University backtracks over Voynich manuscript translation claims

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A university which heralded the work of one of its academics in cracking the code of the famous Voynich manuscript has backtracked after questions were raised about the claims.

The University of Bristol has removed an article from its website about Dr Gerard Cheshire’s work after “concerns have been raised about the validity of this research”.

Earlier this week the university announced that Dr Cheshire, a research associate, had taken just two weeks to crack the code, with his findings published in the journal Romance Studies.

Dr Cheshire described how he successfully deciphered the manuscript’s codex and, at the same time, revealed the only known example of proto-Romance language.

“I experienced a series of ‘eureka’ moments whilst deciphering the code, followed by a sense of disbelief and excitement when I realised the magnitude of the achievement, both in terms of its linguistic importance and the revelations about the origin and content of the manuscript,” he said.

This prompted questions from academics and experts in linguistics.

Among them was Lisa Fagin Davis, a US-based paleographer and codicologist.

“Sorry, folks, ‘proto-Romance language’ is not a thing. This is just more aspirational, circular, self-fulfilling nonsense,” she tweeted.

“I tried several years ago to reproduce Cheshire’s Voynich results, because initially I was intrigued.

“But when you apply his Roman-letter substitutions and then try to translate the result, you have no choice but to be subjective. It’s gibberish. The methodology falls apart.

“Once the foundations crumble, everything built on them – which includes the published paper – falls.

“That’s why when you are examining any theory, especially a Voynich theory, you have to start with the first principles. Go back to the beginning.”

The Voynich manuscript is a medieval, handwritten and illustrated text, which has been carbon-dated to the mid-15th century.

An unfolded map from the Voynich manuscript
An unfolded map from the Voynich manuscript (University of Bristol)

It is currently housed at Yale University, where it is filed as item MS408 in the Beinecke Library of rare books and manuscripts.

The contents have eluded countless cryptographers, linguistics scholars and computer programs for over 100 years.

Among those who have famously attempted to crack the code are Alan Turing and colleagues at Bletchley Park.

The FBI also had a go during the Cold War, apparently thinking it may have been Communist propaganda.

“The University of Bristol published a story about research on the Voynich manuscript by an honorary research associate,” the university said in a statement.

“This research was entirely the author’s own work and is not affiliated with the University of Bristol, the Faculty of Arts or the Centre for Medieval Studies.

“The paper was published in the journal ‘Romance Studies’ following a double blind peer review process by two external academic referees, a process used to validate the research quality of a study.

“When a member of our academic community has a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal, the university’s media team will determine whether the findings are of public interest.

“If they are, the team will communicate the research to the media and on our university website.

“Following media coverage, concerns have been raised about the validity of this research from academics in the fields of linguistics and medieval studies.

“We take such concerns very seriously and have therefore removed the story regarding this research from our website to seek further validation and allow further discussions both internally and with the journal concerned.”

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