Monday, November 29, 2010

the Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious, undeciphered illustrated book. It is thought to have been written between 1450 and 1520. 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 a single word).

I love this book visually, as well as the mystery surrounding it. If it's a hoax, it's an incredibly marvelous one, and a wonderful example of early book art. Whether the text is a real language or cipher or gibberish, it's gorgeous, and took a creative mind to invent. 

The book is mostly arranged into sections. Except for the last section, which contains only text, almost every page contains at least one illustration. The sections are  more or less:

·       Herbal
·       Astronomical
·       Biological
·       Cosmological
·       Pharmaceutical
·       Recipes 


·       By current estimates, the book originally had 272 pages.
·       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 to the figures, possibly at a later date.
·       There is strong evidence that at one point in time the pages of the book were rearranged into a different order.

The text:

·       Definitely 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, suggesting that 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 inked onto the page.
·       Consists of over 170,000 discrete glyphs. An alphabet with 20–30 glyphs would account for virtually all of the text; the exceptions are a few dozen rarer characters that occur only once or twice each.
·       Spaces divide the text into about 35,000 "words" of varying length.
·       Statistical analysis of the text reveals patterns similar to those of natural languages.
·       On the other hand, the Voynich manuscript's "language" is quite unlike European languages in several aspects. Firstly, there are practically no words comprising more than ten glyphs, 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 alphabets but not in the Latin or Cyrillic alphabets (with the exception of the Greek letters Beta and Sigma).
·       The text seems to be more repetitive 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 a few words in the manuscript written in a seemingly Latin, but ultimately illegible, script. However, it is not known whether these bits of Latin script were part of the original text, or were added at a later time.

Suspected origins:

·       Roger Bacon, as suggested by Voynich and Newbold, and suggested by some later historians. Since then, this idea has been largely rejected.
·       Cathar cult of Isis followers, as suggested by Levitov, but later completely disproven.
·       A coded almanac by Anthony Askham, as suggested by L.C. Strong. The name of Askham derives from his decryption of the manuscript, which seems complete except that it depends heavily on a correct reading of the characters in the text and does not account for repeated words
·       A hoax by John Dee and/or Edward Kelly, associates of Roger Bacon, as suggested by many, though this has been shown to be a historical impossibility.
·       An early form of a synthetic language, as suggested by Friedman and Tiltman. This cannot be disproved.
·       An early attempt to convert Chinese (or a related language) to an alphabetic script. This theory is based on certain peculiar text statistics and is by no means disproved, but there is difficulty with the fact that the entire manuscript has a Western European look. A specific connection with any specific oriental language has also not yet been proposed.
·       A modern fake by Wilfrid Voynich. Disproved by the recent discovery of earlier references to the manuscript.
·       Jacobus Sinapius, whose signature seemed to appear in a reproduction of the first page of the Voynich manuscript, taken by Voynich. However, that writing does not match Jacobus's signature. Also, 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.
·       A fake by Jan Marci as a political move to discredit an opponent. Not sure of the status of this idea.
·       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. This has led to the theory that he produced the Voynich manuscript as a practical demonstration of his cipher. However, there is no definite evidence for this theory.

These images are from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University, where they've posted scans of every single page

Some more Voynich-related links / my sources: a Scientific American article on the book, and how it may be no more than gibberish; a site on attempts to decrypt the text (among other ciphers); a thorough historical chronology and analysis; a general historical overview of the manuscript and its possible origins; further analysis, and a weird bit on how one of the drawings looks exactly like the Andromeda Galaxy; and an xkcd comic parodying the book (and dungeons and dragons). 


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