I’ve had it suggested that to entertain a popular audience, a Voynich Manuscript documentary should showcase a live reenactment of its naked ladies bathing in green muddy slime. In this film-making scenario, the cameras could linger longingly on their most interesting period features, which (I can only presume) means their hair and makeup. Doubtless it would look great in HD, etc. But where does this mad desire to be so gratuitously populist come from? “Voynich” already gets over 600,000 hits on Google – not as many as Justin Bieber, sure, but it does have far more hair styles to choose from. 🙂

[As an historical aside, the apparent presence of medicinal baths in the manuscript arguably gives it a terminus ante quo of around 1500, because that is when people began to blame those same baths for contemporary ills such as syphilis. Just so you know!]

Personally, I suspect that – for the most part – naked women are used in the Voynich as some kind of cryptographic / steganographic ruse to get people’s decrypting brains either to shut down completely or to open up too far to be useful: a systematic misdirection trick, drawing your attention away from where the real information is held on the page. But that’s another story for another day…

Anyway, a Voynich paper is currently being prepared by Lincoln Taiz and Saundra Lee Taiz: this revolves around the idea that (what they call) the “dominant” presence of the green pools with the water-section nymphs indicates that Quire 13 should receive, like the early herbal sections, a botanical interpretation. Specifically, they suggest that this section of the VMs might be based around various questions posed by Nicolaus of Damascus (who lived 2000 years ago) in his book De Plantis, and that its green paint leitmotif simply represents chlorophyll… and so on.

As with all Voynich theories, they might conceivably be right … but if they are, I suspect it will turn out be for quite the wrong reasons. You see, if you go to the trouble of reconstructing parts of the folio order for Quire 13 (and, generally, try to untangle the Voynich Manuscript’s codicological skein), you discover a number of curious things:-

  • The quire numbers were added after being misbound
  • The original quires almost certainly had no quire numbers
  • Quire 13 was originally painted in a (now faded and patchy) blue colour
  • The green paint was added much later, right on top of the blue paint

As direct visual evidence, I’m completely certain that the two pages (f78v and f81r) below originally sat right next to each other in the alpha state of the manuscript – there are numerous symmetries to be seen in the layout, design, shape. Yet on the left page, you can see where the (original) blue paint was added, while the right page has the same blue paint but is also overpainted with heavy green paint. I’m (furthermore) quite sure that the green paint was added after the quire numbers were added, and so were almost certainly not added by the original author (and, I’d add, probably not even in the same century as him or her).

Voynich Manuscript, f84v placed next to f78r

I also – along with Glen Claston – suspect that Quire 13 was constructed in two separate phases (GC calls these “Q13b” and “Q13a”), and that the balneology-themed part (Q13b) probably came first, with the trickier (and more conceptual?) water-themed part (Q13a) later. Overall I don’t see any botanical theme at all in either section, and so can only read the Taiz’s hypothesis as a plausible (but almost certainly wrong) guess based on a single visual element – a layer of green paint that was absent from the manuscript’s original state.

To paraphrase Rene Zandbergen slightly, success in Voynich research comes not from guessing well but from consistently avoiding bad mistakes. Sorry, but it seems very much to me as though this particular thesis is not destined for success. 🙁

It’s time for a new Voynich research direction!

Thanks to Benedek Lang’s “Unlocked Books”, I’m starting to realise that I’ve perhaps spent too long thinking solely about codicology of the single text, when what is often as important is the ‘codicological context’ – i.e. the collection of other (but presumably conceptually related in some way) texts that were bound alongside by the owners and users of the text. Just because the Voynich Manuscript has come to us without any such informative context doesn’t automatically mean it would have been “so ronery” in its very early life too.

So… given that the Voynich Manuscript is (quite probably) a 15th century herbal / astronomical / astrological / recipe manuscript with both Occitan marginalia [the zodiac months] and possibly Occitan marginalia [f17r, f66r, f116v] in another hand, I suspect that the place to hunt for external codicological clues would surely be late medieval / early modern Occitan Provençal herbals and recipe books, for the simple reason that of all the documents we could think of, these are surely most likely to have shared one or more owners with the VMs, right?

And so I would like to thank Professoressa Maria Sofia Corradini at the University of Pisa for putting such a terrific amount of effort into collecting, editing and publishing a whole set of late medieval Occitan / Provençal herbals and recipe books back in 2004: here are the online versions of her edited texts (click on the headings below “Letteratura medico-farmaceutica” on the left to get started). The works she lists are:-

  • The Princeton Ricettario
    • Ms.: Princeton, Garrett 80, ff. 1r-9v;14r-18r; 21v-23v; 31v-36r.
  • The Auch Ricettari
    • Ms.: Auch, Archives départementales du Gers I 4066, ff. 15r-19v; ff. 71r-79v.
  • The Chantilly Ricettari
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 33r-37v; f. 53r; ff. 59v-62r; f. 71v.
  • Las vertutz de las herbas
    • Ms.: Princeton, Garrett 80, ff. 15v-21v.
    • Ms.: Auch, Archives départementales du Gers I 4066, ff. 2r-14v.
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 46r-52v.   [in verse]
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 53v-59v.  [in prose]
  • Letter from Hippocrates to Caesar
    • Ms.: Princeton, Garrett 80, ff. 9v-14r (seconda parte); ff. 23v-31v (prima parte).
    • Ms.: Auch, Archives départementales du Gers I 4066, ff. 67r-68v; 72v-73r; 77r-v;69r-71r.
  • The Thesaur de pauvres
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 1r-22r.
  • Appendix to the Thesaur de pauvres
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 26v-33r.
  • Rimedi per le febbri 
    • Ms.: Chantilly, Musée Condé 330, ff. 22v-26v.

Which is to say that while there are only three actual Occitan sources (Princeton, Auch, and Chantilly), each one comprises multiple documents, which presumably were copied from various sources (possibly overlapping, but let’s not get hung up on stemmatics here). In her preface, Prof.ssa Corradini notes the link between the medical schools around Montpellier and Toulouse and vernacular copies of texts, a local tradition to which these three books of Occitan would seem to attest.

Unfortunately, if you’re hoping at this point I’m going to include images or even some more detailed bibliographic information for these three items, you are sadly out of luck. I couldn’t find MS 330 at the Musée de Condé; the archive at Auch seems to have no online access at all; and the arcane front-end to Princeton’s legacy manuscript database quite defeated my search for MS Garrett 80. Perhaps someone else will do better in finding any of these?

Incidentally, the only secondary literature Prof.ssa Corradini mentions is a 1956 book by Clovis Brunel called “Recettes médicales alchimiques et astrologiques du XVe siècle en langue vulgaire des Pyrénées [beginning “Aysso es lo libre que fec lo mege Arcemis”]. Publiées [from the manuscript I 4066 of the Archives départementales du Gers]” according to the British Library, which has a copy (thank heavens), shelfmark 12238.ee.4/30.

Meanwhile, according to this page of links to related researchers, 54 years later “I[laria] Zamuner (Univ. di Chieti) is cataloguing all scientific texts in medieval Occitan, a task that will bring the work of Cl[ovis] Brunel up to date“. Central to this study is the Provençal vernacular version of the Secretum Secretorum, the one mentioned by Benedek Lang  (p.61) which helped set this whole train of thought in motion for me. But apparently J. Rodríguez Guerrero is also looking at some unpublished Occitania-area alchemical manuscripts from this period, which might also be very interesting; and there’s possibly more from Professor Peter Ricketts, too.

Might there be some kind of Occitan repository for scans of these documents, as part of the RIALTO project or something? I’ll ask around, but it may take some time to determine… please let me know or leave a comment here if you happen to find out! 🙂

Blogger of the visually bizarre BibliOdyssey has a number of nice online herbal scans you might well enjoy: each page has a brief description of the related manuscript and links to other places you can read more about the subject, while each picture links to its own Flickr page (which is handy).

  • Arzneipflanzenbuch‘ [BSB Cod.icon. 26], Augsburg circa 1525. Herbal with lots of eccentric roots (sounds familiar, eh)
  • Hieronymous Braunschweig’s Distillerbuch, Strasburg circa 1500. Distillation manual, with plenty of alchemy, chemistry, botany, medicinal tips, etc.
  • Rembert Dodoens’ Cruydeboek, Belgium 1554. Hugely popular herbal built on Leonhard Fuchs’ equally famous herbal (but with many additions).
  • Tacuinum Sanitatis, 15th century copy owned by the Bibliotheque Rouen. An extremely nice-looking herbal book of medicine with herbal bits, exactly the kind of high quality artefact the Voynich Manuscript plainly isn’t.

For the recent Hungarian Voynich summer camp, I offered to do a couple of IM sessions over Skype, both of which seemed to go down very well. I thought many Cipher Mysteries readers might enjoy going over the transcript, so here it is (lightly edited for house style, as usual, and with after-the-event section dividers to make it not quite so unwieldy). I’ll be posting the Sagittarius spreadsheet mentioned here to the the blog very shortly, have no fear! 🙂

Note: Skype IM session on 27/08/2009
vc = “voynich camp”
NP = “Nick Pelling”

o. Introduction

[19:01:42] vc: Thank you very much for the possibility.
[19:01:57] NP: No problem – may I ask who is there this evening?
[19:02:41] vc: We are currently five pople but we are six and tomorrow we will be seven.
[19:02:50] NP: five is fine 🙂
[19:03:11] NP: Do you have names, or are you Devo?
[19:03:19] vc: Two linguists, and 3 geekz.
[19:03:46] NP: I’m not sure who would win the fight. Best to work together.
[19:03:57] vc: Zsolt, Ancsi, Norbi, Miklos, Anna, Andris.
[19:04:13] NP: OK, got it. Where shall I begin?

1. Page Reference Discussion

[19:04:49] vc: can you speak about your own theory about the seem to be page links?
[19:05:29] NP: OK – the apparent page references
[19:08:00] NP: Large medieval documents were bound into quires, and the quires were numbered
[19:08:16] NP: But for centuries, people used letters rather than numbers
[19:08:21] NP: a b c d e etc
[19:08:46] NP: folio numbers were then given in roman numerals for that quire
[19:08:50] NP: i ii iii iv v etc
[19:09:11] NP: The side of the page was also given, with r for recto, v for verso
[19:09:57] NP: So, for centuries people referred to page numbers pimarily in tiny little letter patterns of the form: air, aiv, aiir, aiiv, aiiir, aiiiv
[19:10:38] NP: Few people nowadays (apart from codicologists) bear this in mind, but this was the primary way in which books were structured circa 1400
[19:11:22] NP: So, if we were to look at the VMs through the eyes of someone living 500 years ago, the aiiv / aiir patterns would immediately jump out a t them as being page references.
[19:12:05] NP: Specifically, page references to the first bound quire of a book (for there is no bir biv biir biiv pattern in the VMs)
[19:12:30] NP: So, you might say, what if these are indeed page references to the first quire?
[19:13:09] NP: Well… if they are page references, they’re quite strange ones: references to recto (r) pages would then be vastly outnumbered by references to verso (v) pages
[19:13:51] NP: Ultimately, it comes down to a paradox of vision – we’re presented with something that *looks* like page numbers, but which does not have the statistical profile of page numbers. How can that be?
[19:14:26] vc: We are listening, go on
[19:14:36] NP: Once you start saying “well, these are only designed to resemble page numbers”, then you’re into the realms of cryptography and steganography
[19:15:36] NP: I think that the presence of these non-page-number page numbers is a persuasive reason to look for cryptographic solutions in preference to linguistic solutions
[19:15:43] NP: But then…
[19:16:13] NP: You have to ask the question, what are these non-page-number page numbers actually doing? What is their function?
[19:16:43] NP: When I went to the Beinecke in May 2006, I spent an hour looking at a single page of the VMs trying to work it out.
[19:16:58] NP: f38v
[19:17:32] NP: I had borrowed a magnifying glass from the front desk and went over every aiiv-style pattern on the page, over and over again, looking for a clue
[19:17:46] NP: And then I noticed it, one tiny piece at a time
[19:18:15] NP: And in the two years since, I’ve fleshed it out into a complete story of how they came about, and why they have the shape they do.
[19:19:20] NP: In the first phase, the author wrote a simple “v” shape and added a carefully placed dot above the row of i’s. This indicated one of the Arabic numerals 1-9 (I think)
[19:19:55] NP: However, after that early Herbal A phase, the author revisited it and thought it was too obvious, and so added scribal flourishes.
[19:20:20] NP: These loops start from the dot, go up and around, and rejoin the unflourished “v” shape at the top right
[19:20:54] NP: In the Currier B phase, the author used a completely different way of enciphering numbers (but using the same aiiiv family pattern)
[19:21:13] vc: Yes, we can see it in Psp
[19:21:26] NP: So, you can see the layers of development of the cipher over time. Voynichese wasn’t a static system, it was an evolving system
[19:22:13] NP: The problem with using statistical tools on Voynichese is that the system moves over time, which is why it is important to apply tests to each phase in turn
[19:22:21] vc: That’s why you are so eager about to reconstruct the original binding order…….
[19:22:32] NP: That’s one of the reasons, yes
[19:23:02] NP: Mainly it comes back to the evolution of the cipher, though. By tracking the evolution, we can perhaps find a way into it
[19:23:08] vc: because the question arises – why one can observe this on 38 v first?
[19:23:37] NP: I chose the page because it was clearly written and had plenty of aiiv patterns on to work with.
[19:23:54] NP: Some herbal pages are clear but don’t have much text
[19:24:50] NP: I suppose one of the cutting edge research things I’d like you all to come away with from this is the idea that the Voynich grew and developed
[19:25:13] vc: Is it observable on other pages? for example, on a page written by another Currier hand?
[19:25:14] NP: It was not a “fait accompli”, a huge static thing.
[19:25:24] NP: Only on Currier A pages
[19:25:31] NP: Hand 1 pages
[19:25:40] vc: Hmmm…
[19:25:58] NP: On Hand 2 pages, the “v” flourish is written in one go, but takes a number of shapes
[19:26:11] NP: I think that the Arabic numeral is enciphered using those shapes
[19:26:17] NP: Look for yourself
[19:26:41] NP: I should say: “the v and the scribal flourish are written together in one go”

2. The vertical column on f49v

[19:27:15] vc: Speakin’ bout arabic numerals, have you checked with your own eyes on the real thing F49v?
[19:27:20] NP: yes
[19:27:27] NP: not original
[19:27:31] vc: There are arabic numbers on the left margin.
[19:27:40] NP: Yes, 16th century Arabic numerals
[19:27:52] NP: Yet the quire numbers have 15th century Arabic numerals
[19:28:09] vc: It seems on the reproductions that they are about the same color and style as the Voynichese letters nearby
[19:28:10] NP: Doesn’t add up, unless the f49v letters were added later
[19:28:19] NP: They’re pretty close, but they’re not the same
[19:28:28] vc: 🙁
[19:28:44] NP: It fooled Brumbaugh – he erected a huge theory on that alone
[19:28:54] vc: Next Q from us:
[19:29:22] vc: Then how would you interpret these single character lists on the left of some pages?
[19:29:56] NP: (1) Page titles
[19:30:00] NP: (2) cipher keys
[19:30:02] NP: (3) both
[19:30:05] NP: (4) neither
[19:30:07] NP: 🙂
[19:30:10] vc: XD
[19:30:46] vc: …So you were able to turn the original pages with your bare hands?
[19:30:49] NP: Oh yes
[19:30:52] vc: Jeez…
[19:31:00] NP: They were clean
[19:31:01] NP: 🙂
[19:31:20] NP: Seriously, the Beinecke loves people to look at its books
[19:31:36] NP: But they do insist you take your tinfoil hat off at the door
[19:32:26] NP: Actually, I looked at the VMs for three whole days, which was extremely generous of them, and that was much appreciated

3. Steganography or cryptography?

[19:32:20] vc: Right. So: (we haven’t read your book…yet) Steganography or cryptography?
[19:32:30] NP: Both
[19:32:55] NP: It is a cipher that has been disguised as a language
[19:34:05] NP: One of the back-end ciphers (the verbose ciphers I blogged about earlier today) turns a dense, information-rich series of tokens and turns it into an information-sparse language-like entity
[19:34:21] NP: XYZ –> BABEBI
[19:34:33] NP: is a trivial example
[19:34:57] NP: where X –> BA, Y –> BE, Z –> BI
[19:35:38] vc: Right -we have just thinking about the same conception.
[19:35:44] NP: This gives the apparent CVCVCV behaviour that makes the VMs seem so language-like
[19:35:56] vc: Just to reveal some of our works —
[19:36:03] NP: ok…
[19:36:14] NP: http://ciphermysteries.com/2009/08/27/voynich-cipher-structure
[19:37:36] NP: And here’s a test I did in 2003, so I’m pretty consistent: http://voynichcentral.com/users/nickpelling/pairs.gif
[19:37:45] vc: We will definitely read your article later…
[19:38:41] NP: And here’s the article I couldn’t find earlier: http://ciphermysteries.com/2009/06/06/the-voynich-cipher-for-code-breakers
[19:41:27] vc: Ok, we have just made a quick look on them for some of us have’nt seen these before.
[19:41:49] NP: There’s lots of good stuff on my blog. Lots!
[19:42:06] vc: The author knows 🙂
[19:42:25] NP: I wouldn’t post it if it wasn’t good. 😉
[19:42:42] NP: You should see the stuff I don’t post! ;-o
[19:42:57] vc: We downloaded your whole blog and copied it to identical CD’s

4. Occitan sources?

[19:43:17] vc: Ok. Next q:
[19:43:36] vc: About the Occitan language.
[19:44:06] vc: Where does the info on the month names come from?
[19:44:30] NP: Jorge Stolfi asked a load of Occitan researchers back in 1997
[19:44:46] NP: There’s a page on it, it’s certainly in the 1997 vms-list archive
[19:45:29] NP: Here’s this week’s post on it: http://ciphermysteries.com/2009/08/22/jaume-deydiers-livre-de-raison
[19:45:36] vc: hmm…
[19:45:53] NP: Basically, the closest match was with Toulon Occitan
[19:46:05] NP: But with a bit of German thrown in (for “augst”)
[19:46:26] vc: (also: “may”)
[19:46:36] NP: But is it maij or may?
[19:47:41] NP: However, it’s very likely that the Toulon Occitan was merely one person (Jaume Deydier) so it’s a bit of a small sample to be doing inferences from
[19:48:17] NP: Unless anyone knows better, there aren’t that many written examples of pre-1600 Occitan to be found anywhere
[19:48:34] NP: And spelling was a bit of a fluid thing back then, too
[19:48:58] vc: yes, our lingusist here told us 🙂
[19:49:03] NP: I’ve just read a book on artisan autobiographies, and many artisans deliberately spelt things how they sounded
[19:49:22] NP: a kind of anti-academic independent spirit

5. Voynich Marginalia questions

[19:50:27] vc: Do you think that the marginalia and other features written with latin alphabet originate from more than one person?
[19:50:40] NP: Yes, but perhaps not in the way that you might think
[19:50:51] vc: ?
[19:51:03] NP: The problem with the marginalia is that they have Voynichese embedded in them
[19:51:18] vc: This is not a problem. 🙂
[19:51:36] NP: Well.. you’ll see why it might be…
[19:51:48] NP: If you look at f17r under an ultraviolet black lamp, there’s a piece of Voynichese tacked on the end
[19:52:04] NP: it reads: oteeeolair
[19:52:28] NP: Rene Zandbergen independently observed it earlier this year, so I didn’t just imagine it
[19:52:30] NP: 🙂
[19:52:48] vc: Do one usually have a portable ultraviolet black lamp when you go to the Beinecke? 🙂
[19:53:00] NP: Luckily they have one behind the desk you can borrow
[19:53:06] NP: I left mine in the car
[19:53:07] NP: 🙂
[19:53:36] NP: Similarly, there’s Voynichese embedded in the f116v marginalia
[19:53:48] vc: But that can be seen.
[19:54:02] vc: It would be really nice if they could be used as cribs
[19:54:23] NP: That’s what Newbold thought…
[19:54:37] NP: But why can’t we read the marginalia on f116v?
[19:54:47] vc: Yes… Why?
[19:55:10] NP: I think the answer is that successive owners have emended (altered incorrectly) the text, trying to rescue fading words
[19:55:52] NP: And so f17r, f66r, and f116v have all been rescued but worsened
[19:56:44] NP: Unfortunately, the Beinecke’s scans aren’t good enough for us to be able to do forensic uber-restoration on these
[19:56:56] NP: I’ve tried, though, believe me I’ve tried
[19:57:25] vc: We have consulted with a hungarian medieval scholer who suggested that text on the 116v is actually a prayer or something like that in the realm of magic
[19:57:31] vc: a rune
[19:57:38] NP: Well, a prayer is close
[19:57:46] NP: ahia maria
[19:57:51] NP: + + +
[19:57:57] vc: the characters like + as separators justifiy this theory.
[19:58:00] NP: yes
[19:58:35] NP: However, if you look at the “rescued” letters at the beginning of the same line, you can see the contrast with the faded “ahia maria” letters
[19:58:57] vc: He said that this is usual at medieval spells. At these places one might draw a cross in the air. how is it said in english?
[19:59:20] NP: the same, probably “trace a cross shape in the air”
[19:59:33] NP: “trace out a cross shape in the air” probably better
[19:59:49] vc: As Catholics still do
[20:00:16] NP: It could be a prayer, or a curse, or a spell (protection?) or anything
[20:00:52] NP: Remember that the boundaires between magic and liturgy in the 15th century was painfully thin – both were usually carried out by broadly the same people.
[20:01:17] NP: See Richard Kieckhefer’s book “Forbidden Rites”, recommended
[20:01:19] vc: (What is lighter than a witch? A stone perhaps? Or a duck?)
[20:02:00] NP: I’m getting that sinking feeling
[20:02:47] NP: necromancy, charm, spell, prayer – pretty fluid lines between them all
[20:02:58] vc: Whatever the main language of the spell, the last words seem to be in german. What is your opinion about this?
[20:03:31] NP: I think that this was probably added by the first obsessive Voynichologist (who just happened to be German)
[20:03:34] vc: (The duck comes from Monthy Python and the holy Grail…)
[20:03:39] NP: Georg Baresch
[20:03:44] NP: 🙂
[20:04:17] NP: I think it was probably Baresch who is responsible for most of the attempted rescuing of the marginalia
[20:04:32] vc: So you are saying that this last page is from at least 2 or 3 hands?
[20:04:39] NP: But it was Baresch who ensured that it got passed down to us, so we should be grateful to him
[20:05:03] NP: Yes, but on top of each other rather than side by side
[20:05:20] NP: Blow the page up and look again at the varying density of the ink and quills
[20:05:33] vc: We will certainly do that.
[20:06:34] NP: Also, put the various marginalia side by side to scale (all blown up), it’s an interesting viewpoint
[20:06:53] NP: Print them out at A1 scale – huge!

6. About the Hungarians…

[20:06:59] vc: We still have a lot of questions… do you still have some time?
[20:07:14] NP: I have about half an hour now
[20:07:50] vc: Great.
[20:07:51] NP: but I’d like to rest my fingers for five minutes – so, please, tell me what you each think of the VMs (one sentence each, please!)
[20:09:22] vc: (Miklos): Hi. I personally think that this is a kind of constructed language or maybe a written glossolalia.
[20:10:04] NP: it’s still 100x more rational than believing the moon landings were faked 🙂
[20:10:26] NP: even if it is wrong. 🙂
[20:12:57] vc: We are by the way started our searches on a few different pathes. One group is investigating the mythological context of the drawings with girls (if there’s any). The geekz are rather trying to draw some consequences using the digram and trigram entropies, and comparing our results with various 17th century documents, on different languages (and even as exotiic stuffs as Tamil and Hebrew)
[20:13:29] vc: On the other hand
[20:14:23] vc: we’d like to produce some “grammar” here, as well, so, we decided (similarly as Stolfi did it once) to look at the distributions of different words.
[20:14:26] NP: http://ciphermysteries.com/2009/06/18/q13-and-voynich-balneology-sources
[20:14:58] vc: If we concider the first words in the herbal the names of the plants, than maybe that could bring us somewhere.
[20:15:22] NP: There have been many grammars proposed over the years – though I would strongly caution you to treat Currier A and Currier B separately, as the language changed along the way
[20:15:56] vc: Also, we are comparing the Hungarian flora with the drawings, and meanwhile with other old herbals (e. g. ashmole codex). We also about to address a hungarian herbelist in this topic.
[20:16:22] vc: Sure, we’d like to treat the two couriers differently.
[20:16:29] NP: Have you seen the “De Aqua” Voynich theory that was posted to YouTube last month? Its German author has invested a lot of time trying to identify the plants depicted. http://ciphermysteries.com/2009/08/24/de-aqua-voynich-theory-on-youtube
[20:16:48] NP: Erm, don’t shoot the Currier 😉
[20:16:49] vc: Not yet, but we are most curious about it
[20:17:20] NP: If you can read German quickly, there’s plenty of interesting stuff (but a lot of filler too)

7. The f1r paragraph “titles”…

[20:18:13] vc: You can see on f1r that the text is separated to 3 paragraphs.
[20:18:54] vc: Each paragraph ends with some words flushed right.
[20:19:06] NP: Yes… and let’s not forget what John Grove called “titles”, short pieces of text appended to the bottom right of the paragraphs
[20:19:14] vc: is it possible that these are quotations?
[20:19:20] NP: could be anything, who knows?
[20:19:43] NP: As an aside, I should say that the word “possible” sets my teeth on edge
[20:19:50] vc: quotations and the name of the persons who said them
[20:19:58] NP: Probably not
[20:20:28] vc: Not matches with the age?
[20:20:28] NP: My prediction is that they are section titles
[20:21:09] NP: book 1 – agriculture
book 2 – astronomy
book 3 – water
[20:21:10] NP: etc
[20:21:24] vc: hmmmmm
[20:21:43] NP: I would also predict that they relate to the first phase of the VMs’ production
[20:22:20] NP: because the final object has many more sections
[20:22:27] NP: they’re also in A, not B
[20:22:44] NP: but you don’t have to believe me
[20:23:13] NP: I don’t have a gun to your heads
[20:23:28] NP: 🙂

8. Plaintezt language?

[20:23:29] vc: Personally what do you think abozt the plaintext language and the plaintext alphabet length?
[20:23:48] NP: Plaintext language: Italian.
[20:24:05] NP: Maybe German, but if pressed I’ll stick to Italian
[20:24:24] NP: Plaintext alphabet length: just normal, nothing fancy
[20:24:41] NP: I do, however, think that there is something quite special about the enciphering
[20:24:54] vc: namely?
[20:25:21] NP: I think that it was enciphered on wax tablets using a combination of shorthand (to compress it) and verbose cipher (to expand it), such that the overall size of the text matched the original

9. Copy or original?

[20:26:11] NP: I think that there is evidence that the original layout and manuscript features were duplicated, even though the text was enciphered – and so I think that each line of ciphertext corresponds to a line of plaintext
[20:26:23] NP: key evidence for this:-
[20:27:13] NP: (1) the fake vellum hole on f34r – this is a hole that was made in the vellum to copy a a hole that was present in the original copy
[20:27:58] vc: (VBI index of this very feature of your theory?)
[20:28:01] NP: (finding a page number for you…)
[20:28:09] vc: Sorry, could’n miss that one
[20:28:51] NP: (2) f112 has a space on the right hand side. I think that this was a vellum flaw in the original, which was faithfully copied as part of the enciphering
[20:29:35] NP: 10000 VBI points! Ding ding ding!
[20:30:12] NP: Look up close at the hole on f34 – it was rubbed through the vellum, but why?
[20:30:53] NP: Sergio Toresella suggested that the author rubbed through the vellum in some kind of sexual frenzy, but I think he may just have got that wrong
[20:30:55] NP: :O
[20:31:31] vc: VBI index of THIS one is not small.
[20:31:38] NP: Plenty of people have proposed that the VMs is some kind of copy – I just added in some other evidence to say what kind of a copy
[20:31:57] vc: Yes, We have the same opinion.
[20:32:15] vc: It can’t be done in one iteration.
[20:32:28] NP: Essentially, that it’s an enciphered copy but one retaining many aspects of the original layout
[20:33:12] NP: There are also a number of places (particularly in Q13 and the pharma section) where you can see two layers…
[20:33:36] vc: Checkin’…
[20:34:38] NP: f77v (the house at the top)
[20:34:57] NP: f79v (the woman in the pool)
[20:36:39] NP: f88v or the page next to it (curious two-layered spherical jar)
[20:37:13] NP: Sagittarius page – the top left nymph and her odd barrel
[20:37:22] vc: So how these two layers point to the original layout?
[20:37:33] NP: I also think f57v was written in two or more passes
[20:37:50] NP: It’s hard to tell what to think
[20:38:26] NP: What I *suspect* is that there is an odd game of expressing and hiding going on here
[20:39:06] NP: I don’t honestly think that most of the water nymphs have any function apart from distracting your eye from what is really going on on the page
[20:39:22] vc: Mhm

10. The Sagittarius spreadsheet…

[20:39:30] NP: The zodiac nymphs’ poses probably do encode some kind of information, though
[20:40:06] NP: I’m sure a page full of naked women was probably even more distracting to the eye 500 years ago
[20:40:23] NP: talking of which…
[20:40:31] NP: I have a spreadsheet you might like to see
[20:40:41] vc: Sure
[20:40:50] NP: It’s taken from the Sagittarius page of a 14th century manuscript
[20:41:15] NP: and it might just contain basically the same data that is enciphered on the VMs’ sagittarius page
[20:41:42] NP: would you all like to have a look?
[20:41:53] vc: YES
[20:42:06] vc: Take a Y! an E! an S!
[20:42:25] NP: I heard you the first time. 😉
[20:43:27] NP: I should mention that what you have here is an annotated version of a scan of a photocopy of an old b&w photograph that is copyrighted by the Warburg Institute
[20:43:57] NP: I added in the red lines to try to reconstruct the table.
[20:44:24] NP: Which means “please don’t post this on the internet or I’ll get busted”
[20:44:21] vc: Ok, we are seeing the reference. Now what?
[20:44:33] NP: Now, here’s the clever bit
[20:45:00] NP: What the table is encoding is an astrological table per degree.
[20:45:00] vc: ok… won’t post
[20:45:45] NP: That is, each of the 30 degrees has a specific planet, fortune, gender, unlucky day assigned to it
[20:45:58] vc: aham
[20:46:32] vc: so if i transform it into circles, I basically get something very similar semantically to the VMS astro circles?
[20:46:48] NP: Theoretically – the tricky bit is working out how that mapping works
[20:47:32] NP: What it needs is a bunch of clever people looking at it and throwing around ideas for a couple of days
[20:47:49] NP: Which I why I thought of you lot 🙂
[20:48:25] vc: I think we are getting your suggestion. 🙂
[20:48:58] vc: Psp: rectangular to polar
[20:49:20] vc: my very first idea
[20:49:21] NP: The other tables didn’t align half as well as Sagittarius, so it would introduce too much uncertainty into the range of maps to choose from
[20:49:24] vc: of course it’s just me
[20:49:33] vc: Ok, ok
[20:49:42] NP: I think… it might not be the answer
[20:49:52] NP: …but it’s a start 🙂
[20:50:20] NP: Sagittarius is interesting because all the nymphs are facing right
[20:51:02] NP: If there is stuff being encoded in poses / clothes / accessories… look for crossed legs, outstretched arms, arm behind hip
[20:51:15] NP: head-dresses, stars
[20:52:21] NP: Incidentally, I think most of the breasts on the page were added in the second phase.
[20:53:11] NP: However… it may be that the breasts from the first phase (I can barely believe that I’m typing this as a sentence) encoded some kind of information. So you might usefully look for breasts that weren’t added later. :O
[20:53:33] vc: (VBI)
[20:53:50] NP: Bearing in mind that the author seems to have a predilection for adding dots in the first phase and hiding them later
[20:53:55] NP: VBI 100000!
[20:53:59] NP: off the scale
[20:54:12] NP: But… look at it for yourself, and make up your own mind
[20:54:29] vc: ROTF
[20:54:52] NP: At least you have something to compare with the page that nobody else (apart from me) has seen in the last 550 years
[20:55:04] NP: Real data (even if does have drawn on breasts)

11. Finishing up…

[20:55:41] NP: OK, team Voynich Budapest
[20:55:50] NP: I have to go now
[20:56:03] NP: I hope you’ve all broadened your view of the VMs
[20:56:12] NP: And not been exposed to too much VBI
[20:56:22] NP: 🙂
[20:56:23] vc: Thank You very much indeed for the most fruitful conversation.
[20:56:36] vc: Not enough i must say
[20:56:46] NP: Plan A is to return for a second session on Sunday
[20:56:55] NP: Is that correct?
[20:57:11] vc: Yes
[21:01:06] NP: Right – good luck, everyone & talk with you on Sunday!
[21:02:02] vc: Ok, all the best until then
[21:02:06] NP: byeeeeeee
[21:02:13] vc: bye 🙂

Following six years of arduous research, an unnamed 44-year-old German industrial technician has been trying (unsuccessfully) since 2005 to get his/her Voynich theory “De Aqua” published, either as a book or as an article. Frustrated by the lack of progress, last month he/she placed thirty-three sizeable chunks of it onto YouTube.

Of course, I fully understand that a busy person like you can’t really spare the time to trawl through several hours of German-text video presentation. So, to save you the bother, I’ve compiled a great big list of all highlights as seen from my chair [though here’s the final part (#33), which is a visual montage of all the interesting claims from the first 32 parts].

(1) Part #1 sets off with the basic format we’ll see throughout – endless pages of (almost entirely) German text fading in and out on a coloured background. Firstly, the top-level description of the theory gets presented: that the Voynich is actually entitled “De Aqua” (i.e. “concerning water“) and that the EVA transcription “otork” somehow translates as “aqua”. It then lists page after page of late-medieval things related to water. Part #2 asserts the author’s historical conclusions – that the VMs was written between 1525 and 1608 by four authors (in four writing systems), and that the underlying plaintext is German & Italian – before outlining the VMs’ known provenance since then.

(2) Part #3 is a bit of a scattergun attack on the 16th and early 17th centuries, with Kepler, Dee, Kelly, Paracelsus, Sir Francis Drake, Nostradamus, Isabella Cortese (who probably didn’t exist, incidentally), German mathematician Adam Ries, the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books, etc etc all name-dropped in quick succession. Part #4 (only three minutes long, most of the others are closer to ten minutes each) links the three red shapes on f1r to (a) “Astrologie / Astronomie“, (b) “Fauna / Flora“, and (c) “Medizin“. No proof, no evidence, just presented as fact.

(3) Part #5 begins a lengthy discussion of medieval herbals, concluding that f2r depicts Lactuca virosa, f3r depicts a Spanish pepper, that f4v depicts an aubergine (i.e. that the VMs must post-date 1500). Part #6 continues in the same vein, while Part #7 argues that f33v depicts maize (which is where the claimed earliest date of 1525 comes in). Part #8 is broadly similar, lots more of the same.

(4) Part #9 has some nice pictures of things resembling the jars in the pharmacological section (though I couldn’t see references or dates for these?), as well as lots of parallels for details, including a nice little dragon (was this from the same Paris manuscript Sergio Toresella once mentioned?). Part #10 has many more parallels (including the famous “armadillo” [hah!] and the Novara coat of arms, etc), as does Part #11 which again returns to the VMs’ f25v dragon.

(5) Part #12 goes off the rails a bit, with claimed resemblances to body parts; Part #13 covers menstruation and the spongum somniferum (for which Caterina Sforza included a recipe, as I recall), though I can’t make out the yellow annotations to the marginalia on f66r (2:41 into the video); while Part #14 reads f77r as depicting the four elements.

(6) Part #15 gets back on track with astronomical parallels; Part #16 looks closely at the rather strange page f67v2 and proposes that the corner shapes are actually constellations (such as Pegasus); Part #17 goes off on a fairly pointless Giordano Bruno tangent; Part #18 looks at the zodiac pages (including a little discussion on the month names); Part #19 focuses mainly on the month names such as the Leo page (because of its Germanic-looking “augst” month name), though it beats me what Al Pacino is doing in there (4:02). 😮

(7) Part #20 looks at crowns and golden fleeces; Part #21 goes back to the zodiac nymphs, looking more at the structure of the pages, before moving on to discuss the 15th century “De Sphaera” by the deaf Milanese illustrator Cristoforo de Predis, who worked for the Sforza family (ah, them again).

(8) Part #22 (are you still reading this? Just checking!) compares the drawings in Quire 13 with Roman aqueducts and similar water structures; while Part #23 looks at Leonardo da Vinci’s take on water, compares (at 1:21) a detail on f79r with a sextant (Rich SantaColoma recently blogged that the same detail reminded him of early “swimming girdles”, though I suspect neither have it right), and discusses rainbows too. Part #24 discusses water nymph details (poses, rings, cross, horseshoe, spinning top, nail, etc).

(9) Part #25 focuses (rather unsatisfactorily, it has to be said) on various tenuous links with alchemy, with the only high point being the comparison between the balneo section’s “giant grapes” page (f83v) and a page in Das Buch der waren Kunst zu distillieren (1512).

(10) Part #26 is pretty thin apart from a fascinating parallel (0:53) between a detail of f76v and a drawing of Mercurius in Liber II of Giordano Bruno’s (1591) De Imaginum Compositione; Part #27 is even thinner; while Part #28 proposes that the nine-rosette page is a map of Italy with Venice in the middle (yes, I’d say) and Pompeii in the top left (no, as it was only rediscovered in 1748). [I’m not convinced by Valdarno and the Wasserturm, either.]

(11) Part #29 (Perfume and Plague) didn’t really work for me at all; while Part #30 (Hidden Characters in the Manuscript) only briefly gets interesting when looking (1:53) at similarities between our beloved MS408 and Medeltidshandskrift 47 (at Lund University in Sweden) – the discussion of the f17r and f116v marginalia seems superficial and unconvincing to me.

(12) Finally, in Part #31, our anonymous author gets to the point of his whole book – that (unless I’ve misunderstood him/her, which is always possible) some clever computer programmer out there should be able to make use of all the clever cribs he/she has amassed as a result of his/her long journey into the heart of the VMs’ pictures. Part #32 has his/her (fairly diffuse, it has to be said) bibliography; and Part #33, as mentioned above, is a sequential montage of all the visual identifications proposed in parts 1 to 32.

Quite why neither of the German Voynich E-bloggers (hi Elmar, hi Elias) has yet blogged about this I don’t know (perhaps they’re on holiday?): but from where I’m sitting in the UK, there’s plenty to say about it.

Firstly, it is pretty clear that the author has for some years sustained an intense (and independent-minded) assault on the VMs’ pictures – yet at the same time he/she seems quite unaware of many long-running problematic debates, such as the whole “heavy painter” issue. Had the plant on f4v not been overpainted blue, would his/her identification with “aubergine” have been so clear-cut?

In addition, while it’s fantastic to see someone wise to hidden details (such as the concealed people in f86v4, even though this is mislabelled as f68v4 in Part#7), overall I just don’t accept the idea that the VMs’ plants can be identified as solidly as he/she thinks – we’ve now had three or four generations of herbal researchers look at it, with each finding it bewildering in a new way. Furthermore, comparing drawings with modern plants (or even with interpretative drawings of modern plants) is of little use, as virtually every plant you can name has been extensively adapted and altered over the centuries by, ummm, cunning breeders.

While I’m sympathetic to the author’s project and research programme (it is, after all, more or less identical in intention to what I was trying to do with my own “The Curse of the Voynich”), where it falls down is in historical methodology: in this instance, you just can’t get the level of proof you would like from visual similarities, however many of them you try to amass. Has our unnamed author provided coherent and powerful evidence supporting the identification of MS408 as “De Aqua“? I don’t really think so – plants aside, the overwhelming bulk of the discussion is fairly lightweight, and does not gain any real traction on the real history of the manuscript despite the sheer mass of intertextual references.

All the same, there’s plenty of food for thought here (though I wish many of the manuscripts where so many of the nice illustrations were taken from had MS and page references to back them up) – but for all “WilfridVoynich“‘s hard work, the end result simply fails to produce the set of cribs he/she was aiming for. Sorry, but it’s not “De Aqua” as claimed (though, to be honest, I would be hugely unsurprised if the vertical column of letters on f76r does indeed somehow encipher “de aqua”).

The end result, though, is plainly a great personal achievement – and I would be delighted if some of the intriguing and bold visual connections he/she has drawn in it ultimately lead onwards to genuinely productive and useful future research within the overall VMs community. For all its faults and limitations, this is definitely the (virtual) Voynich book of the year for 2009! 😉

One of the (frustratingly small) number of art history leads the Voynich Manuscript’s author dangles before our eyes is the balneology part of Q13 (“quire 13”). Specifically, there are two bifolios that depict baths and pools, where the pictures helpfully allow us to reconstruct what the page layout originally was:

          84r/84v – contains Q13’s quire number (which should be at the back for binding)
            78r/78v – contains left half of a two-page bath picture (should be centrefold)
            81r/81v – contains right half of a two-page bath picture (should be centrefold)

The centrefold originally looked like this (my red boxes highlight a paint transfer):-

Voynich Manuscript, page f78v placed next to f81r

This codicological nuance demonstrates that Q13’s quire number was added after the bifolios had been scrambled, because the page it was written (f84v) on was originally inside the quire, on a bifolio that ended up both flipped and in the wrong position. In “Thc Curse” (pp.62-65), I tried to follow this through to reconstruct the original page order for the whole of Q13.

Fascinatingly, Glen Claston has now raised this whole idea up to a whole different level – he proposes that Q13 was originally two separate (smaller) quires which have been subsequently merged together. According to his reading, the four folios listed above originally formed a free-standing balneological quire (which he calls “Q13b“), while the remaining bifolios form a free-standing medicinal / Galenic quire all on its own (which he calls “Q13a“).

Even though Glen and I disagree on the likely page order of Q13a (apart from the fact that the text-only f76r was very probably the first page, and hence its bifolio was the outer bifolio for the quire) and on its probable content, I have to say that I’m completely sold on his proposed Q13a / Q13b layout (basically, I wish I’d thought of it first – but I didn’t, Glen did). We also agree that because there is no indication at all that f84r was the front page of the quire, there was probably an additional (but now lost) outer bifolio to Q13b in its original state.

Glen also infers (from the apparent evolution of the language between the two parts) that Q13b was made first, with Q13a coming later. Having mulled over this for a few weeks now, I have to say I find this particularly intriguing because of what I believe is a subtle change in quality between the drawings in Q13b and Q13a that strangely parallels the change in drawings between Herbal-A pages and Herbal-B pages.

My key observation here is that whereas Q13b’s drawings appear to be straightforward representations of baths and pools, Q13a’s drawings appear to have layers of rendering and meaning beneath the representational surface: that is, while Q13b is a small treatise on baths, Q13a is a small treatise on something else, rendered in the style of a small treatise on baths. As an example, on f77v you can see something literally hiding behind the central nymph at the top – but what is it?


This closely mirrors what I see in the herbal A & B sections: while Herbal-A pages (from the earliest phase of construction) appear to be representing plants (if sometimes in an obscure way), Herbal-B pages (which were made rather later) appear to be something else entirely made to resemble a treatise on plants.

My current working hypothesis, therefore, is that the representational (if progressively more distorted) Herbal-A pages and the representational Q13b balneological section preceded both the non-representational Herbal-B pages and the non-representational Q13a pages, both of which are disguised to look like their respective predecessor, while actually containing something quite different.

(As an aside, the same kind of mechanism might be at play in the pharma section: there, too, you can see ‘jars’ that seem to be purely representational, together with other things that seem to be disguising themselves as ornate jars. Very curious!)

This has a strong parallel with the way that recent art historians (such as Valentina Vulpi) decomposes Antonio Averlino’s libro architettonico into multiple writing phases: In “The Curse” (pp.106-107), I proposed a slightly more radical version of Valentina’s thesis – that Averlino (Filarete) targeted Phase 1 at Francesco Sforza, Phase 2 at Galeazzo Maria Sforza, and Phase 3 at both Francesco Sforza & Lorenzo de’ Medici. In the case of the VMs, I suspect that some of the difficulties we face arise from broadly similar changes in need / intention / strategy over the lifetime of the construction – that is, that the style of the cipher and drawings probably evolved in response to the author’s life changes.

As far as art history goes, though, Q13b appears to give us a purely representational (if enciphered!) connection with baths and pools – places associated in the Middle Ages and Renaissance with healing. Bathhouses were usually situated in the centre of towns and were used by urban folk: while natural spas and pools were thought to have specific healing powers based on their particular mineral content, were usually in fairly inaccessible places, and tended to be frequented by the well-off at times of ill-health (for you needed resources to be able to fund a party to trek halfway up a mountain).

So… might there be an existing textual source where this (presumably secret) information on baths and spas could have come from?

The main source for medieval balneological information was Peter of Eboli’s much-copied De Balneis Puteo (which was hardly a secret): when I wrote “The Curse”, the two main Quattrocento balneological discussions I knew of were by Antonio Averlino and by the doctor Michele Savonarola. I also pointed out that that the (now misbound) Q13 centrefold (f78v and f81r) resembles “the three thermal baths at the Bagno di Romana. Of these, the ‘della Torre’ bath was used for showers, the ‘in-between bath’ was used to treat various illnesses and skin complaints; while the third one was more like a women’s spa.” (p.63)

However, I recently found a nice 1916 article online called “Balneology in the Middle Ages” by Arnold C. Klebs. Klebs notes (which I didn’t know) that the fashion for balneology died around 1500, fueled by a widespread belief that baths and spas were one of the causes of the spread of syphilis. Errrm… that would depend on what you happened to be doing in the baths (and with whom), I suppose. Here are some other fragments from the last few pages of Klebs’ article which might well open some doors:

In Giovanni de Dondis we usually hail the early apostle of exact balneology. Whatever his right to such honour may be, it must be mentioned that it rests on his attempt to extract the salts of the thermal of Abano.

Gentile da Foligno (died 1348), […] a great money-maker and promoter of the logical against the empirical method in medicine. He wrote a little treatise on the waters of Porreta, the chief interest of which may be found in the fact that it was the first to appear in print (1473).

Ugolino Caccino, of Montecatini (died 1425). He came from that thermal district not far from Florence, in the Valdinievole, which has still preserved its ancient reputation as a spa. Evidently he was a man of broad and open-minded scholarship, who in his treatise on all the Italian spas, the first thorough one of the kind, gives the results of his own personal observations, stating clearly when he is reporting from the information of others.

Matteo Bendinelli (1489) sums up for them all, in his treatise on the baths of Lucca and Corsenna,…

Michele Savonarola, representing Padua and the new school of Ferrara. To him European balneologrv owes the most ambitious work on the mineral springs of all the countries.

De Balneis omnia quae extant,” Venice, Giunta, 1553, fol., 447 leaves. This fine collection, the first text-book on balneology, offers to the interested student a mine of information.

As should be apparent from recent posts, for the last few weeks I’ve had Glen Claston bouncing a number of his Voynich ideas, observations and hypotheses off me. In many ways, he and I are like conjoined research twins – though truth be told, if I happen to say “poe-tay-toe”, he’ll go out of his way to say “tuh-may-duh“. 🙂

But now something a bit, well, unnerving has begun to happen.

I hate to say it, but… we’re actually starting to agree on lots of things. In fact, the formerly vast ocean between what we each see in the Voynich Manuscript is gradually narrowing, if not to a trickle (don’t be ridiculous, tcha!) then certainly to only a small sea. On the one hand, Glen is bringing his characteristically intense eye for detail to bear on the kind of codicology I’ve been harping on about for years: while on the other hand, I’m growing increasingly comfortable with his take on the probable content of various sections of the manuscript.

In many cases, it turns out that we’re seeing basically the same thing but from wildly different angles, and using quite different kinds of evidence and chains of reasoning. And if we perpetually feuding twins can form a broad consensus, it’s hard not to conclude that the beginning of a new period of Voynich research might well be at hand… exciting times, indeed.

One fascinating example of this is the question of what the Herbal drawings encode. In “The Curse”, I put forward a lengthy, textual argument about why I thought the Herbal-A pages were actually Antonio Averlino’s (lost) secret book of agriculture: but without any useful idea how the two were connected, it was somewhat hard to take forward. Glen, however, has been reading an entirely different literature: and sees the Herbal drawings as encoding secrets of herbiculture – that is, he believes that particular details of the drawings show where best to prune the plants in question, along with (presumably in the text) various other tricks to grow them most effectively.

Are these two readings so very far apart? Personally, I think not: and believe they will turn out to be two very different sides of the same thing – as always, individual details may well turn out to be wrong (history is like that, basically), but the overall sense of ineluctable convergence I get from all this is hugely powerful.

For further reading, I’ve added a page to the site which discusses secret books of agriculture in the fifteenth century (mainly culled from fleeting references in Lynn Thorndike’s many books). Averlino’s book is perhaps the most notorious, but there are a few others too… Enjoy! 🙂

Another day, another provocative (but good) question from my fellow contrarian Glen Claston (we’re both part of the Contraria diaspora):-

So Nick, since you’re one of those who think that the book was dropped and put back together haphazardly, you’d be the one to ask for evidence that the various quires you think are misordered are actually misordered.

[…] What about the first three quires? What do we consider physical evidence, and if a page is thought to be moved, what is the timeline evidence for that?

Now, being “moved” or “out of order” are subjective assignments, I realize. I prefer to look not for what might be supposed as the original collation, since we don’t really have much physical evidence on that, and it’s hard sometimes to tell what happened between one binding and another. “Order of construction” is a topic that most observations fit into, so perhaps that’s what I’m looking for here.

Given that we now have plenty of solid evidence elsewhere in the Voynich Manuscript of bifolios that are reversed, misbound, and rebound, I think we should start from a position of uncertainty – that is, rather than assuming that the current page order is basically correct, we should view that as a hypothesis and consider evidence both for and against it.

Yet as Glen knows well, the problem with the first three quires (Q1 to Q3) is that codicological evidence pointing back right to the original collation (and even to the original intention!) is decidedly thin on the ground. And he has presumably chosen these three quires because they are less problematic than Q5 to Q7 (which have both Currier Hand 1 and Currier Hand 2 bifolios mixed in together) and Q8 (which we agree seems to have been back to front when the quire number was added), though what he’s got against Q4 I don’t know. 🙂

So, let’s look at the codicological evidence (such as it is) relating to this hypothesis…

Pro #1: the light paint transfer and the stem ink transfer from f2v to f3r. These appear to be wet contact transfers without water damage. This seems to imply that those two pages have faced each other right from Day One. The similar handwriting supports this.

Con #1:  in Q2, the quire number downstroke overruns the bottom edge of the page but reappears at the bottom of  f46v (I checked this for myself at the Beinecke). This seems to imply that f46v was probably in either Q1 or Q2 at the time the first set of quire numbers were added (though it has ended up in a very much later quire).  The similar handwriting supports this.

Disputed #1: the heavy red paint transfers from f3r to f2v (which are aligned differently to the light paint transfer in the opposite direction), and from f5v to f6r. The dispute is over whether these paints (a) were added later [Stolfi, Pelling], or (b) were original but were transferred between pages later probably by water damage [Claston].

Disputed #2: the blue paint transfers from f3v to f4r, from f5v to f6r, and from f19v to f20r. Again, the dispute here is over whether these paints (a) were added later [Stolfi, Pelling], or (b) were original but were transferred later by an unknown bacterial mechanism triggered by minor water damage [Claston].

Disputed #3: there is (what appears to be) a diagonal line of red paint spatters crossing the central fold running between f10v and f15r, which makes it look as though this was the middle bifolio of a quire / gathering. However, what apparently conflicts with this is the set of contact transfers of the same red paint going from f15r to f14v.

Disputed #4: I also put forward a hypothesis (Curse, pp.52-57) that four or five of the bifolios with similar-looking vellum flaws might have come from a single skin – if this turns out to be correct, then because the bifolios involved ended up in different quires, it would go very strongly against the whole current-page-order-is-as-intended hypothesis.

[There are numerous other minor paint transfers which seem to coincide with water damaged areas; and there is also the minor matter of the wormhole in the first few folios of Q1; but for the sake of brevity I’ve omitted these.]

So, the current tally is that one piece of evidence seems to point to two bifolios’ having stayed together, while another piece of evidence seems to point to two bifolios’ being out of order – basically, an honourable draw. But could a few of the bifolios have stayed together even though many of the rest were basically scrambled? Yes – and that is the kind of fit-all-the-data “Middle Way”  intellectual historian’s answer I’ve been proposing for ages. 🙂

But really, I have to say that the bulk of  my impression of non-orderedness comes from a very different (but really quite hard to quantify) source – the writing itself. A good exercise is to print out all the herbal quires as bifolios and to then compare the various handwritings on them, to see which ones do / don’t match (particularly for all the Herbal-A pages). I contend that these only occasionally (such as in Q1) seem to flow at all in their current page order, even though the handwriting across both sides of any given bifolio is usually reasonably consistent with itself.

When I was writing the Curse, I believed that the original gatherings would have contained 5 or 6 bifolios: but three years on, I now suspect that 3 or 4 bifolios per gathering is a much more likely figure. Perhaps I should now revisit this whole puzzle and have another go at solving that particular “corner” of the million piece jigsaw?

Nick: here’s another full-on guest post from Glen Claston, with a little bit of friendly banter from me in blue…

The different ways some little detail can be viewed is so much of the fun we have with the VMS.  Until supporting [or refuting] information can be found for either view, neither is more valid than the other; and indeed, we weigh the validity of one over the other based on common perception.

My view on the binding had to do with the placement of the quire mark, and as you see, I used a minimal amount of information to formulate an hypothetical scenario that may or may not be wrong.  I didn’t do this to be contrary, I did it to explain some of the things I’m seeing, and of course this may not be the right explanation, or only portions of it may be correct.  That’s sort of why it’s only an hypothesis.
What I need to do next is to search these pages for some evidence that either supports or refutes this hypothesis, and this is usually where one of my hypotheses falls out of my own favor and gets replaced with something else, something like Ernie’s common sense idea, which is the one I originally held until I had problems with the placement of both the foldout and the quire mark.  The good thing about it is that there is usually more information to be gathered from the pages – as Nick said, a million fragmentary clues…..

Nick: for example, I think we can still see some tiny original sewing holes along Glen’s secondary vertical fold on the nine-rosette page. Further, if you reorder Q8 with its astronomical pages at the back and insert the nine-rosette section, you rejoin the “magic circle” on f57v with the two other “magic circle”-like pages on the back of the nine-rosette sexfolio. And it may possibly be no coincidence that doing this happens to move the very similar marginalia / doodlings / signatures on f86v3 and f66v closer together.

But herein lies one of the major problems with this sort of research (and it’s only a problem to those who don’t recognize that everyone, including themselves, is prone to this type of thinking) – we tend to reason out large scenarios based on a minimal set of information, and when something doesn’t exactly agree with that scenario, we don’t modify it or throw it out.  I am no different in that when necessary, I tend to modify before discarding, but I admit that in 23 years of research, I’ve discarded almost everything but the most basic concepts numerous times.  It was only after the MrSids images were made available that I was able to revisit some old ideas and gain substantial ground in this endeavor… and even now, some things are still in the hypothetical stage.  But when you change one leg of an hypothesis that stands on only two or three, the whole thing usually comes crashing down with a thunderous sound – I can hear that sound from clear across the ocean on occasion. 🙂

Nick: that’s strange, I get to hear that same noise too from time to time, also coming across the same ocean. 🙂

To me it’s rather easy to demonstrate through parallel texts that the rosettes page is firmly a part of the astronomical discussion, and should be placed before the celestial part of that discussion, and I have a good deal of professional opinion, (historical and contemporary) that agrees.  The Astronomical discussion falls appropriately just before the astrological discussion and begins with the terrestrial portion of the astronomical discussion, so when the rosettes is placed back into its proper place, the terrestrial discussion precedes the celestial discussion and then transitions into astrology, as it should.  The book then falls into an order that is in line with the order of presentation given in the parallel texts and commentaries.  The book transitions from herbs to astronomical, and astronomical to astrological, on mixed bifolios, physical codicological information that establishes within reason that this particular order was chosen by the author him/herself.  This is the higher level of argument, since this is part of a theory that encompasses the entire content and original purpose of the manuscript.  That’s the general theory of relativity, but some other source of information is required to extract a specialized theory of relativity.  This requires a gathering and interpretation of the physical codicological information, not as easy as it appears.
We’re faced with the obvious fact that some bifolios and foldouts in this book are currently bound out of order, and some students have gone so far as to suggest that it looks like the pages were dropped on the floor and recollated randomly.

Nick: to be precise, I’d say that a few bifolios did probably manage to cling together despite being dropped 🙂 , but for the greatest part I don’t see much retained structure in Quires 2 through 7, in Q13, Q15, Q19 and even Q20 (if Elmar is right), while Q8 seems back to front and Q9 and Q14 are misbound. And I’m not 100% convinced by Q1 either!

To me it’s not that drastic, most things are in their category, if not their proper order, but the question of original collation has so much bearing on so many aspects of this study that it needs to be addressed in a very serious manner, and by that I mean the gathering of codicological evidence that can be molded into a working hypothesis or theory regarding the original construction and collation of the book.  Historical scenarios that are based on a great deal of codicological information have many legs to stand on, so they don’t topple simply because one ‘fact’ or observation changes or gets reinterpreted.  Ergo, collect all the codicological information possible, and collect it in one place so it can be easily referenced when trying to formulate hypotheses.  No, no one after D’Imperio has done that – Rene has tried on one level of the manuscript, but no one has collected all the physical observations into a single database.  Is this a task too large to be accomplished?  It’s done routinely in other scientific disciplines, why not here?

Nick: well… I did try to do precisely this in the ‘Jumbled Jigsaws’ chapter of “The Curse” to a far greater degree than D’Imperio was ever able to, but I would certainly agree that it would take 500 fairly specialized pages to begin to do the topic justice. 🙂

I give you an example of how much codicological evidence matters, and I’ll provide an example that only requires a slight modification in Nick’s hypothesis of multiple painters, an hypothesis I don’t accept on other evidence, but I’ll give an example that buys into his hypothesis nonetheless, just so I’m not viewed entirely as a “contrarian”.  There are three fresh-paint transfer marks near the bottom of f87v that come from the upper middle portion of f16v.  Don’t get all worked up at the distance between these pages, because we know (or at least I know) that the herbals and the pharmaceuticals were once connected.  The point of discussion here is that these offset transfers could not have taken place if these pages were bound before this red paint was applied.  Nick is able to modify his hypothesis to say that the binding was only at the quirization stage, and that these outside folios can lay on top of one another at this stage of binding when the paint transfer occurred.  That’s correct, that’s one scenario, and Nick only has to remove one leg of his hypothesis in order to accommodate this information – instead of being entirely pre-bound, now it’s bound only in quires.   That works for Nick, and frankly works for me until I find something that says it doesn’t.
But I draw something else from this that Nick doesn’t address, and that is that the same red pigment is present on the two pages, as well as on the foldout which contains f87r.  That leads me to a one-legged hypothesis that the guy went through his pages and painted one color, then went through again to apply another color, as opposed to our modern view of an artist who would paint in various colors simultaneously.  We’re not on different wavelengths in our thinking, Nick and I, we’re just liable to reach different conclusions based on the same information, and that because we filter the information differently.   You see, I have another category of research which includes unfinished drawings and paintings, and I see this through a different filter than Nick sees it.

Nick: I have no huge problem with the idea of someone applying paints one at a time. It would be consistent with my view that (for example) the heavy blue painter mixed his/her blue paint suitable for painting on paper (rather than on vellum) and rushed through the (already finally-bound) manuscript daubing it wherever he/she saw fit… only realising later that it hadn’t dried quickly enough, leaving a mess all over the facing pages.

The answer to such a simple question as to when and how the paints were applied may be more complicated than either Nick or I presently presume, and no matter what, we will both be modifying our opinions when the information is finally gathered and tabulated.  I assume at present that because so much of the painting falls into gutters, it was done unbound.  Nick thinks it was done pre-bound.  I see now that some specialized paints were an after-work, possibly quire-bound, possibly not, while the common watercolors had to have been applied in an unbound state.  Neither of us are entirely right, neither of us are entirely wrong, and there is more to be learned before the final tally can be made.  Choose this red pigment, is there at least one place where it could not have been applied after the manuscript was bound?  I don’t know, I haven’t done that study yet, the question has only recently arisen.  And what frakking bit of difference does this make anyway?  ;-{
It’s that hypothesis with only two or three legs thing again, that’s where this makes a big difference.  I get so irritated with the “multiple painter” thing I simply want to scream, simply because it introduces multiple and extraneous unproven human elements into an hitherto unresolved picture, without first following evidentiary procedure.  This particular fresh-paint transfer is in the A-herbal range, simply another connection between the pharmaceutical section and the herbal section, something I’ve been quite clear about – these were once connected.  Post-bound painting as Nick suggests means that I should find evidence that this red pigment was also applied to pages that are written in the B script, and applied at a time where the A’s and B’s were already bound together.  Does that evidence exist?  I’m good at lists of codicological evidence, we’ll see if it does or not.  And does Nick’s ‘quirized binding’ approach hold water against other evidence?  We’ll find out, and these things will be discovered through gathering and collating the codicological evidence available to us.  It’s a wonderful thing, that we have at our fingertips the information to do this in scientific fashion.
I remember the reaction on the old list when Nick and I went to logger-heads over something as apparently meaningless as blue paint, and that for me was what separated Nick from the pack in many ways.  It wasn’t the love of argument or the basic disagreement, but the fact that Nick was willing to study and research in support of his claim.  He was not a simple defender of his stance, he was an active participant in the argument, and though we both still disagree on this one point, the amount of new codicological information and rational thought generated in the course of this simple argument has never been exceeded in the history of VMS research.
I hope that this gives Emily and others some idea of why the simplest of observations can have the most profound impact in this line of research, and I welcome anyone that wishes to add to our base of knowledge, no matter how small.  Collaboration can be a great deal of fun, and it’s guaranteed to hone your perception skills.  When you start you’re going to get shot down a lot, just like a video game, but as you progress your impact will be much greater, just like a video game.  This is your chance to hone a set of skills you didn’t think you had.

I’ve just had a nice email from my old friend GC, asking what I think happened with Quire 8 (“Q8”). You see, the problem is that Q8 contains a whole heap of codicological oddities, all of which fail to join together in a satisfactory way:-

  • f57v has a bottom-right piece of marginalia that (I think) looks rather like “ij” with a bar above it – yet it’s not one of the quire numbers, and doesn’t appear on the back of a quire.
  • f66r has some bottom-left marginalia (the “mus del” nymph): yet unlike most similar Voynich Ms marginalia doesn’t appear on the front or back of a quire.
  • The first (f57 + f66) bifolio contains both circular diagrams and plants
  • The second (f58 + f65) bifolio contains two text-only pages and two herbal pages
  • f58r and f58v have stars linked to most of the paragraphs: but these have no tails, and hence are more like the “starfish” and “stars” found in Quire 9 (Q9) than the paragraph stars used in the recipe section at the end.
  • The page numbers on f65, f66, and f67 all appear to have been emended by a later owner (you can still see the old faint 67 to the right of the new 67)
  • And don’t even get me started about the circular diagram on f57v (with the repeated sequence on one of the rings). Put simply, I think it’s not a magic circle, but rather something else completely masquerading as a magic circle.
  • But sure: at the very least, f57v’s circular diagram would seem to have much more in common with the circular diagrams in Q9 than with herbal quires 1-7.

Generally speaking, though, Q8 seems to be broadly in the right kind of place within the manuscript as a whole. Because its bifolios contain both herbal and diagrammatic stuff, it seems to “belong” between the herbal section and the astronomical section. However, the bifolios’ contents (as we now see them) appear to be rather back-to-front – the circular diagram and the stars are at the front (next to the herbal section), while the herbal drawings are at the back (next to the astronomical section).

This does suggest that the pages are out of order. And if you also look for continuity in the handwriting between originally consecutive pages, I think that only one original page order makes proper sense: f65-f66-f57-f58. When you try this out, the content becomes:

herbal, herbal, text, herbal, herbal, // circle, stars + text, star + text

Where I’ve put the two slashes is where I think the first (herbal) book stops and the second (astronomical) book begins: and I believe the “ij-bar” piece of marginalia on the circle page is one owner’s note that this is the start of “book ij” (book #2).

So, I strongly suspect that what happened to Q8 was a sequence very much like this:-
1. The original page order was f65-f66-x-x-x-x-x-x-f57-f58
2. The bottom right piece of marginalia was added to f57v (start of book “ij”, I believe)
3. The pages were mis-/re-bound to f66-f65-x-x-x-x-x-x-f58-f57 -OR- (more likely) the front folio (f65) simply got folded over to the back of the quire, leaving f66r at the front: f66-x-x-x-x-x-x-f57-f58-f65
4. The nymph & text marginalia were added to f66r.
5. The pages were mis-/re-bound to f57-f58-x-x-x-x-x-x-f65-f66.
6. The quire numbers were added to f66v.
7. The page numbers were added to all the pages.
8. The central three bifolios were removed / lost.

But what happened to pages 59 to 64, which apparently got lost along the way?

Currently, my best guess is that these were never actually there to be lost: there is practically no difference in quill or handwriting between f58v and f65r, which suggests to me that they originally sat adjacent to each other… that is to say, that Q8 probably only ever contained two bifolios. And so, the proper page numbers added (at 7 above) were probably 57-58-59-60, which would make perfect sense.

So… why were they later emended to 57-58-65-66?

My suspicion is that, temporarily bound between Q8 and Q9, there was an extra tricky set of pages, which the page-numberer skipped past before continuing with 67 (in the astronomical section). But what tricky block might that be?

Could it have been the nine-rosette fold-out section? Might the page-numberer have skipped past that, before subsequently noticing that an earlier owner had given it a higher quire number, and so moving it forward to its proper place? It’s a bit of a tricky one to argue for, but I do strongly suspect that something in someone’s system broke down right around here, causing more confusion than we can easily sort out.

However, I’ll leave the nine-rosette section for later: that’s quite enough codicology for one day! 🙂