DECIPHERING THE MOST MYSTERIOUS
MANUSCRIPT IN THE WORLD
by Aldrich Daimler
The intelligent reader will judge for himself. Without examining the
facts fully and fairly, there is no way of knowing whether vox populi
is really vox dei, or merely vox asinorum. -- Cyrus H. Gordon, from
Riddles in History
Contemporary and Not So Contemporary Cryptography
It is always unfortunate to find another science which has fallen
prey to the whims of the so-called "schools of thought".
Unfortunately, it would appear that the science of Cryptography has
become their latest victim, and seems to be directly linked to the
introduction of the computer, and the use of its ability to
perform "complex calculations". Let us not forget, that the science
of Cryptography is not a science of numbers, but one of
words....symbols. Written language is cryptography in its purest
sense. It follows no laws or rules as does the science of
mathematics. It is creative and spontaneous. The ancient scribes with
their acrostic-telestic inscriptions, anagrams, and bi-literal
ciphers (to name but a few methods used) realized that the purest
cipher was one that was not revealed as a cipher. These ancient
scribes were certainly as intelligent if not more so than we consider
ourselves today, and manipulated language so deftly that it often
takes modern scholars a long time to grasp the presence, let alone
all the subtleties, of ancient riddles. These
ancient "steganographers" utilized their creative art to conceal the
messages of their day.
Today's "encryption" schemes with all their lifeless algorithms are
not the engines of ingenuity they claim to be, but are merely
simplistic number scramblers. They may have their purpose in the
transmission of data, but the messages they render unintelligible
disclose the fact that they contain concealed information, and hold
no value aesthetically as far as cryptographic writing is concerned.
There simply is no vision in creating machines that spew forth
deluges of riffled characters. Of course, the cryptographic orthodoxy
would reel at this statement as they try ever harder to find the
perfect algorithm, or struggle with the endless factoring of streams
of numbers. Their view is toward unification and adoption of
standards in the cryptographic sciences, thus putting to rest any
sense of creative vision.
The true art of Steganography (a method by which a message can be
disguised by making it appear to read or be something else) is one
such creative form of cryptography that has been lost (some methods
still exist) and seems to have gone the way of most secrets of
ancient knowledge. A classic example of this lack of vision by
the "authorities" in cryptography is their detraction of William
Romaine Newbold's decipherment of the Voynich Manuscript. There are
many reasons, which will be detailed here, why many had derogated
Newbold's findings. For instance, if Newbold's assertions were
correct, scientific history would have to be re-written. Such is the
importance of this most incredible document. In the following pages I
shall not only give a detailed history of what has been referred to
as the "most mysterious manuscript in the world", but will show that
Newbold most likely did solve the cipher of the Voynich manuscript,
and was probably the only one of his day qualified to do so.
HISTORY OF THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT
In order to understand the nature of this undertaking it is necessary
to describe the Voynich manuscript (hereinafter referred to as "MS")
and detail its most curious history. The Voynich MS is so named after
Wilfrid M. Voynich, a well known bibliophile from New York. In 1912,
during one of Mr. Voynich's many visits to Europe in quest of old and
rare books, he came across a remarkable collection of precious
manuscripts. These volumes had been buried in a chest and remained
hidden inside a castle in Southern Italy for decades. While he was
perusing the manuscripts for purchase, his attention was particularly
drawn to one odd, out of place looking bundle. Examination revealed
the MS to be written entirely in cipher. Even a brief inspection of
the vellum upon which it was written, the calligraphy, the drawings,
and the pigments suggested its date of origin as the latter part of
the thirteenth century. It was not until some time after Mr. Voynich
purchased the MS that he read the document attached to the front
cover bearing the date1665 (or 1666). It is a letter from Joannes
Marcus Marci, rector of the University of Prague, to Athanasius
Kircher, a Jesuit scholar, presenting the MS as a gift to Kircher.
Its most important significance can be seen from the following
translation of it:
REVEREND AND DISTINGUISHED SIR, FATHER IN CHRIST:
This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined
for you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my
possession, for I was convinced it could be read by no one except
The former owner of this book asked your opinion by letter,
copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he
believed you would be able to read the remainder, but he at that
time refused to send the book itself. To its deciphering he devoted
unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send
you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life. But his
toil was in vain, for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their
master, Kircher. Accept now this token, such as it is and long
overdue though it be, of my affection for you, and burst through its
bars, if there are any, with your wonted success.
Dr. Raphael, tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand Ill,
then King of Bohemia, told me the said book had belonged to the
Emperor Rudolph and that he presented to the bearer who brought
him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger
Bacon, the Englishman. On this point I suspend judgment; it is
your place to define for us what view we should take thereon, to
whose favor and kindness I unreservedly commit myself and
At the command of your Reverence,
JOANNES MARCUS MARCI,
PRAGUE, 19th August, 1665 (or I666).
The key, here, is that the un-named "bearer" believed the author was
Roger Bacon, the 13th century Franciscan monk, philosopher, magician,
and alchemist. Bacon had been persecuted for his writings and
scientific discoveries, and referred in his works to the necessity of
hiding his great secrets in cipher. This emphasis on Roger Bacon's
authorship will become clear in later development. One should not
confuse Roger Bacon with the Renaissance figure Francis Bacon (F.
Bacon was also quite prolific on ciphering techniques) The testimony
in the letter of Dr. Raphael, that the MS was once in the possession
of Emperor Rudolph is fairly determinative. The signature of Jacobus
de Tepenecz found inside the MS confirms the fact that the MS found
its way to the Emperor's court, as de Tepenecz was ennobled and
befriended by the Emperor in 1608, and lived at his palace.
Further investigation by Mr. Voynich revealed that the MS had been in
the possession of Dr. John Dee, the 16th century astrologer and
magician. Dee had spent the years between 1584 and1588 at Rudolph's
court as a secret agent of Queen Elizabeth I, and probably brought
the MS to Prague. Dee was an admirer of Bacon and collected many of
his works (a catalogue of Dee's library prepared in 1583 enumerates
thirty-seven works of Bacon).Sir Thomas Browne, the inventor of the
English word 'cryptography', claimed that Dee's son Arthur had spoken
to him about a 'book containing nothing but hieroglyphiks, which book
his father bestowed much time upon, but I could not hear that he
could make it out'.
If we are to go back any further we might speculate that Dee obtained
a good portion of his Bacon collection from the Northumberland
family. It is known that Dee was closely associated with the Duchess
of Northumberland, and that the Duke of Northumberland received the
spoils from the dissolution of monasteries that began around 1538. It
is presumed that from these spoils, the Duke (or more likely the
Duchess) of Northumberland presented Dee with the MS.
A BRIEF SKETCH OF THE CONTENTS OF THE VOYNICH MS
The Voynich MS is a small quarto averaging about 6 by 9inches. The MS
now contains the equivalent of 246 quarto pages, but may have
originally contained not less than 262 pages. 33pages contain text
only, 212 with text and drawings, and the last page contains the Key.
The text is written in an enciphered script, and the drawings are
colored in red, blue, brown, yellow, and green. The contents of the
MS are divided up into 5categories. The first and largest section
contains 130 pages of plant drawings with accompanying text, and is
called the Botanical division. The second contains 26 pages of
drawings, obviously astrological and astronomical in nature. The
third section contains 4 pages of text and 28 drawings, which would
appear to be biological in nature.
The fourth division contains 34 pages of drawings, which are
pharmaceutical in nature. The last section of the MS contains 23pages
of text arranged in short paragraphs, each beginning with a star. The
last page (the 24th of this division) contains the Key only.
VOYNICH AND NEWBOLD
After considerable historical research, Mr. Voynich submitted the MS
to several cryptographers. When the symbols in the MS had been copied
and classified, their appearance and frequency were found to be
consistent throughout, and seemed to have been composed in a single-
alphabet substitution cipher. But, this did not appear to be the
case, much to the dismay of the cryptographers, and they could not
extract an intelligible message in any language from the text. The MS
was then surrendered to several botanists and astronomers (due to the
nature of the drawings) and to many experts in ancient languages— all
to no avail. Realizing the possibility that the MS might require the
interpretation of someone versed in cabalistic lore (Roger Bacon was
no stranger to this) Voynich finally turned over the MS to Dr.
William Romaine Newbold, of the University of Pennsylvania, and one
of the greatest students of medieval philosophy and science. Newbold
possessed the advantage that he was familiar with medieval methods of
thought, was versed in occult sciences, and, he was also a
cryptographer. Newbold started work on deciphering the Voynich MS in
NEWBOLD'S DECIPHERMENT WITH SOME CONCLUSIONS
When Newbold first attacked the MS for decipherment, he realized that
he needed to find a key which would allow him to understand how the
MS was enciphered. On the last page of the MS was written a single
"michiton oladabas multos te tccr cerc portas"
Disregarding the obvious nulls used in the sentence (ton ola tetccr
cerc) and exchanging the "o" in "multos" for "a", the intelligible
Latin sentence emerges:
"michi dabas multas portas"
translating into English, "To me thou gavest many gates."
Counting the number of letters in the sentence reveals it to be22.
Newbold then adapted the Latin alphabet to it omitting the
letter "k", replacing "x" with "v" and produced the first form of the
cipher alphabet used by Bacon:
m i c h i d a b a s m u l t a s p o r t a s
a b c d e f g h i l m n o p q r s t u v y z
Here is what makes Newbold's qualifications for decipherment of the
MS so felicitous. Newbold understood that a major clue was to be
found in the word "portas", in that its interpreted cabalistic
meaning of "gates" would be the secret to the clarification of the
Key. Newbold knew that Bacon was well acquainted with the Cabala and
would have used such a plan in his Key, for in Bacon's Epistle on the
Nullity of Magic, where he details several ciphering systems, the
sixth such system is called, "The Kabbalah of the Nine Chambers".
From Newbold's footnotes we find the following:
"In Cabalistic philosophy the universe consists of God's
thought; thought is expressed in speech; speech is composed of
letters; hence the Letters are the ultimate constituents of Things.
The ''gates" are the 231 biliteral combinations of the Hebrew
Ietters (doubles omitted; 231 permutated pairs added by later
writers); they represent the primary combinations of the highest
manifestations of the divine Being which are at once the forces
which make other things, the material of which they are made, and
the channels through which the divine energy streams forth into
the lower world. A single quotation from the Sepher Yezirah, will
He combined (the Letters), weighed them, exchanged them,
Aleph with all and all with Aleph, Beth with all and all with Beth,
and they go (each) all the way around (the Alphabet). And they are
found (comprised) in 231 gates, and everything formed and
everything uttered is found to proceed from one Name."
Thus, "gates" not only implies a cipher of many steps, but it reveals
that the gates are the channels through which alphabetic values are
conveyed from Key Sentence to the 484(admitting doubled letters)
With the Key now in hand, Newbold began to approach the actual text
of the MS. With more cabalistic associations appearing, Newbold
discovered 22 distinct symbols, among these 22 were recognized the 15
signs that composed the Greek system of shorthand. Bacon was quite
familiar with this Greek system, having written a grammar including
such information, and reading from the eighth chapter of Bacon's
Epistle on the Nullity of Magic, we will find the great significance
he placed on secret writing, and particular reference to the
"The man is insane who writes a secret in any other way than one
which will conceal it from the vulgar and make it intelligible only
with difficulty even to scientific men and earnest students. On this
point the entire body of scientific men have been agreed from the
outset, and by many methods have concealed from the vulgar all
secrets of science. For some have concealed many things by
magic figures and spells, others by mysterious and symbolic
words. For example, Aristotle in the Book of Secrets says to
Alexander, 'O Alexander, I wish to show you the greatest secret of
secrets; may the Divine Power help you to conceal the mystery
and to accomplish your aim. Take therefore the stone which is not
a stone and is in every human being and in every place and at
every time, and it is called the Egg of the Philosophers, and
Terminus of the Egg.' Innumerable examples of the kind are to be
found in many books and divers sciences, veiled in such
terminology that they cannot be understood at all without a
teacher. The third method of concealment which they have
employed is that of writing in different ways, for example, by
consonants alone, so that no one can read it unless he knows the
words and their meanings. In this way the Hebrews and the
Chaldaeans and Syrians and Arabs write their secrets. Indeed, as
a general thing, they write almost everything in this way, and
therefore among them, and especially among the Hebrews.
Important scientific knowledge lies hidden. For Aristotle in the
book above mentioned says that God gave them all scientific
knowledge before there were any philosophers, and that from the
Hebrews all nations received the first elements of philosophy. .. .
In the fourth place, concealment is effected by commingling letters
of various kinds; it is in this way that Ethicus the astronomer
concealed his scientific knowledge by writing it in Hebrew, Greek,
and Latin letters in the same written line. In the fifth place,
persons have achieved concealment by means of letters not then
used by their own race or others but arbitrarily invented by
themselves; this is the greatest obstacle of all, and Artephiushas
employed it in his book On the Secrets of Nature. In the sixth
place, people invent not characters like letters, but geometrical
figures which acquire the significance of letters by means of
points and marks differently arranged; these likewise Artephius
has used in his science. In the seventh place, the greatestdevice
for concealment is that of shorthand, which is a method of noting
and writing down as briefly as we please and as rapidly as we
desire; by this method many secrets are written in the books of the
Latin-using peoples. I have thought fit to touch upon these
methods of concealment because I may perhaps, by reason of the
importance of my secrets, employ some of these methods, and it
is my desire to aid in this way, at least you, to the extent of my
The other 7 shorthand signs of Newbold's discovery all fit the same
general character of the first 15, and were used by Bacon to fill out
the Greek shorthand, which was lacking expression.
Newbold continued by employing the biliteral method to the converted
shorthand, and found that frequency analysis of the resultant
alphabet revealed it to be characteristic of Latin. The final stage
in the process of decipherment was the anagramming process. The
process of anagramming texts was probably the most popular method of
the day used for concealing messages, and the necessity of
concealment was due to political or ecclesiastical reasons of the
time, making the information unpropitious for pronouncement. It is
known that the Cabalists were professed anagrammatists, and the third
part of their art – themuru (changing) dealt with transposition and
recombination of the letters of words for mystical interpretation.
The fact that it was also a tradition among the "orders" can be
witnessed in the works of von Bingen, and certainly in the Abbe N. De
Montfaucon De Villars' "Comte De Gabalis" (Quodtanto impendio
absconditur etiam solummodo demonstrare destruereest - Tertullian).
It was even continued with the likes of Galileo (Haec immatura a me
jam frustra leguntur - oy), Tycho Brahe (who also was at the court of
Rudolph), Johannes Kepler, and many others.
At last, the plain text began to emerge, and without going too far
afield for the letters of anagrammed text. The letters to be
rearranged occurred in pairs next to one another, either indirect or
reverse order, and only relatively infrequently did Newbold have to
go as far as three or four words ahead in order to fill in the
What Newbold discovered in the text was absolutely astonishing—
enough to gather a lot of attention from the scientific community.
The biological drawings in the text were described asseminiferous
tubes, the microscopic cells with nuclei, and even spermatozoa. Among
the astronomical drawings were the descriptions of spiral nebulae, a
coronary eclipse, and the comet of 1273. One of the more baffling
things about this was that many of the drawings of plants, and of the
galaxies appeared to have been invented. There was no doubt that if
Bacon were the author of such a text, he must have had some way of
obtaining the information. For instance, Newbold's translation of the
caption near the drawing of the nebula of Andromeda (which clearly
shows its spiral characteristics), gave its location by the
"In a concave mirror I saw a star in the form of a snail....between
navel of Pegasus, the girdle of Andromeda, and the head of
Now, Bacon is credited with the invention of the magnifying glass,
but it should be certain that he did not invent the telescope or the
microscope as many at the time of this discovery conjectured.
The "concave mirror" is probably the single most important clue here.
Many of the later prominent Renaissance figures would not only
describe similar visions of travel to distant places, several also
included such "shewstones" as their viewing apparatus. In the works
of Dee, Kircher, and even the more famous Nostradamus, one will find
reference to such a device, and in each case these individuals
recorded the experience of visions associated with it. Some of their
descriptions were later proven to be precise. The actual knowledge
pertaining to the use of a device such as this is probably now lost,
but in any case it is most worthy of mention considering the
circumstances. Let us now turn to some of the objections to Newbold's
decipherment of the MS.
NEWBOLD'S DETRACTORS - AND HIS VALIDATION
Initially, upon the announcement of his findings in1921, Newbold
received some praise for his work. Even John M. Manly, a military
intelligence cryptanalyst, wrote a favourable review in Harper's
Magazine. But, this was not to last very long, and soon the attacks
proceeded. The first of such attacks came from research chemists who
stated that the rough vellum surface upon which the MS was written
had caused the ink to break up into spots and shadings with age. This
break up of characters, they stated, was what Newbold had actually
seen when deciphering the shorthand characters.
This criticism that the ink had merely broken up into spots and
shadings due to age was unfounded due to the fact that many documents
nearly as aged as the Voynich MS, with comparable ink, do not display
cracking similar to the individual characters in the MS. Also, if the
arrangement of characters was due to this breaking up of the ink,
certainly more than 22 individual shorthand symbols would have been
discovered by Newbold.
The next attack was concerned with the biliteral method of Newbold's
decipherment. Cryptographers stated that by Newbold's methods, Bacon
could not have enciphered the text to begin with. But, Newbold
clearly detailed the enciphering process, and revealed that Bacon did
not use "orthodox" methods of enciphering to which the cryptographers
Attacked most heavily of all was the anagramming process Newbold
used. These detractors maintained that one could anagram any text
into anything one chose, and that this method would not have followed
the qualifications of a "good" cipher, in that the first quality of
any "good" cipher is that it must convey its message with absolute
certainty. Newbold's anagramming process did NOT use "blocks of 55 to
110 characters", as had been put forth by these detractors, on the
contrary, it can be shown from his own notes that he was very careful
in his observations:
"The only indication that the recomposition is correct is the regular
appearance, at intervals of NOT more than three or four words, of
letter groups suggesting words appropriate, in syntax and logic, to
the preceding text. If they fail to appear, if one is driven to
arbitrary choice in order to make sense, the recomposition is
I have observed this misrepresentation of facts of Newbold's
decipherment in a number of works (David Kahn's gigantic work titled
The Codebreakers immediately comes to mind) and find it quite an
admonition to any other statements made by such authors. The fact
that his detractors used such methods to anagram texts into any
messages they seemed fit — designed to expose flaws in Newbold's
decipherment — is clearly disinformation. Newbold, by HIS method,
equally tried other texts of the period including works of Bacon
which were not meant to be in cipher, and while he could form Latin
words for a time, he was soon left with unmanageable groups of
consonants, and discontinued the experiment, as Latin requires
between 40 and 50 percent vowels.
It wasn't until after Newbold's death in 1926 that more serious
assaults would come. In 1931 John Manly (who earlier gave praise)
published a 47 page article in Speculum Magazine of what he called "a
detailed analysis" that attempted to make Newbold's work seem
entirely worthless. But many more would hinge their deprecations on
Newbold's interpretation of the drawings contained in the MS. Most
said that the biological pictures were cabalistic (they certainly
were!), symbolical, vague, and capable of various interpretations. I
must note that I personally have given these biological drawings to
persons well credentialed in the field of Biology, and asked them to
give me an explanation of what they see in them. In every instance,
and without any prior knowledge of the MS, they have given
descriptions that very closely resemble the deciphered
interpretations of Newbold.
Other assailants made particular note of the drawing that represented
the nebula Andromeda. Based on the fact that the spiral nebula in
Andromeda lies edge on to earthly observers, Bacon would have had to
have an incredibly powerful telescope to view such a thing. But, as
we have noted, no one was really claiming that he did.
It may be deduced from these painstaking onslaughts that maybe these
assailants felt it was necessary to hide the true nature of the work.
In Manly's 1931 article, he blatantly reveals his real concerns with
the warning to all that, "these results (of Newbold's) threaten to
falsify to no unimportant degree, the history of human thought."
Kahn, in The Codebreakers, devotes several pages to the MS
decipherment, and groups Newbold into a category he later describes
as oddballs and lunatics who believe in such things as water witching.
Of course, the depreciated Newbold decipherment did not discourage
others from attempting to figure out the MS, and a few of the
arguments put forward may have been somewhat conceivable. In 1944,
Professor Hugh O'Neil, a botanist at the Catholic University of
America, offered evidence that the MS could not have been written
before 1493. He observed that the drawings in the MS include the
likes of the common sunflower, and Capsicum, both plants native to
the Americas which according to him, were unknown to Europeans before
the return of Columbus from his second voyage. We needn't go into the
Columbus discovery here, as historically it is well known that he was
hardly the first to venture to the Americas.
Not long after O'Neil's observations, Dr. Leonell Strong, a cancer
research scientist and amateur cryptographer, took on the project of
deciphering the MS. Fancifully boasting that he could "unravel" the
secret of any cipher, Strong said that the solution to the MS cipher
was a "peculiar double system of arithmetical progressions of a
multiple alphabet". Even here, there was a great similarity to
Newbold's system, but Strong altogether bombastically stated that the
plaintext revealed the MS to be written by the 16th century English
author Anthony Ascham, whose works include A Little Herbal, published
in 1550. Although the MS does contain one section resembling an
herbal, it is unknown where the author of A Little Herbal would have
obtained such literary and cryptographic knowledge.
The speculation of William F. Friedmann, another military
cryptographer, was that the MS was actually a text in an artificial
language, and may have held some merit if it were not for the fact
that he was also responsible, and instrumental in the demolition of
Newbold's theory (again, after Newbold's death). But, he, too never
went any further than this simple hypothesis. Many others have
invented their own versions of decipherment of the MS, but all of
them fall short of making anything intelligible out of the mysterious
characters. To the cryptographic orthodoxy, the MS is
still "undeciphered". I believe many have merely taken the
disparaging words of others as proof that the Newbold solution is
bogus, without actually examining the specifics. Had Newbold been an
amateur with nothing but this decipherment for credentials, it would
certainly raise some doubt. But, Newbold indeed practised his
techniques on similar manuscripts such as the Tironian signs of the
so-called Vatican Document (which I won't detail here as it would
necessitate the space of an entire article in itself) and many
others. It is most probable though, that the Voynich MS actually cost
Newbold his health, both physically and mentally. In the latter days
of his work on the MS he began to grow weary and would often
restructure his entire method without any sense of reason. Still, the
heart of Newbold's inspiration lies in his initial work on the MS,
and there has not been anyone since who has even come close to the
original genius of his solution to "the most mysterious manuscript in
1. The Cipher of Roger Bacon by William Romaine Newbold,
edited by Roland Grubb Kent. University of Pennsylvania Press,
2. Secret and Urgent -The Story of Codes and Ciphers by Fletcher
Pratt. Blue Ribbon Books, 1942.
3. The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly Palmer Hall.
Philosophical Research Society, 1977.
4. Cryptography - The Science of Secret Writing by Lawrence
Dwight Smith. W.W. Norton, 1943.
5. Opus Majus by Roger Bacon. Complete Latin version by
Howard R. Bayne, 1946.
6. Comte De Gabalis by the Abbe N. De Montfaucon DeVillars.
7. "The Incredible Roger Bacon" by Manley Mills. Fate, April 1951,
8. "Cipher of the Secret Book" by Betty McKaig (Interview with
Leonell Strong). North County Independent, Oct. 7, 1970.
9. "The Insignificant Cry of Roger Bacon" by Malachi Martin.
Intellectual Digest, August, 1972. pp 52-55.
10. "Codes and Ciphers" by Peter Way – Encyclopedia of Espionage,
Aldus Books London, 1977.
11. Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature by C. C.
Bombaugh. J. B. Lippincott, 1890.
12. Riddles in History by Cyrus H. Gordon. Crown Publishers,
13. A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years
Between Dr. John Dee...and Some Spirits. Edited by Meric
Casaubon. London, 1659.
14. The Hieroglyphic Monad by Dr. John Dee translated byJ. W.
Hamilton-Jones. Neil & Co. Edinburgh, 1947.
15. The Curious Lore of Precious Stones pp 188-196
16. The Codebreakers by David Kahn. McMillan Co., 1967.
Copyright © 1997 Borderland Sciences Research Foundation,Inc. All