Worthy of Stories: Voynich

By J Patrick Allen

On a sunny day in 1912, an eccentric book dealer named Wilfred Voynich walked in to a Jesuit college in Italy. What he purchased there would confound antiquarians, historians, and linguistics professors for decades to come: A 246 page book of apparent antiquity containing bizarre images of imaginary plants, bathing women, and occult diagrams.

This archaeological curiosity would become known to the world as the Voynich Manuscript.

Thanks to the miracle of radio carbon dating, we can trace the beginning of the Manuscript’s story to the fifteenth century (somewhere between the years of 1404 and 1438), though who penned it is a mystery. We know that it was at least two authors and a separate illustrator. Thus, the Manuscript was a collaborative work—but of what?

That has been the subject of popular and wild speculation for years. Theories abound from magical texts penned by such stars of history as John Dee and Roger Bacon to extra-terrestrial influence. Far more mundane, some have speculated an attempt to create a written form of a now-dead spoken language, and a codex of that language’s culture. What truly fascinates me, dear reader, is just how thoroughly the book has confounded cryptographers and linguistic scientists. For decades, we inched no closer to truly understanding the manuscript than we were when the whole mess began.

The book’s history is almost as colorful as its pages. Alchemists and doctors, a Pope, and renowned scholars. One of its previous owners has a crater on the moon named after him for his contributions to science. Colleges have held the manuscript, and it was “liberated” from Catholic ownership by the troops of Padre della Patria, Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia and Italy. Men of power and learning have long been attracted to its literally arcane allure.

What do we know about the Manuscript?

Its purpose is now believed by many to be medicinal in purpose, utilizing that fascinating Renaissance belief that a truly holistic understanding of the natural world encompassed the physical sciences as well as the occult. It is a book of three parts: Botanical, astrological, and… something else. Alchemical? The last is not truly clear. It illustrates hundreds of nude, possibly pregnant, women residing in baths. In turn, these baths are built in to vessels that greatly resemble illustrations of the kinds of alchemical alembics and sundries found in other manuscripts of the time.

The most exciting thing about the manuscript—something I was unaware of until beginning research for this blog—is that we have the beginnings of a decryption. Stephen Bax, a professor of Modern Languages and Liguistics at the Open University of Britain believes he’s found Rosetta stones scattered throughout the text: Familiar groupings of characters that could potentially be identified with known constellations and plants. Through continued study, he believes that one day we may be able to fully transcribe and read the Manuscript in English.

Who made the Manuscript, and for what cause? Cloistered monks? Italian Witches? Martians? What ever the answers may be, the Voynich Manuscript is certainly worthy of stories.

Further Reading: