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 unique artifact.
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 low.
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.

Web pages
The most current research on the Voynich Manuscript is found on the Web.


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 more.

March 23, 2009

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