The Voynich manuscript is an illustrated codex, written by hand, in an unknown writing system. The vellum in the book pages has been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century and may have been composed in Northern Italy, in the time of the Italian Renaissance.
The manuscript is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who obtained it in 1912.
The pages of the codex are vellum (parchment made from calfskin). Some of the pages are missing, but around 240 remains. The text is written from left to right, and the majority of the pages have illustrations or diagrams.
This manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II. parchment made from calfskin has yet succeeded in interpreting the text, and it has become a famous case in the history of cryptography.
The enigma of the meaning and origin of the manuscript has excited the popular imagination, making the manuscript the subject of novels and speculation. None of the numerous hypotheses proposed over the last 100 years has yet been independently verified.
The manuscript was donated by Hans P. Kraus to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1969, where it is indexed under call number MS 408.
The manuscript measures 23.5 by 16.2 by 5 centimeters (9.3 by 6.4 by 2.0 in), with hundreds of vellum pages collected into 18 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 one to twenty in various locations, with numerals consistent with the 1400s, and the top right-hand corner of each recto (right-hand) 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 twenty quires, some of which were already missing when W. Voynich acquired the manuscript in 1912.
There is strong evidence that a few of the book’s bifolios were reordered at different 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.
The main part of the text in the manuscript is written in an unknown script, running left to right. Most of the characters are composed of 1 or 2 simple pen strokes.
While there is some debate 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.
A significant part 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.
Another text occurs in charts or as labels associated with illustrations. There are no signs of any errors or corrections made at any place in the document. The ductus flows smoothly, giving the feeling that the symbols were not enciphered, as there is no delay between characters as would normally be expected in written encoded content.
The manuscript 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 appears to follow phonological or orthographic laws of some sort, like, certain characters must appear in each word (like English vowels), a few characters never follow others, some may be doubled or tripled but others may not.
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. Numerous researchers have commented upon the highly regular structure of the words.
A few words occur only in certain sections, or in only a few pages; others occur throughout the manuscript. There are very few redundancies among the thousand or so labels attached to the illustrations. There are practically no words with fewer than 2 letters or more than 10.
There are instances where the same common word appears up to 3 times in a row. Words that differ by only 1 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”.