In his 1665 letter to Athanasius Kircher accompanying what we now call the Voynich Manuscript, Johannes Marcus Marci wrote [Philip Neal’s translation]:-

Doctor Raphael, the Czech language tutor of King Ferdinand III as they both then were, once told me that the said book belonged to Emperor Rudolph and that he presented 600 ducats to the messenger who brought him the book. He, Raphael, thought that the author was Roger Bacon the Englishman. I suspend my judgement on the matter.

You be the judge of what we should think about it. […]

All very well: but surely this begs a huge question, one that everyone has seemed content to duck for the last century. Let’s not forget that Raphael Sobiehrd-Mnishovsky de Sebuzin & de Horstein was a lawyer, writer, poet, cryptographer, and even a favourite at the Imperial Court: basically, a smart, super-literate, well-connected cookie. So why on earth did he think this odd manuscript had anything whatsoever to do with Roger Bacon, of all people?

Of course, now that we have a 15th century radiocarbon date for the manuscript, Voynich researchers are a little inclined to be sniffy about Bacon, thinking this mostly a sign of Wilfrid Voynich’s personal folly – or, more specifically, WMV’s antiquarian obsession with finding any link that could be proven between his “Roger Bacon Manuscript” and Roger Bacon himself. Perhaps it was WMV’s burning desire that ultimately claimed poor William Romaine Newbold’s life, drained by his pareidoiliac compulsion to reveal its craquelure shorthand, with his friend Lynn Thorndike then unwillingly laying Newbold’s hopeful nonsense to rest.

But all the same, Roger Bacon is mentioned right there in Marci’s letter: and this is one of the very first things we have that describes the Voynich, as well as the manuscript’s earliest provenance link with Rudolf II’s Imperial Court. So why Bacon? What possible candidate explanations have been put forward?

Actually, surprisingly few of any great credibility, it has to be said. Some people have argued (without great enthusiasm) that the manuscript might possibly be a 15th century copy of a lost work by Roger Bacon. However, its tricky cryptography seems light years beyond Bacon’s era, while the near-complete absence of religious imagery (combined with the nakedness of its ‘nymphs’) also seem sharply at odds with Bacon’s monastic severity, let’s say.

In “The Curse of the Voynich” (2006), I speculated [p.219] that Roger Bacon might have been part of a cover story deliberately planted by the original author. Certainly there is reasonable evidence that the Voynich’s cipher alphabet was consciously constructed to look somewhat archaic to mid-fifteenth century eyes: say, 100 to 150 years older than its physical age. Bacon’s familiarity with Arabic sources and even possibly his (alleged) link with alchemy might then have commended him to the real author as a fake author… back then history was a little more forgiving, let’s say, over such issues as authenticity.

However, a key problem with this hypothesis is that many of the previous objections (the lack of religious imagery, the nymphs) apply just as strongly. Moreover, I’m now fairly sure that Bacon only had alchemical works (falsely) ascribed to him many decades later (around 1590-1600), which further weakens the argument. Hence six years on, I’m not so convinced any more… oh well!

And yet Dr Raphael thought it was Bacon ‘wot dun it’. How can that be? What reasonable explanation might there have been for this otherwise inexplicable lapse of judgement? Well, here’s my 2012 attempt to form an Intellectual History account of all this…

Could it be that the link with Roger Bacon wasn’t in the content of the manuscript but in something to do with Bacon’s Franciscan order? Simply put, might the Voynich Manuscript have been owned by Franciscans? Might it have lived in a Franciscan library? Even more specifically, might it have lived in a Franciscan Library not too far from Lake Constance?

I suspect that the deliberately plain brown habit and white belt of a Franciscan or Capuchin monk would have been an unusual sight at the Imperial Court, where the white and black habits of the Benedictine, Cistercian and Augustinian orders were very much more usual. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but Wikipedia’s list of Imperial Abbeys seems not to contain a single Franciscan friary, monastery or convent.

So, might the messenger bearing the Voynich Manuscript have therefore been a Franciscan monk? If it was, then I think Dr Raphael could indeed have reasonably inferred that the author of the Voynich Manuscript might well have been Roger Bacon: for if it was an enciphered manuscript of the right age from a Franciscan library with an unknown early provenance, Roger Bacon’s authorship could well have been a perfectly reasonable inference, and in fact no less wobbly than most of what has generally been passed off as 20th / 21st century Voynich theorizing.

Hence I’m pretty smitten by this Franciscan Voynich Theory: if true, it would explain Dr Raphael’s testimony in a parsimonious and reasonable way, even if it doesn’t actually help us read the manuscript itself. It may also be the case that the back page (f116v) was a little more readable circa 1610: the presence of what looks like “six pax nax vax ahia maria” interspersed with crosses then might have had far more religious import back then than it does to us moderns.

A reasonable next step might well be to start looking for Franciscan libraries in the Lake Constance area circa 1600-1610: I asked the well-respected Franciscan historian Bert Roest where to look next, and he very kindly directed me to the extensive online list of Works/info on medieval and early modern Franciscan libraries he helps maintain. I should mention quickly that it’s, errrm, a bit big.

Does anyone want to kindly volunteer to trawl through it to compile a preliminary list of candidate Franciscan libraries? For example, Bad Kreuznach, Thuringia, Gottingen, and Frankfurt are all in there, but I suspect that these might all be a little bit too far North, while Fribourg was also perhaps a little too far West. I’m not sure if there are many left! Perhaps this would best be done as some kind of Google Maps overlay?

However, I should caution that real history often turns out to be an unexpected anagram of all the things we suspect: that is, all the right ingredients, but arranged in an order that subtly confounds your expectations and carefully laid plans. Here, the historical ingredients are:
* a Franciscan Library
* Lake Constance (i.e. the Bodensee)
* Rudolf II’s Imperial Court
* a Chinese Whispers-like process whereby the original provenance was forgotten over many decades.

Given all that, I did notice one rather intriguing alternative possibility: Lindau, an Imperial Free City on its own island in the Bodensee. This was formed from the core of a Franciscan Library that was given over to the city in 1528 as part of the Protestant Reformation: it’s now part of the Reichsstädtische Bibliothek Lindau. Once again, do I have any volunteers for looking through the library’s early catalogue?

Really, the question comes down to this: might a representative of the Imperial Free City have taken a strange herbal-like book to Prague circa 1605-1610 from the former Franciscan library in Lindau as a splendidly odd gift for Emperor Rudolf II? Personally, I think it’s entirely possible and – best of all – something that might well be checkable against the historical record. Testable history: it’s something I can’t get enough of! 🙂

The next European Skeptics Conference starts in Budapest in a few days’ time (17th-19th September 2010), and features Klaus Schmeh giving a talk on the Voynich Manuscript.

Though Klaus has invested a lot of effort into building up a hardline skeptical position on VMs theories (basically, that more or less everything written on it is either pseudoscience or pseudohistory), I personally don’t think this is particularly fair. Compared to the frankly fantasmagorical literature on the Phaistos Disk or even the wistfully nationalistic fancies floating around the Rohoncz Codex, I’d actually say that the majority of VMs theories do tend to rest on a far less rumpled bed of historical evidence and tortuous historical reasoning (if you put the alien Nazi Atlantean end-times theories to one side).

Yet it is also true that VMs theories also often share the same historical methodological flaw (some people would call it an “antipattern”). What I call the “Big Man” fallacy is the conviction that the only way of constructing a convincing explanation for the VMs would be to weave it into the narrative of a well-known historical (but occult- or cryptography-tinged) personality. As examples of this, you could quickly point to theories name-checking Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, Trithemius,  John Dee, Edward Kelley, Francis Bacon and perhaps even (I’ll say it so that Klaus doesn’t have to) Antonio Averlino.

Of course, the awkward truth about the Renaissance is that for every one half-decent such historical candidate, there were probably a hundred better qualified ones long lost in the fog of time: so the odds are always strongly against anyone succeeding in taking on the Voynich in the absence of proper scientific / codicological data to build upon.

Perhaps this marks the line between cynicism and skepticism I mentioned a few weeks ago: whereas a cynic dismisses any such speculative exercise as a unsupportable waste of effort, a skeptic realizes that the challenge of acquiring proper, revealing historical information is always going to be significant, and so struggles to retain a core of optimism. Is getting to such an extraordinary end line worth precariously balancing optimism and pessimism for? I think so, but… opinions differ! 🙂

OK, moving straight into confessional mode, I feel more than a touch ashamed that I haven’t reviewed Chris Harris’ Mappamundi loooong before now. But… even though I’ve read it twice, I still don’t really know what to say about it. Let me explain…

Sticking to the knitting, it’s a fairly trite starting point to note that it’s an historical adventure, with the main character Thomas Deerham seque(l)strated from the book “False Ambassador”.  In that first book, Harris had his hero travel from England to France to Greece (while trying to travel to the Holy Land) and onwards from there to Morea and finally back to Rome, meeting loads of interesting historical figures (such as Plethon) en route. “Mappamundi” continues in Rome with Deerham’s stealing a Toscanelli mappamundi from his only-just-dead boss (Pope Pius II), before heading fast away north across France. In Paris, he meets the vagabond / poet / trickster François Villon: they cross the Channel & end up in Essex trying it on with an eelwife (please don’t ask). Then they meet Christian Rosenkreutz (yes, really) and steal the Voynich Manuscript, which a thoroughly delighted Rosenkreutz calls one of the “Seven Tomes”. On from there to Cambridge, and Ipswich, and… off to find the lost wisdom of Atlantis, steered by the stars, the mappamundi, the VMs and Rosenkreutz’s clinical madness… and (without giving it all away) onwards from there.

Of all the Voynich novels I know of, you could reasonably argue that Mappamundi sticks closest to what we might expect of the VMs’ pre-1600 provenance. What with its Toulon-Occitan-like zodiac month names, and abbreviated longhand Latin quire numbering that Barbara B claims appears in a herbal rebound in England in the 15th century, and perhaps in England picking up its alleged connection with Roger Bacon; all these details tally reasonably nicely with Harris’ account, some intentionally, some not (I’d predict).

Of course, by now you’ll have worked out that Mappamundi is by no means an airport novel – the absence of (for example) millennia-long secret conspiracies, hidden mountains of ancient gold, mysterious powers over life & death that an unreadable book holds, but which only a Harvard Professor of Assyrian Stuff with eidetic memory can unlock, etc etc should be more than a bit of hint. Nor is it experimental literature (even though it plainly merges real historical figures with hallucinatory ones such as Christian RosenKreutz), nor even Umberto Eco-esque über-erudite historical musings masquerading as high literature.

Actually… when you strip it all back, it’s just a historical romp across Europe, in very much the same kind of line (and indeed roughly the same time-period) as Dorothy Dunnett’s well-known Niccolo Rising series. But whereas I alway got the feeling that Dunnett was trying not to re-write history but rather just to thread her own imagined saga through the countless empty holes in a genuine historical tapestry, the presence of Rosenkreutz and the VMs (and even Atlantis) in Mappamundi moves that book sideways into a rather less clear position.

I suppose what it all comes down to is that Harris’ admixure of the notoriously false with the notoriously uncertain with the manifestly true largely negates the effect of all his careful research: the reader stops trusting the author’s historical eye and empathy. Look, I’m not saying it’s as bad a pseudo-historical trip as Forrest Gump: but it did manage to consistently put me out of my readership comfort zone, which is something you could never accuse Dunnett of, for example.

The awful thing is that Harris’ book-writing craft is so spot-on in so many ways (I get to read countless books by authors whose skills aren’t a patch on his), which makes criticising him for what is only really a kind of implicit epistemological confusion foisted on his readers feel somewhat unjust. But many (if not most) of those same readers will likely have a keen eye for history, and that side of me really didn’t enjoy the ride here.

Ultimately, even though I’m supposed to balance up all these factors and finish the review by rotating my haughty Imperial thumb upwards or downwards, this time around I just don’t know what to do. I loved the Dorothy Dunnett side of it while simultaneously hating the Forrest Gump side of it (which included the ending): and it seemed to oscillate between these two extrema throughout. I guess you’ll have to read it for yourself and make up your own mind, sorry if that sounds like a cop-out. =:-o

When Wilfrid Voynich bought his (now eponymous) manuscript in 1912, it was accompanied by a 1665 letter from Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher. In that, Marci noted three things that Raphael Mnishovsky (King Ferdinand III’s Czech language tutor) had told him about the strange artefact:-

  1. that the said book belonged to Emperor Rudolf
  2. that [Rudolf II] presented 600 ducats to the messenger who brought him the book
  3. that Raphael “thought that the author was Roger Bacon the Englishman

Voynich, perhaps seduced by a private ambition to sell a Roger Bacon manuscript, subsequently insisted that everyone should call it “The Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript”, and even went to the trouble of reconstructing a (probably completely wrong) Anglo-centric provenance based around John Dee’s selling a Roger Bacon manuscript to Emperor Rudolph II. However, since Voynich’s death, the whole notion that Roger Bacon was connected with the VMs has slipped ever further into the background, to the point that no Voynich researcher has considered Bacon a viable possibility for years (if not decades), basically because we all thought 1450 was the earliest workable date for it.

However, with the recent Austrian documentary vellum dating (1405-1438 @ 95% confidence), it seems we may all have been wrong about that. OK, not necessarily by much, but enough to be a tad annoying. Which is why I decided to revisit the whole Roger Bacon / VMs claimed linkage: might there actually be something in it, however tangential?

The first issue to consider is Raphael Mnishovsky’s idea that the VMs had anything to do with Roger Bacon. When did Mnishovsky form or conceive this opinion? There seem to be five main scenarios to consider:

  1. Mnishovsky had seen the VMs pre-1612 at court and had formed that opinion on his own
  2. Mnishovksy had seen the VMs in Jacobus de Tepenecz’s possession
  3. Mnishovksy had seen the VMs in Baresch’s possession
  4. Mnishovsky had seen the VMs in Marci’s possession and had formed that opinion only then
  5. Mnishovsky had not seen the VMs, and was passing on a second-hand opinion

The problem with Scenario #1 is that I don’t think Mnishovsky was quite old enough to have been at Rudolph’s court. Similarly for #2, my understanding is that Mnishovsky was essentially a post-1612 courtier, and de Tepenecz was never close to court after Rudolph II’s death. The problem with #3 is that Baresch doesn’t mention any link with Roger Bacon in his 1637 letter to Kircher: while the problem with #4 is that it seems inconsistent with Marci’s letter (unless I’m subtly misreading it).

Which leads me to point my stick of historical judgment at Scenario #5: and to assert that the manuscript was probably linked to Roger Bacon while still at Rudolph II’s court (though Baresch probably knew nothing of this). Might the VMs have been sold to Rudolph as having been composed by Roger Bacon?

Given that Roger Bacon (genuinely) constructed his own computus and that the first manuscript copies of the famous “Mirror of Alchemy” (Speculum Alchemiae) ascribed (falsely) to him appeared in the fifteenth century, the suggestion that the (early-to-mid-fifteenth century) VMs could also have been (falsely) ascribed to Roger Bacon is hardly that far-fetched. Yes, I agree the claim is false – but where and when did that claim originate?

I wonder… is there a list anywhere of lost (genuine or ascribed) Roger Bacon works? Perhaps there are references to a Roger Bacon herbal in correspondence close to the Imperial court 1600-1612 that might have been overlooked. Something to think about, anyway. 🙂

PS: here’s a 1928 article on Newbold’s claims that recently popped up in JSTOR. Enjoy (the first page, at least)! 🙂

For decades, Voynich Manuscript research has languished in an all-too-familiar ocean of maybes, all of them swelling and fading with the tides of fashion. But now, thanks to the cooperation between the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the documentary makers at Austrian pro omnia films gmbh, we have for the very first time a basic forensic framework for what the Voynich Manuscript actually is, vis-à-vis:-

  • The four pieces of vellum they had tested (at the University of Arizona / Tucson) all dated to 1420-1, or (to be precise) 1404-1438 with 95% confidence (“two sigma”).
  • The ink samples that were tested (by McCrone Associates, Inc.) were consistent with having been written onto fresh vellum (rather than being later additions), with the exception of the “cipher key” attempt on f1r which (consistent with its 16th century palaeography) came out as a 16th-17th century addition.
  • It seems highly likely, therefore, that the Voynich Manuscript is a genuine object (as opposed to some unspecified kind of hoax, fake or sham on old vellum).

The f1r cipher “key” now proven to have been added in the 16th/17th century 

The programme-makers conclude (from the ‘Ghibelline’ swallow-tail merlons on the nine-rosette page’s “castle”, which you can see clearly in the green Cipher Mysteries banner above!) that the VMs probably came from Northern Italy… but as you know, it’s art history proofs’ pliability that makes Voynich Theories so deliciously gelatinous, let’s say.

Anyway… with all this in mind, what is the real state of play for Voynich research as of now?

Firstly, striking through most of the list of Voynich theories, it seems that we can bid a fond farewell to:

  • Dee & Kelley as hoaxers (yes, Dee might have owned it… but he didn’t make it)
  • Both Roger Bacon (far too early) and Francis Bacon (far too late)
  • Knights Templars (far too early) and Rosicrucians (far too late)
  • Post-Columbus dating, such as Leonell Strong’s Anthony Askham theory (sorry, GC)

It also seems that my own favoured candidate Antonio Averlino (“Filarete”) is out of the running (at least, in his misadventures in Sforza Milan 1450-1465), though admittedly by only a whisker (radiocarbon-wise, that is).

In the short term, the interesting part will be examining how this dating stacks up with other classes of evidence, such as palaeography, codicology, art history, and cryptography:-

  • My identification of the nine-rosette castle as the Castello Sforzesco is now a bit suspect, because prior to 1451 it didn’t have swallowtail merlons (though it should be said that it’s not yet known whether the nine-rosette page itself was dated).
  • The geometric patterns on the VMs’ zodiac “barrels” seem consistent with early Islamic-inspired maiolica – but are there any known examples from before 1450?
  • The “feet” on some of the pharmacological “jars” seem more likely to be from the end of the 15th century than from its start – so what is going on there?
  • The dot pattern on the (apparent) glassware in the pharma section seems to be a post-1450 Murano design motif – so what is going on there?
  • The shared “4o” token that also appears in the Urbino and Sforza Milan cipher ledgers – might Voynichese have somehow been (closer to) the source for these, rather than a development out of them?
  • When did the “humanist hand” first appear, and what is the relationship between that and the VMs’ script?
  • Why have all the “nymph” clothing & hairstyle comparisons pointed to the end of the fifteenth century rather than to the beginning?

Longer-term, I have every confidence that the majority of long-standing Voynich researchers will treat this as a statistical glitch against their own pet theory, i.e. yet another non-fitting piece of evidence to explain away – for example, it’s true that dating is never 100% certain. But if so, more fool them: hopefully, this will instead give properly open-minded researchers the opportunity to enter the field and write some crackingly good papers. There is still much to be learnt about the VMs, I’m sure.

As for me, I’m going to be carefully revisiting the art history evidence that gave me such confidence in a 1450-1470 dating, to try to understand why it is that the art history and the radiocarbon dating disagree. History is a strange thing: even though thirty years isn’t much in the big scheme of things, fashions and ideas change with each year, which is what gives both art history and intellectual history their traction on time. So why didn’t that work here?

Anyway, my heartiest congratulations go out to Andreas Sulzer and his team for taking the time and effort to get the science and history right for their “DAS VOYNICH-RÄTSEL” documentary, which I very much look forward to seeing on the Austrian channel ORF2 on Monday 10th December 2009!

UPDATE: see the follow-up post “Was Vellum Stored Flat, Folded, or Cut?” for more discussion on what the dating means for Voynich research going forward…

I think you can split historical revisionists into two broad camps: (a) desperate mainstream historians looking outwards to fringe subjects for a reputation-making cash-cow book; and (b) clever writers on the fringes who appropriate the tropes and tools of history to construct a kind of literary outsider art that is (almost) indistinguishable from history. That is, revisionism is a church broad enough to cover both historians posing as outsiders and outsiders posing as historians. 🙂

Yet probably the most dispiriting thing about nearly all the novel freethinking theories thus constructed (by either camp) is how boringly similar they tend to be, oxymoronifying the phrase “free thinker”. Did Alberti really write the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili? [Hint: no.] Was Leonardo da Vinci really a Grand Master of the [insert made-up name] Secret Society? [Hint: also no.] Read (as I have done) a fair few of these and you’d rapidly come to the conclusion that most trains of thought out there run along well-oiled rails, with nary a point in sight. Point-less stuff, indeed.

Of course, if you try to revisit something / someone particularly well-documented, you face a dauntingly uphill challenge from the start: which is why oddly nebulous objects and obscure people attract the most attention (from both revisionist camps) – because for these, there’s that much less that needs to be explained away from the start before you can really go to town & have some fun.

In this general vein, here’s a nice (2000) article by Mark Newbrook from The Skeptic magazine (it’s on pp.42-47), which brings together literally dozens of fringe historical revisionist communities (Velikovskyists, Saturnists, Afrocentrists, Dravidian- / Mayan- / Latvian- / Hungarian- / Basque-/ Etruscan-centred histories of language, Dogon, etc) to highlight their common traits – most of which seem to centre on a misplaced faith in the fallacies of eighteenth-century linguistic / etymological thought. It has to be admitted that the devotion shown to following through these mad ideas is sometimes quite extraordinary. Did Jesus on the Cross really cry out in Mayan? [Hint: don’t even go there.]

It’s no great secret that most hypotheses floated to explain the Voynich Manuscript, the Rohonc Codex, and the Phaistos Disc match this overall template (i.e. of a simple linguistic misunderstanding taken to massive lengths). Even when top-drawer outsiders (David Icke, Dan Burisch, Terence McKenna etc) throw their lizard-skin top hats into the ring, the same tired old rabbits limp out… ‘Roger Bacon‘, ‘it’s the aliens wot dunnit‘, ‘hoax!’ and so forth.

Of all these , though, it is the “hoax” theorists that are stupendously annoying – not because they happen to be right or wrong (which is another question entirely), but because for the most part they use the idea as a kind of intellectual trick to sidestep the entire evidence corpus, preferring instead to revel in schadenfreude, poking fun at other researchers as they lock intellectual horns with the mute rhinoceros of meaninglessness (and lose the battle, of course).

In all these cases, the correct question to be asking is simply what kind of material, physical evidence would amply demonstrate the presence of a hoax – merely proving the possibility of a hoax (as Gordon Rugg famously tried to do for the Voynich Manuscript in 2004) is both hard work and vacuous. Or, if you prefer to stick with Popperian falsification, how can we actively disprove the notion that artefact X is ancient?

And so it all swings round to a resoundingly 19th century hoax, the Frisian Oera Linda Book (which I picked up on from Lady Goodman’s blog page). This describes all kinds of odd things (such as “Atland”, a 17th century revisionist Atlantis), and claims to have been written in 1256, but copied from texts some of which dated back as early as 2194 BC. Errrrm… “zeker niet, mevrouw“, methinks.

If you absolutely have to sample its purple faux historical prose, there’s an English translation here. To me, it all reads like a ‘worst-of‘ compilation of creative writing courses’ historical modules: but perhaps you’ll find some hidden depths there to which I’m blind. But is this a hoax? [Hint: for sure!]

Get up, fool!“, barked Guillaume Imbert, the French Grand Inquisitor. Yet the Grand Master Jacques de Molay continued to lay on the prison floor, passively resisting to the end. “OK… that was your last chance, Templar scum. Guards – crucify him, and wrap him in a shroud which his bodily fluids will seep into, leaving a ghostly imprint which will quickly come to be believed an image of Christ Himself.

There was a sudden rattling at the cell door, and a plainly-dressed Philip IV and his entourage swept in. De Molay opened a single swollen eyelid. “What, no bling today, Your Majesty? Pawned all the Royal Jewels, perchance? Presumably that’s why you’re planning to seize the vast Templar treasure trove… such a pity we’ve already hidden it in plain sight in a location known only to the author, his/her publisher’s marketing department, and Henry Lincoln.”

No worries, Jackie-boy“, smirked the king, “I have already set in place my own sprawling conspiracy to retrieve it that will run for centuries – yes, even beyond the French Revolution and the first two World Wars upon which your man Nostradamus will write so eloquently.”

“Pah!” retorted de Molay. “Our Templar conspiracy has a two century headstart on your upstart Royalist conspiracy. In fact, we have well-drafted plans to go underground for seven hundred years only to reemerge as a 21st century ninja fighting force with a secret Gnostic terrorist agenda. Unfortunately, because I am illiterate, I could not read those plans, so torturing me to reveal them has been a bit of a waste of time so far.

You call that a conspiracy?” spat the gallic Inquisitor. “But how will you preserve the secret knowledge of Jesus himself at the heart of your anti-Church Templar initiation ceremony which 20th century novel-readers will hear so many versions of? Surely you will need some kind of heavily-enciphered Macguffin to transport dangerous heretical information that could change everything for heavily religious readers (if they happen to be particularly gullible) through time?

Yes, the Church wants to know that too“, exclaimed Philip IV, “for it is their fanatical agents who are going to be hunting it down for the next six centuries. Even if they are all in my pocket in Avignon at this particular point in history.

The Grand Master paused menacingly, eyeing the two men. “Well… OK, then… seeing as we’re best mates an’ all that. We’ve already had our deepest, darkest secrets enciphered by a mad monk by the name of Roger Bacon, who cunningly disguised it as a herbal manuscript from two centuries hence, with instructions for it to be copied by Leonardo da Vinci when he’s born. Oh, and we’ve listed the 365 secret hiding places for the Templar treasure in an appendix at the back. Basically, it’s a bit like the Beale Papers, which we’ve got planned for the future too – good job we’ve already written the Declaration of Independence, eh?

The King drew his once jewel-encrusted dagger and sharply held it at de Molay’s throat. “And does your idiot author really expect his/her readers to swallow all that guff, even if they are laying on a sun-kissed beach? Surely that’s enough to make even one brain cell want to strangle itself?

Guillaume Imbert gently pulled the king’s arm back. “It worked for Dan Brown“, he hissed in the Royal Ear, “so nobody wants to mess with The Secret Formula“.

Is this true, then, de Molay?” snarled Philip. “Is this the Secret Novel-Writing Formula enciphered in the Templar’s secret codex? Will it be Dan Brown himself who will decipher the so-called-six-centuries-hence ‘Voynich Manuscript’ and grasp the Templar money-making secret of writing Romance novels? You know, the secret of making unlimited money from home I see described in so many banner ads unfurled outside my palaces?”

But the Grand Master merely turned to face the king, slowly raised his hand in the ancient Sumerian symbol of defiance with his middle finger raised aloft to the sky, and proclaimed the secret Templar initiatory phrase later to be popularized by Priory of Sion Grandmaster Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli – “Prithee, sit on it, sire“. Plainly, some secrets are beyond all discussion…

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.

Having just blogged on up-to-the-minute German Voynichiana, what of the rest of Europe? Here’s a quick sampling to whet your appetite, should you ever wish to feast on such morcels…

Having worked with Enrique recently (he generously translated my History Today telescope article so that it could appear in Astronomia magazine), I’m very much looking forward to the forthcoming English translation of his novel… even if I do still have to wait until June 2009. *sigh*

Elderly professor, Voynich manuscript, high-level Vatican/Jesuit conspiracy, corrupt cardinal, people learn of the VMs and then they get killed, how will it all end?, la-di-da.

Yes, once again it’s those pesky Templars and their accursed book (what, the VMs? Quelle surprise!) *sigh*

The VMs, the Philosophers’ Stone and quantum physics all get woven together here: though any Voynich book without evil Jesuit priests and lost Templar treasure will always move swiftly to the top of my list, who’s to say what this will be like? All the same, first-time novelists probably have more than enough things to worry about without lumping the weighty baggage of the VMs onto their camel’s back.

According to Dennis Stallings, Maugenest’s story describes how Roger Bacon wrote the VMs during his 13-year confinement – and how Bacon’s ideas are so powerful that anyone who now tries to read them falls into an irreversible coma. Hmmm… though I must confess that Jacques Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” did give me a headache for a week afterwards, Maugenest might just be stretching believability past its breaking point here. Oh well!