In 1912, rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich was rummaging through dusty chests of manuscripts at Villa Mondragone, a Jesuit college near Rome. The Jesuits decided to sell part of their centuries-old collection and invited him to see if anything turned out to be of interest. During the study, Voynich found, in his own words, the “ugly duckling” – a manuscript that has no analogues. As he flipped through the pages, his eyes fell on unusual illustrations and mysterious characters that formed a unique and unreadable font. He immediately recognized its value. Voynich bought the manuscript, and it soon caught the imagination of the whole world.
Today, the Voynich manuscript is known to be in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Scholars have pored over its contents for over a century, but no one has ever been able to understand its meaning. Do Voynich symbols encrypt a known language? Or is it a fictional alphabet? Is the content bullshit? What do the illustrations in the book mean? And what is its purpose? Such questions – and the lack of answers to them – have led to it being called the most mysterious manuscript in the world.
While much remains a mystery, recent scientific research has greatly improved our understanding of its origin and creation. Scholars have radiocarbon dated his parchment between 1404 and 1438 and have shown that his scribes used iron gall ink to write text and minerals to create pigments, consistent with materials used in the early 15th century. Taken together, these results strongly suggest that the manuscript is not a modern forgery.
All 234 pages of the manuscript (several additional pages are now missing) contain colorful illustrations of plants and herbs, symbols of the Zodiac, bathing women, strange pipes, a dragon and a castle, and other images. Collecting them together, historians have divided its contents into six categories: botanical, astronomical and astrological, biological or balneological (bathing helps alleviate health problems), cosmological, pharmaceutical, and recipes. Meanwhile, a statistical analysis of the manuscript’s unique writing has concluded that its content is not gibberish, and a recent examination of the handwriting has shown the text to be the work of five scribes writing in at least two dialects. It turns out that the real language is hidden behind the symbols.
Much of the history of the manuscript can also be reconstructed. Its first named owner appears to have been Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II of Prague, who bought it from an unnamed person for 600 ducats. Since Rudolf lived from 1552 to 1612, this leaves at least a century of earlier possession of the manuscript missing. From Rudolph, the manuscript passed to the court pharmacist Jakob Gorzicki de Tepenech, who wrote his name on the inside, and then, with other hands, to Johann Marcus Marcy, the royal physician and scientist. In 1665 or 1666 Marcy sent the manuscript from Prague to the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher in Rome, hoping that Kircher could crack its code. It then remained in the possession of the Jesuits until it was purchased by Voynich.
The place of creation of the Voynich manuscript remains unknown – the library catalog of Yale University carefully indicates. “Central Europe [?]as a publishing location, and we still can’t read its unique script or determine what language it hides. William Romaine Newbold, professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, made the first attempt to solve this problem in the 1920s. He attributed the manuscript to Roger Bacon, a famous 13th-century Franciscan friar and philosopher, and claimed that each Voynich symbol was made up of tiny Latin letters. His theory was discredited a few years after publication.
Little has changed since Newbold’s time—solutions appear with great regularity and are just as quickly rejected by scientists. Over the years, suggestions for a hidden language have included Medieval North Germanic, Aztec Nahuatl, Latin, and Proto-Romance. More recently, in 2020, Egyptologist Rainer Hannig concluded that the language is based on Hebrew. Researchers have also attempted to identify the plants depicted in the illustrations, with some claiming they represent species known from the Aztec world. However, until someone completely and conclusively translates the text of the manuscript, none of these theories can be proven.
It is therefore not surprising that with so many unknowns, the purpose of the Voynich manuscript cannot be determined with certainty. At this point, it is best to assume that this is the work of medical, magical, or scientific thought, but our understanding may change as scientific research continues and continues to uncover new clues.
Online conference will be hosted by the University of Malta from November 30 to December 1 and will bring together Voynich experts from around the world. After centuries of silence, perhaps the Voynich Manuscript will finally reveal its secrets.