Manuscript Road Trip

Manuscript Road Trip: The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

We can’t leave New Haven until I introduce you to The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript.

I won’t deny it. I have been captivated by Beinecke MS 408 since I first laid eyes on it in my “Introduction to Latin Paleography” class at Yale in the fall of 1988. It has been called “The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript,” “The Roger Bacon Cipher,” a Sphinx, a hoax, a conspiracy, the work of a madman, the work of a genius.

It is The Voynich Manuscript.

f. 75r detail

If you Google the words “Voynich Manuscript,” you will tumble down a rabbit hole into a dark scary corner of the internet full of alien abductions, seances, conspiracy theories, and secrets. You will stumble into heated debates between fellow obsessives who have devoted their lives to this codex. You will discover sub-specialties you didn’t know existed. Follow an innocuous-looking link and you may find yourself face-to-face with William Shatner or Noah Wyle’s Librarian. You will also find, if you sift through the static, complex linguistic studies, mathematically sophisticated cryptology, relatively conclusive carbon-dating analyses, and a surprisingly interesting bit of botany.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those of you who aren’t already steeped in Voynich lore, here are the basics.

The Voynich Manuscript – a medieval codex named for its early twentieth-century owner Wilfrid Voynich – is written in an unknown alphabet apparently encoding an unidentified language, embellished with astonishing botanical, astronomical, and biological illustrations. Cryptologists and mathematicians and linguists worldwide have been studying this manuscript for hundreds of years, and no one has ever offered a satisfactory solution to the enigma that is the Voynich.

f. 70r detail

Measuring 225 x 160 mm, the manuscript currently comprises 102 leaves (at least a dozen are missing), including several multi-page fold-outs. The limp-vellum binding is early, but probably not original. For a complete description and details about accompanying ephemera, see Barbara Shailor’s description here.

The codex begins with with 66 folios of botanical illustrations and accompanying texts. The fantastic and impossibly elaborate plants have resisted any attempts to fully identify them.

f. 3r

f. 16v

The next section is comprised of a series of astrological and astronomical diagrams, including ten circular diagrams surrounding signs of the zodiac (two are missing). The miniature naked women standing in baskets who populate the rest of the manuscript make their first appearance in this section.

f. 67r (fold-out)

f. 68v (fold-out)

f. 70r (Pisces)

The next section of the manuscript is filled with what appear to be biological illustrations, such as this detail that seems to depict a uterus,  fallopian tubes, and ovaries:

f. 77v detail

f. 75r

f. 83r

A series of diagrams that resist characterization follow, including an elaborate (and fragile) fold-out of six leaves:

f. 86v (fold-out)

The remainder of the manuscript is traditionally thought to contain recipes or medicinal instructions, with additional botanical illustrations.

f. 88v (fold-out)

f. 106v detail

The cipher-text uses twenty-five distinct letterforms, some of which seem to have majuscule forms as well. There are no cross-outs or corrections, and each grapheme is always written using the same ductus, or sequence of penstrokes. Ligatures between particular graphemic pairs are consistent and even. This suggests that the codex was written by scribes who had written the script before or were copying an exemplar. In order to facilitate transcriptions and computer-aided linguistic analyses of the text, “Voynichologists” use a Voynich font and a not-entirely arbitrary substitution system of Roman letters known as the European Voynich Alphabet (EVA for short):

European Voynich Alphabet, showing accepted substitutions of Roman for “Voynichese” graphemes

For example, the following “Voynichese” word is a common root found throughout the astronomical section:

Using EVA, it transcribes to “okal.” The entire manuscript has been transcribed in this way and can be accessed here.

Over the years, some have suggested that the manuscript is a forgery perpetrated by Voynich himself, or that it is gibberish, an elaborate hoax. However, recent computational and statistical analyses of the text suggest that the manuscript is not comprised of random scribblings, and that it encodes a natural, rather than an invented, language. Linguists have identified prefixes and suffixes, and have zeroed in on what seem to be rootwords as well. It would certainly help if we knew exactly what language was being encoded, and to help answer that question, we turn to the topic of provenance.

Here’s what we know about the Voynich Manuscript. Most of this comes from Shailor’s description or from documents on file at the Beinecke.

Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, by Joseph Heintz the Elder

The first confirmed sighting of the Voynich occurs in the late sixteenth century. Emperor Rudolph II of Germany (Holy Roman Emperor, 1576-1612) purchased the manuscript for 600 gold ducats and believed that it was the work of the English scientist Roger Bacon. We know this based on a letter written by a seventeenth-century owner (see below). Rudolph may have purchased it from English astrologer John Dee (1527-1608), whose son noted that Dee, while in Bohemia, owned “a booke…containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon: but I could not heare that hee could make it out.” Emperor Rudolph seems to have given the manuscript to botanist Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (a.k.a. Jacobus Sinapius, d. 1622), who signed the first leaf of the manuscript. The signature has been  scraped away and is fully legible only under ultraviolet light.

f. 1r detail, under ultraviolet light

The next known owner was Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist from Prague. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as modern scientists about what he called a “Sphynx” that was “taking up space uselessly” in his library. On learning that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from Rome, had recently published a Egyptian dictionary in which he deciphered hieroglyphics, Baresch sent a sample of the script to Kircher in Rome in 1637, asking for his opinion. We don’t know if Kircher ever wrote back. But the next owner, Johannes Marcus Marci of Prague, who was friend and heir of Baresch, actually gave the book to Kircher as a gift in 1665 or  1666, accompanied by this Latin letter (translation from H. P. Kraus, A Rare Book Saga, p. 221):

[Autograph letter signed] 1666 [or 1665?] August 19, Prague [to Athanasius Kircher, Rome]

“Reverend and Distinguished Sir, Father in Christ: This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined for you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my possession, for I was convinced that it could be read by no one except yourself. The former owner of this book asked your opinion by letter, copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he believed you would be able to read the remainder, but he at that time refused to send the book itself. To its deciphering he devoted unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life. But his toil was in vain, for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master, Kircher. Accept now this token, such as it is and long overdue though it be, of my affection for you, and burst through its bars, if there are any, with your wonted success. Dr. Raphael, a tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book belonged to the Emperor Rudolph and that he presented to the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman. On this point I suspend judgement; it is your place to define for us what view we should take thereon, to whose favor and kindness I unreservedly commit myself and remain,

Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland Prague, 19th August, 1666″ [or 1665]

The manuscript doesn’t surface again for 250 years

We don’t know for certain what happened to the manuscript between the 17th and early 20th centuries, but it has been postulated that it was stored with the rest of Kircher’s correspondence in the library of the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University) in Rome. It probably remained there until the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured the city in 1870. The new Italian government decided to confiscate many properties of the Church, including the library of the Collegio. Just before the confiscation was enacted, many books were transferred from the Collegio library to private faculty libraries to protect them, including Kircher’s correspondence and, presumably, the Voynich Manuscript, since among the material that accompanies the manuscript is the loose bookplate of Petrus Beckx, who was the head of the Jesuit order and the University rector.

Villa Mondragone (photo by Renato Clementi, 2006)

Beckx’s  library was eventually moved to the Villa Mondragone, a large country palace near Rome that had been bought by the Jesuits four years earlier. In the early twentieth century, the Collegio Romano was short of money and decided to sell some of its valuables. London (later New York) collector/bookdealer Wilfrid Voynich (1865 – 1930) bought the manuscript along with about thirty others in 1912. The manuscript is No. 8 in Voynich’s collection as described in Seymour de Ricci’s Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (II:1846-7), where it is titled “Cipher ms.” During his lifetime, Voynich refused to reveal the collection from which he had acquired the manuscript, leaving some to speculate that he himself had written it.

Wilfrid Voynich

When Voynich died, the manuscript passed to his widow Ethel, who revealed that Voynich had purchased it from the Jesuits in Rome. After her death, she bequeathed it to her friend Ann Nill, who in turn sold it to bookdealer Hans P. Kraus in 1961 for $24,500. In his 1978 biography A Rare Book Saga, Kraus described his attempts to sell the manuscript:

H. P. Kraus Catalogue 100, in which the Voynich Manuscript was item no. 20.

“In [Catalogue 100] it was offered for $160,000, the same price Voynich had asked 50 years earlier. Miss Nill was to get one half of the amount above the price I had paid her. Many clients, mostly scholars, expressed great interest, but nobody bought…Dozens of scholars wanted to see it, others asked for photos. Institutions asked to have it on loan. I had to decline all such requests, to preserve its commercial value. There were no buyers. After seven years of happy ownership we felt that the right thing to do was to turn it over to an institution where it could be freely studied. We chose the Beinecke Library at Yale as the recipient.” (p. 222)

At Yale, it was given the shelfmark MS 408.

Since 1969, the Voynich Manuscript has lived in a vault at the Beinecke Library accompanied by a growing archive of documents and correspondence. The manuscript has been newly imaged in high-resolution color, and a full digital facsimile can be studied and downloaded here.

Over the years, scholars and cryptologists and conspiracy theorists have posed dozens of solutions. The first was that it was written by Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century English Franciscan and scientist. Others have credited it to Leonardo da Vinci, or claimed that it is a modern forgery. Proposed solutions are as varied as an Egyptian sex manual, a message from outer space, a botanical and astrological treatise hiding radical ideas. Some think it’s a hoax, a forgery perpetrated by Voynich himself. But as of 2013, when the results of carbon dating tests at the University of Arizona were released, we know that the parchment dates from between 1404-1435. In addition, chemical analyses concluded that the inks and pigments were consistent with medieval recipes. That rules out modern forgery. That also rules out Roger Bacon, since he died around 1292, as well as da Vinci, who wasn’t born until 1452.

f. 78r

The best guess for a date and place of origin, then? Central Europe, early fifteenth century. This proposed origin, based on stylistic evidence as well as the manuscript’s first known location, suggests that the manuscript isn’t necessarily encoding a western European language such as Latin or Italian. It could be Hungarian, or Roma, or Bulgarian. We simply don’t know.

Needless to say, the Voynich Manuscript doesn’t come out of the vault very often. If you live in the DC area and would like to see the manuscript in person, however, you are in luck, because for the first time ever, the Voynich is on loan and on display. You can see it at The Folger Library until February 26 2015, where it is part of the exhibition Decoding the Renaissance. The Washington Post ran this feature on the manuscript in November 2014, focusing on attempts to decode it made by famed U.S. WWII cryptologist William Friedman in the years before his death.

If you still want to know more, the best places to start are the Beinecke site and the 1978 volume The Most Mysterious Manuscript: The Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher Manuscript by R. S. Brumbaugh. Online, René Zandbergen’s Voynich Manuscript site includes a detailed survey of every aspect of the manuscript, a lengthy and up-to-date bibliography, and lots of theories and proposed solutions. Cryptologist Nick Pelling’s blog includes current research and discussion. And of course there’s always the Wiki and the online Journal of Voynich Studies.

Paul Tobin and Ig Guara, Marvel Adventures: Black Widow and The Avengers, #18.

The manuscript continues to capture the public imagination in various formats and media, including comic books and video games. Try #Voynich on Twitter, or “Voynich Manuscript” on YouTube, just for starters. William Shatner devoted an episode of his “Weird or What?” TV series to the Voynich (yes, you can watch it online and thank me later). In one of Noah Wyle’s Librarian films, the Voynich makes a brief throw-away appearance when the title character is told, “Yale wants it decoded by Monday.” Search “Voynich Manuscript” on and you will discover an entire Voynich-fiction sub-genre. And now that you’re familiar with the manuscript, you can join the club of humans who understand these Voynich-inspired comics.

Of all of the works that have been inspired by the Voynich, only one is auditory. Recently, the Beinecke Library celebrated its 50th anniversary with a series of special lectures and events. Composer Stephen Gorbos was commissioned to write a piece inspired by the Voynich manuscript. “Such Sphinxes as These Obey No One but Their Master” premiered at the Beinecke in 2013 performed by the extraordinary vocal group, Roomful of Teeth. It is a haunting and evocative tribute.

I gave up trying to decipher the Voynich Manuscript a long time ago. But I keep the PDF on my tablet and visit it from time to time. I collect terrible and not-so-terrible Voynich fiction. I scour the internet for new, credible discoveries. I marvel at indecipherable words, tiny women in wicker baskets, unidentified plants, and uncharted constellations.

I kind of hope The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript stays that way.