Slow clarity – the not-so-little letters and the “p.u.r/r.o.t” story

fol 9 detail micrographic string and odd letter[correction – on re-reading, I think Ogburn should be credited by default with the ‘pur’ ‘por’ interpretation and have corrected the text accordingly 10.04.2016]

This is a post for finicky types or for those feeling confused.

In a comment left elsewhere, but which fortunately I’ve seen, SirHubert informs me that the less-than-very-tiny letters in folio 9v, and which were once read to mean “r.o.t” are to be read, rather, as “p.u.r”. That is, to mean “pure purple” rather than “red”.

SirHubert says –

… the Latin readings of the letters on this folio are ‘pur’ or ‘por’, not ‘rot’. Which explains why the applied colour is blueish rather than red. If memory serves this confusion goes back some years, possibly to a typo on Ogburn’s site, which I can’t check from here.

‘Voynich Manuscript’ , ciphermysteries (blog), comment #342277 April 8th., 2016 at 5:38pm)

Apart from whether the applied colour is ‘bluish’ rather than plainly blue, this interpretation is not one which crossed my path at all, online, until pretty recently (since 2012-2013) and then not more than once or twice. Probably accidental, but it finds no mention, either, in Nick Pelling’s summary posts of 2010 and 2011. (see more below). In short – it wasn’t an interpretation commonly repeated.  According to my search engine, for what it’s worth – this “por or pur” interpretation of the not-so-tiny letters has now appeared on Voynich ninja and otherwise only turns up for me in connection with SirHubert, who I gather has held steady on the point since reading the 2004 paper by Ogburn.

Elsewhere the “rot” theory was still being promoted as late as 2011. I encountered it on Santacoloma’s mailing list and saw it referred to in other places, including the two posts by Nick Pelling at ciphermysteries. Both posts are still worth reading, so I add links.

‘Letters Hidden in the Voynich Plants’ February 27th., 2010   and  ‘Letters Hidden in the Voynich Plants (yet again)’ – Nov.10th., 2011.

The picture which emerges from the various discussions is a fairly narrow expectation of all Latin European origin and content, but since that had been the most popular theory  from its origin in 1912, that’s  hardly to be wondered at..

2004: Reuben Ogburn posted something on a caltech site about the over-painted letters (or glyphs) on folio 9v (and other folios).  That page, or paper(?) is now gone. The Wayback machine had a few copies, but today the message it returned was  “404- not found on this server” .

O.K. – so…

in (year? ) Sander Manche discussed something related to folio 9v and its overpainted letters, including comment on ‘unusual’ letter or glyph in folio 9v.  Sander’s post and blog are no longer visible.   The ‘unusual glyph’ can be seen as the larger letter in the header  (detail from f.9v) and with other examples from the manuscript here.

2006: Pelling published his book Curse of the Voynich treating those “hidden” or overpainted letters/glyphs.

2010 a post on cipher mysteries recapped the material in the book, together with some more recent thoughts. By that time, apparently, the general impression was that the “r.o.t” idea was the only idea, and was one that had originated with Rene Zandbergen.  Nick wrote:

I don’t necessarily buy into René Zandbergen’s idea that the letter-triple on f9v reads “rot”, an instruction to a German-speaking colourist to paint the drawing’s petals red. (For a start, viola tricolor isn’t even slightly red.

[btw –  the letters aren’t drawn on a flower of Viola tricolor. That misunderstanding is due to the presumptions of any all-European model that each image will represent a single plant, and since V.tricolor‘s flower is included in the group (on the right hand side), so having recognised that flower but no others, all were asserted to be V.tricolor.  V.tricolor’s characteristic yellow ‘tongue’ can be seen on the right, and only one letter is seen there – not on it, but near it.  Just to be clear – D]

viola tricolor


In the same post Nick  directly  quotes a passage where Zandbergen said:

There’s a clear ‘rot’ in the root of f9v (already seen by many) …. and then there’s another ‘rot’ with some individual ‘r’s under the paint of the viola tricolor … and another ‘g’ to the side of the flower on the right.

[again, that ‘flower to the right’ is the V.tricolor- D]

Zandbergen here mentions no one in particular as precedent, nor who had first proposed the idea, but by the following year, when Pelling wrote another post on the subject, a postscript mentioned Ogburn’s paper and linked to it. The link was later crossed out.

2011: In that paper, Pelling says:

The claim that the top left petal [alone?] clearly says “rot” doesn’t really hold up; (b) that there are colour annotations in at least three of the five petals in the same hand; and (c) that the colour annotations are even smaller than the Voynichese text…

He corrects a previous assertion made in the earlier comments, noting that the root“r.o.t” is actually in folio 4v and not folio 9v as per the quoted passage from Zandbergen. Pelling says…:

Let’s move on to the claimed colour annotation in f4r’s root. [as r.o.t] I…

Zandbergen left a comment  on that post, now correctly referring to the root “r.ot.” as in folio 4v, while appearing to distance himself from credit for originally proposing the “r.o.t” idea for folio 9v:

I’m not a paleographer, and I hesitate to argue about the definitive reading of the characters in the viola tricolor (sic.), but there seems to be little doubt possible about the reading of ‘rot’ in the root of f4r.

Point is that so far there’s still no obvious recognition of the “p.u.r’ or “p.o.r” idea.

But apparently it had already been mentioned by Ogburn, who in 2004 had apparently had apparently mentioned it, though he may have neglected to cite some other person or persons as originating the ‘pur’ or ‘por’ idea. As things stand, I think he should be credited in the absence of better information.

This because, in 2014, another comment by SirHubert at ciphermysteries, which appears to a page entitled  ‘Voynich Theories’  says (Nov. 30th., 2014. Comment #313017):

Reuben Ogburn used to have a website which listed those letters of which he was aware, but you now need to use the Wayback Machine to find it. He names Philip Neal as an authority for suggesting ‘the identifications of ‘g’ / green and ‘rot’ / red, [which ones?] and Gabriel Landini as the first to read another instance of ‘rot’ in the red-coloured root of f7r. [note: 7r not 4 or 9v  – D] Ogburn does also identify ‘pur’ / purple in f9v and f32r without mentioning who, if anyone, had previously found these letters or suggested the interpretations. The version of Ogburn’s site I found was from 2004.

– so no,  if Ogburn wasn’t the first to propose the ‘pur’ or ‘por’ interpretation, whose proposal could it have beeni?  Philip Neal’s? Or maybe it was Zandbergen, after all? He is mentioned along with Landini as taking individual letters as ‘g’ etc., butI can find no mention of  it on  Neal’s web-pages (dated 2002-2011).

Red, Purple, or whatever… Does it matter?

Does it matter that there are only three opinions here – apparently.  One is by a person who has faded into the mists and who first proposed the German “r.o.t” idea for folio 9v.  The only person credited with it as far as I know is Zandbergen, who was by implication credited by Pelling.

Another opinion is perhaps by Neal or someone else, and who proposed “p.u.r” or “p.o.r”.

The third opinion is that of an eminent palaeographer who says it looks like an effort to write, or to copy Hebrew script, (details in previous post).

The first two ideas suit an ‘all-Latin’ theory of the manuscript and of them the first by that anonymous person supported a German theory.

The third seems better to agree with Panofsky’s assessment and, incidentally, perhaps also with the “England of Bacon’s time” idea first proposed by Wilfrid Voynich and so commonly endorsed until after the second world war when the cryptanalysts pretty much took the manuscript to their collective bosoms.

In trying to decide which opinions I’d be more willing to rely upon, and being always more inclined to accept the views of independent, professional, experienced persons working within their own area of expertise, and with no particular interest in theory-driven arguments, I decided that I should trust Neal’s views as fairly derived; but would trust Panofsky’s assessment of the content as southern (Sephardi) Jewish, and would certainly trust the non-emphatic assessment of the professional codicologist. Plus, oddly enough, I’d trust those others who saw the work as thirteenth-century in presentation, and probably English.  (We know, though, that these are comments on the *content* not on the manufacture of the current manuscript.

So – to test this, I looked for a Jewish manuscript written in England before Bacon’s death.  And in the first reference I found online – the comparisons shown below.


viola tricolor letter f9vfol 9 detail micrographic string and odd letterodd letters fol 9v etc

Perhaps I’ve become too cynical, but I am prepared to find that all the expert opinions, and these examples, will be more likely than not ignored, or passed over in favour of the popular story-line, one likely to be “deemed true’ as if historical truth were established by popular vote.

So far the love of a pet theory has managed to overcome all evidence, all argument and all explanation of the imagery, no matter how detailed.

At present, it looks as if the ‘German theory’ is about to deem a reptile a sheep. 🙂

The source from which I have the comparative examples is:

Edna Engel, ‘Hebrew Scripts in Medieval Catalonia’, Actes I Congres per a l’estudi dels Jueus en territori de Llengua Catalana’.

and in case you have better luck, thanks to another blog, ‘Some Voynich Ideas’, here’s the original address for Ogburn’s paper:

and the Wayback address







One thought on “Slow clarity – the not-so-little letters and the “p.u.r/r.o.t” story

  1. I should make the point that the palaeographer’s opinion was given ONLY about the letters in, or adjacent to the image on folio 9v, an image which is anomalous for a number of reasons. I do not dispute that we find, in numerous medieval Latin herbals, inscriptions in not-so-tiny letters which instruct the painter and that these may be in Latin or a vernacular language.


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