By Scott Van Wynsberghe
Its name sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum thriller, and it has bamboozled generations of spies. An emperor reputedly once owned it, the Jesuits later acquired it and Yale University now has the infuriating thing. For those in the know, all that is needed is to roll one’s eyes and mutter about the Voynich Manuscript, which was discovered (or, technically, rediscovered) a century ago this year.
Wisely, Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library decided to be open about so controversial an item, and the entire manuscript has been [external] posted online for scrutiny. There, one finds an object that initially does not seem to merit the fuss.
Physically, the manuscript is not large and has been measured (at a laboratory hired by the Beinecke Library) at just 23.5 x 16.2 cm, or just over 9” x 6”. Nor is it very lengthy. It once had no more than 116 leaves (or folios), each numbered on only one side, but 14 of them vanished as much as centuries ago, so just 102 remain. Counting both sides of each leaf, that makes 204 “pages,” although purists can be fussy on that point. (For the record, the Beinecke Library follows the convention whereby the leaf or folio on the right side of an open book is referred to as “recto,” while the reverse of that same leaf is “verso.” Thus, instead of references like “page 9,” one instead gets “folio 9 recto.”)
Once the technical minutia is out of the way, however, amazement follows. The manuscript is handwritten in a tidy, curvy format that cannot be read by anyone. When the individual characters of the writing are transliterated into a format of Roman letters adopted by Voynich buffs for the sake of convenience, the text provides such extreme nonsense as: “yteedy qotal dol shedy qokedar chcthey otordoror qokal otedy qokedy qokedy dal qokedy qokedy skam.”
The writing is accompanied by hundreds of illustrations, which one would expect to provide some guidance, but the opposite is the case. The pictures include perplexing charts of the cosmos, lots of unidentified plants and images of naked women either bathing or interacting with a bizarre network of tubes. (And the tubes are not even phallic: Sometimes, the women are inside them.)
For such a dreadful conundrum, the world has one man to thank — rare-book dealer Wilfrid Voynich. A former student agitator in flight from imperial Russia, Voynich transplanted himself first to the U.K. and then (as of 1914) to the United States, all the while building a reputation as a connoisseur of ancient scribblings. At some point in 1912 — nobody seems to know precisely when — he found the manuscript that bears his name.
Up to his death in 1930, Voynich was so evasive about the details of his discovery that one might reasonably wonder if he himself created the manuscript. However, the document was radiocarbon tested at the University of Arizona in 2009, yielding an origin point in the early 1400s. As well, the correspondence of a renowned scholar of the 1600s, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, has revealed a handful of apparent references to the manuscript. One of his contacts, the Prague-based physician Johannes Marcus Marci, evidently sent the manuscript to him for interpretation in the mid-1660s.
So the manuscript is not a modern fraud, but its provenance still remains very sketchy. In a 1930 letter written by Voynich’s wife Ethel — and not opened until her own death in 1960 — it was somewhat clarified that Voynich found the manuscript, thanks to a Jesuit priest named Joseph Strickland, at Frascati, near Rome. Voynich buffs have taken that to mean the Jesuit centre at the Villa Mondragone, near Frascati, where Strickland worked. In any case, Ethel revealed that Fr. Strickland swore Voynich to secrecy, implying that the transaction was somehow dicey.
How the manuscript got to Frascati is murky but must have had something to do with the Jesuit Kircher and his presumed receipt of it from Dr. Marci. In turn, Kircher was told by Marci that the latter had obtained it through the will of a late friend, George Baresch (also known by the Latin handle of “Barschius”). As well, Marci had heard a claim that the manuscript was once owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (who reigned from 1576-1611), and ultraviolet examination of folio 1 recto has indeed revealed the faded signature of Rudolf’s chief botanist and alchemist, Jacobj à Tepenece.
Prior to Rudolf, however, there are at least 150 years of utter mystery. The very earliest theories about the manuscript centred on the English philosopher-monk Roger Bacon, who lived in the 1200s, but his era is ruled out by the radiocarbon test. In a 2011 article for the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, Voynich researcher Klaus Schmeh listed (and scoffed at) other candidates who have been proposed over the years, including artist Leonardo da Vinci, an Italian architect of the 1400s named Antonio Averlino and even an underground group of Cathar heretics. An English occultist, John Dee, has often come up, but online Voynich authority Philip Neal strongly discounts him.
Schmeh has wondered if the actual perpetrator may simply have been some unknown mentally ill person, but that looks impossible. Although all Voynich researchers may not agree, there has been a strong argument since the 1970s that the handwriting of the manuscript indicates at least two authors, not one. As well, linguist and computer expert Gordon Rugg has pointed out that the manuscript does not statistically conform to the known patterns of insane ravings, whatever its actual contents.
With the manuscript’s origin hopelessly obscure, Voynich enthusiasts have had no other choice but to try to crack the text. That daunting task has been made a little less grim by such online resources as the Beinecke Library (to which the manuscript was donated in 1969 by rare-book dealer H.P. Kraus, who bought it after Ethel Voynich’s death). Today, anyone can pretend to be a Voynich pundit. For much of its earlier history, however, the Voynich field was the preserve of a small circle of devotees — many of whom came from the shadows.
According to an historian of cryptology, David Kahn, Voynich consulted various authorities about his puzzling manuscript, and, in 1917, he approached MI-8, the U.S. military’s codebreaking unit during the First World War. The unit’s commander, Herbert O. Yardley, took a look at the manuscript, but it was a subordinate, John M. Manly, who became obsessed with it. When a possibly unhinged scholar named William R. Newbold began claiming in 1921 that he had solved the manuscript, Manly would lead the charge that discredited him. (Amusingly, Voynich was torn between the two men: The New York Timeslater revealed that both Manly and Newbold’s widow figured in Voynich’s will.)
Other significant intelligence personnel who joined the Voynich field in the decades to come were William F. Friedman (a legendary U.S. codebreaker of the Second World War), John H. Tiltman (a British contemporary of Friedman, also acclaimed), Prescott Currier (a U.S. Navy specialist), Yale University professor Robert S. Brumbaugh (previously a cipher sleuth for the U.S. Army) and Mary D’Imperio (whose highly regarded 1978 book on the manuscript can be consulted at the website of the National Security Agency).
Despite their skills, not one of the above was able to read the manuscript, leading to the growing suspicion that the text does not involve any encryption, because that would have been broken by now. And it may not even involve any actual language, either: In 2004, the aforementioned Gordon Rugg declared that the text was just gibberish — an ancient hoax possibly assembled through a non-functional version of a Renaissance coding technique called the “Cardan grille.” Rugg could not, however, explain why anyone in the Renaissance would do such a thing, nor did he address the amazing effort that went into the hundreds of illustrations. After a century of study, the Voynich Manuscript still mocks us.