Many historians and palaeographers have concluded that the interleaved ‘+’ signs added to the Voynich Manuscript’s back page indicate that the containing text is some kind of spell, incantation, chant, charm, curse, pious utterance, etc. Well, it’s completely true that ‘+’ was used in all of the preceding forms to indicate that the (non-silent) reader should physically trace out the sign of the cross at the same time, so this would seem a perfectly reasonable suggestion (if perhaps a little non-specific).
Here I’m particularly interested in the (apparently heavily emended) third line of text on f116v, where I have strongly enhanced the image to make the tangled textual mess I think this has ended up in clear. Note that (as I have discussed several times elsewhere, e.g.here) this line of text seems to end “ahia maria“, which I think pretty much confirms that the ‘+’ shapes are indeed crosses.
So, do we have any idea what the first part of the line originally said? It is certainly striking that all four words at the start of the line seem to end with the letter ‘x’, which gives the overall impression of some kind of magical chant. But what might that chant be?
This is where I wheel in Benedek Lang’s fascinating “Unlocked Books” (2008), which focuses on medieval magical manuscripts from Central Europe (and which you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I’m currently reading). As part of his discussion (p.65) of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (Maximianus, Martinianus, Malchus, Constantinus, Dionisius, Serapion & Johannes, since you’re asking) who were walled up for two hundred years but magically awoke during the reigh of Theodosius, Lang mentions a 14th century Czech amulet with the seven sleepers’ names as well as the text “pax + nax vax“, all used as a healing magic charm against fever.
Incidentally, I should note that “hax pax max adimax” is another piece of nonsense Latin that (for example) appears in Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, and which some wobbly etymological sources give as the possible origin of the phrase “hocus pocus” (though I have to say I’d probably tend more towards the idea that it’s a corruption of [the genuine Latin] “hoc est corpus“). But regardless, I don’t think “hax pax max” is what we’re looking at here.
“pax nax vax“, then, is basically the right kind of phrase, with the right kind of structure, from the right kind of period. I’m not saying it’s definitely 100% right (history is rarely that simple): but even if it’s wrong, it may well turn out to be a very revealing attempt at an answer.
All in all, I’m really rather intrigued by the possibility that this line originally read (or read something remarkably close to) “six + pax + nax + vax + ahia + mar+ia +“: it’s just a shame that the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library doesn’t have finer wavelength (i.e. multispectral) scans of this contentious feature so that we could test this kind of hypothesis out. One day, though…