Latin, Hebrew … proto-Romance?

From The Guardian:

Some say it is a medieval medical manual written in abbreviated Latin and aimed at well-to-do women. Not true, say others: it was written in Hebrew by an Italian physician and clearly shows Jewish women having ritual baths.

Nonsense, others believe: the text was written in Old Turkish, in a poetic style. Or it may have origins in Old Cornish. Or in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, or in Manchu.

When it comes to the Voynich manuscript, a curious and apparently coded 15th-century document now held in the library of Yale University, perhaps the only thing on which academics, cryptographers and enthusiasts can agree is the depth of its mysteries. The beautifully illustrated text appears to have been written in cyphers representing a real language – but what does it mean?

Now a British academic has claimed the manuscript is a type of therapeutic reference book composed by nuns for Maria of Castile, queen of Aragon, in a lost language known as proto-Romance.

. . . .

Gerard Cheshire, a research associate at the University of Bristol, argues the manuscript is “a compendium of information on herbal remedies, therapeutic bathing and astrological readings” focusing on female physical and mental health, reproduction and parenting.

Rather than being written in code, he believes its language and writing system were commonplace at the time it was written, and he claims the document is the sole surviving text written in proto-Romance.

Though some believe the Voynich manuscript to be a hoax, its vellum has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century, and most scholars accept the text is contemporary. It is named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who bought it in 1912, but much of the history of its ownership is unknown.

. . . .

“Sorry folks, ‘proto-Romance language’ is not a thing,” tweeted Dr Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, of Cheshire’s paper. “This is just more aspirational, circular, self-fulfilling nonsense.”

Cheshire insists his work is anything but. “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.

The identification of Maria of Castile “took a lot of working out”, he told the Guardian by email. “But I had already solved the codex, so I applied lateral thinking and reasoning.”

. . . .

Sceptics of the theory say such eureka moments are nothing new. Dr Kate Wiles, a medievalist and linguist and senior editor at History Today, said a new theory on the manuscript’s meaning happened “on a six-monthly basis at least … there have been at least two in the past year”.

. . . .

“One of the reasons the Voynich manuscript is so appealing is because of languages like hieroglyphics and linear B, which were deciphered. But they didn’t come out of nowhere, they were decades in the making and drew on lots of different scholarly expertise. You can’t just have one person saying: ‘I’ve cracked it.’ You have got to have the field, on the whole, agreeing.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG’s first reaction is that this sounds like the seeds of another Dan Brown thriller.

Voynich manuscript
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
Yale University



Voynich manuscript
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
Yale University


Voynich manuscript
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
Yale University

12 thoughts on “Latin, Hebrew … proto-Romance?”

    • What Richard said.

      And a terrific comment from his article link, which links to several others:

      “And he just needs a little bit more grant money to translate the whole thing! Presumably he’ll have it finished around the time his expedition finds the Ark in the mountains of Turkey.”

    • And, BTW, I hold Richard responsible for my wasting a couple of hours going thru those links and especially their numerous comments and Nick Pelling’s delightful over the top insulting rhetoric.

      Not to mention my first encounter with (and eventual definition of) “Neal keys”.

      Pleasant memories of my bright college years when I thought I might become a dead languages-type linguist.

      • Thanks for the warning; I’ll bookmark these links to peruse when I have more time 🙂

        The first thing I wonder is, “what are those plants portrayed in the drawings”? If someone is going to say the code is Hebrew or Latin or whatever, wouldn’t it be helpful to identify what the plants are, then see what language would match up to the captions?

        Or failing that, where did those motifs come from? Who used them, and in what context? Paisley = Persian, knots = Celtic, etc. Start with the known and go to the unknown. But, based on the women, the artist was terrible at drawing, so maybe the flowers are not as helpful a clue 🙂

        • Just as there are hordes of wannabe interpreters of the Voynich manuscript, so too are there academic-related communities of “oh, god, not another crank” folks who relentlessly debunk some of the more amateur attempts. Start with Richard’s link if you want to go down that rabbit hole. (They’re quite amusing, if the topic interests you — not unreminiscent of various tech-nerd communities.) The OP author seems to be lurking under an anagram name in the comment section on Nick Pelling’s site.

          The plant identities as a key have a long history of wishful thinking and little to no evidence, with Aztec and Nahuatl high on the improbable list.

          You really need a background in Medieval fashions, decorative styles, period-to-period changes, regional influences, and so forth to do work with the manuscript (and to head-desk when faced with the amateur self-prosletyizing enthusiasts with their “solutions”).

          Most of the attempts to just do a character substitution founder on such basics as “that symbol can’t be a U or V in a language you think is Latin if it only appears 1% of the time”.

  1. I admit when I first saw the link to this “discovery,” it had me scratching my head. 14th century and a “proto-romance” language? I’ve read quite a bit of medieval literature in the original idioms and although they don’t match the current usages and grammar, they aren’t “proto” anything; they are fully developed languages in their own right.

    These days when my BS-ometer goes off, I tend to trust it.

    • Thank you, I was wondering about that. I thought by the time we got to the middle ages, the Romance languages were “grown” and had moved out of their Latin mother’s house. But I am no linguist.

    • The use of the term “Proto-” is for hypothesized precursor languages, as in “Proto-Indo-European”. So its usage is legitimate, but NOT in the way the OP author used it (he seems to be woefully deficient in linguistics). When he says “Proto-Romance”, he means “Vulgar Latin”.

  2. To expand on Karen’s comment, “Vulgar Latin” requires explanation. “Vulgar” here means “of or relating to the people,” not “swears like a character from Deadwood.” The modern use of the word is the product of class snobbery, and has largely driven out the original meaning. (Compare this with the Vulgate Bible: Jerome’s translation into Latin so ordinary Romans could read it.)

    The Classical Latin you probably didn’t learn in school, but would have if you were a century older, is a specific dialect of Latin spoken by the Roman upper class around the time of Augustus. The letters of Cicero are the sine qua non exemplars of this dialect. This was the prestige dialect at the time, for social class reasons, and remained so long after it was no longer spoken. To be an educated Roman meant for the next five hundred years to be able to read and write Classical Latin. This is why so many of Cicero’s letters survive. They were copied and recopied as school exercises.

    So what about Vulgar Latin? This simply was the Latin of the masses. As Roman rule spread, Vulgar Latin spread with it, developing into innumerable local dialects. Under the Empire there was enough travel to keep the dialects mutually intelligible. After the Empire fell apart, the various dialects went their own ways. Once you hit the modern era and the rise of the nation state there was a tendency to adopt one dialect, usually that of the capital, declare it the national language, and work to suppress all the other dialects. So “French” is the dialect of Paris, “Spanish” the dialect of Madrid, and so on.

    Returning to this particular crank solution to the Voynich manuscript, he is postulating a “proto-Romance” without seeming to know anything about the field. There is no mystery to Vulgar Latin and the development of Romance languages. If he thinks there is, it is only because he never cracked a basic textbook on the subject.

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