As many Cipher Mysteries regulars will know, the two reasons I focused my Voynich Manuscript research on the 15th century were (a) the Voynichese ‘4o’ sign reappears in a number of (far less sophisticated) 15th century cipher alphabets, thus pointing to a post-1400 date; while (b), as John Matthews Manly pointed out in 1931, the manuscript’s 15th century quire numbers strongly imply a pre-1500 date. (Though it was nice that the radiocarbon dating didn’t contradict this, the evidence was actually there all along. *sigh*)

All the same, numerous aspects of the codicology and palaeography of the Voynich Manuscript remain unresolved: for example, my presentation at next month’s Villa Mondragone Voynich centenary conference will revolve (at great speed) around quire numbers. Fascinatingly, a whole lot of interesting quire-number-related stuff has emerged over the last few weeks, thanks to French Voynich blogger Thomas Sauvaget.

You see, Thomas decided a while back to see whether he could dig up examples of Voynich-like features in scans of manuscripts available online, i.e. zodiac month names, gallows characters, the odd ij mark on f57v, and (of course) the quire numbers.

While trawling through St Gallen’s online manuscript collection, Thomas found something I’d missed when looking there (shame on me, but probably because I was looking for quire numbers at the bottom of pages) – a ‘pm9’ [primus] in the top margin of f176r of Cod[ex] Sang[allensis] 839 that is pretty similar to the ‘pm9’ used to number the Voynich Manuscript’s first quire. (The jpeg at the top shows the two overlaid).

Now… Cod Sang 839 [a copy of Nicolas Oresme’s five books of commentary on Aristotle’s Physics] was a copy made in 1459 by the same (according to Scherrer’s 1875 catalogue) scribe who wrote Cod Sang 840 in 1459 and Cod Sang 841 in 1462. Yet the ‘pm9’ appears not in the text, nor even in the scribe’s colophon, but in a table of contents added later, in a different hand.

Thomas concludes (from the back-to-front shape of the ‘4’ digit) that this table-of-contents scribe was not the same person who added the quire numbers to the Voynich: and that’s perfectly reasonable. Yet at the same time, it remains a pretty strong match, which I think in and of itself broadly points to the conclusion Thomas ultimately comes to (which I’ll get to further below).

Incidentally, Cod Sang 841 has an ownership note added by a Johannes [Hans] Lippis:

Johanes Lippis possessor h. libri bin uff Gais gsin und do hand mir die Heren das buch geben und hand es mir geschenkt.”

It was far from clear to me exactly what this was saying, so I passed it over to the ever-careful Philip Neal, who very kindly and lucidly translated it as follows:-

“I, Johannes Lippis, owner of this book, was at Gais, and there the lords gave me the book and made a present of it to me.”

This seems to be consistent with the Johannes Lippis mentioned as a lawyer in a 1441 charter, who was perhaps representing the St Gallen abbey’s local interest in the town of Gais. Might it have been some kind of sweetener or (dare I say it) bribe? Possibly! Even so, it also seems unlikely to me that Lippis was given all three as a gift, while his clunky text seems rather at odds with the person patiently trawling through Oresme’s commentary to produce an index.

I strongly suspect that all three manuscripts ended up at St Gall simply because they were from a single local hand, and that a fairly senior librarian in St Gall probably added the table of contents. However, you’ll have to make your own mind up in the absence of any better evidence – I emailed St Gallen’s manuscript cataloguer to ask about this, but didn’t get a definitive enough reply either way to confirm or deny this.

Anyway, Thomas carried on searching and found yet more pm9 marginalia in a 1467 music book by Hugo Spechtshart in Esslingen in Southern Germany, this time along with Voynich-like abbreviations for secundus, tertius and quartus… though once again, not as quire numbers.

Putting all the pieces together, Thomas thinks that they all point to a ‘Lake Constance hypothesis’: that the quire numbers were examples of an abbreviatory style that flourished 1450-1500 on the various edges of Lake Constance, where we now see Southern Germany, Switzerland (St Gallen isn’t far away at all), Austria, and even Liechtenstein (pretty much).

Al perfectly reasonable. Of course, rewind the clock 550 years and Switzerland was actually the Confederacy, with the conflict with the Habsburgs in the Swabian War (1499) yet to come. I’m not entirely certain, but it seems that the angsty neighbours around Lake Constance circa 1460 were:-
* the Prince-Bishopric of Constance to the North
* Thurgau to the West
* the Prince-Abbacy of St Gall to the South West
* the Federation of Three Leagues (i.e. the League of the Ten Jurisdictions, the League of God’s House, and the Grey League) to the South-East

[All of which sounds to me more like the turbulent political setting for an Iain M. Banks ‘Culture’ space opera novel, but there you go.]

Heaven only knows where all the archives for these ended up! Good luck to Thomas trying to find them! Myself, I’m following another (far simpler) research lead entirely… but more on that later! 😉

25 thoughts on “The Lake Constance Voynich hypothesis…

  1. bdid1dr on April 15, 2012 at 9:56 pm said:

    “X” my heart, Nick, I have been organizing my notes and downloads this morning. Check out a wiki offering re Velletri. Some familiar names that pop up:

    1408 Ladislaus of Naples

    1434 Colonna and Savelli families, Pope Eugene IV,

    Land of Castellana granted to Velletri — and remained merged to Velletri until 1967. 1967?(typo?)

    April 1482 Salt War Pope Sixtus IV, Ferdinand of Aragon, Roberto Malatesta and Battle of Campomorto near Velletri (now Aprilia)

    1512 – 1591 apparently nearly un-interrupted wars/battles (and added Bourbons and more (Austrian) Hapsburgs to the mess.

    And then there was the French Revolution.
    Subsequent battles/sieges (siege of Castel Gandolfo) Even Garibaldi makes an appearance….

    I’m stopping here, pre-WWI and WWII. Why stop now, you ask? Wal, when was it that Mr Voynich came knocking at the doors of Father/Reverend/Kircher’s old hangout?

  2. Diane O'Donovan on April 15, 2012 at 11:37 pm said:

    ..and the C-14 dating puts the making of the text just around the time of the Council of Constance (1414-18) when attenders included such luminaries as Piere d’Ailley and Jean Gerson. According to one source the gathering included “comparatively few bishops, (but) many doctors of theology and of civil law as well as canon law, procurators of bishops, deputies of universities, cathedral chapters, provosts, etc., agents and representatives of princes, etc.” In other words, political types and laymen.

    It was the first time that nationalism had taken precedence in the voting system: members here voted en bloc by their own nationalities.

    The council’s memorial statue is cute: a lady with a funny hat who is holding up what at first glance resemble a frog and an octopus.

  3. Diane O'Donovan on April 15, 2012 at 11:41 pm said:

    *sp Pierre d’Ailly. And that’s the Jean Charlier de Gerson who was rector of the University of Paris.

    The Council itself is less interesting I think than the fact that these men had years of out-of-session time to converse about other things.

  4. Diane O'Donovan on April 15, 2012 at 11:51 pm said:

    Oh sorry. Of course the deeds of the Council did matter, especially for Hus.

  5. Diane O'Donovan on April 15, 2012 at 11:57 pm said:

    In some respects the council resembled more a modern Catholic congress than a traditional ecclesiastical synod. The numerous princes and nobles by their tournaments and splendid amusements; the merchants by their rich and curious wares; the travellers by their number and importance; the fringe of fakirs and mountebanks found at all popular gatherings, made Constance for the time the cynosure of all Europe and even of the Greek world.”
    section IV of a very long article at

  6. Diane O'Donovan on April 16, 2012 at 9:28 am said:

    “town of Gais”
    only one I can find mention of is “the little town of Gais .. on the banks of the Aurino River” in northern Italy.

    Apparently it’s a place for many nymphs, some (and I quote) ‘heavy’.

  7. Diane O'Donovan on April 16, 2012 at 10:03 am said:

    Forgive my lack of medieval German – could “…bin uff Gais gsin..” be taken as a colloquial way of referring to legal opposition, as we say in English they ‘went at ..the opposition’?

    I ask because the works of Oresme, and Aristotle’s Physics, played an important role in the issue of whether or not the earth rotated, and so forth. Inquisition was a legal process, and civil law as well as canon law, depended on representations made by formally-qualified lawyers. (Ficino outlined his religious defence, but entrusted its delivery to three friends, two of whom if I recall were lawyers not theologians.

    The ‘Gai(s)’ could be a reference to heresy, Gai-anite being an alternative term for Julian-ist.
    Just a thought. 1440s was a prime time for excitement over heresy, wasn’t it.

    On equivalence of ‘Gaianite’ for Julianist the nearest source to hand happens to be this article

    H. G. Evelyn White, ‘The Egyptian Expedition 1916-1919: IV. The Monasteries of the Wadi Natrun’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin , Vol. 15, No. 7, Part 2: The Egyptian Expedition 1916-1919 (Jul., 1920), pp. 34-39 [JSTOR]

    the reference is on p.36

  8. Diane O'Donovan on April 16, 2012 at 11:00 am said:

    And apropos of ‘heretics’…
    “The first Armenian manuscript to enter the Vatican collection in the fifteenth century was a thirteenth-century codex which “may have been donated by the Armenian delegates at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-45). It contains a vast miscellany of texts [including] texts on chronology, geography, astronomy, mensuration, philosophy, and history.” The codex is dated to before 1287.

    ref from (beginning 3/4 way down the page)

  9. Diane,

    I’m from Southern Germany and understand the Swiss dialect well enough; “bin uff Gais gsin” really means nothing more than “was at Gais.”
    No secret connotations…

  10. Diane O'Donovan on April 16, 2012 at 12:49 pm said:

    Thanks Elmar – I wasn’t thinking secret, just colloquial.

    Would have fitted nicely, though – with Occitan and the rapidly degrading script over the astrological roundels.. *sigh*

  11. Hello Nick, thanks for your post, and good idea to overlay the two. Too bad your St-Gallen contacts cannot provide more clues.

    About the VM100 conference, do you know if there’s a plan to have the lectures on youtube afterwards, or at least the slides online?

    Best wishes.

  12. bdid1dr on April 16, 2012 at 9:30 pm said:


    Have you or confreres done any searches for “maps” that would appear to be similar to the “Rosettes” folio map? Have you (or do you plan to) tried to read the writing that rings each “Rosette”?

    Have you done any research on the “Vellitrae”, which town still exists? Who knows what documents they may have in their town archives? There may still be a lot of “history” in the Papal archives and library.

  13. bdid1dr: (a) more than you can reasonably imagine (b) yes, but not in the way you propose (c) no (d) not me (e) yes, and in 10000 other archives too! 😉

  14. bdid1dr on April 17, 2012 at 2:03 am said:

    Jes’ asking. Next time I ask a bunch of Q’s I’ll label ’em — “Aa” “Bb” “Cc”……. %)

    Some fun: Apparently there is a stretch of road near Rocca di Papa that has strange “gravity” conditions. Have you ever checked it out?

    Oops, one more question mark…sor-ree!

  15. Diane O'Donovan on April 17, 2012 at 4:21 am said:

    Apart from your own, and my own analyses of 86v (which of course do be true, brilliant, original and how-could-anyone-think-differently), which previous ideas about 86v-as-map would you think worth my referring other people to?
    I’ll hunt the refs myself, of course.. if you could give me an idea of for whom, and where, to look.

  16. Diane O'Donovan on April 17, 2012 at 4:27 am said:

    PS Can the papers not be published on Or is that too old-tech?

  17. Diane O'Donovan on April 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm said:

    I’m interested in the Liber Floridus at the moment. I did ask on the mailing list if anyone has already looked into it in relation to the Vms – mainly to save myself the effort of duplication.

    The result has been.. well, let’s call it bewildering. No idea why. I expected a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or virtual blank look.

    I don’t suppose you happen to know?

  18. Diane O'Donovan on April 17, 2012 at 4:45 pm said:

    I mean – know about the Liber Floridus thing. Don’t want to know about the other, really.

  19. Diane O'Donovan on April 18, 2012 at 9:51 am said:

    I’d agree that those who are arguing that the copyist/s having learned to write in the northern Italian/German tradition is pretty convincing.

    I wish the copyists’ style could tell us more about the work’s origins, history, language or content, though of course it can’t.

    I’ve had to post on a topic of huge importance in the history of archaeology and technologies – about the issue of national-centric writing, but I’d like to be clear that it’s not a response to anything which any Voynicher proposes. It has been an issue in archaeology for at least a century and has to be treated as part of the history and theory topics.

  20. Diane: have you searched the mailing list archives for Liber Floridus?

  21. André on May 11, 2012 at 5:48 pm said:

    Well, Gais is the name of a village 13 km away from St. Gallen, first mentioned in 1272 ( The homepage of the village remarks, that a new, bigger church was built in 1460. Some more information can be found here:

    A literal word-by-word translation of the short text up there would be:

    “Johanes Lippis possessor h. libri (I) been to Gais have and there have (to) me the lords the book given (in the meaning of handed over) and have it (to) me given (as a present).”

    In order to understand the meaning, you have to know that verbs often spit up in German, so instead of “He has given it to me”, you would say “He has it (to) me given”.

    It might be a good idea to investigate, who those lords of Gais were.

  22. Diane O'Donovan on June 10, 2012 at 6:03 am said:

    About codicology in general – another correspondant has referred me to this academic blog. I think you and other readers might enjoy it too.

  23. Diane O'Donovan on June 10, 2012 at 6:09 am said:


    I was asking, really, if the medieval dialect used the phrase in that legal sense, but also: I think it possible that the word ‘lords’ is a German rendering of the Latin term for a teacher ‘domini’, which might indicate that the fellow was given the book after passing his examination. (Usually done as a debate on a given theme). We’d then translate it as Professors or Masters in English. The nature of the book is what leads me to wonder if it wasn’t given him to assist in preparing the arguments for converting or prosecuting heretics and others.

  24. No chance, I suppose, that the ‘Gais’ could be ‘Grais’?

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