First authorised copy of the Voynich has been commissioned by Yale

It seems the Beinecke has authorised the specialist manuscript producers “Siloé” from Spain to make the first ever authorised copy of the Voynich.

The project will start in February, when the specialists of the company will be given access for a whole week to make their own photos of the book and get “the feel” for it.

They will then start producing handdrawn exact copies on vellum for sale.

Siloé is one of the worlds premier manuscript makers, based in Burgos (Spain) and has made 34 official copies of ancient manuscripts in the last two decades, 14 of which have won international awards. They’ve been pestering Yale for the last decade to allow them access to the Voynich.

It seems Yale opened a selection process last year, and has this week confirmed Siloé has won it.

23 professionals will be working on the process, and the reproduction will be “100% identical” promises the firms director.

However, the first copy is not expected to be released until 2018.

No news on how much the copies will sell for – some of Siloé’s works sell for over €10,000. I understand the project is being financed by crowdfunding.

In all, 898 numbered editions will be issued.

Is the Voynich a natural language?

This article is a work in progress. Comments and feedbacks are enthusiastically welcomed!

First off, let’s discuss what we mean by a natural language.

A natural language is one that has evolved spontaneously amongst a group of people (I include creoles, pidgins and other bricolage in this study) or an artificial language that is capable of being used as a primary source of transmitting information in a natural way (think Esperanto or other a posteriori languages).

In short, I here define a natural language as one that any cognitively normal human being is able to learn, understand and use without recourse to artificial means. (As opposed to the a priori code based artificial languages that require the memorisation of thousands of ciphers; these would be artificial languages under my definition).

Shorthand (Tironian notes) or notarial code are banished to the “artificial languages” page when they occupy most of the text; I make a short discussion of their limited use within a written natural language below.

Oneiric languages (basically those spontaneous languages such as the languages of the insane, or glossolalia) are consigned to the “gibberish” pigeon hole.

Read More

How many glyphs are there in the Voynich alphabet?

How many glyphs are there in the Voynich alphabet?

Note: This page is a work in edit. Still fiddling. Comments and feedback more than welcome, they’re encouraged!

The very question itself is imbued with menace. Before we even get going, we have to first define the very semiotic basis of “glyph” within the manuscript. We first need to define a paradigm for what a glyph actually is.

Note: This page is mainly a compilation of work that is already out there. I wished to collate and to define the very basics of Voynichese before delving into some more complex topics, and to re-examine the assumptions that underpin all of our bigger theories. Most of this is NOT based on my own examination of Voynichese, but upon a compilation of what other people / working groups have observed, with sources, although I do attempt an analysis of certain combination glyphs further on. Certainly none of this is written “in stone” – the question, by its very nature, is subjective. And I can only work from previous work, from the transcription alphabets and the transcription corpus.

The alphabet of a language is the set of symbols, letters, or tokens (which in Voynichese are called glyphs) from which the strings of the language may be formed. The content strings (the signifier) formed from this alphabet are called words. A formal language is often defined by means of a formal grammar such as a regular grammar or context-free grammar, also called its formation rule. [^] Read More

Is it worth trying to work out what the plants in the Voynich Manuscript are?

There are many “plants” (herbs if you will, although I doubt all them are) in the Voynich Manuscript. Is it worthwhile trying to identify them?
For any identification attempt is a two edged sword that can easily lead us astray.
First off, we have to consider whether
a) the plants are drawn in the traditional sense or
b) are the results of an individual working off their own experience.
or c)…… that they don’t actually have a maning.
If a),

then they are being copied from earlier sources, and hence will correspond to the bulk of the literary tradition in Europe. If we assume they are, then there will be many clues that give us access to their identifications as their use will be symbolised. Remember that there are many herbals in existence – most of them, as Don on the mailing list has been discovering, are just copies of earlier or contemporaneous works, following set patterns, even if the individual monastery did add commentaries to the “official” text.

People simply did not want innovation in their herbs – we are talking about medicine here. Without going deeply into the subject, the literary tradition of medicine was institutionalised, it was traditional. Herbals were part of a tradition from the past, based usually on the doctrine of signatures, medicine that was assumed to work, and nobody wanted to be the guinea pig for some quack with new ideas.
Herbals of the age followed the tradition. We obviously cannot know what local doctors (wise women or men, leechs, hedge magicians, call them what you will) knew or thought, for they left no written record, but it seems a safe bet that oral teaching would filter out from the monasteries, communicating their knowledge, and that this knowledge would be passed between villages and medics. We know that the common name for herbs changes drastically from region to region, even village to village in old England, but their essential purpose remains the same.
As an example, the Old English Herbolarium, an AngloSaxon turn of the millennium work, is a herbal written in Old English in the continental style, translating the original continental works. However, most of the herbs depicted are unrecognisable, which lead scholars to assume that the scribes who translated the work didn’t have access to any original illustrations (many of the herbs are, in any case, not native to the British Isles). The assumption was that the scribes had no real life models, and so after several editions of the work had been copied, the original illustrations had morphed unrecognisably. Not so: Voigts in his 1979 work proved that the herbs are depicted in their dried form, the only way that Brits would have had access to them (via trade to central and southern Europe), and far more useful a depiction to them than their fresh form. The scribes had kept the knowledge and power of the authoritative written text, but had changed the illustration to fit their needs.
But the symbolised “clues” are still there. Basilicia, adderwort, a herb assumed to protect against adders continues to have its association with the three snakes and so can be recognised. Adderwort without the snake & basilisk association serves no point!
So if we assume a), we can then go ahead and look for symbolic clues in the Voynich. Let us look at 49r. A plant with multi colour golden (well, reddish) bulbs and snakes around the roots. Ah ha! It’s Adderwort.
Or is it?
Well, adderwort traditionally has three snakes, not two as depicted in the Voynich. The snakes are usually called Eriseos, Stillatus & Hematites (or Crysofalus) according to Pollington, at least in the old English tradition, with their associated characteristics that give the plant its power (I skip over the details here). So why does the Voynich only have two? And are they really snakes? Where are their fangs, or the vertical stripes showing that these are indeed the poisontooth snakes of antiquity, the adder family?
So the symbology does not help us. Either the symbology is adhered to as per tradition, or it is thrown out of the window and a new schematic is inserted. We cannot pick on one half recognised detail and expand it to the rest of the material without proof.
Let’s consider b).

The Voynich is the work of someone not following the traditional patterns.

Well, in this case, we cannot assume. We must be sure. And how can we be sure if the text is not there to describe what we are seeing?
Ah ha! We think. This is a rose. No, replies the author, it’s a dog rose, or a badly drawn daisy. How dare you think it is a rose.
Ah ha! This is Adderwort. Look at the snakes. No, replies the author, for that is the medicine of the old guard, not the new exciting stuff I am developing and anyway those are worms showing that these flowers grow in the decay of waste, signifying a phoenix like revival from the ashes of our waste. Or whatever.
We cannot match these illustrations to plants, for the simple reason that the genre is just too large.
Yes, it looks like a red onion. But why should it be a red onion? It could be that the author is referring to a specific type of potato… no wait, potatoes came in later. You know what I mean. Maybe a fat carrot or any other tuber of a specific shape.
But there is a further problem with b). The fact that it doesn’t fit in with our accepted understanding of how later medieval medicine would work.
Early / middle medieval thought discarded original thought. Biblical teachings said that the Ancients possessed all knowledge as granted by God, and that human hubris had lead to this information being lost. Therefore, there was no point in poking around thinking up new things for yourself, you had to rely on the teachings of the Ancients.

That’s not to say that people weren’t curious, of course they were. It’s to say that in “formal” discussion and argument, rhetoric based on the arguments of the ancients was standardised and would overturn any original thought, even when the ancient information was clearly wrong. There is a story that Aristotle claimed the honeybee has eight legs, when any fool can see that it only has six – but this was accepted as fact right up until the Renaissance!

Monasteries copied books because they, in some way, transmitted information as revealed by God in the past and it was their duty to do so. They modified the useful bits of them as they went along, but the essential knowledge was protected – it was their duty to protect the holy knowledge of times past, and of course, they believed implicitly in it.

That’s part of the reason Rudolph II was revered by the early European intellectual – he was the original Renaissance patron, hunting out new information. He was living right at the time when new access to information and greater literacy was starting to evolve thought into the Renaissance, but the old regime continued with their medieval mindset elsewhere. His Spanish Uncle for example was most dismissive of his nephew and his intellectual mindset – it wasn’t something that was “done”. The Italian princes had been doing it for years, by the way, but they were never Holy Roman Emperors – Rudolph main-streamed this rather eccentric pasttime.

And look at Paracelsus. He is known now not for any innovation in medicine (his cures were as claptrap as the ones they were replacing) but because he broke with tradition and urged innovation, trial and error, experimentation and actually discarding old knowledge that didn’t lead anywhere. That’s why he was revolutionary. He was the first figure to become famous for such work, in the same way that his contemporaries such as Martin Lucer would become famous for defying the Catholic Church. OK, neither of them was the first to advocate such a movement, but they were the first to actually create movements. Which, I understand, does not imply that the VM cannot have been an earlier attempt, some visionary who realised that medicine was claptrap and attempted to create his own medicine. But this is a circular argument – for since we cannot read the text, we return to the beginning of this argument!
But all this came after the VM, in the middle 16th century.
There is a c).

That the content in the book simply doesn’t lead anywhere. That the illustrator had access to herbals but no understanding (or interest) of medicine or their purpose, and so just used them as a basis for his work as he went along. Which explains why we only have two snakes instead of three, the illustrator was unaware of the significance of three snakes.

So….

No matter which of the three arguments we choose, there isn’t a lot of point in trying to identify the plants in the VM, since we know (after decades of trying) that they aren’t real life representations.

We can build up logical arguments pointing to this plant or the other, but we cannot be sure. We cannot know the true intention of the artist, because we have no textual confirmation. And so far, we have never been able (Prof Bax aside, ah hem) to use a plant ID to identify words.

OK, so what script did Kircher mean in his 1639 letter?

Diane quite rightly pointed out on my “Kircher to Moretus reply” that we don’t know exactly which script Kircher meant when he said “Illyrian”. It’s usually taken to mean Glagolitic, but does it really?

(There’s also the question of does it matter? Close examination of the letter tends to discard the subject under discussion from being the Voynich MS. But it’s still a widely quoted quote, and I was interested, so let’s apply ourselves).

First off, let’s remind ourselves of what Kircher wrote:

Alterum denique folium quem ipsi ignoti characteris genere scriptum videbatur illyrico idiomate, charactere quem D. Hieronymi vulgo vocant, impressum sciat; utuntur eodem charactere hic Romae in missalibus aliisque sacris libri illyrico sermone imprimendis.

Which I translate as:

Finally the other leaf upon which are written types of unknown characters I observe are in the Illyric language, characters the printing of which I know are commonly called D. Hieronymi;  characters used here in Rome in various Holy Books and Illyrician printed sermons.

Some terms:

  • Illyric: We would now call this area Croatian. Kircher, as was the wont of the time, used the Roman provincial name for the area.
  • D. Hieronymi: Saint Jerome.

Now, Glagolitic is an ancient Slavic alphabet. The name Glagolithic probably wasn’t applied to the script until the 14th century. The Glagolitic alphabet was invented during the 9th century by the missionaries St Cyril (827-869 AD) and St Methodius (826-885 AD) in order to translate the Bible and other religious works into the language of the Great Moravia region.  It’s not a language, it’s a script that could be used for any of the proto-Slavic languages (in the same way that our alphabet can be used for French, Spanish, English etc). Here’s an example of the script:

This chart shows the Glagolitic alphabet with the names of the letters in Old Church Slavonic, the Cyrillic equivalents of the letters, and IPA transcription. Image from Omniglot.com

So Glagolitic proper dates from the 9th century, and then started to evolve. When it became adopted and standardised by the Church, it became known as Old Church Slavonic with loads of variations across different regions (see the prior wikipedia link for more on that).

By the 12th century the first Slavic languages were evolving in different directions. In the late 14th century, a new script evolved for use by the Church: Church Slavonic. It’s still in use today.

Right. Where does Jerome fit in?

Well, there was a persistent myth that one of the founding fathers of the Church, St Jerome, was the chap who had invented the script. The intention appears to have been to use his authority to counter attacks by Rome upon the local Church. The alphabet was thus called by some as Hieronymian in pre-Renaissance times after his Roman name, and that’s the word Kircher used.

And here’s a 16th century Vatican printed work showing “the characters of the Illyrian language in Hieronymian script”:

Pages from a book describing Glagolitic script. (A. Rocca: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana a Sixto V… translata, Roma, 1591: Alfabeto glagolitico). Wikipedia.

So far, so clear. Kircher used the term “Hieronymi” to refer to a specific Slavic script, and furthermore identified the base language as Croatian (Illyrian). Can we corroborate this? What did Kircher himself understand by “Hieronymi”? Let’s find out.

Here’s Kirchers ’72 names of God’ image from Athanasius Kircher’s Oedipus Aegyptiacus:

72 names of God in the languages of the 72 nations of the world
72 names of God in the languages of the 72 nations of the world

Kircher has carefully used Cabalah and then written out the name of God in the 72 different languages of the world. As always, philology is carefully ignored or manipulated to gain his end: You’ll notice that for English, he wrote GOOD instead of GOD. Why? Because all of the 72 names had to be four letters long. For a full interpretation of this diagram click here. I’m only interested in entry 13: Illyirici.

Damn it, he’s only gone and written it out in the Roman alphabet! BOOG. Why? I don’t know. He’s done the same in Japanese and Chinese, and where he got BOSA from for “Mexican”, or “SOLV” for Californian is beyond me (local native American dialects?). Frankly, the more I learn of Kircher, the more I agree with Descartes’s opinion of the bloke. And despite a morning searching, I have yet to find any other example of Illyrian in any of Kircher’s works.

Let’s look elsewhere. This is the Virga Aurea of James Bonaventure Hepburn published at Rome in 1616. The Virga Aurea, or to give the full title, “The Heavenly Golden Rod of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Seventy-two Praises” consists of a list of seventy two alphabets (actually seventy, plus Latin and Hebrew which are the two languages of the text of the plate). Usefully enough, “Illyricum” is included. Eighth down, left column.virga_aurea3

Comparing the Virgo Aureum with Rocca’s Alfabeto glagolitico we see obvious similarities, but at the same time, differences. Remember, they were published just 25 years apart. Hepburn’s sources are unknown, but it’s assumed (since he was head of rare books at the Vatican) that he was probably getting the info out of the books there.

Hepburn has 37 glyphs, whereas Rocca only has 33. The glyphs are also slightly different if you compare them. And neither of them really correspond with the Omniglot table I posted above. So what’s going on?

Well, Hepburn & Rocca are both confusing different versions of the script, as shown below, and certainly Rocca is missing a number from his book:

So yes, the above scripts would appear to be what Kircher knew as “Hieronymiam”.

Here’s a page from the first Croat language printed book, a 1483 work entitled Misal po zakonu rimskoga dvora:

1483 “Misal po zakonu rimskoga dvora”

 

It turns out that Galglithic is a right pain. A typographer writing on the ministryoftype.co.uk website commented that:

One of the things I noticed when looking at examples of Glagolitic is the way some characters appear and disappear; I was trying to set some text in it, and whichever bit of text I tried had some extra characters that weren’t in the font or in any other examples – each one seemed to have characters unique to it. Of course, this isn’t a deficiency of the font (or of the language), but more a sign of the evolution of the written language and of the strong influences on it from Latin, Cyrillic and Church Slavonic over the years. Croatian was written in all three systems in parallel, and as a local system not widely known outside of the Balkans (despite being the oldest of the Slavic alphabets), the form of written Glagolitic has perhaps been more influenced than influencing; In some written examples there are Cyrillic characters, while in others the characters are presumably the original Glagolitic ones, or newer hybrid forms.

So it seems clear enough that for Kircher, Hieronymian would be Galgolitic. He used the name “Hieronymian” because of the ongoing myth at the time that St Jerome had invented the script, and attempts to link his name to the script; as Kircher would only have known of the script via his Catholic Church contacts, the name Hieronymian would have been the correct one to use at this period, even if elsewhere it was known as Galgolitic. The Church was printing books in the script, indeed, it was even standardising a version of the script for its own use.

It also turns out that Galgolitic is still alive and thriving in Croatia, where it’s treated as a national treasure and part of their identity.

The Kircher to Moretus, 12 March 1639 letter

In or around October 1637, the Prague alchemist Georgius Barschius decides to get help from Athanasius Kircher in Rome, in order to be able to read a MS that he owns, which is written in an unintelligible script. He believes that Kircher might be able to help because of Kircher’s investigations into the languages of the East, in particular Egyptian. He makes copies of the writing in the MS and has these sent to Kircher by the mathematician Theodor Moretus. This submission is part of a letter from Moretus to Kircher towards the end of 1637.

In March 1639, Kircher finally responds to Moretus, saying that he has received the mysterious writing, and has not yet been successful in interpreting it. This is the letter. (extracted from voynich.nu).

This letter has been claimed as the “missing link” that establishes a 1639 connection for the Voynich Manuscript. But is it?

No proper translation of this letter has yet been made, so I made one myself with my schoolboy Latin. The usual disclaimers apply. Read More

The Zodiac afresh: can we link it to known medieval astrology?

I earlier looked at the 12 pages of the Voynich Zodiac and dismissed them as forming part of a horoscope. Mere terminology really, but woolly thinking does no-one any good. This article is a continuation of that one.

Abstract: I examine early Medieval astrology systems to find a good match to the Voynich Manuscript Zodiac pages, and find one which has the same form and number of attributes as the Voynich: the Myrogenesis astrology system of the early Christian rules of the Spanish kingdoms, in particular the magical works of King Alfonso X “el sabio”. This article is more an general knowledge article than an in-depth analysis, which remains to be done, but is interesting none the less (to me at least) and is a starting point for future research. Read More