The Voynich manuscript may NOT have been cracked

Bristol University investigates rival academics’ claim that the ‘world’s most mysterious text’ has NOT been cracked by study of the Voynich manuscript at the British institution

  • An academic claimed to have succeeded where countless cryptographers and others failed 
  • The Voynich manuscript had claimed to be de-coded by Dr Gerard Cheshire at the University of Bristol 
  • It is a handwritten manuscript featuring an illustrated text from the 15th century and has been a mystery 
  • The researcher claimed it was written in a dead language known as proto-Romance but rivals have called this ‘aspirational, circular, self-fulfilling nonsense’ 

The University of Bristol has released a statement distancing itself from a piece of research claiming a researcher cracked the mysterious Voynich manuscript.  

Questions raised by rival academics questioned the validity of the research, despite it being peer-reviewed and published in a respected journal. 

Dr Gerard Cheshire claimed it was written in a dead language – proto-Romance – and then by studying symbols and their descriptions he deciphered the meaning of the letters and words – a process that took just two weeks.

Other claims call the theory ‘aspirational, circular, self-fulfilling nonsense’.

The original statement announcing the research has seen been deleted and a statement revealing the controversy put up in it wake. 

He professed that the manuscript contains information on herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing and astrological readings about sex, matters of the female mind and parenting. 

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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

The statement from the university read: ‘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 research was part of a double-blind study and published in Romance Studies but received a significant backlash following widespread media coverage.

‘Sorry, folks, ‘proto-Romance language’ is not a thing. This is just more aspirational, circular, self-fulfilling nonsense,’ Lisa Fagin David, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, tweeted. 

‘I tried several years ago to reproduce Cheshire’s Voynich results, because initially I was intrigued. But when you apply his Roman-letter substitutions and then try to translate the result, you have no choice but to be subjective. It’s gibberish. The methodology falls apart,’ she added in a later tweet.  

Dr Cheshire told MailOnline: ‘The paper has been blind peer-reviewed, verified and published in a highly reputable journal, which is the gold standard for scientific corroboration, so it is officially supported and protocol has been followed to the letter.

‘The manuscript is an unusual case though, 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. 

‘In time, other scholars will publish their own papers based on translation of the manuscript using the solution, so the small tide of resistance is bound to wane.’

‘Sorry, folks, ‘proto-Romance language’ is not a thing. This is just more aspirational, circular, self-fulfilling nonsense,’ Lisa Fagin David, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, tweeted

‘I tried several years ago to reproduce Cheshire’s Voynich results, because initially I was intrigued. But when you apply his Roman-letter substitutions and then try to translate the result, you have no choice but to be subjective. It’s gibberish. The methodology falls apart,’ she added in a later tweet

Experts previously claimed that the Voynich manuscript – known as the ‘world’s most mysterious text’ – contained codes, magic spells, alien messages and even communist propaganda.   

It was thought to have been written in accordance with the Catholic and Roman pagan religious beliefs of the time and has been carbon-dated to around the mid-15th century. 

Dr Cheshire wrote in the study that it was compiled by Dominican nuns as a source of reference for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, who is the great aunt to Catherine of Aragon. 

There are also images of Queen Maria (1401–58) and her court conducting trade negotiations whilst bathing as well as many other images of naked women bathing. 

It demonstrates that the spa lifestyle was highly regarded as a form of physical cleansing and spiritual communion, as well as a general means of relaxation and leisure, he claimed. 

Also within the manuscript is a foldout illustrative map that Dr Cheshire used to date and locate the origin of the manuscript. 

The map tells the story of a rescue mission, led by the Queen of Aragon, to save the victims of a volcanic eruption in the Tyrrhenian Sea in 1444 off the western coast of Italy. 

This figure shows two women dealing with five children in a bath. The words describe different temperaments: tozosr (buzzing: too noisy), orla la (on the edge: losing patience), tolora (silly/foolish), noror (cloudy: dull/sad), or aus (golden bird: well behaved), oleios (oiled: slippery)

The figure shows a diagrammatic representation of a miscarriage or abortion, as a baby swaddled in bandages and a mass of blood exiting a tube, accompanied by the words ‘omor néna’ (killed/dead baby). The word ‘omor’ survives in Romanian, where it means ‘to murder’. The word ‘néna’ survives in Spanish, where it now means ‘female baby’ [‘néne’ is male baby]

This figure shows the word ‘palina’ which is a rod for measuring the depth of water, sometimes called a stadia rod or ruler. The letter ‘p’ has been extended and marked with the triple calibrations seen on a palina. The author has also added a whimsical eye because it reminds one of a snake. The word palina survives in modern Italian. The illustration shows a woman using a palina to gauge the depth of a bath

The Voynich manuscript, named after Wilfrid M Voynich, a Polish book dealer who bought the manuscript in 1912, was written in Central Europe in around the 15th century, according to academics.

Its date, origin and language have been debated as vigorously as its puzzling drawings and undeciphered text featuring botanical and scientific drawings. 

Among those who have famously attempted to crack the code are Alan Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park and the FBI during the Cold War.     

This figure shows Folio 19 left: Borage (Borago officinalis). The first line of the accompanying text reads: ‘panais-or o nauira æo arna o péor omor or é’epe a doméas t’ (the narrow golden taproot, its bark has the potency to kill the domestic/family belly). Borage oil has a long history as a toxic uterine stimulant for inducing miscarriage and abortion, which was commonly practised to deal with unwanted pregnancies as a form of birth control

Yellow Melancholy Thistle (Cirsium erisithales). The first line of the accompanying text reads: ‘masas naus anais, eme ea nort, æ e la as aus et’ (dough food-vessels, annually harvested from the north [top], and from the south [bottom])

This figure shows an illustration of a bearded monk in his washtub, from the monastery where the manuscript was created. The words read: opat a sa (it is abbot). His is one of very few male faces seen in the manuscript.

This shows the central disc from Folio 70 (right), portraying the Zodiac sign Pisces — two fishes. The word between the fish is ‘mars’, written in conventional Italics, which survives to mean the month of ‘March’ in French

Proto- Romance was claimed to be ancestral to today’s ‘Romance’ languages including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan and Galician. 

Some of the symbols were unfamiliar to scholars studying the text because they have different geographical origins or because they have different variants which indicate particular phonetic accents.  

The language 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. 

This shows the central discs from Folio 71 (left and right), portraying the Zodiac sign ‘Aries’ — ram. Both images include the word ‘abril’ written in conventional Italics, which survives to mean the month of ‘April’ in Catalan, Galician, Occitan, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish

‘I experienced a series of ‘eureka’ moments whilst deciphering the code, said Dr Cheshire.

This, he said, was followed by a sense of ‘disbelief and excitement’ when he realised the magnitude of the achievement, both in terms of its linguistic importance and the revelations about the origin and content of the manuscript.

‘What it reveals is even more amazing than the myths and fantasies it has generated. 

The eruption of Vulcanello, in Figure 39, is seen in both plan-elevation and in side-elevation cross-section, with a surprising level of detail and annotation that must have come from firsthand observation. In addition, there is the diagram of a nautical inclinometer over the water

HOW ‘PROTO-ROMANCE’ LANGUAGE WORKS 

The alphabet of the ‘Proto-Romance’ language used in the Voynich manuscript runs from A to Z just like our modern Italic alphabet does.

It uses a number of unfamiliar symbols alongside more familiar symbols.

It has no dedicated punctuation marks – but some of the letters have symbol variants to indicate punctuation.

And some of the symbol variants indicate phonetic accents.

All of the letters are in lower case and there are no double consonants.

There are instances where Latin stock-phrases are used and abbreviated by initial letters.

 

 

 

 

 

‘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.’ 


The text was compiled by Dominican nuns as a source of reference for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, the great aunt to Catherine of Aragon. Although the purpose and meaning of the manuscript had eluded scholars, including Alan Turing, for over a century, it took only two weeks to identify the language and writing system

The next step is to use this knowledge to translate the entire manuscript and compile a lexicon, which Dr Cheshire acknowledged will take some time and funding, as it comprises more than 200 pages.

‘Now the language and writing system have been explained, the pages of the manuscript have been laid open for scholars to explore and reveal, for the first time, its true linguistic and informative content,’ he added.

THE MYSTERIOUS HISTORY OF THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT

The first confirmed owner of the Voynich manuscript was George Baresch, an alchemist from Prague who had mentioned in a letter that he had found it in his library ‘taking up his space’.

He learned that Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, in Rome, had published a Coptic dictionary and claimed to have deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Baresch sent a sample copy of the script to Kircher, asking for clues to reveal what the mysterious manuscript meant. 

It was purchased in 1912 by a Polish-American antiquarian book dealer, named Wilfred Voynich (pictured) (1865–1930), from where it gets its name

His 1639 letter to Kircher is the earliest confirmed mention of the manuscript that has been found to date.

Kircher asked for the book, but Baresch would not yield it as he prized owning it over knowing its true meaning. 

Upon Baresch’s death, the manuscript passed to his friend Jan Marek Marci, who worked at Charles University in Prague.

A few years later, Kircher finally got his hands on the book when Marci sent it to him as he was a longtime friend and correspondent.

When Johannes Marcus sent it to Kircher, they found a letter written on August 19, 1665 or 1666 inside the cover.

It claims that the book once belonged to Emperor Rudolph II, (1552-1612) who paid 600 gold ducats (about 4.5 pounds of gold) for it.

The letter was written in Latin and had been translated to English.

The litany list of previous owners trying to unpick its secrets continues even further, as the manuscript embedded itself further into European folklore. 

The manuscript is also thought to have once been in the possession of ‘Jacobj aTepen’, or Jakub Horcicky of Tepenec, a medical doctor who lived from 1575-1622 and was known far and wide for his herbal medicinal use.

No records of the book for the next 200 years have been found, but in all likelihood, it was stored with the rest of Kircher’s correspondence in the library of the Collegio Romeo.

It likely remained there until the troops of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy captured the city in 1870 and annexed the Papal States.

It was purchased in 1912 by a Polish-American antiquarian book dealer, named Wilfred Voynich (1865–1930), from where it gets its name. 

Alan Turing (pictured), the brilliant mind who spearheaded the campaign to crack the Enigma code at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, attempted to understand it, but found it impenetrable

His acquisition of the manuscript is different to its previous owners, from whom it was passed from hand to hand. 

According to folklore, he happened upon a trunk that contained the rare manuscript now known as the Voynich manuscript while on an acquisitions trip.

He had it in his possession until he died, and put it on display to the public for the first time ever in 1915.

It further etched itself into folklore and the mystery surrounding it deepened form this point onward as its uncrackable code attracted the greatest minds for decades – all trying to uncover its meaning.   

Wilfred subsequently relocated from Europe to New York and, following his death, the manuscript’s custodian became his wife Ethel Voynich (1864–1960).

Following her death the manuscript found its way into the hands of another dealer named Hans P. Kraus (1907–88), who eventually donated it to the Yale library in 1969.

Alan Turing, the brilliant mind who spearheaded the campaign to crack the Enigma code at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, attempted to understand it, but found it impenetrable. 

Theodore C Peterson, a priest, embarked on the project of making a hand copy of the Voynich manuscript.

He completed it in 1944 and each page of the replica points out unusual features, which may be of interest in trying yo decipher it, such as odd character sequences and frequently used words.

He worked on the Voynich until his death and it helped a Danish botanist and zoologist, Theodore Holm of the Catholic University, totentatively identify 16 plant species in the Voynich.

William  Friedman (1891-1969) is remembered as one of the world’s foremost cryptologists and became involved with the Voynich in the early 1920s when he corresponded with its namesake.

During his work, he developed the theory that the Voynich manuscript represented a text in a synthetic language (using or describing inflection).

It took Research Associate Dr Gerard Cheshire, pictured here, two weeks, using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity, to identify the language and writing system of the famously inscrutable document, he claimed 

John Tiltman was a British intelligence specialist, working in association with William Friedman.

Friedman asked Tiltman for his opinion on the Voynich MS text, and sent him copies of the final quire.

He concluded that the text is far too complicated to be the result of a simple cipher and  be the results of applying a standard cipher to some plain text.

He spent some time discussing the option of a synthetic or ‘universal’ language as proposed by Friedman.

The FBI also tried during the Cold War, apparently thinking it may have been Communist propaganda.

The US National Securities Agency collaborated with German code-breaker Erich Hüttenhain based on the earlier work of British code-breaker John Tiltman because they had a notion that it might contain communist propaganda.

Ultimately, a consensus emerged: that the manuscript was either impossible to solve or else written in gibberish, as an elaborate practical joke.

Dr Gerard Cheshire, a researcher at the University of Bristol, claimed that it was written in a dead language – proto-Romance – and then by studying symbols and their descriptions he deciphered the meaning of the letters and words. 

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