Andrea here, musing about . . . mysteries. I’m in the beginning stages of plotting my next Wrexford & Sloane mystery, and starting a new story always makes me reflect on conundrums and why the urge to solve them seems to be coded in our DNA. Whether it’s finding the perpetrator of a crime, learning the identity of a nameless portrait or cracking a code, we seem to driven by a certain primal curiosity to find answers . . .
Now it so happens that I was recently chatting with some librarians and the subject of bibliographic mysteries came up. And one of them mentioned the biggest of them all—The Voynich Manuscript, a 15th century codex (codex is defined as an ancient manuscript in book form) that has bedeviled all attempts to decipher its mysterious text to this day. So . . . as books and mysteries are two subjects near and dear to my heart, I thought it would be fun to take a quick look at the history of this beguiling codex—many call it the most mysterious book in the world— and why it has stumped all experts cryptographers, linguistic experts, bibliophiles and problem solvers who have taken a crack at it.
According to carbon dating, The Voynich Manuscript is written on vellum created in the early 15th century. The ink and paint tests to around that same timeframe, too. And that is about the only accurate information that scholars can give about it. Who wrote it, and what it says are unsolved mysteries.
Even its provenance is murky. According to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, it appears and disappears throughout history. It’s known that the codex was owned by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, who came to the throne in 1576, and was a patron of the arts and occult sciences. Historians think it’s possible that he bought it from the legendary English alchemist, astrologer and spymaster John Dee, who is known to have visited Rudolph’s court.
In 1903, it was sold at a secret auction in Rome by the Society of Jesus, and in 1912, it was purchased from the Jesuit College of Frascati by a Polish-American rare book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich, for whom the codex is now named. In 1969, H. P. Kraus acquired the codex from the estate of Voynich’s widow and donated it to the Beinecke Library, where it resides today. (You can download a wonderful hi-res PDF of the entire Voynich Manuscript for free from the library website by clicking here.
Now, on to the fascinating and fanciful contents! Is it scientific . . . or magical . . . or simply the personal fantasy of its unknown creator? The illustrations are a strange but beautiful mix, featuring sections on botanicals—some that are identifiable, some that appear imaginary—as well as astrological signs, cosmological medallions, and a number of drawings of women in weirdly spa-like surroundings, which have given rise to some speculation that a section of text may be some sort of health manual for women. (I can’t help thinking that if it had been created in 1960-70s, one might be tempted to guess that it was done by college student tripping out on acid!)
As for the text, it’s a puzzling mix of symbols and lettering that has remained undecipherable despite the efforts of experts in a number of different fields . . . In fact it has a name of its own—Voynichese. Is it an unknown language? A sophisticated cipher? Just nonsensical scribblings? No one knows for sure.
National Geographic reported that researchers working with AI, seemed to think they had reason to think the encoded text was actually Hebrew. However, most scholars are skeptical, so the attempts at making sense of it continue. (Those of you who are suffering from Pandemic Boredom and are looking for a mystery to solve . . . Fame and accolades await the person who can finally figure what—if anything— the codex is saying.)
I love that we have mysteries like this one to titillate our intellect. To me, it’s okay that we can’t figure out everything. After all, mystery adds a certain allure to life.
Do you have a favorite unsolved mystery? Or if you could have one mystery in history solved, what would it be? Where is the Lost City of Gold? . . . what happened to Atlantis? Let’s have some fun with this!