Back in 2012, I got (briefly) excited by the hypothesis that the marginalia on f116v of the Voynich Manuscript might well have been added in the library of a monastery not too far from Lake Constance, inbetween Switzerland and Southern Germany (and not too far from Rudolf II’s Imperial Court at Prague, where the manuscript appears to have ended up).
And then a few days later I got excited all over again by the follow-on hypothesis that this Swiss library may have been part of a Franciscan monastery. If the “bearer” who brought the Voynich Manuscript to Rudolf’s court (and to whom Rudolf paid the wondrous sum of 400 ducats) was himself/herself a Franciscan friar/nun, that might help explain its attribution to Franciscan monk Roger Bacon.
It’s a plausible story, sure, though not necessarily a highly probable one for the moment. But all the same, this might possibly give us a good idea for a brand new kind of haystack to rake through…
Franciscan Monasteries in Switzerland
St. Francis famously exhorted his followers to study in ways whereby “the spirit of prayer and devotion was not extinguished”: which makes it likely that just about every Franciscan monastery and friary we could consider would contain a library of some sort.
Indeed, some Swiss Franciscan monasteries had very famous libraries: Schaffhausen had a chained library (“Kettenbibliothek”, if you want to search for “Kettenbuch” in German). Here’s what the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana later looked like (a little later) with all its chained books:
Chaining books actually freed them, by making them available to more people to study: so it’s entirely possible that the Voynich Manuscript had a chained wooden cover for part of its pre-Rudolfine life. Here’s what an individual Kettenbuch from 1484 looks like:-
The Schaffhausen Ministerialbibliothek was (if I translate the nice German account of it here correctly) formed in 1540, manuscripts mainly from the Benedictine Allerheiligen (All Saints) monastery library, but also “eight manuscripts and six incunabula” from the Franciscan chained library (formed in 1509). Books (such as Erasmus’ Omnia Opera) were added from 1540 onwards.
How do we know this? Because of a library catalogue (“Chronik der Stadt und Landschaft Schaffhausen”) prepared by Johann Jakob Rüeger (1548-1606) in 1589, then updated in 1596, and apparently printed in 1884-1892 (it seems to have been partially converted into a database on ancestry.com, but I’m don’t have a subscription to that). You can see many individual pages in the extract of a modern book here (with a fair bit on the Schaffhausen Franciscan library on pp.45-47).
Here are some other Swiss Franciscan monasteries that had libraries:
* Fribourg Monastery. According to this page (with links to 13 digital copies of mss from there):-
The library contains about 35,000 volumes, 10,000 of which date from before 1900. The majority of the books can be accessed via a card catalog. The old library can be traced back to Guardian Friedrich von Amberg; 18 of his volumes have been preserved. During the monastery’s golden age in the 15th century, the superiors collected mainly sermon and study literature. The Franciscan Monastery was able to preserve its library on site; it contains 80 medieval and 100 post-medieval volumes of manuscripts (not catalogued), as well as 136 incunabula and 80 post-incunabula.
* Lindau island had a convent of the Third Order of St Francis: this survived the Protestant Reformation by converting to Protestantism.
* Bremgarten (Aargau)
* Königfelden Abbey
* Wesemlin, Lucerne (has the Provinzarchiv der Schweizer Kapuziner, though presumably this was slightly later?)
…and doubtless a fair few others besides.
Clearly, this looks like it could be a substantial set of haystacks to be going through to find a single Voynichian needle. Is there anything out there that can help us?
A Swiss Needle Magnet?
It seems that there might be, in the form of the three-volume Handbuch der Historischen Buchbestände in der Schweitz that lists numerous ancient Swiss libraries, many of which have descriptions of historic catalogues of those libraries.
* Volume #1: Aargau Canton to Jura Canton
* Volume #2: “>Lucerne Canton to Thurgau Canton
* Volume #3: Uri Canton to Zürich Canton
Unfortunately, only volume #2 of this is currently online (I think, but please correct me if I’m wrong!); and many collections that might reasonably be listed are (according to the German Wikipedia page) absent. Moreover, lots of the interesting stuff is in journals such as Helvetia Franciscana that are not currently online, e.g.
* Schweizer, Christian: Kapuziner-Bibliotheken in der Deutschschweiz und Romandie–Bibliothekslandschaften eines Reform-Bettelordens seit dem 16. Jahrhundert in der Schweiz nördlich der Alpen. In: Helvetia Franciscana 30/1 (2001), S.63
* Mayer, Beda: Der Grundstock der Bibliothek des Klosters Wesemlin. In: Helvetia Franciscana 7 (1958), S.189
* Mayer, Bea: Kapuzinerkloster Freiburg, In: Die Kapuzinerklöster Vorderösterreichs. In: Helvetia Franciscana 12, 7. Heft (1976), S. 207-216.
…along with other journals such as Librarium which (thankfully) have been placed online, e.g.
* Kronenberger, Hildegard: Das Kapuzinerkloster Wesemlin in Luzern und seine Bibliothek. In: Librarium 9 (1966), S.2
And the bigger problem is this: because the Voynich Manuscript had without much doubt left its (probably monastic) library by (say) 1613 or so, what we actually would like is a list of pre-1613 Swiss Franciscan monastic inventories to have a look at, based on the small (but likely non-zero) likelihood that one of them might well list a reference to a book resembling the Voynich Manuscript. Yet this was (I think) not at all the challenge the Handbuch der Historischen Buchbestände in der Schweitz was set up to meet at all.
But… are there any of those old inventories from Franciscan monasteries still in existence all? Personally, my head’s still spinning from trying to take in all this stuff, to the point that I’m still a very long way from being able to tell. But perhaps Cipher Mysteries readers will fare better than me (even one would be nice)… good luck!