The Voynich Manuscript

John Baez

January 30, 2005

The Voynich manuscript is the most mysterious of all texts. It is seven by ten inches in size, and about 200 pages long. It is made of soft, light-brown vellum. It is written in a flowing cursive script in alphabet that has never been seen elsewhere. Nobody knows what it means. During World War II some of the top military code-breakers in America tried to decipher it, but failed. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania seems to have gone insane trying to figure it out. Though the manuscript was found in Italy, statistical analyses show the text is completely different in character from any European language. Here's a sample page:


It contains pictures of various things, including plants, stars...


... and most strangely of all, nude maidens bathing in what looks like some very elaborate plumbing:


An interesting puzzle, no? Let me tell you a bit more about it.

Its recent history

It seems that in 1912, the book collector Wilfrid M. Voynich found this manuscript in a chest in the Jesuit College at the Villa Mondragone, in Frascati. He bought it from the Jesuits, and gave photographic copies to a number of experts to have it deciphered. None of them succeeded. In 1961, he sold it to a rare book expert in New York named H. P. Kraus for the price of $24,500. Kraus later tried to sell it for $160,000, but could not find a buyer. In 1969, he donated it to Yale University. It is now in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale, with catalogue number MS 408. They say it's "very likely" that the book was given to Emperor Rudolph II of the Holy Roman Emperor by British astrologer John Dee... and indeed, that's one theory, but it's far from certain. The story of the Voynich is long and complicated.

Its earlier history

When Voynich found the manuscript, there was a letter in it!

The letter was written by Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland, and addressed to Athanasius Kircher. It is dated 1666. It says that the manuscript was bought by Emperor Rudolph II for the princely sum of 600 ducats. In flattering language, Marci asks Kircher to attempt to decipher the manuscript. He mentions Roger Bacon as a possible author, although there is no clear evidence for this.

If you don't know these figures, you probably don't realize how interesting this is. Who are these guys, anyway?

Emperor Rudolph II

Rudolph II (1552-1612) was an emperor of the Holy Roman Empire - which by that time was neither holy, Roman, nor even much of an empire. He moved the imperial court from Vienna to a castle in Prague, in what was then Bohemia. He buried himself in esoteric studies: alchemy, astrology... magico-scientific disciplines of all sorts. Prague became a center for everyone interested in such matters: the infamous British magician John Dee and his henchman Edward Kelley, the monk Giordano Bruno (later burned at the stake for heresy), and even a pair of astrologers by the names of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. Rudolph II kept a room of curiosities, the Kunstkammer, full of alchemical manuscripts, rhinoceros horns, exotic minerals, scientific instruments, and the like.

In short: the perfect person to buy something like the Voynich Manuscript!

Athanasius Kircher

Athanasius Kircher (~1601 - 1680) was one of the most learned men of his day. He developed an instrument for measuring the magnetic force of the earth, a device for measuring wind speeds, and he designed and built sundials. He studied earthquakes and volcanos. He was an expert on oriental languages, and translated the Emerald Tablet of Hermes, an Arabic alchemical work, into Latin. He also wrote some very popular books on Egyptian antiquities and hieroglyphs. He was the first to correctly conjecture that Coptic was derived from ancient Egyptian. He even received a large gift from the Pope for translating the hieroglyphs on an Egyptian obelisk! When the Rosetta stone was found, quite a bit later, this translation was found to be completely inaccurate. However, during his lifetime he had a reputation for being able to read any text.

In short: the perfect person to decode the Voynich Manuscript!

Roger Bacon

Roger Bacon (1214-1294) was a Franciscan friar and an early advocate of the experimental method. He worked on optics, and at the request of Pope Clement IV he wrote a series of books which amounted to an encyclopedia of science. He also worked on alchemy. He kept much of his work secret from his fellow Franciscans, but nonetheless, in 1278 they imprisoned him on the charge of "suspected novelties" in his teaching. In his Letter on the Secret Works of Art and the Nullity of Magic, he wrote "The man is insane who writes a secret in any other way than one which will conceal it from the vulgar and make it intelligible only with difficulty even to scientific men and earnest students.... Certain persons have achieved concealment by means of letters not then used by their own race or others but arbitrarily invented by themselves."

In short: the perfect person to have written the Voynich Manuscript!

But the story is not so simple....

(To be continued.)


The best books to read on the Voynich manuscript are these:

There are also some excellent websites. However, there's a lot of turnover in these Voynich sites, because nobody can afford to pursue Voynichology as a full-time occupation. If you see a good new site, or find that some of the ones listed here have moved or dissappeared, let me know. You can also see lots of images on Google.

Within that awful volume lies the mystery of mysteries! - Sir Walter Scott

© 2005 John Baez