The Voynich Manuscript — An Elegant Enigma

Joshua Smith
4 min readOct 19, 2018

It has been called world’s most mysterious manuscript. Today it is housed at Yale University in the Beineke Rare Book Library where it is known simply as MS 408.

A sample page from The Voynich Manuscript

From the very beginning, this manuscript has been considered a deep and abiding mystery. Questions about it have swirled for hundreds of years and, despite all of the impressive technology that the world has literally at our fingertips, no one has been able to either decrypt, decipher, or translate ‘The Voynich Manuscript’. Although dozens, perhaps even hundreds, have made outlandish claims to have “easily” solved the puzzle — they are all wrong.

I first heard of The Voynich Manuscript when I was quite young in the Time-Life Series called Mysteries of the Unknown published from 1987 to 1991. Additionally, I had seen maybe one or two documentaries on it. Then, for many years, I forgot about it completely. Then, only quite recently, I saw two newer documentaries on MS 408 which reopened the mystery for me.

I decided to use my own research skills in order to compile an updated review of the history and scientific facts about this manuscript. The best way to set the context for The Voynich Manuscript (hereafter VMS) is to consider the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Which was a time of magic.

The Medieval to Renaissance Mind

In order to understand the VMS, in my view, one must enter into a different mindset. A worldview wherein the psychosphere is such that magic is real. Not only is God real and the Creator of all that exists, but also that things, words, places, and so on are imbued with power. And there is a constant pursuit on behalf of some to harness this power and to use it for either good or ill.

Late Medieval and early Renaissance people often believed in the power of amulets, talismans, tinctures, elixirs, and relics. Both the Judaic and Christian Kabbalah were studied, the casting of horoscopes and divination were practiced, and the like. What we today would call occult practices were blended with more practical forms at the beginnings of science. Astronomy and astrology were on a rather equal footing. The same was true for alchemy, chemistry, herbalism, and medicine.

The search for the philosopher’s stone in order to transmute base metals into gold was an obsession for some. This pursuit comingled with the search for the elixir of life and the search for various holy relics.

The Danger Zone

Despite the fact that many openly practiced these pursuits, that does not mean that they could do so with impunity or that they never faced any possible resistance. In fact, the Catholic Church sometimes condemned or persecuted those involved in such activities. However, this enhanced a need for secrecy and this is why some think that whatever the contents of the VMS, it was encoded or encyphered in order to keep it secret from any potential persecutors.

Some royals courts were more open than others. The court of Elizabeth I famously had an official magus known as John Dee as an example. Likewise the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II loved the occult. Indeed his court of was overflowing with magicians, alchemists, and a host of practitioners of the occult sciences. He also had, according to most histories and legends, a copy of both the Codex Gigas or Devil’s Bible and the VMS.

In fact, this association between Rudolf and two visitors to his court had many thinking for quite some time that the VMS was a forgery or encoded book made by John Dee and magician cohort Edward Kelley. Among Anglophone historians, the reputation of Kelley is often quite bad. He is seen as hoaxer or forger who made up fake languages and fake alphabets in order to fool people. Including Dee himself.

On the European continent, however, Kelley’s reputation is quite a bit better and he is not presented in quite so negative a light. During his time, many on the continent actually claimed that Kelley was not just a practitioner of magic but was also a successful alchemist. In fact, Rudolf supposedly worked alongside Kelley as he actually created gold. Yet, because Kelley would never reveal his secrets to Rudolf, he was punished by the Emperor.

Due to this and a falling out that took place between Kelley and Dee, historians were rightly curious about the VMS as being just another in a series of shady deals that Kelley may have been involved with. However, in my video presentation on the VMS, I point out several problems with these theories and demonstrate that it is highly unlikely that either Dee or Kelley ever had any involvement with the VMS:

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Joshua Smith

Defender of family, freedom, and history. Concerned observer of our world.