By Gordon Rugg
In this series of articles, we’re imagining that you’ve gone back in time, and that you want to produce the Voynich Manuscript as a hoax to make money.
The first article looked at why a mysterious manuscript would be a good choice of item to hoax. The second article looked at some of the problems involved in hoaxing a text that looked like an unknown language, from the linguistic viewpoint. The third examined the same subject in more depth.
In this article, I’ll look at the materials that would be needed for the hypothetical hoax. Some of them are straightforward, but one is the subject of much argument.
If you’ve decided to produce a hoax that looks like a fifteenth century European book in either an unknown language or an unknown code, then choosing almost all the materials is pretty simple. I’ll start with the easiest.
Oak gall ink was a standard widely used type of ink from right through the Middle Ages. It’s still readily available today; I have a couple of bottles of the stuff in my calligraphy set.
Throughout the centuries, it’s been made using the same ingredients and the same procedures. It’s an obvious, sensible choice for a hoaxer; it’s the type of ink used in a huge variety of mediaeval documents, and it’s been almost identical in composition throughout that time. Another important consideration for a hoaxer is that it doesn’t show obvious signs of age if it’s kept away from sunlight (for instance, in a closed book). That’s a mixed blessing, in terms of making the hoax look the right age. We’ll return to that issue later.
The pigments for the illustrations would be another easy choice. The pigments that artists used through the Middle Ages were based on a fairly limited set of ingredients. A few ingredients of that period, such as lapis lazuli, were luxury imports – that’s one reason that top quality illuminated mediaeval manuscripts feature dark blues so prominently, to flaunt the wealth of the person who commissioned the manuscript. For the Voynich Manuscript, however, the pigments used were standard ones whose ingredients and recipes remained more or less unchanged for centuries. As with the oak gall ink, the pigments wouldn’t show obvious signs of age if kept away from sunlight in a closed book.
Quill pens were the standard writing implements throughout the mediaeval period. They’re not a lot of fun to write with; they need to be re-sharpened, which is a nontrivial skill, and they aren’t always consistent in the quality of writing they produce if you’re not skilled in sharpening them. They can also make a squeaking sound that’s almost as unpleasant as fingernails on a blackboard. Steel-nibbed pens became widespread during the Victorian period, and are a lot more pleasant to use.
When you use a quill pen or an old-fashioned steel-nibbed pen, you have to dip it into the ink at intervals, when the pen starts to dry up. It’s often possible to see where this happens in a manuscript because the ink suddenly changes from light to dark in colour. Here’s an example. At the end of the fourth line down the ink is getting faint, and then suddenly goes dark for the characters that look like an “n” and an “r”.
You also sometimes get an odd effect from oak gall ink, which is that the ink can be transparent for a few seconds after you write something; it darkens to black over a few seconds. This may be the reason that a couple of words in the Voynich Manuscript have been overwritten with other words – the writer may have been distracted, lost their place on the line, and started again at the beginning because the words they’d just written were still transparent.
Vellum or parchment
If you’re producing a hoax intended to look like a mediaeval European book, then the obvious choice of writing material is vellum or parchment. The two terms overlap; in brief, parchment is animal skin, and vellum is high quality parchment. The high quality was achieved in several ways, some involving the method of preparation, and some involving the choice of animal – vellum was usually produced from the skins of calves or goats.
The vast majority of mediaeval documents were written on vellum or parchment, although some were written on other materials. Papyrus was still in use in the Byzantine empire until well into the middle ages, though it had stopped being used in western Europe by about 1000 AD. Paper was increasingly widely produced as the middle ages progressed, becoming significantly more common during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A few documents were produced on materials such as leather (also made from animal skin, but put through a tanning process, unlike parchment and vellum).
The choice of vellum as a writing material is perfectly understandable, from a hoaxer’s point of view. It was a readily available material that had been used in old documents across Europe for centuries. However, if you’re a hoaxer, then there’s a further decision that you need to make. It’s also a decision that might occur if you were producing a document that wasn’t a hoax. It’s whether to use newly-made vellum or old vellum. That’s an issue that’s provoked much discussion in the Voynich research world recently. I’ll cover that in some detail after clearing a couple of other issues about vellum out of the way.
One topic of argument has been the cost of vellum in the historical past. As I’ve pointed out in an earlier post in this series, the cost of materials is a secondary consideration to a hoaxer; some of the most successful hoaxes have involved very substantial initial costs. The key issue for a commercial hoaxer is the likely return on investment.
Vellum prices in antiquity, as nowadays, varied by region and across time, but they weren’t prohibitively high; merchant houses would buy enough vellum to produce ledger books, for instance, as a routine business expense.
What about the foldouts?
One good question about the hypothetical hoax involves the foldouts. These are pages in the Voynich Manuscript which unfold to several times the usual size of pages in the manuscript. How would a hoaxer manage to find enough already-old vellum to produce these?
A possible answer is that the hoaxer didn’t start out with that intention, but instead acquired a book or set of already-old vellum which happened to contain several larger sheets, and decided to incorporate them into the manuscript.
This is a feasible scenario because of the way that vellum and parchment are produced. They’re produced initially as an entire skin, which is then cut into sheets of the correct size. In the case of calf and goat skins, there’s something of an art in cutting the skin in such a way as to get the maximum amount of usable area out of the skin, since these skins are small, and variable in shape around the edges. This cutting wouldn’t necessarily be directly into page-sized pieces; some of the pieces might start off the size of several pages, and then be cut down to size from there.
One possibility for the foldouts is that the person producing the Voynich Manuscript had bought a batch of vellum where some pieces had been cut to the right height to use as pages, but hadn’t yet been cut to the right width. Another is that the person had bought a batch of skins that hadn’t yet been cut into pages.
A foldout page from the Voynich Manuscript: Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library
There’s no obvious reason why the manuscript needs to use foldouts – it doesn’t include maps or large diagrams of a complex mechanism, for instance, where foldouts would be very useful – so this speculative explanation of making use of some large blank sheets that happened to be available would make sense of what is otherwise a puzzling anomaly in the manuscript’s format.
Vellum: New or old?
One of the challenges that hoaxers spend a lot of time on is making things look the right age. Usually that means making them look older than they really are. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, hoaxers and forgers produce copies of modern documents, where it’s important to use modern materials and also to make the document look crisp and fresh. More often, though, the hoaxer has to make the item look older than it is, and that’s a nontrivial problem in most cases.
We’ve already seen that oak gall ink and mediaeval pigments tend to retain their colours well if they’re not exposed to sunlight and fresh air. That’s a problem if you’re a hoaxer, because it means that you don’t have a plausible way of making them look old within a book. If you’re hoaxing a document that consists of a single sheet of vellum, then that’s a different story, because the single sheet would probably get exposed to light and air, and the ink and pigments would weather, so you can fake ageing. If you’re hoaxing a book, however, that’s a different story, since pages within a book tend to remain closed within the book most of the time, so the ink and pigment will look fresh, and you won’t be able to use them to make the document look old.
So that leaves you with the vellum as the remaining way of making the book look aged. Unfortunately, vellum also tends to remain fresh-looking if it’s shut within a book. If you look at the closeup illustration above, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether it’s of a document written four hours ago or four centuries ago.
There is one way, though, that vellum shows signs of ageing, and that’s wear and tear around the edges and in pages that get heavier use, such as the first page of a book, or pages that people frequently turn to. Here’s another illustration from the Voynich Manuscript, showing wear and tear, and faded ink for good measure; it’s the first page of the manuscript.
The first page of the Voynich Manuscript: Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library
That’s a page that looks old. It looks like it’s seen a lot of use. Which is exactly how you’d want it to look, if you were a hoaxer producing an alleged book of ancient secrets, as opposed to current secrets.
There are lots of ways of making a page look old; that’s one of the key skills that a good forger of documents needs to have. The best way, though, is also the simplest: you simply start with a page that really is old, by using already-old vellum. And that’s where the debate really gets started.
A key question is whether the ink went onto the vellum of the Voynich Manuscript when that vellum was freshly made (in which case, the radiocarbon date tells us when the manuscript was produced) or when the vellum was already old.
We can’t tell the answer chemically. Carbon testing the ink would require a prohibitive amount of the ink, and there’s no realistic prospect of that happening. So that route is a dead end for the foreseeable future.
Everyone agrees that most documents in the past were written on fairly fresh vellum or parchment (i.e. at most a year or two old). That, however, doesn’t mean that all of them were – Rich SantaColoma has found evidence of quite a few genuine ordinary mediaeval documents being written on vellum that was probably a few decades old at the time when the document was written. That makes sense, especially if the document was being produced by an organisation that routinely produced documentation, such as a law firm or a merchant house or monastery; the sensible thing for such organisations to do would be to maintain a reasonable stock of spare vellum and parchment.
It would also make sense for them to buy in bulk whenever prices happened to be low, rather than buying a fresh sheet of vellum for every new piece of work. When you put those two factors together, you have a very practical set of reasons for many mediaeval documents being written on vellum or parchment that was already several years old, and sometimes substantially older (if some of the vellum and parchment had been left on an obscure bottom shelf at the back of the store-room, for instance).
Forgers and hoaxers are well aware of how to find already-old materials. One favourite method of finding already-old paper or vellum is to acquire an unfinished book – for instance, a ledger book or journal that was abandoned, for reasons such as the company going bankrupt or the journal’s author’s death. In the case of single-page hoaxes, it’s sometimes been possible to find the original book from which the single page was taken, by matching the positions of wormholes in the two documents.
Rich SantaColoma has done a fair amount of fieldwork on this topic, and has found numerous examples of substantial amounts of already-old vellum being available through antiquity and into modern times.
It wouldn’t need to be easy for a hoaxer to find an already-old unfinished book. It would only need to be possible, and Rich’s work has shown that this was very much a possibility.
So, it’s plausible that the ink went onto vellum that was recently made, but also plausible that it went onto vellum that was a few years old, or a few decades old, regardless of whether the manuscript was produced as a hoax or not. That’s useful from the viewpoint of a hoaxer, but not so useful from the viewpoint of a present-day researcher trying to get insights into the nature of the Voynich Manuscript.
One big, puzzling question involves the carbon date for the vellum. The unofficial reports from the team that did the carbon testing of the vellum put the date at around 1420 to 1430. (There hasn’t yet been an official report.) I’ve been deliberately fuzzy in my phrasing for this date because radiocarbon dates are probability estimates, not exact figures with crisp cut-off points. You can calculate the exact likelihood of the samples coming from any given date such as 1442, using the probability curves. Much the most likely date is around 1420 to 1430.
I don’t see any reason to argue about the validity of the carbon dates; the technique is well established, and its limitations are well understood by experts in the field, so if they say that the most likely date is around 1420 to 1430, then I’m happy to accept that.
However, that date came as a surprise to most Voynich researchers when it was first announced, because there had previously been fairly solid agreement that the manuscript dated from the 1460s or 1470s on a variety of grounds, including the style of the manuscript, and there had been an implicit assumption that the manuscript would have been written onto freshly made vellum.
I’m usually wary of putting much trust in stylistic dating, but if used with caution, it can be pretty effective. Suppose, for instance, that you’re shown a photo of a man wearing peace beads and loon flares and a psychedelic tee-shirt, standing next to a woman in a black and white mini-dress. When would that photo date from? With those clothing styles, the best bet would be the 1960s or 1970s, or maybe some later retro event. If someone tried to tell you that it dated from the 1920s or 1930s you’d be pretty sceptical, and rightly so.
The styles involved in assessing the age of the Voynich Manuscript aren’t primarily about clothing. Instead, they’re principally about the handwriting style (handwriting fashions come and go, just like clothing fashions) and the style of the book itself (genres of books came and went in the past, just as they do today) and the style of the illustrations (art styles also come and go).
Before the carbon dates came in, it was generally agreed that those different strands of evidence all pointed towards the same date – the 1460s or 1470s, and perhaps later (there were some claims that some of the clothing and hair styles in the illustrations were a better fit with the early 1500s).
Then the carbon dates arrived. For the non-hoax hypothesis, the carbon dates didn’t fit well with the previous stylistic estimates for the date. For the hoax hypothesis, this was less of an issue.
I’ve listed the main issues in the table below. It shows three significant dates, with notes about the implications if the manuscript was written at each of those dates. The first is around 1430 (the carbon date). The second is around 1470 (the stylistic date). The third is around 1580 (when the manuscript appears at the court of Rudolph II).
In each cell of the table, I’ve listed a possible explanation for the manuscript, a note on the implications of the carbon date, and a note on the implications of the stylistic date.
The next sections discuss each of these possible dates in more detail.
If the manuscript was produced around 1430, this would fit the carbon dates, but the style would be anachronistic, regardless of whether the manuscript was being produced as a hoax or not.
There’s a possibility that the stylistic dating was mistaken, but that’s a big claim to make on the strength of one set of unexpectedly early carbon dates for this one manuscript, when the stylistic dating was derived from a well established body of work based on numerous other documents.
In terms of the sales pitch for a hoax, a hoaxed document produced around 1430 could be presented as a book of mysterious current wisdom (such as an alchemist’s notebook) without needing to look old.
If the manuscript was produced around 1470 as a “non-hoax” document, then the stylistic dating would fit, but the carbon date wouldn’t; to reconcile the two, the manuscript would have to be written on vellum that was already several decades old. That’s perfectly feasible, but it hasn’t so far been a favoured scenario by most of the researchers who believe that the manuscript is not a hoax.
If the manuscript was produced around 1470 as a hoax of a recent document, then the stylistic dating would fit, but the carbon dating wouldn’t. At one level, this wouldn’t be a problem for the hoax hypothesis; the manuscript would just need to look as if it was the right age, regardless of what age the vellum actually was. At another level, though, there’s the question of why a hoaxer in the 1470s would bother to use already-old vellum if they were producing a hoax intended to look like a book of recent wisdom.
One explanation that tidies up the loose ends is the hypothesis that the manuscript was produced much later than 1470, by someone who wanted to make it appear to date from around 1470.
Why would anyone want to do that? One possible reason is that the 1470s were the golden age of Italian codes, when the wars between the city-states sparked a flourishing set of innovations in code-making. It would be a good choice of date for anyone producing a manuscript that looked like an old coded text.
That person wouldn’t need to be producing a hoax. They might be producing a non-hoax document in a deliberately archaic style, much like the Chittenden Manuscript described on Rich SantaColoma’s website.
However, if they were producing a hoax, then a book apparently from that golden age of codes would probably have more market value than one appearing to be from the 1500s.
It would also have the advantage that this particular type of book – an alchemical herbal – would not look too heretical or satanic. That would be a big issue in the 1580s, a time of major religious wars. The Spanish priests had burnt all but a handful of the Mayan books they found because they considered those books the work of the devil. Two of the leading intellectuals of the time, Dr John Dee and Trithemius, were accused of witchcraft because of mysterious-looking documents that they produced.
So, if you were producing a book in the 1500s that appeared to be from around 1470, whether as a hoaxer or not, then you’d probably want to use already-old vellum.
One simple explanation for the mismatch between stylistic date and carbon date is that someone in the 1500s bought a batch of old vellum, dating from around 1430 (probably as a partly-used book). They probably neither knew nor cared that the vellum dated from several decades earlier than the 1470s; any age of vellum would do, as long as that vellum was already old.
They would then use that vellum to produce a manuscript in an imitation of 1470s style, maybe basing some of the illustrations on images from authentic manuscripts from the 1470s. That would explain the carbon date and the stylistic date.
There’s a further advantage in this hypothesis. There have been occasional claims that some of the details in the illustrations within the Voynich date from the 1500s; these have previously been dismissed as coincidental, but if the manuscript actually was produced in the 1500s, then we would expect to see a few slips of exactly this type.
Summary and conclusion
This has been a long post, that comes to a short set of conclusions.
If you were a hoaxer trying to produce the Voynich Manuscript as a hoax to make money, then you’d probably want to use a quill pen, oak gall ink and standard pigments of the time.
If you were producing the manuscript as a hoax around 1430 you’d not be bothered about whether you used already-old vellum or newly-made vellum.
If you were producing the manuscript as a hoax around 1470 then you’d not be bothered about whether you used already-old vellum or newly-made vellum.
If you were producing the manuscript as a hoax in the 1580s, then you’d want to use already-old vellum, but you wouldn’t be bothered about its precise age.
These issues don’t throw much light on the comparative likelihood of the hoax hypothesis and the non-hoax hypothesis. When we move on to the issue of how to produce plausible hoaxed text, though, then the situation is very different. That will be the topic of the next post in this series.
There’s a lot of useful information about already-old vellum and about other fieldwork on Rich SantaColoma’s site:
The Chittenden Manuscript is discussed on Rich’s site here:
I’ve also discussed these issues and others in my book Blind Spot:
I’m posting this series of articles as a way of bringing together the various pieces of information about the hoax hypothesis, which are currently scattered across several sites.
Quick reassurance for readers with ethical qualms, about whether this will be a tutorial for fraudsters: I’ll only be talking about ways to tackle authenticity tests that were available before 1912, when the Voynich Manuscript appeared. Modern tests are much more difficult to beat, and I won’t be saying anything about them.