The Voynich Manuscript – what is it and what does it mean?
Few artifacts have baffled historians like the Voynich Manuscript. It began attracting modern scholars’ interest after antique bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired it and published a short book on the manuscript’s history. The Voynich Manuscript is a 240-page book filled with medieval illustrations and with text written in an unknown language whose glyphs still confound cryptographers today. Still, what we do know about the history of the Voynich Manuscript tells us a lot about the production and transmission of written texts in the medieval and early modern period.
But what is the Voynich Manuscript?
The Voynich Manuscript is a small book bound in goatskin containing about 240 pages filled with (what we think are) scientific illustrations. There are six distinct sections split up by topic: botany, astronomy, biology/anatomy, astrology, pharmacology, with one last section that is mostly text. The most curious aspect of these illustrations is that most of the plants in both the botany and pharmacology section are largely unknown- historians and scientists alike have been unable to identify them. The biology section contains many illustrations of humans in pretty strange surroundings. Many of those drawings show mostly-naked people in large public baths that are connected by tubes. Some scholars have surmised that the illustrations represent alchemical processes or perhaps demonstrate different human organ systems. An ample amount of text accompanies each illustration but since no one can figure out the cryptic alphabet, the exact meaning of the manuscript’s many illustrations remains unknown.
Where was the Voynich Manuscript found?
Although the manuscript’s author remains unknown, historians have just begun to figure out the manuscript’s chain of ownership. The most recent private owner was the aforementioned antiquarian bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich, from whom the manuscript gets its name. Voynich had acquired the book in 1912 through a secret sale from a Catholic priest. The book was sold along with a number of other humanist and classical texts, so Voynich didn’t necessary seek out the book specifically. However, once he realized he had stumbled upon an incredibly strange book, he dedicated himself to finding out the history and meaning of it.
Voynich was able to trace back a rough history of the manuscript’s origin based on a letter that was tucked inside the front cover of the book. The letter was written in 1665 by Prague scientist Johannes Marcus Marci to another scientist, Athanasius Kircher, wherein he describes the cryptic nature of the book and its previous ownership by Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II (who reigned from 1552 to 1612). Historians have since recovered other letters relating to the manuscript and the earliest known owner after Rudolf II is Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenec, a lowly-born pharmacist who rose to nobility by cozying up with Rudolf II. It is believed that de Tepenec received the book as a gift from Rudolf II. The most interesting thing about all of the letters recovered about the manuscript is that none of these scientists had any idea what was written in the text, even though the text was written within a couple centuries of them studying it. They were just as confused as we are today!
Why would a bunch of medieval scientists and pharmacists have wanted to own a book that they cannot understand? It’s hard to imagine, given that we live in a world where books are bought and sold in millions of shops around the world, but in the medieval and early modern eras books were expensive and often extravagant items. Until Gutenberg came around and invented the printing press in 1440, most books were hand-written and illustrated. They took weeks if not months to produce, and only could be produced by masterfully-trained calligraphers and artists. Even after the invention of the press, many books with illustrations were hand-copied and drawn until well into the sixteenth century. For those reasons, books were not cheap and were a bit of a show-off item. If you were rich, you bought a lot of books and your big library was a sign of your immense wealth, power, and knowledge. It is likely that de Tepenec was interested in the book due to its scientific illustrations, but it is also very likely that owning such a weird and colorfully-illustrated text would be a conspicuous symbol of his newfound noble status.
After circulating among a few European scientists, the manuscript was donated to a Jesuit university along with a bunch of other scientific and philosophical texts. It subsequently bounced around a few different Jesuit institutions. The 1700s were punctuated by a few crackdowns on Jesuit organizations by various Catholic rulers across Europe, who seized land and books from a number of Jesuit universities. The Voynich Manuscript was secretly sent to a number of Jesuit universities in secrecy to avoid being seized. However, the Jesuits eventually sold the manuscript (along with others) to the Vatican towards the end of the nineteenth century due to financial difficulties. However, the manuscript was likely transferred to another Jesuit college in Germany after the supposed sale. Decades later, a Jesuit priest sold the manuscript and other antique books to Voynich.
When and where was the manuscript made?
While we don’t know who exactly produced the manuscript or what the text and illustrations mean, we do know roughly the date it was produced. Thanks to radiocarbon dating we know that the text was produced sometime between 1409 and 1429, about a hundred years before the first confirmed owner. Before the radiocarbon dating tests in 2009, some scholars were convinced that the text was a hoax- a modern fabrication meant to simply imitate the mysterious astrological and alchemical texts from the medieval period. Some scholars still maintain that it is a hoax, albeit a medieval one meant to stump and confound all those who flip through its pages. Scientists are still conducting tests on the physical attributes of the manuscript, including the chemicals found in the ink, in order to determine a possible geographical origin of the manuscript.
The illustrations themselves are stylistically reminiscent of Italian and German scientific illustrations from the 15th century. One of the only identifiable section of illustrations is the section on astronomy, where there are illustrations of animals and figures that clearly correlate with the Western zodiac. Art historians have pored through the zodiac illustrations and compared their minute details to other depictions of the zodiac in European texts from the period. However, the illustrations are not consistent with any single area or time period. For instance, the hat on the Sagittarius figure points to either Germany or Poland. Some of the other human figures are wearing clothing that was in fashion over a century before the book was produced. This inconsistency has caused some scholars to argue that the manuscript was merely the notebook of a student who copied illustrations from a variety of sources. Nevertheless, that does not account for the unidentified plant drawings, or the wet and wild human figures in the tube-connected baths.
So the illustrations are kind of weird, but why can’t we figure out the script?
The Voynich Manuscript is written in a loopy text that is completely unique. Most identifiable or readable text has been confirmed to have been written after the book itself was produced. Text appears on nearly every page of the manuscript, either in the illustrations themselves or alongside them. The use of ciphers (or encoded languages) in one’s own records was not entirely uncommon during the medieval period. It was basically like password-protecting your journal, but in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. That being said, cryptographers have been able to decode and translate many other historical ciphered texts. The Voynich Manuscript’s cipher is a really hard nut to crack.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle in decoding the cipher is the apparent inconsistency of spelling. There is a clear 24 to 26 letter alphabet (with some extraneous letters used only once or twice in the entire text), but the spelling of some words differs depending on its usage. Some researchers have noticed that there are no instances of corrections in the text- that is, there are no instances of words being crossed-out or covered up. Out of 35,000 words, over 8000 of the words are unique. Researchers have been able to work out that there is a complex set of rules dictating which letters can be written next to others, which letters can be doubled, etc. Some scholars argue that the text is doubly-encrypted Latin while others claim it is a kind of nonsensical glossolalia, like speaking in tongues. Still, after over one hundred years of constant research, the language in the manuscript continues to be a mystery.
Where do we go from here?
Despite the many centuries of frustration and headaches that the Voynich Manuscript has undoubtedly caused, many continue to comb through the text in search of its meaning and origin. The book currently resides at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. The library has graciously digitized the text, allowing scholars and laypeople to access the text online and investigate it for themselves. While scientific and historical research on the manuscript is still underway, we can only hope that someday someone will crack the code and reveal the true nature of the Voynich Manuscript.
Katie Blank is a Content Moderator and staff writer for Sporcle. She is also a PhD student studying South Asian history. Her guilty pleasures include binge-watching The Office and going to every metal concert she can.