Dec 5, 2018

The Most Mysterious Book in the World - The Voynich Manuscript


Bibliophiles who love a good mystery, or conspiracy, should be familiar with the Voynich Manuscript. In the article that follows I’ll take you through a quick overview on this mystery and then provide you with some links for further reading. Enjoy!

The mysterious Voynich Manuscript has been hanging around for almost 500 years, most of that time it was lost among a private collection but is now the focus of intense of scrutiny. It is famous for being written in an unknown language or code which, so far, has yet to been deciphered. The Voynich manuscript, or Beinecke Ms. 408, is thought to be the only medieval document on the planet in that category. This handwritten codex famous for its indecipherable language also contains drawings of strange plants, Zodiac star charts, and what looks like women bathing in green water.

Many people have tried to decipher this book over the years, from William Friedman, the pioneering cryptologist known for breaking Japan’s code during WWII to modern day computing PhD students, but no one has yet cracked the code. To date any attempted translation of the text remain nonsense.


The History of the Voynich Manuscript

Like its contents, the history of this shabby, two-hundred and thirty-four page object is also a topic of debate and there are some gaps in it’s time-line. It is believed to have been written in Central Europe at the end of the 15th or during the 16th century. What we do know is that the manuscript first appeared in historical records We first hear of it when Rudolph II of Germany purchased the book for 600 gold ducats, in the late 16th century, believing that it had been written by the 13th-century English scientist Roger Bacon. It was then passed into the hands of Georgius Barschius, an alchemist from Prague, who referred to the book as “a certain riddle of the Sphinx” that was “uselessly taking up space.

In 2009 a piece of this manuscript was tested using radiocarbon dating. This is a process that allows us to determine the age of an object containing organic material by using the properties of radiocarbon, a radioactive isotope of carbon. The results showed that the manuscript likely dates to some time between 1404 and 1438. These results rule out Roger Bacon, the English scientist, as the author of this manuscript because he died in 1292, over one hundred years prior.

After the death of the alchemist Georgius Barschius, the manuscript was then passed on to his heir, Johannes Marcus Marci, who sent it to an Egyptian hieroglyphics expert in Rome for help decoding the text which was unsuccessful.

We don’t hear about it until 1912 when Polish-American antiquarian bookseller, Wilfrid M. Voynich, whom the manuscript is now named after, purchased it from the Jesuit College at Frascati near Rome. In 1969, the codex was given to the Beinecke Library by H. P. Kraus, who had purchased it from the estate of Ethel Voynich, Wilfrid Voynich's widow.



The Mystery Solved?

Of all the articles I’ve read about this manuscript, there is one that stands out to me, which is worth the read, especially because of the controversy that surrounds it. It is called Voynich manuscript: the solution by Nicholas Gibbs. It appeared as the cover story of Times Literary Supplement in September 2017. I did a quick web search but I wasn’t able to find ‘the’ Nicholas Gibbs who wrote this article. My searches ended up being circular. All search results at that time, ended up pointing back to the TLS article. The TLS website didn’t have any further information on the author either.

However in the article the author advises his readers that he was a professional history researcher as well as a muralist and war artist with an understanding of the workings of picture narration. This experience was an advantage that he was able to capitalise on for his research into the manuscript. While he wasn’t able to translate the whole text he was able to pick out a few reoccurring words within the text and according to his experience, he believes that each character in the Voynich manuscript represents an abbreviated word and not a letter. He also noticed that the top and bottom of each page seemed to have been cropped - we’ll get to both of these points latter.

One of the more notable aspects of the manuscript were the illustrations on a bathing theme, so it seemed logical to have a look at the bathing practices of the medieval period. It became fairly obvious very early on that I had entered the realms of medieval medicine. - Nicholas Gibbs, Voynich manuscript: the solution

Comparing the Voynich Manuscript with other medieval books and manuscripts on medical practice, Gibbs was able to work out that the Voynich Manuscript is most likely a Trotula. Gibbs believes that it’s specifically a reference book of selected remedies lifted from the standard treatises of the medieval period, an instruction manual for the health and wellbeing of the more well to do women in society, which was quite possibly tailored to a single individual.

Mr Gibbs concludes that the Voynich manuscript must therefore be a series of (“simple”) recipe ingredients with the necessary measures however the pages numbers and index are missing.


The Missing ‘Ingredient’

The index and the page numbers are missing. Why is this important to solving the mystery of the Voynich manuscript? Similar books from that time included both which is what made it useful.

Indexes are present in many other similar books: a system of cross-reference for illness, complaints, names of plants and page numbers. For the sake of brevity, the name of both plant and malaise were superfluous in the text so long as they could be found in the indexes matched with a page number. Recipes require an index to function in a reference book. The same recipe format is replicated throughout the manuscript: recipes for bathing solutions, tonics, tinctures, ointments, unguents, purgatives and fragrant fumigations – and not a name in sight. Not only is the manuscript incomplete, but its folios are in the wrong order – and all for the want of an index. - Nicholas Gibbs, Voynich manuscript: the solution

Good Guess But…

While the above explanation seems the most plausible to me, others have debunked it. One person who should especially be listened to on this issue Lisa Fagin Davis.

Lisa Fagin Davis is the executive director of the Medieval Academy of America and she was asked about Gibbs article when interviewed for an article in Atlantic titled Has a Mysterious Medieval Code Really Been Solved?

In the Atlantic article three points are raised to debunk Gibbs’ theory:


  1. It wasn’t vetted (peer reviewed). Davis had met with the curator of the Beinecke Library, where the Voynich manuscript is held and mentioned the article to them. The curator had not seen or been shown the TLS article and mentioned that “If they had simply sent to it to the Beinecke Library, they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat,
  2. The decoded text which Gibbs provides includes only two lines which are “…not grammatically correct.” Davis also points out that the translation “doesn’t result in Latin that makes sense.” So we’re back to square one, no one has yet deciphered the manuscript yet.
  3. His explanation that the key is a lost index represents a kind of magical thinking. Remember Gibbs says that the recipes require an index that explains which illnesses and which plants the drawing correspond to is missing.


One final thing to note is that you can’t find any trace of the author "Nicholas Gibbs". As I previously mentioned the search results are circular, he only appears in relation to this article. It could be that this article, like the Voynich manuscript is a hoax.


So we are left with two choices:


  • The article Voynich manuscript: the solution by Nicholas Gibbs it may just be a work of fiction or,
  • If this is not a work of fiction, the debunking of this article could be due to the fact that Gibbs is unknown and an outsider to the Voynich community.


What do you think?

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Want to know why drawings of snails appear frequently in medieval manuscripts? Check out this article: Snails and Symbolism 
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Further reading:
Voynich manuscript: the solution
https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/voynich-manuscript-solution/
Artificial Intelligence May Have Cracked Freaky 600-Year-Old Voynich Manuscript
https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2018/01/artificial-intelligence-may-have-cracked-freaky-600-year-old-voynich-manuscript/
Here’s What You Need to Know About the Mysterious Voynich Manuscript
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/6-things-know-about-mysterious-voynich-manuscript-180964847/
Has a Mysterious Medieval Code Really Been Solved?
https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/09/has-the-voynich-manuscript-really-been-solved/539310/
Voynich Manuscript
https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/voynich-manuscript

For all things Voynich check out the popular website Voynich.nu


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Oct 28, 2018

Union Station Series Review | Recommended Reading



Remember when science fiction was about a future you wouldn't be terrified to live in? Well, the series we're looking at in this video is a light hearted and fun science fiction series which shows such a future.

So if you're after a science fiction novel that doesn't take itself seriously, but one that's not as ridiculous as hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. This could be the series for you.

Watch the video review here. 

Oct 9, 2018

The Connection Between Reading Science Fiction and Productivity.

I want to share with you a simple productivity tip that can help anyone get ahead in our ever changing world. If you follow my advice, you’ll be more agile at work and in your personal life.

[Would you rather watch the video edition of this post? - releasing soon.]


There are plenty of articles and books about productivity and how to get ahead in the life and business.

I’ve read quite a few and could probably write a book on productivity even though I’m no CEO or motivational speaker.

Aug 21, 2018

Hugo Award 2018 Winners and Finalists.



The winner of the 2018 Hugo Awards has been announced and it's as follows:

Best Novel

THE STONE SKY

by N.K. Jemisin
The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women.
Essun has inherited the power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every orogene child can grow up safe.

For Nassun, her mother's mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed

Best Novella

ALL SYSTEMS RED

by Martha Wells

"As a heartless killing machine, I was a complete failure."

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid ― a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.


Other Categories

Aug 4, 2018

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2018



The Arthur C. Clarke Award winner was announced last month from a short-list of six. This award was originally established by a generous grant from Sir Arthur C. Clarke with the aim of promoting science fiction in Britain.

The annual award is presented for the best science fiction novel of the year, and selected from a list of novels whose UK first edition was published in the previous calendar year.

The winner is Dreams Before the Start of Time by author Anne Charnock

May 14, 2018

Cycling In The Dark - A Technique For Writing Fiction.


I’ve been reading a lot of ‘how-to’ books on writing novels recently, the majority of them talk about creating an outline even before writing the first draft. For those of us who have attempted this sort of thing it does make sense.


  • Step 1: Create and outline of your story, know where and when everything will happen.
  • Step 2: Write your first draft, don’t worry about spelling mistakes or typo’s just let your creative voice have free reign so you can get the story out there. As Joanna Penn says ‘splurge on words and ideas’ in this first draft.
  • Step 3: Spent time editing. That is using your critical voice, correcting the spelling mistakes and typo’s, rewriting and polishing the story.


The problem is that we spend a lot of time on step 1 and never seem to be able to finish.

May 1, 2018

Unfinished Tales | Shadow Worlds | Part Three

Perched upon a mountain ridge, an ancient castle sat brooding. It dominated the skyline for miles around. 


Standing on the banqueting level of this castle you could just see a shimmering rainbow coloured column that was reputed to be not only the centre of the World but of the known universe. It was known as The Void, a place that gave power to the wizards and other magical inhabitants of the World.