The Rohonc Codex
The Voynich manuscript is deservedly the world’s most famous undeciphered book (pace the Codex Seraphinianus). With its handsome script and illustrations, and the seemingly fractal nature of the clues uncovered (it follows Zipf’s Law, it’s been connected to Rudolf II, there are rules about which characters can be positioned where in words, and so on) it has had a magnetic attraction on mystery lovers over the last one hundred years. It has also, unfortunately, overshadowed other interesting documents of a similar nature. One of these is the Rohonc Codex.
The Codex can be placed firmly into history in 1838, when Count Gusztáv Batthyány donated it (along with the rest of his library) to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The Count had lived in England for years, and continued to do so until the end of his life, but he was an avowed Hungarian nationalist and proud of his heritage. The Codex itself appeared to be of, perhaps, medieval origin, with undecipherable hand-written glyphs of some sort and crude black-and-white illustrations. As a piece of Hungarian history apparently pre-dating the Battle of Mohács, it was a worthy addition to the Academy’s collection.
At first glance, the glyphs bear a resemblance to Old Hungarian script. For example, both are written right to left, and both have a similar mixture of straight-lined runelike characters and rounded characters. The number of different characters (graphemes, to use the technical term) suggested a relationship too—as the Rohonc Codex has too many.
The argument is subtle, but runs like this: the number of graphemes in an undeciphered script is often the first clue as to how to decipher it. Most alphabets have in the range of twenty to forty characters; syllabaries have eighty to a hundred or so (logosyllabic writing systems, like Chinese writing, have thousands). The Codex has over two hundred symbols, but this odd number matched well with a known feature of the alphabetic Old Hungarian script: besides its forty-two letters it has capita dictorum, non-alphabetic signs of uncertain use but that might represent names or very common words. In the case of the Rohonc Codex a number of characters are used only rarely, suggesting they may be sigils too and so reducing the number of actual graphemes to something more manageable.
On the other hand, there is one other thing definitely known about the codex. The paper on which it is written is watermarked: an anchor in a circle in a star with six rays. This watermark is known to be Venetian, and from the period of 1529-1540. For a document that looks like it might pre-date 1000 AD, this is surprisingly late. While there’s always the possibility that the codex is actually a 16th century copy of an older document, the discrepancy does raise a warning flag. It’s also worrying that the book has no provenance at all prior to it being donated in 1838. For all the historical record has to say, it might as well have been made the day before it was given to the Academy of Sciences.
The elephant in the room with the Rohonc Codex is a man named Sámuel Literáti Nemes. A Hungarian antiquarian active at the time the Codex was donated, Nemes was responsible for a number of forgeries that he concealed amongst his legitimate discoveries. During his lifetime the discoverer of the Massman Tablets (which at the time would have been the only complete Roman writing tablets in the world) and the wooden book of Túróc was a celebrity within his circle, but over the course of several decades after he died it became clear that he’d been cheating. His motivation seems to have been two-fold: the Massman Tablets, for example, were made for money, while the wooden book was for more personal reasons. Nemes was a Székely, a historically proud subset of Hungarians—they commonly believed themselves to have descended from Attila the Hun and his army, for example—that was embedded in an area primarily populated by Romanians: Transylvania. Friction between the two ethnic groups was more noticeable in the 20th century, as the Treaty of Trianon, the Second Vienna Award, and the Timişoara Protest were all rooted in it, but the 19th century was similar. From the standpoint of Hungarian partisans, the wooden book of Túróc was providential, as it was an old piece of work written in Old Hungarian script and so emphasised Székely roots in the area. That seems to have been the point of the forgery for Nemes.
And so back to the Rohonc Codex. It’s only fair to point out that no-one has established a direct connection between it and Nemes. Modern Hungarian historiographers generally consider it one of his forgeries on the strength of circumstantial evidence: it’s a highly unusual document with no known history prior to the time when Sámuel Literáti Nemes was committing his crimes, and furthermore it comes from a place with similar features to Transylvania. The man who donated it, Count Batthyány, was one of the minority of Hungarians living in Burgenland—one of the other ethnically thorny places the Treaty of Trianon tried to address.
Ironically, despite potentially being made by a Hungarian for nationalist propaganda purposes, the codex was seized upon by a diametrically opposed group in the late 20th century. The “Dacian” historical school developed during the 1970s in Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Romania, and asserts that modern Romanians can trace their roots to a strong Classical era civilization that the Roman Empire managed to wipe from written records—leaving it for the scholars of the Socialist Republic of Romania to rediscover it. While a long way from their salad days under Ceauşescu, the Dacianists seized on the Rohonc Codex as a lost Dacian text, and use it to browbeat arriviste ethnic groups (like, for example, Székely Hungarians in what was by now Romanian territory) with the obvious superiority of ancient Romanian culture. Needless to say, this is not a widely held theory.
(On that note, the curious can examine all pages of the Codex at this Dacian “fan site”.)