The Voynich Manuscript : An Enigma, Part #1

There are many unsolved mysteries in this world.  A web search for 'greatest mysteries', 'unsolved mysteries', 'world's greatest mysteries' and similar search terms leads to many sites dealing mostly with the strange and the paranormal.  It is all too easy to claim that science has yet to explain x, y and z, and many sites make such claims.  Before science can explain a mystery it must be explainable at least in principle.  The Voynich manuscript seems to be explainable, at least in principle.  It is just a matter of breaking a code.

She was sitting at the table, reading out monotonous strings of figures to Martini, who, with a magnifying glass in one hand and a finely pointed pencil in the other, was making tiny marks in the pages of a book. She made with one hand a gesture requesting silence. Riccardo, knowing that a person who is writing in cipher must not be interrupted, sat down on the sofa behind her and yawned like a man who can hardly keep awake.

"2, 4; 3, 7; 6, 1; 3, 5; 4, 1;" Gemma's voice went on with machine-like evenness. "8, 4; 7, 2; 5, 1; that finishes the sentence, Cesare."
E.L. Voynich, The Gadfly.

Mystery, Intrigue, Revolution and Enigma

The Voynich manuscript is probably the world's single most intriguing and potentially solvable puzzle.  The puzzle consists in determining the age, origin and purpose of the Voynich manuscript: but first, one must be able to read it.  The manuscript is written using a mixture of vaguely familiar characters with some very strange ones.  Despite the efforts of a great many professional and amateur cryptologists, we quite simply do not know if the manuscript is a hoax or a code.

It is somewhat futile to try to decode any document without being able to put it into a context of time and place.  It is time and place which give us our first clues as to the author's probable purpose and language.  Thus, before going into any detail about the Voynich manuscript itself, I shall give some historical background.  Meanwhile, just to whet my reader's appetite, here is a picture comparing a small portion of the original manuscript with a computer-readable document version.

The Voynich manuscript takes its name from Wilfrid M. Voynich, a book dealer who claimed to have acquired it in 1912, in Italy.  He was a Polish revolutionary who escaped to London where he met and married his wife, Ethel.  He had seen her before, from a window in his prison in Warsaw.  They later emigrated to America.  If the Voynich manuscript is a hoax, a fake, a means to make some quick money, then the prime candidate for the faking must be Wilfrid Voynich.  Everything that can be determined about Wilfrid and Ethel Voynich suggests that he had the funds to purchase the manuscript in good faith.

Behind the Voynich manuscript lies a web of connected names so strange that it reads like fiction, or a Who's Who of academics and revolutionaries.  Indeed, Ethel Voynich, by her own account, was inspired to write much of her fiction from her own experiences and acquantances.  Political turmoil, revolution, espionage and intrigue; all are to be found in the Voynich manuscript story.  More strange, perhaps, than the mystery of the manuscript is the list of well-known names which are connected with the history of the manuscript.  Most of the names can be linked directly to Ethel Voynich.

Ethel Lilian Voynich

Ethel Lilian Voynich was an author fond of travel.  Even if not a revolutionary herself, she was at least a sympathiser and friend of some notable revolutionaries.  Her most famous book, 'The Gadfly', is about revolution in Italy.  It became a best-seller in Russia, selling about 2.5 million copies.  It was made into a Russian movie, with a score written by Dmitri Shostakovich.  The Gadfly (1897), became part of a trilogy with the later publication of The Interrupted Friendship (1910) and Put Off Thy Shoes (1945).

Ethel Voynich was the daughter of George Boole, the famous mathematician, and of Mary Everest Boole, author of books on mathematics such as Philosophy and Fun of AlgebraMary Everest Boole was the niece of Sir George Everest Surveyor-General of India from 1830 to 1843, after whom Mount Everest is named.

During 1882-1885 Ethel Voynich, then Ethel Boole, studied at Hochschule der Musik in Berlin, where she apparently first became interested in politics.  On her return to London she decided to travel to Russia, at that time in some political turmoil.  Her friends and contacts at that time included the anarchist Charlotte Wilson, the nihilist Sergyei "Stepniak" Kravchinsky, who fought in the revolutions in Italy and Herzegovina, and the anarchist scientist Prince Peter Kropotkin.  The latter, by the way, was the author of an interesting book about the role of cooperation in natural selection.
The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.
Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902)

East London: Political hotbed

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, East London was know for its population of political refugees.  There were many kinds of activists in the area.  Those who plotted against their former home countries were mostly tolerated by the authorities.  It was only when trouble spilled onto the streets of London that the authorities became publicly involved, as in the notorious Siege of Sydney Street.  In the main, it appears that the various anarchists, nihilists and Italian, Polish and Russian revolutionaries were merely kept under observation.

In that climate, Ethel Voynich wrote and translated materials for legitimate publication, such as Chopin's Letters and Taras Shevchenko's Ukrainian poetry and folk songs. She also translated revolutionary books and pamphlets for smuggling into Russia, including works by Marx and Engels.  It was whilst living and working in East London that Ethel met and married Wilfred.  She also met, and traveled to Italy with, a Russian emigre formerly known as Georgi Rosenblum.  He is better known as Sidney Reilly, a famous spy, said to be an inspiration for Ian Fleming's James Bond.

At about the time that Ethel was traveling in Italy with Sidney Reilly, Wilfrid Voynich, also in Italy, met Erla Rodakiewicz.  From the few references available on the web it seems that Erla Rodakiewicz was an expert in Old English, with an interest in old manuscripts.

Wilfred Voynich, Antiquarian Book Dealer

It is difficult to know why it is that Ethel and Wilfrid, at one time deeply embroiled in revolutionary activities, suddenly ceased those activities and emigrated to America.  Were they 'warned off' by Reilly?  Did they perform some secret and highly-paid work for the British security services?  All that is known is that Wilfrid Voynich, arrived in England in 1890 literally penniless, was involved in fund raising for the Russian emigres for about six years and then opened a book shop.

It was not just a book shop.  It was an antiquarian book shop at number 1 Soho Square, a prestigious, that is to say frighteningly expensive piece of real estate.  What with the rent and taxes, the foreign travel to acquire stock and the printing and distribution of catalogues, this must have required quite a large investment of capital.  Where that capital came from may never be known.  What is certain is that a man in such a financial position has no need to resort to fabrication of a fake manuscript to earn a comfortable living.

In part 2, The Voynich Manuscript : Dating An Enigma, I attempt to determine when the manuscript was written, by examining some details.

Further reading:
Biographical information.
Our Friend Ethel Voynich.