Voynich Decoded?

ETA: apparently everyone thinks this guy’s work is wrong.

I thought his paper was nice and on a good track, but take with appropriate salt.


I am tempted to jest that the Voynich manuscript turned out to have been so difficult to decode because it was written by women, but this isn’t quite true.

It was just written in an extinct language of which we have almost no other written examples,
With an alphabet full of unknown characters,
No punctuation,
And full of abbreviations and calligraphic shorthands.

No problem!

If you’re not familiar with the Voynich manuscript, it’s a 240 page book that appears to have been written in Italy in the late 1400s. It’s filled with pictures of things like plants, bathing women, and a rather nice fold-out diagram of a volcano. It came to the world’s attention after Wilfrid Voynich purchased it from an old books dealer in 1912.

Fold out map of volcanic islands, Voynich manuscript

Because the Voynich manuscript is so weird, (especially the alphabet,) people have struggled for years to decipher it. Is it in code? Is it some non-European language like Chinese? Is it an elaborate hoax?

Given its resistance to all previous attempts at translation, I had written it off as probably a hoax–not a modern one perpetuated by Voynich, but a very old one played on some Medieval personage to sell them a worthless book full of supposed secret, magical knowledge for a handsome sum of money.

But it appears that Voynich has, at long last, been decoded by Gerard Cheshire.

It turns out that this “unknown language” isn’t Finnish, Basque, Navajo or something similarly difficult, but a kind of medieval Italian (or perhaps more accurately, late Latin,) known as proto-Romance. We have plenty of written examples of ancient Italian (otherwise known as Latin) and plenty of modern Italian, but few from the in-between period. It’s a bit like finding something written in Chaucerian English when you’re only familiar with modern English and Beowulf.

Text sample from the Voynich manuscript

With this insight, the authors were able to decipher the strange alphabet, which employs no capitals but several extra symbols for dip- and tripthongs. (Kind of like Sequoia’s syllabary.)

The result is orthographically lovely, but very complicated. You should read the full article for an explanation for what all of the letters mean.

The really interesting thing is that this alphabet is nearly unique. Did the local nuns invent it for the purpose of the book? Were they literate in the regular alphabet used on the mainland, but felt it would be better to develop their own? Or was this commonly used in the area, but the vagaries of time destroyed all other remnants of it?

They found one of the keys to deciphering the manuscript lies in the map of the volcanic islands:

Within the manuscript there is a foldout pictorial map that provides the necessary information to date and locate the origin of the manuscript. It tells the adventurous, and rather inspiring, story of a rescue mission, by ship, to save the victims of a volcanic eruption in the Tyrrhenian Sea that began on the evening of the 4 February 1444 … The manuscript originates from Castello Aragonese, an island castle and citadel off Ischia, and was compiled for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, (1401–58) who led the rescue mission as regent during the absence of her husband, King Alfonso V of Aragon (1396–1458) who was otherwise occupied, having only recently conquered and then taken control of Naples in February 1443. …

The island of Ischia is historically famous for its hot volcanic spas, which exist to this day. The manuscript has many images of naked women bathing in them, both recreationally and therapeutically. There are also images of Queen Maria and her court conducting trade negotiations whilst bathing. Clearly the spa lifestyle was highly regarded as a form of physical cleansing and spiritual communion, as well as a general means of relaxation and leisure. In many respects it would have been preferable to living in nearby Naples, which was the most important and cosmopolitan of cities in the Mediterranean at the time, but was still potentially dangerous for the spouse of an invading king. For example, in 1448 the barons of Naples launched a failed rebellion against Alfonso to reclaim their city.

In other words, while the menfolk were away, the Queen Maria of Ischia, a lovely little volcanic island off the coast of Naples, (the Wikipedia page is nice and has a couple of pictures of the castle where Queen Maria lived) had to lead the court, negotiate trade deals, and even led a rescue mission to an exploding volcano. She then decided to commission a local nun to write her a book on various matters of importance to the nearly all-female court. The various isolations inherent in island life probably account for several of the manuscripts peculiarities, from language to text.

Proto-Romance is thought to be ancestral not only to modern Italian, but to the various other romance languages, as well. It was a kind of lingua franca in the Mediterranean before modern political borders forced Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., to fully differentiate. From the paper:

So, we have proto-Romance words surviving in the Mediterranean from Portugal, in the west, to Turkey, in the east. Clearly, it was a cosmopolitan lingua franca until the late Medieval period, when the political map began to inhibit meme flow, so that cultural isolation caused the modern languages to begin evolving. As a result, proto-Romance survived by vestigial fragmentation of its lexicon into the languages we see today. As such, manuscript MS408 is immensely important, because it is the only documentation of a language that was once ubiquitous over the Mediterranean and subsequently became the foundation for southern European linguistics in the present day.


There is another manuscript to introduce here, because it has similarity in calligraphic style and similarly combined letterforms. It is a memoire written by Loise De Rosa (1385–1475), who lived and worked in the court of Naples. It is titled De Regno di Napoli (The Kingdom of Naples) …

We can see that the calligraphic forms are quite legible and familiar to the modern eye and also noticeably different from those shared by manuscript MS408 and De Rosa. …

De Rosa’s work thus provides documentation of a writing system and a language akin to those of manuscript MS408, demonstrating that both evolved from the same naïve linguistic rootstock: i.e. both had emerged from Vulgar Latin, but in different ways due to their geographical and cultural separation. …

In fact we know, from De Rosa’s manuscript, that he fled to the safety of Castello Aragonese in 1441–42, when Alfonso was busy conquering Naples: He writes: ‘The patron said to me: “Son of mine, go to Ischia, for the great of age the place is safe”. I went to the marina and took a boat that travelled to the Castello di Ischia’. As incredible as it may seem, the chances are that De Rosa actually met the author of manuscript MS408 during his stay at the citadel.

So de Rosa met Maria and probably the nun who wrote the Voynich herself. It’s a really incredible story, both in the manuscript’s creation and the efforts it took to decaode it, and I encourage you to read the full article.