Has the ancient manuscript finally been deciphered? Some experts say no ((Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library))

An academic claims to have finally decoded the ancient Voynich manuscript – a handwritten document that dates back to medieval times.

Gerard Cheshire from the University of Bristol has had a peer-reviewed paper published in the journal Romance Studies saying he’s figured out the meaning behind the mysterious text.

He says the document is written in a ‘calligraphic proto-Romance’ language and was compiled by a nun on behalf of Maria of Castile, the Queen of Aragon who lived from 1401 to 1458.

‘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,’ explained Cheshire, who said it took him about a fortnight to decipher the centuries-old document.

‘What it reveals is even more amazing than the myths and fantasies it has generated. For example, the manuscript was compiled by Dominican nuns as a source of reference for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, who happens to have been great aunt to Catherine of Aragon.’

Within the manuscript there is a foldout illustrative map, provided here, that provides the necessary information to date and locate the origin of the manuscript. Vignette A illustrates the erupting volcano; B, depicts the volcano of Ischia; C shows the hows the islet of Castello Aragonese and D, represents the island of Lipari (PA)

‘It is also no exaggeration to say this work represents one of the most important developments to date in Romance linguistics. The manuscript is written in proto-Romance—ancestral to today’s Romance languages including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan and Galician. 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. As a result, proto-Romance was lost from the record, until now.’

‘It uses an extinct language. 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. It includes diphthong, triphthongs, quadriphthongs and even quintiphthongs for the abbreviation of phonetic components. It also includes some words and abbreviations in Latin.’

The Voynich manuscript is named after Wilfrid M Voynich, a Polish book dealer and antiquarian, who purchased the manuscript in 1912. This figure shows two women dealing with five children in a bath. (PA)

Historians, calligraphers and linguists have been trying to understand the Voynich manuscript for decades. It’s been dubbed the ‘world’s most mysterious text’ for a reason. But other experts have been quick to pour cold water on Dr Cheshire’s claims.

‘As with most would-be Voynich interpreters, the logic of this proposal is circular and aspirational: he starts with a theory about what a particular series of glyphs might mean, usually because of the word’s proximity to an image that he believes he can interpret,’ Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, told Ars Technica.

‘He then investigates any number of medieval Romance-language dictionaries until he finds a word that seems to suit his theory. Then he argues that because he has found a Romance-language word that fits his hypothesis, his hypothesis must be right.’

Dr Cheshire says the next step is to use his knowledge to translate the entire manuscript and compile a lexicon, something that’ll take time and funding, as it comprises more than 200 pages.

Whether or not this is successful, remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt other experts will continue to pore over the mysterious text in the hope of unlocking its secrets for themselves.





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