October 6, 2017

Here's Something Cool: Mystery Manuscript

        I love a good historical and linguistic mystery and this is one of the best.  The Voynich Manuscript is a 15th century codex handwritten in an undeciphered writing system and illustrated with unidentified figures.  Its 240 or so pages are divided into six sections based on the illustrations and format, and these include unidentified plants, astrology, rather symbolic biological images, “circular diagrams of an obscure nature,” and vaguely apothecary-ish themes.  The pictures are fairly crude, but the alphabet is really quite beautiful.  It seems as if it might have something to do with herbology, women’s medicine, and astrology, but of course nobody knows, what with it being undeciphered and all.
        Wilfrid Voynich was the book dealer who acquired the manuscript in 1912, but it has quite a long and fascinating provenance.  In 1637 Georg Baresch, an alchemist from Prague, sent my man Athanasius Kircher a sample of the text asking for his help deciphering it, since Kircher had claimed to have decoded Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Baresch called the book a Sphynx “taking up space uselessly” in his library, but nevertheless refused to send Kircher the whole thing.  The next owner, however, gave Kircher the book, noting that he had been told it was bought by Emperor Rudolph II (1552-1612) for 600 gold ducats.  There is some evidence that Rudolph could have bought it from English astrologer John Dee, although this is speculation.  At any
rate, we don’t know what Kircher made of the mysterious language, and the book presumably went with all the rest of his papers into the library of the Collegio Romano, where it lay until 1870.  At that point we catch a glimpse of it being spirited into the personal library of the university’s rector in order to preserve it from confiscation by Victor Immanuel II of Italy when he captured the city, and then returned to the college in a new location.  Forty years later the college sold it to Voynich, and eventually it was given to Yale University by book dealer Hans Kraus in 1969 after he failed to sell it.
        So, what is this mysterious thing and why has no one made any progress decoding its mysterious language?  If indeed it even has any meaning?  Among those who have tried to decipher the manuscript are (possibly) Dee, whose son reported that Dee had owned “a booke… containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon;” and Baresch, who “devoted unflagging toil” to the task; and Kircher, whose thoughts we have no record of.  Moreover, the manuscript was examined and hypothesized over by several distinguished professors in the early 20th century, and by
codebreakers from World War I and World War II.  William Friedman, most  famous for breaking Japan’s PURPLE cipher during World War II, spent much of his free time over four decades trying to decipher the Voynich Manuscript, before finally admitting defeat.  Recent computer analyses suggest that the language shares many characteristics with natural languages (as opposed to artificial language), and that its writing flows more smoothly than is consistent with encryption.
        What do we know?  Its origin is most likely Central Europe.  Analysis of the vellum tells us not only the date (1404-1438) but also that the vellum was not previously used and that it all comes from a single area.  This rules out all possibility of modern forgery as it would be impossible to collect that much unused ancient vellum from a single source.  All the inks and paints are also consistent with the same date.  This date of origin contradicts the early and popular claims of authorship by English polymath and possibly wizard Roger Bacon (1214-1294), who would be much too early.  It also casts some doubt on claims that the manuscript was made in the seventeenth century as a hoax intended to fool Baresch and/or Kirscher.
        So we don’t know much, but what have we speculated?  Almost everything.  Some of the more intriguing possibilities include glossolalia or similarities to Asian languages.  Some of the less possible possibilities include an author from ancient Egypt or outer space.  At any rate, I think it’s something cool!  As the author of the letter to Kircher wrote in 1665/6, “such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master.”
        You can see the whole weird thing here, courtesy of Yale’s Beinecke Library.



[Pictures: pages from the Voynich Manuscript, early 15th century (Images from Yale University).]

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