The Voynich Manuscript: "The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World"

Some time during the early Renaissance; somewhere -- probably in Europe -- someone created a codex; 270 gorgeously illustrated and written pages of vellum, and 500 years later no one knows who wrote it...or even what it says.

Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript; is named after a seller of rare and antique books named Wilfred Voynich, who acquired the manuscript as a part of a lot of books he purchased in Italy in 1912. And for almost six centuries it has fascinated and defied the collective attempts of scholars and codebreakers; both amateur and professional, US military codebreakers during World Wars I & II, and even a team of NSA cryptographers in 1955. Initially, there were some who believed it was a hoax -- possibly of Voynich's design -- but radiocarbon dating places its material origins somewhere in the early 15th century (ca. 1404 -1438) and in style it is typical of codexes and manuscripts from Europe at the time. There have been a variety of suggestions and hypotheses: Code? Natural language? Synthetic language? Gibberish? Linguists as well as codebreakers are mystified; the word and sentence structures suggest many intriguing possibilities, but no one yet has managed to open its secrets.

Where did it come from? Where has it been? How did this mystery journey from early Rennaisance Europe to the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Gallery where it now resides? Perhaps the story began in Bohemia.... 

Royal art collector

Rudolf II,  the Hapsburg, King of Bohemia, King of Croatia and Hungary, Archduke of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor from 1576-1612 was -- depending on your point of view -- either visionary or a really bad king. He was a religious moderate, tolerant of Protestants, Catholics, Lutherans -- although probably not Muslims.  His sexual exploits -- he was bi-sexual -- were legendary, and he really wasn't all that interested in politics or ruling his empire. What he was interested in was art, philosophy and the occult. He was deeply interested in alchemy and astrology and he welcomed to his court and patronized a panoply of natural philosophers, artists and scholars, among them budding Rosicrucians and the mathematician/astrologer John Dee.  It has been suggested that the book may have been written by Dee, or possibly by his scryer; Edward Kelley; a man with a shady reputation and penchant of his own for sexual voracity. There were so many scholars, mystics, magicians and shaman passing through his court that any one of hundreds of wanderers, from almost anywhere in the world, could have brought it and left it behind

 John Dee

John Dee

What is known, is that in 1666, the manuscript was sent with a cover letter written by Johannes Marek Marci, the Rector of the University of Prague to Ahthanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar renown for deciphering a Coptic dictionary. In the letter, Marci described the dictionary and claimed that the Emperor Rudolph II had purchased the book for 600 gold ducats and subsequently, either gave or lent it to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz the head of his legendary zoological and botanical gardens in Prague. When de Tepenecz died it ended up in the hands of a friend; an obscure alchemist named Georg Baresch. Baresch had written a letter in 1639 asking for Kicher's advice in deciphering what he referred to as "this Sphinx, taking up space uselessly in my library". It was a mystery even then. But although he sent samples to Kircher, he refused to part with the book. On Baresch's death however, it passed to Marci who then sent it to Kirchner at the Collegio Romano in Rome. That letter, the only concrete provenance, remains to this day, tucked inside of the Voynich Manuscript and is the only historical record of where it might have come from.

The book's next two centuries years were much less adventurous than its first two hundred, while it reposed quietly in the library of the Collegio along with Kircher's other letters until 1870 when it had to be smuggled from the Collegio Library into the personal collection of Petrus Beckx, Rector of the Collegio  in order to avoid being confiscated by Victor Emmanuel II when he captured the city of Rome and annexed the Papal States.

 Roger Bacon 1214 - 1294 Did he write it?

Roger Bacon 1214 - 1294 Did he write it?

It made its way to the US in 1922, when the Society of Jesuits -- possibly because they were running short of funds -- decided to sell some of their books and manuscripts.  Wilfred Voynich purchased it at a rare book sale along with approximately 30 other items. From then until his death it he tried to solve the mystery; showing it to anyone he could interest in attempting to find an answer. Voynich died in 1930 and passed it to his wife. In 1960 Voynich's widow also died and left the manuscript to a Miss Anne Nil, a friend of hers who then sold it in 1961 to another rare book dealer Hans P. Klaus. And after trying unsuccessfully to sell the manuscript, Klaus gave the book to the Yale in 1968 where it has rested ever since; a beautiful, unsolved mystery.

The Codex Manuscript 

The manuscript was probably about 270 pages, of which 240 remain. It was originally unbound, but someone along the way bound it in limp vellum. It is divided into five sections, defined by the illustrations; tantalizing, almost recognizable...but not quite.  


On each page in this section there are paragraphs of text and one or two  gorgeous plant drawings in style typical of European herbal codexes of the time, but none of the plants depicted are "unambiguously identifiable". Sometimes a leaf or flower appears similar to something known, but always attached to something else -- a root, a flower -- which is inconsistent with that particular plant. Most of them are simply unrecognizable to botanists.


The astronomical section contains circular diagrams which depict mostly recognizable astrological symbols; i.e a lion for Leo, a bull for Taurus, etc. There are a series of twelve of these diagrams depicting conventional zodiacal constellations. In each of these there are 30 mostly-naked female figures arranged in concentric circles, except in Aries and Taurus where there are four paired diagrams with 15 women each. The women are depicted holding stars or attached to stars by some sort of cord.


Perhaps the strangest of all sections it this one in which, dense continuous text is interspersed with figures of small naked women wearing crowns, bathing in pools connected by elaborate networks of tubes and pipes.


This section is completely obscure. The diagrams appear to be maps depicting islands containing castles which are connected by causeways and in one case, possibly an enormous volcano.


The pharmaceutical section consists of isolated plant parts interspersed with text and other objects that resemble labeled apothecary  jars. As with the biological section, the plant parts are fantastical and completely obscure.


Finally, there is a section which scholars have labeled "recipes" consisting of paragraphs of dense, meticulously written text, each of which is marked by a star in the left margin.

Whatever this beautiful manuscript may be; someone, somewhere, a very long time ago created it with great care and sent it on a magical journey down through time to us. It might contain the wisdom of the ages, the elusive location of Ponce' de Leon's Fountain of Yourth, or the secret of the mythical Philiosopher's Stone; it might be a carefully researched scientific treatise or it may be complete fantasy.  Whatever else it is, it is a beautiful mystery, and its very, very cool....