Buried deep in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript library lies one of the most mysterious books of all time. This is a book that has stumped historians, scholars, and World War II code-breakers for centuries and is considered to be the most famous case in the entire history of cryptography. It is a book that becomes more incomprehensible and elusive the more we study it. This book is the Voynich Manuscript.
So what makes this book so mysterious? Well, the jist of it is that it was written in a language that no one can read or understand and, because of that, no one knows what this 600 year old book is about. Obviously, it’s driving everyone mad.
Who Discovered The Voynich Manuscript?
Let’s start off with a little background. This 240-page book is named ‘The Voynich Manuscript’ after the antiquarian book collector who found it, Wilfrid Voynich. In 1912, Voynich, of Polish and Samogitan descent, found himself in a Jesuit library just outside of Rome. It was there that he stumbled across a strange book that he could not decipher but would hold in his possession until his death in 1930.
After his death, the manuscript was passed over to his widow, and then a friend of hers, who immediately sold it for a hefty sum to Hans P. Kraus, a famous book dealer from Austria. In 1969, after fruitless efforts to sell the medieval manuscript, H.P. Kraus donated it to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, where it resides today. Although you need special permission to view the manuscript in person, it is available, for free, all over the internet.
What Is The Voynich Manuscript?
The Voynich Manuscript is a codex made with goat skin for the binding and cover, as well as calf skin for the sheets of paper, which were rather inconsistent in size and color. It is not too large, measuring 9.3 by 6.4 by 2.0 inches and there are a few foldable sheets as well.
In 2009, the University of Arizona used radiocarbon dating to conclude that the parchment used for the codex was created sometime between 1404 and 1438. This can also be backed up by the fact that some pages in the book are numbered with numerals present in the 1400s.
The book was written by two or more hands, from left to right, with each new section market with a flower in the margins. Although there are 240 pages in the current edition, there is evidence that many other pages are missing. The script used is beautiful and loopy, like something out of a classic fairytale or a dream.
It features colorful diagrams of astrology, herbology, pharmacology, and biology. There are drawings of bathing nude women, dragons, floating castles, chimneys, and recipes. The manuscript also contains illustrations regarding alchemy, which is pretty damn cool.
The astrological references include drawings of astral charts, suns and moons, and a few of the twelve symbols of the Zodiac. The pharmaceutical and herbologic references contain drawings of over more than a hundred types of herbs and roots, some of which are completely unrecognizable, that were possibly used as medicine.
The hand-drawn illustrations in the book alone have led people to believe that it contains all the knowledge and information of a single, secluded civilization. This would explain why this specific script died out. We know all too well how easily entire civilizations can disappear.
Who Wrote The Voynich Manuscript?
No one really knows for sure who wrote this inscrutable book but, like every great mystery, there is no shortage of theories. Due to the astrological and alchemic references in the text, many people believe that the manuscript was written by mystics, magicians, or witches.
Others believe that the book is a hoax, created by the advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, John Dee. Other possible (con artist) creators include Giovanni Fontana, Roger Bacon, Edward Kelley, or Wilfrid Voynich himself. We have no proof of whether or not there is truth to any of these theories. We do know, however, that all of those people did, at some point in time, hold the manuscript in their possession. That’s about as far we can get. Guesswork is a common theme in Voynichology.
Due to the fact that the manuscript was carbon dated back to the 15th century, it’s most likely genuine. We can only imagine the kind of wisdom and information that we would gain from the Voynich Manuscript if only we could understand what all the pretty doodles and drawings really mean.
The Language Of The Book: Voynichese
Over the hundreds of years that humanity have studied the Voynich Manuscript, people have argued whether or not the script in which it is written was completely made-up, or was, at one point, representative of a real language.
Linguists argue that it is indeed a real language, which they call Voychinese. The text shows the universal grammatical patterns that are present in every language, such as basic prefixes and suffixes. Linguists have compared the complexity of Voychinese as more similar to Chinese than to any other Indo-European language.
Out of 14,000 total characters in the book, researchers were able to identify between 20 to 25 unique characters, with a few random characters that were only seen once or twice. There are no signs of punctation but there are signs of vowel-like characters which follow many of the universal phonological rules.
Those who have studied the manuscript claim it to be another script for Hebrew, Latin, or High-German, but this is not a widely excepted theory and there is no concrete evidence to support this claim (again.) There are also new claims that the Voynich Manuscript is a poetically written form of old Turkish, but like every other theory on the subject, we cannot confirm.
This is not the first language that scholars have been unable to translate. Cretan Hieroglyphics, Olmec, and Khipu are just as indecipherable as ever. But, frankly, that doesn’t make this any less infuriating.
Why Is The Voynich Manuscript So Famous?
Everyone loves a good mystery and the fact that not even the world’s most experienced codebreakers, linguists, mathematicians, or historians cannot figure out what this books says drives people crazy. It only further drives our desire to know what it says. There are entire forums and SubReddits online run by amateur and professional code breakers alike. There are endless blogs, websites, and books written on the subject. Still, even after 600 years, we cannot figure out what the Voynich Manuscript says.
Every few years someone claims to “crack the code” of the manuscript. Whether it be researchers at some university or artificial intelligence doing the dirty work, someone is always testing a new theory.
Unfortunately, it seems like the closer we feel we are getting to translating the Voynich Manuscript, the further away we actually get. Unless we can find a Rosetta Stone-like equivalent that can provide us with more clues, the Voynich Manuscript will probably remain a mystery forever.