The Voynich parchment

[which isn’t actually parchment, but vellum –  long-overdue correction: 13/09/2016]

I’ve never seen the manuscript except online and have had to rely on others’ accounts.

Some such as that I quoted on pigments are in d’Imperio’s booklet; others have been offered in mailing lists.

I found Dana Scott’s account  very enlightening.  I quote some of it below, but since I stupidly neglected to note where I had it from, the reference is not given. If you happen to know and can offer a link I’d be grateful.

Dana’s description, from notes he made in 2006:


The very first thing that caught me by surprise when I opened the VMs manuscript was just how tiny the characters were written…

… the brightness of the colors …and the uniqueness of each folio  ..,
I took vellum skin samples along with me on my visit. My vote on the VMs vellum is that it is bovine.

I did not expect to see  the worm holes and was very interested in the varying texture of the folios.

Fol.1r is a hardened piece of leather, quite weather worn and no doubt the folio most affected by the elements. It is like a hard cardboard. Others are very thin and quite pliable. Many have been handled so often that the oil (presumably from viewers’ finger tips) have made coaster sized “spots” on the folios such that you can relatively “easily” view “through” the folio leaf, similar to the texture of modern shiny very lightly cloudy vellum (such as cotton vellum). To see these oil “spots”, just hold the folio up to the sunlight
coming in through the viewing room’s full length windows.

At least one (probably 2) of the folios have a very fine peach fuzz feel to the touch. Folios where there had been prior stitching were interesting because the skin is tough and the holes are just fine the way they are now without the prior stitching. If one looks very closely at the VMs folios, you may find tiny “black” dots scattered around a number of the folios. These are actually hair follicle holes in that remained after the hair was removed.
I spent a week visiting the VMs. …

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Beinecke Library in September 2006….

(Dana Scott)


Until now, I’d forgotten Dana’s remark about the black spots being hair follicles – so those black dots on f.1r may be  tenterhook marks, wormholes or hair follicles.

Dana’s comment about the cover’s likely exposure to the elements is particularly interesting, given the relevance of some details in f.86v, and some (at least) of the diagrams to matters maritime.

And, of course, the size of the manuscript itself in addition to its second-grade parchment, all suggest a book made for use on the road, not for perusal in the seclusion of a library. I’ll come back to this subject of the thinner parchment later in the post.

Maghreb chart

First, in the same connection, I want to mention another items: with some timidity (or temerity) a reconsideration of the Vernet-Ginés proposed date and also its possible relevance for dating the mini-map on f.86v.

In his paper  of 1962*, Vernet-Ginés noted in regard to this north African portolan chart known as the Magheb chart, the importance of  Basque and/or Castilian in addition to the more usually mentioned Genosese and Catalans (p.2).

*J. Vernet-Ginés, ‘The Maghreb Chart in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana’, Imago Mundi, Vol. 16 (1962), pp. xvi+1-1

Vernet-Ginés then dated the Maghreb chart to the mid-late fourteenth century,  not least because (as he argued) the place-name no.79, ‘Birb-ira’ need not be identified with Bermeo as Fisher and others had proposed. This because…

..  It might equally well be identified with Bilbao, and, if so, we could conclude that the chart was drawn about 1330, because this fortress was founded in 1300 and some time would naturally elapse from the date of its foundation until it became important enough to become known to mariners of XIVth century. (p.4)

enclosure and talisman Pelusium Notitiae
“.. in which a talisman or tree is established”

As  noted in an earlier post, though, contemporary use of the term ‘birbar‘ signified an ancient (pre-Roman) centre of combined religious and secular studies, a usage attested in the thirteenth century by al-Qazwini who defined the  birba as:

a temple in which a tree or talisman was established.

and he gave as his example no contemporary Christian or Islamic centre, but the dynastic Egyptian:

The birba of Akhmim is a temple which has images depicted in the stones, high reliefs, still visible until now”

(loc cit., citing Athar: 139)

Still earlier, Al-Nadim refers to the birbar showing use of that term current among speakers of Arabic already during the tenth century, and in this case it is a term associated with ‘alchemical’ operations.  al-Nadim himself treats the terms birbar and barabi as equivalent:

In Egypt there are buildings called barabi made of immensely great stones. The birba are [sic] temples of different designs, and have places for grinding, pounding, dissolving, assembling and distilling, showing that they are built for the craft of alchemy. In these buildings are reliefs and inscriptions in Chaldean and Coptic; their meanings are not known.. the known barabi are the temples of Wisdom.

– quoted with references in 

Okasha El Daly, Egyptology: the missing millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings, UCL, 2005) p. 51.

Additional note (10th. April, 2013) In this connection too Zosimos of Panopolis.(also found as ‘Zosimus’).

‘House of Wisdom’ had particular connotations in the tenth century,  when memory of the original ‘House of Wisdom’ in Edessa remained, despite its forced closure in the late fifth century. Its studies included that medical learning so highly developed among the Syrians, and which – transferred to Nisibis, Jundishapur and Baghdad – formed the foundation of medical learning in Islam.

Both the study centre in Baghdad, and the cathedral in Constantinople, were its namesakes.

With regard to the Maghrebi map the point is that use of the term ‘Birbar’ here is less likely (as Vernet-Ginés argues) to have become current after the establishment of the Bilbao fortress, but rather that the term already described the monumental sort of structure, and perhaps a preceding structure on that site.

Even without pleading a pre-Roman origin, one may point to the numerous temples constructed in the Iberian peninsula between the 3rC BC and 3rdC AD and their unusual design.

At this point, ideally, I should have consulted Mierse*

W.E. Mierse, Temples and Towns in Roman Iberia. The Social and Architectural Dynamics of SanctuaryDesigns from the Third Century B.C. to the Third Century A.D., University of California Press, 1999.

and review by  Simon Keay in The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 51, No. 1 (2001), pp. 147-149

but since (at present, anyway) I don’t  intend publishing this research, I cannot fairly devote to it as much time as I might otherwise do.

Relevance for the Voynich manuscript occurs because if the dates offered by Vernet-Ginés are debateable, then the origin of this early portolan-style chart may be closer to the time, and work, of Idrisi in Sicily. Secondly, it may explain why on what appears to be a ‘proto-portolan’ style chart in f.86v, no reference bar one is made to mainland Europe. The simple fact may be that the map-makers had no need to refer to it, and that this indeed no product of western Christendom.

May be.

BirbarSuccessfully identifying the single structure making Europe in the mini-map, and which seems to stand in the Iberian peninsula, may help resolve this question.

Given the role of the Basque, too, the western as well as the eastern ports must be considered.

If, on the other hand, it is meant to represent Avignon, the date is most likely fourteenth century, for the papal court’s arrival in Avignon early in that century made the region the effective capital of western Christendom for seventy years. The papal court returned, after an interim and forced sojourn of two years in Viterbo, in 1376.

And here, with regard to parchment, is another relevant point.

It had been in France that a thinner, cheaper quality of parchment began to be produced on a commercial scale for the  ‘University Bibles‘  which were chiefly intended for students.  Their production begins from the early decades of the thirteenth century. The networks of supply and production for those manuscript books meant that when the pope of the time decided on a return, he was able to command at short notice and chiefly from Jewish suppliers, sufficient to enable copying en masse of the Avignon documents and evidently of many books, the duplication done as insurance against the very real risk of loss in transit.

I wrote on this matter at more length in an earlier blog, so won’t repeat it all here. Albareda describes it.

Dom Anselm M. Albareda, “The Preservation and Reproduction of the Manuscripts of the Vatican Library through the Centuries”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 104, No. 4, Dedication of Library Hall of the American Philosophical Society, Autumn General Meeting, November, 1959 (Aug. 15, 1960), pp. 413-418

For the Voynich manuscript, then, the conditions required for its making are found evolving between  the tenth century and the end of the fourteenth.

From the tenth, comparable imagery begins appearing in western manuscripts (as we have seen).

During the twelfth,  Idrisi’s geography was made, the Genoese maritime tradition flowered –  gained not least from associations with Sicily and with Constantinople.  By the thirteenth, Europeans were resident in Persia, India and had been living in China.

The same centuries saw a Byzantine scholar in Trebizond updating Ptolemies’ tables by reference to eastern astronomical traditions, ones which are pre-Islamic in origin, and deeply affected by the older astonomical lore of India.

And finally in France that industry which permitted a smaller handbook to be made, of second-rate and even offcut parchment.

I want to go further into this question of the western handbooks; and what equivalents existed elsewhere than Europe.

For the moment, the important task is to identify that curious triangular building with its one great tower which appears to be a beacon.

Any possible identifications are welcome.


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