Mysterious Voynich Manuscript reborn in facsimile edition

A photo facsimile edition of the enigmatic manuscript offers the public a new way to engage with the document that has mystified scholars for centuries.
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Wilfred M. Voynich, a rare-book dealer based in London, purchased a cache of medieval manuscripts from the Jesuit order in 1912. The transaction was conducted in secret. Its details remain unclear.

The books Voynich acquired came from a collection of 380 manuscripts, mostly 15th-century humanist and classical works, that the Jesuits had earmarked for sale to the Vatican Library. Voynich’s trove included several prized volumes that he sold for tidy sums to American institutions, such as the Morgan Library, the University of Chicago, Princeton University, and Yale University.

There was one manuscript — a small volume bound in plain vellum — for which Voynich never found a buyer. Its 234 parchment pages are filled with an intricate and unreadable text, either a cipher or imaginary language. Strange illustrations of unidentifiable plants, mystifying astrological charts, and scenes of nude women bathing in green pools, accompany the inscrutable script on nearly every page. Several of its pages are foldouts — an unusual feature for a medieval manuscript.   

While the mysterious manuscript contributed nothing to Voynich’s bank account, its contents have tantalized and confounded scholars, professional code breakers, and amateur sleuths.

A final comparison of the Voynich Manuscript and the photo facsimile edition.

Today, the so-called Voynich Manuscript resides at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where it continues to capture people’s imaginations.

The public now has a new way to engage with this enigmatic manuscript. The Yale University Press and the Beinecke Library have published a photo facsimile edition of the manuscript with explanatory essays providing historical context, including information about the manuscript’s provenance and prominent attempts to decipher it, and describing the results of scientific analyses performed on the manuscript’s materials over the past seven years.

Raymond Clemens, curator of early books and manuscripts at the Beinecke Library, said the public’s sustained interest in the manuscript inspired the facsimile edition.

The manuscript has appeared in novels and inspired orchestral compositions, including a symphony being written by Yale composer Hannah Lash. Enthusiasts across the globe puzzle over its contents, attempting to make sense of a text, often called “Voynichese,” that has bewildered some of the 20th century’s most accomplished cryptologists. According to the Beinecke’s web data, about half of all the traffic to the “zoom viewer” tool for its online collections involves pages of the Voynich Manuscript, which was digitized in 2004. 

“Our website provides wonderful high-resolution images of the Voynich, but it doesn’t provide a sense of the book as a physical object,” Clemens said. “We’re hoping the facsimile will give people a sense of the size of the book and the way its structures fit together. This will be the next best thing to actually sitting down with the manuscript at the library.”

Clemens said the facsimile edition is also intended to spark interest in the manuscript among scholars of the medieval period, who have tended to ignore it despite, or perhaps because of, the attention it attracts in popular media.

It was once believed that 13th-century philosopher Roger Bacon authored the volume.

“The book frustrates medievalists because, like everyone else, they can’t read it,” said Clemens, a medievalist who was not familiar with the Voynich manuscript when he arrived at the Beinecke Library in 2012. “We’ve tried to put it in various historical contexts to help historians recognize that it is a product of the medieval period and to get them thinking again about why someone would have produced it.”

Unknown origins

The mysteries surrounding the Voynich Manuscript extend beyond the books contents to its very origins. Nobody knows who created it or where it came from.

An essay accompanying the facsimile by René Zandbergen, an independent scholar who runs a website devoted to the manuscript, documents what is known about the manuscript’s provenance. 

A 1665 letter that Voynich obtained along with the manuscript provides the starting point of Zandbergen’s historical investigation. Johannes Marcus Marci, a Prague physician and scientist, wrote the letter to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scientist who lived in Rome. Marci reports that the manuscript was sold to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II for 600 ducats and that Roger Bacon, the 13th-century English philosopher and Franciscan friar, was believed to be its author. 

While it is unknown who sold the manuscript to the emperor, at least three individuals in Prague possessed it after Rudolph II, Zandbergen writes.

The first of these owners was a pharmacist named Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenec, who wrote his signature on the manuscript’s first page. The signature indicates Horcicky’s title, indicating he wrote it after he ascended to the nobility in 1608, notes Zandbergen. (The signature was invisible to the naked eye until 1914 when Voynich uncovered it using an unidentified chemical, according to Zandbergen.)

Horcicky died in 1622 and the manuscript disappeared from the record until 1637 when it reappeared in the possession of an alchemist named Georges Barschius, Zandbergen writes.

The book includes fold-out pages, which was very unusual for a medieval document.

In hopes of having the manuscript translated, Barschius copied extracts of the text and sent them, along with a letter from Jesuit mathematician Theodor Moretus, to Athanasius Kircher, a scholar at the Jesuit University in Rome, explains Zandbergen.

In a March 1639 reply to Moretus, Kircher briefly explained that he could not translate the text. This letter, discovered in 2008 by historian Josef Smolka, is the earliest known reference to the manuscript.

Zandbergen explains that Barschius, who died sometime before 1662, left the manuscript to Marci, who then sent it to Kircher in 1665 along with the letter of the same year mentioned above.

The manuscript disappeared from the historical record until Voynich purchased it in 1912.

From Voynich to Yale

In 1864, Wilfred M. Voynich was born into a Polish family in Lithuania, which belonged to the Russian Empire.

Arnold Hunt, formerly curator of historical manuscripts at the British Library, contributed an essay to the facsimile edition on the life of the enterprising bookseller.

While a student at the University of Moscow in 1884, Voynich joined the Polish nationalist movement, Hunt writes.  A year later, he was arrested and accused of engaging in revolutionary activity. He spent 18 months jailed in the Warsaw Citadel and was sentenced without trial to five years exile in Siberia, Hunt writes.

Voynich escaped into Mongolia in 1890, writes Hunt, and made his way through China and eventually reached Germany, where he sold off the last of his possessions — including his eyeglasses — to pay for a berth aboard a merchant ship to England.  

He joined a circle of political exiles in London and worked for a period translating and publishing revolutionary propaganda for distribution in Russia, Hunt writes.

Joseph Calamia, senior editor for physical sciences at Yale University Press, and Raymond Clemens, curator of early books and manuscripts at the Beinecke Library, page through the Voynich Manuscript, which has been published in a photo facsimile edition.

In 1898, Voynich opened a bookshop at 1 Soho Square in London and quickly gained a reputation as a resourceful and knowledgeable dealer, according to Hunt.

Hunt writes that Voynich affectionately referred to the cipher manuscript as the “ugly ducking” of the trove he acquired from the Jesuits, but he was committed to deciphering it, which he hoped would generate a lucrative payday. He priced the manuscript at $100,000, Hunt writes.

“When the time comes, I will prove to the world that the black magic of the Middle Ages consisted in discoveries far in advance of 20th-century science,” Voynich boasted to The New York Times in February 1921.

Voynich never made good on this boast. An attempt to decipher the manuscript by Newbold failed. William and Elizabeth Friedman, who were among the federal government’s top cryptographers during WWI and WWII, were never able to crack the text.

Following Voynich’s death from lung cancer in March 1930, the manuscript spent 30 years inside a bank vault. Anne Nill, who had been Voynich’s trusted secretary, inherited the manuscript in 1960 following the death of Ethel Voynich, the bookseller’s wife and a popular novelist. A year later, Nill sold the manuscript to prominent rare-book dealer Hans Peter (“H.P.”) Kraus for $24,500 plus half the proceeds of any future sale. Kraus listed the manuscript at $160,000 but failed to sell it. He donated it to the Beinecke Library in 1969.

“Magical world”

The manuscript remained an object of fascination after arriving at Yale. For example, the National Security Agency published a study in 1978 titled “The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma” by cryptologist Mary E. D’Imperio, which was recently declassified and is available online

While nobody has succeeded in making sense of the text and illustrations — William Friedman concluded it was an invented language — scientific analysis has revealed much about the book’s physical materials, including its parchment, ink, binding, and pigments. 

Scientific analyses have proved again and again that the manuscript dates to the 15th century.

Paula Zyats, assistant chief conservator at the Yale University Library, first encountered the manuscript in 2009 when she was asked to conduct a condition report on the book, which was to be the subject of a documentary by an Austrian film team.

“That was the first time I laid eyes on it,” Zyats said. “It’s been a big part of my life since then.”

Carbon-14 testing performed at the University of Arizona dated the parchment to the 15th century, disproving the theory that Roger Bacon had created the manuscript,  near the end of the 13th century. Samples of the inks and pigments were analyzed at a private laboratory, which showed their composition was consistent with materials used by medieval scribes.

“The results of carbon-14 testing was a surprise,” Zyats said.  “Most ‘experts’ were convinced that this was a 17th-century manuscript, perhaps a forgery, or even a 20th-century forgery.  I don’t believe anyone was theorizing that it was a 15th-century manuscript.”

More recently, a scientific team in Manchester, England, used amino acid sequencing to determine that the manuscript’s parchment was made from calfskin. (The manuscript required 14 to 15 calfskins, Clemens said.)

Library conservators teamed with scientists at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) to perform a series of non-destructive tests on the manuscript that expanded on the previous analysis. Over three weeks at Yale’s West Campus, the team used Raman spectroscopy to identify its pigments; X-ray fluorescence to learn more about the composition of inks and pigments; microscopy to identify the sewing supports in the binding; and multispectral imaging to reveal otherwise invisible information in the parchment and pigments. 

One theory holds that the Voynich Manuscript is a field book dropped by an alien while visiting Earth.

Anikó Bezur, the Wallace S. Wilson Director of Scientific Research at IPCH, recalled being surprised by the manuscript’s small size (10 inches high and 7 inches wide) and unadorned cover.

“It’s such an unassuming volume,” she said. “Then you open it up and it’s wildly imaginative,” she said. “It really draws you in. You feel like you’re entering this magical world that has resisted inroads of scholarship. It was a wonderful opportunity. It’s the sort of thing that drives people to this profession.”

The tests showed that the manuscript is composed of materials consistent with those used in 15th-century manuscripts. There was no evidence of any modern inks, pigments, or other materials. The techniques used to construct the manuscript, such as the manner in which the binding is composed, are also consistent with 15th-century bookmaking, according to the Yale researchers, who described their findings in an essay in the facsimile edition.

The analysis produced interesting discoveries, Bezur said.

For example, Raman spectroscopy revealed the presence of quartz crystals in the manuscript’s red pigment, which could be evidence of the medieval practice of using sand to dry inks and paint in manuscripts, she said.

Bezur said further analysis of the quartz crystals might indicate where the sand came from, which could provide evidence of the manuscript’s geographic origins.

She said there are limits to what further analysis could accomplish.

“The goal is to put the object into context,” she said. “We know the materials are consistent with the medieval period.”

Fantastic theories

Clemens said he receives at least three emails a week from someone who claims to have cracked the cipher or discovered some insight into the manuscript’s origins.

There is no shortage of theories about the manuscript, and they range from the reasonable — it is a medieval hoax — to the fantastic.

When the late Umberto Eco, the renowned author and scholar, visited the Beinecke Library in the fall of 2013 to mark the library’s 50th anniversary, the Voynich Manuscript was the only item from the Beinecke’s collections that he asked to examine.

“My favorite theory, as yet unsurpassed, is that the Voynich manuscript is actually the field notebook of an alien biologist in training, out on a field trip from the Andromeda Galaxy,” Zyats said. “This young scientist dropped her notebook on Earth, and that’s why we have the Voynich manuscript.”

Clemens said the photo facsimile, which sells for $50, is designed to recreate the experience of paging through the manuscript. The foldouts are replicated and unfold exactly as those in the manuscript do.

(The foldouts are one reason why the library strictly limits who has access to the manuscript. They are extremely fragile and will break if handled too often, Clemens said.)

There is one significant difference between the facsimile and the real thing: The facsimile features generous margins around each image of a page from the manuscript. It does so with good reason, Clemens said.

“That gives readers a chance to work out their own interpretations,” he said. “I wish them best of luck.”

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