Old Blank Vellum Sitting Around?

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”.

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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.

Protonotarii Apostolicii, 1523, with 88 Blank Vellum Pages

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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.

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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.

Dear Mr.Todd,

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.

Frances Grey
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.

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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.

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105 Blank Vellum Leaves For Sale

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.

Look familar? You could have owned all 210 blank vellum pages, last year...

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.

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11 Responses to “Old Blank Vellum Sitting Around?”

  1. Jim Comegys Says:

    Delighted to hear that vellum is available. I should like to know what animal the vellum came from, and what sort of knife was used to cut the vellum. There is a chance the VMS was written in New Spain and not simply copied in Italy. Confirmation of evidence the vellum is deer skin and/or the knife was obsidian hance sharper than an iron knife, would be that some of the inks would have pigments or dyes endemic to Mexico and rare or unknown in Europe.
    Comegys, Nahuatl Hypothesis

    • proto57 Says:

      Jim: The fact that it is, and has been, available puts to rest any claim that later (than 1438) manufacture is impossible. I think it is quite possible.

      I agree, testing to see what animal the Voynich vellum came from would be a great idea, as would the tools and methods used to cut it. On the former, there is talk of DNA tests at some point. On the manufacture, that I have not heard before, and it is a good idea… if possible.

      As for the inks, I was interested in this question… as like you, I do feel this is post-Columbian, and may have New World influences. It seems that the answer, from what I understand from Rene Z. and the McCrone report, is that there is no evidence in the inks which would point to the New World. The red is not cochineal, for one thing, which would have been proof of it being post-Columbian, and of possible American origins.

      Thanks for the comments!

  2. Niklas Says:

    Hi Rich,

    I’m so happy you’re back on position again. Your blog is still the most interesting thing one can find about the VM.

    Always your keen reader,

    Niklas

  3. Lucas Says:

    So let’s say they found/bought blank vellum from the 1400s and made the manuscript much later. Thing is, wouldn’t that be somehow demonstrable considering that paper/vellum gets old and so ink doesn’t behave the same way as in new vellum when applied to it? I’m just thinking, I don’t think you could write on a piece of paper that’s two hundred years old already and leave no evidence. I don’t know anything about vellum but I’d expect any materials to naturally decay to the point of not letting you apply stuff to it as if it were new.
    There has to be a difference between applying the ink right now or centuries later, its quality necessarily decreases — it might look new when you buy it, but when you try to write on it, you get the same result as in writing on blotting paper. Of course this is an exaggeration, not the case of the VM, but there has to be some obvious evidence for or against the “recently-applied ink theory” clearly visible under the microscope.

    As someone suggested before, it would be a great idea to know what kind of animal the vellum was made from, and even try to make some to see how ink behaves in that kind of texture. I’d also suggest to buy some of that old vellum you found online and give a try writing on it just to see how well it goes.

    Cheers.

    • proto57 Says:

      Very good ideas! Various people, myself included, have wondered and hoped their might be a test to know how soon ink was applied to vellum. So far we have not seen any such thing. For some time there was an erroneous report (which may have begun from an assumption in a popular magazine) that some sort of “patina” over both ink and vellum told investigators that the ink was applied soon after the vellum was produced. I did my best to track this down, then tried to verify the claim. As I said it turned out to be an error… there is apparently no way to know, at the current time.

      I do have some 16th century vellum… perhaps I will get some fresh vellum, and perform my own comparison of ink application, as per your suggestion.

      I suppose it is a case of there not being a need for such a test in the past, for other documents and manuscripts, so no one devised one (assuming even that one would be physically possible by some means). Over the years I have found that there is a widespread assumption that vellum was used right after creation (the point of this post of course), and that this assumption has led not only to an acceptance of vellum dating to the time of the ink application, but also to a lack of any need to test for a disparity. This then goes to the other effect, found on the 1972 test of the process of C14 testing of vellum… the “test of the test”. As I discovered, the assumption that ink was always newly applied caused the testers to use written dates to choose between wildly varying C14 results!

      Another interesting thing is that for many people who have seen the Voynich in person, they are often surprised at just how “fresh” the colors and ink really look. This observation is ignored for the most part, a great case of the “Purple Cow” syndrome: “I saw something really odd, but I feel it can’t be true or important, so I will not let it affect my determination”.

      And “yes” also on the value of determining the animal the vellum was from. Dr. Timothy Stinson has suggested a DNA database for vellum manuscripts, so that one would eventually be able to pin down “families” of animals, at least, and that maybe this would help to determine the geographic origins of manuscripts with a sketchier provenance. I wrote to him long ago, and he told me that his group knew of the Voynich, but without a database of other manuscripts, a DNA profile of this one would not be helpful. Years later… I think just last year… I further suggested that the Vinland Map could be DNA tested, and compared with the vellum of the book it was found in. This, because there is some reasonable suspicion that the vellum used in the map may have been cut from that book. If DNA could prove this, it would prove the map a forgery. But beyond that I am interested as relates to the Voynich, and would suggest it be tested to this book and map also. You know that the Vinland map happens to carbon date to the same time as the Voynich? And both have been suspected of being forgeries? And both have been suspected of being forged by Wilfred? Heresy! Blasphemy!

      All very long shots of course. But we should know. Since we can know some of these things by current means, it is only a waste of thousands of precious hours, days and years of investigators, if certain answers, one way or the other, will save this time, stop fruitless avenues of investigation (mine or someone else’s), and allow the focusing on new ones (mine or someone else’s) with new intensity.

  4. Diane Says:

    I believe that the television team may have been interested in testing the various ‘Americas’ hypotheses; they ran a test against mopa-mopa, which is found nowhere else. No trace of it was found, though.

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

    […] was always used soon after preparation: Not true. I and others have been able to find dozens of cases of blank parchment being unused for centuries…. up to 400 years, and used up to 350 years after creation. When […]

  6. christopher Says:

    I also think voynich forged it. once you look at it this way it all makes a lot more sense. and the blank (available) parchment was my only stumbling block. nice work.

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