Voynich Glyph Structure

This started as a comment on Nick Pelling’s Cypher Mysteries blog, where he posted some ideas on EVA-s. Unfortunately, my comment became far too long to put on someone else’s blog, and it was in need of pictures to support the text, so I have changed the focus and posted on a related topic instead.

Much attention has been given to daiin (and its relatives). This is a surprisingly frequent combination of glyphs in the VMS that has generated substantial discussion and statistical analysis. Whole papers have been written on what it might represent.

I have a fairly long list of possible interpretations, some of which I’ve posted (and some that I admit I’ve kept to myself), but in this blog I’d like to discuss something more fundamental and focus attention on the shapes that underly it.

Why I Rejected Existing Transcripts

One of the reasons I created my own transcript of the VMS text is because I interpret the shapes differently from the way they have been historically recorded. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I don’t use the EVA alphabet either (it would complicate the process of searching for patterns)—I developed my own.

During this process, I chose -auv instead of -ain to represent the end of daiin. Here are some examples from folio 1r but note that even this has a caveat (there is one additional possibility that I will discuss below). Note the separation between the first two strokes and the “v” shape is more distinct than the first two strokes that resemble a “u”. You can click on the image to better see the gaps and connections:

Note how the gap between the “u” and the “v” shape is more distinct than that between the two stems of the “u”. Note also in the first two examples in the second row, that the “v” shape sometimes follows the “a” shape directly, and is separated in a way similar to “v” when it follows “u”, suggesting that the “u” is a glyph in its own right and is not necessarily an “n” shape as in historic transcriptions.

So, rather than transcribing daiin, I have been recording this pattern visually as dauv/dauw, etc. You might say, “So, what? It’s just a different shape for the same thing,” but it’s not quite as simple as that. Since the bottom right example suggests that even the “u” might sometimes be a single glyph and might at other times be two glyphs (a double-i shape), it opens up possibilities such as aiv/aiw/aiiw/aiuv/aiuw/aiiv, etc., which means there may be more variation in the daiin family than is apparent when using historic transcripts. The frequency counts are potentially all wrong.

You might still argue that the daiin shapes are positionally similar and thus less likely to vary as much as I’m suggesting (or that they might mean the same thing even if they do). That might be true if the spaces are literal, but if they are not, then the potential variations could be important to the interpretation of the text.

And Then There’s the Tail…

Yes, the tail—the upswooped shape on the end of the “v”…

These days, most swooping tails are embellishments added for aesthetic reasons. In early manuscripts, however, the upswooped tail was a convention to show that letters had been dropped from the end of a word.

We still occasionally use this form of abbreviation. For example, the words “with” or “without” are sometimes written with a line over the “w” or a slash between the “w” and “out” (w/out). This is a holdover from scribal conventions that are more than a thousand years old. Similarly, in the middle ages, in Latin, English, French, German, Italian, Czech, Spanish, and other languages, this back-sweeping tail stood for whatever ending was appropriate for that language and could represent one or several missing letters.

In the VMS, it is not known whether glyphs with tails, such as “v”, EVA-r, or EVA-s, represent individual units, multiple units, or whether the motivation for the tails is to make the text look like Latin.

Faster Your Seatbelt, EVA, It’s Going to Get Bumpier

Now hold that thought about tails, because this is where it gets gnarly (as is so typical of the Voynich manuscript)…

In Latin and other European languages, the “v” shape could be a “u” or “v” with a tail or, it could be an “i” with a tail. In other words, it might be “auv-something” or “aui-something” or, in the more ambiguous example on the lower right, it might even be “aiii-something”. If this were conventional text, the reader would know by context how to expand the swoop, or whether it were simply an embellishment.

Which brings us to a further wrinkle… if medieval conventions allow that the VMS “v” with a tail could alternately be an “i” with a tail, there is another aspect of the text that needs to be addressed, one I haven’t seen anyone mention yet…

If the glyph at the end of daiin is an “i” with a tail then EVA-r needs to be re-examined, as well. In terms of glyph design based on some internal system known to the scribes, it’s possible that the “v” is an “i” with a bottom-tail and EVA-r is an “i” with a top-tail. In fact, there are times when EVA-sh is written with a tail attached to the top of the crossbar (similar to EVA-s but without the right-hand part of the character) and sometimes to the bottom. This is more apparent in some hands than others.

Superficially, almost all the VMS glyph shapes can be traced to Latin and Greek (I’m still trying to finish my blog on this, but I’m nose-deep in examples that have to be sorted and inserted), but even if they are, it’s possible the relationships between the shapes are based on certain conventions unique to the VMS.

Some closing thoughts…

It’s true that EVA-d occurs very frequently before ai, but we have to keep in mind that more than a dozen other glyphs can directly precede ai, as well, including EVA-t and EVA-k (EVA-k more than twice as often as EVA-t).

It’s also important to consider one-to-many relationships—EVA-d is sometimes written like a c combined with Latin -is abbreviation, rather than a rounded figure-8. If it’s a ligature, it may stand for two units or something else.

I have more examples of glyphs that may not fit the assumptions made in historic transcripts, but I’ll save them for future blogs.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Scribal Relationships

Today’s blog isn’t directly related to the Voynich manuscript, but may be of interest to paleographers and medieval bibliographers in general.

Connecting the Scribes

While scanning through Vatican Ross.708, I noticed the script was similar to another manuscript I had previously seen. The writing is Gothic cursive which, in itself, is not unusual. This style of script was common in the 15th century throughout northern Europe, Bohemia, Lombardy, parts of northeastern Spain and, to some extent, the area around Naples and Salerno.

In fact, it never ceases to amaze me that a specific style of writing could be so widely distributed in the days before television and public schools began to standardize culture and teachings, especially when travel was so treacherous—turbulent seas and precipitous mountain passes were significant obstacles. If you were fortunate enough to have a horse or mule, there were places you had to dismount because the trail was too narrow for both horse and rider or, if the path wound along mountain cliffs, there was a real possibility the animal would slip and plummet, and it was better not to be astride when that happened.

This book has been sewn into a swaddling girdle to protect the manuscript on journeys. The knot could be used to tie it to belt or saddle. [Image courtesy of the Yale Beinecke Library.]

Considering the distances, and the difficulties of finding food and shelter on journeys of hundreds or thousands of miles, it’s incredible that writing styles could be so similar… and yet they were. I don’t know if anyone has given an adequate explanation for this phenomenon, but it’s evident that scribes moved around and that manuscripts were carried for great distances. Book boxes, satchels, and girdles (like the one on the right) were designed to protect books while en route.

The Romans brought coins and a new culture to England in the early years and, by the eleventh century, partly due to the Crusades, manuscripts from major trading posts in the Mediterranean were showing up fairly regularly in England, a round trip of about seven thousand miles.

Handwriting as a Research Tool

A rare self-portrait of Rufilis, the rubricator and his paints, from Bodmer Ms 127.

Handwriting is an important tool for identification. Along with other clues, it can help date a manuscript, and sometimes even pinpoint a specific origin or author. For the most part, the names of medieval scribes have been lost, although there was a greater tendency to name and date them in the middle east than in Europe. This is partly because many European manuscripts were created in monasteries and humility was considered a virtue (although some monks couldn’t resist the urge to encode their names within the text or their images within the illuminations). In other cases, even if the name was known, the person who penned it may have been lost to the annals of history due to an untimely death from war, disease, or famine. In times of war, sometimes entire villages were burned, including the records.

I mentioned in a previous blog on VMS folio 1r, that the handwriting of John Dee and Isabella d’Este show surprising similarities, considering one was educated near London and the other in Ferrara several decades earlier. You can see samples here. This is strong evidence that handwriting can be similar even if it originates in different areas at different times. It doesn’t happen often, however. After searching thousands of manuscripts, I have collected a very large number of samples, and rarely see temporally separated hands that are this similar. Because there are general patterns of change over time, handwriting can help us learn about a manuscript even if we are not completely sure of its origin.

Looking for Commonalities

To determine a common origin (or a common scribe who worked at different locations), one has to study the ink and pigments, the writing medium (parchment or paper), the angle of the writing, the angle of the pen, the slant, and the spacing between letters and lines. Even details, such as the way the pages are trimmed or bound, the worm holes, the stains, and the stitching, can provide clues.

If two different manuscripts show significant similarity, but end up in different repositories, the handwriting can help determine if they were written by the same scribe or the same scribal tradition. The origins of many manuscripts are not known and the community at large might be able to help with some of the unanswered questions now that e-facsimiles are becoming available.

The Doppelganger to Vatican Ross.708

The manuscript whose handwriting closely resembles Vatican Ross.708 (recently uploaded from microfilm to DigiVatLib in Italy), is Codex Sang. 726, which is on the Stiftsbibliothek site in St. Gallen, Switzerland. The distance between Rome and Switzerland on modern roads is almost 600 miles—a three-month journey in medieval times, much of it through steep mountain passes.

The handwriting is not a perfect match, but many of the letter forms, and even whole words, are almost indistinguishable, and the slant and line spacing are a good match as well (something that often differs dramatically even if the letter-forms are similar).

Here are some samples (click to see it full-sized). The brown ink is Codex Sang. 726 (“Scribe 1”), the black photostat is Ross.708.

Gothic cursive text samples from Codex sang. 726 and Ross.708

Samples for comparison between Codex Sang. 726 in Switzerland, and Vatican Ross.708 in Rome.

The main differences are

  • the “g” (Scribe 1 characteristically loops the tail up, Scribe 2 points it down to the left),
  • the “u” (Scribe 1 writes it with an undercurl, Scribe 2 with an overloop),
  • the “w” (Scribe 1 writes it like two v-shapes joined, while Scribe 2 tightens up the first “v”), and
  • a tendency on the part of Scribe 2 to sometimes not completely close the loop on the “e” or connect the stem on the “r”.

After collecting hundreds of samples of Gothic cursive, I’ve noticed it’s rare to find two scripts that are this similar unless they are by the same hand. Maybe they learned from the same tutor. Maybe they were blood relatives (sons often learned to write from their fathers).

Both manuscripts are in Middle German. Vatican Ross.708 (digitized from microfilm) is a popular story of travels attributed to John Mandeville and Codex Sang. 726 is about Schwabian history and law, so they are quite different in subject matter.

I can’t tell if Ross.708 was written on paper or parchment, but there are some vague horizontal striations in the muddy section about an inch in from the right on the bottom of page 2 that might suggest paper but it’s not clear enough to be sure. Note the Ex Libris mark on the same page for Bibliotheca Rossiana indicating that it probably originated from the de Rossi collection before it passed into the hands of the Society of Jesuits and the Vatican.

Sang. 726 is believed to be from S.W. Germany. It is listed as a late 14th or early 15th century document but I suspect it’s 15th century, probably closer to mid-15th century. It doesn’t use a single-loop “d” or double-story “a” as was more common in the 14th century, and it was written on paper rather than parchment, which also suggests 15th rather than 14th century (laminated paper was available around the eastern Mediterranean in earlier times, but laid and the later calendered papers, as were typically used in Central Europe, came later). Paper was available in France and Germany in the early-to-mid 14th century, but did not come into common use for manuscripts of this kind until about a century later.


So does any of this relate to the Voynich manuscript? Well, yes. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, most of the writing on the last page of the VMS is Gothic cursive script, which adds another piece of evidence to the estimated 15th-century origin of the manuscript and which relates to some of the research I’ve been doing on the text (to be posted later).

Also, Ross.708 (which was brought to our attention on the Voynich forum by René Zandbergen), includes a number of alphabets that might be of interest to Voynich researchers.

Whether these Mandevillian alphabets are actual or mythical is debatable, since Mandeville’s supposed travels have never been substantiated, and they scarcely resemble real eastern alphabets (note that each Mandeville story is accompanied by different illustrations), but they have some interesting shapes, some of which can be traced to other traditions, and might provide some food for thought.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

The VMS Paint Pot

Artemis grinding azurite. You can see the picture full-sized and visit her interesting Jan. 14 blog on mixing pigments here (and note what she says about the time it takes to grind the minerals).

Much has been said about the possible origins and meanings of the VMS drawings but maybe the technical aspects of the paint should get some attention, as well.

In my previous blog, I posted some examples that suggest more than one person may have colored the VMS illustrations. I suspect there were at least two hands, based on differences in brushwork (smooth or scratchy), mixing of colors (reluctance to mix or propensity to mix), and attention to detail (extending the paint into narrow channels or avoiding tiny spaces).

I’ll have more to say about the painting styles in future articles, but I’d like to devote at least a couple of blogs to the composition of the pigments, starting with the color blue…

Back Story on the Testing

For a long time the Voynich manuscript went untested. In Wilfrid Voynich’s day, scientific examination was primitive compared to what we have now and may have been prohibitively expensive. In recent years, testing has improved, as has the availability of services. There may also have been some reluctance on the part of the library to subject the manuscript to tests, some of which can be invasive and some which might yield undesired results (such as evidence that the manuscript could be a fraud). Fortunately, the desire to know appears to have overcome any initial reluctance and the vellum and pigments have been sampled for radio-carbon dating and spectral analysis.

In April 2009, McCrone™ Associates, Inc., of Illinois, USA, provided a report on VMS pigments to the Curator of Modern European Books and Manuscripts at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. This report provides additional evidence and support for the early origin of the VMS. While it’s still possible to mix pigments from natural materials, it requires knowledge, skill, and access to sources to do so, and the use of some of these materials was essentially obsolete at the time Voynich acquired the VMS.

To test the blue, McCrone took samples from the tip of a stem on folio 26r and reported that the blue paint “was unambiguously identified as ground azurite with minor amounts of cuprite, a copper oxide.” Azurite and traces of cuprite were also found on folio 78r in the blue water coming from the pipe near the top right. In noninvasive tests by other labs on a variety of manuscripts, azurite appears dark in near-infrared spectral scans. In the McCrone report it describes how the samples were mounted on slides and examined with spectrographic tests.

Characteristics of Azurite

Azurite striations in rock fissures. Image courtesy of geology.com.

Azurite is a natural substance that occurs when water and copper ore interact under the right conditions to oxidize. It can range from a bright cyan to violet-blue to a deep slate-blue.

Azurite is a brittle substance—it scratches and breaks easily. It is beautiful, but only of limited use for jewelry-making. It is useful as a pigment, however, for creating paints and dyes.

In the VMS samples, the impurities (cuprite) were minor. The fineness of the powder depends partly on the patience of the grinder and whether it is sifted to remove larger particles. Despite its utility as a pigment, azurite has never been abundant, and the labor involved in finding and removing it from copper ore is considerable.

Use and Characteristics

Detail of Hans Holbein’s “A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling” (c. 1527), National Gallery of the U.K., was tested and found to include two layers of grainy azurite bound with linseed oil. Other very basic pigments were also detected, including copper resinate, lead white, lamp black, red earth, Cologne earth, and vermillion (a shade of red). The naturalism and variety of colors the master was able to achieve with a limited palette is remarkable. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Grinding and mixing with water, and optionally a binder (usually a gum binder), is all that is needed to turn azurite rock into paint. How easily it can be applied depends partly on impurities and how finely it is ground. Longer grinding makes it easier to mix and spread, but also creates a paler shade of blue that may be less desirable.

Mixing with chemicals other than simple gum binders can turn it darker, greener, or grayer, but this is an inexact process and mixing with other pigments to adjust the colors is often preferred to heating or adding oils or egg binders.

Azurite lightens over time, but darkens if heated, and may turn greenish if exposed to excessive heat or humidity. Despite its mutable nature, many medieval paintings and frescoes have retained their blue tones remarkably well (see Holbein painting) while others, such as “Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints” by Raphael, have become darker or greener over time.

Azurite was popular among medieval and Renaissance painters. It was easier to obtain than lapis lazuli (an expensive semi-precious stone that was imported from northeast Afghanistan and possibly also from the mountains of Siberia, north of Mongolia).

Azurite was also widely used for embellishing manuscripts, as in the lavishly illustrated Pabenham-Clifford Hours MS 242 (England, early 1300s), which includes azurite throughout.

The Pebenham-Clifford Hours make liberal use of azurite for backgrounds, floral motifs, coats-of-arms, and embellished initials. Other pigments include carbon black, lead white, verdigris, and vermilion, and a red dye that may have been derived from cochineal. Skillful mixing of these pigments has created intermediary tones of gray, pink, and light blue. Note that despite the wide range of colors, purple is almost entirely absent.

Some medieval manuscripts were painted with both azurite and ultramarine, not only on the same page, but sometimes layered on top of one another, as in this example from the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The Fitz Museum has examined the combined use of azurite and ultramarine in medieval manuscripts. In the Pontifical of Renaud de Bar MS 298 (commissioned by the Bishop of Metz from Lorraine in the early 1300s), the tent decorations are ultramarine, while many of the diamond-shaped background patterns include azurite. In other sections, as in some of the frames, the azurite has been laid down as a base color, with ultramarine embellishments on top.

Azurite was less expensive than ultramarine, and more stable and less complicated to prepare than some of the other natural blue pigments. Despite its relatively high cost, it became a mainstay for more than 300 years.

Which brings us to the big question… since azurite was used to create the blue paint for the Voynich manuscript, where was it from? Does it answer any questions about the manuscript’s origin? And why were the painters reluctant to mix it with red to create purple? This is too many questions to answer in one blog, so I’ll start with the availability of azurite…

Sources of Azurite

In ancient times, azurite was mined by the Egyptians on the Sinai Peninsula and used on the island of Crete to decorate ceramics. Pliny called it κυανός (“deep blue”). The modern name is derived from the Persian word lāžward (their word for lapis lazuli, and also the location where it was obtained), which was adapted into Latin and French to become azur, a more general term for blue and, eventually, azurite.

The Rio Tinto area in southern Spain has been mined for thousands of years, supplying a variety of minerals, including azurite, to the Mediterranean region. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

In the middle ages, azurite was called bleu de montagne and Bergblau (mountain blue), as well as azure d’Alemagna and lapis Armenius (Armenian stone). The name “citramine” was used to distinguish azurite pigment from “ultramarine” (made from lapis lazuli). Culpeper mentions both Lapis Armenius and Lapis Lazuli as medicinal substances.

Azurite was extracted for centuries at the ancient Rio Tinto mines in southern Spain, possibly into the middle ages. The silver mines in Saxony may have been a minor source from about the 12th century, as were deposits in Sardinia. Azurite was used in the far east, as well as in pre-Columbian South America.

E.W. FitzHugh reports that in western China, azurite has been recorded in the literature at least since the 3rd or 4th century BCE and  has been used in Japan since the seventh century. The basic eastern palette based on natural pigments is very similar to that of western Europe.

Gold mines in Sardinia, Italy, may have yielded azurite in the middle ages. [Image courtesy of Google Maps.]

In Europe, azurite was especially popular from the 14th century onward. Northern Hungary (esp. Rudabánya), Spain, and France (especially Lyons), were significant sources of azurite. Chessy-les-Mines in mideastern France is known for its deep blue azurite called “chessylite” but it may not have been available until after the Renaissance. Northern Hungary was a significant source until Ottoman occupation made it unavailable to the west.

Granite impregnated with azurite has been found in India/Pakistan, but this may not have been known in the middle ages when prospecting was done with hand and axe rather than machines and dynamite. Azurite is mined in Namibia,  Zimbabwe, and the Gold Coast, but African sources other than Morocco tend to be more recent.

As a mine gets deeper, azurite becomes less available since it requires a process of oxidation. Many ancient sources were tapped out and the mines closed. Synthetic substitutes such as Prussian blue began to appear in the 1700s and substantially replaced azurite, although a small revival has occurred, with azurite again being used by restorationists and experimental artists.

Azurite was not cheap or available in large quantities, but it was widespread. Those who had the resources to buy it, apparently could get it through the major trading centers, so it’s hard to know, exactly, where the VMS painters bought or made their pigments. We don’t even know for certain if azurite was used throughout the VMS, but it’s a piece of the puzzle and it may be significant that lapis lazuli, the more expensive shade of blue, was probably not used (further testing would be needed to confirm this), even though it was apparently available to those who really wanted it.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Pigments and Painters

How Many Scribes?

Some time ago, Currier proposed that more than one hand penned the Voynich Manuscript and labeled the pages as to which hand scribed it. I haven’t looked at these designations because I wanted to decide for myself whether more than one hand was present.

After creating my own transcript of the VMS text, and looking at every word in the document, I’m convinced there was more than one scribe and perhaps more than two. The hand at the beginning is a little rounder, the one that follows a little smaller, slightly less round, and shows signs of maybe being a quicker hand. I have more to say about this later, but it brings up questions about whether the VMS was 1) a cooperative project or 2) a situation where someone picked up the work where someone else left off. It is evident that the same systems of composing the glyphs were known by both scribes—there is a high level of consistency between the construction of the VMS word-tokens on the various pages—so perhaps the two main scribes were contemporaries.

How Many Painters?

It’s more difficult to assess whether those who added the text also created the drawings or added the paint, but it is possible to assess the styles to see if they were painted by different hands.

After looking through all of the VMS illustrations, I’m reasonably sure there was more than one person painting the drawings. The easiest way to explain my observations is with visual examples. This is not a comprehensive overview of the drawings (it deals only with the paint), and it doesn’t include examples that might have been painted by a third hand (if such a hand exists), but it’s enough to give a sense of why I believe there was more than one painter.

Some pages are hard to assess. They don’t have enough paint to reveal the style and those with blue pigment are problematic because the blue appears to have been more difficult to mix and apply, making it harder to distinguish any difference in styles, but those with a preponderance of greens and browns, which blended more readily, give some clues as to painting styles.

It’s a large image—you may have to click on it (and click again when it opens) to see the details, such as the brush strokes, and the tips of the leaves:


If the only difference between the two sets of samples were the care and attention with which the paint was applied, it would be hard to know if this were two painters, or one painter having good days and bad days, but the different way the brushstrokes are blended or not blended, the greater propensity for color mixing, and the different color “sensibility” (use of brown for accent and variety) increase the likelihood that more than one person painted the images.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Did Cicco Simonetta Bomb at Code-Breaking?

First a Few Words…

hose who know me know that I actively avoid looking at previous research about the VMS and have probably only read about 1/50th of what is out there. I hate spoilers and movie trailers—I enjoy the journey and the element of surprise.

If a new puzzle or game comes out, something like a Rubik’s cube, then lock me in a room and I’m happy. If you give me a book on how to solve it, or even the smallest of hints, I’m not happy—I want to solve it myself.

If I have an hour to spend reading someone’s analysis of the VMS or looking at the VMS itself, I usually choose the VMS. I like primary sources. If I have to learn a new language or other skills to understand it, that’s fine. It’s hard to find the time, but the effort is worth it.

Then along comes the Voynich forum and a personal dilemma… I want to support the forum. It’s a good thing because not everyone has blog-space and it provides them a more neutral environment to publish their findings than someone else’s blog. But it’s difficult to actively support a forum without reading it and if I’m reading it, I should be contributing, as well—to give something back. So… the peaceful days in my little cave are over and I’m now part of the “Voynich community”.

It’s not a bad thing, times change and we have to adapt, and I’ve met people I like and respect, but I’m in this weird twilight zone—I’ve only read a small portion of the prior research, which means I have no idea what people are talking about on some of their blogs!

Which brings us to the topic of today’s blog…

Enticed by a blogosphere note on the Voynich forum, I visited Nick Pelling’s Cipher Mysteries site today, where he posted a summary of Philip Neal’s translation of Cicco Simonetta’s treatise on decipherment.

I’ve barely heard of Philip Neal and I know nothing about Cicco Simonetta, so I was happy to see a summary, but I had a what-the-heck? reaction as soon as I started reading it. Who was this Cicco Simonetta dude and where did he get this information? I couldn’t believe my eyes and had to look up the full translation to confirm my impression… and then was even more surprised. It wasn’t some cockamamie 20th-century misunderstanding of 15th-century code-breaking, this was written in the 15th century!

The only way I can think of to explain my reaction is to go through the major points. It’s dated 1474, Pavia, as a treatise on extracting ciphered writings.

Note that Simonetta appears to be describing only Italian or Latin as possible languages for the ciphered text, even though there were many ciphered documents in German, Spanish, and French in the general region of northern Italy. At least I hope he’s only talking about Italian when he says “vulgar language”, because the generalizations only make sense in that light.

Simonetta’s Suggestions for 15th-century Code-Breaking

Evaluate the Word Endings

First Simonetta suggests looking at endings to determine if the code is in Latin or “the vulgar tongue” and counsels that five or less variations indicate vulgar tongue.

Right away we know Simonetta must be assuming that there are no null characters, that the spaces are real (not contrived or arbitrary), and that this is a one-to-one substitution code, otherwise it’s impossible, without significant analysis (and a little bit of luck) to determine which parts of the code are word endings.

Is it valid for Simonetta to make this assumption in the 15th century?


Many codes were, in fact, one-to-one substitution codes, but it’s certainly not a given—it’s an extremely low level of encipherment. If there’s enough text, you can simply stare at it for a while and the word-structure starts to become clear (you begin to see where the vowels and consonants are) and then the general language group becomes easier to recognize and, if you can narrow it down to a language group, after a while words start popping out at you.

This is what happened when I recently read a long manuscript in a dead simple substitution code based on astrological symbols. After a few pages, it was clear that it was probably Latin, and then words like “frigida” and “elleborus niger” started popping out. It’s like playing a game where they show you three out of nine letters, but you get to see a whole paragraph, not just one word, and the brain puts the pieces together. After a couple of dozen pages, you can simply read it.

But not all codes are one-to-one substitution codes. In 15th-century Italy, one-to-many/many-to-one/with-null codes were common. In the 1400s, Tranchedino collected many such codes. Several symbols could stand for one letter, several letters could be expressed with one symbol, and several null characters were often included, all in a single cipher. In addition to the alphabetic rules, many names were ciphered from a glossary, rather than following the rules for the rest of the text. In other words, there’s no consistency in the way glyphs correspond to letters that can be used to analyze the text. And thus, there’s no way to evaluate word endings or any individual letter in the manner Simonetta suggests.

Look for One-Character Words

Simonetta goes on to say that if there are many words represented by one cipher, that the code is in the vulgar tongue (Italian) and is rarely Latin because in Latin “there be no words presented by one only letter or cipher saving four words…” Again, this presupposes that the spaces are real but is also deeply perplexing coming from someone with a “fine education” in classical languages, because it’s not true.

Simonetta’s generalization completely ignores the multitude of abbreviations that were regularly used in Latin. Sometimes whole sentences were written with one-character abbreviations. “Et” was frequently written with the character 7. D stood for domine or dominus, A for anno. I could go on for two paragraphs citing all the examples. There’s no basis for assuming ciphered text would be written out in full Latin when use of abbreviations was so ingrained.

And guess what… I almost snorted my drink when I noticed, in Simonetta’s own treatise, that he uses common one-character Latin abbreviations such as q for “qui” or “quo” and p for “per” or “pro”, thus contradicting himself in his own writings. In a cipher it’s easy to create a distinction between “per” or “pro” by the length or slant of part of the glyph (it’s difficult for decrypters to know which variations of the pen are part of the handwriting and which ones carry meaning, as Voynich researchers themselves have surely noticed).

Pay Attention to Letter Endings

After some details about “vulgar language” word patterns, Simonetta counsels the Latin decrypters to examine letters at the ends of words, pointing out that “the most part of Latin words conclude either in a vowel, or in s, or in m, or in t…”. Once again, this completely ignores the way Latin was commonly written. Word endings were often omitted entirely, sometimes with a line over the word or a swoop of the tail standing in for the missing letters. There are also many terminal ligatures. The letters “is” might be spelled out at the end of one word and then abbreviated with a simple stroke on another—the meaning is the same, only space (or habit) dictates which one is chosen. Simonetta’s writing uses this convention as well, so it’s odd that he would not consider this possibility.


I’d like to try to redeem Simonetta by saying that his advice might be useful for decoding simple substitution codes in Italian, but Italian, German, French, and Spanish scribes used many of the same abbreviation conventions as Latin, which means the same caveats apply.

Even simple substitution codes sometimes manipulate the position of the spaces. As I’ve mentioned near the bottom in a previous blog, Pal. Germ 597 (a manuscript that includes a number of paragraphs in code) has a page of plaintext broken into syllables. Even a simple adjustment to the spacing, one of the easiest ways to manipulate a substitution code, makes it difficult to determine word length or to find word endings as per Simonetta—other methods are more effective.

As food for thought, I’ll leave a typical example from Tranchedino’s collection and you can judge for yourself whether any of Simonetta’s advice is useful for decrypting 15th-century ciphers. You may also notice a few glyphs are similar to VMS glyphs but I think it’s probably because they are common symbols, not because they’re directly related:

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Letter Patterns, EVA-j

t-hunayninitialhere’s a glyph in the Voynich Manuscript EVA font-set that is mapped to the “j” key, because it resembles a j to contemporary eyes.

In the 15th century, however, the letter j barely existed. Many European languages used a soft “j” (similar to a “y” as in “you”) and it was written as an “i” preceding another vowel, as in IOANNES (Johannes) and IVLIVS (Julius).

The “j” wasn’t even part of the alphabet—it evolved gradually from an embellished capital “i” that was used for names.

To the medieval eye, the “j” shape was not a letter, it was a Latin abbreviation written as a ligature (two shapes combined together for comfortable writing—something I’ve mentioned in previous blogs about the Voynich glyphs). Here’s an example of -ris, from a 14th-century manuscript, decomposed into its parts.

The letter "r"is on the left and is combined with the shape on the right, which is an abbreviation for "-is".

The letter “r”on the left is combined with the shape on the right, a common Latin abbreviation for “-is” to create the suffix “-ris”.

Depending on the shape of the first stroke, this can stand for “-ris”, “-tis”, or “-cis” and, in some contexts it was also used for the suffix “-rum”, instead of the more common 4-shaped “-rum”.

Origins of VMS Glyph Shapes

The Voynich Manuscript borrows many conventions from Latin, so it’s reasonable to assume that the inspiration for the EVA-j glyph-shape was probably the Latin -ris. It’s also interesting to note that in Latin, -ris occurs more frequently than -cis, and this is also true in the VMS. Whether this has anything to do with the meaning of the glyph or whether it is a case of misdirection (mimicry of Latin shapes without intending the same meaning) is not known but it’s noteworthy that -ris can occur at the end of a word almost anywhere in a Latin sentence, whereas it tends to occur at or near the ends of lines in the Voynich manuscript. The shape is the same; the positional patterns are different.

It’s also noteworthy that almost any letter can occur before -ris/-tis/-cis in Latin, whereas in the Voynich Manuscript it is usually preceded by the EVA-a glyph, as in the following examples:

ajexamplesBut EVA-j is not limited to following the a-glyph. It doesn’t happen often, but it can follow other shapes:


The aj combination is the most frequent, but many other glyphs can precede the EVA-j shape, some of which are unclear as to whether they are “o”, “a”, or something else.

It’s difficult to tell which VMS glyphs are 1) combined shapes meant to be read as one glyph, or 2) combined shapes intended as multiple-glyph ligatures, but there’s some evidence that the Latin -is shape (the righthand side of the -ris) might be a separate glyph in the Voynich manuscript. There are instances where the -is loop is completely disconnected from the previous stroke and some where it is preceded by other glyphs besides the “r”, thus suggesting it may be able to stand alone:


In these examples, the -is glyph is separated from the previous glyph and is preceded by something other than the “r” shape, thus suggesting it may be a separate glyph and possibly used as a ligature.

In Latin, it’s uncommon for the -ris shape to appear anywhere other than the end of a word and even more unusual for two of them to occur in sequence unless they happen to be variations (e.g., -ris followed by -tis). Midword positions are infrequent in the VMS, as well, but they do occur:


In the VMS, “aj” is usually found at the ends of words, usually at the ends of lines, but it is sometimes written midword, as in these examples.

Many transcriptions of the VMS text do not recognize the distinction between the straight “aj” and the curved “aj” (which is part of the reason I created my own transcription), but it might be important to acknowledge the difference partly because they are separate suffixes in Latin, but also because they appear to be clearly distinguished from one another in adjacent examples in the same VMS word-tokens. For example, here we see the -ris shape both preceding and following the -cis shape:


In the first example, there are two -ris shapes and one that may be either -cis with a short stem or a different character entirely. The second and third examples are less ambiguous, however. In both, the -cis glyph precedes the -ris glyph and it appears that the distinction is deliberate, as was the custom in medieval Latin.


If we assume that the looped part of the aj glyph is the right-hand side of a ligature, and could potentially be combined with other glyphs, then we have to look for other instances of its use.

As I illustratedIsRisCisVM back in January (and mentioned in even earlier blogs), the gallows character on the right may be composed of two parts, as well. Even if it is, what the glyph means is anyone’s guess. This shape has different interpretations in different languages—it can be “Il” in French, “lis” in Latin, “Item” in German, and sometimes even a very abbreviated “peri” in Greek. It’s also possible that it’s a capitulum, modifier, or marker, and the similarity to the looped shape in “aj” is coincidental.

Note that the gallows glyph also has certain positional peculiarities that differ from “aj”. It’s frequently preceded by “o” rather than “a”, it’s not usually found at the ends of words or the ends of lines, and might be a counterpart to the gallows glyph with two loops.

roundstraightdOne other detail worth noting is that some of the EVA-d characters have a straight rather than looping stem. Is it possible this shape is a short-stemmed -cis or “j” rather than a “d”? In some places the distinction between them is more dramatic than in this example but are they different enough to be considered different glyphs?

Questions like this can’t be answered by shape alone. Position and frequency have to be considered, as well, to see if they behave differently. I’ve done this kind of analysis on some of the other morphologically similar glyphs, but I haven’t had time to evaluate the short-stemmed -cis to see if it’s different from EVA-d.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved



Entering the Entropy Zone

I’ve been trying to find a way to introduce the concept of entropy without loading it full of mathematical formulas. The word “entropy” is often invoked when comparing the quantity, frequency, and position of the VMS glyphs, which is easier to describe in numbers than in words. After some consideration, I decided that at least some aspects of text analysis could be described with charts and examples rather than with numbers.

Imagine an ice cube—frozen water. The molecules are linked in a tighter, more ordered structure. When heat is applied, the structure changes, becomes looser, and exhibits higher entropy.


This illustration is over-simplified but can still give an idea of how water molecules are more tightly ordered as ice and more loosely associated and disordered, as steam, thus illustrating states of lower and higher entropy. Similar relationships can be found in text. The association of the VMS glyphs to one another, and their relative quantity and frequency within this arrangement, can be studied and compared to ciphered texts and natural languages and expressed as numerical values.

If you’ve read my previous blogs, you’ve probably noticed I talk about the “structure” of the VMS text being different from natural languages. I gave a nutshell version of it in the blog about creating text that looks more like Voynich text where I described some of the ordering and relationships that are characteristic of the selected sample. I did not write out rules for the entire manuscript because that would take 20 blogs, but the concept can be applied to the text as a whole once it is understood that the glyphs tend to be ordered in a specific way.

So how does the idea of entropy apply to text? Maybe this too, is easier to explain with a diagram.entropychalkboard

  • On the left is an alphabet. By definition, an alphabet contains a specific character set, commonly consisting of consonants and vowels (although not every language has vowels), usually in a specific order decided by convention. In terms of text, an alphabet is relatively low entropy.
  • In the middle are words consisting of nouns, verbs, and a couple of adjectives. Even though it uses the same characters as the alphabet on the left, the characters have greater variance in where they are in relation to other letters and may be used more than once. The letters exhibit higher entropy than the alphabet.
  • On the right is alphabet soup. The letters don’t have to follow any particular order, direction, or spatial relationship to other letters. Alphabet soup has high entropy compared to words, it’s somewhat chaotic (but that’s okay, it tastes good).

Entropy and the VMS

capitali n the Voynich world, there is an oft-quoted statistic that the text exhibits low entropy compared to natural languages. It has been said that only one or two languages come close (with Hawaiian being one of them).

This comes as no surprise if one looks closely at the Voynich text. I created my own transcription of the entire manuscript several years ago, so I had no choice but to examine and evaluate every letter, every space, and one can’t help noticing how certain combinations repeat, and how certain letters re-occur in the same positions with surprising frequency. Line structure follows patterns also, with specific glyphs falling at the beginnings or ends of lines more often than one might expect.

How does the entropy of Voynich text compare to other 15th-century manuscripts? This is a broad and complex question, far beyond the scope of a blog whose purpose is to introduce the idea without all the math, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to show one example (note that entropy and repetition are related but not identical concepts—I’ll deal with repetition more specifically in a separate blog).

Comparing Two Snippets

Here’s an example from folio 81r I chose because the page layout reminds me of a song or poem and it’s not too hard to find 15th-century poetry for comparison. Poetry tends to be more repetitious and regimented than regular text, so I thought a medieval poem might resemble VMS text more than regular narrative text.

Excluding the fragments beginning with “o” on the right, and assuming the “9” and the “o” on the left are single characters, there are 23 word-tokens, and 20 repeated sequences of three characters (I was bleary-eyed from lack of sleep when I first wrote this, so I corrected this paragraph Nov. 10th).


Note that the repeating 3-glyph sequences are always in the same positions at the beginnings or ends of word-tokens. This is not a pattern we typically associate with natural languages except in specific forms of text such as prayers. poetry, or lists.

Compare this to a 22-word snippet from a 15th-century cosmology-themed rhyming poem in Italian that includes 6 repeated sequences:


In this example, there are also three 3-character sequences, but each one repeats only twice. Since this is a rhyming poem, two sequences are at the ends of words (and lines) but, unlike the VMS, the “chi” sequence appears in the middle of one word and at the beginning of another—it’s not positionally constrained.

Here’s another example, from one of the large-plant pages:


I colorized the sample to make it easier to see the patterns. Note that for the purposes of this example, I made the assumption that the “4o” sequence is intended to be together (this appears to be the case in most of the manuscript, but there are exceptions where the “4” appears without the “o”).


Even though the formatting and apparent subject matter of this plant page is quite different from the previous example, there are clearly many similarities, such as a high percentage of repeating sequences: the “4o” combination is almost always followed by a gallows character, the “c” and “r” shapes with tails are at the ends of words, the “9” is usually at the ends of words and frequently follows EVA-ch or EVA-sh, and the Latin “-ris, -cis” abbreviation (EVA-j) is always at the ends of lines (in other parts of the manuscript “j” appears elsewhere, but not as frequently as at the ends of lines). As I’ve mentioned on previous blogs, the structure is quite rigid.

Entropy is measured in a number of ways—it is not limited to repeating glyph sequences. Measures of word-length, character variability, and individual character combinations are all taken into consideration. Notice that the position of characters in relation to each other is more variable in the Italian example and the character set is larger. Most of the VMS text is expressed with about 17 to 20 of the more common glyph-shapes. The old Italic alphabet had only 17 characters, so it’s not an unworkable number but it’s fewer than most alphabets of the time and significantly less if you consider the various diacritical marks and abbreviation symbols that were in regular use. It’s also significantly less if any of the VMS glyphs are markers, nulls, or modifiers.


These snippets are only examples—they don’t mean anything by themselves. Genuine research requires hundreds or sometimes hundreds-of-thousands of samples and many different kinds of comparisons. For a draft tutorial on entropy as it applies to the Voynich manuscript, you can read Anton’s post on the Voynich forum. For mathematical studies of entropy, you can consult scientific journals and blogs, and books such as CryptoSchool by Joachim von zur Gathen. For a basic introduction, however, you can look through the VMS and see that the above patterns are common to the text as a whole—glyph-groups tend to repeat, and the same glyph-groups end up in the same positions much of the time, with variation in letter-position being very constrained, all of which tend to lower the entropy.

Does this argue against the VMS being natural language?


But that’s a subject for another blog.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved


Reconsidering the Columns

The Mystery of the Columns

i-initialn May 2016, I posted a follow-up blog about the faint letters visible on the right-hand side of folio 1r and speculated that it might be a failed attempt at decoding the manuscript. That was a guess based on seeing the Latin alphabet in the first column paired with Voynich shapes in the second, and the fact that it was later erased. Two more columns are also faintly visible, but there’s not enough detail to discuss them in depth.

In my previous blogs, I was reluctant to guess the date of the columnar writing because only a few letters are clearly visible, but I went out on a limb and estimated that it might be late-16th- or possibly 17th-century script, based on the small round shapes, the long unlooped ascenders, the slant, and the overall look and feel. I wasn’t completely sure, however, because important clues about how the writer connected the letters and spaced the lines aren’t available.

As soon as I posted the May 2016 blog, I started this blog, to describe the writing further, but was pulled away by other interests and responsibilities. The column text is a sideline for me, but studying it might reveal a few details about the VMS’s provenance, so I come back to it from time-to-time.

Who Added the Columns to the Voynich Manuscript?

My paleographic collection includes thousands of writing samples, but most are focused on Carolingian or Gothic time-frames and the VMS columnar writing is different. It looks more recent than other parts of the VMS, and more like a casual or correspondence hand than a scribal book hand, and most of it has been erased. Nevertheless, there is enough to sample some of the letters.

Voyf1rColumns1To recap: on folio 1r, the first column (to the right of the main text) is moderately clear. An alphabet has been written from top to bottom in a tidy script with small, relatively smooth curves and unlooped ascenders/descenders. I have colorized the letters to make them easier to see.

The second column starts with the VMS figure-8 glyph, followed by a small c-shape, and then some shapes that resemble the “red weirdo” at the top of the columns. I’ve colorized the “weirdos” red to distinguish them from the regular Latin alphabet in Column 1 and the VMS characters above them. Columns 3 and 4 are almost completely erased and crowded by wormholes, and column 4 appears incomplete (it’s even possible that columns 3 and 4 are one column worked in around the holes), so this blog focuses on the letters in column 1.

A Brief Background on Writing Styles

Voyf1rColumns3From a paleographical point of view, the style of writing in Column 1 is quite distinct from the angular looped ascenders and proportions of 15th-century Gothic scripts. Gothic book and cursive hands (and those that closely resemble them, like Anglicana) were predominant in the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th century and were in use all the way north to Scotland and Sweden and south to the area around Naples, partly through the influence of Benedictine and Franciscan monasteries, and partly due to commercial scriptoria that offered handwriting lessons.

Gothic cursive styles were less common in the central Italian states and western reaches of Portugal and Spain, but were used in Flanders, eastern France, and Bohemia.

Gothic handwriting is relevant to Beinecke 408 because the labels on the zodiacs, and the marginalia on the last page and a few of the other pages, are in Gothic cursive hands. The latter appears to be in an older transitional style, between a Gothic book hand and Gothic cursive (I have a detailed paper on this that I will upload in a future blog).

The folio page numbers also appear to be different from both the main text and the last-page marginalia, and it has been suggested that John Dee may have added the numbers. I have not read the prior research on Dee and the folio numbers because I wanted to determine for myself whether there is a match so I could independently corroborate or refute existing opinions and will post my observations on a separate blog. For this blog, I thought it might be interesting to ask the question…

Did John Dee Write the Marginal Columns?

johndeeportraitJohn Dee was a pious family man with a thirst for learning. His broad interests included mathematics, medicine, astrology, and many other subjects. He avidly collected books, dreamed of establishing a national library, and was eager to communicate with angels in the hope of uncovering universal truths.

Dee is often described as an alchemist but he did not engage in alchemical experiments to any great degree, except in a secondary role if they were related to angelic communication. He was interested enough, however, to read about alchemy, to have some lab materials, and to leave marginal notes in this handwritten manuscript that may have been from his library:


Dee’s margin note about “the grene lyon” (the green lion) is a reference to one of the ingredients of alchemical distillation processes. Interestingly, something I noticed as I looked at page after page of Dee’s writing, is that he appears to have picked up scribal ideas for ligatures and flourishes from some of the texts that he read or copied. I noticed the scribe on the left used a ligature for “th” and, in some places, a flourished “e” that are not found in Dee’s marginal notes for this page, but which show up in Dee’s later notes in adapted form.


In note form, Dee’s hand can be scrawly and difficult but is elegant and comprehensible when applied to finished charts and formal correspondence. Dee could draw reasonably well, valued good handwriting, and is said to have encouraged his sons to write well so as to make a good impression. (Image detail of Dee’s autobiographical notes courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians exhibit.)

In his search for knowledge, Dee ardently tried to communicate with angels and kept profuse notes of these sessions. He made efforts, sometimes on a daily basis, to contact these heavenly messengers. As a consequence, his notes, diary, and correspondence provide enough samples to get a good sense of his handwriting.

Evolution of Handwriting

By the 17th century, handwriting in academic circles had evolved from the upright, heavy, angular Gothic styles of the 15th century to a lighter, quicker, more slanted script. Compared to early 15th-century scripts, Dee’s 16th-century lower-case letters are small and rounded, the space moderately wide between letters, and the ascenders and descenders long and not always looped, more similar to the example on the right.


On the left is a typical example of mid-15th century Gothic script from a commercial scriptorium that taught handwriting. By the 16th century, paper was more widely available, making it easier to engage in correspondence and quicker, lighter hands became prevalent in academic circles, as in the French example on the right. Dee’s hand also reflects this change in style and bears similarities to the hands of a number of scholars and nobles in France, distant parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and what is now northern Italy.

With regard to the VMS, Dee’s script is distinctively different from the Gothic cursive on folio 116v and a few other folios, so I think we can rule out Dee as the author of the last page and the zodiac wheels marginalia. It also doesn’t seem likely that he was one of the primary scribes for the VMS—the slant and spacing don’t match, the time-frame is wrong, and he handles the pen differently from the main text (more about that and the folio numbers in separate blogs).

Overall Impression

As I collected samples of Dee’s handwriting, it struck me that it was similar to Marcus Marci’s correspondence about the VMS, penned by a scribe on Marci’s behalf several decades later. I haven’t seen this similarity mentioned anywhere else in connection with Voynich studies, so I sampled one of Marci’s letters, as well, based on the image at http://www.voynich.nu. As far as I am aware, the identity of Marci’s scribe has never been determined.

Most of Dee’s available notes were written between 1550 and 1600, almost a century earlier than Marci’s letter, and yet you will see the similarities in style in the image below. The only significant differences are the following:

  • Dee sometimes wrote “e” with an ascending tail rather than a loop,
  • Dee’s “g” descender is shorter (although not always), and
  • the starting leg of the “h” is frequently truncated so it doesn’t reach the baseline—in combination with the flourished “e”, this is a distinctive marker in Dee’s handwriting but the pattern can be found in a few others, including that of Isabella d’Este who was raised in Ferrara, far from Dee’s London, England.

It was necessary to hunt through several hundred documents to find a few hands that closely resembled the style of writing on folio 1r and this is still a work in progress. It may require hundreds more to get a sense of when and where the columnar letters were written. As it is, Dee’s handwriting is somewhat close, and he sometimes wrote the “e” with a hook as in the columnar text, but the slant and pressure dynamics differ, so it’s not an exact match (click to see a larger version).

The hand of Isabella d’Esté (far right) is surprisingly similar to Dee’s (with the exception of the “g”), which demonstrates not only that geographically distant writers can end up with similar letter forms, but that it’s unwise to jump to conclusions when finding something that “almost” looks the same…. there might be others that match even more closely that may lie undiscovered.


When I first saw Dee’s handwriting, I noticed similarities between it and the VMS columnar text, but after sampling the handwriting of other writers, it appears that this style of script was widespread geographically even if it was not entirely common (I encountered many other styles in the search for this handful of samples).

My gut feeling, until more data is available, is that the columnar text was probably added sometime between the late 15th century and the mid-16th century. This is very tentative, as there is so little to go on, and certainly will be revised if additional examples that match more closely are found.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

The Blue Cube

Voynich researchers have been discussing the “blue cube” on the small plants page in the Voynich forum and there are various ideas about why this anomalous object is in a section dedicated to plants and objects that look like containers.

It’s painted blue and pale yellow and is roughly book-shaped.

I wanted to know what was under the paint, so I tried to remove the paint without disturbing the faint brownish lines underneath. This is difficult because brown also includes a certain amount of blue which tends to disappear when the overpainted blue is lightened.

I didn’t expect to find anything under the blue paint. I assumed those faint traces of brownish color were just lines but was very surprised when shapes emerged that resemble writing.

Is There Writing Out of the Blue?

There may be two, perhaps even three lines of text and I don’t know if they’ll be sufficiently visible in a blog pic. The first one (the top line) I can’t be sure. There’s a shape that resembles an “M” or possibly “a M” but it might be irregularities in the parchment where the paint tends to pool.

bluecube bluecube2








The second line is less ambiguous. It looks like Voynich characters. I can almost discern an EVA-ell, then something faint that’s hard to see, perhaps another EVA-ell or EVA-r or maybe it’s a space. The following glyph looks like a figure-8, then there’s a space, then a messy shape that looks a bit like a c-shape with a blotchy descender that probably isn’t a descender at all. It looks to me like a darker paint-brush stroke.

What’s even more surprising is that there seems to be another line at the bottom in another hand. It’s not small and neat like Voynichese, and it doesn’t look like Voynich characters. It’s reminiscent of the large straight angular block letter scribbles that are drawn by children, somewhat like the scribbles on a few of the VMS pages. It looks like it might be “S A L” which is “salt” in some languages, and which might apply to a cube in a page of plants. Salt was a preservative, an ingredient in medicinal recipes, and was, of course, used in food.

If you’re wondering if I projected an expectation of the word “salt” on the shapes, I think that’s unlikely. I shook my head when I first saw it. I thought the cube might represent some resin or mineral more commonly associated with various herbal compendiums and would not expect salt to be drawn this way.

I’m not claiming the cube is salt or even that this interpretation of the shapes is correct. Why would someone represent it as a cube and paint it blue? Why would the sides be yellow with an added line that makes it look like two blocks laminated together? Salt crystals are whitish, irregular and very small. They’re grainy like sand. Rock salt looks more cubical than modern table salt but it doesn’t look like this.


bluecube4So… I’m not absolutely sure it says SAL—maybe it’s “S AL” or a parchment wiggle followed by “AL” or pressure marks from a knife as are found in a few places in the manuscript. You can click on the thumbnail right to see the larger version).

I’m not sure of any of the text—but there’s something under the paint that appears darker and more systematic than irregularities in the vellum that I have tentatively marked with dots in the bottom image.


In medieval manuscript preparation, it was common to write a color name on an object that was later to be painted. Finding text isn’t unusual in itself, but this text doesn’t show any obvious signs of indicating color.

The only glyph that is reasonably clear (on the unmarked image) is the EVA-ell, and we have to remember that all of this is very small—the marks might be artifacts created by the texture of the vellum.

Once again, you’ll have to decide for yourself if there’s writing under the paint and what it might mean.


J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

A Maw in the Map?

The VMS Portal

I have an overfull schedule that makes it difficult for me to blog regularly, but the subject of apocalyptic cartography came up on the forum today and reminded me of some thoughts I had about the Voynich “map” section.

VMSRosette1ThumbI first set eyes on the rosettes page in the Voynich Manuscript in 2008 and immediately had several thoughts about it, including the impression that it might be a map (obviously this has occurred to many people but up to that point the only opinions on the VMS I had seen were Edith Sherwood’s plant identifications).

I started with the top-left rosette and expended a lot of energy following up ideas that came to mind from this one rosette alone. Unfortunately, most of this research was done very late at night, after a 12 to 14-hour workday,  which means the notes only make sense to me, and are not suitable for general consumption and I still don’t have time to whip them into human-readable form (hopefully I can do so one of these days). Now I’m shocked to see that 8 years have gone by and I still don’t have time to post them.

So… since ideas have a way of going stale if you hang on to them for too long, I decided to summarize my first impressions, in case they are of interest to fellow Voynicheros. I haven’t looked to see if any of these ideas were original when I first had them (or if any are still original now). I simply have given up hoping for more free time and, for what it’s worth… decided to share them. These were my thoughts on first seeing the VMS “map” and Rosette 1 (top left).

  • I thought it might be a volcano (the wiggly lines in the middle looked like flames to me and probably did to other people, as well).
  • I thought it might be the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem (I considered the possibility of the illustrator documenting a crusade, but try as I might, I couldn’t reconcile the individual parts to Jerusalem—they  don’t fit quite well enough to pass the sniff test, even if some of the tombs at the time looked a bit like the tower coming out of the hole).
  • That it might be a coliseum and the mounts might be the hills of Rome (coliseums were sometimes flooded for water sports and, if games continued into dark, may have had torches lining the arena and there’s a she-wolf teats-like picture in the bathing section).
  • That it might be a “portal” to another world and, since those look like flames around the inner edges, perhaps it was meant to be a portal to hell or something along those lines (which is why the apocalyptic cartography thread twigged my memory).

I’m going to have to win a lottery to make enough free time to whip my hundreds of pages of notes into shape, and since that’s not likely to happen in the near (or distant) future, I finally decided to post these ideas as food for thought.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved