One of the biggest mysteries of publishing, the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript, has been digitised and made available for viewing in full online in an effort to solve its centuries-old riddle.
Named after the antiquarian bookseller who acquired it in 1912, Wilfrid Voynich, the Voynich Manuscript is a book believed to have been written in Central Europe towards the end of the 15th or the start of the 16th century. So far, so normal for a bookseller specialising in antiquities to find...
Where things take a turn for the bizarre is in the book's contents: page after page of internally consistent writing in an unknown language, together with botanical, figurative and scientific drawings of flora, fauna and stars that don't appear to be from this planet.
The manuscript has been puzzling scholars for years: its format appears that of an almanac, but its contents are unreadable and the diagrams not emblematic of anything occuring within science or nature.
Split into six sections - including diagrams of and, presumably, corresponding explanations for 113 plants that simply don't exist, astral charts for stars we've never seen, and a pharmacopoeia detailing over 100 species of medicinal herbs and roots - one of the most bizarre contains images of miniature female nudes, many of whom appear to be pregnant, bathing in unknown fluids and interacting with unexplained tubes and capsules.
Since Voynich brought the document to the public's attention, many attempts have been made to explain its bizarre content. Some scholars have claimed it to be written by Franciscan friar and noted polymath Roger Bacon. Others, that it's a hoax designed by Jan Marek Marci to discredit a rival - or even created by Voynich himself to boost sales in his shop.
The theory that the document is a hoax is helped by the 'chimeral' nature of some of the diagrams: although the plants in the botanical section don't exist in nature as such, many of them appear to be made by taking the root structure of one plant, grafting on the stem of another and adding the leaves and petals of a third.
The sheer complexity of the document suggests otherwise, however: far from being gibberish, the unknown writing contains features in keeping with other natural languages - such as a word entropy that matches English and Latin - along with a 30-character alphabet and around 170,000 discrete 'glyphs' created for use merely once or twice.
With a total of 240 vellum pages, the Voynich Manuscript would have been a herculean task to create - and, if it were a hoax, would surely have been exposed by now.
With a full digital replica of the manuscript now available thanks to the work of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, hopefully the mystery of Voynich's bizarre book will be discovered at last.
The full manuscript can be viewed online here.