Voynichmanuscript

Article

July 5, 2022

The Voynich Manuscript is a mysterious, illustrated manuscript of misunderstood content. It was written in the 15th century by an unknown author. The script, written in an unknown language or code, has not yet been deciphered. The manuscript has been the subject of much research by professional cryptographers and amateur cryptographers, including illustrious World War II codebreakers. None of them have deciphered a single word. All those failed attempts have made the Voynich Manuscript the holy grail of cryptography, but also reinforced the suspicion that it is nothing more than a sequence of meaningless characters. The book is named after the Polish-American bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912. It is currently owned by the University of Yale. The first facsimile edition was issued in 2005.

Description

The book consists of about 240 sheets of vellum; there are some gaps in the page numbering (which was apparently added later), indicating that some pages were already missing when Voynich got his hands on the manuscript. The text and illustrations are made with a quill pen. The illustrations are – possibly later – colored with paint.

Illustrations

The illustrations provide little clarity about the content of the text, but give the impression that the book consists of six chapters, each with its own subjects and style. The sections are usually named as follows: Botanical – each page has a plant (sometimes two plants) and a few paragraphs of text, something that was also common in the printed plant books (herbaria) of the time. Some parts are larger copies of drawings in the pharmaceutical section (see below). Astronomical – the drawings consist of circular diagrams, some with suns, moons and stars. They give the impression of astronomy or astrology. A series of twelve diagrams shows the traditional signs of the zodiac. Each of these symbols is surrounded by exactly thirty female figures, most of them naked, holding a star. The last two leaves of this section (with Capricorn and Aquarius) have been lost, while Aries and Taurus have been split into four paired diagrams, each containing fifteen stars. Some charts are on foldout pages. Organic – dense pages interspersed with images of mostly naked women, in bathtubs, sometimes connected by an extensive network of pipes. Some of the pipes appear to be shaped like body organs. Cosmological – circular diagrams with unclear meaning. This section has four fold-out pages; one is six pages long and forms a sort of map or diagram with nine islands connected by causeways, and with castles and perhaps a volcano. Pharmaceutical – many labeled plant parts (leaves, roots, etc.). Objects that resemble pharmacy barrels are drawn along the margin. A few paragraphs of text. Recipes – many short paragraphs, each marked with a flower-like or star-like sign.

Text

The text is clearly written from left to right, visible on the irregular right-hand line. Longer sections are divided into paragraphs, sometimes bulleted. Punctuation marks are missing. The writing is fluent, as if the writer had a good command of the subject. The text consists of approximately 170,000 characters, usually separated by a narrow space. Most characters are written with one or two simple strokes. There are twenty to thirty different characters; the exact number is subject to some debate. In addition, there are several dozen characters that are used only once or twice. The text contains about 35,000 words of varying length. The words appear to follow phonetic or spelling rules: certain characters must