A few days ago, Rene Zandbergen very kindly pointed me in the direction of Lat. Borg. 898, a cipher manuscript newly digitized by the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. This has 410 pages of handwritten text, written using an alphabet formed almost entirely of astrological symbols (though with a few words apparently of Arabic right at the start, occasional Latin words fragments near the start, and a page of Italian right at the end).


Now, apart from Giovanni Fontana’s technical notes (early 15th century), the Voynich Manuscript (15th century) and the Rohonc Codex (16th century), you’d be quite hard pressed to find any other book-sized manuscript written in cipher from before 1650 (when shorthand started to become fashionable: Samuel Pepys began his shorthand diary in 1660.) So naturally, Lat. Borg. 898 was something I wanted to know more about.

According to the manuscript’s inside cover, it contains “Itineris de septentrionales fructus”, ‘the fruit of a journey to the North’: which also means it is a copy of Montpellier H.505, a handwritten manuscript written by Johannes van Heeck. “Van Hoo?” you may ask.

Actually, Johannes van Heeck was one of the small group of people who founded the ultra-influential Accademia Lincei in 1603, which ran until 1630. Yet not long after, he was jailed for killing an argumentative apothecary in a vicious brawl: even though his ultra-well-connected fellow founder Cesi managed to extricate him from prison, Van Heeck was still quickly banished from Rome. And so it was that he suddenly found himself with the time to go on a naturalist-themed journey to Poland, Pomerania and all points north to look at all of their flora and fauna.

(Incidentally, Johannes van Heeck wrote a book on the 1604 supernova: moreover, van Heeck and Cesi were both at the famous feast in honour of Galileo Galilei where the ‘telescopium’ was first given its name: Galileo and Della Porta both became Lynxes too.)

Johannes van Heeck (‘Heckius’) wrote his notes in Latin using what David Freedberg calls (though without elaborating) the “Lincean code”, which is presumably the simple substitution cipher described above. It shouldn’t be hard to crack, now, should it?

Computer Says No

It seemed obvious to me that the encipherer had not bothered to try to disguise the lengths of words (what American Cryptogram Association people would call an ‘aristocrat’ cryptogram, as opposed to a ‘patristocat’ cryptogram), so immediately it was highly probable that this was only lightly enciphered.

I therefore briefly looked for obvious Latin language cribs (a word with a highly unusual letter pattern, that would only have one or two possible Latin plaintexts) in the early pages, but noticed only this one:


This could easily be MISSUM or MITTAM: but because I also thought it likely that Latin would have several other words that matched the same pattern, decided not to pursue this further.

However, the cipher shapes had already suggested a likely cryptographic pattern to me: that the encipherer was using the astrological aspect glyphs (conjunction, sextile, square, trine, opposition) for vowels, and the astrological sign and planet glyphs for consonants. As a result, I was confident that I should be able to crack it easily.

But when I transcribed the first half of folio 2r (most of the first folio seemed to have been ripped out) and put it into CryptoCrack… the computer said no. That is, it didn’t find anything remotely like Latin. Or Italian. Or Dutch. Or anything, in fact. And when I tried half a page from folio 52r, that too failed to work (though it suggested a word “DISTILLA”).

That was a bit odd: so, with the briefest of nods to my first headmasterly Latin teacher (Richard Sale), I instead put the first few lines of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (“In tres partes” etc) into CryptoCrack: which decrypted them with ease. So CryptoCrack seemed to be working OK: the problem was apparently with Lat. Borg. 898’s plaintext.

At this point, though, I could see enough of the patterns to have a go at it by hand: and so got almost all of the alphabet.


Why did CryptoCrack fail to work on such a lightly enciphered Latin ciphertext? Having thought about it, it now seems to me that the way Johannes van Heeck and his contemporaries used Latin was essentially quite different from the way Julius Caesar wrote: and so using a single overarching “Latin” corpus / statistics is probably far from optimal.

So if in future I find myself desperately needing Cryptocrack to break tricky Latin texts circa 1600, I might put together a much later Latin corpus and see if I can get Phil Pilcrow to add that in as a “Late Latin” language option.

Through Philip Neal’s eyes

One nice thing about code-breaking is that even though a ciphertext usually has only one genuine plaintext, there are often many paths to that destination: while all will employ cunning of one sort or another, none is exclusively right.

And so it was that Philip Neal was having a good cryptological chortle at my expense: he asked me if I had seen the “glaring crib” in the section headed ‘Contra Tremorem Cordis‘. I thought he was referring to the MISSUM / MITTAM crib-like word above (which actually turned out to be TOLLIT), but it turned out he was actually referring to the two words immediately after it.


Nice crib! I wish I’d seen it, because it would have saved me half an hour of crypto hassle – but both roads led to Rome.

The Eye of the Lynx

While David Freedburg’s book “The Eye of the Lynx” doesn’t mention Lat. Borg. 898, it does mention Montpellier BEM H505 (though note that the description there is hyperlinked not to Johannes van Heeck but to quite the wrong “Johannes Eck” (1484-1543)), the book-sized cipher manuscript from which Lat. Borg. 898 was copied (with a few copying errors, inevitably). H505 is apparently subtitled “Mechanica et Naturalia Ioannis Ecchi Lincei”, and (David Freedburg “The Eye of the Lynx”, p.444 note 10):

“is largely devoted to matters of technical and mechanical interest and contains Heckius’s typically rather awkward drawings of machines, instruments, chemical vessels, and a variety of mechanical devices. Introducing the manuscript are thirty pages of medical notes written in Arabic, Syriac, and a strangely hermetic combination of Arabic and the Lincean code, as well as a passionate and moving invocation to the Virgin to assist him in his exploration of the hidden parts of nature.”

[Update: I found a scanned image from H505 here and inserted it below:]


So it would seem that Borg.Lat.898 is nothing more than the dreary text-only child of H.505: but, almost inevitably, H.505 has not yet been digitized, so as far as Lincean cipher manuscripts go, we currently have what we have (Borg.Lat.898) and no more.

Incidentally, If you want to know more about the Accademia Lincei, then David Freedburg’s (2003) “Eye of the Lynx” is a nice accessible read. For more on Johannes van Heeck, Freedberg mentions Alessandrini’s (1978) “Cimeli lincei a Montpellier” pp.288-293 and pp.68-77, plus Gabrieli’s (1989) “Contributi alla storia della Accademia dei Lincei” pp. 1055-1078): but nothing much else is obviously online. Which is shame, because he was a particularly colourful character.

Transcription of fol 1r

[R] calamenti thimi
pulegt cardui benedic-
ti rosarum menthe cr
ispe anam [l. se.] anisi
feniculi ozimi urthi
ce aneti [an }s vad:] angeli
ce feniculi althee
squille iridis turbit
elle: albi ana [}y. Esula9
propter: }y] asali [}vi] galan
ge cinamomi calami [azo:
an }s] infundantur trita
omnia in aceti fortis
simi [ttx.] tridup in lo-
co calido in uase ui-
treo uel terreo uitre
to deinde bulliant

In older writings, it should probably be no surprise that secret recipes and secret writing often go hand in hand.

Today I was looking through Trinity College Library MS. 1351 (shelfmark O.7.23), a late 15th century manuscript “in an ugly hand”. I was led there by Daniel V. Thompson’s (1935) “Trial index To some unpublished sources for the history of mediaeval craftsmanship” (in Speculum), which contains a long list of unpublished manuscripts, most of which have some “receipts” (recipes) for making colour.

Two nice things about this manuscript are (a) that Trinity College have digitized it and placed it entirely online; and (b) that the manuscript is (the catalogue notes) “likely MS. 34 in the Catalogue of Dr Dee’s library. Experimentorum diversorum liber. De vernisio quo utuntur scriptores. Secreta philosophorum. De usu virgae visoriae et huiusmodi secreta multa: papyro 8vo.

As a result, it links all the usual suspects in an interesting way: which was well worth a blog post, if you ask me. :-)

Anyway, here’s a simple cipher I found on fol. 10r that I thought you might all particularly appreciate. Even though seeing its basic key is very easy, I think you’ll find it still takes more than a little effort to decrypt it all:

Today’s Simple Cipher


(Click on the above if you want a slightly higher resolution image to work from.)

Rather than just giving you the key, I thought it would be more fun to leave it to you all to see how you get on, I hope you don’t mind. Anyway, it’s much more fun than the GCHQ Christmas puzzle (which I actually thought was a bit tiresome).

Shall I give you a clue? Well… I wasn’t planning to, but seeing as you pulled that face… perhaps a small clue, then. Which is: you don’t actually need to be a cryptologist or code-breaker to break this cipher. Enjoy! :-)

There has long been a tendency to frame the Somerton Man as some kind of social outsider, whether as a spy, a loner, a drifter, a criminal, or whatever. The fact that, nearly seventy years on, he remains unidentified would superficially seem to support that view.

And yet he certainly did know people.

It was revealed not so long ago by Jessica Thomson’s family that she (the nurse “Jestyn”) did know who the man was, but chose not to disclose his identity. It therefore seems highly probable (though not completely certain) that he travelled by the 11:15 bus to Glenelg for the specific purpose of visiting her or her husband Prosper Thomson, a journey that ultimately finished with the man’s lying dead on Somerton Beach.

Along with the bus ticket in the Somerton Man’s pockets, there was also an unused train ticket from Adelaide to Henley Beach. It therefore seems very likely to me (though far from certain) that he was planning to catch the 10:45 train to Henley Beach to visit someone he knew, and perhaps even leave his suitcase with them.

Hence it’s an entirely plausible (but unprovable) scenario that he telephoned his Henley Beach friend(s) when he arrived at Adelaide Station that morning but got no response, and so decided to leave his suitcase at the station and go directly to Glenelg. (Though if he had missed the 10:45 Henley Beach train and found out that the next train left after one o’clock, he might well have changed his plans for the day.)


The charge for each article (Motor Bicycles excepted) is for day of lodging and one clear day thereafter 4d. For each subsequent day 4d.

But that’s far from the end of our search for the Somerton Man’s social network.

A suitcase was subsequently found in the station which was connected to him not only by a thread – specifically, a certain kind of thread (“Warm Sepia of Ridgway”) that both was in the suitcase and had been used to mend his trousers – but also by the same type of jockey-style underwear that he was wearing and that was in the suitcase.

SM Suitcase

And that suitcase, amongst all its pell-mell contents, contained a number of blank prepaid letters and envelopes, about which relatively little has been said so far.


John Burton Cleland’s notes

But John Burton Cleland noticed these: and in his notes to the Coroner, he wrote:

The appearance and history and social class of the deceased as revealed by the body and contents of suitcase:

1. Age: Dr. Dwyer estimated the age as probable 40 – 45. Supported by his appearance (as preserved), hair beginning to grey, several teeth missing, no appreciable atheroma in cornoaries or aorta.

2. Height: To be checked. Slimmer than I am (vide 3 in preceding section).

3. Hair: Brushed back off forehead, no parting, fair approaching sandy-coloured turning grey, rather long for a man. This item seems important in identification. Also do many Americans brush the hair backwards, more so than Britishers

4. Had shaved recently?

5. Nails of fingers and toes clean and carefully attended to – evidently particular in his appearance. Not those expected in a hard manual worker or seaman – more of a clerk or officer class.

6. Fingers tobacco stained. Shreds of tobacco in pockets of coat worn by deceased and coat in suitcase. Heavy smoker.

7. Trousers in suitcase well-pressed. Clean shirts and jockey-pants in suitcase. Garments quite clean – one slightly soiled. Particular in his dress.

8. Air-mail stickers in suitcase – corresponded with some one at a distance – other State more likely than Britain (special air-mail letter forms usually used for latter).

9. Empty squarish envelopes in suitcase suggest Christmas cards posted before November 30 (suggests overseas rather than interstate – America or Britain?).

10. Straight nose, not Jewish. Appearance not foreign. Not circumcised – Det. Leane points out [that this] excludes Turks, Egyptians, Jews.

11. New tan shoes on body, very little worn. Look as though they had just been polished and not worn all day walking about.

12. Had he been vaccinated? I could not satisfy myself that an indefinite patch below the left shoulder was a vaccinated area. Dr. Dwyer says that many service men vaccinated has ‘takes’ and showed later very little scarring.

13. Implements probably used for stencilling. A hobby or part of his work?

Cutting to the chase here, Cleland infers from the air-mail stickers found in the suitcase that the Somerton Man was corresponding interstate, and from the “empty squarish envelopes” that he had recently sent some Christmas cards (plural) overseas.

If Cleland was correct, I suspect that we perhaps can further rule out America’s West Coast as a likely location for him to be sending Christmas cards to, simply because the post boats got there too quickly from Australia.

And if we run with the American stitching in his coat and Juicy Fruit chewing gum in his pocket, we can possibly push the balance of probability away from the UK to America’s East Coast. But might he have been born in the UK circa 1900 (and not circumcised, as was more often the practice in the US then), and be writing back to family there? This is where the evidential crystal ball becomes too hazy to read.

All the same, what surely emerges overwhelmingly from all of this is simply this: that the Somerton Man was not an unknown lone wolf. He was actually connected into a wider social network of family, friends and allies… and very possibly enemies, too.

A “research tree” is the term I like to use to describe a whole group of evidence / artefacts / phenomena / ideas that are linked together in non-chain-like ways. The term is particularly relevant to unsolved cipher mysteries because you almost always start by not knowing where in particular research trees your cipher fits (if it even fits at all, which they typically don’t).

So, to both recap and expand slightly:

(1) I suspect that the Voynich Manuscript’s Quire 20 contains a sizeable collection of encrypted recipes.
– – Though an old suggestion, we now have a lot of secondary analysis to help reconstruct its original page order.

(2) I suspect we now know enough to be able to match Quire 20’s original structure with that of unencrypted recipe collections.
– – This matching trick is what I call the “block paradigm” approach to cracking historical ciphertexts.

(3) The most likely languages for the plaintext are Italian, Latin, and French.
– – The ‘michitonese’ handwriting appears to contain some Voynichese, and looks to have come from Savoy.

(4) I believe we can eliminate Latin as the plaintext language.
– – This is because Voynichese’s ‘8’ and ‘9’ characters appear to function as ‘contraction’ and ‘truncation’ shorthand tokens, making them essentially incompatible with Latin (where word endings hold a large amount of semantic content).

(5) My working hypothesis is that the plaintext is in Italian (Tuscan).
– – This is because there are a large number of Italian herbals, but very few French herbals.

(6) The various reliable dating evidences we have suggest that this was written between 1440 and 1470.
– – (…don’t get me started on this, or we’ll be here all night.)

(Feel free to disagree with any of the above! I’m not telling you what to think, but making clear the constraints I’m using to guide my own search.)

As a result, I’ve been looking for 13th / 14th / 15th century recipe lists written in Italian. My current hunch is that Quire 20’s plaintext might well be something close to BNF MS Latin 6741 – Jean le Bègue’s collection of paint, colouring, and gilding recipes.

Hence probably the best way to start is to build up a picture of the research tree in which that hunch is located, and then explore it a little…

The Italian colour recipes research tree

For building up an initial view of this research tree, I began with “Original Written Sources for the History of Mediaeval Painting Techniques and Materials: A List of Published Texts” by Salvador Muñoz Viñas, pp. 114-124 of Studies in Conservation, Vol. 43, No. 2 (1998) (many thanks to Juergen W. for this!). [Though because this concentrates on published sources, there may be several significant books of colour secrets out there that it misses, e.g. MS Sloane 416.]

Now that I have pruned the (initially somewhat overgrown) research tree down to more manageable proportions, this is the view I’m currently seeing through my research window:


This research tree has four main branches I now hope to explore in more depth:

* The recipes of Johannes Alcherius (as copied by Jehan Le Begue).
– – Jehan Le Begue’s translation is in volume 1 of Mary Merrifield’s book Original Treatises.
– – Alcherius was in fact a master builder working in Milan, had access to a large number of secrets, and was still alive in the early years of the 15th century: and so would seem to be an excellent candidate for the author of the Voynich Manuscript. :-)

* Secreti per colori, Biblioteca Universitaria di Bologna MS 2861
– – Description here, transcription here, or in Volume 2 of Merrifield.

* “Ricepte d’affare Piu Colori”
– – There’s an article on this in Archeion, Vol. XV (1933), pp. 339-347 by Daniel V. Thompson Jr, which I hope to read soon. :-)
– – There may possibly be more in “Trial index to some unpublished sources for the history of mediaeval craftsmanship” Daniel V. Thompson Jr – Speculum / Volume 10 / Issue 04 / October 1935, pp. 410-431.

* MS Sloane 416, “The Venetian Manuscript”.
– – This manuscript also contains a (brief) description of ciphers, which makes it doubly interesting to me.
– – Parts of this might be in Dutch, but I can’t tell properly from the description.
– – I can’t find any good description of this. I’ll probably have to spend a day at the British Library…

Have I missed anything important? Please say if I have! Oh, and I’ve ordered a copy of Mark Clarke’s (2001) “Art Of All Colours”, which looks to be extremely interesting as well….

In a recent post, I discussed a large number of features of the Voynich Manuscript’s Quire 20, to try to get under its vellum skin (so to speak). One thing I’d add is that if you compare the vellum colour of the front (recto) and back (verso) of pages f103 through to f108…


…you can see (I think) if you constrast enhance these…


…that f104, f105, f107 and f108 appear to match each other quite well.

Hence – given that I think f103 may well be separate anyway – I infer from this that f104, f105, f107 and f108 may well have been folded and cut from a single piece of vellum: and hence that they might very well have sat next to each other in Q20’s alpha state. Hence f106 and the missing f109-f110 bifolio may well have been from a different piece of vellum, and so (given that I suspect f105r was the first page of the book hidden in the quire) may well together have formed the two most central bifolios of the quire.

So: given all the above, and that there seems to be a good chance that f108v and f104r originally sat next to each other (as discussed before), I suspect we now know enough to reduce the large list of bifolio permutations for Q20’s original state down to just four good candidates (I’ve only listed the first folio of each bifolio pair for convenience):

a) f103 : f105 f108 f104 f107 f106 [f109]
b) f103 : f105 f108 f104 f107 [f109] f106
c) f103 : f105 f107 f108 f104 f106 [f109]
d) f103 : f105 f107 f108 f104 [f109] f106

Of course, I may be wrong… but I do now think there’s a high chance that this is basically correct.

But to use the block-paradigm trick (i.e. to decrypt a cipher by finding a separate copy of the text from which it came) with these possible candidates, though, we need to also find a structurally matching copy of the hidden book’s plaintext.

So the big question is surely this: how on earth do we find a copy of Quire 20’s plaintext?

Johannes Alcherius

Elsewhere in Cipher Mysteries, I mentioned BNF MS Latin 6741, which is a collection of 359 recipes collected together in Paris by Jean le Bègue / Jehan le Bègue in 1431, and which was discussed by Mary Merrifield in her 1849 book Original Treatises, Dating from the XIIth to the XVIIIth Centuries, on the Arts of Painting.

Yet having now read in rather more depth about Jean le Bègue’s recipe collection here, I suspect that the answer lies not in Paris (the city which BNF MS Latin 6741 seems never to have left) but instead in Milan, and specifically with Johannes Alcherius – arguably the key author whose recipes Jean le Bègue ripped off collected together.

However, the big problem is that while Alcherius wrote in Italian, Jean le Bègue wrote in Latin – so what we have in BNF MS Latin 6741 is actually a Latin translation of Alcherius’ Italian original.

So if I’m right about this, it would mean – unfortunately – that rather than finding the Italian plaintext from which I believe a large part of Quire 20 was derived, I strongly suspect that BNF MS Latin 6741 instead contains Jean le Bègue’s Latin translation of that same Italian plaintext.

So… even though I suspect that the block paradigm trick may have got me close to the finishing line in this instance, the Voynich Manuscript’s secrets still continue to elude us. Close, but no cigar. Or pizza. Oh well! :-(

How to cross the Quire 20 line?

It seems to me that the single most important piece missing from this jigsaw is the Italian plaintext of Johannes Alcherius’ recipes for colours. I can see two possible routes to achieve this:

(1) Reverse translate Jean le Bègue’s Latin back into the Italian plaintext from which it was derived. Which would be exquisitely nuanced, and very hard to get right, but just about possible all the same. Or…

(2) Find fragments of Alcherius’ recipes floating in other documents, but in their original Italian form (rather than in Jean le Bègue’s Latin translation). It may be that, somewhere in the far recesses of Academe, someone has already searched for this, perhaps as part of a compeletely separate study. But if so, my own digging has been utterly unable to find it.

Perhaps you will have better luck, though!

Things you can help with

Does someone have (or can get access to) a PDF copy of “The recipe collection of Johannes Alcherius and the painting materials used in manuscript illumination in France and Northern Italy, c. 1380-1420” (1998) by Nancy Turner that they can send me, before I start throwing my money at Maney Online (now part of Taylor & Francis)?

Or a copy of “Painting Techniques : History, Materials and Studio Techniques, Proceeding of the IIC Dublin Congress, 7-11 December 1998”, where the same thing also seems to appear?

Or… does anyone have a study listing all pre-1500 Italian colour recipe manuscript fragments? (For what it’s worth, I was unable to find any mention of Alcherius or Jean le Bègue in Thorndike.)

Back in August 2010, I posted up some observations on the Voynich Manuscript’s Quire 20, which included:
* Tim Tattrie pointed out that ‘x’ appears on every folio of Q20 except the first (f103) and the last (f116)
* I noted that these ‘x’ characters often sat next to ‘ar’ and ‘or’ pairs, e.g. arxor / salxor / kedarxy / oxorshey / oxar / shoxar / lxorxoiin, etc.
* Tim Tattrie also pointed out that the paragraph stars on f103 and f116 are notable because they don’t seem to have tails
* The tail-less paragraph stars on f103r looked to me as though they had been added in at a later stage
* Elmar Vogt pointed out that most of the paragraph stars followed an empty-full-empty-full pattern, except for “f103r, f104r and f108r”
* “The notion that Q20 originally contained seven nested quires (as per the folio numbering) seems slightly over-the-top to me”
* f103r doesn’t “look” it should be the first page of Q20, but f105r (with a nice ornate gallows) does:-

From these, I tentatively concluded (way back then) that Q20 might well therefore have originally been written as two separate codicological parts, which I proposed calling “Q20A” and “Q20B”. It was certainly an interesting suggestion… and, as I’ll explain below, one that I suspect was quite close to the truth, though admittedly not the whole story.

The “ytem” / “ydem” star tails

I then posted again in September 2010, where I proposed that the tails of the paragraph stars had been written first: and that they had been then been accessorized with a star to hide them from view.

That is, the tail is the meaning (they all read ‘y’ if you look closely), and the star is the deception. But what does the ‘y’ mean? Well, lists in countless medieval documents are very often itemized using the word “item” or “ytem”: which is why we use the word “itemized”, of course. So it seemed (and still seems) overwhelmingly likely to me that the paragraph star tail ‘y’ was short for “ytem”, and that each Q20 star with a tail marked the start of an item.

If you count up all the paragraph stars with tails, you get the following numbers:

f103r 0 + 19 (i.e. no stars with tails, but 19 stars without tails)
f103v 0 + 14
f104r 13
f104v 13
f105r 10
f105v 10
f106r 15
f106v 14
f107r 15
f107v 15
f108r 16
f108v 16
f109r ?? \
f109v ?? -\ missing
f110r ?? -/ bifolio
f110v ?? /
f111r 17
f111v 5 + 14 (something a little odd would seem to be going on here)
f112r 12
f112v 12 + 1
f113r 16
f113v 15
f114r 13
f114v 12
f115r 12 + 1
f115v 13
f116r 0 + 10

Add up all the stars with tails and you get 264: if the four pages from the missing central bifolio (f109 / f110) each contained 15 stars, we would seem to get a total of closer to 264 + 4 x 15 = 324 items (as opposed to starred paragraphs). I don’t know exactly what that means, but it is what it is.

Quire 20 “Block Paradigm”

When I revisited Q20 in 2014 , it was to propose that we might also profitably look for a “block paradigm” match to Quire 20. By this, I meant that we should go a-hunting for an existing book of secrets from the right time frame from which Q20’s contents might well have been copied / encrypted. As a pretty good candidate, I suggested BnP MS. 6741, which contains a set of 359 numbered recipes (plus various rhymes) compiled from various sources by Jean le Bègue / Jehan le Bègue [1368-1457] in Paris in 1431: in Latin.

But then again, when in the past others have suggested that this section might just as well contain 360 elements (as in per-degree astrology), or even 365 elements (one for each day of the year), it has been pointed out by way of response that the number of starred paragraphs doesn’t seem to fit: we have too many stars. “My God, it’s (too) full of stars”, one might reasonably say (if you are a cinema buff, that is).

This is because if you take Q20 as a whole, you would expect its total number of paragraph stars to be around 323 + (15 x 4) = 383, which is about 20-25 stars too many for (what I, at least, consider) the most likely scenarios (359 / 360 / 365).

Yet if you restrict yourself to “ytem stars” (i.e. stars with tails), it seems that you end up with roughly 324 “ytems”, which would seem to be 35 or so stars too few.

So how do all these odd-shaped jigsaw pieces slot together? Quire 20 would seem to be quite the three pipe problem, as Sherlock Holmes would have (fictionally) said. :-)

…or is it?

How to read this hidden book

Building on all of the preceding observations (and inspired by comments recently left here by Rene Zandbergen), here’s how I think Q20 was written, and how we should try to “read it” – that is, how our eyes should sequence its pages and comprehend its content.

It seems likely to me that the ornate gallows character on f105r marks not the start of a quire, but the start of a book – or, at the very least, the very first “ytem” in that book. Furthermore, if we group all the pages with “ytem” tailed paragraph stars together and put this at their front, f105r would have been either (a) the first part of a free-standing book (“Q20A”, as I proposed before), or (b) the first part of a book whose presence inside Q20 was concealed by fake paragraph stars. Either way, I now feel confident that we should be reading f105r as if it were the first part of the hidden book.

In which case, the fake-looking paragraph stars on f103r, f103v and f116r would indeed be fake, added to visually conceal the start and end of the book within Q20. f103r has nineteen of these fake stars crammed down its left margin: the more you look at them, the more fake they look, I think.

So: if we put the f103-f116 “fake paragraph star” bifolio to one side, and place the f105-f114 bifolio as the outermost ‘wrapper’ of the hidden book, the question then comes whether we can infer from any other statistical or visual properties what the nesting order (and orientation) of the other five bifolios inside it was (i.e. when the book was in its original, ‘alpha’ state).

Tim Tattrie insightfully noted in a comment here that:

* “lo” as a separate word is only found in f104r, f106r and f108v.
* “rl” as a separate word, or word beginning is only found in f104r, f108v and f113r.
* “llo” as a series of letters is only found in f104r, f108v, f111v, f113v, f116r

I think this suggests some kind of semantic, content-based link between f104r and f108v: and hence that f108v and f104r may well have originally sat facing each other in the original bifolio layout.

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet noticed any Q20 colour transfers dating back to its earliest phases of composition. The big reddish smudge on the top right of f103r (where some of the Voynichese letters inside it have been badly emended in a later hand) seems to have happened after the pages were in their final nesting order, and the same seems true of the (initially green, but then fading away quickly) stain at the centre top of the Q20 pages.

There are also some tiny green paint splodges on the very right hand edge of f104r: but these seem to me to have almost certainly been added by accident when the heavy painter was painting Quire 19 (f103 is a little bit smaller than f104, so the outermost edge of f104 stuck out a little beyond f103, catching the drips from the paint brush).

All in all, the problem with trying to reconstruct Q20’s original nesting order is that it was left in a very clean (i.e. unmessed-around-with) state, probably because it was the least visually intriguing quire. So unless we can find a magical Raman-style way of picking up close-to-invisible inter-folio paint transfers from the paragraph stars, we don’t seem to have much else to work from.

Hence at this point, I’m basically out of ideas: are there any other sources of information (whether visual, statistical etc) you can suggest that might help us reconstruct Quire 20’s original folio sequence?

You might think I’d be pleased by the appearance of another Voynich statistics study (Voynich Manuscript: word vectors and t-SNE visualization of some patterns), courtesy of those well-known peer-reviewed online journals Reddit and Hacker News. [*] After all, statistical experiments are – if carefully planned and executed – beyond all reproach, surely?

But there is a big problem (arguably a meta-problem) with this: and it’s one that’s been around for a very long time.

Even back in 1962, Elizebeth Friedman – having been a top US Government code-breaker for several decades – was able to note that all attempts to decrypt the Voynich Manuscript as if it were a simple language or single-substitution alphabet were “doomed to utter frustration”. That is, if you wind the clock back half a century from the present day, it was already clear then that Voynichese’s curious lack of flatness was strongly incompatible with:
* natural languages
* exotic languages
* lost languages
* monoalphabetic (simple) substitution ciphers, and even
* straightforward hoaxes

Unfortunately, the primary assumption of flatness is precisely the starting point of a large number of statistical studies carried out on the Voynichese text ever since.

Why Is Voynichese Not Flat?

A long succession of (actually pretty good) past statistical studies has revealed that Voynichese has an abundance of mechanisms that give it internal structure, not only in terms of letter adjacency and within words generally, but also within lines, paragraphs, and pages. Yet while all natural languages do work to plenty of orthographic rules, none of them (from this far back in time, at least) has orthographic conventions that extend so far into the high-level page layout.

In Voynichese, you can see these “supra-orthographic structures” in such places as:
* Horizontal Neal sequences (stereotypically manifesting themselves as pairs of single-leg gallows placed about two-thirds of the way along the topmost line of a paragraph or page
* Vertical Neal sequences (the first letter of each of a series of adjacent lines, forming a putative column of letters, and very probably distorting the agrregate statistics for the first character of each line)
* Vertical free-standing key-like sequences
* Substantial difference in word structure within “labels” (short pieces of free-floating text, typically inside or beside drawn features)
* Grove “titles” (small fragments of right-justified text tagged onto the end of paragraphs, e.g. on f1r)
* Small text_size:dictionary_size ratio
* Multiple repetitions of high frequency words (daiin daiin, qotedy qotedy, etc), etc

[Just about the only supra-word-level orthographic structure we can directly match is the change in frequency stats for the last letter of a line. In natural languages, we often see a hyphen placed there, while in Voynichese we often see EVA ‘m’ or ‘am’: so I would be unsurprised if these are essentially the same thing.]

Each of these features (which I’ve discussed in more detail elsewhere on this site) on its own would be annoying enough to account for, if (say) you were trying to reconcile Voynichese with a conventional language. However, put them all together and you suddenly get a glimpse of what we’re really dealing with here: something arbitrary, painfully complex, and extremely unlanguage-like.

If, as per almost all natural languages and ciphertexts, Voynichese did not have these features, we would happily describe it as “flat”, and it would be utterly fair and reasonable for people to throw their home-grown statistical toolkits at it in the reasonable expectation that something might just emerge from the process.

However, Voynichese is not flat: and so this kind of simple-minded approach is 99.9% certain to reveal nothing of any genuine novelty or insight. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

So, What’s The Answer, Nick?

If you want to do statistical analysis on the Voynich Manuscript that genuinely stands a chance of producing insightful and helpful results, you really need to put the Voynichese text through some kind of normalization filter before analysing it: by which I mean you need to condition the worst parts out.

The best starting point is to restrict your scope to one of the two large relatively homogeneous blocks of text:
* Quire 13 (but without labels, and without vertical sequences) – though note there is a long-unresolved suggestion that Q13 may have originally been composed in two parts / phases, not coincident with the final binding order
* Quire 20 (but without f116v) – though note there is also a long-unresolved suggestion that Q20 may have originally been composed in two parts / phases, and also not coincident with the final binding order.

Doing this should sidestep the thorny issues (a) of Currier A vs Currier B, (b) of text vs labels, and (c) of space transposition ciphers (because I don’t recall Q13 and Q20 having and “oro ror”-like sequences). [Personally, Q20 would be my preferred starting point.]

I would also strongly advise filtering out any matched pairs of single-leg gallows that fall on any single line, along with the (usually shortish) text sequence that sits between them: and any ornate gallows too.

All of which leaves the tricky issue of how best to normalize page-initial, paragraph-initial, and line-initial letters. The jury is still well and truly out on these: which probably means that evaluating them would be a good use of statistical analysis. Which also probably means that nobody is going to actually do it. :-(

Finally: once you have got that far, all you’re left with is… the truly humungous issue of how best to parse Voynichese. Is EVA ‘ckh’ one letter, two letters, or three? Should EVA ‘qa-‘ and ‘qe-‘ always be interpreted as if they are copying errors for EVA ‘qo-‘? Should each of EVA ‘or’ / ‘ol’ / ‘ar’ / ‘al’ be read as a pair of letters or a single (tricky) verbose cipher glyph? Does ‘ok’ encipher a different token to ‘k’? Is ‘yk’ two letters or one composite one? And so forth… the list goes on (and it’s a very long list).

But unless you can find a way to see clearly past Voynichese’s supra-orthography, you’ll probably never get even remotely close to anything that interesting with your own Voynich statistics. Just so you know! 😐

[*] Tongue planted firmly and immovably in cheek.

Pete Bowes has had some comments left on his Somerton Man blog by a certain ‘Margaret Hookham’ (which, trivia fans, was actually Dame Margot Fonteyn’s real name).

In these web-weary days we live in, the default position with posters claiming to drip-feed intriguingly new Somerton Man information is that they should be considered trolls until they can prove otherwise (which has yet to ever happen, as far as I can tell)… or until they provide sufficient disproof that their research is for real. In this case, “Margaret” asserts that “ASIO records show D.D.Thomson was in Adelaide on the night of the 30th November 1948“: which sounds highly unlikely to me, given that ASIO wasn’t actually formed until 1949. Which – as starts go – is far from the best.

All the same, what intrigued me was that – despite the thick layer of apparent trollery – there was also a glimmer of genuine historical interest to be had from her comments, though probably not in the way that was intended.

Specifically: I’m interested neither by her primary claim (which involves the disappearance of Vasily Sherbakov and Miss Bogotyreva from the November 1948 LAPSTONE conference, Jessica Harkness, pregnancy, bla bla bla) nor indeed by her secondary claim (Russian spies, Australian spies, Alf Boxall, Prosper Thomson, cover story, bla bla bla), but rather by her tertiary claim: which is that Prosper Thomson, D.D.Thomson [who she says was Alf Boxall’s boss, and maybe he was, who knows?] and a man called Thomas Leonard Keane were all at the 115th Australian General Hospital (6th RAAF Hospital) in Heidelberg in 1943.

115th Australian General Hospital


Source: Australian War Memorial

It’s certainly true that Prosper Thomson was there (albeit briefly) in 1943. According to his military records (digitized online at the NAA), on 28/6/1943 he was transferred from Prince Henry Hospital to “115AgH” , but discharged two weeks later on 10/7/1943.

Moreover, it’s certainly also true that a soldier called Thomas Leonard Keane was (according to his military records) working there in 1943, presumably as a nursing orderly. And so: given that we have been looking for a “T. Keane”, and that these two men may well have met in the relatively compact setting of Heidelberg Military Hospital, it would seem to be a good idea for us to ask…

Who Was Thomas Leonard Keane?

During WWII, Keane entered the Australian military twice: firstly, in 1939 where he gave his occupation as “Dispatch Clerk”, but lied about his age, claiming that he had been born in Newport, Victoria on 6th November 1905. Having been assigned to the 2/2nd Field Regiment, he was put onto the “X list” (which listed those members of a unit who were absent, typically for medical reasons), asked to be released for “Family Reasons” (not apparently specified in the documents) and was discharged in April 1940 (discharge certificate 13139). His April 1941 application for a General Service Badge was turned down because his discharge wasn’t on actual medical grounds.

His second entry into the Army was in September 1941, where he was assigned to the 115th Australian General Hospital at Heidelberg, but this time giving his date of birth as 6th November 1898. He also gave his job as “Railway Clerk”, and listed his primary school as “St Josephs, Newport” (it was blank in his first application).

Why did he lie about his age? There’s no obvious clue, but I have a suspicion that he had served in WWI and – for some reason – wanted to avoid having that record examined. There’s a link here, service number 33556: whether this was him is no doubt something Cipher Mysteries readers will be able to determine much more easily and quickly than I could.

Finally, we know the second date of birth Keane gave is correct, because we also know when he died: 13th November 1973.


(Courtesy of BillionGraves).

Clearly, he couldn’t have been the Somerton Man. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Keane worked as a Nursing Orderly in 115AGH, and served outside Australia for 138 days (in Japan from 11th March 1947 to 26th July 1947), before being discharged on 8th June 1948.

Japan in 1947

This 1998 letter from Captain Barbara Ann Probyn-Smith, RAANC,(Retd), paints an all-too-vivid picture of what was going on Japan at that time.

The Japanese people had many endemic diseases in their bodies, to which we had no immunity. They included TB, HTLV-1, Japanese B Encephalitis (one epidemic in 1948 killed over 3,000) and Haemorraghic Fever.

Up the hill, behind the Kure Hospital, and opposite and above our quarters was a very sordid town, with no washing facilities, no running water, where the Japanese grew fruit and vegetables in fields manured with human excreta. A terrible smell always emanated from it. It had no sewage. They dug open trenches into which they emptied their “honey buckets” of human excreta, before it was taken to the gardens for growing fruit and vegetables. Although there were wooden covers over the trenches, there were many large cracks between the boards, permitting the entry of flies and other vermin.

If I have read his forms right, Kure Hospital was where Keane travelled to on the Manovia.

And What Of The Somerton Man?

We can see Keane’s signature and handwriting many times on the military forms:


Which, of course, we can compare with the writing on the tie in the suitcase:


Is it a match? Possibly, possibly not: the K looks like a plausible match, while the T rather less so. All the same, it’s nice to have them next to each other.

So is that the end of it? Have we driven our Holden all the way to the end of yet another Somerton Man cul-de-sac?

Well… not quite. Thomas Leonard Keane for me is emblematic of what was happening in Australia after WWII: though he had avoided front-line action, his months at the hospital in Japan must have been harrowing in a very different way. And the situation he presumably found himself in mid-to-late 1948 was surely not hugely dissimilar to that of the Somerton Man, as forensically told by his body at the time – fit, well-groomed, yet not necessarily fitting in to post-war society. They were not the same person, sure, but they may well have been “brothers in plough-shares“, or fellow-travellers in some way.

The Suitcase, Once More?

An unwritten assumption of most Somerton Man research is that the suitcase (left at Adelaide’s Railway Station) was only the Somerton Man’s. Yet even though this is a straightforward notion apparently full of common sense, it isn’t entirely as strong as you might think. It contained (if I recall correctly) clothes and shoes of different sizes: a mish-mash.

What I’m getting at here is that there’s a hypothesis that hasn’t really been considered: that the suitcase might have had more than one person’s belongings in. Might it have had some borrowed clothes, perhaps borrowed from an ally (Keane lived in the Reservoir suburb of Melbourne, and there was a good train into Adelaide from there that morning) rather than a friend? Might that person have lent his suitcase and some of his own clothes to a sick, destitute acquaintance as a short-term favour?

And then – upon the Somerton Man’s death – might the original owner of the suitcase have decided to deny all knowledge? After all, what kind of a person really wants to get themselves tangled up with a messy business like that? “Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave”, as a famous military leader put it. Would you have raised your hand?

Oh, And One Last Thing…

Finally, the last page of Thomas Leonard Keane’s file has a surprise for us all: a small sealed folder with the following stamp on it:


What information could a former nursing orderly at Heidelberg possibly have that would require being reclassified as secret until 2028?

Plenty of room for conspiracy theories, sure: but what are the odds that it gets a further thirty years of secrecy added to it even then?

I’ve been persuaded by the lovely people at the London Fortean Society to give a talk next month (25th February 2016, Bell pub in Petticoat Lane, 7.30pm for an 8pm start, £4/£2 concs) on the weird (and occasionally wonderful) Voynich Manuscript.

If you haven’t been to an LFS event before, they start about 8pm with a “Fortmanteau” (a Fortean news round-up), followed by the main speaker for most of an hour. Then, after a 20-minute break, there’s a Q&A, finishing at 10-ish, optionally followed by a drink and a chat at the bar. As normal, I’m expecting to be assailed with questions on just about every cipher mystery going: which should be excellent fun. If any Cipher Mysteries readers plan to come along, please let me know!

If you don’t already know about Charles Fort, then shame on you! (Only kidding!) Fort liked to collect reports of phenomena that the science of his day couldn’t account for, which he edited and published in 1919 as The Book of the Damned: as a result, “Fortean” has become a useful adjective to hang onto anomalous data which sit uncomfortably with the so-called wisdom of the day. Hence “The Fortean Times”.

Is the Voynich Manuscript Fortean? For many people, it is: they would argue that scientific and historical investigations have so far revealed little of genuine interest or certainty, and that all the while it remains unreadable / uncrackable it is an anomalous artefact.

Yet for historians, this “Fortean Voynich” notion is perhaps something of a misdirection: there are plenty of old objects the smartest historians out there can as yet make no sense of – but does that necessarily mean that they are anomalous? Instead, might they simply be under-studied?

For the moment, though, perhaps there is truth enough in both camps: and that, as Charles Fort said, there is “…nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while“. :-)

I hope to see some of you there: and here’s the blurb I put forward for the LFS’s next flyer:

The Blurb

The 500-year-old Voynich Manuscript is renowned as “the world’s most mysterious manuscript”, as well as “the Everest of historical code-breaking”. With 200+ pages of unfathomable text, strange circular diagrams, and numerous drawings of impossible plants and tiny naked women, some consider it beguiling: others think it totally mad.

But the harder we strive to find explanations for the Voynich’s countless oddities, it seems the less we know. Is it insanely brilliant, or brilliantly insane? Even after a century of study, nobody can be sure. The only category it truly fits is Charles Fort’s “Damned Data” – phenomena for which science cannot comfortably account.

As a result, there is a plethora of Voynich theories, across a reassuringly Fortean panorama that ranges from conspiracies to lost South American civilizations to time-travelling aliens. Might one of them be right? Or are we doomed to spin round in circles, forever unable to make sense of this most intellectually cursed of artefacts?

Nick Pelling, a Voynich Manuscript researcher for more than a decade, will guide us through its wobbly history, unknown science and mad theories, and will happily answer any question we have on unsolved historical ciphers.

Back in 2012, I got (briefly) excited by the hypothesis that the marginalia on f116v of the Voynich Manuscript might well have been added in the library of a monastery not too far from Lake Constance, inbetween Switzerland and Southern Germany (and not too far from Rudolf II’s Imperial Court at Prague, where the manuscript appears to have ended up).

And then a few days later I got excited all over again by the follow-on hypothesis that this Swiss library may have been part of a Franciscan monastery. If the “bearer” who brought the Voynich Manuscript to Rudolf’s court (and to whom Rudolf paid the wondrous sum of 400 ducats) was himself/herself a Franciscan friar/nun, that might help explain its attribution to Franciscan monk Roger Bacon.

It’s a plausible story, sure, though not necessarily a highly probable one for the moment. But all the same, this might possibly give us a good idea for a brand new kind of haystack to rake through…

Franciscan Monasteries in Switzerland

St. Francis famously exhorted his followers to study in ways whereby “the spirit of prayer and devotion was not extinguished”: which makes it likely that just about every Franciscan monastery and friary we could consider would contain a library of some sort.

Indeed, some Swiss Franciscan monasteries had very famous libraries: Schaffhausen had a chained library (“Kettenbibliothek”, if you want to search for “Kettenbuch” in German). Here’s what the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana later looked like (a little later) with all its chained books:

chained library

Chaining books actually freed them, by making them available to more people to study: so it’s entirely possible that the Voynich Manuscript had a chained wooden cover for part of its pre-Rudolfine life. Here’s what an individual Kettenbuch from 1484 looks like:-


The Schaffhausen Ministerialbibliothek was (if I translate the nice German account of it here correctly) formed in 1540, manuscripts mainly from the Benedictine Allerheiligen (All Saints) monastery library, but also “eight manuscripts and six incunabula” from the Franciscan chained library (formed in 1509). Books (such as Erasmus’ Omnia Opera) were added from 1540 onwards.

How do we know this? Because of a library catalogue (“Chronik der Stadt und Landschaft Schaffhausen”) prepared by Johann Jakob Rüeger (1548-1606) in 1589, then updated in 1596, and apparently printed in 1884-1892 (it seems to have been partially converted into a database on ancestry.com, but I’m don’t have a subscription to that). You can see many individual pages in the extract of a modern book here (with a fair bit on the Schaffhausen Franciscan library on pp.45-47).

Here are some other Swiss Franciscan monasteries that had libraries:

* Fribourg Monastery. According to this page (with links to 13 digital copies of mss from there):-

The library contains about 35,000 volumes, 10,000 of which date from before 1900. The majority of the books can be accessed via a card catalog. The old library can be traced back to Guardian Friedrich von Amberg; 18 of his volumes have been preserved. During the monastery’s golden age in the 15th century, the superiors collected mainly sermon and study literature. The Franciscan Monastery was able to preserve its library on site; it contains 80 medieval and 100 post-medieval volumes of manuscripts (not catalogued), as well as 136 incunabula and 80 post-incunabula.

* Lindau island had a convent of the Third Order of St Francis: this survived the Protestant Reformation by converting to Protestantism.
* Konstanz
* Bellinzona
* Bremgarten (Aargau)
* Königfelden Abbey
* Wesemlin, Lucerne (has the Provinzarchiv der Schweizer Kapuziner, though presumably this was slightly later?)

…and doubtless a fair few others besides.

Clearly, this looks like it could be a substantial set of haystacks to be going through to find a single Voynichian needle. Is there anything out there that can help us?

A Swiss Needle Magnet?

It seems that there might be, in the form of the three-volume Handbuch der Historischen Buchbestände in der Schweitz that lists numerous ancient Swiss libraries, many of which have descriptions of historic catalogues of those libraries.

* Volume #1: Aargau Canton to Jura Canton
* Volume #2: “>Lucerne Canton to Thurgau Canton
* Volume #3: Uri Canton to Zürich Canton

Unfortunately, only volume #2 of this is currently online (I think, but please correct me if I’m wrong!); and many collections that might reasonably be listed are (according to the German Wikipedia page) absent. Moreover, lots of the interesting stuff is in journals such as Helvetia Franciscana that are not currently online, e.g.

* Schweizer, Christian: Kapuziner-Bibliotheken in der Deutschschweiz und Romandie–Bibliothekslandschaften eines Reform-Bettelordens seit dem 16. Jahrhundert in der Schweiz nördlich der Alpen. In: Helvetia Franciscana 30/1 (2001), S.63
* Mayer, Beda: Der Grundstock der Bibliothek des Klosters Wesemlin. In: Helvetia Franciscana 7 (1958), S.189
* Mayer, Bea: Kapuzinerkloster Freiburg, In: Die Kapuzinerklöster Vorderösterreichs. In: Helvetia Franciscana 12, 7. Heft (1976), S. 207-216.

…along with other journals such as Librarium which (thankfully) have been placed online, e.g.

* Kronenberger, Hildegard: Das Kapuzinerkloster Wesemlin in Luzern und seine Bibliothek. In: Librarium 9 (1966), S.2

And the bigger problem is this: because the Voynich Manuscript had without much doubt left its (probably monastic) library by (say) 1613 or so, what we actually would like is a list of pre-1613 Swiss Franciscan monastic inventories to have a look at, based on the small (but likely non-zero) likelihood that one of them might well list a reference to a book resembling the Voynich Manuscript. Yet this was (I think) not at all the challenge the Handbuch der Historischen Buchbestände in der Schweitz was set up to meet at all.

But… are there any of those old inventories from Franciscan monasteries still in existence all? Personally, my head’s still spinning from trying to take in all this stuff, to the point that I’m still a very long way from being able to tell. But perhaps Cipher Mysteries readers will fare better than me (even one would be nice)… good luck!