"By now, it was more or less clear what the Voynich manuscript is"



Voynich manuscript: the solution—Nicholas Gibbs, The Times Literary Supplement

For medievalists or anyone with more than a passing interest, the most unusual element of the Voynich manuscript – Beinecke Ms. 408, known to many as “the most mysterious manuscript in the world” – is its handwritten text. Although several of its symbols (especially the ligatures) are recognizable, adopted for the sake of economy by the medieval scribes, the words formed by its neatly grouped characters do not appear to correspond to any known language. It was long believed that the text was a form of code – one which repeated attempts by crypt­o­graphers and linguists failed to penetrate. As someone with long experience of interpreting the Latin inscriptions on classical monuments and the tombs and brasses in English parish churches, I recognized in the Voynich script tell-tale signs of an abbreviated Latin format. But interpretation of such abbreviations depends largely on the context in which they are used. I needed to understand the copious illustrations that accompany the text.

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.

Bathing as a remedy is a time-honoured tradition: practised by the Greeks and the Romans, advocated by the classical physicians, and sustained during the Middle Ages. The central theme of the Voynich manuscript is just such an activity, and one of its chief characteristics is the presence of naked female figures immersed in some concoction or other. 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.

By now, it was more or less clear what the Voynich manuscript is: a reference book of selected remedies lifted from the standard treatises of the medieval period, an instruction manual for the health and wellbeing of the more well to do women in society, which was quite possibly tailored to a single individual.

Systematic study of every single character in the Lexicon identified further ligatures and abbreviations in the Voynich manuscript and set a precedent. It became obvious that each character in the Voynich manuscript represented an abbreviated word and not a letter.

One other noticeable difference from the Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus is that not a single plant name or malady is to be found in the Voynich manuscript. This was problematic until I realized that not only had the folios of the manuscript been cropped (the images of flowers and roots have been severed and the tops of folios hacked) but, more importantly, the indexes that should have been there were now absent. […] Not only is the manuscript incomplete, but its folios are in the wrong order – and all for the want of an index.

Summary for the week ending Sep 10, 2017