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! 🙂

(1) A big hello to Rich SantaColoma as he emerges from the VMs “List Closet” into the bright(-ish) light of the blogosphere. His “New Atlantis Voynich Theory” blog sets out his basic stall – which is that, thanks to his “Nagging Sense of Newness” about the Voynich Manuscript, he harbours strong doubts that it is anywhere near as old as mainstream Voynich researchers (such as, errrm, me, apparently) think it is.

The truth is that historians have basically frittered the last century away on foolish conceits (such as the Roger Bacon thing, the Dee-and-Kelley thing, or the it’s-a-hoax-because-the-NSA-can’t-break-it thing), and so until such time as a single proper codicological and palaeographical analysis comes along to define the research problem properly, we’ll remain in the same old evidential free-fall.

As for me, I’m sticking with John Manly’s assessment (that the quire numbers were added in the 15th century) as a basic starting point for the dating: and if that turns out to be wrong, then so be it. That doesn’t make me “mainstream”, just… old-fashioned, I guess. 🙂

Incidentally, it’s a little-known fact that the Beinecke’s catalogue originally listed MS 408 as fifteenth century, but that in the 1970s (perhaps as a result of Brumbaugh’s wobbly claims?) this got extended forwards to the sixteenth century… I suspect they got it right the first time round.

PS: Rich, given that I think Q13 has a water theme, I’m sticking with the catoblepas (with its heavy head hanging down) rather than the armadillo – given that even Leonardo wrote that the catoblepas was found at the Nigricapo [the source of the Niger river], it was very much part of the mental landscape of the Florentine Quattrocento.

(2) And another big hello to (the apparently email-address-less?) “acevoynich” and [his/her] eponymic “acevoynich’s blog“. Though given [his/her] apparent inability to find Cipher Mysteries, the Voynich Manuscript Mailing List, The Journal of Voynich Studies, voynich.nu, the Voynich Wikipedia site, the Voynich dmoz entry, etc (let alone D’Imperio or The Curse) I have to say I’m somewhat dubious that [he/she] is, as [he/she] claims, actually writing a “thesis”. Does [he/she] really have a research question in mind, or is [he/she] just a [troll/trollette]? Hmmm…

Still, acevoynich feels confident to ask the five key W-questions of the big V-manuscript: who, what, where, when, why. Again, I refer the honourable member to my previous answer: and add that until such time as we have the forensic side (the “What happened?” question) considerably more locked down than it is at the present, I suspect that these W’s are (sad as it is) actually more harmful than helpful. Oh well! 🙁

A highly surprising message just arrived here at Cipher Mysteries from our Chaocipher Clearing House chum Moshe Rubin:-

Is your readership aware that NSA has placed the entire text [of Mary D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma”] on its site?

I couldn’t find the link on your site so here it is!

This is a great find, highly recommended for all Voynich researchers – if you haven’t read it already, download it straight away! Having said that, even though it took me six attempts to download it completely (doubtless they were tracert’ing me to see if I just happened to be a terrorist, bless ’em), I did get it all in the end. But please let me know if this happens to get removed (which is always possible).

Incidentally, this is just one of a number of cryptological history publications the NSA has kindly made available on its website. The 2007 article by John Clabby on Brigadier John Tiltman (“A Giant Among Cryptanalysts“) is also well worth looking at (though not nearly so essential as D’Imperio, naturally).

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?

Sometimes a passing comment can open up a brief window onto an otherwise lost world. A 2002 email I made to the VMs mailing list I stumbled upon earlier today brought to mind one such instance, and six years on I found myself wondering just what had been said, what had been going on in a very particular context. Let’s start with the email, which quoted Mary D’Imperio’s book “An Elegant Enigma” (as copied by Luis Velez):-

A.W. Exell, in his letter to Tiltman, August 1957, refers to a theory (not further specified) that early Arabic numerals were built on from one, two, three, four or more
strokes in a similar Oriental manner; he suggests a sketchy and incomplete correspondence between Voynich symbols and conventional numerals along these lines. No one has, to my knowledge, worked out a “stroke” theory of this kind in sufficient detail to test it out as a hypothesis
(p.24)

Of course, D’Imperio’s work was built squarely on Tiltman’s foundations, so it’s entirely unsurprising that a letter to Tiltman should end up in it. Yet Exell was a botanist working at the Natural History Museum: so what was he doing talking about possible Arabic numerals in the VMs?

I followed up the post with a short post about ladybirds (the subject of Exell’s final book in 1991), somewhat amused by the fact they are known to Italians as “The Devil’s Chicken”, concluding that Exell died some time after 1991. But far more information is quickly available now than was the case in 2002 (though no English-language Wikipedia page): for example, the Natural History Museum archives have this to say about him:-

  • Exell; Arthur Wallis (1901-1993); Botanist in the Department of Botany;
    2nd class assistant 11 Aug 1924
    1st class assistant keeper 1934
    Deputy keeper 1950
    Retired 1962

So at the time of the 1957 letter, Exell was the NHM’s Deputy Keeper in the Department of Botany, having worked there for 33 years (more than half his life).

What fascinates me about all this is the notion that a whole group of people probably linked to the Natural History Museum (of which Exell was merely one) must surely have been looking at the VMs circa 1955-1957. Perhaps if someone looked at Exell’s correspondence from around that date (at least some of which is held in the NHM’s archives), a whole “invisible college” of Voynicheros might well present itself.

This isn’t just an academic exercise on my part: I genuinely believe that the kind of broad (yet classical) education you would need to understand the VMs has become a rare thing in modern education, to the point that there may be plenty we can learn from what Exell and his friends thought about the VMs. In fact, I would argue that probably the most useful writer on the subject is Lynn Thorndike (and he died in 1965). Is it coz we are too modern to unnerstand it?

I suppose this is the review I’ve spent two years steeling myself for. No matter what book critics may say, reviewing other people’s books is an easy word-game to play (typically revolving around inserting themselves into the commentary): whereas putting your own writing under the same spotlight is something closer to therapy. What, with the benefit of hindsight, do I now make of “The Curse of the Voynich“?

"The Curse of the Voynich", by Nick Pelling
“The Curse of the Voynich”, by Nick Pelling

Firstly, the title didn’t work. To an avowedly rationalist commentator such as myself, a “curse” is merely a kind of game a community plays with itself when its members all willfully look away from the ball while wondering why nothing is moving. Fair enough: but the Voynich’s own mythology is so close to fiction that the word’s far stronger associations with literary curses (the Curse of Blackadder, for example) predominates. This means that people’s first reaction is normally to wonder whether the book is some kind of curious historical fiction: so, a bit of an own-goal there.

Secondly, the cover didn’t work: Alian Design did an excellent job of interpreting the brief I sent them, and produced something that was evocative and uncertain in all the ways I intended. But, again, people have a low tolerance for uncertainty: and typically “read” the cover as somehow implying that the book lacks focus. Cover art has a rigidly defined set of conventions, which publishers (even small ones) can only pragmatically subvert, not replace: the absence of a picture of the VMs on the cover (quite literally) sent out the wrong message to buyers. This was own-goal #2.

Thirdly, the editing didn’t work. Though my friend Tabby Magas splendidly subedited my clausally-complex original draft, the overwhelming pay-per-page commercial model for digital print meant that I was forced to squeeze the whole thing into under 240 pages to keep the final price under £10 – roughly a hundred less pages than the content dictated. More pictures to support the visual arguments would have been nice, but these too used up too much of my limited page budget. And so the writing suffered.

Fourthly, the content didn’t work. Even though modern historians now routinely make use of a hugely multi(ple-)media set of influences / evidences when forming their arguments and discussions, few would dare to take on the Voynich Manuscript as a subject because of the overwhelming variety of strands that would need tackling and integrating (let alone try to draw a conclusion based on such a multi-disciplinary approach). “The Curse” set out to build an entirely new research field: while it is true that many elements of “forensic codicology” had been carried out before, I was trying to bring them all together in perhaps the most concerted way yet attempted. Essentially, I was trying to do to the many historical methodologies what mechatronics did for mechanical engineering and electronics – bring them together in parallel and direct their focus on a tangible problem. But, almost inevitably, this was too ambitious a project – to do this properly would require an entire history department, not some baldy bloke in his second bedroom with a wallful of old books, no matter how persistent he happens to be.

Finally, nobody wanted an answer. People inside the Voynich research field seem blissfully content with the irascible status quo that lays upon everything like a stifling smog: feathers get hugely ruffled if anyone so much as suggests a century for the manuscript, let alone a country, town, or (heaven forfend) an individual, never mind if they try to back it up with anything approaching an argument. At the same time, few VMs outsiders have any great interest in such questions: to most people, it’s just a historical curiosity (if, indeed, it is anything at all).

I also received some hostility about my openness to Steve Ekwall’s claims: yet only three people had written anything particularly cogent about the VMs (Rene Zandbergen and Mary D’Imperio were the other two). To me, Steve Ekwall poses a greater mystery then the VMs itself: while I have a rational explanation for everything in the VMs, I have no such explanation for Steve Ekwall. All I can do is observe that his claims about what the VMs actually is do chime to a remarkable degree with what it took me years to grasp, despite the fact that he apparently has no useful art historical grasp of the object at all. And your own rationalization for all that is… what, exactly? Of course, I could (just like everyone else does) simply pretend Steve doesn’t exist: but what is there to be scared of?

No matter: probably the biggest single criticism of my book project is that I exceeded the amount that readers could accept all in one go – it was all too much, all too soon. Yet even if (as is always possible in historical research) the whole Averlino hypothesis is somehow proven wrong, I’m pretty sure I will turn out to be at least “the right kind of wrong” – looking in the right place for the right evidence for the right reasons should be nothing to be ashamed of. In time, people will doubtless catch up and overtake me, to the point that everything in “The Curse” will stop looking like some kind of mad hallucinatory multi-dimensional take on an enigmatic Renaissance curio, and instead become high historical orthodoxy. When you’re ready, I’ll still be here.

Anyway, here’s the first punchline of the day: a brief appendix to “The Curse” that you probably weren’t expecting.

Following my recent post on Giovanni Fontana, Augusto Buonafalce kindly pointed me towards a recent single-page note he wrote for Cryptologia, suggesting that a memory machine called a “speculum” (resembling a set of concentric disks with alphabets on) designed by Giovanni Fontana might well have somehow inspired Leon Battista Alberti’s famous code wheel. But how did that idea travel? In the Quattrocento, hardly anybody knew about Giovanni Fontana’s secret works – even his encyclopedia (composed around 1450) didn’t appear in print for a further century.

In my book, I argued that when Antonio Averlino left Milan in 1465, he went to Rome, and was there when Alberti was researching and writing his little book on ciphers. I further argued that Alberti’s book has a dialogue-like summary of his debate with a different cryptographer (who, like Averlino, favoured transposition ciphers over substitution ciphers), which I argued was probably Averlino. That is to say, I concluded that the two men were probably looking at revolving cipher machinery at the same time and place. In much the same way that I don’t believe three Dutchmen independently invented the telescope at the same time, I don’t believe that Averlino and Alberti both happened to invent revolving cipher machinery at the same time and place – I believe that they were at least aware of each other, if not actually working in some kind of edgy collaboration.

But how might the idea of a “speculum” have travelled to Rome? Fontana lived until 1454, probably in Padua or nearby Venice – yet we can directly place Averlino in Venice and Padua in 1450 and 1461. What are the odds that the secrets-hungry Averlino, broadly the same kind of freelance “travelling master” as Andrea Mantegna, learned of Fontana’s mnemonic wheel directly from Fontana himself in Padua, and then brought the idea with him to Alberti in Rome? In the absence of any better information, this is now what I believe probably happened.

The odds that the secretive (and secrets-obsessed) Averlino was the person behind the VMs have already been shortened, thanks to my recent discovery (from a brief mention by Lynn Thorndike) that Averlino showed off his elegant (but now lost) herbal written in the vulgar tongue in Bergamo – and if there is a better candidate for the plaintext of the VMs’ herbal pages, I have yet to find it.

So now, here’s the second punchline of the day, which is, frankly, as hallucinatory as anything I’ve encountered.

One thing Steve Ekwall repeats over and over is the VMs’ enciphered text’s reliance on the “mirror”. The problem is that Steve has no idea what that actually means – basically, what could a “mirror” be in this kind of context? Somewhat disturbingly, the Latin for mirror is “speculum“. Could it be that it is Fontana’s letter-rearranging “speculum” that Steve Ekwall has been referring to all these years? Myself, I wouldn’t really like to say – but it’s a coincidence that makes me shudder at the thought.

My final bombshell of the day is that all of this basically closes the loop for my whole research programme – that, within the limits of the evidence currently available, I feel I have performed as complete an intellectual pathology on the VMs as is currently possible, which sharply reduces my level of curiosity about it.

I’m therefore now taking a long-term break, both from the VMs and from the blog (though please stay subscribed, as I shall still occasionally post book reviews). I’ll leave my various research leads (on dating, on f57v, and on the zodiac section) open for another day, they’ll probably still be there when I return. 🙂

But all the same, let me know if you find anything good!

Even though people often assert (rather lazily) that the Voynich Manuscript is the only artefact ‘of its kind’, this is false, because there are plenty of similar documents. For the most part, the significant difference is merely one of scale, not of type – for example, the similar enciphered Quattrocento documents that do exist are neither as well-encrypted nor as large as the VMs.

The critical concept here is, of course, similarity: for Art History is a discipline built around discerning similarities between artefacts not just in terms of content [i.e. that-which-is-being-represented], but also in terms of style, gesture, technique, and approach (though, as Charles Hope points out, this falls over when art historians reconstruct an underlying linking mythology that wasn’t originally there). So, putting our art historian hats on, what are the best matches for the Voynich Manuscript?

Of the various Quattrocento enciphered manuscripts, the ones that really leap out are the books of secrets by Giovanni Fontana, for which the best edition by far is Battisti and Battisti’s (1984) “Le Macchine Cifrate di Giovanni Fontana”. This includes Latin decipherments of the passages in (simple monoalphabetic) cipher, together with a parallel translation into precise modern Italian. My Italian comprehension remains only middling, so making a suitably careful reading of this remains more of a long-term project for me than a short-term one.

Fontana’s manuscripts trace a merry criss-cross pattern across the map of my research interests: ciphers, fountains, alchemy, cars, weapons, and even optics. For the last of these, it was interesting to see folio 70r of Fontana’s Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber reproduced by Sven Dupre in a recent paper: the Latin plaintext says “Apparentia nocturna ad terrorem videntium“, while the Latin ciphertext reads “Habes modum cum lanterna quam propriis oculis[ocolis] vidi<i>sti ex mea manu fabricatam et proprio ingenio“.

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 70r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 70r

Also optically interesting are the mirrors on folio 41v “Speculum ingeniosum et admirabile, cuius una pars super alteram ducitur, et clauditur quando opport<et>. Et ex calibe fit ad formam hanc cum foraminibus incident<i>e radiorum, Ymagines aparent deformes, turtuose, inequales, ambigue. Sed eius compositio hic aliter non describitur, nisi sub brevita<te>, ita ut me intelligas. Pars comcava fit sicud specculum combustivum archimed[ni]dis, convexa vero sicud speculum meum de multiplicate formarum.

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 41v and 42r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 41v and 42r

But I suspect that it is Voynich researchers who will have most to gain from Battista & Battista’s wide-ranging scholarship. For sheer similarity with the balneological / water section, few would surely disagree with the nymphs bathing in the “Fons Virginum” on folio 43v, with the fountain on folio 31r, and particularly with the “Fons Venetus” (also with a water nymph!) on folios 22v and 23r. [Note to self: remember to get a copy of Frank D. Prager’s “Fontana on Fountains“, Physis XIII, 4, 1971, p.347.]

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 43v
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 43v

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 31r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 31r

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 22v and 23r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 22v and 23r

As with the VMs, even though some adjacent folios are definitely in the correct order (such as folios 59v and 60r), I do wonder whether the page order has at least been partially scrambled: to my eyes, the rocket-powered roller-skateboard on folio 16v really ought to sit opposite the rabbit on a rocket-powered roller-skateboard on folio 37r (my favourite Fontana drawing!)

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 59v and 60r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folios 59v and 60r

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 16v
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 16v

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 37r
Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber, folio 37r

In short, there are plenty of similarities between Fontana’s enciphered book of secrets and the Voynich Manuscript: the key difference between the two is simply that heavyweight art historians take the former seriously, but the latter cum grano salis.

What I’m trying to do (in my own slow way) is to construct a proper art historical account of the VMs – a Battista & Battista for the VMs, if you like. However, with only Rene Zandbergen’s site and D’Imperio’s “An Elegant Enigma” to rely upon, this is really quite a daunting challenge, particularly because (as the absence of reaction to my first book would seem to imply) even Voynich researchers appear not to be interested in this kind of research programme. Perhaps because this looks too much like hard work?

I would even go so far as to say that anyone interested in the art history of the VMs should buy a copy of Battista & Battista’s book, simply because of the wealth of notes and thoughts embedded throughout it, nearly all focused on the right kind of areas. There are a few non-stratospherically-priced copies on BookFinder… so what are you waiting for? 🙂

Having just bought a print-on-demand copy of John Wilkins’ book “Mathematical Magick: Or The Wonders That may be Performed by Mechanical Geometry“, I found that it was (mostly) placed online in 2006 as part of “The Mathematical and Philosophical Works of the Right Rev. John Wilkins“, (re-)published in 1802 – there’s a free version on Google Books, available for free download here. If you go to page 247, you can also see his 1668 essay on a philosophical language which D’Imperio mentions in her section 9.3 “Pasigraphy: Universal and Synthetic Languages”.
All the same, because I was interested in the “perpetual lamp” section of Wilkins’ “Mathematical Magick”, and the online text version was somewhat flawed, I thought I’d post a more usable/readable version here of Book 2 Chapter 10 (page numbers as per “Mathematical Magick”). PS: I like the animated statue story on p.237: it has a proper Indiana Jones feel to it! 🙂
[p.232]
C A P. X.
Of subterraneous lamps : divers historical relations concerning their duration for many hundred years together.

Unto this kind of Chymical experiments, we may most probably reduce those perpetual lamps, which for many hundred years together have continued burning without any new supply in the sepulchres of the Ancients, and might (for ought we know) have remained so for ever. All fire, and especially flame, being of an active and stirring nature, it cannot therefore subsist without motion; whence it may seem, that this great enquiry hath been this way accomplished: And therefore it will be worth our examination to search further into the particulars that concern this experiment. Though it be not so proper to the chief purpose of this discourse, which concerns Mechanical Geometry; yet the subtility

[p.233]
and curiosity of it, may abundantly requite the impertinency.
There are sundry Authors who treat of this Subjection by the by, and in some particular passages, but none that I know of (except Fortunius Licetus) [margin: Lib. de reconaitis antiquarum Lucernis] that hath writ purposely any set and large discourse concerning it: out of whom I shall borrow many of those relations and opinions, which may most naturally conduce to the present enquiry.
For our fuller understanding of this, there are these particulars to be explained:
1. οτι, or quod sit.
2. δίοτι, / cur sit. / quomodo sit.

1. First then, for the οτι, or that there have been such lamps, it may be evident from sundry plain and undeniable testimonies: Saint Austin [margin: De Civit. Dei. l. 21 cap.6] mentions one of them in a Temple dedicated to Venus, which was always exposed to the open weather, and could never be consumed or extinguished. To him assents the judicious
[p.234]
Zanchy. Pancyrollus mentions a Lamp found in his time [margin: De deperd. Tit. 35. De operibus Dei, part 1. l. 4. c. 12.], in the sepulcher of Tullia, Cicero’s daughter, which had continued there for about 1550 years, but was presently extinguished upon the admission of new air. And it is commonly related of Cedrenus, that in Justinian‘s time there was another burning lamp found in an old wall at Edessa [margin: Or Antioch. Licetus de Lucernis, l. 1. c. 7.], which had remained so for above 500 years, there being a crucifix placed by it, whence it should seem, that they were in use also amongst some Christians.
But more especially remarkable is that relation celebrated by so many Authors, concerning Olybius his lamp, which had continued burning for 1500 years. The story is thus: as a rustic was digging the ground by Padua, he found an Urn or earthen pot, in which there was another Urn, and in this lesser, a lamp clearly burning; on each side of it there were two other vessels, each of them full of a pure liquor; the one of gold, the other of silver. Ego chymice artis,

[p.235]

(simodo vera potest esse ars Chymia) jurare ausim elementa & materiam omnium, (saith Maturantius, who had the possession of these things after they were taken up.) On the bigger of these Urns there was this inscription:

[p.236]

Plutoni sacrum munus ne attingite fures.
Ignotum est vobis hoc quod in orbe latet,
Namque elementa gravi clausit digesta labore.
Vase sub hoc modico,
Maximus Olybius.
Adsit faecundo custos sibi copia cornu,
Ne tanti pretium depereat laticis.

The lesser urn was thus inscribed:

 

Abite hinc pessimi fures,
Vos quid vultis, vestris cum oculis emissitiis?
Abite hinc vestro cum Mercurio
Petaesato Caduceatoque,
Donum hoc maximum,
Maximus Olybius
Plutoni sacrum facit.

Whence we may probably conjecture that it was some Chymical secret,

 

by which this was contrived.
Baptista Porta [margin: Mag. Natural. l.12. c.ult.] tells us of another lamp burning in an old marble sepulcher, belonging to some of the ancient Romans, inclosed in a glass vial, found in his time, about the year 1550, in the Isle Nesis, which had been buried there before our Saviour’s coming.
In the tomb of Pallas, the Arcadian who was slain by Turnus in the Trojan war, there was found another burning lamp, in the year of our Lord 1401. [margin: Chron. Martin Fort. licet. de lucern. l.1 c.11] Whence it should seem, that it had continued there for above two thousand and six hundred years: and being taken out, it did remain burning, notwithstanding either wind or water, with which some did strive to quench it ; nor could it be extinguished till they had spilt the liquor that was in it.
Ludovicus Vives tells us of another lamp, that did continue burning for 1050 years, which was found a little before his time. [margin: Not. ad August. de.Civit.Dei, l.21.c.6]
Such a lamp is likewise related to

[p.237]

be seen in the sepulchre of Francis Rosicross, as is more largely expressed in the confession of that fraternity.
There is another relation of a certain man, who upon occasion digging somewhat deep in the ground did meet with something like a door, having a wall on each hand of it; from which having cleared the earth, he forced opon this door, upon this there was discovered a fair Vault, and towards the farther side of it, the statue of a man in Armour, sitting by a table, leaning upon his left arm, and holding a scepter in his right hand, with a lamp burning before him; the floor of this Vault being so contrived, that upon the first step into it, the statue would erect itself from its leaning posture ; upon the second step it did lift up the scepter to strike, and before a man could approach near enough to take hold of the lamp, the statue did strike and break it to pieces. Such care was there taken that it might not be stolen away, or discovered.
Our learned Cambden in his description [margin: pag. 572]

[p.238]

of Yorkshire, speaking of the tomb of Constantius Chlorus, broken up in these later years, mentions such a lamp to be found within it.
There are sundry other relations to this purpose. Quod ad lucernas attinet, illae in omnibus fere monumentis inveniuntur, (saith Jutherius). In most of the ancient Monuments there is some kind of lamp, (though of the ordinary sort): But those persons who were of greatest note and wisdom, did procure such as might last without supply, for so many ages together. Pancirollus tells us, [margin: De perdit. Ti o2] that it was usual for the nobles amongst the Romans, to take special care in their last wills, that they might have a lamp in their Monuments. And to this purpose they did usually give liberty unto some of their slaves on this condition, that they should be watchful in maintaining and preserving it. From all which relations, the first particular of this enquiry, concerning the being or existence of such lamps, may sufficiently appear.

I’ve been debating giving a talk on the Voynich Manuscript at Treadwell’s, but I keep coming back to the same problem – what angle should I take?

For me, while its content is occulted (“hidden”), it’s not really an occult object per se. (Well, apart from the magic circles, and they were pretty mainstream natural magic circa 1450). And it’s neither religious, nor sacrilegious, nor nonsensical, nor a conspiracy, nor a hoax.

In short, if some well-meaning rationalist has stripped away the terror, the fantasies, the heresies, the necromancy, the madness and the delusion, would anyone want to hear about that which remains – an object that is just ordinary (albeit extraordinarily well disguised)?

And similarly: in the whole process of re-writing my book, the hardest chapter to tackle has been (and continues to be) the very first chapter: yet in the first edition, this was the easiest (probably because it was mainly a high-speed roll-call of the VMs’ post-1600 history).

These days, I’m reluctant to waste any of my readers’ time on any of the could-be might-be nonsense that most VMs writers (such as Kennedy and Churchill, D’Imperio to a large degree, and the Wikipedia entry almost entirely) tend to fill their entire works with. Rather, my interest lies in the dogged hunt for the-thing-that-the-VMs-is, whatever it turns out to be – and that’s the quest I want to take my readers on, too.

And so in the revised first edition, Chapter 1 will have almost no pussyfooting provenance, but will instead launch straight into the very specific art history evidence that places the VMs at a certain place and time – Northern Italy circa 1450.

And so in many ways, I’d like to run my talk just about the art history of the VMs (like a try-out of Chapter One) – but in other ways, perhaps I should talk about the VMs’ curious cultural channelers (such as Dan Burisch, Terence McKenna, Colin Wilson, David Icke, and so on) whose streams/dreams sometimes tend to hog this blog.

I can’t do both at the same time – but which should I do? What do you think?

A couple of emails just in from Voynich novelists: it’s so much nicer to hear about stuff before it happens, rather than haphazardly 6+ months later (sadly the de facto standard for the Internet).

Firstly, Richard Douglas Weber writes to tell me that his Voynich novel is now very well advanced, and that (though I’m exaggerating a tad) it has a VMs-related plot device that will hopefully jolt me out of my novel-reading seat. I’m really looking forward to this!

(As an aside, the last thing that nearly made me choke on my own intestines with surprise was the “canape” sequence in the “Ali G Indahouse” movie. But perhaps I should say no more about that, aiii…)

Richard came to the Voynich Manuscipt sideways while researching a Dee/Kelley/Enochian writing project, but which then got stalled. When it later restarted, the Dee/Kelley angle got dropped while the VMs took centre stage. Unlike many “Voynichologists” out there (*sigh*), he had taken the time to read Mary D’Imperio’s “Elegant Enigma” (good for him!), though he felt it only really amounted to “a long rehash of everything that was conjectured”… (errrm, it’s not that long, is it?) All of which is fair enough: we’ll all have to wait for his final book to see what angle he takes on the VMs…

I should say that though D’Imperio affects impartiality, if you read “Elegant Enigma” carefully, you can find quite a few places where her actual opinion of the VMs sneaks in. I think it is the structure of Voynichese that particularly fascinated her, the siren singing that pulled her ship toward the manuscript. For example, on p.11 she writes of its “architectonic … quality“, and that “I gain a persistent impression of the presence of rules and relationships, a definite structure with its own “logic”, however erratic and bizarre it might appear when compared to present-day concepts. The intricate compound forms in the script and its matter-of-fact, rather austere style all confirm this impression of craftsmanlike and logical construction in my mind“, before going on to describe the “persistent tectonic element of style in the drawings.” This basic idea recurs on p.16 and elsewhere.

Secondly, Bill Walsh emailed with news of his own Voynich-homage novel with a supernatural twist. It wouldn’t be fair to say more than that at this early stage – even in these electronic times, getting from pitch to draft to agent to publisher to marketing to production to retailer to reader is as slow (and tricky) as it was a century ago. But having now seen some of his writing (which I found sparky and enjoyable), I really wish him the very best luck in taking it further.

Finally, I’ve just picked up a copy of A.W.Hill’s ‘Stephan Raszer’ novel “Enoch’s Portal” (2001), which allegedly has its own supernatural take on the Voynich Manuscript. I’ll post a review here once I’ve imbibed its intriguing mix of “visionary doses of Renaissance magic, Kabbalah and sacramental sex” (according to the back cover, anyway)…