THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT
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In 1639 the Prague citizen Georgius Barschius wrote to the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher in Rome that he owned a mysterious book which was written in an unknown script and was profusely illustrated with pictures of plants, stars and alchemical secrets.
He hoped that Kircher would be able to translate this book for him, but there is no indication that he could. The book has come down to us and even now, more than 370 years later, not a single word from its well over 200 pages can be understood (2).
The book is now preserved as MS 408 in the Beinecke Rare Book and MS Library of Yale University, but is better known as the Voynich manuscript (MS), named after Wilfrid Voynich, who brought it to light in 1912. This is what Voynich says about that event (3):
In 1912 […] I came across a most remarkable collection of preciously illuminated manuscripts (4). For many decades these volumes had lain buried in the chests in which I found them in an ancient castle in Southern Europe where the collection had apparently been stored in consequence of the disturbed political condition of Europe in the early part of the nineteenth century (5).
While examining the manuscripts, with a view to the acquisition of at least a part of the collection, my attention was especially drawn by one volume. It was such an ugly duckling compared with the other manuscripts, with their rich decorations in gold and colors (see note 4), that my interest was aroused at once. I found that it was written entirely in cipher. Even a necessarily brief examination of the vellum upon which it was written, the calligraphy, the drawings and the pigments suggested to me as the date of its origin the latter part of the thirteenth century. The drawings indicated it to be an encyclopedic work on natural philosophy.
the fact that this was a thirteenth century manuscript in cipher convinced me that it must be a work of exceptional importance, and to my knowledge the existence of a manuscript of such an early date written entirely in cipher was unknown, so I included it among the manuscripts which I purchased from this collection.
two problems presented themselves – the text must be unravelled and the history of the manuscript must be traced.
It was not until some time after the manuscript came into my hands that I read the document bearing the date 1665 (or 1666) (6), which was attached to the front cover.
This document, which is a letter from Joannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher making a gift of the manuscript to him, is of great significance
The Prague physician and scientist Johannes Marcus Marci had been a faithful correspondent to Athanasius Kircher since 1640, i.e. for 25 years. Shortly before his death he sent the MS to Kircher. In the letter (7) he explains how he had inherited the MS from a close friend, who had tried to decipher this MS till the very end of his life, and had also asked for Kircher’s help. He further explains that he learned from one ‘Dr. Raphael’ how the MS was originally bought by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia (1552-1612) for 600 ducats, and that it was believed that the MS was written by Roger Bacon, (the Franciscan friar who lived from 1214 to 1294).
Voynich took the MS to London in 1912, and later (1914-1915) to the United States. He always presented it as a ‘cipher MS’, and provided photographic copies of pages of his MS to a number of experts. The MS became famous when, in the 1920’s, William Romaine Newbold proposed a spectacular partial translation of the MS, supposedly demonstrating that it was indeed written by Roger Bacon, and that Bacon had not only dreamt of, but actually built microscopes and telescopes. This ‘solution’ of the MS was disproven by John M. Manly in 1931. By then, the MS had attracted the attention of the code-breaking experts and in the 1940’s and 1960’s the eminent cryptanalysts William F. Friedman and Elizebeth Smith Friedman made several valiant attempts at deciphering the MS. In this they were aided by groups of codebreaking experts, but also they did not find any solution. By that time, it was no longer believed to be a Roger Bacon MS.
In 1961 the book was bought by H. P. Kraus (a New York book antiquarian) for the sum of $24,500. He tried to sell it for $160,000 but was unable to find a buyer. Finally, in 1969 he donated it to Yale University, where it remains to date at the Beinecke Rare Book and MS Library. Though officially registered as MS 408, it is still best known as the Voynich MS.
In 2009 the parchment of the MS was radio-carbon dated (8), resulting in a date range of 1404-1438 with 95% confidence.
What does the Voynich MS look like?
Very briefly (a more extensive description being provided in the next page), the Voynich MS is a parchment codex of 23.5 x 16.2 cm, with parchment leaves numbered up to 116, of which 102 remain. Its cover is blank: it does not indicate any title or author. The MS is written in an elegant, but otherwise unknown script.
The text appears to be composed of ‘words’, and for a large part of the MS the text seems to be arranged in short paragraphs. The MS is profusely illustrated, with drawings, among others, of plants and astronomical patterns. It appears to be a scientific work from the middle ages, but due to its unintelligible writing, the contents are a complete mystery.
Illustrations of similar nature are grouped together in the MS, and thus one may tentatively identify the following sections in the MS, based on these illustrations:
- A herbal section, with drawings of herbs, many of which cannot yet be positively identified, and some appearing imaginary.
- An astronomical section, with illustrations of Sun, Moon, stars and zodiac symbols
- A cosmological section, with mostly circular drawings of an as yet unexplained nature
- A so-called biological section, which contains some possibly anatomical drawings with small human (feminine) figures populating systems of tubes transporting liquids
- A pharmaceutical section, so called because it has drawings of containers, next to which various small parts of herbs (leaves, roots) have been aligned
- A recipes section, which consists of over 300 short paragraphs, each accompanied by a star in the left margin
What does the Voynich MS say?
The text of the MS is still not understood. One might assume that the text relates to the illustrations, but this is not even certain. There have been many suggestions about the historical importance of this MS, ranging between totally opposite extremes. These include:
- early discoveries and inventions by the 13th century friar Roger Bacon, witten in a very complicated code.
- nonsense, written by a medieval italian quack, to impress his clientele
- a rare prayer book from the Cathars, not destroyed by the inquisition, written in a pidgin version of a Germanic/Romance creole.
- meaningless strings of characters, cleverly composed by John Dee and/or his associate Edward Kelly, for monetary gain
This list just presents a few examples, and could be extended significantly (9). None of the proposed solutions of the Voynich MS has been confirmed or supported by evidence. So far, the following two fundamental questions still remain unanswered:
- Is it plain language, encrypted language, constructed language or entirely meaningless?
- Does the text relate to the illustrations?
The MS continues to attract people from all over the world, primarily because of the mystery of its unreadable text, but there is more to it. For some reason, it allows just about everyone to recognise something in it. It has something that makes so many people believe that they can solve this mystery.
Voynich once stated that the MS would become more valuable as soon as it has been deciphered. That can no longer be considered true. Its mystery and its resistance to translation is what makes it special (10).
Table of contents
Alternatively, see the full Table of Contents.
- This quote is from the 1639 letter of Georgius Barschius to Athanasius Kircher, which represents the second oldest historical reference to the Voynich MS.
- There are multitudes of proposed translations of parts of the MS, individual pages, or even incidental words, but none of these can be considered convincing.
- Quoting from Voynich (1921).
- This collection is identified here.
- The location is analysed here.
- The correct year is 1665.
- The letter is discussed in detail here.
- This is discussed in more detail here.
- Examples are given here and spread out over this page.
- Paraphrasing Reed Johnson in The New Yorker, >> July 9, 2013.