Mystery Tome

The image above — click here for a larger version — is from a book called the Voynich Manuscript.  Nearly everything about the book is a mystery.  We don’t know who wrote it.  We don’t know when he wrote it, or why.  We don’t know what language it is in nor what script was used to write it — the whole thing is unpronounceable gibberish.  We can recognize some of the illustrations — there is one on most pages — but only in general terms (e.g. herbs or zodiac signs) but do not know why they are there.   The consensus is that it’s a pharmacology book, but that’s clearly a guess.

The manuscript is, in its current state, 240 pages of vellum (a type of parchment).   It is named for Wilfrid Michael Voynich, bookseller from the early 1900s who came into its possession in 1912 and popularized the inherent mystery to the book; Voynich hoped to “prove” that the book was a long lost tome of famed philosopher Roger Bacon, which would make it exceptionally valuable.  (Indeed, some think the book is a hoax, intended by Voynich to defraud a purchaser out of a princely sum.)

The manuscript has some striking features, suggesting that it actually does mean something — at least to the author.  The text is written left to right with an irregular right margin, and the pen strokes used suggest that the author was, at least in his mind, writing something intelligible.   The glyphs used to spell the “words” used are consistent throughout the manuscript, forming what appears to be an alphabet of twenty to thirty unique characters.   And these “words” follow rough rules of language — some letters only appear with other letters; some letters appear only at the beginning/end of words; words appear in bunches around certain topics (as delineated by the illustrations).  All of this, combined, suggests that the Voynich Manuscript’s corpus consists of a cohesive discussion about something.

But to date, no one knows what it all means.  Cryptographers since World War I have attempted to interpret it but to no avail.   Some researchers have managed to carbon date the vellum, placing it as near certainly created in the early 1400s — so the book is probably not that of Bacon’s, as he died in 1294.  Researchers have broken the illustrations into categories, with illustrations of astrological terms most readily apparent (see an examplehere).

Theories as to the manuscript’s origins are as infinite as the mysteries the book provides.  It may be a hoax, but if it is, it is by far the most elaborate one from its time period — unnecessarily so, given the Medieval period’s relatively weak deciphering tools — and without clear motivation.  Some believe that the book is the product of a delusional mind which managed to piece together a fake language known only to the author.  Finally, there are nearly a dozen suspected possible legitimate authors of the manuscript, but the reasons for the encryption are all suspect.

In all, the Voynich manuscript is considered by many to be the world’s most mysterious publication.

(Scans of the entire Voynich manuscript are available here, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Bonus fact: Roger Bacon, one of the earliest advocates for the modern-day scientific method, had calendars as a particular interest — he found the now nearly-defunct Julian calendar to be a mathematical abomination.  The Gregorian calendar (the one we use today) suffers from many of the same flaws.  In 1930, a Brooklyn woman proposed the “World Calendar,” which solved many of the mathematical problems by, amongst other things, creating a day just before New Year’s Day (at the expense of December 31st) called “Worldsday.”  The inclusion of Worldsday would ensure that January 1 was always a Sunday (and December 30 always a Saturday) as Worldsday would be outside of the parlance of the normal week.  The proposal failed to find adoption when religious group pointed out that their holidays followed seven day cycles and could not simply ignore the presence of Worldsday.

Related: “The Voynich Manuscript: The Mysterious Code That Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries” by Gerry Kennedy.  3.5 stars on seven reviews for the paperback version, but the hardcover book (out of print and nearly $300 new) has 4.5 stars on 9 reviews, for some reason. Mysteries abound.

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