Starting from scratch #7 “..Seeking the Voynich hand”

It is proving difficult to narrow the provenance of our manuscript. The dimensions suggest northern Italy in the 1430s, but the work’s appearance suggests the type of ‘viliores’ or commoner’s book, from outside the culture of northern Europe, and most probably of Jewish making or content.

Lacking, as we do, the usual technical evaluations* – that is, a codicologist’s description of the binding, of the quires, and of the palette, and with the radiocarbon tests shedding no light on the question of composition versus compilation, so we must now turn to the opinions of early experts, and the evidence of palaeography.

*technical evaluation” –  in the style of e.g. Nadezhda Kavrus-Hoffmann, ‘Greek Manuscripts at Dumbarton Oaks: Codicological and Paleographic Description and Analysis’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 50 (1996), pp. 289-312.(as random example)

Please note – if you didn’t see the earlier posts.  This series offers an idea of how research into this manuscript *might* have gone if it hadn’t been very early de-railed by Wilfrid Voynich’s romantic history for the work and the raft of consequent assumptions. I am not a palaeographer; in the usual way I should have no involvement in this part of a work’s provenancing, except to read the specialist’s report.

  While Beit Arié and Panofsky are surely our best guides to the work’s general character –  and so it seems that the default assumption at present should be that MS Beinecke 408 is  probably a Jewish work, or a work derived from Jewish sources – we should still  consider some of the other early opinions offered as we seek the origin of the unusual style for the ‘Voynich script’.

One of the names which cropped up early was Ramon Lull’s, and more recently Luis Vélez, in particular, brought it back into discussions on the old mailing list – in 2002.[1]  In 2004, an author named Mario M Perez Ruiz published a book which roped in more glamorous names to add to those adorning Wilfrid Voynich’s romance, and attributed the work to Llull.  For interest, then, here is a pseudo-Llullian “Book of secrets” from the early fifteenth century.  The manuscript is held by the Chemical Heritage Foundation [CHF] library in Philadelphia.

Liber secreti naturali NW Italy c.1438 Philadelphia Chemical Heritage Foundation Lib Othmer MS 1

Liber secreti naturali, Italy, c.1438.   Philadelphia CHF Library,  Othmer MS 1….  follow link for enlarged image. Photography courtesy of the ‘recipes’ blog interview.

script pseudoLull CHF Othmer 1 detail

(detail) showing script used in CHF Lib., Othmer MS 1.  (c.1438)


Before the sixteenth century there are four handwriting styles (“hands”)  by which Latin texts are described. The earlier three are named Textura, Anglicana and Secretary, with a ‘Humanist’ hand developing from about the fifteenth century.

Many online sites will explain and illustrate the four in detail, so instead I’ll begin showing some manuscripts on paper from the fifteenth-century Latin environment, concentrating on those made for an individual’s use.   What we’ll see is that the statement so often repeated that the Voynich script is a “humanist” Latin hand is not an idea which stands up to investigation.  It seems to have been adopted from an assumption that Wilfrid’s idea of the manuscript as the work of an English Franciscan named Roger Bacon was scarcely doubted, and since the Voynich script is obviously not like any other of the three Latin ‘hands’, the ‘humanist’ description was applied, by default. But warning bells should have sounded long ago; Bacon died a century and more before we see any “humanist hand” in Europe, let alone in England. And in any case, the Voynich script isn’t like that fourth type of Latin hand either.

THE BEINECKE LIBRARY has a few manuscripts on paper made for the use of ‘humanists’ and students in the fifteenth century. 

The contents in all are transcriptions of earlier works or, as in one case that I shall cite, of earlier works by the same writer.  The manuscripts’ simple presentation and lack of ornament does at first glance suggest some kinship with MS Beinecke 408, and the first example shown below (MS Marston 48) even has  ‘paragraph’ spaces – still fairly unusual in Latins’ manuscripts.  A closer look reveals, however, that even these show evidence of their precedents in mainstream Latin works – as for example their continuing to add rubrication (now rudimentary) to their initial letters. These conventions, however, are quite absent from the written text in MS Beinecke 408 and altogether its ‘hand’ it doesn’t sit at all well within that evolving tradition.

detail Marston Humanist

(detail) Marston MS 48, pp.3v-4r.  Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Yale. 290 x 107 (ca. 240 x 85) mm. ‘Humanist hand’ – Greek transcription and Latin translation.


detail Humanist Beinecke Mellon 14

(detail) MS Mellon 14. f. 4r (c.1475) Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Yale. 215 x 143 (148 x 90) mm.

The first of those examples, only, has its guidelines impressed, and shows an apparent reliance on the paper’s chain- and laid- lines to guide the writer.  In each of the other examples (below) the guidelines and layout (known as ‘scaffolding’) are still marked by ruling and/or pricking, in the custom which continued for Latin works into to the sixteenth century – although I haven’t entirely forgotten that the Voynich manuscript’s binding may conceal one set of pricking lines, indicating use of an eastern type of guide. All these Latin works,however, can be seen as descending from Latin tradition, and may be practically compared with that manuscript from Mont St. Michel which was illustrated earlier.

The Voynich manuscript’s scaffolding is not of that type, and neither is its script.

script detail fol

Latin works of the fifteenth century form each letter  sharp-looking and angular, with the verticals emphasised and downstrokes formed by distinctly heavier pressure.  Verticals formed the backbone of a Latin text, and give the page its distinctive look. The Voynich letters were not formed so, even though we are told that present text was written with a quill pen and not, say, an Islamic qalam.

Here are a few more examples of Latin script; only that written in late fifteenth century Cracow shows any marked departure from the usual Latin style.  The individual letters have their angularity somewhat softened in a few formal Latin works of the early ‘humanist’ hand (such as this), but never to the point of resembling the curious (and sometimes apparently retrograde) flow which informs the script in MS Beinecke 408.


detail Beinecke scholars notebook

(detail) MS Beinecke 225 f.2r (1422). 217 x 150 (ca. 165 x 120) mm.

From same manuscript, here is a page written by the student in Cracow(1422).

detail MS Beinecke 225 f.101v

(detail) MS Beinecke 225 f.101v. 1422. 217 x 150 (ca. 165 x 120) mm.


folio 77r detail

(detail) fol.77r MS Beinecke 408. 225 mm x160 mm

Spaces left between words in the Latin texts are far less noticeable than in MS Beinecke 408, where gaps are sometimes as wide as the ‘word’ following and are regularly as wide as three or more glyphs. They form, as it were, white rivers through the text, most like what we see in some printed pages.

The Voynich script also shows  a more nearly equal weighting given the letters’ vertical, horizontal and curved components, though overall the curved line predominates. In this regard, an interesting question arises, about whether early printing led to the development of the more evenly-weighted “humanist” hand, or whether the opposite dynamic applies. Anything to do with fifteenth century printing is of interest, here, because of the condition of our manuscript’s quires – as we’ve seen.

Two more examples from the Latin environment before moving beyond it to look elsewhere for a “hand” similar to the Voynich script, no matter what its first language.

Nicholas of Lyra (1270–1349)  was  born in the Anglo-French region and was Jewish by birth. Converted to Christianity, he eventually became a Franciscan friar,  taught at the Sorbonne (though too late to meet Roger Bacon) and rose to become head of the Franciscan religious order.   For an example of a manuscript of his time, see the Bodley manuscript linked (no details offered there):  Bodleian MS ?. f.?  ) Its scaffolding is classically European -and- Byzantine, a character which – as I’ll show later – is shared by formal productions from the northern French and German Ashkenazic Jewish manuscripts.

Another Latin manuscript, known as the ‘Melisende Psalter’  was actually made in the eastern Mediterranean to the order of Latin occupation forces, but by local scribes, during the twelfth century.  Part of folio 48 is shown below (BL MS Egerton 1139). The spacing is greater, and the distinction less between vertical and other elements, but the ‘sharpness’ of letters remains, even if somewhat softened in a way reminiscent of Irish and Carolinian texts. This is not quite what we’re looking for either, it seems to me.

Melisande detail f48r





1. d’Imperio wrote: “In his scholarly and wide-ranging background research, Petersen studied the works of Ramon Lull and St. Hildegard of
Bingen, magical manuscripts such as Picatix, astrological, alchemical and herbal writings and the works of  Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon. There is, unfortunately, nowhere in the material available to me any report of theories Petersen may have held or conclusions he may have reached concerning the decipherment of the manuscript. At his death, his papers were given to William Friedman..” Elegant Enigma (1978) p.41.

Later discussion of Llull and pseudo-Lull in relation to the Voynich ms –  see



Useful online sites:  Covers English and Continental, formal and informal styles.

For a guide to English hands see

 M. B. Parkes’s Their Hands Before Our Eyes: a closer look at scribes (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008)

others are:


a good survey of the ‘humanist’ hands:



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