Commonly referred to as ‘the most mysterious manuscript in the world,’ the Voynich manuscript remains one of the intriguing unsolved mysteries of our time. Believed to have been created in the late 13th or early 14th century, the manuscript consists of approximately 204 vellum pages of coded text. While the origin of the manuscript has been traced to central Europe, scholars remain unable to identify its creator. Theories abound regarding both the author and the content of this intriguing manuscript, but no one has yet been able to decode its myriad secrets.
The small illustrated manuscript was discovered in Italy in 1912 by American rare book dealer Wilfrid Voynich, who gave his name to the anonymous text. A letter was found with the manuscript suggesting that the book belonged to a member of the Prague court of Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1576 to 1611. It was likely the property of John Dee, a British mathematician and astrologer who frequently visited the Prague court, although nothing is known of how Dee might have acquired the text (Reeds, 1995). The Voynich manuscript changed ownership several times before it was donated to Yale University. It now resides in the Beinecke Rare Book Library.
Nearly every page of the text contains illustrations of exotic plants, puzzling astrological symbols and diagrams, and surprising drawings of tiny naked women dancing through fountains and waterfalls. Most intriguing of all, the little book does not seem to be written in any known language. Rather, the manuscript is coded from beginning to end in cipher (Goldstone, 2005). Although the coded text cannot be translated, the manuscript has been divided into discrete sections based on the accompanying illustrations: herbal and botanical (with illustrations of odd and unrecognizable plants), astrological (with zodiac charts and symbols), medical or biological (with anatomical drawings and illustrations of naked human figures), cosmological (with sketches of stars and other celestial bodies), and pharmacological (with diagrams of plant parts, possibly indicating their medicinal use). It concludes with a section very likely containing recipes or prescriptions, as it is comprised of short paragraphs that each begin with a star-shaped bullet point (Landini, 2001). The illustrations are beautifully intriguing, and compel scholars and cryptographic hobbyists alike to work tirelessly to uncover their hidden meaning.
Voynich himself, upon discovering this mysterious manuscript and its indecipherable text, copied several of the pages and distributed them to twenty of the most talented cryptographers in the world. It was his hope that someone would be able to discover the key to this perplexing text. He even appealed to the cryptographic unit of the United States Army for assistance in breaking the manuscript’s cipher (Goldstone, 2005). Unfortunately, this remarkable manuscript has resisted every effort to translate its secrets. Not even expert cryptanalyst have been able to decode the Voynich manuscript in the one hundred years since its discovery.
In working to solve the mystery of the Voynich manuscript, analysts have posited wide-ranging theories about the text’s author. Each theory has fervent supporters (and an equal number of vocal detractors), but no one has been able to prove conclusively the manuscript’s authorship. Voynich originally believed that scientist Roger Bacon penned the manuscript, and much work has been done to both prove and disprove this hypothesis. Others have characterized the Voynich manuscript as a treatise written by members of a Cathar cult of Isis followers, a hoax perpetrated by John Dee, an experiment in an early form of synthetic language development, an attempt to translate a tonal language into alphabetic script, or even a modern fake created by Voynich himself (Zandbergen, 2010). As long as the manuscript continues to defy translation, it will continue to generate speculation concerning its author and its ultimate purpose.
The Voynich manuscript possesses the irresistible allure of an unsolved mystery. Who wrote the document? What kind of curious and arcane information does it contain? Does it hold secrets that modern scientists and physicians have not yet dreamed of? Tantalized by the possibility of discovering the decryption key and cracking the code of this text’s cryptic language, many have tried – and failed – to uncover its secrets. Remaining as mystifyingly impenetrable as the day it was discovered, the Voynich manuscript continues to represent a compelling enigma.
Goldstone, L. & Goldstone, N. (2005). The friar and the cipher: Roger Bacon and the unsolved mystery of the most unusual manuscript in the world New York: Doubleday.
Landini, G. (2001). Evidence of linguistic structure in the Voynich manuscript using spectral analysis. Cryptologia, 25(4), 275-295.
Reeds, J. (1995). William F. Friedman’s transcription of the Voynich manuscript. Cryptologia, 19, 1-24.
Zandbergen, R. (2010). Origin of the manuscript. In The Voynich Manuscript. Retrieved from voynich.nu/s_origin.html