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Spanish publisher to release copies of Voynich Manuscript, a book no living person can understand

Curator Bill Sherman discusses the mystery of the Voynich Manuscript, a 240-page book that dates back to the 15th century, that no one today can decipher. (Video: Folger Shakespeare Library)

Within the manuscript’s 240 pages are vibrant sketches, including over a hundred unknown plant species, mysterious astral charts and drawings of nude women. The women in the ancient book are odd, evoking a crude H.R. Giger, except for the fact that the images predate the Swiss surrealist’s paintings by centuries. In the words of Yale’s Beinecke Library, which seldom displays the manuscript from a vault in its collection, the women have “swelled abdomens” and are “immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules.”

Stranger still, the swirls of script filling the pages of the book — known as the Voynich Manuscript — are as inscrutable as the slime trails left by a garden slug. Yale University calls it a scientific or magical text, circa 1401 to 1599 (although that range is appended with a question mark), and believes the script is a cipher based on Roman letters.

Those familiar with the manuscript say it should come with a warning. “The Voynich Manuscript has led some of the smartest people down rabbit holes for centuries,” Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit curator Bill Sherman told The Washington Post in 2014. He was about to open a new exhibit featuring the book: “I think we need a little disclaimer form you need to sign before you look at the manuscript, that says, ‘Do not blame us if you go crazy.’ ”

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If manuscripts that come with cheeky insanity warnings are your cup of tea, a select few of you are in luck. A small Spanish publisher has obtained the rights to, in essence, clone the document, down to the holes in the parchment and tears on the pages. (If you prefer your unreadable tomes digitized, Yale has made pages from the book available online.) Holding the manuscript, the publisher argues, provokes a feeling that images on the Internet cannot capture.

“Touching the Voynich is an experience,” said Juan Jose Garcia, director of the publishing house Siloe, in a recent interview with Agence France-Presse. “It’s a book that has such an aura of mystery that when you see it for the first time … it fills you with an emotion that is very hard to describe.” Siloe will make 898 of these replicas, at a cost of about $8,000 a pop, the AFP reported. About 300 Voynich clones have been purchased.

The manuscript bears the name of Wilfrid Voynich, the Polish dealer who purchased the book in 1912. The ownership, according to Yale, can be traced back much further: In the 16th century, Emperor Rudolph II of Germany bought it for about 600 gold ducats, in all likelihood from John Dee, an English astrologer. It passed from the emperor’s hands to his doctor, Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, before ending up in the property of Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, an expert at deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. Voynich bought the book from Jesuits in Rome; his widow sold it to one H.P. Kraus, who donated the book to Yale.

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Unsurprisingly for a book written in a language that has never been cracked — even William F. Friedman, whose codebreaking skills during the world wars became the stuff of legend, tried and failed — a few experts have dismissed the grimoire as a hoax. Carbon dating indicates that pages date to the early 15th century. The drawing style also reflects the signs of the times, when the late Middle Ages became the Renaissance.

The ink contains colors that “are consistent with the Renaissance palette,” University of Arizona’s Greg Hodgins, a physicist who led the carbon dating, said in 2011.

Depending on whom you ask, some experts are convinced the pages contain language, not just 500-year-old gibberish. A study published in 2013 in the journal PLOS One indicates the manuscript follows structural patterns of language — based on linguistic theories that were unknown in the 1500s, making a nonsense hoax unlikely. A year later, a linguist at the University of Bedfordshire, in Britain, said he translated 10 words in the text, among those the names for coriander, hellebore and other plants.

As for the Siloe clones, the publisher says the copies will allow the Voynich to be experienced by a wider audience. A few clones will end up in libraries and museum collections. “We will use the facsimile ourselves to show the manuscript outside of the library,” Beinecke Library curator Raymond Clemens told AFP, “to students or others who might be interested.” Just try not to go mad.

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