Would having “Expert on the Voynich Manuscript” on your CV significantly raise your perceived intellectuality (i.e. an extra ten grand per year on your salary)? It would? Then read on, and I’ll reveal the secret two-stage process that They don’t want you to find out…

Stage One. You start out by pretending to be a Voynich expert. All you have to know is:

(a) That the two jargon terms for the Voynich Manuscript are “VMs” (because “Ms” or “MS” is short for “manuscript”) and “Beinecke MS 408” (because it’s 408th in the Beinecke Library’s collection of manuscripts);
(b) That the VMs lives at Yale University in New Haven (because that’s what the Beinecke Library is part of); and
(c) That the VMs is a mysterious old handwritten book that nobody can read. Not even me!

If you really want, you can also read the Wikipedia VMs page: but apart from the fact that the Voynich Manuscript was [re]discovered in Italy in 1912 by dodgy book dealer Wilfrid Voynich (hence its name), feel free to basically skip the rest.

Incidentally, if you’re ever asked about anyone who has written about the VMs (Newbold, Brumbaugh, Terence McKenna, anyone really), any real Voynich expert would nod sympathetically and say “Poor old X – if only they had known what we know now“. Of course, this is a big fat lie, because we still know basically sod all about the VMs.

Stage Two. You continue by actually becoming a Voynich expert. This is also easy, as long as you can get a working grasp of the following basic statements:-

  • The VMs was probably made by a right-handed European between 1250 and 1640.
    If post-1622, explain how Jacobus de Tepenecz’s signature got on the front
    If post-1500, explain how 15th century quire numbers got on it
    If pre-1450, explain how Leonardo-style hatching ended up in some of the drawings
  • If the VMs is a language, note that its words don’t function like those in real languages
    If the VMs is a cipher, note that it doesn’t work like any known cipher
    If the VMs is nonsense, note that its letters appears to follow unknown rules
    If the VMs’ plants are botanical, note that most don’t resemble real plants

Now all you have to do is to devise your very own really, really lame signature theory. As long as it amuses you and doesn’t trample on the above dull bullet-points too badly, congratulations – you’re right up there with the big hitters! But how should you construct this new theory?

Actually, it’s quite helpful here to project how you feel about your own work onto how you think the original author(s) felt about the VMs. For example, if you think that your own work is meaningless, vacuous nonsense written solely to convince your employers to pay your wages, then you might try devising your own variant of the basic hoax theory template (which argues that the VMs is meaningless, vacuous nonsense written by [insert name here] solely to convince Emperor Rudolf II to pay a rumoured 600 gold ducats).

But be bold in your theorising! Be creative! Perhaps think of some vaguely Renaissance figure you admire (though Leonardo’s already taken, and he was left-handed anyway, d’oh!) or just happen to remember, preferably someone whose name you can consistently spell correctly. Wafer-thin historical connections to herbal medicine, astrology, astronomy, ciphers and mystery are probably bonuses here. So, Nostradamus would be a good ‘un: Queen Elizabeth I not so good.

But remember, you’re not trying to prove your theory is correct here (for what kind of an idiot would attempt that with such scanty evidence, 500-ish years after the event?) Rather, you’re just staking your claim to the possibility that [random person X] might have been the author. And the level of proof required to achieve that is, frankly, negligible.

And hey, even if you choose the name with a pin and a biographical dictionary, if it eventually turns out that you are right, think how unbearably smug you’ll be. Possibly for decades!

Finally: however bad projecting your own life onto the VMs’ blank canvas may be as an historical approach (and believe me, it lies somewhere between ‘rubbish‘ and ‘pants), it is guaranteed to give you plenty of interestingly ironic things to say about the VMs when you’re asked about it at those hip higher-earner parties you’ll be attending. Oh, and at your book-launch too, naturally. 🙂

27 thoughts on “Become A Voynich Manuscript Expert In Just 5 Minutes…

  1. KenW on July 21, 2008 at 7:27 pm said:

    Spot on Nick! But isn’t that the entire dilemma with any theory based on such a small set of facts? What else do we have but to throw out all our theories (from insanely self-involved to hard-researched and inflexible) and see which idea sparks the next? That’s all we have until we find the original Latin introduction or ISBN number. Yes, I’m a VMS (or VMs?) expert and I love the goofy plethora of theories our little obsession has spawned. There is something refreshingly egalitarian about the ease at which we dub ourselves experts. Want to develop a graduate course in VMS studies? First to step up wins.

  2. Nick Pelling on July 21, 2008 at 9:04 pm said:

    Perhaps people could try to work together to find more facts?

    I would say that throwing yet more empty theories onto the fire is a strategy that has yet to provide any heat…

  3. KenW on July 22, 2008 at 8:37 pm said:

    I agree. Facts are essential. Yet until we have enough of them to build a more reliable foundation, casting the widest net may be our best bet to spark a line of inquiry which could lead to an as yet unknown nugget of information. I’m not talking the “knowledge of the Pleidians given to the Nine Unknown Men, etc.” sort. As you describe 😉 there are enough VMS experts to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  4. Nick Pelling on July 24, 2008 at 5:10 pm said:

    Actually, an abundance of sincerely-held theories can be a hindrance, in that their proponents will actively construct elaborate arguments to explain away any awkward facts that happen to contradict those theories.

    And so each fact is shadowed by an “anti-fact” explaining it away: sometimes it seems that each fact gets beaten up until it produces the opposite reading.

    In fact, I would point out that this is probably why even the most basic dating facts about the VMs (such as its mostly-15th century quire numbers) have ended up being sidelined, marginalised by a strangely reactionary body of experts.

    So, are the facts to blame for stagnation in VMs research? Or might the experts perhaps have something to do with it?

  5. Clayton on June 18, 2009 at 12:27 pm said:

    ‘Ironical’????!!! I *%&^ing hate that mistake

  6. Fixed, sorry to have offended your sensibilities – serves me right for typing so fastical. 🙂

  7. I think I can explain the hatching – and the use of cylindrical containers pre- 1450.

    But I don’t know (blush) how to put a paper up on the web.

    I needs to use pictures to think good..

  8. Somebody on July 24, 2010 at 10:54 pm said:

    Well, if it is a language that is different from our own? And the herb part, you do know that Medieval Europeans thought that in the east lived dog-headed people and one-legs?

  9. VMS:Time flew, yet the time is now. This language when decoded should or will be noted by more than imagined.
    The Tower of Babel lost its way. The Dark Hunters seek more _the light_ now.

    AND why do _ancient_ scripted/script always talk like YODA of Star-Wars claim. no?/YES! see answers in RNA/DNA (mirror). Shoulder to shoulder teacher & student. Yes?? Curse it be / & lift this Curse! THE TIME IS NOW.

  10. Emperor Palpatine: “Search your feelings, Lord Vader, you know it to be true. He could destroy us.”
    Darth Vader: “He is just a boy. Obi-Wan can no longer help him”
    Emperor Palpatine: “The Force is strong with him. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.”
    Darth Vader: “If he could be turned, he would be a powerful ally.”

  11. Um, I’m not a n expert on ANY of the components except the plants ( verdict: either not real or drawn from pressed herbarium specimens) but … has the MS been analyzed with the ‘letters’ reversed?

  12. RevW: yes, many times (but sadly mirroring it doesn’t seem to improve its legibility). However, from the quill marks and the straight left / ragged right edges, it’s also pretty clear that the VMs was written left-to-right by a right-handed scribe.

  13. I find the whole thought extremely interesting in the fact that with our “advances” we are unable to decipher a book written some 500 year ago. With that said. I came up with an idea that I am sure someone has already tried.

    Perform a letter analysis of period works from various regions, works with an apparent “like context”.

    Perform a symbol analysis of the VMS

    Match the highest repeating letter to the highest repeating symbol and working down until text is revealed or switch to a different region or give up.

  14. MikeB: Alas! If only it were that simple! The paradox of the Voynich is that while it appears as if a summer afternoon of musing with pencil and paper should reveal its secrets, it is actually far, far more complex than that. 🙂

  15. Another idea on February 14, 2011 at 5:34 pm said:

    Try using the code-a-wheel from the early SSI video games. =)

  16. Chalmer on February 15, 2011 at 4:26 am said:

    I have the sudden urge to spend the next several years developing my own unique and indecipherable written language, which I will subsequently use to write lame Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan-fiction.

  17. Chalmer: that’s the spirit! 🙂

  18. Brandon Matush on October 27, 2011 at 4:55 pm said:

    I’m just a casual browser to this site, so I apologize in advance if I am covering old ground.
    Has anyone tried to approach this from the direction of authorship? By this I mean narrowing the field based on the accepted evidence, like the 400 year period you mentioned in the main article. I have read that few people in Europe were literate at the time, and taking the cost of materials into account might also help narrow the field. I think it might be useful to assume that the author lived in or near a city as well, assuming that clergy and nobility could be excluded as potential authors. Or one could start by considering what was know about European clergy and nobility at the time, and work from the opposite angle.
    But back to my original question: Has anyone narrowed down the field of suspects in any fashion?

  19. Brandon: actually, general levels of literacy were surprisingly good in the fifteenth century, particularly in locations such as Florence. Some Victorian historians liked to kid themselves that history only happened to important people, but for every one person we do know about there was a huge cloud of people just out of sight who were essentially just as able.

  20. Brandon Matush on November 15, 2011 at 1:05 pm said:

    Well, I didn’t realize that, thanks!
    Will ordering your book via PayPal cover shipping to the USA?

  21. cjbearden on November 30, 2011 at 2:53 pm said:

    Nick,
    I’m a newcomer, but I love a good mystery and the VMS certainly meets this criteria. I have experience in translating unknown words from extinct Indian Languages, which has taught me invaluable research techniques. Slim credentials stated, I shall proceed. Page 116v is written in Early Modern Irish. Beginning with Line 1, the first two words “nos lebor” mean “traditional book”. The last line, word #8, “geis” means “taboo”, used in the spirit of “thou shalt not…”. I believe St. Seanan’s mother, Davina, is mentioned on this page, too, but…it’s hard to be certain. Okay, does anyone know if this page was written by the author(s), or 15th century editors, or simply notations made by an Irish code breaker?

  22. cj: the marginalia on f17r and f116v both contain fragments of Voynichese, so it seems very likely that they were both written by the original author. Early Modern Irish, though? Could be, though it still doesn’t quite explain why only a tiny handful of words are even partially readable. I’ve long said that the first step with these marginalia should be codicological analysis, separating out the various layers and emendations: just guessing at the language isn’t really good enough, for something that seems to have been written by the original author unencrypted.

  23. cjbearden on December 1, 2011 at 3:55 am said:

    Nick,
    Playing Devil’s advocate here but…dare I ask?…what proof exists that the VMS is truly encrypted? Glyphs, contractions, and repetition of words abound, yet the cadence remains uninterrupted. This suggests the VMS was written to be read. If so, why the need for encryption?
    On a personal note, your website is fabulous and fun…thanks much! cjb

  24. cj: …or it suggests that Voynichese was designed to be written. As ever, you can read the evidence in multiple ways. =:-o

    As to the proof the Voynich Manuscript is encrypted, I’ll have Graydon Harvitz debating that fairly shortly… 🙂

  25. cjbearden on December 1, 2011 at 11:45 pm said:

    Hmmm…designed to be written?…now that’s cryptic!

  26. cjbearden on December 13, 2011 at 8:45 pm said:

    Dear VMSer’s,
    Some of the mysterious plants contained in the VMS, are not plants at all…they are animals.
    These animals are part of a marine life family called Crinoidea.
    In size, its list of members is astonishing, but include Star Fish, Feather Stars, and Neocrinus Decorous, which is identical in shape to a Sunflower.
    From the strange “flowers”, oddly shaped “leaves”, down their “stalks”, and to their gnarly or tubular “roots”, this marine life is nearly a perfect match. For a more detailed description (hope you have a dictionary handy!) please refer to The Marine Life Information Network’s website @ http://www.marlin.ac.uk

    I am trying to positively identify three different Crinoidea in the VMS now, but there are so many!
    For a photo sampling, please google Sea Lilies on the google image page : )

  27. cj: as with all things Voynichian, there are indeed similarities… though many dissimilarities, too. Swim carefully! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post navigation