Fold-outs and pre-bound blank books

detail shield Raphael School of AthensIn the Latin medieval world, concertina-style foldouts are rare and are predominantly either a ‘labours and months’ sort of calendar, or they contain physicians’ diagrams, typically including the zodiac body and wheels of urine glasses. One or two are still with a leather pocket, rather like the simple sort of spectacles’ case we use today. I’ve shown some of the calendar type here in earlier posts.

However, there are two details from Raphael’s great fresco, the “School of Athens” which raise certain questions of interest about forms of ‘notebook’ which he evidently considered characteristically Greek and/or ancient: one being a pre-bound blank book, and the other perhaps a concertina-fold ‘notebook’.

The work is rather late for our purpose, having been painted between 1509-1511. Some details, such as the style of coffered ceiling, do not accord with what we know of the ancient and classical world, but other details show a remarkable level of accuracy including that shown in the header, and unlike many of his time who attempted ‘historical’ paintings, Raphael clearly tried to get details right.

The painting is driven by the dynamic of having an overt intention to counter criticism of contemporary Latin Christian Europe by identifying it with ancient learning, and Raphel’s private  intention to demonstrate the marked difference between those two environments, to the ancients’ advantage.

He believed the Greeks had freely collected and just as freely disseminated knowledge from every source, for its own sake, and without reference to theological matters.

Both types of ‘notebook’ are shown in the detail below, and are plainly meant to be associated. Pythagoras writes in the book with what appears to be a metal pen or quill completely shorn, and is shown filling the third column of an opening in a bound book that would appear to have been provided without any prior text in it. two books Raphael School of Athens detail

blank book School of Athens

Latin manuscripts were not provided in that way.  Bifolia were made by folding and cutting the sheet of parchment or vellum. Each side of the bifolia was ruled out, and allowance made for any intended illustrations.  The written part of the text was then inscribed and then, or after any images had been added, the bifolia were nested to form quires, these being numbered to ensure the text was retained in its correct sequence. Only then, if ever, were the quires bound.

[For any readers who are just becoming acquainted with codicology, I’d recommend Richard Firth Green, Linne R. Mooney, A. G. Rigg, Interstices: Studies in Late Middle English and Anglo-Latin Texts ... ( 2004). Though the examples are from a limited range, description of process is unusually clear and detailed].

For that reason, the general rule in dealing with manuscripts produced in Latin Europe is that quiration is presumed closely contemporary with  inscription of the main body of text failing clear evidence to the contrary .

However –  if a stack of blank quires were bound before any were inscribed, quire numbers would be unnecessary – until, or unless, the volume were later pulled apart for some reason. Among those reasons might be an intention to re-bind, or to print, or simply a wish to extract certain sections to suit a different purpose.

Since Raphael’s intention was to picture how differently things were done in ancient Athens, so I believe he considered any provision of a pre-bound blank manuscript to be peculiarly Greek. At the same time, it is not believed that ancient  Greeks used codices at all, so one must suppose Raphael here extrapolated from the customs of Greeks or ‘ancient’ peoples within the Byzantine and/or the Islamic territories.

I must now do my best to acknowledge a person whose name was omitted  – whether unfortunately or by their own wish –  from second-hand reports of their comment, made when the manuscript was on exhibit at the Folger Library.  He or she  seems to have or to have had some connection to that library and reportedly said that the VMS looked to him or her like a Greek or Byzantine vernacular notebook. A type of pharmacist-physician’s notebook was mentioned, but it is obvious enough that a notebook might serve other activities and professions.

Evidence of prior binding in MS Beinecke 408 needs no more discussion, nor the clear fact of re-arrangement and/or disarrangement by the time it gained its present order.  So here again  the possibility arises that not only is our present manuscript a compilation from earlier volumes, but that if those sources had been ‘Pythagorean’ style books: that is, bound blank –  then we can no longer presume (as one would of a Latin work) that no great interval had occurred between inscription of the current text and the addition of quire numbers .

– in which context, I refer to  Pelling, who was as far as I know the first to pay close attention to the manuscript’s palaeography and codicology. In a page at ciphermysteries, he re-caps  comments and illustrations first published  a decade ago, saying:

To my eyes, Quire Hand #2 looks (from the even ink flow across the ‘m’) to have been written with a fine metal nib by a later owner (aping the original numbering scheme and handwriting): while Quire Hand #4 also looks to have been added later (though by someone with no grasp of how the numbering scheme worked).

I do not think use of a metal pen alone would permit us to argue the quire-marks much later than the main text, for metal pens were certainly in use by the fifteenth century as we’ve seen, but a lapse in time would be more likely if the present work had been gained by extraction from bound volumes which lacked them, even if those volumes themselves were fifteenth-century in date.

One might also suggest that the unusual style of the  VMS quiration (on which see again, Pelling’s page or book)  must add to this possibility and might even indicate that the compilation which produced our present volume itself occurred outside the environment of a Latin European scriptorium, even in the fifteenth century.


Anaximander’s notebook may be meant to be read as a narrow concertina-fold sheet, one section extended to take notes and the rest, kept protected by its cover, having its folds gripped between the fingers of the writer’s left hand. If this were the case, then that gripping would be simply explained: the extended section had to be kept steady under a little tension to provide a practical surface for writing on.

(On interpreting the visible substrate as wax, see further below)

[Image: raph-school-concertina.jpg]

These details are of interest to us on their individual merits, but more so by reason of their proximity here, and their being set adjacent in the context of Raphael’s painting, aimed at lauding the ways of “the ancients” and “the Greeks”.

In this way, we might posit a single explanation for two and perhaps three otherwise anomalous characteristics in MS Beinecke 408 – that explanation being a formulation and transmission of the content outside the environment of Latin European scriptoria.


I interpret both writing implements as a metal pens, but if Anaximander is imagined writing on a wax sheet then his would be a stylus.  And were that so, then once again Pelling deserves mention since he said as early as 2006 than pre-inscription on wax tablets might explain  the apparently few scribal errors in the Voynich text.

Anyway, see what you think.  Comments from any qualified comparative codicologists would be certainly welcome.

Unbound quires:

Not all quires were ever bound: centres which produced copies of texts often maintained piles of unbound quires, some of which were never bound at all.

Afterword: I first published the gist of this post in a forum called ‘Voynich ninja’, but felt readers deserved better illustrations and a little more detail.


PS – thanks to Janny for noticing that the header picture and part of the text had been dropped. Both now re-instated..

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