Last week, a history researcher and television writer named Nicholas Gibbs published a long article in the Times Literary Supplement about how he’d cracked the code on the mysterious Voynich Manuscript. Unfortunately, say experts, his analysis was a mix of stuff we already knew and stuff he couldn’t possibly prove.
As soon as Gibbs’ article hit the Internet, news about it spread rapidly through social media (we covered it at Ars too), arousing the skepticism of cipher geeks and scholars alike. As Harvard’s Houghton Library curator of early modern books John Overholt put it on Twitter, “We’re not buying this Voynich thing, right?” Medievalist Kate Wiles, an editor at History Today, replied, “I’ve yet to see a medievalist who does. Personally I object to his interpretation of abbreviations.”
The weirdly-illustrated 15th century book has been the subject of speculation and conspiracy theories since its discovery in 1912. In his article, Gibbs claimed that he’d figured out the Voynich Manuscript was a women’s health manual whose odd script was actually just a bunch of Latin abbreviations. He provided two lines of translation from the text to “prove” his point.
However, this isn’t sitting well with people who actually read medieval Latin. Medieval Academy of America director Lisa Fagin Davis told The Atlantic‘s Sarah Zhang, “They’re not grammatically correct. It doesn’t result in Latin that makes sense.” She added, “Frankly I’m a little surprised the TLS published it…If they had simply sent to it to the Beinecke Library, they would have rebutted it in a heartbeat.” The Beinecke Library at Yale is where the Voynich Manuscript is currently kept. Davis noted that a big part of Gibbs’ claim rests on the idea that the Voynich Manuscript once had an index that would provide a key to the abbreviations. Unfortunately, he has no evidence for such an index, other than the fact that the book does have a few missing pages.
The idea that the book is a medical treatise on women’s health, however, might turn out to be correct. But that wasn’t Gibbs’ discovery. Many scholars and amateur sleuths had already reached that conclusion, using the same evidence that Gibbs did. Essentially, Gibbs rolled together a bunch of already-existing scholarship and did a highly speculative translation, without even consulting the librarians at the institute where the book resides.
Gibbs said in the TLS article that he did his research for an unnamed “television network.” Given that Gibbs’ main claim to fame before this article was a series of books about how to write and sell television screenplays, it seems that his goal in this research was probably to sell a television screenplay of his own. In 2015, Gibbs did an interview where he said that in five years, “I would like to think I could have a returnable series up and running.” Considering the dubious accuracy of many History Channel “documentaries,” he might just get his wish.