For more than a century, many professional cryptographers, including the decoding experts from World War I and World War II, have attempted to solve the unknown writing system in an illustrated book called the Voynich Manuscript. Up until now, no one has successfully decrypted the book, making it a famous case in the history of cryptography.
The Indecipherable Voynich Manuscript: A Mysterious Historical Piece
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The Voynich Manuscript and its meaning and origin only became a puzzling mystery when book dealer Wilfrid Voynich, whom the manuscript was named after, purchased it in 1912. However, the manuscript’s vellum, or animal-skin paper, has been traced back to early-fifteenth century and it may have been composed during the Italian Renaissance in Northern Italy.
The book measures 23.62 by 16.26 by 5.08 centimeters, with a total number of 240 vellum pages sorted into 18 quires (having the same paper size and quality). But researchers suggest that the manuscript had at least 272 pages and some pages went missing even before Voynich bought it. Originally, it had 20 quires, which have been numbered from 1 to 20 located in various parts of the book. This theory also implies that the manuscript’s pages may have been reshuffled.
Its physical characteristics only drew more curious minds to study the manuscript. In 2009–2014, radiocarbon dating, protein testing, and light microscopy were conducted to somehow make sense of its origin.
The results show that it is made from calfskin and that a quill pen was used to write its text and draw its outline. Other than that, 220 pages of the manuscript contain substantial colored drawings, which are believed to have been painted on a later date.
The Voynich Manuscript is also written in a single column with a slightly irregular right margin and paragraph splits. Some pages sometimes have stars in the left margin, as if written in bullet form, while other sheets show charts, labels, and illustrations of herbal plants, cosmos, animals, and women, among others. There is also no mark of corrections or erasures made on any pages in the document.
Each vellum in the manuscript contains texts that are mostly written in an indecipherable language. Its texts consist of simple characters too, but their pattern is uncanny since a few dozen characters appeared only once. The book doesn’t even follow obvious punctuation.
The book has over 170,000 characters with approximately 35,000 words; however, only a few words were written in a familiar script, mostly using Roman alphabets. On top of that, the distribution of letters within words and sentences are strangely arranged, which is more similar to Chinese writing even though the book supposedly originated in Europe.
The manuscript is even more mind-boggling as its author has never been confirmed. The most famous author was put forward by the owner himself. He believed that the book was written by Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, a famous polymath during the period of the Renaissance. However, many speculate that Voynich only fabricated a story since he would secure a lucrative deal if the book was, indeed, a priced possession written by Bacon.
Nevertheless, the book’s author, origin, and meaning have remained unknown, even after a number of claimed decryption by acclaimed cryptographers John Stojko and Alexander Levitov.