Consider this.. Lull, Kabbalah and ciphers.


Still speculation after all these years.”


Question-set 1:

Is it true that Ramon Llull was acquainted with Kabbalah? How long has the idea been around? Who first suggested it? Was there, then – or is there now – any evidence to justify the idea/assertion?

Question-set 2:

Is it true that Llull’s ‘combinatorial’ system was devised, or used by Lull, as a method for encryption? Who first suggested that use for it? Was there then, or is there now, any evidence to justify the idea?

Question-set #3.

Who first associated Ramon Llull with the Voynich manuscript? What reason did they give? Was there then, or is there now, any evidence dating from between c. 1260 (Lull’s maturity) and 1348 1438 which might lend support to that notion?

The short answer to all three ‘Is there any evidence..?’ questions is a simple “No”.

There is no evidence to support, and much to deny even the possibility that Ramon Lull was familiar with Kabbalah, or that his combinatorial system was ever devised from an idea that it might be used to encipher or encrypt text. There is no evidence that anything in Lull’s work influenced Alberti, his wheel, or the Voynich manuscript.

So before any revived “Llull-Voynich” notion transmutes into another faith-dependent ‘doctrine’, here’s the lineage for the three-link, circular, ‘Llull-Alberti-Voynichese’ storyline.


To break it down:

  1. Lull and … Kabbalism.

This speculation arose first in connection with a specific and unusual Kabbalist, the messianic Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia. But after almost five hundred years’ intermittent scholarly investigation, that imagined link has been found an idea without merit and rejected by a consensus very neatly summarised by Jan R. Veenstra’s note within his review of a book published in 2004 and whose author was attempting to justify the old idea. Veensta’s footnote reads:

The issue has been touched upon by a few scholars and was first raised in the fifteenth century by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola who, in one of his Conclusiones , suggested that Llull’s combinatory art resembles Abulafia’s ecstatic Kabbalah.

The systems, however, are too distinct to argue for any kind of substantial influence and any research focusing on a text-immanent reading of Llull and his possible sources will be bound to conclude that Kabbalah plays no significant role in his works ….. Explicit references to Kabbalah seem to be absent; parallels between Lullian and Kabbalistic concepts are often too vague or incomplete to warrant an undeniable influence.”

  • Jan R. Veenstra, [Review of] Harvey J. Hames, ‘The Art of Conversion: Christianity and Kabbalah in the Thirteenth Century’. Vivarum,  Vol. 42, No. 2 (2004), pp. 262-266.

  •  David Abulafia’s review of Hames’ Like Angels on Jacob’s Ladder: Abraham Abulafia, the Franciscans, and Joachimism (2007), review published in Speculum, Vol. 87, No. 2 (April, 2012), pp. 561-562.

So the judgement of half a millennium’s investigation of Lull’s works and of Kabbalism rejects Pico della Mirandola’s impression of common character between Abulafia’s Kabbalism and Llull’s approach to preaching Christianity to Muslims.

To the first set of questions, therefore, the answers are:

The first person to ever suggest connection between Lull and Kabbalah was Pico della Mirandola, in a non-specific simile proffered without evidence and for which no support has been found to this day.


2. Lull … and cipher. (specifically, polyalphabetic substitution ciphers).

In 1980, David Kahn claimed responsibility for this one. Wanting to provide a different explanation for how Alberti came to invent his cipher-wheel, and while disputing an earlier posited explanation, Kahn wrote:

Alberti himself never said where he got the idea for his epoch-making invention. … the significant feature of [Alberti’s] cipher disk [is] the juxtaposition of two [alphabetic] sequences…. I propose [as its source]  the mechanism devised by the medieval Catalan mystic Ramon Lull (c. 1232-1315) to combine letters, which stand for philosophical concepts, in groups of three. Although it cannot be proved that Lull’s device inspired Alberti, there are grounds for suspecting that it did.

  • David Kahn, ‘On the Origin of Polyalphabetic Substitution’, Isis , Mar., 1980, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1980), pp. 122-127.

  • Note – 9th Jan. 2022 – I apologise for not having earlier noticed that Kahn’s name had been ‘autocorrected’ to Khan.  

I’m not sure how grounds for supposing so can be judged if they don’t admit of proof, but here I want to make the point that each of the three links in that Lull-Kabbalah-cipher chain has been introduced by persons interested in cryptography, and not by persons adducing such a connection from their close study of Lull’s life and works nor (on the other side of the coin) of medieval Kabbalism. It’s a cipher-guy (or gal) thing.

If Kahn ever suggested that the Voynich text is the product of an Alberti-style polyalphabetic cipher, I’ve not seen the article, so if you know of his ever making such an argument, please leave a comment and reference below and I’ll add a note of correction here.

Readers uninterested in cryptography and unlikely to buy Kahn’s books, will find a Voynich-context discussion of polyalphabetic substitution ciphers in a post by Nick Pelling (2016) and if the reader is disinclined to follow the following link and read the post, with or without its 891 comments (yes, that is eight hundred and ninety-one), I’ll quote you just a couple of paragraphs from it.

Since the Voynich Manuscript surfaced in about 1912, many of the best-known codebreaking experts have studied its writing (‘Voynichese’) in depth. Of them, many have concluded that it was written using a cipher system that was (a) stronger than a simple (monoalphabetic) substitution cipher, yet (b) mathematically weaker than a polyalphabetic cipher.

If the University of Arizona’s 2009 radiocarbon dating of the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum (which points to the first half of the fifteenth century) is correct, the most likely reason for (b) becomes blindingly obvious: polyalphabetic ciphers (such as those of Leon Battista Alberti, Abbot Trithemius, and Vigenère) hadn’t yet been invented.

To which I’d add “… in Latin Europe, so far as we know.”

The history of cryptography is still a little old-fashioned; a bit ‘Europe-and-its-important-men’. On the other hand, statistical analyses are indifferent to nationality and vested interest in any theory, so it looks as if the chief contrary argument isn’t whether Alberti was old enough to have made Voynichese as a polyalphabetic cipher, but that the statistics don’t support the idea of the text – if it is enciphered – as either or both a product of Latin Europe and of Alberti’s system.

Simple alphabetic substitution ciphers had been known for not less than five centuries by the thirteenth century when Roger Bacon described that system. For Roger Bacon’s text and (again) John Block Friedman’s important article, it’s easiest to just start from this post:

With regard to documentation in Voynich studies, and the ludicrous obedience of Voynicheros to ‘rule by meme’ asserting that to refer to precedents and sources is ‘unnecessary’, here is a perfect example of why documentation defines ideas as legitimate or otherwise. Pesic’s perfectly enunciated lineage for the “Lull and ciphers” storyline is how I came to know of David Kahn’s paper, too.

In the remoter background also lies Ramon Llull’s ‘Ars inventiva veritatis’, his “art of finding truth” through the symbolic use of letters to stand for philosophical concepts. Leibniz was interested in Llull, whom David Kahn has proposed as the source for the idea of polyalphabetic substitution, especially in the form of Alberti’s cipher disks. See David Kahn, “On the Origin of Polyalphabetic Substitution,” Isis, 1980, 71:122-127; rpt. in Kahn on Codes (New York: Macmillan, 1983), pp. 56-61. For Leibniz’s reading of Llull see Frances Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1966), pp. 379-389; and Allison P. Coudert, Leibniz and the Kabbalah (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1995), pp. 148-149, 153-154. Beyond Llull lies the kabbalistic Sefer Yezirah, the Book of Creation, which for Vigenère gave an account of the divine cipher immanent in the creation and which he thought also was the source of polyalphabetics. On the Sefer Yezirah (ca. third-sixth centuries) see Gershom G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Scholem, 1969),pp. 166-169.

  • Peter Pesic, ‘Secrets, Symbols, and Systems. Parallels between Cryptanalysis and Algebra, 1580-1700’, Isis, Vol. 88, No. 4 (December, 1997), pp. 674-692. **highly recommended.

You see the point?  Vigenère thought that a Kabbalistic text, Sefer Yezirah,  was the source of polyalphabetics.  David Kahn thought, on the contrary, that Alberti had the idea for his  polyalphabetic cipher wheel from Ramon Llull.

But cryptologists often show an excessive preoccupation with the requirements of their craft – that a text be composed as ‘plaintext’ and transmitted encrypted in a form to which the intended recipient has not only the key but the same standards with regard to spelling, grammar, and a single target language. 

Yet in the real world, as anyone may know who has lived in an international student house abroad, or in a multicultural and multilingual community at home – mixed terms and even mixed forms of writing are the norm, not the exception.  We learn new terms from the mouth of someone who uses his/her own language to express them and, more or less often, others simply adopt that term rather than hunting to find their own.  As the joke has it, the English speaker asks ‘What is the French for je ne sais quoi?’ Or: ‘… the Italian for chiaroscuro?’ Where does Yiddish fit, or any other among the dozens of ‘combinatorial’ languages.. Among them one might include English if it hadn’t been elevated to the status of a true language rather than a heterogeneous patois, part Latin, part Greek, part Gaelic, part.. well, you get the idea. The classic etymologies tell only half the story.

And so now, at last, we consider the addition of the Voynich manuscript to that lineage of passing impressions, false assumptions, tenuous and even plainly disproven connections, the basic compounding of speculation, ignorance and error.

After Voynichese was stirred into the mix, the result just sat simmering for half a century. Not even tested. Just left to sit there.  


Llull … and Voynichese 

It is likely that to re-present d’Imperio’s mentions of Lull other than entire will lead some to suspect it may be over- or under-emphasised so here they are, in full. I apologise for the horrible quality of the print.  Perhaps one day we’ll see the text re-typed and put it up as a digital text. 

d’Imperio’s Index in Elegant Enigma spells Llull’s name ‘Lull’. (If you don’t have a touch-screen, you can open the image below in a new tab).

d'Imperio Llull

Note: Llull was never a Franciscan nor, according to the latest update of the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, a Dominican.

For the other side of the coin – to show just how badly mangled information can become when ideas are presented without any lineage in the form of precedents and cited sources, here’s a writer who plainly never read Pesic’s paper, or many of the sources Pesic included in his note.

Sieburth is here discussing a poem written by Quirinus Kuhlmann, born in 1651 in  Breslau (Silesia) and  executed for heresy in 1689, in Moscow. 

 Kuhlmann’s sonnet is accordingly entirely made up of monosyllabic Stammwdrter (stem-words) ? nouns, adjectives, interjections all treated here like those primal Chinese ideograms that Leibniz thought could be manipulated into the perfect conceptual components of the combinatory machinery of symbolic logic ? an idea that reached back toward the ecstatic thirteenth-century Christian Kabbalah of the Catalan Ramon Llull.

Quirinus Kuhlmann and Richard Sieburth, ‘Love-Kiss XLI’, Poetry, Vol. 194, No. 1, (April 2009) pp. 13-16.

Oh dear..

Another paper I’d recommend to anyone interested in how this curious idea arose that Ramon Llull had anything to do with Beinecke MS 408, is: 

  • Janet Zweig, ‘Ars Combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art, and the Computer’, Art Journal, Vol. 56 (1977): Digital Reflections: The Dialogue of Art and Technology, No. 3,  pp. 20-29. Recommended.

My recommending Zweig’s paper comes with a caution.  Readers should take as it’s pivotal sentence,” Contemporary with Abulafia, and not far away, Ramon Llull was born ...” and so be able to appreciate the way Zweig separates a discussion of Abulafia’s Kabbalism from discussion of  Ramon Lull’s Christian thought.

To end, a pictorial cipher from an image  included in Pesic’s paper, This cipher is said to be in a volume held by the Beinecke Library, but I found no mention of it today, and as you’ll see, no shelf-number was provided.  I hope that, under the circumstances, the library will forgive my reproducing it.

stars celestial cipher from Persic Beinecke quarter


Could any reader who visits the be kind enough to refer them to Ellie Velinska for her study and data about how many figures in the ‘ladies’ folios are made to resemble men, and how many, women.  She did that work several years ago; I don’t think it needs to be re-done as if for the first time.

Similarly, the whole discussion, a present, of the ‘ladies’ having been given one breast each, and then at some unknown time a second breast, is another instance of the ‘groundhog day’ fog which results from denying ideas their proper lineage by refusing to cite precedents and contemporary studies, even ones  whose conclusions a given Voynich theorist may not like.  

There are a few old-timers at the forum and they will know this perfectly well the true origin of those ideas and who should be credited with having contributed them to Voynich studies. It matters not at all whether the matter is still ‘in print’ – if you know, you know. If you pretend not to know, you are lying by omission,

Pelling’s observation about the originally one-breasted figures (he calls them nymphs) was part of his interview in 2009 and was referenced again – for example  – in a ciphermysteries post dated June 29th., 2015. 

I won’t pretend that Pelling  and I have often agreed when it comes to iconological analysis of the images in Beinecke MS 408,  but his confidence in his own powers of observation is not wholly unjustified and in this case certainly his observation is an original and valuable contribution to the study.

I do, absolutely, accept his observation that the ‘ladies’ had originally a single breast.  Where Pelling and I differ is in the inference drawn from that fact. About others of his comments in the same blogpost I’ll not comment here. 

But see: