The mysterious Voynich Manuscript has finally been decoded. So went the headlines over the weekend, after the Times Literary Supplement published an article claiming to have the solution to the “most mysterious manuscript in the world”.
Written by history researcher and television writer Nicholas Gibbs, the article claims that the strange text of the manuscript – often presumed to be a cipher, though recently also suggested to simply be nonsensical gibberish – is actually an abbreviated form of Latin, and that the manuscript is derived from a number of manuscripts from the Middle Ages, including a 12th century women’s health ‘handbook’, the Trotula.
Artists who illustrate instruction manuals – for that is what the Voynich manuscript is – are naturally economical and only provide detail where necessary. In the Voynich manuscript, the same object – an oversized doughnut with a hole and a carbuncle attached to its side – is proffered by several of the unclothed women. Its significance only became apparent when, as I was casually leafing through a medical-related book, Ortis Sanitatis (1482), its pages overflowing with woodcuts, I came across the doughnut object depicted as a lodestone (natural magnet). Passages in the versions of the Trotula, Galen, Hippocrates and Paulus Aegineta advocate a lodestone as part remedy for gynaeocological complaints in the same region of the body as the figures demonstrate in the Voynich manuscript.
…By now, it was more or less clear what the Voynich manuscript is: a reference book of selected remedies lifted from the standard treatises of the medieval period, an instruction manual for the health and wellbeing of the more well to do women in society, which was quite possibly tailored to a single individual. The script had hitherto proved resistant to interpretation and presented several hurdles. Medieval lettering is notoriously fickle: individual letter variations, styles and combinations are confusing at the best of times. I recognized at least two of the characters in the Voynich manuscript text as Latin ligatures, Eius and Etiam. Ligatures were developed as scriptorial short-cuts. They are composed of selected letters of a word, which together represent the whole word, not unlike like a monogram. An ampersand is just such an example. The design combines the letters “e” “t”; and “et” is the Latin word for “and”. On the strength of this I consulted the Lexicon Abbreviaturarum of medieval Latin (1899) by Adriano Cappelli, sometimes referred to as the medievalists’ Bible. Systematic study of every single character in the Lexicon identified further ligatures and abbreviations in the Voynich manuscript and set a precedent. It became obvious that each character in the Voynich manuscript represented an abbreviated word and not a lette.
However, while this news spread across the internet, many experts (and armchair pundits) had begun picking apart some of the claims. And The Atlantic spoke with Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, who has read up on dozens of Voynich theories as part of her job. Her reaction? Unimpressed:
“Frankly I’m a little surprised the TLS published it…if they had simply sent to it to the Beinecke Library, they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat,” she says.
…Gibbs’s article broadly consists of two parts. The first part details various old illustrations and writings from which the Voynich manuscript appear to be derived. In this section, Gibbs weaves in an impressive amount of autobiography, noting at various points that he is: a professional history researcher, muralist, war artist, former employee of Christie’s in the 1970s, and descendent of the great English herbalist Thomas Fromond…
Taking it at face value, the problem with the first section, says Davis, is that little of it is new. Other scholars, cryptographers, and sleuths have looked at the illustrations of plants, astrological charts, and bathing and already surmised it has to do with health. For example, one of the texts where Gibbs finds illustrations matching up with the Voynich manuscript’s is De Balneis Puteolanis, a bathing guide. Voynich.nu, a popular website devoted to the Voynich manuscript, lays out the similarities between the two manuscripts.
In the second part—only two paragraphs long—Gibbs gets into the meat of his solution: Each character in the manuscript is an abbreviated word, not a letter. This could be a breakthrough, but the TLS presents only two lines decoded using Gibbs’s method. Davis did not find those two lines convincing either. “They’re not grammatically correct. It doesn’t result in Latin that makes sense,” she says.
Perhaps Gibbs has more evidence than was presented in the relatively short Times Literary Supplement article, and there really is something to this theory. But for now, some caution should be advised in claiming that the mystery is solved.
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