Unreadable: The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

(Recently, I was asked to create a faux blog for my Writing for Media Professionals course. Because the resulting “site,” Libris Obscuriis tonally similar to my author blog, I’ve decided to reproduce three of its “posts” here. It’s a shame to let content go to waste, after all!)

In 1912, Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich bought a manuscript. It was 240 pages long, contained hundreds of full-color illustrations, and seemed just the sort of dusty tome that would appeal to Voynich’s antiquarian clientele. There was just one problem: Voynich couldn’t read it.

He showed it to some professional academics. They couldn’t read it either.

Neither could the amateur cryptographers. Or the professional codebreakers.

Voynich Manuscript

When Voynich died in 1930, the mystery of his eponymous manuscript was still unsolved. To this day, no one knows what language the text is written in, or even how many distinct characters it consists of. The Voynich Manuscript has seduced and stymied generations of researchers, none of whom have been able to determine where it came from, what it’s about, or who on earth wrote it.

What We Know
Little is certain when it comes to the Voynich Manuscript. It appears to consist of six different sections covering herbs, astronomy, biology, cosmology, pharmaceutics, and recipes. None of the plants pictured are identifiable, and the biology illustrations are just a bunch of tiny naked women in bathtubs.

Carbon-dating indicates that the book was written in the early 1400’s, but even that’s tentative. The first known reference to the Voynich Manuscript is from 1666, while one of its previous owners stated that it was written by a Franciscan friar in the thirteenth century.

Where Do I Find It?

  • Title: Voynich Manuscript
  • Genre: Pharmacopoeia(?)
  • Location: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
    Yale University Library
    121 Wall Street
    New Haven, CT 06511
  • Hours: Closed for renovation until September 2016.
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