ORION £18.99 £17.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

The Voynich Manuscript by Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill

Nudes, triffids and the mother of all riddles

There is a book that no one can read, filled with words written in a cipher that no one can break, or, possibly, a language that no one knows

There is a book that no one can read, filled with words written in a cipher that no one can break, or, possibly, a language that no one knows. This book also contains pictures of things that no one recognises or understands: detailed colour images of plants that can't be identified (but look like a storyboard for an other-dimensional remake of Day of the Triffids), receptacles that might be apothecaries' jars, astrological wheels, and naked women in tubs of green liquid connected via a network of strange "plumbing". It looks a bit like a 16th-century herbal - but only a bit.

The Voynich Manuscript, so called because of the rare books' dealer, Wilfrid Voynich, who, depending on your interpretation, obtained it from a Jesuit monastery in 1912, or created it himself, is one of the most exciting unsolved puzzles in history: the crack cocaine, perhaps, of riddles. It is housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University (which provides photographs of the pages on the internet). Its 246 remaining quarto pages (from an estimated 262) were probably created some time between 1450 and 1600, although no one is sure. Voynich believed it to be the work of Roger Bacon, although contemporary scholars believe it to be later than this. It has never been carbon dated.

The fact that no one has made credible progress with a decipherment is one of the many odd things about the Voynich Manuscript. History provides countless examples of people who have cracked the most complex ciphers and rebuilt lost languages from tiny fragments. People are so good at cracking codes that RSA encryption (the thing that scrambles your credit card number when you buy something online) works on the basis that although the process of decryption is well-known, without the key it can take billions of years.

But no one has had any luck with the Voynich Manuscript. William Newbold, working on the text from about 1919, came up with a crazy mixture of cabalistic Gematria, annagramisation and hocus pocus to decipher a section beginning "Scripsi Rogerus Bacon...", although with the method he used, the text could have said anything he wanted. James Martin Feely attempted a decipherment based on only one plate from Newbold's book (the one with the women paddling in the green liquid). He thought he had found a simple substitution cipher, from Latin to "Voynichese", and part of his translation reads: "Well humidified, it ramifies; afterward it is broken down smaller; afterwards, at a distance, into the fore bladder it comes." Convincing? Not very. In 1945, Leonell Strong came up with a theory that the manuscript was based on a polyalphabetic cipher which he would not reveal in case it fell into the hands of America's military enemies. Part of his translation reads: "When skuge of tun'e-bag rip, seo uogon kum sli of se mosure-issue pedstans..."

Psychologists studying cognitive dissonance could happily wallow in this lot for a long time. But perhaps it's not surprising to find people using the time-honoured method of simply making up what they don't know (even if the fabrication is unconscious). If the manuscript is not the work of Bacon, could it have been created by Edward Kelley and John Dee to further their chances of patronage in Europe? Was it a forgery by Voynich himself, a trained chemist with access to vellum and experience forging documents for the Polish Proletariat movement?

None of the options is truly satisfying. The opinion that it just "doesn't feel like a 20th-century forgery" is common. Yet the Edward Kelley/John Dee hypothesis seems too neat - and too glamorous. Could the manuscript instead be the only remaining document in a forgotten language (as cryptologist William F Friedman believed), perhaps even that of the Cathars? A written equivalent of speaking in tongues? Or is it just a record of someone's migraine visions, or a form of "outsider art"? Nowhere is it suggested that it could have been created by someone exper imenting with psychedelic substances, although this seems like a possible explanation.

This brilliant, page-turning story (which makes The Da Vinci Code seem like a slightly lame round of Hangman) would work in the hands of any authors. Kennedy and Churchill's style is certainly very accessible, although I quickly tired of their use of the term "naked ladies" to describe the women in the illustrations. Still, this book will surely give the Voynich Manuscript an audience beyond cryptologists and internet conspiracy theorists, and that is an important achievement.

Could this new audience even contain the person with the key? Or will this beautiful, frustrating and compelling document simply remain unread?

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn