Secret Code Wanted

by Translation Guy on June 8, 2011

The Voynich Manuscript is not a poolside page-turner. It’s a tough read, and by that I mean that no one has managed to read it in some 500 years, if in fact it has ever been read at all. Also known as ol’ MS 408 (since one can’t read the title, either, remember), the manuscript has resisted the efforts of translators and code breakers for the last five centuries.

Michael Day reports that “experts have arrived at what—in Voynich terms, at least—must count as a significant breakthrough: while we still don’t understand a word, at least we know how old it is. ‘The results seem to show quite clearly that the parchment for the book is from the early 1400s, between 1404 and 1438,” says Dr Greg Hodgins, author of the study.'”

Indecipherable as it is, the 240-page book reeks of hidden knowledge, chock full of strange pictures and stranger glyphs, catnip to conspiracists in search of secret wisdom. Unidentifiable plants, strange cosmologies, and plenty of naked ladies draw the reader’s eye to… what? Got to Wikipedia for that:

“The text was clearly written from left to right, with a slightly ragged right margin. Longer sections are broken into paragraphs, sometimes with star- or flower-like ‘bullets’ in the left margin. There is no obvious punctuation. The ductus flows smoothly, giving the impression that the symbols were not enciphered, and the writer was fluent and practiced in writing the script. However, such writing fluency could be achieved by prepared coded text from a wax tablet.

“The text consists of over 170,000 discrete glyphs, usually separated from each other by narrow gaps. Most of the glyphs are written with one or two simple pen strokes. While there is some dispute as to whether certain glyphs are distinct or not, an alphabet with 20–30 glyphs would account for virtually all of the text; the exceptions are a few dozen rarer characters that occur only once or twice each.

“Wider gaps divide the text into about 35,000 ‘words’ of varying length. These seem to follow phonological or orthographic laws of some sort e.g. certain characters must appear in each word (like English vowels), some characters never follow others, some may be doubled or tripled but others may not, etc.”

The new carbon dates show that the manuscript is not a forgery. ”It’s either a secret alchemical text, with the pictures telling a story—or, as some have suggested, it was created, or invented, to enable its author to profit from it by selling it as a precious manuscript.” Sweet. You don’t have to be a medieval alchemist to figure out the value of that business model. No edit, no proof, no review, payment in gold.

So a translation would offer similar prospects, if you could get someone to buy it. Lots of crackpots have taken up the challenge, and it is hard to separate the white hats from the propeller beanies as far as serious amateur research goes. René Zandbergen provides a summary of efforts here. His critique of efforts to date: “all researchers assume that the MS text is meaningful and can be deciphered.”


  1. “Sweet. You don’t have to be a medieval alchemist to figure out the value of that business model. No edit, no proof, no review, payment in gold.” – Bahaha, awesome Ken!

  2. Mr. Thug says:

    Why is there such an assumption? What if it is a hoax? What if some lonely man could assume that someone would want to translate this in the future and just made up some bs manuscript?

    • Ken says:

      Absence of proof is not proof of absence, especially if its an axe to grind, Mr. Thug

      • Nick Pelling says:

        Hoax schmoax, I say (and “business model twaddle”, too).

        Codicologically, most of the Voynich’s bright colours were added over a century after it was written: its original paints were pale and unremarkable, and many pages were even left entirely unpainted by its author(s). Hence, it was very probably brightened up for sale by a later owner, but that it originally was a drab little duckling of a manuscript, nothing that anyone would be gulled into paying a fortune for. Just so you know. :-)

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