Treatise on Marginalia

I’ve spent the last few months not with trying to decipher the VM per se, but by examining the latin marginalia a little closer. It still puzzles me (as much as anybody else, I guess), how it can possibly be that not even the stuff which is written in latin letters in the VM appears to make any sense.

This fact might be understandable if we assume it’s, for example, a single (abortive) decipherment attempt, where somebody scribbled his notes in the margin. But there are several instances of marginalia, apparently from different hands, and none of them are comprehensible.

As all good wannabe codebreakers, I was convinced that all it took to solve the mystery is having a real close look (and a superior mind like mine…), and finally the pieces would fall into place, and the meaning of the marginalia would become obvious. Hence I set out.

Serendipity set in when, while I was in the middle of my observations, Elias Schwerdtfeger published his own account of the zodiac month names (which I had elegantly left out of my own work). I asked for his permission, which Elias kindly granted, so his work is now included here:

“Writings on the Wall — A Discussion of the Voynich Manuscript Marginalia”

It’s the summary of our finds as a downloadable, hyperreferenced pdf file. (Note: About 7 MB file size)

I know that there is much left to do in this document, not the least of which is editing for grammar and style, but I’m afraid that in the foreseeable future I won’t have the time to work on this sufficiently, so I convinced myself it’s better to publish something unpolished than publishing nothing at all.

If you don’t want to wait for the download or ar not inclined to wade through the forty or so pages of text and pictures, here’s the result in a nutshell: I can’t make heads or tails of it either.

Anyway, I hope you’ll enjoy it, and I look forward to your comments and suggestions!

24 thoughts on “Treatise on Marginalia

  1. Pingback: Safety Margins « Thoughts about the Voynich Manuscript

  2. I think the last letter of f17r/3 looks like the apothecary symbol for ounce (℥).

    So, if it’s LV℥, maybe someone tried to write a recipe in the marginalia, meaning “55 ounces”.

  3. Thank you for your work; I’m just settling in to read it. I’ve been fascinated with the f66r marginalia for quite a while; it’s a prime exhibit of that creepy “it’s on the tip of my tongue” feeling I get from the entire VM. Nick Pelling (in “Curse”) suggests “y en muc mal” as Occitan for “bad juice in there” = poison. But you are right, the last word seems like “mel” for sure.

    How about “mel” = honey? Maybe we’re looking at a bucket or jar of honey that is being applied to our sick nymph as a medication. That might explain the gold color in the “bucket,” the dab of gold on the nymph’s abdomen, and the fact that she looks ill. She could even be applying it herself, given the position of her arm. Honey has been used as a topical medication for centuries, and still is (a “honey medicine” google search will turn up plenty of references).

    You could even go a step further starting with Nick Pelling’s “muc” = juice. I’m not a linguist, but if that’s in some way cognate to “milch,” we could have milk and honey in that bucket. Did Cleopatra actually bathe in milk and honey? Who knows, but but many people think she did (google “cleopatra milk honey”). If people in the 15th century believed it as well, that would support such a reading.

    So maybe it’s something like “in there [is] milk [and] honey.

    Jim Shilliday

  4. Good work, Elmar and Elias.

    I latched on to the only thing I can, which is the word as in on your page 14.

    is an uncommon word with a peculiar distribution, which I will post to the list.


  5. I’ll try again without angle brackets.
    I latched on to the only thing I can, which is the word, aror , as in aror sheey on page 14.

    aror is an uncommon word with a peculiar distribution, which I will post to the list.

  6. Thanks to both Elmar and Elias for sharing this. It
    has clearly been a very significant effort. What I
    like most is how the thought processes in interpreting
    things one way or another are clearly laid out.

    It is clear that one can have different opinions
    about certain readings. As the document is already
    quite comprehensive, it would be interesting to
    indicate the existence of such alternatives.

    You might refer to the information at the web site
    of Philip Neal:
    Also, by coincidence, I recently wrote about Musmel
    at the Facebook group ‘Voynich MS appreciation

    The question is, of course, if you are willing to
    maintain this document. I can imagine you are happy
    to have it finished for now.

  7. Hi René,

    Thanks for the kind words and the info about Philip’s view on the musdel. I wasn’t aware of his page and will be happy to include a link to it.

    It now dawns upon me that this treatise will require a moderate amount of updating it to keep it of interest to people, but I’m willing to invest that work, and more or less regularly create new document versions.

    So, please feel free to keep suggestions and further information coming!

  8. Elmar! I was confused (I know, “shocker!”), and posted this on the wrong page. To keep the notes together, I’ll copy it here:

    Elmar: I’ve had a chance to read through your PDF a couple of times. I like your observations. Most of all it is a good consolodation of the marginalia… it is therefore a good reference document, which I will keep and use when the subject comes up, or I am again looking at these parts of the Voynich.

    As an example, I myself had been trying to consolodate all the variations and uses of the “overbar”, as seen in the “cz” of the f17r marginalia. I came across some of the information you have… but your work is helpful, because it is more complete than what I was able to find, and now, it is all in one place.

    4.2: As for the f66r person (I’m not convinced it is a woman), and the tan coloring being the same on the stomach of the person, and in the “pot”: I have posited elsewhere (can’t find it at the moment) that this could imply that the substance in the pot is a poultice, meant to be topically applied. I mean, it is in the pot and on the stomach… so rather than your interpretation, “If you eat this, your tummy will hurt”, I think it more likely the opposite, a topical remedy. I agree it could be either, but it might be something to keep in mind, when one is tackling these clues.

    As for For f116v (4.3.17), I would add, valden, to your val8cn. Valden is a variation of Walloon, and Walloon has been a VMs suspect language, so maybe I am influenced by that.

    As for 4.3.7: I do see a faint curve below the first of the two connected characters, and I like “cc”. I have wondered if this could be “200″. The following (your 4.3.8), then, may be an incorrectly notated “295″.

    As for 4.3.9: Go man go! Go portas! (doors, gate, Battista Della… )

    As for 6.2.8: I also “see” libra under that mess. You think?

    Those are a few of my observations and notes on your work here. I have others, I’m sure we all do. Thanks for the great piece. I think it is marvelous, and will be really helpful. Michiton Oladabas, Rich.

  9. Hi Elmar,

    Surely the right question to be asking of these marginalia is not “what do they say?” but “why can’t we read them?” For all the hard work you’ve put into this PDF, I can’t help but wonder whether you’re focusing on the wrong question.

    Hence it’s all very well dismissing my suggestion that the marginalia are effectively ‘cursed’ by at least one layer of emendations on top: but if not that, what is the #2 hypothesis you would point people to? Is it not perhaps telling that the one word that doesn’t appear to be emended (“maria”) is the one word we can read with moderate confidence?

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  10. Maybe “maria” isn’t emended because the scribe, a religious person, wrote this word slowly, with more passion and pressure of the quill to honor this patron, causing the ink to be applied in a thicker layer which penetrated the vellum more, thus being less susceptible to the wear and tear of the centuries?

    If this is true, we can conclude that the scribe (of this hand) was religious.

  11. Nick,

    As I admitted, I’m still baffled by the unreadability of the marginalia, and originally I had hoped to show that the marginalia actually are readable by scrupulously examining them, showing that perhaps we simply had started out assuming the wrong language or script used. I failed, and frankly I don’t have a good explanation for that.

    I wouldn’t rule out your emendation suggestion in general, but in consequence the emendations would only raise another question: “Why are the emendations unreadable, too?”

    Any emendation would obviously be motivated by the desire to make the unreadable comprehensible, but apparently the “copy editor” of the VM failed to achieve that. (pun) By a wide margin. (/pun)

    Presume a modern editor, possibly not a native speaker of English, came across the word “thou” in an old manuscript, and say he doesn’t understand it, he might decide to replace it with “though”, with which he is more familiar. Assuming that the VM editor is “closer” to us (timewise and culturally) than the original VM author was, we’d also presume that the emendations (“though”) would make more sense to us than the original text (“thou”).

    But this is exactly not the case — rather the opposite. For one thing, to explain the high degree of confusion we experience in the marginalia, one would have to assume that more or less all the characters were “emended”, as there is hardly a single word legible.

    I begin to suspect rather than emendation obfuscation might have been the aim, the crippling of a once clearly legible text. But, of course, it’s hard to guess why anybody would do that? (Or did the marginalia contain the original key to the VM decipherment which had to be deleted after the VM was complete, much like blocking the tombs in the Pyramids once they were done? Hm…)

    Cheers, Elmar

    P.S.: For the record: I was only half-serious in the last paragraph.

  12. Hello Elmar,

    here are some comments from my side.
    On f17r, it would be worth to add that Nick found
    some Voynichese writing at the end of the line, as
    reported in the Curse. I can testify to its
    presence, having seen it under UV illumination.
    The relevance (for me) is that all three main
    marginalia have a mixture of ‘normal’ and Voynichese

    On f66r: if ‘musmel’ is the correct reading, you
    might indicate that this was used to make a porridge
    in the middle ages (schwarzer Brei) which was fed
    to poor people together with bread to keep them
    from starving. This would fit with the drawing.

    On the month names, the Occitan theory should (I
    think) be mentioned, which is based essentially on
    the alternate reading of ‘Mars’. That also does
    not explain the ‘octembre’, which is not an error
    but is a way the month name was written at least
    in some parts of France. I have seen this in some
    dictionaries of old French, but have no more
    access to these.
    Note also, that Toresella classified the month
    names (or their writing style) as French, which
    was reported to the Voynich mailing list by Jim

    Finally, I will send you another file with some
    more information by E-mail.

  13. I knew I’d forgotten something.
    f66r isn’t exactly a herbal page, but the verso
    side is. In several manuscripts of the ‘Tractatus
    de Herbis’ tradition, there is an illustration
    of a corpse, which is in fact a mummy. It is
    reclining, sometimes in a sarcophagus, sometimes
    not. Was the Voynich author inspired by this?

  14. Nick writes:

    “Surely the right question to be asking of these marginalia is not ‘what do they say?’ but ‘why can’t we read them?'”

    I agree that “why?” is an additional question which should be asked, although I did not see it as the point of this particular paper, nor that the question needed to be included in it. In any case, this can only help to that end.

    As for “why can’t we read them?”, my opinion is “maybe because it is also not meant to be read (easily, or at all)”. I mean, along with the main content of the Voynich. The thing is, it has seemed to me, that there is far too great a coincidence of concurrent examples of disparate but enigmatic features of the Voynich for it to be unintentional… so to add the (also) unreadable marginalia has certain implications.

    1) Main text: Unreadable
    2) Illustrations: Match nothing well.
    3) Star patterns: Match nothing well.
    4) Astrology: Just “off” enough to be confusing.
    5,6,7…) Each other VMs element: Ditto…

    But then we are to assume that someone’s later marginalia just happens to be as enigmatic as each of the original elements of the VMs, but now, for some additional and different reason? Because it looks different to us? I don’t think so.

    I feel is far too coincidental that an unfathomable marginalia exists in an unfathomable text, without it’s unreadability being intentional. Rich.

  15. Pingback: Elmar’s new Voynich marginalia page… | Cipher Mysteries

  16. About the bar on f17r: I was looking at f73r, and noted the bar there. In that case it is over the “V” in novbe– (which of course may not be that at all, but for the sake of argument at this point). This may mean it stands for “em”. I think this is interesting, in light of your point that a “macron” can mean a “missing m or n, or a missing syllable involving one of these nasals”. If so, then the f17r word could be: l/b/k-u/v-c-em-z. How about lucemz? Apparantly, this is some Latin form of light. I found this: “Parum claris lucemz dare. Lat. HOR.-” To throw light upon an obscure subject.” Well nothing else in that line matches, but it is interesting that the word has been used in that sense, allegorically, to answer difficult questions… which would be in keeping with some assumptions this was written by a hopeful decipherer. I throw it out there, in case it triggers something to someone as “malhar allar LIGHT hor…”. Rich.

  17. Rich: I similarly suggested “lutz” (Occitan for light, presumably from the Latin “lux”) in the Curse of the Voynich, with the t and z joined together by an overenthusiastic emender: so for a pleasant change we’re perhaps not that far apart here. :-)

  18. Nick: And of course I must have read your suggestion, when I read your book… sorry it slipped my mind. And the fact that at least the two of us had noted something so similar may mean something. It’s true that does not happen that often!

  19. maybe we can’t read the ‘plain’ script for the same reason that readers of Arabic can’t read the inscriptions on Spanish ceramics, or in the cathedral of Palermo. They are formed like Arabic letters, look like Arabic, but make no sense to native readers at all.

  20. One can also assume the words, on f17r top of page, have been written backwards.
    This follows the assumption that the writer made some encryption notes.
    we then could read (i took the best words from my own analysis:

    vohlann valla gul

    with a diacritic on the g actually.

    In Finnish /mixed/ Norwegian this could mean:
    a child with gold (gull) / a child in a yellow … (gul in norwegian)
    also a ‘gul’ with a diacritic is a arabic monster

    These and other quessings about these words and letters does not take us anywhere because the diacritics are there also on some other vague letters. And it does not seem to lead to something usefull.

    B2way, i looked at other obvious languages such as Latin and Greek too, but did not find matches.

  21. Hi all. I just staryed my quest into the VM and readimg through everything on this site has been fantastic. I really liked this treatsie on the marginalia and I think its a good place for a noob like me to try and cut my teeth.

    So here it goes! I have looked at specifically f116v/4-11. I have a bit of a different take on some of the glyphs. Specifically, I think that f116v/8 is an error by the author of the mmarginalia. First it appears CCCV is written and then CCVC. I beleive it may have been the authors intention to write the number 295 but initially wrote CCCV or 305. In order to be concise the author then incorrectly wrote CCVC for 295. In addition, f116v/7 may be a glyph that denotes maybe a “dosage” like cc.

    I think that there may be some additional word spaces within sets of glyphs also. This may make translating a bit easier. For instance, f116v/5 may break into two words like olii dabas. My latin is poor but the double I is a common or acveptable latin word ending. Also, google translate, bad I know, will translate oli dabas to applied olives.

    The sentence as a whole still leaves something to be desired when I translate it but what do you all think? Couls I be on to something? I would love to work with someone further if you need help on any pet projects and I will continue my noobiness over here in the corner!


  22. Pingback: Review of “A Logical Consideration of the Voynich Manuscript” by David Jackson | Brian Cham's personal website

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