What Is The Indecipherable Voynich Manuscript About?

The Voynich Manuscript really is the kind of thing that pops up in the kinds of movies that feature long gray beards, lots of sword-fighting, and more than one kind of pointy-eared people. It's a dusty old book of mysterious origin, written in a language no one can understand, full of surreal illustrations and symbols no one has ever seen anywhere else. But it's very real, and despite more than a century of effort to translate it, its true subject matter remains a mystery.

An Unknowable Secret

The characters written in the Voynich Manuscript don't belong to any known alphabet, but scholars don't think that means they are nonsensical. Actually, lots of evidence suggests that somebody was meant to understand this book. For example, the thing is about 38,000 words long and uses just over 8,000 different words — the fact that words seem to be repeated and arranged in relation to each other indicates that they really do have a meaning (and aren't just a collection of hastily scrawled symbols). Too bad those letters haven't been translated in the 400 years that we've known about the manuscript.

The first reference to the book that would come to be known as the Voynich Manuscript comes from a 1639 correspondence between Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher and Prague mathematician Theodor Moretus. One of the leading scientific minds in the years leading up the Enlightenment, Kircher was nevertheless stuck in his attempt to decipher the strange text Moretus gave him. Brimming with confidence, he wrote a letter to Moretus that basically said, "I can definitely solve this puzzle, I just haven't had time yet." But over the next 30 years, Kircher and his scholarly contemporaries would continue to correspond about the book without ever coming closer to an answer.

The book eventually resurfaced in the hands of antique dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich in 1912, and a few decades later found a permanent home at Yale's Beinecke Library. Modern scholars have been able to confirm that it really is from the early 17th or late 16th centuries, but other than that, they've struck out on deciphering the meaning.

They have, however, been able to identify several distinct sections of the book by the types of illustrations that accompany them.

  • Herbal: The longest section of the book is the first, with intricate drawings of plants winding between the lines of the indecipherable text. It looks very much like other manuscripts used to identify certain plants, but it's worth mentioning that most such manuscripts copy their illustrations from existing texts, but the Voynich Manuscript's herbal section is entirely original — and some of the plants seem to be wholly fictional.
  • Astronomical: The second section of the book depicts astronomical bodies, including the sun, the moon, and an illustration of seven stars that are thought to be the Pleiades. That astronomical section also runs up against two more sections: the Zodiac section, which clearly depicts the symbols of the Zodiac embedded in strange, circular charts, and the Cosmological section, which seems to link such topics as astrology, the changing of seasons, and the movement of the winds.
  • Biological: On the face of things, the pages grouped together as the "biological" section seem to make the least sense of all. Their illustrations depict dozens of women inhabiting what look like giant underground tunnels and pools. In some images, they seem to be practicing alchemy. Are they making medicine? And what is their setting supposed to represent? The answers to these might actually be the key to unscrambling the entire text — more on that later.
  • Pharmaceutical: Like the herbal section, the pharmaceutical section is full of pictures of plant matter, but this time, only as roots, leaves, and seeds, not the entire plant. Also, they are usually accompanied by pictures of apothecary's tools, suggesting that these plants are meant for medicinal purposes. But until we get a solution to the puzzle, we'll never know what those purposes might have been.

An Answer to the Riddle?

Remember how we said the Biological section could turn out to be the key to the whole thing? In 2017, the history researcher Nicholas Gibbs published a piece in Princeton's Times Literary Supplement detailing how those illustrations of bathing women were copied from other texts — namely, the Balneis Puteolanis, a guide to medicinal and thermal baths from a couple centuries earlier. From that, he said, it was just a matter of matching up the Latin of Balneis with the book's eldritch lettering and you can see the truth. The Voynich is a guide to women's health, and the "letters" are in fact a highly intricate form of shorthand.

Gibbs is drawing not only on his historical research, but on his experiences and discoveries as a professional muralist, a war artist, a former Christie's employee, and a descendant of the great 16th century herbalist Thomas Fromond. Oh, and he's also an aspiring TV writer. You know what? This is starting to sound a little...fishy.

Historians think so, too. In fact, they say that the connection has long been made between the Voynich manuscript and the Balneis Puteolanis, and the idea that the book might be at least in part about gynecological issues is not a new one either. Plus, as Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, told the Atlantic, Gibbs has only presented two lines of decoded text — and not decoded well. "They're not grammatically correct. It doesn't result in Latin that makes sense."

Still, this single connection to another text could be the key to understanding the work. If nothing else, it points us toward the other books that the Voynich manuscript's mysterious author would have been reading.

The Mysterious Book No One Can Read: Ancient Voynich Manuscript

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 18, 2017

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