Expert opinion Myth versus materials science Pt.5a

Two previous:


Codicology  and conservation are technical disciplines and a specialist’s opinion must be regarded as expert opinion.  (See previous post)

As one writer said of codicology:

…. The vast variety of binding techniques, the diversity of the material and the artistic element demand deep understanding of books ….

I’d ask readers to keep that in mind, and the fact that in what follows, I am not criticising the technical matter in the Yale facsimile edition essay ‘Physical Materials’ but objecting to certain editorialising comment inserted into that technical essay.  Nor is my point that this person or that is wrong – but that the revisionist has to be aware that when the old myths meet scientific data at the coal-face, the myths don’t necessarily give way.

The  ‘editorialising hand’ who has inserted comments into the scientific report I will refer to as ‘e.h.’ Whose hand(s) these were is irrelevant; as we’ll see the problem is that in attempting to harmonise the new information with the speculative narratives, that editorialising hand does a disservice to the reader, the researcher and  – one might even argue – to Yale, under whose imprint the essay appears.  ‘

In this post, the issue concerns the text-block’s binding and before going further I want to make clear that I’m not a codicologist, though I’ve had laboratory experience in the analysis of materials  as part of my own field.

A good first introduction to bookbinding, its history and materials is found in a booklet the Beinecke published for its ‘Travelling scriptorium‘ project.

  • [pdf] Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts: Bookbinding terms, materials, methods and models, (issued by) Special Collections Conservation Preservation Department, Yale University Library (February 2015).

To gain an idea of how much complex matter has been condensed to form the booklet, Szirmai’s book still serves as a kind of ‘conservator’s bible’.

  • J.A. Szirmai, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. 

Other sources:

  • Georgios Boudalis (, eds.), Historical Book Binding Techniques in Conservation (2016).
  • A general guide by The British Library [pdf]. David Pearson, English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800, chapter 2,
  • PJM Marks, The British Library Guide to Bookbinding: History and Techniques. A comprehensive glossary by Don Etherington and Matt T Roberts
  • [pdf] David Pearson, John Mumford, Alison Walker, Bookbindings (British Library Preservation Guide)



The textblock’s binding

It doesn’t take much experience before you get used to the way medieval manuscripts are described in most catalogues.  Some give more, and others less detail but I think few include as much speculative matter and sheer guesswork as the Beinecke’s description of the Voynich manuscript’s content.  The description of its codicology is nearer the norm.

The usual form for a manuscript runs something like this: ‘Origin: southern France or  Spain’;  Date: Fourteenth century.  Binding: sixteenth century Italian’.. ”    The description is normally brief, direct and where precision isn’t possible the parameters are given (e.g. southern France or northern Spain”.)

In the Yale facsimile essay, the text-block’s binding isn’t described in that way, but uses a curiously convoluted expression:

…quires held together in a binding technique typically in use in the 15thC “.

Why not just  ‘textblock binding – 15thC’?  – because that is obviously the impression which the writer wants readers to take.   When a curious phrasing such as this occurs, implying but not saying the binding is fifteenth century, the revisionist must ask why, and what distinction is implied here between  ‘ binding’ and ‘binding technique in use’…  and why no location is offered.

In general terms, we can say that the manuscript’s binder had been trained in European style, a style also adopted for Armenian manuscripts after the Crusader period.  In terms of bookbinding styles, the period from the 8th-12thC is termed ‘Carolingian’; overlapping with the ‘Romaneque’ which is dated mid-11thC to the end of the 14thC, overlapped again by the ‘Gothic’ which is dated early 14thC – 17thC.

The European (or ‘Latin’) style is distinguished by the use of sewing supports: strips of material which support the threads binding the quires of the textblock together.

But when we look at the sewing supports of the Voynich manuscript, we see that they are not ‘typically 15thC European’ at all.

See also

Sewing supports were normally made of skin, but those in the Voynich manuscript are made of bast-fibre which the scientific crew identified as probably flax.

The technical study is clear that, on this point at least, the binding is not ‘typically fifteenth century’.  It is the editorialising hand which is responsible for blurring that information by using the roundabout phrase we saw above: ‘a binding technique typically in use in the 15thC’ .

How unusual are flax supports for the fifteenth century?

Below is a diagram from the Beinecke’s ‘Travelling Scriptorium’ booklet’s section on Gothic Romanesque bindings, which are dated (from the second half of the 11thC – end of the 14thC).

It mentions vegetable-fibre supports, but adds the slightly cryptic “later”.

In the British Library’s bookbinding guide there is no mention of vegetable-fibre supports other than in connection with books made after about 1650:

The supports in early books are commonly strips of leather or tawed skin, and from the mid-seventeenth century cords made of cotton, linen, hemp or silk were used.

So although the samples of vellum which were radiocarbon dated gave a range of 1404-1438 (within the ‘Gothic’ period in bookbinders’ terms), there must be some question about whether or not the quires were bound at that time.

And now we find another editorialising, soothing, and non-specific comment by ‘e.h.’ which effectively says, ‘Ah, well, no… not typically fifteenth-century, but don’t you worry about that’.  It says:

…  it is not unheard of for a fifteenth-century  manuscript to be sewn onto flax supports, as the Voynich manuscript is, [but] it is less usual than the use of leather supports.

So now having first been guided to think the binding ‘typically 15thC’, we are shepherded towards thinking it merely ‘less usual’ – by way of “not-unheard-of'”, a phase which usually means ‘very rare’.

The message from ‘e.h.’  seems to be – in effect- that we shouldn’t worry our little heads about the fact that the scientific study doesn’t match up with the theoretical narratives.   ‘e.h.’ simply asserts it is just ‘less usual’ without providing a single comparative instance to justify that statement.   What is one to think? That vegetable-fibre supports are just ‘less usual’ or that they are very unusual but ‘not unheard of’ or that they are really ‘typically in use in the fifteenth century?

The Grove Encyclopaedia’s entry under ‘Bookbinding’ describes  tawed leather as the most common form of support from the eleventh to sixteenth century, referring in general to ‘Carolingian bindings’ as using flax supports (not just those found in St.Gall by Szirmai) and in that context adds in passing that “cords were re-introduced in the fifteenth century” though without any details or added comment.

  • Gerald W. R. Ward (ed.), The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art (2008) p.42.

What is being omitted is anything explaining the significance of this disparity.  Might it tell us more about where the manuscript was made, or by whom?

So the revisionist him/herself must ask the questions and hope to find informed answers elsewhere, and from an up-to-date specialist, for preference.  This is not as easy as it might once have been.  Over the past fifteen years or so, the manuscript has become notorious: less for its inherent difficulty than for the fact that a few hard-core theorists aren’t keen on specialists who have no interest in becoming a ‘team players’.  A specialist might comment in private but few for publication.

Finally,  I decided to ask this question about how ‘not unheard of’ flax supports are at  Erik Kwakkel’s codicology blog.  To keep other readers’ attention on it as a technical question about codicology, I phrased it in neutral terms – that is, without  the ‘V’ word.

Professor Kwakkel was kind enough to respond himself (also letting me know that Szirmai’s book might be had through Scribd):

I did not know anything about flax used for this purpose, but your query prompted me to consult Szirmai … and he discusses the materials at various locations. At [p.]117, importantly, while discussing Carolingian bindings, he describes a sample research he undertook based on St Gall manuscripts, 9th-12th. Flax is found in 15 samples. More data at p. 190. I would check that out.

 Carolingian? As said above, in bookbinding terms the Carolingian period is 8thC -12thC .  Not ‘typical 15thC’.

We can also be pretty sure that if Prof. Kwakkel has never encountered flax sewing supports, that ‘e.h.’s    “not-unheard-of”  may be interpreted as “extremely unusual indeed“t least until someone produces fifteenth-century examples. And they should prove interesting and informative,

Meanwhile it seems that the use of  vegetable fibre sewing-supports is normally associated with either  the Carolingian period (8th-12thC) or with books of the early modern period “from the mid-seventeenth century onwards”.

In that case, to argue that they were also used … somewhere or other, by some binders or other… in the fifteenth century, ‘e.h.’ would have done better to cite examples than trying, as s/he did, to slide over this anomaly, another among the many which the manuscript presents.

Why ‘e.h.’ took the other course, one can only guess.  I certainly don’t imagine that the Beinecke staff sit huddled about in cowls  ‘conspiring’ to delude the public.

Perhaps ‘e.h.’ has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to maintain the old narratives found fossilised in the Beinecke’s sixty-year old catalogue entry and  its current website ‘Introduction’ – labouring to harmonise those ‘canonised myths’ with the new technical information that offers objections to those stories.  But the new information is precisely what we need to know what to discard.

Reading through the ‘Physical Materials’ essay, the editorialising comments evoke both sympathy for that dilemma and a certain quiet outrage.   ‘e.h.’ seems to imagine readers as if members of a family among whom any difference of opinion is on par with a personal quarrel, and ‘e.h.’ in the role of parent, keeping everything nice and calm, creating a ‘middle ground’.

Hence – the radiocarbon dating has the vellum early fifteenth century, so while the binding is far from being ‘typically fifteenth century’  ‘e.h.’ finds a nice middle way:  ‘binding technique typically in use in the fifteenth century’.  It really won’t do.

But should anyone notice the ‘fudge’ and what it implies that the sewing-supports are not skin, but fibre… well, ok. (says ‘e.h.’) but they are still sort of fifteenth century… well, ‘not unheard of’… just ‘less usual’.

But that does not seem to be true, does it?

No mention in Szirmai, or in any other reference that I could find…  but I’m not a codicologist.  If anyone locates some, do let us know.  We may learn a little more about where the manuscript was made.

It seems to me that what was better to  have been said – perhaps ought to have been said  –  if ‘e.h.’ had to editorialise at all – is that  Voynich manuscript’s bookblock is not bound in the way typical of fifteenth-century European manuscripts, but its use of vegetable fibre for the sewing supports finds comparison in Carolingian-period manuscripts and again in the seventeenth-century style for binding books. And – if ‘e.h.’ knew of another instance, what it was, and where that manuscript was bound.

Doubtless there is something about the  binding ‘technique’  found in common with fifteenth-century bindings, but we’re left to guess what that might be.  The number or distance of stations, perhaps?  Type of stitch?

But when ‘e.h.’s efforts to ‘harmonise’ cross the line from just soothing noises to plain misrepresentation of fact, it’s a bit much.

Another interpolation in the scientific report says that the manuscript “was known to have been in Rudolf’s library”.   Now, that’s just not true.  No-one ever claimed to have seen it there and no document has ever been found from Rudolf’s archives (or anywhere else) which substantiates that rumour.   At this point in the ‘Physical Materials’ essay  the revisionist takes their pencil and writes in the margin something along these lines:

“a third-hand rumour, unsubstantiated by the person relating it, or by any evidence since discovered.  The  allegation is that Mnishovsky repeated a rumour to the effect that Rudolf  allegedly had paid the person who brought the manuscript to Prague the sum of 600 ducats, had owned it, and that the text was by Roger Bacon, the Englishman etc.  To date, no documentary or other evidence supports any item of those three. See Marci letter of 1665/6”.

Why did ‘e.h.’ feel it necessary to insert that reference to Rudolf into the scientific report, whose subject is the manuscript’s pigments, inks and binding?  I don’t believe that anyone is trying to argue that the vellum, inks, pigments or binding are sixteenth or seventeenth-century… are they?

No, but as ‘e.h.’ might have realised, this issue with the sewing supports does have the potential to become a can of worms.

If a theorist were to opt for the ‘seventeenth-century’ use of flax sewing supports over the ‘Carolingian’,  it might raise doubt as to whether our present manuscript has just the same form as that owned by  Jakub  Hořčický.   Baresch does suggest that his volume was bound already, calling it a ‘book’ when writing to Athanasius Kircher in  c.1635-6:

“…And so I ordered a certain old book to be transcribed in part, with the writing closely imitated (the bearer of this letter will inform you that he saw it with his own eyes). A year and a half ago I sent that writing to your Reverence….. “

He doesn’t say how much was copied, or whether that bound, or even if the book was disbound to make the copies, but the technical essay says there is no sign of the quires’ having been bound earlier.  It is a surprising finding, given that the map seems to have been rebound, and the disorder observed in the manuscript has often been speculated a result of disbinding and rebinding.  But there you are.

And against any theory of a  ‘seventeenth-century binding’  I should think the fact that Wilfrid attributed the manuscript to the thirteenth century would be a fair argument.  Nor was his opinion denied by many specialists of that time, including  E. P. Goldschmidt, author of a two volume study on the subject:

  • E.Ph. Goldschmidt, Gothic & Renaissance Bookbindings Exemplified and Illustrated from the Author’s Collection.

That work was first published in 1928, but so well thought of that Degraaf reprinted in it a hard-back cased edition forty years later.

I’m content to accept the fifteenth-century dating for the ‘standard quires’, but have long thought the content suggests an effort at very close reproduction of material which pre-dates that period.

Who knows? Perhaps the persons told to ‘copy exactly’ copied the binding as exactly as they could, too.

Who knows?  No-one knows yet, and it won’t help us know more to do what ‘e.h.’ has done and obscure the significance of  newer and better information by ‘smoothing over’ the difference between that information and the old, tired guesses.

To treat fairly with researchers – and with those trusting the ‘Yale’ imprint when buying their copy of the facsimile edition –  accurate information, and accurate explanations of its significance is what the study needs.


Postscript –

re ‘linen or hemp’,  Szirmai notes (n.9  p.91) that while “There are no non-destructive methods available to distinguish between flax and hemp; the drying twist test (Textile institute 1985 p. 225) can be scaled down and carried out under a low-power microscope, but it requires a sample of a number of elementary fibres of 20 to 30 mm length.

  • Brenda Collins and Philip Ollerenshaw (eds.), The European Linen Industry in Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press, (2003).
  • Bert dewilde, Flax in Flanders throughout the centuries, history technical evolution folkore (1999).
  • The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, (2003).

edited and corrections made – 12th May 2019.

The ‘Physical Materials Essay’… to be continued…


One thought on “Expert opinion Myth versus materials science Pt.5a

  1. POSTSCRIPT NOTES: in contrast to the Brit.Library Guide mention in the post, I see that Richard Gameson,(ed.) The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 3, Chapter ‘Technique and Trade: Bookbinding 1499-1577’ says in relation to supports used in Britain ( p.110) “Cords made of flax or hemp, as used in Carolingian bindings, were re-introduced in the fifteenth century … English binders appear to have had a penchant for 5 supports…” and “Plaited endbands, such as are used in Germany and the Netherlands, are unusual in England.”(p.112).

    See also (through
    Pau Deluca, An Illustrated Guide to Book Terminology Part One: Book Structure.

    and if you’re very keen – The Language of Bindings Thesaurus (LoB):
    “… a thesaurus of bookbinding terms for book structures dating from the ninth to the nineteenth century…”


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