Book nobody can read dates to early 15th century

Wilfred Voynich, 1885The Voynich Manuscript is an elaborately illustrated folio of 240 vellum pages hand-written by person or persons unknown in a language or code that is also unknown. People, including professional codebreakers from both World Wars, have been trying to crack it for a hundred years, ever since it was discovered outside of Rome by antique book dealer Wilfrid Voynich in a chest of books the Jesuits were trying to sell in 1912.

Ensourceled by the mysterious glyphs and the cosmological, botanical, pharmaceutical, culinary and biological drawings accompanying them, Voynich would spend the last 18 years of his life trying to decipher the manuscript. We are sadly no closer now than he was when it drove him to his death, but thanks to researchers from the University of Arizona physics department and radiocarbon dating, we can at least confirm that the parchment dates to the early 15th century, between 1404 and 1438, a century or so earlier than was previously thought.

They weren’t able to date the ink, however.

“It would be great if we could directly radiocarbon date the inks, but it is actually really difficult to do. First, they are on a surface only in trace amounts” [UA assistant physics professor Greg] Hodgins said. “The carbon content is usually extremely low. Moreover, sampling ink free of carbon from the parchment on which it sits is currently beyond our abilities. Finally, some inks are not carbon based, but are derived from ground minerals. They’re inorganic, so they don’t contain any carbon.”

“It was found that the colors are consistent with the Renaissance palette – the colors that were available at the time. But it doesn’t really tell us one way or the other, there is nothing suspicious there.”

Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, current owner of the manucript, still lists the later date on its Voynich Manuscript page. The later estimate was derived from analyzing the hairstyles, clothing and castles depicted in the drawings, and it’s certainly possible that the vellum is older than the print.

The history of the volume can be traced back to 1639. At that time it belonged to Georg Baresch, a Prague alchemist who also couldn’t read it. He sent a copy of the mysterious glyphs to Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar who was an expert in obscure languages, who was stumped and intrigued. He tried to buy the book from Baresch who wouldn’t sell. After Baresch’s death, however, the manuscript went to his friend Jan Marek Marci and Marci sent the book to Kircher who was a long-time friend and colleague. When Voynich found it 250 years later, the 1665 letter from Marci to Kircher was still with the manuscript.

If you’d like to try your cryptographic hand at translating the 170,000 glyphs, separated by narrow gaps and clustered into “words” with larger gaps between them, or if you, like me, just like really pretty pictures, there’s a phenomenal gallery of every page in super high resolution here.

Cosmological drawings from the Voynich Manuscript

Botanical drawings from the Voynich Manuscript

24 thoughts on “Book nobody can read dates to early 15th century

  1. OK, that’s a strange book.
    Writing aside, the pictures of plants are oddly clumsy, as if someone was describing plants they’d never seen and hadn’t really looked at plants before.
    There were maybe one or two pictures that looked like an actual plant, but that’s it.

    I’m guessing it’s a practice book from some era or possibly hidden erotica.

    The handwriting is pretty.

    1. I think there’s too much variety in the subjects and way too much effort in the glyphs to be a practice book. The plants are all crazy, though, this is true, as is the cosmology. That’s why some people call it the alien book.

      There is evidence the plants were colored in after the original drawings, for whatever that’s worth.

    1. Nope. Not even close. The glyphs look more like Arabic than Greek, and that’s just because of the loops. You can see them better on this list of keyboard assignments used by would-be code breakers:

  2. I turned up a few references to that book some years back. The context may have been in regards to grimoires or perhaps conspiracy theories.

  3. Maybe the “words” don’t mean anything. Maybe someone (a noble or bored monk) just had some fun creating a nonsense book.

    1. No, it has to have some significance. Vellum wasn’t cheap, and monks especially wouldn’t have wasted their time writing nonsense as they had more important things to do such as translate documents from Greek to Latin – that was their full time job besides helping to run the monastery. Ink was likely expensive too.

  4. I have no doubt this is probably a very early alpha edition of Dungeons and Dragons.

    Also: “[e]nsourceled” made me :boogie: a little.

  5. Perhaps a mish-mash of Sansrit and Chinese, it looks like to me. Not that I am going to break that code!
    It’s not just the coloring that looks clumsy (although it does) the plants look like those pictures of giraffes that H. Bosch drew from verbal descriptions.

  6. I’m replying to this entry late because I just discovered this blog last week and I’m still reading through the old entries. I never really cared to study history, but I really like this blog. it’s like getting small, manageable doses of history.

    Anyway, I thought this manuscript was interesting and wanted to look at it. When I clicked the link in the entry, the URL (I’m assuming because its old) took me to a Search engine like holder page with links to other websites. The first link was to

    Edith Sherwood puts forth the theory that the manuscript was written by a young Leonardo di Vinci. Also she believes the “code” is old Italian anagram.

    No commenters mentioned that possibility, so I thought I would share. It was an interesting read.

  7. yes, the plants looked like some young lady botanists idea of what penis’s would or could be like on another planet, and others like a young boys giddy dreams of what female organs would be like…but, how to buy a copy of this? its so interesting, it’s better than many novels being written, and so cryptic, it’s a great historical trophy( for various reasons)

  8. the plants look both like female erotica( the ones that are like phallus’s) and male erotic (the pictures that look like female vulva’s) could certainly be some genius’s spare time, porn.where can a copied (scanned, or otherwise be purchesed)?

  9. My suggestion to decode the Voynich Manuscript is in the fact that each of its individual pages encodes some other information . Encryption is not just a written form. Voynich manuscript – it is not my task, classic cipher written, only symbolic rebus – ideogram.

  10. I would just add the comment that the description of many sections’ drawings – e.g. as ‘biological’ and ‘pharmaceutical’ etc. is an inherited habit, having nothing to do with any certainty about their content, but served as a convenient way to refer to one section or another. The habit started almost a century ago, but started settling into a quasi-orthodox set of descriptions in the 1940s and 1950s, and now people have got so used to them, they forget that there’s no proof the sections have anything to do with biology or pharmacy… even the so-called “zodiac’ isn’t really. It includes two goats and two bulls (or more likely one bull and one antelope). A truly fascinating bit of manuscript history.

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