Dimensions and Proportions Brit.Lib.Mss from 1340-1450 AD

Added NOTE (Feb. 6th., 2018)


I wanted to be clear about just how very different the Voynich manuscript’s content appears when compared with a typically Latin or Byzantine manuscript and, further, to distinguish between the making of herbals as books, and the imagery set in them. To be a ‘match’ for ms Beinecke 408, not only what is in the book, but where it came from, and where it was then copied all matters.


*16th June – I’ve just found another good site online. Link is to the section on page preparation/ruling up).


Almost as inflexible as the ‘Gregory rule’ in Latin and Byzantine tradition was a habit of making books to a ratio of 3:2. The following diagram is another from ‘Architecture of the Book’. More on the subject here.

ms ratio blog

from website ‘Architecture of the Book’

ms Beinecke 408 has a form more-or-less in keeping with that ratio, but when the measurements themselves are considered, a clearer picture emerges.


All manuscripts in the British Library’s digitized illuminated manuscripts together with herbals from the digitized manuscripts collection formed the set to be sampled.


It’s a fairly rough-and-ready sort of survey and only the clear results make it worthwhile.


No  allowances are made, not even for trimming or wear.


One outlier, an early 13thC ms, is included to show that 160mm seems to have been a regular measure before the sampling period (1390 1340-1450).


The first set of figures in millimeters describes the page/folio. The second, where given, is bracketed and describes the folios’  ‘text box’. Library descriptions imagine the textbox a plain rectangle whether or not pictures are in it, or how much text is actually placed in it.


Both sets of measurements are not given by the Beinecke web-site; I have assumed what is given is the page measurement.


Text-box is often more informative of provenance, because pages are not rarely trimmed or otherwise reduced over time.


In this case, I think it worked well enough.


Despite the artificial method, a fairly consistent picture emerges – and remember I hunted every manuscript with either of the dimensions, whether external or internal, in the whole of the Brit.Library’s manuscripts online.


Interestingly, not one manuscript of the Latin tradition turned up any further north than Italy and France.


I am reassured to see that these results are so consistent with the C-14 date, and accord too with other analyses of  palaeography, epigraphy and the likely social context suggested by earlier research – others more than my own.


According to the Beinecke’s catalogue, the Voynich measures 225 x 160 mm.  It represents a ratio of  3 : 2.14


Note: I did remember to look at voynich.nu.  Rene Zandbergen’s site gives larger measurements :  23.5 x 16.2 cm (235 mm x 162 mm), a ratio of  2.7 : 2.0 approx.  The rule, here, is always to follow the curatorial description, so Rene’s measurements were not taken into account.



* Brit.Lib. MS Harley 2993 –   225 x 160 (145 x 110); Italy, N. E. (Venice) 1437 AD; Latin; Gothic. Parchment codex. Roman martyrology.

* Brit.Lib. MS Harley 5233 –    225 x 160 (140 x 95); England, c. 1436; French and Latin; Gothic cursive. Parchment codex. Legal texts.


* Brit.Lib. MS Harley 632  –     295 x 220 (220/225 x 150/160); England 1438 AD; Latin; Gothic cursive (Secretary). A paper codex. Syon Abbey, Middlesex, founded 1415. The Library gives no details of the contents, referring readers to:

Vincent Gillespie (ed.), Syon Abbey and A.Ian Doyle (ed.), The Libraries of the Carthusians, Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues, 9 (London: The British Library, 2001), pp. lxvi, lxix, 307-08 no. 952, 676 2001, pp. 307-08.



PAGE has a measure of  225 mm.

(i) external

MS Yates Thompson 14 – 335 x 225 (215 x 130); England, E. (Mulbarton, Norfolk?) c. 1330-1340 AD; Latin; Gothic.

MS Additional 10456 – 300 x 225 (210/230 x 145/155); Eastern Mediterranean or Germany, 1349; Hebrew Ashkenazi; Ashkenazi                                                                                                                                                      square script, punctuated.

MS Harley 5421 Pt2-   225 x 145 (150 x 90); Giovanni Boccaccio Bucolica; Italy, Central (Florence) 1408 AD; Latin.

MS Royal 19 B XVI – 305 x 225 (210 x 150); France, N., 1428 AD;  French; Gothic cursive.

MS Additional 15423 – 330 x 225 (200 x 125); Italy, Central (Florence) 1441-1467; Hebrew; Italian semi-cursive script,                   punctuated                                                                                                                                script,  punctuated.

(ii) textbox

Harley 632   –   295 x 220 (220/225 x 150/160); England 1438 AD; Latin; Gothic cursive (Secretary).

Harley 3949  –   285 x 200 (225 x 140); Italy, N. between 1447 and 1455 AD; Latin; Gothic.

Additional 16577 – 325 x 220 (225 x 140); Italy 3rd quarter of the 15th century; Hebrew; Italian semi-cursive script, partially punctuated.


PAGE has a measure of 160 mm.

(i) external

*MS Harley 2558  – 210 x 150 (160 x 105) England, S. W. 1st half of the 15th century; Latin and English; Gothic cursive.

*Sloane 1977  – 235 x 160 (160 x 110) in two columns  France, N. (Amiens) 1st quarter of the 14th century; French. Gothic. Medical inc. matter from Platearius, Galen and ‘Ypocras’ – Hippocrates.

MS Royal MS 12 C XIX – 220 x 160 mm (text space: 145 x 90 mm); England, central or northern, 1200-1210; Latin and Old French; Gothic with tironian crossed et . ampersands. Anthology contains bestiary, Isidore, theol.

MS Additional 11639160 x 120 (90/80 x 65/55; with marginal text: 100/90 x 65); France, N. 1277-1286; Hebrew. Note – this is the ‘Northern French Miscellany’, details of which are in my post ‘ A much-travelled Jewish miscellany‘ (22/06/2013).

MS Additional 15282 –    230 x 160 (145 x 100); Germany 1st quarter of the 14th century; Hebrew, Aramaic;  Ashkenazi square  and semi-cursive script, main text is punctuated, marginal text is unpunctuated.

MS Harley 6613 –    160 x 105 (110 x 70); 1st quarter of the 15th century, after 1409; English; Gothic. Lollard text.

MS Additional 18970 –   160 x 110 (90 x 60); Spain 15th century; Hebrew; Sephardi semi cursive and square script. punctuated.

MS Harley 2698 –   160 x 115 (105 x 80); Italy, S. (Candida) 1423; Latin; Semi-humanistic.

MS Lansdowne 344160 x 115 (110 x 80); England (Midlands?) c. 1425; Latin and English; Gothic. ‘Speculum Christi’ and Dominical tables.


– Just for interest, and to break the monotony of this list, I add (6.03/2015) these tables (fol 2v).  It is not new information, exactly. A fair number of researchers have already raised the matter of the Dominicans and their works in relation to the Voynich manuscript. See e.g. d’Imperio § 8.1 or Philip Neal’s references to Petrus Nigri. d’Imperio wrote before the landmark publication of Mary Carruther’s Art of Memory.

Dominical tables from MS Lansdowne 344 f2v

To continue with pages having external measure of 160mm

MS Burney 289  –  235 x 160 (150 x 100); Italy, Central (Florence) 1427; Latin; Humanistic.


MS Harley 5233  –  225 x 160 (140 x 95); England c. 1436; French and Latin; Gothic cursive. Book of Hours according to the usage of Rome.


MS Harley 2993 –   225 x 160 (145 x 110); Italy, N. E. (Venice); 1437; Latin; Gothic.


(ii)  text box

MS Additional 9405 –   250 x 190 (160/165 x 125); Germany 1309; Hebrew; Ashkenazi square script, punctuated & unpunctuated Ashkenazi semi-cursive script.


MS Additional 9406 –   250 x 190 (155/160 x 125); Germany 1309; Hebrew; Ashkenazi square script, punctuated.


*(and see above) MS Sloane 1977 – 235 x 160 (160 x 110) in two columns; France, N. (Amiens) 1st half of the 15th century; French; Gothic.


MS Harley 5613 –    220 x 145 (160 x 90); Eastern Mediterranean, May 1407; Greek; Greek minuscule. Christian religious texts and Chrysostom’s ‘De proditione Judae homilia ii’


MS Additional 60577  – 210/215 x 135 mm (text space: 160 x 90 mm); c 1487-1574; Miscellany. French & Latin, Middle English. (includes herbal folios)


MS Harley 632 –    295 x 220 (220/225 x 150/160) [see above ]


* in blue. Additions made 16th June 2013.

  • links and illustration added 6/03/2015



See also Brit.Lib. MS Harley 299. It doesn’t come up in the manuscript search, but its description is offered at:

In more ways than one it offers points of comparison with MS Beinecke 408, Its dimensions are “225mm x 160mm approx.” It has been inscribed by several scribes, and probably from a number of separate exemplars. A good article on the ‘Brut chronicle’ is online from the University of Michigan.

Given recent events, I want to emphasise that the point of this survey was not to assert or argue any state-based’nationality’ for the manuscript, but to investigate an issue related to stationers’ provision of writing materials.


I had already published information and commentary on the matter of that network of suppliers and distributors which brought enormous quantities of pre-trimmed membrane to the Avignon court in the late 1370s, and while my posts on that subject are no longer open to the public, I repeat that one the more important sources was:


Dom Anselm M. Albareda, “The Preservation and Reproduction of the Manuscripts of the Vatican Library through the Centuries”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 104, No. 4, Dedication of Library Hall of the American Philosophical Society, Autumn General Meeting, November, 1959 (Aug. 15, 1960), pp. 413-418
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/985621


The reason that this investigation has point at all – and why it would be pointless otherwise – is that in Beinecke MS 408 the quires show no signs that they were ever trimmed – that is, later cut down across the full length and/or width of the bifolio or quire. Such trimming during later re-binding is so commonly seen that the dimensions in a present manuscript are rarely what they were when the manuscript or book was first put together, and obviously if a manuscript which now measures 160x250mm might originally have measured 170x 350, it cannot tell us much about the Vms.


It was thanks to Rene Zandbergen, who at the same time emphasised his personal familiarity with the object itself, that I had my impression confirmed that this manuscript does not lack pricking marks or signs of ruling out because they have been trimmed away (as is so often the case). Zandbergen said categorically in a public response to my asking him, that the Vms’ quires had never been trimmed.


Later he felt obliged to say he remembered nothing of that comment to me, and of late some writers have made fairly strong efforts to neutralise any disturbance caused by the results of my survey above.


A number have spoken of how one or another folio has had a little (sometimes no more than a sliver) cut from one edge, and JKP produced a spread-sheet listing books and manuscripts whose present dimensions are those of the Vms quires’, while apparently unaware that comparisons are valid only to the degree that the comparison is to quires or text-box; external dimensions are irrelevant, and allowance must be made for the majority of extant mss and books having been trimmed and sometimes more than once or twice, regularly resulting in loss of 5 cm or so from the trimmed side.


The only reason I undertook the survey was that the dimensions of the quires’ bifolia has implications for provenancing the source for the manuscript’s materials and its place of manufacture, being a valid exercise in connection with Beinecke MS 408 abecause, quite unusually, the Vms was not later trimmmed. Its dimensions are original. This is apparent to the eye even in scans, but it was as well, I thought, to have it confirmed by someone who had relatively easy access to the manuscript.


Whether the quires were made or were purchased ready-made – and ready-made is a real possibility given the overall finish for the work and the often-made observation that it looks like an informal production – its untrimmed quires allow us to ask whether it conforms, or not, to the sizes regulated for stationers’ and suppliers, city by city by the fifteenth century. These regulations are formal ones relating to paper, but scholars have observed that when paper sizes were regulated, the chosen dimensions closely approximate those of contemporary bifolia in membrane.


The argument of scholars is that there had already developed, without legislation, and for practical reasons of consistency, a set of standard sizes for membrance, and that the formal requirements for paper followed those. Among other benefits of that practice would be the easier shipment of supplies, and advantage for those who made books, while scribes would find it so much easier to transfer to paper the content in a manuscript on membrane, and vice versa.


I have already observed, and commented here, that it seems to me that the matter made onto vellum for the Vms was copied ‘near-facsimile’ from exemplars which may well have been on paper. The Vms’ unusual – untrimmed – dimensions thus offer a pointer towards the source and region the vellum was obtained and, possibly, the nature of the exemplars.


I repeat:

The value of undertaking the survey depended entirely on two things: first that the Vms’ had never been trimmed as a book-block or quire-by-quire. Secondly, that the comparisons made were not with external (cover) dimensions for other books and manuscripts, nor to books and manuscripts which have plainly been heavily trimmed in earlier times.


It seems that the point of the survey was not easily grasped by many. That’s probably my fault for not repeating here the content of the posts which led up to it.


But the result has been efforts to dismiss (rather than debate) my work appear to be ignorant of the survey’s impetus, aim, reasoning, method and implications.  I agree that its quality and detail might be bettered with closer knowledge of each comparison  adduced, but as partial compensation for the lack of complete information, I included  bifolio dimensions for the text-block and, separately, each length and width.



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