Undecipherable Ancient Manuscript Gets Wide Publication

Botanical drawings of more than 100 species of plants that cannot be found growing. Surreal depictions of naked women, their bodies contorted and intertwined with tubes, like an H.R. Giger painting. Washes of an inked script that sprawls out like a map of Middle-earth, but clearly resembles language.

This is the Voynich Manuscript, a 240-page book of sketches and incomprehensible script that was presumably crafted in Central Europe in the the 15th century (though the official range is ‘1400 – 1599 ?’). Some believe it to be a mystical text, written in a lost language no living person can understand. To put it simply, it’s kind of a challenging read. At present, it’s locked away in Yale’s Beinecke Library, where I assume it’s kept for our safety. That’s only half a joke – in 2014, the curator of Washington D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library told The Washington Post, “I think we need a little disclaimer form you need to sign before you look at the manuscript, that says, ‘Do not blame us if you go crazy.’”


Call it tempting fate, then, because that’s exactly what a small Spanish publisher is doing. The house, Siloe, has acquired the rights to have the manuscript copied for a small-patch publication. It’s not a reprinting, per se, since it’s an incomparably complex work and the last Spanish attempt at restoration ended in internet infamy. Rather, they’re ‘cloning’ the pages so that readers – scholars and rich folk with a morbid curiosity – can recreate feeling the weight of the ancient tome, down to the wear and tears. The 898 copies are going for approximately $8,000 dollars apiece, and 300 have already been purchased.


Its murky history aside, the Voynich Manuscript itself has an illustrious backstory all its own. Over the course of centuries, it has passed hands from an ancient astronomer to a 16th century German emperor (Rudolph II, if you’re wondering), on to Jesuit scholars and eventually into the hands of the book dealer it is named after, Wilfrid Voynich. Intellectuals and experts for generations, including a WWII codebreaker, have attempted to crack the text and its origins, to no avail. 

If the asking price is too rich for you, Yale has also digitized most of the pages. You can read the full text here to temper your brain to see if you’d go insane viewing the grimoire in the flesh.


All images courtesy of Beinecke Library / Yale University.