More comments on quire numbers


The amount of information that the VM’s quire numbers (discussed previously on this blog and elsewhere) actually contain is yet unclear, so it is desirable to try and narrow things down as much as possible.

Nick Pelling has recently mentionned another manuscript, Cod. Sang. 688, where within the main text a ‘quartus’ abbreviation matches that of the VM, but the other abbreviations do not match.

Here, I’d like to mention some different manuscripts which happen to contain very similar abbreviations than those of the VM.  They are currently held by the Universitätsbibliothek of Graz, Austria, but they have varied provenances.

The website containing the currently digitized manuscripts is here (use the top horizontal bar to navigate manuscripts) while the catalog is there (type your search in the ‘Suchbegriff’ box). I’ve been patiently through all of the digitized ones this week (around 100 of them), searching for anything from zodiac depictions, to quire numbers, to marginalia, to types of handwriting. (Not all manuscripts held there have been digitized yet, far from it.)

Regarding quire numbers, there are two manuscripts standing out.

A first manuscript

The first one is MS384 (catalog record). It is a 12th century manuscript, with 12th century roman quire numbers, but that has been annotated at the top of each folio with the book and chapter numbers corresponding to the text. These annotations were made in the 15th century, but unfortunately no precise date (I infer this both from the handwriting and the fact that tha catalog says a typical leather cover with stamps was added to the manuscript in that century).

Now, Ms384 comes from the Benedictine Seckau abbey (Chorherrenstift Seckau — here is the translated more informative german wikipedia article), which is in the middle of Austria, some 400km east of Lake Constance. It has been kept there for centuries, and was acquired by the Universitätsbibliothek of Graz around 1830 (a part of the manuscripts from the abbey went there, the other part to the city archives Steiermärkische Landesarchiv — probably both are good places to do further research then).

These added annotations are varying throughout the manuscript: sometimes the person wrote entirely (e.g. ‘secundus liber’) and sometimes with a shorthand (e.g. ’29 lib~’).  So, while it is not abbreviation-only, the ones he used do match very closely the VM, here they are (taken from several folios, and with two variants of ‘pm9’) for comparison:

So what we notice is an extra ‘t’ in ‘quartus’ compared to the VM. Otherwise that’s pretty much it. And yet, note that in Ms384 the word ‘decimus’ is never abbreviated with an ‘9’ for ‘us’, but simply as ’10’. Similarly, ‘undecimus’ is abbreviated by ’11’.

But if you thought that this is still a unique case of close similarity, then read on.

A second manuscript

The same library contains also several manuscripts from the Carthusian monastery of Žiče (middle of Slovenia, about 150km south of Seckau, and about the same latitute as northen Italy). Back in the middle-ages, it had a renowned pharmacy and also a very rich and famous library of 2000 manuscripts  (sadly, only about 200 survive today, including fragments ; they were given to the library of Graz in mid-16th century).

The one manuscript that has great similarities with the VM regarding quire numbers is Ms972 (catalog record). It has a precise date, 1436, and its very quire numbers are written as follows:

Here are the actual folio numbers if you want to check for yourself: primus on f18v, secundus on f19r and f30v, tertius on f42v, quartus on f54v, quintus on f66v, sextus on f78v, then several are missing, then decimus on f126v, quartadecimus on f180v and quintadecimus on f196v.

So, while some of the tricky ones are missing (septimus, octavus, nonus), those that are there are exact matches, except primus.  But note that in the margin of f73r there’s a septima in red ink abbreviated as in the VM, and similarly there’s a nice ‘pm9’ on f142v. Therefore, it could easily have been even closer.

I’ve looked at the other manuscripts from Žiče held at Graz, to get some more information. Now, Ms1474 is dating from 1423, and that date is written in similar numerals on f195v.  But there’s an extra page inserted in this Ms, f175r/f175v, which dates from 1416 and where the date is written with roman numerals.  I infer that the transition to such numeral in Žiče happened around 1420.  At the other extreme, Ms262 is dating from 1468, and this type of numerals was clearly still in use then (e.g. see f319r and 320r which contain chapter numbers 14 and 15 in that style). In fact Ms910 dating from 1501 still does (see date on f1r, and chapter number 4 on f85r), while Ms988 from 1511 finally uses the new type of 5 (see f1r).

So there’s at least a span of 80 years, as far as Žiče is concerned, where that type of abbreviation was probably in use.


I am not at all implying that the VM travelled, or originated, to or from either Seckau or Žiče, of course. On the contrary, all this is showing is that this type of handwriting and abbreviations was quite widespread geographically and temporally. So quire numbers alone are probably not able to provide an extremely precise location nor dating.

In facts, I’d like next to check manuscripts from the north of Italy (Bolzano, Udine…) to see whether or not such abbreviations were used there too. Given that numerals evolved quicker towards modern ones there, it could happen that no such examples exist, pointing to that north-east-of-the-Alps area, we shall see…

To conclude, of course the clues coming from the VM illustrations themselves (for instance the zodiac ones pointing to the area of Lake Constance) are more fundamental. The discussion above doesn’t rule out that hypothesis, it’s just that I haven’t looked at many Bavarian manuscripts yet..


5 Responses to More comments on quire numbers

  1. Beedie says:

    I’m attempting to add a detail in the Vms script which, for me anyway, is critical in trying to find similar writing. On another website, I found an identification of the character that I call a hand-sickle shape. It is unique, in that I found exactly one explanation as well as its use phonetically: it is Oscian, and represents the sibilant (Cyrillic “C” which has the little cedilla on the lower stroke. They also explained its “backward” appearance. The same person also explained the “backward ‘p’ character as representing the “kw” sound. So far, Nick apparently has not had time to investigate/follow up on my post.

  2. nickpelling says:

    Seckau Abbey MS 384 and Žiče MS 972 are excellent finds, well done! It’s true that the first is book numbering rather than quire numbering, while the second only has inserted letters for 5t9 and 6t9: but all the same, I do really get the feeling that you’re getting close to something big that’s out there waiting for you. Keep going! 🙂

    • Thomas Sauvaget says:

      That would be nice. Still, of course most stuff isn’t in digital form yet, so “that thing waiting” could well be in a dusty old private archive somewhere…

      Hope to find some time to read your quire reordering ideas soon, the septimus in the VM looks indeed different.

  3. Thomas, I wonder:- Are your data used to map geographical referents against social and economic classes? I mean: are you charting these geographic regions against – say – the question of Carthusian, Dominican or Franciscan style; and/or mercantile vs. legal vs courtly habit?

    Please understand: Im not suggesting that you *ought* to do this, just wondering if you are – because if so it would make a remarkably interesting paper, I should think. Voynich or not.

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