The Enigma of the Voynich Manuscript: History or Hoax?
In 1912, a Polish-American book dealer named Wilfrid M. Voynich went to Rome on an acquisitions trip. There he happened upon a trunk that contained a rare manuscript now known as the Voynich manuscript. Since its appearance, this document—which is now under lock and key at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript library at Yale—has been studied extensively and has stumped even the most successful cryptographers and code breakers. You must be asking yourself why the intrigue? The answer is simple: the book is almost entirely illegible.
Very little is known about this book, though it has recently begun to volunteer some of its secrets. What is known about this mysterious book? The 240 vellum, or calfskin paper, pages that remain have been radiocarbon dated back to the early 15 th century—between 1404 and 1438 to be precise—and the pages are numbered up to 116, though probably not by the original author. In fact, entire pages are missing, and sections of the book appear to have been removed or rearranged, with the missing pages probably long gone by the time Voynich discovered it. Also, the script was penned from left to right, and the author was very familiar with the language as there are no mistakes.
Yet what is unknown still outweighs that which has been discovered about this elusive book. Experts estimate the original text may have contained as many as 272 pages, though who took the pages and why can only be speculated. The author is also unidentified, as is the obscure language used throughout the text. Even many of the illustrations remain enigmatic, as many of the plants portrayed in the book—which are often crudely drawn—are unidentifiable, and the numerous pictures of nude women are involved in inexplicable acts.
As previously mentioned, very little can be made of the cryptic language used throughout the text. Many experts believe this was a language constructed by the author to hide secret information, though it does not follow any known code, causing some to speculate that the book is nothing more than an elaborate hoax. The text contains few similarities to established languages, one of which is similar word entropy to both Latin and English. Again, the differences are far more numerous. Some words only appear in certain sections, some letters only in certain places in words. The repetition of wording is also peculiar, and does not follow any identifiable rhythm. For example, in some places a word can be repeated three times simultaneously. Could this be a language somehow be constructed based on limited recognized etymological and phonetic principles for the sake of concealing knowledge, or is it conceivable to believe it was carefully constructed to deceive readers into thinking that it is hiding valuable information? While most of this text remains a mystery, the author did include limited Latin script which appears in some of the astronomical charts and the last section of text , though these offer no further clues.
Almost every page in the text, except for the section at the end, contains at least one illustration. These illustrations provide a method of division, sectioning the text off into 6 topics: astronomical, biological, cosmological, herbal, pharmaceutical, recipes.
- Astronomical: This section is composed of charts and diagrams. The Latin names for the ten months are included, as well as 12 diagrams that use conventional symbols for the constellations. Each of the 12 diagrams also contains a series of 30 female nudes that, when rotated, actually generates a moving image.
- Biological: This section contains many partial nudes of women among some type of possible pipe work.
- Cosmological: Many circular diagrams can be found here, as well as foldout pages, one of which contains a potential map that spans 6 pages. The inclusion of foldouts is unusual for this period, and suggests that the book was a great expense to the author.
- Herbal: At first glance, this is seemingly similar to other books that describe herbs and their uses. Each page displays a different plant, though many of the plants are unidentifiable, and may be compiled from the parts of various plants. Some of the plants depicted here also appear in the pharmaceutical section.
- Pharmaceutical: This section appears more like an alchemist’s book, containing plant parts and alchemy jars surrounded by what appear to be descriptions.
- Recipes: This section contains short paragraphs separated by stars that seem to function as bullets.
If this is an attempt to hide secret information, then who did it and why? What was the author hiding…or protecting? To ponder on this question, we first have to identify the originator of the manuscript. Speculation begins with Roger Bacon , an English clergyman and Franciscan monk in the 13 th century referred to as a ‘Doctor Mirabilis’, or the miracle doctor, who was known for his use of experimental research in the study of nature, a.k.a alchemy. In fact, he is mentioned in a letter to Athenasues Cursuer as the original author, which coincidentally increased the value of the manuscript. Bacon was a monk who believed that nature should be studied through systematic experimentation. Some even credit him for his contribution to the formation of the scientific method, though others believe this to be a stretch. The problem with this theory is that it does not coincide with the date provided by radiocarbon testing. If the testing is accurate, then he could not have been the author of the manuscript.