Hundreds of thousands of medieval manuscripts are preserved in libraries across the world. Many of these are beautifully illuminated, some are extremely rare, or of great historical value. There is one that is special in its own way. It isn’t really that beautiful, and its historical value is probably small. It has been called the “Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World” (see last Wednesday’s book review in this magazine). This is the Voynich MS. It is named after the antiquarian book dealer Wilfrid Voynich, who acquired it under mysterious circumstances in 1912. Nowadays, the manuscript is better known than its owner and, in fact, it can be said that the manuscript defines the man. We will come back to him.
Was it the most mysterious manuscript in the world, ever since its first existence?
The manuscript dates from the fifteenth century. It is quite small, and has a cheap, bland cover. It counts well over 200 pages, and it is profusely illustrated with herbs, constellations and scientific drawings, most of which cannot be clearly identified.
What has established the fame of the manuscript is that it is filled, from the first to the last page, with a text that nobody can read. It’s not that it is badly written. The writing is precise and clear, but the characters used in this MS are not found in any other book or manuscript, and combine to form words found in no language.
For as long as we know, people have been trying to understand this text. Voynich himself called it a cipher manuscript and it has attracted the attention of the best code breakers in the world, but they could not decode it.
Good descriptions of the manuscript, its history, the attempts to translate or decipher the text, and a complete set of high-resolution digital scans are available at numerous internet resources, and need not be repeated here. From these sources we learn that the parchment of the manuscript was dated scientifically in 2009, yielding a date in the early fifteenth century. We are less certain from where it originates – central to southern Europe, possibly Southern Germany or Northern Italy - and we have no indication at all who wrote it. So far, no trace of the manuscript has been found during the first 200 years of its existence, until it appears in Prague around 1600. From correspondence between seventeenth-century scientists writing about this manuscript, we know that they couldn’t read the text. However, could they have guessed just how difficult this would turn out to be? They did not recognize the writing, but they had no way of knowing that there isn’t a single other document in the world using this writing. The optimism in their letters, that the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher in Rome was bound to be able to translate it, underlines how they under-estimated the problem.
If we could find traces of the manuscript’s whereabouts in its earliest times, it would tell us more about where it came from, but if the manuscript is still listed in some early catalogue, it isn’t likely to say: “mysterious” or “unreadable book,” and in fact its description may be so general that we might not recognize it for what it is. The only thing that makes the manuscript special is precisely that nobody can read it. In its early days, the MS wouldn’t have had anything like the magic that it now has, and it wasn’t yet the most mysterious manuscript in the world.
Instead, its fate was to disappear into near-oblivion for the next 250 years. In 1665, it was sent to the above-mentioned Kircher in Rome, and after his death it entered the main library of the Society of Jesus in Rome, and ended on a shelf with other medieval manuscripts. A Jesuit added bibliographical descriptions to each of these manuscripts, on sheets of paper attached to the inside covers. The Society of Jesus became a regular target for suppression by the Vatican and confiscation of its books by the newly-formed Italian government, and our not-yet-most-mysterious manuscript was caught in the middle of this. The collection comprising hundreds of medieval manuscripts, and thousands of later books and manuscripts, had to go into hiding outside Rome.
After 1900, when the Society of Jesus was again on speaking terms with the Vatican, but the government of Italy was still of the opinion that all their hidden books belonged to them, the Jesuits agreed on a secret deal with the Vatican to sell a number of them. A list was drawn up in 1903, taking the information from the bibliographical sheets mentioned above. The sale was completed in 1912, and about 250 manuscripts entered the Vatican library. The secrecy of the sale is evident from the fact that Jesuit ownership traces were erased from these books, as can been seen clearly in modern digital scans of them.
However, our Voynich MS and some 20-30 other valuable medieval manuscripts did not enter the Vatican library. Instead, a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich managed to become part of the deal. Voynich was a successful, even famous antiquarian book dealer. His greatest achievement up to that time was collecting close to 150 old books that he called “unique,” that is, no other copy was known to exist, and selling these en bloc to the British Museum. They are still there, with a dedicated “Voynich” shelf mark. No other private book dealer shares this honor with him.
We don’t know how he managed to become part of this secret deal. In 1931, one year after Voynich’s death, his close friend James Westfall Thompson wrote in an “In Memoriam” that Voynich was a personal friend of Achille Ratti, then Pope Pius XI. In 1912, he was vice prefect of the Vatican Library but Voynich already knew him before. We do not know if this friendship played a role.
Through Voynich, the manuscript was set to become famous. In the beginning, he only showed it to a number of book dealers and potential buyers, but after he moved to the US in 1915, he started to show it as a manuscript from the hand of the 13th Century Franciscan friar Roger Bacon. The Voynich MS is preserved at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University.
Acknowledgment: The Voynich MS is preserved at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University. Illustrations of the manuscript are shown with the kind permission of the library.