Dimensions 160mm x 225 mm

Reviewing my comments on the manuscript’s dimensions, and the comparisons I’ve offered, it does not seem unreasonable to posit that our vellum manuscript is copied from exemplars some of which had been written on paper.


I don’t claim that my survey of manuscripts having the same dimensions as MS Beinecke 408 is terribly useful, the group of samples is too small. On the other hand, the pattern is suggestive.


To begin from the latest that I’ve sighted:


  1. a manuscript which, though not of exactly the same dimensions, deserves inclusion as ” one of the earliest if not the absolute earliest extant Yemenite manuscript written on paper”. It is an anthology of medical texts written in Judaeo-Arabic and dated to the thirteenth century, the time when I consider that a majority of sections (as they now are in the Voynich manuscript) gained their final form. This Yemenite manuscript as Sassoon MS.573 was once part of the Sassoon collection , broken up and gradually sold to meet English taxation requirements. In 2008 it was offered for sale by Southeby’s along with other items formerly in that library, including other Yemeni-Jewish works of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – on parchment and on paper.


Southeby’s description is available as a pdf and shows how this manuscript demonstrates the  circulation of medical works between Islam and the west, between Christian, Muslim and Jew and across the boundaries of both language and script. (see entry under 2008 at ‘islamic manuscripts online‘.


  1. an alchemical text on rag paper from the Cairo geniza (typically 11th-13thC). The curator of the holding museum notes that its original dimensions were probably closer to the Vms’ than they are at present, the leaves having since been damaged. At present one leaf would fold to approx. 160mm, and has a width of  222 mm rather than the  225 mm which had been cited in the secondary source I cited originally.  Details of the work, including the type of hand, and translation of an alchemical recipe for silver, are included in my post ‘Weights and Measures‘ (23/07/2013).


  1. a leaf (vellum?) described by  as “of Hugh of St.Victor, De sacramentis, II,6:V (Migne, Pat.Lat. 176, col.587D), 225mm. by 160mm., remains of double column, 35 lines in a fine early gothic bookhand, capitals touched in red, still mounted on a binding, France, mid twelfth century”. Listed by Southeby’s in 2014. Hugh of St.Victor developed a new system of mnemonics, described by Carruthers in detail. Hugh died in 1141 AD.


  1. a paper codex from Sion Abbey, Middlesex. Dated to 1438 AD. Brit.Lib. MS Harley 632. 295 x 220 (220/225 x 150/160).


On this matter, see also my posts ‘Dimensions and Proportions Brit.Lib. Mss 1340-1450 AD‘(20th June, 2013) and on Harley 623 more specifically, ‘Dimensions and Places‘ (10th June, 2013). The holding Library gives no details of the latter’s content, 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.


Histories of paper’s introduction into Europe often say it was initially associated with the Jews.


During a pilgrimage to Compostella in the twelfth century, Peter (‘the Venerable’), Abbot of Cluny, saw a paper mill and found it shocking that such material might be used for religious texts.  In Chapter 5 of his diatribe against the Jews, his accusation concerns use of paper to inscribe (not print) Talmudic commentaries.  Apparently papyrus, too, was problematic for Peter who insinuates that both materials are ‘unclean’. I rather think that when he asked the Jews why they used paper, they had told him that to obtain parchment from kosher ritually acceptable skins was not easy.  But that is speculation. What Peter wrote was that:


“God reads the book of Talmud in Heaven. But what kind of a book? Is it the kind we have in daily use made from the skins of rams or goats, or is it from rags of old cast-off undergarments, or rushes out of Eastern swamps, and some other vile material?”


quotation taken from Victor W. von Hagen, ‘Paper and Civilization’ published in  The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Oct., 1943), pp. 301-314. (p.313) available through JSTOR. it is an excellent and detailed piece, well worth reading still. Peter ‘the Venerable’ lived from 1092 – 25 December 1156. See also Yvonne Friedman, Adversus Iudeorum inveteratam duritiem by Peter the Venerable, Turnhout: Brepols, 1985.


The usual histories have it that ‘Arabs’ brought paper into the west, though we have few examples of its use for Latin books for another three centuries.  We do, however, have a lay (‘secular’) book on paper from the twelfth century, Cod. Bodmer 4,  attributed by some to  Gualterus Anglicus, who lived in Palermo. Its measurements are given as  21.7 x 15.4 cm.


I might go on listing codex and manuscript measurements,  but the more practical and usual method is to consider ratios.


For simple bifolia in the Voynich manuscript the ratio is (160/225 =) 0.7(1)


  • which, if you consider the chart (here)* suggests strongly that the manuscript as we have it was made to the same proportions as those used for Italian paper, which in turn appears to have been intended closely to match the proportions of parchment and vellum sheets.  For this contention we have not only the evidence of the Bologna Stone (illustrated below) but the conclusion of Tim Barrett et.al. who write  “… we [therefore] feel confident that fourteenth- and fifteenth-century European papermakers ordered moulds in sizes intended to produce paper that would match the dimensions of the competing parchment material.” *


  • site ‘Paper Through Time: non-destructive analyses of 14th- through 19th- century papers’ provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, together with the University of Iowa Libraries. Link given above.
Bologna stone 1

The Bologna Stone. Limestone. undated. Established by the Apothecaries Society. Inscription in Italian reads: “These are to be the moulds of the city of Bologna, which say what the sizes of the sheets of cotton paper must be, which are made in Bologna and the surrounding area, as is set out here below”.


What we cannot do by these simpler means is argue that the Voynich manuscript was made in Bologna or its environs.  Preservation of the Bologna stone is a happy accident, one which allows us to say something about the paper-sizes and standards in that area.  Having no equally concrete (actually, limestone)  evidence from other regions, we can say little if anything about them.


For readers dependent on online sources, I should think the following pages essential.


That by the Institut d’Histoire du Livre – where see especially the article, ‘The shape of paper‘.


Already listed above, Paper through Time is very helpful.


Also well presented and helpful is ‘Paper and Book production in the Muslim world‘, where important scholarly articles are made available for download as pdfs.


The article at ‘theodora.com’ has details difficult to find elsewhere, including the cost of paper at different times.


NOTE: (6th Feb. 2018) I want to emphasise, given recent events, that the point of this survey was not to assert or argue against the anachronistic idea of a state-based’nationality’ for this manuscript, but to investigate an issue related to stationers’ provision of writing materials.


  1. Postscript:
    Definitions of clean and unclean animals may also explain the unusual shape of the horns given both bulls in the month-roundels.
    “In order, however, to distinguish clean wild from clean tame animals attention must particularly be paid to the horns. The horns of the former must be forked, or, if not forked, they must be clear of splinters, notched with scales, and be (“round”), or, as others read, (“pointed”).” – from ‘Clean and unclean animals” – Jewish Encyclopaedia (online). The original text gives the Hebrew.


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