“Alien Embryo” has just now put forward a new transcription (and translation) of the ‘Michitonese’ on page f116v of the Voynich Manuscript. Without any further ado, it is:-

Pot leber u mon poti fer
Mihi con dabas tetar tere tum altos portas
Sic mar, sic mar vic alta maria
Valde ub vento mi (g?) almi (ho?) .

Bring the cup, (pot, cauldron) that it may be drunk on the mountain
To give me the right to rejoice at the gates of the high
It (the mountain?) marks, it marks the victory by the high seas,
Very much my blessing under strong winds.

Long-suffering Cipher Mysteries regulars will no doubt recall Esther Molen’s f116v transcription and translation, along with Edith Sherwood’s crinkly Italian take on the top line (“povere leter rimon mist(e) ispero”, “Plain letter reassemble mixed inspire”).

There’s also Marcin Ciura’s reversal of michiton oladabas to reveal the Czech-like “sa badalo No Tichim” (‘was studied by No Tichy’). And of course, the grand-daddy of them all is William Romaine Newbold’s “michiton oladabas multos te tccr cerc portas”, de-nulled into “michi dabas multas portas”, and then translated into the broadly English-like “To me thou gavest many gates”.

I’m not going to try listing all the others or I’d be here all night (and for what, really?)

Personally, I don’t buy into (or even like very much) any of these transcriptions: I’ve written here plenty of times about how I think most of the text on f116v has apparently been overwritten by a later owner, making transcription a hazardous process, let alone translation. But still people keep on trying… =:-o

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! 🙂

Lynn Thorndike (1882-1965)

In this postmodern, post-macho era, you’re not supposed to have heroes – to the point that most modern kids’ heroes are lame (Ash in Pokemon, Mickey Mouse, Mario, Ben 10, dare I say Harry Potter for most of the books?). Who now doesn’t honestly prefer antiheroes like Team Rocket, Bugs Bunny, Wario, Kevin 11, Voldemort?

Well, I don’t care much for trends: my #1 historian hero is Lynn Thorndike. Hence, as a Voynich manuscript researcher, I always wanted to know what he thought of this troublesome artefact: and while trawling through his (1929) “Science & Thought in the Fifteenth Century” in 2008 was delighted to discover that Thorndike thought Newbold’s claimed decryption was, frankly, nonsense.

But now I can go one better: on the Roger Bacon wikipedia page, someone recently edited in a link to a 1929 review Thorndike wrote in American Historical Review Vol. 34, No. 2 (Jan., 1929), pp. 317-319 on JSTOR. Oooh, I tell ya, that Mr Thorndike didn’t think that his late friend Professor Newbold would have wanted to see his notes published like that; and he wasn’t at all impressed that it went out under the august auspices of the University of Pennsylvania.

You also get a sense of Thorndike’s frustration at constantly being asked his opinion on “an anonymous manuscript of dubious value”. If I had stepped out of the Tardis to ask him about the Voynich Manuscript circa 1929, he might very well have grouchily punched my lights out.

“I should like to be able to force every one who asks me my opinion of the Voynich manuscript to read [Newbold’s] book from cover to cover. I think it will either kill or cure.”

Even though Thorndike’s review doesn’t go so far as to offer his own opinion, he does ironically predict the whole sad demented future of Voynich research, for which we should perhaps be grateful:-

“I would offer the ironic suggestion that the illegible writing is only a blind, and the the pictures should be interpreted symbolically, were I not afraid that some self-constituted successor to Newbold would take the suggestion seriously.”

Now ain’t that the truth, brothers and sisters of the faith? Oh, well! *sigh*

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 f.a.ch.y.s [=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!” 😉

I remember when I first saw the “Roger Bacon Manuscript”: Wilfrid Voynich brought it with him to Philadelphia for his lecture back in 1921 – my old friend Bill Newbold was there, taking in every word, nodding like the crazy-but-brilliant spiritualist and Antioch-obsessed nutter he was. So it just had to be Bacon behind it all, right? I sat at the back, laughing quietly: but all the same, I couldn’t help but notice that there was something rather disconcerting about the whole thing that demanded being checked out at a convenient point…

My big break came in late 1929, in a chance visit to New York: though charming as ever, Voynich was already sickly, well along the path to his own deathbed. Though he was unwilling at first, I convinced him to let me take a closer look at his manuscript’s oh-so-boring quire 13 – why not, what could a lowly UPhil Italian academic possibly find of interest there? Yet behind the scenes, I’d had help from Johnny Manly and Edith Rickerts: though they’d initially tried to dissuade me from looking closely, I’d carefully zoomed in on the bits they were most intrigued by – and with stunning results. They’d been so utterly wrong to think it was Latin (hardly surprising, given that they were arch-Latinists), when I’d instead worked out it was mostly an abbreviated Italian scribal shorthand…

But honestly – how could I not remember the day when Hans Kraus pitched up to Yale with the 1428 Albergati bible ($204,000, and worth every cent) along with Wilfrid’s “ugly duckling” manuscript. Old man Beinecke had come along for the ride, too: everyone there was trembling with excitement – but I swear nobody could have been sweating like me. If only they knew how I felt! Once dear old Annie Nill had sold it to HPK, I’d worked out where things were leading and had networked my way into the position as Beinecke curator – so my first unofficial job was to remove it from the stacks, to give myself the opportunity of making sense of quire 20‘s recipes for myself. But sad to say, I never quite did, and so my last job there was to retire.

All the same, I have to give a big hooray for the Beinecke’s hi-res scans: though I’d really thought my second act was over (and so did wife #7), with a bit of help from Steve Ekwall I finally managed to get Voynich’s other fountain working. Whoever it was that said that diligence has its own rewards was really onto something – it certainly works for me!

And so here I am once again, back to square #1 and wife #8. Sure, I do my best to prevent anyone on the Voynich mailing list from coming even close to reproducing what I found: but everyone thinks I’m just some kind of ultra-informed troll, and they back off from the truth. Which suits me 100%.

Here’s to wife #9!

Here’s today’s gratuitous Voynich limerick (stop me if you’ve heard it before):-

A microscope gives you a two-fold
Clue to the secrets of true gold
You need it to write
Baconian sh!te
And you need it to read it like Newbold

Rather less meaningfully, here’s a Voynich-related “asemic” (defined as ‘having no specific semantic content’, so make of it what you will, quite literally) poem that popped up onto the web a few days ago. Though it fails to tease with my brand of appalling rhymes, it does have a charm of its own. Enjoy! 🙂

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

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

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

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

As a brief follow-up to yesterday’s post on Edith Rickert, I wondered whether her papers might be in the University of Chicago archives – and indeed here they are. For any Voynich researcher who just happens to be passing by, you might consider looking through Box 1 Folder 8 (for correspondence) and Box 10 Folder 13 (for photographs of her family – not important, but nice to see all the same).

The U. of C. also holds the papers of her younger sister Margaret Rickert: she specialised in medieval illuminated manuscripts (there’s a 10-page paper on her in the 2005 book “Women Medievalists and the Academy) and worked as a code-breaker in WWII, just as her older sister had done in WWI. She’s briefly mentioned in the First Study Group minutes – one from 1944 that notes she “accompanied WFF [William Friedman] at Phila[delphia] in 1923 to hear Newbold. Cannot add anything else“; and another that notes she attended a 31 August 1945 FSG meeting. Box 1 holds her notes on various manuscripts: might she have taken notes on the Voynich Manuscript? My guess is no, that the small range of poor quality reproductions of Voynich Manuscript pages available at that time probably dissuaded her from getting interested in it as an art history puzzle. But you never know until you look!

Of course, John Matthews Manly’s papers are there too (the link has a nice summary of his life, including his famous “cigar” story) – I’ve summarized the Voynich-related ones here already, but would also note here that his Series II of folders related purely to cryptographic correspondence.

An off-blog email exchange about the Grolier Club (where Wilfrid Voynich’s estate bequeathed eight boxes of papers relating to his book business in America) nudged my memory about a minor player on the 20th century Voynich stage…

When Voynich researcher Richard SantaColoma visited the Grolier Club back in May 2008, he trawled through these boxes (Box 6 in particular) for anything unexpected: he very kindly wrote up his notes and passed them on to the Journal of Voynich Studies, which posted them on its website.

There are some scans of letters (and extracts of letters) sent by William Romaine Newbold: and Ethel Voynich’s handwritten notes on Voynich botany: but probably the most interesting thing is a set of short research notes from Anne Nill’s ring binder in Box 6.

On page 2, there’s an August 1917 letter from ‘Edith Richert’ to Wilfrid Voynich, asking: “I should be glad to know your reasons for believing that the symbols vary according to their position. I have my own reasons. I should like to see whether they agree.

WMV replied (in September 1917) that “I have no reasons for believing that the symbols vary to their positions, as I know nothing about cipher. But it was the opinion of two or three European professors.

I was particularly struck by this clear-sighted observation (by Richert and the European professors): thanks to modern computer transcriptions, this kind of thing is now plain to see – but all the same, this was only 1917.

Who was this “Edith Richert”? Actually, this was Edith Rickert (1871-1938), who worked at the University of Chicago, and worked very closely with our old friend John Matthews Manly, co-authoring numerous books with him, and spending sixteen years on “a monumental undertaking of scholarship, critical analysis, and data collection” – a critical edition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

john-matthews-manly-and-edith-rickert-smallJohn Matthews Manly and Edith Rickert, 1932

There’s much more on their working relationship on this U. of Chicago webpage here. However, exhausted by the epic scale of what they were trying to achieve, Rickert died just before publication of the first volume: though Manly lived long enough to see the project completed, he too died soon afterwards.

What I find slightly unnerving is that what Manly and Rickert were attempting to do for the Canterbury Tales (detailed palaographic and codicological analysis, examining every page of every manuscript in person looking for otherwise unseen clues to its secret history) is precisely what we are trying to do for the Voynich Manuscript. But all the same, it took them (and a funded team of graduate students and collaborators) 16 years, and the effort pretty much killed them both. Hmmm… makes you wonder how much of a chance of success we actually stand, doesn’t it?

The punchline here is that Manly and Rickert actually worked together breaking World War One codes – yes, she was an Allied cryptologist. There’s much more on her life here, and a copy of the book “Edith Rickert: a memoir” (1944) by Fred Millett is online here.

But, hold on a minute! I normally don’t like counterfactual histories, but… if William Romaine Newbold hadn’t wrecked the credibility of our “Roger Bacon Manuscript”, what are the chances that Manly and Rickert in 1924 might have instead chosen that as their subject for study in preference to Chaucer? Really, who’s to say?