What is the Voynich Manuscript, the Book Nobody Can Read?

By Tom Pritchard on at

You know what everybody loves more than anything in the world? Curling up by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate and a nice, pretty book that they can't understand. It's pretty peaceful stuff, sitting there staring at the rows of squiggly shapes, with absolutely no clue about what they mean.

I joke, of course. But why on Earth has a Spanish publisher acquired the rights to something written in a language literally nobody understands?

It's called the Voynich Manuscript, and it's a centuries-old book containing rather elegant writing and illustrations of plants. Only one copy exists right now, and it lives inside a vault at Yale University's Beinecke library. Apparently too many people wanted to spend time with the original, and Yale felt it was best to let people who wanted to let people experience something with the look and feel of it.

So, after 10 years of trying, Spanish publisher Siloe, which specialises in reproducing old books and manuscripts, has been given the right to make 898 copies of the book and put them up for sale. I don't use the term copy lightly, either. The books Siloe produces are exact replicas, including every stain, hole, and tear in the original. It seems like a pretty strange thing for someone to want to buy, though we do live in the Age of Hipster, and the publisher has already had more than 300 pre-orders.

So what the heck is this thing, and why do people care that much?

The manuscript gets its name from Polish antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased it (and 29 other manuscripts) from the Roman College in 1912. What makes the book so fascinating is that it's written in an unknown language that has defied translation for centuries. Some notes inside the book appear to be written in both Latin and High German, though they are few and far between.

While some are missing, there are around 240 pages (several of which pull out) covered in the unknown script, along with illustrations. These include astronomical charts, doodles of women, and plants. The illustrations offer few clues about what the book is about, and even the plants haven't yet been identified.

While some assumed Voynich had faked the book, carbon dating has shown that the vellum used as parchment dates back to the early 15th century. That doesn't prove it's not a fake, but this has led to some speculation that it may have been written during the Italian Renaissance. Sadly there's no evidence to prove or disprove this.

Many theories have spread about the actual language inside. These range from it being a little-known natural language, a constructed language, an incredibly elaborate cipher, the written version of speaking in tongues (known as glossolalia), or completely made-up nonsense that was never meant to be translated. There are many arguments for these theories, but none that have really stood up to scrutiny thus far.

The history of the book has been traced back as far as 1639, however, where it was mentioned in a letter from Czech alchemist Georg Baresch to Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. Evidently, Baresch hoped that Kircher would be able to aid in the translation of the text, since Kircher claimed to be able to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Other known owners throughout history include Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Baresch's colleague Jan Marek Marci, Kircher, and Voynich's widow Ethel. Ethel Voynich left the book to her friend Anne Nill who ended up selling the book in 1961 to dealer Hans P Kraus. Kraus intended to sell it onto someone else and, after being unable to do so, it was donated it to Yale University where it resides to this day.

The book's age, and the fact that it has yet to be deciphered, is why it fascinates coders and cryptographers so much. Theories have popped up all over the place, ranging from relatively sensible (like it's one of Leonardo Da Vinci's secret notebooks) to, well, alien theories.

Interestingly, the book has been available digitally for quite some time, so these replicas aren't really about making the text more accessible to the public. According to Rene Zandbergen, a space engineer who runs a recognised blog on the manuscript, 90 per cent of access to Beinecke's digital library is so people can investigate the Voynich Manuscript for themselves. Naturally this leads to the library getting a lot of calls from people claiming to have deciphered the words inside.

So Siloe's replicas, which will cost between €7,000 and €8,000 (£6,000-£6,900) each, are really only meant for purists or book collectors. They're designed to provide the same look and feel of the original, but without any risk of the priceless tome being damaged. It also means institutions (like museums and the Beinecke library) have copies for instructional purposes, without having to obtain the original.

Siloe's work on the replicas began in April, with a photographer taking high-detail pictures of the original Voynich manuscript. This was the start of an 18-month process to bring them to life, and right now workers are creating mock-ups before printing begins. The paper used to create the replicas is made from a special paste, and treated to emulate the stiffness of the original parchment. Once everything is printed out, the books will be put together and meticulously worked on to recreate every single imperfection from the original and ensure they look older than they actually are.

So there you have it. A book that cannot be understood by anyone except perhaps the person who originally wrote it, being recreated and printed for people to buy. Maybe one day we'll get an understanding of what's hidden inside the Voynich manuscript, provided it wasn't some elaborate Renaissance practical joke that has gone way too far. Until then you'll just have to stare at the pages in wonder and bewilderment. A digital version of the book can be found here.

Featured image: D.C.Atty/Flickr