Together with the Codex Gigas, it belonged to Rudolf II’s Cabinet of Wonders
The first news of the existence of the Voynich dates from 1580, when Emperor Rudolph II of Habsburg, very interested in occult sciences, magic and oddities of all kinds, acquired it for the high sum of 600 ducats from the Englishmen John Dee, a notorious mathematician, astrologer, occultist, navigator, imperialist and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I of England, and Edward Kelley, a trickster. In the 17th century the manuscript passed through several hands until it was deposited in the Franciscan convent of Mondragone, in Italy, where in 1912 it was bought by the antiquities dealer Wilfrid Voynich, after whom it was named. In 1931, his widow sold it to a New York antiquarian, Hans Peter Kraus, who failed to resell it and ended up giving it to Yale University in 1969.
The transcription of a passage from the book given to Rudolph II by John Dee and Edward Kelley gives the following result: se osam ceetosas qopercetos detetiosus opercetios cetocperetus conllodam ollcet ollcetcius ollcetcius qoceretosas e ocilletosus e oter sauter olletosus ollos ollecetosus os e oter un conllcetius sais llotes oclletos cetollcetus llos cetotes e cetius olletiollos.
The Voynich manuscript contains a series of circular zodiacal or astrological diagrams, groups of nude women bathing in pools, plus astronomical images, a ‘pharmacological’ section.
The Voynich manuscript is divided into several ‘sections’ according to the type of illustrations that appear on each page.
The most extensive is the first, a ‘herbarium’ in which various types of plants are reproduced. The plants drawn are as enigmatic as the accompanying text, as it has not been possible to identify them with any real species.
Given the apparent inconsistency of the Voynich, it has been suggested that it is either a hoax or a scam. It has been speculated that it was John Dee himself, a magician, mathematician and occult enthusiast, who created it around 1580 with his partner Edward Kelley, who had already been prosecuted in England for forging documents.
When written language was invented more than 4,700 years ago, humans were able to transmit complex messages by means of letters and signs. But they also introduced secret codes and ciphers to encrypt texts of religious, political, diplomatic or military content, which could only be deciphered by the initiated. All civilisations have practised these techniques, from the Sumerians to the Greeks, the Romans, the Mongols, the Spanish Empire and, of course, all countries in the last century, especially in times of war.
The surviving manuscripts and ciphertexts are many, and all have been deciphered with relative ease by analysing their generally fairly simple codes.
With two exceptions, there are two codices whose contents no one has been able to uncover: the Codex Voynich and the Codex Rohonczi, the strangest manuscripts in the world.
Since the 16th century, many researchers have tried to decipher the Voynich. Attempts were made in the 17th century by the alchemist Jacobus Horcicky of Tepenecz, the imperial librarian Georg Barsche and the Prague University professor Johannes Marcus Marci. The Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, famous for his attempts to decipher the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, was sent, but he did not respond to the challenge.
As early as the 20th century, Professor William R. Newbold of the University of Pennsylvania tried to decipher it in 1921, and was even upset by it. American experts in glyptography (the study of inscriptions on stone) analysed it, using techniques tested during the Second World War, as well as professional and amateur philologists. They all failed. Traditional techniques, such as substituting one letter for another or assigning a numerical value, have been applied to try to decipher it, but without consistent results. Punched cards, already known in 1500 by Girolamo Cardano, and computer programs have been used, resulting in hundreds of thousands of possible combinations, also to no avail. If it is an encrypted book, its keys are so intricate that no one has been able to decipher them. It has therefore been suggested that it is written in an unknown occult language, which has been given a name: Voynichese. The illustrations suggest that the text contains esoteric accounts of occult rites, and that the drawings of plants, stars and women are alchemical symbols.
Some proposed interpretations of the manuscript have been truly bizarre. It has been attributed to the English monk Roger Bacon, but Bacon lived in the 13th century and the Voynich has been dated to the 15th century. It has been speculated that the Cathars wrote it; that it is an adaptation of a Ukrainian text with Latin letters; that it is the work of Leonardo da Vinci, as it appears to have been written by a left-handed man – Leonardo was left-handed – and contains elements of the Italian Renaissance; that it was written by the architect Filarete in the mid-15th century, as it contains the outline of a building similar to the tower of the Sforzesco castle in Milan, which Filarete erected, and drawings reminiscent of the drainpipes that Filarete designed for the Milanese Hospital Maggiore.
The latest of these attempts seems to have made some progress in this respect. Greg Kondrak, a professor of computer science, and Bradley Hauer, a graduate student, both at the University of Alberta (Canada), are using artificial intelligence to decipher the Voynich Manuscript. And they have found that Hebrew is the most likely writing language.
The Mystery Book
Until now, however, the apparent incoherence of the Voynich has suggested that it is a hoax or a scam.
It has been speculated that it was John Dee himself, a magician, mathematician and occult enthusiast, who created it around 1580 with his partner Edward Kelley, who had already been prosecuted in England for forging documents; in short, that it was a scam to cheat Emperor Rudolf II out of a good deal of money.
Faced with the impossibility of translating its contents, Gordon Rugg, Professor of Psychology at the University of Reading, insisted in 2000 on the theory of fraud. But there is a problem with the thesis: the manuscript existed a century before Edward Kelley could have forged it. And if it was a hoax, the author went to a lot of trouble.
Theories and Speculations
Over the years, numerous theories have been proposed about the Voynich Codex. Some believe it to be a book of alchemy, while others suggest that it contains information about medicinal herbs or even a coded language. The more outlandish theories link it to ancient civilisations, extraterrestrials or secret societies.
In short, although some progress has been made, the Voynich has no translation in any known language, nor has the key to its comprehension, if it exists, been found. Moreover, the layout of the writing does not conform to the rules governing the semantic structure of any language: many words are repeated, sometimes up to three times on the same line and fifteen times on the same page (e.g. “ollcet, ollcetcius, ollcetcius…”).
On the other hand, it does respect some formal rules, such as being written from left to right, although it lacks punctuation marks -some paragraphs are preceded by stars and asterisks-. The text also complies with Zipf’s law, which states that ‘in known languages the length of words is inversely proportional to the number of times they appear’.
Perhaps the greatest graphic mystery it presents is that it seems to be written by a single hand, with a fluid and sure stroke, homogeneous and very regular letters, practically identical, without a single error, something extraordinary in a manuscript. Was it written using a template or a system of matrices to trace letters and words? The enigma may never be solved.
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