reprint by request, ‘Who wrote the gallows?’

A long-time reader and correspondent has been reading a current thread on the forum site  ‘’ and, noting that one of the contributors (JKP) appears to agree with my tracing the ‘gallows’ style as far as Visigothic script, as I did in 2015, has asked if I’d reprint that post to ‘remotely assist’ the conversation on the forum.

Trusting that some users of the forum, at least, will remember to credit Reeds as finder of the Piacenza example, and my research for extending the discussion to include Visigothic script, I’ve agreed to do this.  I have also recently reprised the information in the present blog.

Who wrote the “gallows”?

Posted Wednesday October 7th., 2015 at (now closed to the public).

added note – 16/12/2016 – broken link to St.Andrew’s papal charter replaced.

It’s time we used a different term for those glyphs we call “gallows”. Way back when,  the manuscript’s dating was still supposed “anyone’s guess” – the original evaluations having been forgotten, ignored, or supposed superseded-  and a fair number of Voynicheros were looking at works from as late as the sixteenth- and even the seventeenth century.  Someone (and I’m sorry that I don’t know who) then described such glyphs by comparison with the practice seen in Tudor England, where the writer of a letter added a small sketch of a gallows to urge the recipient to respond.

Now that we have an accepted date-range, the term seems a bit odd, or at least  anachronistic… but what else can we call them? “Upper case” would just beg a different question.  We might call them ‘Neal glyphs’ – everyone’s heard about Philip Neal’s important observations. Or we might call them “12thC Caroline” glyphs.  The eleventh and twelfth centuries, lingering into the fourteenth, are when we see such forms in various parts of Europe, usually as part of some official decree or charter.

script 12thC gallows Parma Capelli Dictionary

That first example (above) comes from an official charter, now in Parma but from the monastery of San Savino, in Piacenza. When this example was introduced to the Voynich world by Jim Reeds, via the old mailing list, he added this:

But I can refer to one of the few photographic facsimilies in … Cappelli’s Dizionario (the 1967 reprint of what appears to be the 1929 edition), namely “Tavola IV”, which shows a letter [of] 1172 [AD], Giugno 13 — Savino abbate del monastero di S. Savino in Piacenza investe il mugnaio Gerardo Albarola per se e suoi eredi maschi in perpetuo, di un mulio di ragione del detto moasstero — Scritura carolina. — Pergamena origen., conservata nell’Archivio di Stato di Parma, monastero di S. Savino.”

So it’s not just a letter, but a charter.  And the script is described as Caroline, despite its being late 12thC.

Compare that with this below, another official (diplomatic) document of the twelfth century. This came from the Holy Roman Emperor’s German chancery. I have the image from the ‘Medieval Writing’ blog, where commentary is provided –  here.

imperial minuscule 12thC

Once again from the twelfth century, and once again an official document – now from Rome. It’s part of a Papal edict, called a ‘Bull’, from the Latin bulla. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the script is called “Papal minuscule”.  Credits  again to the ‘Medieval Writing blog’ (here).

script Papal Bull Papal minuscule 12thC

So let’s go roving more widely.

How about another charter script, say from France or Spain?  We’ve already seen one that was written in Tours by a notary seconded to serve the visiting bishop of Rheims.  The composite illustration below from an illustration on Jonathan Garrett’s fascinating blog,  “A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe: Early medievalist’s thoughts and ponderings“.  And of course, it’s another charter of establishment. This is a very early example of those now-familiar elongated ascenders. It’s a tenth century authority for a Spanish convent to be established at Ripoll (Ripoli).

charter script Rippol

Custom being what it is, the thirteenth century still sees something of the same.  Here is another Papal Bull, dated to the early thirteenth century (1216 AD), addressing the rights of the Order of St.John Hospitaller. You can see the whole enlarged through the site (here). Credits to them for the picture, too.  The document itself is preserved in Washington State College.

script Gallows Papal bull 13thC

So the written part of MS Beinecke 408 –  not only by the proportions of upper and lower ‘case’ but because it includes  ‘Neal glyphs’ having some kinship with ‘diplomatic’ hands of the eleventh-to-thirteenth centuries – does (as Barbara Barrett insisted) resemble a set among the Latin Caroline hands. It resembles  a chancery minuscule ~ or at least the Voynich script suggests that it has been influenced  in some way by the chancery/diplomatic script of those times.

So how about bulls issued from fourteenth century [papal court in] Avignon?

Well, it appears from the authority to establish St. Andrew’s University in Scotland that the Avignon style was far simpler overall, keeping elongated ascenders and the curly bits only for the headers.

You can see the charter for St.Andrews in a fairly blurry photograph here.

I don’t think anyone could mistake the Voynich text for any of those highly official ones, but I would suggest that our Voynich scribes were doing their best to reproduce their original(s) very accurately and make the written text look “formal”, which seems to explain the use of forms similar to the old Caroline chancery style whose heyday was or had been around the eleventh or twelfth century.

This, of course,  is another indication (if any were needed) that this is not any scrappy bit of amateur work, though it’s not an imperial or papal production. But neither is it likely to be something first composed by a fifteenth century Latin auteur. 

It would be interesting to see some of the reciprocal diplomatic and official letters; I wonder whether those writers, sending things to Popes and Kings tried to send letters presented with equally formal appearance?  Such letters could come from anywhere, with imperial and royal chanceries turning out documents, charters and diplomatic missives by the hundreds, not only to all parts of Europe, but to foreign kings, courts, and religious communities.

The eleventh-to-thirteenth century is certainly looking reasonable for first composition of the written text, just as I’ve explained it the appropriate period for a chronological stratum in the imagery.  ]

I’m glad to say that it also makes the opinion of the early, independent commentators seem less random; one can see why most saw no reason to contradict Wilfrid’s assertion that the manuscript was the work of a thirteenth century Franciscan.  He never stopped to consider that what he held might be a copy of something written then and, as we’ve seen, our manuscript  by its layout, long lines, and relative lack of marking-out does given an impression very like that of Franciscan portable handbooks.

By no later than the thirteenth century, too, Franciscans served as Europe’s diplomatic corps. By 1294, the Franciscan, John of Montecorvino, had already served in Persia and was now arriving in Beijing (then: Cambaliech).

None of this, however, can counteract the information offered by the imagery, of strongly eastern and Jewish influence in the imagery, and overall an entirely non-Latin and even pre-Christian source for its first enunciation.

Next post, I’ll have some interesting news, discovered in researching historical links between Spain and Italy, between Piacenza and Fiesole.  But as a teaser – I don’t think Baresch’s reference to the “virum bonum” was as general a term as we’ve taken it to be. I think Kircher knew exactly what the reference was, too. And it wasn’t to the Cathars.

oh, and then I’ll continue with the Avignon posts; they’ve been neglected while I sifted conflicting accounts of the “Hermits of St.Jerome”.


and please see two comments from me, posted below (3rd Feb 2019)