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.
The Voynich manuscript is also thought to have once been in the possession of ‘Jacobj aTepen’, or Jakub Horcicky of Tepenec, a medical doctor who lived from 1575-1622 and was known far and wide for his herbal medicinal use. His name was discovered on the first page of the manuscript. An attempt had been made to remove it, though a photostatic reproduction revealed its presence; however, the penmanship was not analogous to Tepenec’s signature, and the dating of the book, again, disallows for him to have been the original author.
One idea cannot be disputed, and that is the apparent relation of the book to the practice of alchemy, which would explain the need for secrecy. Alchemy was an early precursor to scientific study and was practiced worldwide, though the practice in Europe became suspect by the Catholic Church, and as history has shown, anything suspect by the church was either driven out or underground. Regardless, alchemy was an obscure and secretive study whose practitioners often used symbols to conceal the study and use of their art. An alchemist was known for his individual ability and skill, and kept his procedures private to retain this repute—like hiding his secret recipes. As far as the practice of alchemy, it was as much an art as it was a science, and the medieval tradition was to represent plants allegorically to show their potential for healing and other uses, which may explain the abstract representations of plants portrayed in the herbal section of the manuscript. It also explains the inclusion of astrological illustrations, as astrology was very important in the use of herbs as treatments.
Despite this fact, growing support for the fraudulence of the book cannot be denied. Gordon Rugg, an English psychologist working at Keele University near Manchester, England, believed that he debunked the authenticity of the book using a method of analysis he developed and termed the ‘verifier method’. This method works according to the verity that many scientific quandaries have been cracked, if you will, by people who were not experts in the field in question. Rugg, in fact, spent a career at studying how specialists functioned in their respective fields so that he could offer them solutions to problem-solving—or fill in the gaps their expertise surpassed. Rugg argues that the author of the manuscript left clues behind to his method, mostly the blank spots and missing pages, so that he would not have to correct mistakes. After all, who would notice if the document was indecipherable? If anything, it would—and did—only add to the mystique of the script.
But why create such a fraud? Money would, naturally, as well as prestige. The intrigue around the book increases the value—much like the way scandal increases the value of…well, anyone—and through time a significant amount of money has been spent for this book. In fact, the Roman emperor Rudolph II (1152-1612)—who believed the book was the work of Roger Bacon—spent the equivalent of about $30,000.00 for it. Yet, who could have done it? Could an expert in books like Voynich have created such an elaborate fraud? Some skeptics believe this could be the case. While testing has confirmed that the materials used to create the book were those commonly used in the 15 th century, and no trace elements of the 19 th or 20 th century were found—part of one of the arguments for the document’s authenticity—those materials are acquirable even today. This makes falsification of an ‘important’ book possible when executed by the right person.
Many hoax proponents also point to con artist Edward Kelley (1555-1597), who was a known counterfeiter. He worked his way into John Dee’s household as a medium for angels. Dee was the official astrologer of Queen Elizabeth I and Kelley became his scrier. Kelley was also an alchemist who claimed to be able to make gold from copper. Of course, this was another of his rackets. Now let us connect the dots. Emperor Rudolph II was also one of Kelley’s victims, having bought many of his fraudulent works. In fact, John Dee owned a collection of Roger Bacon’s works. Dee may, in fact, have sold the manuscript to the emperor—a manuscript possibly created by Kelley.
If the radiocarbon dating holds true, none of these scenarios are plausible, putting researchers back at square one. In fact, it seems that the only consistency regarding the Voynich manuscript is the inconsistency it boasts. History or hoax? For now, no one can tell.
By E.C. Rammel