The Damned Story: Although there are many priceless, unique and renowned volumes at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, there may be none that has sparked more debate, research and questions than the puzzling and curious Voynich Manuscript.
An illustrated 234-page medieval manuscript, the book is written in an elegant yet coded script that has yet to be deciphered despite a century of effort, including attempts by the greatest code-breakers of the 20th century. Even though it has yet to be read, it appears to be a scientific book of sorts as there are numerous illustrations of plants and herbs as well as astrological and anatomical drawings. No one is sure who the author is, where or when exactly it was written, or really what it means. A puzzle inside of conundrum wrapped in an enigma, as they say.
What is known is that in 1912 antiquarian book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich purchased a bunch of books in Europe, including the encrypted manuscript. A note, written in Latin and dated 1666, was attached and suggested that even at that point, the manuscript was few hundred years old and possibly the work of philosopher and scientific proponent Roger Bacon.
After purchasing the manuscript, Voynich valiantly tried to have it deciphered, bringing it to the best cryptoanalysts of the day. The manuscript changed hands a few times throughout the 20th century, with each owner eager to crack the code, employing expert after expert, including William F. Friedman, who rose to fame for breaking Japanese codes during World War II. And although the effort has continued, it has been unsuccessful to this day.
For much more about the history and contents of the manuscript, you can visit voynich.nu, among other sites out there.
Our Damned Experience: We visited the Beinecke in January 2009, and although it is open to the public, unless you are a “qualified scholar” you are not going to be allowed to paw through the pages of catalog item MS 408, as the Voynich manuscript is known.
Not surprisingly, despite this website, we don’t even remotely qualify — something about having the proper credentials or anything resembling legitimate scholarly research qualifications — so we instead checked out the other exhibits and displays on hand, including the renowned Gutenberg Bible.
If you have mad code-breaking skillz and a beautiful mind, or maybe if sudoku isn’t much of a challenge any more, you can give it a go — just make sure to let us (and the rest of the world) know if you can figure it out.
If You Go: The Beinecke Library is open to the public, and is an impressive facility, not only in terms of the books contained there, but for the building itself, an eye-catching architectural gem opened in 1963 and worth a visit on its own. It is located in the Hewitt Quadrangle at 121 Wall Street in New Haven, between High and College streets, around the corner from Woolsey Hall and Grove Street Cemetery.
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