fiction book habit, it’s been a while since I’ve strayed into the world of fiction. I did read Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and “Digital Fortress” (yuk), just in case there was anything I should flag in my book (I mentioned his “O Draconian Devil!” and “Oh, lame saint” anagrams in chapter 6). Actually, the last novel I read was Susanna Clarke’s epic “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell“.

But with the 2008 Voynichian novel tsunami fast approaching us all, I thought I’d warm up for Michael Cordy’s forthcoming VMs book by reading his first book, “The Messiah Code” (1997): this follows the generic blockbuster template, mixing together fat themes (religion, gene therapy, gene paranoia) with thin characters.

Unfortunately… though the writing is pacy and spare throughout, Cordy’s plotting inexperience shows through everywhere. The book ends up like an argument between two kids playing cliche Top Trumps – who would win, the genius Nobel laureate geneticist fighting for his child’s life, or the ruthless, conflicted, 2000-year old super-rich Templaresque secret society? The perky female black genius Nobel laureate computer scientist from the ‘hood, or the shape- and gender-shifting unfeeling uber-killer with a surprising childhood secret? You feel like asking: yeah, and would Mechagodzilla kick the Transformers’ hollow butts?

In the end, for all its page-turning readability “The Messiah Code” is a book about ciphers, for that is what all its characters are – nulls, blanks, voids, zeroes. But maybe that’s the whole point: perhaps all that blockbuster readers want is a satisfying mental knot to untangle on the beach, and aren’t really interested in much beyond that.

At least Michael Cordy did his research properly, so the “science bit” largely holds up: and for that I was grateful (though a “terrabyte” did sneak in somewhere, *sigh*). But I hope he’s come a long way in the ten years since…

The story of how an Englishman apparently invented the telescope in the mid-sixteenth century is not as well-known as perhaps it ought to be. Its outline was first proposed in 1991 by Colin Ronan, the then president of the British Astronomical Association (and so a credible source): a very readable set of articles (though sadly without matching illustrations) is here, from which I quote below.

Essentially, it boils down to this: that an English Renaissance surveyor and author called Leonard Digges (ca. 1520 – ca. 1559) constructed what was called at the time “perspective glasses” (the term ‘telescope’ did not appear until the 17th century), quite probably for surveying purposes. However, it seems likely that his son Thomas Digges pointed them to the heavens, several decades prior to Galileo.

From a Voynichological perspective, one of the nice features of the story is that one of our old friends features centrally: when Leonard Digges died, his 13-year old son Thomas was placed under the guardianship of none other than John Dee. Dee, in his preface to Billingsley’s 1570 translation of Euclid had this to say:

  • ‘He may wonderfully helpe him selfe, by Perspective glasses. In which (I trust) our posterity will prove more skillfull and expert, and to greater purposes, than in these days, can (almost) be credited to be possible.’

This, when taken with Thomas Digges’ own books and a 1583 report by William Bourne (“an expert in navigation and gunnery”), does all seem to comprise a ‘smoking gun’ proof that the two Digges in many significant ways predated Galileo by several decades. Which is not, of course, to diminish Galileo’s historical importance per se: but rather, to show that the history of inventions is rarely as simple and linear as one might think.

One last thing: in the Netherlands patent uproar over the first ‘official’ telescopes, “the son of Sacharias Jansen [a better Wikipedia page is here], another of the claimants, later stated that his father [Hans Jannsen, the probable inventor of the microscope in 1590] already had a telescope of Italian manufacture, dated 1590“. So the full story behind the invention of the telescope most likely remains obscure and tangled…

To mark the four hundredth anniversary next year of Galileo’s first astronomical use of the telescope in 1609, the IAU has designated 2009 “The International Year of Astronomy” (IYA2009): which is likely to be the trigger for a glut of telescope history-themed books (probably no bad thing, in my opinion). But what happened before 1609?

I recently mentioned here “the lost 150 years”, that awkward pause between the widespread availability of both convex and concave lenses (circa 1450) and the appearance of microscopes (circa 1590) and telescopes (circa 1600). Such compound optical devices could have been invented by anyone during that period, and the best-documented pre-1600 telescopic claim so far seems to be from Thomas Digges (John Gribbin discusses this in one of his books). But could yet other inventors (such as possibly the author of the Voynich Manuscript) have pre-dated Digges, Janssen and co?

There were plenty of alchemical-style claims to that effect, most notably from H. C. Agrippa, who wrote in his “Occult Philosophy” that “And I knew how to make by them wonderful things, in which any one might see whatsoever he pleased at a long distance” (Book II, Chapter 23) . However, there was (in this case) apparently nothing of real substance behind his bluster.

All the same, I asked on the HASTRO-L mailing list if there were any up-to-the-minute books on this far-too-quiet period, and was delighted to learn (via Peter Abrahams) of a book that is just coming out from Harvard University Press: “Galileo’s Glassworks, The Telescope and the Mirror” (2008), by Eileen Reeves, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton, who specialises in the study of early modern scientific literature. Though the publisher’s blurb seems to make her book sound over-focused on the minutiae of Galileo’s rhetoric, I’m assured that its first half does actually take in the wider pre-1609 field of view (which is precisely what I was most interested in).

The release date for Glassworks is either January 2008 or 28th February 2008 (depending on who you ask): there are already some copies for sale in the US, but it’s only pre-ordering in the UK at the moment. I’ll review it here when my copy arrives (counting the days)…

From the apparent tsunami of Voynich fiction about to crash down on our literary shores over the next year, it might seem that the VMs had never previously appeared in a novel. Yet this is not exactly true…

For example, “Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone” (Max McCoy, Bantam Books, 1995) is based entirely around the Voynich Manuscript: set in March 1933, a mad scholar called Sarducci has stolen the VMs (which is actually a map), and so Indy chases him through Mussolini’s fascist Italy all the way to an amazing alchemical crypt in the desert… From what I’ve read of this book, it actually seems to be a pleasantly pulpy read, very much in tune with the actual VMs, and with a refreshing lack of power-mad Jesuit priests. However, I should warn you that it will be re-released on 29th April 2008, presumably to try to ride the whole 2008 Voy-niche publishing wave. *sigh*

Another pair of VMs-themed books came to my attention via the Bellairsia blog, which is devoted to books by the writer John Anthony Bellairs. His most famous novel was “The Face in the Frost” (1969), a fantasy novel in which Prospero and Roger Bacon fight against a mysterious grimoire that sounds not at all dissimilar to the VMs. After Bellairs’ death in 1991, his estate commissioned author Brad Strickland to complete and continue Bellairs’ various series: and it is in one of these that protagonist Johnny Dixon faces “The Wrath of the Grinning Ghost” (1999), which features the VMs in a starring role.

Connections between J.R.R.Tolkien and the VMs have been suggested in the past. According to Voynich mailing list member Anthony, Tolkien did indeed own a copy of at least one page of the VMs, which may have played a small part in influencing his choice of the fantasy scripts in his books. As I recall, there were a number of people in Tolkien’s Oxford circle that had an interest in early modern scientific manuscripts, so this does seem a perfectly sensible idea.

Many people have also wondered about the relationship between H.P.Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and the Voynich Manuscript: Colin Wilson based a short story called “The Return of the Lloigor” around this, and returned to the theme at the end of his novel “The Philosopher’s Stone”.

All the same, this modest pile of Voynich fiction looks set to triple in height this year… interesting times!


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?