The Voynich Manuscript


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The Voynich manuscript is a manuscript written in an otherwise unknown alphabet. Various scientific tests to date have tended to authenticate it - for example statistical analysis reveals it to match real languages which have a different profile to made up ones or cyphers. It has defied all efforts by linguists and cryptographers to decode it. One popular theory is that it is a Cathar text.

 

 

The Voynich manuscript appears to be a late mediaeval scientific compendium written in an unknown cipher script. It has been dated to the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries by Andrew Watson, an authority on the dating of manuscripts. It is now MS 408 of the Beinecke library at Yale University

All cipher texts of this length and of this period have yielded easily to modern cryptanalysis techniques, but this one has defied experts for 100 years, including the expert code breakers at Blechly Park in the UK and their wartime counterparts in the US.

The manuscript is thought to have been written between 1450 and 1520. Its author, script and language remain a mystery.

The Voynich manuscript has been the object of intense study by many professional and amateur cryptographers. Their failures has turned the Voynich manuscript into a famous subject of historical cryptology, but it has also given weight to the theory that the book is simply an elaborate hoax, but statistical comparisons suggest that it is not a sequence of arbitrary symbols.

In his book Solution of the Voynich Manuscript: A liturgical Manual for the Endura Rite of the Cathari Heresy, the Cult of Isis (1987), Leo Levitov declared the manuscript a plaintext transcription of a literary language. His proposed decryption has three Voynich letters making a syllable, to produce a series of syllables that form a mixture of medieval Flemish with many borrowed Old French and Old High German words.

According to Levitov, the text concerned the rite of Endura - an assisted suicide ritual for people near death. The Endura is most famously associated with the Cathar faith. Levitov explains that the chimerical plants are not meant to represent any species of flora, but are secret symbols of the faith. Women in the basins with elaborate plumbing represent the suicide ritual itself, which he believed involved venesection: the cutting of a vein to allow the blood to drain into a warm bath. The constellations with no celestial analogue are representative of the stars in Isis' mantle.

Cathars were certainly active in what is now northern Italy, but Levitov's theory is questionable on several grounds. The Cathar faith a form of Christian Gnosticism and not associated with Isis. Second, this theory places the book's origins in the twelfth or thirteenth century, which is older than modern dating suggests. Third, the Endura ritual involved fasting, not venesection.

Most, but not quite all, of the Voynich MS is written in a script that is not known from any other surviving document. Some pages also feature curious illustrations.

It consists of characters - shown on the right - which are arranged into what appear to be words, as in the example on the left.

Most of the text has been written from left to right and from top to bottom. Especially on the so-called herbal pages it appears that the illustration (or at least an outline of it) was on the page before the text was added, as the text invariably avoids the illustrations.

The "biological" section of the manuscript has dense text and illustrations showing nude women bathing.In some places individual 'words' are written near to elements of the drawings. These are generally called 'labels'. Some complicated pages contain diagrams, which are often circular in design and the text occasionally seems to form an integral part of these drawings. Sometimes the text is written along radii sometimes along the circumferences of the circles.

There are a few lines or words in the MS which are not written in the Voynich script. This 'extraneous writing' is in the normal Roman alphabet, but is almost unintelligible.

 

Similarities with other scripts

Various attempts have been made to identify the script and it has variously been interpreted as composed of Latin abbreviations, alchemical symbols, a form of cypher, and Etruscan.

The following figure was created using the "Voynich EVA Hand 1" font created by Gabriel Landini It is a sample transcription of the start of folio 1r of the manuscript.

 

 

Content

By current estimates, the book originally had 272 pages in 17 quires of 16 pages each. About 240 vellum pages remain today, and gaps in the page numbering (which seems to be later than the text) indicate that several pages were already missing by the time that Voynich acquired it. A quill pen was used for the text and figure outlines, and coloured paint was applied to the figures, possibly at a later date. There is evidence that at one time the pages of the book were rearranged into a different order.

The "biological" section of the manuscript has dense text and illustrations showing nude women bathing.

The text was clearly written from left to right, with a slightly ragged right margin. Longer sections are broken into paragraphs, sometimes with "bullets" on the left margin. There is no obvious punctuation. The ductus (the speed, care, and cursiveness with which the letters are written) flows smoothly, suggesting that the scribe understood what he was writing; the manuscript does not give the impression that each character had to be calculated before being inked onto the page.

The text consists of over 170,000 discrete glyphs (or characters), usually separated from each other by small gaps. Most glyphs are written with one or two simple pen strokes. While there is some dispute as to whether certain glyphs are distinct or not, an alphabet with 20-30 glyphs would account for virtually all of the text - exceptions are a few dozen rarer characters that occur only once or twice each.

Wider gaps divide the text into about 35,000 "words" of varying length. These seem to follow phonetic or orthographic laws of some sort; e.g. certain characters must appear in each word (like the vowels in English), some characters never follow others, some may be doubled but others may not.

Statistical analysis of the text reveals patterns similar to natural languages. For instance, word frequencies obey Zipf's law, and the word entropy (about 10 bits per word) is similar to that of English or Latin texts. Some words occur only in certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript. There are few repetitions among the thousand or so "labels" attached to the illustrations. In the herbal section, the first word on each page occurs only on that page, and may be the name of the plant.

The Voynich manuscript's "language" is unlike European languages in some aspects. There are practically no words comprising more than ten glyphs, and there are few one-letter or two-letter words. The distribution of letters within the word is also odd: some characters only occur at the beginning of a word, some only at the end, and some always in the middle section - an arrangement found in Semitic languages, but not in the Latin, Greek or Cyrillic alphabets. However, there are various ways of writing the same letter in European languages: (eg Greek s, German ss and Q/q English )

A detail from the "biological" section of the manuscript.Words that differ only by one letter also repeat with unusual frequency. The text seems to be more repetitious than a typical European language - there are instances where the same word appears up to three times in a row - not usual in European languages, but even less expected in a fraudulent document.

There are a few words in the manuscript written in a seemingly Latin script. On the last page, there are four lines which are written in distorted Latin letters, and two words in the main script. The lettering resembles European alphabets of the 15th century, but the words do not seem to make sense in any language.

A series of diagrams in the "astronomical" section has the names of ten of the months (from March to December) written in Latin script, with spelling suggestive of the medieval languages of France or the Iberian Peninsula. These bits of Latin script may have been part of the original text, or may have been added at a later time.

 

Illustrations

The "herbal" section of the manuscript contains illustrations of plants.Except for the last section, which contains only text, almost every page contains at least one illustration. Illustrations of the manuscript shed little light on its contents. They suggest that the book consists of six "sections", with different styles and subject matter. The sections, and their conventional names, are:

  • Herbal - each page displays one plant (sometimes two), and a few paragraphs of text - a format typical of European herbals of the time. Some parts of these drawings are larger and cleaner copies of sketches seen in the so-called pharmaceutical section . None of the plants depicted are unambiguously identifiable, despite some conscientious attempts
  • Astronomical - contains circular diagrams, some of them with suns, moons, and stars, suggestive of astronomy or astrology. One series of 12 diagrams depicts conventional symbols for the zodiacal constellations (two fish for Pisces, a bull for Taurus, a hunter with crossbow for Sagittarius, etc.). Each symbol is surrounded by exactly 30 miniature female figures. Most of the females are depicted at least partially naked. Each is also holding what appears to be a labelled star, or is shown with the star attached by what could be a tether to either arm. The last two pages of this section (Aquarius and Capricorn, roughly January and February) were lost, while Aries and Taurus are split into four paired diagrams with 15 stars each. Some of these diagrams are on fold-out pages.
  • Biological - a dense continuous text interspersed with figures, mostly showing small nude women bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes, some of them shaped like body organs. Some of the women wear crowns.
  • Cosmological - more circular diagrams, but of an obscure nature. This section also has fold-outs; one of them spans six pages and contains some sort of map or diagram, with nine "islands" connected by "causeways", castles, and possibly a volcano.
  • Pharmaceutical - many labelled drawings of isolated plant parts (roots, leaves, etc.); objects resembling apothecary jars drawn along the margins; and a few text paragraphs.
  • Recipes - many short paragraphs, each marked with a flower-like (or star-like) "bullet".

 

History

The illustrations in the "biological" section are linked by a network of pipes.The earlier history of the manuscript is full of gaps, especially in its earliest part. Since the manuscript's alphabet does not resemble any known script, and the text is undecyphered, the only useful evidence as to the book's age and origin are the illustrations - especially the dress and hairstyles of the human figures, and a couple of castles that are seen in the diagrams. They are all characteristically European, and based on that evidence most experts assign the book to dates between 1450 and 1520. This estimate is supported by other secondary clues.

The earliest confirmed owner of the manuscript was Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 17th century. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as modern cryptologists about this "Sphinx" that had been in his library for many years. On learning that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano, had published a Coptic dictionary and "deciphered" Egyptian hieroglyphs, he sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome, asking for clues. His 1639 letter to Kircher, recently located by Rene Zandbergen, is the earliest known mention of the manuscript.

It is not known whether Kircher answered the request, but he was interested enough to try to acquire the book, which Baresch apparently refused to yield. Upon Baresch's death the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci (Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector of Charles University in Prague; who promptly forwarded the book to Kircher, his long-time friend and correspondent. Marci's cover letter dated 1666 is still attached to the manuscript.

There are no records of the book for the next 200 years, but it was probably kept, with the rest of Kircher's correspondence, in the library of the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University). It would have remained there until the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured the city in 1870 and annexed the Papal States. The new Italian government confiscated many properties of the Church, including the library of the Collegio. According to investigations by Xavier Ceccaldi and others, just before this happened many books of the University's library were transferred to the personal libraries of its faculty, which were exempt from confiscation. Kircher's correspondence was among this transferred material and so apparently was the Voynich manuscript, as it still bears the ex libris of Petrus Beckx, head of the Jesuit order and the University's Rector at the time.

Beckx's "private" library was moved to the Villa Mondragone, Frascati, a large country palace near Rome that had been bought by the Jesuits in 1866 and became the headquarters of the Jesuits' Collegio Ghisleri.

Around 1912 the Collegio Romano was apparently short of money and decided to sell discreetly some of its holdings. A Polish-American book-dealer, Wilfrid Voynich, acquired 30 manuscripts, among them the manuscript that now bears his name.

In 1930, after his death, the manuscript was inherited by his widow Ethel Lilian Voynich (daughter of the mathematician George Boole).

She died in 1960 and left the manuscript to her close friend, Miss Anne Nill. In 1961, Anne Nill sold the book to another antique book dealer Hans P. Kraus. Unable to find a buyer, Kraus donated the manuscript to Yale University in 1969. The Voynich manuscript is now item MS 408 in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University. A facsimile edition was published in 2005.

 

 

Theories about authorship

Roger BaconMany names have been proposed as possible authors of the Voynich manuscript.

Marci's 1665 cover letter to Kircher says that, according to his late friend Raphael Mnishovsky, the book had once been bought by Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor of Bohemia (1552-1612) for 600 ducats. According to the letter, Rudolf believed the author to be the Franciscan friar and polymath Roger Bacon (1214-1294).

Even though Marci said that he was "suspending his judgement" about this claim, it was taken quite seriously by Voynich, who did his best to confirm it. His conviction strongly influenced most deciphering attempts for the next 80 years. However, scholars who have looked at the Voynich manuscript and are familiar with Bacon's works have flatly denied that possibility. Mnishovsky died in 1644, and that the deal must have occurred before Rudolf's abdication in 1611 - at least 55 years before Marci's letter.

 

John DeeThe assumption that Roger Bacon was the author led Voynich to conclude that the person who sold the Voynich manuscript to Rudolf could only be John Dee, a mathematician and astrologer at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, known to have owned a large collection of Bacon's manuscripts. This theory is also conveyed by Voynich manuscript scholar Gordon Rugg. Dee and his scrier (mediumic assistant) Edward Kelley lived in Bohemia for several years where they had hoped to sell their services to the Emperor. However, Dee's meticulously kept diaries do not mention that sale, and make it seem unlikely. If the Voynich manuscript author is not Bacon, the connection to Dee may just disappear. It is possible that Dee himself may have written it and spread the rumour that it was originally a work of Bacon's in the hopes of later selling it.

 

Edward KelleyDee's companion in Prague, Edward Kelley, was a self-styled alchemist who claimed to be able to turn copper into gold by means of a secret powder which he had dug out of a Bishop's tomb in Wales. As Dee's scrier, he claimed to be able to invoke angels through a shewstone, and had long conversations with them - which Dee dutifully noted down. The angel's language was called Enochian, after Enoch, the Biblical father of Methuselah; according to legend, he had been taken on a tour of Heaven by angels, and later written a book about what he saw there. Several people (see below) have suggested that, just as Kelley invented Enochian to dupe Dee, he could have fabricated the Voynich manuscript to swindle the Emperor (who was already paying Kelley for his supposed alchemical expertise).

 

Self-authorship

Others suspected Voynich of having fabricated the manuscript himself. As an antique book dealer, he probably had the necessary knowledge and means; and a "lost book" by Roger Bacon would have been worth a fortune. However, by expert internal dating of the manuscript, and the recent discovery of Baresch's letter to Kircher, many consider that possibility to have been eliminated. Still, internal dating is often highly speculative and depends on many assumptions which may, themselves, be lacking in hard factual support. There has also been debate over what date the internal evidence suggests, with some scholars perceiving a more modern date. Further, Baresch's letter (and Marci's as well) only establish the existence of a manuscript; not that the Voynich manuscript is the same one spoken of there. In fact, their letters might even be taken as the motivation for Voynich to fabricate the manuscript (assuming he was aware of them), rather than as proofs authenticating it. But if a fabrication, the question arises as to why neither Voynich nor his widow ever attempted to sell it. To fabricate a document for profit but never attempt to sell it would be highly unusual. Fame rather than fortune might be speculated as a motive, but that would not explain why Voynich's widow never attempted to sell the manuscript after his death. All things considered, most who have studied the history of the manuscript do not believe that Voynich fabricated the document.

Other theories

A photostatic reproduction of the first page of the Voynich manuscript, taken by Voynich sometime before 1921, showed some faint writing that had been erased. With the help of chemicals, the text could be read as the name 'Jacobj `a Tepenece'. This is taken to be Jakub Horcicky of Tepenec, who was also known by his Latin name: Jacobus Sinapius (1575-1622). He was a specialist in herbal medicine, Rudolph II's personal physician, and curator of his botanical gardens. Voynich, and many other people after him, concluded from this "signature" that Jacobus owned the Voynich manuscript before Baresch, and saw in that a confirmation of Mnishovsky's story. Others have suggested that Jacobus himself could be the author.

However, that writing does not match Jacobus's signature, as found in a document recently located by Jan Hurych. So it is still possible that the writing on page f1r was added by a later owner or librarian, and is only this person's guess as to the book's author. (In the Jesuit history books that were available to Kircher, Jesuit-educated Jacobus is the only alchemist or doctor from Rudolf's court who deserves a full-page entry, while, for example, Tycho Brahe is barely mentioned.) Moreover, the chemicals applied by Voynich have so degraded the vellum that hardly a trace of the signature can be seen today; thus there is also the suspicion that the signature was fabricated by Voynich in order to strengthen the Roger Bacon theory.

Jan Marci met Kircher when he led a delegation from Charles University to Rome in 1638; and over the next 27 years, the two scholars exchanged many letters on a variety of scientific subjects. Marci's trip was part of a continuing struggle by the secularist side of the University to maintain their independence from the Jesuits, who ran the rival Clementinum college in Prague. In spite of those efforts, the two universities were merged in 1654, under Jesuit control. It has therefore been speculated that political animosity against the Jesuits led Marci to fabricate Baresch's letters, and later the Voynich manuscript, in an attempt to expose and discredit their "star" Kircher.

Marci's personality and knowledge appear to have been adequate for this task; and Kircher was an easy target. Indeed, Baresch's letter bears some resemblance to a hoax that orientalist Andreas Mueller once played on Kircher. Mueller concocted an unintelligible manuscript and sent it to Kircher with a note explaining that it had come from Egypt. He asked Kircher for a translation, and Kircher, reportedly, produced one at once.

It is worth noting that the only proofs of Georg Baresch's existence are three letters sent to Kircher: one by Baresch (1639), and two by Marci (about a year later). It is also curious that the correspondence between Marci and Kircher ends in 1665, precisely with the Voynich manuscript "cover letter". However, Marci's secret grudge against the Jesuits is pure conjecture: a faithful Catholic, he himself had studied to become a Jesuit, and shortly before his death in 1667 he was granted honorary membership in their Order.

Raphael Mnishovsky, the friend of Marci who was the reputed source of Bacon's story, was himself a cryptographer (among many other things), and apparently invented a cipher which he claimed was uncrackable (ca. 1618). This has led to the theory that he produced the Voynich manuscript as a practical demonstration of his cipher - and made poor Baresch his unwitting "guinea pig". After Kircher published his book on Coptic, Mnishovsky (so the theory goes) may have thought that stumping him would be a much better trophy than stumping Baresch, and convinced the alchemist to ask the Jesuit's help. He would have invented the Roger Bacon story to motivate Baresch. Indeed, the disclaimer in the Voynich manuscript cover letter could mean that Marci suspected a lie. However, there is no definite evidence for this theory.

Dr Leonell Strong, a cancer research scientist and amateur cryptographer, tried to decipher the Voynich manuscript. Strong said that the solution to the Voynich manuscript was a "peculiar double system of arithmetical progressions of a multiple alphabet". Strong claimed that the plaintext revealed the Voynich manuscript to be written by the 16th century English author Anthony Ascham, whose works include A Little Herbal, published in 1550. Although the Voynich manuscript does contain sections resembling a herbal, the main argument against this theory is that it is unknown where Anthony would have obtained such literary and cryptographic knowledge.

Nick Pelling has developed a theory in his book that the Voynich manuscript was written by Antonio Averlino (also known as "Filarete"), an Italian renaissance architect. According to Pelling's theory, Averlino tried to reach Istanbul around 1465, and enciphered in the Voynich manuscript some of his own works about various engineering topics to be able to export his knowledge to the Ottoman Turks past Venetian border guards. The theory is based mainly on circumstantial evidence.

Pelling examines several characteristics of the cipher text and suggests means of encryption Averlino might have employed, but does not claim to have deciphered the contents. If Pelling is right, then the manuscript is enciphered with an extremely convoluted cascade of methods, including "fake" artefacts (odd characteristics of the cipher text which hint to an enciphering method which was actually not used.) He claims most of the marginalia are also fake, and were deliberately introduced to mislead code-breakers.

Renaissance Magazine published a theory (issue #53, March 2007) by H.R. SantaColoma which points out the similarity of several objects in the Voynich manuscript to early microscopes. Cornelius Drebbel is closely associated with the very earliest developments in microscopy. This led the author to notice similarities between the artistic style of Drebbel and various illustrations in the Voynich. In addition, Drebbel became the head alchemist to Rudolf II at about the time the Voynich is known to have been in Rudolf's court. The theory concludes that the Voynich may be Drebbel's notebook of observations and alchemy experiments, which he left in Prague after the coup of 1611.

Prescott Currier, a US Navy cryptographer who worked with the manuscript in the 1970s, observed that the pages of the "herbal" section could be separated into two sets with distinctive statistical properties and apparently different handwritings. He concluded that the Voynich manuscript was the work of two or more authors who used different dialects or spelling conventions, but who shared the same script. Recent studies have questioned his conclusion. When all sections are examined, one sees a more gradual transition, with Currier's two parts at opposite ends. Thus, Currier's observations could simply be the result of the herbal sections being written by one author over a long period of time.

 

 

Theories about contents and purpose

This three-page foldout from the manuscript includes a chart that appears astronomical.The overall impression given by the surviving leaves of the manuscript suggests that it was meant to serve as a pharmacopoeia or to address topics in medieval or early modern medicine. However, the puzzling details of illustrations have fuelled many theories about the book's origins, the contents of its text, and the purpose for which it was intended.

The first section of the book is almost certainly herbal, but attempts to identify the plants, either with actual specimens or with the stylised drawings of contemporary herbals, have largely failed. Only a couple of plants (including a wild pansy and the maidenhair fern) can be identified with some certainty. Those "herbal" pictures that match "pharmacological" sketches appear to be "clean copies" of these, except that missing parts were completed with improbable-looking details. In fact, many of the plants seem to be composite: the roots of one species have been fastened to the leaves of another, with flowers from a third.

Brumbaugh believed that one illustration depicted a New World sunflower, which would help date the manuscript and open up intriguing possibilities for its origin. However, the resemblance is slight, especially when compared to the original wild species; and, since the scale of the drawing is not known, the plant could be many other members of the same family - which includes the common daisy, chamomile, and many other species from all over the world.

The basins and tubes in the "biological" section may seem to indicate a connection to alchemy, which would also be relevant if the book contained instructions on the preparation of medical compounds. However, alchemical books of the period share a common pictorial language, where processes and materials are represented by specific images (such as eagle, toad, man in tomb, couple in bed) or standard textual symbols (such as circle with cross); and none of these could be convincingly identified in the Voynich manuscript.

Sergio Toresella, an expert on ancient herbals, pointed out that the Voynich manuscript could be an alchemical herbal - which actually had nothing to do with alchemy, but was a bogus herbal with invented pictures, that a quack doctor would carry around just to impress his clients. Apparently there was a small cottage industry of such books somewhere in northern Italy, just at the right epoch. However, those books are quite different from the Voynich manuscript in style and format; and they were all written in plain language.

Astrological considerations frequently played a prominent role in herb gathering, bloodletting and other medical procedures common during the likeliest dates of the manuscript (see, for instance, Nicholas Culpeper's books). However, apart from the obvious Zodiac symbols, and one diagram possibly showing the classical planets, no one has been able to interpret the illustrations within known astrological traditions (European or otherwise).

A circular drawing in the "astronomical" section depicts an irregularly shaped object with four curved arms, which some have interpreted as a picture of a galaxy that could only be obtained with a telescope. Other drawings were interpreted as cells seen through a microscope. This would suggest an early modern, rather than a medieval, date for the manuscript's origin. However, the resemblance is rather questionable: on close inspection, the central part of the "galaxy" looks rather like a pool of water. Some of the images also look quite like sea urchins.

 

 

Theories about the language

Many theories have been advanced as to the nature of the Voynich manuscript "language". Here is a partial list:

Ciphers

According to the letter-based cipher theory, the Voynich manuscript contains a meaningful text in some European language, that was intentionally rendered obscure by mapping it to the Voynich manuscript "alphabet" through a cipher of some sort - an algorithm that operated on individual letters.

This has been the working hypothesis for most deciphering attempts in the twentieth century, including an informal team of NSA cryptographers led by William F. Friedman in the early 1950s. Simple substitution ciphers can be excluded, because they are very easy to crack; so deciphering efforts have generally focused on polyalphabetic ciphers, invented by Alberti in the 1460s. This class includes the popular Vigenère cipher, which could have been strengthened by the use of nulls and/or equivalent symbols, letter rearrangement, false word breaks and so on. Some people assumed that vowels had been deleted before encryption. There have been several claims of deciphering along these lines, but none has been widely accepted - chiefly because the proposed deciphering algorithms depended on so many guesses by the user that they could extract a meaningful text from any random string of symbols.

The main argument for this theory is that the use of a strange alphabet by a European author can hardly be explained except as an attempt to hide information. Indeed, Roger Bacon knew about ciphers, and the estimated date for the manuscript roughly coincides with the birth of cryptography as a systematic discipline. Against this theory is the observation that a polyalphabetic cipher would normally destroy the "natural" statistical features that are seen in the Voynich manuscript, such as Zipf's law. Also, although polyalphabetic ciphers were invented about 1467, variants only became popular in the 16th century, somewhat too late for the estimated date of the Voynich manuscript.

According to the codebook cipher theory, the Voynich manuscript "words" would actually be codes to be looked up in a dictionary or codebook. The main evidence for this theory is that the internal structure and length distribution of those words are similar to those of Roman numerals - which, at the time, would be a natural choice for the codes. However, book-based ciphers are viable only for short messages, because they are very cumbersome to write and to read.

James Finn proposed in his book Pandora's Hope (2004)that the Voynich manuscript is in fact visually encoded Hebrew. Once the Voynich letters have been correctly transcribed, using the European Voynich Alphabet (EVA) as a guide, many of the Voynich words can be seen as Hebrew words that repeat with different distortions to confuse the reader. For example, the word AIN from the manuscript is the Hebrew word for "eye", and it also appears in different distorted versions as "aiin" or "aiiin", to make it appear as though the words are different when in fact they are the same word. Other methods of visual encryption are used as well. The main argument for this view is that it would explain the lack of success that most other researchers have had in decoding the manuscript, because they are based on more mathematical approaches to the decryption. The main argument against it is that such a qualitative encoding places a heavy burden on the talents of the individual decoder, given the multiplicity of possible alternate visual interpretations of the same text. It would be hard to separate how much interpretation is of the genuine text, and how much simply reflects the bias of the original interpreter.

 

Micrography

Following its 1912 rediscovery, one of the earliest efforts to unlock the book's secrets (and the first of, indeed, many premature claims of decipherment) was made in 1921 by William Newbold of the University of Pennsylvania. His singular hypothesis held that the visible text is meaningless itself, but that each apparent "letter" is in fact constructed of a series of tiny markings only discernible under magnification. These markings, based on ancient Greek shorthand, were supposed to form a second level of script that held the real content of the writing. Using this knowledge, Newbold claimed to have worked out entire paragraphs proving the authorship of Bacon and recording his use of a compound microscope four hundred years before Leeuwenhoek. However, John Manly of the University of Chicago pointed out serious flaws in this theory. Each shorthand character was assumed to have multiple interpretations, with no reliable way to determine which was intended for any given case. Newbold's method also required rearranging letters at will until intelligible Latin was produced. These factors alone ensure the system enough flexibility that nearly anything at all could be "read" in the microscopic markings, which in any case are themselves illusory. Although there is a tradition of Hebrew micrography, it is nowhere near as compact or complex as the shapes Newbold made out. Upon close study, these turn out to be mere artefacts of the way ink cracks as it dries on rough vellum, and an example of pareidolia. Thanks to Manly's thorough refutation, the micrography theory is now disregarded.

 

Steganography

This theory holds that the text of the Voynich manuscript is mostly meaningless, but contains meaningful information hidden in inconspicuous details - e.g. the second letter of every word, or the number of letters in each line. This technique, called steganography, is very old, and was described by Johannes Trithemius in 1499. Some people suggested that the plain text was to be extracted by a Cardan grille of some sort. This theory is hard to prove or disprove, since stegotexts can be arbitrarily hard to crack. An argument against it is that using a cipher-looking cover text defeats the main purpose of steganography, which is to hide the very existence of the secret message.

Some people have suggested that the meaningful text could be encoded in the length or shape of certain pen strokes. There are indeed examples of steganography from about that time that use letter shape (italic vs. upright) to hide information. However, when examined at high magnification, the Voynich manuscript pen strokes seem quite natural, and substantially affected by the uneven surface of the vellum.

Recently, a new theory has been put forward, suggesting elements and substructures, rather than whole characters, might be the key to deciphering the Voynich Manuscript.

 

Exotic natural language

The linguist Jacques Guy once suggested that the Voynich manuscript text could be some exotic natural language, written in the plain with an invented alphabet. The word structure is indeed similar to that of many language families of East and Central Asia, mainly Sino-Tibetan (Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese), Austroasiatic (Vietnamese, Khmer, etc.) and possibly Tai (Thai, Lao, etc.). In many of these languages, the "words" have only one syllable; and syllables have a rather rich structure, including tonal patterns.

This theory has some historical plausibility. While those languages generally had native scripts, these were notoriously difficult for Western visitors; which motivated the invention of several phonetic scripts, mostly with Latin letters but sometimes with invented alphabets. Although the known examples are much later than the Voynich manuscript, history records hundreds of explorers and missionaries who could have done it - even before Marco Polo's thirteenth century voyage, but especially after Vasco da Gama sailed the sea route to the Orient in 1499. The Voynich manuscript author could also be a native from East Asia living in Europe, or educated at a European mission.

The main argument for this theory is that it is consistent with all statistical properties of the Voynich manuscript text which have been tested so far, including doubled and tripled words (which have been found to occur in Chinese and Vietnamese texts at roughly the same frequency as in the Voynich manuscript). It also explains the apparent lack of numerals and Western syntactic features (such as articles and copulas), and the general inscrutability of the illustrations. Another possible hint are two large red symbols on the first page, which have been compared to a Chinese-style book title, inverted and badly copied. Also, the apparent division of the year into 360 degrees (rather than 365 days), in groups of 15 and starting with Pisces, are features of the Chinese agricultural calendar (jie qi). The main argument against the theory is the fact that no one (including scholars at the Academy of Sciences in Beijing) could find any clear examples of Asian symbolism or Asian science in the illustrations.

In late 2003, Zbigniew Banasik of Poland proposed that the manuscript is plaintext written in the Manchu language and gave a proposed incomplete translation of the first page of the manuscript.

Jim Child, a linguist of Indo-European languages, has proposed that the manuscript is written in an early German language. His paper describes the plausibility of this idea.

 

Glossolalia

In their book, Kennedy and Churchill hint to the possibility that the Voynich manuscript may be a case of glossolalia, channelling or outsider art.

If this is true, then the author felt compelled to write large amounts of text in a manner which somehow resembles stream of consciousness, either due to voices heard, or due to his own urge. While in glossolalia this often takes place in an invented language (usually made up of fragments of the author's own language), invented scripts for this purpose are rare. Kennedy and Churchill use Hildegard von Bingen's works to point out similarities between the illustrations she drew when she was suffering from severe bouts of migraine, which can induce a trance-like state prone to glossolalia, and the Voynich manuscript. Prominent features found in both are abundant "streams of stars", and the repetitive nature of the "nymphs" in the biological section.

The theory is virtually impossible to prove or disprove, short of deciphering the text; Kennedy and Churchill are themselves not convinced of the hypothesis, but consider it plausible. One of the drawbacks of this theory is that it fails to explain the deliberate structure of the manuscript and the carefully crafted astrological and botanical sections.

 

Constructed language

The peculiar internal structure of Voynich manuscript "words" has led William F. Friedman and John Tiltman to arrive independently at the conjecture that the text could be a constructed language in the plain - specifically, a philosophical or a priori language. In languages of this class, the vocabulary is organised according to a category system, so that the general meaning of a word can be deduced from its sequence of letters. For example, in the modern constructed language Ro, bofo- is the category of colours, and any word beginning with those letters would name a colour: so red is bofoc, and yellow is bofof. (This is an extreme version of the book classification scheme used by many libraries - in which, say, P stands for language and literature, PA for Greek and Latin, PC for Romance languages, etc.)

This concept is quite old, as attested by John Wilkins's Philosophical Language (1668), but still postdates the generally accepted origin of the VM by two centuries. In most known examples, categories are subdivided by adding suffixes; as a consequence, a text in a particular subject would have many words with similar prefixes - for example, all plant names would begin with the similar letters, and likewise for all diseases, etc. This feature could then explain the repetitious nature of the Voynich text. However, no one has been able yet to assign a plausible meaning to any prefix or suffix in the Voynich manuscript.

 

Hoax

The bizarre features of the Voynich manuscript text (such as the doubled and tripled words), the suspicious contents of its illustrations (such as the chimeric plants) and its lack of historical reference support the idea that the manuscript is really a hoax. In other words, if no one is able to extract meaning from the book, perhaps this is because the document contains no meaningful content in the first place.

The argument for authenticity, on the other hand, is that the manuscript appears too sophisticated to be a hoax. While hoaxes of the period tended to be quite crude, the Voynich manuscript exhibits many subtle characteristics which only show up after careful statistical analysis. These fine touches require much more work than would have been necessary for a simple forgery, and some of the complexities are only visible with modern tools (like the prose's obedience to Zipf's law). The question then arises: why would the author employ such a complex and laborious forging algorithm in the creation of a simplistic hoax, if no one in the expected audience (that is, the creator's contemporaries) could tell the difference?

Various hoax theories have been proposed over time:

In 2003, computer scientist Gordon Rugg showed that text with characteristics similar to the Voynich manuscript could have been produced using a table of word prefixes, stems, and suffixes, which would have been selected and combined by means of a perforated paper overlay. The latter device, known as a Cardan grille, was invented around 1550 as an encryption tool, slightly after the estimated creation date of the Voynich manuscript. Some maintain that the similarity between the pseudo-texts generated in Gordon Drug's experiments and the Voynich manuscript is superficial, and the grille method could be used to emulate any language to a certain degree.

In April 2007, a study by Austrian researcher Andreas Schemer published in Cryptologia supported the hoax hypothesis. Schemer showed that the statistical properties of the manuscript's text were more consistent with meaningless gibberish produced using a quasi-stochastic method such as the one described by Rugg, than with Latin and medieval German texts. However, this comparison is valid only for plain text in European languages, or text enciphered with a simple substitution cipher, while analysis suggests a much more complex enciphering method for the Voynich manuscript (see "Letter-based cipher" and "Exotic natural language" above).

In late 2007, Claude Martin claimed that the Voynich manuscript is a hoax based on a convoluted anagramming algorithm for numbers. For example, the sequence 345678 would be retranscribed into 643875. While such a method would produce text somewhat similar to that of the Voynich manuscript, it's hard to explain why such a difficult and time-consuming procedure would be used for a hoax.

 

 


Transcription Alphabets

Various transcription alphabets for the Voynich MS script have been devised in the past. The First Study Group (FSG) of Friedman defined an alphabet agreed by all members of the team. Using this alphabet, they transcribed almost the entire MS in the 1940's. Because of the desire for secrecy by Friedman, nobody outside his team was aware of this transcription exercise or the alphabet they used.

Prof. Bennett of Yale University was one of the first to use the computer to analyse parts of the Voynich MS text, and he therefore needed a transcription alphabet.

Currier, working on his own, also devised a transcription alphabet. When he presented his findings at the 1976 symposium, Mary D'Imperio suggested that it would be important that all researchers use a unified alphabet, and announced that she would abandon here own in favour of Currier's.

Later, D'Imperio showed that many characters in the Voynich MS cannot be represented exactly by any of the existing alphabets. There are some 'rare' characters, and there are what appear to be ligatures of several characters. This was reflected in a new generation of transcription alphabets.

The first exponent of this was the 'Frogguy' alphabet by Jacques Guy, first presented in 1991. This alphabet uses characters which represents common 'strokes', and thus allows the representation of the many ligatured characters using these strokes.

The second example of this is the EVA alphabet which will be used throughout this site.

 

Overview of the alphabet

 

FSG
The FSG alphabet uses capital letters and numbers. It has an unusual method for transcribing the 'intruding gallows', by using a special symbol (Z) for the intruded pedestal.
The FSG transcription is well described in a paper by Jim Reeds (ref). A printout of this transcription was found by Jim in the Marshall library, and together with Jacques Guy he entered it in computer readable form. This file is available for downloading.

Currier
Currier had transcribed a significant part of the MS in his alphabet. This uses the capital letters A-Z and the numbers 0-9 (i.e. all 36). Currier's alphabet does not represent some characters which FSG does, and uses single characters for what appear to be composites. Mary D'Imperio had also started transcribing parts of the MS using her own alphabet, which she abdicated in favour of Currier's. The two files were merged and the result is the most often-used transcription of the MS, which, however, has some lacunae, which is not always realised by its users.

Frogguy
This powerful alphabet was devised by Jacques Guy. It uses lower-case characters, numbers and diacritical marks, and represents the closest similarity with the original script. As a result of its analytical nature, some characters which appear to be one, are represented by several in this alphabet. See Jim Reeds' web pages

EVA
The EVA alphabet was designed in the framework of a more recent transcription effort. It is analytical, like Frogguy, but it uses only lower-case alphabetical characters. These have also been chosen in such a way that the transcribed text is almost pronounceable. The power of this alphabet lies in the fact that it allows the definition of 'rare' characters or character components using numerical strings, in such a way that the entire MS can be represented. See the EVA alphabet reference page.

 

Labels

'Labels' is the term used for the appearance of single words or short phrases near drawings. The suggestion is very strong that the label gives the name of the item shown. The following types of labels may be found in the Voynich Ms:

  • Whole plant labels in the herbal section, on fol. 2r, fol. 41v (uncertain) and fol. 65r.
  • A label near the dead body on fol. 66r.
  • Star labels in the zodiac section, on fol. 70v2,1, fol. 71, fol. 72, fol. 73, and on the astronomical pages.
    See Don Latham's list of star names for comparison with these labels.
  • Labels near items in the illustrations of the biological section
  • Labels near plant parts in the illustrations of the pharmaceutical section

 

Titles

The term 'titles' was introduced by John Grove. It is a term used for the occurrence of words appearing at the end of a paragraph of text, written somewhat away from the main text (usually at the right margin or centred).

 

Character or word sequences

In some circular designs and in the margins of some pages, sequences of single characters or short words may be found. These are usually referred to as key-like sequences.

These are:

  • Erased character tables on fol. 1r.
  • In the margin of fol. 49v.
  • A four times repeating sequence of 17 characters, and further sequences on fol. 57v.
  • Characters and short words in the left margin of fol. 66r.
  • Single characters, accompanied by the roman numbers 1-5, in the left margin of f76r

Extraneous writing

Only very few barely legible phrases in the normal (non-Voynich) alphabet may be observed in the Voynich MS. These are:

  • The erased signature of Jacobus of Tepenec on fol. 1r.
  • Erased character tables on fol. 1r.
  • An unreadable comment near the top margin of fol. 17r.
  • Some (German?) words on fol. 66r, near the dead body of a man or woman, interpreted by R. Salomon as 'der Mussdel'.
  • Strange, similar scribbles (perhaps not really text) on fol. 66v and fol. 86v3
  • The characters 'a', 'b' and 'c' written in the top corners of some pages (with pencil): fol. 67r1, 2, fol. 68r1, 2, 3, fol. 70r1, 2. These are written in pencil and obviously originate from a later owner of the MS.
  • Month names in a not yet fully identified language or dialect on each of the zodiac pages: fol. 70v2,1, fol. 71, fol. 72 and fol. 73.
  • Three lines of perhaps magical words on fol. 116v, possibly representing a decipherers attempt at reading the Ms.


 

Further Reading

 

   

 






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