Drolleries, Margins, Labels and Voynich Q13M

One of the arguments against the idea that the Q13M illustrations in the lateral margins belong to the drollery family of illustrations (which I explored in my last post) is the fact that the Voynich figures are labeled.

In this post I would like to present a few refinements to this notion, and also look at what kind of information we can glean from labeled drolleries.

First of all, let’s look at the actual frequency of labels in Q13M.

Pages with systematic labels: 77r.

Pages where only some of the figures have labels: 77v, 80r, 82r&v, 83r&v.

Pages without labels: 76v, 79r&v, 80v.

Total systematically labeled pages in Q13M: 1

Total  partially labeled pages in Q13M: 6

Total unlabeled pages in Q13M: 3

It should be noted that the folios of Q13M are much more likely to have either no labels (3 out of 10) or only partial ones (6 out of 10). Why are some figures labeled and not others? The coexistence of labeled and unlabeled figures on the same folios deserves more attention.

Counting labeled vs unlabeled figures for Q13M, out of a total of 87 human figures, only 34 are labeled. The majority of the Q13M figures are therefore not labeled.

Of those 34, only 5 occur in the lateral margins. All the others are either in the haut-de-page or bas-de-page illustrations.

Such proportions cannot be insignificant: the fact that the upper and lower marginal illustrations almost always contain labels, but the lateral ones almost never do, cannot be ignored when we analyze the Q13M illustrations.

What we can see is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the marginal nymphs are not labeled. The labels in Q13M are almost always present near nymphs who are in the haut-de-page or bas-de-page illustrations. Voynich f80r is a particularly good example of this: there is a profusion of labels in the upper margin scene, but none near any of the side margin figures.

With these numbers in mind, let’s get back to the subject of drolleries. First of all, while it is true that most of the time drolleries were not labeled, this is not always the case, as in the example below.

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f190v, BL Add MS 49622

The layout of labeled vs unlabeled illustrations in Q13M actually matches up quite well with what can be observed in other illuminated manuscripts, such as BNF NAL 3255.  The bas-de-page scenes are not drolleries: they illustrate subjects that are related to the overall main theme of Christianity, but are not an illustration of the text on the page; while the Breviary contains prayers, the illustrations refer to core concepts and rituals of Christianity, saints, virtues, etc. They have labels which make the reference explicit for the reader. The unlabeled illustrations in the lateral margins are drolleries: they are unlabeled because they have no purpose other than to decorate the page and amuse the reader.

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f1 BNF NAL 3255, France, 1300-1325. The illustrations to the left and center show Adam and Eve, “where the original sin came from” and “the sacrament of baptism” which absolves it.

BNF NAL 3134, a book of hours, shows another type of labeled drolleries: here again the lateral margins are unlabeled and pure fantasy, but the bas-de-page ones comically illustrate popular expressions and local proverbs, which are written out in the adjoining labels.

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f184, BNF NAL3134, Book of Hours, Rouen, France, 15thC.

Another type of labeled drollerie is found in BNF Latin 10435, a psalter from Picardy. Here again, the true drolleries are unlabeled, while the bas-de-page illustrations are labeled in red. The scenes depicted in the bottom margins are meant to be charming or slightly silly, and unrelated to the text. The characters in them are labeled with names and titles: they are contemporary people from Picardy, presumably friends and acquaintances of the patron. It is interesting to note that in this case, the labeling is the only thing that sets apart these “portraits” from the drolleries: the characters are indistinguishable, pictured in similar dress and poses, aside from the fact that the portraits are labeled. It is almost as if the labels had been added afterwards, with the identifications serving to further amuse the patron.  In this example the labels do not denote an illustration that is intrinsically more significant than the others, but rather, the addition of the label itself is what confers special, personal meaning to an otherwise mundane drollery.

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f86, BNF Lat 10435, Psalter, Northern France,1275-1300

My tentative conclusion to this exploration is that the scenes which take place in the upper and lower margins of Q13 may be actual illustrations of significant material, which may be direct illustrations of the main text, or may tell a completely different story like the proverbs of BNF NAL 3134. The figures in the side margins, however, may very well be pure drollery. They keep with the nude bathing theme of Q13, in the same way that the characters dressed as nuns in the drolleries of books of Hours echo its religious content, but like the playful nuns, they are not an illustration of the text. The labels are the only thing that differentiate them from the nymphs in the upper and lower margins, just like the characters which populate the margins of BNF Lat 10435.

Further support for the idea that the lateral marginal nymphs of Q13M are drolleries is the fact that the side-margin figures tend to recur: the ring bearer, the Thing holder, etc, are repeated and also their poses are repeated even when the objects they hold vary. Jean Wirth, in his massive tome¹ about drolleries, laid down the rules of drollery identification. Among them, the following one is particularly useful here: “We shall therefore establish a second rule for interpretation: The possibility of an allusion is inversely proportional to the frequency of the iconographic motif” (p.21): in other words, the more often a marginal figure’s form is repeated within a manuscript, the higher the probability that it does not in fact allude to anything significant. This runs counter to the way the Q13M nymphs have been analyzed so far, including in my own initial post on this blog: the impulse is to think that if a form is occurs repeatedly, it must be significant. In the world of drolleries, the opposite is true.

We can easily see this in the repetition of nearly identical figures in the side margins of the manuscripts shown in my previous post, which are meaningless, while the one-off depiction of a scene (usually in the bas-de-page) is generally significant, either connected to the main text or to another narrative or reference.

How does this help us with the Voynich manuscript? The repeated motif of unlabeled nymphs brandishing objects in the side margins of Q13M also seems to point towards their lack of allusion to a reference, either within the text or outside of it. The very unique, labeled scenes that take place in the larger, more populous illustrations in the upper and lower margins of Q13M, however, are much more likely to be references to something within the text, to other texts, or to real people and cultural references relevant to the place and time of the manuscript’s manufacture.

¹Wirth, J; Les Marges à drôleries des manuscrits gothiques, Droz, 2008.



Voynich Quire 13M: Very Droll?


The illustrations in Quire 13 have inspired many interpretations and theories over the years, often based on the assumption that these images are directly related to the subject matter of the text, that they literally illustrate the text.

What I would like to explore here is the possibility that they might not. Or at least, not really. It might seem like an unpleasant perspective, and it is not something that I myself am convinced of. But it seems to me that Voynicheros, myself included, have wanted so badly to try to glean insight on the text from any possible visual clue in MS408’s pages, that we have turned a blind eye to the possibility that the marginal illustrations in Q13M might not in fact illustrate the text. They seem so lively and well thought out, and some of them recur throughout the quire: surely they must help us shed light on the neighboring text? Maybe not.

As I explored in a recent post, fluid flows in the marginal Psalters evolved from a literal depiction of Biblical passages to a decorative framing device, which did not necessarily reflect anything in the text. In this post, I will present some elements that suggest that the nymphs and the various contraptions in the margins of Q13M could similarly be quite far removed from any relevance to the text, but might instead serve as a decorative and amusing framing device. I was prompted to take this journey when noticing that in several manuscripts, fluid flows were quite often part of framing systems which included drolleries.

Fluid flows as framing devices in the drolleries of Bodleian MS Douce 6, Book of Hours, 1320-1330, Ghent.

The general layout of the Q13M illustrations, the poses and actions of the people depicted in the margins, and some of their stylistic elements, actually fit rather well into the medieval genre of manuscript illustrations known as drolleries.

Evolving out of the practice of marginal annotations and drawings, marginal illuminations can reflect a range of styles, from minimally embellished initials and bar borders only, to entire frames of densely woven flowers and curlicues that form a full rectangle of ornamentation around the text.

What we see in the Voynich corresponds to neither of these extremes: the lateral marginalia in Q13M are mostly isolated little scenes, which are not set against a florid or geometric background but appear in a limited decor of tubes and flows which the “nymphs” interact with. Their actions appear purposeful, yet inexplicable, almost absurd.

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Morgan MS 854, f186v, Burgos, c.1470

Where could this all fit into medieval art history? It might be placed within the tradition of drolleries and other pleasantries and grotesques in medieval manuscripts, which departed from the other genres of marginalia and of miniature illustration and brought to life the previously boring margins and bas-de-pages, a trend that would later lead to the advent of the first Genre paintings in the Netherlands, and eventually inspire Bosch.

Drolleries were a fashion in manuscript illumination which were in style roughly from the 13thC to the late 15thC, originating in England and rapidly spreading to what are today France, Belgium and the Netherlands, Germany, then Spain and beyond. According to Erwin Panofsky¹: “Among the most impressive and engaging English inventions…are the drolleries. Based on the fables or the exempla used by preachers but as often derived from actual experience or sheer imagination… they run the whole gamut from sharply observed reality to the grotesque, the scurrilous and the fantasmagoric”.

Michael Camille analyses the spirit and intent behind the drollery in a dedicated study². Camille refers to the art of the margins as “the pregnant page” (p.48), and tells us that “marginal art is about the anxiety of nomination and the problem of signifying nothing in order to give birth to meaning at the centre”. I will be examining Q13M as a collection of such “pregnant pages”: if they are drolleries, can examining the Q13M drawings still give us any insights about the main text? Yes, albeit in a roundabout, limited way.

The illuminators enhanced marginalia with human and animal figures that typically presented a silly or humorous appearance, hence their name. Often, these were human-animal hybrids, or human-plant hybrids, although plain humans and especially human nudity were a regular theme. Frequently, they were engaged in nonsensical, grotesque or slightly naughty activities. Depending on the patron’s wishes and the artist’s inspiration, the drolleries could range from charming to absurd to obscene, or thinly veiled political allusions. They rarely had any relation to the text, or only in the vaguest sense: they certainly were never simply illustrations of the text’s content.


But sometimes drolleries did relate to the text, they just did so in a playful way: For an insight into how this worked, I turn to an example provided in Camille’s study: “Below Psalm 67, a young male figure bends over to expose his buttocks to the lance of an equestrian monkey. This might be a play on the word iuvencularum on the line above (iuvenis, young man, combined with cul)” (p.43). It might be that the Voynich Q13M margins “illustrate” the text in a similar way: by playing with homophony.

It may seem a bit anticlimactic to consider that the marginal figures in Q13M could be related to such a whimsical collection of jokes and puns. By comparison with the rest of the Voynich manuscript, the layout of the Q13M illustrations perfectly mirrors Panofsky’s observations about English drolleries: “In the same schools in which we find drolleries at their liveliest… in the same manuscript, the principal pictures are dominated by a solemn formality approaching the hieratic”. This contrast is also true of the Voynich, where outside of Q13M marginalia, the other illustrations are marked by exactly this type of stiffness, an observation I had already made in my post discussing the reordering of Q13 and the difference between the active, vigorous nymphs of 13M and the more static ones bathing in the 13C pages, but it is more widely true if we compare them to the figures which populate the rest of the manuscript.

The iconography of drolleries and other marginal amusements, can shed light on the influences behind the Voynich marginal illustrations. They help to make sense of the nudity, the angry hairdressing, the spindles and the giant rings and even the unidentifiable animal: hybrid and fantastical animals were very common in drolleries.


The drollerie happens within a marginal context which reflects the style of its time: the first drolleries appear as isolated figures against the bare page, whereas later on, as the margins become more filled with ornamentation, they appear within broad, intricately decorated backgrounds and bas-de-pages.

The type of marginal illustration placement we see in the Voynich and the nymphs’ engagement within a limited environment of pedestals, tubs and tubes, with some more extensive upper and lower margin scenes, corresponds to an intermediate style of drollerie: the text is not entirely enclosed by a marginal frame, nor are the marginal illustrations limited to ornate initials, curlicue bands or bar borders.

Studying the history of marginalia, one place where we find manuscripts with identical organization of marginal character placement is in some of the drollerie-rich MS’s of the early 14th C from Northern France and Flanders, and especially the region of Ghent. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these.

Providing a rare example of water pumps used as marginalia decorations, a Book of Hours described as “in an example of abject mechanical magic… cooking pots boil and pour water of their own accord” (Camille, op.cit, p.50). Nothing to do with the Hours of the Holy Spirit in the text: if anything, the drolleries are an inversion of it, providing the absurd as a remedy to the serious theological subject.

These bas-de-pages don’t illustrate a treatise on hydrodynamics, but a Book of Hours.  F91v-92r, Morgan MS754, Northern France, c1325
This nude woman with a spindle is just there for our amusement. So is the fragrant vase nearby.

Life in the lateral margins is not really about the text. It is meant to be a whimsical distraction which may in some way relate to the text but only in the vaguest way: in Walters MS 87, none of the scenes being played out in the margins relate to the text of this Book of Hours in any way other than the fact that the figures are sometimes dressed as priests and nuns. The marginalia are not an illustration of the adjacent text in the Book of Hours at all.

Walters MS 87 offers a wealth of examples of marginal figures placed on the upper left hand corner of the page with one outstretched arm brandishing an object, very reminiscent of the placement and attitude of several Voynich Q13M nymphs:

Walters MS 87, Ghent, 1315 (the lower right image is a bas-de-page, which again, bears no relation to the text)

Drolleries from the region of Ghent also provide interesting parallels with the way the nymphs interact with the pipes in Q13. If we replace the tendrils in the pictures below with tubes, the poses are very similar to the Voynich marginalia ones interacting with their pipes, as is the idea of the characters emerging from funnel shaped plant parts and calyxes, or resting on blue shapes with dotted ornamentation.

Marginalia, Walters 166, Book of Hours of Daniel Rym, Ghent, 1425: swap the tendrils for tubes, and these could be Q13M nymph poses

As many have remarked, the bodies of the Voynich nymphs appear oddly misshapen, and Koen Gh. demonstrated in a post to the voynich.ninja forum (also see his blog), the proportions of the Voynich nymph’s bodies are unusual, and appear to be both childlike, somewhat androgynous yet possibly pregnant. This might also reflect the influence of a drollerie model, where nudes, including nude children, are frequently depicted, and because in drolleries, human beauty is really not a focus: on the contrary, misshapen bodies add to the amusement.

Again, just to be clear, I am not 100% convinced that the lateral margin illustrations of Q13M are meaningless: I just want to really explore what happens if we consider them as drolleries. Drolleries sometimes did convey meaning: I will be looking into that in the next post.

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P; 329, Bibliotheque Municipale d’Aix-en-Provence, MS 0022, Book of Hours, use of Rouen, 1460-1470

¹ Panofsky, E; Three Essays on Style, 1997, p.144

² Camille, M; Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, 1992.