There are plenty of challenging reads out there, like Finnegans Wake or Gravity’s Rainbow. But those are nursery rhymes compared to the Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious text full of strange botanical drawings and an unknown script that has put scholars and code breakers in a frenzy since it was last discovered by Polish-American book dealer Wilfrid Voynich in 1912.
While interested readers have, for some time, had access to photos of the pages, the manuscript itself is locked away in Yale University’s rare books collection. But that will soon change. As Ben Guarino reports at The Washington Post, Spanish publisher Siloé has been granted permission to make copies of the book, and will produce 898 “clones” of the manuscript, reproducing each water stain, worm hole and strange illustration. So far, about 300 pre-orders of the reproductions have been purchased at around $8,000 each.
The idea is to get the manuscript into the hands of more libraries and more scholars in the hopes of cracking the code. “Touching the Voynich is an experience,” Juan Jose Garcia, editor at Siloé, which spent 10 years trying to get permission from Yale to reproduce the manuscript tells Agence France-Presse. “It’s a book that has such an aura of mystery that when you see it for the first time ... it fills you with an emotion that is very hard to describe.”
The origin of the manuscript is not completely known. Radio carbon dating places the paper in the 15th century, though the writing may have taken place in the 16th century as well, according to Yale University. It is thought that the book may be the work of English scientist and philosopher Roger Bacon, and that the manuscript was once in the possession of John Dee, an astrologer, mathematician and polymath that advised both Mary I and Elizabeth I. The book eventually made it into the hands of Emperor Rudolph II of Germany before being passed along, fading out of history until Voynich found it in a Jesuit college near Rome.
Since then, scholars have attempted to figure out the meaning of the strange 240-page text. The first part includes 113 drawings of botanical specimens that don’t seem to correspond with any known plants, Yale University writes. The second section contains astral charts and drawings. Other sections contain drawings of female nudes near strange tubes, descriptions of medicinal herbs and long stretches of indecipherable writing in an unknown alphabet.
“The Voynich Manuscript has led some of the smartest people down rabbit holes for centuries,” Bill Sherman of the Folger Shakespeare Library, who curated an exhibit on the book told Sadie Dingfelder at The Washington Post. “I think we need a little disclaimer form you need to sign before you look at the manuscript, that says, ‘Do not blame us if you go crazy.’ ”
Some people claim the whole thing is an elaborate hoax or that the language is complete nonsense. But a 2013 paper examining the strange language determined that the distribution of the unique alphabet and words is consistent with a real language. Then, in 2014, a professor from England claimed he’d deciphered 14 words in the text, including the names of the plants hellebore, juniper and coriander.
According to the AFP, the Yale library gets thousands of emails per month from codebreakers who think they have figured out the text. Rene Zandbergen who runs a blog dedicated to the manuscript claims that 90 percent of the rare book library’s online users are accessing digital images of the manuscript.
It will take Siloé about 18 months to begin producing the facsimile editions. But for those who cannot wait that long or don't want to pony up thousands of dollars for an unreadable book, Yale University Press is releasing its own version of the Voynich Manuscript in November, which includes critical essays and fold-out sections of the text for $50.