Monthly Archives: February 2018

Brotherhood and Books

It’s almost impossible to search through medieval manuscripts without seeing the Ex Libris of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) on the fly leaves of books. The Jesuits also feature prominently in the provenance of the Voynich Manuscript, as there was correspondence among them about a mysterious unreadable book, and it was Jesuits who purportedly sold the manuscript to Wilfrid Voynich.

A commemorative gold piece featuring the five-petaled rose and diagonal bars of Wilhelm of Rosenberg was minted to honor his investiture as a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece in 1585. [Photo by Matthias Kauerhase in the Národní museum, Prague.]

The “Societas Jesu” (Society of Jesus) was officially established in the mid-16th century through a commendation by Pope Paul III. After a limit on membership was lifted, in 1550, Jesuits rapidly spread across the globe.

One of the first missions of the Society of Jesus was to establish schools. The Jesuit college at St. Clement’s in Prague became a university in 1562. In 1566, the college in Moravia did so, as well. In 1572, a college was founded in Brno. A year later, with support from archduke Charles, a college was chartered in Graz and attained university status in 1586.

Jesuit Missions and Jakub Horčický

Not to be outdone by Prague to the north and Graz to the south, Wilhelm of Rosenberg (Rožmberk), the nobleman who ruled Krumlov, invited Jesuits to establish themselves in his realm, in 1584, as part of the counter-reformation.

As a result, in 1588, the Jesuits founded the Krumlov school that admitted the young Jakub Horčický, as a poor student with scholastic potential who later became Emperor Rudolf II’s physician and herbalist (and whose name appears on the first page of the Voynich manuscript).

Despite their relatively small numbers, the Jesuits emerged as a unifying force among scholars in the 16th century and provided a regular communications conduit between Rome, Bohemia, and other outlying missions. Their students were not all Jesuits (although a number of them joined the order later in life)—scholarships were given primarily on the basis of need and academic potential, not on the basis of religion.

Georg Baresch (Jiří Bareš), attended the Jesuit college of Prague in the late 1500s and probably knew, or knew of, fellow Bohemian Jakub Horčický, who arrived in Prague in 1598 to study logic and sciences at about the same time Baresch was working toward his baccalaureate. There were about 800 students by this time at the Clementinum (Berenger, Simpson, 2014).

The Jesuits were probably a tight-knit group, being in the minority in Protestant Bohemia, with less than 300 officially recognized in the early 1600s.

The Jesuit Passion for Books

Libraries were an important aspect of Jesuit schools, and donations were sought to populate the shelves. The Clementinum library became the third largest of all the Jesuit libraries:

In 1562, the Clementinum college became a university and inherited a number of manuscripts that had come to St. Clement’s from the Celestine monastery of Oybin (about 150 km north of Prague). Jakub Horčický moved to Prague to study at the Clementinum in 1598. The University of Prague library, which originated sometime around 1366, had its holdings turned over to the Jesuits and incorporated into the Clementinum library in 1622. [Image courtesy of Bruno Delzant, Wikipedia]

By the mid-1700s nobleman are known to have bequeathed entire libraries to the Jesuits, and by the time the Jesuit holdings of Krumlov, a relatively small town, were transferred to Prague, in the late 1700s, there were enough books to fill 44 cases []. Unfortunately, details of the collegiate library in the 1500s are scanty, so it’s difficult to know whether the Voynich Manuscript might have passed through Jesuit hands in Krumlov.

VMS correspondence is not explicit enough to tell us if the Voynich Manuscript was in Jacobi Horčický’s/Sinapius’s hands around the time that Rudolf died, but I’ve often wondered if Sinapius, or one of his Jesuit colleagues (many of whom were interested in herbs), brought the manuscript to Prague rather than the oft-cited John Dee or Edward Kelley (or someone else who purportedly sold it to the emperor).

If we go back a few years, there are a number of possibilities…

Champion of Catholicism in the 16th Century

British Library: print of Edmund Campion, published in 1631.

Edmund Campion (1540–1581) was the son of a London bookseller, and deacon of the Anglican church. His eloquence impressed everyone, and he became a patron of Lord Dudley, with the opportunity of living a pleasant life, but Campion was uneasy in his conscience, a Catholic at heart, and left England for Ireland. Suspected of being a papist, he fled Ireland and his belongings were apparently confiscated. He made it to France and continued by foot to Rome, and became a Jesuit in 1573.

Thereafter, he traveled through Moravia, was ordained as a priest and became a professor at the Jesuit college in Prague.

As the son of a bookseller, it’s possible Campion had an eye for books. His parents hoped he would apprentice as a merchant, perhaps to help in his father’s business, but the boy was more interested in matters of the soul. Nevertheless, given the Jesuit passion for learning, it’s possible Campion picked up books along the way. If he did, some may have ended up in his father’s shop or in the hands of his Jesuit colleagues and friends.

Campion’s comfortable life as a college professor ended when tensions rose between Protestants and Catholics and he was summoned to Rome. From there, he was sent on an evangelistic mission to England, traveling in the guise of a jewel merchant, in 1580.

He was soon captured and given a stern admonition, and then released and treated as a gentleman, but Campion was resolute—he refused to be won over, and continued his campaign of conversion with unflinching ardor. After writing and distributing materials denouncing the Queen’s religion, in 1580, he became a hunted man and was captured for sedition, imprisoned in the tower of London, tortured, found guilty of treason, and executed, in 1581.

More Connections…

Campion’s father, the bookseller (and perhaps Campion himself), would surely have been known to John Dee. Dee was born in 1527, not far from London, when the elder Campion was probably in his teens or twenties, and Dee ardently collected books wherever he could find them and probably made many trips to Paternoster Row, where Campion’s bookstore was surrounded by other booksellers and publishers.

Olbracht Łaski, Prince Albert Lasky, who hosted Dee and Kelley before they moved to Prague. [Image courtesy of Jan Matejko, Wikipedia]

Philip Sydney, an English poet and diplomat, accompanied Prince Albertus Laski (Olbracht Łaski/Albert Lasky) on some of his sojourns around London and may have helped promote the meeting between Lasky and John Dee. Dee was formally introduced to Lasky in the chambers of Campion’s former patron Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, in May 1583. Sydney had also known Edmund Campion at Oxford, and met with him in Prague.

Three months after meeting Lasky, Dee packed up his family and moved, with Edward Kelley and Kelley’s wife, to Krakow and, about a year later, to Prague, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.

Dee apparently did not impress Emperor Rudolf II and failed to secure patronage as a court mathematician. Eventually, Count Rožmberk provided him a place to stay in Třeboň, where he lived from 1586 to 1589. Třeboň is less than 50 kilometers northeast of Český Krumlov (see map above), so there’s a possibility Dee visited the Rosenberg residence in Krumlov, and perhaps saw the Jesuit library. He may even have crossed paths with the young Jakub Horčický who was four years older than Dee’s son Arthur.

Dee was more interested in collecting books than selling them and his diaries don’t mention anything we can definitely link to the VMS. The various mystery texts connected to Dee have been identified by historians as the Book of Soyga and various notes authored by Dee and Kelley related to the angelic language eventually called Enochian.

In contrast to Dee, Kelley would probably sell a book in a heartbeat if he could talk it up and get a good sum for it, so it’s possible Kelley or Dee conveyed the VMS to the emperor, as has been suggested, but the possibility that the Voynich Manuscript reached Prague through the Jesuits  (or by other means), rather than directly through Dee or Kelley, should also be considered.

Jakub Horčický, tended botanical gardens and trained under an apothecary and distiller, and thus had a personal interest in both plants and alchemical processes. In mid-life he reaped a financial windfall from sales of his elixir and might have acquired a book of plants independently of the emperor. As a successful herbalist, distiller, and entrepreneur (so successful he ended up lending money to Rudolf II) perhaps Jacobi de Tepenecz was entitled to put his name on the VMS, and the “600 ducats” recorded in the letter from Marci was paid for something else.

The New Regime

It’s not unreasonable to think that Jakub may have snitched Rudolf’s book when Rudolf died, but it’s also possible Horčický was legally entitled to the Voynich Manuscript. If so, the secrecy surrounding the mysterious book in Jesuit correspondence might have less to do with it being contraband, than its appearance as a book of the occult (“black arts” were banned at the time), or possibly its immodest contents (by 16th-century standards). There are many possible reasons Horčický’s name was on the manuscript and was later expunged.

Before trying to decide whether John Dee sold the VMS to the emperor, let’s re-examine the handwriting in the VMS.

The Role of Paleography in Unraveling History

It has been said, as per expert opinion, that the VMS foliation is in Dee’s handwriting. I had to do a search, just now, to see who stated this, and found the name of A.G. Watson mentioned on the site and thereafter found Kennedy and Churchill’s book, The Voynich Manuscript, in which I noted the following (courtesy of Google books):

“Most importantly, as Professor Watson wrote in 1986 to Yale University, ‘the foliation in the Voynich manuscript is Dee’s…even allowing for the notorious difficulty in deciding that figures are or are not in one hand, I am sure as I can be’. He refers to comparisons made with two Dee documents in the Bodleian Library’s Ashmole Collection…” (Kennedy & Churchill, 2006)

I am somewhat in sympathy with Professor Watson’s opinion, the handwriting is very similar to Dee’s handwriting, even given that Dee had three hands: a scrawly note hand, a script hand, and a calligraphic hand. Even though Dee’s handwriting is variable, there is still a reasonable amount of consistency in how he wrote numbers (with the calligraphic hand having slightly more serifs).

However, unlike Professor Watson, I cannot say that I am “sure as I can be” because I have found examples of numbers in other manuscripts, from other regions, that are arguably as similar or more similar to the VMS foliation than Dee’s.

It wasn’t easy to come to this conclusion. I had to collect almost 400 samples of late Medieval and Renaissance numbers to locate about a dozen that were similar to the VMS foliation. In particular, the way the 3, 5, 7, and 9 are written in the VMS are specific to this scribe and difficult to find elsewhere as a group.

Note that the number system used for the foliation is of a later date than that of the quire numbers:

Comparing VMS Numbers to Those on Medieval Manuscripts

I consciously searched for samples that were similar to the VMS, and developed a mathematical scale for comparing the shapes more objectively so they could be searched and sorted by computer.

This is work-in-progress, but I am uploading a sample of what I have so far so the reader can decide whether the foliation can definitely be traced to John Dee (note that folio 12 is missing from the VMS, so the number has to be estimated by looking at others).

When sorted for the closest matches, two samples in Dee’s hand appeared in the top twelve. To convey a sense of how differently numbers could be written at the time, I have also included examples that scored in the middle, from 81 to 88.

I will discuss the results in more depth, with details about origin, date, and content, in a future blog. In the meantime, I’ll let you guess which ones are in John Dee’s handwriting (click to see full-sized):

From a total of nearly 400 samples gleaned from a variety of manuscripts dating from the 9th to 16th centuries, only about a dozen were significantly similar to the handwriting of the Voynich Manuscript folio numbers. Samples were taken from foliation and from number charts within the manuscripts themselves.


By itself, this chart does not disprove the possibility that the VMS was sold to Rudolf II by Dee and/or Kelley, but it does cast doubt on the assertion that it was John Dee who foliated the manuscript, as there are other hands that are similar and none appears to be a perfect match.

If Dee is eventually ruled out as foliator, then a Jesuit connection to the VMS, perhaps Jakub Horčický himself, might be more important to the manuscript’s provenance than previously thought.

J.K. Petersen

Copyright © 2018, J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved


Too Liberal with Labels?

A question about Robert Brumbaugh on the forum caught my attention, so I searched out a published article about his decipherment of Voynich Manuscript star names. In Brumbaugh’s article, he refers to the nymphs in the zodiac-symbols section as “souls” and proposes glyph-to-numbers-to-alphabet substitution to interpret the labels. To demonstrate his system, he deciphers folio 70v with the two fish (Pisces).

This commentary is a response to Brumbaugh’s 1976 article, “The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars” published in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes.

The Basic System

First Brumbaugh assumes the VMS is a natural-language substitution code and converts the VMS glyphs to numbers, then converts them to letters (without any interim processing). If he were adding or multiplying or otherwise processing the numbers, then numeric conversion might be necessary, but since he’s proposing nothing more than a substitution system, he could just as easily have gone straight from glyphs to letters without the unnecessary interim step.

That’s not my main criticism, however. The extra step might be a practical adaptation for feeding Voynich glyphs into a computer and doesn’t affect the outcome, which is the most important thing. Unfortunately, Brumbaugh’s system takes so many liberties with interpretation of the glyph-numbers, it comes across as a theory-driven decipherment rather than objective cryptanalysis.

Brumbaugh begins with the premise that the labels are star names, even though his decipherment does not match any well-known star-name systems currently used or cited in medieval texts. His explanation for this is that they must be names for a proposed system, or what he calls “alternate astrolabe nomenclature”.

He then describes his substitution system, which first converts VMS glyphs to numbers and then provides alternate character-interpretations for each number:

Applying the System to the Fish Folio

Brumbaugh uses the Pisces folio to explain how he deciphered the star names in the center of the rota and the inner circle, going clockwise from the top.

To save you time, if you plan to read the article, I created a diagram of Brumbaugh’s substitution assignments so that you don’t have to struggle through the minutiae, as I did, trying to figure out which of Brumbaugh’s substitutions apply to which labels in the VMS (click on the image to see it full-sized):

Summary of Robert Brumbaugh’s “decipherment” of a supposed alternate system of star names. His system is based on a significant amount of subjective interpretation of glyph assignments, spelling, and assumptions about the content of the labels. He also asserts that each VMS glyph occurs in two shapes (and thus would be assigned the same number).

Note the inconsistency between the tokens and Brumbaugh’s interpretation of them. He claims there are only five star names in the inner section of the Pisces labels (these are the free-floating labels, not the ones written within the lines), even though he “deciphers” six names and then claims that they repeat (and one of the repeats is supposedly the inner “Alfred” label).

Note in the diagram above that the supposedly repeated tokens (including “Alfred”) do not match the original tokens—the glyphs are quite different. His explanation for this is that they are alternate spellings and that there are two shapes for each character.

  • If you follow through the substitution process, you might notice that whenever Brumbaugh runs into a token that doesn’t fall into place within his system, he changes the glyph assignments and proposes alternate readings. For example, EVA-l is given four different interpretations in the four first labels (“d”, “m”, “x”, and “s”).
  • He also claims the labels are misspelled and need to be corrected (the misspellings he proposes are not especially consistent with the kinds of misspellings one actually finds in medieval texts).
  • He further claims that when a similar token occurs later that it’s an alternate spelling of a previous star name, without giving an explanation of how he would know when a similar token is or is not something previously given and supposedly re-spelled.

I don’t know how this article got published. Maybe the academics reviewing it did not have access to the VMS photostats and thus were unable to check Brumbaugh’s logic and published it on trust (or published it because the VMS was a hot topic), but there are big holes in the logic that should have been addressed before it was published.


Is Brumbaugh completely wrong or is there something to salvage?

  • Might the VMS be numbers? Yes, it’s possible, but not in the way Brumbaugh describes it as a simple substitution code. He’s only using numbers as a convenient way to describe the data—the numbers are converted back into letters without any arithmetic processing.
  • Might there be alternate interpretations of some of the VMS glyphs? Yes, that’s possible too, but not in the arbitrary way Brumbaugh reassigns glyphs to suit his theory. To wrestle the tokens into pseudo-star-names, he reassigns spelling, ignores crucial differences between tokens, imposes meaning on selected parts of the labels, and even claims this was an “alternate” star-naming system, all of which are questionable approaches to empirical research.
  • Might more than one glyph represent the same letter? Maybe, assuming the VMS is natural language, but duplicate glyph-assignment would have a significant impact on entropy and further complicates the process of decryption (not just for the cryptanalyst, but also for the person who created the text in the first place).

Brumbaugh’s research has not had a significant impact on contemporary Voynich studies, as far as I can tell, and now I understand why. Like so many other “solutions”, it depends on a number of unproven assumptions, and a significant amount of subjective interpretation.

J.K. Petersen

Copyright © 2018 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved


The Pitfalls of Unhinging Pairs

An article posted today by Marco Ponzi alerted me to some VMS text analyses I have never seen before. A Google search revealed that several researchers have studied vowel placement in natural languages and some of those concepts were used to analyze VMS text (e.g., W.F. Bennett and linguist Jacques Guy).

So I looked up Guy’s papers, read through the first one, and am stating right up front that no matter how often one runs the numbers, vowel-identification analyses on individual glyphs in the VMS is not going to work as it does for natural languages. In this blog, I’ll explain why.


For those interested in computational attacks and historical precedents, here is a summary of my Google search for the VMS-related work of Jacques Guy:

  • Cryptologia 1991 (Issue 3), “Statistical Properties of Two Folios of the Voynich Manuscript” by Jacques B. M. Guy, in which he analyzes folios 79v and 80r as to letter frequency in terms of both word and line placement, and co-occurrence, with a “tentative phonetic categorization of letters into vowels and consonants using Sukhotin’s algorithm”. This was republished online in June 2010.
  • Cryptologia 1992 (Issue 2), “The Application of Sukhotin’s Algorithm to Certain Non-English Languages” by George T. Sassoon, in which he applies Sukhotin’s vowel-finding algorithm to a number of languages, including Goergian, Croatian, and Hebrew, et al. This was republished online in June 2010.
  • Cryptologia 1992 (Issue 3), “A Comparison of Vowel Identification Methods” by Caxton C. Foster, in which he compares four methods of vowel identification. This was republished online in June 2010.
  • Cryptologia 1997 (Issue 1), “The Distribution of Signs c and o in the Voynich manuscript: Evidence for a Real Language?” by Jacques B. M. Guy, in which he references Currier A and B and builds on the Sukhotin identification of c and o as vowels and speculates as to whether they might represent o and e, “which they resemble in shape”, “a phenomenon similar to that shown by Standard English and Scots English…”. This was republished online in June 2010.

There isn’t room to analyze all these papers in a single blog, so I will confine this article to vowel identification. Sukhotin’s algorithm is given by Guy in the first paper as follows:

“Given a text in a supposed unknown language written in some alphabetical system, Sukhotin’s algorithm identifies which symbols of the alphabet are likely to denote consonants and which vowels.”

Guy then illustrates glyph-assignments in W. F. Bennett’s transcription system from the 1970s from which his own glyph-assignments are derived:

As you can see, it’s very similar to the current EVA system.

Guy then illustrates his transcription system, which is very similar to Bennett’s, except the VMS double-cee shape is acknowledged, and some ligature-like VMS glyphs are transcribed as single characters (a decision that can be debated but may not have a significant impact on vowel-analysis statistics):

Is the Above Research Based on a Flawed Premise?

Guy’s research into VMS vowels, and that of many others, neglects important co-relationships in VMS glyphs. It’s not enough to come up with a transcription alphabet and then run frequency analysis software on individual glyphs (whether it is specific to vowels or not) if there is evidence of biglyphs or positional dependence.

Many researchers accept the spaces in the VMS as word boundaries and, for the most part, assume 1-to-1 correspondences between alphabetical letters and glyphs perceived to be vowels (either by humans or by the software). Guy does not acknowledge biglyphs in any significant way other than VMS “cc”, which has a historical precedent in early Medieval Latin texts of representing the vowel “a”.

Side note: In early medieval text, “cc” usually stood for “a”, but if “cc” was superscripted, the vowel “u”  was usually intended. The “cc”=”u” is not mentioned in Guy’s paper, he only references “a” and may not have known medieval Latin well enough to know that “cc” could also stand for “u” or the consonant “t”. He does note, on page 210, that what we call EVA-e “is always followed by {t}” but he’s referring to EVA=ch, not the “c” shape in general, which is followed by a number of glyphs.

Guy must have been working from a flawed transcript because he acknowledges “cc” and “ccc” but completely neglects “cccc”, a pattern that unambiguously occurs a number of times in the VMS, but which is almost entirely ignored in most transcripts (including the popular Takahashi transcript). But even this may not be a significant hindrance to analyzing text patterns.

A perplexing statement in Guy’s paper is that he acknowledges the ligature-like nature of some of the VMS glyphs but then partially negates this by stating: “It is certain, then, that {ct} and {et} represent single letters.” By “ct” and “et”, he is referring to EVA-ch and EVA-sh and I think there are many who would debate the certainty of this assertion.

Pairing-Patterns in VMS Text

I have described glyph co-relationships in previous blogs, including biglyphs, Janus pairs, positional constraints, and the “rules” for reproducing samples of VMS text from a conceptual basis and with examples, but this time I have decided to keep it simple and use just one glyph to get the message across in a more explicit way.

As an example of co-relationships that could significantly alter the results of computational attacks, I will refer to the backleaning glyph expressed in most transcripts as the Latin letter “i” (this glyph also appears on the third line of folio 116v in the middle of a word that resembles Latin “vix”, but this appears to be an exception).

Guy analyzed two different transcripts and, in his results charts, identifies the “i” glyph as vowel #6.

Here is a detail-clip of Guy’s results from one of the transcripts he used for analysis. The chart was published in Cryptologia, 1991, Issue 3, p. 211. Glyphs that have been statistically analyzed as candidates for vowels are listed in the left-hand column. You can see quite clearly that EVA-i appears only in the medial position:

The Crux of the Matter

The problem with analyzing (or perceiving) the “i”-glyph as a vowel (or any individual letter) is that it is only positioned in one way in the VMS.

This is in stark contrast to natural languages, where vowels are found in many positions, both 1) in relation to other letters and 2) within a word.

I call EVA-i the “pivot” glyph due to its position in tokens and the way specific glyphs precede or follow it and I have not been able to find any natural language in which any vowel is always preceded by the same letter, and is always in the medial position, as in the VMS. This is why I constantly refer to the “rule-based” and “positionally constrained” nature of VMS text.

Looking More Closely at the Rules for EVA-i

With the exception of folio 116v (which may be marginalia in another hand), the backleaning-i cannot stand alone and must be preceded by “a”. It can only be followed by certain specific glyphs or glyph-groups.

VMS “i” differs from “o” and “a” (identified as vowels #1 and 3 in Guy’s chart) in that “o” and “a” can be paired with other glyphs and can move around somewhat (and can appear at the beginnings of tokens), whereas the “i” glyph cannot.

Before one argues that “i” can be preceded by another “i”, consider this…

The minims that appear after “ai” in “dain” are commonly transcribed as “n”, “m”, “v”, and there are many places in the VMS where the scribes have written them with a curved connector similar to the shape “u” (in contrast to most glyphs in the VMS, which are not connected), so the general feeling is that the minims that follow “ai” are not necessarily additional “i” shapes. Guy also acknowledges this ambiguity on page 210, and Bennett  transcribes the minims as “m”, “n” or “u”.

After going through every glyph in the VMS numerous times when I was creating my transcripts, I record them as follows:

The glyph-pair “ai” occurs almost 6,000 times in the VMS. If you run the numbers on popular transcripts, you may get different results, because the distinction between minims is not recognized in many of them (as discussed in the above chart).

But even if the minims are interpreted in a completely different way from the way I have drawn them above, even if one supposes all the minims are the same glyphs, the essential problem remains… the minims, as a group, must be preceded with “a” and do not occur at the beginnings of tokens, only together, and only at the end. The argument for “i” being a vowel becomes even weaker!

Guy acknowledges the possibility that the “i” strokes might be minims (or something else), but nowhere does he address the important fact that however one transcribes them, individually or as a group, “a” must precede them and they are never at the beginnings of words. These characteristics, taken together, are why we must question their interpretation as vowels.


Early researchers like Bennet and Guy were working with low-resolution B&W photostats, so some of their misconceptions can be forgiven, but ignoring glyph-placement is hard to excuse. Even if you can’t see fine details of individual letters, there’s no mistaking the following properties of EVA-i:

  • EVA-i is virtually always preceded by “a” (there are 7 rare instances (only 1/10th of 1%) of an “r”being inserted between two minims and one is especially strange as it is in different handwriting, is out of line, and is proportioned differently),
  • EVA-i never appears at the beginnings of words,
  • EVA-i rarely appears at the ends of words unless all the minims are assumed to be the same, and then they are always at the end, and
  • only certain specific glyphs follow “i” (I’ll include further details in a future blog).

The only way to resolve “i” into a natural-language vowel is to consider additional ways in which the text might be manipulated (as examples one would have to manipulate spaces, letter-order, or assign the same letter to multiple glyphs, or perhaps assume there are “hidden” minims, which is starting to stretch things a bit far, etc.). As it stands, if the spaces and letter-arrangement are taken as literal, and the glyph-assignments are considered consistent throughout the document, there’s not much evidence to support EVA-i as a vowel using the form of analysis proposed by Guy.

One might try to relate ai to “qu” in the sense that they are often found together and “q” rarely exists without “u”, but “qu” occurs in many different locations in a word, as can most common pairs of letters in most languages. The analogy doesn’t hold.

The Consequences

The behavior of EVA-i also affects the interpretation of EVA-a. If “ai” turns out to be a biglyph, then other instances of “a” have to be evaluated separately from “a” + “i” and the statistics will change, as will the number of glyphs that form the Voynichese “alphabet”. If there are other biglyphs (which I believe there are, as described in my blog about Janus pairs), then all the single-character computational attacks and early “vowel-assignment” research needs to be re-visited.

If, on the other hand, “ai” is not a biglyph, EVA-i is still problematic because one has to ask, “What is the purpose of the preceding “a”? or of “i” itself?” It’s possible that neither EVA-i, nor some instances of EVA-a, are vowels. They might not even be letters, but even if they are, they can not be statistically evaluated without taking into consideration the relationship of “i” to its companion.

J.K. Petersen

Copyright © 2018 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Aegis and Bacon

In 1267, Roger Bacon sent his Opus Maius and a number of related treatises to Pope Clement IV. The works comprised a brave and impassioned plea for scientific inquiry into all aspects of life (including the occult arts and arts practiced by folk outside of scholarly circles). Friar Bacon hoped that the support of the pope could raise the Catholic faith above its traditional limitations, but Clement IV died in 1268 and may not have read Bacon’s writings. In 1277, Bacon was condemned and subsequently imprisoned for his outspoken and unconventional views, and lived only a short time after being released in 1292.

Bacon loved science and one of the subjects dear to his heart was optics. This may be of interest to researchers studying containers in the Voynich Manuscript because some have said that c. 1404 to c. 1438 is too early for any of the containers to be reading tubes or telescopes, but this statement by John Henry Bridges in 1900 suggests the technology may have been available long before the VMS:

Of the magnifying powers of convex lenses Bacon had a clear comprehension. He imagined, and was within measurable distance of effecting, the combination of lenses which was to bring far things near, but which was not to be realized till the time of Galileo…. in his Optics Bacon shows that he was acquainted with the properties of parabolic concave mirrors, and of their power of causing parallel rays to converge after reflection to a focus. in this respect he was in advance of his principal teachers in Optic, Euclid, Ptolemy, and Alhazen.

Bacon was familiar with parabolic concave mirrors, had a specific interest in lenses (and may have had some in his possession), and was far ahead of his time in believing that radiant energy could pass through space and air independently of the eye (in contrast to those who asserted that sight was based on the eye producing light rays).

Commentators say that Bacon derived much of his knowledge from Alhazen’s Thesaurus Opticae, but understood it from a fresh perspective in which he questioned traditional assumptions and pursued the ideas as practical embodiments.

Bacon may have been very close to inventing telescopes and microscopes before his tragic incarceration in the late 1270s, and others must have been inspired by him or had similar ideas, because wearable eyeglasses appear to have been in use by 1270, as attested in German Minnesänger ballads, mentioned by C. Barck in 1907 and located by Villiers and Pike in the German Handbook of Inventions by Busch (1795):

Brille besteht aus zwei geschliffenen durch eine Einfassung mit einander verbundenen Gläsern, durch welche die Gegenstände den Augen deutlicher erscheinen. [Eyeglasses are made from two ground/polished glasses, which are connected to one another through a mount/rim, through which the eyes will more clearly see objects.]

The Busch passage illustrated in German script by Villiers and Pike states that Roger Bacon believed that eyeglasses were known in Germany by 1270, quotes the above passages, and writes that they say expressly that old people used them [eyeglasses] to read.

The invention of eyeglasses has sometimes been credited to Salvino d’Armati, in 1284, but in the absence of a supposed epitaph on his tombstone, no evidence supports this claim, and the Minnesänger reference predates it by 14 years.

Friar Alessandro della Spina is said to have created eyeglasses late in the 13th century based on ideas obtained from an unnamed craftsman, possibly by a Pisa artisan. In the archives of 1313, the apparent year of Alessandro’s death, is written:

Brother Alessandro della Spina, a modest and good man, learned to make all industrial products of which he saw or heard. Spectacles, which were made first by some one else, who did not want to communicate anything about them, were then made by him, and were distributed with a cheerful and benevolent heart. [C. Barck, 1907]

Bacon mentions reading lenses (ground-crystal lenses placed directly on parchment to magnify the area beneath it). These lenses were more convenient than using a glass globe of water as a magnifier, an idea that had been around since the time of Seneca (c. 30 CE).

Reading tubes (short sighting tubes with lenses added) probably also preceded wearable glasses. It was a logical evolution, as lensless sighting tubes existed in early Greco-Roman times.

Visby lens [Photo credit: mararie, Wikipedia]

Early lenses were not always vision aids—some were decorative, and some were used to concentrate sunlight to illuminate a dark corner or start a flame, but their magnification abilities did not go unnoticed, and lens development was not confined to the south—crystal lenses were made in Scandinavia, as well. Lathe-turned lenses of a quality and shape that was remarkable for the early medieval period (and which were close to optimum for magnification) have been found in Viking graves on the island of Gottland (Sweden).


Fresco painting of Dominican Cardinal Hughes de St. Cher wearing glasses. [Risorto Celebrano, on Wikipedia].

The earliest eyeglasses have disappeared, but spectacles were painted on the nose of a Dominican cardinal (right) in 1352 by Tommaso da Modena, in a seminary attached to the Basilica San Nicolo in Treviso (north of Venice). The location is not accidental—Murano became a major supplier of glass lenses for spectacles (explicitly described in 1300 as “vetri da occhi”), a material that gradually displaced rock crystal.

Vincent Ilardi, in his book on historic eyeglasses and telescopes (2007), describes documents in which the firm of Francesco di Marco Datino of Prato and Florence purchased  eyeglasses from Venice, in July 1400. He also references a pair of spectacles that was donated by Francesco Datini to Franciscan friar Bonifazio Ruspi (originally of Florence but, at that time, in Corsica).

Documents relating to purchases by the Sforzas and duke of Milan confirm the use of spectacles in Florence which, by the mid-15th century were available in a variety of styles and magnifications.

Thus, we can see that reading lenses and spectacles (and probably also reading tubes) preceded the VMS by at least 115 years and their possible inclusion in the manuscript is not inconsistent with early 15th-century technology.

J.K. Petersen

Copyright © 2018, All Rights Reserved

Artifacts… Historic and Combinatorial

Bradley Hauer and Grzegorz Kondrak, of the Department of Computing Science at the University of Alberta, recently released a paper describing their algorithmic analysis of text in the Voynich Manuscript. Here is how the media presented it [underlines added for emphasis]:

  • Independent (UK): Mysterious 15th century manuscript decoded by computer scientists using artificial intelligence
  • Smithsonian: Artificial Intelligence Takes a Crack at Decoding the Mysterious Voynich Manuscript
  • artnet News: AI May Have Just Decoded a Mystical 600-Year-Old Manuscript That Baffled Humans for Decades
  • ScienceAlert: AI May Have Finally Decoded The Bizarre, Mysterious Voynich Manuscript
  • ExtremTech: AI May Have Unlocked the Secrets of the Mysterious Voynich Manuscript

Contrary to the headlines, Hauer and Kondrak make no claim in their paper of having used artificial intelligence (note that the source code is in perl, an excellent language for parsing text, but not usually the first choice for AI routines, unless combined with other software). Nor do they claim they have decoded the VMS. In fact, they explicitly stated:

The results presented in this section could be interpreted either as tantalizing clues for Hebrew as the source language of the VMS, or simply as artifacts of the combinatorial power of anagramming and language models.

There you have it—right up front, “…artifacts of the combinatorial power of anagramming…”

If you aren’t sure what that means, I’ll explain it with some examples…

“Finally, we consider the possibility that the underlying script is an abjad, in which only consonants are explicitly represented.”

First, let’s imagine the VMS were a natural language encrypted without vowels (and without anagramming). In English, three letters like mnt could potentially represent the following words:

mint, minty, minute, mount, Monet, Monty, amount, minuet, enmity

… and that’s just in English. There are thousands of possibilities in other languages.

Imagine if arbitrary anagramming were permitted, as well. The number of interpretations of mnt becomes much greater:

mint, minty, minute, mount, Monet, Monty, amount, minuet, enmity, autumn, anytime, mutiny, ataman, inmate, amenity, atman, ament, amniote, manito, tamein, matin, meant, onetime, toneme, matinee, etamin, motion, etymon, animate, anatomy, emotion…

There is a certain subjective flexibility inherent in 1) anagramming, 2) choosing vowels that seem to work best, and 3) choosing the language that seems most similar to the resulting text.

The Terms of Engagement

In their paper, the researchers declare their focus specifically as “monoalphabetic substitution” ciphers.

How well does this apply to the Voynich Manuscript?

Monoalphabetic ciphers were common in the Middle Ages, and still are, so it is not unreasonable to develop algorithms to crack them

Anagrammed texts are not unusual either, but one would hope that if the VMS text were anagrammed, it would be in some regular way, otherwise the possible interpretations (assuming meaningful text can be extracted), increases exponentially (that’s what the researchers mean by “combinatorial power”). If you have 20 possible interpretations for the first word, and another 20 for the second word, and so on… the number of ways in which the combined words can be decrypted goes into the stratosphere.

The Basic Steps

The researchers state that their first step is to identify the encrypted language. To accomplish this, they are working with a data bank of text samples in natural languages to test and fine-tune the recognition and decryption software. They claim up to 97% accuracy for 380 [natural] languages, and 93% from a smaller pool of 50 arbitrarily anagrammed ciphers in five languages.

So far, so good. Working from this “proof of concept”, they decided to try the software on the Voynich Manuscript—an intriguing experiment.

“However, the biggest obstacle to deciphering the [Voynich] manuscript is the lack of knowledge of what language it represents.”

I would agree—this is a frequent stumbling block to deciphering encrypted text—software to expedite the process would probably be welcomed. Even when the underlying language is known, some codes can be hard to crack, but it should be kept in mind that the VMS may not represent a natural language (or any language).

  • If it is meaningful text, it might be multiple languages, heavily abbreviated, or a synthetic language. There are precedents. In the 12th century, Hildegard von Bingen invented a language that was part cipher, part rule-set, and part glossary lookup. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon invented numerous methods of encrypting text. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Latin texts in many languages were so heavily abbreviated they resembled shorthand. By the 16th century, as the use of Latin faded and global exploration increased, scholars were inventing universal languages to bridge the communication gap.
  • There are also fantasy languages. Edward Talbot/Kelley ingratiated himself  with John Dee by “channeling” angelic language conveyed by spirits in a looking glass. This combined effort produced a “language” now known as Enochian. They also poured over charts in the Book of Soyga, trying to make sense of text that had been algorithmically encoded in a stepwise fashion in page-long charts.

What these examples illustrate is that decipherable and not-so-decipherable texts in many different forms did exist in the Middle Ages.

The Process of Decryption

The best code-breakers are usually good at context-switching, pattern recognition, and lateral thinking… If it isn’t this, then maybe it’s this [insert a completely different form of attack].

Context-switching is not inherent in brute-force methods of coding. Even artificial intelligence programmers struggle to create algorithms that can “think outside the box”. If you have seen the movie “AlphaGo” about the development of Google’s game-playing software that was pitted against Lee Sedol, world-champion Go player, you’ll note near the end that even these programmers admit they used a significant amount of brute-force programming to deal with common patterns that occur in certain positions on the board (known as joseki).

Most software programming is about anticipating scenarios (and building in pre-scripted responses). It is not so easy to write code that analyzes and tries to process inscrutable data in entirely new ways, without human intervention. Many so-called “expert systems” have no AI programming at all. They are essentially very large keyed and prioritized databases. The only thing they “learn” is which lookups the user does most often and this is a simple algorithm that can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help.

But to get back to Hauer and Kondrak’s attack on the Voynich Manuscript…

The researchers admit that a native Hebrew speaker declared the decrypted first sentence as “not quite a coherent sentence” and that  “a couple of spelling corrections” were made to the text, after which it was fed into Google Translate. Even after this double intervention, the resulting grammar is questionable and I would argue that the Google translation of a couple of specific words is also questionable. Keep in mind that Google’s software is designed to try to make sense of imperfect text.

Too Little, Too Soon

It’s not the fault of the researchers that the press declared this as a solution achieved through artificial intelligence, because neither of these claims is made in their paper, but even so, when attempting to decipher coded information, one has to be very cautious about reading too much into small amounts of text. Sometimes what looks like a pattern falls apart when one examines the bigger picture.

Take, as an example, the system proposed by Stephen Bax in 2014, in which he announced he had decoded about a dozen words. When his substitution system is used to decrypt a full paragraph or even a full sentence on any page of the manuscript, the result is gibberish. What he had was a theory, not a “provisional” decoding. There’s no way to prove one has a solution if it doesn’t generalize to larger blocks of text. Bax is not alone in thinking he had solved the VMS (or parts of it)—many proposed solutions do work in a spotty fashion, but only because they ignore the vast amounts of text that don’t fall into line.

A few words, or even an isolated sentence that seems to make sense here or there, can be found in the VMS in many languages. I’ve located hundreds of words and sometimes full phrases in Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, and other languages, but I do not have a solution or even a partial solution. The VMS includes thousands of word-tokens in different combinations, almost all of which are going to match something in some language, especially languages with similar statistical properties.


Hauer and Kondrak have some interesting technology. I can think of many practical uses for it, and some of their graphs provide additional perspective on the VMS. But before everyone jumps on the next bandwagon and declares the VMS solved, I suggest they read the research paper first.

J.K. Petersen

Copyright © 2018, All Rights Reserved