The Voynich Manuscript: Preconceived Madness

By Camryn Monzo |

Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

“Michi dabas multas portas,” meaning “To me thou gavest (or wast giving) many gates” (Newbold qtd. in Kennedy 31). These were the words that set the mind of William Newbold ablaze, starting his lifelong addiction to deciphering the Voynich Manuscript. Publishing his research on the Medieval Latin ciphertext in the early 1920s, Newbold became the darling of popular media like Harper’s Magazine. But all of this would crumble away after his sudden death in 1926, leaving friend and colleague John Manly to later publish the first of many comments against Newbold’s translation: “In my opinion, the Newbold claims are entirely baseless and should be definitely and absolutely rejected” (Kennedy 37-42). These harsh words were only the beginning of the torrent of degrading comments and theories that continue to modern day, leaving the Voynich Manuscript meaningless until further notice. With this sort of culture behind the Voynich Manuscript (hereafter V.M.), how can any real solution arise?

The V.M. Itself: Getting Accustomed With the Book
Wilfrid Voynich (whose name the book bears), became the first owner in recent history. An avid proponent of its translation, he sent Photostats to many notables in his time, hoping for a decipherment to garner publicity (Kennedy 17). Through his travels as a book dealer, he purchased the codex from Villa Mondragone, a Vatican-run college in Frascati, Italy, in 1912 (Tiltman 2 qtd. in D’imperio 1). They had received it from Athanasius Kircher, who had acquired it from his student Joannus (or Jacobus, depending on the source) Marcus Marci. Before that point, Jacobus de Tepenencz and Rudolph the II of Bohemia had it in their possession. After that, its past lies obscured by lack of record-keeping (D’imperio 2). The Voynich Manuscript’s origins, as told, seem closer to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code than a historical artifact. Perhaps this is why so many of its translators were driven to insanity in trying to decipher the maddening riddles within its pages.

Contributing to the insanity, The Voynich Manuscript has many theorists claiming authorship, citing various literary figures and the like. Theories range between Roger Bacon (a monk and polymath), the Cult of Isis, and of course, aliens.

Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Additionally, almost every page contains a mystical plant or, in many cases, dozens of nude, pudgy women dancing around what appears to be organically built bathtubs connected to plants. To even the most open-minded reader, this makes absolutely no sense. Furthermore, there are no erasures in the entire book (Storr). This begs the question: if there are no erasures, how can it be real? There isn’t a person alive who hasn’t written a letter to their grandmother and fudged at least one letter, putting an x through the word or simply whiting it out. But the V.M. has none (as far as current scientists can tell).

Even after attempting to cram these pictures into partial reality, disbelief sets in and any possibility of an accurate identification grows less likely. The common Latin text even stops half way of explaining most of the letter’s complexity. William Newbold, along with his eventual assistant Roland Kent, hypothesized that the V.M. used shorthand Latin. This at least explains the strange combinations of letters in some cases (D’imperio 34). It does not, however, explain the pictures within.

Multi-page foldouts, some as what appear to be astrological maps or diagrams, dot the V.M.’s pages. There are hundreds of absurd, logic-defying pictures drawn in the V.M, whose plain cover offers no assistance. Crudely illustrated, a color pallet of only one type of green, blue, red, white and black/brown were the illustrator’s tools (McCrone 4-5).

Even knowing the chemical makeup of the pigments used, many clues alluding to its century of origin—theorists range between the 1300s-1600s: a three hundred year gap!—are hidden in its lack of style and concrete authorship. As a whole, it appears the Voynich Manuscript’s devotees have blindingly believed the V.M. is a real document without assuming otherwise. But that’s not the only view.

The Continual Debate: is the V.M. a Real Book or Not?
Gordon Rugg, a psychologist and notable disbeliever of the V.M.’s legitimacy, has his own ideas on the mysterious book (D’Agnese). In his aggressive attacks towards the V.M., Rugg has theorized its true nature: it was written as a fake catch-all mysticism book in the 1600s to garner significant money for little effort. The ultimate Elizabethan scam, as it were (Storr, D’Agnese 1). Rugg remains steadfast in his belief that not only is the V.M. a hoax, it was created through a method known as a Cardan grille (D’Agnese).

A Cardan grille, invented in the 1600s, is something stupidly simple: take a piece of cardboard, cut some random holes in it, and put it over a piece of text and start writing words from the cutouts. “The text generated by this technique looks much like Voynichese [the V.M.’s text], but it is merely gibberish,” said Rugg in The Sunday Times (Storr). His link is definitely threatening to the credibility of the fifteenth century book. Despite Rugg’s opinion regarding many of the V.M.’s qualities, Zipf’s law is where his theories may fall short.

Zipf’s law is relatively simple: imagine counting the occurrences of all the words used in an article. Certain words would be used more than others. In fact, there is a method to the number of times a word is used: for the greatest used word, the next one has half the occurrences, and so on. This means if “A” were the most popular word and “B” and “C” were 2nd and 3rd, A=1, B=½, and C=¼. It is easiest to think of this pattern in the figure of an exponentially decreasing graph. While Rugg himself denies its importance, arguing any sample of Cardan grille workmanship could produce the same results, he may be mistaken. This rule guides much of modern syntax for languages and ironically, a well-abused article referenced by Rugg himself to refute the idea says: “Precise features of Zipf’s law in languages do not emerge in simple random sequences… Moreover, Zipf’s law was discovered centuries after the accepted date of creation of the Voynich text. Thus, proposed solutions like the use of sixteenth-century cipher methods, although not impossible, can hardly account for the presence of Zipf’s law in the Voynich text” (Montemurro 4).

The article, written by Marcelo A. Montemurro and Damián H. Zanette, analyzed specifically how Zipf’s law fit into many natural languages and the V.M. Through their research, they concluded that the book closely followed their control languages, leading to their agreement with what most Voynich researchers already believe: the V.M. is an actual document, with an understandable text hidden inside its coded words (Montemurro 1).

Despite the V.M.’s elusive attributes and outspoken disbelievers, the centuries-old codex eventually became a battleground for fame. Often shoving each other’s theories into the mud, researchers fought for acceptance of their version of the Voynich Manuscript. The first of these belongs to William Newbold.

Newbold Hypothesis
Newbold, the first of many to receive Photostats of the V.M. from Wilfrid Voynich (at the time, current owner) received immense public admiration as the first to decipher the Voynich Manuscript. His method of translation, however, eventually created such a ruckus that many leading scientists at the time mercilessly tore apart Newbold’s work (Kennedy 29-43). The method, as Mary D’imperio quotes from Newbold and assistant Kent’s original appraisal, is as follows:

  1. Transliteration: identifying the shorthand characters, and transliterating them in order.
  2. Syllabification: doubling all but the first and last characters and arranging the resulting string in pairs with the first member of each the same as the last member of the preceding pair.
  3. Commutation: In any pair where the second member is one of the ‘commuting set ‘C, O, N, M, U, T, A, Q’, change the first member according to a ‘conversion alphabet’ provided by Newbold. Where the first member is a commuting letter. Change the second by a ‘ reversion alphabet’ provided; where both are commuting letters, change both, each by the indicated alphabet.
  4. Translation: assigning to the commuted pairs their alphabetic values (by lookup in a table).
  5. Reversion: Changing ‘alphabetic values; to ‘phonetic values’ (the exact nature of this step is not clear).
  6. Recomposition: Anagramming the letters to produce meaningful text. (34)

Imagine any medieval scribe following all of these steps to produce an entire book. Additionally, the discoveries Newbold and Kent produced from their translation overturned certain historical facts: “Many figures from history, such as Anthony Leeuwenhoek, the ‘father of microscopy’, and even Galileo would lose their recognition as innovators of science; all to be replaced by Bacon [Roger]” (Kennedy 39). While Roger Bacon’s intellect theorized numerous future inventions (gunpowder, rudimentary airplanes), it seems improbable that one man could usurp so many claims to fame. And as J.M. Manly remarked in the introduction, his attempt at decipherment was “entirely baseless” (31). At least his comment included a disclaimer that he felt it necessary to, as D’imperio put it, “set the record straight in view of the unequivocal acceptance accorded to the theory by so many prominent authorities” (35). This comment, while the last straw, didn’t destroy Newbold’s paper in one fell swoop, however. In fact, Newbold’s own ideas on the V.M. decimated his theory long before its publication. But how did such a smart man con himself?

Voynich: Newbold’s Puppet Master
While Newbold unintentionally created much of his own downfall, the mastermind of his demise was Wilfrid Voynich. Voynich, the relatively benign book’s owner, harbored ideas of riches and grandeur when he found the mysterious book at Villa Mondragone (Kennedy 17). In his battle for widespread fame and money, he sent Photostats to leading researchers and scientists, including Newbold. As soon as the aging philosopher saw one of the three pages mailed to him, he was immediately hooked (31). From that point on, Voynich and Newbold’s ideals intertwined, leading Newbold away from scientific method and onto the primrose path of dalliance.

For every layer of translation, Newbold’s (and Voynich’s) rather glaring preconceptions appear clearer. For starters, Newbold initiated his research upon the V.M. with Voynich’s theory of Bacon’s authorship. This was his first error, though it wasn’t really his fault. Carbon dating in 2009 revealed the V.M.’s creation likely came in the early 1500s (Storr). Roger Bacon died in the late 1300s. Newbold had little reason to worry (yet), so he kept chugging away at his translation. But why six layers? Well, it is likely that his subconscious desires steered him towards such a vague method so he could prove anything he wanted. But from the beginning, those ideas were directed by Wilfrid Voynich.

As Newbold continued to seek truth in preconceived notions, there is the matter of the final anagramming step—his final attempt to fit Voynich’s conclusions and his own into the data. If a reader examined a five-word sentence, took all the letters out of order and gave them to a friend to solve, it would be virtually impossible to recreate the sentence. The sheer number of possible arrangements are too great to provide any accurate, reproducible data (Kennedy 46). Yet this is how Newbold finished his decipherment, creating untestable results that ruined his legacy. As shown in Figure 3, a side-by-side comparison of a sample of Newbold’s decipherment, tries one and two’s resulting phrases are markedly different, ranging from 19 words to 21 despite the fixed nature of the book’s contents. This amount of variability no doubt led Manly to disavow Newbold’s decryption.

Newbold would never know his truth of the V.M. fully though, for combined with the taxing prospect of translating more pages for Voynich, he suddenly died the day after returning from a vacation, leaving the V.M.’s secrets unsolved. In the process, he left the door open for Joseph Feely to present a more sane approach to the small book (Kennedy 41).

Feely’s Decipherment
Joseph Feely, a lawyer by trade, is well-known for his attempt at decoding the V.M., which closely followed in Newbold’s footsteps. In Roger Bacon’s Cipher: the Right Key Found, a booklet published using his own pocket money, Feely’s haphazard method used guessing and cribbing as its key points of attack (Kennedy 114, D’imperio 35). For clarification, cribbing finds a link between a known word and a cipher one to crack the code (Kennedy 116-117). This trial-and error pursuit made way for a translation that Feely believed was the diary of a scientist “observing living cells under magnification, the informal ‘jottings’ of an early researcher, hidden in cipher” (D’imperio 36). Feely, like Newbold, held onto the strange thought that whoever authored the book had apparently built a microscope possibly centuries before Antonie van Leuwenhoek ever dreamed of the invention (Feely obviously inclined towards Bacon). It seems surprising that Feely believed such fantastical ideas. Why would this have made sense?

While Feely’s avenue of attack fit the hypothetical time period he assumed (thirteenth century), the text produced was like that of a senile adult, repeating itself in different words every sentence (Kennedy 114-119). Somehow, Feely also deluded himself into believing he produced the true translation. Perhaps out of a sense of logic or reason, his choice makes sense; the translation was his idea, and no one enjoys the prospect of admitting that years of one’s life were wasted on a document that may not even be real. Every few years another theory pops up, claiming to have solved the famous V.M. It is a perpetual race against time, naysayers and preconceptions, so Feely thought to take a chance. In fact, his decipherment could be the true text, for many theorists think that whoever wrote the book may have been afflicted with glossolalia, “speaking in tongues”, or was simply insane (211). Nonetheless, most researchers continue to search for an understandable translation—but not Feely.

In his argument, Feely provided a laudable amount of information. Unfortunately, this only allowed other researchers to disembowel his theory. Among the notable elements that researchers point to as evidence against his decipherment is his method of cribbing. While not spectacularly precise, it provided real, understandable results with few enough steps to seem likely. However, to use cribbing (basically guess-timation) is to both incite the suspicion of all researchers, and add a layer of possible error into the translation. As Feely translated a partial page, he began with a picture he guessed meant “feminine,” substituting letters from English to the Latin text (Kennedy 117). While his attempt at cribbing is fine, his assumptions upon the subject at hand have left researchers dismayed. Despite the overall sexual nature of many of the pages, the page in question likely held myriad information on different subjects, rendering his cribbing technique woefully inaccurate. If only other researchers attempted to confirm Feely’s findings, more progress could be made.

No matter how seemingly infallible an interpretation seems, the V.M.’s possible answers have often created more questions than they’ve answered. Preconceived notions like Newbold’s left the scientific community angry and confused about whether reality resided within, and if any logic was hidden behind walls of inconsistencies and ridiculous assumptions.

The biggest problem, however, is the fact that in most cases there is no accurate way to discern whether a decipherment is correct or not. Yes, some theories (like Newbold’s), contained too many steps or were illogical, but as most continue to do, they reach an accord between logic and guessing; there is a stalemate between disproving and probable doubt. While we know enough about its provenance and the like, more avenues of study should be opened to promote wide-spread research.

The pictorial representations therein have recently yielded especially tantalizing results from Arthur Tucker and Rexford Talbert, who earlier this year theorized that the V.M. was written in a form of Nahuatl, a language with origins in Central America, not Europe (Talbert 74). Their botanist backgrounds, certainly not the norm for Voynich researchers, may be just the thing to shift the focus of future sleuths towards more sane paths.
As each successive generation of researchers builds off of previous ideas and failed attempts, eventually a solution will rise from the muck; perhaps the true solution is even stuck inside Feely’s or another’s work. We might never know. That said, those addicted to uncovering the mystery behind the Voynich need to stop assuming so much before anything will be proven— right or wrong.

Works Cited

D’Agnese, Joseph. “Scientific Method Man.” Wired Magazine. 1 Sept. 2004. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.

D’imperio, Mary. The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma. Aegean Park Press, 1978. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Kennedy, Gerry, and Churchill, Rob. The Voynich Manuscript: The Mysterious Code that Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2006. Print.

McCrone Associates. “Materials Analysis of the Voynich Manuscript.” Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. McCrone Associates, 1 Apr. 2009. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

Montemurro, Marcelo A., and Zanette, Damián H.. “Keywords And Co-Occurrence Patterns In The Voynich Manuscript: An Information-Theoretic Analysis.” Plos ONE 8.6 (2013): 1-9. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Sept. 2014.

Storr, Will. “The Magical Mystery Tome – The Voynich Manuscript.” The Sunday Times (London, England) 1 Nov 2013. Web. 19 Sept 2014.

Talbert, Rexford and Tucker, Arthur. “A Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript.” American Botanical Council. HerbalGram. Winter 2013. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.

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