Its name sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum thriller, and it has bamboozled generations of spies. An emperor reputedly once owned it, the Jesuits later acquired it and Yale University now has the infuriating thing. For those in the know, all that is needed is to roll one’s eyes and mutter about the Voynich Manuscript, which was discovered (or, technically, rediscovered) a century ago this year.
Wisely, Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library decided to be open about so controversial an item, and the entire manuscript has been posted online for scrutiny. There, one finds an object that initially does not seem to merit the fuss.
Physically, the manuscript is not large and has been measured (at a laboratory hired by the Beinecke Library) at just 23.5 x 16.2 cm, or just over 9” x 6”. Nor is it very lengthy. It once had no more than 116 leaves (or folios), each numbered on only one side, but 14 of them vanished as much as centuries ago, so just 102 remain. Counting both sides of each leaf, that makes 204 “pages,” although purists can be fussy on that point. (For the record, the Beinecke Library follows the convention whereby the leaf or folio on the right side of an open book is referred to as “recto,” while the reverse of that same leaf is “verso.” Thus, instead of references like “page 9,” one instead gets “folio 9 recto.”)
Once the technical minutia is out of the way, however, amazement follows. The manuscript is handwritten in a tidy, curvy format that cannot be read by anyone. When the individual characters of the writing are transliterated into a format of Roman letters adopted by Voynich buffs for the sake of convenience, the text provides such extreme nonsense as: “yteedy qotal dol shedy qokedar chcthey otordoror qokal otedy qokedy qokedy dal qokedy qokedy skam.”
The writing is accompanied by hundreds of illustrations, which one would expect to provide some guidance, but the opposite is the case. The pictures include perplexing charts of the cosmos, lots of unidentified plants and images of naked women either bathing or interacting with a bizarre network of tubes. (And the tubes are not even phallic: Sometimes, the women are inside them.)