Eric Sams, Cryptography and the Voynich Manuscript
With three Letters
© F. J. Sypher, 2011 (also a pamphlet edition, New York 2011)
Eric Sams, best known for his writings as a musicologist and Shakespeare scholar, worked during World War II as a cryptographer for the British Army Intelligence Corps. He then pursued studies in French and German at Cambridge University while retaining his interest in codes of all kinds, and when he began to publish works on musicology he gave prominent attention to encrypted messages that he recognized in scores by Schumann, Elgar, and other composers.
Sams also used his expert decryption skills to analyze historic documents, such as 17th-century shorthand diaries, and coded diplomatic messages from the time of the English Civil War. Cryptological writings of his are posted on the website of the Centro Studi Eric Sams, organized and maintained by Erik Battaglia. These range from Sams’s review for The Musical Times (August 1968) of David Kahn’s The Codebreakers (1967), to later studies on Edward Elgar. Also posted on the site are the text and audio of an interview with Sams by John C. Tibbetts, 2 October 1988, in which Sams speaks of his interest in musical codes and in archival materials. Sams comments: “. . . if you consider the world as a kind of ‘collection of archives’ a great deal of it is still hidden in darkness, shorthand people can’t read, codes and ciphers that people can’t read.”
Sams’s essay “Sir William Clarke’s Shorthand”—in Sir William Clarke Manuscripts from Worcester College, Oxford, 1640–1664,edited by G. E. Aylmer (Brighton: Harvester Microforms, 1979)—presents his method of approach to the challenging task of transcribing texts written in 17th-century shorthand. Numerous systems were in use at that period, and many of them are described in contemporary printed manuals. However, individual users of a particular shorthand often adapted it to their own purposes, so a published key is rarely sufficient by itself for successful transcription. To varying degrees, one needs to apply regular methods of cryptanalysis.
Certain basic principles apply: most 17th-century systems are alphabetic rather than phonetic (by contrast, Pitman shorthand is based on phonetics). That means that each basic shorthand character represents a single letter; however, vowels are often indicated only by the position of a consonant symbol in relation to other symbols. A further complication is that consonant groups are normally run together into a single combined symbol (as, for example, in medieval mss. in Greek); rapidly-written symbols for groups of two or more characters can often be ambiguous or puzzling. Furthermore, a writer may introduce personal symbols for certain whole words of frequent occurrence, and may introduce modifications in the normal series of characters. Thus a certain amount of analytical interpretation must be brought into play as one gets acquainted with an unfamiliar system.
In reading early shorthand writings one always hopes to discover something comparable in interest and value to the shorthand diary of Samuel Pepys, but one is far more likely to find relatively mundane content. Nevertheless, shorthand compositions, in their extreme frankness and haste, can, as Sams says, afford “lively glimpses” into the real life of a past time—in the case of the Clarke manuscripts, into what it was like to serve “in a Puritan army.” The study of early shorthand can be seen as a kind of recherche du temps perdu, as in Erik Battaglia’s well-chosen title for his own introductory essay to his Italian translations of cryptological essays by Sams, Musica e codici cifrati: e altri saggi sulla crittografia (Asti, Italy: Analogon Edizioni, 2011).
Sams’s article “Cracking the Historical Codes,” TLS (The Times Literary Supplement), 8 February 1980, gives a general overview of the kind of work he had been successfully doing with the Clarke mss., and he also mentions the Voynich ms. At the time his article appeared I happened to be working on the transcription of a 17th-century shorthand diary owned by the American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester, Massachusetts. The ms. has been attributed to Francis Willoughby of Massachusetts; however, in the article I suggested that the author was not Willoughby, but an unidentified person “associated with the church in Charlestown” (Massachusetts). In the course of research I had recently visited the Yale University Library to consult their fine collection of early shorthand manuals. During that visit I also first heard about the Voynich manuscript, which resides at the Yale library. As a regular reader of TLS I saw Sams’s article, which was of keen interest to me, since I knew of no one to turn to for advice about the colonial diary.
On February 29, 1980, I wrote care of TLS to ask Sams’s opinion, and soon received his cordial reply, dated 22 March 1980. This exchange began a correspondence that continued for nearly twenty-four years, during which his perceptive comments were always encouraging, and often expressed with delightful and highly original puns and word plays. In his reply to my initial inquiry he gave assurance that my transcription seemed “most commendably complete.” This was tremendously encouraging, since the work had been hard going.
Furthermore, I had found it difficult to estimate the significance of the Puritan author’s monotonous, almost obsessive, guilt-ridden confessions of sinfulness and unworthiness. Sams commented that he had seen “a great many examples” of diaries consisting almost entirely of religious meditations. His expert opinion was that shorthand in such cases was used not so much for “concealment” as for “convenience”: “the outbursts of piety are simply a reflection of what people’s inmost feelings actually were, expressed in a cursive system which I believe enhances the freedom and fluency of the natural flow of thought.” He adds, with acuity and modesty: The diarists I have studied seem to fall into no special category of status or faith: it seems rather that their minds were just as marinated in pietistic theology as those of medieval monks. I’m no historian (a musician, if anything): but I sometimes wonder whether historical specialists always take sufficient account of what seem to have been the basic cast of mind and attitudes of the entire literate population! No doubt that impression is somewhat exaggerated, but the mode of pious discourse in shorthand does appear to me so prevalent and so habitual as to suggest a deeply ingrained theological outlook.
Encouraged by Sams’s letter, I submitted for publication my transcription of a portion of the diary; and after the article appeared (see the bibliography below) I at once sent an offprint, and received from Sams another cordial and informative letter, dated 14 June 1982.
A few years after this exchange, I happened to be traveling overseas and by good fortune Eric Sams and I were able to arrange to meet in London. We had lunch at the Athenæum, at Waterloo Place and Pall Mall, on Friday, 26 June 1987, as I see from the entry in my little pocket diary for that year. This was—I regret to say—our only actual meeting. In 1990 Sams sent me a copy of his earlier article “Cryptanalysis and Historical Research,” from Archivaria, vol. 21 (Winter 1985–86).
After the publication of my transcription and translation of The Iskenius Letters from Germany to New York 1726–1737 (1994), I obtained from Yale a photostatic copy of the entire Voynich ms., and began to study it. The name refers—not to the author, who remains unidentified, but—to a New York book dealer, Wilfrid Voynich (1865–1930). In 1912 he acquired the ms. and soon began to publicize it, hoping to find someone who could explain its tantalizing contents. For a time the ms. was thought to be connected with the 13th-century author Roger Bacon, but this view is no longer generally accepted.
By coincidence, Sams’s earlier article in TLS had elicited a letter of inquiry (dated 21 February 1980) from the prominent economist Friedrich August von Hayek (1899–1992; Nobel Prize, 1974), who had met Voynich in 1923 at a party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Voynich had spoken to Hayek about investigations on the ms., and had given his address as a “club” on 42nd Street, west of Fifth Avenue. I’m not sure how to interpret the reference to the club, but the location is certainly relevant, since Voynich’s place of business was at 33 West 42nd Street (known as Aeolian Hall), across from the New York Public Library and Bryant Park, and there were (and still are) many clubs in that general vicinity, especially on West 43rd and 44th Streets, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. At about that time Voynich seems to have been living at the Commodore Hotel, also on 42nd Street, but to the east, near Grand Central Terminal.
Voynich had pursued extensive genealogical research into the family of an early 17th-century owner of the ms., Jacobus de Tepenecz, family name Horcicky (or Horčický), and in Voynich’s comments, Hayek recognized extensive information about the early background of his own ancestors. But when Hayek later tried to get in touch to find out more, Voynich had died, and there was no available information on the whereabouts of his genealogical papers. Whether they still exist somewhere (this was Hayek’s question in 1980 to Eric Sams) would be a matter for further research, beyond the scope of the present essay.
Wilfred Voynich’s wife Ethel (née Boole; 1864–1960) was a daughter of the English mathematician George Boole; she later achieved a certain fame as author of The Gadfly (1897), Jack Raymond (1901), and other novels. The Gadfly—an exciting story of revolutionary conspiracy in Italy during the 1830s and 1840s—achieved a large, world-wide readership in its day, and was made into more than one movie, including a Soviet film with music by Dmitri Shostakovich (1955).
The Voynich ms. is written on vellum (22.5 x 16 cm; or about 8 7/8 x 6 3/8 inches), and dates apparently from around the 1400s or 1500s. At first glance the hand looks rather like typical Renaissance script. However, when one attempts to read the characters, one realizes that, amid familiar letters such as a, c, o, m, n, q, appear characters that are not from any recognizeable language or shorthand system; also, the familiar letters do not have their familiar values.
The ms. contains numerous rather crudely-drawn color illustrations, particularly of strange plants, most of which do not correspond to any known botanical species. A number of apparently anatomical drawings feature nude female figures wading in and among what appear to be structures of internal organs. And there are elaborate astronomical or astrological designs, some of which resemble constellations or signs of the zodiac. Finally, certain pages contain illustrations of pharmaceutical containers, presumably in conjunction with some sort of materia medica. Considered as a whole, the ms. suggests scientific, medical, or philosophical content.
There are certain clues to the history of the ms. At one time it was owned by King Rudolf II of Bohemia (1576–1612), an avid collector, who is said to have paid for it the princely sum of 600 ducats. Afterward the ms. was in the hands of the above-mentioned Jacobus de Tepenecz (1575–1622), whose signature appears on one leaf. The book changed owners a few more times before disappearing from view until its discovery by Voynich, apparently in the collection of a Jesuit institution at Villa Mondragone, in the Italian town of Frascati, in the vicinity of Rome. Voynich evidently acquired the ms. together with other items that were being de-accessioned from their library. After Voynich’s death in 1930, the ms. was inherited by his wife Ethel, and after her death in 1960, it found its way to the Yale University Library (1969). Since Voynich’s discovery of the ms., it has been studied by many scholars. Some have claimed to identify the author, and/or interpret the text, but so far none of the proposed attributions or solutions has been generally accepted.
When I mentioned to Sams my renewed interest in the Voynich ms., he summed up his view with a well-chosen allusion: “I say, like that sagacious beast in Aesop, that many tracks lead into that cave but none come out; I prefer not to enter” (letter of 14 May 1994, alluding to the fable of the aged—or sick—lion and the fox). Sams commented also that “the Voynich ms had been the constant companion and preoccupation of Col. William Friedman, one of the two great cryptanalysts of all time, who spent months if not years on the wretched thing before finally confessing defeat. And since Friedman was always several leagues (in every sense) in advance of us paper and pencil people, the Aesop moral is plain.”
From: Aesop, Vita et fabulae, edited by Heinrich Steinhöwel [Augsburg: Anton Sorg, ca. 1479] (Library of Congress), book 4, fol. 46, “Die xij· fabel von dem alten lewen vnd den fuchsen.” The fox goes to visit the lion but declines to enter the cave, and when the lion asks why, the fox replies that it is because: “wir vil spur sehen zu dir hin ein gan/ aber keÿne herwider aus.” Cf. Horace, Epistles, I.i.74–75: “quia me vestigia terrent, / omnia te adversum spectantia, nulla retrorsum.”
Study of the manuscript had suggested to me—mainly because of extensive repetitions both in the text and in the illustrations—that the whole thing might be an elaborate fraud, concocted to extract money from a wealthy collector. But Sams warned of the danger of publishing such a view: “I should hate to be the chap who had proved that Voynich was insoluble just before someone solved it. How would one live that down?” His wise counsel on both points—the cave analogy and the risk of error—persuaded me to put the whole matter aside and turn my attention to other things.
Earlier this year, when Erik Battaglia kindly invited me to write a few words for inclusion with his Italian translations of writings by Sams on cryptography, I looked into the current state of Voynich studies, and found that the subject has acquired a wide, diverse, and growing circle of adherents. I see with interest that many have reached the conclusion that the ms. does not possess a conventionally coded meaning. Supposing for the moment that this is indeed the case, further questions arise: Is the text simply a swindle, done for the sake of whatever sum the original author might have obtained for it? Or is the ms.—as I believe Sams suggested at some point—too elaborate to be a mere fraud? Might it be—as has been proposed by a number of people—the creation of someone recording a private mythology or fantasy?
In this connection I am struck by the illustrations that appeared in an article by Sarah Boxer in The New York Times, September 16, 2000: “He Was Crazy Like a . . . Genius? For Henry Darger, Everything Began and Ended with Little Girls.” The article features several color illustrations, including one showing repeated female figures that appear oddly similar to the repeated female figures in the Voynich illustrations. Apparently Darger (1892–1973) was the author of a number of unconventional written works, such as, for example, “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandico-Angelinian Wars, as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion,” which runs to 15,000 pages, and leads to a sequel of 8,500 pages. His pictures are prized by collectors of what is known as “outsider art,” and examples are at museums in the USA and elsewhere.
Perhaps, one wonders, the Voynich manuscript may be this kind of composition. The apparent repetitions might be consistent with such a conclusion. But then, what sort of proof or demonstration would one need to present in order to confirm that the ms. was the expression of a private vision or fantasy? As Eric Sams suggested, the Voynich ms., no matter how one looks at it, seems to be an intellectual labyrinth. It remains to be seen whether significantly meaningful content can be traced in it. Meanwhile, as Sams warned, “many tracks lead into that cave but none come out.”
Three Letters by Eric Sams to F. J. Sypher
1. Sanderstead, Surrey, 22 March 1980
Dear Mr Sypher,
I’m much obliged for your interesting letter of 29 February, which finally reached me this morning. I congratulate you on your evident mastery of Mason 2/1695—by no means an easy system, I find, and not a very common one either so far as my own experience goes. Your transcription of the passage you cite seems most commendably complete. It looks quite characteristic to me in its insistent onward flow of piety, of which I’ve seen a great many examples—infinitely more than I would have wished had the choice of subject matter been in my own hands!
My impression, for whatever it may be worth, is that shorthand in the 17C and 18C is not for concealment but for convenience, and that the outbursts of piety are simply a reflection of what people’s inmost feelings actually were, expressed in a cursive system which I believe enhances the freedom and fluency of the natural flow of thought. The diarists I have studied seem to fall into no special category of status or faith: it seems rather that their minds were just as marinated in pietistic theology as those of medieval monks. I’m no historian (a musician, if anything): but I sometimes wonder whether historical specialists always take sufficient account of what seem to have been the basic cast of mind and attitudes of the entire literate population! No doubt that impression is somewhat exaggerated: but the mode of pious discourse in shorthand does appear to me so prevalent and so habitual as to suggest a deeply ingrained theological outlook.
With renewed thanks
2. Sanderstead, Surrey, 14 June 1982
Dear Mr Sypher,
I’m much obliged to you for sending me the American Antiquarian Society offprint about your 17C shorthand diary. Congratulations on a fascinating piece of work and an impressive account of it. The system (p. 104) interests me; it looks like an amalgam of early 17C systems, notably that of E. Willis c. 1618. Doesn’t it have a œ, though? Otherwise the main omission is SH, which first had a separate symbol in Willis and for which I’d certainly have expected to see an equivalent. And it’s even more unusual to include WH: I’ve never seen any other example of that. It suggests that the deviser or adaptor of the system, whoever he was, was very conscious of his WH sounds and no doubt pronounced them strongly HW as in some speech today. It’s mainly high-Scottish now, I think: most of us pronounce white (say) so nearly w’ite as not to suggest any special need for a separate WH phoneme equivalent. But perhaps the US traditions and practices are different?
[Note: In fact, the system does have, as Sams suspected it should, a symbol for sh, but it so closely resembles the symbol for s that I overlooked the distinction. A correct representation of the system would show two separate shorthand characters for s and sh. Words spelled wh- are often pronounced as hw- in American English.]
3. Sanderstead, Surrey, 14 May 1994
The Brahms, Fauré and Sullivan birthday celebrations are over, but, dear me, what a whirl it’s been; dance a cachuca, fandango, bolero indeed. Now I’m out on the road again, in quest of convivial gatherings with dear friends. Yesterday I heard of someone I haven’t been at all in touch with since our university days. Now I hear he’s crippled with arthritis, and hence quite unlike the lively lad I recall so clearly and so wrongly. Quantum mutatus ab illo.
The quoting vein leads to the Voynich ms, about which I say, like that sagacious beast in Aesop, that many tracks lead in to that cave but none come out; I prefer not to enter.
I say this with the more conviction as I recall hearing from someone—David Kahn, perhaps, whom I met a time or two (the best cipher journalist, I reckon, as Schoenbaum is the best Shakespeare journalist): or it might have been the ms. dealer Albi Rosenthal—that the Voynich ms had been the constant companion and preoccupation of Col. William Friedman, one of the two great cryptanalysts of all time, who spent months, if not years on the wretched thing before finally confessing defeat. And since Friedman was always several leagues (in every sense) in advance of us paper and pencil people, the Aesop moral is plain. All I had in common with the master was an obsession with the method rather than the message; thus my comrades were not as impressed as I was with the hard knotty thought I had put in to the decryptment of ‘wir sind kaput. Heil Hitler’. Well, I think you are right about the genesis of Voynich. But I further think that there are grave obstacles to the demonstration that it’s not really meaningful. I think it might be possible to show it’s not a substitution cipher in any living European tongue, working from the details published in a good cipher manual (Dover have one, I’m sure). But the spider argument (of ‘I have looked, and not seen the spider’) is compelling. I should hate to be the chap who had proved that Voynich was insoluble just before someone solved it. How would one live that down?—Except by moving in some Shakespearean world of scholarship where ludicrous self contradictions and general absurdity are no barriers, more like entrées to eminence and expertise.
But the facsimile reprint with introduction is a GREAT idea. I think you could safely offer a sizeable prize for a solution (plus a suitable entrance fee!)
Yours as ever
P(P)S. I agree with your P(P)S.
[Note: The “spider” refers to the logical difficulty of proving a negative conclusion: for example, it is easy to show that there is a spider in the room—just point to one; but it is impossible to prove beyond doubt that there is not a spider in the room—the most one can say is that one has looked and not found one. Sams’s remark on Shakespearean scholarship reflects his feud with the Shakespeare establishment over attributions and other matters. I had written of possibly editing a facsimile reprint of the ms. The comments about a prize and fee, are jocular additions by Sams. The full text of the Voynich ms. is now available on the web, and also, since 2005, in hard-copy facsimile, as listed below.]
Boxer, Sarah. “He Was Crazy Like a . . . Genius? For Henry Darger, Everything Began and Ended with Little Girls.” The New York Times, Saturday, September 16, 2000, pp. B7, B9.
Kahn, David. The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967. Includes discussion of the Voynich ms. Reviewed by Eric Sams in The Musical Times (August 1968).
Kennedy, Gerry and Rob Churchill. The Voynich Manuscript: The Mysterious Code That Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2006; previous edition 2004. Reviewed by Eric Korn in TLS, November 19, 2004, p. 31. Note chapter 7, “Privileged Consciousness,” dealing with the ms. as a specimen of “visionary” or “outsider” art. Bibliography, pp. 276–280.
Le Code Voynich. Introduction by Pierre Barthélémy. Paris: Jean-Claude Gawsewitch, 2005. Pp. 240. Color facsimile edition of the full text of the Voynich ms.
Pelling, Nick. The Curse of the Voynich Manuscript: The Secret History of the World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript. Compelling Press, 2006. Presentation in novelistic form of the author’s view on the possible origin of the ms.
Rugg, Gordon. “An Elegant Hoax? A Possible Solution to the Voynich Manuscript.” Cryptologia, vol. 28, no. 1 (January 2004), pp. 31–46. Also by this author: “The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript,” Scientific American, vol. 291, no. 1 (July 2004), pp. 104–109 (“analysis . . . suggests that it contains nothing but gibberish”).
Sams, Eric. For titles by Sams in addition to those cited in the present essay, see the extensive information given on the website of the Centro Studi Eric Sams.
Sypher, F. J. “The ‘Daily Obseruation’ of an Impassioned Puritan: A Seventeenth-Century Shorthand Diary Attributed to Deputy Governor Francis Willoughby of Massachusetts.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 91, part 1 (April 1981), pp. 91–107.
———, editor and translator. The Iskenius Letters from Germany to New York 1726–1737. Camden, Maine: Picton Press, 1994. Correspondence by people in Germany to relatives who had emigrated to Westchester County, New York.
Voynich ms. Catalogued as MS 408. “Cipher Manuscript.” Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut. Full text posted at the website of the Beinecke Library, Digital Images and Collections. Strictly speaking, the term “cipher” refers to codes written with numbers; but the word has taken on the larger sense of any concealed writing or shorthand. There is a growing number of books, articles, and web publications relating to the Voynich ms. See the extensive bibliography given by Kennedy and Churchill, as listed above; for more recent discussions and publications, see Voynich-related web locations.