29 May 2018

Tuesday Talk:THE WORLD'S STRANGEST MANUSCRIPT


by my guest:  Shaun Ivory


We live in a world of seemingly frantic brain-teasing, nut-puzzling anxiety. Never before has so much thought and effort gone into making our brains work. Those ‘leetle grey cells’ beloved of Hercule Poirot have never been so activated – one might even say agitated. We are told how crucial it is – not only to our minds’ health but our very longevity. Who doesn’t want to live an extra day, another hour…one more minute?         

The example of mathematicians is trotted out, that section of society who reputedly live the longest. Because mathematicians use their brains almost continuously to solve problems and never really give up the habit, even after retirement, it is therefore suggested that it is the brain’s condition that determines the body’s continuance. 


There is no escape if you are even moderately literate; magazines, quizzes, TV, newspapers… Newspapers! One British national daily tabloid has a Coffee Break section with no less than 18 crosswords, codewords, sudokus, kakuros – and  all those other Oriental variations in between. Some coffee break! Another broadsheet has around 50 in its weekend offering.  Add in the runaway success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and you have that strange phenomenon – a craze.


 So what about the Voynich Manuscript then? Sorry, the?… Come again? The Voynich Manuscript is the only man-made code that has never been broken. No human genius or electronic computer has cracked it and it’s not for the want of trying. Imagine a book written in an unknown alphabet, in an unknown language, at an unknown date and place…by an unknown person or persons. But with loads of illustrations. You would be forgiven for thinking it couldn’t be that hard.



Its known history is brief but intriguing. In 1912, Wilfrid M. Voynich, a rare book collector, bought a number of medieval manuscripts from the Jesuit College at the Villa Mondragone, Frascati in Italy. It turned out to have originally belonged to the Collegium Romanum.  Attached to the manuscript was a letter in Latin dated 1666 from Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland, Rector of Prague University.  Among these was a 235-page manuscript written in what appeared to be an unknown language or cipher.

A head picture of Wilfrid Voynich in glasses
Wilfrid M. Voynich
 It is thought to have been written between 1450 and 1520 but – like everything else about it – this too is less than certain. Its probable authorship is also up for grabs; everyone from that period – Roger Bacon, John Dee, Edward Kelley in Elizabethan times most notably – and on down through a bewildering list of less-than-usual suspects.

The pages are approximately ten inches by seven, vellum, the script with a quill pen, the illustrations…we-ell, now we’re getting to it. They range from the astronomical to biological to cosmological to herbal and on to pharmaceutical, in the brightest colours and sometimes the most explicit detail. The astronomical sections drift into the astrological (not too divorced from each other in medieval times) with conventional zodiacal constellations, each symbol surrounded by exactly 30 female figures, most of them naked.

The biological part is a dense continuous text – which nobody can read yet – interspersed with mainly small nude women bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes. The cosmological section contains more circular diagrams, of an obscure nature, with what appear to be ‘islands’ connected by ‘causeways’, ‘castles’ and a ‘volcano’.

The herbal bit is probably the most visual, with exotic plants in great detail that seem to have withstood the test of time, although there is some doubt about those being dated from the original. The pharmaceutical part includes more isolated plants, roots or leaves and objects resembling apothecary jars drawn along the margins.

The text consists of over 170,00 characters or glyphs, which in themselves present a great problem for cryptographers; practically no “word” is longer than 10 letters and very few contain only one or two letters. Some characters seem to be Latin but not quite, others might stem from various European alphabets of the 15th century. Just to screw up any patterns that a clever clogs might start to detect, you come across the names of ten months (March to December) written in Latin script. But experts intone that these latter were inserted at some later date and therefore do not…compute!

So just how difficult is it to understand? The top professional American and British codebreakers who cut their teeth, so to speak, on the Enigma and Ultra codes in World War II failed to decipher a single word. The sheer randomness of the text defeated them. This failure of course gave rise to much controversy as to the actual validity of the writing as a form of code of any kind. This in turn made the manuscript not only a famous subject of historical cryptology but it also gave weight to the theory that the book is simply an elaborate hoax. But by whom…and for what? 

Theories abound: the manuscript is not one but two distinct “languages”, it has been written in two “hands”, meaning it has more than one author. Another suggestion further muddies the textual waters by upping the ante to five or even eight different originators. Or the whole thing is a forgery anyway, sold early on for 300 ducats (£12,000) to the strange Emperor Rudolf II, who surrounded himself with dwarfs and giants. In 1990 a multi-disciplinary group of varying size, generally between 100-200 individuals, pledged to decipher it. They were dispersed all around the globe and connected through the Internet, maintaining an electronic mail forum on the decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript. This was with the avowed intention of developing a machine-readable representation of the text.

So far?...
Silence.

* * * 

Shaun Ivory
Shaun Ivory was born and raised in a seaside town not unlike that which is described in Friends of my Father. In 1951 at age 16 he joined the RAF as a boy airman, studying ground radio and radar, and served in UK and Malta.

On discharge he became a radio troubleshooter with Ferguson Radio and then telephone exchange faultfinder with GEC Telecommunications, before being picked as a Key Worker to covert to Instrumentation Technician at ICI Wilton UK. He  later worked with Shell in the North Sea.

He began writing radio scripts about life on an oil rig. These were broadcast on the BBC and RTE in Ireland. Shaun has written numerous short stories, articles and even scripts for TV (never produced) with modest success. His second novel The Judas Cup was independently published. As well as the partly autobiographical Friends of My Father he has published his Wild West to Hollywood chronicles, America Made Me (Duty and Dishonor, Killing Kiowas and Bad Company .



About The Judas Cup: An exciting supernatural thriller set in and around the North York Moors. Almost 2000 years ago, Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver. Over the centuries that silver has been melted down and wrought into satanic instruments, most recently a chalice, the ‘Judas Cup’. This unholy grail, which has been sought by many, fought over – even held in the Vatican vaults for a time – is once again up for grabs, and now there’s a desperate race to find it. Jake Ransome, fledgling reporter, is investigating several mysterious deaths, all linked to an occult ritual gone terribly wrong, and a church that will soon disappear forever in a flooded valley. How is the beautiful but enigmatic heiress involved? Why is her multi-millionaire mentor so intent on getting her back? As dramatic events unfold only Jake stands as her shield before such a powerful and ruthless man. For Sir Nicholas Brookes it’s a quest that can have only one ending. Already in a pact with the Vatican, he must now dance with the Devil… for the highest stakes of all.

reviewed by
Discovering Diamonds
About Friends of my Father : Ireland 1943: although officially neutral no country can remain totally immune from world events. Some of its finest young are fighting and dying in far-flung places. But back home 13-year-old Brendan Lavelle has his own war to fight. His father, John Lavelle, is one of the town’s two doctors, respected and revered as a holder of the Victoria Cross medal, won at Gallipoli in 1915. One late spring morning Brendan, while out visiting with him, uncovers a seemingly trivial secret about his father that sets him on a perilous quest for the truth – a search that takes him back to another war, one that could threaten his entire family’s future. Is his father part of a terrible conspiracy that involves betrayal, murder and a hunt for stolen gold? Why are his father’s former comrades-in-arms no longer what they seemed… and why are they so suddenly interested in what Brendan knows? With his infuriating but streetwise sidekick, Maura, they are all that stands between the destruction of everything Brendan holds dear… and a truth that may prove more costly than he is prepared to pay. In the rumour-soaked atmosphere of Ireland’s ‘Emergency’ – with its spies from the skies, floating German mines and the hated ‘glimmer man’ – five crucial days is compellingly evoked here in a tale of one boy who must grow up fast – or die!

https://www.writing.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/duty-and-dishonour.jpg
reviewed by
Discovering Diamonds
About Duty and Dishonour : Conor O’Farrell was born in mid-Atlantic, on a coffin ship, his parents fleeing the Irish potato famine. In that sense he was lucky, where millions were not. His father taught him to be proud of his new American roots. When the Civil War started his father said it was his duty to volunteer; the family owed their new country. Conor was 16, swept along on the tide of history like so many others, in a nation struggling to find its identity. In his determination to survive he did things few men could boast about. But survival was paramount; nobility had to catch up.

This epic of one such life takes in the sweep of a crucial and colourful period in the American West, meeting historical characters along the way.

What he lived through made him what he was – patriot, soldier, gunfighter, buffalo hunter, outlaw, lover, movie star – but always… a fugitive.

Finds books by Shaun on :
                         

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