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Description of the Voynich MS

Introduction

The Voynich MS is a parchment codex in octavo, measuring 225 x 160 mm (1). It is about 5 cm thick. It has a parchment cover without any indication of its origin (year, title or author). This cover, which has its own story to tell, is described in more detail at the bottom of this page.

The text block of the MS consists of 102 folios (originally probably 116 of which 14 are missing) organised in 18 gatherings or quires (originally probably 20 of which 2 are completely missing). The MS is written in an elegant, but otherwise unknown script and almost all of its pages contain illustrations of not easily identifiable herbs, constellations or systems of tubes transporting liquids and populated by small female figures. The illustrations are largely unique to this MS, though a number of similarities with illustrations in other manuscripts have been identified (2).

In the following, the composition (collation) of the MS will be looked at in detail, followed by relatively brief descriptions of the illustations and the script. Both of the latter topics will discussed in more detail on dedicated pages.

Terminology

The Voynich MS is a book or codex which is composed of parchment leaves or folios, combined into gatherings or quires. A 'standard' quire in the MS consists of a stack of four sheets or bifolios which is folded in the middle to form 8 folios. Each quire is sewn onto a set of three thongs, at the combined fold. A standard Voynich MS bifolio is roughly 32 cm wide and 23 cm high, meaning that a folio is roughly 23 by 16 cm.

All folios in the MS have writing and/or illustrations on both sides, and the individual sides of each folio will be referred to here as 'pages'. Thus, a standard quire has 16 'pages'. The notation used to identify a 'page' in the Voynich MS is the character f (for folio) followed by the folio number, followed by r (for recto - the front) or v (for verso - the reverse). Thus, the first quire starts with 'pages' f1r, f1v, f2r, f2v, f3r, etc, and ends with f7v, f8r, f8v. The 'pages' f1r, f1v, f8r and f8v together form one bifolio.

The quires in the Voynich MS have been numbered 1 to 20 (with 16 and 18 missing). Like many other medieval codices, several quires in the Voynich MS do not consist of the standard 8 folios. What is more unusual, though, is that several bifolios are wider than the standard size. These have additional folds and consequently more than the normal four 'pages'. They are referred to as foldouts. These foldouts have different dimensions, with widths of the corresponding bifolios ranging from three to five 'pages' (instead of two). In addition, there is one (approximately) 45 by 45 cm bifolio which has an additional horizontal fold.

Foliation

Every folio in the MS has a folio number written on it (3), with the numbering running from 1 to 116, though 14 folios are missing (they are listed here). The corresponding folio numbers are skipped. While these folio numbers are old, it is not likely that they were written by the original author or scribe, but rather by a later owner of the MS. This is discussed further on a page about the origin of the MS.

The old folio numbers have been written in the top right hand corner of every right-hand 'page' in the MS, while the foldouts were completely folded in. This means that they must have been added around or after the time when the codex was first bound in its current form. Due to the various different ways in which the foldout folios have been folded, the side of the leaf on which the folio number appears is not necessarily the recto side.

The official foliation adopted by the Beinecke library follows the old foliation of the MS and the use of r/v as described above, but it does not include a method for identifying individual pages (or panels) that are part of the foldouts. For these, a 'page' identification is used at this web site that is according to a convention that was popularised by Jim Reeds in 1995 (4), but which was already used by Anne Nill during or before the 1960's, as evident from collation notes still preserved in the Beinecke library. When any foldout is completely folded out, to the right of the binding gutter one sees the recto side of this folio. To the left is the verso side of the previous folio. If the folio nr. is n, the recto 'pages' of the foldout are numbered left to right (i.e. away from the binding): fnr1, fnr2, etc. On the verso side (with the binding to the right) the 'pages' are numbered right to left (again away from the binding): fnv1, fnv2, ...

This is illustrated below for the single bifolio in Quire 11, where the red mark represents the binding. To its left we see the standard folio f71 and to its right the multiple foldout folio f72:

The creases of the foldout folios sometimes form boundaries between distinct 'pages' and sometimes do not. That is, continuous lines of writing sometimes (though rarely) cross foldout creases.

A special case is the pair of folios f85 and f86, which form the above-menioned multiple-foldout with the horizontal folding crease. It is explained in detail on a dedicated page.

The above-mentioned convention for numbering individual parts of foldout folios will be used throughout this web site, and has been adopted also in some other internet resources about the Voynich MS, for example the very useful >>Voynich MS browser by Jason Davies (5).

Theodore Petersen's numbering

An additional set of numbers appears in many older photocopies of the Voynich MS. In 1931 Theodore Petersen was allowed to make a complete photocopy of the Voynich MS (6), and all 'pages' were numbered in white ink, and circled, on the negatives (7). These 'page' numbers, running from 1 to 236, were used for several decades after they were introduced, for example in the early computer transcription efforts initiated by William Friedman (8).

Quire marks

Quire marks are written on one folio in each quire. It is not known when or by whom these were written, but they appear older than the folio numbers. They are indicated with an arabic numeral followed by a 9 for Latin -us, and sometimes an 'm' in between (9). Quire marks 16 and 18 are missing, and from the missing folio numbers between quires 15 and 17 and between 17 and 19, one may tentatively conclude that these quires consisted of one bifolio each (which may or may not have been foldout folios), and that they were lost. This also suggest that, at the time when the folio numbers were added, these quires were not missing.

The quire marks are written on the verso side of the last folio of each quire, with two exceptions. One exception is quire 9. In this case the quire number would have been in the 'correct' place if this single-sheet multiple foldout quire had been bound into the MS in a different manner. The other exception is quire 20 (the final quire), where the quire number is on the recto side of the first folio.

Nick Pelling has suggested that the quire numbers are in several different hands (10). What is certain is that quire numbers 19 and 20 are different, because they have not been written as ordinal numbers with the trailing 9 (-us). This topic is treated in more detail on a later page

Illustrations in the Manuscript

Almost all pages in the MS are illustrated. Illustrations of a similar type are mostly grouped together in the MS, although there are a few text-only pages among them. On the basis of these groups of illustrations, one may tentatively identify the following sections in the MS (11):

These groups of illustrations are now summarised in some more detail.

Herbal illustrations

Herbal pages typically contain one, in a few cases also two, page-filling pictures of herbs with some paragraphs of text that carefully avoids the drawings.

About half the pages in the MS are of herbal nature, namely Quire 1 (except f1r which is text-only), all of Quire 2, Quire 3, Quire 4, Quire 5, Quire 6, Quire 7, f57r, f65, f66v, f87, f90 and all of Quire 17.

D'Imperio describes these drawings in Section 3.3.1 (12). More information about the herbal illustrations the MS is provided here.

Astronomical illustrations

Astronomical pages feature drawings of the Sun or the Moon, or arrangements of stars. It is sometimes hard to draw a clear line between astronomical and cosmological pages (see below). The twelve astronomical pages that show illustrations of the zodiac cycle are usually called 'astrological', and are discussed separately.

The following pages are classified as astronomical: f67 and f68, except f67v2 and f68v3 (both cosmological).

D'Imperio describes the astronomical and astrological drawings in Section 3.3.3. More information about the astronomical illustrations in the MS is provided here.

Cosmological illustrations

The use of the term 'cosmological' for these illustrations was first introduced in Newbold (1928) (13). Cosmological pages feature geometric designs which cannot always be easily classified. Most of them are circular, with the notable exception of a large and complicated design of nine connecting circles (also called 'network of rosettes') on a multiple fold-out page.

The following pages are classified as cosmological: f67v2, f68v3, f69, f70r1, f70r2, f85r2, network of rosettes, f86v4 and f86v3

D'Imperio has an extensive description of these drawings in section 3.3.4, calling them cosmological or meteorological. More information about the cosmological illustrations in the MS is provided here.

Astrological illustrations (zodiac signs)

The so-called astrological pages contain concentric circles with 30 small (mostly feminine) figures holding stars, and an emblem of a zodiac sign in the centre. The human figures are very similar to those drawn in the biological section (see below).

The following pages are classified as astrological: f70v2, f70v1, f71, f72 and f73.

More information about the zodiac illustrations in the MS is provided here.

Biological illustrations

Perhaps the most enigmatic section of the Voynich MS is the biological section which contains drawings of human figures (mostly unclothed and mostly female) in arrangements of pipes or vessels, and pools that seem like baths or clouds. The section is also called balneological by some authors. Many illustrations leave the impression of representing an alchemical or natural process, including representations of human organs.

The biological section comprises the entire Quire 13.

D'Imperio describes these illustrations in Section 3.3.5. More information about the biological illustrations in the MS is provided here.

Pharmaceutical illustrations

This section combines collections of apparent containers or jars, and parts of herbs, such as individual leaves and roots.

The following pages are classified as pharmaceutical: f88, f89 and all of Quire 19.

D'Imperio briefly describes these illustrations in Section 3.3.2. More information about the pharmaceutical illustrations in the MS is provided here.

Text-only with marginal stars

Some pages contain only text, with stars drawn in the margin. About half the stars have a red dot in the centre, or are coloured red, and many of them have a tail. This section of the manuscript is at the end, and is usually referred to as the 'recipes' section.

The following pages are text-only with marginal stars: f58 and all of Quire 20 except f116v. D'Imperio mentions these pages in Section 3.3.7.

Text-only

Some pages contain no illustration, but only text.

The following pages are text-only: f1r, f76r, f85r1, f86v6 and f86v5.

Missing folios

The following 14 folios are missing from the MS:

Text and script of the Voynich MS

Almost the entire text of the Voynich MS is written in a script that is not found in any other surviving document. The very few examples of writing in the Latin script are either in the margins, or look as if they have been added by a later owner. Most of the text has been written in a line-by-line manner, undoubtedly from top to bottom and from left to right. There is no sign at all of the application of the usual techniques for creating straight lines in medieval MSs, namely ruling or pricking. On many pages this results in wavy lines, although the left margins of the text is usually quite straight. Especially on the herbal pages it appears as if the illustration (or at least its outline) was on the page before the written text, and the text carefully avoids these illustrations.

The text appears to consist of words separated by spaces. Some of these words are very frequent and may be found throughout the entire MS. Others occur only once in the entire MS. In general, the word frequency distribution shows a continuum which is typical for normal language.

In some places single words are written near elements of the illustrations. These are usually called labels, and this convention will be followed throughout this site. Other more complicated pages containing circular diagrams have parts of the text written along radii or circumferences of these circles. In various places in the MS short words or even single characters in the Voynich script form what may be called 'sequences'.

There are a few fragments of text in the MS which are not written in the Voynich script. Most of this so-called 'extraneous writing' is barely intelligible. This extraneous writing is addressed in more detail on a later page.

About the binding of the MS

The >> Beinecke library description of the Voynich MS calls the cover of the MS a limp vellum cover of the 18th - 19th C. This tells us that the cover is not original to the MS, and in all likelihood replaced an earlier cover. This exchange of the cover of the MS was done by the Jesuits of the Collegium Romanum in Rome. Very similar covers are found on numerous manuscripts that were kept in the same Jesuit library in Rome. The present cover is made of goat skin, as determined in 2014 by Jesse Meyer of Pergamena, a professional parchment maker.

The binding of the MS.

While the cover is described as a limp cover, this is not what it was made to be. It used to be stiffened by filling materials. The cover also shows remnants of paper pastedowns (see right-hand picture above) that have been removed. The pastedowns and the filling materials were most probably removed by Wilfrid Voynich himself, shortly after he acquired the MS.

Details of the stitching are shown in the above illustration (15). The leather thongs were added in the 1960's, and glued on top of the old, possibly even original (fifteenth century) thongs, that were made from some kind of fiber. This was a repair made in order to stabilise the binding. The white thread visible in these figures also dates from the same repair.

There are pencilled annotations on the inside of the front and back covers, which are all from after 1912. On the inside front cover:

J 1022
/ Bsafe
De Ricci Census of MSS Vol. II 1846-7

The handwriting is different for the three items. The code 'J 1022' is similar to annotations found in one other MS once owned by Voynich (16) and this could be one of Voynich's internal catalogue references. The 'Bsafe' entry is not yet understood. The last entry refers to the description of the Voynich MS in De Ricci (1937) (17) and must therefore have been made after 1937. The handwriting is undoubtedly that of Anne Nill.

On the inside back cover we see:

P Some signatures at beginning and end resewn with Irish linen thread
P Vellum cover attached with leather thongs and vellum guards added at beginning and end
HLH
7484

The abbreviation HLH refers to Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, a famous bibliographer who was also a consultant to H.P.Kraus (18). Below the number at the bottom (presumably a catalogue number) there appears to be another erased number.

Collation: visual representation

A visual collation of the MS.

Notes

1
According to the >> Beinecke library description. Originally, I had given the size as 235 x 162, but I have not recorded the source of that information and it was probably less reliable.
2
Some of these are described on a page dedicated to the MS illustrations.
3
The comment in the >>Beinecke digital library that says: "not every leaf foliated" could be misleading. The only missing folio numbers are those from the missing folios. Every folio that is still preserved in the MS has a folio number, usually on the recto side, but occasionally on the verso side.
4
Jim Reeds' work on this topic >>is still preserved here.
5
Occasionally, alternative folio identifications are found in online resouces. These most usually derive from some inaccuracies in earlier versions of the Beinecke digital library.
6
For more information about this, see a later page at this site.
7
Source: Reeds (priv. comm.).
8
The page numbers appearing in Currier's Table A (for which see here) are inconsistent with the Petersen page numbers in the ranges 167-179 and 206-236. He seems to be one page number out of sync in the latter range (source Reeds).
9
See figure 22 in D'Imperio (1978).
10
See Pelling (2004) pp. 15-18. Additional details were presented at the Villa Mondragone in May 2012.
11
See also Fig.4 on p.82 of D'Imperio (1978).
12
See D'Imperio (1978).
13
See Newbold (1928).
14
Newbold did not report these folios as missing in the 1920's. This was almost certainly an oversight, as already noted by Anne Nill. In any case, the removal of three bifolios from this quire in modern times can be excluded from the integrity of the old stitching.
15
Picture taken from my Voynich MS presentation in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, on 11 Nov. 2014
16
Discussed in the course of this page.
17
De Ricci (1937)
18
I am grateful to Mr. D. De Simone of the Folger Shakespeare Library for this information.
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Copyright René Zandbergen, 2016
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Latest update: 03/12/2016