The Voynich manuscript is a manuscript written in an otherwise
unknown alphabet. Various scientific tests to date have tended to
authenticate it - for example statistical analysis reveals it to
match real languages which have a different profile to made up ones
or cyphers. It has defied all efforts by linguists and cryptographers
to decode it. One popular theory is that it is a Cathar
Voynich manuscript appears to be a late mediaeval scientific compendium
written in an unknown cipher script. It has been dated to the fifteenth
or sixteenth centuries by Andrew Watson, an authority on the dating
of manuscripts. It is now MS 408 of the Beinecke library at Yale
All cipher texts of this length and of this period have yielded
easily to modern cryptanalysis techniques, but this one has defied
experts for 100 years, including the expert code breakers at Blechly
Park in the UK and their wartime counterparts in the US.
The manuscript is thought to have been written between 1450 and
1520. Its author, script and language remain a mystery.
The Voynich manuscript has been the object of intense study by
many professional and amateur cryptographers. Their failures has
turned the Voynich manuscript into a famous subject of historical
cryptology, but it has also given weight to the theory that the
book is simply an elaborate hoax, but statistical comparisons suggest
that it is not a sequence of arbitrary symbols.
his book Solution of the Voynich Manuscript: A liturgical Manual
for the Endura Rite of the Cathari Heresy, the Cult of Isis
(1987), Leo Levitov declared the manuscript a plaintext transcription
of a literary language. His proposed decryption has three Voynich
letters making a syllable, to produce a series of syllables that
form a mixture of medieval Flemish with many borrowed Old French
and Old High German words.
According to Levitov, the text concerned the rite of Endura - an
assisted suicide ritual for people near death. The Endura is most
famously associated with the Cathar
faith. Levitov explains that the chimerical plants are not meant
to represent any species of flora, but are secret symbols of the
faith. Women in the basins with elaborate plumbing represent the
suicide ritual itself, which he believed involved venesection: the
cutting of a vein to allow the blood to drain into a warm bath.
The constellations with no celestial analogue are representative
of the stars in Isis' mantle.
were certainly active in what is now northern Italy, but Levitov's
theory is questionable on several grounds. The Cathar faith a form
of Christian Gnosticism and not associated with Isis. Second, this
theory places the book's origins in the twelfth or thirteenth century,
which is older than modern dating suggests. Third, the Endura ritual
involved fasting, not venesection.
Most, but not quite all, of the Voynich MS is written in a script
that is not known from any other surviving document. Some pages
also feature curious illustrations.
It consists of characters - shown on the right - which are arranged
into what appear to be words, as in the example on the left.
Most of the text has been written from left to right and from top
to bottom. Especially on the so-called herbal pages it appears that
the illustration (or at least an outline of it) was on the page
before the text was added, as the text invariably avoids the illustrations.
some places individual 'words' are written near to elements of the
drawings. These are generally called 'labels'. Some complicated
pages contain diagrams, which are often circular in design and the
text occasionally seems to form an integral part of these drawings.
Sometimes the text is written along radii sometimes along the circumferences
of the circles.
There are a few lines or words in the MS which are not written
in the Voynich script. This 'extraneous writing' is in the normal
Roman alphabet, but is almost unintelligible.
Similarities with other scripts
Various attempts have been made to identify the script and it has
variously been interpreted as composed of Latin abbreviations, alchemical
symbols, a form of cypher, and Etruscan.
The following figure was created using the "Voynich EVA Hand 1"
font created by Gabriel Landini It is a sample transcription of
the start of folio 1r of the manuscript.
current estimates, the book originally had 272 pages in 17 quires
of 16 pages each. About 240 vellum pages remain today, and
gaps in the page numbering (which seems to be later than the text)
indicate that several pages were already missing by the time that
Voynich acquired it. A quill pen was used for the text and figure
outlines, and coloured paint was applied to the figures, possibly
at a later date. There is evidence that at one time the pages of
the book were rearranged into a different order.
The "biological" section of the manuscript has dense
text and illustrations showing nude women bathing.
The text was clearly written from left to right, with a slightly
ragged right margin. Longer sections are broken into paragraphs,
sometimes with "bullets" on the left margin. There is no obvious
punctuation. The ductus (the speed, care, and cursiveness with which
the letters are written) flows smoothly, suggesting that the scribe
understood what he was writing; the manuscript does not give the
impression that each character had to be calculated before being
inked onto the page.
The text consists of over 170,000 discrete glyphs (or characters),
usually separated from each other by small gaps. Most glyphs are
written with one or two simple pen strokes. While there is some
dispute as to whether certain glyphs are distinct or not, an alphabet
with 20-30 glyphs would account for virtually all of the text -
exceptions are a few dozen rarer characters that occur only once
or twice each.
Wider gaps divide the text into about 35,000 "words" of varying
length. These seem to follow phonetic or orthographic laws of some
sort; e.g. certain characters must appear in each word (like
the vowels in English), some characters never follow others, some
may be doubled but others may not.
Statistical analysis of the text reveals patterns similar to natural
languages. For instance, word frequencies obey Zipf's law, and the
word entropy (about 10 bits per word) is similar to that of English
or Latin texts.herbal section, the first word
on each page occurs only on that page, and may be the name of the
Some words occur only in certain
sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript.
There are few repetitions among the thousand or so "labels" attached
to the illustrations. In the
The Voynich manuscript's "language" is unlike European languages
in some aspects. There are practically no words comprising more
than ten glyphs, and there are few one-letter or two-letter words.
The distribution of letters within the word is also odd: some characters
only occur at the beginning of a word, some only at the end, and
some always in the middle section - an arrangement found in Semitic
languages, but not in the Latin, Greek or Cyrillic alphabets. However,
there are various ways of writing the same letter in European languages:
(eg Greek s, German ss and Q/q English )
that differ only by one letter also repeat with unusual frequency.
The text seems to be more repetitious than a typical European language
- there are instances where the same word appears up to three times
in a row - not usual in European languages, but even less expected
in a fraudulent document.
There are a few words in the manuscript written in a seemingly
Latin script. On the last page, there are four lines which are written
in distorted Latin letters, and two words in the main script. The
lettering resembles European alphabets of the 15th century, but
the words do not seem to make sense in any language.
A series of diagrams in the "astronomical" section has the names
of ten of the months (from March to December) written in Latin script,
with spelling suggestive of the medieval languages of France or
the Iberian Peninsula. These bits of Latin script may have been
part of the original text, or may have been added at a later time.
for the last section, which contains only text, almost every page
contains at least one illustration. Illustrations of the manuscript
shed little light on its contents. They suggest that the book consists
of six "sections", with different styles and subject matter. The
sections, and their conventional names, are:
- Herbal - each page displays one plant (sometimes
two), and a few paragraphs of text - a format typical of European
herbals of the time. Some parts of these drawings are larger and
cleaner copies of sketches seen in the so-called pharmaceutical
section . None of the plants depicted are unambiguously identifiable,
despite some conscientious attempts
- Astronomical - contains circular diagrams, some
of them with suns, moons, and stars, suggestive of astronomy or
astrology. One series of 12 diagrams depicts conventional symbols
for the zodiacal constellations (two fish for Pisces, a bull for
Taurus, a hunter with crossbow for Sagittarius, etc.). Each symbol
is surrounded by exactly 30 miniature female figures. Most of
the females are depicted at least partially naked. Each is also
holding what appears to be a labelled star, or is shown with the
star attached by what could be a tether to either arm. The last
two pages of this section (Aquarius and Capricorn, roughly January
and February) were lost, while Aries and Taurus are split into
four paired diagrams with 15 stars each. Some of these diagrams
are on fold-out pages.
- Biological - a dense continuous text interspersed
with figures, mostly showing small nude women bathing in pools
or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes, some of them
shaped like body organs. Some of the women wear crowns.
- Cosmological - more circular diagrams, but of
an obscure nature. This section also has fold-outs; one of them
spans six pages and contains some sort of map or diagram, with
nine "islands" connected by "causeways", castles, and possibly
- Pharmaceutical - many labelled drawings of isolated
plant parts (roots, leaves, etc.); objects resembling apothecary
jars drawn along the margins; and a few text paragraphs.
- Recipes - many short paragraphs, each marked with
a flower-like (or star-like) "bullet".
earlier history of the manuscript is full of gaps, especially in
its earliest part. Since
the manuscript's alphabet does not resemble any known script, and
the text is undecyphered, the only useful evidence as to the book's
age and origin are the illustrations - especially the dress and
hairstyles of the human figures, and a couple of castles that are
seen in the diagrams. They are all characteristically European,
and based on that evidence most experts assign the book to dates
between 1450 and 1520. This estimate is supported by other secondary
The earliest confirmed owner of the manuscript was Georg Baresch,
an obscure alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 17th century.
Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as modern cryptologists about
this "Sphinx" that had been in his library for many years. On learning
that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano,
had published a Coptic dictionary and "deciphered" Egyptian hieroglyphs,
he sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome, asking for
clues. His 1639 letter to Kircher, recently located by Rene Zandbergen,
is the earliest known mention of the manuscript.
It is not known whether Kircher answered the request, but he was
interested enough to try to acquire the book, which Baresch apparently
refused to yield. Upon Baresch's death the manuscript passed to
his friend Jan Marek Marci (Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector
of Charles University in Prague; who promptly forwarded the book
to Kircher, his long-time friend and correspondent. Marci's cover
letter dated 1666 is still attached to the manuscript.
are no records of the book for the next 200 years, but it was probably
kept, with the rest of Kircher's correspondence, in the library
of the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University).
It would have 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 confiscated many properties of the Church,
including the library of the Collegio. According to investigations
by Xavier Ceccaldi and others, just before this happened many books
of the University's library were transferred to the personal libraries
of its faculty, which were exempt from confiscation. Kircher's correspondence
was among this transferred material and so apparently was the Voynich
manuscript, as it still bears the ex libris of Petrus Beckx, head
of the Jesuit order and the University's Rector at the time.
Beckx's "private" library was moved to the Villa Mondragone, Frascati,
a large country palace near Rome that had been bought by the Jesuits
in 1866 and became the headquarters of the Jesuits' Collegio Ghisleri.
1912 the Collegio Romano was apparently short of money and decided
to sell discreetly some of its holdings. A Polish-American book-dealer,
Wilfrid Voynich, acquired 30 manuscripts, among them the manuscript
that now bears his name.
In 1930, after his death, the manuscript was inherited by his widow
Ethel Lilian Voynich (daughter of the mathematician George Boole).
She died in 1960 and left the manuscript to her close friend, Miss
Anne Nill. In 1961, Anne Nill sold the book to another antique book
dealer Hans P. Kraus. Unable to find a buyer, Kraus donated the
manuscript to Yale University in 1969. The Voynich manuscript is
now item MS 408 in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
of Yale University. A facsimile edition was published in 2005.
Theories about authorship
names have been proposed as possible authors of the Voynich manuscript.
Marci's 1665 cover letter to Kircher says that, according to his
late friend Raphael Mnishovsky, the book had once been bought by
Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor of Bohemia (1552-1612) for 600 ducats.
According to the letter, Rudolf believed the author to be the Franciscan
friar and polymath Roger Bacon (1214-1294).
Even though Marci said that he was "suspending his judgement" about
this claim, it was taken quite seriously by Voynich, who did his
best to confirm it. His conviction strongly influenced most deciphering
attempts for the next 80 years. However, scholars who have looked
at the Voynich manuscript and are familiar with Bacon's works have
flatly denied that possibility. Mnishovsky died in 1644, and that
the deal must have occurred before Rudolf's abdication in 1611 -
at least 55 years before Marci's letter.
assumption that Roger Bacon was the author led Voynich to conclude
that the person who sold the Voynich manuscript to Rudolf could
only be John Dee, a mathematician and astrologer at the court of
Queen Elizabeth I, known to have owned a large collection of Bacon's
manuscripts. This theory is also conveyed by Voynich manuscript
scholar Gordon Rugg. Dee and his scrier (mediumic assistant)
Edward Kelley lived in Bohemia for several years where they had
hoped to sell their services to the Emperor. However, Dee's meticulously
kept diaries do not mention that sale, and make it seem unlikely.
If the Voynich manuscript author is not Bacon, the connection to
Dee may just disappear. It is possible that Dee himself may have
written it and spread the rumour that it was originally a work of
Bacon's in the hopes of later selling it.
companion in Prague, Edward Kelley, was a self-styled alchemist
who claimed to be able to turn copper into gold by means of a secret
powder which he had dug out of a Bishop's tomb in Wales. As Dee's
scrier, he claimed to be able to invoke angels through a
shewstone, and had long conversations with them - which Dee dutifully
noted down. The angel's language was called Enochian, after Enoch,
the Biblical father of Methuselah; according to legend, he had been
taken on a tour of Heaven by angels, and later written a book about
what he saw there. Several people (see below) have suggested that,
just as Kelley invented Enochian to dupe Dee, he could have fabricated
the Voynich manuscript to swindle the Emperor (who was already paying
Kelley for his supposed alchemical expertise).
Others suspected Voynich of having fabricated the manuscript himself.
As an antique book dealer, he probably had the necessary knowledge
and means; and a "lost book" by Roger Bacon would have been worth
a fortune. However, by expert internal dating of the manuscript,
and the recent discovery of Baresch's letter to Kircher, many consider
that possibility to have been eliminated. Still, internal dating is often highly speculative
and depends on many assumptions which may, themselves, be lacking
in hard factual support. There has also been debate over what date
the internal evidence suggests, with some scholars perceiving a
more modern date. Further, Baresch's letter (and Marci's as well)
only establish the existence of a manuscript; not that the
Voynich manuscript is the same one spoken of there. In fact,
their letters might even be taken as the motivation for Voynich
to fabricate the manuscript (assuming he was aware of them), rather
than as proofs authenticating it. But if a fabrication, the question
arises as to why neither Voynich nor his widow ever attempted to
sell it. To fabricate a document for profit but never attempt to
sell it would be highly unusual. Fame rather than fortune might
be speculated as a motive, but that would not explain why Voynich's
widow never attempted to sell the manuscript after his death. All
things considered, most who have studied the history of the manuscript
do not believe that Voynich fabricated the document.
A photostatic reproduction of the first page of the Voynich manuscript,
taken by Voynich sometime before 1921, showed some faint writing
that had been erased. With the help of chemicals, the text could
be read as the name 'Jacobj `a Tepenece'. This is taken to be Jakub
Horcicky of Tepenec, who was also known by his Latin name: Jacobus
Sinapius (1575-1622). He was a specialist in herbal medicine, Rudolph
II's personal physician, and curator of his botanical gardens. Voynich,
and many other people after him, concluded from this "signature"
that Jacobus owned the Voynich manuscript before Baresch, and saw
in that a confirmation of Mnishovsky's story. Others have suggested
that Jacobus himself could be the author.
that writing does not match Jacobus's signature, as found in a document
recently located by Jan Hurych. So it is still possible that the
writing on page f1r was added by a later owner or librarian,
and is only this person's guess as to the book's author. (In the
Jesuit history books that were available to Kircher, Jesuit-educated
Jacobus is the only alchemist or doctor from Rudolf's court who
deserves a full-page entry, while, for example, Tycho Brahe is barely
mentioned.) Moreover, the chemicals applied by Voynich have so degraded
the vellum that hardly a trace of the signature can be seen today;
thus there is also the suspicion that the signature was fabricated
by Voynich in order to strengthen the Roger Bacon theory.
Jan Marci met Kircher when he led a delegation from Charles University
to Rome in 1638; and over the next 27 years, the two scholars exchanged
many letters on a variety of scientific subjects. Marci's trip was
part of a continuing struggle by the secularist side of the University
to maintain their independence from the Jesuits, who ran the rival
Clementinum college in Prague. In spite of those efforts, the two
universities were merged in 1654, under Jesuit control. It has therefore
been speculated that political animosity against the Jesuits led
Marci to fabricate Baresch's letters, and later the Voynich manuscript,
in an attempt to expose and discredit their "star" Kircher.
Marci's personality and knowledge appear to have been adequate
for this task; and Kircher was an easy target. Indeed, Baresch's
letter bears some resemblance to a hoax that orientalist Andreas
Mueller once played on Kircher. Mueller concocted an unintelligible
manuscript and sent it to Kircher with a note explaining that it
had come from Egypt. He asked Kircher for a translation, and Kircher,
reportedly, produced one at once.
It is worth noting that the only proofs of Georg Baresch's existence
are three letters sent to Kircher: one by Baresch (1639), and two
by Marci (about a year later). It is also curious that the correspondence
between Marci and Kircher ends in 1665, precisely with the Voynich
manuscript "cover letter". However, Marci's secret grudge against
the Jesuits is pure conjecture: a faithful Catholic, he himself
had studied to become a Jesuit, and shortly before his death in
1667 he was granted honorary membership in their Order.
Raphael Mnishovsky, the friend of Marci who was the reputed source
of Bacon's story, was himself a cryptographer (among many other
things), and apparently invented a cipher which he claimed was uncrackable
(ca. 1618). This has led to the theory that he produced the Voynich
manuscript as a practical demonstration of his cipher - and made
poor Baresch his unwitting "guinea pig". After Kircher published
his book on Coptic, Mnishovsky (so the theory goes) may have thought
that stumping him would be a much better trophy than stumping Baresch,
and convinced the alchemist to ask the Jesuit's help. He would have
invented the Roger Bacon story to motivate Baresch. Indeed, the
disclaimer in the Voynich manuscript cover letter could mean that
Marci suspected a lie. However, there is no definite evidence for
Dr Leonell Strong, a cancer research scientist and amateur cryptographer,
tried to decipher the Voynich manuscript. Strong said that the solution
to the Voynich manuscript was a "peculiar double system of arithmetical
progressions of a multiple alphabet". Strong claimed that the plaintext
revealed the Voynich manuscript to be written by the 16th century
English author Anthony Ascham, whose works include A Little Herbal,
published in 1550. Although the Voynich manuscript does contain
sections resembling a herbal, the main argument against this theory
is that it is unknown where Anthony would have obtained such literary
and cryptographic knowledge.
Nick Pelling has developed a theory in his book that the Voynich
manuscript was written by Antonio Averlino (also known as "Filarete"),
an Italian renaissance architect. According to Pelling's theory,
Averlino tried to reach Istanbul around 1465, and enciphered in
the Voynich manuscript some of his own works about various engineering
topics to be able to export his knowledge to the Ottoman Turks past
Venetian border guards. The theory is based mainly on circumstantial
Pelling examines several characteristics of the cipher text and
suggests means of encryption Averlino might have employed, but does
not claim to have deciphered the contents. If Pelling is right,
then the manuscript is enciphered with an extremely convoluted cascade
of methods, including "fake" artefacts (odd characteristics of the
cipher text which hint to an enciphering method which was actually
not used.) He claims most of the marginalia are also fake,
and were deliberately introduced to mislead code-breakers.
Renaissance Magazine published a theory (issue #53, March 2007)
by H.R. SantaColoma which points out the similarity of several objects
in the Voynich manuscript to early microscopes. Cornelius Drebbel
is closely associated with the very earliest developments in microscopy.
This led the author to notice similarities between the artistic
style of Drebbel and various illustrations in the Voynich. In addition,
Drebbel became the head alchemist to Rudolf II at about the time
the Voynich is known to have been in Rudolf's court. The theory
concludes that the Voynich may be Drebbel's notebook of observations
and alchemy experiments, which he left in Prague after the coup
Prescott Currier, a US Navy cryptographer who worked with the manuscript
in the 1970s, observed that the pages of the "herbal" section could
be separated into two sets with distinctive statistical properties
and apparently different handwritings. He concluded that the Voynich
manuscript was the work of two or more authors who used different
dialects or spelling conventions, but who shared the same script.
Recent studies have questioned his conclusion. When all sections
are examined, one sees a more gradual transition, with Currier's
two parts at opposite ends. Thus, Currier's observations
could simply be the result of the herbal sections being written
by one author over a long period of time.
Theories about contents and
overall impression given by the surviving leaves of the manuscript
suggests that it was meant to serve as a pharmacopoeia or to address
topics in medieval or early modern medicine. However, the puzzling
details of illustrations have fuelled many theories about the book's
origins, the contents of its text, and the purpose for which it
The first section of the book is almost certainly herbal, but attempts
to identify the plants, either with actual specimens or with the
stylised drawings of contemporary herbals, have largely failed.
Only a couple of plants (including a wild pansy and the maidenhair
fern) can be identified with some certainty. Those "herbal" pictures
that match "pharmacological" sketches appear to be "clean copies"
of these, except that missing parts were completed with improbable-looking
details. In fact, many of the plants seem to be composite: the roots
of one species have been fastened to the leaves of another, with
flowers from a third.
Brumbaugh believed that one illustration depicted a New World sunflower,
which would help date the manuscript and open up intriguing possibilities
for its origin. However, the resemblance is slight, especially when
compared to the original wild species; and, since the scale of the
drawing is not known, the plant could be many other members of the
same family - which includes the common daisy, chamomile, and many
other species from all over the world.
The basins and tubes in the "biological" section may seem to indicate
a connection to alchemy, which would also be relevant if the book
contained instructions on the preparation of medical compounds.
However, alchemical books of the period share a common pictorial
language, where processes and materials are represented by specific
images (such as eagle, toad, man in tomb, couple in bed) or standard
textual symbols (such as circle with cross); and none of these could
be convincingly identified in the Voynich manuscript.
Sergio Toresella, an expert on ancient herbals, pointed out that
the Voynich manuscript could be an alchemical herbal - which
actually had nothing to do with alchemy, but was a bogus herbal
with invented pictures, that a quack doctor would carry around just
to impress his clients. Apparently there was a small cottage industry
of such books somewhere in northern Italy, just at the right epoch.
However, those books are quite different from the Voynich manuscript
in style and format; and they were all written in plain language.
Astrological considerations frequently played a prominent role
in herb gathering, bloodletting and other medical procedures common
during the likeliest dates of the manuscript (see, for instance,
Nicholas Culpeper's books). However, apart from the obvious Zodiac
symbols, and one diagram possibly showing the classical planets,
no one has been able to interpret the illustrations within known
astrological traditions (European or otherwise).
A circular drawing in the "astronomical" section depicts an irregularly
shaped object with four curved arms, which some have interpreted
as a picture of a galaxy that could only be obtained with a telescope.
Other drawings were interpreted as cells seen through a microscope.
This would suggest an early modern, rather than a medieval, date
for the manuscript's origin. However, the resemblance is rather
questionable: on close inspection, the central part of the "galaxy"
looks rather like a pool of water. Some of the images also look
quite like sea urchins.
Theories about the
theories have been advanced as to the nature of the Voynich manuscript
"language". Here is a partial list:
According to the letter-based cipher theory, the Voynich
manuscript contains a meaningful text in some European language,
that was intentionally rendered obscure by mapping it to the Voynich
manuscript "alphabet" through a cipher of some sort - an algorithm
that operated on individual letters.
This has been the working hypothesis for most deciphering attempts
in the twentieth century, including an informal team of NSA cryptographers
led by William F. Friedman in the early 1950s. Simple substitution
ciphers can be excluded, because they are very easy to crack; so
deciphering efforts have generally focused on polyalphabetic ciphers,
invented by Alberti in the 1460s. This class includes the popular
Vigenère cipher, which could have been strengthened by the
use of nulls and/or equivalent symbols, letter rearrangement, false
word breaks and so on. Some people assumed that vowels had been
deleted before encryption. There have been several claims of deciphering
along these lines, but none has been widely accepted - chiefly because
the proposed deciphering algorithms depended on so many guesses
by the user that they could extract a meaningful text from any random
string of symbols.
The main argument for this theory is that the use of a strange
alphabet by a European author can hardly be explained except as
an attempt to hide information. Indeed, Roger Bacon knew about ciphers,
and the estimated date for the manuscript roughly coincides with
the birth of cryptography as a systematic discipline. Against this
theory is the observation that a polyalphabetic cipher would normally
destroy the "natural" statistical features that are seen in the
Voynich manuscript, such as Zipf's law. Also, although polyalphabetic
ciphers were invented about 1467, variants only became popular in
the 16th century, somewhat too late for the estimated date of the
According to the codebook cipher theory, the Voynich manuscript
"words" would actually be codes to be looked up in a dictionary
or codebook. The main evidence for this theory is that the internal
structure and length distribution of those words are similar to
those of Roman numerals - which, at the time, would be a natural
choice for the codes. However, book-based ciphers are viable only
for short messages, because they are very cumbersome to write and
James Finn proposed in his book Pandora's Hope (2004)that
the Voynich manuscript is in fact visually encoded Hebrew.
Once the Voynich letters have been correctly transcribed, using
the European Voynich Alphabet (EVA) as a guide, many of the Voynich
words can be seen as Hebrew words that repeat with different distortions
to confuse the reader. For example, the word AIN from the manuscript
is the Hebrew word for "eye", and it also appears in different distorted
versions as "aiin" or "aiiin", to make it appear as though the words
are different when in fact they are the same word. Other methods
of visual encryption are used as well. The main argument for this
view is that it would explain the lack of success that most other
researchers have had in decoding the manuscript, because they are
based on more mathematical approaches to the decryption. The main
argument against it is that such a qualitative encoding places a
heavy burden on the talents of the individual decoder, given the
multiplicity of possible alternate visual interpretations of the
same text. It would be hard to separate how much interpretation
is of the genuine text, and how much simply reflects the bias of
the original interpreter.
Following its 1912 rediscovery, one of the earliest efforts to
unlock the book's secrets (and the first of, indeed, many premature
claims of decipherment) was made in 1921 by William Newbold of the
University of Pennsylvania. His singular hypothesis held that the
visible text is meaningless itself, but that each apparent "letter"
is in fact constructed of a series of tiny markings only discernible
under magnification. These markings, based on ancient Greek shorthand,
were supposed to form a second level of script that held the real
content of the writing. Using this knowledge, Newbold claimed to
have worked out entire paragraphs proving the authorship of Bacon
and recording his use of a compound microscope four hundred years
before Leeuwenhoek. However, John Manly of the University of Chicago
pointed out serious flaws in this theory. Each shorthand character
was assumed to have multiple interpretations, with no reliable way
to determine which was intended for any given case. Newbold's method
also required rearranging letters at will until intelligible Latin
was produced. These factors alone ensure the system enough flexibility
that nearly anything at all could be "read" in the microscopic markings,
which in any case are themselves illusory
Although there is a tradition of Hebrew micrography, it is nowhere
near as compact or complex as the shapes Newbold made out. Upon
close study, these turn out to be mere artefacts of the way ink
cracks as it dries on rough vellum, and an example of pareidolia.
Thanks to Manly's thorough refutation, the micrography theory is
This theory holds that the text of the Voynich manuscript is mostly
meaningless, but contains meaningful information hidden in inconspicuous
details - e.g. the second letter of every word, or the number of
letters in each line. This technique, called steganography, is very
old, and was described by Johannes Trithemius in 1499. Some people
suggested that the plain text was to be extracted by a Cardan grille
of some sort. This theory is hard to prove or disprove, since stegotexts
can be arbitrarily hard to crack. An argument against it is that
using a cipher-looking cover text defeats the main purpose of steganography,
which is to hide the very existence of the secret message.
Some people have suggested that the meaningful text could be encoded
in the length or shape of certain pen strokes. There are indeed
examples of steganography from about that time that use letter shape
(italic vs. upright) to hide information. However, when examined
at high magnification, the Voynich manuscript pen strokes seem quite
natural, and substantially affected by the uneven surface of the
Recently, a new theory has been put forward, suggesting elements
and substructures, rather than whole characters, might be the key
to deciphering the Voynich Manuscript.
Exotic natural language
The linguist Jacques Guy once suggested that the Voynich manuscript
text could be some exotic natural language, written in the plain
with an invented alphabet. The word structure is indeed similar
to that of many language families of East and Central Asia, mainly
Sino-Tibetan (Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese), Austroasiatic (Vietnamese,
Khmer, etc.) and possibly Tai (Thai, Lao, etc.). In many of these
languages, the "words" have only one syllable; and syllables have
a rather rich structure, including tonal patterns.
This theory has some historical plausibility. While those languages
generally had native scripts, these were notoriously difficult for
Western visitors; which motivated the invention of several phonetic
scripts, mostly with Latin letters but sometimes with invented alphabets.
Although the known examples are much later than the Voynich manuscript,
history records hundreds of explorers and missionaries who could
have done it - even before Marco Polo's thirteenth century voyage,
but especially after Vasco da Gama sailed the sea route to the Orient
in 1499. The Voynich manuscript author could also be a native from
East Asia living in Europe, or educated at a European mission.
The main argument for this theory is that it is consistent with
all statistical properties of the Voynich manuscript text which
have been tested so far, including doubled and tripled words (which
have been found to occur in Chinese and Vietnamese texts at roughly
the same frequency as in the Voynich manuscript). It also explains
the apparent lack of numerals and Western syntactic features (such
as articles and copulas), and the general inscrutability of the
illustrations. Another possible hint are two large red symbols on
the first page, which have been compared to a Chinese-style book
title, inverted and badly copied. Also, the apparent division of
the year into 360 degrees (rather than 365 days), in groups of 15
and starting with Pisces, are features of the Chinese agricultural
calendar (jie qi). The main argument against the theory is
the fact that no one (including scholars at the Academy of Sciences
in Beijing) could find any clear examples of Asian symbolism or
Asian science in the illustrations.
In late 2003, Zbigniew Banasik of Poland proposed that the manuscript
is plaintext written in the Manchu language and gave a proposed
incomplete translation of the first page of the manuscript.
Jim Child, a linguist of Indo-European languages, has proposed
that the manuscript is written in an early German language. His
paper describes the plausibility of this idea.
In their book, Kennedy and Churchill hint to the possibility that
the Voynich manuscript may be a case of glossolalia, channelling
or outsider art.
If this is true, then the author felt compelled to write large
amounts of text in a manner which somehow resembles stream of consciousness,
either due to voices heard, or due to his own urge. While in glossolalia
this often takes place in an invented language (usually made up
of fragments of the author's own language), invented scripts for
this purpose are rare. Kennedy and Churchill use Hildegard von Bingen's
works to point out similarities between the illustrations she drew
when she was suffering from severe bouts of migraine, which can
induce a trance-like state prone to glossolalia, and the Voynich
manuscript. Prominent features found in both are abundant "streams
of stars", and the repetitive nature of the "nymphs" in the biological
The theory is virtually impossible to prove or disprove, short
of deciphering the text; Kennedy and Churchill are themselves not
convinced of the hypothesis, but consider it plausible. One of the
drawbacks of this theory is that it fails to explain the deliberate
structure of the manuscript and the carefully crafted astrological
and botanical sections.
The peculiar internal structure of Voynich manuscript "words" has
led William F. Friedman and John Tiltman to arrive independently
at the conjecture that the text could be a constructed language
in the plain - specifically, a philosophical or a priori
language. In languages of this class, the vocabulary is organised
according to a category system, so that the general meaning of a
word can be deduced from its sequence of letters. For example, in
the modern constructed language Ro, bofo- is the category
of colours, and any word beginning with those letters would name
a colour: so red is bofoc, and yellow is bofof.
(This is an extreme version of the book classification scheme used
by many libraries - in which, say, P stands for language
and literature, PA for Greek and Latin, PC for
Romance languages, etc.)
This concept is quite old, as attested by John Wilkins's Philosophical
Language (1668), but still postdates the generally accepted
origin of the VM by two centuries. In most known examples, categories
are subdivided by adding suffixes; as a consequence, a text in a
particular subject would have many words with similar prefixes -
for example, all plant names would begin with the similar letters,
and likewise for all diseases, etc. This feature could then explain
the repetitious nature of the Voynich text. However, no one has
been able yet to assign a plausible meaning to any prefix or suffix
in the Voynich manuscript.
The bizarre features of the Voynich manuscript text (such as the
doubled and tripled words), the suspicious contents of its illustrations
(such as the chimeric plants) and its lack of historical reference
support the idea that the manuscript is really a hoax. In other
words, if no one is able to extract meaning from the book, perhaps
this is because the document contains no meaningful content in the
The argument for authenticity, on the other hand, is that the manuscript
appears too sophisticated to be a hoax. While hoaxes of the period
tended to be quite crude, the Voynich manuscript exhibits many subtle
characteristics which only show up after careful statistical analysis.
These fine touches require much more work than would have been necessary
for a simple forgery, and some of the complexities are only visible
with modern tools (like the prose's obedience to Zipf's law). The
question then arises: why would the author employ such a complex
and laborious forging algorithm in the creation of a simplistic
hoax, if no one in the expected audience (that is, the creator's
contemporaries) could tell the difference?
Various hoax theories have been proposed over time:
In 2003, computer scientist Gordon Rugg showed that text with characteristics
similar to the Voynich manuscript could have been produced using
a table of word prefixes, stems, and suffixes, which would have
been selected and combined by means of a perforated paper overlay.
The latter device, known as a Cardan grille, was invented around
1550 as an encryption tool, slightly after the estimated creation
date of the Voynich manuscript. Some maintain that the similarity
between the pseudo-texts generated in Gordon Drug's experiments
and the Voynich manuscript is superficial, and the grille method
could be used to emulate any language to a certain degree.
In April 2007, a study by Austrian researcher Andreas Schemer published
in Cryptologia supported the hoax hypothesis. Schemer showed
that the statistical properties of the manuscript's text were more
consistent with meaningless gibberish produced using a quasi-stochastic
method such as the one described by Rugg, than with Latin and medieval
German texts. However, this comparison is valid only for plain text
in European languages, or text enciphered with a simple substitution
cipher, while analysis suggests a much more complex enciphering
method for the Voynich manuscript (see "Letter-based cipher"
and "Exotic natural language" above).
In late 2007, Claude Martin claimed that the Voynich manuscript
is a hoax based on a convoluted
anagramming algorithm for numbers. For
example, the sequence 345678 would be retranscribed into 643875.
While such a method would produce text somewhat similar to that
of the Voynich manuscript, it's hard to explain why such a difficult
and time-consuming procedure would be used for a hoax.
Various transcription alphabets for the Voynich MS script have
been devised in the past. The First Study Group (FSG) of Friedman
defined an alphabet agreed by all members of the team. Using this
alphabet, they transcribed almost the entire MS in the 1940's. Because
of the desire for secrecy by Friedman, nobody outside his team was
aware of this transcription exercise or the alphabet they used.
Prof. Bennett of Yale University was one of the first to use the
computer to analyse parts of the Voynich MS text, and he therefore
needed a transcription alphabet.
Currier, working on his own, also devised a transcription alphabet.
When he presented his findings at the 1976 symposium, Mary D'Imperio
suggested that it would be important that all researchers use a
unified alphabet, and announced that she would abandon here own
in favour of Currier's.
Later, D'Imperio showed that many characters in the Voynich MS
cannot be represented exactly by any of the existing alphabets.
There are some 'rare' characters, and there are what appear to be
ligatures of several characters. This was reflected in a new generation
of transcription alphabets.
The first exponent of this was the 'Frogguy' alphabet by Jacques
Guy, first presented in 1991. This alphabet uses characters which
represents common 'strokes', and thus allows the representation
of the many ligatured characters using these strokes.
The second example of this is the EVA alphabet which will be used
throughout this site.
Overview of the alphabet
The FSG alphabet uses capital letters and numbers. It has an unusual
method for transcribing the 'intruding gallows', by using a special
symbol (Z) for the intruded pedestal.
The FSG transcription is well described in a paper by Jim Reeds
(ref). A printout of this transcription was found by Jim in the
Marshall library, and together with Jacques Guy he entered it in
computer readable form. This file is available
Currier had transcribed a significant part of the MS in his alphabet.
This uses the capital letters A-Z and the numbers 0-9 (i.e. all
36). Currier's alphabet does not represent some characters which
FSG does, and uses single characters for what appear to be composites.
Mary D'Imperio had also started transcribing parts of the MS using
her own alphabet, which she abdicated in favour of Currier's. The
two files were merged and the result is the most often-used transcription
of the MS, which, however, has some lacunae, which is not always
realised by its users.
This powerful alphabet was devised by Jacques Guy. It uses lower-case
characters, numbers and diacritical marks, and represents the closest
similarity with the original script. As a result of its analytical
nature, some characters which appear to be one, are represented
by several in this alphabet. See Jim Reeds'
The EVA alphabet was designed in the framework of a more recent
transcription effort. It is analytical, like Frogguy, but it uses
only lower-case alphabetical characters. These have also been chosen
in such a way that the transcribed text is almost pronounceable.
The power of this alphabet lies in the fact that it allows the definition
of 'rare' characters or character components using numerical strings,
in such a way that the entire MS can be represented. See the EVA alphabet reference page.
'Labels' is the term used for the appearance of single words or
short phrases near drawings. The suggestion is very strong that
the label gives the name of the item shown. The following types
of labels may be found in the Voynich Ms:
- Whole plant labels in the herbal section, on fol. 2r, fol. 41v (uncertain) and fol. 65r.
- A label near the dead body on fol. 66r.
- Star labels in the zodiac section, on fol. 70v2,1, fol. 71, fol. 72, fol. 73, and on the astronomical
See Don Latham's list of star names for
comparison with these labels.
- Labels near items in the illustrations of the biological section
- Labels near plant parts in the illustrations of the pharmaceutical
The term 'titles' was introduced by John Grove. It is a term used
for the occurrence of words appearing at the end of a paragraph
of text, written somewhat away from the main text (usually at the
right margin or centred).
Character or word sequences
In some circular designs and in the margins of some pages, sequences
of single characters or short words may be found. These are usually
referred to as key-like sequences.
- Erased character tables on fol. 1r.
- In the margin of fol.
- A four times repeating sequence of 17 characters, and further
sequences on fol.
- Characters and short words in the left margin of fol. 66r.
- Single characters, accompanied by the roman numbers 1-5, in
the left margin of f76r
Only very few barely legible phrases in the normal (non-Voynich)
alphabet may be observed in the Voynich MS. These are:
- The erased signature of Jacobus of Tepenec on fol. 1r.
- Erased character tables on fol. 1r.
- An unreadable comment near the top margin of fol. 17r.
- Some (German?) words on fol. 66r, near the dead body
of a man or woman, interpreted by R. Salomon as 'der Mussdel'.
- Strange, similar scribbles (perhaps not really text) on fol. 66v and fol. 86v3
- The characters 'a', 'b' and 'c' written in the top corners of
some pages (with pencil): fol.
67r1, 2, fol.
68r1, 2, 3, fol. 70r1, 2. These are written
in pencil and obviously originate from a later owner of the MS.
- Month names in a not yet fully identified language or dialect
on each of the zodiac pages: fol.
71, fol. 72 and fol. 73.
- Three lines of perhaps magical words on fol. 116v, possibly representing
a decipherers attempt at reading the Ms.
- Voynich, Wilfrid Michael (1921). "A Preliminary Sketch
of the History of the Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript". Transactions
of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia 3
(43): 415 - 430.
- Manly, John Mathews (1921), "The Most Mysterious Manuscript
in the World: Did Roger Bacon Write It and Has the Key Been
Found?", Harper's Monthly Magazine 143, pp.186
- Manly, John Matthews
(1931). "Roger Bacon and the Voynich MS". Speculum
6 (3): 345 - 391.
- McKenna, Terence, "The Voynich Manuscript", in
his The Archaic Revival (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991),
pp.172 - 184.
- William Romaine
Newbold (1928). The Cipher of Roger Bacon. Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- M. E. D'Imperio (1978). The Voynich Manuscript: An
Elegant Enigma. Laguna Hills, California: Aegean Park
Press. ISBN 0-89412-038-7.
- Robert S.
Brumbaugh (1978). The Most Mysterious Manuscript: The
Voynich 'Roger Bacon' Cipher Manuscript. Carbondale,
Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0-8093-0808-8.
- John Stojko
(1978). Letters to God's Eye. New York: Vantage Press.
- Leo Levitov
(1987). Solution of the Voynich Manuscript: A liturgical
Manual for the Endura Rite of the Cathari Heresy, the Cult
of Isis. Aegean Park Press. ISBN 0-89412-148-0.
- Mario M. Pérez-Ruiz
(2003). El Manuscrito Voynich (in Spanish). Barcelona:
Océano Ambar. ISBN 84-7556-216-7.
- Lawrence and
Nancy Goldstone (2005). The Friar and the Cipher: Roger
Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript
in the World. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-7679-1473-2.
Violat Bordonau (2006). El ABC del Manuscrito Voynich
(in Spanish). Cáceres, Spain: Ed. Asesores Astronómicos
- Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript
Library gallery of high resolution digital scans of the
for downloading and using the high resolution scans of the
the complete Voynich Manuscript in pdf
The Voynich Manuscript Comprehensive information and
Stolfi's Voynich Manuscript stuff
- Voynich Manuscript
- Voynich Central
resources, gallery and personal research websites
of the Journal of Voynich Studies a more formal research
- Dr Vladimir
Sazonov's Voynich manuscript analysis site
- Elements ans substructures in the Voynich manuscript
- Scientific American: The Mystery of the
- Nature news article: World's most mysterious
book may be a hoax A summary of Gordon Drug's paper
directed towards a more general audience
- An interactive timeline
of events surrounding the Voynich manuscript
of owners of the Voynich Manuscript
between the Voynich Manuscript and the Necronomicon
- Voynich/Drebbel Theory Explores a possible
connection between the Voynich manuscript and Cornelius
- Le Code Voynich, the whole manuscript
published with a short presentation in French, ed. Jean-Claude
Gawsewitch, (2005) ISBN 2-35013-022-3.
- Poundstone, William. "Labyrinths of Reason:
Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge". Random
House, December, 1989. p. 194. ISBN 0-385-24271-9
- Pelling, Nicholas John. "The Curse
of the Voynich: The Secret History of the World's Most Mysterious
Manuscript". Compelling Press, 2006. ISBN 0-9553160-0-6
Gabriel (October 2001). "Evidence of linguistic structure in the Voynich
manuscript using spectral analysis". Cryptologia
25 (4): 275-295. Retrieved on 2006-11-06.
- Palmer, Sean B. (2004). "Notes
on f116v's Michitonese"
- Palmer, Sean B. (2004). "Voynich Manuscript: Months"
MS - Long tour: Known history of the manuscript
of the manuscript. Voynich MS. Retrieved on 2006-11-07.
E. Finn (2004). Pandora's Hope: Humanity's Call to Adventure :
A Short and To-the-Point Essential Guide to the End of the
World. PublishAmerica. ISBN 1-4137-3261-5.
- Zbigniew Banasik's Manchu theory
Kennedy, Rob Churchill (2004). The Voynich Manuscript.
London: Orion. ISBN 0-7528-5996-X.
- http://www.geocities.com Critical analysis
of Levitov's book
- Gordon Rugg. Replicating the Voynich Manuscript. Retrieved
- D'Agnese, Joseph. "Scientific Method Man". Wired, September
2004. Retrieved on March10, 2008.
- Andreas Schemer (April 2007). "The Voynich Manuscript: Evidence of the Hoax
Hypothesis". Cryptologia 31 (2): 95 -
107. ISSN 0161-1194.
Retrieved on 2007-08-22.
- Voynich, the
game is over - How the Voynich manuscript has been encrypted
and what it contains
If you are more interested in the Cathars of the Languedoc, you
might be more interested in Cathar Country Tours.