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The Voynich Manuscript is a star among manuscript mysteries, but few have had the opportunity to spend time flipping through its curious contents. This month, Yale University Press released the first complete photo facsimile of the medieval tome, a publication which invites the public to attempt to do what no great cryptographer has accomplished: read a word from its calfskin pages.
The tale of the Voynich Manuscript involves possible interactions with 16th-century magician John Dee and 17th-century polymath Athanasius Kircher. Yet it only came to popular prominence in the 20th century, when it was acquired by antiquarian bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich in 1912. He then fell into what would not be a unique lifelong obsession of building theories and possible meanings for the 234 parchment pages. He was convinced that there was some significance about the natural world, although of the 113 plant illustrations, not one seems to depict earthly flora.
There are indications of astrological symbols, and perhaps writing about healing baths, but it’s not clear how all these elements might come together. It’s believed the manuscript was assembled in Central Europe, and carbon dating confirmed it to somewhere from the late 15th to 16 century. Still there are others who stand by it being a hoax.
Yale University acquired the small book, which now carries Voynich’s name, in 1969, and it resides among the rare texts of their Beinecke Library. Yale released the Voynich Manuscript online in 2004, and in 2014 added new high-resolution images following conservation that better conveyed its details. The Voynich Manuscript book features photographs that portray the manuscript at about its actual size, with foldout pages mirroring those present in the original. Included alongside are essays to explore the manuscript’s context in everything from alchemy to cryptography.
Historian Deborah Harkness in an introduction describes her own hour with the manuscript in 2012. First it was “oddly anticlimactic: small, worn, and drab outside; cramped and confusing inside, and with tiny handwriting and sprawling imagery.” She “could not stop turning the pages.”
It’s true that one page seen on its own might appear odd, whether an astrological diagram or naked women interacting with water features and bizarre botanicals. However, it’s the sheer persistence of the visuals that makes the Voynich Manuscript so mesmerizing, as well as its scrawled indecipherable text. Currently, the Spanish publisher Siloe is working on a more faithful (and more expensive) reproduction, so perhaps along with the Yale edition, there will be a swell of new speculation on the manuscript’s meaning.
Raymond Clemens, who edited the book, notes that “generous margins have been provided next to teach photograph — perhaps even for you to work out on your own interpretation. Bonne chance!” Indeed, godspeed to the armchair researcher who cracks the spine on this enigmatic text, as it’s consumed many a worldly researcher with its mysteries.