Starting from scratch #2 Ruling out


With the manuscript’s dimensions finding comparable examples in the date range obtained by radiocarbon dating, and those comparative examples from the Anglo-French and North Italian regions, it is tempting to charge on –  but better to pause and take careful note of anything that offers objection to our burgeoning provenance.

Mis-fitting aspects of the manuscript warn us that our description may be going astray.

Among the slightly awkward details already evident are:

(i) The size of our standard folio. It is  a little unusual, as you will have noticed if you visited the site for the Institut d’Histoire du Livre. Not unprecedented, but it is unusual.

(ii) Inclusion of fold-outs is so very unusual that they deserve separate and detailed treatment. In her guide, The Medieval Book, Barbara A.Shailor also notes that:

Structurally, the codex does not conform to the standard format encountered in most medieval [Latin] books; inserted throughout are large fold-out sheets.. (p.105)

Altogether, while our posited date and environment seem suitable, the form of the manuscript itself is ill-fitting for the European Latin context, even before we consider the other content.

(iii) A third difference between MS Beinecke 408 and Latin manuscripts of the fifteenth century is that it appears to have no sign at all of ruling-out:  no guidelines, no impressed lines, no pricking-lines in the margins ( As far as one can tell from scans and without removing the binding). Here’s an example page:

Left margin..

pricking ruling absent left margin

… right margin

pricking ruling absent right margin

There might be a line of pricking buried in the binding, but as we’ve been told, the right hand margin was never trimmed. And there’s no sign that the text has been written on lines drawn and then erased, nor lines impressed by wires as we see in the later period when a type of frame is used which is known as a misṭara, mastara or, far less often,  mislarah.Again, this is as far as one can tell from inspecting the scanned images. Having to rely on them is one reason for my describing this as a “hypothetical” exercise.

To find a Latin manuscript without any sign of ruling out is highly unusual, and for that reason is not a factor which should be waved away or allowed to slide by. In a medieval Latin work, lack of any ruling out is as startling as a complete lack of page numbering would be in a modern printed textbook. It looks “wrong” in a work posited as coming from that milieu.  The following passage is taken from a longer article published by the Centro Escolar University, Manila.

Lines were ruled on the pages of medieval manuscripts as a guide for the script. .. The smarter the book, the more elaborately it was ruled… Either the scribe ruled his own, or he selected ruled leaves in accordance with the scale and page layout of his text… Unruled manuscripts (and they exist) are the cheap and ugly home-made transcripts. Splendidly illuminated manuscripts have grids of guide lines. When printing was introduced and early customers expected their books to resemble traditional manuscripts, the usual trick was to rule in guide lines around every line of printed text because writing presumably looked naked without it. There are examples of this at least into the seventeenth century. Ruled guide lines were an expected feature of a medieval book.

Here is a picture of a scribe employed for more than twenty years ( 1449-1472)  by the king of France. His name was Jean Miélot, and as you see in the image, every codex, scroll or carta shown here is provided with its full ruling out, even in this portrait. (note too the parquetry’s wave-pattern).

Jean for France

So too, with those two manuscripts on membrance which have dimensions identical to MS Beinecke 408.The third example, on paper, shows less evidence of any guide-lines – and that, too, was normal for works on paper. If you go to the linked site, the original images show the lines still more clearly.

  • 1437 AD  Brit.Lib. MS Harley 2993 –   225 x 160 (145 x 110); Italy, N. E. (Venice) ; Latin; Gothic. Parchment codex. Roman martyrology. (2-column format)
Harley 2993 detail

(detail) Brit.Lib. MS Harley 2993

  • c. 1436 AD  Brit.Lib. MS Harley 5233 –    225 x 160 (140 x 95); England; French and Latin; Gothic cursive. Parchment codex. Legal texts. folio 256v (long lines)
Harley 5233 f 256v detail markup

(detail) B.L. MS Harley 5233 f 256v

and folio 141 of that same manuscript (long lines, boxed). Notice the pricking-line down the right-hand edge.

Harley 5233 detail f 141

(detail) B.L. MS Harley 5233 f.141

English works of the fifteenth century, on membrane, not rarely use lighter-ruling out, while those on paper (see example below) seem to have used the type of ruling board which is described by e.g. Barbara Shailor and by Beit-Arie, so that only the upper-  and the left hand margins are shown in full. In B.L. MS Harley 623, even these have then been obscured by pen flourishes.

  • 1438 AD  Brit.Lib. MS Harley 632  –     295 x 220 (220/225 x 150/160); England ; Latin; Gothic cursive (Secretary). Paper codex. Contains copies of works by John of Wales, a thirteenth-century Franciscan and contemporary of Roger Bacon. Born in Wales, he died in Paris in 1285. The codex was given by Thomas Graunt (b. 1425?, d. 1474), fellow of Oriel College, Oxford to Syon Abbey, Middlesex, founded 1415.[page here]. (long lines)

Harley 632 f1 detail

The next example is of interest because it is a fifteenth century manuscript whose text is that of a work composed in the twelfth. A parallel development might explain why Wilfrid Voynich and others  immediately supposed that MS Beinecke 408 was an earlier work, perhaps twelfth or thirteenth century.

Les Enluminures.  Brunetto Latini Tresor French late 15thC query 15620505822

Les Enluminures. Brunetto Latini’s “Tresor..” – French version. This manuscript is dated to 1475. Latini’s work was composed in the thirteenth century.

MS Beinecke 408.  Its form may seem ‘amateurish’, but I do not think it deserves to be considered “ugly”.

The solution to their apparent lack of ruling-out, including the sort of impress which is gained by the wire frame, is best explained by reference to a type of ruling frame which Beit-Arie describes as “Oriental”: that is, proper to the region from Egypt through Syria and eastwards, excluding the Yemen.  Instead of wires on which the membrane was pressed, the eastern sort might use cords –  leaving very little trace at times save the odd scrape-mark where the frame itself has marked the page. What may easily happen (and what appears to have happened in MS Beinecke 408) is that if some cord/s are less taut, the line of script develops a curve.

This curving can be seen in our manuscript. Another possible explanation for it is that the text has been written, ‘paragraph’ by ‘paragraph’ from separate slips, and the scribe had to work to keep the lines nearly parallel.

fol 66r detailThis aspect of the manuscript may be among the factors which Panofsky registered and which led to his saying initially that the manuscript looked not only “early” but “from Spain, or somewhere southern”.  Here in demonstration is an early Mozarabic manuscript, though in two columns, not long lines. (‘Mozarabic’ has the basic sense of relating to Christians who remained under Moorish rule in Spain. The same communities included Jews, and conversos.) Note the lack of ruled guidelines lines.

BL MS Additional Spain 11thC

B.L. MS Additional 30845 f.42r . Noticed thanks to Sarah J Biggs’s article. That’s much closer to ours, I think – slightly wobbly lines and all… hmm

  • Materials: parchment.
  • Dimensions: 365 x 255mm (text space: 295 x 190mm). Some folios are irregular in shape, with parts of parchment lacking.
  • Layout: 2 columns of 27 lines (31 lines on ff. 1-7 and 30 lines on ff. 148-161).
  • Foliation: 163 folios (ff. 162 and 163 are paper flyleaves with parchment fragments attached + 1 unfoliated modern parchment flyleaf at the beginning and 1 at the end + 1 unfoliated paper flyleaf at the end).
  • Script: Visigothic minuscule. and “Musical notation with northern Visigothic neumes has been added in a darker ink by a later hand,”
  • Binding: Post-1600. Brown leather over wooden boards.

 – quoted from the library’s catalogue entry, linked above.

 See also Balliol’s now-famous “cat paw” manuscript (Oxford, Balliol College, MS 192 ), again dated to the early fifteenth century. Its ruling-out is faint and minimal and while the whole does look amateurish, it is hardly ugly. The manuscript is worth your attention. Written in a contemporary Oxford hand with  abbreviations.  Dimensions  11¾” x 8¼” (248 mm x 209.55mm).

In a considerable number of manuscripts, part of which display a vulgar appearance, no ruling is visible; or, more frequently, they only have frame ruling that demarcates the written area, or just vertical bounding lines. Most of these manuscripts were written on paper in the Orient in early times; yet part of them was later produced in Europe by copyists transcribing texts for their own use. When the written lines do not correspond one to another on the two sides of the leaf and their number is not identical, one can inferִthatִindeedִnoִhorizontalִlinesִwereִruled.ִAmongִtheseִ“sloppy” manuscripts in which only the vertical boundary lines, or frame, or portal were traced — 3% without ruled horizontal lines were parchment manuscripts and 11% were paper manuscripts, not taking into account Oriental Geniza fragments.

Malachi Beit-Arie, Hebrew Codicology: Historical and Comparative Typology of Hebrew Medieval Codices based on the Documentation of the Extant Dated Manuscripts in Quantitative Approach (in Hebrew). An English version is in preparation. The passage is quoted from ‘Major Codicological Practices: English Summary’ (pdf) p.42.


Research queries:

Initial Gemini query

(detail) Illuminated initial from B.L. MS Additional 30845 f.42r

Q. 4: Investigate popular and classical lore concerning the constellation of GEMINI – Might the flower-holder on fol. 76v (MS Beinecke 408) represent one of that constellation’s chief stars, critical for  maritime navigation?

(The three following three comparative examples have already been discussed in connection with each other and the figure on f.  , to explain another of the reasons which led me to conclude that the “ladies” in the bathy- section, like those in the month-roundels, represent astronomical subjects. In the bathy-  section I see the astronomical reference in parallel with others e.g. ‘tyches’ of particular towns and (possibly) their ships.

bathy section backturned hand flower servant

(detail) fol. 76v

tyche between Alexandria and Antioch

Tyche – symbol of an unidentified locus, set between those of Alexandria and Antioch in a classical frieze.

gem 4th-5thC AD Flower servant blog



  1. Diane: I’d agree that pricking and ruling was the norm for medieval European mss, but I don’t recall seeing much of it (a) in 15th century herbal mss, and (b) in 15th century technical notebooks (e.g. Giovanni da Fontana, Francesco di Giorgio, etc), both of which share broadly the same mix of text and images as the Voynich Manuscript.

    Given the radiocarbon dating, these categories should surely be top-of-list comparisons?


      • Diane: as I recall from the modern editions of Fontana’s ciphered books I have (though both lent out at the moment), they are all free-form, unruled text. Similarly for Francesco di Giorgio’s work, Ghiberto’s Zibaldone, Mariano Taccola’s De Ingeneis, and so forth.

        I haven’t seen any of these first hand, just in the various facsimiles and commentary-heavy editions they are discussed in (Prager and Scaglia, etc): my comment was purely about their shared lack of pricking and ruling, rather than the trimming.


      • Without seeing them – even digitised – I can have no opinion, sorry. You could be right, or not. But I gather they too were personal notebooks, were they? The later works did adopt the use of the grid, usually using wire, but there’s no point in speculating on that point. In any case, as I’ve said in these posts, my re-evaluation has to be treated as a hypothetical exercise because (a) I’m not a palaeographer and (b) I could only give a formal opinion if I’d seen the physical object. What I’m trying to do is wipe away the century-long effect of Wilfrid Voynich’s romantic tale. Turn back the clock to 1912 (or ’31) and see where it might go if his assumptions hadn’t fogged the glass so completely.


      • In case you see this, Nick – my point about trimming was that manuscripts which have never been trimmed can be said to have marks of pricking, or not. In many cases, a manuscript was rebound, and trimmed, thus removing the pricking line from the outer margin. Fifteenth-century manuscripts on membrane don’t necessarily have pricking marks on the inner margin, and in some cases even Latin mss are inscribed using the frame and wire method, learned from its introduction by Jewish scribes. One way to tell the difference is to hold the page to the light; those which were ruled out, or even those using the wire frame, have their lines of text in exactly (or near-exactly) the same position on each side – the upper border of the frame determining where the lines begin, and the frame itself how far apart the lines are. It’s a very basic test which is another among those which I can’t quite believe weren’t comments requested from McCrone &co.


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