Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Voynich Manuscript - Raymond Clemens (Ed.) ***

It might seem a little strange to review a book on a possibly fake medieval manuscript here - yet with its botanical illustrations and some-time alleged connection to Roger Bacon, the Voynich manuscript does have a history of science flavour. If you haven't come across it, the Voynich manuscript is a heavily illustrated (with a mix of botanical and really weird images) book, written in an unknown script that has never been deciphered. Some believe that the book is a genuine work, others that the writing can't be deciphered as it never had any meaning, thinking it a fake, probably with the intention of producing a saleable oddity.

What is undeniable is that this new book on the manuscript is a handsome and weighty tome, over 30 cm tall and weighing in at 1.78 kilos. It's an expensive production featuring a semi-transparent dustcover with a vellum-like texture. Closing the book are around 60 pages of commentary - but what makes this volume remarkable is that the majority of it consists of accurate full colour reproductions of the Voynich manuscript's pages, down to having fold-outs for the pages in the original that are similarly structured.

It is, without doubt, the quality reproductions of pages of the manuscript itself that make this volume of interest - it is, effectively, a picture book. The supporting text is a little disappointing. We get articles on the earliest owners, Voynich (the buyer who made it famous), physical analysis of the book itself, early attempts to de-crypt the 'cipher' as is sometimes known, a little on the alchemical tradition (represented in some of the illustrations) and an overview. But apart from the physical analysis section, which is unusually detailed, the rest is summary. Most disappointingly, the 'deciphering' section has far too little on suggestions that the whole thing is a (probably medieval) fake, which some believe to be the case based on, for example, fascinating analysis by Gordon Rugg (who isn't mentioned). I would easily give the book four stars for the reproduction of the manuscript - it's the surrounding text that pulls it down.

If you are Voynich manuscript fan, you will want a copy of this book. It may even be the case if you're a lover of heavily illustrated medieval books. If you are not quite so committed, the cost may put you off, but it's worth borrowing from a library to see what all the fuss has been about.

Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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