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. The total number of pages is around 240, but the exact number depends on how the manuscript’s unusual foldouts are counted. The quires have been numbered from 1 to 20 in various locations, with numerals consistent with the 1400s, and the top righthand corner of each recto (righthand) page has been numbered from 1 to 116, with numerals of a later date. From the various numbering gaps in the quires and pages, it seems likely that in the past the manuscript had at least 272 pages in 20 quires, some of which were already missing when Wilfrid Voynich acquired the manuscript in 1912. 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.
The binding and covers are not original to the book, but date to during its possession by the Collegio Romano.
Every page in the manuscript contains text, mostly in an unknown script, but some have extraneous writing in Latin script. Many pages contain substantial drawings or charts which are colored with paint. 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.
A page showing characteristics of the text
The bulk of the text in the manuscript is written in an unknown script, running left to right. Most of the characters are composed of one or two simple pen strokes. While there is some dispute as to whether certain characters are distinct or not, a script of 20–25 characters would account for virtually all of the text; the exceptions are a few dozen rarer characters that occur only once or twice each. There is no obvious punctuation.
Much of the text is written in a single column in the body of a page, with a slightly ragged right margin and paragraph divisions, and sometimes with stars in the left margin. Other text occurs in charts or as labels associated with illustrations. There are no indications of any errors or corrections made at any place in the document. The ductus flows smoothly, giving the impression that the symbols were not enciphered, as there is no delay between characters as would normally be expected in written encoded text.
The text consists of over 170,000 characters, with spaces dividing the text into about 35,000 groups of varying length, usually referred to as “words”. The structure of these words seems to follow phonological or orthographic laws of some sort, e.g., certain characters must appear in each word (like English vowels), some characters never follow others, some may be doubled or tripled but others may not, etc. The distribution of letters within words is also rather peculiar: some characters occur only at the beginning of a word, some only at the end, and some always in the middle section. Many researchers have commented upon the highly regular structure of the words.
Some words occur only in certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript. There are very few repetitions among the thousand or so labels attached to the illustrations. There are practically no words with fewer than two letters or more than ten. There are instances where the same common word appears up to three times in a row. Words that differ by only one letter also repeat with unusual frequency, causing single-substitution alphabet decipherings to yield babble-like text. Elizebeth Friedman in 1962 described such attempts as “doomed to utter frustration”.
Various transcription alphabets have been created to equate the Voynich characters with Latin characters in order to help with cryptanalysis, such as the European Voynich Alphabet. The first major one was created by cryptographer William F. Friedman in the 1940s, where each line of the manuscript was transcribed to an IBM punch card to make it machine-readable.
Much of the early history of the book is unknown, though the text and illustrations are all characteristically European. In 2009, University of Arizona researchers performed C14 dating on the manuscript’s vellum. The result of that test put the date the manuscript was made between 1404 and 1438. In addition, the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago found that the paints in the manuscript were of materials to be expected from that period of European history. It has also been suggested that the McCrone Research Institute found that much of the ink was added not long after the creation of the parchment, but the official report contains no statement to this effect.
The earliest historical information about the manuscript comes from a letter found inside the cover—written in 1666 to accompany the manuscript when it was sent by Johannes Marcus to Athanasius Kircher—which claims that the book once belonged to Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612), who paid 600 gold ducats (~2.07 kg gold) for it. The book was then given or lent to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (died 1622), the head of Rudolf’s botanical gardens in Prague.
The next confirmed owner is Georg Baresch, an obscure alchemist also in Prague. Baresch apparently was just as puzzled as modern scientists about this “Sphynx” that had been “taking up space uselessly in his library” for many years. On learning that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano, had published a Coptic (Egyptian) dictionary and “deciphered” the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Baresch sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome (twice), asking for clues. His 1639 letter to Kircher is the earliest confirmed mention of the manuscript that has been found so far.
It is not known whether Kircher answered the request, but apparently, he was interested enough to try to acquire the book, which Baresch refused to yield. Upon Baresch’s death, the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci (1595–1667) (Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector of Charles University in Prague, who a few years later sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend and correspondent. Marci’s 1666 cover letter (written in Latin) was still with the manuscript when Voynich purchased it:
“Reverend and Distinguished Sir, Father in Christ: This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined for you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my possession, for I was convinced that it could be read by no one except yourself. The former owner of this book asked your opinion by letter, copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he believed you would be able to read the remainder, but he at that time refused to send the book itself. To its deciphering he devoted unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life. But his toil was in vain, for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master, Kircher. Accept now this token, such as it is and long overdue though it be, of my affection for you, and burst through its bars, if there are any, with your wonted success. Dr. Raphael, a tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book belonged to the Emperor Rudolph and that he presented to the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman. On this point I suspend judgement; it is your place to define for us what view we should take thereon, to whose favor and kindness I unreservedly commit myself and remain,
—At the command of your Reverence,
Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland
Prague, 19th August, 1666
There are no records of the book for the next 200 years, but in all likelihood it was stored with the rest of Kircher’s correspondence in the library of the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University). It probably remained there until the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured the city in 1870 and annexed the Papal States. The new Italian government decided to confiscate many properties of the Church, including the library of the Collegio. According to investigations by Xavier Ceccaldi and others, just before this happened, many books of the University’s library were hastily transferred to the personal libraries of its faculty, which were exempt from confiscation. Kircher’s correspondence was among those books—and so apparently was the Voynich manuscript, as it still bears the ex libris of Petrus Beckx, head of the Jesuit order and the University’s Rector at the time.Beckx’s “private” library was moved to the Villa Mondragone, Frascati, a large country palace near Rome that had been bought by the Society of Jesus in 1866 and housed the headquarters of the Jesuits’ Ghislieri College.Around 1912, the Collegio Romano was short of money and decided to sell some of its holdings discreetly. Wilfrid Voynich acquired 30 manuscripts, among them the manuscript that now bears his name. He spent the next seven years attempting to interest scholars in deciphering the script while he worked to determine the origins of the manuscript.
A page from the biological section showing “nymphs” Unknown – Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University (). A page from the mysterious Voynich manuscript, which is undeciphered to this day.
In 1930, after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript was inherited by his widow, Ethel Lilian Voynich (known as the author of the novel The Gadfly and daughter of famous mathematician George Boole). She died in 1960 and left the manuscript to her close friend, Miss Anne Nill. In 1961, Nill sold the book to another antique book dealer, Hans P. Kraus. Unable to find a buyer, Kraus donated the manuscript to Yale University in 1969, where it was catalogued as “MS 408”. In discussions, it is sometimes also referred to as “Beinecke MS 408”.