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Origin of the Manuscript

Introduction

The history of the Voynich MS is described in three parts, on three pages:

As this is a subdivision by topic, the three histories will overlap in time. 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).

How and when was the Voynich MS constructed

In this section I will refer to 'the author' as if it were a single person. This is not necessarily true, but it is done for convenience and readability. The question about the number of authors is discussed further below.

The materials

The Voynich MS is made of parchment, but not vellum in the strict sense (1). The limp parchment cover was added at a much later date and is not part of the original MS. De Ricci (2) states that the limp vellum cover and the paper end leaves of the MS were added in the 16th Cenury. The quality of the parchment is quite good, but not top rated, i.e. not like the parchment used in expensive books made for rich clients (such as books of hours). Also the edges of the skins were used, as some folios show concave outlines which are from the edges of the skin. Folios with holes were equally used, and in some places stiches, applies during the parchment production process (stretching), are still visible. These minor deficiencies are quite common in parchment codices. Parchment was a relatively expensive material, but top rated vellum was very expensive indeed.

In many places marks of the stretching of the parchment during its production are visible - mostly under the microscope, but it is easily visible to the naked eye even on some of the lower resolution images, for example folio 44r (top right corner. The MS has been analysed under the microscope in January 2009 and in October 2009, both by McCrone and Yale specialists, and they concluded that the parchment does not show any signs of scratching, such as to erase previous writing. 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 were individually tested, and the probability curves of their C-14 content were fully consistent with each other. The combined date of the parchment was established as ranging between 1404 and 1438 with 95% probability.

At the same time, the McCrone institute analysed the inks and the pigments used for the writing and painting of the MS respectively. Detailed results from this analysis are not yet publicly available, but it was stated that there were only minor variations of the ink composition throughout the manuscript, and iron gall ink was used everywhere. 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 which was inconsistent with the radiocarbon dating of the parchment. The pigments were also considered to have been expensive.

The above paints a picture of an origin of the MS in the 1400-1450 time frame, so the first half of the 15th century. It is not impossible, but it would have been quite unusual, for the parchment to remain 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 deriving from an observation by the botanist Hugh O'Neill of the Catholic University, who identified one plant drawing with the American Sunflower, not seen in Europe before 1493 (3). This plant identification is by no means certain.

The order of the MS creation

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 or no doubt, that the illustration outline was drawn first. Secondly, the text was written, carefully avoiding the illustation. There are, however, 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, but it could also mean 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 on top of the text (to be checked / confirmed). Some people suggest that the painting was done in several stages, by different people. Due to the very low quality of the painting, some people also suggest that it was done by a child.

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 includes 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, currently most actively by Nick Pelling (4), 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.

Folio and quire numbering

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 by Nick Pelling (5). John Manly suggested that the style of the quire numbers belongs to the 15th Century (6). The folio numbers appear to be 16th or even early 17th Century: De Ricci (see note 2) gives the 16th Century and Manly (see note 6) 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 is certainly not 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).

The current vs. original page order

There are several reasons to believe why 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, without being able to read the text, they are difficult to prove. 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 compicate matters, Nick Pelling proposes that several different hands in the quire marks can be identified (11).

Extraneous writing

'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 plant 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 (12). A more detailed explanation will be provided here later.

The famous entry on f116v, referred to usually as 'michiton oladabas', is a mixture of apparently pseudo-Latin, Voynichese and German text. It is written in the normal text frame of the Voynich MS, so was so it was also written most probably by the original scribe. 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 we need a more expert analysis of this. There is more writing in the top margin, but as for the writing on f17r, this looks more like having been added by a later owner.

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.

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 long did it take to write the Voynich MS

How long it may have taken tha author of the Voynich MS to produce the entire MS is a question for which we have no hard evidence to help us find the answer. 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 preduce 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 (13). This is not saying that this is the best estimate for the Voynich MS, but it provides a possible upper limit.

Some more annotations on the Voynich MS

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, will be discussed in a later version of the history page.

Where lies the origin of the Voynich MS

Hints from the illustrations in the MS

The illustrations in the Voynich MS are discussed in more detail on a later page. Here, I just summarise those points which give some possible 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 decorations are also found in other places in Italy and central Europe, they are closely associated with the Scaligers 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 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 man with a crossbow. The dress of this man is typically German. A similarly dressed Sagittarius is observed in the late 15th century manuscript from Konstanz. (14). Elmar Vogt has furthermore identified a picture on a grave of a German warrior in Würzburg, dressed in the same way (15).

A modern historian of botany, Sergio Toresella (16), 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 is however 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 bilogical section of the MS (17)?

The place of origin according to some theories

The following is not a complete list of proposed origins. The respective theories are described on another page.

Who was the author of the Voynch MS

First of all, in my personal view, trying to identify the person who wrote the MS is the path least likely to lead to success. One just needs to remember how many old manuscripts exist of which the author is unknown. The chance that the author of the Voynich MS is someone who is otherwise known is simply not that great. It is however of interest to try to find an author profile. The lack of clear evidence is even greater 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.

Author / scribe

It has been much debated whether the MS is the product of a single person, or of two or even more persons. In a famous presentation, Prescott Currier (see note 4) 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...

Does the text of the Voynich MS have any meaning?

This question has been debated more heavily than any other question related to the Voynich MS. The answer, if we knew it, would tell us a bit more about the possible author(s). I propose the following different options:

The author(s) may therefore be a hoaxster, a scientist or someone with some sort of a mental disorder. These are not mutually exclusive. Toresella proposes (see note 16) that the author may have been someone impressed by a travelliung quack or charlaten and decided that he would be able to make an impression by owning a mysterious book.

What else can we deduce about the author(s)?

Given that the writing materials were relatively 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 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 some details of plant drawings as well, so the author almost certainly must have had access to, and been 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 author according to some theories

The following is not a complete list of proposed authors. The respective theories are described on another page.

Notes

1
Information on the properties of the parchment and the cover kindly provided by Paula Zyatts (priv.comm.)
2
See De Ricci, 1937
3
In O'Neill, 1945
4
As presented at his cipher mysteries blog (ref).
5
See The Curse of the Voynich, pp.15-21.
6
As presented in Manly, 1931
7
The Currier hands and Currier languages, described on a later page at this site. His paper is available here.
8
Even though I discovered this feature myself in the 90's (and others may well have independently before me and/or after me), I am still uncertain about its significance. It may well be a 'doodle' during the creation of the bifolio, before the binding.
9
This is discussed at the Cipher Mysteries web site.
10
This is very clearly described in The Curse of the Voynich, pp.57-59.
11
See The Curse of the Voynich, pp.??-21.
12
Vicenza MS 362 is described as 'Latin and German' because of similar colour annotations by the authority on alchemical herbals Vera Segre Rutz
13
This is the >>Liber Floridus of Lambert de St.Omer.
14
Courtesy of Dr. Alexander Sperl of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna.
15
Need to add a reference to Elmar's blog.
16
See Toresella, 1995
17
Suggestion by Dr. Alexander Sperl.
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Latest update: 16/11/2013