What the mysterious Voynich manuscript says about us

In a BBC documentary series earlier this year titled ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World’, eccentric British filmmaker Adam Curtis mounted a pastiche of images intended to show that Hidden coercive forces underpin contemporary life. He pointed to a pervasive “power” linked to the global information economy, and illustrated his point in part with fragments from a late medieval codex known as the Voynich manuscript. It helped the documentary maker create an atmosphere of mystery, but what did it really show?

For more than a century, Voynich’s manuscript has been the subject of feverish speculation and totalizing visions like that of Curtis. The text was written either in code that has not yet been deciphered, or in natural language and cipher that have not yet been identified. Its numerous illustrations of plants, astrological signs and women in the thermal baths might indicate its significance, but for the fact that none of the plant species have so far been identified and the astrological signs do not correspond to any that we know. Women seem to engage in a kind of therapy common to many parts of Europe in the 15th century, but where exactly they are, and why they bathe together in vast hydraulic installations connected by strange tubes and conduits, not everyone knows.

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