Stored away in the rare-book library at Yale University is a late-medieval manuscript written in a cramped but punctilious script and illustrated with lively line drawings that have been painted over, at times crudely, with washes of color. These illustrations range from the fanciful (legions of heavy-headed flowers that bear no relation to any earthly variety) to the bizarre (naked and possibly pregnant women, frolicking in what look like amusement-park waterslides from the fifteenth century). With their distended bellies, stick-like arms and legs, and earnest expressions, the naked figures have a whimsical quality, though their anatomy is frankly rendered—something unusual for the period. The manuscript’s botanical drawings are no less strange: the plants appear to be chimerical, combining incompatible parts from different species, even different kingdoms. Tentacled balls of roots take the forms of animals, or of human organs—in one case, sprouting two disembodied heads with vexed expressions. But perhaps the oddest thing about this book is that no one has ever read it.
That’s because the book—called the Voynich manuscript after the rare-book dealer who stumbled upon it a century ago—is written in an unknown script, with an alphabet that appears nowhere other than in its pages. The writing system is oddly beautiful, full of looping and fluid curves. A series of distinctive letters, called “gallows” for their resemblance to a hangman’s scaffold, are sometimes conjoined with other letters, or have been embellished with elaborate curlicues by a scribe. What these glyphs signify—whether they represent phonetic information or numeric values or something else—is anyone’s guess. Judging by its illustrations, the manuscript seems to be a compendium of knowledge related to the natural world, including a section about herbs, a section apparently detailing biological processes, various zodiac charts, and pages devoted to the movements of celestial bodies, such as the transit of the moon across the Pleiades. The writing flows smoothly hesitation from one letter to the next; based on the handwriting, it’s thought to be the work of at least two and as many as eight practiced scribes, and possibly required years of labor. The book has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438).
The Voynich manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II. No one has yet succeeded in deciphering the text, and it has become a famous case in the history of cryptography. The mystery of the meaning and origin of the manuscript has excited the popular imagination, making the manuscript the subject of novels and speculation. None of the many hypotheses proposed over the last hundred years has yet been independently verified.
Imagescourtesy of Yale Library
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