The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript Gets Digitized: Explore the 15th-Century Text That Linguists & Code-Breakers Can’t Understand

A 600-year-old manuscript—written in a script no one has ever decod­ed, filled with cryp­tic illus­tra­tions, its ori­gins remain­ing to this day a mys­tery…. It’s not as sat­is­fy­ing a plot, say, of a Nation­al Trea­sure or Dan Brown thriller, cer­tain­ly not as action-packed as pick-your-Indi­ana Jones…. The Voyn­ich Man­u­script, named for the anti­quar­i­an who redis­cov­ered it in 1912, has a much more her­met­ic nature, some­what like the work of Hen­ry Darg­er; it presents us with an inscrutably alien world, pieced togeth­er from hybridized motifs drawn from its con­tem­po­rary sur­round­ings.

Voyn­ich is unique for hav­ing made up its own alpha­bet while also seem­ing to be in con­ver­sa­tion with oth­er famil­iar works of the peri­od, such that it resem­bles an uncan­ny dop­pel­ganger of many a Medieval text.

A com­par­a­tive­ly long book at 234 pages, it rough­ly divides into sev­en sec­tions, any of which might be found on the shelves of your aver­age 1400s Euro­pean reader—a fair­ly small and rar­i­fied group. “Over time, Voyn­ich enthu­si­asts have giv­en each sec­tion a con­ven­tion­al name” for its dom­i­nant imagery: “botan­i­cal, astro­nom­i­cal, cos­mo­log­i­cal, zodi­ac, bio­log­i­cal, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal, and recipes.”

Schol­ars can only spec­u­late about these cat­e­gories. The man­u­scrip­t’s ori­gins and intent have baf­fled cryp­tol­o­gists since at least the 17th cen­tu­ry, when, notes Vox, “an alchemist described it as ‘a cer­tain rid­dle of the Sphinx.’” We can pre­sume, “judg­ing by its illus­tra­tions,” writes Reed John­son at The New York­er, that Voyn­ich is “a com­pendi­um of knowl­edge relat­ed to the nat­ur­al world.” But its “illus­tra­tions range from the fan­ci­ful (legions of heavy-head­ed flow­ers that bear no rela­tion to any earth­ly vari­ety) to the bizarre (naked and pos­si­bly preg­nant women, frol­ick­ing in what look like amuse­ment-park water­slides from the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry).”

The manuscript’s “botan­i­cal draw­ings are no less strange: the plants appear to be chimeri­cal, com­bin­ing incom­pat­i­ble parts from dif­fer­ent species, even dif­fer­ent king­doms.” These draw­ings led schol­ar Nicholas Gibbs, the lat­est to try and deci­pher the text, to com­pare it to the Tro­tu­la, a Medieval com­pi­la­tion that “spe­cial­izes in the dis­eases and com­plaints of women,” as he wrote in a Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment arti­cle ear­li­er this month. It turns out, accord­ing to sev­er­al Medieval man­u­script experts who have stud­ied the Voyn­ich, that Gibbs’ pro­posed decod­ing may not actu­al­ly solve the puz­zle.

The degree of doubt should be enough to keep us in sus­pense, and there­in lies the Voyn­ich Manuscript’s endur­ing appeal—it is a black box, about which we might always ask, as Sarah Zhang does, “What could be so scan­dalous, so dan­ger­ous, or so impor­tant to be writ­ten in such an uncrack­able cipher?” Wil­fred Voyn­ich him­self asked the same ques­tion in 1912, believ­ing the man­u­script to be “a work of excep­tion­al impor­tance… the text must be unrav­eled and the his­to­ry of the man­u­script must be traced.” Though “not an espe­cial­ly glam­orous phys­i­cal object,” Zhang observes, it has nonethe­less tak­en on the aura of a pow­er­ful occult charm.

But maybe it’s com­plete gib­ber­ish, a high-con­cept prac­ti­cal joke con­coct­ed by 15th cen­tu­ry scribes to troll us in the future, know­ing we’d fill in the space of not-know­ing with the most fan­tas­ti­cal­ly strange spec­u­la­tions. This is a propo­si­tion Stephen Bax, anoth­er con­tender for a Voyn­ich solu­tion, finds hard­ly cred­i­ble. “Why on earth would any­one waste their time cre­at­ing a hoax of this kind?,” he asks. Maybe it’s a rel­ic from an insu­lar com­mu­ni­ty of magi­cians who left no oth­er trace of them­selves. Sure­ly in the last 300 years every pos­si­ble import has been sug­gest­ed, dis­card­ed, then picked up again.

Should you care to take a crack at sleuthing out the Voyn­ich mystery—or just to browse through it for curiosity’s sake—you can find the man­u­script scanned at Yale’s Bei­necke Rare Book & Man­u­script Library, which hous­es the vel­lum orig­i­nal. Or flip through the Inter­net Archive’s dig­i­tal ver­sion above. Anoth­er pri­vate­ly-run site con­tains a his­to­ry and descrip­tion of the man­u­script and anno­ta­tions on the illus­tra­tions and the script, along with sev­er­al pos­si­ble tran­scrip­tions of its sym­bols pro­posed by schol­ars. Good luck!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

Wear­able Books: In Medieval Times, They Took Old Man­u­scripts & Turned Them into Clothes

Carl Jung’s Hand-Drawn, Rarely-Seen Man­u­script The Red Book: A Whis­pered Intro­duc­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • Bart Stewart says:

    The con­clu­sion at the bot­tom of the arti­cle is the same one that was reached in this doc­u­men­tary I found on Youtube:

    The man­u­script is gib­ber­ish. But not done as a joke. The doc­u­men­tary I link to says it may have been an attempt by a medieval fraud­ster to secure fund­ing from a wealthy patron. This “magi­cian” or alchemist pro­duced a mag­i­cal book with all man­ner of secret botan­i­cal cures. The doc­u­men­tary even names a few pos­si­ble sus­pects.

    There are spo­radic rep­e­ti­tions in the text that sug­gest it is not all made-up. There are pat­terns, in oth­er words. But it ulti­mate­ly means noth­ing.

    Con­verse­ly, the book may have been the work of a delu­sion­al per­son, or as the arti­cle says, the last rem­nant of an ancient mys­ti­cal cult.

  • Luise Wagner says:

    Uhm. I have clear­ly no clue and I apol­o­gize if I am adding more gib­ber­ish here. But when in Berlin last time I saw this lunar gold hat in the Neues Muse­um. One of the sketch­es look like the hat. In the 4th pic from above.

  • Nikolai says:

    There is a key to cipher the Voyn­ich man­u­script.
    The key to the cipher man­u­script placed in the man­u­script. It is placed through­out the text. Part of the key hints is placed on the sheet 14. With her help was able to trans­late a few dozen words that are com­plete­ly rel­e­vant to the theme sec­tions.
    The Voyn­ich man­u­script is not writ­ten with let­ters. It is writ­ten in signs. Char­ac­ters replace the let­ters of the alpha­bet one of the ancient lan­guage. More­over, in the text there are 2 lev­els of encryp­tion. I fig­ured out the key by which the first sec­tion could read the fol­low­ing words: hemp, wear­ing hemp; food, food (sheet 20 at the num­ber­ing on the Inter­net); to clean (gut), knowl­edge, per­haps the desire, to drink, sweet bev­er­age (nec­tar), mat­u­ra­tion (matu­ri­ty), to con­sid­er, to believe (sheet 107); to drink; six; flour­ish­ing; increas­ing; intense; peas; sweet drink, nec­tar, etc. Is just the short words, 2–3 sign. To trans­late words with more than 2–3 char­ac­ters requires knowl­edge of this ancient lan­guage. The fact that some sym­bols rep­re­sent two let­ters. In the end, the word con­sist­ing of three char­ac­ters can fit up to six let­ters. Three let­ters are super­flu­ous. In the end, you need six char­ac­ters to define the seman­tic word of three let­ters. Of course, with­out knowl­edge of this lan­guage make it very dif­fi­cult even with a dic­tio­nary.
    If you are inter­est­ed, I am ready to send more detailed infor­ma­tion, includ­ing scans of pages show­ing the trans­lat­ed words.
    And most impor­tant. In the man­u­script there is infor­ma­tion about “the Holy Grail”.

  • Chris Compton says:

    I agree with the first com­ment. Pure­ly gib­ber­ish and a delu­sion­al per­son. He does­n’t cross out a thing. I see a lot of repeat­ed “words” if you will. Means noth­ing.

  • Yvette LaRue says:


  • Lori says:

    Niko­lai, I admire your work. Have you tried run­ning it through a com­put­er pro­gram?

  • Richard Alfred Palmer says:

    Per­haps the voyn­ich man­u­script let­ters were print­ed back­wards
    To avoid deten­tion by the then author­i­ties maybe it was con­nect­ed with witch­craft at that time I mean the witch­craft act
    Was delet­ed in 1951 and this man­u­script was print­ed in 1912
    So I rest my case .

  • Naveed Ahmed khan says:

    Page num­ber 14 it’s retha bean plant and page num­ber 34 it’s rosary plant

  • Naveed Ahmed khan says:

    Page num­ber 14 it’s retha bean plant and page num­ber 34 it’s rosary plant If any images of plant to send to you From which sor­ce can I send, I had saw these plants which is in the book and I have some images too, my mobile num­ber is 0091–9902612468

  • Surya Prakash Babu. Maddu says:

    it’s Indi­ans un use plants his­to­ry and that’s under parts bio scope it’s true book

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