For more than a century, researchers have been trying to decipher ancient texts found in the Voynich manuscript.
The 600-year-old document is described as ‘the world’s most mysterious medieval text.’
It full of illustrations of exotic plants, stars, and mysterious human figures, as well as many pages written in an unknown text.
Now, one British academic claims the document is in fact a health manual for a ‘well-to-do’ lady looking to treat gynaecological conditions.
Nicholas Gibbs, who is an expert on medieval medical manuscripts, said he came to the conclusion after discovering the text is written in Latin ligatures that outline remedies from standard medical information.
Latin ligatures were ‘developed as scriptorial short cuts’ and have been used since Greek and Roman times.
For example the common ampersand (&) is developed from a ligature when the Latin letters e and t (spelt ‘et’ meaning ‘and’) are combined.
Mr Gibbs, who claims to be a professional history researcher, wrote about his work for the Times Literary Supplement.
He wrote by studying medieval Latin ‘it became obvious that each character in the Voynich manuscript represented an abbreviated word, and not a letter’.
He found the same ‘dominant words’ appeared in these medical documents and the Voynich.
Many of the shortcuts appeared to have been ‘lifted’ from other medical treatises, he said.
The images of nude women and healing plants also suggested it referred to aromatherapy, practised by the Greek healer Hippocrates and Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder.
He believes the illustrations of plant remedies, Zodiac charts and instructions on thermal baths indicate that whoever wrote the document had a good understanding of medieval medicine.
Bathing was practised by Greeks and Romans and throughout the Middle Ages as a form of health and healing.
Curing gynaecological complains and other female diseases often involved ‘taking the waters’ – either by bathing or ingesting.
Mr Gibbs also noted the cylinder-churns – medieval cooking stoves with inverted boiling vessels which was used for infusions.
This image matched with that of a stove in a manual written by surgeon and botanist Hieronyus Brunschwygk (1450–1512).
However, he is still unable to fully translate the recipes.
The main issue, he says, is that the manuscript is missing its indexes.
‘For the sake of brevity,’ Mr Gibbs wrote, ‘the name of both plant and malaise were superfluous in the text so long as they could be found in the indexes matched with a page number’.
The manuscript is widely celebrated among cryptographers and radiocarbon dating suggested it had between written early in the 15th century.
The text, which is now held in the Beinecke Library at Yale University, was passed through various owners before it ended up in the hands of a London bookseller called Wilfrid Voynich in 1912.
Mr Gibbs spent three years studying the manuscript and claims Voynich was a ‘crooked book dealer’ who encouraged the ‘crackpots and conspiracy theories’ that followed.
The book’s intriguing mix of elegant writing and drawings of strange plants and naked women has some believing it holds magical powers.
It has even featured in the latest hit computer game Assassin’s Creed, as well as in the Indiana Jones novels, when Indiana decoded the Voynich and used it to find the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’.
According to Mr Gibbs, Voynich pretended it had been written by Roger Bacon.
Bacon was a friar and philosopher from the 13th century who concealed his works with code so the church would not be able to decipher what he had written.
But that theory was discarded when the manuscript was carbon dated and found to have originated between 1404 and 1438.
Mr Gibbs says because no one recognised the writing they assumed it was code.
‘The problem was that none of the cryptographers were historians; none knew medieval manuscripts’, he said.
He believes the manuscript shows a series of ingredients for recipes with the required amounts.
‘Human beings are not naturally complicated. They look for short cuts all over the place’, he said, but added that the manuscript was still proving ‘resistant to interpretation’.
In August last year, Siloe, a small publishing house nestled deep in northern Spain, secured the right to clone the document.
‘Touching the Voynich is an experience,’ said Juan Jose Garcia, director of Siloe, which is based in Burgos, in the north of Spain.
‘It’s a book that has such an aura of mystery that when you see it for the first time… it fills you with an emotion that is very hard to describe.’
Siloe, which specialises in making facsimiles of old manuscripts, has bought the rights to make 898 exact replicas of the Voynich.
The copies will be so faithful that every stain, hole, sewn-up tear in the parchment will be reproduced.
The company always publishes 898 replicas of each work it clones – a number which is a palindrome, or a figure that reads the same backwards or forwards.
The publishing house plans to sell the clones, also known as facsimiles, for 7,000 to 8,000 euros (£6,030 to £6,891 or $7,800 to $8,900) apiece once completed – and close to 300 people have already put in pre-orders.