Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2018 Issue

Two Professors Believe They Have Cracked the Code of the Mysterious Voynich Manuscript

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Two of the better likenesses are the sunflower and armadillo.

Two university professors believe they have cracked the code to the Voynich Manuscript (or Codex). If so, they will have succeeded in solving a riddle that has stumped all sorts of researchers for the past century. The Voynich Manuscript is a 240-page book, handwritten in a language that has been undecipherable to even the greatest of code-breakers. It is filled with illustrations of plants and animals, most of which don't particularly look like anything known to exist. The one thing that has been generally accepted is that it is very old, based on carbon dating of its vellum pages. That dated it to 1403-1438. Professors Arthur O. Tucker and Jules Janick agree that it is very old, but not quite that old. They believe it is from the 16th century. As we will see, the earlier date put constraints on identification that Professors Tucker and Janick have broken through.

 

The first known appearance of the manuscript comes from around 1600 when it was purchased by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, who may have believed it was the work of Roger Bacon. In 1666, it was given to Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher to decipher. It then disappears from sight until purchased from a Jesuit college by Polish bookseller Wilfred Voynich (hence its name) in 1912. Bookseller H. P. Kraus purchased it from the estate of Voynich's widow and gave it to Yale University's Beinecke Library in 1969.

 

Most attempts to crack the code have focused on the language. It is an unknown language with unknown letters. What can be said is there is a pattern to the words, repetition often found. Some have thought it resembled other languages. Still, no one has been able to figure it out sufficiently to translate it. Those who thought it was a hoax figured it's just a nonsense language. However, those who so believe diminished once its age was more clearly established.

 

Others have looked at the illustrations, and these are a bit more helpful. Researchers have described its sections as herbals, pharmaceuticals, astrology/astronomy, and biology. Most illustrations are of plants and flowers. There are zodiac like illustrations adorned with many naked women. The biological part also consists of lots of nude women, but in pools of water. Tucker and Janick have focused on the many illustrations of plants, and to a lesser degree of animals. That makes sense as Tucker is an emeritus herbarium director at Delaware State University, Janick distinguished professor of horticulture at Purdue University. However, there is a problem. The plants have also been unidentifiable, often fantastic looking drawings of plants not known to exist.

 

Certainly, these plants were unknown to Europeans. The generally accepted dating of the manuscript of the early 15th century mostly eliminated the work as representing any place other than Europe, and certainly not America. However, if the date is moved back a century, post-Columbus, that opens the New World to consideration. Not that New World plants were never considered. Not long ago, a theory was proposed that the book was created by a Christian sect driven from their homeland early in the 15th century. The theory says they took off for parts unknown, ending up in Venezuela many years before Columbus. That seems a bit of a stretch, but explained some similarities to plant life in the New World.

 

However, if you move the date back a century or more, a New World setting becomes plausible. That is not to say these plants are easily identifiable as American either. It takes greater knowledge of New World plants, or as the authors have concluded, ones specifically from Mexico, to see the connection. They believe they have identified 59 of the 362 plant drawings as being of plants indigenous to Mexico. Much of the problem in making the connection, they think, has to do with limitations of artistic skills, the absence of many colors of ink to use, and fading over the centuries of those colors that were employed.

 

Along with the plants, Tucker and Janick have identified 12 animals native to the New World. Those include the armadillo, alligator gar, horned lizard, jaguarondi, and coatimundi.

 

Not only do they believe they have identified where the Voynich manuscript was created (Mexico), they have even named its writer and illustrator. How is that for confidence? The writers have named the author to be Gaspar de Torres, son of Spanish parents and a lawyer who defended the rights of local Indians, the illustrator Juan Gerson, a native artist. This is based on a name and initials said to appear on the first botanical illustration.

 

The explanation for the early 15th century carbon dating of the vellum is that it was washed and reused, something often done in the day when expensive vellum had to be used, rather than cheap paper. If their 16th century dating is right, it also explains images of a castle and harbor, and other things European in appearance. The Spanish-descended Torres likely would have had European books with him that Gerson could have used for illustrations. As for the strange, undeciphered language, the authors believe that it is a synthetic language, based on Nahuatl and Spanish, or perhaps based on an Aztec tongue. It remains untranslated.

 

Have the two professors cracked the code? Maybe. Some of these plants bear significant resemblances to known Mexican plants. In other cases, perhaps they are seeing greater resemblances than others may see. And, most of the plants remain unidentified, which is surprising if they all represent native species. Then again, the drawings are a bit fanciful and the quality of artistic reproduction something less than outstanding. The same may be said of the animals, though there are features of Mexican animals that could be present in the amateurish drawings. Maybe.

 

Professors Tucker and Janick have released their findings in a recently published book entitled Unraveling the Voynich Codex.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts Including Americana<br>November 6, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> RATZER, Bernard. <i>Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767.</i> London: Jefferys and Faden, “Jan.y” 12, 1776. $80,000 to $120,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [KELMSCOTT PRESS]. COCKERELL, Sydney C. <i>Some German Woodcuts of the Fifteenth Century.</i> Hammersmith: The Kelmscott Press, 1897 [issued 1898]. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [GOLDEN COCKEREL PRESS]. KEATS, John. <i>Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of Saint Agnes and Other Poems.</i> Waltham Saint Lawrence, Berkshire: The Golden Cockerel Press, 1928. $6,000 to $8,000
    <center> <b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts Including Americana<br>November 6, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [GRANT, Ulysses S.— GRANT, Julia, First Lady]. Carved Applewood and 18-karat Gold Jewelry Suite, Browne & Spaulding, Jewelers, New York City, 1865. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [LINCOLN ASSASSINATION]. GARDNER, Alexander. <i>Incidents of the War |Sic Semper Sicariis</i> [caption title]. Washington, D. C.: Philip & Solomons, 1865. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> A COMPLETE COLLECTION of 115 titles published in R. R. Donnelley's Lakeside Classics series. Chicago, 1903-2017. COMPLETE RUN OF THE LONGEST-RUNNING CONTINUOUS SERIES OF BOOKS IN THE WORLD. $5,000 to $7,000
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts Including Americana<br>November 6, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> GLEIZES, Albert. METZINGER, Jean. <i>Du Cubisme.</i> Paris, 1947. LIMITED EDITION, number 19 of 20 copies on papier d'Auvergne. $3,000 to $4,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [THE LITTLE REVIEW]. ANDERSON, Margaret, ed. POUND, Ezra, ed. HEAP, Jane, ed. <i>The Little Review.</i> Vol. I, No. 1 through Vol. XII, No. 2. 1914-1929. $3,000 to $4,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [MOUNTENEY, Leonard, binder]. LOUŸS, Pierre. <i>Songs of Bilitis.</i> Chicago: Argus Books, 1931. $2,000 to $3,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [HANCOCK, John]. Partly-printed U.S. Loan-Office Transfer Certificate issued on behalf of Hancock. Sgn’d on recto by William Imlay, as Commissioner of Loans of Connecticut. 28 February 1793. $2,000 to $3,000
  • <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> SMITH, CHRISTOPHER WEBB. 1793-1871. <i>Indian Ornithology.</i> [Patna, India]: 1828. $50,000 to $80,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> DUPRÉ, LOUIS. 1789-1837. <i>Voyage à Athènes et à Constantinople, ou Collection de portraits, vues et costumes grecs et ottomans.</i> Paris: Dondey-Dupré, 1825. $60,000 to $90,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> ADAMS, JOHN. Autograph Letter Signed ("J Adams"), [to Dr. Perkins?] while recovering from his small pox inoculation, [late-April, 1764]. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> AUSTEN, JANE. Autograph Letter Signed ("J. Austen"), to her sister Cassandra, 4 pp, "Thursday – after dinner," [September 16, 1813,] Henrietta St. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> AUDUBON, JOHN JAMES. 1785-1851. <i>The Birds of America, from Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories.</i> New York & Philadelphia: J.J. Audubon & J.B. Chevalier, 1840-1844. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> DODWELL, EDWARD. 1767-1832. <i>Views in Greece.</i> London: Rodwell and Martin, 1821. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> JAMES, JESSE. Autograph Letter Signed ("Jesse W. James"), to Mr. Flood demanding Flood retract spurious accusations, 3 pp, June 5, 1875. $200,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> DE CORDOBA, JACOB. <i>Map of the State of Texas.</i> New York, 1866. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> ARNOLD, BENEDICT. Autograph bookseller's receipt for Dr. John Dickinson, Signed ("B. Arnold"), February 1767. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. 4 Typed Letters Signed ("A Einstein") to Cleveland E. Dodge offering early reports on the meetings of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> EISENHOWER, DWIGHT D. Typed Letter Signed ("Dwight D. Eisenhower") to General Henri Giraud written from a secret bunker in Gibraltar on the eve of Operation Torch, November 4 [but 6], 1942. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> Early Broadside Printing of the GADSDEN PURCHASE, Puebla, August 16, 1854. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> ALLEN, ETHAN. Autograph Letter Signed to Crevecouer during the Constitutional Debates in Congress, 2 pp, August 29, 1787. $30,000 to $50,000.
  • <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Library of a Midwestern Collector<br>November 5, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> DARWIN, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> London John Murray, 1859. FIRST EDITION. THE VERY FINE MELLON-GARDEN COPY. $120,000 to $180,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions Auctioneers, Nov. 5:</b> ECKERT, J. P, H. H. GOLDSTINE, and J. G. BRAINERD. <i>Description of the ENIAC and comments on electronic digital computing machines.</i> N.p., 1945. FIRST EDITION, INSCRIBED BY GOLDSTINE. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> EUCLID. <i>Elementa geometriae.</i> Translated from the Arabic by Adelard of Bath. Venice: Erhard Ratdolt, 25 May 1482. FIRST EDITION. $60,000 to $80,000
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Library of a Midwestern Collector<br>November 5, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> [HAMILTON, Alexander, James MADISON and John JAY]. <i>The Federalist: A Collection of Essays…</i> New York: John and Andrew M'Lean, 1788. FIRST EDITION. $60,000 to $80,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> GALILEI, Galileo. <i>Dialogo...Dove ne i congressi di quattro giornate si discorre sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo Tolemaico, e Copernicano.</i> Florence, 1632. FIRST EDITION. $30,000 to $40,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> JOYCE, James. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1922. FIRST EDITION, ONE OF 100 COPIES SIGNED BY JOYCE. $120,000 to $180,000
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Library of a Midwestern Collector<br>November 5, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> KEYNES, John Maynard. <i>The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money.</i> London: Macmillan, 1936. FIRST EDITION. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> NEWTON, Isaac, Sir. <i>Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica.</i> London: Joseph Streater for the Royal Society, 1687. FIRST EDITION. $150,000 to $250,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> ROWLING, J. K. <i>Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.</i> London: Bloomsbury, 1997. FIRST EDITION, SIGNED BY ROWLING. $80,000 to $120,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> SMITH, Adam. <i>An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.</i> London: for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776. FIRST EDITION. $70,000 to $90,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 14:</b> William P. Welsh, <i>Vacation Lands Are Calling / Go in Pullman,</i> 1936. $1,500 to $2,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 14:</b> Paul Proehl, <i>Chicago for the Tourist / Illinois Central,</i> 1925. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 14:</b> James Northfield, <i>Wattle Time / Travel By Train,</i> circa 1925. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 14:</b> John O. Brubaker, <i>California / America’s Vacation Land / New York Central Lines,</i> 1925. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 14:</b> <i>Montauk Beach,</i> designer unknown, circa 1929. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 14:</b> Otto Brennemann, <i>Football / Notre Dame by South Shore Line,</i> 1926. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 14:</b> Guy Arnoux, <i>Air France / Amérique du Nord,</i> 1946. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 14:</b> Joseph Feher, <i>Yosemite / United Air Lines.</i> $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 14:</b> Roger Broders, <i>Le Tour du Mt. Blanc,</i> 1927. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Nov 14:</b> Leslie Ragan, <i>The Transportation Parade of the Years / Great Lakes Exposition,</i> 1936. $3,000 to $4,000.

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