The mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

Written in a language that has never been translated, “its origin and purpose are entirely obscure”

August 30, 2016
A page from the mysterious manuscript
A page from the mysterious manuscript

In the middle of August—traditionally the “Silly Season” for reporting—several British newspapers ran the story of a small publishing house which had just secured the rights to produce a limited edition of “the most mysterious book in the world”: the Voynich Manuscript. As all lovers of curious lore will know, this is a richly and strangely illustrated text, written in a language that has never been translated, or a code that has never been cracked. Carbon-dating has shown that it was created some time in the early fifteenth century, thus exploding the legend that it was the work of the thirteenth-century English occultist Roger Bacon, but otherwise its origin and purpose are entirely obscure.

The book had been lost to history until 1912, when a Polish collector, Wilfred Voynich, bought it from a Jesuit monastery in Italy. Since 1969, it has been housed in Yale University’s Beinecke Library, where it goes by the less glamorous name of “MS 408.” In recent years, the library has received thousands of emails about it every month, both from a few serious academics and from hordes of obsessive types who believe it to possess the Key to All Mythologies or evidence of extra-terrestrial life. It is partly in the hope of stemming this electronic tide that Yale has finally agreed to allow its publication.

Or so the story went in our press. Like many another scoop of the season, the story was hardly a novelty: El Pais first ran it in December 2015. It was of patriotic interest, because the enterprising publisher was Spanish—Siloe, based in Burgos, in northern Spain. Siloe, obviously a gloriously eccentric outfit, issues its books in palindromic print runs: the Voynich book will be issued in an edition of 898. It will be not so much a reprint as, so to say, a clone—made from the same vellum as the original is, torn and stained and dirtied exactly as the original is. And it will cost you about £6,000 for a copy.

The British press also failed to do a few minutes’ research, and so find out that some perfectly serviceable paperback editions of MS 408 have been available for over a decade—most Voynich addicts own the 2005 edition, by Jean-Claude Gawsewitch—or that Siloe will also be issuing a coffee-table version this December, for the much more modest price of £35.

But if the news story was of only minor interest, the Manuscript is endlessly fascinating. Its first known owner was an alchemist from Prague, one Georg Baresch (1585-1662). It may well have passed through the hands of Emperor Rudolf, and according to some legends it was known to that wonderful figure who crops up in almost every occult story of the age, John Dee.

It then became the property of Rome’s counterpart to John Dee, the polymath Athanasius Kircher, and after Kircher’s death ended up in some neglected bookcases, gathering dust until the Jesuits decided to put it up for sale. After its arrival in America, dozens of scholars applied themselves to unravelling its enigmas, most notable the eminent cryptologist William Freidman, one of the team which broke Japan’s “Purple” code in World War II. Friedman gave up, and though countless cranks have boasted of cracking it, no reputable scholar has accepted their claims. It is possible that the “language” cannot be translated because it is simply gibberish, though scholars of Asian languages say that there are patterns of repetition that are similar to Vietnamese, Tibetan and Khmer.

Despite this linguistic barrier, we can make some fairly good guesses at its content by way of its many illustrations, the most straightforward of which show botanical and biological details, foodstuffs, patterns of stars and planets, and recipes for drugs. Then there are the wilder visions, unrivalled until Surrealism erupted in the twentieth century: naked women splashing around in vats of green fluid, elaborate winged serpents, and—a truly remarkable image—a creature with the front half of a horse and the back half of a giant caterpillar mounted on a wheel.

Here is a guess that is as good as any: perhaps it was the work-book of a multi-faceted man somewhat in the mode of Leonardo da Vinci (who, long before the likes of Dan Brown came along, was often named as its likely creator), with interests both practical (cooking, medicines), ur-scientific (planets, plumbing) and visionary (the centaur-caterpillar). Why the impenetrable language? To safeguard heretical speculations? To keep findings from rivals? As an experiment in language creation? Like the smile of the Giaconda, the Manuscript will remain an enigma.