‘What are you working on now?’- a reply

The author’s rights are asserted.

c.600 words.

Other readers may be interested to know what one has recently asked me, namely what new Voynich research, if any, I’m doing these days.

The question presently interesting me was broached a number of times at voynichimagery but never investigated in depth. It’s about what might be described as ‘early venture capitalists’ – from individuals to extended families to ‘houses’ such as Datini’s to the sort of commercial associations often called ‘fraternities’.

The fraternity/association type of international ‘ad/venturers’ springs up across the medieval world during the period of greatest interest to us.

The best-attested associations are ones in medieval India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Italy and to as far west as England.

Of goods traded internationally, whether over longer and over shorter routes, the most important were ‘spices’ and fabrics, with raw materials needed in the latter’s production.

I think very few who write about the world reflected in Beinecke MS 408 are aware that textiles were the single most important element in medieval trade whether among peoples of the Mediterranean or those of the Great Sea.

A number of ancillary questions arise which I’d like to put to people attempting computistical methods to ‘crack’ the manuscript’s written text.

I wonder, for example, how their programs cope with the free-wheeling orthography of non-liturgical languages in those times? Is their comparison input taken from actual documents, and if so what range of documents are being used? If transcriptions or OCR input is being used, how are the numbers of glyphs or numbers of words being processed and/or counted?

An example from what is presently by me – I see that one phrase appears in three documents from England, and within just thirty years is written in diverse forms: as “felyshippes aventerers” in 1465; “the felishippes aventerers” in 1489 and in one document of 1492, as both “marchauntes aventurers” and “marchauntes adventurers.”

How would the computerised analyses count the number of different words there?

An intelligent human will say there are just three different terms, viz. ‘fellowships’, ‘merchants’ and ‘venturers’; Would a machine scanned data-analysis count three different words, or four? or five?

Questions of orthography give rise to another interesting question – this in relation to cryptography.

As Elizebeth Friedman once said, the essence of cryptography is that an encrypted plaintext when decrypted should yield the same language, the same orthography (pretty much) and the same grammar as those familiar to the decoder.

But whoever wrote the Voynich text could have no obligation to use the sort of spelling and grammar we now accept as standard, even if s/he had the means to think or write as modern English, French etc. etc.. writers would. Meanings change over time, too.

So, since a decryption can be no better than the decrypter’s knowledge of medieval usage, and with modern dictionary definitions often being inapplicable, I wonder whether even a valid decryption would necessarily be recognised as such if the text were not in a liturgical language.

It wouldn’t look like a modern writer’s ‘plaintext’.

For example, suppose a transcription and decryption gives this string: “… be yonde the see by the hole nacion“.

Then suppose that the bemused decrypter, now as ‘translator’ renders the sense as… I don’t know.. say, “O nation, stay distant [from] the bishopric near the deep hole!”

But how would any computerised ‘match the text/name the author’ sortie work on that translation?

Not too well, I’d suppose. But it would be good to have an opportunity to ask.

How do the cryptographers and statistical analysts cope with 600 years change in vernacular usages and orthographies?

Oh yes – of course what that passage means is “… overseas, by/for all speakers of a [given] vernacular language.” 😀

Today we’d write it “… beyond the sea by the whole nation” – with a footnote explaining that in the medieval Latin west, the word ‘nation’ was defined by your first native tongue, the diversity of languages being believed to have occurred when the tower of Babel was destroyed. (See Genesis 11:1–9).

One thought on “‘What are you working on now?’- a reply

  1. Some interesting comments about vernaculars and variant spellings on a Voynich blog I’ve not seen before. Some but not all its articles are in English and its reads like a genuine effort to understand Voynichese. Some of the historical information is a bit ‘off’. It repeats the fiction that the manuscript “is known” to have belonged to Rudolf, but even the person who edited the ‘Physical materials’ essay for the Yale facsimile edition was misled into saying ‘known’ rather than ‘rumoured’ or ‘alleged’.


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