But who would use Vellum, anyway?

The choice of vellum for all the pages of the Voynich has been seen as a clue for the dating, origins and purpose of the book. The cost of vellum, and the era of common usage of the material, have been a major factor in the currently most accepted dating of the manuscript between about 1420 and 1460. Certainly by the mid 16th century vellum went out of favor, as it was easier and cheaper to print on paper… which was less expensive and more available as time went on. By the early 17th century, the time of my theory, the use of vellum as the pages of books was very uncommon. But for various reasons, it is not outlandish to consider it would have been used in this case, if considering the people and motivations found in my circle of influence, and the evidence we do have for it’s remaining use, availability, and the reasonable value these uses implied.

f99r from the Voynich Manuscript

f99r from the Voynich Manuscript

But first of all, I do not think vellum was really all that expensive, from the middle ages to the early renaissance. From: “Old English libraries; the making, collection and use of books during the middle ages”:

“For all permanent purposes ” boc-fel,” or book-skin,
was used; either vellum or ” parchemyn smothe, whyte
and scribable.” Vellum and parchment were interchange-
able terms in medieval times ; but parchment was commonly
used…. … it was not so expensive as vellum : the average price being two shillings per dozen skins as compared with eight shillings per dozen skins of vellum.”

The book gives other examples, showing that for two to eight shillings one could obtain a dozen vellum skins, certainly more than enough to make a Voynich.

But let us assume, as some have suggested, that by my time frame of 1610 to 1620, vellum would have equalled the “cost of a small farm”. I won’t go into the relative values of farms in the appropriate centuries, let’s just assume it was “that” expensive. This actually favors my theory, for this reason: Comparing the relative suggested uses, as an herbal, as a pharma, as a hoax, or my theory, as an artifact of the literature of Bacon, I think that cost would actually be less of a factor in my case. This, because the circle of Francis Bacon, and Bacon himself, was quite used to spending inordinate amounts of money on very elaborate productions and celebrations. A masque for James I and Queen Anne, for instance, would have props and costumes designed by Inigo Jones, with single dresses costing more than 1,000 pounds. The wedding celebrations of Princess Elizabeth are said to have cost over 40,000 pounds. For someone in this group, at this time, to have created the Voynich, even if expensive, would not be so unusual.

But, as it turns out, vellum was commonly used in many very ordinary ways at this time, implying both reasonable cost and easy availability:

It was used by artists for common sketches:

Gerrit de Heer, detail, circa 1630 to 1640

Gerrit de Heer, detail, circa 1630 to 1640

The album amicorum, friendship albums, were sometimes made on vellum.

…and it was of course, used as a binding and cover for almost all printed books, and for many legal documents such as deeds and writs.

Michael Maier, the Rosicrucian writer, alchemist, doctor to Rudolf II, and acquaintance of the court of James and Drebbel, created two Christmas “visiting cards”: One for James I, and one for Henry, his son. From Joscelyn Godwin’s essay in “The Rosicrucian Enlightenment Revisited”, entitled, “The Deepest of the Rosicrucians: Michael Maier (1569-1622)”. In 1611:

“Maier addressed himself immediately to King James I and VI. His visiting card, now in the Scottish Record Office in Edinburgh (GD 242/212), took a most unusual form. It was a Christmas greeting to the King, made of a folded parchment 33 by 24 inches, on which a central Rose-Cross emblem made out of words in gold and red is flanked by four Latin poems. Two of these poems address James, while the others are put into the mouths of four archangels and two shepherds attendant on Christ’s nativity. The parchment includes a musical canon in six parts representing the songs of the angels and shepherds. All in all, it is a most curious object, displaying the verbal ingenuity and the multimedia approach that marked Maier’s creative style. It is also the earliest known appearance of the Rose-Cross symbol in England.”

Crop from Micheal Maier Christmas Card

Crop from Micheal Maier Christmas Card

Maier’s presentation to Henry, who died before he could receive it, was similar, and also on parchment. So here we have a large, 33 by 24 inch parchment, with painted illustrations and writing on it. The size alone would be enough to create approximately 12 leaves of the Voynich… that is, 10 percent. And Maier’s two cards would equal 20 percent of the vellum needed to create “a Voynich”. Clearly this vellum was available to Maier, used by Maier, and not prohibitively expensive.

One other very curious and interesting example is this political parody from 1603. Which includes both mythological and real figures, which by folding, could be assembled in different ways.

Whimsical Royal Parody, 1603, Vellum

Whimsical Royal Parody, 1603, Vellum

The use of vellum, therefore, was common, the cost of vellum, reasonable, the painting on vellum, frequent, in the early 17th century. It was used in greeting cards, the arts, in law, in binding. And as previously pointed out, optical devices were wrapped in it. Considering this, I do not personally consider cost and availability of vellum to be a factor against the Voynich having been created during the time frame I propose, nor by someone from the circle I suggest may have been responsible.

17 Responses to “But who would use Vellum, anyway?”

  1. Nick Pelling Says:

    Hi Rich,

    According to http://www.flowofhistory.com/units/west/11/FC74
    “Even by 1300, paper was only one-sixth the cost of parchment, and its relative cost continued to fall. Considering it took 170 calfskins or 300 sheepskins to make one copy of the Bible, we can see what a bargain paper was.”

    If you want to work out the actual cost of paper circa 1600, there is a large literature on the history of paper you should probably consult. Here’s a starting point:-

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  2. proto57 Says:

    The figure of “170 calfskins, or 300 sheepskins” may be correct for a bible, where less pages could be gotten from one skin. It is clear from the very small Voynich that many could be cut from a skin, and so much less would be needed.

    But I worked it out: The bi-folios (4 pages) of the vellum Gutenberg bible would have been 17.5″x24 inches (pages were about 12″x17.5). Doing the math, we divide the 1,272 pages of the Gutenberg bible by 4 to get the number of bi-folios, coming up with 318 needed sheets. Multiplying these by their area, we have a total area of skin (poor sheep) of 133,560 square inches.

    The VMs, if we use a baseline of 220 pages, needed 55 sheets (thereabouts). Each is about 12″x9″, giving a surface area of 108 square inches, and a total of 5,940 square inches needed for the whole book. When we divide that figure into the 133,560, this means the Voynich would have needed about 1/22 of the vellum the Gutenberg bible did. I actually think it would be much less, because many more smaller rectangles can obviously be cut from an irregular shape… but let’s stick with the 1/22. So if the bible used 300 sheepies, then the Voynich would have needed only 13… a baker’s dozen.

    Even if we double that amount to be conservative, and use the high end of the scale of cost, we are only talking about a couple of dozen shillings… not even many pounds. And if the 170 calfskin figure is used, it is actually only 7.72 skins needed… which seems to have only cost about 6 or 7 shillings at the most, total.

    But it is not simply the math… as I point out in my post, it is clear that vellum was used for many things, so we have empirical evidence the math is correct. If it were hugely expensive or hard to obtain, friendship albums, Christmas cards, deeds to even small lots, sketches by lesser artists, and so on, would not have used vellum by choice. It is not a question of “was it used?”, because we have the actual, physical objects showing us it was used, and so it was affordable and available in my time frame.

  3. Nick Pelling Says:

    Hi Rich,

    As I recall, even by 1500 a million books had been printed: and people only ever printed on vellum for particularly swanky editions (‘uptown girl’ Isabella d’Este once said of a vellum-printed book that it wasn’t worth half the money asked). I’d predict that a century later paper production outstripped vellum production by 100:1 or perhaps even 1000:1. With that in mind, I can’t really agree that vellum was still in any useful sense “common”, a handful of alba amicorum, sketches and title deeds notwithstanding.

    I completely accept the possibility that a high-class (say) “Baconian” stage / masque prop could have used vellum, regardless of the price. But what I don’t understand is why you need to argue that vellum was still common in 1600, its price reasonable (I’d be surprised if it was less than 10x the price of paper), or its use frequent, when the opposite seems to be true in each of these cases.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  4. proto57 Says:

    Hi Nick: If you read your last post, and my original and so on… I think you will see we are actually quite in agreement after all. I of course agree that it was much less common, and less common particularly for books… as it says in my first paragraph… it was “very uncommon”. I don’t need to argue that it was common, only that it was used for many things… we know, because it “was used for many things”, in my time frame. That is verifiable.

    Thank you for your feedback, and interest… Rich.

  5. Nick Pelling Says:

    I agree with your observation that people manifestly did still occasionally use vellum in a number of different ways circa 1600, but I still don’t see how this supports your concluding paragraph’s claims. Paper was preferred to vellum in all bar a tiny handful of cases: of the many millions of written / drawn artefacts produced in 1600, did vellum account for even 0.1% of them?

  6. proto57 Says:

    Well again, I agree with what you say, and actually say in different ways myself. It is a totally moot point as regards my theory, basically that it was completely within the scope of the practice of the time to create a book such as the Voynich at the time I suggest. Rare? Yes of course… possibly unique. Just as the Voynich is, unique.

    There are many other examples… which I did not include in the blog post, because for all reasonable purposes I have made the point clearly. Among these are a small Dutch book of art, as I point out on my vellum page, linked to my main New Atlantis theory page, “…created from 1621 to 1641, containing artworks of various mediums all on vellum, “Although the character and form generally resemble those of a friendship album, and Abrams volume consists entirely of drawing, so it lacks the literary component of a traditional album amicorum. As a compendium of drawings by many artists, without texts, representing a wide range of subjects, and entered directly into a bound volume over a period of several years, this little book is evidently unique in Dutch seventeenth-century art.”.

    I added, “I would point out that if it was lost, there would be no other examples of it. It is unique.”

    Well maybe not so unique. I take your points, and agree with them… heck I even wrote them in the original post… but it would be impossible to say, again, that it was not done… because we learn, over and over, simply, vellum was in use, and used, for many reasons, in the time frame of my theory. It’s simply undeniable that this is the case, however rare or common an attribute we wish to assign it.

    I’ve edited this to clarify what I might think has been the source of confusion… the use of the word “common” in the last paragraph. I am not in that countering the well accepted understanding that vellum was not commonly used as the pages of books by my time frame (first paragraph), but that it was (demonstrably) commonly used for many purposes other than book leaves. Those uses I’ve mostly outlined, although the more one looks, the more one finds… Which counters the claims which began this investigation, that is, that vellum was expensive and rare, and so prohibitive and difficult to obtain, in my time frame. It was reasonably priced, easily obtainable, and used for many purposes, and that to me is clear.

  7. Rene Zandbergen Says:

    Hello Rich,

    for one thing, there is no doubt that someone like Francis Bacon
    would have been able to afford the vellum needed for a Voynich

    Cheers, Rene

    • proto57 Says:

      Hi Rene: True… the wealth of these people was staggering, even if they spent money which wasn’t always theirs, and that they really didn’t have. Some craftsmen and artists never got paid for all the work they did, while their patrons lacked nothing. If they wanted something, they got it… a broach, a portrait, or another riverside estate. Thank you for your feedback, Rich.

  8. William Puskarich Says:

    Is there any instances of the new character symbol (used in publishing) being present in the manuscript?

    • proto57 Says:

      William: I’ve been trying to find the symbol you are referring to, and can’t. I’ve looked up lists of editing symbols, and such, but can’t find one which denotes a “new character”… if that is what you mean. Can you describe it, or do you have a link? Thanks… Rich.

  9. William Puskarich Says:


    In my request for information, I used the words “new character symbol” instead of what should have been “new paragraph symbol”. Sorry for the mistake, but thanks for your time and interest, and for taking the time to consider the note.

    • proto57 Says:

      I see now, William… the new paragraph indentation symbol, known as the “pilcrow”:

      I suppose the Voynich “gallows” characters have some similiarity to these. According to the Wiki article, “The pilcrow was used in the Middle Ages to mark a new train of thought, before the convention of physically discrete paragraphs was commonplace.” Also, “According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word pilcrow “apparently” originated in English as an unattested version of the French pelagraphe, a corruption of paragraph; the earliest reference is c.1440.”

      If this is the character you are referring to, it is an interesting point to keep in mind. Of course, since we don’t know the meanings of the VMs characters, we can’t know if they are all, or any, even meant to be letters… some can be punctuation, or other instructions to the (hopeful but clueless) reader.

  10. William Puskarich Says:


  11. Mitch Says:

    What the carbon-dating of the vellum? Isn’t that indicative of early 15th century?

    • proto57 Says:

      Yes, Mitch: You are reading an older blog post, written before the C14 dates of 1404-1438 were discovered. I keep these older post up, because they still do apply to the situation at the time… for instance, in this one, vellum was available, and used, contrary to the often repeated opinion. And in this case, it does still apply to many mid-15th century theories, which counter that either the vellum sat around unused before the Voynich was created, or that the C14 results are skewed. I mean, this post points out that if it was created either at the time of the C14, or later, vellum was available, and not all that expensive. Of course it might be of interest to others, studying the creation and provenance of other Ms., too.

  12. richard kennedy Says:

    Richard, I have done a study of that Elizabethan folding puzzle (a ‘complico’ accd. to the Latin), a pdf I could send you personally if you wish. rk.

  13. Modern Voynich Myths | The Voynich-New Atlantis Theory Says:

    […] of vellum to create one of the first Gutenberg bibles, the material for the Voynich may have cost only a dozen shillings or […]

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