The Voynich manuscript has been the object of intense study by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including some top American and British code breakers of World War II fame all of whom failed to decrypt any portion of the text.This string of failures has turned the Voynich manuscript into a famous subject of historical cryptology, but it has also given weight to the theory that the book is simply an elaborate hoax—a meaningless sequence of arbitrary symbols.
The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious, undecipherable illustrated book. It is thought to have been written in the 15th or 16th century. The author, script, and language of the manuscript remain unknown
The book is named after the Polish-American book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912. Currently the Voynich manuscript is stored in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University as item “MS 408”. The first facsimile edition was published in 2005.
By current estimates, the book originally had 272 pages in 17 quires of 16 pages each. About 240 vellum pages remain today, and gaps in the page numbering which seems to be later than the text indicate that several pages were already missing when Voynich acquired it. A quill pen was used for the text and figure outlines, and colored paint was applied (somewhat crudely to the figures, possibly at a later date. There is strong evidence that at one point in time, the pages of the book were arranged in a different order.
The text was clearly written from left to right, with a slightly ragged right margin. Longer sections are broken into paragraphs, sometimes with bullets in the left margin. There is no obvious punctuation. The ductus flows smoothly, suggesting that the scribe understood what he was writing when it was written; the manuscript does not give the impression that each character had to be calculated before being inked onto the page.
The text consists of over 170,000 discrete glyphs, usually separated from each other by narrow gaps. Most of the glyphs are written with one or two simple pen strokes. While there is some dispute as to whether certain glyphs are distinct or not, an alphabet with 20–30 glyphs would account for virtually all of the text; the exceptions are a few dozen rarer characters that occur only once or twice each.
Wider gaps divide the text into about 35,000 words of varying length. These seem to follow phonetic or orthographic laws of some sort; e.g., certain characters must appear in each word like the vowels in English, some characters never follow others, and some may be doubled but others may not.
Statistical analysis of the text reveals patterns similar to those of natural languages. For instance, the word entropy about 10 bits per word is similar to that of English or Latin texts. Some words occur only in certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript. There are very few repetitions among the thousand or so labels attached to the illustrations. In the herbal section, the first word on each page occurs only on that page and may be the name of the plant.
On the other hand, the Voynich manuscript’s language is quite unlike European languages in several aspects. Firstly, there are practically no words comprising more than ten glyphs, yet there are also few one- or two-letter words. The distribution of letters within the word is also rather peculiar: some characters only occur at the beginning of a word, some only at the end, and some always in the middle section—an arrangement found in Semitic alphabets but not in the Latin or Cyrillic alphabets with the exception of the Greek letters Beta and Sigma.
The text seems to be more repetitive than typical European languages; there are instances where the same common word appears up to three times in a row. Words that differ only by one letter also repeat with unusual frequency.
There are only a few words in the manuscript written in a seemingly Latin script. On the last page, there are four lines of writing that are written in (rather distorted) Latin letters, except for two words in the main script. The lettering resembles European alphabets of the 15th century, but the words do not seem to make sense in any language. Also, a 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 or the Iberian Peninsula. However, it is not known whether these bits of Latin script were part of the original text or were added later.
The history of the manuscript is still full of gaps, especially in its earliest part. Since the manuscript’s alphabet does not resemble any known script, and the text is still undecipherable, the only useful evidence as to the book’s age and origin are the illustrations especially the dress and hairstyles of the human figures and a couple of castles that are seen in the diagrams. They are all characteristically European, and based on that evidence, most experts assign the book to dates between 1450 and 1520. This estimate is supported by other secondary clues.
The earliest confirmed owner of the Voynich manuscript was Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 17th century. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as we are today about this Sphynx that had been taking up space uselessly in his library for many years. On learning that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano, had published a Coptic dictionary and deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Baresch sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome (twice), asking for clues. His 1639 letter to Kircher, which was recently located by Rene Zandbergen, is the earliest mention of the manuscript that has been found so far.
It is not known whether Kircher answered the request, but apparently, he was interested enough to try to acquire the book, which Baresch apparently refused to yield. Upon Baresch’s death, the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci, then rector of Charles University in Prague, who promptly sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend and correspondent. Marci’s cover letter (1666) is still attached to the manuscript.