|Two pages from the Voynich Manuscript.|
Ever read about something that made your head feel like it was attached to a helicopter's rotor blades? That's how I feel whenever I read about the Voynich Manuscript. A mystery that, for all intents and purposes, should be a provable hoax. After all, it's been decades and there hasn't been any sort of breakthrough in its undecipherable writings. The entire thing feels like something that was made to mess with people as some sort of elaborate prank.
That's where you, and many others, would be wrong. Maybe—but we'll get to that when we get to theories.
You see, it's been proven thanks to the wonders of science that the manuscript was in fact written centuries ago; all thanks to carbon dating. Couple that with the sheer size of the manuscript, it all feels like too much work was put into this to be a hoax. At the least, it'd be the mad writings of a mentally disturbed individual that wrote down in code that only they understood.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. We’re here to discuss the manuscript itself and its peculiar contents.
Written on vellum and carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century, the Voynich Manuscript was brought to public attention by Wilfrid Voynich after he purchased it in 1912. It contains 272 pages, though only 240 are legible due to others being damaged or missing. Length wise, the manuscript has over 170,000 characters. Said characters, however, are from no known language in human history; the exception being a few that are Latin for some unknown reason.
Accompanying the mysterious words are some equally mysterious drawings. Some of these are of herbs and medicinal objects, while others are astronomical and cosmological in nature. Some are also biological, though it's impossible to determine the purpose and nature of their meaning.
Historically, the manuscript was written between 1404 and 1438. The first confirmed owner was Georg Baresch—who was an alchemist from Prague—and his recorded reaction to the manuscript was on par with anyone who'd see it in their library.
“It's taking up space uselessly in my library.”
Baresch read of a Jesuit scholar named Athanasius Kircher who'd deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs. His interest piqued by both the manuscript’s enigmatic nature and the prospect of the “sphynx” (as he called it) being less nonsensical, he proceeded send a copy of the manuscript to him—twice. For what reason, I’m unsure.
The letter was sent in 1639 and is the earliest recorded mention of the manuscript to date. Despite this, it’s not the earliest that someone has had ownership who wasn’t the original author. Two people prior to Baresch exist: the first—and earliest—of them being Rudolf II; Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria, and King of Hungary (among other royal titles). It’s said that he purchased the manuscript for 600 gold ducats in a letter from a Bohemian doctor and scientist named Johannes Marcus Marci. However, there’s no documentation of this outside of hearsay from the time period and, as a result, it’s likely just that: hearsay.
The second person to have supposedly owned the manuscript was a man named Jacobus Sinapius. The claim that he owned it comes from none other than Wilfrid Voynich himself. According to Wilfrid, he saw Jacobus’ name at the bottom of the first page, and subsequently used chemicals in an attempt to make it clearer. However, despite his best efforts, it failed. Some time later, it was revealed to indeed be Jacobus’ name when the signature was exposed to ultraviolet light. Comparisons to other examples of his signature confirmed that it was, indeed, Jacobus who signed the book. As a result, we can pinpoint Jacobus Sinapius as the first owner of the manuscript—save for the author of it.
With that diversion out of the way, let’s get back to where we were; with Kircher having been sent a copy of the manuscript. It’s unknown as to whether or not he ever replied, but what is known is that he attempted to get the actual manuscript for himself. While he may have stated it was taking up space uselessly, Baresch refused to give it to Kircher. Although he may have not given it up in like, Kircher would emerge victorious after Baresch died. Kircher’s friend—Johannes Marcus Marci—obtained it for himself and would later send it to Kircher as they were friends. Accompanying it went sent was the aforementioned letter from above; dated August 19, 1665 or 1666, depending on your source.
Reverend and Distinguished Sir, Father in Christ:
This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined for you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my possession, for I was convinced that it could be read by no one except yourself.
The former owner of this book asked your opinion by letter, copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he believed you would be able to read the remainder, but he at that time refused to send the book itself. To its deciphering he devoted unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life. But his toil was in vain, for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master, Kircher. Accept now this token, such as it is and long overdue though it be, of my affection for you, and burst through its bars, if there are any, with your wonted success.
Dr. Raphael, a tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book belonged to the Emperor Rudolph and that he presented to the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman. On this point I suspend judgement; it is your place to define for us what view we should take thereon, to whose favor and kindness I unreservedly commit myself and remain
At the command of your Reverence,
Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland
After this letter, the manuscript went missing for two centuries. It’s speculated that it merely remained stored in Kircher’s library until Italian troops captured the city and annexed the Papal States in 1870. As a result of this, many books were confiscated by the Jesuit order—and it’s likely that the Voynich Manuscript was among these books.
By 1903, the Jesuit Order was low on money. As a result, they held an auction and it’s here that WIlfrid Voynich would go onto purchase the manuscript that today bears his name. After Wilfrid’s death in 1930, his wife, Ethel Voynich, would inherit it. After her death in 1960, she left it to her good friend, Anne Nill. The following year, Nill sold the manuscript to an antique book collector by the name Hans P. Kraus. Following his purchase, Kraus was unable to find a buyer and ended up donating it to Yale in 1969, where it was catalogued as MS 408; occasionally being referred to as Beinecke MS 408, where it resides today.
In spite of the extensive history the public has had with the Voynich Manuscript—and the allotted amount of time to study it—we’re no closer to finding out who wrote it and what its cryptic text means. As per the norm however, there are quite a few theories in relation to those two lingering questions. We shall now go over them, and I promise that they won’t be as baffling as the actual manuscript.
Let’s start off with who wrote it. The first, and probably one of the more well known theories, is that it was a fabrication by Wilfrid Voynich. This theory states that Voynich did it for one very simple reason: money. Being that he was an antique book dealer himself, Voynich would’ve had the necessary skills and information to make it as convincing as possible. On top of this, people point to the letters that Baresch and Marci both sent as proof that the manuscript, while mentioned, may not be the same one that Voynich possessed.
One other major talking point to this theory comes in the form of the Dead Sea Scrolls; 2,000 year old scrolls that have a questionable history in the eyes of some and that I may talk about some time next year. Shameless self promotion aside, the scrolls have had forgeries made by those looking for fifteen minutes of fame; each of them having fooled some historians and others alike. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Voynich could’ve easily duped the world into believing something all for a quick buck.
Another majorly popular theory—and the last one of note that I could find—is that the manuscript was written by Italian engineer and author Giovanni Fontana; a man who was known to utilize cryptography in his books. One other major similarity between Fontana and the manuscript was the drawings he had within his books. The art style bore some similarities to the drawings featured in the pages of the manuscript. Whether or not Fontana did write it though is an entirely different story altogether. While some see the drawings and the usage of cryptography as compelling enough on its own, others aren’t so sure. Correlation and causation and all that.
|A drawing from one of Fontana's books.|
Now we move onto part two of the theories: why it was written. This is a trickier question to answer as there's no clear way to identify tifu a possible motive. But, humans are nothing if not great at making assumptions, and there exist a handful of theories as to what the manuscript is or means.
As per the norm, I must echo the hoax theory for completion's sake. Okay? Okay.
The next theory is my personal favorite due to the multitude of possibilities it leads to. Alchemy. Such a possibility is one that's proven divisive; going so far as to become a talking point of sorts for anti-vaccine folks. Whether or not you believe in alchemy is entirely on you, though I'd personally not try my luck with it.
That said, the illustrations in the Voynich Manuscript have lead some to believe that it's either evidence that Alchemy is legitimate (like recipes) or that it's simply talking about the topic. Beyond the illustrations, there's little to back this up. However, the time period and the heavy focus on herbs and astronomy is enough to sway the hearts and minds of some.
Another possibility—and perhaps one of the more likely ones—is that it's simply talking about, well, nature. Little more. It's new age hippie nonsense before hippies were around!
A fourth theory is that it's the last remaining document of a dead language. Latin be damned: Voynich Manuscriptian is here to be the king of dead languages!
Evidence to this is as real as alchemy, but the idea is that our inability to decode it is evidence of it being an undiscovered language. This theory is so outlandish, I can actually believe it.
A fifth theory, and the last one I'll go over, is simple. It’s nonsense; the mad ramblings of a crazy person who had a mental breakdown and wrote a 200+ page manuscript with an elaborate and made-up language to hide something he believed was the target of some sinister conspiracy. By some stroke of dumb luck, the manuscript managed to survive the test of time and now exists as a mystery that, maybe, was just the result of a mental breakdown.
In the eyes of believers: evidence to support this is as simple as our inability to decrypt the manuscript. There have been those who say they've done just that, but no translation has ever been mostly agreed upon.
The Voynich Manuscript has become one of history's most enduring mysteries. It's a case that has challenged the minds of many fledgling detectives. Its mysterious contents may never be known, but its legacy will live on alongside the likes of the Zodiac ciphers and the Tamam Shud code as one of the most confounding undeciphered puzzles on the planet.