Back to the non-fiction grindstone, and next up on my list to read was the very promising-looking “Galileo’s Glassworks“, by Eileen Reeves: though this has as its main focus the issue of what Galileo knew (and when) about the Dutch telescope, I was told (by Peter Abrahams on HASTRO-L) that it also covers the pre-history of the telescope, which I was more interested in. I was intrigued to see how it would blend these two topics together: it sounded quite ambitious.

And indeed, just as promised, the book turned out to be a game of two very distinct halves. The first half was a kind of wide-roaming literature review of the classical, medieval and early modern texts that promised some kind of proto-telescopes or burning mirrors to their readers: that this was built on broadly the same foundations as Albert van Helden’s 1977 monograph “The Invention of the Telescope” is made completely clear in the acknowledgements at the end. Let’s be clear: the primary sources for this form a fragmentary, piecemeal soup, whose components interlock and separate eternally – despite all Reeves’ hard work, there is no emergent narrative, no thread, no causal proof to be had here. Yet she gives the impression of needing to draw out a story based on the 16th century reception of travellers accounts of the Pharos, in order to give a structural punchline to this section: but unfortunately this never quite hits the spot.

The second half is very much more focused, and reads quite differently: it focuses on the minutiae of correspondence of Galileo and his circle circa 1608-9, as they received (possibly unreliable) reports of mirrors and telescopes coming from France and Holland (often embedded in pro- or anti-Jesuit propaganda), and tried to make up their minds what to make of them – was the new Dutch telescope truly something amazing, or based on the mirror, or was it yet another tall tale?

In the end, Reeves’ central point (which hinges on whether Galileo thought the new telescope was built with a mirror or purely with lenses) is well argued, but extremely marginal: and it fails to mesh comfortably with the first half of her text. I came away feeling like I had read two 90-page monographs in quick succession: I desperately wanted her to find a way to knit the two together, to redeem her choice of structure – but this never really happened.

Look: “Galileo’s Glassworks” is a lovely, compact, readable book, and pleasantly affordable too (a snip at £14.20 for the hardback). But Reeves can’t really reconcile the broad generalities of the pre-history of the telescope with her ultra-close reading of Galileo’s “Starry Messenger” and his letters. Ultimately, what’s going on is some kind of mismatch in epistemological tone: the first half raises many open-ended issues, while the second half answers a single (quite different) question.

I suspect that somewhere along the way, Reeves lost track of whom she was talking to, and about what: the book ended up being just as much about Sarpi (or even about the ghost of della Porta!) as about Galileo himself, which is surely a sign that her aim drifted off true. Perhaps in the end she simply didn’t have enough to say about Galileo in the second half that hadn’t been amply said before: which would be a shame, as I would say the first half of her book is really very good, well worth the cover price on its own.

It’s a nice historical detective story, one kicked off by John Dee, Frances Yates‘ favourite Elizabethan ‘magus’ (though I personally suspect Dee’s ‘magic’ was probably less ‘magickal’ than it might appear), when he claimed to have told an angel that his “great and long desyre hath byn to be hable to read those tables of Soyga“. Dee lost his precious copy of the “Book of Soyga” (but then managed to find it again): when subsequently Elias Ashmole owned it, he noted that its incipit (starting words) was “Aldaraia sive Soyga vocor…“.

However, since Ashmole’s day it was thought to have joined the serried, densely-stacked ranks of long-disappeared books and manuscripts, in the “blue-tinted gloom” of some mythical, subterranean library not unlike the “Cemetery of Lost Books” in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel “The Shadow of the Wind” (2004)…

Fast-forward 400 years to 1994, and what do you know? Just like rush hour buses, two copies of the “Book of Soyga” turn up at once, both found by Deborah Harkness. Rather than searching for “Soyga“, she searched for its “Aldaraia…” incipit: which is, of course, what you were supposed to do (in the bad old days before the Internet).

It is a strange, transitional document, neither properly medieval (the text has few references to authority) nor properly Renaissance. There are some mysterious books referenced, such as the Liber Sipal and the Liber Munob: readers of my book “The Curse of the Voynich” may recognize these as simple back-to-front anagrams (Sipal = Lapis [stone], Munob = Bonum [Good], Retap Retson = Pater Noster [our Father]). In fact, Soyga itself is Agyos [saint] backwards.

But what was the secret hidden behind the 36 mysterious “tables of Soyga” that had vexed John Dee so? 36×36 square grids filled with oddly patterned letters, they look like some kind of unknown cryptographic structure. Might they hold a big secret, or might they (like many of Trithemius’ concealed texts) just be nonsense, a succession of quick brown foxes endlessly jumping over lazy dogs?

  • oyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoy

Jim Reeds, one of the great historical code-breakers of modern times, stepped forward unto the breach to see what he could make of these strange tables: he transcribed them, ran a few tests, and (thank heavens) worked out the three-stage algorithm with which they were generated.

Stage 1: fill in the 36-high left-hand column (which I’ve highlighted in blue above) with a six-letter codeword (such as ‘orrase‘ for table #5, ‘Leo’) followed by its reverse anagram (‘esarro‘), and then repeat them both two more times

Stage 2: fill each of the 35 remaining elements in the top line in turn with ((W + f(W)) modulo 23), where W = the element to the West, ie the preceding element. The basic letter numbering is straightforward (a = 1, b = 2, c = 3, … u = 20, x = 21, y = 22, and z = 23), but the funny f(W) function is a bit arbitrary and strange:-

  • x f(x) x f(x) x f(x) x f(x)
    a…2, g…6, n..14, t…8
    b…2, h…5, o…8, u..15
    c…3, i..14, p..13, x..15
    d…5, k..15, q..20, y..15
    e..14, l..20, r..11, z…2
    f…2, m..22, s…8

Stage 3: fill each row in turn with ((N + f(W)) modulo 23), where N = the element to the North, ie the element above the current element.

For example, if you try Stage 2 out on ‘o’, (W + f(W)) modulo 23 = (14 + 8) modulo 23 = 22 = ‘y’, while (22 + 15) modulo 23 = 14 = ‘o’, which is why you get all the “yoyo”s in the table above.

And there (bar the inevitable miscalculations of something so darn fiddly, as well as all the inevitable scribal copying mistakes) you have it: the information in the Soyga tables is no more than the repeated left-hand column keyword, plus a rather wonky algorithm.

You can read Jim Reeds paper here: a full version (with diagrams) appeared in the pricy (but interesting) book John Dee: Interdisciplinary essays in English Renaissance Thought (2006). The End.

Except… where exactly did that funny f(x) table come from? Was that just, errrm, magicked out of the air? Jim Reeds never comments, never remarks, never speculates: effectively, he just says ‘here it is, this is how it is‘. But perhaps this f(x) sequence is in itself some kind of monoalphabetic or offseting cipher to hide the originator’s name: Jim is bound to have thought of this, so let’s look at it ourselves:-


If we discount the “2 2” at the start and the “8 8 15 15 15 2” at the end as probable padding, we can see that “14” appears three times, and “5 14” twice. Hmm: might “14” be a vowel?

  • 2 3 5 14 2 6 5 14 15 20 22 14 8 13 20 11 8
  • a b d n a e d n o t x n g m t k g
  • b c e o b f e o p u y o h n u l h
  • c d f p c g f p q x z p i o x m i
  • d e g q d h g q r y a q k p y n k
  • e f h r e i h r s z b r l q z o l
  • f g i s f k i s t a c s m r a p m
  • g h k t g l k t u b d t n s b q n
  • h i l u h m l u x c e u o t c r o
  • i k m x i n m x y d f x p u d s p
  • k l n y k o n y z e g y q x e t q
  • l m o z l p o z a f h z r y f u r
  • m n p a m q p a b g i a s z g x s
  • n o q b n r q b c h k b t a h y t
  • o p r c o s r c d i l c u b i z u
  • p q s d p t s d e k m d x c k a x
  • q r t e q u t e f l n e y d l b y
  • r s u f r x u f g m o f z e m c z
  • s t x g s y x g h n p g a f n d a
  • t u y h t z y h i o q h b g o e b
  • u x z i u a z i k p r i c h p f c
  • x y a k x b a k l q s k d i q g d
  • y z b l y c b l m r t l e k r h e
  • z a c m z d c m n s u m f l s i f

Nope, sorry: the only word-like entities here are “tondean”, “catsik”, and “zikprich”, none of which look particularly promising. This looks like a dead end… unless you happen to know better? 😉

A final note. Jim remarks that one of the manuscripts has apparently been proofread, with “f[letter]” marks (ie fa, fb, fc, etc); and surmises that the “f” stands for “falso” (meaning false), with the second letter the suggested correction. What is interesting (and may not have been noted before) is that in the Voynich Manuscript, there’s a piece of marginalia that follows this same pattern. On f2v, just above the second paragraph (which starts “kchor…”) there’s a “fa” note in a darker ink. Was this a proof-reading mark by the original author (it’s in a different ink, so this is perhaps unlikely): or possibly a comment by a later code-breaker that the word / paragraph somehow seems “falso” or inconsistent? “kchor” appears quite a few times (20 or so), so both attempted explanations seem a bit odd. Something to think about, anyway…

Some European Voynichy things that have caught my eye recently: make of them what you will…

A 3-part Spanish-language documentary on the VMs written by Eric Frattini, and viewable online (just click the big green buttons). Voynich News regulars will recognize him as the author of Voynich-themed novel “El Quinto Mandamiento” (the fifth commandment), which I touched upon here.

Here’s some Italian poetry, including a couple of poems apparently on the Voynich (hence the image of the VMs’ nine-rosette page at the top). The first of the two starts something like “I have a strange form of nausea“: yup, that’s the VMs, alright. 🙂

On Tuesday (19th February 2008), there’s a program scheduled on German radio WDR 5/530 at 16:05 about our old friend Beinecke MS 408 (A.K.A. the Voynich Manuscript), presented by Sven Preger.

You might reasonably wonder whether this is all part of a diffuse European interest in the VMs: and I think you’d be right. According to Google Trends, the primary languages of people who Google for “Voynich” is (in descending order): French, Italian, Spanish, German, English, Dutch, Polish, Japanese, Portuguese. Though I should also note that over the last 12 months (probably thanks to the novels by Enrique Joven and Eric Frattini) Spaniards searched for “Voynich” slightly more than the French. Anglophone interest in the VMs would appear to be practically nil (apart from Melvyn Bragg): which is either a really good thing or a really bad thing. I’m not sure which… you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Here’s a nice Voynich-themed oddity from the much-frayed edge between C.P.Snow’s “Two Cultures” of art and science.

A contemporary painter called Shardcore explores the history of science by painting famous scientists and historical scientific objects: and was so entertained by the notion that Ethel Lilian Boole – the daughter of the famous logician George Boole – came to own the Voynich Manuscript (she married Wilfrid Voynich, of course) that he decided to paint a picture celebrating it: and you can see the result here, together with a time-lapse recording of the painter as he painted it.

In Voynichological circles, this connection is old news: the website of my old Voynichian chum Jeff Haley is called The George Boole Fanclub, for precisely this reason. Incidentally, I have spent five years trying not to think of Julian Clary’s former life as The Joan Collins’ Fan Club (terrible, but surely better than “Gillian Pie-Face”?) whenever I see this, but as yet without success. Perhaps in another five years, when Julian Clary has become as horribly mainstream as Jim Davidson (sorry, but that’s how showbiz works)…

The quotation which adorns the picture is from George Boole: “Language is an instrument of human reason, and not merely a medium for the expression of thought“. Which is nice. But it this true of Voynichese?

Having just worked my way through Vol III of Lynn Thorndike’s “History of Magic & Experimental Science”, I thought I’d give my reading eyes a rest with some fiction: and so turned to “Vellum” by Australian writer Matt Rubinstein, a 2007-vintage Voynich-themed novel I mentioned here before.

The story revolves around Jack, a translator/subtitler who, while working on a near-untranslatable Russian film, stumbles upon an unreadable (and unapologetically Voynich-like) manuscript. Many of the other characters are librarians or collectors of obscure aphorisms, who seem to share his delight not so much in etymology, but in the living texture of language, its flow. However, the book’s central irony is that though Jack can read many languages, he cannot read the people around him: while their lives are complex and conflicted, his is empty – and so he allows the strange manuscript to fill his void.

Of course, while at first he can make no sense of it, under UV light its margins yield many clues to its provenance and history: and as Jack becomes progressively more attuned to its nuances and strange ur-language, it begins to reveal details to him of a fantastical machine to build, not entirely unlike a medieval version of the one in Carl Sagan‘s novel “Contact” (you know, the one filmed with Jodie Foster).

I have to say that at one point while reading Vellum, I did find myself completely immersed: this was when Jack’s growing obsession for his pet manuscript (and his disconnection from the world) suddenly lurched and exceeded my own. I felt the urge to try to pull him back from going over the brink: perhaps this was Matt Rubinstein’s focus for the book, to help readers find and explore the point where they felt uncomfortable with the change in Jack’s downward arc.

Though it has a contemporary European vibe to its vocabulary, Vellum is firmly situated in the Australian geographical and historical landscapes (spinifex, First Fleet, etc): and is all the fresher and more engaging for it. The paradoxical idea of an inland desert lighthouse recurs through the book, and (surprisingly to me) one such does exist, at Point Malcolm: I think this nicely mirrors various Voynich-like conundrums, which I’m sure you can work out for yourself.

In short, I like Vellum: though not perfect (plot-wise, the explosion is a bit clumsy, for example: and half-quoting Foucault’s quoting Borges don’t really work), it does have a lot going for it. For the mass market, though, I think the issue is whether Rubinstein manages to find just the right balance between research and story, between exposition and narrative: even though a few times he does err a little too far towards the former, overall I think he earns enough goodwill from the latter to get away with it. Buy it, read it, enjoy it! 🙂

Yesterday, I posted up a low-resolution image of some Codice Olindo ciphertext: it appears to be a set of slightly-accessorized 8-directional arrows (and a few double-headed arrows, plus some additional shapes (punctuation?)). It struck me when I woke up this morning that – statistics aside – this might simply be a kind of arrow-based pigpen cipher, where the arrows point to the appropriate corner of the 3×3, and the accessorization indicates which 3×3 block to refer to.

Typically, modern-day code-breakers focus (if not over-focus) on the transcription and computer analyses. However, people are sometimes motivated by quite different things from pure security – the psychology is at least as important. Pigpen is easy because you can decrypt it very fast (an arrow-based pigpen would be at least as quick to read as a ‘proper’ one), and perhaps this is what Olindo Romano wanted. And it seems likely to me that he thought/thinks he’s cleverer than all the people around him (whether that’s true or not).

Of course, this is the kind of approach I have used when looking at the Voynich Manuscript, so it should come as no surprise that this is how I look at things. I wonder: if the Italian “mathematicians” who have deciphered this cipher plotted out the letters they have found on 3×3 arrow-pigpen grids, what would they find?

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