The Paper Trail

The Paper Trail

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Voynich Manuscript and Fakery [updated]

[Update 10/14/2013 See comment below.] The latest New Yorker has an article about the Voynich manuscript by Reed Johnson. The article helpfully reviews the provenance (some of it possibly putative) as well as the modern history and reception of the very strange manuscript.

In one throw-away line, Johnson notes that some people have questioned whether the manuscript is as ancient as claimed:
The hoax hypothesis can’t be ruled out. But if the Voynich is a fake, it’s an elaborate one. A twentieth-century scam artist would have to have located a hundred and twenty sheets of blank six-hundred-year-old vellum in anticipation of the invention of radiocarbon dating (which did not yet exist when the manuscript first reĆ«merged, in 1912).
This reasoning strikes me as naive. By the early twentieth century, some art forgers were certainly using antique materials (not in expectation of radiocarbon dating, but in expectation of trying to fool better trained experts), and the use of such old materials and old techniques was far more common in the 1920s. Eric Hebborn's Art Forger's Handbook, while slender on history, is very suggestive about the overlap between early art restoration and forgery--indeed some early 20th C restorers tried their hand at outright faking. (I'm ignoring the question of whether the manuscript's code is medieval or modern, which is a major buttress to it authenticity in Johnson's reasoning--but, frankly, that evidence could be argued either way, as the "Hoax" section of Wikipedia suggests.)

In terms of provenance, the descent sketched by Johnson has some gaps, and the overall provenance could go either way, but the romantic story about Rudolph II makes me a bit suspicious. It sounds a little too good (to be true) and while the story might have been tarted up by Voynich to sell the manuscript, it wouldn't surprise me that an anonymous forger used the story and references to create this minor masterpiece that still excites the fancy of writers and laypeople.

The Unread: The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript (New Yorker, July 9, 2013)

Update 2/20/2014: Professor of Applied Linguistics, Stephen Bax, at the University of Bedfordshire, claims to have made a start deciphering some of the coded language by comparing names and known images to medieval Arab manuscripts. From a university press release:
Although Professor Bax’s decoding is still only partial, it has generated a lot of excitement in the world of codebreaking and linguistics because it could prove a crucial breakthrough for an eventual full decipherment.

“My aim in reporting on my findings at this stage is to encourage other linguists to work with me to decode the whole script using the same approach, though it still won’t be easy. That way we can finally understand what the mysterious authors were trying to tell us,” he added.

“But already my research shows conclusively that the manuscript is not a hoax, as some have claimed, and is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language.” [emphasis added]
Obviously, this is preliminary and will probably be altered as time goes on. -PWR
(update: fixed some typos. Update 10/14/2013 update for comments)
(update 2/20/2014: Professor Bax news)


nanodome said...

The suggestion of 20th century fakery fails to tally with the set of references to the Voynich manuscript in the Athanasius Kircher correspondence archives. These letters only became known to researchers several decades after the manuscript's appearance in 1912.

For this to be the case, you'd need not only unused vellum but a time machine as well. Just sayin'. :-)

PWR said...

Nanodome: I re-read the article more carefully and I have to agree with the thrust of your comments. Yes, Kircher's correspondence is strong evidence of existence of a manuscript and while it's still open to some question (is this manuscript the same one he had? was the Kircher correspondence unavailable before its publication in the 20th C?), I think these are cavils. There are plenty of artworks with gaps of a century or more in provenance. Large collections of unused book materials like 17th C paper stocks have survived (I believe the Morgan Library had one such survival until part was given [ca 2000?] to fine printing project on paper making of the period), and it's known that many 18th and 19th C collectors rebound entire libraries from vellum to leather. And there is a history of forgers (sometimes having a sideline from book binding or art restoration) managing to acquire such materials. But still, I think you're right about Kircher and I read and jumped too quickly based on my own experience. I'll update the article with a note pointing to the comments. Thanks for commenting. -Paul