An Ancient Parchment Refuses To Give Up Its Secrets

  • The late-medieval Voynich manuscript — named after the rare book dealer who unearthed it — is written in a seemingly uncrackable code. Scholars remain deeply divided on whether it contains useful knowledge, or is instead an elaborate joke.
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    The late-medieval Voynich manuscript — named after the rare book dealer who unearthed it — is written in a seemingly uncrackable code. Scholars remain deeply divided on whether it contains useful knowledge, or is instead an elaborate joke.
    Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
  • It's thought to be the work of at least two, and possibly as many as eight well-trained scribes.
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    It's thought to be the work of at least two, and possibly as many as eight well-trained scribes.
    Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
  • The manuscript's first owner is said to have been the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), who was fascinated by alchemy and the occult.
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    The manuscript's first owner is said to have been the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), who was fascinated by alchemy and the occult.
    Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
  • The Jesuit order owned the manuscript for several centuries before it was bought in 1912 by antiquarian bookseller Wilfrid Voynich, whose name is now attached to it.
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    The Jesuit order owned the manuscript for several centuries before it was bought in 1912 by antiquarian bookseller Wilfrid Voynich, whose name is now attached to it.
    Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
  • William Friedman, who helped create the NSA and became its first chief cryptologist, declared the Voynich Manuscript impossible to translate.  He thought it was an early example of a made-up language.
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    William Friedman, who helped create the NSA and became its first chief cryptologist, declared the Voynich Manuscript impossible to translate. He thought it was an early example of a made-up language.
    Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

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It reads like a Dan Brown novel: An indecipherable, cryptic medieval text, shrouded in mystery, filled with entrancing images, disappears for hundreds of years and then suddenly resurfaces at an Italian castle.

It certainly sounded like thriller material to Reed Johnson. He started a novel about the real-life Voynich Manuscript, as it's known, but soon found its actual story more compelling. Johnson also wrote about the history of the document — and its strange allure — for The New Yorker.

The manuscript, now part of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, was likely written in Europe — Johnson says the exact origin is uncertain — in the early 15th century . It was named for Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish-American rare-book dealer who bought it in 1912.

Its 240 parchment pages are filled with botanical and astronomical illustrations, accompanied by the strange text.

"It doesn't match any other language that's been seen in any other book," Johnson tells Rachel Martin, host of Weekend Edition Sunday.

The drawings often have labels, which would seem to offer a route to deciphering the code. But that hope has proved to be an illusion, he says.

Johnson has devoted a large part of the last three years to trying to crack the code and decipher the cryptic script. He joined an international listserv of experts who study the manuscript and exchange theories. He says he gets about a dozen Voynich emails a day.

"The history of this manuscript is littered with ... all these people who have spent years and years trying to decipher this manuscript," Johnson says. "My own experience with this manuscript has only been three years, so I'm a rank amateur."

But the puzzle has become too addictive, Johnson says. He says he's quitting the listserv and letting go of the mystery.

"Imagine a climbing wall: It looks like there are all these easy hand-holds, and you get up close to it and turns out they're all just painted on, and it's an extremely smooth surface and you can't get purchase on it," he says.

Johnson says he'll miss the manuscript — and he doesn't really want the code to be cracked.

"There's something wonderful about this manuscript that accumulates so many different interpretations, that's broad enough to encompass them all at the same time," he says. "As soon as it's forced into one particular meaning, then it sort of loses that mystery, and I think that's sad."

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