In the Voynich research world, several transcriptions of the Voynich Manuscript’s baffling text have been made. Arguably the most influential of these is EVA: this originally stood for “European Voynich Alphabet”, but was later de-Europeanized into “Extensible Voynich Alphabet”.

The Good Things About EVA

EVA has two key aspects that make it particularly well-adapted to Voynich research. Firstly, the vast majority of Voynichese words transcribed into EVA are pronouncable (e.g. daiin, qochedy, chodain, etc): this makes them easy to remember and to work with. Secondly, it is a stroke-based transcription: even though there are countless ways in which the inidvidual strokes could possibly be joined together into glyphs (e.g. ch, ee, ii, iin) or parsed into possible tokens (e.g. qo, ol, dy), EVA does not try to make that distinction – it is “parse-neutral”.

Thanks to these two aspects, EVA has become the central means by which Voynich researchers trying to understand its textual mysteries converse. In those terms, it is a hugely successful design.

The Not-So-Good Things About EVA

In retrospect, some features of EVA’s design are quite clunky:
* Using ‘s’ to code both for the freestanding ‘s’-shaped glyph and for the left-hand half of ‘sh’
* Having two ways of coding ligatures (either with round brackets or with upper-case letters)
* Having so many extended characters, many of which are for shapes that appear exactly once

There are other EVA design limitations that prevent various types of stroke from being captured:
* Having only limited ways of encoding the various ‘sh’ “plumes” (this particularly annoyed Glen Claston)
* Having no way of encoding the various ‘s’ flourishes (this also annoyed Glen)
* Having no way of encoding various different ‘-v’ flourishes (this continues to annoy me)

You also run into various annoying inconsistences when you try to use the interlinear transcription:
* Some transcribers use extended characters for weirdoes, while others use no extended characters at all
* Directional tags such as R (radial) and C (circular) aren’t always used consistently
* Currier language (A / B) isn’t recorded for all pages
* Not all transcribers use the ‘,’ (half-space) character
* What one transcriber considers a space or half-space, another leaves out completely

These issues have led some researchers to either make their own transcriptions (such as Glen Claston’s v101 transcription), or to propose modifications to EVA (such as Philip Neal’s little-known ‘NEVA’, which is a kind of hybrid, diacriticalised EVA, mapped backwards from Glen Claston’s transcription).

However, there are arguably even bigger problems to contend with.

The Problem With EVA

The first big problem with EVA is that in lots of cases, Voynichese just doesn’t want to play ball with EVA’s nice neat transcription model. If we look at the following word (it’s right at the start of the fourth line on f2r), you should immediately see the problem:

The various EVA transcribers tried gamely to encode this (they tried “chaindy”, “*aiidy”, and “shaiidy”), but the only thing you can be certain of is that they’re probably all wrong. Because of the number of difficult cases such as this, EVA should perhaps have included a mechanism to let you flag an entire word as unreliable, so that people trying to draw inferences from EVA could filter it out before it messes up their stats.

(There’s a good chance that this particular word was miscopied or emended: you’d need to do a proper codicological analysis to figure out what was going on here, which is a complex and difficult activity that’s not high up on anyone’s list of things to do.)

The second big problem with EVA is that of low quality. This is (I believe) because almost all of the EVA transcriptions were done from the Beinecke’s ancient (read: horrible, nasty, monochrome) CopyFlo printouts, i.e. long before the Beinecke released even the first digital image scan of the Voynich Manuscript’s pages. Though many CopyFlo pages are nice and clean, there are still plenty of places where you can’t easily tell ‘o’ from ‘a’, ‘o’ from ‘y’, ‘ee’ from ‘ch’, ‘r’ from ‘s’, ‘q’ from ‘l’, or even ‘ch’ from ‘sh’.

And so there are often wide discrepancies between the various transcriptions. For example, looking at the second line of page f24r:

…this was transcribed as:

qotaiin.char.odai!n.okaiikhal.oky-{plant} --[Takahashi]
qotaiin.eear.odaiin.okai*!!al.oky-{plant} --[Currier, updated by Voynich mailing list members]
qotaiin.char.odai!n.okaickhal.oky-{plant} --[First Study Group]

In this specific instance, the Currier transcription is clearly the least accurate of the three: and even though the First Study Group transcription seems closer than Takeshi Takahashi’s transcription here, the latter is frequently more reliable elsewhere.

The third big problem with EVA is that Voynich researchers (typically newer ones) often treat it as if it is final (it isn’t); or as if it is a perfect representation of Voynichese (it isn’t).

The EVA transcription is often unable to reflect what is on the page, and even though the transcribers have done their best to map between the two as best they can, in many instances there is no answer that is definitively correct.

The fourth big problem with EVA is that it is in need of an overhaul, because there is a huge appetite for running statistical experiments on a transcription, and the way it has ended up is often not a good fit for that.

It might be better now to produce not an interlinear EVA transcription (i.e. with different people’s transcriptions interleaved), but a single collective transcription BUT where words or letters that don’t quite fit the EVA paradigm are also tagged as ambiguous (e.g. places where the glyph has ended up in limbo halfway betwen ‘a’ and ‘o’).

What Is The Point Of EVA?

It seems to me that the biggest problem of all is this: that almost everyone has forgotten that the whole point of EVA wasn’t to close down discussion about transcription, but rather to enable people to work collaboratively even though just about every Voynich researcher has a different idea about how the individual shapes should be grouped and interpreted.

Somewhere along the line, people have stopped caring about the unresolved issue of how to parse Voynichese (e.g. to determine whether ‘ee’ is one letter or two), and just got on with doing experiments using EVA but without understanding its limitations and/or scope.

EVA was socially constructive, in that it allowed people with wildly different opinions about how Voynichese works to discuss things with each other in a shared language. However, it also inadvertantly helped promote an inclusive accommodation whereby people stopped thinking about trying to resolve difficult issues (such as working out the correct way to parse the transcription).

But until we can start find out a way to resolve such utterly foundational issues, experiments on the EVA transcription will continue to give misleading and confounded results. The big paradox is therefore that while the EVA transcription has helped people discuss Voynichese, it hasn’t yet managed to help people advance knowledge about how Voynichese actually works beyond a very superficial level. *sigh*

For far too long, Voynich researchers have (in my opinion) tried to use statistical analysis as a thousand-ton wrecking ball, i.e. to knock down the whole Voynich edifice in a single giant swing. Find the perfect statistical experiment, runs the train of thought, and all Voynichese’s skittles will clatter down. Strrrrike!

But… even a tiny amount of reflection should be enough to show that this isn’t going to work: the intricacies and contingencies of Voynichese shout out loud that there will be no single key to unlock this door. Right now, the tests that get run give results that are – at best – like peering through multiple layers of net curtains. We do see vague silhouettes, but nothing genuinely useful appears.

Whether you think Voynichese is a language, a cipher system, or even a generated text doesn’t really matter. We all face the same initial problem: how to make Voynichese tractable, by which I mean how to flatten it (i.e. regularize it) to the point where the kind of tests people run do stand a good chance of returning results that are genuinely revealing.

A staging point model

How instead, then, should we approach Voynichese?

The answer is perhaps embarrassingly obvious and straightforward: we should collectively design and implement statistical experiments that help us move towards a series of staging posts.

Each of the models on the right (parsing model, clustering model, and inter-cluster maps) should be driven by clear-headed statistical analysis, and would help us iterate towards the staging points on the left (parsed transcription, clustered parsed transcription, final transcription).

What I’m specifically asserting here is that researchers who perform statistical experiments on the raw stroke transcription in the mistaken belief that this is as good as a final transcription are simply wasting their time: there are too many confounding curtains in the way to ever see clearly.

The Curse, statistically

A decade ago, I first talked about “The Curse of the Voynich”: my book’s title was a way of expressing the idea that there was something about the way the Voynich Manuscript was constructed that makes fools of people who try to solve it.

Interestingly, it might well be that the diagram above explains what the Curse actually is: that all the while people treat the raw (unparsed, unclustered, unnormalized) transcription as if it were the final (parsed, clustered, normalized) transcription, their statistical experiments will continue to be confounded in multiple ways, and will show them nothing useful.

I’ve just had a particularly interesting email exchange with Paul Relkin concerning the Feynman Challenge Ciphers, which he has generously allowed me to share here. The context is that the first Feynman Challenge cipher’s plaintext was from the very start of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, i.e. the first twelve lines of the General Prologue:


Paul writes:

The Prologue

I’d like to share with you a possible clue I’ve discovered to the sources of the 2nd and 3rd Feynman Ciphers. My findings relate to the identification of a specific published transcription of the Canterbury Tales that is the probable source of the 1st Feynman Cipher.

As you are probably aware, the Canterbury Tales have been transcribed and reprinted innumerable times. Among the many different published editions of the Canterbury Tales, there are several idiosyncratic spellings associated with particular transcriptions. Although individual lines are spelled the same way in many different editions, I found that the 12 lines of the Feynman Cipher taken together are unique enough to match only one published transcription, like a “word fingerprint”.

To find the edition that the Feynman Cipher is based on, I extensively searched for editions of the General Prologue that were published before or during World War II and compared the word spellings to the Feynman Cipher.

First, I discovered what may be a typo in the 1st Feynman Cipher. The word “brefth” does not appear in any published edition of the General Prologue I have been able to identify. The most likely correct spelling is “breeth”.

Second, I found that the only version of the General Prologue that matches the Feynman Cipher is Fred Norris Robinson’s 1st edition of Chaucer’s Complete Works. In the introduction to his book, Robinson actually discusses several of the uniquely spelled words that later found their way into the 1st Feynman Cipher and explains why he rejected the popular spellings and chose less common ones.

Possible Sources

Having identified Robinson’s transcription as the probable source of the 1st Feynman Cipher, I discovered that there are only a few different editions of this transcription that were published between 1933 and 1938 that could have been used by the author of the Feynman Ciphers:

In 1933, Houghton Mifflin published this book in at least three editions:

The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (black):

The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Student’s Cambridge Edition (red):

The Poetical Works of Chaucer, Cambridge Edition (white):

In 1936, Houghton Mifflin published small books containing parts of Robinson’s Canterbury Tales with an introduction written by Max John Herzberg. The title of the book that contains the quote used in the cipher is “The Prologue, the Knight’s Tale, and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale”:

In 1938, Houghton Mifflin included Robinson’s Canterbury Tales in a two volume collection of British poetry by Paul Robert Lieder called “British Poetry and Prose” (Volume 1):

Interestingly, Robinson’s 2nd edition of Chaucer’s Complete Works in 1957 no longer matches the spellings in the cipher!

It’s specifically here where I think we may find clues to the 2nd and 3rd ciphers. It seems plausible to me that “British Poetry and Prose” contains other literary works that were the basis for the 2nd and 3rd Feynman Ciphers. For example, several of its poems have 6 letter words that repeat twice, consistent with “CJUMVRCJUMVR” in the 2nd Feynman Cipher.

Robinson’s 1933 book of Chaucer’s Complete Works could also be the source of the 2nd and 3rd ciphers. The 1933 book is part of a series of books called “The Cambridge Poets” and the 1936 book is part of a series called “The Riverside Literature Series”. The other books in the series are also potentially worth looking at.

Los Alamos?

My research suggests that several copies of these books have the original owner’s name and other notes written in them. If we were able to locate the copy that was used at Los Alamos, it might reveal the name of the scientist who created the ciphers. There may be other writings within it that would give further clues about the ciphers.

I discovered that the Mesa Public Library in Los Alamos has a copy of Robinson’s 1933 book. The Mesa Public Library originated during World War II in the Big House where Feynman lived, so I wondered whether the library book could be the copy that was used to create the cipher.

So, I recently arranged to borrow that book through interlibrary loan. Since I live on the East Coast, I had to try 5 different libraries before I found one that would let me request that particular book. It then took two tries because they accidentally requested the book from the Mesa Public Library in Arizona instead of the one in New Mexico. I finally received the book I requested. Unfortunately, the book plate indicates that it was donated to the library in the 1970s. This makes it unlikely (albeit not impossible) that this was the specific copy used in the period around World War II to create the 1st Feynman Cipher.

I hope you find this information interesting and that it brings us a step closer to solving the 2nd and 3rd Feynman Ciphers.

Chaucer and Cryptography?

(((NickP: I responded here, pointing out:)))

Incidentally, there are two interesting links between Geoffrey Chaucer and cryptography. The first (which you may well have heard of) is that he included six blocks of ciphertext in his Treatise on the “Equatorie” (basically a kind of astrolabe). But the second is that a very major work on Chaucer (finally published in 1940) was written by John Matthews Manly and Edith Rickert, both well-known code-breakers. (I’ve covered them a few times on CM, mainly because of Manly’s links to the Voynich Manuscript.)

However, Rickert died in 1938, Manly died in 1940 and Los Alamos only really started in 1943, so we can rule out a direct transmission from either of them to Feynman. All the same, I do consider it entirely possible that one/both of them was/were the ultimate source of the three cryptograms. Just so you know!

(((To which Paul replied:)))

Concerning your excellent point about Rickert and Manly, there was another colorful link between a Chaucer scholar and Los Alamos that I found while I was researching editions of the Canterbury Tales. John Strong Perry Tatlock was a famous Chaucer expert who transcribed Chaucer’s Complete Works. His daughter, Jean Frances Tatlock, had a romantic relationship with J. Robert Oppenheimer between 1936 and 1939. They continued to have an affair during Oppenheimer’s marriage. Their relationship was used as evidence against Oppenheimer during his security clearance hearings because Tatlock was a member of the Communist Party. As you know, Oppenheimer and Feynman had more than a passing acquaintance – as for Tatlock and Feynman, who knows?

Just a short note to say that I’ve today decided to stop selling physical copies of “The Curse of the Voynich”. I first published it at the end of 2006 (the front page says “v1.0: Emma Vine (Broceto)“, if you want to try decrypting that), and it’s now time for me to leave it to the book collectors and move on. 🙂

Thanks very much to everyone reading this who bought a copy along the way – this helped recoup me some of the money I lost during the six months I worked part-time while I did the research for it. And for those who bought their copy direct from Compelling Press, I really hope you enjoyed your anagrammatic dedication – finding nice anagrams of people’s names was always something I enjoyed doing.

Incidentally, second-hand copies of “Curse” are on sale through, though at prices ranging from £47 to £2500 (!): I expect the lowest price will rise to around £200 before very long, so anyone here who already has a copy is arguably now a little bit better off. Which is nice (if you’re an accountant). 🙂

Finally: for anyone who would like a copy of “Curse” in the future, please note that I plan to make an ebook version available before long (hopefully later this year). I’ll do my best, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it in the ultra-short term, because publication rights for pictures and quotations always take longer to clear than you’d like. *sigh*.

What I have long tried to do with this blog is to genuinely advance our collective knowledge about unbroken historical ciphers, not by speculating loosely or wildly (as seems to be the norm these days) but instead by trying to reason under conditions of uncertainty. That is: I try to use each post as an opportunity to think logically about multiple types of historical evidence that often coincide or overlap yet are individually hard to work with – ciphers, cryptograms, drawings, treasure maps, stories, legends, claims, beliefs, mysteries.

The world of cipher mysteries, then, is a world both of uncertain evidence and also of uncertain history built on top of that uncertain evidence – perpetually thin ice to be skating on, to be sure.

A skills void?

It is entirely true that all historical evidence is inherently uncertain: people lie, groups have agendas, listeners misunderstand, language misleads, copyists misread, propagandists appropriate, historians overselect, forgers fake, etc. All the same, seeing past/through the textual uncertainties these kinds of behaviours can leave embedded in evidence is the bread and butter of modern historians, who are now trained to be adept both in close reading and critical thinking.

However, what I am arguing here is that though History-as-text – i.e. history viewed as primarily an exercise in textual literature analysis – managed to win the historical high ground, it did so at the cost of supplanting almost all non-textual historical disciplines. To my eyes, the slow grinding deaths of codicology, palaeography and even dear old iconography (now more visible in Dan Brown film adaptations than in bibliographies) along with what I think is the increasing marginalization of Art History far from the historical mainstream have collectively left a huge gap at the heart of the subject.

This isn’t merely a focus void, it’s also centrally a skills void – the main missing skill being the ability to reason under conditions where the evidence’s textual dimension is missing or sharply limited.

In short, I would argue that because historians are now trained to deal primarily with textual uncertainties, the ability to reason effectively with other less compliant types of evidence is a skill few now seem to have to any significant degree. In my opinion, this aspect of text-centrism is a key structural weakness of history as now taught.

In my experience, almost nothing exposes this weakness more than the writing done on the subject of historical cipher mysteries. There it is absolutely the norm to see otherwise clever people make fools of themselves, and moreover in thousands of different ways: surely in few other subject domains has so much ink have been spilled to so little effect. In Rene Zandbergen’s opinion, probably the most difficult thing about Voynich research is avoiding big mistakes: sadly, few seem able to achieve this.

“The Journal of Uncertain History”

Yet a key problem I face is that when it comes to presenting or publishing, the kind of fascinating historical mysteries I research are plainly a bad fit for the current academic landscape. This is because what I’m trying to develop and exercise there is a kind of multi-disciplinary / cross-disciplinary analytical historical skill (specifically: historical reasoning under uncertainty) that has quite different aims and success criteria from mainstream historical reasoning.

On the one hand, this “Uncertain History” is very much like Intellectual History, in that it is a meta-historical approach that freely crosses domain boundaries while relying heavily on the careful application of logic in order to make progress. And yet I would argue that Intellectual History as currently practised is heavily reliant on the universality of text and classical logic to build its chains of reasoning. In that sense, Intellectual History is a close cousin to the text-walled world of MBA courses, where all statements in case studies are deemed to be both true and given in good faith.

By way of contrast, Uncertain History turns its face primarily to those historical conundrums and mysteries where text falls short, where good faith can very often be lacking, and where strict Aristotelian logic can prove more of a hindrance than a help (here I’m thinking specifically about the Law of the Excluded Middle).

And so I propose launching a new open-source historical journal (Creative Commons BY-NC Licence), with the provisional name of “The Journal of Uncertain History“, and with the aim of providing a home for Uncertain History research of all types.

To be considered for the JoUH, papers should (also provisionally) be tackling research areas where:

* the historical evidence itself is problematic and/or uncertain;
* there is a problematic interplay between the types of evidence;
* to make genuine progress, non-trivial reasoning is required, not just for thinking but also for explanation;
* historical speculations made within the paper are both proposed and tested; and
* future tests (preferably empirical) and/or research leads are proposed.

I welcome all your comments, thoughts, and suggestions for possible submissions, authors, collaborators and/or editors; and especially reasons why existing journals X, Y and Z would all be better homes for this kind of research than the JoUH. 🙂

Back in 2006, I reasoned (in The Curse of the Voynich) that if the nine-rosette page’s circular city with a castle at the top…

…represented Milan (one of only three cities renowned for their circular shape), then the presence of swallowtail merlons on the drawing implied it must have been drawn after 1450, when the rebuilding of the old Porta Giovia castle (that was wrecked during the Ambrosian Republic) by Francesco Sforza as [what is now known as] the Castello Sforzesco began.

Ten Years Later, A Challenge

However, Mark Knowles recently challenged me on this: how was I so sure that the older castle on the site didn’t also have swallowtail merlons?

While writing Curse, for the history of Milan I mainly relied on the collection of essays and drawings in Vergilio Vercelloni’s excellent “Atlante Storico di Milano, Città di Lombardia”, such as these two pictures from Milano fantastica, in “Historia Evangelica et actos apostolorum cum alijs illorum temporum eventibus cum figuris crebioribus delineatis”, circa 1380:

…and this old favourite (which Boucheron notes [p.199] is a copy probably made between 1456 and 1472 of an original made in the 1420s)…

On the surface, it seemed from these as though I had done enough. But coming back to it, might I have been too hasty? I decided to fetch down my copies of Evelyn Welch’s “Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan” and Patrick Boucheron’s “Le Pouvoir de Bâtir” from the book overflow in the attic and have another look…

Revisiting Milan’s Merlons

What did I find? Well: firstly, tucked away in a corner of a drawing by Galvano Fiamma (in the 1330s) of a view of Milan (reproduced as Plate IIa at the back of Boucheron’s book), the city walls appear to have some swallowtail merlons (look just inside the two outermost towers and you should see them):

And in a corner of a drawing by Anovelo da Imbonate depicting and celebrating the 1395 investiture of Gian Galeazzo Visconti (reproduced in Welch p.24), I noticed a tiny detail that I hadn’t picked up on before… yet more swallowtail merlons:

Then, when I looked at other miniatures by the same Anovelo da Imbonate, I found two other (admittedly stylized) depictions of Milan by him that also unmistakeably have swallowtail merlons:

So it would seem that Milan’s city walls may well have had swallowtail merlons prior to 1450. The problem is that the city walls aren’t the same as the Porta Giovia castle walls (built from 1358, according to Corio): and I don’t think we know enough to say whether or not the castle itself had swallowtail merlons. It’s debatable whether the drawing of the 1395 investiture (which took place in the Porta Giovia castle) depicts the castle itself having swallowtail merlons: I just don’t know.

But the short version of the long answer is that because the Porta Giovia castle was only built from 1358-1372 (or thereabouts), we can’t rely on texts written before then (such as Galvano Fiamma’s). And there seems quite good reason to suspect (the Massajo drawing notwithstanding) that the Porta Giovia castle may well have had swallowtail merlons when it was used for the Visconti investiture in 1395. But I don’t know for certain, sorry. 🙁

There are texts that might give us an answer: for example, the (1437) “De Laudibus Mediolanensium urbis panegyricus” by Pier Candido Decembrio (mentioned in Boucheron p.74), or Bernardino Corio’s “Storia di Milano”. There are plenty of documents Boucheron cites in footnotes (pp.202-205), including “Lavori ai castelli di Bellinzona nel periodo visconteo”, Bolletino della Svizzera italiana, XXV, 1903, pp.101-104 (which I’ll leave for another day). But it’s obviously quite a lot of work. 🙁

Finally, I should perhaps add that a few details by Anovelo da Imbonate have an intriguingly Voynichian feel:

Though there were plenty of other miniature artists active in the Visconti court in Milan in the decades up to 1447, parallels between their art and the Voynich Manuscript’s drawings haven’t been explored much to date. Perhaps this is a deficiency in our collective Art Historical view that should be rectified. 🙂

Whether we like it or not, history as practised nowadays is a tower built upon textuality, upon the implicit evidentiality striped within and through texts. Even archaeology (of all but the obscenely distant past) and Art History rely heavily on texts for their reconstructions.

Alternative, explicitly visual approaches to history have lost the battle to control the locus of meaning. The mid-twentieth century Warburg/Saxl/Panofsky dream that highly evolved iconography/iconology might be able to surgically extract the inner semantic life of symbols from their drab syntatical carapaces now seems hopelessly over-optimistic, fit only for the Hollywood cartoons of Dan Brown novels. Sorry, but Text won.

What, then, are contemporary historians to make of the Voynich Manuscript, a barque adrift in a wine-dark sea of textlessness? In VoynichLand, we have letters, letters everywhere, and not a jot for them to read: and without close reading’s robotic exoskeleton to work with, where could such a text-centric generation of scholars begin?

Well, given that the Voynich Manuscript’s text-like writing has so failed yielded nothing of obvious substance to linguists or cryptologists (apart from long lists of things that they are sure it is not), historians are only comfortably left with a single door leading to the disco floor…

“Step #1. Start with the pictures.”

Yes, they could indeed start with the pictures: the Voynich’s beguiling, misleading, and crisply non-religious images. These contain plants that are real, distorted, imaginary, and/or impossible; strange circular diagrams; oddly-posed nymphs arranged in tubes and pools; and curious map-like diagrams. They famously lead everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, like a bad mirror-room fight-scene in 1960s Avengers TV episodes.

Without the comforting crutch of referentiality to lean on, we can’t tell whether a given picture happens to parallel one of the plants in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s famous (so-called) “alchemical herbals” (which unfortunately seem to be neither alchemical nor particularly herbal); or whether we’re just imagining that it echoes a specific plant in this week’s interesting Arabic book of wonders; or whether its roots were drawn from a dried sample but its body was imagined; or whether a different one of the remaining three hundred and eighty post-rationalizations that have been made for that page happens to hold true.

But on the bright side, it’s not as if we’re talking about a set of drawings that has previously made fools of just about everyone who has tried to form a sensible opinion about them, right? [*hollow laugh*]

So, “start with the pictures” it is. But what should we do then? Again, there seems little choice:

“Step #2. Find a telling detail.”

In my opinion, here’s where it all start to go wrong: where the road leads only to a cliff-edge, and one that has a sizeable drop below it into the sea.

The elephant-in-the-room question here is this: if looking for telling details is such a good idea, why is it that more then a century’s worth of looking for telling details has revealed practically nothing?

Is it because everyone who has ever looked at the Voynich Manuscript has been stupid, or inexperienced, or foolish, or delusional, or crazy, or marginal, or naive? Because that’s essentially what would need to be true for your own contribution to bring a new bottle to the party, if all you’re going to do yourself is look for telling details.

The thing that almost nobody seems to grasp is that we collectively have already applied an extraordinary amount of eyeballs at this issue.

Even though the Voynich’s imagery has been seen and ‘closely read’ for over a century by all manner of people, to date this has – in terms of finding the single telling detail that can place even part of it within an illustrative or semantic tradition – achieved nothing, zilch, nada.

Incidentally, this leads (I think) to one of only two basic constructional models: (a) the drawings in the Voynich Manuscript are from a self-contained culture whose internal frame of reference sits quite apart from anything we’re used to looking at [a suggestion which I’m certain the palaeography refutes completely]; or (b) the process of making the drawings for the Voynich Manuscript somehow consciously stripped out their referentiality.

But I’m not imagining for a moment that what I’m pointing out will stop anyone else from reinventing this same square wheel: all I’m saying is that this is how people approach the Voynich Manuscript, and why they then get themselves into a one-way tangle.

“Step #3. Draw a big conclusion.”

Finally, this is the point in the chain of the argument where the cart rolls properly over the cliff: though it’s a long way down, at least gravity’s accelerative force means anybody in it won’t have very long to wait before the sea comes up to meet them (relatively speaking).

How is it that anyone can comfortably draw a step #3 macro-conclusion from the itty-bitty (and horrendously uncertain) detail they latched onto in step #2? As proofs go, this step is completely contingent on at least three different things:
(a) on perfect identification of the detail itself,
(b) on perfect correlation with essentially the same thing but in an external tradition, and
(c) on the logical presumption that this is necessarily the only feasible explanation for the correlation

Each of these three would be extremely difficult to prove on its own, never mind when all three are required to be true at the same time for their sum to be true.

In my experience, when people put forward a Voynich manuscript macro-conclusion based on local correlation with some micro-detail they have noticed, they almost always haven’t noticed how weakly supported their overall argument is. Not only that, but why is it – given the image-rich source their external tradition normally is – that they can typically only point to a single image in it that supports their claimed correlation? That is fairly bankrupt, intellectually speaking.

How can we fix this issue?

This is a really hard problem. Art History tends to furnish historians with the illusion that they can use its conceptual tricks and technical ‘flow’ to tackle the Voynich Manuscript one single isolated detail at a time, but this isn’t really true in any useful sense.

A picture is a connected constellation of techniques, formed not only of ways of expressing things, but also of ways of seeing things. And so it’s a mystery why there should be such an otherness to the Voynich Manuscript’s drawings that deconstructing any part of it leaves us with next to nothing in our hands.

Part of this problem is easy to spot, insofar as there are plenty of places where we still can’t tell content from decoration from elaboration from emendation. Even a cursory look at pages such as the nine-rosette page or f116v should elicit the conclusion that they are made up of multiple layers, i.e. multiple codicological contributions.

For me, until someone uses tricks such as DNA analysis and Raman imaging to properly analyze the manuscript’s codicological layers, internal construction, and/or the original bifolio order of each of the sections, too many people will continue trying to read not “the unreadable”, but “the not-yet readable”: all of which will continue to lead to all manner of foolish reasoning and conclusions, as it has done for many decades.

I really want you understand that this isn’t because people are inherently foolish: rather, it’s because they almost all want to kid themselves that they can draw a solid macro-conclusion from an isolated and uncertain micro-similarity. And all the while that this continues to be the collective research norm, I have little doubt that we’re going to get nowhere.

Alexandra Marraccini’s presentation

You can see the slides and the draft article accompanying Alexandra Marracini’s recent talk here (courtesy of

The core of Marraccini’s argument seems to reduce to this: that if one or more of the circular castle roundels in the Voynich Manuscript’s nine-rosette foldout is in fact the same flattened city that appears in BL Sloane MS 4016 f.8v and/or Vat.Chig. F.VII 158 f.12r and/or BNF Lat 6823 f.13r (the first two of which also have a little dragon in one herbal root), then we might be able to place the Voynich Manuscript in one branch of the Tractatus de Herbis tradition (all of which derive from Firenze Biblioteca dipartemental e di Botanica MS 106).

Even though this is arguably a reasonable starting point for future investigation, I’m not yet seeing a lot of methodological ‘air’ between what she’s doing and the mass of detail-driven Voynich single-image theories Marraccini would doubtless wish to distance herself from. The structural weakness of their arguments are still – to a very large degree – her argument’s weakness too.

Going forward, this amounts to a theoretical lacuna which I think she might do well to address: that there is no obvious historical / analytical methodology to apply here that satisfactorily bridges the gap between micro-similarities and macro-conclusion in the absence of accompanying texts. OK, pointing to an absence is perhaps a bit more of a problematique than most historians these days are comfortable with, but I’m only the messenger here, sorry.

Anyway, there’s a nice transcription of the Q&A session she gave after her presentation (courtesy of VViews) here, which I’m sure many Voynich researchers will find interesting.

Oddly, though, the questions from an audience Voynichero with my 2006 book “The Curse of the Voynich” in mind were almost exactly the opposite of what I would myself have asked (had I been there). The single most important question is: why is your argument structurally any better than all the other similar arguments that have been put forward?

So, what is missing here?

The answer to this certainly isn’t working hypotheses about the Voynich Manuscript, because there’s no obvious shortage of those. Even the suggestion that there might be some stemmatic relation (however vague and ill-defined) between the drawings in Voynich Manuscript and BL Sloane MS 4016 has been floating around for some years.

Instead, what I think is missing is a whole set of evidential basics: for example, physical data and associated reasoning that tell us without almost no doubt which paints were original (answer: not many of them) and which were added later; or (perhaps more importantly) what the original bifolio nesting order was.

With these to work with, we could reject many, many incorrect hypotheses: and we might – with just a little bit of luck – possibly be able to use one or two as fixed points to pivot the whole discourse round, like an Archimedean Lever.

The alternative, sadly, is a long sequence of more badly-structured arguments, Groundhog Day-stylee. Even if my ice-carving technique has got stupendously good, it would be nice to have a change, right?

Here’s a thing that struck me the other day about the Anthon Transcript that I thought I ought to mention.

The way that the story has been passed down to us makes it far from easy to reconcile the “Caractors” page…

…with the “singular scrawl” shown to Professor Charles Anthon in 1828:

“It consisted of all kinds of crooked characters disposed in columns, and had evidently been prepared by some person who had before him at the time a book containing various alphabets. Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses and flourishes, Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, were arranged in perpendicular columns, and the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments, decked with various strange marks, and evidently copied after the Mexican Calendar given by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to betray the source whence it was derived.”

It would seem as though the first page was arranged in horizontal rows, while the second page was arranged in vertical columns and with a compartmentalized circle added after it. It sounds as though we are talking about two quite different things, and so shouldn’t even attempt to reconcile them as one. Yet in the decade up to his death in 1888, David Whitmer repeatedly asserted that this first page was indeed the very same “original paper” that Martin Harris had taken to Charles Anthon.

At this point, any passing Intellectual Historian might gently suggest that all these statements may well have been said in good faith: and that what is actually stopping us seeing them all as descriptions of the same thing is not the evidence itself, but our stubbornly persistent misreading of what is in front of our faces.

Can we do better?

The case of the ‘H’

I suspect that we can: and the giveaway that may well help to point us in the direction of what happened is the capital ‘H’ shape that occurs at least eight times:

How on earth did the person copying this down not notice that this was nothing more than an ornate ‘H’ shape? Though I’ve long wondered about this, reasonable answers have to date always eluded me. But what I noticed here is that perhaps the actual explanation is painfully simple: that the person who originally wrote these down copied the shapes as if they were written in columns, i.e. without seeing them as ‘H’ shapes at all.

The photograph in Clay County Museum directly supports this idea, because the writing on the other side of the fold (“The Book of Generation Adam”) is written sideways:

The two-button mouse

Even though most of the Caractors are evenly inked, the strong downward strokes of one of the three “two-button mouse” shapes also seems to indicate to my eyes that the letters were written ninety degrees rotated from what we see now (though I’d appreciate other people’s palaeographical insights on this particular issue):

I’d have thought the suggestion that these letters were originally written in columns rather than rows would be a palaeographical hypothesis that could be tested out and resolved one way or the other.

Reconstructing the sequence

If the above is basically right, it would seem that the stages that this page went through were:

(1) The shapes were copied in columns from a source that was (wrongly) believed to have also been written in columns.

This caused letters such as the ornate ‘H’ shape to be copied not semantically as letters, but instead as a series of strokes. I would also expect that these columns were copied downwards as per the following image:

I can see how someone who had not grasped the correct orientation of these letters might have considered their rotated versions to be “hieroglyphic”-like. (I can also see how going from “hieroglyphic”-like to reconstructing the 2500 B.C. Jaredite flight from Egypt to America in submarines might seem a little too extreme for some.)

Note that I can easily see how the bottom of this page (beneath the ragged fold in the museum photograph) could have originally contained a “rude delineation of a circle divided into various compartments”: in which case the page was obviously longer. The overall page was also probably folded in half (parallel to the longest edge) at around this time, because only a single crease is apparent in the photograph.

This, then, would have been what was shown to Charles Anthon in 1828.

(2) The circular calendar section was removed, and the ‘Caractors’ word added.

Note that MacKay et al [*1] showed that the “Caractors” lettering at the top and the lettering of the curious letters were all done in the same ink. However, it also seems likely to me (from the orientation) the Caractors word was added in a quite separate construction phase, and their conclusion that this word was added at the same time as the rest of the letters ought to be examined very carefully indeed.

I believe that the circular calendar section was removed around now because of the following phase…

(3) The “Book of Generation Adam” text is added circa 1830, halfway down the reverse side.

Because this text was added right in the middle of the reverse side, it seems likely to me that the circular calendar section had already been removed (or else this text would probably have appeared further up the [slightly longer] page).

We can date this addition to 1830 or after, because that is when the phrase “The Book of Generation Adam” began to be used in the Mormon Church.

(4) The “Book of Generation Adam” half of the page is removed before 1884.

As Grindael noted, the part of the page with the “Book of Generation Adam” text was almost certainly “torn off sometime before 1884, because it is described as having the same dimensions then as it did in 1903”.

(5) The remaining fragment is sold to the RLDS Church in 1903.

“This collection of documents [was] eventually given into the care of George Schweich, a nephew of David J. Whitmer, who subsequently sold them to the RLDS Church for $2450 in 1903.”

Is this sequence correct?

I don’t honestly know. But if you were to try – while wearing an Intellectual Historian hat – to reconcile what you see in the RLDS Caractors fragment with the different testimonies assuming they were all given in good faith, then I strongly suspect that this sequence is extremely close to where you would necessarily end up.

And perhaps that’s as good as it gets, at this distance in time. Or… perhaps this is just the start?

[*1] MacKay, Michael Hubbard; Dirkmaat, Gerrit J.; Jenson, Robin Scott. The “Caractors” Document: New Light on an Early Transcription of the Book of Mormon Characters – Mormon Historical Studies, vol. 14, No. 1.

Having studied unsolved cipher mysteries for more than a decade, it seems to me that there are some distinct patterns of behaviour around them (by owners and by others) that serve to muddy the waters for modern researchers.

And so for the sake of collaborative clarity, I think that each of these behaviours ought to be given a ‘pattern name’. (There’s a very large “Patterns” literature in Architecture, Computer Science and Management, where common patterns of behaviour [both good and bad] are given names.) You may agree or disagree with the specific examples I give (and/or you may have a better pattern name in mind), but please hear me out, see what I’m trying to get at here…

“Cipher myth-making”

This behaviour typically occurs in the situation where someone has inherited or found an unsolved historical cipher, but has no provenance or definite historical context to work with. Unable to solve the cipher, the owner then (for whatever reason) concocts a myth or legend around it that they would like to be true.

The prime example here would seem to be the first version of “La Buse”‘s cryptogram (as famously described by Charles de la Roncière in his 1934 book “Le Flibustier Mysterieux”).

To my eyes, the odds are high that this was found in a notarial archive but with nothing accompanying it to help place or date it. And then, perhaps inspired by the early twentieth century Mauritian “gold rush” to find the Nageon de l’Estang pirate treasure, the owner presumed (though without proof) that it was a pirate treasure map.

My guess is that the myth that was added here was that of Olivier Levasseur hurling a treasure map into the crowd just before his execution, and exclaiming “Mon trésor à qui saura le prendre“. (There is, as far as I can tell, not a jot of evidence to support the idea that this melodramatic little scene actually happened.)

Without that, why would anyone link the cryptogram with La Buse?

“Cipher backfilling”

This behaviour occurs when the unsolved cipher has some kind of story already associated with it, but the absence of useful support details offers an evidential vacuum that demands to be filled in.

This differs from cipher myth-making in that here some kind of basic story needs to first be in place (though whether that story itself is true or false is another matter entirely): the additions are then in the form of elaborations to the core narrative, fleshing out its skeletal structure.

The obvious example of this would seem to be the second “La Buse” cryptogram:

Here, the elaborations would be the extra lines of cipher (some apparently cribbed from Poe), the drawings (some apparently cribbed from Howard Pyle), and the pigpen ciphertext saying “LA BUSE” (apparently cribbed from the myth).

The Beale Papers?

As with the two different “La Buse” cryptograms, the evidential haze around many other unsolved cipher mysteries can exhibit both cipher myth-making and cipher backfilling at the same time.

For example, I think there’s a strong argument that while the Beale Ciphers themselves could well be genuine, the case for the Beale Papers‘ being genuine is somewhat less straightforward.

The supposed bedrock of the history is that Beale placed an iron box with the cryptograms in trust with an innkeeper called Robert Morriss, who then opened it 23 years later (in 1845). However, the well-known problem with this timeline is that Morriss did not start work at the Washington Hotel until 1823, which was apparently after the box had already been left.

This suggests that Morriss may well have inherited the box from a previous innkeeper at the Washington Hotel: and that even if Morriss knew the correct name of the box’s owner (which was presumably, but not necessarily, written on the box itself), he may well never have actually met him.

This further suggests that Morriss may have taken the basic story about how Thomas Beale left a box at the Washington Hotel in the early 1820s and backfilled it until it became a tale worth telling and re-telling (while perhaps also advancing his personal claim on any treasure that may get found on it).

Moreover, it would seem that Morriss’s tale was then further elaborated by the (unnamed) author of the Beale Papers, until it became a tale worth printing (and hopefully buying).

However, if you put the Beale cryptograms to one side, I don’t currently see any evidence that anything about the Beale Papers is genuine, not even Thomas Beale’s name. Which perhaps goes to show how careful you have to be when trying to make sense of cipher mysteries.

The Voynich Manuscript?

It could well be that the the 1665 Marci letter that famously accompanied the Voynich Manuscript contains distant echoes of previous cipher myth-making: its suggested link to Roger Bacon now seems somewhat spurious, but was notable enough for Raphael Mnišovský to remember some decades later.

The supposed link between the Voynich Manuscript and John Dee / Edward Kelley is somewhat easier to deal with: without any real doubt, this was Wilfrid Voynich’s own cipher backfill. But his notion that the only conceivable way the manuscript could have travelled from England to Bohemia was via Dee and/or Kelley seems both historically and intellectually unsatisfactory.

Perhaps the bigger story here, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is that the Rosicrucian Manifestoes might possibly be the most extraordinary cipher backfill ever, i.e. that they were part of a huge after-the-event false history construction designed to appropriate the Voynich Manuscript into a scheme to con(vince) Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II into backing a proto-Freemasonic group. But we may never be able to determine whether or not this is true.

Nowadays, there seems to be no end of people putting out YouTube videos and websites with Voynich-related backfill: indeed, perhaps the biggest challenge we face going forward is swimming through the brown tide of cipher backfill. Oh well!

The other day, I was wondering where in East London (according to the story the owner told me) the Blitz Ciphers were found: and also wondered if they might have been left behind by some kind of mathematical society.

As an aside, the problem with any speculative mathematical link to Freemasonry is that even though Masonic theoretical historians like to talk about (capital-G) Geometry and how the Great Architect of the Universe (errrrm: God, basically) is somehow ineffably mathematical, their rather grand Platonic-Christian narrative breaks down when you bother to look at the details. The short version is that if there is any genuine maths in Masonry beyond basic Euclid-for-Dummies, it seems to me to be extraordinarily well-hidden.

(As always, if you happen to know of specific examples of mathematical Masonic societies that run counter to this sweeping generalization, please feel free to leave a comment below.)

So I instead went looking for genuine historical mathematical societies in London’s East End: and was delighted to discover the all-too-brief splendour of the Spitalfields Mathematical Society.

The Spitalfields Mathematical Society, Crispin Street

Conspiracy theorists and armchair cold case amateur detectives know this part of London well: the Ten Bells pub just around the corner was frequented by Jack the Ripper’s victims, the last of whom was found in Millers Court (close to Crispin Street). (Pastry chef geezer Jamie Oliver’s great-great-grandfather was for a while the Ten Bells’ landlord, for all you TV trivia fans.)

Incidentally, I found a rather nice website that blends historical photos of Spitalfields (taken by C. A. Mathew around 1912) with modern photographs taken on the same spot, to give an eerily evocative effect (such as the following image of Crispin Street):

But long before even C. A. Mathew, the history of the area revolved around Huguenot weavers, whose houses in Fournier Street are still there:

And it was the Huguenot immigrants who the Spitalfields Mathematical Society was originally aimed at, according to most accounts. De Morgan’s (1872) “A Budget of Paradoxes” describes it thus:

Among the most remarkable proofs of the diffusion of speculation was the Mathematical Society, which flourished from 1717 to 1845. Its habitat was Spitalfields, and I think most of its existence was passed in Crispin Street. It was originally a plain society, belonging to the studious artisan. The members met for discussion once a week ; and I believe I am correct in saying that each man had his pipe, his pot, and his problem. One of their old rules was that, “If any member shall so far forget himself and the respect due to the Society as in the warmth of debate to threaten or offer personal violence to any other member, he shall be liable to immediate expulsion, or to pay such fine as the majority of the members present shall decide.” But their great rule, printed large on the back of the title page of their last book of regulations, was “By the constitution of the Society, it is the duty of every member, if he be asked any mathematical or philosophical question by another member, to instruct him in the plainest and easiest manner he is able.” We shall presently see that, in old time, the rule had a more homely form.

I have been told that De Moivre was a member of this Society. This I cannot verify : circumstances render it unlikely ; even though the French refugees clustered in Spitalfields ; many of them were of the Society, which there is some reason to think was founded by them. But Dollond, Thomas Simpson, Saunderson, Crossley, and others of known name, were certainly members. The Society gradually declined, and in 1845 was reduced to nineteen members. An arrangement was made by which sixteen of these members, who were not already in the Astronomical Society became Fellows without contribution, all the books and other property of the old Society being transferred to the new one. I was one of the committee which made the preliminary inquiries, and the reason of the decline was soon manifest. The only question which could arise was whether the members of the society of working men for this repute still continued were of that class of educated men who could associate with the Fellows of the Astronomical Society on terms agreeable to all parties. We found that the artisan element had been extinct for many years ; there was not a man but might, as to education, manners, and position, have become a Fellow in the usual way. The fact was that life in Spitalfields had become harder : and the weaver could only live from hand to mouth, and not up to the brain. The material of the old Society no longer existed.

London had a fair few broadly similar societies – the Mechanic’s Institution and the London Architectural Society to name but two – but if you were looking for a mathematical society in East London that had long disappeared and some of whose papers might -possibly- have been the Blitz Ciphers, the Spitalfields Mathematical Society would seem to be at the very least an interesting candidate, right?

But the immediate question is…

Was Crispin Street bombed in WWII?

Having once idly flicked through a copy of “The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945” hardback when it came out in 2015, I half-remembered that the London bomb maps were all at the London Metropolitan Archive, and had once upon a time been in an exhibition there. There’s also tons more stuff in the National Archives in Kew (in whose downstairs bookshop I saw the book, incidentally).

But this being the Internet, there are also online bomb damage maps to try out. And it turns out that even though nearby streets were hit (such as Frying Pan Alley)…

…it would seem that Crispin Street escaped WWII unscathed.

So it would finally seem that we may well be out of luck with any possible connection between the Blitz Ciphers and the Spitalfields Mathematical Society. But all the same, I’m glad I looked. 🙂

And finally…

The Astronomer’s Drinking Song

Augustus De Morgan’s “A Budget of Paradoxes” includes the lyrics of a song sung at a Mathematical Society dinner in 1798, in honour of its solicitor, Mr. Fletcher. He had defended it against charges brought against them by “Informers”, but refused all offers of payment. Splendidly, De Morgan included the lyrics, which I reproduce below.

Of course, classic comedy song connoisseurs will instantly spot the connection with Monty Python’s “Rhubarb Tart Song“, which also mentions René Descartes (The principles of modern philosophy / Were postulated by Descartes. / Discarding everything he wasn’t certain of / He said ‘I think therefore I am a rhubarb tart.’)


WHOE’ER would search the starry sky / Its secrets to divine, sir,
Should take his glass I mean, should try / A glass or two of wine, sir !
True virtue lies in golden mean, / And man must wet his clay, sir ;
Join these two maxims, and ’tis seen / He should drink his bottle a day, sir !

Old Archimedes, reverend sage ! / By trump of fame renowned, sir,
Deep problems solved in every page, / And the sphere’s curved surface found, sir:
Himself he would have far outshone, / And borne a wider sway, sir,
Had he our modern secret known, / And drank his bottle a day, sir !

When Ptolemy, now long ago, / Believed the earth stood still, sir,
He never would have blundered so, / Had he but drunk his fill, sir :
He’d then have felt it circulate, / And would have learnt to say, sir,
The true way to investigate / Is to drink your bottle a day, sir !

Copernicus, that learned wight, / The glory of his nation,
With draughts of wine refreshed his sight, / And saw the earth’s rotation ;
Each planet then its orb described, / The moon got under way, sir ;
These truths from nature he imbibed / For he drank his bottle a day, sir !

The noble Tycho placed the stars, / Each in its due location ;
He lost his nose by spite of Mars, / But that was no privation :
Had he but lost his mouth, I grant / He would have felt dismay, sir,
Bless you ! he knew what he should want / To drink his bottle a day, sir !

Cold water makes no lucky hits ; / On mysteries the head runs :
Small drink let Kepler time his wits / On the regular polyhedrons :
He took to wine, and it changed the chime, / His genius swept away, sir,
Through area varying as the time / At the rate of a bottle a day, sir !

Poor Galileo, forced to rat / Before the Inquisition,
E pur si muove was the pat / He gave them in addition :
He meant, whate’er you think you prove, / The earth must go its way, sirs ;
Spite of your teeth I’ll make it move, / For I’ll drink my bottle a day, sirs !

Great Newton, who was never beat / Whatever fools may think, sir ;
Though sometimes he forgot to eat, / He never forgot to drink, sir :
Descartes took nought but lemonade, / To conquer him was play, sir ;
The first advance that Newton made / Was to drink his bottle a day, sir !

D’Alembert, Euler, and Clairaut, / Though they increased our store, sir,
Much further had been seen to go / Had they tippled a little more, sir !
Lagrange gets mellow with Laplace, / And both are wont to say, sir,
The philosophe who’s not an ass / Will drink his bottle a day, sir !

Astronomers ! what can avail / Those who calumniate us ;
Experiment can never fail / With such an apparatus :
Let him who’d have his merits known / Remember what I say, sir ;
Fair science shines on him alone / Who drinks his bottle a day, sir !

How light we reck of those who mock / By this we’ll make to appear, sir,
We’ll dine by the sidereal clock / For one more bottle a year, sir :
But choose which pendulum you will, / You’ll never make your way, sir,
Unless you drink and drink your fill, / At least a bottle a day, sir !