Palimpsests – and the lost, ancient..

Occasionally in Voynich studies, the idea is raised (yet again) that the manuscript might be a palimpsest.

As far as I know, the origin for this is a bit of musing by Nick Pelling, who said in a post of close to ten years ago that the idea had occurred to him as a possible means to reconcile the vellum’s scientifically-determined radiocarbon range (1404-1438) with Pelling’s own conviction that the scribal hand(s) and imagery should be dated to 1450-1470.

The ‘palimpsest’ hypothesis had nothing to do with fake-manuscript theories; it was a suggestion – an ‘idea’ – about how the scientific evidence could be reconciled with his own strongly-held opinion about the manuscript.

Though Nick himself has abandoned it, and no doubt with reason, the ‘palimpsest Voynich’ idea has not been allowed to sleep in peace. Some may be unaware that it was Nick’s passing hypothesis and so have no idea it is not current; others may maintain the idea because it fits neatly with hypotheses of their own.  It seems to be most often raised again by adherents of a ‘new world Voynich’ or ‘fake Voynich’ theories.

So, now that the background has been tidied up a bit, it’s time for the important phase.  Testing the idea.

I hope you won’t mind if I once more quote Feynman:

“It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

So..  even given that Nick, who thought of it first, has since found the hypothesis untenable, we may still ask –  Can it be true? Might it be true? Is it true?

How can you tell?

“Palimpsest ” describes material on which an original text (which might be only a few words) has been erased in order to re-use the base material for some other text which the later writer thinks more necessary to their own aims.  A palimpsest is usually a codex, but it might also be a chart, or a papyrus or other inscribed material.

Removal of the older writing may be done by intrusive or by unintrusive (non-destructive) methods.  If intrusive, the process leaves evidence of that process; if unintrusive, it may well leave evidence of the underlying text(s).

In either case,  the evidence defines the palimpsest – and there is no evidence of either sort (so far as I’ve seen) to allow an argument that the Voynich manuscript is, or ever was, a palimpsest.

For a brief, but interesting summary of this point, you might read:

or, if not, here’s the nub:

 [with] non-intrusive erasure, the underlying texts can be recovered and deciphered. When the text was physically erased by means of a more invasive method by thinning the parchment itself, the lower text cannot be recovered at all or only to a limited extent.

None of the specialists who have examined the Voynich manuscript speak of any evidence present which would indicate erasure of an earlier text.

Without evidence of the manuscript’s being a palimpsest, any speculation on the point must be an exercise in futility.


Metaphorical ‘palimpsest’ – Columbus. The Voynich manuscript.

Textual critics have begun using the word ‘palimpsest’ in a metaphorical sense. One example may be of interest to some ‘new world Voynich’ theorists.

  • David Henige and Margarita Zamora, ‘Text, Context, Intertext: Columbus’ diario de a bordo as Palimpsest’, The Americas, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Jul., 1989), pp. 17-40

In case you have no opportunity to read the whole article, here’s a short passage :

[Despite the] privileged position in the Spanish American cultural canon, no one has seen the integral text of Columbus’ diario de a bordo since the sixteenth century, when the original manuscript and the copy of it made at Queen Isabela’s request disappeared. Fernando Colón apparently utilized the original text to compose his father’s biography, inserting passages from the log verbatim throughout his own text. Las Casas called his heavily- edited summary “libro de la primera navegacion” and later (just when is in dispute) utilized it in composing the first part of the Historia de las Indias (1527-c.1563)

Now this metaphorical  ‘erasure’ of original work is not unknown in Voynich studies.

And the first person who repeats information which they, themselves, have knowingly co-opted from another person’s work, while deliberately omitting mention of the original researcher’s name, is the vandal. If they attempt to deflect attention from the theft by denigrating the person to whom they are indebted for what they have co-opted, then you can fairly call their methods destructive.

Since about 2004, the history of the Voynich manuscript’s study has become a multiple-layered palimpsest of that sort, to the point where efforts to recover any but the thickest and  boldest overlay are made so difficult that the task becomes more and more nearly impossible.

Test it:

Who first related the Voynich map to the tradition of cartes marine (rightly or not)?  Who first proposed the theory that the text was in a Germanic language (rightly or not)? Who first produced a body of original research and argument to support of it?  Who first compared an image of ‘oak and ivy’ in a medieval herbal to folio 35v (rightly or not)?. Who first mused on the possibility that the manuscript was a palimpsest (rightly or not)?

Pre-2004: who first said the manuscript was by Roger Bacon? Who first claimed one of the botanical images was an American sunflower? Who first described the written part of the text as comprised of ‘two languages’?


On a brighter note – here’s why palimpsests are adding to our knowledge of scripts, languages and more:

The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript blog  has recently published on the subject of recovered classical texts:

U.Penn has a website about one important palimpsest, called (for obvious reasons) the Archimedes Palimpsest.

Otherwise, the most exciting finds are coming from the Sinai, and we must all be grateful for the permission given by the monks of  St.Catherine’s for specialists to work  in their library.

Please NOTE:

The researchers and the monastery have placed  limits on what use is permitted of the material they share online. Please read and honour their conditions

What we’re learning from the Sinai palimpsets ( here).


For those who really like technical detail:


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