The Ultimate Book of Mysteries: The Voynich Manuscript

This posting marks the 4th Anniversary of my blog, which I started on the 29th of October, 2009.

This is a blog about my biggest passion – History. And in this posting, I’ll be writing about one of history’s greatest, most amazing and most puzzling, and still-unsolved mysteries: The Voynich Manuscript.

What could be written and said about the Voynich Manuscript is extensive, despite the fact that nobody has read it in 600 years. This posting won’t cover the manuscript in exhaustive detail, but will cover all the main facts, deductions and inferences made about it and its contents. If you want to know more, read the links and videos at the end of this posting. Maybe one day, someone will figure out how to read this amazing book. But until then, we can only guess as to its true contents…

The Mysterious Manuscript

Imagine if you will, that one day you found a book.

It’s an old book. Very old. Centuries old. It’s filled with colour illustrations, and strange, nonsensical text, written in a language, and using an alphabet known to no culture or nation on earth. It’s enormous, it’s mysterious, it’s methodically and carefully written and illustrated.

But it’s impossible to read.

It’s impossible to read because it’s not written in any known recorded language in the history of mankind which had a written system. It’s not German, Italian, Chinese, Latin, French, Old English, Russian or Greek.

The text may possibly be encoded, but all attempts to break the code have been in vain. It’s impossible to find out who wrote the book, and for what purpose. What would you do with such a book?

Such is the puzzle that surrounded American antiques and rare books dealer Wilfred Michael Voynich, when he stumbled across a mysterious volume in an Italian villa in 1912, during an antiquing trip to Europe.

This is the story and mystery of one of the most famous and mysterious historical artefacts ever found: The Voynich Manuscript.

The Discovery of the Manuscript

So, what is the Voynich Manuscript?

The year is 1912. American-Polish antiques dealer and book-collector Wilfred Michael Voynich (1865-1930) is in Italy, seeking out rare books and manuscripts to add to his collection, or to flip on the American antiques market back home. He visits the Villa Mondragone, where local monks in financial difficulties agree to sell off some of the villa’s priceless antique volumes to the American book-dealer.

The Villa Mondragone, Italy

They allow him to inspect the contents of an ancient trunk. It’s loaded with books taken from the library of the late Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), a famous German scholar and scientist.

Voynich eventually purchases thirty books from the Villa’s monks. One of them is an approximately 240-page codex, handwritten in an unknown language or code, and filled with dozens of colour illustrations. Voynich soon realises that this document is not written in ANY known language, and neither does it fit any known code, broken or unbroken, then in existence. Voynich struggles to solve the mystery of his amazing discovery, but he dies in 1930 having almost no clue about what it is that he has found. Today, this mysterious tome is given a title that bears the name of the man who saved it for the world: The Voynich Manuscript. 

The Voynich Manuscript is about 240 pages of parchment, bound together in a codex. It’s not a ‘book’ as such, it’s a manuscript, something that is entirely handwritten, using iron-gall ink and a quill pen. Using the manuscript’s illustrations as a guide, experts believe that it contains chapters or sections related to botany, medicine and astrology, as well as a number of pages on recipes related to plants and flowers, and how to prepare them for medicinal use.

Investigating the Manuscript

Nearly a century later, and the top scientific and historic minds of the 21st century are not much closer.

Through inscriptions in the book, and carbon-dating, it’s clear that the book has had at least four previous owners:

Anathasius Kircher (1602-1680)

Who was given the book by…

Johannes Marcus Marci (1595-1667)

Who said, in a letter dated 1666, found in the manuscript, that it was written by…

Roger Bacon (1214-1294)  Struck off, for reasons explained below.

Before this, the book was owned by…

Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor (1552-1612)

After the emperor dies, one of his creditors is given the book as payment of his debts. It now passed into the hands of Jacobus of Tepenec (1575-1622).

Some believe (although this is contested) that the book was also once owned by famous English astrologer, John Dee, royal adviser to Queen Elizabeth I of England. And that it was Dee who sold the book to Emperor Rudolf, who was a patron of arts and sciences. Dee lived from 1527-ca.1608, so he certainly lived at the same time as Rudolf. But whether or not Rudolf received the book from Dee is not known.

Therefore, as far as its ownership can be determined, the Manuscript can only be dated back reliably to the late 16th century, between about 1590-1610.

However, carbon dating shows that the book is almost 200 years older, going back to about 1405-1440. Who owned the book in that gap of almost two centuries? Where did it go, what became of it, what was it used for, and how did it end up in the hands of its first confirmed owner?

No-one knows.

Right off the bat, one owner is automatically removed from the list. Roger Bacon lived and died a full century before the book was thought to have been made. And none of its confirmed owners could possibly be the author. What clues do we know about it?

Manuscript Facts

We do know, thanks to carbon-dating carried out in 2009, that the manuscript dates from the first half of the 15th century, somewhere in the fifty-year window between 1400-1450.

We know that the book’s pages are made of parchment. But parchment, especially of the quality used to make the manuscript, is expensive 

Judging by the illustrations and pictures found within its pages, many have surmised that the Voynich Manuscript, rightly or wrongly, is a book about botany, medicine, herb and plant-use, astronomy and/or astrology, and possibly, natural history. But not being able to decipher the curly, unreadable script which makes up the entirety of the book’s text means that these suppositions are mere conjecture.

Although not a ‘fact’ as such, some have theorised that the manuscript was written in Italy. Not just because it was found there, but because of one of the book’s illustrations. On one page of the Manuscript, there is a clear drawing of a castle, or walled city. The castle walls are topped with what are called “Swallow-tail” battlements, or to use the correct term: crenelations.

The castle illustration in the Manuscript.
Note the split crenelations on the walls

Actual ‘swallow-tail’ crenelations

Swallow-tail crenelations were found in various places in Europe, but in the early 15th century when the Manuscript was produced, they’re only found in one country: Italy. The author’s knowledge of this style of crenelations points strongly to the manuscript, or at least its author, coming from Italy.

The Voynich Hoax?

Unsurprisingly, some people have suggested that the Voynich Manuscript is a hoax. Whether or not this is true is impossible to determine, but it is an idea entertained by some, nonetheless.

A Modern Hoax

Some have suggested that the Manuscript is a modern hoax, concocted in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Possibly even by Voynich himself, as a way to make some quick and dirty money. Create a phony document, and then claim it’s a centuries-old mystery-book that nobody can read! Ooooh…

Unfortunately, this falls down flat. The problem is that the parchment of which the book is composed does not support this claim. The parchment is from the 15th century. To get that amount of parchment together, and for no better reason than a hoax-document, would’ve been prohibitively expensive. And to create something so long ago that would be able to stand up to carbon-dating, decades before it was invented in the late 1940s, must show incredible foresight…

Yeah it doesn’t work out.

A Medieval Hoax

People have been faking things for years. Decades. Centuries. Like how there were only 10 Commandments…

Could the Voynich Manuscript be a really, really, really old hoax?

Now let’s consider a few things here…

The Manuscript is entirely handwritten. Entirely hand-drawn and painted. This would take months, possibly even years to complete. Whoever wrote it obviously had a lot of time on his hands, and a lot of education, or creativity. Who had the time and money to waste on something like this?

The Manuscript is made of parchment. Admittedly, rather large sheets of parchment, in some cases. The expense of the parchment and ink, to say nothing of expense of time, must’ve been considerable.

To what purpose was the Manuscript written, if it was so incredibly expensive and laborious to produce? Who would buy an obvious fake? Or who would fund the production of a fake?

The book was written during the time of the Italian Renaissance, a period from the late 1300s until the 17th century. The Renaissance literally means the Rebirth. The rebirth of culture, science, art and learning, after the apocalyptic disaster of the Black Death of the 1340s.

The Renaissance was all about new ideas, and old ideas. Studies of ancient texts and languages, alongside amazing new inventions, like the Gutenberg Press. New texts and books were being eagerly snapped up by the aristocracy, the literate trading and merchant classes, by kings, queens and emperors.

Anyone who could produce a book written in one of these “ancient languages”, and which seemed to contain important information about botany, medicine and nature, could possibly make himself a fortune!

Is this what happened?

It is a possibility. An extremely expensive and risky possibility, but a possibility nontheless. It may be what happened, it may not be. And we may never know.

The Contents of the Manuscript

Assuming that the Voynich Manuscript is not a hoax, then what on earth is contained within this amazing document? Unable to decipher the text, our biggest clues to the book’s contents are the dozens of colour illustrations found throughout its pages. So, what’s inside the Voynich Manuscript?

Using the illustrations as a guide, the book is thought to be divided into…

Botanicals. Concerning plants and flowers, their properties and uses, although even here, there are illustrations of flowers and plants which researchers are not convinced, are found in nature.

Astronomy and Astrology. Concerning the stars. We see stars, maps of the Heavens and so-forth, in intricate sketches and diagrams. We see drawings of the sun, the moon, and various Zodiac starsigns.

Biology. Mostly showing the female form. There’s numerous drawings of pregnant women in the Manuscript.

Pharmacy. There’s plenty of drawings of herbs, flowers and plants.

Recipes. There is a section in the Manuscript which many believe to be a series of recipes, relating to the flowers and plants mentioned in earlier sections, and how to prepare and use these for medical purposes.

Deciphering the Manuscript

The greatest puzzle of the Voynich Manuscript is not who wrote it, or who owned it, or when, where or how it was written, what it was made of or what the paints in the pictures are made of.

It’s what it says.

The Manuscript is written in a language, or code, or cipher, using an alphabet which nobody can read. Everyone from WWII, enigma-cracking cryptographers to the brightest codebreaking minds of the past fifty years have seen the manuscript, and nobody can figure out what it means!

The script of the Voynich Manuscript is so unique, it’s even got its own name: Voynichese 

The script of the Manuscript does not conform to any known patterns of language, or to any known patterns of any writing-system known to man, either existing or extinct. So what is it?

There are three different theories…

1. The manuscript is just jibberish made up by someone 600 years ago, which may support the ‘ancient hoax’ theory.

2. The manuscript is code. Although if it is a code, it does not conform to any known method of encoding, or decoding known to mankind. In 600 years, it has never been broken.

3. The manuscript is written in a dead language, with the writing-system of that language, which has been lost to history.

Given the implausibility of theory #2, theories #1 and #3 are most probable. But if the Manuscript is a legitimate document, and not a hoax, then the answer is most likely #3: That it’s written in a dead language which nobody has read, written or spoken in nearly 1,000 years.

Recent research in the 21st century has suggested that theory #3, that the entire document is written in a dead or unknown language, may be the most likely one. Scientists and scholars who published their findings and theories as recently as June, 2013, believe that the script in the Manuscript follow specific patterns. Although these patterns do not seem to conform to any known language, it would suggest that the script is in fact a language, and not just plain jibberish!

Where is the Manuscript?

The Manuscript is held at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, in Connecticut, U.S.A.

Interested in trying to solve the mystery of the manuscript yourself?

There’s a freely accessible scanned copy of the manuscript available at the library’s website. Here’s the link.

There, you can examine every single page of the Manuscript in enormous, high-definition scans.

More Information?

If you want more information…not that there is much…you can look here…

The Voynich Manuscript

This is the most exhaustive website I could find on the Manuscript.

“The Book That Can’t Be Read” (History Channel documentary).

“Key Words and Co-Occurrence Patterns in the Voynich Manuscript”

BBC News Article on the Voynich Manuscript


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