It has often been claimed, both before and after the release of the radiocarbon dating of the Voynich leaves, that it would have been either unlikely or impossible for the book’s creator to have found old vellum to make it from. This assumption has been used to presume the manuscript must have been made soon after the radiocarbon date of the vellum, which is approximately 1404-1438. It has been said that the cost of vellum and parchment throughout history has meant that it would not have ever been stored, blank, for long periods of time. And furthermore, the case of the palimpsest has been used to show that the value of vellum was so great that the religious scribes painstakingly bleached and scraped ancient manuscripts to reuse them. While all these may be true to some extent, during some times, in some places, what I have found is that it is not at all improbable that a Voynich author may have come across a batch of old, blank, vellum somewhere… and also, considering that some of the presumed intentions of said author, it would have actually been a choice more likely than one for your run of the mill herbal or astrological treatise.
Back in 2007 I began looking for examples of blank vellum on the internet. I quickly found a book dealer named Pirages, who was advertising 20 or more sheets of what he described as, “RULED BUT OTHERWISE BLANK VELLUM MANUSCRIPT LEAVES”, which, he said, were from the 16th century. Apparently they were from some book, which was falling apart, because he believed they “were possibly from the previous entry”… a catalog entry which was gone by the time I saw the listing. Unfortunately, all 20+ leaves had also been sold by the time I contacted him, for $35 a piece. The point remains that in 2007, a person with a knowledge of historical ink formulas could have made a 40 page “Voynich Ms.” which would have radiocarbon dated to the 16th century. And, done so, for about $700. That is assuming that these leaves were too small to fold into quires, which would have then allowed an 80 page “Voynich”.
Further searching revealed a book which was and is still on the market, the ” PROTONOTARII APOSTOLICII”, or Bullae et Statuta Officii Septem Sedis Apostolicae Protonotariorum In Curia Romana Participantium. It is offered by Michael Sharpe Rare & Antiquarian Books, for $95,000. This book is entirely in vellum, and was first created in 1523. It was then used for entries, continuously, until over 300 years later, the last entry being 1839. But it is not finished: The book remains for sale, today, with 44 blank leaves, comprising 88 blank pages, measuring about 11 1/4″ x 8 1/4″. So again, if you have the money, and the knowledge of historical inks, your summer hobby could be to make an 88 page Voynich rival… and when Arizona got it’s hands on a sliver or two, it would reliably date it to 1523.
Listed in the Huntington Library’s periodical, “Miniature Book News”, #65, June, 1990, is this listing,
“The second volume is an odd little manuscript bound in a metal binding which was probably produced in the late fifteenth century. It contains 154 vellum leaves of which all but three are blank. The page size is 3 7/8 inches by 2 7/8 inches. The text is only three odd leaves from a Book of Hours. The first leaf contains fifteen lines to the page with the capital letters in gold and blue. The text is in Latin. The second leaf contains fourteen lines and is an elaborate leaf with a floral border. The text, in Latin, concerns the Virgin Mary. The third leaf contains fifteen lines to the page with capital letters in gold leaf over various colors. The text is in Latin. Apparently the three leaves in the center of the volume were thickened by the blank vellum leaves in order that they would fit inside the metal binding.”
Well that would make a cute little Voynich, so write small! But at least it would make up for number in what it lacks in size, for you would have a full 302 page book when you were done. And there would be some head-scratching among manuscript scholars after Arizona got through with it (if you mixed your inks well, and not in brass containers, either), for it would apparently date to 1450 to 1500.
In 2008 the British House of Lords had a decision to make. It seems they had some blank parchment left over, after making the decision to finally… after a millenia or more?… stop using it for official purposes. Below is the letter I found.
Thank you for your e-mail of 24 July.
It may be helpful if I clarified the position as far as Acts of Parliament are concerned. William Cowley Ltd. supplies vellum to our printer The Stationery Office. The costs include those for printing.
The unused vellum held by the House administration will be used for the construction of the Roll of the Lords (and not Acts of Parliament). Members sign the Roll when they take the oath.
We do not hold recorded information relevant to your questions concerning the stock of vellum held by the administration. However, I
have spoken to a colleague who deals with the Roll. He informs me that there are approximately 100 sheets. Given the limited use it is likely to take some time to exhaust this supply.
Freedom of Information Officer
House of Lords
It was probably not very old, I think we might assume. But it was blank, and it was in storage. Should we assume this same case did not exist in 1450, 1500, 1550, 1610, or 1912? Can we assume that for the first time in history, a government agency over-bought vellum, and was not sure what to do with the excess? Do we know that the author of the Voynich Ms. had no access to any such government stores? One is welcome to speculate these cases have always been impossible, up until 2008, but I cannot.
What was the case in the 19th century? I found in the “Royal Commission on Historic Manuscripts”, 1870, page 69, the following listing,
“A series of loose vellum leaves, large folio, once bound together, the boards still remaining… …Next follows, on a series of like vellum leaves, a Calendar, in which the latest date is the 34th Henry 6 (A.D. 1456) of all grants by deed made by the Royal Founder… …Then follows, after some dozens of blank vellum leaves, a Catalogue of the College Library…”
I’ll take “some dozens” to be more than “two dozen”… but let’s be conservative and begin there. We know that in 1870 there existed (and probably does exist, today), 24 to 36 or more blank vellum leaves, equaling 48 to 72 or more blank vellum pages, which would carbon date to pre-1456.
The above screenshot is from a dead link, so I would assume the item has been sold. No estimate for the date of this book was given, and the sellers never wrote back to me when I asked. But as they are a “Rare and Old Book” seller, this is obviously not referring to some recent product. The description reads,
“Volume of 105 blank vellum leaves of 313 x 205 mm, with 3 blank leaves of paper at beginning and end, in old plain vellum binding, blind triple line fillet on covers.”
Not that I need to point this out, again, but with this little volume, whomever bought it, could make a nice little 210 page Voynich replica.
And so on. Every so often, I search the internet for such examples. There are dozens more cases of between one and five or so, blank vellum or parchment leaves left blank, but this of course was standard practice to fill out the ends of books. I did not save those references. But examples such as the ones I list above, are easily found, today. There must be many more cases which I have not found, and which may have not made it onto online lists.
The point is obvious, but I’ll summarize nonetheless: It is very possible that the Voynich could have been created at almost any date after 1438, from old, found, blank vellum. The fact that even today, ancient blank vellum leaves exist in quantity, reasonably implies it would have always been so. If a person desired to create an old-looking manuscript, at any time from the 15th century to today, they could have found a usable pile of old vellum, in the back of an old book, unused ledger, government archives, or a dusty old storeroom. Adding to the proven existence of such vellum is the often assumed importance and value of the Voynich to the creator of it. The vellum was out there, we know… and the Voynich author probably had every incentive to find it, and use it… whoever that was, and whenever they made it, from 1404 until 1912.