Generations of scholars and cryptographers have tried to unlock the secrets of the Voynich Manuscript. The 200-plus-page book, written in an unrecognizable language and illustrated with vividly colored images of plants, herbs and naked women, was named for the Polish book dealer who unearthed it from a library belonging to Italian Jesuits back in 1912. After spending most of the past 50 years in a vault at Yale University, it’s back in the news this week. A small Spanish publisher has won the right to publish an exact replica of the Voynich Manuscript, raising hopes that it might find its way to someone who can finally crack its inscrutable code.
Over the years since the Voynich Manuscript was rediscovered in 1912, numerous theories have surfaced about its origins and authorship. One longstanding theory—that it was the work of Roger Bacon, a 13th-century English philosopher and Franciscan friar who was jailed for practicing alchemy—had to be discounted after carbon dating revealed the manuscript was produced between 1404 and 1438. Others have suggested the manuscript’s author might have been the young Leonardo da Vinci, who was known to write in code to conceal his work during the Inquisition.
Written in a completely unfamiliar language, consisting of 20-25 unique characters placed in an undecipherable order, the Voynich Manuscript also contains strange, vividly colored illustrations. Since many of the images depict plants and herbs, many believe it could be a book about ancient medicine. Less-serious theories include the suggestion that the manuscript might have an extraterrestrial origin, that it has magical powers or that the whole thing might just be someone’s idea of a medieval joke.
Some of the world’s best code breakers have tried their hand at deciphering the Voynich Manuscript over the years. The cryptographer William Friedman, leader of the team that broke Japan’s “Purple” cipher during World War II, studied the manuscript for some 40 years without success. Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which holds the Voynich Manuscript in one of its vaults, reportedly receives thousands of messages every month from people claiming to have cracked the code using images of the manuscript published online. None have proved to be legitimate. So far only a fictional character—the swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones—has managed to decipher the manuscript, in a novel based on his character from the popular movies (“Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone”).
Now, after a decade-long fight, a small publishing house in the northern Spanish city of Burgos has won the right to produce and publish an exact replica of the Voynich Manuscript. Siloe, which specializes in making facsimiles of old manuscripts, plans to make a scrupulously faithful copy of the document, including holes, stains and mended tears in the paper. The company says the process of replicating the Voynich Manuscript in such exact detail, based on photographic images and painstakingly produced mock-ups of the pages, will take 18 months.
“Touching the Voynich is an experience,” Juan Jose Garcia, Siloe’s director, told Agence France-Presse. “It’s a book that has such an aura of mystery that when you see it for the first time…it fills you with an emotion that is very hard to describe.”
Since its first successful publishing run of 696 copies, Siloe has stuck to palindromic numbers, and the company plans to produce 898 replicas of the Voynich Manuscript. Each copy of the manuscript will be priced at €7,000-8,000 ($8,000-9,000), and some 300 pre-orders have already been placed.
According to Raymond Clemens, curator of the Beinecke Library, it was the high volume of requests the library received to use the original Voynich Manuscript that led it to grant Siloe the right to produce a replica version. “We thought that the facsimile would provide the look and feel of the original for those who were interested,” Clements said. “It also enables libraries and museums to have a copy for instructional purposes and we will use the facsimile ourselves to show the manuscript outside of the library to students or others who might be interested.”
Aside from the educational aspects of the planned facsimile, there’s a more quixotic element to Siloe’s publication of the Voynich replica: Perhaps one of those 898 copies will get into the hands of some unknown individual who will be able to crack the manuscript’s code once and for all. It’s a lure that Garcia–who has dabbled in cryptography himself–can understand. “We call it the Voynich Challenge,” he said.