"The cleverest people in the world have worked on Voynich for centuries, and it still defiantly resists interpretation"by Sam Leith / January 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Christmas break has given me the chance to settle down with a good book. Just published by Yale University Press, the lavish coffee-table reproduction of Beinecke MS 408 (or the Voynich Manuscript to its friends) is as handsome a new book as you could own.
And this medieval beauty has it all: fold-out sections, delicate illustrations of plants, astrological charts, what look to be alchemical recipes, and—in the so-called “balneological” section—young ladies in a state of undress in pools of green water. But the main thing about it—the thing that makes republishing it so quixotic—is that it is a book you can’t actually read. Nobody can.
It is written in a language and alphabet unknown to human history. If it’s a repository of arcane knowledge, as it seems to be, it’s the sort of repository that you seal into a lead-lined box and drop into the Marianas Trench: not so much a time capsule as an oubliette. The MS is named after Wilfrid Voynich, the Polish rare book dealer who came by it in 1912 after 250-odd years of extremely flaky provenance. Carbon-dating on the vellum puts it at the early 15th century—which nixes the notion that it’s a lost work of the 13th-century alchemist Roger Bacon. We do know, though, that it once passed through the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and that he couldn’t read it either.