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A 13TH-CENTURY PUZZLE, PART 2

ASSUMING YOU read Part 1 here yesterday, you now know as much about the Voynich Manuscript as I did half-way through reading Meehan Crist’s “Who Knows?”, a book review of The Voynich Manuscript in the London Review of Books, July 27, 2017.

The Voynich Manuscript, edited by Raymond Clemens, Yale University Press, 2016.

This oddity, possibly from the 13th century, has baffled occultists, scholars, and cryptologists for years. Let’s pick up with the 1960s.

William Friedman was a cryptographer known for leading the U.S. team deciphering the Japanese Code Purple during World War II. He and his wife Elizabeth Smith, likewise a codebreaker, were among the first to use computers for textual analysis and they chose to apply this to the Voynich Manuscript’s incomprehensible text.

Image from BBC News, June 22, 2013.

Once again, as there was with bookseller Michal Voynich and his acquisition of the manuscript, a sealed envelope was involved in the tale; this one to be opened upon Friedman’s death. It revealed in 1970 that “The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type.—Friedman”

That is, there was no code to break. Just a new language to learn.

One linguistic test addresses conformity to Zipf’s Law, which, describes Crist, “states that words are distributed along a curve such that the most frequent word appears about twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, and so on.”

“But,” Crist notes, “the ‘words’ in the Voynich Manuscript also follow patterns not found in any known language.”

Who wrote it? A letter found in the manuscript and dated August 1665 claimed that its author was the 13th-century Franciscan friar Roger Bacon.

Roger Bacon, OFM, c. 1219–c. 1292, English philosopher and Franciscan friar, aka Doctor Mirabilis.

Bacon has something of a dual reputation: He’s considered one of the earliest European advocates of the modern scientific method. Yet he was regarded as a wizard promoting the story of a necromantic brazen head.

Roger Bacon’s assistant Miles and the Brazen Head. From Thirty More Famous Stories Retold, by James Baldwin, 1905.

A brazen head was a legendary automaton that had power “for to telle of suche thinges as befelle,” according to Robert Grosseteste, a Bacon contemporary, English statesman, philosopher, and Bishop of Lincoln.

This hype gave Bacon the street cred of having knowledge of the Philosopher’s Stone, the legendary substance capable of turning base metals into gold.

An example of the Voynich Manuscript, digitized and available online.

Despite a slow start that was pretty much restricted to cryptologists, there’s no lack of current interest in the Voynich Manuscript. Crist notes that blogs and websites “offer hundreds of different theories, claiming that the text is everything from a book of medieval medicine to the memoirs of a stranded alien to a monograph on the fauna of ancient Finland.”

Here at SimanaitisSays, I am proud to share a Lithuanian heritage with Michal Habdank-Wojnicz. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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