A top academic claims to finally to have unlocked the secrets of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript, the Fifteenth Century document whose meaning has perplexed scholars for decades. “It’s gibberish. No, really, it is complete and utter bollocks,” opines Professor Bob Mincer, Chair of Erotic Writing Studies at East Acton Needlework Academy, after studying a photocopy of the manuscript – which is infamously written in an apparently uncrackable codex. “I know that lot’s of people seem to think that, behind the unintelligible text and bizarre illustrations, the document contains some kind of arcane knowledge or profound message, but the fact is that the world’s top cryptologists and linguists have been unable to decipher any of it. It’s even defeated the efforts of the most advanced Artificial Intelligence on the planet. The reason for this is obvious: it is utterly meaningless. The whole manuscript consists simply of the idle doodlings of a bored individual.” Mincer was apparently inspired to these conclusions after marking essays by his students. “The margins of their exercise books were crammed full of illegible writing and strange drawings – often with a sexual theme.” he recalls. “The similarity between this gibberish – scrawled while they were bored during classes – and the Voynich Manuscript was, I thought, quite striking. I mean, some of those spurting penises, giant breasts and the like in those exercise book margins were highly reminiscent of the strangely shaped ‘plants’ seen in the manuscript.”
Mincer’s claims, made in the first episode of his new TV series Ancient Idiots?, in which he debunks what he describes as ‘crackpot conspiracy theories and deluded counterfactual histories’, have drawn criticism from various Voynich Manuscript scholars. “Many credible theories have been advanced as to the true nature of the document – only last year one of my colleagues research indicated that it might be a guide to women’s health, for instance,” says Samuel Foxtrotter, noted amateur cryptologist and psychic investigator, who has written extensively about the Manuscript for the Rochdale Midweek Farmer’s Exchange and Mart. “According to his research, the illustrations of naked women and strange plants relate to the possible medicinal properties of various herbs with regards to certain ‘women’s problems’. To try and dismiss the Manuscript as ‘gibberish’ is a travesty!” But Mincer is undeterred. “I fail to see what any of the illustrations have to do with women’s health,” retorts the academic. “Unless a woman being sexually assaulted by a laburnum tree – which is what one illustration seems to represent – is some kind of cure for thrush, then I sincerely doubt it. I’ll concede that at least parts of the manuscript might represent some sorts of idle masturbatory fantasies, making the thing some kind of medieval wank book, but beyond that, it has no meaning whatsoever.”
The Voynich Manuscript isn’t the only ‘mystery’ targeted by Mincer in Ancient Idiots? – the second episode aims to debunk the whole ‘Ancient Astronauts’ theory. “To be honest, it was catching an episode of one of those ‘documentaries’ on digital TV about how aliens visited the Mayans, or some such bollocks, which inspired me to pitch the idea for Ancient Idiots? to a TV station,” he admits. “They were going through the usual schtick of presenting examples of Mayan and Aztec art in order to ‘prove’ that these civilisations had been visited by aliens in the distant past, trying to convince the audience that various carvings could only represent men in spacesuits and the like, because these ancient peoples couldn’t possibly have had imaginations, could they?” It is on this point that Mincer parted company with the programme’s analysis. “Why do these ‘experts’ find it so difficult to accept that anyone who lived before the twentieth century were capable of creating artwork depicting stuff from their imaginations?” he demands. “Moreover, why do they think that all are art is purely representative? Surely the point of art is that one isn’t supposed to take it literally? Mind you, the kind of people who believe in the whole ‘ancient astronaut’ nonsense would doubtless tell me that they aren’t interpreting this ancient art in literal terms – they are reinterpreting it in extra-terrestrial terms!”
In the episode of Ancient Idiots? dealing with the so called ‘Ancient Astronauts’, Mincer examines some of the Mayan artwork in detail. “Sometimes a picture of a snake with a man’s head emerging from its mouth might actually represent a snake with a man’s head emerging from its mouth, rather than a man in a spacesuit,” he concludes. “Besides, you need to see it in the context of their cultural beliefs, which includes a lot of stuff about snake gods, but nothing about spacemen. Ultimately, though, what the ‘ancient astronaut’ brigade seem to ignore is the fact that the people who created a lot of this art were undoubtedly off of their faces. Hallucinogenic substances played a big part in the lives of many ancient civilisations in South America. For them, it was less a trip than a religious experience. It was perfectly natural that their art should reflect what they’d seen whilst under the influence. Stuff like snakes with human heads emerging from their mouths, for instance.” he goes on to postulate that spaceships and aliens in spacesuits would seem pretty tame to the Mayans or Aztecs, compared to the sort of stuff they saw whilst ‘out of their boxes’ on local narcotics. “I’m always somewhat bemused to find the purveyors of these sorts of crackpot theories assuming that our ancestors were all idiots, incapable of creating their own civilisations or excercising any form of abstract thought,” he muses. “Just because their available technologies and terms of reference were more limited than ours, doesn’t mean that the ancients were any less sophisticated culturally, intellectually or artistically. The idea that they’d need the intervention of external forces like aliens to advance themselves is not just idiotic, but insulting too.
Professor Mincer’s series, Ancient Idiots? can be seen every Tuesday at 22:00 on That’s Acton, the local channel for Acton, Chiswick and Harlesden. It is repeated on Thursdays at 23:30 on That’s Shepherd’s Bush.