Aug 24, 2017

The Voynich Manuscript: Theories, Both Crackpot and Legitimate

Yale, Beinecke MS 408, fol. 86v-86r
Madison Taylor

The Voynich manuscript is something of an oddity in the world of manuscript studies, as its appeal extends far beyond the hallowed halls of academia. Theories on its origin and interpretation would be no more out of place as published works in an academic journal than they would be in a conspiratorial conversation shared over pints of beer in a dimly lit pub. It is a tauntingly enigmatic document that preys on the desperate human desire for understanding, and its allure has trapped smarter folks than I in a vicious cycle of furrowed brows and tugged-out hairs. Regardless of the inevitable disappointment that awaits, I am nonetheless going to step up, roll back my sleeves, and join the ranks of those who have tried to pry the sword of meaning from this obstinate block of text.

Often referred to as "the world's most mysterious manuscript", this cryptic, 234 page codex has mystified scholars, linguists, cryptographers, and armchair code breakers since it was purchased by the Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich in 1912. Housed in the Yale Rare Book and Manuscript Library as Beinecke MS 408, the book comprises a series of obscure herbal, astrological, and anatomical illustrations. The document itself is quite striking: the text is written on vellum in brown ink, and the drawings are coloured with vibrant greens and blues, deep red, and dusty gold. Carbon dating of the parchment tells us that the manuscript was likely written in the early fifteenth century. Yet despite its five hundred year tenure on this Earth, there has yet to be one person who truly understands what the text says, or what its strange pictures are trying to convey.

Yale, Beinecke MS 408, fol. 75r
 One of the more common arguments is that the Voynich manuscript is merely an elaborate hoax. This theory is particularly underwhelming, for as Eamon Duffy puts it in his article "Secret Knowledgeor a Hoax?": "it's hard to imagine a punchline that required so elaborate a build-up." To put such painstaking effort into an over-two-hundred-page-long document that would have required some fourteen or fifteen entire calfskins to manufacture seems unfathomable. For starters, who would have the money, the time, or the gall to create such a thing? The likeliest suspect is Voynich himself, who in a fit of greed may have fabricated the manuscript with the intent of reselling it for a pretty penny (he did estimate its value at around $100,000). Once again, however, this argument is riddled with holes. Voynich certainly believed that his find was worth a great sum of money, but he also publicly declared that he believed the manuscript to be the work of thirteenth-century alchemist Roger Bacon. Voynich's adamant belief in Bacon's link to the document derives from a letter that he found tucked inside its pages addressed to its previous owner, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), in which Johannes Marcus Marci (1595-1667) explicitly claims Bacon to be the author. Though this lead yielded no fruit, Voynich continued to refer to the document as the "Roger Bacon Cipher" until his death in 1930.

Wilfrid M. Voynich, c. 1900. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Indeed, there is "no evidence to support the theory sometimes proposed by students of the Voynich manuscript that Voynich himself was involved in the production of forgeries" (Hunt 16). Despite a few missteps on his part (selling a fake miniature of Columbus landing in the New World to the British Museum, for instance), Voynich's reputation remains free of any solid evidence of nefariousness. He appears to be simply another worshipper at the altar of the Voynich mystery. His desperation to decode the cipher resulted in a partnership with American philosopher William Romaine Newbold, another avid believer in the Bacon authorship theory. Though Newbold's research on the subject was heartily disproved by John Manly, co-compiler of The Text of the Canterbury Tales, Voynich continued to believe that his "ugly duckling" of a manuscript contained invaluable knowledge. It is due to his public promotion of the text and its secrets that the Voynich manuscript has earned its legendary status. Could there exist a better publicist for such a document than a man who led a life of "adventure, espionage, danger, and dark secrets"? (Hunt 11).

The shroud of mysticism that Voynich draped over the manuscript continues to birth theories, both crackpot and legitimate. The manuscript has attracted some of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century, including William F. Friedman (1891-1969), "the U.S. government's top maker and breaker of codes" (Sherman 41), and his wife Elizebeth Smith. Friedman and Smith founded the Voynich Manuscript Study
Friedman and Smith. National Cryptologic Museum, Maryland. 
Group in 1944, and their research is the first to use computers as a means of textual analysis. They hypothesized that the manuscript was produced in southern Germany or northern Italy, and originated in the early sixteenth century (which carbon dating has now proven to be a century too late). Interestingly, Friedman's final thoughts on the text were that it was "an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type" (Sherman 42). In other words, Friedman believed that the cipher was not, in fact, a cipher at all, but simply an attempt at linguistic experimentation.

Since Friedman and Smith's team was disbanded, few scholars have tried their hand at cracking the code of the Voynich manuscript. One of the more notable figures to step forward in recent years was Robert S. Brumbaugh, former professor of philosophy at Yale, who stated that the manuscript was indeed a fraud, created by what he believed to be a group of astrologers hoping to make a few bucks.

After Brumbaugh, the most contemporary individual to come forth is Gordon Rugg, a computer scientist at Keele University in England. In 2003, Rugg claimed that he had determined the manuscript to be a hoax through the use of a cardan grille, an encryption tool hailing from the Renaissance period. To make a cardan grille, one must simply take a piece of rigid paper or cardboard and cut rectangular holes out of it at random. The grille is placed over another sheet of paper, and the secret message is written inside the holes. The remaining white space on the page is then filled with unrelated text to prevent the code from being detected by the wrong set of eyes. Rugg argues that, using this encryption method, a document the size of the Voynich manuscript could be created by a single individual over the span of a few months. For those seeking a simple solution, this theory is quite satisfying. For hunters of all things mythical, magical, and otherwise unknown, the idea that the manuscript has been no more than an "elegant hoax" all this time may come as something of a disappointment. The disappointed party of Voynich enthusiasts should not give up all hope, however. Rugg may have proposed an intriguing theory that is well worth chewing on, but the Voynich manuscript has yet to wholly surrender its secrets to him—or anyone else, for that matter.

Yale, Beinecke MS 408, fol. 67v

If one wishes to fall down a rabbit hole of madness, there are many (largely unconvincing) arguments on the origin of the manuscript on the web. Some of these theories have no basis in fact, such as the argument that the undecipherable, looping script of the text is written in an extraterrestrial hand. Others, while undeniably falsifiable, find their roots in historical evidence. One notable example is that of the divine origin of the manuscript. The presence of one Edward Kelley (1555-1597), occult expert and self-proclaimed medium, in the Voynich manuscript's illustrious past is likely the basis for this argument. Kelley, a man said to be able to summon and communicate with angels, had the ear of John Dee (1527-c.1608), the man who allegedly sold the manuscript to Roman Emperor Rudolph II between 1576 and 1611. Though Voynich may have believed Dee to be the earlier owner, however, there is no evidence to support this claim. Thus the theory that the whispers of angels may have had a hand in the creation of the Voynich manuscript is unfounded. Reddit is an online treasure trove of additional theories, the best of which are backed up with extensive scholarly research, and the worst of which are at the very least good for a laugh.

The mystery of the Voynich manuscript may never be solved. Its elegant, curvaceous script may forever remain as unintelligible symbols on a page. Its bewildering illustrations of pregnant women lolling about in pools of kelp-green water may always be, well, just bewildering illustrations. The finality of this realization is hard to swallow, especially for those who have dedicated months, or even years, of their lives to the study of this wily document. In defying interpretation, the Voynich manuscript has created a community of followers, connecting people across countries and generations in the pursuit of its secrets. Perhaps the magic of the Voynich manuscript is not located within the text itself, but in what it represents to those who study it. Whether it is centuries-old knowledge, unfathomable riches, or simply the satisfaction of a job well done, the idea of solving the Voynich riddle is undeniably enticing—perhaps, dare I say it, even more enticing than actually solving it. After all, who doesn't get a little thrill out of the chase?

Works Cited

Duffy, Eamon. "Secret Knowledgeor a Hoax?The New York Review of Books. 20 April 2017.

Hunt, Arnold. "Voynich the Buyer". Clemens and Harkness 11-21.

Rugg, Gordon. "An Elegant Hoax? A Possible Solution to the Voynich Manuscript." Cryptologia 28.1 (2004): 31-46. 

Sherman, William. "Cryptographic Attempts". Clemens and Harkness 40-43.

The Voynich Manuscript. Ed. Clemens, Raymond, and Deborah Harkness. New Haven: Yale UP, 2016.

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