Undeciphered language. Voynich manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious book thought to have been written in the 15th or 16th century and comprising about 240 vellum pages of handwritten text, the majority having illustrations. The text of the manuscript has not yet been deciphered, and the author, script, and language remain unknown.

Since its recorded existence, the Voynich manuscript has been intensively studied by many cryptographers, including some top American and British codebreakers of World War II fame, but all of them failed to decrypt at least a part of the text. The Voynich manuscript has become a famous subject of historical cryptology, but it has also given weight to the theory that the book is simply a well conceived hoax having a meaningless sequence of arbitrary symbols.

The book is named after the Polish-American book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912. Currently the Voynich manuscript is stored in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University as item “MS 408”. The first facsimile edition was published in 2005.

The book originally had 272 pages in 17 quires of 16 pages each. 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 when Voynich acquired it. A quill pen was used for the text and figure outlines, and colored paint was applied (somewhat crudely) to the figures, possibly at a later date. There is strong evidence that at one point in time, the pages of the book were arranged in a different order.

The text was clearly written from left to right, with a slightly ragged right margin. Longer sections are broken into paragraphs, sometimes with “bullets” in the left margin. There is no obvious punctuation. The ductus flows smoothly, suggesting that the scribe understood the words as he wrote. The manuscript therefore gives the impression that the symbols were not enciphered, otherwise the individual characters would have had to be calculated before being written. However, it is possible to write somewhat fluently in other codes.

The text consists of over 170,000 discrete glyphs, usually separated from each other by narrow gaps. Most of the glyphs are written with one or two simple pen strokes. While there is some dispute as to whether certain glyphs are distinct or not, 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.

Wider gaps divide the text into about 35,000 “words” of varying length. These seem to follow phonetic or orthographic laws of some sort; e.g. certain characters must appear in each word (like the vowels in English), some characters never follow others, and some may be doubled but others may not.

Statistical analysis of the text reveals patterns similar to those of natural languages. For instance, the word entropy (about 10 bits per word) is similar to that of English or Latin texts. Some words occur only in certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript. There are very few repetitions among the thousand or so “labels” attached to the illustrations. In the herbal section, the first word on each page occurs only on that page and may be the name of the plant.

The Voynich manuscript’s “language” is quite unlike European languages in several aspects. 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 words 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. While Semitic alphabets have many letters that are written differently depending on whether they occur at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a word, letters of the Latin, Cyrillic and Greek alphabets are generally written the same way regardless of their position within a word (the exception being the Greek letter 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 only a few words in the manuscript written in a seemingly Latin script. On the last page, there are four lines of writing that are written in (rather distorted) Latin letters, except for two words in the main script. The lettering resembles European alphabets of the 15th century, but the words do not seem to make sense in any language.Also, a series of diagrams in the “astronomical” section has the names of ten of the months (from March to December) written in Latin script, with spelling suggestive of the medieval languages of France or the Iberian Peninsula. However, it is not known whether these bits of Latin script were part of the original text or were added later.

The illustrations of the manuscript shed little light on the precise nature of its text but imply that the book consists of six “sections”, with different styles and subject matter. Except for the last section, which contains only text, almost every page contains at least one illustration. Following are the sections and their conventional names:

  • Herbal. Each page displays one plant (sometimes two) and a few paragraphs of text—a format typical of European herbals of the time. Some parts of these drawings are larger and cleaner copies of sketches seen in the “pharmaceutical” section (below). None of the plants depicted are unambiguously identifiable.

  • Astronomical. Contains circular diagrams, some of them with suns, moons, and stars, suggestive of astronomy or astrology. One series of 12 diagrams depicts conventional symbols for the zodiacal constellations (two fish for Pisces, a bull for Taurus, a hunter with crossbow for Sagittarius, etc.). Each of these has 30 women figures arranged in two or more concentric bands. Most of the females are at least partly naked, and each holds what appears to be a labeled star or is shown with the star attached by what could be a tether or cord of some kind to either arm. The last two pages of this section (Aquarius and Capricornus, roughly January and February) were lost, while Aries and Taurus are split into four paired diagrams with 15 women and 15 stars each. Some of these diagrams are on fold-out pages.

  • Biological. A dense continuous text interspersed with figures, mostly showing small naked women bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes, some of them clearly shaped like body organs. Some of the women wear crowns.

  • Cosmological. More circular diagrams, but of an obscure nature. This section also has foldouts; one of them spans six pages and contains a map or diagram, with nine “islands” connected by “causeways”, castles, and what may be a volcano.

  • Pharmaceutical. Many labeled drawings of isolated plant parts (roots, leaves, etc.); objects resembling apothecary jars drawn along the margins; and a few text paragraphs.

  • Recipes. Many short paragraphs, each marked with a flower- or star-like “bullet”.

The first impression given by the surviving leaves of the manuscript is that it was meant to serve as a pharmacopoeia or to address topics in medieval or early modern medicine. The puzzling details of illustrations have generated many theories about the book’s origins, the contents of its text, and the purpose for which it was intended.

The first section of the book is almost certainly herbal, but attempts to identify the plants, either with actual specimens or with the stylized drawings of contemporary herbals, have largely failed. Only a couple of plants (including a wild pansy and the maidenhair fern) can be identified with some certainty. Those herbal pictures that match pharmacological sketches appear to be clean copies of these, except that missing parts were completed with improbable-looking details. In fact, many of the plant drawings in the herbal section seem to be composite: the roots of one species have been fastened to the leaves of another, with flowers from a third.

Brumbaugh believed that one illustration depicted a New World sunflower, which would help date the manuscript and open up intriguing possibilities for its origin. However, the resemblance is slight, especially when compared to the original wild species; and, since the scale of the drawing is not known, the plant could be many other members of the same family, which includes the common daisy, chamomile, and many other species from all over the world.

The basins and tubes in the “biological” section may seem to indicate a connection to alchemy, which would also be relevant if the book contained instructions on the preparation of medical compounds. However, alchemical books of the period share a common pictorial language, where processes and materials are represented by specific images (such as eagle, toad, man in tomb, couple in bed) or standard textual symbols (such as circle with cross); and none of these could be convincingly identified in the Voynich manuscript.

Astrological considerations frequently played a prominent role in herb gathering, blood-letting and other medical procedures common during the likeliest dates of the manuscript (see, for instance, Nicholas Culpeper’s books). However, apart from the obvious Zodiac symbols, and one diagram possibly showing the classical planets, no one has been able to interpret the illustrations within known astrological traditions (European or otherwise).

A circular drawing in the “astronomical” section depicts an irregularly shaped object with four curved arms, which some have interpreted as a picture of a galaxy that could only be obtained with a telescope. Other drawings were interpreted as cells seen through a microscope. This would suggest an early modern, rather than a medieval, date for the manuscript’s origin.

Manuscript’s History

The history of the manuscript is full of gaps and full of mystery. Due to the fact that the manuscript’s alphabet does not resemble any known script, and the text is still undeciphered, the only useful evidence as to the book’s age and origin are the illustrations—especially the dress and hairstyles of the human figures and a couple of castles that are seen in the diagrams. They are all characteristically European, and based on that evidence, most experts assign the book to dates between 1450 and 1520. This estimate is supported by other secondary clues. In 2009 the material used to write the manuscript was carbon-dated to between 1404 and 1438.

The earliest confirmed owner of the Voynich manuscript was Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 17th century. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as we are today about this manuscript. On learning that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano, had published a Coptic (Ethiopic) dictionary and “deciphered” the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Baresch sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome (twice), asking for clues. His 1639 letter to Kircher, which was recently located by Rene Zandbergen, is the earliest mention of the manuscript that has been found so far.

It is not known whether Kircher answered the request, but apparently, he was interested enough to try to acquire the book, which Baresch apparently refused to yield. Upon Baresch’s death, the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci (Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector of Charles University in Prague, who a few years later sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend and correspondent. Marci’s cover letter (1665 or 1666) is still attached to the manuscript.

There are no records of the book for the next 200 years, but in all likelihood, it was kept, with the rest of Kircher’s correspondence, in the library of the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University). It probably remained there until the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured the city in 1870 and annexed the Papal States. The new Italian government decided to confiscate many properties of the Church, including the library of the Collegio. According to investigations by Xavier Ceccaldi and others, just before this happened, many books of the University’s library were hastily transferred to the personal libraries of its faculty, which were exempt from confiscation. Kircher’s correspondence was among those books—and so apparently was the Voynich manuscript, as it still bears the ex libris of Petrus Beckx, head of the Jesuit order and the University’s Rector at the time.

Beckx’s “private” library was moved to the Villa Mondragone, Frascati, a large country palace near Rome that had been bought by the Society of Jesus in 1866 and housed the headquarters of the Jesuits’ Ghislieri College.

Around 1912, the Collegio Romano was apparently short of money and decided to sell (very discreetly) some of its holdings. Wilfrid Voynich acquired 30 manuscripts, among them the manuscript that now bears his name. In 1930, after his death, the manuscript was inherited by his widow, Ethel Lilian Voynich (known as the author of the novel The Gadfly and daughter of famous mathematician George Boole). She died in 1960 and left the manuscript to her close friend, Miss Anne Nill. In 1961, Anne Nill sold the book to another antique book dealer, Hans P. Kraus. Unable to find a buyer, Kraus donated the manuscript to Yale University in 1969.

Researchers at the University of Arizona performed C14 dating on the manuscript and showed that the parchment on which the manuscript was written was made between 1404 and 1438, according to Walter Koehler. In addition, the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago found evidence that the ink was added to the parchment around the same time as the creation of the parchment itself, suggesting that it is an authentic document.

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