Voynich Codicology

This page describes what can be inferred about the Voynich manuscript from its physical makeup. It summarizes information from several sources (perhaps most notably/notoriously my 2006 book The Curse of the Voynich), and to illustrate the various arguments includes reasonable colour images [derived from the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s colour scans].

(1) The Folio Numbers Are Not Necessarily Correct

Water flows from the bath on f78v [below left] right under a separate bifolio before reappearing on f81r [below right]. These two pages must therefore have faced each other in the original page layout, and can only sensibly have appeared at the centre of a quire with consecutive folio numbers: and so the present (non-consecutive) folio numbers are plainly wrong.

Voynich Manuscript, page f78v placed next to f81r

Also highlighted with red squares in the above pair of images is some red paint contact transfer (going from right to left) that apparently happened while the manuscript was in its alpha [original] state. (They are not aligned perfectly because the manuscript was fully bound when scanned, leading to perspective distortion.)

(2) The Bifolios Are Not Necessarily The Right Way Up

If f78v and f81r originally sat at the centre of the quire (as shown above), what page originally preceded f78r (i.e. which page sat facing f78r, nearer the front of the quire)? If you try every permutation in the water section, I contend that you will find only that one fits perfectly: f84v. Moreover, the two-page layout across f84v [below left] and f78r [below right] uncannily echoes the two-page layout exhibited on f78v and f81r [above]. But really, what clinches the case that these pages did originally face each other is the unusual “pineapple”-like fruit at the top, which appears on both of these pages (even symmetrically mirroring each other in the top middle!), but nowhere else in the manuscript.

Voynich Manuscript, f84v placed next to f78r

However, because f84v as currently bound appears right at the back of the quire, this  means that the bifolio containing it was bound in back to front relative to its initial orientation (i.e. the spine of the bifolio was flipped over before it was bound in, so what was initially at the front of the bifolio ended up at the back), and hence that whole bifolio is now upside down.

What is particularly interesting about this visual symmetry between page layouts is that it implies that the drawings in the manuscript had originally been laid out not arbitrarily or randomly (as they now appear), but instead according to some kind of consistent design aesthetic. I take this as a strong sign that we should be looking in the Voynich Manuscript to reconstruct a sense of order and purpose that has been scrambled by historical happenstance.

(3) The Quire Numbers Are Not Necessarily Correct

If f84v (which has Q12’s quire number on its bottom right corner) originally preceded f78r, this implies that the quire numbers were added after the page order in Q12 had been scrambled (nobody would have placed a quire number in the middle of a quire). Furthermore, quire numbers (particularly higher ones such as Q19 and Q20) appear to have been added by later hands, so may well be unreliable for quite different reasons.

(4) The Bindings Are Not Necessarily Correct

Many years ago, John Grove pointed out that while the first wide sexfolio of Q9 had originally been bound between f67r1 [below centre] and f67r2 [below right] (you can clearly see the binding marks laid out flat on the page),  it had subsequently been rebound between f68v [below left] and f67r1 [below centre] after the quire numbers had been added (and before the folio numbers had been added). The centre page [f67r1] was originally at the back of the quire (which is where the quire number would have been added), but after the subsequent binding the same page ended up at the front of the quire (which is where the folio number was added) – all of which is why it ended up with both foliation and a quire number on the same page.

Voynich Manuscript, f68v1 placed next to f67r1 placed next to f67r2

Moreover, the circular drawing on f68v (“sun-face calendar”) very closely echoes the circular drawing on f67r1 (“moon-face calendar”): this gives powerful support to the idea that these two pages originally sat next to each other. Back in July 2002, John Grove wrote: “I’m beginning to thank that oaf for fouling up the numbering” – it is indeed true that these kind of mistakes help us to understand what happened to the VMs pre-1600 in a way that the archival evidence has so far been unable to do.

Furthermore, my suspicion is that there was a simple practical reason for what happened with these pages. In its original arrangement, this sexfolio had one page on one side of the binding and five pages on the other, which would have been somewhat impractical for handling. By rebinding it along a different boundary between pages, that oaf may well have helped to keep the manuscript intact – no bad thing, really.

(5) The Quires Are Not Necessarily In The Correct Order

I have argued that the two pharma quires (Q15 and Q19) appear to have had their order reversed, because the jar sequence seems to flow far more naturally from the end of Q19 to the pharma bifolio in Q15 than the order in which they now appear.

Voynich Manuscript, f102v jars placed next to f88r jars

(6) The Quire Contents Are Not Necessarily Correct

If you compare f41v and f42r in Q6, you’ll notice markedly different handwriting – the first is tight, compact, slightly right-leaning while the second is gentle, open, and slightly left-leaning (though whether this implies different authors, or different quills and/or different inks and/or times is a separate matter). This would be consistent with the basic codicological inference that the manuscript’s bifolios have been shuffled largely at random.

Voynich Manuscript Voynichese, f41v text placed next to f42r text

As an alternative explanation, Glen Claston argues that the bifolios might plausibly have been deliberately shuffled by the author (perhaps later in life) to match some change in organizational plan (say, from alphabetical order to thematic order). However, because the two halves of each bifolio are stuck together, I would point out that you can’t really restructure codices to any significant degree unless you physically divide each bifolio, and there’s (as yet) no evidence that this happened here.

(7) The Paints And Colours Used Are Not Necessarily Original

There’s been a long and spirited debate about this one. The short version is simply this: a significant number of Voynich researchers have come to believe that paint was added in several waves, with a small set of washy (possibly organic?) paints added early, and a larger set of heavy (possibly inorganic?) paints added later. Critically, the heavy blue paint appears (in a good few places) to have transferred across to facing pages within the current binding order, and with a very distinctive (and unusual) drying pattern. To me, this clearly indicates that the paint was added after the pages had been bound and then contact transferred while still drying (though Glen Claston argues that some unknown bacterial mechanism may have caused them to transfer many years later in conjunction with localized water damage).

As further evidence to support the argument, I would point to the markedly different paints on the f84v and f78r pair [section (2) above] and on the f102v and f88r pair [section (5) above]. Really, it comes down a binary choice: you either have to accept that the codicological evidence points to several misbinding (non-original) owners, or you have to reject the whole lot of it, period.

All in all, Glen spent a long time utterly convinced (as was Prescott Currier, for the most part) that the current page order, quire numbering and page appearance we now see all strongly reflect the author’s intentions: of course, this position is entirely possible – but I have yet to see a single piece of codicological evidence that supports it.

(8) One Day, We’ll Reconstruct The Page Order (But Not This Week)

From (2)-(8) above, it should be reasonably clear that what we are looking at in the VMs is not the original page order, or even the original page state: and that even the (apparently 15th century hand) quire numbering is an unreliable guide to the ‘alpha’ state of the manuscript. Still, there are plenty of ways in which we might (in time) be able to reconstruct the original page order (multispectral scans, Raman spectroscopy, thickness mapping the vellum edges, DNA testing the vellum (!), etc). But as none of that is likely to happen anytime soon, all we can do is try not to base our arguments on the present colouring, order, orientation, grouping, foliation or quire numbering of any given pages, unless we have very specific reasons to believe they happen to be correct.

Currently, the only examples I know of likely original page adjacencies are:

  • Faint ink / paint contact transfers from f2v to f3r appear to be original (see “The Curse of the Voynich”, pp. 65-67)
  • Vellum flaws (see “The Curse of the Voynich”, pp. 53-56) suggest that f9-f10, f10-f15, f35-f36, and f37-f38 were originally neighbouring pages, and may well have all been a single quire in the order f35-f36-f9-f10-(centre)-f15-f16-f37-f38, possibly with the f28-f29 bifolio wrapped around them.
  • The reconstructed order of Q9 and Q10 (see “The Curse of the Voynich”, pp. 57-61)
  • The order of the zodiac pages, can only (from the way they have been bound) start from Pisces
  • I argue (see “The Curse of the Voynich”, pp. 62-65) that the original page order for Q13 (the “water” section) was very probably f76-f77-f79-f84-f78-(centre)-f81-f75-f80-f82-f83.
  • From the doodles and unreadable letters on the final page, I think there is good reason to believe that f116v was also the final page of the manuscript as it was originally laid out.

As far as quire grouping in general goes, I suspect that the Herbal pages Prescott Currier described as “Hand 2” originally were arranged in two separate quires (see “The Curse of the Voynich”, pp.  69-70), which I named “Quire F” (containing the current Q8), and “Quire E” (holding the other six “Hand 1” bifolios). But unfortunately this currently isn’t really a lot of help – sorry, I did try my best.

(9) How Can We Untie This Knot?

Basically, we would like to break down the writing into groups so that we can work out in what order the pages were originally intended to appear. Yet while the colour of the ink does vary through the manuscript (implying both multiple sessions and multiple sources of ink), the RGB scans we currently have are not really sufficient to separate them out.

The straightforward solution would be to carry out a calibrated multispectral scan of the manuscript, which should yield plenty of information to track and match inks and paints (and possibly even individual pieces of vellum). As long as we ensure that the range of wavelengths chosen produces useful information, this approach should open up an entirely new angle on the main page-ordering issue, as well as on corrections, emendations and other subtle codicological layering issues.

However: back in early 2006, when I asked the Beinecke’s curators for permission to do even a limited multispectral scan, they turned down my proposals. Perhaps they will change their minds some time soon (after all, “no” only ever means “no today”), but anybody wishing to propose this kind of thing should bear this in mind. Don’t get me wrong, the Beinecke’s RGB scans have been a tremendous asset – it is just that the next stage of physical inquiry now beckons.

A Raman spectroscopic investigation would enable a very different type of art historical analysis: finding out what type of physical materials were used for the very many distinctive individual paints would be a fascinating study in itself (albeit one probably revolving more around 16th century paint composition). However, it is worth noting the difficulties in interpretation thrown up by the Raman analysis of the Vinland Map (another famous Beinecke holding), as this will doubtless colour the curators’ decision here.

A microscopic analysis of the vellum (if it could be done in situ) might, as Glen Claston has suggested, reveal pollen particles trapped inside the vellum. This is another type of analysis to consider: and there may also be enough information present at the microscopic scale to help identify individual hides.

One other analytical approach would be to use a non-contact micrometer to draw up a precise thickness map along the edges of the herbal pages, and from that write some clever software to predict how the original sheets of vellum were folded and cut into quires (these values can be matched with the length of the pages and the shape of each bifolio). OK, it’s not very glamorous: but it’s a simple non-invasive approach which (I think) the Beinecke would be comfortable with (if they think you are sufficiently credible).

(Really, I think any of the above would be the basis of a good student project – please email me if you would like advice about structuring or presenting any proposal to the Beinecke along these general lines.)

11 thoughts on “Voynich Codicology

  1. bdid1dr on November 21, 2012 at 1:08 am said:

    Nick, I’m just now getting around to this discussion (after noticing/noting the haphazard-seeming sequence of the bathing folios).

    Would it not be possible for you and/or your buddies to scan each and every folio/page (in large-print/and color) and rearrange the pages/foldouts/folios to what would appear to be the original layout/binding sequences? I’ve gone through several ink cartidges (color & black) trying to reassemble the sequences of the water plants, bathing beauties, mushroom fantasy/fairy tales and the correlations possibly being made with the Venetian/Genoese trader conflicts…..? I hope you’ve been following Tom Spandes and my contributions to your fascinating webblog.

    My offer to proofread your book sequel still stands. (I can snailmail to you my full email address, if you are in need of proofreading assistance.) I’ll check back on this page in a week or so.


  2. Nick, I keep miskeying and disconnecting, so wiki a couple of these refs (if you haven’t already done ref/research ad nauseum):

    wikipedia: Hortus conclusus

    2nd ref: medieval.ucdavis.edu/120D/Palladius.html

    If second ref is incomplete, try ref: Medieval Sourcebook:
    On Husbandry, c. 350

    I’m referring these because of an oddity which appears as base of Beinecke’s print ID#1006223: That which appears to me to be a wall of bramble…..


  3. Ren rainbow on March 17, 2013 at 11:09 am said:

    The voynich was written in ancient script by leanardo devinci. His knowledge is because of his DNA, he was an orchestrated human being. When he was young he had flow of his ancient knowledge he accessed as some of us do. Genetic engineering has been at the foothills of every single part of our origins. He was an updated version and I hope I am related! Soon humans will understand. Your part of a triptych. First, god animal mix. Then god- animal with neanderthal/Bigfoot. Makes human. Don’t take my word for it. Research yourself.
    God can also be researched under the title ‘alien’ which is really funny because we were the last on the scene which would make us alien! Oh and by the way, people migrated from the pyramids. The DNA machines which doubled on the opposite energy to assist in travel through stars. Have fun figuring that one out and for goodness sake back up your computer before you research, can have damaging effects. As for the codex, homecoming time!

  4. Menno Knul on August 5, 2013 at 2:43 pm said:

    I wonder, if anyone came across f58r/v. In fact we can see here some sort of order 6-point star, 7-point star, 8-point star, which would be a peculiar way to indicate some order, but who knows. In the VIB information browser the number of points of the last star is miscalculated. On top of the page space has been left for some ornament, maybe a design of a naked woman like elsewhere in the MS ? I don’t think about an ornamental capital like the VIB information browser does. On the next page a 6-point star is repeated but without space for a design. The other paragraphs miss a star like on the preceding page. A matter of question is, if this folio belongs to the star pages at the end of the book (quire 20), which misses some pages.

  5. Menno Knul on August 5, 2013 at 6:56 pm said:

    Additionally. According to the VIB Information browser the stars on 68r1 and f68r2 have placed at random within a circular outline. However the central star on f68r1 is clearly visible and appears to have been rounded by three circles of stars. Similarly on f68r2. F68r3 shows some order. Counting clockwise from 10.00 one find 1 star with a cloud of 7 stars (Pleiades), 2 stars (Gemini ?), 3 stars and 4 stars, each with its name. The Pleiades are in the Zodiac sign of Taurus. Is it by accident that the EVA transcription reads here ‘doaro’ ?

  6. Voynich Manuscript regards how to grow tiny people. A God given gift, to allow us To create and watch grow, children that are not of blood lineage yet that of a plants’. The plant (after being pollinated and sexed) and cross bred can and will grow mini beings.

  7. Pingback: The Voynich Rebinding | The Voynich Bombe

  8. D.N. O'Donovan on May 29, 2015 at 12:10 pm said:

    Just checking to see whether I should have credited anything here in writing my series on the manuscript’s codicology and palaeography.

    It looks as if our treatments are complementary rather than coincident – which is nice.

    Just btw, since I don’t presume you or your readers will necessarily see the posts, the physical specs do agree with Nick’s theory that the work we now have was probably manufactured in Northern Italy. I do not find that I can agree with the idea that the ‘hand’ is Italian, or humanist, or indeed even a Latin hand of the early fifteenth century. On that score, and on the work’s general presentation (e.g. image and text apparently included by the same person – not a particularly Latin habit; and on the lack of evidence for ruling-out etc., the weight of evidence is more in favour of Panofsky’s first assessement i.e. southern Jewish.

    Logical conclusion appears to me that like a number of other works brought to Nth Italy by Jewish owners in the early fifteenth century, the content of our ms was too.

    Anyway, just thought you and readers might like to know that your work on the finer details of the manuscript’s disordered state still stands as far as I’m concerned.


  9. Marethyu Death on April 4, 2016 at 8:46 pm said:

    The Voynich, if studied closely, contains a LOT of words with this in the beginning:
    “qo” and seeing as the most use letters of the English alphabet are E, T, C, etc. (pardon the pun right there) it stands to reason that the “qo” are two ‘letters’ fused into one. Also notable are the constant o’P’ symbols, maybe another form of the qo letter.

  10. Marethyu Death on April 4, 2016 at 8:57 pm said:

    Also, about the fruits:
    Strawberries slightly resemble raspberries by the seeds, and the sepals are perfect. However, something concerns me about the color of the “water” and the pictured texture: what if everyone is wrong and really the water is a type of lily which can hold the above amount of naked women? It could also be a type of condensed algae floating in a small pool, explaining why the lower limbs of the women seem to be cut in half, however they are “floating” or held above the water, and the “fruits” are harvesting areas held underwater to collect algae, which is then emptied through tubes/funnels into a bath which can hold people at the top, as a type of sensory-deprivation mix, which allows the user to float, keeping their head above the water, but resisting the force of gravity.

  11. Minnesota Guy on August 25, 2016 at 5:02 am said:

    It seems as though the points of each star indicate something. It was previously mentioned that each star consists of 6/7/8 points. All the people in the images are pointing to the stars as well. I feel like the key is in the images.

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