The Voynich manuscript is truly considered to be the first number in the list of unsolved historical ciphers, thinks the co-founder of the first Manuscripts Forum of Researchers Anton Alipov

Anton Sergeevich Alipov is the Candidate of Technical Sciences (PhD), author of about 20 scientific papers and a problem book, professional consultant in the field of telecommunications and information technology, the owner of a musical label and one of the founders of the project Voynich Ninja which is the first international forum dedicated to the study of the famous Voynich Manuscript.

The mystery of this book, written in an unknown alphabet, for many decades occupied not only professional medievalists and cryptologists, but also all the people who are interested in history secrets. It contains more than two hundred pages and dates back to the XV century. Czech scientist Jan Marek Marci, who inherited it from his friend the alchemist Georg Baresch, sent the manuscript for study to Athanasius Kircher in Rome in 1665. Neither of them was able to unravel the secret of the manuscript. After lying for several centuries in Jesuit repositories, the manuscript was discovered in 1912 by the bookseller Michael (Wilfrid) Voynich, the spouse of the famous writer Ethel Lilian Voynich. Since the author of the book is unknown, the name of the discoverer, “The Voynich Manuscript”, has stuck to it. In addition to the text, the Manuscript contains many mysterious illustrations, including plants, zodiac signs, cosmological diagrams and other drawings that have not yet received an unambiguous interpretation.

The Voynich manuscript is experiencing a boom in popularity these days. Constantly there are new publications in the press, facsimile editions and even expensive replicas are issued. On the one hand, the subject matter of the Manuscript is included in the agenda of scientific conferences on cryptology, on the other hand, the Manuscript penetrates into popular culture.

Today we are talking with Anton Alipov about the forum, about the manuscript and about the course of its research:

How did you come up with the idea to create a forum dedicated to the Voynich Manuscript?

The idea was in the air. There is a mailing list since 1991, now administered by Richard SantaColoma, but over time, it became clear that this format does not satisfy the discussion needs, that you have to use an online forum software. The colleague Gert Brantner, an IT entrepreneur from Berlin, also known as a member of the Farmers Manual group, finally voiced this idea and helped with the technical implementation in 2015. We gathered a focus group, identified the structure and main activities of the forum, and the forum officially began work in January 2016 under the direction of our co-founder and administrator David Jackson, who is an English journalist and writer living and working in Spain. Many famous researchers participate in the forum today.

The main idea was to make the forum not only a platform for discussions, but a research tool. To this end, we have created a number of special sections. We have, for example, a section for reviewing articles. Any participant can submit his article on the Voynich Manuscript to the editors’ group and receive a review of it.

There is a section “Statements with which we can agree.” Participants put forward certain statements that are then subject to collective discussion on whether they can be considered proven or confirmed. There are, of course, reference sections. We also have a section for joint work on tasks. Participants can put forward research tasks, and if the team finds them worthy of attention, the volunteers undertake their implementation. Many tasks, especially those related to data collection, can be performed collectively much faster. David’s very useful development is the Voynich blogosphere monitor. We automatically form a feed of blogs dedicated to the Voynich Manuscript. All new publications from blogs included in the feed can thus be tracked in one place.

These are just a few examples of the functionality of our site. But as they say, it’s better to see once than to hear a hundred times. I invite all readers interested in the Manuscript to take part in our work. Registration with us is open and, of course, free of charge. We have a strictly non-commercial platform, without advertising.

You said that the forum was conceived not just as a means of discussion, but as an undertaking designed to push forward the study of the Voynich Manuscript, to come closer to a clue. What practical results are there on this path?

Well, if we talk about the final result that is its deciphering, or, let’s say, about a satisfactory interpretation of the Voynich manuscript, then we cannot yet boast with it. Although more and more “solutions” appear with enviable regularity, sometimes several times a month. When something is published for the first time in our forum, we summarize the rest in the News section, so logging on to Voynich Ninja is the best way to be aware of what is happening.

But seriously speaking, we can say that research methodologies are now groping, new directions are being identified. Here is one example. There is a known problem of identifying the plants depicted in the Manuscript. Many tried to identify them, including professional botanists, but the consensus was very weak. As a result, some came to the conclusion that the plants are non-existent, fantastic. Others argued that these were views from the New World – although not only radiocarbon data, but also a number of other signs indicate, that the Manuscript dates back to the 15th century. What’s the matter? It is likely that we are trying to interpret these images as naturalistic, “as is”. At the same time, it is known that a mnemonic approach to illustration was prevalent in the Middle Ages.

If we assume that the artist’s goal was not a naturalistic image of plants, but a mnemonic technique, then a completely different picture emerges. He could strive to reflect in the drawings the names of the plants, or their use, or both. For example, take the sheet 54 recto. Here the leaves of the plant are depicted in the form of brushes, and the roots in the form of paintbrushes. Carthamus tinctorius – Safflower – the Germans in the common people called it Bürstenkraut – «grass-brush». Accordingly, the leaf mnemonics may indicate the plant name, and the root mnemonics may indicate its use. Indeed, as the scientific name suggests to us, this plant was used to produce dyes.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that visual mnemonics are the “golden key” of plant identification. A consensus is being reached so far only on few plants. Some mnemonics are incomprehensible to our modern opinion, we cannot guess what the author meant. Some mnemonics are understandable, but it is impossible to compare them with the names of candidate plants or their use. Nevertheless, I consider this direction to be very promising, deserving of hard work.

A separate topic is the Manuscript history. It is believed, that the manuscript once belonged to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Rudolf II, and from Rudolf in some unexplained way it came to his former doctor Jakub Hořčický, whose clean-up ex libris is visible on the first sheet under ultraviolet radiation. However, there is no documentary evidence that the Voynich Manuscript really belonged to Rudolf. We only know about this from the letter from Marci to Kircher, where Marci says that Mnišovský allegedly told him that Rudolph had bought this book for 600 golden ducats. I think that we cannot accept the fact that the Manuscript belonged to Rudolf only on this basis. It might have belonged to Rudolf, this, of course, is not excluded, but it is worth exploring other possibilities.

The first confirmed owner is still Hořčický. Currently, there are several books belonging to Hořčický. Hořčický’s exlibris is different on them, “Sinapius” is written somewhere (a latinized form of the “Hořčický” name) else where it is already “Tepenecz” (he received a noble title in 1608). The handwriting is different. The ex-libris of exactly the same form as in the Voynich Manuscript is observed only in one book, “Dialectica Aristotelis”. It follows from this a logical assumption that these two books are linked by a fragment of a common fate, at least, it is likely that Hořčický received them at about the same time.

We know that the previous owner of “Dialectics” was a certain Albertus Wroblicius, aka Wojciech Wróblewski, his crossed out exlibris is on the book. It is noteworthy that the school years of Wróblewski, who was born in Mstów in Silesia, passed in the same Český Krumlov as Hořčický’s youth, and just like Hořčický, Wróblewski then went to study in Prague. Both had patrons from the influential Popel family from Lobkowicz. Despite the large difference in age (Hořčický was about 10 years older), it cannot be excluded that Hořčický and Wróblewski were familiar.

When the Bohemian Revolt broke out in 1618, Wróblewski, a Catholic priest, kept the parish in Kojetin. This city was a nest of Protestantism, and there is no doubt that in the very first days of the uprising, Wróblewski had to flee from there. After that, it is discovered only in 1624 in Velká Bíteš. I assume that Wróblewski, having left Kojetin, could have rushed to Melnik to a wealthy and influential acquaintance, Hořčický, and, feeling needy, sell his books to him, including the Voynich Manuscript. I emphasize that this is nothing more than a beautiful hypothesis, which so far has no documentary evidence. But the thread linking Hořčický and Wróblewski through “Dialectica Aristotelis”, certainly deserves to be pulled and find out more facts, try to trace this connection.

As you can see, the problematic of the Manuscript study is far from being limited to the text alone. I gave only two examples. Need to say more about the comparative analysis. Due to the fact that at present, European manuscripts are intensively digitized and published on the Internet by European libraries, a nourishing ground is formed for comparing the elements of the Voynich Manuscript with other sources in terms of the writing style, typical drawing techniques, elements of images etc. Even today, thanks to the persistence of enthusiasts who process a huge layer of digitized manuscripts, interesting parallels are revealed.

And what about text analysis? Why, despite persistent attempts over many decades, we still fail to come close to decoding or (as some researchers suggest) translating this unique book?

Yes you are right. The Voynich Manuscript is considered to be the first number in the list of unsolved historical ciphers. I think the main problem is that many researchers approach its text on the basis of incorrect basic assumptions. In other words, they are going to postulate that it is what it really is not. The most vivid illustration is the constant attempts to interpret the Manuscript as text in one of the natural languages, written in a special alphabet, or as a simple substitution cipher.

Indeed, the Manuscript looks like this, at first glance it stimulates such an approach by symbols resembling letters, seeming alternation of vowels and consonants etc. But quantitative studies show that a simple recording of a message in natural language or a simple substitution cipher should be recognized as if not impossible then an unlikely scenario.

The character entropy of this text is uncharacteristically low for natural languages. The length of words in the Voynich «vocabulary» is distributed binomially. Strange regularities are also observed in the morphology of words, in the distribution of characters of the alphabet in lines and paragraphs, that are not characteristic of natural languages. Instead of immediately taking into account all these features and exploring which plain text transformations could condition them, they are trying again and again to “translate” the Manuscript either in Latin, Aztec, or Proto-Romance, translate by simple substitution!

What, in your opinion, is the most productive approach to the Manuscript text analysis?

Oh, this is a question of questions! Give the correct methodology, and half of the work is done. It seems to me that in tasks like this, the most effective move is to rise from the alphabet characters level to the words level. Thus, it is possible to reduce the dependence of the analysis methodology on the specific language underlying the message.

Here, of course, it is important whether the Manuscript words are a unique representation of a natural language words. We cannot say this for certain, but it is likely. From this starting point, you can expand the search for function words, look for indications of word forms.

There is a large scope for contextual analysis. For example, highlighting the “full sets” among the captions to the figures, in particular of the “stars” on sheets 68 recto 1 and recto 2, you can subject these words to frequency analysis, examine their distribution among thematic sections of the Manuscript and identify their correlations with other text objects. An analysis of the text objects distribution across sheets can shed light on whether there is any regular narrative structure in the text, show how likely it is that the words within the sheets or individual paragraphs were intentionally rearranged … These are just some of the research directions. Something has already been done, a lot remains to be done.

The Voynich Manuscript is one of the medieval books, interesting, it would seem, only to medievalists. What is the secret of its popularity, far beyond the narrow circle of scientists?

A riddle always attracts people. The mystery of the decades (and even centuries, given that Baresch and Marci also could not understand it is doubly attractive. Today, the Voynich Manuscript is not just a book. It is a challenge posed to us from the depths of the ages, to us with all our successes of science and technology, with instant access to information files.And yet here we are in the XXI century, it turns out, we have moved a little further than scientists four hundred years ago.

And, of course, the Voynich Manuscript as a material object is an attractive artifact. Beautiful text with a mysterious alphabet, rich bizarre illustrations … A unique work of art in the halo of mystery. It is inspiring.

What language does Voynich Ninja work in?

In English. This is perhaps the most effective approach for organizing international discussion. After all, our participants represent all parts of the world, except, perhaps, Antarctica!

What do you advise to our readers who are interested in the Voynich Manuscript subject? What to read on this issue?

First of all, high-quality color scans of the Voynich Manuscripts are available on the Internet. The original source here is the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, where, in fact, the Manuscript is kept. At the library site it is located under the MS408 catalogue number.

As a reference resource, I recommend the excellent site of René Zandbergen. It contains information about the Manuscript history, the history of its research, the text transcription, links to literature and much more.
And, of course, thank you for the opportunity to invite your readers to our forum !

Interview: Ivan Stepanyan

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