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History of research of the Voynich MS

Introduction

The history of the Voynich MS is described in three parts, on three pages:

This page addresses the third part, the history of the research and analysis of the manuscript.

Overview

When Wilfrid Voynich first saw the manuscript, he considered when it may have been written, and by whom. According to his 1921 publication (1), and some letters that are still preserved in the Beinecke library, he initially considered two 13th Century authors, namely Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, but soon settled on the latter. This may have been prompted by the reference to Bacon in the letter from Marci, which he found folded inside the MS. Seven or more years later he embarked on a study of the history of the MS, in which his aim was to confirm this provenance. It is clear from the way in which he performed his search, as demonstrated by documents preserved as collateral material to the Voynich MS in the Beinecke library, that Voynich was firmly convinced that this MS was from Roger Bacon.

For the history of research of the Voynich MS we will have to start by going back further in time. Already centuries before Voynich people have attempted to solve the puzzle presented by the Voynich MS, primarily that of its unintelligible text.

The earliest research

Evidence of earlier attempts to decipher the text of the Voynich MS is visible on its first folio (f1r). In the right-hand margin there is a faded, or possibly erased cipher table, which is only partly visible even under UV illumination. It has three columns. The first has characters of the Latin alphabet. The second, which seems aligned with the first, has what looks like the characters of the Voynich MS but they are barely visible. The third column, slightly more displaced, again has Latin characters, but shifted up by one position, at least in the beginning. The first attractive idea could be that this is the key to the MS, left here for us by its author. However, as we know from character entropy analysis and other statistical analyses (2), simple substitution of the Voynich MS characters into the Latin alphabet will not yield a meaningful text in any known language that was written in this way. Therefore, this table is most likely to be a decipherer's attempt, although Dr. Gerhard Strasser proposes an interesting alternative, by which these are notes made by a later owner, who is creating his own code from the cipher alphabet of the Voynich MS (3).

We don't know when this cipher table was written, or by whom. Like the ex libris of Jacobus de Tepenec, which is found on the same page, it is faded, and if both were erased (possibly at the same time), then perhaps it predates Kircher as an erasure of the name is more likely to have been done before the MS was sent to Kircher. Both Barschius and Marci would be prime suspects here.

Barschius

Georgius Barschius (or Baresch) wrote one letter to Kircher that has been preserved, and in this letter he also refers to an earlier submission to Kircher of some samples of the writing of the MS. Both from this letter of 1639, and from the 1665 Marci letter accompanying the Voynich MS (4), it is clear that Barschius must have spent many years trying to read the Voynich MS text. We know from Barschius' letter that he thought that the MS described medicinal wisdom from the Orient, brought to Europe by a traveller. We don't know why Barschius was of this opinion, but at least two possibilities immediately present themselves.

The first is related to the story of Leonhard Rauwolf, a physician and herbalist who is famous for his travels to the Orient, during which he collected herbs and plants which he dried and pasted into some of the earliest herbaria viva that have come down to us. As described in the previous page related to the history of the MS, Rauwolf's herbals were brought to emperor Rudolf II and sold to him. Did Barschius know about this?

The second, even more interesting possibility is that Barschius may have been familiar with an early printed herbal known as the German Herbarius or 'Herbarius zu Teutsch', sometimes also called the German Ortus Sanitatis (5). The preface of this herbal says that its originator was a rich man, who had travelled in the east, and that the medical part of the MS was compiled under his direction by a physician. The latter is believed to have been Dr Johann von Cube, who was town physician of Frankfurt at the end of the fifteenth century. Since Barschius also writes in his letter that 'the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany' (6) there is the intriguing possibility that Barschius owned, or at least used, a copy of this German herbal.

Barschius was an alchemist, interested in its application to medicine (7). We can only guess what Barschius really knew about the origin of the MS. Tantalisingly, Marci writes in his 1665 letter to Kircher that he is not only sending him the Voynich MS itself, but also Barschius' extensive notes of his work. These notes have not surfaced so far. It is rather likely that they have been lost, but if they still survive, they could quite possibly include valuable information. If Kircher received and kept them, their fate is closely related to the various moves and confiscations of Jesuit libraries and archives described here and in the following   (8).

Mnišovský

We know from Marci's letter that Rafael Mnišovský discussed the possible origin of the Voynich MS with Marci. This must have taken place before 1644, the year Mnišovský died. From Philip Neal's translation of the Marci letter it appears that this should have been between 1626 and 1636. In any case, at the time Mnišovský discussed the MS with Marci, Barschius was still alive (9), so still the owner of the MS. Mnišovský states his opinion that the Voynich MS is a Roger Bacon MS. Was this also the opinion at Rudolf's court? We don't know, but it is certain (10) that Roger Bacon was held in the highest esteem at this time, and that he was considered one of the greatest alchemists. Mnišovský was, according to his own words, deeply interested in alchemy, and he was a great supporter of the Polish alchemist Sendivogius, one of the most famous alchemists at Rudolf's court, who died in 1636 (11).

Marci

We don't know whether Marci also studied the Voynich MS personally. We just know that he held on to the MS from Barschius' death, before 1662, until the time that his own health began to fail. He ultimately sent it to Kircher in 1665. From the letters of Godefrid A. Kinner (12). we know that Marci was extremely eager to find out what Kircher thought of the MS. Marci must have been aware of the two different theories about the MS of Barschius and Mnišovsk&ycute;, already mentioned above, and writes in his letter to Kircher that he does not want to express an opinion about it.

Kircher

Kircher's apparent silence about the Voynich MS has puzzled people for many years. Around the year 2008, the Czech historian Josef Smolka discovered Kircher's reply to Barschius' first (now lost) submission of sample writing of the MS (13). In a letter from Kircher to Theodor Moretus, dated 12 March 1639 and now preserved in Moretus' scientific diary kept in the National Library in Prague (14), Kircher responds to a letter from Moretus and writes about unknown symbols from a book surrounded by mystery which Moretus had sent to him in his letter. This is the oldest extant reference to the Voynich MS that we presently know about. In this response, Kircher reports that he was not successful in translating it, but is still hoping for success later on. Furthermore (but this may refer to another item or another page sent by Moretus at the same time - the Latin is somewhat ambiguous) he recognises a similarity with certain Illyrian characters in the style of Hieronymus, i.e. the Glagolitic script. We know from Barschius' surviving letter that he had his first submission sent by Moretus, and now we see that Kircher responded to Moretus directly, six weeks before Barschius sent his 1639 letter. The wording of Barschius' second letter suggests impatience, perhaps even exasperation, and no further correspondence on this topic has been found so far.

Between Kircher's death in 1680, and Voynich's acquisition of the MS in 1912, he MS was in the hands of the Jesuits, but there is no evidence of any study of the MS. The pencilled letters a, b, c in the corners of some of the folios (for which see here) may have been written by a Jesuit, but also by Voynich himself (15).

Back to the 20th century: Wilfrid Voynich

After Voynich acquired the MS, he contacted many experts. Kahn (16) names in this respect: paleographer H. Omont of the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale (who had written a learned article about a 15th-C cryptographic MS by Fontana), Prof. A.G. Little, a foremost authority on Bacon, a Harvard authority of anatomy, George Fabyan of the Riverbank Laboratories, the vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, and Dom Aidan, Cardinal Gasquet, prefect of the Vatican Archives.

When the manuscript was first shown to expert cryptologists, they thought that solving it would be easy as the text was composed of "words", some of which were more frequent and occurred in certain combinations. This soon turned out to be a mistake; the text could not easily be converted into Latin, English, or other languages they may have tried.

Parts of Voynich's own research can be reconstructed from his notes and letters preserved in the Beinecke library, and from his 1921 publication (see note 1). Remarkably, for at least 6 years after the discovery, he did not pay much attention to the history of the MS, and he can only have paid a passing attention to the Marci letter. From a 1917 letter to cryptologist Edith Rickert, and some 1918 newspaper reports, it appears that by this time the Prague history of the Voynich MS was still completely unknown territory for him. Until 1918, Voynich believed that the Rudolf mentioned in the Marci letter was Rudolf I (1218-1291), contemporary of R.Bacon, and also that beside Kircher, only kings had owned the MS. He did not yet realise who was Marci, and he had apparently not yet seen the ex libris of Jacobus de Tepenec. By 1919, however, he had clearly realised that the Rudolf in the Marci letter was Rudolf II, and he had started his search for the unknown seller of the MS to Rudolf (17).

In preparation for his 1921 publication he concentrated on tracing the history of the MS by investigating the people associated with it. To research the Prague part of the history, he wrote to the Bohemian state archives early in 1921, inquiring primarily about Jacobus de Tepenec and Dr. Raphael. In parallel he had his London employee Herbert Garland research Tepenec. The correspondence between Voynich and Garland has largely been preserved. From these letters we see that Voynich based all his knowledge about the court of Rudolf on a romantic account by Bolton (1904) (18). Garland seems to have spent most of his time in the library of the British Museum and was very effective, and Voynich sent him ever increasing requests, picking names from the above-mentioned book (19). There is a handwritten note of Voynich in the Beinecke library, which contains a list of names of candidate sellers, which can be matched against it in the right page order (20). His conclusion from this research was that a Roger Bacon MS was most likely brought to Prague by John Dee. Ironically, his list included the name Sebald Schwertzer, who had really sold (or given) a Roger Bacon MS to Rudolf II (21).

By the time Voynich received a very long and detailed answer from Prague, from Dr. Ladislav Klicman in March 1921, Garland had already provided him with many of the essentials, and Miss Howe, of the same London office of Voynich, had found the indication of the previous owner: Barschius, in the book 'Philosophia Vetus Restituta' of Marci. In his thank-you letter to Dr. Klicman, Voynich also inquired about Barschius, but there does not appear to be any answer (22). From correspondence between Voynich and James Westfall Thompson, historian of the University of Chicago, which took place after his 1921 presentation, it appears that Voynich was intent on re-writing the biography of Dee, or at least his early years. Thompson managed to find out quite a bit about the origin of many Bacon MSs that Dee once owned, including hints of an encrypted MS, but this was only a few years before Voynich's death, and it is not clear what happened with this information.

Voynich also found out from a catalogue of Kircher's museum: De Sepi (1678) (23) that there used to be a 12-volume binding of Kircher's correspondence, and immediately realised (correctly as we have seen) that this must be a valuable source for additional information about his MS (24). When Garland could not find any trace of this collection, Voynich decided to find out more about this from Henri Hyvernat (about whom more below), who was in Rome at the time. For an as yet unknown reason, Voynich did not write to Hyvernat directly, but asked his trusted friend W.W. Bishop to do that for him. Hyvernat then inquired in Rome about Kircher's correspondence, and his request reached the foremost expert, Fr. P. Tacchi Venturi (official historian of the Jesuits). The latter's answer was that he himself had already searched for it in all the principal libraries in Rome, didn't know anything, and was not even aware of the fact that this was a 12-volume collection. He suggested that it was probably lost sometime between 1773 and 1824. In reality, the collection of some 2000 MSs including this correspondence had been moved to the German college just a few years before, so his response indicates that the collection was still kept under lock and seal by this time, and he was not at liberty to talk about it.

Newbold and Manly

In 1919, some of the reproductions of the Voynich MS reached one William Romaine Newbold, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He set to work and decided that the Voynich MS is based on a very complicated cipher, involving anagrams of sections of 55 to 110 characters. He presented plain text solutions of various pages of the MS, indicating that it was written by Roger Bacon, and that Bacon had invented and used both a telescope and a microscope. He presented these results in April 1921, accompanied by Wilfrid Voynich's own presentation of the history of the MS (as mentioned above) and a presentation about the validity of Newbold's claims by an eminent professor of medicine: C.E. McClung.

In 1926 Newbold died, and the book that he had planned to write was published posthumously by his friend Roland Grubb Kent, in 1928 (25). His results were supported by such famous people as Étienne Gilson and Raoul Carton.

Among others, Newbold identified one page of the MS as a depiction of the great Andromeda nebula. The illustration shows a clear spiral structure and the deciphered text includes words referring to a spiral in the sky. The problem is that the spiral structure of this nebula can only be distinguished by modern telescopes (and this was achieved for the first time not long before Newbold's days).

In 1931, i.e. after the deaths of Newbold and Voynich, John Manly wrote a critical paper (26) about Newbold's theory, exposing its important weaknesses. Newbold did not use the letters of the Voynich MS itself, but the irregularities of the edges of the letters as seen under a magnifying glass, which he converted to letters. The unreliability of a solution based on anagrams was however the most important objection. Newbold and all those who followed his belief were to some extent disgraced and this may have had the effect of scaring off serious research of the Voynich MS.

Manly also left a statement that the solution of the Voynich MS is a relatively simple substitution cipher with extensive use of nulls. It has not been understood what he meant.

The Catholic University of America

In 1931, Mrs Voynich (ELV in the following), owner of the MS after the death of her husband, brought a photostatic copy of the MS to Prof. H. Hyvernat of the Catholic University. Hyvernat was a well-known expert on near-Eastern languages. In 1910 he had discovered a major collection of Coptic Manuscripts, and he had since been engaged in a major effort to ensure that the collection could stay together, rather than be scattered in different libraries all over the world. The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York acquired the entire collection.

Returning to the Voynich MS, both Hyvernat and his assistant, Fr. Theodore Petersen, were immediately attracted to the problem presented by the MS. Prof. Hyvernat was too busy (and he also suffered from serious health problems) to spend much time on it. Fr. Petersen was not.

Theodore C. Petersen

Fr. Petersen started by making a complete photocopy of the photostats. He then embarked on the project of making a hand copy of the Voynich MS, occasionally also using the original MS kept in a safe deposit vault in New York, in the case of difficult passages. He completed it in 1944. Each page of this transcription includes comments about what it might represent. He also indicated odd character sequences and highlighted frequent words. He included many tentative plant identifications in the herbal section, frequently reffering to material by Holm and O'Neill (see below). These tentative identifications are presented on a dedicated page. Petersen also made a complete concordance of the words in the MS, but I have not seen this.

He worked on the Voynich MS until his death, and a very extensive correspondence between him, Miss Nill and E.L.V. on all possible related subjects has been preserved in the Beinecke Library archives. He became their most trusted expert, and any new people interested in the MS, once they obtained the confidence of ELV and Anne Nill (e.g. Dr. Salomon, W. Friedman) were invariably referred to him. After his death, his material was given to Friedman (see below) and an inventory was made by Tiltman (see also below). This material is now kept in the >> George C. Marshall Library and Archives, Lexington (Va).

Theodor Holm

Holm was a Danish botanist and zoologist (not Dutch as reported by D'Imperio (1978) Section 3.3.1) (27), who worked at the Catholic University and tentatively identified 16 plant species in the Voynich MS, all typically European. He is quoted frequently in the hand transcription of Petersen (see also here). The Catholic University still has >>a collection of his notebooks.

Hugh O'Neill

O'Neill was a Benedictine monk and botanist at the Catholic University who identified some plants in the MS as being New-World species, specifically Sunflower and Capsicum, see O'Neill (1944) (28). He is also quoted frequently in the hand transcription of Petersen.

Some science and art historians

Erwin Panofsky

The famous Renaissance Art (in particular Albrecht Dürer) expert Panofsky (1892 - 1968) first became interested in the Voynich MS in 1931. This is recorded in correspondence of Anne Nill preserved both in the Beinecke Library and in the Grolier Club (29).

In spring 1931 he came to New York and Miss Belle Greene of the Morgan Library showed him a photostat of one of the zodiac pages of the Roger Bacon cipher MS. He at once recognised it as bearing a close resemblance to one page in a MS made in Spain for Alfonso the Wise, and asked to see the other pages. Miss Greene then contacted ELV, who came to meet him at the Morgan Library where she showed him the photostats. (According to Nill these were negatives and in poor condition, having greatly faded in some parts). After satisfying himself that no other page resembled either the Spanish MS or any other MS known to him, he became intensely interested and seemed to think that the MS was early, perhaps as early as the 13th century. He asked to see the original, and met with ELV and Anne Nill at the safe deposit vault on a Friday, where he spent two hours examining the MS. His first impression was still that it was early, but as he came to the female figures (in conjunction with the colours used in the manuscript) he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century. Following summarises his first impression after the two hours of investigation (30):

  1. That it is neither Bacon, nor English work.
  2. That it was written in the south-western corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia, or Provence; but most probably in Spain.
  3. That the date is later than has been supposed: probably somewhere about 1410-20-30. When looking at the Photostats he felt convinced that it was definitely earlier than the 15th century; but, on seeing the female figures more clearly in the original, changed his view.
  4. That it shows Jewish or Arab influence, probably in connection with the Kabbala; but also Dutch or Flemish influence in the female faces and figures and some Spanish or anyhow southern qualities. This last impression was strengthened in his mind by the character of the greens and red.
  5. That it is probably the surviving one of two volumes: the plant and star half of the work which doubtless included also beasts and stones.
  6. That it is, except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s MS, entirely unlike any MS known to him.

He regarded it, in any case, as interesting and important. He went back to Hamburg, taking with him a complete set of photostats, and promising to ask some of his colleagues there to try if they can solve the problem.

Many years later, Panofsky appears to have changed his mind on some of the aspects. He was requested to answer a list of 15 questions. Following is a summary of the questions and answers (31).

Q:
Have you examined the VMS itself?
A:
1931
Q:
What is it written on; with what writing tool?
A:
Parchment of some sort, not sure if vellum in the strict sense. Quill pen; coloring done with "wash".
Q:
What's the date?
A:
But for the sunflower, would have guessed 1470. However, since the style of the drawings is fairly provincial, a somewhat later date, even the first years of the sixteenth century, would not seem to be excluded. I should not go lower than ca. 1510-1520 because no influence of the Italian Renaissance style is evident. (32)
Q:
Why do you think so?
A:
Character of the script, style of drawing, such costumes as are in evidence on certain pages, for example folio 72 recto.
Q:
What's it about?
A:
...first, a general cosmological philosophy explaining the medicinal properties of terrestrial objects, particularly plants, by celestial influences transmitted by astral radiation and those "spirits" which were frequently believed to transmit the occult power of the stars to the earth; second, a kind of herbal describing the individual plants used for medical and, conceivably, for magic purposes; third, a description of such compounds as may be produced by combining individual plants in various ways.
Q:
Are there any plain text books sort of like the VMS?
A:
Herbals, cosmological and astrological treatises, medical treatises in the narrower sense of the term, and 4th, alchemy books. See Charles Singer, Richard Salomon, ..
Q:
What plain text have you found in the VMS?
A:
folio 70 ff in zodiac signs, f 66, and on f 116 v. On f. 66, R. Salomon says der mus del which is the same as der Mussteil which means the stock of household goods which cannot be withheld from a man's widow on his death. On f 116v, so nim geismi[l]ch o, meaning, "... take goats milk, or..."
Q:
What plants, astronomical, etc, things have you recognized?
A:
Only sunflower (see note 32).
Q:
Is it all in the same hand?
A:
Except for last page, all in same hand, but not 100% sure.
Q:
Why was it written?
A:
Doctor or quack imparting secret knowledge to son or heir.
Q:
Where & when?
A:
Germany.
Q:
What do you think of the Roger Bacon theory?
A:
Quatsch. At variance with all the available facts...
Q:
Full title of the Dictionary of Abbreviations. Title of Hans Titze's book on forgeries, & of Mibillon's history of diplomatics.
A:
Adriano Cappelli, Dizionario delle Abbreviature Latine ed Italiane. Titze, Genuine and False: Copies, Imitations, and Forgeries, New York, 1948. Mabillon, De re Diplomatica, 1681.
Q:
What other scholars are interested in the VMS?
A:
Only Richard Salomon.
Q:
What do you think of the artificial language theory?
A:
Not much: dates are wrong. Maybe Alberti's interest in hieroglyphics was relevant (33).

In conclusion, Panofsky first thought the MS to be Spanish, with Arabic influences, and later changed his opinion that it could be German, mainly influenced by his friend and mentor Richard Salomon (for whom see below). He believed the origin to be in the 15th Century, but allowed a later date in consideration of the tentative sunflower identification.

Richard Salomon

Salomon (1884 - 1966) was one of the people involved in the founding of the Warburg Institute, and knew the younger Panofsky through this connection. They became close friends (34). Salomon met Anne Nill by chance as he was visiting the Library of Congress in Washington in 1936, where Anne Nill was working with W.J. Wilson (35). It turned out that Salomon was the expert who received the photostats from Panofsky as mentioned above, because, as Salomon told Anne Nill, when Panofsky returned to Hamburg he laid the copies on Dr. Salomon’s desk, and said: “Here is something for you”. Salomon had been working with these very regularly. A long correspondence between Anne Nill and Salomon resulted from this chance encounter.

Salomon believed that the MS may be German. He was convinced that it was written in the 15th century, possibly as late as 1450, possibly earlier in the century. In particular, he suggested the following reading of some phrases in the Voynich MS (which are in the Latin alphabet): der Musdel on f66r and so nimm geiss milch on f116v.

Charles Singer

Singer was a well-known herbal expert. He compared the nymphs in the biological section of the Voynich MS to elements (archaei) in the work of Paracelsus, and generally believed it to be a paracelsan work, for which see D'Imperio (1978) (see note 27), section 3.3.5. Shortly after the death of Voynich, Singer had upset Anne Nill and E.L.V. with statements that he had seen the Voynich MS in the hands of another book dealer at the time when Voynich had discovered it, and retracted his statements, only to repeat his original opinion about the MS in a letter to Tiltman in 1957.

The end of the Roger Bacon cipher MS

As long as Voynich was still alive, there was no alternative to his theory that this was a Roger Bacon autograph, and his conviction carried forward for some time after his death. As already indicated above, doubts gradually emerged, and Manly's critique had already invalidated Newbold's proposed solution. In the 1937 issue of De Ricci's Census (see note 35) the MS is listed as:

8. Cipher ms. Vel. (date uncertain, authorities hesitate between the XIIIth and XVth c.; we suppose it to be not much older than 1500), ...

In this sentence, 'we' are the administrators of Voynich's estate, i.e. ELV and Anne Nill. By this time, their official view no longer favoured R. Bacon as the author.

Other researchers

Feely

(See also D'Imperio Section 5.2).
In 1943, a Rochester (N.Y.) lawyer, Joseph Martin Feely, published a book (36) in which he announced his solution of the Voynich MS. His solution essentially proposes that the Voynich MS text results from a single substitution of highly abbreviated Latin. He does not say so specifically, but hints that the writer of the Voynich MS is indeed Roger Bacon. It is worth noting that Feely never obtained access to copies of the MS and had to work from illustrations in Kent & Newbold.
To quote D'Imperio:

Unfortunately for Feely, however, no other student has accepted his solution as valid

And she also quotes Tiltman (1967) (37) (p.6):

His unmethodical method produced text in unacceptable medieval Latin, in unauthentic abbreviated forms.

Some examples of his results are given in D'Imperio (Fig 25).

Strong

Prof. Leonell C. Strong was a medical scientist from Yale University, renowned for his work on cancer, and he became attracted to the Voynich MS by O'Neill's publication. Working from illustrations in Newbold's book of a few pages, he devised a complicated polyalphabetic substitution cipher in which he saw the solution of the MS. The details of his system were not disclosed and can only be partly reconstructed. He concluded that the MS was written by Anthony Askham, the lesser known brother of Roger Askham. Some of his plaintext, which has been heavily criticised as being unrealistic, is given here:

When skuge of tun'e -bag rip, seo uogon kum sli of se mosure-issued ped-stans skubent, stokked kimbo-elbow crawknot.

Some problems with this solution are:

The name of the proposed author (Askham) is read from the deciphered plain text so also this must be taken with some caution.

William and Elizebeth Friedman


The Friedman couple with a photographic copy of the Voynich MS.

The involvement of especially William Friedman with the Voynich MS has been the subject of dedicated publications, most recently by J. Reeds. This short summary cannot do justice to Friedman's work. (See also D'Imperio Section 6.5).

William F. Friedman (1891-1969) is remembered as one of the world's foremost cryptologists. He already became involved with the Voynich MS when, together with Manly, he demonstrated the invalidity of Newbold's theory. Apart from the fact that he spent some time on the MS himself, he also tried very hard to interest other scholars in it. In 1944 he brought together what later became known as the First Study Group (FSG). During his work with this group, he developed the theory that the Voynich MS represented a text in a synthetic language (constructed according to strict logical principles).

First Study Group

(See also D'Imperio Section 6.2). The First Study Group (FSG) was active from 1944 to 1946 and consisted of (at least) the following people: (<Reeds)
Robert A. Caldwell, G. E. McCracken, Thomas A. Miller, Frances Puckett, later Frances Wilbur, Mark Rhoads, William M. Seaman.

This group, composed of specialists in a wide variety of fields, was doing war work in Washington and awaiting demobilisation. They agreed to get together after working hours and study the Voynich MS under Friedman's leadership. Plans were made for devising a transcription alphabet, and producing a complete transcription in computer-readable form. They transcribed most of the Voynich MS.

Second Study Group

(See also D'Imperio Section 6.4). The so-called second study group was active from 1962-1963, though the term 'Second Study Group' appears not to have been used by them. Jim Reeds has researched also their work. An audio tape of the opening session of their collaboration has been preserved, and the introduction by Friedman has been played to the audience of the Voynich MS panel discussion in the Folger Library on 11 November 2014.

John Tiltman

(See also D'Imperio Section 6.6). John Tiltman was a British intelligence specialist, working in association with William Friedman. The latter asked Tiltman for his opinion on the Voynich MS text, and sent him copies of the final quire of the MS (the so-called recipes section which does not have any illustrations apart from the marginal stars).

Tiltman published his findings in an interesting article (see note 37). He concluded that the text of the MS cannot be the results of applying a standard cipher to some plain text. He spends some time discussing the option of a synthetic or "universal" language as proposed by Friedman, but does not really confirm Friedman's idea, without clearly contradicing his good friend. Tiltman also seems to have written about the work done by Theodore Petersen, but unfortunately I have not yet seen this.

The 1970's

In the 1970's a minor revival of Voynich MS studies may be observed, by researchers with different backgrounds.

Robert S. Brumbaugh

(D'Imperio section 5.4). Brumbaugh, a Yale professor of medieval philosophy, became interested in the Voynich MS during the '30's, and was particularly fascinated by O'Neill's publication about the American plant species. He became a follower of the hypothesis that the MS was a deliberate fraud by Dee and/or Kelley in order to dupe emperor Rudolf II, but that there was an underlying text which he tried to decipher with a code which maps all roman characters (many-to-one) onto the numbers 0-9, and these were mapped (one-to-many) onto the Voynich MS alphabet.

Using this system, Brumbaugh published solutions of some plant labels and of many of the zodiac labels (38). D'Imperio is quite supportive of Brumbaugh's theories, but despite the multiple degrees of freedom in his cipher, the produced plaintext is very far from convincing. Brumbaugh also edited a scholarly book about the MS, including the work of Newbold, Manly, O'Neill and himself (39).

William Ralph Bennett

Bennett, another Yale professor, used the Voynich MS in a book about problem solving with the computer (40). Rather than presenting a theory about the meaning of the Voynich MS, Bennett concentrated on the statistics of the text and finding measures of its properties. He was probably the first to note the low entropy of the Voynich MS text, which is discussed extensively in the analysis section of this web site. The only language he found with an entropy similar to the Voynich MS was Hawaiian, without suggesting a connection, though. He also mentioned the similarity of some characters to the Glagolitic script.

Jeffrey Krischer

While still a student, Krischer wrote a paper also investigating the text properties of the Voynich MS. This paper is extremely difficult to find, and we only have D'Imperio's summary analysis of it.

Mary E. D'Imperio

Mary D'Imperio was introduced to the problem of the Voynich MS by John Tiltman in 1975, and in the following years she wrote a monograph (see note 27), summarising all recorded work about the Voynich MS. For thirty years this has been the standard reference for the Voynich MS, and it is still the most quoted work about it. She also wrote several papers about different features of the MS text (41).

Prescott Currier

See D'Imperio Section 6.8.
His important presentation in 1976 is available in digital form at this site (42).
Further information about his discovery of different hands and different "languages" in the Voynich MS is also discussed extensively elsewhere at this web site (see note 2).

A.G. Watson

Watson identified that the foliation of the Voynich MS is in the hand of John Dee. This is however contested by other Dee experts.

John Stojko

Stojko proposed in a book published in 1978 (44) that the Voynich MS is a copy of a series of letters written in Ukrainian. These letters were encrypted by removing all the vowels and writing the consonants in a secret alphabet. The main reasons why Stojko's solution is finding little acceptance are:

Leo Levitov

Levitov proposed a pronuciation for the characters of the Voynich MS which leads to a largely pronounceable text, which he claims is in a creole mainly based on Flemish. His translation of this text deals with a Cathar cult of Isis followers, and rites related to Euthanasia. He published his results in a monograph (45). The linguistic aspect has been contested by Jacques Guy (46). and the differences with the known practices of the Cathars in S.France have been analysed by Dennis Stallings (47).

Child

The linguist James R. Child proposed a solution in 1976, in which he presented the text as a "hitherto unknown North Germanic dialect".

Modern research

From the earliest days of the internet, this medium has been used as place for discussions related to the Voynich MS. On 5 December 1991 the first dedicated mailing list for international discussions was set up by Jim Gillogly. For more than a decade this was the most focussed, but still very informal study of the Voynich MS. Its contributors were people from a wide variety of backgrounds. The first ftp site dedicated to the MS was also created by Jim Gillogly (48). Since then, many new web resources dedicated to the Voynich MS have been set up, including wikis and blogs. The present web site, then still located at Geocities, was first accessible on 27 February 1998.

The main aims of this initial group (apart from the ultimate desire to explain the text of the Voynich MS) were to obtain access to a good copy of the MS and to continue / complete the transcription of the MS. With respect to the former, on 1 June 2004 the Beinecke library has made available a nearly complete high-quality digital colour scan of the MS.

Further transcriptions of missing pages in the Currier / D'Imperio files were made by the group, and Jim Reeds discovered the almost complete transcriptions made by Friedman's study groups, in the George C. Marshall Library and Archives in Lexington, Virginia. These were entered in computer form by Jim Reeds and Jacques Guy.

Individual students of the Voynich MS have performed a multitude of analyses of the MS. It presently appears too difficult to treat these properly at this site, and only an incomplete and not up-to-date summary is presented on the analysis pages. It is possible to retrieve the archives of the early years of this mailing list in compressed form from the >>mailing list home page (towards the end of the page).

In 1995, the herbal expert in medieval herbals Sergio Toresella inspected the MS at the Beinecke library and wrote, in an article concerned with 'alchemical herbals' (49) that the Voynich MS appears to be written in a script fitting with the Italian humanist book movement, and should therefore be dated around 1460, and not much later. He also suggests that the purpose of the book was to impress the gullible clientele of a doctor or quack.

Jorge Stolfi

In the late 1990's and the early years of the 21st century the Brazilian mathematician Jorge Stolfi published several groundbreaking analyses of the statistical properties of the Voynich MS text, in particular explaining the word structure in detail. These are presented in more detail in the analysis pages.

Gordon Rugg

A proposed solution to the Voynich MS, which attracted a lot of media attention, was developed by Gordon Rugg in 2003. Based on the statistical analyses of Jorge Stolfi, Rugg proposed that the Voynich MS text could well have been generated more or less randomly by techniques which would have been available in the 16th Century, and points in particular to Edward Kelley as the perpetrator of the implied hoax (50).

The proposed method consists in the use of a Cardan grille and a set of sheets with word fragments or syllables. The major problems with this are that:

There is, however, an important aspect which lies at the basis of Gordon Rugg's theory. This relates to the question why the solution to the Voynich MS has not yet been found. Rugg's answer to that question is that all analysts are making a number of assumptions, and these assumptions are prohibiting them from finding the answer. More specifically, essentially everyone assumes that the MS text is meaningful and can be deciphered. While Rugg's solution hasn't been accepted, this understanding of hidden or unstated assumptions is certainly very important.

The Voynich MS may very well have no meaningful content, either deliberately by the author, or because its meaning was lost in the process of its creation.

Nick Pelling

Nick Pelling presents his theory about the authorship of the Voynich MS in "The Curse of the Voynich" - Pelling (2006) (51). Based on details in the illustrations of the Voynich MS, in particular the rosettes folio, he believes that the MS originates from Milan, around the middle of the 15th Century or shortly thereafter. As author he identifies the architect Antonio Averlino, based on details of his life.

Beside this theory, Nick presents many detailed and important observations about the MS itself, related to the writing and to the composition of the codex. He continues to explore both paths at his very extensive blog.

Andreas Schinner

Important statistical analyses were performed by the Austrian mathematician Andreas Schinner, which were published in Cryptologia (52). The results strongly suggest that the text of the Voynich MS could be meaningless. This work has received some media attention due to its relation with the work of Gordon Rugg, but due to its complicated nature it has not yet been properly understood or assessed in Voynich MS circles.

Edith Sherwood

The retired PhD in chemistry Edith Sherwood has performed a number of analyses on the Voynich MS, which she presents at a well-designed web site. It includes (among others) her theory that the Voynich MS was written by a young Leonardo da Vinci, her identification of most of the herbal drawings in the MS, and a possible solution to the text.

Web logs (blogs)

A large number of people have set up web logs (better known as blogs) about their theories related to the Voynich MS, many of which are listed here. It seems impossible to summarise them here, but it should be said that some of them are quite extensive and quite active, though also in the smaller blogs, real nuggets of information may be found.

Austrian documentary and forensic investigations

In 2007 Andreas Sulzer and Klaus Steindl, in cooperation with ORF, started preparations for a TV documentary about the Voynich MS. The aim was to solve the riddle of the MS for once and for all, and included plans to perform chemical analyses of the MS, including radiocarbon dating of the parchment. The Bohemian history of the MS was further explored, leading among others to the discovery of a book with the ex libris of Jacobus de Tepenec, almost identical to that found on the Voynich MS. Most importantly, the Beinecke library agreed to the forensic investigations. The results were officially announced at a press conference in Vienna on 8 December 2009, with the well-known result that the parchment is from 1404-1438 with 95% confidence. The German version of the programme (ca 45 min.) first aired in Austria a few days later. An English version (of over 50 min.) was shown later by National Geographic.

100 years of Voynich MS

In 2012 the traditional (53) "discovery" of the Voynich MS in Villa Mondragone reached its 100th anniversary. This was celebrated with a conference in the same villa, on 11 May. It was attended by a multitude of active Voynich researchers and included a series of presentations on all relevant areas of research. A report of this event is provided at a separate set of pages.

More statistical analyses

More recent statistical analyses of the Voynich MS text have been published in various media. Deserving particular mention are the publications of Knight and Reddy, of Marcel Montemurro, and the less well-known but equally interesting work done at the University of Adelaide. There are likely to be many more that I am not aware of. This general topic is addressed in the text analysis section, which still requires a lot of work.

More recent proposed solutions

The year 2014 has seen a flood of newly proposed solutions, some of which received some attention in the press. Most prominent were the theory that the Voynich MS is associated with the Aztec culture in Meso-America, by Tucker and Talbot, and the tentative identification of about 10 herb names in the text, by UK linguist S. Bax (54).

More forensic and expert investigations

On the occasion, in November 2014, of the Voynich MS being on exhibition in the Folger Shakespeare library in Washington, the Beinecke library initiated a new series of forensic and expert invistigations of the MS. These are still on-going and results have not been published in detail. Some new results are that the Voynich MS pages are made of calfskin while the cover is of goatskin. Multi-spectral imaging did not reveal any trace of erased earlier writing on the MS.

Notes

1
See Voynich (1921).
2
As explained in a later section of this web site.
3
As recorded in the 2009 documentary film produced by ProOmnia and ORF.
4
The Barschius letter is discussed here and the Marci letter here.
5
From Arber (1912) chapter 4, paraphrased here.
6
From Philip Neal's translation of the letter, for which see here.
7
As discussed in detail in Garber (2002). The source of her work is quoted and translated here.
8
Significant parts of the catalogues of various collections are available digitally on-line, but searches have not turned up anything so far. In any case, the chances that this material has survived are very small.
9
He was working until 1646, see his biography.
10
See Prinke (2012).
11
For more details, see the biography of Mnišowský.
12
Which are discussed here.
13
Published in Smolka and Zandbergen (2010).
14
Sign. VI B 12b, p.70. The relevant text of the letter is transcribed here.
15
The Jesuits have made many pencilled annotations (typically folio nrs.) on the Kircher correspondence. Voynich is known to have made pencilled annotations on one of the other MSs he acquired from the Jesuits, as may be seen here.
16
See Kahn (1967).
17
From a letter dated 10 April 1919 to Miss Louise Loomis, who had provided a new translation of the Marci letter. Here he announces his theory that Dee sold the MS to emperor Rudolf.
18
Bolton (1904). Garland pointed out to Voynich that it is a popular and romanticised book, based on the writings of Joseph Svatek.
19
After Tepenec came Dr. Raphael, followed by Mardochaeus de "Delle" (Bolton's mistake, it should be "Nelle") and Jacopo di Strada, and others not directly at Rudolf's court.
20
Following is a partial listing of the names, and in brackets the page number on which this name first appears in Bolton.
Christ von Hirschberg (p.19), Daniel Prandtner, alchemist (p.19), Magister Jeremias (p.19), Salomena Scheinfplug (p.20), Claudius Syrrus (p.20), Ch.Guarinonius Ital. alchem. (p.23), Wresowitz (library ???) contained akchells ??? (p.37), George Kretschmar (p.39), Drebbel, was imprisoned (p.93), Typotius Libr. To Rudolph (p.160), Sebald Schwertzer [long] (p.65), Sendivogius (p.123).
21
Sebald Schwertzer actually sold (or rather gave) a Roger Bacon MS to Rudolf. It is now preserved in Leiden, see a >>web page of Philip Neal.
22
For the research about Barschius, see also: source material: Marci about Barschius and source material: Voynich about Barschius.
23
De Sepi (1678), p. 65. More about this volume, see on the history page
24
He was specifically hoping to find further evidence that his was a Bacon MS, but that has not materialised from Kircher's correspondence.
25
As Newbold (1928)
26
See Manly (1931)
27
D'Imperio (1978). This publication will be cited frequently on this page.
28
O'Neill (1944). In a letter to Anne Nill, Petersen is "mortified" about this paper, among others because, as he says, O'Neill was not the first to tentatively identify the sunflower and capsicum.
29
The relevant letter preserved in the Grolier Club was already described by Rich SantaColoma at his blog. The following description is a combined summary of this letter with the one preserved in the Beinecke library.
30
From a letter of E.L.V. to James Westfall Thompson, written in 1932. Now preserved in the Beinecke Library archive.
31
From correspondence with W. Friedman, preserved in the Marshall Library in Lexington (Va). Source: J. Reeds.
32
As regards the sunflower, Panofsky is referring to the publication of O'Neill (1944)
33
The famous renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404 - 1472). He is also one of the suspected authors of the mysterious book "Hypnerotomachia Polifili" (more popularly ascribed to one Francesco Colonna), which includes text in hieroglyphics.
34
See >>wikipedia article.
35
William Jerome Wilson was co-author of De Ricci's census...., (1937), the first edition of which was being completed at that time, and Anne Nill was working for him, composing the various indices to this publication.
36
See Feely (1943).
37
See Tiltman (1967).
38
For example Brumbaugh (1974) and Brumbaugh (1976).
39
See Brumbaugh (1978).
40
See Bennett (1976).
41
One of which is available at this site.
42
See this dedicated page. See also here.
43
Blunt and Raphael (1979).
44
See Stojko (1978)
45
See Levitov (1987)
46
See >>link preserved by J. Stolfi
47
See >>here
48
It has long disappeared, but a >>copy of it has been preserved
49
Ref: Toresella (1995)
50
Published in Cryptologia, Jan. 2004 and Scientific American, Summer 2004
51
See Pelling (2006).
52
See Schinner (2007).
53
From all remaining evidence it is impossible to conclude whether it was 1911 or 1912. The latter date is preferred as it is the date Voynich used in his first presentation on the MS in 1921. The role of the Villa Mondragone is further analysed critically here.
54
For this and other topics related to the Voynich MS, see his active blog.

 

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