The Uncrackable Code: of Polish Revolutionaries, Vatican libraries and Dan Brown

Detail from Voynich manuscript at

Detail from Voynich manuscript at

Like Scott of the Antarctic, I laboured towards a destination, unaware that someone has blazed a trail to this morning’s subject already. The track is well trodden.

Yet, such a curiosity. The epitome of mystery, it is. A thing of breathtaking beauty in its own right.

So despite the fact that a world-famous novelist happened upon it in research for his novel and tantalised millions by including a tiny code indicating its whereabouts, I am starting its story from two other places.

Which of the two to choose? I shall start with a Polish nobleman, I think.

His life, until he was nearly half a century old, was not unremarkable. Yet nothing happened to mark him out as a name that will now, surely, be known by millions.

Born in a Lithuanian town, Telshiai, then part of the Russian empire, in 1865, he went to the local gymnasium and the to university at Warsaw and St Petersburg an became a pharmacist. But he fell in with early Polish revolutionaries and fell foul of the Tsarist regime by trying to spring two comrades under death sentence from the Warsaw Citadel.

He was arrested and sent, like all naughty Russians, to Siberia.

But you can escape from Siberia, because the polish pharmacist did just that, and made it all the way to London where he married Ethel, the daughter of a very famous mathematician, George Boole, and co-founded the Society of Friends for a Free Russia. 

But it was for none of these things that his name will live forever.

No: his co-founder and friend was killed in a rail accident and all his revolutionary zeal evaporated, and three years later, in 1897, he opened a bookshop in London.

And he found that pharmaceuticals and revolution aside, he was rather good at this bookish business.

Another shop was opened in New York later. But it was not until he was 47 years old that the golden moment of his life arrived.

And this is where his life story meets another, much older historical vein.

Some time between 1576 and 1612, a Holy Roman Emperor paid a princely 600 ducats for an old manuscript. Emperor Rudolph II thought it was by a man called Roger Bacon; an English philosopher and Franciscan monk. And it passed down from owner to owner until it ended up in a Jesuit college in Frascati.

In a discreet sale of books to raise funds, our Polish bookseller hovered until a group of manuscripts became available. And he snapped them up.

And one of them is so extraordinary, it still bears his name today.

His name was Wilfrid Michael Voynich. And the book is called The Voynich Manuscript.

And it is extraordinary. It would be extraordinary if it were written yesterday, and not carbon dated to the end of the 15th century or the 16th century. Because besides being breathtakingly beautiful and endlessly inventive, it is written in a code no-one can understand, and accompanied by strange drawings, the motives of which we can hardly imagine.

Its contents? 113 detailed drawings of plants which, to all intents and purposes, do not exist. Astronomical and astrological diagrams incorporating charts with radiating circles, suns and moons; strange drawings of women interacting with pipes or in barrels of water. (I know, I know). Nine ‘cosmological medallions’; pharmaceutical drawings of herbs useful in medicine; and pages of continuous text.

You can look at the folio here.

And naturally, what with it having come out of a Jesuit library and all, Mr Dan Brown has discovered it and incorporated it in his latest novel, Inferno, I believe, though it’s only just out and I have not read it to check.

Before you read him, read this. Take a look. It is strange in the most creative ways, a gorgeous ancient puzzle written, we don’t know why. Before you let some novelist impose his interpretation, enjoy it first for itself. A lovely conundrum bequeathed us by history.

For all we know, it was written by aliens.





38 thoughts on “The Uncrackable Code: of Polish Revolutionaries, Vatican libraries and Dan Brown

  1. Fascinating stuff! Amazing also that the internet allows us to see copies of the manuscript – something that would have previously been available to only a select few. I’ll go with the alien theory – hahaha – why not.

  2. The Rudolf legend is seen everywhere, but when you come down to it, there’s not much there. One person’s ideas, reported very late and in a non-committal tone.

    No supporting evidence for it has ever been found.

    Jakob Hořčický’s signature is on it and he was a chemist who could have paid 600 ducts himself had he wanted. He might have inherited it from his own teacher; it was already 150 yrs old.

    Not-so-glam. I know – sorry.

      1. Yes, unfortunately the Beinecke blurb is badly out of date . Primary sources for the idea reduce to a single person’s assertions, made years later, and which are unsupported by any other evidence – not even endorsed by the person reporting them. I think the Beinecke has just quoted a slab from a book written forty years ago. Pity.

  3. I love Dan Brown genre stuff, Indiana Jones and the like. I am very prepared to participate in such adventure discoveries and practice every day. My keys ? My wallet? My checkbook? My glasses ? The frustrating thing about looking for your glasses is that you need your glasses to look for your glasses.

  4. An intriguing manuscript. I wonder what Dan Brown reveals about it. Whatever it is and however far from the truth it maybe you can guarantee it’s going to be lucrative for Dan.

    1. I think he does take great glee in finding these puzzles, and this would be a fabulous one to feature, Guy. But his books leap off the shelves almost without being prompted; as you say, he’ll make his money with or without the help of Voynich…

  5. It will be interesting to see how Dan Brown weaves this into his book. I have it on my list of books to read, but it is not near the top at the moment. Knowing that it includes the Voynich manuscript brings it up a few places though.

  6. Fascinating post and links. Thanks, Kate.

    Loved this quote:

    “So, when Dan Brown collides the everything-book with the nothing-book, what kind of po-faced bathos-fest are we in for?”

  7. I’m amazed and astounded. It’s magical. You’d think with all our sophisticated computers someone could crack that code. The women look like they’re practicing synchronized swimming. I wonder if it’s about fertility. Maybe it’s a fictitious novel about beings on another planet. Fascinating. I’m only sorry DB is going to use it instead of someone like Ray Bradbury. What a great medieval novel it would make.

    1. Ah, i had not entertained the howling madman option, Gale. Though the way English villages work I suspect we would have known all about the Vicar of Publow already.
      The Victorians are not Victorians but a montage of American 19th century women, put together by an American salon. Lovely, isn’t it?

  8. Thank you for the exciting link, Kate. I took just a very few minutes to begin looking at the folio and it’s wonderfully complex. I am not a big Dan Brown fan, but I do understand that he could be completely absorbed in trying to decode the uncrackable! I tend to be fascinated that they exist, and then my brain just goes “tilt” and I have to let it go. This was so interesting. I like the art work! 🙂

  9. Mysterious codes fascinate me. Where do they lead to? What are they hiding? I’ve read Dan Brown’s previous books … real page turners. I love the history and the stories behind the mystery. Thanks for sharing, Kate.

  10. Have always been a sucker for mystery and this manuscript with its fascinating diagrams, seems to have all the ingredients! Had kind of outgrown Dan Brown, but I shall now HAVE to lay my hands on Inferno. Thanks for a most fascinating post Kate.

  11. Fascinating, Kate.
    By-the-way, one of my SOLs came out of the den the other day, whilst I was preparing dinner for the tribe here. Seems he saw the Hobbit and Tolkein site for names bookmarked on my computer and found his own, which led to all sorts of interesting conversation with our other SOL and the girls chimed in. See where all that mist you spray leads?

  12. Sorry – no sign of the manuscript in the book (unless I missed it!). Maybe he’s saving it up for next time?

  13. Some of those strange root veggies look like the deformed carrots we grew last year. Perhaps it’s an encoded gardening treatise? Perhaps I am growing alien veg?

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