Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Voynich Manuscript: the Brass Inkwell

The materials analysis of the Voynich Manuscript done in 2009 (read here) discovers that the author may have used brass inkwell while creating the book:
Iron gall inks normally contain iron, sulfur and carbon, and  frequently potassium. Small amounts of copper and zinc are little unusual. Sources for these elements may be as minor contaminants in the iron source, or possibly due to the use of a brass inkwell; the actual source is unknown.
While the contamination theory as boring as it is may be the likely truth, the brass inkwell suggestion makes much more interesting story.

Quick research in the inventory of some major museums shows that brass inkwells 15th century and older in their possession come from Iran (Mesopotamia in general). Few of them have the Zodiac engravings like these two found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (here and here)

Christi's sold a Flemish brass inkwell from that period. In 15th century Europe the centers for brass production were Belgium and Germany - they supplied mostly the church - brass was somewhat a precious metal at the time. Brass production in Europe generally declined after the fall of the Roman Empire. 

Brass inkwell in 15th century would be a luxury item in Europe. Most of the fancy European inkwells of the time I found in the museum were bronze, silver-plated, leather or ceramic.

So if we ignore for a moment the likely true (but boring) explanation about the copper and zinc in the ink - we can dream about VMS European author with brass inkwell who is wealthy enough to afford such luxury, may be associated with the church, may be located in Belgium or Germany, may be in possession of imported inkwell from Mesopotamia, may be interested in brass as part of his/her alchemy work.

So, the little frivolous remark that the ink researcher made while analyzing the Voynich manuscript materials  makes a nice story... as always it doesn't move us any closer to the solution.


  1. What it does is add yet another straw to the back of that old camel which insists the manuscript is 'characteristically European'.

    Islamic pen-cases were normally of brass or bronze.
    A nice range comes up if you google "fifteenth-century Islamic pencase"

    I wrote about this some time ago, actually, in discussing the sudden changes of red-colour in some drawings. I compared it with the way Islamic (and other eastern calligraphy) does precisely the same.

    Nice post, though. I enjoyed it.

  2. Well Ellie (&Diane),

    How did we get from inkwells to pen cases? Yes, Ellie, I see "astrological" signs within the "scrollworking" exterior design of the inkwell. Pretty neat!

  3. I'm wondering about the central figure which appears on the inkwell. I'm wondering if it portrays "death" riding a white horse. Or could that same figure be indicating a "crusader"?
    It could be that the inkwell was custom-made. I won't be the least bit surprised if it turns out that it, too, was formerly in the collection of the Duke du Berry. Hmmmm?

    Several months ago, Reed Johnson, upon his return from Prague, laid out a whole array of astrological comparisons with gods and goddesses of India. Fascinating. At that same time, I was investigating Romany history/origins. The Rom were metal-workers (although maybe only with tin -- if one considers various "expert" writings).

  4. The inkwell on the picture is just random brass inkwell I found in the Met museum. 13th century, Iran, supposedly. I don't believe it is associated with the VMS (it is inlaid in silver). The museum bought is from Joseph Brummer in 1944. I have no clue where he got it from.

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