Starting from scratch

[These posts are drafts for talks planned for September. They describe a hypothetical process of provenancing the VMS. Some of the  matter here is taken from earlier blogposts. Comments and suggested improvements are welcome].

After a century of saturation from the ‘Wilfrid’ story, is it possible to see the manuscript without bias: as if Wilfrid had never seen it, as if the famous (or infamous) letter to Kircher had not been with it… as if it were not laden with a hundred years of speculation, imagination and extrapolation?

Let’s try.

Let’s imagine that  the manuscript has arrived on your desk, or on mine, with no associated information whatever –  not even opinions and conclusions by the present writer. 🙂   The first step is routine. We measure the folios.


The manuscript’s standard folios measure: 225 mm x 160mm.*

* Catalogue entry, Beinecke Rare Books Library, Yale University.

For the next piece of information I have to rely on hearsay, but it will be important: the folios show no sign of trimming – the folios  always had the dimensions they now do:  225mm x 160 mm.


At this stage the dimensions are of less importance than their ratio.

Dimensions  225mm x 160 mm yield the ratio (160/225 =) 0.71, and this alone would incline one to the view that:

(i)  the manuscript’s bifolia were made in the western, rather than in the Islamic, regions and

(ii) more probably  – though not certainly –  closer to the early fifteenth century than to the thirteenth-. This refers to manufacture of the manuscript as such, not to the origin of anything written or pictured in it.

Let me explain.

(i) A ratio  of 0.71 suggests manufacture in the western-  rather than in the Islamic world for reasons best understood by correspondence to manuscripts on paper (I refer to Barrett’s table here, which may be contrasted with that offered by the Institut d’Histoire du Livre  here.)

And the reason for my tentative dating?

(ii) Some time ago I ran a pretty basic survey of the British Library manuscripts and online catalogue, marking those which had one or both dimensions in common with ours. All sorts of imponderables remain, but what was remarkable is that the results turned up just three items as close matches, and all three had been made within three years of one another. Two are on parchment and one on paper.


  • 1437 AD  Italy, N. E. (Venice) ; Latin; Gothic. Parchment codex. Roman martyrology. (2-column format). Brit.Lib. MS Harley 2993 –   225 x 160 (145 x 110);
  • c. 1436 AD  England; French and Latin; Gothic cursive. Parchment codex. Legal texts. (long lines). Brit.Lib. MS Harley 5233 –    225 x 160 (140 x 95);
  • 1438 AD  England ; Latin; Gothic cursive (Secretary). Paper codex.  Brit.Lib. MS Harley 632  – 295 x 220 (220/225 x 150/160).  Contains copies of works by John of Wales, a thirteenth-century Franciscan and contemporary of Roger Bacon. Born in Wales, he died in Paris in 1285. The paper codex was given by Thomas Graunt (b. 1425?, d. 1474), fellow of Oriel College, Oxford to Syon Abbey, Middlesex, founded 1415.[page here]. (long lines)

So – Anglo-French region, somewhere along the routes linking England and Venice.  More likely in the early fifteenth century, and presently a focus on c.1436-1438.

Those three manuscripts, being securely dated, show that ours is appropriate to the period bracketed by radiocarbon data: 1403-1438. *

And we may now pencil in (metaphorically speaking, of course) a possible time and place of manufacture even before having considered the page layout, hands, imagery or anything else:

  • …  Anglo-French /Venetian routes, 1430s.

About now, I think, we might begin making a note when questions  arise, preparing the basis for a more detailed, yet still well-focused, plan of research.

Q.1:  what research has been done into the networks of medieval parchminers and their agents, from the thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries? What evidence have we about the trade in stationery between Venice and the wider Anglo-French region at that time?

Q.2 :  Are any watermarks seen in the paper of the Syon Abbey manuscript?

There is something about MS Beinecke 408 which evokes the twelfth-fourteenth centuries, rather than the fifteenth.  Wilfrid and Panofsky both had an immediate sense that it would be thirteenth century, Steele thought so too, more or less, and though Panofsky modified that opinion by reference to the pigments and to the shapely ladies, he didn’t know (as we now do) that the latter are attested in Catalonia by the mid-fourteenth century.

 Q.3: Was there any particular interest, in the early fifteenth century, in copying thirteenth-century manuscripts? Which? Why? (note: 1436-8 were promising ones for Anglo-French relations.)

We’re still a long way from a final opinion, but a general framework is already emerging – and all we have done so far is to consider the artefact’s dimensions within the wider context, and taking into account any laboratory results.

* yes, I know that one or more among the comparison volumes may have been trimmed to their current size. This is a hypothetical work-through, not a formal argument. (not an argument of any sort, really).

(detail) image of the Voynich manuscript by Folger Museum
(detail) image of the Voynich manuscript on display. Artist unknown.


1.  The McCrone letter gives the manuscript’s external measurements (i.e. those of the limp cover) as 235 x 162, though the cover is presumed later than the rest of the manuscript. However, this is why the measurements given on some Voynich sites differ from those used here. If the cover’s dimensions are taken –  instead of the folios’ –  the ratio becomes  0.869, and the work’s profile becomes rather different.

2. I have not discussed the cover, about which too little is known.  There is a vague comment on the internet that some process “other” than protein analysis was used by some persons unnamed, and that the result of their unspecified test was that the cover’s material is goatskin. Information in that form doesn’t permit proper citation, or attribution, so let’s hope something more solid appears in print soon.

Harley 5233  f 256v
B.L. MS Harley 5233  f.256v. England. c. 1436 AD. Written in French and Latin.



A note in passing, concerning an eleventh century English manuscript. It has “225 mm” in common with MS Beinecke 408, but is of interest because it was carried from England to the continent late in the sixteenth or early in the seventeenth century. It then entered the library of  Jan (John) Moretus, a printer in Antwerp. Jan Hurych has already researched the question of family connections between Jan Moretus and Fr. Theodore Moretus, the friend of Marcus Marci and of Athenasius Kircher. Jan Hurych’s research here.  The manuscript has since been broken in two, one part being B.L. MS Additional 32246  (225 mm x 140mm).

*Having recently accessed some more of the old mailing list files and read the detailed comments made by Philip Neal about the manuscript’s foliation (numbering, in Arabic numerals), I am inclined to accept that those in the Voynich manuscript were probably written in an English sixteenth-century hand and that it may well have been John Dee’s hand.

* Another interesting cluster of B.L. manuscripts which turned up among those having either  225 mm or  160 mm dimensions was one by German-speaking Ashkenazi Jews, whose common language was Yiddish but who wrote in Hebrew and Aramaic. (I list those manuscripts in my post, here).



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