What do people do when they have books or letters in a language they cannot read? They find someone who can read it or possibly put the text into a translation program on their computers to get the basic idea of what the document says. However, what happens when no one in the world can read the text?
Scholars have faced many linguistic challenges over the years, but they have normally been able to solve the puzzle in the end. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone, for example, helped scholars solve the mystery of hieroglyphics and to open up the meaning of the texts carved in stone on the tombs and temples of Egypt.
For years, however, one book has remained a mystery to scholars: the Voynich Manuscript, currently housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University. Despite many attempts to decipher the manuscript, it remains a mystery to this day. Although there have been some questions about the manuscript’s authenticity, many scholars believe it to be real.
The Origins and History of the Voynich Manuscript
Scholars know a great deal about the history of the manuscript and who has owned it through the years. According to its official website http://www.voynich.nu/s_intro.html, the 234 pages of parchment on which the text is written has been dated to the early part of the fifteenth century. Parchment, which was made of animal skins, was a common material for manuscripts in the days before paper became readily available.
A letter attached to the manuscript stated that the thirteenth-century Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon, was believed to be the author of the text and noted some of the manuscript’s more famous owners, such as Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia. It passed through many hands before finally being acquired in 1912 by a book dealer named Wilfrid M. Voynich from a Jesuit college in Rome.
The Text of the Voynich Manuscript
Despite his attempts to decipher the strange script in which the book was written, Wilfred Voynich was never able to read it, and no one since then has formed a convincing theory on the script. The many illustrations in the book have led many people to believe that it is a scientific text, but no one has been able to prove that theory.
The website of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/digitallibrary/voynich.html notes that botanical, astronomical, and pharmaceutical drawings are among the illustrations, and that one section appears to contain recipes. Yale received the manuscript in 1969 after a sale of the estate of Ethel Voynich, widow of the book dealer who brought the manuscript to the world’s attention.
Over the years since its discovery, the Voynich Manuscript has puzzled scholars around the world. If someone eventually manages to decipher the book’s writing, it will help solve one of the world’s greatest literary mysteries.