The Voynich Manuscript: a medieval mystery

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The only book of its kind, and perhaps the only book in its language, the Voynich Manuscript has been owned by alchemists, polymaths, and kings. None of them, however, were ever able to read it.

We know very little about the manuscript. Radiocarbon dating indicates it was written in the 1400s. Some of its illustrations are recognizable—plants, biology, astronomy—even if the language is not. And handwriting analysis suggests between 2 and 8 people wrote it. But who were those people? And what did they write? And why?

The Voynich Manuscript takes its name from Wilfrid Voynich, the colorful revolutionary and book-collector who rediscovered it in 1912. He bought it at the Villa Mondragone while on a book-buying trip to Italy.

Voynich was sure that Roger Bacon, a medieval philosopher also called “Doctor Mirabilis,” had encoded his knowledge in the text. If he were right, the book would have been worth a fortune. But this theory, at least, has been debunked; Bacon died over a century before the manuscript was written.

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Roger Bacon

Scholars passionate about the Voynich Manuscript have traced its previous owners all the way back to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Rudolf gave it to his physician, Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenec. Other owners included Georg Baresch (a Czech alchemist) and cryptologist Athanasius Kircher. Like Voynich after them, Baresch and Kircher were determined to unravel the secrets of the manuscript. They both died unsuccessful.

Because nearly 600 years have passed without progress toward a translation, many people insist that the manuscript is a hoax. “There have been numerous encrypted texts since the Middle Ages and 99.9% have been cracked,” cryptographer Klaus Schmeh told the BBC. “If you have a whole book, as here, it should be ‘quite easy’ as there is so much material for analysts to work with. That it has never been decrypted is a strong argument for the hoax theory.” WWII codebreaker William Friedman worked on the text for thirty years before proclaiming it an artificial language—essentially, unbreakable.

If the Voynich Manuscript is a hoax, it’s a very strange one. Producing a 240-page book in the 15th century would have taken years. If the manuscript was written later, why did anyone go to the trouble of finding properly aged paper? (Radiocarbon dating, after all, wasn’t invented until the 1950s).The text has even been run through 25 linguistic analyses, and each time the results suggest that it’s a language… or something like one.

Unless someone can crack the manuscript’s code, we may never know whether it’s genuine or not. Think you have what it takes? The Voynich Manuscript now rests in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, with scans of its pages available right here.

Read more about the Voynich Manuscript:

Mysterious Voynich manuscript has ‘genuine message’ (Melissa Hogenboom, BBC News)

The Unread: The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript (Reed Johnson, The New Yorker)