To get 2012 rolling, I thought you might like to know that Walter Grosse has just started an English-language blog about his Voynich Manuscript theory.

Briefly, he proposes that each Voynichese ‘word’ super-verbosely enciphers a digit, based purely on the number of letters it contains. So, the first six words of page f1r (in EVA: “fachys ykal ar ytaiin shol shosy”) is [=5] y.k.a.l [=4] a.r [=2] y.t.a.i.i.n [=6] sh.o.l [=3] sh.o.s.y [=4], i.e. “542634”. By then assigning (somehow) a set of Greek letters to each verbosely enciphered digit, Grosse generates a list of permuted words, and then chooses the one that makes most sense. In this case, “542634” turns out to be two 3-letter words (“542” and “634”), which he reads as σαν ετι, i.e. “As yet”.

Inevitably, though, it seems (from other posts) that he’s experiencing difficulty applying this same ambiguous cipher-breaking methodology to other pages, because he has posted lists of permutation tables followed by the rather dour phrase “0 possibilities”.

In some ways, it’s fascinating to see how old ideas keep coming round in slightly different guises. Brumbaugh similarly converted Voynichese to digits (though not so extraordinarily verbosely, it has to be said), and tried to salvage text from the resulting digit stream, though ultimately accepting somewhat grudgingly that the digit stream was not meaningful. Claude Martin travelled much the same path as Brumbaugh, proposing instead that it was constructed from a deliberately nonsensical digit stream. In my opinion, both Brumbaugh’s and Martin’s digit stream theories explained nothing whatsoever about the nature and structure of Voynichese, and so have nothing to commend them: and σαν ετι I don’t see any reason why I should think differently about Grosse’s superverbose digit stream theory. Sorry to have to point it out, but “it’s like that, that’s the way it is”.

So there is also a depressing fatalism to Voynich theories: that if you wait long enough, someone will inevitably build a contemporary doppelganger of William Romaine Newbold’s ink-craquelure Latin shorthand pareidoiliac theory, or indeed any other theory you may have already seen. Feeling desperate to see yet another Hebrew Voynich theory? Have no fear, like London buses there’ll doubtless be one along any minute. As my grandfather used to chortle, “Aldgate East, Aldgate aht!” 😉

For the most part, constructing plausible explanations for the drawings in the Voynich Manuscript is a fairly straightforward exercise. Even its apparently-weird botany could well be subtly rational (for example, if plants on opposite pages swapped their roots over in the original binding, in a kind of visual anagram), as could the astronomy, the astrology, and the water / balneology quires (if all perhaps somewhat obfuscated). Yet this house of oh-so-sensible cards gets blown away by the hurricane of oddness that is the Voynich Manuscript’s nine-rosette page.

If you’re not intrigued by this, you really do have a heart of granite, because of all the VMs’ pages, this is arguably the most outright alien & Codex Seraphinianus-like. Given the strange rotating designs (machines?), truncated pipes, islands, and odd causeways, it’s hard to see (at first, second and third glances) how this could be anything but irrational. Yet even so, those who (like me) are convinced that the VMs is a ‘hyperrational’ artefact are forced to wonder what method there could be to this jumbled visual madness. So: what’s the deal with this page? How should we even begin to try to ‘read’ it?

People have pondered these questions for years: for example, Robert Brumbaugh thought that the shape in the bottom left was a “clock” with “a short hour and long minute hand”. However, now that we have proper reproductions to work with, his claim seems somewhat spurious, for the simple reason that the two “hands” are almost exactly the same length. Mary D’Imperio (1977) also thought the resemblance “superficial”, noting instead that “an exactly similar triangular symbol with three balls strung on it occurs frequently amongst the star spells of Picatrix, and was used by alchemists to mean arsenic, orpiment, or potash (Gessman 1922, Tables IV, XXXIII, XXXXV)” (3.3.6, p.21).

Back in 2008, Joel Stevens suggested that the rosettes might represent a map, with the top-left and bottom-right rosettes (which have ‘sun’ images attached to them) representing East and West respectively, and with Brumbaugh’s “clock” at the bottom-left cunningly representing a compass in the form of the point of an arrow pointing towards Magnetic North. You know, I actually rather like Joel’s idea, because it at least explains why the two “hands” are the same length: and given that I suspect that there’s a hidden arrow on the “bee” page and that many of the water nymphs may be embellished diagrammatic arrows, one more hidden arrow would fit in pretty well with the author’s apparent construction style.

This same idea (but without Joel’s ‘hidden compass’ nuance) was proposed by John Grove on the VMs mailing list back in 2002. He also noted that many of “the words appear to be written as though the reader is walking clockwise around the map. The words inside the roadway (when there are some) also appear to be written this way (except the northeast rosette by the castle).” I’ve underlined many of the ’causeway labels’ in red above, because I think that John’s “clockwise-ness” is a non-obvious piece of evidence which any theory about this page would probably need to explain. And yes, there are indeed plenty of theories about this page!

In 2006, I proposed that the top-right castle (with its Ghibelline swallowtail merlons, ravellins, accentuated front gate, spirally text, circular canals, etc) was Milan; that the three towers just below it represented Pavia (specifically, the Carthusian Monastery there); and that the central rosette represented Venice (specifically, an obfuscated version of St Mark’s Basilica as seen from the top of the Campanile). Of course, even though this is (I think) remarkably specific, it still falls well short of a “smoking gun” scientific proof: so, it’s just an art history suggestion, to be safely ignored as you wish.

In 2009, Patrick Lockerby proposed that the central rosette might well be depicting Baghdad (which, along with Milan and Jerusalem, was one of the few medieval cities consistently depicted as being circular). Alternatively, one of his commenters also suggested that it might be Masijd Al-Haram in Mecca (but that’s another story).

Also in 2009, P. Han proposed a link between this page and Tycho Brahe’s “work and observatories”, with the interesting suggestion that the castle in the top-right rosette represents Kronborg Slot (which you may not know was the one appropriated by Shakespeare for Hamlet), with the centre of that rosette’s text spiral representing the island of Hven where Brahe famously had his ‘Uraniborg’ observatory. Kronborg Slot was extensively remodelled in 1585, burnt down in 1629 and then rebuilt: but I wonder whether it had swallowtail merlons when it was built in the 1420s? Han also suggests that other features on the page represent Hven in different ways (for example, the three towers marked ‘PAVIA?’ above); that the pipes and tall structures in the bottom-right rosette represent Tycho’s ‘sighting tubes’ (a kind of non-optical precursor to telescopes); that one or more of the mill-like spoked structures represent(s) Hven’s papermill’s waterwheel; and that the central rosette represents the buildings of Uraniborg (for which we have good visual reference material). Han’s central hypothesis (on which more another day!) is that the VMs visually encodes information about various supernovae: the suggestion here is that the ‘hands’ of Brumbaugh’s clock are in fact part of the ‘W-shape’ of Cassiopeia, which sits close in the sky to SN 1572. Admittedly, Han’s portolan-like ‘Markers’ section at the end of the page goes way past my idea of being accessible, but there’s no shortage of interesting ideas here.

Intriguingly, Han also points out the strong visual similarity between the central rosette’s ‘towers’ and the pharma section’s ‘jars’: D’Imperio also thought these resembled “six pharmaceutical ‘jars'”. I’d agree that the resemblance seems far too strong to be merely a coincidence, but what can it possibly mean?

Finally, (and also in 2009) Rich SantaColoma put together a speculative 3d tour of the nine-rosette page (including a 3d flythrough in YouTube), based on his opinion the VMs’ originator “was clearly representing 3D terrain and structures”. All very visually arresting: however, the main problem is that the nine-rosette page seems to incorporate information on a number of quite different levels (symbolic, structural, physical, abstract, notional, planned, referential, diagrammatic, etc), and reducing them all to 3d runs the risk of overlooking what may be a single straightforward clue that will help unlock the page’s mysteries.

All in all, I suspect that the nine-rosette page will continue to stimulate theories and debate for some time yet! Enjoy! 🙂

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… 🙂

Would we recognize the solution to the Voynich Manuscript even if it was right in front of us?

Some people believe that it continues to evade us because our expectations of where we should be looking are wrong: in other words, that, pace Henri Atlan (as quoted by Cornelius Castoriadis), we have got into the habit of looking beneath lampposts for our key because that’s where the light is better. The corollary is that after all this time, the actual solution is more likely to be lurking in the darkness, surely?

I’m not so pessimistic: we “moderns” have managed to use the primary evidence (i.e. that which is disclosed by the manuscript itself) to accrete a fairly substantial body of codicological evidence, which any new theory would need to address. While this hardly amounts to a monoptic “mainstream” viewpoint (just look at the debates I’ve had with Glen Claston), to a very significant degree it isn’t something you can easily brush aside. Yet the fact that Glen and I now broadly agree on most of the evolutionary stages through which the VMs passed en route to its final state is both wonderful (given our long-standing differences) and worrying (because it bolsters any tendency to intolerance).

And so our ongoing challenge is to work out whether our knowledge about the VMs is more solid and advanced than ever before (if we’re basically right), or more fragile and misguided (if we’re basically wrong). Still, we all persist in chipping away at the sheer face, hoping to trigger some kind of epistemological avalanche, whereby removing one tiny stone releases an entire cascade of unexpected evidence. As always, progress remains slow: but is this because the Voynich Manuscript’s encryption system is so hard, or because we’re hacking away at completely the wrong mountain?

Every once in a while, entirely unknown Voynich theorists swing into view: these have often been looking at and thinking about the Voynich Manuscript for years (if not decades), and bring with them a kind of fresh air of hope (privately, many Voynich researchers are jaded and pessimistic, but that’s a bit of a secret), but also fairly unsophisticated claims that we have seen close variants of in the past.

So, in the big scheme of things, Jody Maat’s newly-proposed way of reading the Voynich Manuscript is actually remarkably familiar: his interpretation of Voynichese as a kind of vaguely polyglot “Old Dutch” (it plainly isn’t “Old Dutch” otherwise) reprises Leo Levitov’s claims in very many ways, though you can also find echoes in it of various other Middle European Voynich ‘translation’ claims we’ve seen over the years – for example, Jim Child’s theory and Beatrice Gwynn’s theory.

All the same, just as with Brumbaugh in the 1970s, there are places where Jody’s reading does seem briefly to make sense, as if the pages were lit by a flickering candle: but having myself tried to duplicate his reading on other pages, this only seems to happen once or twice per page – not statistically significant. Just as with Levitov (and with Leonell Strong’s decipherment, to be honest), only by dramatically lowering the quality bar of what you are prepared to accept as “language” does it even remotely make sense.

I have often heard it said that it would somehow ‘make sense’ for a cipher’s plaintext to be written with copious misspellings – because, for example, it was the profusion of stock phrases (such as “HEIL HITLER”, of course) and formulaic weather reports that most helped the Allies crack Enigma. However, to do this to the degree required here would imply an anachronistic level of cryptographic sophistication. And for it to makes sense as a language would require a yet lower quality bar, dipping ever closer to nonsense or babble.

I’m sorry, Jody: for all your desire to read the Voynich Manuscript and the considerable empathy you feel with its subject matter, drawings, and author, I honestly don’t think this is the answer. The subtle genius of the Voynich Manuscript – and this is something that I’ve been pointing out for years – is that it was written in a cipher which had been constructed to resemble an unknown European language. What you are reading, then, is the covertext: the letters on the surface, while the actual meaning swims just beneath.

Please don’t feel bad about your having fallen into a deep intellectual trap – you are in excellent company!

Here’s a nice palaeographic puzzle for you! While looking at some images from a linked pair of Florentine astronomical / astrological manuscripts written circa 1400 (as Voynich researchers inevitably do), I noticed that one had an unknown shorthand (?). So far I’ve only had access to a handful of the pages, so the full document would probably contain several more examples – but the three below should be enough to get you going (click to see a higher-resolution image).


Personally, I’m reminded of the Quattrocento astrological shorthand that Robert Brumbaugh described finding on the back of a manuscript of a Plato text (he was, after all, a Plato scholar, though I don’t know which ms that was), which in turn reminded him of the Voynich Manuscript’s lettering.

The text around it is in Latin, relating to individual signs of the zodiac: and a quick examination reveals that many patterns appear in all three of the fragments. But what does it all mean? Any suggestions?

Has Robert Teague found a sensational astronomical ‘crib’ into the Voynich Manuscript’s ciphertext? Several Voynicheros have asked me to have a look at his claim: normally, this is researcher code for “I think it’s nonsense but I’d like someone else to say it rather than me, because I quite like the guy“, but let’s see what he has to say…

Certainly, Robert’s best-known previous attempt at understanding Voynichese (Teague numbers) didn’t work out particularly well – as I recall, he used the table on f49v’s margin as a basis for linking glyphs to numbers, much as Robert Brumbaugh did back in the 1970s. However, given that there is a powerful palaeographic argument this table was added roughly a century after the VMs was originally made, this is a hugely unreliable thing to be basing anything substantive upon.

So, what of Teague’s 2009 assault? He starts out (in his “Cracks in the Ice I” document) by pointing out what he thinks are seven fuzzy matches to “Aldebaran” across several pages, and so links seven Voynichese letters with their Latin plaintext equivalents. The obvious problem with this is that this basic fuzzy template can also be matched throughout the entire text: and you’d have to admit that the notion of the whole of the VMs’ text’s being about Aldebaran is somewhat unlikely. But it’s possible, of course.

He moves on (in his “Cracks in the Ice II” document) to finding a secondary crib for the star Alcyone: however, because I’m pretty sure that Giovanni Battista Riccioli first named this in his (1665) “Astronomia Reformata“, this is probably not correct. Robert also suggests some anagrammatic cribs for HOLLAND, POLLAN (“Poland”), and LAPLAND, all of which seem historically anachronistic (for example, Holland wasn’t known by that name until the 17th century). He also makes extensive use of some letter substitutions suggested by Philip Neal, but almost certainly not in a way that Philip himself would feel particularly comfortable with. He finishes up with a suggested translation for the so-called “PM curve word” (EVA ‘oalcheol‘) as ‘COBBLED”: this is done by picking one out of 128 possible permutations and then anagramming the result, a kind of wobbly mid-ground between Brumbaugh and Newbold. Why he chose ‘cobbled’ and not (for example) the rather more august 13th century Anglo-Saxon ‘BOLLOCS’ you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Finally, in his “Cracks in the Ice III“, Robert moves on to try to work out the rest of the alphabet, but runs into trouble with the much-used ‘4o’ token, to which he assigns a rather arbitrary set of 14 possible letter pairs. At the end, Robert proposes a set of six 21-letter mappings, and presents them in a mysterious colour-coded table, which (frankly) doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Of course, this is the point in the post where I’m supposed to say something withering, dismissive and ironic to leave readers chortling into their morning cup of coffee: but that’s not even close to what’s going through my mind. Right now, I actually feel a huge sadness that for many people these days this kind of thing is what passes for credible research.

In many ways, the Internet has de-skilled historical research: I can quite imagine that many students would now be able to gain a history degree without ever entering an archive, without learning Latin, and without actually physically engaging with the subject. If you’re only one paltry mouse-click away from a plausible answer, why bother to look any further? Why, then, should we be cross with non-specialist historians who replicate this same behaviour?

What we have here, then, is simply misdirected cryptology built on top of poor history, with substantial similarities to Robert Brumbaugh’s attempts three decades ago. Though Brumbaugh was an extremely able and clever scholar, he nonetheless read the Voynich Manuscript just plain wrong – and this is the “same old same old”.

A new day brings a new Google Adwords campaign from Edith Sherwood (Edith, please just email me instead, it’ll get the word out far quicker), though this time not promoting another angle on her Leonardo-made-the-Voynich-Manuscript hypothesis… but rather a transposition cipher Voynichese hypothesis. Specifically, she proposes that the Voynich Manuscript may well be Italian written in a simple (i.e. ‘monoalphabetic’) substitution cipher, but also anagrammed to make it difficult to read.

Anagram ciphers have a long (though usually fairly marginal) history: Roger Bacon is widely believed to have used one to hide the recipe for gunpowder (here’s a 2002 post I made on it), though it’s not quite as clear an example as is sometimes claimed. And if you scale that up by a factor of 100, you get the arbitrary horrors of William Romaine Newbold’s anagrammed Voynich ‘decipherment’ *shudder*.

More recently, Philip Neal has wondered whether there might be some kind of letter-sorting anagram cipher at play in the VMs: but acknowledges that this suggestion does suffer from various practical problems. I also pointed out in my book that Leonardo da Vinci and Antonio Averlino (‘Filarete’) both used syllable transposition ciphers, and that in 1467 Alberti mentioned other (now lost) kinds of transposition ciphers: a recent post here discussed the history of transposition ciphers in a little more detail.

So: let’s now look at what Edith Sherwood proposes (which is, at least, a type of cryptography consistent with the VMs’ mid-Quattrocento art history dating, unlike many of the more exotic ciphering systems that have been put forward in the past), and see how far we get…

Though her starting point was the EVA letter assignments (with a few Currier glyphs thrown in), she then finessed the letter-choices slightly to fit in with the pharma plant label examples she picked: and there you have it (apart from H, J, K, Q, X, Y, Z and possibly F, which are all missing). All you’d have to do, then, is to anagram the rest of the text for yourself, sell the book rights, and retire to a sea-breezy Caribbean island.


Might Edith Sherwood be onto something with all this? No, not a hope: for example, the letter instance distribution is just plain wrong for Italian, never mind the eight or so missing letters. As with Brumbaugh’s wobbly label-driven decipherment attempts, I somehow doubt you would ever find two plausible adjacent words in the main body of the text. Also: what would a sensible Italian anagram of “qoteedy” (“volteebg”) be?

Her plants are also a little wobbly: soy beans, for example, were only introduced into Europe in the eighteenth century… “galioss” is a bit of a loose fit for galiopsi (not “galiospi”, according to “The Botanical Garden of Padua” on my bookshelf), etc.

As an aside, I rather doubt that she has managed to crack the top line of f116v: “povere leter rimon mist(e) ispero”, “Plain letter reassemble mixed inspire” (in rather crinkly Italian).

All the same, it is a positive step forward, insofar as it indicates that people are now starting to think in terms of Quattrocento dating and the likely presence of non-substitution-cipher mechanisms, both of which are key first steps without which you’ll very probably get nowhere.

My last post on Elmar Vogt’s new blog received a comment from infinitii, asking me for the source for the suggestion that the zodiac motifs may have been copied from a (possibly 14th century) German woodcut calendar. I had long forgotten the story’s origin, but a quick grep through the VMs mailing list archives (the ones before 2002 that aren’t yet on the web) turned up what seems to be the key thread.

Jorge Stolfi began (29Dec2000):-

In the meantime, I remembered I had seen something like the VMS Sagittarius somewhere in the astrological books. And I have found it on the Web – have a look at:

This is from an early (15th c.) German “Planets’ Children” blockbooks (the planets’ children theme was also found in some of the Books of Hours – eg. the most beautiful one of Duc de Berry). The crossbow man looks *very much* like the VMS Sagittarius to me. Also note that the actual Sagittarius in a small circle at the feet of Jupiter above is represented as a man – not a traditional centaur (even though he holds a standard bow).

I think this confirms the 15th c. German origin as stated by Panofsky (a great authority, after all) – at least until a better argument is put forward (I am not convinced by the humanist hand argument and still less by the other Italian origin arguments recently presented by Dana – people were coming to study in Italy from all over Europe and thus
were heavily influenced by Renaissance culture and art).

Rene Zandbergen then replied (30Dec2000) to the last two paragraphs:-

Yes, very ‘block book’ and very German. In Saxl’s ‘Verzeichniss’ other nice examples can be seen.

I’m not yet ready to decide. Is the theme German and the execution Italian? Or in the block book, where the execution is German, the theme of the planets’ children was widespread. The profusely illustrated but otherwise only moderately useful book ‘Alchemie & Mystik’ by Alexander Roob gives a lot of nice examples.

Jorge Stolfi continued (30Dec2000):-

What I meant is that the crossbow man really looks like the VMS Sagittarius and that I have not seen that sign represented by a man rather than a centaur elsewhere. Are there any examples of non-German non-centaur Sagittarius?

Rene Zandbergen responded (30Dec2000):-

He does indeed. I found out I have copies of some illustrations from the same block book (in German) but these are not including Sagittarius.

Certainly, there are German Sagitarii which _are_ centaurs, but that doesn’t really help. I’ll scan a few nice images from a book called ‘Flores Albumasaris’ printed in Augsburg around 1480. They’re woodcuts but allow a nice comparison with some of the VMs images. Sagittarius is a Centaur here.

Then there’s a brief lull, until Rafal Prinke continues the thread (09 Jan 2001) with a number of closely related art historical bombshells:-

I have received a very kind and informative reply from Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow (my repeated apologies to the list I had not written to her earlier). Below is a translation/summary of her letter.


I have inspected the VMS at Beinecke. The signs of the Zodiac do not present problems – they are simply not of the Arateia type but were modernized. As I wrote in my books, because of linguistic mistakes and changes in artistic styles, human figures were represented in contemporary garments (viz. Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius). Attributes were changed in the same way, eg. Sagittarius’ bow developed into a crossbow in the 15th c.

The genre scenes, eg. Aries eating a bush, suggest that the signs were redrawn from a calendar. Garments: the jopulas [?] of men with a belt suggest the 14th/15th c. but headdresses of men (Gemini, Sagittarius) definitively indicate the 15th c. This was common fashion in Europe at that time. The Sagittarius’ cap with fox tail points to Germany – but they were also worn in Poland. I believe that the manuscript can be dated
to mid-15th c. From the astrological iconography point of view, the Taurus at a well is somewhat strange – unless an image of donkeys was a basis for it and then it would refer
to Cancer – but that is certainly going too far.

In my opinion it is a notebook of a liberal arts student. Similar notebooks are Beinecke 225 and 226. The former belonged to Paul de Worczin who studied in Cracow in 1422
(according to the Beinecke catalogue Cracow is in Bohemia!). The latter is also from Cracow.

In our Institute we have a database with descriptions of most of existing medieval zodiacal iconography. I am now preparing a similar database of the iconography of
individual degrees of the Zodiac.


Thus she confirms the opinion of Panofsky (and my own amateurish feeling) that the VMS should be dated to mid-15th Germany/Poland/Bohemia.

The suggestion that it is a student’s notebook is a bit of a revelation to me! Drawing naked ladies and fantastic pipelines during boring lectures is perhaps what they were doing from the dawn of time.

Prof. Sniezynska-Stolot has not addressed the VMS script but I hope to keep in contact with her. Maybe that was some kind of a medieval “beta-kappa” students’ corporation fun popular in Cracow and there are loads of similar manuscripts at the Jagiellonian Library?

Here’s a picture of a [modern] jopula (no, I didn’t know what it was either): basically, it’s a 14th/15th century outer garment made of four pieces plus sleeves, something like a doublet. Looks quite snug! 🙂

Rene Zandbergen picked up on the Sagittarius crossbowman’s hat’s fox tails (11Jan2001):-

Brumbaugh always made a point of stressing that this was a Florentine archer’s hat. Guess in whose opinion I put more trust.

Rafal Prinke then made a related calendaric aside (13Jan2001):

There were 3 styles of beginning the year in March:

1) Venetian – 1st March
2) Florentine and Pisan – 25th March (with a year’s difference)
3) Gallic – Easter Sunday (ie. not always in March)

The Venetian style was also used in Ruthenia (but not in Poland, which used exclusively Christmas and 1st January, along with Germany, Bohemia and Sweden). Russia changed to the Byzantine style in 1492 (1st September), also used in other Orthodox countries and in southern Italy.

The Florentine style was used in England, while the Gallic style – in France and the Netherlands.

So – if we accept the calendaric basis for the VMS Zodiac, it points either to Venice (and thus Northern Italy, which is the favoured hypothesis now) or pre-1492 Ruthenia, which might suggest further possibilities of a connection with Cyrillic, Greek, Georgian, Armenian or Turkish influences on the VMS script and content.

Incidentally, I should also flag this as a good example of how a single small thread in the VMs mailing circa 2000 typically contained more effort, historical research, genuine collaboration and reflective thought than entire months of postings there do now. People sometimes think that I’m perhaps being nostalgic or unrealistic when I talk of the decline of the list: but sadly it’s a very real phenomenon.

Google only finds about ten pages where Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577) is linked with the Voynich Manuscript. Here’s a short research note to fill that gap…

If you look at Mattioli’s CV, you’ll see plenty of echoes with other people linked to the VMs. Though a renowned herbal compiler & writer in his spare time, he was also a physician to the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand II and to Emperor Maximilian II (who was, of course, Rudolph II’s father), which is broadly similar to both Hajek and Sinapius.

Brumbaugh once compared Mattioli’s famous 1544 herbal (the one that Hajek and Handsch translated in 1562/1563) with the VMs’ herbal drawings, and concluded that the two had (I think) at most one half of one plant in common. And so it seems relatively certain there is no connection: neither one is derived from the other, nor do both emanate from a common source.

Yet even though Rene Zandbergen avers demurs in this, I am quite certain (from closely examining it at the Beinecke) that the first word of the faded marginalia at the top of f17r has been emended from “melhor” to read “mattioli“. That is, a later owner (who was probably unable to read Occitan and French) misinterpreted the word as a garbled reference to Mattioli, and decided to correct it on the page.

Marcelo Dos Santos’ page on f17r (in Spanish) mentions much of this. He also mentions Sean Palmer’s assertion that the waterstain on f17r must have happened after the f17r marginalia were added, but before the f116v ‘michitonese’ marginalia: but no, sorry, I don’t accept that idea at all. If you look at the following pages, you can see where the waterstain fades away: it’s a localised piece of damage.

Marcelo also pulls down my suggested link with fennel for the picture on f17r (the one with a pair of “eyes” in the roots): yet he seems not to grasp that there the herbal literature of the late Middle Ages / Renaissance repeatedly connects fennel with eyes – finnochio / occhio in Italian, but similarly in Occitan and other languages. Oh well.

Would having “Expert on the Voynich Manuscript” on your CV significantly raise your perceived intellectuality (i.e. an extra ten grand per year on your salary)? It would? Then read on, and I’ll reveal the secret two-stage process that They don’t want you to find out…

Stage One. You start out by pretending to be a Voynich expert. All you have to know is:

(a) That the two jargon terms for the Voynich Manuscript are “VMs” (because “Ms” or “MS” is short for “manuscript”) and “Beinecke MS 408” (because it’s 408th in the Beinecke Library’s collection of manuscripts);
(b) That the VMs lives at Yale University in New Haven (because that’s what the Beinecke Library is part of); and
(c) That the VMs is a mysterious old handwritten book that nobody can read. Not even me!

If you really want, you can also read the Wikipedia VMs page: but apart from the fact that the Voynich Manuscript was [re]discovered in Italy in 1912 by dodgy book dealer Wilfrid Voynich (hence its name), feel free to basically skip the rest.

Incidentally, if you’re ever asked about anyone who has written about the VMs (Newbold, Brumbaugh, Terence McKenna, anyone really), any real Voynich expert would nod sympathetically and say “Poor old X – if only they had known what we know now“. Of course, this is a big fat lie, because we still know basically sod all about the VMs.

Stage Two. You continue by actually becoming a Voynich expert. This is also easy, as long as you can get a working grasp of the following basic statements:-

  • The VMs was probably made by a right-handed European between 1250 and 1640.
    If post-1622, explain how Jacobus de Tepenecz’s signature got on the front
    If post-1500, explain how 15th century quire numbers got on it
    If pre-1450, explain how Leonardo-style hatching ended up in some of the drawings
  • If the VMs is a language, note that its words don’t function like those in real languages
    If the VMs is a cipher, note that it doesn’t work like any known cipher
    If the VMs is nonsense, note that its letters appears to follow unknown rules
    If the VMs’ plants are botanical, note that most don’t resemble real plants

Now all you have to do is to devise your very own really, really lame signature theory. As long as it amuses you and doesn’t trample on the above dull bullet-points too badly, congratulations – you’re right up there with the big hitters! But how should you construct this new theory?

Actually, it’s quite helpful here to project how you feel about your own work onto how you think the original author(s) felt about the VMs. For example, if you think that your own work is meaningless, vacuous nonsense written solely to convince your employers to pay your wages, then you might try devising your own variant of the basic hoax theory template (which argues that the VMs is meaningless, vacuous nonsense written by [insert name here] solely to convince Emperor Rudolf II to pay a rumoured 600 gold ducats).

But be bold in your theorising! Be creative! Perhaps think of some vaguely Renaissance figure you admire (though Leonardo’s already taken, and he was left-handed anyway, d’oh!) or just happen to remember, preferably someone whose name you can consistently spell correctly. Wafer-thin historical connections to herbal medicine, astrology, astronomy, ciphers and mystery are probably bonuses here. So, Nostradamus would be a good ‘un: Queen Elizabeth I not so good.

But remember, you’re not trying to prove your theory is correct here (for what kind of an idiot would attempt that with such scanty evidence, 500-ish years after the event?) Rather, you’re just staking your claim to the possibility that [random person X] might have been the author. And the level of proof required to achieve that is, frankly, negligible.

And hey, even if you choose the name with a pin and a biographical dictionary, if it eventually turns out that you are right, think how unbearably smug you’ll be. Possibly for decades!

Finally: however bad projecting your own life onto the VMs’ blank canvas may be as an historical approach (and believe me, it lies somewhere between ‘rubbish‘ and ‘pants), it is guaranteed to give you plenty of interestingly ironic things to say about the VMs when you’re asked about it at those hip higher-earner parties you’ll be attending. Oh, and at your book-launch too, naturally. 🙂