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Wednesday, 2 April 2014


Voynich Manuscript, p. 32, depicting unrecognisable plant forms (public domain) NB - please click on each picture in this article (and also in all of my other blog articles) to obtain an enlarged view.

Amid the vast store of knowledge contained within Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is a unique manuscript lavishly illustrated with colour paintings of strange plants and astronomical/astrological symbols, not to mention a varied selection of what its researchers refer to as 'nymphs' (i.e. nude women). The only problem is that the ornate script of the text in this very remarkable book is written in a wholly unknown language that has withstood all attempts in modern times to decipher it.

Voynich Manuscript, p. 170, including fold-out sections (public domain)

This baffling tome (which is over 200 pages long – though some pages are missing - and also includes several fold-out, multi-part pages) is known as the Voynich Manuscript. It is named after New York-based Polish book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich who purchased it in 1912 from the library of the Villa Mondragone, a former Jesuit college in the commune of Frascati, central Italy. Accompanying the manuscript when he purchased it was a letter dated 1666, written to the famous Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (died 1680) by his former tutor, the eminent Bohemian doctor/scientist Johannes Marcus Marci (died 1667). In his letter, Marci claimed that the manuscript's author had been identified as Roger Bacon, a 13th-Century Franciscan friar who was  also an outstanding English proto-scientist/alchemist, by one of the manuscript's most illustrious previous owners - the Holy Roman Emperor and Bavarian king Rudolf II (died 1612). In 2009, however, precise internal carbon-14-dating of its vellum by researchers from the University of Arizona revealed that it had actually been created two centuries later, some time between 1404 and 1458, probably originating in northern Italy during the Renaissance.

Voynich Manuscript, p. 158 - multi-page representations of inexplicable astronomical and/or astrological symbols (public domain)

Rudolf II passed the manuscript to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (died 1622), who presided over the emperor's botanical gardens, from whom it somehow found its way into the ownership of Georg Baresch, a Prague alchemist. Unable to decode its contents, in 1639 Baresch sent samples of it to Kircher, in the hope that this acclaimed scholar and code-breaker could succeed where he had failed, but there is no record of any results obtained by Kircher, though he did seek, unsuccessfully, to purchase the manuscript from Baresch. Following Baresch's death in 1662, however, it was acquired by Marci, who did pass it on to Kircher – but what happened to it then, and, indeed, for the next two centuries, is unknown. However, in or around the 1870s, along with Kircher's collected correspondence from a lifetime of scholarly research and writings, the manuscript found its way into the personal libraries of the faculty of the Collegio Romano (which is now the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome), and thence to the Villa Mondragone, where in 1912 it was seen and purchased by Voynich.

After purchasing it, Voynich made copies of this puzzling manuscript available to many of the world's leading code-breakers, including British and American teams previously and subsequently employed in cipher interpretation during the two World Wars, as well as ancient language researchers - but all to no avail. Not only is the language resolutely incomprehensible, most of the illustrated species of flower do not even exist! In fact, many seem to be chimerical, combining portions from several totally separate species (e.g. the flowers of one species combined with the roots of a second species and the leaves of a third). Indeed, as noted by Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill in their comprehensive investigative book The Voynich Manuscript (2004), it is as if even the very illustrations themselves have been encrypted – and perhaps they have!

Voynich Manuscript, p. 66, depicting some additional unidentifiable plants  (public domain)

Voynich died in 1930, after which the manuscript passed to his widow, Ethel Lilian, and when she died in 1960, she bequeathed it to her good friend Anne Nill, who in turn sold it the following year to antique book dealer Hans P. Kraus. However, Kraus's attempts even to market it (let alone translate it) ended in such disappointment that in 1969 he donated the exasperating tome to Yale University, where it still resides to this day, officially catalogued there as Beinecke MS 408.

Voynich Manuscript, p. 24 (public domain)

But who was the author of this most extraordinary of tomes, and how did it come into the possession of Rudolf II? These questions frame a mystery just as sizeable, a controversy just as considerable, as the nature of this manuscript's contents. Voynich thought it likely that the person who sold the manuscript to Rudolf II was none other than esteemed English mathematician, scholar, and mage John Dee (1527-1608). However, his belief stemmed from Marci's mistaken claim that the manuscript had once been owned by Roger Bacon (Voynich was aware that Dee had possessed a notable collection of Bacon's manuscripts), but Marci's claim was of course discounted almost half a century after Voynich's death by the radiocarbon-dating results that placed the manuscript's creation two centuries after Bacon had died. So Bacon had never owned it, nor could he have authored it – a popular theory prior to the radiocarbon tests.

Several other historical figures, including Marci himself, have been named as potential authors by various researchers, but none is convincing in this role. Moreover, some investigators have even deemed it possible that Voynich himself created the manuscript – i.e. a skilful modern-day forgery that someone with his specialised knowledge of antiquarian books and documents might have successfully accomplished. However, the very precise internal nature of the radiocarbon-dating would seem to invalidate this hypothesis.

Voynich Manuscript, p. 78, containing the famous, so-called 'nymphs in a bathtub' illustration (public domain)

As for what the Voynich Manuscript actually represents – once again, the theories are as diverse as they are diverting. Among the identities offered to explain it are that it represents an attempt to devise an artificial language; it is an extravagant hoax that has no meaning whatsoever; it is an example of spirit-mediated automatic writing; or it is an exceedingly peculiar herbal or pharmacopoeia. However, one of the very few persons to achieve even the slightest degree of success in exposing its secrets, Yale University's own Professor Robert S. Brumbaugh (author of The World's Most Mysterious Manuscript, 1977), considers it to be an alchemical work - such works are well known for their intricate symbolism and cryptic text. A few scribbled calculations in the manuscript's margins led him to formulating a code whereby he was able to decipher some of the names of those few illustrated plants in it that are recognisable species, and also certain stars. Aside from that, the text's contents continue to remain a complete mystery.

I too have speculated that it may conceivably be an elaborate alchemical treatise. The reason why such works were so fiendishly (but purposefully) impenetrable was so that only bona fide alchemists could translate them and discover the lore that they contained - thereby protecting them, and their alchemist readers, from persecution and obliteration by contemporary religious zealots who considered alchemy to be blasphemous and a dark art.

Bizarre plant-animal hybrids depicted in the Codex Seraphinianus (© Luigi Serafini/Franco Maria Ricci)

The hoax identity for the Voynich Manuscript is also intriguing, if only because there is at least one very relevant precedent in existence – the Codex Seraphinianus. Originally published in Italy by Franco Maria Ricci in 1981, this is another fascinating tome, consisting of two volumes each of 127 pages, which are packed throughout with gorgeous multicoloured illustrations of grotesque non-existent plants (and all manner of phantasmagorical animals too, as well as bizarre anatomies, food, and fashion) plus text written in an indecipherable language and unique script.

Miraculous mer-folk(?) from the Codex Seraphinianus (© Luigi Serafini/Franco Maria Ricci)

However, the origin of this ostensibly enigmatic work is not – and never has been - in dispute. It is the creation of Italian artist and designer Luigi Serafini, who expressly prepared it between 1976 and 1978 in order to demonstrate that a highly complex and very perplexing manuscript but one without any meaning to it whatsoever could indeed be produced.

Fabulous flora from the Codex Seraphinianus (© Luigi Serafini/Franco Maria Ricci)

Incidentally, if, like me, you are fascinated by spellbinding works such as this one, you will be pleased to learn that the Codex Seraphinianus is readily available to purchase (albeit at a not-inconsiderable price) here on Amazon's UK site and here on its USA site.

A scene from the weird wonderland depicted in the Codex Seraphinianus (© Luigi Serafini/Franco Maria Ricci)

The nature of the Voynich Manuscript text's language has attracted several different suggestions. As noted earlier, one such suggestion is that it constitutes an artificial, constructed language. Others include the possibility that it is an example of micrography (i.e. its meaning is concealed within the construction of each text character), or of steganography (i.e. its true message is hidden within another, outer message), or is a little-known natural language written in a manufactured alphabet. Alternatively, perhaps it is a more familiar language but which has been purposefully rendered obscure by mapping it through a cipher to the manuscript's alphabet. Or could it be a series of codes needing to be looked up in a codebook – but if so, where and what is this crucial codebook?

Close-up of the Voynich Manuscript text's elegant but esoteric script (public domain)

On 20 February 2014, media articles around the world reported the claim by linguistics professor Stephen Bax that he had made a breakthrough in that he had successfully identified and deciphered various astronomical and botanical proper nouns (numbering 10 in total) within the manuscript's text, including the constellation Taurus, what appears to be the seven-member Pleiades star cluster, and 'kantairon' – a word seemingly alluding to the herb commonly known as centaury, popular in medieval times. However, it was stressed that Prof. Bax had not solved the entire mystery of the manuscript's meaning, but that he was reporting what he had uncovered so far in order to encourage others to investigate and help decode this centuries-old riddle.

Voynich Manuscript, p. 80 (public domain)

When I wrote the original, much shorter version of this account back in 1995, for inclusion in my forthcoming book The Unexplained, I wondered if Yale University had considered the idea of self-publishing the Voynich Manuscript, selling it in their bookshops and any others willing to stock it, and announcing in a blaze of media publicity that a handsome prize would be given to anyone who succeeded in deciphering the manuscript and made their methods available for independent scrutiny. (In 2005, a facsimile edition was indeed published, with an introduction in French.)

Having said that, perhaps it is no bad thing that the radiocarbon-dating tests have demonstrated that this mystifying manuscript is not the work of Roger Bacon. After all, bearing in mind his fame in accurately predicting all manner of major scientific inventions and principles many centuries before they were formally conceived, who knows, this extraordinary manuscript might contain secrets best left undiscovered, even in this modern-day age.

But now that we live in the world of the internet and already have immediate online access to an ever-expanding, near-limitless corpus of knowledge, such concerns are of little avail. Indeed, among this incalculable quantity of online data is none other than the Voynich Manuscript itself – because a complete high-resolution scan of it can be freely accessed and downloaded here directly from Yale University, and also here  from the U.S. Archives.

Voynich Manuscript, p. 176 (public domain)

So if you enjoy cryptology – the study and application of codes and code-breaking techniques – why not visit this virtual Voynich tome right now, and who knows? Perhaps you may be the one to prise forth at long last its abstruse, opaque secrets from its beautifully-illustrated and elegantly-scripted but currently still-bemusing pages.

This present Eclectarium post article of mine is a much-expanded and updated version of my original account of the Voynich manuscript that appeared in my book The Unexplained: An Illustrated Guide to the World's Natural and Paranormal Mysteries (Carlton: London, 1996).

And finally - I just can't resist: here's one last, gloriously-inexplicable illustration from the totally splendiferous Codex Seraphinianus, a copy of which will definitely be added to my library very shortly!

Unique, mesmerising, arcane - welcome to the surreal, spectacular world of the Codex Seraphinianus (© Luigi Serafini/Franco Maria Ricci)