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ARTICLE OF INTEREST: The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious illustrated book of unknown contents, written some 600 years ago by an anonymous author in an unidentified alphabet and unintelligible language.
Over its recorded existence, the Voynich manuscript has been the object of intense study by many professional and amateur cryptographers — including some top American and British codebreakers of World War II fame — who all failed to decipher a single word. This string of egregious failures has turned the Voynich manuscript into the Holy Grail of historical cryptology; but it has also given weight to the theory that the book is nothing but an elaborate hoax — a meaningless sequence of random symbols. The book is named after the Russian-American book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912. It is presently item MS 408 in the Beinecke Rare Book Library of Yale University.
The book has about 240 vellum pages, and gaps in the page numbering (which apparently is later than the text) indicate that several pages were already missing by the time that Voynich acquired it. A quill pen was used for the text and figure outlines, and colored paint was applied (somewhat crudely) to the figures, possibly at a later date.

The illustrations of the manuscript shed little light on its contents, but imply that the book consists of half a dozen "sections", with different style and subject matter. Except for the last section, which contains only text, almost every page contains at least one illustration. The sections, and their conventional names, are:
  • Herbal: each page displays one plant (sometimes two), and a few paragraphs of text—a format typical of European herbals of the time. Some parts of these drawings are larger and cleaner copies of sketches seen in the pharmaceutical section (below).
  • Astronomical: contains circular diagrams, some of them with suns, moons, and stars, suggestive of astronomy or astrology. One series of 12 diagrams depicts conventional symbols for the zodiacal constellations (two fishes for Pisces, a bull for Taurus, a soldier with crossbow for Sagittarius, etc.). Each symbol is surrounded by exactly 30 miniature women figures, most of them naked, each holding a labeled star. The last two pages of this section (Aquarius and Capricorn, roughly January and February) were lost, while Aries and Taurus are split into four paired diagrams with 15 stars each. Some of these diagrams are on fold-out pages.
  • Biological: a dense continuous text interspersed with figures, mostly showing small nude women bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes, some of them clearly shaped like body organs. Some of the women wear crowns.
  • Cosmological: more circular diagrams, but of an obscure nature. This section also has fold-outs; one of them spans six pages and contains some sort of map or diagram, with nine "islands" connected by "causeways", castles, and possibly a volcano.
  • Pharmaceutical: many labeled drawings of isolated plant parts (roots, leaves, etc.); objects resembling apothecary jars drawn along the margins; and a few text paragraphs.
  • Recipes: many short paragraphs, each marked with a flower-like (or star-like) "bullet".

Since the manuscript's alphabet does not resemble any known script, and the text is still undeciphered, the only useful evidence as to the book's age and origin are the illustrations—especially the dresses and hairstyles of the human figures, and a couple of castles that are seen in the diagrams. They are all characteristically European, and based on that evidence most experts assign the book to dates between 1450 and 1520. This estimate is supported by other secondary clues.

The earliest confirmed owner of the manuscript was a certain Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 17th century. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as we are today about this "Sphynx" that had been "taking up space uselessly in his library" for many years. On learning that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano, had published a Coptic (Ethiopian) dictionary and "deciphered" the Egyptian hieroglyphs, he sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome (twice), asking for clues. His 1639 letter to Kircher, which was recently located by Rene Zandbergen, is the earliest mention of the manuscript that has been found so far.

It is not known whether Kircher answered the request, but apparently he was interested enough to try to acquire the book, which Baresch apparently refused to yield. Upon Baresch's death the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci (Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector of Charles University in Prague; who promptly sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend and correspondent. Marci's cover letter (1666) is still attached to the manuscript. Among other things, the letter claims that the manuscript was originally purchased for 600 ducats by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, who believed it to be the work of Roger Bacon.
There are no records of the book for the next 200 years, but in all likelihood it was kept, with the rest of Kircher's correspondence, in the library of the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University). It probably sat there until the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured the city in 1870 and annexed the Papal States. The new Italian government decided to confiscate many properties of the Church, including the library of the Collegio. According to investigations by Xavier Ceccaldi and others, just before this happened many books of the University's library were hastily transferred to the personal libraries of its faculty, which were exempt from confiscation. Kircher's correspondence was among those books—and so apparently was the Voynich manuscript, as it still bears the ex libris of Petrus Beckx, head of the Jesuit order and the University's Rector at the time.

Beckx' "private" library was moved to the Villa Mondragone, Frascati, a large country palace near Rome that had been bought by the Society of Jesus in 1866 and housed the headquarters of the Jesuits' Collegio Ghisleri.

Around 1912 the Collegio Romano was apparently short of money and decided to sell (very discreetly) some of its holdings. Wilfrid Voynich acquired 30 manuscripts, among them the manuscript that now bears his name. In 1930, after his death, the manuscript was inherited by his widow Ethel Lilian Voynich. She died in 1960 and left the manuscript to her close friend, Miss Anne Nill. In 1961, Anne Nill sold the book to another antique book dealer Hans P. Kraus. Unable to find a buyer, Kraus donated the manuscript to Yale University in 1969.

Read more about The Voynich Manuscript here

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