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The Voynich-Manuscript: an April Fool’s joke from the Middle Ages?

A 260 page thick book with a cryptograph that cannot be cracked and signs from an unknown world. Until today, researchers have been pulling their hair out at this brainteaser of a book from the dark Middle Ages.

A detail from the Voynich-Manuscript: cryptograph and mysterious plants
Picture by Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

NASA publishes the "astronomy photo of the day" on their internet site. Normally, you can see spectacular photos of distant galaxies, or exotic pictures of Mars’ surface or black holes. The last chosen picture was a little more exotic than normal: a hand-drawn map of the stars on yellowed parchment with a detailed inscription. The only thing is, the script has not yet been deciphered and the map shows constellations that no NASA-expert can fathom.

The page comes from a manuscript that the bookseller Wilfried Voynich, of Polish origin, bought in 1912 from Jesuit Fathers in need of money in Frascati (Italy) with the contents of a chest. Since then, people have tried to elicit text and illustrations. And Steven Spielberg even built the Voynich-manuscript, which is guarded in an archive at Yale University in America, into his Indiana Jones film as a clue to the source of eternal life.

Naked, bathing women often appear in the Voynich-manuscript. Even they are an enigma, but could represent the months of the year
Picture by Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

What we really know about the rare picture book: it once belonged to the mystical Hapsburg Kaiser Rudolph II. (1552 – 1612), who moved his residence from Vienna to Prague. In a letter dated 1666 it is documented that Rudolph II bought it for around 600 Gold ducats – a fortune at that time. Rudolph himself sought and maintained contact with alchemists and other magical scientists.

In the book, next to the maps of the stars and secret texts in question, which contain according to the layout between 20 and 36 different symbols, there are exotic (and until today unidentifiable) plants and drawings of naked women which are taken to be symbols for the days of the month by many researchers, due to their number and arrangement in the book.

Many references point to the real author being the Franciscan monk Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294), who very early on studied critical scientific research, was imprisoned for years for it and consequently kept much of what he did a secret. In a letter, he wrote: "It is a crazy person who keeps a secret from someone, so that it remains hidden from all and sundry, and academics and sincere scholars can only uncover it with great effort."

These idiosyncratic maps of the stars in the Voynich manuscript keep even NASA busy
Picture by Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

If Bacon hat written this manuscript and hidden revolutionary findings in it, he was highly successful. The encryption of text (and pictures) is so perfect, that many experts already sense a lavish April Fools from the Middle Ages, since even high performance decryption computers fail to uncover the secrets. What is missing is a key like the famous Rosetta stone, with whose help the lost meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics were first deciphered in 1822. But such a key could still be found, because at some unknown point in time in the eventful history of the manuscript someone removed a few pages from the book. These pages could possibly provide clues, if they are ever found.

The whole unique manuscript can be viewed in detail on the Yale University website "Beinecke Rare Book Library.

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© A report by Tobias Micke (25-03-07) – Contact