Books News & Features
4:00 am
Sun July 14, 2013

An Ancient Parchment Refuses To Give Up Its Secrets

Originally published on Sun July 14, 2013 11:47 am

It reads like a Dan Brown novel: An indecipherable, cryptic medieval text, shrouded in mystery, filled with entrancing images, disappears for hundreds of years and then suddenly resurfaces at an Italian castle.

It certainly sounded like thriller material to Reed Johnson. He started a novel about the real-life Voynich Manuscript, as it's known, but soon found its actual story more compelling. Johnson also wrote about the history of the document — and its strange allure — for The New Yorker.

The manuscript, now part of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, was likely written in Europe — Johnson says the exact origin is uncertain — in the early 15th century . It was named for Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish-American rare-book dealer who bought it in 1912.

Its 240 parchment pages are filled with botanical and astronomical illustrations, accompanied by the strange text.

"It doesn't match any other language that's been seen in any other book," Johnson tells Rachel Martin, host of Weekend Edition Sunday.

The drawings often have labels, which would seem to offer a route to deciphering the code. But that hope has proved to be an illusion, he says.

Johnson has devoted a large part of the last three years to trying to crack the code and decipher the cryptic script. He joined an international listserv of experts who study the manuscript and exchange theories. He says he gets about a dozen Voynich emails a day.

"The history of this manuscript is littered with ... all these people who have spent years and years trying to decipher this manuscript," Johnson says. "My own experience with this manuscript has only been three years, so I'm a rank amateur."

But the puzzle has become too addictive, Johnson says. He says he's quitting the listserv and letting go of the mystery.

"Imagine a climbing wall: It looks like there are all these easy hand-holds, and you get up close to it and turns out they're all just painted on, and it's an extremely smooth surface and you can't get purchase on it," he says.

Johnson says he'll miss the manuscript — and he doesn't really want the code to be cracked.

"There's something wonderful about this manuscript that accumulates so many different interpretations, that's broad enough to encompass them all at the same time," he says. "As soon as it's forced into one particular meaning, then it sort of loses that mystery, and I think that's sad."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It reads like a Dan Brown novel: An indecipherable, cryptic medieval text, shrouded in mystery, filled with entrancing images disappears for hundreds of years and then it suddenly resurfaces at an Italian castle. Of course, it's a castle.

It certainly sounded like thriller material to Reed Johnson. He started the novel about the real-life "Voynich Manuscript," as it's known, but soon found its actual story more compelling. He wrote about the history of the manuscript and its strange allure for The New Yorker, and he's here to talk with us about it.

Hey Reed, welcome to the show.

REED JOHNSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: So first off, can you describe the manuscript for us? What does it look like?

JOHNSON: Sure. I should say right away that I've never actually held the manuscript in my hands. It's held in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale. And I think it's kept under fairly tight wraps because so many people would like to get their hands on it and see what it looks like.

MARTIN: Quite literally. Yeah.

JOHNSON: I've seen it, just the scanned images. And the manuscript is about 240 pages. It's parchment, so it's animal skin. It was before the printing presses so it was written out by hand and it's filled with these crazy drawings that nobody really knows quite how to interpret. There are strange plants, there are some astronomical diagrams, it seems like based on what we can tell. And, of course, the script that doesn't match any language that has been seen at any other book.

MARTIN: So it has a really interesting history of ownership, right? It's kind of like the sword in the stone, everyone takes a crack at figuring this thing out; no one can really do it. Was that part of what drew you to this story?

JOHNSON: I think it was, although it really should have functioned as more of a cautionary tale. I think that the history of this manuscript is really littered with all these people who have come throughout its history and spent years and years trying to decipher this manuscript. My own experience with the manuscript has only been three years, so I'm a rank amateur. I'm a member of an email list serve, where experts who have spent years of their lives studying this manuscript - and every day I get probably a dozen emails from people all around the world on this list serve discussing the finer points of what this manuscript might be.

MARTIN: What are some of the theories? I imagine there are a lot of them floating around. What are some of the theories about what the text reveals?

JOHNSON: Well, I think the first place that anyone starts is looking at the illustrations to sort of see what kind of topics there are. And in some of these illustrations have labels, so you might think, well, that's, actually, I looked at it and I said this is clearly a particular star constellation that has a label next to it. It looks like the Pleiades and I can't figure out maybe the code based on that. And it turns out that it's just - if you can imagine a climbing wall, it looks like there are all these easy handholds and you get up close and it turns out they're all just painted on this extremely smooth surface and you can't get a purchase on it and...

MARTIN: How devious of the code.

JOHNSON: It really is.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: It's actually sort of I have to admit it's sort of an addiction. And I should say that this is my last day of being on this Voynich email list serve because I've decided that it's sort of taken over my life in the last few years and...

MARTIN: You're cutting yourself off.

JOHNSON: I am. I have to go cold turkey because it's just - it's taken up so much of my time, weekends. I get up in the middle of the night sometimes because I have this idea that it might be some particular type of cipher that's been overlooked, and it's really sort of pushed out a lot of things. I have to do this before my friends and family stage an intervention.

MARTIN: Are you going to miss it?

JOHNSON: I think there will be a hole left in my life that I'll be able to fill with other things.

MARTIN: I mean, we're being a little tongue-in-cheek, but you're serious. This is a big part of your life, right?

JOHNSON: It was. There are - I'm a graduate student now. I really should be writing a dissertation. I'd like to work on another novel that doesn't have anything to do with the Voynich Manuscript. So I think there will be other things. And there's so much other mystery in the world. I think that this is just one of those very persistent mysteries that has attracted me for a long time. I'd love to see it - well, I wouldn't love to see it solved. I would love to have solved it.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's what I was going to ask. Are you going to be okay if someday someone figures this thing out and it wasn't you?

JOHNSON: I think I'll be disappointed, and I expect that the solution may be much more mundane than we expect. I think that there's something wonderful about this manuscript that accumulates so many different interpretations; that's sort of brought enough to encompass them all at the same time. And as soon as it is forced into one particular meaning, then it sort of loses that mystery. And I think that's sad.

MARTIN: You're rooting for the coat?

JOHNSON: I am. I think there's not enough mystery in our world these days.

MARTIN: Reed Johnson is a grad student at the University of Virginia. He wrote about the Voynich Manuscript for The New Yorker and he joined us in our studios. Thank you so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.