The Voynich Manuscript: will we ever be able to read this book?

A 15th-century manuscript is written in a language that has baffled every expert. Is it just a brilliant hoax, or will someone eventually decipher its meaning, asks Michael Day.

Somewhere deep inside the bowels of Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library – the Ivy League institution's own cemetery of lost books – lies a tome that experts have studied for centuries, but which has yet to be understood by a single soul.

The book has no known author or official title; Yale librarians simply refer to it as manuscript MS 408. But thanks to its peculiar language, symbols and diagrams – often strangely familiar, but insistently elusive in meaning – it has intrigued and frustrated anthropologists, linguists and mathematicians for centuries: even the elite cryptologists at the US National Security Agency drew a blank, after they spent years trying to decode it in the 1950s. And the time that some researchers have dedicated to the problem seems all the more remarkable given the possibility that, for all the complexity and consistency of the script it contains, it could simply be an elaborate hoax....

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