Codicology ~Tannin

[reposted June 8th. I was dissatisfied with my first  writing-up.]

Abstract: This post is about why codicological study of the Vms needs to consider both the technical and social context of production. Taking a hypothetical question about whether, and where tannins might be found in or on parchment, it compares information given by a Latin-oriented technical paper and two papers on codicology from a minority tradition (in this case, the Jewish) to show that while Latin-oriented studies may treat more perfunctorily details of codicology from other traditions, the reverse is rarely so. An additional advantage of seeking information from these contiguous sources is that often they provide more specifics and information about social context.

Arabic manuscripts on parchment are the least relevant for understanding the Voynich manuscript’s codicology. During the period critical to its codicological assessment  (i.e. 12thC-15thC AD), most productions from Muslim communities of Islam were on paper, non-Muslim production on parchment including not only works for local communities (such as religious texts in Coptic or Ge’ez), but manuscripts made on parchment by commission from outsiders such as Turks or Franks. To this general rule, only some regions of western North Africa and Spain offer exception. To summarise the situation, I’ll quote Bloom (2000)

Over the course of the ninth and tenth centuries the use of paper became increasingly common as the early Islamic traditions of oral culture were transformed into, although not entirely replaced by, a text- based culture of books. As in many cases, the lead seems to have been taken in Iraq and Iran, where paper had been known longest and used in various contexts and by bureaucrats, who were the first to use paper in large quantities, although few, if any, examples of paper documents have survived from the early period.

Several dated manuscripts of the Koran copied on paper, presumably in Iran and Iraq, survive from the tenth century, the most famous of which is, of course, that copied by the noted calligrapher Ibn al-Bawwab at Baghdad exactly one thousand years ago.

In Egypt, over the course of the tenth century, the manufacture of paper completely supplanted the 4,000-year-old papyrus industry, and archaeology confirms what the medieval geographers say, that papyrus was no longer used in Egypt.  George Scanlon’s excavations at Fustat showed an overwhelming preponderance of paper over papyrus from the eleventh-century levels.

Only in North Africa and Spain, which was known for its production of leather and hides, did parchment remain the preferred material for copying manuscripts, particularly the Koran, but by the year 1000 even in this region paper was being made in significant quantities. Several Christian manuscripts in the library of the monastery of Burgos, for example, were partly copied on paper, presumably of Muslim manufacture, as early as the tenth century.

  • Jonathan M. Bloom, ‘The Introduction of Paper to the Islamic Lands and the Development of the Illustrated Manuscript’, Muqarnas , Vol. 17, (2000), pp. 17-23

For those interested in Arabic texts in general, Gacek’s work includes a handy guide to standard formulae and order of presentation in Muslim-Arabic works, including a description of various markers, such as regional habits for foliation/page numbering and different ways of expressing and/or encoding dates:

  • A. Gacek, ‘Some Remarks on the Cataloguing of Arabic Manuscripts’, Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies) , Vol. 10, No. 2 (1983), pp. 173-179.

NOTE: this raises certain interesting questions about the source of those herbals on parchment, inscribed in Arabic, which have been noticed to contain imagery not unlike that in some folios of the Vms.


What now follows is a comparison of sources on codicology, using a hypothetical search for a “tanned parchment”. The topic was inspired by a phrase used in a recent post by Nick Pelling, and one which neither he nor his audience, I am sure, took at all literally. It value here is that the idea of ‘tanned parchment’ is sufficiently technical, and arcane, that it provides a useful yardstick against which to judge the sort of information contained in codicological studies focussed on the majority as against the minority traditions in book-making.

Let us suppose that a researcher reads the following sentence and sets out to discover (a) if there is any sign of tanning in the Vms parchment and (b) supposing there is, what it implies for provenance. Nick wrote:

“Vellum tears with parallel orientation may indicate that those bifolios came from the same tanned skin”

  • N. Pelling, ‘Evidence of bifolio reordering in the Voynich Manuscript’, Ciphermysteries (WordPress blog)  May 20th., 2013.

There is no data on whether the limp cover shows signs of having been fully (vat-) tanned, nor treated with a tanning mixture, which allows us to add another to the list of queries.

Query 3: do any folios – including the cover –  show (a) signs of tanning, or (b) of treatment with tannin mixture?

Ideally, in what follows, I should consider codicological studies from regions east of the 12thC borders of Islam, and Armenian practices. It is also possible that some of the sources used to complete the text and/or imagery in the Voynich manuscript were printed texts. The presence of paragraph spaces (as they appear to be) makes consideration of printed texts especially relevant, while the presence of early ‘alchemical’ imagery also requires consideration of classical and later works as they were disseminated eastwards.  On the last point, a  seminal article was written in the late 1930s:

H. E. Stapleton, ‘Further Notes on the Arabic Alchemical Manuscripts in the Libraries of India’, Isis , Vol. 26, No. 1 (Dec., 1936), pp. 127-131


Those who continued to write books on parchment within the Mediterranean territories of Islam were predominantly  Christians or Jews.  In addition to their own liturgical languages, these non-Muslim communities necessarily spoke and usually wrote Arabic in addition to preserving their own liturgical languages, and using daily one or more of those required for their daily life. Letters found in the Cairo geniza attest to this multi-lingual culture.

“tanned parchment”

As  example of what one might expect to find in Latin and Greek studies, a technical paper by the  American Society of Conservationists is a fair example of how Latin- focussed studies may treat peripheral issues about which a researcher seeks information.

The paper does refer to tanning, and makes clear that neither the Latin or the Byzantine tradition tanned parchment in any way – that is, not even by using tannins as a form of preservative.  But if (in our hypothetical case) tannins were found on the parchment of the Voynich manuscript, the researcher would not be able to learn much more about our manuscript’s provenance:

Ancient Jewish methods of parchment manufacture usually included the application of weak tanning solutions to the skin surface, often only the surface of the hair side. This was done as a final step in the parchment making process and was perhaps intended to toughen the surface of the skin prior to writing. (See Reed 1972, M. Harran 1985, 1991). It is unclear whether a similar process was carried out [by Jews]  in other countries, at other times. 18th and 19th century Hebrew scrolls were written on a type of parchment called “gvil” which was supposedly made using ancient manufacturing techniques, employing some type of tanning agent. However, the thickness, dark color and soft handle of these modern skins make them seem much more like leather than their earlier ancestors.

If our references were confined to works about European manuscripts, all we’d know is that the practice of tanning appears late, and is assumed an effort to re-create a style of ‘ancient’ scroll.  Since no suggestion is offered that the practice of using tannin mixtures occurs between the ‘ancient’ period and the 18th century, we might be tempted to dismiss any traces of tannin in the Vms parchment as accidental, and unhelpful in determining provenance.

However, if we follow that mention of Jewish practice and consult specialist codicological studies of eastern manuscripts, the impression conveyed by that first source is entirely reversed. What is more, the habit of minority traditions being constantly to offer comparisons with practices of the larger, and to add more by way of cultural and historical context, so in the end and paradoxically the researcher hunting some specific and unusual detail is more likely to find useful information in the studies of sub-sets than of the dominant codicological traditions.

In this case, the source explains not only why Jewish parchminers are so numerous among those commissioned in late fourteenth-century Avignon, but also why Jews form a relatively small proportion in the tanners’ trade of Europe.

My source here is M. Beit-Arié, a specialist in near-eastern codicology, and this paper is the same quoted so extensively in the previous post.

  • Malachi Beit-Arié, ‘Hebrew Codicology: Historical and Comparative Typology of Hebrew Medieval Codices based on the Documentation of the Extant Dated Manuscripts from a Quantitative Approach’ (copy in press).

From  Beit-Arié, our hypothetical researcher learns how mistaken his/her impression taken from the previous source; that there was no practice of tanning parchment in the Jewish tradition either, but that various forms of tannin  were applied to scrolls (apparently consistently over the centuries) by Oriental Jews. Further, that  ‘gevil’ is not a late, artificially-revived or arcane term, but the word which was standard as describing scrolls of a certain type:


Cattle skin in which only one side was processed for writing is called in Hebrew gevil. Talmudic instructions require writing the liturgical Tora[h] Scroll on gevil and this dictate persists to this very day. Literary halakhic sources and chemical analyses attest to regional differences in the materials used for the processing of the skins used for scrolls, particularly the utilisation of tannin in the Orient.

Here,  ‘Oriental’ Jews means all save Ashkenaz,  Byzantine and Sephardic, so  Jews of Egypt, Syria, North Africa, Yemen, Mesopotamia, Persia, India and east Asia.

We are at last a little further advanced.  From what has been seen so far, then if there were signs of tannin on parchment used in the Vms (apart from its cover), we should have to suppose it was a result of accident, or perhaps of influence from eastern Jewish habit.  Further reading on codicology of minorities, such as the Ethiopians etc. might throw up still more pertinent information.

( May I repeat, here, that I do not suppose for a moment that Nick meant the word  ‘tanned’ to be taken in this overly literal way).


Social context.


Tanning is normally done by immersion of the skins in a vat. Application of a tanning mixture is a very different matter and the distinction (as a paper by Poole and Reed emphasises) was important for members of the Jewish communities wherever they lived – on the Continent as in Egypt or Asia.

Quoted by Poole and Reed, certain religious commentaries explain this and thus indirectly explain why the number of Jewish parchminers in medieval France is so much greater than the number of Jewish tanners.  The reason was not a social hierarchy, but the degree to which a given craft or profession resulted in ritual pollution or a perceived deficiency in moral character:

And these are they that are compelled to put away their wives: He that is afflicted with boils, or that has a polypus, or that collects [dog’s excrement], or that is a coppersmith or a tanner, whether these defects be in them before they married or whether they arose after they were married.

And of all these R. Meir said:

Although the husband made it a condition with her [to marry him despite his defects], she may say, “I thought I could endure it, but now I cannot endure it.”

  • J. B. Poole and R. Reed, ‘The Preparation of Leather and Parchment by the Dead Sea Scrolls Community’, Technology and Culture, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter, 1962), pp. 1-26.

Goldsmithing was another unclean craft:  something rather suprising since the goldsmith’s trade came to be closely associated with Jews in Europe:

Our Rabbis taught: He whose business is with women has a bad character, e. g., goldsmiths, carders, [hand mill] cleaners, pedlars, wool-dressers, barbers, launderers, blood-letters, bath attendants and tanners. Of these, neither a king nor a High Priest may be appointed. What is the reason? Not because they are unfit, but because their profession is mean …. It was taught: Rabbi said: No craft can disappear from the world – happy is he who sees his parents in a superior craft and woe unto him who sees his parents in a mean craft. The world cannot exist without a perfume-maker or a tanner – happy is he whose craft is that of a perfume-maker and woe unto him who is a tanner by trade.

(ibid., p10.)

Absence of Jews from our records of the tanners’ trade is  thus not due to social pretension or exlusion by the majority culture, but also a preference dictated by within the Jewish communities.

Apart from this, the information offered about Jewish codicology shows clearly that while the Vms might have its cover of parchment ‘tanned’ in some way, we could discount Latin, Greek and all but eastern Jewish influence for any tanned parchment in the manuscript itself. (so far)

Incidentally, Poole and Reed  also provide a list of those tannin-producing plants  that were available even to so remote as Qumran, by not later than the first centuries AD .

I found that list especially interesting because several of the plants are ones that I had earlier identified among the Vms’ botanical folios, including both oak and sumach.


Our exceptionally well-documented example of Avignon and of how the papal court managed the task of duplicating a great number of manuscripts in short order, using the parchminers’ networks of fourteenth-century France proves that at that time  a majority of its closest parchminers were Jews, having a network of supply so extensive that it could produce the required quantities of prepared and trimmed parchment quires in the relatively short time available. (I haven’t looked for evidence about the binding-leathers). On this see also entries under Les Juifs du pape or the history of Jews in Avignon.

These same manuscripts would become the first core of Rome’s institutional libraries, so it is a little surprising to find later that the Avignon-Jewish style had little direct affect on book-making and later codicology in the Italian peninsula (see previous post for the distinctions).

Coptic mss.

Because the hunt for a ‘tanned parchment’ was hypothetical, I haven’t  refer to Coptic mss. A good bibliography was offered on Alin Suciu’s blog.


2004-2012 bibliography on Coptic Codicology and Palaeography (pdf. immediate download)


Steve Ekwall’s comment on the previous post speaks of heat-treating a manuscript after it has been inscribed. So far I’ve never encountered that treatment in the ‘old world’ but if I do I’ll return and add a note.


One thought on “Codicology ~Tannin

  1. Things I’ve tried for TRUE… my freshwater (fishfilled 300+) pond has 3 different types of “algae” :: actually it IS a ECO-Balanced pond that keeps multiply(ing) Fish and Lillies & Algae
    the ‘Cloud type’ which greens the water, the ~Bloom~ algae which lays on the bottom rocks and is VERY ~slippery~ to step on & the ~”String” ALGAE~ down the water-fall~. IF YOU TAKE STRING ALGAE and Dry-Press between cardboard w stone (i used 3 bricks) till dry (1-4 weeks?) you’ll get an incredibly TEAR RESISTANT Fiber MAT. (BLEACH/SUN Time? may take away the GREEN) goes back BEFORE the seine fiber papyrus?
    THIS IS _NOT TANNING_ – But my wifEy says she wants a Divorce.
    steve (back under my rock) ekwall :-/


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