Ever wonder what holds the title as world’s most mysterious manuscript? How about one written in the early 15th century comprising 240 pages – complete with illustrations – in a piece by an unknown author in an unknown language?
The earliest confirmed ownership of the Voynich manuscript was an obscure alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 1600’s, although records show he was unfamiliar with the origins or meanings of the text as well. In 1639 there are records of the owner sending letters to other scholars seeking to decipher the manuscript. Later the manuscript was sent to the scholar and for the next several hundred years its history is unknown although it was believed to have been stored in a Jesuit library and transported around over the next two hundred years to avoid theft, war, and destruction.
In 1912, the manuscript surfaced again when the Collegio Romano – short on money – sold some manuscripts. Wilfrid Voynich was a Polish-American book dealer who purchased 30 manuscripts from the Collegio Romano, including the now-famous Voynich manuscript.
Voynich held it until his death in 1930, at which point his wife held it until her death in 1960. From there it was left with a close friend who immediately sold it to a book dealer, Hans Kraus. Kraus was unable to find a buyer for the manuscript, so he eventually donated it to Yale University in 1969.
So what is so special about this manuscript and what is its significance? We don’t know, and perhaps that is what makes it so fascinating. In 2009 scientists from the University of Arizona performed C14 carbon dating on the manuscript which they determined was from between 1404 and 1438.
The ink was studied and determined to have been added to the parchment not long after the parchment was made, confirming it is an authentic document.
The manuscript has been studied by various professors, scientists, language experts, and cryptographers – but nobody can confirm what language it is written in nor what it says. Given this, it is widely assumed that the manuscript is some sort of cipher.
The manuscript has 240 pages, but various numbering gaps leave experts to believe the original manuscript could have totaled 272 pages. A quill pen was used for the text and illustration outlines with paint applied to the illustrations. The text was written left to right with no obvious punctuation.
Statistical analysis of the text reveals natural language patterns, with word entropy similar to that of English or Latin texts. On the other hand, there are practically no words comprising more than ten letters – yet there are also few one or two-letter words.
The text appears to be somewhat repetitive, however – some words will differ by only one letter but repeat with unusual frequency, driving historians and cryptologists crazy when attempting to decipher via the single-substitution alphabet.
Illustrations & Organization
The illustrations raise more questions than answers. There are six sections of the text, with all but the last having illustrations on almost every page. The six sections are: Herbal, Astronomical, Biological, Cosmological, Pharmaceutical, and Recipes.
The Herbal section contains a plant picture and description on each page, yet none of the plants are identifiable by today’s botanists. The Astronomical section contains circular diagrams with suns, moons, and stars. One series actually depicts 12 diagrams with zodiac constellations. The Biological section shows mostly naked women bathing in pools or tubs connected by what appear to be veins or body organs.
What certainly doesn’t help historians is the fact that much of the information provided by the illustrations is factually incorrect – even considering the norms understood of the time – causing speculation that perhaps this wasn’t an educational text at all.
The consensus understanding among experts today is that the manuscript was meant to serve as an early encyclopedia of medicine or science, although the fact it was written in a completely unknown language with plenty of inaccuracies makes one wonder “for whom was this written?”
Some suspected Voynich of having fabricated the manuscript himself – however all authenticity concerns were quashed when it was recently discovered via carbon dating that the text was original.
A popular hypothesis today is that the manuscript was a ciphered version of a significant historical work, but the theories as to what cipher was used and why are still debated amongst historians.
Hang-ups on this theory are the fact that the illustrations are not seen in any other known text and the fact that the information contained in the manuscript (at least the illustrated portion, anyway) does not seem to contain secret or private information. Therefore, the theory that this was a fabricated manuscript created to deceive – back in the 15th century – is also a popular one. Experts argue “if no one is able to extract meaning from the book, perhaps this is because the document contains no meaningful content in the first place.”
Still, another popular suggestion is that there is no historical significance and that the manuscript was simply written as a case of glossolalia – or a stream of consciousness writing done, speaking in tongues, with no apparent organization or message. Glossolalia is often attributed to mental illness or therapy, so some experts have postulated that perhaps the manuscript was a single person’s attempt at categorizing their own issues in a fabricated language not meant for anyone to understand.
Is it though? We always wondered why there were no famous nonsensical books out there; surely someone from the medieval period had to have a sense of humor, no? It’s fascinating that every ancient book in history must have serious meaning, especially when you consider so many now don’t. Perhaps we’ve found the first old text that doesn’t actually have an important message? Still, there must be something of value here. It is hard to visualize a person in the fifteenth century carefully crafting a manuscript by hand with illustrations on every page, 270+ pages long, just for fun to stump historians 500 years later.
Sometimes the mystery of what something could be is far more intriguing than what it actually is. It’s in that vein that some hope we never find Hoffa’s body, Earhart’s final landing spot, or the real meaning of the Voynich manuscript.