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The Voynich Manuscript – Mystery Manuscript

Updated: Mar 22

Books, am I right? They obviously can't be trusted. Lumps of wood pulp and ink that somehow want to tell me how to live my life! I do my research like any sane person does, through YouTube and social media posts by people that I don't know. That's how I know books are part of a Satanic Big Government conspiracy to turn me literate.

Jokes aside, some books carry enduring mysteries that cannot easily be solved. The Voynich Manuscript is one of the greatest puzzles in the field of cryptography. Ever since the Medieval text was 'rediscovered' by a rare book dealer in 1912, people have been wracking their brains to try to read the damned thing.

You see, while the Voynich Manuscript is fully illustrated, it isn't written in any known language. The illustrations are also quite puzzling. Many of them show plants that do not seem to exist.

Wilfrid Voynich and The Medieval Mystery Manuscript

Wilfrid Voynich was a Polish revolutionary with an interest in old books. His youth was spent participating in one of Poland's many revolutions. Honestly, trying to find out which one is as hard as giving your cat a bath. Lots of effort for very little reward.

My best guess is he was involved in the 1905 uprising.

After his days in the revolution, Wilfrid Voynich moved to London to pursue a career as a book dealer. Around 1912 he had enough money to open a New York branch of his business.

During 1912 he also visited a Jesuit library in Italy. He bought 30 manuscripts from the Jesuits. While going through his new haul of medieval manuscripts, he discovered what would later become known as The Voynich Manuscript.

The mystery book consisted of 120 leaves made of calf skin, known as vellum. That adds up to 240 pages. People really used to write on anything they could. Unfortunately for Wilfrid, the manuscript wasn't written in any language he could read.

Voynich showed his manuscript to any expert he could find. To this day, none have been able to solve the coded text. Oh, did I not mention that most people think the book was written in code?

What's in The Voynich Manuscript

The strange language features on each of the 240 pages. Much of the first half of the book seems to be some sort of botanical codex. Each page has a crude painting of a plant with a few paragraphs seemingly discussing it.

The drawings suggest an intimate knowledge of the plants in question. Most of the plants remain unidentified though. The discussions may be of properties that these plants have. Whether this is a pharmaceutical codex or a poisoner's grimoire is entirely unknown.

Somewhere in the middle, the Voynich Manuscript pivots to an astronomical treatise. Various wheel shaped drawings seem to show zodiac signs, or some other astronomical phenomenon. There are even a few fold out charts.

After the star stuff we get into an altogether incomprehensible mix of people and botany. Some of this stuff looks like someone had a bit too much of the bad rye and suffered from Convulsive Ergotism. You know, the swamp gas of medieval mysteries. Dancing plague? That's Convulsive Ergotism. Witch hysteria, you guessed it, Ergot Poisoning.

The “Language”

You may be saying that the Voynich Manuscript was clearly written by a drugged out medieval monk. As a result, the language is not a language at all, but the gibberish scribbling of a madman. Besides, the text isn't even using a known alphabet!

Experts seem to disagree with you, dear incensed reader. The “words” in the Voynich Manuscript seem to follow rules. A set of around 25 characters make up most of the alphabet of this language.

Grammatical experts liken the “Voynichese” to Mandarin Pinyin writing. Although Mandarin Pinyin seems to be closer to European texts than to Voynichese.

Statisticians from the University of São Paulo, led by Diego Amancio, published a study in 2014 where they analyzed word frequency and structure. Their goal was to see whether the Voynich Manuscript was written in a language at all. According to the study, in 90% of their data, the text was similar to what you would find in other books. That means that Voynichese is an actual language.

There have been many more studies into the mystery manuscript's language. Most indicate that the language is consistent with other known languages.

Dubious History

Radiocarbon dating places the creation of the vellum pages somewhere in the early 15th century. So we know that the book is at least 600 years old. Analysis of the ink shows that the written and drawn parts were done around the same time. Some parts of the text do show signs of retouching by later owners.

The first confirmable owner of the book was an alchemist from Prague, Georg Baresch. He sent samples of the text to a Jesuit scholar named Athanasius Kircher. The scholar tried to get the book from Baresch, but the old coot refused. Upon Georg's death, the book went to his friend, Jan Marek Marci, the Rector of Charles University in Prague.

Marci later gave the manuscript to Athanasius Kircher. He kept it at the Collegio Romano where he lived. The book was forgotten there after Kircher's death, Until Wilfrid Voynich bought it from the Collegio.

The original letter from Marci to Kircher was still in the front cover of the book when Voynich got it. He never read it though, as it was only discovered in 1999. That letter read:

Reverend and Distinguished Sir, Father in Christ:
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 that 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, a tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book 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 judgement; 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,Joannes Marcus Marci of CronlandPrague, 19th August, 1665

After Voynich died, his widow inherited it. She willed it to her friend Anne Nill in 1960. Anne sold it to an antiques dealer in 1961. Hans P. Kraus, the antique dealer, couldn't find anyone to buy the Voynich Manuscript. He therefore gifted it to Yale University where it remains to this day.

Hoax or History?

The Voynich Manuscript has been studied by so many people at this point that any claims of a hoax seem far-fetched. That hasn't stopped many exasperated scholars from yelling it from the rooftops.

One theory states that Wilfrid Voynich had the knowledge and skill to create a fake manuscript. While the book is seemingly mentioned in collections or letters, it is never really identified as the same book. This leaves a gap for an opportunistic Voynich to coin it on a forgery.

The main problem is that Voynich never sold the book.

So if the book is real, and the language is real, then what the hell is it about? We may well never know, despite someone claiming to have translated it every couple of years.

The entire Voynich Manuscript is available online. Why not try your hand at deciphering its mystery?


About Me

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Fraser is a professional Blogger and Screenwriter. His love of travel is matched only by his love of all things weird.  Besides the blog, Fraser is also the author of a novel, a radio drama, and several short stories. 

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