The Voynich Manuscript
In The Madman's Library by Edward Brooke-Hitching, he describes the Voynich manuscript as
"the most famous cryptic manuscript of the medieval period" that has been "the obsessive focus of study around the world and as of yet, none of the professional and amateur cryptographers - including American and British codebreakers of both World War I and World War II - has been able to crack it."
I was reading The Madman's Library as part of my research for a novel I'm currently outlining, and I was absorbed by this idea that a manuscript over 600 years old had yet to be understood.
If it even can be understood, that is. For all historians and code-crackers know, it's a very well done hoax. Medieval trolling, if you will.
What became known as the Voynich Manuscript was found in 1912 by a Polish rare book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich. Voynich was digging around in manuscripts in the Villa Mondragone in Italy. (Villa Mondragone is now the congress and event center for the Tor Vergata University.)
"Voynich acquired the famous Voynich manuscript from the Jesuits at the Villa Mondragone. The facility, in need of funds, was discreetly selling some of its holdings."
Even at first glance, it's clear the manuscript is strange. The language is indecipherable and the illustrations range from botanical to anatomical, from artistic to almost lewd. The words on it has the makings of a complete natural language and a complicated cipher, "the letter-shapes tantalizingly similar to known shorthand symbols."
Codebreakers and researchers have claimed that the language is actually "seventh-century Welsh/Old Cornish; an early German language; the Manchu language of the Qing dynasty of China (1636-1911); and Hebrew enciphered by Roger Bacon, describing alien technology of the future for generating DNA with sound".
Interestingly, Roger Bacon has his own fascinating life story and body of work. He lived in England in the early 13th century as a Franciscan friar and English professor, and a few hundred years after his death, was considered to be a wizard. "Bacon discovered the importance of empirical testing when the results he obtained were different from those that would have been predicted by Aristotle." And his linguistic work was part of later work on the theory of universal grammar, essentially saying that if children are raised in a normal atmosphere, they will develop language around certain rules - understanding nouns vs verbs, understanding function words from content words, etc)
Other theories on the Voynich manuscript have claimed it to be:
A recipe book
A guide to viewing the galaxies using telescopes (again, Roger Bacon)
A nonsense stage prop made by Francis Bacon (the father of empiricism)
My favorite theory - it's the language of angels linked to John Dee's Book of Enoch, with illustrations of unknown plants perhaps being species found in the Garden of Eden
John Dee was a fascinatingly weird guy and I will definitely be covering him in the future. He was an English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, teacher, occultist, alchemist, and court advisor and astrologer to Elizabeth I.
The manuscript is 225 pages long and currently housed at Yale University and you can view it entirely online.
So what do we actually known about this mysterious stack of parchment with supposedly either indecipherable or nonsense (or maybe both!) writings and illustrations? Well, in 2009, the vellum the parchment is made out of was radiocarbon-dated to between 1404 and 1438 with 95% accuracy; but there's no way to prove that the actual writing happened around the same time. The handwriting is "smooth [and] unhesitating" from a right-handed person and the style has been described as "reminiscent of the Italian Quattrocento style" from around 1400-1500. Some of the spellings in the margins lead to south-west France instead. And there's evidence that at one point, or even originally, the pages were arranged in a different order with the page and folio numbers being added later.
Nearly every page has some kind of artwork, either botanical, figurative, or scientific. The inks are still vibrant in shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red. And the manuscript has been categorized into six sections:
- 1) Botanicals containing drawings of 113 unidentified plant species
- 2) Astronomical and astrological drawings including astral charts with radiating circles, suns and moons, Zodiac symbols such as fish (Pisces), a bull (Taurus), and an archer (Sagittarius), nude females emerging from pipes or chimneys, and courtly figures
- 3) A biological section containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules
- 4) An elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions, many drawn across several folded folios and depicting possible geographical forms
- 5) Pharmaceutical drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots portrayed with jars or vessels in red, blue, or green
- 6) Continuous pages of text, possibly recipes, with star-like flowers marking each entry in the margins.
You can read the entire chemical analysis of the Voynich Manuscript, which is a linked PDF on Yale's website. You can also buy a complete replica of the Voynich Manuscript, in what looks to be a beautiful coffee table-style book.
One thing that caught my eye was that most of the ink samples are fairly similar to each other, and contain iron, sulfur, calcium, potassium, and carbon in major amounts, but there are traces of copper and zinc. The chemical analysis notes that iron gall inks (the standard in Europe between the 5th and 19th century) usually have all of those chemicals but that the copper and zinc are unusual.
Also interesting is that Yale has a somewhat more definitive, but different, history of the Voynich Manuscript than what I've found in other places
"Like its contents, the history of ownership of the Voynich manuscript is contested and filled with some gaps. The codex belonged to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany (Holy Roman Emperor, 1576-1612), who purchased it for 600 gold ducats and believed that it was the work of Roger Bacon. It is very likely that Emperor Rudolph acquired the manuscript from the English astrologer John Dee (1527-1608). Dee apparently owned the manuscript along with a number of other Roger Bacon manuscripts. In addition, Dee stated that he had 630 ducats in October 1586, and his son noted that Dee, while in Bohemia, owned "a booke...containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon: but I could not heare that hee could make it out." Emperor Rudolph seems to have given the manuscript to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (d. 1622), an exchange based on the inscription visible only with ultraviolet light on folio 1r which reads: "Jacobi de Tepenecz." Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland presented the book to Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) in 1666. In 1912, Wilfrid M. Voynich purchased the manuscript from the Jesuit College at Frascati near Rome. In 1969, the codex was given to the Beinecke Library by H. P. Kraus, who had purchased it from the estate of Ethel Voynich, Wilfrid Voynich's widow."
Yale gets hundreds, if not thousands, of requests every year to examine the manuscript. The curators and librarians must be endlessly patient, being bombarded like that.
"'There's a lot of beauty in this book, even though there's a lot of crazy in it, too,' said Beinecke's assistant chief conservator Paula Zyats as she flips through the Voynich manuscript."
"'A lot of people thought that it was a hoax, that it was something done in the 20th century by Voynich himself,' said Ray Clemens, a curator at the Beinecke Library. The hoax idea was mostly put to rest when the book was carbon dated to the early 1400s, although occasionally a contrarian scholar will resurrect the claim."
And for all the "crazy", there have been modern efforts to decrypt this fascinating, frustrating book. In 2018, a group of computing scientists from the University of Alberta used an algorithm to try to decode parts of it. After several tests, they came to the conclusion that the script was likely Hebrew, hypothesizing that the manuscript was created using alphagrams - defining one phrase with another. But where things get murky is that the scientists say they couldn't find Hebrew scholars to "validate their findings" so they turned to Google Translate. And then they kind of...gave up.
Then there's Nicholas Gibbs, a historical researcher and television writer who has a rather different outlook on the Voynich Manuscript. He claims the code is actually a "series of Latin abbreviations", each character standing for an entire word rather than existing as individual letters. And once decoded, it's clear the manuscript is "an instruction manual for the health and wellbeing of the more well to do women in society". The only issue with this theory is that the abbreviations Gibbs claims the characters to be don't actually translate into readable Latin. Gibbs also claims that because the manuscript has some missing pages, those must be the index, or the key, to deciphering the entire thing. His theory is way too convenient and based on nothing but his word; historians have claimed Gibbs is simply cherry-picking from the most plausible theories already put forth (the idea that the manuscript is a health manual is not a new one, for example).
So as of now, the Voynich Manuscript is a great unknown. A mystery to ponder and peruse, leaving any reader astounded and flummoxed.
"At a time when even the most mysterious artist is subject to history and biography, it's amazing to encounter a book that floats outside of all disciplines. The Voynich Manuscript exudes an aesthetic aura while squirming out of every category.
Many critics believe that it is a hoax. It's probably the most persuasive theory, as everything in the book conveniently falls under the umbrella of "total nonsense."
While the European Middle Ages are often perceived as an austere and circumscribed culture, the Voynich Manuscript was conceived by a liberated imagination. There's a genuine joy communicated through the details, like a monk doodling racy cartoons in the margins of a scholastic text. It could very well have been composed as an elaborate lampoon of medieval knowledge, and it's amusing to imagine that we're still falling for the trick." (The Paris Review, "The Pleasures of Incomprehensibility" by Michael LaPointe, 12/1/2016)
Full Source List
The Madman's Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History by Edward Brooke-Hitching, 2020 by Chronicle Books