The history of the Voynich MS is described in three parts, on three pages:
This page addresses the third part, the history of the research and analysis of the manuscript.
When Wilfrid Voynich first saw the manuscript, he considered when it may have been written, and by whom. According to his 1921 publication (1), and some letters that are still preserved in the Beinecke library, he initially considered two 13th Century authors, namely Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, but soon settled on the latter. This may have been prompted by the reference to Bacon in the letter from Marci, which he found folded inside the MS. Seven or more years later he embarked on a study of the history of the MS, in which his aim was to confirm this provenance. It is clear from the way in which he performed his search, as demonstrated by documents preserved as collateral material to the Voynich MS in the Beinecke library, that Voynich was firmly convinced that this MS was from Roger Bacon.
For the history of research of the Voynich MS we will have to start by going back further in time. Already centuries before Voynich people have attempted to solve the puzzle presented by the Voynich MS, primarily that of its unintelligible text.
Evidence of earlier attempts to decipher the text of the Voynich MS is visible on its first folio (f1r). In the right-hand margin there is a faded, or possibly erased cipher table, which is only partly visible even under UV illumination. It has three columns. The first has characters of the Latin alphabet. The second, which seems aligned with the first, has what looks like the characters of the Voynich MS but they are barely visible. The third column, slightly more displaced, again has Latin characters, but shifted up by one position, at least in the beginning. The first attractive idea could be that this is the key to the MS, left here for us by its author. However, as we know from character entropy analysis and other statistical analyses (2), simple substitution of the Voynich MS characters into the Latin alphabet will not yield a meaningful text in any known language that was written in this way. Therefore, this table is most likely to be a decipherer's attempt, although Dr. Gerhard Strasser proposes an interesting alternative, by which these are notes made by a later owner, who is creating his own code from the cipher alphabet of the Voynich MS (3).
We don't know when this cipher table was written, or by whom. Like the ex libris of Jacobus de Tepenec, which is found on the same page, it is faded, and if both were erased (possibly at the same time), then perhaps it predates Kircher as an erasure of the name is more likely to have been done before the MS was sent to Kircher. Both Barschius and Marci would be prime suspects here.
Georgius Barschius (or Baresch) wrote one letter to Kircher that has been preserved, and in this letter he also refers to an earlier submission to Kircher of some samples of the writing of the MS. Both from this letter of 1639, and from the 1665 Marci letter accompanying the Voynich MS (4), it is clear that Barschius must have spent many years trying to read the Voynich MS text. We know from Barschius' letter that he thought that the MS described medicinal wisdom from the Orient, brought to Europe by a traveller. We don't know why Barschius was of this opinion, but at least two possibilities immediately present themselves.
The first is related to the story of Leonhard Rauwolf, a physician and herbalist who is famous for his travels to the Orient, during which he collected herbs and plants which he dried and pasted into some of the earliest herbaria viva that have come down to us. As described in the previous page related to the history of the MS, Rauwolf's herbals were brought to emperor Rudolf II and sold to him. Did Barschius know about this?
The second, even more interesting possibility is that Barschius may have been familiar with an early printed herbal known as the German Herbarius or 'Herbarius zu Teutsch', sometimes also called the German Ortus Sanitatis (5). The preface of this herbal says that its originator was a rich man, who had travelled in the east, and that the medical part of the MS was compiled under his direction by a physician. The latter is believed to have been Dr Johann von Cube, who was town physician of Frankfurt at the end of the fifteenth century. Since Barschius also writes in his letter that 'the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany' (6) there is the intriguing possibility that Barschius owned, or at least used, a copy of this German herbal.
Barschius was an alchemist, interested in its application to medicine (7). We can only guess what Barschius really knew about the origin of the MS. Tantalisingly, Marci writes in his 1665 letter to Kircher that he is not only sending him the Voynich MS itself, but also Barschius' extensive notes of his work. These notes have not surfaced so far. It is rather likely that they have been lost, but if they still survive, they could quite possibly include valuable information. If Kircher received and kept them, their fate is closely related to the various moves and confiscations of Jesuit libraries and archives described here and in the following (8).
We know from Marci's letter that Rafael Mnišovský discussed the possible origin of the Voynich MS with Marci. This must have taken place before 1644, the year Mnišovský died. From Philip Neal's translation of the Marci letter it appears that this should have been between 1626 and 1636. In any case, at the time Mnišovský discussed the MS with Marci, Barschius was still alive (9), so still the owner of the MS. Mnišovský states his opinion that the Voynich MS is a Roger Bacon MS. Was this also the opinion at Rudolf's court? We don't know, but it is certain (10) that Roger Bacon was held in the highest esteem at this time, and that he was considered one of the greatest alchemists. Mnišovský was, according to his own words, deeply interested in alchemy, and he was a great supporter of the Polish alchemist Sendivogius, one of the most famous alchemists at Rudolf's court, who died in 1636 (11).
We don't know whether Marci also studied the Voynich MS himself. We just know that he held on to it from Barschius' death, before 1662, until the time that his own health began to fail. He ultimately sent it to Kircher in 1665. From the letters of Godefrid A. Kinner (12). we know that Marci was extremely eager to find out what Kircher thought of the MS. Marci must have been aware of the two different theories about the MS of Barschius and Mnišovský, already mentioned above, and writes in his letter to Kircher that he does not want to express an opinion about it.
Kircher's apparent silence about the Voynich MS has puzzled people for many years. In 2009, the Czech historian Josef Smolka showed me a transcription of a letter from Kircher which changed all that (13), although he must have discovered it many years before 2009. It is a letter from Kircher to Theodor Moretus, dated 12 March 1639 which has been preserved in Moretus' scientific diary kept in the National Library in Prague (14). In this letter Kircher responds to a letter he had receied, presumably from Moretus, writing about unknown symbols from a book of which he had received some samples. This is the oldest extant reference to the Voynich MS of which we are presently certain. In his response, Kircher reports that he was not successful in translating it, but is still hoping for success later on. The letter he is responding to also included a second item, a separate sheet of writing, which he identifies as Illyrian in the style of Hieronymus, i.e. the Glagolitic script. This was added by Moretus and/or Barschius, presumably as a suggestion for comparison.
Barschius' surviving letter was clearly triggered by this response from Kircher. The wording of Barschius' second letter suggests impatience, perhaps even exasperation, and no further correspondence on this topic has been found so far. Marci sent a letter recommending Barschius' character to Kircher in 1640, and there were other attempts to convince Kircher about the usefulness of alchemy, by Marci and the Prague Jesuit Martinus Santinus, but Kircher's stubborn rejection of alchemy could not be changed, and it is almost as if this topic became a taboo in his correspondence.
Between Kircher's death in 1680, and Voynich's acquisition of the MS in 1912, he MS was in the hands of the Jesuits, but there is no evidence of any study of the MS. The pencilled letters a, b, c in the corners of some of the folios (for which see here) may have been written by a Jesuit, but also by Voynich himself (15).
After Voynich acquired the MS, he contacted many experts. Kahn (16) names in this respect: paleographer H. Omont of the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale (who had written a learned article about a 15th-C cryptographic MS by Fontana), Prof. A.G. Little, a foremost authority on Bacon, a Harvard authority of anatomy, George Fabyan of the Riverbank Laboratories, the vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, and Dom Aidan, Cardinal Gasquet, prefect of the Vatican Archives.
When the manuscript was first shown to expert cryptologists, they thought that solving it would be easy as the text was composed of "words", some of which were more frequent and occurred in certain combinations. This soon turned out to be a mistake; the text could not easily be converted into Latin, English, or other languages they may have tried.
Parts of Voynich's own research can be reconstructed from his notes and letters preserved in the Beinecke library, and from his 1921 publication (see note 1). Following is a summary, while significantly more detail is provided on a dedicated page.
|Voynich's research of the history of the MS|
Remarkably, for at least six or seven years after he acquired it, he did not pay much attention to the history of the MS, and he can only have paid a passing attention to the Marci letter. In 1918 the Prague history of the Voynich MS was still completely unknown territory for him. He believed that the Rudolf mentioned in the Marci letter was Rudolf I (1218-1291), and he had apparently not yet seen the ex libris of Jacobus de Tepenec. By 1919, however, he had clearly realised that the Rudolf in the Marci letter was Rudolf II, and in this year we see his first mention of John Dee.
In preparation for his 1921 publication he concentrated on tracing the history of the MS by investigating the people associated with it. To research the Prague part of the history, he wrote to the Bohemian state archives early in 1921, inquiring primarily about Jacobus de Tepenec and Dr. Raphael. In parallel he had his London employee Herbert Garland research Tepenec. Garland was very effective, and Voynich sent him ever increasing requests, picking names from a historical novel about the court of Rudolf (17).
By the time Voynich received a very long and detailed answer from Prague, from Dr. Ladislav Klicman in March 1921, Garland had already provided him with many of the essentials, and Miss Howe, of the same London office of Voynich, had found the indication of the previous owner: Barschius, in the book 'Philosophia Vetus Restituta' of Marci. In his thank-you letter to Dr. Klicman, Voynich also inquired about Barschius, but there does not appear to be any answer. After his 1921 presentation Voynch corresponded with James Westfall Thompson, historian of the University of Chicago, about the life of Dee, and his ownership of Bcon MSs. Thompson managed to find out quite a lot about the origin of many Bacon MSs that Dee once owned, including hints of an encrypted MS, but this was only a few years before Voynich's death, and it is not clear what happened with this information.
Voynich also learned from Garland that there used to be a 12-volume binding of Kircher's correspondence, and immediately realised (correctly as we have seen) that this must be a valuable source for additional information about his MS (18). Voynich decided to inquire in Rome, but the answer he received was that this collection was probably lost sometime between 1773 and 1824.
In 1919, some of the reproductions of the Voynich MS reached one William Romaine Newbold, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. He set to work and decided that the Voynich MS is based on a very complicated cipher, involving anagrams of sections of 55 to 110 characters. He presented plain text solutions of various pages of the MS, indicating that it was written by Roger Bacon, and that Bacon had invented and used both a telescope and a microscope. He presented these results in April 1921, accompanied by Wilfrid Voynich's own presentation of the history of the MS (as mentioned above) and a presentation about the validity of Newbold's claims by an eminent professor of medicine: C.E. McClung.
In 1926 Newbold died, and the book that he had planned to write was published posthumously by his friend Roland Grubb Kent, in 1928 (19). His results were supported by such famous people as Étienne Gilson and Raoul Carton.
Among others, Newbold identified one page of the MS as a depiction of the great Andromeda nebula. The illustration shows a clear spiral structure and the deciphered text includes words referring to a spiral in the sky. The problem is that the spiral structure of this nebula can only be distinguished by modern telescopes (and this was achieved for the first time not long before Newbold's days).
In 1931, i.e. after the deaths of Newbold and Voynich, John Manly wrote a critical paper (20) about Newbold's theory, exposing its important weaknesses. Newbold did not use the letters of the Voynich MS itself, but the irregularities of the edges of the letters as seen under a magnifying glass, which he converted to letters. The unreliability of a solution based on anagrams was however the most important objection. Newbold and all those who followed his belief were to some extent disgraced and this may have had the effect of scaring off serious research of the Voynich MS.
Manly also left a statement that the solution of the Voynich MS is a relatively simple substitution cipher with extensive use of nulls. It has not been understood what he meant.
In 1931, Mrs Voynich (ELV in the following), owner of the MS after the death of her husband, brought a photostatic copy of the MS to Prof. H. Hyvernat of the Catholic University. Hyvernat was a well-known expert on near-Eastern languages. In 1910 he had discovered a major collection of Coptic Manuscripts, and he had since been engaged in a major effort to ensure that the collection could stay together, rather than be scattered in different libraries all over the world. The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York acquired the entire collection.
Returning to the Voynich MS, both Hyvernat and his assistant, Fr. Theodore Petersen, were immediately attracted to the problem presented by the MS. Prof. Hyvernat was too busy (and he also suffered from serious health problems) to spend much time on it. Fr. Petersen was not.
Fr. Petersen started by making a complete photocopy of the photostats. He then embarked on the project of making a hand copy of the Voynich MS, occasionally also using the original MS kept in a safe deposit vault in New York, in the case of difficult passages. He completed it in 1944. Each page of this copy includes comments about what it might represent. He also indicated odd character sequences and highlighted frequent words. He included many tentative plant identifications in the herbal section, frequently reffering to material by Holm and O'Neill (see below). These tentative identifications are presented on a dedicated page. Petersen also made a complete concordance of the words in the MS, but I have not seen this.
He worked on the Voynich MS until his death, and a very extensive correspondence between him, Miss Nill and ELV on all possible related subjects has been preserved in the Beinecke Library archives. He became their most trusted expert, and any new people interested in the MS, once they obtained the confidence of ELV and Anne Nill (e.g. Dr. Salomon, W. Friedman) were invariably referred to him. After his death, his material was given to Friedman (see below) and an inventory was made by Tiltman (see also below). This material is now kept in the >> George C. Marshall Library and Archives, Lexington (Va).
Holm was a Danish botanist and zoologist (not Dutch as reported by D'Imperio (1978) Section 3.3.1) (21), who worked at the Catholic University and tentatively identified 16 plant species in the Voynich MS, all typically European. He is quoted frequently in Petersen's hand-written copy of the MS (see also here). The Catholic University still has >>a collection of his notebooks.
O'Neill was a Benedictine monk and botanist at the Catholic University who identified some plants in the MS as being New-World species, specifically Sunflower and Capsicum, see O'Neill (1944) (22). He is also quoted frequently by Petersen.
The famous Renaissance Art expert Panofsky (1892 - 1968) first became interested in the Voynich MS in 1931. His long interest and the detailed analyses he has provided are described in more detail on a separate page, which also includes the sources that have been used. Following is a summary.
|Panofsky's opinions about the MS|
In spring 1931 Panofsky came to New York and Miss Belle Greene of the Morgan Library showed him a photostat of one of the zodiac pages of the Roger Bacon cipher MS. He asked to see the other pages. Miss Greene then contacted ELV, who came to meet him at the Morgan Library where she showed him the photostats. He became intensely interested and seemed to think that the MS was early, perhaps as early as the 13th century. He asked to see the original, and met with ELV and Anne Nill at the safe deposit vault, where he spent two hours examining the MS. His first impression was still that it was early, but as he came to the female figures (in conjunction with the colours used in the manuscript) he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century. Following summarises his first impression after the two hours of investigation, as remembered one year later by ELV:
- That it is neither Bacon, nor English work.
- That it was written in the south-western corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia, or Provence; but most probably in Spain.
- That the date is later than has been supposed: probably somewhere about 1410-20-30.
- That it shows Jewish or Arab influence, probably in connection with the Kabbala; but also Dutch or Flemish influence in the female faces and figures and some Spanish or anyhow southern qualities.
- That it is probably the surviving one of two volumes: the plant and star half of the work which doubtless included also beasts and stones.
- That it is, except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s MS, entirely unlike any MS known to him.
He regarded it, in any case, as interesting and important. He went back to Hamburg, taking with him a complete set of photostats, and promising to ask some of his colleagues there to try if they can solve the problem.
The importance of the above opinion of Panofsky lies in the fact that this is a very strong statement against the Roger Bacon theory of Voynich, expressed one year after Voynich's death. Two decades later, Panofsky appears to have changed his mind on a number of aspects. On 16 March 1954 W. Friedman (for whom see below) sent him a questionnaire with 15 questions. Panofsky sent a detailed response back to Friedman on 19 March, in his own words. Following is a summary of the most important aspects (kept in the first person).
The vellum or parchment is quite coarse-grained, occasionally causing the strokes to appear like a series of dots, which may have misled Newbold. The instrument was doubtless a quill pen. The coloring was done with what is usually called "wash". If the sunflower identification is correct, it should be after 1492, but my guess is 1470. However, since the style of the drawings is fairly provincial, a somewhat later date, even the first years of the sixteenth century, would not seem to be excluded. I should not go lower than ca. 1510-1520 because no influence of the Italian Renaissance style is evident. This follows from the character of the script, the style of drawing, and such costumes as are in evidence on certain pages, for example folio 72 recto.
It appears to include, first, a general cosmological philosophy explaining the medicinal properties of terrestrial objects, particularly plants, by celestial influences transmitted by astral radiation and those "spirits" which were frequently believed to transmit the occult power of the stars to the earth; second, a kind of herbal describing the individual plants used for medical and, conceivably, magical purposes; third, a description of such compounds as may be produced by combining individual plants in various ways. There are at least four kinds of similar books: herbals, cosmological and astrological treatises, medical treatises in the narrower sense of the term, and possibly treatises on alchemy.
The pages showing the signs of the zodiac seem to have words in provincial French. On f66, R. Salomon says der mus del which is old German for der Mussteil. On the last page: so nim geismi[l]ch o, meaning, "[if such and such a condition prevails], then take goat’s milk". As far as I know, only the sunflower has been identified. My idea is that it was written by a doctor or quack imparting secret knowledge to a son or heir, somewhere in Germany. In my opinion the Roger Bacon theory is at variance with all the available facts. I consider it disproven by Manly, with support of Salomon's review of Manly's paper. (End of summary).
In conclusion, Panofsky first thought the MS to be Spanish, with Jewish or Arab influences, and later changed his opinion that it could be German, probably influenced by his friend and mentor Richard Salomon (for whom see below). He believed the origin to be in the 15th Century, but allowed a later date in consideration of the tentative sunflower identification.
Salomon (1884 - 1966) was one of the people involved in the founding of the Warburg Institute, and knew the younger Panofsky through this connection. They became close friends (23). Salomon met Anne Nill by chance as he was visiting the Library of Congress in Washington in 1936, where Anne Nill was working with W.J. Wilson (24). It turned out that Salomon was the expert who received the photostats from Panofsky as mentioned above, because, as Salomon told Anne Nill, when Panofsky returned to Hamburg he laid the copies on Dr. Salomon’s desk, and said: “Here is something for you”. Salomon had been working with these very regularly. A long correspondence between Anne Nill and Salomon resulted from this chance encounter.
Salomon believed the MS to be German. He was convinced that it was written in the 15th century, possibly as late as 1450, possibly earlier in the century. In particular, he suggested the following reading of some phrases in the Voynich MS (which are in the Latin alphabet):
on f66r and
so nimm geiss milch
Singer was a well-known historian of medicine, with important publications about illustrated herbals. He compared the nymphs in the biological section of the Voynich MS to elements (archaei) in the work of Paracelsus, and generally believed it to be a paracelsan work, for which see D'Imperio (1978) (see note 21), section 3.3.5. Very shortly after the death of Voynich, Singer had upset Anne Nill and ELV with statements that he had seen the Voynich MS in the hands of another book dealer at the time when Voynich had discovered it. He retracted these statements in an apologetic letter to ELV, but he stuck to his original opinion about the MS (namely that he considerd it to be paracelsn), as he clearly wrote in a letter to Tiltman in 1957.
As long as Voynich was still alive, there was no alternative to his theory that this was a Roger Bacon autograph, and his conviction carried forward for some time after his death. As already indicated above, doubts gradually emerged, and Manly's critique had already invalidated Newbold's proposed solution. In the 1937 issue of De Ricci's Census (see note 24) the MS is listed as:
8. Cipher ms. Vel. (date uncertain, authorities hesitate between the XIIIth and XVth c.; we suppose it to be not much older than 1500), ...
In this sentence, 'we' are the administrators of Voynich's estate, i.e. ELV and Anne Nill. By this time, their official view no longer favoured R. Bacon as the author.
(See also D'Imperio Section 5.2).
In 1943, a Rochester (N.Y.) lawyer, Joseph Martin Feely, published a book (25) in which he announced his solution of the Voynich MS. His solution essentially proposes that the Voynich MS text results from a single substitution of highly abbreviated Latin. He does not say so specifically, but hints that the writer of the Voynich MS is indeed Roger Bacon. It is worth noting that Feely never obtained access to copies of the MS and had to work from illustrations in Kent & Newbold.
To quote D'Imperio:
Unfortunately for Feely, however, no other student has accepted his solution as valid
And she also quotes Tiltman (1967) (26) (p.6):
His unmethodical method produced text in unacceptable medieval Latin, in unauthentic abbreviated forms.
Some examples of his results are given in D'Imperio (Fig 25).
Prof. Leonell C. Strong was a medical scientist from Yale University, renowned for his work on cancer, and he became attracted to the Voynich MS by O'Neill's publication. Working from illustrations in Newbold's book of a few pages, he devised a complicated polyalphabetic substitution cipher in which he saw the solution of the MS. The details of his system were not disclosed and can only be partly reconstructed. He concluded that the MS was written by Anthony Askham, the lesser known brother of Roger Askham. Some of his plaintext, which has been heavily criticised as being unrealistic, is given here:
When skuge of tun'e -bag rip, seo uogon kum sli of se mosure-issued ped-stans skubent, stokked kimbo-elbow crawknot.
Some problems with this solution are:
The name of the proposed author (Askham) is read from the deciphered plain text so also this must be taken with caution.
The Friedman couple with a photographic copy of the Voynich MS.
The long and deep involvement of especially William Friedman with the Voynich MS has been the subject of dedicated publications, for example by J. Reeds (27). (See also D'Imperio Section 6.5.) This short summary cannot do justice to Friedman's work. One of the essays in the recent publication of the Voynich MS by Yale University (28) underlines the role of both Friedmans in the cryptographic attempts to solve the mystery.
William F. Friedman (1891-1969) is remembered as one of the world's foremost cryptologists. He already became involved with the Voynich MS in the early 1920's when he corresponded with Voynich. Together with Manly, he demonstrated the invalidity of Newbold's theory. Apart from the fact that he spent time on the MS himself, he also tried very hard to interest other scholars in it. In 1944 he brought together what later became known as the First Study Group (FSG). During his work with this group, he developed the theory that the Voynich MS represented a text in a synthetic language (constructed according to strict logical principles).
(See also D'Imperio Section 6.2). The First Study Group (FSG) was active from 1944 to 1946 and consisted of (at least) the following people: (<Reeds)
Robert A. Caldwell, G. E. McCracken, Thomas A. Miller, Frances Puckett, later Frances Wilbur, Mark Rhoads, William M. Seaman.
This group, composed of specialists in a wide variety of fields, was doing war work in Washington and awaiting demobilisation. They agreed to get together after working hours and study the Voynich MS under Friedman's leadership. Plans were made for devising a transliteration alphabet, and producing a complete transliteration in computer-readable form. They transliterated most of the Voynich MS.
(See also D'Imperio Section 6.4). The so-called second study group was active from 1962-1963, though the term 'Second Study Group' appears not to have been used by them. Jim Reeds has researched also their work. An audio tape of the opening session of their collaboration has been preserved, and the introduction by Friedman has been played to the audience of the Voynich MS panel discussion in the Folger Library on 7 November 2014.
(See also D'Imperio Section 6.6). John Tiltman was a British intelligence specialist, working in association with William Friedman. The latter asked Tiltman for his opinion on the Voynich MS text, and sent him copies of the final quire of the MS (the so-called recipes section which does not have any illustrations apart from the marginal stars).
Tiltman published his findings in an interesting article (see note 26). He concluded that the text of the MS cannot be the results of applying a standard cipher to some plain text. He spends some time discussing the option of a synthetic or "universal" language as proposed by Friedman, but does not really confirm Friedman's idea, without clearly contradicing his good friend. Tiltman also seems to have written about the work done by Theodore Petersen, but unfortunately I have not yet seen this.
In the 1970's we see a significant revival of Voynich MS studies by researchers with different backgrounds.
(D'Imperio section 5.4). Brumbaugh, a Yale professor of medieval philosophy, became interested in the Voynich MS during the '30's, and was particularly fascinated by O'Neill's publication about the American plant species. He started (or followed) the hypothesis that the MS was a deliberate fraud by Dee and/or Kelley in order to dupe emperor Rudolf II. At the same time he believed that there was an underlying text which he tried to decipher with a code which maps all roman characters (many-to-one) onto the numbers 0-9, and these were mapped (one-to-many) onto the Voynich MS alphabet.
Using this system, Brumbaugh published solutions of some plant labels and of many of the zodiac labels (29). D'Imperio is quite supportive of Brumbaugh's theories, but despite the multiple degrees of freedom in his cipher, the produced plaintext is very far from convincing. Brumbaugh also edited a scholarly book about the MS, including work of Newbold, Kent, Manly, O'Neill, Kahn, Zimansky and himself (30).
Bennett, another Yale professor, used the Voynich MS in a book about problem solving with the computer (31). Rather than presenting a theory about the meaning of the Voynich MS, Bennett concentrated on the statistics of the text and finding measures of its properties. He was probably the first to note the low entropy of the Voynich MS text, which is discussed extensively in the analysis section of this web site. The only language he found with an entropy similar to the Voynich MS was Hawaiian, without suggesting a connection, though. He also mentioned the similarity of some characters to the Glagolitic script.
While still a student, Krischer wrote a paper also investigating the text properties of the Voynich MS. This paper is extremely difficult to find, and we only have D'Imperio's summary analysis of it.
Mary D'Imperio was introduced to the problem of the Voynich MS by John Tiltman in 1975, and in the following years she wrote a monograph (see note 21), summarising all recorded work about the Voynich MS. For thirty years this has been the standard reference for the Voynich MS, and it is still the most quoted work about it. She also wrote several papers about different features of the MS text (32). In 1976 she organised the first seminar about the manuscript, and the transcript of this is still available (33). It was attended among others by John Tiltman and Sydney Fairbanks, and by others who will be mentioned in the following.
See D'Imperio Section 6.8.
His important presentation at the above-mentioned seminar of Mary D'Imperio in 1976 is available in digital form at this site (see note 33). Further information about his discovery of different hands and different "languages" in the Voynich MS is also discussed extensively elsewhere at this web site (see note 2).
The linguist James R. Child equally attended the above-mentioned seminar, in which he proposed his tentative solution. He proposed that the text has been written in a "hitherto unknown North Germanic dialect". He has continued this work ever since, writing updates in 2007 and 2009, and in 2017 proposed that the manuscript is composed of ancient Germanic languages. His recently created website describes in detail this German language-based hypothesis, with the aid of David Bernholz.
Watson identified that the foliation of the Voynich MS is in the hand of John Dee. This is however contested by other Dee experts.
Stojko proposed in a book published in 1978 (34) that the Voynich MS is a copy of a series of letters written in Ukrainian. These letters were encrypted by removing all the vowels and writing the consonants in a secret alphabet. The main reasons why Stojko's solution is finding little acceptance are:
Levitov proposed a pronuciation for the characters of the Voynich MS which leads to a largely pronounceable text, which he claims is in a creole mainly based on Flemish. His translation of this text deals with a Cathar cult of Isis followers, and rites related to Euthanasia. He published his results in a monograph (35). The linguistic aspect has been contested by Jacques Guy (36). and the differences with the known practices of the Cathars in S.France have been analysed by Dennis Stallings (37).
From the earliest days of the internet, this medium has been used as place for discussions related to the Voynich MS. On 5 December 1991 the first dedicated mailing list for international discussions was set up by Jim Gillogly and Jim Reeds. For more than a decade this was the most focussed, but still very informal study of the Voynich MS. Its contributors were people from a wide variety of backgrounds. The first ftp site dedicated to the MS was also created by Jim Gillogly (38). Since then, many new web resources dedicated to the Voynich MS have been set up, including wikis and blogs. The present web site, then still located at Geocities, was first accessible on 27 February 1998.
The main aims of this initial group (apart from the ultimate desire to explain the text of the Voynich MS) were to obtain access to a good copy of the MS and to continue / complete the transliteration of the MS. With respect to the former, on 1 June 2004 the Beinecke library has made available a nearly complete high-quality digital colour scan of the MS.
Further transliterations of missing pages in the Currier / D'Imperio files were made by the group, and Jim Reeds discovered the almost complete transliterations made by Friedman's study groups, in the George C. Marshall Library and Archives in Lexington, Virginia. These were entered in computer form by Jim Reeds and Jacques Guy.
Individual students of the Voynich MS have performed a multitude of analyses of the MS. It presently appears too difficult to treat these properly at this site, and only an incomplete and not up-to-date summary is presented on the analysis pages. It is possible to retrieve the archives of the early years of this mailing list in compressed form from the >>mailing list home page (towards the end of the page).
In 1995, the herbal expert in medieval herbals Sergio Toresella inspected the MS at the Beinecke library and wrote, in an article concerned with 'alchemical herbals' (39) that the Voynich MS appears to be written in a script fitting with the Italian humanist book movement, and should therefore be dated around 1460, and not much later. He also suggests that the purpose of the book was to impress the gullible clientele of a doctor or quack.
In the late 1990's and the early years of the 21st century the Brazilian mathematician Jorge Stolfi published several groundbreaking analyses of the statistical properties of the Voynich MS text, in particular explaining the word structure in detail. These are presented in more detail in the analysis pages.
A proposed solution to the Voynich MS, which attracted a lot of media attention, was developed by Gordon Rugg in 2003. Based on the statistical analyses of Jorge Stolfi, Rugg proposed that the Voynich MS text could well have been generated more or less randomly by techniques which would have been available in the 16th Century, and points in particular to Edward Kelley as the perpetrator of the implied hoax (40).
The proposed method consists in the use of a Cardan grille and a set of sheets with word fragments or syllables. The major problems with this are that:
There is, however, an important aspect which lies at the basis of Gordon Rugg's theory. This relates to the question why the solution to the Voynich MS has not yet been found. Rugg's answer to that question is that all analysts are making a number of assumptions, and these assumptions are prohibiting them from finding the answer. More specifically, essentially everyone assumes that the MS text is meaningful and can be deciphered. While Rugg's solution hasn't been accepted, this understanding of hidden or unstated assumptions is certainly very important.
The Voynich MS may very well have no meaningful content, either deliberately by the author, or because its meaning was lost in the process of its creation.
Nick Pelling presents his theory about the authorship of the Voynich MS in "The Curse of the Voynich" - Pelling (2006) (41). Based on details in the illustrations of the Voynich MS, in particular the rosettes folio, he believes that the MS originates from Milan, around the middle of the 15th Century or shortly thereafter. As author he identifies the architect Antonio Averlino, based on details of his life.
Beside this theory, Nick presents many detailed and important observations about the MS itself, related to the writing and to the composition of the codex. He continues to explore both paths at his very extensive blog.
Important statistical analyses were performed by the Austrian mathematician Andreas Schinner, which were published in Cryptologia (42). The results strongly suggest that the text of the Voynich MS could be meaningless. This work has received some media attention due to its relation with the work of Gordon Rugg, but due to its complicated nature it has not yet been properly understood or assessed in Voynich MS circles.
The retired PhD in chemistry Edith Sherwood has performed a number of analyses on the Voynich MS, which she presents at a well-designed web site. It includes (among others) her theory that the Voynich MS was written by a young Leonardo da Vinci, her identification of most of the herbal drawings in the MS, and a possible solution to the text.
A large number of people have set up web logs (better known as blogs) about their theories related to the Voynich MS, many of which are listed here. It seems impossible to summarise them here, but it should be said that some of them are quite extensive and quite active, though also in the smaller blogs, real nuggets of information may be found.
In 2007 Andreas Sulzer and Klaus Steindl, in cooperation with ORF, started preparations for a TV documentary about the Voynich MS. The aim was to solve the riddle of the MS for once and for all, and included plans to perform chemical analyses of the MS, including radiocarbon dating of the parchment. The Bohemian history of the MS was further explored, leading among others to the discovery of a book with the ex libris of Jacobus de Tepenec, almost identical to that found on the Voynich MS. Most importantly, the Beinecke library agreed to the forensic investigations. The results were officially announced at a press conference in Vienna on 8 December 2009, with the well-known result that the parchment is from 1404-1438 with 95% confidence. The German version of the programme (ca 45 min.) first aired in Austria a few days later. An English version (of over 50 min.) was shown later by National Geographic.
In 2012 the traditional (43) "discovery" of the Voynich MS in Villa Mondragone reached its 100th anniversary. This was celebrated with a conference in the same villa, on 11 May. It was attended by a multitude of active Voynich researchers and included a series of presentations on all relevant areas of research. A report of this event is provided at a separate set of pages.
More recent statistical analyses of the Voynich MS text have been published in various media. Deserving particular mention are the publications of Knight and Reddy, of Marcel Montemurro, and the less well-known but equally interesting work done at the University of Adelaide. There are likely to be many more that I am not aware of. This general topic is addressed in the text analysis section, which still requires a lot of work.
The year 2014 has seen several new proposed solutions, some of which received some attention in the press. Most prominent were the theory that the Voynich MS is associated with the Aztec culture in Meso-America, by Tucker and Talbert (already published in 2013 (44)), and the tentative identification of about 10 herb names in the text, by UK linguist S. Bax (45). The work of Tucker has been continued in collaboration with Jules Janick, leading to some horticultural journal publications (46), finally culminating in a book in 2018. (47).
In November 2014 the Voynich MS was on exhibition in the Folger Shakespeare library in Washington, and in relation to this occasion the Beinecke library initiated a new series of forensic and expert invistigations of the MS. A summary of the results has been published in 2016, for which see below. Two points that may be mentioned here are that the Voynich MS pages are made of calfskin while the cover is of goatskin. Multi-spectral imaging did not reveal any trace of erased earlier writing on the MS.
In November 2016, the Beinecke Library in association with Yale University Press issued a photo facsimile of the MS with accompaying essays (Clemens and Harkness (2016) (48). In this volume, all pages of the MS are represented at the original dimensions of the MS, and showing the complete foldouts as they are. Essays include a summary of the history of the MS, the life and deeds of Wilfrid Voynich, a summary of the crytographic analyses and a comparison with earliest alchemical manuscripts. The essay by Zyats et al. (49) includes a summary of the new forensic analyses made in 2014-2015 as mentioned above.
Starting in 2017, there have been more announced solutions of the text than in any previous years. A conspicuous example from 2017 is a complete translation of the text, including a dictionary of all words. This has escaped notice since it has so far been published only in Slovak. Numerous proposed solutions attracted a lot of media attention, starting perhaps with the work of Nicholas Gibbs, where the hype was hard to understand as it doesn't actually propose any solution of the text. The Hebrew solution of Kondrak and Hauer, and the proto-Italic proposal of Gerard Cheshire both went through a quick cycle of hype and rejection in the media. The expertise of Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of Americ, has greatly helped in debunking these and other solutions, and this seems to have resulted in a more careful approach from the media to proposed solutions.
The University of Malta, with a group led by Colin Layfield and John Abela, has been running a student research programme making use of the Voynich MS, for some years now. Finally, they decided to launch a symposium about the MS in 2022. This will be held online on 30 November and 1 December. All information about this exciting prospect can be found at the Voynich MS Conference web site.