Countdown to Crackdown?

Until now, the VM has refused to give up its secrets because it’s so “hermetically sealed”, because there is no crack in the wall into which we could jam our crowbar to crack the cipher open — we don’t know the cipher alphabet, nor the plaintext language, have only the faintest idea about the contents, and, since the pagination was done in arab numbers, can’t even use that for a crib.

The first word on F17v --  in EVA
The first word on F17v — “fshody” in EVA
At the same time, one of the (many (some would say “countless”)) puzzling and confusing features of the VM is the fact that in the herbal section, the first (regular) word on the page, not counting the labels, is most of the time unique, and very rare in the other instances. It has for this reason been suggested, that these first words or “titles”*) are the actual names of the plants depicted.

Now, aside of the fact that I have the strong conviction that VM ciphertext words don’t map 1:1 to plaintext words, I also think that wouldn’t make sense: If you have a whole page dedicated to a single plant, wouldn’t it be obvious to use the plant’s name more than once? You wouldn’t write “Dandelion.**) It’s green. It’s got long roots. It’s got yellow flowers. It develops a kind of ‘snow’ for seeding.”, but rather something along the lines of “The Dandelion has got yellow flowers which turn into what is called ‘Dandelion snow’ for seeding.” Likewise, one would assume that various pages make reference to each other as well — like “The blackberry looks like the raspberry, except it’s black.”

Both times, this would increase the use of the page titles, rather than making them unique words. (You would expect the subject of a section to show up more often, not less often than average.) Now I’ve wondered whether perhaps these first words have a completely different meaning — are they maybe simply numbers?

Let’s assume for the minute that the titles plainly number the entries in the herbal section — “25. entry: The boring dandelion,” or such. If we assume that the better part of the VM isn’t concerned with numbers, then it wouldn’t be surprising that these title words are always pretty rare. It would also explain why each title is unique — because duplicating your indices would be daft.

And of course, it is an incredibly tempting aspect, because if this was really the case, then that feature could be a crib to crack the VM. If we can reconstruct the original page sequence before the various rebindings (and Nick Pelling and René Zandbergen et al have given us good means at hand to do so), that would mean that we had the numbers 1 through 50 or so in Voynichese before us, in plain sight — which would be a better start into cracking the rest of the cipher than we’ve had in the last century.

I’ll need to look into that.

*) I’ll simply call them that.
**) No, I don’t suggest f17v is a dandelion. Get real.

13 thoughts on “Countdown to Crackdown?

  1. No, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way: I went through the first quire and a half and checked the first two words on each page.
    It doesn’t seem like they’re composed of parts, where the first “syllable”, representing the tenners, would stay comparatively constant, while the rest (the “onners”) would cycle through, even if we allowed for extensive rebinding. (There’s simply more than ten different components to start with…)
    So, it looks like the final crackdown will have to wait a little longer.


  2. What? You gave up the idea, before I even commented? A new record for a Voynich attempt, although they all end up there of course.

    Anyway, you may be right about the crack in the door not being found, as the nature of the Voynich hides it. But I also strongly feel that the wrong doors are checked… that so many plausible possibilities (plausible to me) are rejected, and will never be explored.

    It was once claimed I looked only under the light from the lamp posts, and not in the shadows around them (from the old proverb). I would counter that my thoughts are exactly the opposite: I feel the lit areas have been well explored, and it is in the shadows that we have to look.

    1. You’re right, Rich, I may have been premature: Upon second thought it dawned on me that the plant indices might not be written with numbers (“1, 2, 3, …”) but as words (“One, two, three, …”, or “first, second, third, …”), which would still explain why they’re used rarely elsewhere in the manuscript.
      Since in most languages the numbers up to 20 or so are expressed idiosyncratically (“twelve” rather than “tentwo”), it would only make sense to look a bit later at higher page numbers for regularities. Likewise, if the plaintext language is German with it’s inverted numbering system (“two-and-twenty”, “three-and-twenty”), the first part of the index would repeat only every ten pages, while the second part would remain constant for ten pages, ie just the other way around than you’d expect from arab numbering.
      But then, as always, I’m beginning to feel I’m clutching for straws…
      — What “possibilities” would you want to see checked, for instance?

      1. As for “possibilities”, I’m referring to that horse I beat all the time, that the VMs may be from 1610 or newer. Since most researchers believe that implausible, they look for a cipher or code that would be available, or possible, in the 15th century. At the same time it is admitted that the 15th century selection is sparse, and the systems much simpler. But rather than this being a sign that the era is wrong, the effort to find a cipher from this time is stepped up.

        You have two implausible scenarios locking up the search: A later date for the Voynich, and an earlier complex or unknown cipher. But if a 17th century origin is hypothesized, the world is your cipher oyster. Go even newer, and of course, everything we knew, until the time it was found, becomes possible.

        Many ciphers and codes are not looked at because of this. Those are what I consider “possibles”, while I understand why I am almost alone on that. But if I were even three people, one of them would be dedicated to comparing the Voynich to newer systems. As it is, I am a cipher amateur at best, and can only pick up my notebook and play with these ideas a small amount of my time.

      2. I see where you’re coming from, Rich.

        Actually, I wouldn’t discount any cipher on the basis of it being too early or late for the VM, whatever it’s assumed creation date is — after all, the VM is idiosyncratic enough that it’s not beyond imagination that its author could have come up with a new and ingenious enciphering system which then was forgotten again for a few centuries.
        But the point is, I know of no system which would render a text with the features we observe in the VM, namely the “word grammar”. *All* sophisticated (ie, 17th century and later) schemes I know tend to obscure all regularities and make the text look like a random string of letters — quite the opposite of what we observe in the quasia-readable words of the VM.
        But if you have any particular system in mind which would be a candidate for structures like the ones exhibited in the VM, I’d be happy to take a look at them…

      3. That is very open-minded of you, and I hope others can be so ready to do the same. I like your point, and agree with it, that the VMs is unusual enough to suggest it may contain some system ahead of its time, also. As I wrote in my “Antikethera Mechanism of Manuscripts”, it really has its own category. Perhaps its cipher system is likewise, unique.

        As for candidates, there are three I like, and have played with from time to time. One is some variation of the Sylvester/Selenus numerical code. We’ve spoken of this at length, in the past. It was first written down in 1530 by Jacob Sylvester, then adapted and published in 1624 by the Gustavus Selenus. It is the “word chunk” idea… that the beginning/middle/end structure seen is actually three sets of numbers, or so, corresponding to “word chunks” seen on the code lists. But yet, with certain shorthand endings, and possibly abbreviations, thrown in. The beauty of it is that a single word can be encoded several different ways, yet still have only one possible plaintext result. Plug here: Julian Bunn helped by writing a small program to encode and decode plaintext into Voynichese, which was really cool. The thing is, I’m not sure anyone compared the results of this system, as pumped out by Julian’s program, with Voynichese. That would be interesting. The output looked good to me…

        The second is the Biliteral. Although F. Bacon is credited with it, I believe it has some precedent, to him. In this, the actual character would not matter at all, rather, some characteristic of it would: Perhaps height, or inclusion of a shape, or simply a specific character or characters denoting the “a”, and the others, the “b”: I had some what I consider interesting results using the letter heights. But I am easily discouraged, and distracted. I only have the courage to pick up my biliteral notebook every few months.

        The third is the type of cipher which uses an alphabet strip along the top of a page, then one looks down the page for a specific character, row by row. This is very inefficient, as only a few sentences could be enciphered on one whole page. I am clueless how one would find this, though. One would have to look for any characters which tend to line up, vertically, I suppose… but it would quickly confound the search. This is not my favorite.

        Sorry for the long response. I am avoiding my State tax form, and had an extra pot of coffee (large Bodun full).

  3. This is too reasonable for the VMs. But suppose Tony Gaffney is right and the first words are artistic impressions of numbers, if not plant names. The lengths would approximate those in a real book. For numbers, that might not help in view of the long transition from Roman to Arabic (Indian) symbols when there were many bastard forms, inconsistent even in the same text. If we consider the entire book as a collection of (mostly) numbers, e.g. coded attributes of plants (or nymphs), we should try to suppress modern notions.

    Calculating with Calculi: the Counting Board and Its Use in Reckoning in Medieval Europe

    Click to access Bell.pdf

    One of several reasons some people preferred the old system.

    An ending “i” later became “j”
    ? …ij = …in = +2
    ? …iij = iin = +3
    ? …iiij = iiin = +4
    How would a preceding “o”, “da” or “a” work?
    ? …?? = dy
    ? … = score

    I hope this isn’t a triple post.

    1. Knox,
      Well, if we only had a few VM words and knew their meaning, that would certainly help a *long* way in deciphering the text. With a number sequence of 1 to 50 or so, plus their VM encipherments, I dare say the VM would be cracked within a fortnight. We would for the first time be able to comprehend *anything* in relation to the encipherment, and that would be more than could be said for the last 100 years!

  4. Hello Elmar.

    The plant you used in your example ( 17v ) is duplicated, I believe, in the Pharma section at the bottom of folio 99r. The label there does not occur in the text of 17v, however. Do you know if anyone has ever mapped the occurrences of the smaller plants in the Pharma section against their full page, herbal versions? Perhaps comparing the initial, unique words of the herbal pages with the single word labels of the Pharma section would reveal some new relationship.


    1. Hi Ernst,
      I’ve concerned myself more with the cryptographical aspects of the VM than with the plants, so I don’t know if such a mapping has been done. I’d hope there is one, because it might prove very valuable in the end; it’s a pretty good idea.
      If it hasn’t been done, it should be…

  5. Elmar, your assumption in the post seems to be that the nature of the text would resemble the type we expect in descriptions of a plant, one formed as full sentences and intending to give the reader an idea of appearance and so on.

    As I see it that would be a redundancy in the view of the persons who first made the imagery, since the imagery itself ‘tells’ the important points, and condensation appears an important consideration. The book is not large and was made a portable size.

    Also, considered in historical context: if you read the original form for written text in the Tacuinum sanitatis – an example I choose for its having similarly interdependent text and picture – so you’ll see that the plant’s name appears only once in each case. To render it into flowing prose for later readers, the brief phrases were (and are) expanded, a process requiring repetitions not found in the original ~ even in the original Latin.
    I have a copy of a translation into English of one manuscript Oestereichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. Vindobonensis Series Nova 2644. A terminal essay by the translator (Judith Spencer) includes a sample of the original fom (p136 of my edition, published 1983 and 1984 under the title The Four Seasons of the House of Ceruti.

  6. I wasn’t very clear, I think, that the original text in the Tacuinum sanitatis is organised with incredible brevity, using a set form of seven points which then repeats – a template for description, and one omitting articles and often the verbs and/or adjectives. So it might go Liquorice – benefit, warms; harm liver; advised-for women; (that sort of thing, through the rote 7 points). Not a complete sentence in it. That’s just by way of example, to show that in considering a medieval or even more ancient work, the style of prose changes according to whether or not it was meant to be spoken aloud, to an audience or classroom.

  7. They could be the “keys” in the Trithemian cipher in the style of the one suggested in the dissertation (in German) of J. Hermes (Uni Köln). I posted the reference on the mailing list some days/weeks ago.

    Really, this would make much more sense: their uniqueness would be explainable, their first position as well… the choice of a new key for each topic fits the bill too.

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