The Puzzling History Of The Voynich Manuscript, The ‘World’s Most Mysterious Book’

Published March 13, 2024

Since it was rediscovered in 1912, scholars have been trying to decode the unknown script and bizarre illustrations inside the 15th-century Voynich Manuscript — but to this day, nobody knows exactly what the book is about.

Voynich Manuscript

IanDagnall Computing / Alamy Stock PhotoThe Voynich Manuscript, an illustrated codex from the 15th century that is hand-written in an unknown script.

In 1912, a Polish book dealer by the name of Wilfrid Voynich purchased a truly bizarre manuscript. Consisting of around 240 pages, the early 15th-century manuscript was hand-written entirely in an unknown language and featured various illustrations of people, fictitious plants, astrological symbols, and other fantastical images. Known now as the Voynich Manuscript, this text has remained the world’s most mysterious book for more than 600 years.

Since Wilfrid Voynich purchased the book in 1912, it has been examined and studied by a litany of scholars, including cryptographers and military codebreakers, all of whom were unsuccessful in their attempts to decipher the manuscript.

In 1969, the book was donated to Yale University, where it was held in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Then, in 2020, Yale uploaded the entire Voynich Manuscript to its online digital library, allowing it to be accessed in full for the first time by anyone on the planet.

Now, only time will tell if its widespread availability will unravel the mystery at last.

Face In Ring
Bathing Nymphs
Folded Out Pages Of The Voynich Manuscript
Undeciphered Page In The Voynich Manuscript
The Puzzling History Of The Voynich Manuscript, The ‘World’s Most Mysterious Book’
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Wilfrid Voynich's Mysterious Manuscript

Wilfrid Voynich was born Michał Habdank-Wojnicz on Nov. 12, 1865, in the town of Telšiai, now a part of Lithuania. He attended secondary school in the Polish town of Suwałki before going on to study at the universities of Warsaw, St. Petersburg, and Moscow, eventually graduating from the latter with a chemistry degree.

In 1885, Voynich was arrested by Russian police for attempting to free members of the revolutionary movement Proletariat and sent to a Siberian work camp. In 1890, however, Voynich managed to escape, and he was living in London by the end of the year.

He continued to support anti-czarist organizations until 1895, when the death of a fellow conspirator convinced him to step away from the cause. That's when he began his work as a seller of rare and antique books.

Voynich Among His Books

Public DomainWilfrid Voynich among his books.

Voynich opened his first bookstore in London's Soho Square in 1898, and he quickly proved himself to either be incredibly keen or incredibly lucky when it came to finding rare books. He settled in for a new life in London, marrying another former revolutionary, Ethel Boole, and becoming a naturalized citizen of Britain in 1904, upon which he took the legal name Wilfrid Michael Voynich.

Then, in 1912, a group of Jesuits from Ghislieri College in Italy began auctioning off some of the books held in their library. Most of them were sold to the Vatican, but Voynich managed to acquire several volumes from them — including one that would come to be known as the Voynich Manuscript.

In 1914, Voynich opened a second book store in New York. He tried for years to solve the manuscript's mysteries and trace its origins, but unfortunately, he died before he could learn anything more about it.

Efforts To Decipher The Voynich Manuscript

Upon Voynich's death in 1930, ownership of the strange manuscript was passed to his wife, who then bequeathed it to a close friend, Anne Nill, upon her own death in 1960. A year later, Nill sold the book to another antique book dealer by the name of Hans P. Kraus. Kraus never could find an interested buyer, however, and so in 1969, he donated the book to Yale University, where it was cataloged as "MS 408."

Though many experts from various fields attempted to decipher the bizarre work over the following decades, the Voynich Manuscript's true meaning proved to be elusive, even for the most skilled of codebreakers.

It is a thick manuscript, more closely resembling a modern book than a medieval scroll. Some of its pages fold out into complex diagrams. It is written in an entirely unknown language, now referred to as "Voynichese." Among various illustrations of astrological symbols and seemingly fictitious plants are drawings of nude people bathing and fantastical creatures like dragons.

Voynich Manuscript Nymphs

Wikimedia CommonsA group of bathing nymphs depicted in the Voynich Manuscript.

Over the years, countless theories about the Voynich Manuscript have surfaced. One expert claimed it was a women's health manual, while others believe that Voynich himself created it as a hoax. Stranger theories suggest it could have come from another planet — or perhaps even another universe.

It has remained such an oddity and is so difficult to decipher and understand that experts such as physicist Andreas Schinner have referred to the book as "pure poison" for scholars because, as he told Undark, there is "always an easy option to make a ridiculous mistake."

Schinner previously examined the manuscript himself by applying statistical analytics, but his tests did not unlock all of the manuscript's secrets.

Ultimately, Schinner's research found that the text within the Voynich Manuscript was not a natural, structured language but rather a random string of characters. He later expanded on that theory, proposing a possible generating algorithm for the text and suggesting that it was created as a medieval hoax — in effect, that the text is meaningless.

But other studies have found the exact opposite, with some claiming that it was written in some new, unknown language and others theorizing that it was a strange version of Latin, Hebrew, or Turkish.

Ultimately, there are still many unknowns with the Voynich Manuscript — but there are a few key pieces of information researchers have discovered in recent years.

What Researchers Have Learned About The Voynich Manuscript

Modern technology has finally opened the pathway to deciphering the Voynich Manuscript, and while no one has yet gleaned what its words say, there have been a number of revelations about the manuscript since it first entered Voynich's hands.

In January 2023, The Art Newspaper reported that researcher Stefan Guzy had potentially traced back the ownership of the Voynich Manuscript.

"My idea was to compile all book-related transactions by analysing the imperial account books of the Hofkammer (Imperial Chamber) in Vienna and Prague, where all ingoing and outgoing letters were registered," Guzy said. "If there was any transaction involving 600 gold coins, then the chance was pretty high that this acquisition was the one mentioned in the Marci letter."

The Marci letter refers to the 17th-century royal doctor Johannes Marcus Marci, who received the Voynich Manuscript from its previous owner, the alchemist Georg Baresch.

Johannes Marcus Marci

Public DomainJohannes Marcus Marci, a rector of Charles University in Prague.

Marci was in regular correspondence with the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, and so a few years after acquiring the manuscript, he sent it off to Kircher alongside a cover letter, in which he wrote: "This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined for you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my possession, for I was convinced that it could be read by no one except yourself."

It was thanks to this letter that Guzy was able to trace the ownership of the book further back. He discovered that it had once been in the possession of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who purchased it from an unnamed seller for 600 ducats between 1576 and 1612.

However, analysis has shown that the manuscript was originally created during the 15th century, roughly 150 years before Rudolf obtained it.

Guzy then learned that records from 1599 showed that Rudolf purchased a collection of manuscripts from the physician Carl Widemann for 600 florin — a type of gold coin — which may have been what Marci referred to in his letter.

Widemann lived in the home of botanist Leonard Rauwolf, and he began selling books to the emperor after Rauwolf and his wife passed away.

"I assume that [Widemann] probably inherited some books from him," Guzy said.

But the trail ends there. It's unclear how Rauwolf first came into possession of the book, and it doesn't answer the question of who wrote it. This new evidence does, however, rule out any suggestions that Voynich himself forged the book, as radiocarbon dating confirmed it was written sometime in the early 1400s. It also rules out Voynich's own theory that the work was written by Roger Bacon, a 13th-century friar and philosopher.

Despite all of this, however, the mystery of the Voynich Manuscript lives on.

After learning about the Voynich Manuscript, the most mysterious book in the world, go inside the massive medieval manuscript known as the Codex Gigas — or the "Devil's Bible." Then, look through these surprisingly dirty illustrations found in medieval manuscripts.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Cite This Article
Kelly, Erin. "The Puzzling History Of The Voynich Manuscript, The ‘World’s Most Mysterious Book’.", March 13, 2024, Accessed June 16, 2024.