The Voynich Manuscript: A 600-Year-Old Cryptographic Mystery — or Hoax

The 15th-century Voynich Manuscript — written in an unknown alphabet — has never been decoded, translated, or exposed as an elaborate fabrication. Learn more about this mysterious Renaissance codex and its contents.

Whether you’re into history, writing, foreign languages, cryptography, or all four, the Voynich manuscript — carbon-dated to around the early 1400s — will not disappoint.

Named for the book dealer who acquired it in 1912, this codex (a fancy word for a handwritten and bound book) has teased both amateur and professional codebreakers for centuries with its unknown alphabet and obscure illustrations.

You read that right: There’s a book (perhaps written in northern Italy and currently hanging out with other rare texts at Yale University) written entirely in a strange language that nobody in history has ever been able to translate or decode.

There’s a general agreement that the manuscript is divided into sections covering (the modern-day disciplines of) botany, astrology, biology, cosmology, and pharmacology. Oh, and there’s also a recipes section.

It’s easy to write this off as gibberish or a hoax (or — as some have posited — the product of someone grappling with mental illness, transcribing speaking in tongues, or experiencing a drug trip), but statistical analysis has shown that the “letters” in the 240-or-so-page document follow distribution laws consistent with spoken languages. It even seems like some letters function as vowels and some as consonants. And researchers didn’t even have the technology to figure this out until the mid-20th century!

Plus, the evidence suggests that the author (or authors) committed ink to the book’s pages fluently, that is, without stopping to refer to another text. This suggests that the writing isn’t an encoded form of a different work.

Has the Voynich manuscript piqued your interest? You can find the full text here. You can also try searching for “cryptography” using the Noodle classes search tool, which will help you find in-person and online classes in subjects that interest you.

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