Header image: ‘Alphabet iliricum sclavor’ included in a model book of 1561 . Libellus valde doctus elegans, & vtilis, multa et varia scribendarum literarum genera complectens. – archive.org
approx. 3300 words.
Taking the ‘4’-shaped glyph as the constant, the last few posts have sketched out roughly the patterns of connection, movement and exchange – affecting peoples, ideas, and skills – throughout the south-western Mediterranean and most particularly during that half-century from c.1350-1410 when (pace Hill), we first find the numeral ‘4’ written with that same simple, open-eyed shape as is used for one of the Voynichese glyphs.
The situations in which that exact form occurs, before the Voynich manuscript’s date-range, were found to be practical rather than intellectual – the world of traders and artisans, and particularly of Jews and Italians involved in maritime matters, and notably cartography.
Then, at just the same time when Beinecke MS 408 was being put together, we find a first use of that ‘4’-shape in a cipher-key, that cipher using the Jewish ‘atbash’ method to encipher a secular document in Italy.
The date-range for da Crema’s cipher-key coincides with our manuscript’s, and with a period when Italy saw an influx of Jews from territories owned by the kings of France and of Aragon, who between them now owned what had been the territories composing the kingdom of Majorca.
However, da Crema’s script does not resemble that in the Voynich manuscript, and so this post is about the problem of scripts and languages.
It should be kept in mind that the same Genoese, or Pisan, who had access to a Majorcan-Jewish carte marine might also take ship for Egypt, Tunis, or Trebizond, and at this same time, if a Genoese, might have relatives living in Baghdad, in India, or in Constantinople or Caffa on the Black Sea.
It is not a small matter that, as late as the seventeenth century and over a period of no less than thirty years, Athanasius Kircher should have failed even to identify what script or scripts have provided the Voynich glyphs.
So now, before turning to Girona (Gerona) and the matter of Kabbalah in medieval and later Europe, I’d like readers to consider this problem, and while keeping in mind that for just as long a period, NSA cryptographers failed in the same way – either to identify the source of the Voynichese glyphs, or to extract any ‘plain text’.
It seems to me, altogether, that those working on the written text would do well in future to avoid simply presuming that the Voynich text must prove ‘underneath it all’ a literary* plaintext in a western European language – including Latin.
*By a ‘literary’ text, I mean one composed of sentences more grammatical than ungrammatical – including subject, verb and object – employing a fairly standardised orthography, and forming altogether a narrative whose parts can be classed as prose and/or poetry. A shopping list, for example, is normally not a literary text.
From 1633 onwards, Kircher’s position and high-level patrons meant he had access to an extraordinary range of information relative to scripts and languages. Baresch was not wrong to choose Kircher when, trying to find someone who might recognise the origin of the Voynich script, he commissioned and sent careful copies of sections from the manuscript to Kircher, asking only that the script be identified.
To most people of his time, it would have seemed that if anyone could do that, Kircher could. .
Kircher was already, by 1633, interested in other matters of current (and recurrent) interest to Voynich researchers, including cryptography, Kabbalah and Ramon Llull.*
*I don’t propose to say much here about Llull, having now seen the excellent, updated. entry in Stanford University’s Encylopaedia of Philosophy website. (here),. though see also ‘Postscript #2’ at the end of this post.
A letter which Kircher sent to Pieresc tells how a first interview with the immensely influential Cardinal Francesco Barberini – who would remain Kircher’s sponsor for the next five years -turned into a conversation about “the interpretation of hieroglyphs, Kabbalah and Arabic literature”.
*Letter from Kircher to Peiresc, Rome, 1 December 1633, BNP FF 9538, fol. 234r. I have this reference from Stolzenberg.
And to about this same time (1633-4), Daniel Stolzenberg dates a plan for a ‘universal history’, written in Kircher’s own hand, among the Barberini collection and which Stolzenberg found, then transcribed, translated and commented on. That plan has a section for cryptography (mainly Trithemius’ method) and another for Kabbalah and Lull, whose ‘combinatorial method’ we may suppose Kircher had at least heard of by then.
Daniel Stolzenberg, ‘ “Universal History of the Characters of Letters and Languages”: An Unknown manuscript by Athanasius Kircher’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome , Vol. 56/57 (2011/2012), pp. 305-321.
Alexander Boxer is producing a parallel Latin-English translation of Trithemius’ text for those interested in the history of cryptology. See trithemius.com.
Of interest to us now, though, is the section laying out the languages and scripts which were known to Kircher four years before Baresch’s request reached him.
The plan looks like nothing so much as the sort of ‘map’ or key you might find on a printer’s wall. The comparison is not arbitrary.
Here is Stolzenberg’s translation, from his transcription of the original (folios 33-4 in Vatican Library, Barb. Lat. 2617).
The range, and the organisation of these scripts/languages and the table’s otherwise surprising omissions, shows it organised according to the ideas of western European Christianity (i.e. Latin Christianity) and doctrinally Catholic. Consider for example how ‘Greek’ is classed as the language and script of an ‘oriental doctrine’ and imagined descended from Hebrew.
Kircher’s allusion to ‘missals and holy books’, quoted further below, serves to re-inforce the suggestion that Kircher gained this information because, thanks to Barberini and others, he had the entrée to the Vatican printeries in whose work scholars, native speakers and missionaries were all involved in different ways, composing, producing, proof-reading and disseminating those products throughout the world – which by the seventeenth century meant from as far as China to the most distant parts of the Americas.
We needn’t suppose Kircher knew more than the names for most of these scripts and languages but when, in about 1637, he received via Theodore Moretus’ posts, the copied sections of the unreadable manuscript and a request to identify the script, you’d expect that Kircher had access to persons and sources that could provide him with the answer more or less immediately.
For a full eighteen months, however, Kircher was silent – apparently. Not a civil note thanking Baresch for the gift and his enquiry; not so much as a brief note sent on receipt, unprompted, to reassure Moretus that the package hadn’t gone astray.
When, finally, Kircher did respond in 1639, it is clear that his silence was due simply to his continuing failure and consequent chagrin, for he seems only to have written then to Moretus, refusing in that letter to so much as acknowledge Baresch’s existence. And after eighteen months, Kircher could say nothing about the script except what he had plainly gained from some other person and, trying to pretend it an utterance from his own authority, he clearly failed properly to understand.
At first, certainly, Kircher’s letter sounds authoritative, but if one fact-checks, it is shown a faintly pathetic attempt to present what had been beyond him as merely ‘beneath’ him. He even uses the childish excuse ‘I could have if I wanted to, but…’
His letter includes no apology for delay but begins with the “you-and-I-are-superior-types” ploy (a form of ‘cosying up’ not unknown today) then after a few paragraphs about magnets, Kircher pretends he has only just looked at ‘the book’, writing:
As for the book … which you enclosed with your letter, I have looked at it and have concluded that it requires application rather than insight in its solver. I can recall solving many writings of this kind when the occasion presented itself, and the itch of my mind working would have tried out some ideas on it if only many very urgent tasks did not call me away from unsuitable [sic!] work of this kind. However, when I have more free time and can take advantage of a more suitable moment, I expect I shall try to solve it when the mood and inspiration take me.
Finally, I can let you know that the other sheet which appeared to be written in the same unknown script is printed in the Illyrian language in the script commonly called St Jerome’s, and they use the same script here in Rome to print missals and other holy books in the Illyrian language.
The letter of Athanasius Kircher to Theodorus Moretus (1639) as transcribed, translated and annotated by Philip Neal.
Kircher never did solve it, in thirty years, though he still wanted the manuscript when he finally gained the original in 1666 or so. That he was determined to have it may be inferred by Marci’s oddly-apologetic tone in his letter of gift.
But in his earlier letter to Moretus, Kircher revealed his source for the ‘Jerome/Illyrian’ idea as the Vatican printery and those associated with producing foreign-language ‘missals and holy books’. All the same, it sounds good, doesn’t it? The script – ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’. The language ‘Illyrian.’
But nothing followed – not during Kircher’s lifetime, nor apparently up until 2011 when I was somewhat surprised to learn there had still been no follow-up on that ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’ identification.
You may find the following illustration, today, on some other Voynich site/s, but in 2011, there was nothing of the kind. The Voynich script and language are not my area, but I felt it had to be asked – What exactly was ‘Jerome’s Illyrian’ script? For what languages was that script being used in ‘missals and holy books’ during the 17thC?.
The following comes from my post of 2011. Since the image is the important item, I’ve included just a couple of sentences from the post and, in square brackets, clarifications for what is omitted.
D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A few curiosities: “Illyrian” said Kircher’, published first in ‘Findings‘ (blogger blog) Sunday, Nov. 11th., 2011; reprinted ‘Voynich imagery‘ (wordpress blog), Nov. 2nd., 2012.
… not too long before Kircher’s time, late in the sixteenth century, the Vatican issued a book in which was a copy from a manuscript showing this “Illyrican” script credited to Jerome – who lived fully four centuries before Cyril, but while ‘Illyricum’ remained the name of that province [on the Adriatic coast, about Dalmatia].
So when Kircher thought ‘Illyrian’ script, he could have been thinking of [and confusing] this ‘Illyrican’ script for the Cyrillic, or Glagolitic.
text and image first published in ‘Findings‘ (blogger blog), Sunday, Nov. 11th., 2011; reprinted in ‘Voynich imagery‘ (wordpress blog), Nov. 2nd., 2012. Click to enlarge.
The signs used in Jerome’s Illyrican (not ‘Illyrian’) script have little in common with those of Voynichese, as you see. Taken at face value, Kircher’s airy and seemingly off-the-cuff statement sounds wonderfully authoritative – unless you fact-check – and the same is true for much else that is asserted with an air of certainty about this manuscript today.
It is certainly possible that Jerome’s script was used to print some language called ‘Illyrican’ in the sixteenth century (I’ve included another ‘Illyrican’ script as header for this post), Kircher’s saying it was used to print the ‘Illyrian’ language raises certain other difficulties. Here, the wiki article is nicely succinct:
The Illyrian language was a language or group of languages spoken in the western Balkans in Southeast Europe during antiquity. The language is unattested with the exception of personal names and placenames… In the early modern era and up to the 19th century, the term “Illyrian” was also applied to the modern South Slavic language of Dalmatia, today identified as Serbo-Croatian. This language is only distantly related to ancient Illyrian and is not descended from it.
Could Voynichese be Serbo-Croatian? If so, why did Kircher not ever claim to have ‘broken’ the text. Has anyone ever suggested such a thing in more recent times, or claimed to have produced a translation of the Voynich text as Serbo-Croatian? More to the point – has any non-Voynich-related person, competent in Serbo-Croatian, offered a balanced assessment of some such translation? Anyone wanting to can just search Voynich+Serbo-Croatian to find an example to examine.
I will say that the same formerly Illyrian region – around Dalmatia – cropped up a few times during the course of my own research: in connection with a map found in a Franciscan monastery and whose place-names, as discussed by Goldschmidt and Crone, were a mixture of several different local dialects from the Black Sea region; second in connection with the figure of the Voynich archer, his clothing and other matters maritime, and thirdly in connection with other letters in the Kircher archive – but I published summaries of these things at the time, and they are beside the point at present.
The problem is, of course, that whoever identified the Voynich script as supposedly ‘Jerome’s Illyrian'(sic) presumably also knew the languages for which it was then being used, and could have directed Kircher to one of the native speakers, or scholars, who oversaw works produced in that language. But that seems never to have happened, or to have drawn a blank. Kircher was not a modest man. His silence must be taken, in the absence of other evidence, as signalling failure, and for thirty years.
What seemed another obvious approach again, I found had never been tried, at least not as far as I could learn by about 2010: that is, to run a statistical survey to discover when, and where, glyphs closely similar to the set of Voynich glyphs are attested in alphabets or abjads.
I would suppose there’d be little point in collecting data about such ubiquitous signs such as ‘o’ but it seemed to me that a pattern of distribution for some of the more unusual forms should be enlightening.
Again – not my field, but I did attempt one amateurish test-run, my target being the glyph I describe as an ‘ornate ‘P’. I found that scripts in which such a form occurs – or occurred- mark a path from the eastern shore of the Black Sea, inward for a distance, and then turning south towards the Persian Gulf, extending as far as southern Arabia.
I found, further, that the form occurs with a fairly consistent phonetic (or should I say phonemic?) value within an ‘s-to-t’ shift.
But what tied those gleanings together was learning that all those scripts had evolved from, or were consciously developed after the model of, imperial Aramaic.
That made sense of the distribution pattern and here again, because it will be easiest for readers to check, I’ll quote a wiki article rather than the more academic sources I used in those posts published in 2012.
Since I have explained that the earliest stratum informing the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is one whose origins I date to the Hellenistic period, I’ll start from the period immediately before Alexander’s arrival on the scene.
The Achaemenid Empire (539–323 BC) continued this tradition [of using Imperial Aramaic], and the extensive influence of these empires led to Aramaic gradually becoming the lingua franca of most of western Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Egypt.
And so that explained the otherwise odd-looking distribution for scripts containing an ‘ornate P’. Here’s another of the examples I found as part of that research. It comes from southern Arabia and is popularly known as zabur or ‘psalm’ script. It’s not the best of my examples, but I still have the digitised image.
On this script again, I’ll quote a wiki article:.
“Zabur writings were used for religious scripts or to record daily transactions among ancient Yemenis. Zabur writings could be found in palimpsest form written on papyri or palm-leaf stalks.”
In that same article,* there’s another and better illustration of the script. The writer of that wiki article associates zabur script with monumental Sabaean script – itself derived from Aramaic.
*’Ancient South Arabian script‘ – wikipedia
I’m not offering any theory that the Voynich script originated in the Yemen, or is Sabaean or anything else – zabur is just one example of the numerous informal scripts which, developed from imperial Aramaic, include a form of “ornate P” as one of their letters. As does the Voynich script.
This Image (below) added 20th December 2021. I’d not intended to include it because the accompanying files were among wildfire losses in 2013 and I cannot provide the usual bibliographic information. I’m adding it after three correspondents’ kindly let me know that discussion of ‘ornate P’ forms makes no sense without an illustration.
A wiki article, ‘Aramaic’, was evidently written by someone for whom the whole point was that it was the ‘language Jesus spoke’ and it omits a number of important matters, including the continuing use of Aramaic by Jewish scholars, including ones in medieval western Europe and, also, that the Kabbalistic Zohar is written in a form of Aramaic, though not, I understand, in old Aramaic script.
For those linguists who’d like to tackle Aramaic and/or the Zohar…
According to this website – “If you’re looking for The Book of Zohar PDF or the wisdom of The Zohar PDF, then here it is in its original Aramaic language, with Hebrew commentary by Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag.” The PDF (which I haven’t downloaded) sounds as if it may be an interlinear Aramaic-English main text, with Hebrew commentary. Caveat downloader.
Other resources listed here.
N.B. For Aramaic’s history, script(s), evolution, grammar, morphology, pronunciation and orthographies – not to mention a full text of grammar – there is a very comprehensive entry at JVL (here).
Interestingly enough, that comprehensive article about Aramaic, from the Encyclopaedia Judaica, doesn’t refer at all to Kabbalah or to the Zohar. For that, there’s another article – here.
Kircher’s table, written up in 1633-4, did not include Aramaic, but by 1652, in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus he includes it in the list of languages he claims to have.
Still, even by 1667, he could not answer Aloysius Kinner’s question about whether he had yet ‘proven an Oedipus’ in regard to the Voynich manuscript which, by that time, Kircher had had in his possession in copies for thirty years and in the original manuscript for about six months. It seems that in that case, too, Kircher had made no acknowledgement of the gift. He was not a man to be modest about his accomplishments or honest about his sources. Failure he met by stubborn refusal to engage, as he refused to engage during that three decades with any question about his progress in understanding the Voynich text.
Wanting to set himself up as an ultimate authority, before whom none mattered and after whom none should utter, Kircher succeeded in persuading some people of his own time that he was a marvel. Things that he claimed falsely as his own invention, or more slyly allowed others to attribute to his genius by neglecting to credit his source, were more accurately credited after his death, and today the judgement of scholarship may be represented by one sentence from the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2007):
Kircher is not now considered to have made any significant original contributions, although a number of discoveries and inventions (e.g., the magic lantern) have sometimes been mistakenly attributed to him.
And so now, at last, back to North Africa, Kabbalah and Gerona.
1.- Illyrian and Illyrican.
Kircher would appear to have confused ‘Illyrian’ for ‘Illyrican’ and further confused the script attributed to St. Jerome (4thC AD) with what we now call Glagolitic, at that time sometimes also termed ‘Illyrican’ – as was Cyrillic, whose creation (9thC AD) is traditionally credited to Cyril and Methodius who lived half a millennium later than Jerome, and who based their work on “the local dialect of the Slavic tribes from the Byzantine theme of Thessalonica.” Thessalonika is not near ancient Illyria or Dalmatia but in Macedonia, where it faces not the Adriatic sea but the Aegean. (corrected 21.12.2021. See note 3, below on the cult of St.Jerome in Dalmatia where Glagolitic script seems to have remained in liturgical use to the fifteenth century, though little is extant as physical evidence.)
2. Llull’s Ars brevis in Hebrew
It may interest readers to know, that, just as Llull showed an interest in Kabbala and studied it to the best of his ability, so we have evidence of the reciprocal – Llull’s Ars brevis was translated into Hebrew in 1474, in Senigallia on the Adriatic coast of Italy.
What we don’t know is whether the translation was made by persons wanting to debate with Jews in Hebrew, or by Jews wanting to understand Lull’s thought. James assumes the latter.
- Harvey J. Hames, ‘Jewish Magic with a Christian Text: A Hebrew Translation of Ramon Lull’s ‘Ars Brevis’, Traditio, 1999, Vol. 54 (1999), pp. 283-300.[JSTOR]
3. (added Dec. 20th., 2012).
” After the papal blessing of 1248, the story of St. Jerome’s Slavic heritage also received recognition outside of Croatia. The liturgy in a sacred Slavonic tongue according to the Roman rite drew the attention of the Czech king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. In 1347 he invited a group of eighty Benedictine Glagolite monks from the island of Pašman to establish a Slavonic Glagolitic monastery in Prague’s New Town, which became known first as the Slavonic Monastery (Monasterium Slavorum in Latin documents) and from the seventeenth century as the Emmaus Monastery.”
- from: Julia Verkholantsev, ‘St. Jerome, Apostle to the Slavs, and the Roman Slavonic Rite’, Speculum, Vol. 87, No. 1 (JANUARY 2012), pp. 37-61.
Verkholantsev’s historical perspective is a little simplistic – she appears to accept as if valid the forgery known as the ‘Donation of Constantine’ for example – but these small flaws (and some of mine in the post above) are easily repaired, by reference to Ilievski’s excellent analytical history of the Cyrillic and the Glaglolitic scripts. Both papers can be accessed through JSTOR.
Petar Hr. Ilievski, ‘GLAGOLICA: An Iconic Script for Visual Evangelic Preaching’, Illinois Classical Studies , Vol. 27/28 (2002-2003), pp. 153-164