The Voynich Manuscript, The World’s Most Mysterious Book

Published September 14, 2013
Updated September 18, 2014

Not a single word of the infamous Voynich manuscript has been understood in modern history. Named after the man to whom it was sold in 1912, Wilfrid Voynich, the fifteenth century text contains enigmatic undertones of alchemy and an unidentified language intertwined with whimsical, primitive scientific illustrations.

For decades, historians, linguists, and code breakers alike have diligently worked on deciphering the symbols contained within the Voynich manuscript’s age-old pages. Still proving incomprehensible, the manuscript remains one of the world’s top unsolved mysteries.

As an antique book dealer, Voynich acquired the mysterious book from the Italian Jesuits of Villa Mondragone, who needed to sell a portion of their impressive manuscript collection in order to afford to restore part of their college. With his purchase, he also received a letter detailing some of the text’s prior owners -all of whom lived in the early seventeenth century- so he knew the book had to have been written before then.

Given the information in the letter, Voynich thought the author could have been English friar Roger Bacon. He stood by this theory, which would have made his purchase even more valuable, since Bacon stood at the center of European intellectualism. This idea would later be discarded, as Bacon was dead at the time the manuscript is now said to have been written. Some even believe Voynich could have created the book himself, with skills acquired from collecting antique books.

Penned with ink on parchment, the strange alphabet used to write the book is completely unidentified and bears few similarities to other alphabets. What is known, however, is that it contains between 23-40 characters. There are six sections of the manuscript: botanical, astrological, medical, biological, cosmological, pharmaceutical, and stars. (Which is simply 23 pages of plain text.) Some of the pages are folios, which fold out and have markings on either side. Depending on how you count the pages, there are roughly 240 of them, not accounting for those that appear to be missing.

Even a solution to the riddle of the never-before-seen language fails to present itself, the illustrations in the Voynich manuscript are of interest all on their own. From these drawings, experts have deduced that the book may be of a medicinal or botanical nature, as it features depictions of plants and flowers that are strikingly familiar, but not yet recognized as modern species. Along with amusing pictures of unclothed women, frolicking and bathing in odd little receptacles, one can only imagine what might tie all of these images together.

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 published book covers in her career as a graphic artist.