Has the medieval "Voynich code" finally been cracked by a Bristol academic?
An academic from the University of Bristol in the UK has reportedly cracked the codex behind the so-called Voynich code. The language used in the 200-page manuscript has remained a mystery since it came to light more than a century ago.
The Voynich manuscript is named for Wilfrid M. Voynich, a Polish antiquarian and bookseller who obtained the manuscript in 1912. It has been carbon dated to the middle of the Fifteenth Century. Strictly speaking, it isn't written in code at all, but rather a lost language: a type of proto-Romance.
Nevertheless, its secrets have escaped cryptographers, linguists and computer scientists alike, including Alan Turing and the code breakers of Bletchley Park, the FBI, and more recently, artificial intelligence. Yet apparently they revealed themselves to the University of Bristol's Dr. Gerard Cheshire after a mere two weeks, thanks to "a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity."
According to Dr. Cheshire, it's the only known surviving example of a proto-Romance language, a linguistic forebear of modern languages including French, Spanish, Italian and Romanian. The language had been thought to have been lost thanks to the prevalence of Latin in the written documents of the period – "the language of royalty, church and government," Dr. Cheshire explains in a press release.
The language contains a mixture of symbols recognizable and unknown, with no dedicated punctuation. Instead, letter symbols are adapted to suggest punctuation or pronunciation. The language also contains not only dipthongs, sounds formed by the combination of two vowels, but also triphthongs, quadriphthongs and even quintiphthongs. Dr. Cheshire explains that these are, somewhat counterintuitively, used to abbreviate phonetic parts of words. Notably, the language is entirely lacking capital letters.
"I experienced a series of eureka moments whilst deciphering the code, followed by a sense of disbelief and excitement when I realized the magnitude of the achievement," he says. "Both in terms of its linguistic importance and the revelations about the origin and content of the manuscript."
The document reveals that it was made by Dominican nuns for Queen of Aragon, Maria of Castile – great aunt of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII of England.
Its contents include herbal remedies, astrology readings, therapeutic bathing practices, and writings on reproduction and parenting.
The manuscript also contains a map (above) commemorating the rescue of survivors from the island of Vulcano following a nearby volcanic eruption in 1444 – a rescue effort led by Queen Maria herself. The decoding of the map gives the manuscript a more precise date of origin.
It's thought that the manuscript came into the ownership of Wilfrid M. Voynich when the Castello Aragonese in Italy was privately sold off and its contents removed. Castello Aragonese was once home to Alfonso V of Aragon, husband to Maria of Castile. However, it was an unhappy marriage and she spent much of her time in Spain.
There is plenty of skepticism around the latest claims, and even if it's accepted that Dr. Cheshire has discovered the means to translate the document, the hard work of the full translation remains to be done.
Dr. Cheshire's methods have been laid bare in the paper The Language and Writing System of MS408 (Voynich) Explained, published in the journal Romance Studies, which is available to read online.
Source: University of Bristol
Editor's note: Subsequent to the publication of this article, the University of Bristol issued a statement distancing itself from Dr. Cheshire's research:
"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 full statement can be read here.