The Herbal section of the Voynich Manuscript, with its large plant drawings, is traditionally divided into two parts, which have gotten mixed up in a later rebinding. It was Capt. Prescott Currier who proposed this distinction, based on statistical properties of the text and the corresponding scribal hand. One scribe wrote in the A “language”, the other in B. Currier’s findings about two scribes in the Herbal section were recently confirmed by Lisa Fagin Davis.
When it comes to the images though, there is no obvious distinction between A and B folios. I have seen claims that plants from one section are more abstract or surreal than those from the other, but unfortunately such impressions are hard to measure. Still, observant researchers have spotted some differences in A vs B drawings. In a Voynich.ninja thread from 2016, forum member Lars Dietz (aka Oocephalus) noticed a difference in the way plant stems connect to their root:
I think I’ve found a feature that differs between A and B plants. Namely, in many plants, the stem is separated from the root by a horizontal line. This occurs in “grafted” plants, where the stem is placed on a much thicker root that appears to have been cut off (but not in all of them), but also in ones where the stem and the root have the same thickness. With one exception, this only appears in plants where the text is Currier A.
In the same thread, Sam G noticed another difference:
The most striking difference between the Herbal A and Herbal B illustrations is the use of red in the coloring, which is abundant in A (“thin red lines” in branches and stems, and red “berries”/”seeds” and flowers) but basically absent in B (possible exception being f55r, though this looks like the work of the postulated “heavy painter” who modified the manuscript at a later date).
In this post, I will first double check these intriguing differences, and attempt to represent them in a visually appealing way. Then I will add an additional observation, thickening the plot. Let’s start with red.
Red is very frequent in A, hardly present in B
In the following image, each square represents a Herbal folio on which red occurs. In some cases, it can be debated whether the color represents red or brown (there is no true red in the VM). Depending on your monitor, the two “reds” in the B-folios and some of the A-folio reds will look completely brown. Either way, the difference between A and B is significant.
Line between Stem and Root
I only learned about the supposed difference in the way the stems connect to their roots when I came across Lars Dietz’s old post recently. Basically we are looking at two types of connections: one where the bottom of the stem is “closed” by a line where it meets the root, and another where it is left open. Let’s call these “open” and “closed”. Both A and B have open stems, while only A closes some of its stems.
Below are all closed stems on Herbal (large plant) folios, all in Herbal A:
Lars noted only one exception in f54v, which would be a B-folio with a closed stem. However, according to respectively voynich.nu and Lisa Fagin Davis, this page is Currier A and scribe 1. He probably meant f57r, which is a B-folio with closed stem. About this folio, Lisa Fagin Davis notes a transition between scribe 1 (f57v, our A-language scribe who likes to close stems) and a “new” scribe 5 on f57r. It is interesting to see the “exception” take place precisely on this cooperative folio.
What does this mean? Many of these separator lines look like someone added them with a different pen, while others blend in seamlessly with the line work of the plant. Were all images drawn first, and did Scribe 1 decide to add some touches while writing his text? Are the entire plants drawn by different artists? Is there something about the plants themselves that causes the line in A folios?
While looking at the root lines, I started noticing something else: the (Latin) writing on a few of the plants, which we expect may be colour annotations, appeared a lot in A folios. Maybe exclusively? To check this, I consulted this page, where Rene Zandbergen lists a table with all extraneous writing in the MS. And indeed, if I am not mistaken all colour annotations (marked COL in the table) appear in Herbal A (scribe 1) folios. Now, A-folios are much more numerous than B-folios, and the colour annotations are relatively rare. Still, if my back-of-the-envelope calculation is correct, we should at least expect a handful of color annotations on B-folios if they were divided equally.
An especially intriguing case is that of f4r, where the word “rot”, which could be translated as the German for “red”, is written on the blank stem. At the same time, red is used in the leaves.
Several other color annotations also resemble “r”. So what is the relationship between red being exclusive to the A-part of the Herbal section, and the color annotations in this same part often asking for red? (If this is indeed the correct reading). And is this all connected to the same A-part adding details to stems?
Finally, let’s have a look at the small-plants section, which was entirely penned by Scribe 1 in Currier’s A-language. Unfortunately, proposed annotations in this section are rare and unclear, so we will have to focus on red and closed roots. If the same principles apply, we should expect red on some folios and closed roots in some cases.
Anyone even remotely familiar with the small-plants section will know that red can be found in its many vessels. Red in plant parts is not as common, though this might simply be because this section focuses on the roots, with hardly any flowers or fruits. Still, there are a few examples in the plants as well. In some of the vessels, red is used harmoneously with other colors.
The line separating stem and root (“closed stem”) is also frequent in this section. It appears in all the same situations as in the large plant drawings.
What does it mean?
I don’t know how to explain these observations about the Herbal section. Whatever happened to cause red, closed stems and annotations to appear in Herbal A and not in Herbal B, was “aware” of the distinction between these two types of folios. So either these three things happened before the subsections became shuffled, or they (or part of them) were done by someone who still knew the difference between the sections after they were shuffled. For this reason, I am inclined to look for an answer during or very close after the creation of the MS.
Apart from that though, I can think of too many different possible scenarios. Were the color annotations meant for the same person who applied the red paint? And were they only meant for red paint and perhaps some other colors that were missing? Was Herbal A handled by a more demanding person, who added details to the stems, made notes about colors and added red to the palette? Does Herbal B look like it is missing red and was it skipped because there were no color annotations? I cannot answers these questions now, but hopefully they will help in reconstructing how the MS was made.
Fun facts: Armed with the knowledge that red and closed stems only occur in Herbal A, you can correctly assign around 70% of Herbal A images based on the drawing alone! If you have a list of the bifolios and take into account the fact that the vast majority of bifolios are done in the same Currier language, you can now identify all Herbal A folios based on the images. So if you learn the two or three exceptions and know which pages form a bifolio together, you can separate Herbal A and B without even looking at the text.