In 1912, Wilfrid M. Voynich (a book collector) bought a medieval manuscript (235 pages) written in an unknown script and what appears to be an unknown language or a cipher from the Jesuit College at the Villa Mondragone, Frascati, in Italy (near Rome). Apparently, Voynich wanted to have the mysterious manuscript deciphered and provided photographic copies to a number of experts. However, despite the efforts of many well known cryptologists and scholars, the book remains unread. There are some claims of decipherment, but to date, none of these can be substantiated with a complete translation. The book was bought by H. P. Kraus (a New York book antiquarian) in 1961 for the sum of $24,500. He later valued it at $160,000 but was unable to find a buyer. Finally he donated it to Yale University in 1969, where it remains to date at the Beinecke Rare Book Library with catalogue number MS 408.
The best source of information on the manuscript is Mary E. D'Imperio's book: The Voynich Manuscript - An Elegant Enigma. Aegean Park Press. ISBN:0-98412-038-7.
What does it say?
Nobody knows, but the many illustrations suggest some kind of alchemy book, that somebody may have wanted to keep secret. The manuscript has several parts identified from the illustrations (although there is no guarantee that these are the subject matter of the sections):
a Herbal section (mostly unidentified and fantastic plants),
an Astronomical section (with most zodiac symbols),
a Biological section (with some "anatomical" drawings and human figures),
a Cosmological section (with circles, stars and celestial spheres),
a Pharmaceutical section (with vases and parts of plants) and
a Recipes section (with many short paragraphs).
In addition there are:
pagination and gathering (signature) numbers, several "key-like" sequences throughout the book, some old German writing (most probably added later), names of the months in the astronomical section (probably added later) a few instances of extraneous writing (different from the rest of the manuscript) text not in "Voynich script" in the last folio reading something like "michiton oladabas..." suggesting a key to decryption...
"The Voynich Manuscript, which has been dubbed 'The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World', is named after its discoverer, the American antique book dealer and collector, Wilfrid M. Voynich, who discovered it in 1912, amongst a collection of ancient manuscripts kept in villa Mondragone in Frascati, near Rome, which had been by then turned into a Jesuit College (closed in 1953)." - Jacques Guy
"From a piece of paper which was once attached to the Voynich manuscript, and which is now stored in one of the boxes belonging with the Voynich manuscript holdings of the Beinecke library, it is known that the manuscript once formed part of the private library of Petrus Beck S.J., 22nd general of the Society of Jesus." - Zandbergen, G. Landini, "Some new information about the later history of the Voynich Manuscript".
"Wilfrid Voynich judged it [the Voynich Manuscript] to date from the late 13th century, on the evidence of the calligraphy, the drawings, the vellum, and the pigments. It is some 200 pages long, written in an unknown script of which there is no known other instance in the world. It is abundantly illustrated with awkward coloured drawings. Drawings of unidentified plants; of what seems to be herbal recipes; of tiny naked women frolicking in bathtubs connected by intricate plumbing looking more like anatomical parts than hydraulic contraptions; of mysterious charts in which some have seem astronomical objects seen through a telescope, some live cells seen through a microscope; of charts into which you may see a strange calendar of zodiacal signs, populated by tiny naked people in rubbish bins."
- Jacques Guy
"What fascinates me about the _Voynich
Manuscript_, above and beyond the historical puzzle
and above and beyond how interesting it would be to know what it actually says,
is the idea of an unreadable book. It is a kind of Borgesian
concept that there must be, somewhere, an unreadable book, and perhaps this
is it. The unreadable book hints at the idea that the world is information.
We have cognizance of the world by ordering all the information we come upon
in relation to information that we have already accumulated - through patterns.
An unreadable book in a non-English script, with no dictionary attached, is
very puzzling. We become like linguistic oysters, we secrete around it,
we encyst it into our metaphysic.
But we don't know what it says, which always carries with it the possibility
that it says something that would unhinge our concepts of things or that its
real message is its unreadability. It points to the Otherness of the nature
of information, and is what is called in structrualism a "limit text."
- Terence McKenna - _Archaic Revival_
...a wonder cabinet, you see, before Linaius, before modern scientific classification these great patrons of the arts and natural sciences, they would just collect weird stuff. And that was all you could say about it. I mean, it was rhinoceros horns, fossil amenities, broken pieces of statues from antiquity, giant insects from Southern India, seashells, all this stuff would just be thrown together in these wundercabina, these wonder cabinets. Rudolph was a great patron of the arts. Well, Kelly sent the word that he and Dee had perfected the alchemical process and Rudolph immediately paid their way to Prague and patronized them very lavishly over a number of months but then they didn't seem to be coming through and he rented, he ordered a castle put to their disposal, in Bohemia and they still weren't able to come through. The Voynich Manuscript figures in here too because Kelly's entre to Dee was that he had a manuscript in an unknown language and I believe that this probably was the Voynich manuscript. The Voynich manuscript turns up in the estate of Rudolph and the very month that he paid 14,000 gold ducats for it to persons unknown, Dee, who was always writing back to the Elizabethan court hounding them to send money, entered into his account book that they received 14,000 ducats from an unknown source.
All magical codes, if you know the Trithemian method, within a few hours you can get plain text. The Voynich manuscript did not yield at all to this method and the CIA formed a working group that for over ten years would invite scholars in to have a look at this and if you're interested in this, Marie D'Amperio, who was a great Renaissance scholar, wrote a book called _The Voynich Manuscript, an Elegant Enigma_ in which she traces the efforts of the CIA to figure this thing out and to figure out what it could be.
In the 1960s the CIA became interested in the Voynich Manuscript because the CIA is in the business of code making and breaking, a huge amount of energy goes into this. If you know anything about the enigma project in WWII you know that vast energies go into the making of unbreakable codes and so they very systematically sought out all examples of encrypted material throughout history and just lickety-split deciphered it, one after another. All occult and magical codes known to exist in Europe can be traced back to one person, virtually to one person, to Trithemius, Bishop of Spawnheim who was the great teacher of Henry Cornelius Agrippa.
- Terence McKenna lecture on Alchemy
The illustrations of the manuscript shed little light on its contents. Some depict plants and similar vegetation; but attempts to read the text as a herbal, or to deduce words from the texts from the plants so illustrated, have failed. Many of the species cannot be recognised. Many seem to be composite: the roots of one species have been fastened to the leaves of another, with flowers from a third.
Another series relates to astronomy or astrology. There are recognisable drawings of all the zodiacal constellations, except for Aquarius and Capricorn (January and February), which were apparently lost before the manuscript was discovered by Voynich. Other portions contain circles representing suns, stars, or starburst shapes; their meaning is unknown. Some have claimed that some of these circular drawings represent views through a telescope or microscope; if true, this would suggest an early modern, rather than a medieval, date for the manuscript's origin.
Several pages contain small drawings of stout nude women, who are possibly meant to be depicted as pregnant. Some of them wear crowns. On several pages, these small nudes are placed inside an elaborate network of pipes and basins, an apparatus whose purpose likewise remains mysterious. These may be meant to be the symbols of some sort of procedure in alchemy.
The overall impression given by the surviving leaves of the manuscript suggests that it was meant to serve as a pharmacopoeia or to address topics in medieval or early modern medicine. Astrological considerations frequently played a prominent role in blood-letting and other medical procedures common during the likeliest dates of the manuscript. The alchemical illustrations would also be consistent with this hypothesis if the book contained instructions on the preparation of medical compounds.
The manuscript, when it was found, contained a letter dated 1666, from Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland, addressed to Athanasius Kircher. The letter mentions Roger Bacon as a possible author, though there is no apparent evidence to support this claim.
Some claim the manuscript is a hoax, and in 2003 computer scientist Gordon Rugg suggested that the language-like regularities could have been produced using an encryption device invented around 1550 called a Cardan grille. There is no consensus on the part of those who doubt the legitimacy of the manuscript concerning who might have faked it, however. Voynich, the document's purported 20th century discoverer, and Edward Kelley, the 16th century forger who befriended Queen Elizabeth I's adviser John Dee, are both considered potential hoaxers, but many other possibilities exist as well.
A few claim that the fact that some of the drawings appear to have required a microscope and others a telescope, long before either were invented, mandates the involvement of extraterrestrials. Others see these factors as further cause for suspicion regarding the manuscript's authenticity.
first mention of Voynich Manuscript in Usenet:
From: Richard Outerbridge
Subject: CRYPTOLOGIA TOC October 1986
Newsgroups: sci.crypt, net.mag
Date: 1986-11-17 21:47:42 PST
A Quarterly Journal Devoted to All Aspects of Cryptology
Volume 10, Number 4 Posted 861106 Received 861117 October 1986
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The Automated Cryptanalysis
of Substitution Ciphers
John M. Carroll and Steve Martin 193
[An AI-influenced alternative to Peleg and Rosenfeld.]
The Voynich Manuscript - By Voynich? Michael Barlow 210
Foiling the Known Plaintext
Frank Rubin 217
[Against DES and LSFRs by random homophonic "pre-"encryption.]
Undergraduate Paper Competition
The 1986 Winner and the 1987 Competition 223
[And the winner is... "Equivalence Classes: Towards More Efficient Search" by Samuel L. Levitin; or, how to break UNIX >crypt< faster!
To appear in January's issue.]
Free IBM-PC Encryption Software
[Based on "Linear Transformations in Galois Fields", >Cryptologia<, Volume 4, Number 3, July 1980.]
Cadbury Code Confidential
[How >do< they get the caramel into those Caramilk bars?]
A Link With Pearl Harbour?
Book Review Ralph Erskine
[>The Price of Admiralty: The War Diary of the German Naval Attache in Japan, 1939-1943<.]
Geheimschreiber Wolfgang Mache 230
Cryptology and the Law -
[The Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, 35 USC 181-188.]
Biographies of Contributors 254
Index by Author - Volume 10 (1986) CRYPTOLOGIA 255
Published Quarterly at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute,
Indiana, USA, 47803. $28.00 per year US, $36.00US per year non-US.
Richard Outerbridge <outer@utcsri.UUCP> (416) 961-4757
Payload Deliveries: N 43 39'36", W 79 23'42", Elev. 106.47m.