It can be a little frightening for medievalists to see self-evidently wrongheaded interpretations spread like wood lice.
Dear Mrs Livingstone,” the e-mail began. “Unfortunately you are wrong by writing in your article that the Voynich manuscript isn’t cracked. I cracked the code in 2007.” Since writing about a new facsimile edition of the Voynich manuscript on this Web site, late last year, I have received a lot of e-mails like this. In them, the writers claim to have decoded the fifteenth-century manuscript. They link to their own sites. Some are truly wonderful. The book is written in a script that exists nowhere else, and military code-breakers and paleographers alike have failed in their attempts to solve Voynich. Yet still the e-mails come.
The other day, I shared a screenshot on Instagram of a particularly deranged e-mail from an amateur code-breaker who had offered me his “scoop.” This time, in reply, people asked me, “Have you heard the latest news?” The Times Literary Supplement had published an article by a man named Nicholas Gibbs. Gibbs, who works as a television researcher, had a theory that the book is a largely plagiarized tract on women’s health. Various outlets excitedly aggregated the solution. “Nicholas Gibbs appears to have cracked the code,” Ars Technicadeclared.
I logged on to Facebook. There, as I’d hoped, I found some medievalist friends chortling over Gibbs’s theory. I followed a link to tweets written by the cunyprofessor Karl Steel, who examined my own doctorate in medieval literature. In response to a frothy announcement that the code had been cracked, he had tweeted, “Nah.” A screenshot of this tweet by the Colby professor Megan Cook had gone moderately viral. A response to the screenshot from a man named Matthew read, “Well the @TheTLS article does include coherent and believable translations as well as an explanation of why it is the way it is.” In response, Steel had tweeted, “Matthew, you’re a zoologist.”
The life of an online rumor can be humiliatingly short. Gibbs’s own announcement had a credibility shelf life of roughly three days. (Ars Technica published its retraction on Sunday.) Gibbs’s theory hinged on the extraordinary inference that the Voynich manuscript’s writing consisted of abbreviations of Latin words. Here’s the core of his argument:
Medieval lettering is notoriously fickle: individual letter variations, styles and combinations are confusing at the best of times. I recognized at least two of the characters in the Voynich manuscript text as Latin ligatures, Eius and Etiam. Ligatures were developed as scriptorial short-cuts. They are composed of selected letters of a word, which together represent the whole word, not unlike a monogram.
That ligatures and abbreviations exist in medieval manuscripts is probably the very first thing that any student of paleography must learn. Without knowing this fact, you cannot read them. “On the strength of this,” Gibbs writes, he “consulted the Lexicon Abbreviaturarum of medieval Latin (1899) by Adriano Cappelli, sometimes referred to as the medievalists’ Bible.” This book is widely available to download for free on the Internet, and is familiar, again, to every reader of medieval manuscripts containing Latin, which is most of them. “Systematic study of every single character in the ‘Lexicon’ identified further ligatures and abbreviations in the Voynich manuscript and set a precedent,” Gibbs writes. “It became obvious that each character in the Voynich manuscript represented an abbreviated word and not a letter.”
Gibbs’s proposed abbreviations corresponded, he wrote, with a text called the “Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus.” Well, it almost did, except for the absence of a single plant name in Voynich. The text Gibbs refers to is literally a list of plants. But this was no problem, according to his theory: the book must be missing pages. “The indexes that should have been there were now absent.” The other problem is that the Latin makes no grammatical sense.
Knowledge follows patterns of transmission. The old pattern of transmission regarding the Voynich manuscript would have flowed from academic research to peer review to publication to common knowledge (possibly via a TV program or two). This is not to say that Gibbs is wrong because he is a television researcher rather than a professor. He is wrong simply because he is wrong. But the journey taken by this odd exaggeration of a mystery’s death is a funny little hunk of evidence about the way thought behaves now.
A great and insoluble enigma, one which has defeated the greatest code-breaking minds of American military intelligence, is itself defeated, purportedly. The T.L.S.—a venerable institution, one you would expect to be well edited—publishes the announcement. Everybody believes it for a moment, and that belief spreads with absurd rapidity across the Internet. And then a few people with expertise and a platform poke the balloon, and it pops. Just like that, the episode is over.
As I wrote here last year, Voynich enthusiasts will probably never stop forming communities based on the manuscript’s secrets. Community, speculation, imagination, sheer interest in medieval books: these are all wonderful things. But it can be a little frightening for medievalists, who ply a fairly old-guard sort of academic trade, to see such a self-evidently wrong interpretation spread like wood lice. (And one based on the speculative absence of missing pages, no less! There exists no cheaper sticking plaster for a shoddy theory.)
But if the swift deformation of the old, imperfect model for generating and transmitting knowledge across the culture is frightening, it is at least very funny. Imagine what the author of the Voynich manuscript would think of the speed with which that “solution” travelled! I suspect that he or she or the group of them would have enjoyed the entire brief affair. The manuscript itself may well be an enormous and expensive joke. Those astrological diagrams, the “balneological” illustrations of ladies in baths, all those plants. They could mean nothing.
The Voynich manuscript is a knowledge loop. Every bit of speculation simply leads back into the mystery. In that sense, it’s a perfect emblem of the Twitter echo chamber. Rumors flare, spread, die, and the next one comes along. The book, meanwhile, stays just the same. Like the truth, it’s a sly and resistant thing.[“Source-newyorker”]