The Most Mysterious Book


Apr 29, 2007

A 400-year-old text continues to perplex code-breakers, but was it a hoax?

Elements of the Voynich Manuscript story could fit comfortably into the plot of a Dan Brown best seller. A mysterious, ancient document whose secrets have puzzled scholars and codebreakers for centuries, the 234-page document is written in letters that do not correspond to any known language or code.

Multiple theories have been forwarded and different techniques have been employed by linguists, historians and code breakers; no one has translated the document, and it is considered one of the most perplexing cryptological puzzles in the world.

Little of its history is certain; its author, meaning and intended purpose are unknown. It was first purchased by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II in the 16th century for 300 gold pieces, and appeared in the modern era when art dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired the document from an Italian monastery in 1912.

Since the ’20s, the Voynich Manuscript has been kept at Yale University. It’s now in a climate-controlled environment in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, available to students and researchers on a limited basis.

“Among the medieval manuscripts, it’s probably one of the more frequently written about,” Robert Babcock, curator of early manuscripts at the Beinecke Library said.

Because of the hand-drawn pictures of plants, astrological diagrams and nude women, researchers believe the book is probably what’s called an “herbal” — a book about plants and their uses. Unfortunately, the illustrations don’t explain the text.

In the ’20s, University of Pennsylvania professor William Newbold hypothesized that the visible text is meaningless, but that each character was composed of a series of tiny characters that could only be seen under magnification. Newbold proposed the hidden text contained information about scientific knowledge that should have been unknown at the time the manuscript was created.

As tantalizing as that interpretation is, the technique Newbold used to get it was flawed, said Craig Bauer, editor in chief of Cryptologia , a quarterly academic journal devoted to codes and secret messages.

“Really, what it was is that the paper is crinkly — it’s not a perfectly smooth surface,” Bauer said, adding that today “most people believe he was simply deluding himself.”

A statistical and mathematical analysis of the text has been undertaken in different approaches. One of the earliest was performed by William Friedman, who ran the United States Army’s code-breaking division during World War II. After analyzing how frequently certain symbols occurred, Friedman hypothesized it was written in a constructed language, not a textual representation of a real language. However, such constructed languages didn’t exist at the time the document was probably written.

In the ’70s, onetime director of research for the Naval Security Group Prescott Currier proposed that the document was written in two distinct languages by at least two different writers.

New insight into the Voynich Manuscript has come to light this month. The April, 2007 edition of Cryptologia contains an article that experts say points to an answer.

“This may not be the final chapter in the story of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript, but it may well be the start of the closing section,” Keele University professor Gordon Rugg said in a statement.

Here’s where the story veers wildly from Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code template: the document’s secret isn’t a world-changing, mind-blowing, institution-wrecking revelation. And instead of being humanistic and relatively heartwarming (Jesus is your great grandfather! Hugs all around!), the conclusion to this story is faintly nihilistic.

The document, the new Cryptologia article demonstrates, was most likely a hoax.

According to the analysis of the document by Austrian researcher Andreas Schinner, the characters used in the text are nothing but carefully crafted gibberish deliberately designed to fool people into thinking it has meaning.

The idea that the document is a hoax isn’t new. In a 2003 study, Rugg contended that it was probably a hoax, and demonstrated a technique that could have been used to construct the manuscript.

“Gordon [Rugg] found a method that could have been used to construct the Voynich Manuscript and could have been used to produce the interesting statistics that go with it. It’s really hard to fake statistics of a language,” Bauer said. “If you try to randomly write letters, they’re going to be patterns and properties distinct from a natural language.”

Through a statistical analysis of the document, Schinner has determined that Rugg’s supposition that the Voynich Manuscript was created through a deliberately random sequencing process is probably correct.

It’s not the final nail in the Voynich coffin, but the coffin’s built and has a hammer lying beside it. “Between Rugg and Schinner, we have very strong evidence for a hoax,” Bauer said.

No one doubts the manuscript’s age, and in many respects a 400-plus-year-old hoax is just as interesting as a 400-year-old mystery, if not more. The document clearly took a lot of time to create, and its creator was crafty and meticulous enough to ensure the document appeared to have a meaning. Who could have written such a thing?

“The prime suspect is Edward Kelley, an extraordinary Elizabethan adventurer and charlatan,” Rugg wrote.

Kelley, an Englishman, claimed to be an alchemist and died in prison after he was jailed when his claims proved false. He was still alive and on the loose when the Voynich Manuscript first appeared, though.

“He was in the area when Rudolph II bought the manuscript, and is likely to have been the mastermind behind the manuscript’s production, even if he didn’t personally produce it,” Rugg wrote.

Sources indicate Kelley was a huckster of the highest order. Religion and mysterious languages were his grift of choice — he claimed to be able to translate the language of angels. Spending several months to create a book of tantalizing nonsense seems right up his unsavory alley.

“Rudolph paid the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars for the manuscript,” Rugg said.

Somewhat surprisingly, as the answer to the Voynich code is that there is no code, Bauer was very upbeat about the recent conclusions.

“I see this as a success for cryptologists,” Bauer said. “We’re finally able to answer the question.