The Voynich Manuscript has been dubbed as the “the most mysterious manuscript in the world.” It is considered a manuscript codex, the nature, language, date and origin of which have long remained a mystery. Over the years, the Voynich manuscript has caused a lot of controversy and debate, with some arguing that the ancient medieval text contains an encoded message written by an unknown author. Many skilled cryptographers have studied the document and attempted to break the supposed code it contains. However, up to now, none of them were able to crack it.
Because of the enigma surrounding the Voynich manuscript, many questions are left in the air. Does the Voynich manuscript really contain a secret message? If so, is this encoded message an unknown language that we are unable to break? Or, is the book a complete hoax?
What is the Voynich Manuscript?
The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex that is hand-written in an unknown writing system. The text is believed to have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance, and it is named after Wilfrid Voynich, the Polish book dealer who purchased the manuscript in the early 20th century. The Voynich manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, which include the American and British codebreakers from the two World Wars. And since no one has succeeded in the deciphering its contents, it remains a famous and exciting case in the history of cryptography. At present, the manuscript is safeguarded in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and is referred to as a “Cipher Manuscript.”
History of the Voynich Manuscript
Much of the early history of the book is unknown, and like its contents, the history of ownership of the Voynich manuscript is contested and filled with some gaps. However, it has generally been agreed on that the text and illustrations of the manuscript are all characteristically European. According to a radiocarbon dating performed by researchers of the University of Arizona on the manuscript’s vellum in 2009, the Voynich manuscript could be dated between 1404 and 1438.
The first confirmed owner of the text was George Baresch, an obscure alchemist from Prague who lived between the 16th and 17th century. Upon his death, the manuscript was passed on to his friend Jan Marek Marci – a rector of Charles University in Prague – who in turn, sent the text to Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher from the Collegio Romano. There are no records of the book for the next 200 years after it remained in the library of the Collegio Romano. It is assumed by some that the book probably remained there until the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured the city in 1870 and annexed the Papal States. The new Italian government seized many properties of the church, including the library of the Collegio. Before this could be initiated, many of the university library’s books were transferred to the personal libraries of its faculty, and one of them was the Voynich manuscript which was in the private library of Petrus Beckx, the university’s rector at the time.
Around 1912, the Collegio Romano sold some of its holdings discreetly, with Wilfrid Voynich acquiring 30 manuscripts in the process. Among them was the mysterious manuscript which now bears his name. In 1930, the manuscript was inherited after Wilfrid’s death by his widow Ethel Voynich. When she died in 1960, she left the manuscript to her close friend Anne Nill, who sold the book in 1961 to antique book dealer Hans P. Kraus. When Kraus was unable to find a buyer for the manuscript, he then donated it to Yale University in 1969.
Description of the Voynich Manuscript
The physical characteristics or the codicology of the Voynich manuscript have been studied by various researchers. Some of its pages are missing, but there are currently around 240 vellum pages in existence, with a size of 23.5 by16.2 by 5 centimeters. The manuscript contains mainly texts, consisting of over 170,000 characters that is mostly written in an unknown language which runs left to right. The book also contains various illustrations which can be identified according to different styles and subject matter.
Based on the subject matter of the drawings found in the text, the contents of the manuscripts fall into six sections: botanical, astronomical, biological, cosmological, pharmaceutical and recipes. The botanical folios contain drawings of 113 unidentified plant species. The astronomical illustrations include astral charts with radiating circles, suns and moons, as well as Zodiac symbols. A biological section contains a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, while the cosmological section consists of an elaborate array of cosmological medallions which possibly depict geographical forms. The pharmaceutical folios are filled with drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots, while the last section contains continuous pages of text – which are believed to be recipes – with star-like flowers marking each entry in the left margin.
Purpose of the Voynich Manuscript
The overall impression given by the surviving leaves of the manuscript led some to believe that the Voynich manuscript is meant to serve as a pharmacopoeia or a book containing directions for the identification of compound medicines, or to address topics in medieval or early modern medicine. However, the unusual and intriguing details of the drawings have fueled many theories about the book’s origin, its contents, as well as the purpose for which it was intended.
Theories About the Voynich Manuscript
The Voynich manuscript is the subject of many hypotheses, particularly about its language, the Voynichese. According to the “letter-based cipher” theory, the manuscript contains meaningful text that was written in some European language that was intentionally rendered obscure. This was done by mapping the message to the alphabet of the manuscript by means of a cipher whose algorithm operated on individual letters. The main argument of this theory maintains that it is difficult to explain a European author using a strange and mysterious alphabet if not to conceal information. For most 20th-century experts who attempted to decipher the text, like the informal team of NSA cartographers led by William F. Friedman in the early 1950s, this particular theory is heavily supported as a working hypothesis that could unlock the alleged secrets of the manuscript.
There is also another theory – the “codebook cipher” theory – claiming that the “words” found in the Voynich manuscript could actually be codes that can be looked up in a “dictionary” or codebook. Another theory holds that the text of the manuscript is mostly meaningless, but contains meaningful information hidden in inconspicuous details – for example, the second letter of each word, or the number of letters in each line. Needless to say, none of these working hypotheses have successfully decoded the message concealed in the words and illustrations of the manuscript, if there were such hidden information in the first place.
Is the Book a Hoax?
Because of the bizarre features of the texts of the Voynich manuscript, as well as the suspicious contents of its illustrations, there are also theories that support the idea that the manuscript is nothing more than a hoax. According to the supporters of this theory, if no one is able to extract the meaning of the book’s contents, then perhaps it is because the document contains no meaningful content at all.
Those who argue for authenticity, however, maintain that the manuscript appears to be too sophisticated to be just a hoax. While hoaxes during that period were usually crude, the Voynich manuscript exhibits several subtle characteristics that only become evident after careful statistical analysis. If the book is simply a hoax, why would the author employ a complex and difficult algorithm if no one in the expected audience could be able to tell the difference?
Marcelo Montemurro, a theoretical physicist from the University of Manchester, for example, studied the linguistic patterns in the Voynich manuscript extensively. He found the presence of semantic networks like content-bearing words occurring in a clustered pattern, as well as new words being utilized when there was a shift in topic. With this evidence, Montemurro believed that it is highly unlikely that these features were just “incorporated” into the text to make a hoax seem more realistic.
At the way things are going at present, the Voynich manuscript is still a long way from being understood, and it will most likely remain a riddle for a very long time, if not permanently. What we can be sure of is that the manuscript will continue to become a subject matter that sparks intense debates among scientists, pseudoscientists and mystics. And even without wild speculations, the Voynich manuscript is, without a doubt, a fascinating artifact of mankind’s history and culture.