The Voynich Manuscript and the joy of trolling

Arguably the most mysterious book in the world is a velum codex, probably created in northern Italy in the fifteenth century, which has since 1969 resided in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Known as the Voynich Manuscript, after the book dealer Wilfrid Voynich who acquired it around a century ago, it appears to be a sort of illustrated encyclopedia of natural history, with particular emphasis on botany, medicine and astronomy, of a type that was not uncommon in Renaissance Europe. But that is where resemblance between the Manuscript and any other known work of the period – or of any other period, come to that – ends.

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The script in which the Manuscript is written consists of an ‘alphabet’ of simple characters arranged into ‘words’ of two to ten characters in length, written horizontally from left to right using a quill pen and a blackish ink typical of the era. Although some of the characters bear a superficial resemblance to letters of the Roman alphabet, the script is clearly not derived from or related to it or any other known script. Tantalizingly, the relative frequencies of the characters, their distribution within ‘words’ and the informational depth of the text are all more or less consistent with natural written languages, as research published in 2013 has demonstrated. And yet all attempts to decipher the script, even by recognized world authorities on cryptography including top codebreakers from both World Wars, have so far utterly failed. As Poe remarked of a certain German book in his short story ‘The Man in the Crowd’, es lässt sich nicht lesen – “it does not permit itself to be read”. That’s before we even come to the illustrations, which show plants that don’t exist, unknown constellations and diagrams that have been speculatively interpreted as showing galaxies and biological cells, neither of which was discovered until centuries after the manuscript’s writing (firmly dated to 1404-1438 by radiocarbon analysis).

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The identity of the manuscript’s author is still a mystery and seems likely to remain one, pending the discovery of new evidence. A once-popular theory attributed the document to the English friar and polymath Roger Bacon (known to have been an early cryptography enthusiast) on the basis that it may at one point have been owned by John Dee, who is known to have owned a large collection of Bacon’s manuscripts. Another theory posits Dee himself as the author, having presumably created it and ascribed it to Bacon in the hope of selling it – and it certainly was sold by someone, to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II some time in the late 16th century for a sum equivalent to two kilos of gold. But if the radiocarbon date can be trusted, Bacon died over a century before the book was written while it was already at least the best part of a century old when Dee was born.

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Whether Dee really had anything to do with the manuscript, it is perhaps inevitable that his name should be associated with it. Equal parts mystic, charlatan and legitimate genius, Dee is one of the most fascinating characters of the later Renaissance. He and his ‘scryer’ Edward Kelley claimed to communicate with angels in the so-called Enochian language, the supposed ur-language of which Biblical Hebrew is, Dee explained, a debased and imperfect derivative. In fact analysis of surviving Enochian texts shows it to be an invented language with a vaguely Semitic-sounding vocabulary heavily influenced by Arabic and Hebrew (as befits the language’s fictional origins) with a grammatical structure virtually identical to contemporary English. The language came complete with its own fanciful alphabet, which of course is tantalizingly suggestive of the Voynich itself.550px-Enochian_alphabet

But the Voynich is not the only unusual book to have been linked to John Dee. One of the most enduring creations of the cult horror writer H. P. Lovecraft is the Necronomicon of the infamous ‘mad Arab’ Abdul Alhazred. The grimoire, titled Al-Azif or Kitab al-Azif in the original Arabic, was supposedly penned in the 8th century CE after the author – a poet and occultist – had spent many years living alone in Rub’ al-Khali, the famed and feared ‘Empty Quarter’ in southern Arabia, which even today many peninsular Arabs consider to be djinn-haunted. Having been translated first into Greek, at which point it was given its more familiar name, and later into Latin, the book is supposed to have been suppressed and burned by various popes and patriarchs over the centuries. Lovecraft credits John Dee with making the only known attempt at an English translation, but (perhaps fortunately for humanity) this version is described as inaccurate and incomplete, and was never printed. Now one of the things that makes Lovecraft’s writing so effective is the meticulous and incredibly convincing way in which he blended his fictional creations with real historical people, places and artifacts. An excellent example is the way he ascribes the Necronomicon‘s Latin translation to the (real) mediaeval scholar Olaus Wormius, and has it burned in the 11th century by the (real) Patriarch Michael in Byzantium. Likewise, his fictional Arkham is every bit as plausible as the real city of Providence, and with the possible exception of its unusual library, Miskatonic University is no less believable an academy than its real-life model, Brown – although perhaps an even better match would be Yale, with its specialist library full of arcane tomes. Indeed the interior of the library’s climate-controlled ‘marble cube’ that houses the central stack has been included in an online list of ‘most Lovecraftian real places’: surely if a copy of the Necronomicon really existed anywhere, it would be here – hopefully under a suitable level of security.

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One of the best examples of Lovecraft’s use of the rigorously real to invoke the fantastical and nightmarish is his celebrated story ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, which is presented as a found text – found, that is, some time after the death of its author, the cause of which is not elaborated upon. The first-person voice of the narrator, the meticulous dating of the key events to create a diary-like effect, even the precise coordinates in degrees, minutes and seconds of the particular spot in the south Pacific where the story’s dreadful climax occurs – all this obsessive, even excessive, detail and realism helps to maintain the conceit that you are reading a straightforward factual account of real events. A similar approach has been taken by a new wave of low-budget, realistic (in the cinematographic sense of adhering to the principles of realism) indie horror films, beginning in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project and subsequently developed by Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. These films are likewise presented as found documents released to the world following the disastrous demise of their author-subjects, the only difference being that the documents in question are video tapes or camcorder memory cards rather than written texts.

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A rather unique phenomenon that’s somewhat in this vein is ‘Slenderman’. In 2009 a Something Awful forum member named Victor Surge responded to a thread titled ‘Create Paranormal Images’ with two Photoshopped B/W photographs, purportedly taken in the 1980s, showing a preternaturally tall, stick-like humanoid figure with a perfectly blank, white face, along with some written notes:

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“…[T]wo recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as “The Slender Man”. Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence.”

Thus began the ‘Slender Man’ or ‘Slenderman’ phenomenon. Truly a monster for our postmodern times, the creature’s appearance distills the popular idea of the sinister ‘man in black’ or ‘G-man’, familiar from media as divergent in tone as The X-Files, the Men In Black films and the Half-Life video game series, with perhaps a dash of the Lovecraftian Great Old One Nyarlathotep in his incarnations as the ‘Black Pharaoh‘ or the ‘black man‘ (implying a seemingly human figure dressed from head to foot in black, not ‘black’ in the racial sense), also called the ‘Faceless God‘. In fact it’s not going too far to speak of a ‘Slenderman Mythos’ in the same way we might speak of the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ or the ‘Yellow Mythos’ (the system of stories and images associated with the ‘King in Yellow’, a malignant supernatural entity that spreads madness and death wherever it goes, created originally in the book of the same name by R. W. Chambers and another clear antecedent of both Nyarlathotep and Slenderman himself.) There are countless Slenderman videos on YouTube, including a rather nicely made ‘documentary‘ – again, the fictional presented as real – as well as tributes, footage of pranks, parodies and so on – and also an incredibly creepy video game:

But what truly sets Slenderman apart is its status as a ‘meme’, a unit of cultural meaning that effortless spreads from one medium to another and, in just a few years, has become so omnipresent on the internet that some people have seriously began to wonder whether it’s a ‘real’ phenomenon. (Although it’s perhaps best left up to individual interpretation as to whether the question was asked in the spirit of a young child inquiring earnestly if Father Christmas really exists, or whether people are unsure if Slenderman is a modern creation or an old-time folk myth like the ‘bogeyman’ or any of his countless international equivalents. Then again, Slenderman is arguably just the bogeyman updated for the 21st century.)

This brings me to a rather disturbing point. Lovecraft interwove his cosmically paranoid ‘mythos’ with real history so ingeniously that today a fair number of people around the world honestly believe the Necronomicon to be a real book and will tell you in all earnestness that the notion of the book’s invention by a 20th-century pulp writer is a benign conspiracy intended to protect humanity from the awful truth of its authenticity. This has been aided and abetted by the publication of several ‘Necronomicon’s, some presented openly as an ‘artist’s impression’ of what the fictional book might look like while others have been presented as the ‘real thing’.

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I can only imagine this would have delighted Lovecraft, who in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith wrote:

“[N]o weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.”

The amazing level of scientific realism in many of Lovecraft’s stories, in particular his longer, later works, means we can perhaps describe his central narrative technique as that of making the unbelievable believable. With respect to the Necronomicon in particular, the ease with which information can be duplicated and shared in the modern world raises the horrifyingly prospect of some insane owner of a copy of the book (would there be any other kind?) scanning the entire grimoire to PDF, uploading it to a free filesharing website and then spamming a link to the download page on Facebook and Twitter. The cursed video tape in Ring begins to look about as threatening as a compilation of amusing cat videos by comparison – but then again, the ease with which videos can be shared on YouTube massively extends the potential reach of a piece of footage that it’s a really, really bad idea to watch. And anyone who harbours doubts regarding whether someone would be reckless enough either to share or to voluntarily look at an image or video with potentially soul-shattering consequences should consider the viral spread of such delights as Tubgirl, Lemon Party and the ungodfather of them all, goatse.cx.

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So much for fiction. Lovecraft was a philosophical materialist and, unlike certain of his more suggestible fans, no more believed in the reality of Cthulhu or the Necronomicon than he did in the Judeo-Christian deity or His only begotten Son. But it surely doesn’t need to be said that an idea doesn’t have to be true for it to be powerful. An almost trivially obvious example would be any and every religion. More interesting are cases where people know something to be untrue on a rational, factual level but behave as though they genuinely think it to be real – think of soap opera fans who send flowers to the studio responsible for the show when a popular character dies. A similar thing happened when Conan Doyle had to resurrect Sherlock Holmes after killing him off in his fateful confrontation with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. It wasn’t just that fans were demanding new stories; Conan Doyle could have satisfied that simply by writing stories set prior to Holmes’s death, of course. Rather, they needed to believe – in some very specialist sense of the word “believe” – that Holmes, a fictional character, was somehow “still alive”.

A concept that may be useful to bring up here is that of ‘hyperstition‘ (think superstition, only moreso). To oversimplify a little, one way to describe the idea is that fictions can take on a reality of their own if enough people believe in them with sufficient conviction. Hyperstition and Lovecraftian cosmic horror collide to dizzying effect in Reza Negarestani’s postmodern (well, post-everything, really) theory-novel Cyclonopedia

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Here, the found-text conceit and Russian doll of nested narratives is borrowed wholesale from ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, while the author ingeniously presents himself as the manuscript’s creator who starts the story – yep, you guessed it – dead. Or at least, missing-presumed-devoured-by-nameless-abominations à la Lovecraft’s Mad Arab. What’s particularly fascinating is that this manuscript does not form the outermost narrative layer: that’s formed by the introduction provided by artist Kristen Alvanson (in real life, the wife of the author and illustrator of the book), who – within the story – travels from New York to Istanbul to meet a mysterious online acquaintance who never shows up, and later discovers the manuscript for an insane book. In fact Negarestani is not the sole author of the manuscript (itself essentially a treatise on the work of a fictional Iranian archaeologist named Parsani), since frequent sections of the text comprise online discussions by (real) anonymous commentators on Negarestani’s own website. Or at least, that’s the idea. A somewhat comparable effect is achieved in one of the stories comprising Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which is narrated in the first person by a fictional character but features the author himself in an incidental rôle.

While hyperstition became something of a buzzword among bloggers of continental philosophy, culture theory and so on in the last decade, the idea that belief can create reality goes back further than that: it forms the central conceit of the ’80s fantasy adventure movie The Neverending Story and is also a recurring theme in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, particularly Small Gods.

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Not coincidentally, Pratchett has probably a better understanding than any other author you care to name of the fact that people don’t have to believe that stories are literally true in order for them to be very powerful and important. It’s when a fiction is presented as fact and people take it wholly at face value that the fun and/or trouble – depending on the type of fiction and the type of people fooled by it – starts.

Which brings me on to trolling. There is, I think, no exactly clear distinction between creating fictions that are obviously fictions and pretend to be nothing else, creating fictions that consumers can choose to believe in if they are inclined to ‘go along with the game’, and creating fictions with the express intention of passing them off as literal truth. Of course, some fictions definitely lie at one extreme end of the spectrum: those that are definitely intended to deceive, and in some cases succeed among millions of people for decades or centuries. He we are solidly into the realm of the hoax. Hoaxes are perpetrated for all sorts of reason; often it’s for the sheer trollish pleasure of fooling people, especially clever, highly regarded people (for example, Piltdown Man). In some cases this impulse is combined with a deeper motive, that of making a point about how and why people believe things; a shining example is the Sokal Affair, in which theoretical physicist Alain Sokal superbly spoofed the postmodern philosophical journal Social Text by submitting an intentionally meaningless paper full of quasi-scientific jargon, which they duly published as a serious piece of scholarship.

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In this excellent essay on Cyclonopedia – published, fittingly enough, on April 1st, 2011 – Jonathan McCalmont examines that book’s twisted relationship to mainstream scholarship, weird fiction and the Sokalian reaction to “fashionable nonsense”, and declares:

“…while it would be easy enough to present Negarestani’s book and the positive response it received at the hands of many philosophically inclined Theorists as a hoax in the tradition of Sokal, Negarastani moves the hoax forward by further blurring the line between Theory, truth and nonsense.”

But there are other media besides writing in which it’s possible to create works of recreational deception. In television, the crude pranks once perpetrated by Jeremy Beadle have been superseded by the much cleverer antics of the high priests of wind-up, Dom Joly and Sasha Baron-Cohen, but there is one figure who stands above all others as the uncontested King of the Trolls.

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Since The Day Today first aired 20 years ago, Chris Morris has taken leg-pulling into the realm of high art. But his œuvre would be impossible without the unwitting collaboration of the many establishment figures and fellow entertainers he’s duped over the years. You can only wonder what exactly was going through the mind of Phil Collins when he proudly proclaimed he was talking “Nonce Sense”, or that of Neil definitely-not-a-doctor Fox when he confidently told us that paedophiles have greater genetic similarity to crabs than to other humans. The trollish nature of Morris’s project is even made explicit when he has his guests describe something called Hidden Online Entrapment Computer System, or ‘HOECS‘ for short, or makes them declare “‘Cake’ is a made-up drug”. This, I think, links to my earlier point about the semi-willing participation of the troll-ee in the deception of the troll. People can willfully override even the most elementary sense of skepticism in order to say something palpably ludicrous that makes them feel good.

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And if people can be taken in by an almost equally ludicrous but far more sinister hoax – such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – then paedophile crabs suddenly make (slightly) more sense.

But what of the Voynich Manuscript if it is, after all, a genuine cryptographic text which could in principle be decrypted to yield information? In a way I almost find this a disappointing alternative compared to the hypothesis that it’s a colossally elaborate hoax currently doing just what it was intended to do, i.e. puzzle earnest academics centuries down the line from its time of writing. The announcement that the text almost certainly does mean something has coincidentally come about at the same time as the publication of a new edition of another very strange book, the Codex Seraphinianus.

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This book, written and illustrated by the Italian artist and architect Luigi Serafini, is a commercially available title clearly directly inspired by the Voynich. Presented as a visual encyclopedia of a fantastical and surreal world, the illustrations draw on inspiration from the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and M. C. Escher. The ‘text’ is in an invented ‘script’ and, since the first edition’s publication in 1981, had fixated and tormented cryptography fans around the world, who’ve searched and searched for a way to break the ‘code’ and always come away empty-handed. In 2009 Serafini announced that he had in effect been trolling his readers all along, for the ‘text’ is nothing but meaningless squiggles. However, his hoax had been a clever one: the squiggles are far from random, and give enough of an impression of order to suggest that a sufficiently clever reader might just be able to extract a signal from the seeming chaos.

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Apart from the Voynich, another possible influence on the Codex is the experimental short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ by the Argentinian magic-realist author Jorge Luis Borges. It takes the form of an encyclopedia article on the (doubly-fictional) region of Tlön in which the myths and legends of the (singly-fictional) country of Uqbar, located somewhere in the Middle East of the (real) Earth, are set. In a clear early example of hyperstitional thinking, the article hints that a massive conspiracy of intellectuals is working together to imagine and thereby create the mystical realm of Tlön, with the result that by the end of the story, Earth is actually turning into Tlön.

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Set against such ingenious saboteurs of reality as Borges, Serafini and Negarestani, the pop-crypto offerings of Dan Brown seem distinctly pedestrian. If you want to really mess with people’s heads, it seems, try creating a surreal metafictional encyclopedia – a Wackypedia, if you will. (Yes, Wackypedia exists already. No, it’s not really worth visiting. Uncyclopedia is a lot funnier.)

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Dan Brown actually plays an important part in the history of trolling – but as the victim, rather than perpetrator, of an exquisitely realized hoax. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was published in 1982 and purports to be a piece of serious historical investigation. The main claim of the book is that the historical Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had children by her and that these children or their descendants emigrated to southern France (then part of the Roman province of Gallia) where they became the progenitors of the Merovingian dynasty. Furthermore, the Holy Grail is revealed to have been not an inanimate vessel but a metaphor both for Mary Madgalene’s womb and the royal bloodline that issued from it, and that the awesome truth has been guarded from the hostility of the Catholic Church ever since by a clandestine cult called the Priory of Sion – led by such illustrious Grand Masters as Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton – and its erstwhile military wing, the Knights Templar. Brown was suckered hook, line and sinker, basing his best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code on the ludicrous claims of the older book and even going so far as to include a note in the preface asserting the historical (and, presumably, present-day) reality of the Priory.

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Hilariously, two of the three authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail unsuccessfully sued Brown’s publisher for plagiarism in 2005, two years after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, which had proven an instant bestseller. The court then rather wonderfully bullshitted the bullshitters and ruled that, since the plaintiffs’ book was ostensibly a work of historical ‘fact’, Brown was justified in using it for ‘research’ for his novel. The free publicity of the trial apparently significantly boosted sales of the older cranks’ book, which may have brought them some comfort after they were landed with legal fees in the region of £3,000,000.

To return to the Voynich Manuscript, I propose to look in some detail at the complete list of possible reasons for its creation and then to show that neat distinctions between those reasons are not necessarily possible. A naïve list of plausible motives for writing the book might look like:

  1. Trolling, pure and simple: the book is a hoax and nothing more. But then why go to such lengths? What did the author gain by such an incredible expenditure of mental energy?
  2. Madness. It has been hypothesized that the book is essentially a written analogue of glossolalia, or ‘speaking in tongues’, a form of religious delusion in which the subject spontaneously comes out with meaningless syllables. Perhaps the book’s ‘writing’ meant something to its creator at the time but is necessarily meaningless to anyone else. But if this is the case, it’s an incredibly structured and consistent kind of madness, as the recent linguistic analysis demonstrates.
  3. Real cryptography: knowledge or at least information of some kind is cunningly encrypted and someone with knowledge of the cryptosystem (possibly including an invented language) could decrypt it.

If we accept the last possibility as the probably correct one, the most obvious question to ask is: for whose benefit was the book written? Was the cypher ever known to anyone other than person responsible for it, and was the book ever intended to be read and understood by someone other than the author? If so, then the author must have considered the contents to have been incredibly valuable and presumably to have thought it vital that the information didn’t fall into the ‘wrong’ hands, whoever those hands may have belonged to. But this prompts even more questions. Why, in that case, write it down at all? And what sort of information could it be that’s so incredibly sensitive? If the subject matter of the text has anything to do with the illustrations, it seems unlikely to concern politics, statecraft, religion or anything of a commercial  or military nature. In fact it seems likely that any possible variation on option 3 involves a hefty dose of option 2, due to the unimaginable degree of paranoia the author must have been subject to in order to go so far out of his or her way to encode information in an unreadable book. And if the book was only ever intended for the author’s own benefit, it has to be wondered what that benefit may have been, exactly. In this light it starts to look like an exercise in applied cryptography, conducted probably for personal pleasure and interest, embellished with fanciful illustrations and taken to obsessive lengths until it takes on the proportions of an amazing piece of outsider art.

But can’t much the same be said for option 1? To go to such extreme lengths just so you can snigger behind your hand at someone does seem to bespeak a rather unbalanced mind, to put it mildly, especially if you’re going to be long dead before your intended troll can even take place. In fact it rather evokes the perennial Eng Lit GCSE exam question: to what extent is Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ feigned or real? To put that much effort into appearing mad at some point surely begins to verge on the real thing.

Pièrre de Fermat’s infamous Last Theorem, dating from the 17th century, was finally proven by Andrew Wiles in 1995 after many years of obsessive work that built on earlier breakthroughs my many important mathematicians. The solution had eluded some of the greatest minds in mathematics for over three hundred years but perhaps the most tantalizing aspect of the whole problem was a marginal note written by Fermat in the manuscript in which he described the problem:

“I have assuredly found an admirable proof of this, but the margin is too narrow to contain it.”

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The notion that Fermat had indeed proven his own theorem cannot strictly be ruled out, but seems incredibly unlikely given the vast effort it cost Wiles to come up with his proof, its length of over 100 pages (using mathematical notation far more economical than that available to Fermat) and the fact that it relies on results from number theory, group theory and many other advances that were not made in mathematics till well after Fermat’s time. Far more likely, most historians of mathematics agree, is that what Fermat actually came up with was a misproof (he’d certainly have been in good company) and that he wrote a false claim in good conscience. But I like to consider a third possibility: that Fermat already had a good idea of how incredibly tricky the problem was, and wrote a deliberately false claim to have found a proof in order to drive subsequent generations of mathematics to distraction.

And perhaps something of that spirit was present in the mind of the unknown artist/genius/prophet/madman who created this crazy book, which (I like to think) may well still be puzzling the hell out of people in another six hundred years’ time.

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5 Responses to “The Voynich Manuscript and the joy of trolling”

  1. Bill Wesley Says:

    The novelette “Fiddlers Green” is the best story on belief = reality I have ever read

  2. routemasterflash Says:

    Thanks, I’ll check it out.

  3. Joao Says:

    Excellent and very entertaining post. I was surprised it had no references to Umberto Eco’s work in general or to the Letter of Prester John, though. Both could be woven in the fabric of this tale about the joy of deception and arcane erudition.

  4. Mr McBean Says:

    Came here from Imgur. Excellent piece, thanks for sharing! Loving the fact you link The Voynich manuscript with Chris Morris, the Godfather of modern British comedy. Entertaining and well thought out, gives me some reading to do.
    Thanks

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