History is a network of mysteries.
I am no conspiracy theorist but I do think the Da Vinci Code got one thing right: Historians and archaeologists do sometimes behave a lot like detectives as they gather evidence to prove theories and solve ancient conundrums.
Occasionally, though, despite years of study, a mystery will elude our best attempts to unravel it.
One such mystery is the Voynich Manuscript.
The Voynich Manuscript is an intricately illustrated codex, hand-written in a completely unknown language.
Based on the drawings, the content is botanic and biological, with vivid plant life and carefully drawn female nudes. There is a lot of zodiac symbolism and astrological charts, as well as elaborate cosmological medallions. There are whole pages of text thought to be recipes of a sort but no one can actually translate them.
There have been many different interpretations of the strange text.
Is it a cipher? Many cryptographers – including code-breakers from World War I and II – have attempted to crack it. The fact no professional code-breaker (or any amateurs on the internet) have found the secret to the manuscript raises questions.
Perhaps it is a mode of writing lost to us today? Theorists have pointed to the language of the peoples of Easter Island, Rongorongo, which also remains undecipherable to us.
This seems unlikely.
Although at first easy to imagine a language from a civilisation lost to us, it seems shocking that we have no other clues to the nature of the civilisation. With Rongorongo, we know there were a people who used this language and we have multiple examples of the writing surviving, even if we cannot understand it.
In this case, Voynich is the only manuscript to feature this script.
It has been suggested by some that the language is simply a hoax and that someone – perhaps Voynich himself – just made it up one day.
Wilfrid Voynich was the eccentric Polish-American antiquarian and bookseller who acquired the manuscript in 1912 and brought the mystery to the world’s attention.
As the item has some accepted provenance, it seems to not have just been a hoax by Voynich. The vellum it is written on has been dated to around the 15th Century. The style of the script and the images are not unusual for that period.
It is thought to have belonged to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany, who bought it as he believed it was the work of Roger Bacon. At one point Voynich said it might have been sold by John Dee, although there is little evidence beside Dee’s association with similar mystery and strangeness to connect him and the manuscript.
None of the hypotheses posed to this day have been quite able to solve the mystery. It is the subject of a number of novels and speculation. It has invited strange spiritual theories and outlandish conspiracy theories of all kinds. Everyone from serious historians to those of you who frequent Reddit have dedicated their time searching for an answer.
Personally, I just find it inspiring to know that there is still so much out there that we do not totally understand. Even if we like to think we have a handle on our reality, it is refreshing to know that in a truly skeptical era, there are still mysteries to be solved.
There is always more to be discovered if you know where to look.