The Yale University Press published a photo facsimile edition of the mysterious 15th-century Voynich manuscript Nov. 1, making the artifact available to the public in a way it has never been before.
The Voynich manuscript, owned by the Beinecke library, is a 234-page volume filled with unreadable text, unidentifiable plant drawings, and depictions of strange astrological symbols and nude women. The facsimile recreates both the size and the foldouts of the original manuscript — features that are absent in the online version of the text, which was made available in 2004. The replica also includes extra components, including a number of scholarly essays that explain the manuscript’s scientific, historical and cultural significance.
Staff members involved in the production process said the printed facsimile edition allows readers to engage with the artifact in a more intimate fashion.
“I think it’s just such a beautiful object,” said Joseph Calamia, the senior editor for physical sciences at the Yale University Press. “Having the chance to flip through it and have that context in a physical form makes it easier to understand what it’s really like.”
Calamia pushed for the publication of the facsimile after he stumbled across a reference to the Voynich manuscript in a mathematics textbook published by the Yale Press. Though the manuscript has long fascinated scholars and conspiracy theorists alike, no one has yet been able to crack its code. Indeed, the multitude of failed attempts at deciphering the text has caused cryptographers to shy away from the manuscript, preferring to keep their professional reputations intact.
The many mysteries posed by the Voynich manuscript make it appealing to popular imagination. It has appeared in young adult fiction, scholarly investigations and “Assassin’s Creed,” a video game in which players have to track down pieces of the manuscript. Of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s online collections, the Voynich manuscript is the most searched-for artifact, attracting 16 percent of the library’s online traffic, according to a Nov. 3 article in Nature.
But the publishers of the facsimile edition do not wish to simply feed into cult-like frenzy surrounding the manuscript.
“When there’s such limited physical access, that tends to perhaps feed conspiracy,” said Michael Morand, the director of public relations and communications at the Beinecke library. “Doing it this way, with the scholarly essays, is an invitation to members of the general public who get interested in it for its mystery to understand more of medieval scholarship. … I think this will help ground general public understanding.”
Morand said because the manuscript is viewed as a curiosity artifact, it has not necessarily been studied by medieval scholars as thoroughly as it could be. He added that he hopes the facsimile will reignite serious interest among scholars by presenting the manuscript as an object of scientific investigation rather than wild speculation.
The facsimile aims to educate the public about the methods of scholarly historical study while maintaining the sense of intrigue and excitement that comes from paging through a mysterious ancient text. The essays included in the facsimile explain the manuscript from a number of scholarly perspectives, including alchemical, cryptographic, forensic and historical analyses. Thanks to the advancement of technology, the manuscript has undergone carbon-14 dating, X-ray fluorescence, Raman spectroscopy and other advanced tests.
In the introduction to the facsimile, one of the authors, Deborah Harkness, “invite[s] the reader to join [them] at the heart of the mystery as [they] strive to better understand this complex book and its history.”
“It has meaning inherent in the manuscript, but it also accumulates meaning in the way that people over time encounter it and tell the story,” Morand said.
Perhaps echoing this sentiment, the facsimile includes generous margins around the photos of the manuscript. These serve not only to allow the edges of the manuscript to be included, but also to give readers space to write annotations and conjectures as they read, Raymond Clemens, curator of early books and manuscripts at the Beinecke library, told Yale News in October.
The facsimile is also notable for the extent to which Yale institutions were involved in its production. A wide range of research and historical staff members and organizations — the Yale University Press, the Beinecke librarians and the researchers on West Campus — produced the facsimile together.
Calamia describes the facsimile’s production as a “Yale story.” Morand echoes the sentiment, calling the project a “labor of love.”
A copy of the facsimile is available for the public to view at the security desk in the Beinecke library.