An Animated Introduction to “the World’s Most Mysterious Book,” the 15th-Century Voynich Manuscript

It has 240 pages filled with writ­ing and illus­tra­tion. Car­bon dat­ing places it around the year 1420. Schol­ars have spent count­less thou­sands of hours scru­ti­niz­ing it. But the so-called Voyn­ich Man­u­script has one qual­i­ty more notable than any oth­er: nobody under­stands a word of it. Last month, Josh Jones wrote about this sin­gu­lar­ly strange tex­tu­al arti­fact here at Open Cul­ture, includ­ing the dig­i­tized ver­sion at the Inter­net Archive that you can flip through and read your­self — or rather “read,” since the tex­t’s lan­guage, if it be a lan­guage at all, remains uniden­ti­fied. But before you do that, you might want to watch TED-Ed’s brief intro­duc­tion to the Voyn­ich Man­u­script above.

The video’s nar­ra­tor describes pages of “real and imag­i­nary plants, float­ing cas­tles, bathing women, astrol­o­gy dia­grams, zodi­ac rings, and suns and moons with faces accom­pa­ny the text,” read­ing from a script by Stephen Bax, Voyn­ich Man­u­script researcher and Pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern Lan­guages and Lin­guis­tics at the Open Uni­ver­si­ty.

“Cryp­tol­o­gists say the writ­ing has all the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a real lan­guage — just one that no one’s ever seen before.” High­ly dec­o­rat­ed through­out with “scroll-like embell­ish­ments,” the man­u­script fea­tures the work of what looks like no few­er than three hands: two who did the writ­ing, and one who did the paint­ing.

Intrigued yet? Or per­haps you already feel an inkling of a new the­o­ry to explain this bizarre, seem­ing­ly ency­clo­pe­dia-like vol­ume’s prove­nance to add to the many that have come before: some believe the man­u­scrip­t’s author or authors wrote it in code, some that “the doc­u­ment is a hoax, writ­ten in gib­ber­ish to make mon­ey off a gullible buy­er” by a “medieval con man” or even Voyn­ich him­self, and some that it shows an attempt “to cre­ate an alpha­bet for a lan­guage that was spo­ken, but not yet writ­ten.” Maybe the thir­teenth-cen­tu­ry philoso­pher Roger Bacon wrote it. Or maybe the Eliz­a­bethan mys­tic John Dee. Or maybe Ital­ian witch­es, or space aliens. At just a glance, the Voyn­ich Man­u­script pos­es ques­tions that could take an eter­ni­ty to answer — as any great work of lit­er­a­ture should.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold the Mys­te­ri­ous Voyn­ich Man­u­script: The 15th-Cen­tu­ry Text That Lin­guists & Code-Break­ers Can’t Under­stand

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • gaby bustros says:

    - The Egypt­ian Hiero­glyphs were deci­phered 3.500 years

    after their cre­ation — by one sin­gle man, Cham­pol­lion —

    we should be able to do like­wise, espe­cial­ly with all the

    new tech­nolo­gies.

    - Impos­si­ble for this to be a” for­got­ten ” lan­guage, or

    oth­er signs of it would have appeared else­where.

    - What is the paint made of ? Oil appeared only in the

    Renais­sance. As to plain water­col­or or gouache, would the

    doc­u­ment be in such a good con­di­tion ?

    In fine, most prob­a­bly, this is a fan­tas­tic hoax !

  • Viynich says:

    I have been able to deci­pher a cou­ple words with a cyher I found it isn’t a herbal book. Is a before the bible of how we can’t to be and from what I can tell this was­n’t their first attempt at this.… If a actu­al sci­en­tist would get in touch with me if be hap­py to show my find­ings the cypher is only half of a whole…I can show pic­tures of start clus­ters and new pic­tures to is now that he did it ..

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