The Mysterious “Voynich Manuscript”

You know how I love history’s mysteries? Well, one of the best there is is the mysterious “Voynich manuscript”, a book now owned by Yale University. The book is around 240 pages (out of an estimated original 272), and is thought to be from between 1450 and 1520AD. The book is handwritten on vellum and is chock full of illustrations (albeit none as fancy as most other European manuscripts). What makes the Voynich manuscript such a mystery is that it’s written in a completely unknown language. There are approximately 170,000 unknown glyphs in the text, yet there are many curious facts about the glyphs: they appear to follow some sort of grammar (certain glyphs appear in combination with other glyphs, just as English has common letter combinations like “ie” or “th”). The text seems to follow Zipf’s Law (which is a word frequency analysis; for example, Zipf’s Law states that “the” will probably be the most common word in an English language text). And the glyphs themselves seem to have been written in a flowing, graceful hand (which suggests familiarity with the language). On the other hand, the “language” of the Voynich manuscript seems to be a mish-mash of European and Arabic. For example, some glyphs appear only at the beginning or end of a “word” (like Arabic, but unlike European languages), yet there are no words longer than 10 characters nor are there any with just one or two characters (unlike either Arabic or European). The origin of the text is unknown. Some suspect that it’s the work of Roger Bacon or John Dee (among others). Many scholars think it’s an outright 600 year-old hoax. But the sheer amount of work that went into the book – not to mention the thought about grammar and letter frequency, which were barely understood by most people in the Middle Ages – makes me think that it’s not a hoax. In any case, the Voynich manuscript has befuddled some of the best cryptographers in the world – even the wunderkids from Bletchley Park.

Read more about the Voynich manuscript here.

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