Cracking the Voynich Code
The quixotic quest to read meaning in the patterns of a bizarre manuscript that has bedeviled scholars for years
Does a radiocarbon date really rule out the possibility that a talented hoaxer might have procured old vellum in order to perpetrate a hoax? Do letters mentioning an undecipherable manuscript necessarily describe this undecipherable one? Or are all these simply the errors in reasoning made when experts from one field assume the conclusions of another?
Ink cannot be dated—so the date that the vellum was written on cannot be confirmed. But for Gordon Rugg, the biggest blind spot in Voynich scholarship has been the assumption that ink went onto fresh vellum. Rugg thinks the most likely culprit for penning the manuscript is Edward Kelley, of wife-swapping fame, well-seasoned in creating made-up languages and perpetrating frauds and hoaxes. (He had his ears cropped for forgery, a common punishment, which he spent his life covering up with ingenious hairstyles.) But once the suspect assumption that the manuscript was written on fresh velum is done away with, is there any reason that the 16th century becomes more compelling than, say, the 17th century? Or the 20th century?
Rich SantaColoma thinks not. SantaColoma is another Voynich scholar, a former jeweler, a current writer, and a sometime historian. “I do all sorts of things,” he told me recently in a café in the New York’s Village. A jack of all trades, he lives Upstate, where he curates the Voynich mailing list. SantaColoma is a deeply humble man who exudes an openness and curiosity about the world around him. At one point he became engrossed in the benches we sat on, wondering where they must have come from. (“They are pews of some kind. And what about those paintings? Do you think they are real? I mean, obviously they are real, but from when?”) He told me that when he first heard of the theories surrounding strange relics in Michigan Copper Mines, he immediately began to research those, too; “they had solved them. Otherwise, my wife and I would have jumped on our motorbikes and headed out there to check it out!” About the Voynich, SantaColoma says with admiration, “It’s still a mystery, after all this time.”
On his blog, SantaColoma listens to everyone, even people who he thinks are probably wrong. “Who knows what golden nugget one might discover from someone who has been thinking freely about the subject? You have to encourage people to contribute, to openly share ideas. That’s how Michael Ventris solved Linear B!”
Like Rugg, SantaColoma was intrigued by the commonly held assumption that blank vellum wouldn’t have been available to an industrious antiques dealer. Upon further investigation, he found the assumption to be flat out wrong. He emailed me a list of six sources of blank vellum, with between 80 and 150 pages each, carbon dated as far back as the 15th century. Some were available as late as 2007, and may still be available for purchase.
“My thinking is, how can you apply existing probability to an object that is totally unique?” SantaColoma explained to me. “That’s the Voynich Manuscript problem. I don’t want to sound crazy.” He interrupted himself. I assured him he didn’t. He continued: “But I think scholarship is a hindrance in this case. Scholarship can only categorize. What happens when you have a completely unique object? It doesn’t fit any category. But the academic core of Voynich scholarship is playing it very safe.”
SantaColoma sites the uncanny feeling reported about initial encounters with the Voynich Manuscript as a crucial factor in uncovering its meaning: “Every single point is just off enough to make it seem familiar and yet be completely unidentifiable. That had to be intentional; think of how difficult it would be to create something that reminds you of something else, getting everyone to follow different directions. It must have been intentional,” he reiterates, “or the author would have given it away! They wanted it to be unidentifiable.”
There is a category for a text that borrows heavily from reality, without itself being real: It is the category of fiction. “I think it’s fantasy,” SantaColoma says. He noticed another thing: The cylinders, which other scholars called “jars,” were actually quite similar to early microscopes—long, leather encased cylinders with glass on either side, and details along the leather. These microscopes were being created in the 17th-century, a time when there was also a resurgence of utopian, i.e., fantasy, writing. In fact, SantaColoma sees in the Voynich many similarities to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, a 17th-century utopian tract about a fantasy island where Bacon’s ideal college is described: the unknown plants, the grafting, the code, books on velum, and new types of animals, as well as a bath full of naked ladies.
“If you took a group of artists and gave them New Atlantis and asked them to draw a book from that place,” SantaColoma said, “it would probably look a lot like the Voynich.” As for why someone would do such a thing, SantaColoma said he didn’t know. “Maybe as a tribute, or a gift.” His theory resembles Friedman’s “artificial or universal language,” which a colleague heard Friedman compare to “the form of a philosophical classification of ideas by Bishop Wilkins in 1667 and Dalgarno a little later.”
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