Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Medieval crackers

Image showing the 'Centaury' word
Courtesy University of Bedfordshire
According to a press release from the University of Bedfordshire, Stephen Bax, the Professor of Applied Linguistics there has finally managed to begin the process of interpreting the Voynich manuscript, a medieval book on plants and science that is written in a language that is so mysterious that many believed it to be made up, without meaning. To continue with the release:
Up until now the 15th century cryptic work has baffled scholars, cryptographers and code-breakers who have failed to read a single letter of the script or any word of the text. 
Over time it has attained an infamous reputation, even featuring in the latest hit computer game Assassin’s Creed, as well as in the Indiana Jones novels, when Indiana decoded the Voynich and used it to find the ‘Philosopher's Stone’. 
However in reality no one has come close to revealing the Voynich’s true messages.
Many grand theories have been proposed. Some suggest it was the work of Leonardo da Vinci as a boy, or secret Cathars, or the lost tribe of Israel, or most recently Aztecs … some have even proclaimed it was done by aliens! 
Professor Bax however has begun to unlock the mystery meanings of the Voynich using his wide knowledge of mediaeval manuscripts and his familiarity with Semitic languages such as Arabic.  Using careful linguistic analysis he is working on the script letter by letter.
“I hit on the idea of identifying proper names in the text, following historic approaches which successfully deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs and other mystery scripts, and I then used those names to work out part of the script,” explained Professor Bax, who is to give his inaugural lecture as a professor at the University later this month. 
“The manuscript has a lot of illustrations of stars and plants. I was able to identify some of these, with their names, by looking at mediaeval herbal manuscripts in Arabic and other languages, and I then made a start on a decoding, with some exciting results.”
Among the words he has identified is the term for Taurus, alongside a picture of seven stars which seem to be the Pleiades, and also the word KANTAIRON alongside a picture of the plant Centaury, a known mediaeval herb, as well as a number of other plants. 
Although Professor Bax’s decoding is still only partial, it has generated a lot of excitement in the world of codebreaking and linguistics because it could prove a crucial breakthrough for an eventual full decipherment.
Great stuff. The manuscript features in my book Roger Bacon, because it was once thought to be the work of the great thirteenth century proto-scientist. I've reproduced the (long) section on it below for your entertainment.

From Roger Bacon: The First Scientist 

In the early months of 1912, Wilfred Voynich, an American dealer in antique books, bought a strange manuscript that had been found in an Italian villa near Frascati. It was said to contain the secrets of nature, but its author had taken much care to conceal this dangerous knowledge from prying eyes. More than two hundred heavily illustrated pages were filled with a dense, incomprehensible script which no one had yet deciphered, accompanied by enigmatic sketches and diagrams. In its time this remarkable book may been the property of the astrologer John Dee  and it certainly found its way into the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. The author was said to be Roger Bacon.

 Nine years after Voynich's purchase, the manuscript was to cause an international sensation. The man responsible was William Newbold, Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at the university of Pennsylvania. After making a careful study of the Voynich manuscript's complex script he had seen a pattern, not in the characters themselves but in minute markings above the strange lettering. Newbold  announced not only that could he confirm that the secret document was the work of Roger Bacon, but that its contents seemed to blow apart the conventional idea of what was known in Bacon's time.

As Newbold's work on the manuscript progressed, he found confirmation of Bacon's authorship. But the revelations that were to amaze the world were that the text accompanying some of the less clear diagrams identified them as depicting distant objects in space and the microscopic features of sperm. These remarkable observations seemed to prove that Bacon had built telescopes and microscopes hundreds of years before they were believed to have been invented.

Newbold needed to confirm that Bacon had written the Voynich manuscript because, despite a long history of its association with Bacon, its author was not explicitly identified. Rudolf II certainly believed that it was Bacon who had written the manuscript when the emperor purchased the book in 1586 for the sizeable fee of 600 gold ducats, but that was simply because he had been told so. It was for the frisson of secrecy that the he paid such a royal fee. The book looked – still looks – as if it contained a wealth of scientific and magical secrets. And Bacon had always stressed that it was vital to keep the secrets of science hidden from the common herd. Here was documentary evidence of how Bacon maintained secrecy.

The emperor had been told that the manuscript must be Bacon's work because it appeared to be cryptically autographed by Bacon. On the last page are three lines of text in a different hand from the rest of the book. They seem to provide an incomplete key to the code used in the main text. Although this key itself is enciphered, it uses a simple form of code already well known in the thirteenth century, so in theory this addition could have been Bacon's work. It seemed, on decoding, that the first few words read 'To me, Roger Bacon' – though to discover this the reader would also have to unscramble an anagram. The man who brought this inscription to the emperor's attention is said to be the same man who had sold it to him, a man who believed Bacon to be much more than the caricature figure of the legend. That man was John Dee.

Dee was the personification of much of what legend had built up Bacon to be. An occultist and alchemist, he was royal astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I. Despite escaping a prosecution for sorcery in 1553, he was constantly held in suspicion by the common people, and eventually much of his extensive library (more than 4,000 books) was destroyed in a fire that was intended to burn Dee alive for his witchcraft. Like Bacon, Dee had wide-ranging interests, arguably sometimes inspired by Bacon. He applied mathematics to geography, improving the navigational techniques that were used at the time. He provided a preface for a translation of Euclid into English, and was active in theatre and the arts. But unlike Bacon, Dee had a very real dark side.

Where Bacon was dismissive of magic and magicians, there is no doubt that Dee revelled in the power that conferred by a claim to manipulate nature by magical means. With his companion Edward Kelley, very much the Bungay to Dee's Friar Bacon, he was said to have conjured up all manner of spirits. Like Bacon in Peter of Trou's stories, Dee was said to possess a magic mirror in which Kelley could see distant events take place. Dee, it was said, single-handedly defeated the Spanish Armada's invasion plan by summoning up bad weather. It's hard to believe that he would ever have denied this feat.

Dee also claimed to be able to communicate with angels by using a special alphabet that he had devised. He has been credited with the founding of the Rosicrucian Order,  supposedly a Protestant equivalent to the Jesuits but in fact a secret organization with an inclination towards the occult. It is telling that when Shakespeare wanted a model for Prospero, the powerful but amoral sorcerer in The Tempest, he used Dee. He is also said to have inspired the character of the mad King Lear.

This Elizabethan occultist developed a passion for Roger Bacon (who would have been horrified by much that Dee did). Dee's library contained the largest known collection of Bacon's works, many of which survived the fire. In his preface to Henry Billingsley's translation of Euclid's Elements, Dee says of Bacon that he was 'the flower of whose worthy fame can never dye nor wither'.  It is obvious that Dee drew heavily on Bacon's work. The closest Dee came to pure science was in his Propadeumata aphoristica ('Preliminary Aphoristic Teachings'), of which Benjamin Wooley remarks in his 2001 biography of Dee, 'This became the basis of Dee's natural philosophy, and in several ways anticipates Newton's groundbreaking Principia mathematica ...'  In Propadeumata, Dee puts forward his theory that everything in the universe gives off rays of a force which then influence other bodies – nothing more than Roger Bacon's species.

It even seems that Dee went so far as to claim to be related to Bacon. In a pamphlet on the reformation of the calendar addressed to Queen Elizabeth in 1582, he took the opportunity both to praise his hero and to try to establish a connection with him:

None has done it more earnestly, neither with better reason and skill, than hath a subject of this British Sceptre Royal done, named as some think David Dee of Radik, but otherwise ... called Roger Bacon.

While it's true that Bacon had argued strongly for calendar reform, Dee's enthusiasm to claim Bacon as an ancestor seems to have overcome his sense of reality – there is no evidence anywhere that Bacon changed his name in this fashion. Any relationship was in Dee's mind alone. It would not have been surprising, then, if Dee himself, to develop the pedigree of the Voynich manuscript, had added the three lines that seemed to link it to Bacon.

This is something that cannot be proved. Little is certain with this manuscript, even the matter of Dee's involvement. A letter attached to the manuscript, written by Prague scientist Johannes Marcus Marci and dated 1665, tells us that the book was sold to Rudolf for 600 ducats. We also know that in 1586, when Dee was in contact with Rudolf, Dee records having 630 ducats, an unusually large sum as he was not well off at the time. Other circumstantial evidence has pointed to Dee's ownership, though some scholars continue to doubt it.  But whether or not Dee owned or tampered with the document, the contents remained a total mystery until Professor Newbold's sensational translation.

Newbold basked briefly in the glory of his discovery, but very soon the critics descended upon him. The method Newbold had used to decipher the manuscript was complex and open to misuse. He claimed that the characters in the inscriptions themselves were meaningless, there only to mislead the reader. The message, he thought, lay hidden in almost invisible markings above the strange letters. These markings, he suggested, were similar to a shorthand used by the Greeks. But that wasn't the end of the mystery. To decode the text, Newbold had to use double-character combinations – assuming that two marks in the manuscript made up a single letter of writing – and then apply anagrams, jumbling up groups of characters to make appropriate words. In the hands of his critics, this  led to the destruction of Newbold's credibility. They were blistering in their criticism of the Pennsylvania professor's approach, condemning his whole structure as imaginary, and objecting that the use of anagrams meant that almost any meaning could be extracted from a text of this length.

It is certainly true that within Newbold's 'translation' there was much that sat uncomfortably with Bacon's time and seemed to suggest wishful thinking on the professor's part. For example, Bacon appeared to call the members of the Franciscan Order 'monks', a description that would not have been made at a time when the distinction between monks and friars was a recent introduction and very clear. Other, apparent historical references to Bacon's life could simply not be true. Any fit with the historical facts of the period was superficial and collapsed when the detail was examined. It seemed that Professor Newbold had used his imagination to augment the text.

Since Newbold's abortive attempts, the closest there has been to a translation of the Voynich manuscript has come from the acknowledged expert on it, Robert S. Brumbaugh.  Brumbaugh managed to establish a sensible structure behind the encoding of the titles of the illustrations, if not of the main text. Unfortunately the technique that seems to have been used to produce the text is numerological, each letter having been converted into a single-digit number before being translated into another character. This process inevitably means that it is hard to decode, as a single number could represent any of several different letters. Brumbaugh's work, together with a closer examination of the style of the manuscript means, has proved that Bacon's connection with it is fictional.

Also, the age of the manuscript itself argues against any link. Although the physical materials used in the manuscript could have been thirteenth-century, little else shows any sign of being contemporary with Bacon. The style of the book – or rather the collection of five different books that it appears to be – is much more like that of the early sixteenth century, particularly in the botanical illustrations. Some of these – confirmed by Brumbaugh's translated captions – include a sunflower and a capsicum pepper, both of which were unknown in Europe until Columbus brought them back to Spain in 1493.

Apart from Brumbaugh's publication, there have been a string of books and papers on the Voynich manuscript, most notably Mary d'Imperio's The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma.  For the future, perhaps the best hope of cracking the mysterious manuscript may lie in using the statistical techniques developed for the Human Genome Project to search for structures and patterns in the text.  Modern Voynich enthusiasts are also producing a high definition computer-based copy of the work to replace the hazy microfilm that Voynich historians have had to work from in the past. However, it seems that what appeared at first to be a new window onto Roger Bacon's work is just as much fantasy as the more obviously grotesque mythological tales that appear in the Historie. It's not that the Voynich manuscript itself is a fraud, but any link with Bacon lies in the imagination, quite possibly the fevered imagination of John Dee.

Take a look at the book, a bargain as an ebook, to find out more about the real Roger Bacon.

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