No one, not even the cryptographers who broke the German and Japanese codes during WWII, has been able to decipher the meaning of this ancient manuscript.
But the Democrats will probably tell us the manuscript’s hidden message: The Russians did it!
In 1665, at the age of 63, the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher appeared to know everything. He had written some 20 books and had several others under way. If you wanted to learn about magnetism, or the history of China, or Noah’s Ark, or optics, or music theory, or herbal remedies, or the nature of fossils, or how to create a universal language, Kircher was your man. People from all over the world—popes, kings, dukes, diplomats, merchants, mathematicians, Jesuits—wrote to him week after week asking for information, reporting news, sharing discoveries. Among them was Jan Marek Marci, a physician from Bohemia who, on Aug. 19, 1665, sent Kircher a strange manuscript written entirely in code. It had once been owned by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, Marci told Kircher, and was considered by some to be the work of the 13th-century polymath Roger Bacon….
The manuscript didn’t look impressive on the outside. It was bound cheaply and artlessly in a blank sheet of vellum, and it was small: 10 inches tall, 7 inches wide, and 234 pages long, or roughly the size of a slender paperback today. It certainly didn’t appear at a glance to be the sort of book a Holy Roman Emperor would want in his library. But on the inside it quickly got intriguing.
…there was the text itself, which was at once familiar-looking and wholly unrecognizable: a procession of “words” that marched confidently across the page, from left to right, in a style evocative of Carolingian minuscule (a Latin script often found in medieval European texts) but rendered using completely unfamiliar “letters.” The writing was free of mistakes and emendations and looked natural, as if it had been dashed off with ease. But what the actual language was that lay encased in that writing, nobody could say.
Then there were the illustrations. The first 100 pages or so of the manuscript were devoted to plants, each accompanied by a short passage of text. This part of the book appeared to be an “herbal” of some sort, a guide to the medicinal and culinary properties of different plants. The look, again, was familiar—except that none of the plants were. Was this some sort of parallel plant code? Things got even stranger in the short section that followed, which displayed a series of circular diagrams that appeared to be astrological….
Not surprisingly, the manuscript stumped Kircher. A friend of Marci’s wrote to Kircher in 1666 and 1667, imploring him to turn his attention to the manuscript, but no record survives of Kircher’s ever having responded, either to the friend or Marci himself. After 1667, the manuscript disappears from the historical record for 245 years—until 1912, when it re-emerges in the possession of Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer living in London who worked assiduously his whole life to promote it as the world’s most mysterious (and hence valuable) book. Today the manuscript is owned by Yale’s Beinecke Library, where it is officially known by the call number MS 408. But most of those who study the work know it simply as the Voynich Manuscript and refer to its script and language as Voynichese. Nobody has yet cracked its code. The 40 or so characters of its script, which seem vaguely Armenian or Georgian, have never been encountered elsewhere; none of the plants depicted, with perhaps one exception, have been identified…
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