The Voynich Manuscript: A Translation†
Fragment 1: Manuscript Pages 1-3
The so-called Voynich Manuscript is —or is believed to be— a work treating of botanical, pharmaceutical, astrological, and balneological matters, written on calf vellum in northern Italy in the early fifteenth century. The manuscript is first known to have been in the possession of the Czech collector and alchemist Jiří Bareš (1585-1662), from whom it passed in 1665, via the physician Jan Marek Marci (1595-1668), to the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) in Rome. It remained in Jesuit collections until 1912, when it was purchased by the London-based Polish antique bookdealer Wilfrid Voynich (1865-1930). This latter’s eponymous treasure is currently held in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection of Yale University Library (MS 408), which has, to the great benefit of researchers, digitized the work and made high-resolution scans available online.
The Voynich Manuscript has long been held to have been written either in an unknown natural language or in an uncrackable cipher. As if this were not mysterious enough, until now none of the dozens of botanical illustrations in the work have been successfully identified with any known species of plant. It is not surprising therefore that many scholars have taken the manuscript for a fraud, perhaps perpetrated by Voynich himself, who for his part long insisted it was an encrypted treatise of the medieval Oxford alchemist Roger Bacon. Evidence from carbon-14 dating and chemical analysis have in more recent years shown that the work is indeed as old as Voynich claimed, but beyond this not much more has been resolved… that is, perhaps, until now.
I myself have written a bit about the manuscript (see for example, this recent piece of mine in the Wall Street Journal), but I remain a mere amateur, unlike my longtime friend and intimate sharer of Voynich insights Justine-Hélène Le Goff, a holistic large-animal veterinarian serving the farming communities in the region of Quimper (Brittany). I cannot of course vouch for the accuracy of what she has come up with, and so far she is only willing to share the first three pages of her translation, nor will she reveal any of the methodological considerations by which she arrived at her interpretation. But I am confident, based on long and significant exposure to the workings of her exceptional mind, that whatever Justine-Hélène says about the mysterious manuscript is not to be ignored.
What follows is my faithful translation from the French of the materials Justine-Hélène has sent me, together with images of the first three manuscript pages themselves. It is recommended you read the translations (that is, my translation of her translation) first, and only then to move on to her footnotes (which I have also translated) and to read them consecutively. I will not be able to answer any questions you might have about the text, beyond the information she has provided, nor will Justine-Hélène be willing to answer them, if I’ve understood her uncharacteristically cryptic e-mails to me in this matter. She does however wish to let readers know that, this week only, funds raised by new subscriptions to this very Substack newsletter will go toward helping her to buy a new horse scale for her veterinary practice, and that if her efforts here prove sufficiently useful in covering the expenses accrued in her principal line of work, she will send us further installments of her translation in the future. —J.E.H.S.
Among the stranger beliefs of Cocalus,1 who holds not a few, is this, that the germ drawn from a suitable race of plants may, inserted at the right time of month, midway between a woman’s last courses and her next, generate progeny no less human than what comes from human seed.
Would then that Cocalus kindly inform us which race of plants this might be, so that I, humble herbalist and keeper of the City’s garden,2 should no longer be compelled to search for it.
O, I have seen some unnatural things brought forth from failed implantations, grotesque little sports nipped in the bud by Nature who in her wisdom ensures that like ever proceed from like. I have seen dank vegetal masses that would have thrived in dark soil swiftly aborted for want of any humanity in them, or even animality, to guide them any further toward their proper end; for they had no proper end.3 I have seen a leaf-homunculus born who stalked along a branch like a green mantis for a brief moment, guttating sap out of his rachis as he went; too plant-like even properly to sweat for his vain struggle, he let out a small human cry, and expired.4
I have no place in these endeavors. I am not a midwife or a philosopher, nor have I once opened a grimoire and sought to learn what it is not my place to know. And every book written by human hand, in truth, is a treasury of just such maledicted learning. So I have dedicated myself instead to the only book that opens itself to me faithfully, whose leaves enfold other leaves turned over and out and upward by the sun, by water, by assistance of bees,5 to the delight of honest men. I am an herbalist. But Cocalus wants other things from me, and Cocalus rules this City.
I am grateful at least that Cocalus has others to tyrannize, and when he is taken with them I am at liberty to conduct my own investigations into the nature and properties, and as it were the artful combinatorics,6 of my plants.
By simple strokes have I lifted the rostella of sundry vegetabilia to expose their manly anthers, caught unawares self-contentedly producing pollen particulate or viscous, and then have I slathered it on the womanly stigma of another altogether different race of plant,7 yielding up forms unknown nor foreordained by any Creator — as pictured, for example, on this very page. No immortal souls are at stake in such generations as these, so I tell myself I am committing at worst venial sins and not mortal ones. Or at least that is how they would have come out on an earlier reckoning, before the old faith was prohibited and all memory of it lost.
In my youth of course I indulged in such stunts as bringing forth a Boramez, or a so-called vegetable lamb.8 But this is an easy thing to do, and titillates gawkers, as when an unsuspecting coney is caused to disappear or a cicero-bean is launched through the eye of a needle at great distance.9 Even here no immortal soul was at stake, but at most a sensitive one. Yet my goal was never to titillate, but always to aid the inhabitants of our City through the identification and extraction of new simplicia for the improvement of our bodily health.
I have also perfected, as you can well see here, my Goddess,10 the skill of artistic counterfeit, faithfully reproducing for your delight these several figures of the races of plants of which I count myself, not pridefully, but only truthfully, the architect and progenitor. Nor need I mention my progress in the chifratory art, driven by necessity more than curiosity, for do you imagine for a second that Cocalus would tolerate such open transmission of news to you, who dwell outside the City? I can only hope that this progress in the chifratory art will be matched by yours in the dechifratory one. For how else, my Divine, can you ever hope to learn what I have to tell you?
Cocalus is the name of a mythological Sicilian king who, among other feats, arranged for the killing of Minos, the father of the Minotaur. In context this is almost certainly a moniker rather than a proper name, whether one invented by the author or adopted by “Cocalus” himself. We may also note that in Alphonso X’s late-thirteenth-century translation from Arabic into Spanish of the so called Picatrix or more properly the غاية الحكيم (The Goal of the Wise), an important twelfth-century Arabic grimoire and a key text of the Corpus Hermeticum, the Castilian author lists a “Cocalo” as one in a long line of kings of the fictional city of Adocentyn (no such list exists in the original Arabic, and some have argued that it is an intentionally deceitful addition found only in later fair copies of the Spanish). The Picatrix would, a few centuries later, prove influential for the utopian political vision sketched by Tommaso Campanella in his Civitas Solis (City of the Sun) of 1623. This and other indications that will be revealed in due course indicate with strong probability that the present work is a first-person account of a real-world experiment in the construction of a utopian political community, based broadly on principles derived from Plato’s Republic and from the neo-Platonic and Hermetic traditions, most likely somewhere in peninsular southern Italy or insular Sicily at some point in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. Campanella’s City of the Sun, then, may be understood in this light as an account, or at least an echo, of a true moment in the history of utopian political movements, namely, the one described from an insider’s point of view in the present ms. Why there are no known archaeological remains or other period testimonies of this community remains a mystery, though some considerations in later footnotes may help us to go at least some way towards an explanation.
The role of an “herbalist” or “gardener” in this context might better be understood as something like the “royal apothecary” or even “royal physician”, as best exemplified perhaps by Guy de la Brosse (1586-1641), appointed overseer of the Paris Jardin Royal des Plantes Médicinales (later simply “Jardin des Plantes”) at the time of its foundation by Louis XIII in 1635. If our author’s role is comparable to that of de la Brosse, we may suppose that his qualification for the position involves extensive botanical knowledge, but that he is also charged with the task of seeking pharmaceutical derivatives from the plants in his keep, and to pursue any number of other desiderata pertaining to plants as identified and decreed by his sovereign.
Although it is not clear what books our author has read, and he gives some indication of living and working in an environment where the “classics” of Greek and Latin learning have been banned along with the Bible and other works of the Christian tradition, this sentence nonetheless exhibits at least some broad familiarity with Aristotelian generation theory, in which an animal progresses towards its adult stage thanks to the inherence within it of a form or as it were a program that determines the “ad quem” of its development. In those cases where a distinct form is lacking, as in spontaneous generation or “wind conceptions” as are common among the mares of Portugal and not unknown on the peninsula of Brittany itself, the offspring lacks any particular species identity, and typically therefore fails to develop to maturity. Whether the author’s evident adherence to such a view comes from reading Aristotle and related authors, or whether he managed to receive the broad commonplaces of this tradition passively, through the sort of folk-knowledge that cannot be suppressed in the way books can be, remains an open question.
A certain against-the-grain reading of Julien Offray de la Mettrie’s L’homme-plante (The Man-Plant) of 1748 suggests to some readers that the Enlightenment author was in fact drawing on a long esoteric tradition of experimental inquiry into the hybridization of human beings with plants. The eighteenth century was of course abuzz with talk of the so-called “zoophytes” — species such as the freshwater polyp and other sessile invertebrates that could be split into two and grafted and in many other ways seemed to partake more of a vegetal nature than an animal one. But significantly less attention has been paid to the contemporary discussion of the “anthrophyte”, and of its possible historical precedents in experiments such as those described in the present ms. On this, see Joseph-Marie Cuoco, “‘Cette feuille qui raisonne’ : les hybridisations homme-plante dans la botanique des Lumières”, Actes du Colloque “Les Sciences forestières aujourd’hui et demain”, 12-15 septembre 1981, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, vol. 3, pp. 1131-1135.
Hymenoptera are of course a favored source of allegory in the history of utopian political thought (see, not least, Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714)), but our author is perhaps unique in highlighting not only the stratified and individualized labor roles of bees that were so often considered a virtue of early utopian visions for human beings as well (see, e.g., Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626), not to mention the book that gives the genre its name, Thomas More’s own Utopia (1551)), but also the role of bees as interspecies facilitators of reproduction (much like, note, our gardener himself).
Here the author is anticipating by a few centuries the analogies that G. W. Leibniz (1646-1716) would discern between the formal project of the “combinatorial art”, on the one hand, and certain aspects of botanical science (notably, in Leibniz’s case, taxonomy), on the other (see, in particular, his “G. W. L. Epistola responsoria de Methodo Botanica ad Dissertationem A. C. G. [Alexander Christian Gackenholtz] Medici eximii,” Monatlicher Auszug, April, 1701, vol. VIII, pp. 68-80. But of course Leibniz himself is taking his cue from the fourteenth-century Majorcan polymath Ramon Llull, who saw all of nature through the lens of his own “ars combinatoria”, and who may have been among the intellectual precursors, whether actively studied or passively inherited, of the present ms.’s author.
What the author describes here bears a remarkable similarity to the technique of the Réunionnais horticulturalist and enslaved person Edmond Albius (1829-1880), who first devised a method for the artificial insemination of the vanilla plant, thereby increasing production of the desired export product by several multiples and significantly transforming the economies of the French colonies of Réunion, Mauritius, and Madagascar. The name “Albius” (“White”) was adopted in honor of the color of the plant’s flower. Of course, unlike our author, Albius was not concerned with hybridization, but only with enhancing the fertility of a single species. See Charles Morren, “Note sur la première fructification du Vanillier en Europe”, Annales de la Société Royale d’Horticulture de Paris, vol. 20 (1837): pp. 331-334.
The so-called “Scythian lamb” or the “vegetable lamb of Tartary” is a well-known mythical (?) creature, held to be in outward form identical to a juvenile sheep, but to grow from a stalk in reedy marshes. All other known representations of this creature have it arising spontaneously in nature, rather than being produced by human intervention. It is significant that the author does not mention the supposed Central Asian provenance of the creature, as this suggests he is unaware of the cultural symbolism surrounding it. The Agnus scythicus became a common target of sceptical and anti-superstitious arguments already in the early Enlightenment, and warrants special attention among the false beliefs catalogued in Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1658).
The particular reference here (again, whether actively studied or passively inherited without direct knowledge of the source) seems to be to Quintilian’s first-century BCE Institutio oratoria, where the author relates the story of an itinerant entertainer who impresses crowds by tossing a chickpea through a needle at a distance of ten strides, an example of what Quintilian calls mataiotekhnia, or “useless skill” (see Institutio oratoria 2.20.3-4). The particular matter of why our author refers to the chickpea (Latin cicer) in a way that seems explicitly to draw out the etymological link with the family name of Cicero, is a difficult question indeed, for which a hint of an answer may come from a surprising source. There is some evidence that in the mid-twentieth century a fair amount of Voynich scholarship was, for unknown reasons, wedged, among other places, into an obscure agricultural journal of the Łódź division of the Polish Academy of Sciences. This may have been the work of Polish scholars attempting to pursue their research on the ms. without detection from a regime that would surely have deemed this esoteric subject politically questionable; or it may have been yet another audacious stunt by the American cryptographer, retired intelligence agent, and English literature scholar Colonel William F. Friedman, who is also known to have published interpretations of the Voynich Manuscript anagramatically in such American journals as the Philological Quarterly (see especially William F. Friedman and Elisabeth S. Friedman, “Acrostics, Anagrams, and Chaucer”, Philological Quarterly 38/1 (January, 1959): pp. 1-21.). Whoever it was, in the same year as the Friedmans’ prank on American Chaucer scholars, someone inserted into a short notice on the prospects for chickpea cultivation in Poland in the Łódź-based Czasopismo nauk rolniczych (Journal of Agricultural Sciences) a footnote in Latin citing the De Officiis, where Cicero has Cato declare: “I am principally delighted with observing the power, and tracing the process, of Nature in these her vegetable productions.” The author then adds, in Polish, for reasons that must have remained unclear to the journal’s editors: “For even Cocalus must close his watchful eyes to sleep now and then.” As we will see, this is far from the only sign of sub-rosa Voynich research in the scientific journals of communist-era Poland. See Bolesław Przybyszewski et al., “Uprawa ciecierzyci w Polsce” (“The Cultivation of Chickpeas in Poland”), Czasopismo nauk rolniczych 23/2 (March, 1959): pp. 47-49.
It is not clear, at this early stage of research, whether “Goddess” as used here (as well as “Divine” some lines further on) is a term of endearment used for a lover, or rather more strictly the evocation of a deity within the context of cultic devotion.