The Voynich Manuscript

Background of the Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript has been dubbed "The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World". It is named after its discoverer, the American antique book dealer and collector, Wilfrid M. Voynich, who discovered it in 1912, amongst a collection of ancient manuscripts kept in villa Mondragone in Frascati, near Rome, which had been by then turned into a Jesuit College (closed in 1953)."

"From a piece of paper which was once attached to the Voynich manuscript, and which is now stored in one of the boxes belonging with the Voynich manuscript holdings of the Beinecke library, it is known that the manuscript once formed part of the private library of Petrus Beckx S.J., 22nd general of the Society of Jesus." - Renˇ Zandbergen, G. Landini, "Some new information about the later history of the Voynich Manuscript". See "Voynich MS history after 1600" for the most current info.

"Wilfrid Voynich judged it [the Voynich Manuscript] to date from the late 13th century, on the evidence of the calligraphy, the drawings, the vellum, and the pigments. It is some 200 pages long, written in an unknown script of which there is no known other instance in the world. It is abundantly illustrated with awkward coloured drawings. Drawings of unidentified plants; of what seems to be herbal recipes; of tiny naked women frolicking in bathtubs connected by intricate plumbing looking more like anatomical parts than hydraulic contraptions; of mysterious charts in which some have seem astronomical objects seen through a telescope, some live cells seen through a microscope; of charts into which you may see a strange calendar of zodiacal signs, populated by tiny naked people in rubbish bins."

- Jacques Guy

No one knows the origins of the manuscript. Experts believe it is European based on the drawings. They believe it was written in between the 15th and 17th centuries. The manuscript is small, seven by ten inches, but thick, nearly 235 pages.

It is written in a language of which no other example is known to exist. It is an alphabetic script, but of an alphabet variously reckoned to have from nineteen to twenty-eight letters, none of which bear any relationship to any English or European letter system. The text has no apparent corrections. There is evidence for two different "languages" (investigated by Currier and D'Imperio) and more than one scribe, probably indicating an ambiguous coding scheme.

Apparently, Voynich wanted to have the mysterious manuscript deciphered and provided photographic copies to a number of experts. However, despite the efforts of many well known cryptologists and scholars, the book remains unread. There are some claims of decipherment, but to date, none of these can be substantiated with a complete translation. The book was bought by H. P. Kraus (a New York book antiquarian) in 1961 for the sum of $24,500. He later valued it at $160,000 but was unable to find a buyer. Finally he donated it to Yale University in 1969, where it remains to date at the Beinecke Rare Book Library with catalogue number MS 408.

It is known (from a letter of Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher dated 1666) that the manuscript was bought by Emperor Rudolph II of Bohemia (1552-1612).

Historically, it first appears in 1586 at the court of Rudolph II of Bohemia, who was one of the most eccentric European monarchs of that or any other period. Rudolph collected dwarfs and had a regiment of giants in his army. He was surrounded by astrologers, and he was fascinated by games and codes and music. He was typical of the occult-oriented, Protestant noblemen of this period and epitomized the liberated northern European prince. he was a patron of alchemy and supported the printing of alchemical literature.

The Rosicrucian conspiracy was being quietly fomented during this same period. To Rudolph's court came an unknown person who sold this manuscript to the king for three hundred gold ducats, which, translated into modern monetary units, is about fourteen thousand dollars. This is an astonishing amount of money to have paid for a manuscript at that time, which indicated that the Emperor must have been highly impressed by it.

Accompanying the manuscript was a letter that stated that it was the work of the Englishman Roger Bacon, who flourished in the thirteenth century and who was a noted pre-Copernican astronomer. Only two years before the appearance of the Voynich Manuscript, John Dee, the great English navigator, astrologer, magician, intelligence agent, and occultist had lectured in Prague on Bacon.

The manuscript somehow passed to Jacobus de Tepenecz, the director of Rudolph's botanical gardens (his signature is present in folio 1r) and it is speculated that this must have happened after 1608, when Jacobus Horcicki received his title 'de Tepenecz'. Thus 1608 is the earliest definite date for the Manuscript.

Codes from the early sixteenth century onward in Europe were all derived from The Stenographica of Johannes Trethemius, Bishop of Sponheim, an alchemist who wrote on the encripherment of secret messages. He had a limited number of methods, and no military, alchemical, religious, or political code was composed by any other means throughout a period that lasted well into the seventeenth century. Yet the Voynich Manuscript does not appear to have any relationship to the codes derivative of Johannes Trethemius, Bishop of Sponheim.

In 1622 and the manuscript passed to the possession of an unidentified individual that left the book in his/her will to Marci. Marci must have known about this manuscript before 1644, as the information concerning the price that the Emperor paid came from Dr. Raphael Missowski (1580-1644) (as mentioned in his letter).

Marci sent the manuscript immediately with the letter to Athanasius Kircher (a Jesuit priest and scholar in Rome) in 1666 who apparently also knew of it and had exchanged letters and transcribed portions with the previous unidentified owner. Between that time and 1912 (when Voynich discovered it) it is speculated that the manuscript may have been stored or forgotten in some library and finally moved to the Jesuit College at the Villa Mondragone. Marci's letter to Kircher was still attached to the manuscript when Voynich bought it. In that letter, Marci mentioned the name of Roger Bacon (1214-1292) as a possible author, although no conclusive evidence of authorship is available. A possible link between Rudolph and Bacon is John Dee (an English mathematician and astrologer, collector of Bacon's work) who visited Rudolph's court in 1582-86.

The manuscript has several parts and many illustrations. Some believe it to be a book about alchemy.





He stated, "There is not a single so-called botanical illustration that does not contain some Cathari symbol or Isis symbol. The astrological drawings are likewise easy to deal with The innumerable stars are representative of the stars in Isis' mantle. The reason it has been so difficult to decipher the Voynich Manuscript is that it is not encrypted at all, but merely written in a special script, and is an adaptation of a polyglot oral tongue into a literary language which would be understandable to people who did not understand Latin and to whom this language could be read. Specifically, a highly polyglot form of medieval Flemish with a large number of Old French and Old High German loan words." Many people disagree with his claims.

In particular, the following similarities have been noticed:

Alchemical Symbols
Early Arabic Numerals
Latin Shorthand Abbreviations
Beneventan Script

"The excerpt is the ritual of

Criticism of Levitov's Translation

Dennis Stallings pointed out to me that there are other reliable records of Catharism. Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (translated by Barbara Bray), 1978, George Braziller, Inc., New York tells about the testimony of peasants meticulously recorded in the Inquisition Register of Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers in Ari¸ge. In it the Endura is described as a suicidal fast.

"There is no resemblance here to Levitov's claim that Catharism was the antique cult of Isis - and certainly no truth to the picture of the Voynich nymphs' opening their veins to bleed to death in the hot tubs!" - Dennis Stallings (private correspondence)

"Waite goes on to mention that part of the Lyons Codex contains 'certain prayers for the dying'. The codex is in the langue d'oc. Does it resemble the Voynich material? We are not told." - Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival

"I could never secure a copy of Levitov's book, and had to rely entirely on pp.21-31, of which Michael Barlow, who had reviewed Levitov's book in Cryptologia, had sent me photocopies. Levitov's understanding of the Cathar religion and its rites, from what I could piece together from the review in Cryptologia, and which are central to his decipherment of the Voynich manuscript which he claims is a Cathar prayer book, is, to say the least, rather at odds with what Fernand Niel wrote in his Albigeois et Cathares (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1955)." - Jacques B.M. Guy, On Levitov's Decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript

"The language was very much standardized. It was an application of a polyglot oral tongue into a literary language which would be understandable to people who did not understand Latin and to whom this language could be read." - Dr. Leo Levitov, Solution of the Voynich Manuscript

"At first reading, I would be tempted to dismiss it all as nonsense: 'polyglot oral tongue' is meaningless babble to the linguist in me. But Levitov is a medical doctor, so allowances must be made. The best meaning I can read into 'polyglot oral tongue' is 'a language that had never been written before and which had taken words from many different languages'. That is perfectly reasonable: English for one, has done that. Half its vocabulary is Norman French, and some of the commonest words have non-Anglo-Saxon origins. 'Sky', for instance, is a Danish word.

"So far, so good." "...There are only twelve consonant sounds. That is unheard of for a European language. No European language has so few consonant sounds. Spanish, which has very few sounds (only five vowels), has seventeen distinct consonants sounds, plus two semi-consonants. Dutch has from18 to 20 consonants (depending on speakers, and how you analyze the sounds.) What is also extraordinary in Levitov's language is that it lacks a g, and BOTH b and p. I cannot think of one single language in the world that lacks both b and p. Levitov also says that m occurs only word-finally, never at the beginning, nor in the middle of a word. That is correct: the letter he says is m is always word-final in the reproductions I have seen of the Voynich MS.

"But no language I know of behaves like that. All have an m (except one American Indian language, which is very famous for that, and the name of which I cannot recall). In some languages, there is a position where m never appears, and that is word-finally, exactly the reverse of Levitov's language." "No European language I know fails to distinguish between singular and plural in its first and third person pronouns (i.e. I vs we, he/she/it vs they)."

"...We are here in the presence of a Germanic language which behaves very, very strangely in the way of the meanings of its compound words. For instance, viden (to be with death) is made up of the words for 'with', 'die' and the infinitive suffix. I am sure that Levitov here was thinking of a construction like German mitkommen which means 'to come along' ('to with-come').

"I suppose I could say Bitte, sterben Sie mit on the same model as Bitte, kommen Sie mit ('Come with me/us, please'), thereby making up a verb mitsterben, but that would mean 'to die together with someone else', not 'to be with death' . Next, the word order in many 'apostrophized' groups of words (but note that a word often consists of just one single letter), is the reverse of that of Germanic. For instance VIAN 'one way' literally 'way one' is the reverse of Dutch een weg, German ein Weg, and of course, of English 'one way'. Ditto for WIA 'one who', VA 'one will', KER 'she understands' etc. Admittedly the inversion of the subject is quite common in German (Ploetzlish dacht ich: 'Suddenly thought I') but it is governed by strict, clear-cut grammatical rules, conspicuously absent in the two sentences translated on p.31 of the except from his book upon which I am drawing for these comments."

Applying Levitov's rules for translation:

thanvieth = the one way (th = the (?), an = one, vi = way, eth = it) faditeth = doing for help (f = for, ad = aid, i = -ing, t = do, eth = it) wan = person (wi/wa = who, an = one) athviteth = one that one knows (a = one, th = that, vit = know, eth = it.) (Here, Levitov adds one extra letter, A, which is not in the text, getting his ATHAVITEH, which provides the second "one" of his translation) anthviteth= one that knows (an =one, th = that, vit = know, eth = it) atwiteth = one treats one who does it (a = one, t = do, wi = who, t = do, eth = it. .

(Literally: "one does [one] who does it". The first "do" is translated as "treat", the second "one" is again added by Levitov: he inserts an A, which gives him ATAWITETH) aneth = ones (an = one, -eth = the plural ending)

"Computer analysis of the Voynich Manuscript has only deepened the mystery. One finding has been that there are two 'languages' or 'dialects' of Voynichese, which are called Voynich A and Voynich B. The repetitiousness of the text is obvious to casual inspection. Entropy is a numerical measure of the randomness of text. The lower the entropy, the less random and the more repetitious it is. The entropy of samples of Voynich text is lower than that of most human languages; only some Polynesian languages are as low." "Tests show that Voynich text does not have its low h2 [second order entropy] measures solely because of a repetitious underlying text, that is, one that often repeats the same words and phrases. Tests also show that the low h2 measures are probably not due to an underlying low-entropy natural language. A verbose cipher, one which substitutes several ciphertext characters for one plaintext character [i.e., 'fuf' for the letter 'f'], can produce the entropy profile of Voynich text." - Dennis Stallings

Other comments

"Levitov's translation of the above is: 'the one way for helping a person who needs it, is to know one of the ones who do treat one'." - Jacques B.M. Guy, On Levitov's Decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript

"A complete translation of the more than 200 pages waits in the wings - a long, arduous and possibly unrewarding task." - Dr. Leo Levitov, Solution of the Voynich Manuscript

"There is fortunately one fragmentary record of Albigensian belief which has survived....I refer to the Cathar Ritual of Lyons which is now well know having been published in 1898 by Mr. F. C. Conybeare." - A. E. Waite, Holy Grail

A comparison of the amount of information contained in each 'word' of the Stars section of the Voynich MS (using the Curva alphabet) with the words in Genesis chapters 1-25 (Vulgate) and De Bello Gallico (Latin) revealed: * "The apparent words in the Voynich Ms appear to be really words. They are as varied as the words in Latin texts of a similar length. * "The first and second character of Voynich words (using the Curva alphabet) have lower entropy than in Latin. The Voynich words contain more information from the third character onwards (in the conditional sense).

" "The word-initial statistics of Voynichese are matched by one example of an artificial language (which postdates the VMs by at least one and a half centuries). "The statistics of Voynichese and a Mandarin text written in the Pinyin script (using a trailing numerical character to indicate tone) are very different. "A word game to translate Latin to Voynichese must: Increase predictability of word starts Make words shorter Maintain the length of the vocabulary." - Renˇ Zandbergen