The history of the Voynich MS is described in three parts, on three pages:
This page addresses the first part, the origin of the manuscript. It will first address the process of creating the MS, and the time in which this probably took place, followed by analyses of the possible place where this happened, and the possible author(s).
In this section I will refer to 'the author' as if it the MS were conceived, written and illustrated by a single person. This is not necessarily true, but it is done for convenience and readability. The question about the number of authors (scribes and 'artists') is discussed further below.
The Voynich MS is written on parchment made of calf skin. The cover is made of goat skin, and was added at a much later date i.e. it is not part of the original MS (1). The quality of the parchment of the pages is reasonable, but not very good. Also the edges of the skins were used, as some folios show concave outlines. Folios with holes were equally used, and in some places holes or tears were stiched during the parchment production process, which is still visible. These minor deficiencies are not uncommon in parchment codices that are not of top quality. The parchment used for the MS was prepared with extreme care and significant effort, and it is barely possibly nowadays to distinguish the hair side from the flesh side of the leaves in the MS (2).
In many places marks of the stretching of the parchment during its production are visible - mostly under the microscope, but they are also visible to the naked eye even on some of the lower resolution images, for example folio 44r (top right corner - see image below). The MS has been analysed under the microscope in January 2009 and in October 2009, both by McCrone and Yale specialists, and again in November 2014 by several specialists while the Voynich MS was at the Folger library in Washington. It was concluded that the parchment does not show any signs of scratching, such as to erase previous writing. Multispectral images taken in 2014 equally did not show any signs of earlier writing, so it is certain that the parchment was not previously written upon.
In 2009, the University of Arizona performed a radiocarbon dating of the parchment. Four samples from different locations in the MS (3) were individually tested, and the probability curves of their 14C content were fully consistent with each other. The combined date of the parchment was established as ranging between 1404 and 1438 with 95% probability. This analysis is described in detail in a dedicated page.
At the same time, the McCrone institute analysed the inks and the pigments used for the writing and painting of the MS respectively. A detailed report of this analysis has been made available (4), and to summarise here, it was stated that there were only minor variations of the ink composition throughout the manuscript, and iron gall ink was used everywhere. This did not provide any additional information on the MS dating, as this type of ink has been used over centuries. The pigments were based on ground minerals of high quality, for which recipes existed since the middle ages. There was no sign of any constituent that was inconsistent with the radiocarbon dating of the parchment. The pigments were considered to have been moderately, but not very expensive.
The more recent observation that the MS curiously lacks any yellow pigment (5) is most probably explained by the use of organic yellow colourants that have faded over time (6). The resulting beige is still visible in many places in the MS, for example also in the above illustration.
From all of the above information, the origin of the MS (i.e. the time it was produced) appears to be in the first half of the 15th century. It is not impossible (but it would have been very unusual) for the parchment to have remained unused for a long time. The writing materials would not have been affordable for most common people, but are also below the level of what would have been used for a commission by a rich client.
Before this scientific dating there have been long debates caused by an observation of the botanist Hugh O'Neill of the Catholic University, who identified two new wold species in the herbal drawings, in particular the a Sunflower, not seen in Europe before 1493 (7). This identification is by no means certain.
This section analyses the sequence in which the MS may have been created. In several points it is quite speculative. Not all researchers agree on all points here, and I will try to represent alternative views fairly.
Looking at the production of each single bifolio (or foldout folio), there is little doubt, that the illustration outline was drawn first. Secondly, the text was written, carefully avoiding the illustation. There are also cases where the text interleaves with the illustration, and the size of the gap between (for example) braches of a herb exactly fits the size of the word written in between. This has been seen by some as an indication that the text is meaningless filler. However, it could very well be that the page has been copied from a well-prepared draft. Whether all four drawings on a bifolio were done before all four text sections, or it was done page by page, seems impossible to say.
The painting of the illustrations was done afterwards. There are places in the MS where one can observe the painting to be on top of the plant outlines, and even apparently over the text. Some people have suggested that the painting was done in several stages, by different people. Due to the very low quality of the painting, it has also been suggested that it was done by a child. However, at least in one other herbal MS that I am aware of, (8) similar low-quality ('sloppy') painting is found.
It is not clear whether the painting was done on individual bifolios, or only after the quires were already collated. This question can quite possibly still be answered, by a comprehensive analysis of the use of colours throughout the manuscript. This should include a complete overview of all the hues of the paints, and paint transfer between folios by contact. Until now, these aspects have only been looked at in piecemeal fashion, most actively by Nick Pelling (9), leading to results that are still very debatable.
There is every reason to believe that the Voynich MS was basically produced bifolio per bifolio (or foldout folio), as the properties discovered by Currier (different hands and different text statistics throughout the MS) are generally consistent for each bifolio. This issue is closely related to the question of the current page order of the MS, and whether this is the same as the order intended by the author, which is discussed further below.
Every folio of the Voynich MS is numbered, in the upper right corner of each folio, and in case of large foldout folios, when the folio is completely folded in. Quire numbers (Latin ordinal numbers) are written mostly in the lower right corner of the verso side of the last folio of each quire. D'Imperio already mentioned the difference in style between these two sets of numbers, and this point is further analysed in Pelling (2006) (10). John Manly suggested that the style of the quire numbers belongs to the 15th Century (Manly (1931) (11)). The folio numbers appear to be 16th or even early 17th Century: De Ricci (1937) (see note 2) gives the 16th Century and Manly (1931) (see note 11) the 17th (based on the handwriting style).
Quire and folio numbers were definitely added by different people, in a different age. While the quire numbers could have been added already very shortly after the creation of the MS, this does not seem to be the case for the folio numbers. Still, it is important to point out that the quire numbers and folio numbers are fully consistent. Both increase monotonously thoughout the manuscript. Wherever there are missing folio numbers, there is also evidence for missing folios, and the two missing quires (numbers 16 and 18) coincide with gaps in the foliation (2 missing folios each).
There are several reasons to believe that the current page order in the Voynich MS is different from the original order, or the originally planned order. While some, if not most, of these arguments are quite sensible, they are difficult to prove as long as we're not able to read the text. This is a problem for which not all evidence has been collected yet, similar to the question above of the time of the painting of the colours. These two questions are also closely related. For the time being, the evidence for modifications in the page order is summarised in a list only.
As the quire numbers increase monotonously, and appear on Herbal A and Herbal B pages alike, the quire numbers must have been added to the Voynich MS after any page rearrangement took place. As the quire numbers appear in a style belonging to the 15th Century, any folio rearrangement must have taken place relatively soon after the MS was written. To complicate matters, Nick Pelling proposes that several different hands in the quire marks can be identified (see note 10).
'Extraneous writing' is a term used here for entries which are in the Latin alphabet rather than in the Voynich script, or which are found in the margins. An overview is presented on a later page at this site, and details are provided on the folio descriptions. Here, we are mainly interested which of these could have been added by the original author and which are from later owners.
Single Latin characters and the word 'rot' written inside herbal drawings have been observed after the high-resolution colour images of the Voynich MS were made available by the Beinecke library. These were clearly written by the original scribe of the MS. A comparison with another 15th Century herbal: MS 362 of the 'Biblioteca Civica Bertoliana' in Vicenza (one of the so-called alchemical herbals), makes it plausbile that the mother tongue of the Voynich MS scribe was German (16).
The famous entry on f116v, referred to usually as 'michiton oladabas', is a mixture of apparently pseudo-Latin, Voynichese and German text. Most of it is written in the normal text frame of the Voynich MS, so it was also most probably written by the original scribe, though this is not certain. Its meaning has been debated since decades. The script appears to my untrained eyes as German, and belonging to the 1430-1450 time interval, but a more expert analysis of this is needed. There is another line of writing in the top margin, but as for the writing on f17r, this looks more like having been added at a later time.
Another entry is on f66v, which supposedly says 'der Musdel' which is supposed to be German, but it is not at all clear whether this is from the original scribe or a later owner, and its meaning is also quite unclear. It is significant that it includes writing in the Voynich script, which does not appear differnt from the remainder of the MS so it could very well be original.
All marginalia are very difficult to read. Nick Pelling argues that most of these extraneous entries have been modified by having been written over at some later time. As Nick is a keen observer, this has to be taken seriously, but the precise consequence of this observation is not yet fully clear. How much later it was done can certainly not be established.
How long it may have taken the author of the Voynich MS to produce the entire MS is a question for which we have no evidence at all. The radiocarbon dating of the indivual folios does not help, as it is simply not accurate enough. Furthermore, all parchment may have been acquired at once, and then used over a longer period of time.
Gordon Rugg proposes that, using his method, it could have taken only a few months of continuous work, but this is by far the lowest estimate. Other people have estimated that, just to produce the MS as we see it, may have taken the order of a year, but this does not include any preparation time, and assumes that the author had all his time available for drawing and writing. There is one famous encyclopedic manuscript, written between 1090 and 1120, which took its author 30 years to complete (17). This is not saying that this is the best estimate for the Voynich MS, but it provides a reasonable upper limit.
Some annotations on the Voynich MS were undoubtedly made at a much later date, and should not be considered as part of the origin of the MS. These annotations, all made with a pencil, are discussed in the manuscript description.
The illustrations in the Voynich MS are discussed in more detail on a later page. Here, we will look at any points that may provide some indications about the place of origin of the MS.
Probably the most famous and most indicative detail is the small castle which is part of the rosettes page. It has swallow-tail or ghibelline crenellations, a building style which is predominantly found in Northern Italy.
While these crenellations are also found in other places in Italy and central Europe, they are closely associated with the Scaliger family of the region around Verona, from the 14th century onwards. Manuscripts with drawings of castles and other buildings with similar crenellations all tend to originate from N. Italy. In German manuscripts only straight or guelph crenellations are observed. It would seem tempting to try to identify this particular castle, but from the below example it will be obvious that the representation should not be expected to be very accurate. These illustrations show the castle of Villalta in a medieval MS, and from a modern photo.
It should also be noted that there are more illustrations of buildings in the Voynich MS, and a complete analysis including all of them should be made by a relevant expert.
Another illustration that has received some attention is the Sagittarius in the zodiac section, which (unusually) is a human figure with a crossbow. The dress of this man is similar to German examples from all over the 15th Century. One example is shown below, from a 15th century manuscript from Konstanz (18), but there are many more examples (for which see here). Elmar Vogt (19) has furthermore identified a picture on a grave of a German warrior in Würzburg, dressed in the same way.
A modern historian of botany, Sergio Toresella (20), identifies the style of the herbal drawings of the Voynich MS and the style of the script with Northern Italy, around 1460. He recognises a humanist hand in the script of the MS. A similar opinion was expressed by J. Parez, archivist of the Strahov library in Prague, when I met him in 2004. He commented that the MS pages show an Italian style and that the scribe was clearly expert in writing the script of the Voynich MS. He also indicated that the last page of the MS, with its mixture of German, Latin and "Voynichese" text, looks more Central European, and is from well before 1550.
With predominantly Italian and also some German influences, the best guess one can make at this time is that of an 'Alpine' origin of the MS. One region where both influences could be expected would be Tyrol, nowadays composed of the regions Tirol, Süd-Tirol and Trentino - Alto Adige, divided over Austria and Italy, but this is just a speculation. It could be of interest that this region includes the warm baths of Vetriolo, with arsenic, cuprous and ferrous minerals, which were already known in the late middle ages, and whose waters may have appeared relatively green. Would these be the baths represented in the biological section of the MS (21)?
Many people have proposed theories which include a suggestion for the place of origin of the MS. The respective theories are described in another page. Following are some of the more reliable sources for this.
First of all, in my opinion, trying to identify the person who wrote the MS is not likely to lead to success. One just needs to remember how many old manuscripts exist of which the author/scribe is unknown. In addition, the chance that the author of the Voynich MS is someone who is otherwise known is also not that great. It is, however, of interest to try to find an author profile. Evidence related to the author is even more scarce than for the dating or the place of origin of the MS, so to some extent this section is a summary of the various possibilities that exist.
It has been much debated whether the MS is the product of a single person, or of two or even more persons. In his famous presentation, Prescott Currier (see note 12) recognised two writing styles and two different text properties, and concluded that the Voynich MS must be the product of two people (perhaps even more). Both would have written part of the text of the MS.
Alternatively, there is the possibility of the collaboration of an author who made a draft, and a scribe who made a fair copy. In that case, the scribe could either read and understand the text, or he could not. In this second scenario, it is possible that the so-called 'ignorant scribe' introduced so many mistakes in the text, that its meaning has become irrecoverable. This brings us to the absolute key question about the Voynich MS:
This question has been debated more heavily than any other question related to the Voynich MS. Many numerical analyses performed on the MS text (for which see part 5 of the text analysis section) have found argumens both for and against the possibility that the text is meaningful. To make matters more complicated, there are more possibilities than just 'meaningful' or 'meaningless' (28).
According to the various options, the author(s) may have been a hoaxster, a scientist or someone with some sort of a mental disorder. This last possibility has not received much attention yet, though more and more suggestions in this direction are coming up. These possibiities are also not mutually exclusive. Toresella proposes (see note 20) that the author may have been someone impressed by a travelling quack or charlaten and decided that he would be able to make an impression by owning a mysterious book.
Given that the writing materials were somewhat valuable (as described above), the author must have had some means, or a patron with some means. At the same time, the book was most probably not a commission by a (rich) client, as it has not been prepared with the typical care of such valuable documents. The text area has not been delineated (apart from possibly the left margin) and there is no ruling. The painting of the colours is of very low quality.
The layout of the berbal pages is typical for some MS herbals from the 15th century and before, and so are many details of plant drawings, so the author almost certainly had access to, or was even familiar with such manuscripts. The same consideration applies to the drawings of the zodiac pages. The author must have been familiar with the meaning of paranatellonta. This means that the author had knowledge of at least two important sciences of his time.
The following is not a complete list of proposed authors. The respective theories are described on another page. All of these suggestions are highly speculative.