Tag Archives: paleography

That Funny 4 Glyph

This article describes the odd glyph that resembles the number “4” (EVA-q). It’s odd because the “4” shape wasn’t prevalent in the late 1300s and early 1400s. It was a transitional period when many scribes were still using a character that looks like EVA-l to represent the number 4 and a few were still using Roman numerals.

That’s not to say that the VMS “4” is a numeral, I’m simply pointing out that this particular shape, with a sharp angled corner, wasn’t a common choice to represent a letter or a number when the VMS was created. Nevertheless, I believe it has its roots in Latin.

[Note: This is the more complete version of some images and commentary I posted on the Voynich.ninja forum a few months ago describing the glyph known as EVA-q. Even this is not the complete story, as there are statistics to go with the images, but it’s far too much information for one blog, so this article focuses on possible origins of the shape.}

How 4 Manifests in the VMS

The 4 glyph makes its first appearance on folio 1v, and from that point is frequently at the beginning of word-tokens and is followed by “o” about 90% of the time. The VMS is so regular in its construction, it would be tempting to think the other 10% are transcription errors, but the 4 has some interesting properties that suggest these are choices rather than errors. But first, here are some examples of the 4o combination, since it is most prevalent. Note that it is usually at the beginnings of Vwords.

But not always, a 4o can show up in the middle or at the end.

It’s often assumed that “4o” functions as a unit (and perhaps it does), but 4 is not always accompanied by “o”. The following examples show that 4 can be followed by other glyphs, such as a “c” shape, a “c” with a tail, a bench character, a benched gallows character, or the “cap” that represents missing letters in Latin. As further examples, the 4 can also be followed by a benched gallows (f103v) or an “i” (f106r), and 4o itself can be followed by “o”.

Both 4o and 4’o can stand alone—they don’t have to be attached to other Vwords. Note also, in the above and below examples, that a Latin abbreviation mark is sometimes associated with 4o. In the above example, the symbol is curved, but it is sometimes written as a straight macron-shape rather than a curved one, and occasionally there is a mysterious extra line connecting the two glyphs (might this be a hidden macron, or a combination with a different meaning?).

Whether two different abbreviation symbols have the same or different meanings depends on the scribe. Some were quite precise in the way they represented missing letters, others used whatever was convenient to the hand (or their imaginations).

The 4 is frequently followed by “o” (at the beginnings of Vwords), but they are not necessarily a combination—”o” sometimes precedes 4, or is sometimes combined with another 4o.

A “4” By Other Names

This glyph is often called “q” because some have interpreted “4o” as “qu” (it is also mapped to “q” on the EVA system but this keyboard position was not intended to impose meaning on the glyph). Sometimes the 4-shape has a soft connection rather than an angular one, making it look more like “q” than a “4”. Note that the pic on the right has a sharp-angled “4” on the same line as a soft “4”. Sometimes it’s indistinguishable from a “q” (assuming this is EVA-q and not EVA-y—sometimes it’s hard to tell).

There is more than one way to interpret the variation in the loop of the “4” glyph. Perhaps the soft-4 and the sharp-4 have different meanings, or perhaps they don’t, just as a “p” sometimes has a loop that connects and sometimes doesn’t, but means the same thing.

There is more than one character directly associated with 4. Sometimes the 4 is attached to a glyph that resembles the letter ell or the Latin “-is” abbreviation. This combination strongly resembles a mini-gallows character with a descender. The resemblance is so strong, you have to wonder if there’s a connection between EVA-q + “-is” and EVA-k, either in terms of glyph origins or meaning. Or is this a way to hide two consecutive gallows characters? It’s hard to test an uncommon combination—there aren’t enough instances to know if it behaves in the same way as 4o.

Common Patterns

When 4 is combined with o, it frequently precedes a gallows character and the gallows character frequently precedes a or c shapes. I’ve described this rule-like characteristic of Voynichese in past blogs.

Note that 4o is usually in front of the H-like gallows, not the P-like gallows. Note also that some of these are soft-4 and some sharp-4 and yet, at least superficially, they appear to behave in the same way.


If the VMS were Latin, then 4’o (4 and o with a straight or curved macron) can be interpreted in a number of ways—there’s no specific rule for how to expand the abbreviation symbol and there was quite a bit of variation in how scribes drew these squiggles, curves, and lines, but there were some general guidelines.

For example, a “squiggle” like the one found on the first page of the VMS is often interpreted as “er”, “ir”, “re” or “ri”, but even this symbol is sometimes used for other letters. Thus, in a medieval manuscript, one would look at neighboring words (in this case talis and est) to determine whether q’o represents “quero”, “quo”, “questo”, or “quomodo”.

You might also notice in this example of 15th-century cursive that the “q” shape isn’t round, it’s quite angular, almost like a VMS 4, but it was less frequently written this way.

Does This Mean the Voynich Manuscript is Latin?

Many have tried to translate it as such, it’s one of the most commonly claimed languages in VMS history, but most attempts range from shaky to bad, and sometimes they are really bad (I’ve only seen one that strikes me as a reasonable effort and that’s the one by Yulia May). So far, we only know that the glyphs are Latin, not that the language was Latin. Latin scribal conventions were common to many languages, including Greek, French, Spanish, German, Italian, English, Bohemian, and Scandinavian. The shapes by themselves do not reveal the language—they are adapted to represent common linguistic patterns in that language. Thus, a sign that means “-us” in Latin could potentially be used to represent “-en” or some other common ending in German.

In fact, we still use this system in English. The letter “w” with a line over it or a swooped-back tail is an abbreviation for “with” in the same way that an “a” with a swooped-back tail represents “aut” or “autem” in Latin.

So Where Did the 4 Shape Originate?

It’s possible that the VMS 4 is simply an invention, that no particular precedent inspired the shape. Or maybe the idea came from noticing quirks in the handwriting of certain scribes. As an example of how the “p” was sometimes written in medieval times, notice how the loop in this example is almost completely disconnected from the stem—it almost looks like 4o.

It’s tempting to think this might have twigged the idea for the VMS 4 glyph but, based on the way the abbreviations symbols are associated with 4o, I suspect the true inspiration might be another Latin abbreviation.

The 4 Glyph With and Without Ascenders

Note how the following VMS glyph resembles a 4 and appears to behave as a 4 when it precedes an o, but has an extra-long ascender-like stem. The VMS scribes were clearly familiar with Latin scribal conventions, but one still needs to consider whether this is scribal habit, a purely physical error, or a letter that started out as a gallows and got changed to 4. If it is a slip from Voynichese to regular Latin, does it reveal something about the glyph?

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough instances of the ascender4 to know, but we can take a look at other scripts to see if the shape was extant.

Historical Precedents

The VMS ascender4 reminded me of a sample of Visigothic text that includes a number of Latin abbreviations.

  • First note the macron in the shape of an old-style four (it looks like an x with a loop on top) near the end of line seven. It’s basically the same shape as EVA-l.
  • There is also a q with a long s-curve crossing the stem on the ninth line that can stand for various words including “quo”. A similar convention when applied to a p can turn it into “pre” or “pro” depending on whether the line is straight or curved.
  • There is a shape on the bottom that resembles a backwards gallows P that has various meanings depending on the time period. It can mean -us or -rum and is sometimes similar to a pilcrow except that it marks the end of a paragraph rather than the beginning.
  • There is an ampersand on line six near the beginning that can stand for “et” (as in Latin “and”) or for the two letters e and t if used as a ligature.

These are all common abbreviations. But the one of particular interest, circled in red, is one that matches the shape of the VMS ascender4. It can be attached to many different letters and is usually at the ends of words.

This character is comprised of a c-shape that loops over a long vertical stem. The loop is sometimes sharp, like a 4, or soft, like a q. The sharpness of the loop does not change the meaning of the symbol. Here it is primarily attached to “q” or “l” but it can be used in many different ways.

Typically the shape represents “-us” (which eventually evolved into a “9” shape or an apostrophe in later medieval manuscripts), but it can stand for other common endings that can be discerned by context, including “-uibus”. If it has a small extra loop on the top right, it can also mean “per” (which was later written by placing a line through the stem of a p rather than extending the top).

It’s possible this abbreviation inspired the shape for the VMS ascender4 and possibly also the 4.

Assuming there is meaning behind the VMS text, this symbol could potentially be expanded into a variety of letter patterns. In Latin it typically represents an ending, but it could just as easily be used as a prefix. Or, alternately, perhaps it does represent an ending and Voynichese is read right to left, even though it has been written left to right. Whenever I examine the text, I always try to scan it in both directions and not make too many assumptions about direction.


Taken individually, it would be difficult to determine the exact origin of a glyph, but when the VMS characters are studied as a whole, a strong pattern of Latin letters and abbreviations emerges. I haven’t had time to write up all the glyphs yet, I’m adding them as I can make time, but I have found abbreviation origins for almost all of the more peculiar-looking glyphs—and they trace back to Greco-Roman scribal conventions.

I don’t know if the ascender4 is based on the abbreviation-glyph illustrated above (or even if ascender4 and 4 are related), but it might be, so I thought it worth providing an example. If it is, then there’s still the challenge of figuring out whether the shape is simply a shape, a character (alpha or numeric), or something intended to be expanded into additional letters.


J.K. Petersen

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




The Origin of the Voynich Glyphs

The Search for the VMS Glyphs

Researchers have speculated for decades about the origins of those funny letters in the Voynich Manuscript.

When I first encountered the VMS, I recognized most of the shapes from medieval scribal traditions, but I couldn’t read the text, so I combed the world’s archives for examples of other alphabets that might have inspired the glyphs, hoping it might yield clues to an underlying language. Along the way, I discovered certain shapes are found in many scripts—loops, circles, snake-shapes, or sticks with a loop or two, seem to naturally occur in diverse regions. Shapes that look like p, s, g, and ell are particularly common.

In the end, after years of pouring over hundreds of languages and dozens of alphabets, I came back to where I started. The Latin alphabet and scribal abbreviation conventions can explain almost all the VMS characters. I already knew this, but sometimes you have to look around to appreciate what you already have.

I’ve mentioned the Latin origins many times, but I’ve noticed there is still a certain skepticism, and I’ve never posted examples of the entire alphabet due to the enormity of the task (I have thousands of examples and severe time constraints). So, I’ve decided to post it in installments rather than trying to fit it all into one very long paper that might never get finished.

Organizing the Glyphs

Most people are not familiar with Latin paleography, so I will try to include as many original samples as possible from medieval manuscripts.

Most of the VMS glyphs fall into four categories:

  • Latin letters,
  • Latin numbers,
  • Latin ligatures (two or more shapes combined for ease of writing), and
  • Latin abbreviations.

Some glyphs can be classified in more than one category. For example, in medieval script, the Greek sigma is sometimes used as a terminal-s in Latin scripts and is sometimes drawn with the last stroke looped so that it resembles a figure-8. This shape is hard to categorize unless one knows by context whether it is a letter or the number 8. Since the VMS lacks context (the text has not been decoded), I have assigned some glyphs to more than one category (e.g., letter and number, or letter and abbreviation). More on this later when I sum up the individual characters.

A number of Latin glyph-shapes are borrowed from Greek. Sometimes they mean the same thing and sometimes the shape has been adapted for other uses, as will be illustrated in today’s blog.

The Big Red Weirdo

I thought I’d start with one of the iconic shapes in folio 1r, sometimes known as the “bird glyph” or the “seagull” or simply as a “big red weirdo”. This shape is used only once.

The big red weirdo somewhat resembles a bird with a vertical squiggle between the “wings”. I usually call it the seagull glyph.

We learn in primary school that letters have more than one version, and are taught to write both upper- and lowercase letters. In most ancient scripts, there was no distinction between upper- and lowercase, but sometimes the beginning of a paragraph or line would be adjusted for aesthetic reasons or to call attention to something of importance by enlarging the letter, using different colors, or by adding lines, curves, or other embellishments.

The seagull glyph without the squiggle can be found in old languages that use the Greek character set (a variation of it can be found in Arabic, but much less often). It is not always drawn with the line underneath, but the line is used in certain writing styles or sometimes to create emphasis, as in these examples. Note the double dots above some of the letters. A Latin squiggle doesn’t have the same meaning as Greek dots, but the dots show a precedence for the position of a squiggle in later Latin documents:

These examples are from leftmost columns of new paragraphs (left) and from header text written for emphasis (right). Just as capital letters sometimes have extra strokes to make them stand out from lower-case letters, the Greek letters, such as ypsilon, sometimes had an extra line on the base to give them emphasis. In Coptic Greek this shape (without the dots) represents the letter Ue and, depending on the handwriting style, sometimes the letter Djandjia.

In Latin, the seagull shape usually represents a V, but sometimes it retains one of the Greek meanings. Note that dots have a variety of meanings in Greek. In some cases they are associated with the character (pronunciation or abbreviation), in others, dots can mean that the copied text diverges from the original, a convention that is also used in Latin.

The Seagull Tradition

Latin was a required language for medieval scholars and many also studied Greek, so it’s not uncommon for Greek conventions to show up in Latin texts. Sometimes they mean the same thing in Greek and Latin, and sometimes a shape is preserved but used for different purposes. In some cases, two conventions are combined, as will be seen when I discuss the squiggle.

You might have noticed that the seagull shape, when written as it is above, resembles the symbol for Aries. The Aries symbol is ubiquitous in Latin texts on astrology and astronomy, but the Greek convention is sometimes also used to mark paragraphs in texts not related to astronomy. You might notice that the “seagull” shape also somewhat resembles an open book, when the line on the bottom is extended. This, in combination with the way it is used in some Greek texts, might have inspired its use as a pilcrow in certain Spanish documents.

In the above examples, the shape that resembles the Greek letter is used to mark passages in a 15th-century Latin manuscript on astrology, and a 16th century New World document by Spanish missionaries. The shape underwent some minor changes, but its use as emphasis or a topic marker was retained.

This manuscript combines Greek and Latin, and the character can be seen both with and without the squiggle. Note that symbols above letters in Greek do not have the same meanings in Latin. Greek pronunciation symbols, for example, were not carried into the Latin writing traditions but the use of symbols as abbreviations was prevalent in both traditions.

In Latin manuscripts, a seagull shape usually represented the letter V or the letter V plus additional letters. If a squiggle was added, it was almost always an abbreviation. The example on the left is from the late 13th or early 14th century. The one on the right, from the 15th or 16th century.

What About the Squiggle?

The VMS character is embellished with a flame-like squiggle that sits vertically between the “wings”. This too is a Latin convention, a very common one. It can be drawn as a straight line, a slightly curved line, or a full s-curve, and it can be horizontal or vertical.

In old Greek, marks above letters are a combination of pronunciation symbols and abbreviations. In Latin, pronunciation symbols are rarely used and the symbols usually represent a number of abbreviations. You can think of them as specialized apostrophes, depending on their shape and position.

In Latin, the squiggle was particularly prevalent in the 13th and 14th centuries and it was usually drawn in the vertical direction to distinguish it from the shape that represents “n” or “m” which is straighter and almost always horizontal, but it didn’t matter whether an s-curve was horizontal or vertical, the meaning was usually the same—it stood for er, re, or ir or these letters combined with additional letters. In the illustration above, the word on the right is “versus”, with the squiggle standing in for “-er-“.

Sometimes if a squiggle had an extra wiggle, it stood for a degree of something or a series, as the “th” that is added to ordinal numbers. In this case, it was usually horizontal, but not always.

I don’t know what the seagull glyph signifies in Voynichese, but whether one considers it to be textual or an embellishment, the shape is not unusual, especially when it appears like this, at the beginning of a block of text.


It seems abrupt to end a blog on just one character, but it will take at least a dozen blogs to describe the whole alphabet and a dozen more to describe the relationships between them and their positions in the text (and that’s without going into the actual structure or meaning of the text). As will be seen from other characters, including the more exotic ones, whoever designed the glyphs was familiar with classical scripts and used Latin as the primary source of inspiration (or Latin conventions derived from Greek). This is indicated not only by shape, but by the design of the alphabet as a whole, and by position.

I’ll post examples of the other characters, including a discussion of their behavior, in future blogs.

J.K. Petersen

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

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

Marginal Notes and Miniscule Text         26 Jan 2016

There’s Something About Mariolli Folio F17r

VMf17rIf you look at Folio F17r, it’s laid out like many of the other plant pages. There’s a colored plant, a block of text that flows around the plant, and a marginal note at the top. If it weren’t for the marginal note, the page would probably not attract much attention.

By itself, the marginal note isn’t especially unusual. Notes are found elsewhere, in the same apparent handwriting, but… there’s something about the text that is different and some incongruities in the marginal note worth exploring, as well.

Normally I would describe the text first, and then talk about the marginal note, but I’m doing it it the other way around because there’s more than one mystery on this page and one may help illuminate the other.

Mallior Allor?

When I’m investigating marginal notes, I try not to look at other people’s interpretations until I’m fairly sure of what it looks like to me and what I think it might mean. Then I begin to wonder if others have come to the same conclusion and I start scouting around. In this case, my idea differed from most (perhaps all) of the others, at least in part.

This is what the note looks like after I adjusted it in Photoshop to try to make it clearer:

F17rDetailI confess I didn’t look at other analyses for very long, but this is what I discovered about other researchers’ interpretations…

  • Some consider the note unreadable.
  • Some say it’s in cipher text.
  • Some have suggested it is connected to Mattioli or Matthiolaus.
  • René Zandbergen, in 1999, suggested mallior adlor lucz(m) her vnllomnis olio**
  • Some say it’s Latin

I quickly stopped looking at other theories. I can’t see anything that evokes Mattioli or Matthiolaus in this text. I don’t think it’s cypher text, at least not the first part. Zandbergen’s suggestion makes more sense than any of the others, but I have some ideas that differ somewhat.

The Handwriting Style

First, some background. The margin note is in the same style of script used on the last page and some of the other marginal notes. This style of script emerged in the late 1300s and was just about gone by the late 1500s due to the invention of printing presses. Just as Carolingian had its day, this form of Germanic text, which was particularly prevalent in southeast Germany in the early 1400s, declined and died. During its height, it was mainly used for Latin and German religious texts and chronicles, although a slight variant was also used in certain monasteries in England and another variant in northeastern France.

15thGermWritSample2I mentioned in a previous article that part of the reason this form of script became popular was because there was a businessman in southern Germany running a manuscript studio (see example right) who earned extra cash by teaching handwriting to children (and probably anyone else who was willing to pay). This style of script was also shared in ecclesiastical settings in the St. Gall area.

NaplesScriptI tried to trace the earliest example of this style of writing and I’m not sure I have the earliest, but there is a possibility it originated in Naples or that someone from Germany visited Naples and brought it back in the 14th century, or may have learned the script in Germany, then traveled to Naples before writing the manuscript. Naples was a Lombardic kingdom until the 8th century but it’s probably Charles III or Ladislavs I who was King of Naples at the time this document was created.

15thGermWritSampleThe example to the right originated in the early 15th century, about a decade before the one from the German workshop. It’s a heavier hand (a wider quill) than the spindly writing of the VMS margin-writer, but it’s the same style of writing and differs quite noticeably from most mid- and southern Italian writing of the time.

So, it appears that the margin notes are Germanic. Combine this with the sprinkling of Germanic words and it’s hard not to posit a Germanic influence on the handwriting style.

Most Lombardic scribes at the time wrote in both Latin and German and the marginal-notes writer is no exception. The last page includes both Latinesque and some almost-discernible Germanic words. The smaller marginal notes on other pages are a mixture of German and Latin with Latin scribal abbreviations and I’m somewhat sure that the marginal notes on this page are the same.

Don’t Keep us in Suspense… What Does it Say?

I’m fairly sure the note at the top is polyglot, just as I’m somewhat sure the text on the last page is polyglot. That’s not to say it was polyglot at the time. German was infused with Frankish words, Norman languages included a mixture of German, French, and old Norse, old Flemish existed somewhere between Latin, French, and Dutch, and most educated people knew Latin. Germanic script typically used a subset of Latin scribal abbreviations.

To start, I don’t think that first loopy letter is an “o” as has been suggested by many people. I think it’s an “e” mainly because many scribes wrote the letter “e” this way with hardly any tick mark to distinguish it from a “c”. Note how it slants more than an “o” and it doesn’t close all the way. The last letter of the first word is “r” as is the last letter of the next word. The “r” shapes are standard Germanic script of the time.

Here is my current guess at what it says. The “a” is messy, the second “e” or “o” is up for debate, but the other letters are discernible:

mallier aller lucorem hov vi[ ]lameno ??   o?   no/uo ?? olono?? (I cannot make out the end of it where it fades.)

Notice I expanded the Latin lucorum. The line above the cz means letters are left out—this was a common way to abbreviate a word. It can also be abbreviated with a -rum symbol that looks a bit like an embellished “4”. See my previous article about Latin abbreviations.

MallierAllerSo… what is mallier?

It would mean nothing to most people, even to many Europeans, but to a Norman, it could be understood as “to paint” in a mixture of Scandinavian with French pronunciation (even if it’s not French grammatical structure). Most languages use some form of the word “paint” (to mean coloring in something) but in German, it can be malen and in Norse, it’s “male” (it’s well to remember that Normandy derives from “Nor maend” (Men of the North, Norse men). Mallier could be a “verbized” form of “to paint”.

The next word aller or allor would be understood by most northern German or Scandinavians of the time as “all [of the]”. In Latin lucorem hov would refer to these things as green. I’m not absolutely sure it’s “hov” as the last letter is badly obscured but it might be.

Is it reasonable to believe that the marginal text could be instructions? I think it’s possible, given that there are annotations elsewhere in the same style of writing that could be interpreted that way and are added in a manner consistent with other herbal manuscripts. Consider that the “g” in the leaf of Plant 1v, the “por” (purple?) on the petals of the viola, and the “rot” on the stem of  Plant 4r might be painting instructions, as well.

I am guessing that the statement could be an instruction as in, “paint all these green” except that the word after hov is probably part of the statement as in, “paint all these ___[leaves? plants? a shade of green?]___ green “. Unfortunately, I cannot make out the next word but it has a peculiarity that needs to be mentioned in the context of the whole page.

Is That a Slip of the Pen or Something Else?

The first two letters of the fading word look like vi but the next doesn’t appear to match any known Latin/Germanic character. Maybe it was a slip of the pen and was meant to be something like rt, but it keeps teasing me into thinking it’s a mini-gallows character. What follows after these shapes is difficult to discern, maybe -lamino or something like that but I haven’t succeeded in making it out.

MiniGallows1But getting back to that possible gallows character. I rejected the idea several times, because gallows characters are tall. It’s hard to hang someone from the height of a footstool so it makes no sense to interpret it as a gallows character, does it?

Remember I mentioned at the beginning of this article that there’s something odd about this page? Well guess what.. when I tired of staring at the faded letters, my eye drifted down the page and landed on, I couldn’t believe it, a tiny gallows character. Right there on the same page, on line seven! How improbable is that?

F17vMiniGallowsArrowIt’s very small, able to shelter under the arm of a full-sized gallows character and yet, despite its diminutive size, even has a tiny tick mark on the bottom foot that is characteristic of this symbol.

It’s hard to describe how surprised I was. As implausible as it seemed, at first, maybe there is a gallows character buried in the marginal note, just as there are VMS characters mixed in with Latin and German on the last page.


CheshCatInvisThere’s more to say about this page, but I’ll do that in another article. For now, I’m throwing out an alternate suggestion for the marginal text that differs from what I’ve seen so far in the hopes of furthering the discussion about what it might mean.

I wish I could see the Cheshire-cat text through a microscope—like everything else Voynichese, it’s a terrible tease.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved



Voynich Script – The Leaning Letter
and Why I Never Use the Eva Font       9 Jan 2016

Delving into the Details

I am constantly asking myself what can I learn about a person who lived almost 600 years ago when all that remains are enigmatic pictures and about 200 pages of inscrutable text—text that has resisted the efforts of thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of eager amateur and professional code-breakers.

It probably took a long time to create the VMS—hundreds of drawings, a couple of hundred pages of text. Writing and drawing with a quill takes considerable effort—something a generation of keyboarders might not fully appreciate.

SharpenQuillDijkThere were no ballpoint pens in the 15th century. Ink was hand-mixed from iron particles, vinegar, and oak galls, and getting the right consistency was important. To create the pen, someone had to pluck the feathers of a goose (preferably one that’s been given last rites—live geese will bite your knees off).

Even if you braved muddy streets crawling with rats and bought the ink and quills premade from a local craftsman, you had to trim your quill with a knife every few pages as the end of the nib wore away. If the angle or width of the nib changed, the text would be inconsistent. If you didn’t scrape enough ink off the nib right after dipping, the ink would drip or blob on the page. If you waited too long to redip, the ink would run out, the text would be too light and a few letters would have to be overdrawn without smearing.

Unlike a fountain pen, which provides a smooth flow of ink, the medieval scribe had to control the flow of ink using rhythmic movements of hand and wrist—a process similar to coaxing good sound out of a musical instrument.

Given the labor involved, writing nonsense-text would take almost as long as writing meaningful text.

What Penmanship Says about the Penman

15th c Lombardy calligraphy

15th c Lombardy calligraphy

Looking at the physical balance of the VM letters and lines, one would have to call it handwriting rather than calligraphy. The VM scribe was not an expert penman. As I mentioned in a previous post, the angle of the pen is not optimal for enhancing the aesthetic qualities of the pen strokes and the VM letter forms are not consistent enough to qualify for professional penmanship in an age when jaw-droppingly beautiful illuminated manuscripts were crafted by expert scribes.

Similarly, the “second script” on the last page of the VM (which may be in a different hand) lacks the artful shapes and consistency of high-quality penmanship.

VMTextSampleEven if it’s not up to calligraphic standards, the handwriting in the VM is careful, measured, and clear. In this respect, and in the fairly broad spacing, the VM script is more like 13th century Carolingian than Gothic cursive. That’s not to say it resembles Carolingian style (other than the broad spacing), but it is more readable than many medieval documents of the 15th century that were penned by amateur scribes—a detail that may say something about the personality of the author.

Discerning the Devil in the Details

This article doesn’t focus in depth on the writing style of the VM—I’ll do that in a separate post (there’s plenty to say about the spacing, size of the letters and how they are written). Instead I’d like to get to something more crucial—a clue that reveals that the VM author had a working knowledge of Latin scribal conventions that suggests classical training.

The Structure of the Text

MatrixIconThere have been a number of computational attacks on the Voynich—attempts to discern its structure through computer analysis. Some of these are quite interesting (and probably worthwhile), others are  based on faulty premises, but at least they yielded some funky graphs.

I’m in favor of computational attacks—they further our understanding of computer analysis, even if nothing else. I’m also in favor of computational attacks on the VM, even though many are based on the assumption that there’s a one-to-one correlation between VM glyphs and actual letters/sounds which, in my opinion, is a very shaky assumption.

One important detail about the VM text that I mentioned in my July 2013 zodiac post, and which I’d like to elaborate further, is the use of Latin abbreviations. The entire text incorporates writing conventions that were common in the 15th century, including the abbreviations in the zodiac labels written by another hand next to each animal.

Latin Conventions

Latin scribal abbreviations are shapes that stand in for letters. Some are used within words, some at the beginnings and ends of words. I’m not going to give a full tutorial on Latin sigla, since many of the conventions are outside the scope of the VM, but I’ll mention ones that are directly relevant.

SiglaConThe “9” abbreviation. The shape that resembles the number nine is used at the beginnings and ends of words. At the beginning, it typically stands for con– or com-. At the end, it is usually –cum or –cun but can also mean –us or –os or occasionally -is (particularly if it is superscripted). The 9 as a suffix is common to many manuscripts. The 9 is used as a prefix as well, but less often.

In the Voynich manuscript, the 9 is contextually similar to Latin and Germanic texts—it shows up frequently at the ends of “words” and occasionally at the beginning. If one hunts through the VM, one can find exceptions where it appears midtext, but that can happen in Latin, as well, and usually stands for -er or r.

CTailc/e with a tail. A shape that looks like a c or e with a tail has meaning similar to the suffix 9 (con, cum) except that the shape usually stands alone rather than being attached at the beginning or end. In the VM, it’s sometimes difficult to tell from the spacing whether a character is intended to be read by itself or is associated with nearby glyphs. In the VM example to the right, the spacing is similar to the 14th century Latin document above it, but the distinction between this character and others is not always so clear.

It perplexes me when I see “decodings” from Voynich researchers who rigidly assume a one-to-one relationship between character glyphs and their underlying meaning (assuming there is an underlying meaning). Even if you put aside the possibility of 1) ligatures, 2) medieval abbreviations, and 3) null characters, you still should not assume one VM glyph equals one letter. It could be one, two, three, or more. If it were a one-to-one substitution code (also known as a Caesar code), the mystery would surely have been solved centuries ago.

Other Numbers

Latin4oThe number 9 is not the only number used in Latin manuscripts. The numbers 2 and 4 have significance as well (as does the number 3, but it’s not found in the VM and won’t be discussed in this post).

The 4 on the left is paired with a superscripted o in a 14th century Latin manuscript. Voynich fans might recognize the similarity to the Voynich 4o. The context is a little different, however. In Latin documents, 4o usually stands alone, while in the VM, it’s typically at the beginnings of glyph groups—it doesn’t follow Latin positioning conventions as closely as the number 9.

In Latin, the 2 is contextually similar to suffix 9—usually at the end of the word, often superscripted, and typically means -ur. A character that resembles a 7 is also commonly used to denote et or e (and is the basis of the abbreviation etc. which started life as a ligature between the 7 shape and a c). Less often it stands for –us or –que. The 7 shape does not appear to be represented in the VMS.

The Curling Tails

UmTailThe tails of some of the VM characters swoop up and over the letter, and do so in a consistent way. In the 15th century this wasn’t a mere embellishment, the tail carried meaning. In Latin and Germanic text, the curved tail usually represented m or sometimes n. If it’s midtext, it appears as a line above the letters. At the end, it’s easier to swoop back the tail rather than lifting the pen.

UmTailLatinGermIn Latin documents, the swooped-up tails often follow the letter u to create –um. In Germanic texts, they often follow ai to form ain (an old form of ein). Many of the German scribes also wrote in Latin and retained some of these conventions when writing in their native tongue, as illustrated in the two examples on the right.

The Caps

In September 2014, Stephen Bax asked me the meaning of the curved caps that appear over some of the VM glyphs. I’m sure many people are wondering the same thing.

VMCapsI didn’t answer right away, because the question can’t be answered in a few sentences. It depends on context. In fact, a blog post can only scratch the surface of VM conventions.

In Latin, the cap has a variety of shapes. Sometimes a different shape has a different meaning and sometimes different shapes have the same meaning (but vary stylistically based on individual hands).

ClosedCapLatinIn most cases a closed cap (an “o” shape) represents something different from an open cap. This is also true of German script, in which the open cap usually symbolizes –er- (or sometimes an old-style umlaut) and the closed cap the sound “oo” (and is  placed over a u the same way as an umlaut in modern text). I’m not going to go into details on the cap in this post, because it needs a full post of its own and I want to concentrate on another shape that may be more important.

The “J” Character

IsRisCisVMOne of the less common characters in the VM alphabet is the J-like character found at the ends of words. In Latin, this is easily recognized as the suffix –cis, –ris, or –tis and sometimes is used as –is when attached to a different beginning stroke. Note how the connection between the beginning stroke is sometimes blunt and sometimes rounded (the Eva font acknowledges this difference but neglects the third variation). That’s how it’s done in Latin, as well. I’ve seen some pretty odd proposals for what the VM J-shape represents but the shape (if not its meaning) is standard medieval Latin script.

All three suffixes can be found throughout the VMS and it’s possible that the one-loop gallows character may be an example, as well. Picture it as a ligature comprising a letter and the abbreviation –is. I’m not proposing this as a theory, just encouraging people to remain open to possibilities. In Latin, the shape of an abbreviation may change depending on its position in a word.

Putting aside the gallows character for now, the VM J character is almost always at the end of glyph-groups, but there are exceptions (you can find some on Folio 58r). Occasionally, two can be found combined, but even this is not particularly exceptional, since it’s possible that valid syllable combinations analogous to –ristis exist in whatever language underlies the VMS.

The Funny “r” Character

LeaningR1This brings us to one of the shapes that might be overlooked due to its resemblance to contemporary alphabets. Since there are several VM glyphs that look familiar to western European characters, like the a and the o, it might be easy to perceive this as an embellished r. In fact the Eva font maps it as a lower-case “r”. I’ve also seen people refer to it as a question mark, but that loop is definitely a tail, not the primary stroke of the letter.

There’s a Latin abbreviation similar to this that represents -ter. It’s a combination of a “t” (which often looks like a “c” in old manuscripts) with a curled tail, representing er. It looks like the VM “r”, but the stem is usually upright. Which brings us to an important detail I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else…

Have you ever asked yourself why this funny character that somewhat resembles an “r” leans backward when all the other “stem” characters (with the possible exception of a character that resembles an “i”) are straight up and down? Maybe not. Just as you may not have considered a possible relationship between the suffix-J character and the loop on the gallows character.

Context is everything when interpreting a 600-year-old document.

I’ll explain why I think the lean in the “r” is important and why it helps confirm the idea that the VM scribe was familiar with classical Latin conventions. I’m proposing that it may be based on another Latin abbreviation that is usually found by itself, between words, although sometimes in other positions.

Latin2CharRotThe letter that resembles a 2 in Latin manuscripts usually stands by itself, between words, but it can also be found in the end position (usually as a superscript).

Now use your imagination and picture this character rotated 60 degrees clockwise. Then you get a character that not only resembles the “r” with a tail but which appears in the VM by itself, between words, and sometimes at the ends of words. Even when it appears to be part of another word, the space between it and that word is sometimes greater than the distance between individual letters, which makes you wonder if it’s intended to stand alone or form part of the nearby group. In other words, the context of the VM “r” is similar to the way the “2” is used in Latin even if the shape, in this example, is not in the same orientation.

rTail14thYou don’t always have to rotate the character to recognize it. Here’s the same abbreviation in a different Latin document (14th c) in more angular handwriting. If you imagine the tail more smoothly curved, it resembles the VM glyph’s orientation without rotating it. One can also find examples where the tail (the backward swoosh) is more curved.

In the subscripted suffix position, the “2” or “r” (which sometimes looks like a leaning S) may represent –ur or –er. When it’s written as a suffix in-line with previous characters, it usually represents –re or –ri or sometimes –er, but this form would normally have an upright stem. In Latin, it’s less common to see it midword, but when it is, it can mean almost anything (and sometimes represents as many as five letters).

Darn Those Details

Italy12thcAbbrLearning medieval abbreviations is not as easy as looking at a chart. Some symbols are fairly consistent (mainly the suffixes) but many can only be interpreted in relation to the letters around them, which means you have to know the underlying language to understand whether the symbol stands for one character or many and to determine which ones they are.

The example above-right (from a 12th century Italian manuscript) is a relatively small snippet and yet is packed with Latin abbreviations, including pro-, der-, -us, -os, n, m, -er, -uo, -s-, con-, prae- and others.

Just when you think you’re getting the hang of it, another snafu comes along and you discover a symbol you thought you understood has other functions, as well. Like the J character that stands for -cis, -ris, or -tis… it sometimes doesn’t stand for characters in the preceding word at all. Sometimes it’s a paragraph-end marker.

Sang610c1455Knowing the language is especially important for interpreting 15th-century manuscripts like the one on the right from the mid-1400s because writing was taught to a larger segment of the population and was no longer the exclusive domain of those chosen for their literacy and handwriting skills. Later documents are often not as tidy as 12th and 13th century hands, and superscripted symbols were not always written directly over the position where the letters are missing.

Implications for the Voynich Manuscript

I’m confident that the VM scribe knew Latin conventions beyond simply copying the shapes. Many of them are contextually applied in the same way one would see them in medieval Latin and German manuscripts. Whether there’s any Latin in the VMS is a completely different subject. I have my own ideas about whether the VM author used Latin conventions to represent single letters, groups of letters, or… as a smoke-screen to hide the underlying contents of the manuscript by crafting the text to look like Latin.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved