Some illustrations reminiscent of the VM

Here are some illustrations that I’ve stumbled upon recently which deserve mention.

First, there is this part at the top of an unusual 8-meter long scroll titled Les Six Ages du Monde, which if I understand well is an early XVth century French manuscript held in Switzerland. The moon, stars and quick untidy painting are quite reminiscent of the VM (I’m not claiming this is the same author of course, but it does ring a bell, and era-wise it is just in the right bracket, while the vellum looks similar in quality) :


The reference is : Sion/Sitten, Archives de l’Etat du Valais/Staatsarchiv Wallis, S 109, f. recto – Six ages of the World (

Below is part of f86v from the VM :


There exists another copy in Reims of the same scroll, illustrated by the same master (so says e-codices) which looks like this :


and here is the link to it.

So overall, this master and the VM author do share similar influences, but those are probably not specific enough to go much further.

Another illustration that is a little reminiscent of the VM is f40 of MSS Pal.Lat. 1726, but since it is under copyright I can only provide the link here.  It depicts a VM-style naked lady with a crown in a small pond with fishes and birds, and corresponds to the month of March in that manuscript. It is in fact Venus (as mentioned here) and the manuscript is Fulgentius megaforalis.

Again, I’m not claiming this is the same author as that of the VM, other illustrations nearby make that clear (a very dissimilar sun in particular), but it does have similarities in that the VM also has two fishes for march on f70v and they seem to be of the same species (shape, number of fins, type of head).

A third element that I’m happy to have found recently, and by chance, is a vellum repair that looks quite similar to those of the VM. Consider for instance this part of f82v, one sees that the holes are not crisp, as if some tension on a still fresh vellum had been applied :


For some time I couldn’t find manuscripts that had the same type of repair, either the sewing thread was still there hiding it, or it had been too closely sewn and just looked different.

But the bottom right corner of the final folio f68v of Pal. Lat. 1158 here does have some similarities. Also, the shape and thickness of the bottom of that manuscript’s f66v is typical VM style vellum, I would think. Alas, according to this, we’re looking at a XIIth century vellum here! So that type of sewing repair, and of folio cutting, isn’t specific at all to the VM nor its era since it existed centuries earlier. On the other hand, since most XVth century manuscripts have much better-looking repairs, it might be that the VM vellum is of a fairly artisanal origin.

Hopefully some DNA testing will be done on the VM in the nearby future, and compared to other sources. Some genetic variants may well help pinpoint a specific type of cattle, or at least a not too rough geographical origin.

[Please note : as a policy on this blog I shall not let in all comments, only a select few that I find interesting.]


A comment on the f116v script

Since the well-known marginalia of f116v seems to have some German aspect to it (line 1 and 4, that is), I have started to look for instances in German manuscripts of handwriting, and hopefully even bits of sentences, that look as similar as possible.

One large source of digitized German manuscripts is the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, in particular its Codices Palatini Germanici holding, a set of 848 manuscripts, a good half of which were written between 1350 and 1510.  I am in the process of reviewing each such manuscripts, and far from done yet.  Here I’d like to report on something a little similar to aspects of the script that appears on f116v of the VM.

I’m referering to Cod. Pal. Germ. 329, a text written in 1415/1415 by Austrian ministrel Hugo von Montfort (1357-1423).  The book itself is written in a nice and regular gothic script, with many beautiful decorated initials.

But on folio Vv, just before the book begins, one sees a short ex-libris written by Hugo von Monfort in a different, hasty-looking, script: probably the way he wrote casually everyday. According to the library record this reads:

s[e]q[uitu]r eyn hubesch buch von werbung

eyner frouwen mit clugen worten

vnd liedern und kimpt von graff

hug von montfort

There are two things to note here.  First, the word ‘clugen’ has its ‘cl’ which looks quite close to one of the VM gallows. That’s only the second time, outside the VM, that I’ve found a similar shape that is true text and not a decoration, the other instance being the ‘-tem’ part of the latin word ‘item’, and so it is the first example where it can occur at the beginning of a word, like in the VM.

Secondly, the letter ‘r’  (clearly seen  in the words ‘werburg’, ‘worten’ and ‘graff’) does appear quite similar to those appearing on f116v of the VM: a vertical bar, sometimes with a hint of upward-right motion at its base, followed by a dot.

But the rest of the script is markedly different (letters ‘m’, ‘a’…).

So, while I’d conclude that this is certainly not the author of the VM marginalia, the occurence on a provably 1415 german text of both that quite rare shape for ‘r’ together with a gallow-looking symbol (which turns out to be standard alphabet) makes me want to find more examples both of Hugo von Monfort’s casual handwriting, and more generally of that of his contemporaries, to see whether they, too, wrote ‘cl’ like that.


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..

A reference similar to f116v

The marginalia of f116v are of course very interesting.   Some believe they are pen trials, but several others see the line 3 and 4 as a kind of latin prayer involving Holy Mary (see this message by Gregor Damschen and follow-ups, and this page by Nick Pelling).

Here I would simply like to report on a part of a page from a manuscript written around 1460-1480, by Gall Kemli, who was a wandering monk near St-Gall.   (The manuscript itself is entertaining, with lots of different ink types (see e.g. f128r), possibly different handwritings here and there, and many curious passages.  For instance, on f77r there is a Sator-Arepo square, around f156r some music sheets, possibly some games on f165v — hidden behind another page, and on f98av possibly some cypher text.)

The page I want to mention, due to its similarity with the VM’s f116v, is f91r where one finds these lines:

(Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. C 101)

The crosses could mean “make a prayer sign”. Indeed, they definitely mean that on another later page, f106r, where one sees at some point “amen+ Gaspard + Melchior + Balthazar”.

But on f91r the actual text is difficult to understand.  In fact, the first three words “daimana + Hathagiata + Dyodecamene” seem to be pure invention.  So could it be some non-intelligible spell then? At least the notice of the manuscript does mention exorcism.

If so, that might explain why the VM’s f116v is so difficult to read (beyond the emendations): maybe not all words are meant to be meaningful, that’s a possibility.


And just to touch upon other topics mentionned before on this blog that do occur in this manuscript too, let me mention the following.

First, if you’re wondering how that monk Kemli wrote “primus” well it varies a lot in the manuscript. It is clear he didn’t write the VM quire numbers, given the lower part of f104v (a very different primus, no ‘t’ in quintus nor sextus, no ‘m’ in septimus…),  but some instances are fairly similar to the VM, e.g. lots nearly fine ‘primus’, ‘prima’, ‘primum’ on f92r.

As for the Zodiac aspects, while his calendar starts in january on f18r, it is interesting to note that he attributed Capricorn to it, so that march is Pisces and so on like in the VM (and unlike most manuscripts I’ve seen, where Pisces tends to be february and Aries is march).  So now we know which was the custom around St-Gall at the time.

So, if indeed the VM comes from around Lake Constance, then perhaps whoever added the month names knew it had to be the Pisces=march way rather than the Pisces=february.

Note also how, on some early woodcuts pasted in the manuscript (all of which are surrounded by nice convoluted Volkenbanden!), the Cancer sign does look like a crayfish on f14v  just like in the VM , while the scales on f12r  are very similar to those in the VM. Unfortunately, Scorpio on f10v looks more realistic than the the lizard-like of the VM. Finally, there’s a crossbowman on f9v, but not as a sign for Saggitarius who has a standard bow.

Addendum on quire numbers

Call this bad bibliographical search, but to amend that last post, I’ve just found a second instance of a ‘primus’ occuring in a title which is fairly similar to the VM, but less than the St-Gall one.

It is in Flores musicae – phil.qt.52 , a music book from 1467 written by Hugo Spechtshart in Esslingen (about 120km north of Konstanz, so still within the southern half of Germany).  Namely, on f42r the title in red reads ‘primus tonus’, and although the loop of the p is closed that’s similar to the VM in terms of abbreviations.

Interestingly, in that same book just one page before, on f41r, the abbreviation of ‘primus tonus’ (in red, top right corner) is different, with ‘-ri’ not abbreviated:  so the same author could freely change from one page to the next, it seems.

Moreover ‘secundus’, ‘tertius’ and ‘quartus’ in the red titles on that page are abbreviated like in the VM, while on f41v ‘quintus’ and ‘septimus’ are similar to the VM, but ‘sextus’ and ‘octavius’ are different. And later on f50v ‘quartus’ gains a ‘t’ compared to f41r, so it becomes unlike the VM there too.

So, it still seems that the VM-like ‘primus’ abbreviations found so far point to that same rough geographic area. But with the caution that people may not have been very strict with abbreviations at the time. And so the VM quire numbers are perhaps not the super clear-cut identifyer one could have hoped for.  But of course, the closer the more likely, and other specific aspects of the script, like whether the old-style loopy 4 is inclinated towards the left or the right, and so on, are important.

A 1459 gallow candidate

There are several possibilies concerning gallows, depending on what the VM really is: they could be abbreviations, mere decorations above letters, actual symbols of a cypher…   And in the case of a plain text rather than a cypher, there could still be coexistence of some abbreviation-gallows and some decoration-gallows.

Here I would just like to record a visual analogy. Something very similar to the following typical VM gallow :

also shows up in other texts of the same era, something I’ve had a fairly hard time to find.

Namely, in Cod. Sang. 839, which is a 1459 Swiss copy on paper of Nicolas Oreme’s Comments on Aristotle, one can see the following on the very first folio f1r: three similar-looking symbols (click to enlarge)

The first one is very similar, the two others hint that the first loop is not necessarily meant to be closed for it to still make sense, in this latin text.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find an online copy of this text in ascii to make sure what it is, it possibly is a short hand for ‘Item’. It keeps appearing throughout that manuscript.

I’m not claiming this solves anything regarding the VM, but at least, it is a possibility from the same era.

Interestingly, Switzerland, which is close to both Northern Italy and Germany, and where, as said previously on this blog, castles with swallow-tail merlons also exist, is known to have a french-speaking area where “octembre” and “augst” were certainly used in the between the 1300s and the 1500s: here is a 1560 use of “augst” in Genève, and here is a 1364 use of “octembre” in Neuchâtel.

Notice also that in the same Cod. Sang. 839 there appears other VM-looking gallows, for instance the top line of f3r contains:

and if I’m not mistaken the part ‘9methero-gallow’ reads “cum metherorum” (which makes sense: there is indeed metherorum in the title of the text).

As for quire numbering: it is different from the VM, see the top f5r where the first quire mark appears,  but note that the mark at the top of f176r is very similar to the first one of the VM. (There are also ink accidents reminiscent of the VM, but these were probably common at the time).

All in all, Cod. Sang. 839 is certainly interesting.

New page for references

I’ve added a new page to list websites where one can find digitised manuscripts of the same era as that of the VM.