This Medieval Manuscript Has Stumped Codebreakers for More Than a Century

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

In 1912, a rare book dealer named Wilfried Voynich came across a unique find at a Jesuit college in Italy. With its colorful illustrations and odd curlicue writing, this specimen was unlike any other book he owned. That’s because it had been written in an script unrecognizable to him and the rest of the academic world. 

The biggest clue to the manuscript's contents comes from its lively pictures. Of its 246 pages, 220 are illustrated with images of plants, zodiac symbols, and possibly pregnant naked women. A radiocarbon analysis from 2009 dated the Voynich manuscript to have originated some time between 1404 and 1438. The manuscript came with a (legible) letter inside the cover dated 1666 that listed some of the book's previous owners, all of whom had lived in the first half of the 17th century. Beyond that, little is known about the book’s origins. 

The first person said to have owned the manuscript was the Roman Emperor Rudolf II who was notoriously attracted to the bizarre. In addition to his fascination with alchemy and the occult, he was also known for "collecting" dwarves and cultivating a regiment of “giants” in his army.

After that, the manuscript fell under the ownership of a series of scholars and scientists, some of whom devoted years of their lives to cracking the script. When it was re-discovered by Voynich in the early 20th century, the obsessive attempts at deciphering it picked up right where they left off. Voynich enlisted the help of cryptography enthusiast William Newbold, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent the last years of his life scrutinizing each letter with a magnifying glass and copying down the minute cracks in the ink, which he suspected to be an anagrammed shorthand code. The script was also analyzed by William Friedman, a master codebreaker from World War II. After three decades of poring through its pages, Friedman declared the mystery language uncrackable. 

Since then, the project has discovered new life on the Internet. Art historians, linguists, computer programmers, and amateur cryptography enthusiasts are now able to connect online and share their theories and discoveries. One of the more popular hypotheses is that the Voynich manuscript is just a plain old fraud. Whether it was the work of resourceful 20th-century scam artists, or some late-medieval monks with too much time on their hands, the Voynich manuscript could potentially be the most epic practical joke of all time. 

Despite this possibility, hardcore believers from around the world still devote time to cracking the inscrutable code. Further support for the book’s legitimacy was cemented last year when a professor of applied linguistics from the University of Bedfordshire claimed to have decoded a handful of words for the first time. By using the illustrations to identify proper names, like the word for Taurus and a number of medieval plants, he believes he’s translated nine words. The professor, Stephen Bax, said that his research “shows conclusively that the manuscript is not a hoax, as some have claimed, and is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language.” This may indeed prove it to be the real explanation, but it still doesn't discount the fringe theory that the manuscript was penned by aliens

[h/t: The New Yorker]