Cipher versus language – assertions and bundles

In the ‘About’ page, I explained a habit of ‘Wilfrid-style’ narratives.  By surrounding a baseless assertion with  distracting bits-and-pieces from history, scrutiny of the principal item is avoided.   I compared this to the way the case-moth uses twigs  to pass detection.

The phenomenon in Voynich studies is perfectly illustrated by the question of whether or not the Voynich text is in cipher.  That idea is found in Wilfrid’s first public description of the manuscript, and was repeated in the paper which he presented in 1921.  Yet the notion had no foundation in fact or preliminary research.  It is nothing more than a flight of Wilfrid’s imagination – as he says:

And that’s all there was to it.  No research. No alternative possibilities investigated. No process of elimination. No effort to demonstrate the validity of the idea.  Just a bit of kite-flying, plain and simple. Wilfrid lends it dignity by saying that he ‘found’ the text was in cipher – although in fact all he ‘found’ was that he couldn’t read it.

What is extraordinary, though, is not that Wilfrid indulged his imagination in this way, but that his contemporaries immediately adopted the assertion as if were a fact established;  as an item of faith  and apparently did so  without hesitation, scrutiny, demur or any effort to test the idea or to provide it with some formal defence.  This remained the case for almost a hundred years.

Over that period, persons interested in the manuscript included not only interested laymen but persons trained in analytical method and scientific expectations of evidence to inform conclusions. They included academics and cryptographers, medieval historians and specialists in medieval manuscripts.  To see their apparent gullibility – their setting aside their own standards of critical thinking –  is astonishing.  But that’s what happened, and this item of faith hardened into a standard ‘doctrine’ because the ‘ciphertext’ immediately became a chief focus for interest and discussion.  Until very recently, to so much as suggest the text might be of another kind was to risk ridicule and animosity  – especially during the last decades of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first.

Thanks to Jim Reeds who compiled a bibliography of Voynich writings composed between 1914-2001, you can follow the course of the manuscript’s study through those years, and see how the great majority focus exclusively on ‘cracking the cipher text’.


Formal arguments in favour.  

There may have been  earlier efforts to provide the ‘ciphertext’ idea with a formal argument in its favour but the first of which I know wasn’t published until 2011, when Pelling put his view into a  blog-post:

I won’t comment on that argument because linguistics and cryptography are not my field.  However, in 2016, E.M. Smith was trying to get a clear statement of why the ‘ciphertext’ idea was so widely held.  The responses received display a lessening of faith in the idea.  This is a selection of the more salient comments.

Comments selected from thread  ‘The Voynich Manuscript is a cipher because…..? ‘, forum (online).  Comments to the forum are publicly visible at the time of writing.

Job: It can be difficult to separate a cipher from a constructed language. Maybe a better question would be, why is the Voynich Manuscript not a natural language? (February 15th, 2016)

Emma: It’s really not better to phrase it that way. I want positive reasons for the Voynich manuscript being a cipher. If folks’ beliefs truly boil down to, “it’s a cipher because I don’t think it’s a language”, then I think the whole side of cipher research on the VM has a serious problem.(February 15th, 2016)

Sam G: As of 2016, nobody has ever developed a cipher capable of replicating even a fraction of the VMS text’s properties, despite the enormous advances in cryptography that have been made since the VMS was produced, and the fact that some of the best cryptographers in the world have worked specifically on the VMS.(February 20th, 2016)

 Anton I would like to mention some arguments in favour of the cipher hypothesis [sic.] *… 1) Here and there the text bears evidence of having been put down not in a single pass. ….  2) There is that curious phenomenon of “gallows coverage” there…..  3) There is at least one label consisting of only one character. … (March 23rd, 2016)

Emma: Of your three points in favour of a cipher, I agree that point 2) is good. But point 1) is ambiguous, and point 3) is incredibly thin.(March 24th, 2016)

Note: *the ‘ciphertext’ was not ever an ‘hypothesis’. From the first it was no more than an assertion, adopted on faith.

See also:

E.M. Smith, ‘Why the Voynich Text is not Linguistic’, Agnostic Voynich (blog) January 5th, 2016

The most reasonable explanation for the apparent gullibility displayed by highly intelligent, professionally competent, and formally trained analytical minds over the decades after 1914 is, I think, the skill with which Wilfrid bundled his ‘cipher text’ idea. It was that which apparently froze his readers’ critical intelligence over this item and several others which also became items of ‘Voynich doctrine’.


Wilfrid-style “bundling”

Between 1912-2012 the three most common topics driving discussion of the manuscript were:

  • (a) the ‘cipher-text’;
  • (b) the ‘Roger Bacon’ tale or that of some other posited  ‘author’.
  • (c) a presumption that the manuscript can only be worthy of study if it is an expression of western Christian (‘Latin’) culture.

None of these notions or presumptions was soundly based, to judge from Wilfrid’s own account.  Yet all three became cornerstones of ‘Voynich doctrine’ and to as late as 2011 all energies remained focused on ‘breaking the cipher’ and on identifying the (possibly-imaginary) ‘author’.   To this latter notion, and the bias towards Latin European culture I attribute the fact that Wilfrid seems never to have asked, nor to have been asked, the most obvious question of all, ‘Why can it not be unreadable simply because it’s in a foreign language?’

I am not arguing, here, that the text is not in cipher or that it is in a foreign language.  I’m considering the impact on the nature and direction of the study of  such adoption of ideas on the basis of faith alone, and their hardening into determinedly-maintained ‘doctrines’.

Here’s the origin of those other two ideas. They are part of Wilfrid’s bundle for the ‘ciphertext’ notion:


Note: Wilfrid again merely asserts and implies that he is able to define the nature of the manuscript’s content as ‘natural history’ in the European tradition. He has considered no other possible explanation for the curious style of the plant-drawings for example, though it takes only a moment’s reflection to list several other possibilities – such as (e.g.) designs for textiles, or murals, or ornamental stonework – or a non-European origin. A habit of adopting an authoritative air and unreasonable certainty are other characteristics of the ‘Wilfrid-style’ which became the norm when this manuscript was the subject.


‘Natural history’ enciphered ..?

I’ll return in another post to treat in more detail  Wilfrid’s assertions about the nature of the text. Here it is enough to say the idea depends, yet again, on nothing but personal impressions, lack of critical investigation, and appeals to deeply rooted contemporary assumptions.

His only explanation for the text’s being (supposedly) enciphered depends on his audience’s acquaintance with a particular – now discarded – idea of medieval history: the notion that the church and ‘science’ (in the generic) were naturally opposed to one another.  It was an idea propounded and elaborated during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth: first by a chap named Draper and then by another named White.  The idea still lingers in popular imagination, but its refutation I’ll leave to Thony Christie and Tim O’Neill.

The point is that without the Draper-White thesis, the grounds for imagining that Bacon (or anyone else) would encipher a book about natural history are annulled.

  •  Thony Christie, ‘Perpetuating the Myths’, Renaissance Mathematicus (blog) May 17th  2017. Dismisses the Draper-White thesis in discussing Giordano Bruno and others.


The Condemnations of 1210-1277 that he [‘Skep’] refers to in his mangled reference to Roger Bacon above actually illustrate this point quite neatly. If, as “Skep” claims, the medieval Church stifled proto-scientific inquiry so completely we should have no trouble finding this reflected in clear statements by the Church delineating what was off limits for inquiry. After all, it’s not like the medieval Church was shy about making its position on what could or could not be believed or questioned clear. And it seems “Skep” thinks the Condemnations of 1210-1277 represent just such statements.

But do they? To begin with, if they do we would expect these statements to be made in some kind of proclamation that applied to the whole of Christendom: in, say, a canon of an ecumenical council or at least a Papal bull. But no such statements exist. The 1210-1277 Condemnations, on the contrary, are very specific and highly local in their application: they apply only to the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris and nowhere else. This is hardly surprising, since they arose out of an academic squabble between that university’s Faculty of Theology and the upstarts in the Faculty of Arts, who the theologians thought were intruding on their hallowed turf. Not only did they not apply to anyone outside of the Arts Faculty or the University of Paris, there is little evidence of them having much impact on anyone or any other institution at all. On the contrary, in 1210 rival universities seized on them gleefully and tried to use them to lure students away from Paris, with the University of Toulouse advertising itself as a place to “hear the books of Aristotle which were forbidden at Paris”. When it comes to student recruitment to universities, not much has changed.

But not only did these condemnations apply only to Paris’ Arts Faculty and have no effect at all elsewhere, but they were also very specifically aimed at ideas found in the newly rediscovered works of Aristotle that were brought back to Catholic Europe from Islamic Spain and Sicily in the preceding century. The 1210 Condemnation was broad in its restriction, but still specific to particular works by Aristotle:

“Neither the books of Aristotle on natural philosophy or their commentaries are to be read at Paris in public or secret, and this we forbid under penalty of excommunication.”

To be fair, in 1210 those “new” works by Aristotle and the mainly Muslim commentaries on them did represent a substantial portion of all “natural philosophy”. Which could explain why the 1210 Condemnation was … almost completely ignored. By 1255 all of Aristotle’s works then available plus a range of commentaries and expansions of his ideas were not only widely read in Paris but were prescribed texts in the Arts Faculty. So much for the terrible restrictive power of the medieval Church. With the total failure of the 1210 Condemnation in restricting those naughty Arts professors, in 1270 the Paris Faculty of Theology tried again.