The Voynich manuscript has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II. No one has yet succeeded in deciphering the text, and it has become a famous case in the history of cryptography.
Because the text cannot be read, the illustrations are conventionally used to divide most of the manuscript into six different sections: Herbal, Astronomical, Biological, Cosmological, Pharmaceutical, and — Recipes.
The first confirmed owner was Georg Baresch (1585–1662), an obscure alchemist from Prague.
Baresch was apparently just as puzzled as modern scientists about this “Sphynx” that had been “taking up space uselessly in his library” for many years.
On learning that Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), a Jesuit scholar from the Collegio Romano, had published a Coptic (Egyptian) dictionary and “deciphered” the Egyptian hieroglyphs,
Baresch twice sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher in Rome, asking for clues. Baresch’s 1639 letter to Kircher is the earliest confirmed mention of the manuscript that has been found to date.
Upon Baresch’s death, the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci (1595–1667; also known as Johannes Marcus Marci), then rector of Charles University in Prague.
A few years later Marci sent the book to Kircher, his longtime friend and correspondent.
The letter was written in Latin.
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 that it could be read by no one except yourself.
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, a tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book 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 judgement; it is your place to define for us what view we should take thereon, to whose favor and kindness I unreservedly commit myself and remain
- At the command of your Reverence,
- Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland
- Prague, 19th August, 1665
The book was then given or lent to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (died 1622), the head of Rudolf’s botanical gardens in Prague, probably as part of the debt Rudolf II owed upon his death.