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Voynich Manuscript

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.
Scientific text in an unidentified language, in cipher, possibly written in central Europe in the 15th century.

It is abundantly illustrated with awkward coloured drawings of::

  • unidentified plants;
  • what seems to be herbal recipes;
  • tiny naked women frolicking in bathtubs connected by intricate plumbing looking more like anatomical parts than hydraulic contraptions;
  • mysterious charts in which some have seem astronomical objects seen through a telescope, some live cells seen through a microscope;
  • charts into which you may see a strange calendar of zodiacal signs, populated by tiny naked people in rubbish bins.

Detail from page 78r of Voynich Manuscript depicting the "biological" section

No one really knows the origins of the manuscript. The experts believe it is European They believe it was written between the 15th and 17th centuries.

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 written.
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. The text has no apparent corrections. There is evidence for two different "languages" (investigated by Currier and D'Imperio) and more than one scribe, probably indicating an ambiguous coding scheme.

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.

View Voynich photos
curtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University:

Few Examples:

Click on image to enlarge. Page 70r Image Source >>
Copyright: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Page 85v.
Copyright: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

All Pages

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).


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.
The former owner of this book asked your opinion by letter, copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he believed you would be able to read the remainder, but he at that time refused to send the book itself. To its deciphering he devoted
unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life. But his toil was in vain, for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master, Kircher. Accept now this token, such as it is and long
overdue though it be, of my affection for you, and burst through its bars, if there are any, with your wonted success.
Dr. Raphael, tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand Ill, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book had belonged to the Emperor Rudolph and that he presented to the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger
Bacon, the Englishman. On this point I suspend judgment; it is your place to define for us what view we should take thereon, to whose favor and kindness I unreservedly commit myself and remain,

At the command of your Reverence,
of Cronland.
PRAGUE, 19th August, 1665 (or I666).

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.
There are 212 with text and drawings, 33 pages contain text only, and the last page contains the Key. The text is written in an enciphered script, and the drawings are colored in red, blue, brown, yellow, and green.

The contents of the Manuscript are divided up into 5categories:

  • The first and largest section contains 130 pages of plant drawings with accompanying text, and is called the Botanical division.
  • The second contains 26 pages of drawings, obviously astrological and astronomical in nature.
  • The third section contains 4 pages of text and 28 drawings, which would appear to be biological in nature.
  • The fourth division contains 34 pages of drawings, which are pharmaceutical in nature.
  • The last section of the Manuscript contains 23pages of text arranged in short paragraphs, each beginning with a star. The last page (the 24th of this division) contains the Key only.

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:

  • in a natural language
    • Latin, abbreviated Latin,
    • English, German, Norse,
    • Chinese (in a phonetic script),
    • Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic,
    • "pig Latin" and many others.
  • in a fake natural language like:
    • Enochian
    • Balaibalan
  • in a coded language
    • in cipher (single, multi substitution, etc.)
  • in an artificial language like:
    • Lingua ignota (Hildegarde von Bingen, 1153/54)
    • Arithmeticus nomenclator (anonymous Spanish Jesuit, 1653)
    • Wilkins' (1641)
    • Dalgarno's (1661)
    • Beck's "Universal Character" (1657)
    • Johnston's "Synthetic Language" (1641)

There is no intelligible underlying text

  • glossolalia (something like "writing in tongues")
  • random (i.e. some forgery)
    • psychologically "random" strings
    • mechanically generated random strings

In analytic terms, there are a few particularities worth noting:

  • The 2nd order entropy is too low for an European language using a simple substitution cipher.
  • The text follows roughly the 1st and 2nd Zipf's laws of word frequencies.
  • The word length distribution is different from Latin (words tend to be shorter than Latin words).
  • Correlation analysis seems to indicate that the spaces are indeed separating "words" as in a natural language.
  • There is some evidence for two different "languages" or dialects (investigated by Currier and D'Imperio) and perhaps more than one scribe, probably indicating an ambiguous coding scheme.
  • The text has very few apparent corrections.
  • The structure of words is extremely rigid.
  • There are many words repetitions (up to 3 times!)
  • Some characters in the "key-like sequences" do not appear anywhere else in the manuscript.

Source: The European Voynich Manuscript Transcription Project

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
navel of Pegasus, the girdle of Andromeda, and the head of Cassiopea".

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
mirror image of the "galaxy" from the Voynich Manuscript.
The match is not perfect, but too close to be ignored.
Copyright 2003 by

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.

  • The Voynich Manuscript Decoded?

    I give examples to show that the code used in the Voynich Manuscript is probably a series of Italian word anagrams written in a fancy embellished script. This code, that has been confusing scholars for nearly a century, is therefore not as complicated as it first appears.

  • The Voynich Manuscript Decoded? – Part II

    I offer my interpretation of Folio 116v, the Michitonese page, of the Voynich Manuscript. Using the modified Voynich alphabet outlined in my previous paper and analyzing the subsequent Italian anagrams, I have deciphered the top paragraph of Folio 99r. This folio was chosen because it and the Michitonese page appear to be discussing the same subject matter. This may be the first time, in about 500 years, that anyone has read any of the text of this mysterious manuscript. What I found was very surprising and unexpected. I also present my deciphering of a botanical page and an astrological page.

  • Leonardo da Vinci and the Voynich Manuscript

    The Voynich Manuscript may have been written by a young Leonardo da Vinci as evidenced by a similarity to Leonardo’s script and signature, an indication of mirror writing, and an astrological chart that corresponds to Leonardo’s birthday. Mistakes in the manuscript point to the possibility that a precocious child could have been the author.

  • Voynich Manuscript: was the author left-handed?

    In this paper I suggest that Tarot cards were the source of the sun, moon and star motifs found on drawings in the Voynich Manuscript and carvings on an Afro-Portuguese ivory horn. In addition it likely that the VM’s illustrations of little nude ladies, bathing in green pools, were inspired by 14th century manuscripts based on Roman/Greek mythology. These observations make it unlikely that Roger Bacon was the author of the VM, or that John Dee, Edward Kelley or Wilfred Voynich forged the manuscript. Additional evidence indicates that the author of this mysterious manuscript was left-handed.

  • The Voynich Botanical Plants

    It would normally be regarded as a distinct handicap when viewing the botanical drawings in the VM, never to have seen a medieval herbal or botanical manuscript, however having no preconceived ideas as to what to expect, I am able to view the drawings without bias. Like everyone else who sees these drawings for the first time, I was totally confused by some of their fantastic and eccentric characteristics and was ready to abandon the project. Fortunately I printed out a few of the more normal drawings, and while studying them at home one night I realized that the creeper illustrated in folio 32r was growing outside my back door. The following morning I confirmed that the flowers and leaves were very similar to this creeper.

  • Leonardo da Vinci and Bartolomeo Marchionni

    The intention of this paper is to show that Leonardo da Vinci may have had a life long association with Bartholomeo di Domenico Marchionni, the wealthy Florentine banker in Lisbon, who financed some of the Portuguese voyages of exploration to West Africa, India and Brazil and who played a prominent role in the early years of the African slave trade. He may have been the person Leonardo referred to as "Bartolomeo the Turk."

  • Bartolomeo Marchionni and the Afro-Portuguese Ivories

    During the latter part of the 15th century, the king of Portugal sold rights to trade with Guinea and Benin to the wealthy Florentine merchant banker and slave trader, Bartolomeo Marchionni. This paper investigates the possibility that he may have been responsible for having African artists from Sierra Leone and Benin trained to carve ivory artifact, which he subsequently sold to his wealthy clients in Europe. Those ivory pieces that have survived the last five centuries are now known as the Afro-Portuguese ivories.

  • Analysis of Radiocarbon Dating Statistics in Reference to the Voynich Manuscript

    The purpose of this article is to identify potential errors in radiocarbon dating with the view to evaluating the Voynich manuscript 14C data. Anyone reading this article should have a basic understanding of statistics.
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