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The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio

The Most Secretive Book in History

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio

A bizarre medieval manuscript written in a language no one can read has baffled the world’s best cryptologists, stumped the most powerful code-breaking computers, and been written off as a masterful hoax. Can the hive mind finally unlock its secrets?

The breakthrough, when it finally came, happened in a most unremarkable way. Stephen Bax was in his home office late at night. It was April 2013, and he’d spent the previous 10 months poring over reproductions of a 15th-century manuscript bursting with bizarre drawings: female figures in green baths; astrological symbols; intricate geometric designs; plants that seemed familiar but also just slightly off. Strangest of all—and the reason Bax, a 54-year-old professor of applied linguistics in Bedfordshire, England, had become obsessed—were the 35,000 words in the manuscript. Written in an elaborate, beautiful script, the language has never appeared on any other document, anywhere. Ever.

At his day job at the University of Bedfordshire’s Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment, Bax focuses on English language learning. Decoding ancient manuscripts is not in his purview. But ever since he’d heard about this mysterious book, he’d been fixated on it: scouring the web, talking to scholars, analyzing 14th-century herbal manuscripts at the British Library. And he was fairly confident he’d identified a few words in the document: juniper, cotton, the constellation Taurus. But before he could go public with his findings, he needed more.

On this particular evening, he was looking at the first word of script on a page numbered f3v, which contained an illustration of a plant that looked like hellebore. According to the scheme Bax had worked out, the word spelled out kaur— a word he wasn’t familiar with. So Bax did what anyone would do: He pulled up Google and typed “hellebore” and “kaur.” Then he pressed enter.

The Voynich Manuscript—a soft-bound, 240-page volume—has baffled cryptanalysts, linguists, computer scientists, physicists, historians, and academics since it was rediscovered in the early 20th century. To date, no one has deciphered it, and no one knows why it was made. Experts don’t know what to make of it: is it a cipher, a code, a long-lost language?

There’s been plenty of speculation, both inside and outside academia. Over the past century, the case of the Voynich has been cracked and debunked, cracked and debunked again, and even—rather convincingly!—exposed as a hoax. Even the book’s acquisition is a mystery.


Click to enlarge.

The story starts with a London-based book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich, who discovered the book in 1912. From the beginning, Voynich was evasive about how he acquired the tome—he claimed he’d been sworn to secrecy about its origin, and the story he recounted changed often. In the one he told most frequently, he’d been at “an ancient castle in Southern Europe” when he found this “ugly duckling” buried in a “most remarkable collection of precious illuminated manuscripts.”

For a book dealer, it was like stumbling onto treasure. Back in London he dubbed his acquisition the “Roger Bacon cipher,” after the 13th-century English monk and scientist, and put it up for sale. A letter that came with the book suggested Bacon was the author; whether Voynich actually believed it, or whether he simply believed that associating the book with Bacon would help him fetch a higher resale price, is unclear.

“I think he’s best compared to a used car dealer,” says René Zandbergen, a space scientist who lives near Darmstadt, Germany, and runs a Voynich website in his spare time. “He was selling secondhand books and making sure that this [one] would get the best price he could get.”

By 1919, Voynich had sent copies of the manuscript to experts who might be able to determine the book’s purpose. One of those men was William Romaine Newbold, a philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Taking a magnifying glass to the text, Newbold noticed strange irregularities at the edges of the letters. He believed the tiny lines were Greek shorthand—and that each letter contained as many as 10 of them. The letters themselves, he thought, were meaningless. But the shorthand might hold the key to decoding the manuscript.

Newbold converted the script to letters, and then anagrammed until he found readable text. His translation seemed to corroborate Voynich’s hunch: The manuscript had belonged to Bacon, and the illustrations showed that the friar scientist had made incredible discoveries. One drawing, Newbold believed, showed the spiral-shaped Andromeda Galaxy—hundreds of years before astronomers would discern the galaxy’s structure—and others showed cells. Newbold surmised that this meant Bacon would have had to have invented both the telescope and the microscope. If his contemporaries had known what he was up to, Newbold theorized, they’d have accused him of working with the devil. That’s why he had to use a cipher to record his findings.

Word of the manuscript spread. In 1931, John M. Manly, a Chaucer expert at the University of Chicago—who’d been “dabbling” with the manuscript for years—published a paper that erased Newbold’s findings: Those irregularities at the edge of the letters weren’t shorthand; they were simply cracks in the ink.

But Manly’s discovery only fueled the public’s desire to understand the mysterious manuscript. Before long, experts from every field had joined the effort: Renaissance art historians, herbalists, lawyers, British intelligence, and teams of amateurs. Even William Friedman, who had led the team that solved Japan’s “unbreakable” Purple cipher in World War II and had since become head cryptanalyst at the National Security Agency, took a crack at it. He never got close to solving it.

There are lots of questions surrounding the Voynich manuscript, but the most essential is: What is it? Because of the numerous illustrations of plants, many believe the manuscript may be an herbalist’s textbook, written in some kind of cipher or code—and the two terms are not synonymous. Technically, a code can only be cracked if you have—or can figure out—the guide to that code. A cipher is a more flexible algorithm, say, where one letter is substituted for another. (For a simple example, a = p.)

There are a number of ways to crack a cipher, but one common technique is frequency analysis. You count all the characters, find which are most common, and match that against a similar pattern in a known language. More elaborate ciphers might require different kinds of frequency analysis or other mathematical methods.

What Friedman saw—and what makes the Voynich so compelling—is that the text isn’t random. There are clear patterns. “There’s a set number of characters, an ‘alphabet’ with letters that repeat,” says Elonka Dunin, a Nashville video game designer and author of The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms who created her own page-for-page replica of the Voynich (just for fun!). But she has doubts that the book is a cipher. “Ciphers back then were just not that sophisticated. With modern computers, we can crack these things quite quickly.” But a computer hasn’t yet, and that’s a red flag.

Back in 1959, Friedman came to the same conclusion. Never able to crack the code, he believed the text was “an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type”—in other words, a language made up from scratch. Some agree. But others think the words might be a language of another kind. Which brings us to Bax.


The Voynich manuscript is full of weird drawings of plants—but Stephen Bax believes he's unraveled text that identifies the one at left as hellebore.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio

It took a split second for Bax's Google results to confirm that kaur was a name in Indian herbal guides for black hellebore. It was a match! “I almost jumped up and down,” he says. “All of the months and months of work were starting to show some cracks in the armor of the manuscript.” That night, he couldn’t sleep. He kept going over the research in his head, expecting to come up with a mistake.

If he was right—if certain words were identifiable as plant names—then his findings agreed with Friedman: The book was not a cipher. But unlike Friedman, Bax didn’t think the language was made up. He was convinced that it resembled a natural language. He’s not alone. One study of the Voynich, published in 2013 by Marcelo Montemurro and Damián Zanette, noted that statistical analysis of the manuscript showed that the text has certain organizational structures comparable to known languages. The most commonly used words are relatively simple constructions (think the or a), while more infrequent words, those that might be used to convey specific concepts, have structural similarities, the way many verbs and nouns do in other languages.

However, there are quirks. In most languages, certain word combinations recur frequently; but according to Zandbergen, that rarely happens in the Voynich. The words tend to have a prefix, a root, and a suffix, and while some have all three, others have only one or two. So you can get words that combine just a prefix and a suffix—uning, for example. Further, there are no two-letter words or words with more than 10 characters, which is strange for a European language. That’s enough to put some people off the idea that it could be a natural language.

When Bax started working with the text, he treated it like Egyptian hieroglyphics. He borrowed an approach used by Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion, who in 1822 used the proper names of pharaohs—easy to identify because they were marked with a special outline—to work backward, assigning sound values to the symbols and then extrapolating other words from these. This was something that, Bax says, no one had systematically attempted on the Voynich.

The first proper name Bax identified was a word next to an illustration of a group of stars resembling Pleiades. “People before us suggested that that particular word is probably related to Taurus,” he says. “If you assume it says Taurus, the first sound must be a ta, or somewhere in that region—ta, da, Taurus, Daurus.” The process seems insanely daunting at first: “On the basis of one word alone, that’s just complete imagination,” he says. “But then you take that possible ta sound and you look at other possible proper nouns through the manuscript and see if you can see a pattern emerging.”

Bax worked for a year and a half, deciphering crumbs of letter-sound correspondences. Eight months after he confirmed hellebore, he published a paper online detailing his method. He cautiously announced the “provisional and partial” decoding of 10 words, including juniper, hellebore, coriander, nigella sativa, Centaurea, and the constellation Taurus.

"University of Bedfordshire professor cracks code to mysterious 15th-century Voynich manuscript," the local paper blared. Quickly, news organizations around the world joined in.

Nothing major happens in the long saga of the Voynich without media hype. The last time it had happened, in 2004, a British computer scientist named Gordon Rugg had published a paper showing that the whole thing might be an elaborate hoax created expressly to separate a wealthy buyer from a lot of money. And where there’s media controversy, there’s contention among Voynich obsessives. Rugg says his theory was like “someone grabbing the football and walking off the pitch in the middle of a really fun game.”


Click to enlarge.

Bax’s proclamation came with its share of controversy, too. People in the Voynich world have seen a lot of so-called cracks over the years, none of which have panned out, so when the news stories appeared on Bax’s paper, Dunin, the video game designer, just laughed. “The media just picks it up uncritically and says, ‘He must have solved it.’ He didn’t,” she says. “He’s saying, ‘I saw this, and this looked intriguing,’ and that’s perfectly valid. But it’s not a crack.” Others criticized his methods: Some had issues with the idea that the first word on a page is a plant name, because many of those words start with one of only two letters. Some found it weird that his translation has three different characters that stand for the letter r.

Bax doesn’t claim he’s cracked the code. “I’m prepared to see that some of the interpretations I’ve suggested are revised or even thrown out,” he says. “That’s the way you make progress on something like this. But I’m pretty convinced that a lot of it is solid.”

He’s determined to prove it, by stoking more dialogue within the obsessive community. In addition to the Voynich Wikipedia page, there’s an entire Wiki devoted to the book’s oddities and the efforts to crack it. Mailing lists started in the early 1990s are still going strong. Reddit, too, has taken an interest, and when Bax did an AMA after publishing his paper, it got 100,000 pageviews. Bax himself has set up a website to document his efforts. He actively encourages participation, fielding comments from visitors eager to help him decode the book.


Some people see similarities between the book and the Tarot. Bax (inset) is soliciting opinions online.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Digital Studio

One such volunteer is Milan-based Marco Ponzi, who had been researching Tarot card history when he found Bax’s paper. Ponzi began commenting on Bax’s website, suggesting there might be parallels between certain diagrams in the volume and images that appear in the Tarot. “Since Stephen is so rigorous and so kind, I feel encouraged to propose new ideas,” he says. “I don’t know if I have contributed anything really useful, but it is very fun.”

“Marco is bringing his expertise in medieval art, iconography, and Italian manuscripts—which I don’t have,” says Bax. “This is one of the beauties of doing it through the web.” Indeed, it’s become an international collaboration. Bax has asked other readers to add their own observations in the comments section, and spends a lot of time responding to queries and participating in the discussion. In the future, he hopes to host conferences and seminars about the book, and to set up a site where he can crowdsource efforts to decode other Voynich sections. If the method works, he expects that the manuscript could be decoded within four years.

What will be revealed when—and if— it is? Bax believes the manuscript is a treatise on the natural world, written in a script invented to record a previously unwritten language or dialect—possibly a Near Eastern one—created by a small community that later disappeared. “If it did turn out to be from a group of people who have disappeared,” he says, “it could unlock a whole area of a particular country or a group that is completely unknown to us.”

Other theories put forth that the secrets locked inside the Voynich’s vellum pages could reveal a coming apocalypse—or merely the details of medieval hygiene. Some people think the script could be the observations of a traveler who was trying to learn a language like Arabic or Chinese, or a stream-of-consciousness recording of someone in a trance. The most bizarre theories involve aliens or a long-lost underground race of lizard people.

It’s possible that the book will never tell us anything. To Zandbergen, whether it has huge secrets to reveal doesn’t matter at all. He just wants to know why the book was written. Whether it’s the work of a hoaxer, an herbalist, or a lizard person, the Voynich is important all the same. “It’s still a manuscript from the 15th century. It has historical value,” he says. But until the truth is revealed—and probably even after—people will keep trying to crack the Voynich. After all, who doesn’t love a good puzzle?

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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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How Austrian Soldiers Saved the 1964 Olympics
Allsport Hulton/Archive
Allsport Hulton/Archive

Although the Austrian city of Innsbruck has a well-deserved reputation as a winter sports mecca, it was dangerously low on snow and ice in the weeks leading up the 1964 Winter Olympics. So the organizers called in the troops.

Austrian soldiers went to work carving 20,000 blocks of ice away from the top of the mountain and then toting them down to make luge and bobsled tracks. In order to salvage the skiing events, the soldiers had to lug 40,000 cubic meters of snow from the tops of mountains down to the slopes that had been chosen for the various races. On top of that, they brought down an extra 20,000 cubic meters just in case anything bad happened to the first batch of snow.

And oh, how something bad did happen! Ten days before the opening ceremony, it started raining. As you probably know, rain and snow aren't the closest of chums, so much of the work that had already been done on the courses melted. The Austrian army again came to the rescue, though, taking to the slopes and tamping down the remaining snow by hand and foot. Thanks to this bit of resourcefulness, the games went on as planned.

Things aren't quite that tricky today, though. Artificially produced snow made its debut at the 1980 Winter Olympics, but the old "bring in some outside snow" tactic isn't totally dead. When the snow forecast for the Vancouver freestyle skiing and snowboarding venue Cypress Mountain looked grim in 2010, the organizers started trucking in loads of snow from other locations. Engineers then spread the snow on top of carefully situated bales of hay to give the slopes their desired shape. (How do you get bales of hay on a ski slope? You drop them from a helicopter.)

Of course, there's such a thing as too much winter weather for the Olympics, too. Snow and rain plagued the 1998 Nagano Games and led to lengthy delays and postponements for some events.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

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