By Christine Beatty
Currently preserved in the Beinecke Rare Book and MS Libarary of Yale University, The Voynich Manuscript is a peculiar item that many have worked to decode and understand for years. Across the pages are various illustrations that appear to be ritualistic as well as nature-based, and the script has been a mystery for much of it’s discovered years. A viewer will find peculiar and almost alien-like plants sprawling the pages, as well as figures of nude women sitting in odd positions with strange contraptions surrounding them.
The first mention of it seems to be from 1639, when Georgius Barschius of Prague wrote to Jesuit Kircher of Rome, mentioning that, “he owned a mysterious book which was written in an unknown script and was profusely illustrated with pictures of plants, stars, and alchemical secrets.” Barschius wrote to Kircher mentioning that his own speculation on the origin is perhaps that it was brought to Europe by a traveller from the Orient, which brings association especially to Leonhard Rauwolf, who collected herbs and plants from his Orient travels. Kircher remained primarily silent on the matter, other than stating he had not figured it out yet, and eventually the manuscript found it’s way to an old castle in Southern Europe, where it was not discovered until 1912 by Wilfrid Voynich. Since Voynich brought the discovery to light, the odd manuscript was given his name.
Despite Voynich's desperate attempts to have the riddle solved, he continued to reach stubborn ends, despite finding out that Kircher's correspondence on the matter was actually a twelve-volume binding. After heavily researching and looking for these volumes, he found an official historian who unfortunately said that they must have been lost, though it is assumed he may not have been at liberty to discuss it. The Voynich Manuscript continued on it’s journey and ended up in the United States in 1915, where true fame reached it in the 1920’s when a new translation was supposedly deciphered by William Romaine Newbold. His thought was that the manuscript was written by Roger Bacon, a man who had reportedly built microscopes and telescopes. This theory was eventually disproven in 1931, and the long journey ended when H.P Kraus, a book antiquarian, was unable to sell it and then donated it to Yale University in 1961.
There are long lists of theories about what the meaning and purpose could be behind the cipher, however, only a select number of discoveries have been made. One significant finding is the carbon dating result, which found it to be leading back to between 1404 and 1438 with 95% confidence. Otherwise one of the most important discoveries came about with great excitement in 2014 when Stephen Bax, a professor of linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire in England, claimed to have deciphered fourteen characters of the script as well as a handful of words. He discussed that he was able to pick out the words regarding herbs and plants next to the drawings, and used historic approaches that have previously been used for Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In discussion of what the manuscript details, there seem to be specific sections, such as an herbal section, astronomical, biological, and even a recipe section. Given all of the peculiar depictions, some of the popular theories say that it is nonsense written on purpose by medieval quack, a prayer book from the Cathars, a string of characters composed by John Dee, or written discoveries by the friar Roger Bacon. It seems however with all of the research put into it, that there is certainly meaning and the answer must be out there. Researchers have found similarities between some of the characters and those in the Latin language, as well as words written not in the normal script but actually in the normal Roman alphabet.
Further detailing the characters of the unknown language, there are many that have high-reaching, vertical lines, which which are referred to as "gallows" characters and are comparable to the dictionary of Capelli. However, the more promising lead lies in early renaissance cipher systems, in which there are striking similarities such as in the codex of Tranchedino that lists sets of ciphers matched to different correspondents. It is also worth noting that it is speculated by Prescott Currier that it was perhaps not just the work of one author, but of two.
In discussion of the physical materials that were used to create the book, the parchment is made of calf-skin, and the cover of goat skin. The quality is not superb, with some undone stitching and even the paper is not of top-grade, however the parchment was prepared very carefully and with great effort. All of the pages are numbered, and the binding has had the paper pastedown removed perhaps for previous observation. There are also various marks and notations made at different times by those who seemingly were trying to decipher the material.
In total, The Voynich Manuscript is a beautiful mystery, which as many have said would not be nearly as valued and intriguing if it were not for the inability to decipher it. Perhaps one day more than fourteen words will be known but until then the theories live on and leave room for many discoveries.
By: Valerie Bullock
For such a modest book, herbals have a history that can be rivaled by few other subjects. Philosophers, clergy, physicians, printers and even sorcerers have each played an instrumental part in creating the genre we would today classify as herbal. The oldest surviving written herbal manuscript is called De materia medica penned by the physician Pedanios Dioscorides of Anazarba. A product of first century Rome it became the fundamental authority on pharmacological knowledge for the next 1500 years including the Dark Ages where much information was lost to Western Europe.
It was not until Pliny the Elder wrote his Naturalis Historia that another herbal hotshot entered the stage. Pliny’s Natural History lists over 33,000 simples in his compilation and includes among them myths, superstitions and rituals that relate to various medical treatments (Anderson, pg. 17). A simple is any basic constituent of medical concoction or remedy (Anderson, pg. 45-46). This includes animal and mineral sources or prayers as ingredients. Along with each simple was information on identification; collection and extraction of their useful properties; and how to apply them to the patient’s ailment (Anderson, pg. 2).
Herbals themselves were written for the most part by philosophers or military physicians, such as Pliny, who had the opportunity to travel and use the various simples therein. Alternatively, herbals were compiled and translated from Arabic to Latin or any other equally difficult to read language by monks, meaning laypeople could not read them let alone use them. There was even conflict between the “respectable” clergy, herbalists and physicians and the lower “root digging” herb collectors whose superstitious methods of collecting aroused ridicule among the higher social strata (Arber, pg. 7). Take an example from a twelfth-century herbal for the proper way to extract a mandrake root: one must “tie a rope around it [the mandrake] and affixing the other end to a hungry dog, then throwing meat to the dog. The animal would pull the mandrake from the ground and would thus suffer its vengeance” (Kieckhefer, pg. 14) Most herbal authors did not lower themselves to the chore of herb collecting, even Pliny is recorded saying that taking a walk was a waste of time. However, ignoring these folk healers also ignores the very roots of herbals themselves. Botanical science and natural magic overlapped quite significantly in Medieval Europe. Contemporary medical theories called for the balance of the four elements within humans which could be done using various herbs and substances all found within an herbal.
Most herbal literature was not created until printing was available, at which point the subject was of particular interest to wealthy physicians and merchants. Until the introduction of the printing press herbals remained the books of learned men. Some of the finest examples of early printing can be found in herbals. Herbals were one of the most popular subjects to be printed and since a standard type replaced the natural variance of written manuscripts it was now possible to cite a specific page and sentence or image within the text. Printed herbals also catalog the development of the art of illustration and of various type faces. Medieval herbals can serve as an index of contemporary presses of Europe such as Aldus, Fust, and Schoeffer; printers and artists such as Hans von Weiditz and Crispin van de Passe (Anderson, pg. 3-4).
Eventually basic medical treatments could be carried out by anybody who could read. No doubt this was a huge step in the general health of the European population. Today however, it will be hard to find an herbal in the medieval sense of the word. A book listing various herbs and their uses will be easy to find, but a book of containing every item of possible medical use along with the folklore and philosophy pertaining to them will be more elusive.
Anderson, Frank J. An Illustrated History of the Herbals. New York. iUniverse. 1997. Print.
Arber, Agnes. Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution. Cambridge, United Kingdom. Cambridge University Press. 1938. Print.
Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic and the Middle Ages. Cambridge, United Kingdom. Cambridge University Press. 1989, 2000. Print.