In 1665, the German physician Johannes Marcus Marci wrote to a famous Jesuit cryptologist, Athanasius Kircher, to request his help in deciphering a very peculiar manuscript. The manuscript had been bequeathed to Marci by his friend Georg Baresch, an alchemist who had devoted his whole life to decoding it. In his letter to Kircher, Marci wrote:
This book was left to me by a close friend in his will, and ever since I first owned it I have destined it for you, my dearest Athanasius, persuaded as I am that it can be read by none if not by you. The then possessor of the book … put untiring work into its decipherment as will be seen from his attempts now sent to you under the same cover. He did not give up this hope until he reached the end of his life. [trans. Philip Neal]
Like Baresch, however, Kircher also failed to break the code. Previous and successive owners (the English astrologer John Dee, Emperor Rudolf II of Germany, Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz and the Jesuits, among others) were similarly stymied.
For centuries, then, the book — which would come to be known as the Voynich Manuscript, after the Polish antiquarian and book dealer Wilfrid Voynich — has been the object of frustration, obsession and even fetishization. The text is accompanied by hundreds of elaborate, colorful and sometimes bizarre illustrations: exotic plants, cosmological charts, naked women, medicinal herbs, an interconnected network of tubes. The manuscript’s striking visual language thus reinforces its iconic status, even as its text remains indecipherable. In this sense, the Voynich Manuscript seems to prove that a book can be, after all, just an object.
The Voynich Manuscript is currently held in the collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, catalogued as “MS 408.” Although the Beinecke has been the home of the Voynich Manuscript since 1969, the library does not compile information about the codex, nor does it attempt to decipher it. Still, Yale is something of a center for Voynich inquiry. In past years, the Beinecke has hosted and collaborated with documentary filmmakers, novelists and radiocarbon-dating specialists.The library also undertakes the daily responsibilities of responding to research inquiries and fielding the many requests to see the manuscript.
Indeed, the impulse to look at and touch the Voynich Manuscript — to turn its pages, pore over its illustrations and attempt to decipher its beautiful but indecipherable script — seemingly transcends time and place. In the early 17th century John Dee’s son reported that his father had “a booke … containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke [he] bestowed much time upon: but I could not heare that hee could make it out.” In a recent article for The New Yorker, Reed Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia, described his summer of Voynich obsession: “I made an electronic facsimile of the book for my iPad using high-resolution scans of the pages, and spent hours — which turned into days and weeks — flipping through the pages, captivated by the smallest details in the margins.”
As Johnson’s account suggests, new waves of technology have made it easier than ever to become a Voynich devotee. Blogs and email listservs provide an online gathering space for like-minded people to share their theories, and the free availability of digital scans of the manuscript (provided by the Beinecke) enables anyone to exercise their cryptographic skills, closely examine the illustrations, or simply admire the Voynich Manuscript as an artistic production.
The increasing accessibility of the manuscript, however, does not necessarily mean that we are any closer to deciphering it. For hundreds of years, it has eluded the efforts of those who, like Georg Baresch, “did not give up this hope” until their deaths. In the 1920s, for example, the cryptographer William Newbold spent the final years of his life developing a torturously complex (and now discredited) system of decipherment, by which each letter had to be viewed under a magnifying glass to reveal the “true” underlying script. Even he admitted, however, that “I frequently find it impossible to read the same text in exactly the same way.” The famous World War II cryptographer William Friedman tried his hand at it, but after decades of labor declared, “I put no trust in anagrammatic acrostic cyphers, for they are of little real value — a waste — and may prove nothing — finis.”
In this sense, the peculiar charisma of the manuscript might not be entirely benign: the Voynich rapaciously absorbs time, money and human energy, with few discernible results. What would it mean, then, if the manuscript is actually a hoax or a centuries-old practical joke — if, in other words, the Voynich Manuscript will never be decoded, because there is nothing to decode?
There is also, of course, persuasive evidence to the contrary: linguists have identified clusters of recurring symbols that suggest some sort of overarching philological organization, and the length and ornate detail of the manuscript would themselves seem to provide an argument for its significance as a storehouse of knowledge about late medieval botany, alchemy and medicine. Surely, then, no one would go to such lengths to produce a book that could never be read.
But the possibility that the language of the Voynich Manuscript is mere gibberish is one way to explain the failure of so many gifted cryptographers and linguists to decipher it. After all the feverish speculation about its authorship — Roger Bacon, the 13th-century Franciscan friar, was one candidate proposed — it might just consist of a series of nonsense symbols, accompanied by fantastical illustrations.
And yet the manuscript continues to exert a powerful hold on the imagination. Perhaps it is precisely because the manuscript has remained unreadable for centuries that generations of book collectors, cryptographers and members of the general public have remained so enthralled. The indecipherability of the manuscript opens up the possibility that anyone, even an ordinary citizen, might succeed where others have failed. The decoding of the Voynich is thus always in the future tense: one day the code will be broken, and the Voynich Manuscript will yield up its secrets.
Just not yet.
(Photo courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.)