The riddle of the Voynich Manuscript

Manuscript Voynich Book Illustrated

The 'ancient' manuscript possibly penned by a bookseller and a spy.

The puzzling - and thus far indecipherable - nature of an old manuscript has confounded some of the world's greatest cryptologists. Is there truly a code to break, or is it all an elaborate hoax?

I have come to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, at Yale University, to solve a mystery that makes The Da Vinci Code seem tame - a book no-one can read, in a language that doesn't exist, illustrated with plants and creatures that have never been seen on Earth.

It is known as The Voynich Manuscript, after the second-hand book dealer, Wilfrid Voynich, who claimed to have discovered it in Italy, in 1912. Since then, it has obsessed countless experts and generated numerous theories, both scientific and crackpot. "My favourite is that it is the illustrated diary of a teenage space alien who left it behind on earth," jokes the Beinecke's curator, Ray Clemens.

What surprises me is how small it is. I had expected an album-sized manuscript. But the book resting on a reading stand in front of me is about the size of a Penguin Classics edition.

Bound in a limp vellum cover the colour of old ivory, it contains 240 richly illustrated pages. The illustrations look like something Timothy Leary might have seen on LSD. Strange plants, astrological symbols, jellyfish-like creatures and what looks like a lobster. In one image, a group of naked ladies with alabaster skin shoot down what looks like a water slide. The text, written in brown, iron gall ink, reminds me of Tolkien's Elvish.

These two sections appear to show naked women bathing - or perhaps on a water slide?

Some facts. Voynich was an ethnic Pole from Lithuania, in what was then the Russian Empire. Born in 1865, he was briefly imprisoned in Siberia for revolutionary activities before fleeing via Manchuria to London.

In London, he set up a second-hand bookstore, which became a centre for political exiles. Among them were Karl Marx and a Russian emigre, who adopted the moniker Sidney Reilly and became known to posterity as "The Ace of Spies".

Voynich claimed to have stumbled on the manuscript at a Jesuit seminary outside Rome, The Villa Madragone. Appended to the manuscript was what purported to be a letter written in 1665 by Johannes Marcus Marci, a former physician of the Holy Roman Emperor.

It stated that the manuscript had once belonged to Rudolf - and was probably the work of Elizabethan alchemist Roger Bacon ( via ).

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