Monday, 23 January 2017

The Voynich Manuscript

by 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 cupboard 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.
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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 that shed light on what is known about this baffling object.
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.
Yale's facsimile of The Voynich Manuscript
Here is what we know. It's printed on vellum. Carbon dating reveals the book was created in the first half of the 15th century, so it's late medieval. Some pages are missing. Some pages include foldouts. It's rather small at 23.5cm by 16.2cm by 5cm. 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 (which would make the mystery rather comical if true). There are many intriguing illustrations in blue, white, red, brown and green paint.
"It is surprisingly small given its reputation as the world's most mysterious book, and its physical appearance is underwhelming."
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.
Yale's facsimile of The Voynich Manuscript
Is it a bizarre handbook for medicine and health? Is the book an elaborate joke? Why create an informational book written in a text no-one can understand?
To my untrained eye, the book covers woodland plants, a reoccurring dumpy medieval lady who bathes frequently, and some guesswork about what goes on in the heavens. The main reason for secret code is so only a select number of people can read it. Was this an attempt to limit learning to one particular group?
Yale's facsimile of The Voynich Manuscript
The Voynich Manuscript is catalogued in Yale's archives as MS 408, which is how it is referred to in much of Yale's facsimile. It was donated to Yale by book dealer Hans P. Kraus in 1969 after he had failed, bizarrely, to sell it.
The book has bounced around Europe. One confirmed owner is Georg Baresch (1585-1662), an alchemist from Prague. Someone called Joannes Marcus Marci (1595-1667) owned it after Baresch and sent it to the great 17th century scholar Athanasius Kircher in Rome.
Yale's facsimile of The Voynich Manuscript
A letter in Latin found inside the cover - written on 19 August 1665 or 1666 (sloppy 17th century handwriting) - accompanied the manuscript when it was sent to Kircher and it reveals the book once belonged to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612).
"Many hands have held Voynich's now-eponymous book over the centuries: mathematicians, botanists, alchemists, cryptographers, clerics, university professors - yet none of them have managed convincingly to solve its mysteries."
There are no records of the book's whereabouts for the next 200 years, but it was perhaps stored with Kircher's archives in Rome. It turns up at the Jesuit Roman College, Collegio Romano, and they sell it to Voynich in 1912. Voynich died in 1930 and it was then owned by his widow, Ethel, the author of the novel The Gadfly. She died in 1960 and left the manuscript to a friend called Anne Nill, who sold it a year later to Kraus.
Yale's facsimile of The Voynich Manuscript
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 bookshop 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.
"Those who met Voynich never forgot him... Voynich's research laid the foundations for much of what we know about the manuscript, at the same time, his tireless efforts to promote it and the sensational claims he made for its importance threw an aura of romance around it."
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.
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