A few years back, Bill Walsh sent me a (fairly early, as I recall) draft of his vaguely-Voynich-Manuscript-themed novel to have a look at. And now that a proper copy has finally landed on my doorstep, all finished and shiny, the inevitable question arises…

Is it any good?

Tales From The Black Chamber: A Supernatural Thriller

First things first: anyone who fills their bookshelves solely with High Literature can look away now. “Tales From The Black Chamber” was written more as an amuse-bouche, to the point that many of the book’s protagonists were simply light-hearted pastiches of Bill’s friends at the time. He even mentions me (p.110) as an interesting Voynich theorist (but don’t hold that against him, it’s mercifully brief).

His story races past all manner of things cryptographic and demonological, with a sassy female bibliophile main character who gets swept up (mostly unwillingly) in a world-spanning story that’s far more fin du monde than fan-fic. Even though knowing a bit about Richard Kieckhefer and the history of magic circles beforehand might help the reader a little, such research fare is certainly far from essential here. Oddly enough, I didn’t remember the story’s ending at all from when I read it the first time round (perhaps it changed along the way?), but it did wrap everything up quite satisfyingly.

So… what are the scores, George Dawes? Well, my arithmetic goes like this: Tales From The Black Chamber gets four stars, basically for being pacy, genuinely readable, not outstaying its welcome, and having characters you don’t actually want to punch after half a page. The extra half a star I’d really like to give it for The Best Gratuitous Inclusion Of A Mongolian Shaman gets cancelled out by The Worst Job Offer (And Least Plausible Job Acceptance) In History Ever Ever (Ever), along with the main characters’ hyperactive overuse of weaponry (despite the fact that this has become completely par for the course in a primarily American genre, arguably).

Even though Bill seems never to have expected it to turn out so well, I think he’s ended up doing a damn fine job: and anyone who secretly enjoys the warm buzz of reading about necromancy and the supernatural that always seems to be a mere half-step away from the Voynichian research mainstream will probably enjoy his book. Good luck, Bill, I hope it does well! 🙂

PS: doubtless some people (OK, mainly Americans) will actually rather enjoy all that gun fetishry, but it’s a big Internet out there, with plenty of space to write your own reviews if such a thing wouldst pleaseth thee greatly. If so, then go ahead, knocketh thyself out. 🙂

Put wrestling fan US President-elect Donald Trump in the ring with the Voynich Manuscript, and who would win? Actually, the two may be more evenly matched than you think…

For a start, both are surrounded by groups of people who claim to know what they mean (but almost certainly don’t), while remaining utterly unfathomable.

And as far as street cred go, both have appeared in the Marvel Universe: Trump in New Avengers Vol. 1 #47

…and the Voynich Manuscript in “Black Widow & The Avengers” #18:


It’s also hard not to notice that the Voynich Manuscript author’s apparent obsession with (mostly) naked nymphs…

…oddly parallels Trump’s long association with (and indeed ownership of) Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Universe (just try not to mention Miss Mexico, that might not end well):

Moreover, they are both big on the East Coast (New York and New Haven respectively), where both have achieved notoriety, each in their own unique way. Also, it’s hard not to find anyone commenting on either Donald Trump or the Voynich Manuscript who doesn’t in some way use them as blank canvases, projecting what they want (or perhaps fear) to see onto them.

Yet perhaps this hard-to-pin-downness and malleability (qualities eerily like those of the Voynich), ultimately, formed the core secret of Trump’s success at the presidential polls: given such a long series of mixed and often contradictory messages, people – like so many Voynich theorists – heard what they wanted or hoped to hear, who can say?

And finally, both arguably achieved their biggest public goals in November 2016: on the 1st, the Voynich Manuscript was published by Yale University Press in a sumptuous (if largely uncritical) edition…

…while on the 8th, The Donald defeated The Wicked Witch. Just like a fairy tale, right? (Which is, of course, not the same as a happy ending – the Brothers Grimm were often as grim as their name.)

To my eyes, perhaps the most unsettling comparison between Donald Trump and the Voynich Manuscript is that November 2016 also marked the end of a quest for them both: a quest for respectability, to become part of the Establishment… but on their own terms. By which I mean that they are both (I think) now starting to re-cast and reinvent the whole idea of what the Establishment means in 2017 and beyond.

Will it be long before swathes of politicians remould their ever-fickle personae in Trump’s image, or before history textbooks start to use the Voynich Manuscript as didactic material? Right now, I’m not sure I’m massively comfortable about either of these paths, to be honest: but perhaps both are now somehow inevitable.

Me, I’m neither a fan nor a critic of Donald Trump: yet I can’t help but be struck how his quest for the Presidency was effectively won via a prolonged gladiatorial beauty contest, much like a peculiar merger of both his love of wrestling (a televisual theatre of pre-teen anger) and Miss (Whatever) pageants (a televisual theatre of sexless beauty).

And I can’t help wondering if – like Voynich researchers, ever reaching for the apparently unattainable – it will turn out that he was more driven by winning the ultimate competition for political power than the idea of actually holding the reins (and the burdensome moral responsibilities) of high office. Similarly, would the Voynich Manuscript still hold its particular appeal if we could read it, if its quest for meaning was finally over?

I was mooching round the British Academy’s website a little earlier (I was trying to find the Neil Ker Memorial Fund, which I had forgotten the name of), when I noticed its page on British Academy Conferences – this is where ‘any’ UK citizen can propose a conference on any subject (as long as they’re prepared to run it themselves, and don’t mind being turned down with no reason being given).

And so the (as yet hypothetical) question naturally follows: if I was organizing a British Academy-hosted conference on the Voynich Manuscript, how would I approach the challenge? What should that kind of Voynich Manuscript conference look like?

What Isn’t Worth Looking At

It’s easy enough to list all the things I wouldn’t want to let onto the podium:
* Voynich theories [– too boring for words –]
* Voynich metatheories [– too sad for words –]
* Voynich iconography / iconology [– too free-floating for words –]
* Voynich linguistics [– sorry, but it’s just not written in an obscure language –]
* Voynich cryptology [– sorry, but it’s just not written in any obviously categorisable cipher –]

Some may be surprised that I would exclude both Voynich linguistics and Voynich cryptology. The simple reason for this is that I very strongly believe that we still don’t know enough about the Voynich’s basics to do meaningful analysis about either. For example, the existence of “Neal Key”-like behaviour offers a strong counter-argument not only against any kind of simple-minded linguistic take, but also against any kind of straightforward substitution cipher argument derived from a reading of cryptographic history.

The only reference to fifteenth century non-syllabic transposition ciphers I know of is a brief passage in Alberti’s book which I read as a reported speech account of a debate between Alberti and a transposition cipher practitioner. There is (unless you know better) not even one pre-1500 non-syllabic transposition cipher cryptogram still extant.

And so Voynich research is still in a position where neither linguistic approaches nor historical cryptological approaches have any ‘moral high ground’ to argue their respective cases. The Voynich Manuscript laughs pityingly at both camps’ feeble efforts.

So… what would I want attendees to be discussing, then?

The Joy Of The Concrete

As per my recent list of 100 Voynich (research) problems, there remains – despite all the excellent work that has been done since the Beinecke first released digital scans in 2004 – a huge amount of fundamental stuff that we still don’t know about the Voynich Manuscript.

The problem with not knowing how pages, paragraphs, lines, words, and even letters were constructed at a really basic level is that this makes it extremely difficult to know whether our transcriptions are a help or a hindrance. What order were lines written? (Philip Neal points to evidence that some line interleaving may have taken place in at least Q20.) What order were strokes in letters written? (Back in 2006 in “Curse”, I pointed to evidence that on some pages, the terminal EVA ‘n’ stroke of ‘daiin’ may have been added as a separate pass). And so forth.

Hence the core stuff I would want conference attendees to focus on is purely that-which-is-concrete: things that can be seen, highlighted, measured, cross-referenced, scanned, indexed, counted, etc. What were the original gatherings and their nesting orders? What happened to those gatherings to turn them into quires? What construction stages can we solidly identify? (There must be close to twenty of them, is my current best estimate). Can we order (or even date) these construction stages? What, ultimately, was the alpha state of the manuscript?

But this isn’t just a matter of assembling some codicological dream-team (even though many of the most basic unanswered questions are clearly codicological in nature). There’s also the tricky matter of the Currier Hands and the f116v marginalia (which would require a great deal of palaeographical expertise to untangle): and also the taxing matter of the differences between the various Currier languages, which is something closer to meta-linguistics than linguistics per se.

In all cases, the central include-it/don’t-include-it criterion would be whether any given analysis would advance our knowledge of the Voynich without having to assume any given historical narrative or theory far beyond the basic radiocarbon dating.

Never mind being carbon-neutral, could such a conference be theory-neutral? My hope is that it could, but I do appreciate that this is something many Voynich researchers could easily find difficult to work to, or to achieve.

Linguistics vs meta-linguistics

I think it’s fair to say that the long-term relationship between Voynich research and Voynich linguistic research has not been greatly productive. Given that the mainstream Voynich research position has for more than fifty years been that Voynichese is simply not a “language” in any straightforward sense of the term, it is dispiriting to see Stephen Bax continually raking over the same barren concrete surface, ever-announcing to the world that the few motes of dust he has accumulated do in fact do actually form the basis of some über-obscure hybridized historical linguistic system over and above mere statistical chance.

Would out-and-out linguistics researchers such as Stephen Bax be welcome at such a conference? With the putative roles reversed, Bax has certainly made it clear online that mainstream Voynich researchers (errrm… particularly me, it would seem) would be distinctly unwelcome at any Voynich-themed seminar he would organize.

But what annoys me so much about Bax isn’t that what he puts forward is just plain wrong (even though it is), but that by mistakenly telling all and sundry that the challenge of Voynichese is one where its beginning, middle and end all fall inside a purely linguistic domain, he utterly misrepresents the specific difficulties it poses.

Rather, what Voynichese does present to researchers is an overlapping combination of linguistics (e.g. actual language content), meta-linguistics (content transformation, e.g. abbreviations, codes, and transposition), and misdirection (e.g. substitution and steganography). Hence the primary difficulty we face with Voynichese is more one of determining its internal boundaries: what is misdirection, what is language, and what is meta-linguistics? If Voynich linguistic researchers could successfully accept that this question is the real one we need to answer before trying to push forward, then perhaps we could all start to work together in a reasonably productive way.

So I have to say I’m hugely encouraged that at least one Voynich linguistics researcher out there (Emma May Smith) has recently started looking in a genuinely agnostic way at all the difficult stuff that confounds those who try to stick to fairly simple-minded linguistics accounts. If only more linguistics researchers followed her example. *sigh*

Raman Imaging

There is a final twist: in the ideal world of my imagination, the conference stage would be part-laboratory too, with a live link between a Raman imaging device in New Haven looking at a series of pages of the Voynich Manuscript, sometimes through a microscope. The conference attendees would be able to discuss and propose different tests live, so that they could see “under the skin” (sometimes literally) of the manuscript.

But once you throw that into the mix, would this even qualify as a “conference” any more? Or would it actually be closer to some kind of Reality TV historical research happening, in a way that’s so acutely of-the-moment that it hasn’t even got its own annoying hashtag yet?

Put that way, should I be thinking in terms not of the British Academy, but of Channel 4 and Smithsonian TV?

A few days ago, I suggested that a person of interest to Somerton Man researchers might well be Dr Malcolm Glen Sarre, simply because his name and 118 Jetty Road address appeared (admittedly crossed out) in the production notes for the 1978 Littlemore TV documentary on the Somerton Man:

It would seem that someone on the production team thought (for whatever reason) that Dr Malcolm Sarre was the “city businessman” (as the story told to the papers of the day went) was the person whose car the Rubaiyat was found in the back of, parked in Glenelg’s Jetty Road.

And yet it was also said to have been parked outside a chemist’s. “But did it matter” (wrote Gerry Feltus in “The Unknown Man”, p.105) “if the discoverer was a doctor, chemist, dentist, jeweller, business person or a male or a female?”

118 Jetty Road?

A advertisement in the Glenelg Guardian of 24th July 1919 attests to a Mr A. C. Turner – a “Registered Surgeon Dentist” – moving his practice at “118 Jetty Road, Near Miller’s Corner”.

Then, in 5th August 1926, we hear that “Mr. HAROLD V. FRAYNE, Surgeon Dentist, has removed to 118 Jetty Road, Glenelg (next Palais Theatre)”, where he was apparently joined by Frank Smerdon in 1927.

Yet at the same time, we can see a 1926 advertisement for Mai Lyne: “BEAUTY AND HAIR SPECIALIST, 118 JETTY ROAD. Phone—744. Only personal attention. Shingling, Hair Coloring, and Water Waving a speciality” (Mai moved there in April 1926 with “all the latest MODERN TOILET APPLIANCES”).

Moreover, there’s a 1924 small ad for “OVERLAND Car. E.L., starter. perfect condition; £95 cash.—C. Bradley. 118, Jetty Road, Glenelg”: and so it turns out that 118 Jetty Road in Glenelg comprised both shops and residential accommodation.

In 27th September 1944, we can see someone there trying to buy a car: “WANTED car any make 1935-36 model, must be good order. Apply 118 Jetty rd., Glenelg. upstairs.”

Around 20th December 1946, another Smerdon dentist started at 118 Jetty Road: “Mr. John R. Smerdon, B.D.S., who successfully completed his dental course, has commenced practice at 118 Jetty Road, Glenelg. Mr. Smerdon was educated at Dominican Convent and Sacred Heart College, Glenelg.”

Finally, Dr.E.J.Swann (who was, as Byron Deveson found [The Times and Northern Advertiser, Peterborough South Australia 7th November 1947 page 3], in partnership with Dr Malcolm Glen Sarre) seems to have moved out of 118 Jetty Road in 1953.

And so it turns out that 118 Jetty Road does link doctors and dentists together… but not a chemist.

25 Jetty Road?

If we turn to pharmacists now, can we say what chemists were on Jetty Road?

According to the 1948 business map of Jetty Road that Derek Abbott once reconstructed (“Taken from 1948 SANDS McDOUGALL”), we appear to have several to choose from:
* 14 – Pier Pharmacy prop LP Nunn [– Lionel Peter Nunn, Robert W Fox Pharmacist and chiropodist –]
* 24a – Freeman Chemist
* 25 – Fisks Pharmacy D’Arcy Cock Manager [– D’Arcy Kenneth Robert Cock (born Glenelg, 21st October 1907) –]
* 62 – Mrs Bilbey aptmts AND FSMA Chemists Lean,GA mger
* 118 – Paul HD Chemist / Smerdon F Dentist / Swann Dr EJ

Yet I’m reasonably sure that Paul’s Pharmacy was located not at 118 Jetty Road (as Byron Deveson thought he had read), but on Miller’s Corner – an entire block further down Jetty Road. And so I suspect that it wasn’t really close enough to where Dr Malcolm Glen Sarre at 118 to be properly “parkable”.

Frank Smerdon aside, there were also other dentists further down Jetty Road:
* 97 – Smerdon Jno R. Dentist AND Kenniham MJ Dentist
* 106 – Jones Miss L.O.M & Thompson Dental Surgeon [– J. V. CHRISTOPHERSEN B.D.S. also worked here –]

I know that Byron has long had an eye on Mr Nunn and Mr Fox 🙂 , but to me, the Pier Pharmacy and Freeman’s Chemists are simply not ambiguous enough to keep the story going. All of which would seem to leave Fisk’s Pharmacy at 25 Jetty Road. Though this had opened several decades before, it was still running in 1950. Interestingly, this was next door to a “dentist surgeon” called C.R.Stratford, as we can see from this 1930 article:

“A new form of vandalism was experienced at Glenelg during Saturday night. The brass plate of Dr. Milo Sprod was removed from the front of the premises of Mr. W. Fisk, chemist, of Jetty road. An effort was made also to take the plate of Mr. C. R. Stratford. dentist, from premises adjoining those of Mr Fisk.”

(Dr Milo Weeks Sprod died in last 1934). Note that there was also a naturopath practitioner called Norman Russell-Smith next door at 27 Jetty Road.

A little after the war (in 4th July 1949), we also see: “Dr JOHN L. STOKES has commenced practice in partnership with Drs. Donald M. Steele and D. C Dawkins, at 25 Jetty road. Glenelg. Telephone X2581.”

And so because of the close link between doctors and chemists, it would seem that 25 Jetty Road manages to join both of those to dentists: which are (perhaps not coincidentally) the first three professions Gerry Feltus listed.

Finally, putting it all together…?

If we are looking for somewhere in Jetty Road in 1948 that could easily mix up doctors, chemists, and dentists, the address we would seem to be looking for was not 118 Jetty Road (with only a weak link to a chemist) but instead 25 Jetty Road.

I don’t yet know what this means (and I can’t begin to say how frustrated I get that after nearly seven decades we still don’t know whose car it was), but please feel free to make what you will of all the above. 🙂

It’s well known that f1r (the very first page of the Voynich Manuscript) has an erased ownership mark. Under UV light, you can see that it says (something along the lines of) “Jacobj à Tepenece / Prag” (Photo Credit: © ORF):

For everyone who isn’t heavily invested in some kind of hoax-centric Voynich Manuscript meta-theory, the presence of Jacob Tepenecz’s mark on the first page would seem to be a pretty good indication that he was an early Voynich owner. Combining that with the mention of Emperor Rudolf II in the Marci letter would suggest that the Emperor himself was quite likely also an early Voynich owner (though no direct evidence of that has yet been found).

What’s almost completely unknown is that the Voynich Manuscript seems to me to have probably also had a second ownership mark: only this time, the erasers physically excised the whole bottom section of the foldout page containing it.

The Voynich owner’s mark on f102?

The two-panel recto (front) of f102 looks like this…

…while the two-panel verso (back) of f102 looks like this:

Note that the folio number at the top rght of the left verso panel was obviously added while the panel was folded back: and that the number at the bottom right of the right verso panel is a quire number. Let’s look a little more closely at the recto side of the excision:

Here we can (I think) clearly see that this section was cut out after the plant drawings had been added to the page, and also after the paint had been added to them. And as for the verso side of the cut:

Looking closely at both sides, I think you can also see the difference in quality of cut between the original bifolio cut edge (bottom right, beneath the ’19’ quire mark) and the later excision’s edge: the former is nice and clean, while the latter is ragged, as if that cut was done with a cutting tool that was not quite as sharp.

Dating the Layers

Given that the paints used here are untidy (and, truth be told, a bit nasty), it would seem reasonable to infer that these were probably added by Jorge Stolfi’s putative “heavy painter” very late in the Voynich Manuscript’s life: say, not too far from 1600 or so. All of which would seem to imply that this section of vellum was removed after that date.

And given that the f1r ownership mark was erased some time after 1609, I think it would be reasonable to conclude that this section of the bifolio was probably excised at the same time. While it’s possible that Baresch cut this out when he was (apparently) cutting out various single pages from different sections to send to Kircher, my judgement is that that’s a far less likely scenario.

Missing pages and heavy paint aside, the only other thing in the manuscript that seems to have been messed around with in any significant way is the ownership mark on f1r: hence it seems likely to me that f102v had also had some kind of ownership mark added to it in the blank space next to the ’19’ mark, that was removed at the same time.

And that in turn suggests to me that this quire mark was not ’19’ (as in ‘the number after 18’), but that it was instead a fifteenth century ‘1-9’ (i.e. ‘prim-us‘). Which in turn suggests to me that this quire and the other pharma quire were a pair of freestanding quires / gatherings in a separate book, that was merged in with all the other quires. As I wrote in Curse in 2006, there seems strong visual evidence (from the sequence of jars that progress from simple to complex) that what is now Q17 originally came after Q19.

Furthermore, there seems to be evidence of stitching holes on the exposed (and somewhat worn and discoloured) fold of f102: the presence of these holes and discoloration suggests to me that f102 may originally have been folded and nested rather differently to what we see now.

This also suggests to me that Q20’s quire number was probably added by a different (and later) hand to the hand that added the Q19 quire number, but one trying to ape the style of the Q19 quire mark hand. I therefore predict that these will turn out to have been written in very different inks.

Reading the Invisible

At this point, you might ask: so what? Even if this was indeed an ownership mark that was excised, what does it matter? Who cares?

Well: what’s interesting is that I think there is a small chance that we will be able – with just the right imaging technique – to see traces of whatever was written on f102v1 faintly imprinted on f102r2. Alternatively, we might be able to detect the faintest of contact transfers carried across onto the facing page (i.e. f103r).

In both cases, these would probably be far too subtle to see with the naked eye: but if we are determined enough to find a way of looking at precisely the right piece of vellum in precisely the right way, who can tell what we’ll find there?

…it might be, simply because his name and address appear (lightly crossed out) on p.6 of the production notes for the 1978 Littlemore television piece on the Somerton Man.

If you search for barcode 7937872 at the NAA (RecordSearch, Advanced search for items, Item barcode, Search), you get to “C673, INSIDE STORY PART 2” – The Somerton Beach Story [Box 39] (hopefully this direct link should work). Page 6, point 10 looks like this:

Gerry Feltus gave the man’s name as “Ronald Francis” (a pseudonym), and said that he was a “businessman from Jetty Road, Glenelg” (The Unknown Man, pp.104-105): his brother-in-law had found the Rubaiyat in the back of the man’s Hillman Minx and left it in the glove compartment, from where it passed into Australian cold case legend. (The original Adelaide Advertiser story referred to him as a “city businessman”).

The man’s identity was never revealed, and his precise profession never disclosed: “But did it matter” (wrote Feltus, p.105) “if the discoverer was a doctor, chemist, dentist, jeweller, business person or a male or a female?”

Yet back in 1978, Littlemore’s production notes repeatedly describe the person who found the Rubaiyat not as a businessman but as a “doctor”.

OK, it should be clear that right now I can neither prove or disprove that this person was Dr Sarre. However, what I can say is that it would seem that the absence of any mention of his name in connection with the Somerton Man cold case is somewhat unjustified: the inclusion of his name and Jetty Road address in the production notes make him at the very least a person of interest to us.

But what is there to say about him?

Dr Malcolm Glen Sarre

Note that I don’t have hugely reliable sources for any of the following (nor any photos etc), so please feel free to leave comments with better information!

According to ancestry.com, Malcolm Glen Sarre was born 10th November 1919 in Adelaide to Reginald Sarre and Gladys Ruby Prisk: he died 4th February 2000, living in Somerton Park. On his Australian Army forms (540472), his next of kin is marked as Richard Sarre (I believe this was his brother R.R.Sarre). Dr Sarre married Mary Bailey (daughter of Mr and Mrs H.G.Bailey of Loudon Brae) on 1st November 1947. Their daughter Elizabeth Mary Sarre was born on 2nd March 1953 in Adelaide. Dr Sarre also had an uncle and aunt (Cr. J.J. and Mrs Andrew) in Devonport.

Incidentally, Dr Malcolm Sarre’s name appears briefly in a police gazette: on 9/4/1947, he had his Sunbeam Shavemaster electric razor (“value £6”) stolen from the Doctor’s Quarters in Adelaide Hospital.

But apart from a few fleeting mentions in newspaper columns (typically thanking him and his hospital staff for their efforts), Malcolm Sarre seems to have lived a private, nearly invisible life.

PS: Dr Richard Sarre

It seems highly likely that Dr Richard Sarre (who gave a 2014 talk at Holdfast Bay Rotary Club a few weeks before Professor Derek Abbott gave a talk on the Somerton Man there) is related to the late Dr Malcolm Sarre… but the precise details elude me.

Inspired by Julian Bunn’s just-released “Puzzles of the Voynich Manuscript” ebook (review to follow), I decided to post a list of a hundred Voynich problems – that is, issues that researchers repeatedly bump into when trying to make sense of the Voynich Manuscript, and yet which nobody seems to have definitively resolved in the last century.

Unlike Julian’s ebook, this list is targeted squarely at existing Voynich researchers. If you are genuinely trying to make sense of the Voynich Manuscript and yet aren’t aware of pretty much all these problems, it could well be that you are not seeing the bigger picture.

Needless to say, good solutions will aim to resolve many (if not all) of these “Voynich problems”: while poor solutions (of which I’ve already seen far too many) tend to target only a few – in fact, I’ve seen a fair few alleged ‘solutions’ that don’t even attempt to resolve any of them.

Realistically, though, given that even the most basic Voynich problems – such as the existence of one or more ‘heavy painters’ – continue to be disputed, I don’t expect this list to dramatically shorten any time soon. But who can tell what the next twelve months will bring? 😉

Bifolio nesting / grouping problems

Herbal quires – were these originally split into A and B pages? [Probably, but we don’t know]
Herbal quires – what was their original layout?
What is the relationship between herbal pages and pharma pages? [Here’s one surprising thing Rene highlighted back in 2010]
Was Q9 originally bound in the way John Grove suggested (i.e. along a different fold) – or not?
Was Q13 originally a single quire, or was it (as Glen Claston proposed) in two Q13A / Q13B parts?
Was Q20 originally a single quire, or was it (as I proposed?) in two Q20A / Q20B parts?
Why are there apparently so many different quire number hands?
What was the relationship between Q8 and Q9?
Where did the nine rosette page originally sit?
Are the two pharma sections reversed relative to their original order?
Are pharma sections explicitly linked to herbal pages? [i.e. by handwriting or textual content]
Were there any intermediate bindings, and can we reconstruct them?
Can we reconstruct the original [possibly unbound] page order?

Ink / Paint Problems

Was there a heavy painter?
Were there multiple heavy painters?
Was the heavy paint added before or after the folio numbers? [Rene: there’s green paint over the “42” folio number]
What kind of paint is the heavy blue paint?
Can we use Raman imaging to separate codicological layers? [Particularly on f116v, but in many other places too]
Were the original paints all organic washes derived from plants etc?

Marginalia Problems

Why are the f17r marginalia unreadable?
Why are the f66r marginalia unreadable?
Why are the f116v marginalia unreadable?
What language were the Zodiac month names written in?
Were the “chicken scratch” marginalia originally grouped together?
Does the f57v marginalia read ‘ij'(with a bar across the top)?

Page Layout Problems

Why is the first letter of each page so often a gallows character?
Why is the first letter of each paragraph so often a gallows character?
What meaning do long gallows have?
Whay meaning do ornate gallows have?
What is the purpose or function of Horizontal Neal keys?
What is the purpose or function of vertical Neal keys?
Why do lines of text so often end with the EVA letter m?
Why should position on the page affect anything to do with the text?
John Grove called stray sections of text right-justified at the end of paragraphs “titles” – what are these for?
Are there any buried (concealed) titles in the Voynich Manuscript?
Are there any 15th century non-syllabic transposition ciphertexts extant?

Voynichese letter-shape problems

Why are the four gallows shaped in the specific way that they are?
Is the presence of ‘4o’ in 15th century Northern Italian ciphers telling or coincidental?
Is the similarity between ‘aiiv’ / ‘aiir’ and medieval page references telling or coincidental?
Was the ‘v’ (EVA ‘n’) shape written in one pass or two? [There are instances where the ink on the final stroke looks to have been added in a different ink]
Should c-gallows-h be read as one, two, or three glyphs?
Does any known 15th century cipher include steganographic tricks for hiding Roman numbers?
Or indeed for Arabic numerals?

Voynichese word structure problems

In a text of this size there must be numbers somewhere – so where are they?
Do we even know how to parse Voynichese?
Why are words ending in -9 (EVA “-y”) so common?
Might -9 be a token indicating truncation?
Why are words ending in -89 (EVA “-dy”) so common?
What could cause sequences such as “ororor” to appear in the text?
Might ‘or’ be ciphering ‘M’ ‘C’ or ‘X’ or ‘I’? (i.e. Roman numbers that appear repeated)
Why do A section words and B section words have such different average lengths?
Might this be (as Mark Perakh suggested) because of variable-length abbreviation?
Where are all the vowels?
Why is the ratio (number of unique words : number of words) so large compared to normal languages?
Where are all the short words?
Given that the alphabet is so small, could one or more of the letters really be nulls?
“Dain dain dain”, really?
“Qokedy qokedy”, really?
Is 4o- (EVA “qo-“) a freestanding word?
Why is there so little information in a typical Voynichese word?
Why are so many words so similar?

Language/dialect problems

What is driving the differences between Currier A and Currier B?
Can we definitively say that A pages came before B pages?
Can we definitively say that the B system evolved out of the A system?
Can we map A words / letters onto B words / letters?
Can we create an evolutionary order in which the system evolved?
Where does labelese fit into the A/B model?
Are localised vocabulary differences content-driven or system-driven?
Can we determine any unique words or phrases that map between A and B pages?
Is there an inbuilt error rate? (e.g. qo- -> qa-, or aiin -> oiin)
When low-frequence words cluster, is this because of the system, because of semantic reference or because of auto-copying?

Drawing problems

What are the four direction characters in the magic circle page?
What are the four direction characters in the hidden magic circle page?
What are the four direction characters in f57v?
Why is there a mix of real plants and imaginary plants?
Are similar diagrammatic balneo nymphs found in any other 15th century manuscript?
Were the zodiac nymphs inspired by the zodiac nymphs in Vat Gr 1291, or is that just coincidence?
Is the little dragon similarity to the little dragon in a Paris MS telling or coincidental?
Is the cluster of stars the Pleiades, or something else entirely?
Nine rosette page – what’s going on there?
Will we ever identify the freestanding castle in the nine rosette foldout page?
If we reorganize Q9 as per John Grove’s suggestion, a 7-page sequence of ‘planets’ appears – is this telling or merely coincidental?
What was the source of the Zodiac roundels?
Are there multiple drawing layers on the nine rosette page?
Were all the sunflower pages grouped together originally?
Is there any tangible relationship to other Quattrocento herbals?
More generally, why is there such a sustained absence of reference to existing manuscripts?

Dating / history problems

Given the links to Rudolf II’s court, why is there no Rudolfine documentation? Might we have been looking in the wrong places?
What might the supposed connection to Roger Bacon signify? Monastic ownership, perhaps?
Why has the radiocarbon dating range not been explicitly supported by even a single piece of art history?
Why, despite the large number of people who have looked at the Voynich Manuscript in great detail, is there no mainstream art history narrative for it?

Other Voynich problems

Currier thought that a number of different hands contributed to the Voynich Manuscript’s writing – was he correct?
What is the significance of the 17 x 4 ring sequence on f57v? Might it have been an 18 x 4 sequence (e.g. 5 degree steps) but where one pair of letter-shapes has been ‘fused’ to form a fake gallows-like character?
Why did the manuscript’s maker forcibly rub a hole through the vellum? [Not as easy as it sounds, because vellum is strong stuff]
Why use vellum at all?
Why were the two sides of the vellum so heavily equalized?
On f112, is the gap on the outside edge a vellum flaw, or a faithful copy of a vellum flaw in the original document from which it was copied?
Are the main marginalia (e.g. michitonese) by one of the Currier hands?
What are the “weirdos” on f1r all about?

PS: I may not have ended up with exactly 100 Voynich problems, but it’s pretty close to a hundred… and I may add some more along the way. :-p

When I was writing “The Curse of the Voynich” a decade ago, my friend Philip Neal very kindly translated Cicco Simonetta’s Treatise on Decipherment (BNF Fonds Italien 1595 ff. 441r-442r) into English for me. This was a huge help, because this is one of the few accounts of fifteenth century code-breaking we have.

With Philip’s permission, I posted this onto the Cipher Foundation website earlier this year: it’s a straight-down-the-line, properly accurate translation.

But all the same, the source document is – as indeed is most writing of the period – somewhat verbose. So I thought it would be useful to extract the core details of what Simonetta’s document is describing and to then re-present them in a more modern idiom.

So here’s a very much stripped-down modern version. Enjoy!

Cicco Simonetta’s Treatise on Decipherment

(1) If the words in a ciphertext have five or less different word endings, the plaintext is probably Italian (or if not, then it’s Latin). Alternatively, look at all the single-letter words: Latin normally has only one kind (‘a’), but Italian tends to have more.
(2) If the ciphertext has many two- or three-letter words, the plaintext is probably Italian.
(3) If the plaintext is Italian, then you already know what letters are vowels (because they’re the last letters of words). If one of these often appears as a single-letter word, it’s probably ‘e’.
(4) Two letter words in Italian very often begin with ‘l’: lo / la / li / le.
(5) The most common three letter word in Italian is ‘che’.
(6) However, if the plaintext is Latin, the letters that appear at the end of words are vowels, s, m, or t. (Apart from ab, ad, and quod, which are very common).
(7) In Latin plaintexts, single-letter words are normally ‘a’ (but possibly e, i, or o).
(8) In Latin letters, the most common two-letter words are et ut ad si me te and se. Less common A fuller list of two letter words would be: ab ac ad an and at; da de and do; ea ei eo et ex and es; he hi id ii in ir is and it; me mi na ne and ni; ob os re se and si; tu te ue ui and ut.
(9) Latin three-letter words where the first letter is the same as the third are: ala, ama, ara, ede, eme, ere, ehe, ixi, iui.
(10) Any Latin letter that appears three times in a row within a word is ‘u’, as in ‘uvula’. [Though Simonetta writes ‘mula’]
(11) Latin letters that appear doubled, and particularly in four-letter words, are probably ‘ll’ or ‘ss’, e.g. esse and ille.
(12) A final rule that holds true for both Italian and Latin: if you see a letter that is always followed by only one possible other letter, then this is ‘q’ followed by ‘u’: moreover, the letter following the ‘u’ will be a vowel.

However, these codebreaking rules can be defeated in many ways, e.g. using a mix of Italian and Latin; inserting nulls, particularly into one-, two-, or three-letter words; by using a mixture of two completely different cipher alphabets; and by using an extra cipher for ‘qu’.

Since the recent release of the Yale University Press photo-facsimile, a number of quite different takes on the Voynich Manuscript have appeared online. Here are a fair few, brutally summarized:

Voynich Review #1: Nature

Cryptography: Calligraphic conundrum” by Andrew Robinson is well-informed and clear: but having written books on Champollion, Young and Ventris, and on Indus scripts (as well as a whole load of other lost languages), he’s on the right side of most of the debates. For him, the Voynich Manuscript is at heart a cryptographic mystery rather than a linguistic one.

“What hope is there of decoding the script? Not much at present, I fear”, Robinson glumly concludes, though it has to be said that his follow-on assertion that “Professional cryptographers have been rightly wary of the Voynich manuscript ever since the disastrous self-delusion of Newbold” isn’t quite on the mark – the real answer would be far less reductive and indeed far more complicated.

Incidentally, if you put ‘Voynich’ into the search field at the top right of the Nature website, it brings up a link to a 1928 article by Robert Steele (though behind a paywall), with the unpromising-sounding incipit “It is known that Bacon was interested in ciphers…” Who says that mainstream media don’t give the Voynich Manuscript proper coverage, eh?

Voynich Review #2: Star Tribune

Review: ‘The Voynich Manuscript,’ edited by Raymond Clemens” by Peter Lewis starts with brio (“It is a fine morning in the Holy Roman Empire. The year: 1431”), before swiftly moving on to applaud the photo-facsimile’s accompanying essays as “absorbing squibs” (I always thought that was more of a satirical term, but perhaps he is using a short-burning firework metaphor here).

But after sustaining this for so long, he goes and spoils it somewhat:

But listen: An applied linguistician recently claimed to have deciphered the words “Taurus” and “centaury,” an herb. Also recently, the American Botanical Council published a paper suggesting one of its plant drawings intimates a Mexican connection. The Voynich likes nothing better than deepening its mystery.

*sigh* Oh, well. 😐

National Review: Bookmonger

This 13-minute podcast is a radio-style telephone interview with Ray Clemens. The Internet’s previous dearth of good images of Clemens is now somewhat assuaged by the picture of him the Bookmonger included:

He calls the Voynich Manuscript’s illustrations “beautiful” (which is perhaps a bit of a stretch), and seems to be particularly taken with the Voynich nymphs. Clemens is very pleased with the foldout sections and the quality of the colours in Yale’s photo-facsimile. The Voynich Manuscript was “one of the first manuscripts [that the Beinecke] digitized”, and it “receives far more attention than any other book on the website […] and that’s for many different reasons”.

Solving it would be nice, he thinks: but he also believes “at this point that that’s a fairly quixotic goal […] the chances of this actually being cracked in that sense are pretty remote […] my personal feeling is that I think it will remain an enigma for quite some time”.

Voynich Review #3: The New Yorker

The Unsolvable Mysteries of the Voynich Manuscript” by Josephine Livingstone appeared in the New Yorker a fortnight ago. For her, the hazy theories floating ethereally around the Voynich are the same kind of “speculative knowledge [that] flourishes in moments of uncertainty and fear”. She continues:

Humans are fond of weaving narratives like doilies around gaping holes, so that the holes won’t scare them. And objects from premodern history — like medieval manuscripts — are the perfect canvas on which to project our worries about the difficult and the frightening and the arcane, because these objects come from a time outside culture as we conceive of it.

Though Livingstone never quite says it directly, it seems reasonably clear to me that she sees study of the Voynich as being inevitably riddled with pseudohistory and pseudoscience, and that its blood brothers (and indeed sisters) are quasi-occult things such as conspiracy theories, astrology, alchemy, and tarot.

For her, the Voynich is unreadable period, and so thinks we should perhaps approach the photo-facsimile more as we might a Zen koan, as a way “to remember that there are ineluctable mysteries at the bottom of things whose meanings we will never know”.

Voynich Review #4: The Paris Review

In “The Pleasures of Incomprehensibility : Why we don’t need to decode ‘the world’s most mysterious book.’ “, Michael LaPointe takes our dissatisfaction with the Voynich Manuscript’s inscrutability as a sign of one of modernity’s shortcomings – that we moderns are somehow too restless to be truly comfortable with something that cannot be intellectually conquered and known.

Instead, he suggests we should look at it as if it were a work of art, one cloaked in the same incomprehensibility that the Dadaists celebrated. For as Tristan Tzara put it, “When a writer or artist is praised by the newspapers, it is proof of the intelligibility of his work: wretched lining of a coat for public use.” And so LaPointe concludes:

“At a time when even the most mysterious artist is subject to history and biography, it’s amazing to encounter a book that floats outside of all disciplines. The Voynich Manuscript exudes an aesthetic aura while squirming out of every category.”

In the end, though, LaPointe can’t help but be seduced by the suggestion of a hoax, a pre-modern postmodernist canard:

“It could very well have been composed as an elaborate lampoon of medieval knowledge, and it’s amusing to imagine that we’re still falling for the trick.”

Versopolis / Knight

Though the Versopolis website normally focuses on poems (errrm… the clue’s in the name), it has recently taken a step sideways into the Voynich world with two commissioned articles.

The first, by Kevin Knight, is a fairly straight-down-the-road factual review of Yale’s photo-facsimile, despite tarrying early on in full-on personal My-First-CopyFlo recollection mode:

My first copy of the Voynich was a black-and-white Christmas present from my father. It might have been a bootleg copy. He wrote “Good luck deciphering!” inside the front cover. I bit, and by the time I had paged through the low-quality scan, the hook was set.

Ultimately, even though Knight clearly has his own well-formed opinion about the Voynich Manuscript, on this particular occasion he chooses to toe the official Beinecke line, albeit with a friendly micro-dig at the photo-facsimile edition’s coffeetableitudinosity:

Perhaps one day, a person named X will uncover and assemble the right set of clues, and as happened with the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan carvings, the answer to Voynich will suddenly fall into place. Meanwhile, with the help of Yale University Press and Amazon.com, the enigma is busy spreading itself to coffee tables, bedsides, and offices throughout the world, trying to find its X.

Versopolis / Zandbergen

The second Versopolis article is “1. The Making of a Mystery” by none other than Rene Zandbergen.

Rene lays out the known provenance of the Voynich Manuscript in a (once again) straight-down-the-road manner, though his assertion that “its historical value is probably small” is perhaps a little early. I’d also probably take Rene slightly to task for writing an article about the manuscript’s origins while bracketing out its first 200 years: but then again, given that this is the period I’m most interested in reconstructing, I would say that, wouldn’t I? :-p

Futility Closet

In Episode #129, the Futility Closet podcast presenters take on the mystery of the Voynich Manuscript (though note this is only in the first 18 minutes of the podcast, after which they move on to various lateral thinking puzzles).

By and large, they do a pretty good job of the subject, though never quite managing to break through the layer of unloveable Wikipediaesque lacquer that tends to coat most online accounts. Oh, and personally, I didn’t quite manage to buy into the presenters’ interaction schtick thing, so for me it wasn’t really anything more than a nice-sounding recital. But make of it all what you will, that’s how the Internet works.

In Summary

If you already know a tolerable amount about the Voynich Manuscript, you’ll probably be left fairly cold by pretty much all of the above: once you have your copy of the Yale photo-facsimile, there’s really little more to be said.

And that, of course, is the key to the problem: that there is a heavy-hearted resignation to the coverage when viewed as a whole – a kind of glum nihilism that denies the Voynich Manuscript’s tricksy magic and curious interest. It is as if by asking people to buy their own copy, the Beinecke has brought it to their eyes in the context of its being an oddly undesirable artefact – that the paradox is now not about trying to read the unreadable, but about buying the unwantable.

For the Voynich Manuscript is, for all of Wilfrid Voynich’s hyperbolic antiquarian fluffery and Yale Universty Press’s best social media outreach / promotional efforts, still just as much an ‘ugly duckling’ as it was a century ago. While it is (and probably will continue to be) many things to many people, it is, just as Rene Zandbergen’s article (correctly) says, not beautiful. Even James Blunt couldn’t make it so, not even “an angel with a smile on her face” (errrm, and waist-deep in blue-daubed pipework).

What, when the spell rubs off, will non-Voynicheers actually think about the copy of the photo-facsimile their earnest cousin gave them for Christmas? I don’t know: we researchers all still have a mountain to climb before we reach the foothills of the real mountain, and I have no idea yet whether the photo-facsimile will be part of the solution or just another part of the problem. It’s pretty, though. 🙂

Because the Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang papers manage to combine specificity and vagueness in such a frustrating way, some people like to conclude that they must be outright fakes, or (at best) false elaborations woven from fragments of real events – and that we therefore stand no chance of ever getting to the truth, because whatever truth there is to be had is merely ethereal. Chasing this, then, would be not unlike trying to grasp a cloud.

Personally, I’m not even slightly convinced by this kind of reasoning, no matter how often I see it floated. The flaw in the argument is that historical evidence is rarely as neat and tidy as novelists would like: people don’t leave unambiguous digital trails behind them, real life is messy. And the more you work with the random evidential slurry to be found in archives, the more you’ll hold this to be axiomatically true.

The most genuinely productive stance to take is to instead assume that there is some ordering principle – some tangled, confounded rationality – in play, but that it just happens to sit beyond our current reach.

And so the best response is a combination of humility and patience, two hugely unfashionable qualities in these brash, attention-deficient days: persist with the specifics and keep on keeping on.

The Dying Captain

So: who was the unnamed corsair captain who handed the Missing Corsair the documents describing the location of the pirate treasure from his deathbed? The third (BN3) letter reads:

In my adventurous life before embarking on the Apollon, I was one of those pirates who did so much harm to our enemies Spain and England. We made many splendid captures from them, but at our last battle with a large British frigate on the shores of Hindustan, the captain was wounded and on his deathbed confided to me his secrets and his papers to retrieve considerable treasure buried in the Indian Ocean; and, having first made sure that I was a Freemason, asked me to use it to arm privateers against the English.

Until recently, the best candidate I had was Malroux, a corsair captain who died in a sea battle in the Indian Ocean at the right kind of time: but I had to admit that there were plenty of problems with him as a proposed match. For a start, the sea-battle where he died wasn’t really off the coast of India; and the ship Malroux faced (though English) wasn’t really a “large […] frigate”.

But perhaps I now have a better candidate…

François-Thomas Le Même

Because I’ve been reading Charles Cunat’s mentions of Joachim Vieillard in the last few days, I also took a look through his book on St Malo seamen’s derring do: “St. Malo, illustré par ses Marins”. And there I found a corsair whose story echoes that of the Dying Captain. And then immediately wondered why I hadn’t considered him before, despite having read about him in H.C.M.Austen’s “Sea Fights and Corsairs of the Indian Ocean”. 😮

Though François-Thomas Le Même had made a fortune as an effective corsair, he then managed to lose the lot as an ineffective businessman. Which is why 1804 found him back as the captain of La Fortune (“18 guns of 8, and six carronades of 12”, says Austen), picking off a long series of easy prizes in the Indian Ocean. However, his ship was then run down off the coast of Gujarat by the large British frigate HMS Concorde (Captain Wood, 48 guns), and forced to lower its flag after one (Austen) or ten (Cunat) hours’ battle. The ship and its crew were taken to Bombay, arriving on 13th November 1804.

Incidentally, here’s a Mauritian stamp depicting him:


Austen continues (p.106):

“Lemême and all his principal officers were dispatched in the [East Indiaman] Walthamstow on 15th February, 1805, to England, under the escort of the frigates Concord[e] and Phaeton. Lemême’s career, however, was over. He died at sea on 30th March, in latitude 10 south and longitude 77 east.”

Cunat colourfully describes Le Même’s death throes (p.410):

“Appelant aussitôt près de lui ses intimes d’entre ses compagnons de captivité, il les entretint de sa famille, de deux filles chéries qu’il ne devait plus revoir, de celle surout qui devint plus tard l’épouse de capitaine de vaisseau [Vincent] Moulac. Il exprima ses regrets à quitter la vie avant d’avoir pu rétablir sa fortune, dans l’intérêt de ses enfants, puis, interrompu par une crise affreuse, il cessa de parler et perdit connaissance. On le crut mort… Il revint cependant à lui, assez de temps pour faire ses adieux à ceux qui l’entouraient, et rendit le dernier soupir avec le courage et la résignation d’un homme de bien.”

Gallois adds that Le Même’s officers also being taken to England on the Walthamstow were “Charpentier, Froussart, Bourdais et Baudot”: all of which pretty much concludes our romp through what is a fairly sparse evidential landscape.

Interestingly, though, La Fortune‘s prize papers are in the National Archives (HCA 32/1026/1859), as is HMS Concorde’s captain’s log covering the action (ADM 51/1529). In addition, the East Indiaman Walthamstow’s papers are in the British Library (L/MAR/B/196), so there’s still plenty of room for exploration of this research lead just yet…

“AFAHMAEP”, perhaps?

Perhaps you’ve already figured out where I’m going with this.

What I’m wondering is that whereas the Voynich Manuscript needed an Emperor-sized fool to buy it to ensure its survival against the inquietudes of Time and Space, might it be that Le Même performed the same function for the Nageon de l’Estang papers?

That is, might someone have sold Le Même – during the couple of years in Mauritius when he was unbelievably flush with cash – the original set of Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang papers? Austen notes (p.104):

“Equipped with money [1,400,000 francs], but unfortunately without experience, he set up as a merchant-banker in Port-Louis. He very quickly discovered that he was no match for the local sychophants [sic] and sharpers who quickly surrounded him. In the year or two he had practically lost all his savings.”

The notion that a Mauritian sharper saw his chance to unload a “treasure map” on Mr Did-You-Hear-They’ve-Taken-Gullible-Out-Of-The-Dictionary does have an awful ring of truth to it. Which is not to say that the other BN documents are necessarily genuine or necessarily false, but rather that this might well have been the point when someone sold them to Le Même as if they were genuine.

Acronymically, “A Fool And His Money Are Easily Parted”, indeed.

Sources on Le Même

Austen’s account (pp.102-106) “is drawn up from the following sources : M. Gallois, Col. Malleson, St. Elme le Duc and [Charles] Cunat, and is believed to be as accurate as the lack of authentic information and variety of authorities permit it to be.”

* Charles Cunat. “St. Malo, illustré par ses Marins” (1857) [pp.403-410]
* St Elme le Duc. “Ile de France : Documents pour servir à son histoire civile et militaire” (reprinted 1925)
* Colonel G.B. Malleson. “Final French Struggles in India and on the Indian Seas” (1884) [pp.101-106]
* Gallois, Napoléon. “Les Corsaires français sous la République et l’Empire [Volume 2]” (1847) [pp.325-332]

I don’t believe that le Duc’s account is available anywhere online, but perhaps someone will point me to it behind a Geneanet paywall etc. 🙂