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!

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! 😮