Nicholas Gibbs, a history researcher, says that he has decoded the Voynich Manuscript, a legendarily mysterious 15th century text whose curious illustrations and script have baffled cryptographers, historians, and amateur sleuths for decades.
According to Gibbs, the Voynich Manuscript is a cobbled together compendium of largely plagiarized women's medical advice and treatments, and the odd script is just an idiosyncratic version of a widely used system of Latin abbreviations.
Gibbs hypothesizes that the Manuscript was commissioned as a kind of anthology, possibly for a single person's use.
The foldout diagram of nine illustrated spheres found in the Voynich manuscript proved the key to understanding it. The Voynich manuscript has been digitized by the Beinecke library, and this allowed me, at maximum magnification, to take a patchwork pencil tracing of the entire sequence of nine spheres. When I laid out my copy and turned it through 360 degrees, I noticed some interesting perspective properties. The design, in spite of its Persian influence, is definitely Mediterranean in style and content. The entire diagram can be viewed either as a lozenge shape or like a board of noughts and crosses. Every detail shown inside each circle or in their immediate connecting pathways – whether tent canopy, water fountain, fortification, cardinal point or wind direction – is depicted in the illustrations of De Balneis Puteolanis and copies of what was eventually to become the highly decorated manuscript Tacuinum Sanitatis (thirteenth century) gleaned from an eleventh-century Arab script, which in turn can be traced to Pliny. The sources common to all three titles come as no surprise – Galen, Hippocrates and Pliny.
The imagery in one of the Voynich manuscript's nine spheres reveals a hitherto unrecognized medieval sea port. There is no mistaking the fort that guards the harbour approaches, the crescent quay and the lighthouse on the mole at the end of the causeway, all overseen by its citadel. From an earlier project exclusively focused on the Crusades, I had come across a 1487 manuscript of Conrad Grünenberg's travelogue of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The manuscript was stuffed full of illustrations of medieval sea ports. On revisiting this volume I noticed an image of Rhodes harbour which clearly reflected many of the features of the harbour of the Voynich nine spheres. Traditionally, water is depicted by a series of swirled or undulating parallel lines. In the Voynich manuscript, the harbour water is represented by star motifs. This provides a credible explanation for the star motif as a water symbol elsewhere in the manuscript.
The artists engaged in illustrating the Voynich manuscript ranged from the proficient to the downright naive. There appears to have been a different hand for each genre incorporated in it. The draughtsman responsible for the botany possessed a good sense of depth, while the colourist of the same images was slapdash, not with a brush but with a nib; the artist of various cylindrical and bulbous vessels had an eye for detail, but absolutely no sense of depth, and in stark contrast to the attached depictions of the root and leaf ingredients; while the artist of the nine spheres appears to have used an optical device.
Voynich manuscript: the solution
[Nicholas Gibbs/Times Literary Supplement]