Starting from scratch #10d – Fold-outs in Europe (afterword)

As we’ve seen, Cod.Sang. 217 contains both our oldest remaining example of a European fold-out on membrane, and our first example of a fold-out (of any sort) combined with a botanical treatise – that is, our oldest extant from the medieval Latin world. With a bestiary included in the same volume, we have to allow that the monastery may have used these works less to serve medicine than to inform moralia.

But now – given that we have already raised a possibility that the matter in MS Beinecke 408 was revered, we must take into account that the usual reason for such reverence in the fifteenth century was that the text was from ‘antiquity’.

Might it be that the origins of our work lie –  not in mid-fourteenth century Spain –  but in  Spain or Europe of the ninth or tenth centuries when that itinerant physician’s folding book was made and when pages were usually left clean-looking?

Let’s consider a couple of Latin hands from that time.  The one shown as my header comes from a work known as the ‘Bobbio Psalter’, produced in 9thC Milan, it is thought. You can see it here.  

The following  composite image shows a style used in ninth century Tours, by a notary in service to the Archbishop of Rheims, both acting for the king in providing a Grant for a Spanish nunnery (properly: ‘convent’) in Ripoli, where the document remained enshrined, as I understand, for a thousand years or more. [1]

charter script Rippol

for the unspliced image see Jonathan Garrett’s wordpress blog, “A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe: Early medievalist’s thoughts and ponderings”.

I wonder whether this script, with its exaggerated heads for some letters may have survived  as a convention in some later scripts, and might explain a peculiarity of that used in a twelfth-century document in Piacenza. (I’m guessing, here; can’t keep tapping the palaeographers on the shoulder). The Piacenzan document has forms so like the Voynich “gallows” that the point is worth noting, I think.  For knowledge of the twelfth-century script and the llustrated shown below, as for the first suggestion that it might relate to MS Beinecke 408, we are all indebted to Jim Reeds, who first brought it to the attention of Voynich researchers. [2]

script 12thC gallows Parma Capelli Dictionary

script 12thC “gallows” from Parma. Illustrated in Capelli’s Dictionary.. and mentioned first in connection with MS Beineke 408 by Jim Reeds. (if re-using, please credit Jim as finder)

I’ve had reason to mention Piacenza before: it cropped up in relation to events of the fifteenth century, and again of the late nineteenth-to-early-twentieth centuries, all directly related to our manuscript.  And here it crops up again, in the twelfth century.  Also from twelfth century Piacenza, we have some interesting mosaics, ones plainly connected to those at Bobbio, from which it is separated by just forty kilometers by water. Since the mosaics are twelfth-century, not tenth, I’ll restrain myself and show them another time, but they appear to copy imagery from works of about Charlemagne’s time,  include use of zig-zag lines to represent water, and a picture of men playing chess. Even the mosaic is a full century earlier than the Games book of Alfonzo the Wise.

There does seem to be growing reason to suspect that, among the several sources informing MS Beinecke 408, some may be considerably older than the fifteenth century.  

Here’s another example. This from Spain in a volume containing material of the the 9th-10th centuries. Notice how these illuminations fill the sides of the page, and how the text seems to be fitted around the central figure, a little irregularly, as if the imagery had been set first, and the text written later – the very opposite method from that used in manuscripts from most of Latin Europe, but this was in Spain, under Muslim rule, though the degree of influence from Baghdad as against that of the Berbers from North Africa is debated along sectarian lines.  However, that non-Latin character in contemporary Spain may explain the way these pages are planned, uncharacteristic of Latin texts per se, despite the language in which it is written.  Though he did not elaborate on his reasons, Panofsky did comment on what he described as stong Jewish and ‘Arab’ influence. Today we tend to be more specific. In any case, the way these pages are designed offers points of comparison with MS Beinecke 408.  Most particularly, in my opinion, with the ‘bathy-‘ section, which implies again connection with the foldouts which are believed to represent zodiac constellations. 

btw –  note here again that convention of using roughly-parallel curved lines to denote curve and volume.

Codex Vigilano Albeldense fol59

(detail) Codex Vigilano [~Vigilanus] Albeldense fol.59. Spain. Mozarabic. Compilation 9th and 10thC.

fol 40 small

The Mozarabic work is the Codex Vigilanus,  famous for many reasons including its containing the first known instance of Hindu-Arabic numerals in a Latin text. It includes a calendar and, like many others from that context evinces in its imagery a direct connection to non-Latin, eastern, antecedents. Specialists have argued those influences gained from Syria and even further east along the trade routes to Asia.  Readers will know that opinion will strike a chord with me, but I’ll come back to the issue in later episodes.[4]

The Codex Vigilanus was in a script described as southern, early Caroline  –  and a number of people have argued strongly that the Voynich script, too, is not ‘humanist’ as such, but copies a Caroline (=Carolingian) hand, which the humanist style aimed at reviving. Barbara Barrett is said to have argued this case stronly, but her voice seems to have been lost in  general clamour,  and further by a paywall on The Fortean Times.[3] (Would she upload it for us, do you think?)

And you must see  this!:

It’s another item from Jonathan Garrett’s blog, another ninth-century Spanish document: (Grant by King Ordoño I to Bishop Fronimio of León, 28 June 860, Archivo de la Catedral de León, no. 978). It contains an ‘ornate P’ form, and one like that rendered “n” in Voynich transcriptions, as well as the “8/B” form. But it does include an “X”-shaped letter, as most Latin, Greek, Coptic and other Mediterranean alphabets do, which the Voynich script – most unusually – does not.

Thanks to Jonathan for that, and for more detail on the Ripoli charter which is published in the next post, among the Notes to this one.

The south, including Spain, is becoming distinctly interesting, but so again is the road from Genoa to Bobbio, and Bobbio to Piacenza. (Bobbio is 84 kilometers from Genoa, though a steep climb).  Many of the names which crop up in connection with the manuscript are seaboard towns, or ones accessible by navigable rivers.  In medieval times, Tours had been another such.

Consider the implied route. With all the towns in bold accessible by boat, and most by ship, we can see their connection without a mental block about territorial borders. The first charter was written in Tours, for Ripoli –  which had a longstanding connection to Marseilles. By the twelfth century, letters reminiscent of the Voynich “gallows” are in a document from Piacenza, which lies on the Po, linked to Venice via the Adriatic and the River Po on which Piacenza stands.  By continuing another forty kilometers – still by water – you reach Bobbio from which it is 84 kilometers (by land) down the mountains to Genoa. In the ninth and tenth centuries, Bobbio’s library was renowned as one of the greatest in Europe, though fallen somewhat from its state under Gerbert d’Aurillac, who had left management of its monastery and library in 999, after his election as Pope.  [5]

If you haven’t already guessed, I’m rather more keen on technical and economic history, and practical things like routes from A to B than on social and theoretical history. I like to walk the past, as it were, but perhaps that’s because archaeologists do. Let me stop a minute and tell you something about Ripoli, the point of which I hope will be clear enough. 

The king who bestowed that first charter on the convent of Ripoli was King Charles the Simple (898-923) of the Western Franks. The convent was named for Sant Joan of Ripoli  –  which is called Ripoll in the charter. This Joan is not the one later burned by the English.  Ripoli lies on the southern slopes of the Pyrenees, in a spot noted for its oaks – scarce elsewhere in Catalonia. Oak-galls  were essential for making writing inks, and oak-bark for tanning leather and for making hides impervious to salt water and the Teredo navalis.

Still as in medieval times, Ripoli with its environs is noted for fine quality wool and for its cloth trade.  By the thirteenth century, Ripoli had also been the “metallurgical capital of Catalonia” which, I think, is an important point.  In addition, that Ripoli monastery (as it later became) lies on the northern pilgrimage route to Compostella, while its original connections to Marseilles had been strong, with roots older than Christianity in Spain.

And this region – the Pyrenees – is also directly relevant to the story of Wilfrid Voynich’s acquisition of books. One of his finds had been sold to the British Library. It purported to show Columbus landing in the New World, but it was suspected (and later shown) to be a fraud. On being questioned, Wilfrid explained the source as “a dealer in the south of France… who had it either from a Basque or a Polish count”.  Without troubling to investigate further, the keeper of manuscripts labelled that account as “not very plausible” but kept the item and catalogued it without stressing the fraudulent aspect.  The opposite was true. It is a fraud, but (as I showed in this post) Wilfrid’s account of its source, as he understood them, is entirely compatible with the historical facts, implausible though those facts may be. History rarely follows a predictable course and is thus constantly prone to producing ‘implausible’ events.

In sum:

It does seem that MS Beinecke 408, with its fold-outs, has to be some type of ready reckoner, perhaps containing –  as Baresch believed – medical and/or pharmaceutical information. The odds are overwhelmingly in favour of its having served a peripatetic or peregrinating sort of profession, and since it seems to me that we have not yet seen a hand closer to the Voynich hand than Sephardic cursive of the thirteenth and fourteenth century* still we have now seen some tenth-century works have points of possible relevance, such as certain letter-forms and a similar idea of how image and text may interact. This is not such a great surprise; many of the first, independent assesors were puzzled by the way that the manuscript seemed, as we constantly hear, “very early” and we have already been directed to the south by Erwin Panofsky. 

I think we  may posit for the moment that the immediate exemplar(s) for our fifteenth century manuscript were gained from fourteenth century precedents, but now we must be open to the possibility that at least some of those, in turn, might be considerably older. 

I would also posit that, this peripatetic or travelling profession was one permitted  Jews of Spain, and perhaps of France and/or the Veneto as early as the ninth to perhaps as late as the fifteenth century, while the manuscript’s  appearing to belong to the “thirteenth-or fourteenth” centuries is gained from an intermediate redaction, written in a hand then contemporary. 

Whether this date-range applies to every part of the manuscript is yet to be seen. As candidates for the ‘peripatetic profession’  medicine is one possibility;  others might relate to those of the merchant, worker in textiles, or manager of the sort of pharmacy or ‘thesaurus’ (storehouse) from which, in the earlier period, the client had to repair for his exotic dried plants.  [6]

* but see next post…



see separate post: Notes to #10d Fold-outs in Europe (afterword)



  1. Odoric of Pordenone (c. 1275/85 Friuli –1331)1 was a Franciscan friar and one of the chief travellers to Asia during the later Middle Ages, who travelled in 1314 or 1318–1330 to the “eastern parts of the world” (orientalium partium) visited Tabríz, China, Tibet atd.. return in 1330…


    • Yes. And I believe that I may have the honour of first having introduced his name and achievements to those interested in the Voynich manuscript. If I’m mistaken on that point, and somone else did before 2009, I am very happy to acknowledge their having priority.

      A great deal of such matter has been suddenly accepted of late, I’m happy to say. that the botanical section is chiefly concerned with eastern plants -and some have even accepted my explanation of the system (a formula of sorts) used for their construction. The vessels in the so-called ‘pharma’ section are appropriate to the eastern, but not the western sphere, and are predominantly a type and form used in Buddhist society; and so on. My re-introduction of the role of Franciscans (which had been dropped for years, and was a subject of ridicule only a few years ago – apparently as a side-effect of ‘central European’ idea) is now increasingly taken as quite acceptable – though as ever what I publish here is often adopted without mention of where it was found.

      Odoric was one of those Franciscan papal emissaries and when I pick up the ‘Avignon’ thread again, he is one of the people I mention – again -.

      Glad to hear that even ‘newbies’ soon get to hear all this; six years ago, you would probably have been advised to just “pay no attention”.

      For an idea of how people were thinking on this point – as late as 2012 – see the post “Bacon redux” on Nick Pelling’s “ciphermysteries” site (April 12th., 2012).

      Bacon was at that time still pretty much the only Franciscan considered by the Euro-theorists. As you’ll see Pelling’s treatment is focused on historical theory-building, but he does notice the lack of Christian motifs and emblems in the manuscript, and that’s one among many reasons for thinking that while it is reasonable to think a Franciscan *could* have brought the matter to Latin Europe, the content itself is not a medieval or fifteenth century Latin author’s creation. I find no characteristically Latin or Byzantine Christian imagery anywhere in the manuscript.


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