There are two big problems with the Voynich Manuscript handwriting: (1) it doesn’t flow like normal handwriting; and (2) there are apparently a number of different “hands” in play.

The first researcher to properly foreground the idea of different “Voynich hands” was the US WWII codebreaker Prescott Currier: he noted not only that there were different types of handwriting (which he called “Hand 1”, and “Hand 2”), but also different types of contents, to the point that he grudgingly dubbed them different ‘languages’ (e.g. “Currier A” and “Currier B”, though it should be born in mind that his angle on them was overtly statistical/cryptanalytical rather than linguistic).

Rene Zandbergen has long written about numerous issues that arise from Currier’s A/B insights, as well as with the limits of what you can conclude from them (e.g. here): generally, it is more sensible to talk of Herbal-A, Herbal-B, Pharma-A, Bio-B, etc, because the differences between A and B taper and lurch around rather than abruptly switch.

What emerges from this is a far more nuanced and subtle picture than, say, Gordon Rugg ever assumed, as evidenced in particular by Mary D’Imperio’s interesting paper on cluster analysis (declassified in 2002).

Hand 1 vs Hand 2

But the same kind of thing turns out to be true of Currier’s initial Hand 1 / Hand 2 dichotomy: for when you look a little more closely at the pages, you find that there could easily be several different hands in play.

Certainly, few would disagree that there appears to be a broad division to be made between large-hand A pages (such as f8v, the last page of the first quire)…


…and tiny-hand B pages (such as f33r, the first page of Quire 5)…


It is certainly conceivable that Hand 1 and Hand 2 were both written by the same person (say, using different types of quill, or with different types of content, etc etc): moreover, some researchers (such as Sergi Ridaura and others) have specifically asserted that this is the case.

Yet the more that I have tried to work with the Voynich Manuscript’s pages as 15th century palaeographical artefacts, the less comfortable I have become with this suggestion. There are similarities between Hand 1 and Hand 2, for sure: but those similarities also sit at broadly the same kind of level you would expect to see from different scribes working in the same town, or taught by the same teacher. Further, I’d argue that there is no palaeographic ‘tell’ to be seen that links 1 with 2 in a definitive way: and that’s precisely the kind of thing you’d need to properly form the logical core of a “Hand 1 == Hand 2” argument.

More Than Two Hands?

Even though Currier started from this two-hand viewpoint (and was also not working with anywhere near as good a set of images as we now have), he eventually found himself pushed to a radical conclusion:

Summarizing, we have, in the herbal section, two “languages” which I call “Herbal A and B,” and in the pharmaceutical section, two large samples, one in one “language” and one in the other, but in new and different hands. Now the fact of different “languages” and different hands should encourage us to go on and try to discover whether there were in fact only two different hands, or whether there may have been more. A closer examination of many sections of the manuscript revealed to me that there were not only two different hands; there were, in fact, only two “languages,” but perhaps as many as eight or a dozen different identifiable hands. Some of these distinctions may be illusory, but in the majority of cases I feel that they are valid. Particularly in the pharmaceutical section, where the first ten folios are in a hand different from the middle six pages, I cannot say with any degree of confidence that the last ten pages are in fact in the same hand as the first ten.

Taken all together, it looks to me as if there were an absolute minimum of four different hands in the pharmaceutical section. I don’t know whether they are different than those two which I previously mentioned as being in the herbal section, but they are certainly different from each other. So there are either four or six hands altogether at this point. The final section of the manuscript contains only one folio which is obviously in a different hand than all the rest, and a count of the material in that one folio supports this; it is different, markedly different. I’m also positive it’s different from anything I had seen before. So now we have a total of something like five or six to seven or eight different identifiable hands in the manuscript. This gives us a total of two “languages” and six to eight scribes (copyists, encipherers, call them what you will).

So, might Captain Currier have been right about there having been so many contributing hands? Surprisingly, it’s not something that has been satisfactorily dealt with by palaeographers at any time in the last century. If you thought the silence following Mary D’Imperio’s paper was bad, the pin-drop-library-quiet surrounding Voynich palaeography is arguably even worse.

But perhaps we’ll start putting that right before too long…

Voynich Manuscript handwriting

Finally, the palaeographic problem with Voynich Manuscript handwriting is that it does not flow – for the most part, it’s not “joined-up writing”, as British children are taught to call cursive handwriting, but printed out, one letter (or short block of letters) at a time.

The reason I call this problematic is that this reduces our ability to do satisfactory palaeographical matching between Voynichese and other texts, simply because almost all other texts of the right kind of period are cursive. (So when we do comparisons between Voynichese and other texts, we are immediately at a disadvantage, because they are different kinds of things.)

The big exception to this sweeping generalization is, of course, humanist handwriting, which survives in numerous top-end Quattrocento examples much loved by palaeographers. While what we see in the Voynich Manuscript is most definitely not humanist handwriting, there is a strong case to be made that it is a “humanistic hand” – by which I mean something that borrows from the letter formation and ductus of both pure humanist hands and is yet close to more straightforward cursive mercantile hands of the time.

But a discussion of that will have to wait for a further post…

19 thoughts on “Thoughts on Voynich Manuscript handwriting…

  1. Nick,
    “normal’ for Latin European scripts, certainly, but I have reservations about taking Latin European habits as the default, and certainly there are a fair number of other scripts, and earlier ones, where it was normal to write each characters/letter distinct.

    Poggio Bracciolini is usually credited, I know, with creating the humanist hand, albeit by derivation from Carolingian or classical models, but I wonder whether here we mightn’t be seeing some form of proto-humanist hand, rather than scribes’ influenced by training in, or exposure to the version he is credited with.

    Your mention of mercantile hands is very interesting, and I hope you will write more on that subject.

  2. nickpelling on August 26, 2016 at 7:03 am said:

    Diane: I really don’t think there was any such thing as a proto-humanist script, but there were definitely scripts that were subsequently influenced by the humanist hand, which began more as an exercise in high-class revivalism than in practicality. 🙂

  3. Nick,
    A nice, brief article ot design history list Bracciolini first, his being the only example shown without letters being connected or given a slope to them.

    Bracciolini’s period would be early enough, but since he is said to have been copying Carolingian manuscripts of the tenth and eleventh centuries, in the mistaken belief they were original productions of the Roman era, then the “gallows” letters (so called) would have seemed rather peculiar, if a text came from Roman, or even Carolingian works – or would they?

    My understanding is that such letters with elongated ascenders don’t occur in Carolingian or in Roman script, but were a product of the papal chancery, from about the Merovingian period. But Merovingian works don’t use a clear “antiqua” Carolingian script. How do we explain this combination – or more to the point, how would such forms relate to the interests of those elegant few who adopted the earliest form of humanist script?

    Very interesting nest of puzzles here.

  4. The website address didn’t go through. second try:

  5. nickpelling on August 26, 2016 at 8:41 am said:

    Diane: it’s only problematic for those people who assume it’s all a single coherent language – cipher makers appropriated whatever shapes they took a fancy to, so had no such constraints of form or style to work within.

  6. Nick,
    Let me get this straight. You are arguing that a group of persons, all trained in, but not using, a ‘humanist’ hand, were copying or separately enciphering one or more texts, using the same set of symbols, but effectively creating, or translating from, at least two languages. Is that a fair representation of your idea?

  7. nickpelling on August 26, 2016 at 12:59 pm said:

    Diane: exactly what I am arguing here is:
    (a) that several different scribes wrote down what we see in the Voynich Manuscript today (which is essentially what Captain Currier argued 40 years ago);
    (b) that their handwriting styles seem to have been ‘humanistic’, insofar as the shapes of the letters they used were influenced by the humanist hand.

    (c) I suspect (not covered in this post) that these scribes were copying text written in an alphabet invented by someone else (and very possibly written down on one or more wax tablets), although it is certainly possible that one of the scribes was in fact also the author.
    (d) Currier (rightly) put scare-quotes around “languages” because he knew that some people would inevitably misinterpret what he meant – which was that even though the base statistics of what we see remains largely constant throughout the Voynich Manuscript’s pages, the precise manner in which the text is written changes throughout it. So: to be clear, when I use the word (Currier) “languages” in this context, it has nothing to do with linguistics and everything to do with statistics, which is exactly how Currier intended it.

  8. Nick,
    I keep wondering – because I haven’t the skills to do more than wonder – if the script doesn’t look like a ‘normal’ Latin hand, or even quite like a normal humanist hand – because it isn’t.

    But I wait to see that clip from the Basle manuscript and what you have to say about it.

    I thought the “michiton” was pretty close in the Caius and Gonville manuscript, but as usual no-one said a word about it.

  9. bdid1dr on August 27, 2016 at 4:28 pm said:

    It is a Latin (Spanish) dialogue which is being translated into Nahuatl — throughout the entire “Voynich” codex. Because the manuscript ended up as spoils of war in the Ottoman court for awhile, and was subsequently rescued from that court by Ambassador Busbecq (along with about two hundred other scrolled/rolled up manuscripts) which he delivered to the Austrian court — which in turn sent them to Rudolph II (including a menagerie of African animals and superb Ararabian horses.

    How’s that Nick: Two sentences maketh a paragraph. ? At least two of the Colegio’s students went on to write their own books on botany (edible vegetation) and benign or poisonous medicinal plants.

    William Gates (writer) published “An Aztec Herbal –The Classic Codex of 1552″. His copyright page cites:
    Introduction copyright 2000 Bruce Byland
    Copyright 1939 by The Maya Society

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in -Publication Data: which mentions Martin de la Cruz, Juan Badiano, Maya Society, and Jacobo de Grado”The Libellus”, Fray Sahagun, Hapsburg King Carlos V, Felipe II, Diego de Corte y Sanabria, Felipe IV, Cardinal Francesco Barbarini —the list goes on for several generations and leads up to the revival of the “Maya Society”…….

    Quite a bit of ‘food for thought’ — some might call it enlightenment — I call it the “First step in TRANSLATING B-408 (Boenicke Library) Yale’s attempts to DECODE the so-called “Voynich”. (Although the very first specimen portrayed and identified, got the root systems of two entirely different ‘succulent’ plants confused.
    It was the root of the yucca plant which was ground up and used as soap. The plant’s thick leaves were used to medicate/sooth sunburn, cooking burns…..

    Gates’ “An Aztec Herbal – The Classic Codex of 1552 ” is a great introduction to the contents of B-408 — AND — The Florentine Manuscript.


  10. bdid1dr on September 1, 2016 at 7:28 am said:

    Fray Sahagun’s first attempt at teaching was a black & white illustration which shows two men “potting on” some immature garden plants (one of the men is wearing monk’s apparel. Captioning for the sketch was in Latin/Nahuatl:

    “First dig a hole ( cavitl) “

  11. bdid1dr on September 5, 2016 at 3:13 pm said:

    ps: The ‘slice’ of handwriting you display on this page is discussing oil producing plants or salves (vegetable oil, such as palm nut oil, coconut oil, canola oil, or yucca/agave leaf jells.
    Much of what Fray Sahagun discusses in his ‘diary/notebook is a result of the many interviews he had with village elders and/or his students’ relatives.
    You may want to take a look at the dual-language “Psalmodia” which Sahagun and his student/scribes wrote. Slightly more formal format for prayer services. Still a very good source for translating ‘the rest of the story’ .

  12. ps: the alphabetical letter ‘t’ or any word ending in ‘ty’ would have been written by the Nahuatl scribes, working with Fray Sahagun, as ‘tl” .

  13. In other words: PSa ll m o tl a


  14. bdid1dr on September 7, 2016 at 4:04 pm said:

    Furthermore: I refer you to an abstract from the Journal of the American Musicological Society:

    Bernardino de Sahagun’s Psalmodia Christiana:
    A Catholic Songbook from Sixteenth-Century New Spain
    Lorenzo Candelaria
    Vol. 67 No. 3, Fall 2014

  15. bdid1dr on September 7, 2016 at 4:13 pm said:

    Correction: words such as the word “word” would appear as ou-r-tl .


  16. bdid1dr on September 7, 2016 at 4:20 pm said:

    ou-ll eu tlake my ourtl for itl ?


  17. The phrase that ‘everyone’ keeps focusing on (herein) : Was written by Ambassador Busbecque; and has nothing to do with the contents of B-408 (the so-called “Voynich” manuscript).
    Busbecque had accepted some 200 manuscripts from Suleiman’s archives.

    About the same time that Busbecque was visiting Suleiman’s court, a young European artist was painting city scenes and market scenes — but NO portraits.

    I’m wondering if the young artist ‘hitched a ride’ with Ambassador Busbecque and the horses and menagerie which Busbecque brought to the Austrian Court. Not long after Rudolph’s Austrian ‘cousin’ had the scrolls and menagerie delivered to Rudolph, Rudolph’s brother had him incarcerated in his ‘other’ palace.
    Not long after Rudolph’s being ‘jailed’ — so to speak– the “Hundred Years War” pretty much destroyed some hundreds years of European history . Some of Suleiman’s history also was diverted to warfare ‘history’.

    Not quite a ‘nutshell-history’ ; but I hope I am making some sense to some of Nick’s many correspondents. Please note that there was considerable marine warfare during HRE Charles V ‘ s reign.

  18. ps in re handwriting styles: As a result of being taught to write with my left hand (my sister was left-handed), there was a definite ‘slope’ — besides the occasional smear of whatever I was writing. Perhaps someone may find the same ‘goofy’ script in the so-called “Voynich” manuscript ?

  19. bdid1dr: you can tell from the angle of the quill’s nub and the strength of the downstroke that the Voynich Manuscript was written by a right-hander.

    Not that this ever stopped Leonardo-wrote-it theorists from claiming otherwise, of course.

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