Did you know that there’s a book in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University that no-one has ever been able to read?
Did you know that there’s a book in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University that no-one has ever been able to read? It was written in an unknown (or non-existent) language and focuses on illustrations of creatures and plants that no-one has ever seen. It’s quite a small book, with 240 illustrated pages: it’s bound with an ivory-coloured fragile cover of vellum, which is cow or calf skin, used for writing or painting on its surface.
Throughout the book you’ll see astrological symbols, exotic plants, something that could be a lobster, and jelly-fish shaped creatures. One picture depicts a group of naked women with snowy white skin, sliding down a waterslide. The brown lettering resembles the language ‘Elvish’, which was created by J.R.R. Tolkien for his fantasy novels.
As you can imagine there are many, many theories on its origin. Perhaps it’s a secret communication system about buried treasure; a coded elixir for eternal youth; or a poisoner’s handbook? It’s even been suggested that it’s an illustrated diary than an alien teenager left on Earth before leaving.
The ‘Voynich Manuscript’
This strange little book is known as the ‘Voynich Manuscript’, in honor of Wilfred Voynich: Voynich was a resale book dealer who claimed to have discovered the book in Italy in 1912. So, what do we know about Wilfred Voynich? He was Polish, born in 1865: he lived in Lithuania which, at that time, belonged to the Russian Empire. He was arrested for engaging in revolutionary activities and taken to Siberia, and later fled via Manchuria to England. Safe in London he opened his second-hand book store and this store become a popular center for political exiles to meet.
According to Voynich, he discovered the manuscript in Rome, in a Jesuit seminary in Villa Madragone. A letter was discovered within the manuscript which had been written by Johannes Marci in 1665: Marci was a physicist of the Holy Roman Empire. The letter explained that the text originally belonged to Rudolph ll, who was Emperor of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, and that the text could be the work of Roger Bacon, the Elizabethan alchemist.
There are two other authors who are often linked to this mysterious text - John Dee was Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer and an extraordinary magician; and Edward Kelley, who was one of his followers.
Yet another theory suggests that the book wasn’t discovered by Voynich, but that he falsified it by using his knowledge of chemistry which he gained in Russia whilst at the University of Moscow. It’s suggested that he was able to create this unusual specimen by using a large amount of parchment.
Ever since this book came to light there have been specialists hoping to decipher its contents. William Friedman, an American and one of the great 20th Century cryptographers, spent thirty years trying to crack the manuscript’s code.
It’s been argued that the plants depicted in the book are of Mesoamerican origin, while others claim to have successfully translated some words by using their linguistics knowledge. Either way, regardless of the efforts that have been made and the extensive research conducted, this book remains (for now, at least) completely untranslatable.