I’m writing this in reaction to an interesting recent post by VViews, where he explores the possibility that the images in Quire 13 might be drolleries, marginal illuminations meant to liven up the page or amuse the viewer. This subject is complex – as VViews explains, drolleries exist in various types and may or may not have some relation to the text. I started by replying to his posts, but one point I wanted to make can only be done through showing images, which is why I took to my blog.

Now VViews does not say that the Q13 images must belong to the “drolleries” genre, but he offers some arguments in favor of the idea. The part of his argument I want to focus on is this one:

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.

He then goes on to explain that he found drolleries where, similarly, labels were more common in top and bottom scenes, compared to lateral illuminations. Such labelled images tend to have some more content than unlabeled lateral ones, which are merely for decoration and amusement.

The observation that labels are applied more to the top images in Q13 is a valuable one, but I do not believe that the explanation is to be found in the domain of drolleries. Rather, I think the lateral images simply don’t need labels, because they flow along with the text. This is at once one of the main arguments in favor of a strong connection between text and image. Allow me to demonstrate.

Labels in Q13M

VViews calls this subsection of Q13 “M” because of the prevalence of marginal illustrations, compared to the central pools in the other ones. I still haven’t decided on how I want to name these subsections, so I’ll go with M for this post.  VViews made the following inventory:

  • 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.


Fully labelled

First, let’s have a look at 77r, which appears to be the only fully labelled page.


It features a large labelled arch on top, held by two figures. Importantly, the left figure’s base runs along the length of the first paragraph, which is relatively large. Below this is another labelled figure with a complicated “tube structure” and a second paragraph (green). Finally, a third labelled figure with various patterned shapes and a third paragraph.

So my point is: if the paragraphs mirror the structure of the drawing, then can we really assume the nymphs on the left are merely there for decoration?

But this page shows a second, more important argument against mere marginal illumination. Let’s zoom in on the middle section. See that margin?


Above and below our nymph, it is clear that the scribe prefers to keep his text outlined to the left (vertical red lines). But the nymph with her tubes takes up a lot of space and pushes the text into an irregular margin. Is this an image made as an afterthought, to illuminate, beautify the otherwise boring margin? I’d rather say that here, like in most of the manuscript, the text bows to the image’s commands.

One might argue that the text was spaced so unevenly with the addition of this image in mind. But even if this were the case, it would in my opinion be against the spirit of drolleries to plan ahead for them to venture well outside of the margin in an irregular way.

Partially labelled

The first partially labelled folio is f77v, and here, too, it is not hard to imagine how text and image progress at the same pace. There are three distinct paragraphs which appear to belong to three image groups – the top bow and two nymph pairs. For some reason, only the first nymph pair is labelled (green). The bottom pair does not bear labels, but with a layout like this, one can see how labels are not strictly necessary.


And again, note how the primacy of the images forces the text out of its preferred alignment, both at the left and right margin.

I’ll also add an example of a folio (f80r) where the paragraphs don’t neatly match the images. Still, the way they are matched suggests to me that these paragraphs belong with the adjacent images. And the erratic outlining again suggests that the images were put on the page first.


At the very least, these images should clarify why there may be more demand for labels on the top row. Presumably, one large paragraph treats 10 labelled figures. In contrast, the bottom half of the page has four paragraphs for four “scenes”. A reader who masters Voynichese might be able to understand unambiguously which figure illustrates which part of the text.


I have attempted to illustrate why labels are not always necessary in marginal images: they are redundant if the image is discusses in the paragraph that accompanies it. Top scenes might be labelled more often because they feature lots of elements, followed by a relatively large block of text.

A second, and perhaps more important argument is the way the text adapts to the irregular space left by the image. Why would one draw “drolleries” or any kind of mostly decorative illuminations first, only to have the text squeeze its way around them?

All of this suggests to me that the images were of primordial importance to the makers of the manuscript, and that at least some effort was made to let the reader match the correct image with the text – through the layout or with labels when necessary.