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. Read More