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Central Europe: Is 16th-Century Voynich Manuscript A Hoax?

  • Askold Krushelnycky

The Voynich manuscript has consistently foiled powerful computers and some of the world's best cryptographers, who have never managed to decipher the 16th-century encoded book. But now, as RFE/RL reports, one scientist says the manuscript could be a sophisticated hoax.

Prague, 20 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In 1586, the Holy Roman emperor, Rudolf II, purchased a thick, cryptic manuscript that he believed held the secret to wealth and long life.

The book -- 230 pages filled with strange illustrations of plants, planets, and women, accompanied by text written in an undecipherable encoded language -- has come to be known as the Voynich manuscript. But neither Rudolf's scholars -- nor scores of subsequent researchers and code breakers -- was ever able to decipher the book.

Now, a British scientist has said he believes that one of the world's oldest riddles may actually be a hoax. Gordon Rugg is a lecturer at the school of computing and mathematics at Britain's Keele University. "It's possible that there is a code buried deep in there. But I think my main advance has been to show that there is a possible solution to the manuscript, where before the only possibility that looked real was some massively complex code which was centuries ahead of its time -- and that's not a very plausible solution," he said.

A far more plausible solution, according to Rugg, is that the manuscript held no secrets of prosperity or eternal youth -- but that it did earn its author a handsome profit equivalent to $50,000.

The author, Rugg says, was a notorious English alchemist and fraudster named Edward Kelley. Among his many dubious achievements, Kelley created what remains one of the most elaborate artificial languages ever made -- a language he described as the tongue of the angels.

The British hoaxer was visiting royal courts in Central Europe at the time the Voynich manuscript was sold. Among the courts Kelley visited was Rudolf's, in what is now the Czech Republic. Rugg cannot prove it was Kelley who sold the manuscript to Rudolf. But he believes the fraudster's presence in the region was no coincidence.

"He was a famous fraudster -- he claimed to be able to transmute base metal into gold. He did it so effectively that he actually became a baron at one point, and was then discovered and put in jail. So he's a known criminal, a known confidence trickster, who's created a rich, elaborate language and who just happens to be at Rudolf's court at the point when the Voynich manuscript appears," Rugg said.

After Rudolf's scholars failed to crack the code, the manuscript disappeared from view for 250 years. It was rediscovered in a Rome library in 1912 by a rare-book collector, Wilfrid Voynich, and now is kept at Yale University. It has baffled computers, linguists, and military code breakers ever since.

Rugg, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, said he first became drawn to the riddle of the Voynich manuscript because of his interest in developing innovative problem-solving methodologies. "I was interested in it for several reasons. One is it's a real solid mystery, it exists, there's no doubt about its existence, unlike ghosts or UFOs," he said. "You can touch it, you can see it. It's a mystery because there didn't seem to be any possible explanation for it. It appeared to be too complex to be a hoax, it appeared to be not a natural language because it contained too many features that no human language contains."

Rugg said other codes created at the same time as the Voynich manuscript were easily cracked by cryptographers who had spent World War II deciphering German and Japanese secret codes. But the Voynich text remained a mystery. The reason, Rugg eventually deduced, was because the code used in the text was composed of random letters arranged in a meaningless pattern.

Conducting research, Rugg discovered systems -- such as the so-called Cardan Grille, invented in 1550 by an Italian mathematician -- that could be used to create a text that looked like a code but bore no meaning. "In essence, I taught myself to [create] hoax medieval texts that looked as though they were cipher texts," he said. "And when I started doing that, I found it was surprisingly easy to produce very complex-looking language using 16th-century techniques very quickly."

Rugg said his method has not proved the Voynich manuscript is a hoax but has demonstrated that it could be. He hopes to apply his method of looking for new approaches to unsolved problems to a range of engineering and medical mysteries, including finding ways to deal with Alzheimer's disease.