Ah, the Voynich Manuscript.

For those who don’t know: the Voynich Manuscript is one of those oddities that crop up in historical research from time to time. It’s supposedly a 15th century manuscript that’s written in this weird language and alphabet that nobody can read and has a lot of strange illustrations; I say ‘supposedly’ because even the date is a matter of some controversy. Carbon dating pretty much says that the vellum at least is likely that old, but a forgery put together by Wilfrid Voynich (20th century bookseller) or somebody else could still be maybe possible?

Anyway, recently a researcher affiliated with the University of Bristol claimed to have cracked the code of the Voynich Manuscript, yet again (yes, this happens a lot). This particular revelation was fairly dramatic, in its way; Dominican nuns, medieval herbal lore, a hitherto unknown ‘proto-Romance language,’ the Queen of Aragon leading a rescue expedition to save people from an exploding volcano (yes, that made me pause, too; but that narrative detail appeared in more than one article). The guy even got his theory published in a journal article.

The University of Bristol, mind you, is kind of distancing itself now:

Yesterday the University of Bristol published a story about research on the Voynich manuscript by an honorary research associate. This research was entirely the author’s own work and is not affiliated with the University of Bristol, the School of Arts nor the Centre for Medieval Studies.


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.

Via @incunabula.

Probably because of the ‘proto-Romance language’ thing, which is making the relevant researchers in the field swallow their gum in mildly offended surprise. It’s all kind of entertaining, for a seriously esoteric definition of ‘entertaining.’ Although that just might be because I’m kind of in the ‘forgery’ camp. The idea that Voynich might have gotten access to a ton of unused vellum from the right time period somehow is honestly no less unlikely than a lot of the other theories about this thing, and it’d be a pretty good story in its own right to boot.

Moe Lane


  • Gnarledhotep says:

    It’s clearly an esoteric document. Even if it is a 20th Century forgery, it’s acquired … something … about it. This “I cracked the code” is just a bit of clever misdirection to keep people away from its *real* esoteric value.

  • Luke says:

    We know for a fact that the Priory of Sion conspiracy theory started with a known conman and a proven forgery.
    We know that The Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross started as a Renaissance hoax.
    (Shrug) People don’t care. They like the thought that somebody is in control, and like to believe they’re possessed of secret insight into the workings of the world.
    My take? That the mystery is much more interesting than any possible answer.
    If forced to lay down a bet, though…
    I would note that aristocratic madmen were relatively common (especially after Columbus introduced the wonders of syphilis to Europe), that their families had an obvious interest in hiding them from the public, that puttering around with plants is a nice, inoffensive thing their minders would encourage, and that the madman sitting for hours to obsessively write down gobbledygook would give the minders time for trysts, pub visits, and other assorted distractions.

    • acat says:

      The tricky part is this needs an unstable aristocrat who chose to write in not-Latin, *the* go-to language for writing stuff down, and .. instead, wrote in what amounts to a regional pidgin, and evidently consistently over many *many* pages. Syphilis does not lend itself to this.
      I also don’t buy ‘forgery’. If I’d come into a large volume of vintage blank vellum, I’d probably knock off a dozen or more *small* forgeries that I knew I could sell, not one big, freakishly strange one .. if only because less need for consistently writing in an invented language over so long a number of pages, eh?
      My wager is the alleged translator is close .. that it’s all in a very early written version of a local patois because it’s by the daughter of a noble who inherited something like Tolkein’s ‘language kink’, but no political wit..
      Nunneries were another way to ‘sideline’ troubling female noble offspring, including those with sapphic leanings, so the Dominican nunnery angle isn’t entirely outre’.
      .. while she could have written in latin, she didn’t want her sisters reading it, so ..

  • Jon says:

    What if it’s a language aliens used as a code while hiding out on Earth? Just earth-like enough to pass as legitimate, but encoded enough for the aliens to communicate without contaminating the local primitives.

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