Another day, another provocative (but good) question from my fellow contrarian Glen Claston (we’re both part of the Contraria diaspora):-

So Nick, since you’re one of those who think that the book was dropped and put back together haphazardly, you’d be the one to ask for evidence that the various quires you think are misordered are actually misordered.

[…] What about the first three quires? What do we consider physical evidence, and if a page is thought to be moved, what is the timeline evidence for that?

Now, being “moved” or “out of order” are subjective assignments, I realize. I prefer to look not for what might be supposed as the original collation, since we don’t really have much physical evidence on that, and it’s hard sometimes to tell what happened between one binding and another. “Order of construction” is a topic that most observations fit into, so perhaps that’s what I’m looking for here.

Given that we now have plenty of solid evidence elsewhere in the Voynich Manuscript of bifolios that are reversed, misbound, and rebound, I think we should start from a position of uncertainty – that is, rather than assuming that the current page order is basically correct, we should view that as a hypothesis and consider evidence both for and against it.

Yet as Glen knows well, the problem with the first three quires (Q1 to Q3) is that codicological evidence pointing back right to the original collation (and even to the original intention!) is decidedly thin on the ground. And he has presumably chosen these three quires because they are less problematic than Q5 to Q7 (which have both Currier Hand 1 and Currier Hand 2 bifolios mixed in together) and Q8 (which we agree seems to have been back to front when the quire number was added), though what he’s got against Q4 I don’t know. 🙂

So, let’s look at the codicological evidence (such as it is) relating to this hypothesis…

Pro #1: the light paint transfer and the stem ink transfer from f2v to f3r. These appear to be wet contact transfers without water damage. This seems to imply that those two pages have faced each other right from Day One. The similar handwriting supports this.

Con #1:  in Q2, the quire number downstroke overruns the bottom edge of the page but reappears at the bottom of  f46v (I checked this for myself at the Beinecke). This seems to imply that f46v was probably in either Q1 or Q2 at the time the first set of quire numbers were added (though it has ended up in a very much later quire).  The similar handwriting supports this.

Disputed #1: the heavy red paint transfers from f3r to f2v (which are aligned differently to the light paint transfer in the opposite direction), and from f5v to f6r. The dispute is over whether these paints (a) were added later [Stolfi, Pelling], or (b) were original but were transferred between pages later probably by water damage [Claston].

Disputed #2: the blue paint transfers from f3v to f4r, from f5v to f6r, and from f19v to f20r. Again, the dispute here is over whether these paints (a) were added later [Stolfi, Pelling], or (b) were original but were transferred later by an unknown bacterial mechanism triggered by minor water damage [Claston].

Disputed #3: there is (what appears to be) a diagonal line of red paint spatters crossing the central fold running between f10v and f15r, which makes it look as though this was the middle bifolio of a quire / gathering. However, what apparently conflicts with this is the set of contact transfers of the same red paint going from f15r to f14v.

Disputed #4: I also put forward a hypothesis (Curse, pp.52-57) that four or five of the bifolios with similar-looking vellum flaws might have come from a single skin – if this turns out to be correct, then because the bifolios involved ended up in different quires, it would go very strongly against the whole current-page-order-is-as-intended hypothesis.

[There are numerous other minor paint transfers which seem to coincide with water damaged areas; and there is also the minor matter of the wormhole in the first few folios of Q1; but for the sake of brevity I’ve omitted these.]

So, the current tally is that one piece of evidence seems to point to two bifolios’ having stayed together, while another piece of evidence seems to point to two bifolios’ being out of order – basically, an honourable draw. But could a few of the bifolios have stayed together even though many of the rest were basically scrambled? Yes – and that is the kind of fit-all-the-data “Middle Way”  intellectual historian’s answer I’ve been proposing for ages. 🙂

But really, I have to say that the bulk of  my impression of non-orderedness comes from a very different (but really quite hard to quantify) source – the writing itself. A good exercise is to print out all the herbal quires as bifolios and to then compare the various handwritings on them, to see which ones do / don’t match (particularly for all the Herbal-A pages). I contend that these only occasionally (such as in Q1) seem to flow at all in their current page order, even though the handwriting across both sides of any given bifolio is usually reasonably consistent with itself.

When I was writing the Curse, I believed that the original gatherings would have contained 5 or 6 bifolios: but three years on, I now suspect that 3 or 4 bifolios per gathering is a much more likely figure. Perhaps I should now revisit this whole puzzle and have another go at solving that particular “corner” of the million piece jigsaw?

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