We’ve put a man on the Moon, come up with the theory of general relativity, split the atom – the list of breakthroughs in making the impossible possible goes on and on. Humanity can achieve pretty much anything it puts its mind to, right?
Well, perhaps not anything. For stored away in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, in the US, is a book that steadfastly refuses to submit to our insatiable demand for knowledge and explanation.
For decades, that same small codex – a little over 20cm by 16cm – has successfully confounded some of the world’s most brilliant minds with its unreadable language. It is called the Voynich Manuscript, and the mystery swirling around its creation, its backstory and, above all, its beguiling contents surely make it one of the greatest unsolved riddles in literary history.
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Leaf through the 240 richly illustrated vellum pages of the manuscript and you’ll soon understand why it has enticed so many people for so many years. Its pages are adorned with an array of fantastical illustrations – ones you might expect to encounter in a dream, not within the pages of a centuries-old manuscript. There are floating castles, disembodied heads, flowers that bear no relation to anything you can find on Earth, strange creatures that resemble jellyfish, and lots of naked women bathing in water.
Yet it’s the text that has proved most puzzling to the great and the good of the academic world. Written in an unknown script with an alphabet that appears nowhere else other than in the pages of this manuscript, it has thus far proved utterly indecipherable.
Brilliant wartime cryptologists including Alan Turing, FBI operatives (apparently fearing the text may contain communist propaganda), respected medievalists, mathematic and scientific scholars, skilled linguists… they’ve all been left stumped by the Voynich Manuscript. The gifted William Friedman – chief cryptoanalyst in the US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service – spent 30 years trying to crack the secrets, without success.
Who was Wilfrid Voynich?
At the heart of this wordy whodunnit was a Polish-Lithuanian book dealer with revolutionary tendencies and famous friends: a man called Wilfrid Voynich.
To say that he led a colourful life is something of an understatement. Born in what is now Lithuania in 1865, he got himself arrested for his socialist activities and imprisoned in Siberia, only to escape and make his way to London. There, he established a second-hand book shop that was patronised by the man who would become Sydney Reilly, ‘Ace of Spies’.
But it was in a Jesuit seminary outside Rome in 1912 – during a book-buying expedition – that Voynich apparently discovered the manuscript to which he would give his name. Voynich, it appears, instantly realised that he had chanced upon something very special.
Appended to the manuscript, and no doubt firing Voynich’s imagination further still, was a letter that appeared to shed some light on the document’s history. The correspondence, written in 1665 by imperial physician Johannes Marcus Marci, claimed that the manuscript had once belonged to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who reigned from 1576 to 1612.
Its next owner was apparently a Prague-based alchemist called Georg Baresch who, Marci tells us, “devoted unflagging toil” to the quest of deciphering the text and “relinquished hope only with his life”. The book then came into the possession of Marci himself, who sent it on to a Jesuit scholar called Athanasius Kircher in the hope that he could succeed where Baresch had failed.
Who wrote the Voynich Manuscript?
Marci’s missive tells us the manuscript could have been the handiwork of the 13th-century philosopher and alchemist Roger Bacon. Voynich himself called his discovery the “Roger Bacon cypher manuscript”. Case closed? Certainly not. A whole host of candidates have been put forward as potential authors.
“My favourite is that it is the illustrated diary of a teenage space alien who left it behind on Earth,” Ray Clemens, curator at the Beinecke Library, told BBC News in 2014. Voynichologists have argued that the text’s roots lie in tongues ranging from Old Cornish and Old Turkish to the Aztec language of Nahuatl.
Others have thrown their weight behind the theory that John Dee – who was astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I – and the alchemist Edward Kelley conceived the text as an elaborate Tudor hoax. But then, as the centenary of Voynich’s discovery of the book approached, science threw a big bucket of cold water on the theories.
More confounding history mysteries…
In 2009, radiocarbon dating revealed that the vellum on which the text and images were rendered dated to the 15th century – probably somewhere between 1404 and 1438 – a hundred years or so before the Elizabethan bigwigs were in their pomp. The manuscript is then, it seems, a medieval mystery, not a Tudor one.
If Voynichologists believed that the radiocarbon dating would somehow becalm the arguments raging over the provenance of the book, they were to be mistaken. In 2017, historical researcher Nicholas Gibbs provoked something of a backlash when he declared that the manuscript was a women’s health guide – or, as he put it, “A reference book of selected remedies lifted from the standard treatises of the medieval period, an instruction manual for the health and wellbeing of the more well to do women in society.”
The illustrations in the Voynich Manuscript are wondrous, but their meaning has left scholars confused and divided (Photo by Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Gibbs based his argument on the images of bathing women and the repeated use of signs of the Zodiac, both of which were regularly employed in medical treatises in medieval Europe. While he expounded his theory in the much-respected Times Literary Supplement, that didn’t guarantee it a rapturous reception.
“Frankly, I’m a little surprised the TLS published it,” said Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America shortly after. “If they had sent it to the Beinecke Library, they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat.”
The Voynich Manuscript decoded
In May 2019, the Voynich Manuscript was propelled back into the headlines once again, when an academic made the explosive claim that he had succeeded where everyone else had failed and successfully decoded the mysterious text. “I experienced a series of ‘Eureka’ moments whilst deciphering the code,” said University of Bristol honorary research associate Dr Gerard Cheshire, “followed by a sense of disbelief and excitement.”
The strange plants that adorn the pages of the manuscript bear no semblance to any known to science (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
These ‘Eureka’ moments led Cheshire to the conclusion that the manuscript was a “compendium of information on herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing and astrological readings”, compiled by Dominican nuns as a source of reference for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon – great aunt to Catherine of Aragon. Cheshire declared that the text was written in the first half of the 15th century in a now lost language called proto-Romance.
Cheshire is certainly not the only academic to argue that the Voynich Manuscript was written in what was once a living, spoken language as opposed to consisting of code, or meaningless gobbledegook. It has, many argue, all the characteristics of a real tongue – with, for example, certain words only appearing besides certain illustrations.
This didn’t save Cheshire’s theory from facing a rebuttal every bit as fierce as the one directed at Nicholas Gibbs, however. Fagin Davis once more led the charge, denouncing Cheshire’s paper as “just more aspirational, circular, self-fulfilling nonsense”.
Is the Voynich Manuscript a forgery?
Another would-be solution to the riddle had, it seemed, bitten the dust. With the text continuing to confound academics, with so many dead-ends reached, do we simply have to accept that the Voynich Manuscript will never give up its secrets? Or could the solution to this mystery be hiding in plain sight – in the shape of the man after whom it is named?
For decades, a theory has done the rounds that this medieval manuscript wasn’t medieval at all, but a 20th-century forgery conceived and implemented to brilliant effect by none other than Wilfrid Voynich himself.
But, hang on, you may be thinking: what about the radiocarbon dating that pinned the manuscript to the early-to-mid 1400s? Well, the vellum does indeed date to that time. But there are rumours that Voynich had acquired a large supply of vellum and then replicated the medieval inks and pigments that adorn that vellum himself.
Forgery, or genuine work of medieval literature? The home of a lost language, or repository of pages of meaningless babble? One thing is for certain: the Voynich Manuscript is the mystery that keeps on giving. And if the past few years of intrigue, claim, counter-claim and denial is anything to go by, all the signs are that it will keep on giving for some time yet.
Mission impossible: three more indecipherable texts
The Voynich Manuscript is not the only historical text to have perplexed would-be codebreakers
The Rohonc Codex
Sometime in the early 19th century, a book was discovered in Hungary written by an unknown author, for an unknown reason, at an unknown date, in a language that no one can understand. That book is the Rohonc Codex, and though it’s not as celebrated as the Voynich Manuscript, its origins are every bit as murky.
Here’s what we know: across its 448 pages, the codex contains hundreds of distinctive characters (perhaps as many as 792), symbols similar to those painted onto cave walls occupied by Scythian monks, and drawings that contain what could be Christian, Muslim and Hindu symbols. It’s been theorised that the text is written in a form of Hungarian, early Romanian, or even Hindi. The rest is mystery.
The Book of Soyga
While it’s now widely accepted that John Dee didn’t write the Voynich Manuscript, the Elizabethan astrologer’s connection to the Book of Soyga – a treatise on magic, astrology and demonology – is undeniable. Dee acquired the book in the early 1580s and was enchanted by its combination of protection spells and magical formulas. He was even more fascinated by its final 36 pages, which were written in code, and that’s where things got really weird.
In a bid to crack the meaning of the text, Dee and his friend, alchemist and occultist Edward Kelley, apparently summoned the archangel Uriel in order to question him. We can’t be sure what advice Uriel offered, but we do know that versions of the manuscript now reside in the Bodleian and British Libraries.
The Liber Linteus
Not all mysterious texts are found in books – the Liber Linteus is an Egyptian mummy literally wrapped in an enigma. In 1867, German Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch was examining a mummy, purchased in Alexandria a few years earlier, when he discovered writing on the linen in which the body was wrapped. That text would be sent to Vienna, Austria, in 1891 for examination, where it was discovered that it was written in the little-understood language of the Etruscans, an ancient civilisation on the Italian peninsula.
Based on the dates and names contained in the writing, it’s now thought that the text was some kind of religious calendar. Though what that calendar was doing wrapped around a dead woman far from the Etruscans’ homeland has thus far defied explanation.
Spenzer Mizen is BBC History Magazine’s production editor
This content first appeared in the May 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed