Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript 

During graduate school, I learned of a mysterious piece of writing called the Voynich Manuscript. Written in an unknown cipher, it has puzzled scholars since its rediscovery in 1912 by rare books dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich. Dating to at least the 1500s and possibly older, the manuscript comprises several sections, including parts on herbs, astrology, anatomy, cosmology and plant drawings and descriptions that do not match any known vegetation. However, as yet, no one has been able to decipher this curious manuscript, so we can only guess to what the sections pertain by looking at the accompanying illustrations.

Voynich found a note written in Latin and dated 1666 attached to the manuscript. The letter states that the author of the manuscript could be Roger Bacon, a friar who lived in the 1200s. In 1919, William Romaine Newbold put forth that Bacon was indeed the author, and had used a microscope and compound telescope to see, among other things, the spiral structure of the Andromeda galaxy and the cells of plants, things that would have been unknown in the 1200s. However, many scholars date the manuscript to the 1400s, believing Bacon was not the author.

A variety of origins and authors have been proposed for the manuscript, but as yet, no one knows for certain who wrote it. We do know who has owned the manuscript in the past. According to the accompanying letter, the manuscript was sold to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia (who ruled from 1576 to 1611) for the hefty sum of 600 ducats. Jacobus de Tepenec, Rudolf's physician, wrote his name in the book, and likely owned it between 1608 and his death in 1622. The alchemist Georgius Barschius also owned the manuscript for a time, as letters have survived (one dated 1639) in which he asks Jesuit philosopher Athanasius Kircher for help in translating the puzzling manuscript. Upon his death, Barschius left the manuscript to his friend Marci, who wrote the 1666 letter found with the Voynich manuscript. Marci, in turn, sent it to Kircher.

Among the many solutions, some have proposed that the Voynich Manuscript is a "fake," written in the 1500s by Edward Kelly, a rather infamous alchemist, to sell for a high price, and that the cipher doesn't mean anything. Kelly did write another book in a language he called "Enochian," which he described as the language of the angels.

Still others think the script may have been produced mechanically using a Cardon grille.

However, none of these theories have been proved, and the manuscript remains a mystery.

The Voynich manuscript is held at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, where they have scanned in the pages in full color. It is housed as catalog number MS 408.

If you'd like to see the Voynich for yourself, go to

posted 12:34 PM

Monday, April 04, 2005

Welcome to Alice Henderson's Blog 

Welcome to the first entry of Alice Henderson's blog.

I'm currently in NYC, having just returned from an excellent meeting at Simon and Schuster. I'm in town for the World Horror Convention. I look forward to meeting up with my fellow writers in just a few days.

posted 3:29 PM


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