For a century the Voynich Manuscript has attracted code-breakers, cranks, and medieval scholars in an attempt to decipher the document's meaning. Claims to have solved it come thick and fast, only to be discredited, but a new peer-reviewed theory may have more going for it. If confirmed, its scholarly value would be immense, revealing both an important lost language, and the medieval world from women's point of view. However, many previous claims to have translated the manuscript haven't stood up, and so far experts on the new theory have responded with a mix of skepticism and outright disbelief.
The manuscript came to light when Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich bought and publicized it in 1912. Even with some pages missing, it is 240 pages long filled with writing and drawings on calfskin dated to the early 15th century, ruling out theories of forgery. The words are not in any language we know, so is assumed to be a detailed code, which suggests the manuscript includes information someone wanted to hide.
Previous claims to “translate” the writing have produced individual words that fit with the pictures on the same page, but sentences that make little sense. Dr Gerard Cheshire describes in a study published in the journal Romance Studies how previous theories assumed the author was a man, hindering attempts to make sense of a document Cheshire believes was written by and for women.
Cheshire claims that, rather than code, the manuscript is written in a local dialect of proto-Romance, from which many modern European languages, including Spanish, French, and Italian sprang. “The language used was ubiquitous in the Mediterranean during the Medieval period, but it was seldom written in official or important documents because Latin was the language of royalty, church, and government," he said in a statement. "As a result, proto-Romance was lost from the record, until now.”
The writing has puzzled so many people, Cheshire argues, not only because we haven't seen the language before, but because “Its alphabet is a combination of unfamiliar and more familiar symbols. It includes no dedicated punctuation marks, although some letters have symbol variants to indicate punctuation or phonetic accents. All of the letters are in lower case and there are no double consonants."
Cheshire's explanation is less exotic than the diary of a cast-away alien, but scholars will be excited by the possibility the manuscript was written by nuns as a reference to Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon (great-aunt to Catherine of Aragon). Cheshire describes it as a “Compendium of information on herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing and astrological readings concerning matters of the female mind, of the body, of reproduction, of parenting and of the heart.” One section possibly recounts a mission launched by Maria to rescue victims of a volcanic eruption in 1444 while her husband the king was absent.
Cheshire released some of his claims prior to publication, and the response from many other Voynich scholars has not been kind, with accusations of fitting his findings to his theory, words to images that may not be related, and inventing "proto-Romance language" based on the identification of the odd word, not an entire language. Whether Cheshire really has unlocked this famous enigma remains to be seen, but we have so few records of women's perspectives from the era this would make the contents even more academically valuable than the insight offered into language.