Those who’ve heard that the material used for the Voynich manuscript’s cover has been identified as goatskin may be wondering what to make of the information.
Of the material itself, not much can be said, for sheep- and goatskin- were both commonly used for vellum as for covering materials.
On this point see, just for example, the references and the procedure considered recently when an English Gothic manuscript held by the State Library of Victoria was to be rebound. (The manuscript is de Guileville’s Pilgrimage of the Lyfe of the Manhode and Pilgrimage of the Sowle).
If you prefer not to follow links, a primary source cited is:
J. A. Szirmai, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding, Aldershot, Hants, England; Brookfield, Vermont, USA, 1999
Although most goatskin bindings from the medieval era and earlier were coloured alum-tawed skin, the custom today is to make modern re-bindings of white.
The manuscript mentioned above is one example; another typical example being this fifteenth century manuscript (Walters Ms. W.764) which was re-bound for the Walters Art Museum in 1985 – again with ” white goatskin over wooden boards” .
When we go back looking for original use of white bindings, and of white goatskin bindings for manuscripts having dimensions close to that of MS Beinecke 408, things become somewhat more interesting.
Having run the search ‘white’ for bindings on the British Library Illuminated Manuscript’s site, and then cross-referenced with page-size close to the Vms’, I came up with a couple of the Egerton MSS.
Just to recap: the measurements given by the holding library for the Voynich manuscript’s folios … 225 mm x 160 mm.
White-bound manuscripts which turned up in the online search. Entries in bold have folios of closely similar dimensions to the Vms’.
B.L. MS Additional 19943 Nathan ben Joel Palquera, Tzorei ha-guf (The balms of the body), written in Italy; 1447. Binding: Post-1600. White leather, tooled. .Dimensions 380 x 275 (240/235 x 155)
B.L. Additional 26773 Robert of Greatham , Miroir des Domees , a collection of sermons in rhymed couplets, some with exempla. England; 2nd quarter of the 13th century. Original binding of wooden boards with white sheepskin covers. Dimensions 200 x 140 (160 x 110/15) in two columns.
Additional 45103 Pseudo-Phrygius; Wace; various authors, Hystoria Troianorum et Grecorum ; Roman de Brut; miscellany of Anglo-Norman verse (‘Penrose’ or ‘Wakefield’ manuscript), England: S.E. (Canterbury?); 4th quarter of the 13th century. Binding: Post-1600. Half binding of white pigskin. Dimensions 360/5 x 255 (290 x 160/80).
Additional 47967 ff. 2-87 Orosius, Historum adversum paganos (the ‘Tollemache, Helmingham, or Lauderdale Orosius’), England, S. (Winchester?); Between c. 892 and c. 925. Pre-1600. The Anglo-Saxon boards covered, probably in the 15th century, by white leather with metal clasps. Dimensions 280 x 190 (210 x 130).
Additional 47967 f. 1-1v Drawings England; 2nd half of the 10th century. Binding Pre-1600. The Anglo-Saxon boards covered, probably in the 15th century, by white leather with metal clasps inscribed ‘Ihc’ and ‘M’. Dimensions 280 x 190 (210 x 130).
Egerton 266. Michael Attaleiotos [Attaliates?], Opus de Jure, or Pragmatica, Eastern Mediterranean; 15th century. Bindings: Pre-1600. White leather over pasteboard. Dimensions 350 x 235 (220 x 120).
Henry Davis Collection 80 Glossed Ezekiel, with the prologue of Jerome, England, N. (Yorkshire, Fountains abbey); 2nd half of the 12th century. Binding: Late 12th or early 13th-century white deer(?) skin. Dimensions 295 x 200 (various).
Egerton 665 Isidore, Etymologiae, France; last quarter of the 13th or 1st quarter of the 14th century. Pre-1600. White leather over wooden boards. Dimensions 215 x 160 (145 x 100).
Egerton 772 Martyrologium, etc. France, N. E.? (Troyes?); last quarter of the 13th or 1st quarter of the 14th century. Binding Pre-1600. White leather. Dimensions 300 x 205 (220 x 165) in two columns.
Egerton 855 Bible (ff. 1-455), with tables of the ecclesiastical lessons, and the office of the Mass, Germany, S. ( Bayreuth?); 1436. Binding: 16th-century white leather over boards. Dimensions 390 x 270 (300 x 210) in two columns.
Egerton 1122 Gospel Lectionary for Lent Germany or Austria; 2nd half of the 15th century. Binding: Pre-1600. Blind-tooled white leather, in the centre of each cover heraldic arms. Dimensions 185 x 140 (135 x 90).
Egerton 1624 inside covers Former pastedowns; fragments of a noted Antiphonary England; 12th century. Binding: White leather over wooden boards. ppre-1600. Dimensions 220 x 165.
Egerton 1624 1-218v Astrological-medical miscellany, including Henry Daniel, treatise on urines, calendar, etc. England; 15th century or 1st quarter of the 16th century. (as above) Dimensions 220 x 165.
Egerton 1895 Old Testament (volume 1), Genesis to Ruth, with prologues, Germany, S. (Regensburg); 1465. Binding: c. 1500? blind-tooled white pigskin over wooden boards. Dimensions 375 x 275 (260 x 85) in two columns.
Egerton 1896 Old Testament (volume 2), from Psalms, Germany, S. (Regensburg); 1465. Pre-1600. c. 1500? blind-tooled white pigskin over wooden boards. Dimensions 375 x 275 (260 x 85) in two columns. Dimensions 370 x 280 (265 x 190) in two columns.
Egerton 2204 Bede, In Lucam, England, S. (Reading); 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century. Binding: Contemporary binding: oak boards covered in white leather. Dimensions 320 x 200 (225 x 145) in two columns.
Egerton 2733 Cartulary of Peterborough abbey, with table of contents, 60 royal and papal charters, and miscellaneous additions England; 3rd quarter of the 13th century, soon after 1253. Binding: Contemporary(?) white tawn leather over wooden boards. Dimensions 90 x 65 (60 x 40).
Egerton 2782 Haymo, Commentary on Isaiah, England, S.; 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century. Binding. Pre-1600. White leather. Dimensions 360 x 260 (255 x 180) in two columns.
Egerton 2901 Decretals, an anonymous collection, the latest being attributed to Pope Lucius III (1181-1185), with marginal gloss
France or England; last quarter of the 12th century or 1st quarter of the 13th century, after 1181. Binding: Post-1600. German 17th-century in white doe-skin, blind-tooled, with thongs; red edges. Dimensions 240 x 155 (140 x 70).
Egerton 3031 ff. 3-71v Cartulary of Reading abbey, with lists of the libraries at Reading and its cell at Leominster, and of relics and vestments at Reading
England, S. (Reading); last quarter of the 12th century, probably c. 1180-1190. Binding 13th-century? oak boards covered with white leather; strap-fastening. Dimensions 285 x 205 (230 x 135).
If the subject makes your research nerve twitch, there is a deceptively simple blog-post written by Janneka Janzen which is well worth looking at before you embark. ‘ Judging a Book by its Cover: Manuscript Bindings Without Bling’ (May 30th., 2014)
And just so that we don’t become myopic – goatskin was obtained then, as now, from north Africa and was also used for Ethiopian and Coptic manuscripts. Sadly, the two last ancient literary traditions are under attack, and sacred manuscripts preserved for a thousand years are being dispersed through the internet.
See for example these manuscripts.
And for some idea of how early goatskin was used for vellum and/or covers, consider the Codex Zacynthius, whose vellum is dated to the 6th or 7th C AD. Read more.