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HAVE YOU ever heard of the Voynich Manuscript? Me neither. Until the London Review of Books, July 27, 2017, and Meehan Crist’s article “Who Knows?” Crist’s review of the book The Voynich Manuscript touches on bookselling, medieval alchemy, code breaking, the occult, and a mysterious language, all possibly involving a 13th-century Franciscan friar named Bacon. Talk about touching all the bases.
Michal Habdank-Wojnicz was christened in 1865 in what’s now Lithuania. He studied law and chemistry in Moscow, simplified his surname to Voynich, and in 1887 got sent to Siberia as a revolutionary Proletariat. Escaping by way of Manchuria and Beijing, but retaining his political leanings, Voynich eventually became a successful antiquarian bookseller in London.
Crist writes, “On a book-buying trip to Italy in 1912, Voynich discovered the manuscript that would bear his name at the Villa Mondragone, a Jesuit monastery. In a letter written by his wife and sealed until her death, she says he claimed it was taken from a shipment of books bound for the Vatican Library and that he was therefore sworn to secrecy.”
And no wonder: Crist writes that the manuscript’s 240 pages “contain illustrations of plants no one can identify, what look to be circular celestial maps (though they don’t correspond to any known constellations), drawings of women with rounded bellies frolicking in baths connected by strange tubes, and a list of what may be alchemical or herbal recipes. No one knows its author or origins, and no one can read it.”
A hundred years ago, Voynich offered the manuscript to William Newbold, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. After considerable study, Newbold concluded that the glyphs contained a second cipher consisting of microletters encoded in each penstroke.
Voynich told The New York Times in 1921, “I will prove to the world that the black magic of the Middle Ages consisted of discoveries far in advance of 20th-century science.”
Well, maybe not exactly.
Editor Raymond Clemens of The Voynich Manuscript cites one researcher contesting Newbold’s claim that the manuscript showed sperm fertilizing an egg (“centuries before invention of the microscope”) and the Spiral of Andromeda Galaxy (“centuries before invention of the telescope”).
Another cryptologist added that the alleged “complex anagrammed micrograph shorthand” was nothing more than random cracks left behind by drying ink.
Yes, isn’t that always the way: somebody spoiling things just when we’re having fun. Let’s continued this tomorrow. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017