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The Sphinx on our Shelves: the Voynich Manuscript

“The former owner of this book asked your opinion by letter, copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he believed you would be able to read the remainder, but he at that time refused to send the book itself. To its deciphering he devoted unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life. But his toil was in vain, for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master…” – Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland, 1665

Voynich Manuscript
Beinecke Library, Yale University
Siloé, arte y bibliofilia, 2017
Facsimile
Z105.5 V65 V69 2017

For some three hundred years, scholars, linguists, cryptologists, and even artificial intelligence have pondered over the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript. Many have attributed it to be the work of alchemists, magicians, and witches. On the other hand, certain skeptics believe that skilled hoaxers created the manuscript to deceive medievalists and book collectors alike. The mystery of the Voynich Manuscript continues to elude anyone who comes across it, and in the twenty-first century its origins remain inconclusive.

On the surface, the Voynich Manuscript appears to be in conversation with other medieval medical and alchemical texts of the fifteenth century. Flipping through its parchment pages, one will find cosmological, botanical, and anatomical illustrations similar to other books of the same time period. Looking closely, however, a reader might notice that the plants are unfamiliar and, in addition to that, so is the language. Attempts at deciphering the language of the Voynich Manuscript have sparked some heated debates, with experts arguing that its origins come from Latin, Sino-Tibetan, Arabic, ancient Hebrew and, most recently, Old Turkic. Unfortunately, there has yet to be a decisive translation of this 240-page book.

Bound in 104 folios of parchment, the text moves left to right with “words” separated by spaces and lines, and sometimes grouped into paragraphs. The illustrations, featured on almost every page, divide the book into five major “themes” or sections. The first and longest section depicts botanical illustrations of 113 unidentified plants. The next section includes multiple fold outs of astronomical and astrological charts. Here we find familiar depictions of the zodiac, with symbols such as the fish (Pisces), the bull (Taurus), and the archer (Sagittarius). The third section contains a myriad of anatomical drawings dispersed within the text and along the margins. These drawings show nude women wading in fluids and unusually interacting with each other through a series of connected tubes and capsules. The following section is believed to be pharmaceutical, depicting over one hundred species of medicinal herbs, often next to small jars or vessels. The last section stands out from the rest as it contains only text. Often described as a listing of various recipes, each entry is marked by a star-like flower.

Like its contents, the origin of the Voynich Manuscript remains unclear. Although carbon dating places the manuscript at approximately the middle of the fifteenth century, the first record of ownership did not appear until the seventeenth century. The manuscript’s “first” owner, occult philosopher John Dee believed it to be the work of Roger Bacon, a medieval English philosopher and Franciscan friar who emphasized the study of nature through empiricism. The book was included with other manuscripts written by Bacon until it was sold to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1576-1612. According to a letter found with the manuscript, Rudolph purchased the book for 600 gold ducats. Perhaps this was a gift for Rudolph’s personal doctor, Jacobus Sinapius, whose name was found inscribed on the first folio by ultraviolet light analysis.

By the mid-seventeenth century, the manuscript was handed down from one physician to another and another… until finally it was presented to German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher by Johannes Marcus Marci. There it remained with the Jesuits until 1903, when a group of texts from the Collegio Romano collection was sold to the Vatican. At that point, for reasons unknown and under conditions of total secrecy, Polish-American antiquarian, Wilfrid Voynich, managed to obtain some of the books before they entered the Vatican library.

The manuscript now bears the title of its most contemporary owner; however it later moved from the Voynich estate to the hands of prominent book dealer Hans Peter Kraus and, as of 1969, the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where it is currently housed. In 2017, facsimiles of the Voynich Manuscript were produced and sold by the Beinecke Library in collaboration with Siloé, arte y bibliofilia – allowing libraries like ours to get a sense of what it’s like to have such a Sphinx on the shelves.

Contributed by Lyuba Basin, Rare Books Curator

2 Comments
  • Heidi Brett
    Posted at 15:36h, 15 July Reply

    This is fascinating to me. Perhaps a form of outsider art.

  • lyuba
    Posted at 17:04h, 15 July Reply

    Isn’t it amazing? You’ll have to come check out the facsimile, it is one of the best I’ve seen thus far.

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