600-year-old mystery manuscript cracked

For close to 600 years, a mysterious document has intrigued the world, but thanks to a UK professor the document may soon yield its secrets.

Using some techniques employed to crack Egyptian hieroglyphs, linguistics professor James Bax believes he has identified words that suggest the document might be a scientific work.

The Voynich Manuscript is a cryptic book written in an unknown language with an unknown script. It’s filled with vivid drawings of unusual plants, nude human figures, and strange machines. It seems to have originated in 15th or 16th century Europe, but the questions surrounding its contents are almost as old as the book itself.

The purpose of the book has been hotly debated over the years, and theories range from the simple to the bizarre. Though some believe it may be a hoax or alien artifact, the leading theory is that the book is a scientific document.

Though many of the illustrations are bizarre, they all fall into the following categories:

– botanical
– astrological
– biological
– cosmological
– pharmaceutical

The text is thought to be descriptions, and possibly recipes.

Solving the puzzle

Over the years, it has attracted the scrutiny of academics, military code breakers, puzzle fans, and conspiracy theorists alike, but no one has managed to decipher the strange script that fills its pages.

Until now.

Bax,  a professor of linguistics at University of Bedfordshire, has identified some words for the first time ever.

Bax now believes he has identified approximately 14 characters, and 10 proper names, such as coriander, juniper and Taurus.

Bax’s approach matched suspected proper names with illustrations of known plants and constellations. Bax was then able to compare the suspected names with known languages to find similarities and deduce sounds. Similar techniques were used to initially decode Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Future of the translation efforts

Though the breakthrough is certainly exciting, a complete translation is still a long way off.

Bax says he hopes to attract other linguists to help decode the entire script to discover what its authors were trying to communicate.

History of the Voynich Manuscript

The origins of the manuscript remain a mystery, though Bax believes his work shows the book “is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language.”

The book’s provenance is spotty, but some records of its past remain.

One of the earliest owners of the book is thought to have been English astrologer John Dee, who had possession of it in the late 16th century. Even at that early date, Dee found the manuscript a mystery.

His son is said to have noted “a booke…containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon: but I could not heare that hee could make it out.”

After passing through the hands of many owners, most notably Emperor Rudolph II of Germany, the book disappeared for a time.

The manuscript resurfaced again in Italy, when Polish-American book dealer Wilfred Voynich purchased it in 1912. It has since captured the imagination of people around the world, and developed a cult following.

It has inspired countless hours of study, conspiracy theories, books, and even music. It is a frequent topic in some online communities, where hundreds of followers scrutinise every inch of the document, and share the latest theories.

The complete Voynich Manuscript can be found online through Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Photo Source: Images courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

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