Many people believe that the Voynich manuscript—a book found in 1912 written in an unknown language with images of plants and astronomy—is a hoax. Cryptographers, mathematicians, and linguists have been trying to decipher the supposedly 15th-century text found by book dealer Wilfrid Voynich in 1912 for 100 years, with many deducing it’s just a nonsense language fabricated by Voynich himself.
But a new study has found the words may hold a real message after all, the BBC reports.
“It’s not easy to dismiss the manuscript as simple nonsensical gibberish, as it shows a significant [linguistic] structure,” says study author Marcelo Montemurro, a theoretical physicist at the University of Manchester.
Montemurro used computers to analyze the text, finding the semantic patterns were similar to known languages, but in a way he says Voynich couldn’t have known about in 1912 to make the language look “real.”
But although they have found the pattern, what the words actually say remains a mystery. “There must be a story behind it, which we may never know,” he says.
Written in Central Europe at the end of the 15th or during the 16th century, the origin, language, and date of the Voynich Manuscript—named after the Polish-American antiquarian bookseller, Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912—are still being debated as vigorously as its puzzling drawings and undeciphered text. Described as a magical or scientific text, nearly every page contains botanical, figurative, and scientific drawings of a provincial but lively character, drawn in ink with vibrant washes in various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red.
Based on the subject matter of the drawings, the contents of the manuscript falls into six sections: 1) botanicals containing drawings of 113 unidentified plant species; 2) astronomical and astrological drawings including astral charts with radiating circles, suns and moons, Zodiac symbols such as fish (Pisces), a bull (Taurus), and an archer (Sagittarius), nude females emerging from pipes or chimneys, and courtly figures; 3) a biological section containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules; 4) an elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions, many drawn across several folded folios and depicting possible geographical forms; 5) pharmaceutical drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots portrayed with jars or vessels in red, blue, or green, and 6) continuous pages of text, possibly recipes, with star-like flowers marking each entry in the margins.
For a complete physical description and foliation, including missing leaves, see the Voynich catalog record.
Read a detailed chemical analysis of the Voynich Manuscript (8 p., pdf)
History of the Collection
Like its contents, the history of ownership of the Voynich manuscript is contested and filled with some gaps. The codex belonged to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany (Holy Roman Emperor, 1576-1612), who purchased it for 600 gold ducats and believed that it was the work of Roger Bacon. It is very likely that Emperor Rudolph acquired the manuscript from the English astrologer John Dee (1527-1608). Dee apparently owned the manuscript along with a number of other Roger Bacon manuscripts. In addition, Dee stated that he had 630 ducats in October 1586, and his son noted that Dee, while in Bohemia, owned “a booke…containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon: but I could not heare that hee could make it out.” Emperor Rudolph seems to have given the manuscript to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (d. 1622), an exchange based on the inscription visible only with ultraviolet light on folio 1r which reads: “Jacobi de Tepenecz.” Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland presented the book to Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) in 1666. In 1912, Wilfred M. Voynich purchased the manuscript from the Jesuit College at Frascati near Rome. In 1969, the codex was given to the Beinecke Library by H. P. Kraus, who had purchased it from the estate of Ethel Voynich, Wilfrid Voynich’s widow.
Goldstone, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. 2005. The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World. New York: Doubleday.
Romaine Newbold, William. 1928. The Cipher of Roger Bacon. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Voynich Manuscript Cipher Manuscript
|Date:||s. XV^^ex-XVI [?] [end of the 15th or during the 16th century(?)]|
|Type of Resource:|
Parchment. ff. 102 (contemporary foliation, Arabic numerals; not every leaf foliated) + i (paper), including 5 double-folio, 3 triple-folio, 1 quadruple-folio and 1 sextuple-folio folding leaves. 225 x 160 mm.
Scientific or magical text in an unidentified language, in cipher, apparently based on Roman minuscule characters. See the Database of Archival Collections and Manuscripts for more information.
23 x 16 cm. (binding)
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|Curatorial Area:||General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University|
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The manuscript first came to the attention of modern scholars in 1912 when Wilfrid Voynich discovered it tucked away in the library of Villa Mondragone. He purchased the manuscript and brought it with him back to America.
The history of the manuscript before Voynich found it is unclear. A letter inserted between its pages revealed some of its history. The letter was dated 1665 or 1666 (the writing was unclear) and was addressed to the scholar Athanasius Kircher from Johannes Marcus Marci. Marci explained that the book had once been owned by Emperor Rudolf II, who believed it had been written by the English monk Roger Bacon (1214-1294?). Marci was hoping that Kircher would be able to translate the manuscript, but apparently Kircher was unable to do so.
Upon his return to America, Voynich circulated photostat pages of the manuscript to scholars whom he hoped could help him decode its strange alphabet. Cryptographers rushed to take up the challenge.
Untranslatable text from the Voynich manuscript
The first to announce a solution to the manuscript’s code was William Romaine Newbold in 1921. After microscopically examining the letters of the manuscript, Newbold decided that the letters were not themselves meaningful. The real meaning lay in the individual pen strokes that composed each letter and which, so Newbold claimed, corresponded to an ancient Greek form of shorthand. Newbold’s translation, however, now reads more like a work of madness than the work of a rational mind, since what he believed to be individual pen strokes were, in fact, simply cracks in the manuscript’s ink caused by age.
In 1943 Joseph Martin Feely, working on the assumption that the manuscript had originally been written by Roger Bacon, attempted to match the frequency of characters in the text to the frequency of characters within Bacon’s other writings, and decode it in this way. His effort proved unsuccessful.
In the 1970s, Robert Brumbaugh, using a complicated decoding scheme, decided that the manuscript might be a medieval treatise on the elixir of life.
Since then, a variety of theories about the manuscript have been suggested. In 1978 John Stojko argued that it was an account of a civil war written in an ancient, vowelless form of Ukrainian. In 1987 Leo Levitor theorized it was an ancient prayer-book, offering repetitive meditations on the themes of pain and death. More recently, Jacques Guy has wondered whether it might not represent an ancient attempt to transcribe an east-Asian language, say Chinese or Vietnamese, into alphabetic form.
The fact that the text has defied all efforts at translation has led many to believe the writing is actually meaningless and that the book itself was created as a hoax.
Computer scientist Gordon Rugg has argued that a sixteenth-century hoaxer could have created the gibberish text using an encryption tool known as a cardan grille. He argues that the book was created by a sixteenth-century Englishman, Edward Kelley, in order to con Emperor Rudolph II.
Sergio Toresella has suggested the manuscript might be an “alchemical herbal” — that is, a book of nonsense writing that quack doctors used to impress clients. In 1986 Michael Barlow suggested that Voynich himself might have written the manuscript as a hoax, since as an antique book dealer he had the necessary knowledge. However, there is no compelling evidence to indicate this.
To this day the Voynich manuscript continues to resist all efforts at translation. It is thought that the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft might have used the manuscript as the model for the fictional work, The Necronomicon, which he refers to in many of his stories.
- Grossman, Lev. “When Words Fail: The Struggle to Decipher the World’s Most Difficult Book,” Lingua Franca, 1999.
Mailing List HQ
This is the headquarters site for VMs-list, the primary mailing list for scholars attempting to read the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript. The list was started in 1991 by Jim Gillogly (then of the RAND Corporation) and Jim Reeds (then of Bell Labs), and it moved here to voynich.net in December 2002. It is managed by the Majordomo program, which allows you to subscribe and unsubscribe yourself. You can find complete instruction at that link. Send mail to the list administrator, Rich SantaColoma, if you need help with the directions.
The tone of the group has been astonishingly civil and mostly scholarly for the over 20 years of the mailing list’s existence, despite differences in background (cryptographers, linguists, botanists, astronomers, paleographers, medievalists, historians, astrologers and even a few crackpots — no, of course I don’t mean you); and differences in approach, including half a dozen competing methods of transcribing the Voynich characters.Jim Reeds has written an introduction to the study of the Voynich Ms. Some images from the Voynich Ms. published by the Beinecke Library on their website are mirrored here.Mysteries surrounding the Voynich Manuscript have puzzled researchers since the earliest surviving report in the seventeenth century: we have no clear idea of its date, its author, its provenance, the meaning of its script, or even the meaning of its drawings. The suspected owner was the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), who may have bought it from an unknown seller for 600 ducats. The author of the manuscript was then thought to have been the 13th-century monk and scholar Roger Bacon (1214?-1294?), but this attribution now appears to be much too early.
It may have passed from Rudolf II’s hands, then through those of nobleman Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenec, alchemist Georg Baresch, professor Johannes Marcus Marci and scholar Athanasius Kircher S.J. (1602-1680), it may have been filed and forgotten amongst Kircher’s papers. It finally surfaced in a collection purchased by book dealer Wilfrid Voynich in about 1912. After his death and the death of his wife, author Ethel (Boole) Voynich, it passed to Wilfrid Voynich’s secretary and Ethel Voynich’s friend Miss Anne M. Nill, who eventually sold it to rare book dealer Hans P. Kraus. Having failed to sell it for his asking price of $160,000 Kraus donated the Voynich Ms. to Yale University, where it currently resides in the Beinecke Library as MS 408.
During his lifetime Voynich was coy about the provenance of the manuscript, but after his death and that of his widow, Miss Nill revealed that according to a letter from Ethel the manuscript had been found at the Villa Mondragone, an estate near Frascati, Italy which had been bought by the Jesuit Order in 1866 and turned into the international headquarters of the Ghisleri College, and later converted to a boarding school. Recently (23 Dec 2002). Wilfrid Gaye of Sussex called this provenance into question based on documentary evidence from his mother Winifred, the adopted daughter of Wilfrid and Ethel Voynich, but on further checking he found the evidence refers to “a manuscript” rather than specifically identifying this one.
The small (16 by 23 cm) manuscript consists of 102 vellum leaves including several fold-outs, copiously illustrated with water colors. The manuscript was bound and numbered, probably by a later hand than the author’s. Fourteen of the numbered leaves are missing; comparing Newbold’s careful catalog with Kraus’s shows at least six of these disappeared since Voynich obtained the manuscript. An important signature was found by chance with infra-red light and made legible with chemicals, that of Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenec, mentioned above. In 2009, the University of Arizona tested the vellum for radiocarbon age, and determined that it was made between 1404 and 1438. Samples of paint and ink was also analyzed by McCrone Associates at about this time. Their tests did not turn up any substance which would prove a time later than the C14 dating of the vellum… however, the ink was not dated.
The text is written in a neat and clear script which has defied attempts at interpretation by some of the best cryptographic minds available including Athanasius Kircher; noted cryptologist Brig. John Tiltman, head of the British codebreaking establishment at Bletchley Park during World War II; and William F. Friedman, the famous American codebreaker who turned cryptanalysis into a science and led the team that broke the Japanese Purple cipher machine
An unstructured archive of old mailing list traffic up through the end of 2002 is available.
List of Voynich links:
- Beineke Library high resolution scans of the Voynich
- Voynich Gallery: A fast loading, convenient repository of the manuscript as jpg’s.
- Jan B. Hurych’s Excellent VMs site. The most detailed, accurate and informative VMs provenance insight anywhere.
- René Zandbergen’s Voynich site: The whole VMs story, almost. More information than any one other site.
- Voynich mailing list, This page… begun by Jim Gillogly, now maintained by Rich SantaColoma.
- Voynich Monkeys: All the posts to the above list, as threads. Much discussion, some fairly brisk..
- Wikipedia Voynich page. Much information, many theories, and useful links here.
- Philip Neal’s Voynich Pages: A wealth of information, transcriptions, and translations of key, related documents. A “can’t miss”.
- The Journal of Voynich Studies: Interesting and “out of the box” points and discussion.
- VIB: Voynich Information Browser: Page by page transcriptions of the VMs, with much information and analysis
- P. Han’s Voynich Theory
- New Atlantis/Voynich Blog My own blog: Various points of the NA theory in much more detail.
- Elmar Vogt’s interesting Voynichthoughts Blog
- Nick Pelling’s Cipher Mysteries: Voynich and other codes/ciphers
- Elias Schwerdtfeger’s Deutsche Blog: In German, but translates recognizably in Google translator
- Voynichlupe. Also in German, but here is the Google’s attempt at an English version…
- New Atlantis-Voynich Theory H.R. SantaColoma’s optical theory of the Voynich Ms.
Please send suggestions regarding this web page to email@example.com.
- Beineke Library high resolution scans of the Voynich