The Rugg and Taylor “Cryptologia” article on the Voynich Manuscript

By Gordon Rugg and Gavin Taylor

Standard disclaimer: This article represents our own opinions, and does not reflect the views of Keele University or of Gavin’s employer, Heath Lane Academy, Leicester.

We’ve recently had an article published in Cryptologia about our work on the Voynich Manuscript, which was discussed in New Scientist. The Cryptologia article is behind a paywall, so in this article we’ve summarised the key points, for anyone who wants some more detail.

The background

Our involvement with the Voynich Manuscript started when Gordon needed a test of concept for the Verifier method that he had developed with Jo Hyde, for detecting errors in previous research into hard, unsolved problems.

The Voynich Manuscript is a book in a unique script, with odd illustrations, which had previously been believed to be an undeciphered text, either in a unidentified language or in an uncracked code. There were serious problems with both those explanations for the manuscript. If it was an unidentified language, then it was an extremely strange one. If it was an uncracked code, then it was either astonishingly sophisticated, or was based on a very unusual set of principles. The third main possibility, namely that the manuscript contained only meaningless gibberish, had been generally discounted, because there are numerous odd statistical regularities in the text of the manuscript, which everyone believed were much too complex to have been hoaxed.

Gordon’s work showed that this belief was mistaken, and that the most distinctive qualitative features of the Voynich Manuscript could be replicated using low-tech hoaxing methods. This resulted in an article in Cryptologia in 2004.

Gordon’s initial work, however, did not address the quantitative statistical regularities of the text in the manuscript.

Our recent article in Cryptologia addresses this issue, and shows how the most distinctive quantitative features of the VMS can be replicated using the same low-tech hoaxing methods as Gordon’s previous work. These features arise as unintended consequences of the technology being used, which produces statistical regularities as unplanned but inevitable side-effects.

Taken together, these two articles show that the key unusual features of the Voynich Manuscript can be explained as the products of a low-tech mechanism for producing meaningless gibberish.


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Tucker and Talbert and the Voynich Manuscript

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a new paper about the Voynich Manuscript. It’s  been published in HerbalGram, The Journal of the American Herbal Council, by Tucker & Talbert, and it’s been featured in New Scientist. It will probably also be featured by all the usual suspects.

Rather than go through it in detail, I’ll put up this resource, which readers might find useful. It can be easily adapted for other purposes. You get a point for every “no” that goes into a box on the right. I’ve tested it on the Tucker & Talbert paper, which contains some fascinating speculations about extinct Mexican languages that might feature in the Voynich Manuscript.

I hope you’ll find this useful.

voynich bingo3

The Tucker & Talbert paper is available online here:

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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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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A very British mystery: The case of the D’Agapeyeff Cipher

By Gordon Rugg and Gavin Taylor

Once in a while, it’s good to get away from the stresses and hassles of everyday life, into a gentler place where things are calm and safe. That’s one reason that Attenborough nature documentaries are loved around the world. There are no massive explosions or people shooting things with big guns or speculating about ancient aliens. Instead, there’s a kindly, silver-haired old man telling you about something like how centipedes walk. It’s all very soothing and peaceful and understated, and at the same time fascinating, in a gentle, minimalist way.

The subject of this article could have come straight out of an Attenborough documentary. It’s a code, but apart from that, everything is very sensible, and utterly different from the story of the Voynich Manuscript. There are no antiquarian booksellers on the run from the Tsarist secret police; no Elizabethan confidence tricksters who escape from their castle prison window on a rope made of bedclothes; there’s no hint of the most perverted priest in sixteenth-century Europe having had any involvement whatsoever.

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The Montemurro and Zanette Voynich paper: summary and update

By Gordon Rugg

Researchers in various relevant disciplines have started writing about the M&Z paper. The responses I’ve seen so far vary from sceptical to scathing, as described below.

I’m planning to hand over to the specialists from other fields, since I’ve already covered my concerns about this study in previous blog posts, and to return to the usual subjects of this blog.

There’s a scathing review of the Montemurro and Zanette paper here:

Some key quotes from that review:

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The Voynich Manuscript: Non-random word sequences as a byproduct of hoaxing

By Gordon Rugg

This article shows how non-random sequences of words are likely to be produced as an unintended side-effect of the table and grille method for producing hoaxed text.

These mechanism can be expected to produce non-random correlations at the level of:

  • Sequences of consecutive words
  • Sequences of words within a line
  • Sequences of words within a page
  • Sequences of words within a multi-page section of the manuscript
  • Sequences of words between different multi-page sections of the manuscript

These effects would not need to be planned by the hypothetical hoaxer(s). They would arise as a side-effect of the table and grille mechanism, and would probably not have been noticed when the manuscript was produced.

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The Voynich Manuscript: Emergent complexity in hoaxed texts

By Gordon Rugg

This article is a short summary of an article by Laura Aylward and myself, originally published online in 2004. The full version is here:

Our article is about producing meaningless gibberish text using the table and grille method, with a view to producing text similar to that in the Voynich Manuscript. We found a variety of complex side-effects from various ways of using the table and grille method, which would affect the statistical properties of the output.

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The Montemurro and Zanette Voynich Manuscript article: A detailed discussion

By Gordon Rugg


There’s a new article about the Voynich Manuscript, by Marcelo A. Montemurro & Damián H. Zanette, on PloS One: Keywords and co-occurrence patterns in the Voynich manuscript: an information-theoretic analysis.

The authors claim to have produced evidence for the presence of real, meaningful text within the Voynich Manuscript. Unfortunately, the authors appear to have misunderstood some key issues. This article is a detailed discussion of some of these misunderstandings and their implications. It also addresses some unfortunate omissions in the Montemurro & Zanette (M&Z) article.

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Verifier, Voynich and Accidental Complexity

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a widespread belief that complex outcomes are always due to complex causes. The theological argument of Paley’s watch uses this approach, for instance.

There’s a similar belief that complex outcomes are always due to deliberate action (again, as in Paley’s watch).

The reality in both cases is very different. Complex outcomes can easily be due to very simple causes, and complex outcomes can easily be produced completely by accident, or by natural processes without any deliberate agency involved.

It’s an important issue in human error, and I think it’s a common mistake that people make when trying to make sense of the Voynich Manuscript.

This article describes some examples of how complexity can arise by accident or by natural processes.

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