“A Certain Riddle of the Sphinx”: The Enduring Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

By Dustin IllingworthFebruary 3, 2017

“A Certain Riddle of the Sphinx”: The Enduring Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript by Raymond Clemens

THE JULY 1921 ISSUE of Harper’s featured an article provocatively titled “The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World,” written by one John Matthews Manly, a professor of English at the University of Chicago. “Few literary discoveries in our time,” wrote Manly, “have excited a keener or more widely spread popular interest than those connected with the mysterious volume brought to light nine years ago by Mr. Wilfrid M. Voynich.” The volume, which came to be known as the Voynich Manuscript, was an early 15th-century codex written in an entirely invented script, its pages adorned by illustrations of plants, stars, and astrological formations with no known analogues in the observable world. Manly’s article was written in response to the news that the book’s as-yet-unsolved cipher had been decoded by William Romaine Newbold, a medievalist at the University of Pennsylvania. Newbold believed the enigmatic text had been written by the 13th-century polymath and radical Franciscan Roger Bacon, whose capacious intellect and controversial scientific observations — eminently cipher-worthy — made him a seemingly ideal candidate for authorship. Newbold produced compelling evidence, including descriptions of obscure historical events he supposedly found within the manuscript. It seemed the Voynich had at last been cracked.

But John Matthews Manly, who had worked as a code breaker during World War I, was not so easily convinced. He wrote of the Voynich author, “I could not believe that a man with intelligence enough to construct so complicated a cipher would construct one that could not be trusted to convey his messages inevitably and unmistakably.” With additional debunking in popular and academic journals, Manly was able to convince Newbold’s supporters that his “unsystematic re-arrangement of letters” could not, in fact, be the long-awaited key. Newbold’s very public failure appeared to dissuade would-be cryptographers from entering the arena for some time. The mystery that had survived for five centuries would live on for another.

With this rich, Eco-esque backstory, replete with the romance of esoteric codes and heated interpretive grappling, one would be forgiven for imagining the Voynich to be a gorgeous material object, gold-clasped, bound in soft leather, its pages edged in dye. In reality, Beinecke MS 408 (the book’s official name in Yale’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library) is nothing much to look at. The manuscript itself is small, its pages browned and gnarled. Historian Deborah Harkness describes the binding as “the Renaissance equivalent of a paperback: inexpensive, limp vellum.” Suffice it to say, the book’s lasting fascination stems from its baffling contents, rather than any outward aesthetic grandeur. Despite its virtually never leaving the Beinecke Library, curator Raymond Clemens believes it to be “one of the most viewed and discussed artifacts from the medieval period, perhaps second only to the shroud of Turin.”

The publication of Yale University Press’s The Voynich Manuscript — the first-ever authorized edition available to the public — allows a new generation of acolytes to gain access to this most mysterious of bequests. They will face the same questions as legions of cryptographers before them: Who authored the book? Why was it written? How are we to understand its text? What is intended by the vaguely surreal illustrations — the fantastic herbology? To aid readers in their speculations, Yale has enlarged each image for easier reading, while also including generous margins for notes, references, and, one suspects, doodles and expletives. Six essays accompany the facsimile, each engaging with a particular dimension of the book, from its physical makeup to its place in the tradition of alchemical texts. For a novice like myself, these pieces were an invaluable introduction to the complexity of the Voynich cosmos — a raft to take out upon vast, enigmatic water. They should equip dilettante code breakers with at least a rudimentary interpretive arsenal.

Scholars have traditionally divided the book into four sections. The first is the aforementioned herbology, which comprises roughly half the text; while the plants might appear to be legitimate specimens to the untrained eye, not a single one exists in the natural world. The second section is astrological — a series of invented zodiacal circles on fold-out pages. Next, in the balneological section (related to healing baths), we reach what are perhaps the book’s strangest and most discussed illustrations: pages of naked women in blue and green pools or aquifers, connected to one another by a series of tubes that stretch around the pages’ borders and snake through the text itself, looking for all the world like medieval waterslides. These are believed to be related in some fashion to alchemical practice, though, as with so much else, they remain something of a mystery. The fourth and final section is referred to as a pharmacology, as it seems to comprise a selection of herbal recipes featuring the fictional plants from the book’s first half.

Of course, a mere description of the book’s enigmatic contents cannot answer the more interesting, if necessarily abstract, question: what does it actually mean to “read” the manuscript? That depends, I think, on one’s appetite for opacity. I myself found that much like, say, Finnegans Wake, the volume’s incomprehensibility did not preclude it from providing a rich aesthetic experience. The script itself is quite beautiful, written in a golden brown ink, the mysterious letters looping in a sort of proto-Tolkien elvish. While the illustrations lack sophistication, they are nonetheless charming, colorful, often deeply strange. It is an uncanny experience, to be sure, opening the covers of a riddle that has foiled every challenger who has faced it. One does not read the Voynich; rather, one reads its very resistance to reading.

How the book managed to survive through the centuries is a picaresque tale worth delving into. One will not find the name Voynich anywhere in the manuscript (indeed, its name, if it has one, is yet another of its many mysteries). The popular moniker is a reference to the rare books dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who purchased the manuscript in a clandestine deal with the Jesuits in the early 20th century. Included with the manuscript was a letter written by the Prague physician and scientist Johannes Marcus Marci, addressed to Jesuit scientist Athanasius Kircher, in which Marci claims the manuscript had previously been sold to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II at a price of 600 ducats. Using multispectral imaging, scholars were able to confirm the first verified owner of the book after Rudolf II (by way of a signature invisible to the naked eye), one Jacobus Horčicky de Tepenec, who was raised by the Prague Jesuits. He bequeathed the manuscript to the order upon his death. The book was passed among the 17th-century Prague intelligentsia — mathematicians, lawyers, diplomats — and finally landed in the hands of an obscure alchemist named Georgius Barschius, who wrote, “there was in my library, uselessly taking up space, a certain riddle of the Sphinx.” Following Barschius’s death, the book dropped out of the historical record for 250 years, until Voynich himself procured it in 1912.

The story of Wilfrid M. Voynich adds a touch of glamour, intrigue, and even danger to the manuscript’s already colorful history. Arnold Hunt’s biographical essay, included in this edition, paints the portrait of an ambitious, erudite eccentric, a “lovable rogue” with “an undertow of deviousness.” He was born in 1864, in Telšiai — now Lithuania, but then part of the Russian Empire — and, as a young man, became involved in the Polish nationalist movement. In 1885, he was arrested in Kaunas for having joined the social-revolutionary party Proletariat. He called his five-year exile in Siberia a “second university course,” as it provided a wealth of time for private study. He escaped in 1890, and spent five months on the run from authorities, eventually landing in Hamburg where he was forced to sell the last of his possessions to gain passage on a merchant vessel to England. In London, he quickly became ensconced in the circle of Sergei Kravchinsky, known by the sobriquet Stepniak, leader of the anti-tsarist opposition abroad. Later, after his life had stabilized, he became an antiquarian bookseller, following the advice of Richard Garnett: “Nothing is easier. You have only to travel and pick up incunabula and rare books, and sell them in London. There is success in front of you.” In 1903, as the Jesuits were arranging the sale of roughly 380 manuscripts to the Vatican Library, Voynich somehow managed to come away with a small subset of the lot, “under conditions of absolute secrecy.” His share included the now-eponymous cipher text.

Today, the Voynich remains as impermeable as ever; indeed, it has seemingly foiled the armaments of modernity itself. The latter half of the 20th century brought forth a host of new challengers, including, among others, military code breakers, Cold War signal specialists, and even William F. Friedman, breaker of Japan’s Purple Cipher during World War II, whom historian David Kahn called “the world’s greatest cryptologist.” None have come close to arriving at a solution. The Voynich Manuscript Study Group, headed by Friedman, left its own opinion concealed in a complex anagram, the solution to which was not to be revealed until Friedman’s death. When he passed away in 1970, the message was published by Philology Quarterly: “The Voynich MS was an early attempt to construct an artificial or universal language of the a priori type.”

Mystery, too, is a universal language — and is the true lingua franca of the Voynich Manuscript’s admirers. For a modern reader, habitualized to Google’s painless and ever-present answers, incomprehensibility becomes a form of enchantment. We revere the Voynich, I think, only insofar as it eludes us. The purpose of this new edition, then, is not to provide definitive answers. Instead, as the historian Deborah Harkness has it, the book is offered as an invitation “to join us at the heart of the mystery.” Despite its pages of cramped writing and sprawling illustrations, the Voynich is perhaps the ultimate carte blanche — the purest form of philological fantasy, a canvas vast enough to contain dreams, conspiracies, hunches, and prophecies. In the company of such rich human engagement, a solution — if one should exist — is merely incidental. May the mystery live on.


Dustin Illingworth writes about books and culture for the Los Angeles Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and many others sites and publications. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine, and a staff writer for Literary Hub.

LARB Contributor

Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Paris Review, and the Times Literary Supplement.


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