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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Voynich Manuscript


Until a week ago, I had never heard of the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval manuscript  named after the Polish-American book dealer who bought it in 1912 (though ownership can be traced back to the 16th century).

It came into the news when it was announced that a small publishing house in northern Spain - Siloe – which specializes in very small runs of carefully re-created manuscripts has secured the right to replicate the document.  Siloe will release 898 volumes and sell them for about €8,000.

The 246-page quarto is written in an unknown, apparently encrypted language and is illustrated with imaginary plants, strange astrological charts, and drawings of nude women.  Carbon dating indicates that the parchment dates to the early 15th century. To protect the book, the only copy is locked away at Yale University.

Countless cryptographers have dedicated themselves to deciphering the language but to no avail.  Some people have apparently devoted years to trying to solve the puzzle.  “Those familiar with the manuscript say it should come with a warning. ‘The Voynich Manuscript has led some of the smartest people down rabbit holes for centuries,’ Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit curator Bill Sherman told The Washington Post in 2014. He was about to open a new exhibit featuring the book:  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’” (http://news.nationalpost.com/arts/books/spanish-publisher-to-release-copies-of-voynich-manuscript-a-book-no-living-person-can-understand).

There is the possibility that the manuscript is a hoax, though one study has argued that this is unlikely because the manuscript does follow the structural patterns of language — based on linguistic theories that were unknown in the 1500s.

If you, like I, will not be able to afford one of Siloe’s replicas, the Yale University Press has a printed facsimile being printed this fall.  And a digitized version is available through the Yale University Library's website (http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/ciencia/esp_ciencia_manuscrito07a.htm). 

Various news sources have written about this story if it intrigues you: