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.