As I was researching a future post, I came across a set of techniques at the crossroads of grammar, mnemonics, cryptography and madness called scinderatio fonorum (the breaking/cutting of words). It lies at the core of the wild “grammar” devised by Virgilius Maro Grammaticus in the 7thC, which Babino (2015) describes as “poetic-philosophical encryption”. Could Virgilius’ works have inspired the creator(s) of the Voynich manuscript?
The works of Virgilius were copied, either in part or completely, in several manuscripts between the 9th and 11th centuries, and he remained quite well known, quoted and incorporated into grammatical compilations, especially in Ireland and in France, but also Germany and Italy, until the later middle ages, after which his work was only rediscovered in the late 19th C.
Virgilius’ method is somewhat akin to the Cisiojani Nick Pelling has explored since 2009. If the authors of the Cisiojani had decided to make things fiendishly complicated for their readers, they would have written them following Virgilius’ teachings. Whereas the Cisiojani abbreviate words by keeping only the first syllable, Virgilius’ scinderationes can split the words into syllables, disperse these across the line of text, fill in the rest of the line with meaningless words… unless they condense text beyond recognition. There can be many refinements, among which using homonyms and writing words or parts of words backwards are only a best-case scenario.
Virgilius lays out these methods throughout his two books, the Epitomae and the Epistolae. There were probably more, but these are now lost. At first glance, they appear to be perfectly normal grammatical treatises. But upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that he is actually distilling the principles of a method for disguising text throughout his books, spiked with a host of fanciful, eccentric linguistic inventions that seem to almost be a satire of the grammatical texts of his time.
Virgilius writes “maro-Roma-mare” to express his name : perhaps referencing the place he came from, but this is hard to ascertain. Elsewhere he writes that “Rome is Toulouse”. Was he Irish? It is almost certain that he lived there (Bracken, 2002), but was he born in Toulouse, as the Abbey of Fleury claimed in the 11thC? In Spain? Was he Jewish? His origins are debated. He continues to employ this model in various places, and Dolezalova (2009) explains that throughout Virgilius’ text, “two variants of a word often existed side by side”, something that surely rings a bell for those familiar with the Voynich Manuscript. But we’re just getting started.
Mnemonics are thrown in as well. Thus, the biblical book of Ecclesiastes is referenced as “una hasta plena oculis” (a spear full of eyes) : oculis being vaguely homophonous with “Ecclesi”, while hasta corresponds to the “astes” part. As Dolezalova notes, without the corresponding gloss, such images are mostly undecipherable.
Why devise such complex methods? Virgilius gives three reasons:
- “So that we establish the acuteness of perception of our students in searching and discovering these obscure things”.
- “Because of the ornamentation and construction of the speech”.
- “So that mystical mysteries and those which should be apparent only to the knowing ones, would not be by chance easily found by the inferior and the stupid, so that, according to an ancient saying, the swine would not tread on precious stones”.
At the end of the Epistolae, he again gives reasons, this time admitting that “elegance” was less of a motivation than the necessity “to hide these mysteries”. Clearly then, Virgilius’ concern was akin to those that motivate encryption, and there can be no doubt about the intentionality of the obfuscation of plain text that results from applying his “grammatical” method.
Roger (1905, pp 111-126) alternatively describes Virgilius as “ingenious” but “bizarre” and “insufferably pedantic”. Vivien Law sees his work as a “plea for diversity” and innovation in grammatical studies, but also as a puzzle that may conceal mystical elements. Dolezalova prefers to conclude that “making things difficult’ may have been a very conscious mnemonic process. By not being offered the message in the most simple and straight-forward way, the audience was encouraged to think, to wonder, to interpret. Once they found the solution, it stuck in their minds better because of the efforts they had to make”. In my opinion, Virgilius’ method is a parody of grammatical studies which hides a game, a challenge to those who think themselves learned, and a toolkit for those who have true “wisdom”.
Scinderatio Fonorum 101
Want to learn how to make any plain text completely unintelligible for generations to come? Here are the basics of how to properly scinderate your fonorum. (All below adapted from Rochus’ 1931 review of Tardi’s translation and especially from Law, 1995, pp.83-97):
Virgilius claimed there are twelve kinds of Latin (by which he means there are twelve ways of writing Latin). Choose (one or several!) from the list below:
- Usitata: The one commonly used
- Assena: The one used by notaries. To represent a whole word it uses a single letter, and also represents it using signs [these are Tyronian notes].
- Semedia: It is not completely out of use, but not completely in use either. One writes mota gelus to signify mons altus…
- Numerosa: It has its own names for numbers, like nim for “one”…
- Metrofia: This is the language of intelligence: dicantabat means “beginning”…
- Lumbrosa: The one that lengthens. For a single word in common language, it uses a whole verse. Gabitariuum bresin galsiste ion means “to read”…
- Sincolla: The one that shortens: A whole phrase is concentrated into a single word. So gears means “mend your ways and love good things”…
- Belsavia: The one that switches. It changes the cases of nouns and the tenses of verbs.
- Presina: The comprehensive one: A single word can be used to replace various words in the common language. Sur can mean “plain”, “mutilated”, “sword” or “river”.
- Militana: The one with multiple meanings. To replace a single word one can use several alternatives. For example, gammon, sualin, rabath… mean “running”.
- Spela: The lowest one. It deals only with purely material things. Gariga means a crane…
- Affina/Polema: The one for speaking of the highest things. Affla means “soul”, spiridon means “spirit”…
But wait, there’s more! Now that you’ve mixed up your plain text using your chosen blend of “latin”, you can also proceed with the actual scinderatio of your text, which can take three basic forms.
- “The first consists in cutting up the verses. When Cato* says: “Mare oceanum classes quod longue saepe turbatur simul navigant“, he should have said: ” Mare oceanum saepe turbatur, classes quod longae simul navigant“.
- The second consists in cutting up words or syllables, as Lucan* did: ge, ues, ro, trum, quando, tum, a, fec, om, ni, libet, aeuo. And it is read like this: quandolibet uestrum gero omni aeou affectum.
- The third consists in cutting up the letters themselves. Cutting up letters seems pointless, however it is used by the most subtle writers, those who chisel their style. Obviously, short words are easier to cut than long ones. Cicero* says: RRR, SS, PP, MM, NT, EE, OO, A, V, I. Which is read: Spes Romanorum perit… Emilius the rhetorician* elegantly says: SSS, SSS, SSS, SS, PP, NNNN, GGGG, RR, MM, CT, TD, CC, CC, CC, CC, CC, CC, III, II, VVVV, VVVV, EE, AE, EEEE, EE. Here is the key: Sapiens sapientiae sanguinem sugens sanguissuga uenarum recte uocandus est.”
“All parts of discourse can thus be cut up. Nouns; when you mean regmen, you can write germen… Pronouns can also be cut up: for is you write si. Verbs can also be cut up, like nodo for dono, and gelo for lego. Adverbs too, according to this example from Hilarius*: locutis summus rhei for rehi.”
Obviously, you may also indulge in dropping random syllables, but also in adding new ones within words, or even, in using only the ending of a verb instead of the whole word. Or you can scatter a word’s syllables randomly thoughout a text, like in this example from Cicero*: “omne visum ab homine CU delectabile natura stigante PI ipsi indita, ex qui non potest TUR cupidine carrere” (the scrambled word, cupitur, originally belongs after homine).
You may also scatter the letters of a word throughout a text, like Varro* does here with the pateremini which normally should go between viri and dolorem:
Bonus points: Using Virgilius’ unique “etymology”, you can also borrow characters from other alphabets to stand for words. For example, he claims that the word res is derived from the Hebrew resh, therefore you can use ר to represent res if you feel your text is still too easily accessible to the unrefined masses.
Virgilius does warn his students to apply his methods with care and not to take things too far, or it might not be possible for even a sophisticated reader to recover the original meaning: “for no problem can be solved that has not been correctly posed”.
… And there you have it, in a nutshell!
* Oh, those references I marked with a star? They don’t actually exist: Virgilius either flat out invented the authors he quotes, or made up the quotes he attributed to actual authors!