The Voynich Manuscript: Will the Enigma Ever Be Solved?

As beautiful as it is enigmatic, the Voynich Manuscript has mystified experts for decades. (Image source: Public Domain)

In 1912 a Polish antique book dealer stumbled upon a bizarre artefact. Wilfrid Voynich operated one of the largest rare book businesses in the world 1, however his vast experience could provide no illumination when presented with an old text so strange that – over a century later – it continues to puzzle those who attempt to unravel its mysteries.

Wilfrid Voynich
Wilfrid Voynich among his books in Soho Square (c. 1899). (Image source: Public Domain)

The Voynich Manuscript, as the peculiar codex is now known, was handwritten in an unknown language. Comprising 240 vellum pages2, the book not only contains encrypted text but is also saturated with striking illustrations. The imagery was what first captured Wilfrid Voynich’s attention, with pictures of unusual spiral forms, fantastical herbs and plants, constellations, and even whimsical illustrations of female figures.3

Unable to decode the book, Voynich concluded that it must contain volatile information, perhaps a discovery in the natural sciences or alchemical findings that would have surely secured a sticky end for the original author should it have fallen into the wrong hands at the time of composition. The only clue that Voynich had as to the manuscript’s origin was a letter tucked inside its pages, which seemed to date the bizarre codex to at least the sixteenth century. The letter stated that the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II had once bought the book for 600 ducats, the equivalent of about 100,000 US dollars today. 4

Some pages of the mysterious manuscript fold out to reveal larger elaborate diagrams. (Image source: Public Domain)

After many extensive studies by various individuals and teams it has been found that the manuscript consists of more than 170,000 glyphs, most written with one or two simple pen strokes. An alphabet of between twenty and thirty unique characters were identified as comprising the majority of the text, not including a few rare glyphs which appeared only once or twice. 5

Who wrote the Voynich Manuscript?

The vellum pages of the mysterious document have been radiocarbon-dated to the early fifteenth century, and is widely believed to have been written in Italy. 6 This revelation has led some to credit the Renaissance enigma to Giovanni Fontana, a fifteenth-century Italian physician and engineer.

Illustrations by Giovanni Fontana (c. 1420–1430) are said to bear resemblance to those found in the Voynich Manuscript. (Image source: Public Domain)

Others have named Leonardo da Vinci as the text’s original author. Some have looked beyond Renaissance Italy and to the court of England’s Elizabeth I, and those with occult interests including the Elizabethan mathematician, philosopher and astrologer, John Dee. 7

Another theory is that, if no one can unravel the mystery of the manuscript, then perhaps it had no meaning in the first place.

Is the Voynich Manuscript a hoax?

Some more cynical observers have pointed the finger at Voynich, claiming that he fabricated the manuscript himself in the early 20th century. However, as radiocarbon-dating has proven consistency of the pages, indicating origin from a single source, modern forgery is effectively ruled out, as it is highly unlikely that a quantity of unused vellum comprising “at least fourteen or fifteen entire calfskins” could have survived from the early 15th century.8

Not only that, the idea of the text being a hoax – Renaissance or modern – suggests a commitment to trickery above and beyond the usual. Far from being an unsophisticated deception, we know that the language of the manuscript displays reasonable sentence structure, meaning that it is not merely a random assortment of symbols. It certainly appears that the great volume’s pages do conceal some sort of knowledge.

Attempts to decode the Voynich Manuscript

Wiliam R. Newbold and Latin minuscule

One of the first academics to tackle the text was a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, William R. Newbold. He reported that, minuscule signs on the vellum, visible only through a microscope, seemed to be a form of shorthand which, when decoded, produced an inflammatory text in Latin about germ cells and organic life.

Newbold’s sensational theory was discredited just ten years later, when one of his former colleagues came to entirely different conclusion, condemning the so-called Roman minuscule shorthand as merely residues and cracks in the old vellum pages. 9

Codebreakers grapple with the manuscript

In time the codex fell into the hands of leading British and American wartime codebreakers.

In the early 1950s an informal team of National Security Agency cryptographers analysed the manuscript, attempting to uncover its meaning using the letter-based cipher theory. They, like many others who have studied the book, were unable to provide answers as to its meaning. Even computer programmes, designed for decipherment, could not crack the code.10

Nicholas Gibbs and Plagiarized Medieval Gynecological Manuals

History researcher and television writer Nicholas Gibbs stated that he had unravelled the mystery of the Voynich Manuscript in 2017. His research, he claimed, showed that the text is in fact a guide to women’s health, largely plagiarized from other texts of the same period. His knowledge of medieval texts supposedly enabled him to identify medieval Latin abbreviations associated with medical texts from the time. 11

Whilst Gibbs’ theory looked promising, especially when one considers the numerous illustrations of nude women and medicinal herbs throughout the manuscript, it soon unravelled. Gibbs’ theory earned a strong rebuttal from experts across the globe, who stated that he could not prove his claims and had not provided any novel insights into the meaning of the text.12

Ahmet Ardiç claims the Voynich Manuscript is Turkish

In early 2018 yet another researcher and his team came forward claiming to have decoded the enigmatic text.

Announcing their findings through a video on YouTube titled Voynich Manuscript Revealed, Ata Team Alberta (ATA) claimed to have “deciphered and translated over 30% the manuscript”. 13

In the video Ahmet Ardiç, a Turkish electrical engineer, explains that his attention was instantly captured by the manuscript, especially when he realised that there seemed to be a “significant number of words that started with the same characters, but ended with different characters”. He recognised this pattern as being similar to Turkish.

What followed was a four year “family project”, which culminated in Team ATA submitting “a formal paper of the philological study […] to an academic journal in John Hopkins University”. Their theory is that the text is a form of “Turkic language”, written in a “poetic style”. 14

So, has the mystery finally been solved? Some say yes. Others are understandably skeptical and have criticised the team for being too “vague” in their explanation. 15

With so many previous failed attempts at decoding the text, only time will tell if this is truly the end of the Voynich enigma. As it stands, despite the efforts of hundreds of expert codebreakers, interpreters, historians, philosophers and linguists, there is still no commonly agreed upon decipherment and translation of the Voynich Manuscript.

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