Sunday, October 23, 2011

[TSS] Interlude: The Voynich Manuscript


The Voynich Manuscript, on first description, seems pretty typical.  The manuscript is named for a book dealer who acquired it in 1912, and now it's safe and sound at Yale University's rare book center.  It was written in the 15th century, is about 240 pages long (probably originally over 270 pages long) and is illustrated on almost every page.  Most people believe it is a medical text.  So what's so mysterious about it?  No one can read it.  The author, script and language remain completely unknown, and because people are generally certain of exactly which languages existed in Europe at the time, people commonly believe that the manuscript is written in a cipher.  But if so, it's one tough cipher- while many cryptographers have tried to crack the code, no one has been able to do so.  Currently, there are no other known examples of this writing. 

Let me just pause for a moment here to say how awesome is that?!  I love it.  I am, of course, of a more romantic turn of mind, and prefer to think of this manuscript as being from a tiny, closed society that was at the forefront of medicine and science, but has since been forgotten by the world.  It would be so glorious to find that there was a whole language so different from any other, a culture no one even knows about, and it all happened right in Europe, where we have the most documentation of anything.  Granted, this probably is not at all what really happened, but I can pretend.



It's pretty amazing to think that this code hasn't been broken in 600 years, too.  And it's not a hoax, as far as anyone can tell.  Research has shown that the vellum for the pages is from the first half of the 15th century, and the writing was placed on the page very soon after that.  And honestly, just because no one can decode it, that doesn't mean that it's not genuine.  And to me, it seems silly to have written such a complex and thorough work that really just amounts to gibberish. 

The writing flows from left to right and it appears that the writer was very comfortable with the language because the script is very smooth and level and consistent.  It seems as though the alphabet used has around 30 letters in it.  The language also seems to have certain rules - vowels exist and some letters are never adjacent to others.  This makes the language seem very European.


However, there are also distinctly non-European traits to the language.  No word appears to be over 10 letters long, but there are very few that are less than three letters long.  Some letters are consistently at the beginning of words, some in the middle, and some at the end.  Sometimes the same word is repeated three times in a row, or very small changes (maybe one letter different) are very close together.  There are some Latin characters and some Latin words on the vellum as well, but not many at all, and it's unclear if these were part of the original text or added in later.

You'd think the illustrations would be very helpful, but they aren't, really.  They do help split the book into separate sections:  herbal; astronomoical; biological; cosmological; pharmaceutical; recipes.  The herbal section has many plants pictured, but none of them are readily identifiable.  This is because many of the drawings seem to have the roots of one species, the leaves of another, and the flower of a third, all somehow combined together.  The cosmological section has a six-page map that seems to depict island connected by some sort of pipes or causeways.


What does it all mean?  No one knows!  Want to try your hand at decoding?  Visit the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library to look at detailed pictures of each page.  There is also a ton of information on this page.  And, of course, a fantastic Wikipedia page.

This is one in a series of interlude posts about historical artifacts, events or people that I think deserve a closer look.

26 comments:

  1. The detail of the plants that you pictured are amazing. It may have been from somewhere in the Middle East perhaps.

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  2. How amazingly fascinating is this!? There are always questions.

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  3. Melissa - It is great detail, right? Except that none of the plants can be identified. So weird! I can see, based on that, why people think it's a hoax. But it's sooo cool.

    Care - I know, it's such a great mysterious world, still.

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  4. Awesome! Thanks for sharing this intriguing story....

    Here's MY SUNDAY SALON POST and
    MY WEBSITE

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  5. Wow, what an incredibly beautiful book, and an intriguing story. I love it!

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  6. this is such a great story. thanks for sharing it with us!

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  7. Laurel-Rain - Of course, glad to get the word out :-)

    rhapsodyinbooks - I thought you'd like it. It seems up your alley. I think it's totally fascinating.

    Marie - Absolutely. I had never heard of it before very recently, so I'm glad I'm not the only one that was in the dark!

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  8. Wow - I've never heard of this one - that's incredible!

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  9. I kind of want this to have been written by a 15-year-old who was just being a dick.

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  10. Tracy - Yes, I hadn't heard of it, either, but it seems to have left people very flummoxed.

    Alice - Haha, would serve them right, huh? WHAT a brilliant teenager, though :-) I think a lot of people believe it to be a hoax, actually, and that it amounts to nothing more than gibberish.

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  11. Must be a freaky cipher then :)

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  12. This is just the coolest thing, Aarti! I can imagine that with a little study of the pictures and words that I also would attribute some fantastical stories to its creation and meaning as well, and before reading this post, I had no idea that this manuscript was even out there. What a great find, for you and me both! I am going to have to do some digging into this. It's fascinating! Thanks for sharing!

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  13. Blodeuedd - Yes, very freaky, I agree.

    Zibilee - Isn't it, though? I'm so glad you enjoyed it, and let me know if you manage to crack the code ;-)

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  14. Aarti, this book sounds amazing! I think A Discovery of Witches mentions this book.

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  15. Ooh, really? Well, that makes me want to read that book :-)

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  16. Wow! This is indeed awesome, and I feel that as an aspiring librarian I should have known about it. Well, at least I do now :P Thanks for another excellent post.

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  17. I'd heard of this, and had completely forgotten about it. Thanks for jogging my memory.

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  18. Wow! I hadn't ever heard of this. A little miracle that we don't indeed know everything. I like your vision of it.

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  19. It's gorgeous! I don't even need to know what it says...I could just look at the pretty pictures all day long.

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  20. An unknown language and plants that can't be identified either? That is too, too awesome! I want to believe that it's the small secret society that you envisioned and that the plants are engineered. That's fabulous. I wonder if it's a 15th c hoax rather than modern day? That might be almost as cool.

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  21. This is just amazing. Thank you, Aarti for finding and posting about this manuscript. I had never heard of it and now my mind is filled with all sorts of ideas about where it came from and who wrote it!

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  22. Ana - I feel like as a history lover, I should have known about it before very recently, too, so we're even.

    Book-hound - Ooh, do you remember where you heard about it? I have heard NOTHING, really.

    Nan - Yes, that's what I like, too! It's so great that there are some things in the world even computers can't solve ;-)

    softdrink - It IS really pretty, right? I mean, it's not even very sophisticated painting, but it's very eye-catching.

    Carrie - I think a 15th century hoax sounds even cooler than a modern-day one. Humanity hasn't changed much ;-)

    Gavin - Absolutely! It's so fun to research this stuff.

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  23. It is a lot of fun to research this kind of stuff. I don't think I've heard of it either, unless Nicolas Basbane has something about it somewhere. It sure doesn't ring a bell. Another mystery of history!

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  24. I've heard of this before and I agree, it's quite fascinating. It would be so cool to find out what that book is really about--I hope someone cracks the code someday!

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  25. I'd never heard of this before, but what a fascinating book! It just makes you itch to know the story behind it.

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  26. Hi Aarti - I think it must have been this programme on BBC Four, which was on a few years ago : http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/voynich-manuscript.shtml

    Have a look on YouTube, there are some interesting excerpts on there about it, including one very beautiful slide show of pages from the manuscript (didn't have my headphones, and it was in Spanish which I don't understand, so any commentary was lost on me, but just looking at it alone was enough)

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