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A Brief History of the Secret Voynich Manuscript

Updated on September 19, 2013

Deep in Yale University’s archives is a book so old and so intriguing that it’s fascinated and confounded scholars for over a century. The Voynich Manuscript, named after a 19th century bookseller, Wilfrid Voynich, who first recognized its value, is an ancient medieval text, written in secret code.

The secret manuscript is at least 500 years old and perhaps up to 800 years old. At first glance, the manuscript is intriguing because its pages are filled with unknown text and numerous large and ornate drawings of plants, herbs and tiny naked women.

Perhaps the original author added the images to throw off the authorities in a time when the Church forbade esoteric knowledge. Scholars have some ideas about who wrote the Voynich Manuscript, but controversy exists on both the writer and the meaning of the contents.

Full scans of the Voynich Manuscript are in the public domain, so you can download your own copy and set about deciphering it. Who knows – you might just be the one to crack the ancient code and release the long-secret information to the world.

The Mystery Begins

Wilfred Voynich purchased an old, but beautifully illustrated, book in 1912 from the Jesuit College in Rome. Fascinated by the idea that the book was much older than currently thought, Voynich made it his purpose in life to track the book’s ownership back to its roots. Through Voynich’s research, he came to the conclusion that the book was probably written by a man named Roger Bacon, a gifted scientist and philosopher who lived in the 1200s.

A wonderful accounting that traces the Voynich Manuscript from Bacon to Wilfred Voynich, is told by scholars, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, in “The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World.” The book is out of print, but you can sometimes find a used copy for sell on Amazon and other bookselling sites.

The Goldstones explain that the “high Middle Ages” were a time of progress, enlightenment, open study and a celebration of life. That’s not well known today, as we generally think of that period as backward and superstitious. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Roger Bacon wrote thousands of pages of text, but as the heavy blanket of the Church began to descend, Bacon, and other liberated scholars, were imprisoned for their ideas, and in some cases…executed.

As the Dark Ages approached, men of wisdom either gave up their studies or hid their findings in secret codes. Whether or not Bacon is the author of the Voynich Manuscript, the text itself is a secret code that even modern cryptologists have not reliably broken. A secret code to end all secret codes. No wonder Wilfred Voynich dedicated his life to discovering the mysteries that lie within the codex.

Ownership of the Voynich Manuscript

Before the manuscript arrived at the Jesuit College, it passed through impressive hands. In the late 1500s, it sat in the library of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph of Germany. The Emperor believed it to be the work of Bacon, who was considered one of the brightest minds of all time, and he paid 630 ducats for the privilege of owning the book. Scholars argue about who owned the book before the Emperor, but many believe it to be John Dee, a prominent astrologer of that era.

That would make sense, because Dee owned a number of Roger Bacon’s works, although the others were not written in secret code. Emperor Rudolph either sold or gifted the manuscript to Jacobus Horcicky d’ Tepenecz, whose name appears in the book. The name, however, is only visible under ultraviolet light, which adds to the mystery.

The Voynich Manuscript then appears to have passed to Johannes M. Marci of Cronland and from there to Athanasius Kircher in the mid-1600s. Kircher then donated the book to the Jesuit College, where it collected dust until Wilfred Voynich purchased it.

Because the ownership prior to John Dee is controversial, some place the origin of the manuscript in the 1500s. Others, however, insist that Bacon is the author, which would make the book nearly eight centuries old.

The Lure of Secret Texts and Teachings

What Do We Know?

There are six identifiable parts of the Voynich Manuscript. A few pages are missing, but the book still contains over 200 pages that contain secret text. The text, itself, features unknown characters and the writer put tiny stars in the margins, as one would to mark important passages.

Incredibly accurate astronomical charts appear in the book, making it obvious that the author had an advanced knowledge of astronomy and the heavens. Even Zodiac signs are included.

The book also features an impressive array of botanical plants, but there is something very different about the Voynich Manuscript’s biological drawings. None of the plants featured in the book grow on Earth, although each is drawn in intricate detail.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the manuscript is the inclusion of dozens of tiny naked women, most who appear to have large midsections, but are still feminine in appearance. The naked women appear in various aspects, standing in the water, rising out of tubes or interacting with unidentifiable capsules. At any rate, many of the objects in the drawing that feature the women are as mysterious as are the plants.

In addition, the book features over a hundred illustrations that appear to be herbal collections in rudimentary jars of the type used in the 1200s to hold medicines.

The Book That Can't Be Read

Where Do We Go From Here?

Interest never seems to wane on the subject of the Voynich Manuscript. Although Yale restricts access to the book to protect it, high definitions scans are available to anyone who wants to inspect the pages.

In 2009, Kevin Repp, the curator of the Beineck Rare Book and Manuscript Library in Connecticut, was allowed to examine and perform some tests on the manuscript.

Repp concluded that the text and drawing were done with a quill pen and iron gall ink. Photomicrography samples were taken with a microscopic needle so as not to damage the manuscript. From his testing, Repp was able to identify the contents of the inks used in the text and the illustrations, but he did not offer an approximate age of the inks.

Additional scholars place the age of the text, due to the style of illustrations in the time between 1200 and 1400 CE. Some scholars argue that the manuscript is a fraud and a hoax because it has not yet been deciphered. Others claim it contains knowledge so important and vital that otherworldly intelligence assisted the author in the encryption.

Whatever the case, the Voynich Manuscript continues to confound researchers and Edward Lamont, a Yale scholar, made the comment after devoting years of study to the cipher that he believed the secret to decoding the text would come in a way just as mysterious as the text, itself. Lamont suggested that the person who would eventually break the code would be someone like a psychic medium or someone to whom the answer would come in a dream. Others have suggested that the code might be broken quite by accident, by a layman who just saw something striking and relevant in the text.

At any rate, if you’re up for the challenge, download your own free copy of the manuscript from the link in this article’s introduction and have a go at it. Who knows? You might be the code-breaker the manuscript has been waiting for over the centuries.

The Appeal of Secret Codes

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    • HowardBThiname profile image

      HowardBThiname 5 years ago from Midwest

      Thanks for the comment, Mama Kim. I'm enough of a cipher buff to hope I live to see what was written so long ago that required such an extraordinary level of encryption.

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 5 years ago

      Fascinating! I hope someone cracks the code some day ^_^ I would love to know what secrets this book holds ^_^ voted up and interesting!