The history of the Voynich cipher goes back to medieval times. It was the time of new discoveries, religious debates and great artistic achievements. The Voynich cipher is believed to capture the most dangerous and progressive ideas of that period. I said believed because no one has been able to decipher the manuscript yet. The manuscript is not big, just 7 by 10 inches, and it contains 235 pages. The cipher includes illustrations of plants, tiny nude women in the bathtubs and astrological charts. The manuscript also contains illustrations of microstructure of cells that could only be seen through the microscope. The text consists of five parts: botanical, astrological, medical describing human reproduction, medicinal, and a postscript (Brumbaugh 5). This essay will look into a fascinating history of the Voynich manuscripts and attempts to break a mysterious cipher.
Brief Sketch of the History of the Manuscript
The manuscript was discovered in 1912 by Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer. During his trip to Europe, Voynich was visiting universities archives and private libraries. In Italy he came across a collection of old manuscripts that belonged to the dukes of Parma, Ferrara, and Modena (Brumbaugh 19). The manuscript that caught his attention appeared to be the oldest among all. Later he purchased this manuscript and brought it to New York. After several unsuccessful attempts to decipher the text, Voynich made numerous copies of the code and distributed them among cryptanalysts, literature and history professors, and other people who might help with breaking the code. What makes the manuscript different from others is its cryptosystem. The author did not use a simple transposition or substitution ciphers that were popular or known in medieval time. He used some unbreakable algorithm that keeps people guessing even now.
The manuscript is attributed to Roger Bacon, a famous 13th century linguist, scientist and mathematician. An indication that the author is Roger Bacon is found on the margin of one of the first pages. The line contains an anagram of his name: “MICHI CON OLADA BA”. “CON” and “BA” can be anagrams of the BACON. And “OLADA” is a transposition cipher that corresponds to “RODGD” in Latin (Brumbaugh 115). This is the only evidence that links the authorship of the manuscript to Roger Bacon. Nonetheless, many people who have studied the manuscript attribute it to Roger Bacon.
Roger Bacon was a well-educated scholar. At the age of thirteen, he was accepted to the Oxford University. However, his interest in mathematics and natural science was aroused by a prominent French army engineer, Peregrinus, who wrote a thesis on magnets.
After several years in Oxford in 1251, Roger Bacon decided to join the Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscan Friary in Oxford.
he next several years he devoted to studying Arabic and Latin.
His main goal was to find a way to bring religion and
science together (O’Connor). He never stopped studying
nature and mathematics. However, some of his discoveries
were not approved by the Clergy. It is reasonable to assume that
in order to escape punishment, Bacon enciphered some of
his work in the manuscript that was later discovered by Wilfrid Voynich. Roger Bacon
It was not until after Voynich brought the manuscript to New York that he discovered a letter attached to the text. It helped to unravel the history of the manuscript from the 13th until the 20th century. The letter was written by Joannes Marcus Marci and addressed to Athanasius Kircher. Because the letter is so important in this story, I present it below:
REVEREND AND DISTINGUISHED SIR, FATHER IN CHRIST:
This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined for you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my possession, for I convinced it could be read by no one except yourself. The former owner of this book asked your opinion by letter, copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he believed you would be able to read the remainder, but he at that time refused to send the book itself. To its deciphering he devoted unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life. But his toil was in vain, for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master, Kircher. Accept now this token, such as it is and long overdue though it be, of my affection for you, and burst through its bars, if there are any, with your wonted success. Dr. Raphael, tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book had belonged to the Emperor Rudolph and that he presented to the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman. On this point I Suspend judgment; it is your place to define for us what view we should take thereon, to whose favor and kindness I unreservedly commit myself and remain,
At the command of your Reverence,
Joanned Marcus Marci,
Prague, 19 August 1665 [or 1666]
The author of this letter, Marcus Marci, had a great reputation as a physicist, mathematician and orientalist. He lived in Prague and taught at the University of Prague. His achievements in science were recognized by the London Royal Society, and Marci was invited to become a member of the society in 1667. Unfortunately, he did not receive the invitation because he passed away earlier that year.
While attending school in Rome, Marci studied under Athanasius Kircher, the Jesuit scholar. Many of Kircher’s works are studied even today. He founded a museum in Rome, the Museum Kircherianum. The letter shows that Kircher was familiar with parts of the manuscript and wanted to study the entire document. However, the previous owner refused to send him an original copy. It is still unknown what Kircher did with the manuscript. There is no documented evidence that Kircher was able to break into the cipher.
Marci’s letter gives us another important insight into the history of the document. The letter mentions Dr. Raphael who told Marci about the manuscript. Roland Kent, who studied the history of the manuscript for some time, suggests that Dr. Raphael was born in 1580 into a Polish family, he was also known as Missowsky. Dr. Raphael was a lawyer and a poet who begun his career as a tutor of Bohemian language to children of Emperor Ferdinand III. Later he became the Attorney General of Bohemia under the reign of Ferdinand III, who was also mentioned in the letter. Roland Kent describes that after the manuscript was brought to America, the first page showed a hardly noticeable trace of signature. A chemical analysis revealed the autograph of Jacobus de Tepenecz. It is quite possible that Jacobus de Tepenecz was a mysterious friend of Marci’s who sent a copy of the manuscript to Athanasius Kircher. (Brumbaugh 21 – 23)
Jacobus de Tepenecz was a Bohemian scientist. He was very close to Emperor Rudolph. Jacobus de Tepenecz developed a formula for a remedy, similar to modern cologne. This formula made him extremely wealthy. It is rumored that he lent money to the Emperor and was given the district of Melnick in the Southern Prague in return.
Another mystery that arises from Marci’s letter is the identity of the person who brought the manuscript to the Emperor Rudolph. After extensive study of the biographies of people who lived, worked, or visited the Emperor Rudolph, Voynich concluded that this person might have been Dr. John Dee, British astrologist and cryptanalyst (Brumbaugh 24).
John Dee was born in 1527 in London. At the age of 23 he moved to Paris and was one of the first lecturers on Euclid. Euclidian works were prohibited by the Church until the 16th century because Euclid was not a Christian. Dee’s lectures were famous all across Europe; many students, professors, and even princes came to listen to him. John Dee was extremely interested in works of Roger Bacon. He studied and preserved his manuscripts. During his trips to Prague, he visited Emperor Rudolph’s palace where they talked about Roger Bacon’s achievements (Brumbaugh 26). During one of those visits, John Dee presented the manuscript to the Emperor Rudolph.
But how did Dr. Dee get the manuscript in the first place? Here the history is unclear. But it is evident that John Dee had close ties to the influential house of Northumberlands. The family sponsored many artists and researchers in Europe. And it is possible that Dee found the manuscript in Northumberlands’ library.
By now you are probably lost in the names of famous scientists and linguists. Let me summarize the history of the Voynich manuscript. It begins in the 12th century where Roger Bacon deciphered his achievements in the manuscript in order to escape punishment from the Church. The manuscript remained in one of the monasteries in London until the 16th century when the hold of the Church was loosened and scientists were free to express their ideas. The manuscript was discovered by the wealthy Northumberland family, where it remained until John Dee discovered it. Next, Dr. Dee presented the manuscript to Emperor Rudolph during one of his trips to Prague between 1584 and 1588. Later Jacobus de Tepenecz obtained the manuscript from the Emperor and gave it to Marcus Marci. In 1665 or 1666, it was given to Athanasius Kircher by Marcus Marci. In the subsequent history, Kircher presented the manuscript to the one of the ruling houses of Italy where it remained until Wilfrid Voyncih discovered it in 1912 (Brumbaugh 29-30). After death of Voynich, the document was placed in the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library of Yale University under number MS 408. I need to mention that there is no established connection between Jacobus de Teperecz and Marcus Marci, so we can just assume the Teperecz gave the copy of the manuscript to Marci.
After the manuscript was brought to America, many scholars tried unsuccessfully to break the cipher. It is not until 1927 that the first version of the text was presented by Professor William Romaine Newbold at public meeting of the American Philosophical Society and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. The presentation provoked many controversies.
First of all, let’s explore what Newbold had extracted from the cipher. From Newbold’s own testimony, he assumed that the manuscript contained a text hidden under the code (Brumbaugh 39). Applying his method (I will discuss the method later), he extracted the large paragraphs of meaningful text. The first part of text addresses The Great Nebula of Andromeda. After several attempts to decipher a legend, Newbold got the location of the Nebula as between “the navel of Pegasus, the girdle of Andromeda, and the head of Cassiopea”. The deciphered text states that Bacon saw the Nebula of Andromeda that lies between these three points, and that he saw it thought a concave mirror (Brumbaugh 42). In his article Newbold’s Decipherment, professor Newbold states that nowadays the spiral structure of the nebula can be noticed only on photographs and is not seen through powerful modern telescopes. Therefore, he concluded that the surface of the nebula must have changed in last six hundred and fifty years (Brumbaugh 42).
Picture 1. Astronomical Diagram.
Another part of the text addresses the Oxford riot on March 4, 1273. The text that Newbold deciphered says that King Edward directed the members of the clergy to arrest the “wrongdoers” and criminals at Oxford. At this time the conflict between monks and knights broke down at Oxford. The knights were afraid to go against the popular opinion and surrendered. After Newbold finished deciphering this part of the text, he said that he had never heard about this incident in the British history.
After some research, he found distinct indications of this event. Newbold discovered that after the death of Henry II of England in November 1272, his son Edward succeeded him on the throne. On St. Valentine’s day of 1273, King Edward visited the pope at Rome. Later two papal representatives went to England to conduct the investigation of crimes and misdoings. Newbold concluded that those crimes referred to the Oxford events earlier that year (Brumbaugh 44).
Newbold’s decipherment includes a statement that there had been an annular eclipse of 1290. He discovered a picture of the eclipsed sun (Picture 1). After deciphering legends of the top of the picture, Newbold concluded that Roger Bacon was talking about the eclipse of September 5, 1290. He asked professor Eric Doolittle of the University of Pennsylvania to analyze the deciphered material with him. Both concluded that even though it is quite possible that the eclipse occurred on September 5, 1290, they could not construct a definite proof. The following are English translations of the text that Newbold extracted from the manuscript: “That eclipse I observed at Oxford, on September fifth, 1290. The great axis of the moon was on that occasion very near the axis of the sun […] The annual eclipse cuts of from here the virtues which are cast off there by the sun […]” (Brumbaugh 40).
Criticism of the Newbold’s System
Newbold’s presentation in 1927 provoked many arguments that the deciphered text was not the Voynich original text, and it was nothing more but a result of his imagination. One of the strongest critics was John Manly, who studied Newbold’s result and the manuscript, and presented his findings in the article called The Voynich Manuscript Attributed to Roger Bacon.
His first criticism was concerning Newbold’s system of decipherment. Newbold saw microscopic strokes around the symbols in the manuscript. He concluded that the strokes are “microscopic shorthand signs”. Newbold decided that the strokes were not accidental marks that come from a pen, but a deliberately designed system that was inspired by the ancient Greek system of shorthand (Brumbaugh 61). After studying the manuscript and the properties of the paper and ink, John Manly wrote: “As the pigment dried out, the variations in sedimentary deposit and the cracking produced the phenomena which Professor Newbold has taken to be microscopic elements in the strokes.” (Brumbaugh 61 ). In other words, the system that Newbold used was derived from mistaken assumption. Moreover, John Manly proved that Newbold’s system does not deliver a unique plaintext: several meaningful versions of the text can be extracted from the ciphertext.
Next, John Manly argued that the events that Newbold discovered from the manuscript never occurred. In the case of the Oxford riot, there is no documented evidence that this event ever happened in the history of England. John Manly states that British historians agree that Edward I before his coronation would not have jeopardized his succession by sending monks to arrest criminal and wrongdoers as Newbold’s text suggests. By doing this, Edward I would have turned many laymen against him. Besides, the text argues that knights were studying at Oxford in the 13th century. However, it is a known fact that European universities at that time were populated by people in clerical orders (Brumbaugh 68).
According to John Manly, Roger Bacon could not construct a telescope powerful enough to see the structure of the nebula. Since even modern microscopes cannot detect its spiral structure, there is no scientific reason to believe that the nebula’s structure changed dramatically in the last 650 years.
Also, text deciphered by Newbold suggests that Roger Bacon was far ahead of his time in his scientific experiments. He discovered the cellular structure of plants that only could have been done with a microscope. Roger Bacon also illustrated the theories of the 20th century scientists concerning cells, spermatozoa, and other aspects of organic life (Brumbaugh 57). John Manly argues that all this information could not be possibly have been obtained by a 13th century scientist no matter how progressive his experiments were.
As a result, John Manly concluded that Newbold’s decipherment is a result of his imagination and scientific mind. Newbold did not actually find a text of an original author of a manuscript, but rather his own interpretation of what might have been concealed in this manuscript.
Theories about the Voynich Manuscript
The fact that the manuscript could not be deciphered for many centuries led to numerous theories about the structure of its language and code.
Professor William Friedman proposed a theory that the Voynich is written in an artificial language. The artificial language gives a different representation of characters and words compared to regular alphabetical language. In the artificial language, all areas of life are divided into categories and each category is assigned a particular characters. To represent the subcategories, an additional letter is added to the original letter, and so on. The first artificial language of this kind was developed by Scot George Dalgarno (1626 – 1687). George Dalgarno was a British linguist and philosopher, who was famous for developing universal and philosophical languages. Dalgarno came up with seventeen categories of existence and labeled them with constants. For instance, he labeled political matters with K, natural objects with N. To define “judicial matters”, he added e to K – “Ke”; to define wars, he added u to K – “Ku” (Brumbaugh 91). Therefore, a key to deciphering the manuscript might lie in understanding what language Roger Bacon used.
Another interesting theory is proposed by a student from the University of Bologna, Italy. He suggests that the manuscript is written in a random language. It is possible that the author believed that if the text is written in random language, it is still readable by a person with “special” powers, i.e. a prophet (Ferri). However, this approach does not provide us with a solution of the problem because truly random sequences of letters give a billion possible combinations. It will take the most powerful computers millions and millions of years to decipher the manuscript.
Robert Brumbaugh, who studied the Voynich at Yale University, made another attempt to decipher some of its pages. He noticed that some pages have marginal numbers. He assumed that the numbers have associations with the letters of the Latin alphabet. After conducting a frequency analysis of several pages, he came up with the following results: “1” appears 13.35% on average, “2” appears 18%, “3” – 17.7%, “4” – 8.6%, and so on. However, he did not assign Latin letters to numbers based on this analysis because after closer examination, he noticed that the numbers were more likely to represent groups of letters rather than single letters. For example, in Latin, -US is the most common suffix. With this in mind, Brumbaugh noticed that -US is represented by different combinations of numbers: 9, 8*4*, 89, 889 (Brumbaugh 119). In other words, the author masked -US with various number sequences to increase the complexity of the cipher. Therefore, regular frequency analysis alone could not solve the mystery of the code.
After several attempts to decipher the text, Brumbaugh got several chunks of incoherent text that resembled Latin. He could decipher several pharmaceutical formulas and geographical locations. However, this method did not lead to full decipherment of the manuscript (Brumbaugh 135).
The Voynich Manuscript contains a mystery that people could not decipher for almost seven hundred years. If the assumptions are correct, the manuscript can be considered the most important document in the history of science. The manuscript contains illustrations of cellular structure of plants and sketches of distant stars. It means that Roger Bacon, who possibly wrote the manuscript, was ahead of his time for more than eight hundred years. If deciphered, the manuscript could give us more information about history and scientific achievements of the medieval times.
The main difficulty in deciphering the document lies in its language. The language is nothing like any other languages in the world. However, it is reasonable to assume that the plaintext is written in Latin. This gives a possible clue for further analysis.
On the other hand, some people suggest that the document was written in universal, artificial, language. In order to decipher this cipher, we need to break its language into structures and substructures that correspond to main areas of life and decipher from there.
In any case, the Voynich is still “the most mysterious manuscript” that intrigues people in all parts of the world.
Brumbaugh, Robert S. The Most Mysterious Manuscript. Southern Illinois University Press. 1978
D'Imperio, Mary E. Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma, National Security Agency, Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, 1978. Reprinted by Aegean Park Press, Laguna Hills, California, c. 1980.
Ferri, Gabriele. The Voynich Manuscript: Raw sketches for a semiotic analysis. University of Bologna, Italy. March 7, 2004 < http://digilander.libero.it/eicher>
O’Connor, J.J. and E.F. Robertson. Roger Bacon. University of St. Andrews. Scotland.
Astrological Diagram: http://www.crystalinks.com/voynich.html
Roger Bacon : http://www-gap.dcs.stand.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Bacon.html