The Three Quire Theory

Over the last year or so I’ve begun to wonder if the bifolios of the Voynich Manuscript may actually be cut from some larger folio stock, which was originally in the form of three or four large, blank quires. If I am correct, I personally think the implications of it, and the opportunities afforded by it, are enormous.

The seed of this idea was in wondering just what form the blank vellum stock might have been in, if found by a 20th century forger. Somehow, finding a pre-bound, blank quarto-size book with 18 quires, and over 200 pages (as the Voynich is, today), not to mention fold outs, did not seem so likely. So I thought, perhaps the maker found a large, blank roll, or a stack of vellum. But after studying the problem, and noting various observations by others, I think the source may have simply been three or four blank quires, of 4 or 5 bifolios each. Here is a list of the observations which led me to this theory:

1) Odd Quire Numbers: The quire numbers of the Voynich have some notable problems. Nick Pelling, in his book, The Curse of the Voynich, has an excellent and very complete description of these numbers, and why they are somewhat unusual. He feels that some seem to be original, but some may have been added later, in different hands, and in an odd mix of styles. Nick even feels some were written with a steel nib pen, making them quite modern. But then one might ask, why would the Voynich have needed quire numbers added? That is, it is composed of 18 quires, so why didn’t the original creator originally use quire numbers on all quires? I began to wonder if this was because the source of the calfskin was from a limited number of quires… larger quires, cut down, but with some original quire numbers still being used. And then, there simply were not enough of them to number all of the Voynich’s 18 quires.

Also, the quire numbers are in an odd place on the Voynich, in the lower corner of the pages. According to the book Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Clemens & Graham, 2007), quire numbers are normally centered at the bottom of the first or last page of a quire. But in the Voynich, on the side, they are about where they would be if an existing, folio-size quire was cut into quarters, and folded. These resulting, smaller bifolios could be folded next to the original quire numbers, and they would end up near the edge or a fold of a page.

2) The size: A usual folio page, it turns out, can range from between about 12 inches to 16 inches wide, or even more, and be 18 to 24 inches high. The bifolios can be, therefore, 24 to more than 32 inches wide, and taller than two Voynich pages are high. This would mean that one could easily cut four Voynich’s quarto bifolios from one full size bifolio. Since one bifolio is two leaves and four pages, 16 pages could be got from one large bifolio. This then means that a five bifolio large quire could produce 80 Voynich pages, and so only three such quires would be needed to make the whole manuscript, as it originally consisted of 240 pages.

3) Fold outs: The somewhat anachronistic use of fold out pages, and folded “rosettes” map of the Voynich, have been noted by various scholars. It is either rare, or unheard of, to see such fold outs used in the 15th century. And so, for me, it has been one of those “Nagging Signs of Newness”, which I feel point to a modern origin of the Voynich. But beyond that, they make sense with my Three Quire Theory: Large folios would offer enough material, of the correct dimensions, to cut these from. Below see the rosettes fold out, laid against a (very) approximate large folio.

Was the Rosettes page cut from an existing, large, Bifolio?

Was the Rosettes page cut from an existing, large, Bifolio?

4) White edges: While I was mulling all of this over, Dana Scott related an interesting observation he made when he examined the Voynich Manuscript years ago: That some edges of the pages seemed to be much “whiter” than others, as though they were cut more recently than other edges, and therefore showing the cleaner inside of the animal skin. My thought was that perhaps this meant that the sheets were more recently cut along those edges, from larger stock, as per this theory. Dana did not note which edges looked lighter, but of course I would now be curious to know. And furthermore, if this theory is correct, it might be an aid to “reassembling” all the Voynich’s bifolios into the state they were before being cut.

5)  Repairs & Scars: A few days ago I was wondering at this theory again, and went back to read Mr. Pelling’s book again. I wanted to see what other clues it may offer… especially as I remembered that he had “virtually” lined up various scars and repairs, hoping they might be a clue as to the placement of the bifolios on the original skins they were cut from. Of course Nick and I have entirely different conclusions based on his observations, as we do on many issues. To make it clear, Nick does not support my forgery theories in any way. But his observation that certain repairs and scars on some bifolios seem to imply their being from the same source, and show their original relationship, as the repairs line up across them, supports not only his idea that some bifolios are from the same skin, but also, my idea they may be from the same, original, larger folios: Because Nick’s alignment not only allowed for the placement of some bifolios on the same skins, but even placed them both next to, and below and above one another! You can see this on his illustration on page 54, in Chapter 4, “Jumbled Jigsaws”, in which the bifolios f16r/f9r and f10v/f15r have tear repairs that line up, as thought they were originally next to one another. Then, on the ensuing pages, he shows how the f38v/f35r and f36v/f37r bifolios line up in a similar way, this time, on top of one another. Below I show the first example, with the approximate alignment of the repairs marked, as Nick notes. But rather than use Nick’s skin outline, I’ve placed these two Voynich bifolios on my speculative, larger, blank bifolio.

Conclusions, testing, and implications: Given the above points, I think it is plausible that the original source of the Voynich material may have been a few blank quires. I further think it possible they were found by Wilfrid Voynich when he purchased the Libreria Franceschini in Florence, in 1908. It was a vast repository of over a half a million items, from useless scrap, to valuable treasures, which were accumulated by the previous owner over a four decade span. It is not at all unreasonable to consider, I think, that a few unused quires might have been found among these mountains of materials.

"Dark Room" of the Libraria Franceschini

“Dark Room” of the Libraria Franceschini

And very importantly, if the Voynich was cut from larger, blank stock, originally in the form of blank quires, I think it can be proven to a reasonable extent. This can be done by the alignment of repairs, the position of the whiter (newer) cut edges, the relative thickness of the skin along those edges, the positions of the original quire numbers, and possibly other clues which would occur to one during such an attempt. And then, if this theory is found correct, I feel there is no reasonable alternative explanation to this having been done, other than that old, existing blank stock was used to create the Voynich as a modern forgery.

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14 Responses to “The Three Quire Theory”

  1. nickpelling Says:

    Richard: well… that’s perhaps not the most accurate post I’ve seen on the subject of the Voynich Manuscript’s quiration. 😐 .

    * As far as I can see, we currently have no evidence that any of the quire numbering was in any way original. What I further pointed out was that the quire numbers appeared to have been added by multiple people at different times (indeed different centuries): this was what I talked about in my Frascati presentation.

    * Bifolios were limited by the shape and size of the animal skin and by the location of any serious flaws. I tried to illustrate this on page 54 of “The Curse of the Voynich”: this suggests that the three bifolios might well have all came from a single skin, a prediction that could easily be tested (e.g. via DNA analysis).

    * The quire numbers were normally added as instructions to tell a binder in what order to bind the sequence of gatherings together. The manuscript was indeed bound, so having quire numbers surely ain’t no big thang.

    * Quire numbers are often found in both the middle and the side of the back page in different manuscripts. And it also ain’t no big thang to find them more towards the corner.

    Having said all that, I personally infer from the pair of bifolios you show here (with the same diagonal vellum flaw) that the two bifolios were cut out as a single 4-page-wide strip; then folded; then cut along that central fold; and then folded further (along their shared central fold); and placed into a gathering almost immediately.

    Again, this is a suggestion most of which could be tested by using a micrometer to measure the exact thickness of the vellum along both sides of the (hypothetical) central fold and seeing if they match up in the way I suggest.

    More generally, there are a hundred similar codicological suggestions I would like to test. Wouldn’t all our theorizing be better off if we could be definitively sure of how the artefact was made and constructed?

    As an aside, I suspect that the single large pieces of vellum of the dimensions you propose would have had to have come from an adult rather than from a calf. Perhaps this would be something you could try to do the calculations for?

    • proto57 Says:

      “As far as I can see, we currently have no evidence that any of the quire numbering was in any way original. What I further pointed out was that the quire numbers appeared to have been added by multiple people at different times (indeed different centuries)”

      I’ve no problem with your thoughts that none of the quire numbers may be original. And if so, one would also have to wonder why this would have been done? Why add quire numbers to an existing, genuine, work, when this obviates their original purpose and function? I think the only conclusion then might be, “To deceive” in some way or the other… to add an air of authenticity, perhaps? And since some of these numbers are more obviously added (steel nib?), then we already have this case.

      But then when we have such a thought in mind, we are on a slippery slope: If this, this and that was added, then perhaps the whole work was simply created, and these anomalies happen to be the only ones that are identifiable to us. The rest of the work was simply good enough to slip by. That is IMHO, in any case.

      “Bifolios were limited by the shape and size of the animal skin and by the location of any serious flaws. I tried to illustrate this on page 54 of “The Curse of the Voynich”: this suggests that the three bifolios might well have all came from a single skin, a prediction that could easily be tested (e.g. via DNA analysis).”

      I fully agree that your thoughts on this are a very strong possibility. In fact, this blog post is inclusive of your idea, not exclusive… for if the pages were cut from preexisting, full size folios, of course any included bifolios would be from the same skins, as you suggest possible.

      “Quire numbers are often found in both the middle and the side of the back page in different manuscripts. And it also ain’t no big thang to find them more towards the corner.”

      Thanks for that, I had not seen any so far, or not noted them. I was also going by the quote in Introduction to Manuscript Studies, which seemed to imply they are only in the center. When I find off-center examples, I’ll amend the post.

      “More generally, there are a hundred similar codicological suggestions I would like to test. Wouldn’t all our theorizing be better off if we could be definitively sure of how the artefact was made and constructed?”

      I agree wholeheartedly. You’ve made great observations, and your theories relating to them are certainly plausible. But yes those theories… and mine, and those of others… only lead to more questions which could be tested. Perhaps some of these tests would then determine which, if any, of the theories is correct. I think, for instance, that Dana Scott’s “white edge” observation could lead to a reconstruction of the entire work. Edge thickness, too. And who is to say that the edges were cut perfectly straight, in any case… there may be errors to the edges that could be matched.

      And the Holy Grail: DNA.

      “As an aside, I suspect that the single large pieces of vellum of the dimensions you propose would have had to have come from an adult rather than from a calf. Perhaps this would be something you could try to do the calculations for?”

      I don’t propose any sizes larger than the ones you suppose that original, smaller bifolios, may have been cut from (if from the same skins), so I’m not certain what you mean here. Whether cut into different bifolios from the start, as you propose, or cut into larger bifolios at first, and only separated into the smaller (Voynich sized) ones after an initial binding sometime later, the skin size would not change.

      • nickpelling Says:

        Rich: given that the first layer of quire numbers was written in a 15th century hand using a transitional 15th century numbering style, it remains hard for me to see how the quire numbers can be used as some kind of support for any notion of deception. But, hey, this is your blog, so feel free to write what you like. 🙂

        The problem with your extra-large-bifolios-that-get cut down suggestion is that those extra-large bifolios have to be cut (inefficiently) from a large skin in order to fit. Bear in mind, with that particular skin I suggested, that it seems clear where the animal’s spine was, which means we can make a pretty good prediction about how the pages were cut from it.

        In practice, I have no doubt that individual pages were cut opportunistically to get as much as possible from each prepared skin, based on the size of the final book being readied. So actually your theory would make much more sense for complete skins to have been stored rather than individual extra-large sheets. 🙂

  2. proto57 Says:

    Hi Nick:

    “But, hey, this is your blog, so feel free to write what you like.”

    Well you can, too, and I welcome your input and contrary viewpoint. In a sense I want it to be your blog, too. Nothing I say has any value in a vacuum, so I appreciate your points and arguments very much.

    “… given that the first layer of quire numbers was written in a 15th century hand using a transitional 15th century numbering style, it remains hard for me to see how the quire numbers can be used as some kind of support for any notion of deception.”

    Are you here suggesting they are original quire numbers? If so, then I go back to the point in my blog, surmising (only) that they may be from larger bifolios, for the reasons given. But if you are not suggesting that, and only that they are from the 15th century… but added after binding… then for what purpose would someone have added them to an existing, bound, 15th century work? Or maybe I misunderstand you, here.

    I would point out, though, that anyone can add notations of any kind, from any era, to any work… and that if someone were adding quire numbers “for effect”, they may have just as well chosen what we see here: That is, 15th century quire numbers do not mean they were penned in the 15th century. It is the modern anachronistic content which interests me most for that reason.

    But in this case, we have several possibles: 1) the 15th century quire numbers were original, and served the usual purpose when binding the Voynich; or 2), they are 15th century, but added after binding, and so did not serve the usual purpose of quire numbers, or 3), they were added any time after the 15th century, and only written in the style of the 15th century. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t ascribe or support any particular case, because of course I don’t know. I only point out that there are different implications to all three cases: #1 might suggest either that some quires of the Voynich were properly numbered, and others were not, in which case “why?” were the other quire numbers added? I can only think, since they served no original quire purpose, it was to deceive one into thinking they were real, “for effect”. In #2, that they were added, after binding, in the 15th century, we then have to ask the question again, “why?” would someone do this? I think this is your case, but I’m not sure… but I ask your opinion, “Why do you think someone in the 15th century would add quire numbers after binding a work?”. And #3, which is fine with me, too… as all cases are, of course, because I think the whole work is a fraud, added or original quire numbers not affecting that opinion.

    “The problem with your extra-large-bifolios-that-get cut down suggestion is that those extra-large bifolios have to be cut (inefficiently) from a large skin in order to fit.”

    First of all, the bifolios I suggest are not “extra large”, but normal, full-size bifolios, and they were quite commonly used (link in my blog to one case, but of course there are thousands of such works). It is in fact the Voynich which is the smaller type.

    “Bear in mind, with that particular skin I suggested, that it seems clear where the animal’s spine was, which means we can make a pretty good prediction about how the pages were cut from it.”

    I understand this, and it is a major point to this blog post’s theory. As shown in my illustration, the alignment which you use to show the same skin may have been used, ALSO shows the same, larger, bifolios may have been used. So I absolutely agree with your observation… I only show a subset to the implication: Yes, same skin as you say; but possibly, cut as a larger bifolio first, aligning the marks just as you show in your book. I’m getting the feeling that was not clear, so I try to explain better… but that is the point, and it does not counter your useful observation at all.

    “In practice, I have no doubt that individual pages were cut opportunistically to get as much as possible from each prepared skin, based on the size of the final book being readied. So actually your theory would make much more sense for complete skins to have been stored rather than individual extra-large sheets.”

    Well, yes, skins were of course cut to be most efficient. But the larger skins still fit in the same skins, aligned as you show (that is, I’m unclear as to why you claim larger skins would be needed in my case). And yes, large skins must have been stored for some time, even if only days or weeks, before being cut. But if this theory is correct, there is another implication: If the pages of the Voynich were cut from some pre-existing, blank, larger, three or four quires… that had been found lying around somewhere, already bound, it would tell us something about the creation of it, it would have a different set of implications than if it were only cut from the same skins.

    That is the crux of my argument: And as you say, further testing could, would, and should be done to determine which case is most likely. But from the feedback I have recently surmised from the winds that blow about the internet, I am not so hopeful that any further testing… nor previous results so far unreleased… will be available any time soon. So your theories, and mine, may remain just that, and untested, and indeterminable.

    • nickpelling Says:

      Rich: being called “contrary” by you surely places me far more firmly in the mainstream than you probably intended. 🙂

      But I digress! 😉

      Quire numbers were added to (unbound) gatherings primarily as instructions to the binders as to what to stitch together (into quires), and also as to the order the quires should be bound together. That was the whole point of quire numbers: that they were added before binding in order that the binders could do their job.

      In the case of the Voynich Manuscript, the – painfully close to indisputable – fact is that we have the majority of the quire numbers added in an obscure 15th century numbering style that only seems to appear in monastic manuscripts not too far from Lake Constance, and with letter forms and abbreviation forms that place it in the mid-fifteenth century. All three aspects were independently outdated by 1500, so it would seem extremely likely that these quire numbers were added long before 1500: hence the dating.

      So, the starting point we have is that in the mid-fifteenth century, the unbound Voynich manuscript was in the possession of a (probably Swiss or Tyrolean) monastery, where the quire numbers were added to its gatherings to be given to the monastery’s binder to stitch and then bind them together.

      By that specific logic, the Voynich Manuscript was made no later than the mid-fifteenth century: and given that its radiocarbon dating – even with my very minor suggested correction forward a decade or so – was from not long before, we have a fairly narrow window between its vellum’s production and its quires being numbered.

      Hope this is specific enough for you. 🙂

      • proto57 Says:

        Yes that clears up your position for me. It is actually what I first had thought your position was, from your book, but this statement, in your first comment here, had confused me, “As far as I can see, we currently have no evidence that any of the quire numbering was in any way original.”

        But you do, in fact, believe certain of the quire numbers are original, and from the 15th century, as I gathered from “The Curse…”, and as you explain in your last comment. And I do like both your observation, and your opinions on it, and consider it very plausible.

        And those possibly original quire numbers are what I am referring to in this blog post (“[Nick] feels that some seem to be original, but some may have been added later, in different hands, and in an odd mix of styles.”).

        As so often happens, most of our discussions are an attempt to understand each others (often contrary, but not always) positions, but when we are patient, we usually get there.

      • nickpelling Says:

        Rich: apologies, I probably wasn’t using “original” in an entirely clear sense there.

        Codicologically, the first few quire numbers form a separate 15th century ‘layer’ added on top of the original 15th century document. Higher quire numbers look to have been added in a number of different hands, and very possibly in different centuries. Curse p.17 has a diagram that attempts to group them – wouldn’t it be nice to have a spectroscopic comparison of all the quire numbers?

        By “original” quire numbers, I meant that very earliest layer of quire numbers (pmus, etc), rather than the latest layer (e.g. for Q19 and Q20), which would seem to require a very different kind of explanation for their appearance. I didn’t mean to imply that that earliest quire number layer was added by the Voynich Manuscript’s author: I don’t believe we have any evidence suggesting that, and I’m not expecting any to appear any time soon. 🙂

        Basically, we have a lot of layers to deal with and be clear in our heads about, even before we get anywhere near Emperor Rudolf’s court. 🙂

      • proto57 Says:

        I see. Thanks for the input, I always look forward to it. I wish I could do one of your pub meets sometime… logistically tough, but maybe I’ll be over there some day. All the best…

  3. Tigerofdarkness Says:

    So the Voynich Manuscript has both unusually small pages and almost unheard of fold-out pages? Wouldn’t that make it suspect in the eyes of the experts of the time and wouldn’t Voynich have been aware of that?

    • nickpelling Says:

      Tigerofdarkness: actually, it has perfectly OK-sized pages. The fold-outs are unusual, but as far as I know nobody has yet made a concerted effort to look for similar fold-out pages in 14th or 15th century manuscripts.

    • proto57 Says:

      Hi John: This is one of the many ways that the idea of a modern forgery is dismissed: That something is so wrong, a forger… say, Voynich… would have known better, and therefore avoided it. It is ironically also said that some things are “so good” that a forger would not have made it that good, because it would have been suspicious, and a forger would have avoided it. There are even characteristics, and items, which have elicited both opinions, sometimes from the same person, in the same argument: That some thing is both too correct and too wrong to be a forgery. The armadillo is one example, various optical comparisons are another.

      But what one needs to do is wear Voynich’s 1908/09 shoes. What would he have reasonably known? What would a well-traveled, self-taught, revolutionary ex-Patriot Polish bookseller in London and Florence have reasonably known about the proper methods of book construction, literature, art and art history, inks, calligraphy, and so on. And when all the wonderful, perfect things about the manuscript, and all the ridiculously poor things about the manuscript, are seen in the light of this man’s probably mindset and world view, I’ve found that they make a very plausible, reasonable fit. In fact, some of these are traceable: That is, things that were not general knowledge in his time, or anywhere near as well as today, such as C14 testing, both the limits and range of Bacon’s experiments, various aspects of the Court of Rudolf II, the history of optics, and so much more. We can often reasonably know what he knew, by reading material and seeing collections that Voynich himself may have used as source material for his knowledge.

      What we cannot do is use our present knowledge to grade his judgement as a possible forger… nor even, for that matter, a 1921 and later mindset, for by that time scholarship was already dismissing many of his own claims for the work, and fast launching the reputation of the work into its present state of limbo.

      So he may have missed things, and made some missteps: such as… as you say… the fold outs. He may have missed the use of quire numbers, and our ability to see a line made by a steel nib pen. He may have used the same ink for the last page marginalia, as the main text, never expecting testing to think them “too close”. He might have missed that some numbers and characters came later than his target range(s), and that the green microscope was too new to use, and that Roger Bacon would eventually be judged much less proficient in optics. And he might have used a cover he thought appropriate, never realizing it would be judged much too new to be original. And he may have chosen vellum which would be tested, long after his death, to a date which did not match any era he intended for the work.

      But reasonably, in his time, they did work for a time. Don’t forget, Voynich “got away” with this as a Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript for a good 9 years! From 1912 to 1921, or thereabouts, it was all the rage as a wonderful, history making discovery. In fact, it is its very own success which in part caused a re-evaluation of Bacon’s work and life, which then focused more scholarly scrutiny on the work itself, and so dismissed it as a Bacon. But then, there are those who still do think it could be a Bacon… or a copy of one, that is. And if a forgery, it is still working, in fact, because most still think it real.

      So to me it is ironic to thinking that something, such as the page foldouts, should have been realized by Voynich to be “too new” to be used, that he would have done a “better job”. If this and other evidence is dismissed, then using such improper content, methods, materials does not matter, and therefore he can still be said to have done a wonderful job at forging this.

      • nickpelling Says:

        Rich: almost all of the things you cite here as being supportive of position X / Y / Z are simply uncertain. As I noted, we don’t yet know enough about foldout pages in 14th and 15th century mss to say what their presence here suggests or implies: and the same goes for the supposed ‘armadillo’ (which must already have at least ten different competing theories).

        But the basic codicological analysis – that it has fifteenth century written all over it, quite literally – still stands: and there is no uncertainty about that.

  4. Tigerofdarkness Says:

    Thanks for the reply – much to ponder

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

    […] It is also proposed that the work may have been created there, and that it was possibly made from larger sheets of calfskin, cut down to serve this purpose. I further propose that is was created first as a Jacob Horcicky […]

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