Who Knows?

Meehan Crist

  • The Voynich Manuscript edited by Raymond Clemens
    Yale, 336 pp, £35.00, November 2016, ISBN 978 0 300 21723 0

The Voynich Manuscript looks unremarkable: a yellowing bundle of cheap vellum pages bound between two wooden boards. The cover is blank. Once called ‘the most mysterious manuscript in the world’ by the medievalist and philologist John Manly, its 240 pages contain illustrations of plants no one can identify, what look to be circular celestial maps (though they don’t correspond to any known constellations), drawings of women with rounded bellies frolicking in baths connected by strange tubes, and a list of what may be alchemical or herbal recipes. No one knows its author or origins, and no one can read it. The faded brown script is written in an unknown alphabet that has baffled historians, cryptographers and bibliophiles for nearly six centuries. When Umberto Eco visited Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which has housed the manuscript since the 1960s, it was the only text he asked to see.

Detail from The Voynich Manuscript

The manuscript’s main sections are known to scholars as the ‘herbal’, ‘astrological’, ‘balneological’ and ‘pharmacological’ – the list of recipes, if that is what it is, comes at the end – and many readers have attempted comparisons to medieval codices of botany, astrology, alchemy and materia medica. The drawings – faces embedded in leafy vegetation, plants waving tentacular arms, tubes bulging like human organs – look as though they could be illustrations for a compendium of natural science. But as we lack context for them, we can’t tell what they are supposed to represent.

Take the naked women of the ‘balneological’ section. As Jennifer Rampling notes in an essay in the new Yale edition, alchemical treatises often included figurative and allegorical representations: ‘The “chemical wedding” of solar king and lunar queen might represent the alchemical process of conjunction – the physical joining of gold and silver – or suggest an analogy for the mysterious and unseen bonds between substances, now envisioned in terms of human desire.’ Naked men and women, sometimes pictured in hexagonal stone baths, were used to represent substances undergoing dissolution or conjunction. But in the Voynich Manuscript most of the bathers are female and ‘their postures and activities have no clear parallel in alchemical writing.’ Trying to interpret this book as an alchemical text soon becomes a maddening game of guesswork and association.

The vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early 15th century, and the inks were created with materials and processes common in the late medieval period. Many have suggested that the bathing women look pregnant, which could indicate that this is a medicinal text concerning women’s health or fertility cycles. But visual representations of the female body in medieval Europe routinely featured rouged cheeks and a rounded belly, as with Botticelli’s Venus or the female figures in the paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder. The artist who illustrated the Voynich Manuscript had a heavy hand, but the appearance of the bathing women may simply reflect artistic convention and gender norms. This does not rule out the possibility that the drawings illustrate heretical descriptions of female contraception or abortion, as some have suggested – subjects that may have warranted the use of careful code.

The glyphs of the unknown script are looping and lovely (one set is known as the ‘gallows’ because of the characters’ resemblance to a hangman’s scaffold), making up an ‘alphabet’ of some thirty symbols. These seem to be arranged into words that run from left to right and are grouped into paragraphs, or appear as labels attached to the drawings and diagrams. Some have noted similarities between these symbols and ones found in codes used in medieval Europe, particularly northern Italy, where city-states would transport messages by horseback along routes where bandits were common. One of the most compelling clues discovered in the manuscript also points toward northern Italy: a tiny drawing of a castle with ‘swallow-tail’ or Ghibelline fortifications unique to the region. Subtle variations in the handwriting suggest the work of at least two and possibly as many as eight different scribes. However many there were, the manuscript is clearly the result of many months or years of effortful labour. Someone must have cared a great deal about this book to see it through to completion.

Recent statistical analyses of the distribution of ‘letters’ and ‘words’ have shown that they possess features associated with natural-language texts, such as conformity with Zipf’s Law, which states that words are distributed along a curve such that the most frequent word appears about twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, and so on. But the ‘words’ in the Voynich Manuscript also follow patterns not found in any known language. The same word sometimes appears two, three or more times in a row, and there are no repeated strings of two or more ‘words’ that would signal the use of common phrases. Perhaps this is a system of shorthand?

The Voynich Manuscript has often been compared to the Codex Seraphinianus, which was published in 1981 and eventually revealed to be the work of an Italian artist and designer called Luigi Serafini. The Codex is a catalogue of knowledge from a world that doesn’t exist, written in a ‘code’ completely unrelated to actual language and filled with illustrations of chimerical organisms and machines. It seems to depict, in schematic detail, biological, anatomical and technological impossibilities. Like the Codex, the Voynich Manuscript looks enough like a codification of knowledge to be familiar, but not enough to be comprehensible. The utter strangeness of the manuscript, in which plants seem impossibly pieced together from different species and the night sky looks as no human has ever seen it, is one of its enduring delights. Who would make such a thing, and why?

A letter found tucked in the manuscript gives a tantalising clue as to its origins. Dated August 1665, it was written by a Bohemian called Johannes Marcus Marci, who served as a physician to the Holy Roman Emperor. Writing to his mentor, the polymath Athanasius Kircher (who claimed to have decoded the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt), Marci reports that the manuscript was ‘sold to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II at a reported price of six hundred ducats and that it was believed to be a work by Roger Bacon’. Rudolf II, emperor from 1576 until 1612, was obsessed with art, science and the occult. He moved his capital to Prague, one of the great artistic and scientific centres of the late Renaissance, where he built a new wing at the castle to house a vast Kunstkammer containing wonders ranging from a supposed unicorn horn to paintings by Brueghel and Dürer. He commissioned clocks and musical instruments and offered patronage to natural philosophers, botanists and astronomers, including Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. The mysterious manuscript would certainly have been in keeping with his tastes.

If Rudolf believed the manuscript had been produced by Bacon, a 13th-century Franciscan friar, he may have hoped (as others have) that it contained the key to the fabrication of the philosopher’s stone – a legendary substance that can turn lead to gold and give its owner eternal life. In his letter, Marci explains that the manuscript came to him after the death of his friend Georg Baresch, an alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 1600s and spent two decades trying, and failing, to crack the cipher: ‘To its deciphering he devoted unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life.’ (Before Baresch, the manuscript had been owned by Rudolf’s doctor Jacobus Sinapius, whose previously hidden ex libris was recently revealed by multi-spectral imaging.) Kircher didn’t crack it either, and what happened to the manuscript after he died is a little hazy. It seems to have made its way to Rome, and then to the Jesuits, who kept it hidden until it was purchased by Voynich in 1912.

Voynich was christened Michal Habdank-Wojnicz in 1865 in what is now Lithuania and was then part of the Russian Empire. He studied law and chemistry at Moscow University and became a pharmacist before moving, around 1885, to Warsaw, where he joined the revolutionary party Proletariat. In 1887 he was sent to prison in Siberia for his part in a failed attempt to free two fellow revolutionaries from the Warsaw Citadel, but he escaped in 1890, fleeing through Manchuria and Beijing to London. There, he joined the circle of political exiles around the charismatic revolutionary Sergei Kravchinsky, known as Stepniak, who had assassinated the head of the Russian secret police and was the leader of the anti-tsarist opposition abroad.

In his essay for the new edition Arnold Hunt writes that Stepniak made Voynich the business manager of the Russian Free Press Fund, which printed revolutionary propaganda for distribution in Russia. Voynich became well known in London’s revolutionary and intellectual social circles and was thought a brilliant, if somewhat inscrutable, individual. He quit the press after a bitter dispute over his attempt to get revolutionary materials distributed in Polish. By 1895 he was living with Ethel Boole (they later married, then separated), the co-founder of the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, an editor of the revolutionary journal Free Russia, a musician, and the author of the popular novel The Gadfly, which came out in 1897. Voynich told a friend that in those years he was ‘very miserable, not knowing what to do, and very poor’, but he somehow found enough capital to open an antiquarian bookshop in Soho Square. The British Museum became one of his best customers and the shop was frequented by many luminaries of the left.Voynich, who spoke several languages and travelled around Europe with ease, quickly made a success of his business and moved it to larger premises on Shaftesbury Avenue.

On a book-buying trip to Italy in 1912, Voynich discovered the manuscript that would bear his name at the Villa Mondragone, a Jesuit monastery. In a letter written by his wife and sealed until her death, she says he claimed it was taken from a shipment of books bound for the Vatican Library and that he was therefore sworn to secrecy. He was fascinated by the manuscript and became convinced that it was immensely valuable. When the First World War began, he moved his operation to New York, where, increasingly desperate to crack the cipher, he enlisted the cryptographic skills of William Newbold, a professor of philosophy at Pennsylvania, who spent years studying the manuscript under a microscope and came to believe that the glyphs concealed a second cipher – microletters encoded into each penstroke. Voynich was elated. ‘When the time comes,’ he crowed to the New York Times in 1921, ‘I will prove to the world that the black magic of the Middle Ages consisted in discoveries far in advance of 20th-century science.’

As William Sherman recounts in his essay ‘Cryptographic Attempts’, in 1921 Newbold announced that he had discovered ‘a cipher common from Bacon’s alchemical manuscripts along with a separate – and far more complicated – system best described as an anagrammed micrographic shorthand’. This supposedly involved letter transposition, abbreviations taken from an ancient Greek cipher, and microscopic characters embedded in each glyph that functioned as a form of shorthand. Newbold reported that the manuscript showed sperm fertilising an egg (centuries before the invention of the microscope), and the spiral of the Andromeda galaxy (centuries before the invention of the telescope). But a few years later, Manly, who had served as a US army cryptologist during the First World War, studied Newbold’s posthumously published papers and, ‘rather than careful examples of micrography, he found random cracks left behind by drying ink, which opened Newbold to the graver charge of seeing signs that were not there in the first place.’ Manly concluded that Newbold had seen only ‘the products of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned and ingenious subconscious’. Voynich was disgraced, and the manuscript eventually sold for a small sum before being donated to the Beineke Library, where it remains.

After Manly, William Friedman, the American cryptographer who led the team that deciphered the Japanese Code Purple during the Second World War, along with his wife, Elizebeth Smith, spent almost forty years studying the manuscript. The couple met at Riverbank Laboratories just outside Chicago (a private research facility that housed an acoustic testing laboratory, set up by a textile magnate who was convinced that Francis Bacon had written the works of Shakespeare), where they were employed as codebreakers during the First World War. During the Second World War they moved to Washington DC, where Elizebeth worked for the US Coast Guard and the FBI while William was at Arlington Hall, America’s version of Bletchley Park. The couple were among the first to use computers for textual analysis, and the Voynich manuscript was one of the first texts they examined. Their final theory was published in an article in Philological Quarterly called ‘Acrostics, Anagrams and Chaucer’, which included a long section on the futility of trying to decode anagrammatic ciphers. But they didn’t reveal their conclusion, which was sealed in an envelope held by the journal’s editor and opened only after William Friedman’s death in 1970: ‘The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type. – Friedman.’ In the end, they believed there was no code to break. They were convinced, as some scholars are today, that ‘Voynichese’ was its own language.

Although it was relatively unknown outside cryptographic circles for most of the 20th century, if you Google ‘Voynich manuscript’ today you’ll find blogs and websites that offer hundreds of different theories, claiming that the text is everything from a book of medieval medicine to the memoirs of a stranded alien to a monograph on the fauna of ancient Finland. A remarkably rigorous community of scholars and enthusiasts has expanded rapidly since the pages of the manuscript were digitised and made available online. René Zandbergen, a space-flight dynamics researcher with the European Space Agency, curates an exhaustive public directory of research, and together with Rafal Prinke, a Polish historian of alchemy and esotericism, has written an introduction to another new edition of the manuscript to be published by Watkins. Recent analytical efforts documented on Zandbergen’s website have used methods such as neural network architecture and vector space visualisations, but they have yet to arrive at any certain knowledge about the nature of the cipher, or who its author might be.

The Yale edition has an introduction by Deborah Harkness, a historian of science and author of the All Souls trilogy, which is set in an alternate universe where humans co-exist uneasily with witches, vampires and demons. It relates the quest to find missing pages of a text that promise to explain the origins of magical creatures on earth. Many scholars of the Voynich Manuscript have hoped for a similar revelation of occult knowledge about the natural world. But perhaps studying these pages in the hope of unlocking secrets is to miss the point. It’s almost as though the book exists in order to make the inquiry into its existence possible.