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Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
Tuesday, 20 July 2004
Central Europe: Is 16th-Century Voynich Manuscript A Hoax?
By 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
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.
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