Who Knows?

Meehan Crist

  • The Voynich Manuscript edited by Raymond Clemens
    Yale, 336 pp, £35.00, November 2016, ISBN 978 0 300 21723 0

The Voynich Manuscript looks unremarkable: a yellowing bundle of cheap vellum pages bound between two wooden boards. The cover is blank. Once called ‘the most mysterious manuscript in the world’ by the medievalist and philologist John Manly, its 240 pages contain illustrations of plants no one can identify, what look to be circular celestial maps (though they don’t correspond to any known constellations), drawings of women with rounded bellies frolicking in baths connected by strange tubes, and a list of what may be alchemical or herbal recipes. No one knows its author or origins, and no one can read it. The faded brown script is written in an unknown alphabet that has baffled historians, cryptographers and bibliophiles for nearly six centuries. When Umberto Eco visited Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which has housed the manuscript since the 1960s, it was the only text he asked to see.

Detail from The Voynich Manuscript

The manuscript’s main sections are known to scholars as the ‘herbal’, ‘astrological’, ‘balneological’ and ‘pharmacological’ – the list of recipes, if that is what it is, comes at the end – and many readers have attempted comparisons to medieval codices of botany, astrology, alchemy and materia medica. The drawings – faces embedded in leafy vegetation, plants waving tentacular arms, tubes bulging like human organs – look as though they could be illustrations for a compendium of natural science. But as we lack context for them, we can’t tell what they are supposed to represent.

Take the naked women of the ‘balneological’ section. As Jennifer Rampling notes in an essay in the new Yale edition, alchemical treatises often included figurative and allegorical representations: ‘The “chemical wedding” of solar king and lunar queen might represent the alchemical process of conjunction – the physical joining of gold and silver – or suggest an analogy for the mysterious and unseen bonds between substances, now envisioned in terms of human desire.’ Naked men and women, sometimes pictured in hexagonal stone baths, were used to represent substances undergoing dissolution or conjunction. But in the Voynich Manuscript most of the bathers are female and ‘their postures and activities have no clear parallel in alchemical writing.’ Trying to interpret this book as an alchemical text soon becomes a maddening game of guesswork and association.

The vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early 15th century, and the inks were created with materials and processes common in the late medieval period. Many have suggested that the bathing women look pregnant, which could indicate that this is a medicinal text concerning women’s health or fertility cycles. But visual representations of the female body in medieval Europe routinely featured rouged cheeks and a rounded belly, as with Botticelli’s Venus or the female figures in the paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder. The artist who illustrated the Voynich Manuscript had a heavy hand, but the appearance of the bathing women may simply reflect artistic convention and gender norms. This does not rule out the possibility that the drawings illustrate heretical descriptions of female contraception or abortion, as some have suggested – subjects that may have warranted the use of careful code.

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