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The Voynich Manuscript: A Health Manual or a Hoax?

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The hand-written document from the Middle Ages runs to 234 pages and nobody knows what it means. There are peculiar drawings of naked women and strange-looking plants, while the text is written in an incomprehensible language. It appears to be a compendium of medical knowledge, astrological interpretations, and herbal remedies. Beyond that there is nothing but mystery.


A typical page.

A typical page.

The Voynich Manuscript Is Discovered

The manuscript measures 22.5 cm × 16 cm (8.9 × 6.3 inches) and is inscribed on velum, that is animal skin. It is bound as a book rather than as a scroll. The illustrations show it is divided into sections covering botany, astronomy/astrology, biology, cosmology, and pharmaceuticals. The text itself has, so far, not been deciphered.

It has been radiocarbon-dated to early in the 15th century, so that rules out the notion that it’s a fairly recent hoax; unless it’s a very early one.

For 200 years after its creation there is no evidence of possession by anyone. Then, early in the 17th century, the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II bought the document. The purchase price is said to have been 600 ducats, that's about $70,600 in today's money. Over the next 100 years there is documentation about the chain of ownership.

Late in the 16th century, the book was acquired by the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome where it resided for two centuries. In 1912, rare book dealer Wilfrid Voynich bought the book from a Jesuit college near Rome.

Wilfrid Voynich amid his antiquarian texts.

Wilfrid Voynich amid his antiquarian texts.

Who Wrote The Voynich Manuscript?

Various candidates for the authorship of the book have been put forward, and each one has been subsequently dismissed by scholars.

One of the early suspects was the English philosopher Roger Bacon who was accorded the flattering title of Doctor Mirabilis. Then, radiocarbon-dating technology came along and placed the creation of the manuscript to more than 100 years after Bacon died.

Another candidate is the Dominican friar Albertus Magnus, but he died in 1280 so the radiocarbon test rules him out as well.

The fact is, the creator of the book was probably that most prolific of all writers—anonymous.

Decoding the Voynich Manuscript

The text is written in a form that looks like Roman script, but not quite. What looks like letters “o” and “a” and “w” appear alongside other characters that bear no resemblance to our 26-letter alphabet.

The text is written in lines with breaks between what can be interpreted as words.

Lots of people with mighty qualifications in the cryptography trade and other specialties have tried to break the code; if it is indeed a code.

It has been said that trying to crack the mystery of the Voynich manuscript causes academic careers to die. And yet, many scholars can't resist the challenge.

One of the first to have a go was University of Pennsylvania philosopher William Newbold; he had a side interest in cryptography. In 1921, he said each letter was a group of very small symbols that could only be deciphered by using a microscope. It follows that it could only have been created using a microscope, but the instrument wasn't invented until after the book was produced.

William and Elizebeth Friedman were among the world's foremost codebreakers; they deciphered messages in both world wars. The Voynich manuscript shouldn't be too much of as challenge for this couple. It was.

Even the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, who broke the Nazi ciphers during World War II, was bamboozled.

More recently, computational power has been turned loose on the book only to demonstrate the limitations of digital technology. Computer scientists at the University of Alberta suggested the weird script was some kind of higgledy-piggledy Hebrew. Somebody else thought it was a form of Turkish. Both these theories have been ditched along with Klingon and Pig Latin.

A page of so far undeciphered text.

A page of so far undeciphered text.

Has the Voynich Manuscript Been Solved?

The headline in The Times Literary Supplement read “Voynich Manuscript: the Solution.” It was September 2017, and historian Nicholas Gibbs announced the script was a commonly used form of abbreviated Latin; it's not code, it's just shorthand. Also, said Gibbs, whoever the scribe was the content was plagiarized from earlier medical texts, and the subject matter dealt with women's health.

But, here comes Annalee Newitz at Ars Technica: “Unfortunately, say experts, his (Gibbs's) analysis was a mix of stuff we already knew and stuff he couldn't possibly prove.”

In April 2019, Ancient Origins announced “Voynich Manuscript Is Solved and this Time It’s Academic.” This alleged breakthrough was the work of Gerard Cheshire at the U.K.'s Bristol University. He said the text was written by Dominican nuns in something he called a lost Proto-Romance language. Dr. Cheshire claimed it was a medical reference created for Maria of Castile, Queen or Aragon.

But, when the “solution” was published it caused a bit of a fuss among experts. This prompted the university to announce that “Following media coverage, concerns have been raised about the validity of this research from academics in the fields of linguistics and medieval studies.” And, another academic career goes into the wood chipper.

Robert Richards is a University of Chicago historian. He wonders whether the Voynich manuscript “may be, after all, just a medieval nonsense joke.”

Perhaps, there is no message to be unraveled. Although the medievalist Philip Neal has said “I haven't given up hope that the manuscript contains meaning.”

Perhaps it was written by aliens and this is their spaceship, or maybe it's a Venus fly trap.

Perhaps it was written by aliens and this is their spaceship, or maybe it's a Venus fly trap.

Bonus Factoids

  • Hans P. Kraus was an Austrian antiquarian book dealer who bought the Voynich manuscript in 1961 for $24,500. He tried to sell it with an asking price of $160,000, but got no takers. Kraus donated it to the Beinecke Library at Yale University in 1969, where it still resides.
  • During the Cold War (1947-1991) the FBI tried to untangle the Voynich manuscript because they suspected it might be Communist propaganda.
  • The cryptologist William Friedman, who failed to solve the Voynich manuscript mystery, also tried, without success, to prove that the plays of William Shakespeare we written by Sir Francis Bacon.

Sources

  • “The Strange Quest to Crack the Voynich Code.” Jillian Foley, undark.org, February 12, 2020
  • “Voynich Manuscript: the Solution.” Nicholas Gibbs, Times Literary Supplement, September 8, 2017.
  • “The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript Has Finally Been Decoded.” Annalee Newitz, Ars Technica, September 8, 2017.
  • “The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained.” Gerard Cheshire, Romance Studies, April 29, 2019.
  • “Voynich Manuscript Translation Claims Raise 'Concerns.' ” BBC, May 17, 2019.
  • “The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript.” Gordon Rugg, Scientific American, July 2004.
  • “World's Most Mysterious Book May Be a Hoax.” John Whitfield, Nature, December 17, 2003.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 01, 2021:

Rupert, what a wonderful and interesting read. Methought the writer is hidding some health or medical knowledge she don't want to share, because the menfolks would not credit her. It was so in the fields of science. And since the characters a, w, o are know, they may symbolized something other than common usuage the author intend.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on June 01, 2021:

I'm pretty sure it is not pig-latin, but certainly an engrossing and intriguing manuscript. Please let us know if you hear of any further updates.

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