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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Voynich Theories


Voynich Theories

Posted by nickpelling on Sep 11th, 2008
If you have ever found yourself asking “Where can I found out about XYZ’s moderately-loopy-but-eerily-hard-to-disprove Voynich Manuscript theory?“, then you’ve come to the right place. Here’s very probably the longest list of such theories on the Internet…
And finally, Voynich theorists who wish to remain (at least partially) anonymous…

Voynich Parallel Hatching


Voynich Parallel Hatching

Posted by nickpelling on Sep 19th, 2009

1. Finding The Right Detail

For decades, researchers have tried to date the Voynich Manuscript by examining fragmentary details apparently depicted in its shapes, such as…
  • The baths in Quire 13 (‘Q13′) – (are these the Bagno di Romana?)
  • The Sagittarius crossbow and his clothes, etc
  • The Q9 and Q13 wolkenbanden [see the letters on p.50 & p.54 of the linked PDF]
  • The hairstyles of the zodiac ‘nymphs’
  • The pots in the early zodiac pages (are these maiolica albarelli?)
All of which is sensible historical research into its art, but not actually Art History per se.
You see, Art History practitioners view their discipline as a forensic anthropology of the mark - a rigorous study of the ways in which rendering techniques (such as the line, the brush-stroke, the cut, etc) flow between artists’ minds. Their focus on continuity-through-technique is consciously shared by intellectual historians, whose discipline extends Art History’s remit to encompass the idea behind all forms of human culture, and hence traces ideas flowing through time.
Contrast this with the (say) pre-1970 emphasis on iconographic patronage (how artists supposedly used deep-rooted patterns of thought and mythology to flatteringly represent things important to their patrons), which has rather faded. Modern art historians are less prone to swallow Giorgio Vasari’s tall tales, and are more likely to instead look at incidental documentation (such a letters, appearances in court, financial records, etc) when trying to build up a picture of a given artist’s context. But even they can be unreliable – documents don’t have to be written by Vasari to have an agenda. :-)
And so we have reached a situation where art historians prefer to focus not on that-which-is-depicted (which, as we have seen all too often with the Voynich Manuscript, is subject to an infinity of interpretations, regardless of whether you believe they also have a symbolic dimension) but on that-which-is-performed, the forensics of the mark. Essentially, when a styled mark is made, art historians ask: from where did the idea for using that style come? And to where did it go?
The problem with the VMs is working out which mark to use. After all, we have literally hundreds of pages full of possible candidate marks to select from. After going down hundreds of blind alleys over the past few years, I think I’ve now identified the key styled mark to focus upon – parallel hatching.

2. The History Of Parallel Hatching

Anyone familiar with the drawings in Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1509) famous notebooks should recognize parallel hatching immediately. It is a line-drawing technique for expressing mid-tones though the use of closely spaced parallel lines that was very popular in Florence (where Leonardo learnt to draw) in the second half of the 15th century. You can also see it in the drawings of countless other Florentines of the same period, such as Michelangolo Buonaroti.
Vitruvian Man head Voynich Parallel Hatching
Several years ago, I heard it mentioned in a lecture that parallel hatching emerged in Florence circa 1440. (I’ll add links to any examples I find here). The technique then spread to Venice around 1450, and from there to the rest of Europe. In a post here last November, I mentioned a good example of this: if you look at the vignettes in the corners of the 1452 mappa mundi by Giovanni Leardo, you can see some parallel hatching there, whereas Leardo’s 1442 and 1448 mappae mundi have no parallel hatching at all.
leardo crosshatching Voynich Parallel Hatching
Around this time, artists looked for ways to give the new medium of engraving more subtelty: perhaps most notable of these is Master E. S. (formerly known as “the Master of 1466″), a German goldsmith and engraver, who is thought to have created in the period 1450-1467 around 200-500 engravings, many with well-developed cross-hatching (two overlaid sets of parallel hatches).
But cross-hatching only became fashionable somewhere between 1465 and 1489 (opinions vary), with Florentine goldsmith and sculptor Antonio Pollaiuolo’s epic engraving “Battle of the Nudes“. Prints of his Battle rapidly circulated around Italy and Europe, and were both much admired and much copied, introducing the idea of cross-hatch to a much wider audience, as well as Pollauiuolo’s own deft brand of zigzag hatching. This is how cross-hatching and zigzag hatching came to be picked up by many artists of this period.
Yet beyond about 1500-1510, this whole artistic vogue for parallel hatching - right at the zenith of which Leonardo had been born – faded completely away. Because of the introduction of new paints and writing materials, there were numerous far easier ways for artists to represent mid-tones directly in their sketches: and so hatching became technically redundant. A significant reason for the distinctive style used in Leonardo’s notebooks, then, simply arose from his having been born in the right place (Florence) and at the right time (circa 1450) to become its most famous exponent.
As for the origins of parallel hatching, the most favoured answer currently seems to be that these lay in niello, a technique favoured by mid-Quattrocento Florentine goldsmiths. There, pieces of jewellery have shapes engraved into their surface with a burin (a round-handled chisel), and the resulting grooves are filled in with the niello itself, which is a dark-coloured mixture of silver, lead and sulphur. This gives the engraved shapes a distinctive (and quite attractive) high-contrast look. Though the basic technique had been common in the Ukraine in the 13th century, it was Florentine goldsmiths who introduced parallel hatching to the conceptual toolbox of niello techniques – this enabled mid-tones to be rendered in the (otherwise bitonal) medium.
This is why the goldsmith-turned-printmaker career trajectories of Master E. S. and Antonio Pollaiuolo are of so much interest to art historians – for without experience in making niello pieces, would either [the reasoning goes] have ever made the necessary conceptual leaps (to cross-hatching and zigzag hatching) for the new medium?

3. Parallel Hatching In The Voynich Manuscript

What, then, of the Voynich Manuscript? A careful examination of the Beinecke Library’s online scans reveals that parallel hatching (but not any other form of hatching) appears in a number of separate places:-
tower hatched Voynich Parallel Hatching
bee page hatching Voynich Parallel Hatching
jar hatching Voynich Parallel Hatching
These examples of hatching all seem integral to the conception and execution of their respective drawings: and hence there seems no reason to infer that any of them was added by a later owner. Quite apart from the thorny issue of what these various drawings depict, can we say with strong certainty that these marks are parallel hatching? I think the answer is yes: and I hope you agree.

4. The Voynich Manuscript’s Earliest Date

With the above evidence in mind, I contend that it would seem highly improbable to an art historian that the parallel hatching in the Voynich Manuscript is anything apart from, well, parallel hatching. And because the whole idea of parallel hatching seems to have originated with Florentine goldsmiths working in niello and/or printmaking in the 1440s before spreading to Venice, Germany and the rest of Europe around 1450, we can comfortably place 1440 as the Voynich Manuscript’s earliest date if it was made in Florence, or 1450 otherwise.
Furthermore, given that parallel hatching died out not long after the end of the fifteenth century, it seems probable (if not quite as certain) that the Voynich Manuscript originated during the same 1440-1510 period that saw the hatching flourish, with a more likely date range (from the lack of cross-hatching or zigzag hatching) being 1450-1480.

Voynich Codicology


Voynich Codicology

Posted by nickpelling on Oct 21st, 2008
This page describes what can be inferred about the Voynich manuscript from its physical makeup. It summarizes information from several sources (perhaps most notably/notoriously my 2006 book The Curse of the Voynich), and to illustrate the various arguments includes reasonable colour images [derived from the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library's colour scans].
(1) The Folio Numbers Are Not Necessarily Correct
Water flows from the bath on f78v [below left] right under a separate bifolio before reappearing on f81r [below right]. These two pages must therefore have faced each other in the original page layout, and can only sensibly have appeared at the centre of a quire with consecutive folio numbers: and so the present (non-consecutive) folio numbers are plainly wrong.
Voynich Manuscript, page f78v placed next to f81r
Also highlighted with red squares in the above pair of images is some red paint contact transfer (going from right to left) that apparently happened while the manuscript was in its alpha [original] state. (They are not aligned perfectly because the manuscript was fully bound when scanned, leading to perspective distortion.)
(2) The Bifolios Are Not Necessarily The Right Way Up
If f78v and f81r originally sat at the centre of the quire (as shown above), what page originally preceded f78r (i.e. which page sat facing f78r, nearer the front of the quire)? If you try every permutation in the water section, I contend that you will find only that one fits perfectly: f84v. Moreover, the two-page layout across f84v [below left] and f78r [below right] uncannily echoes the two-page layout exhibited on f78v and f81r [above]. But really, what clinches the case that these pages did originally face each other is the unusual “pineapple”-like fruit at the top, which appears on both of these pages (even symmetrically mirroring each other in the top middle!), but nowhere else in the manuscript.
Voynich Manuscript, f84v placed next to f78r
However, because f84v as currently bound appears right at the back of the quire, this  means that the bifolio containing it was bound in back to front relative to its initial orientation (i.e. the spine of the bifolio was flipped over before it was bound in, so what was initially at the front of the bifolio ended up at the back), and hence that whole bifolio is now upside down.
What is particularly interesting about this visual symmetry between page layouts is that it implies that the drawings in the manuscript had originally been laid out not arbitrarily or randomly (as they now appear), but instead according to some kind of consistent design aesthetic. I take this as a strong sign that we should be looking in the Voynich Manuscript to reconstruct a sense of order and purpose that has been scrambled by historical happenstance.
(3) The Quire Numbers Are Not Necessarily Correct
If f84v (which has Q12’s quire number on its bottom right corner) originally preceded f78r, this implies that the quire numbers were added after the page order in Q12 had been scrambled (nobody would have placed a quire number in the middle of a quire). Furthermore, quire numbers (particularly higher ones such as Q19 and Q20) appear to have been added by later hands, so may well be unreliable for quite different reasons.
(4) The Bindings Are Not Necessarily Correct
Many years ago, John Grove pointed out that while the first wide sexfolio of Q9 had originally been bound between f67r1 [below centre] and f67r2 [below right] (you can clearly see the binding marks laid out flat on the page),  it had subsequently been rebound between f68v [below left] and f67r1 [below centre] after the quire numbers had been added (and before the folio numbers had been added). The centre page [f67r1] was originally at the back of the quire (which is where the quire number would have been added), but after the subsequent binding the same page ended up at the front of the quire (which is where the folio number was added) – all of which is why it ended up with both foliation and a quire number on the same page.
Voynich Manuscript, f68v1 placed next to f67r1 placed next to 
Moreover, the circular drawing on f68v (“sun-face calendar”) very closely echoes the circular drawing on f67r1 (“moon-face calendar”): this gives powerful support to the idea that these two pages originally sat next to each other. Back in July 2002, John Grove wrote: “I’m beginning to thank that oaf for fouling up the numbering” – it is indeed true that these kind of mistakes help us to understand what happened to the VMs pre-1600 in a way that the archival evidence has so far been unable to do.
Furthermore, my suspicion is that there was a simple practical reason for what happened with these pages. In its original arrangement, this sexfolio had one page on one side of the binding and five pages on the other, which would have been somewhat impractical for handling. By rebinding it along a different boundary between pages, that oaf may well have helped to keep the manuscript intact – no bad thing, really.
(5) The Quires Are Not Necessarily In The Correct Order
I have argued that the two pharma quires (Q15 and Q19) appear to have had their order reversed, because the jar sequence seems to flow far more naturally from the end of Q19 to the pharma bifolio in Q15 than the order in which they now appear.
Voynich Manuscript, f102v jars placed next to f88r jars
(6) The Quire Contents Are Not Necessarily Correct
If you compare f41v and f42r in Q6, you’ll notice markedly different handwriting – the first is tight, compact, slightly right-leaning while the second is gentle, open, and slightly left-leaning (though whether this implies different authors, or different quills and/or different inks and/or times is a separate matter). This would be consistent with the basic codicological inference that the manuscript’s bifolios have been shuffled largely at random.
Voynich Manuscript Voynichese, f41v text placed next to f42r text
As an alternative explanation, Glen Claston argues that the bifolios might plausibly have been deliberately shuffled by the author (perhaps later in life) to match some change in organizational plan (say, from alphabetical order to thematic order). However, because the two halves of each bifolio are stuck together, I would point out that you can’t really restructure codices to any significant degree unless you physically divide each bifolio, and there’s (as yet) no evidence that this happened here.
(7) The Paints And Colours Used Are Not Necessarily Original
There’s been a long and spirited debate about this one. The short version is simply this: a significant number of Voynich researchers have come to believe that paint was added in several waves, with a small set of washy (possibly organic?) paints added early, and a larger set of heavy (possibly inorganic?) paints added later. Critically, the heavy blue paint appears (in a good few places) to have transferred across to facing pages within the current binding order, and with a very distinctive (and unusual) drying pattern. To me, this clearly indicates that the paint was added after the pages had been bound and then contact transferred while still drying (though Glen Claston argues that some unknown bacterial mechanism may have caused them to transfer many years later in conjunction with localized water damage).
As further evidence to support the argument, I would point to the markedly different paints on the f84v and f78r pair [section (2) above] and on the f102v and f88r pair [section (5) above]. Really, it comes down a binary choice: you either have to accept that the codicological evidence points to several misbinding (non-original) owners, or you have to reject the whole lot of it, period.
All in all, Glen spent a long time utterly convinced (as was Prescott Currier, for the most part) that the current page order, quire numbering and page appearance we now see all strongly reflect the author’s intentions: of course, this position is entirely possible – but I have yet to see a single piece of codicological evidence that supports it.
(8) One Day, We’ll Reconstruct The Page Order (But Not This Week)
From (2)-(8) above, it should be reasonably clear that what we are looking at in the VMs is not the original page order, or even the original page state: and that even the (apparently 15th century hand) quire numbering is an unreliable guide to the ‘alpha’ state of the manuscript. Still, there are plenty of ways in which we might (in time) be able to reconstruct the original page order (multispectral scans, Raman spectroscopy, thickness mapping the vellum edges, DNA testing the vellum (!), etc). But as none of that is likely to happen anytime soon, all we can do is try not to base our arguments on the present colouring, order, orientation, grouping, foliation or quire numbering of any given pages, unless we have very specific reasons to believe they happen to be correct.
Currently, the only examples I know of likely original page adjacencies are:
  • Faint ink / paint contact transfers from f2v to f3r appear to be original (see “The Curse of the Voynich”, pp. 65-67)
  • Vellum flaws (see “The Curse of the Voynich”, pp. 53-56) suggest that f9-f10, f10-f15, f35-f36, and f37-f38 were originally neighbouring pages, and may well have all been a single quire in the order f35-f36-f9-f10-(centre)-f15-f16-f37-f38, possibly with the f28-f29 bifolio wrapped around them.
  • The reconstructed order of Q9 and Q10 (see “The Curse of the Voynich”, pp. 57-61)
  • The order of the zodiac pages, can only (from the way they have been bound) start from Pisces
  • I argue (see “The Curse of the Voynich”, pp. 62-65) that the original page order for Q13 (the “water” section) was very probably f76-f77-f79-f84-f78-(centre)-f81-f75-f80-f82-f83.
  • From the doodles and unreadable letters on the final page, I think there is good reason to believe that f116v was also the final page of the manuscript as it was originally laid out.
As far as quire grouping in general goes, I suspect that the Herbal pages Prescott Currier described as “Hand 2″ originally were arranged in two separate quires (see “The Curse of the Voynich”, pp.  69-70), which I named “Quire F” (containing the current Q8), and “Quire E” (holding the other six “Hand 1″ bifolios). But unfortunately this currently isn’t really a lot of help – sorry, I did try my best.
(9) How Can We Untie This Knot?
Basically, we would like to break down the writing into groups so that we can work out in what order the pages were originally intended to appear. Yet while the colour of the ink does vary through the manuscript (implying both multiple sessions and multiple sources of ink), the RGB scans we currently have are not really sufficient to separate them out.
The straightforward solution would be to carry out a calibrated multispectral scan of the manuscript, which should yield plenty of information to track and match inks and paints (and possibly even individual pieces of vellum). As long as we ensure that the range of wavelengths chosen produces useful information, this approach should open up an entirely new angle on the main page-ordering issue, as well as on corrections, emendations and other subtle codicological layering issues.
However: back in early 2006, when I asked the Beinecke’s curators for permission to do even a limited multispectral scan, they turned down my proposals. Perhaps they will change their minds some time soon (after all, “no” only ever means “no today”), but anybody wishing to propose this kind of thing should bear this in mind. Don’t get me wrong, the Beinecke’s RGB scans have been a tremendous asset – it is just that the next stage of physical inquiry now beckons.
A Raman spectroscopic investigation would enable a very different type of art historical analysis: finding out what type of physical materials were used for the very many distinctive individual paints would be a fascinating study in itself (albeit one probably revolving more around 16th century paint composition). However, it is worth noting the difficulties in interpretation thrown up by the Raman analysis of the Vinland Map (another famous Beinecke holding), as this will doubtless colour the curators’ decision here.
A microscopic analysis of the vellum (if it could be done in situ) might, as Glen Claston has suggested, reveal pollen particles trapped inside the vellum. This is another type of analysis to consider: and there may also be enough information present at the microscopic scale to help identify individual hides.
One other analytical approach would be to use a non-contact micrometer to draw up a precise thickness map along the edges of the herbal pages, and from that write some clever software to predict how the original sheets of vellum were folded and cut into quires (these values can be matched with the length of the pages and the shape of each bifolio). OK, it’s not very glamorous: but it’s a simple non-invasive approach which (I think) the Beinecke would be comfortable with (if they think you are sufficiently credible).
(Really, I think any of the above would be the basis of a good student project – please email me if you would like advice about structuring or presenting any proposal to the Beinecke along these general lines.)

Voynich Agriculture


Voynich Agriculture

Posted by nickpelling on Mar 7th, 2009
For several centuries, people have looked at the Voynich Manuscript’s mysterious pictures of plants and wondered how on earth they fit into any of the traditions of medieval herbal manuscripts.
Certainly, there are a handful of places where you can just about see similarities: but though (for example) the heads in the roots of the plant on f33r do vaguely resemble stylised illustrations of mandragora, the plant depicted there is nothing at all like mandrake. And so the widspread presumption that it is some kind of enciphered herbal has little to commend it.
But recently, Glen Claston has put forward a radical new suggestion: that the Voynich’s plant drawings might actually be encoding secrets of herbal gardening, such as how best to prune individual plants. If this surprising idea is true, it would place the herbal part of the Voynich Manuscript within a completely different written tradition – books of agriculture.
One book on agriculture dominates the medieval era: the Ruralia Commoda (~1305) of Pietro Crescenzi. Its twelve chapters covered (1) where to place buildings, (2) where to plant crops, (3) cereals and granaries, (4) viticulture and vinification, (5) & (6) arboriculture and horticulture both for medicine and food, (7) meadows and woods, (8) gardens, (9) animal husbandry and apiary, (10) hawking / hunting, (11) a summary of (1)-(10), and (12) an agricultural calendar, arranged by month. It was widely copied in manuscript, and in 1471 became an early print best-seller.
Unfortunately, because its well-known contents are fairly prosaic, they would seem to be an unlikely source for anything to be found in a heavily-enciphered book of secrets. Yet because agriculture was essentially a kind of natural magic, there is a (fairly marginal) literature on books on agriculture to be found, initially by consulting Lynn Thorndike’s various works.
In “Science & Thought in the 15th Century”, Thorndike briefly mentions Pietro Crescenzi (p.219), and points to a 1922 paper by Luigi Savastano: but Crescenzi’s general level-headedness (he thought wine should be left to sit for a year before drinking it, for example) sits is in sharp contrast with contemporary superstitious / magical agricultural beliefs, such as the peasant ritual for producing large carrots (“Long as my thigh, big as my head” – History of Magic & Experimental Science IV, p.276) or the notion that a full-size cucumber could be grown from a specially-prepared seed in an hour (HoM&ES III, p.139).
For the fifteenth century, Thorndike mentions BN 7483 (HoM&ES IV p.435), a small work on agriculture that an apostolic abbreviator called Benedetto Maffei (d.1494) dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici, and which discusses the influences of stars on agriculture. Incipit: “scripturus ad te vir maxime atque doctissime exiguusque stuiorum moerum munus exhibiturus“. (Iter Italicum p.58).
Thorndike also notes (HoM&ES IV p.442) that the printed editions of Regiomontanus’ Ephemerides (such as Hain * 1303 and Hain * 13794) had discussions on stars and agriculture: this also appeared in MS Prag 742 (15th century, 31 folios). There is also some discussion of agriculture in the pre-1396 medieval encyclopaedia “Fons memorabilium” (HoM&ES IV p.565).
However, Thorndike’s most suggestive mention of a possibly-secret book of agriculture has been extensively mentioned here before: in “Science & Thought in the 15th Century” p.219, he discusses how Giovanni Michele Alberto described a (now-lost) herbal by Antonio Averlino (Filarete) as having been written “elegantly in the vernacular tongue“, and wonders whether this might be the (also lost) “books of agriculture” described somewhat coyly by Filarete in his libro architettonico. Admittedly, this is a somewhat thin reed to cling to – but one which is discussed in more detail in “The Curse of the Voynich” (2006).

Voynich manuscript (4)


The Voynich Manuscript

Posted by nickpelling on Sep 10th, 2008
The infuriating Voynich Manuscript (A.K.A. “Beinecke MS 408″, or “the VMs”) contains about 240 pages of curious drawings, incomprehensible diagrams and undecipherable handwriting from five centuries ago. Whether a work of genius or madness, it is arguably the ultimate cipher mystery - one of those rare cases where the truth is many times stranger than fiction.
Its last four hundred years of history can be squeezed into eight bullet points (though there’s much more detail here if you’re interested):-
  • Circa 1600-1610, it was (very probably) owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II
  • Circa 1610-1620, it was (very probably) owned by Rudolf II’s “Imperial Distiller” Jacobus z Tepenecz
  • Circa 1630-1645, it was owned by (otherwise unknown) German Bohemian alchemist Georg Baresch
  • Circa 1645-1665, it was owned by Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland
  • For the next few centuries, it was (almost certainly) owned by Jesuits & moved around Europe
  • In 1912, it was bought (probably for peanuts) by dodgy antiquarian book dealer Wilfrid Voynich
  • He bequeathed it to his wife Ethel, who bequeathed it to Anne Nill, who sold it to H. P. Kraus in 1961
  • In 1969, H. P. Kraus donated it to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
However, if you try to go back any further than that, things quickly get murky. In fact, the list of “very probably true” things we can say about the Voynich Manuscript’s art history is embarrassingly short:-
  • The handwriting is most often described as being reminiscent of either Carolingian minuscule (800-1200) or its Italian Quattrocento revival form, the “humanist hand” (circa 1400-1500)
  • Several of its drawings have parallel hatching (similar to Leonardo da Vinci’s); so it was probably made after 1410 if from Germany, after 1440 if from Florence, or after 1450 if from elsewhere
  • Two owners have added writing in fifteenth century hands; so it was probably made before 1500
  • Some marginalia (in the zodiac section) appear to be in Occitan, where the spelling most resembles that known to be from Toulon; so the manuscript probably spent some time in South West France
  • There is strong codicological evidence that the current page order and binding differ from the original i.e. that both the folio (leaf) numbers and quire (group) numbers were added at a later date
  • A few of its plant drawings do seem to depict actual plants (f2v has a water lily, for example)
It should be pretty clear that we have two quite separate types of historical data here – pre-1500 (codicological) and post-1600 (archival) – with no obvious way of crossing the roughly century-long gap between them. Hence, the list of things we don’t know about the Voynich Manuscript remains awkwardly long:
  • We don’t know how it got to the Imperial court circa 1600 (i.e. who sold it to the Emperor)
  • We don’t know where it was for the preceding century (apart from the Occitan marginalia hint)
  • People used to think it was owned by John Dee, but there is no evidence for this
  • People used to think it was a fake/hoax circa 1590, but the dating seems a century too early
  • People used to think it was written by Roger Bacon, but the dating seems two centuries too late
  • Though its text (“Voynichese”) resembles a simple “monoalphabetic” cipher, it’s far more complex
  • Though its ‘herbal’ drawings do resemble plants, most cannot be solidly identified
  • Nobody can definitively date it
  • Nobody can definitively place it
  • Nobody can definitively attribute it to any author or group or milieu
  • Nobody can definitively say what it contains
And, most importantly…
  • Nobody can read a single word of it
Putting all the factuality to one side, most VMs accounts fail to mention the sheer intellectual romance of such a substantial mystery object, the tragi-comedy of all the mad theories surrounding it, let alone the blood-spattered trail of ruined reputations and wasted lives dripping behind this inscrutable “Sphinx”. For centuries, it has been little more than a blank screen for people to project their own demented historical / cryptological / novelistic fantasies onto, or if not that then an academic cliff to throw your hard-earned reputation over: yet recently there are signs that a few people are (at long last) starting to look at the VMs with (relatively) clear eyes. Better late than never, I suppose.
Arguably the biggest question to face up to is this: when people try to understand the VMs, why does it all go so wrong? I suspect that this confusion arises from the central paradox of the Voynich Manuscript – the way that its text resembles some unknown (perhaps lost, secret, or private) simple language while simultaneously exhibiting many of the properties you might expect to see of a complex ciphertext (i.e. an enciphered text). Any proposed explanation should therefore not only bridge the century-long historical gap, but also demonstrate why the VMs appears both ‘languagey’ and ‘ciphery’ at the same time.
To illustrate this, here are some practical examples of the way Voynichese letters ‘dance’ to a tricky set of structural rules. Individual letter-shapes frequently occur…
  • …as the first letter of a page (e.g. the ornate “gallows” letters, EVA “t”, “k”, “p”, “f”)
  • …as the first letter of a paragraph (e.g. EVA “t”, “k”, “p”, “f”)
  • …as the first letter of a line (e.g. EVA “s”)
  • …as the last letter of a line (e.g. EVA “m” or “am”)
  • …as the first letter of a word (e.g. EVA “qo”)
  • …as the last letter of a word (e.g. EVA “y” or “dy”)
  • …as separated pairs on the top line of a page (e.g. EVA “p” or “f”)
  • …as a paired letter (e.g. EVA “ol”, “or”, “al”, “ar”)
  • …unrepeated, except in EVA “ee” / “eee” / “ii” / “iii” sets.
…and so on. From a code-breaker’s point of view, this basically rules out Renaissance polyalphabetic ciphers, because they use multiple alphabets (or offsets into alphabets) to destroy the outward signs of internal structure – and what we see here has even more signs of internal structure than normal languages. Yet just to be confusing, some of the letter-shapes resemble shorthand both in their shape and their apparent position.
So… is ‘Voynichese’ a language, a shorthand, a cipher, or perhaps some carefully-orchestrated jumble of all three? Right now, nobody can say – but I suspect that it is this ‘hard-to-pin-down-ness’ that has managed to keep the Voynich’s mystery alive for all this time.

Voynich manuscript (3)

Layout of the manuscript


The following is a tentative visual representation of the Voynich MS, showing the layout of the quires, their apparent subject matter and other properties.
Quire 1 - Herbal
/-------------- 001     A1  <--- 'Herbal' start
! /------------ 002     A1
! ! /---------- 003     A1
! ! ! /-------- 004     A1
! ! ! \-------- 005     A1
! ! \---------- 006     A1
! \------------ 006     A1
\-------------- 008     A1
Quire 2 - Herbal
/-------------- 009     A1
! /------------ 010     A1
! ! /---------- 011     A1
! ! ! /--....  (012)
! ! ! \-------- 013     A1
! ! \---------- 014     A1
! \------------ 015     A1
\-------------- 016     A1
Quire 3 - Herbal
/-------------- 017     A1
! /------------ 018     A1
! ! /---------- 019     A1
! ! ! /-------- 020     A1
! ! ! \-------- 021     A1
! ! \---------- 022     A1
! \------------ 023     A1
\-------------- 024     A1
Quire 4 - Herbal
/-------------- 025     A1
! /------------ 026     B2
! ! /---------- 027     A1
! ! ! /-------- 028     A1
! ! ! \-------- 029     A1
! ! \---------- 030     A1
! \------------ 031     B2
\-------------- 032     A1
Quire 5 - Herbal
/-------------- 033     B2
! /------------ 034     B2
! ! /---------- 035     A1
! ! ! /-------- 036     A1
! ! ! \-------- 037     A1
! ! \---------- 038     A1
! \------------ 039     B2
\-------------- 040     B2
Quire 6 - Herbal
/-------------- 041     B2
! /------------ 042     A1
! ! /---------- 043     B2
! ! ! /-------- 044     A1
! ! ! \-------- 045     A1
! ! \---------- 046     B2
! \------------ 047     A1
\-------------- 048     B2
Quire 7 - Herbal
/-------------- 049     A1
! /------------ 050     B2
! ! /---------- 051     A1
! ! ! /-------- 052     A1
! ! ! \-------- 053     A1
! ! \---------- 054     A1
! \------------ 055     B2
\-------------- 056     A1  <--- 'Herbal' end
Quire 8 - mixed quire, partly lost
/---------------- 057     B2
! /-------------- 058     A
! ! /------......(059)
! ! ! /----......(060)
! ! ! ! /--......(061)
B A ! ! !
! ! ! ! \--......(062)
! ! ! \----......(063)
! ! \------......(064)
! \-------------- 065
\---------------- 066     B
Quire 9 - astrological / cosmological
/-------- 067 +--     <--- 'Astro/cosmo' start
\-------- 068 +--+--
Quire 10 - astrological / cosmological
/-------- 069
\-------- 070 +--     <--- Zodiac start
Quire 11 - astrological / cosmological
/-------- 071
\-------- 072 +--+--
Quire 12 - astrological / cosmological
/-------- 073
\--......(074)        <--- 'Astro/cosmo' end
Quire 13 - biological / balneological
/---------------- 075     B2  <--- 'Bio' start
! /-------------- 076     B2
! ! /------------ 077     B2
! ! ! /---------- 078     B2
! ! ! ! /-------- 079     B2
! ! ! ! \-------- 080     B2
! ! ! \---------- 081     B2
! ! \------------ 082     B2
! \-------------- 083     B2
\---------------- 084     B2  <--- 'Bio' end
Quire 14 - cosmological
//======== 085     B3
!B                     <--- multiple-fold
\\======== 086 +== B3
Quire 15 - mixed herbal and pharmaceutical
/---------- 087     A4  <--- herbal
! /-------- 088     A4  <--- pharma
! \-------- 089 +-- A   <--- pharma
\---------- 090 +-- A   <--- herbal
Quire 16 - lost quire
Quire 17 - herbal
/---------- 093     A4
! /-------- 094     B5
A B                     <--- all herbal
! \-------- 095 +-- B5
\---------- 096     A4
Quire 18 - lost quire
Quire 19 - pharmaceutical
/---------- 099     A4?
! /-------- 100     A4?
A A                     <--- all pharma
! \-------- 101 +-- A4?
\---------- 102 +-- A
Quire 20 - recipes
/-------------------- 103     BX  <--- 'rec.' start
! /------------------ 104     BX
! ! /---------------- 105     BY
! ! ! /-------------- 106     BX
! ! ! ! /------------ 107     B
! ! ! ! ! /---------- 108     B
! ! ! ! ! ! /--......(109)
B B B B B B !
! ! ! ! ! ! \--......(110)
! ! ! ! ! \---------- 111     B
! ! ! ! \------------ 112     B
! ! ! \-------------- 113     B
! ! \---------------- 114     B
! \------------------ 115     B
\-------------------- 116     B   <--- 'rec.' end

Voynich manuscript (2)

Analysis of the illustrations



This section attempts to present the analysis of the illustrations found in the Voynich MS. Such analyses can only be made by competent specialists, such as historians of botany or astronomy, of paleography, or of medieval history in general. Due to my lack of expertise in any of these areas and I can essentially only summarise the few specialist reports available. Interpretation of the illustrations inevitably allows for a lot of well-meant speculation and some of this is presented here as well.
That having been said by way of disclaimer, let me introduce the organisation of this page. The analysis of the illustrations is subdivided as follows: after a general description of the materials used, descriptions are first made per 'section' in the MS as explained in the section Description of the MS:
  • Herbal
  • Astronomical and zodiac
  • Biological
  • Pharmaceutical
  • Text only with marginal stars
Then some special categories of items used in the illustration will be highlighted.
A list of precedents for the illustations (and other topics) is maintained by Dennis Stallings at his >> web site .

Illustrations in the Manuscript

Herbal illustrations

Herbal pages typically contain one, sometimes two, page-filling plant pictures with some short paragraphs of text written to carefully avoid the drawings. This composition is very similar to that of manuscript herbals produced between late antiquity and the early Renaissance, some examples of which may be seen together on a >> page of M. McCarthy
Points about the study of herbal pages, which will be expanded:
  • How medieval herbals have a general lack of variety, what are the two main braches and the Voynich MS is really different from both of them
  • The anecdote by Tiltman about he herbal expert who was shocked to be asked about the Voynich MS
  • Try to make a good summary of Toresella's article
  • That the plants appear to be fantastic, even though some of them look realistic
  • The special case of the Sunflower (and the pepper plant) as identified by O'Neill and supported by Brumbaugh
  • How Stolfi found that some pharma drawings (see below) are copies of herbal pages.
  • List some plant identifications found especially in Petersen's transcription
  • Mention the one apparent (?) precedent of the Buch d. heiligen Dreifaltigkeit

Astronomical and Zodiac illustrations

Astronomical pages feature drawings of Sun and/or moon, and arrangements of stars. It is sometimes hard to draw a clear line between astronomical and cosmological pages (see below). The twelve astronomical pages which have illustrations of the zodiac are called astrological.
The astrological pages contain concentric circles with about 30 nymphs holding stars, and an emblem of a zodiac sign in the center. The nymphs are similar to those drawn in the biological section (see below). There is a probably relevant precedent for such nymphs in a Byzantine astronomical MS in the Vatican Library.
Mention the Pleiades
Mention the Andromeda Nebula and how it cannot be represented
About Bradley Schaefer's article...
Present my magnitude / Regulus theory

Cosmological illustrations

Cosmological pages feature geometric designs which cannot be easily classified. The use of the term 'cosmological' for these pages was first introduced by Newbold.
Many cosmological illustrations are of circular design, and there is one composite of nine connecting circles with four smaller items on the corners.
An extensive discussion of the Rosettes page belongs here

Biological illustrations

Perhaps the most enigmatic section of the Voynich MS is the biological section which contains drawings of human figures (mostly unclothed and female) in arrangements of pipes or vessels, what seem like baths or clouds. Many illustrations leave the impression of representing a chemical (alchemical) or natural process.
See also the above-mentioned Byzantine astronomical MS in the Vatican Library for a precendent of such feminine figures.
Mention the Balnei Puteolani.
Mention the various resemblances between on the biollogical page with the apparent intestines and the text on one of the pages of the Balnei (baths of St.Peter).
Mention the falloppian tubes and D'Imperio's exasperation
Mention the central bifolium being out of place.

Pharmaceutical illustrations

Collections of jars and parts of plants, such as individual leaves and roots.
Mention Brumbaugh's pepper here.

Text-only with marginal stars

Some pages contain only text, with stars drawn in the margin. The stars may be colored dark of light, and may have a tail. This section of the Ms is at the end, and is also referred to as the 'recipes' section, in analogy to some alchemical MS's.
Say something about f58, about any correlation with the zodiac pages, and about the double star case.


Some pages contain no illustration at all, but only text.
Say something about their distribution and possible role.

Missing pages

The following pages are missing from the MS: fol. 12 (excised, stub still visible), fols. 59-64 (dropped out of quire centre, but were still present at the time of Newbold), fol. 74 (excised, stub still visible), Quire 16 (fols. 91 and 92), Quire 18 (fols. 97 and 98), fols. 109-110 (dropped out of quire centre?).
When / where were they lost? It seems as if one of each type is missing.

Other graphical elements in the Ms

  • A little dragon eating from a leave on fol. 25v
  • Two snakes or worms curling between the roots of a plant on fol. 49r
  • Several different animals on fol. 79v. Fish, salamander, lion, ?? and an animal in the "Golden Fleece" posture.
  • Birds (nesting and flying) on fol. 86v3
  • A frog-like creature on one of the pharma folios
The Sun
The Moon
Stars, constellations
T-O maps
Some pages contain a circle subdivided into two halves, with one half further split into two quarters. This design is very similar to a medieval stylized world map referred to as a T-O map. The three sections of the T-O map refer to the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. These maps may be seen on the following pages:
Miscellaneaous oddities
  • The roots on fol. 17r seem to contain eyes.
  • A strange doodle, perhaps indicating the number 17, on fol. 57v
  • A dead person, with small indeterminate objects near it, on fol. 66r.
  • A romanesque castle and a tower on fol. 86r6.
Christian imagery
The Voynich MS contains very few recognisable Christian symbols (indeed, there are few recognisable symbols from any known religion). However, in fol. 79v, the woman in the top left of the picture holds a crucifix and is illuminated by radiance coming down from above

Possible relations between illustrations and text

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it has to be assumed that, if the Voynich MS contains meaningful text, this text is related with the illustrations. Some examples of how this may help in the decipherment of the MS are given below.
  • It is assumed that the text near the plant drawings in the herbal section contain descriptions of that plant. However, no clear subdivision of these pages into standard sections (such as appear in 'normal' herbals) can be observed. It has been suggested (
  • The plant with snakes or worms on fol. 49r could possibly be a plant producing a snake-bite cure.
  • Short words (the so-called "labels") near stars in the astronomical and astrological sections strongly suggest that the names of the stars are written here. See Don Latham's list of star names for comparison with these labels.
  • Labels near leaves and roots in the pharmaceutical section strongly suggest that the names of the plants are written here.
  • The text inside the sectors of the T-O maps could be related to the continent in question.

Voynich manuscript (1)

Voynich manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious illustrated book of unknown contents, written some 600 years ago by an anonymous author in an unidentified alphabet and unintelligible language. Over its recorded existence, the Voynich manuscript has been the object of intense study by many professional and amateur cryptographers — including some top American and British codebreakers of World War II fame — who all failed to decipher a single word. This string of failures has turned the Voynich manuscript into the Holy Grail of histori ...


Voynich manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious illustrated book of unknown contents, written some 600 years ago by an anonymous author in an unidentified alphabet and unintelligible language.
Over its recorded existence, the Voynich manuscript has been the object of intense study by many professional and amateur cryptographers — including some top American and British codebreakers of World War II fame — who all failed to decipher a single word. This string of failures has turned the Voynich manuscript into the Holy Grail of historical cryptology, but it has also given weight to the theory that the book is simply an elaborate hoax — a meaningless sequence of arbitrary symbols.
The book is named after the Polish-American book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912. As of 2005, the Voynich manuscript is item MS 408 in the Beinecke Rare Book Library of Yale University. The first facsimile edition was published in 2005[1].

Voynich manuscript - Description

By current estimates, the book originally had 272 pages in 17 quires of 16 pages each [2]. Only about 240 vellum pages remain today, and gaps in the page numbering (which seems to be later than the text) indicate that several pages were already missing by the time that Voynich acquired it. A quill pen was used for the text and figure outlines, and colored paint was applied (somewhat crudely) to the figures, possibly at a later date.

Voynich manuscript - Illustrations

The illustrations of the manuscript shed little light on its contents, but imply that the book consists of six "sections", with different styles and subject matter. Except for the last section, which contains only text, almost every page contains at least one illustration. The sections, and their conventional names, are:
  • Herbal: each page displays one plant (sometimes two), and a few paragraphs of text—a format typical of European herbals of the time. Some parts of these drawings are larger and cleaner copies of sketches seen in the pharmaceutical section (below).
  • Astronomical: contains circular diagrams, some of them with suns, moons, and stars, suggestive of astronomy or astrology. One series of 12 diagrams depicts conventional symbols for the zodiacal constellations (two fishes for Pisces, a bull for Taurus, a soldier with crossbow for Sagittarius, etc.). Each symbol is surrounded by exactly 30 miniature women figures, most of them naked, each holding a labeled star. The last two pages of this section (Aquarius and Capricorn, roughly January and February) were lost, while Aries and Taurus are split into four paired diagrams with 15 stars each. Some of these diagrams are on fold-out pages.
  • Biological: a dense continuous text interspersed with figures, mostly showing small nude women bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes, some of them clearly shaped like body organs. Some of the women wear crowns.
  • Cosmological: more circular diagrams, but of an obscure nature. This section also has fold-outs; one of them spans six pages and contains some sort of map or diagram, with nine "islands" connected by "causeways", castles, and possibly a volcano.
  • Pharmaceutical: many labeled drawings of isolated plant parts (roots, leaves, etc.); objects resembling apothecary jars drawn along the margins; and a few text paragraphs.
  • Recipes: many short paragraphs, each marked with a flower-like (or star-like) "bullet".

Voynich manuscript - The text

The text was clearly written from left to right, with a slightly ragged right margin. Longer sections are broken into paragraphs, sometimes with "bullets" on the left margin. There is no obvious punctuation. The ductus (the speed, care, and cursiveness with which the letters are written) flows smoothly, as if the scribe understood what he was writing when it was written; the manuscript does not give the impression that each character had to be calculated before being put on the page.
The text consists of over 170,000 discrete glyphs, usually separated from each other by thin gaps. Most of the glyphs are written with one or two simple pen strokes. While there is some dispute as to whether certain glyphs are distinct or not, an alphabet with 20-30 glyphs would account for virtually all of the text; the exceptions are a few dozen "weird" characters that occur only once or twice each.
Wider gaps divide the text into about 35,000 "words" of varying length. These seem to follow phonetic or orthographic laws of some sort; e.g. certain characters must appear in each word (like the vowels in English), some characters never follow others, some may be doubled but others may not.
Statistical analysis of the text reveals patterns similar to natural languages. For instance, the word frequencies follow Zipf's law, and the word entropy (about 10 bits per word) is similar to that of English or Latin texts. Some words occur only in certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript. There are very few repetitions among the thousand or so "labels" attached to the illustrations. In the herbal section, the first word on each page occurs only on that page, and may be the name of the plant.
On the other hand, the Voynich manuscript's "language" is quite unlike European languages in several aspects. For example, there are practically no words with more than ten "letters", yet there are also almost no one- or two-letter words. The distribution of letters within the word is also rather peculiar: some characters only occur at the beginning of a word, some only at the end, and some always in the middle section – an arrangement found in Arabic, but not in the Roman, Greek or Cyrillic alphabets.
The text seems to be more repetitious than typical European languages; there are instances where the same common word appears three times in a row (as if an English text contained the sequence and and and). Words that differ only by one letter also repeat with unusual frequency. In fact, the entire "vocabulary" of the text is smaller than it should be, statistically speaking.
Artificial script, Codex Seraphinianus, False document, False writing system, Fictional language, Rohonczi Codex

Voynich manuscript - History

The history of the manuscript is still full of gaps, especially in its earliest part.[3] Since the manuscript's alphabet does not resemble any known script, and the text is still undeciphered, the only useful evidence as to the book's age and origin are the illustrations — especially the dress and hairstyles of the human figures, and a couple of castles that are seen in the diagrams. They are all characteristically European, and based on that evidence most experts assign the book to dates between 1450 and 1520. This estimate is supported by other secondary clues.
The earliest confirmed owner of the manuscript was a certain Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist who lived in Prague in the early 17th century. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as we are today about this "Sphynx" that had been "taking up space uselessly in his library" for many years. On learning that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano, had published a Coptic (Ethiopian) dictionary and "deciphered" the Egyptian hieroglyphs, he sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome (twice), asking for clues. His 1639 letter to Kircher, which was recently located by Rene Zandbergen, is the earliest mention of the manuscript that has been found so far.
It is not known whether Kircher answered the request, but apparently he was interested enough to try to acquire the book, which Baresch apparently refused to yield. Upon Baresch's death the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci (Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector of Charles University in Prague; who promptly sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend and correspondent. Marci's cover letter (1666) is still attached to the manuscript.
There are no records of the book for the next 200 years, but in all likelihood it was kept, with the rest of Kircher's correspondence, in the library of the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University). It probably sat there until the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured the city in 1870 and annexed the Papal States. The new Italian government decided to confiscate many properties of the Church, including the library of the Collegio. According to investigations by Xavier Ceccaldi and others, just before this happened many books of the University's library were hastily transferred to the personal libraries of its faculty, which were exempt from confiscation. Kircher's correspondence was among those books—and so apparently was the Voynich manuscript, as it still bears the ex libris of Petrus Beckx, head of the Jesuit order and the University's Rector at the time.
Beckx's "private" library was moved to the Villa Mondragone, Frascati, a large country palace near Rome that had been bought by the Society of Jesus in 1866 and housed the headquarters of the Jesuits' Collegio Ghisleri.
Around 1912 the Collegio Romano was apparently short of money and decided to sell (very discreetly) some of its holdings. Wilfrid Voynich acquired 30 manuscripts, among them the manuscript that now bears his name. In 1930, after his death, the manuscript was inherited by his widow Ethel Lilian Voynich (known as the author of the novel The Gadfly). She died in 1960 and left the manuscript to her close friend, Miss Anne Nill. In 1961, Anne Nill sold the book to another antique book dealer Hans P. Kraus. Unable to find a buyer, Kraus donated the manuscript to Yale University in 1969.

Voynich manuscript - Theories about authorship

Many names have been proposed as possible authors of the Voynich manuscript. Here are only the most popular ones.

Voynich manuscript - Roger Bacon

Marci's 1665 cover letter to Kircher says that, according to his late friend Raphael Mnishovsky, the book had once been bought by Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia (1552–1612) for 600 ducats — several thousand US dollars in today's money. According to the letter, Rudolf (or perhaps Raphael) believed the author to be the Franciscan friar and polymath Roger Bacon (1214–1294).
Even though Marci said that he was "suspending his judgement" about this claim, it was taken quite seriously by Voynich, who did his best to confirm it. His conviction strongly influenced most decipherment attempts for the next 80 years. However, scholars who have looked at the Voynich manuscript and are familiar with Bacon's works have flatly denied that possibility. One should note also that Raphael died in 1644, and the deal must have occurred before Rudolf's abdication in 1611—at least 55 years before Marci's letter.

Voynich manuscript - John Dee

The assumption that Roger Bacon was the author led Voynich to conclude that the person who sold the Voynich manuscript to Rudolf could only be John Dee, a mathematician and astrologer at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, known to have owned a large collection of Bacon's manuscripts. Dee and his scrier (mediumic assistant) Edward Kelley lived in Bohemia for several years where they had hoped to sell their services to the Emperor. However, Dee's meticulously kept diaries do not mention that sale, and make it seem quite unlikely. Anyway, if the Voynich manuscript author is not Bacon, the connection to Dee may just disappear. On the other hand, Dee himself may have written it and spread the rumour that it was originally a work of Bacon's in the hopes of later selling it.

Voynich manuscript - Edward Kelley

Dee's companion in Prague, Edward Kelley, was a self-styled alchemist who claimed to be able to turn copper into gold by means of a secret powder which he had dug out of a Bishop's tomb in Wales. As Dee's scrier, he claimed to be able to invoke angels through a crystal ball, and had long conversations with them—which Dee dutifully noted down. The angel's language was called Enochian, after Enoch, the Biblical father of Methuselah; according to legend, he had been taken on a tour of Heaven by angels, and later written a book about what he saw there. Several people (see below) have suggested that, just as Kelley invented Enochian to dupe Dee, he could have fabricated the Voynich manuscript to swindle the Emperor (who was already paying Kelley for his supposed alchemical expertise). However, if Roger Bacon is not the author of the Voynich manuscript, Kelley's connection to the manuscript is just as vacuous as Dee's.

Voynich manuscript - Wilfrid Voynich

Voynich was often suspected of having fabricated the Voynich manuscript himself. As an antique book dealer, he probably had the necessary knowledge and means; and a "lost book" by Roger Bacon would have been worth a fortune. However, the recent discovery of Baresch's letter to Kircher has all but eliminated that possibility.

Voynich manuscript - Jacobus Sinapius

A photostatic reproduction of the first page of the Voynich manuscript, taken by Voynich sometime before 1921, showed some faint writing that had been erased. With the help of chemicals, the text could be read as the name 'Jacobj `a Tepenece'. This is taken to be Jakub Horcicky of Tepenec, who was also known by his Latin name: Jacobus Sinapius. He was a specialist in herbal medicine, Rudolph II's personal physician, and curator of his botanical gardens. Voynich, and many other people after him, concluded from this "signature" that Jacobus owned the Voynich manuscript before Baresch, and saw in that a confirmation of Raphael's story. Others have suggested that Jacobus himself could be the author.
However, that writing does not match Jacobus's signature, as found in a document recently located by Jan Hurich. So it is still possible that the writing on page f1r was added by a later owner or librarian, and is only this person's guess as to the book's author. (In the Jesuit history books that were available to Kircher, Jesuit-educated Jacobus is the only alchemist or doctor from Rudolf's court who deserves a full-page entry, while, for example, Tycho Brahe is barely mentioned.) Moreover, the chemicals applied by Voynich have so degraded the vellum that hardly a trace of the signature can be seen today; thus there is also the suspicion that the signature was fabricated by Voynich in order to strengthen the Roger Bacon theory.

Voynich manuscript - Jan Marci

Jan Marci met Kircher when he led a delegation from Charles University to Rome in 1638; and over the next 27 years, the two scholars exchanged many letters on a variety of scientific subjects. Marci's trip was part of a continuing struggle by the secularist side of the University to maintain their independence from the Jesuits, who ran the rival Clementinum college in Prague. In spite of those efforts, the two universities were merged in 1654, under Jesuit control. It has therefore been speculated that political animosity against the Jesuits led Marci to fabricate Baresch's letters, and later the Voynich manuscript, in an attempt to expose and discredit their "star" Kircher.
Marci's personality and knowledge appear to have been adequate for this task; and Kircher, a "Dr. Know-It-All" who is today remembered more by his egregious mistakes than by his genuine accomplishments, was an easy target. Indeed, Baresch's letter bears some resemblance to a hoax that orientalist Andreas Mueller once played on Kircher. Mueller concocted an unintelligible manuscript and sent it to Kircher with a note explaining that it had come from Egypt. He asked Kircher for a translation, and Kircher, reportedly, produced one at once.
It is worth noting that the only proofs of Georg Baresch's existence are three letters sent to Kircher: one by Baresch (1639), and two by Marci (about a year later). It is also curious that the correspondence between Marci and Kircher ends in 1665, precisely with the Voynich manuscript "cover letter". However, Marci's secret grudge against the Jesuits is pure conjecture: a faithful Catholic, he himself had studied to become a Jesuit, and shortly before his death in 1667 he was granted honorary membership in their Order.

Voynich manuscript - Raphael Mnishovsky

Raphael Mnishovsky, the friend of Marci who was the reputed source of Bacon's story, was himself a cryptographer (among many other things), and apparently invented a cipher which he claimed was uncrackable (ca. 1618). This has led to the theory that he produced the Voynich manuscript as a practical demonstration of said cipher—and made poor Baresch his unwitting "guinea pig". After Kircher published his book on Coptic, Raphael (so the theory goes) may have thought that stumping him would be a much better trophy than stumping Baresch, and convinced the alchemist to ask the Jesuit's help. He would have invented the Roger Bacon story to motivate Baresch. Indeed, the disclaimer in the Voynich manuscript cover letter could mean that Marci suspected a lie. However, there is no definite evidence for this theory.

Voynich manuscript - Anthony Ascham

Dr. Leonell Strong, a cancer research scientist and amateur cryptographer, tried to decipher the Voynich manuscript. Strong said that the solution to the Voynich manuscript was a "peculiar double system of arithmetical progressions of a multiple alphabet". Strong claimed that the plaintext revealed the Voynich manuscript to be written by the 16th century English author Anthony Ascham, whose works include A Little Herbal, published in 1550. Although the Voynich manuscript does contain sections resembling an herbal, the main argument against this theory is that it is unknown where the author of A Little Herbal would have obtained such literary and cryptographic knowledge.

Voynich manuscript - Theories about contents and purpose

The overall impression given by the surviving leaves of the manuscript suggests that it was meant to serve as a pharmacopoeia or to address topics in medieval or early modern medicine. However, the puzzling details of illustrations have fueled many theories about the book's origins, the contents of its text, and the purpose for which it was intended. Here are only a few of them:

Voynich manuscript - Herbal

The first section of the book is almost certainly an herbal, but attempts to identify the plants, either with actual specimens or with the stylized drawings of contemporary herbals, have largely failed. Only a couple of plants (including a wild pansy and the maidenhair fern) can be identified with some certainty. Those "herbal" pictures that match "pharmacological" sketches appear to be "clean copies" of these, except that missing parts were completed with improbable-looking details. In fact, many of the plants seem to be composite: the roots of one species have been fastened to the leaves of another, with flowers from a third.

Voynich manuscript - Sunflowers

Brumbaugh believed that one illustration depicted a New World sunflower, which would help date the manuscript and open up intriguing possibilities for its origin. However, the resemblance is slight, especially when compared to the original wild species; and, since the scale of the drawing is not known, the plant could be many other members of the same family — which includes the common daisy, chamomile, and many other species from all over the world.

Voynich manuscript - Alchemy

The basins and tubes in the "biological" section may seem to indicate a connection to alchemy, which would also be relevant if the book contained instructions on the preparation of medical compounds. However, alchemical books of the period share a common pictorial language, where processes and materials are represented by specific images (eagle, toad, man in tomb, couple in bed, etc.) or standard textual symbols (circle with cross, etc.); and none of these could be convincingly identified in the Voynich manuscript.

Voynich manuscript - Alchemical herbal

Sergio Toresella, an expert on ancient herbals, pointed out that the Voynich manuscript could be an alchemical herbal—which actually had nothing to do with alchemy, but was a bogus herbal with invented pictures, that a quack doctor would carry around just to impress his clients. Apparently there was a small cottage industry of such books somewhere in northern Italy, just at the right epoch. However, those books are quite different from the Voynich manuscript in style and format; and they were all written in plain language.

Voynich manuscript - Astrological herbal

Astrological considerations frequently played a prominent role in herb gathering, blood-letting and other medical procedures common during the likeliest dates of the manuscript (see, for instance, Nicholas Culpeper's books). However, apart from the obvious Zodiac symbols, and one diagram possibly showing the classical planets, no one has been able to interpret the illustrations within known astrological traditions (European or otherwise).

Voynich manuscript - Microscopes and telescopes

A circular drawing in the "astronomical" section depicts an irregularly shaped object with four curved arms, which some have interpreted as a picture of a galaxy that could only be obtained with a telescope. Other drawings were interpreted as cells seen through a microscope. This would suggest an early modern, rather than a medieval, date for the manuscript's origin. However, the resemblance is rather questionable: on close inspection, the central part of the "galaxy" looks rather like a pool of water.

Voynich manuscript - Multiple authors

Prescott Currier, a US Navy cryptographer who worked with the manuscript in the 1970s, observed that the pages of the "herbal" section could be separated into two sets, A and B, with distinctive statistical properties and apparently different handwritings. He concluded that the Voynich manuscript was the work of two or more authors who used different dialects or spelling conventions, but who shared the same script. However, recent studies have questioned this conclusion. A handwriting expert who examined the book saw only one hand in the whole manuscript. Also, when all sections are examined, one sees a more gradual transition, with herbal A and herbal B at opposite ends. Thus, Prescott's observations could simply be the result of the herbal sections being written in two widely separated time periods.

Voynich manuscript - Theories about the language

Many theories have been advanced as to the nature of the Voynich manuscript "language". Here is a partial list:

Voynich manuscript - Letter-based cipher

According to this theory, the Voynich manuscript contains a meaningful text in some European language, that was intentionally rendered obscure by mapping it to the Voynich manuscript "alphabet" through a cipher of some sort—an algorithm that operated on individual letters.
This has been the working hypothesis for most decipherment attempts in the 20th century, including an informal team of NSA cryptographers led by William F. Friedman in the early 1950s. Simple substitution ciphers can be excluded, because they are very easy to crack; so decipherment efforts have generally focused on polyalphabetic ciphers, invented by Alberti in the 1460s. This class includes the popular Vigenere cipher, which could have been strengthened by the use of nulls and/or equivalent symbols, letter rearrangement, false word breaks, etc. Some people assumed that vowels had been deleted before encryption. There have been several claims of decipherment along these lines, but none has been widely accepted — chiefly because the proposed decipherment algorithms depended on so many guesses by the user that they could extract a meaningful text from any random string of symbols.
The main argument for this theory is that the use of a weird alphabet by a European author can hardly be explained except as an attempt to hide information. Indeed, Roger Bacon knew about ciphers, and the estimated date for the manuscript roughly coincides with the birth of cryptography as a systematic discipline. Against this theory is the observation that a polyalphabetic cipher would normally destroy the "natural" statistical features that are seen in the Voynich manuscript, such as Zipf's law. Also, although polyalphabetic ciphers were invented about 1467, variants only became popular in the 16th century, somewhat too late for the estimated date of the Voynich manuscript.

Voynich manuscript - Codebook cipher

According to this theory, the Voynich manuscript "words" would be actually codes to be looked up in a dictionary or codebook. The main evidence for this theory is that the internal structure and length distribution of those words are similar to those of Roman numerals—which, at the time, would be a natural choice for the codes. However, book-based ciphers are viable only for short messages, because they are very cumbersome to write and to read.

Voynich manuscript - Visual cipher

James Finn proposed in his book Pandora's Hope (2004) that the Voynich manuscript is in fact visually encoded Hebrew. Once the Voynich letters have been correctly transcribed, using the EVA as a guide, many of the Voynich words can be seen as Hebrew words that repeat with different distortions to confuse the reader. For example, the word AIN from the manuscript is the Hebrew word for "eye", and it also appears in different distorted versions as "aiin" or "aiiin", to make it appear as though the words are different when in fact they are the same word. Other methods of visual encryption are used as well. The main argument for this view is that it would explain the lack of success that most other researchers have had in decoding the manuscript, because they are based on more mathematical approaches to the decryption. The main argument against it is that such a qualitative encoding places a heavy burden on the talents of the individual decoder, given the multiplicity of possible alternate visual interpretations of the same text. It would be hard to separate how much interpretation is of the genuine text, and how much simply reflects the bias of the original interpreter.

Voynich manuscript - Micrography

Following its 1912 rediscovery, one of the earliest efforts to unlock the book's secrets (and, indeed, the first of many premature claims of decipherment) was made in 1921 by William Newbold of the University of Pennsylvania. His singular hypothesis held that the visible text is meaningless itself, but that each apparent "letter" is in fact constructed of a series of tiny markings only discernible under magnification. These markings, based on ancient Greek shorthand, were supposed to form a second level of script that held the real content of the writing. Using this knowledge, Newbold claimed to have worked out entire paragraphs proving the authorship of Bacon and recording his use of a compound microscope four hundred years before Leeuwenhoek. However, John Manly of the University of Chicago pointed out serious flaws in this theory. Each shorthand character was assumed to have multiple interpretations, with no reliable way to determine which was intended for any given case. Newbold's method also required rearranging letters at will until intelligible Latin was produced. These factors alone ensure the system enough flexibility that nearly anything at all could be "read" in the microscopic markings, which in any case are themselves illusory. Although there is a tradition of Hebrew micrography, it is nowhere near as compact or complex as the shapes Newbold made out. Upon close study, these turn out to be mere artifacts of the way ink cracks as it dries on rough vellum, and an example of pareidolia. Thanks to Manly's thorough refutation, the micrography theory is today disregarded.

Voynich manuscript - Steganography

This theory holds that the text of the Voynich manuscript is mostly meaningless, but contains meaningful information hidden in inconspicuous details—e.g. the second letter of every word, or the number of letters in each line. This technique, called steganography, is very old, and was described e.g. by Johannes Trithemius in 1499. Some people suggested that the plain text was to be extracted by a Cardan grille of some sort. This theory is hard to prove or disprove, since stegotexts can be arbitrarily hard to crack. An argument against it is that using a cipher-looking cover text defeats the main purpose of steganography, which is to hide the very existence of the secret message.
Some people have suggested that the meaningful text could be encoded in the length or shape of certain pen strokes. There are indeed examples of steganography from about that time that use letter shape (italic vs. upright) to hide information. However, when examined at high magnification, the Voynich manuscript pen strokes seem quite natural, and substantially affected by the uneven surface of the vellum.

Voynich manuscript - Exotic natural language

The linguist Jacques Guy once suggested that the Voynich manuscript text could be some exotic natural language, written in the plain with an invented alphabet. The word structure is indeed similar to that of many language families of East and Central Asia, mainly Sino-Tibetan (Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese), Austroasiatic (Vietnamese, Khmer, etc.) and possibly Tai (Thai, Lao, etc.). In many of these languages, the "words" have only one syllable; and syllables have a rather rich structure, including tonal patterns.
This theory has some historical plausibility. While those languages generally had native scripts, these were notoriously difficult for Western visitors; which motivated the invention of several phonetic scripts, mostly with Latin letters but sometimes with invented alphabets. Although the known examples are much later than the Voynich manuscript, history records hundreds of explorers and missionaries who could have done it—even before Marco Polo's 13th century voyage, but especially after Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to the Orient in 1499. The Voynich manuscript author could also be a native from East Asia living in Europe, or educated at a European mission.
The main argument for this theory is that it is consistent with all statistical properties of the Voynich manuscript text which have been tested so far, including doubled and tripled words (which have been found to occur in Chinese and Vietnamese texts at roughly the same frequency as in the Voynich manuscript). It also explains the apparent lack of numerals and Western syntactic features (such as articles and copulas), and the general inscrutability of the illustrations. Another possible hint are two large red symbols on the first page, which have been compared to a Chinese-style book title, upside down and badly copied. Also, the apparent division of the year into 360 degrees (rather than 365 days), in groups of 15 and starting with Pisces, are features of the Chinese agricultural calendar (jie q`i). The main argument against the theory is the fact that no one (including scholars at the Academy of Sciences in Beijing) could find any clear examples of Asian symbolism or Asian science in the illustrations.
In late 2003, Zbigniew Banasik of Poland proposed that the manuscript is plaintext written in the Manchu language and gave an incomplete translation of the first page of the manuscript [1] [2] [3].

Voynich manuscript - Polyglot tongue

In his book Solution of the Voynich Manuscript: A liturgical Manual for the Endura Rite of the Cathari Heresy, the Cult of Isis (1987), Leo Levitov declared the manuscript a plaintext transcription of a "polyglot oral tongue". This he defined as "a literary language which would be understandable to people who did not understand Latin and to whom this language could be read." His proposed decryption has three Voynich letters making a syllable, to produce a series of syllables that form a mixture of medieval Flemish with many borrowed Old French and Old High German words.
According to Levitov, the rite of Endura was none other than the assisted suicide ritual for people already believed to be near death, famously associated with the Cathar faith (although the reality of this ritual is also in question). He explains that the chimerical plants are not meant to represent any species of flora, but are secret symbols of the faith. The women in the basins with elaborate plumbing represent the suicide ritual itself, which he believed involved venesection: the cutting of a vein to allow the blood to drain into a warm bath. The constellations with no celestial analogue are representative of the stars in Isis' mantle.
This theory is questioned on several grounds. First, the Cathar faith is widely understood to have been a Christian gnosticism, and not in any way associated with Isis. Second, this theory places the book's origins in the twelfth or thirteenth century, which is considerably older than even the adherents to the Roger Bacon theory believe. Third, the Endura ritual involved fasting, not venesection. Levitov offered no evidence beyond his translation for this theory.

Voynich manuscript - Constructed language

The peculiar internal structure of Voynich manuscript "words" has led William F. Friedman and John Tiltman to arrive independently at the conjecture that the text could be a constructed language in the plain—specifically, a philosophical one. In languages of this class, the vocabulary is organized according to a category system, so that the general meaning of a word can be deduced from its sequence of letters. For example, in the modern constructed language Ro, bofo- is the category of colors, and any word beginning with those letters would name a color: so red is bofoc, and yellow is bofof. (This is an extreme version of the book classification scheme used by many libraries — in which, say, P stands for language and literature, PA for Greek and Latin, PC for Romance languages, etc.)
This concept is quite old, as attested by John Wilkins's Philosophical Language (1668). In most known examples, categories are subdivided by adding suffixes; as a consequence, a text in a particular subject would have many words with similar prefixes — for example, all plant names would begin with the similar letters, and likewise for all diseases, etc. This feature could then explain the repetitious nature of the Voynich text. However, no one has been able to assign a plausible meaning to any prefix or suffix in the Voynich manuscript; and, moreover, known examples of philosophical languages are rather late (17th century).

Voynich manuscript - Hoax

The bizarre features of the Voynich manuscript text (such as the doubled and tripled words) and the suspicious contents of its illustrations (such as the chimeric plants) have led many people to conclude that the manuscript may in fact be a hoax.
In 2003, computer scientist Gordon Rugg showed that text with characteristics similar to the Voynich manuscript could have been produced using a table of word prefixes, stems, and suffixes, which would have been selected and combined by means of a perforated paper overlay. The latter device, known as a Cardan grille, was invented around 1550 as an encryption tool. However, the pseudo-texts generated in Gordon Rugg's experiments do not have the same words and frequencies as the Voynich manuscript; its resemblance to "Voynichese" is only visual, not quantitative. Since one can produce random gibberish that resembles English (or any other language) to a similar extent, these experiments are not yet convincing.