The Voynich Manuscript

Part of by author Mark David: Twitter @authorMarkDavid

The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The vellum on which it is written has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438), and it may have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer(1865–1930) who purchased it in 1912. michal_wojniczThe Voynich manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II. No one has yet succeeded in deciphering the text, and it has become a famous case in the history of cryptography.

Letter to Kircher

A letter found inside the cover—written on August 19, 1665 or 1666 accompanied the manuscript when it was sent by Johannes Marcus to Kircher—which claims that the book once belonged to Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612), who paid 600 gold ducats for it. The letter was written in Latin. The book was then given or lent to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (died 1622), the head of Rudolf’s botanical gardens in Prague, probably as part of the debt Rudolf II owed upon his death. Marci’s 1665/6 cover letter (written in Latin) was still with the manuscript when Voynich purchased 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 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

At the command of your Reverence,

Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland

Prague, 19th August, 1665

 The Mysterious Language

The mystery of the meaning and origin of the manuscript has excited the popular imagination. None of the many hypotheses proposed over the last hundred years has yet been independently verified. According to the “letter-based cipher” theory, the Voynich manuscript contains a meaningful text in some European language that was intentionally rendered obscure by mapping it to the Voynich manuscript “alphabet” through a cipher of some sort—an algorithm that operated on individual letters.

This has been the working hypothesis for most twentieth-century deciphering attempts, including an informal team of NSA cryptographers led by William F. Friedman in the early 1950s. Various transcription alphabets have been created to equate the Voynich characters with Latin characters in order to help with cryptanalysis, such as the European Voynich Alphabet. The first major one was created by Friedman in the 1940s, where each line of the manuscript was transcribed to an IBM punch card to make it machine readable.

In 1976, James R Child of the National Security Agency, a linguist of Indo-European languages, proposed that the manuscript was written in a “hitherto unknown North Germanic dialect”. He identified in the manuscript a “skeletal syntax several elements of which are reminiscent of certain Germanic languages”, while the content itself is expressed using “a great deal of obscurity”.


The codex covers the following subjects:

Herology, Astronomy, Biology, Comology,. Pharmacology, Recipes.

On Cosmology, notable are circular diagrams of an obscure nature with foldouts; one of them, commonly called the Rosettes folio, spans six pages and contains a map or diagram, with nine “islands” or “rosettes” connected by “causeways” and containing castles, as well as what might be a volcano.



On Astronomy are other circular diagrams, some of them with suns, moons, and stars, suggestive of astronomy or astrology. One series of 12 diagrams depicts conventional symbols for the zodiacal constellations (two fish for Pisces, a bull for Taurus, a hunter with crossbow for Sagittarius, etc.). Each of these has 30 female figures arranged in two or more concentric bands. Most of the females are at least partly nude, and each holds what appears to be a labeled star or is shown with the star attached by what could be a tether or cord of some kind to either arm. The last two pages of this section (Aquarius and Capricornus, roughly January and February) were lost, while Aries and Taurus are split into four paired diagrams with 15 women and 15 stars each. Some of these diagrams are on fold-out pages. The year is divided 360 days (rather than 365 days), in groups of 15 and starting with Pisces – associating the division with the practices of the Egyptians.


Jacobus Sinapius Connection

Only a few words in the manuscript are considered not to be written in the unknown script. Most notable is f1r: A sequence of Latin letters in the right margin parallel with characters from the unknown script. There is also the now unreadable signature of “Jacobj à Tepenece” (Jakub Hořčický latinised to Jacobus Sinapius) in the bottom margin – a Bohemian pharmacist and personal doctor of Emperor Rudolf II – said to have been the original owner of the manuscript – who studied Aristotelian philosophy at the Clementinum college in Prague. He lent Rudolf II enormous sums of money and received from him an estate around town Mělník. He became the administrator of the Mělník Castle (de) but was jailed in 1620, when the Protestants took charge of the town. Subsequently was exchanged by another prisoner (famous physician Jessenius) and exiled, but later, after defeating of the Bohemian Revolt, he returned to Mělník and lived there the rest of his life.

In f70v–f73v: The astrological series of diagrams in the astronomical section has the names of ten of the months (from March to December) written in Latin script, with spelling suggestive of the medieval languages of France, northwest Italy or the Iberian Peninsula.

Book dealer Wilfrid Voynich saw Jakub’s name and title at the bottom of the first page. Voynich saw the faint writing later revealed as Jacobus Sinapius (Jacobus Hořčický de Tepenec), Voynich subsequently used many chemicals to make it clearer but failed. It was later revealed by ultraviolet light and has been compared with other samples of his signature. Jakub is thus the second person known to have owned the Voynich Manuscript after Emperor Rudolf II. Its attested provenance begins with him, since the story that it was owned by Emperor Rudolf II rests on a single piece of unsubstantiated hearsay, related at second hand in a letter to Athanasius Kircher.

The Voynich manuscript was donated by Hans P. Kraus to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1969, where it is catalogued under call number MS 408.