Nothing perks up my curiosity more than an unsolved mystery that has eluded historians, linguists and cryptologists since the first code breakers from both World War I and World War II failed to decipher the cryptic Voynich Manuscript. I first became acquainted with the mysterious codex during a 50-minute 2010 documentary film produced by ORF Studio and directed by Klaus T. Steindl and Andreas Sulzer, The Voynich Manuscript – The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript. The manuscript, scribed in an unknown writing system, stumps linguistics experts; while the illustrations provide clues about the subject matter: herbal botanicals, astronomical objects, biological structures, cosmological abstractions, pharmaceutical tinctures and what may pass as recipes.
The identity of the author and the early publication history of the manuscript is unknown, however the vellum on which the text is scribed dates back to the fifteenth century (c. 1404-1438), according to carbon-dating analysis conducted at the University of Arizona. The McCrone Research Institute in Chicago performed a materials analysis of the manuscript, suggesting the formulations of the various inks used in the text and illustrations coincide with those used during the European period in which the parchment was created.
Resurfacing through several ownership changes and from obscurity in 1666, the manuscript became part of the library of the then Collegio Romano, which was gleamed from a cover letter, dated August 19, 1666, inside the bound codex, from Joannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar at Collegio Romano. The codex returned to obscurity until Wilfrid Voynich, an antiquarian and bibliophile, purchased the codex around 1912 as part of a larger acquisition of manuscripts from the Collegio Romano, now known as the Pontifical Gregorian University in Italy. Intrigued, Voynich focused his time on researching the origins of the codex while persuading experts from the fields of linguistics and cryptography to crack the code. Voynich died in 1930 and ownership of the Voynich Manuscript transferred to his widow, Ethel Lilian Voynich. After her death in 1960, H. P. Kraus, a bibliophile and book dealer, acquired the manuscript from the estate of Ethel Voynich. Unsuccessful attempts at selling the codex prompted H.P. Kraus to donate the Voynich Manuscript in 1969 to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
The mystique of the Voynich Manuscript attracts both legitimate researchers and fringe enthusiasts, thus it’s a prudent course of action to acquire enough knowledge about the manuscript from trustworthy sources first in order to distinguish veritable analysis from dodgy assertions. I had stumbled upon the Voynich Manuscript as a result of pursuing research for a fiction writing project and had to slosh my way through a swamp of ridiculous claims, such as the codex was the result of collaborations with ancient aliens. In the world of books and documents with mysterious origins, hidden meanings and encoded content, the Voynich Manuscript makes the short list.
The illustrations alone stirs the imagination, setting the stage for speculation as to what they may represent. Is the codex a catalogue of herbal botanicals, cosmological abstractions and pharmaceutical recipes? If the illustrations suggest possible subject matter, then why did the creator go to such lengths to codify the text? Created during a period in history when punishment for witchcraft and scientific heresy meant certain death, it’s reasonable to consider the creator of the codex exercised due diligence to protect himself and possibly others from persecution from the Church. Is the codex nothing more than an elaborate ruse or hoax? If the Voynich Manuscript is, indeed, a hoax, then it’s a hoax from the 15th century and the joke is on us.
Whatever it is, whoever wrote it, the Voynich Manuscript is an enigma and, for some, a rabbit hole wherein a cryptic labyrinth awaits the curious. If you want to learn more about the world’s most mysterious manuscript, investigate the resources below. Safe journeys.
Begin your investigation at the source: Voynich Manuscript, MS 408, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
The finicky servers at the NSA don’t reliably serve up the two documents below, so I suggest Googling for them here.
The Voynich Manuscript: The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World, written by Brigadier John. H. Tiltman, 1968, and released by the NSA on April 23, 2002.
The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma by M.E. D’Imperio, 1978, NSA/Central Security Service.
Professor Stephen Bax is often cited as an expert on the codex and published a paper on his attempts at deciphering the text: A Proposed Partial Decoding of the Voynich Script by Professor Stephen Bax of Applied Linguistics at CRELLA, University of Bedfordshire, UK.
The documentary that introduced me to the mysterious codex: The Voynich Manuscript – The World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript, produced by ORF Studio and directed by Klaus T. Steindl and Andreas Sulzer.