Literary oddities: The Voynich Manuscript

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Few things in this world are genuinely unique. We live in a culture of mass production and mass consumption that, as this article argues, creates clones and attacks that which we perceive as “new”.

This background makes it all the more imperative to preserve and appreciate those works that are truly one of a kind. The Voynich Manuscript is just this – you might call it a special kind of unique, in fact.

Rediscovered more than a century ago in mysterious circumstances, this medieval manuscript now sits in the archives of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. And here’s the thing: it’s indecipherable.

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Despite being puzzled over by experts ranging fro US military cryptographer William Friedman to countless humanities scholars, no one has yet been able to draw any conclusion as to what the fine calligraphy of the 234-page manuscript actually means.

What is perhaps most intriguing about this mysterious tome is that is appears to sit on the very edge of translation – as though a sudden thought or breakthrough would suddenly reveal its secrets.

As it is, the copious illustrations of bathing women, semi-recognisable plants and apparent star maps remain undeciphered – and are perhaps undecipherable. Nobody knows who created it or where it came from, with the only hard fact available to us being that radio carbon dating showed the script to be written between 1404 and 1438.

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Claims it is a forgery have been squashed by experts from Yale to Cambridge – begging the question of what this genuine medieval mystery actually means.

What is so fascinating about this unique book is how it invites guesses and conspiracy theories. It makes us question our understanding of language and communication; through the essences of spiritualism, drawn out via its beautiful illustrations and cryptography.

The calligraphy is one of the most puzzling elements. Named “Vonichese” – after Wilfred Voynich, the Polish Revolutionary who bought the book from Jesuit priests who were selling ancient books to the Vatican – the language of the manuscript was apparently invented by whoever made it. The letters loop prettily, the text runs from left to right and top to bottom; with no clear structure or reason behind it. Is it a code? Or someone playing with future generations? Is it, simply, a statement of art – based on the simplest of calls to action, for the reader to “bring their own meaning” to this incredible volume.

This latter option, while not necessarily the correct one, is perhaps the one we should consider in a world that is increasingly prescriptive about the ideas we have. In an age where it can feel as though we need to have answers all the time, and tend to seek these from the less than informative mainstream media, or the even less informative echo chambers of social media, perhaps what humanity needs right now are those unique pieces of art that invite questions and give no answers; that do not lay it out for us on a plate but seek interaction with our thoughts and our minds. Perhaps what we need, simply, are more mysteries.

It’s therefore incredibly fortunate that today we can all view the manuscript for ourselves online – as Yale digitised the tome in 2004 and is available via the Beinecke digital library. Built with a digital zoom viewer that allows examination of individual pages in minute detail.

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When the late semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco visited Yale in 2013, the Voynich Manuscript was the only book he asked to see. There’s a reason for that. Do check it out for yourselves.

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7 thoughts on “Literary oddities: The Voynich Manuscript

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