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

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