Breaking News…some 400 years in the making…

Oh, these are amazing times in which we live, beloved patrons!

First off, last year, we had the discovery of the HMS Terror, one of the ships in the doomed Franklin Expedition.  Sire John Franklin and his crew had been determined to discover the Northwest Passage (the sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific), but the ship foundered in heavy weather and was abandoned, along with the HMS Erebus.  All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, but, though 11 search parties were sent to find any trace of the party or their ships, nothing was heard of the Franklin Expedition…except for a number of stories from local Inuit and Inuk tribes, which went largely overlooked for years and years.   But last year, after finally paying appropriate attention to the Inuit tales, both ships were discovered, giving us a wealth of new insight into the last days of the expedition (and proving, once again, that we should listen to others).

And just this past week, we learn that the Voynich Manuscript–a book that has literally defied all attempts at decoding or translation for the past 400 years may very well have been decoded.  

The Voynich Manuscript has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century, but was named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912.  There are a number of pages visibly missing from the book, but the 240 pages that remain are covered in a previously unidentified script that runs left to right across the page.  There are some words and phrases scattered throughout the book in Latin, but, because hand-written manuscripts are notoriously challenging to read, even figuring out some of these words have proven difficult.  There are also a bunch of hand-drawn illustrations that seem as random and confusing as the text, though that is largely, I think, because they appear out of context).  Code-breakers who worked during the First and Second World Wars tried parsing the manuscript without success.  Expert cryptanalysts since have tried to read the manuscript–without success.  In 1962, cryptanalyst Elizebeth Friedman described any attempts to read the book as “doomed to utter frustration”.  There have been a number of guesses made about what the book was supposed to convey, with most people pretty convinced that it was meant to be pharmacopoeia (a book with recipes for medicines) or a medical guide of some sort.  But no one was sure.  Until, perhaps, now.

According to history researcher and television writer Nicholas Gibbs, who declared in The Times Literary Supplement last week that he had solved the riddles of the Voynich Manuscript, the book is a treatise on women’s health.  Using both textual analysis and a study of the illustrations (specifically, the well-known image of a group of women bathing), Gibbs eventually realized what he was looking at.  To quote from the TLS piece:

All the detail and objects depicted in such manuscripts are salient points picked out from a story. Abstract and perhaps unrecognized at first, they can suddenly surprise as a narrative comes into focus. Artists who illustrate instruction manuals – for that is what the Voynich manuscript is – are naturally economical and only provide detail where necessary. In the Voynich manuscript, the same object – an oversized doughnut with a hole and a carbuncle attached to its side – is proffered by several of the unclothed women. Its significance only became apparent when, as I was casually leafing through a medical-related book…I came across the doughnut object depicted as a lodestone (natural magnet).  […]

By now, it was more or less clear what the Voynich manuscript is: 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. The script had hitherto proved resistant to interpretation and presented several hurdles….I recognized at least two of the characters in the Voynich manuscript text as Latin ligatures, Eius and Etiam. Ligatures were developed as scriptorial short-cuts. They are composed of selected letters of a word, which together represent the whole word, not unlike like a monogram. An ampersand is just such an example….It became obvious that each character in the Voynich manuscript represented an abbreviated word and not a letter.

The bathing ladies from the Voynich Manuscript

Seriously, all, this is a really remarkable article, and, if it is true (and I have no reason to doubt at this point in time that it is not true), an incredible, momentous moment in the history of books, of codes, and of human enterprise.

If you’re interesting in learning more about the Voynich Manuscript, or the Franklin Expedition, or some other unsolved (for now!) mysteries, have a look at these titles:

The Friar and the CipherLawrence and Nancy Goldstone are well-known book collectors, and have written several books together about the history of the book–and the history of the Voynich Manuscript, in particular.  This book claims that that Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century astronomer, wrote the Manuscript, and while that part may now be up for debate, their history of the text, and of its life after being purchased by Voynich is a fascinating, well-researched, and surprisingly exciting account that will really drive home how remarkable the Voynich Manuscript truly is, to literary types, as well as code-breakers and historians.

Ice Ghosts : The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition: journalist Paul Watson, was on the icebreaker that led the expedition that discovered the HMS Erebus in 2014, and he broke the news of the discovery of the HMS Terror in 2016.  This book is not only a gripping travel narrative of the hunt to find the HMS Terror, but it’s also a great history of the Franklin Expedition, as well as the Inuit stories that helped locate the ships.  This blend of technological innovation and oral history make this a book for history buffs, techno-wizards, and treasure-seekers alike, and is an excellent choice for any armchair explorers looking for a new polar expedition.

Lost City of Z: Even if you saw the motion picture based on this story, you should read the book by David Grann, which not only tells the story of Sir Percy Fawcett’s fascination with the Amazon and its secrets, but also of Grann’s own adventures into “the green Hell”.   In 1925, the legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon jungle, in search of a fabled civilization, never to return.  Though Grann claims to have ‘solved’ the story of Fawcett’s final expedition, the real power of this book lies in the enduring mystery of the Fawcett’s legacy.

Codebreaker : the history of codes and ciphers, from the ancient pharaohs to quantum cryptographyStephen Pincock’s book is not only a history of how humans have made and broken codes, but also focuses on those that haven’t yet been broken…including the Voynich Manuscript.  From the Beale Code to the mysteries of Easter Island, this book is ponderous at times in the amount of information it contains, but is all the more fun, ultimately, because of it, as it helps not only in cracking codes, but in helping readers appreciate the effort and intellect that goes into creating and cracking them!