British professor Gordon Rugg believes the text in the Voynich manuscript is a meaningless letter sequence created with a simple “table and grille” method. Voynich manuscript expert Nick Pelling called this theory a “quasi-academic nonsense that only an idiot would be convinced by”. Here’s my summary of this debate.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

British professor Gordon Rugg has published two articles about his “table and grille” method (the second one was co-authored by Gavin Taylor), which might have been used to create the text in the Voynich manuscript. As described in the first two parts of this post, there has been both criticism and approval. In this last part of the post I will state my own opinion about the “table and grille” method.


My opinion about Gordon Rugg’s “table and grille” method

Let’s look at the problem from the other side. There are three possibilities how the Voynich manuscript text might have been created: It could be encrypted, written in an unusual script or simply nonsense (the “table and grille” method supports the nonsense hypothesis). In my view, none of these explanations can be precluded. However, they are, in my view, not equally likely.


Is the Voynich manuscript text encrypted? This looks quite unlikely to me. Encrypted messages from the late middle ages or the early Renaissance can usually be broken today. As the Voynich manuscript provides over 200 pages of material for analysis, it should be even easier to decrypt than most other encrypted texts of the time. Nevertheless, even the smartest codebreakers have failed to break the Voynich cryptogram. For these reasons (and a few others), I’m not a supporter of the encryption hypothesis.

Is the Voynich manuscript text ordinary text written in an unknown script? Writing in a non-standard script is equivalent with a simple encryption process. As the encryption hypothesis is well researched, it seems unlikely that one of the most obvious encryption methods has been overlooked by all researchers. All in all, I’m not a supporter of the unknown script hypothesis, either.

Is the Voynich manuscript text nonsense? This is clearly my favorite hypothesis. But how was this nonsense produced? Gordon Rugg’s “table and grille” method is clearly an interesting candidate. This method is simple enough to create 230 pages of text. It is consistent with 15th century knowledge. It creates text that resembles the text in the Voynich manuscript.

On the other hand, it is not clear, whether the “table and grille” method (perhaps with a number of additions) really can create text that looks exactly like the one in the Voynich manuscript. If Gordon (or somebody else) can name a set of tables and grilles (and maybe some additional instructions) that produce exactly a paragraph from the Voynich manuscript, the debate can be finished. Until then, the question how the Voynich manuscript text was made is still open.


Alternative theories

There are a few other text construction methods I consider interesting. Some of them resemble the “table and grille” method, others are different:

  • Spontaneously produced nonsense: It has been stated many times that humans are bad at producing meaningless letter sequences. While this is generally true, there might be exceptions. Maybe there are people who have the ability to create meaningless pseudo-language. Maybe such an ability can be learned (writing a 230 pages nonsense book might even be a good “learning by doing” project). Maybe there are mentally ill people who can do something like this. Maybe an illiterate person, who is used to copy text without being able to read it, can develop such an ability. All in all, I would not reject the “spontaneously produced nonsense” hypothesis right away.
  • Autocopy: The text in the Voynich manuscript might be derived from a short text that is copied over and over, each time with some variations. This theory was proposed by German Voynich scholar Torsten Timm. Torsten’s paper is available here. Jürgen Hermes has published an interesting (and positive) comment about it.
  • Codebook: Jürgen Hermes has proposed that the text in the Voynich manuscript has been created with a codebook. This method is explained here.
  • Language nonsense mixture: While some statistical properties of the text in the Voynich manuscripts look like natural language, others clearly don’t. It therefore seems possible that this text was produced with a method that comprises both natural language and nonsense. For instance, the Voynich author might have assembled natural language building blocks (e.g. words) in a way that has got nothing to do with natural language grammar. This method may even resemble the “table and grille” method. If a reader can come up with a method of this kind, I would be interested.

There’s one other point that needs to be taken in account. Statistical analysis of the text in the Voynich manuscript is usually done with a transcription. However, there are several different Voynich transcriptions, which differ in important respects (especially, a certain text part can be interpreted as one or two characters). Even the European Voynich Alphabet (EVA), which is considered the best Voynich transcription, is certainly not perfect. It goes without saying that this transcryption problem makes statistical analysis quite difficult.

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Kommentare (19)

  1. #1 Michael
    30. Oktober 2016

    Bin schon gespannt auf Teil 4 & 5.

    Teil 4: Gorden Rugg trifft Frankenstein
    Teil 5: Gorden Rugg trifft Captain Kidd

    Weitere Teile in Vorberetiung?

  2. #2 Klaus Schmeh
    30. Oktober 2016

    Noch nicht, aber ich werde darüber nachdenken 😉

  3. #3 Klaus Schmeh
    30. Oktober 2016

    Mark Romo via Facebook:

    Knowledge is usually documented so that mankind — everyone — may benefit from it.
    So, the persisting question is: Why would anyone go through all the trouble of encrypting that book?
    If it’s nonsensical, why would someone go through the trouble of making an entire detailed book of nonsense?
    It’s intriguing either way.

  4. #4 Klaus Schmeh
    30. Oktober 2016

    @Mark Romo;
    >If it’s nonsensical, why would someone go
    >through the trouble of making an entire
    >detailed book of nonsense.
    To sell it to a rich book collector. I don’t know if this plan was successful in the 15th century, but in the 20th century the VM is worth millions although (or because) nobody can read it.

  5. #5 Notula
    30. Oktober 2016


    up to now I didn’t know that you are so much in favour of the nonsense hypothesis. Therefore let me explain again my main critics on that hypothesis by answering your 3 questions (mentioned above) from my codicological and paleographical point of view.

    1) Is the Voynich manuscript text encryted?
    No, not as a whole. More than a dozen glyphs in the VM are well known to be used in other manuscirpts of that time period to, and secret alphabets were known to most professional scribes. It is highly probable that some of these glyphs are mixed in the text and have a secret meaning, but they dont dominate the script and appear rather seldomly.

    2) Is the Voynich manuscript text ordinary text written in an unknown script?
    No, the script is absolutely not unknown. The handwriting in the VM is a combination of usual contemporary and earlier writings in a highly individualized manner and therefore kind of an unique private script.
    As you wrote yourself: “Writing in a non-standard script is equivalent with a simple encryption process.” That’s right! This personalized script itself is the encryption!

    3) Is the Voynich manuscript text nonsense?
    No. Why should some one spend a fortune to produce nonsense, and why should at least two scribes be occupied with that? Another argument: there are corrections in the text and marginalia in German which would be completely needless if it was nonsense. The VM has a meaning and a purpose.

  6. #6 Notula
    30. Oktober 2016


    “To sell it to a rich book collector”? Really? In the early 15th century? Not exactly a clever “Geschäftsmodell” those days :-)

  7. #7 Klaus Schmeh
    30. Oktober 2016

    In my view the script of the Voynich manuscript is otherwise unknown. There is simply no other document known to exist that is written in this alphabet. Even if there was such a document (or something written in a similar writing system) this wouldn’t change much from the point of view of a cryptologist.

    >Why should some one spend a fortune
    >to produce nonsense?
    To sell it to a rich book collector. I’m sure there were people in the 15th century who would spend a lot of money for a mysterious book. The collector might or might not have been involved in the fraud.

    >Why should at least two scribes be occupied
    >with that?
    Do you take it for granted that there were two different scribes? I know that there are two (or even more) different styles in the VM writing, but they still might stem from the same person.
    Even if the VM was written by two persons, what does it say? If I was a rich book collector interested in a forgery, I could easily imagine to hire a whole team of scribes in order to get the book sooner.

  8. #8 Notula
    30. Oktober 2016


    The Voynich “alphabet” as a whole writing is in fact otherwise unknown, but single graphs (or glyphs) are pretty well documented in a lot of contemporary manuscripts.

    And yes, I take it for granted that there were two different hands (at least for the main part of the ms) because the difference is clearly visible for any trained paleographer.

    It would certainly be helpful to disctinguish between cryptology and cryptography. I understand your point from a cryptologist’s view, but the Voynich manuscript can only be “decyphered” by using paleographical methods.

  9. #9 Torsten
    30. Oktober 2016

    The text of the VMS is full of similar words like ‘qokeey’ and ‘qokey’. As more frequently a word is used, as more similar words exists. This makes the VMS special.

    A text using human language contains many different words. For such a text it makes sense to search for patterns such as similar words or common prefixes and suffixes.

    The VMS is is full of words similar to each other. By searching for groups of words similar to each other the researcher would find the majority of words in the VMS.
    The search for linked glyphs reveals that the VMS is full of families of strongly-linked glyphs. The problem is not to find similar words or linked-glyphs, the problem is that too many of them are found.

    For instance many words start with ‘qo’. Therefore it seems reasonable to assume the existence of a prefix ‘qo’. In fact ‘q’ is followed by ‘o’ in 5291 out of 5425 cases. But ‘qo’ itself is followed by ‘k’ in 3116 out of 5291 cases and ‘qok’ on the other hand is followed by ‘e’ in 1387 out of 3116 cases. With other words there is no prefix ‘qo’ there are only many similar words sharing this sequence of glyphs.

    With all the features of the VMS in mind my conclusion is that the text of the VMS is a copy of itself. The most simple way to generate text is to copy it. Easier than to copy some text from an external source, is to copy glyph sequences from the lines previously written.

  10. #10 Tony
    31. Oktober 2016

    Listen very carefully – I shall say this only once!

    The Voynich manuscript writing is not writing at all, it is a drawing of writing.

    The author/s wrote groups of c’s across the page then drew a crossbar connecting some of the c’s at the start of groups, then added the gallows characters – he proceeded to add/amend characters before and aft of the groups of c’s finally adding ‘qo’ to the front of any group that still had a large gap between it and the preceding group.

    It’s a simple as that –

    As to who and when my inclination is to believe it is a 15/16th century prank by a group of students on a tutor to which Voynich has added a few touches in favour of it being by Bacon.

    The latter is speculation on my part – the former fact – (whether anyone agrees with it or not).

  11. #11 Klaus Schmeh
    31. Oktober 2016

    >And yes, I take it for granted that there were
    >two different hands (at least for the main part
    >of the ms) because the difference is clearly
    >visible for any trained paleographer.
    This is interesting to know. I never was sure about this issue, but I’m not an expert on paleography.

  12. #12 Klaus Schmeh
    31. Oktober 2016

    As mentioned in the article, Nick Pelling and I met in London yesterday evening. Here’s a picture:

  13. #13 Peter
    31. Oktober 2016

    Hat es einen speziellen Anlass in London was das VM betrift ?
    Does it have a special occasion in London what the VM?

  14. #14 Peter
    31. Oktober 2016

    Einen Text mit Schablone lesen ist eine Sache, aber ihn zu schreiben eine andere. Wie soll das gehen ohne Raster oder Markierungen. Er muss die Leerräume ja noch ausfüllen. Ich denke das müsste man bei soviel Text sehen, so ohne PC. Daher schliese ich mich an Nick’s Meinung gleich an.

    PS: Die Pflanzen sind autentisch und keine Fantasie.

    Reading a text with template is one thing, but writing it another. How is this to go without raster or marks. He still has to fill the spaces. I think you would have to see with so much text, so without a PC. So I agree with Nick’s opinion.

    PS: The plants are authentic and not fantasy.

  15. #15 Nick Pelling
    31. Oktober 2016

    I cannot (yet) absolutely disprove that the fifteenth century Voynich Manuscript was hoaxed using a sixteenth century table-and-grille in the way that Gordon Rugg proposes.

    However, given that his proposed solution requires us to rewrite our history books several times over to make history retrospectively conform to his claim (and then still fails to explain even half of what we see in Voynichese), all I can say is that it looks (and smells) like historically naive nonsense that only an idiot would believe.

    But I had a nice curry, and it was a pleasure to meet up with you again. :-)

  16. #16 Richard SantaColoma
    1. November 2016

    Notula, about this:

    “Another argument: there are corrections in the text and marginalia in German which would be completely needless if it was nonsense. The VM has a meaning and a purpose.”

    You don’t seem aware that the McCrone ink tests reveal that the marginalia you refer to was written using the same ink as the main Voynich text. Since inks were mixed in individual batches, this implies that both were written at approximately the same time. Therefore the marginalia, rather than indicating authenticity, implies that it was added to mimic later interest, by different hands at different times, and therefore is evidence of a ruse.

    For one to continue to believe the Voynich genuine, one would have to think one of the following correct:

    1) McCrone is wrong
    2) The author of the marginalia happened to mix exactly the same ink formula
    3) Someone else wrote the marginalia about the same time as the main text, using the Voynich author’s ink well
    4) The Voynich author wrote the marginalia, but wrote it in a different style

    I think #4 is most likely, and that it implies that the marginalia was added for effect only, by a forger, to imply the work was genuine, and of interest to later (imaginary) investigators.

  17. #17 harlraquin
    3. November 2016

    Or the marginalia where copied alongside with the rest of the manuscript.

  18. #18 Lauri
    16. Januar 2017

    Ich denke dieses Buch ist ein Destillierbuch mit Rezepten im weitesten Sinne. Zur damaligen Zeit eine weit verbreitete Methode medizinische “Wässer” aus Pflanzen herzustellen. Es galt die Annahme in den 4 Elementen leben Naturgeister, die Gott mit einer Seele ausgestattet habe. Im Wasser zum Beispiel die Undinen, in der Luft die Sylphen. Es wäre gut nachvollziehbar, die Abbildungen mit den nackten Frauen zeigen Naturgeister, die sich während des Destillationsprozesses in den Kanälen und Bottichen/Gefässen solch eines Apparates bewegen. Die Ernte der benötigten Pflanzen könnte (wie auch in mancher moderner Literatur heute noch empfohlen) sich an astrologische Vorgaben orientieren- nur zu bestimmten Zeitpunkten und eventuell auch nur an bestimmten Orten gepflückt- können die Pflanzen ihre volle Wirkung entfalten.
    John Dee und Edward Kelley – dieses Magiergespann, entwickelten bereits Geheimschriften (enochische Engelschrift etc), ich könnte mir vorstellen, dass aus Geldnot ein Projekt entstanden ist, das sich durchaus auf ein Original stützt, das von den Arabern überliefert wurde. Im Austüfteln von Geheimschriften versiert, könnten sie arabische Schriftzeichen mit eigenen Glyphen ergänzt/abgeändert haben, dass es einerseits durch die Abbildungen vertraut wirkte, andererseits diesen Hauch eines besonders geheimnisvollen Rezeptbuches vermittelt, dessen Entschlüsselung womöglich lebensverlängernde Elixiere etc versprach, die von solcher Bedeutung sind, dass sie natürlich nur verschlüsselt weiter gegeben werden könnten. Und natürlich dementsprechend den Preis hochtreiben. Bis in unsere Zeit :-). Das ist so ein erstes Bauchgefühl bei dieser Sache. Natürlich könnte es auch ganz anders sein.

  19. #19 Lauri
    16. Januar 2017

    Was mir noch dazu einfällt- ich bin selbst Blumenmalerin (mit Ölfarben)- diese Pflanzenzeichnungen sind sehr nachlässig und schlampig gemalt – ein Kind mit wenig Begabung könnte besser zeichnen. Es sieht aus, als ob jemand unter Zeitdruck mal schnell von einer Vorlage abkopiert und hingeschmiert hat. Und dabei Details weggelassen bzw. abstrahiert hat. Auch die Positionierung der Pflanzen auf den Seiten sehen etwas willkürlich gewählt aus, nicht wirkliche Mühe dafür gegeben. Wies halt mal gerade Platz gefunden hat. Und dann den Text mehr oder weniger gut um die Pflanze herum drapiert wurde. Bei der Farbauswahl denke ich, versuchte man bei manchen die Pflanzenteile dahingehend farblich darzustellen, wie sie anschliessend alchemistisch laut Spagyrik verarbeitet werden können. Wenn jemand wirklich mit dem Herzen bei der Sache gewesen wäre, hätte er sich wesentlich mehr Mühe gegeben. (Siehe andere Kräuterbücher zu der Zeit) Diese ja fast lieblose Gestaltung des Buches/Manuskriptes zeigt für mich persönlich, dass es dem Autor oder den Autoren nicht um die Sache selbst ging, sondern mit geringstmöglichem Zeitaufwand etwas möglichst Glaubwürdiges zu produzieren, ich glaube auch hie und da etwas versteckten Schalk heraus zu spüren. Vielleicht glaubte man auch nicht wirklich daran, dass man Erfolg mit einer kostspieligen Veräußerung haben könnte und hat es sozusagen versuchsweise als ein Experiment losgelassen. Aber wie man heute sehen kann erfolgreich.