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The Voynich Manuscript: Facsimile Available!

The Most Enigmatic Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript represents what is probably the greatest riddle in the history of manuscripts. To this day it is unexplained whether this is a botanical work, a prophecy, or an elaborate forgery.

In 2018, a facsimile edition will become available for one of the most mysterious manuscripts of the Middle Ages and one of the most famous cases in the history of cryptography: the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript. The manuscript is a reminder that medieval- and manuscript studies are ever-evolving fields with discoveries yet to be made as we continue to learn more about the past. Yet, the Voynich Manuscript continues to conceal hidden information from frustrated researchers who have yet to crack the code of the ingeniously-ciphered text or to interpret its bizarre illustrations.

A Manuscript with More Questions Than Answers

Even after centuries of research, no one – not even the cipher-experts of the NSA – has succeeded in decrypting the mysterious of the Voynich Manuscript.

The manuscript’s origins are unknown and its ownership is unaccounted for during the first two centuries of its existence – its first recorded owner was not until the early 17th century when it came into the possession of Prague alchemist Georg Baresch. A letter written by Johannes Marcus in 1665 or 1666 speculates that the first owner may have been Emperor Rudolf II. After changing hands several times during the 17th century, there is another 200-year gap in the codex’s history, during which time it is assumed that it was housed in the Collegia Romano. After resurfacing in the late-19th century, the book was acquired in 1912 by the Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich, eventually finding its way into the Yale University Library in 1969. 

Cyphered Text and Bizarre Illustrations

The mysterious stories surrounding illuminated manuscripts are often what draws us to them, along with their beauty and unique history. Although the artistry of the Voynich Manuscript is only average, what it lacks in fineness, it more than makes up for with its cyphered text and bizarre illustrations. Neither the manuscript’s author, patron, place of origin, date of completion, nor even its contents are known, and little can be gleaned from the codex itself because it is written in cypher. For centuries, the manuscript has been the delight and bane of scholars and cryptographers, some of them unsuccessfully dedicating years of their lives to deciphering the text and solving the manuscript’s mysteries. Even the use of computers has failed to help scholars gain anything more than a rudimentary understanding of the manuscript’s contents and intended purpose. What kind of esoteric knowledge could the mysterious text be hiding? Who could have made such a thing, and for what purpose? Until it can be deciphered, the Voynich Manuscript will remain one of history’s greatest enigmas.

Piecing Together One of History’s Greatest Enigmas

The depictions of plants are as diverse as they are mysterious. The plants can neither be identified, nor can a reason be found for their depiction in the manuscript.

What is known about the manuscript is that some pages are missing from what may be some kind of medical or medicinal text that was made sometime in the early 15th century, probably in Northern Italy, possibly in Germany, possibly by Roger Bacon. Theories about the codex have ranged from it being a late-medieval hoax to a case of glossolalia or speaking in tongues and a record of visions (which would explain the bizarre illustrations) to an outright fabrication by the manuscript’s namesake, Polish bookdealer Wilfrid Voynich (since disproven by carbon dating), who acquired it in 1912. Judging by the illustrations, scholars have typically divided the book up into six sections: herbal, astronomical, biological, cosmological, pharmaceutical, and recipes. The illustrations, although not particularly sophisticated in their artistry, are nevertheless complex in their mysteriousness and often have text flowing through them. Even the botanical drawings are enigmatic as the author appears to have mixed and matched parts of various plants, e.g. combining the roots, stem, and flower of three different plants. Almost none of the plants featured in the book can be identified with certainty, while the human and animal figures are similarly fantastical.

Even Professional Cryptographers Failed to Decipher the Text

The text of the manuscript is written in a script that is pseudo-Latin in appearance with some flourishes, but also has elements which are reminiscent of Arabic. Cryptographers have tried and failed to decipher the text of the manuscript over the centuries, including British and American codebreakers during both World Wars and members of the National Security Agency (NSA). Carbon-dating of the vellum indicates that the manuscript was originally made in the early 15th century, the paints and inks used would have been common during that time and were relatively inexpensive. Although the text has been thoroughly analyzed by generations of linguists and cryptographers, the best attempts at deciphering it have only yielded gibberish thus far.

It Remains... The Most Enigmatic Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript continues to fascinate book lovers and amateur cryptographers as well as researchers and academics, it epitomizes the enigmatic allure that so many manuscripts possess. What we do not know about the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period is just as fascinating as what we do know, and manuscripts, with their oft-mysterious individual histories, embody that fascination – and the Voynich Manuscript is arguably the most enigmatic manuscript of them all.