Decrypting the Most Mysterious Book in the World

In the six or so centuries that it’s been floating around, bouncing from scholar to scholar and occasionally disappearing for decades at a time, the Voynich manuscript (as it’s come to be called) has yet to be translated. That might be due to the fact that it’s written in a language no one’s ever seen before or since.

But it does have some grounding in the reality that we know, namely via the dozens of familiar plant species sketched throughout the pages of this manuscript. And some researchers think these botanical illustrations are integral to cracking the code that, as one expert put it, has proven “academic suicide” for so many scholars throughout the ages. Click through for the full story! —MN


Voynich Manuscript

Discovered in 1912 by a book dealer, this rare manuscript remains an incredible mystery. No cryptographer has been able to decode it, as the book is basically illegible. The pages have been dated back to the early 15th century and contains about 116 pages, though many of them are missing. The author also remains unknown. The illustrations present in the book seem to divide it up into sections: astronomical, biological, cosmological, herbal, pharmaceutical, and possibly recipes. It seems likely the book was written to keep information secret, but what information was so important that it needed such indecipherable language to keep it secret? The reason for its secrecy, most people believe, is the books connection to alchemy. In recent years, there have been efforts to prove the book as a fraud. 


The Voynich Manuscript is a mysterious volume of text and illustrations written some time in the 15th or 16 centuries, so named after Wilfrid M. Voynich who acquired the book in 1912. It has been classified as “magical” and “scientific” but is written in an undeciphered text and is said to be the most “mysterious manuscript in the world.”

Voynich discovered the manuscript at a villa in Frascati, Rome, which was operating at the time as a Jesuit College. The pages are filled with botanical illustrations, herbal recipes, women frolicking in the water, charts with zodiac signs and constellations, and pages and pages of text which, to date, defy all efforts at translation. 

The manuscript is owned by Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University.


Named after the Polish-American antiquarian bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912, the Voynich Manuscript is a detailed 240-page book written in a language or script that is completely unknown. Its pages are also filled with colorful drawings of strange diagrams, odd events and plants that do not seem to match any known species, adding to the intrigue of the document and the difficulty of deciphering it. The original author of the manuscript remains unknown, but carbon dating has revealed that its pages were made sometime between 1404 and 1438. It has been called “the world’s most mysterious manuscript.”

Theories abound about the origin and nature of the manuscript. Some believe it was meant to be a pharmacopoeia, to address topics in medieval or early modern medicine. Many of the pictures of herbs and plants hint that it many have been some kind of textbook for an alchemist. The fact that many diagrams appear to be of astronomical origin, combined with the unidentifiable biological drawings, has even led some fanciful theorists to propose that the book may have an alien origin.

One thing most theorists agree on is that the book is unlikely to be a hoax, given the amount of time, money and detail that would have been required to make it.


This is the book commonly known as the Voynich manuscript; the book itself has no title but is called so because its retrievement by antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich in 1912 after almost 200 years of being shrouded in thick obscurity. The book holds a legendary place in cryptographic and literature history because its author, origins, meaning nor script has been understood by modern interpreters and scholars. 

The script seems to have originated somewhere between 1404 and 1438, according to C14 dating. The pages themselves are richly illustrated with weird paintings and sketches seemingly ranging from depictions of botany, biology, astronomy and cosmogony to pharmaceutical illustrations looking like classic medieval/renaissance style apothecary jars and so on. The script remains undeciphered after being subjected to a wide array of renowned WWI and WWII codebreakers, language scholars, and amateurs through-out the 20th century. Its mystery - the code of the script, the fascinating illustrations, its origins and its author all bring forth questions of how, when, and of course, why.

Of course, allegations of it being a fraud and a hoax have been put forward, but not with any withstanding evidence or definite substantial theory. And even if this remarkable piece of history would be in fact a hoax, the C14 dating of it - rendering it approximately 600 years of age -, is still a mystery. Scholars point out the sophistication of the script; it would probably be one of the most elaborate, complex and strenuous hoaxes known to literature history. And simply that itself raises the question as to…


exxos-von-steamboldt asked:

Considering that anon about the Voynich Manuscript, I imagine if there was anyone who could conceivably fake a translation, it would be you.

Hmm… Mayhaps I could…

Now you’ll have to excuse me, the language is a bit arcane…

I think it’s something like…

Eros and Agape t’us art know’d ful well…

Yes, something like that. And the second…

Thou kennst th’ precepts and I auch…

Starting to get something out of it.

I’ the mind ik woll myself to thee resign…

Wait a minute…

Thou wouldst not this adquire off an andere Mannes fair…

It’s starting to sound familiar…

Bi cokkes bones ik woll tale thou how ich y’felt…

Too familiar…

Ik soll mache thou to know ‘t well…

Yep. It’s just Rick Astley. Cf.:

Ne’er woll ik gif thou o’er

Ne’er woll ik leave thee i’ the lurch

Ne’er skol ik ronne hither and yon and leave thee alein!

Terrible. I thought the Middle Ages had better taste. Alas, I was wrong.


The enigmatic Voynich Manuscript consists of 200,000 symbols arranged into 37,000 words.  Scans of every page were once available on the website of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and have been backed up here.  The table on the right (condensed from figures at Sky Knowledge) shows the 32 symbols that occur 100 or more times.  Some are obviously ligatures, others are probably punctuation marks.  The most common word (occurring 892 times) is shown below.

The Voynich manuscript is a handwritten book thought to have been written in the 15th or 16th century and comprising about 240 vellum pages, most with illustrations. The author, script, and language remain unknown; for these reasons it has been described as “the world’s most mysterious manuscript”.

Generally presumed to be some kind of ciphertext, the Voynich manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War Iand World War II. Yet it has defied all decipherment attempts, becoming a historical cryptology cause célèbre. The mystery surrounding it has excited the popular imagination, making the manuscript a subject of both fanciful theories and novels: numerous possible authors have been suggested for it.

Full Wikipedia article

Wikimedia Commons has a complete photo-series of all the surviving Voynich manuscript pages in numerical order, available here. !!!

The enigma of the Voynich manuscript - history or hoax

In 1912, a Polish-American book dealer named Wilfrid M. Voynich went to Rome on an acquisitions trip. There he happened upon a trunk that contained a rare manuscript now known as the Voynich manuscript. Since its appearance, this document—which is now under lock and key at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript library at Yale—has been studied extensively and has stumped even the most successful cryptographers and code breakers. You must be asking yourself why the intrigue? The answer is simple: the book is almost entirely illegible.

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