The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

A page from the Voynich manuscript showing the strange writing along with a color illustration.

In 1912 Wilfred M. Voynich was going through the archives of the Nobile Collegio located at Villa Mondragone looking for some old, potentially rare books. In a dusty chest he found a codex that wasn't just rare, but also a puzzling enigma that has had researchers scratching their heads for most of the last century.

The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated, hand-written book around 240 pages in length (depending on how you count the book's foldout sheets). It measures about 9 inches tall, 6 inches wide and 2 inches thick. Its leaves, which have been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404-1438), are made of vellum (calf skin) and are covered not only with script, but also vivid, color illustrations containing herbal, astronomical, biological, cosmological, and pharmaceutical information. One of the features of the book is that it has fold out pages that allow for extended diagrams. All this, in of itself, would not make the manuscript particularly unusual. In many ways it resembles other pharmacopoeias (books containing instructions on making medicine) from the medieval period. What makes it a mystery is that almost all the text in the book is written in a language and script that is totally unknown to the modern world.

Now this doesn't mean it is written in a language like Rongo Rongo where the meaning of this once well used prose has simply been lost. For example, with Rongo Rongo we don't know how to read it, but we do know it was used on Easter Island until the 1860s and represents the spoken language Rapa Nui which was used on the island.

No, the script in the Voynich manuscript is written in a language we know absolutely nothing about. No other letter or book that we are aware of is written in this language. And it's not just the language that is unknown, the letters themselves do not seem to correspond to any known script. Most European languages at least use most of the Latin alphabet, but the Voynich manuscript does not. Neither does it seem to use any of the Arabic or Cyrillic or Hebrew letters.

There are also alot of other things we don't understand about the Voynich manuscript. We don't know who wrote it. We can't identify with any assurance any of the plants pictured in it and we don't know anything about its origins. And although there are a handful of notes on pages that appear to be written in Latin script, we have no idea of what those mean, either.

History

Polish book dealer Wilfred M. Voynich.

What we do know is that there is a letter from 1666 that was found inside the cover that states that the manuscript had once belonged to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) and that he paid 600 gold ducats to buy it. After Rudolf, the book seems to have then been passed around until it ended up in the hands of Georg Baresch, an alchemist living in Prague during the 15th century. In 1639 Baresch wrote a letter to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano, concerning the document. Baresch's letter, the earliest known reference to the book, tells us at least one important thing: That Baresch was just as puzzled by the manuscript's writing as researchers are today. Kircher was a language expert who had published a Coptic (Egyptian) dictionary and was trying to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Baresch was trying to engage his assistance in translating the manuscript and sent him several samples of the text.

While Baresch was alive he refused to send Kircher the book itself, but after his death Kircher acquired the codex from Jan Marek Marci, a friend of Baresch. It is unknown if Kircher made any progress on the translation, but the book wound up with much of the rest of his library in the hands of the Collegio Romano in Italy where Voynich found and purchased it in 1912. After Voynich's death, his widow inherited the book. Eventually, antique book dealer, Hans P. Kraus bought it and donated it to Yale University, which still owns it today.

There has been some speculation through the years that the author of the book was the English philosopher, Franciscan friar and writer Roger Bacon (1214-94). Marci mentions this possibility in his 1666 letter to Kircher, and Voynich believed it too, but no proof of a connection to the famous writer has ever been found.

The Illustrations

Since the language is unknown, the illustrations are the only way to tell what each section of the book is about. These too, however, are extremely mysterious. None of the plants shown in the pictures can absolutely be identified. Some astrological symbols can be discerned, but not all of them. Other illustrations, containing figures of naked women in tubs connected by an elaborate system of pipes, seem to have no meaning at all. It does seem likely that the illustrations were originally outlined in black ink and the colors added at a later time by a less talented artist.

Is It Encyphered?

Many attempts have been made to understand the language in which the book is inscribed. One theory is that the writing is some secret code or cypher. The text of the book could have been written in a standard European language, let's say Italian, then translated into the cyphered text by assigning each letter of the Latin alphabet to one letter in a new made up alphabet. Without a key to tell you which letter was mapped to which, reading the text would be extremely difficult.

One of the foldout pages in the manuscript.

The science of cryptography was becoming systemized in Europe at about the same time the manuscript was written, so it seems possible that the author may have decided to keep his book secret by encrypting it. However, there are also some problems with this theory.

A simple substitution cypher, as described above, would also be very easy to break with modern methods. These have been applied to the Voynich manuscript and yielded nothing. In fact, attempts to decrypt the codex assuming it used a number of more complex encryption methods have failed, too. Even without being able to decrypt the book, many cipher systems can be eliminated because such ciphers produce text with certain characteristics not seen in the manuscript.

A Natural Language

Another possibility is that the text was written in a little known-language for which a new phonic alphabet was created. Analysis of the frequency that the letters and groups of letters appear suggest that the document is indeed a natural language. In 1976, James R Child of the National Security Agency suggested that the document was written in a "hitherto unknown North Germanic dialect". In 2003, Zbigniew Banasik proposed that the manuscript is written in the Manchu language. Other experts have suggested that the manuscript may be in an unknown Chinese or Vietnamese dialect because it has similar characteristics, including the frequency of doubled and tripled words.

However, none of these ideas have been proven, and the source and meaning of the script remains unknown.

There is the possibility that the language used in the Voynich manuscript is an artificially-constructed language (that is one in which the grammar and vocabulary have been consciously devised rather than having arisen naturally). However, at the time of the writing of the manuscript, the idea of a constructed language was not yet well known, which makes this possibility seem unlikely.

Is It a Fraud?

The book is so odd that many people think that it is some kind of hoax. Who might be behind such a forgery? Well, Voynich is one of the first possibilities most people consider. As an antique book dealer, he would have the knowledge and means to fabricate such a document. If he could have convinced people that the author was Roger Bacon, the value of the manuscript would have been immense. Even though the pages have been carbon dated to the 13th century, it is possible that Voynich found blank leaves created in that period but never used. The iron gall ink used in the writing can't be dated and could have been applied at any time, so the possibility of a modern hoax can't be ruled out completely.

However, the likelihood of finding that number of unused vellum sheets all from the same era seems to make a modern hoax very unlikely. Also, the 1639 letter from Baresch to Kircher concerning the manuscript proves that such a document did certainly exist during this period, even if we can't absolutely prove that the Voynich manuscript is the book being referred to in the communication.

There still remains the possibility that the document is not a modern fraud, but an old one. In 2003 Gordon Rugg, a psychologist who teaches in the computer science department of Keele University near Manchester, England, advanced the theory that the book was simply gibberish. A clever forger could have produced the document by using a table of word prefixes, stems, and suffixes, which would have been chosen and merged by means of a paper overlay with holes. Such an overlay ( called a Cardan grille), was used starting around 1550 as an encryption tool. Using such a tool would allow the creator of the document to quickly produce something that looked like a real language, but actually had no meaning.

Why would he do that? Rugg thinks that it was for money. You might be able to sell such an indecipherable mysterious book to someone who thought it might contain secret knowledge when decoded. Indeed, the Voynich manuscript was sold to Roman Emperor Rudolf II for the equivalent of $30,000 today. Rugg's prime suspect for this skullduggery is Edward Kelley, a member of the court of Elizabeth I who made himself part of the household of the queen's astrologer, John Dee, and supposedly acted as a medium for angels. In experiments, Rugg claims that by using a Cardan grille he was able to produce text that looks a lot like the Voynich manuscript, but actually was just gibberish.

Other researchers disagree. In 2013 Marcelo Montemurro, a theoretical physicist from the University of Manchester, led a study where he used a computerized statistical method to analyze the text. The results according to Montemurro showed that "content-bearing words tend to occur in a clustered pattern, where they are required as part of the specific information being written. Over long spans of texts, words leave a statistical signature about their use. When the topic shifts, other words are needed." The Voynich manuscript, like real languages, shows just such a pattern.

Even Rugg conceded that it is possible that although much of the document might be rubbish constructed by the use of the tables and Cardan grilles, the remaining part might contain an encrypted message.

Possible Translation

In 2014 Stephen Bax, a professor of applied linguistics, claimed he had decoded a few of the words by starting with the proper names of some of the pictures. "The manuscript has a lot of illustrations of stars and plants. I was able to identify some of these, with their names, by looking at mediaeval herbal manuscripts in Arabic and other languages, and I then made a start on a decoding, with some exciting results," explained Bax.

Despite Bax's enthusiasm, it should be noted that a number of other experts have claimed to have decoded small parts of the Voynich manuscript, but none of these was proven to be successful with the whole document. We will have to wait and see if his method finally solves the enigma of the Voynich manuscript, or if it is simply another dead end.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2015. All Rights Reserved.