Feb 082016

The Voynich manuscript is probably one of the most prominent and mysterious examples of a document of yet undeciphered content. It is named after Wilfrid Michael Voynich who discovered and acquired it in 1912. The origin of the manuscript most likely lies in the 15th century as suggested by radio carbon analysis, but neither its authorship nor the complete ownership history can be recovered. The first known possessor was Jakub Horcicky de Tepenec, a 17th century bohemian chemist, pharmacist and physician at the court of Emperor Rudolf II. After several intermediate owners – amongst others, the Jesuit College and the already mentioned Wilfrid Michael Voynich – the manuscript today is in the possession of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Voynich manuscript is written in none of any familiar languages, containing an unidentified writing system with unkown letters and a huge amount of mysterious illustrations, such as drawings of obscure plants or bathing women. Derived from the arrangement of these illustrations, it is usually divided into a herbal, an astronomical, a biological, a cosmological, a pharmaceutical and a recipe section.

Fig. 1: An illustration from the herbal section of the Voynich manuscript.[4]Fig. 1: An illustration from the herbal section of the Voynich manuscript.[4]

Despite many attempts, the Voynich Manuscript has never been deciphered and its content is still left to speculation. Nevertheless, many theories about its origin and meaning have been proposed. Some suggest that the artificial language is based on actual Latin or German, alienated by several encryption steps. Others point out that the variation of letters shows similarities to Semitic languages. The number of hypothesized authors include Roger Bacon, a 13th century Franciscan friar and polymath, Antonio Averlino, a 15th century North Italian architect, Raphael Sobiehrd-Mnishovsky, a 17th century Bohemian writer and many more – even Voynich himself, Leonardo da Vinci or aliens!

In the last decades of Voynich research, some scientists suggested that the whole manuscript is an elaborate hoax without any real meaning. For example, in a study published in Cryptologia, the Austrian physicist Andreas Schinner suggested that the order of words within the manuscript is of unnatural regularity.[1] Yet, an obvious argument against the hoax theory is that the manuscript is too complex and required too sophisticated work to just be a fraud.

A more recent study published by the physicists Marcelo Montemurro and Damian Zanette in PLoS One also points to the non-hoax direction.[2] It involves an analysis of the long-range word distribution in the manuscript using methods from information theory. In contrast to the earlier study of Andreas Schinner, Montemurro and Zanette found out that the word distribution is not homogeneous, but similar to natural languages in showing certain patterns and clustering. For instance, specific clusters of words can only be found in specific sections of the text. Moreover, word frequency obeys Zipf’s law, another hint that the writing system is based on a natural language.

In 2014, Stephen Bax, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Bedfordshire, proposed a translation of 10 words of the manuscript by applying a “bottom-up” approach like the one already used for decoding of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.[3] More specifically, he compared several of the Voynich manuscript’s illustrations of plants and stars with drawings in other European and Middle Eastern medieval manuscripts to identify them with their names and put these names into association with proper nouns within the text. In this way, he for instance, was able to find the alleged word for the constellation Taurus.

Still, it remains to be elucidated if Stephen Bax’ approach will eventually lead to a meaningful translation of the Voynich manuscript and if its secrets will ever be revealed.

– Philipp Heller


[1] A. Schinner, “The Voynich Manuscript: Evidence of the Hoax Hypothesis”, Cryptologia, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 95–107, Mar. 2007.

[2] M. A. Montemurro and D. H. Zanette, “Keywords and Co-Occurrence Patterns in the Voynich Manuscript: An Information-Theoretic Analysis.”, PLoS One, vol. 8, no. 6, p. e66344, Jan. 2013.

[3] S. Bax, “A proposed partial decoding of the Voynich script”, Version 1, Jan. 2014

[4] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Voynich_manuscript#/media/File:F34r.jpg

  One Response to “Will the Voynich Manuscript ever be decoded ?”

  1. I agree that the Voynich Manuscript’s underlying alphabet is Latin. I have a oook out after 7 years of back spasms, headaches and tribulation with the cipher.