July 7, 2017
The Voynich manuscript may have been the prescription pad of a Jewish doctor with loony handwriting, according to one scholar
by Ian Dreiblatt
Because of our strong conviction that excellent shit should be written about on the internet, MobyLives has many times covered the Voynich manuscript, often described as the world’s most mysterious book, and probably its most awesome. The Voynich manuscript is an early-fifteenth-century vellum book, full of intense drawings of flora both naturalistic and bizarre, beasts familiar and fantastical, astrological charts, demented patterns, and more.
The Voynich has had an interesting existence. It sometimes instigates awesome bonkers theories, like that it’s the ritual suicide manual of a medieval Isis cult. It’s been known to inspire awesome bonkers literature, like A Highly Unlikely Scenario by our own Rachel Cantor. And it gets people to say bonkers awesome stuff, like “bathing in green pools supplied by intestinal-like pipes.”
That phrase appears in a recent piece Danuta Kean wrote for the Guardian, describing a new theory of the manuscript’s origin, this time from professor Stephen Skinner, a specialist in mysterious old manuscripts. Looking at an image of women sitting in the aforementioned pools, and observing in particular that absence of men, Skinner notes, “The only place you see women like that bathing together in Europe at that time was in the purification baths that have been used by Orthodox Jews for the last 2,000 years.” Thus, Skinner derives the assumption that the drawing is of a mikvah, a ritual Jewish women’s bathhouse. Another clue, in Skinner’s eyes, is the representation of a castle adorned by a swallowtail butterfly, which Skinner says resembles “a Ghibelline fortification found only in castles in northern Italy in the 15th century.” From these two pieces of evidence together, Skinner concludes the manuscript was written by a northern Italian Jew, of whom there were many in the fifteenth century. In possible proof that Italians have always known how to party, the book’s drawings also include such drugs as opium and cannabis, which leads Skinner to believe the author was likely a doctor. Endearingly, the scholar says he is “eighty-five percent sure” he’s right.
It’s definitely fun of Skinner to try these theories on for size. But mikvahs are not green pools supplied by intestinal-like pipes, and butterflies on castles in books written in seeming gibberish are hardly conclusive proof of anything. For now, the Voynich may yet primarily serve as early evidence of the Italian penchant for excellent gibberish.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.