Category Archives: The Voynich Text

Investigations of the main text of the Voynich Manuscript.

Some Notes on Relativity

Relativity may sound like the title for an Einstein blog but it also applies well to medieval musical notation systems, specifically those that differ from the modern western tradition. In the middle ages, there were many forms of relative notation and a particularly interesting one was posted yesterday by René Zandbergen on the Voynich.ninja site.

I’ve had a passion for music all my life and if I could quintuple the length of the day, I would spend one of those extra “lifetimes” as a composer.

I’m familiar with some of the notation systems in medieval manuscripts, but there are far too many to learn them all, and some of the earlier ones haven’t yet been unraveled, even by the experts. Many of them are comprehensible, however, and old tomes contain a wealth of staffed and unstaffed music (in the sense of not having horizontal lines).

Here is an example of medieval chant music that uses a staff. Note there are only four staff lines and stems are barely visible on the rectangular notes. There are no phrasing arcs as we know them, and no bars to connect the stems but it’s still quite recognizable as western staff-notation:

For comparison, this is an unstaffed line of musical symbols in a medieval Italian manuscript (MS 30337). Note how the symbols are laid in a horizontal line with a minimum of vertical positions and do not resemble round-headed notes as we know them:

My interest in music spilled over into my research on the Voynich manuscript almost from the beginning. When you are trying to figure out if something is ciphered, it’s important to search beyond linguistics. Certainly linguistic codes can be hidden in sneaky places, like astronomical charts and musical scores, but there are also non-linguistic ciphers. Take something like the Dorabella code mentioned on Nick Pelling’s cipher blog… the originator was a composer, so if I had time to investigate it, probably the first thing I would look for is a song or some commonality with music.

I am also intrigued by some of the notation systems that resemble letters and punctuation, such as this one from MS Lat Qu 44, and was curious as to whether musical notation might have inspired some of the VMS glyph-shapes:

I didn’t discover any convincing glyph origins in medieval music, but I did learn quite a bit about notation systems.

Jotting a Note

Detail of musical notation with five staff lines, vertical bars, the key signature, and arcs for phrases. This system is well-known to musicians throughout the world, but in the middle ages, music had not yet been standardized, and numerous staffed, staffless, and relative systems existed.

In modern western systems, the staff is an anchor for denoting a specific pitch, with the key signature providing a guideline to generalized sharps and flats.

The notes themselves follow conventions for duration (quarter note, half note, etc.), additional symbols specify the number of beats per bar, and curving arcs and <> symbols indicate phrasing and volume.

You could cut apart the music with scissors and still have a pretty good idea of how each part sounds.

Not every system works this way, however.

Some notation systems are based on the pitch distance from one note to the next, rather than an absolute system anchored within a staff. Ear-trainers teach intervals such as perfect fourth, perfect fifth, major thirds, minor thirds, etc. These are the distances between two notes. If you learn them, you can read certain forms of staffless music by following the interval from one note to the next based on the shape of the symbol rather than its vertical location on a set of lines. Other symbols function as modifiers to indicate duration or tempo.

Systems like this were developed when instrument-making was primitive, and choral music was widely practiced as a form of worship or as entertainment. Relative systems were especially suitable for chants. If you’ve seen the Brother Cadfael series, you’ve heard the kind of music that was originally expressed in this kind of notation system.

You might notice in the example from MS 30337, that the symbols are rather squarish. Many of the earlier systems have this general look-and-feel. Systems with curves and lines (a phrase familiar to Voynich researchers) tended to come later, and sometimes included more symbols than their predecessors. Even so, many of them were comprised of about 15 symbols—less than typical alphabets.

Some systems included a symbol for the key of the starting note and others did not—you could choose whatever was most comfortable for the voices. In modern western notation, the entire set of notes is transposed to a different position on the staff lines to alter the key. In a relative system, only the starting symbol is changed and the rest of the notes follow from that.

From Music to Mystery Glyphs

One of the reasons relative-notation systems intrigued me is a certain “follow-along” feeling to the way VMS word-tokens are organized, with many of them being similar to those that go before them, often differing by only one or two glyphs. Torsten Timm has done some interesting work in trying to algorithmically model these characteristics of the VMS text.

There also seem to be rules about where certain glyphs can be placed in a VMS-word, a characteristic I’ve discussed in numerous blogs, and one that is integral to many relative musical notation systems.

Repetition and self-similarity are very common in VMS text, with certain patterns occurring in specific positions in a word-token. This kind of positional priority is also found in Roman numerals and relative music-notation systems. [Image credit: Beinecke 408, Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale.]

As I see it, there is a long list of commonalities between the VMS text and relative musical notation. For example, doubled letters are uncommon in the VMS (with the exception of the “c” shapes, which are sometimes repeated up to four times in succession). Doubled notes in certain musical systems are indicated with a doubling symbol rather than actually repeating the tone-symbol. Imagine writing words like penny, brittle, bell, and missal as pen2y, brit2le, bel2, and mis2al.

Most western languages are not tonal (in the sense of a different pitch indicating a different word), but many African and Asian languages are, and writing the sounds requires extra symbols to indicate the tones. This is also done in musical systems. In staffed systems, different pitches are arranged in different locations on horizontal lines. In relative systems, the shift in tone can be indicated with an interval symbol, but can also be notated as ascending or descending (in other words, there’s more than one way to notate related concepts).

Not every musical symbol has a sound value, just as linguistic systems include symbols without sound values, like the apostrophe. While some relative-notation symbols inherently indicate the length of a tone by their shape or length, others may be modifiers (like the one just mentioned that doubles a note). Modern staffed systems also have their share of modifiers, such as symbols to indicate the quality of a sound (e.g., pizzicato or staccato).

Byzantine Musical Notation

I don’t know Byzantine notation well enough to sing it aloud. There is a long set of rules for how the symbols may be combined and it takes practice to read it, just as sight-reading modern notation takes practice, but I am familiar with some of the basic terminology, a few of the symbols (known as neumes), and the concepts of relative notation that I learned from other musical systems, which apply in the same way to Byzantine systems.

For example, there is a small bowl-like symbol that is written together with tonal symbols to prolong the beat, just as there is a symbol for doubling the beat (playing it twice rather than prolonging it). Once again, this idea could be applied to linguistic notations. In English we typically double the following consonant if we want to shorten a vowel. Thus, the long-a in pater becomes a short-a in the word patter, but imagine if a common symbol were used rather than a letter, one that could be used throughout instead of a dozen different doubled letters—a certain economy of shapes is characteristic of relative notation and of the VMS.

The following example of Byzantine notation is from a manuscript in the British Library. Note how the symbols are curves and lines written in a linear fashion rather than flowing up and down on a musical staff.

I mentioned curves and lines because the VMS character set is unusual in having a strong emphasis on curves and lines, with many of the glyphs appearing to be composites of a few basic shapes.

Since relative systems were strongly tied to choral chants, and humans typically sing one note at a time (with Tibetan throat-singing being an exception) it wasn’t necessary to indicate simultaneous notes on a staff in the same way as one might for an instrument with several strings that are strummed at once.

This sample of Byzantine music illustrates how notes are expressed relative to one another with a concise set of basic symbols, rather than being laid out as ovals on a musical staff. Note that some of the symbols are drawn in red, like the ell-shape that resembles Greek gamma. This is called a gorgon and there are rules for whether it is placed above or below the associated symbol, just as the VMS has rules for whether a glyph appears at the beginning, middle, or end of a token, and additional rules for its associate-glyphs.

Now imagine if you were to transliterate this musical notation into an alphabet system. One might take a symbol like the gorgon and place it before or after its associated symbol, rather than above or below. This calls to mind the highly frequent “o” symbol in the VMS, which is often at the beginnings of V-words, and frequently precedes EVA-t or -k. Note also that this notation system is very rule-based and would exhibit many positional characteristics if rendered as text.

Byzantine music was documented in this 18th-century Serbian manuscript held in Greece (Schoyen MS 1897) and I include it because a variety of whorled diagrams were not uncommon in books of music.

There was a particular interest in relating “music of the spheres” to cosmological concepts in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, so some of the whorled and wheel-with-spokes images reflect these ideas, and the shapes became iconic designs found in many music manuscripts to describe these and other concepts. Wheels were also used to illustrate a variety of tonal systems.

In fact, it doesn’t surprise me that composer Edward Elgar chose symbol positions for his Dorabella cipher that appear to rotate through eight angles, the same number of tones as in a basic western scale (do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do).

Summary

There was a large body of relative notation in the early middle ages, but musical instruments improved (along with our ability to play them) and the staff system (which could more readily accommodate simultaneous multiple notes), gradually superseded it. The algorithmic quality of relative notation was almost forgotten.

I know that people have assigned notes to the VMS glyphs and played them as music (I’ve done this myself), but relative notation isn’t about assigning a tone or chord per glyph, it’s a prioritized system describing tone, duration, direction of the pitch, and nuance, and the modifiers are applied in a certain order (and sometimes change based on what is being combined). When you scan it visually, it is concise, repetitive, and positional, as is Voynichese. It’s the closest analogy I’ve seen to the structure of the VMS text, and I wasn’t even planning to mention it until I had more time to explore it, but extra time doesn’t seem to be coming my way.

————— = + = —————

The frequent repetition in Voynichese is somewhat reminiscent of songs or verse, but there’s something more to it—even songs and verse have more positional variety than VMS glyphs.

Relative notation systems range from simple to very sophisticated, but many of the more sophisticated ones can be expressed in about 10 to 20 symbols, depending on how they are placed. In other words, the musical “alphabet” can be written with a smaller character set than many human alphabets.

What if the VMS were the notes themselves, rather than lyrics, lists, or narrative text, or were a constructed language built on the same concepts as relative musical notation, where one-to-one correspondence doesn’t apply, where modifiers determine how a glyph should be read?

Perhaps one of the glyphs is like the petaste, a symbol that represents a one-step tonal ascent. Imagine a symbol that says, “Don’t read the previous glyph as t, read it as the letter that follows it in the alphabet.” Or imagine if gallows-k meant something different depending on whether it’s followed by EVA-y, or ch or ol or od (Janus Pairs).

Many of the ideas common to relative musical notation have direct analogs in the cipher world and since chants were popular in monasteries, as was the development of ciphers, monks monks may have transferred some of these ideas from one to the other as the old notation systems faded away.

 

J.K. Petersen

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

A Helping Hand

What Can Hands Tell Us?

When I was creating a VMS transcript, I noticed immediately the change in handwriting partway through the big-plants section on folio 26r. It was not just scribal haste or fatigue—the spacing, rhythm, and slant were different, as were some of the letter forms. It was clearly the same style of writing (perhaps a blood relation of the original scribe?), but not the same hand.

Interpretation of VMS glyphs is something I’ve wanted to write up for a long time but I wasn’t sure how to express it in a way that was sufficiently clear, until I realized the hand on folio 95v1 might help me illustrate the concepts.

In the following illustration, there are several instances of EVA-d with a straight stem (marked in red), and certain glyphs with greater separations between their component shapes (marked in blue):

I have often wondered whether a rounded “d” and a straight “d” are different glyphs, and created two different characters in my transcript to record them. But I still treat them the same most of the time, as they seem to fall into similar patterns. But perhaps they are different. For example, when they are at the ends of words (which happens frequently when the d is paired with EVA-y), maybe the two shapes are meant to be read as two different endings. If this were Latin, for example, one might mean -us and the other -um, or one might mean -us or -um and the other might mean -bus. Or maybe there’s a completely different interpretation (that I’ll discuss later).

Another thing I noticed on this folio is the greater tendency of the scribe to separate the component shapes of a glyph. There’s a good example on the far right (marked with a red arrow) in which the first curve is clearly separated from the “is” shape (“is” is a Latin symbol that looks like a short cursive ell). The “is” shape occurs in EVA-m and gallows characters and sometimes the letters with “is” are written almost like short gallows, suggesting they might be related.

What Do Tails Tell?

There’s another distinctive aspect of Voynichese that inspired me to create my own transcript and my own fonts. Notice how strongly the character normally referenced as “n” (in daiin) resembles a v or a w? This is how I transcribed them. But then how can you tell the difference between v or w if there are one, two, or more minims preceding them? This is something I pondered for a long time and I think the answer (at least for this scribe) might be the length of the tail. Notice how the tail loops back farther on the one that resembles “w”. I don’t know whether v and w are meant to represent two different characters, but I think the distinction between “n” and “v” in the transcript is important, as I’ll explain farther along.

Enumerating the Gallows

Some years ago, when I was looking up the history of pilcrows and gathering samples (which took a couple of years), I also collected examples of Greek and Latin abbreviations and number systems because many of them resemble gallows characters.

Early on I was insisting that almost all the VMS characters are based on Latin (with a few on Greek) and there was a lot of resistance to the idea (I got some “interesting” email). Quite a number of people disagreed with me, some rather disparagingly, and said I should be looking at Armenian or Georgian, or other script systems dissimilar to Latin because, as they said, “It doesn’t look anything like Latin.”

I have looked at those other alphabets (and many Asian scripts, as well) and still maintain that the majority are based on Latin character-shapes and abbreviation conventions, as I’ve noted in my blogs. But maybe things are changing. I’ve noticed a recent upswing in VMS “solutions” claiming that the text is Latin that needs to be expanded. Well, maybe, but I want to emphasize the fact that Latin characters and scribal abbreviations were used in many languages, not just Latin, so Latin glyph-shapes don’t automatically mean Latin language.

——=++=——

But to get back to similarities with Latin abbreviations, a horizontal line or slightly slanted line was commonly used in early Latin documents to signal missing letters (similar to an apostrophe). Here are some examples of abbreviations and ligatures (which are not the same thing and should not be confused with one another):

And now we get to the good part…

If you look at the first illustration again, where separations between individual parts of a glyph are more distinct, you might notice the Vword on the bottom-right, usually transcribed as “dal” looks suspiciously like the Roman numeral dcix (I was tired when I wrote this, this is 609, not 59). In my transcript, I have transcribed EVA-l as “x” for the simple reason that it looks more like a medieval “x” than “l” to me, but also because I noticed the similarity between Voynichese and Roman numerals early on and wondered whether there might be a connection.

Greek and Latin Numerals and Their Relationship to Voynichese

Old forms of Greek, Hebrew, and Roman script did not have a separate set of glyphs to express numbers. Instead, they were written with letters. Over the centuries various conventions were used to mark them so they were not mistaken for letters.

In Greek, a line was drawn above or through the character to signify a number. In Latin documents that used Greek conventions, some numbers were expressed using Greek forms, some were in Roman numerals (sometimes with a line over them), and some were Arabic.

Here are examples of numbers from Greek and Latin manuscripts that may have inspired the benched gallows characters in Voynichese. Note also that if you’re not a paleographer and you came across the Greek examples (top row), without the Latin examples I’ve added below them for comparison, you might be mystified as to their meaning:

Look at this excerpt from 95v1 one more time, paying particular attention to the characters in the bottom right. Note how the separated “a” glyph makes the token look like dcix (609) in Roman numerals.

In fact, the text directly preceding “dax” looks very much like Mccdciiiv, which isn’t quite conventional, as two would usually be indicated with “ii” rather than “iiiv” and you wouldn’t normally place a dee between the three cees, but what if the tail is the common Latin abbreviation for a line over the letters, which was sometimes written as an attached tail to facilitate quick writing? Then you get Mccdciiii—still not quite conventional, there’s still the problem with the ccdc, but notice that the cc is benched.

Hmmm, could the bench on the cc (EVA-ch)… possibly mean it belongs on either side of the preceding “M”? Maybe what we are looking at is cMɔ dciiii (with a tail over the iiii to indicate a number), as it is in the illustration above. This can also be written with a pipe symbol as follows: c|ɔ dciiii as it was often written in the 15th century and onward.

The d-“aiin” token comes in many flavors. It’s not always preceded by “d”, it can be preceded by almost anything, and the number of minims after the “a” shape ranges from 0 to 4. If the stem of the “a” is also a minim (if a is ligature c + i), then it ranges from 0 to 5 or 0 to 4 plus “v” (Roman numeral 5) depending on whether one interprets that last glyph as a “v” or as an “i”-with-a-tail to indicate a number.

Inspiration for Shape and Structure

Is Voynichese numbers? If it’s numbers, do they represent letters or sounds? Or is Voynichese a coding system that includes a subsystem for numbers?

If you take your mind out of linguistic mode for a few moments, and pretend the text is Roman numerals (even if it isn’t), do you notice that you see it differently? Have you made assumptions you didn’t realize you were making?

——=++=——

As I’ve posted in many blogs, the glyphs are based on Latin letters and abbreviations, but they look to me like they’re based on specific Latin characters that have a high correlation to Roman numerals.

Roman numerals consist of M d c l x v i (sometimes scribes lined up several “i” characters instead of combining them with v), sometimes c-shapes were placed on either side of the M, sometimes a line was drawn over or through the letters. All of these are hauntingly similar to aspects of Voynichese.

Notice how the characters that are benched resemble tau and rho, the two characters placed above “m” (which was sometimes written as a bench in both Greek and Latin). In Greek, a rho looks like a “p”.

Even the EVA-r glyph might not be an “r”—it might be an “i” with a tail (as it was written in Latin).

Except for EVA-o, -y, which are suspiciously frequent compared to natural language frequencies, and EVA-q, which is very positionally consistent, almost all the common VMS glyphs bear a strong resemblance to M d c x v i and benched forms of  tau, rho and M + c. Note also that EVA-o and y are variations on circles. Maybe EVA-o, y, and q are some kind of markers.

Or maybe “o” stands for zero (as in 1408) or is another form of “c” (depending on position).

The Voynich characters are positionally constrained. So are Roman numerals. If you put a “d” in front of a “c” it means something different from “c” in front of “d” (600 versus 400). Maybe Voynichese does this too.

Summary

The VMS might not be Roman numerals, it might not be numbers, but there is a strong similarity between Voynichese glyphs and Roman numerals.

There is also a strong similarity in how Voynichese prioritizes glyph order. Whatever system is behind the VMS, I think Roman numerals, at least on the conceptual level, had something to do with the way Voynichese was designed.

Perhaps other people have mentioned Roman numerals in connection with the Voynich Manuscript, I don’t know (it seems like a reasonable supposition and I’m still comparatively new to the Voynich scene), but I haven’t seen anyone demonstrate a connection between benched numbers (Greco-Roman glyph conventions) and the bench characters in the VMS. Nor have I seen anyone provide a cohesive explanation of how VMS glyphs may have been historically and pictorially inspired by a system like Roman numerals, so hopefully this will add something new to the VMS corpus.

———————-=++=———————-

Before I close, I have a little bonus… It’s a secret where I found this (at least for now), but here’s a little medieval “pen test” that you might enjoy.

Note that only three characters are needed to represent the whole alphabet, except that one might need a few nulls to separate the individual “letters” and to obscure the fact that they are Roman numerals so it won’t be too easy to break. Imagine what it would look like if you did that?

 

J.K. Petersen

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

 

 

Janus Pairs

The Theme of Duality

You may have noticed pairing in the VMS… double crayfish, two sheets each of “Aries” and “Taurus”, 2 x 2 sets of 17 on the page that looks like a code wheel, but have you looked for pairing in the text?

In a previous post I introduced a group of glyphs I call The Gang of Four (if you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest it or this followup blog won’t make much sense). The Gang of Four is a subgroup of glyph-pairs that occur with great frequency within Vwords, and can also stand alone. Together with other glyphs with similar properties, I refer to them as Janus Pairs (or JPairs for short).

Janus was the god of duality. He presided over beginnings and endings, doorways and passages. I like the analogy of Janus Pairs opening a window into the structure of the text.

Unlike English and many other languages, VMS glyphs cannot be shuffled in a multitude of ways to create a large pool of Vwords. Certain glyphs are found only in certain positions. This is true even if you evaluate them in pairs, which means the VMS is more positionally rigid than syllabic Asian languages, as well.

But pairs there are, and they form a disproportionately high percentage of letter combinations in Voynichese, with some interesting differences in where they are used.

The Prevalence of Janus Pairs

I cannot fully describe the dynamics of Janus Pairs in one blog or two, any more than one could describe the dynamics of English in one blog or two, but I can introduce them so you can visualize the patterns and make sense of follow-up articles.

Before posting examples, please be aware that I’ve spent years trying to discern which are pairs and which are monoglyphs (or ligatures). This is not easy (if it were, it would have been done a long time ago), but some can be confirmed by following them through the entire manuscript and noting where they fall in relation to other glyphs. It took me a while to figure out how to present them so the patterns could be readily seen.

The Gang of Four is an example of prevalent pairs that can be either free-standing or joined to other words, but it’s important to look at all the JPairs. Unfortunately, it’s not practical to post all of them, so I have selected examples from two sections.

Examples

The first group is from the “zodiac” section. There isn’t room for all the zodiac symbols, so I selected four as examples and chose only the text from the labels (not from the text inside the double rings). If this subject interests you, you can look at transcripts yourself to work out the others.

The second group is from the big-plants section. I’ve chosen two plants near the beginning, and one farther along.

Obviously, to understand the text, you have to analyze and compare all sections and all the Vords on each page, and I have spent years doing this and still have some unanswered questions, but the following charts should be enough to get the concepts across. Note that I have chopped three of the less common Pisces labels from the bottom of the chart, mostly to save space, but also to put the emphasis on the ones that are most prevalent and most illustrative of patterns. This doesn’t mean the three deleted Vords are unimportant.

I have color-coded pairs to make them stand out because I’ve seen so many decryption attempts that don’t take them into account. These charts are not designed to reveal the meaning behind the text, that is best done by organizing them in several different ways and placing them side-by-side on a very long table. Their purpose is to illustrate

  • fundamental positional patterns,
  • pair composition,
  • pair frequency,
  • order of glyphs within pairs,
  • and differences between the text in two different sections of the manuscript.

So here is the first set of Janus Pairs, from the zodiac section:

I’ve collected samples of text in a number of languages to compare to these patterns (which is another long subject, possibly too long for a blog).

Here is the second chart, with examples from the big-plants section (note that a few Vords are chopped from the bottom of the first column due to space constraints).

You can immediately see that they differ in form and content from the zodiac-symbol vords but that there are structural similarities in where glyphs appear in specific vords (note that I am not certain aj is a Janus Pair, it can sometimes be oj and may be two separate glyphs).

Summary

Even though these are only small excerpts, there is much information to be gleaned from them.

Note the overall differences between zodiac Vords and plant Vords. There is a high prevalence of ot and ok combinations in the zodiacs. In the plant section, one sees many Vords starting with EVA-ch, -sh, or d and few of those that are common in zodiacs. If EVA-ch is a ligature then it may also qualify as a pair.

These patterns are prevalent enough that it’s possible to make a few predictions about where vords are likely to appear in the manuscript. You can’t do it from these charts alone (although some of the patterns are more obvious than others), but it’s possible when all the tokens in the manuscript are evaluated together.

Note also that there are priorities in terms of glyph placement. An “o” glyph paired with EVA-l, -t or -r, for example, behaves differently from one that isn’t combined into a pair group. This might be one of the reasons the o-glyph is so frequent, and also suggests that some glyphs may be intended as monoglyphs or ligatures—their status may be determined by their position and relationships to other glyphs, which might explain the strict positional rules.

VMS text is highly structured, not at all random, and there is substructure within individual sections. As to how it relates to natural languages, I’ll discuss that in a future blog, after you’ve had time to digest this one.

 

J.K. Petersen

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

 

Did Gibbs Solve the Voynich Manuscript?

A New Contender?

Every week a new “solution” is offered for the Voynich Manuscript, but none of these theories so far has stood the test of time. Some get more publicity than others, with a recent one, by Nicholas Gibbs, being widely re-quoted in news sources within hours of being published in The Times Literary Supplement.

Gibbs’s article is largely autobiographical, offering a laundry-list of “inspiration” provided by many of the most common references cited by Voynich researchers.

One has to wonder how Gibbs could be aware of all these medieval references for so many years, as he claims, without knowing (or saying) anything about related research by members of the Voynich community who have extensively communicated about all the historic precedents mentioned in Gibbs’s article.

Take the idea, for example, that the balneological section in the VMS represents healthful bathing practices. This has been frequently discussed since 2000, and possibly earlier, by Brian Smith, René Zandbergen, Dennis Stallings and many others. Here is an excerpt from those communications courtesy of http://ixoloxi.com:

Date: Thu, 10 Aug 2000 22:20:07 +0200
From: René Zandbergen (Rene Zandbergen)

To: Dennis Stallings

…In my opinion the most exciting possible identification, but  highly contestable and not really a clear precedent: I think that when the VMs artist drew f77v (Fig.2 in the Aesculapius article) he had in front of him (either physically or mentally) the text of one of the pages of the ‘Balneis Puteolanis’ which describes the baths of Pozzuoli near Naples and which was written some time in the 15th Century. This MS was brought to our attention by Brian Smith. The text describes, one by one, the pictures on the VMs page.

http://www.balnea.net/museum/terme/gallerie/pietro/pietro5.html

BALNEUM PETRAE, […]

Si chiama così perchè frange i calcoli;
[…]
apre la vescica, libera i reni dalla renella, lava gli intestini.
Vidi molti calcolosi che, bevutane l’acqua calda, ebbero l’urina
pietrosa.

(Called like this since it breaks chalk /kidney stones I think/. opens the bladder, relieves the kidneys of , washes the intestines. You will see many ‘with stones’ who, after drinking the water, have urine with grains)

You really _must_ look at the VMs page and read the text to get the full impact. Or maybe I’m just imagining things – I’d like to hear your honest opinion.
The original text (presumably Latin) would constitute a great ‘known plaintext’ sample.

I don’t know whether the author of AlchemyWebsite was part of these communications or independently researched VMS bathing themes, but the author made a well-reasoned proposal, on or before Nov. 21, 2008, that the rosettes page was a map of the baths of Pozzuoli.

In early 2008, I was independently exploring the possibility that the rosettes might be a map of Naples. Why Naples? Because Vesuvius is an eye-shaped volcano and the rosette in the upper left has always looked to me like a volcano (with flames in the inner layer). My secondary ideas for the eye-shaped rosette were

  • the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem,
  • one of the seven hills of Rome,
  • possibly one of the large Roman coliseums that were built in a number of cities (including Naples),
  • roundels related to the design of a water garden such as forerunners to the Villa d’Este,
  • a specific port town that I’m keeping in my back pocket at the moment,
  • Genoa or Venice,
  • the volcanic channel between Sicily and Italy, or
  • a metaphorical illustration of something fictional like a hell mouth.

But Naples was still one of my top choices and I think the top-right rosette may be this unusual island atoll (see pic) perched off the coast of Naples, and tenuously joined to the mainland by a constructed jetty near one of the popular bathing areas.

Note the crater-like missing center on the island of Nisidia (aerial view courtesy of NASA). Could this be the VMS spiral? In medieval times, the water level was lower (many artifacts and signs of civilization have been found in the waters off the coast where land used to extend farther out than it does now) and there may have been plants in the crater-like basin that inspired the bushy star-like shapes in the VMS rosette. A close-up on Google Earth also reveals traces of ruins and possibly of a circular wall around the perimeter at the top of the hill. Notice also the rough water (big waves) on the VMS drawing and how Nisidia is exposed to the waters farther out in the bay. When water levels were lower and the coastline closer to the island, there may have been more jetties.

Healthful Bathing

While exploring Naples online, I knew there were thermal vents in the area (I have been to Naples), and many bathing areas (both water and mud) reputed to have healthful benefits, but I had never heard of the Baths of Pozzuoli. I did explore spas all over the world for almost two years (there are thousands of them) due to the numerous grotto-like bathing images in the VMS, but I didn’t make the explicit connection between Pozzuoli and Naples until years later when I began to meet some of the other Voynich researchers online and they mentioned manuscripts that document this popular spa. I think the reason I overlooked it is because it is currently in ruins and I didn’t know the area included caves and grottoes until I saw them depicted in medieval manuscripts (I thought those with caves and grottoes were more likely to match the themes in the VMS and most of those were in eastern or central Europe or outside of Europe altogether).

But to get back to Gibbs’s article…

Healthful bathing is clearly an old and thoroughly discussed aspect of Voynich research. If you’re reporting your own research on a casual venue, it’s not always necessary to credit prior research if you weren’t aware of it and it didn’t influence your thinking. But… if you are writing an article for publication in a major news outlet or academic journal, or specifically seeking credit for “being there first”, then checking and reporting prior research is part of the job, especially if you are making claims that you have solved the VMS,

The Claimed Solution

I read Gibbs’s article on Sept. 6, 2017, when Nick Pelling brought it to our attention. I didn’t see anything new other than a tiny mostly unreadable diagram of a proposed solution and a bold statement that there are no plant names or recipes in the VMS. Gibbs claims that the information that would help understand the manuscript has been trimmed away (an explanation that has raised more than a few eyebrows) and that the indexes are missing. This is an odd claim considering it is prefaced by the following statement:

“The abbreviations correspond to the standard pattern of words used in the Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus ” [Underlining is mine.]

If everything in the VMS is plagiarized from earlier sources, as Gibbs claims (entirely possible since that is how things were done in those days), and the abbreviations are based on standard Apuleius Platonicus herbarium word patterns, then a supposed missing index is not an insurmountable stumbling block to decryption.

I’ve seen the indexes in herbal manuscripts. They rarely add anything that can’t already be discerned by the combination of pictures and text on the pages, they simply make it easier to find the pages quickly or fill in missing data when only plant names and no further information are on the folio with the diagram. The paragraphs on the VMS plant pages are more extensive than the labels or brief notes on many medieval herbals.

Also, a point that Gibbs didn’t note is that many of these indexes were added later, sometimes half a century later, by other hands. The original users of the manuscripts apparently managed without them.

Foliation

I agree with Gibbs (and many others) that the folios may be out of order, but I doubt this would stymie decryption attempts either. The various sections are thematically consistent and each sheet of vellum has been folded to create four sides, so we DO know a large number of recto-verso relationships because they are physically inseparable.

Summary

I was eager to see Gibbs’s solution. But there are only two short  lines of tiny text subjectively expanded into questionable Latin that is almost unreadable in the online version. It’s a teaser and perhaps only tentative, at best. I think most people would agree that at least a paragraph or two from different portions of the manuscript should be illustrated, along with the method of decipherment, in order to establish that one has a “solution” or even the right direction for a solution to the VMS.

Gibbs hasn’t even established that the underlying text is Latin. Until he demonstrates how his decryption was accomplished, it’s merely an unsupported assertion. It’s not an irrational one—the glyphs are mostly Latin, the abbreviation symbols mostly Latin (there might be some Latin)—but many Latin scholars have tried to make sense of it without success, and Latin characters were used in dozens of languages, so we cannot assume it’s Latin until a cogent method is proposed.

 

J.K. Petersen

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

Fractured German & Fishing Expeditions

VMS Marginalia—Who Wrote it and Where?

The last page of the VMS has always struck me as similar to a pidgin pigeon language. As I’ve noted in previous blogs, it’s mostly but not quite readable in German and I often wondered, in the early days of studying the manuscript, whether it might be medieval Yiddish. Even though there are many dialects of Yiddish, as are described in some detail by Alexander Beider, I didn’t want to commit too strongly to this idea because many medieval scholars studied at universities in several countries and picked up bits and pieces of local languages along the way—there could be several explanations for the mostly-but-not-entirely-German nature of the script.

When I was looking into medieval languages that might have some relevance to the VMS, one of the blended languages I found particularly interesting was the pigeon-Icelandic spoken by the Basques. Icelandic is not an easy language to learn and Basque doesn’t resemble it in any way, and a visit to the little island requires a treacherous sea ride over particularly rough waters, so I wondered why the Basques would be motivated to learn a distant and seemingly impractical language like Icelandic, but it turns out that Basque whalers hunted the north Atlantic with some frequency and may have stopped on Iceland for rest, repairs, and supplies, eventually learning bits and pieces of a language very different from Basque (which is itself very different from most European languages).

The whaling trade was one of the reasons sailors ventured into the perilous arctic, where they stopped in Iceland and, later, the remote town of Spitzbergen on an island far north of Norway. This is believed to be the first map of Spitzbergen, in the Arctic hinterland, published in 1599, and whales are prominently featured in its waters. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Basque oral history claims that the Basques discovered the New World before Columbus, something I think is entirely plausible—if you can make it from the Iberian Peninsula to Iceland, you can surely reach Greenland, and from Greenland to North America is a short hop compared to the original trip to Iceland.

A Basque cemetery dating to about the mid-1500s was unearthed in Labrador, Canada, and Basque shipwrecks have been found off the coast of Red Bay.

It’s possible some of the whale hunters reached the New World before 1492 following the same routes as the Vikings, and it occurred to me that they might have brought back plants that otherwise were not known in the Old World, but it doesn’t seem likely that whalers would be concerned about physically documenting plants. Whaling is a practical trade, not an exploratory venture (unless you’re exploring for new places to fish), and botanists weren’t usually passengers on whaling ships headed for the New World until after Columbus’s voyage. So I put the Basque-Icelandic-New World plants idea to the side for the time being and looked for other interesting language combinations that might shed light on the VMS.

Linguistic Alphabet Soup

Inspired by the Basques’ willingness to learn Icelandic, I sought out other blended languages and found so many of them, it will take years to sort it all out. As examples, the language of the Veneto includes many Spanish words and some Latin/French constructions, as well as influences from Dalmatian, Greek, and Albanian. The area north of the Veneto has a great diversity of languages, and the region of Provençe and northern Spain is rich in blended dialects. Lombardic in its original form was southern Scandinavian and other germanic dialects mixed with northern Italian.

Any region that was a crossroads for trade, or a hotly contested area in which the borders were constantly shifting, was usually rich in variations that might seem like polyglot to the modern reader.

How does this relate to the Voynich manuscript? Perhaps the marginalia seems strange because it is from a linguistic melting pot, but there are so many I can’t fit all of them into one blog, so I’ll start with Silesian, as it would follow naturally from my previous blog about VMS Sagittarius, and includes German dialects that might result in text that looks mostly like German but is confusing to read.

Silesian History

Silesia is on the shifting border between Poland/Prussia and Czech/Bohemia. Breslau/Wroclaw was at its center in the 14th and 15th centuries, when Wroclaw was part of Bohemia.

This area is mentioned in previous blogs as the origin of the oldest-known example of crossbow-Sagittarius. It is also the birthplace of a German-Silesian dialect that was almost eradicated after World War II, when the language was banned by the Communists. Both during and after the war, millions of Jewish and German inhabitants from this area were murdered and expelled by Nazis and Communists, forever wiping out a huge percentage of Silesian language, culture, and history.

The Silesian Language

Even though the Polish border is farther south now than it was in the Middle Ages, Silesian is still a dominant language in the section of Poland between north Poland and eastern Czech, so this region still retains a certain amount of linguistic and cultural autonomy. To the north and east are greater and lesser Polish and to the west, along the Baltic, are a number of mixed dialects. South of Silesia are a variety of Slavic languages and to the southwest, the primary language is Czech [map detail courtesy of Wikipedia]. Before WWII and especially during the Holy Roman Empire, there was a strong German presence. Before the Holocaust, this area also had a significant Jewish population.

Silesian-German

Silesian-German, a dialect of Silesian, has Franconian, Thuringian, and Saxon roots and today, due to the purges, only a small region west of the Oder-Neisse still retains the language, which is undoubtedly different from what it was in the middle ages due to the modernizing influence of German radio and television. Historically, though, many Slavs spoke German and the Germans, with their blended Silesian-German, understood Slavic-Silesian.

The Lach Dialect

In the same area, one finds the Lach dialect, a west-Slavic blend of Czech and Polish that was spoken from Silesia to Moravia. In the middle ages, some forms of Czech and Polish were mutually intelligible and today Lach is considered by some to be a dialect of Czech, and the forerunner (or at least a strong influencer) of modern Polish.

Lach may soon die out, just as Lombardian is dying out. The Lach youth are learning Czech and the Lombardic youth are switching to Italian—both languages may be gone in two or three generations but these and many others were alive and closer to their original forms when the Voynich manuscript was created.

We can only guess at how Lach and Silesian-German sounded in the 15th century, when Polish and Czech cultures intermingled with Saxon German (which itself included Nordic influences), but we do have some idea of how they were written from a number of manuscripts that have survived.

So Silesia is a region where many dialects existed in a small geographical area and where language shifted and blended, due to frequent changes in political rulership and immigration.

Pinning Down the Dialect

Might Lach or Silesian-German explain some of the peculiarities in the somewhat germanic text on 116v?

It depends how one interprets the words. If “pox” is meant to be “boch” (billy goat) then we already have some clues. The substitution of p for b was quite common in areas like southern Germany/Lombardy, Augsberg (which was written “Augsperg”), Dinkelsbühl, and certain towns along the Swiss-German border.

Substituting “x” for “ch” was less common than substituting “p” for “b” but it did happen in some areas, especially those in which Greek was taught along with Latin. The familiar abbreviation xpo/xps/xpi/xpt for Christ (see right) is derived from Greek, with the x and p at the beginning descended from “chi” and “rho”. Thus, one occasionally sees chi (x) used for “ch” in Latin or other texts. Putting those pieces together “pox” becomes “boch” (goat) as suggested by Johannes Albes (and perhaps others).

It is not only the way the words are spelled, but also the way the letters are written that provide clues. The use of a figure-8 for D or S was not common uncommon (I’m leaning toward this being S since the previous D has an open loop and a word like “portas” is more likely than “portad”) but I sometimes wonder if it’s a ligature, or a symbol for another sound, such as ç or z as it is pronounced in Castilian Spanish.

Usually the figure-8 shape was written slightly asymmetrical to distinguish it from the number 8, but in a few areas (e.g., eastern France), the difference between “d” and “8” was less distinct and discerned by context. On folio 116v there aren’t enough instances of the figure-8 character to know for certain whether it’s D, S, or something else, but the fact that it exists in the marginalia (and possibly also in Voynichese) might be a regional indicator.

Geolocation

So, for quite a number of years, I have collected information on regional dialects, along with samples of text with scribal hands that resemble those of the main text and the last-page marginalia. When evaluated together, I was hoping they would help geolocate the VMS scribes.

This is a slow process and a certain amount of luck is involved. Many manuscripts have been lost in wars and fires and many sit unseen in private collections and libraries, so the odds of finding a match to the VMS handwriting is not very good. Nevertheless, I decided to try.

To date, I have about 600 hands that bear some resemblance to the handwriting of whoever penned all or most of the text on 116v. I had to study about 6,000 manuscripts to locate these samples, so only about 10% of the hands surveyed so far were similar enough to include in the sampling.

To evaluate the hands, I developed a mathematical system that describes each letter individually and the alphabet as a whole, and which also assigns scores for pen width, slant, letter spacing, and word spacing.

Unfortunately, neither the main text nor the marginalia provide a full alphabet but I am strongly convinced that the hand on f116v is the same as that on f17r, which helps fill out most of the alphabet for the marginalia, except for “k”, “q”, “y”, “z”, and “w” (“w” was not used in Latin but was in German). In Latin, there was usually no distinction between “u” and “v” but one was sometimes made in German, and the marginal writer does appear to write “u” and “v” differently, so I treated them as separate letters. The letter “j” was not typically used in the early 15th century. Normally the j sound was expressed with “iu” or “io” and sometimes written with an embellished “i” that resembles a modern “j”, but the “j” wasn’t usually treated as a separate letter when the VMS was created).

Thus, 20 letters are available for comparison (plus the figure-8 character, which might stand for terminal-S, D, or something else, and was not included due to its status being unknown).

When given numeric scores for similarity ranging from 1 to 6, with a perfect match for all the letters being 120 (not counting the spacing and slant variables), it becomes possible to search and sort the samples, and more objectively compare various hands to the VMS.

A Brief Overview of the Results So Far

Out of approximately 600 reasonably similar hands, only 18 scored 80 or higher on a scale of 1 to 120. This form of writing is loosely called Gothic cursive, although there are some traces of book-hand mixed in and it is sometimes referred to as Gothic quasi-cursive.

These are the ones that are most similar:

[Postscript 9/7/17: I noticed a copy-paste error in Row 7 Column 1 (the letter A), so I have corrected it and re-uploaded the chart.]

As can be seen from the top ten examples, which scored from 81 to 87, the scribes who wrote in hands most similar to the VMS marginalia did not typically write an unlooped “d”, a flat-bottomed “b”, or a “u” with serifs—the VMS hand differs in these respects not only from the hands that most closely match, but also from hands that scored in the 70 to 79 range, so these characteristics can be used as markers to help recognize an individual person’s writing. Unlooped “d” is not uncommon, it is simply less common in hands that most closely match the overall alphabet for the marginalia.

What especially surprised me about these 10 samples, which I hoped would help geolocate the marginal writer, is that historians and bibliographers don’t know where they came from. Seven out of ten have undocumented origins. In contrast, the origins of those that score in the 77 to 80 range are mostly known.

Is there a bigger mystery surrounding manuscripts with hands similar to the marginalia writer’s? Could there be a group of manuscripts from a particular area that were obtained or transmitted in some unusual way? We know that the VMS is listed in the Vatican catalog, but never made it to the Vatican library because the Jesuits, under a promise of secrecy from Wilfrid Voynich, sold it to the book dealer from America rather than conveying it to the Vatican. Might there be other manuscripts with shadowy histories?

Patterns in Subject Matter

When looking for handwriting samples, I scoured every kind of document I could find, including incunabula, legal documents, and manuscripts. I didn’t want my assessment of the handwriting to be influenced by the subject matter or source of the documents. Once I had enough samples, I began to study their subject matter. The top samples (which include documents with both known and unknown origins) fall into the following categories:

  • Alchemical (1 example, origin uncertain, possibly Austria, Bohemia, or Germany c. last half 15th century)
  • Saintly Miracles (1 example from a manuscript written in several different hands, the sampled hand may have been added c. 1400?, possibly from Germany)
  • Collections of sermons or theological treatises (3 examples, possibly from Germany, but this is not certain; 1 example of unknown origin; 1 example from Lund region; 1 late 15th-century example from the Alsatian region)
  • Mortuary Roll (2 examples in a document that includes different hands from different regions, 1458 to 1459, possibly from Flanders/Normandy area)
  • Armorial Roll (1 15th-century example in a Tirolian collection that includes different hands from different regions)
  • Homer’s Epic (1 example from Naples region, possibly late 1300s)
  • A handbook of fortune-telling, charms, medicine, virtues of plants (1 example from England, possibly mid-1400s)
  • Selected stories of Petrarch (1 example from S. Germany, c. mid-1400s)
  • Frontismatter in another hand on a c. 1380s Czech book of hymns and prayers (1)
  • Endmatter on a back leaf in another hand on a manuscript from c. 1300 Bologna, but which is housed in Germany and may have been added to in Germany in the late 14th century
  • Legal document: 1360 Charles IV grant (1 example from Nuremberg, Germany)
  • Astrological text with zodiacs (1 example, possibly from the Alsatian region)
  • Tristan and Isold themes (1 example, c. 1330, Veneto)

Clearly, those who used this style of writing come from several different areas and a number of different occupations and copied or wrote on different subjects. The examples range from the early 1300s to the late 1400s, a time period that is consistent with the use of Gothic cursive in general and which could indicate marginal writing that is either contemporaneous with the VMS, or later, or even earlier (although this seems less likely as there are two Voynichese tokens inline with the rest of the text on f116v).

The examples are both ecclesiastical and secular and only include a couple that delve into the occult. None of them are specific to herbs or bathing, although one does mention plants and includes charms (Trinity College MS O.1.57) and uses the Greek sigma symbol as a terminal-s. For the most part, however, they are practical collections of knowledge. None include cipher script. The only significant pattern that emerges is that the majority, where origin is known, are from germanic regions, which is perhaps not surprising, since the marginalia itself is somewhat germanic.

I have much more data and commentary than I’ve posted in this brief summary, and will report further on the marginalia (and on the main text) as I have time.

 

J.K. Petersen

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

Mayhem, Macaroni-Style

It’s a challenge to read old manuscripts. Language has changed, writing styles were very different, a bewildering array of abbreviations occupies each sentence like a mine field, and there were no spelling checkers (or hard-and-fast rules about spelling) in the 15th century. To complicate matters, scribes often copied manuscripts in languages they didn’t fully understand.

The last page of the VMS reads like a cryptic alphabet soup, but are texts with blended languages that unusual?

Support for Billy Goat Liver?

My gut feeling, even before investigating it, was that blended languages were bound to occur in societies where a second language was an essential tool of commerce and scholarly correspondence. But a sixth sense and real data are two different things, so I kept my eyes open for an unambiguous example and found one, and inside was the most surprising Easter egg, something I never expected…

BSB CGM 8137 is a tract on fishing and has no obvious connection to the VMS, but the recipes use many of the same ingredients as folk medicine, so it reads very much like a medical manuscript. It mentions tormentilla, wine, beer and “pockleber” (goat liver)—that was the surprise! Finding goat liver is not particularly unusual, but finding goat liver in a manuscript that blends languages in such a quirky way made me sit up and take notice…

As far as I’m aware, no one has mentioned CGM 8137 “pockleber” in connection with the VMS, but it’s important because it demonstrates that this ingredient was used in ways other than cooking and might relate to the words written at the top of folio 116v. The spelling is different, but substituting “x” (Greek chi) for hard-h, ch, or ck was not unusual and “p” was often used where modern German uses “b”.

If poxleber and pockleber refer to the same thing, then this manuscript offers evidence to support the interpretation offered by Johannes Albus and anyone else who may have read the text as “goat liver”.

I was happy to find this example for two reasons:

•  it offers evidence that pockleber (both the word and the ingredient) was probably in use in the 15th century, and

•  the script is an excellent example of mixed language. CGM 8137 demonstrates that macaronic text was in practical use.

I’ve long wondered if some of the not-quite German words on f116v that are mixed with readable German might be fractured Latin (mixed in with accepted Latin) and that some of the text on the second line might even be Spanish. Here is an excerpt from fishing recipe #12 to give an idea of how intimately languages could be blended. Note also that the interpretation of “pockleber” as a compund word is unambiguous, as “leber” is mentioned again, by itself, on the fourth line:

Item rec[ipe] mayen et prachmonet pro piscib[us] et cancris ain pockleber et assa bene, pus?post? assacionem sparge desuper pulverem de gaffer. Postea? recipe das kalbs netzlen oder schaff netzlen das da frisch ist, und schlags umb die leber. Postea liga super asserem parvulum ad capiendum pisces et cancros…

The first word, “Item”, was widely used in both German and Latin, and “recipe” is middle French for “medical prescription”. Then there’s an odd combination of month names, the first Latinesque (mayen), the other German (prachmonet) (note that once again, a “p” has been substituted for “b”). Brachmonat is June in German, and calendars illustrating the month’s labors often illustrate June as a farmer tilling his fields. The next four words are Latin, followed by two German words (ain pockleber), and three more in Latin instructing the reader to dry or roast well.

The month names really caught my eye. You would think the writer would choose one language or the other for related concepts in the same sequence, but apparently there was no impulse to organize the languages this way.

The other recipes are interlaced in the same way.

It’s significant that German and Latin are mixed not just line-by-line (as in macaronic verse) or phrase-by-phrase, but sometimes word-by-word.

That’s the important part. If “pox leber” turns out to be German and even if “pfer” at the end turns out to be a German word like “pferd” that doesn’t mean the words in between have to be German. If CLM 8137 is any example, the word “um?n” and some of the German-looking words on the last line could be Latin (or something else).

The Possibilities…

CGM 8137 was created about a century after the VMS, so it’s not an exemplar, but “goat liver” was no doubt a common phrase—goats were an integral part of medieval society—which means that other examples might be found, as additional manuscripts are scanned and read.

This isn’t proof that “pox leber” says goat liver, there may be other interpretations, but it is greatly intriguing, especially considering polyglot manuscripts have been found to exist.

 

J.K. Petersen

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

The Origin of the Voynich Glyphs

The Search for the VMS Glyphs

Researchers have speculated for decades about the origins of those funny letters in the Voynich Manuscript.

When I first encountered the VMS, I recognized most of the shapes from medieval scribal traditions, but I couldn’t read the text, so I combed the world’s archives for examples of other alphabets that might have inspired the glyphs, hoping it might yield clues to an underlying language. Along the way, I discovered certain shapes are found in many scripts—loops, circles, snake-shapes, or sticks with a loop or two, seem to naturally occur in diverse regions. Shapes that look like p, s, g, and ell are particularly common.

In the end, after years of pouring over hundreds of languages and dozens of alphabets, I came back to where I started. The Latin alphabet and scribal abbreviation conventions can explain almost all the VMS characters. I already knew this, but sometimes you have to look around to appreciate what you already have.

I’ve mentioned the Latin origins many times, but I’ve noticed there is still a certain skepticism, and I’ve never posted examples of the entire alphabet due to the enormity of the task (I have thousands of examples and severe time constraints). So, I’ve decided to post it in installments rather than trying to fit it all into one very long paper that might never get finished.

Organizing the Glyphs

Most people are not familiar with Latin paleography, so I will try to include as many original samples as possible from medieval manuscripts.

Most of the VMS glyphs fall into four categories:

  • Latin letters,
  • Latin numbers,
  • Latin ligatures (two or more shapes combined for ease of writing), and
  • Latin abbreviations.

Some glyphs can be classified in more than one category. For example, in medieval script, the Greek sigma is sometimes used as a terminal-s in Latin scripts and is sometimes drawn with the last stroke looped so that it resembles a figure-8. This shape is hard to categorize unless one knows by context whether it is a letter or the number 8. Since the VMS lacks context (the text has not been decoded), I have assigned some glyphs to more than one category (e.g., letter and number, or letter and abbreviation). More on this later when I sum up the individual characters.

A number of Latin glyph-shapes are borrowed from Greek. Sometimes they mean the same thing and sometimes the shape has been adapted for other uses, as will be illustrated in today’s blog.

The Big Red Weirdo

I thought I’d start with one of the iconic shapes in folio 1r, sometimes known as the “bird glyph” or the “seagull” or simply as a “big red weirdo”. This shape is used only once.

The big red weirdo somewhat resembles a bird with a vertical squiggle between the “wings”. I usually call it the seagull glyph.

We learn in primary school that letters have more than one version, and are taught to write both upper- and lowercase letters. In most ancient scripts, there was no distinction between upper- and lowercase, but sometimes the beginning of a paragraph or line would be adjusted for aesthetic reasons or to call attention to something of importance by enlarging the letter, using different colors, or by adding lines, curves, or other embellishments.

The seagull glyph without the squiggle can be found in old languages that use the Greek character set (a variation of it can be found in Arabic, but much less often). It is not always drawn with the line underneath, but the line is used in certain writing styles or sometimes to create emphasis, as in these examples. Note the double dots above some of the letters. A Latin squiggle doesn’t have the same meaning as Greek dots, but the dots show a precedence for the position of a squiggle in later Latin documents:

These examples are from leftmost columns of new paragraphs (left) and from header text written for emphasis (right). Just as capital letters sometimes have extra strokes to make them stand out from lower-case letters, the Greek letters, such as ypsilon, sometimes had an extra line on the base to give them emphasis. In Coptic Greek this shape (without the dots) represents the letter Ue and, depending on the handwriting style, sometimes the letter Djandjia.

In Latin, the seagull shape usually represents a V, but sometimes it retains one of the Greek meanings. Note that dots have a variety of meanings in Greek. In some cases they are associated with the character (pronunciation or abbreviation), in others, dots can mean that the copied text diverges from the original, a convention that is also used in Latin.

The Seagull Tradition

Latin was a required language for medieval scholars and many also studied Greek, so it’s not uncommon for Greek conventions to show up in Latin texts. Sometimes they mean the same thing in Greek and Latin, and sometimes a shape is preserved but used for different purposes. In some cases, two conventions are combined, as will be seen when I discuss the squiggle.

You might have noticed that the seagull shape, when written as it is above, resembles the symbol for Aries. The Aries symbol is ubiquitous in Latin texts on astrology and astronomy, but the Greek convention is sometimes also used to mark paragraphs in texts not related to astronomy. You might notice that the “seagull” shape also somewhat resembles an open book, when the line on the bottom is extended. This, in combination with the way it is used in some Greek texts, might have inspired its use as a pilcrow in certain Spanish documents.

In the above examples, the shape that resembles the Greek letter is used to mark passages in a 15th-century Latin manuscript on astrology, and a 16th century New World document by Spanish missionaries. The shape underwent some minor changes, but its use as emphasis or a topic marker was retained.

This manuscript combines Greek and Latin, and the character can be seen both with and without the squiggle. Note that symbols above letters in Greek do not have the same meanings in Latin. Greek pronunciation symbols, for example, were not carried into the Latin writing traditions but the use of symbols as abbreviations was prevalent in both traditions.

In Latin manuscripts, a seagull shape usually represented the letter V or the letter V plus additional letters. If a squiggle was added, it was almost always an abbreviation. The example on the left is from the late 13th or early 14th century. The one on the right, from the 15th or 16th century.

What About the Squiggle?

The VMS character is embellished with a flame-like squiggle that sits vertically between the “wings”. This too is a Latin convention, a very common one. It can be drawn as a straight line, a slightly curved line, or a full s-curve, and it can be horizontal or vertical.

In old Greek, marks above letters are a combination of pronunciation symbols and abbreviations. In Latin, pronunciation symbols are rarely used and the symbols usually represent a number of abbreviations. You can think of them as specialized apostrophes, depending on their shape and position.

In Latin, the squiggle was particularly prevalent in the 13th and 14th centuries and it was usually drawn in the vertical direction to distinguish it from the shape that represents “n” or “m” which is straighter and almost always horizontal, but it didn’t matter whether an s-curve was horizontal or vertical, the meaning was usually the same—it stood for er, re, or ir or these letters combined with additional letters. In the illustration above, the word on the right is “versus”, with the squiggle standing in for “-er-“.

Sometimes if a squiggle had an extra wiggle, it stood for a degree of something or a series, as the “th” that is added to ordinal numbers. In this case, it was usually horizontal, but not always.

I don’t know what the seagull glyph signifies in Voynichese, but whether one considers it to be textual or an embellishment, the shape is not unusual, especially when it appears like this, at the beginning of a block of text.

Summary

It seems abrupt to end a blog on just one character, but it will take at least a dozen blogs to describe the whole alphabet and a dozen more to describe the relationships between them and their positions in the text (and that’s without going into the actual structure or meaning of the text). As will be seen from other characters, including the more exotic ones, whoever designed the glyphs was familiar with classical scripts and used Latin as the primary source of inspiration (or Latin conventions derived from Greek). This is indicated not only by shape, but by the design of the alphabet as a whole, and by position.

I’ll post examples of the other characters, including a discussion of their behavior, in future blogs.

J.K. Petersen

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

Voynich Glyph Structure

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

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

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

Why I Rejected Existing Transcripts

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

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

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

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

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

And Then There’s the Tail…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some closing thoughts…

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

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

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

J.K. Petersen

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

Scribal Relationships

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

Connecting the Scribes

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

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

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

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

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

Handwriting as a Research Tool

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

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

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

Looking for Commonalities

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

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

The Doppelganger to Vatican Ross.708

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

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

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

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

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

The main differences are

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

J.K. Petersen

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

Did Cicco Simonetta Bomb at Code-Breaking?

First a Few Words…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evaluate the Word Endings

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

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

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

Sometimes.

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

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

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

Look for One-Character Words

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

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

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

Pay Attention to Letter Endings

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

Summary

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

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

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

J.K. Petersen

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