Have you ever stumbled on a post or a video that made you stop what you were doing? Something amazing like a room made entirely of fossilized amber, stolen. A giant mysterious book in an unknown language, with uncanny-valley type illustrations. An unimaginable masterpiece found in an unassuming quiet old man’s home.
I’m taking a dive into the rabbit hole of treasures lost and found!
The Voynich Manuscript, or the Voynich Codex if you’re edgy
Let’s venture to Italy’s Villa Mondregone in 1912. Wilfrid Voynich was a reputable book seller and well-known antique book collector. A colleague had told him about the villa and it’s massive collection of old books. The villa had been sold to the University of Rome Tor Vergata by the Order of the Jesuits in 1981 and the university wanted to offer the collection for sale.
Voynich spent the rest of his life trying to decipher this thing; he never did. It was willed to hid wife, Ethyl, who willed it to her friend. Eventually it ended up at in the Yale University Beinecke Rarer Book and Manuscript Library as a gift from Hans P. Kraus in 1969.
And spoiler? No one else has either! Centuries of innumerable code-breakers, linguists, historians, and mystery lovers have tried, but every time someone finds what might be a clue, more questions come up.
This thing is wild. It’s 9.3 in × 6.4 in × 2.0 in, bound in calf skin. There are about 240 pages (out of maybe 272). It has a peculiar unknown language and alphabet. It has meticulous and strange illustrations to go with the fantastic lettering. I found a link where you can download it in full color photos-209 pages of confusing and beautiful bliss. The binding is goatskin, but experts think it isn’t original. The original cover may have been wood.
There are no 19th or 20th century materials in this book, so we know it’s officially old. The “paper” (parchment or vellum) was carbon dated to the early 15th century, meaning it was possibly composed in Italy during their renaissance. The University of Arizona (in 2009) found consistent results for all tested samples showing them to be from 1404-1438. A protein test in 2014 proved the parchment was calf skin, and that the parchment was “previously unwritten or blank”, meaning the manuscript was the first use of the parchment. This kind of paper was expensive! So that’s a big clue on who may have written the manuscript.
Ink & Paint
The ink was tested and found that a quill with iron gall ink was used. This kind of pen and ink were very common between the 5th and 19th centuries. Jeez.
Forgery experts determined that the ink was made in several batches.
The paint in the illustrations was tested and was found to be inexpensive common pigments. Here’s what they found (with lots of mineralogy notes by moi bc geology’s amazing):
- Blue- ground azurite with a teeny bit of cuprite
- Azurite (C2H2Cu3O8)is a copper carbonate hydroxide mineral, a secondary mineral (formed from the weathering of a primary mineral, such as copper) and is a soft, deep-blue color.
- While pure azurite is very rare, impure azurite is pretty easily found, since it forms in CO2 rich waters near copper deposits…
- To be honest, I found some research saying it was super common (esp in Europe) but I also found research saying it was super rare and expensive. (maybe the pure form was?)
- Azurite has been used in lapidary arts and pigments for like, ever, because of its natural gorgeous color.
- Cuprite (Cu2H2O) is a minor ore of copper, that also turns blue as it is weathered in certain environments
- White-egg white and calcium carbonate
- You can get CaC03 by grinding up shells, limestone, or chalk
- Aaaaannnd you get egg whites from eggs, lol
- Green- copper and copper-chlorine resinates (copper salts dissolved in turpentine, aka verdigris, a patina formed when copper, bronze, or brass is weathered and exposed to air and seawater)
- Red-Brown- red ochre, which is hematite and iron sulfide with a teiny bit of lead sulfide and palmierite
- Palmierite [K2Pb(SO4)2] is a rare sulfate mineral, can be found near volcanic activity
Now, remember, all of these minerals were found in the actual ink from the manuscript. It’s strange to me that it would have pigments that were pretty rare. Those must have been expensive too. So does that mean someone wealthy wrote this? Wikipedia says all of these pigments were “deemed inexpensive”. I’m skeptical, but I also don’t know much about ancient pigments. Very good quality anything = more expensive. It’s tricky.
Anyhoo, let’s get into these illustrations. There are 102! All of them are very detailed, most of them are of herbal, astronomical cosmological, pharmaceutical, and balneological nature. Lots-o-botany in there. It appears to have some recipes too, probably treatments.
Fun new word! Balneology is the method of treating disease by bathing, typically at natural springs or spas’ an older version of hydrotherapy.
What is the purpose of these meticulous drawings? Most likely the botany sections are an early pharmacopoeia of the modern medicine and treatments of the time. However! Another road block is that some of the illustrations are weird! The plants are hard to identify. Some even look like other sketches of the time but with extra impossible/fantastical details. For example: roots of one species attached to leaves/stem of another species, with flowers from a third species. What the heck do these frank-flowers mean? Why are they mixed in with real identifiable plants? Some of the illustrations in the balneological sections resemble alchemical instructions, but experts say most of these are “off” too. Quite a few illustrations in the manuscript are not as high quality as others. Were there two artists? Were some or all of the images just decorative?
There are so many illustrations that don’t correspond to other known “allegorical” images (typical middle ages images). I mean, they’re pretty and drawn by a talented artist but they’re gibberish too. Wut. Most books from that age are precise, I mean perfectly precise, even compared to current images of referenced plants. It’s strange that these detailed images would have fantastical pieces added in. Illustrations and text characters are “perfectly done” and the paper is so smooth with almost no defects. How could there be 200+ pages of text written with almost no errors? Experts found evidence of re-touching in some places, but not a lot. When was that done? By whom?
Since the balneological section is all about a nice soak, there are numerous illustrations of nude people, especially women. Did these sections have something to do with fertility? Therapy? Both?
Some of the illustrations are obviously Zodiac symbols. One diagram may be showing the classical planets-those visible to the naked eye. Those are the moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This helps set the time it was written.
A whole lot of the script is unknown text but! There is some Latin script. The letters are made with simple pen strokes. There is no obvious punctuation. Experts say there are around 20-25 common characters with a few dozen very rare characters that are only seen once or twice in all those 200+ pages.
Ok let’s pile on another intriguing thing: a slim few words are not thought to be part of the mysterious script including:
- A signature of Jacobj â Tepenece. More on him later.
- Random (?) Latin script
- An astrological diagram names (in Latin) ten of the months we’re familiar with. Their spelling suggests medieval language of France, north west Italy, or the Iberian Penninsula (south west corner of Europe) between Spain and Portugal.
- High German “der Mussteil”, or, “a widow’s share”
- Four lines of distorted Latin script except for two words in the unknown script included
Maybe this is a fantastic example of steganography, where the author hid secret messages in something that isn’t secret. That makes sense for clergyman and priests who experimented with scientific principles.
Some of the writing resembles shorthand. An electric configuration of all 170,000 figures showed that some are more common but most of the elements don’t match up to the phonetic text of a modern language.
Had enough? Confused yet? Well buckle up because the rabbit hole just gets deeper and wilder from here.
A letter was found in the book! It was written around 1665/66 by Tepenece (remember that signature?). He wrote it to a man named Athanasius Kircher, requesting Kircher help translate it. This may show that while Tepenece probably owned the manuscript, he didn’t write it. Kircher was famous for being a Jesuit priest/polymath/“renaissance man” who wrote over forty works with subjects ranging from geology, medicine, comparative religion, to translations of ancient Egyptian text. If anyone could help crack this, it was Athanasius.
Here’s a big clue: Tepenece mentions Roger Bacon as the author. Bacon (born ca. 1219 – died ca. 1292) was an English clergyman and a learned “miracle doctor” who was often put in jail for sciencing too much. He especially loved the science of optics. He explained how rainbows form and experimented with reflection and refraction of light. More importantly, he loved working with magnifying glasses while playing around with optical fun stuff. He also experimented with lenses to improve eyesight.
So! Some of the illustrations in the manuscript resemble what youd see under a microscope like cells in leaves. Obviously it’s unlikely there were modern scientific instruments like microscopes when Bacon was sciencing like a boss in the 13th century, so it’s super cool that some of the illustrations look surprisingly like cells in a leaf.
Is this some of the first insights into microbiology? That would explain the encoded script because he would have been persecuted as an infidel and probably put to death. Did Bacon identify and write down optical phenomena centuries before Dubbel made a microscope in the 17th century?
Which brings up a major question people have been asking for many years: Is the Voynich Manuscript a hoax?
Let’s go back to the cost of something like this. Parchment is expensive, and costs more the bigger it is. There are a lot of large (as in really really big) pieces of single pieces of parchment, so only someone with means would be able to afford it.
Not to mention this beast must have taken years to make, costing a fortune. Does that mean it’s information is super important and it needed to be coded? Many code crackers have suggested it is either e new code or one based on common cyphers. One has to wonder if there is/was a cypher disc that went with the manuscript.
What if it wasn’t encoded? What if it’s just an art project with gibberish and wacky sketches? In other words, what’s the author’s motive?
It looks to many experts like someone was “trying to make it look like a language”. The author could have used a Cardan Grille to make meaningless or actual text. This is a quick method of making text that doesn’t actually mean anything.
Therefore, it’s plausible that someone could write all that text in a shorter time and not be worried about mistakes. Also why we can’t decipher it.
But that’s one doozy of a prank! Who what where why?
Other possible authors
There is a lot of opinions regarding who wrote this manuscript. Voynich could have written it himself. He would have had access to the materials needed and since he was an avid collector of ancient books, he might have tried to make his own. There are weirder hobbies, I guess.
Many historians think that this book was owned and penned by a young Leonardo da Vinci. That helps explain the quality of the drawings and their fantastical nature. One illustration in particular makes people think it’s Leo’s. It is an astrological drawing of 15 women in a circle of tubs, with a drawing of Ares the Ram. Was this a calendar of April? Each woman represents one day? Is it an important event he was sketching? His birthday? He also was famous for encoding a lot of his works, so that fits too.
Another possible author is Edward Kelly- a scribe and a forger who claimed to be an alchemist with numerous magical apparatices. He left England in the 16th century to avoid capture and most likely to make some quick cash. He would find or create something that looked occultish or magical and sell them to wealthy collectors, such as Emporer Rudolph II. Rudolph had lots of “scientists” including crackpots, dazzlers, and other imposters, so Kelly would have fit right in! Historians say he may have believed angels were dictating the manuscript for him. He had previously done this for a mathmatician named John Dee. He had convinced him that Michael the Archangel was speaking to Kelly, a language only Kelly could understand, of course. Or Kelly would go into a “trance” and perform some automatic writing. Once Kelly suggested he and Dee swap wives, Dee kicked him out. It’s entirely possible Kelly could have made this book to sell to people like Rudolph.
On the other hand, scientists in the last 10 years tested four samples from four different pages and felt 95% confident of the manuscript’s age. The y conclude it was written around 1420.
1420?! That throws everything we thought backwards! More historians noticed that there was one realistic interpretation of a city with walls and turrets. This city had swallow-tail battlements; a unique piece of architecture that only existed in northern Italy at that time. Italy was super wealthy and influential then. This battlement anchors the drawing to a certain time. So now experts think they know the period and region where the pages came from. Now they know where to start looking.
That means we’re one step closer.
https://youtu.be/awGN5NApDy4 The Secrets of Nature: the World’s Most Mysterious Manuscript
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ for all pictures included