A few weeks ago, some new ciphertexts pinged on my Cipher Mysteries radar: the story goes that they had been found just after WWII in wooden boxes concealed in the wall of an East London cellar that German bombing had exposed. Hence I’ve called them “The Blitz Ciphers”, but they’re probably much older than the 1940s…

They were handed down to the discoverer’s nephew (the present owner), who now finds himself caught between a desire for relative anonymity and a desire to know what they say. So far, he has been good enough to release three tolerably OK photos from a much larger set he took: but will these be enough for us to crack their cipher?

[Of course, despite the story’s plausibility, I have to point out that this might conceivably still be a hoax designed to make cryptographic fools of us: but if so, it’s such a classy job that I really don’t mind. 🙂 ]


Generally, the Blitz Ciphers’ writing appears to have been added in two hands: a larger, paler, more calligraphic presentation hand, and a smaller, darker, tighter annotation hand. While the presentation hand serves to establish the content and layout structure, the annotation hand is restricted to supplementary paragraphs and additional short notes apparently explaining key letters or terms.

Broadly speaking, the text on the first page (the ‘title page’, above) seems to have been laid down in three sequential phases:-
* #1: the circular ‘boss’ / ‘plaque’ and the two large paragraphs – large presentation hand, brown ink, quite faded in places.
* #2: the third large paragraph at the bottom – mid-sized annotation hand, brown ink.
* #3: the annotations to the other paragraphs – small-sized annotation hand, darker ink.
This general construction sequence seems to hold true for the other pages too.

The second page we have contains two curious diagrams: one a drawing of an octagon (though note that there is a square missing from the lines connecting all the vertices of the octagon), and the other an abstract tree-like representation of something unknown.

Our third page contains a large “John Dee”-like 20×20 square table, where each grid square contains individual cipher letters. The table has an array of red dots gridded within it, where each of the 16 internal red dots is surrounded by a letter repeated four times in a 2×2 block. Red dots near the sides all have two dotted square characters on the edge beside them, apart from a single one near the top right, suggesting a possible copying error. There is also a single correction (near the top left of the 20×20 table) made in the presentation hand.

The support material appears to be handmade paper (I don’t have access to them to look for a watermark, sorry!), while the inks for the two hands appear to be quite different. Though I can’t prove it, I suspect that the larger presentation hand was written using a quill pen (suggesting genuine age or some kind of ceremonial presentation aspect) while the smaller annotation hand was written several decades later with a metal nib. They could possibly have been written by the same person using different pens, but differences between the two hands argue against this.

My initial dating hunch was the first layer could well be 16th century and the second layer 17th century: but having said that, the whole thing could just as well be much more recent and instead have been deliberately written in that way to make it appear ‘venerable’ and old-looking. (More on this below.)

The Blitz Cipher Alphabet

The letter forms are clear, distinct, and upright: the presence of triangles, squares and circles and various inversions perhaps points to a cryptographer with a mathematical or geometric education. It’s closer to a demonstration alphabet (designed for show) than a tachygraphic script (designed for repeated large scale use). Here’s the provisional transcription key I’ve been working with:-

Despite some apparent ambiguities in how to parse or transcribe the various cipher shapes used, the fact that the 20×20 table has only a single letter in each cell is a fairly strong indication that each table cell contains a single cipher glyph, suggesting that about 50 distinct characters are in use. The text has a language-like character frequency distribution, with “:” [E] being the most frequently used character (the “tilted Jupiter glyph” [B] and the “joined-up-II glyph” [D] are #2 and #3 respectively). The “Greek phi glyph” [S] often appears at the start of lines and paragraphs.

I’ve shown all this to some cipher historians and codebreakers for their early reactions. Glen Claston notes that “the alphabet is based on the types of symbols used by astrologers, with a few I recognize as alchemical symbols“, though – inevitably contrariwise – I suspect this might well be a coincidence arising from the simple shapes and symmetries employed. Peter Forshaw suggests parallels with some geometric cipher shapes used in Della Porta’s “De furtivis literarum notis“, though Tony Gaffney similarly cautions that such “shapes were very common back then, the numerous ‘ciphers of diplomatic papers’ in the British Library are full of them“.

The Blitz Cipher System

As with the Voynich Manuscript, the peaky frequency distribution probably rules out complex polyalphabetic ciphers (such as Alberti’s code wheel and Vigenere cipher): yet it doesn’t obviously seem to be a simple monoalphabetic substitution in either English or Latin (but please correct me if I’m wrong!)

Unlike the Voynich manuscript, however, I can’t see any obvious verbose cipher patterns significantly above chance: so the main techniques left on the cryptographic smorgasbord would seem to be:
* a homophonic cipher, like the Copiale Cipher (but if so, the encipherer didn’t flatten the stats for “:” [E] very well)
* a nomenclator cipher (i.e. using symbols for common words, like “the”, “Rex”, or “Mason” 🙂 )
* an acrostic / abbreviatory / shorthand cipher.

All the same, there are some intriguing patterns to be found: David Oranchak points out that “‘SBDBlDMDBl’ is an interesting sequence, since it is length 10 but only consists of 5 unique symbols.” I suspect that the presentation hand uses a slightly different enciphering strategy to the annotation hand, which possibly implies that there may be some kind of homophone mapping going on. The fact that there is also an annotation applied to a single letter [c] on the title page may also point to a nomenclator or acrostic cipher.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the circular ‘boss’ at the top of the title page: this has three letters (C, M and E) calligraphically arranged, i.e. the two dots of the colon have been separated above and below the M. To my eyes, this looks suspiciously like a cryptographic conceit – might it be the case that “:” (E) is in fact a kind of letter modifier? For example, it might encipher a repeat-last-letter token (if the text had a lot of Roman numbers), or perhaps a macron-like “overbar” superscript denoting a scribal abbreviation (i.e. contraction or truncation). Something to think about, anyway!

As for the plaintext language: if this was indeed found concealed in an East London cellar, English and Latin would surely be the main suspects, though Tony Gaffney tried Latin and couldn’t find any kind of match.

Blitz Cipher Theories & Hunches

If you’re expecting me to start speculating that these documents were from a 16th century Elizabethan secret society frequented by John Dee and/or William Shakespeare, sadly you’ll be quickly disappointed. Similarly, though I concur heartily with Glen Claston that these genuinely intriguing ciphertexts may well ultimately prove to be high-ranking 18th century Mason or Freemason ciphers, it is just too early to start saying. We simply don’t know as yet enough of the basics.

What I personally have learned from the tragically fruitless, long-term debacle that is Voynich Manuscript research is that speculative theories are almost always a hopeless way of trying to decipher such objects. Hunches are cool and useful, but they need to stay restrained, or everything goes bad. Please, no theories, let’s try to crack these using the proper historical tools at our disposal!

Having just weakened your will to live by exposing you to the word heteroscedasticity 🙂 , I thought I’d now throw some more paraffin onto your wordy fires. Is the Voynich Manuscript…

…an “ergodic text”?

According to Espen Aarseth [as discussed on the Grand Text Auto website], ergodic literature is where “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”… yup, I think we’ve all read a fair few books like that.

Personally, I think this would mean that the Voynich Manuscript – which has had its bifolios shuffled several times during its lifetime – has ended up as “unintentionally ergodic literature”, because nobody knows how to properly traverse its pages, let alone read its text. What’s worse is that I’m reasonably sure that nobody even knows how to parse its letters, increasing its, errrm, ergodicity yet further. The Voynich is, quite literally, hard work to read. 🙂

All the same, one nice thing about authors in the kind of cybertext-y tradition Aarseth belongs to is that they do a good job of collecting a whole load of bizarre textual oddities to muse upon. Not novels without the letter ‘E’ or where every sentence is a question *sigh*, but stories with intentionally shufflable pages, or even Ayn Rand’s play where the audience votes for the ending they want… you know, mad stuff like that.

…or an “aleatoric text”?

What is relevant to us is that this stuff overlaps strongly with stochastic (randomly generated) or aleatoric texts, where there is an element of chance in the way that they are written (the Latin word “alea” means “dice”). As is fairly well known, plenty of people have posited the notion that the Voynich Manuscript’s ‘Voynichese’ text was entirely generated using some kind of cleverly randomising process. Most notably, Gordon Rugg suggests a tricksy arrangement with multiple Cardan grille-like tables of Voynichese word parts to achieve such a miracle. If they’re right, the VMs would be – horror of horrors – an aleatoric hoax (or, more precisely, a stochastic simulacrum of a ergodic text).

Given that this is a much-repeated claim, I thought I really ought to dip my toes in the early history of generated texts. Incidentally, there’s a parallel literature on the (mainly modern) tradition of aleatoric music (John Cage, Charles Ives, even Marcel Duchamp), which claims as a parent the 15th century “catholicon” genre, which was a universal musical genre which could be played in any mode or scale. However, I don’t personally see the catholicon as having any real randomness as opposed to just potential multimodality: linking it to John Cage seems a fairly spurious idea. 🙁

…or a “generated text”?

But as for generated texts, that’s a different story. A glimpse at your email inbox or even a typical websearch should quickly reveal that the world is now awash with such glibly generated texts. Increasingly, the Internet is populated more with plausible-looking generated text than real text. But when in history did all this awfulness actually begin? Might the big secret of the Voynich Manuscript be that its author was been the world’s first spammer?

Of course, the all-pervading layer of spam that threatens to drown us all is built atop computational linguistics, where computer programmers find ways of sequencing text that appears moderately sensible. In fact, the first documented computationally stochastic text came about in 1959 when Theo Lutz programmed a Zuse Z22 computer to mash up fragments from Franz Kafka’s “The Castle” in a grammatically plausible way.

…or a “permutational text”?

Naturally, we’re looking for something much earlier here: and thanks to determined researchers such as Florian Cramer, you can find plenty of stuff on “permutational texts”, texts that typically allow the reader or performer to swap things around arbitrarily. If you want to try some of these out for yourself, there’s an excellent selection on the Permutationen site.

But there’s a problem with this: these texts are all about permuting words, playing with meaning, synonymity, antonymity, association, conceptual linkages, linguistic simulation: whereas Voynich hoax theorists are looking for non-meaning, obscurity, grammatical simulation – all of which are elements occupying a completely different scale, a far tighter granularity.

…or a “combinatoric text”?

Even Raymond Llull‘s combinatorics (which I mentioned recently) were avowedly combinations of concepts, not letters: the paper machine he described in his “Ars Magna et Ultima” was comprised of multiple concentric word disks, using logical combination as a tool to try to reach ultimate truth.

However, the fascinating thing about this is that it has been claimed (and here’s a link to a particularly nice presentation) that:-

It is believed that Llull’s inspiration for the Ars magna came from observing a device called a zairja, which was used by medieval Arab astrologers to calculate ideas by mechanical means. It used the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet to signify 28 categories of philosophic thought. By combining number values associated with the letters and categories, new paths of insight and thought were created.

If you’re now suddenly filled with an urge to find out about zairjas, here’s the Wikipedia page on them: further, David Link says in a fascinating article that “Taking into account the moment in time of the enquiry, [a zairja] generated a rhymed answer to any question posed”.

However, the (very) short version of all this is that Llull seems to have taken the zairja’s circular diagrams and done his own thing with them, very much as Leon Battista Alberti did with Llull’s in turn. But all in all, that’s quite a different tradition from what we’re talking about here.

…or none of the above?

Though I’ve searched and searched, I simply haven’t found anything in the history of any of these literatures conceptually similar to the way hoax theorists claim the Voynich “must have” been constructed. Is there some kind of link there to be found? Right now, I really don’t think there is, sorry! But please let me know if you think I’m wrong! 😉

Klaus Schmeh, a German encryption professional who over the last couple of years has become increasingly fascinated by the cipher mystery of the Voynich Manuscript, has just been interviewed by the sparky skeptics at Righteous Indignation for their Episode #76 – Klaus’ VMs section runs from 25:50 to 45:45, and gives a fairly pragmatic introduction to the Voynich Manuscript. This was prompted by his Voynich talk at the 14th European Skeptics Conference in Budapest earlier this year (2010).

In fact, it’s quite revealing to see how far he has come from a 2008 German skeptic conference he also talked at (discussed here) [where he fell in behind the mainstream 16th century hoax position] and a 2008 article he wrote (which I reviewed here): it’s nice to see that he’s moved from seeing pretty much everything Voynichese as a combination of pseudoscience and pseudohistory to a rather more nuanced (and realistic) position.

But all the same, looking forward, to where should Voynich skepticism go from here? From what we now know, I’d say there are no obvious grounds for a hardcore skeptical position any more – the vellum seems genuinely old, with the ink freshly written on it, and the radiocarbon dating broadly meshing with the kind of evidence I’ve been working on for the last 5+ years, vis-à-vis:

  • The ‘4o’ verbose pair’s brief appearance in various Northern Italian cipher keys 1440-1456 (see The Curse Of The Voynich pp.175-179)
  • The parallel hatching which I suspect pretty much forces a post-1440 date if it was made in Italy, or post-1410 if Germany
  • The two 15th century hands in the marginalia which pretty much force a pre-1500 date for the VMs
  • Sergio Toresella’s very specific dating claim, based on his lifetime with herbal manuscripts – that it was made in Northern Italy (probably Milan or the Venice region) around 1460

The swallow-tail merlons on the two castle walls (on the nine-rosette page) that Klaus mentioned in the podcast have actually been debated for at least a decade: although these don’t prove that the Voynich Manuscript was constructed in Northern Italy (where they were an unmissable feature of many castles), they clearly do help to shift the balance of probability that way away from Germany (the #2 candidate region).

And I suppose this is where all this is going: by carefully combining all these pieces together, we can now try to think about the Voynich in terms of probabilities. Even if you discount my Antonio Averlino hypothesis, I don’t honestly mind being what I call “the right kind of wrong” – i.e. looking in the right culture, place, and time, but perhaps finding a false positive to match a very specific forensic profile. Just so you know, I’d currently rate the likelihood of the VMs’s origin’s being Northern Italy at ~80%, Savoy ~10%, Germany ~5%, and anywhere else ~5%.

Hence, if someone were to tell me tomorrow that they’d just uncovered a fifteenth century letter clearly describing the Voynich Manuscript as having been written by Giovanni Fontana, Cicco Simonetta, Brunelleschi, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Leon Battista Alberti, or any one of the hundreds of other desperately clever Northern Italian polymaths who were right there at the birth of the Renaissance, I’d be utterly delighted: for I think that is the cultural milieu linking pretty much all the strands of tangible (as opposed to merely suggestive) evidence to date.

The notions that we know nothing about the VMs and/or that it is somehow destined to be proven a meaningless hoax are not ‘skeptical’ in the true sense of the word: rather, they are postmodernist non-positions, uncritical ‘meh‘s in the face of the interconnected mass of subtle – but nonetheless tangible – historical evidence VMs researchers have carefully accumulated. In the case of the Voynich Manuscript, I think the real “beliefs that are taken for granted by most of the population” at which skeptics should be pointing their weapons of mass deconstruction are not this kind of painstakingly-assembled gear-train, but the widely-disseminated (and utterly fallacious) claim that the VMs is a 16th century hoax for financial gain.

In a way, this would turn Klaus’ own skeptical research chain back on itself – and in so doing would hopefully set him free. “More Schmeh, less meh“, eh? 🙂

As I mentioned here recently, I’ve been trying to grasp the structure of the humanist community of astronomers / mathematicians orbiting around Nicholas of Cusa and Cardinal Bessarion in Rome… but so far haven’t found any definitively useful books on the subject. Thony Christie has a nice article here, and there’s a book on 15th century Viennese astronomy here (for Regiomontanus and Peurbach), but sadly not a great deal else that rises far above Wikipediaesque factoids.

All the same, here’s the connection map I’ve put together: it’s far from complete, but it’s probably a decent enough starting point. Doubtless you’ll note plenty of familiar names!

Map of the community around Nicholas of Cusa and Bessarion

Also, I found a nice blog post containing pictures of Bessarion: mirroring his life-long interest in astronomy, the Greek epitaph on his tomb (below) says “I, Bessarion, raised this tomb to hide my bones; my soul will seek the stars whence once it came.” Not particularly religious for a Cardinal, perhaps, but I like it all the same!

The greek epitaph on Cardinal Bessarion's tomb

The Internet is a strange thing, a virtual photographer’s jacket crammed with countless pockets of enthusiasts. For example, you beautiful cipher mysteries fans circulate within one bijou (but nicely-appointed) pocket, while the massed legions of Slashdot fans have a Tardis-style hyperzoom lens pocket all of their own. But… what would happen if these two worlds collided?

A chance to find out came in December 2009, when Edith Sherwood’s The-Voynich-Manuscript-was-made-by-Leonardo-da-Vinci-so-it-was website got picked up by Slashdot. From the 4900 overspill visits Cipher Mysteries got at the time, I estimated that she must have had “(say) 30000 or more” visits. This was probably about right, because in the few days since the same thing happened to Cipher Mysteries last weekend, its visit counter has lurched up by 38,000+. The onslaught started on Saturday night, when at its peak the Cipher Mysteries server was getting a new visitor roughly every second. By late Sunday, however, the story had finally slid off the bottom of the Slashdot front page (which only ever lists the ten most recent news items), at which point the tsunami turned into merely a large river. 🙂

According to the server logs, my Slashdotted Chaocipher page was read in 132 countries (USA 52%, Canada 8%, UK 7.5%, Australia 5.4%, etc), while US Slashdotters were mainly from California, Texas, New York, Washington, followed by another long tail. And OK, I know it’s a biased sample, but it was nice to see Internet Explorer in less than 8% of the browsers. One long-standing stereotype did fall by the wayside, though: there was a relative absence of trolls leaving snarky comments. Might Slashdot be *gasp* growing up? 😉

Actually, the nicest thing about the whole episode for me was that Moshe Rubin’s brother in Florida was unbelievably impressed when he saw Moshe’s name pop up on Slashdot. I know it’s only a small thing, but I’m really pleased for the guy, he deserves credit for his hard work and persistence bringing the Chaocipher out into the light.

* * * * * * *

Some quick follow-up thoughts on the Chaocipher…

It strikes me that Byrne’s neologism “Chaocipher” was remarkably prescient for 1918, because the whole idea of “chaos theory” – as per Wikipedia, “the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions“, AKA ‘the butterfly effect’ – had not long before that been started by Henri Poincaré. The French mathematician had shown that the classical three-body problem sometimes yielded tricksy outcomes that never converged (i.e. to a collision) nor diverged (i.e. to increasing distance from each other), but where the three bodies were somehow trapped in a dynamically constrained yet utterly mad-looking (OK, he actually said ‘nonperiodic’) manner. Yet after this promising beginning in the 1880s, the ‘chaos’ concept’s journey onwards was a particularly arduous (and non-obvious) one: even though people noticed the signatures of this odd behaviour in many different contexts, they had no comfortable vocabulary to describe it until well after Benoit Mandelbrot and Edward Lorenz in the 1960s.

And so I find it neatly uncanny that the Chaocipher appropriates the “chaos” word 50 years earlier than it should, while at the same time exactly demonstrating the properties that contemporary mathematicians now ascribe to it (i.e. “deterministic chaos”). As the cipher’s twizzling steps subtly mangle the order of the letters on the two rotors, both the error propagation and the cipher system complexity sharply ramp up over time, in a (quite literally) chaotic way: to my eyes, Byrne’s Chaocipher is no less artful and pleasing than any Mandelbrot set I’ve ever seen. However, because its mechanism was not disclosed until this year (2010), it is perhaps best thought of part of the secret history of applied chaos: by way of comparison, the earliest paper on “chaotic cryptography” I’ve found was Baptista’s “Cryptography with chaos” in Physics Letters A (1998) [mentioned online here].

So, it might be that as the full story behind the Chaocipher emerges from Byrne’s papers, we’ll discover that he cleverly applied Poincaré’s and Hadamard’s ideas to cryptography: but – between you and me –  I somehow doubt that this is what really happened. In my mind, there’s something both ham-fistedly mathematical and deviously mechanical about the Chaocipher, that makes its mongrelly combination of Alberti’s cipher wheel and movable circular type something that could (in principle, at least) have been devised any time since about 1465. All the same, I think that the single aspect of the Chaocipher that most makes it resemble an out-of-place artifact is that it is a pure algorithm made solid – a bit like a programming hack devised by someone who had never seen a computer. Perhaps programming is closer to carpentry than we think!

Without doubt, the Chaocipher lies just outside the rigid mathematical confines of the cipher development path laid down by the sequence of crytographers since Alberti: and so for me, the most inspiring lesson to be learned from it is that genius need take only a single step sideways to become utterly unrecognizable to the mainstream. Thinking again about the Voynich Manuscript’s cipher, might that too merely stand a single conceptual step beyond our tightly-blinkered mental range? Furthermore, might that also ultimately turn out to be part of the same secret history of applied chaos? It’s certainly an interesting thought…

I recently blogged here about the difference between skepticism (which has at its heart both a guarded optimism and a realistic take on the practical difficulties involved in gaining knowledge) and cynicism (which by way of contrast is a denialist position, that says it is safer to believe nothing rather than get hurt by believing something that will turn out to be incorrect): but what I didn’t really go on to say was that I think there’s currently rather more cynicism at play in the Voynich research world than is properly healthy – and that perhaps the Wikipedia article simply reflects this critical imbalance.

So here’s my small wish for the day: that Voynich experts should try to use their insightful brains and creative historical imaginations not to construct yet more reasons why existing theories are wrong (which is, lets face it, about as hard as machine-gunning fish in a barrel), but instead try to construct questions they would really like to see answered. By doing this, we can start to map out the edges of our collective knowledge, and get some kind of frontier research mentality going again – perhaps it is simply this which is currently most conspicuous by its absence of late.

In this spirit but putting the codicological and palaeographical frontiers to one side (because the Beinecke doesn’t seem to be at all interested, and I suspect it will start to become clear over the next few months why this is so), here’s my proposal for an entirely new research front to open right up: Rome 1465-1467.

* * * * * *

The central cryptographic paradox of the Voynich Manuscript is that it manages to combine the simplicity of 14th century monoalphabetic ciphers (language-like and with a restricted alphabet size) with the mathematical inscrutability of 16th century polyalphabetic ciphers, yet has a (claimed) radiocarbon dating that sits between the two. Similarly, it contain a cipher letter pair (‘4o’) which was in use around Milan between 1440 and 1460, yet its cipher system is tangibly more sophisticated than anything found in the cipher ledgers of the day.

I’m going to put the radiocarbon dating on one side for the moment, and run with 1465-1467 – this was specifically when Leon Battista Alberti started researching in Rome not only how to break ciphers, but also how to make unbreakable ciphers. In fact, this precise time and place marked the birth of polyalphabetic ciphers, and arguably of modern cryptographic (and cryptologic) practice.

So far so well documented. But there’s a crucial element missing from this – the company Alberti kept in Rome while he was doing this. One of the only things I learnt from Gavin Menzies’ dismal “1434” (which I can’t even bring myself to review) was that while Regiomontanus was in Rome between 1461 and 1465, he often met up with Alberti and Paolo Toscanelli at Nicholas of Cusa’s house, though the mystery is what he was doing between 1465 and 1467  when “he seems to have disappeared”. [p.143] Of course, Nicholas of Cusa died in 1464, and though Toscanelli was a good friend of Nicholas, he only rarely ventured out of Florence, so this is already something of a simplification.

Yet here we have a critical moment when four polymathic giants of the Renaissance did somewhat more than cross paths (and one might throw others such as Filelfo, George of Trebizond, and [dare I say it] Filarete into this same mix): one might even speculate whether combining Nicholas of Cusa’s interest in concave lenses (De Beryllo, 1441) with Regiomontanus’ astronomy and with Toscanelli’s cosmography did indeed provide the conceptual spark that was to grow into the telescope (and then the microscope) during the course of the following century (even if the raw technology to make such an object was not yet there).

Might this intellectually rich time and place in some way be the loamy bed in which the seed of the Voynich Manuscript grew to its full fruition? To my eyes, there’s something innately multidisciplinary about the VMs, that speaks of subtle collaboration – people contributing to make something more than merely the sum of its parts.

Hence the new research frontier I propose is based on a single question: what are the archival resources that historians have used to reconstruct these meetings (and this community) in Rome in 1465-1467? Perhaps if we now revisit these same resources, we might notice a fleeting mention of the VMs in conception, in construction, in motion, or in retrospect, who knows?

* * * * * *

So, what question would you like answered? What research frontier would you like opened up in 2010?

Somewhere during the last decade, historians picked up got the idea that history book publishers wanted to be pitched ‘vertical’ books about individual microsubjects, books that somehow try to recapitulate the last N-thousand years of human history as viewed through the narrow prism of, say, salt or swearing or codpieces. All of which somehow reminds me of the joke about the gynaecologist who preferred to decorate the hall through the letterbox, I’m not quite sure why…

Anyway, I’ve been working my way through Pamela O. Long’s epic (2004) book “Openness, Secrecy, Authority”, which is basically ‘the (vertical) history of secrecy pre-Enlightenment’. It covers pretty much all of the historical things I think every Voynich researcher ought to be acutely aware of – books of secrets, alchemy, patents, recipes, Hermeticism, Theophilus, Poimander, Pythagoras, Plotinus, Vitruvius, Hero of Alexandria, Philo, Guido da Vigevano, Fontana, Brunelleschi, Taccola, Kyeser,Valturio, Ghiberti, Filarete, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Alberti, Ficino, Agrippa, Paracelsus, etc. However, it’s proving to be a haltingly slow process, because every chapter or so I feel compelled to go away and check out what she’s saying to see if I believe her or not. Even though 50% of the time I actually disagree with her conclusions and interpretations, this is almost certainly because she has attempted to cover an extraordinary breadth of subject-matter within a single volume, as well as to give some kind of a socio-theoretic chapter-ending spin on the extraordinarily heterogenous set of things that fall within range of her chosen subject thread, both things that tend to work out badly for authors. 🙂

A full review will follow (because I haven’t yet finished it), but I thought I’d briefly mention it because it inspired the following brief note on books on machines of war. As I mentioned yesterday, Johann Adam Schall von Bell wrote one for the Ming Emperor; Roberto Valturio’s “De Re Militari” caused a stir when Sigismondo Malatesta tried to send a copy to Istanbul with his favourite court painter Matteo de’ Pasti; gay vegetarian pacifist Leonardo da Vinci famously tried to ingratiate himself with the Sforza Duke of Milan with his 1482 war machine sketches; Guido da Vigevano wrote one; Giovanni Fontana wrote one; Antonio Averlino sort-of-claimed to have written one (on engines); and so on.

What I learnt from Pamela O. Long’s books was also that Cornelius Agrippa “attempted to obtain patronage… by making reference to a treatise he planned to write on a engines of war” (p.162), while Alberti promised (in his De re aedificatoria, p.135 of the 1988 Rykwert edition) to “deal with war machines at greater length elsewhere, perhaps implying that he was planning to write a treatise on the subject” (p.125).

But… hold on a minute?! Even though the conventional starting point for this whole subject is one of archival rarity (i.e. that manuscript books of secrets are the exception rather than the rule), it seems that if you mine the subject matter enough you find that people back then didn’t qualify as a free-agent master architect / engineer looking for courtly patronage unless they could point to their own secret book of extraordinary machines to back up their claims. I suppose this is broadly the Quattrocento equivalent of the modern Cult Of The Business Plan, where startup founders could only get audiences with those 1990s princes (yes, Venture Capitalists) if they had a suitably weighty document & spreadsheet to back up their outrageously nonsensical business bet (i.e. a virally-marketed scalable global pet massage franchising scheme etc).

Historians often point to the Quattrocento as being the effective birth of intellectual property (yes, I know Venice issued various earlier patent-like documents, but it’s arguable whether these count): drawing a broad modern parallel, the notion of intellectual capital was sometimes caricatured in the late 1990s as being a way of making a bunch of PhDs losing money look like a good investment. In case you think I’m stretching language too far here, the Quattrocento has two constrasting examplars for these trends: Brunelleschi and Leonardo da Vinci. Brunelleschi started off (it’s highly likely) as a goldsmith with a close interest in clockmaking, and used his own personal practice to develop complex machine ideas – he was empirical/experiential/adaptive, preferring not to transfer his physical constructions onto paper because people would then copy them ad infinitum. Leonardo, by contrast, was constructing theoretical and speculative models for designs without significant regard to their practicalities: I would argue that he could only construct his designs on paper as that was where they belonged – he was theoretical/abstract/creative. In short, Brunelleschi is all about intellectual property while Leonardo is all about intellectual capital, and never the twain shall meet: perhaps his innate practicality is why Brunelleschi is held in higher esteem than Leonardo in Italy.

I think that even though intellectual capital (a demonstrable capacity for having bright ideas, usually theoretical) has a quite different rationale to intellectual property (a set of bright ideas someone believed they owned, usually pragmatic), both types of Quattrocento books of machines performed roughly the same kind of function even though the ideas in them were hardly ever used. Viewed from this angle, they are no more than “alchemical herbal”-style McGuffins that people constructed to try to gain credibility and/or patronage, by becoming an auctor/authority – AKA hire me “because I’m worth it”. Ultimately, I suspect that hyping up your secret book on machines was simply the early modern equivalent of the entrepreneural elevator pitch. 🙂

But now I’m mixing business school models with historical models, while straying dangerously close to the kind of theoretical stuff I was happy to lambast a mere six paragraphs back: probably a sign I ought to call a halt for the day. Make of it all what you will! 🙂

If you combine the thoughts I posted yesterday (suggesting that the “o[r]aiiv” word in the top line of f67r1 might encipher “luna”) with the “or oro ror” sequence on line #2 of f15v (which would appear to be a verbosely enciphered Roman numeral, probably “CCCC”), the two would superficially seem to be incompatible. How can the Voynichese “or“-pair encipher both “L” and “C” simultaneously?

Discarding wilfully ambiguous cipher systems (such as Brumbaugh’s “convert everything to a digit and then back to a letter), the answer would be a stateful cipher system, by which I mean a cipher system which reuses the same output letters according to which one of a set of internal states it occupies. Voynich theorists typically predict that the gallows would be the main state-switching mechanism (though Steve Ekwall also asserts that “c” / “cc” / “ch” change the internal state as well – this is what all his “folding and flipping” claims specifically relate to).

Arguably the first known stateful cipher was proposed in Alberti’s De Cifris in 1467: this was a cipher disk pair where the rotor disk rotated relative to the stator disk according to an arrangement between encipherer and decipherer (typically every few words).

Now, to modern cryptographic eyes, the whole point of per-character stateful ciphers (such as Vigenère etc) is to destroy both the numerical statistics as well as the linguistic structure of the ciphertext, as they provide two layers of information that can be used to help break that text. However, this does not seem to have been the case with Alberti’s cipher, while it certainly does not seem to be the case with Voynichese, where there is apparently both visual and statistical evidence of word structure.

Yet Voynichese uses only an alphabet-sized set of characters in its cipherbet, so does not seem to be relying on a secondary codebook at all (even Alberti’s cipher disk used a secondary codebook), so one of the few ways in which it can obfuscate its output over so many pages of ciphertext is via some form of primary statefulness.

However, there seems to be no direct evidence that Voynichese uses only statefulness: rather, it gives the impression of retaining some kind of high-level linguistic structure from the plaintext, but perhaps with letter patterns disrupted within that.

To me, the likelihood is that Voynichese evolved out of what was initially a purely stateless verbose cipher, one where (for instance) “or”, “ol”, “ar” and “al” enciphered the repeated letters in Roman numerals: M C X I. The encipherer probably then hacked his/her own system (with tricks such as the space-insertion cipher we apparently see on f15v) to hide too-obvious repetitions. However, I suspect that an Arabic digit steganography hack was later grafted into the system (the a[i][i][i]v family), probably removing the need for the “I”: and that when the time came round to creating the VMs, some kind of additional stateful disruption might well have been added to this system, whereby the or/ol/ar/al pairs swapped around depending on the state… well, that’s as far as I’ve got, anyway.

Historically, the problem is that there is no evidence of any stateful cipher system prior to Rome in 1465 (when Alberti began researching his book), which doesn’t obviously seem to square with the radiocarbon dating. All the same, it’s not the first time that different forms of dating have yielded slightly different values for the same artefact, all grist for our historical mills… 🙂

In the last few days, several people have independently asked me to summarize my “The Curse of the Voynich” Voynich Manuscript theory (that it is an enciphered copy of Antonio Averlino [Filarete]’s lost books of secrets). Good theories generally improve when you retell them a few times: for example, back when I was first pitching my new type of security camera [i.e. my day job], it would take me about an hour to explain how it worked, but now it takes me about a minute. So… can I condense 230 pages from 2006 into a thousand words in 2010? Here goes…

The first part of my art history argument places the VMs in Milan after 1456 but before about 1480, and with some kind of architectural link to Venice:-

  • “Voynichese” uses a “4o” verbose cipher pair (but not as Arabic digit pairs, i.e not 10/20/30/40). This appears in North Italian / Milanese ciphers dating from 1440 to 1456 and is linked with the Sforzas, yet here forms part of a more sophisticated cipher system. This points to a post-1456 dating, locates it in Northern Italy (specifically Milan), and links it somehow with the Sforza court.
  • One of the rosettes in the nine-rosette page contains a castle with swallow-tail merlons and circular city walls. However, the only towns traditionally depicted with circular walls are Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Milan, of which Milan is the only one in Italy. Therefore, I conclude that this is probably Milan.
  • Also, the Sforza castle in Milan only had swallow-tail merlons after 1450. This gives a probable earliest date & place for the VMs of (say) 1451 in Milan.
  • Late in the 15th century, swallow-tail merlons were covered over to protect the defenders from flaming projectiles. This gives a probable latest date for the VMs of 1480-1500.
  • I argue that the central rosette shows a (slightly scrambled) view of St Mark’s Basilica as viewed from the Campanile beside it, linking the author of the VMs with Venice.

The second part highlights (what I consider to be) very close parallels between the VMs and the “little works” of secrets mentioned by Antonio Averlino in the later phases of his libro architettonico (but which have been presumed lost or imaginary), and which he compiled between 1455 and 1465.

  • The subjects of Averlino’s lost little books were: water (spas), agriculture, engines, recipes, glass-making, and bees.
  • I think Quire 13 depicts water – both spas and plumbing machinery / engines
  • I think that Herbal A pages are agriculture (grafting, herbiculture, etc)
  • I think that Herbal B pages contain engines (but visually enciphered to resemble strange plants). I also suspect that Averlino was the author of the lost mid-Quattrocento “Machinery Complex” manuscript postulated by Prager and Scaglia.
  • I think f86v3 specifically depicts bees (Curse pp.138-140)
  • After publishing my book, I discovered that Averlino did indeed have his own herbal, written “elegantly in the vernacular tongue

The third part outlines what I suspect was Averlino’s opportunity and motive for creating the VMs, based on well-documented historical sources (plus a few specific inferences):-

  • Antonio Averlino was interested in cryptography, specifically in transposition ciphers. His libro architettonico partly fictionalizes himself and many of the people around the Sforza by syllable-reversing their names – for example, his own name becomes “Onitoan Nolivera“.
  • Averlino was friends with the powerful cryptographer Cicco Simonetta, who ran the Sforza Chancellery: when Averlino suddenly left Milan in 1465, he left his affairs and claims for back pay in Simonetta’s hands.
  • Disenchanted by his experience of working for Francesco Sforza, Averlino planned to travel from Milan across Europe to work in the new Turkish court in Istanbul – his friend Filelfo drafted a letter of introduction for him.
  • I infer (from the peculiarly intentional damage done to the signature panel of his famous doors in Rome) that Averlino travelled to Rome in the Autumn of 1465, perhaps even with the party travelling from Brescia with what is now known as MS Vat Gr 1291.
  • I also infer (from a close reading of Leon Battista Alberti’s small book on ciphers) that an unnamed expert in transposition ciphers debated cryptography practice in detail with Alberti in late 1465, and I suspect that this expert was Averlino, who would surely have sought out his fellow Florentine humanist architect while in Rome.
  • Some art historians have put forward particular evidence that suggests Averlino did indeed travel to Istanbul around this time to work on some buildings there.
  • However, this happened not long after the notorious incident when Sigismondo Malatesta’s favourite painter Matteo de’ Pasti was arrested in the Venetian-owned port of Candia in Crete. His crime was attempting to take a copy of Roberto Valturio’s book on war machines “De Re Militari” to the Turks, punished by being hauled back in chains to Venice for interrogation by the Council of Ten.
  • Though not always 100% reliable, Giorgio Vasari asserts that Antonio Averlino died in Rome in 1469: so there is good reason to conclude that if Averlino did indeed travel East, he (like his old friend George of Trebizond) probably travelled back to Italy before very long.
  • Overall, my claim is that if Averlino made (or tried to make) the dangerous trip East in 1465 and wanted to take his books of secrets (which, remember, contained drawings of engines just like “De Re Militari”) along with him, he would need to devise a daring way of hiding them in plain sight. But how?

The fourth part of my argument describes how I think Averlino trickily enciphered his books of secrets to make them seem to be sections of a medieval herbal / antidotary written in a lost language. However, given that this section is extraordinarily complicated and I’m rapidly closing in on my thousand-word limit, I’ll have to call a halt at this point. 🙂

Three years after committing all this to print, I still stand by (pretty much) every word. Obviously, it’s a tad annoying that the recent radiocarbon dating doesn’t fit this narative perfectly: but historical research (when you do it properly) is always full of surprises, right? We’ll have to see what the next few months bring…

Just to let you know that a Voynich Manuscript radio interview I gave a few days ago (either download it, or click on the Flash Player play button [half a screen down on the right] to hear it) has just gone live on the Red Ice Creations website. They wanted me to chat about all things Voynich… and an hour later I eventually ran out of steam. 🙂

Pretty much all the fashionable VMs research topics you’d expect to me to crank out – Wilfrid Voynich, John Dee, Rudolf II, Rene Zandbergen, Sinapius, Newbold, dating, TV documentaries, the nine-rosette page, page references, the evolution of Voynichese, cipher history, Trithemius, Leon Battista Alberti, unbreakable ciphers, intellectual history, books of secrets, Brunelleschi’s hoist, enciphered machines, Voynich Bullshit Index, Quattrocento intellectual paranoia, patents, even quantum computing! – get covered, so there should be something there for nearly everyone. 🙂

And if that’s not enough for you, Red Ice Radio has a 45-minute follow-on interview with me in their member-only area: this covers cryptology, intractability, alchemy, Adam Maclean, hoax theories, Gordon Rugg, Cardan grilles, postmodernism, astronomy, astrology (lunar and solar), calendars, Antonio Averlino / Filarete, canals, water-powered machines, (not) the head of John the Baptist, Alan Turing, Enigma, Pascal, the Antikythera Mechanism, Fourier analysis, Ptolemaic epicycles, Copernicus, Kepler, Kryptos sculpture, Tamam Shud, Adrenalini Brothers, steganography, copy vs original, wax tablets, even al-Qaeda!

OK, I’m not a professional broadcaster, and it’s all impromptu (so there are a handful of pauses), but it does bring plenty of Voynich-related stuff that’s appeared here over the last 18 months together into a single place. Enjoy!