The Voynich Mystery

In 1912, a rare book dealer named Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired a cache of manuscripts from a Jesuit college near Rome. Among them was a strange codex, heavily illustrated text on vellum, carefully written by an unknown author in an elaborate script or symbol system that has never been deciphered. In 1665, the manuscript was sent to the great Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, who failed to figure it out. It disappeared from view some time after Kircher studied it.

The great Chaucerian and World War I code-breaker John M. Manly, one of the first twentieth-century scholars to examine the volume, described it as “the most mysterious manuscript in the world.” A full century after it resurfaced, we still know surprisingly little about it. The cracking of the Voynich Code—if that is what it is—has long been a holy grail for students of cryptography.

Research from other angles, including the history of botanical illustration and the use of computers to analyze patterns, continues to generate fresh theories that keep the manuscript in the news.

See the rest of the Voynich manuscript

The Friedmans and the Voynich

After the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy, the Friedmans’ favorite extracurricular project was the Voynich Manuscript. As his country’s leading expert on secret writing systems, William Friedman was quickly enlisted to solve the Voynich mystery. During three different periods of sustained study (in the 1920s, 40s, and 60s), Friedman threw all available resources at the problem, including some of the earliest use of computer-assisted text analysis. But the manuscript stubbornly refused to yield its secrets to Friedman (as it had to Kircher when he was consulted in 1665), and he died with only vague theories and not a single line of deciphered text.

Friedman on the Voynich Solution

In a typical display of cryptic wit, Friedman recorded his final theory about the Voynich Manuscript in the form of an anagram (right), and embedded it into the final paragraph of his 1959 article on anagrams in Chaucer—rearranging the letters by hand and filing the cut-out tiles in his archive. The solution was kept in a sealed envelope and only published after his death: “The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type. —Friedman.” Friedman felt, in the end, that there was no code to be broken but rather an entirely invented language whose rules we do not yet know.