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The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich manuscript is a mysterious and enigmatic book that has puzzled researchers and scholars for centuries. It is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish-American[2] book dealer who acquired the manuscript in 1912. It has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century and is most likely from Northern Italy or Central Europe. Its illustrations suggest that it is some form of pharmacopoeia or scientific treatise, and it is divided by convention into six sections: herbal, astronomical, biological, cosmological, pharmaceutical and recipes. The manuscript is named after the book dealer.

The Voynich manuscript is written in an unknown script that has not yet been deciphered. It consists of approximately 240 pages, most of which are filled with colourful illustrations and text. The illustrations depict various plants, astronomical diagrams, human figures, and other puzzling imagery.

The text is written in a unique script with strange characters and symbols. The language used in the manuscript, if it is indeed a language, remains unidentified. Many attempts have been made to decipher the manuscript, but none have been universally accepted as successful.

Over the years, numerous theories have been proposed regarding the origin and purpose of the Voynich manuscript. Some hypotheses suggest it is a cypher text, a lost natural language, an encoded medical or alchemical text, or even an elaborate hoax. However, none of these theories have been definitively proven.

Caption: Voynich aged about 48.
Attribution: ca 1923 Michael Voynich, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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I first became interested in the Voynich Manuscript in January 2021 when I wrote about it for Nil Desperandum, a monthly newsletter I published and of which I was the editor. My article was based on an article by Annalee Newitz on Arstechica.Com (here). You can look at pages from the Voynich Manuscript here.

In this paper, I hope to provide information about what is known about the book and the efforts made over many years to discover more about it.

What is known about the Voynich Manuscript?
Despite the extensive efforts of many talented cryptographers, linguists, and researchers over the years, the Voynich manuscript remains undeciphered. Several notable codebreakers, including William Friedman and Elizebeth Friedman – American cryptologists who helped decipher enemy codes from World War I to World War II – have attempted to unravel its secrets, but no definitive breakthrough has been achieved. Other eminent codebreakers, such as Prescott Currier and John Tiltman, were equally unsuccessful.[3]

The manuscript has been studied using various methods, including statistical analysis, linguistic analysis, and computer-assisted decipherment techniques. However, these attempts have yielded inconclusive results, leaving the manuscript’s contents and purpose shrouded in mystery. It has been the subject of numerous theories and speculations. Some suggest that it may be an encoded work of herbal medicine or alchemy, while others propose it as a religious or philosophical text. Some sceptics argue that it could be an elaborate hoax created to deceive or confuse readers.

All that is known is:

  • The manuscript has around 240 vellum (animal skin) handwritten pages, but there is evidence that pages are missing.[4]
  • Some pages are foldable sheets of varying sizes.
  • The vellum[5] on which it is written has been carbon-dated (at the University of Arizona) to the early 15th century (1404–1438). Its scribes used iron gall ink to write the text and minerals to create its pigments, consistent with materials used during the early 15th century[6].
  • Many pages contain substantial drawings or charts which are coloured with paint. McCrone Associates in Westmont, Illinois, found that the paints in the manuscript were of materials to be expected from that period of European history.[7]
  • Computer scientist Jorge Stolfi of the University of Campinas highlighted that parts of the text and drawings had been modified, using darker ink over a fainter, earlier script. Evidence for this is visible in various folios.[8]
  • Protein testing in 2014 revealed that the parchment was made from calfskin, and multispectral analysis showed that it had not been written on before the manuscript was created[9].
  • The parchment is prepared from at least 14 or 15 entire calfskins[10].
  • Stylistic analysis indicates it may have been composed in Italy during the Italian Renaissance.[11]
  • One of the most distinctive features is its unknown script.
  • The text and illustrations are all characteristically European.
  • Every page in the manuscript contains text, mostly in an unidentified language, but some have extraneous writing in Latin script.
  • Only a few words in the manuscript are thought to have not been written in the unknown script[12].
  • The text is written from left to right and consists of strange characters and symbols that have yet to be deciphered.
  • The text consists of over 170,000 characters,[13] with spaces dividing the text into about 35,000 groups of varying length.
  • The writing appears consistent and structured, with letter-like shapes recurring throughout the text.
  • No known language has been identified that matches the script.
  • The manuscript has numerous illustrations, which are just as enigmatic as the text. The illustrations are hand-drawn and coloured, featuring various subjects such as plants, astrological diagrams, cosmological charts, human figures, and intricate diagrams.
  • Some of the plant illustrations resemble real plants, while others depict fantastical or unidentified species.
  • In 2020, Yale University published the entire manuscript online in its digital collections library.[14]

The illustrations are conventionally used to divide most of the manuscript into the previously mentioned six sections since the text cannot be read. Each section is typified by illustrations using different styles and supposed subject matter[15], except for the last section, in which the only drawings are small stars in the margin.

The following are the sections and their conventional names: Herbal (112 folios), Astronomical (21 folios), Balneological (20 folios), but also sometimes incongruously referred to as Biological (see below), Cosmological (13 folios), Pharmaceutical (34 folios) and Recipes (22 folios). Five folios contain only text, and at least 28 folios are missing from the manuscript[16].

Caption: A detail from the balneological section of the manuscript.
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Balneology is the study of the art and science of bathing using natural mineral water to treat and cure disease. Biology is the science of life or living matter in all its forms and phenomena, especially concerning the origin, growth, reproduction, structure, and behaviour. Other than the pursuit of good health, there is no direct relationship between Balneology and Biology.

Ownership of the Manuscript
The first confirmed owner was Georg Baresch, a 17th-century alchemist from Prague. Baresch was puzzled about this “Sphynx” that had been “taking up space uselessly in his library” for many years.[17]

He learned that Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher from the Collegio Romano had published a Coptic (Egyptian) dictionary and claimed to have deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs; Baresch twice sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome, asking for clues. The 1639 letter from Baresch to Kircher is the earliest known mention of the manuscript to have been confirmed.[18]

Voynich never sold the manuscript, but his widow did – to New York dealer Hans P. Kraus. By 1969, the manuscript was donated by Kraus to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library[19].

A timeline of known ownership of the Voynich manuscript is given on Wikipedia[20].

Decipherment Claimants
Since the manuscript’s modern rediscovery in 1912, when Voynich acquired it, there have been several claimed decipherings. I have found these people who have claimed to have deciphered the text:

  • William Romaine Newbold: Newbold was an American professor of philosophy who claimed to have deciphered the Voynich Manuscript in the early 20th century. He proposed a theory that the text was written in a compressed form of Latin using a complex system of abbreviations and symbolism. However, his decipherment has been widely discredited.
  • Joseph Martin Feely: Feely was an American army officer and amateur cryptologist who claimed to have deciphered the Voynich Manuscript in the 1940s. His proposed solution suggested that the manuscript was written in an elaborate cypher, but his decipherment has also been widely criticised and considered unreliable.
  • Robert S. Brumbaugh: Brumbaugh was an American philosopher and historian of science who worked on various cryptography-related topics. He claimed to have made progress in deciphering the Voynich Manuscript during the 1970s. His approach involved assigning numerical values to different characters and analysing statistical patterns, but his proposed solution has not gained wide acceptance.
  • John Stojko: John Stojko, also known as Jan Stojko, is a Polish-Slovak artist and amateur cryptographer. He proposed a theory suggesting that the Voynich Manuscript was written in a phonetic form of Old Turkic. However, his decipherment has not been widely accepted or corroborated.
  • Stephen Bax: Stephen Bax is a British linguistics professor who gained attention for his efforts to decipher the Voynich Manuscript. In 2014, he published a paper proposing a partial decipherment using a combination of techniques, including linguistic analysis, contextual clues, and comparison to known languages. While his work received some recognition, his proposed solution remains the subject of debate and scepticism.
  • Nicholas Gibbs: Nicholas Gibbs is a British researcher and historical non-fiction writer who published an article in 2017 suggesting that the Voynich Manuscript was likely a women’s health manual written in a shorthand system. His proposed solution sparked a significant amount of controversy and criticism within the academic community.

However, the conclusions reached by Gibbs haven’t gone down well with people who can read medieval Latin. Medieval Academy of America director Lisa Fagin Davis told The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang, “They’re not grammatically correct. It doesn’t result in Latin that makes sense.” She added, “Frankly, I’m a little surprised the TLS published it…If they had simply sent it to the Beinecke Library, they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat.” The Beinecke Library at Yale is where the Voynich Manuscript is currently kept. Davis noted that a big part of Gibbs’ claim rests on the idea that the Voynich Manuscript once had an index that would provide the key to the abbreviations. Davis said: “Unfortunately, he [Gibbs] has no evidence for such an index, other than the fact that the book does have a few missing pages.”

  • Greg Kondrak: Greg Kondrak is a computer science professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. In 2018, he and his student Bradley Hauer claimed to have deciphered the Voynich Manuscript using machine learning algorithms. Their approach involved training a neural network to convert the manuscript’s characters into potential linguistic equivalents. However, their decipherment remains a subject of debate and further validation.
  • Ahmet Ardıç: Ahmet Ardıç is a Turkish electrical engineer who proposed a solution to the Voynich Manuscript in 2018. His theory suggests that the text was written in an alphabetic form of Proto-Turkish. However, like many other proposed decipherments, his work has faced criticism and lacks widespread acceptance.
  • Gerard Cheshire: Gerard Cheshire is a British academic and research associate at the University of Bristol. In 2019, he claimed to have deciphered the Voynich Manuscript, proposing that it was written in a previously unknown language he called “Proto-Romance.” His decipherment received significant media attention, but it has been met with scepticism and criticism from experts in the field.

The specific claims made by each of the above individuals vary, but they generally proposed decipherments of the Voynich Manuscript by suggesting the language, script, or underlying code used in its composition. Their proposed solutions range from specific linguistic systems, such as Latin, Old Turkic, or Proto-Romance, to cryptographic cyphers or encoding schemes.

There have been others who have made similar claims or proposed different decipherments for the Voynich Manuscript. Over the years, numerous individuals, both amateur and professional cryptographers, linguists, and historians, have attempted to crack the manuscript’s code. Many of these proposed decipherments have been met with scepticism, criticism, and a lack of consensus within the academic community.

About Wilfrid Voynich
Wilfrid Michal Voynich, originally named Michał Habdank-Wojnicz (12th November 1865, died 19th March 1930), was a Polish revolutionary, antiquarian and bibliophile. He gained recognition as the namesake of the Voynich manuscript and operated one of the largest rare book businesses in the world in Soho, London. Voynich was born in Telšiai, now part of Lithuania, but during that time under the Russian Empire. He belonged to a Polish-Lithuanian noble family, and his surname, Habdank-Wojnicz, included the name of a Polish heraldic clan. His father held the position of a Polish petty official (a titular counsellor).

Voynich pursued an education at a gimnazjum in Suwałki, a town in northeastern Poland, and later studied at the universities of Warsaw, St. Petersburg, and Moscow. He completed his studies at Moscow University, obtaining a degree in chemistry and becoming a licensed pharmacist.

In 1885, while in Warsaw, Voynich joined Ludwik Waryński‘s revolutionary organisation called Proletariat. After a failed attempt to free his fellow conspirators, who were sentenced to death, he was arrested by the Russian police in 1886. As a result, he was sent to serve penal servitude in Tunka near Irkutsk in Siberia. It was during his time in Siberia that Voynich gained a basic understanding of eighteen different languages.

In June 1890, Voynich managed to escape from Siberia and travelled west, eventually reaching Hamburg and finally arriving in London in October 1890. Initially using the pseudonym Ivan Kel’chevskii, he collaborated with Sergius Stepniak, another revolutionary, within the anti-tsarist Society of Friends of Russian Freedom in London. However, after Stepniak died in 1895, Voynich ceased his revolutionary activities.

Caption: Voynich among his books in Soho Square.
Attribution: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Around 1897, following the advice of Richard Garnett, a curator at the British Museum, Voynich transitioned to becoming an antiquarian bookseller. He established a bookshop in Soho Square, London, in 1898. Voynich had a stroke of luck in finding rare books, including a Malermi Bible in Italy, in 1902. In the same year, he married  Ethel Lilian Boole, also a former revolutionary and the daughter of British mathematician George Boole. Voynich obtained British citizenship in April 1904 and legally changed his name to Wilfrid Michal Voynich.

Regarding Voynich’s nationality, while he was of Polish origin and had Polish-American connections through his wife’s family, he eventually became a naturalised British subject. I found several references to him being Polish-American when undertaking my research, but referring to him as Polish-British would be more accurate.

Caption: Retouching of drawing; page 131; f72v3.
Attribution:, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Review and Concluding Words
The paper provides an overview of the Voynich Manuscript, covering its background, content, and the various attempts to decipher it. It remains an unsolved puzzle that continues to captivate scholars and researchers. Despite numerous attempts, no definitive decipherment has been achieved, leaving its content, purpose, and origin shrouded in mystery. The manuscript’s unknown script, unique illustrations, and enigmatic nature have sparked countless theories and speculations. I have provided an overview of the manuscript’s key features and the efforts made to unravel its secrets. It has highlighted the work of decipherment claimants and acknowledged the absence of a universally accepted solution. While some proposed decipherments have sparked debate and controversy, the elusive nature of the Voynich Manuscript persists.

As the study of cryptography, linguistics, and historical context continues to advance, there remains hope that future breakthroughs may shed light on the true nature of this intriguing manuscript. However, until such a breakthrough occurs, the Voynich Manuscript will remain an enduring mystery, inviting speculation and fueling the imagination of scholars and enthusiasts alike.

Many call the fifteenth-century codex, commonly known as the Voynich Manuscript, the world’s most mysterious book. Some of the pages are missing, with around 240 remaining. Written in an unknown script by an unknown author, the manuscript has no clearer purpose now than when it was rediscovered in 1912 by the Polish-British antiquarian bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich – from whom it took its name.

Caption: The Voynich manuscript is written in an unknown script.
Attribution: R.O.Cderivative work: Kbh3rd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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One of the most significant impacts of the Voynich Manuscript has been on the field of cryptography. The manuscript has long been considered one of the greatest unsolved puzzles in the history of cryptography, and many skilled cryptographers have attempted to crack its code over the years. While the code remains unbroken, the manuscript has nevertheless spurred important advances in the field of cryptography, as well as in related fields such as linguistics and computer science.[21]

As the study of cryptography, linguistics, and historical context continues to advance, there remains hope for future breakthroughs that may shed light on the true nature and purpose of this intriguing manuscript. The Voynich Manuscript stands as an enduring mystery, inviting speculation and sparking the imagination of scholars and enthusiasts alike.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that the Voynich Manuscript’s impact extends beyond cryptography. It has influenced related fields such as linguistics and computer science, stimulating important advancements in these disciplines. The manuscript’s enigmatic nature has served as a catalyst for interdisciplinary research and collaboration.

In conclusion, the Voynich Manuscript remains an enduring mystery that defies decipherment. Its rich history, unknown script, and captivating illustrations have fascinated scholars for over a century. While its secrets remain elusive, the manuscript’s significance lies in its ability to inspire curiosity, drive academic exploration, and push the boundaries of human knowledge in various fields.

Sources and Further Reading



CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.

End Notes and Explanations

  1. Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: [chat] and
  2. As stated later in the text, while Voynich was of Polish origin and had Polish-American connections through his wife’s family, he eventually became a naturalised British subject. When undertaking research for this paper, several references to him being Polish-American were found, but referring to him as Polish-British would be more accurate.
  3. Source: Turing =, Dermot (2020). The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park. London: Arcturus Publishing. pp. 135, 136. ISBN 9781789506211.Cited at:
  4. Source:
  5. Observation: Magna Carta, held at the British Library, is written in Latin on vellum.
  6. Source:
  7. Source:
  8. Source: Stolfi, Jorge (July 22, 2004). “Evidence of text retouching of f1r” Cited at:
  9. Source:
  10. Source: Duffy, Eamon (20 April 2017). “Secret Knowledge – or a Hoax?“. The New York Review of Books. Vol. 64, no. 7. pp. 44–46. Cited at:
  11. Sources: [1] Steindl, Klaus; Sulzer, Andreas (2011). “The Voynich Code — The World’s Mysterious Manuscript”, and [2] Stolte, Daniel (10 February 2011). “Experts determine age of book ‘nobody can read’”PhysOrg. Cited at:
  12. Source: D’Imperio, M.E. (1978). The Voynich Manuscript: An elegant enigma (PDF). U.S. National Security Agency. Aegean Park Press, 1978, ISBN 978-0-89412-038-1; Saffron Walden, UK: Books Express Publishing, 2011, ISBN 978-1-78039-009-3 Cited at:
  13. Source: Schmeh, Klaus (January–February 2011). “The Voynich manuscript: The book nobody can read”Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 35, no. 1. Cited at:
  14. Source: “Voynich Manuscript”. Yale University Library – Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Cited at:
  15. Source: Schmeh, Klaus (January–February 2011). “The Voynich manuscript: The book nobody can read”Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 35, no. 1. Cited at:
  16. Source: Schwerdtfeger, Elias (2004). “Voynich Information Browser”. Cited at:
  17. Source: Zandbergen, René (May 19, 2016). “17th Century letters related to the MS”. Voynich manuscript. Cited at:
  18. Source: Schuster, John (2009). Haunting Museums. Tom Doherty Associates. pp. 175–272. ISBN 978-1-4299-5919-3. Cited at:
  19. Source:
  20. At:
  21. Source: part of Book Review,

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