Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Voynich Manuscript

[Note: This is a post i originally had on my Yahoo 360 page, which i'm dumping here]

I recently finished The Friar and the Cipher, a book whose title and dust jacket suggest it is about medieval monk/scientist Roger Bacon and the mysterious Voynich manuscript. Actually about 20% of the book covers those topics and the rest is a recap of ancient and medieval philosophy, the conflict between logic (Aristotle, Aquinas) and empiricism (Roger and Francis Bacon), lots of stuff about the University of Paris, various popes, Frederick the Great, John Dee, Emperor Rudolph, blah, blah, blah. In other words, if you're interested in either Roger Bacon and/or mysterious cryptic texts like the Voynich manuscript, i'd recommend you look elsewhere.

Anyway, the Voynich manuscript. Like most geeks, I'm a total sucker for undecipherable texts and languages. In fact, there might be nothing more intellectually appealing than the idea of a manuscript that's almost certainly trying to say something significant, but which has remained impenetrable. I'm a total nerd for codes, riddles, and ancient languages like Linear B and Mayan hieroglyphs (i actually had my picture taken next to the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum once). The Voynich manuscript is like all of these things rolled into one. Its provenance is uncertain, but its first definite appearance in the historical record dates to the court of Emperor Rudolph in the early 17th century (it was apparently in the possession of royal gardener Jacobus de Tepenec around 1608). The manuscript was purchased in 1912 by Wilfrid Voynich, hence the name.

The manuscript consists of many illustrations, mostly botanical, but also pictures of tiny naked people and other mysterious things. It is assumed by many to be encrypted, although the original language is uncertain (Bacon was an enthusiast of cryptography). The really cool thing though, is that unlike other mysterious texts (like, say, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili), the Voynich manuscript is written in a completely original, invented text.

An apparent postscript at the end of the book is written in Latin characters, although still apparently in code. Many think that this postscript supplies the key to decoding the text. In the 1920s, William Newbold claimed to have deciphered this postscript and then used it to decrypt parts of the manuscript. He determined not only that Roger Bacon was the creator of the manuscript, but that it explained how he had built early telescopes and other devices. He even claimed that one of the illustrations was of a nebula that Bacon could only have seen with a telescope.

This explanation of the manuscript was accepted (Newbold had solid academic credentials), and briefly made celebrities of both Newbold and Bacon's legacy. Unfortunately, his ideas were thoroughly debunked by William Manly, which ruined Newbold's reputation and returned Bacon to the status of medieval crackpot.

The great cryptanalysts William and Elizebeth Friedman took a crack at the Voynich too (in fact they had a group dedicated to it during the second World War when they were also going 24/7 to crack enemy codes). Although they did not decipher the document, they made the first serious effort at cataloging the symbols used in the text and attempting to do a frequency analysis. William Friedman's analysis of the structure and entropy of the language lead him to believe that it was an attempt at pasigraphy, or the creation of a universal symbolic language.

The Voynich now resides in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale, where it is known as MS 408. There are numerous websites devoted to its presentation and study, just go Yahoo for them.

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