- The Voynich Manuscript ed. by Raymond Clemens
Every manuscript is a completely unique object in the world. While printing produces so many exact replicas of the same type, no two manuscripts—even copies of the same text—are exactly alike, varying one from another at the very least at the level of minor textual variations, subject as they are to the idiosyncrasies, personality, needs, and mistakes of each individual scribe and his (scribes were usually male) clientele. The uniqueness that a single manuscript can possess is perhaps no clearer to see than in the case of Beinecke MS 408, more commonly known as the Voynich Manuscript, for which no other exemplars, and arguably not even a similar kind of manuscript, is known to exist.
The manuscript has 234 pages, some of which fold out to accommodate large designs, and is densely illustrated with images that seem to usher from another world—though one not altogether dissimilar from our own—comprising mostly unidentifiable plants, astronomical and cosmological charts and diagrams, as well as human figures, including a series of nude women in green baths and tubes. All of the illustrations are surrounded by what is [End Page 283] presumably coherent text, although that of a script and language that has not yet been identified (though not for a shortage of scholarly attempts). It bears characteristics common to a number of different medieval genres—herbal and botanical, astronomical, astrological and cosmological, biological, pharmacological, recipe, of course magical, and even encyclopedic—without belonging comfortably to any single one of them. In fact, the manuscript is divided into somewhat distinct sections. The first part, an herbal section, contains a series of illustrations of plants with roots and blossoms. This is followed by an astrological and cosmological section with foldout charts, depicting astral bodies and zodiacs. Then comes a biological (or balneological) section featuring the images of nude, bathing women. Afterwards is what may be a pharmaceutical portion, indicating how the plants may be used for prophylactic, healing, or magical purposes, which is followed finally by a collection of short paragraphs, which appear to be recipes. No description can really do it justice.
The Voynich Manuscript has been the object of modern scholarly fascination for a century, since it was purchased in 1912 and then publicized by its eponymous owner Wilfrid Michael Voynich, a Polish rare book dealer. The manuscript is indeed spellbinding, holding a power that is hard to articulate, so much so in fact that in 1978, the U.S. National Security Agency issued a classified 140-page report concerning it (this report is now declassified and available online). While the manuscript has been digitized and available online since 2004, this high-quality and actual-size photographic reproduction brings the manuscript to the reader in book form, which makes for an experience not wholly unlike holding Beinecke MS 408 itself in one's hands. While this is the first-ever facsimile reproduction of the manuscript by a major publishing house (private print-on-demand editions have been in off-market circulation for a number of years), it is not the last—an edition from Watkins publishing in London is due out in August 2017. In addition to these affordable facsimile reproductions (both priced $50 or less), the Spanish publisher Siloé has been granted permission to create 898 "clone" replicas of the manuscript—reproducing each stain, hole, and illustration—allowing for the closest possible experience of holding the manuscript in one's hands, but will carry the hefty price tag of around $8,000.
This edition issues from the institution that houses the Voynich Manuscript: the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. An introduction by historian and novelist Deborah Harkness of the University of Southern California and a Preface by Raymond Clemens, former Associate Professor of History at Illinois State University and current Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts at Beinecke, open the book and whet the appetite of the reader, before she is urged to "work out your own interpretation" (xvii) on what follows: the facsimile reproduction of each...