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Trying to Make Sense of the Voynich Manuscript: A Brief History

Updated on February 16, 2017
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Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

Voynich Manuscript on page 170
Voynich Manuscript on page 170 | Source

Don’t let the delicate craftsmanship of each page in the Voynich Manuscript fool you. It may be colorful and extremely detailed, but none of it makes sense, at all.

Some claim they’re spells; others believe that they’re codes. And, there’s a sizable group of scholars who believe the thick, handmade book is an elaborate joke…and possibly a sophisticated hoax.

Still, all can agree on one thing about the Voynich Manuscript: nobody knows what it means.

The legacy of the Voynich Manuscript is ironically simple: it is the most difficult book to read. Nearly all the Medieval European-style illustrations and the combination of Far East lettering, Indian Sanskrit and hieroglyphics only add to the mystery behind it.

Since its discovery, professional linguists have attempted to decipher it without success. Even World War II era code-breakers from England and the United States were stumped.

And, to add to its mystique, there’s an urban legend of a professor from the University of Pennsylvania who went insane after trying to figure it out.

With such stories circulating about the book, it’s no wonder why the Voynich Manuscript has been dubbed “The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World.”

From the moment Voynich found it, the book was offering tantalizing mysteries.

Bizarre Origin

There are some things that can be clarified about this difficult book. For starters, Voynich Manuscript is not the title of the book. Like many books that came from Medieval times, it didn’t have a title or (most likely in this case) had one that was either faded, not legible, or was written in codes. Instead, the book gets its name from the person who rediscovered it more than 100 years ago.

In 1912, American Wilfred Voynich discovered it in a collection of ancient manuscripts from a short-lived Jesuit college in Frascati, Italy (just outside of Rome’s city limits). Voynich was an antique book dealer, and most likely saw something of value in it.

From the moment Voynich found it, the book was offering tantalizing mysteries. He found within it a curios letter dated 1666. It was written by Johanness Marcus Marci, a Bohemian doctor and scientist, and was addressed to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from Collegio Romano.

More strange images and charts from the manuscript
More strange images and charts from the manuscript

The Letter Adds to the Mystery of the Manuscript

The letter indicated that the manuscript had been bought by Emperor Rudolph II of Bohemia (1552-1612), an eccentric ruler within the Holy Roman Empire who surrounded himself by mystics, astrologers, and alchemists and was a fanatical follower of the occult.

According to the letter, Rudolph II supposedly bought the book from a mysterious stranger (possibly the earliest confirmed owner of the manuscript, alchemist Georg Baresch or his friend Marci).

Also, the letter suggested that the “stranger” presented him with a manuscript written by an unconfirmed author. Two possible names were given: John Dee a mystic and mathematician and member of the royal court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, and the 13th century pre-Copernican astronomer and astrologist Roger Bacon.

Evidently from the letter, that was enough for Rudolph II to purchase the manuscript for three hundred gold ducats (an estimated $14,000 by today’s standards).

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Who Wrote it?

Many who studied the book and the corresponding letter agree that either Bacon or Dee wrote it. However, another popular theory is that the book was written by a young Leonard Di Vinci, despite the scant evidence to support this. Time frame for the book’s creation is wide and varied. Many place it between the early1400s and mid 1500s.

What is known is that Voynich was intrigued enough to obtain the book. Upon retrieval of the book, he immediately hired several scholars and code breakers to decipher it. He sent photocopies to anyone who would accept the task of figuring out the writing and symbolism associated with the illustration. The deed was done in vain. Nobody was sure what to make of the strange letters and even stranger plant drawings and astrological charts.

All that anyone had were some speculations: was it a spell book, manual for pharmaceutical medicine, an astrological forecast, or prophesies? The best argument given was that it had to do with a combination of mysticism, magic, and medieval science. Again, the Marci/Kircher letter and the subject of that letter was the only real clue of this.

H.P Kraus, a New York book antiquarian bought it for the sum of $24,500. His intention was to appraise and resell it on the rare book market. He valued the book at $160,000.

Changing Ownership

Throughout the 20th century, the book changed ownership at least three times. In 1961, H.P Kraus, a New York book antiquarian bought it for the sum of $24,500. His intention was to appraise and resell it on the rare book market. He valued the book at $160,000.

For years, he was not able to find a bidder for a book that was 9x5 inches with 230 hand-written pages. The exorbitant price kept many likely bidders away. Also, the bizarre history and the people rumored to be involved with it may have given these bidders many reasons to be cautious. With its checkered past, many began to believe that the book was an elaborate hoax.

In 1969, unable to find anyone interested in the book, Kraus donated it to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book Library where it remains today under the catalog number MS 408.

Even NASA Got Involved in Deciphering It

The Failed Attempts to Decipher It

Its story doesn’t end there. For years afterward, many have tried to crack the cryptic passages, and many of them failed. Then, in 2003 Keele University, UK’s Dr. Gordon Rugg used the techniques of Elizabethan espionage to recreate the manuscript.

Cardan grille was an encryption device invented around 1550. It is a table of characters that is covered by a card with holes cut out of it. When it is placed on the character table, the holes reveal the characters, often letters. The letters that appear in the hole will spell out something.

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A Small Break

With this technique, Rugg came to the conclusion that the text of the book was nothing more than gibberish; in other words, it gave more credence to the speculation that the manuscript was a hoax. This led to more speculations that Voynich may have created this book.

Speculations that Voynich was in on the fraud was soon quashed. In 2009, carbon-dating proved that the book and its content came from the early to mid 1400s. The dating technique is still being debated; however, if this is confirmed, it means that the book and the writing were authentic. However, the content will stay elusive, whether it was a book or magic or 600 year-old hoax.

To add more confirmation to the book's authenticity, a letter from Baresch to Kircher, dated 1639 was recently discovered. It confirmed the existence of a manuscript that was hard to decipher and was "taking up space in his shelves." This letter also confirmed that Baresch was the earliest owner of the book.

Real or just an elegant hoax, the Voynich Manuscript will always remain a mystery. And, there will always be somebody that will try to crack the enigmatic words of the most mysterious book every written.

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© 2017 Dean Traylor

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