The moniker of ‘the world’s most mysterious book’ is a pretty impressive one to have, and according to BBC News and undoubtedly many others, this honour undoubtedly belongs to The Voynich Manuscript.
Dating back to (we believe) around 1400, the book is 240 pages long and highly illustrated, showing complex but unidentifiable fauna, astronomical shapes and human figures. It is named after the man who bought it in 1912, it’s original author unknown. The ‘Manuscript’ had baffled linguists, cryptographers and mathematicians for years. People have been able to get so far as to call it a ‘manuscript’, a coherent written piece, but that is pretty much all anyone knows about the document. It resists all modern code-breaking techniques, so much so that many call it a hoax.
Recently a study has been published by people who believe they have found strings of patterns within the text which may suggest words. The study identified the presence of a few ‘key words’, like how a book on trains would have a high frequency of the word ‘train’. Furthermore, these words are ‘clustered’ in such a way that they may show the explication of text’s meaning. But the definition of these words is still a mystery. It is thought that the theme may tally with the images, roughly grouped into sections throughout the text, but again, these images cannot be defined as anything humans know of. Nor can the purpose of the text. The words are written in a 40 letter alphabet that has never been seen before or since. It does not seem to have ‘evolved’ from any known language, causing many to believe it must be fabricated. But the structure of the text is similar to that of many ‘real’ languages. It appears to be a lot more than just arbitrary symbols or a string of made up words.
There is obviously a great story behind this text, whether written by one highly intelligent individual, a brilliant scientist, or simply as a very effective encoding of another language, people are constantly working to ensure that it cannot remain unsolved.
George Rugg, one of those purporting to have ‘solved’ the text, give one reason for it’s existence; ‘The Voynich is such a challenge, such a social activity. But then along comes someone who says ‘Oh, it’s just a lot of meaningless gibberish.’ It’s as if we’re all surfers, and the sea has dried up.’ The text may be nothing more than a challenge, something kept alive by our want to believe, and Rugg treated it as such, as a ‘grand hoax’. So many people wanted the text to be ‘true’ that they ignored his findings, the ways in which the text could be a hoax left relatively unexplored. Rugg came across a cheaply available coding device which could have been available at the time, the Cardan Grille, and found evidence to suggest that such mysterious manuscripts were highly collected throughout history. The age of the piece also meant that the author was unlikely to have been able to afford to start a page afresh after making a mistake, (unless they were rich themselves) and so the ‘words’ have even more power to resist code-breaking. The value of the piece, at least in the past, was based on it being indecipherable. And maybe so it is now, people ignore the fact it could be fake simply because its value to them is as something unsolved. Even Rugg isn’t totally satisfied with his own conclusion, saying;
“The rational part of me says it’s a hoax; another part says, yes, but what if 10 percent of it is cipher text, a real message mixed in with all the wattle and padding? It’s a lovely problem.” It’s a problem that we’ll maybe never allow ourselves to fully solve, and so The Voynich Manuscript will retain it’s power, maybe one of the greatest works of faith.