Ethicus/Aethicus and Newbold’s idea of Bacon’s cipher

Every now and then it’s fun to add something which might appeal to those working on the text.  I don’t claim this as more than piquant, though Aethicus’ works are now thought written around the same time as the Luxueil Luxeuil*  manuscripts (and others) which Guglielmo gained in one way or another.  Newbold, quoting from Bacon’s Opus majus, also refers to Ethicus’  “troublesome alphabet”.

*(thanks, Mick)

Addressing the College of the Physicians of Philadelphia, he turns after his long biographical treatment of Bacon to discussing medieval ciphers and such. Bacon’s categories for obscuring meaning are repeated, with Ethicus included under the fourth head:

Aethicus quote

In our own time, Aethicus/Ethicus’ Cosmographia is considered a well-known literary fraud, something already known by 1921 though evidently unknown to Newbold, and certainly unknown in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  There had been published, just a year before Newbold’s paper, a work which included the Cosmographia among the various (Gothic era) frauds to which the volume is devoted, and which I’ll cite further below.  In that work, Aethicus’ alphabet is described as a mere distortion of Greek, much of its odd vocabulary said to derive from Arabic – by this means dating the text to late in the eighth century.  As I’m sure you’ll recall,  Luxeuil miniscule script was written to about the same time, and I claim relevance because at least one item from eighth-century Luxeuil eventually made its way, side-by-side with the Voynich manuscript, to reside in Yale, thanks to Kraus.

So Bacon, certainly, and  Newbold (apparently) believed Aethicus’ Cosmographia genuine. We may assume that whoever inscribed the manuscript had believed it genuine too if they’d heard of it.

Bacon’s mention of Aethicus’ is plainly Newbold’s source:

 “Fourthly, things are obscured by the admixture of letters of divers kinds; and thus hath Ethicus the Astronomer concealed his wisdom, writing the same with Hebrew, Greek and Latin letters, all in a row”
“Fifthly, they hide their secrets, writing them with other letters than are used in their country”

[Bacon invented a version of the melds we often find in Jewish works: Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish or Judeo-Persian. Bacon uses a kind of Latin-Greek and so forth].

In Anglo-Saxon and later England, Aethicus’ writings and ‘troublesome alphabet’ had fairly wide currency. Recent scholarship suggests it originated there. The following short quotations from E.J. Christie, ‘By Means of a Secret Alphabet: Dangerous Letters and the Semantics of Gebregdstafas (Solomon and Saturn I, Line 2b)’, Modern Philology, Vol. 109, No. 2, (November 2011) [unpaginated. online. JSTOR.]

Toward the end of the eighth century, Koena, archbishop of York (also known as Ælbert or Æthelbert) wrote a letter to Lullus, the Anglo-Saxon archbishop of Mainz, who had inquired about certain books. Lullus’s letter has not survived, but Koena’s reply describes Aethicus’s strange alphabet as litterae permolesta (most troublesome letters). The Cosmography, which claims to be a translation by Jerome of a Greek treatise by an original Istrian author called Aethicus, is well known to scholars as an elaborate literary fraud, filled with difficult punning in Latin as well as a high proportion of Grecisms and transparently owing a good deal of its geography to other sources.**

Recent scholarship, furthermore, increasingly associates the Cosmography with England: Michael Herren has shown the extensive Greek influence in the Latin of Aethicus, and Richard Pollard argues that this Greek influence and some specific sources of the Cosmography connect Aethicus with Theodore’s Canterbury School, one of the only western centers where Greek was likely to be known. …

“This alphabet, appearing in the eccentric Cosmographia of Aethicus Ister, stands out among the many alphabets found in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts chiefly because of its enigmatic, fantastical character”…

The “secret alphabet” of Aethicus endured to pique the interest of Hrabanus Maurus, who included it among the alphabets in his De inventione linguarum.  Hrabanus’s interest in ciphers is famously manifest in the encrypted poems of De laudibus sanctae crucis. These poems visually connect the symbolism of letter forms and the mystical capacities of ciphers. Such visual poems, which lay letters out in a grid pattern, are perhaps another example of what “weaving letters” might be.

O’Brien O’Keeffe has shown the connection between Solomon and Saturn II and [Aethicus’]  Cosmographia. …

** without prejudice, but Hisperica famina has the same characteristics, and with far more complexities.

Christie includes the following in the substantial bibliography:

Aethicus Ister, Die Kosmographie des Aethicus, ed. Otto Prinz, Quellen Zur Geistesgeschichte des Mittelalters (Munich: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1993).

Michael Herren, “The ‘Greek Element’ in the Cosmographia of Aethicus Ister,” Journal of Medieval Latin 11 (2001): 184–200; Richard Pollard, “‘Lucan’ and ‘Aethicus Ister,’” Notes and Queries 53 (2006): 7–11.

Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, “The Geographic List of Solomon and Saturn II,” Anglo-Saxon England 20 (1991): 128–29, 135, 142.

So now, I suppose you’d like to see Aethicus’ alphabet – all in good time.  First some of the information in that book which had been published only the year before Newbold’s talk.* It has some interesting comments on Aethicus’ alphabet and whether or not accepted today, the point is that they were the latest thing in 1921. Do excuse Weiner’s categorical tone, and assumption that every word in English and all Romance languages derives either from Latin, Greek, or one of the northern (Norse-Germanic) tongues.  Both habits were entirely typical of that time including a habit of dismissing other opinions without proper care taken.

*Leo Weiner, Contributions towards a history of Arabico-Gothic Culture Vol.3 Tacitus Germania and other forgeries.

Aethicus 257 blogquote



Aethicus blog quote p267

Though I’ve already noted the lack of an “X” form among the Voynich glyphs, this is the passage from that book which really raised my eyebrows; the clip from MS Beinecke 408 shows you why – though it doesn’t constitute an argument.

Aethicus blogquote Keel67v detail inflatable perhaps

Here’s a link to a fine set of transcriptions for Aethicus’ alphabet, gained from different manuscripts. Plate 1 in Weiner’s book.  (Online. Internet archive.)


4 thoughts on “Ethicus/Aethicus and Newbold’s idea of Bacon’s cipher

  1. Should I say that the southern ship constellation was known as Argo ratis, or Argo navis before being broken up at a European astronomers’ convention in 1888, to produce ‘Carina’ among the now-separated parts, as a single constellation?


  2. …or that Kircher wondered whether the Voynich script might not be “Illyrian”, ancient Illyria being also on the Adriatic coast, the Roman “Histria” having been the name of one Illyrian tribe. See also David McCallam, ‘(Ac)claiming Illyria: Eighteenth-Century Istria and Dalmatia in Fortis, Cassas, and Lavallée’, Central Europe [journal], Volume 9, Issue 2 (01 November 2011), pp. 125-141
    for perception of, and interest in, old “Illyria” including Istria during the 17th-18thC.

    Much of that interest was sparked by the book written by L. F. Cassas, Travels in Istria and Dalmatia, of which the English translation by Joseph Lavallee (1805) is available online through the internet archive.


  3. I am delighted to see that someone had decided to create or modify a wiki article about Aethicus. I don’t recall seeing one when I wrote this post, and while the bibliography isn’t too bad, I do not recall that the more recent supported a “German” origin for Aethicus himself (not that sort of Ister). The wiki article is dated/updated 19th.May 2015. 😦
    Its only footnote refers to Gog and Magog 🙂


  4. Thanks to SirHubert, who responded to a note of mine on another blog, I can say that yet again, this path was trodden long ago and then promptly forgotten by the ‘Voynicheros’.

    If you continue down Philip Neal’s Voynich page (that is, past his translations of the seventeenth-century correspondence), you see a link to “Medieval Cipher Manuscripts”, (, the information coming from
    Bernhard Bischoff, Ubersicht uber die nichtdiplomatischen Geheimschriften des Mittelalters (Sonderdruck aus Mitteilungen des Instituts fur Osterreichische Geschichtsforschung Band LXII), Graz 1954.

    (who of course is properly credited on Neal’s page).

    Aethicus Ister is listed under ‘Manufactured alphabets’, with bibliographic details given of extant manuscripts.


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