scorecardresearch

The Voynich manuscript, a famously mysterious medieval text, has been decoded. Or has it?

What in the world? No one knows what the mysterious Voynich manuscript means.
What in the world? No one knows what the mysterious Voynich manuscript means.(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library — Yale University)

A British researcher published a paper this week claiming to have cracked the code of the Voynich manuscript, the mysterious medieval text written in an unknown language whose meaning has baffled scholars and scientists for more than 100 years.

But a Massachusetts expert has her own message on Gerard Cheshire’s claim: Not so fast.

“His methodology is flawed in so many respects,” said Lisa Fagin Davis, a medievalist who is executive director of the Medieval Academy of America in Cambridge. “The whole thing just falls apart.”

Now the University of Bristol, which originally publicized Cheshire’s findings, has distanced itself from the research, saying it needs to take a further look.

Advertisement



“Following media coverage, concerns have been raised about the validity of this research from academics in the fields of linguistics and medieval studies. We take such concerns very seriously and have therefore removed the story regarding this research from our website to seek further validation and allow further discussions both internally and with the journal concerned,” the university said in a statement posted to its website Thursday.

Can you crack this code? No one else has.
Can you crack this code? No one else has.(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library — Yale University)

Cheshire fired back in an e-mail Friday morning, suggesting that critics just can’t believe he’s made the breakthrough but will gradually get used to the idea.

“The paper has been blind peer-reviewed and published in a highly reputable journal, which is the gold standard for scientific corroboration, so it is officially supported,” he said.

“The manuscript is an unusual case due to the mythology that surrounds it, which means that some people find it difficult to let go of preconceptions even when presented with new evidence, such is their passion,” he said. “In time other scholar[s] will publish their own papers based on translation of the manuscript using the solution, so the small tide of resistance is bound to wane.”

Advertisement



The Voynich manuscript is a strange illustrated manuscript thought to have been created in the 15th or 16th century. Its name comes from antiquarian bookseller Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased it in 1912. It is now housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. It is about 234 pages long and, judging from the illustrations, appears to be divided into six sections: botany, astronomy, astrology, biology, cosmology, and pharmaceutical, according to britannica.com.

The illustrations include pictures of plants and herbs, drawings showing the arrangement of the stars, sun, and moon, and zodiac symbols. One section contains drawings of nude women intertwined with and connected by tubes and what appear to be flowing fluids, according to britannica.com.

Beyond that, not much is clear. Scholars, linguists, cryptologists, and others have attempted to decode the unknown script with little success.

The University of Bristol earlier this week trumpeted a study published by Cheshire in the journal Romance Studies, saying he had succeeded where countless others had failed “by cracking the code of the ‘world’s most mysterious text.’ ”

Cheshire claimed the manuscript was written in proto-Romance, or vulgar Latin, the language spoken after the fall of the Roman Empire, which is thought to have been the forerunner of the current Romance languages, which include French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

“I experienced a series of ‘eureka’ moments whilst deciphering the code, followed by a sense of disbelief and excitement when I realised the magnitude of the achievement, both in terms of its linguistic importance and the revelations about the origin and content of the manuscript,” Cheshire said in a statement released by Bristol University that has since been removed from the Web.

Advertisement



But Davis said there are flaws in Cheshire’s approach. First, Cheshire took the “totally unique letter forms” in the manuscript and substituted them for Latin alphabet characters like those we use today. But Davis said, “His method for doing that has no logic to it. It feels random.”

After those substitutions, Cheshire was left with a text that was “not in any identifiable language. It’s gibberish,” she said.

Cheshire then theorized that what he was looking at was a proto-Romance language. But Davis said, “By the time you get to the 15th century, there’s absolutely no evidence that anyone was speaking vulgar Latin or proto-Romance. All the Romance languages were clearly developed.” Radiocarbon dating has found the text dates to early 15th century.

Cheshire’s theory “requires you to do so many steps and at each of those steps you’re guessing. What we really need is a method that doesn’t require guesswork,” said Davis, who runs a 3,500-member professional organization that supports the work of people who study the Middle Ages, including professors, librarians, curators, scholars, and students.

Many theories, ranging from serious to wild, have been proposed over the years of the origin of the Voynich text.

But currently, linguists are doing interesting, sophisticated research into whether “Voynichese” might be connected to Old Turkish, Davis noted.

Advertisement



“A lot of people believe that they have translated a word or they have interpreted a picture, but no one has ever come up with a unified Voynich theory that explains the text, images, history, and structure” of the document, Davis said. “You need something that correctly accounts for all those elements in a consistent and reproducible way.”

Unlike those who think it might simply be a hoax perpetrated by Voynich himself, Davis said, “I think it does have meaning. I think it does represent a natural human language.”

“I think it’s a scientific compendium and it seems to have something to do with women’s health or women’s knowledge,” she said.

“I think we’ll get there eventually,” she said. But she noted, “Even if someone proposes a solution that seems to check all the boxes, there are always going to be people out there who are going to disagree.”

One of the botany illustrations.
One of the botany illustrations.(Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library — Yale University)