Password-protected Posts?

How cool is that?

*laugh*, I just discovered this WordPress feature; password-protecting an article — it’s a hoot! Once you do it, immediately the most nonsensical trash post takes on the air of arcane and ancient wisdom… that of a circle of brothers, sworn to secrecy by a covenant of blood… or at least that of a second-rate conspiracy.


Logic is in the Eye of the Beholder

“Komm mir nicht mit Logik: Mit Logik kannst du alles beweisen.” — “Ja, aber nicht jeder.” (Me and a colleague of mine)

Lately, the marginalia of the VM have received more attention again, last but not least due to Dana Scott’s project to give them a thorough examination.*) You remember, the marginalia are the apparently latin letters on several of the VM folios, which, for the better part, are readable, but refuse to yield sense whatsoever. Now, Ye Olde Nick Pelling has presented his own theories to explain the features of the marginalia, which runs as follows, IIUC:

  1. Once upon a time, the author of the VM wrote down the marginalia in plain text. We may only speculate what he wrote, but, as marginalia are wont to be, it was probably the least cryptic part of the VM.
  2. Over time, these writings got weathered, and were only poorly legible anymore.
  3. Some renaissance or baroque whippersnapper came along and decided to emend the marginalia, “restoring” their meaning. Unfortunately, he had no idea what this meaning was, and erred considerably.

This is why we today are left with unreadable strings of gibberish alongside the regular VM text (which are unreadable strings of hopefully meangingful content).

Now, while not wanting to defame Nick’s merits regarding VM research in general I’m under the vague impression that here he has fallen victim to a logical fallacy. One question is, why should the marginalia have degraded so much more strongly than the regular text, which is still in reasonably good condition. (Even the VM letters within the marginalia of f116v are still quite legible.) But this is forgivable. The much more serious question is:

Why don’t the emendations make sense?

If we assume Mr. Whippersnapper restored what he thought was the original text, why is it anchiton oladabas, of all possibilities, rather than “Kilroy was here”, or “The King is a fink”? No matter what the state of the VM was when Monsieur or perhaps Signore Whippersnapper (vielleicht Herr Jungspund) decided to intervene, the current state of the marginalia is good enough for the better part of the letters to be clearly legible, ie if there was an emendation, we should still be able to read and understand it.

I’m afraid, one of the reasons Nick might want to stick to this theory is — knowingly or unknowingly — because it introduces a “meat grinder” in the interpretation, a technique all too common in VM studies. The trick then is to use a process of any kind which will convert some input to output, while introducing “degrees of freedom” in the interpretation.

Degree of freedom” in this context means the chance to arrive at different outputs starting from the same input. A notorious example would be the use of anagramming, which allows one to arrive at a lot of different possible solutions from the same input (in this case the ciphertext), with no means to distinguish what the correct of these solutions would be. The more degrees of freedom any interpretation or decipherment introduces, the more arbitrary the results become, and the more possible scenarios exist with which the results would fit in.**)

In this case, if we take the marginalia at face value, we’ll be hard pressed to make sense of them. But if we say, “Hey, there’s been some correction, and here a wrong addition, and there …”, voilá, we arrive at legible text. Unfortunately, at pretty much any legible text that suits our fancies…

*) Not to be so easily bested, I decided to launch a similar project myself which I had pondered for some time, but never mustered the energy to do…

**) I feel I have overextended my grasp of English grammar with that sentence. Bear with me, please.

More Fashion Victims

Do you remember the ado about the Sagittarius’ costume?

Well, while strolling through the venerable city of Würzburg the other day, in the Marienkapelle church I came across this epitaph:

Dead dude in Wurzburg, Germany, died 1434

Dead fashion victim in Wurzburg, Germany:
Martin von Seinsheim, died 1434 *)

Compare to the notorious Sagittarius crossbowman:


Crossbowman from the zodiac pages of the VM, depicting Sagittarius (f73v)

I was amazed at the similarites like headgear, skirt, and sleeves.

Let’s draw the following conclusions from the dead dude:

  • The Sagittarius’ costume resembles early-fifteenth century costume,
  • This style of costume was in use in Germany, too,
  • As opposed to previous suggestions (and opposed to what I insisted upon earlier), it might well be that the Sagittarius in fact is not a hunter, but a warrior: The dead knight is wearing at least a breastplate, gauntlets, greaves, and a sword, perhaps even more armour. Yet most of his armour is hidden under the garments, and if he was depicted in a style similar to the VM drawings, it’s well possible that the armour would be completely lost — especially if we assume that the colouring was done at a later point. Hence, it’s quite plausible that the Sagittatrius was originally a knight like the guy in Würzburg.

*) Photo by Sina Borchert.

Thorn in my Side?

Lately, when I was pondering the marginalia in the Voynich again, my eyes caught the peculiar character standing solitary as the first marginal word on f66r, which reappears as the first marginal letter in f116v:

"y" (?) in marginals on f66r

A possible thorn letter in marginals on f66r (top)

First word of marginals on f116v

First word of marginals on f116v

Usually, this letter is interpreted as “p” or “y”. Now it struck me — what if this is really an Anglo-saxon “thorn” letter?

Modern rendering of the thorn letter

Modern rendering of the thorn letter

While the modern rendering of this letter doesn’t give rise to much confusion anymore, in ye olden times the thorn looked suspiciously like a modern “y”. (Early printers had trouble coming to grips with the thorn letter and substituted it with “y”, which led to the misconception that the ancient style of “the” would have been “ye”.)

Check out these script samples from the 15th and 16th century: (Unfortunately, the pictures are strongly compressed and show severe artifacts.)

Now, what would the consequences be?

  1. Obviously, at least the marginalia are of English provenance. (Weak statement.) If we assume that the marginalia have always been a part of the VM (as opposed to later emendments), the VM as a whole should be from the British isles. (Strong statement.)
  2. The marginalia are from the early 16th century or earlier, giving a late cutoff date for the VM.
  3. Interpretation of the meaning of the marginalia should focus on english, rather than on latin, french or german readings.

Caveat emptor: “Th” is not a word. While there were a number of abbreviations including the thorn (“ye” –> “the”, “yt” –> “that”), a solitary “y” apparently was not in use.

Have fun brainstorming!