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Voynich, Hill, Crumb: A Hitherto Vexing Codex

Amateur armchair theories about the Voynich manuscript

Summer 2021

The Voynich Manuscript, for those not in the know, is a mysterious codex likely written and illustrated some time between the years 1400 and 1600. It's a riddle in many ways: its origins are unknown, the author is unknown and, more importantly, the meaning of its contents is also unkown. The name Voynich comes from a Polish book dealer who bought the manuscript in 1912.

The text is written using an indecipherable alphabet and although statistical analysis reveals similarity to natural language, cryptanalysis of it has thus far been unsuccessful. The illustrations are similarly confounding, consisting mostly of unidentifiable plants and women emerging from baths, barrels or canisters.

Various theories have been put forth about the meaning and/or purpose of the manuscript, but none of them have managed to satisfactorily explain all aspects of the codex or even produce a single meaningful decoding of the text. Whenever a new theory emerges - which still happens from time to time - it is swiftly debunked.

One of the theories that's hard to both debunk and prove is that of glossolalia - meaning the text is supposedly the ramblings of someone generally not considered to be performing at peak mental capacity. This has some appeal to me, though not to various pundits in the know, mostly because it's based around the assumption that the glossolalia was induced by migraine attacks and even, by comparing it to the works of Hildegard von Bingen, that it can still be meaningfully deciphered.

I think the Voynich manuscript hasn't been decoded because it cannot be decoded. My belief is that it's written by someone suffering not from migraines but rather from schizophrenia.

Charles Crumb and Graphomania

Charles Crumb is perhaps most known as the older brother of underground comic artist Robert Crumb. Charles, like his younger brother, was once a promising comic book artist, but his life-long battle with schizophrenia effectively put a stop to this career. What remains of his work is mostly childhood attempts at making comic books. They initially show great talent, but are perhaps more (morbidly) interesting as a document of a "descent into madness": completely normal comics gradually turn into dense text and the text itself then dissolves into compact, illegible scribbles that resembles words written in cursive but cannot be read in any meaningful way.

A text-heavy excerpt from a comic book

Charles Crumb's "Treasure Island" gradually turned into more text than comic.

This proclivity for compulsive writing or even producing completely unintelligible and ultimately meaningless almost-text has various different names depending on how it presents itself. Typomania is (usually) a desire to see one's name in print, Graphomania is writing compulsively (though usually legibly) and Hypergraphia can lead to unintelligible text, pointless repetitions or even an urge to draw instead of write. The latter is usually linked to epilepsy. Graphomania, on the other hand, can turn into Graphorrhea, which is described as "nonsense" or "ramblings" and is linked to schizophrenia.

Unintelligible text that resembles a dense cursive.

Charles Crumb's cursive lookalike.

Whatever we decide to call it, it's clear that Charles Crumb had an urge to write so strong that he eventually abandoned not only the rules of grammar, but the notion of letters altogether. He may have meant to write words, but what came out of his pen was an imitation, something that looked like writing but really wasn't. He wasn't just literate, he was quite adept at both writing and drawing, yet his mind failed him in putting his thoughts onto paper.

Carl Fredrik Hill

Carl Fredrik Hill was a Swedish painter active during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Like so many of his peers, he travelled to France in order to practise his art and, again like many of his peers, his real success came after his death. His early oil paintings are beautiful in a sort of strikingly melancholic way (if melancholy can be striking), perhaps a premonition of his illness: after a psychotic episode he was forced to return home, where he eventually spent his last years living with his mother and sister. Though he suffered from schizophrenia, his artistic output remained prolific.

Painting of a woman standing at a riverside, watching the setting sun.

Carl Fredrik Hill: Aftonstämning (Evening ambiance)

Hill's later works took on a decidedly different look than his French paintings and were mainly inspired by art, magazines and book illustrations available in his mother's home in Lund.

Pencil drawing of nude women standing in a row. Underneath them are nude women standing next to horses.

Carl Fredrik Hill: Repetitive drawings of nude women.

Painting of several women, fully dressed though seemingly wading in water.

Carl Fredrik Hill's "Familjen" features women seemingly wading in water.

Hill's drawings from his later years in life are often repetitive and bizarre, featuring lots of intricate patterning. Well known pieces include naïve studies of classical architecture interspersed with malplaced faces and animals.

Drawing of a large head with a tiger on top of it. In the background is a gathering of small people and animals.

Detail from Carl Fredrik Hill's "Untitled (Palace With Emperor Statue and Tigers)".

It seems that during this later period in his life, Hill was also fond of seeing his own name. He sometimes signed paintings repeatedly, calling to mind the previously discussed Typomania.

A painting repeatedly signed 'Hill'

Repetitive "Hill" signatures.

Voynich, Hill, Crumb

The above examples - just two out of a plethora of similar art created by people suffering from schizophrenia - lead me to believe that the Voynich manuscript cannot be decoded because it contains nothing that's possible to decode.

Illustration of bathing women, from the Voynich manuscript.

Repetition in the Voynich manuscript: bathing women.

The text, like Charles Crumb's almost-cursive, follows some kind of pseudo rules a literate person might instinctively apply. This makes it look like text, feel like text and ostensibly carry information like text but is, in the end, a hopeless attempt at conveying something without the rules and rigor of actual language.

Illustration of women emerging from barrels, from the Voynich manuscript.

Repetition in the Voynich manuscript: women in barrels, arranged in a zodiac-like manner.

The illustrations are, just like Hill's later drawings, repetitions of themes found in other books, filtered through the same graphomaniacal filter as the text, though emerging as something slightly more approachable.

Indecipherable text and illustration from the Voynuch manuscript.

Example of the strange text and illustrations in the Voynich manuscript.

With all of this in mind, I posit that the Voynich manuscript has been created by the literate but schizophrenic son or daughter of a relatively wealthy person. This person would've had access not just to parchment and ink but probably also to a library featuring the type of literature common at the time (religious tracts, astronomy and herbology books) to draw inspiration from, just like Hill. He or she would also have had the prerequisite knowledge to ramble and scribble in something that looks like text but isn't, just like Crumb.

Preemptive Mea Culpa

These are amateur armchair ponderings. I might of course be seeing patterns where there are none (but then again, so are usually the people who claim to have "decoded" the manuscript). I've got no real expertise in any of the disciplines this article touches and will happily be both corrected or proven completely wrong. I make no claim to having solved the Voynich riddle. It will remain a Henceforth Vexing Codex and continue to provide fascination for me and everyone else.