(Sorry for not sticking to my regular blogging schedule: I’ve been ill.)
Chatting about the Voynich manuscript is something I do at parties when I run out of things to say. “Did you know there’s a manuscript dated to the 1400s that is written in a language no one can speak, in a script no one can read, illustrated with pictures no one recognises?”
I first learnt about the Voynich from a book about the book that I picked up at a house party. So enamoured was I by the mystery that I was glued to it throughout the journey home and finished it in about six hours. Everyone has their intellectual passions — the things they are endlessly, insatiably fascinated by — and this is one of mine; I’ll never get tired of learning about this bizarre work of art. A line from this article has it right: it’s “like a book you’d find in a dream: almost real but not quite”.
The manuscript was found by Alfred Voynich in the early twentieth century in the archives of an Italian abbey. The only thing we know for sure about its history is that it was handled by Rudolph II, who paid a small fortune for it — suggesting he too fell under its spell. After Voynich found it the manuscript passed between several owners, and Yale University Library now has it in its archive. I suspect they are bored of people coming to look at it — and snobbishly dislike the fact that it’s not been proven to be bona fide. It’s also been digitised for anyone to view online.
There are four theories about what it is.
A code or cipher: a medieval Enigma code
Many of the people who have spent the most time working on the Voynich have been trying to ‘crack’ it. They believe that the strange text is a carefully encoded message, which with enough hard graft can be translated into the Latin script and made intelligible.
The problem with this is that no one has ever made any headway whatsoever — and cryptography was only in its very infancy in the 1400s: if it was a code, it would be child’s play for us now. There are also other similar theories that the text has meaning, but is also chock-full of red herrings, or that in order to be read, something needs to be laid over the text so only the salient parts are visible. But why go to so much effort with so much of the work just for that? And the text doesn’t sit neatly on the page, so how would the overlay thing work?
A forgery from someone trying to make a quick buck
Some believe that it’s all fake. Someone wrote some stuff in a random scrawl, added some pictures of horoscopes and weird tubes criss-crossing the page, and tried to flog it as some old mysterious book. There are plenty of contenders for this — Roger Bacon, John Dee, even Voynich himself could have acquired some old paper and ink and drawn it.
The problem with this is that it doesn’t make sense. Why would someone use such valuable materials to construct something so bizarre and complex — complete with the new language, with its consistent words, phrases, and spellings — when you could probably make more money creating a much simpler document, like a forged ‘found’ Shakespeare play, for example?
A genuine message written in a script that’s been lost
The language, although very odd, has the internal consistency of a natural language and obeys rules all languages are meant to follow — although it does have odd aspects, such as multiple consecutive letters (e.g. ‘eeee’) and words that are repeated up to four times in a row. Stephen Bax has had some success decoding some of the words, and works under the hypothesis that this is a lost script from around the area (north Italy) of the time. His work comes from his attempt to recognise some of the plants, and to analse the text based on names for that plant in other languages.
The problem with this: why have we never found any other example? And why does the presumed subject — herbs and plants — have to include the pictures of the women bathing?
Automatic writing or an attempt to record a vision or hallucination
A number of people have put forward the idea that it’s a record of the visions or physic powers of some powerful person. Joan of Arc, for example, believed that her epileptic fits were visits from God, and placed great store by them. It’s not outside the bounds of the imagination that a group of people could become enamoured by one of their number who had strange visions, and tried to record them both visually and in prose. It also explains why such good-quality materials were used, and could tie in with the idea that it’s a lost script and/or language.
But that said, why would they write this and absolutely nothing else? Why wouldn’t they just write it in a Latin script? And why write about such strange, disparate things?
If I had to say which explanation I thought was correct, I would say that it was a toss-up between two. One: it’s an important text in a script that’s been subsequently lost (with the caveat that we’ve never found anything like it). Two: it’s an example of automatic writing by the followers of a now-forgotten saint, written out in ‘best’ from endless notes (with the caveat that it exhibits spectacular internal coherence).
It says a lot about you what you want the answer to be — or whether you think there’s an answer at all. Some of the articles I’ve read have claimed the lack of an answer is a good thing, because it fosters so much debate and inspires such wonder. I disagree. After all the attention, effort and fascinating that this manuscript has caused over the last half-millennium: I want to know.