The Most Mysterious Manuscript of All

by Douglas Chapman

The much-illustrated book known as the Voynich Manuscript (a.k.a. MS 408 in the Yale Library) is very old, nobody knows who wrote it, and nobody knows what it means. It could be outsider art or a channeled work or it could have deep meanings, possibly alchemical. It it has fascinated and confounded experts in many disciplines for centuries – including professional codebreakers. Since its writing has yet to be deciphered, those who have perused it have grouped its content according to its illustrations. These artworks include botanical drawings, astrological and astronomical graphics including charts, biological works including miniature nude females, nine cosmological medallions, some pharmaceutical art, and some continuous text pages with star-flowers marking each entry (or possible recipe).

One of its early, though not earliest, owners was a 17th-century Prague alchemist named Georg Baresch, who was so confused by it that he sent off a copy to Jesuit scholars for translation work. After he died, the Jesuits obtained it and gave the original to the Roman Jesuit University. Later, Wilfrid M. Voynich purchased it and gave it in 1969 to Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

There are controversies about various claimed early owners, such as Emperor Rudolph II of Bohemia, John Dee, and others. There were claims that it was the work of Roger Bacon. The stories told of its provenance are not always reliable, and there is apparently a two-century gap in its records.

A Mystery Clarified

The Voynich Manuscript, made of animal skin, has recently yielded up one secret. It has been carbon-dated to the early 1400s, and is about a century older than previously conceived.

Its owner, the Beinecke library, allowed the scientists to remove tiny bits of four pages, used for a carbon dating narrowing down a time between 1404 and 1438 — more or less. Dr. Greg Hodgkins, of the University of Arizona's anthropology and physics departments, notes that since the four snipped sections have the same dating, earlier suggestions that the manuscript was added to at different dates now seem unlikely. Ink analysis by the McCrone Institute in Chicago had earlier indicated that the ink was applied when the parchment was relatively new.

This reduces the number of possible explanations, especially if attention is paid to the encryption techniques and science skills native to the time period the artifact was created. Wilfrid Voynich can be written off as its creator, and forgery becomes less likely. Hodgkins notes that it is either a alchemical text told with pictures or something that was created to be sold as a valuable manuscript.


Professor Gonzalo Rubio, a University of Pennsylvania ancient languages specialist, says that the carbon-dating shows it is not a forgery, and rules out that it was created by Roger Bacon, a polymath of the 13th century. Rubio finds the text strange, since the “language” lacks the usual grammatical markers to be found in Finnish, Hungarian or Indo-European languages. Rubio ventures the idea that the Voynich Manuscript was created for fun, and/or to prank actual alchemical texts.

Its word-style is odd, in that it has very few words exceeding ten "letters" (glyphs), and there are also scarcely any words of one or two letters. But that is only one of its seemingly countless mysteries. Even with improved computer techniques and advances in linguistics assisting its study, the Voynich Manuscript is unlikely to share all its secrets.


"The book of secrets," The Age,, 5/29/11

Voynich Manuscript, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library,

The Voynich Manuscript – Community Texts — Ebook and Texts Archive — Internet Archive,

Voynich manuscript — Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,

strangemag HOME