The history of the Voynich MS is described in three parts, on three pages:
As this is a subdivision by topic, the three histories will overlap in time. This page addresses the third part, the history of the manuscript research and analysis.
When Wilfrid Voynich first saw the manuscript, he immediately considered the 13th Century Franciscan friar Roger Bacon as its possible author. He then embarked on a thorough study of the MS's history, in the hope of being able to prove this. While that would make the Voynich MS an incredibly important and valuable document in the history of science, a fact to which an antiquarian book dealer would not have been insensitive, it is apparent from the way in which he perfomed his search that he seems to have genuinely believed that Bacon was the writer of the Voynich MS (1).
We need, however, first to go back in time, as we now know that already centuries ago people have attempted to solve the puzzle presented by the Voynich MS.
The first evidence of attempts to crack the Voynich MS is presented on its first folio (f1r). In the right-hand margin there is an apparently erased cipher table, which is only partly visible even under UV illumination. It has one column with the characters of the Latin alphabet, a second column with the characters of the Voynich MS aligned with the Latin alphabet, and a third column, slightly more displaced, with again the Latin alphabet, but shifted up by one position. The first attractive idea could be that this is the key to the MS, left here for us by its author, but as we know from character entropy analysis, the Voynich MS text cannot be the result of a simple substitution. Therefore, this table must be a decipherer's attempt, although Dr. Gerhard Strasser proposes an interesting alternative, by which these are notes made by a later owner, who is creating his own code from the cipher alphabet of the Voynich MS.
It is not certain when this cipher table was written, nor by whom, but what little can be seen of the characters is not incompatible with the time frame of Tepenec to Kircher. If it has indeed been erased at the same time as the Tepenec signature, then perhaps it predates Kircher as the erasure of the signature is more likely to have been done before the MS was sent to Kircher (2). Both Barschius and Marci would be prime suspects here.
Georgius Barschius wrote two letters to Kircher, the second of which has been preserved. Both from this letter, and from the Marci letter accompanying the Voynich MS, it is clear that Barschius has spent many years trying to read the Voynich MS. We know from his 1639 letter that he thought that the MS described medicinal wisdom from the Orient, brought to Europe by a traveller. This immediately evokes two visions.
One is that of Leonhard Rauwolf, famous for his travels to the Orient, during which he collected plants which he dried and glued into his herbals. As descibed in the history page, Rauwolf's herbals were brought to emperor Rudolf II and sold to him.
The second (preface to a herbal - hortus sanitatis?) to be added as soon as I have found the reference again.
We can only wonder whether Barschius had anything like this in mind, when he formed his theory about the Voynich MS. Barschius was an alchemist, interested in its application to medicine (3). We can also only guess what Barschius really knew about the origin of the MS. Tantalisingly, Marci writes in his letter to Kircher that he not only sends him the Voynich MS, but also Barschius' extensive notes of his work. These notes have not surfaced so far. It is rather likely that they have been lost, but if they still survive, they could quite possibly include valuable information. If Kircher received and kept them, they would have been part of the collection confiscated by the Italian state in 1873 and would now be preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma.
We know from Marci's letter that Rafael Mnišovský discussed the possible origin of the Voynich MS with Marci, and this must have taken place before 1644. Philip Neal even interprets the translation of the Marci letter to indicate that this should have been between 1626 and 1636. In any case, at this time, Barschius would have beenstill alive, so still the owner of the MS. Mnišovský states the opinion that the Voynich MS is a Roger Bacon MS. Was this also the opinion at Rudolf's court? We don't know, but it is certain (4) that Roger Bacon was held in the highest esteem at this time, and considered one of the greatest alchemists. Mnišovský was, according to his own words, deeply interested in alchemy, and certainly a great supporter of the Polish alchemist Sendivogius.
We have no information about any research by Marci on the Voynich MS. We just know that he held on to the MS between the time of Barschius' death and his own serious decline in health, when he ultimately sent it to Kircher. From the letters of Godefrid A. Kinner we know that Marci was extremely eager to find out what Kircher thought of the MS. He must have been aware of the two different theories of Barschius and Mnišovský, and writes in his letter to Kircher that he does not want to express an opinion about it.
Kircher's complete silence about the Voynich MS has puzzled many. Recently, the Czech historian Josef Smolka discovered Kircher's reply to Barschius' first (now lost) letter (5). In a letter from Kircher to Theodor Moretus dated 12 March 1639, and now preserved in Moretus' scientific diary kept in the National Library in Prague (6).
Kircher responds to a letter from Moretus and writes about unknown symbols rom a book surrounded by mystery which Moretus sent to him in his letter. Kircher reports that he was not successful in translating it, but is still hoping for success later on. He recognises a similarity with certain Illyrian characters.
We know from Barschius' second letter that he had his first letter sent by Moretus, and now we see that Kircher responded to Moretus directly, some six weeks before Barschius sent his second letter. Evidently, the two letters crossed, and probably no further correspondence took place on this topic. The Illyrian writing Kircher refers to is most probably the Glagolithic script, which also Bennett mentioned in the 1970's.
After Voynich discovered the MS, he set into motion a proper campaign to find out more about it, and he contacted many experts. Kahn (7) names in this respect: paleographer H. Omont of the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale (who had written a learned article about a 15th-C cryptographic MS on alchemy), Prof. A.G. Little, a foremost authority on Bacon, a Harvard authority of anatomy, George Fabyan of the Riverbank Laboratories, the vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, and 'even' Dom Aidan, Cardinal Gasquet, prefect of the Vatican Archives. Almost certainly these and others tried to solve the puzzle. Among these, in 1917, was John M. Manly, then second in command of Yardley's MI-8.
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. 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.
In 1919, some of the reproductions of the Voynich MS reached one William Romaine Newbold, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He set to work and decided that the Voynich MS is based on a very complicated cipher, involving anagrams of sections of 55 to 110 characters. He presented plain text solutions of various pages of the MS, indicating that it was written by Roger Bacon, and that Bacon had invented and used both a telescope and a microscope. He presented these results in April 1921, accompanied by Wilfrid Voynich's own presentation of the history of the MS (described in the previous page) and a presentation about he validity of Newbold's claims by an eminent professor of medicine: C.E. McClung.
In 1926 Newbold died, and the book that he had planned to write was published posthumously by his friend Roland Grubb Kent, in 1928 (8). His results were supported by such famous people as Étienne Gilson and Raoul Carton.
Among others, Newbold identified one page of the MS as a depiction of the great Andromeda nebula. The illustration shows a clear spiral structure and the deciphered text includes words referring to a spiral in the sky. The problem is that the spiral structure of this nebula can only be distinguished by modern telescopes (and this was achieved first not long before Newbold's days).
In 1931 John Manly wrote a critical paper (9) about Newbold's theory, exposing its important weaknesses. Newbold did not use the letters of the Voynich MS itself, but the irregularities of the edges of the letters as seen under a magnifying glass, which he converted to letters. The unreliability of a soluition based on anagraming was however the most important objection. Newbold and all those who followed his belief were essentially disgraced and this has had the effect of scaring off most serious researchers from the Voynich MS.
Manly also left a statement that the solution of the Voynich MS is a relatively simple substitution cipher with extensive use of nulls. It has not been understood what he meant.
In 1931, Mrs Voynich brought a photostatic copy of the MS to Prof. H. Hyvernat of Catholic University. Hyvernat was a well-known expert on near-Eastern languages. In 1910 he had discovered a major collection of Coptic Manuscripts, and he had since been engaged in a major effort to ensure that the collection could stay together, rather than be scattered in different libraries all over the world. The Pierpont Morgan library in New York was found willing to purchase the entire collection, and it is worth mentioning that Wilfrid Voynich was also dealing with this library on a regular basis, and has corresponded with Hyvernat on the subject of other MSs.
Returning to the Voynich MS, both Hyvernat and his assistant, one Fr. Theodore Petersen, were immediately attracted to the problem presented by the MS. Prof. Hyvernat was too busy (and he also suffered from serious health problems) to spend much time on it. Fr. Petersen was not.
Fr. Petersen started by making a complete photocopy of the photostats. He then embarked on the project of making a hand copy of the Voynich MS, using also the original MS kept in a safe deposit vault in New York, in the case of difficult passages. He completed it in 1944. Each page of this transcription includes comments about what it might represent. He also indicates odd character sequences and highlights frequent words. He includes many tentative plant identifications in the herbal section, using especially material by Holm and O'Neill (see below). He has also made a complete concordance of the words in the MS, but I have not seen this.
He worked on the Voynich MS until his death, but apart from the many notes on his hand transcription, no theories or conclusions have survived. At his death, his material was given to Friedman (see below) and an inventory was made by Tiltman (see below). The material is now kept in the >> George C. Marshall Library and Archives, Lexington (Va).
A Danish botanist and zoologist (not Dutch as reported by D'Imperio) who worked at the Catholic University and identified 16 plant species, all typically European (D'Imperio section 3.3.1). Quoted frequently in the hand transcription of Petersen.
Benedictine monk and botanist at the Catholic University who identified some plants as being New-World species. (A list will be included here). He is also quoted frequently in the hand transcription of Petersen (10).
The famous Renaissance Art (in particular Albrecht Dürer) expert Panofsky (1892 - 1968) suggested that the MS is from about 1470 and stated his opinion that it originates from Germany. The first report we have from Panofsky is that he was requested to answer a list of 15 questions. Following is a summary of the questions and answers (11).
As recorded in his answer to the first question, Panofsky saw the MS in 1931 and we are lucky that this event has been recorded in the letters of Anne Nill (14):
She [Miss Belle Greene of the Morgan library] mentioned the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg at Hamburg (see Minerva if interested) which, according to her, is a perfectly amazing hotbed of learning. She seemed to feel that if they cannot help us no-one can. Of course that doesn’t follow. Well, the upshot of it was that a certain Dr. Erwin Panofsky of that institute is at present in New York and Miss Greene suggested that she bring him and Mrs. Voynich together- very decent of her don’t you think. So Mrs. Voynich met him at the Morgan Library where she showed him the photostats (note that they are negatives and now in poor condition, having greatly faded in some parts). He became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century. He asked to see the original, which we showed to him last Friday. His first impression was that it was early, but as he came to the female figures (in conjunction with the colors used in the manuscript) he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century! The more I think of it (always making allowance for my slender knowledge of art) the more I think that his contention is sound. I cannot think of a single early MS. or painting which contains such “shapely” female figures as those in the MS. Furthermore he is convinced that the MS. is Spanish (or something southern near Spain) and shows strong Arabic and Jewish influences. He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!! Well, all that would make it interesting, anyway. You know both Professor Thompson and Professor Manly have been suggesting Spanish for some time (thought there might be something Lullian in it). Early 15th century would make it too late for Lull, but it might easily have something Lullian in it. Dr. Panofsky examined the two more or less visible sentences (one on the key page and one on page 17 [r]) which are apparently not in cipher and seemed to think they were Spanish rather than Latin (or rather something that had to do with Spanish). I am inclined to think he is right. He also noticed, what I am pleased to say I had noticed before, that the names of the months written in the plates of the signs of the Zodiac, and undoubtedly by a later hand, seem to suggest Spanish. For example April is written “Abril”. October is “Octembre” (or Octember I forget which), which certainly suggest some form of Spanish, rather than Latin or French or Italian. The upshot of it is that we have given him a whole set of photostats for his institute, as he wants two men there to work on it. One of them (I think Professor Salomon or Liebeschutz) it seems identified some remarkable Vatican manuscript (written in a senseless sort of Latin if I remember rightly) which had defied scholars for a long time.
In conclusion, Panofsky first thought the MS to be Spanish, with Arabic influences, and later changed his opinion that it could be German. He believed the origin to be in the 15th Century, but allowed a later date in consideration of the work of O'Neill and Brumbaugh.
Salomon (1884 - 1966) was one of the people involved in the founding of the Warburg Institute, and knew the younger Panofsky through this connection. They became close friends
From D'Imperio and Panofsky we know that he suggested the
following reading of some phrases in the Voynich MS (which are
in the Latin alphabet):
on f66r and
so nimm geiss milch
Herbal expert. He compared the nymphs in the biological section to elements (archaei) in the work of Paracalsus (16).
In 1943, a Rochester (N.Y.) lawyer, Joseph Martin Feely, published a book
in which he announced his solution of the Voynich MS. His solution
essentially proposes that the Voynich MS text
results from a single substitution of highly abbreviated Latin. He does not say
so specifically, but hints that the writer of the Voynich MS is indeed Roger
Bacon. It is worth noting that Feely never obtained access to copies of the
MS and had to work from illustrations in Kent & Newbold.
To quote D'Imperio:
Unfortunately for Feely, however, no other student has accepted his solution as valid
And she also quotes Tiltman (p.6):
His unmethodical method produced text in unacceptable medieval Latin, in unauthentic abbreviated forms.
Some examples of his results are also given in D'Imperio (Fig 25). These are all from f78r. I'm using parentheses to indicate his ligatures.
|deeedaly||IMMCISN(NTR)||immiscuntur / imcistinantur|
Prof. Leonell C. Strong was a medical scientist from Yale University and became attracted to the Voynich MS by O'Neill's publication. Working from illustrations in Newbold's book of a few pages, he devised a complicated polyalphabetic substitution cipher in which he saw the solution of the MS. The details of his system were not disclosed and can only be partly reconstructed. His work sheets and correspondence were once available on the web. He concluded that the MS was written by Anthony Askham, the lesser known brother of Roger Askham. Some of his plaintext, which has been heavily criticised as being unrealistic, is given here:
When skuge of tun'e -bag rip, seo uogon kum sli of se mosure-issued ped-stans skubent, stokked kimbo-elbow crawknot.
Some problems with this solution are:
The name of the proposed author (Askham) is read from the deciphered plain text so also this must be taken with some caution. There are still students of the Voynich MS who support and further explore the solution proposed by Strong.
Proposed a solution based on a Nordic language.
The involvement of especially William Friedman with the Voynich MS has been the subject of dedicated publications, most recently by J. Reeds. This short summary cannot do justice to Friedman's work. (See also D'Imperio Section 6.5).
William F. Friedman (1891-1969) is remembered as one of the world's foremost cryptologers. He already became involved with the Voynich MS when, together with Manly, he demonstrated the invalidity of Newbold's theory. Apart from the fact that he spent some time on the MS himself, he also tried very hard to interest other scholars in it. In 1944 he brought together what later became known as the First Study Group (FSG). During his work with them, he developed the theory that the Voynich MS represented a text in a synthetic language (constructed according to strict logical principles).
(See also D'Imperio Section 6.2).
The First Study Group (FSG) was active from 1944 to 1946 and consisted
of (at least) the following people: (<Reeds)
Robert A. Caldwell
G. E. McCracken
Thomas A. Miller
Frances Puckett, later Frances Wilbur
William M. Seaman
This group, composed of specialists in a wide variety of fields, was doing war work in Washington and awaiting demobilisation. They agreed to get together after working hours and study the Voynich MS under Friedman's leadership. Plans were made for devising a transcription alphabet, and producing a complete transcription in computer-readable form They transcribed most of the Voynich MS.
(See also D'Imperio Section 6.4). The so-called second study group was active from 1962-1963. Jim Reeds has researched also their work.
(See also D'Imperio Section 6.6). John Tiltman was a British intelligence specialist, working in association with William Friedman. The latter asked Tiltman for his opinion on the Voynich MS text, and sent him copies of the final quire of the MS (the so-called recipes section which does not have any illustrations apart from the marginal stars). Friedman and Tiltman independently came to the same conclusion, that the MS text appears like an early example of an artifical (constructed) language.
Tiltman published his findings in an interesting article (19). He also wrote about the work done by Theodore Petersen, a reference which unfortunately I have not seen.
In the 1970's a revival of Voynich MS studies may be observed, with a variety of researchers approaching the problem from many different aspects.
(D'Imperio section 5.4). Brumbaugh, professor of medieval philosophy, became interested in the Voynich MS during the '30's, and was particularly fascinated by O'Neill's publication about the American plant species. He became a follower of the hypothesis that the MS was a deliberate fraud by Dee and/or Kelly in order to dupe emperor Rudolph II, but that there was an underlying text which he tried to decipher with a code which maps all roman characters (many-to-one) onto the numbers 0-9, and these were mapped (one-to-many) onto the Voynich MS alphabet.
Using this system, Brumbaugh published solutions of some plant labels and of many of the zodiac labels. (Include references here). D'Imperio is quite supportive of Brumbaugh's theories, but despite the multiple degrees of freedom in his cipher, the produced plaintext is anything other than convincing. I will include some of his zodiac (star) label decryptions here (later) to show this.
Bennett, another Yale professor, used the Voynich MS in a book about problem solving with the computer (20). Rather than presenting a theory about the meaning of the Voynich MS, Bennett concentrated on the statistics of the text and finding measures of its properties. He was probably the first to note the low entropy of the Voynich MS text, which is discussed extensively in the analysis section of this web site. The only language he found with an entropy similar to the Voynich MS was Hawaiian, without suggesting a connection, though. He also mentioned the similarity of some characters to the Glagolithic script, a view expressed already in the 17th Century by Athanasius Kircher (see above).
While still a student, Krischer wrote a paper also investigating the text properties of the Voynich MS. This paper is extremely difficult to find, and we only have D'Imperio's summary analysis of it.
Mary D'Imperio was introduced to the problem of the Voynich MS by John Tiltman in 1975, and in the following years she wrote a monograph
summarising all recorded work about the Voynich MS. For thirty years this has been the standard reference for the Voynich MS, and it is still the most quoted work about it.
She also wrote several papers about different features of the MS text (22).
See D'Imperio Section 6.8.
His landmark presentation in 1976 is available at this site (23).
Further material is about his discovery of different hands and different "languages" in the Voynich MS is discussed extensively at this web site. (Links to be added).
Quoted in Blunt and Raphael, p.89.
Identified foliation on Voynich MS to be in the hand of John Dee (but this is still contested by other Dee experts).
Stojko proposed in a book published in 1978 (24) that the Voynich MS is a copy of a series of letters written in Ukrainian. These letters were encrypted by removing all the vowels and writing the consonants in a secret alphabet. Following is an example of a letter, decrypted into Ukrainian and then translated (litterally) into English. (Folio f15v):
The main reasons why Stojko's solution is finding little acceptance are:
Levitov proposed a pronouciation for the characters of the Voynich MS which leads to a largely pronounceable text, which he claims is in a creole mainly based on Flemish. His translation of this text deals with a Cathar cult of Isis followers, and rites related to Euthanasia. He published his results in a monograph (25). The linguistic aspect has been contested by Jacques Guy (26). and the differences with the known practices of the Cathars in S.France have been analysed by Dennis Stallings (27).
Since 1991, a group of enthousiast from a variety of backgrounds have informally tackled the problem of the decipherment, throwing at it the computer resouces available nowadays. After a flurry of electronic mails via a Usenet newsgroup, the first ftp site dedicated to the MS was created by Jim Gillogly, with a mailing list which still exists, even though it has moved a few times before it settled onto its >> current home.
The main initial activities of this new group (apart from the ultimate desire to find the solution of the Voynich MS) were to obtain access to a good copy of the MS and to continue / complete the transcription of the MS. With respect to the former, on 1 June 2004 the Beinecke library has made available a nearly complete high-quality digital colour scan of the MS. It can be accessed by clicking on the button on most pages at this web site.
Further transcriptions of missing pages in the Currier / D'Imperio files were made by the group, and Reeds discovered the almost complete transcriptions made by Friedman's study groups, in the George C. Marshall Library and Archives in Lexington, Virginia. These were entered in computer form by J.Reeds and J.Guy.
In 1995, the herbal expert in medieval herbals Sergio Toresella inspected the MS at the Beinecke library and wrote, in an article concerned with 'alchemical herbals' (28) that the Voynich MS appears to be written in a script fitting with the Italian humanist book movement, and should therefore be dated around 1460, and not much later. He also suggests that the purpose of the book was to impress the gullible clientele of a doctor or quack.
Individual members of the Voynich MS mailing list have performed a multitude of analyses of the MS. It presently appears too difficult to properly present these at this site, and only the briefest and not up-to-date summary is presented at the analysis page(s). In any case, it is possible to retrieve the archives of the mailing list in compressed form from the >> mailing list home page (go to bottom).
A proposed solution to the Voynich MS, which attracted a lot of attention in the press, was developed by Gordon Rugg in 2003. Based on statistical analyses done in the late 90's and early years of the 21st century by the Brazilian Jorge Stolfi, the English scientist has proposed that the Voynich MS text could well have been generated more or less randomly by techniques which would have been available in the 16th Century, and points in particular to Edward Kelly as the perpetrator of the implied hoax (29).
The proposed method consists in the use of a Cardan grille and a set of sheets with word fragments or syllables. The major problems with this are that:
There is, however, an important aspect which lies at the basis of Gordon Rugg's theory. This relates to the question why the solution to the Voynich MS has not yet been found. Rugg's answer to that question is that all analysts are making a number of assumptions, and these assumptions are prohibiting them from finding the answer. More specifically, essentially everyone assumes that the MS text is meaningful and can be deciphered. While Rugg's solution has'nt been accepted, this understanding of hidden or unstated assumptions is certainly very important.
The Voynich MS may very well have no meaningful content, either deliberately by the author, or because its meaning was lost in the process of its creation.
Robert Teague has developed a theory whereby he connects several illustrations in the astronomical part of the MS with celestial events taking place in the 16th Century. He has especially concentrated on comet events, and the path of the moon through the Pleiades, which would appear to be represented on folio 68r3.
More recently, P. Han of the UK has presented a very similar theory on an elaborate web site.
Nick Pelling presented his theory about the authorship of the Voynich MS in his book: The Curse of the Voynich (30). Rumour has it that there will be a second, revised, issue of this. Based on details in the illustrations of the Voynich MS, in particular the rosettes folio, he believes that the MS originates from Milan, around or shortly after the middle of the 15th Century. As author he identifies the architect Antonio Averlino, based on details of his life.
Beside this theory, Nick presents many detailed and important observations about the MS itself, related to the writing and to the composition of the codex. His work on the He continues to explore both paths at his very extensive Blog.
Important statistical analyses were performed by the Austrian mathematician Andreas Schinner, which were published in Cryptologia (31). The results strongly suggst that the text of the Voynich MS is probably meaningless. This work has received some media attention due to its relation with the work of Gordon Rugg, but due to its complicated nature it has not yet been properly understood or assessed in Voynich MS circles.
The retired PhD in chemistry Edith Sherwood has performed a number of analyses on the Voynich MS, which she presents at a well-designed web site. It includes her theory that the Voynich MS was written by a young Leonardo da Vinci, her identification of most of the plant drawings in the MS, and a possible solution to the text.
Based on the striking likeness of the containers in the pharmaceutical section with earliest microscopes, Rich has first developed the theory that the Voynich MS was written by one of the earliest microscope developers Cornelius Drebbel, either by himself, or in collaboration with Francis Bacon. This theory also takes into account the phantasy style of the Voynich MS drawings, which he links to the idea of an imaginary world as in Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis". More recently, he also seriously considers that the Voynich MS was 'faked' by W. Voynich, finding evidence how 15th C parchment could have been available for such an enterprise. He maintains a blog about his views.
Diane O'Donovan believes that the imagery in the manuscript shows the Voynich to be a collection of extracts gained from considerably older sources, chiefly Hellenistic. She believes that this material was copied in the fifteenth century. Her analysis refers only to the imagery; no opinion is offered on the written text.
In 2012 the traditional (32) discovery of the Voynich MS in Villa Mondragone reached its 100th anniversary. This was celebrated with a conference in the same villa, on 11 May. It was attended by a multitude of active Voynich researchers and included a series of presentations on all relevant areas of reasearch. A report of this event is provided at a separate set of pages.