cumque in mea Bibliotheca Sphinx quaedam, Scripturae incognitorum characterum inutiliter occupasset locum,
Ex pictura herbarum, quarum plurimus est in Codice numerus, imaginum diversarum, Astrorum, aliarumque rerum, faciem chymicorum arcanorum referentium, conjicio totum esse medicinalem; (1)
In 1639 the Prague citizen Georgius Barschius wrote to the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher in Rome that he owned a mysterious book that was written in an unknown script and was profusely illustrated with pictures of plants, stars and chemical secrets.
He hoped that Kircher would be able to translate this book for him, but Kircher could not. The book has come down to us and even now, almost four centuries later, the text on its well over 200 pages cannot be understood, and it ranks among the most famous historical riddles that just seems to be waiting for a solution.
It is not as if nobody has been able to propose any solution. Quite the contrary! Many new translations of parts of the MS, individual pages, or even incidental words are proposed each year. The problem is that none of them are sufficiently convincing to be accepted. This web site cannot even begin to summarise even the better known ones, but there is one page which gives a historical overview of the study of the MS.
The book is now preserved as MS 408 in the Beinecke Rare Book and MS Library of Yale University, but is better known as the Voynich manuscript (MS), named after Wilfrid Voynich, who brought it to light in 1912. We may use his own words to describe this event, even though we need to keep in mind that not all of his statements are reflecting the truth, because he was obliged to secrecy by the sellers of the MSs (2).
In 1912 [...] I came across a most remarkable collection of preciously illuminated manuscripts (3). For many decades these volumes had lain buried in the chests in which I found them in an ancient castle in Southern Europe (4)
While examining the manuscripts, with a view to the acquisition of at least a part of the collection, my attention was especially drawn by one volume. It was such an ugly duckling compared with the other manuscripts, with their rich decorations in gold and colors (see note 3), that my interest was aroused at once. I found that it was written entirely in cipher. Even a necessarily brief examination of the vellum upon which it was written, the calligraphy, the drawings and the pigments suggested to me as the date of its origin the latter part of the thirteenth century. The drawings indicated it to be an encyclopedic work on natural philosophy.
the fact that this was a thirteenth century manuscript in cipher convinced me that it must be a work of exceptional importance, and to my knowledge the existence of a manuscript of such an early date written entirely in cipher was unknown, so I included it among the manuscripts which I purchased from this collection.
two problems presented themselves - the text must be unravelled and the history of the manuscript must be traced.
It was not until some time after the manuscript came into my hands that I read the document bearing the date 1665 (or 1666) (5), which was attached to the front cover.
This document, which is a letter from Joannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher making a gift of the manuscript to him, is of great significance
The Prague physician and scientist Johannes Marcus Marci had been a faithful correspondent of Athanasius Kircher for 25 years. A year and a half before his death he sent the manuscript to Kircher. In the accompanying letter mentioned by Voynich (6) he explains how he had inherited the manuscript from a close friend, who had tried to decipher it until the end of his life, and had also asked for Kircher's help. He further explains that he learned from one 'Dr. Raphael' how it had been bought by Rudolf II of Bohemia (1552-1612) for 600 ducats, and that it was believed that it was written by Roger Bacon (the Franciscan friar who lived from 1214 to 1294).
Voynich took the manuscript to London in 1912, and later (January 1915) to the United States. He always presented it as a 'cipher MS', and provided photographic copies of pages of it to numerous experts in various disciplines. The manuscript became famous when, in the 1920's, William Romaine Newbold proposed a spectacular partial translation of its text, supposedly demonstrating that it was indeed written by Roger Bacon, and that Bacon had actually constructed and used microscopes and telescopes. This 'solution' was disproved by John M. Manly in 1931.
The manuscript had attracted the attention of the code-breaking experts ever since 1917, and in the 1940's and 1960's the eminent cryptanalysts William F. Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman made several valiant attempts at deciphering its text. They were aided by groups of codebreaking experts, but also they did not find any solution. By that time, the manuscript was no longer believed to be from the hand of Roger Bacon.
In 1961 the book was bought by the famous antiquarian H. P. Kraus for the sum of $24,500. He tried to sell it for $160,000 but was unable to find a buyer. Finally, in 1969 he donated it to the Beinecke Rare Book and MS Library of Yale University, where it still remains today. Though officially registered as MS 408, it is still best known as the Voynich MS. In 2009 the parchment of the manuscript was radio-carbon dated (7), resulting in a date range of 1404-1438 with 95% confidence.
Only a very brief description will be given here. A more extensive description is provided on the next page. The Voynich MS is a parchment codex of 22.5 x 16 cm, with its leaves numbered up to 116, of which 14 are now missing. Its cover, also parchment, is blank: it does not indicate any title or author. The manuscript is written in an elegant, but otherwise unknown script.
The text, written from left to right, appears to be arranged in short paragraphs. The manuscript is profusely illustrated. It appears to be a scientific or medical work from the middle ages, but due to its unintelligible writing, the contents remain a mystery. Illustrations of similar type are mostly grouped together in the manuscript, and one may tentatively identify the following sections, based on these illustrations:
The text of the manuscript is still a mystery. It is tempting to assume that the text relates to the illustrations, but this is not even certain. There have been many suggestions about the historical importance of the Voynich MS, ranging between opposite extremes, including:
This list just presents a few examples and could be extended very significantly. So far, we have no answer to the question whether the text is plain language, encrypted language, constructed language or entirely meaningless still. It is not the purpose of this web site to address all possible interpretations that have been proposed. None of the proposed "translations" of the Voynich MS can be considered correct, in spite of what is being suggested in various internet web sites. A correct explanation of the text should be easily recognised as such, and not require a lot of explanation or discussion.
The manuscript continues to attract people from all over the world, primarily because of the mystery of its unreadable text, but there is more to it. For some reason, it allows just about everyone to recognise something in it. It has something that makes so many people believe that they can solve this mystery. Anyone reading this, who believes that he/she has found the solution, please see the last question in the FAQ.
Voynich once stated that the book would become more valuable as soon as it has been deciphered, but this is hardly true. Its mystery and its resistance to translation is what makes it special (8).
|2.||Description of the manuscript|
|3.||Origin of the manuscript|
|4.||History of the manuscript|
|5.||History of research of the manuscript|
|6.||Analysis of the illustrations|
|7.||Analysis of the writing (script)|
|8.||Analysis of the text|
|9.||Epilogue - my views|
In addition, there is a detailed Table of Contents, and a Site Map with further information about this site.