How the Voynich Manuscript Works

The writing and illustrations of the Voynich manuscript have never been identified.
The writing and illustrations of the Voynich manuscript have never been identified.
©Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

It could be a travel diary written by extraterrestrials. Perhaps it's evidence of an obscure culture lost entirely to history. Maybe it's just gibberish, or even an elaborate hoax intended to embarrass an ancient scholar. It could just be a strangely encoded book of botany. It's the Voynich manuscript, and it's one of the most enduring mysteries in the history of book making.

The Voynich manuscript is an odd and confounding codex (an ancient manuscript gathered into book form); hundreds of years old, it's filled with a fancy script from a language that no one recognizes. It's adorned with colored illustrations of plants that no one has ever catalogued, in addition to astronomical diagrams, scary-looking naked women, and perhaps medieval recipes and medical tips, too.

At more than 200 pages long, the book is a lengthy mystery. Scholars, philosophers, art historians and — perhaps most notably — cryptographers from all over the world have attempted to unravel the language or code in the book. Computer scientists have attacked the text with powerful processors and sophisticated algorithms. All of them have failed, to the extent that no one really knows whether the letters in the book are really letters or numbers or perhaps something else entirely.

While professional and amateur codebreakers argue about the contents of this enigmatic text, there's no contesting one fact — the Voynich manuscript is a captivating mystery, and one that tests the very limits of our ability to unravel secrets of the past.

From Europe to Yale

Michael Wilfried Voynich, the book dealer after whom the manuscript is named
Michael Wilfried Voynich, the book dealer after whom the manuscript is named
© Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

No one knows where the Voynich manuscript came from, although the style of its illustrations seems to match 15th-century European art. In 2009, scientists at the University of Arizona performed carbon dating tests on the book and confirmed that it was probably made several hundred years ago, perhaps in the early 1400s.

There isn't much in the way of recorded evidence regarding the book, but in 1639, a Prague-based antique collector named Georg Baresch sent a letter to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar living in Rome. In his letter, Baresch described a "piece of writing in unknown characters" and "of varied images, stars and other things bearing the appearance of chemical symbolism." He assumed that the book was some sort of repository of medieval medical information, but its unreadable language meant it simply sat "uselessly" in his library.

Kircher had a reputation for unraveling hieroglyphics and mysteries, but for reasons that are unclear, Baresch never sent the tome to him. After Baresch's death, the manuscript went to a friend by the name of Jan Marek Marci.

Marci contacted Kircher, too. In a letter, he offered a tantalizing (but impossible to prove) fragment about the book's history. Marci was acquainted with Raphael Mnishovsky, who served Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, who himself loved to collect obscure and weird things. Mnishovsky claimed that Rudolf II purchased the book and that the author was most likely Renaissance man and Franciscan friar Roger Bacon.

Thanks to Marci, the book likely ended up in Kircher's personal library, but for the next two centuries it disappeared from history. Then in 1912, a book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich bought the manuscript in Italy. He spent years attempting to determine the book's origins and sought out experts he thought might able to decipher its contents. None succeeded, but his efforts brought him a fame of sorts, forever linking his name to the manuscript.

The pages passed through a few more hands before finding a permanent home in the Yale University library in 1969. You can visit the library's website to view high-resolution images of the document in its entirety.

Its ancient parchment has sparked gigantic controversy, but the book itself is actually pretty small. It measures about 9 inches (23 centimeters) tall by 6 inches (16 centimeters) wide, and it contains 246 pages. There seem to be gaps in book, though, and experts think the number of pages once totaled more than 270.

The pages aren't paper. They are made from vellum, which hundreds of years ago was derived from specially treated calf's skin.

The book was a major undertaking. After careful handwriting analysis, researchers think that at least two and perhaps up to eight people did the bulk of the writing, and they likely put at least a few months of labor into making their masterpiece. All of that hard work resulted in an intriguing — and indecipherable — stream of script and artwork that baffles everyone.

Picturesque and Puzzling

There’s no consensus as to whether the text in the Voynich manuscript is even an actual language or just nonsense characters.
There’s no consensus as to whether the text in the Voynich manuscript is even an actual language or just nonsense characters.
©Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

Altogether, there are about 30 different characters in the supposed alphabet that makes up the text in the Voynich. They're full of graceful loops and curves, and for all anyone knows, they might represent letters or perhaps numbers. In sum, there are roughly 170,000 words in the book, all featuring immaculate handwriting with none of the mistakes or scribbles that one would find in many documents from the same era.

Based on variations in the illustrations, the book can be divided into six different sections, with the topics divided between medicine, recipes, herbs, astronomy, human biology and cosmology. Tellingly, certain words appear only in correlation to specific sections of the text, implying that each bit of subject matter had its own vocabulary, which is what happens in real books with real meaning.

Researchers don't understand the script at all, so they can't even say for sure that the script makes up what we would call words or sentences. But it's not just random characters strewn throughout the pages. There are patterns in the characters that seem to follow a structure that's similar to known languages.

For instance, there are words scattered through the paragraphs in ways that mimic other languages. There's also a particular character that's seen only in the first lines of particular paragraphs. Those kinds of structures would've been challenging — but not impossible — to fake, particularly back in the 1400s.

And then, of course, there are the illustrations. The pictures within the manuscript have a hallucinatory quality that seems to detach them from reality, particularly the dozens of plants that grace the pages. There are spindly vines that appear to morph into human organs or faces. Many others look like the author copied and pasted various portions of multiple plants to make up altogether new species. There are a handful that botanists think they've identified, but given the rough nature of the drawings it's impossible to be certain.

There are also pictures showing just parts of plants, perhaps indicating medicinal or culinary value. These are sometimes accompanied by jars that a doctor of the day would have used to dispense rudimentary drugs.

Another section features many astronomical designs with stars and moons sometimes arranged in spirals and circles, complete with notations. On other pages, naked women lounge in tubs holding stars aloft while admiring a nice goat. We are only partially kidding.

One of the more famous pictures is of a series of rather surprised looking (and possibly pregnant) naked women supporting individual pieces of what looks like a plumbing or irrigation system. To the contemporary eye, these depictions are a bit bizarre, but more than anything they're just puzzling.

The point is, there are some seriously weird pictures in the Voynich manuscript. Just as with the text, no one really knows what the images are supposed to portray exactly.

Mind-Melting and Messy

The (possibly) botanical illustrations in the manuscript have been studied at length for similarities to known plants.
The (possibly) botanical illustrations in the manuscript have been studied at length for similarities to known plants.
© Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

The Voynich manuscript's slippery origins mean scientists don't have much of a reference point for starting their investigations into the text's meaning. Although many believe it was made in Europe, others think that the book originated in Asia or even all the way across the ocean in Mexico or South America.

Without a solid geographic origin, researchers don't have the kind of cultural cues that would be helpful for their investigations. What they're left with is a whole lot of abstraction and speculation.

After more than 100 years of inquiry, there seem to be three main theories regarding the meaning of the book's contents. One, it could be written in a language that scholars have never seen before. Two, It might be a cleverly coded message that actually corresponds to a language with which we are already familiar. Or three, it could just be a bunch of neat scribbles, a concocted bunch of hooey that really means nothing at all.

It could also be the ramblings of an artful person with a serious mental illness. Maybe an autistic monk with a flair for the mental acrobatics necessary for such a complex document assembled it. There is also a theory that the text could be a type of glossolalia, in other words, speaking in tongues but put to pages instead of uttered aloud.

And then, of course, there could be trickery afoot. A lot of experts believe the manuscript is likely a hoax. They point to certain passages, such as those where the same words occur two or three times in a row, as well as the fanciful illustrations of plants, most of which look as if they belong in fairy tales instead of the real world. At least one statistical analysis indicated that the composition of the text was more similar to senseless gobbledygook than anything meaningful.

Perhaps someone created it to mock or challenge academic types. Or maybe it was meant to be a puzzling piece of art that would garner attention and bring wealth to the creator.

It bears noting that art hoaxes weren't uncommon in the 1400s. However, most scams were on the simplistic side and certainly nowhere near the scale and complexity of the Voynich. Furthermore, in an age when books took months to create, why would anyone put so much effort into a fake? And why would the trickery be designed to be so confusing? If no one at all can possibly understand a piece of work, why put the time into making it?

Those are the kinds of questions that keep researchers, both amateur and professional, up late at night.

An Impenetrable Enigma

Will we ever unravel the true meaning of the Voynich manuscript? Do we really want to?
Will we ever unravel the true meaning of the Voynich manuscript? Do we really want to?
© Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images

When Wilfrid Voynich began soliciting help in decoding his mysterious book, he probably never imagined that the text would withstand 100 years of intense scrutiny by modern scientists and codebreakers.

A huge proportion of would-be codebreakers believe that the script is a cipher, and that the characters correspond to a known language. For decades, many people have applied various means to crack this code, believing that if they could construct a legend of sorts, they'd be able to decode the entire book. Notably, one of the first men to inspect the document in the 20th century took a decidedly different approach.

In 1921, Voynich lent the document to William Newbold, a philosopher at the University of Pennsylvania. Newbold decided that the text itself was meaningless, but that tiny patterns in the ink itself were a sort of microscopic shorthand that contained the book's real message. In reality, those patterns appeared randomly as the ink dried, and Newbold's ideas are these days considered about as weird as the book itself.

One of the first major collaborative efforts to decode the Voynich gathered steam as World War II wound down. Cryptologist William Friedman gained fame for decrypting Japanese messages during the war and also helped build the National Security Agency. He and a team of crack analysts came together with the intention of solving the book's puzzles. About 30 years later Friedman surrendered, deeming the book impossible to understand.

Since then, scientists of every discipline have applied their knowledge to the manuscript. None of them has made any obvious headway.

The book's impenetrability is also its allure. In the age of the Internet, when hundreds of millions of people are able to access the pages with just a few mouse clicks, researchers hold out hope that perhaps the hive mind of the Web will break down the manuscript's secrets. Maybe in joining our collective human knowledge, enough people will put together enough clues to decode the text.

In the meantime, there are oodles of people online who claim to have unraveled the book's code. They back up their theories with long-winded (and occasionally readable) explanations for how to read the text. To date, none of them has actually succeeded.

Then of course, there's always the question of whether we really want anyone to finally break the book's code. Doing so would be mean the end of this bizarre, centuries-old puzzle, and it would be the final chapter, so to speak, of the manuscript's hold on our popular imagination. Without the mystery, it's just another old tome, interesting and artful to be sure, but not a text that's protected by some lost language or impenetrable code. Maybe the Voynich should stay as it is, unsolved and full of riddles that will bend our minds for the rest of time.

Author's Note: How the Voynich Manuscript Works

Personally, I love mysteries ... for a while. Eventually, though, they start to drive me more than a little crazy. Is there intelligent life beyond Earth? Is Elvis really dead? Will anyone ever be able to read the Voynich manuscript? There's a good chance we'll never answer any of those questions in my lifetime. And when it comes to the Voynich, I take comfort in the fact that even if it is decoded, it likely doesn't hold any universe-altering information. Or at least, that's how I comfort myself knowing that I'll never have the answers.

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