Tag Archives: libris obscuri

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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No Skin Off My Nose: The Unappetizing Narrative of the Life of James Allen

(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 a room at the Boston Athaeneum, there is a locked box; and in that box, there is a book. Take the book out. Run your hands over its cover. See how pale it is. Feel how bumpy. Raise it to your nose and inhale the dust of two centuries. Imagine the author and his surroundings. Get drunk on nostalgia for a time and place you’ve never visited.

Now listen to me as I reveal the following: The book you’re holding is made of human skin.

Narrative of the Life of James Allen, bound in human skin.

You didn’t throw the book on the ground just now, did you? That was a bad idea. Pick it up. Dust it off. Stick it back in the box and hope nobody noticed. Narrative of the Life of James Allen is one of the rarest volumes in the Athaeneum’s collection.

Penned in 1837 by condemned highwayman James Allen, Narrative is both an autobiography and a confession. Allen, it seems, was a bit of a self-promoter. If he was going to be executed by the state, he was going to leave society something to remember him by—particularly one member of society, Mr. John A. Fenno.

It was Fenno who turned Allen in after Allen unsuccessfully tried to rob him. Allen didn’t nurse any hard feelings, though. He was impressed. So impressed, in fact, that he had a personalized copy of his opus sent to Fenno with his compliments—and three square feet of his skin.

Binding books in human skin wasn’t unheard of in those days. But a criminal requesting his skin be put to that purpose? That was something special.

Where Do I Find It?

  • Title: Narrative of the Life of James Allen
  • Genre: Autobiography
  • Location: Boston Athaeneum
    10 ½ Beacon Street
    Boston, MA 02108
  • Hours: Mon-Thurs 9 am – 8 pm
    Fri 9 am – 5:30 pm
    Sat 9 am – 4 pm
    Sun 12 pm – 4 pm