Our first choice in the category of rare old illustrated books does not own its reputation to its content as much as it does to a simple fact that no one knows what it really is about. Ever since the fact of its existence became known to the general public, Voynich Manuscript has been a subject of controversy in scientific circles, puzzling those who tried to decipher it and inspiring various theories about its origin and purpose. As the story goes, a Polish antique book dealer after whom the manuscript will subsequently be named acquired it in 1912 during one of his quests for old and rare books that eventually took him to Villa Mondragone, a Jesuit College near Rome. Wilfrid Voynich immediately knew he had run into something special in a dusty chest full of old books; he was also the first one in a series of researchers who tried to find some meaning behind rows of unknown text and crudely drawn images mostly showing the scenes that have little to do with anything one might hope to find in a Jesuit monastery. However, the monks did not reveal to Voynich how the manuscript ended up in their hands.
The fact that the manuscript text does not seem to be written in any known language has led to a generally accepted assumption that this is one of the first cases of text encryption in European history. The vellum parchment of the manuscript has been carbon-dated to 15th century, the time of the emergence of cryptography in Europe. Be that as it may, the fact remains that some of the world’s most renowned cryptoanalysts have tried their hand at deciphering this misterious text – only to find frustration and dead-ends. No known encryption pattern seems to be applying to Voynich Manuscript: some “words” appear simply too often, some are found only several times in the entire text, and there are even cases of the same word repeating three times in a row! After decades of futile deciphering attempts, opinions have emerged that the whole thing is just an elaborate and meaningless hoax thought of either by Voynich himself or by some Rennaisance scholar. However, it appears that in recent years some progress in code breaking has finally been made; we will return to that topic further below.
Having been unable to decipher the text, scientists studied the drawings in Voynich Manuscript in an attempt to define its structure and purpose. Almost each one of a total of 240 pages has an accompanying illustration, and although few of them can be positively identified, there is an arrangement pattern which has enabled researchers to divide the book into sections dedicated to sciences. Hence there are Herbal, Astronomical, Biological, Cosmological and Pharmaceutical sections, as well as a section with continuous text and only star-like flowers in the margins which presumably contains recipies. Aside from this partition, however, the illustrations remain a mistery: most plant and animal species from their respective sections have not been identified, and the same holds true for diagrams and symbols from the Astronomical and Cosmological sections. Perhaps their meaning will become clearer once the text is decoded, provided that anyone succeeds in doing something that left the armies of cryptoanalysts discouraged and dumbfounded.
With all the mystery surrounding Voynich Manuscript, it is no wonder that its author is also unknown. Upon purchasing it, Voynich found a letter inside which was vaguely suggesting that the authorship should be ascribed to 13th century polymath and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon. However, further investigations have failed to establish any connection between Bacon and the book. Other medieval and Renaissance scholars have also been proposed as the authors – among them, most notably and most recently, 15th century North Italian architect Antonio di Pietro Averlino – but to date there has been no conclusive evidence corroborating any of these hypotheses.
In 2014, hopes were raised that the enigmatic language of Voynich Manuscript will finally be decoded. Stephen Bax, a professor of applied linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire, claims to have deciphered 14 characters of the manuscript’s alphabet and to being able to read several words of the text, namely those used for denoting juniper, coriander and hellebore, as well as the zodiac sign Taurus. His approach had to do with using medieval Arabic manuscripts as a starting point for comparisons, which, as he said, “led to some exciting results”. Still, Bax’s work might take years, if not decades, to complete.
The purpose of Voynich Manuscript remains shrouded in secrecy. The most common assumption is that it is some sort of treatise of nature, having in mind that in the past sciences were much more intertwined and dependent on one another. However, until it has been positively decoded, it is certain that the outright oddity of the manuscript’s design will inspire many different interpretations.