VM PHILOSOPHY versus VM POLITICS
Jan. B. Hurych
After almost one hundred years after it's discovery, the VM still resist the individual and even joined attacks of linguists and cryptographers. If we look for possible causes of such failure - it is a hard word, but it has to be said anyway - we are rather confused. Most likely, there are several of those causes, all of them working against us. That is not to say we do not have enough of "efforts" but I hesitate to call them "solutions". Yes, efforts, unfinished and unproven but also not completely disproved either. We never really went deep enough to say quite clearly "this is definitely not working". It was always "it could not work" or "it should not work". True, the burden of the proof should be always on the discoverer himself but we never asked him for complete proof neither we helped such person to provide it for us . So we ended with many hypotheses, none of them completely dead nor alive. If we sometimes go back to them, it is for answers that should have been provided long time ago. Some answers are of course lost forever . . .
Typical case is the one of the most enigmatic VM researchers. Leonell C. Strong, a cancer research scientist who wrote over 300 scientific articles, mainly about genetic link in the origin of cancer, is known he provided oncologists with inbred strains of mice cancer. However, he was also an amateur cryptographer - according to his admission, he spent over 25 years studying the medieval cryptography.
Then there he saw the book by professor Newbold with photographs of two VM folios and by applying the methods of Trithemius, Porta and Selenus, he believed he happened to decrypt the text.
How much of it he got decrypted, we cannot tell but he himself felt the limitations of such small sample (tweo folios only). Learning that Mr. Voynich got the most (or all of) the VM "photocopied" as photostats (which technology may not be completely clear to us today) he tried to get a hold of it - or at least to borrow - for his study.
That's where his misfortune started. (Note: What follows here is based on his own correspondence which is, by the way, very interesting reading and he surely get our sympathy for his efforts.) The year was 1945 and contrary to Mr. Voynich who encouraged the public to look for VM solution, Strong could not get a hold of those photostats. Mrs. Voynich was very sick at that time and Miss. Nill, acting on her behalf, several times simply refused the request. For him, it was especially frustrating, knowing some other persons had an access and he was not even allowed to know their names. One of them was of course Mr. Friedman whom he approached with request as well but without VM owners, he could not just lend it to him.
Unhappy for being refused the access, Strong concentrated on those two folios or rather on the copies of them. On folio 93, he discovered the encrypted name of Anthony Ascham, the brother of better known Roger Ascham. It is unclear how he knew that person was the author, but he never doubted that. He tried to get more information about A. Ascham and learned he wrote some almanacs, namely the "Treatise on astronomy" and "A Little Herbal, etc." (1555). Strong also tried to compare the handwriting of the above with the one of the VM but we have no results about that (it would be rather non-conclusive due to the simplicity of the VM script which gives no clues, I tried hopelessly the similar comparison). Neither did he try to compare the draweings of plants in the VM with the pictures in Ascham's herbal (if they were any).
He was encouraged by his choice of Ascham by discovery of the VM "sunflower" by prof O' Neill, since that plant appeared first in Europe after Columbus discovery and that put Roger Bacon out of the picture completely (as did Manly :-). Askham however fits timewise OK. Unfortunately, that left the languages of choice to those only Askham knew :-).
Surprisingly, Strong believed the VM deals with herbal medicine, mainly for woman, since one sentence in the VM reads according to his decrypting "When skuge uf tun'c-bag rip, seo oogon kum sli of se mosure-issue ped-stans sku-bent, stokked kimbo-elbow crawknot.'' which he believed was in medieval English and so he translated it into modern English as: "When the contents of the womb rip (or tear the membranes), the child comes slyly from the mother-issuing with the leg-stance seewed and bent while the arms, bent at elbow, are knotted (above the head) like the legs of a crawfish". Irregular as the sentence seems, with many interposed words and comments, we have to give Strong the credit for trying to decrypt the whole sentence and make some sense to it. There is of course the great danger that the wishful thinking can smudge the original meaning completely. (Note: as per his own words, Strong considered the content of the VM "unsuitable for women" while later admitted it was something like Kinsey report in Ascham's time. Apparently he thought it dealt also with anticonception and abortion).
In June 15, 1945 he published in the magazine Science the article ANTHONY ASKHAM, THE AUTHOR OF THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT. Here he made already several tactical mistakes:
a) the assignment of the authorship was surely premature,
b) his claim he knew the whole encrypting scheme was challenging for some and irritating for others - especially since he did not disclose how he did it,
c) the choice of the "medieval English" was utterly wrong.
First attack went against the language , so devastating that he tried to investigate the old Gaelic language instead and again, the experts proved him wrong again. What's more, some of his decoded expressions were utterly modern, namely "paprika" etc. That of course did not eliminate Ascham's authorship completely but made it rather weak.
As for his claim he could decrypt the whole VM - without having seen more than two folios - it was a psychological mistake, as he himself realized. He was told by somebody that for the owner, the unsolved manuscript had higher selling price advantage. Come to think of it - if the VM was fraud and the owners knew that, they might have been afraid of a disclosure.
As he later claimed, the article was intended to get the public attention to the VM, but we suspect it was rather teh attention to his solution, to get him the permission to see the photostats. He also expected most from the article he wanted to publish in Time Magazine but it was turned down by editors with following answer:
Time & Life Building, The Weekly Newsmagazine Rockefeller Center New York Editorial Offices: " We regret that were unable to run the story on the Voynich manuscript and sadly return the wealth of material that you so kindly lent us. We felt unable to use this story because of the lack of cooperation on the part of the manuscript's owners. Naturally, our editors felt the subject too contentious to discuss without a fuller view of all its aspects."
Somehow, somebody interfered, taht is certain. Strong blamed owners of the VM. Later, he was hinting that while Mr. Friedman was working on the VM solution (imagine, there was still the war going on!) he was probably also involved in some conspiracy. There might be something in it, considering that instead of letting Strong to see the Photostats, Friedman suggested for Strong to give him the solution and he would try it on the computer himself :-).
Strong still carried on in his research and two years later he published another article,
Strong, Leonell C. and McCawley, E. L. ``A Verification of a Hitherto Unknown Prescription of the 16th Century.'' in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine (Baltimore, Md.) 21 (November-December 1947). There he tried to apply his discoveries from the VM, namely as per picture in folio 93, dealing with plant used as a contraceptive based on "antibiotic" qualities of such plant.
Still, even in 1962, he was still not able to see the photostats and even
The New Yorker refused to print his article without the permission of the owners. That was probably the last straw: he totally abandoned the project, swearing that "nobody ever will learn his secret" while some other time he said "it is all in Trithemius, Porta and Selenus". From his notes, some researchers tried to simulate his solution, but soon stopped pointing out there is too many possibilities for "wishful translation". For those reasons, we did not try here to discuss his methods or provide any criticism by cryptoanalysts, all that being beyond the subject of this article.
So where did he go wrong? Was he secretive, suspicious, afraid that somebody will steal his solution? Or was he right in his suspicion, mistreated and treated unfairly? Or was it just because he was so immersed in his assumptions that he did not like any criticism and got easily offended? After all, we all have our pride and that is all right, I presume. One thing is however for sure: his advertisement of "complete solution" was premature and without checking the whole manuscript, he could never prove his point. Later, when he learned the VM is in Yale, he still did not pick up where he stopped before.
He was not the only one who did not provide us with the clear, repeatable method for the solution. Too bad, because those theories, like zombies, exist only in limbo, between the life and dead. Newbold and many others after him also presented the incomplete, ambiguous methods that can hardly be called "solutions". Even the "gibberish" theory is like a snake eating its own tail: gibberish, yes, but very organized gibberish indeed: it is looking like VM, following VM grammar and providing very low entropy as well :-). Of course it is an easy way out - if it is only gibberish one does nikot need to look for the solution . . .
What can we learn from that? Well, there is so far no complete solution and probably never will be. So let's be humble and do not claim unclaimable. Besides, if we announce the solution, any solution, we have to be ready to throw it tio the public for scrutinizing. Simply said, we have to be ready. The best advice to such proponent of new solution is the question: how can be your hypothesis falsified? If he never asked himself this question, he is simply not ready to proclaim anything. And hew should not be offended if some other person has different opinion, provided the objkections are presented decently and with no personal attacks. But most of all, the burden of proof is on the person who comes with the solution - if he is not ready to present it all, he should at least give enough material so his theory can be substantiated. Not just the decoded text, please, one can writ ethousands of them. Everybody should be his own hardest critic. And of course, one might be on right track but there is no time for celebration one day before the exam :-).