In Freaky Fridays we’ve had a where did he go, a who is he, and an open secret of spies. Today we have a manuscript that leaves us what it is and why it is. It’s the Voynich Manuscript. A lovely manuscript with exotic drawings whose origin is unknown along with what language it is written in, if any.
First let’s go over what we do know about the manuscript. It is hand written. It is written on vellum. Surviving to us is 240 pages there were more but we don’t know how many more. It has illustrations that are painted. There are six distinct sections remaining herbal, astronomical, biological, cosmological, pharmaceutical, and recipes. The vellum, ink, and paints all carbon date back to 1404-1438. The language it is written it is unknown. Some of the illustrations depict unknown plants or odd images we don’t understand the intent.
Despite it’s being dated back to the early 1400s the first documentation of it is in 1639 when George Baresch an alchemist sent a letter to the College Roman asking for help reading it. He sent copies of the writing that intrigued Athanasis Kircher, a Jesuit linguistic scholar, who wrote back wanting to buy the book but Baresch refused to sell. Skip to Baresch’s death in 1666 the book was then sold to Kircher.
When Kircher got it there was a letter claiming that Emperor Rudolf II had once owned it had it translated into English by Robert Bacon and gave the original to Jacovus Horcicky de Tepererz of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Prague. Who knows if this was true or was just told to Baresch when he acquired it to make it seem more valuable. Either way Kircher got nowhere with understanding the manuscript and he died. It was left to the Collegio Romano to languish until 1912 when the College sold some of its collection to Wilfrid M. Voynich, a Polish book dealer. He was intrigued by the manuscript and tried to get it deciphered in modern times. Thus it became known as the Voynich Manuscript. However, as we know he didn’t succeed and upon his death it went to his wife. She refused to sell but allowed scholars to look at the Manuscript making it well known in three communities – Medieval historians, linguists, and cryptographers.
Upon her death in 1960 she left it to her friend Anne Nill who sold it to a book dealer Hans P. Kraus who donated it to Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1969. Since then Yale has scanned all the pages and place them on the internet for public viewing. I do encourage you to go here, flip through the pages and appreciate the beauty of the handmade work.
Welcome back. I know, I know after looking at it you are saying “That’s all great Mary Louise but WHAT IS IT?” I’ll answer an untranslated about 600 year old manuscript with illuminations, oh and a cute little dragon in the corner of one page… embellished in green. Don’t ask me what the naked ladies bathing in tubs of green goo connected by pipes are doing…
Okay, let me first describe the sections for people who can’t hop over (maybe live with data limits like me) and then we’ll talk theories and recent developments.
Herbal or Botany section – straight forward illustrations of full plants some of which we recognize (such as coriander, hellebore and juniper) others we don’t.
Astronomical – has the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere. No Southern Cross here (psst it’s on my bucket list to see the Southern Cross). Also the European zodiac (Gemini, Aquarius, Leo, etc.) is depicted. A page from this section is above.
Biological – for lack of a better thing to call a section with lots of nude women and people. Here is the illustration of the great hot tub of slime.
Cosmological – this section has lots of fold outs something that was VERY costly in the early 1400s meaning someone back then spent a pretty penny to write all this down and make it into a book that eventually fell apart. This section has what have been called rosettes think of a galaxy diagram in circular form. These complex charts are connected with causeways and have some castles in them too. Kind of reminds me of the Norse Yggisdrisal depictions of the various worlds of their mythology.
Pharmaceutical – depicts plant parts with lots of writing and apothecary jars.
Recipes – paragraphs of texts separated by stars.
First off it bugged me that the Herbal wasn’t with the pharmaceutical and recipes or that the astronomical wasn’t with the cosmological. But don’t get your undies in a wad over it. We don’t know the original order this is just how it was together when Voynich purchased the remaining sections. The book fell apart in its long stay at the College Romano and someone put what remained back together as best they could for something no one could read. So we don’t know the original order of the sections.
Okay now to theories about just what this oddity from the 1400s in an unknown language is.
1. It’s a 600+ year old hoax that was very expensive at the time. The whys of such a hoax are lost to history.
2. It was made by John Dee and Edward Kelley, from England, recorded in their angel language. (Let’s just leave it here those two deserve their own long Freaky Friday entry).
3. Voynich faked it. Being a book dealer he could get old inks, paints, and vellum. Now why he’d waste such quantities of such materials to make a hoax is unknown as is what would be the purpose of the hoax since he refused to sell it?
4. Raphael Minishovsky, a cryptographer, made it in the late 1600s using 200-year-old supplies to demonstrate his unbreakable cipher.
5. Antonion Aveklino an architect from the 1400s made it to keep secrets as he made a dangerous journey. He was a cryptographer hobbyist and knew several great cryptographers of the time. So to transport secrets of his trade and designs they devised hiding them in plain sight in this book.
6. It is a general reference book from the 1400s written in an obscure language we have forgotten.
Before you pick one let’s talk about the writing and language it has 20 to 25 characters shown here in a handy-dandy chart. The ones they aren’t sure if they are variants of the same character or different characters all together are depicted in the second row here.
These characters are structured into ‘words’ which follow a natural language structure. Think about it in English words have to have vowels, there are standard spelling rules (English kind of has them). A natural language is one that develops naturally in a population – English, French, Japanese, Hindi, and so on. Studies show the structure of the ‘words’ in Voynichese (for lack of a better name) follows the commonalities of naturally developed writing of such languages.
I know I know ‘Great so why can’t we read it?’ Well first off we don’t have a Rosetta stone for it where the same text is reflected in several known languages. Which brings us to theories about the writing itself.
1. It is a currently known language but is written in a cipher or code. Encoding means you replace words with other words. So if it is a pure code it’s still a code of an unknown language. A cipher each letter is replaced by a symbol. So if it is a cipher it is one of a language with 20 to 25 characters. This gives us a long list of known languages as most have that many character it seems to be a linguistic sweet spot for characters.
2. It is steganography. Here you hide a message in gibberish. Let’s say you look at every other character write it down and then find the message. If this is it they encrypted it into a cipher and used extra cipher characters – two levels to break to get the message.
3. It’s a constructed language. We have these today Klingon, elvish, and so on. So back in the 1400s someone was a geek for some forgotten fandom made the language of the fandom and wrote a book in it.
4. It is glossolalia. It has no meaning it’s just gobbledygook written down in made up symbols with no meanings attached.
5. It is a natural language using symbols. We already know it’s hit the lower 20s sweet spot and follows the structure of natural language rules.
Stephen Bax of applied linguistics of the University of Bedfordshire took this approach using the plants we can identify and the zodiac star clusters we know to try to decipher the language. In other words he made his own Rosetta Stone using images and modern language names. In February of 2015 he announced he’d deciphered 14 characters using the coriander, hellebore and juniper from the botany section and Taurus from the astrological section. From the structure and what he’s finding in his ongoing study he thinks it’s a Romny language from the Near East or Eastern Europe.
Well there you go. I lean toward it’s a reference book in a form of written Romny we’d forgotten. Very few people may have known this language and it may be extinct as a writing but this might give us some answers. As for what the nude hot tub of green goo is about I’m anxious to find out. If you’d like your own copy a publisher announced this year they are going to use Yale’s HD scans to make a book of the manuscript. So some 600 year old scholar of a forgotten written language is grinning in satisfaction or a hoaxer is laughing or a secret keep is trembling we’ll find out the secret all in the great beyond. Until then we still puzzle over exactly what this manuscript is trying to show and tell us. I like there are some written mysterious in the world.