The Voynich Manuscript

The infuriating Voynich Manuscript (A.K.A. “Beinecke MS 408″, or “the VMs”) contains about 240 pages of curious drawings, incomprehensible diagrams and undecipherable handwriting from five centuries ago. Whether a work of cipher genius or loopy madness, it is hard to deny it is one of those rare cases where the truth is many times stranger than fiction.

Its last four hundred years of history can be squeezed into eight bullet points (though there’s much more detail here if you’re interested):-

  • Circa 1600-1610, it was (very probably) owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II
  • Circa 1610-1620, it was (very probably) owned by Rudolf II’s “Imperial Distiller” Jacobus z Tepenecz
  • Circa 1630-1645, it was owned by (otherwise unknown) German Bohemian alchemist Georg Baresch
  • Circa 1645-1665, it was owned by Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland, who gave it to Athanasius Kircher
  • For the next few centuries, it was (almost certainly) owned by Jesuits & moved around Europe
  • In 1912, it was bought (probably for peanuts) by dodgy antiquarian book dealer Wilfrid Voynich
  • He bequeathed it to his wife Ethel, who bequeathed it to Anne Nill, who sold it to H. P. Kraus in 1961
  • In 1969, Kraus donated it to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

However, before 1600 things quickly get murky, to the point that the list of “very probably true” things we can say about the Voynich Manuscript’s early art history is embarrassingly short:-

  • Radiocarbon tests carried out in 2009 date itsvellum to between 1404 and 1438 with 95% certainty, though as yet there is no cast-iron proof that the text and drawings were added straight away
  • The clear, upright handwriting is most often described as being reminiscent of either Carolingian minuscule (800-1200) or its Italian Quattrocento revival form, the “humanist hand” (circa 1400-1500) – the radiocarbon dating points to the latter
  • Several of its drawings have parallel hatching (similar to Leonardo da Vinci’s); so it was probably made after 1410 if from Germany, after 1440 if from Florence, or after 1450 if from elsewhere
  • Two owners have added writing in [what appear to be] fifteenth century hands; so it was probably made before 1500
  • Some marginalia (in the zodiac section) appear to be in Occitan, where the spelling most resembles that known to be from Toulon; so it is probable that the manuscript spent some time in South West France
  • There is strong codicological evidence that the current page order and binding order differ from the original i.e. that both the folio (leaf) numbers and quire (group) numbers were added at a later date
  • A small number of the manuscript’s plant drawings do seem to depict actual plants (f2v has a water lily, for example), though most do not

It should be pretty clear that we have two quite separate types of historical data here – pre-1500 (codicological) and post-1600 (archival) – with no obvious way of crossing the roughly century-long gap between them.

My opinion (which you can take or leave) is that if we put more palaeographic effort into reading the VMs’ marginalia, we would very probably improve on this unsatisfactory situation. For example, I believe that the top line of f116v says [something like]por le bon simon s(int)…“, and that this was possibly even written by the original author. Furthermore, I suspect taht some of the ‘chicken scratch’ marginalia may be ink blots saying “Simon”, and that these were added in the middle of the 15th century, near the start of the VMs’ life. But who was this ”Simon”?

Putting all the wobbly factuality to one side, this VMs account would be woefully incomplete if it failed to mention the sheer intellectual romance of such a mystery-filled mega-object, the tragi-comedy of all the mad theories surrounding it, let alone the blood-spattered trail of ruined reputations and wasted lives dripping behind this inscrutable “Sphinx”. For centuries, it has acted as a blank screen for numerous people to project their (often somewhat demented) historical / cryptological / novelistic fantasies onto, or if not that then an academic cliff to throw their hard-earned reputation over: yet recently there are signs that a few people are (at long last) starting to look at the VMs with (relatively) clear eyes. (Better late than never, I suppose!)

Arguably the biggest question to face up to is this: when people try to understand the VMs, why does it all go so wrong? I suspect that the confusion arises from the central paradox of the Voynich Manuscript – the way that its text resembles some unknown (perhaps lost, secret, or private) simple language while simultaneously exhibiting many of the properties you might expect to see of a complex ciphertext (i.e. an enciphered text). Any proposed explanation should therefore not only bridge the century-long historical gap, but also demonstrate why the VMs appears both ‘language-y’ and ‘cipher-y’ at the same time.

To illustrate this, here are some practical examples of the way Voynichese letters ‘dance’ to a tricky set of structural rules. Individual letter-shapes frequently occur…

  • …as the first letter of a page (e.g. the ornate “gallows” letters, EVA “t”, “k”, “p”, “f”)
  • …as the first letter of a paragraph (e.g. EVA “t”, “k”, “p”, “f”)
  • …as the first letter of a line (e.g. EVA “s”)
  • …as the last letter of a line (e.g. EVA “m” or “am”)
  • …as the first letter of a word (e.g. EVA “qo”)
  • …as the last letter of a word (e.g. EVA “y” or “dy”)
  • …as separated pairs on the top line of a page (e.g. EVA “p” or “f”)
  • …as a paired letter (e.g. EVA “ol”, “or”, “al”, “ar”)
  • …unrepeated, except in EVA “ee” / “eee” / “ii” / “iii” sets.

…and so on. From a code-breaker’s point of view, this basically rules out Renaissance polyalphabetic ciphers, because they use multiple alphabets (or offsets into alphabets) to destroy the outward signs of internal structure – and what we see here has even more signs of internal structure than normal languages. Yet just to be confusing, some of the letter-shapes resemble shorthand both in their shape and their apparent positioning within words.

So… is ‘Voynichese’ a language, a shorthand, a cipher, or perhaps some carefully-orchestrated jumble of all three? Right now, nobody can say – but perhaps it is this ‘hard-to-pin-down-ness’ that has managed to keep the Voynich’s mystery alive for all this time. Once you can appreciate that Voynichese is almost the opposite of chaotic – that its absence of randomness is possibly its most remarkable aspect – but yet none of the many visible patterns seem to help us decrypt it, you’ll perhaps begin your own journey into its mystery. Enjoy!

49 Comments

  1. avatar Diane October 21, 2012 8:11 am

    Nick,
    Do you recall who gave the opinion that the script was like “Carolingian minuscule or its Quattrocento revival”?

  2. avatar nickpelling October 21, 2012 8:44 am

    Diane: Barbara Barrett argued for this most forcefully, but many others have pointed out the same thing many times.

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  3. avatar Diane October 21, 2012 12:04 pm

    OK – thanks – I’ll see if I can find a citation.

    It’s very kind of you to answer these questions on posts four years old (and still solid gold). I should name you as technical advisor, I think.

    D

  4. avatar Andy March 29, 2013 12:56 am

    Witchcraft?.

    A “how to” instruction book. A form of ciphered communication in times of persecution. Fixation on herbs, the female body and astronomy.

  5. avatar Diane O’Donovan May 7, 2013 11:36 am

    Nick – all the facts (and deafening absence of evidence) considered, it is time that the solitary second-hand allegation that Rudolf had ever owned the book really ought to be dropped.

    The known provenance of ms Beinecke 408 begins with Tepenec and passes through Baresch-and-Marci to Kircher.

    That’s it.

    I’ve just enquired of Rene Zandbergen, as the person most likely to be au fait with the latest information, if we had any more evidence for that reported assertion by Mnishovsky thanfor the other two – vis. Bacon’s authorship and the 600 ducats.

    Rene seemed to find the question distressing, but from his responses, I gather than the answer is the same for all three of those assertions.

    They are things which Marci says Mnishovsky alleged.

    No proof of, or supporting evidence for, *any* of the three has ever been found.

    The Baconian authorship has generally been discarded, I think it’s fair to say.

    Rene Z. himself has argued in various ways to minimise the “600 ducats” – no record of any such amount has ever turned up in any relevant account, just as the manuscript has never been found in any Habsburg inventory.

    So – logically – all three are equally unsupported ideas which if maintained may serve only to misdirect research.

    I’ll post the same on my blog.

  6. avatar Amit Gupta June 16, 2013 8:05 am

    I have solved the mystery of Voynich manuscript.
    The cipher code’s are with me.

  7. avatar nickpelling June 16, 2013 8:21 am

    Amit: why are you so sure that your decryption is the correct decryption?

    It is relatively easy to devise a plausible decryption for a few words of the Voynich, extraordinarily hard to sustain one for a whole page, excruciatingly hard to do the same for the entire manuscript.

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  8. avatar Joao July 26, 2013 3:08 pm

    First of all let me thank you for your wonderful blog. I am no code-breaker and never had the “brains” to even try once to decypher any text or manuscript whatosever. I’ve “landed” into your world because of McCormick notes (Which I think if they’re actually encrypted code messages it wasn’t wrote by him) but it’s not because of those weird notes I am about to comment but about the absolutely remarkable and everestian top cypher called The Voynich Manuscript. I already read dozens of texts and material about it and I still don’t understand how contemporary people still say (even if they say he was not the one) that friar Roger Bacon wrote the manuscript. For God sake’s, the University of Arizona technicians already examined it in 2009 thru RadioCarbon and dated it with 95% probability to the 15th century. Roger Bacon died in 1294… that’s the 13th Century!

  9. avatar nickpelling July 26, 2013 3:48 pm

    Joao: it’s only a few centuries, too small a period to get really upset over… the Voynich theories involving aliens and time travel are the ones that you really have to watch out for. :-)

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  10. avatar Joao July 26, 2013 3:52 pm

    Well Nick, those theories I can handle it very well… if I start to read ufos or something similar, I just click that useful X bottom on my upper right corner of my webbrowser. eheheh

  11. avatar nickpelling July 26, 2013 3:55 pm

    Joao: if I did that for every rubbish Voynich theory I see on the Internet, I’d probably wear my browser’s [X] button out. ;-)

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  12. avatar Joao July 29, 2013 9:27 am

    @Nick: Lol. Well Nick, there is an absolute certainty about the images: They were drawn on the manuscript before the enigmatic writtings. Although, many say the drawings about the flowers doesn’t resemble anything seen in our world, we can suppose the creator of them was very childish while illustrating them. The illustrations are so bad delineated that the author could be picturing a poppy, but the thing seems to go awfully wrong.

  13. avatar Joao July 30, 2013 9:51 am

    Nick can you point out the best non-fiction book about the Voynich? I don’t know if this is correct, but your book at Amazon UK is being sold for a staggering $1,177.83????? (http://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/0955316006/ref=dp_olp_new?ie=UTF8&condition=new). A mistake? What do you think about Gerry Kenedy’s book about it? Thanks

  14. avatar nickpelling July 30, 2013 11:26 am

    Joao: ah, that is because you are looking at the Amazon US site (.com), whereas I sell it new for £9.95 on the Amazon UK site (.co.uk). Sorry, but that’s just the way that Amazon Marketplace works.

    Of course, when I stop selling it, the price will shoot up to silly levels… but for now it’s still affordable. :-)

    PS: if you order direct from Compelling Press instead, I’ll sign your copy & add your name anagrammed at the front: http://www.compellingpress.com/voynich/

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  15. avatar Joao July 30, 2013 12:36 pm

    @Nick: Thank you for the info. About the high price, it was a typo in the UK ackronym. I meant US. Ok, I am in doubt about buying or your book or Gerry Kenedy’s. I made a bit of research and you two seem to hold the best info about the Manuscript even if both of you go in different directions. Maybe I buy both. You publisher is based in the UK? I usually use Amazon UK because the delivery to Portugal is much cheaper rather than acquire something from the US. Have you read “The Voynich Manuscript: The Unsolved Riddle of an Extraordinary Book Which has Defied Interpretation for Centuries” by gerry Kennedy? If so, it’s any good? Thanks again.

  16. avatar nickpelling July 30, 2013 12:52 pm

    Joao: Kennedy & Churchill’s book is readable and a good all-round reference, but Curse contains fairly cutting-edge research – I’d advise getting both, they are completely different beasts.

    Incidentally, the postage to Portugal is lower from Compelling Press than from Amazon Marketplace – I should have increased the postage charge last year but never got round to. Buy it before I change my mind! ;-)

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  17. avatar Joao July 30, 2013 2:32 pm

    Nick: Thanks for wasting your time replying to my questions. Unfortunately you make business with PayPal, an e-commerce payment company I had a grave issue back in 2005. If I am to buy your book will be thru Amazon UK regardless of shipment costs. No autograph for me I guess. :( Anyway, I went to René Zandbergen’s website as you had pointed and after reading some pages I feel I am becoming more and more addicted to know about this, as you say correctly, infuriating manuscript. For me the major key before talking about cyphers or cryptos is the ultimate question: What the purpose of the manuscript? Why coding it? Secret remedies using botanics? If it was written in subsequent years by other persons, there surely have to be some sort of keys to allow the coding to continue. As everybody says… an altogether baffling, enigmatic and perplexing mystery.

  18. avatar nickpelling July 30, 2013 2:46 pm

    Joao: I’ll have a word with Compelling Press’s shipping department (i.e. me) and will see what I can do about adding a dedication. ;-)

    My Voynich “old-timer” perspective is that anything to do with motives or reasons are best left for discussion over a beer or two. Though fun, such talk is only ever a distraction from the gritty business of working out what actually happened. :-)

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  19. avatar WL Holland September 3, 2013 11:24 pm

    Hi I dont know Latin, but just take a look at the Trotula and compare it with the VMS? I think it must be that, if text relates to drawings… There should be enough keys to start. You can see for example a white lily. They were mixed with honey. So the word honey must be on that page. Etc. Also the Viola Tricolor is clearly visible. What was it used for? Skin, cold, cough, high bloodpressure, indigestion etc. So you can expect these words to be present in some language. Please check trotula connection, I am not smart enough!

  20. avatar mindy dunn October 7, 2013 9:55 am

    Just wanted to post an update. Last night I finished a page on Elizabeth, Mary, their as yet unborn children, john, and jesus, and zachariah. Note: Zachariah, Mary, and John were mentioned by name. Elizabeth and Jesus were derived because of the story. Oh, Herod and his tax was also mentioned by name. Fairly similar to the biblical version, except it named a place of refuge, which I have likely identified.

    In addition, I figured out how to read one of the pages that has a column of letters separate from the text. I am super excited about this find and have just begun translation of the page.

    Also, I want to let people know, thus far, all the stories seem to be historic, and so far, even the myths have provided data which makes them seem more historic than mythological. Also, although some of the stories I have shared are religious, not all stories I have translated are. Further, not all religious stories are christian. Thus far at least one page is muslim, and at least one more may also be (the translated page is about a famous imam). Further, ancient myths are also present. And finally, there are likely pre christian jewish stories in the book. Currently, one page I have partially completed may reference a fairly famous Jewish king. Only because that page is not complete, I hesitate to state for certain the page is about the Jewish king i believe it references. I shall update on that later.

  21. avatar Jeff Haley October 17, 2013 9:08 pm

    Hi Nick

    Long time since we talked last. Hope you are well. Did you see the report of the analysis by Marcelo Montemurro?

  22. avatar Jeff Haley October 17, 2013 9:27 pm

    Simon in the margins? Remember Dee saying he say in Prague a book with strange symbols. Well….
    http://hurontaria.baf.cz/CVM/a11.htm

    Could Simon Baccalaureus Pragensis have written it already in Prague and this had been passed to Baresch?

  23. avatar Patrick David October 21, 2013 1:31 am

    http://ambushprinting.com/voynich-book/

    Just got my reproduction Voynich manuscript at the link above. great for researching the manuscript. it handmade and got the full foldout and everything.

  24. avatar kbnz November 14, 2013 7:37 am

    Wow, I really want that reproduction book (I’m a graphic designer and love things like that).
    Unfortunately I can’t afford it, but I can afford Nicks book, so I shall be buying one from your website soon. Sounds like a good read, I’m interested in reading more about the manuscript.

  25. avatar hakan January 13, 2014 1:00 pm

    I think, author of the ”voynich manuscript” knew the prime numbers

  26. avatar nickpelling January 13, 2014 9:12 pm

    hakan: errrm… why?

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  27. avatar hakan January 14, 2014 8:53 am

    Because, a prime number has no positive divisors. And he (she) also did so.

  28. avatar nickpelling January 14, 2014 8:59 am

    hakan: ok, but what in the Voynich Manuscript are you looking at that displays things with no positive divisors?

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  29. avatar hakan January 15, 2014 1:44 pm

    Mr. Pelling, i am working on. I believe, i have found a small clue. But i need more positive evidence. Whichever is most convenient to work in the first alphabet? Currier, EVA, Bennett or even? This is a big problem. Sorry, My English is not enough. Hopefully you can understand what I mean. Thank you.

  30. avatar nickpelling January 15, 2014 1:50 pm

    hakan: I’m most comfortable in EVA, as are most of my Voynich world readers. :-)

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  31. avatar hakan January 15, 2014 2:00 pm

    OK, many thanks

  32. avatar hakan January 17, 2014 8:58 am

    Emergency! Brain error! This is a full dependency. What to expect in the final stages of Voynich Dependency Disease?

  33. avatar nickpelling January 17, 2014 9:04 am

    hakan: apparently there are some online support groups for the untreatably Voyniched. :-)

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  34. avatar hakan January 17, 2014 9:29 am

    This is a challenge to human intelligence.

  35. avatar hakan January 17, 2014 9:44 am

    Anyone previously been formed relationships with prime numbers? But, this relationship does not work

  36. avatar hakan January 20, 2014 10:11 am

    Hi, anyone translate to first line of folio 17v with EVA? Many thanks.

  37. avatar Daniela January 26, 2014 1:29 pm

    Hi everyone, i just looked at the manuscript in PDF .Find some interesting things .At page 94(book page) is a plant ,actually is coloured so ,that when you scroll up and down fast ,is generated a optic ilussion.Check this out ,and give a feed back please .Sorry for my english:( not really good

  38. avatar Daniela January 26, 2014 4:36 pm

    Taking a better look on the drawings today ,saw some pics with plants am root drawings ,and actually i think it`s explains there how you can Combine some plants and make new species of plants and trees .And again later in the drawings ,i supose that there are some calender with the right time to plant them .Is just a Theorie ,please give me some Feedback

  39. avatar hakan February 11, 2014 4:14 pm

    29 Feb. 1420. Is it meaningful ?

  40. avatar hakan February 11, 2014 4:45 pm

    why, i can not sent a message?

  41. avatar kbnz March 7, 2014 3:38 pm

    Being a member of the SCA, the first thing I noticed was the archer wearing a chaperon and houppelande or waffenfrock (sp). I agree with the carbon dating and disagree with anyone who says the vm was illustrated before the 14th century. Unless the illustrator time travelled to 15th c europe.

  42. avatar Walrus Annsrul April 14, 2014 3:31 pm

    From the Bible in English:
    Lucifer is Satan
    firSt cLue is ana

    Read/Listen “The Heavens Open”, available on youtube

    She has talked to me from two different wombs/moms (reincarnated) in last couple years, the little girl Anna who dons the shoes with no soles, but yes she has a SOUL.
    It’s some kind of inside joke between her and the CREATOR I think I’m just starting to understand.

    All the kids now wear the new suits that have shoes without soles.

    And I don’t mean the author of the book Anne has talked to me, but the little girl who is a very old soul. No reason to be afraid of any spirits or even demons just tell them to go away out loud & they will. They have to if you tell them.

    Also
    M can be nn or w
    t can be f
    p can be b or d
    etc etc etc

    We are all eternal and have had multiple incarnations.

    Once you can learn to forgive everybody else it becomes easy to forgive yourself!

  43. avatar Carmen April 16, 2014 10:18 pm

    Hi Nick.
    I have a question that keeps going round my head and you or Rene Zandberger or any other scholar may know for sure.
    Two years ago or so I was reading “Fuentes para Paleografía Latina” written by Professor Juan Jose Marcos Garcia guindo.pntic.mec.es/~jmag0042/palefuen.html
    I asked him if he had heard about the Voynich MS but he had not. And he also said he recognized a humanist hand behind the MS. However, when I read his work on Paleographic Latin Fonts again (just few days ago)and I saw something related to the humanist handwriting. This new style did really start being used at the end of the fourteenth century and/or at the beginning of the fifteenth cent. But what is really interesting here is its use. What was it used for? According to Prof. Marcos Garcia, this humanist style was kept just for exquisite bibliophiles (sic). Therefore manuscripts in humanist handwriting were only transcriptions from classic works. Neither doctors nor lawyers would have used humanist writing if they were to publish their findings. The Gothic was still being used by that time. I mean humanist writing did not re-place the Gothic from its birth, a Caroline revival.
    So If the VMS is in humanist handwriting, does this not mean that the document was made on purpose for someone? A bibliophile? If so, for whom?
    As I often say, it is just an idea, not a theory.
    Thanks. :)

  44. avatar nickpelling April 17, 2014 8:25 am

    Carmen: the issue of Voynichese’s palaeographic hand isn’t quite as clear-cut as is often thought. Humanist handwriting was itself a revival of an earlier hand – Carolingian minuscule (IIRC), from several centuries earlier – and before the vellum radiocarbon dating this was sometimes held up as being evidence consistent with a much earlier date for the Voynich Manuscript. This implies:-
    * The VMs might be an intentional humanist hand (i.e. it’s deliberately supposed to look like that)
    * The VMs might be an unintentional humanist hand (i.e. the scribe had been trained to write with a humanist hand, and that’s just how it came out)
    * The VMs might be intended to resemble a much older (Carolingian minuscule) document

    It is easy to adduce evidence to support all three positions… but much harder to eliminate any of them. What do you think?

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

  45. avatar Carmen April 17, 2014 11:06 pm

    I don’t have an answer for that question. The more I read the less I know. And sorry to say I have more questions than suggestions. But If someone asks me what my hypothesis is, well, I think the answer is there, in front of us and the author must be laughing at our blindness. We are too near the picture to see the whole portrait.
    Now what I think about the three main points you have mentioned :
    * The VMs might be an intentional humanist hand (i.e. it’s deliberately supposed to look like that)
    1.- Why was the scribe going to use a completely new style, not even used by Dante, Petrarch or G. Boccaccio? These three humanist writers were aware of this revival. They loathed the baroque Gothic style and defended (as a part of this coming back to the classic world ) a renewal inside culture.
    And what’s more, they died before the Voynich was written. Do you see what I mean? If these three authors did not even use it, why was the scribe going to use it? Did he think he was a genius? :-)

    * The VMs might be an unintentional humanist hand (i.e. the scribe had been trained to write with a humanist hand, and that’s just how it came out)

    Unintentional… hhmm… I guess there is much more intention than what we really think of. The VMs is intentional on every page and behind most ducti there is an intentional mind writing an intentional text.=-O

    * The VMs might be intended to resemble a much older (Carolingian minuscule) document.
    (Carolingian, and not Caroline as I said. Sorry, my native language fault).
    That’s a very interesting idea because it agrees with the use of humanist handwriting at that time. He may want to resemble an expert scholar, what does he do then? He designs a very complicated manuscript in humanist writing devised to…whatever. If using the humanist style was seen as an exclusive fashion for wise men, he might have made of the manuscript his way of gaining popularity.
    En fin…(sighing in Spanish)
    Words, words, words… as Hamlet would say.
    Thanks for reading. Gracias.

  46. avatar Anton Alipov April 20, 2014 7:59 pm

    You may find my note about abomasum in f116v to be of interest.

    http://athenaea.net/index.php?id=53

    Thank you for your continuous VM research and popularization effort. Regards!

  47. avatar nickpelling April 20, 2014 9:50 pm

    Anton: interesting! Though I have to say that I’m far less confident than you are that we can read those three letters reliably from the scan – there seems to be a fold in the vellum running through, and the first letter looks (to my eye) closer to an interrupted ‘P’ character than to an ‘L’. But it’s definitely something that should be examined closer – it might be that Rene Zandbergen has access to better scans of that section from the Austrian documentary, I’ll ask him, see what he says. :-)

    http://www.nickpelling.com/

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