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The origin of the Voynich MS

Introduction

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

This page addresses the first part, the origin or creation of the manuscript. It will first address the process of creating the MS, and the time frame when this probably took place, followed by a discussion about the possible place where this happened, and the possible author(s). No attempt is made to identify sources used in the process.

A word on terminology

The production of an illustrated medieval manuscript typically involved several different people. These could be scribes/copyists or artists, or an author in case the MS is an autograph. Several other people would have been more involved with the materials (parchment maker, book binder) and are not considered here. On this page, I am not referring to people but to 'roles', and leave open all possibilities, for example that several roles were performed by the same person (e.g. scribe and artist), or that one role was performed by several different people (e.g. two scribes). I will usually refer to the 'author' as if the MS were conceived and written by a single person. While this could be true, it is not necessarily the case and it is done for convenience and readability. The 'artist' is the person (or persons) who made the drawings, regardless of their perceived artistic quality. The question about the number of people involved is briefly discussed further below.

When and how was the Voynich MS produced

The materials

The Voynich MS has been written on parchment made of calf skin. The species was established in 2014 by means of protein analysis (1). The cover is made of goat skin, as established by a professional parchment maker who analysed the MS in November 2014 during a workshop at the Folger library in Washington (2). The present cover is not original to the MS but was added at a much later date and it cannot tell us anything about the origin of the MS.

The binding of the MS.

The stitching used for the binding is old, but it has not yet been established if this is original to the MS or not. From insect holes, which are numerous on the first and last folios of the MS, conservators conclude that the original (or at least earlier) binding was made of wood (3). Discolouring on the edges of the first and last folio further suggests that this wooden binding was covered with tanned leather. This binding will have been with the MS for most of the earlier part of its history.

The quality of the parchment used for the text block shows two different aspects. The quality of the raw material is at best average. Some folios show concave outlines, some folios have holes, and in some places holes or tears were stitched during the parchment production process. Such deficiencies are not uncommon in parchment codices that are not of top quality. On the other hand, the parchment has been prepared with signficant care and effort, has an overall whitish colour and it is barely possibly to distinguish the hair side from the flesh side of the leaves in the MS, with only few exceptions (4).

In many places marks of the stretching of the parchment during its production are visible. While this is usually best seen through a microscope, in some cases they are also visible to the naked eye. An example is shown below, for 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 again in November 2014 (see note 2). It was concluded that the parchment does not show any signs of erasure of earlier 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 and the MS is not a palimpsest.

In 2009, the University of Arizona performed a radiocarbon dating of the parchment. Four samples from different bifolios (5) 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

Radio-carbon dating of the MS.

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 (6). Later, in 2014, Yale University initiated another range of forensic tests on the MS which have been reported in Clemens (2016) (7). As a combined summary, 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 or more specific information related to the dating of the MS, because this type of ink has been used over many centuries. The pigments were based on ground minerals, 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 are considered to be mostly inexpensive. Despite some suggestions to the contrary (8), all materials were in use in Europe.

It has also been observed that the MS curiously lacks any yellow pigment (9) and this is most probably explained by the use of organic yellow colourants that have faded over time (10). The resulting beige is still visible in many places in the MS, for example in the above illustration.

Based on 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 for the parchment to have remained unused for any longer amount of time, but this would have been very unusual.

Before this scientific dating of the materials of the MS, there have been many discussions 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 a sunflower, not seen in Europe before 1493 (11). This identification is by no means certain.

The order in which the MS was produced

We may now analyse the sequence of steps in which the MS was produced. Parts of this analysis are reasonably certain, while other parts are still the subject of discussion and analysis. Some of the more speculative, or more detailed analysis is presented in a separate page, and the discussions there are summarised here.

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 also be that the page has been copied from a well-prepared draft. It seems impossible to say whether all four drawings on a bifolio were done before all four text sections, or it was done page by page.

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, most notably Jorge Stolfi, have suggested that the painting was done in several stages, by different people, introducing a 'light painter' and a 'heavy' or 'dark' painter. Furthermore, 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 (12), similar low-quality, even sloppy, painting may be observed. It remains an open question for the moment how long after the production of the bifolios the paint was applied, and even whether this was done by the original creator(s).

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 (13)) are generally consistent for each bifolio.

Collation of the MS

How the MS was later assembled and numbered remains a complicated question, for which not all answers have been found yet. The bifolios have been stacked and sewn into quires. The folios have two sets of numbers which both increase monotonously, however, there are some missing folios (based on the numbering) and the present order of the folios seems not to be the originally planned one. To find out in which order all these things happened, we shall first look at each of them separately.

The sewing (stitching) of the quires has been analysed by several professional MS conservators in November 2014 (see note 2). The findings have been summarised in Zyats et al. (2016) (14). The conclusion was that the present sewing is old, possibly 15th century, but it has not been established that this is the first binding, and Zyats et al. do suggest that there could have been an earlier binding.

Folio and quire numbering

Every folio of the Voynich MS is numbered, in the upper right corner of each folio. In the case of the large foldout folios, the number was added when the folio was completely folded in. A reasonable first assumption is that the folio numbers were added to the bound book, but we will come back to this question below.

Quire numbers (mostly 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) (15). This topic is discussed in more detail on a separate page, and summarised below.

More about folio and quire numbers

The quire numbers almost certainly date from the 15th Century. The folio numbers appear to be less constrained in time, and could be as early as the 15th century or as late as the 17th. The two sets of numbers must have been added by different people, even if we cannot say how long after each other. They increase monotonously and also essentially consistent with each other.

Missing folios

There are 14 missing folios, and they are of two different types. Folios 12 and 74 are single missing folios, and the 'other halves' of the two corresponding bifolios are still there. They have been cut out of the MS, after the MS was bound. Cut traces of folio 74 are still visible on folio 75.

The other missing folios are six bifolios that are missing from the centres of quires, or entire missing quires: three in quire 8, the entire quires 16 and 18, and one more in quire 20. The two missing quires (numbers 16 and 18) coincide with gaps in the foliation (2 missing folios each).

The quire and folio numbers were certainly added when the missing folios were still available.

The current vs. original page order

There are several reasons to believe that the current page order in the Voynich MS is different from the original order, or at least 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, and it is treated in more detail in a dedicated page, which may be summarised in a bullet list.

The page order of the MS

From all of the above, we may conclude with high confidence that the present order of the folios in the MS is not the originally planned one.

However, as the folio and quire numbers increase monotonously, both sets of numbers must have been added to the Voynich MS after all page rearrangements took place, yet before the now missing pages were lost. 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. It must also have happened before the present binding, which is consistent with the observation made above that the sewing appears of the 15th century.

Tentative reconstruction

The main uncertainty about the production of the Voynich MS remains the question when, or in how many stages, the colours were added. This question is addressed in a dedicated page, which also attempts to synthesise all information related to the production of the MS.

Reconstructing the order of production of the MS

Without repeating all the details that have been presented there, following is a tentative reconstruction of how the MS arrived at its present state. While I believe that this reconstruction is fully consistent with all observations, this certainly does not mean that the reconstruction is correct. Some of the points that have been observed remain tentative, and other points still require further investigation.

As long as there are no positively identifiable paint transfers that do not match with the presently opposite page, it seems safe to conclude that the painting was done after the pages got out of order. This matches with the above timeline, and it is a very important result, since it implies that the painting was done after understanding of the MS had been lost (otherwise the original page order could have been restored). This means that the colours are not necessarily 'correct', which has a significant impact on all attempts to identify the plants in the herbal and pharmaceutical sections of the MS.

How long did it take to write the MS

How long it may have taken 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 such estimates may not have included any preparation time, and/or may assume 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.

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, we will look at any points that may provide some indication 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 found predominantly in what is now 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 is clearly tempting to try to identify this particular castle, but from the example shown below it will be clear that the representation should not be expected to be very accurate. These illustrations show the castle of Villalta (Friuli) 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 significant attention is the Sagittarius in the zodiac section which, quite unusually, is a human figure with a crossbow. Recently, more or less similar illustrations of Sagittarius have been found in German MSs throughout the 15th Century. This is discussed in more detail in another page, with reference to several other web resources. Elmar Vogt (18) has furthermore identified a picture on a grave of a German warrior in Würzburg, dressed in a similar way as the Voynich MS archer. The overall conclusion is that the zodiac cycle in the Voynich MS is most similar to others found in German MSs roughly between 1400 and 1500.

A modern historian of botany, Sergio Toresella (19), 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 (20). Also, in a more recent publication the historian Alain Touwaide compares the herbal illustrations in the VOynich MS with those of italian herbals (21).

With a mixture of Italian and German influences (in modern geographical terms), one way to describe the origin of the Voynich MS is 'Alpine'. Of course, many different scenarios can be imagined, such as collaboration of people from both regions, presence of a German in Italy, etc. etc.

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 in a later page and further details are provided in the folio descriptions. Here, we are mainly interested which of these could have been added by the original author and which are more likely 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. Since most of these are inside the drawings, and in some cases under the paint, these were almost certainly 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 author was German (22).

The famous entry on f116v, consisting of four lines, 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 over many decades. The script appears to my untrained eyes as German, and belonging to the 1430-1450 time interval (23), but a more expert analysis of this is needed.

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 different from the remainder of the MS so it could very well be original.

All of the extraneous writing is difficult to read. Nick Pelling argues that most of these entries have been modified by having been written over at some later time. As Nick is an excellent 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 certainly remains open, and I would not exclude it was done by the original scribe.

Some more annotations on the 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. Beside annotations on the MS pages, other annotations on the cover, made with a pencil, are discussed on the page describing the manuscript.

The place of origin according to some sources

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 the place of origin for the MS, in addition to those already mentioned above.

Who was the author of the MS

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, it is far from certain that the author of the Voynich MS is someone who is otherwise known. 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.

Author / scribe / artist

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 13) 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. However, more recent analysis (30) shows that the text properties show a relatively continuous change throughout the MS, while on the other hand the presence of two different handwriting styles has not been confirmed by palaeografers. This topic should be considered open, and much more work can still be done here.

With respect to the artist, the quality of the illustrations does not show evidence of great artistics skills, so it is entirely possible that the MS is the work of a single person, who wrote the text and made his own illustrations.

I would like to present the following argument that the artist and the author (or one of the authors) may well be one and the same person. While in all folios the drawings were made before the text was written, on the last folio (f116v) it is the other way round. The drawings are in the margin and must have been made after the writing, most probably by the person writing these few lines of text. At the same time, the animal and the reclining female figure appear to have been drawn by the same person who drew the Aries figures and the nymphs in the biological and zodiac sections. This argument is not conclusive of course.

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. Many numerical analyses performed on the MS text (for which see part 5 of the text analysis section) have resuljted in arguments 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' (31).

According to the many ideas proposed, 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 possibilities are also not mutually exclusive. Toresella proposes (see note 19) 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.

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

Given that the parchment was relatively costly, 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 author according to some theories

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.

Notes

1
The parchment of a number of MS leaves and of the cover has been subjected to protein testing at the University of York in the course of 2014, for which see Zyats et al. (2016). For the cover this did not result in an identification of the species.
2
The Beinecke Rare Book and MS library of Yale university, and the Folger Shakespeare library in Washington D.C. co-organised a workshop about the Voynich MS on 7 November 2014, which I was fortunate to be able to attend. The MS was available for study by several MS conservators and other experts in the Folger's conservators lab. The event is described (a.o.) >>here
3
See Zyats et al. (2016).
4
A very clear and easy to read overview of parchment preparation and quality in manuscripts may be found >> here. The assessment of the parchment quality of the Voynich MS was made during the already mentioned workshop at the Folger library in November 2014.
5
Namely f8 (same bifolio as f1, which has the datable ex libris of Tepenec), f26 (thin B language folio), f47 (thick A-language folio) and f68 (a foldout folio)
6
The main summary can be downloaded from the Beinecke library web site >> (PDF 5.77 MByte).
7
Clemens (2016). In particular, see: Zyats et al. (2016).
8
In particular the use of Atacamite has been seen as evidence of a north- or meso-american origin by Tucker and Talbot (2014), but this material is not positively identified in the McCrone report, and recipes for pigments with similar chemical composition exist since antiquity.
9
Observation made in November 2014 by Alain Touwaide.
10
As described in M.Clarke: Colours versus Colorants in Art History: Evaluating lost Manscript Yellows., Revista de Historia da Arte (2011), pp.139-151. I am grateful to Abigail Quandt for the reference.
11
In O'Neill (1944). The Sunflower illustration is on f93r.
12
An alchemical herbal: Paris BN MS Lat 17844.
13
The Currier hands and Currier languages, as explained here.
14
See Zyats et al. (2016).
15
See Pelling (2006), pp.15-21.
16
Even though I discovered this feature myself in the 90's (and others may well have see it independently before me and/or after me), I remain uncertain about its significance. It may well be a 'doodle' during the creation of the bifolio, before the binding.
17
This is the >>Liber Floridus of Lambert de St.Omer.
18
See Elmar Vogt's >>blog entry.
19
See Toresella (1995)
20
When confronted with the suggestion that the MS could have been written by Jacobus de Tepenec, he clearly stated that the handwriting is very significantly earlier.
21
See Touwaide (2015)
22
Vicenza MS 362 is described as 'Latin and German' by the authority on alchemical herbals in Segre Rutz (2000) and has similar colour annotations
23
Primarily from comparing the writing with that or many MSs in the Heidelberg online MS collection (Pal.Germ. and some Pal.Lat).
24
From a Letter of E.L.Voynich to James Westfall Thompson, written in 1932, preserved in the Beinecke library, box MS 408 B2.
25
From a Letter of Anne Nill to E.L.Voynich, written in 1936, preserved in the Beinecke library, box MS 408 B2.
26
See De Ricci (1937).
27
From a letter from Anselm Strittmatter (O.S.B.) in Rome to Th. Petersen, written in 1953, relating the opinion of Msgr.Pelzer of the Vatican library. It is preserved in the Beinecke library, box MS 408 B1.
28
See Shailor (1986).
29
Priv. comm. to Karen Reeds (1995), equally an expert in the history of medicine and medieval herbals.
30
See for example here.
31
Much more about this will be said in another page (not yet complete).

 

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