Once again the Voynich manuscript

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This is one of the most novel theories on the Voynich manuscript (Beinecke MS408; early 15th c.) that I've ever encountered, and there are many.

The Voynich Manuscript, Dr Johannes Hartlieb and the Encipherment of Women’s Secrets, by Keagan Brewer and Michelle L Lewis, Social History of Medicine, hkad099 (22 March 2024)

Keywords:  Voynich manuscript, Dr Johannes Hartlieb, women’s secrets, sex, gynaecology

A floral illustration on page 32


The Voynich manuscript is a famous European enciphered manuscript of the early fifteenth century featuring herbal, pharmaceutical, astrological and anatomical illustrations, including hundreds of naked women. Some hold objects adjacent to or unambiguously pointed towards their genitalia. This paper therefore investigates the culture of self-censorship, erasure and encipherment of women’s secrets, with a focus on Dr Johannes Hartlieb (c. 1410–68). Hartlieb had enduring apprehensions about the propagation of women’s secrets in vernacular Bavarian, which culminated in a call for ‘secret letters’ to hide recipes for abortifacients and contraceptives. Other cases of encipherment relating to sexual intercourse and genitalia will be described. On the basis of this evidence, we propose that the Rosettes, the largest and most complex illustration in the Voynich manuscript, represents coitus and conception. This hypothesis explains many of the illustration’s features and establishes a variety of future research possibilities.

Yet another theory on the fabled Voynich MS, but one that to me makes a lot of sense.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Hiroshi Kumamoto]


  1. David Cameron Staples said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 7:17 am

    What makes me well-disposed to this theory is that it's
    1) not self-published
    2) does not cast aspersions at the entire academic establishment for failing to recognise the author's genius
    3) does not claim to be even attempting to "solve" the manuscript, or even to decipher the code, just to provide a new potentially useful data point
    4) is careful to state the limits of its conclusions.

    It's a wonderful change from "I have discovered a the solution to the Voynich Manuscript! All you have to do is squint a little, pore through Cappelli's dictionary of abbreviations without actually understanding any of it, and assume an entire other language which was otherwise unrecorded in history and only seems to have been written down in this one book!"

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 7:57 am

    @David Cameron Staples

    Lovely comment!

  3. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 8:00 am

    To read more than the summary above, please see:


  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 8:17 am

    arigatō gozaimashita, Hiroshi


    If you're interested in the Voynich ms, this is a must read.

    "For 600 years the Voynich manuscript has remained a mystery. Now we think it’s partly about sex", by Keagan Brewer, The Conversation
    Published: April 15, 2024 11:12pm EDT

  5. Sean said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 8:25 pm

    David Cameron Staples: the problem is that this MS does not fit within any one academic discipline, so when theories are published academically, what usually happens is that people in three other disciplines point out facts and ways of thinking that the reviewers overlooked.

    As Andrew Gelman put it, "the problem with peer review is the peers."

  6. Francis Deblauwe said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 8:31 pm

    There's a fun short story about the Voynich ms by Harry Turtledove, "Manuscript Tradition" (2020).

    >>Dr. Feyrouz Hanafusa is a curator at Yale in the 23rd century. Space exploration is still ongoing, and signs of life have been discovered on a planet near TRAPPIST-1. Signs, Dr. Hanafusa realizes, that suspiciously resemble drawings in the Voynich manuscript, which no one has been able to decipher for over eight hundred years.<<


  7. Chris Button said,

    April 22, 2024 @ 1:40 pm

    "The problem with peer reviews is the peers"

    I am staggered at the quality of some of the stuff that is supposedly peer reviewed — books included!

    It is like when you're reading a newspaper article, and actually know something about what the journalist is trying to write about. You then start to worry about the quality of all the articles on topics you don't know anything about.

    I am not an academic, but I did complete a PhD and am occasionally called upon for peer review on account of my specialized knowledge. I still recall a conversation with a journal editor that went something like the following:

    Me: "I don't know enough about this topic to comment properly on it."
    Journal: "I'm sure you can say soemthing based on your knowledge in other areas"

    Sigh …

  8. Chris Button said,

    April 24, 2024 @ 6:35 am

    Conversely, I would imagine (although naturally lack evidence) that a lot of good stuff is blocked by uninformed yet highly opinionated peer reviewers.

  9. Chris Button said,

    April 24, 2024 @ 6:38 am

    arigatō gozaimashita, Hiroshi

    Yes, interesting stuff!

  10. D.N.O'Donovan said,

    April 25, 2024 @ 10:37 pm

    Absolutely true, in this case that "The problem with peer reviews is the peers".

    By some extraordinary slight of hand, reviewers of manuscripts in this case are habitually selected by criteria that would be entirely unacceptable for review of any other medieval artefact. I cannot imagine a person being invited to serve as peer reviewer for a manuscript certainly known to be of western European origin if that person had no formal training in Latin, in codicology, palaeography, medieval history, art-history (let alone iconographic analysis), nor any training in comparative linguistics, historical linguistics, conservation and its material sciences. Yet when a submitted manuscript is about Yale, MS Beinecke 408, publishers seem to be at a complete loss. We've seen Springer fall into that trap more than once, to their consequent embarrassment and chagrin.

    I think the question which most needs asking is why, after more than a century, has the study still no solid foundational studies – why are we still presented with nothing but essays in speculation. Politely described as 'theories' they are pure speculation, since a genuine theory will try to provide a coherent explanation for independently-verifiable data, but there has been so little effort made to develop information of that kind, that
    Voynich narratives typically just pile past and present speculations one on top of another.

    In this case the 'theory' says the manuscript is enciphered. An old guess which is still not proven, has been disputed, yet remains possible.

    The authors adopt the old guess that a section with plant-images is meant for a medicinal herbal – yet it has been known since the 1960s that the images have no niche in any tradition of western illustrated herbal.

    It repeats the equally old guess that any images of stars must be "astrological" and that some are "anatomical". All these were descriptions entirely the product of William Romaine Newbold's personal impressions – adopted uncritically since the 1920s, but none of which bear close scrutiny and many of which (such as the 'anatomical' notion were dismissed almost as soon as they came to the notice of persons better informed.

    Repeating the idea that all unclothed figures are "naked women" shows near-complete ignorance of how one should go about reading problematic medieval images. For a start – where do the authors explain, and weigh the evidence for, and against, a literal reading, given the presumed context of early (1410-1420-1430) medieval Latin Europe?

    You will notice that the authors decide to focus on a man who cannot have been more than 18 (or less) when the manuscript was made.
    Only fixation on another Voynich speculation – the 'German-ish' – could excuse such blank anachronism.

    One has to ask… when do we get to see the manuscript become the focus of research, rather than exercises in promoting one or other quasi-historical, or worse – a-historical narrative?

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