Inking Pox Leber

There are several issues to address in this post, although they are intertwined: Certain characters in the Voynich which may read “pox leber”, the ink which was used to write them, and the various evidence behind both. But as is usual in many of these cases, the story of the inking of “pox leber” is, to me, more about the reaction to the evidence, than anything the evidence alone may be able to tell us. But still, the evidence itself is pretty cool.

Above you can see the characters referred to. They are the first “words” on the last page, f116v, of the Voynich Manuscript. That page only has a few lines, which use some Voynich characters, yet also intermingle them with Latin characters, and possibly Christian crosses meant to be word dividers… such as was commonly done in the distant past. I should interject here that I do not know what these words may be, or if they are words at all. On that, I’m pretty much sitting on the sidelines.

The reason it mattered little to me what this is, or when it was put there, is because the last page writing was long assumed by many to have been added at a later date, by a different person, than the main writing of the manuscript. It was considered be in a different style, or “hand”, with different content (which it does have), and also, for that matter, to be different than the other Voynich marginalia. So really who put it there, and when, and what it is, would have little bearing on any theories. Or so I thought.

First I’ll point out one of the more prevalent theories about this last page marginalia. At the Voynich 100 Anniversary Conference in Frascati, Italy in 2012, one Johannas Albus gave a lecture on his idea that this marginalia was a recipe,

“The present paper presents a new transcription and tentative reading of this text. It is written in a mixture of mostly Latin, some old German (and two unreadable words in Voynichese) representing the memorandum of a medieval medical recipe. The rather abbreviated style of the Latin words is typical for such a recipe. With the illustrations on the margin referring to the text, the recipe´s ingredients as well as the title point out to a wound plaster with a billy goat´s liver as its main remedy.”

And Albus is using “pox leber”, in the sense of “bocks leber”, or “billy goat’s liver”. I didn’t, and still don’t, necessarily have an opinion as to the plausibility Mr. Albus’s theory. Well maybe as far as to feel it loosely falls into the category I’ve often noted: Something looks a lot like something we know, but is just different enough to keep us guessing as to what it really is. But his claims did get him into the conference, and are interesting, and are accepted as plausible by many. And I was and I am fine with that. But then an interesting and unexpected thing happened.

The first inkling (pun) I had that something was up about pox leber was after I tried to track down the first use of the phrase. I was surprised to find that “pox leber” also grabbed the attention of at least one early 20th century scholar, who was studying the works of the poet Hans Sachs. In a discussion on the Voynich Mailing List in September 2014, a link to a blog post was suggested: http://voynichportal.com/2013/07/31/the-voynich-last-page-text/ The author of that blog wrote,

“In a philosophy thesis submitted to the University of Wisconsin in 1902, Charles H. Handschin references the phrase from a poet, “Ey, schendt sie pox leber und lung” and equates “pox” to “bock(s)” (buck/male animal/Billygoat) which, in turn, he equates to “teufel” (devil). It brings to mind the image of a man-goat (satyr).

“Handschin’s interpretation of a 16th century phrase might shed light on the meaning of pox leber, or it might be a stretch to assume similar meanings. Perhaps the VM is not “pox leber” at all, but “pox, leber, und lung” as in pox, liver, and lung but with minimal punctuation as is common to quickly written notes and many older manuscripts.”

So I looked up the reference… the work of Charles H. Handschin… and I wrote to the list,

“… it interests me that the form “pox leber”, which is so commonly assumed from the last page marginalia, actually exists in “… Handschin’s interpretation of a 16th century phrase.” I was curious to know where this paper is, and what poem he was referencing, and whom it might have been written by. Handshin probably got it from the 1883 “Neudrucke Deutscher Literaturwerke Des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts”… …by Max Neimeyer: http://books.google.com/books?id=2qwCAAAAYAAJ The line is on page 61, line 326…

“The play appears to be by Hans Sachs. However, a Walter Tauber gives some possible substitutes, which I think he means that Sachs may have derived “pox leber” from other forms…

“From page 123: “potz laus, botz mauss, botz corper, potz grind…”. Perhaps the work of these scholars, in trying themselves to determine the source of “pox leber” in literature, could give a clue as to what was meant by the Voynich marginalia author? I mean, that work seems to have been done already, long ago… and perhaps one of these forms mentioned could fit with some other phrases we think we see there.”

Innocent enough, right? I’m noting that 19th and 20th scholars were curious about the Hans Sach’s usage of “pox leber”, which they noted was first used in the 16th century, and I was wondering if this will help us understand where the phrase may have been derived. And also, since the “marginalia was added”, no one should care less that it was first used in the 16th century. Oh how wrong I was. The Vms-list erupted in a cacophony of varied objections, among them, “we don’t know how much earlier pox leber may have been used”, and the contrary, “it may not be pox leber”, and “google can’t find everything because everything has not been scanned”, and so on and so forth. In short, objections to when the phrase “pox leber” may have been inked on the last page of the Voynich.

This confused me for a time. I was trying to figure out why it suddenly mattered when this marginalia was applied. What difference did it make if the phrase came in the mid to late 16th century? Why was there this argument against this, against this seemingly useful and solid previous scholarship, from experts no less? I thought that everyone would be happy. But the negative reaction made me realize there must be something to this… if now the argument, mostly among “15 century genuine herbal” theorists, were adamant that this phrase might date to the Voynich radiocarbon date range (1404-1438), that this meant there was clue somewhere that they were aware of, but that I had missed. It was as though the protagonist in Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” kept telling me to go away, but also kept staring at the floorboards. So I pried up the floorboards.

I went back to the McCrone report for the Voynich ink, and re-read it with this curious concern in mind: What exactly did Joseph Barabe conclude about the marginalia ink, which may have caused such a radically new view on the marginalia? After matching up the sample numbers with the pages they were taken from, it turned out that sample 16, from the marginalia’s “black ink on text”, was included in the reports conclusion,

“All of the inks used for text or drawing were identified as iron gall inks. The variability of the amounts of iron present is not unusual in iron gall inks. We found no significant differences between the writing inks and the drawing inks used throughout the document and tentatively conclude that the text and drawings were most likely created contemporaneously.”

And Barabe also concluded that certain quire and page numbers were different than the main text inks, telling us that if the f166v ink were different, we would have been so informed. In effect, the conclusion tells us that the marginalia was applied “contemporaneously” with the main text ink! And there was my “smoking gun”, and the root cause of the paradigm shift from “marginalia added sometime later, by some later person”, to “marginalia added by the Voynich author, or from his/her inkwell”. And then, of course, anyone (me) pointing out that “pox leber” is about 130 years “too new” for the main text, if applied near the C14 dates range of 1404 to 1438, will be starting a fire.

In any case, I soon poured gasoline on that fire: By now pointing out that the ink of the main text and the “pox leber” marginalia are the same, according to the well-respected scholarship of McCrone, I found a new wave of objections. But as I also note, and have noted in the past, many of those objections are mutually, logically, exclusive of one another. That is, if person A believes in “pox leber” existing earlier than the scholarship tells us it did, but person B believes it does probably date from the 16th century, then A attacks “pox leber”, and B attacks the McCrone report, while they both claim the Voynich is a genuine, 15th century herbal. That is, something has to “give” in order for it all to make sense, and that something might be different for multiple genuine theorists. A list of some of the various arguments I met with, used against this uncomfortable conclusion:

  1. It’s not “pox leber”
  2. It is “pox leber”, but the phrase may have existed early enough for the C14 range
  3. I’m reading the ink report of McCrone wrong
  4. McCrone must have information they did not reveal, which will show the ink is not the same
  5. I’m reading it right, but ink always looks similar enough to be deemed the same
  6. “So what?” if the Voynich author also penned the f166v marginalia? They just decided to use a different style and characters
  7. Nobody ever said the marginalia was added later, anyway, and don’t look…

And remember, it really does not matter to me whether or not “pox leber” was written, nor when it was inked there. I was happy as a clam to accept that someone may have added the marginalia later, even, much later. Well almost, but there is another point I have made, which did make me suspicious of the marginalia: It is unreadable. It is as confounding, if in a different way, as the bulk Voynich text. And normally, in other cases, marginalia is usually understood to some extent: If not what it means exactly, then at least why it is there, or what it is referencing. But in the Voynich, we have at least three examples of marginalia, in different hands, claimed applied by different persons at different times… all as unreadable as the text. This is very odd, and so, has long suggested to me that the marginalia is there for a look, an effect, only… to make the Voynich look like other medieval or Renaissance manuscripts, poured over and marked on by centuries of subsequent scholars… but to not be readable. Readable text is a danger to all forgeries. If a forger does not copy verbatim, an existing example, they run the risk, a risk which only increases the more they add, of introducing a “tell” to their deceit. It is a toe in the door. It is key to many forgery reveals, and something a good forger would avoid.

So is “pox leber” one such “tell”, that crept through the normally careful attempt to hide the crime? Is the use of the same ink as the text a tell? Is it making the marginalia unreadable? In a purposefully different style and content? That is, are all of the above valuable evidence to forgery, our “tell tale hearts”, beating under the floorboards? I hear them, do you?

Harry Clarke, “Tell-Tale Heart”, 1919

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8 Responses to “Inking Pox Leber”

  1. david Says:

    Hi Rich;

    I don’t really hear that tell-tale heart beating. ….
    Seems to me if it actually says “pox leber” it was possibly someone’s attempt to indicate a boundary beyond which there was no smallpox- or instead where it was rampant, or even that the area is now “pox free”.

    Or “The pox is freeing me…” meaning “I am dying from it and can’t continue….”

    The fact that the composition of the folio itself is uniquely incomplete, with just a small corner illustrated, suggests to me the empty area has some meaning related to this notation.

    David S.

  2. Lars Dietz Says:

    Here’s an older example of “poxleber”:
    http://www.landesmuseum.at/pdf_frei_remote/VeroeffFerd_3_52_0001-0093.pdf
    This may take a while to load. The word is on p. 89. It’s from a 1503 law of the city of Kitzbühel (Tyrol) and here clearly just means a goat’s liver, not a curse as in the Hans Sachs play. Still not old enough for the C14 date of the VMS, but about 50 years older than the Sachs example.

  3. Szabi Says:

    @Lars:

    Maybe Rich will finally believe me what I wrote on the VMS list some time ago and were scoffed at for: namely that pox leber ‘billy’s liver’ did not have a “terminus ante quem non” of Sach’s book, because as a usual syntagma it must have existed for centuries.

    • proto57 Says:

      I’m sorry if you felt scoffed at for your ideas, I hope I never came across that way. I do know that my feet are often held to the fire, however, when I am not able to find examples or evidence to support my own arguments, and for my only suggesting they “may” exist (I never say “must”, BTW). This is not accepted. So in the case of “pox leber”, I would only want those suggesting, as you do, it “must”, or even “may” have existed earlier, to hold those suggestions to the same standards mine have been.

      Lars has found an example earlier than Hans Sachs. I’m glad to accept that. And I will be glad to accept others, even earlier, if found. I won’t accept “must”, however, until I see them, as I do not think the evidence supports “must”. Meanwhile, the pox leber ball is not in my court, it is in the court of genuinists: Either they should find these “old enough” examples they imagine must exist, or hold that it is not “poxleber” we are seeing, or accept that the Voynich is newer than they think, or should explain why 1503 ink appears on 1420 calfskin. As for me, that ink can have been applied anytime between 1404 and 1910, and so I am comfortable with whatever it really says, and whenever pox leber was first coined.

      I’m not scoffing… I swear… we only may not see eye to eye on this issue, and I’m fine with that, too.

  4. nickpelling Says:

    Rich: the supposed ‘x’ character looks to my eyes to have been written in quite a different ink to the rest of the letters here. And so I think that the sensible jury should stay out for a while yet on f116v.

    McCrone’s spectroscopic analysis of ink samples is just a starting point – hopefully multispectral scans of this page will help us all see what was written (and how it was written) a little more clearly than we currently are managing.🙂

    • proto57 Says:

      All true and/or possible, and I don’t personally ascribe to this being “pox leber”, or not, myself… it may not be. In this case, I was more interested in the treatment of the observation and evidence by those who believe it does represent “pox leber”… because if it does read this, then it is, from what I learned about the phrase, and the history of it, combined with the ink evidence, a strong indicator of later creation of the work as a whole.

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

    […] call into question the work’s authenticity, one example of which I will single out here: The 2009 McCrone tests showed that the ink of the last page marginalia, and the ink of the main text, are the same. […]

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