It has stumped code breakers, language experts, and mathematicians. The mysterious medieval book known as the Voynich Manuscript was written in a script that no one can understand and has drawings of plants that don’t exist.
But the latest study of the 15th-century text known as “the world’s most mysterious manuscript” concludes it may contain “a genuine message.”
Statistical analysis of the script by researchers including a University of Manchester physicist shows its overarching semantic structures reflect those that appear in real languages. That suggests it is not a hoax as some have said.
Named after book collector Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased it in 1912, the manuscript dates to the early 1400s and consists of about 240 pages of vellum.
While it looks like a typical medieval codex, it’s illustrated with pictures of herb and plant species, none of which can be positively identified, as well as bizarre pipe-like structures, cosmic maps or diagrams, astrological imagery, and naked bathing women.
In 1969, it was donated to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and cataloged as a “Cipher Manuscript.” No one, not even wartime code breakers, has been able to tease any meaning out of its strange “Voynichese” writing, and no other example of this writing has ever been discovered.
All attempts over the past century to decode this mysterious manuscript have met with failure. This is probably due to the initial error made by Voynich and his followers attributing the authorship of the manuscript to Roger Bacon, the 13th century British scientist, monk and scholar. As I showed in a previous paper on my Website, The Voynich Manuscript, was the author left handed?, Roger Bacon could not have written this manuscript and I suggested that a young (around 8 to 10 years old) Leonardo da Vinci was a likely author. Using this premise I proceeded to consider what would be required to decode this manuscript and reached the following conclusions:
Determine the language used in writing the manuscript
Correlate the Voynich alphabet with the modern English alphabet
Decipher the code
And we’re off, starting with a useless and unsupported assumption!
Place your bets!
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.)