I’ve never written much about the marginal inscriptions in the Voynich manuscript, mostly because with marginalia you often don’t know how relevant they are. Imagine a scenario where the VM is stolen from its original owner and then eventually sold elsewhere to a traveler. All within the span of a few years, this traveler could again sell it to another, who, in his turn, used the margins of this weird book to jot down some notes. This means that it’s perfectly possible that the person who wrote the marginal inscriptions in Latin script did not know:
- where the manuscript came from
- who made it
- what it’s about
- why it’s enciphered
- its linguistic and cultural background
- what its original purpose was
… and so on. In other words, the marginalia writer(s) might have been entirely uninformed and not involved in any other way in the creation of the manuscript.
But on the other hand… For all we know, the marginalia may have been scribbled by someone who was around when the manuscript was made, or by one of its original owners. In that case, it might be illuminating if we could understand them.
The marginal man
The inscription I want to discuss in this post consists of a single sign and three short words on f.66r.
Let’s first make an overview of what we’re dealing with:
- A line of Voynichese. Since we can’t read Voynichese, we’ll have to leave this line alone for the time being.
- A single sign, shaped more or less like a “p”, a “y” or a weird “v”.
- Three words of three letters each, some of which have been corrected or otherwise altered.
- Something which looks like a basket or some other container, and two round objects usually interpreted as food items.
- A man lying on his back, who appears to be in a bad condition, either sick, dying or dead.
I believe that one translation of these words is more likely than the rest, as I will argue in this post.
The widow’s share
One reading for these words is “den mus del”, though proposed translations vary. In a recent discussion on the Voynich.ninja forum, one particular translation resurfaced, which was unknown to me – but apparently very old, first suggested by Richard Salomon.
He thought that “mus del” was the equivalent of “musteil”, a term from Germanic law. The original meaning of mus-del was “food-part”, one’s part of the food stores. In the specific legal context, the musdel was to be seen as a widow’s insurance. The part of the couple’s food supply she was entitled to after her husband’s death.
The term most famously appears as musdele or mus dele in the Sachsenspiegel, “the most important law book and custumal of the Holy Roman Empire. Written ca. 1220 as a record of existing customary law, it was used in places until as late as 1900″ (from wiki).
People often underestimate how normal it was for medievals who spoke the same general language to still use varying spellings for a word. This site, from a dictionary of legal terms by the Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, lists quite a number of attestations of the “widow’s part”. Spelling variations for the exact same word include musdele, musteil, muosedele, mustelle, musteyl, müsteil, miszdele and so on.
The exact form musdel or mus del as it appears in the Voynich is found in a number of primary and secondary sources. Here’s an example from the Etymologisches wörterbuch der deutschen seemannssprache (1902):
Letztere Form [mus] ist besonders bekannt aus der Verbindung musdel, Musteil ; so nannte man den Teil an Lebensmitteln der beim Todes Mannes der Witwe zufiel;
In this fragment from the charter book of the city of Lübeck (1429), musdel refers to a general stock of food that is to be split in two parts:
Ok schole wij al vnse varenden haue vnde musdel in all vnsen sloten vnde houen gelijk in twey delen, vnde wan desse nascreuen dre iar vmme komen sin, so schal eyn iewelk synen deel der haue beholden, alse is.
The text from the influential Sachsenspiegel was obviously known outside of northern Germany by the time the Voynich manuscript was made two hundred years later. For example, it was included in the southern German Deutschenspiegel around 1400.
- The musdel reading of the f66r marginlia is one of the older proposals, but it has not gained much traction so far.
- Musdel is a specialized legal term found in official documents and law books, most notably the influential Sachsenspiegel.
- Etymologically it means “part of the food“.
- Specific to the legal context, it is the part of a husband’s property that’s reserved for his widow after his death. The items on this list are still mostly food stores and cattle.
Where it gets interesting
There is a reason why my attention was drawn to this particular interpretation of the “der mus del” marginalia. A special property of the VM is that its scribes use relatively tall ascenders and curly decorations at the beginning of paragraphs. Outside of the VM, such customs are mostly found in official and legal documents. The examples on the first line in the images below are from MS Paris – Bibl. Mazarine – ms. 3522 (1420-1430):
Some better examples have been found before by other researchers. For example, Darren Worley discusses a number of Catalan charters with very Voynich-like flourishes here. It seems like the best examples are found in the area around the French-Spanish border.
Where it all comes together
At this point one might object that while both musdel and the VM flourishes may have a legal character, they occur in different regions. Musdel, instead of for example Mussteil, clearly points towards a northern German(ic) dialect. But the Voynich-like decorations and long ascenders are concentrated in southern Romance areas.
Remember the messy corrections in the word though?
So might this inscription be the work of someone studying the legal vocabulary from original text of the influential Sachsenspiegel? Accompanied by a mnemonic and perhaps somewhat humorous drawing of the concept? He may have written the term from memory and later realized his mistake, or have it corrected.
The term “mus” (food) is appropriately written close to two (=division) apparent food items. The word “del” is written next to what looks like a basket or container, which might symbolize a reserved section (del) of the food.
Der musdel is the part (del) of the food (mus)…
…a woman is entitled to after her husband dies.
Many researchers see this man as merely ill because they prefer to read the marginalia as a remedy for belly aches involving mus (paste) and mel (honey). They think the colored spot on the belly might indicate the sore area rather than for example a deadly wound.
The figure’s very awkwardly drawn arms suggest that he is gripping his belly, but this is contrasted by his dead facial expression. The overall image is perhaps of someone dying or close to death. Let’s compare his pose to some of the several dead people in the illustrated Sachsenspiegel manuscripts.
Apart from the general similarity, there is also the fact that the Sachsenspiegel often shows the person in the act of dying, as if falling down. A similar idea might be behind the pose and position of the Voynich marginal man.
A final sign
There is one last thing. The Sachsenspiegel links paragraphs of text to the corresponding drawing by enlarging and coloring the paragraph’s initial letter. This letter is then added to the drawing. Like this, one can easily find the text that belongs with a certain image by looking for, for example, the one that starts with a green “S” (see the bottom part of the previous image).
In the Voynich marginalia, there is also a single letter.
Was the person who drew this working on an illustrated translation of the Sachsenspiegel? Did he want to try out a composition before committing it to the parchment?
We’ll probably never know what exactly happened, but I wouldn’t rule out that the image of the dying man is really about the widow’s share.
 I consider the forms musdel and mus del equivalent. Before the standardization of spelling, adding or omitting a space between compounds was mostly an arbitrary choice. Modern day Dutch speakers still have difficulties with this, even though spelling rules exist now.