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Voynich Manuscript: The Book That Can’t Be Read



The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The book has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438), and may have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance.[1][2] The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a book dealer who purchased it in 1912.[3]

The pages of the codex are vellum. Some of the pages are missing, but about 240 remain. The text is written from left to right, and most of the pages have illustrations or diagrams. Many people have speculated that the writing might be nonsense. However, in 2013, Marcelo Montemurro of the University of Manchester and Damian Zanette of the Bariloche Atomic Centre published a paper documenting their identification of a semantic pattern in the writing; this suggests that the Voynich manuscript is aciphertext with a message.[4]



Voynich manuscript Content

The manuscript measures 23.5 by 16.2 by 5 centimetres (9.3 by 6.4 by 2.0 in), with hundreds of vellum pages collected into eighteen quires; depending on how some of its unusual fold-out multi-part pages are counted, approximately 240 pages in total.[9] The top right hand corner of each recto (righthand) page has been numbered from 1 to 116, probably by one of the manuscript’s later owners. From the various numbering gaps, it seems likely that in the past the manuscript had at least 272 pages, some of which were already missing when Wilfrid Voynich acquired the manuscript in 1912.[7] There is strong evidence that many of the book’s bifolios were reordered at various points in its history, and that the original page order may well have been quite different from what it is today.[10][11]

Based on modern analysis, it has been determined that a quill pen and iron gall ink were used for the text and figure outlines; the colored paint was applied (somewhat crudely) to the figures, possibly at a later date.[11]



Voynich manuscript Purpose


A three-page foldout from the manuscript including a chart that appears astronomical

The overall impression given by the surviving leaves of the manuscript is that it was meant to serve as apharmacopoeia or to address topics in medieval or early modern medicine. However, the puzzling details of illustrations have fueled many theories about the book’s origins, the contents of its text, and the purpose for which it was intended.[14]

The first section of the book is almost certainly herbal, but attempts to identify the plants, either with actual specimens or with the stylized drawings of contemporary herbals, have largely failed.[18] Few of the plant drawings (such as a wild pansy and the maidenhair fern) can be identified with reasonable certainty. Those herbal pictures that match pharmacological sketches appear to be clean copies of these, except that missing parts were completed with improbable-looking details. In fact, many of the plant drawings in the herbal section seem to be composite: the roots of one species have been fastened to the leaves of another, with flowers from a third.[18]

Brumbaugh believed that one illustration depicted a New World sunflower, which would help date the manuscript and open up intriguing possibilities for its origin; unfortunately the identification is only speculative.[14]

The basins and tubes in the “biological” section are sometimes interpreted as implying a connection to alchemy, yet bear little obvious resemblance to the alchemical equipment of the period.[citation needed]

Astrological considerations frequently played a prominent role in herb gathering, bloodletting and other medical procedures common during the likeliest dates of the manuscript. However, apart from the obvious Zodiac symbols, and one diagram possibly showing the classical planets, interpretation remains speculative.[14]

A circular drawing in the “astronomical” section depicts an irregularly shaped object with four curved arms, which, in 1928, antiquarian William Romaine Newbold interpreted as a picture of a galaxy, which could only be obtained with a telescope.[19] Similarly, he interpreted other drawings as cells seen through a microscope. However, Newbold’s analysis has since been dismissed as overly speculative.[20]



Voynich manuscript Constructed language

The peculiar internal structure of Voynich manuscript “words” led William F. Friedman to conjecture that the text could be a constructed language. In 1950, Friedman asked the British army officer John Tiltman to analyze a few pages of the text, but Tiltman did not share this conclusion. In a paper in 1967, Brigadier Tiltman said, “After reading my report, Mr. Friedman disclosed to me his belief that the basis of the script was a very primitive form of synthetic universal language such as was developed in the form of a philosophical classification of ideas by Bishop Wilkins in 1667 and Dalgarno a little later. It was clear that the productions of these two men were much too systematic, and anything of the kind would have been almost instantly recognisable. My analysis seemed to me to reveal a cumbersome mixture of different kinds of substitution.”[19]



Voynich manuscript Ciphers


The Voynich manuscript is written in an unknown script.

The main argument for this theory is that the use of a strange alphabet by a European author is awkward to explain except as an attempt to hide information. Indeed, even Roger Bacon knew about ciphers, and the estimated date for the manuscript roughly coincides with the birth of cryptography in Europe as a relatively systematic discipline.[citation needed]According to the “letter-based cipher” theory, the Voynich manuscript contains a meaningful text in some European language, that was intentionally rendered obscure by mapping it to the Voynich manuscript “alphabet” through a cipher of some sort—an algorithm that operated on individual letters. This has been the working hypothesis for most twentieth-century deciphering attempts, including an informal team of NSA cryptographers led by William F. Friedman in the early 1950s.[citation needed]

The counterargument is that almost all cipher systems consistent with that era fail to match what we see in the Voynich manuscript. For example, simple monoalphabetic ciphers can be excluded because the distribution of letter frequencies does not resemble that of any common language; while the small number of different letter-shapes used implies that we can rule out nomenclator ciphers and homophonic ciphers, because these typically employ larger cipher alphabets. Similarly, polyalphabetic ciphers, first invented by Alberti in the 1460s and including the later Vigenère cipher, usually yield ciphertexts where all cipher shapes occur with roughly equal probability, quite unlike the language-like letter distribution the Voynich Manuscript appears to have.[citation needed]


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