I’m at it again. Crunching the numbers.
The one thing constant when examining the VM is the fact that nothing is as it looks at first glance. Whether this is Voynich’s personally devised conundrum, designed to enhance the appeal of the book, or simply the result of an otherwise innocent enciphering scheme developed by a 15th century scholar, Voynicheros learn quickly not to trust superficial appearances.
This thought struck me while perusing Julian Bunn‘s new book about the Puzzles of the VM, and coming across his description of f68r2, which is generally assumed to depict the Moon, the open star cluster of the Pleiades, and maybe Aldebaran, the singularly brightest star in the Pleiades vicinity.
As usual, attempts to use the names “Pleiades” and “Aldebaran” as cribs to break the VM cipher led to nothing, and also the mysterious wavy line connecting the stars and the Moon has only been met with tortuous, hardly convincing explanations. But what if these are not the Pleiades?
In terms of astronomy, the Pleiades are an open cluster of around 500 stars in relative proximity to Earth. Depending on visibility conditions, usually either six or eight, but rarely seven of these stars can be discerned with the naked eye, since numbers 7 and 8 have almost the same apparent brightness. In many cultures, the Pleiades are nevertheless associated with the number “7” (probably due to the “magic” qualities of this number). The Pleiades supposedly are depicted in the shape of seven dots on the early bronze age Nebra sky disk and are also known in German as the “Siebengestirn”, the “seven stars.” OTOH, in japanese astronomy six of its stars form the constellation of “Mutsuraboshi” (conveniently meaning “six stars”), and the paintings in the caves of Lascaux apparently feature a suspicious cluster of six, not seven stars.
So, under the impression that interpreting the f68r2 constellation as the Pleiades is leading us nowhere, what else could it depict?
I was reminded of the fact that classical astrology always spoke of seven “planets” — not planets in the modern astronomical sense, but objects changing their position relative to the fixed stars. Namely, these were the Sun and the Moon, plus those bodies visible to the naked eye we consider planets today: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. What if the f68r2 objects really depicted the seven planets — Where would that lead us?
Being a reader of comic books, the wavy line between Moon and “Pleiades” reminded me of “speed lines”, used to indicate motion in comics. By analogy, let’s take a wide leap and say, the “Pleiades” are moving away from the Moon in this picture — after the Moon has been hit by “Aldebaran”, maybe? Using this as a starting point, as usual there is no difficulty in coming up with wild speculations: Is this maybe a picture explaining an early astronomical theory about the creation of the solar system — A massive star struck the Sun, and the collision broke seven pieces of rock free which went on to become the planets, Moon and Earth?
Of course, that would be an unusually advanced theory for a manuscript presumably written in the 15th century — It would predate Copernicus‘ ideas of a heliocentric universe by at least half a century.*) Also, it requires one to assume that the VM author got a little confused by his own genius when he drew the Moon in the centre of the picture rather than the Sun. (And it pretty clearly is the Moon.**) On the other hand, it has been assumed that the VM is a collection of advanced scientific theories, and if the balneological section is interpreted as a treatise about anatomy, similar advanced views on astronomy could not be ruled out either.
It is certainly tempting to fantasize that the author had developed a theory for the creation of the planets which could still have held up its head in the 19th century. But, the longer I sort my thoughts about it, the less I believe in it. While I’m also unconvinced that the f68r2 object are the Pleiades, the “heliocentric hypothesis” simply requires too many stretches of the imagination.
So, once more, not only the first appearance, but also the second one of a feature in the VM seems to be misleading.
*) While the idea of a heliocentric universe had been known since antiquity, it had never found much acceptance before the middle of the 16th century.
**) A “weaker” version of the heliocentric hypothesis would be the assumption that the body in the centre of f68r2 is not the Moon, but the Earth. In that case, one could assume a geocentric universe being depicted, with the planets being the result of the collision of the Earth with a massive object which later vanished into deep space again. This being a very early depiction of Earth in a modern astronomical context, it’s unclear how the VM author would have drawn it.
New Book to Read over the Holidays
Just in time for the holiday season, another Venerable Voynich Veteran™, namely Julian Bunn, has treated us with a book about the Voynich manuscript:
Puzzles of the Voynich Manuscript: An Illustrated Guide to the Perplexing Puzzles of MS Beinecke 408 is a small, but invaluable tome of 69 pages, apparently self-published through Amazon’s services. At some 10€, Puzzles is reasonably priced, and the Kindle e-book version is even free!
In Julian’s own words, the book is not supposed to offer an in-depth analysis to the progressed Voynichero, but is meant to be an introduction to newcomers to the field of the VM who wish to get a first overview over “what the fuss is all about,” and the book does this job admirably well.
Julian gives a concise summary of the manuscript’s various enigmatic features, touching on proposed answers and solutions, but never really advocating a viewpoint. After a first quick read in the subway (which Voynichero would wait any longer than absolutely necessary to read such a new book?), I haven’t noticed any relevant omissions or errors.*) Of course, on some points one might wish for a more exhausting treatment, but obviously the question to which level of detail an introduction should go, is a matter of personal preference.
There are a few points of criticism, but these are minor. At US letter format (almost equivalent to A4), Puzzles is a bit big and unwieldy. (OTOH, the illustrations, which are all very well reproduced, obviously benefit from a larger format, so I assume this was a deliberate decision.) One would have wished for better typography (the lettering is at times jarringly bad), and generally a more careful eye for layout. For example, several times one page is filled with only a line of text or two, because the subsequent page is occupied completely by an illustration. A table of contents and numbered chapters would have made finding a particular spot again easier (though of course at only 69 pages, one can quickly browse through the tome.) Finally, being a Wikipedia editor has spoiled me, and I would have wished for a more comprehensive list of references which would make it easier to track statements and observations to their sources. (There isn’t even an imprint in the book…)
But overall the book is a must-have for people interested in the Voynich, and if friends of yours ask you what the whole hullabaloo is about, you can safely point them to Julian’s work. They won’t go amiss.
*) with the exception of calling my blog a source of “profound insights,” which is a nice compliment, but like all compliments a slight exaggeration, IMHO
“If it was solvable, it would have been solved.”
Fellow-Voynichero Rich SantaColoma has recently summarized his theory, that the Voynich manuscript is a forgery perpetrated by probably no-one else but Voynich himself, in his blog. In this context, the question whether the content of the VM is “genuine” keeps coming up, ie, is the VM “solvable,” does it have content, or is it just gibberish?
I don’t personally see a clear link between the questions of authenticity and content. All combinations are plausible: A 15th century manuscript filled with enciphered text or gibberish, or a contemporary forgery with nonsense or genuine content. I’m currently leaning to the latter option — that it’s a Vorgery*), but that Voynich included stronger hints in the text that the VM was written by Bacon than given by the illustrations alone. Unfortunately he was a bit too clever for his own good, and nobody looked through what he had considered a simple cipher — and after all he himself could hardly drop too many hints how to solve that encrypted text…**)
But sometimes the argument comes up, the VM must be gibberish, because if it was enciphered, we would have long since deciphered it. After all, for a century the best codebreakers of the world have been at work over it, and the enciphering — if there was one — would have been done by an either medieval or early 20th century dilettante, by current standards.
Enter the Dorabella cipher:
The story of this cipher is, in short, that composer Edward Elgar sent this note to a lady friend of his, Dora Penny in 1897, along with another letter of different provenance. Dora never managed to read the message. And to this day, no convincing deciphering of this innocuous missive has been achieved.***)
So, let’s look at the note:
- It certainly is meaningful. It is difficult to conceive why Elgar would have sent a note with gibberish to Dora, with which he wanted to remain on good terms.
- While Elgar was fond of wordplay and riddles and certainly had a bit of a cryptographic savvy, Dora was naive in that regard, so it’s reasonable to assume that Elgar’s method wasn’t too sophisticated — especially in view of the fact that Elgar apparently did not provide Dora with a key, but trusted she’d find the solution on her own.
- The note bears a striking resemblance to the well-known pigpen cipher (also known as masonic cipher), being set up in three groups of symbols (single, double and triple arc) in one of eight positions each. Elgar is known to have used pigpen ciphers, and, being a simple substitution cipher, pigpen is usually fairly easy to crack.
And yet, nobody has managed to come up with a solution to what Elgar must have intended as a trivial puzzle.
So, when we compare this with the VM, where we are completely in the dark about the method, the character set used, and the plaintext language and can assume that the author made the breaking of his cipher as hard as possible (provided the VM is authentic), then it may not be so unreasonable to assume there is a solution, but it has eluded us.
Also, while the claim repeatedly comes up that “the best heads in cryptography” were confessed with it, this is certainly true, but it always was only a pasttime to them, and none of them were able to devote their full time and resources to the VM.
Thus I’m fairly confident that there is a truth to the VM, and the truth is still out there.
(If you’re interested in Dorabella, Nick Pelling has — as always — already posted an in-depth treatment of the cipher on his blog.)
*) That was a genuine typo, but I’ll leave it in for kicks. ;-)
**) Besides, once he had sold the VM, there was nothing left to gain for him by raising the value of the manuscript by dropping Bacon hints.
***) There are a few suggested translations, but constructs like “Luigi Ccibunud luv’ngly tuned liuto studo two” bear all the hallmarks of VM translation failures.
More about lines and curves
Brian Cham, who in April this year surprised the Voynich community with a razorsharp deduction that none but René Zandbergen is the actual author of the VM (probably nobody was more surprised to hear that than René himself ;-)), is at it again, but this time on a more serious note:
In a long, but well worth the reading blog post, he presents the “Curve-Line System” which he has detected in the VM.*) He has attempted to poke through the undergrowth of the well-known Voynich word grammar rules: In the past, a number of people have tried to explain the obviously regular VM word structure with a bundle of more or less complex rules, and with more or less success. Brian now goes one step further and divides the better part of VM characters based on the shape of their basic stroke, judging whether it’s “curvy” or “linear” (ie straight). Starting from this assumption he arrives at a surprisingly simple set of rules which allow to re-create the better part of the VM corpus.
While the statistics seem sound, though of course always open to attack, the beauty of this discovery lies in the fact that it doesn’t need to arbitrarily divide letters into different classes, but the division is done base on the shape of the letter, ie, it’s “obvious”.
One thing which puzzles me though is that Brian apparently doesn’t discriminate between Currier A and B (except in his test in section 3.7.2). It should come as a surprise to me if the grammar rules would actually hold for both “languages” without modification.
Overall, I think Brian may be well underway to finding a method in which the VM text was created. As yet, he hasn’t suggested how the Curve-Line System may be connected with the encipherment of a plaintext, or with the generation of meaningless pseudo-ciphertext.
*) I only learned about his post these days, but it seems it was already posted late in 2014.
The Last Word Hasn’t Been Spoken
In 2009 the McCrone institute did what all Voynicheros had been longing for for the longest time: They performed a scientific analysis on the VM.
As had been the case with the high resolution pictures of the VM, it was hoped that this new enterprise would yield more insight into the VM — and like in that case, it served to generate some confusion.
(You can read an abstract of the McCrone analysis).
Part of the McCrone analysis was the carbon dating which had established that the sheep which donated their skin for the vellum bleated for the last time around the 1450’s, a result in line with previous assumptions based on the Sagittarius archer’s dress and crossbow, and assessment of the writing style of letters and numbers.
The part which concerns us here right now (and which has caused a considerable stir on the VM mailing list lately, only five years after its original publication ;-) is their survey of the ink composition. Having taken some twenty samples from various corners of the VM (regular, text, drawings, quire numbers and marginalia), they come to these conclusions:
- (While the ink isn’t of uniform composition) … “We found no significant differences between the writing inks (for the main body — ev) and the drawing inks used throughout the document and tentatively conclude that the text and drawings were most likely created contemporaneously”
- For the page numbers, for the quire numbers, and for the latin alphabet on f1r, three different inks were used, which are also different from the main body inks.
So far, this is in line with what had been assumed all along: The writing was done at the same stage as the drawings (possible with the colouring coming at a later time). Over the course of time, the VM had been disassembled and rebound (the discussion about this process can be found on the web), at which time the current page and quire numbers were added. The marginalia were also written after the main body of text, probably by a later owner of the VM.
The question of whether the marginalia were written at the same time as the rest of the document bears a large significance on the “fake” discussion which is currently on:
a) If both were written at the same time (with equivalent inks), it would stronly point to a fake, because it would be fairly unusual for the author to write marginalia in his own book — especially if, while the body was written in Voynichese, the maginalia are in latin letters.
b) If OTOH the inks were different, this would indicate a genuine book which went through various hands and had been annotated at various points in time.
At first glance, McCrone seems to support b), if it wasn’t for a small detail: Among the samples for the “main” body, there was also the notorious sample #16, which was taken from f116v — the very last page of the VM, with the “anchiton oladabas” marginalia.
So this seems to paint the following picture:
In a first phase, the main body of the VM with its Voynichese and the illustrations was drawn. This includes the marginalia on f116v. Only at a later stage the “pure latin letter” marginalia and the page/quire numbers were added.
So, interestingly enough, we end once more in a peculiar situation: While some parts of the marginalia point to a “genuine” MS, the biggest and most prominent piece of marginalia, the one on f116v, seems to have been applied with the rest of the writing, and would hint of a fake.
Scandinavia Hailing the Arabs
And another incoming message, this time from Peter Ole Kvint:
I would guess that the text is Berber. Berbers have had several writing systems but none of them to be suitable for writing with quill and ink.
When you consider how cookbooks copied today, then herbal books from middelaldren be copied copy. If you have a list of herbs from a book then most could be found in the illustrations. Or the options limited.
Since the patterns seen in other books, so it must be possible to retrieve the same recipes. And thus rediscover plant names.
Note that on some artwork, the plants are cut and put back together on the thicker root. These plants may be large, perhaps trees and shrubs.
Peter Ole Kvint
Now look at this: I’m a reputable source…!
Dan wrote already some time ago, and again I must apologize that I’m currently fairly busy with other projects, and hence can’t devote as much time to the VM as I should. Nevertheless, I finally should give him the floor:
Yeah yeah, here’s another theory. Actually I’m not going into the theory, but simply asking if you can provide any assistance in resources I am seeking. Let me back up a bit – I’m a full time software developer of over 20 years, and I have had some insights regarding the manuscript. I’ve written software to generate various statistics about the document and have found some surprising and very obvious (once distilled down to hard numbers) patterns that further validate the insights. These are not “hunches”, or “gut feelings” or any mystical, nutty stuff. It’s simply what it is, and the analysis doesn’t lie.
I am currently running brute force deciphering attempts using additional software I have developed, based on my theory of how the document is ciphered. The main resource I am lacking at this time are simply word lists of the candidate languages the manuscript may have been written in (in its decoded form of course), and specifically, the vernacular and spelling of those languages when the manuscript was written in the 1400s.
I have always assumed the Voynich manuscript was a hoax, but when it was positively dated a few years ago I took a harder look, again with the expectation that it was a hoax but at least a hoax contemporary to the 15th century. My attempt was actually to prove (just to myself) that very thing – that it is just a contrived hoax. Unfortunately the insights and analysis I have done over the last few years have left no other option but to follow the logical progression until it peters out and comes to a dead end. I have not yet reached that point.
Thanks for you time, and again, if you know of simple word lists (or who can provide them or assist in that) of good candidate languages from the 15th century, that would be quite helpful.
This question isn’t so easy to answer. First of all, even when taking the the C14 dating of the vellum as a given, we still have about a century of leeway regarding the actual production date of the manuscript. A century is a long time in which languages can change.
Secondly, languages weren’t “codified” as strictly as they are today, and pretty much everyone would write down their MSs in their local dialect, not to mention the fact that strict orthography wasn’t enforced yet either. Which means that even two people from the same region writing at the same time wouldn’t necessarily employ the same spelling. (An extreme example of this is the Bayeux Tapestry (admittedly predating the VM by some 400 years), where the name of William the Conqueror is written IIRC in not less than seven different manners.) Hence, to make a long story short, any word list should be taken with a grain of salt.
I did some statistics in the past myself, and to get decent wordlists I simply went to Gutenberg.org, downloaded a few works I considered representative of the era, and ran my own little wordcount scripts on these files.
IMHO, prime candidates for the plaintext languages are Latin, English, French, German (including the various dialects like Swiss), and perhaps Spanish. But though I wouldn’t bet on it, more exotic options like Hungarian, Finnish or maybe the Lingua Franca can’t be ruled out either.
Sorry, but this is probably as less simple answer than you asked for?
The Cuttest Critter
James recently asked me:
Just wondering what type of animal you think it is eating what is believed to be a Woad Plant on f25v
referring to this cute little critter.
I don’t think it’s supposed to be a real animal. My guess is it’s a little dragon; the scaly back, the comparatively short legs, the ears and comb on the neck, and the fact that it may only have two legs seem to be a good match for me. Compare here for the idea of a 15th century painter (Uccello) what a dragon is supposed to look like.