I received the copyedited chapter files for my mound builder book, which means that I now have to review and approve the changes. Because this takes a lot of time, I’m taking this weekend off to work on the review process. Therefore, I’ll leave you with a brief notice that the claim made this week that a researcher using “ingenuity” and “lateral thinking” had deciphered the mysterious Voynich Manuscript in less than two weeks has already descended into recriminations and claims that academics just don’t understand radical new ideas—you know, the standard. It is another case where a sexy claim got overblown through over-ambitious PR and sensational media coverage, aided by a claimant who seems to lack humility about the limits of his own claim.
Gerard Cheshire claimed in a peer-reviewed article in Romance Studies to have proven that the Voynich Manuscript’s indecipherable writing was actually the only example anywhere on Earth of “proto-Romance,” an assumed intermediate stage between Vulgar Latin and modern Romance languages. The University of Bristol issued a triumphant press release celebrating the alleged discovery, but shortly after they deleted their own coverage and now claim to have no relationship with Cheshire after medieval experts through cold water on his claims. “Following media coverage, concerns have been raised about the validity of this research from academics in the fields of linguistics and medieval studies. … The research was entirely the author’s own work and is not affiliated with the University of Bristol, the school of arts nor the Centre for Medieval Studies,” the school now says.
As Lisa Fagin David, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, tweeted, “proto-Romance” is “not a thing.” “Proto-Romance” is a term sometimes used to describe late Vulgar Latin, and it is sometimes used for a reconstructed hypothetical stage between Vulgar Latin and the separation of Vulgar Latin into the Romance tongues. Either way, the “Proto-Romance” is not known from real life examples but is a reconstruction, much like Proto-Indo-European.
Cheshire told the Guardian that he is sure that future scholars will vindicate him. He dismissed his critics as a recalcitrant minority entrenched in dogma:
“It was inevitable and expected, given the passion that the manuscript arouses, that a marginal group would find it difficult to accept new evidence,” he said.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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