The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious illustrated book with incomprehensible contents. It is thought to have been written approximately 400 years ago by an unknown author in an unidentified script and unintelligible language.
Over its recorded existence, the Voynich manuscript has been the object of intense study by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including some top American and British codebreakers of World War II fame (all of whom failed to decipher a single word). This string of failures has turned the Voynich manuscript into a famous subject of historical cryptology, but it has also given weight to the theory that the book is simply an elaborate hoax – a meaningless sequence of arbitrary symbols.
The book is named after the Polish-American book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912.
As of 2005, the Voynich manuscript is item MS 408 in the Beinecke Rare Book Library of Yale University. The first facsimile edition was published in 2005
Description – By current estimates, the book originally had 272 pages in 17 quires of 16 pages each. Only about 240 vellum pages remain today, and gaps in the page numbering (which seems to be later than the text) indicate that several pages were already missing by the time that Voynich acquired it. A quill pen was used for the text and figure outlines, and colored paint was applied (somewhat crudely) to the figures, possibly at a later date.
The illustrations of the manuscript shed little light on its contents, but imply that the book consists of six “sections”, with different styles and subject matter. Except for the last section, which contains only text, almost every page contains at least one illustration. The sections, and their conventional names, are:
The “herbal” section of the manuscript contains illustrations of plants. Each page displays one plant (sometimes two), and a few paragraphs of text – a format typical of European herbals of the time. Some parts of these drawings are larger and cleaner copies of sketches seen in the pharmaceutical section.
Biological: a dense continuous text interspersed with figures, mostly showing small nude women bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes, some of them clearly shaped like body organs. Some of the women wear crowns.
Cosmological: more circular diagrams, but of an obscure nature. This section also has fold-outs; one of them spans six pages and contains some sort of map or diagram, with nine “islands” connected by “causeways”, castles, and possibly a volcano.
Pharmaceutical: many labeled drawings of isolated plant parts (roots, leaves, etc.); objects resembling apothecary jars drawn along the margins; and a few text paragraphs.Recipes: many short paragraphs, each marked with a flower-like (or star-like) “bullet”.
Astronomical: contains circular diagrams, some of them with suns, moons, and stars, suggestive of astronomy or astrology. One series of 12 diagrams depicts conventional symbols for the zodiacal constellations (two fish for Pisces, a bull for Taurus, a soldier with a crossbow for
Sagittarius, etc.). Each symbol is surrounded by exactly 30 miniature women figures, most of them naked, each holding a labeled star. The last two pages of this section (Aquarius and Capricornus, roughly January and February) were lost, while Aries and Taurus are split into four paired diagrams with 15 stars each. Some of these diagrams are on fold-out pages.
The text was clearly written from left to right, with a slightly ragged right margin. Longer sections are broken into paragraphs, sometimes with “bullets” on the left margin. There is no obvious punctuation. The ductus (the speed, care, and cursiveness with which the letters are written) flows smoothly as if the scribe understood what he was writing when it was written; the manuscript does not give the impression that each character had to be calculated before being put on the page.
The text consists of over 170,000 discrete glyphs, usually separated from each other by thin gaps. Most of the glyphs are written with one or two simple pen strokes. While there is some dispute as to whether certain glyphs are distinct or not, an alphabet with 20-30 glyphs would account for virtually all of the text; the exceptions are a few dozen “weird” characters that occur only once or twice each.
Wider gaps divide the text into about 35,000 “words” of varying length. These seem to follow phonetic or orthographic laws of some sort; e.g. certain characters must appear in each word (like the vowels in English), some characters never follow others, some may be doubled but others may not.
Statistical analysis of the text reveals patterns similar to natural languages. For instance, the word frequencies follow Zipf’s law, and the word entropy (about 10 bits per word) is similar to that of English or Latin texts. Some words occur only in certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript. There are very few repetitions among the thousand or so “labels” attached to the illustrations. In the herbal section, the first word on each page occurs only on that page and maybe the name of the plant.
On the other hand, the Voynich manuscript’s “language” is quite unlike European languages in several aspects. For example, there are practically no words with more than ten “letters”, yet there are also a few one or two-letter words.
The distribution of letters within the word is also rather peculiar: some characters only occur at the beginning of a word, some only at the end, and some always in the middle section – an arrangement found in Arabic, but not in the Roman, Greek or Cyrillic alphabets. (It should be noted, though, that the Greek letter Sigma does have a different form when it appears at the end of words; similarly, even in English capitalized letters, which usually appear only at the beginning of words, may vary dramatically from its lowercase version.)
The text seems to be more repetitious than typical European languages; there are instances where the same common word appears up to three times in a row. Words that differ only by one letter also repeat with unusual frequency.
There are only a few words in the manuscript written in a seemingly Latin script. On the last page, there are four lines of writing which are written in (rather distorted) Latin letters, except for two words in the main script. The lettering resembles the European alphabets of the 15th century, but the words do not seem to make sense in any language.
Also, a series of diagrams in the “astronomical” section has the names of ten of the months (from March to December) written in Latin script, with spelling suggestive of the medieval languages of France or the Iberian Peninsula. However, it is not known whether these bits of Latin script were part of the original text, or were added at a later time.
The history of the manuscript is still full of gaps, especially in its earliest part. Since the manuscript’s alphabet does not resemble any known script, and the text is still undeciphered, the only useful evidence as to the book’s age and origin are the illustrations – especially the dress and hairstyles of the human figures, and a couple of castles that are seen in the diagrams. They are all characteristically European and based on that evidence most experts assign the book to dates between 1450 and 1520. This estimate is supported by other secondary clues.
The earliest confirmed owner of the manuscript was a certain Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 17th century. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as we are today about this “Sphynx” that had been “taking up space uselessly in his library” for many years.
On learning that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano, had published a Coptic (Ethiopian) dictionary and “deciphered” the Egyptian hieroglyphs, he sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome (twice), asking for clues.
His 1639 letter to Kircher, which was recently located by Rene Zandbergen, is the earliest mention of the manuscript that has been found so far.
It is not known whether Kircher answered the request, but apparently, he was interested enough to try to acquire the book, which Baresch apparently refused to yield.
Upon Baresch’s death the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci (Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector of Charles University in Prague; who promptly sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend, and correspondent. Marci’s cover letter (1666) is still attached to the manuscript.
There are no records of the book for the next 200 years, but in all likelihood, it was kept, with the rest of Kircher’s correspondence, in the library of the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University). It probably remained there until the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured the city in 1870 and annexed the Papal States.
The new Italian government decided to confiscate many properties of the Church, including the library of the Collegio. According to investigations by Xavier Ceccaldi and others, just before this happened many books of the University’s library were hastily transferred to the personal libraries of its faculty, which were exempt from confiscation.
Kircher’s correspondence was among those books and so apparently was the Voynich manuscript, as it still bears the ex libris of Petrus Beckx, head of the Jesuit order and the University’s Rector at the time.
Beckx’s “private” library was moved to the Villa Mondragone, Frascati, a large country palace near Rome that had been bought by the Society of Jesus in 1866 and housed the headquarters of the Jesuits’ Collegio Ghisleri.
Around 1912 the Collegio Romano was apparently short of money and decided to sell (very discreetly) some of its holdings.
Wilfrid Voynich acquired 30 manuscripts, among them the manuscript that now bears his name. In 1930, after his death, the manuscript was inherited by his widow Ethel Lilian Voynich (known as the author of the novel The Gadfly).
She died in 1960 and left the manuscript to her close friend, Miss Anne Nill. In 1961, Anne Nill sold the book to another antique book dealer Hans P. Kraus. Unable to find a buyer, Kraus donated the manuscript to Yale University in 1969.
Theories about Authorship
Many names have been proposed as possible authors of the Voynich manuscript. Here are only the most popular ones linked to alchemists.
Even though Marci said that he was “suspending his judgment” about this claim, it was taken quite seriously by Voynich, who did his best to confirm it. His conviction strongly influenced most decipherment attempts for the next 80 years. However, scholars who have looked at the Voynich manuscript and are familiar with Bacon’s works have flatly denied that possibility. One should note also that Raphael died in 1644, and the deal must have occurred before Rudolf’s abdication in 1611 – at least 55 years before Marci’s letter.
John Dee – The assumption that Roger Bacon was the author led Voynich to conclude that the person who sold the Voynich manuscript to Rudolf could only be John Dee, a mathematician, and astrologer at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, known to have owned a large collection of Bacon’s manuscripts. Dee and his scryer (medium assistant) Edward Kelley lived in Bohemia for several years where they had hoped to sell their services to the Emperor. However, Dee’s meticulously kept diaries do not mention that sale and make it seem quite unlikely. Anyway, if the Voynich manuscript author is not Bacon, the connection to Dee may just disappear. On the other hand, Dee himself may have written it and spread the rumor that it was originally a work of Bacon’s in the hopes of later selling it.
Edward Kelley – Dee’s companion in Prague, Edward Kelley, was a self-styled alchemist who claimed to be able to turn copper into gold by means of a secret powder which he had dug out of a Bishop’s tomb in Wales. As Dee’s scryer, he claimed to be able to invoke angels through a crystal ball and had long conversations with them – which Dee dutifully noted down. The angel’s language was called Enochian, after Enoch, the Biblical father of Methuselah; according to legend, he had been taken on a tour of Heaven by angels and later written a book about what he saw there. Several people have suggested that, just as Kelley invented Enochian to dupe Dee, he could have fabricated the Voynich manuscript to swindle the Emperor (who was already paying Kelley for his supposed alchemical expertise). However, if Roger Bacon is not the author of the Voynich manuscript, Kelley’s connection to the manuscript is just as vacuous as Dee’s.
Wilfrid Voynich was often suspected of having fabricated the Voynich manuscript himself. As an antique book dealer, he probably had the necessary knowledge and means; and a “lost book” by Roger Bacon would have been worth a fortune. However, by expert dating of the manuscript, and the recent discovery of Baresch’s letter to Kircher, that possibility has been eliminated.
Jacobus Sinapius – A photostatic reproduction of the first page of the Voynich manuscript, taken by Voynich sometime before 1921, showed some faint writing that had been erased. With the help of chemicals, the text could be read as the name ‘Jacobj `a Tepenece’. This is taken to be Jakub Horcicky of Tepenec, who was also known by his Latin name: Jacobus Sinapius. He was a specialist in herbal medicine, Rudolph II’s personal physician, and curator of his botanical gardens. Voynich and many other people after him concluded from this “signature” that Jacobus owned the Voynich manuscript before Baresch, and saw in that a confirmation of Raphael’s story. Others have suggested that Jacobus himself could be the author.
However, that writing does not match Jacobus’s signature, as found in a document recently located by Jan Hurich. So it is still possible that the writing on page f1r was added by a later owner or librarian, and is only this person’s guess as to the book’s author. (In the Jesuit history books that were available to Kircher, Jesuit-educated Jacobus is the only alchemist or doctor from Rudolf’s court who deserves a full-page entry, while, for example, Tycho Brahe is barely mentioned.) Moreover, the chemicals applied by Voynich have so degraded the vellum that hardly a trace of the signature can be seen today; thus there is also the suspicion that the signature was fabricated by Voynich in order to strengthen the Roger Bacon theory.
Jan Marci met Kircher when he led a delegation from Charles University to Rome in 1638; and over the next 27 years, the two scholars exchanged many letters on a variety of scientific subjects. Marci’s trip was part of a continuing struggle by the secularist side of the University to maintain their independence from the Jesuits, who ran the rival Clementinum college in Prague. In spite of those efforts, the two universities were merged in 1654, under Jesuit control. It has therefore been speculated that political animosity against the Jesuits led Marci to fabricate Baresch’s letters, and later the Voynich manuscript, in an attempt to expose and discredit their “star” Kircher.
Marci’s personality and knowledge appear to have been adequate for this task; and Kircher, a “Dr. Know-It-All” who is today remembered more by his egregious mistakes than by his genuine accomplishments, was an easy target. Indeed, Baresch’s letter bears some resemblance to a hoax that orientalist Andreas Mueller once played on Kircher. Mueller concocted an unintelligible manuscript and sent it to Kircher with a note explaining that it had come from Egypt. He asked Kircher for a translation, and Kircher, reportedly, produced one at once.
It is worth noting that the only proofs of Georg Baresch’s existence are three letters sent to Kircher: one by Baresch (1639), and two by Marci (about a year later). It is also curious that the correspondence between Marci and Kircher ends in 1665, precisely with the Voynich manuscript “cover letter”. However, Marci’s secret grudge against the Jesuits is pure conjecture: a faithful Catholic, he himself had studied to become a Jesuit, and shortly before his death in 1667 he was granted honorary membership in their Order.
Raphael Mnishovsky, the friend of Marci who was the reputed source of Bacon’s story, was himself a cryptographer (among many other things), and apparently invented a cipher which he claimed was uncrackable (ca. 1618). This has led to the theory that he produced the Voynich manuscript as a practical demonstration of his cipher – and made poor Baresch his unwitting “guinea pig”. After Kircher published his book on Coptic, Raphael (so the theory goes) may have thought that stumping him would be a much better trophy than stumping Baresch and convinced the alchemist to ask the Jesuit’s help. He would have invented the Roger Bacon story to motivate Baresch. Indeed, the disclaimer in the Voynich manuscript cover letter could mean that Marci suspected a lie. However, there is no definite evidence for this theory.
Anthony Ascham – Dr. Leonell Strong, a cancer research scientist, and amateur cryptographer, tried to decipher the Voynich manuscript. Strong said that the solution to the Voynich manuscript was a “peculiar double system of arithmetical progressions of a multiple alphabets”. Strong claimed that the plaintext revealed the Voynich manuscript to be written by the 16th century English author Anthony Ascham, whose works include A Little Herbal, published in 1550. Although the Voynich manuscript does contain sections resembling an herbal, the main argument against this theory is that it is unknown where Anthony would have obtained such literary and cryptographic knowledge.
- Roger Bacon Marci’s 1665 cover letter to Kircher says that, according to his late friend Raphael Mnishovsky, the book had once been bought by Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia (1552-1612) for 600 ducats – around $30,800 as of 2005. According to the letter, Rudolf (or perhaps Raphael) believed the author to be the Franciscan friar and polymath Roger Bacon (1214-1294).
Theories about Contents and Purpose
The overall impression given by the surviving leaves of the manuscript suggests that it was meant to serve as a pharmacopeia or to address topics in medieval or early modern medicine. However, the puzzling details of illustrations have fueled many theories about the book’s origins, the contents of its text, and the purpose for which it was intended. Here are only a few of them:
Sunflowers – Brumbaugh believed that one illustration depicted a New World sunflower, which would help date the manuscript and open up intriguing possibilities for its origin. However, the resemblance is slight, especially when compared to the original wild species; and, since the scale of the drawing is not known, the plant could be many other members of the same family – which includes the common daisy, chamomile, and many other species from all over the world.
Alchemy – The basins and tubes in the “biological” section may seem to indicate a connection to alchemy, which would also be relevant if the book contained instructions on the preparation of medical compounds. However, alchemical books of the period share a common pictorial language, where processes and materials are represented by specific images (eagle, toad, man in tomb, couple in bed, etc.) or standard textual symbols (circle with cross, etc.); and none of these could be convincingly identified in the Voynich manuscript.
Astrological herbal – Astrological considerations frequently played a prominent role in herb gathering, blood-letting and other medical procedures common during the likeliest dates of the manuscript (see, for instance, Nicholas Culpeper’s books). However, apart from the obvious Zodiac symbols, and one diagram possibly showing the classical planets, no one has been able to interpret the illustrations within known astrological traditions (European or otherwise).
Microscopes and telescopes – A circular drawing in the “astronomical” section depicts an irregularly shaped object with four curved arms, which some have interpreted as a picture of a galaxy that could only be obtained with a telescope. Other drawings were interpreted as cells seen through a microscope. This would suggest an early modern, rather than a medieval, date for the manuscript’s origin. However, the resemblance is rather questionable: on close inspection, the central part of the “galaxy” looks rather like a pool of water.
Herbal – The first section of the book is almost certainly an herbal, but attempts to identify the plants, either with actual specimens or with the stylized drawings of contemporary herbals, have largely failed. Only a couple of plants (including a wild pansy and the maidenhair fern) can be identified with some certainty. Those “herbal” pictures that match “pharmacological” sketches appear to be “clean copies” of these, except that missing parts were completed with improbable-looking details. In fact, many of the plants seem to be composite: the roots of one species have been fastened to the leaves of another, with flowers from a third.