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Epilogue (part 1) - my views

Introduction, or: what is it about the Voynich MS, really...

Nowadays, more people are aware of the existence of this mysterious Voynich MS than ever before. This is clearly due to the advance of the internet into everyday life, and the occasionally increased media attention. Invariably, the Voynich MS is seen as a manusript containing a cipher text that is just waiting to be translated by someone, and the number of people around the world who are actively pursuing some solution attempt of this text is impossible to guess. It will also be more than ever before.

It may seem as if the ultimate question about the Voynich MS is: "what does it say". Of course, if the text of the MS has a meaning, this will be of some interest, but possibly the more interesting question should be the context of its creation:

The translation attempts have involved people from all parts of the world and from all walks of life. Unfortunately, there have only been relatively few scholarly investigations into the origin and the meaning of the MS.

The MS appears to have become some sort of public property where anything can be written about it, and presented as being the truth until proven wrong. This is a pity, as this MS is a historic object that also deserves the proper type of attention, and it is my strong hope that this will increase in the near future.

The text

Countless explanations for the MS text (i.e. solutions) have been proposed in the past, but none of these can be accepted as the correct one. In reality, we are far from having the solution, and we are unclear even about some of the most basic questions, for example whether the text of the MS is meaningful or completely meaningless. However, all of this could change any day, given the multitude of people working on, or thinking about the MS. I will not be at all surprised if there is a significant breakthrough in the near future (even though I have been saying this for many years now....).

Do I have a Voynich MS solution in mind?

The short answer is a definite no. I don't have any preferred theory, and as it is, I cannot even think of any scenario that would explain everything I know about the Voynich MS. This brings me to one of the fundamental questions: when is a solution "good"?

What does a good solution look like

Most of the Voynich MS translations that have been presented until now propose a 'decoding' of the text from cipher text into plain text, and work in the following way:

  1. Present a decoding method, which includes an assumption about the plain text language (possibly based on some observation), and the steps needed to convert the Voynich MS characters to this;
  2. Apply this procedure to a section of the Voynich MS text and present the result. This typically (read: always) produces a "raw text" that is not directly meaningful or understandable;
  3. Convert this "raw text" into something more or less understandable (="clear text") using various interpretations and explanations.

While this may not seem like a bad approach at first sight, we need to imagine the person who, in the early fifteenth century, composed the text of the Voynich MS. We should imagine that he intended to write the "clear text" of bullet 3 above, but instead of writing that, he wrote the "raw text" of bullet 2. He then converted this garbled or even meaningless text, using the inverse of the 'decoding method' of bullet 1, and wrote it in a strange alphabet.
Is this realistic?

In reality, we don't yet know whether the Voynich MS represents a meaningful text. What we do know for certain, however, is that sometime in the past, somebody or some group of people sat down and generated the text of the Voynich MS using some method.

This may seem trivial, but, in reality, it is fundamental. There may or may not be a decoding method (step 1 above), but there certainly was an encoding or rather text generation method.

Anybody who wants to present a Voynich MS solution should present the method how the text that we see in the MS was generated. The main advantages of this approach are:

This text generation method should then explain the properties of the Voynich MS text that have been reported extensively in the past, and have been summarised to some extent in the text analysis section of this site. Most particularly, it should explain the peculiar word structure, and the variations in 'language' throughout the various sections of the MS. If a proposed solution suggests that the MS represents a meaningful text in some language, a critical test will be to convert a real, documented piece of text from the proposed area, time frame and language into Voynichese and then show that this generated text exhibits the above-mentioned properties of the Voynich MS text.

More generally about solutions

Just to repeat the critial point: the Voynich MS exists, it is real and it was really created by someone, some time ago. There was a method used to create it. Unfortunately, we don't (yet) know this method. We can only imagine a multitude of different ways how it could have been created. In the following page I will introduce in the term 'solution space', which is the set of all hypothetical ways the MS could have been created. Many such ways have been suggested in the past, others will be suggested in future. Among all these elements in the solution space, there is exactly one that is the correct one. This correct solution is not necessarily the translation of the Voynich MS into plain language, but it is the method how the MS text was generated.

Assumptions

Suppose I am searching for the solution to the Voynich MS, i.e. not the translation but the text generation method. Then, as soon as I make any assumption, I reduce the size of my solution space.
What does that mean?
If I assume that the base language of the Voynich MS is Latin (which is not an unreasonable assumption of course) then I exclude a lot of hypothetical solutions, for example that the text is meaningless. I cut out part of the solution space, and if the real solution is in that part of the solution space, I won't find it.

It is very difficult not to make any assumptions, and in fact it is done all the time, often even unconsciously. The following page discusses this in more detail.

What I believe

Note that at the bottom of this page there are also some answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

General

Over the years, I have formed many different opinions about the MS, or particular aspects of it, but many of these have changed, or I have simply discarded them. Several times, I have gone through the process that I noticed something striking, and was convinced that I was onto something. Very often, I found it impossible to convince anyone else of my striking discoveries, and typically, I ended up deciding that it was probably nothing after all. At the moment I still have plenty of ideas, but no "hot leads".

Origin, time

To me there can be no doubt that the Voynich MS is from the fifteenth century. All the evidence is sufficiently consistent: the radio-carbon dating of the parchment, and the opinions of several people with the required experience / knowledge who have examined the MS (1).

Now, with this assumption, I am already going against what I wrote above. I am eliminating part of my solution space. However, this part is small enough, in my opinion, for me to accept. It's a conscious decision after weighing the probabilities, and it will always be possible to go back, should evidence to the contrary show up.

Origin, place

I do believe that the MS is from the Alpine region, possibly, but not necessarily what is now Northern Italy, as has been suggested many times. The herbals to which the Voynich MS is most similar in style all originate from Northern Italy: the Italian branch of the Tractatus de Herbis and to a lesser extent the alchemical herbals. Recent work published by contributors at the blog of Stephen Bax (2) has shown that the zodiac illustrations in the Voynich MS fit in a style prevailing in South German MSs of the entire 15th C, so I remain undecided whether the place of origin is rather North or South of the Alps.

Author(s)

To me, the Voynich MS looks like the work of one 'brain'. It looks like a very intentional creation. There are signs that the MS has been copied from a draft. There is even a hint that the copyist did not understand what he was copying, which would mean that the copyist was not the same person as the original author. All in all, the evidence for this is quite thin, so I am ready to change my mind on this point.

In this respect, the work of Prescott Currier, who identified two (or more) hands and two languages, is often quoted (3). I personally maintain that there aren't really two different languages, but there is a continuous change in language (4). Currier's conclusion seems to derive from the fact that he based his original classification of two languages primarily on part of the text only, and he did not reconsider this classification at the time that he assigned each page of the entire MS to either language A or language B.

Who, why?

There have been plenty of suggestions for names of individuals who could have written the Voynich MS. It is, however, not at all certain that the MS was written by one individual, and it is far from clear to me that it should be someone well known from other work. Attempts to make an author profile have been started but no thorough, documented attempt is known to me.

The Voynich MS does not look to me like a document commissioned by a client. It rather looks like this was someone's own initiative. From the similarity of the herbal pages to other herbal MSs, and of the zodiac pages to other astrological MSs, I strongly believe that the author of the MS was familiar with philosophical (scientific) books of his time. There is one very particular example for this among the herbal illustrations (5).

At the same time the MS does not make any sense as it is unreadable. Why should that be. I do like the suggestion by Sergio Toresella (6) that this MS was made by a quack just in order to appear very learned, and thereby attract clients who would buy his medications. I could also imagine that this could be someone's masterpiece, to be used to enter one of the secret societies that existed at the time. Of course, in both of these scenarios the text of the MS may very well be meaningless.

More about the MS history

The more we go back in time, the less we know. The earliest information we have is provided in Marci's 1665 letter, referring to Rudolf's reported acquisition of the MS, around 60 years earlier. It is correct to treat this evidence with care. Yes, Marci was old when he wrote his letter, but all details in the letter that could be verified in the meantime (his inheritance of Barschius' library, the fact that Barschius wrote to Kircher) have proven to be correct (7). Marci's memory on this topic was just fine at this time.

Would Raphael Mnišowský know anything about Rudolf's MS acquisitions? Though by profession he was a lawyer, he was deeply interested in alchemy and secret writing, and also writes about his research into Rudolf's plain text and enciphered manuscripts (8). For me, there is little reason to discard this evidence for being unreliable. That he reports the opinion that the MS was by Roger Bacon, which is no longer believed nowadays, does not change that. It is clearly stated to be an opinion and it is not even clear that it is his own opinion (9). To add some speculation to this, I would not be surprised if Raphael knew about this MS already in Tepenec' time, picked it up after his death, and handed it to Sendivogius to study and hopefully decipher it. Sendivogius died in 1636, and Raphael passed it on to the next candidate translator: Barschius. After one year he decided to inquire with Kircher...
Speculation, like I said, but timewise it fits very well.

So, I do believe that the MS was indeed bought by Emperor Rudolf II some time during his reign. My personal shortlist for the seller would be, in decreasing order of likelihood (10):

  1. Someone that we don't yet know about;
  2. Karl Widemann from Augsburg (still possible);
  3. Rauwolf, through Richard Strein (I don't really think so, though).

Note the absence of John Dee's name on this list.

The meaning of the Voynich MS

Plain text, cipher, or meaningless

I don't mean to suggest that the three options in the title are the only three options. These are the ones that are most usually mentioned and the ones most easily imaginable. I see a fourth possibility, namely that there was an original meaning but it has become irrecoverable through the encoding or inaccurate copying process. In general, I just don't know which is the correct or even most likely answer, so I prefer to keep all options open.

The word structure

The most evident feature of the Voynich MS text is the word structure. Any proposed solution should properly explain this. So far I can only think of two candidates (none of which are my own idea, by the way), namely a language that does exhibit such a structure, or a stroke-based encoding such as proposed by Elmar Vogt (11). Languages with such a word structure do exist, though not in Europe. This is basically the Chinese theory as first proposed by Jacques Guy and taken up more seriously by Jorge Stolfi. Originally I strongly opposed to this idea, but I now feel that it would be wrong to discard a priori. Who knows...

Now the structure is not very rigid, and some words do not fit the structure at all. (Of course, there are likely to be errors in the text.) In my opinion there is an interesting possibility, which I will still follow up whenever I have time. This is (assuming that the text is meaningful) that, regardless of the manner in which the encoding was done to generate the word structure, some words, for example proper names of things or of people, were encoded using a simple substitution. So far, I have two candidate words for this. I will write more about this sometime in the future.

The overall meaning of the MS

The MS has several different sections: herbal, astronomical, zodiac, biological, cosmological, recipes. What is usually referred to as pharmaceutical for me is just another herbal part. It is not unusual for medieval and later MSs to have several herbals combined into one MS.

Now this brings me to the question: are these independent works, bound together, or are they part of one common philosophy? I find the latter idea attractive. The zodiac has 360 labelled nymphs, one for each degree of the ecliptic. The recipes section at the end has, if I counted correctly, 324 starred recipes, but there is an indication that pages are missing, so there could have been more. The pharmaceutical pages have about 240 drawings with labels, but again there is a hint that this is incomplete and possibly pages are missing. Many pharmaceutical drawings are more-or-less simplistic versions of herbal drawings in the MS. In the biological section there are lots of labelled nymphs populating what looks like organs of the human body (several per organ).

In short, I am attracted by the idea that there is an overall philosophy, linking to each degree of the zodiac one herb, one recipe, and maybe even one part of the body. I am looking for evidence for this, but for the moment, this is just an idea, no more. It may be the next one that I need to give up.

What I think should be done next

For me, there are several areas where further progress is most needed: better use of expertise, better availability of information and better tools. Before going into that, however, let's look at what has been achieved until now.

What has already been done

It is often suggested that Voynich MS research hasn't progressed a bit since the MS was discovered by Voynich. If one were to measure success by the number of words of the text that we can read, this is indeed essentially true. However, there is more to the MS than just its text, and very significant progress has been made in many areas:

  1. The MS has been dated, primarily using radio carbon dating, to 1405-1438 with 95% probability
  2. A complete set of high-resolution digital colour scans is available
  3. A complete electronic transcription of the text has been made
  4. The history of the MS from about 1637 to present has been largely clarified

Personally, I am also impressed by recent work, in part confirming older work that wasn't very well documented (12), in the area of identification of some of the herbal illustrations. It can't be said anymore that the Voynich MS plant illustrations are unrecognisable, ugly, low-quality or fantastic/imaginary. Still, more solid work is needed here.

I am also happy that I have been able to contribute to an increased awareness of, and interest in the Voynich MS in the Czech Republic. This is where its earliest known traces are, and historians there are in the best position to find additional evidence about the MS's history, in particular before the time of Rudolf II.

Expertise

What is desperately needed is that the Voynich MS is more in the focus of people with real expertise in relevant areas, and is seen by them not as a possible fake MS, but as a MS worthy of serious analysis. This includes at least the following areas:

Availability of information

For people wanting to gather either general or specific information about the Voynich MS there is no official, authoritative place to obtain it. Books are quickly outdated, and they are often contradictory. That leaves the internet.

The standard problem with the net is that it is difficult to separate reliable from unreliable information. While I am pleased that my web site is considered by many to be useful, it is by no means authoritative, and it is never up to date in all places.

It would be of great interest to have a more official resource, with an authority behind it making certain that the information is as complete and up to date as possible.

Tools

With tools I mean computer-based tools to support Voynich MS research. It is odd how little advanced such tools are nowadays, even in spite of the fact that most people interested in the Voynich MS that I know have far better computer skills than history knowledge. Possibly, lots of people have quite clever tools but these are only for personal use and not known or available to the community.

The transcription(s) are kept in simple ASCII text files. The metadata are comments in these files. As already mentioned on the transcription page, there used to be an excellent tool to take an existing transcription and convert it from one transcription alphabet to another quickly and easily. This tool was called BITRANS and it was developed by Jacques Guy. I have used it a lot, long ago, but it runs in MS-DOS (really!) and I doubt that I could still make it work on my own computer (13).

I developed my own tool to take an existing transcription file and extract from it only those parts I wanted to analyse: one particular quire, one page, only all labels, etc. etc. and do all sorts of conversions. Again, this takes a text file as input and delivered a text file as output. It's written in C, and I am happy to share the source, so it could be used on all operating systems (14).

I know that many people have developed their own tools to do a great number of similar things. However, I believe it is time to advance on this significantly. There are some online tools such as the Voynich MS Voyager and the Voynich Query Processor (15) that are good examples of how things could be done.

What I have in mind is that the Voynich MS transcription should be contained in an online database. This database should link the transcription to the location on each particular folio. The database should also contain all metadata. Its contents should ideally be independent of the transcription alphabet that any researcher would prefer. I know that this is difficult. It would require the definition of a 'super'-transcription alphabet which defines all possible variants of all characters, from which all existing ones are simplifications by grouping them together.

Any transcription file to be used for analysis should be the result of a query to this database, selecting the transcription alphabet (rules), the part of the text of interest, etc. The following >> tool by E.Schwerdtfeger is a good example of what I have in mind. I have started a new page that addresses the needs for an improved transcription system.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

From time to time I am contacted by journalists who want to write an article about the Voynich MS, and invariably they start by asking the same questions. These questions, and some additional ones, are listed and answered below.

What is your background?
I studied Aeronautics and Space Engineering at the Technical University in Delft, the Netherlands, and have obtained both a Master's degree and a Ph.D. on the topic of precise orbit determination of artificial satellites.

How/when did you first find out about this MS?
In the earliest days of the internet, there was a thing called 'Usenet' in which people could post information in groups dedicated to various topics, including news, sports, culture, science, etc. One such group was called 'sci.sceptic', and it was dedicated to scepticism about unexplained phenomena in general. Probably in 1993 I was struck by the mention of a medieval MS of more than 200 pages that could not be deciphered. There was a link to an ftp site (by Jim Gillogly) that had two illustrations. In particular, the B/W image of part of the text of f3v (16) attracted me, and I thought that I might be able to read it. It was 1995 before I could join the internet mailing list that had recently started, and I followed all discussions. By 1998 I decided that there was a clear need to have a common repository for all information, and started the present web site, originally hosted by "Geocities".

Do you believe that the text will be a revelation?
I really don't know. I certainly don't expect that the text contains lost secrets, cures for modern diseases etc. In fact, I am not at all certain that there is a meaningful text to be revealed. By now I have become more curious about the method how the text was generated than about the contents, if there are any.

Could the MS be a hoax?
To me, it could certainly be a 15th Century hoax, in the sense that it is not a book containing wise and/or ancient knowledge, but was just made to look like such a book.

I do believe that the MS text could be meaningless.

The suggestion that it was a hoax made by Dee, Kelley or a contemporary in order to elicit some gold ducats from Rudolf II is excluded for me by the radio-carbon dating of the parchment.

The Voynich MS is certainly not a modern fake by Wilfrid Voynich. This has occasionally been suggested, but never by specialists who have seen and handled the actual MS.

Why the Voynich MS is not a fake by W.Voynich

I found the solution. What should I do?
The first thing is to understand that you are not the first. There are probably a dozen people every year who believe or claim that they have found the solution. It is therefore also important to realise that your message that you found the solution is not going to get anybody very excited. This means: do not write an E-mail to anyone at the Beinecke library, that you solved it, because they are literally bombarded by such messages and similar other ones, and are not likely to respond to them.

Now of course, you could be the first one who really got it right.

In that case you will need to convince someone that you are right, i.e. to move from the very large group of people who think that they have the solution, to the still empty group of people who are recognised to have the right solution. You might also be concerned that someone could steal your idea, or you might not get the proper recognition. That can be solved, for which see below. There are, however, two specific situations that need to be dealt with first.

Case 1: did you find the solution, without having consulted any web sites (such as this one here, or Wikipedia) or without reading any of the printed works about it, because you wanted to have an open mind? If yes, I'm afraid it's not looking very good. A lot is known about the Voynich MS text, and without that knowledge you probably fell into the same pit that so many people already fell into. (Note that this specifically applies to text solutions. For other areas, such as analysis of the writing or the illustrations, there is no such problem. The worst that could happen is that you come up with something that has already been suggested by someone else in the past).

Case 2: is your solution complicated, and you need money to complete the work? If yes, please don't write to me or to Yale. If you find someone stupid enough to give you money, you're lucky, but they might get angry with you as time goes on and you don't deliver.

If you think that you found the solution, or also if you are sure that you found the solution, but you are not sure how to announce it to the world, I can only recommend to describe it as clearly as possible on a web site. Videos at youtube really don't work very well. Your best approach to making sure that nobody steals your idea will be to write an E-mail to several people at the same time, making it clear that they are all in copy. There are quite a number of completely trustworthy experts, but be aware they are also quite critical. It wouldn't make sense to recommend myself, and I won't name the others here, so feel free to ask me should you be in that position.

Notes

1
Notably in recent times the herbal expert Sergio Toresella and the Yale library conservator Paula Zyats. A 15th Century origin was further confirmed in November 2014 by experts investigating the MS while it was at the Folger Shakespeare library in Washington. More varied ranges of dates have been presented in the past, though in many cases these were affected by existing theories about the MS, and consideration for the peers who had proposed such theories, or indeed for Voynich or his widow.
2
By Marco Ponzi and Darren Worley, and by J.K. Petersen, discussed here, with links to the sources.
3
Summarised here, with links to more detailed information.
4
The evidence is presented towards the end of this page.
5
As pointed out in the course of this section, the illustration on f35v of the Voynich MS appears inspired by an illustration seen in the earlier surviving versions of the Tractatus de Herbis and copied in later issues.
6
See Toresella.
7
The date of Barschius' death is not known, but my personal hypothesis is 1648 (the year in which he stopped working). The letters from Barschius are from 1637 and 1639, which is about the same time that Dr. Raphael would have spoken to Marci. Certainly, Barschius was still alive and the owner of the MS when Raphael made these statements.
8
See the biography of Dr. Raphael and Evans (1984) for more details.
9
As analysed in detail by Philip Neal, links to which are to be found here.
10
As explained in more detail in the history page.
11
For which see his >>blog entry (pointing to further links).
12
By Holm, O'Neill, Petersen and ELV, for which see here.
13
It was written in Pascal, but I don't believe that the source is available. It should still be able to run in DOSBOX.
14
Though the source would need to be checked for compiler-specific issues.
15
For the Voynich MS Voyager see here. See also the Voynich Query Processor (anonymous).
16
This is still visible >> IMAGE: here.

 

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Latest update: 25/06/2017