— The Unread Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The vellum from the books provides a carbon-date to some time in the early 15th century (1404–1438), possibly composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who purchased the object in 1912.

Stored away in the rare-book library at Yale University is this late-medieval manuscript written in a cramped but punctilious script and illustrated with lively line drawings that have been painted over, at times crudely, with washes of color. These illustrations range from the fanciful (legions of heavy-headed flowers that bear no relation to any earthly variety) to the bizarre (naked and possibly pregnant women, frolicking in what look like amusement-park waterslides from the fifteenth century). With their distended bellies, stick-like arms and legs, and earnest expressions, the naked figures have a whimsical quality, though their anatomy is frankly rendered—something unusual for the period. The manuscript’s botanical drawings are no less strange: the plants appear to be chimerical, combining incompatible parts from different species, even different kingdoms. (Click on the images to expand.) Tentacled balls of roots take the forms of animals, or of human organs—in one case, sprouting two disembodied heads with vexed expressions. But perhaps the oddest thing about this book is that no one has ever read it.

 

That’s because the book is written in an unknown script, with an alphabet that appears nowhere other than in its pages. The writing system is oddly beautiful, full of looping and fluid curves. A series of distinctive letters, called “gallows” for their resemblance to a hangman’s scaffold, are sometimes conjoined with other letters, or have been embellished with elaborate curlicues by a scribe. What these glyphs signify—whether they represent phonetic information or numeric values or something else—is anyone’s guess. Judging by its illustrations, the manuscript seems to be a compendium of knowledge related to the natural world, including a section about herbs, a section apparently detailing biological processes, various zodiac charts, and pages devoted to the movements of celestial bodies, such as the transit of the moon across the Pleiades. The writing flows smoothly hesitation from one letter to the next; based on the handwriting, it’s thought to be the work of at least two and as many as eight practiced scribes, and possibly required years of labor.

 

The New Yorker

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