Monthly Archives: February 2016

La La La Leeeeeo

The Tip of the Tongue

LeoTongueWhen I saw the VMS Leo symbol with its tongue sticking out, it reminded me of a South Pacific tongue dancer I saw when I was a teenager. He was dressed in colorful native attire, with tattoos and face paint, a spear in his hand, and looked amazingly fierce when he came over to where we were sitting on the ground and showed the whites of his eyes and displayed his tongue.

VMSLeoDetailThe VMS lion isn’t as fierce looking as the tongue dancer, but the image made me curious about how many other zodiac Leos had their tongues sticking out. After scouring the digital manuscript archives and collecting more than 100 medieval zodiac cycles, I only found nine with protruding tongues, and only two of those had their tails curled between their legs. Another thing I noticed with all the Leos except one or two from the Mediterranean region, is that they had full manes.

None of the tongue-Leos had a tree in the background, either, so it seems the VMS Leo is unique in a number of ways. You can see the zodiac Leos I found with tongues in the following map, superimposed on political boundaries for the late 14th century.


The tongue Leos were mostly from central Europe with a few in France, the Netherlands, and eastern England.

It’s not even certain whether the VMS symbol is a lion. Sometimes spotted cats such as cheetahs are substituted for lions as zodiac symbols, but these are not common, either. The VMS Leo diverges from tradition and the tree in the background looks like it might be a palm tree rather than a deciduous tree, entirely appropriate if you consider lions are mostly concentrated in hot countries.


Leo zodiac symbol from the Kitab al-buhan courtesy of The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

It’s possible the VMS lion was inspired by zodiac illustrations of lions from the Mediterranean, which sometimes don’t have manes. There are also non-zodiac lions that have their tails curled through their legs, but whether the VMS illustrator based the drawing of Leo on having seen a lion in real life, or from studying a Mediterranean manuscript, is difficult to determine.

Since the VMS Leo resembles north-central European Leos in other ways, maybe the illustrator simply chose to draw a lion without a mane, just as he or she chose to draw a pair of crayfish (instead of a single one) as a cancer symbol, something I have yet to see in any other zodiac. Resemblance doesn’t always guarantee that a drawing was imitated.

The maned lions we think of as African lions used to inhabit southern Europe but were crowded out by hunting and loss of habitat between the time Stonehenge was built and about a century BCE except for a few that remained in the Caucasus until the 11th century. Cave lions, which looked more like the American mountain lion, were extinct long before the African lion disappeared from Europe.

TongueLeoWe know that the VMS illustrator was exposed to zodiac traditions in books or perhaps on the floors and walls of cathedrals or temples, but we don’t know if the way the symbols are drawn is based on other zodiacs or on illustrations and carvings of animals and mythical heroes not directly connected with a zodiac cycle.

Many western zodiacs, in the north and the south, included labors of the month, and sometimes those labors included animals like goats, sheep, and others, so they too might have inspired an inventive person to create zodiac symbols that were mostly like others but also different in some unique ways.

J.K. Petersen

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

How to Write Voynichese

ScribeDetailA Quick Course in Writing VMS-Style

Have you ever had the urge to write something in Voynichese that looks reasonably authentic, not just the letters, but the word-structure as well?

You can download the EVA font here (near the bottom of the page) so that you can reproduce the letter-shapes, but if you string them together any-which-way, it won’t come out looking like Voynichese. Keep in mind also that there may be two “dialects” in the Voynich manuscript, two styles of letter-combinations called Currier-A and Currier-B and I’m only going to cover one of them in this blog.

If you would like to read more about the two VMS dialects, you can look here. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet (there’s a lot of good information on the site and not enough hours in the day) but I’m sure it’s informative and I WILL get to it soon (I hope). What follows is based on my own observations.

Character Order

I randomly chose a section of text in the biological section (f77r), and created a simplified version of rules you can follow that will result in a pretty good representation of Voynich glyph-order. It might even give you some sense of how the text is constructed. Note that this applies to the big blocks of text, not the labels.

BenchChar BenchChar4Let’s start with one of the most common characters, the bench glyph. The bench char has some special properties that allow it to be split apart or to cross over other characters, but I’ll be describing a light version of Voynichese that works well for most of the text, so your brain doesn’t explode from trying to incorporate all the VMS idiosyncracies on the first go.

If you’re not familiar with the EVA font-set, you can consult a chart here on René Zandbergen’s site. Scroll about halfway down to see the Basic Eva Characters.

In this version of VMS-Write-Lite, based on a limited text selection, the capped bench char and the bench char both behave the same way, but the capped bench char is used slightly more often.

The Rules of Engagement

  • BenchCharThe bench chars can only appear at the beginnings of words unless preceded by the Gallows P or by EVA-l  (ell). There is one exception, but the ink is blobbed and I suspect it was intended to be “cc” rather than a bench char. The bench chars are almost always followed by EVA-e but are occasionally followed by “a” “o” EVA-d” or a bench char that straddles a gallows character.
  • EVAlolThe Eva-l (ell) must be preceded by an “o” or occasionally an “a” unless it’s the first letter in a word. It usually occurs with “o” or “a” about one to four times per line. I found only two exceptions to this on a full page of text. Near the bottom, there is one preceded by a bench char and one preceded by EVA-r.
  • EVAedyThe EVA-d char (that looks like a figure-8) is always followed by EVA-y and placed at the end of words or by itself UNLESS it spells out “dar” or “d ar” or “dain”. I saw only one exception to this where the text butted against a drawing and there was no room to add EVA-y. The combination EVA-dy is always preceded by EVA-e (it looks like a “c”) unless the EVA-dy stands alone. I found only one exception to this and I strongly suspect the missing EVA-e is a transcription error.
  • EVAarorThe EVA-r is not quite as common and only occurs at the end of words preceded by “a” “i” or “o” or, occasionally, by itself. It occurs on average about once every couple of lines. Sometimes it is doubled up, but each instance still needs a vowel-shape in front of it and they can be different ones as in the example on the right. There is a peculiar exception that shows up further down the page. If EVA-r occurs at the end of a line, sometimes EVA-y or EVA-ol is added and I suspect this may be to pad out the line length, but I can’t be sure without more study.
  • EVAsEVA-s can easily be mistaken for EVA-r so look carefully to make sure you don’t confuse them. After a while you get a feel for which one it is. The EVA-s occurs at the beginnings and ends of words and sometimes by itself (it’s by itself more often than most VMS characters). Whether it’s at the beginning of a word or by itself, it is almost always followed by EVA-a or occasionally EVA-o. In fact, if you aren’t completely sure if a shape is EVA-s or EVA-r, knowing this can help you figure it out.
  • EVAqoEVA-q (which looks like the number 4) is almost invariably at the beginning of words (there are a few rare exceptions), and is almost always followed by “o”. In fact, the “o” is usually connected to the 4 which is notable if you consider that most letters are unconnected or only loosely and inconsistently connected. The 4o is almost always followed by a gallows character and in the uncommon instances where it’s not, it’s usually followed by EVA-d or EVA-l. There are a couple of exceptions in the last paragraph, where it is followed by “cc” and EVA-y but I will say more about these later, because I discovered something about the last paragraph on the page in another section as well.
  • EVA-i is a rare character and almost always follows “a”. There are a few exceptions but you have to hunt for them.
  • GallowspandtGallows-P, Gallows-k and Gallows-t are almost never at the beginnings or ends of words unless it is the beginning of a paragraph or a line and then they are sometimes at the beginning. There are a few rare instances of Gallows-k at the beginnings of words mid-line (remember this is VMS-Write-Lite which documents only the more common patterns of one dialect as they appear in large blocks of text).
  • Gallows-k and -t are almost always followed by EVA-e (or EVA-e doubled) or by “ain” but are sometimes followed by EVA-al, -ar, or -y. Oddly, when they are followed by -y, it’s usually near the end of a line.
  • Gallows-P is usually followed by EVA-ol (at the beginnings of lines) or the bench char.
  • EVAeEVA-e is always midword and is often doubled (“cc”). I found only one exception in the last paragraph on f77r, and it’s a section that has been written over in darker pen (possibly by a different hand) where an “a” or bench char may have been misinterpreted as “cc”.
  • Gallows characters straddled by the bench char are usually midword, but are sometimes at the beginning. They’re not very common, occurring only four times on f77r. They are usually followed by EVA-e.

So that’s the basic structure in a nutshell for the most common characters.


GurkhasLineupYou may have noticed that VMS glyph position is quite rigid. The order and position of glyphs rarely varies from a strict set of rules, rules that are not characteristic of natural languages, rules that apply not only to letter-glyphs and glyph combinations but to their position in lines, as well.

This is one of the reasons why one-to-one substitution codes are unlikely to get good results. It also brings up the question of whether glyph combinations represent one letter rather than two, but if the manuscript is interpreted this way, then the content would be very sparse and the word-lengths so short that spaces would have to be considered either contrived or arbitrary or, if they are abbreviations, a key to the abbreviations would have to be in the head of the writer or in another document.

SpewTextIn English, we have a few conventions that one can relate to the VMS… for example, the word “the” typically precedes a noun, and the letter “q” is almost always followed by a “u”, and there are some common letter combinations like “sh” and “th” that might correspond to double letters in a ciphered script, but English is a mongrel language with many loan words from French, Norse, and other languages, and thus has considerable variation in how letters can be combined and where they may be positioned in a word.

It’s probably more fruitful to look at ancient languages and some of the Asian languages to find text with a structure similar to the VMS. In terms of letter order and positioning, the syllabic languages (where a predetermined set of syllables is combined in specific ways) and abjads (languages that are typically written without vowels) have more in common with the VMS than English, German, French, Latin, Spanish or other European languages. It’s also possible that the VMS text has mathematical underpinnings rather than a direct relationship to a natural language.

TextRepetitionThis rigidity, and a character set that is constrained by positional rules, may also account for the extreme level of repetition that is found in the VMS. Significant repetition is not uncommon in medieval documents, it happens frequently in recipes, calenders, charms, and chants, but it’s also possible that the repetition in the VMS results partly from the textual structure.

If you like to code, you might enjoy generating some text algorithmically based on this rule-set combined with some study of the referenced folio. Even if you don’t like to code, studying the glyph-grammar of the VMS text might yield some insights on how it was constructed.

J.K. Petersen


© Copyright 2015 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Dissecting the VMS Crossbow

The Bard with a Bow

VMSArcherIn the Voynich Manuscript, Sagittarius the archer has two legs and carries a crossbow. Most depictions of Sagittarius show a four-legged centaur with a longbow, so I searched for those that were similar to the VMS archer and described them in a previous post. This time, I’m more interested in the details of his dress and his bow. On the right, I’ve removed some of the text that was crowding the picture so you can see his crossbow and costume more clearly.

WarArcherIt’s unlikely the archer is dressed for warfare like the 14th century warriors pictured left. The long tail on his hat would be a distraction and a liability, but his dress is not uncommon for archers participating in crossbow tournaments or involved in recreational hunts.

TourneyClothesA pleated tunic is typical for the middle ages, as is the style of the VMS archer’s hat. The broad sleeves are not as common as narrow sleeves, but are not unusual either. On the right is an archer at an English crossbow tournament wearing a similar outfit sans hat.

Hat tails made from fabric or sometimes from the tails of animals, like foxes, were common in many areas. The VMS archer also sports a goatee and booties and appears to be wearing leggings, as his legs are painted blue.

The Style of the Crossbow

Most zodiac drawings don’t have enough detail to determine the style of crossbow, but perhaps the VMS does.

To help identify the archer’s bow, I removed it from his hands and labeled the visible parts. Fortunately, the trigger was visible, along with the shape of the stirrup. The style of the lathe is fairly clear and shows recurved tips. The catch, an important component that holds the cord until it’s ready to fire, is barely shown, but it clearly doesn’t have the crank called a cranequin that is found on some of the later crossbows. The stock looks pretty basic—this is not one of the high-octane automatic crossbows from China nor does it resemble earlier Greek and Roman crossbows that lacked a stirrup.



A hunting bow from a French manuscript from the mid- or late 1300s was drawn with a rounded stirrup, recurved lathe tips, and an angled lever. The bolt has a traditional arrowhead rather than a narrow spike.

Who Used this Style of Bow?

This simple style of crossbow isn’t difficult to find in medieval imagery—it can be seen in English, Czech, French, and Lombardic manuscripts from about the late 13th century to the mid-1400s. After that, some of the crossbows include accessories for drawing the cord and some have spikes on the stirrup, which I assume is to stabilize them in the soil when stepping on the stirrup.

I don’t have enough images to know if it’s a general pattern, but many of the images of battle bows had straight stirrups while some of the hunting bows, like the one on the right, had rounded stirrups. It’s not a hard-and-fast distinction, however.

An early Hussite bas relief also has a crossbow with a rounded stirrup, but the trigger is not shown and the lathe is not as broad as the one in the VMS, so it’s difficult to know if it’s the same kind.

Sometimes the bolts have narrow tips, sometimes the classic arrow shape. Crossbows in a c. 1380 manuscript from France are similar to the VMS, but the stirrup is quite thick and the trigger is not shown.

SaintsCrossbowThe image on the left is not a zodiac crossbow, it’s a marginal embellishment from an English psalter created around 1330, but it’s interesting because it shows the joint between the lathe and the stock more clearly than most (the illustrator has rotated the trigger, probably to make it easier to see). The stirrup is rounded, like the VMS, but the lathe has a narrower span and doesn’t have recurved tips.

CzechCrossbowA number of the French manuscripts illustrate narrow bolts, probably developed because they could penetrate armor, while the one on the right, from the Czech region, shows arrow-shaped bolts. How accurately illustrators have represented the bolts (and the crossbows themselves) is hard to assess.

Quite a few crossbows from France, Switzerland, and the upper Rhine are depicted with a different style of stirrup that is  flatter at the end and more angular than the rounded stirrup in the VMS.

RecurvedFlatStirrupThis flatter stirrup is illustrated in a Germanic image of a hunting bow from the early 1300s (right). The lathe has probably been rotated in the image to show it more clearly, as the triggers were usually on the bottom rather than on the side of the stock. The image is thought to depict a nobleman from eastern Lombardy. Note the recurved tips.

AustriaCrossbowThe symbol for Sagittarius on the left from c. 1469 was created in southern Germany or possibly eastern Austria and has recurved tips and a flattened stirrup similar to the previous non-zodiac image. Notice also the pleated tunic, wide sleeves, and typical leggings. The pointed hat is a different style from the VMS, but it’s one of the few examples of Sagittarius with a crossbow wearing a hat.


Crossbow1463It’s difficult to find examples of Sagittarius with both legs and a crossbow but those identified so far are from central Europe. It’s even more difficult to narrow it down to crossbows with a curved stirrup, because the stirrup is usually not clearly drawn in medieval Sagittarius symbols. In fact, the crossbow in the VMS shows more details than most examples of Sagittarius with legs, with the exception of one from approximately the mid-1400s shown on the right.

The VMS archer is also unusual in that he’s wearing a long-tail hat and a beard. The other zodiac symbols with crossbows and legs don’t include these features except for the one mentioned above. You have to look at images of crossbows that are not related to zodiacs to find them.

Did the VMS illustrator add the extra details based on seeing non-zodiac illustrations or based on personal observations? As with so many aspects of the VMS, there’s a level of uniqueness in the images that adds to the mystery.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2015 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Additional image added Oct. 27th, 2016:

Sometimes I come across a picture on the Web or in my files that relates to a previous blog that is worth including with the original material. I thought this image from BNF Lat. 9333, folio 68v, (created in the early 15th century) was particularly relevant. The book was inspired by an earlier copy of Tacuinum Sanitatus—a manuscript on living a healthful life.

The image is more detailed than the VMS crossbowman, including a loaded bolt, twirled cord, and lamination seam in the stock, but what caught my attention was the long trigger, and lath tips that are curved slightly more than those in many medieval crossbow drawings. I thought readers might enjoy seeing it.


Additional image added Nov. 11th, 2016:

Another interesting crossbow image in a siege commentary from BNF Latin 6067 (later 15th c) illustrating three archers. The first is loading a bolt, the second pulls the string while his foot supports the bow with the stirrup, and the third has a more automated form of crossbow with a crank to pull the string. The crank provides more leverage but also more weight and would be more appropriate for seige warfare than hunting. Quivers of bolts can be seen attached to belts. The two fully visible triggers are relatively long (the one on the right might be slightly stylized).


Additional image added July 7, 2017:

This image post-dates the VMS, but I felt it worth including because it illustrates a long-triggered crossbow drawn with considerable detail for the time. (The source is a c. 1475 painting of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian from a region of Munich, Germany, now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne):


Additional image added August 7, 2017:

There is a clear drawing of a crossbow in Thott 290 2° (c. 1459). I was aware of it but didn’t include it in the original blog because it probably postdates the VMS. However, I’ve decided to add it because it has a long trigger and curved ends on the lath, similar to the VMS crossbow (note, however, that it has a straight stirrup), and because I noticed recently that it is similar to the crossbow and bolt in BNF Lat. 9333 noted above:

A Crusty Conundrum          15 Feb 2016

Cancer the Crayfish

The zodiac symbol for Cancer in the Voynich Manuscript is odd in a number of ways, but not in the ways I originally thought.

CancerF7bCancer is drawn as a crab in most Mediterranean areas (left), as well as in much of England (possibly due to the abundance of salt water and crabs) but was often depicted as a crayfish, as well, particularly in regions away from the coast, so Cancer as a crayfish is not unusual, but the VMS crayfish has some strange quirks that might not be immediately apparent.

VoyDoubleCancerTo begin with, there are two critters, not one. I’ve never seen a medieval Cancer symbol presented as a double image, with each crayfish facing in a different direction. Pisces is usually drawn this way, but not Cancer. Also, the line connecting their mouths is typical of Pisces, not of Cancer. Something unusual is going on.

The Anatomy of Crayfish

Crayfish2When I first saw it, the VMS crayfish looked unrealistic to me—skinny legs, tiny claws. I thought all crayfish and lobsters had fat hunky claws. Apparently not.

After some research, I learned that there are crayfish with slender legs and small claws. I also discovered the claws of the female are sometimes smaller than the male.

Skinny-limbed crayfish don’t live in one particular region. They range from Korea to the Caribbean and probably beyond, so the skinny limbs don’t help pinpoint the geography.

Crayfish1Nature is endlessly creative and the patterns on the backs of crayfish are quite varied. Some are like helmets, others have bands, some connect over the top in two layers.

CrayfishCBackZodiac crayfish are sometimes drawn with two C-shapes mirroring one another on their backs, a pattern that is also found in nature. There are some where the C-shapes connect over the top and others, like the drawing on the right, that don’t connect. From the side, they look like a piece of armor protecting the shoulder. The VMS crayfish appears to have a smaller version of this detail.

From Life or From Manuscript Tradition?

CancerF13vI wondered whether the VMS illustrator got the ideas for the zodiac by looking at a real crayfish or at other drawings. The upper one is green, the lower is red. Green or a greenish-gray is a common color for crayfish. When they are cooked, they turn bright red like lobsters, so the colors don’t provide many hints to the origin of the VMS. But that’s when I noticed the VMS crayfish was anatomically incorrect.

I was so distracted by the double image, the skinny legs and claws, and the line connecting the mouths that I overlooked a rather glaring defect—the VMS crayfish legs are attached to the tail! This unbalanced crayfish would have a hard time getting around. Given this anomaly, it seems unlikely that a real crayfish modeled for the VMS. Whoever drew it probably took the concept from other drawings and may have drawn it imperfectly from memory, since other Cancer symbols (at least those similar to the VMS) aren’t drawn this way.

CancerF48rAlmost all the medieval zodiacs I found that were similar to the VMS (slender limbs plus C-shape backs) were Lombardic and Frankish and were typically green or red. I haven’t had a chance to map them yet, and the overall impression may change when I do, but it’s true of the ones I’ve found so far.


CancerCastiilleThe VMS zodiac animals, such as the ram and bull, don’t seem to be drawn from life. They’re reasonably well done but, like the crayfish, they have some anatomical oddities. It seems likely they were inspired by other manuscripts—they follow the general format and style of the time. But there’s also a certain individuality to them. Enclosing the zodiac in a ring is very typical, but combining two crayfish in the same circle is quite unusual.

The ecclesiastical library of St. Gallen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The ecclesiastical library of St. Gallen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If the drawings were done from memory, then perhaps it wasn’t easy for the illustrator to copy directly from manuscripts (assuming the VMS author even wanted to do that). In the Middle Ages, the main repositories for manuscripts were libraries: ecclesiastical, university, and the personal libraries of the nobility. Some were probably housed by commercial calligraphy and illustration services, as well. Books were entirely handcrafted and, as such, were rare and expensive. Many books in libraries were chained to prevent theft—they could only be seen during viewing hours.

The VMS depiction of Cancer leaves many unanswered questions. Why two symbols? Why the line connecting two crayfish? Why is one green (with red highlights) and the other red? Why such diminutive C-shapes, compared to other zodiacs, and the ultra-skinny legs? Why are the C-shapes drawn so much smaller than other zodiacs?

Is the crayfish quirky because it was drawn from memory, or is it different because the VMS illustrator had a unique way of doing things?

Posted by J.K. Petersen


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

The Strong Solution          6 Feb. 2016

The Strange Story of Leonell Strong

Antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich rediscovered the VMS in a cache of old books in Italy but failed to uncover the contents of the text.

Antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich rediscovered the VMS in a cache of old books in Italy but never solved the mystery of the text.

In 1945, Leonell Strong claimed to have solved the mysterious text of the Voynich Manuscript. He was not the first to attempt to decipher it after antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich acquired it and brought it to America as the Great War broke out in Europe.

In his lifetime, Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer, corresponded with many people in an effort to decode the VMS and solidify its provenance. If it could be connected with important historical figures, the value would increase and Voynich, a businessman, would profit from his investment.

Voynich died in 1930, no wiser about the contents of the manuscript than when he began. After his death, his wife, Ethel Voynich, continued to try to unlock its secrets, to no avail. William Friedman, an eminent cryptologist, initiated a study group to decipher it in 1944 but, with the war looming large (and perhaps because of lack of progress), the study group was disbanded, in 1946.

You can read an extensive history and ongoing research at

The manuscript was eventually sold to Hans P. Kraus, who also failed to decode it or sell it at his asking price of $160,000. Kraus eventually donated it to the Beinecke Library, in 1969, where it remains to this day. Before this happened however, Leonell Strong, cancer scientist and amateur cryptographer, came into the picture around the same time Friedman’s study group was trying to decode the manuscript.

The Strong Approach

Voy93rThumbLeonell Strong claimed to have decrypted the text based on analyzing photostats of two of the VMS folios, which he refers to as Folio 78 and Folio 93. There had already been articles about the manuscript published by John M. Manly and Hugh O’Neill in Speculum, in 1921 and 1944, so he was not starting from a blank slate. Based on its format and illustrations, it was already assumed by the 1940s that it might be an herbal and medical text with a particular emphasis on women’s health.

Strong was eager to publish the medical-related information he felt he had uncovered, but he didn’t explain his solution because he wanted to decode more of the pages and was earnestly trying to acquire more photostats.

Strong claimed the reason he didn’t want to reveal his decryption method was because of “present war conditions”. My guess is that he felt the information in the manuscript, if any of it provided unique insights into medieval remedies, would constitute a treasure trove of publishable articles and if he was the first to decipher it, he could benefit from writing up his discoveries. If he revealed his decryption scheme too soon, others might get the data first.

Despite considerable efforts—that were apparently rebuffed—he never received any additional  pages. It has been said that Strong died without revealing his methods, but there are notes to his thought process and if you follow those notes you can puzzle out what he did and where he went wrong and why we are still trying to decode the VMS.


ScienceJun1945ClipStrong described some of his findings in an article in Science (June 1945), in which he summarizes the background of the manuscript, including the assumption, by O’Neill (1944) that the manuscript must post-date the journeys of Columbus because the VMS includes New World plants (a theme revived in January 2014 by Tucker and Talbot in HerbalGram).

Strong claimed that the VMS was based on “… a double system of arithmetical progressions of a multiple alphabet…” and that the VMS author was familiar with ciphers discussed by Trithemius, Porta, and Selenius as well as one of Leonardo da Vinci’s documents. These historic treatises date from the late 1400s to the 1600s, long after the VMS is thought to have been penned.

StongGlyphsStrong also claimed that certain of the “peculiar” glyphs in the VMS are mirror images of Italian letters but doesn’t explain exactly which VMS letters he means.

Given that Strong wasn’t very good at reproducing the VMS characters himself (the slants, connections, and pen sequence are mostly wrong), his analysis of what inspired the shapes is questionable—VMS shapes are found in many alphabets, including those around the Mediterranean and those in ancient documents recording dead languages.

Strong made further assumptions about what constitutes the VMS “alphabet”. In his chart, he excluded “j” and “z” and included both “u” and “v”. This works for some languages, but not for others. Clearly his assumptions were already influencing his choice of how the information was encoded, before he had barely begun, and his charts further indicate that he never looked beyond a substitution code, even if approached in a reverse numeric fashion.

Anthony Askham—the VMS Author

Many have criticized Strong’s decryption scheme based on his contention that the author of the VMS is Anthony Askham, an English academic active in the mid-1500s. I think the more important question is whether Strong’s decryption process was viable and accurate. Conjecture about who wrote it can come later and the decryption itself shouldn’t be discounted because the hypothesis about who wrote it may be wrong.

StrongLangChartI won’t go through Strong’s entire process here, it’s too long for one article (and there’s no point in detailing a method that doesn’t work), but he created a series of frequency analyses of characters and mapped them to similar analyses of a few European languages and, after assuming which one most closely matched the VMS, he created charts trying to relate various Latin characters to VMS characters for that language, dating each attempt over a series of weeks.

Where Strong Becomes Weak

And now we get to the important part and the reason Strong’s method, already based on a series of possibly incorrect assumptions, doesn’t work. But first, what were the results of his decryption? Here’s a sample of the decrypted text which he describes as medieval English:


Apparently, Strong was told in no uncertain terms that this was not medieval English and made some later efforts to map the text to Gaelic, apparently without success (or maybe he just gave up).

So why is the text above not medieval English?

To list a few more obvious examples..

  • They don’t have the word “seek” in Old English. In the sense of searching for something, they say áséc or sēċan ‎or, if you’re seeking out something, you can say gitan or begeten. In old Norse and Dutch it’s søk/soek and German, suchan. In Middle English, sēċan became seken.
  • Meath isn’t a word, nor is trunng, although -rung was a common suffix in Old English (e.g., clatrung describes a clattering sound).
  • Iqueri isn’t a word in medieval English. It looks more like Latin and while Latin was often mixed in with Old English, it was not usually done in this way and doesn’t mean anything unless you break it into two words.
  • Selfli isn’t a word, although self– can be used as a prefix (as in selflicne which can mean self-centered or self-satisfied). If the words around it made sense, you could argue that selfli was an abbreviation for selflicne, but the context doesn’t appear to support this interpretation.

Taken together, there are too many words that aren’t really words, they just look familiar (I’ll explain why below), and the grammar doesn’t pan out either. Even if you evaluate it as “note form” writing, it doesn’t appear to have coherent meaning.

Let’s take another passage, quoted by Strong in his article submission, that seems more credible:


This seems as though it might be real medical information, about eating apples and using arum (which Strong interprets as alum without explaining why it might be alum rather than arum lily) and driving air from one’s spleen as well as driving gas from the ovary.

To understand why this isn’t any more credible than the previous quotation, you have to look at how Strong arrived at these words. Did he really decrypt the letters or did he look at many possible combinations of letters and simply guess, for each individual word, what it might be?

The Madness in the Method

How did Strong arrive at these tokens that look so much like real words?

StrongCorresChartOnce he had a system worked out for mapping the VMS letters to Latin letters, he began evaluating each VMS word-token on its own against a list of “alphabets” he had developed for decipherment. In other words, he had several rows of letters (based on letter frequencies) that each VMS letter might represent. Note the column numbers on the far left. He was saying that A could be any of several VMS glyphs, B could be any of several glyphs, etc., on through the alphabet.

Even if you ignore all of his previous assumptions about language and which glyphs constitute the “alphabet”, and his assumptions about character frequency (based on already deciding on the underlying language), even if all those assumptions were correct, here’s where Strong over-reaches in his eagerness to find meaning in the VMS characters.

Strong created a set of index cards with the possible letter correspondences to each VMS glyph. You can see three of the word-tokens recorded in this example in terms of possible letters from the chart mentioned above.

The first has eight different possible interpretations of the six glyphs in the word token, the second has eight interpretations for five glyphs and the third he wasn’t so sure of (it may comprise less common glyphs) and thus he only proposed five for the five glyphs in the third example.


Under each one is the decrypted word. Strong has written ciphre, swais and lunar. How did he arrive at these? From what I can see, he took a letter from each column and combined them with the others until it became something that looked like a word.

He doesn’t appear to be following a mathematical model even though he described it as a mathematical cipher. In fact, examining all the available index cards, it looks like he inserted letters when he couldn’t create a word in a linear fashion. I have no proof of this, but based on the words noted on 13 index cards, it strongly appears as though his word formation process was subjective. There’s no sign of him uncovering a key, as would be needed for the Porta cypher, or of him necessarily having the alphabetic sequence correct, an important aid in deciphering double ciphers with this structure.

StrongIndexChart2If Strong could come up with a word by using a letter from each column, he did so. If he couldn’t get all of them to work together, he made something up to fill in the gaps. The words themselves surely came from his own vocabulary, since other word combinations are possible but he didn’t list them. For example, a token he interpreted as “childe” (which works for the first three columns but not the remaining two) could also be deciphered as POLLIS, DOGFAR, COWHAG, PURPLO, SOWGAS, LOGLAD, LOWGAS, FORLAG, OWLPAR, or several others, using only the letters listed and not adding anything that isn’t (and that’s only if you look for English-sounding tokens).

The next one, interpreted as YOV (YOU?), can just as easily be read as YOR, TOR, POT, GOT, GLO, PIT, TIT, GOO, POO, or POX using his system, so he’s not only subjectively creating the words, he’s subjectively choosing which, out of many possible words, might fit with the words that precede or follow it and then fitting those into his assumption that the text was about plants and medicine.

It’s easy to assume from the drawings that the text is about medical folklore, and that might be the simplest explanation, but we don’t know for certain if the person who created the drawings also added the text. There are herbals from that period that contain only images, the text was never added, so it’s possible the text was added to the VMS by someone else and is sensitive political commentary or historical, rather than relating to plants. Maybe an unfinished herbal compendium was taken into enemy territory as a ruse (the way a botanist was included in one of the European spying expeditions to the Ottoman palace). Perhaps spy observations were added around the drawings.


Strong assumed English was the underlying language of the VMS based on creating frequency charts for only a few languages and on the assumption that each VMS glyph represented one character. From that very significant assumption, he tried to create English-sounding words by juggling his letter frequency charts and their derived possible alphabets.

MouseOrchestraUnfortunately, even with a subjective infusion of natural-sounding syllables, most of the decrypted text is nonsense and none of it fits any known version of medieval English from the 14th to 17th centuries.

Strong will be remembered for his contributions to oncology and the study of genetics in mice, but his status as a cryptographer will have to remain in the amateur category—a hobby, which means we still have a mystery to solve.

J.K. Petersen


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

On the Bench          3 Feb 2016

Holding Hands


Bench courtesy of Creation Woods.

BenchCharThere’s a character in the VMS sometimes refered to as the “bench” character. It may seem odd to us, but in medieval documents, this is quite a common ligature, sometimes representing “ce”, sometimes “cr”, sometimes “er”. It depends on the language and the context. It was written as one character to follow the flow of the hand. It also somewhat resembles the Greek letter Pi  (although it’s a bit curvier).

BenchArcVaryNo one is certain what it represents in the Voynich manuscript and it’s not entirely clear if it’s a ligature or a character on its own. Sometimes it is plain (as shown above) and sometimes it has a cap (see right). The shape and position of the cap varies quite a bit but the bench underneath tends to behave in fairly consistent ways, ways that are similar to the plain bench.

BenchDoubleThe bench is a common character. It’s found throughout the manuscript, often multiple times per line, and it is frequently at the beginning of glyph groups. Benches don’t usually sit next to each other, but there are exceptions (right).

Friends on the Bench

BenchCombinedThe bench glyph has an interesting property that distinguishes it from other shapes. Sometimes it stretches over other characters that are tall, with straight stems, commonly known as “gallows” characters. This creates a combination shape (or perhaps a ligature or a shape with an entirely different meaning).

BenchSeparatSometimes the connection between the left and right sides of the bench is broken and appears to have been intentionally written this way (rather than it being a slip of the pen). There are numerous examples of separated bench characters, but the majority are joined, so it’s difficult to tell whether it’s meant to represent one character or two (or something else). The disconnect happens with both plain and cap benches.

Apparently, the bench can cross any gallows character, although some combinations are less common than others—a bench crossing a one-loop “P” is quite rare.






Sometimes glyph combinations that look similar differ in whether the bench character has a cap.

BenchBetweenIn some parts of the manuscript (e.g., some of the plant sections), it’s uncommon to see a bench and a gallows-bench next to each other. In other parts, like the bathing nymph sections it’s not uncommon. It was suggested by Capt. Prescott H. Currier that there may be two “languages” (two different glyph-combination systems) underlying the VMS. These have been named Currier A and Currier B.

BenchExamplesYou can see how frequently benches are used in the example on the left from one of the plant pages. In this small selection of text, there are three gallows benches, two plain benches and a cap bench. Note how several of the bench characters are followed by small c-shaped glyphs. This is a common pattern. Note also that the P-bench and the gallows-bench following it are not usually combined this close together, in the same “word” token.

BenchHalfConnectThere’s a curious half-bench that appears in some of the combination glyphs. Sometimes the scribe drew only the left or right side of the bench, but it does appear to be distinct from the curved “c” shape in that the top is longer and straighter than the VMS “c” (sometimes even longer and straighter than this example on the right).

BenchSeveralSometimes the half-bench stretches across a gallows character and attaches itself to another bench on the other side (or perhaps it’s a full bench followed by a half-bench—there’s no way to tell). This long string of cap and plain benches is not common.

BenchHalfRightThere are many bench characters on Folio 1r, including gallows benches, and near the bottom is this character (right) with only the right side of a bench. This half-bench is attached to a cap bench and then what may be another half bench. You have to examine it carefully to try to puzzle out which parts belong to which because the line attaching the two parts of the cap bench is very faint.

BenchExtraCharI wrote earlier that a bench can only cross a gallows character, and this is generally true, but there are a few rare instances in which a small glyph is inserted under the bench. It looks as though this is intentional since the leg of the gallows character is shifted to the left to make room.

BenchRepeatSimTo the right are examples of plain benches followed directly by gallows benches. The glyph combinations of the two words are very similar except for the additional glyph in the character group on the right. This form of repetition, where the following word differs from the previous by only one character (either by changing a character, or by adding or subtracting one) happens frequently in the VMS and is one of the reasons people have questioned whether there is sense or nonsense underlying the unusual glyphs.

Are There Other Bench Oddities?

BenchBrokenThere is a very different bench (right), in the naked nymphs section, that stands out as fractured, globby, and unconventional. There are anomalies in the VMS that suggest someone may have tampered with several parts of the manuscript, so it’s possible this bench-gallows, which is at the end of a line, was added by someone else and may not mean anything at all.

Convenient to Write or a Different Character?

Is the bench character a ligature, a combination character, or a convenient way to write a sequence with less movement of the hand?

BenchStraddleI found this intriguing example on the right that has a plain bench on either side of the gallows but does not cross the gallows. If it’s intentional that there are two separate benches enclosing the gallows-P without crossing it (and not misdirection or a lapse of habit) then it might suggest that the stretched bench represents something other than a quick way to write a gallows with a bench on either side.

GeminiCircleOne of the difficulties in trying to crack the Voynich code is determining how much meaning might be attached to each shape. If you’re not sure whether a shape represents one, two, three, or more characters (or concepts), then creating algorithms in your mind or on a computer entails a lot more trial and error.

I’ll leave you to ponder that example and decide whether the dynamics of the bench character can help us better understand the VMS “alphabet”.

J.K. Petersen


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