To read / 8 November 2016

The Most Mysterious Book in the World

Review of The Voynich Manuscript, Edited by R. Clemens

What is the most mysterious book in the world? Type “most mysterious book” into your favorite search engine, and the answer is unequivocal: it’s the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th-century enigma that lives at the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University. The 235-page document is full of strange illustrations: nymphs in baths, star charts, grafted plants that do not exist on earth. Stranger still are the 38,000 words of text, neatly written in a secret alphabet. The meaning of the text is unknown. It baffled scholars 500 years ago, and it baffles them today.

My first copy of the Voynich was a black-and-white Christmas present from my father. It might have been a bootleg copy. He wrote “Good luck deciphering!” inside the front cover. I bit, and by the time I had paged through the low-quality scan, the hook was set.

Happily, the Yale University Press has now released a full-color, high-resolution facsimile of the Voynich in the form of a large (9” by 12”) and handsome book. The Beinecke Library previously released high-quality scans on the internet; this book captures them in physical form. The text and illustrations are sharp, with the same ink “bleed through” that one would see when holding the original. There are realistic fold-out sections that also mimic the original.

The publisher has also included very wide margins. It’s a visually appealing format, and perhaps the publishers also hope that an enthusiast or two will decide to fill the margins with notes and theories (“Good luck deciphering!”).

The Voynich parchment carbon-dates from the early 1400s. It was supposedly sold to the Holy Roman Emperor in the late 1500s, then made its way to the polymath Athanasius Kircher. (Kircher was a crazy genius. If you visit Los Angeles, California, I recommend you stop by the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which maintains a Kircher exhibit). It re-surfaced in 1912, when Eastern European book dealer Wilfrid Voynich purchased it in Italy and brought it to the United States. Voynich was unable to command a high price for the book, despite vigorously promoting a decipherment by University of Pennsylvania professor William Newbold. Now, it turns out that Ivy League professors don’t know everything, and Newbold’s theory was proved wrong shortly after Voynich died. Another dealer acquired the still-undeciphered book in 1961 and donated it to Yale in 1969.

Today, we look at the Voynich Manuscript as an extraterrestrial might page through one of our modern-day medical texts written in English. “What are these strange drawings of things that seem to be alive?” the aliens might say. “What do the flowing liquids signify? How about the carefully-plotted diagrams? What do the words and symbols mean?” They may even argue whether “fi” is a ligature consisting of the letters “f” and “I,” or whether it is a distinct letter in its own right.

Could the Voynich be a hoax consisting of nonsense letter sequences? Certainly. Its 15th-century authors might have figured random nonsense to be the quickest path to a sale. But there is a myriad of patterns in the writing. Different sections are written in different dialects, prefixes and suffixes are clearly observable, and pages appear to have “topics.” A certain Voynich word will show up first on page 50, then occur a few times on page 51, then again on pages 52 and 53, finally to disappear again -- the same behavior we might observe in an English word like “Kennedy” while reading the New York Times. Yet, there is also much that is un-language-like in the Voynich: long words are rare, short words are rare, and word pairs are rarely seen twice. If it is a cipher, it does not appear to be a simple one.

So it remains a mystery, now captured in pleasing form by Yale University. The current edition also includes six essays covering the ownership history and physical traits of the manuscript, as well as chronicles of attempts to decode its text and illustrations. These essays are brief and to the point, satisfying casual readers. Those with larger appetites can use these essays as jumping-off points to books and web-based repositories of Voynichiana, such as The Voynich Manuscript: The Mysterious Code that has Defied Interpretation for Centuries (G. Kennedy and R. Churchill, 2006) and the comprehensive from René Zandbergen (whose article will be featured this Friday in The European Review).

Historian and novelist Deborah Harkness introduces the volume in a short essay. During her PhD, Harkness studied John Dee of England, a medieval alchemist long associated with the manuscript. This association (though spurious!) eventually led Harkness to visit Yale University and hold the Voynich Manuscript in her hands. She describes the antique physical book as “small, worn, and drab.” Many visitors report a similar feeling, as if meeting a movie star they thought would be taller. Yet, this movie star turns out to be clever and enigmatic and charismatic, and the two of you wind up talking in a bar until 3am, and the next thing you know, you are obsessively watching their movies and reading their blog posts … over and over … searching for clues … to what?

Perhaps one day, a person named X will uncover and assemble the right set of clues, and as happened with the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan carvings, the answer to Voynich will suddenly fall into place. Meanwhile, with the help of Yale University Press and, the enigma is busy spreading itself to coffee tables, bedsides, and offices throughout the world, trying to find its X.


Kevin Knight

is Dean's Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southern California (USC) and a Research Director and Fellow at USC's Information Sciences Institute. He received a PhD in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University and a bachelor's degree from Harvard University. Knight co-authored the widely adopted textbook Artificial Intelligence, and he is a past President of the Association for Computational Linguistics.