This Medieval Manuscript Has Stumped Codebreakers for More Than a Century

In 1912, a rare book dealer named Wilfried Voynich came across a unique find at a Jesuit college in Italy. With its colorful illustrations and odd curlicue writing, this specimen was unlike any other book he owned. That’s because it had been written in an script unrecognizable to him and the rest of the academic world. 

The biggest clue to the manuscript's contents comes from its lively pictures. Of its 246 pages, 220 are illustrated with images of plants, zodiac symbols, and possibly pregnant naked women. A radiocarbon analysis from 2009 dated the Voynich manuscript to have originated some time between 1404 and 1438. The manuscript came with a (legible) letter inside the cover dated 1666 that listed some of the book's previous owners, all of whom had lived in the first half of the 17th century. Beyond that, little is known about the book’s origins. 

The first person said to have owned the manuscript was the Roman Emperor Rudolf II who was notoriously attracted to the bizarre. In addition to his fascination with alchemy and the occult, he was also known for "collecting" dwarves and cultivating a regiment of “giants” in his army.

After that, the manuscript fell under the ownership of a series of scholars and scientists, some of whom devoted years of their lives to cracking the script. When it was re-discovered by Voynich in the early 20th century, the obsessive attempts at deciphering it picked up right where they left off. Voynich enlisted the help of cryptography enthusiast William Newbold, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent the last years of his life scrutinizing each letter with a magnifying glass and copying down the minute cracks in the ink, which he suspected to be an anagrammed shorthand code. The script was also analyzed by William Friedman, a master codebreaker from World War II. After three decades of poring through its pages, Friedman declared the mystery language uncrackable. 

Since then, the project has discovered new life on the Internet. Art historians, linguists, computer programmers, and amateur cryptography enthusiasts are now able to connect online and share their theories and discoveries. One of the more popular hypotheses is that the Voynich manuscript is just a plain old fraud. Whether it was the work of resourceful 20th-century scam artists, or some late-medieval monks with too much time on their hands, the Voynich manuscript could potentially be the most epic practical joke of all time. 

Despite this possibility, hardcore believers from around the world still devote time to cracking the inscrutable code. Further support for the book’s legitimacy was cemented last year when a professor of applied linguistics from the University of Bedfordshire claimed to have decoded a handful of words for the first time. By using the illustrations to identify proper names, like the word for Taurus and a number of medieval plants, he believes he’s translated nine words. The professor, Stephen Bax, said that his research “shows conclusively that the manuscript is not a hoax, as some have claimed, and is probably a treatise on nature, perhaps in a Near Eastern or Asian language.” This may indeed prove it to be the real explanation, but it still doesn't discount the fringe theory that the manuscript was penned by aliens

[h/t: The New Yorker]

Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain
The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

When the complete edition of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary debuted in 1928, it was lauded as a comprehensive collection of the English language, a glossary so vast—and so thorough—that no other reference book could ever exceed its detail or depth. In total, the project took seven decades to catalogue everything from A to Z, defining a total of 414,825 words. But in the eyes of its editor James Murray, the very first volume of the dictionary was something of an embarrassment: It was missing a word.

Looking back, it’s impressive that more words were not lost. Assembling the OED was a nightmare. Before the first volume—an installment consisting of words beginning with the letters A and B—was published in 1888, multiple editors had taken (and abandoned) the helm, and each regime change created new opportunities for mayhem. When James Murray took command in 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary could best be defined by the word disarray.

The irony of making this massive reference book was that it required millions upon millions of tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Every day, volunteers mailed in thousands of small strips of paper called “quotation slips.” On these slips, volunteers would copy a single sentence from a book, in hopes that this sentence could help illuminate a particular word’s meaning. (For example, the previous sentence might be a good example of the word illuminate. Volunteers would copy that sentence and mail it to Oxford’s editors, who would review it and compare the slip to others to highlight the word illuminate.)

The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.

And they did.

Some papers were stuffed haphazardly into boxes or bags, where they gathered cobwebs and were forgotten. Words beginning with Pa went missing for 12 years, only to be recovered in County Cavan, Ireland, where somebody was using the papers as kindling. Slips for the letter G were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. In 1879, the entire letter H turned up in Italy. At one point, Murray opened a bag only to find a family of live mice chewing on the paperwork.

When Murray took over, he tried to right the ship. To better organize the project, he built a small building of corrugated iron called the “Scriptorium.” It resembled a sunken tool shed, but it was here—with the help of 1029 built-in pigeonholes—that Murray and his subeditors arranged, sorted, and filed more than a thousand incoming slips every day. Millions of quotations would pass through the Scriptorium, and hundreds of thousands of words would be neatly organized by Murray’s trusty team.

One word, however, slipped through the cracks.

Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Media Specialist, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bondmaid is not the kind of word people drop during conversation anymore, and that’s for the best: It means “a slave girl.” The word was most popular in the 16th century. Murray’s file for bondmaid, however, reached back even further: It included quotations as old as William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible.

But then bondmaid went missing. “Its slips had fallen down behind some books, and the editors had never noticed that it was gone,” writes Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything. When the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1888, bondmaid wasn’t there. (That volume of the OED does miss other words, but those exclusions were deliberate matters of editorial policy—bondmaid is the only word that the editors are known to have physically lost.)

When the slips were later rediscovered in the Scriptorium, Murray reportedly turned red with embarrassment. By 1901, some 14 years after the exclusion, he was still reeling over the mistake in a draft of a letter addressed to an anonymous contributor: “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission. The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable, and with our minute organization one would have said absolutely impossible; I hope also absolutely unparalleled.”

All was not lost for the lost word, however. In 1933, bondmaid made its Oxford dictionary debut. It had taken nearly five decades to make the correction.

Warner Bros.
Rent an Incredible Harry Potter-Themed Apartment in the City Where the Series Was Born
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The Muggle city of Edinburgh has deep ties to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling wrote much of the book series while living there, and there’s even a pub in Edinburgh that named itself after the author for a month. Now, fans passing through the Scottish capital have the chance to live like their favorite boy wizard. As Digital Spy reports, a Harry Potter-themed holiday home in the city’s historic district is now available to rent for around $200 (£150) a night.

Property owner Yue Gao used her own knowledge as a fan when decorating the apartment. With red and yellow accents, a four-poster bed, and floating candles adorning the wallpaper on the ceiling, the master bedroom pays tribute to both the Gryffindor dormitory and the Hogwarts Great Hall. The Hogwarts theme extends to the lounge area, where each door is painted with a different house’s colors and crest. Guests will also find design aspects inspired by the Hogwarts Express around the apartment: The second bedroom is designed to look like a sleeping car, and the front door is disguised as the brick wall at Platform 9 3/4.

Pieces of Harry Potter memorabilia Gao has picked up in her travels are hidden throughout the home, too. If visitors look closely, they’ll find several items that once belonged to Rowling herself, including the writer’s old desk.

Take a look at some of the photos of the magical interiors:

The apartment is available to rent throughout the year through And if you can tear yourself away from the residence for long enough, there are plenty of other Harry Potter-themed attractions to check out in Edinburgh during your stay.

[h/t Digital Spy]


More from mental floss studios