The Curse of the Voynich

The Curse of the Voynich - Text Extract

The two pages below are low-resolution HTML excerpts from The Curse of the Voynich 2006 Nick Pelling. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce or quote from this book (including these pages), please contact its publisher Compelling Press.

If you would like to read answers to some frequently asked questions (about the Voynich Manuscript in general, or about this book in particular), please click here. Alternatively, those who would like to know more about how "The Curse of the Voynich" came to be written can click here.

Everyone else, please read on...

1 - History of a Mystery

Newbold's Andromeda galaxy
The Voynich Manuscript: Newbold's "Andromeda galaxy"

In 1912, when the ancient Jesuit Villa Mondragone near Rome
was running short of funds, its managers decided to sell off some of its
rare books. To do this, they called in an antiquarian book dealer they
happened to know, a colourful former Polish revolutionary called Wilfrid
Voynich: he set to work looking for anything of value. While rifling
through one particular old trunk, he picked up the thing that was to
transform his life and to make him famous - a paperback-sized
manuscript, apparently written entirely in cipher.

Immediately, he knew it was unusual: few manuscripts contain
any hidden text, fewer still have more than a few lines of ciphered text,
while hardly any are totally enciphered. Yet this book contained over 200
pages of mysterious writing, which alone made it a rare (and possibly
unique) artefact. But as he turned its pages, an extra dimension of
strangeness opened out before his eyes: threaded through its text was a
long procession of bizarre drawings - improbable plants, tiny naked
women, unrecognisable circular diagrams, unknown maps.

Secretly convinced that this was a major find, Wilfrid Voynich
snapped it up (probably for next to nothing): and thus the modern history

of the manuscript began. In 1969, it was donated to the Beinecke Rare
Book & Manuscript Library (part of Yale University) where it still lives,
under the rather scholarly name of "Beinecke MS 408". But actually,
nobody is particularly fooled by this (not even the librarians there): it will
probably always be known first and foremost as "The Voynich

At first sight, it looks very old, like medieval 'herbal' manuscripts
(which were similarly filled with pictures of plants, accompanied by their
names and brief descriptions of their medicinal properties): its cipher
appears almost childishly simple, the kind of thing any competent code-
breaker armed with pencil and paper would expect to crack in a summer
afternoon. Yet for almost a century, its otherworldly pictures have
haunted the dreams of academics and amateurs alike: while the meaning
of its mysterious text has managed to evade the grasp of historians and

Almost the first question Wilfrid Voynich asked himself was just
who could have created such a strange object. It is certainly true that few
people would have been able to: yet rather more radically, Voynich
quickly decided that it could have been only one person in the whole of
history - a medieval English friar called Roger Bacon, familiar to
antiquarian book dealers but (at that time) relatively little known. Why
was Voynich so sure?

The First Scientist

The man is insane who writes a secret in
any other way than one which will
conceal it from the vulgar.

Roger Bacon (1252) "De Secretis Operibus
Artis et Naturae, et de Nullitate Magiae"

Looking at the enigmatic pages of the Voynich Manuscript, it's
easy to conclude that it is a mysterious medieval herbal: and from the
apparent simplicity of its cipher, it would also seem to be quite old, from
the days before ciphers became elaborate - and so probably from the 14th
century or earlier. Yet it also has a section of astronomical drawings, as
well as one containing zodiac-like diagrams: all in all, it resembles a
compendium of medicinal, astronomical, and astrological ideas. The
person who compiled it must surely have had an interest in all of these
subjects, along with a good knowledge of cryptography.

2 - History of a Mystery

The gripping story that follows is a rich mixture of many types of historical research, but all with a single relentless focus - releasing the curse that hangs over the Voynich Manuscript, and thereby telling the intriguing story of the people behind this half-millennium-old mystery.

If you would now like to see the extensive bibliography and the errata from the first edition, Compelling Press has very kindly made them all available online here.

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