A few days ago, I grabbed the chance to meet up with renowned crypto writer David Kahn at the Athenaeum Club in London while he was attending a conference on the Battle of the Atlantic. It was… simply a pleasure.


He very happily signed my well-thumbed copy of “The Codebreakers” (1967), though I have to say it barely seems possible that he wrote his crypto meisterwerk close to half a century ago. He continues to research and write on crypto topics: a collection of his articles (“How I Discovered World War II’s Greatest Spy and Other Stories of Intelligence and Codes“) is due to be released in October 2013.

All that aside, he was eager to know about what was happening in the world of Voynich Manuscript research (and delighted to see my rather battered copy of Gawsewitch’s “Le Code Voynich”, even if it isn’t actually a facsimile edition) and urged me to write a state-of-the-art-circa-2013 summary of it for Cryptologia (he was one of its founders). Incidentally, he half-remembered being told recently that someone had cracked the Dorabella Cipher (which is possible, though slightly unlikely, I’d say).

But alas, my all-too-brief hour was up too soon: I had to leave and once more merge into the grey London streets. Yet the whole thing set me wondering for several days how best to summarize the Voynich Manuscript. Why is it that Voynich researchers can know so much about the manuscript’s minutiae, and yet agree on almost nothing? Why is it that the Voynich’s Wikipedia article is so long, yet says so little? Why write another analysis-paralysis piece on it?

Part of the challenge is that it often feels to me as if nobody has written a single word on the Voynich Manuscript that even remotely does it justice. Rather, it’s as if there’s a honey-pot of non-words and non-phrases for non-historians to dip their paws into, making every article and blog post written on it little more than a sweet (though ultimately unsatisfying) anagram of the preceding ones.

At the same time, in my own Voynich research it’s as if every day is Groundhog Day, where pretty much everyone else in Punxsutawney never learns anything, but instead sticks belligerently to their same futile and unhelpful non-positions, day in and day out. [*] For example, I would agree that it is entirely possible to construct alt.histories where the Voynich post-dates the 15th century (oh yes, and that the palaeography, the codicology, the Art History and the radiocarbon dating are all simultaneously wrong, or perhaps hoaxed in a peculiarly sophisticated way), but why on earth would anyone bother?

It’s a lot like fighting against a kind of post-modernist debating society, for whom the inevitable existence of doubt in any given fact makes it fair game to dismiss it. Such en masse debating may well be a great way of passing time, but it’s surely a lousy way of getting to the truth. I’m not interested in knowing what might conceivably have happened, I want to know what genuinely did happen.

*) All the same, I’m getting pretty good at ice carving. That’s bound to come in useful one day… 🙂

According to today’s Mail on Sunday, Canadian expert Gord Young has cracked most of the dead WW2’s pigeon’s cipher message using a WWI Royal Artillery codebook. It’s not a big old message, so let’s line up the decrypt for ourselves, shall we?

What is immediately clear is that
* The decrypt is done down columns of groups, not along rows of letters (…which isn’t how it was usually done at all)
* Each five-letter cipher group is presumed to be a completely independent initial-based sentence (…which isn’t etc)
* Each independent sentence’s decryption is guessed at somewhat hopefully (…which isn’t etc)
* “J” mostly codes for “J[erry]”
* “Q” pretty much always codes for “[Head]q[uarters]”
* “P” mostly codes for “P[anzers]” (a word which was only coined in about 1940, awkwardly for the WW1 codebook idea)
* Eight of the five-letter cipher groups are skipped because they don’t fit this (already very loose) pattern. (What?)


(1) AOAKN – Artillery observer at ‘K’ Sector, Normandy.
(2) RQXSR – Requested headquarters supplement report.
(3) PABUZ – Panzer attack – blitz.
(4) UAOTA – West Artillery Observer Tracking Attack.
(5) LKXGH – Lt Knows extra guns are here.
(6) KLDTS – Know where local dispatch station is.
(7) DJHFP – Determined where Jerry’s headquarters front posts.
(8) RBQRH – Right battery headquarters right here.
(9) GQIR[U/W] – Found headquarters infantry right here.
(10) FNFJ[W/U] – Final note, confirming, found Jerry’s whereabouts.
(11) GOVFN – Go over field notes.
(12) CMPNW – Counter measures against Panzers not working.
(13) JRZCQ – Jerry’s right battery central headquarters here.
(14) AOAKN – Artillery observer at ‘K’ sector Normandy.
(15) MIAPX – Mortar, infantry attack panzers.
(16) HJRZH – Hit Jerry’s Right or Reserve Battery Here.
(17) A[K/R/H]EEQ – Already know electrical engineers headquarters.
(18) TPZEH – Troops, panzers, batteries, engineers, here.
(19) FNKTQ – Final note known to headquarters.

Sorry, Mail editors, but you’ve landed yourself a bit of a dud story here. If there is something good about this theory (and I for one haven’t found it yet), it’s hidden beneath a tangled mess of obviously wrong & over-interpretative nonsense, the kind of foolishly hopeful non-decrypticity David Kahn termed “enigmatology”. Ohhhhh dearrrrry me. 🙁

The Chaocipher” is a devious cipher system invented in 1918 by John F. Byrne: allegedly, it was so complex that nobody could crack his challenge ciphertexts (even with the plaintext to refer to!), yet was so simple that its mechanism was claimed to comprise only two rotating disks small enough to fit in a cigar box, and could be operated by a ten-year-old (admittedly a diligent, determined and well-practised one) to encipher and decipher texts.

Hence, the Chaocipher’s long-standing mystery revolved around three questions:

  1. Was the Chaocipher for real? (i.e. could something so simple really produce such tricksy ciphertext)?
  2. Was it more secure than, say, the Enigma machine?
  3. More to the point, is the Chaocipher actually an unbreakable cipher?

As of a few years ago, only three people knew the Chaocipher’s secrets – John Byrne Jr (the inventor’s son), and two Cryptologia editors (who saw it in 1990 but were sworn to silence). Yet as Chaucer noted, time and tide wait for no man (not even Cryptologia editors) – so there was a very real (and growing) possibility that the secrets of the Chaocipher might somehow get lost forever.

Hence last August, Moshe Rubin – who CM readers may well recall as the zesty Israeli software / crypto guy who not long before had set up the Chaocipher Clearing House website – decided to try to contact John Jr before it was too late, and so cold-called his way through the list of Byrnes living in Vermont. Before long, Moshe found himself in contact with Patricia Byrne (John Jr’s wife) from whom he discovered the sad news that her husband had passed away a year or two previously.

However, because Pat Byrne was already looking for a buyer for her husband’s cryptological material, Moshe put her in contact (via David Kahn) with David D’Auria, the chairman of the National Cryptological Museum’s Acquisitions Commitee. Somewhat surprisingly, after a couple of months Pat Byrne very generously decided to donate the whole set to the NCM, a terrific gesture which I (for one) highly appreciate (and I hope that you do too!)

And so it came to be that Moshe Rubin found himself allowed what he describes as “preview access to some of the material“.  Although he found that the precise setup John Byrne Sr had employed was not immediately obvious from the material to hand, Moshe burnt a load of midnight oil (is elbow grease more or less inflammable?) before finally managing to reconstruct the original algorithm in all its subtly obfuscatory glory.

Just as Byrne had described, his Chaocipher used two rotors (with the plaintext alphabet on the right rotor and the ciphertext alphabet on the left rotor) BUT with both alphabets altered slightly (let’s call this process ‘twizzling’, for want of a better word) after processing each letter. I’ve hacked together a 30-second Chaocipher animation on YouTube to try to demonstrate Byrne’s twizzlification…

Rather than go through the fine details here, I’m happy to refer you to Moshe’s detailed (and very readable) description of the process here: the only significant difference between my video and his text is that because the rotors mesh (and hence physically rotate in opposite directions to each other), the numbering sequence on each rotor is reversed relative to the other – i.e. even though #1 is at the top of each rotor, #2 and #3 proceed clockwise on the right (plaintext) rotor but anticlockwise on the left (ciphertext) rotor. Whereas in his text, both numbering systems run in parallel to each other (which might confuse you, it certainly confused me a little).

Of course, the obvious practical weakness of the Chaocipher is that any errors in enciphering, transmission, and deciphering get near-irreversibly propagated through the rest of the message: which probably makes the whole system too fragile to use in wartime, however cryptographically secure it may be (and, answering the second question above, I suspect that it may well prove to be more complex than Enigma, for it really is quite a fiendish system).

But is it (practically) unbreakable? Well, the obvious answer would be that if it has now been released into the wild, you’d have thought someone in a three-letter-agency (or GCHQ, naturally) would have worked out a clever way in. However, I’m not 100% sure that has happened yet… so, interesting times.

All credit to Moshe Rubin, then, for his persistence and hard work bringing this cipher mystery into the light: he has a Cryptologia paper coming up, and plenty more work to do over coming months (or years?) fleshing out the behind-the-scenes story from the stack of Byrne’s papers now in the NCM. It’s a fascinating slice of cipher history, and I wish him the very best of luck with the inevitable book and selling the movie rights! 😉

* * * * * * *

Update: I’ve added a follow-on Chaocipher post here, discussing the intriguing parallels between the Chaocipher and chaos theory…

With my book publisher hat on, I’d guess that the pitch for this book probably said: “Codes! Ciphers! Cryptograms! Masonic stuff! For Dummies!” And yes, the authors (Denise Sutherland and Mark E. Koltko-Rivera) pretty much seem to have delivered on that basic promise. But… is it any good?

Bear with me while I sketch out a triangle in idea-space. On the first vertex, I’ll put recreational code-breakers – the Sunday supplement sudoku crowd. On the second vertex, hardcore cipher history buffs – David Kahn groupies. On the last vertex, historical mystery / conspiracy fans – Templars, Masons, Turin Shroud, HBHG, Voynich Manuscript etc.

“Cracking Codes & Cryptograms for Dummies” sits firmly on the triangle’s first vertex, but I have to reaches out only fairly lamely (I think) to the other two vertices. Structurally, its innovation is to tell three stories where you need to solve a long sequence (100, 80, and 55 respectively) of individual cryptograms to find out what happened. Quite a few of the ciphers use well-known cipher alphabets, such as Malachim, Enochian, and various Masonic pigpens: there are also a few trendy puzzle ciphers (such as predictive texting ciphers formed just of numbers).

Compare this to its big competitor (Elonka Dunin’s “Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms”) which sits on the same first vertex. Elonka’s book has quite a few more puzzles, is structured both thematically and by ascending difficulty, and sticks to plaintext: it also has a 40-page section on unsolved ciphers (the VMs, the Dorabella Cipher, Phaistos Disk, etc), but with no real pretense at trying to precis Kahn’s “The Codebreakers”.

For me, Cipher Mysteries sits on the opposite edge of the triangle (i.e. between hardcore cipher history and, errm, softcore cipher mysteries) to both of these, so I’m probably not the right person to judge which of the two puzzle books is better. Elonka’s book is easy to work your way through (but feels a bit more old-fashioned): while Sutherland & Koltko-Rivera’s book is lithe and up-to-the-minute (but feels less substantial, in almost every sense). OK, the first is more cryptologic, the second more puzzle-y: but ultimately they’re doing the same thing and talking to the same basic audience.

Really, I guess puzzle book buyers would do well to buy both and make up their own mind which of the two they prefer: but sadly I have to say that most Cipher Mysteries readers might prefer to buy neither. But you never know!

It’s not widely known that the US National Security Agency has a small section at Fort Meade devoted to the history of code-breaking: The Center for Cryptologic History. As well as making scans of a number of useful documents available on its website (most notably Mary D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma”), the CCH convenes its own history of cryptology event every two years: the 2009 conference had David Kahn, Elonka Dunin, Whitfield Diffie and loads of other well-known crypto people both attending and giving talks. Though the focus was mainly 20th century, the two notable exceptions were…

  • Kathryn Schwartz, Harvard University – “The Academic, Poetic and Militarised Impetuses behind Medieval Arabic Cryptology’s Development
  • Richard Belfield, Fulcrum TV – “The Story Behind the Shepherd’s Monument Inscription at Shugborough Hall

Note that though I didn’t rate Richard Belfield’s “Six Unsolved Ciphers” book very highly when I reviewed it here, the Shepherd’s Monument chapter was by far its best section, so his lecture on that same subject would probably have been well worth catching.

And now we have a new reason to be interested in the CCH: its 2010 calendar contains several pictures of the Voynich Manuscript, which is an especially good reason for Cipher Mysteries readers to want their own copy. But you can’t buy this in the shops (except on eBay, where you can buy pretty much everything that isn’t actually thermonuclear): according to the CCH’s Barry Carleen…

If any of your subscribers would like to order calendars, they can send an e-mail to history@nsa.gov and we’ll be glad to provide them as long as supplies last.

So there you go – a happy 2010 to you all! 🙂

A modern day Baron Frankenstein (actually, a mild-mannered Norwegian) has wired up the electrodes to a monstrous-looking zombie most thought long dead. It rises! It stands! It lives! It liiiiives!!!!!

I’m referring, of course, to the whole idea of using wobbly cryptography to prove that Francis Bacon = William Shakespeare, that David Kahn somewhat derisively called “enigmatology”. Note that I’m not saying the end result is wrong (even though I personally suspect that Shakespeare collaborated rather more thoroughly than his “solo genius” biographers tend to claim), but rather that the kind of reconstructive Renaissance pseudo-cryptography usually employed to try to prove that end result is usually pants central highly questionable guff.

So… what of church organist Petter Amundsen’s “Sweet Swan of Avon – The Shakespeare Treasure” claims (which I found via the forum posts here)? It’s a pretty chunky bit of TV: four 50 minute episodes, of which part 1, part 2 and part 3 are available for viewing online (mostly in Norwegian).

It all (somewhat inevitably) starts with the original version of “Good frend for Iesus SAKE forbeare…” (the start of Shakespeare’s Stratford plaque, much loved by Shakespeare conspiracy novelists), with its camelcase and extraneous dots, all good grist to Renaissance cryptographers’ mills (they also loved hiding things with doubled letters). Only in this case, Amundsen reads them as our old friend the Baconian biliteral cipher:-

  S       A       E       H       R
  B       A       Y       E       E       P
  R       F       T       A       X       A
  R       A       W       A       R

…which leaves him with the letters…


…where he arbitrarily transposes the two coloured groups into “W SHAXPEARE” (blue) and “FR(ancis) BA(con)” (red). But what to make of the mysterious “YETA” in the middle? After some (frankly rather kabbalistic) meditation, Amundsen decides to add “DUST” to “YETA” (modulo 24, I think) to get:-

+   Y E T A
    D U S T
    C A N V

 …thus filling out the middle of his letter rectangle even further…


 …i.e. “FR(ancis) BACAN V(erulam)”.

OK, I’ll admit it: we’re only halfway through the first episode of four and my patent-pending “pants-o-meter” is already shrieking like a robotic pig fed AC rather than DC… not a good start. It goes on to talk about the School of Night, the importance of the number 53, freemason plots, Oak Island, la-la-la.

Ultimately, it comes down to the age-old question: cryptographically, do I think Amundsen is (a) onto something or (b) on something? Sadly for Baconian enigmatologists everywhere, I have to say that (b) is looking far more likely. But please feel free to watch all four episodes yourself, don’t let me stop you making up your own mind. 🙂

In a comment to a recent post on Alberti & Averlino, ‘infinitii’ asks what my recommendations would be for a Voynich Manuscript reading list… a deceptively hard question.

Apart from the direct literature on the subject (Mary D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma”, my “The Curse of the Voynich”, and perhaps even Kennedy & Churchill’s “The Voynich Manuscript”), probably the best first step would always be to buy yourself a copy of “Le Code Voynich” – not for its prolix French introduction *sigh*, but simply so that you can look at the VMs’ pages in colour. The best guide to the manuscript still remains the evidence of your own eyes. 🙂

All of which is the easy, lazy blogger answer: but the kind of proper answer infinitii alludes to would be much, much harder. I should declare here that the VMs’ life in Bohemia (and beyond) strikes me as merely a footnote to the main story (though admittedly one that has been interminably expanded, mainly for lack of proper research focus).. Given that I’m convinced (a) 1450 is pretty close, date-wise; (b) Northern Italy is pretty close, location-wise; and (c) it’s almost certainly some kind of enciphered book of secrets, then the main subject we should be reading up on is simply Quattrocento books of secrets.

Doubtless there are three or four literature trees on this that I’m completely unaware of (please tell me!): but as a high level starting point, I’d recommend Part One (the first 90 pages, though really only the last few touch on the 15th century) of William Eamon’s “Science and the Secrets of Nature” (1994). Unfortunately for us, Eamon’s main interest is in Renaissance printed books of secrets. “In Nature’s infinite book of secrecy a little I can read” (Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra), indeed. 🙂

From there, you’ll probably have to drill down (as I did) to individual studies of single books. Virtually everything written by Prager and Scaglia fits this bill, such as  their “Brunelleschi: Studies of His Technology and Inventions” (1970) and “Mariano Taccola and His Book De Ingeneis” (1972). I recently blogged about Battisti and Battisti’s splendid “Le Macchine Cifrate di Giovanni Fontana” (1984), and that is also definitely one to look at (though being able to read Italian tolerably well would be a distinct help there). I’ve also read articles by Patrizia Catellani on Caterina Sforza’s “Gli Experimenti” (which has a smattering of cipher in its recipes), and read up on the possible origins of Isabella Cortese’s supposed “I Secreti” (which is about as late as I’ve gone). Beyond that, you’re pretty much on your own (sorry).

As general background for what secrets such books might contain, I can yet again (though I know that infinitii will groan) only really point to Lynn Thorndike’s sprawling (but wonderful) “History of Magic & Experimental Science” (particularly Volumes III and IV on the 14th and 15th century), and his little-read “Science and Thought in the XVth Century”. Thorndike’s epic books stand proud in the middle of a largely desolate research plain, somewhat like Kubrick’s black monoliths: if anything else comes close to them, I don’t know of it.

As far as Quattrocento cryptography goes, David Kahn’s “The Codebreakers” is (despite its size) no more than an apéritif to a book that has yet to be written. I found Paolo Preto’s “I Servizi Segreti” very helpful, though limited in scope. For Leon Battista Alberti’s cryptography, Augusto Buonafalce’s exemplary modern translation of “De Cifris” is absolutely essential.

What is missing? There are a few relevant books I’ve been meaning to source but haven’t yet got round to, most notably the century-old (but possibly never surpassed) “Bibliographical Notes on Histories of Inventions & Books of Secrets” by John Ferguson. You can buy an updated version with an index and a preface by William Eamon, for example from here.

In many ways the above is no more than a very personal selection of books, and one obviously based around my own particular research programme / priorities. Yet even though I have tried to cover the ground reasonably well over the last few years, there are doubtless large clusters of (for example Italian-language) papers, books and particularly dissertations I am completely unaware of.

It should be clear that I think the basic research challenge here is to build up a properly modern bibliography of Quattrocento books of secrets, and thereby to map out the larger literature field within which the whole idea of ‘the VMs as an enciphered book of secrets’ can be properly placed. Perhaps I should use this as a test case for open source history?

Day One of the Early Modern Research Techniques course was easy to write about, as was Day Two: but Day Three? Tricky…

If I close my eyes, the single image from it burnt into my retinas is of Charles Hope sardonically half-warning participants about the historical Class A drug that is archival research. Yes, he personally had partaken of it, and indeed fully inhaled; yes, truth be told he’d actually quite enjoyed it, and even become quite good at it; but being realistic, the chances that you’ll find anything surprising in any archives anywhere range from Slim Jim McThin to zero.

As to the other speakers, Charles Burnett was (as always) excellent value: I could happily listen to him all day. Ingrid de Smet was good, and… look, every lecturer was good, so that’s not the problem at all.

I’ll try to explain what’s been bugging me for a month – and why. You see, about halfway through my Master’s, a particular kind of critical faculty awoke in me that takes the form of an active intuition that (in effect) ‘listens in’. And so I get a parallel commentary on the subtext of what I’m reading: not “do I believe this (y/n)?“, but “to what degree am I comfortable accepting this account is psychologically representative?” In a way, this added non-binary dimension gives me a sort of novelistic insight into non-fiction, and helps me smell not a rat, but the degree of rattiness. You can see this same kind of thing at play in Carlo Ginzburg’s wonderful history books (which is probably why I’ve got so many of them).

And the funny smell I sensed here wasn’t from the academics (who were all hardworking, insightful, pragmatic and great), but from the Warburg Institute itself. You see, for all the Renaissance pictures of obscure Greco-Roman deities filed upstairs, the biggest mythology stored there is about the usefulness of the Warburg.

What you have to understand about the Warburg Institute’s collections is that they were constructed as a kind of mad iconological machine by Aby Warburg for Aby Warburg to decode the secrets hidden in Renaissance art… but which were never there to decode. The Warburg Institute is therefore a kind of bizarre 1930s steampunk Internet, where every sub-page is devoted to the art history semantic conspiracy behind a different artefact (and the whole indexing is 50 years behind schedule).

As an analogy, David Kahn, with perhaps more than a hint of a sneer, calls the study of Baconian ciphers “enigmatology”: the study of an enigma that was never there. And “Voynichology” as often practised seems little different to Kahn’s “enigmatology”? (Which is why I don’t call myself a “Voynichologist” any more: rather, I’m just an historian working on the Quattrocento mystery that just happens to be the Voynich Manuscript).

In my opinion, “Renaissance iconology” (which Dan Brown fictionalized as Robert Langdon’s “symbology” in the Da Vinci Code, bless him) or indeed what one might call “Warburgology” is no less a failed thought-experiment than “enigmatology”, or indeed “Voynichology”: all share the same faulty methodology of requiring an hypothetical solution in order to make sense of something else uncertain.

But what of the man himself? For me, I see Aby Warburg’s quest as being driven by the desire to move (through his research) ever closer to touch Renaissance gods on earth, through the clues about their Neoplatonic Heaven they left hidden in their works. But now we see that they were instead just jobbing artisans with books of emblems tucked into their work smocks: life is disappointing.

Look, I feel an immense amount of goodwill towards the Warburg Institute and all the people who sail in her: but a large part of me wishes for the mythology that shaped it to fall into the sea. Perhaps the sincere search for a God or Goddess is simply a kind of displaced search for dead, absent or idolized parents in the noise of the world, not unlike Mark Romanek’s film “Static“: if so, I think it’s time we called off the search for Warburg’s parents.

I happened upon the following post a few days ago here, and thought I ought to reproduce it here for anyone that’s interested (the cryptography history lane tends to be filled with caravans, and as a result is somewhat slow-moving). When the volume finally appears (in 2009?), I’ll be just as interested in the paper on the Voynich Manuscript as the rest of it. Having said that, I’m a bit concerned that Kahn is not only misspelt but a little bit misrepresented (for instance, Kahn discusses medieval Arabic cryptology on pp.89-99) in the blurb.

Oh, and they’re not interested in publishing two papers on the VMs in the same volume. Just so you know not to offer them one (like I did, *sigh*).

* * * * * * * *

Call for contributions for a volume of collected essays:

Codes and Ciphers through The Middle Ages

This call is designed to expand and enhance an essay collection that is based on two panels entitled “Codes and Ciphers through The Middle Ages,” which took place at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo MI, in 2006 and 2007.
It seeks to fill a major gap in the study of codes and ciphers in the medieval world. The codes and ciphers of the Middle Ages have received little or no modern scholarly attention. David Khan’s 1181-page volume _The Code-Breakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet_, for example, devotes a mere thirty-four pages to the ancient and classical world, and little more than one sentence to the Middle Ages, claiming that “ciphers, of course, had been used by monks throughout the Middle Ages for scribal amusement” (106). But the construction and use of codes, ciphers, secret languages and mathematical secrets in the Middle Ages were much more than amusement: they were central to intellectual culture as modes of concealing dangerous, magical or secret information, and as a means of connecting oneself to the divine. As such, they appear in the writings of major figures ranging from Isidore of Seville to Hrabanus Maurus, Alcuin and Hildegard of Bingen. They also figure in the manuscripts of lesser known students of magic in Heidelberg, and numerous anonymous texts and manuscripts including Anglo-Saxon riddles, Old Norse literature and runes, and the computus. Clearly, codes and ciphers were a multilingual, cross-period, inter-cultural phenomenon in the Middle Ages; they warrant more scholarly attention. Given current emphases on “security,” and the proliferation of forms of encryption on the internet, fostering scholarly discussion of history of cryptography seems especially relevant to the 21st century. Current contributions address the uses of codes, ciphers, secret languages and mathematics in the writings of Hildegard, the Voynich Manuscript, Anglo-Saxon riddles, Hrabanus Maurus’ _In honorem sanctae crucis_, the Pseudo-Bedan _Propositiones_ and the _Propositiones ad Acuendos Juvenes_ attributed to Alcuin. While we welcome contributions on any aspect of codes and ciphers in any period of the Middle Ages, we are especially interested in essays that will widen the scope and increase the depth of the collection.

Please submit detailed abstracts or drafts of essays (style: CMS 14th edition) by 1 July 2008 to: Sharon M. Rowley at srowley@cnu.edu or rowley_sharon@hotmail.com

For me, Voynich research is one of those things that grind slowly onwards for long periods of time, punctuated by occasional testosteronal fist-clenching-in-the-air moments of elation, a bit like a prisoner being unexpectedly set free. OK, I know it’s a bit cliched: but I do it anyway.

For “The Curse of the Voynich“, I forensically examined the manuscript itself, travelled to all the places, critically read all the secondary sources, and from all that reconstructed the story as best I could. In short, I’d done an OK job: but though readers told me they liked it, it hadn’t set the world on fire. Though it ticked all the right boxes, it was obvious I had to go away and try harder. But what could I do better?

At first, I bought a pile of books on the history of cryptography, such as David Kahn’s “The Codebreakers”: all fascinating, but the question I’m trying to answer – “at the Quattrocento birth of mathematical cryptography, what kind of cryptography died?” – only features marginally (if at all) in the generally rather positivistic accounts presented there.

And then I realised what I had been missing. Sure, I had read plenty on Quattrocento individuals such as Filarete, Alberti, Brunelleschi, Taccola: but there was one gigantic motherlode of information which most historians seem to pay lip service to (rather than have to set aside several months to read): Lynn Thorndike’s epic multi-volume “History of Magic and Experimental Science”.

I therefore bought volumes III and IV (for the 14th and 15th centuries) and have now reached halfway through the latter. What continually amazes me is the amount of ground Thorndike covered that has apparently not been touched by anyone since: though there is a large literature tree cascading off it, it is very deep in places and non-existent in others.

From what I have read, I am now quite sure that virtually all of the Voynich Manuscript’s roots will turn out to be directly traceable from the late 14th and early 15th century: which means that we might in time be able to reconstruct or predict plaintexts for some sections. But these are still very early days in this ultra-long-term research programme. *sigh*

However, the good news is that I also bought a copy of “Science and Thought in the Fifteenth Century” by Lynn Thorndike: and one obscure page from that gave me precisely the clenching-both-fists-in-the-air-YESSSSS-moment I mentioned at the start. The details are too convoluted to go through here, but trust me, it’s a peach.