This is an update to a blog I did in 2012 about the Voynich Manuscript. Recent work done by Dr. Stephen Bax (Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Bedfordshire) has resulted in some startling findings.

voynich botanical

I love tales of missing manuscripts especially in fiction, but also in non-fiction. Last week, I finished The Swerve which featured the true story of the recovery of Lucretius’ poem, On the Nature of Things, and how it influenced our modern world. I liked the idea of a Renaissance book hunter slipping into monasteries looking for ancient wisdom. But I have a better story to share.

In 1912, Wilfrid Voynich recovered a mysterious manuscript that bears his name and resides in the Yale Library as Manuscript 408. The curious document has defied the patient and persistent attempts by all amateur and professional cryptographers to break it.

Its exact history is sketchy, but the document is alleged to have belonged to an Emperor, several practicing alchemists, and a religious order. Some have even proposed that Roger Bacon or John Dee authored the manuscript.

Consisting of 240 vellum pages with colored illustrations, the writing script is unknown and unreadable. Many of the illustrations resemble herbal texts of the 15th Century except that only a few of them can be identified. Aside from the herbal renderings, there are also illustrations covering topics on astronomy, biology, cosmology, medicines, and recipes. The drawings are fanciful, colorful, and complicated. Carbon-14 dating in 2009, dates the manuscript to between 1408 and 1438.

The text itself has puzzled for decades and even modern computer tools have proved ineffective. The writing itself seems to progress left to right with no punctuation. There are no obvious corrections, the document being very carefully executed. There are some 170,000 separate glyphs utilized throughout and many are used only once or twice. Statistical analysis of the work reveals that it resembles the flow of natural language. But what language? It seems to share some correspondences to English and Latin, but not entirely. The repetition of the glyphs is not a characteristic of European language.

Manuscript 408 remains the only undeciphered Renaissance manuscript and it continues to draw many into its mystery. Some think it’s an early herbal or medical text. Others see it as a work of alchemy (early chemistry) or hermeneutical teaching. Still others have declared it a hoax, but if it is a hoax of some kind, it goes beyond anything produced in the 15th Century. It goes beyond the codes and cyphers used then, and continues to evade codebreakers today. What is this curious work and who penned its bizarre contents?

For those intrigued enough to read further:

The Voynich Manuscript- Gerry Kennedy & Rob Churchill

The Friar & the Cypher- Lawrence Goldstone

Six Unsolved Ciphers- Richard Belfield

Drawing on work done to date, Dr. Bax undertook a detailed look at some of the plants and signs in the manuscript. He began with some of the speculations on plant names to decipher letters within the text. He believes he has deciphered ten words and fourteen signs to begin the process of identifying the language MS 408 was written in. Dr. Bax believes the manuscript is not a hoax, but rather a 15th Century book on nature written not in code but rather an unknown language. Now, the hard work begins to try to reveal more of the manuscript. It seems like this is an instance when having the right experts makes all the difference.  




Filed under alchemy, Book Review, Books, health


  1. Latest news- Push back on what was supposed to be the definitive truth on the Voynich ms:

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  3. Hello, Ellis. I would be very interested to know if your first name appears in the manuscript. It fits with a lot of the names I am seeing. http://voynichbirths.blogspot.com Any news to report on further Bax discoveries?

  4. Terrance McKenna wrote a little about this manuscript in his book Archaic Revival. Posted an interview of him in which he speaks on the book, which is pretty much still a mystery.

  5. I am pleased to inform you that Voynich is decrypted, as phonetic Arabic.

    • ellisnelson

      This appears to be a new theory. I haven’t seen any academic or news organization announce the code’s been broken yet. But maybe…

  6. The Voynich Manuscript is a great interest of mine. I have been trying to decode scans

  7. Interesting manuscript, and story. Maybe it was used to scam someone, saying this is from a new land… Thank you for stopping by my blog, and for the ‘Likes’, I am flattered.

  8. So interesting 🙂 Great post 🙂

  9. Thank you for writing about this. I’m about halfway through The Voynich Manuscript and am totally enthralled. I’m thinking of using it in my next YA fantasy novel.
    I have nominated ellisnelson for the Inspiring Blog Award because I always find such cool stuff here. To learn more about it, go to clavielle.wordpress.com.

  10. Having dealt with Schizophrenics, I wonder if this is not the work of such a mind. Although, I wonder if someone with the disease could muster the discipline to complete a book this size.
    Personally, I think it was written by someone who was abducted by aliens. LOL! I blame extraterrestrials for everything –although I don’t know why, we seem to make a fine mess of things all on our own.

  11. carleeannmyers

    What the manuscript says is intriguing for sure, but lets talk about something more. Do you believe in luck? I don’t, but here is a coincidence for you. The estimated date of creation: 1408 adds up to 13, maybe luck is preventing it some being translated.

  12. Interesting. Last Fall, I read Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott about Isaac Newton and alchemy. A great, literary mystery. Lost manuscripts and ones impossible to translate are fascinating.

  13. …and I am glad it began with The Swerve. What a fascinating and delightful book.

  14. You write about such interesting subjects. Thanks for visiting my site again. It brings me back to yours. I also love the story about Alice.

  15. This sounds amazing! I’ve been fascinated by this kind of stuff ever since I read Eco’s The Name Of The Rose and am always looking out for books that deal with this subject.

    I recently stumbled upon this story on PBS where they describe how the Maya code was cracked – a long, painstaking process illuminated by flashed of luck and genius. Very interesting (click on the “Narrative” to read the story)


    BTW, thanks for stopping by my blog!

  16. javaj240

    This sounds fascinating. Thanks for blogging about it.

  17. Cool find. Time to write a story using the lost manuscript. Sherlockian, perhaps?

  18. perfectusvarrus

    Very cool – though I’m partially convinced that Randall (of XKCD) has the right idea on this… either it’s the pinnacle of human cryptography, or it’s just a D&D manual. And since Japanese has only ~13,000 possibly characters…


  19. Great story, and here truth would really be the stuff of great fiction. Jung and Tolkien came right to mind as two who would love to review the mss.

  20. When it comes to old manuscipts, I’m reminded of living in Louisiana, which is a state like no other in the U.S. I bought a very old house (my first ever) in a very historic area. I decided to research the history of the house. In Lousiana, property records are stored under the name of the Notary Public who witnessed the sale. These records are kept in an archive in the basement of the Courthouse. So in order to follow the trail, you have to note the name of the previous Notary Public, and then go look for his book. Eventually I got so far back that I had to go into a room of my own, where they brought me the book. At some point, all the records were in French. And handwritten. While I had a smattering of French,I eventually had to give up by the time I got to somewhere in the 1840’s.

    • I actually saw this process in a TV show where they did exactly what you’re talking about. They did get back to the origins of who built the house. This was in New Orleans. BTW- I LOVE New Orleans. It’s so unique. Have been there several times and just love its character.

      • Wow, Ellis! How cool is that? At least you know I’m not making this up 🙂 Do you recall the name of the show or what channel it was on? I’d like to try to track it down. And my house and my research were in New Orleans. I lived there for four years and had visited several times before that. And you’re right. New Orleans is unique. It’s like a place that is mismatched in both location and time. It’s certainly like no other American city, and does not seem to belong here. It seems to belong in Europe. It’s more like Paris than anywhere else I can think of. Besides the obvious “French connection”, Paris is not France, any more than New Orleans represents Louisiana.

      • The show was Dead Files, on the Travel Channel. Not sure if it was 2011 or 2012 season.

      • There used to be a program on PBS–or maybe it was the Discover Channel?–called, I think, History Detectives. People would write to them and ask for help solving some mystery which often involved a manuscript or some object. They would send in a team of people who would investigate and solve the mystery. Always 🙂 I suspect the ones they weren’t able to solve did not make it to the TV show.

    • Thank you very much, Elliis. I’ll look for it.

  21. Ron Chapman

    Love the story!

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  23. Thanks, Ellis, for visiting my blog and therefore giving me an opportunity to read yours! This manuscript will probably turn out to be a grocery list 🙂 Hasn’t that been true in the past of other mysterious manuscripts? I seem to recall that one ancient text turned out to be a list of supplies needed to equip an army.

    • It’s a thought! If you look at the actual pages (Google Images) you’ll see that virtually every page is elaborately illustrated with botanical, cosmological, and medical drawings. Someone took great care and devoted great energy to produce this thing. It could be a very well done hoax… it’s possible. But what if it’s not?

    • Or a laundry list – like in Northanger Abbey 🙂

  24. Thank you for visiting my blog and for liking my post ‘St Uny Engine House, Curl and Story-time’
    Thank you too for this fascinating post. Have you ever visited The British Library and seen all their old manuscripts? They are so beautiful. 🙂

  25. fascinating– I can see a story unraveling it all too…

  26. Fascinating! I hadn’t heard of this before. Thanks for posting about it.

  27. I had read about the manuscript as a class assignment. It was very intriguing indeed. You did a good job at writing this post.

  28. Jen Bresnick

    I’m so fascinated by these centuries old documents that even our best cryptographers and super computers can’t figure out. Makes you wonder about all the millions of pieces of information lost to history.

    • The Swerve goes into detail about how much ancient knowledge was lost from the classical world and how we have only tiny bits of even the most famous ancient scholars.

  29. This sounds very interesting!

  30. Chris

    I love the mystery behind a coded book or manuscript. It’s the human curiosity. We don’t know what deciphering the text will give us. Knowledge? The petty ramblings of a gossip with his own language? Insight into another time?

  31. hackprosewriter

    What a lovely plot device to utilise in a novel! And an interesting post, too.

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