One of the all-time most popular posts on this blog is also one of the earliest. It’s about the famed and mysterious Voynich Manuscript. You may remember it, but even if you don’t, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ve heard of this cryptic book from times past.
Thus far, the Voynich Manuscript has defied all attempts to decode it, despite the efforts of many learned and skillful code breakers, linguists, and scholars. Even the American NSA took a shot at it, and failed.
Brought to the public eye by Polish-American rare books dealer Wilfred M. Voynich in 1912. It was said that he acquired it from Jesuit Priests from Italy, though this story has been questioned for its veracity. Some claim that it’s an elaborate hoax, perhaps perpetrated by Voynich himself, while others suggest Voynich got swindled by a clever merchant, who manufactured the book as an oddity in search of a buyer. In spite of this doubt about its true origins, most who have endeavoured to crack the manuscript’s secrets have begun from the position of assuming it has its origins in Europe. As it turns out though, this assumption has been the main reason no one has been able to decipher it.
Published January 20, 2014 in the peer-reviewed journal HerbalGram, the American Botanical Council put forward a new theory that turns the whole story on its ear.
The authors of the paper, Arthur O. Tucker PhD. – botanist and emeritus professor at the Delaware State University – and Rexford H. Talbert – a retired US DOD and NASA information technologist – apparently took a different approach to the analysis, which led them to the other side of the planet. Instead of assuming the books origins lie in Europe, they discarded all previous assertions about the book and started anew, beginning with the many illustrations contained therein.
Most of the images in the Voynich Manuscript appear to be botanical in nature, with a few being geometric oddities and others being representations of humans and other animals in various poses and scenes.
Tucker and Talbert compared the botanical illustrations to known plant species, which had been done before, but not as thoroughly. Instead of limiting their comparisons to plant species found in Europe, they expanded the search to all known plant species, and wouldn’t you know it, they found a few matches. Surprisingly though, these plants aren’t from Italy or anywhere else in Europe, they’re from Mexico.
Comparing the illustrations to the world’s geographic plant distribution at the time of the book’s first reported appearance (1576-1612), they found significant similarity between some of the images and the soap plant depicted in the 1552 Codex Cruz-Badianus of Mexico. From that discovery, they were able, eventually, to identify 37 plants, 6 animals, and 1 mineral from the pages of the manuscript.
This alone is a monumental breakthrough in the story of the Voynich Manuscript, but it doesn’t end there.
“A search of the surviving codices and manuscripts from Nueva España in the 16th century reveals the calligraphy of the Voynich Ms. to be similar to the Codex Osuna (1563-1566, Mexico City). Loan-words for the plant and animal names have been identified from Classical Nahuatl, Spanish, Taino, and Mixtec”
These references to Pre-Spanish Conquest languages are exciting, and the prospect of decoding the entire manuscript is tantalizing, but a problem still exists. With the obvious exception of Spanish, most of these are considered dead languages and there are only a handful of people in the world who study them, let alone whom are capable of deciphering a text containing some 35,000 words.
What does this mean for the mystery of the book though?
The Voynich Manuscript’s enigmatic past has been a cornerstone of the story and a big reason it’s become so popular among the Fortean crowd, not to mention scholarly circles. That past seems to have been shattered by this discovery, but it’s not all bad.
While it seems clear that Wilfred Voynich wasn’t telling truths in his assertions about the book, whether by his own doing or by virtue of his own gullibility, the language contained in the book has, until now, been undecipherable. Its value has been only as an exercise in sleuthing and translation. Now though, the book holds the potential to unlock a previously little-known period of New World history. A history that has been infamous for hiding its secrets away for centuries. It could hold the key to dead and dying languages, botanical mysteries, and even anthropological issues that have long defied explanation.
Due to the fact that the apparent language of the manuscript is a dead one, in that it’s no longer spoken or written by anyone, most of the books secrets remain locked away in its pages. This discovery is, however, the first breakthrough in this mystery since it made its debut in 1912.
“”Dr. Arthur Tucker has made a breakthrough in the interpretation of the Voynich Manuscript,” stated Jules Janick, PhD, James Troop Distinguished Professor in Horticulture at Purdue University. “He has demonstrated to my satisfaction that it contains images based on Mexican flora and fauna. Clearly horticultural information has provided a smoking gun. The education of the Aztec elite by various Spanish priests in ‘colleges’ in the 16th century provides a plausible narrative for the creation of this manuscript.”
Whatever happens from this point on, the Voynich Manuscript is now redefining its own past and revealing a world unimagined.
 Arthur O. Tucker and Rexford H. Talbert. A Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript. HerbalGram 2013; American Botanical Council http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue100/hg100-feat-voynich.html?ts=1390759855&signature=704f379ca44c85d8e9aea06f328d7312