Why we don’t need to decode “the world’s most mysterious book.”
Medieval manuscripts are survivors—of Viking raids, of damp and decay—but even with delicate, fragile pages and binding, many of them remain luminous, their vellum illuminated in gold and silver, embellished with vegetal and animistic imagery, and sketched through with the marginalia of generations of owners. Even editions made from common calfskin can inspire the same awe as the upper reaches of cathedrals.
The Voynich Manuscript, an early fifteenth-century volume housed in Yale’s Beinecke library, looks at first like any such edition, with its loopy text and colorful illustrations. Yet as soon as you try reading the book, it resists. There’s no author, no title. It isn’t written in a foreign language; rather, this language is totally unknown. And while the illustrations appear to be plants or stars or baths, in fact they have no analogue in the known world. It’s as outside of genre as dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s diary, and indeed it’s hard to shake the feeling that it was composed by someone descending into madness. Scholars have tried to decode it for centuries. Some have suggested it was written by the philosopher Roger Bacon, while others insist it must have been bestowed on humanity by aliens. More cynical thinkers believe that the manuscript is a hoax, probably created by medieval charlatans. But no matter how hard people search for answers, the book refuses to yield meaning—it’s totally incomprehensible.
The Voynich Manuscript isn’t a beautiful book; in fact, it’s crude and cheaply done. It’s traditionally divided into four sections—herbal, astrological, balneological (pertaining to baths), and pharmacological—not for what those sections are but for what analysts, grasping for understanding, think they resemble. The symbols arranged in prosaic lines look like language, though the significance of the “Voynichese,” as it’s called, has never been established. And the illustrations don’t illuminate the mystery; they only throw further shadows on the darkness.
The long herbal section, our first indication that something is off, comprises colorful drawings of what look like uprooted plants alongside paragraphs of text. There’s something unsettling about the drawings; it’s almost like a catalogue of extinct species. Hairy bulbs sprout rust-red tubers and yellow pods. Colorless flowers perch on leaves with spikes like Venus flytraps. A creature, a mix between a dragon and a sea horse, suckles on a speckled leaf. Some of the bulbs have faces.
The second section, the astrological, is the most detailed of the manuscript’s sections, and it suggests a total cosmological system. It includes a series of foldout illustrations of what resemble celestial charts, though they’re incongruous with any calendar. Within many of these astrological wheels are sketches of nude women—some pose in buckets, others have stars attached to their hands like balloons on strings. In the center of some charts are what look like flowers or stars; in others, you’ll find echoes of conventional astrology: goats, what could be a scorpion but looks more like a lobster, and a courtier with a crossbow.
The Voynich Manuscript probably wouldn’t be so famous were it not for the balneological section, in which an already bizarre book becomes something like medieval science fiction. Green water empties from Dr. Seuss–like aquifers or pipes into baths in which rosy-cheeked blonde and brunette women cluster. Some baths look like holes in the ground, others seem made of solid stone. A few have windows, while others look like wedding cakes floating in midair. Within this fantastic idyll, still other fantasies create jarring swerves: Is that a mermaid in the bath, or a woman being happily devoured by a fish?
If there’s a climax to the Voynich Manuscript, it’s during the baths. The pharmacological section, the last part of the book, feels almost familiar by comparison. After more drawings of fictitious plants and devices that strangely look like hookahs, the manuscript concludes with pages and pages of Voynichese. What’s interesting about the Voynichese is that sentences never repeat themselves. The language shows no signs of correction or emendation, yet neither does it seem randomized. There’s a limited alphabet and an irregularity to the paragraphs; it’s as if ideas are really being communicated. Voynichese bears so much resemblance to a Western language I found myself mouthing the “words,” like when we sing along to lyrics we don’t actually know.
In the essays accompanying the Yale edition, experts try to penetrate these mysteries. They all take stabs at the book’s provenance. For instance: the manuscript was probably produced in Southern Germany or Northern Italy; the book’s parchment was probably made from the skin of fourteen or fifteen calves. They claim that alchemical texts sometimes used bathing figures as an allegory for chemical dissolution (though the Voynich baths are sui generis). More is known about the book’s ownership, though even this is a patchwork history. After belonging to the pharmacist of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, the manuscript fell into the hands of a seventeenth-century alchemist named Georgius Barschius. It reappeared 250 years later, when the bookseller Wilfrid Voynich purchased the strange codex from a Jesuit order in 1903.
But to read the essays is to perceive the limits of expertise in the face of the manuscript. “There is in my library, uselessly taking up space, a certain riddle of the Sphinx,” Barschius wrote to a Renaissance expert on hieroglyphics, initiating three centuries’ worth of efforts to decode the Voynichese. In the twentieth century, some of the world’s greatest cryptologists tried to unriddle the book, including William F. Friedman, who cracked the Japanese code in World War II. After decades of analysis, even he was forced to conclude that the manuscript “was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type.” It’s a decent enough theory, but it doesn’t even try to account for naked women in floating buckets.
I’m not convinced it’s important that the book make sense. While the Yale edition’s writers don’t sit easily with the absence of solutions, incomprehensibility would have been less unsettling to a medieval European audience. Most people back then acknowledged that the source of all reality was a God beyond the grasp of human intellect. Audiences were pleased, rather than provoked, by a baffling line of poetry. God was palpable in obscurity; mystery affirmed a higher cosmological meaning.
Max Weber called the disenchantment of the world modernity’s compulsion to rationalize and intellectualize—comfort with the incomprehensible had begun to wane. Mysteries were no longer reassuring; they were anxiety inducing, challenges to be surmounted by the scientific method. This theory posed a threat to the pleasurable mysteries of art. Since at least the Enlightenment, many writers have felt it necessary to armor their works against the demystifying gaze of reason. Romantic German authors like Friedrich Schlegel argued that art should dramatize humankind’s inability to achieve complete understanding, while Jean Paul and Friedrich Schiller proudly saw their works as enigmatic symbols that could never be deciphered.
“An intelligible work is the product of a journalist,” said the Dada founder Tristan Tzara, who wore the crown of incomprehensibility. Tzara thought if you could articulate a work, it was a sign of the work’s artistic impoverishment: “When a writer or artist is praised by the newspapers, it is proof of the intelligibility of his work: wretched lining of a coat for public use.” In this formulation, obscurity is the sine qua non of art. Theodor Adorno echoed this theory: “Incomprehensibility persists as the character of art, and it alone protects the philosophy of art from doing violence to art.”
Apparently impenetrable by reason, the Voynich Manuscript is the character of art, distilled. Of course, because of its book form, it can’t simply be considered a work of visual art, though somehow I thought of it as such, imagining each page layered over each other to generate an endlessly expanding and deepening effect, like a Rothko painting. At a time when even the most mysterious artist is subject to history and biography, it’s amazing to encounter a book that floats outside of all disciplines. The Voynich Manuscript exudes an aesthetic aura while squirming out of every category.
Many critics believe that it is a hoax. It’s probably the most persuasive theory, as everything in the book conveniently falls under the umbrella of “total nonsense.” While the European Middle Ages are often perceived as an austere and circumscribed culture, the Voynich Manuscript was conceived by a liberated imagination. There’s a genuine joy communicated through the details, like a monk doodling racy cartoons in the margins of a scholastic text. It could very well have been composed as an elaborate lampoon of medieval knowledge, and it’s amusing to imagine that we’re still falling for the trick.
Michael LaPointe (@MWLaPointe) lives in Toronto, Canada. He contributes to the Times Literary Supplement and writes a monthly literary essay for The Walrus.