Voynich Manuscript Mini-FAQ
Dennis J. Stallings
In 1912, Wilfrid M. Voynich (a book collector) bought a medieval manuscript
(235 pages) written in an unknown script and what appears to be an unknown
language or a cipher from the Jesuit College at the Villa Mondragone, Frascati,
in Italy (near Rome). However, despite the efforts of many well known cryptologists
and scholars, the book remains unread. Since 1969, it is at Yale University,
at the Beinecke Rare Book Library with catalogue number MS 408.
It is known (from a letter of J. M. Marci in 1665/6) that the manuscript
was bought by Emperor Rudolph II of Bohemia (1552-1612) for 600 ducats
(several hundred thousand US$ in today's buying power). The manuscript
somehow passed to Jacobus de Tepenecz, the director of Rudolph's botanical
gardens (his signature is present in folio 1r) and it is speculated that
this must have happened after 1608, when Jacobus Horcicki received his
title "de Tepenecz". Thus 1608 is the earliest definite date for the Manuscript.
The Voynich Manuscript, as it has come to be known, contains many drawings
of plants, but the plants have not been identified, nor have the drawings
been identified with known fanciful or distorted drawings of plants from
the Middle Ages. There are what look like astrological drawings. There
are curious drawing of little nude women bathing in baths with convoluted
plumbing; nothing else like these drawings is known. The persons and costumes
look generally European. The script seems to have been developed from early
Arabic numerals and medieval Latin abbreviations and embellishments; it
resembles Renaissance cipher scripts. The Voynich Manuscript looks a little
like a lot of things, but really like nothing else at all; it is a completely
At first, computer analysis of the Voynich Manuscript only deepened the
mystery. One finding has been that there are two "languages" or "dialects"
of Voynichese, which are called Voynich A and Voynich B. The repetitiousness
of the text is obvious to casual inspection. Entropy is a numerical measure
of the randomness of text. The lower the entropy, the less random and the
more repetitious it is. The entropy of samples of Voynich text is lower
than that of most human languages; only some Polynesian languages are as
The VMs E-mail list, in operation since 1991, has made significant progress.
The low entropies of the VMs text could be the results of a writing system
that uses several letters for one sound, and from the paradigms that the
majority of words of the text follow. Tests on known texts show that the
"A" and "B" languages may simply be due to different subject matter, different
authors, or one author over a long period of time. In a well-known text
on medieval paleography, list members have found embellishments of letters
in a note that are dead ringers for the VMs' "gallows letters". The date
of the VMs is most likely the late 1400's because of the script's similarity
to a "humanist hand" style that only saw use during several decades of
the 1400's, and because the nymphs' hairstyles point to 1480-1520. Prof.
Sergio Toresella wrote a paper on "alchemical herbals" that resemble the
VMs in having pictures of fantasy plants and written spells, enchantments,
and incantations (although in easily understood plaintext). An expert in
alchemy, Adam McLean, has ruled out the possibility that the VMs is a primarily
alchemical text. Research has shown much more about the Manuscript's history
since de Tepenecz.
The most current research on the Voynich Manuscript is found on the Web.
voynich.nu not only is the best one
to start with but also is the most comprehensive single site.
Stuff has links to almost all other Voynich pages, though it
is not currently up to date.
Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma, by Mary E. D'Imperio, summarizes
all work ever done to the original publication date of 1978 and is still
the the best book about the VMs in print. It is currently available
from Aegean Park Press, PO Box 2837, Laguna Hills, CA, 92654-0837,
(800) 736-3587, FAX (949) 586-8269,) as item C-27 - and of course
The NSA has made this book available in PDF form on its Miscellaneous
Historical Publications site; here is the actual
Voynich Manuscript: the Mysterious Code That Has Defied Interpretation
for Centuries, by Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, (London, Orion
Books, 2004) discusses more recent work. It is available from Amazon (ISBN
Print Copies and Images on the Web
High-quality images of the Voynich Manuscript are now available both on
the Web and in print. Click on Images to learn
March 23, 2009
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