Something recently brought to my mind the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript, and I thought it would be worth a mention here, for those of you who haven’t heard of it. It is one of the world’s odder artifacts.

The book, now part of the collection of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book Library, surfaced in modern times in 1912, when it was purchased somewhere in Europe by an antiquarian named Wilfrid Voynich (who was, by the way, the son-in-law of logician George Boole). It was obviously of great age, and was utterly unreadable.

The book is a codex of over two hundred pages, written and illustrated by hand. The text consists of a mysterious language written in an unknown alphabet, and the illustrations vary by sections – for example, some are botanical, some “biological”, some apparently astrological. Deciphering the text has resisted the efforts of the world’s best cryptographers for almost a century, and this leads some to suspect that the book is an extraordinarily elaborate hoax, though there are reasons to think otherwise.

The history of the book is gappy, but it has left traces of itself at least as far back as Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia, whose rule ended in 1611. Various suggestions have been made as to who might have been its author, including Roger Bacon, but nothing is certain, to put it mildly.

Analysis of the text using statistical methods indicate many similarities to actual languages, albeit with some oddities, which to many mitigates strongly against the idea that the book is a hoax.

The Voynich Manuscript is one of those puzzles that tend to nag at you once you are aware of them. Read more here. You can also enter “voynich” in the search field here to view some of the pages.

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  1. Nick N. says

    Have you read the Borges story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”? It’s the first one in LABYRINTHS. I think the Voynich manuscript is something along those lines. These things are fantasies with amazing detail and internal consistency. Another example is the “UMMO” documents. See the Jacques Vallee book REVELATIONS.

    Posted April 19, 2006 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Nick,

    Yes, I had read the Borges story; I’m a big fan of Borges. What the Voynich may turn out to be, though, I won’t venture to guess. When you say “fantasy”, what do you mean, exactly? That the text is simply elaborate gibberish? Or do you think there is decipherable content?

    Posted April 19, 2006 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  3. Nick N. says

    Most likely, it’s gibberish. If there is content, I doubt that it’s about anything real. I bet you also know the Stanislaw Lem book ”Memoirs Found in a Bathtub”. Sophisticated decoding techniques may find “hidden” content in almost anything, i.e. the “Bible Code”.

    Posted April 19, 2006 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Well, I’d like to say “time will tell”, but, of course, it may not…

    Posted April 19, 2006 at 12:34 pm | Permalink