Perhaps the world’s greatest literary mystery, the Voynich Manuscript has been plaguing code crackers for roughly 700 years.
At 240 pages, the medieval manuscript is written in an unknown or coded language and filled with pictures of exotic plants, naked figures and the stars. Nobody knows what it actually is, or where it originated.
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It isn’t just the indecipherable language that renders the book a mystery.
The subject matter of the manuscript is primarily derived from its illustrations. Plants, astrology, cosmology, biology, apothecary, pharmaceuticals and what appears to be recipes, all appear in its pages.
The most obvious conclusion that has been drawn is that the manuscript is actually a book on pharmacology. However, if you look closely at the drawings you may notice something quite odd — many of the plants are composite, two or more objects fancifully stitched together. This isn’t exactly the mark of a text that is strictly medicinal.
In fact, not one theory behind the manuscript’s purpose holds up completely — which makes sense when investigators have so little to go on.
The Voynich Manuscript seems to be a mixed bag of scientific and pseudo-scientific study, some of which matches the knowledge and equipment being used at the time of its conception, and some of which doesn’t.
There are several reasons why the Voynich Manuscript has evaded the understanding of expert cryptographers for hundreds of years.
Firstly, the vast majority is written in an indecipherable language with unique characters, instantly making it more difficult to tackle. Even if a simple substitution cipher (where each symbol represented a particular letter) had been used to code it, which real-world language did it originally apply to?
Latin, German, Italian Mesoamerican and East Asian languages, amongst many more, have all been theorised.
Secondly, nobody knows the rules to the cipher. Perhaps it’s a group of symbols that represent a single letter or even entire words in a real language. Maybe fake characters have been added to represent spaces or to simply complicate the encryption.
Finally, it may not be a simple substitution cipher. Imagine if a polyalphabetic cipher had been used — where multiple cipher alphabets are utilised simultaneously? And that’s just one possibility.
When you take these points into consideration, it all becomes incredibly complicated — and confusing — quite quickly.
Matters become further convoluted when you check the margins of some of the pages. Some of them contain notes in a variety of languages, including German, medieval French and Latin.
Sadly, these margin notes haven’t been accurately dated — though it seems logical that they were added later, particularly as there is allegedly evidence to suggest that the manuscript itself has been rearranged throughout history.
Carbon dating places the creation of the manuscript between 1404 and 1438 and both the text and illustrations have been determined as characteristically European.
Despite this, nothing is known about the first two centuries of its existence. The first confirmed recording of the manuscript only dates back to 1639, from a letter written by its then-owner, Georg Baresch — an alchemist from Prague.
Hoping to crack the book, he requested the help of Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, who had recently published a Coptic dictionary that could allegedly help decipher hieroglyphics. Kircher tried to get his hands on the manuscript himself, but wasn’t successful until after Baresch’s death.
The book arrived with a note, written by the rector of the Charles University in Prague, that has some interesting claims regarding the manuscript’s history. Part of it reads:
“Dr. Raphael, a tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book belonged to the Emperor Rudolph and that he presented to the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman. On this point I suspend judgement; it is your place to define for us what view we should take thereon…”
As far as history dictates, Kircher was unsuccessful in deciphering and sadly there was no record of it for another 200 years. However, it is generally believed that it remained in the collection of Collegio Romano, where Kircher taught.
This is because the college — now named the Pontifical Gregorian University — was short on money in the early 20th century. In 1912 the school decided to sell some of its collections, including 30 manuscripts that were purchased by Polish book dealer, Wilfrid Voynich.
Despite his attempts to have the manuscript deciphered by a variety of scholars, Voynich died without ever knowing the secrets of the book that now bears his name. After passing through several more owners during the 20th century, it was eventually donated to Yale University in 1969.
Of course, hoax theories are also woven into the history of the manuscript.
Some believe that as an antique book expert, Voynich himself may have manufactured it. A medieval manuscript with Roger Bacon’s name attached would have been worth a lot — although this doesn’t fit with the historical accounts of the book or its carbon dating.
Others think that the hoax may have originated from Baresch and Kircher’s time. The letter that came from the manuscript when it was delivered to Kircher was written by Joannes Marcus Marci, who was a good friend of Raphael Sobiehrd-Mnishovsky, a lawyer who had a judicial post under both Emperor Rudolph and Ferdinand II.
He was the source of the Roger Bacon story and, funnily enough, a cryptographer who claimed to have invented an uncrackable cipher. Was he perhaps putting his theory into practice?
Will It Ever Be Cracked?
Considering the complex nature of the language, it has always seemed rather unlikely. At least until recently.
In 2014, Stephen Bax, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire, claimed to have deciphered 14 of the mystery characters and used them to identify some of the drawings, such as coriander juniper and hellebore.
In a statement, Bax said, “I hit on the idea of identifying proper names in the text, following historic approaches which successfully deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs and other mystery scripts, and I then used those names to work out part of the script.”
“The manuscript has a lot of illustrations of stars and plants…I was able to identify some of these, with their names, by looking at medieval herbal manuscripts in Arabic and other languages, and I then made a start on a decoding, with some exciting results.”
Further hope comes in the form of publication. In early 2016 a small Spanish publishing house that specialises in old documents won the right to clone and distribute the manuscript — including every tear, stain and blemish.
The theory is that if more people have access to the manuscript, the more likely it will get cracked. But before you get too excited, only 898 clones will be created (the number is a palindrome and chosen purposely) and will cost between £6,000 to £6,900.
Perhaps over the next few years the mystery will finally be solved.