Imagine you have a blank page in front of you, and you have to fit in one or more images and a paragraph or two of text. How do you proceed? Images and text are different types of things, so how do you make them live together on the page? In this post I will study the layout in the first part of the VM, the large-plants section. I will take a number of factors into account:

  1. How many plants are on a page?
  2. How much of the page does one plant drawing occupy?
  3. How many paragraphs, lines and words are there on a page?
  4. How are text and images integrated?

1. How many plants are on a page?

There are 129 pages with large plant drawings in the entire manuscript – that means including the ones separated from the main section, counting each “fold” of a foldout as a separate page. Of these, I counted only five which have two clearly distinct plants on a single page. In most cases, there is one large plant accompanied by a significantly smaller one, and in only one example the smaller plant has identical leaves and roots to the big one.


In short, the standard is one plant per page (96%).

2. How much of the page does one plant drawing occupy?

Plants are irregular objects, so they will never cover an entire page. With this in mind, the best way to test their freedom in the space of the page is to draw a box that contains the entire plant. In many cases, it turns out that the image stretches all the way to the margins and beyond. In the example below, the text fits entirely within the image’s box.


Some plants have a round or squat shape (with a strong horizontal dimension), which means they can’t fill a rectangular page.


However, there is also a minority of plants which could have easily been scaled up, but still show some restraint. This is made clear by a rectangular box, like the infamous example below. Maybe these plants are just small, like flowers instead of large herbs and trees? I counted about a dozen plants with a rectangular box that could be scaled up considerably.


In summary, the plants are free to occupy the whole page and most make use of this possibility. A small minority does not stretch from top to bottom and/or margin to margin.

3. How many paragraphs and lines are there on a page?

It’s not always clear how many paragraphs there are on a VM page, but usually there are enough indications. A quick count resulted in the following percentages:

  • 1 paragraph:   30%
  • 2 paragraphs:  50%
  • 3 paragraphs: 18%
  • 4 paragraphs: 2%

In other words, most large-plant pages have one or two blocks of text, though three is not exceptional either. Pages with four clear paragraphs are very rare.

The number of lines on a page ranges from 6 to 28, with an average of 13. There are on average 7 lines per paragraph. [1]

Words per page reach from about 40 to 160, with an average of 89.

4. How are text and images integrated?

Let’s focus on the most common pages, those with one and two paragraphs. When there is only one paragraph, it is generally placed above or next to the top of the plant. There are also in-between cases where the text starts above the plant and pours over its top. I counted only 6 instances (15%) where the text does not start near the top, but rather hugs the stem of the plant above the root.

In the two-paragraph pages, I counted only four examples where the text does not start near the top. All other plants have either two paragraphs at the top or one at the top and one at the lower stem. In the vast majority of the cases, the text is integrated with the plant drawing starting as high as possible. When a paragraph ends up lower on the page, this seems to be motivated by a lack of space left by the plant, as in the examples below.

Two paragraphs. An effort is made to fit one on top of the plant. The second is around the stem, below the broad leaves.
This plant leaves insufficient space on top and even less at the stem, so the paragraph is inserted at the most narrow point of the roots.

Text blocks are generally aligned on the left. Some paragraphs give the impression of being entirely justified, but usually the right edge is irregular. There’s never an invisible “box” around the plant images, so the text follows the shape of the plant. When a line of text runs into the image, it just continues on the other side, unless there is insufficient space there.

Something remarkable happens in those rare cases where a block of text is completely to the right of the image. In this case, the margin does not follow the shape of the plant but is rather neatly aligned, creating the illusion of a boxed image. This indicates that left alignment is important to the scribe(s). (Considered together with things like “LAAFU effects” and “Neal keys” this imperative of left alignment is rather interesting, but that would take us too far).

The text could have “hugged” the plant (green), but prefers left alignment (pink).


So, what does the layout of a typical Voynich large-plant page look like? Leaving aside some exceptions, these are the rules:

  1. One plant per page.
  2. The plant occupies the page from top to bottom, unless its expanse is limited by the left and right margins.
  3. Plant images are not boxed. The text adapts to the shape of the image.
  4. Up to four paragraphs, with a preference for the lower numbers.
  5. Lines per page range from 6 to 28, with an average of 13. There are on average 7 lines per paragraph.
  6. Words per page range from 40 to 160, with an average of 89.
  7. Paragraphs start near the top of the page whenever possible.
  8. Paragraphs start left of the image whenever possible, and lines preferably continue on the right.
  9. Text is aligned on the left.

Next step?

My goal in this post was to highlight as many VM typical page-layout features as possible, so that we might recognize them in other plant manuscripts. The nine points above form a comprehensive benchmark to test whether a page layout is Voynich-like or not.

In the transmission of herbal manuscripts, page layout could change drastically from one copy to the next. So when a manuscript’s layout does not match that of the VM plant pages, this does not mean that their contents are unrelated.

Here’s an example of a randomly chosen plant manuscript using a layout completely opposite to that of the VM:

MIA Qatar MS. 647 (Syria, 1275-1300)

In these features its layout differs the most:

  • 3 plants on the page
  • a single image occupies only 1/6 of the available space
  • images are boxed, text justified
  • text shows no preference for top, bottom, left or right

Now we are prepared to hunt for manuscripts which do use a Voynich-like layout. A few of these will be discussed in my next post.



[1] For the line and word counts I relied on data kindly provided by forum members Paris, Anton and Rene. I counted the paragraphs myself since I also wanted to classify them by vertical position. Paragraph counts may vary since it’s not always equally clear whether something is a new paragraph or not. Still, I’m fairly certain that the general picture is correct.