The Voynich Manuscript and Reddit: The Missing Link?

Enigmatic code has fascinated human thought for centuries. One of the most recognizable examples of this is the Enigma Machine, a typewriter-like device used by the Nazis to encode and send secret messages during World War II. With the work of cytologists from multiple nations, the Allied forces were ultimately able to intercept and decode many important Nazi messages, helping the Allies win the war.

However, World War Two was not the beginning of cryptography, contrary to the belief of some. The science of encoding and decoding messages has been around since at least 1900 BC, when unique hieroglyphics were carved into tombs and monuments in Old Kingdom Egypt. Although Greek, Mesopotamian, and Hebrew scribes made some improvements to the science, it was the Arabs who truly invented modern cryptology. This soon transferred to Medieval Europe, where warring nations used encoded messages to fuel political competition and religious revolution. It was during this era that the Voynich manuscript was supposedly written.

Voynich Manuscript

A foldout page of the Voynich manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is one of the most well-known cases in the history of cryptography. Named after the book dealer who purchased the book 101 years ago, the manuscript is filled with botanical and astronomical illuminations, which break the book up into 6 sections, none of which have been decoded. Donated to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1969 (under the catalogue number MS 408), the book has since been digitized, and is free for anyone to access.

The digitization of such documents, I believe, will lead to its eventual decoding, with the help of social media. Sites like Reddit and Twitter are already used for crowdsourcing and mystery-solving. A recent example of this is the case of Professor T. Mills Kelly of George Mason University, who had his students create truthful Wikipedia pages and forge primary documents to create a false back-story that was launched on Reddit. Within minutes, Redditors flagged the story as being suspicious, and ultimately traced the entire story back to its falsified roots.

Codex Seraphinianus

The Codex Seraphinianus, another yet-to-be-decoded text

Crowdsourcing is a powerful tool, and has great potential for those interested in solving age-old mysteries. Strong communities focused on sharing information exist across the social media spectrum. These groups, from Reddit and 4chan to Tumblr and Twitter, may have the collective power to decode enigmas such as the Voynich manuscript (or the Codex Seraphinianus, which was the subject of a recent Imgur post). If libraries, archives, and museums are able to tap into the collective intelligence of the Internet, possibly in a model similar to NARA’s Citizen Archivist program, many of the mind-boggling questions and mysteries of human history might finally be solved.

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