Scribal Relationships

Today’s blog isn’t directly related to the Voynich manuscript, but may be of interest to paleographers and medieval bibliographers in general.

Connecting the Scribes

While scanning through Vatican Ross.708, I noticed the script was similar to another manuscript I had previously seen. The writing is Gothic cursive which, in itself, is not unusual. This style of script was common in the 15th century throughout northern Europe, Bohemia, Lombardy, parts of northeastern Spain and, to some extent, the area around Naples and Salerno.

In fact, it never ceases to amaze me that a specific style of writing could be so widely distributed in the days before television and public schools began to standardize culture and teachings, especially when travel was so treacherous—turbulent seas and precipitous mountain passes were significant obstacles. If you were fortunate enough to have a horse or mule, there were places you had to dismount because the trail was too narrow for both horse and rider or, if the path wound along mountain cliffs, there was a real possibility the animal would slip and plummet, and it was better not to be astride when that happened.

This book has been sewn into a swaddling girdle to protect the manuscript on journeys. The knot could be used to tie it to belt or saddle. [Image courtesy of the Yale Beinecke Library.]

Considering the distances, and the difficulties of finding food and shelter on journeys of hundreds or thousands of miles, it’s incredible that writing styles could be so similar… and yet they were. I don’t know if anyone has given an adequate explanation for this phenomenon, but it’s evident that scribes moved around and that manuscripts were carried for great distances. Book boxes, satchels, and girdles (like the one on the right) were designed to protect books while en route.

The Romans brought coins and a new culture to England in the early years and, by the eleventh century, partly due to the Crusades, manuscripts from major trading posts in the Mediterranean were showing up fairly regularly in England, a round trip of about seven thousand miles.

Handwriting as a Research Tool

A rare self-portrait of Rufilis, the rubricator and his paints, from Bodmer Ms 127.

Handwriting is an important tool for identification. Along with other clues, it can help date a manuscript, and sometimes even pinpoint a specific origin or author. For the most part, the names of medieval scribes have been lost, although there was a greater tendency to name and date them in the middle east than in Europe. This is partly because many European manuscripts were created in monasteries and humility was considered a virtue (although some monks couldn’t resist the urge to encode their names within the text or their images within the illuminations). In other cases, even if the name was known, the person who penned it may have been lost to the annals of history due to an untimely death from war, disease, or famine. In times of war, sometimes entire villages were burned, including the records.

I mentioned in a previous blog on VMS folio 1r, that the handwriting of John Dee and Isabella d’Este show surprising similarities, considering one was educated near London and the other in Ferrara several decades earlier. You can see samples here. This is strong evidence that handwriting can be similar even if it originates in different areas at different times. It doesn’t happen often, however. After searching thousands of manuscripts, I have collected a very large number of samples, and rarely see temporally separated hands that are this similar. Because there are general patterns of change over time, handwriting can help us learn about a manuscript even if we are not completely sure of its origin.

Looking for Commonalities

To determine a common origin (or a common scribe who worked at different locations), one has to study the ink and pigments, the writing medium (parchment or paper), the angle of the writing, the angle of the pen, the slant, and the spacing between letters and lines. Even details, such as the way the pages are trimmed or bound, the worm holes, the stains, and the stitching, can provide clues.

If two different manuscripts show significant similarity, but end up in different repositories, the handwriting can help determine if they were written by the same scribe or the same scribal tradition. The origins of many manuscripts are not known and the community at large might be able to help with some of the unanswered questions now that e-facsimiles are becoming available.

The Doppelganger to Vatican Ross.708

The manuscript whose handwriting closely resembles Vatican Ross.708 (recently uploaded from microfilm to DigiVatLib in Italy), is Codex Sang. 726, which is on the Stiftsbibliothek site in St. Gallen, Switzerland. The distance between Rome and Switzerland on modern roads is almost 600 miles—a three-month journey in medieval times, much of it through steep mountain passes.

The handwriting is not a perfect match, but many of the letter forms, and even whole words, are almost indistinguishable, and the slant and line spacing are a good match as well (something that often differs dramatically even if the letter-forms are similar).

Here are some samples (click to see it full-sized). The brown ink is Codex Sang. 726 (“Scribe 1”), the black photostat is Ross.708.

Gothic cursive text samples from Codex sang. 726 and Ross.708

Samples for comparison between Codex Sang. 726 in Switzerland, and Vatican Ross.708 in Rome.

The main differences are

  • the “g” (Scribe 1 characteristically loops the tail up, Scribe 2 points it down to the left),
  • the “u” (Scribe 1 writes it with an undercurl, Scribe 2 with an overloop),
  • the “w” (Scribe 1 writes it like two v-shapes joined, while Scribe 2 tightens up the first “v”), and
  • a tendency on the part of Scribe 2 to sometimes not completely close the loop on the “e” or connect the stem on the “r”.

After collecting hundreds of samples of Gothic cursive, I’ve noticed it’s rare to find two scripts that are this similar unless they are by the same hand. Maybe they learned from the same tutor. Maybe they were blood relatives (sons often learned to write from their fathers).

Both manuscripts are in Middle German. Vatican Ross.708 (digitized from microfilm) is a popular story of travels attributed to John Mandeville and Codex Sang. 726 is about Schwabian history and law, so they are quite different in subject matter.

I can’t tell if Ross.708 was written on paper or parchment, but there are some vague horizontal striations in the muddy section about an inch in from the right on the bottom of page 2 that might suggest paper but it’s not clear enough to be sure. Note the Ex Libris mark on the same page for Bibliotheca Rossiana indicating that it probably originated from the de Rossi collection before it passed into the hands of the Society of Jesuits and the Vatican.

Sang. 726 is believed to be from S.W. Germany. It is listed as a late 14th or early 15th century document but I suspect it’s 15th century, probably closer to mid-15th century. It doesn’t use a single-loop “d” or double-story “a” as was more common in the 14th century, and it was written on paper rather than parchment, which also suggests 15th rather than 14th century (laminated paper was available around the eastern Mediterranean in earlier times, but laid and the later calendered papers, as were typically used in Central Europe, came later). Paper was available in France and Germany in the early-to-mid 14th century, but did not come into common use for manuscripts of this kind until about a century later.


So does any of this relate to the Voynich manuscript? Well, yes. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, most of the writing on the last page of the VMS is Gothic cursive script, which adds another piece of evidence to the estimated 15th-century origin of the manuscript and which relates to some of the research I’ve been doing on the text (to be posted later).

Also, Ross.708 (which was brought to our attention on the Voynich forum by René Zandbergen), includes a number of alphabets that might be of interest to Voynich researchers.

Whether these Mandevillian alphabets are actual or mythical is debatable, since Mandeville’s supposed travels have never been substantiated, and they scarcely resemble real eastern alphabets (note that each Mandeville story is accompanied by different illustrations), but they have some interesting shapes, some of which can be traced to other traditions, and might provide some food for thought.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *