Written in Central Europe at the end of the 15th or during the 16th century, the origin, language, and date of the Voynich Manuscript—named after the Polish-American antiquarian bookseller, Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912—are still being debated as vigorously as its puzzling drawings and undeciphered text. Described as a magical or scientific text, nearly every page contains botanical, figurative, and scientific drawings of a provincial but lively character, drawn in ink with vibrant washes in various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red.
The Voynich Manuscript is considered to be 'The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World'. To this day this medieval artifact resists all efforts at translation. It is either an ingenious hoax or an unbreakable cipher. The manuscript is named after its discoverer, the American antique book dealer and collector, Wilfrid M. Voynich, who discovered it in 1912, amongst a collection of ancient manuscripts kept in villa Mondragone in Frascati, near Rome, which had been by then turned into a Jesuit College (closed in 1953).
Based on the evidence of the calligraphy, the drawings, the vellum, and the pigments, Wilfrid Voynich estimated that the Manuscript was created in the late 13th century. The manuscript is small, seven by ten inches, but thick, nearly 235 pages. It is written in an unknown script of which there is no known other instance in the world.
The Voynich Manuscript is a cipher manuscript, sometimes attributed
to Roger Bacon.
It is abundantly illustrated with awkward coloured drawings of::
Detail from page 78r of Voynich Manuscript depicting the "biological" section
From a piece of paper which was once attached to the Voynich manuscript, and which is now stored in one of the boxes belonging with the Voynich manuscript holdings of the Beinecke library, it is known that the manuscript once formed part of the private library of Petrus Beckx S.J., 22nd general of the Society of Jesus.
A sample of untranslatable text from the Voynich manuscript
There is no other example of the language in which the manual is
The VM is written in a language of which no other example is known to exist. It is an alphabetic script, but of an alphabet variously reckoned to have from nineteen to twenty-eight letters, none of which bear any relationship to any English or European letter system.
Apparently, Voynich wanted to have the mysterious manuscript deciphered and provided photographic copies to a number of experts. However, despite the efforts of many well known cryptologists and scholars, the book remains unread. There are some claims of decipherment, but to date, none of these can be substantiated with a complete translation.
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History of the Voynich Manuscript
The book was bought by H. P. Kraus (a New York book antiquarian) in 1961 for the sum of $24,500. He later valued it at $160,000 but was unable to find a buyer. Finally he donated it to Yale University in 1969, where it remains to date at the Beinecke Rare Book Library with catalogue number MS 408.
It is known from a letter of Johannes Marcus Marci, rector of the University of Prague, to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar, dated 1666, that the manuscript was bought by Emperor Rudolph II of Bohemia (1552-1612).
REVEREND AND DISTINGUISHED SIR, FATHER IN CHRIST:
This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined for
you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my possession, for
I was convinced it could be read by no one except yourself.
At the command of your Reverence,
Historically, it first appears in 1586 at the court of Rudolph II of Bohemia, who was one of the most eccentric European monarchs of that or any other period. Rudolph collected dwarfs and had a regiment of giants in his army. He was surrounded by astrologers, and he was fascinated by games and codes and music. He was typical of the occult-oriented, Protestant noblemen of this period and epitomized the liberated northern European prince. He was a patron of alchemy and supported the printing of alchemical literature.
The Rosicrucian conspiracy was being quietly fomented during this same period. To Rudolph's court came an unknown person who sold this manuscript to the king for three hundred gold ducats, which, translated into modern monetary units, is about fourteen thousand dollars. This is an astonishing amount of money to have paid for a manuscript at that time, which indicated that the Emperor must have been highly impressed by it.
Accompanying the manuscript was a letter that stated that it was the work of the Englishman Roger Bacon, who flourished in the thirteenth century and who was a noted pre-Copernican astronomer. Only two years before the appearance of the Voynich Manuscript, John Dee, the great English navigator, astrologer, magician, intelligence agent, and occultist had lectured in Prague on Bacon.
The manuscript somehow passed to Jacobus de Tepenecz, the director of Rudolph's botanical gardens (his signature is present in folio 1r) and it is speculated that this must have happened after 1608, when Jacobus Horcicki received his title 'de Tepenecz'. Thus 1608 is the earliest definite date for the Manuscript.
Codes from the early sixteenth century onward in Europe were all derived from The Stenographica of Johannes Trethemius, Bishop of Sponheim, an alchemist who wrote on the encripherment of secret messages. He had a limited number of methods, and no military, alchemical, religious, or political code was composed by any other means throughout a period that lasted well into the seventeenth century. Yet the Voynich Manuscript does not appear to have any relationship to the codes derivative of Johannes Trethemius of Sponheim.
In 1622 and the manuscript passed to the possession of an unidentified individual that left the book in his/her will to Marci. Marci must have known about this manuscript before 1644, as the information concerning the price that the Emperor paid came from Dr. Raphael Missowski (1580-1644) (as mentioned in his letter).
Marci sent the manuscript immediately with the letter to Athanasius Kircher (a Jesuit priest and scholar in Rome) in 1666 who apparently also knew of it and had exchanged letters and transcribed portions with the previous unidentified owner. Between that time and 1912 (when Voynich discovered it) it is speculated that the manuscript may have been stored or forgotten in some library and finally moved to the Jesuit College at the Villa Mondragone. Marci's letter to Kircher was still attached to the manuscript when Voynich bought it. In that letter, Marci mentioned the name of Roger Bacon (1214-1292) as a possible author, although no conclusive evidence of authorship is available. A possible link between Rudolph and Bacon is John Dee (an English mathematician and astrologer, collector of Bacon's work) who visited Rudolph's court in 1582-86.
Parts of the Manuscript
The Voynich Manuscript is about 6 by 9inches. Some believe it to be a
book about alchemy. It contains the equivalent of 246 quarto pages, but
may have originally contained not less than 262 pages.
The contents of the Manuscript are divided up into 5categories:
View online pages from the manuscript:
Theories about the Manuscript
To this day the Voynich Manuscript resists all efforts at translation. It is either an ingenious hoax or an unbreakable cipher. The contents and origin of the manuscript have been a matter of continuous and stimulating debate. To name some of the possibilities that have been discussed in the Voynich mailing list forum (modified from a posting by Karl Kluge):
There is an intelligible underlying text:
There is no intelligible underlying text
In analytic terms, there are a few particularities worth noting:
Computer analysis of the Voynich Manuscript has only deepened the mystery. One finding has been that there are two 'languages' or 'dialects' of Voynichese, which are called Voynich A and Voynich B. The repetitiousness of the text is obvious to casual inspection. Entropy is a numerical measure of the randomness of text. The lower the entropy, the less random and the more repetitious it is. The entropy of samples of Voynich text is lower than that of most human languages; only some Polynesian languages are as low." "Tests show that Voynich text does not have its low h2 [second order entropy] measures solely because of a repetitious underlying text, that is, one that often repeats the same words and phrases. Tests also show that the low h2 measures are probably not due to an underlying low-entropy natural language. A verbose cipher, one which substitutes several ciphertext characters for one plaintext character [i.e., 'fuf' for the letter 'f'], can produce the entropy profile of Voynich text." - Dennis Stallings
When the manuscript was first shown to expert cryptologists, they thought that solving it would be easy as the text was composed of "words", some of which were more frequent and occurred in certain combinations (Kahn, 1967). This soon turned out to be a mistake; the text could not easily be converted into Latin, English, German or a host of other languages which might possible be at the base of this document.
A first "solution" was announced in 1919, by William Romaine Newbold (Newbold, 1921), who caused a sensation by claiming that the manuscript did indeed contain the work of Roger Bacon and that Bacon had known the use of the compound telescope and microscope, seeing the spiral structure of the Andromeda galaxy* (!) only visible with modern telescopes and cell structures unknown in the 13th Century.
What Newbold discovered in the text was absolutely astonishing— enough to gather a lot of attention from the scientific community. The biological drawings in the text were described asseminiferous tubes, the microscopic cells with nuclei, and even spermatozoa. Among the astronomical drawings were the descriptions of spiral nebulae, a coronary eclipse, and the comet of 1273. One of the more baffling things about this was that many of the drawings of plants, and of the galaxies appeared to have been invented. There was no doubt that if Bacon were the author of such a text, he must have had some way of obtaining the information.
For instance, Newbold's translation of the caption near the drawing of the nebula of Andromeda (which clearly shows its spiral characteristics), gave its location by the following:
"In a concave mirror I saw a star in the form of a snail....between
The attempts to crack the code, however, were not over. In 1931, Mrs. Voynich took a photostat copy of the manuscript to Catholic University in Washington where Fr. Theodore Petersen reproduced it photographically and started a complete hand transcription of the manuscript, with a card index to the words, and lists of concordances. The transcription alone was reported to have taken him 4 years. Unfortunately, it is not known what conclusion, if any, he reached.
In 1944, Hugh O'Neill, a renowned botanist at the Catholic University, identified various plants depicted in the manuscript as New-World species, in particular an American sunflower and a red pepper (O'Neill, 1944). This meant that the dating of the manuscript should be placed after 1493, when Columbus brought the first sunflower seeds to Europe. However, the identification is not certain: the red pepper is coloured green and the sunflower identification is equally contested.
Other people involved in the study of the manuscript were prominent cryptologists such as W. Friedman and J. Tiltman, who independently arrived at the hypothesis that the manuscript was written in an artificial, constructed language. This was based on the structure of the "words" as described below. Such artificial languages were devised at least a century after the probable date of the Voynich manuscript. Only the 'Lingua Ignota' of Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) predates the Voynich manuscript by several centuries, but this language does not exhibit the structure observed by Friedman and Tiltman, and it provides only nouns and a few adjectives.
Friedman came to know Petersen who at some time presented his hand transcription and other material to him. After Friedman's death, all the material was moved to the W.F. Friedman collection of the Marshall Foundation. Recently, electronic versions of the transcriptions made by Friedman's groups were produced from the typed sheets and made available on the Internet (Reeds, 1995).
Later acclaimed solutions see in the manuscript a simple substitution cipher which can only decode isolated words (Feely, 1943), the first use of a more or less sophisticated cipher (Strong, 1945; Brumbaugh, 1977), a text in a vowel-less Ukrainian (Stojko, 1978) or the only surviving document of the Cathar movement (Levitov, 1987). No acceptable plaintext has ever been produced though.
Some interesting new insights into the manuscript were provided in the 70's by Prescott Currier, presenting some of his results at an informal Voynich manuscript symposium at the National Security Agency in Washington (D'Imperio, 1978). Basing his findings on the statistical properties of the text, he showed that the manuscript is written in two distinct "languages" which he simply called A and B. Each bifolio was written in one of the two, and bifolios in the same "language" were generally grouped together. Only in the herbal section there is a mixture of A and B folios. Based on the characteristics of the writing, he showed that the manuscript seems to have been written in two distinct "hands", and he even suggested there could be as much as five or even eight different hands. A significant feature is that the hand and language used on each folio are fully correlated. Currier's conclusion was that at least two people were involved in writing the Voynich manuscript, (which he considered a point against the "hoax theory" summarised below), although alternatively, the manuscript could have been written by one person, in two distinct periods.
Due to the lack of success in the decipherment, a number of people have proposed that the manuscript is a "hoax". The manuscript could either be a 16th century forgery, to be sold for a hefty sum to emperor Rudolf II, who was interested in rare and unusual items (Brumbaugh, 1977, deriving from earlier unpublished theories), or a more recent one by W. Voynich himself (Barlow, 1986). The latter is effectively excluded both by expert dating of the manuscript, and by the evidence of its existence prior to 1887.
One problem with the earlier hoax theory is that, as will be shown, certain word statistics (Zipf's laws) found in the manuscript are characteristic of natural languages. In other words, it is unlikely that any forgery from 16th century would "by chance" produce a text that follows Zipf's laws (first postulated in 1935).
Since 1990, a multidisciplinary group of varying size, generally between 100 and 200 individuals, dispersed all around the globe and connected through the Internet, has maintained an electronic mail forum on the decipherment of the Voynich manuscript. This has led to a lively exchange of ideas and the definition of two main goals: a machine readable transcription of the manuscript text and the study of the text through numerical experiments. The following sections relate to these issues.
Related Link: Past analysis and proposed solutions
* Another interesting possibility is that the image above is a mirror image representation of our own galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy...
The mapping of variable stars, neutral hydrogen radio maps and star clusters gives us our current view of the shape of our Galaxy shown above.
This picture shows the Milky Way Galaxy with superimposed
Edith Sherwood Ph.D., ideas about the Voynich Manuscript, Leonardo da Vinci, Bartolomeo Marchionni, and Portugal's influence on Africa.
Having reviewed the available data and taking into account the variety of possible errors in 14C dating, I have come to my personal conclusion that the animal(s) whose skins were used to make the parchment for the Voynich Manuscript were probably killed some time during the first half of the 15th century.