The Voynich MS is a parchment codex in octavo, measuring 23.5 x 16.2 cm. Its thickness is about 5 cm. It has a limp vellum cover without any indication of its origin (year, title or author). This cover was added at a later date, probably in the 17th century or even later and there are paper end leaves. Some annotations on the inside cover have been made by later owners.
The manuscript consists of 20 gatherings or quires which are bound to leather thongs. 14 of the 116 folios are now lost. The MS is written in an elegant, but otherwise unknown script and almost all pages of the MS contain illustrations of unkown plants, constellations or systems of tubes transporting liquids and populated by tiny, pudgy 'nymphs'. The illustrations appear also to be unique to this manuscript.
In the following, first the composition (collation) of the MS will be looked at in detail, followed by a description of the illustations and the script.
The Voynich MS is a book or codex which is composed of parchment leaves or folios combined, for the most part of the MS, into standard quires. A standard quire (or gathering) consists of four bifolia which are stacked and folded in the middle to form 8 folios. Each quire is sewn into the codex separately, at the combined fold. The size of a Voynich MS bifolium is about 12 inches wide and 9 inches high.
Each folio has two sides. The front is called recto (abbreviated 'r') and the reverse verso (abbreviated 'v'). Each of these sides is what is usually referred to as a 'page'. Thus, a standard quire has 16 pages. The notation to identify a page in the Voynich MS is the character 'f' (for folio) followed by the folio number, followed by 'r' or 'v', so the first quire starts with pages f1r, f1v, f2r, f2v, f3r, etc, and ends with f7v, f8r, f8v. The pages f1r, f1v, f8r and f8v together form one bifolium. The MS used to have at least 116 folios, and the last page of the MS is indeed f116v.
The Voynich MS once consisted of at least 20 quires, but two of these are now lost. Also, as seen in many medieval codices, a number of quires in the Voynich MS do not consist of the standard 8 folios. What is more unusual is that a relatively large number of bifolia is wider than the standard size. These have additional folds and consequently more than the normal four pages. They are referred to as foldouts. Many foldouts are bifolia with the width of three pages, but some are even four pages wide. Finally, there is one 18 by 18 inch bifolium which also has a horizontal fold.
Consecutive folio numbers were written onto the MS in the top right hand corner of each right-hand page, with the foldouts folded in. This was clearly done after the codex was bound in its current form. The side of the leaf on which the folio number appears is not necessarily the recto side, due to the various different ways in which the foldouts have been folded in (1). There is one exception to this rule, which is probably due to a change of the fold direction some time after the numbers were written.
The question whether the folio numbers were written by the original author or scribe, or by a later owner of the MS is discussed in a page about the origin of the MS.
When all foldouts are completely folded out, to the right of the binding one sees the recto sides of the folios. To the left are the verso sides (of the previous folio). If the folio nr is n, the recto pages are numbered left to right, fnr1, fnr2, etc. On the verso side (with the binding to the right) the verso pages are numbered right to left fnv1, fnv2, ...
The exception to this general rule is the pair of folios f85 and f86, which form the above-menioned multiple-foldout with the horizontal folding crease. It is explained in detail on a dedicated page.
These folio numbers were adopted by D'Imperio in her book, and will be used throughout this web site (2).
When the 1931 Petersen photocopy of the Voynich MS was made (3), all the foldout folios were labeled in white ink on the negative in a hand other than Petersen's (4). These circled page numbers were used in the FSG computer transcription (5).
The creases on foldout folios sometimes form boundaries between distinct pages and sometimes do not. That is, continuous lines of writing sometimes (but rarely) cross foldout creases.
Quire markings are written on certain pages. It is not clear when or by whom these were written. They are indicated with an old-fashioned numeral followed by a 9 for Latin -us, and sometimes an 'm' in between (6). Quire markings 16 and 18 are missing, and since there are also missing pages between quires 15 and 17 and between 17 and 19, the reasonable assumption is that these quires consisted of one bifolio each (foldout or not), which have been lost. Furthermore, since the folio numbering also shows gaps over these missing quires, the assumption is that at the time when the folio numbers were added, these quires were not missing.
Most quire marks are written on the last verso page of each quire, but there are exceptions. In particular, quire 9 has the quire number in such a place that one could come to the conclusion that this single-sheet multiple foldout quire has actually been bound incorrectly into the MS. Quire 20 has the quire number on the first recto page, for which no clear explanation can be found so far (except that it was perhaps done deliberately to indicate that it is the last quire).
Almost all pages in the MS are decorated with illustrations. Illustrations of similar nature are grouped together in the MS, and some single text-only pages are found among these. Based on these groups of illustrations, one may tentatively identify the following sections in the MS (7):
This main classification will now be described in more detail.
Herbal pages typically contain one, in rare cases also two, page-filling plant pictures with some short paragraphs of text written to carefully avoid the drawings. This composition is very similar to that of manuscript herbals produced between late antiquity and the early Renaissance, some examples of which may be seen together on a >> page of M. McCarthy
About half the pages are of herbal nature, namely Quire 1 (except folio 1r which is text-only), all of Quire 2, Quire 3, Quire 4, Quire 5, Quire 6, Quire 7, fol. 57r, fol. 65, fol. 66v, fol. 87, fol. 90 and all of Quire 17.
D'Imperio describes these drawings in Section 3.3.1.
Astronomical pages feature drawings of Sun and/or moon, and arrangements of stars. It is sometimes hard to draw a clear line between astronomical and cosmological pages (see below). The twelve astronomical pages which have illustrations of the zodiac are called astrological.
The following pages are classified as astronomical: fol. 67, except f67v2 and fol. 68, except f68v3.
D'Imperio describes the astronomical and astrological drawings in Section 3.3.3.
The use of the term 'cosmological' for these pages was first introduced by Newbold. Cosmological pages feature geometric designs which cannot be easily classified. Most of them are circular, with the notable exception of the above-mentioned composite of nine connecting circles.
Many cosmological illustrations are of circular design, and the above-mentioned composite of nine connecting circles (with four smaller items on the corners) is also cosmological.
The following pages are classified as cosmological: fol. 67v2, fol. 68v3, fol. 69, fol. 70r1,2, fol. 85r2, network of rosettes and fol. 86v4,3
D'Imperio has an extensive description of the drawings in section
3.3.4, calling them Cosmological or Meteorological.
The so-called astrological pages contain concentric circles with about 30 nymphs holding stars, and an emblem of a zodiac sign in the center. The nymphs are similar to those drawn in the biological section (see below).
The following pages are classified as astrological: fol. 70v2, 1, fol. 71, fol. 72 and fol. 73.
Perhaps the most enigmatic section of the Voynich MS is the biological section which contains drawings of human figures (mostly unclothed and female) in arrangements of pipes or vessels, what seem like baths or clouds. Many illustrations leave the impression of representing a chemical (alchemical) or natural process.
The biological section comprises all of Quire 13.
D'Imperio describes these illustrations in Section 3.3.5.
Collections of jars and parts of plants, such as individual leaves and roots.
The following pages are classified as pharmaceutical: fol. 88, fol. 89 and all of Quire 19.
D'Imperio briefly describes these illustrations in Section 3.3.2.
Some pages contain only text, with stars drawn in the margin. The stars may be colored dark of light, and may have a tail. This section of the manuscript is at the end, and is also referred to as the 'recipes' section, in analogy to some alchemical MS's.
The following pages are text-only with marginal stars: fol. 58 and all of Quire 20 except fol. 116v.
D'Imperio mentions these pages in Section 3.3.7.
Some pages contain no illustration at all, but only text.
The following pages are text-only: f1r, f76r, f85r1 and f86v6, v5.
The following pages are missing from the MS:
Almost all of the apparent text of the Voynich MS is written in a script that is not found in any other surviving document. Most of the text has been written in a line-by-line manner, obviously from left to right and from top to bottom. Especially on the herbal pages it appears that the illustration (or at least its outline) was on the page before the written text, and the text carefully avoids these illustrations.
The text seems to be composed of 'words' separated by spaces. Some of these words are very frequent and may be found on most of the pages in the MS. Others occur only once in the entire MS, and in fact the word frequency distribution shows a continuum which is typical for normal language. In some places, single 'words' are written near elements of drawings. These have come to be called 'labels'. Other, more complicated, pages contain (often circular) diagrams, and the text is occasionally written along radii or circumferences of the circles. In various places, short words or even single characters in the Voynich script form what are called 'sequences'. Their meaning is not yet clear, but they deserve special attention.
In addition to the above, there are a few lines or words in the MS which are not written in the Voynich script. This so-called 'extraneous writing' is almost all unintelligible. These features are all described in more detail on a subsequent page about the writing (script) of the Voynich MS.
Finally, a visual representation of the layout of the manuscript is provided on a separate page.