I remember when I first saw the “Roger Bacon Manuscript”: Wilfrid Voynich brought it with him to Philadelphia for his lecture back in 1921 – my old friend Bill Newbold was there, taking in every word, nodding like the crazy-but-brilliant spiritualist and Antioch-obsessed nutter he was. So it just had to be Bacon behind it all, right? I sat at the back, laughing quietly: but all the same, I couldn’t help but notice that there was something rather disconcerting about the whole thing that demanded being checked out at a convenient point…

My big break came in late 1929, in a chance visit to New York: though charming as ever, Voynich was already sickly, well along the path to his own deathbed. Though he was unwilling at first, I convinced him to let me take a closer look at his manuscript’s oh-so-boring quire 13 – why not, what could a lowly UPhil Italian academic possibly find of interest there? Yet behind the scenes, I’d had help from Johnny Manly and Edith Rickerts: though they’d initially tried to dissuade me from looking closely, I’d carefully zoomed in on the bits they were most intrigued by – and with stunning results. They’d been so utterly wrong to think it was Latin (hardly surprising, given that they were arch-Latinists), when I’d instead worked out it was mostly an abbreviated Italian scribal shorthand…

But honestly – how could I not remember the day when Hans Kraus pitched up to Yale with the 1428 Albergati bible ($204,000, and worth every cent) along with Wilfrid’s “ugly duckling” manuscript. Old man Beinecke had come along for the ride, too: everyone there was trembling with excitement – but I swear nobody could have been sweating like me. If only they knew how I felt! Once dear old Annie Nill had sold it to HPK, I’d worked out where things were leading and had networked my way into the position as Beinecke curator – so my first unofficial job was to remove it from the stacks, to give myself the opportunity of making sense of quire 20‘s recipes for myself. But sad to say, I never quite did, and so my last job there was to retire.

All the same, I have to give a big hooray for the Beinecke’s hi-res scans: though I’d really thought my second act was over (and so did wife #7), with a bit of help from Steve Ekwall I finally managed to get Voynich’s other fountain working. Whoever it was that said that diligence has its own rewards was really onto something – it certainly works for me!

And so here I am once again, back to square #1 and wife #8. Sure, I do my best to prevent anyone on the Voynich mailing list from coming even close to reproducing what I found: but everyone thinks I’m just some kind of ultra-informed troll, and they back off from the truth. Which suits me 100%.

Here’s to wife #9!

23 thoughts on “Square #1 & wife #8…

  1. Nick – what is the above all about – serious or another of your flights of fancy (I have trouble telling the difference at times!) – what is known of the other purchases by Voynich – I’ve recently seen a 15th c. herbal which has written in the back –
    ‘A contemporary copy of a famous MS herbal preserved at Laurentia in Florence. Bought for 700 francs by Woynich 1912’
    followed by a signature (presumably of the person who sold it) that I can’t make out.
    It also lists Beltramo di Rocalis 1480 as a previous owner.

  2. Please rest assured that I am neither 150 years old nor on my eighth wife, so it’s a flight of fancy. 🙂

    (Though Hans Kraus did indeed sell the 1428 Albergati Bible to one of the Beineckes, who then donated it to the Beinecke Library, with Kraus donating the VMs at the same time. Hence the former is Beinecke MS 407, the latter Beinecke MS 408. Presumably there was some tax efficiency involved in doing it like this).

    I’d be interested to know which 15th century herbal you’re looking at: there have been suspicions Voynich made copies of some manuscripts, which is one of the reasons people have wondered whether the VMs is real or fake. The “Laurentia” (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) keeps a log of everyone who looks at each manuscript, so it would be interesting to see if Wilfrid went there in 1911. 🙂

  3. MS 334 in the ‘Wellcome Medical Library’ – it has similarities to the VM in that it has a short paragraph accompanying each picture – some of the drawings have faint letters (presumably to indicate what colour) – faces in roots – a dragon by a plant labelled Vapillis (Verum Apillis)?? – a few roots that look like animals – pages missing etc.
    Overall it just struck me it could be by the same person who wrote the VM (whether that was 1 or 5 centuries ago!!) – a forerunner as it were – as the quality of the drawings is slightly less than the VM
    One plant ‘Sancta Maria’ has a crown and in faint writing like the colouring marks it has ‘4o’ EVA (‘qo’) in it!!
    I am assuming it’s a copy of ‘Rufinus’ in the Laurentian – am checking this out.

  4. Rene Zandbergen on February 23, 2010 at 8:51 pm said:


    this is one of the alchemical herbals, see here:

  5. As Rene says, Wellcome MS 334 is one of the alchemical herbals, so almost certainly lists the 98 specific plants given on Philip Neal’s page. The presence of “4o” gives a nice angle, though: I’ve often wondered about the secret history of this letter-pair. For example, I’ve seen it claimed that ‘qo’ was used as a 14th century Italian scribal abbreviation, was then written with the ‘q’ above the ‘o’, before finally morphing into the modern question mark ‘?’. Much as I doubt more or less every claimed folk etymology I see, perhaps there’s some kind of truth in this particular one, who knows?

  6. Rene Zandbergen on February 24, 2010 at 8:26 am said:


    so does this mean that Wellcome MS 334 was actually bought (and sold)
    by Voynich? That’s quite interesting. I am not aware of any other
    herbals he was involved with, but then there isn’t a huge number of
    herbal mss in the world anyway. Minta Collins reports a tally made
    by Toresella, which says: 193 surviving herbals from the 15th C and
    136 from all preceding centuries combined. I don’t know if the Voynich MS
    is included in that…

  7. Sergio Toresella categorised the VMs as a non-mainstream alchemical herbal, so I’d be pretty sure he counted it in. Who’s to say that if you moved the herbals from Q15 and Q17 back to the front, added in the missing foliated pages plus a handful more that got lost along the way, sorted them back into their original order, that you wouldn’t find yourself with the 98 alchemical herbal plants? Doubtless this has been pointed out before, but… 🙂

    Of course, I know plenty of reasons why it wouldn’t work (some plants are duplicated, few look even remotely close to the stylized representations in the alchemical herbal visual tradition, etc), but we’ve all heard plenty of worse theories. 🙂

  8. Rene Zandbergen on February 24, 2010 at 9:06 am said:

    Nick, here are some stats, which I did over Xmas. There are:

    124 herbal pages with 1 plant
    5 herbal pages with 2 plants, so:

    129 total pages showing 134 plants.
    Throw in the missing f12 and we have:

    131 pages with 136 plants (probably).

    Now 131 is an interesting number by itself 😉

    Of the 5 pages with 2 plants, there are 3 in herbal-A and 2 in herbal-B.

    There are:

    85 pages in the early herbal-A part
    28 pages in the early herbal-B part

    10 pages in the late herbal-A part
    6 pages in the late herbal-B part.

    This allows for a number of permutations.

    I’ve looked mainly at some of the ‘direct tradition’ alchemical herbals, and it is worth noting that:
    – none of the 7 MSS listed by Philip (from Segre Rutz) has the complete set of 98
    – most of these (as far as I could determine) have many illistrations from
    ‘Tractatus de Herbis’ immediately before or after the alchemical herbal part.

    131 is the number of plants in the ‘Herbarius’ of Apuleius Platonicus.
    My first reaction to that is: ‘probably a coincidence’ 😉

  9. Rene: thanks for that! I should have added that I was only talking about Herbal A pages possibly being the alchemical herbal set of 98 (because I think the Herbal B pages are something else entirely), from which you get 85 early plus 10 late = 95 total, not too far off. Pretty much all the other alchemical herbals have missing pages too! 🙂

    And 131 is indeed probably just a coincidence. But a nice coincidence, all the same. 🙂

  10. Actually, 85 (early pages) + 10 (late pages) + 3 (pages with an extra plant on) = 98. Spooky!

  11. Rene Zandbergen on February 24, 2010 at 9:51 am said:

    Well, there are enough numbers to play with to make something fit. 😉

    Alchemical herbs 86 and 90 consist of two plants each, which are sometimes
    shown together on the same page, and sometimes on different pages.
    Of these, #86 is herba lunaria tertia, and one could argue that VMs
    fol. 43v shows two lunaria plants.
    Downside (for your idea above) is that this is a B folio…

    I haven’t yet seen any systematic difference in the plant illustrations on
    the herbal A and B pages, but would be interested if such a thing could be

  12. Rene
    Because of the date I was assuming it was bought by Voynich at the same time & place as the VM and then sold on to the Wellcome Library (merely an assumption on my part, I do not known that to be a fact)

  13. Rene Zandbergen on February 24, 2010 at 10:37 am said:

    One really interesting aspect of WMS 334 I just found is that the chapters
    with the recipes are sometimes written in Latin, and sometimes in vulgate.
    There’s nice possible explanation for the reason behind Currier A and B.
    Of course, people have come up with lots of possible explanations over
    time, but here is an actual example.

    Apparently, the ownership notes say:
    “Tadeus Canalis doctor in sua pratigione quam alteri in sua profesione”
    “Beltramus de Roncalis” followed by the year 1480.

  14. 2 questions –
    What’s the easiest way for a layman to tell the difference between Latin & vulgate?
    Looking at ‘The Herbal of Rufinus’ by Lynne Thorndike today she described it as an ‘illuminated’ manuscript – this book contained all the text but not one ‘illustration’ – illuminated is what happens to Blackpool – does anyone know if it contains pictures or not?

  15. Rene Zandbergen on February 25, 2010 at 11:32 am said:

    Tony, my Latin is too rusty to tell. Let me include one recipe for one
    of the alchemical herbs, and perhaps someone can explain whether it
    is Latin or vulgate based on the example:

    “Si esset qui non posset urinare. Accipe radicem istius herbe et eam pista, et da ei bibere, subito sanabitur et urinabit. Item si quis patitur dolorem in corpore, accipiat radicem istius herbe et comedat et subito curatur. Et est probatum.”

  16. Tony: I’d always assumed that vulgate (‘common’) Latin was basically Latin as far as the writer could go but with common (say, Italian) words put in where his/her grasp of Latin stopped, but I could well be wrong. Lynn Thorndike was definitely male (he was named after the town of Lynn, Massachusetts). Strictly speaking, “illuminated manuscripts” have fancy coloured (preferably including gold or silver) initial letters and occasionally small pictures or ornate marginal stuff. Hence as I understand it, the alchemical herbals are “illustrated” rather than “illuminated”. Hope this is a help! 🙂

    Rene: looks like reasonably well-formed Latin to me (though I’m not 100% sure about the “da ei” bit). =:-o

  17. Apologies to Lynne – I assume Rufinus then is totally descriptive without any pics.
    Old Latin, New Latin, Vulgate, I only got as far as amabis, amabat …. very confusing, I’ll press on regardless – you can tell me which it is when I solve it?!

  18. Old Latin: Latin of the Roman imperium (classical Latin)

    “New Latin” – odd term

    “Vulgate” the late-classical Latin used by the western church, the “Vulgate” Bible being one of the standard sources for biblical commentary.

    Vulgate Latin was Latin-as-she-is-spoke in the very late period, when all sorts of vulgarities had crept in.

    One example is the use of “altare” for altar.

    As in the opening lines of the old mass, which include “..ad altare Dei” a phrase inconceivable to classical Latinists – and thanks to which I once won a drink from a classical Latinist. 🙂

  19. Stephen: thanks very much for that! At the time, I didn’t think it was particularly likely that MS 334 contained any Voynichese, but it’s nice to know for sure! 🙂

  20. SirHubert on December 23, 2013 at 9:15 am said:

    Diane: I see your ‘ad altare Dei’ and raise you ‘pro animabus illis’.

  21. Sir Hubert – you’re bidding to a game which ended close to three years ago.

  22. Sorry – that sounded critical.

    I had a sudden vision of “SirHubert” as a bluff, Falstafian character, waking from a very long nap by the fireside shouting his bid to guests long departed the table.
    (very Christmas-sy sort of picture)

  23. SirHubert on December 23, 2013 at 11:27 am said:

    Diane: if only! I am certainly slow on the uptake sometimes , but being the kind of SirHubert who has two small children and a business to run, I won’t be taking very long naps by the fireside for some years!

    Off-topic, but Latin-related and seasonally appropriate:

    sarumuse wordpress com/2013/12/19/reno-erat-rudolphus-nasum-rubrum-habebat/

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