Starting from scratch #3 Binding and quires

It would be perverse to ignore the fact that Beit-Arie has given us a perfect description of the manuscript’s presentation, or more exactly its presentation of the text’s written component.  That description carries with it implications about the history of the work and a possible line of transmission for its content from the eastern to the western sphere – at the very least from the eastern- to the western side of the Mediterranean.  Let me repeat the passage:

In a considerable number of manuscripts, part of which display a vulgar [i.e. of the common people] appearance, no ruling is visible …. Most of these manuscripts were written on paper in the Orient in early times; yet part of them was later produced in Europe by copyists transcribing texts for their own use. When the written lines do not correspond one to another on the two sides of the leaf and their number is not identical, one can inferִ thatִ indeedִ noִ horizontalִ linesִ wereִ ruled.ִ Amongִ theseִ“sloppy” manuscripts in which only the vertical boundary lines, or frame, or portal were traced — 3% without ruled horizontal lines were parchment manuscripts and 11% were paper manuscripts, not taking into account Oriental Geniza fragments.

It was much easier to omit ruling-out on a work written on paper than on membrane, the writer being assisted by the paper’s laid and chain lines.  In the example shown below, you can also see a slight curve in the laid lines. This has been caused by uneven shrinkage as the sheet dried. (see a nice article by Erin Blake, ‘Learning to Read Old Paper’, June 25th., 2012 online.)

codicology paper laid and chain lines detail
detail from an undated sheet of 16th? century paper held in the National Library of Australia.

original image in Susanne Wullan, ‘Where Older is Better’, blogpost, August 11th., 2014. online.

The manuscript’s dimensions as we have it suit an early fifteenth century context, probably from the Latin environment, and within the English-French-North Italian sphere but the folios’ presentation does not.

Manuscripts whose folios present  with an appearance like ours’, with text presented without ruling-out and with so little polish, suggest instead southern France, or Spain, or ‘somewhere southern’ to quote Panofsky.  With the example provided by B.L. MS Additional 30845 (see previous post) it is possible that  some of the precursors could be very early: perhaps as early as the eleventh- or twelfth centuries – but it is too soon to explore that possibility.

Inscriptions of month-names in one section of the manuscript also argue influence from a regional Franco-Spanish dialect (the Occitan family is often mentioned) and more support for southern provenance is found in Panofsky’s attribution of the manuscript.[1] Here it would be helpful to have a more detailed codicological description – a conservator’s description in addition to the catalogue.

As to whether some or most of the contained matter came originally by physical extraction of sections from existing volumes, rather than by transcription, we have the evidence of the “hands” and “languages” as defined by those working on the written text, but in terms of codicology, here we hit another ‘blank wall’ for MS Beinecke 408.

In the usual way we might be able to distinguish the sections  by considering the the book-block, identifying which are most closely connected by matching each quire’s marks from previous binding.

Graphing the manuscript’s physical composition is still a task which remains to be done, and since we have no opportunity to see the book-block, nor to consult the Beinecke conservators in person, so again what follows here is necessarily conditional, dependent on interpreting a single photograph – one which we have courtesy of ORF television, following a documentary which it made some years ago.[2]

Photo Credit: © ORF
Photo Credit: © ORF via

The photograph shows the quires’ disturbed condition. Marks of earlier stitching(s) and damage are not uniform or consistent across the block. It suggests that our current manuscript was made by combining sections from one or more previous volumes, or by binding together a set of once independent “pamphlet”-like  quires grouped in sets of greater or lesser number.

Some individuals having an especially close connection to the Beinecke Library and/or to the media may be able to add useful details here, such as whether the original cord was “S” or “Z” twist, whether the stitching is kettlestitch or herringbone, and the distance between what are known as the stations.  🙂

The photograph below offers a useful contrast to the state of the Voynich manuscript’s quires.  It shows the whole block, quires and stitching, of a thirteenth-century Catalonian copy of  Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. Until its conservation in 1990, this manuscript’s appearance and internal evidence was seen as perfectly compatible with the provenance offered by H.P. Kraus, who believed it made in southern France.

A single small detail noted in conservation told that a more correct attribution is probably to the monastery of Poblet in Catalonia.[3] I use this example because (i) H.P. Kraus also gave the Voynich manuscript to Yale, (ii) this is how earlier books were made in Catalonia, and (iii) to emphasise that a medieval manuscript’s “nationality” relates to geography, not to the political divisions implied by terms such as “Italian” or “German” today.

spine of a Kraus manuscript Etymologies French-Spanish cool conservation-us org
image from article by Abigail Quant (see reference below)

Since we cannot match the relations between quires of the Voynich by noting lines of older binding and stitching on the one hand, and recognised variations of its “hands” and “languages” on the other, we can at least correlate a distribution of those “languages” with their quires and then those with dates obtained for four folios by radiocarbon dating. This may assist in developing a profile of the way the manuscript came to take its present form.

The next post will consider the first set of evidence relating to date and the question of compilation:  ‘Starting from Scratch #3: A gathering of gatherings’.



1. I first encountered the ‘Occitan’ proposal at ciphermysteries, but have learned it was suggested first (c. 1997) by Jorge Stolfi and subsequently by Pelling, since when it has become a standard view, often repeated without crediting Stolfi as first to make the proposal. It appears recently in Stephen Bax’s work online, but for details of the idea’s lineage see the post ‘Jaume Deydier’s “livre de raison”, ciphermysteries (blog), August 22nd., 2009.

2. We owe to the television company ORF the analysis of inks and some pigments by McCrone and radiocarbon dating of four folios. It is important here to note that purpose of these tests was not to obtain independent scientific evaluation of the manuscript, but to assist in the making of a television program.  A formal, scientific analysis requires that the selection of samples conform to certain standard methods, including randomisation.  Since the samples cannot be considered representative in the formal sense, so these tests indicate but do not establish any date and provenance for the manuscript as a whole, except by inference and negative implication. That is, the pigments tested were not inconsistent with a fifteenth-century date, and the radiocarbon dating applies, strictly speaking, only to each of the four individual folios. Since all four came from the top half of the manuscript, it remains possible that the larger part of the manuscript might be found to be earlier or later.  Evidence in favour of consistency comes chiefly from palaeographic analysis. Some time after Pelling had discussed the issue of binding marks and their implication, Zandbergen also added a paragraph to his website, including pictures not available elsewhere. The paragraph does not include technical comment.

3. The conservator of the ‘Poblet’ Etymologies notes:

Poblet was founded in the mid-12th century, as a branch of the mother church of Clairvaux in France, and it was an important center of religion and learning throughout the middle ages. The monastery had a strong connection with other Christian settlements in the province of Catalonia, as well as with those on the Balearic Islands of Iviza, Majorca and Minorca off the southern coast of Spain.

Abigail B. Quandt, ‘The Documentation and Treatment of a Late 13th Century Copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies’, online.


5 Replies to “Starting from scratch #3 Binding and quires”

  1. I understand that someone from a university specialising in the history of printing may be taking up the challenge offered here. It is news “through the back door” – I’m hoping to receive a more open comment or email soon. 🙂


  2. Diane: there are also pictures of the sides of the manuscript in the very latest scans kindly released by the Beinecke (right at the end of the set). You might want to have a look at those… 🙂


  3. Unless the *huge* file shows the signatures, the others appear to show everything *but* the quire-spines. The huge file is a full gig so I didn’t download it. The other three photos show (a) the spine, with quires well covered (b) the base of the manuscript (c) the out-turned side of the manuscript.

    Do you happen to know if the silken-looking hairs on some folios are Japanese tissue? It looks to me as if a lot of repair-work has been done. Not, I hope, before documenting the original.. but with libraries under pressure to assist television men etc., you never know. They may have de-ratty’d it without properly recording the ms’ original state *shudder*.


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