The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript

14Sep09

Voynich-1The 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.

Description

Awr 6Vm2-1The 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.

Origins

Voynich Manuscript Bathtub Example 77V CroppedWhen 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.

Interpretation

Ciphers

Voynich Manuscript Recipe Example 107R CropAccording 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.

Steganography

VoynichscreensampleThis 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.

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.

Hoax?

Voynich-Partof F78RThe 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.

Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Text is derived from Wikipedia.

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32 Responses to “The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript”

  1. 1 aceman

    one word… “E.T”

  2. 2 Kimberly

    Another great article. I’m curious though, couldn’t they carbon date the pages to get a rough estimate of how old it really is?

  3. 3 Andrew

    Interesting article 🙂 I’m of a mind that some particularly annoying person just made it up a few centuries ago to be mercurial and interesting. @Kimberly: From what I can make out, it has not been carbon dated. If it was though there are a couple of problems. Firstly, if the vellum it was written was dated it might mean nothing. Old vellum, parchment, paper etc is often used to produce counterfeit documents- the material it’s written on might be that old, but the actual document may have been written last week. The second thing, and I don’t know how true this really is, is that because the possible dates are, archeologically speaking, very recent the range of dates the carbon dating would indicate might be so wide that it’s completely pointless.

    • 4 dusk

      i agree andrew. carbon dating is a fairly unstable dating method of late. however, there is another process by which an amount of usable data could be construed. if one were to obtain a sample of the ink used to write the MS, the specific markers in the chemical makeup could point to a region to which it came from. inks are different around the world since they are made of just about anything. it could also be carbon dated since it cantains biological matter. what do you think?

    • Yeah,I know of a process where parchment is taken from Israeli digs,and then the perpatrator will recover carbon(for ink) from Pompeii and use these materials to produce an “authentic” document.
      This is the same.
      I’ve longed played with my own “alien” language,similar to a binary pattern.It torques off my associates who have to the mixer consoles with those labels,after me. 😉

  4. 6 Naomi

    I agree with Kimberly, hasn’t anyone done any kind of scientific tests on it to try determine an age or origin? Surely it would be helpful as maybe they could then base their efforts to decipher it on what kind of techinques were around at the time the pages were made…?

  5. 7 sonicsuicide

    Carbon dating is never used on manuscripts but there are other means. One could analyze the ink used. Composition of the ink and set indentations could indicate a date. Brush strokes? Instrument?

  6. I think it has been dated to at least the 1500s.

  7. 9 Lim of St.Francis Institution and MMU

    What is wrong with SECONNNNNNNN!!!!!??????

  8. 10 Andrew

    Hi, jfrater- I’m really like your new site, so thanks. Do you know how it was dated? I’m guessing the ink composition maybe? I’d be curious to know. And what is wrong with SECONNNNNNNN!!!!!!??? Hmmm, aside from pointlessness, unnecessary capitalisation, crap punctuation, immaturity and the fact that no-one really gives a flying fuck whether you’re first, second or eight hundred and ninety first, I really don’t know.

  9. 11 Zenayda

    Considering a friend of mine just told me yesterday that he wants to set up a business where people hire him to annoy the shit outta their friends – someone writing this to wreck peoples’ heads doesn’t seem too much of a stretch.

  10. 12 Openeyed

    WOW! I found the entire Manuscript for free here (53.62 MB):

    http://awesta.sibirjak.ru/files/Voynich.pdf

    Thanks for another thought provoking article jfrater!

  11. 13 Awj

    glad to see the source attribution at the end!

    Interesting article. I wonder what motives one might have to fake something this complex.. those could be just as interesting as what the content might be if its real.

  12. 14 Dirtysingingbird

    @Andrew (8) – Don’t quote me on this but I am sure that I read somewhere that there are problems with carbon dating that prevent it from being accurately dated if it is within the last 1000 years or so (something to do with the decay spreading or something – SO not my area of knowledge).
    But there are some other ways which I think that it could be dated, such as the type of vellum used, the types of binding on the books etc. But of course this could be misleading especially if it has be rebound etc.

    I’ve always loved reading about the manuscript, although I have to say that my fingers are crossed that it is not an hoax. How disappointing would that be? All that work (and incredibly detailed drawings…oh, I seem to remember also reading somewhere that no one has been able to identify the plants in the book. Is this true?

    Oh, and JFrater – AMAZING site. Listverse was always a highlight of my week, but I think that you have hit onto a real winner here. Bless your NZish socks.

  13. 15 MehDude

    The plants on herbal section some of them are difficult to be identified with the plants known right now. Even some of them appear to be composites of several plants drawn on the book. Is it a prove that the book is just a hoax or the plants drawn are extinct today?

    • 16 C N

      I don’t think so. You have to take into account stylization and, like you said, extinction.

  14. 17 Looser

    isn’t it possible that it’s a made up language?? like i know that people like JRR Tolkien and other fantasy writers have made up languages

    • 18 dusk

      yeah yeah. i remember as a child i wasz always coming up with weird languages and codes for use with my friends so that icky girls and stupid adults couldnt find out about all my secrets. lol

  15. 19 BuzzDJT

    Much as I absolutely love to think that there is some hidden cypher, which will translate it into a list of natural medicines for desease, I have found a more credible explanation.

    http://xkcd.com/593/

    it does seem to make more sense, if it was to be an elaborate hoax, i don’t think this much work would go into it.

    • 20 dusk

      bwahahahahahaa!!! classic!!

    • 21 Sojourner

      Well honestly hadn’t considered that, did they find the dice?

  16. 22 Switchy

    Wilfred M Voynich himself was always more worthy of note to me, lots of access to vellum, excellent with languages, chemistry and medieval art.
    Famous in the book dealing world he ‘found’ lots of rare manuscripts while trading through London and New York. Tiny bit suspicious?

    Mind you, as interesting as he is, his wife Ethel well, she really was interesting – described by Russians as an important as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens for western literature, saying ‘for us she is a second God’…

  17. 23 TKJ

    I don’t know about everyone else but the drawings of the plants, well, they look like nothing I have ever seen here on Earth. Strange looking . I am going to go an look at the link to the entire manuscript but just from the images above I can say I have never seen plants like those before. Anyone else?

  18. 24 Paul R Wilson

    Voynich manuscript – Beale papers- and others.

    I myself invented a text for one of my fantasy fics: The Ordog text. It’s cracking explained what was going on. It needed however mathematical knowledge not uncovered by outsiders 500 years ago…

    I think the Voynich book was the work of a lunatic, just as the Beale papers are a hoax. Why should paper #2 be easily cracked and papers #1 and 3 be stubbornly resistant. The author, the recipients and the publisher were all -the same person !

  19. 25 Paul R Wilson

    My hypothesis that it was the work of a lunatic is based on the art as well as the “text”: I have seen similar pictures in the Prinzhorn collection of the art brut of institutionalized schizophrenics, psychotics, etc.. who were encouraged to express themselves in art 7 scultpture. Paintings, drawings, statues, a big rag doll, etc. One man claimed to have had divine revelations coming out of his shoes. I have also seen the work of Charles Altamont Doyle who was committed for erratic & irrational behaivor and part of his work was to prove he was fit for release and to rejoin society. Most of this “art brut” was that of minds too lost in malignant mental disorder to ever return.

  20. 26 chingpower

    my theory is that this manuscript has something to do with fairies. XD

  21. 27 mulder

    It is the work of extra terrestrial influences communicating via electro magnetism and exciting those parts of the brain known as the temporal lobes.

    Electromagnetic excitation of the temporal lobes is a new phenomenon to modern scientists but temporal lobe hyper activity has long been associated with visions, hallucination, and psychedelic religious experiences.

    The document is clear from its unclearness; to explain this further we should not pursue the usual pattern seeking behaviour typical of humans but look for a deeper resonance with the images and celestial drawings on the document.

    What way do the hands of a clock move? Clockwise? yes but not from the perspective of the clock!

    There is deep meaning and almost certainly externally influenced data contained in this fascinating document – it would be interesting to see how the area 51 team would tackle the translation. (assuming they arent already working on this).

  22. XKCD figured it out.

    http://xkcd.com/593/

  23. Май для россиян — это особенный месяц, отмеченный двумя очень важными весенними праздниками. День Победы и Праздник весны и труда — это дни, когда мы в очередной раз благодарим старшее поколение за мир и блага, ради которых они трудились и сражались.
    Спраздничком Вас cogitz.com

  24. 30 Sojourner

    First time posting here so Hello. I had heard of the MS before but never actually went to look at it until last night. After having read some descriptions/reviews and possible explanations I then sought the images of the book itself. It has a kind of hypnotic gravity, meaning it sucks you in to ITS world or theme (singular as it is). Not having any expertise in any of the fields necessary to begin to describe its origins I was struck by the visual aspect alone and not so much in deciphering text/artwork. Images that stuck: the repeated view of women (white) superimposed over a green b/g. The “botanical” images that SEEM to imply flowers. Characters in the text particularly the ones that look like “P”‘s but connected back to back. The b/g color green and those “P”s looked like the color and shape of a poppy. The white “women” (often arrayed in a line) looked like “milking” a poppy bud. The one thing I thought of the text, looking at page in whole, is that it looked like stream of thought script. Just writing what popped in. What writers do for “brainstorming.” Those P’s are IN IT REPEATEDLY along with other shapes that suggest it. Here’s a stretch: could the manuscript be some opium junkie with background in botany hallucinatory “rants” (in quotes b/c nobody but him knows what he’s yelling about) expounding the virtues of “mind expanding” drugs. 15th century Timothy Leary: “Tune in turn on, drop out.” I dunno know. I gotta go and milk a bud.

  25. 31 donpito

    The writer was autistic, this is the reason why it has inteligible chars.

    • 32 Roxie

      so im kinda freaked out about this,,they say its coded ,only illuminate members would know the meaning swearing to seacracy,,so were 2013 and i was watching the super bowl sunday,missed the performance of beyonce but i was looking at the praformance on my laptop today and then came across these photos and now im just hummm,thinking,the drawings look alot like the whole praformance kinda scary,, nah its proly just me…im dyslexic so mispell alot,sorry lol


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