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Secrets of the Voynich manuscript, unsolved for centuries

The Voynich Manuscript is a roughly 500-year-old book filled with cryptic illustrations and written in a seemingly illegible language.

The book takes its name from Wilfrid Voynich, an antique bookseller who bought the manuscript in 1912, and the meaning of some 240 pages remains a mystery to this day, despite many claiming to have unraveled its secrets.

Speculation about the book’s origins is vast and varied, with some suggesting that it is a prank, that it is a manual on alchemy, or even that it was written by an alien stranded on Earth.

So far, none of these claims have been proven, but attempts to decipher the strange language of the book continue.

Because the script does not appear to follow any existing language model, some have suggested that each character is a symbol rather than a letter. The potentially coded language hints at the theory that the contents of the book were meant to remain secret.

An attempt to decode text using AI in 2018 concluded that the words were probably Hebrew and that the words were letters: anagrams in which the letters are in alphabetical order. The researchers were unable to extract any meaning from the mostly nonsensical sentences, instead they simply identified individual words associated with the images on the page.

Another theory is presented in a 2019 study which suggests that the document was written by and for women and that this explains the failure of previous attempts to understand the text. The author of the study, Dr. Gerard Cheshire, argues that the language is not coded at all, but instead is written in the proto-Romance dialect, from which many modern European languages bare descended.

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This conclusion, however, has been criticized by other scholars who have argued that Cheshire reconciles his findings with his theory by suggesting Proto-Romance based on the definition of single words rather than complete sentences.

The roughly A5 size book is bound in what has been described as a renaissance paperback version, and some believe its blank cover is a way to hide its cryptic content.

Although the language presented in the book has yet to be deciphered, many colorful illustrations seem to divide the manuscript into six separate sections: botany, astronomy and astrology, biology, cosmology, pharmaceuticals, and entire pages of text that are considered recipes.

The botany section, the largest “chapter” in the book, contains 113 detailed drawings of seemingly unrecognizable plant species, while pages of astronomy and astrology show the positions of the planets and images depicting the various signs of the zodiac.

Also depicted are women bathing in multicolored liquids that sometimes appear to be intertwined and connected by pipes. This biological section of the book led in 2017 to the brief conclusion that the manuscript was discussing women’s health, but this theory was quickly debunked.

The book’s history begins somewhere in 15th century Europe. It is believed to have first belonged to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II of Germany during his reign between 1576 and 1611. According to some reports, the manuscript was purchased from John Dee for 600 ducats.

Dee, a mathematician and astronomer, allegedly owned the manuscript as part of the collected works of the 13th-century English philosopher Roger Bacon.

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According to sources, some, including Rudolf II, believed that the book was written by Bacon, but radiocarbon dating has disproved this claim, placing the book’s edition about 300 years after Bacon’s death in 1292.

Then the book, apparently, was handed over by Rudolf II to the personal physician of the emperor, Jacob Horcicki de Tepenech. This suggestion came about when the book was studied under ultraviolet light; the message “Jacobi de Tepenetz” can be seen on the page of the manuscript.

The next notable exchange took place in 1666, when just a year before his death, the Bohemian doctor Johannes Marcus Marcy of Kronland gave the book to the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher.

At a Jesuit college near Rome, Wilfrid Voynich found the book 246 years later. After Voynich’s death in 1930, the manuscript was purchased from his estate by bookseller Hans P. Kraus, who donated it to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in 1969.

Since arriving at the Yale Library, the manuscript has been sent to the Folger Shakespeare Library only once for exhibition.

While the original book remains under lock and key, the library has an actual printed copy on display and open to the public. In addition, printed versions of the manuscript are also available online, so anyone can try to decipher its mysterious meaning.

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