The Medieval Review 17.07.10

Clemens, Raymond, with Intro by Deborah Harkness, ed. The Voynich Manuscript. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. pp. Pp. xvii,304. ISBN: 9780300217230 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Elly R. Truitt
Bryn Mawr College

New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Library MS 408, known more widely as the Voynich Manuscript, and for centuries before that as the Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript, is an object of mystery, intrigue, and even obsession. The book, written on early-fifteenth century calfskin parchment, comprises 234 folios covered in an indecipherable, fluent script and strange figural and botanical drawings of objects that have few referents in nature.

The earliest provenance of the manuscript is unknown, but by the early seventeenth century it belonged to Jacobus de Tepenec (ca. 1575-1622), pharmacist to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. A later letter (1665) from Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher claims that the manuscript was of a text by Roger Bacon, the Franciscan natural philosopher of the thirteenth century, and had been purchased for the emperor. Marci implored Kircher to decipher the manuscript, and he was not the first to have done so. Thirty years earlier, the alchemist Georgius Barschius sent several copied pages of the manuscript to Kircher, with the same plea. The book remained in Kircher's library, and was finally sold by the Jesuits, with some secrecy, to Wilfrid Voynich in 1912.

Voynich, an erudite and charismatic figure, believed that this manuscript was connected to John Dee, the Elizabethan natural philosopher, mathematician, and magus, and that it was a copy of a lost or unknown text by Roger Bacon. Although a fantasy, the link to Dee is not farfetched. Dee had attempted to discover and decipher pre-Adamic angelic language, he had studied and collected several of Roger Bacon's texts, and he had traveled to Emperor Rudolf II's court at Prague in the 1580s. And Roger Bacon's reputation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as an alchemist and his circulated works on language and writing made him a tempting figure to credit as the author of a mysterious cipher text from the late medieval period. In an effort to sell the manuscript, Voynich exhibited the manuscript and drummed up publicity in the press, promising that once the cipher was broken it would reveal "that the black magic of the Middle Ages consisted in discoveries far in advance of twentieth-century science" (18). Indeed, William Newbold, a philosopher and amateur cryptographer based at the University of Pennsylvania, claimed to have broken the cipher in 1921, and that it proved that Bacon had invented the microscope and had been the first to discover human sperm cells. Newbold's claims--based on nothing more than his own imagination--were disproved by medievalist John Matthews Manly in 1931 (Newbold died in 1928).

Yet the manuscript has continued to exert a delicious hold on many. Voynich died in 1930, and through a circuitous turn of events over the next four decades, the manuscript was eventually donated (never sold) to Yale University in 1969. Voynich had made the manuscript available to cryptographers working for the US government in the 1920s and 1930s, and it became the focus of a working group at Arlington Hall (the central site for American cryptography efforts in World War II and decades afterwards), led by William and Elizabeth Friedman. The Friedmans, two key figures in the history of US intelligence and code-breaking in the twentieth century, returned to their work on the Voynich Manuscript in the late 1950s and early 1960s, concluding that the work was an attempt to create a universal language. Others have argued that the work itself is a late medieval hoax, intended to capitalize on the interest in books of secrets, esoteric texts, and alchemical manuals in the fifteenth century. The Voynich Manuscript has appeared in young adult and fantasy literature, and in television and film, and remains an object of study and fascination for many researchers inside and outside of academia.

The new facsimile volume of Beinecke MS 408--the first of its kind--edited by Raymond Clemens is an excellent resource for any who are involved in teaching or researching the text. Each page of the manuscript, including the large foldout leaves, is reproduced, along with large margins for the reader's annotations and queries. The unfamiliar cursive alphabet and the strange images of plants, celestial bodies, and naked women appear with stunning clarity, emphasizing the overall weirdness of this artifact. A number of essays, including a lively introduction by Deborah Harkness, place the book in context. Short, informative introductions to Voynich's biography, the early provenance of the manuscript, the codicological and physical evidence of the book, cryptographic research on the book, and illustrations in alchemical texts from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries provide vital information on how to interpret this unreadable text and suggestions for additional reading. This volume should become the point of first contact for any interested in learning more about this manuscript and its history.

Interestingly, what comes through most clearly in this volume is how much the story of the Voynich Manuscript resembles the histories of other forged or hoax texts of the Latin Middle Ages. Throughout the medieval period, authors of spurious texts surrounded their works with forged histories of lost translations, ancient and unknown languages, and chance encounters that were intended to bolster the claims of the text and its author(s). The story that emerges in the essays contains hidden letters, an invisible signature, and a secret cache of books in a walled-up library room; serendipitous discovery, flights of fancy, and public humiliation; and a cast of characters that includes mages, priests, a self-made émigré, and several of the most important figures of the twentieth century in cryptography and medieval history in the United States. The Voynich Manuscript may be a medieval hoax, but it comes by its history honestly.

Copyright (c) 2017 Elly R. Truitt

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