“If it was solvable, it would have been solved.”

Fellow-Voynichero Rich SantaColoma has recently summarized his theory, that the Voynich manuscript is a forgery perpetrated by probably no-one else but Voynich himself, in his blog. In this context, the question whether the content of the VM is “genuine” keeps coming up, ie, is the VM “solvable,” does it have content, or is it just gibberish?

I don’t personally see a clear link between the questions of authenticity and content. All combinations are plausible: A 15th century manuscript filled with enciphered text or gibberish, or a contemporary forgery with nonsense or genuine content. I’m currently leaning to the latter option — that it’s a Vorgery*), but that Voynich included stronger hints in the text that the VM was written by Bacon than given by the illustrations alone. Unfortunately he was a bit too clever for his own good, and nobody looked through what he had considered a simple cipher — and after all he himself could hardly drop too many hints how to solve that encrypted text…**)

But sometimes the argument comes up, the VM must be gibberish, because if it was enciphered, we would have long since deciphered it. After all, for a century the best codebreakers of the world have been at work over it, and the enciphering — if there was one — would have been done by an either medieval or early 20th century dilettante, by current standards.

Enter the Dorabella cipher:


The story of this cipher is, in short, that composer Edward Elgar sent this note to a lady friend of his, Dora Penny in 1897, along with another letter of different provenance. Dora never managed to read the message. And to this day, no convincing deciphering of this innocuous missive has been achieved.***)

So, let’s look at the note:

  • It certainly is meaningful. It is difficult to conceive why Elgar would have sent a note with gibberish to Dora, with which he wanted to remain on good terms.
  • While Elgar was fond of wordplay and riddles and certainly had a bit of a cryptographic savvy, Dora was naive in that regard, so it’s reasonable to assume that Elgar’s method wasn’t too sophisticated — especially in view of the fact that Elgar apparently did not provide Dora with a key, but trusted she’d find the solution on her own.
  • The note bears a striking resemblance to the well-known pigpen cipher (also known as masonic cipher), being set up in three groups of symbols (single, double and triple arc) in one of eight positions each. Elgar is known to have used pigpen ciphers, and, being a simple substitution cipher, pigpen is usually fairly easy to crack.

And yet, nobody has managed to come up with a solution to what Elgar must have intended as a trivial puzzle.

So, when we compare this with the VM, where we are completely in the dark about the method, the character set used, and the plaintext language and can assume that the author made the breaking of his cipher as hard as possible (provided the VM is authentic), then it may not be so unreasonable to assume there is a solution, but it has eluded us.

Also, while the claim repeatedly comes up that “the best heads in cryptography” were confessed with it, this is certainly true, but it always was only a pasttime to them, and none of them were able to devote their full time and resources to the VM.

Thus I’m fairly confident that there is a truth to the VM, and the truth is still out there.

(If you’re interested in Dorabella, Nick Pelling has — as always — already posted an in-depth treatment of the cipher on his blog.)

*) That was a genuine typo, but I’ll leave it in for kicks. ;-)

**) Besides, once he had sold the VM, there was nothing left to gain for him by raising the value of the manuscript by dropping Bacon hints.

***) There are a few suggested translations, but constructs like “Luigi Ccibunud luv’ngly tuned liuto studo two” bear all the hallmarks of VM translation failures.