Voynich Manuscript

Voynich manuscript

Originally published in Ireland's Own magazine, September 2007

We live in a world of seemingly frantic brain-teasing, nut-puzzling anxiety. Never before has so much thought and effort gone into making our brains work. Those ‘leetle grey cells’ beloved of Hercule Poirot have never been so activated – one might even say agitated. We are told how crucial it is – not only to our minds’ health but our very longevity. Who doesn’t want to live an extra day, another hour…one more minute?

The example of mathematicians is trotted out, that section of society who reputedly live the longest. Because mathematicians use their brains almost continuously to solve problems and never really give up the habit, even after retirement, it is therefore suggested that it is the brain’s condition that determines the body’s continuance.

There is no escape if you are even moderately literate; magazines, quizzes (another Irish invention), TV, newspapers… Newspapers! One British national daily tabloid has a Coffee Break section with no less than 18 crosswords, codewords, sudokus, kakuros – and all those other Oriental variations in between. Some coffee break! Another broadsheet has around 50 in its weekend offering. Look in this very magazine if you want more – or less! – demanding challenges. Add in the runaway success of Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and you have that strange phenomenon – a craze.

So what about the Voynich Manuscript then? Sorry, the…? Come again? The Voynich Manuscript is the only – the only – manmade code that has never been broken. No human genius or electronic computer has cracked it and it’s not for the want of trying. Imagine a book written in an unknown alphabet, in an unknown language, at an unknown date and place…by an unknown person or persons. But with loads of illustrations. You would be forgiven for thinking it couldn’t be that hard.

Its known history is brief but intriguing. In 1912, Wilfrid M. Voynich, a rare book collector, bought a number of mediaeval manuscripts from the Jesuit College at the Villa Mondragone, Frascati in Italy. It turned out to have originally belonged to the Collegium Romanum. Attached to the manuscript was a letter in Latin dated 1666 from Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland, Rector of Prague University. Among these was a 235-page manuscript written in what appeared to be an unknown language or a cipher.

It is thought to have been written between 1450 and 1520 but – like everything else about it – this too is less than certain. Its probable authorship is also up for grabs; everyone from that period – Roger Bacon, John Dee, Edward Kelley in Elizabethan times most notably – and on down through a bewildering list of less-than-usual suspects.

The pages are approximately ten inches by seven, vellum, the script with a quill pen, the illustrations…we-ell, now we’re getting to it. They range from the astronomical to biological to cosmological to herbal and on to pharmaceutical, in the brightest colours and sometimes the most explicit detail. The astronomical sections drift into the astrological (not too divorced from each other in mediaeval times) with conventional zodiacal constellations, each symbol surrounded by exactly 30 female figures, most of them naked.

The biological part is a dense continuous text – which nobody can read yet – interspersed with mainly small nude women bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes. The cosmological section contains more circular diagrams, of an obscure nature, with what appear to be ‘islands’ connected by ‘causeways’, ‘castles’ and a ‘volcano’.

The herbal bit is probably the most visual, with exotic plants in great detail that seem to have withstood the test of time, although there is some doubt about those being dated from the original. The pharmaceutical part includes more isolated plants, roots or leaves and objects resembling apothecary jars drawn along the margins.

The text consists of over 170,00 characters or glyphs, which in themselves present a great problem for cryptographers; practically no “word” is longer than 10 letters and very few contain only one or two letters. Some characters seem to be Latin but not quite, others might stem from various European alphabets of the 15th century. Just to screw up any patterns that a clever clogs might start to detect, you come across the names of ten months (March to December) written in Latin script. But experts intone that these latter were inserted at some later date and therefore do not…compute!

So just how difficult is it to understand? The top professional American and British codebreakers who cut their teeth, so to speak, on the Enigma and Ultra codes in World War II failed to decipher a single word. The sheer randomness of the text defeated them. This failure of course gave rise to much controversy as to the actual validity of the writing as a form of code of any kind. This in turn made the manuscript not only a famous subject of historical cryptology but it also gave weight to the theory that the book is simply an elaborate hoax. But by whom…and for what?

Theories abound: the manuscript is not one but two distinct “languages”, it has been written in two “hands”, meaning it has more than one author. Another suggestion further muddies the textual waters by upping the ante to five or even eight different originators. Or the whole thing is a forgery anyway, sold early on for 300 ducats (14,000 Euro) to the strange Emperor Rudolf II, who surrounded himself with dwarfs and giants. In 1990 a multi-disciplinary group of varying size, generally between 100-200 individuals, pledged to decipher it. They were dispersed all around the globe and connected through the Internet, maintaining an electronic mail forum on the decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript. This was with the avowed intention of developing a machine-readable representation of the text.

So far…? Silence.


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