The Friday Fillip: The Voynich Manuscript

Those of us who write for and read Slaw spend a lot of our time deriving meaning from books or other documents, not an easy task some of the time, particularly when the tomes are old and the language archaic. Imagine, then, how frustrating it must be for scholars when they come up against a text that utterly defies comprehension. Such is the Voynich Manuscript.

Created around 1420, likely in northern Italy, the 200 vellum pages are beautifully inscribed with line after line of what would appear to be text written in characters that are unique to the book. It is amply illustrated by drawings of plants, almost all of which can’t be found anywhere on Earth. Named after the dealer who acquired it in 1912 and residing since 1969 in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Voynich Manuscript is the sort of stuff Dan Brown would invent.

Which, of course, may be how it came into existence in the first place: someone with an eye for the main chance ran up a fictional, mystical book on herbs and sold it to the highest bidder. Whatever the origin, it’s remained an object of fascination, as much for its opacity as for the grace of the “writing” — 200+ pages written without a mistake or an erasure — and the odd charm of the illustrations. Walks just like a duck, quacks exactly like a duck, but is in fact no duck at all: strange.

The Beinecke has digitized the whole MS and if you’re patient with the web viewer, you can examine the thing in great detail. (Below the large image is a run of smaller thumbnail images that can be scrolled; clicking on one of these will, eventually, cause it to appear in the upper viewer, from where “zoom view” takes you to a clear and expandable view.) I’ll reproduce two images below to give you the visual sense you need to grasp what I’ve been on about. Clicking on them will embiggen them.

voynich_02 voynich_01

And yes, those are naked women swimming around in green stuff.

If nothing else, the Voynich might be an entrée for you to the Beinecke, the home of a lot of fascinating material, much of it digitized and available online. But if you’re at all intrigued by the mystery of it all, you might like to watch this 45 minute National Geographic show on the MS, full of speculation, blind alleys, and ominous narration.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    And, for the unreservedly nerdy among the community, see “Cracking an Elegant Enigma: Deciphering Ancient Manuscripts Using FOSS Tools” at
    in which William Porquet attempts to disprove Banasik’s hypothesis that it is written in a transliteration of the Manchu language.

    He couldn’t disprove the hypothesis, as it happens, raising a faint possibility that Banasick was right… but don’t tell anyone, as they’ll assume you’re some kind of linguistic cultist (:-))


  2. Josef Zlatoděj prof.

    Hi Simon.
    Voynich manuscript is written and encrypted in the Czech language. Instructions for decryption is written on multiple sides of the manuscript. Instructions are written in the Czech language. As a whole manuscript.

    The manuscript describes the Czech history. Very delicate and secret information.

    I have translated many pages of the manuscript.

  3. At present there is no accepted translation of the Voynich manuscript, not excluding those which have made it into print so far.

    Thanks for the link to William Pourquet’s paper, which I’ve not seen mentioned or discussed elsewhere.

  4. Perhaps I should mention that the female figures are not necessarily meant to be read literally.

    Also that the custom of distinguishing fresh from salt water by reference to blue, or green, respectively is not native to the Latin or Byzantine world, but was conventional in languages and art within parts of the Islamic empire, and in those regions has a history older than the classical Roman empire.

  5. If anyone is looking for a late summer read I’d recommend Enrique Joven’s The Book of God and Physics: A Novel of the Voynich Mystery