By Lisa Fagin Davis
In a vault in the basement of a library in Connecticut lies a book no one can read. The Voynich Manuscript, an early 15th-century codex that belongs to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, presents an irresistible medieval mystery.
The tome is written using an otherwise unknown collection of symbols known to those who study the codex as "Voynichese," with what appear to be roots, prefixes and suffixes as well as repeating spelling and grammatical patterns.
Then there are the illustrations, which include unidentifiable but detailed and realistic plants, circular zodiacal and astronomical diagrams, crowned nude women bathing in green or blue pools and other images that defy description.
For centuries, the Voynich Manuscript has resisted interpretation, which hasn't stopped a host of would-be readers from claiming they've solved it.
In June 1921, the monthly magazine Hearst's International announced that University of Pennsylvania Professor William Newbold had "come upon the key to the secret cipher of the [Voynich] Manuscript . . . and the truth of six hundred years ago is coming out!" Newbold surmised that 13th-century English scientist Roger Bacon had written the manuscript with the aid of a microscope and a telescope, centuries before the invention of either instrument.
Newbold's solution was debunked in 1931 by University of Chicago classicist John Matthews Manly in a journal of medieval studies called Speculum, leaving Newbold posthumously disgraced. Although they had once been close friends, Manly felt a moral imperative to publicly denounce Newbold's work in the "interests of scientific truth." "In my opinion," he wrote, "the Newbold claims are entirely baseless and should be definitely and absolutely rejected.
Sound familiar? It should. Every few months, it seems, a new theory is trumpeted by the news media beneath a breathless headline along the lines of "Has the Voynich Manuscript Really Been Solved?" (Spoiler alert: No, it hasn't.) I've seen them all.
I've been critiquing Voynich theories since I was a PhD student at Yale in the early 1990s and had a job at the Beinecke Library. In addition to my other responsibilities, I was tasked with handling Voynich-related correspondence. Ever since I first laid eyes on the manuscript 30 years ago, I have been captivated not only by the object itself but also by the hold it has on both the public and the persistent and devoted "Voynichologists" who can't get enough.
Like modern-day Newbolds, we all want to know what the Voynich means. But most would-be interpreters make the same mistake as Newbold: By beginning with their own preconceptions of what they want the Voynich to be, their conclusions take them further from the truth rather than nearer. Their attempts to demystify the medieval past only serve to mystify it further, making the Voynich into a telling avatar of our vexed relationship with the past.
In addition to my own work on the Voynich, which involves a detailed study of the scribes who wrote the manuscript, I've been increasingly called upon by the media in recent years to comment on various theories. Every solution I have seen falls apart under scrutiny, from wishful foundations to illogical conclusions.
Recent proposals that were reported worldwide argued that it was written in "Proto-Romance" (something that was not an actual language in the early 15th century), in ancient Hebrew (this theory depends in part on Google Translate, which can't really handle medieval languages), or - as publicised just last month - in an Italian dialect transcribed using a well-known medieval shorthand system called Tironian Notation. (In fact, there is no resemblance between Voynichese and Tironian Notes.)
Like others before them, these authors tend to go public prematurely - and without proper review by the real experts. Word of each new solution spreads across the globe in minutes. While it took years for Manly to call out Newbold, today's refutations are posted within hours on Twitter or other platforms.
What is it about the Voynich Manuscript that keeps us clicking? Why do we fall for the breathless announcements, only to see them denounced within hours or days? And why should we care about the Voynich Manuscript at all?
There is, in fact, no medieval manuscript that has been seen, studied, analyzed and debated more than Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library MS 408.
Dozens of solutions have been proposed in the past century alone, most of them more aspirational than they are substantive.
In addition to Roger Bacon, the manuscript has been credited to Leonardo da Vinci or attributed to 16th-century Mesoamerica. Recent chemical analyses, however, concluded that the oak gall ink and the mineral and botanical pigments are consistent with medieval recipes, and Carbon-14 analysis has dated the parchment to between 1404 and 1438. That rules out Roger Bacon (who was already dead), da Vinci (who hadn't been born), and the peoples of post-contact Mesoamerica.
I regularly receive Voynich "solutions" by email with requests for feedback. That feedback and my public comments are not always accepted in the constructively critical spirit in which they are given.
I recently received an ugly and threatening direct message from a fake Facebook account referring in detail to my critique of the Proto-Romance theory, claiming that the author of the theory "will go down in history," while I will be remembered as a "backwards looking troglodyte" who tried to slow "the advancement of knowledge and human progress" and who will "fade into obscurity." For some, apparently, the stakes appear to be irrationally high.
The proliferation of demonstrably false Voynich solutions is indicative of a larger issue. As executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, the largest organisation in the world dedicated to the study of the Middle Ages, I am acutely aware of the importance of the humanities as a discipline and the urgency of addressing the increasing threats to the study of history, languages and literature in the United States.
In this context, what are we to make of the widespread popular interest in a 600-year-old manuscript that no one can read? While it is the mystery of the Voynich that appeals, that grabs and holds the attention of a curious public, undercooked solutions presented without context lead readers down a rabbit hole of misinformation, conspiracy theories and the thoroughly unproductive fetishisation of a fictional medieval past, turning an authentic and fascinating medieval manuscript into a caricature of itself.
Every new Voynich theory offers an opportunity for readers to exercise healthy, critical skepticism instead of accepting publicised solutions at face value.
Proposed solutions shouldn't automatically be rejected (the default reaction of most medievalists), but they should be approached with caution. Seek out expert opinions, and do some follow-up reading.
It shouldn't take a Voynichologist to spot a leap of logic or an argument based on wishful thinking instead of solid facts. It is only by engaging with the critical reading and interpretive skills imparted by the study of the humanities that consumers of media can deconstruct methodologies, assess hypotheses and judge for themselves the reliability of what they read. And I'm not just talking about the Voynich Manuscript.
When we approach an ancient object such as the Voynich Manuscript, we tend to bring our preconceptions with us to the table. The more we burden the manuscript with what we want it to be, the more buried the truth becomes.
The missteps of historical preconception are particularly problematic when dealing with the Middle Ages.
We watch "Game of Thrones," we read "Lord of the Rings," we play medieval-themed video games, and therefore we think we know something about the Middle Ages.
Nationalists and white supremacists misappropriate medieval symbols, imagery and narrative to serve their own vicious agendas.
Using a contemporary cultural megaphone to talk over history threatens to drown out that which might otherwise be heard on its own terms.
To truly understand the past, we have to let it speak for itself.
The Voynich Manuscript has a voice - we just need to listen.
- Lisa Fagin Davis is executive director of the Medieval Academy of America and writes regularly about medieval manuscripts on her blog, The Manuscript Road Trip.