The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious book consisting of approximately 240 pages of hand-written text and crudely drawn illustrations that depict plants, astrological diagrams, and naked women. The text is written in an unknown alphabet that has defied all attempts at translation. It is not certain exactly how old the manuscript is, but it appears to date to around the late fifteenth century. It is named after Wilfrid Voynich, who acquired it in 1912 from the library of Villa Mondragone, a Jesuit college in Frascati, Italy.
History of the Manuscript
The manuscript first came to the attention of modern scholars in 1912 when Wilfrid Voynich discovered it tucked away in the library of Villa Mondragone. He purchased the manuscript and brought it with him back to America.
The history of the manuscript before Voynich found it is unclear. A letter inserted between its pages revealed some of its history. The letter was dated 1665 or 1666 (the writing was unclear) and was addressed to the scholar Athanasius Kircher from Johannes Marcus Marci. Marci explained that the book had once been owned by Emperor Rudolf II, who believed it had been written by the English monk Roger Bacon (1214-1294?). Marci was hoping that Kircher would be able to translate the manuscript, but apparently Kircher was unable to do so.
Upon his return to America, Voynich circulated photostat pages of the manuscript to scholars whom he hoped could help him decode its strange alphabet. Cryptographers rushed to take up the challenge.
Theories about its meaning
Untranslatable text from the Voynich manuscript
The first to announce a solution to the manuscript's code was William Romaine Newbold in 1921. After microscopically examining the letters of the manuscript, Newbold decided that the letters were not themselves meaningful. The real meaning lay in the individual pen strokes that composed each letter and which, so Newbold claimed, corresponded to an ancient Greek form of shorthand. Newbold's translation, however, now reads more like a work of madness than the work of a rational mind, since what he believed to be individual pen strokes were, in fact, simply cracks in the manuscript's ink caused by age.
In 1943 Joseph Martin Feely, working on the assumption that the manuscript had originally been written by Roger Bacon, attempted to match the frequency of characters in the text to the frequency of characters within Bacon's other writings, and decode it in this way. His effort proved unsuccessful.
In the 1970s, Robert Brumbaugh, using a complicated decoding scheme, decided that the manuscript might be a medieval treatise on the elixir of life.
Since then, a variety of theories about the manuscript have been suggested. In 1978 John Stojko argued that it was an account of a civil war written in an ancient, vowelless form of Ukrainian. In 1987 Leo Levitor theorized it was an ancient prayer-book, offering repetitive meditations on the themes of pain and death. More recently, Jacques Guy has wondered whether it might not represent an ancient attempt to transcribe an east-Asian language, say Chinese or Vietnamese, into alphabetic form.
Theory that it's a hoax
The fact that the text has defied all efforts at translation has led many to believe the writing is actually meaningless and that the book itself was created as a hoax.
Computer scientist Gordon Rugg has argued that a sixteenth-century hoaxer could have created the gibberish text using an encryption tool known as a cardan grille. He argues that the book was created by a sixteenth-century Englishman, Edward Kelley, in order to con Emperor Rudolph II.
Sergio Toresella has suggested the manuscript might be an "alchemical herbal" — that is, a book of nonsense writing that quack doctors used to impress clients. In 1986 Michael Barlow suggested that Voynich himself might have written the manuscript as a hoax, since as an antique book dealer he had the necessary knowledge. However, there is no compelling evidence to indicate this.
To this day the Voynich manuscript continues to resist all efforts at translation. It is thought that the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft might have used the manuscript as the model for the fictional work, The Necronomicon,
which he refers to in many of his stories.
Links and References
- Grossman, Lev. "When Words Fail: The Struggle to Decipher the World's Most Difficult Book," Lingua Franca, 1999.