The Mystery of the Medieval 'Voynich' Manuscript Still Holds the Power to Fascinate

From the court of the 17th century Holy Roman Empire to the National Security Agency, The Voynich Manuscript has been scrutinized but not yet deciphered.

The Voynich Manuscript

Publisher: Yale University Press
Length: 304 pages
Author: Raymond Clemens, ed.
Format: Harcover
Publication date: 2016-11

In the course of its 600-year existence the The Voynich Manuscript has surfaced twice, and both appearances are themselves small histories of the art and science of cryptography. The tools for penetrating secret codes, the resources arranged and deployed to attack them, and the institutions associated with their preservation, transmission, and analysis change. But The Voynich Manuscript shows how the allure, the intellectual pain and pleasure, the sense of wonder, and even of anxiety, that is stirred by the unyielding and unbroken code does not change. The Yale University Press hardback reproduction is both a fitting summary and statement of the manuscript and the present status of efforts to interpret it, as well as testament to a monumental curiosity, a desire to know and to understand, that seems hardwired into the human condition.

All 234 pages of the The Voynich Manuscript are reproduced here in color including its various unique map-like foldouts. It's stunning in its detail, all faithfully captured. This edition also outlines some foundational work on three potential passages into the secrets of the manuscript: modern forensic analysis, historical analysis, and cryptographic or linguistic analysis. The manuscript acquired its name from Wilfred Voynich, the Polish book dealer who purchased it from Jesuits of the Collegio Romano in 1912. Otherwise, it has no title, author, or any other hint about the nature of its purpose or origin. The accompanying essay on the manuscript's physical properties shows that its parchment has been carbon dated to the first two or three decades of the 15th century, and the style of its binding is consistent with that of the Gothic period (1300 – 1600). Elemental analysis of the ink shows iron, copper, and zinc in ratios consistent with manuscripts from the 15th century. Forensic analysis confirms it is a medieval document.

The manuscript's first series of appearances in the historical record shows it attracted the interest of 17th century physicians, scientists, and dabblers in alchemy. Its first confirmed owner was a botanist and alchemist associated with the court of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, sometime after 1608. Between 1608 and 1637 another familiar of the Emperor named Mnisowski, an enthusiast of "secret writing" and of alchemy, indicated in personal correspondence that the manuscript had originally been sold to Rudolf by unknown persons for the relatively large sum of 600 ducats. By 1637 it belonged to another Czech alchemist named Barschius who, in 1637 and the again in 1639, copied extracts and sent them for analysis to the great Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher in Rome. Kircher was by then famous for his work on Egyptian hieroglyphics and replied that he examined the text and was unable to translate it. After the death of Barschius in 1662 the manuscript passed to one Johannes Marcus Marci, a scientist, and physician to Rudolf. He once again wrote to Kircher in a letter reproduced in this edition hoping for insight, adding that his acquaintance Barschius invested much tireless toil (indefessum laborem) into the matter. Then the trail goes cold until the 20th century.

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Rumors of occult origins surrounding the manuscript's early history are judiciously handled in several of the essays here. The carbon dating definitively rules out the authorship of Roger Bacon (c. 1214 – c. 1292), an idea first proposed by Marci in 1665. Bacon was an English natural scientist well versed in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Latin, a proponent of the idea of a universal grammar, and author of several treatises on alchemy. Another slightly more plausible link in the chain of provenance was the English astrologist John Dee (1527 – 1608), a theory suggested by Wilfred Voynich himself after he obtained the manuscript in 1912 and believing it was the work of Bacon passed on to his English successors. As Deborah Harkness explains in her introduction, among Dee's esoteric interests was speaking with angels, with whom he claimed to communicate in an "Adamical" language he called Enochian. Dee also lived in Bohemia and hoped to sell his services to the Emperor. But he never mentioned any such transactions relating to the manuscript in his otherwise detailed journals. There's ultimately no evidence to suggest that Dee possessed, examined, or sold the manuscript to Rudolf. It must remain an intriguing piece of conjecture.

A more informed line of speculation is developed by Jennifer M. Rampling in her essay on the literature, traditions, symbols, and themes of contemporary alchemical treatises, and potential points of contact with the Voynich. The illustrations in the Voynich are clearly organized into three discrete themes: herbal and botanical (sketches of plants for which there are no identifiable exemplars), astrological or astronomical (sketches of star maps and apparent constellations), and medicinal or balneological (sketches of women bathing in green liquid, surrounded by fantastical water pipes and channels). That there is an established tradition derived from Arabic and Greek alchemical literature for utilizing encipherment, allegory, and analogy to conceal occult knowledge -- bathing, for example, used as a symbol for dissolution, or the seven planetary symbols used as cover names for the seven metals -- potentially opens additional lines of inquiry. But these are loose connections, and as Rampling herself admits, "the lack of reliable contextual information on the Voynich Manuscript makes it extremely hazardous to extrapolate meaning" in such a manner.

We are left, then, with the cryptographic and linguistic properties of the Voynich. In the course of the manuscript's second appearance in the historical record in 1912 it has been subjected to sustained and trenchant cryptographic analysis by some of the most famous American code breakers of World Wars I and II. Beginning in 1925, a cadre of academics who doubled as field agents in military intelligence made a hobby of interrogating it using not only the combined might of their knowledge and experience in making and breaking wartime codes but also their expertise in medieval and early modern literature. The most notable among them were Elizebeth and William Friedman, America's first female crytopgrapher and "the world's greatest cryptologist", respectively. They created Voynich Manuscript Study Groups in 1944 and 1962, even using computers provided to them by IBM. The longest and presumably the most detailed analysis of the Voynich is still an exhaustive 148-page compilation entitled The Elegant Enigma published in-house by the National Security Agency in 1978. After 40-odd years of his own indefessum laborem, William Friedman's last word on the matter in 1970 was posthumous and it appears in William Sherman"s essay: "The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type. -- Friedman."

So the Voynich refuses to give up its secrets. It is apt that Raymond Clemens' essay concludes with an image of the great Umberto Eco examining it, the manuscript being "the only book he wanted to see" when he visited Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 2013. Possibly no one better understood the power of ideas and mystery to grip the mind, and to induce pursuits for truth and meaning. For Brother William of Baskerville, the protagonist of Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980), an Hibernian monk inspired by in part by Roger Bacon, "every book was like a fabulous animal that he was meeting in a strange land". After two prolonged periods of analysis separated by 500 years, the Voynich still imparts an allure that stimulates, bemuses, and haunts the imagination.

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