Hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript, part 2: The attractions of a mysterious language

By Gordon Rugg

Imagine that you’ve gone back in time, and that you want to produce the Voynich Manuscript as a hoax. How could you do that, and what problems would you need to solve?

The previous article looked at possible motivations, and at the issues involved if you’re doing it primarily for the money. One major issue was making the hoax convincing enough to pass expert scrutiny. If someone is going to spend a lot of money on a mysterious manuscript, they’re going to have it checked by some relevant experts before they part with any hard cash, so you’ll need to fool those experts somehow.

This article looks at the problems you’d face with one particular set of experts, namely the experts on languages.

voynich repetitive text

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Don’t try this at home

By Gordon Rugg

If you’re interested in classic legal defences, you might like this one.

I’m very sorry about burning the cathedral to the ground. I only did it because I thought the bishop was inside at the time.”

(Alexander Stewart, at his trial for burning down Elgin Cathedral in 1390.)

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A Very British Mystery, part 3: The D’Agapeyeff Cipher’s Table of Contents

By Gordon Rugg & Gavin Taylor

That’s not exactly the most inspiring title ever written, but sometimes humble examples illustrate much more profound principles, as in the way that the eminent physicist Faraday used an ordinary candle to demonstrate some of the key concepts in chemistry.


This particular case isn’t quite so illustrious, but it’s still a lot more interesting than it might appear, and a good illustration of some important principles about how best to do research, whichever field you’re working in. It’s also a good example of mistakes to avoid…

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Hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript, part 1

By Gordon Rugg

Imagine that you’ve gone back in time, and that you want to produce the Voynich Manuscript as a hoax. How could you do that, and what problems would you need to solve?

This is the first in a series of articles about how you could set about it, and what you would need to watch out for. I’m posting it as a way of bringing together the various pieces of information about the hoax hypothesis, which are currently scattered across several sites.

(Quick reassurance for readers with ethical qualms: I’ll only be talking about ways to tackle authenticity tests that were available before 1912, when the Voynich Manuscript appeared…)

Here’s an example of a hoaxed page that I prepared earlier.

rugg lowres

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Weekend humour: Qualifications

By Gordon Rugg

If you’ve ever wondered whether you really needed to learn all the stuff that was included in some course that you’ve taken, you might find the following story useful. Not encouraging, not inspiring, but useful…

Yet, as my name was embraced in a law-firm, it seemed to me proper to take out a license.  Accordingly, one day when United States Judge Lecompte was in our office, I mentioned the matter to him; he told me to go down to the clerk of his court, and he would give me the license.  I inquired what examination I would have to submit to, and he replied, “None at all;” he would admit me on the ground of general intelligence.

MEMOIRS OF GENERAL W. T. SHERMAN (2nd edition), Chapter VI

William T. Sherman, 1885

The observational techniques

By Gordon Rugg

Sometimes you can get the information you want via interviews and questionnaires. Often, though, you can’t.

For instance, if you want to know how long the average visitor spends on your website before leaving it, or what percentage of the population don’t have current car tax displayed in their car, or just how a skilled tennis player holds the racquet for a forehand, then interviews and questionnaires won’t get you very far.

In cases like the ones above, you’re trying to find out what people actually do, as opposed to what they say that they do.

There are various techniques that can be used for this. I’ve grouped them together under the label of “observational techniques”.

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A very British mystery, part 2: The D’Agapeyeff Cipher, and the first edition

By Gordon Rugg and Gavin Taylor

So why should anyone care about a short cipher that was published in a 1939 textbook? There’s a good reason, and it’s very different from the reasons for caring about the Voynich Manuscript.

With the Voynich Manuscript, there was a tantalising possibility that it might just be the key to a new approach to code making. With the D’Agapeyeff Cipher, the issue is about code breaking.

If you’re a codebreaker, then one of the things you hope for is large quantities of coded material, which give you a better chance of finding those few key points where the code is weak, so you have a chance to break in. Unfortunately for codebreakers, that doesn’t always happen. Often, you’re having to deal with a small quantity of text, but that text is important – maybe a warning of an imminent attack – so codebreakers are very keen to have better ways of getting into short coded texts.

The D’Agapeyeff Cipher is a classic test case for new ways of tackling this problem. It’s short; it was almost certainly written using one of the codes described in the book where it appears; it’s still uncracked, over seventy years later. Gordon had already had one attempt at cracking it, with his student Stephen Antrobus, using a method suggested by our colleague Dr Robert Matthews. It was a high-tech software approach that hadn’t been widely used for this type of problem before. It was well worth a try, and Stephen did an excellent job of building the software, but it didn’t crack the code. We’ll return to that story in a later episode.

So, this time round, we tried a different approach. We still started in the same place, though. Gavin bought a second-hand copy of the first edition of D’Agapeyeff’s book Codes and Ciphers.

Book collectors like first editions because the first edition of a major book can be worth a lot of money, as well as being a rare object that gives its owner more status among other book collectors.

The first edition of Codes and Ciphers isn’t like that. It’s a respectable, very ordinary hardback book from the 1930s. The reason Gavin bought a first edition was that the first edition contains the D’Agapeyeff Cipher. It’s the only edition that does.

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The three year principle

By Gordon Rugg

If a problem’s still a problem three years after its discovery, then the answer probably isn’t in the obvious place.

When you’re a new researcher tacklling a hot, newly-identified problem, there’s a strong temptation either to follow a hunch (a really bad idea, since the odds are heavily stacked against you) or to do much the same as everyone else is doing, so you can hide in the crowd. If the research community is making steady progress on a problem, then hiding in the crowd is a pretty safe strategy for new researchers, while they learn their skills. At worst, they’ll end up with some dull results that they’ll manage to publish somewhere; at best, they might happen to get lucky, and find something interesting.

However, if the research community still isn’t making progress on a problem after three years, then it’s worth considering a sideways move to a different problem, or a change in how you’re tackling the problem.

Phrased that way, it looks self-evident, which it is. But why three years, rather than two, or four? Here’s the reason.

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Our main posts: An overview by topic

By Gordon Rugg

This article gives an overvew of our posts so far on three main areas.

Two of these are about research methods and development methods, namely elicitation methods for gathering client requirements, and systematic approaches to visualising information.

The third area involves our Verifier approach for tackling long-standing problems, which we’ve applied to the Voynich Manuscript and to the D’Agapeyeff Cipher.

All the material listed below is copyleft Hyde & Rugg; you’re welcome to use it for any non-commercial purpose (including lectures) provided that you include the “copyleft Hyde & Rugg” acknowledgement with any material you use.

Gathering and clarifying client requirements

We’re posting a series of tutorial articles on a wide range of methods, and articles about the bigger picture of requirements gathering. The main articles that we’re posted so far are as follows.

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Knowing the unknowable, revisited: Why clients can’t know their requirements, and some ways to fix the problem

By Gordon Rugg

Why don’t clients and customers make their mind up about what they want?

There are several reasons, all of which make sense in hindsight, but that aren’t immediately obvious.

This article is a short introduction to one of those reasons, that can be handled swiftly, cheaply and easily. I’ll return to this topic in more depth in later articles.

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