The Voynich Manuscript has been described as ‘the most mysterious manuscript in the world’. It was bought by Wilfred Voynich, an American dealer in rare books, in 1912. Before that it had been discovered in an old chest in the Jesuit school of Mondragone, in Frascati, Italy. The manuscript is a simple octavo volume, written in what at first glance looks like ordinary medieval writing. However, closer inspection reveals that it is in fact written in cipher. Not only that, the pages are covered with strange little drawings of female nudes, astronomical diagrams and all kinds of strange plants in many colours. The Voynich Manuscript is a baffling mystery largely because it looks so straightforward: with its drawings of plants it seems at first to be an ordinary medieval ‘herbal’ i.e. a book describing how to extract healing drugs from plants. The unusual thing is that, up until its purchase by Voynich, no one appears to have been able to decipher it. Voynich was fairly certain, however, that the manuscript would not remain a mystery once modern scholars had a chance to study it. Unfortunately this is one historical mystery which has proven difficult to solve in the century plus that has passed since 1912.
First of all there was the question of who wrote the manuscript and, perhaps more importantly, why? A letter accompanying the tome, dated 19 August 1666 was written by the rector of Prague University to a Jesuit scholar. The letter stated that, before Voynich got his hands on it, the book had been purchased by the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II of Prague. It is not known how the manuscript came to be in Prague, but the likeliest possibility seems to be that it was taken there from England by the famous Elizabethan sorcerer Dr John Dee, who went there in 1584. The English writer Sir Thomas Browne said later that Dee’s son Arthur had spoken about ‘a book containing nothing but hieroglyphics’, which he had studied in Prague. The writer of the aforementioned letter believed the mysterious book to be by the 13th century monk and scientist Roger Bacon, an extraordinary and brilliant man who had used microscopes and mapped star systems long ahead of his time.
The problem of determining what language the manuscript was in has proven equally difficult to solve. This should have been an easy task, since the plants were labelled, albeit in some sort of code. But most of the plants proved to be imaginary. Certain constellations could be recognized among the astronomical diagrams but again, it proved impossible to translate their names out of code. Cryptanalysts tried the familiar method of looking for the most frequent symbols and equating them with the most commonly used letters of the alphabet; they had no difficulty in recognizing individual letters or symbols, but every attempt to translate these into a known language was a failure. What made it so infuriating was that the writing didn’t look like a code, it looked as if someone had sat down and written it as fluently as his mother tongue. Many scholars, cryptanalysts, linguists and astronomers offered to help; the Vatican library even offered to throw open its archives to the researchers; yet still the manuscript refused to yield up any of its secrets.
Then in 1921 Professor William Newbold from the University of Pennsylvania announced that he had cracked the code by translating the symbols into Roman letters. Using the Latin conmuto (or commuto: to change) as a key word, he then went on to show that the text was a scientific treatise by Roger Bacon, as had always been suspected. But many were far from convinced by Newbold’s work. In The Codebreakers, cipher expert David Kahn pointed out one of the basic flaws in Newbold’s system. Newbold’s method depended on ‘doubling up’ the letters of a word, and this text was solved with the aid of the key word ‘commuto’ and the addition of a q. But how would this process be carried out in reverse – in other words, when Bacon was turning his original text into a cipher? Another skeptic was Dr John Manly, a philologist who headed the English department at Chicago University, and who had become assistant to the great Herbert Yardley – described as the greatest codebreaker in history – when US Military Intelligence set up a cryptanalysis department in 1917. Manly concluded that the weak point of Newbold’s explanation was the anagramming process. Most sentences can be anagrammed into dozens of other sentences. With a sentence involving more than a hundred letters, there is simply no way of guaranteeing that some particular rearrangement provides the only solution. Manly effectively demolished Newbold’s claim to have solved the cipher of Roger Bacon (or whoever wrote the manuscript).
Since 1931, there have been many further attempts to decipher the Voynich manuscript and numerous theories have been put forward to explain its provenance. Some have inevitably said that the manuscript is no more than a fabrication by Voynich himself. As an antique book dealer, he probably had the necessary knowledge and means, and a ‘lost book’ by Roger Bacon would have been worth a fortune. However, many consider the expert internal dating of the manuscript and the discovery of the 1666 letter as having eliminated this possibility. Another theory concerns a photostatic reproduction of the first page of the Voynich manuscript, taken by Voynich sometime before 1921, which showed some faint writing that had been erased. With the help of chemicals, the text could be read as the name: Jacobus Sinapius. He was a specialist in herbal medicine, Rudolph II’s personal physician, and curator of his botanical gardens. Voynich, and many other people after him, concluded from this ‘signature’ that Jacobus owned the Voynich manuscript. However, that writing does not match Jacobus’s signature, as found in a document located in 2003. Strangest of all, 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 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. The question must also be asked: who could possibly have benefited from such a dubious joke in the first place?
Ultimately however, all of the theories and attempts to decipher the Voynich manuscript have failed, largely because it still simply is not known when the manuscript was written, or by whom, or in what language. But, even if the answers to these questions were known, it is difficult to think of any good reason for inventing such a baffling code. The earliest Western ‘substitution’ cipher dates from 1401, while the first treatise on codes, the Polygraphia of Johannes Trithemius, was not printed until 1518. So it is hard to imagine why Roger Bacon or anyone within a century of his death should have gone to so much trouble to invent a code of such apparent sophistication for a simple herbal – unless of course it was a treatise on something infinitely darker and deeper. This might perhaps been the view of the antiquarian bookseller Hans Kraus, when he purchased the Voynich manuscript in 1960 and put it up for sale at $160,000. Unfortunately for Kraus, it appears that his views were not shared – no one took the manuscript at that price and he finally gave it to Yale University in 1969. It now lies in the university’s rare book and manuscript library, guarding its secrets until some master cryptographer with sufficient skill finally manages to unravel them.