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.

Capture d_écran (472)
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.

Capture d_écran (741)
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.



6 thoughts on “Drolleries, Margins, Labels and Voynich Q13M

  1. Hi VViews, thank you for this interesting post. As you may have expected, I don’t think any of the nymphs are mere drolleries. I will provide some concrete arguments:

    First, I think you might be correct in setting the labelled nymphs and items apart from the unlabelled ones. For example, the “elements” diagram on f77r appears particularly concrete and instructive. But this folio also throws a somewhat different light on the distinction you make between top and margin. Here all nymphs are labelled, both the ones on top and the ones in the left margin, which leads me to believe that this particular subject needed labelling, independent of the position of the drawings.

    But there’s more; something else happens on other folios, where all nymphs are lateral and unlabelled: they still show a parallel between image and text. Look at a folio like f79r, where each “item” in the marginal drawing marks a new paragraph. So perhaps labels are less common in marginal drawings because they were not always needed there: thanks to the vertical arrangement, the nymph is automatically accompanied by its paragraph. These nymphs are labelled by a whole paragraph, if you will.

    Finally, I do very much agree with the Wirth quote, but not with the way it would apply to the VM. A common motif is, for example, knights battling snails. What Wirth means is that this was almost a “meme”, something that stood in itself without the need to refer to an external context. Another such meme is “monkeys doing people stuff”, or “butt trumpets” etc. Now if we look at the VM, we see an unusual rigidity in pose, *independent* of what the figure is doing or holding – we have both studied this a lot. This cannot be the type of motif Wirth is talking about. It’s just not something we see in other manuscripts. The *rings* are held in different ways, one by an intense looking androgynous woman, one by a woman lying down and I am almost certain the third one is actually a mirror. This alone cannot mean that they are empty of meaning, that they are just illuminators’ customs. These VM drawings are too individual. No nymph in what you call Q13M is quite the same, and we don’t know such figures from other MSS either.

    Or, to put it another way, if the VM featured a scene with monkeys like this: https://i.pinimg.com/564x/62/78/c2/6278c260b26018f84438d75692315bfc.jpg
    we would immediately recognize it as a drollery, and we could say with near certainty that it’s not too connected to the text, because such scenes are so common.

    Indeed, spinning is common in drolleries, but the way the spindles are held in the VM is not common at all: not a single nymph is really spinning, or has all the tools required to do so. They just “have” something that looks like a spindle. And they’re nude. So by being so different from other marginal illuminations in several ways, I would say that the Wirth quote actually increases the odds of the nymphs being meaningful.


    1. Hi Koen, and thanks for your comment.
      Hah, I knew these posts would not win any popularity awards!
      Actually the Wirth quote is specific to identifying drolleries within a given manuscript. It is not about how frequent a marginal motif is in manuscripts at large (indeed, his rules would not be needed in the case of butt trumpets or other such self-evident drolleries), but within the manuscript being analyzed. It is a shame that I don’t have his book with me here to provide more context, but it weighs a ton so got left behind.
      Regarding your remarks about spinning and nudity, please go back and look at the examples from Morgan Ms 754. Nude lady holding spindle in a weird way? Check. The Q13M drawings are just not that different from other marginal illustrations. We just really wish they were. And you can’t be serious about nudity being abnormal for drolleries… It’s almost as funny as butt trumpets!
      If you look at the examples from Walters MS 87 in the Very Droll post, you can see the same repeated brandishing poses, placed in the same location (upper left corner of the page) as in the Voynich.
      A drollery per paragraph is not uncommon in manuscripts, and furthermore, Camille’s “iuvenculum” example from the same post shows that a drollery can relate directly to the words in the nearby text, via punning and homophony. It just isn’t a literal illustration of the text’s subject matter. In fact, in the recent discussion about labels on the forum, you brought up the possible use of homophones in the Voynich yourself.
      However, regarding Q13M your observation is incorrect: there is not one lateral scene per paragraph: in 79r there are actually many more paragraphs than there are marginal scenes. There is also no match for 79v,or 80r&v, or 82r&v… actually if you look closely there really is one lateral scene per paragraph only on 83r&v, and as you can imagine this is not enough to form a rule about the whole subquire. There is only a superficial appearance of a matchup, which does not stand up when you really count things.
      Again, as I said repeatedly in the Very Droll post, I don’t necessarily believe that the Q13M illustrations are drolleries. But I really wanted to explore that possibility, because no one seems to want to. And after doing so, I still don’t see any reason why they aren’t (which is different from believing that they are).
      They are never “just” mere drolleries. This is something I should probably have clarified even more in my post, but drolleries and marginal illustrations are actually very informative. They just aren’t literal illustrations of the text.
      As I’ve shown in these two posts, the fact that drolleries and other marginal illustrations don’t relate directly to the text isn’t incompatible with their having some meaning: let’s take your theory that there are Ovidian references at work in the Q13M illustrations. If the Voynich is a ciphertext, there is no reason in the world to encipher a text about such a well-known work.
      However, if we consider the Q13M illustrations as following the same logic as the marginal illustrations in other manuscripts like the ones I mentioned as examples, then this actually adds plausibility to your theory: a text about something else could very well be illustrated with images borrowed from the Ovidian cycle, just like a Book of Hours can have images of popular expressions in the margins. Look at the other example in this post, the Breviary illustrated with core concepts of Christianity: this is another way in which such scenes can inform us about the scribe’s cultural background and values, even if they are not illustrations of the subject matter of the text.
      Additionally: look at the very last illustration in the Very Droll post: the three nude ladies with headgear appear on the margins of the last page of a book of Hours. They represent the three daughters in the legend of the King of Mercia. This illustration, completely unrelated to the text, is yet another example (featuring gratuitous nudity) of how illustrations inspired by Ovidian tales could illustrate an unrelated text.
      I’ll get more into 77r and labels in the next (and last) post of the series.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Right, well let me start by saying that to some extent I agree. Initially I thought the nymphs could be mere illustrations of Ovidian stories, but I abandoned that idea promptly. I think the nymphs in “Q13M” are layered in meaning, and my hypothesis is that only one layer really illustrates the text.

        So at least in part, I also think the nymphs are no illustration of the text, though I do believe them to be in connection to it, much more so than the “medieval meme” type of drollery. However, it seems like there may be some overlap between drolleries and mnemonic techniques. Humor, absurd images and visual puns have all been long known to aid memory retention. And I think that in addition to this, the nymphs have been placed in an Ovidian narrative to further aid the memorization. I expect the actual contents of the text (if it has any) to be astronomical.

        So well, I understand that drolleries contain the occasional pun, but would it still be called that if Q13 has a consistent “program” of visual puns and double meanings? It’s like I guess we also wouldn’t call the illustrations in mnemonic bibles drolleries, even though often they aren’t straightforward illustrations of what happens in the text. And they, too, can be quite droll 🙂

        About the labels, well there may not be an exact one-to-one match between what we see as separate scenes and the paragraphs we can discern, but I really have the impression that the vertical flow of images tends to keep pace with the flow of the text. And it’s a nice explanation for the preference for labels in horizontal structures.


  2. I’ve spent many hours enjoying marginal drawings but haven’t explored the traditions behind them, so I enjoyed reading this.


  3. Thank you, VViews, that’s an interesting subject! I have also read Koen’s recent post:
    I agree with his observation that the images appear to have been drawn before the text was written. Since you have read scholarly works about marginal illustrations, does any of them mention the process with which such manuscripts were created? Were decorative illustrations always added after the text was written? This intuitively seems reasonable…

    For scientific illustrations, we know that both possibilities occur in different works. E.g. in Egerton 747 the text was written before the illustrations, while in Florence Palatino 586 there are unfinished pages with the drawings in place and no text.


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