Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Holy Shit, the Voynich Manuscript!

Voynich Manuscript

In 1912, Wilfrid Michael Voynich was visiting Italy and stopped by the Jesuit-owned Villa Mondragone. Desperate for funds, the Jesuits were surreptitiously selling off some of the supposedly rare and fantastical items in their collections. Voynich, being a bibliophile, opted to purchase a bizarre illustrated codex written in a script he didn't recognize.

In almost every situation that starts like this, it would turn out that the codex was an elaborate ruse. A hoax put together for attention or, in this case, money. Once carbon dating and academic scrutiny stepped in, it would be proven to be a recent creation, and the Voynich would go home with that burning humiliation you get when you fall for a scam.
Nigerian Flag
What kind of world is this where you can't trust Nigerian royalty anymore?

This was not every situation, though. Everyone from codebreakers to archivists to historians looked at the Voynich Manuscript and were completely baffled. Carbon dating puts its creation somewhere around the early 1400s, so if it's a hoax, it's really goddamn old one. And it's one that involved a downright grueling amount of work.

The language and script of the manuscript are completely unknown but there are patterns to it that suggest its not just gibberish. Professional speculation suggests that it's written in some sort of code, but no one has any idea how to break it. When I say "no one," I mean, "the top codebreakers working for the war effort in both world wars tried and failed to figure it out."
Alan Turing
Though in Britain's case they were busy destroying their greatest code breakers' lives at the time

The illustrations don't really seem to help all that much. The one thing they do is tell us that the manuscript is divided into six parts based on the thematic imagery: herbal, astronomical, biological, pharmaceutical, and recipes. Aside from that, the pictures are completely unhelpful in identifying the purpose of the book

Today, the Voynich Manuscript resides in the Yale University Library's rare books collection. In the interest of serving the public with healthy portions of cryptographic mystery, said library has made the whole thing available in a free, online, high-resolution digital copy. So have at it.

In case you were wondering, Voynich was far from the first collector to investigate his eponymous manuscript. Starting in the 1600s, there is a spotty record of several people who ended up with the book in their possession. They were as clueless about its contents as we are today, if their letters are to be believed.
Gaston and Belle from Beauty and the Beast
Artist's rendition

What we have here is a genuine history mystery. A book with an unknown script and language, strange illustrations, and a certificate of authenticity from the ever skeptical scientific community. My favorite theory about its purpose came from xkcd, but we may never know what its contents really mean.

Holy shit.

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