Voynich manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is written in an unknown script.
The Voynich manuscript is written in an unknown script.

The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious illustrated book with incomprehensible contents. It is thought to have been written between approximately 1450 and 1520 by an unknown author in an unidentified script and unintelligible language.

Over its recorded existence, the Voynich manuscript has been the object of intense study by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including some top American and British codebreakers of World War II fame (all of whom failed to decipher a single word). This string of failures has turned the Voynich manuscript into a famous subject of historical cryptology, but it has also given weight to the theory that the book is simply an elaborate hoax — a meaningless sequence of arbitrary symbols.

The book is named after the Polish-American book-dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912. As of 2005, the Voynich manuscript is item MS 408 in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University. The first facsimile edition was published in 2005.[1]

Contents

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Description

By current estimates, the book originally had 272 pages in 17 quires of 16 pages each.[2] About 240 vellum pages remain today, and gaps in the page numbering (which seems to be later than the text) indicate that several pages were already missing by the time that Voynich acquired it. A quill pen was used for the text and figure outlines, and colored paint was applied (somewhat crudely) to the figures, possibly at a later date.

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Illustrations

The illustrations of the manuscript shed little light on its contents, but imply that the book consists of six "sections", with different styles and subject matter. Except for the last section, which contains only text, almost every page contains at least one illustration. The sections, and their conventional names, are:

The "herbal" section of the manuscript contains illustrations of plants.
The "herbal" section of the manuscript contains illustrations of plants.
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The text

The "biological" section of the manuscript has dense text and illustrations showing nude women bathing.
The "biological" section of the manuscript has dense text and illustrations showing nude women bathing.

The text was clearly written from left to right, with a slightly ragged right margin. Longer sections are broken into paragraphs, sometimes with "bullets" on the left margin. There is no obvious punctuation. The ductus (the speed, care, and cursiveness with which the letters are written) flows smoothly, as if the scribe understood what he was writing when it was written; the manuscript does not give the impression that each character had to be calculated before being put on the page.

The text consists of over 170,000 discrete glyphs, usually separated from each other by thin gaps. Most of the glyphs are written with one or two simple pen strokes. While there is some dispute as to whether certain glyphs are distinct or not, an alphabet with 20-30 glyphs would account for virtually all of the text; the exceptions are a few dozen "weird" characters that occur only once or twice each.

Wider gaps divide the text into about 35,000 "words" of varying length. These seem to follow phonetic or orthographic laws of some sort; e.g. certain characters must appear in each word (like the vowels in English), some characters never follow others, some may be doubled but others may not.

Statistical analysis of the text reveals patterns similar to natural languages.[3] For instance, the word frequencies follow Zipf's law, and the word entropy (about 10 bits per word) is similar to that of English or Latin texts.[citation needed] Some words occur only in certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript. There are very few repetitions among the thousand or so "labels" attached to the illustrations. In the herbal section, the first word on each page occurs only on that page, and may be the name of the plant.

On the other hand, the Voynich manuscript's "language" is quite unlike European languages in several aspects. For example, there are practically no words with more than ten "letters", yet there are also few one- or two-letter words. The distribution of letters within the word is also rather peculiar: some characters only occur at the beginning of a word, some only at the end, and some always in the middle section – an arrangement found in semitic languages, but not in the Latin, Greek or Cyrillic alphabets. (It should be noted, though, that the Greek sigma or the now-archaic Latin long s have a different form when it appears at the end of words; similarly, English capitalized letters, which usually appear only at the beginning of words, may vary dramatically from their lower-case version.)

The text seems to be more repetitious than typical European languages; there are instances where the same common word appears up to three times in a row. Words that differ only by one letter also repeat with unusual frequency.

There are only a few words in the manuscript written in a seemingly Latin script. In the last page, there are four lines of writing which are written in (rather distorted) Latin letters, except for two words in the main script. The lettering resembles European alphabets of the 15th Century, but the words do not seem to make sense in any language.[4] Also, a series of diagrams in the "astronomical" section has the names of ten of the months (from March to December) written in Latin script, with spelling suggestive of the medieval languages of France or the Iberian Peninsula.[5] However, it is not known whether these bits of Latin script were part of the original text, or were added at a later time.

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History

The illustrations in the "biological" section are linked by a network of pipes.
The illustrations in the "biological" section are linked by a network of pipes.

The history of the manuscript is still full of gaps, especially in its earliest part.[6] Since the manuscript's alphabet does not resemble any known script, and the text is still undeciphered, the only useful evidence as to the book's age and origin are the illustrations — especially the dress and hairstyles of the human figures, and a couple of castles that are seen in the diagrams. They are all characteristically European, and based on that evidence most experts assign the book to dates between 1450 and 1520. This estimate is supported by other secondary clues.

The earliest confirmed owner of the manuscript was a certain Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 17th century. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as we are today about this "Sphynx" that had been "taking up space uselessly in his library" for many years. On learning that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano, had published a Coptic (Ethiopian) dictionary and "deciphered" the Egyptian hieroglyphs, he sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome (twice), asking for clues. His 1639 letter to Kircher, which was recently located by Rene Zandbergen, is the earliest mention of the manuscript that has been found so far.

It is not known whether Kircher answered the request, but apparently he was interested enough to try to acquire the book, which Baresch apparently refused to yield. Upon Baresch's death the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci (Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector of Charles University in Prague; who promptly sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend and correspondent. Marci's cover letter (1666) is still attached to the manuscript.

There are no records of the book for the next 200 years, but in all likelihood it was kept, with the rest of Kircher's correspondence, in the library of the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University). It probably remained there until the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured the city in 1870 and annexed the Papal States. The new Italian government decided to confiscate many properties of the Church, including the library of the Collegio. According to investigations by Xavier Ceccaldi and others, just before this happened many books of the University's library were hastily transferred to the personal libraries of its faculty, which were exempt from confiscation. Kircher's correspondence was among those books—and so apparently was the Voynich manuscript, as it still bears the ex libris of Petrus Beckx, head of the Jesuit order and the University's Rector at the time.

Beckx's "private" library was moved to the Villa Mondragone, Frascati, a large country palace near Rome that had been bought by the Society of Jesus in 1866 and housed the headquarters of the Jesuits' Collegio Ghisleri.

Around 1912 the Collegio Romano was apparently short of money and decided to sell (very discreetly) some of its holdings. Wilfrid Voynich acquired 30 manuscripts, among them the manuscript that now bears his name. In 1930, after his death, the manuscript was inherited by his widow Ethel Lilian Voynich (known as the author of the novel The Gadfly). She died in 1960 and left the manuscript to her close friend, Miss Anne Nill. In 1961, Anne Nill sold the book to another antique book dealer Hans P. Kraus. Unable to find a buyer, Kraus donated the manuscript to Yale University in 1969.

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Theories about authorship

Many names have been proposed as possible authors of the Voynich manuscript. Following are only the most popular ones.

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Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon
Roger Bacon

Marci's 1665 cover letter to Kircher says that, according to his late friend Raphael Mnishovsky, the book had once been bought by Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia (1552–1612) for 600 ducats — around $30,800 as of 2005. According to the letter, Rudolf (or perhaps Raphael) believed the author to be the Franciscan friar and polymath Roger Bacon (1214–1294).

Even though Marci said that he was "suspending his judgment" about this claim, it was taken quite seriously by Voynich, who did his best to confirm it. His conviction strongly influenced most decipherment attempts for the next 80 years. However, scholars who have looked at the Voynich manuscript and are familiar with Bacon's works have flatly denied that possibility. One should note also that Raphael died in 1644, and the deal must have occurred before Rudolf's abdication in 1611—at least 55 years before Marci's letter.

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John Dee

John Dee
John Dee

The assumption that Roger Bacon was the author led Voynich to conclude that the person who sold the Voynich manuscript to Rudolf could only be John Dee, a mathematician and astrologer at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, known to have owned a large collection of Bacon's manuscripts. This theory is also conveyed by Voynich manuscript scholar Gordon Rugg. Dee and his scrier (mediumic assistant) Edward Kelley lived in Bohemia for several years where they had hoped to sell their services to the Emperor. However, Dee's meticulously kept diaries do not mention that sale, and make it seem quite unlikely. Anyway, if the Voynich manuscript author is not Bacon, the connection to Dee may just disappear. On the other hand, Dee himself may have written it and spread the rumour that it was originally a work of Bacon's in the hopes of later selling it.

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Edward Kelley

Edward Kelley
Edward Kelley

Dee's companion in Prague, Edward Kelley, was a self-styled alchemist who claimed to be able to turn copper into gold by means of a secret powder which he had dug out of a Bishop's tomb in Wales. As Dee's scrier, he claimed to be able to invoke angels through a shewstone, and had long conversations with them—which Dee dutifully noted down. The angel's language was called Enochian, after Enoch, the Biblical father of Methuselah; according to legend, he had been taken on a tour of Heaven by angels, and later written a book about what he saw there. Several people (see below) have suggested that, just as Kelley invented Enochian to dupe Dee [citation needed], he could have fabricated the Voynich manuscript to swindle the Emperor (who was already paying Kelley for his supposed alchemical expertise).

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Wilfrid Voynich

Voynich was often suspected of having fabricated the manuscript himself. As an antique book dealer, he probably had the necessary knowledge and means; and a "lost book" by Roger Bacon would have been worth a fortune. However, by expert internal dating of the manuscript, and the recent discovery of Baresch's letter to Kircher, many consider that possibility to have been eliminated.[7] Still, it should be noted that internal dating is often highly speculative and depends on many assumptions which may, themselves, be lacking in hard factual support. There has also been debate over what date the internal evidence suggests, with some scholars perceiving a more modern date. Further, Baresch's letter (and Marci's as well) only establish the existence of a manuscript; not that the Voynich manuscript is the same one spoken of there. In fact, their letters might even be taken as the motivation for Voynich to fabricate the manuscript (assuming he was aware of them), rather than as proofs authenticating it. But if a fabrication, the question arises as to why neither Voynich nor his widow ever attempted to sell it. To fabricate a document for profit but never attempt to sell it would be highly unusual. Fame rather than fortune might be speculated as a motive, but that would not explain why Voynich's widow never attempted to sell the manuscript after his death. All things considered, most who have studied the history of the manuscript do not believe that Voynich fabricated the document.

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Jacobus Sinapius

A photostatic reproduction of the first page of the Voynich manuscript, taken by Voynich sometime before 1921, showed some faint writing that had been erased. With the help of chemicals, the text could be read as the name 'Jacobj `a Tepenece'. This is taken to be Jakub Horcicky of Tepenec, who was also known by his Latin name: Jacobus Sinapius. He was a specialist in herbal medicine, Rudolph II's personal physician, and curator of his botanical gardens. Voynich, and many other people after him, concluded from this "signature" that Jacobus owned the Voynich manuscript before Baresch, and saw in that a confirmation of Raphael's story. Others have suggested that Jacobus himself could be the author.

However, that writing does not match Jacobus's signature, as found in a document recently located by Jan Hurich. So it is still possible that the writing on page f1r was added by a later owner or librarian, and is only this person's guess as to the book's author. (In the Jesuit history books that were available to Kircher, Jesuit-educated Jacobus is the only alchemist or doctor from Rudolf's court who deserves a full-page entry, while, for example, Tycho Brahe is barely mentioned.) Moreover, the chemicals applied by Voynich have so degraded the vellum that hardly a trace of the signature can be seen today; thus there is also the suspicion that the signature was fabricated by Voynich in order to strengthen the Roger Bacon theory.

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Jan Marci

Jan Marci met Kircher when he led a delegation from Charles University to Rome in 1638; and over the next 27 years, the two scholars exchanged many letters on a variety of scientific subjects. Marci's trip was part of a continuing struggle by the secularist side of the University to maintain their independence from the Jesuits, who ran the rival Clementinum college in Prague. In spite of those efforts, the two universities were merged in 1654, under Jesuit control. It has therefore been speculated that political animosity against the Jesuits led Marci to fabricate Baresch's letters, and later the Voynich manuscript, in an attempt to expose and discredit their "star" Kircher.

Marci's personality and knowledge appear to have been adequate for this task; and Kircher, a "Dr Know-It-All" who is today remembered more by his egregious mistakes than by his genuine accomplishments, was an easy target. Indeed, Baresch's letter bears some resemblance to a hoax that orientalist Andreas Mueller once played on Kircher. Mueller concocted an unintelligible manuscript and sent it to Kircher with a note explaining that it had come from Egypt. He asked Kircher for a translation, and Kircher, reportedly, produced one at once.

It is worth noting that the only proofs of Georg Baresch's existence are three letters sent to Kircher: one by Baresch (1639), and two by Marci (about a year later). It is also curious that the correspondence between Marci and Kircher ends in 1665, precisely with the Voynich manuscript "cover letter". However, Marci's secret grudge against the Jesuits is pure conjecture: a faithful Catholic, he himself had studied to become a Jesuit, and shortly before his death in 1667 he was granted honorary membership in their Order.

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Raphael Mnishovsky

Raphael Mnishovsky, the friend of Marci who was the reputed source of Bacon's story, was himself a cryptographer (among many other things), and apparently invented a cipher which he claimed was uncrackable (ca. 1618). This has led to the theory that he produced the Voynich manuscript as a practical demonstration of his cipher—and made poor Baresch his unwitting "guinea pig". After Kircher published his book on Coptic, Raphael (so the theory goes) may have thought that stumping him would be a much better trophy than stumping Baresch, and convinced the alchemist to ask the Jesuit's help. He would have invented the Roger Bacon story to motivate Baresch. Indeed, the disclaimer in the Voynich manuscript cover letter could mean that Marci suspected a lie. However, there is no definite evidence for this theory.

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Anthony Ascham

Dr Leonell Strong, a cancer research scientist and amateur cryptographer, tried to decipher the Voynich manuscript. Strong said that the solution to the Voynich manuscript was a "peculiar double system of arithmetical progressions of a multiple alphabet". Strong claimed that the plaintext revealed the Voynich manuscript to be written by the 16th century English author Anthony Ascham, whose works include A Little Herbal, published in 1550. Although the Voynich manuscript does contain sections resembling a herbal, the main argument against this theory is that it is unknown where Anthony would have obtained such literary and cryptographic knowledge.

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Multiple authors

Prescott Currier, a US Navy cryptographer who worked with the manuscript in the 1970s, observed that the pages of the "herbal" section could be separated into two sets, A and B, with distinctive statistical properties and apparently different handwritings. He concluded that the Voynich manuscript was the work of two or more authors who used different dialects or spelling conventions, but who shared the same script. However, recent studies have questioned this conclusion. A handwriting expert who examined the book saw only one hand in the whole manuscript. Also, when all sections are examined, one sees a more gradual transition, with herbal A and herbal B at opposite ends. Thus, Prescott's observations could simply be the result of the herbal sections being written in two widely separated time periods.

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Theories about contents and purpose

The overall impression given by the surviving leaves of the manuscript suggests that it was meant to serve as a pharmacopoeia or to address topics in medieval or early modern medicine. However, the puzzling details of illustrations have fueled many theories about the book's origins, the contents of its text, and the purpose for which it was intended. Here are only a few of them:

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Herbal

The first section of the book is almost certainly an herbal, but attempts to identify the plants, either with actual specimens or with the stylized drawings of contemporary herbals, have largely failed. Only a couple of plants (including a wild pansy and the maidenhair fern) can be identified with some certainty. Those "herbal" pictures that match "pharmacological" sketches appear to be "clean copies" of these, except that missing parts were completed with improbable-looking details. In fact, many of the plants seem to be composite: the roots of one species have been fastened to the leaves of another, with flowers from a third.

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Sunflowers

Brumbaugh believed that one illustration depicted a New World sunflower, which would help date the manuscript and open up intriguing possibilities for its origin. However, the resemblance is slight, especially when compared to the original wild species; and, since the scale of the drawing is not known, the plant could be many other members of the same family — which includes the common daisy, chamomile, and many other species from all over the world.

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Alchemy

The basins and tubes in the "biological" section may seem to indicate a connection to alchemy, which would also be relevant if the book contained instructions on the preparation of medical compounds. However, alchemical books of the period share a common pictorial language, where processes and materials are represented by specific images (eagle, toad, man in tomb, couple in bed, etc.) or standard textual symbols (circle with cross, etc.); and none of these could be convincingly identified in the Voynich manuscript.

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Alchemical herbal

Sergio Toresella, an expert on ancient herbals, pointed out that the Voynich manuscript could be an alchemical herbal—which actually had nothing to do with alchemy, but was a bogus herbal with invented pictures, that a quack doctor would carry around just to impress his clients. Apparently there was a small cottage industry of such books somewhere in northern Italy, just at the right epoch. However, those books are quite different from the Voynich manuscript in style and format; and they were all written in plain language.

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Astrological herbal

Astrological considerations frequently played a prominent role in herb gathering, blood-letting and other medical procedures common during the likeliest dates of the manuscript (see, for instance, Nicholas Culpeper's books). However, apart from the obvious Zodiac symbols, and one diagram possibly showing the classical planets, no one has been able to interpret the illustrations within known astrological traditions (European or otherwise).

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Microscopes and telescopes

This three-page foldout from the manuscript includes a chart that appears astronomical.
This three-page foldout from the manuscript includes a chart that appears astronomical.

A circular drawing in the "astronomical" section depicts an irregularly shaped object with four curved arms, which some have interpreted as a picture of a galaxy that could only be obtained with a telescope. Other drawings were interpreted as cells seen through a microscope. This would suggest an early modern, rather than a medieval, date for the manuscript's origin. However, the resemblance is rather questionable: on close inspection, the central part of the "galaxy" looks rather like a pool of water. Some of the images also look quite like sea urchins.

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Theories about the language

Many theories have been advanced as to the nature of the Voynich manuscript "language". Here is a partial list:

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Letter-based cipher

According to this theory, the Voynich manuscript contains a meaningful text in some European language, that was intentionally rendered obscure by mapping it to the Voynich manuscript "alphabet" through a cipher of some sort—an algorithm that operated on individual letters.

This has been the working hypothesis for most decipherment attempts in the twentieth century, including an informal team of NSA cryptographers led by William F. Friedman in the early 1950s. Simple substitution ciphers can be excluded, because they are very easy to crack; so decipherment efforts have generally focused on polyalphabetic ciphers, invented by Alberti in the 1460s. This class includes the popular Vigenère cipher, which could have been strengthened by the use of nulls and/or equivalent symbols, letter rearrangement, false word breaks, etc. Some people assumed that vowels had been deleted before encryption. There have been several claims of decipherment along these lines, but none has been widely accepted — chiefly because the proposed decipherment algorithms depended on so many guesses by the user that they could extract a meaningful text from any random string of symbols.

The main argument for this theory is that the use of a weird alphabet by a European author can hardly be explained except as an attempt to hide information. Indeed, Roger Bacon knew about ciphers, and the estimated date for the manuscript roughly coincides with the birth of cryptography as a systematic discipline. Against this theory is the observation that a polyalphabetic cipher would normally destroy the "natural" statistical features that are seen in the Voynich manuscript, such as Zipf's law. Also, although polyalphabetic ciphers were invented about 1467, variants only became popular in the sixteenth century, somewhat too late for the estimated date of the Voynich manuscript.

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Codebook cipher

According to this theory, the Voynich manuscript "words" would actually be codes to be looked up in a dictionary or codebook. The main evidence for this theory is that the internal structure and length distribution of those words are similar to those of Roman numerals—which, at the time, would be a natural choice for the codes. However, book-based ciphers are viable only for short messages, because they are very cumbersome to write and to read.

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Visual cipher

James Finn proposed in his book Pandora's Hope (2004)[8] that the Voynich manuscript is in fact visually encoded Hebrew. Once the Voynich letters have been correctly transcribed, using the European Voynich Alphabet (EVA) as a guide, many of the Voynich words can be seen as Hebrew words that repeat with different distortions to confuse the reader. For example, the word AIN from the manuscript is the Hebrew word for "eye", and it also appears in different distorted versions as "aiin" or "aiiin", to make it appear as though the words are different when in fact they are the same word. Other methods of visual encryption are used as well. The main argument for this view is that it would explain the lack of success that most other researchers have had in decoding the manuscript, because they are based on more mathematical approaches to the decryption. The main argument against it is that such a qualitative encoding places a heavy burden on the talents of the individual decoder, given the multiplicity of possible alternate visual interpretations of the same text. It would be hard to separate how much interpretation is of the genuine text, and how much simply reflects the bias of the original interpreter.

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Micrography

Following its 1912 rediscovery, one of the earliest efforts to unlock the book's secrets (and, indeed, the first of many premature claims of decipherment) was made in 1921 by William Newbold of the University of Pennsylvania. His singular hypothesis held that the visible text is meaningless itself, but that each apparent "letter" is in fact constructed of a series of tiny markings only discernible under magnification. These markings, based on ancient Greek shorthand, were supposed to form a second level of script that held the real content of the writing. Using this knowledge, Newbold claimed to have worked out entire paragraphs proving the authorship of Bacon and recording his use of a compound microscope four hundred years before Leeuwenhoek. However, John Manly of the University of Chicago pointed out serious flaws in this theory. Each shorthand character was assumed to have multiple interpretations, with no reliable way to determine which was intended for any given case. Newbold's method also required rearranging letters at will until intelligible Latin was produced. These factors alone ensure the system enough flexibility that nearly anything at all could be "read" in the microscopic markings, which in any case are themselves illusory. Although there is a tradition of Hebrew micrography, it is nowhere near as compact or complex as the shapes Newbold made out. Upon close study, these turn out to be mere artifacts of the way ink cracks as it dries on rough vellum, and an example of pareidolia. Thanks to Manly's thorough refutation, the micrography theory is today disregarded.

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Steganography

This theory holds that the text of the Voynich manuscript is mostly meaningless, but contains meaningful information hidden in inconspicuous details—e.g. the second letter of every word, or the number of letters in each line. This technique, called steganography, is very old, and was described by Johannes Trithemius in 1499. Some people suggested that the plain text was to be extracted by a Cardan grille of some sort. This theory is hard to prove or disprove, since stegotexts can be arbitrarily hard to crack. An argument against it is that using a cipher-looking cover text defeats the main purpose of steganography, which is to hide the very existence of the secret message.

Some people have suggested that the meaningful text could be encoded in the length or shape of certain pen strokes. There are indeed examples of steganography from about that time that use letter shape (italic vs. upright) to hide information. However, when examined at high magnification, the Voynich manuscript pen strokes seem quite natural, and substantially affected by the uneven surface of the vellum.

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Exotic natural language

The linguist Jacques Guy once suggested that the Voynich manuscript text could be some exotic natural language, written in the plain with an invented alphabet. The word structure is indeed similar to that of many language families of East and Central Asia, mainly Sino-Tibetan (Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese), Austroasiatic (Vietnamese, Khmer, etc.) and possibly Tai (Thai, Lao, etc.). In many of these languages, the "words" have only one syllable; and syllables have a rather rich structure, including tonal patterns.

This theory has some historical plausibility. While those languages generally had native scripts, these were notoriously difficult for Western visitors; which motivated the invention of several phonetic scripts, mostly with Latin letters but sometimes with invented alphabets. Although the known examples are much later than the Voynich manuscript, history records hundreds of explorers and missionaries who could have done it—even before Marco Polo's thirteenth century voyage, but especially after Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to the Orient in 1499. The Voynich manuscript author could also be a native from East Asia living in Europe, or educated at a European mission.

The main argument for this theory is that it is consistent with all statistical properties of the Voynich manuscript text which have been tested so far, including doubled and tripled words (which have been found to occur in Chinese and Vietnamese texts at roughly the same frequency as in the Voynich manuscript). It also explains the apparent lack of numerals and Western syntactic features (such as articles and copulas), and the general inscrutability of the illustrations. Another possible hint are two large red symbols on the first page, which have been compared to a Chinese-style book title, upside down and badly copied. Also, the apparent division of the year into 360 degrees (rather than 365 days), in groups of 15 and starting with Pisces, are features of the Chinese agricultural calendar (jie q`i). The main argument against the theory is the fact that no one (including scholars at the Academy of Sciences in Beijing) could find any clear examples of Asian symbolism or Asian science in the illustrations.

In late 2003, Zbigniew Banasik of Poland proposed that the manuscript is plaintext written in the Manchu language and gave an incomplete translation of the first page of the manuscript [3] [4].

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Polyglot tongue

In his book Solution of the Voynich Manuscript: A liturgical Manual for the Endura Rite of the Cathari Heresy, the Cult of Isis (1987), Leo Levitov declared the manuscript a plaintext transcription of a "polyglot oral tongue". This he defined as "a literary language which would be understandable to people who did not understand Latin and to whom this language could be read." His proposed decryption has three Voynich letters making a syllable, to produce a series of syllables that form a mixture of medieval Flemish with many borrowed Old French and Old High German words.

According to Levitov, the rite of Endura was none other than the assisted suicide ritual for people already believed to be near death, famously associated with the Cathar faith (although the reality of this ritual is also in question). He explains that the chimerical plants are not meant to represent any species of flora, but are secret symbols of the faith. The women in the basins with elaborate plumbing represent the suicide ritual itself, which he believed involved venesection: the cutting of a vein to allow the blood to drain into a warm bath. The constellations with no celestial analogue are representative of the stars in Isis' mantle.

This theory is questioned on several grounds. First, the Cathar faith is widely understood to have been a Christian gnosticism, and not in any way associated with Isis. Second, this theory places the book's origins in the twelfth or thirteenth century, which is considerably older than even the adherents to the Roger Bacon theory believe. Third, the Endura ritual involved fasting, not venesection. Levitov offered no evidence beyond his translation for this theory.

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Constructed language

The peculiar internal structure of Voynich manuscript "words" has led William F. Friedman and John Tiltman to arrive independently at the conjecture that the text could be a constructed language in the plain—specifically, a philosophical one. In languages of this class, the vocabulary is organized according to a category system, so that the general meaning of a word can be deduced from its sequence of letters. For example, in the modern constructed language Ro, bofo- is the category of colors, and any word beginning with those letters would name a color: so red is bofoc, and yellow is bofof. (This is an extreme version of the book classification scheme used by many libraries — in which, say, P stands for language and literature, PA for Greek and Latin, PC for Romance languages, etc.)

This concept is quite old, as attested by John Wilkins's Philosophical Language (1668), but still postdates the generally accepted origin of the VM by two centuries. In most known examples, categories are subdivided by adding suffixes; as a consequence, a text in a particular subject would have many words with similar prefixes — for example, all plant names would begin with the similar letters, and likewise for all diseases, etc. This feature could then explain the repetitious nature of the Voynich text. However, no one has been able yet to assign a plausible meaning to any prefix or suffix in the Voynich manuscript.

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Hoax

The bizarre features of the Voynich manuscript text (such as the doubled and tripled words), the suspicious contents of its illustrations (such as the chimeric plants), its lack of historical reference and persistent resistance to deciphering have led many people to conclude that the manuscript may be a hoax.

In 2003, computer scientist Gordon Rugg showed that text with characteristics similar to the Voynich manuscript could have been produced using a table of word prefixes, stems, and suffixes, which would have been selected and combined by means of a perforated paper overlay. The latter device, known as a Cardan grille, was invented around 1550 as an encryption tool, slightly after but contemporary to the estimated creation of the Voynich manuscript. Some maintain that since the pseudo-texts generated in Gordon Rugg's experiments do not have the precise words and frequencies as the Voynich manuscript, its resemblance to "Voynichese" is superficial.[citation needed]

The argument for authenticity is generally that the manuscript is simply too sophisticated to be a simple hoax. As mentioned, many serious linguists and historians have found much of the manuscript to be very complex and thought-provoking. Hoaxes, especially from this era, tend to be sloppy and crude. If the manuscript is a hoax, it is still a very elaborate one, and the question of why it was created remains just as unclear. Language scholars have noted that the manuscript shares certain word statistics (Zipf's law) with natural languages that random text generally lacks. On the other hand, some research indicates that random text demonstrates such features as well.[5] As even Rugg admits, the ability to hoax Voynich with early techniques does not necessarily imply that Voynich itself is a hoax. Neither is it impossible, even if unlikely, for random text to share some statistical similarity to natural languages. So neither position can be considered wholly dispositive.

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Glossolalia

In their book, Kennedy and Churchill hint to the possibility that the Voynich manuscript may be a case of glossolalia, channeling or outsider art.[9]

If this is true, then the author felt compelled to write large amounts of text in a manner which somehow resembles stream of consciousness, either due to "voices" heard, or due to his own urge. While in glossolalia this often takes place in an invented language (usually made up of fragments of the author's own language), invented scripts for this purpose are rare. Kennedy and Churchill use Hildegard von Bingens' works to point out similarities between the illustrations she drew when she was suffering from severe bouts of migraine, and show parallels to the illustrations in the manuscript, namely the "streams of stars" found throughout, and the repetitive nature of the "nymphs" in the balneological section.

The theory is virtually impossible to prove or disprove, short of deciphering the text; Kennedy and Churchill are themselves not convinced of the hypothesis, but consider it plausible. One of the drawbacks of this theory is that it fails to explain the deliberate structure of the manuscript and the carefully crafted astrological and botanical sections.

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Influence on popular culture

A number of items in popular culture appear to have been influenced, at least in part, by the Voynich manuscript.

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See also

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References

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Notes

  1. Le Code Voynich, the whole manuscript published with a short presentation in French, ed. Jean-Claude Gawsewitch, (2005) ISBN 2-35013-022-3.
  2. William Poundstone. Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge. ISBN 0-385-24271-9.
  3. Landini, Gabriel (October 2001). "Evidence of linguistic structure in the Voynich manuscript using spectral analysis". Cryptologia. Retrieved on 2006-11-06.
  4. Sean B. Palmer (2004), "Notes on f116v's Michitonese" [1]
  5. Sean B. Palmer (2004), "Voynich Manuscript: Months" [2]
  6. Voynich MS - Long tour: Known history of the manuscript
  7. Origin of the manuscript. Voynich MS. Retrieved on 2006-11-07.
  8. James E. Finn (2004). Pandora's Hope: Humanity's Call to Adventure : A Short and To-the-Point Essential Guide to the End of the World. PublishAmerica. ISBN 1-4137-3261-5.
  9. Gerry Kennedy, Rob Churchill (2004). The Voynich Manuscript. London: Orion. ISBN 0-7528-5996-X.
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Articles

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Books

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External links

Source material

General resources

Rugg hypothesis (that the manuscript is a hoax, constructed with a system of tables and templates:)

Various/Particular topics

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