The Voynich Manuscript is one of history’s greatest mysteries. Written in Central Europe in the 15th or early 16th century, this 240-page document is inscribed in a language or code that has not yet been deciphered, despite decades of cryptologists, historians, and mathematicians attempting to interpret it. Even the famous cryptographers from the Bletchley Park, who decoded the Nazi’s Enigma codes in WWII, have taken a crack at it, but all to no avail.
Take a look at the Voynich Manuscript and see the strange language for yourself.
Named after Wilfrid Voynich, the Polish book dealer who purchased this manuscript back in 1912, this document is unusual in a number of ways. First off, it appears to be a magical or scientific text, with many vivid images of herbs and plants that to this date have not all been identified. It includes astronomical and astrological drawings, and lists of what appears to be recipes. It even includes images of what might be alchemical processes; however, the images are original and odd and do not correlate to the scientific processes of the time this manuscript would have been created.
While it’s possible that the Voynich manuscript is a hoax, the vellum (animal skin) that it’s written on has been carbon dated to sometime between 1404-1438, and it was not written on before this ink was added. The ink has also been dated to the same time period. The likelihood that someone would find this much unused vellum and ink, dated to the same time period is quite unlikely.
One theory is that it was a hoax created sometime at the end of the 15th century by a man named Edward Kelley. Others think that it was created by Voynich, the bookseller, himself. Voynich attempted to identify its author for years after “purchasing” it. He thought it might be Roger Bacon, or Giovanni Fontana, the latter was an Italian engineer who created art that looked similar to the artworks in the Voynich manuscript. Fontana was also familiar with cryptography, so he’s a likely contender for having written this mysterious manuscript. One page of the manuscript has the alleged signature of Jacobus Sinapius (1575-1622); however, it was later determined that this is not his signature, which has been compared to verified documents. Some view this as enough evidence that Voynich forged the manuscript himself in order to raise its value and sell it at an astronomical cost. However, if he were to go through this amount of effort, one would think that he would have forged the correct signature. History of ownership of the manuscript itself has been traced as far back as the 17th century (Weber, 2018). This should irrevocably discount the theory that Voynich falsified these documents. He wasn’t alive back then. Some naysayers claim that he might have heard of this mysterious document, saw dollar signs, and then figured out what to do with all the spare 15th century vellum he had lying around.
The Language itself
If this is a hoax, it’s an elaborate one. Twenty to twenty-five unique characters have been identified throughout this manuscript, which is written from left to write, and the letters are grouped into what appears to be words. Some words are found throughout all the pages, while others are limited to specific pages. There are over 8,000 word “types”, with 35,000 different words. Like I said, if this is a hoax, someone had too much time on their hands. Maybe a fifteenth-century scholar was creating his own language, like Klingon?
Scholars are still trying to decrypt this language, and the latest nearly successful attempt was as recent as 2017. Greg Kondrak of the University of Alberta used an artificial intelligence, incorporated samples from 400 different languages to test the manuscript (Pascoe, 2018). He determined that the language was most likely Hebrew. They were able to identify some words, including “farmer”, “light”, “fire”, and “air”. Despite the fact that this discovery is fairly recent, present day experts are claiming that the language is not Hebrew. The translations do not make sense, words are frequently spelled incorrectly, and some words cannot be translated to Hebrew at all (Philologos, 2018). Unfortunately, since this is such a recent discovery, there has not been any formal scholarly critique of the methods employed by Kondrak et al., so only time will tell if it is truly Hebrew or if they were wrongly assuming that translation could be this simple. If you wish to read the methods yourself, I’ve linked to the original research article here.
There are many other theories of what the language used in the Voynich manuscript is. Some think it’s a European language that was coded using a cipher more complicated than the typical single-substitution cipher. Others think it’s shorthand—a form of a diary created by a scholar. I’m leaning away from this theory, because why would someone go to the effort of writing 240 pages, and illustrating these pages, just to have it be unreadable to others? Bear in mind, this was the 15th century, not present day where everyone and their mother keeps a secret diary.
It could be a code, which would require a codebook to decipher, but this is more common for short messages, not 240-page documents.
Another theory that caught my eye is that it could be “steganography“. This means that the text is mostly meaningless, but there are little messages hidden in the text. It could be the way that a letter is malformed, the first character of each line, or some other pre-determined characteristic that only those who are meant to read the secret message would be able to determine. If this is the case, we may never be able to decode this text. Again, my argument that this is a lot of effort for a shorter message comes into play. The “words” are found in groupings that are similar to language, so it seems unlikely that the entire text is gibberish save for those individual notations that can be decoded.
The second-to-last theory that I want to mention is the theory that it’s a natural language. Explorers who encountered a group of people who do not speak the same language might have created their own alphabet to record the words that they were learning. While this strange methodology has been observed in the past, I’m leery of this theory. If the author were recording a language he wasn’t familiar with, why wouldn’t he use the alphabet he was already familiar with? Wouldn’t he want to write out the words phonetically? Also – bear in mind that there’s no punctuation. I would have a hard time creating a language that just flowed freely without any structure.
The final theory is that it might be something called “glossolalia”. This manuscript may have been written by someone who was speaking in tongues. While this theory is one of the least likely, it would explain why there are images of unidentifiable plants and science that isn’t quite right. Maybe the author was channelling a language from another world, a parallel world, one that is similar to ours, but clearly has its own language, its own plants, its own science…