Amongst the millions of volumes housed in Yale University’s Rare Book Library is a 600-year-old book nobody can read.
Officially cataloged as ‘MS 408,’ it is more commonly referred to as the ‘Voynich Manuscript (named after the person who discovered the book in 1912). At first glance, it appears to be a scientific work from medieval times. It is not. In fact, no one knows what it is. Not one word of this fairly thick book is understandable. And that is its least remarkable aspect.
The ‘Voynich Manuscript’ has not title, no chapters, and no subheadings. No one knows who wrote it; no one knows what it is about; no one knows what the book’s purpose is at all. Of the 220 colour illustrations found on its pages, none appear to relate to the text or even to each other. 140 of the illustrations are highly detailed ones of various plants, none of which appear in nature.
There are also detailed star maps, which again do not correspond to any sky at any time anywhere on Earth. The unknown language it is written in doesn’t even come close to resembling any known one, including dead ones such as Latin or Aramaic.
Due to the overwhelming and often bloody conflict during Europe’s Middle Ages, it is possible that the ‘Voynich Manuscript’ is written in some sort of code. If it is, it is the greatest code in the history of mankind. No scholar has ever cracked it, and numerous ones have spent many years on it.
In the late 1940s, William F. Friedman began to study it. Friedman was perhaps the greatest cryptographer of the 20th century. He could literally translate thousands of secret codes and ciphers, and broke Japan’s ‘unbreakable’ diplomatic code during World War II. After the war he continued to break codes for the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency until his death in 1969.
If the ‘Voynich Manuscript’ was indeed written in code, William Friedman died without breaking it.
It was about this time the word ‘hoax’ started to attach itself to the book. This began to make more and more sense, since the book did seem to appear out of thin air. Not helping matters was Wilfrid Voynich himself, the man the book is unofficially named after. Voynich was extremely evasive as to how he acquired it — always stating he came across it in 1912 at “an undisclosed location in Europe.”
Yet it turned out not to be a fake after all. Not only did the University of Arizona successfully radiocarbon date it to the early 1400s, but the book itself was found to be mentioned in various letters from the 1600s.
As well as not being a hoax, various people have been put forward as the author of this most mysterious work. Voynich himself thought Roger Bacon had written it. Other candidates have included Leonardo daVinci, occultist John Dee, and an Italian architect named Antonio Averlino.
Yet no one has successfully been able to provide any shred of evidence to support any of these candidates.
The latest theory comes from German cryptographer Klaus Schmeh, who feels the book was created by some person suffering from mental illness. Yet even this has been somehow statistically disproven by renowned linguist Gordon Rugg.
It doesn’t look like anytime soon we will ever know what the world’s most unreadable book really is. Maybe we aren’t supposed to. Maybe it was simply written to produce a mystery.
Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library