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, 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. 🙂

I’ve just been interviewed about the Voynich Manuscript for an article in an upcoming Sunday Times (apropos of the Yale University Press photo-facsimile, of course), which was a lot of fun.

Even so, while we were talking I became aware that there are a number of troubling things about the way almost everyone tends to talk about the Voynich MS that keep nagging at me. And one in particular needed a blog post all of its own…


The Heroic Outsider

Talk to almost anybody about the Voynich Manuscript, and you’ll quickly run into the presumption that glory awaits the keen-minded Champollion who enters the fray to rip away the Voynichian veils. That is to say, that decryption of the Voynich Manuscript will ‘inevitably’ be down to the solo travails of a brilliant cryptological outsider, whose keen eyes pierce through the fog of uncertainty, unhindered by the fashionably foolish blinkers everyone else involved happens to be wearing.

In fact, some researchers buy so heavily into this mystique that they take their outsiderness to an extreme: that if anyone else so much as hints at agreeing with them, it is a point of contrarian honour for them to disagree with themselves until they’re alone again. If you’ve studied the Voynich for any period of time, you probably have your own list of people who fit this template.

Personally, I think this mindset is unhelpful, nonsensical and self-destructive. Instead, when the blessèd day arrives when we finally manage to see past the Voynich’s surface misdirections and tricks to the plain-but-devious system beneath them, what we’ll almost certainly discover is that previous researchers had clearly and unambiguously flagged 90% or more of what was going on, but we were just too caught up with specific details to see how all the varied pieces slotted together.

All the same, the modern world seems to allow plenty of room for outsider narratives to flourish. One could reasonably argue that Nigel Farage primarily gained influence by dressing up his shallow one-trick-pony quasi-racist bar-room political schtick as an outsider narrative: and doubtless others would say much the same of Donald Trump. (Personally, DT’s presidency feels too recent to be sure of what’s actually going on there, so this will have to remain something for future historians to debate.)

For me, TV reality shows with (for example) charmless footballer-turned-slebchef Gordon Ramsay come across as unbearable nonsense, presenting pages 1-5 of a “How To Run A Successful Restaurant” ebook as a nauseating mix of confrontational Nietszchean catharsis and Stacey Dooleyesque empathizing. So is Gordon Ramsay genuinely an heroic outsider, or little more than an opportunistic self-promoting sleb famous for lobster ravioli and kicking people? You’ll have to make up your own mind.

I can’t help but conclude that the whole idea of the ‘heroic outsider’ is a Big Fat Fiction, a story-making lie used to dress up what is little more than an irrational, anti-science, antihistorical, anti-engineering, and anti-knowledge mindset. Which is presumably why TV and Hollywood both love it (i.e. for all the wrong reasons), because the outsider’s victory is the victory of the Little Guy against the Preening Establishment, the smug complacent know-nothings in their private clubs who get to decide What Is True and What Is False.

And so it goes for Voynich Manuscript research too. People seem to be far too busy with their personal mythopoiea, concerned more with who will play them in the film (i.e. where their glorious and dramatic code-breaking efforts are finally given the celluloid stardom they deserve) than with wondering whether their research direction makes even the slightest bit of sense.

In this way, Hollywood seems to be telling these people what to think: that cracking the Voynich Manuscript wouldn’t be a triumph of Good History or Good Science, but rather an act of personal redemption, showing the Voynich naysayers that they Had It All Wrong, and that the heroic outsider Had It Right All Along.

It’s all bullsh*t, of course.

An Army of Ants

The boring truth is that Voynich researchers circa 2016 may not be standing on the shoulders of giants, but we are held high by a vast army of ants working industriously and independently, yet who nonetheless have still managed to somehow make huge progress as a group.

It would be easy to reel off a list of more than a hundred people who have contributed in a positive way towards what we know about the Voynich Manuscript – John Matthews Manly, the Friedmans, John Tiltman, Prescott Currier, Mary D’Imperio, through to the two Jims, Gabriel Landini, Rene Zandbergen, and so forth.

The heroic outsider narrative, then, is just a tool for sneering at others whose contributions you’d rather belittle in an attempt to big yo’self up. And the sooner people stop this nonsense (and start being proud to be an ant), the better off we’ll all be.

Of all the text in the Voynich Manuscript, one section stands a particularly high chance of giving us information: f116v, the final page. This has a set of marginalia that (by all rights) ought to have been written unencrypted, but which we mysteriously are unable to read.


This text is often called ‘michitonese’, because William Romaine Newbold famously transcribed the first two words of the second line as “michiton oladabas”. There are snatches of clarity interspersed with what appears to be Voynichese, Latin, German, and even ‘+’ signs (normally used in written prayers to indicate when to make the sign of the cross when reciting the prayer). In short, it’s a bit of a mess.

The essay on imaging in Yale’s recently-released photo-facsimile edition mysteriously omitted to make any mention of this final page, nor of any recent attempts to try to read this page. And yet a couple of years ago, a group most certainly did try to use a range of multi-spectral imaging techniques to do precisely that.

I know this for certain because I found a set of low bitdepth JPEG files the team had accidentally left on one of the Beinecke library’s file servers: and – having recently installed BIMP, a simple automation plugin for GIMP – thought you might like to see them.

The quality admittedly isn’t good (the images would have been captured using a bitdepth closer to 16-bit, but these were stored as 8-bit JPEGs), but it might serve the purpose of goading the (as yet unnamed) team into finishing their paper, or (if it turned out they had nothing to say) releasing the full bitdepth images so that we can study them openly. 🙂

I’ve only included 26 of the 46 images they made of 116v, because the others were too noisy or too blank to be informative in their low bitdepth form. (I had to run an auto-equalize filter on all the images in order to make them even remotely visible).

Disappointingly, I was not able to refine my reading of the top line (usually called the “pox leber” line), because there was insufficient contrast in the JPEGs. Perhaps with a copy of the 16-bit scans, this might start to become clear…

The Multispectral Images

Cipher mysteries usually offer us multiple bubbles of probability to work with, e.g. whether the Somerton Man was Charles Mikkelsen (close but no cigar, despite the former’s nicotine-stained fingers), or even poor old H. C. Reynolds (and what a waste of time that bubble was, eh?). Yet these bubbles tend to be fragile and elusive, and we catch only indirect glimpses of them through the cracked mirrors of historical archives. For would not future historians also struggle to pin down and reconcile the vagaries and scattered events of our own tangled lives?

And so it was that while trying to reconstruct the history of Joachim Vieillard before his time on Robert Surcouf’s La Confiance, I took another look at Lhermitte’s ship La Preneuse, because Louis Garneray said that Vieillard had been on it. (Of course, though we can’t take anything attributed to Garneray as a fact in and of itself, we can use it as a stepping stone to point us in a plausible direction to look for genuinely verifiable evidence.)

In case you’re still not sufficiently steeped in Indian Ocean maritime history, La Preneuse sank in the Battle of Port Louis on 11th December 1799: you can buy a halfway-decent print of Garneray’s painting here:


Anyway, while going through all that, it struck me that BN3’s Captain “Hamon” / “Harmon” could feasibly have been not Captain Hamelin (as I have long suspected, and which lead pointed me in the direction of Vieillard) but instead Captain Lhermitte. And I thought I ought to look a little closer…

Jean-Marthe-Adrien Lhermitte

Though the linguistic match is admittedly a little worse, the timing is better – for by the time Hamelin and the others were inducted into the Légion d’Honneur in 1810, Napoleon was no longer the “Premier Consul” but “Sa Majesté” or “l’Empereur”.

After being defeated at the Battle of Port Louis, Lhermitte was (along with a good number of his men) captured by the British and returned to France. Subsequently, Lhermitte was brought to the Tuileries in October 1801 and honoured in the highest terms by Napoleon. Henceforth he would be referred to as “Lhermitte le Brave“. Which is nice.

So… might someone sailing under Lhermitte have also been honoured by Premier Consul for his part in the same naval action, in the same way that Joachim Vieillard and various other valiant enseignes de vaisseau were made Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in December 1810? It’s certainly possible, though I have to say that there’s a distinct lack of external documentation to be found.

Further, one might possibly try to reason (from the lack of reference to “Chevalier” etc in BN3, though I admit that this is still a little bit of a stretch) that whatever event was being referred to, it happened after the position of Premier Consul was put in place (17 November 1799) and also probably after when weapons of honour were first “awarded as military awards for feats of arms” (25 December 1799), and yet before the Légion d’Honneur itself was founded (in 1802, replacing weapons of honour). Which is quite a narrow window. 🙂

Remember that BN3 says:

“Avec la bienveillance que le premier consul m’a témoigné, après un fait d’armes glorieux, je serais parvenu.”

Hence I think it is entirely possible that the person who wrote BN3 received a weapon of honour from Napoleon, and was thus made a légionnaire (though not yet a Chevalier, because that naming style only began in 1802).

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on weapons of honour says that “recipients […] automatically received the Legion of Honour after its inception”. For example, Lhermitte was made an early member of the Légion d’Honneur for that specific reason.

Lhermitte’s record there is LH/1632/62 (his date of birth is 1766/09/29), which says that he was upgraded to Chevalier on 5th February 1804, and then swiftly to Officier on 14th June 1804.

So… we have a date to look for, it would seem.

5th February 1804

On a webpage entitled “Pierre Callens, Le dernier Corsaire Dunkerquois“, we find a corsair “Qui fut décoré de la Légion d’Honneur sous le numéro 280 le 5 Février 1804, 15 Pluviôse An XII de la République” listed by Pierre Van Eccloo in 1996:

L’HERMIT[T]E qui commande à bord a pour second DEHAU, Pierre PLUCKET Lieutenant de Vaisseau, Pierre CALLENS Enseigne de Vaisseau, Pierre AUDIBERT Aspirant. Ce sont des “durs”. Une grande aventure commence.

(Though note Pierre Callens was listed with a later date in the Leonore database, which is a little confusing.) However, if you look a little more closely, you’ll see that these people were on le Tigre under Lhermitte, and that they seem not to have sailed to the Indian Ocean with him.

What’s more, if you do a websearch for “15 pluviôse an XII” or “5 fevrier 1804” with related keywords, you’ll rapidly find plenty of other French mariners people who were made Chevaliers on that same day, e.g.
* Louis-Antoine-Cyprien Infernet (1757–1815)
* André Jules François de Martineng (1776-1860)
* Yves Marie Gabriel Pierre LE COAT, baron de SAINT-HAOUEN (1756-1826)
* Guy Pierre de Coëtnempren, comte de Kersaint (1747-1822)
* Claude Vincent Polony (1756/1828)
* Pierre-François Violette (1759-1836)
* Pierre-Paulin Gourrege (1749–1805)
* Jacques Épron des Jardins
* Théodat Jean-Baptiste Le Bastier de Rivry (1785-1829)

…none of whom seems to have served with Lhermitte, unfortunately. So we still have plenty to look at here before we can properly evaluate whether or not this is a workable bubble to be examining (or indeed popping). Oh well!

For a few weeks, I’ve been trying to reconcile the reference in BN3 (the third of the papers associated with Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang, but which I firmly believe was written much later by someone I call the Missing Corsair) to the “Apollon” with any of the Legionnaires d’Honneur who fit the reference to being honoured for a “glorious feat of arms” (also in BN3).

The issue is that none of these men is also in the crew list for the Apollon’s final journey in 1798: I’ve gone over it numerous times, but there is simply no overlap. It seems to be an intractable problem that might even – in the worst case – point away from the whole Missing Corsair narrative.

Yet, of all the Indian Ocean Legionnaires d’Honneur honoured on 20th December 1810, the best candidate by far for our Missing Corsair is Joachim Vieillard. Vieillard was, without any real doubt, a corsair: and there is documentary evidence (in Charles Cunat’s account, which I’ve seen quoted but have yet to read for myself) that Vieillard served under the famous corsair captain Robert Surcouf on La Confiance.

Here’s the famous picture of La Confiance as painted by Louis Garneray:


Garneray – for all his wobbliness and unreliability – does also mention Vieillard as having been on La Confiance in his (1851) Voyages (p.101):

Je restai assez intimidé en me trouvant dans un grand salon rempli de monde ; mais je me remis bientôt en reconnaissant parmi les personnes présentes plusieurs de mes connaissances, entre autres les enseignes Roux, Fournier et Viellard, et le contremaître Gilbert, qui tous avaient navigué avec moi sur la Preneuse.

(Note that Garneray spells Vieillard’s surname “Viellard”, which is why I didn’t spot it first time round. Garneray mentions Vieillard at least four more times.)

So: even if (heeding Auguste Toussaint’s warning) we keep our reliance on Garneray’s account to a minimum, I’d still say that we have enough other evidence to firmly place Vieillard on La Confiance under Robert Surcouf.

The Crew List for La Confiance

Hence this morning I went looking for a crew list for La Confiance: and the first port of call (as almost always) was H.C.M.Austen’s “Sea Fights and Corsairs of the Indian Ocean”. Helpful to a fault, Austen writes (p.85):

The first voyage of the Confiance under Surcouf began in April, 1800. His chief officer on this occasion was Captain Drieu. […] Serving on board as officers were Louvel-Desvaux (lieutenant of the watch), Le Nouvel (surgeon-major) – all three fellow citizens and friends of their captain: ensigns Fournier, Roux, and Vieillard, and Gilbert the boatswain, (formerly boatswain’s mate in the frigate Preneuse) and Le Goff, the pilot […]. Amongst the new officers were the first lieutenant, Dumaine de la Josserie (of St Malo), Millien, the second surgeon, lieutenants Laboire, Plasan, and Puche, ensigns Boarbon, Bléas, and the pilots d’Autichamp and d’Amphernet.

Austen’s account of Surcouf was “mainly abstracted” (p.74) from ‘Robert Surcouf d’après des documents authentiques’, written by Surcouf’s nephew (also called Robert Surcouf) and published in Paris in 1889, though also with ‘assists’ from Louis Garneray’s colourful (but frequently fanciful) memoirs.

The source for this particular part, however, can also be found in “Les marins français : vies et récits dramatiques, d’après les documents originaux” by Bathild Bouniol (which I found behind a paywall, but once again is supposedly in the Internet Archive), pp.284-285:

L’équipage se composait de cent soixante Européens, vingt-cinq volontaires du bataillon de Bourbon, et quelques nègres domestiques, tous de ces hommes trempés d’acier comme il en fallait à Surcouf. L’état-major ne comptait que des officiers d’élite : Drieux, second capitaine, Louvel Desvaux, lieutenant de garde, Lenouvel, chirurgien-major, Fournier, Roux, Vieillard, enseignes; dans la maistrance, maitre Gilbert, ancien contre-maître de La Preneuse; le pilote Le Goff, breton, laissé à l’île de France par l’escadre victorieuse du bailli de Suffren.

Bouniol then immediately recaps the anecdote about Surcouf and the shark as given by Charles Cunat, so there is a fairly high chance that this crew list was directly recapped by Cunat in his book, because it doesn’t seem to appear in Garneray’s account. All the same, I’ll confirm this when my copy of Cunat’s book arrives in a few days’ time.

“L’Apollon des Oceans”?

Much as I hate to rely upon Louis Garneray for anything (Toussaint would surely throw up his hands in disdain at this point), Garneray does proffer one small piece of relevant-sounding information that might tie up many of the loose strands.

In his “Voyages“, Garneray recalls a conversation with Ripeau de Montaudevert (p.104):

— Eh bien, me dit Monteaudevert lorsque nous sortîmes ensemble, êtes-vous content ? Vous voilà attaché en qualité d’aide de camp au seul homme qui puisse et sache dominer la chance et commander au hasard ! Que le diable m’emporte si une seule croisière avec lui ne vous dédommage pas amplement de vos ennuis passés… Mais voulez-vous venir à présent avec moi à la Pointe-aux-Forges, où l’on s’occupe à réespalmer la Confiance, c’est le nom du navire que commande Surcouf… cette vue vous fera plaisir, car je ne connais rien qui approche, pour la perfection des formes, de ce navire, que l’on a surnommé l’Apollon de l’Océan.

So it would seem – reservations about Garneray notwithstanding – that La Confiance was also known as “L’Apollon de l’Océan”. (Note that the French Wikipedia page for La Confiance incorrectly notes this as “l’Apollon des Océans”).

And if this is correct, then it does offer a very satisfying alternative explanation as to what Joachim Vieillard (if, as I suspect, he was indeed the Missing Corsair) was referring to in BN3:

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.

According to the only obituary notice we have, Joachim Vieillard was born in 1782, and would have joined La Confiance in 1800 at the age of 18: so could easily have had several years’ worth of piracy under his belt by then. Which would all seem to join up into a sensible narrative.

But the ship he was on immediately before joining La Confiance would seem to be (if we sup with a long enough spoon) La Preneuse, according to Garneray. Which is where we shall go next…

…yes, on a Sunday afternoon.

It’s a slick piece of publishing, well-scanned and well-printed with top-notch images that are the crispest I’ve seen. The foldouts (something every previous photo-facsimile I’ve seen has stumbled on) are lovely, and include miniature versions on the lower margin of each page to help you navigate your way around.


As a piece of collectable printing, then, it’s a top-notch piece of work, something that many bibliophiles would be delighted to find in their Christmas stocking: the jolly elves who produced it seem to be more Folio Society than Penguin, let’s say (though not quite Taschen elves).

Is This Photo-Facsimile The Ultimate Voynich Research Tool?

It’s the question that the Beinecke people seem to want people to be asking: but the answer, in a word, is no. The reproductions are so lovely that Ray Clemens’ suggestion that owners might fill their margins with their thoughts seems unduly barbarous: a bit like scribbling on a Jaguar’s leather seats.

And the included essays (Rene Zandbergen’s aside) all have an oddly early-1970s retro feel to them, as if this whole effort was a stopgap for researchers until such time as Mary D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma” comes out.

In each case, you (the reader) get to the end of the essay just at the point where you want it to start: and so each finishes with a jarring emptiness, an <insert-good-research-here> lurch downwards, culminating in a mental picture of knowledgeable writers throwing up their hands in dismay. For example, when Jennifer M. Rampling writes (in her essay on alchemical imagery) “[a]lthough the content of this manuscript is almost certainly not alchemical in nature…” (p.46), it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the futility of the entire exercise.

By way of comparison, what I try to do with Cipher Mysteries is to write each post in such a way that a reader ends each post genuinely knowing more than when they began, and also with an idea of where future archival or research trails from there might lead: something one might reasonably call “Open Source History”.

Compare this with Yale’s photo-facsimile essays, and you’d see that what they offer is very much a closed book: none seems to grasp that the key to making progress with these Sphinxes is to give not only good quality images, but also good quality conceptual tools to work with those images.

Sadly, this is a bus-sized hole in the Voynich dam this present volume doesn’t even attempt to fill.

The Missing Book About The Book

Over the last few years, I’ve been consistently disappointed with the ever-decreasing quality of Voynich discourse. An all-too-common refrain is that new researchers now routinely ignore everything that has gone before in favour of ‘seeing things through their own eyes’. Yet in practice they almost always end up seeing it through exactly the same kind of cracked lens (whether linguistic, cryptographic, or whatever) that countless others have suffered from before: so, not so much “reinventing the wheel” as “reinventing the flat tyre“.

But this is just a superficial rationalization for their laziness and lack of commitment when faced by a sprawling and unfocused research landscape. Few even bother to read D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma”, even though it is available for free download on the NSA website. Many of them are convinced that Voynichese is no more than a language protected entirely by obscurity: counting grains of sand would be a more productive use of their time.

All the same, anyone – from amateur to academic – arriving on the Voynich Manuscript’s shores would surely start with the idea in their head that there must be something out there that would give them a good basic introduction. Yet D’Imperio’s workbook-style book came out in 1978, roughly a thousand Internet years in the past: while my own “The Curse of The Voynich” came out a decade ago (and I may as well have carved it on a rock on the far side of the moon for all the effect that it has had). Similarly Churchill and Kennedy’s (2006) book did a good job of answering all the least interesting questions about the manuscript… and so on.

What’s missing is something closer to a “user guide”: that is, something that not only helps readers navigate around and within the Voynich Manuscript’s pages, but also provides a properly foundational set of insights into how its pages were constructed; how to visually parse its content; what the genuine core debates over its features are; and where the edges of the last forty years of research lie. The stuff, in short, that everyone shooting from their hip on a Voynich blog seems to have collectively forgotten.

I shudder to think what anyone from the current generation of researchers might produce in response to such a “user guide” challenge: perhaps a hundred pages of Bax-stylee linguistic noodling, followed by a further fifty pages of Rugg-themed hoaxery? What a horrible thought: Lord save us all from even a paragraph more of each than we have already suffered. 🙁

The Missing Documentary About The Book

A while back, I had the idea to produce a TV documentary on the Voynich Manuscript from the inside out. That is, rather than build up an account of it by peering at it through a long succession of wacky theories (with the by-now obligatory long succession of wacky theorists as talking heads), to instead start from the ink, strokes, and paint and build a fresh evidence-only account of it from the ground up.

A large part of me genuinely wants to transform the cack-handed way people have come to look at these wonderfully edgy subjects, to help them see through the lies and the difficulties to the interesting artefact beneath the mythology and bullsh*t.

Maybe one day I’ll find a way of doing this… but I do somewhat despair at how poxy and formulaic TV history has become that something as genuinely interesting as this looks even remotely left-field.

I guess all I’m trying to say is that I don’t really blame Yale for the yawning hole at the centre of their book: it’s a hole at the centre of the entire way people look at mysterious ciphers. But if I were to say that their beautifully-produced photo-facsimile even begins to tackle the problems of getting academics to look at the Voynich Manuscript in a useful or constructive way, it would be a big fat lie. Because right now, nothing comes even remotely close to doing this: and we’re all the worse for that. 🙁

Of all the Légionnaires d’Honneur whose full names first appeared just a few days ago, I have to say that Joachim Vieillard currently seems to me – even though we have no family tree for him, so no tell-tale brother “Etienne” – to be our strongest candidate for the Missing Corsair.

I’ll explain why.

Joachim Vieillard: Life and Death

As previously noted, Joachim Vieillard was an enseigne de vaisseau on La Vénus (famously captained by Jean-Jacques-Emmanuel Hamelin) in 1810. His zeal is described here:

Par la vivacité de ses mouvements, du feu de son artillerie et de sa mousqueterie, l’ennemi paraît mieux armé que la Vénus, car il manœuvre, combat, et fait fusillade en même temps ; tandis qu’Hamelin, malgré le zèle des officiers Longueville, Viellard et Mauclerc, est obligé pour brasser, d’appeler ses canonniers, lesquels se multiplient à force de courage et d’activités.

Moreover, Vieillard was wounded in the Battle of Grand Port (though the punctuation looks a little erratic):

Personnel de Marine venant du Port Napoléon en renfort: l’aspirant Prosper tué, blessé l’enseigne de la frégate La Vénus, Vieillard, les aspirants Fautrel blessé et Descombes tué.

Not too surprisingly, Vieillard had previously served as an enseigne de vaisseau on La Manche (see p.49 of this book, and this report by Duperré from September 1810).

Subsequently, Vieillard was promoted to Lieutenant de Vaisseau on 31st July 1816, according to the Annales maritimes et coloniales, Année 1817, part 1 (p.35).

(Note that the entry immediately above Vieillard is for Auguste-Alexandre Mauclerc, one of his fellow Légionnaires d’Honneur from the Indian Ocean, and who we haven’t yet eliminated.)

Knowing that, I was then able to find a reference to a later edition of Annales maritimes et coloniales (supposedly on, but I only found it behind a paywall), where a paragraph on p.1066 gave the dates both of his birth and of his death:

Joachim Vieillard, lieutenant de vaisseau en activité, né à i’ile Bourbon le 18 avril 1782, mort à Bordeaux le 21 février 1821.

Given that ‘Bourbon’ is, of course, modern-day Réunion, I then went to the British Library to look at the three volumes (and indeed the 2881 pages) of “Dictionnaire généalogique des familles de l’Ile Bourbon (La Réunion) 1665-1810” by Lucien-Jacques-Camille Ricquebourg. However, I found no trace of any Vieillard family members there, which was a bit disappointing.

So… might Vieillard have instead been born in Mauritius? Henri Maurel cites a reference to a testament left by a ‘Vieillard’ dated 20/08/1787 (with the notarial reference “BELIN 1785 – 1809 – Cote CAOM : MAUR 100”), but that’s as far as I got with that thread.

As a result, it seemed for a while that this whole line of enquiry might turn out to be a dead end. But then…

Might Alexandre Dumas Have Saved The Day?

The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon” is a book that was written (and published) in serial form by Alexandre Dumas in the years before his death, though never quite finished: it was recently rediscovered, completed, translated into English, and published as a novel for the first time in 2008.

To a modern book-reading audience, though, it has to be said that the titular protagonist is excessively cartoony (wrestling cayman, sharks, snakes, fencing like a Bond villain, capturing ships, giving his hard-fought winnings away to widows etc). So how it is that Hollywood hasn’t yet snapped it up is arguably a mystery as great as that of any historical cipher. 🙂

In The Last Cavalier, Dumas places Ensign Joachim Vieillard on a pirogue with his captain, the famous corsair Robert Surcouf. When their pirogue is attacked by a huge shark, Surcouf (in Dumas’ story) throws an egg down the monster’s gullet: apparently satisfied, the shark swims off, leaving them in peace.

Moreover, another (somewhat fanciful) piece in the Revue de Paris seems to also link Surcouf to Vieillard… but, unlike Dumas, the author there drops a heavy hint as to one of the sources: the painter Louis Garneray. So: might this link have come from Garneray?

The Louis Garneray Problem

I first encountered Louis Garneray in the context of the 1799 sea-battle between the Iphigénie, Comet, Trincomalee, and Pearl which Garneray’s memoirs claimed he took part in.

The problem is that he simply wasn’t anywhere near any of those ships at the time, and so the account is full of hopeful mistakes which are at odds with the genuine accounts of the battle.

In fact, what almost certainly happened is that some genuine episodes from Garneray’s life at sea that were published in newspapers in the 1840s were picked up by some hack writer(s) and progressively embellished into a book size account until Garneray was (imaginatively) “present” at just about every interesting sea incident of his time. This kind of derring-do sea-faring account was wildly popular in France in the 1860s, which I guess is also probably why Dumas sent his Last Cavalier hero to the Indian Ocean.

All the same, the ever-sober (and ever-reliable) Auguste Toussainte has this to say (in his (1978) “Histoires des Corsaires”, p.113, quoted in Laurent Maneouvre’s “Louis Garneray: 1783-1857: Peintre. Ecrivain. Aventurier”(1997)) about Garneray:

Il y a aussi les mémoires fantaisistes comme ceux d’Edward Trelawny et de Louis Garneray […] De tous les engagements qu’il a décrits, il n’a pu assister qu’à seul, et encore n’est-ce pas certain.

For example, was Garneray on Surcouf’s crew of La Confiance for the battle against the Kent that he so ably painted?


Possibly yes… but almost certainly not. Perhaps, then, it is just as well that – having dredged my way through Garneray’s three memoirs – the link between Surcouf and Vieillard seems not to have originated from Garneray, or else we could easily dismiss it as 1860s derring-do nonsense.

Vieillard the Corsair

Other authors are convinced that Vieillard was a pirate or privateer. Denis Piat, in his splendidly illustrated “Pirates and Privateers in Mauritius” (2014) lists “Vieillard” (no first name) as the final privateer of a long (alphabetical) list (on p.115), but (I believe) does not mention the name anywhere else.

But it turns out that Alexandre Dumas actually dredged his story from the pages of French marine historian Charles Cunat. Having scoured my library at length, I eventually found this referred to on page 123 of Alain Roman’s “Robert Surcouf et ses frères” (2007), where he is referred to as “Joachim Veillard”.

C’est pendant ce séjour aux Seychelles qu’eut lieu une anecdote apportée par Cunat et qi’il certifie avoir entendue de la bouche d’un des témoins, Joachim Veillard. Après une journée passée chez un ami installé dans l’archipel, Surcouf revenait à son bord dans une pirogue conduite par son hôte en compagnie de son second chirurgien et de l’enseigne Joachim Veillard. L’embarcation fut alors attaquée par un énorme requin qui faillit la faire chavirer. Les coups de pagaie at d’aviron ne parvenant pas à le faire sur, Surcouf s’empera d’un oeuf et le lança dans la gueule de l’animal qui disparut aussitôt. Vraie ou fausse, l’histoire permet d’asseoir un peu plus la réputation de sang-froid et d’habileté du corsaire malouin.

My (occasionally over-)free translation would be something like:

It was during this particular stay in the Seychelles that a strange event took place reported by [Charles] Cunat, who attested that he heard it from the mouth of a direct witness, Joachim Veillard. Having spent a day with a friend who lived in the [Seychelles] archipelago, Surcouf was returning to his ship in a small pirogue guided by his host and with his second surgeon and his ensign Joachim Veillard in tow. The little vessel was then attacked by a huge shark, which nearly managed to capsize it. Once it became clear that their frantic oar strokes were failing to get them clear of the danger, Surcouf took an egg and threw it into the mouth of the animal, at which point it suddenly disappeared beneath the water. Whether true or false, this story allows us to grasp a little more clearly Surcouf’s reputation for cool-headedness and skillfulness.

So it seems that if we would like to know more about Joachim Vieillard, we should look at the works of Charles Cunat, who talked with him first-hand. Unfortunately, Gallica doesn’t seem to have a copy of Cunat’s book on Robert Surcouf (the one to which I believe Alain Roman referred): so I have, yet again, ordered myself a copy, and will pick up this particular thread when it arrives from France in 7-10 days.

But all the same, it now does seem likely that Joachim Viellard was indeed an enseigne de vaisseau for Surcouf: which in turn sharply raises the probability that he was our Missing Corsair. For Vieillard was, after all, a corsair, was he not?