Deciphering the Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World

Deciphering the Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World

    Article by Aldrich Daimler — from Journal of Borderland Research; the full text of the Voynich Manuscript is available online, courtesy of the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.


    “The intelligent reader will judge for himself. Without examining the facts fully and fairly, there is no way of knowing whether vox populi is really vox dei, or merely vox asinorum.”

    Cyrus H. Gordon, “Riddles in History”

    INTRODUCTION

    Contemporary and Not So Contemporary Cryptography
    It is always unfortunate to find another science which has fallen prey to the whims of the so-called “schools of thought”. Unfortunately, it would appear that the science of Cryptography has become their latest victim, and seems to be directly linked to the introduction of the computer, and the use of its ability to perform “complex calculations”. Let us not forget, that the science of Cryptography is not a science of numbers, but one of words…. symbols. Written language is cryptography in its purest sense. It follows no laws or rules as does the science of mathematics. It is creative and spontaneous. The ancient scribes with their acrostic-telestic inscriptions, anagrams, and bi-literal ciphers (to name but a few methods used) realized that the purest cipher was one that was not revealed as a cipher. These ancient scribes were certainly as intelligent if not more so than we consider ourselves today, and manipulated language so deftly that it often takes modern scholars a long time to grasp the presence, let alone all the subtleties, of ancient riddles. These ancient “steganographers” utilized their creative art to conceal the messages of their day.

    Today’s “encryption” schemes with all their lifeless algorithms are not the engines of ingenuity they claim to be, but are merely simplistic number scramblers. They may have their purpose in the transmission of data, but the messages they render unintelligible disclose the fact that they contain concealed information, and hold no value aesthetically as far as cryptographic writing is concerned. There simply is no vision in creating machines that spew forth deluges of riffled characters. Of course, the cryptographic orthodoxy would reel at this statement as they try ever harder to find the perfect algorithm, or struggle with the endless factoring of streams of numbers. Their view is toward unification and adoption of standards in the cryptographic sciences, thus putting to rest any sense of creative vision.

    The true art of Steganography (a method by which a message can be disguised by making it appear to read or be something else) is one such creative form of cryptography that has been lost (some methods still exist) and seems to have gone the way of most secrets of ancient knowledge. A classic example of this lack of vision by the “authorities” in cryptography is their detraction of William Romaine Newbold’s decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript. There are many reasons, which will be detailed here, why many had derogated Newbold’s findings. For instance, if Newbold’s assertions were correct, scientific history would have to be re-written. Such is the importance of this most incredible document. In the following pages I shall not only give a detailed history of what has been referred to as the “most mysterious manuscript in the world”, but will show that Newbold most likely did solve the cipher of the Voynich manuscript, and was probably the only one of his day qualified to do so.

    HISTORY OF THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT

    In order to understand the nature of this undertaking it is necessary to describe the Voynich manuscript (hereinafter referred to as “MS”) and detail its most curious history. The Voynich MS is so named after Wilfrid M. Voynich, a well known bibliophile from New York. In 1912, during one of Mr. Voynich’s many visits to Europe in quest of old and rare books, he came across a remarkable collection of precious manuscripts. These volumes had been buried in a chest and remained hidden inside a castle in Southern Italy for decades. While he was perusing the manuscripts for purchase, his attention was particularly drawn to one odd, out of place looking bundle. Examination revealed the MS to be written entirely in cipher. Even a brief inspection of the vellum upon which it was written, the calligraphy, the drawings, and the pigments suggested its date of origin as the latter part of the thirteenth century. It was not until some time after Mr. Voynich purchased the MS that he read the document attached to the front cover bearing the date1665 (or 1666). It is a letter from Joannes Marcus Marci, rector of the University of Prague, to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar, presenting the MS as a gift to Kircher. Its most important significance can be seen from the following translation of it:

    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 was 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,
    JOANNES MARCUS MARCI, of Cronland.
    PRAGUE, 19th August, 1665 (or 1666).

    The key, here, is that the un-named “bearer” believed the author was Roger Bacon, the 13th century Franciscan monk, philosopher, magician, and alchemist. Bacon had been persecuted for his writings and scientific discoveries, and referred in his works to the necessity of hiding his great secrets in cipher. This emphasis on Roger Bacon’s authorship will become clear in later development. One should not confuse Roger Bacon with the Renaissance figure Francis Bacon (F. Bacon was also quite prolific on ciphering techniques) The testimony in the letter of Dr. Raphael, that the MS was once in the possession of Emperor Rudolph is fairly determinative. The signature of Jacobus de Tepenecz found inside the MS confirms the fact that the MS found its way to the Emperor’s court, as de Tepenecz was ennobled and befriended by the Emperor in 1608, and lived at his palace.

    Further investigation by Mr. Voynich revealed that the MS had been in the possession of Dr. John Dee, the 16th century astrologer and magician. Dee had spent the years between 1584 and1588 at Rudolph’s court as a secret agent of Queen Elizabeth I, and probably brought the MS to Prague. Dee was an admirer of Bacon and collected many of his works (a catalogue of Dee’s library prepared in 1583 enumerates thirty-seven works of Bacon). Sir Thomas Browne, the inventor of the English word ‘cryptography’, claimed that Dee’s son Arthur had spoken to him about a ‘book containing nothing but hieroglyphiks, which book his father bestowed much time upon, but I could not hear that he could make it out’.

    If we are to go back any further we might speculate that Dee obtained a good portion of his Bacon collection from the Northumberland family. It is known that Dee was closely associated with the Duchess of Northumberland, and that the Duke of Northumberland received the spoils from the dissolution of monasteries that began around 1538. It is presumed that from these spoils, the Duke (or more likely the Duchess) of Northumberland presented Dee with the MS.

    A BRIEF SKETCH OF THE CONTENTS OF THE VOYNICH MS

    The Voynich MS is a small quarto averaging about 6 by 9inches. The MS now contains the equivalent of 246 quarto pages, but may have originally contained not less than 262 pages. 33 pages contain text only, 212 with text and drawings, and the last page contains the Key. The text is written in an enciphered script, and the drawings are colored in red, blue, brown, yellow, and green. The contents of the MS are divided up into 5categories. The first and largest section contains 130 pages of plant drawings with accompanying text, and is called the Botanical division. The second contains 26 pages of drawings, obviously astrological and astronomical in nature. The third section contains 4 pages of text and 28 drawings, which would appear to be biological in nature.

    The fourth division contains 34 pages of drawings, which are pharmaceutical in nature. The last section of the MS contains 23 pages of text arranged in short paragraphs, each beginning with a star. The last page (the 24th of this division) contains the Key only.

    VOYNICH AND NEWBOLD

    After considerable historical research, Mr. Voynich submitted the MS to several cryptographers. When the symbols in the MS had been copied and classified, their appearance and frequency were found to be consistent throughout, and seemed to have been composed in a single-alphabet substitution cipher. But, this did not appear to be the case, much to the dismay of the cryptographers, and they could not extract an intelligible message in any language from the text. The MS was then surrendered to several botanists and astronomers (due to the nature of the drawings) and to many experts in ancient languages? all to no avail. Realizing the possibility that the MS might require the interpretation of someone versed in cabalistic lore (Roger Bacon was no stranger to this) Voynich finally turned over the MS to Dr. William Romaine Newbold, of the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the greatest students of medieval philosophy and science. Newbold possessed the advantage that he was familiar with medieval methods of thought, was versed in occult sciences, and, he was also a cryptographer. Newbold started work on deciphering the Voynich MS in 1919.

    NEWBOLD’S DECIPHERMENT WITH SOME CONCLUSIONS

    When Newbold first attacked the MS for decipherment, he realized that he needed to find a key which would allow him to understand how the MS was enciphered. On the last page of the MS was written a single sentence:

    “michiton oladabas multos te tccr cerc portas”

    Disregarding the obvious nulls used in the sentence (ton ola tetccr cerc) and exchanging the “o” in “multos” for “a”, the intelligible Latin sentence emerges:

    “michi dabas multas portas”

    translating into English, “To me thou gavest many gates.”

    Counting the number of letters in the sentence reveals it to be22. Newbold then adapted the Latin alphabet to it omitting the letter “k”, replacing “x” with “v” and produced the first form of the cipher alphabet used by Bacon:

    m i c h i d a b a s m u l t a s p o r t a s
    a b c d e f g h i l m n o p q r s t u v y z

    Here is what makes Newbold’s qualifications for decipherment of the MS so felicitous. Newbold understood that a major clue was to be found in the word “portas”, in that its interpreted cabalistic meaning of “gates” would be the secret to the clarification of the Key. Newbold knew that Bacon was well acquainted with the Cabala and would have used such a plan in his Key, for in Bacon’s Epistle on the Nullity of Magic, where he details several ciphering systems, the sixth such system is called, “The Kabbalah of the Nine Chambers”. From Newbold’s footnotes we find the following:

    “In Cabalistic philosophy the universe consists of God’s thought; thought is expressed in speech; speech is composed of letters; hence the Letters are the ultimate constituents of Things. The “gates” are the 231 biliteral combinations of the Hebrew letters (doubles omitted; 231 permutated pairs added by later writers); they represent the primary combinations of the highest manifestations of the divine Being which are at once the forces which make other things, the material of which they are made, and the channels through which the divine energy streams forth into the lower world. A single quotation from the Sepher Yezirah, will suffice: He combined (the Letters), weighed them, exchanged them, Aleph with all and all with Aleph, Beth with all and all with Beth, and they go (each) all the way around (the Alphabet). And they are found (comprised) in 231 gates, and everything formed and everything uttered is found to proceed from one Name.”

    Thus, “gates” not only implies a cipher of many steps, but it reveals that the gates are the channels through which alphabetic values are conveyed from Key Sentence to the 484 (admitting doubled letters) biliteral symbols.

    With the Key now in hand, Newbold began to approach the actual text of the MS. With more cabalistic associations appearing, Newbold discovered 22 distinct symbols, among these 22 were recognized the 15 signs that composed the Greek system of shorthand. Bacon was quite familiar with this Greek system, having written a grammar including such information, and reading from the eighth chapter of Bacon’s Epistle on the Nullity of Magic, we will find the great significance he placed on secret writing, and particular reference to the shorthand system:

    “The man is insane who writes a secret in any other way than one which will conceal it from the vulgar and make it intelligible only with difficulty even to scientific men and earnest students. On this point the entire body of scientific men have been agreed from the outset, and by many methods have concealed from the vulgar all secrets of science. For some have concealed many things by magic figures and spells, others by mysterious and symbolic words. For example, Aristotle in the Book of Secrets says to Alexander, ‘O Alexander, I wish to show you the greatest secret of secrets; may the Divine Power help you to conceal the mystery and to accomplish your aim. Take therefore the stone which is not a stone and is in every human being and in every place and at every time, and it is called the Egg of the Philosophers, and Terminus of the Egg.’ Innumerable examples of the kind are to be found in many books and divers sciences, veiled in such terminology that they cannot be understood at all without a teacher. The third method of concealment which they have employed is that of writing in different ways, for example, by consonants alone, so that no one can read it unless he knows the words and their meanings. In this way the Hebrews and the Chaldaeans and Syrians and Arabs write their secrets. Indeed, as a general thing, they write almost everything in this way, and therefore among them, and especially among the Hebrews. Important scientific knowledge lies hidden. For Aristotle in the book above mentioned says that God gave them all scientific knowledge before there were any philosophers, and that from the Hebrews all nations received the first elements of philosophy . . . In the fourth place, concealment is effected by commingling letters of various kinds; it is in this way that Ethicus the astronomer concealed his scientific knowledge by writing it in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin letters in the same written line. In the fifth place, certain persons have achieved concealment by means of letters not then used by their own race or others but arbitrarily invented by themselves; this is the greatest obstacle of all, and Artephiushas employed it in his book On the Secrets of Nature. In the sixth place, people invent not characters like letters, but geometrical figures which acquire the significance of letters by means of points and marks differently arranged; these likewise Artephius has used in his science. In the seventh place, the greatest device for concealment is that of shorthand, which is a method of noting and writing down as briefly as we please and as rapidly as we desire; by this method many secrets are written in the books of the Latin-using peoples. I have thought fit to touch upon these methods of concealment because I may perhaps, by reason of the importance of my secrets, employ some of these methods, and it is my desire to aid in this way, at least you, to the extent of my ability.”

    The other 7 shorthand signs of Newbold’s discovery all fit the same general character of the first 15, and were used by Bacon to fill out the Greek shorthand, which was lacking expression.

    Newbold continued by employing the biliteral method to the converted shorthand, and found that frequency analysis of the resultant alphabet revealed it to be characteristic of Latin. The final stage in the process of decipherment was the anagramming process. The process of anagramming texts was probably the most popular method of the day used for concealing messages, and the necessity of concealment was due to political or ecclesiastical reasons of the time, making the information unpropitious for pronouncement. It is known that the Cabalists were professed anagrammatists, and the third part of their art ? themuru (changing) dealt with transposition and recombination of the letters of words for mystical interpretation. The fact that it was also a tradition among the “orders” can be witnessed in the works of von Bingen, and certainly in the Abbe N. De Montfaucon De Villars’ “Comte De Gabalis” (Quodtanto impendio absconditur etiam solummodo demonstrare destruereest – Tertullian). It was even continued with the likes of Galileo (Haec immatura a me jam frustra leguntur – oy), Tycho Brahe (who also was at the court of Rudolph), Johannes Kepler, and many others.

    At last, the plain text began to emerge, and without going too far afield for the letters of anagrammed text. The letters to be rearranged occurred in pairs next to one another, either indirect or reverse order, and only relatively infrequently did Newbold have to go as far as three or four words ahead in order to fill in the plaintext.

    What Newbold discovered in the text was absolutely astonishing? enough to gather a lot of attention from the scientific community. The biological drawings in the text were described asseminiferous tubes, the microscopic cells with nuclei, and even spermatozoa. Among the astronomical drawings were the descriptions of spiral nebulae, a coronary eclipse, and the comet of 1273. One of the more baffling things about this was that many of the drawings of plants, and of the galaxies appeared to have been invented. There was no doubt that if Bacon were the author of such a text, he must have had some way of obtaining the information. For instance, Newbold’s translation of the caption near the drawing of the nebula of Andromeda (which clearly shows its spiral characteristics), gave its location by the following:

    “In a concave mirror I saw a star in the form of a snail….between the navel of Pegasus, the girdle of Andromeda, and the head of Cassiopea”.

    Now, Bacon is credited with the invention of the magnifying glass, but it should be certain that he did not invent the telescope or the microscope as many at the time of this discovery conjectured. The “concave mirror” is probably the single most important clue here. Many of the later prominent Renaissance figures would not only describe similar visions of travel to distant places, several also included such “shewstones” as their viewing apparatus. In the works of Dee, Kircher, and even the more famous Nostradamus, one will find reference to such a device, and in each case these individuals recorded the experience of visions associated with it. Some of their descriptions were later proven to be precise. The actual knowledge pertaining to the use of a device such as this is probably now lost, but in any case it is most worthy of mention considering the circumstances. Let us now turn to some of the objections to Newbold’s decipherment of the MS.

    NEWBOLD’S DETRACTORS – AND HIS VALIDATION

    Initially, upon the announcement of his findings in 1921, Newbold received some praise for his work. Even John M. Manly, a military intelligence cryptanalyst, wrote a favourable review in Harper’s Magazine. But, this was not to last very long, and soon the attacks proceeded. The first of such attacks came from research chemists who stated that the rough vellum surface upon which the MS was written had caused the ink to break up into spots and shadings with age. This break up of characters, they stated, was what Newbold had actually seen when deciphering the shorthand characters.

    This criticism that the ink had merely broken up into spots and shadings due to age was unfounded due to the fact that many documents nearly as aged as the Voynich MS, with comparable ink, do not display cracking similar to the individual characters in the MS. Also, if the arrangement of characters was due to this breaking up of the ink, certainly more than 22 individual shorthand symbols would have been discovered by Newbold.

    The next attack was concerned with the biliteral method of Newbold’s decipherment. Cryptographers stated that by Newbold’s methods, Bacon could not have enciphered the text to begin with. But, Newbold clearly detailed the enciphering process, and revealed that Bacon did not use “orthodox” methods of enciphering to which the cryptographers were accustomed.

    Attacked most heavily of all was the anagramming process Newbold used. These detractors maintained that one could anagram any text into anything one chose, and that this method would not have followed the qualifications of a “good” cipher, in that the first quality of any “good” cipher is that it must convey its message with absolute certainty. Newbold’s anagramming process did NOT use “blocks of 55 to 110 characters”, as had been put forth by these detractors, on the contrary, it can be shown from his own notes that he was very careful in his observations:

    “The only indication that the recomposition is correct is the regular appearance, at intervals of NOT more than three or four words, of letter groups suggesting words appropriate, in syntax and logic, to the preceding text. If they fail to appear, if one is driven to arbitrary choice in order to make sense, the recomposition is probably wrong.”

    I have observed this misrepresentation of facts of Newbold’s decipherment in a number of works (David Kahn’s gigantic work titled “The Codebreakers” immediately comes to mind) and find it quite an admonition to any other statements made by such authors. The fact that his detractors used such methods to anagram texts into any messages they seemed fit – designed to expose flaws in Newbold’s decipherment – is clearly disinformation. Newbold, by HIS method, equally tried other texts of the period including works of Bacon which were not meant to be in cipher, and while he could form Latin words for a time, he was soon left with unmanageable groups of consonants, and discontinued the experiment, as Latin requires between 40 and 50 percent vowels.

    It wasn’t until after Newbold’s death in 1926 that more serious assaults would come. In 1931 John Manly (who earlier gave praise) published a 47 page article in Speculum Magazine of what he called “a detailed analysis” that attempted to make Newbold’s work seem entirely worthless. But many more would hinge their deprecations on Newbold’s interpretation of the drawings contained in the MS. Most said that the biological pictures were cabalistic (they certainly were!), symbolical, vague, and capable of various interpretations. I must note that I personally have given these biological drawings to persons well credentialed in the field of Biology, and asked them to give me an explanation of what they see in them. In every instance, and without any prior knowledge of the MS, they have given descriptions that very closely resemble the deciphered interpretations of Newbold.

    Other assailants made particular note of the drawing that represented the nebula Andromeda. Based on the fact that the spiral nebula in Andromeda lies edge on to earthly observers, Bacon would have had to have an incredibly powerful telescope to view such a thing. But, as we have noted, no one was really claiming that he did.

    It may be deduced from these painstaking onslaughts that maybe these assailants felt it was necessary to hide the true nature of the work. In Manly’s 1931 article, he blatantly reveals his real concerns with the warning to all that, “these results (of Newbold’s) threaten to falsify to no unimportant degree, the history of human thought.” Kahn, in “The Codebreakers”, devotes several pages to the MS decipherment, and groups Newbold into a category he later describes as oddballs and lunatics who believe in such things as water witching.

    Of course, the depreciated Newbold decipherment did not discourage others from attempting to figure out the MS, and a few of the arguments put forward may have been somewhat conceivable. In 1944, Professor Hugh O’Neil, a botanist at the Catholic University of America, offered evidence that the MS could not have been written before 1493. He observed that the drawings in the MS include the likes of the common sunflower, and Capsicum, both plants native to the Americas which according to him, were unknown to Europeans before the return of Columbus from his second voyage. We needn’t go into the Columbus discovery here, as historically it is well known that he was hardly the first to venture to the Americas.

    Not long after O’Neil’s observations, Dr. Leonell Strong, a cancer research scientist and amateur cryptographer, took on the project of deciphering the MS. Fancifully boasting that he could “unravel” the secret of any cipher, Strong said that the solution to the MS cipher was a “peculiar double system of arithmetical progressions of a multiple alphabet”. Even here, there was a great similarity to Newbold’s system, but Strong altogether bombastically stated that the plaintext revealed the MS to be written by the 16th century English author Anthony Ascham, whose works include A Little Herbal, published in 1550. Although the MS does contain one section resembling an herbal, it is unknown where the author of A Little Herbal would have obtained such literary and cryptographic knowledge.

    The speculation of William F. Friedmann, another military cryptographer, was that the MS was actually a text in an artificial language, and may have held some merit if it were not for the fact that he was also responsible, and instrumental in the demolition of Newbold’s theory (again, after Newbold’s death). But, he, too never went any further than this simple hypothesis. Many others have invented their own versions of decipherment of the MS, but all of them fall short of making anything intelligible out of the mysterious characters. To the cryptographic orthodoxy, the MS is still “undeciphered”. I believe many have merely taken the disparaging words of others as proof that the Newbold solution is bogus, without actually examining the specifics. Had Newbold been an amateur with nothing but this decipherment for credentials, it would certainly raise some doubt. But, Newbold indeed practised his techniques on similar manuscripts such as the Tironian signs of the so-called Vatican Document (which I won’t detail here as it would necessitate the space of an entire article in itself) and many others. It is most probable though, that the Voynich MS actually cost Newbold his health, both physically and mentally. In the latter days of his work on the MS he began to grow weary and would often restructure his entire method without any sense of reason. Still, the heart of Newbold’s inspiration lies in his initial work on the MS, and there has not been anyone since who has even come close to the original genius of his solution to “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”.


    REFERENCES

    1. “The Cipher of Roger Bacon” by William Romaine Newbold, edited by Roland Grubb Kent. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1928.
    2. “Secret and Urgent – The Story of Codes and Ciphers” by Fletcher Pratt. Blue Ribbon Books, 1942.
    3. “The Secret Teachings of All Ages” by Manly Palmer Hall. Philosophical Research Society, 1977.
    4. “Cryptography – The Science of Secret Writing” by Lawrence Dwight Smith. W.W. Norton, 1943.
    5. “Opus Majus” by Roger Bacon. Complete Latin version by Howard R. Bayne, 1946.
    6. “Comte De Gabalis” by the Abbe N. De Montfaucon DeVillars. Paris 1670.
    7. “The Incredible Roger Bacon” by Manley Mills. Fate, April 1951, pp 69-72.
    8. “Cipher of the Secret Book” by Betty McKaig (Interview with Leonell Strong). North County Independent, Oct. 7, 1970.
    9. “The Insignificant Cry of Roger Bacon” by Malachi Martin. Intellectual Digest, August, 1972, pp 52-55.
    10. “Codes and Ciphers” by Peter Way. Encyclopedia of Espionage, Aldus Books London, 1977.
    11. “Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature” by C. C. Bombaugh. J. B. Lippincott, 1890.
    12. “Riddles in History” by Cyrus H. Gordon. Crown Publishers, 1974.
    13. “A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee… and Some Spirits”, edited by Meric
      Casaubon. London, 1659.
    14. “The Hieroglyphic Monad” by Dr. John Dee, translated by J. W. Hamilton-Jones. Neil & Co. Edinburgh, 1947.
    15. “The Curious Lore of Precious Stones”, pp 188-196, by George Frederick Kunz. 1938.
    16. “The Codebreakers” by David Kahn. McMillan Co., 1967.

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