Thursday, 10 April 2014

Writing - Handwriting and the Voynich Manuscript

Today I received my third handwritten letter from Bert Carson who lives in the USA. It doesn't seem particularly remarkable apart from the fact that it was handwritten and posted in Oxford Tennessee then delivered by hand to me in Mirfield, UK.

Bert Carson

Bert loves his fountain pens and has set up a website where fellow writers can write to each other - Corresponding Writers. There are names and addresses on there if you are interested.

I was apologising to Bert for the quality of my writing as I was naturally left handed but that was caned out of me at the age of five. As a result my writing isn't that great but I have bought myself a Parker pen and use it for everything from shopping lists to letters. Thanks Bert.

Of course thinking about writing was uppermost in my mind when an article on the BBC website hit me. It was probably a scatoma. It was entitled 'The Riddle of the Voynich Manuscript' and the title intrigued me. Click on the link to read the full thing but here is some background.

 The manuscript is about the size of a Penguin Classic edition and is written in a language that no one can decode and with illustrations of things no one has ever seen. It was supposedly discovered by second hand book seller Wilfrid Voynich in Italy in 1912 and has been tested and examined by some of the world's greatest cryptologist without success. Bound in a limp vellum cover the colour of old ivory, it contains 240 richly illustrated pages. The illustrations look like something Timothy Leary might have seen on LSD. Strange plants, astrological symbols, jellyfish-like creatures and what looks like a lobster. In one image, a group of naked ladies with alabaster skin shoot down what looks like a water slide. The text, written in brown, iron gall ink, reminds me of Tolkien's Elvish.
Voynich claimed to have stumbled on the manuscript at a Jesuit seminary outside Rome, The Villa Madragone. Appended to the manuscript was what purported to be a letter written in 1665 by Johannes Marcus Marci, a former physician of the Holy Roman Emperor.
It stated that the manuscript had once belonged to Rudolf - and was probably the work of Elizabethan alchemist Roger Bacon. Two other possible authors are regularly in the frame: John Dee, magus extraordinaire and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, and Dee's fellow alchemist, Edward Kelley. Voynich himself referred to it as "The Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript".
Since then, it has been a Venus flytrap for brilliant minds. American William Friedman, one of the greatest cryptographers of the 20th Century, who created an institution recently made famous by Edward Snowden, the NSA, spent 30 years trying to crack the manuscript's code. New theories breed like mayflies. A retired American botanist recently claimed that some of the plants are of Meso-American origin. A British applied linguist claims to have translated 10 words.

So what is it? A cipher for buried treasure? A poisoner's handbook? The coded recipe for eternal youth?

It probably is a scam as apparently people in Voynich's trade were renowned for their tricks to attract custom. If that is the case how difficult would it be to create something like this? 

Consider - when you write on any media you are following rules and accepted patterns so that whoever you are writing to understands what you have written. So to then write something that no one can follow you have to break through the learned codes and patterns to produce something and do that in a language no one knows! At the very least it is amazingly clever!
Nice one Wilfrid!

God Bless