Weekend Reading: Fun with Voynich

This week I’ve been having a lot of fun with Voynich, just like everybody else.

What’s that you say? You’ve been out enjoying the sunshine, eating ice cream and doing the gardening, not staring at old and crazy manuscripts?

Well, the good news is that it’s not too late to join the Voynich Party, which is still going strong on the old interweb. Pull up a chair and sharpen your critical knives: there’s plenty of room for all. Oh, and look – there’s even a hot tub!


voynich manuscript


Here’s a nice introduction to the hitherto undeciphered Voynich Manuscript, which is written in a language nobody recognises (is it Latin? or “proto-Romance”? or a cipher? or gibberish? or the medieval version of Tolkien’s invention of Elvish?):




Hitherto undeciphered, I said: because a journal article claiming to have found the trick to unravelling it has just been published by a Bristol academic –  and it’s set off a little manuscript media storm.

You see, it’s not at all unusual for someone to claim to have ‘found the answer’ to the mysterious unknown language of the Voynich manuscript: scholars have been doing so for a hundred years. But usually they don’t get through the journal peer-review process. For an interesting discussion of the holes in peer review, read this thread.

This particular article did somehow get published: and the fact that it appeared in a journal has been used in the media – and by the article’s author – as evidence that the interpretation it puts forward is supported by the scholarly community.

Supported? Well, not exactly. It will come as no surprise to you, Dear Reader, that the support of the scholarly community is not so easily won.

Let’s just say (to put it mildly) that the article has been systematically and enthusiastically dismantled, on social media and in numerous blogposts. Many people have wrangled with Voynich at some point in their academic careers, and none of them are persuaded by the article at all.

Even the University of Bristol, which first trumpeted the great discovery, has been obliged to backtrack in a rather abrupt manner…


voynich bristol


The popular press is still having fun running with the idea of the ‘UK genius’ who has ‘cracked the code’, ‘solved the mystery’ and ‘unlocked’ the puzzle which baffled Alan Turing and the FBI. And every time a new headline comes out to glorify this ‘discovery’, the internet lights up again with the rage of a thousand ignored academics.


voynich house


Watching all this codebreaking-conspiracytheory-academic/media excitement has been much more entertaining than going outside in the sunshine. And as an added bonus, the article in question introduced me to the word ‘quintiphthongs’, which I’m intending to use in conversation just as soon as I can say it without spitting.



voynich towels
Voynich Manuscript bath towels: that’s my birthday sorted out…




This week’s non-Voynich links from around the internet…



A new ‘Trojan Women’ – Deccan Chronicle 

Finding a hidden Cupid – The Art Newspaper 

The movie anniversary of Troy – Vanity Fair 

Protecting ruins from vandalism – South Wales Argus 

A new take on Dido – The Guardian 


Comment and opinion

Paula James on OU Classics at 50 – OU Classical Studies 

Retellings of myth – The Spectator

Motivation for learning Latin – Latinitium 

Hadrian and the Pantheon – Following Hadrian 

Pliny’s Rome – History Extra 

How the ancients kept their minds young – The Spectator 

Turning the patriarchy to stone – Bitch Media 

Land of a thousand stories – The New York Times

Digital and practical epigraphy – Katherine McDonald 

Rome and Washington DC – The Conversation 

The languages that made Latin – Ad Astra Per Mundum

The scent of hemlock – The History Girls 

Psychosomatic hedonism – Le Temps Revient 

Trump as Hannibal – The Washington Post 


Podcasts, video and other media

Natalie Haynes on the Trojan War – That’s Ancient History

The rise of Sejanus – The Life of the Caesars 

The end of an era – The History of Ancient Greece 

Marginalised identities in archaeology – Coffee and Circuses 

Talking about Tiberius – The Partial Historians 

The drunken satyr – The Iris 

Tricks of Latin teaching – Audite

Aristophanes mockumentary – Oxford Classics

Lorna Hardwick talks to David Raeburn – Practitioners’ Voices in Classical Reception Studies 



Fully funded MA studentships at the OU – OU Classical Studies 

Homer classes in London- The British Library 

Egypt summer school in Durham – Durham University 


summer school


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