…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 archive.org, but I only found it behind a geneanet.org 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?

I’m delighted to be able to report that I have received (from the very nice people at the Musée de la Légion d’Honneur) the page of the original Légion d’Honneur register that I’ve been trying to reconstruct. Or rather, a PDF scan of a microfiche of a handwritten copy of the handwritten original: but you get the basic idea.

Musée de la Légion d’honneur

To be precise, both pages appear here courtesy of: Archives du Musée de la Légion d’honneur et des ordres de chevalerie, ampliation de décret de nomination de chevaliers de la Légion d’honneur du 20 décembre 1810 – i.e. it is a duplicate of the decree dated 20th December 1810 nominating a number of knights for induction into the Légion d’Honneur, held by the Archives du Musée de la Légion d’honneur et des ordres de chevalerie.

The first page has Baron Jean-Jacques-Emmanuel Hamelin and Baron Duperré:


The second page has all the rest, including all the first names that were missing from the Journal de Paris summary that I uncovered a fortnight ago:


Capitaine de vaisseau:
28302 René Constant Le Marant de Kerdaniel (LH/1576/58)
28303 Pierre François Henry Étienne Bouvet de Maisonneuve (LH/342/61)

Capitaine de frégate:
28304 Nicolas Morice (LH/1937/17)
28305 Alexandre Louis Ducrest de Villeneuve (LH/827/53)
28306 Albin Roussin (LH/2407/38)
28307 Thomas Julien Fougeray du Coudray (LH/1007/55)

Chef de bataillon d’artillerie de marine:
28308 Etienne-Elisabeth Mourgues (LH/1955/28) (1774-1833)

Lieutenant de vaisseau:
28309 Henri-Félix Moisson (LH/1896/27) (1784-1832)
28310 François-Auguste Costé (LH/598/79) (1770-????)
28311 Bonaventure Thirot (LH/2595/10) (1781-1850)
28312 Edouard Victor Longueville (LH/1657/4) (1784-1862)
28313 René Decaen (LH/403/27)

Capitaine des chasseurs des colonies:
28314 Duplessis

Enseigne de vaisseau:
28315 Michel-Joseph-Guillaume de Rabaudy (LH/2252/38) (1784-1837)

Lieutenant de vaisseau:
28316 Camille Joseph de Roquefeuille-Cahuzac (1781-1831)

Enseigne de vaisseau:
28317 Isaïe Alexis de Longueville (LH/1657/8) (1788-1838)
28318 Auguste-Alexandre Mauclerc (~1767-1835)
28319 Joachim Vieillard (1782-1821)
28320 Vincent-Marie Moulac (LH/1949/55) (1778/1780-1836)
28321 Robert-Nicolas Lefébure (LH/1548/23) (1788-????)
28322 Jean-Baptiste Jardin (LH/1354/77) (1788-????)

Capitaine d’artillerie de Marine:
28323 Ackman

Aspirant de 1ère classe:
28324 Louis Augustin Médéric Malavoie (1793-1836)

So… Which One Is The Missing Corsair, Then?

Someone like Camille Joseph de Roquefeuille-Cahuzac would be an excellent candidate, were it not for the awkward fact that he seems not to have had a brother called Etienne.

Joachim Vieillard at first looks like a plausible fit for the “Joachim Joseph, portuguais” on the Apollon. However, if you search Memoires des Hommes, you’ll find Joachim Joseph and his (possibly twin?) brother Isydor / Ignace as ‘mousses’ (very young sailors) on the Bonhomme Richard two years before Joachim Vieillard was even born. (An older man by the same name – quite possibly their father – was killed on the same ship).

Louis Augustin Médéric Malavoie would also be a good candidate, were he not too young to have sailed on the Apollon. And so it goes on.

In retrospect, my initial hope (that all we would need to do is cross-reference this list of names and the list of names on the Apollon crew-list, and verify the result by finding a brother called Etienne) seems slightly over-optimistic.

However, there are plenty more dice to roll before this game of archival chance is over. For example:
* there may be a second list of the Apollon’s captured crew in British archives
* there may be lists of corsair Freemasons in Ile de Bourbon and/or Ile de France
* there may be other Indian Ocean Freemason archives to go through
* the crew list of La Vénus (in Mauritius) might tell us more
* and so on.

From 4pm to 5pm every Monday to Thursday on the France Culture radio station, Nicolas Martin hosts the programme La Méthode scientifique. This covers PopSci, ‘popular science’: you know, from genetics, VR, AI, evolution, dinosaurs, Star Trek to… whatever it feels like, really. 🙂

As you might expect, today’s programme (which will then be available online immediately) will include a 3-minute segment on the Voynich Manuscript. Which is nice.

I wouldn’t normally mention a 3-minute micro-broadcast on French radio 🙂 , but I thought I’d mention it because it has contributions from Antoine Casanova, who famously (errm… famous round here, that is) wrote a dissertation on Voynichese in 1999: Méthodes d’analyse du langage crypté : une contribution à l’étude du manuscrit de Voynich.

The other listed contributor is Professor Jacques Patarin, who famously (errm… what I said before) worked with Valérie Nachef to decrypt some enciphered letters written by Marie-Antoinette, in their 2009 paper I shall love you up to the death. Which not a lot of people seem to know about. 🙂

Too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel, some might say that The Voynich Affair by Linnet Moss suffers from both problematic elongation and improper positioning.

But given that Google (until today) yielded precisely zero hits for the phrase “Voynich erotica”, Moss is clearly reaming out a niche untouched by few (if any) previous hands.

Voynich Erotica

But has she hit the spot?

I must confess that I found reading “The Voynich Affair” on a Kindle on the bus towards Staines in the morning rush hour more than a bit unsettling. Coming to the genre for the first time (so to speak), what I found oddest was that it seems to be written by people scared to death of physical intimacy, and aimed at readers who are also scared to death of physical intimacy. No, really.

I don’t know, it’s like it was typed by someone wearing gloves: chic, distantly-perfumed Italian leather gloves, sure, but gloves nonetheless. And for all the shudderingly implausible physical encounters described in the text, the whole endeavour came across as being locked within a resolutely lonely world, sans any flicker of Sartrean authenticity.

As a result, I can’t claim to have liked (or even mildly empathised with) any of the protagonists: but given that there are plenty of Internationally Acclaimed Bestsellers which failed that same test even more dramatically (Digital Fortress, anyone? *sigh*), that hardly amounts to a serious criticism. And anyway, that’s probably not the point of erotica, right?

At this point, a traditional review would tell you about how the story is based around extra missing pages of the manuscript in a French chateau, and involves various broodingly mysterious (and sociopathic) Voynich researchers: but frankly that’s a bit pointless. By now, you’ve almost certainly decided whether or not you’re interested, so all I can usefully add is that all fifteen chapters are freely available online, starting here.

The Selfish Reason

At this point, I have to ‘fess up to the real reason I bought a copy of The Voynich Affair (which Linnet Moss published as part of “The Mind-Body Problem: Stories of Desire and Love in Academe” (2012), complete with Voynich page on the (virtual) front cover)…


…which is that I wanted to see if the various Voynich researchers in the story were loosely based on any real-world Voynich researchers.

OK, OK: I wanted to see if I had been parodied. Not that I can’t take a joke, it’s just that I’d rather know about the joke than find out about it a decade later. 🙂

Happily, though, I can exclusively reveal that no Voynich researcher seems to have been openly parodied (no Randy Zenbergen, no Donna Via-Odeon, and no sign of the infamous Len Pickling), nor were any Voynichians’ sexual proclivities (errrm, to the best of my knowledge) turned into sort-of-page-turning Voynich-themed erotic encounters.

Unless you know better, that is? 😉

But… Who Would Write Such A Thing?

Author Linnet Moss claims to be:

“a college professor who writes fiction in her spare time. She adores old books, new books, cats, frogs, miniature books, wine, Trappist ales, tea from Ceylon, vegetarian gourmet food, London, Rome, Art Deco skyscrapers, and beautiful men.”

Of course, while some (or indeed all) of this may be true, it remains just as possible that Moss is a short balding non-professor bloke from Deptford with OCD, conceptually not too far removed from “paradee man woman” Wor Cheryl, pet.

As a result, I can (just about) see how some readers might possibly see decrypting the author’s identity, age, and/or indeed gender from the text as a worthwhile challenge.

For me, though, I’m sticking with the Voynich Manuscript: that has more than enough strangely inscrutable nymphs to worry about for one lifetime. 😉

German cipher blogger/author Klaus Schmeh will be in London this weekend, so I’m setting up a Voynich pub meet in his honour. As long as he promises not to make Lego tableaux of the participants, as he did for Henry Debosnys


…and the Zodiac Killer (link in German)…


Not that we’re all, errrm, cipher-obsessed serial killers or anything. 😉

Anyway, the plan is to meet up around 7pm on Sunday (i.e. 30th October 2016) at the historic Thameside Prospect of Whitby in Wapping, not too far from where pirates were hung in the bad old days. (Though these days, the biggest pirates in London seem to get ever higher CEO salaries, please don’t ask me to explain how that works.) Princess Margaret, Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys all visited the Prospect of Whitby (says Wikipedia), a sleb list that is hard to argue with. 🙂

As to where we’ll be: if you go from the street into the pub, carry straight ahead then turn left just past the bar, then in front of you at the end, you should see a set of doors leading out to a pub garden / patio area. Which is where (if the weather is tolerably OK) we’ll meet up. Unless it’s all been redeveloped into chi-chi flats since we were last there.

Alternatively, if it’s raining so hard that it looks like the Gods want everyone in London to be washed into the Thames, we’ll be indoors somewhere, hopefully admiring someone’s shiny new copy of Yale University Press’s “The Voynich Manuscript” photo-facsimile, and arguing about exactly how bad/good/meh the essays are.

Hope to see you there! 🙂

By now, even occasional Cipher Mysteries readers may well know that Yale University Press is about to release a photo-facsimile version of the Voynich Manuscript, its $50 price-point rather less stratospheric than that of the schwizzy Spanish Voynich facsimile that so intrigued the media a few months back. (And for that, if you need to ask the price, you almost certainly can’t afford it.)

So, in anticipation of YUP’s version’s release on 1st November 2016, we now have the start of a mild flurry of promotional activity. For example, if you just happen to be near Yale Law School [it’s just across the street from the Beinecke] at 4pm-5pm this Wednesday (26th October 2016), there’ll be a talk focusing “on how the publishing process works”:

Beinecke Modern Books & Manuscripts Curator and Publications Director Timothy Young will talk with Joseph Calamia, editor at Yale University Press, about the challenges of creating a facsimile of an increasingly popular book and with Beinecke Early Books & Manuscripts Curator Ray Clemens on scholarship related to the Voynich.

And here’s an action shot of Ray Clemens, much more fun than the sub-passport-photo stuff you tend to find in online staff directories:


Oh, and here’s a photo of Glen S. Miranker having his brains vacuumed out while being shown the Voynich Manuscript by Paula Zyatz (it’s some non-disclosure clause, I think):


Not entirely relevant, but I thought you’d like to see it. 🙂

The Highs And The Lows

In most ways, a facsimile edition is – in these decorously digital days – an unnecessary slab of bourgeoisiana. The Beinecke has already released two completely independent sets of full-colour digital scans of the pages (both at reasonably good resolution), so I’d be one of the last people to argue that the YUP’s reproductions will themselves add anything of significant value to the overall Voynichological discourse.

(Sure, it’s annoying for Voynich purists that Jean-Claude Gawsewitch trimmed off many margins in his (2005) mostly-photographic-facsimile “Le Code Voynich”: but that was hardly fatal for what was effectively a coffee-table edition, and the Yale version’s plates – and even fold-out pages – seem unlikely to be ‘academically transformative’, let’s say).

Yet what of the essays at the front? Will these be enough to achieve the Beinecke’s goal of legimitizing the Voynich Manuscript as (a) a genuinely old object, and/or (b) an artefact worthy of serious scholarly study?

Personally, I don’t think so. Even though the Beinecke was given the Voynich Manuscript nearly fifty years ago, my opinion is that there is still painfully little genuine foundational research into it. For instance, we still have no idea what the original page order was; what the original quiration was; which paints were original (and which ones were added later); which parts of the various drawings were original (and which were added later); what the writing on the final (non-enciphered) page f116v originally said; nor even from which specific scribal milieu the main body of the writing came from.

Hence the core problem is this: even now, when academics approach the Voynich Manuscript, they do not have sufficient codicological factuality – i.e. about what happened to the manuscript to leave it in its current state – to build anything worthwhile on top of. All of which means that they might easily (but wrongly) be persuaded to place their trust in one of the numerous academic travesties currently being passed off as theories… and for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

One classic academic story used to be about the Professor of German who was well-versed in all the secondary sources, yet couldn’t actually speak German. But here, the scenario is arguably even worse: a whole host of academics trying to understand the Voynich Manuscript not through primary evidence, close observation and tight physical reasoning, but through the distorted funfair mirrors of Voynich theories.

All the same, I’ve ordered myself a copy (arguably with money I should be squirrelling away for Mauritian car hire, *sigh*), and I have little doubt that many Cipher Mysteries readers will be doing the same. Personally, I’d have been happier if the Beinecke had put the effort into getting the basic codicology and science right in time for the manuscript’s 50th anniversary in their curatorial hands than into producing what will probably be the tenth or maybe fifteenth coffee-table edition. But… you knew I was going to say that.

Here’s a link to a short video piece on the Moustier cryptograms from November 2015, courtesy of Belgian television network Notélé (Christophe M reminded me of this recently, but Etienne had also noted this here back in July).

Incidentally, I tried to grab the video stream so that I could transcribe the text for you here, but sadly Notélé’s online video streaming software proved to be too cunningly clever for the various Firefox add-ons I tried, so I gave up. *sigh*

Going through the film yielded two things that I didn’t previously know about the Moustier cryptograms:

(1) According to church records, the artisan who did the stonecutting (the film says in “1848”, but I’m sure the actual date was 1838) was a local sculptor called Pierre Brébant (?) from Tournai, a mere 15 miles away from Moustier. (However, I can find no trace of him, please let me know if you can do any better).

(2) Philippe Connart’s theory about the Moustier cryptograms is that their letter-shapes mimic the 10th century Merovingian-era palaeography employed by a monk in the Abbaye at St Amand les Eaux (formerly known as Elnon Abbey or Elnone Abbey), in a copy of works by the 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople Gregory of Nazianzus.


I have to say I’m really not sure that Connart’s hypothesis really hits the spot: it’s a gigantic leap from the 10th century to the 19th century without any kind of obvious intermediary, or motivation, or need, or connection, or indeed boring churchy paperwork to support it. And of the two unusual letters that Connart highlights (a square-cut C and a zigzaggy S), only the first seems to appear in the Moustier carvings, which could easily be coincidental.

But what sits most awkwardly with me about this is that the Moustier carving simply doesn’t look like the work of a sculptor trying to emulate some high-class 10th century writing. Apart from the presence of a few unusual shapes, the carving looks rather amateurish and awkward: the letter-heights are inconsistent, while the letter-shapes also seem somewhat inconsistent.

Anyway, as always, opinions on this differ.

Namurois Crosses?

Incidentally, “La Belgique Mystérieuse” (1973) refers readers interested in the Moustier mystery to look at a number of ancient Namurois crosses whose inscriptions have resisted all interpretation. (“On connait également dans le Namurois plusieurs croix funéraires anciennes dont le texte mystérieux a résisté jusqu’à présent aux tentatives les plus ingénieuses d’interprétation.“). (p.119)

However, the best-known thing fiting that description was La Croix de Saint-Géry near Chastre, which is a 3-metre-tall cross without any trace of writing whatsoever. (Someone hit it with a car in 2013, knocking the top part of the cross clean off: but it has since been re-erected). Unlike Moustier’s curious carvings, the enigma there is simply that nobody has any idea where the cross came from (it was first mentioned in the 16th century, but seems older).

An 1875 letter by Camille Van Dessel (reproduced on p.284 [p.314 of the PDF] here) pointed to a notice by a M. Bamps in the Bulletin des Commissions royales d’art et d’archéologie suggesting two similar monuments:

L’une a été déterrée dans la plaine derrière Boekrak, l’autre à Zonhoven. M. Bamps prétend que ce sont des croix expiatoires, dont la première fut établie à la suite d’un abus de pouvoir du seigneur de Vogelzanck, la seconde à la suite d’un sacrilège commis en enterrant une statue miraculeuse.

Bamps’ note appears in full here (p.105 [p.119 of the PDF]): but both of the mysterious crosses whose histories Bamps tries to trace also have no inscription.

Hence my current belief is therefore that the Moustier set of inscriptions remains entirely unique in Belgium: but please feel free to leave a comment here if you can correct me. 🙂

Oh well! A great big thank-you-very-much-indeed to all those fabulous, brave, generous people who pledged their hard-earned money towards my proposed Mauritian pirate treasure documentary project: but – alas! – it was not to be. Cue oversized sad smiley:


I might try again in the future (and having experienced the whole Kickstarter ecosystem first-hand, I would of course do just about everything differently). But then again, solving the whole Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang pirate treasure mystery by my normal slow means could easily prove more practical than trying to fast-forward to the distant chequered flag of Historical Truth via crowdfunding a documentary.

As a result, I doubt anyone would be surprised if I were now to take my family on holiday to Mauritius and leave them on the beach while I just happen to accidentally sneak off to various historical archives for a day. (Or ten.) 🙂 And on the bright side, given that there can’t be many books on the topic left for me to throw scads of money at, I might now actually be able to start to afford it. 😉

Also: what emerged from the surfeit of Nageon de l’Estang posts here was that many of the relevant archives are actually in France rather than Mauritius. For example, details about Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang’s family are very likely to be in the archives in Lorient: while I would be utterly unsurprised if the Missing Corsair’s life story is to be found scattered through various French marine archives. So I may well have to engineer some way to get myself over to La Belle France for a few days too. 😉

I don’t know: the historical mysteries I try to cover are all genuinely fascinating stories that have ended up wrapped up in layer upon layer of misperception and mythology. And so initially the whole point of the Kickstarter project was to devise a way to try to sidestep the all-too-familiar walking-through-treacle research feeling for just one of these historical mysteries.

But as the project took better shape, what I came to understand was that pirate treasure has an unbelievably powerful resonance within Mauritius, something that people outside the island rarely grasp. Treasure hunting is something that has deeply permeated Mauritian culture over the last century, and even – I suspect – Mauritians’ idea of self.

And so what I ended up hoping to do with the documentary was something far closer to using pirate treasure as a mirror to hold up to Mauritius itself, to reflect back Mauritians’ collective idea of their own history. In many ways, I wanted to try to interview an entire country, something that has never been attempted (and may well never be attempted). But how can you sell that as an idea for a film?

Was I aiming to make a documentary about an actual pirate treasure; about the hopeful dream of finding pirate treasure that an entire country shared; or about how such dreams define a nation? In part, I couldn’t help but want to do all of them at the same time. As a result, it felt as though I finished the whole Kickstarter cycle with too grandly epic a conceptual narrative to squeeze into any small margin.

As a parallel, single-topic historical books have been in vogue for years – telling the history of sugar, of salt, of bananas, of wood, in fact of any damn thing you can name. The reason they’re interesting isn’t that general book readers suddenly want to become experts in what salt meant for Florentines in the Quattrocento (even though this is a genuinely interesting question), but because they open an interesting window onto a whole range of different (and apparently unlinked) histories. That is, these books offer up a kind of synthetic physical narrative that modern historians tend to eschew: and so they are innately romantic and old-fashioned, harking back to the days when historians were often closer to novelists than was genuinely comfortable.

This is just as true for difficult and contested objects such as the Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang papers: there, you have to engage with whole swathes of history in order to put one apparently small thing into its correct set of contexts – the sinking of the St-Géran, the attack on Madras by La Bourdonnais’ fleet, the naval war between the British Navy and Napoleon’s fleet, the Légion d’Honneur and so forth.

So in many ways, you can’t tell a story about this kind of cipher mystery without telling a vastly bigger story about everything that it cuts across that gave it shape, or gave it external meaning: and that’s something that’s arguably beyond the reach of a blog, an article, a crowdfunded documentary, or even a book.

Really: for all the historical grind that I put into researching historical mysteries, I guess what I’m perpetually reaching towards are things that are implicitly romantic and yet forensically rigorous; that touch on deeper truths that even literature cannot reach, and yet require deft scientific precision; and that require off-the-scale intuition and logic to deal effectively with, yet perpetually sit just the wrong side of the limits of what we can know.

Ultimately, what I’m describing is neither a narrative nor a microcosm, but an eternal battle against the gods, against thermodynamics, against Time itself. Maybe I should learn not to be so damned impatient… 😉

One thing I’ve been trying really hard to do over the last few weeks is to identify the “Missing Corsair”, i.e. the person who (seems to have) owned the Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang papers in mid-1811 (i.e. just after the Fall of Tamatave marked the effective end of France’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean).

This Missing Corsair claimed to have been honoured by the First Consul for a glorious feat of arms: which (in English) would seem to mean that Napoleon Bonaparte made him a Chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur for some feat of bravery, presumably in the Indian Ocean.


Given that this Missing Corsair called his ‘commandant’ Captain “Hamon” or “Harmon”, my working hypothesis for the last few months has been that we should be able to narrow our search down to a small group of men: those rewarded by Napoleon for the part they played in the Battle of Grand Port, and even more specifically those sailing on La Vénus under Capitaine Hamelin.

But despite being so very specific, the list of names in this group has proved very hard to dig up. *sigh*

Finally, A Lucky Break

Though I had managed to identify some of these men (though in admittedly a very piecemeal fashion) via Google, the bulk of my searches had revealed nothing really substantial. Well, that was true right up until a couple of days ago, when I finally dug up the page in the Journal de Paris, Lundi 24 Decembre 1810, no 358, where the names of the new Légionnaires were all announced.

And then, having found that Journal de Paris list, I was able to use the names on that to dig up a further list of the same names by way of general confirmation.

Nicely, the people appear in strict numerical order: so my guess is that each ancien numéro reference is made up of a page number and a line, e.g. “28302” is page #283, line #2 of the ledger.

The biggest problem is that we often only have a surname to work with, and not every name has a corresponding entry within the Léonore database (i.e. of Légion d’Honneur recipients). However, I’ve managed to identify all bar three of the names (eventually), so we’re now hopefully much further along than we were before.


Les capitaines de vaisseau
(no ancien numéro) Jacques-Félix-Emmanuel Hamelin
(no ancien numéro) Baron Duperré


Les capitaines de vaisseau
28302 René Constant Le Marant de Kerdaniel
28303 Pierre François Henry Étienne Bouvet de Maisonneuve

Les capitaines de frégate
28304 Nicolas Morice
28305 Alexandre Louis Ducrest de Villeneuve
28306 Albin Roussin
28307 Thomas Julien Fougeray du Coudray

(Everything below here is a lightly-annotated set of notes relating to each of the non-captains made a Chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur on the 20th December 1810. Only three remain completely unknown: Mauclerc, Vieillard, Ackman. We probably need not concern ourselves with Duplessis and René Decaen.)

Le chef de bataillon d’artillerie de marine
28308 Etienne-Elisabeth Mourgues, 22/08/1774 Brest – 24/04/1833 Sens.

Les lieutenants de vaisseau
28309 Henri-Felix Moisson, 14/01/1784 Caen – 03/12/1832 Brest

28310 Francois-Auguste Costé, 22/12/1770 Le Havre

28311 Bonnaventure [Bonaventure] Thirot, 21/6/1781 Le Faou – 22/9/1850 Lorient
Son of Guilleaume Louis Thirot, brigadier.
Married Cézarine COSMAO-DUMANOIR (b.1794), from which Caroline de la POIX de FREMINVILLE (born THIROT).

28312 Edouard Victor Longueville, 12/8/1784 St Servan – 3/1/1862 Brest
Son of Sieur Nicolas Jacques Longueville and Dame Marie Anne Dubois

28313 René Decaen (“frère du Général Decaen”)

Le capitaine des chasseurs des colonies
28314 Duplessis

Les enseignes de vaisseau
28315 Michel-Joseph-Guillaume De Rabaudy, 10/1/1784 Amiens – 24/7/1837
“Fils de François de Rabaudy, garde du corps du roi et de Aimée Latiez-Dumermon”
Père: RABAUDY (de) François Marguerite
Mère: LATTIEZ DE MERMONT Aimable Aimée
“Il était marié à Marie-Thérèse-Anne-Suzanne Desvimes”

28316 Roquefeuille
Camille Joseph de Roquefeuil-Cahuzac, 27/1/1781 Cahuzac-sur-Vère – 7/11/1831 Saint-Paul (La Réunion)

28317 Isaie Alexis de Longueville, 1788 – 1838
Son of Sieur Nicolas Jacques Longueville and Dame Marie Anne Dubois

28318 Mauclerc ?

28319 Vieillard ?

28320 Vincent-Marie Moulac, 2/3/1778 [1780?]Lorient – 5/4/1836 Callao

28321 Robert-Nicolas Lefebure, 18/4/1788 Cherbourg –
Son of Matthieu Lefebure & Julie Anne Marie Drouet
Married Louise-Eglantine Delabriere
Had a daughter Julie-Mathilde Lefébure: he was from a family which had owned “la terre de Gavatot pres d’Auzebosc et en avait parfois porte le nom au XVIIIeme siecle”.

28322 Jean-Baptiste Jardin, 23/6/1788 Dinan –
1819-1820 Falkland Islands, on the Victor

Le lieutenant d’artillerie de marine
28323 Ackman ?

L’aspirant de première classe
28324 Louis Augustin Médéric Malavoie [Malavoye], 31/8/1793 Seychelles – 28/12/1836 Saint-Louis-du-Sénégal. Was briefly Governor of Senegal.
Son of Louis Jean-Baptiste Philogène de Malavois (Scarr p.11).