What the most mysterious manuscript means | Daily News

What the most mysterious manuscript means

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.

Bizarre claims

I first came across the Voynich manuscript some fifteen years ago when, as a professional history researcher, I was looking into some of the more bizarre claims by commentators about some of my ancestors – John Florio (1553–1625) and Jane Fromond (1555–1604/5), the wife of Dr John Dee and grand-daughter of Thomas Fromond, the great English herbalist.

I am also a muralist and war artist with an understanding of the workings of picture narration, an advantage I was able to capitalize on for my research. A chance remark just over three years ago brought me a com­mission from a television production company to analyse the illustrations of the Voynich manuscript and examine the commentators’ theories. By this time the manuscript had been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century. 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.

To those who have studied medieval medicine, and possess a good knowledge of its origins, the classical physicians Galen (AD 129–210), Hippocrates (460–370 BC) and Soranus (AD 98–138) among them, the Voynich manuscript’s incorporation of an illustrated herbarium (collection of plant remedies), Zodiac charts, instructions on thermae (baths) and a diagram showing the influence of the Pleiades side by side will not be surprising.

They are all in tune with contemporary medical treatises, part and parcel of the medieval world of health and healing. 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.

Useful information

On the evidence of previous commentaries, one could be forgiven for thinking that the sole piece of useful information to have emerged from all the research done on the manuscript since 1969 has been its carbon dating (to 1403–38). But from the point of view of the importance given to bathing, precision carbon dating is not necessary.

Medical research into the period one hundred years either side of the carbon date will attain the same basic result. One of the more celebrated collections of medical doctrine emerged in the twelfth century from the Italian port city of Salerno, a major centre of medical learning. This compilation of medical do’s and don’ts is known by its generic name of the Trotula.

I first came across the Trotula in an eighteenth-century printed edition in Latin some years before I began my research on the Voynich manuscript, as I browsed through a private library (I had worked in the book department at Christie’s in the 1970s). The Trotula specializes in the diseases and complaints of women, and encouraged a regime of bathing (among other cures) for a range of maladies; not inconvenient for a city famed for its monastery baths. The Trotula had many incarnations all over Europe, and was widely adapted right up to the 1700s. Its selected procedures, remedies and cures were filched, on the whole, from the earlier writings of Galen, Hippocrates, Pliny and others, who had been guilty of exactly the same plagiarism in their own time.

The most interesting aspect of certain passages of the Trotula is their remarkable similarity, in the details of subject matter – gynaecology, bloodletting and bathing – to the narrative details in the drawings of the Voynich manuscript; and it dawned on me that the Trotula was quite possibly the model for many of its illustrations.

Abbreviated instructions

The Trotula is closely linked to another widely copied manuscript of the medieval period.

De Balneis Puteolanis, which first appeared around 1220, was – unlike the Trotula, which contained blocks of handwritten and partially abbreviated instructions – wonder­fully illustrated. Its theme, unsurprisingly, is the health benefits of bathing, specifically in the volcanic springs and mineral baths of Puzzuoli, an ancient health resort on the Phlegraean fields, a volcanic area not far from Naples.

On close inspection of each illustration (there are digitized copies in several world-renowned libraries), I found that the story-board narrative appeared marginally out of step with the poetic text. I also noted that several of the details in each illustration of De Balneis Puteolanis recalled scenes from personal anecdotes in the writings of either Galen or Hippocrates: scenes relating to sleeping draughts, exercise, purgatives and bleeding.

Several of these are replicated in the Voynich manuscript and without much trouble their descriptions can be tracked down in the Trotula.

- Times Literary Supplement


There is 1 Comment

There is a key to cipher the Voynich manuscript. The key to the cipher manuscript placed in the manuscript. It is placed throughout the text. Part of the key hints is placed on the sheet 14. With her help was able to translate a few dozen words that are completely relevant to the theme sections. The Voynich manuscript is not written with letters. It is written in signs. Characters replace the letters of the alphabet one of the ancient language. Moreover, in the text there are 2 levels of encryption. I figured out the key by which the first section could read the following words: hemp, wearing hemp; food, food (sheet 20 at the numbering on the Internet); to clean (gut), knowledge, perhaps the desire, to drink, sweet beverage (nectar), maturation (maturity), to consider, to believe (sheet 107); to drink; six; flourishing; increasing; intense; peas; sweet drink, nectar, etc. Is just the short words, 2-3 sign. To translate words with more than 2-3 characters requires knowledge of this ancient language. The fact that some symbols represent two letters. In the end, the word consisting of three characters can fit up to six letters. Three letters are superfluous. In the end, you need six characters to define the semantic word of three letters. Of course, without knowledge of this language make it very difficult even with a dictionary. If you are interested, I am ready to send more detailed information, including scans of pages showing the translated words. Nikolai.


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