One of history’s mysteries, a code-cracking challenge worthy of a Dan Brown novel, seems to have given up some of its secrets to a UK Professor of Applied Linguistics. University of Bedford Professor, Stephen Bax claims to have decoded aspects of the fifteenth century Voynich manuscript.
The manuscript consists of over 200 pages of handwritten script arranged around drawings of plants or sketches of people apparently taking herbal treatments.
The pages are hand-made from calf skin vellum as was typical of monastic books until the end of the Middle Ages. Carbon dating seems to show that it was written between 1404 and 1438, although there is some question whether the ink or paint is as old as the vellum.
Cracking the Language Code
The Voynich Manuscript is one of a number of such medieval texts that have been handwritten in a code or a language that no one currently understands. Linguistics experts have turned to computers to analyse textual corpuses for comparison.
Mathematicians have applied formulae to discern any consistencies or patterns in the arrangement of words or pictograms, and have devised statistical analyses. Cryptologists have attempted to discover the principle behind a possible code.
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All with very limited results. Until now, no one has translated a single word of the text.
Last year, Montemurro and Zanette published their keyword analysis on PLoS One, agreeing that it is probably a coherent text, not just gobbledegook. “The Voynich manuscript presents a complex organization in the distribution of words that is compatible with those found in real language sequences. We are also able to extract some of the most significant semantic word-networks in the text. These results together with some previously known statistical features of the Voynich manuscript, give support to the presence of a genuine message inside the book,” they said.
Voynich Manuscript Medieval Context
Stephen Bax used his knowledge of Arabic, combined with his understanding of the many approaches to analysis available. He made comparisons with medieval herbal manuscripts written in several languages, concentrating on its illustrations of astronomical features, such as star formations. He also examined Arabic scripts for comparable plant names, and was able to decode ten words naming these.
The Voynich manuscript has been confounding scholars for a hundred years, since a dealer in rare texts discovered it at an Italian monastery. All accusations that it is a fake or a hoax have so far been refuted. Decoding the Voynich Manuscript seems to have attained cult status, with many researchers seduced by its mystery.
Botanical Mexico Connection?
A recent North American research project took an integrated approach. Botanist Arthur Tucker and information scientist Rexford Talbert at Delaware University applied botanical, chemical and linguistic analyses.
- Botanical: comparing the plant drawings in the Voynich manuscript with the flora of Mexico as drawn in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
- Chemical: using evidence from recent chemical tests on the manuscript to compare the origins of pigments in the drawings to those used by monks in Europe and ‘New Spain’ (Mexico).
- Linguistic: finding similarities to an ancient Aztec dialect.
The researchers suggest that the local written language became represented by Latin writing during the sixteenth Spanish colonisation, and that therefore the language of the Voynich is a language called Nahuatl, now known only as a literary or poetic language.
Voynich Words Now Decoded
Stephen Bax has decoded fourteen characters and ten words, including the words for the constellation Taurus and for seven plants, including juniper and centaurea. Bax has posted his illustrated paper and his lecture online, and invites others interested to collaborate with him in decoding further words from the Voynich manuscript.
From the work he has done so far, it does seem that the manuscript could have been prepared by an apothecary or physician and includes medieval recipes for skincare.