Researcher Claims To Have Deciphered The Mysterious Voynich Manuscript

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

The Voynich manuscript is a bit of a historical mystery. We know it came from Central Europe and historians have traced it back to the 15th or 16th Century, but beyond that not a lot is known about this cryptic text.

The name comes from a Polish antique book dealer called Wilfrid Voynich, who bought the manuscript in Italy back in 1912. Take a look inside and you'll find botanical and astronomical ink drawings and text written in a strange language (or a so far undeciphered code). 

Over the years, linguists, mathematicians, and World War Two cryptologists have studied the manuscript, but while there have been several theories, no one has been able to decipher the language or work out what the book was for. Many believe it's a hoax and think the text is meaningless. Some other theories are a little more out there. One says it's a document written by an alien stranded on Earth. Another claims it's a guide to alchemy.

Now, historian Nicholas Gibbs says he's found the answer and it's brilliantly mundane. He thinks the Voynich manuscript is a ladies' health manual. 

Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Gibbs first compares the manuscript to other Medieval texts concerning women's health. Aside from the pictures of plants and zodiac signs, there are drawings of women bathing. 

"One of the more notable aspects of the manuscript were the illustrations on a bathing theme, so it seemed logical to have a look at the bathing practices of the medieval period. It became fairly obvious very early on that I had entered the realms of medieval medicine," says Gibbs.

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"Classical and medieval medicine had separate divisions devoted to the complaints and diseases of women, mostly but not exclusively in the area of gynaecology, and covered other topics such as hygiene, food, purgatives, blood­letting, fumigations, tonics, tinctures and even cosmetics and perfumes: all involved “taking the waters”, by bathing or ingesting," writes Gibbs in the Times Literary Supplement. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Next, he explains the unusual writing in the manuscript, which contains "tell-tale signs" of an abbreviated Latin format. From this, he determines that each character is, in fact, an abbreviated word – not a letter.

He then puts forward the crux of his theory: The manuscript contains a series of recipes for bathing solutions and other gynecology-related medicines.

The Atlantic reports that many historians have already come out to publicly denounce Gibbs' argument.

As they point out, the key problem with his reasoning is that there are no plant or malady names in the manuscript. Gibbs gets around this by saying they would have been written down in the index. Conveniently, this is difficult to check because the index is missing.

Unfortunately, this is probably just another theory to put on the pile.

"I've reviewed dozens of 'solutions,' and this one is just as unconvincing as the last 3,000," Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director at the Medieval Academy of America, tweeted.

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As Davis told The Atlantic, scholars have already assumed the manuscript has something to do with health, so Gibbs' contribution is not a new discovery.

The abbreviation theory could be viable, but the evidence Gibbs provides is little and shaky. The two examples he includes in the article are "not grammatically correct," Davis says. "It doesn't result in Latin that makes sense."

And as for the part about the index missing, “this is the piece that really killed it for me,” Davis explains.

So, for now at least, nothing's changed. The Voynich manuscript remains a mystery.  

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