Ravenna, 1421:

“I would speak with you, my lord, of Ovidius Amello,” said the Chamberlain.

Obizzo da Polenta, Lord of Ravenna, gave a disinterested sigh. “Do you think,” he said, “that the affairs of a court scribe even merit a mention? I am balancing on a knife’s edge between Venice and Ferrara, seeking to placate them both and secure the seigniory of Ravenna for my son. What do I care of Amello, so long as he continues to write what I command him to write?”

“That is just the issue, my lord,” the Chamberlain said. “Amello has become…disturbed. He claims that he is writing what he has been commanded to, but the parchments are covered in gibberish that only vaguely resemble what you or I would call language. His illustrations, too, have taken on strange forms, though when I can understand him he says that they are the same portraits of men and kings that he has always painted.”

“When you can understand him?” snorted da Polenta. “Speak not in riddles.”

“Amello’s habit of speech has become…disorganized…of late, my lord. He will often slip into and out of speaking in tongues in the midst of his speech, and seems to note no distinction therebetween. I fear he may be possessed.”

“Possessed? Bah, what use have I for the useless meddling of the Church that accusation brings? Trump up a charge against Amello, have him executed, and be done with it.”

The chamberlain tented his fingers nervously. “As you recall, my lord, though Amello be officially of low birth, he is actually the illegitimate bastard of-”

Da Polenta rolled his eyes. “A pox on that old wretch! May his signet ring saw his bony finger from his lecherous old hand. Very well, take Amello out of the scribal pool and quietly isolate him. See to it that he is supplied with parchment, vellum, and ink, and let him scribe and babble what he will.”

“By your command, my lord,” said the chamberlain.

And so it was that the scribe Ovidius Amello’s disorganized schizophrenia, which would not even be named (let alone understood) for 500 years, was allowed to develop unchecked. Though the scribe himself thought that the volumes he prepared were routine pharmacopoeias, bestiaries, and astrological treatises of the sort that most scribes of his station wrote, instead be produced and lovingly bound volumes of bizarre symbols and illustrations. The disorganized nature of his schizophrenia meant that none but Amello himself could link his scratchings to any meaningful concepts, as the internal links between language, concept, and expression had broken down.

On Amello’s death in 1431–ironically, not long after that of Obizzo da Polenta–all but one of his books were burned, that last volume being saved as a curiosity by Ostasio III, Obizzo’s son and successor. When Venice took Ravenna in 1441, the book was looted along with the entire da Polenta library. The Holy Wars that followed saw that library sold to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II for 600 gold ducats; perplexed, he gave Amello’s book to his botanist to try and decipher the many plantlike illustrations therein.

Finding its way from that botanist to an alchemist, a university rector, a Jesuit scholar, a religious library, and finally a book collector. That collector’s name would become affixed to the text and the mystery of its contents–described by one owner as a “sphynx taking up space uselessly in my library.” That last owner’s name?

Wilfrid Michael Voynich.

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