Centuries-Old Voynich Manuscript Puzzles Scholars

Mar 07, 2011

Readers of 'The Da Vinci Code' who enjoy puzzling out mysteries can feast on another literary cryptogram: The Voynich Manuscript, recently discovered to be more than 500 years old, is considered by many to be the most mysterious book in the world. What is it that makes this medieval artifact so enigmatic?

By Douglas Fehlen

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A Confounding Work

Researchers at the University of Arizona announced in February that they have determined the age of the Voynich Manuscript, a literary relic from the Middle Ages. Using carbon dating, scholars found that the manuscript dates back to between 1404 and 1438. While the age of the book has been established, much else about the tome remains a mystery.

Most fascinating about the Voynich Manuscript is the fact that no one is able to read it: The book is written in an unknown language, one that has been analyzed by various scholars intent on cracking the manuscript's mystery. No efforts, however, have proven successful, and the book remains an enigma for all of the academic community.

Adding to the intrigue: The Voynich Manuscript is filled with idiosyncratic illustrations that are often as puzzling as the book's indecipherable text. One section features drawings of what appear to be various plants, though the pictures don't resemble vegetation found on Earth. In addition to otherworldly flora, the book contains cosmological diagrams, anatomy charts and other archaic drawings.

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A Popular Object of Study

Since being discovered near Rome in 1912 by antique dealer Wilfred Voynich, the world's most mysterious manuscript has been the subject of intensive study. Voynich himself analyzed the tome for 18 years before his death. The book then changed hands several times before it was donated to Yale University in 1969. Since then, academics studying the Voynich Manuscript have drawn various, often conflicting, conclusions about it.

Some who've studied the book have suggested its strange language is cipher. These analysts believe that the manuscript's text is in essence a code that could be interpreted to reveal messages in an existing language. Others have suggested that most of the book is nonsensical, but that certain aspects of the text may convey real information. Additional scholars have alternately suggested that the book is written in made-up, hybrid and constructed languages.

While establishing the age of the Voynich Manuscript has not brought its meaning any more clearly into focus, the carbon dating research could ultimately help to resolve the book's mystery. Confirming the origin of the book to the early 15th century does, for example, help researchers narrow down the manuscript's authorship by eliminating from consideration some notable historical figures long considered potential authors of the tome.

Are you a book lover? Check out these ten top lit blogs to sate your appetite for great literature.

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