In 1912, in the library of Nobile Collegio Mondragone, a Jesuit college near Rome, an American rare book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich discovered what may be the strangest and most puzzling book ever created. It consisted the book consists of 234 pages fashioned from animal skin, written in longhand in a bizarre, incomprehensible script, and illustrated with puzzling images of plants, celestial bodies and female bathers. Voynich had no idea what it all meant, but he knew he had a precious find. He was right.
The Voynich Manuscript, which
coded alternative alphabet, has long mystified historians and challenged cryptographers. But after centuries of study, ahandful of tantalizing clues and a raft of theories are all that they’ve managed to come up with. But they continue to try, further energized perhaps by the persistent belief among occult aficionados that it may contain some world-altered historical or metaphysical revelation, along the lines of Dan Brown’s novelistic thriller The Da Vinci Code.
Nearly a century since its rediscovery, the manuscript, which today is part of Yale University’s rare book collection, remains an enigma. The author is unknown, and text’s providence is, at best, murky. Voynich reportedly believed that it was the work of 13th Century Franciscan friar and philosopher Roger Bacon. That theory also was empraced in the 1920s by University of Pennsylvania scholar William Newbold. In contrast, skeptics over the years have suggested that it was a clever hoax, perhaps created by Voynich himself. Radiocarbon dating of the parchment, performed on a sample in 2009 by University of Arizona researchers, however, indicates that it was produced sometime between 1404 and 1438, and the writing on it dates to that time period, according the McCrone Research Institute, a Chicago-based art authentication group.
The mystery surrounding the book is such that when Voynich discovered it, he found tucked inside a letter written in the mid-1660s by the rector of the University of Prague, asking a scholar’s help in deciphering it. The letter indicates that Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia, who ruled from 1576 to 1612, purchased the book from an unknown owner for what would today be $100,000 in gold.
As this 2001 New Scientist article notes, the book’s illustrations are nearly as peculiar and inscrutable as its text. The crudely-rendered drawings feature plans and flowers unlike anything found in nature, and the female bathers are short and squat, with pot bellies and small, pointed breasts. The baths that they wade into are green pools of fluid, fed by pipes that at least vaguely resemble human arteries and Fallopian tubes. The most meticulously drawn portion is an astrological section, which includes zodiac circles and a rendering of what appears to be the Andromeda galaxy.
What the text actually says is even more puzzling. As detailed in this article by Robert Matthews, a visiting scholar at Alton College in the UK, William Friedman, the celebrated American cryptologist who helped win World War II by breaking the Japanese code, tried to decipher the manuscript. But the meaning of what appear to be the 250,000 words in the manuscript, which contain between 23 and 30 characters and no numbers, eluded him. In the 1960s and 1970s, elite code experts at the National Security Agency also tried and failed.
Another renowned World War II code-cracker, the UK’s John Tiltman, was the first to advance the theory that “Voynichese” actually was a so-called priori language, in which words are based upon conceptual rather than linguistic principles. (Another priori example: the Dewey Decimal System, in which certain categories of knowledge are assigned numerical values, and books are given combinations of those numbers as their codes.)
Another theory, recently advanced by a Brazilian computer researcher, is that Voynichese is a version of Chinese, written down phonetically by Chinese visitors who accompanied Italian explorers back to Italy.
Some debunkers have suggested that the text might be merely gibberish, but analysis reveals that it has a low degree of entropy, which in information theory would indicate that it is not composed of random sequences of characters. Beyond that, research by University of Manchester linguistic expert Marcello Montemurro shows that Voynichese has a structure consistent with texts in other known languages. Future analysis is likely to reveal the extent to which the manuscript’s linguistic structure resembles those of works in other tongues. That may give us a hint as to what the book is about.
But perhaps not. As this article from Environmentalgraffiti.com describes, Prescott Currier, a scholar and retired U.S. Naval officer who analyzed the Voynich Manuscript in the 1970s, has theorized that it may actually be composed in some combination of perhaps as many as eight different languages.
Others have suggested that what researchers have assumed to be separate characters in the text may actually be something else. As New Scientist speculated: “perhaps each Voynich word is a letter, or maybe the spaces between words are placed at random to confuse the reader.”
If that turns out to be true, it would complicate the detective work even more–if that is possible, at this point.
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