The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript

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You would think that anyone writing a book would do so in a way that other people could read it, wouldn’t you? Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case with the so-called Voynich Manuscript.

In 1912, Polish-American book dealer Wilfred Voynich discovered the approximately 9” x 6” x 2” book in Italy, in a chest of books sold by the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University). The manuscript’s 246 pages contain over 200 illustrations and about 35,000 words in an unknown language. It has been reckoned that at least 8 pages are missing.

The Voynich script is written the same way as English is written; that is to say, from left to right, and from top to bottom. It appears to have an alphabet of some 30 characters. There is absolutely no punctuation in the text. Examination by experts shows a pattern similar to natural languages. While some of the characters are similar to Latin, the script in general looks more like the Elvish writing in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings than any medieval or modern script. It has defeated some of the world’s top code-breakers over the past century although recently, some slight progress has been made in deciphering it.

Many of the book’s illustrations are beautifully colored, some seeming to have been done in watercolor; others with a kind of opaque paint.

The pages are made of vellum (thin parchment made from animal skin) which has been dated to between 1404 and 1438. The blank cover indicates no title, author, nor date. Based on the illustrations, the book can be divided into six sections:

Botanical: Well over 100 carefully drawn flowers, leaves and roots are accompanied by a few paragraphs of text. A handful of plants such as wood sorrel, juniper, and balsam are recognizable, but most look like they grow on another planet.

Astronomical: Circular drawings show suns, moons and stars. One series shows recognizable symbols for the constellations of the zodiac including two fish for Pisces, and a bull for Taurus.

Biological: This section is full of text and figures of nude women bathing in pools or tubs. Most of these women possess exaggerated hips and bulging abdomens; some of them wear crowns.

Cosmological: Circular drawings like medallions or islands are filled with stars and other shapes, including a castle with a tower.

Pharmaceutical: Over 100 figures of plants and roots, jars and vases are accompanied by brief notes.

Recipes: This section contains over 300 short paragraphs resembling recipes, with no illustrations.

Theories about the book’s author and origin are many and widely varied, including:

  • Roger Bacon (c. 1214 – 1294), a learned Franciscan friar from England. He is known to have written several books, including a one-million-word tome entitled, Opus Majus. He studied astrology and alchemy, and was familiar with the mystical Jewish tradition of the Cabala.
  • Wilfred Voynich himself believed that Bacon may have written the mysterious book in cipher.

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), the Italian artist and inventor. His left-handed backward writing has some points in common with the Voynich script, and he certainly was intelligent enough to invent such a complex cipher or language.
  • John Dee (1527 – 1608), an English mathematician, astrologer and magician. He wrote his journals in Enochian, a unique alphabet and language he claimed was given to him by angels.
  • Wilfred Voynich (1865 – 1930), the man after whom the manuscript is named. As an antique book dealer, he could have had the knowledge necessary to create a hoax, or he may himself been victim of a forgery fabricated by an unknown hand.

Stephen Bax, Professor of Applied Linguists at the University of Bedfordshire, England, has studied the Voynich Manuscript at length. He believes it is in fact written in a meaningful script and language. In 2014 he proposed a partial decoding that includes a set of proper names found in the text, giving a total of 10 words made up of 14 Voynich symbols and clusters. These words include ‘Taurus,’ ‘Coriander,’ and ‘Chiron.’

In 1969, the Voynich manuscript was donated to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where it is known as MS 408. You can see it for yourself on the library’s website (www.beinecke.library.yale.edu).

Spend some time with it. Who knows? You may be inspired to join the effort in deciphering the most mysterious manuscript in the world!

BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SOURCES

Kennedy, Gerry and Churchill, Rob. THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT. Orion Books Ltd., London, England, 2004

Tolkien, J.R.R. THE LORD OF THE RINGS VOL. 3 THE RETURN OF THE KING. (Re-edition) Bookspan, New York, N.Y., 2001

Internet sites:

By Donna Marie West

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