Aug 24, 2017

The Voynich Manuscript: Theories, Both Crackpot and Legitimate

Yale, Beinecke MS 408, fol. 86v-86r
Madison Taylor

The Voynich manuscript is something of an oddity in the world of manuscript studies, as its appeal extends far beyond the hallowed halls of academia. Theories on its origin and interpretation would be no more out of place as published works in an academic journal than they would be in a conspiratorial conversation shared over pints of beer in a dimly lit pub. It is a tauntingly enigmatic document that preys on the desperate human desire for understanding, and its allure has trapped smarter folks than I in a vicious cycle of furrowed brows and tugged-out hairs. Regardless of the inevitable disappointment that awaits, I am nonetheless going to step up, roll back my sleeves, and join the ranks of those who have tried to pry the sword of meaning from this obstinate block of text.

Often referred to as "the world's most mysterious manuscript", this cryptic, 234 page codex has mystified scholars, linguists, cryptographers, and armchair code breakers since it was purchased by the Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich in 1912. Housed in the Yale Rare Book and Manuscript Library as Beinecke MS 408, the book comprises a series of obscure herbal, astrological, and anatomical illustrations. The document itself is quite striking: the text is written on vellum in brown ink, and the drawings are coloured with vibrant greens and blues, deep red, and dusty gold. Carbon dating of the parchment tells us that the manuscript was likely written in the early fifteenth century. Yet despite its five hundred year tenure on this Earth, there has yet to be one person who truly understands what the text says, or what its strange pictures are trying to convey.