Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Voynich Inheritance

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Sooner or later, if you devote any time to poking around odd corners of the unexplained, you’ll encounter the document known as the Voynich Manuscript. It’s a fifteenth-century codex, often called “the world’s most mysterious book,” consisting of roughly two hundred and forty pages of writing in an unknown alphabet, interspersed with many enigmatic illustrations and diagrams. Last year, the Yale University Press issued the first authorized edition of the complete text, leading to a flurry of renewed interest. After a century of failed attempts to decipher it, however, the conversation around it has shifted from the hope of any solution to its status as an emblem of the unknown. Josephine Livingston of The New Yorker writes that the manuscript “encourages us to sit with the concept of truth and to remember that there are ineluctable mysteries at the bottom of things whose meanings we will never know,” while Dustin Illingworth concludes in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

We revere the Voynich, I think, only insofar as it eludes us. The purpose of this new edition, then, is not to provide definitive answers. Instead, as the historian Deborah Harkness has it, the book is offered as an invitation “to join us at the heart of the mystery.” Despite its pages of cramped writing and sprawling illustrations, the Voynich is perhaps the ultimate carte blanche—the purest form of philological fantasy, a canvas vast enough to contain dreams, conspiracies, hunches, and prophecies. In the company of such rich human engagement, a solution—if one should exist—is merely incidental. May the mystery live on.

Mentioned only in passing in most recent coverage is the figure in the story who has always fascinated me the most, a scholar named William Romaine Newbold who died believing that he had cracked the code. As David Kahn recounts in his masterpiece The Codebreakers, Newbold was a brilliant linguist and cryptanalyst who served as a philosophy professor and former dean of the graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1919, Newbold stumbled across a few pages of the manuscript, and he immediately set to work on it:

Newbold saw microscopic shorthand symbols in the macroscopic characters of the manuscript text and began his decipherment by transliterating them into Roman letters. A secondary text of seventeen different letters resulted. He doubled all but the first and last letters of each section: the secondary text oritur would become the tertiary text or-ri-it-tu-ur. Any of these groups that contained any letters of the word conmuta, plus q, underwent a special substitution. The resultant quaternary text was then “translated”: Newbold replaced the pairs of letters with a single letter, presumably according to a key, which, however, he never made clear. Newbold regarded some letters of this reduced quinary text as equivalent to one another because of phonetic similarity. When required, therefore, he interchanged d and t, for example, b, f, and p, o and u, and so on. Finally, Newbold anagrammed the letters of this senary text to produce the alleged plaintext in Latin.

Two years later, Newbold announced his results, which were extraordinary. The author of the manuscript, he claimed, was the medieval philosopher Roger Bacon, who stood revealed as the greatest scientist of all time: “Bacon had recognized the Great Nebula in Andromeda as a spiral galaxy, identified biological cells and their nuclei, and come close to seeing the union of the sperm with the ovum. He had therefore to have not merely speculated about but to have actually constructed a microscope and a telescope.” Newbold also offered what seemed like a strong argument in favor of the authenticity of his results, as Kahn recounts:

Newbold’s cryptanalysis of a caption on a sketch that somewhat resembles a pinwheel and that he took to represent the Andromeda nebula reads in part: “In a concave mirror I saw a star in the form of a snail…between the navel of Pegasus, the girdle of Andromeda, and the head of Cassiopeia.” Newbold asserted that his solution could not be subjective because “I did not know at the time [of solution] that any nebula would be found within the region thus defined.”

It was, of course, utter nonsense. One critic pointed out that Newbold’s system of letter pairs, as in or-ri-it-tu-ur, worked in only one direction: it could be deciphered, but there was no possible way that it could be enciphered in the first place. Anagramming chunks of over a hundred characters at a time, as Newbold did, could result in almost any text you wanted. And the “microscopic shorthand symbols” were nothing but “the breaking up of the thick ink on the rough surface of the vellum into shreds and filaments that Newbold had imagined were individual signs.”

On its surface, it’s yet another cautionary tale of misguided obsession, like so many other stories from the fringes of reason. But what sticks with me the most is how inseparable Newbold’s brilliance was from his delusions. As Kahn points out:

How, then, to explain Newbold’s cryptanalyzing information that he said he never knew, such as the position of the spiral nebula? The answer is that he must have known it, though subconsciously. Newbold, a scholar of immense erudition who casually learned the Catalan language and read a thousand pages in it in pursuit of a minor point of the solution, must have swept up that detail in his extensive studies and slipped it into the depths of his brain, where it lay hidden from his active mind until the solution drew it forth. No one ever questioned Newbold’s integrity; he was a victim, [philologist John Matthews] Manly said, “of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned and ingenious subconscious.”

This seems reasonable enough, although I’d propose a slightly different explanation: Newbold surely must have checked his solutions before publication, and a plaintext that failed to fit known scientific facts was either revised or quietly dropped. Either way, only a genius could have been so misguided, and Newbold’s case is just an extreme version of a tendency that we find in many forms of scholarship. The impulse that led him to see a nebula that wasn’t there isn’t so different from the pitfalls confronting literary critics, historians, biographers, and other scholars with a mass of material on which to exercise their ingenuity and intuition. As Roger Bacon, the real one, once wrote, one of the greatest stumbling blocks to wisdom is “the hiding of our own ignorance while making a display of our apparent knowledge.” Newbold happened to misread his text in an obvious way, but he wasn’t the first—or the last—scholar to fall victim to the perils of cleverness.

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