In 1912, Wilfrid Voynich bought an unreadable book. It is a Medieval tome of strange plants, women in green baths, star charts, and otherworldly machines. No human alive knows what it says.
For years, ambitious cryptologists, accomplished linguistic scholars, Internet sleuths, and interested spectators have striven to decode the Voynich Manuscript. There is only one copy in the world: the same one Voynich brought over to America from the Italian college where he purchased it a century ago. Currently, it sits in the vault of Yale’s library. However, the entire thing is digitized and available for free. With access to this mysterious manuscript easier than ever before, countless theories have proliferated. A new one takes the classical world by storm at least once a year, only to be debunked by Twitter’s righteous, flaming sword. Some of the most interesting theories, plausible and wild alike, are ranked below.
Disclaimer: I am not a classical linguist or cryptology expert, just an antique book fan who grew up on a healthy diet of Agatha Christie mysteries. I want to see this thing cracked as much as anyone.
Theory 1: It’s All A Hoax
This theory is pretty much debunked, since the calfskin the manuscript is written on carbon-dates to the early 1400s. But it’s still fun to think about a tome created with the same intentions as Fyre Fest. People often point to Roger Bacon, a 13th century philosopher and monk, as the hoaxer. Here’s the thing, though: Bacon couldn’t have written it. He died a century before the manuscript was written. The first record of the manuscript is a 1639 letter by Georg Baresch, an alchemist from Prague. Puzzled by the manuscript, he contacted Athanasius Kircher, a scholar, in hopes of translating it. After Baresch’s death, the manuscript was left to his “intimate friend”, who then passed it on to Kircher. The accompanying 1665 letter claimed the manuscript was once owned by the Holy Roman Emperor Rodolph II. He apparently dropped 90 grand in today’s money on the manuscript. The man knew how to shop. Rodolph II’s spending spree puts the first appearance around the late 16th or early 17th century. After Kircher’s death, the manuscript disappeared for 250 years, until Wilfrid Voynich stumbled upon it.
Leonardo DeVinci also figures prominently in many hoax theories, but he, too, wasn’t born until after the manuscript was written. It’s possible that some devoted 15th century con-artist painstakingly created a fake manuscript in an entirely made up language. Like a proto-Tolkien who could write the Silmarillion, but not the Hobbit, and then penned 240+ pages of pure linguist scam. Cheers to you, ye olde bamboozler.
Theory 2: It’s A Secret Code
The Secret Code theory is all about hope. If we believe the Voynich Manuscript was written in code, then that code must be solvable. And it must contain something worth keeping secret. It’s easy to see the appeal. Like an ancient, adult version of The Name of This Book Is Secret. Many Secret Code theorists credit Roger Bacon — again, already way too dead — as their chief incriptor.
This is the theory of creative intention, like Kit Williams’ Masquerade treasure hunt where he published a book in code, revealing the location of an 18 karat gold rabbit. There is even a theory that the Voynich manuscript contains the secret record of the golden plate that Christ gave to Judas, or the location of the Fountain of Youth.
The Voynich manuscript may not lead to treasure, but this theory says that it was created to be solved, if not by the general public, then by a secret society —Italian witch coven, anyone? At its heart, this theory is for believers. Someone made this, and they made it to be solved, and you, you little go-getter, can solve it.
Theory 3: It Was Aliens
There’s always aliens. You know how this one plays out. Mysterious occurrence? No agreed-upon solution? Look up at the stars. Maybe our friends in space dropped off a helpful book full of alien plants, cool star charts, and the suggestion that we should maybe bathe more than once a year.
Theory 4: It’s From A Lost Culture
This theory accepts that the manuscript may never be decoded. We don’t have the supplemental cultural information we need. If the Voynich manuscript is a relic from a vanished culture, there was no intention in its creation for a cracked code. It was not created to be solved, just understood by people who already spoke the language it was written in.
Voynichese might be a forgotten dead language — like if we had no record of Latin, but we knew it existed through its prevalence as a root for other languages. It could also be an ancient language that was written in abbreviation or phonetically written down, making it harder to translate. Theories have claimed it as Early Welsh, coded Hebrew, Manchu, Old Dutch, and the newly asserted proto-Romantic language theory (the most roasted on Twitter). But since the Voynichese language is gone, and since there is no other text necropolis to prove it ever existed, the hope of translation is grim. This doesn’t stop scholars from attempting to trace the roots of the text to possible languages in hopes of one day discovering its contents.
Theory 5: It’s A Dream Journal
This theory stands out as the most plausible explanation of what the manuscript was intended for. It can explain pretty much every part of the strange tome. It was a popular Medieval practice to think astrology and different herbal remedies affected sleep, so the stars and flora are included. The fact that most of the plants are unidentified helps this theory. It posits that the mysterious plants were of a dream world. The rest of the drawings, like the bathing women, are the subjects of the dreamer. Guess they dreamed of a lot of hygiene.
Theory 6: It’s A Recipe Book
Another popular theory is that it’s a recipe book, possibly one that specialized in plant-based recipes. It proposes that the plants existed when the manuscript was written, and they are now extinct. The bathtubs could be a part of an herbal bath, which explains the green-colored water. The star chart is harder to fit into this theory, but it’s possible that the Medieval author thought certain celestial conditions made herbal recipes stronger. Some stand by the idea that it’s a plain old recipe book, not for herbal recipes. At any rate, it all those women in bathtubs make for a pretty strange cookbook. Unless it’s more of a “To Serve Man” kind of cookbook, which really ties the recipe and alien theories together.
Theory 7: It’s A Women’s Health Manual
Most recently, Dr. Gerard Cheshire shook the internet with claims that he’d cracked the Voynich manuscript in just two weeks. Spoiler: he didn’t.
Cheshire claimed the manuscript was written by nuns for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, in proto-Italic language. This is the grandfather of the Romance languages during Medieval times, but no records exist of it, because everything was recorded in the language of the ruling class, government, and clergy —a.k.a., Latin. The presence of plants is contextualized as herbal medicines, bathing as therapy, and star charts as common astrology-based medicinal cure-alls of Medieval times. Kind of like ye olde Vicks Vaporub.
The women’s health manual theory holds up pretty well. It provides an explanation for every piece of the manuscript without too much reaching. Linguistically, however, this theory has major holes. It fell apart when scholars pointed out the flaws in Dr. Cheshire’s translation. The manuscript’s grammar is pretty much non-existent, and the structure of Voynichese doesn’t match up with various Romance language word structures. Cheshire “translated” a few words, strung them together with a story about a volcano, and declared the mystery solved. Gotta admire his moxie.
Nicolas Gibbs was also down for the ladies’ health manual theory, but he claimed it was written in abbreviated Medieval Latin— also debunked.
The women’s health manual stands beside the dream journal and recipe book theories as fairly probable explanations for the manuscript’s use. These theories thrive on connecting the drawings together to create meaning, but wither when it comes to any solid translation or cypher.
Below is the newly found Voyniche Manuscript. This document first surfaced when The Niche purchased it from a woman selling oranges outside of a Lowes’. The only copy in the world is kept in a secure location in Florida, proudly hanging on the fridge. We’re proud to announce that it has been digitized online for all. The document was carbon-dated to approximately last week. The images are just as baffling and mysterious as the original manuscript — at least, to anyone who’s never read this website.
This six hundred year old mystery, potentially promising secrets lost to time, continues to captivate. The Voynich Manuscript maintains such a committed audience because humans love puzzles. Especially ones that should be answered already! We’re supposed to be smarter than our Medieval counterparts! They threw feces out into the street, ate mummies for health cures (yeah, that’s real), and generally thought that the children’s crusades and bloodletting were good ideas. We’re more intelligent now, more advanced than our Medieval ancestors. We have resources, technology, and access like never before. Yet they created something we still can’t solve.