Codicology – DIY books

Medieval Latin Europe had  effectively no tradition of do-it-yourself books until late in the thirteenth century, and then they are fairly rare. The Vms parchment dates it to c.1405-1438.

This is an important point, given that the first impression received by a modern viewer is that the manuscript resembles a personal notebook or exercise-book, though yet lacking the usual signs that its quires were bought ready for use.  Its edges, for example, are untrimmed, or so I’m told.

For a time the idea that the manuscript may have been made by a child was popular, but is anachronistic for those times and less often proposed these days.

In the Latin and Greek traditions, an individual’s being permitted to write on parchment was a sign that he was engaged in higher studies or wrote as part of a formal occupation. Once more it is Beit-Arié’s recent study which offers a good, broad comparative treatment of the matter, his comments on the Latin- and Byzantine traditions reflecting what is now the  opinion.

Latin manuscripts were manufactured and usually kept in ecclesiastical, institutional, and authoritative bodies. In the early Middle Ages they were mainly produced in monastic scriptoria where canonical books were copied according to ecclesiastical needs and to the functions of the monastery library or commissioned by other monasteries. Books [of the Latin tradition] were frequently kept and used in the same location where they had been produced. Later, Latin books were manufactured in religious schools and from the thirteenth century and onwards they were also produced in a well-organized and controlled framework by the newly-established universities.[see ‘pecia‘ in section below, quoted from Clement]

Only towards the late Middle Ages were Latin manuscripts manufactured and disseminated in considerable numbers through private enterprise, to a large extent in secular copying centres and large-scale ateliers. Latin books were preserved at that time in ecclesiastical, royal or aristocratic collections, as was done in Islamic countries.

Though many Church dignitaries and members of the aristocracy set up private collections, these can be considered institutional libraries. Indeed, the later Italian libraries established by princely initiatives under humanistic influence are nowadays regarded as the precursors of public or state libraries.

This explains why Latin manuscripts are so easily identified by locality and why they are, within a given area,  so uniform in appearance in any given century.

At the same time, this institutional nature of books in the Latin and Greek tradition explains the ease with which we can track lines of transmission – because books were not perceived as portable objects, apart from such things as friar’s breviaries or the occasional technical notebook (zibaldone) – so there are scarcely more than a handful of self-made books to be accounted for.

One might expect from our customs today that a student’s notebook would be among such self-made books, but there existed a general rule still echoed in our universities today, by which any written work produced in association with one’s studies remained the property of the institution concerned. It was a rule adopted from a dictum first pronounced in early monastic Ireland: ‘to each cow its calf’ and it remained strictly in force at least as late as the end of the fifteenth century, when Marsilio Ficino was denied permission to take with him, on leaving the Medici’s employ, copies of any of the Greek or Latin texts which he had translated for them, being allowed to remove only notes made as aide-mémoires in delivering tutorials.

Despite my labours these past five years, the general idea remains firmly set in Voynich studies that every aspect of the Voynich manuscript must, in some way, conform to the Latin manuscript traditions.  As a result, not only the ‘hands’ but the imagery is presumed (as it were) the property of some ‘nation’ of Europe, though Europe’s nations scarcely existed in the fifteenth century. Italy was not unified by any one ruler and contained a variety of local towns, allegiances and dialects descended from Latin. The same was true of any other region of Europe, a ‘nation’ defined purely by language and ‘nationality’ (such as it was) and simply by reference to whatever king presently claimed the land on which one lived.  Added to this, the reticular patterns of connection in medieval Europe mean that regardless of the regional style informing a person’s handwriting, the cleric or clerk might be assigned to serve elsewhere, whether a  Genoese assigned to Caffa,  a German friar to England, a secretary in  service to a lord residing temporarily in the middle east.

This is why the manuscript’s basic codicology is so important: the nature of parchment and the book-maker’s habits tell us with more certainty than the handwriting will, just where the manuscript is most likely to have been made. Where the pigments were added is another question again, though as I write I see a comment that the manuscript’s white pigment is thought to contain chalk.*

*’Evidence of bifolio reordering in the Voynich Manuscript…’, Cipher Mysteries, May 30th., 2013. Note by N.Pelling: June 8, 2013)


As we’ve seen in connection with the Voynich in the seventeenth century and the Avignon papal library in the fourteenth, any  direct transmission of  an original manuscript by road or by sea was rare, partly by reference to an assumption that a book was a sedentary object and partly because the perils attending transport by land or by sea were real and widely recognised.

The result of all this is that scholarly compendia might be made by an individual in Greek or Latin, but as a rule only by being closely associated with the holding library, and even in that case the permission might be conditional as it was for Ficino while resident with the Medici. Ink and parchment was not cheap, and maintenance of the copy on the visitor’s departure would appear to have been the norm. Otherwise, one might write whatever another had in memory – and remember that the whole of Ibn Battuta’s travels, like those of Marco Polo, appear to have been recorded in that way.

Finally, a copy might be commissioned by persons with sufficient social and financial means, or it might be presented by the persons holding the original.  Again, the result was more likely to be retained in a library than carried about by persons of the Latin or Byzantine world. Books were not perceived or imagined portable in the way we do today.

This alone makes the Voynich manuscript unusual, and is a feature of the work which must be accounted for. It is not enough to imagine a roving herbalist or anything of that kind: the type has to be located in its historical and codicological class.

Things had changed only slightly by the seventeenth century;  it was still from private libraries and not from booksellers that Rudolf purchased his books – and as far as we know never from anonymous peddlars demanding extraordinary sums for unprepossessing florilegia, written in a script which one doubts Rudolf could have read ~ and this not even if the hawker promised protection from plague or a bestowal of deep alchemical secrets.

Books generally passed directly from one library to another, or were bequeathed.  Effectively a hand-to-hand passage of books, which was necessary not least as a guarantee that the text would be accurate, and that is why I have emphasised in previous posts that in the case of the Voynich manuscript the pattern for  transmission until its purchase by Wilfrid Voynich is more easily intelligible without Mnishovsky’s story than with it.

When that story is removed, what we find is that each of the persons who certainly owned, or had  it,  apparently received it from their predecessor, who like them in each case is found to be a man of upright character, dedicated to ‘alchemical’ pharmacy, and within the social circle of the Jesuit community, some having had an opportunity to be ordained – which at the last stage they decided against in favour of medicine.  This pattern is so regular, that it is maintained even after Horckicy’s death and although the next two persons in succession could not read the text: I mean Baresch and Marci.

There is a possibility that the last pages of the manuscript list the books in the collection from which the manuscript came. Beit Arie is speaking both generally here, and specifically of Jewish books.

(The first paragraph is altered  slightly for grammatical reasons):

Scholars, literati, or anybody (regardless of religion) who could read and write – and this included women in certain areas such as  Italy from the late thirteenth century and onwards – had just three options if they wished to obtain a copy of any text : The first was to locate an existing copy and try to purchase it from its owner. Naturally such acquisitions were limited by the availability of the book in a given region, and the chances of finding a specific text – unless it was a common one – were meagre. One may suppose that many books were acquired at random because they were obtainable.

Beside the acquisition by purchase, books were largely inherited. According to many inscriptions and book lists in Italian books, the library of the deceased was usually divided among his heirs.

With regard to Jewish collections in Egypt, in Italy and in Spain:

Deeds of sale and records of ownership transfers [that are] inscribed in many manuscripts, along with the scarcity of evidence to a Hebrew book trade in Europe and North Africa, suggest that used books were usually acquired directly from their owners and not through book dealers.

In Europe – particularly in Italy – such lists are found on blank pages in manuscripts, where an owner registered his private library. He might list the books in his possession just by their titles, or add some codicological or even palaeographical information such as their writing material, their binding or the type of script. In the Middle East book lists were registered separately, some of them apparently prepared by book dealers. The extant examples [of Hebrew lists] were recovered from the Cairo Geniza, where dozens of letters relating entirely or partially to the commissioning and copying of manuscripts were found. Latin inventories of large Jewish private libraries, recorded and deposited in Christian archives for legal reasons, survived in Italian archives and more so in Spanish ones.

– Just a thought, but the accession code given ms Beinecke 408 by the Jesuits or papal librarians begins with a ‘J’ whose reference is so far unexplained.

From the Cairo geniza we have ample evidence of a regular, constant and steady connection between Jewish mercantile families of Spain, north Africa, the Yemen and India up until the twelfth century, the same texts demonstrating that beyond the Mediterranean, co-operation and apparently easy relations existed across the various religious groups there – something inconceivable for mainland Europe:

Most of the India traders’ correspondence that was preserved in the Geniza dates from 1090 to 1160; Almohad violence brought an end to the shipping trade by non-Muslims by 1247. Yet, until then, Jewish and Christian traders could send goods across the Indian Ocean to a variety of ports, and Prof. Friedman notes that scholars observe “an astonishing degree of interdenominational cooperation, matched by almost complete absence of animosity against other communities.” Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Christians appear in the documents as partners, united in the pursuit of commerce and in the hope of avoiding death and property loss at sea. (from Synagogues of Kerala website)

The Geniza letters also confirm something attested by many other sources – that the ‘oriental’ trading families and sea-lanes included Sicily:

 Joseph Yiju wrote in a letter to his son Moses, who was taken captive by pirates but later released while traveling east from Sicily. (ibid.)

A system somewhat like the pecia system of western Europe was clearly operating much earlier in Jewish communities and indeed we have testimony from the Roman period in Egypt that there already existed there by the 2ndC AD the system described in the second paragraph below.

The individual circumstances of [medieval] Hebrew book production are firmly attested by some 4,000 colophons  that have survived in extant medieval manuscripts. ..All these manuscripts were privately and personally produced, apart from a few codices written for a community or a synagogue. Less than half were copied by professional, semi-professional or even casual scribes commissioned by private people …  the rest were prepared by learned users of books or scholars for their personal use [in marked contrast to the Latin habit, these were retained by the scholar]  …The great majority of the colophoned manuscripts with no mention of their destination must have been user-produced, since it is inconceivable that a hired scribe should omit from his colophon the mention of whoever had commissioned the book and remunerated him…

A highly professional scribe may have prepared copies of popular and much sought-after books in advance for chance buyers or book dealers without being commissioned a priori. Considering the meagre evidence relating to book trade this could have applied to a mere small portion of the colophoned manuscripts. An indisputable example is preserved in the colophon of a Spanish undated fifteenth-century manuscript containing a compilation in Kabbala. The scribe explicitly states he wrote the book for “anyone who would want to purchase it”.

What the earlier example from Roman Egypt shows, is a custom of  hawkers taking scrolls (as they then were) from door to door and if the person did not wish to purchase the whole, he might order on pre-paid commission whichever extracts from one or more which he found of interest ~  commissioned ‘florilegia’.

More than a thousand years later, this is (still?) the case in the jewish community, and its emergence in the Latin universities sees it described as the ‘pecia’ system.

When we consider the amateur appearance of the manuscript, but the highly accomplished script and accurately reproduced imagery (particularly within the botanical section), so our options are narrowing for its likely source as a florilegium containing much in both style and content displaying influence from the eastern seas, but made – as it might be –  on parchment of a style seen only in what had been the Norman realm of France or in the Yemen. (given lack of detailed codicological description, this remains a possibility rather than a certainty).

Pecia: part of a long article by Richard W. Clement (whole is online).

With the Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century, there was a shift away from the monastic scriptoria, as cathedral schools became more important and as cities developed notarial needs. By the end of the twelfth century monastic scriptoria had entered a period of dormancy that would only end in a brief flurry of activity in the fifteenth century. The newly established orders of friars (Franciscans and Dominicans) stimulated the book trade beyond the monasteries because they had no scriptoria of their own, but had need of books. Thus they had to obtain their books outside of their orders. As they favored small books, which they could easily carry, the production of smaller books was stimulated. At the same time the nascent universities created a new reading public. New texts, reference works, and commentaries were required for scholastic study, and these works were not the kind produced in monastic scriptoria. The new secular book trade became a licensed appendage of the university, consisting of stationers, scribes, parchment makers, paper makers, bookbinders, and all those associated with making books. They enjoyed certain rights such as an exemption from taxes and the right to be tried in university courts. A stationer was appointed only after an enquiry to confirm his good standing and professional ability. He had to provide guarantees and take an oath. Books tended to be sold and resold through many generations and it was the stationer’s responsibility to sell a book and buy it back and sell it again, and so forth. He could buy and sell only under certain conditions: he had to advertise the titles he had in stock, prices were fixed, and students and professors received discounts. In order to produce the large numbers of textbooks required by students and maintain their textual accuracy, the pecia system of copying was instituted.  The system began in about 1200 and ended in about 1350 in the North, and about 1425-50 in the South. It existed in at least eleven universities (seven in Italy, two in France, and one each in Spain and England) and probably many others. The stationer held one or more exact copies (the exemplar) of a text in pieces (hence pecia), usually a gathering of four folios (sixteen columns) or perhaps six folios. Each column had to have a certain number of lines (usually sixty), and each line a certain number of letters (usually thirty). Each exemplar was examined to ensure it was correct, and any exemplar found to be incorrect resulted in a fine for the stationer. Each part was rented out for a specific time (a week at Bologna) so that students, or scribes, could copy them. This way a number of students could be copying parts of the same book at the same time. Stationers were required to rent pieces to anyone who requested them, and the charges were fixed (e.g., at Treviso in 1318 the charges were six pence for copying, and two pence for correcting). The size of books began to decline, and script became more compact and the number of abbreviations increased. The two-column format became the norm, and ornament was almost abandoned on all books with the exception of the luxury trade. Soft cover bindings tended to replace wooden boards, and parchment became progressively thinner as the number of folios per gathering increased.

Query #5 – Is there any objective evidence (not simply a modern viewer’s impression) which points to this as a ‘home-made’ work rather than one professionally produced, either in segments or as a whole’?

Notes: I have not considered the situation of someone such as Poggio Bracciolini, who was in a position to make florilegia to order and who certainly had the professional skill to write in the manuscript’s style. Nor have I treated the Italian zibaldone –  chiefly for reasons to do with formatting.  The next post will show why.

Thereafter, I’ll turn to the ‘limp binding’.


  1. Another good find : while you ~push forward~ in TIME..I’m looking BACK.. to the ~simplest of THREAD(ing) loom~ (ref: stiching and HOLDING the FOLDing Together).. LOOM ! YES the VMs is ~Scraped SKIN~, when was IT RE-stitched?

    Good luck all -=se=- steve (back to the ~silk trail~) ekwall 🙂

    Date: Mon, 10 Jun 2013 05:39:30 +0000 To:


    • Sixteenth-century commonplace books are a very different proposition from the sort represented by the Zibaldone da Canal, in which we find calculation diagrams ornamented with ‘Ghibbeline’ merlons as pure decoration or a general expression of loyalty to a city or state’s politics. Since the parchment taken from a few folios in the top section of the Voynich manuscript all returned a date in the early fifteenth century, so the very different practices of a century or two later can have no particular bearing on Voynich issues.. unless you’d like to argue from other parts of the manuscript’s composition (binding, style of handwriting, pigments etc.) that the whole belongs to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. It would be a fairly difficult argument to maintain, I should think, especially with regard to the writing-style and pigments. A gap of two centuries is the difference between the era of Australia’s discovery by Europeans, and that of Australia’s participation in the second global war – eight generations!

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a feature of the genre that such scrap-books or personal manuscripts might be added to over a considerable time, so you might easily find a sixteenth century hand within a fifteenth-century binding… or indeed the reciprocal… but while this might open up a bit of flexibility, I’d need a LOT of convincing that the pigments in the Voynich MS weren’t added till the sixteenth century.

        For European examples, you might begin by looking at Florilegium/florilegia or ‘commonplace books’ as listed by the Beinecke Library or some other major institution.

        Somehow, though, I suspect you’ve already got a theory about the Voynich as a commonplace book bound in the sixteenth century.. True or no?


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