Modern science is already able to prove that the book’s content, Voynich Manuscript, makes sense, but is not yet able to decipher what was written by a mad medieval alchemist.
Throughout the 20th century, linguists, historians, and cryptographers have been wondering what is written in a mysterious book called the Voynich Manuscript after the antique dealer Wilfried Voynich, who rediscovered the manuscript in 1912.
History Voynich Manuscript
The modern history of the manuscript began in 1912, when the New York antiquarian Voynich bought a whole bunch of old manuscripts from some mysterious place. He hid the source in every possible way until his death, which was a condition of the contract. The sellers were monks, employees of the Jesuit College at Villa Mondragone in the Italian town of Frascati. They urgently needed funds to restore the building, but they did not want anyone to know how they disposed of the treasures they held.
Voynich drew attention to a strange manuscript. There were incomprehensible drawings, and he could not read the text either. The book was accompanied by a letter in Latin dated 1665 (or 1666), which stated that the book, presumably, belonged to the pen of Roger Bacon, a famous medieval alchemist. Voynich decided that the book was the encrypted alchemical notes of a scientist, and spent many years trying to decipher them. An important part of the decryption was to ascertain the history of the strange book as accurately as possible. Here is what is known today.
This letter was addressed to the Jesuit monk Athanasius Kircher, who had the authority to decipher any document. The letter asked him to take on decoding the text and described a brief history of the manuscript. This book was brought to the court of the Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia, and he acquired it for 600 ducats – absolutely unthinkable money at that time.
Obviously, the manuscript made a strong impression on the monarch. The fantastic sum of 600 ducats later became the main argument in favor of the theory that the manuscript was a forgery. Then the book fell into the hands of a man named Jacobus Tepenets. He was one of the courtiers of Emperor Rudolph, the head of his Botanical Gardens.
From that moment on, the book disappears from the field of view of historians and appears only in the 20th century. Voynich tried unsuccessfully to decipher the book, attracting the best minds to this work. Even the brilliant William Freidman, the man who cracked Japanese diplomatic codes during World War II, failed. After her husband’s death, Ethel Voynich sent copies of the manuscript to universities and research centers. This caused a wide resonance but did not work. After Ethel’s death, the manuscript traveled a little more, and in 1969 the book and the entire archive associated with it were donated to Yale University, where all this is kept to this day.
How it looks like
The original manuscript was 116 pages long. 104 of them have survived to this day. The book is small, about 15 by 22 cm, but some of the pages are significantly larger and folded in half or four. One page is even 6 times the size of a book (45 x 45 cm). Both the typeface and illustrations are unique. Nobody has ever seen anything like it.
Until the text of the book is read, illustrations are the only clue to the content. In that case, of course, if they are somehow connected with the text, and are not just decorations. But if we assume that the text and pictures are interconnected, then we can assume that this is a scientific book, most of which is a herbalist, but there are additional sections.
About half of the book is about a herbalist. Each page has one (very rarely two) plants and short paragraphs of explanatory text. Most of these plants are unknown to modern science. Then there are the astronomical and cosmological sections. These are drawings of stars, the sun, planets, and, presumably, a spiral galaxy turned inside out.
This “galactic” picture has served as the source of many theories about the book’s extraterrestrial origins, or at least the knowledge in it. Next is the biological section. It depicts strange, possibly anatomical images of blood vessels and arteries, which are interspersed with nude female figures in baths. Perhaps this is a description of the healing baths. This is followed by another small piece of the herbalist and the pharmaceutical section. The latter probably describes how to prepare some kind of potions: depicts containers with some marks, leaves, and roots.
At the very end follows the recipe section. It contains many (324 survived) paragraphs, each of which begins with an asterisk. Perhaps it is a calendar or almanac. On the other hand, adding the missing pages will mean more than 360 or even 365 paragraphs.
Fake or not?
The best heads have been struggling to decipher the document for decades. Nobody succeeded. And many of the fiascoes began to say that the text has no meaning at all, that it is fake, and there is no point in trying to comprehend the meaning that does not exist. There are two main theories: Voynich himself created the book and was made specifically for sale to Emperor Rudolph. With the first theory, everything is simple – scientists have long proved that the book is in no way less than 500 years old (but maybe more), and historical documents 100% confirm the existence of the manuscript in the Middle Ages. The second theory is more complicated. Indeed, 600 ducats is the amount for which a group of fraudsters could spend years. But this is where modern scientific methods come to the rescue.
Computers come into play
With the advent of computers, it seemed that the decoding of the manuscript was already very close: enter the text there, and let the machine select possible values for itself. But the first thing that researchers faced in trying to submit a document electronically was a vaguely defined alphabet. An additional complication is the use of ligatures (this is when two letters are written together). Several variants of the “Voynich alphabet” were proposed, of which the EVA (“European Voynich alphabet”) alphabet is used today.
With the help of EVA, the text of the manuscript was turned into a sequence of letters (encoded), which were already easily converted into computer data. With the first results, the researchers were shocked. It was not possible to extract the meaning, but statistics proved that this is a language and an unknown language.
Zipf’s law and mathematics in general
If not to be clever, then Zipf’s law can be formulated as follows: in any meaningful text, in whatever language it is written, there is a clear dependence between words that occur very often, often, moderately, rarely, and very rarely. This rule is true for ancient Greek texts and modern ones, for the Bible and Roget’s Thesaurus synonym dictionary.
The text redundancy index was also calculated. And it turned out to be much higher than that of most European languages. In terms of redundancy, the “Voynich language” can be compared with the languages of the primitive peoples of Oceania. This gave rise to the theory that a wildcard was used in the manuscript. But if computer studies proved that the text is meaningful, they could not help read it.
Interpreters and scammers
Various researchers, and more often scammers, were immediately involved in the case, offering their interpretation of the manuscript. The first “solution” to the problem was proposed in 1919 by William Newbold.
He stated that the text was deciphered and belonged to the pen of Roger Bacon. It describes the telescope and microscope based on the principle of operation of complex objectives. He also stated that with the help of his inventions, Bacon saw the spiral structure of the Andromeda galaxy (!), Which even modern telescopes can hardly see. In May 1931, it was proved that Newbold was a charlatan, and his “transcripts” were delusional fantasies.
In 1944, the renowned botanist Hugh O’Neill “identified” a variety of plants from the pages of the manuscript, seeing in their samples of the flora of the New World and thus pushing the date of the creation of the manuscript back to at least the 1500s, after the first travels of Columbus. In particular, O’Neill recognized the American sunflower and paprika. But, firstly, the red pepper in the book is somehow green, and many scientists do not agree with the identification of the sunflower.
The already mentioned cryptographer William Freidman put forward the hypothesis that the language of the document is artificial, a kind of medieval prototype of Esperanto. This cannot be ruled out, although science is not aware of attempts to create an artificial language at that time – they began at least a hundred years later. The strongest argument in favor of this theory is the construction of Mike Roy, who distinguished prefixes, roots, suffixes, and endings in the “Voynich language”. This is the most promising theory today. The most comical case with the interpretation of the text of the book occurred in 1978, when a Canadian of Ukrainian origin, John Stoyko, declared that the manuscript was written in (you guessed it!) Ukrainian, in which all vowels were omitted. True, he did not provide anything similar to decryption.
There was also a hypothesis that the Voynich manuscript was one of the first attempts to depict Chinese characters in the form of an alphabet.
State of the art
Today it is absolutely certain that no one has yet been able to read the manuscript. Most of the decryption today is a small but fanatically dedicated group on the Internet. Their mouthpiece and tool is the mailing list and website voynich, where all imaginable materials and links about the document are collected.
And the last thing. Despite the fact that no one knows what is written in the manuscript, none of the researchers has any doubts: if we ever manage to read Voynich’s book, we will learn absolutely nothing new, useful, or just interesting from it.