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. 😉

“El castillo de las estrellas” [Googled translation of the review here] by Enrique Joven is a science-y thriller, with the Voynich Manuscript placed right at the heart of the story. Once again, my heart sinks yet further towards my toes as I read that the plot revolves around a Jesuit scientist (*sigh*), as well as an astronomer (the same profession as the author’s) and an English teacher working in Mexico, all three protagonists caught up in a action-packed fugue danced beneath the gaze of ancient spirits (or something along those lines).

However, the good thing about the book is that it apparently puts the VMs within the context of early modern astronomy, which – given the whole of the astro section and the sun/moon symmetries, which are especially apparent once you’ve fixed up the page order in Quire 9 – has to be a real possibility. Also, there seems to be a lot going on, which is normally a good thing in novels. 🙂

Here‘s the publisher’s (Flash-heavy) page on the book: there’s a nice little quiz to do there, if your Spanish and knowledge of astrophysics are up for some fun (I kid you not). Here’s a YouTube interview with the author; his UK literary agent’s pitch for the book; and a 5-page Spanish PDF from the original publisher’s site (though it only recites late-16th century astronomical history, don’t struggle through it looking for any insight on the VMs on my account).

I don’t know: it all sounds a lot like Enrique Jovan has had to labour long and hard to bring the reader up to scratch on the VMs (which probably accounts for the high page count) within its presumed historical context (I’m guessing the author has plumped for 16th century, but I could be wrong). Perhaps that prolix mix – of journalism and plot – is the novelistic curse of the Voynich from which novelists have to engineer an escape, lest the reader gets trapped with them? 😮

Literature and the Voynich Manuscript remain uneasy bedfellows: whereas things like the Knights Templar or even (spare me, oh Lord!) medieval precursors of speculative masonry have a body of archives and associated respectable academics, the Voynich Manuscript has Rene Zandbergen and not much else. It’s all a bit empty in Voynichland, credential-wise. 🙁

Yet Voynichologists rarely have much of an interest in novels: and anyway, they don’t (as a group) exactly amount to anything that might sensibly be called “influential”. So: novels making use of the Voynich Manuscript would have to be aimed at the mainstream, while simultaneously providing a mini-introduction to the (real) VMs to bring readers up to speed. I have to say that this seems a fairly awkward mix, which would only work under certain conditions.

By way of comparison, the joy of “The Rule of Four” to me was that its two authors were trying to bring art history to life – but really, they were non-typical novelists, weaving a very particular kind of novel around the fascinating Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. If their next novel turns out to be based on the Voynich Manuscript, I think they would probably be able to carry it off: but I have to sound the warning that most other novelists would probably fail.

(Another danger is that a tiny piece of evidence emerges about the VMs before your novel finally goes to press [there’s usually a horribly long lead time in publishing] which causes one or more of the art historical assumptions you’ve used throughout the book to collapse abruptly. )

Anyway… “The Voynich Covenant” by “ex-special agent” Richard D. Weber is currently up for grabs for publishers: some foreign language rights have already been sold (good news for Bulgarian Voynich-novel-o-philes). There’s more on the author’s “dark protocols” website (if you can stand the visual clutter). Going through his book pitch, my heart inevitably sank just a little when an enigmatic stranger called “R. C. Christian” and a Jesuit priest (a hearty staple of Victorian penny dreadfuls: at least Dan Brown had the sense to upset Opus Dei instead) each pop up, but what can you do? To me, part of the thrill of the novel is seeing how its author takes a set of cliches and sets them on fire: but put too many of them in a row (like “beautiful forensic profiler Madison Chase”) and will it ever catch ablaze?

What should we call all these novels? ‘Voy-niche’ publishing? As a publisher myself (albeit on a small scale), I find the whole idea quite awful: the Voynich Manuscript still falls short of being a cliche well-known enough for a novelist to be able to turn on its head with any dramatic effect. It’s too marginal: the last big mainstream VMs view (Gordon Rugg’s Cardan Grille fakery) punted out there was unhelpful at best, nonsensical at worst, and fell far short of setting the world alight – basically, Rugg’s ‘no-message message’ is not really a great premise for a novel. Wired (bless them and their ex-NASA cotton socks) should do a piece on my book instead: Averlino’s story is more amazing than fiction. But that’s the beauty of the truth, isn’t it? ;-p

Much as I predicted, the Voynich Manuscript didn’t quite make it into the final list of Seven Fortean Wonders of the World, which ended up being (in no particular order):
Bigfoot / Yeti, Turin Shroud, Piri Reis Map, UFOs, Oak Island, Crop Circles, Nazca.

But just because I happen to think that neither the Piri Reis Map nor Crop Circles are actually Fortean doesn’t mean I think the Voynich Manuscript was somehow swindled (or Florida’ed, as I believe the modern technical term is). The underlying truth may well be that the cloud of ideas around the Voynich Manuscript is becoming (or is about to become) too mainstream for most connoisseurs of Forteana, making it just too sensible an object to be voted to the top.

And that’s probably a good thing, wouldn’t you say? [*]

[*] depending on your VQ score, in all probability. 🙂

The final round of voting has just opened: and (thankfully) the Voynich Manuscript has made it to the last 16. Register with the Charles Fort Institute to vote now! (whyever would you not vote?)

To be honest, I’m perfectly content that the VMs has made it this far: and it would be nice if it did get voted into the top 7… but the other 15 are all weird and wonderful (even if you think, as I do, that crop circles are probably a beautiful deception), and nobody can say what any Internet vote result will be. Perhaps the Martians will hijack the poll… *sigh*

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!