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Page from the Voynich Manuscript Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Voynich Manuscript has been confusing and fascinating people since its re-discovery in 1912. It’s named for Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who acquired the book from the Villa Mondragone near Rome, Italy, and spent the rest of his life attempting deciphering and decoding its contents, to no avail. Per The Atlantic, it’s bound in vellum and is “full of astrological charts, strange plants, naked ladies bathing in green liquid, and, most famously, an indecipherable script that has eluded cryptographers to this day.”

Some Thought The Voynich Manuscript To Be a Hoax Until 2011

Scholars’ eagerness to translate the apparent gibberish of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript dates back for many years. Per Undark, in 1921 William Newbold of the University of Pennsylvania claimed that a 13th century friar wrote it as a scientific treatise. His decipherment was later disproved by fellow professor and codebreaker John Manly. Codebreaking pioneers William and Elizabeth Friedman, who were recruited to break ciphers for the United States government during World War I and II, tried without success to crack its code and translate it. More recent attempts at breaking its code have relied on artificial intelligence, which has helped debunk unsuccessful solutions but hasn’t yet succeeded in finding an actual translation.

The exact age of the manuscript wasn’t determined until 2011 when scholars at the University of Arizona’s Department of Physics used radiocarbon dating to determine that the manuscript’s pages dated back to the early 15th century and that the text was written during that time and into the 16th century, as reported by Phys.org. This confirmed that the book was not some sort of hoax and was a century older than scholars had previously believed. As for its country of origin, per Voynich.nu the botanical drawings and style of script compare to those of northern Italian origin from the 15th century. The unknown language throughout the book is occasionally interspersed with entries using the Latin alphabet, one that appears to be “a mixture of (apparently) pseudo-Latin, Voynichese and German text.”

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Unknown Plants, Zodiac Figures, and Naked Woman

The Voynich Manuscript has been housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library since 1969. It was presented to the library by H.P. Kraus, who purchased it from the estate of Wilfrid Voynich’s wife, Ethel. According to a Beinecke Library webpage about the manuscript, it had been owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II of Germany who probably bought it from English astrology John Dee for 600 gold ducats. He believed it to be the work of medieval philosopher Roger Bacon.

The book consists of six sections: botanical drawings of 113 unknown plants; drawings that suggest the work of an alchemist, astrologer or astronomer with astral charts and zodiac figures; a biological section featuring drawings of small naked women often submerged in water or wading; “an elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions”; pharmaceutical drawings of herbs and roots in jars; and several pages of texts that may be recipes.

Could Artificial Intelligence Break The Manuscript’s Code?

The quest of linguists and codebreakers to make sense of the mysterious book’s unknown language continues. In 2018, per National Geographic, computer scientists at the University of Alberta created an algorithm which found that “80 percent of the encoded words appeared to be in Hebrew.” Other researchers have proposed that the manuscript was written in Hebrew, but “dozens” of other languages have been discussed as well, including Latin and “a language derived from the Sino-Tibetan family.”

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In 2019, as reported by Undark, Gerard Cheshire of the University of Bristol published a paper in the journal Romance Studies in which he called the text a mixture of languages he called “proto-Romance.” Later that year, Tim King of Foothill College called it “a vulgar Latin dialect.” All of these interpretations come after the 2017 article in the Times Literary Supplement by Nicholas Gibbs that claimed the manuscript was “a medieval women’s-health manual copied from several older sources” and that the unknown script consisted of abbreviations that represented a medieval manuscript of recipes, per The Atlantic. Gibbs’ claims were met with skepticism from medieval scholars. Lisa Fagin Davis, director of the Medieval Academy of America and former grad student at Yale, expressed surprise that the Times Literary Supplement published them at all, noting “If they had simply sent to it to the Beinecke Library, they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat.”

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Karen Corday is a writer who loves history, [un]popular culture, nostalgia, smart people doing smart things, books, TV, movies, music, food, karaoke, things you forgot about but are happy to remember, and more.
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