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The mystery of Voynich manuscript


The history of the book

The first known owner of the manuscript was an alchemist named Georg Baresch in the 17th century. As Baresch’s knowledge was not sufficient to decode it, he thought of sending some copies to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar who knew much of the Ethiopian language and had also attempted to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Kircher wanted to acquire the complete work, but its owner refused to make a deal, and it was only after his death that Kircher obtained it through the director of Charles University in Prague. The accompanying letter reveals that the work was originally purchased by the German-Roman Emperor Rudolf II and he suspected it was the work of Roger Bacon.

We lose sight of the book again for the next 150 years, but it is very likely that it was kept in the Collegium Romanum until Victor Emmanuel II ordered the expropriation of church property. In order to preserve the manuscript, the Voynich manuscript was placed in the private collection of the academics along with other books.

The work thus enriched the private library of Petrus Beckx, the head of the Jesuit order.

Around 1912, some items of the Collegium Romanum were sold, including this manuscript. This is how it came into the possession of its namesake, Wilfrid Michael Voynich, and shortly after his death, it passed through an antiquarian’s shop to Yale University.

The content

There are several theories about the meaning of the Voynich Code, but none of them can be fully proven. Some believe it could be a kind of study on herbs, as some of the diagrams suggest. However, many have noted that these illustrations appear more futuristic than contemporary. 

The work would consist of 234 pages if forty-two of them were not missing. The pictures were probably added after the text was written, but in places the text surrounds the pictures, which might suggest the opposite.

The history of the work is unclear. The truth is that researchers have no idea when the text was written, because the alphabet of the language in which it was written has never been identified or deciphered. The pictures are telling, but there is no certain knowledge. The clothing of the figures and the buildings in the pictures suggest a Renaissance period.

The manuscript itself is full of unknown characters, forming a language whose origin and meaning have not been deciphered.

The writing has already been analysed by a digital algorithm and it was stated that the manuscript itself was real and is similar to Hebrew words but what it exactly contains is still a mystery. Nonetheless, scientists are on the trail and it will probably still take years o unravel the world’s greatest mystery.

Another theory suggests that the texts are related to the pictures and that it is likely that they contain descriptions of various medicinal plants and botanical knowledge. What is certain, however, is that its author used goose or duck feathers to write on it. And speaking of writing, the text contains 30 different letters, or rather signs, which the author also added colourful drawings, stylised human figures, astronomical signs and astrology symbols. The codex consists of about 35,000 words, but that is all we know about it. 

Let’s take a look at the illustrations in the manuscript. There are diagrams on every page except the last chapter. This gives some idea of the subject matter. On this basis, we can distinguish sections such as

  • Herbarium: each page contains herbal illustrations
  • Pharmacy: contains drawings of various plant parts and pharmaceutical instruments
  • Biology: illustrations include many nude female figures bathing in tubs. The oddity of these pictures is that the tubs visibly represent human organs
  • Astronomy: with planets, zodiac signs and various other illustrations, all the signs contain texts on astronomy and astrology. Some parts depict galaxies, others seem to depict cells.
  • Cosmology: shows an unknown landscape or world with a map, islands, castles and a volcano.
  • Recipes

The origin

The history of the manuscript is extremely adventurous and there are many obscure points, making it difficult to trace its origins. The problem is that little is known about the period around its creation. What we do know however is that the manuscript was originally owned by an antiquities dealer named Wilfrid Michael Voynich in 1912.

Interestingly, it was also considered the work of Leonardo da Vinci, while others believed it to be the Holy Grail or the source of eternal youth, but there were those who believed it was ‘just a special herbal decree.

Although the lengths and combinations of words in the text show a pattern similar to real languages, several studies have concluded that the book is nothing more than a 15th-century hoax designed to fool Renaissance bookmakers and to get good money out of their pockets and that the words have no meaning. 

One of these studies suggested that anyone could produce this set of characters using a technique already well known in the 16th century, and another study described the words on paper as gibberish on the basis of their statistical properties.

Perhaps it was written by the mathematician and astrologer John Dee? Dee does not mention it in his diaries, nor is there any specific reference to it. Dee had a medium, Edward Kelley, whose name has also been suggested as the author. He was said to be able to turn copper into gold and summon angels using a secret powder. He called the language of angels Enoch. Some speculate that he recorded his journey through heaven in the language he used to communicate with angels.

Breaking the code

The most important thing that no one has yet managed to decipher is what it was written for, or what it contains. The Voynich manuscript has even been examined by experts without success, of course.

Not only were the contents of the code translated into the various number systems as well, but the graphics were converted into writing and the punctuation marks into graphics. In vain. 

In fact, it could be written in a foreign language, or so it was thought for a very long time, as not a single word could be decoded. At one time it was even suggested that it might not make any sense at all and that it was in fact a fictitious language.

Many people have tried to decipher it over the years. Professional codebreakers, researchers, archaeologists, scientists, and even the CIA itself but no one has come close to finding the final solution. 

A few years ago, however, Russian mathematicians involving Yuri Orlov, also tried to decipher the text by trying a highly unusual, and almost rarely used, unique coding process on the manuscript. They took the text of the manuscript, its entire contents, and removed the spaces but there were no conclusive results. It was also compared with Russian but nothing convincing was found. 

Later, new methods were tried, including comparisons with European languages, including ancient Hungarian, but no matches were found, although there were words that could make sense in the text. However, this was statistically small and was discarded.

It was also theorized that the words drawn are very similar to those of languages spoken in East and Central Asia, including the Sino-Tibetan languages.

Marcelo Montemurro, a researcher at the University of Manchester in the UK, and his colleagues have also analysed the text using a statistical technique that highlighted the most significant phrases, and the results showed that the Voynich manuscript actually contained a secret message. 

Montemurro’s method looked for much more general patterns than patterns of words, based on the frequency and grouping of words that might indicate meaning. 

However, even this did not convince the fraud supporters. Gordon Rugg, a computer scientist at Keele University in the UK, who in 2004 proposed a unique method of constructing a complete manuscript from a set of characters without any linguistic basis, believes that the fact that the manuscript does not contain a single correction or clue to a correction makes the book suspicious. “If Voynich’s manuscript was written in a real language, its author either did not bother with errors at all or wrote 200 pages without any errors,” he explained. “This is highly unlikely.”

So we can say that the challenge with this manuscript is that its words are not related to any language. And the other Latin passages cannot be identified with absolute certainty as part of the original text.

A new hypothesis is that the author may have used complex, often deliberately deceptive passages, and employed an artificial coding system to smuggle information out of Venice to the Turks.

Since the contents of the book have not yet been deciphered by any method of decoding, many believe that this could be because there is simply nothing to decipher. To put it more precisely, the book is nothing more than a giant gibberish with no beginning and no end, and the drawings have nothing to do with the graphics and vice versa. Its author must have had a single purpose: to trick people and possibly make a lot of money by making it look special. If that was his aim, he succeeded.