One morning, rummaging amongst old manuscripts, books and catalogs at the library of the Jesuit College in Villa Mondragone, Wilfrid M. Voynich found a singular document that draw his attention. It was written in an illegible language but seemed authentic; a hunch told him it was a very valuable, way more valuable than whatever he paid for it to the former owner, an ignorant miserable in need of liquidity.
It was the year 1912 and Voynich, a Lithuanian salesman of unusual books, was traveling across Italy looking for new acquisitions to offer at his store, located at the Soho Square in London. When he got back to the English capital, he took the parchment to different experts to see if they could decipher its content with no success. On its 240 pages there are plant illustrations, astrological diagrams and naked bodies accompanied by written texts in a bizarre language that no one seems able to interpret.
When Voynich died in 1930, the manuscript, named after him, met different owners until it was donated to Yale University, in Connecticut. Since then, all kind of experts have offered their own interpretations. One claimed that it was a Demonic book, while another affirmed it was the opposite, a magic manual. Some theories even assert it comes directly from Leonardo Da Vinci, while others insist it’s a product from the Cathars, the lost tribe that existed between the 12th and 14th centuries. Cryptographers and specialists from all over the world have aimed to discover the supposed alchemic secrets the book contains and, why not, the real meaning of life. After numerous failed attempts to decode it, in some of the most extravagant minds the possibility that aliens wrote it emerged, or that the wise book salesman had falsified it to get noticed and make some extra money.
All these hypotheses fell apart when in the year 2009 investigations carried out at the University of Arizona demonstrated, through radiocarbon dating, that it was an authentic relic created between the years 1404 and 1438. The small book of 9×6 inches was then considered the “world’s most mysterious manuscript”, and its magnetism grew further, drawing curious minds from all over the globe for decades. In the year 2014, British professor Stephen Bax, expert in applied linguistics, affirmed that he had managed to decipher at least ten words. His wide knowledge regarding medieval manuscripts and his familiarity with Semitic languages such as Arab helped him in the process. “I hit on the idea of identifying proper names in the text, following historic approaches which successfully deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs and other mystery scripts, and I then used those names to work out part of the script”, Bax asseverated. What he didn’t know was that in reality, those symbols had nothing to do with neither Egypt nor the Arab language, their origin was way more elaborated.
Last week, the Beinecke Library at Yale University, were the manuscript is, received an old letter written in Latin from an unknown sender. The envelope had as well a note that explained that an old member of a religious order in Italy commanded, in his deathbed, to send the message to the “new owners of the mysterious indecipherable parchment”. He had been saving the letter for eight decades, after an old professor from the order gave it to him, explaining how important is was and that when the new millennia arrived, it had to reach the right people. After pondering for a while and with a delay of a few years, the Jesuit brothers discovered the old dying man could only be talking about one document: The Voynich Manuscript. So they followed his command and sent the letter to Yale University.
After reading its content, the responsible for translation couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The unknown author behind the letter assured he was the author of the manuscript that had puzzled for centuries experts from all disciplines. Finally some light was being shed on the subject. Though the final answers were not what everyone expected. The anonymous author affirmed that it was useless to try and find a meaning for the text, since it was all a charade: “I have spent the last few months writing the manuscript myself, drawing inspiration from my personal knowledge on astronomy and botany. The symbols found on the pages are nothing more than random shapes from my imagination”. Is this was true, he was lucky he died centuries ago, or else he would be assassinated by a mob of frustrated experts, scientists, linguists and historians, some of which had dedicated most of their lives deciphering the contents of the enigmatic book, in other words, they had wasted their time in vain.
Now they wondered why; the explanation could be find on the letter too: “My experience about the human condition, something upon which I ponder every day, committed to Jesus Christ’s legacy, while I remain confined in my convent, allows me to safely assure that the parchment I created will travel across seas to teach humankind a lesson. I have no doubt that wise men will endow all their efforts deciphering an undecipherable text. It might even be possible that some believe that they have found the meaning behind those silhouettes I draw following no direction whatsoever”. And he wasn’t wrong; the Voynich Manuscript has traveled all over the world, from university to university, lab to lab, desk to desk, all for nothing.
Just a month ago, a small publishing house in Burgos called Siloé, announced that it would be the first one in the world to clone the mysterious document. With a circulation of 898 copies, it had already sold 300 before going to print, to a price very few can afford, between 7.000 and 8.000 euro. Apparently, Yale University had decided to sell over the copyrights since they cannot meet all the demands from the museums that were constantly asking for the antic book for their own exhibitions. Now, after this information has come to light, the publishing house must ponder if it’s worth to continue with the aforementioned distribution plan.
The confession of the swindler came in a bad moment, though there are still some unanswered paradigms: “I can imagine the great deception I might have caused in many of you, but my intention was no other than to help you open your eyes, set human fantasy to test and challenge that urgent need of endowing everything with a logic meaning, even if such endeavor is beyond our means. I wish for all to understand that in this universe, things that we will never understand are constantly happening, and that shouldn’t be considered as a failure. We need to keep on moving forward upon new paths”. The bottom line of the missive read: “I apologize if this seems like a selfish and infamous act, but I hope this constituted a favor to all”.
This letter thunderstruck everyone at Yale University, and the headmaster ordered for it to never see the light of day again; since, it has been kept hidden in the darkest place of their safe.
*Some excerpts of this story may be the fruit of the imagination of its author.
Biblioteca Beinecke de libros raros y manuscritos de la Universidad de Yale
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