Relics of the past reveal intriguing truths about the people that came before us.
Yet there are some artifacts that defy easy explanation. One such item is a codex dating back to the early 15th century, known as the Voynich Manuscript. Filled with mysterious illustrations and text written in an unknown language, cryptographers and historians continue to debate over exactly what it is.
The manuscript takes its name from Wilfrid Michael Voynich, a Polish revolutionary and antiquarian who purchased the tome in 1912. Wilfrid was far from the first reader to fall under the spell of the manuscript. In fact, the legacy of its ownership is a mystery onto itself.
In 1666, a Bohemian doctor named Jan Marek Marci transferred the manuscript to a Jesuit scholar in Rome named Athanasius Kircher. Tucked inside the cover was a letter that claimed the tome once belonged to Rudolf II.
Rudolf II, a lover of occult arts, was a Bohemian emperor of the Holy Roman Empire from 1576 to 1612. While the veracity of the letter could not be confirmed, it claimed that Rudolf paid around two kilograms of gold for the mysterious manuscript.
At some point, the emperor lent the manuscript to his personal doctor, Jakub Hořčický. Hořčický then passed it on to Georg Baresch, a Czech antique collector and alchemist.
Baresch is considered the earliest confirmed owner of the Voynich Manuscript, largely due to the paper trail he left in attempting to solve its riddle. He sent copies to Kircher, who had a knack for decoding arcane documents and became fascinated with the book. Baresch passed the manuscript to his close friend Jan Marek Marci upon his death in 1662, and Marci then transferred the artifact to Kircher in Rome in 1666.
From that point on, however, records of the Voynich cease. It’s believed that Baresch stashed the manuscript in the library of Collegio Romano, where it collected dust for 200 years.
In 1912, the Italian government conducted a private book sale. It was then that Wilfrid Voynich purchased the strange manuscript. The Polish antiquarian bequeathed the tome to his wife upon his death, and eventually it wound up in the hands of Hans P. Kraus.
Kraus is regarded as one of the most prominent rare book dealers of the 20th century. Yet even he struggled to find a buyer. Eventually, he donated the Voynich Manuscript to Yale University in 1969, where it was filed away under the call number “MS 408.”
Throughout its journey across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean, the question remained: just what was encoded inside Voynich?
Several theories exist. The most dominant is that the manuscript is written in a European language scrambled by a cipher. Another hypothesis, known as the “codebook” theory, states that the letters are actually codes that can be looked up in a corresponding glossary. Yet another maintains that the Voynich Manuscript is a work of steganography – the practice of hiding messages and information within a second body of work.
Some linguists, however, believe the manuscript represents a lost language, or a language badly translated. Studies show that the word structure found in the Voynich Manuscript bears a strong resemblance to languages in East and Central Asia, leading researchers to conclude that it may be an early attempt by Western explorers to document an Asian language.
The ornate construction of the Voynich Manuscript is equally as mysterious. Containing 240 vellum pages, the book is filled from front to back with a curly script, interspersed with vivid illustrations and artfully constructed pages that fold out.
The script itself runs from left to right, and the majority of characters were made with no more than two brushstrokes. Some words occur only in certain parts of the book, and some characters appear just once. Where numbers appear, they are consistent with the dominant style of the era. It completely lacks punctuation.
The Voynich Manuscript’s many illustrations have been used to divide the book into six sections, each based on the nature of what’s depicted. The herbal section includes images of plants both identifiable and unknown. The astronomical section includes circular diagrams, stars, suns, moons, and zodiac figures. Other sections include depictions of nude human beings, pharmaceutical lists, cosmological imagery, and a chapter that seems devoted to recipes.
Could the truth behind this 600-year-old riddle be a medieval cookbook? Perhaps. The Voynich Manuscript holds many secrets, and remains one of history’s greatest mysteries.