Tag Archives: Voynich manuscript provenance

Reconsidering the Columns

The Mystery of the Columns

i-initialn May 2016, I posted a follow-up blog about the faint letters visible on the right-hand side of folio 1r and speculated that it might be a failed attempt at decoding the manuscript. That was a guess based on seeing the Latin alphabet in the first column paired with Voynich shapes in the second, and the fact that it was later erased. Two more columns are also faintly visible, but there’s not enough detail to discuss them in depth.

In my previous blogs, I was reluctant to guess the date of the columnar writing because only a few letters are clearly visible, but I went out on a limb and estimated that it might be late-16th- or possibly 17th-century script, based on the small round shapes, the long unlooped ascenders, the slant, and the overall look and feel. I wasn’t completely sure, however, because important clues about how the writer connected the letters and spaced the lines aren’t available.

As soon as I posted the May 2016 blog, I started this blog, to describe the writing further, but was pulled away by other interests and responsibilities. The column text is a sideline for me, but studying it might reveal a few details about the VMS’s provenance, so I come back to it from time-to-time.

Who Added the Columns to the Voynich Manuscript?

My paleographic collection includes thousands of writing samples, but most are focused on Carolingian or Gothic time-frames and the VMS columnar writing is different. It looks more recent than other parts of the VMS, and more like a casual or correspondence hand than a scribal book hand, and most of it has been erased. Nevertheless, there is enough to sample some of the letters.

Voyf1rColumns1To recap: on folio 1r, the first column (to the right of the main text) is moderately clear. An alphabet has been written from top to bottom in a tidy script with small, relatively smooth curves and unlooped ascenders/descenders. I have colorized the letters to make them easier to see.

The second column starts with the VMS figure-8 glyph, followed by a small c-shape, and then some shapes that resemble the “red weirdo” at the top of the columns. I’ve colorized the “weirdos” red to distinguish them from the regular Latin alphabet in Column 1 and the VMS characters above them. Columns 3 and 4 are almost completely erased and crowded by wormholes, and column 4 appears incomplete (it’s even possible that columns 3 and 4 are one column worked in around the holes), so this blog focuses on the letters in column 1.

A Brief Background on Writing Styles

Voyf1rColumns3From a paleographical point of view, the style of writing in Column 1 is quite distinct from the angular looped ascenders and proportions of 15th-century Gothic scripts. Gothic book and cursive hands (and those that closely resemble them, like Anglicana) were predominant in the Holy Roman Empire in the 15th century and were in use all the way north to Scotland and Sweden and south to the area around Naples, partly through the influence of Benedictine and Franciscan monasteries, and partly due to commercial scriptoria that offered handwriting lessons.

Gothic cursive styles were less common in the central Italian states and western reaches of Portugal and Spain, but were used in Flanders, eastern France, and Bohemia.

Gothic handwriting is relevant to Beinecke 408 because the labels on the zodiacs, and the marginalia on the last page and a few of the other pages, are in Gothic cursive hands. The latter appears to be in an older transitional style, between a Gothic book hand and Gothic cursive (I have a detailed paper on this that I will upload in a future blog).

The folio page numbers also appear to be different from both the main text and the last-page marginalia, and it has been suggested that John Dee may have added the numbers. I have not read the prior research on Dee and the folio numbers because I wanted to determine for myself whether there is a match so I could independently corroborate or refute existing opinions and will post my observations on a separate blog. For this blog, I thought it might be interesting to ask the question…

Did John Dee Write the Marginal Columns?

johndeeportraitJohn Dee was a pious family man with a thirst for learning. His broad interests included mathematics, medicine, astrology, and many other subjects. He avidly collected books, dreamed of establishing a national library, and was eager to communicate with angels in the hope of uncovering universal truths.

Dee is often described as an alchemist but he did not engage in alchemical experiments to any great degree, except in a secondary role if they were related to angelic communication. He was interested enough, however, to read about alchemy, to have some lab materials, and to leave marginal notes in this handwritten manuscript that may have been from his library:


Dee’s margin note about “the grene lyon” (the green lion) is a reference to one of the ingredients of alchemical distillation processes. Interestingly, something I noticed as I looked at page after page of Dee’s writing, is that he appears to have picked up scribal ideas for ligatures and flourishes from some of the texts that he read or copied. I noticed the scribe on the left used a ligature for “th” and, in some places, a flourished “e” that are not found in Dee’s marginal notes for this page, but which show up in Dee’s later notes in adapted form.


In note form, Dee’s hand can be scrawly and difficult but is elegant and comprehensible when applied to finished charts and formal correspondence. Dee could draw reasonably well, valued good handwriting, and is said to have encouraged his sons to write well so as to make a good impression. (Image detail of Dee’s autobiographical notes courtesy of the Royal College of Physicians exhibit.)

In his search for knowledge, Dee ardently tried to communicate with angels and kept profuse notes of these sessions. He made efforts, sometimes on a daily basis, to contact these heavenly messengers. As a consequence, his notes, diary, and correspondence provide enough samples to get a good sense of his handwriting.

Evolution of Handwriting

By the 17th century, handwriting in academic circles had evolved from the upright, heavy, angular Gothic styles of the 15th century to a lighter, quicker, more slanted script. Compared to early 15th-century scripts, Dee’s 16th-century lower-case letters are small and rounded, the space moderately wide between letters, and the ascenders and descenders long and not always looped, more similar to the example on the right.


On the left is a typical example of mid-15th century Gothic script from a commercial scriptorium that taught handwriting. By the 16th century, paper was more widely available, making it easier to engage in correspondence and quicker, lighter hands became prevalent in academic circles, as in the French example on the right. Dee’s hand also reflects this change in style and bears similarities to the hands of a number of scholars and nobles in France, distant parts of the Holy Roman Empire, and what is now northern Italy.

With regard to the VMS, Dee’s script is distinctively different from the Gothic cursive on folio 116v and a few other folios, so I think we can rule out Dee as the author of the last page and the zodiac wheels marginalia. It also doesn’t seem likely that he was one of the primary scribes for the VMS—the slant and spacing don’t match, the time-frame is wrong, and he handles the pen differently from the main text (more about that and the folio numbers in separate blogs).

Overall Impression

As I collected samples of Dee’s handwriting, it struck me that it was similar to Marcus Marci’s correspondence about the VMS, penned by a scribe on Marci’s behalf several decades later. I haven’t seen this similarity mentioned anywhere else in connection with Voynich studies, so I sampled one of Marci’s letters, as well, based on the image at http://www.voynich.nu. As far as I am aware, the identity of Marci’s scribe has never been determined.

Most of Dee’s available notes were written between 1550 and 1600, almost a century earlier than Marci’s letter, and yet you will see the similarities in style in the image below. The only significant differences are the following:

  • Dee sometimes wrote “e” with an ascending tail rather than a loop,
  • Dee’s “g” descender is shorter (although not always), and
  • the starting leg of the “h” is frequently truncated so it doesn’t reach the baseline—in combination with the flourished “e”, this is a distinctive marker in Dee’s handwriting but the pattern can be found in a few others, including that of Isabella d’Este who was raised in Ferrara, far from Dee’s London, England.

It was necessary to hunt through several hundred documents to find a few hands that closely resembled the style of writing on folio 1r and this is still a work in progress. It may require hundreds more to get a sense of when and where the columnar letters were written. As it is, Dee’s handwriting is somewhat close, and he sometimes wrote the “e” with a hook as in the columnar text, but the slant and pressure dynamics differ, so it’s not an exact match (click to see a larger version).

The hand of Isabella d’Esté (far right) is surprisingly similar to Dee’s (with the exception of the “g”), which demonstrates not only that geographically distant writers can end up with similar letter forms, but that it’s unwise to jump to conclusions when finding something that “almost” looks the same…. there might be others that match even more closely that may lie undiscovered.


When I first saw Dee’s handwriting, I noticed similarities between it and the VMS columnar text, but after sampling the handwriting of other writers, it appears that this style of script was widespread geographically even if it was not entirely common (I encountered many other styles in the search for this handful of samples).

My gut feeling, until more data is available, is that the columnar text was probably added sometime between the late 15th century and the mid-16th century. This is very tentative, as there is so little to go on, and certainly will be revised if additional examples that match more closely are found.

J.K. Petersen

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