The Voynich manuscript is a handwritten book thought to have been written in the early 15th century and comprising about 240 vellum pages,[notes 1] most with illustrations. The author, script, and language remain unknown: for these reasons it has been described as “the world’s most mysterious manuscript”.
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 cipher genius or loopy madness, it is hard to deny it is 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, who gave it to Athanasius Kircher
- 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, Kraus donated it to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
However, before 1600 things quickly get murky, to the point that the list of “very probably true” things we can say about the Voynich Manuscript’s early art history is embarrassingly short:-
- Radiocarbon tests carried out in 2009 date the vellum to between 1404 and 1438 with 95% certainty, while other tests affirm that (most of?) the writing was added soon after (though neither set of tests has been properly published yet)
- 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), though most do not
The earliest confirmed owner of the Voynich manuscript was 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(Ethiopic) dictionary and “deciphered” the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Baresch 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 a few years later sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend and correspondent. Marci’s 1665 cover letter was still with the manuscript in 1912.
The first owner of the Voynich MS who is known to have written to Kircher, was Georg Baresch. He wrote in 1637, prompted by the appearance of Kircher’s ‘Prodromus Coptus’, hoping that Kircher might be able to decipher the Voynich MS. This letter has not been found. He wrote again in 1639, reiterating his question, on the occasion of the departure of one or more ‘religious persons’ from Prague to Kircher in Rome. This letter has been preserved, and is the first included below. It is stored in the Archives of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana in Rome, shelfmark APUG 557, fol. 353.
Marci’s visit to Kircher from 1638 or 1639 to 1640 was the start of a long friendship, and the two corresponded regularly in the years to come. Marci’s first letter was sent while still on the way back from Rome to Prague. His second letter was sent from Prague and includes a recommendation of Baresch (certe vir optimus), apparently in response to a query about Baresch from Kircher.
Finally, after the death of Baresch, which must have occurred before 1662, Marci inherited the Voynich MS, and in 1665 he donated it to Kircher. The accompanying letter, now preserved in the Beinecke Library of Yale University (MS 408A), has received attention in various publications, and is the second letter to be included here.
Both early 1666 and early 1667, Godefrid Aloys Kinner, a friend of Marci, inquires on Marci’s behalf whether Kircher has made any progress in translating the mysterious book which Marci had sent the year before. These were written shortly before Marci’s death and it is possible that Marci’s eyesight prevented him from writing himself.
|Place of origin
Central Europe [?]
s. XV^^ex-XVI [?] [end of the 15th or during the 16th century(?)]
23 x 16 cm. (binding)
Parchment. ff. 102 (contemporary foliation, Arabic numerals; not every leaf foliated) + i (paper), including 5 double-folio, 3 triple-folio, 1 quadruple-folio and 1 sextuple-folio folding leaves. 225 x 160 mm.
Scientific or magical text in an unidentified language, in cipher, apparently based on Roman minuscule characters. See the Database of Archival Collections and Manuscripts for more information.
Bacon, Roger, 1214?-1294
Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, 1552-1612
Dee, John, 1527-1608
Kronland, Johann Marcus Marci von, 1595-1667
Kircher, Athanasius, 1602-1680
Voynich, Wilfred Michael, 1865-1930
- Mysterious crypto-book dated to 15th century (go.theregister.com)
- “Voynich Manuscript Dated: Makes ‘DaVinci Code’ Look Lackluster” and related posts (huffingtonpost.com)
- University of Arizona experts determine age of book ‘nobody can read’ (eurekalert.org)
- Age of mysterious ‘alien’ manuscript uncovered (Daily Mail) (seattlepi.com)