Voynich Manuscript: Decoding its Secrets

The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

For over a century, the Voynich manuscript has confounded historians, cryptologists, and researchers alike with its mysterious illustrations and undeciphered script referred to as “Voynichese”.


The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex, written in a script known as “Voynichese”. Its vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early 15th century, with stylistic analysis suggesting it may have originated in Italy during the Renaissance era. Despite extensive study, the origins, authorship, and purpose of the manuscript remain a mystery, with various hypotheses ranging from a natural language, a constructed language, an unread code, or simply a hoax.

Composition of the Manuscript

The manuscript consists of approximately 240 pages, with evidence of missing pages. Most pages feature fantastical illustrations and diagrams, including images of people, fictitious plants, astrological symbols, and more. The text is written from left to right and is named after Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased it in 1912. The manuscript has been held at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library since 1969.

Attempts at Deciphering

Despite being studied by numerous professional and amateur cryptographers, including codebreakers from both World Wars, the manuscript has never been deciphered. Notable cryptographers such as Prescott Currier, William Friedman, Elizabeth Friedman, and John Tiltman were unsuccessful in their attempts. The mystery of the manuscript’s meaning and origin continues to captivate popular imagination.

Digitization Efforts

In 2020, Yale University made the entire manuscript, 225 pages, available in their digital collections library. Despite its digital accessibility, the manuscript remains an unsolved enigma, with none of the many hypotheses proposed over the years having been independently verified.

Theories about the Manuscript

The lack of any definitive answers about the Voynich Manuscript has led to a plethora of theories about its origins and contents. Some of the most popular theories include:

  1. The manuscript is a cipher or code: Many experts believe that the script and illustrations in the manuscript are a cipher or code that was used to protect sensitive information.

  2. The manuscript is a work of fiction: Some theories suggest that the Voynich Manuscript is a work of fiction, created as a joke or a prank by a medieval scribe.

  3. The manuscript is a herbal or medical text: Another popular theory is that the manuscript is a herbal or medical text, written in a lost or obscure language.

  4. The manuscript is a work of alchemy: Some experts believe that the Voynich Manuscript is a work of alchemy and that its illustrations and texts contain instructions for making the philosopher’s stone.


The Voynich Manuscript by Raymond Clemens
The Voynich Manuscript by Raymond Clemens
Detail from page 78r of Voynich Manuscript depicting the biological section
Detail from page 78r of Voynich Manuscript depicting the biological section

History of the Voynich Manuscript

A page from the mysterious Voynich manuscript, which is undeciphered to this day.

A page from the mysterious Voynich manuscript, which is undeciphered to this day.

Early History

Much of the early history of the Voynich Manuscript is unknown, but it is believed to have European origins.

Radiocarbon Dating

In 2009, researchers from the University of Arizona used radiocarbon dating to determine that the manuscript’s vellum was created between 1404 and 1438.

Materials Analysis

McCrone Associates in Westmont, Illinois, conducted an analysis of the paints used in the manuscript and found that they were of materials typical for the period of European history during which the manuscript was created. It is important to note that there have been reports of the ink being added soon after the creation of the parchment, but this claim is not mentioned in the official report.

First Confirmed Owner

The first confirmed owner of the Voynich Manuscript was Georg Baresch, a 17th-century alchemist from Prague. Baresch had difficulty understanding the “Sphynx” that had been in his library for many years and sought help from Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher from the Collegio Romano. Baresch sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher and asked for clues, but it is not known if Kircher responded. Kircher was interested in acquiring the book, but Baresch refused to yield.

Passing of Ownership

Upon Baresch’s death, the manuscript was passed on to his friend Jan Marek Marci, then rector of Charles University in Prague. A few years later, Marci sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend, and correspondent.

Marci also sent Kircher a cover letter (in Latin, dated 19 August 1665 or 1666) that was still attached to the book when Voynich acquired it:

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 Emperor Rudolph and that he presented it to the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman. On this point I suspend judgment; 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

At the command of your Reverence,
Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland
Prague, 19th August 1665 [or 1666]
Dr. Raphael Identified as Raphael Sobiehrd-Mnishovsky

The “Dr. Raphael” mentioned in connection to the Voynich Manuscript is believed to be Raphael Sobiehrd-Mnishovsky. The sum of the transaction involving this individual is estimated to be around 2 kilograms of gold.

Matching Transaction in Rudolph’s Records

The only transaction that matches the description of the transaction involving Dr. Raphael can be found in the records of Emperor Rudolph II. In 1599, he made a purchase of “a couple of remarkable/rare books” from Karl Widemann for 600 florins. Widemann was known for collecting esoteric and alchemical manuscripts, making it plausible that he owned the Voynich Manuscript, although this has yet to be proven.

Discrediting of Bacon Authorship Theory

Although Wilfrid Voynich took Raphael’s claims about the authorship of the manuscript at face value, the theory that Francis Bacon wrote the Voynich Manuscript has since been largely discredited.

Signature of Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz

However, there is evidence supporting Rudolph’s ownership of the Voynich Manuscript in the form of a now almost invisible signature or name on the first page of the book. The signature belongs to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, who was the head of Rudolph’s botanical gardens in Prague. Rudolph died with outstanding debts to de Tepenecz, and it is possible that de Tepenecz may have taken the book or been given it as partial payment for his debts.

Disappearance from the Collegio Romano Library

It is not known what happened to the manuscript for the next 200 years, but it is believed to have been stored with Kircher’s correspondence in the library of the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University).

When the city was captured by Victor Emmanuel II’s troops in 1870 and the Papal States were annexed, the new Italian government decided to confiscate many properties of the Church, including the library of the Collegio.

Before the confiscation, many books from the University’s library were transferred to the personal libraries of its faculty and were exempt from confiscation. The correspondence of Kircher, including the Voynich manuscript, was among these books.

Storage in the Villa Mondragone

The manuscript was stored in the private library of Petrus Beckx, head of the Jesuit order and rector of the university at the time, which was later moved to the Villa Mondragone in Frascati.

Sale to Wilfrid Voynich

In 1903, the Society of Jesus was short of money and decided to discreetly sell some of its holdings, including the Voynich manuscript, to the Vatican Library in 1912.

Wilfrid Voynich acquired the manuscript among 30 others and attempted to interest scholars in deciphering the script for the next seven years.

Inheritance and Transfer to Yale University

The manuscript was inherited by Wilfrid’s widow Ethel Voynich after his death in 1930 and was later passed down to her friend Anne Nill.

In 1961, Nill sold the book to antique book dealer Hans P. Kraus, who was unable to find a buyer and donated it to Yale University in 1969, where it was cataloged as “MS 408”.

Folios from the Voynich Manuscript

Voynich Manuscript (135)
Voynich Manuscript (175)
Voynich Manuscript (66)

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  • DigiVatLib. (2023). Vatlib.it. https://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Ross.379/0075

  • Voynich Manuscript. (2018, December 14). Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/voynich-manuscript

  • ‌Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, February 4). Voynich manuscript. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voynich_manuscript

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