Progress on the Voynich Manuscript?

Author: Luther Martin, Chief Security Architect, Voltage Security

The Voynich manuscript is a cryptic text named after the Polish bookseller Wilfrid Voynich who purchased it in an Italian bookstore in 1912. Carbon dating seems to place the creation of the text to close to AD 1400, so it’s clearly not a recent forgery. The text of the manuscript hasn’t been deciphered, which leaves room for lots of theories about its meaning. Some of these theories are more reasonable than others.

And because the skills needed to decipher the manuscript seem to be somewhat similar to those needed to decipher encrypted messages, many amateur cryptographers have made a hobby of trying to decipher it. Some professional ones have, also, including William Friedmann, a successful World-War-II-era American cryptographer. But despite the best efforts of lots of enthusiastic people, the meaning of the manuscript has remained a mystery.

But it looks like some progress might have been made recently towards figuring out exactly what this mysterious document means. This is summarized in the recent “A proposed partial decoding of the Voynich manuscript” by Stephen Bax, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire.

I’m not qualified to judge whether or not Bax’s analysis is sound, but I have to say that I wasn’t quite convinced by his analysis. It reminded me a bit of the analysis of Shakespeare’s texts that people have done over the years to show that Francis Bacon really wrote Shakespeare’s plays because they can find what they claim are encrypted messages hidden in the texts of the plays. I’ve never found these arguments convincing, either.

But I’ll admit that even if Bax’s analysis isn’t right, it’s also not obviously wrong, so this might actually be the first step towards deciphering one of the great mysteries that has provided many cryptographers anything from an entertaining diversion to an unhealthy obsession for several decades.

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