In 1978 John Stojko argued that it was an account of an ancient civil war written in an ancient, vowelless form of Ukrainian. In 1986 Michael Barlow suggested that [the man who donated it to Yale, the twentieth century book collector Wilfrid] Voynich himself had written the manuscript as a hoax. In 1987 Leo Levitor theorized that it was an ancient prayer-book, offering repetitive meditations on the themes of pain and death. More recently, Jacques Guy has wondered whether it might not represent an ancient attempt to transcribe an east-Asian language, say Chinese or Vietnamese, into alphabetic form.

Alas, a compelling answer has emerged (link via Graham). The Voynich manuscript is a fraud, if a storied one. Gordon Rugg, a computer scientist at Keele University in England, has come up with a way of creating a nonsense text very similar to that of the Voynich manuscript, using a few simple techniques that would have been known to Elizabethans. He pins the creation on Edward Kelly, the Elizabethan alchemist, crystal-gazer, and compatriot of John Dee. Like many literary fraudsters (and most great forgers), Kelly had a simple motive: money. The manuscript is documented to have been sold to Rudolph II of Bohemia, a rabid collector and patron of the sciences, for 600 ducats, approximately three and a half pounds of gold. But the people that James Randi beats on have a shred of a point; Rugg may be able to show that he personally could fake the Voynich manuscript, but that doesn’t prove that the Voynich manuscript is fake. After all, the thing could still turn out to be evidence of medieval extraterrestrial contact. In the meantime, the Yale library’s description will continue to be about the only things we can say for sure about the Voynich manuscript: "Scientific or magical text in an unidentified language, in cipher, apparently based on Roman minuscule characters."

Romance is not dead.

If there’s a real analog to the History of the Land Called Uqbar, it’s the Codex Seraphinus, that remarkable traveller’s sketchbook of an alien world. However, it was created by Italian designer Luigi Serafini in 1981; for a hallucinatory encyclopedia of more uncertain province, cast an eye on the Voynich manuscript. It is full of strange drawings: of bathing women, zodiac figures, astrological diagrams, and curiously half-recognizable plants. (The fact that human figures are naked makes something as simple as dating the document difficult, as no costumes are depicted.) The alphabet it is written in only vaguely resembles anything ever known in Europe. Is it nonsense carefully designed to look halfway legible, a sort of sixteenth-century book from the sky? Investigators "lack decisive tests for distinguishing between nonsense babble, crafty cipher, and language," but the manuscript seems not to be simply random characters. Statistical analysis, the domain of computational linguists and information theorists, shows it to more closely resemble language, albeit a strangely curtailed one. The "words" of the Voynich manuscript are highly repetitive, and its vocabulary is much smaller than that of a typical English or Latin text of the same size. Is it perhaps an encoded religious text of the Cathars, the heretical Catholic sect, written in a synthetic alphabet? Manipulated Latin? The shorthand notes of the great philosopher of science Roger Bacon, recordings of his experiments with telescopes? Or perhaps something even less likely?

In 1978 John Stojko argued that it was an account of an ancient civil war written in an ancient, vowelless form of Ukrainian. In 1986 Michael Barlow suggested that [the man who donated it to Yale, the twentieth century book collector Wilfrid] Voynich himself had written the manuscript as a hoax. In 1987 Leo Levitor theorized that it was an ancient prayer-book, offering repetitive meditations on the themes of pain and death. More recently, Jacques Guy has wondered whether it might not represent an ancient attempt to transcribe an east-Asian language, say Chinese or Vietnamese, into alphabetic form.

Alas, a compelling answer has emerged (link via Graham). The Voynich manuscript is a fraud, if a storied one. Gordon Rugg, a computer scientist at Keele University in England, has come up with a way of creating a nonsense text very similar to that of the Voynich manuscript, using a few simple techniques that would have been known to Elizabethans. He pins the creation on Edward Kelly, the Elizabethan alchemist, crystal-gazer, and compatriot of John Dee. Like many literary fraudsters (and most great forgers), Kelly had a simple motive: money. The manuscript is documented to have been sold to Rudolph II of Bohemia, a rabid collector and patron of the sciences, for 600 ducats, approximately three and a half pounds of gold. But the people that James Randi beats on have a shred of a point; Rugg may be able to show that he personally could fake the Voynich manuscript, but that doesn’t prove that the Voynich manuscript is fake. After all, the thing could still turn out to be evidence of medieval extraterrestrial contact. In the meantime, the Yale library’s description will continue to be about the only things we can say for sure about the Voynich manuscript: "Scientific or magical text in an unidentified language, in cipher, apparently based on Roman minuscule characters."

Romance is not dead.