The solving of a long-standing mystery always sparks ambivalence; a sense of excitement and satisfaction at what it is, coupled with sadness about everything it isn’t. As of last week, the cryptic Voynich manuscript, filled with strange glyphs and diagrams, has left the halls of head-scratchers. Yes folks, thanks to historian Nicholas Gibbs, we have a pretty definitive explanation of the purpose of the former literary enigma.
Although many interpretations of the manuscript have been proffered, Gibbs’ explanation is the first to explain nearly all aspects. In some ways, it was written in an ancient code — if you consider abbreviations and shorthand a form of encryption.
…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 recognized at least two of the characters in the Voynich manuscript text as Latin ligatures, Eius and Etiam. Ligatures were developed as scriptorial short-cuts. They are composed of selected letters of a word, which together represent the whole word, not unlike like a monogram.
As Gibbs made further comparisons, it became clear what the “code” actually was:
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.
Turns out the Voynich manuscript isn’t a reference for magic spells, alien communication or an ancient tabletop role-playing game. In fact, it’s mostly plagiarised medical knowledge, much of it related to herbs:
…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.
And another mystery solved! If you’re keen for more information, Gibbs goes into extensive detail about how he arrived at his conclusion over at TLS.