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When author Umberto Eco visited Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library in the fall of 2013, he asked to examine only one text: Manuscript 408, popularly known as the Voynich Manuscript.
Perhaps the late Italian novelist wanted to see the manuscript because it, like his masterpiece The Name of the Rose, is something of a literary puzzle requiring its would-be interpreters to be equally proficient in medieval history, semiotics and good old-fashioned detective work. Perhaps as he examined the Voynich Manuscript, turning its 600-year-old pages over in his hands, he recalled his own words from his 1980 novel: “Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.”
This might well be true of the Voynich Manuscript Eco was so taken with—maybe its story is as old and banal as any other. But that kind of analysis would require someone to pull off a literary feat that has thus far proven impossible: reading it.
At first glance, the Voynich Manuscript is rather unassuming; it’s “unglamorous, even somewhat shabby,” writes Eamon Duffy in The New York Review of Books. Roughly 10 by 7 inches, its 234 pages—some have been lost since its original composition—are bound by a limp vellum, the Renaissance counterpart to today’s paperback. But if judging a book by its cover were ever misguided, it’s particularly wrong to do so with this manuscript, which, as far as we know, has never been decoded, though not for a lack of effort.
The book is named after its discoverer, the eccentric Lithuanian-born Polish bookseller Wilfrid Voynich, whose biography is anything but typical. While studying law and chemistry at the University of Moscow, Voynich became sympathetic to the Polish Nationalist movement, and eventually became a member of the social-revolutionary party, which led to his arrest in 1885. After being held prisoner for 18 months in Warsaw, he was exiled to Siberia to live out his five-year sentence. In 1890 Voynich escaped and went on the run, making his way through Mongolia, China and Germany before finally arriving in London, where he used his past as a political revolutionary to his advantage. Voynich quickly bonded with other exiles, including Sergey Kravchinsky, famously known as Stepniak. It was this man, well-placed in British cultural and intellectual circles, who introduced the young Pole to the exciting world of bookselling.
Following Stepniak’s unexpected death in 1895, Voynich opened his first bookshop three years later. According to Arnold Hunt, author of a biographical essay included in Yale’s volume The Voynich Manuscript, Voynich quickly established himself as one of the most knowledgeable and well-read booksellers in the business. Though he started out by collecting fifth- and sixth-century books, after several years in the trade he turned his eye toward higher-end items, like early Bibles.
Voynich bought the manuscript that now bears his name in 1912, though the precise circumstances surrounding the purchase aren’t entirely known. During one of his regular trips to Europe, he writes, he “came across a most remarkable collection of precious illuminated manuscripts,” most of which, he surmised, “must formerly have belonged to the private libraries of various ruling houses of Italy.” In comparison to the other manuscripts, which were embellished with arms and various hues of gold, the Voynich appeared to be an “ugly duckling.”
The collection Voynich purchased in 1912 was at the time the possession of Italian Jesuits who, since the unification of Italy in the latter half of the 19th century, and the subsequent government-ordered confiscation of their libraries, had been hiding their books. Some texts were discovered in a secret room at the Collegio Romano, and were summarily seized by the state. But most, including the Voynich Manuscript, were successfully kept under watch by the order, until it decided, for whatever reason, to sell about 380 manuscripts to the Vatican Library. The sale was initiated in 1903 and, as Ren. Zandbergen notes in his essay “Earlier Owners,” took nine years to complete. During that time, and “under the condition of absolute secrecy,” Voynich acquired a few of the books earmarked for the Vatican, including Cicero’s philosophical works and the soon-to-be-famous ugly duckling.
“My interest was aroused at once,” he later wrote.
If the outside of the book is unremarkable, its contents are anything but. Those who open the manuscript are met with elegant scribblings in an unknown language, and whimsical drawings of plants, star diagrams and nude women.
The text was written, as most of its medieval contemporaries were, with a quill pen. The parchment was made from the skin of a calf, certainly a more expensive writing surface than other available options, like stone or wood. The process of preparing parchment for writing was laborious, as Yale librarian Raymond Clemens explains in the collection of Voynich essays he edited. The first step was to soak the skin in lime juice for several days, the result being that hair follicles swell and are easier to remove. The skin was then placed over a round object, perhaps a tree trunk, and the parchment maker used his hands to scrape off the loose hair. He then draped the pelt over a rack designed to stretch it taut, and with a lunellum, or curved knife, scraped both sides of the skin. The more a particular skin was worked over, the lighter and thinner it became, which meant that the more valuable parchments were nearly white on both sides, as is the case with the Voynich Manuscript. After several days of drying, the skin was whitened with chalk or some other substance and cut into individual sheets. It was then ready for writing.
The word ink is derived from the Latin encaustum, which translates to “having been burned”—appropriate, given what Medieval people believed about the writing process. When first applied to a parchment, explains Clemens, the iron-gall inks would appear light brown, until some time later when a chemical reaction caused the inks to darken. In addition to brown, other colors in MS 408 are white, green, yellow, red and blue, all of which were inexpensive and common, Clemens notes.
Aficionados of the manuscript refer to the text as Voynichese, because it is sui generis. The writing aesthetic is sophisticated and pleasing to the eye, like the languid, loopy cursive of one’s third-grade teacher. The text moves left to right, top to bottom, and is broken up into what look like paragraphs, most of which begin with a character that is double in size to most of the letters of the page, something a modern reader might consider to function like a capital letter or drop cap. There are four such characters in the manuscript, which experts refer to as “gallows”
characters. These are sometimes written in conjunction with another symbol, and the occurrence of both together is known as “pedestalled gallows.”
Voynichese “has a deceptively flowing, rhythmic quality that suggests long practice and familiarity on the part of the scribe or scribes,” writes M.E. D’Imperio in a 1978 book published by the National Security Agency, which was only recently declassified.Whoever composed this text knew what he, she or they were doing. Some handwriting experts think the lettering resembles the Humanist minuscule script from 15th-century Italy.
“The basic alphabet of frequently occurring symbols is small,” writes D’Imperio—some 15-25 characters. A selection of these individual characters is ligatured to create other symbols, which are then grouped together to form what is presumed to be words. The number of diff erent words in the manuscript, writes D’Imperio, “seems surprisingly limited,” with the same word being used several times in succession. Most words are short, merely four or five symbols in length. Two-letter words are rare, as are words made up of more than seven symbols. There are also instances where words differ from each other only by one letter (e.g., share and shape in English). According to an estimate cited by D’Imperio, there are approximately 250,000 characters in the manuscript.
As Zandbergen notes on a website he runs about the Voynich Manuscript, the text contains a number of characters that appear strikingly similar to Latin ones: ‘a,’ ‘c,’ ‘i’ (undotted), ‘m,’ ‘n,’ ‘o.’ Several others seem to resemble the numerals 2, 4, 8 and 9. Each folio is numbered on the right-hand margin, though experts agree this was done after its original compilation.
In addition to such unknown characters, every page contains drawings ranging from simple doodles to elaborate floral renderings. In fact, the text appears to be written around its drawings, which, as they are at least interpretable to experts, offer a useful structure for organizing MS 408.
The first half of the manuscript, about 130 pages, is referred to as the Herbal section. On each folio can be found a large drawing of plants; the text is carefully organized around the images, resistant to any overlap. Experts do not agree as to whether these plants are fantastical or based on real-world species. Edith Sherwood, a retired professor of chemistry, has spent years trying to match plants in MS 408 to their possible 15th-century counterparts. Of the 126 plants in the text, she claims to have identified 124, which gives her a 98 percent success rate. Others, like Eamon Duffy, claim the drawings represent “biological impossibilities,” such as one that depicts a plant’s “roots and branches [bifurcating] and then [reconnecting] again to form a single stem.”
The second section of Voynich is the Astronomical section, which contains large foldout pages, a feature that is rare—though not unheard of—for books produced in the same period. The foldouts feature a central drawing of either stars or an anthropomorphized sun or moon, around which curl Voynichese text as well as smaller illustrations. This section is followed by 10 folios featuring plump nude women bathing. Duffy calls the figures “decidedly unerotic,” which echoes D’Imperio’s assessment that they “certainly do not present an appearance of voluptuous beauty to the modern American eye.” Each female figure sits, stands or lies on tubs, tubes, pipes or other water conduits.
There’s another astronomical section, followed by some more herbal images that make up the book’s Pharmaceutical section. Some experts believe the short blocks of Voynichese in this section to be medical recipes. The book closes with about two dozen folios almost completely covered in the mystifying language, their only adornment a vertical line of stars on the left-hand margin.
And with that, the world’s most mysterious manuscript comes to a whispered end.
Since the enigmatic MS 408 came to light a century ago, many possible solutions have been posed as to what it means. But Zandbergen is less concerned about meanings than the historical events that helped produce the text.
“For me, the question isn’t, ‘What does it say?’ Or, ‘How can we convert it back to meaningful text?’ But, ‘How did they do it?’” says Zandbergen. “Somebody sat down and wrote it. Somebody invested a lot of time and money, or somebody’s money. There was a message there because of the consistency [of the text] from beginning to end. There must have been a purpose.”
That being said, questions about the text’s purpose aren’t any easier to answer than questions surrounding the text’s meaning. That’s because experts have no idea how the text came to be in the first place. They have only been able to construct a piecemeal history based on what many assume to be reliable clues.
The first is a letter from 1665, which was included with the manuscript when Voynich purchased it in 1912. According to the ensigned, Prague scientist Johannes Marcus Marci, the book was sold to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II for 600 ducats. Marci also included the information he heard from someone else, that the manuscript was produced by Roger Bacon, Doctor Mirabilis, the controversial 13th-century Franciscan and scientist. Voynich was convinced Bacon was the original author, as is clear from the title he gave MS 408: “The Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript.” The rare book dealer Hans Peter Kraus similarly advertised the manuscript when he tried to sell it in the 1960s. When no one would bite on his exorbitant asking price—as high as $160,000—Kraus ultimately donated the text to Yale University in 1969, where it’s lived ever since.
Carbon dating has since ruled out the possibility of Baconian authorship. Findings from the University of Arizona in 2009 place the manuscript between 1404 and 1438, with a 95 percent probability. It should be noted, however, that some experts believe the manuscript might be copied from an earlier one, given the lack of erasure or correction markings in the text. Therefore, while MS 408 is conclusively of 15th-century origins, it is possible its source material—if there is any—predates the text in Yale’s library.
Nonetheless, though Voynich’s belief in Bacon’s authorship has been summarily debunked, there are good reasons to believe Voynich was correct to place the text in Rudolf II’s court. One of the chief reasons has to do with a discovery made by Voynich some time after his purchase. Applying an unidentified chemical to the front page of the text, Voynich was able to read the name Jacobus Hořčický de Tepenec, which was until that time invisible to the unaided eye. (Contemporary multispectral imaging has revealed the same name.)
Hořčický, also known as Sinapius, was raised by Jesuits and perhaps spent time at Prague’s Jesuit College. His pharmaceutical reputation preceded him, and he was thus able to curry favor with Rudolf II, who, according to a possibly apocryphal legend, Hořčický cured from a deathly disease. In 1608, the emperor ennobled him with the title z Tepenec—an important detail for Voynich scholars because MS 408 includes the stately title, which means he added his name to the text after his official assignment. When Hořčický died in 1622, he left all of his possessions to the Prague Jesuit’s library, but for some reason, 408 ended up somewhere else.
By 1637, Georgius Barschius came into possession of the manuscript, by means still unknown. A lawyer by trade, Barschius was convinced the text was med
ical, which was, as he wrote in a letter to the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, “the most beneficial branch of learning for the human race apart from the salvation of souls.” Barschius believed Kircher to have an unmatched intellect, and pleaded with him to try his hand at the unreadable text. The mathematician wrote back two years later, in March 1639, admitting failure. As Zandbergen notes, this letter was discovered in 2000, and is the earliest reference to MS 408 in the historical record.
But Barschius persisted: “Now since there was in my library, uselessly taking up space, a certain riddle of the Sphinx, a piece of writing in unknown characters, I thought it would not be out of place to send the puzzle to the Oedipus of Egypt to be solved.” If Kircher did answer the appeal, his reply is lost to history.
Upon Barschius’ death around 1662, his personal alchemical library, including MS 408, was bequeathed to Marci, the Prague scientist. Three years later, Marci, desperate to have the secret text cracked, again sent the manuscript to Kircher, which is where the historical trail goes cold—until Voynich’s purchase in 1912.
When Yale procured MS 408 almost a half century ago, its catalogue entry read: “Scientific or magical texts in an unidentified language, in cipher, apparently based on Roman minuscule characters.” Voynich himself was convinced the Voynichese was a cipher. Some of the most brilliant cryptographic minds have spent countless hours trying to crack its code, as it were, only to end up right back where they started: ignorance.
The first scholar to claim he’d interpreted the manuscript was historian William Romaine Newbold, who worked under the now-debunked assumption that Bacon wrote the text. Newbold believed Bacon’s cipher system to be what William Sherman describes as “anagrammed micrographic shorthand.” That is, the letters’ orderings were changed, the words were abbreviated, and the characters were composed of tinier symbols only visible when magnified. Newbold’s theories were at first praised by the medievalist John Matthews Manly who, in a Harper’s Monthly article, introduced his findings.
But by 1931, Manly came to disbelieve Newbold’s theories. What Newbold was convinced were micrographic scribblings were nothing more than random cracks formed in dry ink. “It appears that Professor Newbold’s cipher systems and his decipherments were not discoveries of secrets hidden by Roger Bacon but the products of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned ingenious subconscious,” concluded Manly.
The other most well-known deciphering attempts were made by the husband and wife team William and Elizabeth Friedman. Manly met William in 1916 at what is now known as the “Cradle of Cryptography,” housed in the Chicago-area Riverbank Laboratories. (William, by the way, corroborated Manly’s assessment of Newbold’s Voynich work.) At the time, the Department of Codes and Ciphers focused its energies on literary secrets—for example, the idea that Francis Bacon was the actual author of Shakespeare’s works. Elizabeth was one of Riverbank’s Shakespeare scholars, and according to Sherman, shared her future husband’s patriotic loyalty to the U.S. government, as well as his fascination with literary ciphers.
As the need for cryptologists became more apparent, Riverbank’s focus shifted to breaking military secrets. By 1921, William and Elizabeth had moved to Washington, DC, where they both took up government posts. It was there that Manly put the couple in touch with Voynich, who in 1925 sent them a few photographs of his own cipher manuscript he’d developed. Those images piqued the newlyweds’ interest, and for the next 40 years, the duo remained committed to figuring out the puzzling text. The pursuit paused during WWII, as William’s team set to work cracking the Japanese code known as Purple. Near the end of the war, in 1944, William turned his attention once again to MS 408, and to that end assembled the Voynich Manuscript Study Group, which met regularly in Arlington Hall.
For almost 15 more years, the Friedmans continued to try to decipher the book, but over that time, their enthusiasm for the enterprise seems to have waned. In a 1959 article for Philological Quarterly, “Acrostics, Anagrams and Chaucer,” the two expressed the ultimate futility of trying to solve anagrammatic ciphers. The article was accompanied by a note explaining that the text itself was an anagram. The solution was sealed in an envelope and given to the editor of the journal, who printed the secret message when he ran the original article again in 1970.
The message: “The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type.—Friedman.”
“Nothing about the book is plausible,” says Reed Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Languages at the University of Virginia and a longtime Voynich Manuscript enthusiast. “The book itself is implausible.”
It could be a cipher, he says, but given that the manuscript looks to be some sort of compendium of knowledge, why disguise the information in the first place? Perhaps, he suggests, the composer wanted to make banal natural phenomena seem more magical than they are. Or perhaps the images have nothing to do with the text—although this seems unlikely given the consistent patterns that emerge between words and drawings. For example, some words are specifically thematic, occurring only in certain sections.
“One of the most plausible theories is it could be an invented language,” says Johnson, echoing the Friedmans’ own cryptic Conclusion.
What about a fraud? Could the entire thing be a hoax? British cryptoanalyst John Tiltman summarized in 1951 the problems with this theory: “I do not believe the manuscript is completely meaningless, the ravings or doodlings of a lunatic, nor do I believe it is just a hoax—it is too elaborate and consistent to be either.” As for the theory that it was a deliberate forgery created for financial gain, Tiltman admits this is possible though “rather improbable.”
Zandbergen says he is open to the possibility that the text “has no meaning at all.” Johnson goes even further: In the battle between the text and human readers, he says he’s “rooting for the manuscript.”
If the Voynich Manuscript remains unreadable, what value is there in studying it? It’s no doubt a work of beauty—even a cursory glance at one page of the text would lead anyone to that conclusion. But aren’t scholarly energies better directed toward texts that can be figured out, toward typographies that can be assigned meaning?
On the contrary, says Johnson, the Voynich Manuscript is worth studying precisely because it resists reading. “In an age when information is so readily available to us, there’s something important about a book that can’t be read. It’s sort of an island of inexplicability in the midst of a life in which everything is resolved.”
Every time we look at the Voynich Manuscript, we’re forced to confront the limits of our understanding. In contrast to most books we read and interpret, “the Voynich Manuscript is about your failure and your inability to read it,” says Johnson.
This is none other than a lesson from Eco’s The Name of the Rose: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry.” That is certainly true of the elusive Voynich Manuscript Eco once held in his hands.
Brandon Ambrosino is a writer living in Delaware. His pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Politico and the BBC, among other outlets.