By Gordon Rugg
It’s a valid question. Why should anyone care about an undeciphered hand-written manuscript that almost certainly contains nothing more interesting than mediaeval recipes?
There are various answers. One is simple curiosity. Another is the challenge: millions of people do crosswords every day, which involve challenges with even less meaningful content than a mediaeval recipt. A more potent reason is fame – the first person to crack a long-standing problem gets their time in the limelight.
There’s another reason, though, which has much bigger implications. Modern civilisation depends on safe, secure codes – they’re at the heart of the Internet, e-commerce and online banking, among other things. The best modern codes are impressively good, but they’re reaching the end of their shelf life, as increasingly powerful hardware and software make it possible to crack codes that would have been impregnable just a year or two ago. Code-makers are now searching for entirely different approaches to security: types of code based on utterly different principles to anything currently known, that could resist the best modern codebreakers not just for months, or for years, but for decades.
Like, maybe, the Voynich Manuscript.
The Voynich Manuscript was discovered by Voynich in 1912. It was in a unique script, and he couldn’t make any sense of the content. He swiftly reached the same conclusion as most people who subsequently studied the manuscript – its text shows regularities that don’t match with any known type of human language, and that looked too complex to be a hoax composed of meaningless gibberish. That left a code as the remaining candidate explanation.
Over the next ninety years, some of the world’s greatest codebreakers tried to crack it, without success. That lack of success was tantalising. If the manuscript was a code, then it was standing up to attack far better than anything else ever discovered. Maybe, just maybe, it was based on some brilliant principle that had been lost for centuries. Maybe, just maybe, it would one day be cracked, and perhaps be the inspirations for a new generation of supercodes, built on very different foundations from the codes we now use.
Or maybe it wasn’t a code after all, and everyone had been looking in the wrong place.
That’s where my work comes into the story. I argued that the “meaningless gibberish” explanation had been abandoned too soon, and showed that simple ancient technology could easily produce meaningless gibberish with complex regularities very similar to those in the manuscript.
The arguments about the Voynich Manuscript rumble on. There’s no conclusive, knock-down final proof either way, for or against a hoax or a code. My view is that the hoax argument can show a simple mechanism that produces text very similar to the text in the manuscript.
So, where does that leave us as regards the next generation of new codes? It’s not very likely that the Voynich Manuscript will be the direct inspiration for them. That’s a shame; there’s something whimsically appealing about the idea of future codes inspired by something written long ago with a quill pen, on pages illustrated with fantastical images.
Here’s what a modern code looks like. This is the D’Agapeyeff Cipher, uncracked since its publication in 1939. (It almost certainly uses a well-known coding system, but it’s too short to be easily cracked.)
If you like the idea of future codes that look more exciting than five-character blocks of numbers, then there’s still hope. Here are a couple of examples that I produced to show what can happen if you systematically break standard assumptions at the heart of modern codes. Neither of these is a particularly heavy-duty code; they’re both quick demonstrations of concept. However, if you like a challenge, you might like to try your luck with them. The full codes are on the Hyde and Rugg website:
This is a page from the Ricardus Manuscript, directly inspired by the Voynich Manuscript.
This is a page from the Penitentia Manuscript, deliberately designed to be very different from the Ricardus Manuscript.
Neither, as far as I know, has yet been cracked. Both contain meaningful text, and both are of significant length, so if you manage to crack one of them, there won’t be any doubt about it. I’m not planning to give any hints or clues, or get into correspondence about them, so it will be an even playing field for any would-be decipherers.
So, that’s some of the background story for the Voynich Manuscript, and why it was a challenge well worth exploring in an age of e-commerce and the Internet and technology that can reach other planets. It’s probably a meaningless hoax, but given the number of twists and turns in the manuscript’s history, there’s still that small, tantalising possibility that maybe somebody, some day, will find something amazing buried within it that will transform our world…