This post is not about whether or not the Voynich Manuscript is from 1420, 1550, 1610 or 1912. It is about just how crazy it is that we simply cannot say for certain. And just how difficult a situation this is, is demonstrated by the curious root on f27v, which I have dubbed “the puzzle piece”. This root looks nothing like a root, or any part of a plant. What it does is look all the world like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle… the locking kind, with all it’s bulbous legs, and it’s flat surface punctuated by an attempt at three-dimensional thickness by the author.
Whatever this root is supposed to look like, it is not supposed to be a root, that is clear. The artist went through the trouble of giving it thickness, and actually a pretty non-organic and uniform thickness… just like it was cut out of some flat material with some sort of… well, you get it. But I thought, if this was meant to be a jigsaw puzzle piece, then what would that imply about the dating and meaning of the Voynich Manuscript? So I looked up the history of the jigsaw, and contacted a couple of experts in the puzzle field.
According to Daniel McAdam, on the American Jigsaw Puzzle Society’s “History of Jigsaw Puzzles” page,
“It is generally agreed that the first jigsaw puzzle was produced around 1760 by John Spilsbury, a London engraver and mapmaker. Spilsbury mounted one of his maps on a sheet of hardwood and cut around the borders of the countries using a fine-bladed marquetry saw.”
But these early puzzles had pieces of all sorts of shapes and sizes, but not yet in the iconic “locking” shapes we might associate best with the f27v root form. Bob Armstrong, a puzzle expert, told me,
“The earliest period such a shape could exist in an American puzzle piece would be 1910s, but more likely the 1920s and 30s. I don’t remember any European puzzles with pieces of that shape before the 1910s either, but it could be possible.”
He then referred my query to Anne Williams, the leading authority on American puzzles. She wrote,
“The image is quite striking. If you took away the shading under the thick line (which seems to give it thickness) it would not look nearly as much like a puzzle piece.
“Your question really has two parts: 1) when did similar shapes appear in jigsaw puzzles? and 2) when did artists begin to think of such a shape as representing a piece of a puzzle?
“In the United States there were several puzzle makers in Philadelphia circa 1860 who used loosely interlocking pieces that resemble your image. Thomas Wagner, Jacob Shaffer and M. H. Traubel are the names that appear on the puzzles.”
And so of course the answer is that if this were meant to evoke a jigsaw puzzle piece, it would could really only mean it was put there after 1860, and the only reasonable explanation as to “why?” it was there would be that the manuscript was a Wilfred Voynich hoax. Of course that is easy to dismiss, on the surface, because of all the mountains one would need to climb before arriving, reputation tattered, at the Wilfred Hoax Theory. I’m not there, and I’m not going there… really, I’m not. But I like to ask questions and explore ideas, and so do you if you read this far.
You see the problem as I see it is not as much that a root appears as a post-1860 object, but much more so what that object happens to be. This root does not look like a car key, or a cigarette lighter, or any endless number of objects which we would casually dismiss as a coincidence, but this happens to look an awful lot like a post-1860 object which is the best iconic representation of a mystery!
I mused as to why, if Wilfrid was creating the Voynich Manuscript in 1910 or so, he might put this little clue in there,
“[perhaps] Wilfrid Voynich had created a hoax… either for profit, or to “thumb his nose” at the literary scholarly establishment, which he had to deal with often. He needed to validate his works, and their opinion would of course determine the authenticity, and then value, of his collections. Perhaps he wanted to teach them a lesson of sorts, to play a trick on them. Of course if he did this, he would never be able to reveal what he had done. It would have de-legitimized him and his business, and this is an argument against his doing so.
“But the fact that this root has the shape of a puzzle piece which would have been familiar to a hoaxer, in 1910/12 as such, means that it is possible (although still highly unlikely) that the hoaxer included it as a joke. Kind of like when a killer sends a letter to the police, daring them to catch him… it gives a sense of superiority, as though they are better, and smarter, than the powers that be. Wilfred was a well known book dealer, but outside the scholarly establishment, the “powers that be”, to him. Perhaps he couldn’t resist?”
Well of course I have introduced a far-out idea here, and one which I don’t take entirely seriously. I just like to explore various observations, and wonder at the implications they might suggest. At the same time, as I pointed out, it is amazing that other than a brief dismissal of “that’s improbable”, or even, “that’s nuts”, such suggestions cannot be dismissed with facts, or any certainty. So while an idea like this one might, at first blush, seem out of the question, it cannot be said to be impossible, given what little we know. And that is the point. It is still true that many still see in the Voynich Manuscript the influences of so much of literary history, and tantalizing images seemingly drawn from a wide range of cultures, sciences, religions. And again, this book really looks very different from all of them, in every little detail. A person with the materials, means, knowledge, and monetary motive, all of which Wilfrid arguably possessed, could have done it. And maybe he is simply having a good laugh at all of us, for all these decades. Perhaps the puzzle root was Wilfrid Voynich’s gift to us… to help us out of this vicious mess, but we are just too clever to take it.