The world’s most famous manuscripts

People write much more than they think they do. Undoubtedly, most written communication is now done via email but handwriting is still part of people’s lives – and this will not change in the foreseeable future even if newer and more advanced devices become available.

A part of what people write is simple notes: a shopping list, a short post-it message on the fridge or a letter sent through post. While most of them end up in the waste bin a few days later, our lives would certainly be more difficult without them.

Then there are the manuscripts that are preserved for at least a few years or decades. Journaling is becoming trendy again – and let’s admit, typing in your notebook on your mobile phone is less idyllic than sitting down a few times a week to write in a beautiful diary with custom design. However, unless you become a celebrity at one point in your life, the only people reading it will be your grandchildren at best.

Finally, there are the manuscripts that have been preserved for hundreds or thousands of years. These might include handwritten agreements, for example between two countries, which are destined to achieve historical significance already at the time when they are made. However, there are manuscripts that became world-famous or fundamental only at a later point in time. Below, you can read three such interesting stories from the last five hundred years.

The MS 408, also known as the Voynich Manuscript

This mystical document was already mentioned in one of our previous posts, however, its story is so fascinating that it is worth discussing in a little more detail. Well, an art dealer called Wilfrid Voynich bought a manuscript in 1912 that was named after him as the Voynich Manuscript. (The owner was born Wilfrid Michał Habdank-Wojnicz and was a former Polish revolutionary who started a new career after fleeing to Great Britain.)

The manuscript is believed to have been written with a quill on parchment made from lamb skin, called vellum at the time. While scientists had made efforts earlier to understand the meaning of the 234 mysterious pages, nobody could predict that its exact content would remain unknown despite the unforeseeable progress made in the field of cryptography in two to three hundred years. And that does not include the help offered by computers and supercomputers...

The Voynich Manuscript

However, they are not omnipotent either. A good example for this is this manuscript dated to have been written between 1420 and 1520 with unknown letters and in an unknown language, its content still largely undeciphered. Probably, this was the mystery that puzzled its first confirmed owner, George Baresch, an alchemist from Prague in the 17th century. It was then transferred to Rome and later stored on a Jesuit property in the countryside.

Each page of the manuscript is illustrated: these nude bathing females, botanicals and astronomical symbols only add to the mystery of these foldable parchment sheets. The manuscript’s 170 000 characters are believed to be in a single unidentified language but this is not certain either. These characters are unevenly distributed in the text. Approximately 20 to 30 characters appear repeatedly in the text but many of them are entirely distinct which occur only once or twice throughout the document. It is also baffling that there aren’t any words with more than 10 letters in it and there are only a few one-letter or two-letter words, which distinguishes it from European languages, however, the clothing and the hairstyle of the figures in the illustrations as well as the depiction of the two castles may suggest a European origin.

The Voynich manuscript is well illustrated. On the picture, astronomical content can be seen.

Some believe that the text was created by a person in a trance-like state while others support the theory that most of the characters are meaningless but contain a text hidden inside. Some think it was written in Manchu while others are of the opinion that it is in a constructed language created by its author. As the text contains repetitions, some grammar and order as well, it is not purely a collection of meaningless symbols while certain characteristics make it different both from natural and artificial languages. Benedek Láng, historian of science and researcher of encryptions from the early modern period believes that it is an illustrated medieval encyclopaedia using images as explanation.

The scientific (and less scientific) community is so captivated by the history of the manuscript that researchers regularly organize conferences and meetings while a group of people gather in a pub in London every week to discuss the latest results of research – and maybe even more between two pints of beer.

What we know for certain among the many questions is that it is presently held at Yale University in New Heaven identified as MS 408. This library, namely the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, holds one of the world’s largest collections of rare books and unique manuscripts.

The most famous computer code

While manuscripts are mostly understood as texts literally written by hand, in typography, they include all documents submitted for publication as well as works not intended for the public. Our next story is about a top secret document.

There is a famous photo taken at NASA’s headquarters. It depicts a bespectacled woman standing near a stack of paper sheets a little taller than she is. The woman is a key figure, Margaret Hamilton and the stack is one of the world’s best-known manuscripts, the software code helping the first humans land on the Moon, which was created by Hamilton, a computer scientist and her team.

The date is 1969 when MTV (Hungarian Television Channel) starts testing colour broadcasts, Omega releases their album “Ten Thousand Steps” and BKV (Budapest Transport Company) ends its sitting conductor service – meanwhile, the United States is in the midst of the Apollo space programme fervour. It sounds almost shocking now but if we count all the people involved, a total of four hundred thousand people were working together to achieve this goal.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was commissioned by NASA in 1961 to develop the guidance and navigation software. This was successfully completed by 1969 and the stack with the scientist was captured in the famous photo taken by one of MIT’s staff photographers.

Margaret Hamilton with the NASA documentation

Hamilton’s work was significant in its own right but later she was also credited with introducing and popularizing the concept of software engineering. This is how Hamilton later described their work and the circumstances: “Mutual respect was across the board. Because software was a mystery, a black box, upper management gave us total freedom and trust. We had to find a way and we did. Looking back, we were the luckiest people in the world; there was no choice but to be pioneers.”

On July 20 1969, Apollo-11 finally reached its destination and Neil Armstrong became the first human to ever land on the Moon. The meticulously designed software continued to function without any errors in the following years, as long as the space programme was running.

Manuscript under the hammer

In autumn 2021, London’s famous auction house, Christie’s offered a manuscript for auction that seemed outstanding even based on their own standards. “This is without doubt the most valuable Einstein manuscript ever come to auction,” their communication said about the importance of the document, estimating prior to the auction that it would fetch between EUR 2 and 3 million.

The 54-page document was handwritten by Albert Einstein directly on the eve of the First World War, in 1913 and 1914. At the time, the German physicist was working in Zurich with his colleague and friend, Michele Besso. It is thanks to the Swiss-Italian engineer that the manuscript was preserved and it was “almost like a miracle” since Einstein would have been unlikely to hold on to it. Interestingly, the text contains a number of minor errors. Once Einstein spotted them, he let the paper drop, and it was taken away by Michele Besso.

Einstein started working on his theory of general relativity after defining the mass-energy equivalence (E=mc2) in 1905. In early 1913, he and his colleague attacked the problem that had been troubling the scientific community for years: the anomaly of the planet Mercury’s orbit. Eventually, they succeeded in solving the mystery.

Einstein's relativity theory manuscript sold on an auction

As a result, this manuscript is seen as one of the vital paving stones towards the theory of relativity. The auction was finally held in the Augettes auction house in Paris on November 23 2021 and the result exceeded all expectations. In the end, the document fetched a record EUR 11.6 million (HUF 4.3 billion).

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