The Voynich Manuscript

A site concerning the Voynich manuscript and related matters by Philip Neal

The Voynich manuscript, now MS 408 of the Beinecke library at Yale University, appears to be a late mediaeval scientific compendium written in an unknown cipher script. It has been dated to the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries by experienced palaeographers. Most cipher texts of this period have easily yielded to modern cryptanalysis, but this one has defied experts for nearly 100 years. In these pages I make relevant historical material available in one location, with English translations for those who do not know the original languages but have other contributions to make. I also publish here my own opinions about the origin of the manuscript and speculations about the nature of the original text.

Twenty first century material

In December 2009 it was announced that the manuscript has been radiocarbon dated to AD 1421 ± 17 years within 95% confidence limits.

Twentieth century material

The manuscript was brought to light by Wilfrid Voynich in 1912 and acquired by the Beinecke Library in 1969. Voynich was something of a mystery man, a political refugee from his native Poland who established himself as a prosperous book dealer in London and later New York. He was coy about the origin of the manuscript when he lectured on it to a conference in 1921, but it came out after his death that he bought it from the Jesuit order in Italy under condition of secrecy. The evidence for this, preserved with the manuscript, is on the website of the Beinecke Library.

The letter of Marco Pometta (1911) Transcription Translation Notes
The lecture by Wilfrid Voynich (1921) Transcription
Notes
The letter of Ethel Voynich (1930) Transcription
Notes

There are three descriptions of the manuscript by professional paleographers.

Seymour de Ricci, Census of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in the United States and Canada, 1935-40.
Barbara A. Shailor, Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Volume 3 Volume 11 of Arizona studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, 1987.
Julian Roberts and Andrew G Watson, ed. John Dee's Library Catalogue London, The Bibliographical Society, 1990.
From Ricci Note
Shailor
From Roberts and Watson Note

Ricci dates the manuscript to the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, Shailor to the fifteenth or sixteenth, and Roberts and Watson to the sixteenth: all with due expression of uncertainty.

Seventeenth and eighteenth century material

Also preserved with the manuscript is the Marci letter of 1665, from the Czech scientist Johann Marcus Marci to the Roman Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. It provides a convincing explanation of how the Jesuits acquired the manuscript and was until recently the only piece of evidence about its earlier history. Athanasius Kircher was a polymath with a world-wide network of correspondents and he left a huge archive of letters and documents which they sent to him. When this archive was digitised in the 1990s, Voynich scholar Rene Zandbergen thought to search for other mentions of the manuscript and struck gold.

The letter of Georgius Barschius to Athanasius Kircher (1637) Translation Notes on the translation
The letter of Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher (1640) Translation Notes on the translation
The letter of Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher (1641) Translation Notes on the translation
The letter of Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher (1665) Translation Notes on the translation A further note
The letter of Godefridus Aloysius Kinner to Athanasius Kircher (1666) Translation Notes on the translation
The letter of Godefridus Aloysius Kinner to Athanasius Kircher (1667) Translation Notes on the translation

The two individuals known to have possessed the manuscript before Marci are Georg Baresch or Barschius and Jakobus Horcziczky de Tepenecz, whose signature is found on the first folio. These two books set out what we know of them. Horcziczky is also discussed by Balbin, below.

From Johannes Marcus Marci, Philosophia Vetus Restituta (1662) Translation Notes on the translation
Johannes Schmidl on Jacobus Horcziczky de Tepenec (1754) Translation Notes on the translation

The archive contains many samples of exotic languages and scripts which were sent to Kircher to be identified and interpreted. Although fascinating, none of them refers to the Voynich manuscript. There is also a story that Kircher was taken in by a supposed old manuscript which proved to be a hoax, but again it seems that the Voynich manuscript is not meant.

From Johann Burkhard Mencke, De charlataneria eruditorum Translation Notes
From the index to the Carteggio Kircheriano: exotic writing Translation

The correspondence of Kircher with the cryptanalyst Gustavus Selenus can be found on the web sit of the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel.

The three people who discussed the manuscript with Kircher are Barschius, who only wrote one letter that has survived, and Marci and Kinner, who corresponded with him for years.

The letters of Johann Marcus Marci to Kircher transcribed
The letters of Godefridus Aloysius Kinner to Kircher transcribed

More than twenty people associated with Prague are known to have written to Kircher, some of whom were friends of Marci and part of his intellectual circle. This is a list with summaries of their letters. Some of them may well have seen the manuscript but only Barschius, Marci and Kinner mention it.

Jodok Kedd to Kircher
Théodore Moret to Kircher
Baresch to Kircher
Marci to Kircher
Marci to Caramuel Lobkowitz
Marci and Kinner to Caramuel Lobkowitz
Martino Santini to Kircher
Bernhard Ignaz Martinitz to Kircher
Johannes Gans to Kircher
Ferdinand Johann von Lichtenstein to Kircher
Balthasar Conrad to Kircher
Ferdinand Johann von Lichtenstein to Kircher
Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz to Martinitz
Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz to Marci
Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz to Marci and Kinner
Juan Caramuel Lobkowitz to Kircher
Johann Schega to Kircher
Simon Schurer to Kircher
Godefridus Aloysius Kinner to Kircher
Heinrich Julius von Blume to Kircher
Philipp Miller to Kircher
Jakob Johann Dobrzensky to Kircher
Marcus Martinitz to Kircher
Ernst Adalbert von Harrach to Kircher
Siegmund Ferdinand Hartmann to Kircher
Johann Friedrich von Wallenstein to Kircher
Johann Franz von Kollowrath to Kircher

What we know of Kircher's Prague correspondents mainly comes from the literary historians Balbin and Wydra. I have also consulted reference works on German and Jesuit history.

Biographies of Kircher's Prague correspondents

From Bohuslaw Balbin, Bohemia Docta:

Pontanus Transcription Translation
Mnishovsky Transcription Translation
Horcziczky Transcription Translation
Marci Transcription Translation
Dobrzensky Transcription Translation

Pontanus is significant because he owned a book previously in the possession of Horcziczky.

From Stanislaus Wydra, Historia matheseos in Bohemia et Moravia cultae‎:

Hayek Transcription Translation
Tycho Transcription Translation
Kepler Transcription Translation
Conrad Transcription Translation
Marci Transcription Translation
Caramuel Lobkowitz Transcription Translation
Moret Transcription Translation
Dobrzensky Transcription Translation
Kinner Transcription Translation
Hartmann Transcription Translation

Martino Santini was considered for canonisation and there is some information about him in the eulogy preached at his funeral (thanks to Rene Zandbergen for providing me with a scan).

Santinus Eulogy Latin Translation

Fifteenth and sixteenth century material

Historical background

On the evidence of the Marci letter, the Voynich manuscript was in Prague during the reign of Rudolph II and remained there until 1665. Since this turbulent period spans the reigns of five emperors and the Thirty Years' War, some historical background may be useful.

Bohemia in the Thirty Years' War
The imperial succession

Rudolph II

The earliest possible owner of the manuscript for whom there is documentary evidence is Rudolph II (1552-1612, Holy Roman Emperor from 1576), a notable collector of books, particularly on alchemy. Rudolph maintained two separate libraries, his private library and the library of his museum or Kunstkammer in Prague Castle, and he also appears to have owned books which were housed in neither collection. The catalogue of the Kunstkammer has been preserved and it does not list any book recognisable as the Voynich manuscript. However, many alchemical manuscripts once owned by Rudolph survive and provide evidence about where he acquired his collection. The most striking thing about them is that not a single manuscript was more than 100 years old in Rudolph's day, and that a great majority of them originated within Germany.

Rudolph II's manuscript collection

John Dee

Before Rudolph II, all candidates for ownership or authorship of the manuscript are purely speculative. One name frequently mentioned is John Dee, who visited Prague in 1584 and was granted an audience with Rudolph. Dee, a learned courtier of Elizabeth I of England was at this time under the spell of the alchemist and charlatan Edward Kelly, who channelled guidance to Dee from supposed spirits which he claimed to see in a magic stone. Dee was motivated by a thirst for mystical knowledge and kept a detailed record of his actions in a series of manuscripts which were printed after his death as A True and Faithful Relation. We also have his private diary and the catalogue of his library at his house in Mortlake. In fact, an examination of this material reveals no evidence that he owned the Voynich manuscript: it is not in the library catalogue, and esoteric books mentioned in the diary and Relation have been otherwise identified. Dee is known to have met Rudolph on a single occasion, when he did not sell but gave Rudolph a book of his own composition: indeed, there is no record of Dee ever selling a book. The financial transaction involving 630 ducats, which has sometimes been linked to the 600 ducats which Rudolph is said to have paid for the manuscript also proves to be irrelevant. There remains the categorical statement of the distinguished palaeographer Andrew Watson that the Voynich manuscript is foliated in Dee's handwriting. Assuming this to be true, the most likely explanation is that Dee had access to the manuscript while in Prague but that he did not bring it there.

John Dee meets Rudolph II Summary Transcription Translation of Latin sections Notes
Dee and the 630 ducats
Transcription Translation Notes

Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516)

The monk Johannes Trithemius, known in his day as a bibliographer, is forever associated with a single sensational episode in a life of service and scholarship. While he was in exile from his monastery of Sponheim in a dispute about his authority, his erstwhile friend Charles de Bovelles accused him of necromancy. In fact Trithemius was a cryptographer, whose privately circulated book Steganographia presented a new kind of cipher with deliberate, occult-looking mystification: he also made large claims for it to friends such as Arnold Bostius. He explained himself in his next cryptological book, Polygraphia in a dedication to emperor Maximilian I himself, but the controversy he aroused was a live issue for two centuries.

Trithemius to Bostius Transcription Translation Notes
Bovelles's accusation Transcription Translation Notes
Trithemius to Maximilian I Transcription Translation Note
Later writers on Trithemius Summary
Gustavus Selenus on the Steganographia Transcription Translation Notes

Links to scans and web editions of Steganographia and Polygraphia can be found at the excellent Analytic Bibliography of On-line Neo-Latin Texts .

Trithemius defended his reputation by publishing his correspondence for the years 1505-7 as a book. These letters successfully demonstrate that his enemies were politically motivated, that he behaved correctly in exile, and that accusations of black magic were not taken seriously by senior churchmen and statesmen. They are of considerable historical interest and some appear to contain cryptic messages, possibly involving steganography as Gustavus Selenus believed. I here present selected letters of interest and a summary of the rest.

Selected letters Transcription Translation Notes
The correspondence summarised Latin English Notes
About this web edition Note

For a scholarly, cloistered man, Trithemius had many enemies. The reason, in part, is that they were opponents of his lord, patron and friend Philip, Elector Palatine (Philipp Kurfürst von der Pfalz) in the recent Landshut War of Succession. I summarise this crucial historical background and its repercussions. These events all took place in the reign of Maximilian I, de facto Holy Roman Emperor since the death of his father in 1493, but still called King of the Romans at this time.

The Landshut War of Succession
Chronology of the war and the exile of Trithemius

Trithemius wrote an autobiography, Nepiachus, not intended for publication in his lifetime. There is also a short biography by his friend Duraclusius.

Nepiachus Latin English Notes
Duraclusius on Trithemius Latin English

Much that is arcane in the writings of Trithemius seems to have been inspired by his friendship with a man called Libanius Gallus, otherwise unknown to history. The little we know is summarised by Klaus Arnold in his definitive biography Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516) (Würzburg, 1971): I quote rather than paraphrase in tribute to a work of scholarship from which I have learned much. My selection of the letters includes all the Libanius references: he is also mentioned in Nepiachus and a passage of the Chronicon Hirsaugiense.

Arnold on Libanius Gallus German English
From the Chronicon Hirsaugiense Latin English

Trithemius was very knowledgeable about early German authors and had read both Hildegard von Bingen (of the lingua ignota) and Otfrid von Weissenburg, a Carolingian poet whose lavish use of acrostics may have been one inspiration for the idea of steganography.

Trithemius on Hildegard Transcription Translation Notes
Trithemius on Otfrid Transcription Translation Notes

Giovanni Fontana

There exist exactly two Western manuscripts written entirely in cipher between 1000 and 1500. Both were the work of the Venetian writer Giovanni Fontana (c. 1395-c. 1455) .

The works of Giovanni Fontana

Description of Secretum de Thesauro

A first look at Fontana

Comparative material

A corpus of exotic languages in mediaeval and renaissance literature

Arabic: ibn-Hayyan, Picatrix, Klimatafel, Almagest, Lostafel, al-Buni, al-Dasuqi, al-Idrisi, Darb al-Mandal
Hebrew: Psalterium Cusanum, Essener Sakramentar, Carnot 30, clm 17142, clm 7955, Petrus Nigri, Bibliander Paternoster, Judeneid
Western: Odo of Cluny, Guido of Arezzo, Hildegard von Bingen, Cisiojanus, Barbara celarent, Speculum Floron, Hypnerotomachia,Lorem Ipsum, Steganographia, Polygraphia, Ghent 1021A, Enochian, Tuba Veneris, Utopia, Rabelais, Baner

A list of mediaeval manuscripts containing cipher text

A checklist of early works on cryptography

The alchemical herbals

Analysis of the manuscript

The marginalia of the Voynich manuscript

Construction of the manuscript

Cipher or language?

Structure of the Voynich ciphertext

Was the Voynich manuscript enciphered on a grid?

I have long believed that the Voynich manuscript is written in a cipher which used some kind of grid which restricted the occurrence of each character to certain positions within a Voynich 'word'. These pages illustrate the idea by displaying the text in three different transcriptions.

Three transcriptions: v101, NEVA and NEVA spaced

Quire 20 v101 Quire 20 NEVA Quire 20 NEVA spaced

Links

The Voynich Manuscript Rene Zandbergen's authoritative site, which these pages are intended to complement.

Cipher Mysteries My friend Nick Pelling's blog on Voynich related matters.

Voynich Manuscript Jim Reeds's site, not updated in years but contains useful information including the study by Prescott Currier.

The Journal of Voynich Studies A grand title for a mixed bag, but some worthwhile material.

The Voynich Manuscript Site Facts and speculation from Jan Hurych.

Historical Publications (Miscellaneous) - NSA/CSS The NSA website with download of the indispensible The Voynich Manuscript: an Elegant Enigma by Mary d'Imperio.

About myself

I am an Englishman, born in 1961, with a lifelong passion for language and linguistics. I read Classics and Modern Languages at the Queen's College, Oxford, and then wrote a doctoral thesis on mediaeval German. For some years I was a researcher into natural language processing and then became a technical author in information technology. I live in South London. You can contact me at philipneal underscore vms at hotmail dot com.

Copyright information

These pages mostly contain second hand material which is either out of copyright or quoted in fair use, with my own translations and comments on it. My aim is not to make money but I expect an acknowledgement if you quote or reuse any material actually written by me.

Original material in these pages copyright © Philip Neal 2002-2011.