Yale University’s famous Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is filled with unique and valuable texts, including a complete Gutenberg Bible, a copy of the Arthurian Romances, and one of the world’s most unique and bizarre texts: the Voynich Manuscript.
Named for the Polish collector who acquired it in 1912, the Voynich Manuscript is known to be at least 450 years old and believed to be older. The text was likely owned by English astrologer John Dee, who sold it to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II of Germany for 600 ducats. Believing it was the work of Roger Bacon, Emperor Rudolph II presented the book to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, whose name can still be seen under ultraviolet light in the margins of the first folio. In 1666, Athanasius Kircher received the book from Johannes Marcus Marci, and the Voynich Manuscript then proceeded to disappear entirely for several hundred years until Wilfrid M. Voynich purchased it from the Jesuit College at Frascati in Italy in the early 20th century. H. P. Kraus purchased the manuscript from the estate of Voynich’s widow and donated it to the Beinecke in 1969, where it is catalogued under the call number MS 408.
The manuscript measures 23.5 by 16.2 by 5 centimeters and is made entirely of vellum pages. There are eighteen quires containing 240 pages, but some pages are known to be fully or partly missing, and it is estimated that the book originally had 20 quires with at least 272 pages each. The bifolios may also have been reordered at some point in history, so the text may or may not be in the correct order. It’s impossible to know if the pages are in the right order or not because no one can read the Voynich Manuscript.
That’s right. No one. It is not written in anything that resembles any known language, and even the NSA’s best cryptographers have repeatedly tried and failed to discover what it means. The writing does not even resemble the general structure of written language. Most letters appear in common pairs, rather than an even distribution of individual letters, and the most common words are very long words rather than short ones. It has been suggested that the Voynich Manuscript is either mostly nonsense with useful information cleverly concealed in specific parts of the text, that it is an alphabet invented by a European stenographer to transcribe a little-known language of East or Central Asia, that it is the product of a mentally ill author suffering a trance-like bought of glossolalia which compelled them to write and draw ceaselessly and nonsensically, or that it was entirely made up to cash in on the popularity of so-called “enlightened manuscripts” at the time it was sold to Emperor Rudolph II.
While the theories presented by linguists that the Voynich Manuscript is written in a language which has become extinct since the 15th century are very sound, the illustrations in the manuscript seem to lend credence to the hoax and glossolalia theories. Yale University places the drawings in six categories: 1) botanical drawings; 2) astronomical and astrological drawings; 3) miniature female nudes; 4) cosmological medallions; 5) pharmaceutical drawings; and 6) small flowers punctuating lengthy sections of continuous text. Perhaps the most puzzling are categories 1 and 3. The biological drawings feature several recognizable plant species as well as 113 others which are still completely unidentified. The female nudes all seem to have swollen bellies, but it is unclear whether this is meant to represent pregnancy or is merely stylistic; the women also seem to be interacting with pipes and tubes full of water for no apparent reason. These bizarre artworks suggest either an artist who was deliberately creating nonsensical images in order to add to the mystical quality of a phony masterpiece or an artist who was suffering a rare condition called glossolalia (also known as speaking in tongues), a term which refers to a speaking, writing, or drawing in a constant, illogical manner as part of a stream of consciousness induced by a trance-like state. Strong similarities exist between the Voynich Manuscript art and the art of Hildegard von Bingen, who wrote and painted compulsively while in a glossolalic trance induced by severe chronic migraines.
Whatever the Voynich Manuscript may say, whenever we may decipher it, it’s possible that its text will give us no clues to who may have created it, or why.