The Voynich Manuscript

By Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill

The Voynich Manuscript is a small quarto volume filled with odd pictures of unidentifiable plants, astrological symbols, and bathing nymphs, and written in a strange cipher that, to this day, no one has been able to interpret. No one knows when it was written, or by whom. It may be a work of great historical significance. It may be a modern hoax.

The Manuscript is named after the antique-book collector Wilfrid Voynich, who, in his version of the story, discovered it among a collection of old manuscripts in an Italian villa in 1912. “It was such an ugly duckling compared with the others,” he later wrote, “that my interest was aroused at once.”

We don’t have to accept any of this as true. Voynich, who was a colorful character in his own right, might have made it up. Indeed, even the bit about the Italian villa comes to us second-hand. Voynich only told his wife, Ethel, where he found it. She, in turn, only revealed the secret in a letter left to be opened after her death. It’s hard to understand what the need for secrecy was, but then it’s hard to understand anything about this book.

Given the hopeless task of basing their history solely on the facts (because in this case there really aren’t any), the authors of The Voynich Manuscript spend most of their time discussing the history of cryptology and arguing from analogy. Valid approaches, and worthwhile intellectual exercises in their own right, but in this case they don’t get us anywhere.

Since we don’t know what the Voynich Manuscript is, what is it most like? A medieval herbarium? Parts of it – but the plants are unidentifiable. An alchemical treatise? “Outsider art”? Artistic representations of the migrainous hallucinosis of Hildegard of Bingen?

This last needs some explanation. Apparently one interpretation of the mystical visions of the eleventh-century mystic is that they were the result of migraines. I am not convinced, but scholars have tried to make the case. Now it’s just possible that if you look at some of the pictures in the Voynich Manuscript you can see something that looks like what Hildegard might have seen. And so: “Might it just be possible that some similar form of physiological event could have worked its creative magic on the ‘privileged consciousness’ of the Voynich illustrator?”

Of course it’s possible. Anything is possible. But even the authors don’t seem very convinced, despite the amount of time they spend talking about it.

The authors also provide a helpful primer on cryptology to introduce the various attempts that have been made to decipher the “Voynichese” language. This is all interesting stuff, but the fact that some of the best and the brightest modern cryptanalysts have failed to even get an inkling of meaning from the text suggest that there is probably no meaning to be found.

Which is, by and large, the conclusion the authors come to. After giving the matter some thought, I’m inclined to agree. I also proceed by way of analogy. The meaningless, repetitive alphabet, the similarly repetitive families of drawings, the bizarre shapes and patterns, all suggesting something of this world but imaginary and unconscious: What does all this remind us of? Where have we seen pages like the Voynich Manuscript before?

Beside the telephone.

My hunch is that the Voynich Manuscript is simply a medieval doodle book. One needn’t look to “mental illness or delusion” on the part of the author – merely boredom. A doodle pad also provides a “holistic” interpretation of the manuscript, at least in the sense that the text and images are all equally random, repetitive scribblings. It isn’t a “meaningful whole” but it is of a piece.

A mystery like this tugs us in two directions. Human beings are natural puzzle-solvers, and one can easily understand the allure of a mystery as complex as the Voynich Manuscript. We want to force it to give up its secrets, or at least establish whether or not it has any to give up. It is, like the book of nature, something not only to be read but conquered. When the legendary code-breaker William Friedman was asked why he persevered in his attempts to break the Voynich Manuscript for so long he answered “Because it hasn’t been read”, a parallel, it is noted, to Mallory’s explanation of why he wished to climb Mount Everest – “Because it is there.”

At the same time, the beauty of the Voynich Mystery, the source of its allure, is the very fact that it is incomprehensible. After all, even if it were established to be authentic and its cipher broken, what would the Voynich Manuscript have to tell us? Whatever the author wanted to keep secret, however many hundreds of years ago, would be of no interest to us today. But the unknown is a blank screen we can project all kinds of hopes and fears, anxieties and longings, meanings and interpretations, dreams and imaginings, on to. And so the Manuscript’s riddle is all the richer because it is still there.

Review first published online November 2, 2004.