The Book No One Can Read

1. This is the Voynich Manuscript.

2. It currently resides at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

3. It dates to c. 1430 CE in Europe, but no one has been able to decipher the language or the illustrations in it.

The manuscript was named after Wilfrid Voynich, the rare book dealer who stumbled upon it in 1912. It once belonged to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany (1576-1612), who purchased it for 600 gold ducats, believing it was the work of the philosopher Roger Bacon. The book, a small 23 cm x 16 cm codex comprising 240 pages, has since been carbon dated to the mid-15th century and may have originated in northern Italy.

4. Each page of the book features vivid ink drawings accompanied by cryptic text. It seems to be divided into six sections: Herbal, Astronomical, Biological…

5. …Cosmological, Pharmaceutical and Recipes.

6. But here’s where the mystery deepens:

7. The plants don’t appear to be real plants. Some of them seem to have the roots of one species have been fastened to the leaves of another, with flowers from a third.

8. The biological section depicts miniature pregnant female nudes wading in puddles of fluid and connected with tubes.

9. The astrological section includes astral charts and standard zodiac symbols like fish (Pisces), a bull (Taurus), and an archer (Sagittarius).

10. The pharmaceutical section contains drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots alongside different jars and vessels.

11. There are also nine mysterious cosmological medallions, with some drawn across several fold-out folios.

12. As for the language, the letter resemble those of European alphabets of the late 14th and 15th centuries.

The language itself, however, has gone undeciphered.

13. We know that the 170,000 glyphs are written from left to right.

The text is more repetitive than typical European languages, as the same words seem to be repeated over and over, up to three times in a row.

14. One theory is that the Voynich language is a cipher language. That is, a European language was filtered through a cryptic alphabet to render it some sort of code.

15. Another theory is that the language is “micrographic,” i.e., each apparent “letter” is in fact constructed of a series of tiny markings for ancient Greek shorthand only discernible under magnification.

This theory has been widely disregarded.

16. Perhaps the most plausible theory is that the book is simply written in a lost language. A “hitherto unknown North Germanic dialect,” as one scholar suggests.

17. Or, it COULD be a hoax.

Some people posit that the language is “meaningless gibberish” and that the entire thing is a prank pulled either by an author in medieval Europe or by Voynich himself.

“There have been numerous encrypted texts since the Middle Ages and 99.9% have been cracked,” cryptographer Klaus Schmeh told the BBC. “If you have a whole book, as here, it should be ‘quite easy’ as there is so much material for analysts to work with. That it has never been decrypted is a strong argument for the hoax theory.”

18. William F. Friedman, one of the most famous code-breakers of all time who cracked Japan’s PURPLE cipher during WWII, devoted his life to trying to crack the Voynich. He sadly failed.

19. Last year, a group of scholars held a conference to commemorate the book’s centennial and attempted anew to decipher it. Still nothing.

20. So far, no one’s been able to decipher the language, nor the true meaning of the illustrations.

…But some scholars think we’re close.

21. Here’s a recent National Geographic documentary on it, if you want to learn more!

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