Cryptology: the unreadable Voynich manuscript

Cryptology: the unreadable Voynich manuscript

Cryptology: the unreadable Voynich manuscript

This article is taken from the magazine Les Indispensables de Sciences et Avenir n ° 210 of July / September 2022.

We are in 1912. The antique dealer of Polish origin Wilfrid Voynich goes to a residence in the Roman countryside, the Villa Mondragone, where the Jesuits are getting rid of ancient books. Among them, a strange manuscript. Divided into six parts – botany, astronomy, cosmology, biology, pharmacology and recipes – the 234-page work is richly illustrated: real and imaginative plants, star diagrams, naked women bathing in large vats of green liquid, long nets of tips … But here it is, it is written in an unknown language.

A language invented from scratch

Since then, the precious volume, now preserved at Yale University, in the United States, continues to haunt historians and cryptographers: no one knows who the author is, nor what his true nature is. To reveal its secrets, the researchers decided to analyze its contents. In vain. Even the English mathematician Alan Turing, who cracked the secret Nazi codes, had to surrender. Only one certainty: thanks to carbon 14 dating, scientists will learn in 2011 that the skins with which the parchment was made came from calves that died between 1404 and 1438.

In 1950, the American cryptologist William Friedman claimed that the text had been encrypted on purpose. If he can’t decipher it, he still concludes that the language used was invented from scratch. This would share similarities with Indo-European languages: use of double consonants, frequency of letters … Furthermore, the text seems to be subject to spelling rules. The analysis of the writing, for its part, reveals a fluid pattern: the document would have been written with a sure hand, and its author had understood what he was sleeping on the parchment.

Several traces mentioned

The theories will follow, more or less serious, until 2019. In that year, Gerard Cheshire, a researcher at the University of Bristol, states that it is a book of remedies written in proto-Roman. Problem: this language – the last form adopted from vulgar Latin before its differentiation into more “modern” languages ​​- disappeared around the sixth century and was exclusively oral. The hypothesis is therefore denied by a large number of specialists. Alchemical, esoteric, medical treatise … or simple hoax, no trail is yet to be ruled out.

By William Rowe-Pirra

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