History isn’t big on mystery. Absolute interpretation of events or symbolic meaning is deemed preferable to head scratching admissions of “your guess is as good as mine”. Troublesome historic anomalies languish in hinterlands. Bordered by tendrils of skepticism, bereft of plausible explanation, history delegates mystery to the dusty ranks of hoax.
Such is the Voynich Manuscript. Carbon dated to the early 15th century, the Voynich Manuscript is written in a completely unknown language. Characterized by countless illustrations of plants, astronomy and female nude figures, the manuscript is divided into “sections” according to supposed subject matter. Based on illustrations, speculation’s best guess settled on Voynich as a medical guide of sorts.
Unknown before 1912, the year antique book dealer Wilfred M. Voynich found it among manuscripts at villa Mondragone near Rome, text defies translation. Scholars agree on very little, beyond an alphabetic script of 19 – 28 characters matching no known language, Voynich remains an enigma. Recent computer analysis only deepened the mystery, suggesting Voynich’s 235 pages contain more than one “language”.
Over the years, a document some consider the Middle Ages greatest hoax occasionally met assertions of explanation – from the website World Mysteries, linked following..
A first “solution” was announced in 1919, by William Romaine Newbold (Newbold, 1921), who caused a sensation by claiming that the manuscript did indeed contain the work of Roger Bacon and that Bacon had known the use of the compound telescope and microscope, seeing the spiral structure of the Andromeda galaxy* (!) only visible with modern telescopes and cell structures unknown in the 13th Century.
What Newbold discovered in the text was absolutely astonishing— enough to gather a lot of attention from the scientific community. The biological drawings in the text were described asseminiferous tubes, the microscopic cells with nuclei, and even spermatozoa. Among the astronomical drawings were the descriptions of spiral nebulae, a coronary eclipse, and the comet of 1273. One of the more baffling things about this was that many of the drawings of plants, and of the galaxies appeared to have been invented. There was no doubt that if Bacon were the author of such a text, he must have had some way of obtaining the information.
Followed by –
In 1944, Hugh O’Neill, a renowned botanist at the Catholic University, identified various plants depicted in the manuscript as New-World species, in particular an American sunflower and a red pepper (O’Neill, 1944). This meant that the dating of the manuscript should be placed after 1493, when Columbus brought the first sunflower seeds to Europe. However, the identification is not certain: the red pepper is coloured green and the sunflower identification is equally contested.
Other people involved in the study of the manuscript were prominent cryptologists such as W. Friedman and J. Tiltman, who independently arrived at the hypothesis that the manuscript was written in an artificial, constructed language. This was based on the structure of the “words” as described below. Such artificial languages were devised at least a century after the probable date of the Voynich manuscript. Only the ‘Lingua Ignota’ of Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) predates the Voynich manuscript by several centuries, but this language does not exhibit the structure observed by Friedman and Tiltman, and it provides only nouns and a few adjectives.
Friedman came to know Petersen who at some time presented his hand transcription and other material to him. After Friedman’s death, all the material was moved to the W.F. Friedman collection of the Marshall Foundation. Recently, electronic versions of the transcriptions made by Friedman’s groups were produced from the typed sheets and made available on the Internet (Reeds, 1995).
Later acclaimed solutions see in the manuscript a simple substitution cipher which can only decode isolated words (Feely, 1943), the first use of a more or less sophisticated cipher (Strong, 1945; Brumbaugh, 1977), a text in a vowel-less Ukrainian (Stojko, 1978) or the only surviving document of the Cathar movement (Levitov, 1987). No acceptable plaintext has ever been produced though.
Whatever the Voynich Manuscript might be, any document that eludes translation for 500 years, deserves a ponder.
“Tiny naked women frolicking in bathtubs” – a fragment of page 70
Copyright: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale UniversityPage 70r Image Source >>