The 246 pages of the book known as the Voynich Manuscript have confounded researchers since the book was first rediscovered in an Italian Jesuit college in 1912. The handwritten volume contains copious amounts of text that utilizes letters and word forms unseen in any known language.
Most of the pages are also illustrated with renderings of plants, constellations, and various other objects, many of which do not seem to correspond to anything known in nature. Over the past century, experts have been trying to unravel the mystery of who wrote the Voynich Manuscript and why, and if the strange language in the book even has any meaning at all.
Radiocarbon Dating and Clues to Origin
After the book’s unearthing in the early 20th century, there was speculation that the volume was a recent forgery or a hoax, given its odd properties. But a 2009 radiocarbon analysis placed the book’s origin somewhere between 1404 and 1438, and a recently discovered document from the 17th century actually mentions the manuscript, proving that it was written before then. Theories of who wrote the book point to everyone from Roger Bacon to Leonardo da Vinci, but there is no evidence to suggest a resolution to the writer’s identity.
Surprisingly little information can be gleaned from the book itself. Due to certain characteristics of the typeface, including the fact that it is written left to right, it’s probable that the manuscript is European in origin. Moreover, the few illustrations depicting people show hairstyles and clothing roughly consistent with 15th-century Europeans.
A Strange Variety of Illustrations
The Voynich Manuscript contains no chapter divisions (nor any punctuation, though this was not unusual for the period), but scholars have separated it into six sections based on the content of the illustrations.
The first section contains renderings of plants (though none of these botanical drawings have been positively identified as corresponding to any known plant), the second astronomical drawings and zodiac signs, the third nude women in baths, the fourth cosmological drawings, and the fifth pharmaceutical paraphernalia. The sixth section contains no illustrations, but is thought to contain recipes. Experts speculate that if the book has any meaning at all, it might have served as an esoteric handbook for magicians, astrologers, or physicians.
Is the Voynich Text Written In Code?
Since the book’s text is written in what appears to be an unknown language, it has long been suspected that the manuscript’s content is encrypted. The symbols used as letters don’t correspond to letters in any known language, and at some points “words” are repeated up to five times in succession, which would appear to make little sense. Since most of the “words” average four or five letters, a European language is suggested, but as the text contains no long words or words of two letters, the correspondence with any known language is hazy.
Many cryptologists have tried to decipher the text of the Voynich Manuscript, most of them working from the assumption that the writer encrypted a known language, such as Latin or Greek, by representing words or letters with invented symbols. However, research along this line has yet to decipher the text, and some modern cryptologists believe that the text may either be completely meaningless — produced by a 15th-century artist for the purpose of creating mystery — or may have been written by someone with a mental disorder.
Alternatively, the text could have meaning but be encrypted within a longer text, buried beneath reams of filler and nonsense in order to keep it from being deciphered. A paper on the manuscript’s radiocarbon analysis is due this year, but the strange writing remains a mystery, and may for many years to come.
Schmeh, Klaus. “The Voynich Manuscript: The Book Nobody Can Read.” Skeptical Inquirer Jan.-Feb. 2011: 46-50. Print.