The 600-year-old book no one can read has been fascinating us for decades, but we're only recently starting to learn more about it.
Named after the Polish-American bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912, the Voynich Manuscript is a detailed 240-page book written in a language or script that is completely unknown.
Some folks have labelled the Voynich Manuscript as nothing more than an ancient hoax, including Gordon Rugg of Keele University in the U.K., who has spent more than a decade studying the manuscript. Rugg wrote in a 2016 paper that the text would be easy to fake if the author was familiar with simple coding techniques. “We have known for years that the syllables are not random. There are ways of producing gibberish which are not random in a statistical sense,” he told New Scientist. "It’s a bit like rolling loaded dice. If you roll dice that are subtly loaded, they would come up with a six more often than you would expect, but not every time."
But other researchers don't necessarily agree. In a 2013 study published in the journal PLoS One, Diego Amancio, a professor at University of São Paulo's Institute of Mathematical and Computer Sciences, explained how the book's beautiful gibberish is likely an actual language.
"We show that it is mostly compatible with natural languages and incompatible with random texts," he wrote. "We also obtain candidates for keywords of the Voynich Manuscript, which could be helpful in the effort of deciphering it."
An extinct language?
Many scholars have claimed to decipher the Voynich Manuscript over the years, so new claims are often met with justifiable skepticism. Being published in a peer-reviewed journal does help boost credibility, though, as in the case of a May 2019 study published in the journal Romance Studies.
Gerard Cheshire, a research associate at the University of Bristol, reportedly only needed two weeks to identify the mysterious document's language and writing system. In the process of deciphering the manuscript's codex, he says, he also revealed the only-known example of proto-Romance language.
"I experienced a series of 'eureka' moments whilst deciphering the code, followed by a sense of disbelief and excitement when I realized the magnitude of the achievement, both in terms of its linguistic importance and the revelations about the origin and content of the manuscript," Cheshire says in a statement. "What it reveals is even more amazing than the myths and fantasies it has generated."
This illustration shows women bathing children, according to Cheshire, with words for various moods like tozosr (buzzing: too noisy), orla la (on the edge: losing patience), tolora (silly/foolish) or noror (cloudy: dull/sad). (Image: University of Bristol)
The manuscript was compiled by Dominican nuns, according to Cheshire, as a source of reference for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon — who "happens to have been great aunt to Catherine of Aragon," he notes. It has eluded translators because it's written in an "extinct language," he adds, that was ancestral to Romance languages.
"Its alphabet is a combination of unfamiliar and more familiar symbols," Cheshire says. "It includes no dedicated punctuation marks, although some letters have symbol variants to indicate punctuation or phonetic accents. All of the letters are in lower case and there are no double consonants. It includes diphthong, triphthongs, quadriphthongs and even quintiphthongs for the abbreviation of phonetic components. It also includes some words and abbreviations in Latin."
The next step will be to translate the entire manuscript based on Cheshire's theory, which he acknowledges will take time and funding given the document's length.
Deciphering it with artificial intelligence
Greg Kondrak, an expert in natural language processing at the University of Alberta, used artificial intelligence to try to crack the code in 2018. With the help of his grad student, Bradley Hauer, Kondrak used samples from “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” which was written in nearly 400 languages, running algorithms to identify the language of the text. Although they hypothesized it was written in Arabic, it turned out the most likely language was Hebrew.
The researchers hypothesized the manuscript was created using alphagrams, where the letters of a word are replaced in alphabetical order. With that assumption, they tried to create an algorithm to read the text.
“It turned out that over 80 percent of the words were in a Hebrew dictionary, but we didn’t know if they made sense together,” said Kondrak, in a statement.
After being unable to find Hebrew scholars to confirm their findings, the researchers turned to Google Translate. “It came up with a sentence that is grammatical, and you can interpret it,” said Kondrak, “she made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people. It’s a kind of strange sentence to start a manuscript but it definitely makes sense.”
Without historians of ancient Hebrew, Kondrak said that the full meaning of the Voynich manuscript will remain a mystery.
Bringing the puzzle to the people
It may seem far-fetched, but this famous manuscript could become a bestseller.
Siloe, a small publishing house in Spain specializing in handcrafted replicas of ancient manuscripts, in 2016 was granted the exclusive rights to create 898 facsimiles of the Voynich.
“It’s a book that has such an aura of mystery that when you see it for the first time, it fills you with an emotion that is very hard to describe,” Juan Jose Garcia, the editor of Siloe, told AFP.
An artist from the Siloe publishing house sews a page from a replica of the Voynich Manuscript. The mysterious book will be reproduced down to every stain, tear and sewn piece of parchment. (Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP/Getty)
No ordinary scan-and-print project, the Voynich replicas will be meticulously crafted to match every "stain, hole, and sewn-up tear in the parchment," according to the news agency. The publishing house has even created a secret paste and aging process to make the more than 200 pages of the book appear and feel indistinguishable from the real thing. The process is expected to take a full 18 months to complete.
Siloe had reportedly been petitioning the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, which took possession of the Voynich in 1969, to publish a replica for the last 10 years. The library finally acquiesced after both an increase in scholarly interest in the Voynich and quality assurances from experts associated with previous rare manuscript copies completed by Siloe.
“We thought that the facsimile would provide the look and feel of the original for those who were interested,” Raymond Clemens, curator at the Beinecke library, told the AFP. “It also enables libraries and museums to have a copy for instructional purposes and we will use the facsimile ourselves to show the manuscript outside of the library to students or others who might be interested.”
A work of curious art
Besides its indecipherable characters, the manuscript is also crammed with illustrations of astronomical charts, human figures, and plants, the latter of which have never been positively identified as anything found on Earth. These puzzles have led to the manuscript being classified as everything from the work of aliens to the musings of an inter-dimensional Medieval sorcerer.
Whatever the true answer, you don't have to shell out the expected $8,000 to $9,000 cost for an exact replica. In addition to offering high-res digital scans of the Voynich pages online, Yale is selling hardcover copies for $50 that include accompanying research on the manuscript.
You can also view a digital overview of the 250 pages of the Voynich Manuscript in the video below.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in August 2016.