Cracking the Voynich Code
The quixotic quest to read meaning in the patterns of a bizarre manuscript that has bedeviled scholars for years
A mysterious manuscript has plagued historians, mathematicians, linguists, physicists, cryptologists, curators, art historians, programmers, and lay enthusiasts alike since an antiquarian and book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich first began to mention it in his correspondence in 1912. Voynich maintained that it was the work of a 13th-century English philosopher, Roger Bacon. Written in an unknown script and replete with pictures and diagrams, and now residing at the Beinecke Library at Yale, the Voynich Manuscript has become a beacon for a secular community of quasi-Talmudic scholars whose interpretive ingenuity and stamina have few parallels.
The manuscript is a small book—23 x 16 centimeters (about the size of a small volume of Penguin Classics)—of around 240 pages. It is written in a code made up of an alphabet of between 20 and 30 characters, depending on the transcription. Most of the pages also bear illustrations: large-leafed plants, long tubes, astrological charts, a few goats, and many, many naked ladies bathing in pools and holding hands. Compared to the careful and sophisticated nature of the calligraphy, the drawings are primitive, even crude, a child’s assessment of the female form. (One of the women looks vaguely annoyed, her hands inserted into two pipes, a small beard sprouting from her chin.) The plants, like the language—dubbed “Voynichese”—give off a frustrating and titillating feeling of familiarity, one recorded by experts, many of whom concur when asked how they got hooked on the Voynich: “It just looked so easy,” they say.
Perhaps the manuscript’s most famous wooer was William F. Friedman, a Jewish U.S. Army cryptographer, who is considered one of the foremost code-breakers of all time. Born Wolf Friedman in Kishinev, Bessarabia, to a father who worked as a translator for the Russian Postal Service—Friedman Sr. reportedly knew eight languages—Wolf’s name was changed to William after the family immigrated to Pittsburgh in 1892. While working as a geneticist in the 1920s, he met Elizabeth Smith, a cryptographer who helped break codes for the government in order to expose communists and drug runners during Prohibition. They met when Smith was working for Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who was trying to prove that there were hidden cyphers in Shakespeare’s works, which Gallup believed were composed by Francis Bacon.
During World War I Friedman worked for the U.S. Army to break German codes, and in 1940 he led the team that broke PURPLE, a Japanese cryptographic machine used to convert messages into code, which was believed unbreakable (the Japanese didn’t believe the Germans who told them that the Americans had cracked it and continued using PURPLE long after the Americans had already procured one of the machines). He spent the rest of his life, or something close to it, obsessed with the Voynich. Friedman broke PURPLE, but he did not break Voynich.
Last year, a group of scholars convened for the centenary of Voynich’s purchase of the manuscript. The Voynich 100 Conference was held at the Villa Mondragone, where a 1960 letter claims Voynich purchased the manuscript (though during his life, he told a different tale). New data about the manuscript were floated, as well as linguistic analyses of its syllable structure, the possible presence of microscopes in the manuscript’s illustrations, and a forensic investigation into the parchment upon which it is inked. But no firm conclusion was drawn. After 100 years, the manuscript’s language still has yet to be deciphered.
Wilfrid Voynich, born Wilfridas Mykolas Vojničius, had a life filled with instances of the uncanny. A Lithuanian pharmacist, Voynich was imprisoned for his role in revolutionary attempts to free Poland from Russian rule. While serving a two-year prison sentence, Voynich looked out the window of his cell one day and caught sight of a blonde in a black dress. Two years later, after escaping from a Siberian prison and arriving penniless in London (he had to sell his waistcoat and glasses for a third-class ticket and a piece of herring, the story goes), he found that same woman in the home of his contact, another revolutionary. She was Ethel Lillian Boole, daughter of the famous mathematician George Boole, and a revolutionary in her own right. They were married, and Voynich managed to become, quite mysteriously, a recognized antiques dealer in just eight short years.
Voynich told people he thought that the manuscript that now bears his name had been written by Roger Bacon, the famous 13th-century philosopher and Franciscan. But he kept the location from which he claimed to have bought the manuscript a secret, naming another place altogether—the Villa Mondragone, he wrote in a letter to his wife, which was only disclosed after her death by her companion, Anne Nill. During his life, Voynich claimed to have bought the manuscript in “an Austrian Castle.”
Beyond that, there are few clues. A letter in the inside cover of the book addresses Father Kircher, a German Jesuit with a penchant for (wrongly) translating hieroglyphics and (correctly) establishing the link between Coptic languages and Egyptology. The letter is signed and dated Johannes Marcus Marci, Prague, 19 August 1665 (or 1666—it is curiously ambiguous). Marci was the official doctor of the Holy Roman Emperors Ferdinand and Leopold. The book, he says in the letter, was bequeathed by an old friend, who devoted his life to deciphering it, unsuccessfully, for “such Sphinxes as these obey no-one but their master, Kircher.”
Kircher was not up to the task, and neither was Friedman, who never published anything on the Voynich save a footnote to a paper on Chaucer that he and his wife wrote for Philological Quarterly. The footnote was anagrammed (in the tradition of Galileo’s repudiation of Ptolemy), with its solution provided in a sealed envelope for later disclosure, when Friedman believed he would have solved the cypher. The anagram, which reaches the limit of Friedman’s sense of humor, reads, “I put no trust in anagrammatic acrostic cyphers, for they are of little real value—a waste—and may prove nothing.—Finis.” Readers wrote in possible solutions, some delightfully reprinted in an editor’s note (“To arrive at a solution of the Voynich Manuscript, try these general tactics: a song, a punt, a prayer. William F. Friedman.” Or “This is a trap, not a trot. Actually I can see no apt way of unraveling the rare Voynich Manuscript. For me, defeat is grim.”) Friedman never managed to solve the Voynich, and after his death, the editor of Philological Quarterly opened the envelope bearing the solution to the anagram: “The Voynich Manuscript was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the A-Priori type.—Friedman.” A synthetic language, rather than a cryptogram, was his best guess.
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