The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript
The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious, undeciphered illustrated book. It is thought to have been written in the 15th or 16th century. The author, script, and language of the manuscript remain unknown. 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 decrypt any portion of the text).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 Voynich MS is a book or “codex” which counted at least 116 parchment folios, of which 104 remain. The folio size is 6 by 9 inches, but some folios are two or three times that size and are folded to fit in the book. There is one large composite of six times this size (18 by 18 inches). The MS is written in an elegant, but otherwise unknown script and almost all pages of the MS contain illustrations. It is about 1.5 inches thick and has a blank limp vellum cover that does not contain any indication of age, authorship or origin.
Both the illustrations and the script of the manuscript are unique. As long as the script cannot be read, the illustrations are the only clue about the nature of the book. According to these illustrations, the manuscript would appear to be a scientific book, mostly an illustrated herbal with some additional sections.
When Wilfrid Voynich first saw the manuscript, he immediately considered the 13th Century Franciscan friar Roger Bacon as its possible author. He then embarked on a thorough study of the MS’s history, in the hope of being able to prove this. While that would make the Voynich MS an incredibly important and valuable document in the history of science, a fact to which an antiquarian book dealer would not have been insensitive, it is apparent from the way in which he perfomed his search that he seems to have genuinely believed that Bacon was the writer of the Voynich MS.
Many solutions to the Voynich MS have been suggested in the past, and they all come with a proposed time and place of origin. Since none of these solutions has been generally accepted, the associated hypotheses of the origin cannot be confirmed. Additionally, analyses of the illustrations, the script and the text statistics have led to suggestions for the origin of the Voynich MS.
According to the “letter-based cipher” 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 deciphering attempts in the twentieth century, including an informal team of NSA cryptographers led by William F. Friedman in the early 1950s.
The main argument for this theory is that the use of a strange 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.
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. It has been 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.
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.
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) and its lack of historical reference support the idea that the manuscript is really a hoax. In other words, if no one is able to extract meaning from the book, perhaps this is because the document contains no meaningful content in the first place. The argument for authenticity, on the other hand, is that the manuscript appears too sophisticated to be a hoax.
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