The Voynich Manuscript at the Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

A Library Planet post by Stuart Kells

The Beinecke Library at Yale is a marvel of library architecture and indeed of all forms of architecture. A temple of rare books, it was designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft of the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Construction finished in 1963. The core of the library is a six-storey, glass-enclosed tower that houses the book stacks. The tower is surrounded by a void, and the outer skin of the library is another box, this one made from translucent Vermont marble panels in a Vierendeel steel truss clad in granite.

One of the treasures of the library is the mysterious ‘Voynich Manuscript’ (Beinecke 408). Probably from Central or Eastern Europe, this fifteenth-century illustrated codex is written in an undeciphered language. The manuscript takes its name from antiquarian bookdealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who purchased it in 1912. Yale received it in 1969. While often characterised as a magical, astrological, medical or scientific text, the work’s meaning has so far eluded researchers.

Like many people, I have long been fascinated by the manuscript. I’ve spent many hours looking at the high-resolution digital copy on the Yale website – even making a game of it with my youngest daughter, Charlotte. (At the age of six, Charlotte came up with a plausible identification of one of the botanical illustrations as the castor oil plant.)

In 1995, Australian philosopher David Chalmers put forward what he called the ‘hard problem of consciousness’, which relates to how people perceive reality. According to Chalmers, any new theory of consciousness will fail unless it offers a solution to the ‘hard problem’.

In the case of Voynich, too, there is a hard problem. Some sections in the manuscript seem to have been written in a practised hand, and they have the feel of real language. Those sections are a large part of why people take the manuscript seriously. But at the same time there are highly problematic sections, such as those that contain a high degree of strange repetition of longish words such as (in the European Voynich alphabet) ‘qokedy’. In those passages, there are also sequences of words that are almost repetition, but with single letter changes. These problematic passages are a large part of why many people think the manuscript is a hoax, or nonsense.

A convincing theory of Voynich needs to explain this divide, which is the ‘hard problem’ of the manuscript. The Voynich text can only be unlocked once that problem is solved. And in 2023, a solution may well be imminent.

Dr Lisa Fagin Davis is a palaeographer, codicologist, fragmentologist and bibliographer with a particular interest in pre-seventeenth-century manuscript fragments and collections in North America. Having taught Latin Palaeography at Yale, Dr Davis now teaches Manuscript Studies at the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science and, as of 2023, she is the regular Latin Palaeography instructor at The Rare Book School, University of Virginia.

Since receiving her PhD in Medieval Studies from Yale University in 1993, she has written and published extensively in that field. She has also catalogued medieval manuscript collections at major institutions (Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Wellesley College, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Boston Public Library) and several private collections, and she has supervised or was the principal investigator for several digital reconstructions of dismembered manuscripts.

Dr Davis has examined the manuscript in person more than half a dozen times, and she is recognised as a leading expert in Voynich studies. She is also a very engaging person, and is very transparent about her work; she is active on ‘manuscript twitter’ and ‘rare book twitter’, and through that platform and others she patiently responds to questions and theories about the manuscript.

Davis’s recent work includes a breakthrough finding: conformation that the Voynich manuscript is the work of multiple scribes. By applying the principles of Latin Palaeography to the Voynichese writing system, Davis has identified five separate hands at work in the manuscript, revealing the work to be a much more collaborative production than previously assumed.

Further examination of the manuscript by Davis has established that by ‘overlaying the scribal corpora onto the sections and quires’, it is evident that the book is assembled in a highly unusual way, probably indicating that the pages are not currently in their original order.

Together, Davis’s findings are very promising and could offer a solution to the ‘hard problem’ of the manuscript. Linguists such as Australian-born Yale Professor Claire Bowern are now building on her findings to analyse the language of the different scribal parts, to test the hypothesis that the respective scribes were writing in different languages or dialects; or even the idea that one scribe was writing a real language, and one or more other scribes were not.

Last week, I had the pleasure of asking Lisa Fagin Davis some questions about the manuscript, and the current state of Voynich studies.

SK: Why do so many people find the Voynich manuscript so fascinating?

LFD: The Voynich Manuscript appeals to a general audience because of its enduring mystery … what is it? What does it SAY? What do the mysterious illustrations mean? The astrological and astronomical diagrams? What’s the deal with the naked women bathing? It is so much more than just a manuscript written in a unique writing system that may be a code. The fact that it IS a unique writing system adds to the appeal … who WOULDN’T want to be the first to crack it?

SK: Is today an exciting time to be a leading scholar in Voynich manuscript studies?

LFD: For sure! Today’s researchers have a whole set of tools at their disposal that previous generations couldn’t have imagined. The high-resolution open-access images on the Beinecke website allow anyone with internet access to view the manuscript in full, download images, zoom in, crop, print, and annotate. Internet communities such as Voynich Ninja < > bring together both professional and amateur researchers for collaboration and critique. Generally speaking, these online communities are generous, capacious, collaborative spaces, believe it or not. Online media, Youtube, blogs, and other outlets facilitate sharing and promotion of ideas and theories (often without vetting, which is of course the danger of online publishing without peer review). And while past researchers like Elizebeth and William Friedman had access to early computers in the 1960s and 1970s, the power they could access was nothing compared to today’s computers. Not to mention AI engines, of course, which are also being brought to bear for linguistic, computational, and cryptographic analyses. Finally, the Voynich used to be thought of only as a joke and as the domain of conspiracy theorists and crackpots. That impression still holds somewhat, of course, but as more peer-reviewed work continues to be published the topic is becoming more “acceptable” in mainstream academia. The recent online Voynich conference that was sponsored by the University of Malta with proceedings published online and open-access definitely helped give Voynich research a patina of respectability! The proceedings are online here:

SK: In broad terms, how did you establish that the manuscript is the work of multiple scribes?

LFD: I applied methodologies usually applied to Latin scripts, analysing particular letterforms and particular FEATURES of particular letterforms that are consistent in one group of pages but take a different, also consistent, form on a different group of pages. Features that show the same usage patterns combine to confirm the identification of the groups of pages written by particular hands. For example, in the Roman alphabet one might look at how someone writes [&]. For any writer, that symbol will be written in the same manner whenever they write it, while a different writer will write it differently.

SK: Given what you’ve discovered about the work of multiple scribes, and possibly the presence of multiple ‘dialects’ in the manuscript, do you feel that you and your colleagues are getting close to unravelling the manuscript’s meaning and origins?

LFD: It’s really hard to say. There is still strong disagreement among very smart people about whether Voynichese is a transcript of natural human language, a code, or nonsense. Some argue that it is a forgery made by Voynich or an early-modern trickster (I find that extremely unlikely, because of the codicological and provenance evidence). Continued analyses will hopefully lead to the resolution of these questions, which will get us that much closer to the complete answer(s).

SK: How do you think you will feel if, in the next few years, Voynichese is finally unlocked and the manuscript is finally translated?

LFD: I would be thrilled if a solution were published that stood up to review. For a solution to be acceptable, it needs to clear several hurdles, laid out in this Twitter thread of mine:

When and if a solution is found that meets the standard for being accepted, then there will still be significant work to do in studying the plain text, interpreting the images, and researching the origins and provenance of the manuscript in the context of the decrypted/translated text. I look forward to the day when the manuscript gives up its secrets!


Here are some other useful links:


With Melissa Conway, Dr Davis is co-author of the Directory of Pre-1600 Manuscripts in the United States and Canada, published online by the Bibliographical Society of America and as Volume 109:3 of the Papers of the BSA ( In 2016, Dr Davis also co-curated the exhibition ‘Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections’ at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Dr Davis is the author of the highly regarded ‘The Manuscript Road Trip’ blog that is dedicated to promoting collections of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in North America (Manuscript Road Trip | Medieval Manuscripts in the United States (

Follow her on Twitter @LisaFDavis, or see Dr Davis at work on YouTube: <;.


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