© 2024 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Off the Path Revisited: The Voynich Manuscript

Davis Dunavin
Pages from the Voynich Manuscript at Yale's Beinecke Library. No one knows what language or code it was written in, though many, including World War II codebreakers, tried to figure it out.

It’s one of the world’s great literary mysteries: a 15th century book full of bizarre illustrations of imaginary plants, astrological signs, surreal figures and landscapes. Its origins are unknown, its creator anonymous. And it’s written entirely in an unknown language that’s stumped the world’s greatest codebreakers.

The Voynich Manuscript has baffled historians since it was brought to public attention over 100 years ago by its namesake, rare book collector Wilfrid Voynich. The book has been hidden away in Yale University’s Beinecke Library since the 1960s, even as its notoriety has spread across pop culture. Now the book is about to receive its first official publication.

“There’s a lot of beauty in this book, even though there’s a lot of crazy in it, too,” said Beinecke’s assistant chief conservator Paula Zyats as she flips through the Voynich manuscript.

The book itself is about the size of a small paperback. Its pages are made of calfskin – an ordinary parchment for books in the Middle Ages. The first pages show colorful, detailed illustrations of plants, flowers and herbs. Nothing out of the ordinary here – many medieval manuscripts cover herbalism, which was considered a medical art. The weird thing is, none of the plants are real.

“Sometimes it seems as though the leaf of one goes with the root of another with the flowers of a third,” Zyats said.

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU
Zyats flips through the Voynich Manuscript at the Beinecke Library and Rare Book Room. The manuscript is not on public display and is generally only available for viewing by scholars, who must be approved by the library's curators and conservators.

After the plants, you start seeing pictures of astrological symbols and surreal landscapes.

“And then there’s a section of the nude ladies,” Zyats said as she turns to the next page. “Everybody loves the nude ladies in their interesting Dr. Seussical contraptions and baths.”

Zyats speculates the book may have been written by a woman: the female forms are just a little too distinct and naturalistic.

“Honestly, upper-class women [in the time], not a lot to do all day,” she said. “I can see creating and creating and writing down.”

In that case, the code may have been created to keep a medieval woman’s secrets about herbs, astrology and childbirth out of the hands of men. If so, it’s been vastly successful.

Down the Rabbit Hole
The odd little book was passed around privately for centuries. Its journey from hand to hand was nearly as strange as its contents: at one point it passed from an alchemist to a Jesuit priest. Some believed it had mystical powers. Names like Roger Bacon, John Dee and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II were attached to it – either as owners or possible creators.

“A lot of people thought that it was a hoax, that it was something done in the 20th century by Voynich himself,” said Ray Clemens, a curator at the Beinecke Library. The hoax idea was mostly put to rest when the book was carbon dated to the early 1400s, although occasionally a contrarian scholar will resurrect the claim. Still, Clemens said scholars haven’t had much luck trying to translate the mysterious text.

“They can’t figure out, is it another language? Is it Latin, is it German? But they also can’t tell if this is an invented language,” he said.

Even a group of World War II codebreakers couldn’t do it, although they did catalogue and classify “Voynich-ese,” the alphabet of 25 to 30 letters that seem to make up the book’s language.

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU
A selection of 'Voynich-ese.' Translation unavailable.

Voynich-ese is tantalizingly similar to a real language. The same words and phrases repeat over and over. The handwriting is steady and fluid, as if the creator didn’t have to halt and consult a codex, but knew the language by heart. There are also no errors or corrections in the writing, which makes this book virtually unique among medieval manuscripts. It’s easy to think you could crack the code with just a little more time.

“If you’re at all inclined with linguistics, that temptation!” Clemens said. “When I took this job, I promised myself I would never try to read the text. Because I’d seen too many articles of people who went down the rabbit hole.”

Since it came to Yale, it’s been photocopied and put online. That’s helped its notoriety spread. The Voynich Manuscript has been the subject of fantasy novels, web comics, video games and music.

Theories abound. Was it stream of consciousness created by someone suffering from mental illness? A secret code for a medieval mystery cult? Whatever it is, it continues to fascinate. There have been some unofficial copies over the years, but now Yale thinks it’s time to create a physical copy for anyone to hold and ponder.

“People are in a world where we think we can explain everything,” Clemens said. “It sort of makes us more human, to have objects we can puzzle over, and not perhaps agree to what they mean.”

Colorful and Odd and Unknowable
When Hannah Lash was a teenager, she stumbled on the Voynich Manuscript online (The manuscript is the subject of any number of write-ups on websites that catalogue the odd and unknowable.) She was immediately struck by the beauty and mystery of the book.

“It felt as though it was a space for my imagination to run wild, and that was appealing to me,” Lash said. “There were moments for me where I would allow my imagination to run wild and continue on the story I felt was being told by a specific illustration.”

Now Lash is a Yale music professor. She’s finishing a four-part symphony based on the Voynich Manuscript called the Lash/Voynich Project. Each part is based on a section of the book. It’s been premiering one piece at a time at the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.

Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU
Composer and Yale music professor Hannah Lash. A harpist by training, Lash has spent the past two years creating a musical translation of the Voynich Manuscript.

The first movement dealt with her interpretation of the book’s herbological section – a section that spoke to her intimately, she said, because she feels so close to plants.

“You’ll hear in the first movement the sense of growth of material, development of material, almost as if you’re watching branches grow from a trunk, little twigs from those branches, then leaves.”

The second movement covered the astrological section. The music calls to mind stars and other celestial bodies moving through space.

Listen to a section from "Astronomical," the second movement of Lash’s Symphony.


Lash explains the inspiration behind "Astronomical."

The third movement, called “Biological,” debuted last month at NHSO. It deals with the part of the manuscript that shows rows of nude women in what look like Roman baths. “Biological” is a scherzo –  fast, light-hearted and somewhat comical.

“Within that part of the manuscript there is some humor,” Lash said. “Some of the illustrations are odd and disconcerting and a little bit funny. And I liked the thought that we connect the biological in some ways to things that are funny.”

Lash said she’s never been one of those drawn to try to find the meaning in the Voynich Manuscript. Her music is more about how the book makes her feel.

“A lot of what this piece is is its imagination, its color,” she said. “And that relates very deeply to what the Voynich is to me, this beautiful sensuous thing, that’s colorful and odd and unknowable.”

Yale University Press’ fascimile edition of the Voynich Manuscript will be released November 1. The book includes an essay by novelist and historian Deborah Harkness. A second limited-run edition will be released by Siloe, a Spanish publishing house. The limited edition will faithfully reproduce the book’s texture and design.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.