The Voynich Manuscript is one of the most obsessed-over historical enigmas. A medieval book dating from the late 15th or 16th century, its strange, flowing script has never been deciphered, its origins never determined. The 113 plant illustrations it contains seem to depict no flora found on Earth, and throughout its vellum pages are visuals of the cosmos, a small army of naked women cavorting through pools of water, and the arcane alphabet that has so frustrated linguists and cryptographers.
As the Yale Daily News reported last week and aficionados discovered online, new high-resolution scans of the manuscript were recently posted at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library site. Digital versions were previously available to the curious through the Beinecke, but the new scans are even sharper, and in sequential order you can closely examine each page. As the library explained to Hyperallergic, recent conservation work addressed folds and curls that had previously blocked some pages, and new scanning equipment made the color more accurate and didn’t require so much securing with straps on the delicate pages.
In 1912, the manuscript started to make its way into contemporary conscious when it was acquired by antique book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who for the rest of his life tried and failed to derive meaning from the manuscript apparently about the natural world. Believed to have been created in Central Europe, its path over the centuries is unclear — at one point in the 17th century it was reportedly sent to Athanasius Kircher, scholar of the scientific and the strange. It arrived at Yale in 1969 impressively intact, housed now in the Beinecke as the star obscurity among an incredible trove of rare texts. There its curvy writing in brownish-black ink, flowers sometimes sprouting animal parts like something from a deranged herbal, and zodiac charts beckon code breakers.
Some still speculate it is all a hoax, but carbon dating at least confirms its age, and even this year researchers are attempting to puzzle out the meaning from this book no one can be read. A linguist at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK proposed sounds to match the symbols, declaring he had decoded 14 of them. Meanwhile, researchers at Delaware State University argued the manuscript may have its origins in central Mexico after analyzing the nature of the bizarre plant illustrations.
You can find a full description at Yale’s Voynich catalog record, and perhaps form your own theory of how a book that seems so fluidly written, so packed with intended meaning, can become a complete mystery.
h/t Clive Thompson
The complete scans of the Voynich Manuscript are online at Yale University Library.