Did Gibbs Solve the Voynich Manuscript?

A New Contender?

Every week a new “solution” is offered for the Voynich Manuscript, but none of these theories so far has stood the test of time. Some get more publicity than others, with a recent one, by Nicholas Gibbs, being widely re-quoted in news sources within hours of being published in The Times Literary Supplement.

Gibbs’s article is largely autobiographical, offering a laundry-list of “inspiration” provided by many of the most common references cited by Voynich researchers.

One has to wonder how Gibbs could be aware of all these medieval references for so many years, as he claims, without knowing (or saying) anything about related research by members of the Voynich community who have extensively communicated about all the historic precedents mentioned in Gibbs’s article.

Take the idea, for example, that the balneological section in the VMS represents healthful bathing practices. This has been frequently discussed since 2000, and possibly earlier, by Brian Smith, René Zandbergen, Dennis Stallings and many others. Here is an excerpt from those communications courtesy of http://ixoloxi.com:

Date: Thu, 10 Aug 2000 22:20:07 +0200
From: René Zandbergen (Rene Zandbergen)

To: Dennis Stallings

…In my opinion the most exciting possible identification, but  highly contestable and not really a clear precedent: I think that when the VMs artist drew f77v (Fig.2 in the Aesculapius article) he had in front of him (either physically or mentally) the text of one of the pages of the ‘Balneis Puteolanis’ which describes the baths of Pozzuoli near Naples and which was written some time in the 15th Century. This MS was brought to our attention by Brian Smith. The text describes, one by one, the pictures on the VMs page.

http://www.balnea.net/museum/terme/gallerie/pietro/pietro5.html

BALNEUM PETRAE, […]

Si chiama così perchè frange i calcoli;
[…]
apre la vescica, libera i reni dalla renella, lava gli intestini.
Vidi molti calcolosi che, bevutane l’acqua calda, ebbero l’urina
pietrosa.

(Called like this since it breaks chalk /kidney stones I think/. opens the bladder, relieves the kidneys of , washes the intestines. You will see many ‘with stones’ who, after drinking the water, have urine with grains)

You really _must_ look at the VMs page and read the text to get the full impact. Or maybe I’m just imagining things – I’d like to hear your honest opinion.
The original text (presumably Latin) would constitute a great ‘known plaintext’ sample.

I don’t know whether the author of AlchemyWebsite was part of these communications or independently researched VMS bathing themes, but the author made a well-reasoned proposal, on or before Nov. 21, 2008, that the rosettes page was a map of the baths of Pozzuoli.

In early 2008, I was independently exploring the possibility that the rosettes might be a map of Naples. Why Naples? Because Vesuvius is an eye-shaped volcano and the rosette in the upper left has always looked to me like a volcano (with flames in the inner layer). My secondary ideas for the eye-shaped rosette were

  • the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem,
  • one of the seven hills of Rome,
  • possibly one of the large Roman coliseums that were built in a number of cities (including Naples),
  • roundels related to the design of a water garden such as forerunners to the Villa d’Este,
  • a specific port town that I’m keeping in my back pocket at the moment,
  • Genoa or Venice,
  • the volcanic channel between Sicily and Italy, or
  • a metaphorical illustration of something fictional like a hell mouth.

But Naples was still one of my top choices and I think the top-right rosette may be this unusual island atoll (see pic) perched off the coast of Naples, and tenuously joined to the mainland by a constructed jetty near one of the popular bathing areas.

Note the crater-like missing center on the island of Nisidia (aerial view courtesy of NASA). Could this be the VMS spiral? In medieval times, the water level was lower (many artifacts and signs of civilization have been found in the waters off the coast where land used to extend farther out than it does now) and there may have been plants in the crater-like basin that inspired the bushy star-like shapes in the VMS rosette. A close-up on Google Earth also reveals traces of ruins and possibly of a circular wall around the perimeter at the top of the hill. Notice also the rough water (big waves) on the VMS drawing and how Nisidia is exposed to the waters farther out in the bay. When water levels were lower and the coastline closer to the island, there may have been more jetties.

Healthful Bathing

While exploring Naples online, I knew there were thermal vents in the area (I have been to Naples), and many bathing areas (both water and mud) reputed to have healthful benefits, but I had never heard of the Baths of Pozzuoli. I did explore spas all over the world for almost two years (there are thousands of them) due to the numerous grotto-like bathing images in the VMS, but I didn’t make the explicit connection between Pozzuoli and Naples until years later when I began to meet some of the other Voynich researchers online and they mentioned manuscripts that document this popular spa. I think the reason I overlooked it is because it is currently in ruins and I didn’t know the area included caves and grottoes until I saw them depicted in medieval manuscripts (I thought those with caves and grottoes were more likely to match the themes in the VMS and most of those were in eastern or central Europe or outside of Europe altogether).

But to get back to Gibbs’s article…

Healthful bathing is clearly an old and thoroughly discussed aspect of Voynich research. If you’re reporting your own research on a casual venue, it’s not always necessary to credit prior research if you weren’t aware of it and it didn’t influence your thinking. But… if you are writing an article for publication in a major news outlet or academic journal, or specifically seeking credit for “being there first”, then checking and reporting prior research is part of the job, especially if you are making claims that you have solved the VMS,

The Claimed Solution

I read Gibbs’s article on Sept. 6, 2017, when Nick Pelling brought it to our attention. I didn’t see anything new other than a tiny mostly unreadable diagram of a proposed solution and a bold statement that there are no plant names or recipes in the VMS. Gibbs claims that the information that would help understand the manuscript has been trimmed away (an explanation that has raised more than a few eyebrows) and that the indexes are missing. This is an odd claim considering it is prefaced by the following statement:

“The abbreviations correspond to the standard pattern of words used in the Herbarium Apuleius Platonicus ” [Underlining is mine.]

If everything in the VMS is plagiarized from earlier sources, as Gibbs claims (entirely possible since that is how things were done in those days), and the abbreviations are based on standard Apuleius Platonicus herbarium word patterns, then a supposed missing index is not an insurmountable stumbling block to decryption.

I’ve seen the indexes in herbal manuscripts. They rarely add anything that can’t already be discerned by the combination of pictures and text on the pages, they simply make it easier to find the pages quickly or fill in missing data when only plant names and no further information are on the folio with the diagram. The paragraphs on the VMS plant pages are more extensive than the labels or brief notes on many medieval herbals.

Also, a point that Gibbs didn’t note is that many of these indexes were added later, sometimes half a century later, by other hands. The original users of the manuscripts apparently managed without them.

Foliation

I agree with Gibbs (and many others) that the folios may be out of order, but I doubt this would stymie decryption attempts either. The various sections are thematically consistent and each sheet of vellum has been folded to create four sides, so we DO know a large number of recto-verso relationships because they are physically inseparable.

Summary

I was eager to see Gibbs’s solution. But there are only two short  lines of tiny text subjectively expanded into questionable Latin that is almost unreadable in the online version. It’s a teaser and perhaps only tentative, at best. I think most people would agree that at least a paragraph or two from different portions of the manuscript should be illustrated, along with the method of decipherment, in order to establish that one has a “solution” or even the right direction for a solution to the VMS.

Gibbs hasn’t even established that the underlying text is Latin. Until he demonstrates how his decryption was accomplished, it’s merely an unsupported assertion. It’s not an irrational one—the glyphs are mostly Latin, the abbreviation symbols mostly Latin (there might be some Latin)—but many Latin scholars have tried to make sense of it without success, and Latin characters were used in dozens of languages, so we cannot assume it’s Latin until a cogent method is proposed.

 

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

3 thoughts on “Did Gibbs Solve the Voynich Manuscript?

  1. D.N. O'Donovan

    JKP – the phrasing used by Zandbergen in 2000 sounds as if he had it from someone else. He doesn’t say “I have just discovered a source never mentioned before but I think it could be related to the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ section”. He seems to be attempting to sound as if he had found this idea the most exciting option of those available at the time. In fact, we may excuse his omission of the originator’s name either because his audience at that time knew who he meant, or by reason of that excitement he was feeling.

    I am told, informally that Torasella introduced the ‘Balneis’ to discussion of Beinecke MS 408, but in any case the idea met a very cool reception among those with appropriate studies in their background.

    No-one during the past seventeen and more years has found any connection between the written texts in these works, and we should remain aware that for the whole of that decade and a half.. or more… the argument has never been formally offered, no supporting evidence of historical investigation been pursued… the egg has never hatched. It’s just been fossilised by determined repetition, and by talking down any dissenting voices, however reasonable those might be. So it’s still no more than a highly dubious assertion – not only unproven but never even argued.

    If saying the same thing, over and over, while suppressing or ignoring all dissent, is what constitutes an implied ‘truth by survival’, then of course we must show due deference to the dicta of astrology, and all join a version of the ancient Egyptian religion, since these both survived the test of time for a lot longer than any other theory about the stars, and the heavens, respectively.

    Reply
    1. J.K. Petersen Post author

      Diane, Zandbergen makes it clear in his message that it was brought to his attention by Brian Smith.

      The point is that Gibbs presents the “healthful bathing” theme in his article in 2017 The Times Literary Supplement as though it were a new discovery by him and doesn’t mention any of the prior discussions, even though De Balneis Puteolanis has been a recurring theme since the manuscripts were digitized and made available to the public (as mentioned by Smith/Zandbergen/Stallings in 2000 on the mailing list).

      Whether you believe there is a connection or not between De Balneis Puteolanis and the VMS, Gibbs apparently does and should have cited previous research.

      Reply
  2. Rene Zandbergen

    As Nick pointed out in his blog (and I also hinted at Koen’s blog), a comparison with the Balneis set of manuscripts was already made by Toresella in the 1990’s.
    It was revived by a post to the mailing list by Brian Smith. Probably independently.
    It was again revived by Adam McLean later, almost certainly again independently.

    My only minor contribution is the suggestion that the text of the baths of Peter seems to be reflected in f77v of the Voynich MS.
    I don’t think that anybody named above ever claimed to be the first to suggest his points.
    That is quite sensible, of course, since this is typically impossible to prove.

    That Gibbs would not have realised that his suggestion is not new, is really hard to believe.
    It means he has not even read the Yale volume.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *