Eureka moments help researcher crack code of ‘world’s most mysterious text’

15 May 2019

Image: © Kot63/

For more than a century, scholars have been left baffled by an ancient, mysterious text, but one researcher has finally found an answer.

Where expert linguists, cryptographers and artificial intelligence failed, a single researcher from the University of Bristol has succeeded in solving what has been called the ‘world’s most mysterious text’.

The Voynich manuscript – named after Wilfrid Voynich who purchased the book from a dealer in 1912 – has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century. But for more than a century, scholars have been baffled by its text, which is so different from everything else we know.

Now, in a paper published to Romance Studies, Dr Gerard Cheshire revealed it took him two weeks to crack the code of the text using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity to identify its language and writing system. In doing so, he has not only solved one of linguistics’ biggest mysteries, but has revealed the only known example of proto-Romance language.

He said during the process of deciphering the code he experienced a series of ‘Eureka!’ moments, each of which led to a sense of disbelief and excitement. Compiled by Dominican nuns, the text is a a source of reference for Maria of Castile, who was the queen of Aragon and great-aunt to Catherine of Aragon.

“What it reveals is even more amazing than the myths and fantasies it has generated,” Cheshire said. “It is also no exaggeration to say this work represents one of the most important developments to date in Romance linguistics. The manuscript is written in proto-Romance – ancestral to today’s Romance languages including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan and Galician.”

Selection of the manuscript with an elongated P and drawings of people against a green background.

This shows the word ‘palina’, which is a rod for measuring the depth of water, sometimes called a stadia rod or ruler. The letter ‘p’ has been extended. Image: Voynich manuscript

What it means

This language was ubiquitous in the Mediterranean during the medieval period, Cheshire added, but was rarely written in official or important documents because of the control Latin has as the language of royalty, church and government.

Explaining what makes the text so unusual from a linguistic perspective, he said it is an example of an extinct language.

“Its alphabet is a combination of unfamiliar and more familiar symbols. It includes no dedicated punctuation marks, although some letters have symbol variants to indicate punctuation or phonetic accents,” he said.

“All of the letters are in lower case and there are no double consonants. It includes diphthong, triphthongs, quadriphthongs and even quintiphthongs for the abbreviation of phonetic components. It also includes some words and abbreviations in Latin.”

Cheshire now hopes to use this newfound knowledge to translate the entire manuscript – containing 200 pages – and compile a lexicon.

“Now the language and writing system have been explained, the pages of the manuscript have been laid open for scholars to explore and reveal, for the first time, its true linguistic and informative content,” he said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic