Cracking the Voynich Code
The quixotic quest to read meaning in the patterns of a bizarre manuscript that has bedeviled scholars for years
At the centennial conference, SantaColoma presented these three observations, to the expected objections of the other scholars. Their objections boiled down to one: the slippery slope. If it could have been written in the 17th century, what’s wrong with saying it was written in the 20th century? Because he is a man who considers all possibilities, SantaColoma went home with their objections and seriously considered them. Indeed, what is wrong with saying that it was written in the 20th century? he wondered. “There is a nagging sense of newness in the manuscript,” he explained. “So people say, well, it looks new, but it can’t be new, so it must be old! But why?” he continued to ask. He recalled Robert Brumbaugh, who wrote about the Voynich in the 1970s, saying that the manuscript looked less like Bacon than like someone trying to make it look like Bacon.
But if it was not a 17th-century fantasy text, what then? Who in the 20th century could have cooked up such a hoax, and to what end? One man had the opportunity and the know-how: Wilfrid Voynich.
“I don’t want to sound crazy,” SantaColoma said, “but think about it: Voynich is a Polish revolutionary. He falls in love with Ethel Lillian Boole, an English girl working for the Russian revolutionaries. She has an affair with Sidney Reilly, the guy who James Bond is based on, a known forger, who took out books from the library on creating medieval ink. Voynich is set up in the book business, some say by the revolutionaries in order to overthrow the Russian aristocracy. There were other bizarre coincidences in his book-keeping. He had two copies of the Valturius, but only promoted one. The other was more primitive—was it a failed forgery? Voynich lived 1,300 feet from an Italian museum with 17th-century microscopes that look just like the ones in the Voynich. Are you telling me that this wonderful crazy man failed to make the connection between his mysterious manuscript and these 17th-century inventions, ruling out the possibility of a 15th-century manuscript?” SantaColoma then interrupted himself to speak to a gentleman at the table next to ours about a racing car he had overheard the man mention. (“I have one in my backyard! The trick is to keep all four wheels on the road.”)
He showed me pictures of the microscope in the Museo Galileo, just a short distance from Voynich’s Libraria. They look a lot like the tubes in the Voynich Manuscript. He points to two illustrations in the Voynich, one that looks curiously like an armadillo, and one that scholars have called a sunflower, both of which he says were New World discoveries, placing the Voynich squarely after 1492. And what about the letters mentioning the manuscript? Couldn’t Voynich, who knew of these letters, and the absence of a referent for them, have cooked up a book to look a lot like what was being described? Surely all the mystery surrounding where he purchased the book is consistent with such a narrative.
Finally, SantaColoma points out, the radiocarbon date is averaged out between all four samples, in other words, the date arrived at was done using a faulty assumption—that the book’s pages were created at the same time. As SantaColoma explained in an email, “if we had one sample only, from folio 68, the date of the Voynich would be circa 1365 to 1435, covering the range we know, but going back decades from it; and if it was one sample only from folio 8, from 1423 to 1495. So if the samples were not averaged, the range of dates given for the Voynich would have been 1365 to 1495, which as you see is quite a bit different than the announced ‘1404 to 1438’ range, which we learned was based on these average dates.”
Many experts believe that the key to the Voynich manuscript is just around the corner, but the “golden nugget,” as SantaColoma puts it, seems more likely to come from the honest skepticism he applies so liberally to his own thought processes than from an undiscovered document. If the Voynich Manuscript hides any meaning, surely it is that.
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