Palaeography and orthography – nat eveyon wret wol. Pt1

I wonder whether the written text in the Voynich manuscript hasn’t defied efforts to understand it for much the same reason that the imagery is so easily misinterpreted: not because it is the product of a devious or secretive mind but because the past century’s accumulated assumptions and presumptions include some small error overlooked. In the case of the Voynich botanical images, for example, the basic error was a failure to examine the older idea that the pictures were the product of some European ‘artist’ and formed a medical type of Latin herbal. Unexamined premises are a constant source of error, because the researcher is so easily misled into thinking that a logical structure is sufficient to justify, retrospectively, whatever premise it was built on.

The picture which forms the current header and is shown again below demonstrates a form of Greek which was in use in Carpignano, in the toe of the Italian peninsula, during the late fourteenth century. Use of Greek in the peninsula did not begin with Bessarion’s arrival.

script Safran Sth Italy Gk

About the Voynich manuscript’s written text, one assumption  is near-universal: that if it conceals a plain text, that plain text will conform to “book-standards”:  with its language-use, grammar and orthography (spelling) clear, consistent and so on.

A cryptanalyst can assume nothing else, of course.  The whole science of cryptanalysis depends on assuming that an underlying plain text will convey, without ambiguity, one particular message or set of messages.  For this to occur, it must be formed as a “book” text.

Unfortunately, and despite its valuable substrate of vellum, its competent hands and a few expensive pigments, the Voynich manuscript is manifestly more likely to be a “non-book”- that is, of that other class of writings called ‘trivial’.

Forms of ‘trivial’ writing include rough copies made from older works, personal letters, shopping lists, lists of materia medica, theological notes, commercial documents and so forth.   They may, or may not be bound, but they are distinguished from  ‘second-grade books’  because book-standards of grammar, spelling and so forth may not be observed by the writer.  And their being ‘trivial’ in that sense does not preclude their having great historical importance.  Here’s an example of a most important ‘trivial’ writing: a page from the Bobbio Missal  (Paris, BNF lat. 13246).

Bobbio Missal page cropped

Inscribed in the seventh century,  probably in a town on the Rhône a little south from Lyons, the Missal was described thus by Burkett in 1925:

Nearly thirteen hundred years ago, in an obscure village .. in a district where French was the spoken language, near a convent of nuns, an old cleric once copied a Service-book. His hand was not very steady, but he wrote with a will…. The old scribe was trying to follow his original page for page. When he came to passages he knew by heart … he often cast a mere glance at his copy, and trusted his memory for the rest. He was …no purist in spelling or grammar. He wrote as he spoke, with ci for ti, soft g for j, and vice versa; and he had small regard for case or verb endings. …”

from F.C. Burkett, ‘The Bobbio Missal’, The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 26, No. 102 (January, 1925), pp. 177-179.

Compare that example with the Bobbio Orosius, written at much the same time, but which even at first glance presents as a ‘book’ and which closer inspection shows to be indeed a product worthy of that term. I apologise for the poor quality of the picture. 7thC insular Bobbio

A trivial work.

Quality in appearance, of course, does not necessarily imply quality of the content, but a trivial writing – a ‘non-book’ –  is so often no more than a rough copy of some standard text, or some ephemeral matter, that to dismiss a “non-book” is not uncommon now, and was routine in the last century when Wilfrid Voynich and then the Friedmans became preoccupied with the Voynich manuscript.

It was an unfortunate time as far as open-minded initial reception for the ‘ugly ducking’ was concerned.  The current idea of history had it a subject which should treat of  important themes, defined by important events and the actions of important persons: what we tend to call now “Kings and Things” history.

When Wilfrid Voynich discovered the manuscript, and recognised the contents as atypical, he first presumed it a product of Latin European culture and then from that assumption formed another: that the contents’ non-European appearance was the result of an effort to conceal content of enormous importance; importance being defined by reference to persons and subjects important in his time –  when Roger Bacon and big-S science were hot topics.  I believe he rightly recognised the object’s manufacture as compatible with Franciscan products of the late thirteenth century but otherwise his ‘history’ for the manuscript was a form of story-telling ~ so far as anyone has been able to determine.

William and Elizebeth Friedman saw history the same way as most of their generation.  William was born in 1891 and his future wife Elizebeth in 1892.  Like Wilfrid, they thought it self-evident that any manuscript worthy of attention must be linked in some way to themes, persons and events of importance to Europe’s idea of its history, and that history scarcely referred to any place below the 32nd parallel of latitude, unless it were the site of a battle.  Such presumptions only served to further inflate the already excessive emphasis which Wilfrid had given the  ‘Mnishovsky rumour’ – a  perfunctory last note in a letter which Marcus Marci had written to Athanasius Kircher.

Less elevated historical themes were scarcely treated before the second world war;  economic history was emerging but still openly derided by the older scholars;  social history (initially dismissed as “laundry list history”) effectively arrived with Braudel. Womens’ history was unheard of and would not appear until the 1970s.  “Kings and Things’ was pretty much it, save for Lynn Thorndike’s magnificent study, one that left him an islolated figure for decades.

William Friedman’s request for financial support to continue his efforts to ‘break’ the Voynich text might then have been predicted to be rejected by the academic board in question, but on learning that the grounds were that the content was ‘probably trivial’, outrage rather than understanding followed.

Mary d’Imperio was later given the task of recording the Friedman group’s unsuccessful  efforts to interpret the text and imagery, so let her tell the story:

Some students of the manuscript, and others … have advanced the view that its content can have no value for science or for the study of human thought. Tiltman… says, “I do not in any case imagine there is anything historically or scientifically important contained in the manuscript” ( 1951, p. I)… Elizebeth Friedman [apparently said] “It appears to be gibberish to many serious-minded academics, who are apt to scoff at the idea that its solution would be of any value to science or learning, as did a great foundation to which [William] Friedman once applied for a grant for the detailed study of the manuscript. In the opinion of the board, a solution would not advance human knowledge. The manuscript probably contains only trivia, the board said.” (1962)

(I’ve added  red asterisks to  outmoded, ill-founded, unfounded, hypothetical, erroneous, presumptive, disproven or entirely hypothetical assertions in the next paragraph):

I must confess that I can see little justice in the reasoning of those “academics”* who dismiss the Voynich manuscript out of hand, after what can only be* the most superficial attention. Even if it is, in fact, a fabrication* associated with the court of Rudolph II,* an understanding of who wrote* it, its passage from one to another of Rudolph’s* familiars, and the part it played* in the remarkable congeries of religious and political activities at Prague in those* times could prove to be of great interest. .. If the manuscript is a compilation, however “deranged”* or idiosyncratic,* drawn from earlier magical,* alchemical, or medical* works, it has at least as much intrinsic interest and “scientific’ import for the history of Western* thought as do other similar* manuscripts which are readable, and concern only one topic (i.e.. they are either astrological* or alchemical* or medical*). Reputable scholars apparently see no waste of time in studying “plaintext” manuscripts of this* type, and may spend much of their lives so occupied”.

Cryptologists tend to revere William Friedman, not as an historian but for his having broken a Japanese military cipher during the second world war.  Transferring that admiration to his interest in the Voynich manuscripts has proven, overall, a hindrance to this study. d’Imperio’s fifty-year old book, filled as it is with wrong perceptions and assumptions has been raised to a status more appropriate to a work of holy writ.  The Table of Contents, alone, testifies to the Friedmans’ limited vision of history, and biases characteristic of early twentieth century. One cannot imagine that it would occur to either of the Friedmans that the content in the Voynich manuscript might have been first compiled by an anonymous dyer working in Venice; or by an  Alexandrian shop-keeper;  a north African mariner; a Turkish map-maker;  a member of the Karimi in Yemen; a Christian in India; an anonymous clerk in Naples or even –  if it were first composed in Europe – that any scientific content might come from a sober Jewish lineage, uninfluenced by any form of magic.  One finds little  evidence of any informed study of the imagery by any member of the group.

More examples of ‘trivial’ writings in the next post a little while. The next post returns to our pilgrimage, but meanwhile  here’s another fragment recovered from the Cairo geniza: it’s a list of goods prepared for shipment from Tunis.

script Geniza inventory Tunis

Cf “… categories or classes of words with coded endings or other affixes…” Mary d’Imperio, The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma p.42.   🙂






  1. About non-book texts. I have recently read more about the ‘periplus’ as a text type. I had seen it mentioned by you in a couple of posts but had not yet studied the subject in depth. Some info on the wiki alone makes it look rather interesting. Especially the mention of landmarks on an itinery makes me recall that many of the small plant section vessels look like towers, lighthouses and Asian buildings.

    Also the fact that these texts were added to and tailored to suit the users’ particular needs is very interesting and not at all incompatible wih this section.


    • Koen,
      I checked the plants and places in the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea. Written in a very weird form of Greek. It helped me with one or two details, but while I still like the idea of a Periplus’ informing some of the text, I doubt it will be that one. There are numerous others – chiefly of the Mediterranean and Black Sea – but many have never been edited and without commentary, it’s just too much hard work to follow that line of enquiry for me – besides, the written part of this text is not my problem.

      One I really would like to read one day is Aethicus’ geography which is said to be based on periploi. But why not – go for it.

      You say “many of the small plant section vessels look like towers, lighthouses and Asian buildings”. I rather think that Asian vessels can be imaginatively compared to things like buildings and lighthouses, but like beauty I’d say that was in the eye of the beholder. 🙂


  2. General NOTE:
    In saying the work is half-a-century old, I’m speaking of content, not date of final release and publication. The content reflects the period when the group was active. On pp.40-41, d’Imperio refers to the ‘First Voynich Manuscript Study Group’ as running from 1944-1946 and the Second from 1962-3.
    D’Imperio has fleshed out the basic material with some bibliographic sources and summary of a couple of later writers, principally Brumbaugh, from the 1970s, but the whole remains a record of the Friedmans’ group(s) approach and limits.

    Mary d’Imperio, The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma, National Security Agency/Central Security Service (1978).


    • Hi Nick – nice to see you.

      In the draft, I went through each of those asterisks – explaining in a little detail why they are, as I describe them, ill-founded, unfounded etc. But it made dreary reading. Those who think about it will work it out for themselves, and those who think otherwise wouldn’t listen anyway!

      But rather than fussing about my opinion about d’Imperio, how about a comment on the theme of the post?


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