Nothing new about the Voynich MS? – René Zandbergen

Nothing new about the Voynich MS? – René Zandbergen

Nothing new about the Voynich MS?




Manuscrito Voynich [Edición facsímil a partir del manuscrito original custodiado en la Universidad de Yale realizada por la Editorial Siloé – Burgos]




The Voynich Manuscript is an illustrated medieval codex that is special in one respect: it is written in an unknown language or in a cipher. Ever since it was discovered, in 1912, people have been trying to translate or decode it, but until now, nobody has succeeded.

The manuscript has more than 200 pages and it is full of more or less mysterious drawings: plants of which the identity cannot always be guessed, a zodiac cycle, complicated circular diagrams with stars, and little female figures in systems of tubes and what looks like organs of the human body.

A few of these illustrations are shown below.





Much more information about the manuscript can be found at the following website, which is maintained by the author of this short article:


What does it say?

If one reads about the manuscript in the internet, or in the occasional news item, it seems as if the only important thing about the manuscript is: “what does the text say?”

Now there are lots of interesting things to find out about this manuscript in addition to the meaning of its text, but it is clear that this question is at the forefront of public interest. So if we accept that, I would start by arguing that this is not the right question to ask. This is because it is entirely possible that the text does not have any meaning at all. While people are generally not happy to accept this possibility, it is quite a realistic possibility. We cannot exclude it.

So, while we don’t know for certain that the text has any meaning, we do know for certain that, sometime, somewhere, somebody sat down and put this text on the parchment. So a much better question is: “how was it done?” This is a question that definitely has an answer.

If we know the method how the text was generated, and this method involved the translation of a meaningful text, then we also know what it means.

In the end, however, it is true that we still don’t know how it was done. We don’t know if the text has a meaning or not.


What does it not say?

The title of this article is: “Nothing new about the Voynich MS?”, but every now and then there are statements in the press about a great breakthrough, or about someone who has claimed to have found the solution. Then, after a while silence returns. In reality, new supposed breakthroughs and solutions are announced every few months, but most of these do not make the press. It is worthwhile to take a look at some of the more famous recent claims.

In 2014, the British linguist Stephen Bax proposed that he could translate 10 words in the manuscript. Unfortunately, he could not get much more out of it, and it seems far from clear that any of these 10 words is actually correct. Even more sadly, Stephen passed away recently, and I only have good memories of him.
In 2016, Irena Hanzíková from the Czech republic claimed to have found the solution, which involves old Czech, and rather than publish it, she deposited it with a notary. Unfortunately, I have no news if this has ever been divulged.

In September 2017, the venerable Times Literary Supplement proclaimed that the Voynich MS text had been solved by one Nicholas Gibb. He suggested that the text was abbreviated Latin, which was nothing new. After about three days, nobody believed it anymore. For some reason, he is still mentioned in the Wikipedia entry about the Voynich MS.

An even bigger media upheaval arrived in January 2018, when one could read all over the internet that “Artificial Intelligence had cracked the Voynich MS”. This was caused by a paper of Canadian researchers B. Hauer and G. Kondrak. They had done an interesting analysis of the text, comparing it with sample texts in 380 different languages. They concluded the text was in Hebrew. Unfortunately, the one sentence they extracted was clearly proclaimed by linguists not to be valid Hebrew. Again, within a week this solution was history.

Only one month later, the Ardiç family, equally from Canada, went public with the news that the manuscript was written in old Turkish. They may still be pursuing this solution, but it has not convinced anyone that I know off.

The next solution is probably waiting round the corner.

While we still cannot read a word of the Voynich MS, and we still don’t know how it was written, we understand a lot better how it was not done. There have been many statistical analyses of the text that clearly demonstrate in which way this text differs from known plain texts of the early 15th century. Most of the would-be solvers of the manuscript are not aware of these results, and tend to fall into the same traps.


Is there no news at all?

A lot has happened surrounding the Voynich MS in the last 20 years, but for people who are only interested in the meaning of the text, this may not appear of any great interest. Certainly, the media have hardly caught on to most of this. Therefore, it is worth summarising this here.

The state of knowledge about the Voynich MS towards the end of the 1970’s is well captured by a pair of publications. The first is a monograph by Mary D’Imperio, who summarises all known facts, a few theories and a lot of background information without presenting any theory of herself. This was almost the ‘bible’ of Voynich MS research until the close of the 20th century. The second is a volume published by Robert Brumbaugh. Beside his own theory (which is not worth going into here), it includes reprints of a number of key publications about the manuscript from the preceding decades).

Around 1999, the Brazilian mathematician J. Stolfi made the most exhaustive analysis of the structure of words in the Voynich MS, clearly demonstrating that this is not just a normal language, and one cannot convert it to Latin, German, English, Italian, etc., just by substituting characters. Unfortunately, most newcomers to the Voynich MS are not aware of this.

Around the same time, the mysterious unknown owner of the manuscript that was mentioned in the letter of Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher could be identified. This has led to numerous details about the Prague history of the manuscript (ca 1600-1665) and this research is still on-going.

Starting in the year 2000, electronic transcriptions of the entire text of the MS have been made, and three complete and independent versions (by T. Takahashi, G.Claston and myself) are now publicly available for study and analysis of the text.
In 2004, a first complete high-resolution digital scan in colour of the MS was published by the Beinecke library. This was superseded in 2014 by a new set of scans (

In 2009 the parchment of the manuscript was scientifically dated by the University of Arizona to the earliest years of the 15th century. This finally put a firm date on the creation of the manuscript.

In 2012, a symposium was held in the Villa Mondragone, the place where the manuscript was supposedly bought by Voynich. This brought together most of the key researchers of that time.
In 2014 the manuscript was put on exhibition at the Folger library in Washington, in a collaboration project with the Beinecke library. A presentation about the manuscript by William Sherman and myself attracted a full house. Additional forensic tests were made, including determination that the parchment of the MS was made of calf. Some of these results were published in 2016 in a Photo Facsimile by Yale University.
The latest news is coming from Spain. In 2016 the company Siloé of Burgos was given the permission to create facsimile editions of the Voynich MS. The first spectacular exemplars were show to the world in October 2017.

In summary, a lot has happened, and is still happening. Even if we can’t read a word of the text.



René Zandbergen
















Nota del Editor

Las imágenes editadas del Manuscrito Voynich [de su edición facsímil realizada por la Editorial Siloé de Burgos y por la que en Mayo de 2018 recibió el Primer Premio Nacional de Edición del Ministerio de Cultura] pertenecen a la Editorial Siloé. Para mayor información puede visitarse su sitio web

El Editor de Café Montaigne agradece de un modo especial a René Zandbergen, probablemente el mayor especialista en la actualidad, en todo el mundo, en el Manuscrito Voynich, su gentil y desinteresada colaboración al querer compartir con nosotros el artículo que publicamos y en el que se recoge de un modo resumido el fruto de sus investigaciones.

Categories: Historia


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