14 July 2020

The medieval Voynich Manuscript - chaos in academe!

Wilfrid Voynich (1865–1930) was born into an aristocratic Polish-Lithuanian family and became an anti-Czarist activist and biblio­phile. After being arrested, he was sent to Siberia and event­ual­ly moved to Brit­ain, opening an Soho Square London antiquarian book­shop in 1898.

Wilfrid was a regular visitor to the Continent, especially Italy where he became friends with the librarian Achille Ratti who event­ually became Pope Pius XI. Voynich was able to buy many old books & manuscripts, brought in religious houses. In 1912 he vis­ited Villa Mondragone Frascati, invited by the Jes­uits who were sell­ing some of their books in order to raise funds. In particular he was invited to inspect a trunk that came from the estate of Ath­an­asius Kircher, a famous C17th scholar. There he discovered a manu­s­cript apparently writ­t­en in an unknown alphabet and décor­at­ed with 200+ illustrations, half of which showed unknown plants, figures and symbols.

Ladies bathing in tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes.

The manuscript was written by an unknown author and composed in an unknown lang­uage(s). It had been dated to the early C15th, possibly from northern Italy. Some pages were mis­sing, but the surviving version comprised c240 vellum pages. The 113 plant illustrat­ions resembled herbal man­uscripts of the era that presented inform­ation about plants and their possible uses for medical purposes. But the document’s 113 plant illustrations did not seem to depict fl­ora found on Earth. Plus throughout its vellum pages were visuals of the cosmos, groups of naked women cavorting through pools.

Voynich had found an interesting and large map that showed 4 isl­ands of the Mediterranean Sea, the conjoined islands of Vulcan­ello and Vulcano, Lipari, Ischia & Castello Aragonese. An eruption in 1440 prompted a rescue miss­ion from Naples, at the time ruled by Alfonso the Magnanimous, hus­band of Maria. So the map was int­erp­reted as showing the erupting volcano in the lower left corner, with lava flows & pumice rafts in the stylised drawing. If true, this would be one of the earliest drawings of a volcano ever found in medieval literature. As the rescue miss­ion was sent from the islet of Castello Aragonese, they passed the islands of Ischia and Lipari. The navigation routes between the islands were marked with two compass roses to help navigation. Geol­ogical and histor­ic­al evidence also suggested further (late C16th) volcanic erup­t­ions.

The 1444 map ? showing a rescue mission from the islet of Castello Aragonese (C) 
to the volcanic island of Vulcanello (A), passing the island of Ischia (B) and Lipari (D)

Voynich went to the U.S in 1914 on the Lusitania, settling there and crossing the Atlantic as needed, maintaining his London shop as well as establishing an Americ­an base. For the rest of his life, Voynich studied the manuscript about the natural world, but wasn't able to crack the code. He died in the USA in 1930.

The manuscript was eventually studied by many professional crypto­graphers, including secret Am­erican and British code breakers from WWI & WW2. They too failed. Mod­ern forensic analysis, including carbon dating, revealed the materials used were probably produced in northern Italy from 1404-38, or even more rec­ently. But the flowing script and arcane alph­abet were not recognised

In 2014, research claimed that the Voynich manuscript was a botan­ical encyclopaedia about medicinal plants growing in America. In 2017, a statistical analysis of the alphabet claimed the code was written in an odd mix of Italian, Span­ish, Latin, English & Germ­an. Bedfordshire Uni linguists proposed sounds to match the symb­ols, declaring he had decoded 14 of them. Delaware State Uni re­searchers argued the manusc­ript may have had its origins in cen­tral Mexico, based on analys­ing the strange plant ill­ustrations. Some authors recognised plant species found in Europe, while some auth­ors recognised plants found only in Central Asia; it impossible to match names with the unknown alphab­et.

Researchers from University of Alberta used artificial intelligence to decode sections of the document, using the algorithmic deciph­er­ment technique on the underlying, encrypted language. The AI indic­at­ed Hebrew was the most likely source, edging out other potential mat­ches that weren't commonly used for writing during the Middle Ages. The researchers hypothesised the cipher acting on the Hebrew language could be an example of alphabetically ordered alphagrams, rearranging the order of letters in words, while dropping vowels.

Despite all the research, no one has ever been able to prove the meaning of the text, and some have speculated that the manuscript might be just a historic fake. What did the strange symbols mean?

New high-resolution scans of the manuscript were rec­ently posted at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manus­cript Library site. The new scanning equipment made the colour more accurate.

The nymphs bathing

ConclusionIn 1912, the manuscript started to make its way into popular imag­ination, the basis for both imag­inary theories and nov­els. It arr­ived at Yale’s Manuscript Library in 1969 well intact, hous­ed now among a collection of rare texts. Its curvy writ­ing in brown-black ink and strange sprouting flowers still att­ract code breakers.

In 2019 a British academic claimed the manuscript was a th­erapeutic reference book composed by nuns for Maria of Castile, queen of Aragon, in a lost language known as proto-Romance. In the Journal of Romance Studies, Uni of Bristol researcher Dr Gerard Cheshire argued the manuscript was a compen­d­ium of informat­ion on herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing and astrological read­ings. It focused on female physical and mental health, reproduction and par­enting. Rather than being written in code, he believed its lang­uage and writing system were commonplace back then, and he claimed the document was the sole surviving text written in proto-Romance. Academic disagreements have continued.

Photo credits: Science Alert


Joseph said...

What were the Jesuits doing with images of naked women frolicking in a bit of water?

Hels said...


I have looked at all the illuminated pages and there are more plants and flowers than any other images. But there are so many images of naked women.. and probably not one of men! The women are in couples, or in long lines of individuals, sometimes in a a water slide and sometimes in small baths with open pipes.

Because medieval physicians believed baths and fresh plants were the cure for many ills, this small book seems to me to be a health care manual for practitioners. Perhaps the Jesuits practised health care.

Hank Phillips said...

I can't help wondering how much consideration was given to decoding a mirror image of the puzzling script. In any case thanks for reflecting some light off of this enigmatic codex.

Fun60 said...

It's good to know there are mysteries still to be solved. I really enjoyed reading this post.

Hels said...


there may be a simple resolution like you suggest, but probably not :) I am delighted that medieval historians and linguists all across the world are still following up the work done by Wilfrid Voynich when he bought the manuscript just before WW1.

Hels said...


Our generation was so confident that we discovered or created all knowledge in the world that historical mysteries are mesmerising. Or they are dismissed as conspiracies. I remember how thrilling it was during my uni years when I uncovered even the tiniest bits of historical material.

Spencer Mizen said...

The Voynich Manuscript is not the only historical text to have perplexed would-be codebreakers
1 The Rohonc Codex, discovered in Hungary sometime in the early 19th century, 448 pages
2 The Book of Soyga, a treatise on magic, astrology and demonology, now in the Bodleian
3 The Liber Linteus written on the linen wrapping a mummy. Found in 1867 in Alexandria.

Spencer Mizen
in HistoryExtra.com

Hels said...


Many thanks! Because the images and symbols are as important a part of the manuscripts as the text to me, I would love to read more about the Rohonc Codex and the Book of Soyga.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Intriguing as the Voynich manuscript is, I am afraid that most of the interpretations fall into the crackpot zone. While there is strong interest in this manuscript, the vast majority of Yale's holdings are more mainstream, practical, and serious, including the archives of Edith Wharton, Rachel Carson, Eugene O'Neill, Langston Hughes, Horace Walpole, and so many others it would take weeks just to list them.

By the way, here is the link to downloading the entire high-resolution manuscript (it can take several minutes), so your readers can have their own crack at deciphering it, or just marvel at the surreal illustrations. Just click "Export PDF" then "Entire Set":



Hels said...


even for a techni-dill like me, the high resolution is brilliant. Thank you.

I am glad that Yale have given the Yoynich Manuscript the security and seriousness that it deserves. Otherwise academics will only pursue the safe, respectable and mainstream.

bazza said...

I do love an enigmatic mystery and this is as good as any. It's intriguing that even AI can't provide an answer and, even in these comments, there is a broad range of possibilities which can't all be right but may all be wrong!
I have to say that given the number of herbal illustrations the book could be a collection of plant information BUT the use of a secret code indicates a book of herbal remedies possibly with some mystic origin.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s broadly banal Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Andrew said...

How amazing that it can't be cracked in this day and age. I think researchers may be overthinking it and it is just some obscure language about which there is no knowledge.

Hels said...


In times when real medicine was mainly little understood and popular medicine consisted of incantations, spells and magical symbols, there was little the clergy could do stop the Great Unwashed totally depending on magic. So I imagine that if proper herbal remedies were going to be published, they would use languages and images that only the clergy and medicos could understand.

Hels said...


there used to be minority languages in communities all around the world. People spoke their national language in the streets, shops and schools, and their mother tongue at home and in church. I can imagine fatal epidemics or wars coming through small towns, leaving zero adults to keep the mother tongue going.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - what a fascinating man and the book ... antiquarian bookshops - to know and appreciate those with educative information would be incredibly useful - something I need to know more about. Thanks for this - fascinating to read about both the man and the book - take care - Hilary

Hels said...


agreed totally. Not only was Wilfrid Voynich a dedicated bibliophile and antiquarian book­shop owner, he shared his treasures with the rest of the academic world. Even when he moved his base to the USA, he maintained his London bookshop and his literary finds.

Pipistrello said...

Oh, I do love these stories, Hels. There's a certain smugness about society supposedly reaching its intellectual apex in so many areas now, so it's delightful to know that manuscripts like this still stump great thinkers. And Voynich himself makes for a fascinating read. Such an interesting life when you'd think that the proverbial banishment to Siberia would have been the end of it!

Hels said...


scholars, writers and artists worked so hard back then, to discover, create and educate. I don't mind that they had great gaps in their knowledge or made large mistakes in their works... as long as they pushed on. This may not have been easy, especially if royals or the Church opposed the new learning.

Mind you, even in the late 19th century Voynich way paying a great price for his learning, foreign languages and beliefs.

mem said...

Well when I was a child I had two cousins, brother and sister who spoke in the own language and were quite gifted artists . I just wonder if this isnt a grown up version of someones imagination .Someone who was educated but also had a fey streak??

Hels said...


the vellum and writing/drawing materials have been confirmed as being created in the early C15th but the region of creation, writer(s) and meaning of the document have not. So I am quite prepared to believe that some VERY skilled souls were playing a sophisticated game.

mem said...

yes well maybe they were having their fun in the 15 th century especially when you think of the atmosphere of fear around witch burning etc .

Hels said...


in the witch hunt era, people who were "identified" by the church and royals as witches were single women without a family of their own, older women with wrinkles or warts, or adulterers. So hopefully no-one was having fun about witches. Even later documents, like King James VI of Scotland's publication on witchcraft lore, Daemonologie (1597), were very serious and ugly.