Sunday 14 September 2008

Farewell to Blogger, hello to WordPress...

Hi everyone

Voynich News is now called "Cipher Mysteries" - all new posts will appear from there. There is lots of good stuff in the pipeline, hope to see you there! :-)

Cheers, .....Nick Pelling....

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Top 10 Voynich Manuscript theories, decoded...

Note: this article has now moved to top-10-voynich-manuscript-theories-decoded on Cipher Mysteries

Symmetrical and repetitive prey behaviour is the key tool exploited by hunter gatherers: and so it goes with Voynich Manuscript websites. Once you've seen the same damaged pattern a few times, the shared wonky rationale behind it is usually fairly transparent.

And so here is a suggested critical reader for those fruity (but decidedly wobbly) jellies we all love to dip our fingers in: Voynich theories. Make of them all what you will...

(1) Any theory involving time travel or aliens
Subtext: "My theory has so many holes in, it would need two series of Doctor Who to fix them all."

(2) Any theory involving Jesuits
Subtext: "I prefer reading 18th century fiction to 20th century non-fiction."

(3) Any theory involving China
Subtext: "What do you mean, Jacques Guy wasn't being serious?"

(4) Any theory involving the New World
Subtext: "I've got the hots for that Brazilian woman. What do you mean, she's not female?"

(5) Any theory where the VMs is written in lightly disguised Hebrew
Subtext: "I wish I had read the Bible when I was young, instead of taking so many drugs."

(6) Any theory where the VMs is written in a mixture of European languages
Subtext: "I put so much time into learning those languages, they have to be useful soon, right?"

(7) Any theory where the VMs contains alchemical or heretical secrets
Subtext: "Lynn Thorndike's books are far too heavy for my weak arms to lift."

(8) Any theory where the VMs describes telescopes, microscopes, or computers
Subtext: "I can rewrite the technological history of the world howsoever I please; and anyone who objects is just a moany old loser."

(9) Any theory where the VMs is a hoax, channeled writing, glossolalia, etc
Subtext: "I can say anything I like about the VMs, and there's absolutely nothing you idiot historians can do about it, ner ner ner."

And finally...

(10) Any theory where the VMs was written by an architect
Subtext: "I see everything in the VMs as rational and ordered, however irrational and disordered everyone else may think it is. Perhaps I should lighten up."

PS: because the torrent of VMs-related news has dwindled to a thin trickle over recent weeks, I'm taking the rest of August off - see you again in September! ;-)

Monday 11 August 2008

Poisonous ink warning...

Note: this article has now moved to poisonous-ink-warning on Cipher Mysteries

Here's a quicky news story from the Mysterytopia mystery news-clipping website.
Medieval bones from six different Danish cemeteries reveal that monks who
wrote Biblical texts and other religious materials may have been exposed to
toxic mercury, which was used to formulate just one of their ink colors:
So, if you do happen to get a chance to look at the VMs at the Beinecke, remember not to lick your fingers after handling pages with red paint on...

You may possibly remember a similar monks-dying-with-black-tongues-and-a-black-finger schtick from Umberto Eco's "Name of the Rose". Doubtless our erudite semiotics professor friend lifted the idea from a nameless footnote somewhere in his personal Borgesian library: but all the same, it's nice to read about it for real, right?

Sunday 10 August 2008

Hidden Van Gogh painting...

Note: this article has now moved to hidden-van-gogh-painting on Cipher Mysteries

Here's a nice little article showing how science and art history research can work together in a harmonious way: using high-intensity x-rays, a materials scientist and a chemist found an portrait hidden beneath Van Gogh's "Patch of Grass".

Incidentally, the webpage is #1 of a set of 7, most of which are a bit poor: but photo #6, Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Cecilia Gallerani with her ermine (though I think it's actually a weasel) as captured by Pascal Cotte's multispectral trickery, is quite cool. :-)

Saturday 9 August 2008

"The Curse" mentioned in Portugal...

Note: this article has now moved to the-curse-mentioned-in-portugal on Cipher Mysteries

...A.K.A. "small fire in allotment near Harpenden", as the radio show "Hello Cheeky" used to paraphrase dull news.

Ok, so it's only a brief mention in a Portuguese blog: but all the same, it's nice to see someone reading it. I'll get back under my rock, then...

Friday 8 August 2008

"The Coso Artifact"...

Note: this article has now moved to the-coso-artifact on Cipher Mysteries

A few days ago, Voynich News started getting web visitors from the Hall of Maat, an alternative science website I'd heard of (but had never got round to looking at properly). And so I decided to drop by; and was very pleasantly surprised at its range of well-written articles, most of them skeptical takes on the kind of alt.history nonsense that typically bedecks the Internet.

Here's a link to the article on "The Coso Artifact", simply because the story (of how a modern object worth no more than "a couple of bucks" led to such an outpouring of tosh about ancient civilizations and even creationist takes on technology) amused me so much. But the rest of the site is good too - enjoy!

PS: just so you know, there isn't much about the VMs on the site, with the brief exception of an interesting 2004 article by Mark Newbrook on linguistic revisionist histories.

Thursday 7 August 2008

Review of "The Montefeltro Conspiracy"...

Note: this article has now moved to review-of-the-montefeltro-conspiracy on Cipher Mysteries

Once upon a time, when I was trying to research the cryptographic history of Sforza Milan 1450-1500, it became painfully obvious that I had to build up a proper understanding of Francesco Sforza's chancellor Cicco Simonetta: more than just a 'gatekeeper' or even a 'lynchpin', Simonetta was the very lintel above the door, the central architectural feature silently and powerfully holding the whole enterprise together.

However, for the most part histories have tended to treat Simonetta as a marginal figure, as if he was simply some gouty old henchman beavering away in the Sforza family's shadows. Only when contemporary historians (Evelyn Welch perhaps most famously, but there are now quite a few others) began relentlessly chiselling away at the Sforza propaganda facade did Cicco become foregrounded as a useful object of study.

Despite my efforts to collate what fleeting references to Cicco I could find, he remained an elusive figure. But then I found a relatively unknown book in Italian called "Rinascimento Segreto: Il mondo del Segretario da Petrarca a Machiavelli" (2004) by Marcello Simonetta: chapters III and V covered the key people & period I was particularly interested in. The author's surname is no coincidence: when Marcello went to Yale in 1995, his professor from the palaeography class (the very excellent Vincent Ilardi) "immediately suggested that [he] write a biography of [his] ancestor Cicco Simonetta". Poignantly, Marcello had been born in a hospital in Pavia "only a few yards from where Cicco Simonetta was imprisoned at the end of his long life."

I should have been delighted: but my Italian comprehension has only ever been tourist-plus, and "Rinascimento Segreto" was written in (to me) full-on academese. Yet even though reading it was a hard, hard slog, it really did have everything I needed to build up a fuller picture, as well as plenty on other related stuff (such as the Visconti, the Pazzi conspiracy, Roberto da Sanseverino, Filfelfo, and so forth). In many ways, Simonetta's book was one of the ten or so key texts that substantially contributed to my research back then.

Since then, Marcello has been busy digging further trenches within the same Quattrocento patchwork of fields. Most notably, in 2001 he uncovered (in the Ubaldini family archive in Urbino) an enciphered letter from Federico da Montefeltro to his envoys in Rome, dating from 14th February 1478 - a mere ten weeks before the Pazzi conspiracy attack on Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici. Marcello had already accumulated plenty of material implicating Federico in the whole plot: and so wondered whether this letter might be connected...

During 2002 or 2003, he therefore decided to see if he could break the letter's cipher using only the set of "Regule" (rules) famously written down by Cicco Simonetta in his diary: these described how to break unknown ciphertexts. "After a few weeks of hard work", Marcello was finally able to decipher it: and it revealed, just as he had inferred from other documents, that Federico da Montefeltro had indeed been utterly involved with the whole plot against the Medicis. Marcello published his results in the well-respected Archivio Storico Italiano: but it was not historians who responded in 2004, but the world's media, bringing him a small measure of international fame: in 2005, a documentary even came out on the History Channel describing Marcello's story.

Fast forward to 2008, and here's Marcello's brand new popular history book "The Montefeltro Conspiracy", which does everything you'd expect: it tells the interlinked stories of Cicco Simonetta, Gian Galeazzo Sforza, Federico da Montefeltro, Lorenzo de' Medici, Pope Sixtus IV, and the whole Pazzi conspiracy (and the subsequent Pazzi war), particularly focusing on the political machinations from 1476 to 1482, together with the story of the ciphered letter.

Well, that's the making-of-the-book covered, the kind of human-interest story PR people love to feed to tame journalists (not that I've received a single PR release to date, let alone a review copy of anything): but what is the book actually like?

For the first 50 pages, I have to say that I really didn't enjoy the book. To me they read like 19th century jut-jawed Italian popular histories, such as Count Pier Desiderio Pasolini's "Catherine Sforza". Even though I happened to love that book, it's really not something that could be sensibly released nowadays, because sensibilities and presentation styles have moved on so far: modern history is so much better than that.

All the same, beyond that point, Marcello progressively got into the swing of it: and by about page 150, he had really got the measure of the material and the pacing, and his story was really flying. Yet the very final section appended to the structure (where he proposes a link between Botticelli's uber-famous "La Primavera", his "Punishment of Korah" (the fifth fresco on the walls of the Sistine chapel), and the whole Medici-Pazzi thing) just doesn't work at all (sorry); and so the whole book ends on a bit of an historical down note, which is a shame.

Having tried my own hand at writing an accessible historical account of the mid-Quattrocento (and it is a far harder challenge than it looks), I'd put the lull of the first 50 pages down to popular writing inexperience on Simonetta's part (trust me, he can do full-on academese just fine): so in the end, I'd still recommend his book overall as a good piece of historical writing on a fascinating era.

As an aside, an article last week by Juliet Gardiner in the Sunday Times eulogizing contemporary British historians (almost to the point of hagiography, it should be said) also criticized European historians' writing for being too polarized between high and low culture:-

"[Richard] Evans makes the point that, on the Continent, the divide between academic and popular history is far deeper. Elsewhere in Europe, history is seen as a social science (Wissenschaft), so it tends to be written in 'high academese', a theoretical, technical style that is all but impenetrable to all but the committed specialist. In Britain, history is seenas a branch of literature, rather than science, and the tradition of writing narratic, empirical history, often with an emphasis on biography, provides a vivid 'story' that can be appreciated by the educated reader."
I would say that "The Montefeltro Code" amply demonstrates of all these historiographical trends: yet I do look forward to further historical books by Simonetta, particularly as his popular writing style continues to improve (as it undoubtedly will).

However, when considering his book as a piece of cryptographic writing, I have a whole heap of issues. Despite the huge influence of the Da Vinci Code on the publishing trade, there are very few recent books that could genuinely qualify as both historical and cryptographic non-fiction (Simonetta's "The Montefeltro Code" and my book "The Curse of the Voynich" are pretty much the only two I can think of right now), as long as you put the torrent of titles on the whole Enigma / Bletchley Park thing to one side.

In this context, Simonetta would have been aware that cryptography historians would take a keen interest in his book, and should therefore have checked his work accordingly. Unfortunately, this seems not to have happened.

I'll give some immediate examples from p.26. Though his mention of "the insecure roads of Europe" is true for most cipher dispatches, my understanding is that Sforza cipher dispatches were (according to Francesco Senatore) folded up inside a littera clausa, powerfully deterring anyone from even trying to peek inside. In each cipher, Marcello says "there were about 250 random symbols, which stood for single, double, and triple characters": actually, they stood for single letters, doubled letters, and nulls, as well as some common short words, and occasionally common consonant-vowel or vowel-consonent pairs. In fact, Cicco Simonetta's Regule pointed out that the only Latin word with a tripled letter is "uvula" (egg), making this an even more obvious mistake (even though Cicco himself seems to have miscopied this as "mula"). "Some fifty other[ symbol]s designated people or powers": actually, this number varied widely. "Every few months, the sets were completely changed": I don't think this is true at all - Tristano Sforza's cipher was changed only after about 15 years in use, and only because of Tristano's petulance (his old cipher wasn't ornate enough for his position) rather than any cryptographic need. In fact, as far as I know, the only Milanese cipher of the period that was updated much was the one to Tranchedino in Florence... and so on.

All very minor and (frankly) unnecessary: but it is Marcello's claims relating to Federico da Montefeltro's ciphered letter that require the most careful scrutiny. In a recent email, Augusto Buonafalce flagged to me that Marcello had not made it transparently clear how he had decoded the nomenclator (the list of people/place/etc, each represented by a single symbol): and that this was central to whether his deciphering claim was cryptologically valid or not.

Certainly, when Simonetta first published his findings in 2003, he had (though this is not made clear anywhere) only guessed at the "persons and powers" code-table section of the nomenclator: many of these symbols appear in the two pages he reproduced (for example, you can see instances of c24, j6, p1, p2, p12, r1 dotted around the page). In January 2004, I suggested to him that he should examine the Urbinate Lat. 998 cipher ledger (held in the Vatican), which contains various Urbino ciphers, and pointed out that, from what I had seen, it seemed to be common practice in Urbino to reuse & extend codebooks rather than to create entirely new ones. When Marcello had a look at Urb. Lat. 998 in the summer of 2004, he was pleasantly surprised to find two symbols reused from a (then ten-year-old) cipher codebook: yet the remainder were still educated guesses on his part. Though he included two small images of the "Montefeltro Codebook" on p.91 (but with no folio reference), these are not at the level of cryptographic proof that would satisfy a Cryptologia readership: his code-table cracks were based more far on historical inferences than on cryptography.

Though Marcello took several weeks to break the cipher, it should also be pointed out that this was because Cicco's rules were simplistic (and, I suspect, hardly ever used in practice): had Marcello passed his transcription to a cryptologer, it would probably have yielded up its secrets in mere minutes - code-table aside, it was a very simple cipher.

Ultimately, the irony of the situation is that the Sforza camp (and specifically Cicco Simonetta, I argued in my book) had provided the Montefeltro camp with far better ciphers than this since the 1440s: yet because Federico was now moving his loyalty away from Milan, the new cipher his administrators created for him was far simpler - but one unknown to his former allies.

All this points towards what I found so maddeningly annoying about "The Montefeltro Code": that neither the cryptological methodology nor the cryptographical history were treated fairly and in context. In the end, the book presents a good historical rendering of a fascinating period with only a light dusting of crypto confetti on the surface - much as I liked its historical side (and would indeed have walked across broken glass to get a copy of it when writing my book), anyone hoping for a brilliant synthesis of that with cryptography may well come away disappointed.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Wilfrid Voynich's papers...

Note: this article has now moved to wilfrid-voynichs-papers on Cipher Mysteries

Here's a quick research note: a list of Wilfrid Voynich's archives...

There may well be more, but that should be enough to keep any researcher going for a bit... :-)

Tuesday 5 August 2008

A little more on Tadeáš Hájek z Hájku...

Note: this article has now moved to a-little-more-on-tadeas-hajek-z-hajku on Cipher Mysteries

A nice little thing just arrived in the post: I had contacted the Prague-based Society for the History of Sciences ("DVT" = dějiny věd a techniky) to ask how to get hold of a copy of its 2000 monograph on Tadeáš Hájek z Hájku. To my surprise, the DVT's Igor Janovský said - don't worry about paying, we'll just send you a copy (which they did).

It's a rather pleasant little blue-covered volume: though all in Czech, there is a contents page at the back in English. As this doesn't appear anywhere on the Internet, I thought I'd copy it here:-

5 … Introduction
7 … Zdenĕk Beneš: Lifetime of Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek – his personality, time and milieu
15 … Jaroslav Soumar: Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek and his time
25 … Michal Svatoš: Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek and Prague University
35 … Martin Šolc: Astronomy in activity of Tadeáš Hájek
41 … Alena Hadravová & Petr Hadrava: Observation devices in the time of Tadeáš Hájek
49 … Petr Hadrava: Tradition in Czech stellar astronomy (Conclusion to the astronomy of Tadeáš Hájek and foreward to S. Štefl’s article)
51 … Stanislav Štefl: Stelar studies of Be-stars with spectrograph Heros
55 … Voytĕch Hladký & Martin Šolc: Tadeáš Hájek and the calendary reform of Pope Gregorius
61 … Karel Krška: Tadeáš Hájek as meteorologist
67 … Zdenĕk Tempír: Cultivation of hop-plants up to 16th century and Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek
79 … Gabriela Basařová: Contribution of Tadeáš Hájek to Czech and world brewing
93 … Pavel Drábek: Aspects of medicine in Hájek’s treatise on beer
95 … Václav Vĕtvička: Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek as botanist
103 … Jaroslav Slípka: Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek and his “Methoposcopy”
109 … Milada Říhová: Treatise on methoposcopy of Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek
115 … Pavel Drábek: Antonius Mizaldus an interpreteur of Hájek’s Methoposcopy into French
117 … Bohdana Buršiková: “Actio medica”, or the professional dispute of Tadeáš Hájek
125 … Josef Smolka: Andreas Dudith (1533-1589) – penfriend of Tadeáš Hájek
169 … Josef Petráň: Tadeáš Hájek’s relation to practice
175 … On bibliography Hageciana
189 … Obsah
[i.e. “Contents” in Czech]
190 … Contents

By far the biggest (44-page long) piece is Josef Smolka's article (pp.125-168) on Hájek's correspendence from Andreas Dudith: the table on p.137 lists 47 extant letters dating from 1572 to 1589. Dudith's correspondence is currently being edited by L. Szczucki a T. Szepessy: parts I to IV were published in 1992, 1995, 2000, and 1998, with the last two corresponding just to 1574 and 1575 (which must have been busy years). Note that Smolka has examined the letters to Hájek past 1575, not just the ones that have been edited & published.

I must admit that all this changes what I thought about the 16th century. I had previously got the impression that there was a huge explosion in scientific letter writing only in the mid-17th century, triggered by the Royal Society and Kircher's encyclopedic output. My impression of the preceding century had been that its letters had been more literary and political. But here we can see a 16th century group corresponding intensely: this pushes the boundary right back in time.

Was this an "invisible college"? Owen Gingerich received light flak for using the phrase ("The Book Nobody Read", p.82), which he defines (pp.178-179) as "tutorial and mentor relationships that transcended institutional boundaries": though in modern sociological usage, it is usually a rather more hand-waving way of expressing undocumented (but implicitly present) loose connections between members of an extended community through which ideas flow. For once, the Wikipedia entry is mostly helpful (well, up until its final summary, anyway).

I'd point out that 'mentoring' is a somewhat inexact term (as well as being a modern back-projection onto history, with "mentor" dating only from 1699, and becoming trendy in the 1990s): and that the whole "invisible college" notion comes with extensive occult, Rosicrucian, and secret society baggage which perhaps we would be better off not carrying on our journey forwards. Basically, I fail to see how using "invisible" to denote "non-academic" is helpful to anyone: I've met plenty of essentially invisible academics, haven't you?

For the most part, I think that what is meant by "invisible college" is no more than a geographically- extended community of letter-writers, trading ideas rather than goods. Others might prefer to call this a "community of letters" (though I'm not sure if this is helpful either).

And so we come to Rene Zandbergen's comment on my earlier post on Tadeáš Hájek. He writes that "According to Dr.Smolka, if Hajek had had access to the MS now known as the Voynich MS, it should be expected that he would have mentioned it to Duditius, but this is not the case." [Smolka's article on Duditius and Hájek is the one discussed above].

Actually, I do buy into this: if the VMs did get bought by Rudolph II (who, let's say, then gave it to Horcicky), we may be able to rule out the pre-1590 (and indeed the pre-1600) period. In fact, I'd say the best place to look would probably be in the community of scientific letter-writers around Europe circa 1600-1612, and particularly before 1606-1609 when Rudolph II's grip on the court started to yield to his brother Matthias. So rather than Duditius and Hájek themselves, we ought to be hunting down their successors' letters. But who would that be?

It would need someone with a better grasp of 'unpublished Bohemian scientific correspondence 1600-1610' than me to know where best to look next. All the same, I have some ideas... ;-)

Monday 4 August 2008

John Dee's "Tuba Veneris"...

Note: this article has now moved to john-dees-tuba-veneris on Cipher Mysteries

Was the "Consecrated Little Book of Black Venus" really written by John Dee? I first saw this several years back, when I stumbled upon Joseph Peterson's transcription of it on the Esoteric Archives website.

The link with Dee seemed (and still seems) to me to be spurious: even though he is mentioned right at the start of the text, for me the language, the drawings, the style, the thinking, in fact all of it fails to please as a match. But then again, the earliest copy (held by our old friend the Warburg Institute, MS FBH 51) is apparently 16th century, so would have been written while Dee was still alive. It's a nice little mystery, I thought, though one which at the time I assumed few had any interest in.

However, I recently found a paper online by occasional Voynich mailing list member Teresa Burns published in the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition (No. 12, Vol. 2. Vernal Equinox 2007), called "The Little Book of Black Venus and the Three-Fold Transformationof Hermetic Astrology". This fascinating little piece takes the reader on a journey around Dee's conceptual world and how it might link in with the Tuba Veneris, all the way to a suggested link with the "Familists", the Family of Love, and from there to an underground Dark Goddess movement.

There's also an Appendix by Phil Legard, which provides a different (but resonantly similar) angle. Nicely, he discusses whether the invocations might be Trithemian-style steganography (Legard thinks not, but it's good that this has been explored).

In the same issue, Terri and Nancy Burns also put forward a parallel translation of the Tuba Veneris - this is probably the place most people coming to it for the first time should start.

The next issue's follow-up piece (by Vincent Bridges and Teresa Burns) is also online, called "The Little Book of Black Venus – Part Two Olympic Spirits, the Cult of the Dark Goddess, and the Seal of Ameth". This tries to link the Tuba Veneris with Dee's early book-buying expedition in Italy, and (though not so successfully, I have to say) with the benendanti of Northern Italy, which you may possibly have heard of in connection with Carlo Ginzburg's fascinating book "The Night Battles".

Finally, there's a beautiful hand-crafted modern edition of the Tuba Veneris mentioned here (apparently based on the same set of articles) though its price of $189 may possibly be just a tad more than many people would spend on books in a year.

My opinion? Having absorbed all these articles, I'm now far more comfortable than I was before with the notion that the Tuba Veneris might well actually be by John Dee - it is dated 1580, which was before the whole Edward Kelley / angelic conversation farrago started kicking off, and placed in London. Yet I'm not taken by the Dark Goddess connection: though I appreciate the possibility, that's a whole step further than I can take (for the moment, at least). Ultimately, I suspect that the Tuba Veneris will turn out to be in a very loose Trithemian-style steganographic cipher, perhaps for carrying a Familist message around Europe.

Hmmm... perhaps (pace Koestler & Owen Gingerich) someone will end up writing a book on it called "The Spell Nobody Cast"? Just a thought...

Sunday 3 August 2008

"The Voynich Chronicle"...

Note: this article has now moved to the-voynich-chronicle on Cipher Mysteries

No, it's not another Voynich Manuscript novel for the Big Fat List, but instead the working title (according to a blog entry here) for a track by 1980s German Synthpop funsters Alphaville in an upcoming album.

And no, much as I enjoyed "Big In Japan" I don't quite think that really counts as a huge lurch into the mainstream. Until you start to see Barbie Voynich-decoder love rings ("olal" = "I fancy him", "qoky" = "after school", etc), or perhaps "The Voynich Manuscript According To Clarkson" in hardback in Asda, it's going to stay a pretty much marginal thing. But could that ever happen? Well...
Having just driven a Murcialago through the sides of three caravans on fire, the producers of Top Gear set me my toughest challenge yet - deciphering the Voynich Manuscript. With my judgment still clouded by that incredible adrenaline high, I rather foolishly accepted...

Saturday 2 August 2008

"The Alchemy Guild"...

Note: this article has now moved to the-alchemy-guild on Cipher Mysteries

Alchemy arguably dates back to Alexandria, and there are many alchemical manuscripts dating through to the 13th and 14th century (though Lynn Thorndike noted that the 15th century was something of a fallow period). However, the modern organization The International Alchemy Guild traces its practical roots back to what was going in 16th century Bohemia, specifically with the work of Wilhelm von Rosenberg (their spelling) in Cesky Krumlov.

The Guild has put together a nice little historical piece on their website linking a lot of the famous alchemical names of the time to this specific milieu (though doubtless Voynich historian Rafal Prinke would view it as a somewhat simplistic rendering): so you'll see Rudolph II, Hajek, Dee, Kelly, Horcicky, etc all passing by in quick succession... Enjoy!