The Voynich Manuscript: Decoding the World’s Most Mysterious Book
by AbeBooks.com editor Richard Davies
The Voynich Manuscript has been confusing clever people since the 15th century, give or take a few centuries when it disappeared into the back of closet somewhere in Italy. This remarkable illustrated document is written in an unknown language that has defeated all efforts to decipher it by the world’s greatest cryptographers.
Now it’s your turn. The manuscript is housed in the Beinecke Library at Yale and Yale University Press has published a facsimile of this intriguing document complete with background essays. The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who purchased it in 1912 and exhibited the book across America. However, its history goes way back.
Carbon dating reveals the book was created in the first half of the 15th century. Some pages are missing. Some pages include foldouts. The pages may not be in the correct order. Its plain goat skin binding is not its original binding. The text runs from left to right. There is no obvious punctuation among the 170,000 characters. We don’t know who wrote it.
The content, judging from the illustrations, appears to cover herbology and pharmacy, astronomy and cosmology, human biology, and perhaps recipes. There are many intriguing illustrations in blue, white, red, brown and green paint. The illustrations are rough but the colors have not faded. The text sometimes weaves its way around the artwork. Where the Voynich Manuscript has a foldout, the Yale facsimile has one too.
Is it a bizarre handbook for medicine and health? Is the book an elaborate joke? Why create an informational book that no-one can understand? Was this an attempt to limit learning to one particular group?
The Voynich Manuscript is catalogued in Yale’s archives as MS 408, which is how it is referred to in much of the facsimile. It was donated to Yale by book dealer Hans P. Kraus in 1969.
The book has bounced around Europe. One confirmed owner is Georg Baresch (1585-1662), an alchemist from Prague. A letter in Latin found inside the cover reveals the book once belonged to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612).
There are no records of the book’s whereabouts for the next 200 years, but it was perhaps stored in Rome. It eventually turned up at the Jesuit Roman College, Collegio Romano, and they sold it to Voynich in 1912. Voynich died in 1930 and it was then owned by his widow, Ethel. She died in 1960 and left the manuscript to a friend called Anne Nill, who sold it a year later to Kraus.
The highlight of the essays in Yale’s facsimile is Arnold Hunt’s profile of Voynich himself, who went from Poland, where he was a revolutionary, to London, where he gained a foothold in society and a bookstore on Shaftsbury Avenue, to America, where he exhibited the mysterious book and other rare manuscripts. Without Voynich’s intervention, this manuscript would still be languishing in obscurity.
Other essays describe the physical properties of the book and the methods used to date and examine it, the fruitless decoding efforts, and the tradition of alchemy. If decoding a mysterious language is your thing, then you cannot go wrong with this facsimile edition.
Images from The Voynich Manuscript