I’m just starting to put together my talk for the upcoming Voynich centenary conference. The session is provisionally titled “Between Vellum and Prague”, with a summary along the lines of…

“The Voynich Manuscript first pinged on the cultural radar in Prague circa 1600, yet its vellum has recently been radiocarbon dated to the first half of the 15th century. So… what happened inbetween? Nick Pelling has long been intrigued by this wide-open question, and in this session presents a summary of a wide range of codicological evidence that holds the promise of answering it.”

In many important ways, I don’t care much for Voynich theories (not even my own): the important thing for me has long been developing an evidence base that we can use to eliminate bad theories (long-time Cipher Mysteries readers will no doubt recall various times I’ve ranted about Popperian ‘falsification’, Karl Popper’s notion that theories are there to be knocked down, not puffed up).

But what would such usable ‘evidence’ look like? Mainstream history as currently practised is predominantly based on close reading of original documents within the context of large bodies of parallel evidence – even Art History falls within this methodology, as it places tiny observed details within an overall historical canon of evolving technique and materials.

The Beinecke’s splendid scans have enabled us to closely read the original document’s surface, so in some ways we’re halfway there: but as for “the large bodies of parallel evidence” part of the equation, we have at the same time too many and too few such bodies to choose from – by which I mean too many possible, too few probable.

As a result, the Voynich Manuscript remains an uncomfortable topic for historians, because even after a century of study it resolutely resists being pigeonholed within any cladistic strand or tradition. Basically, it is this core uncertainty about its internal nature and external tradition that dissuades many academics from wading too deeply into the Voynichian swamp… and frankly, I don’t blame them, because you’d need a wetsuit, not wellies.

It therefore seems much more prudent to me to go hunting for evidence than for yet more speculative theories. However, you need to have a really clear research question in mind when you do it, or it is likely that your efforts will be for nothing. For me, the best questions by a mile all relate to the Voynich Manuscript’s life before its apparent appearance at Rudolf’s Imperial Court in Prague: and so the class of evidence to look for is that which helps to bring out this otherwise invisible history.

As a result, I’m not hugely worried about things such as letters hidden in Voynich plants except insofar as they suggest links between the Voynichese hand and the marginalia hand. Similarly, the parallel hatching used in some of the drawings is not in itself important except for the way that it apparently directly conflicts with the radiocarbon dating (and indeed it would seem we have various 15th century hands in play, as John Matthews Manly noted over 80 years ago, which would seem to stop any kind of 16th century theory dead in its tracks).

The Voynich’s unusual quire numbers are puzzling too, and perfectly consonant with a mid-to-late 15th century dating. Yet frustratingly nobody has yet discovered a single example of another document with the same abbreviated longhand Latin ordinal numbering scheme: finding even one document using that same numbering style would surely open up a fascinating door into the manuscript’s early past.

But personally, I think there’s a high chance that the final page (f116v) marginalia will turn out to be some kind of scrappy French Secretary Hand, with “michiton oladabas” perhaps even saying nichil or even nichil obstat. The top marginalia line of f116v could also be a dedication or note to a “Simon Sint”, it’s hard to tell. These offer such tangible promise of connecting the Voynich to real people or places, yet so many speculative readings have been proposed that it’s all too easy to just ignore them.

And yet all the same, perhaps the richest vein to tap has been the raw internal codicology of the Voynich drawings themselves. If we could only find some ingenious way of connecting pages together (comparing DNA fingerprints of different bifolios, multispectral scans of inks or vellum, mapping the varying thicknesses of pages along their edges, etc), we could make a really great stab at reconstructing the original page order.

As examples, I discussed Q9 (“Quire 9”), Q13 and various out-of-order herbal pages at length in “The Curse of the Voynich”, while I’ve also discussed Q8 and Q20 here (as well as Q20’s paragraph stars), and indeed on Glen Claston’s thoughts on the nine-rosette foldout Q14 as well the ‘chicken scratch’ marginalia on its back.

But as should be apparent from the constellation of links strung through the preceding paragraphs like fairy lights, this remains an utterly fragmented research area. In each individual case, I can tell a speculative story about what I think happened to the manuscript to leave a particular set of details in the curious manner we find them arranged today, but I’m completely aware that that’s simply not good enough, even if I do try to take the totality of evidence into consideration at each point.

All the same, I continue to be of the opinion that it may not be to everyone’s tastes but studying the Voynich Manuscript’s codicology is pretty much as good as we can get – that finding historical parallels for individual drawings or indeed matching the roots of individual plants will never be enough to snip through its Gordian knot. Finding out what happened is the most pragmatic stepping stone back in time we have – so we should try harder to make what we have solid enough to step on, right?

38 thoughts on ““Between Vellum and Prague” seminar session…

  1. You’ve got Nick right.Page 116 is important. Is there written instructions for decryption. Also,there are two important names written.

  2. Prof. Zlatodej:

    Do you understand what the written instructions are saying?

    Do you know what/who the important names are?

    We’d most certainly would like to know!

  3. Nick,
    Have you considered that the re-ordering of quires might have been deliberate?

  4. Voynich manuscript,describles the events of Czech history.Describes the power struggle between the Czech nobility.Describes the movement of the gold from Bohemia to Poland.Describes how to produce certain toxins,and kill some people.Describes who is father and mother of John Hus. …..etc.

  5. John Willemse on February 14, 2012 at 3:52 pm said:

    I’m currently reading the Google-translated version of the page which is linked by prof. Zlatoděj’s name and would like to know if he’s a known “Voynich expert”? It’s certainly interesting to read about his findings, however I don’t know how exactly he obtained the information he claims is in the MS.

  6. Diane: Glen Claston has long argued that they were deliberately reordered, but I suspect that this was because a number of Leonell Strong’s “decryptions” of herbal pages (which GC believes to be fundamentally correct) started with an English-alphabetically-ordered plant name, all of which actually runs quite contrary to the codicology as far as I can tell. Bear in mind that all the bifolios are still connected as far as we can tell, so you can’t reorder a single folio, you can only reorder a joined pair of pages, which makes reordering for content reasons rather more tricky.

  7. John: I’ve researched and posted a number of times here on Jan z Lazu and Antonio of Florence, and can see no obvious way in which that whole slice of alchemical history can be plausibly linked to the Voynich Manuscript in the way that Josef Zlatodej claims. Here are some links that might fill in the story:-

  8. Nick,you as an expert in ciphers,did you know one important thing.And that is that when the manuscript in the Czech language,so you can not decipher it in another language. I know the author and have a pretty long time. You can never decipher hand writing. When do not you use the Czech language.And he do not know. So do not be to nervous. Such a young man and he is nervous.

  9. Josef: ten thousand or more other Czech people have looked at the Voynich Manuscript without seeing what you see. I have researched Jan z Lazu and Antonio of Florence and can’t see the history you see. Sorry, but I think you need to find more persuasive arguments to support your case. 🙁

  10. Nick, not ten thousand Czechs. But only a few people. Emigrant Hurych, mr. Šlajsna, and that’s it. Karpenko is nothing. He knows only what he tells Prinke.

  11. Josef: I think you’re underestimating the power of the Internet – people don’t need to go via me or you or Jan to find the Voynich Manuscript, they can easily do that for themselves! For example, the Czech Wikipedia page on the Voynich Manuscript – http://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vojni%C4%8D%C5%AFv_rukopis – has been viewed over 2000 times in the last 90 days according to http://stats.grok.se/cs/latest90/Vojničův%20rukopis , so I think “only a few people” may be well short of the real total. 🙂

  12. Nick, Rene, and remaining persons who plan to attend your next “conference”: Does anyone of you have the resources for downloading each/every page of the VMs and enlarging them to a size that all participants can review “up close”? Would you all then be able to take notes of any detail that “tickles one’s bump of curiousity”. Would you then have the time to compare notes and theories “on the spot” before having to return home and finish the conference on’line?

    Oh, I wish!

  13. Nick, Thanks for the comment. I’m afraid that there seem to be just too many variables here for any certain comment. But I wonder if anyone who has seen the ms has ever written on the subject. It would surely be helpful if we knew just which quires show matching lines and scars, wouldn’t it? As the acknowledged specialist in the manuscript’s codicology, perhaps the Beinecke would let you investigate this problem, even if only by providing photos?

  14. Oh-oh. The earliest post for Leonell Strong (‘Some outsiders’) turns up a blank page with what appears to be referral-spam title.

  15. Nick,these are just ordinary readers.People are trying to decipher handwriting. Just read what the wiki says the manuscript.The manuse is very difficult to encryption.The alchemy that is used in the manuscript is just a smokescreen.Behind the meaning is hidden and that is mainly the history of Bohemia.

  16. Diane: the Voynich Outsiders page works fine for me – though sometimes other spam websites grab the text from my blog, so you may have have been looking at a spammed clone. Here’s a link to the real one:-


  17. bdid1dr on February 15, 2012 at 9:01 pm said:

    Nick, Diane:

    Dare I mention Tepenecz here? Or do we already have enough references to Czech, Hungarian, Yugoslavian, Serbian, Macedonian…….

    Though I don’t speak/read any of the above, I do the dances!

  18. bdid1dr on February 15, 2012 at 9:33 pm said:

    Oh dear!
    I linked to your ref above.
    I do seem to “hang out” in various circles besides circling back in times, people, and places!

    References to mushrooms and croaking frogs. Just a couple of people I know from UC Santa Cruz! Then there are the people I know from my Balkan and Greek dance festivals (all over Northern California). Some of whom are professors/teachers at various
    institutions of learning in other parts of the state.

    Ennyway, when it comes to Gordian Knots: Sometimes one has to find the loose end and then BACK the loose end through each tangled interweaving. I physically did this for a friend who, in frustration, had cut a 4,000 yard warp off of her loom. We had some 200 loose ends to untangle from the “Gordian Knot”.

    Puhleeze, do not give up your great effort in hosting your Cipher Mysteries. It is some of the best MENTAL exercise I’ve gotten in years!

  19. Nick, I found that site through your search box the first time. This latest link is fine, though. Thanks

  20. For what it’s worth:
    I think that the codicology is not a one-step problem. To me it looks as a number of original sources are brought together – in the same place, and/or in a proto-version of the manuscript though I think originally in different volumes. The Voynich comes partly from bis simply removed from existing works in the same scriptorium, partly from newly made copies of yet other sources, the compilation being created in great haste and/or unusually cramped conditions (folios with pigments still wet weren’t usually left lying one on top of the other). All the sections (as copies) could still date from pretty much the same decade, and this scenario – plus the evident pressure of time – would explain the different hands and systems of abbreviation.

    That some of the sources employed to make the Voynich were previously stitched in different styles again fits the ‘anthology’ scenario. Haste might explain why some of the ‘proto-‘ copies were just pulled apart and used in the Voynich while others were copied for inclusion. This doesn’t preclude the possibility of a later pulling-apart – perhaps so the work could be printed. but it does offer one reason for why there are false-needle marks. I think that the signs of haste are especially telling.

  21. Diane: as Rene would say, I think you’re mixing a lot of hypotheses into your observations here. We have:
    * no proof that all the paint was necessarily original, and hence
    * no proof of haste or cramped conditions
    * no proof of even a single word in Voynichese appearing anywhere outside of the Voynich Manuscript (let alone any existing works)
    * no proof of anything being prepared for printing
    * no proof that any needle-marks were added in anything but good faith

  22. No, what I’m doing is offering an explanation of what needs explaining. Since there is no evidence that the paint is not part of the 15thC making of the Vms, there is no need to explain it.
    The cramped or hasty conditions are indicated by the various paint-transfers which you have pointed out. These are not common, because sheets were hung or left to dry before work continued on them – in the usual way.
    Disordered quires are a common indication that a work’s quires were separated for printing, but I don’t consider this an adequate explanation for the total mess made of the gatherings’ spines.
    The relative distances, as well as the depth of cutting indicate different binding systems, and these require explanation. I myself have never seen such a dreadfully mashed set of quires.
    As for other examples of Voynichese – no we don’t have any, but that doesn’t mean it was invented by an individual, only that we have no other examples extant. I posit its use *because* of the evidence provided by the Vms. Plainly, given the number of different hands, and – I trust the experts on this – the different languages, it was a script understood and used by a number of people. Just how many, we don’t know.

  23. Diane: again, as Rene would say, you’re still mixing a lot of hypotheses into your observations here:
    * There are paint transfers between pages [observation]: that this was caused by haste and/or cramped conditions is one hypothesis of many.
    * The quires are disordered [observation]: that the cause of this was being separated for printing is one hypothesis of many.
    * The quires appear to have been cut up in many different ways [observation]: (no explanation offered)
    * The bifolios have been rebound along different folds from the original in several key cases [observation]: that this is indicative of a mess is one hypothesis of many.
    * This is the only example of Voynichese we know of [observation]: whether it was created by an individual or a group remains hypothetical.
    * There are different hands / ‘languages’ [observation]: that this was understood and used by a number of people is one hypothesis of many (e.g. need a scribe understand a cipher to copy it? etc)
    For just about every one of the above, I’ve had interminable arguments constructive debates with Glen Claston and others: and from that, I can say with some certainty that it really isn’t the case that a single explanation will magic them all away. Personally, I think the codicology is telling us a story about the manuscript’s messy history (for why else would the 15th century quire numbers not match up with the content?) rather than its messy conceptual origins, but that’s merely my meta-explanation. 🙂

    Incidentally: once upon a time, I tried to build up a gigantic conceptual map of the codicological analysis, separating observations from hypotheses and showing how different pieces of evidence supported or opposed individual hypotheses. It was a bit like a visually logical Wikipedia, for want of a better description. I think I got about 5% of the way through (which was actually a damn long way, *sigh*) before I gave up out of sheer exhaustion. Perhaps I ought to come back to that one day… =:-o

  24. Nick
    I hope your talk goes well, and it would be sheer bad manners to argue with the host in his own blog.
    So rather than hanging onto your ear, the better to fill it with my own ideas, let me apologise for having expressed myself so poorly. About separation of quires for binding – I said myself that I felt in this case the common explanation was unsatisfactory. And I would add that the explanations I offered are ones consistent with all the other evidence which I find in the imagery, the historical period, and the minimalistic report from McCrone. The ‘mess’ I spoke of was not the refolding but binding cuts and the varying widths and distances visible in the picture you kindly included in an earlier post.
    But Pace Rene, and you, I do think that this subject suffers from a fundamental problem which is the (not uncommon) unwillingness of Europeans to consider that – at the very least – not all Europeans lived in Europe.

  25. Diane: sorry if I misprecis-ed your comment! It’s hard enough to separate one’s own observations and hypotheses, let alone someone else’s! 🙂

    As for your point about Europeans beyond Europe: the trading and cultural reach of Europe was pretty vast even before the Columbian era, and all kinds of objects can be envisaged springing up from the rich and varied contacts between cultures. However, I have to caution that plenty of other people (definitely not you) have used this same conceptual starting point to think the hitherto unthinkable, often with unspeakable results. 🙁

  26. No Maya, no mas.

  27. Diane: we’ve had some South American Voynich theories here already, would that do?
    http://ciphermysteries.com/2008/07/19/czech-voynich-theory – or maybe even
    http://ciphermysteries.com/2010/08/29/voynich-theory-tolkien-atlantis-satan-nazis-the-pentagon-we-live-in-hell *sigh*
    There was another one but I’ve lost it, sorry!

  28. bdid1dr on February 17, 2012 at 9:30 pm said:

    Ah hah! So this may be why “we” are dodging my Q re Romany. You’ve already been there, done that! Thanx for your patience with a relative newcomer to your blog.

    Enjoy the weekend. Keep us posted re developments with our friends in the Netherlands, please.

  29. *weeps into tea*


    c.1438 is the date, people.

    And already by then, as Nick so rightly says:

    “the trading and cultural reach of Europe was pretty vast..”

    NO Maya.

  30. bdid1dr on February 18, 2012 at 8:20 pm said:

    No Hopi!

  31. bdid1dr on February 26, 2012 at 1:21 am said:

    As a side note to my latest posts re Kircher (on another post yesterday/day before):

    Item: Jesuits im/exportation of chinchona bark (quinine) for fever. Were there any European plant sources of quinine? If not, where did the chinchona bark come from?

    Item: Kircher, in one of his volumes, discusses “Cobra stone” reputed to counteract effects of venomous snakebite.

    Apparently, very early on, Jesuits were traders/medics/proseletizers wherever they went.

    Maybe Diane and I can revise “No Maya” “No Hopi” — even if it doesn’t entirely fit within the estimated timeframe/scope of the VM and/or Kircher’s publications?

  32. bdid1dr on February 28, 2012 at 3:19 am said:

    Nick, I’ll be easing off on my posts now. D’y think I’ve done enough now to confuse things in general besides confusing myself? (One more Q you don’t have to answer!) Have some great seminars. And keep us informed …

    I’ll still be cruising; just keeping a low profile.


  33. bdid1dr on March 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm said:

    Check out my latests posts on you Alternate Voynich page.

    Adieu! Have a great conference (and get some exercise while you’re at it?)

    beady eyed wonder, now “almost” blind!

  34. Diane O'Donovan on April 9, 2012 at 2:53 am said:

    I thought I’d add some chicken soup here.

    To avoid any additional confusion. I’ve not proposed an American link to the vms, and won’t unless the evidence obliges me to.

  35. bdid1dr on April 9, 2012 at 8:28 pm said:

    Aw gee, Diane!

    My new neighbors, down-mountain from me, were teachers in the Cook Islands. Recently, we’ve had several conversations re DNA studies that have been ongoing just about ever since Bryan Sykes published his findings in “The Seven Daughters of Eve.

    Your “chicken soup” is going to “hit the spot” with John and his wife. Thanx!

    BTW: My husband and I raised Aurucana chickens: Their eggshells are all shades of blue-green.

  36. bdid1dr on April 9, 2012 at 8:30 pm said:

    Spelling: Auraucana

  37. Giulio Menna, whose twitter name might not pass your filter, has been followed by a number of Voynicheros, I think (pics there tended soon to appear on certain Voynich blogs).

    There’s a distribution/concentration map in development – first stages up just now – and which promises to be very interesting indeed. Doesn’t (yet?) include the Venetto though.
    Only address I have for the picture is through twitpics, sorry. Hope post passes ok.

    [it didn’t – picture address triggered filter]

  38. NEWS –
    University of Pennsylvnia’s Interactive workshop allows the user to investigate codicological questions by e.g. moving around mis-bound quires on screen, uploading ms and then comparing with one or more others in single proect.

    See ‘T-Pen’. In development.

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