Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript is an illustrated book of unknown authorship written in a unique script and language, neither of which has yet been deciphered. On almost every page, the text is accompanied by very unusual hand-drawn illustrations ranging from botanical specimens of plants not found on earth to elaborate cosmological diagrams. The basic folio size is 6 x 9 inches, with a few larger pages (up to 18 x 18 inches) folded up into the book.  Written on parchment and bound in vellum, the manuscript originally had 116 (or more) pages, of which only about 100 now remain.   

history of the manuscript
Although the manuscript does not bear any obvious indications of authorship, place of origin, or age, it is known to be at least 350 years old. Its existence is attested in several mid-17th century letters, one of which states that it had been previously owned by the emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia (1552-1612). The 17th century polymath Athanasius Kircher is known to have had it in his collection for a time, though he does not mention it anywhere in his writings. In fact, the manuscript was later found in the institution Kircher was connected with, the Collegium Romanum (the university of the Jesuits). In 1912, the collector Wilfrid Voynich bought the manuscript that now bears his name from the Jesuits; it later passed into other hands, and is now in the collection of Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. [1]

efforts at decipherment
Since the manuscript first surfaced, cryptologists from around the world have attempted to decipher it. The Voynich Manuscript is composed of words written in a mix of roman letters, numerals, and symbols, suggesting that it should be convertible to some other known language. However, it has resisted all efforts, and every proposed solution has been subsequently ripped apart by other experts. Perhaps not surprisingly, there have been almost as many theories of the manuscript's origins and authorship as there have been experts who have examined it. Voynich thought it was created by the English philosopher-scientist Roger Bacon; another theory proposes that it was a hoax (possibly by the Elizabethan thinker John Dee and/or his associate Edward Kelly); other theories hold that it is a synthetic language (or possibly two different languages) and/or a substitution cipher of some kind. Handwriting analysis even suggests that more than one person may have been involved in the production of the manuscript. Proposed origins range all over Europe: England, the Ukraine, Germany, Italy. There is, however, some consensus among scholars that the manuscript probably originates in central Europe or Italy, and that it was created in the last half of the 15th century, or at latest the early years of the 16th century.

The images are almost as resistant as the text. Efforts to nail down the manuscript's origins through analysis of the content of the drawings has so far proved fairly fruitless. While a few of the drawings of plants in the 'botanical' section of the manuscript have been tentatively identified with New World species--e.g. a sunflower and a red pepper--the coloration is wrong on both. [2] The other plant drawings are altogether fantastic creations. Similarly, the so-called 'astronomical', 'cosmological', and 'biological' sections have some familiar elements (the sun, the moon, human figures) but most of the drawings are quite idiosyncratic.

Unquestionably, the Voynich manuscript commands continuing interest in part because of the unsolved mystery it represents. Over and above this, it is an extraordinarily beautiful production: the drawings are lively and bold, the handwriting is elegant, and each individual page is a remarkable exercise in the integration of images with text. Although commentators tend to focus on the scientific or quasi-scientific aspect of the manuscript (is it an encyclopedia? an alchemist's 'lab notes'?), the freewheeling inventiveness of the page design brings to mind such modern outsider artists as Adolf Wölfli (below left) and Henry Darger (below right), both of whom created elaborate, often cryptic narratives combining text and images on paper. Regardless of whether the Voynich Manuscript is a jest, a hoax, an alchemical treatise, notes on a parallel world, visionary art, or none of these, its deliberate fusion of the fantastical, the methodical, and the deceptive brings it under the sign of fictive art.

1. For much more extensive and detailed information on the manuscript's history, see Rene Zandbergen's website on the Voynich Manuscript. 

2. A detail of the Voynich 'sunflowers' forms part of the banner of this website.

Further information:
The Voynich Manuscript at Yale's Beinecke Rare Books Library

Photos thanks to the Yale Beinecke Rare Books Library, which has made high-resolution images of the Voynich Manuscript available in an online database to aid worldwide scholarship.