I love a good mystery – but not the kind written by Agatha Christie. I prefer the kinds that exist in the world, many of them defying explanation. And there are lots of them. Sometime ago, I stumbled on one I hadn’t heard mentioned before, the Voynich Manuscript. Of course, the first thing I did was ask Tracy, our ILL librarian, to please get me a book. And, naturally, she found one! (The Voynich Manuscipt : an Elegant Enigma by M. E. D’Imperio.) It was a facsimile edition, too, which meant I was looking at the document exactly as it had been written, which added a lot to the enjoyment for me.
I have always loved old manuscripts, not usually for the messages they contain, because I can’t speak Latin or any of the other manuscript languages. For me, it’s more the idea that the thoughts and philosophies of an ancient time came down to us intact – because the scribes felt honor-bound to do their work well. I also love the “illuminations.” For instance, the Insular Manuscripts, produced in monasteries in Great Britain during the Dark Ages (7th and 8th centuries) were lavishly decorated in a mixture of early Celtic and Anglo-Saxon styles. An example is this page from the Book of Kells. Exacting work, in my view.
I can’t help thinking about the monks who created these manuscripts and the conditions under which they were produced. Can you imagine what it was like to sit in a small scriptorium, if you were lucky, or in a small cell in the cloister or, more likely, in your own tiny cell and painstakingly copy word-for-word and illuminate an entire book? And they did it time after time, through deprivation, cold, heat, damp, without electric lights, without pre-packaged paints, probably without even a comfortable place to sit. If not for them, many of the books of western literature would not have survived. (For more on this story, read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, part of his Hinges of History series.)
But that aside, the Voynich Manuscript is in a league of its own. Named for the bookseller who bought it in 1912 (Wilfrid Voynich), experts agree it was created sometime in the mid-1400s. But they don’t know where. It contains 240 pages of plant drawings and writings, the like of which have never been seen. Many, many attempts have been made to decipher the writing and identify the plants, but so far no one has succeeded very well with either.
The proof that it isn’t a recent fake comes from the line of owners: Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (ca. 1600-1610), Rudolf II’s “Imperial Distiller,” Jacobus z Tepenecz (ca. 1610-1620), Bohemian alchemist Georg Baresch (ca. 1630-1645), and Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland (ca. 1645-1665). For the next few centuries, it moved around Europe in the possession of the Jesuits, until it was purchased by Wilfrid Voynich in 1912. Voynich bequeathed it to his wife, Edith, who bequeathed it to Anne Nill, who sold it to H. P. Kraus in 1961. In 1969 H. P. Kraus donated it to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
So we know where it has been for the last four hundred years, but no one knows where it came from. This web site offers as much as is known about its history and provenance, along with the drawings and writings. Maybe you would like to try your hand at deciphering it. I would recommend going to the nearest monastery, finding a small rock-lined room, lighting the tiny brazier in the wall recess (it is always damp in a rock-lined room), and settling back in your uncomfortable chair by an uncovered window with a cup of cold water. That should be inspiration enough…