Of course the hell not, but by sticking to the evidence, I find myself regrettably unable to run out into the quad and shout: “IT’S A COOKBOOK! THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT IS A COOKBOOK!” Sticking to evidence, however, has never been the strength of the writers at Above Top Secret, which delivered a rather soggy excuse for a story entitled: “Voynich Manuscript–Diary of an Alien or a Mad Man? 100 Years Older than First Thought.”
Already wrong, but I’ll get there.
The Voynich Manuscript is a genuine mystery. Currently housed in Yale’s Beineke Library, the Voynich MS totally skipped my mind when I went up there to do research for my dissertation. Nonetheless, it is there, which has until recently been just about the only thing we’ve known for sure about it.
According to Curt A. Zimansky, writing in Philological Quarterly (before it went all corporate–haha), says that the manuscript was originally found in the library of Rudolph II and that it was in the possession of Father Athanasius Kircher in 1666. It then dropped out of sight for centuries, until it was acquired by a Polish bookseller named Voynich in 1912 during one of his book buying tours of Europe. The provenance of the manuscript is only certain, as far as I can tell, once it is in Voynich’s hands. He found it in a trunk at Villa Mondragone, in Frascatti. Upon Voynich’s death, it passed into the hands of Hans Kraus and eventually ended up at Yale.
It’s a beautiful book–nearly 250 vellum pages–an example of fine craftsmanship, beautiful and elegant and nobody has the faintest idea what the crap it says. You see, it is written in an unknown script in a language that does not seem to exist outside of the manuscript. Based on the illustrations that accompany the text, scholars have divided up the book into parts, including the herbal section, astrological section, biological section, cosmological section, pharmaceutical section, and “recipes,” but really, we have no idea how closely the text corresponds to the images. But even with the, say, “herbal” sections, the plants that appear are unknown. As Voynich is reported to have asked, “WTF?”
A lot of people have stepped forward to offer their interpretations of the MS. The first person to attempt to answer the question was an otherwise reputable scholar at Penn by the name of Newbold.
In April 1921, Newbold announced that he had deciphered the Voynich MS. Hurrah! He said that it was a monograph written in a secret hand by Roger Bacon. Bacon was a 13th-century English monk and one of the first Europeans to embrace empiricism and experiment; and such he is considered a founding father of modern science. Hurrah!
Among the fantastic revelations that Newbold, uh, revealed, was that the manuscript was written in two codes. The first was a surface code, a Latin-text cipher. This cipher was so rife with arbitrary rules of substitution and anagrams that it could yield basically anything. The second cipher was a more subtle, much more interesting cipher, the shorthand cipher. The premise of this cipher was that tiny, literally microscopic strokes appeared on each character, and that a complete reading of this second, more secret text depended on deciphering these marks.
He revealed that the Voynich MS revealed the invention of the telescope in the 13th century! Doctor mirabilis!
As evidence of this exceptional assertion, Newbold produced the Latin text which he said was associated with a peculiar image in the manuscript:
The Latin decipherment Newbold associates with this diagram partially reads:
Vidi stellas in speculo concavo, in cochleae forma agglomeratas…
If my eyeballing of this snippet is correct, it reads: “In a concave mirror, I saw stars formed into the shape of a snail.” (That is, a spiral.) The rest of the passage makes this clear he is talking the Andromeda Galaxy:
Well, Holy Haleakala, Batman! Newbold pushed the history of the telescope back hundreds of years.
But, wait, there’s more! Bacon also invented the compound microscope, as evidenced by the images of what Newbold interpreted as ova and spermatozoa. (Not to mention the shorthand cipher itself, which could only be seen through a microscope.) The Voynich MS was the most important discovery in the history of science, and scholars generally accepted Newbold’s interpretation. Probably because nobody could understand his process of deciphering the manuscript.
In 1931, following Newbold’s death, John Matthews Manly wrote what should stand as one of the most thorough debunkings in the history of debunking, a spectacular and thorough treatment of Newbold’s assertions. He showed that the encryption that Newbold could not reliably generate text for the recipient. He illustrated that the cipher could achieve and had achieved “results” when applied to texts known not to be written by Bacon, to texts written long before the Voynich MS, and to mistranscriptions of the Voynich manuscript that Newbold used. In Newbold’s decipherments, sometimes the same passage revealed different messages. Manly demolished the content of the messages that Newbold had found to show that they could not square with what was known with the period. Newbold’s assertion defied even the laws of physics. Newbold apparently had simply shrugged off the objection that the Andromeda galaxy could not possibly have changed so radically in the time between the manuscript’s production and the 20th century. Also, he seemed not to worry that the spirals could not be seen by the naked eye even in a modern telescope–our images come from long exposures. It was in every way a thorough and complete trashing of the Newbold interpretation, and it left Newbold’s legacy in tatters. One may consider it a professional courtesy that Manly waited until Newbold had died before publishing his rebuttal.
It also meant that we had not progressed a single jot toward understanding what the heck this manuscript was.
As far as I can tell, the most interesting fabrication of Newbold’s mind was the secondary shorthand cipher. The little tails and swoops and signs that Newbold had found under a microscope were either clearly examples of ink bleeding into the cracks on the surface of the vellum and therefore meaningless, or they disappeared entirely when others looked at them. This strikes me as a close corollary to Lowell’s “discovery” of canals on Mars a few decades earlier, when the astronomer declared that he could see artificial channels on the surface of the Red Planet and spun a rather fanciful story to explain them. Turns out they weren’t there at all, but were artifacts of Lowell’s imagination.
By the way, I strongly recommend the conclusion of the Manly article as perhaps the epitome of the “don’t be a dick” school of skeptical criticism.
In the intervening years, a number of hypotheses have been floated about the content and meaning of the manuscript.In 1943, a bloke named O’Neill announced that he had deciphered the manuscript. In 1944, a botanist, James Feeley, have claimed that New World pepper plants and sunflowers appeared in the manuscript, which would place the manuscript after 1492. But even these botanical identifications are dubious, especially in the light of the vellum’s carbon-dating.
Without a doubt, my favorite “translation” appeared in Science in 1945, and it underlines why specialists in the humanities should be given their due respect. It came from Leonell C. Strong, who said that he had finally, really, actually cracked the code, but because of the current state of war, thought it was an inopportune time to reveal how he had uncovered its cryptological secrets (ahem, yeah). Voynich, Strong claimed, was written by 16th-century astrologer Anthony Askham. Most of the manuscript, he reported, discussed “the effects of plants on physiological processes in health and disease, especially, the diseases of women, and a conception of pre-Harveian generation and parturition” (608).
The cipher translated into something called “Medieval English,” which reads like: “When skuge uf tun’c-bag rip, seo oogon kum sli of se mosure-issue ped-stans sku-bent, stokked kimbo-elbow crawknot.” This passage, he says, is about the birth of a baby: “when the contents of the womb rip, the child comes slyly from the mother-issuing with the leg stance scewed and bent, while the arms, are knotted (above the head) like the legs of a crawfish.” I can’t imagine that anyone with a postgraduate degree in English at the time (Old English and history of English were still generally required graduate courses) did not howl with laughter when they read the “Medieval English.” It looks like it wants to be “Old English”: for instance, the “seo” is a feminine form for “that” and there are some…compound-y words. Unfortunately, it has the letter “k,” not found in Old English (you’d see it Old Norse), and words like “issue” that seem to be from a romance language. And it’s nothing like Middle English either. And what the hell’s up with that apostrophe? Strong further claimed that Ascham knew about antibiotics!
A group of cryptographers waiting to be released from the military after the Second World War spent their free time trying to decipher the sucker. I even found a reference to a report produced by the NSA on the shelves at Emory, but when I went to pull it, the report had mysteriously disappeared. Others have seen it, however, and report that the NSA was unable to crack the cipher. Take that, NSA! (Please don’t hurt me.)
A 2007 analysis of the characters by theoretical physicist Andreas Schinner suggests that the manuscript has been “generated by a stochastic (random) process rather than by encoding of encryption of language.” Damn it.
Nonetheless, crafty science types at the University of Arizona have at least pinned down the age of the vellum (which is slightly different from pinning down the age of the manuscript). The critters that died to make the MS snuffed it in the early 15th century. In the release at physorg.com, the author says that the writing doesn’t “resemble anything written–or read–by human beings.” This statement seems to have lead the imaginative author at ATS to a new hypothesis–aliens wrote it!
In the 15th century.
The poor guy writes, referring to the “galaxy” image above: “I will start with the picture that shocked me the most. To me, this is on par with the Sumerians knowing things they should not have been able to.”
Sigh. Me too, my friend. Me too.
Kennedy, Gerry and Rob Churchill. The Voynich Manuscript: The Unsolved Riddle of an Extraordinary Book Which Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries. London: Orion, 2005.
Manly, John Matthews. “Roger Bacon and the Voynich MS.” Speculum 6.3 (1931): 345-391.
Schinner, Andreas. “The Voynich Manuscript: Evidence of the Hoax Hypothesis.” Cryptologia 31 (2007): 95-107.
Strong, Leonell C. “Anthony Askham, the Author of the Voynich Manuscript.” Science 101.2633 (15 June 1945): 608-609.
Zimansky, Curt A. “William F. Friedman and the Voynich Manuscript.” Philological Quarterly 49.4 (Oct 1970): 433-443.