The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript

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On the weekend I was contacted by a language lover who wanted to know my thoughts about linguist Stephen Bax’s attempts to decode the Voynich Manuscript. So, I’ve decided to republish an article about the topic from my “Bad Language” column in Skeptic magazine, issue 19:2.

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Wilfrid Voynich was an antiquarian book dealer who traveled the world searching for new additions to his collection. In 1912, he visited the Jesuit Villa Mondragone in Frascati, near Rome, where in a trunk he unearthed a strange medieval manuscript. The heavy tome was handwritten in an unknown script, and lavishly illustrated with colorful drawings of plants, astrological diagrams, and nude women. For the past 100 years, numerous people have attempted to decode the writing system in the Voynich Manuscript, which been called the world’s most mysterious book, and “the book that can’t be read”.

The Voynich Manuscript is the subject of much speculation and disagreement and there are numerous theories about its possible author, or authors. Voynich discovered a letter enclosed with the book that revealed it had once been in the possession of Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor. The letter speculated that Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon (1214-1294) wrote the book. The manuscript now bears Voynich’s name, but he became so convinced by this theory that he referred to it as the “Roger Bacon Manuscript”. A juvenile Leonardo da Vinci has been posited as the artist because the illustrations are similar to his style, but have a child-like quality to them. Sixteenth century mystics John Dee and Edward Kelley, who transcribed the famous “angelic” Enochian script, have also been credited as authors. Disproving all of this conjecture, recent radiocarbon tests date the vellum to the fifteenth century, specifically between the years 1404-1438.

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From the “Biological” section of the Voynich manuscript.

We still don’t know the book’s purpose although the illustrations hold some clues. They suggest that the book is divided into sections about astrology, cosmology, biology, pharmacology, herbs, and recipes. These topics give the impression that the Voynich Manuscript is a book about botany, folk medicine, or an encyclopedia of medieval science, although some believe it holds secrets of magic and alchemy. The book contains 240 pages, including fold-out multi-part pages, with a drawing on nearly every one of them. The accompanying text was written from left to right by a quill pen using iron gall ink. The author(s) had very careful penmanship, as there are no errors at all, and nor is there any punctuation. While some 35,000 words, 170,000 characters, and 18-22 letters of “Voynichese” have been identified, we can’t read the book. Yet.

The Voynich Manuscript is one of several writing systems that are yet to be deciphered. The Linear B script, written on clay tablets discovered at Knossos, was deciphered by Michael Ventris, although the older Linear A script, also found at the excavation site, remains undeciphered. Rongo Rongo is another undeciphered writing system that was used on Easter Island until the 1860s. We know it represents Rapa Nui, the lost language of the Polynesian people, but we don’t understand it. The Phaistos Disc is a clay tablet inscribed with an unknown script that was found in 1908 in the Minoan Palace of Phaistos, Crete. Like the Voynich Manuscript, no other examples of this script have been found, although to decode a writing system we usually need it to be attested in multiple samples. Fortunately, the manuscript provides us with a very large data set to be studied.

 
We don’t know what language the script represents. Various theories claim that Voynichese was a strange tongue once spoken on the legendary island of Atlantis. In History is Wrong, Erich von Däniken insists that we can’t decipher the manuscript because aliens wrote the script in a language too complex for mere humans to ever comprehend. There is some repetition in the writing so some have mused that Voynichese must be a written form of glossolalia, that is, a kind of speaking (or writing) in tongues. Some believe the author may have been afflicted by a mental illness such as hypergraphia, a condition in which the individual feels an overwhelming compulsion to write.

Nostradamus famously concealed his predictions within riddles to escape persecution. Similarly, some assume that the author of the Voynich manuscript encoded his mystical knowledge to avoid being burned at the stake. One of the most popular hypotheses is that the book is written in a complex cipher. It is argued that there is no linguistic structure to the text, so its message must be encrypted. Many noted cryptographers have attempted to crack the code, including William Friedman, the U.S. Army’s chief cryptoanalyst during World War II. His team cracked “Purple”, Japan’s supposedly unbreakable cipher, although Friedman was stumped by the Voynich Manuscript. He spent four decades trying to unravel the writing system before he admitted defeat.

The Voynich Manuscript is now housed in Yale’s Beineke Library. Known as MS 408, it is one of the most requested books in the collection. Countless academics and amateur code crackers have attempted to decipher the seemingly impenetrable text without success. This has led onlookers, including many skeptics, to decide in exasperation that the manuscript is an elaborate hoax. Some suspect that Voynich penned the book himself, although the radiocarbon dating doesn’t bear this out. Others believe the book was designed to dupe book collectors of its day. Those who subscribe to the hoax theory consequently conclude that Voynichese is just gibberish. In 2004, Gordon Rugg announced that he had solved the question of how the meaningless text was created. Using a cryptographic technique called a Cardan grille, Rugg put the symbols into a table formula. He then placed a card with holes cut in it over the grid to generate random text.1 Rugg’s idea is interesting, although Cardan grilles weren’t invented until one hundred years after the manuscript was written.

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A close-up of the text.

Few people involved with the manuscript seem to think it’s a hoax; even those who’ve been unsuccessful in unlocking its writing system. As Historian David Kahn observes, “The work is too well organized, too extensive, too homogeneous. Nothing repeats larger than a group of five words, whereas in actual hoaxes, such as the fake hieroglyphic papyri sometimes sold to tourists in Egypt, much longer phrases are repeated. Moreover, the words in the text recur, but in different combinations, just as in ordinary writing. Even if it were a hoax, there seems to be no point to having made it so long. Most critically, the medieval quasi-science that was seeking the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life while the manuscript was being written was too credulous to entertain the concept of a hoax.”2

Rather than being a hoax, or even an artificial language, some scholars believe that the features of the writing are compatible with natural language. Voynichese may be an extinct language, although exactly which language is still up for debate. Researchers Arthur Tucker and Rexford Talbert noticed that the manuscript’s illustrations of plants were similar to those found in sixteenth century Mexican botanical books.3 Noting that these are plants native to Central America, they concluded that Voynichese is the written form of an extinct dialect of Nahuatl. They get around the radiocarbon dating by claiming that the vellum was stored for decades before being used. However, the majority of researchers agree that the manuscript is of European origin, and they have identified similarities in the text to Latin, Greek, and Arabic letters. Germany, France, and England have been posited as its birthplace, and of course Italy, where the book was found.

Finally, the Voynich Manuscript may be allowing us a glimpse of its secrets. Linguist Stephen Bax has made a breakthrough in deciphering the text, using a technique formerly employed to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Linear B script. Working with botanist Edith Sherwood, Bax identified the probable proper names of plants depicted in the manuscript by comparing them to drawings in medieval herbal manuscripts. (To decode Egyptian hieroglyphs, Jean-Francois Champollion identified the names of Pharaohs, while for Linear B, Ventris identified the names of towns in Crete.) Bax then compared the symbols with the name of the pictured item in other languages, and matched these symbols to sounds. For example, in the text, “juniper” looks like “oror” in the Roman alphabet, which seems comparable to Arabic “a’ra’r”.4 Taking a letter-by-letter approach, he began applying these sounds to other proper nouns. Using this method, Bax has already mapped around ten words and fourteen of the signs.

Bax speculates that the manuscript originated in the Caucasus region of Western Asia, and Voynichese is the writing system of an otherwise unwritten dialect, perhaps spoken by a small community that died out or disappeared. Interpretations of the manuscript have always been hotly debated, and several people claimed prematurely to have solved the 600-year-old mystery. There are some who dispute his findings, although Bax readily admits that these results are “partial and provisional”. The Voynich Manuscript still holds many more mysteries to be explained, but this is a reminder that the unexplained is not necessarily the inexplicable. This research is an exciting step towards being able to read “the book that can’t be read.”

 

References

1. Rugg, Gordon. 2004. The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript. Scientific American. July Issue., pp.104-109.

2. Kahn, David. 1996. The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet. Scribner.

3. Tucker, Arthur, and Rexford H.  Talbert. 2013. A Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript. HerbalGram. Issue 100. American Botanical Council.

4. Bax, Stephen. 2014. A Proposed Partial Decoding of the Voynich Script. University of Bedfordshire. http://stephenbax.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Voynich-a-provisional-partial-decoding-BAX.pdf

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Karen Stollznow

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist with a background in history and anthropology, and is the author of the best-selling book God Bless America. Her other titles include Hits & Mrs., Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic and Haunting America. Her forthcoming books include Missed Conceptions and Not What The Doctor Ordered.

3 Comments on "The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript"

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  1. There is a solution! And the Voynich manuscript is written in Latin. For more information please visit my hompage. English version available.

  2. Gregory says:

    Voynich Manuscript biological part, in graphic and symbolic way, the knowledge of the essential components of human physiology.

    Some biological is not a story about treatments cubicles, methods of treatment – the spa. The biological part must be understood in the same way as described by Albert Barillé in the French animated series Il Etait Une Fois … La Vie – Once Upon a Time … Life.

    http://gloriaolivae.pl/

  3. A comment from reader Joyce Boles:

    This thing screams “weavers and dyers color manual at me,” yet none of the researchers seem to have looked into this angle. The secrets of these tradespeople would have been encoded, and they were probably mostly women. That would be the reason the male cryptographers failed to consider this angle. Mature dried plants are shown, each with directions for processing it.

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