The Voynich manuscript
Another twist in the tale
Jan 8th 2004
>From The Economist print edition
A possible explanation for the world's most enigmatic book
Worth 600 ducats of anybody's money!
THE Voynich manuscript, once owned by Emperor Rudolph II in 16th-century
Bohemia, is filled with drawings of fantastic plants, zodiacal symbols and
naked ladies. Far more intriguing than its illustrations, however, is the
accompanying text: 234 pages of beautifully formed, yet completely
Modern scholars have pored over the book since 1912, when Wilfrid Voynich,
an American antiquarian, bought the manuscript and started circulating
copies in the hope of having it translated. Some 90 years later, the book
still defies deciphering. It now resides at Yale University.
The manuscript is written in "Voynichese", which consists of strange
characters, some of which look like normal Latin letters and Roman
numerals. Some analysts have suggested that Voynichese is a modified form
of Chinese. Others think it may be Ukrainian with the vowels taken out. But
Voynichese words do not resemble those of any known language. Nor is the
text a simple transliteration into fanciful symbols: the internal structure
of Voynichese words, and how they fit together in sentences, is unlike
patterns seen in other languages.
Another possibility is that the text is written in code. But the best
efforts of cryptographers over the past 30 years have failed to crack it.
This resilience is unusual, given that other ciphers from the period have
yielded their secrets.
On the other hand, the text could just be gibberish and the book-which may
have been passed off to Emperor Rudolph as the work of Roger Bacon, a
13th-century natural philosopher, in exchange for the princely sum of 600
gold ducats-a grand hoax. But Gabriel Landini, a Voynichese enthusiast at
the University of Birmingham, in England, argues against this theory. Given
the complex structure of Voynichese words, writing hundreds of pages of
internally consistent gibberish would be a tough task for a fraudster to
But perhaps not an impossible one. Gordon Rugg, a computer scientist at
Keele University, in England, thinks he may be one step closer to an
explanation of how the text might have been created. In a paper published
in the January issue of Cryptologia, he uses low-tech 16th-century methods,
rather than 20th-century computing, to generate text resembling that in the
If the Voynich manuscript is a fraud, then one plausible suspect is Edward
Kelley, an Elizabethan con-artist. So Dr Rugg borrowed one of Kelley's
techniques. He used a grid of 40 rows and 39 columns to create a table
which he filled in with Voynichese syllables. He then placed a grille-a
piece of cardboard with three squares cut out in a diagonal pattern-on top
of the table, and started forming words by reading off the syllables as he
moved the grille across columns and down rows. The result was words with
the same internal patterns as Voynichese. Dr Rugg and his team are now
writing software to create dozens of tables and grilles in an attempt to
reproduce other linguistic patterns in the manuscript. If their findings
hold up, it would mean that the regularity of Voynichese is no longer an
argument against the manuscript being an elaborate hoax.
Of course, this does not prove that the manuscript is nonsense-an
impossible thing to demonstrate, in any case, since failure to find meaning
in the text does not make it meaningless, but simply beyond current methods
of decoding. Indeed, Dr Landini believes that the Voynich manuscript might
yet yield to massive computing power. If it does, most people expect to
find a work of modest historical interest, rather than the secret of life.
As with most puzzles, the thrill of solution lies in the process, rather
than the product.
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: [EMAIL PROTECTED]>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'
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