Anyone of a Voynichological leaning who is near London on Wednesday 19th March should consider popping by Treadwell’s in Covent Garden for a lecture by William Kiesel on “The Circle of Arte – Magic Circles in the Western Grimoire Tradition” (Ouroboros Press). It’s £5 (though reserve a place earlier if you can, it’s only fair): as normal with Treadwell’s, arrive there at 7.15pm for a 7.30pm start.

The reason, if you don’t already know it, is that there is a mysterious magic circle in the Voynich itself, on page f57v. In my book, I briefly (pp.124-125) discussed a number of similarities between this and folio 105v of Clm 849, the 15th century Munich manuscript analyzed in Richard Kieckhefer’s reasonably well-known book “Forbidden Rites“: but despite my best efforts, this probably only scratched the surface. I am thoroughly looking forward to learning more about this fascinating subject: let me know if you’re coming, and I hope to see you there!

I’ve booked myself onto what promises to be a fascinating three-day workshop run between University of Warwick (in Coventry) and the Warburg Institute (in London), on “Resources and Techniques for the Study of Renaissance and Early Modern Culture“. It aims to give post-grads the kind of in-depth specialist research training they need to look at Renaissance / early modern artefacts in a very cross-disciplinary way, by grasping many of the different ways and methodologies available for researching them.

It is almost a top-end DIY course for Voynichologists, as it seems to cover every one of the areas of Voynichological interest (apart from herbal mss, which basically forms a medieval genre)… which is of course why I’ve signed up for it. Oh, and the lecturers are fantastic too (don’t get me started on yet another Charles Burnett panegyric).

But the match between the two is perhaps not as coincidental as you might at first think. What is not widely known is that the Warburg has a deep affinity with all things Voynichian, thanks to its long association with hidden/occult histories and medieval astrology. Its library has a number of books on the VMs (all on the same open shelf, so much friendlier than the British Library), and so it would be highly unsurprising if breakthroughs in our understanding of the VMs came from someone schooled in this Saxl / Panofsky / Yates / Burnett tradition.

Still, the Voynich’s academic “kiss-of-death” reputation lingers: and perhaps rightly so, for it is painfully easy to misread its layers and signs, and glimpse in them a story written only on the not-so-blank slate of your own overfertile psyche. All the same, we are now in an era which tolerates multiple academic [hi]stories, even things like Liane Lefaivre’s re-reading (of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili as having been written by Leon Battista Alberti), which seems at odds with the (basically Venetian) object itself (it’s signed, for goodness’ sake!): so perhaps the penalty for daring to try is not as high as it formerly was?

A “life coach, motivational speaker and writer” called Andrea Peters is trying to sell the rights to her book “I’m Sorry… Love Anne” (AKA “Don’t Worry… Love Anne” AKA “The Voynich Solution“). The first twelve chapters (all fairly short) are here, which should give you an idea of the kind of brisk, international, Dan Brown-esque caper she’s aiming towards.

She’s done some crypto research, which is good (Gabriele de Lavinde is there, as is Leon Battista Alberti), though her rendering of early Renaissance history is rather stiff, and my heart did sink a little when Christian Rosenkreutz walked in… *sigh*

And her idea of the earth-shattering secret hidden in the VMs? Well… people keep getting killed with some kind of sound weapon that is millennia old, and there’s stuff about the natural frequency each natural thing has: so it’s probably going to turn out to be something along the lines of Keely‘s harmonics stuff.

From a Voynichological perspective, I really hope the key page she’s talking about is f56r: according to Stan Tenen, this seems to depict the inverse or hyperbolic (“1/r”) spiral, that could well be based on Egyptian mathematics: there’s an old post from me (in 2001) on this subject here. As I recall, the Ancient Egyptians constructed their maths around whole number fractions (1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, etc but with the addition of 3/4), and this spiral seems oddly reminiscent of that. Just so you know! 😮

Confusingly, there’s another novel out there looking for a publisher called “The Voynich Solution” (2005) by William Michael Campbell (which may possibly explain why Andrea Peters is stumbling around looking for an alternative title). There’s a PDF online with the first eight pages, but it’s immediately clear that, as part of his research, the author has been reading my posts. 🙂 He locks in to 1450 as a probable date of origin (pretty close!), and mentions that much of the painting was done later (my goodness, he’s attentive!) Perhaps Compelling Press (my tiny publishing company) should consider publishing this… something to think about!

The Charles Fort Institute has set Round Two of its vote to find the 7 Fortean Wonders of the World (though you need to register to take part). Naturally, the Voynich Manuscript is in there (unsurprisingly, it gets my vote): but it would be nice to be able to vote for Giza and the Antikythera Mechanism too. Sadly, the Phaistos Disk didn’t make it past Round One: but what can you do?

Round Two closes on 21st December 2007, whereupon the top 20 go on to the third and final round. Not really hugely important, but a bit of fun nonetheless. Enjoy! 🙂

Lynn Thorndike’s vast, multi-volume “History of Magic and Experimental Science” stands as a gigantic monument to the huge amount of, well, stuff that is in the archives but which mainstream historians circa 1920 thought to be unworthy of discussion. Thankfully, things have now changed somewhat!

Kessinger Publishing has reprinted much of Thorndike’s work: but (unless I’ve misinterpreted things) their modern print-on-demand reprints seem to be about £25 for 200-ish page segments, whereas copies of the original eight volumes (published in pairs in 1923, 1934, 1941, and 1958, and each volume of which is 600-700 pages) go second hand for £30 or so.

Even something like Thorndike’s “History of Medieval Europe” can be picked up for £5 or less, while the Kessinger POD reprint is more than £20. Bizarre economics!

As with David Kahn, everyone namechecks Thorndike: but few have read all 6,000-odd pages of the HoMaES series. I’ll admit it: though to date I’ve only ever read sections as required, one day I’ll read the whole lot… I hope!

All in all, there really doesn’t (unless you know better?) seem to be a Thorndike 2.0, a decent modern alternative to HoMaES in (say) only 1,500 pages or less. So even 50 years on from Vols VII and VIII, the new Thorndike is still Thorndike!

For a while, I’ve been wondering about what “the new Kahn” (i.e. what the updated, 2007 equivalent of David Kahn’s “The Codebreakers) would be. On a whim, I recently bought a couple of plausible-looking cryptography history books, just in case one of them might be that book…

Codes, Ciphers, Secrets and Cryptic Communication” by Fred B. Wrixon is quite cool. In its 704 pages of cryptographic and cryptologic fun, it bounces along at a fair old rate, not only discussing plenty of different historical ciphers but also describing ways of cracking them – both making and breaking. It has two brief pages on the VMs (pp.555-556). Its weakness (in my opinion) is that it is somewhat fragmented (in an encyclopaedic kind of way), possibly because it was formed by merging two earlier books by the same author into a single larger book. Good if you want a quicky book to tell you how to break historical ciphers. But not Kahn.

Codebreaker: The history of secret communication” by Stephen Pincock and Mark Frary is OK, but didn’t really work for me. Consistently misspelling Trithemius as Trimethius (even in the index) didn’t help in this regard: but the book has other merits, such as the glorious colour photograph of the Phaistos disk on page 5. It’s a well-illustrated piece of popular science journalism, with three colourful pages on the VMs (pp.49-51, showing f11r, f56r, and f67r1-2, though labelling them “Nature and alchemy” might be a little be off the mark). Random House obviously thought there was a need (in these post-Da Vinci Code days) for a colourful cryptography / history / journalism thing: I’m not so sure. I suspect the authors would have been better off telling a historical story than what they produced: beautifully produced, but not really enough of any substance, nor large enough to be a proper coffee table book. (Sorry!)

Which leads me back to David Kahn. If you are serious about reading up on the history of cryptography, I’d suggest searching on for a copy of the unabridged (1136 page!) version of “The Codebreakers”. For now, Kahn is still king! 😮

I have to admit that I find answering the question “What is the Voynich Manuscript?” really hard. I suspect this is mainly because, in the absence of a ‘smoking gun’ proof, there are just about as many ideas of the Voynich Manuscript as there are people looking at it. Demonic, pagan, sexy, cool, meaningless, hoax, deception, written glossolalia, channelling, suicide manual, end-times warning, vowel-less Old Ukrainian, young da Vinci… the list goes on (and on).

Perhaps the most brutally candid answer would be that it is “a Scooby Doo mystery for grownups“: but I guess you knew that already. 😮

If you’re still struggling for your own answer, here’s an excellent article by Lev Grossman from Lingua Franca, way back in April 1999.

Just mooching around the web looking for Trithemius-related stuff (as you do), I saw a reference to Renaissance “telescopes, microscopes and bezicles” in the first (free) page of Polygraphia and the Renaissance sign: The case of Trithemius, from the Springer journal Neophilologus. I had never heard of “bezicles”, so decided to have a sniff around, see what I was missing.

It turns out that the author meant the (more modern French) “besicles“, meaning ‘spectacles‘ (though people usually say lunettes): there’s a glossary of spectacles terms here. Now: besicles was originally bericles, where the ‘r’ somehow transformed into ‘s’ over the centuries (but you’d have to ask a linguist about this subtle shift). And bericles was in turn from beryl, a “smoke-coloured stone” (according to this fun page on spectacles history) used to grind the lenses from – although pure beryl is colourless, & it is the impurities in it which give it colour.

There’s a bigger article on spectacles in the American Journal of Gastroenterology (yes, really!), though you’d need to pay to read it (boo, hiss).

Perhaps because the Voynich hacker who gets killed at the start of Charles Cecil’s “Broken Sword 3” was modelled (as well as texture mapped) on me, I have a certain amount of empathy with people who are so moved by the VMs that they weave it into their own stories. Here are a few links: as with all things, make of them what you will…

Voynich – Synopsis — this plays with the idea of Voynich obsession, and has the “tormented young mathematician” swap roles with his “Javanese cult-deprogrammer”. The VMs takes a supporting role here: it’s more of a road-story about the maths kid and the therapist.

Les Plantes (in French) — this is a teaser for a longer Voynich story. An architect gets given a copy of “Le Code Voynich” (the French near-facsimile edition of the VMs), tries automatic writing, and to his surprise (even though he dabbled with ouija boards when younger) gets given precise directions to the page upon which he should meditate in order to crack its code (just so you know, it’s f16v – the page with the four leather-red flowers). He empties his mind, follows the instructions, starts to fall into a kind of unconsciousness, and… [to be continued]. If you like it, tell the author, and he might finish it! 😉

Gabriel Knight fan fiction by David de Sola — This is more fan fiction about Sierra’s Gabriel Knight than about the VMs, but what the hey. At least this guy knows about the Beinecke (even if he does spin off into Dracula, AIDS and medical malpractics). Interestingly, he gives a couple of reaaaaally old VMs web pages as his source: but both are so ancient they aren’t even in the Wayback Machine. Oh well! 😉

Some Wraeththu fan fiction has the VMs as a key object, that gets decoded only when other related manuscripts are found. From “Strange figures of women taking a bath“, the author has at least looked at the VMs’ pictures (which is good). Though I’m not too sure about the rest…

Just thought I’d post a quick comment about Vladimir Sazonov’s suggestion that the “starred” recipe pages in the Voynich Manuscript form some kind of calendar, ie that they originally contained 365 / 366 stars arranged in some kind of date order. Here’s his page (from Sept 2005) describing this idea:-

The basic idea of a calendar here is not new: D’Imperio noted (“An Elegant Enigma”, p.21, 3.3.7) that Tiltman pointed out in 1975 that the original star-count would very probably have been 365, “thereby providing one ‘star recipe’ for each day of the year, possibly a set of astrological predictions or prescriptions.” The essence of Vladimir’s new idea is to count the days forward from the start and from the end, and to then note that many of them start at the 1st of the month (particularly in the second half). Feb 29th/Mar 1st would then align with a particularly ornate star, and there is a tiny star apparently added at the Spring Equinox.

If true, then to make the remaining 324 starred paragraphs fit the magical 365/366 number, the two folios (f109 and f110) in the missing central bifolio of the last quire would need to contain 41 or 42 starred paragraphs, ie roughly 10-11 per page. This is possible… but seems somehow out of sequence to me, as the only two folios with 10 on a page are f105 and f116. Also, Vladimir’s March/April/May/June seem just out of step, as though a few extra days have been inserted before them.

One important thing to consider here would be whether the pages as numbered are in the correct order (as per my book). If the rest of the ms is anything to go by, the answer would probably that it is not, but that there is still a high chance that any two adjacent folios were originally adjacent.

Here are some alternative ideas for a calendrical solution. If you group the months of the year together into sets of 3 at a time, you get the following four possible quarterly cycles:-

  • Jan – 90+1 / 91 / 92 / 92
  • Feb – 89+1 / 92 / 92 / 92
  • Mar – 92 / 92 / 91 / 90+1

Interestingly, f106-f108 contain 91 stars and f111-113 contain 92 stars in total. If these correspond to the Apr-Jun and Jul-Sep quarters, this might suggest that the f109/f110 bifolio was originally placed somewhere between the outermost bifolio 103/116 and the bifolio 106/113. If so, f109 might have contained only 10 or 11 stars (to bring 79 up to 90+1), while f110 might have contained 31 (to bring 61 up to 92).

At first sight, this seems counterintuitive: why have a folio with only 10 stars on? I would point out that the author has already done this on f116 (which would mark the end of the calendar year), while the 10-star f109 would also contain the end of the astrological year (at the Spring Equinox).

I also suspect that the 106/113 bifolio is out of order: and so my proposed sequence of pages would then be something along the lines of:-

  1. f103 – 19+14 – Jan 1st
  2. f104 – 13+13 – Feb 3rd
  3. f105 – 10+10 – Mar 1st
  4. f109 – 10+0 – Mar 21st – Spring Equinox to end of month, followed by blank page
  5. f107 – 15+15 – Apr 1st
  6. f108 – 16+16 – May 1st
  7. f106 – 15+14 – Jun 2nd
  8. f113 – 16+15 – Jul 1st
  9. f111 – 17+19 – Aug 1st
  10. f112 – 12+13 – Sep 6th
  11. f110 – 16+15 – Oct 1st
  12. f114 – 13+12 – Nov 1st
  13. f115 – 13+13 – Nov 26th
  14. f116 – 10+0 – Dec 22nd – Winter Solstice to end of month, followed by blank page

I don’t claim to know why this should be so: but it seems to me a slightly better calendrical match than Vladimir’s proposal. Perhaps one day when I get the chance to re-examine these pages, I might notice something that might confirm or refute one or both of these ideas… something to think about, all the same. 🙂