The word “ink” is a child of the Latin incaustum, which means “having been burned.” In the Middle Ages, people thought that ink burned its way into parchment, because iron-gall inks go onto the page pale, then darken. This is not what’s happening, physically, but it makes sense as a metaphor: a medieval manuscript, because it was made by hand, is necessarily an original, even when it is a copy of something else. It cannot be standardised any more than a thing can be unburned.
The Voynich Manuscript is a special kind of original. We know, thanks to carbon dating, that it was put together in the early fifteenth century. But no living person has ever, as far as we know, understood it. Nobody can decode the language the book is written in. It has no title and no author. A new facsimile, edited by Raymond Clemens and published by Yale University Press, draws attention to the way that we think about truth now: the book invites guesses, conspiracy theory, spiritualism, cryptography. The Voynich Manuscript has charisma, and charisma has lately held a monopoly on our attentions.
The manuscript is two hundred and twenty-five millimetres tall, a hundred and sixty wide, and five centimetres thick. Yale’s new facsimile is somewhat larger, as it includes wide white margins for the amateur cryptographer’s own marginalia. The manuscript’s Renaissance-era cover (it was rebound) is made of what the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, at Yale, calls a “limp vellum.” The book has resided at Yale’s library since 1969.
Turn the covers—as Umberto Eco once did; it was the only book in the Beinecke’s famous collection that he cared to see—and you are greeted by writing in brown ink accompanied by strange diagrams and paintings of plants. The writing will not be decipherable to you. The book was made in the ordinary medieval way, but the script—the form of its letters, the language itself—was apparently invented by whoever made it. Some call the language and its script “Voynichese.” The letters loop prettily, and the text runs from left to right, top to bottom.
The first half of the book is filled with drawings of plants; scholars call this the “herbal” section. None of the plants appear to be real, although they are made from the usual stuff (green leaves, roots, and so on; search a word like “botanical” in the British Library’s illuminated-manuscript catalogue and you’ll find several texts that are similar to this part). The next section contains circular diagrams of the kind often found in medieval zodiacal texts; scholars call this part “astrological,” which is generous. Next, the so-called “balneological” section shows “nude ladies,” in Clemens’s words, in pools of liquid, which are connected to one another via a strange system of tubular plumbing that often snakes around whole pages of text. These scenes resemble drawings in the alchemical tradition, which gave rise to a now debunked theory that the thirteenth-century natural philosopher Roger Bacon wrote the book. Then we get what appear to be instructions in the practical use of those plants from the beginning of the book, followed by pages that look roughly like recipes.
Voynich is not a word from the book but, rather, the name of an eccentric book dealer, Wilfrid Michael Voynich, who bought the manuscript, in 1912. When Voynich purchased the text, it was accompanied by a letter by Johannes Marcus Marci (1595-1667), of Prague, who claimed that the book had been “sold to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II at a reported price of 600 ducats and that it was believed to be a work by Roger Bacon.” (Voynich would later say that the seller was the occult philosopher John Dee; Clemens points out that he was nudged toward this hypothesis by a historical novel.) The book appears to have bounced around Prague for a while—in 1639, a person named Barchius described it as “a certain riddle of the Sphinx, a piece of writing in unknown characters,” and guessed that “the whole thing is medical.” The book’s historical trail vanishes in 1670, up until the time that Voynich purchased it.
Yale’s new edition affords Voynich a profile, by Arnold Hunt, which turns out to be warranted by his strong and odd personality. Voynich was born in 1864, in Telšiai, to a Polish family. He supposedly spoke twenty languages fluently. He was arrested in Kovno, in 1885, for his membership in the Proletariat Party, a social-revolutionary group, and sentenced, without trial, to exile in Siberia for five years. He got a lot of reading done there, and then he escaped, travelling widely and ultimately bartering his waistcoat and glasses for a spot on a boat from Hamburg to England. There, he became part of the intellectual circle that surrounded the Russian agitator Sergei Kravchinsky, known as Stepniak. Once his adventuring days were over, Voynich became a book dealer—a good one, although he once accidentally (one hopes) sold a forgery to the British Museum. “Voynich in later life would sometimes point dramatically to the wounds he had received” on his youthful adventures, Hunt notes: “Here I have sword, here I have sword, here I have bullet.”
In 1903, the Jesuits decided to sell a group of texts from the Collegio Romano collection to the Vatican; the sale took nine years to complete. For reasons unknown, and under conditions of total secrecy, Voynich managed to procure some of the books before they entered the Vatican Library. One of them was the Voynich Manuscript. Voynich believed that his impenetrable book contained authentic wisdom—or, at least, he said so during publicity kicks in the States, trying to make his treasured book famous. “When the time comes,” he told the Times, “I will prove to the world that the black magic of the Middle Ages consisted in discoveries far in advance of twentieth-century science.”
Voynich never cracked the code, if one indeed exists. In “Cryptographic Attempts,” another essay that accompanies the Yale facsimile, William Sherman notes that “some of the greatest code breakers in history” attempted to unlock the manuscript’s mysteries; the impenetrability of Voynichese became a professional problem for those in the code game. William Romaine Newbold, a professor of intellectual and moral philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania in the early part of the twentieth century, “persuaded himself that the writing used both a cipher common from Bacon’s alchemical manuscripts along with a separate—and far more complicated—system best described as an anagrammed micrographic shorthand.” This system of cypher “requires transposition (changing the order of the letters), abbreviation (using a system taken from ancient Greece), and microscopic notation (whereby individual pen strokes within a single character, when magnified, serve as shorthand symbols for other letters).” This theory was initially endorsed by the eminent medievalist John Matthews Manly, who had worked as one of the U.S. Army’s chief cryptologists during the First World War. But it did not hold up to closer scrutiny, and Manly eventually concluded that Newbold’s “decipherments were not discoveries of secrets hidden by Roger Bacon but the products of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned and ingenious subconscious.”
The next great mind to apply itself to the manuscript’s code belonged to William F. Friedman, another Army cryptographer, who was among the first people to use computers for textual analysis. In 1925, Manly connected Friedman and his wife, Elizebeth, also a cryptographer, with the manuscript, sending them photographs. They worked on the project for forty years. Friedman and his colleagues broke Japan’s code Purple during the Second World War, and Friedman became the chief cryptanalyst for the War Department and head of the Signals Intelligence Service in the forties and fifties. The historian David Kahn called him the “world’s greatest cryptologist.” By 1944, Friedman had formed the Voynich Manuscript Study Group with some colleagues.
The group never cracked the code. The Friedmans did, however, provide an enigmatic message about the manuscript in an article in Philological Quarterly, “Acrostics, Anagrams, and Chaucer,” published in 1959. The article included a long excursus on the pointlessness of looking for anagrammatic cyphers; a note revealed that the statement itself was an anagram. The authors had left the solution to the anagram in a sealed envelope with the P.Q. editor. After William died in 1970, that editor revealed the message along with a reprint of the piece: “The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type.—Friedman.”
According to Sherman, the majority of those who have tried their hand at the manuscript’s code “have been amateurs, and many have more interest in conspiracy theories than cryptographic systems.” Nowadays, you can find people trying to crack the code on Reddit. There are many competing theories. Some suggest that the manuscript might be part of a “conworld,” or constructed fantasy—but then one poster responds, “I don’t see why someone would create such an expensive manuscript if this were the case.” Another Redditor asks, “Anyone else wondering if this is material from a lost Mayan codex?”
You can find serious scholarly work among the Redditors’ posts, but most of it is just fun speculation. It is interesting nonetheless, because it’s written in a voice that has shaped communal understanding in our time. Speculative knowledge flourishes in moments of uncertainty and fear. “They don’t want you to know the truth,” the speculators say to their faithful, on the left and on the right. 9/11 conspiracy theories are less frightening than the truth, which is that our lives are always in danger. Astrologers point to an invisible world, freeing its subscribers from the visible one that oppresses them. Tarot facilitates healing conversations. Whether code breaker or spiritualist or amateur historian, the Voynich speculators are linked by their common interest in the past, quasi-occult mystery, and insoluble problems of authenticity. When the book was featured in a recent episode of the Sherlock Holmes-inspired television show “Elementary,” Clemens writes, it stood in “for a mysterious but learned reference to past mysteries that somehow hold important meaning for the present.”
Readers will probably never stop forming communities based on the manuscript’s secrets. Humans are fond of weaving narratives like doilies around gaping holes, so that the holes won’t scare them. And objects from premodern history—like medieval manuscripts—are the perfect canvas on which to project our worries about the difficult and the frightening and the arcane, because these objects come from a time outside culture as we conceive of it. This single, original manuscript encourages us to sit with the concept of truth and to remember that there are ineluctable mysteries at the bottom of things whose meanings we will never know.
The New Yorker