The Voynich Manuscript

Six hundred years ago in Venice, a guild of clandestine alchemists created a set of documents that to this day still haven’t ever been read by anyone else. They were written by a couple of different authors and an illustrator, in an absolutely singular alphabet known to modern scholars as Voynichese. The language in which the manuscript is written contains roughly the same amount of characters as other European alphabets, although the language is actually far less complex. In reality, the unknown script is an extension of a spoken language which was used by the secret society that produced it.

As with everything they did, a great deal of effort went into the creation of those parchment papers. On a material basis alone, the vellum documents required more than fourteen full cow skins and an assortment of paints and inks. This was all of the highest quality, and it cost them a fortune to produce it. The alchemists were wealthy and also well funded by other Italian elites. The different colors they used were made from specific substances, such as blue azurite and red ochre pigments. The products were finely pulverized with masterful precision. The ink itself was made in several different batches over time, but each and every time, everything was done with the greatest care and with amazing skill.

In total, the documents were written over about a two year period, with tremendous attention to detail being given to each set in the collection. The most unusual aspect of all of this is the perfect technical execution of the lettering itself on the smooth undisturbed parchment. In an almost superhuman feat, more than 200 pages of text were written without any errors having been made. That is to say, the Voynich manuscript is entirely free of corrections. It is as though the work is the result of automatic writing. It was definitely written with a great sense of reverence. The authors took this work very seriously. It was of the utmost significance to them.

To produce each writing the parchments were first illustrated and then an author would pen the letters. The alchemists were all very clever and proficient in multiple things, making them both scientists and artists in many respects. In line with this, the plants were intentionally drawn to seem fantastical. The truth is, the illustrator knew to emphasize certain things to reveal the potency and power of the herbs, as was typical back then among the initiated. These highly advanced alchemists included about ten times the amount of botanicals known to the herbologists of their day. More importantly, though, the pictures are a clear indication of what the book is actually about.

As the work of natural philosophers from the Renaissance period who studied herbology, cosmology, astrology, numerology, and various other schools of thought, the arcane insights contained within the Voynich manuscript often refer to chemical and medical studies and applications, among other more esoteric and therefore far more forbidden things, which were conducted by those who wished to keep their shared knowledge secret from the prying eyes of the Church and rival alchemists. This is the way it always was.

Since then, the Voynich manuscript has had a long and strange history, having changed hands and form numerous times throughout the years. One of the most important of which is when John Dee and Edward Kelly acquired the documents in the late 1500s. They are the ones who had the pages bound into the cheap medieval softcover book that we have today. They proceeded to deface the documents even further when Dee scribbled on the bottom of pages and Kelly numbered them at the top. Then, they went on to sell the book to the “Mad Alchemist” Emperor Rudolf II, at the turn of the century. He ended up giving this to his personal doctor, a man named Jacobus Sinapius, who wrote his name in the book bearing the title ‘de Tepenecz’. Later, one of the subsequent owners scratched it out though.

In 1666, Athanasius Kircher placed the unreadable book in the hands of the Jesuits. Then, exactly two hundred years later, it arrived in Villa Mondragone where the book was eventually purchased by the polish antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich in 1912. This is where the manuscript and alphabet get their namesake. Long story short, a guy named Kraus ended up getting the book from Voynich. Then, after the text left the hands of the Kraus family it became a permanent fixture in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Unfortunately, they are very protective of it, so it’s hard to get a good look at the unreadable book.

Fortunately, there are numerous high-quality pictures of it all over the internet. You can even buy really nice replicas of the Voynich manuscript. The thing is, without knowing precisely what the book says, there is really no way to be sure if it even contains anything worth searching for or not. So one day, I guess I’ll just have to read it to be sure, or maybe not, and perhaps I shouldn’t want to. The thing is that this is precisely what makes the unreadable book so valuable. It’s far more important for the words to remain a mystery than it is for anyone to read them. Nonetheless, I’ll never stop trying. I can’t wait to see what it says…

An Eclectic Autodidact Polymath Writer and Researcher

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store