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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Lost in Translation: Reflections of Our Souls in the Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript has eluded scientists and the general public since its rediscovery in 1912. With the help of Dr. Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, I hope to understand the significance of The Voynich Manuscript, and how it has managed to amass and maintain such worldwide curiosity.
Here is a fold-out page from the mysterious Voynich manuscript, which is undeciphered to this day. (Image Credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons) 
Here is an image of the Villa Mondragone by Matteo Greuter, published in 1620. (Image Credit: Luiclemens at it.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Atop a secluded hill in Rome, Italy sits the Villa Mondragone.

Originally used by Pope Gregory XIII as a summer residence and then later by the Borghese family as an exhibition site for various pieces of their art and antiquities collections, this Italian palace has served as a beacon of art, education, and religious prosperity in Europe since its construction in the 2nd century A.D.  In 1865, the sequestered villa was transformed into the Noble College of Mondragone Nobile Collegio Mondragone by the Jesuits, serving to educate young aristocrats worldwide.

In 1903, the Society of Jesus (Collegio Romano) decided to sell a portion of its assets after a period of financial hardship. This included the hundreds of books and manuscripts that lined the walls of the College library, which were to be sold off and transferred into the Vatican library.

The sale took place in 1912. However, there was a delay in the purchase of the assets by the Vatican, and so the Jesuits grew impatient. Tired of waiting, a small group of them stood outside the Villa Mondragone transacting various items in attempted secrecy.

At the same time, Wilfrid Michael Voynich, an opportunistic book dealer, was on a trip through Italy. He was remarkably lucky in finding rare literature, including a Malermi Bible in Italy in 1902. After bargaining with the Jesuits outside the Villa Mondragone, he purchased about thirty books and manuscripts that were originally destined to fade into the elaborate shelves of the Vatican library.

One of these manuscripts, a 240-page codex filled with drawings of constellations, uncanny human depictions, and plants that do not exist in the natural world, is now regarded as the most mysterious book in human history.

A Journey Through Time

Before its rediscovery by Wilfrid Voynich, the manuscript undertook numerous periods of ownership, spanning multiple centuries and landing in the hands of some of history’s most esteemed scholars.

In the early 17th century, the manuscript is believed to have been in the possession of Georg Baresch, a Czech alchemist and physician who attempted to decipher the book but was unsuccessful. His letters to Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit Polymath, express frustration at his inability to understand the enigmatic text.

The earliest confirmed mention of the manuscript comes from a letter dated 1666. It was written by Johannes Marcus Marci, the official physician to the Holy Roman Emperors Ferdinand III and Leopold I, to Athanasius Kircher. The letter explains that according to Marci’s close friend Raphael Mnishovsky, the manuscript was believed to have belonged to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany, however, this claim has never been substantiated with conclusive evidence.

According to that same letter, Mnishovsky speculated that the author of the manuscript was none other than 13th-century Franciscan scholar Roger Bacon, whose philosophical and scientific ideas have influenced the way artists have perceived, interpreted, and depicted the natural world,

In the final years of his life, Marci sent the manuscript to Athanasius Kircher in the hope that he could decipher its secrets, given his expertise in languages and cryptography. Of course, even Kircher’s attempts at understanding the manuscript proved futile.

After Marci died in 1667, Kircher transferred the manuscript to the Jesuit order in Prague, which was listed in an inventory of the Jesuit College in 1670. It remained in their possession until the aforementioned sale to Wilfrid Voynich. 

In The Hands of Mr. Voynich

Wilfrid Voynich sits at his desk in Soho Square with one of the numerous rare books in his expansive collection. (Photo Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Wilfrid Voynich brought the manuscript to public attention in 1915 when his strange unwillingness to reveal where and how the book fell into his possession amplified the mystery surrounding the medieval text.

Of course, with the exchange of the manuscript occurring without the permission of the Vatican, it’s no surprise that Voynich was so hesitant to publicize details that may have been self-incriminating.

What he did publicize, however, was a strong assertation that the manuscript was authored by Roger Bacon, and that it was an instructive manual to medieval magic which has now been lost to time. He first came to this conclusion on his own, as the letter to Athanasius Kircher from Marci which described ownership by both Rudolph II and Roger Bacon had been tucked between the pages of the manuscript when Voynich first purchased it.

It was his only indication that this book was something more than a collection of inexplicable jargon pieced together by some medieval prankster or perhaps by the Jesuits themselves.

With a story as compelling as his, Voynich was eager to sell the book off and make a fortune for himself, believing that he could find a buyer who would be willing to pay up to $100,000 for the manuscript, or $3,000,000 today.

As time passed, and as publications like The New York Times spread the story of Voynich’s discovery far and wide, Wilfrid realized that he needed someone to substantiate the claims of Roger Bacon’s ownership if he ever hoped to see the fortune he’d been dreaming of.

He turned to Prof. William Newbold of the University of Pennsylvania, who was known for his lectures and writing on medieval medicine and more importantly, cryptography. He was also very well-versed in the works of Bacon, so Voynich was confident that if anyone would give him the answers he’d been searching for, it would be Newbold.

In 1921, after conducting a singular study on the manuscript, Newbold proudly expressed his support for the theory of Roger Bacon’s formulation of the manuscript, much to the pleasure of Wilfrid Voynich. The two of them toured the book across America, with it then being referred to as the “Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript.”

With his prolonged periods in possession of the manuscript, Newborn developed a complex system to decipher and translate the language that lines its pages. His complete analysis, The Cipher of Roger Bacon, was published two years after he died in 1926.

Unfortunately for Voynich and Newbold, as we look back with 20/20 hindsight, these claims of Bacon’s ownership fall apart at the slightest modern inquiry. Firstly, the method by which Newborn “deciphered” the text deduced that Bacon implemented microscopic notations throughout the manuscript.

Microscopic notations typically refer to extremely small markings, symbols, or annotations that are only legible under magnification, such as through a microscope.

The microscope was not invented until three hundred years after Roger Bacon died in 1292, so he couldn’t have composed a single character in the book. Furthermore, through modern-day carbon-dating techniques, we now know that the parchment of the manuscript also dates to hundreds of years after Bacon’s death.

William Newbold and Wilfrid Voynich’s theory is now entirely disregarded by modern-day scholars who’ve either worked with the book or have hoped to one day decipher the text within.

Wilfrid Voynich passed away in 1930, never having found a buyer for his manuscript. The book was eventually passed down to his secretary Ann Nill, who sold it off for $24,000 in 1962 – not quite the bountiful prize to which Wilfrid had dedicated the last years of his life.

What Lies Inside

While the story of Wilfrid’s ownership of the manuscript is bewildering on its own, the book’s contents give reason to the belief that what he had in his possession was something almost otherworldly.

The manuscript is about 234 pages long, with evidence that some pages are missing. Some of the remaining pages in the manuscript are foldable and depict large diagrams or fantastical illustrations when laid out in their entirety. Flipping to any manuscript page will present you with an unidentified language, dubbed as “Voynichese” consisting of twenty to thirty distinct characters and numerous recurring symbols or glyphs.

Carbon dating completed at the University of Arizona in 2009 estimates the parchment of the pages to have been made between 1404 and 1438. However, this does not necessarily mean that the manuscript was written during this time, as it was quite common to keep parchment in storage for prolonged periods.

Modern-day scholars have divided the manuscript into six distinct sections based solely on the nature of the illustrations, as there is no verified translation of the writing.


The botany section is the most prominent of the six, comprising about half of the entire manuscript. It contains 113 highly detailed illustrations of flowering plants and foliage that do not exist in the natural world and are completely unidentifiable.

This is a page from the botany section of the manuscript, filled with illustrations of plants that do not exist in our real world. Scientists can only speculate by making comparisons between these drawings and real-world vegetation. (Image Credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


There are 21 folios containing circular diagrams that depict the sun, the moon, and stars, along with strange drawings of what appear to be nymphs revolving around small depictions of zodiacs at the center.

This page from the astrology section of the manuscript depicts different zodiac signs using their traditional symbology, with each sign in the center having both text and humanoid figures revolving around them. (Image Credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The zodiacs are portrayed using their conventional symbols, such as a hunter with a crossbow for Sagittarius, two fish for Pisces, and a bull for Taurus.


The biology section of the Voynich Manuscript is arguably the most peculiar, depicting small nude women bathing in large green vats which are connected by complex tubing systems.

The biology sections feature numerous illustrations of women or, as some ‘voynichologists’ speculate, nymphs bathing in large vats filled with some sort of green liquid. These vats are connected via tubing systems, and some of these connections span multiple pages. (Image Credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

These drawings serve as support for one fascinating and quite prominent interpretation of the manuscript’s contents, which theorizes that the book serves as a medieval women’s health manual.


This section contains several folios depicting huge medallions composed of stars, which are once again connected by what appears to be complex tubing or perhaps a series of bridges. Some of these circular illustrations depict a planet with a face, which is orbited by humanoid figures.

A spread from the cosmology section folds out into an elaborate, multi-page diagram. Each circle is profoundly detailed and interconnected via what appear to be bridges of various shapes and sizes. Some scientists believe that it may hold some sort of geographical significance. (Image Credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


The unidentifiable foliage of the botany section returns, but is now illustrated in vibrant colors, stored inside elaborate jars and containers. The plants appear as herbs, roots, and various patterns of leaves.

The pharmaceutical section depicts more plants and foliage that do not occur in the natural world. However, they are now labeled with particularity. We also see roots and herbs housed in multicolored jars, which distinguishes this section from the other five. (Image Credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


The recipes section is the only one without accompanying illustrations. Instead, we see what appears to be a list of various statements separated by stars at the margin of the page, acting similarly to bullet points in conventional writing.

The recipe section of the manuscript differs from the rest of the book because it does not have any illustrations next to the text provided. The stars at the side of the page separate the different sections of text, acting the same as bullet points. (Image Credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

With so many questions and so few answers about the world’s most mysterious manuscript, I turned to Dr. Lisa Fagin Davis, a professor of practice in manuscript studies at the Simmons Graduate School of Library and the executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, who consented to an interview with me.

The false claims that philosopher Roger Bacon created the Voynich Manuscript have been quite prominent in our general understanding of the book throughout modern history. Both Voynich himself and William Newbold accentuated these claims throughout their lives so I have to ask: Do you believe that these fabricated stories that have surrounded the Manuscript throughout its time in history continue to be detrimental to our understanding of the artifact, or can we simply brush them away as inconsequential errors made by influential people of the past?

“Well, it certainly did set things back. I’m not sure that Voynich was intentionally trying to deceive when he claimed that the manuscript had been written by Roger Bacon. I think he may have believed that, or he felt that the evidence pointed toward that, especially when he started working with Professor Newbold from the University of Pennsylvania. Newbold was essentially an expert on Roger Bacon, and so of course when he was brought in and told “I think this may have been made by Roger Bacon,” he was thrilled to say ‘Yes! Definitely a work by Bacon! This proves all the great things I’ve been saying about him!’ And so between the two of them, I think they were maybe delusional about it – they saw what they wanted to see. The 750th anniversary of Bacon’s death was coming up around the same time that Voynich and Newbold were working together. So, by associating their discovery with Bacon, they were creating a real selling point for the manuscript.

Right, it was the most convenient thing for both of them if this discovery of theirs just happened to be connected to Roger Bacon in some way.

“Exactly, and I don’t think that the two of them were sitting around scheming, wondering ‘How can we fool the world?’ I think they just saw what it was they wanted to see, which is incredibly common for people working on this manuscript. I’ve been contacted by someone who really loves ballroom dancing, and he thinks the manuscript is dance choreography. It isn’t, but that’s what he wants it to be. That’s one of the things I find really interesting about the manuscript. It’s kind of like a Rorschach test – a blank slate – and you bring to it your own pre-consumptions.

Knowing that there is evidence that allows us to construct a concise timeline of the Manuscript’s ownership as well as a partial understanding of its utilization throughout the 17th and 16th centuries, how do you feel about the presumption that the book was entirely a hoax constructed by Wilfrid Vonich in pursuit of monetary gain? Why do you think so many people refuse to believe that there may be some sort of larger narrative at play in connection to the manuscript? Do you believe it is plain cynicism that is barring them from inquiring about the incredible journey this single book has taken through human history?

“So, there are an awful lot of people out there who claim that the manuscript was fabricated entirely by Wilfrid Voynich. I’ve seen the manuscript at least six times, if not more; I’ve spent hours and hours with it at the Beinecke Library. There is nothing that looks at all suspicious to me. I’ve seen forgeries, and there’s always a tell. Even with the best forgeries, there’ll be some chemical component in the green pigment that is modern and not medieval, and no scientific testing has ever turned up anything suspicious.

If you look at the parchment, the ink, the pigments, the sewing, the construction, the evidence of its history, the binding, there are too many components to make a convincing case that this could be a forgery. It is unimaginable that someone could create a manuscript like this today and avoid suspicion among all of the experts who’ve taken a look at it.

As for the reasons that many people may remain skeptical about it regardless of the facts, I think the skepticism arises when we think about whether or not the manuscript means anything. I never had a strong opinion either way about that – if it has meaning or it doesn’t have meaning.

However, once I started to do my work on trying to identify how many different scribes there were, I came to my own conclusion that there were five people who worked on this manuscript. These five people are writing Voynichese in similar ways. They’re using the same letter system, they’re using the same words, the same spelling, the same rules. Of course, there are some minor differences from scribe to scribe, but generally speaking, you’ve got five people who are doing this.

Five people can’t keep a secret. Five people can’t be expected to craft something like this in the same consistent way. Once I concluded that the manuscript was constructed by five people, to me, that was really strong evidence that it was not just nonsense.”

The Voynich Manuscript has been owned by numerous scholars and noteworthy figures throughout its history, from rulers of expansive empires to shady book collectors like Mr. Voynich himself. Of all the people who are confirmed to have been in ownership of the manuscript at some point, who to you is the most fascinating of them all?

“For me, it’s Athanasius Kircher. Johannes Marcus Marci had wrapped the manuscript up and shipped it to Rome in hopes that Kircher could decipher it because he had previously written a book on Egyptian hieroglyphics. Marci thought “If anyone’s going to be able to read this thing, it’s going to be Kircher.” He was incredibly famous – just a very very well-known scholar, and we don’t have any idea what he thought about the book.

He never wrote about it, he never wrote a letter back to Marci thanking him for the crazy gift, nothing. So we have no idea what he thought about it, and I would love to know what his thoughts were about it. The manuscript wasn’t discovered again until Voynich bought it from the Jesuits in Rome, and we have no clue what they thought of it. Did they just put it on a shelf and ignore it?

It would make a cool novel, actually, just getting to know about that specific era of its history.”

When people propose outlandish explanations like “it must be aliens” or that the book is of a long-lost civilization, do you feel that these theories discredit the incredible work done by historians and voynichologists who’ve dedicated so much time to trying to apply scientific principles to the books mysterious origins? Or do you feel that there is a silver lining in such explanations as they attract more ordinary people to learn about the manuscript?

“I agree with the latter there. A lot of academics just roll their eyes when you talk about this manuscript, but the truth is, for my money, anything that makes people interested in the Middle Ages is a good thing. If it brings them into our classrooms, if it brings them to our books, websites, social media, whatever, and they realize that medieval manuscripts are so insanely cool, that’s a great thing. And so it’s not helpful to be a snob about the public’s interest in this manuscript. I think it’s something that you can take advantage of.

If someone comes up to me and says ‘I had a dream about the Voynich Manuscript and its aliens, and I know it’s true,’ I can say to them ‘Okay, let’s look at the actual evidence surrounding this manuscript.’ I see it as a way for me to teach responsible research methods and evidence-based methodology. That, I feel, is the real lesson that this manuscript has to impart, that it’s a real object and it exists in New Haven, Connecticut, in the basement vault at the Beinecke library is a 650-year-old manuscript.

No matter what else… that’s really flippin’ cool.”

In one of your lectures, you called the manuscript a “mirror” in which we “see whatever it is we want to see.” Do you think that this same principle applies to most modern mysteries, where we interpret things in the ways we feel would most satisfy us, or is the manuscript uniquely a “mirror” because of its nature as a physical object with unexplained illustrations and an entire language that continues to elude scientists?

“There are lots of mysteries out there, but the Voynich is unique in the sense that it is so beautifully indecipherable. In not just the text, but also the illustrations. The more you look through it, the more you go ‘What is happening here?’ As you flip through the pages, you find these huge foldouts of things that are just indescribable. It really is a blank slate in a way. I mean, there’s evidence, there are things that we can tell from linguistic analyses of it, but there’s so much that we just can’t figure out.

For other things, it might be some text written in code or a weird-looking picture, but this is one of the only objects I can think of where you have both the crazy text and the crazy illustrations. Putting all of that together, you find yourself in a situation where you’re faced with something that’s just so unique and so bizarre. It gets to the point where you can’t help but be imaginative, and imagine what it might all mean.”

Yeah, I remember seeing pictures of the fold-out with the huge diagram of circles for the first time and thinking to myself  “How cool would it be if this were to illustrate some kind of machine that once existed in the real world?”

“Yes, exactly. There’s so much fun to be had with it, as long as you differentiate between ‘this is what is true’ and ‘this is what I want the truth to be.’ So like, with the woman who wrote to me about the crochet patterns, I told her ‘This is really fun and creative and interesting! It’s kinda cool! But it isn’t the actual intent of the person who created the manuscript, as that would be wildly anachronistic. But, if you want to use it to inspire you as a craftsperson, that’s wonderfulYou should definitely do that!’”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lisa Fagin Davis via Zoom, where we discussed the historical ownership of the Voynich Manuscript, modern-day attempts at its translation, and the question of whether or not we will ever be able to understand the text in its entirety. (Screenshot taken by Aaqib Gondal; used by permission of Dr. Lisa Fagin Davis)

After my conversation with Dr. Davis, looking through the illustrations and meticulously formatted text of the Voynich Manuscript evoked a new kind of fascination. I wasn’t paying as much attention to what the text might actually mean – instead, I focused on my own personal hopes for what this manuscript represents. I was using my imagination to fill in all the gaps, and the more I did so, the more content I grew with the mystery.

Maybe the whole book is a medieval sci-fi story written in a dead language.

Maybe the speculated five authors were artists hoping to make it big with their depictions of surreal humanoid figures, flowers, and cosmic wonders.

Maybe the medallions of the cosmology section are interconnected cities that once stood somewhere in medieval Europe, now lost to time and only preserved by their depiction in the manuscript.

Maybe it was aliens.

The most enthralling part of any mystery is imagining what the truth will resemble once it is brought to light. It is the desire to theorize which keeps mysteries alive, and it was that same desire which carried the manuscript from the hands of medieval scholars to modern times. Imagine the kinds of theories proposed by rulers like Rudolph II or the inferences that took shape from the frustrated curiosity of Athanasius Kircher.

With a mystery like the Voynich Manuscript, there is no guarantee that we will ever discover the unquestionable truth, however, we find a strange sense of comfort in knowing that this enigma will transcend generations to come.

As this unexpected comfort supersedes the desire to have a direct and undeniable translation of every character in the Voynich Manuscript, the only question left is:

When you look into the pages of this 600-year-old mystery, what do you see?

“Putting all of that together, you find yourself in a situation where you’re faced with something that’s just so unique and so bizarre. It gets to the point where you can’t help but be imaginative, and imagine what it might all mean,” said Dr. Lisa Fagin Davis, a professor of practice in manuscript studies at the Simmons Graduate School of Library and the executive director of the Medieval Academy of America.

About the Contributor
Aaqib Gondal, Staff Reporter
Aaqib Gondal is a Copy Chief  for ‘The Science Survey,' where he is responsible for the review and revision of different pieces written by his classmates. To Aaqib, the true appeal of journalistic writing lies in its timeless nature, and how it allows for the communication of social issues and ideas spanning however long ago. He believes that the photographic elements of journalism allow for entire stories to be captured into singular frames, making an article or any piece of writing much more impactful to the reader. Outside of school, Aaqib enjoys traveling around the city and appreciates the atmosphere of a nice, quiet movie theater or performance hall. In college, Aaqib plans to pursue a career in communications, whether that involves a continued focus on journalistic ventures or a more corporate marketing career.