Voynich: The manuscript that keeps on giving
The Voynich manuscript is one of those marvels that, even in these times of boundless knowledge and incredible technology, eludes continual efforts to understand it.
Not heard of the thing? Welcome to the show. There has been a vigorous little dance of press coverage over the past couple years. It goes something like this:
Step to your left. “An eternal mystery.”
Step to your right. “I’ve cracked the code!” – some dude
Step back. “Nope, you’re full of shit.”
Step forward. “We’ve solved it this time for sure.” – some other dudes
The manuscript is a hand-written, illustrated codex that’s been shown through carbon dating to have originated in the early fifteenth century (1404–1438). The writing system used throughout its approximately 240 pages has yet to be identified. Cryptographers, historians, computer scientists and others have proposed numerous hypotheses over the decades, including that it’s a hoax. Based on the illustrations, scholars divide the manuscript into five thematic sections: Herbal, Astrological, Biological, Pharmacological, and Recipes.
Below I list links to the (more recent) rhythmic pulse of “discoveries” and rejections, in chronological order. Under each link I’ve pulled out quotes of the more intriguing tidbits.
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“The first half of the book is filled with drawings of plants; scholars call this the “herbal” section. None of the plants appear to be real, although they are made from the usual stuff (green leaves, roots, and so on […]). The next section contains circular diagrams of the kind often found in medieval zodiacal texts; scholars call this part “astrological,” which is generous. Next, the so-called “balneological” section shows “nude ladies,” in Clemens’s words, in pools of liquid, which are connected to one another via a strange system of tubular plumbing that often snakes around whole pages of text. […] Then we get what appear to be instructions in the practical use of those plants from the beginning of the book, followed by pages that look roughly like recipes.”
“The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type. –Friedman.”
* * * * *
“Now, history researcher and television writer Nicholas Gibbs appears to have cracked the code, discovering that the book is actually a guide to women’s health that’s mostly plagiarized from other guides of the era.”
“Gibbs realized he was seeing a common form of medieval Latin abbreviations, often used in medical treatises about herbs. ‘From the herbarium incorporated into the Voynich manuscript, a standard pattern of abbreviations and ligatures emerged from each plant entry,’ he wrote. ‘The abbreviations correspond to the standard pattern of words used in the Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus – aq = aqua (water), dq = decoque / decoctio (decoction), con = confundo (mix), ris = radacis / radix (root), s aiij = seminis ana iij (3 grains each), etc.’ So this wasn’t a code at all; it was just shorthand. The text would have been very familiar to anyone at the time who was interested in medicine.”
“Gibbs concluded that it’s likely the Voynich Manuscript was a customized book, possibly created for one person, devoted mostly to women’s medicine.”
* * * * *
“This week, the venerable Times Literary Supplement published as its cover story a ‘solution’ for the Voynich manuscript. The article by Nicholas Gibbs suggests the manuscript is a medieval women’s-health manual copied from several older sources. And the cipher is no cipher at all, but simply abbreviations that, once decoded, turn out to be medicinal recipes.”
“’Frankly I’m a little surprised the TLS published it,’ says Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America. When she was a doctoral student at Yale—whose Beinecke Library holds the Voynich manuscript—Davis read dozens of theories as part of her job. ‘If they had simply sent to it to the Beinecke Library, they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat,’ she says.”
“In the second part—only two paragraphs long—Gibbs gets into the meat of his solution: Each character in the manuscript is an abbreviated word, not a letter. This could be a breakthrough, but the TLS presents only two lines decoded using Gibbs’s method. Davis did not find those two lines convincing either. ‘They’re not grammatically correct. It doesn’t result in Latin that makes sense,’ she says.”
* * * * *
“There are two problems with this notoriously difficult puzzle—it’s written in code, and no one knows what language that code enciphers.”
“’That was surprising,’ Kondrak said, in a statement. ‘And just saying “this is Hebrew” is the first step. The next step is how do we decipher it.’ The scientists think the code used in the manuscript might have been created using alphagrams. (In standard alphagrams, the letters in a word are placed in alphabetical order—the alphagram of ‘alphagram,’ for example, is ‘aaaghlpmr.’) Vowels also seemed to have been dropped. These assumptions made, they tried to come up with an algorithm to decipher this scrambled Hebrew text, to striking effect. ‘It turned out that over 80 percent of the words were in a Hebrew dictionary,’ said Kondrak.”
“Hebrew-speaking data scientist Shlomo Argamon offered some excoriating feedback. ‘They are saying it looks more like Hebrew than other languages,’ he said. ‘In my opinion, that’s not necessarily saying all that much.’ The use of Google Translate, too, struck him as somewhat unscientific. […] Other scholars have raised doubts about the scientists’ use of modern, rather than medieval, Hebrew.”
* * * * *
Certain researchers have made a compelling case against the “hoax” hypothesis, in any event. In 2013, an interesting paper analyzed the Voynich manuscript from an information theory perspective. They looked at organizational structure resulting from word distribution over the entire text, and concluded that there was “presence of a genuine linguistic structure”. You can read the full paper here.
A couple information theory takeaways:
- Highly informative content words occur much more irregularly (and in clusters) throughout a text, while more uninformative function words tend to have a more homogenous or uniform distribution. So it’s the content words that indicate specific text sections.
- Words that are semantically related tend to co-occur in the same sections of a text.
Who will claim to have cracked the code next? My personal opinion, of course, is that they should throw some linguists on it.
 Montemurro MA, Zanette DH. (2013). Keywords and Co-Occurrence Patterns in the Voynich Manuscript: An Information-Theoretic Analysis. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66344, 5. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0066344