(I’ll declare my hand: back when my 2008 History Today article on the early history of the telescope came out, Enrique Joven very kindly translated it into Spanish for the magazine Astronomia, so I know Enrique pretty well. That said, Cipher Mysteries reviews don’t have star ratings & I’m not one to hide what I’m thinking, so this connection shouldn’t affect the following in any significant way.)

A thing I hear again and again from Cipher Mysteries readers is that they just aren’t into buying novels: for the most part, they’re non-fiction addicts hooked on the subtle adrenaline rush of research and who mostly feel bemused (and possibly even slightly alienated) by my fiction reviews. What, they say, can we possibly learn from a novel?

My angle on Voynich novels has never really been that of a lit crit: which is possibly just as well, it ought to be said, because most are little more than medium-boiled airport novels. Rather, I’m interested in how the idea of the Voynich Manuscript (and/or other historical cipher mysteries) is perceived and passed on by non-Voynich-researchers. Do novelists and/or their research assistants just read the Wikipedia page and make up the rest (as per the basic ‘lazy writer’ stereotype), or do some of them actually engage with the VMs, with the messy Voynich research process, and perhaps even – shock horror – with the historical evidence?

To be honest, few VMs novelists give the impression of their even having reached halfway through the Wikipedia page (however understandable that is), while a surprising number give a strong impression of having relied on even less helpful VMs information sources (such as “The Friar and the Cipher”, ugh). Even in this glorious era of Internet research, the ancient ‘GIGO’ rule (“Garbage In, Garbage Out”) works the same as it ever did. *sigh*

Yet Enrique Joven falls squarely into the engagement camp with his novel “The Book of God and Physics: A Novel of the Voynich Mystery”, in that he has plainly done a lot of reading on the subject and is even well aware of the Voynich mailing list. His fictional treatment of the Voynich mystery is also pretty much the first one I’ve read that treats Jesuits in a fairly sensible, non-tokenistic way (doubly impressive given that his protagonist is a teacher at a Jesuit school), and he constructs his narrative around the VMs’ thrice-APODed page f67r1 and the astronomical sparks showered over the Imperial Court by the tense relationship between Brahe and Kepler (a subject I happen to know a fair amount about).

Yet curiously, the limitations of Enrique’s book arise not from the cipher or from the history, but instead from his treatment of those (fictional) Voynich mailing list members his protagonist gets caught up up with, many of whom apparently suffer from multiple-(virtual)-personality disorder. Now, I’m no great fan of the Voynich mailing list as it has become (has any genuinely useful research appeared there in several years? I don’t think so), and it is true that some listmembers post under deliberately false or whimsical names, as if they were secretly emo teenagers. But to make this aspect so central to the story has all the feeling of a false modern mythology, a kind of ‘Hollywood Internet’ where Everyone (apart from the straight-as-a-die protagonist) Is Online In Order To Hide Some Important Aspect Of Themselves That Will Be Revealed Later In The Plot.

That aside, Joven writes pretty well – and it was a pleasure to read a Voynich book where the Long-Hidden Secret Power It Contains is in fact not About To Destroy The World As We Know It, where the main character is not a charmlessly bionic version of Anthony Grafton, and where there are neither hordes of competing three-letter-agencies nor quasi-mystical Church-backed Conspiracies all fighting each other for ownership of the VMs’ boringly heretical secret.

Long-time (if not actually long-suffering) Cipher Mysteries readers may possibly point to my high opinion of Matt Rubinstein’s Vellum and Lev Grossman’s Codex (both of which have much the same kind of ambitions and restrained execution as Enrique’s book) as correlative evidence that I’m down on Voynich airport novels: but actually, given that Max McCoy’s “Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone” is still firmly my #1 (why don’t Voynich novelists ever read this first?) on the Big Fat List, it really is all a matter of personal taste. OK, I still think Enrique’s publishers should have dug deep inside themselves to find the sense to keep the rather nice original Spanish title “The Castle of the Stars” (which actually chimes nicely with the story on many different levels, while also being pleasantly reminiscent of the linguistic hack “The astronomer married a star”), but then again it is what it is, and perhaps a clunky title alone isn’t enough to make or break a book these days.

One slightly odd coincidence is that just about the time that the paperback version came out recently, an entirely new Voynich theory came out (courtesy of P. Han) linking Tycho Brahe and historical supernovae to the VMs by way of China (but more on that another day). All of which just goes to show that there really is, errrm, nothing new under the sun, and that the boundary between historical hypothesis and fictional supposition can be surprisingly thin!

For the most part, constructing plausible explanations for the drawings in the Voynich Manuscript is a fairly straightforward exercise. Even its apparently-weird botany could well be subtly rational (for example, if plants on opposite pages swapped their roots over in the original binding, in a kind of visual anagram), as could the astronomy, the astrology, and the water / balneology quires (if all perhaps somewhat obfuscated). Yet this house of oh-so-sensible cards gets blown away by the hurricane of oddness that is the Voynich Manuscript’s nine-rosette page.

If you’re not intrigued by this, you really do have a heart of granite, because of all the VMs’ pages, this is arguably the most outright alien & Codex Seraphinianus-like. Given the strange rotating designs (machines?), truncated pipes, islands, and odd causeways, it’s hard to see (at first, second and third glances) how this could be anything but irrational. Yet even so, those who (like me) are convinced that the VMs is a ‘hyperrational’ artefact are forced to wonder what method there could be to this jumbled visual madness. So: what’s the deal with this page? How should we even begin to try to ‘read’ it?

People have pondered these questions for years: for example, Robert Brumbaugh thought that the shape in the bottom left was a “clock” with “a short hour and long minute hand”. However, now that we have proper reproductions to work with, his claim seems somewhat spurious, for the simple reason that the two “hands” are almost exactly the same length. Mary D’Imperio (1977) also thought the resemblance “superficial”, noting instead that “an exactly similar triangular symbol with three balls strung on it occurs frequently amongst the star spells of Picatrix, and was used by alchemists to mean arsenic, orpiment, or potash (Gessman 1922, Tables IV, XXXIII, XXXXV)” (3.3.6, p.21).

Back in 2008, Joel Stevens suggested that the rosettes might represent a map, with the top-left and bottom-right rosettes (which have ‘sun’ images attached to them) representing East and West respectively, and with Brumbaugh’s “clock” at the bottom-left cunningly representing a compass in the form of the point of an arrow pointing towards Magnetic North. You know, I actually rather like Joel’s idea, because it at least explains why the two “hands” are the same length: and given that I suspect that there’s a hidden arrow on the “bee” page and that many of the water nymphs may be embellished diagrammatic arrows, one more hidden arrow would fit in pretty well with the author’s apparent construction style.

This same idea (but without Joel’s ‘hidden compass’ nuance) was proposed by John Grove on the VMs mailing list back in 2002. He also noted that many of “the words appear to be written as though the reader is walking clockwise around the map. The words inside the roadway (when there are some) also appear to be written this way (except the northeast rosette by the castle).” I’ve underlined many of the ’causeway labels’ in red above, because I think that John’s “clockwise-ness” is a non-obvious piece of evidence which any theory about this page would probably need to explain. And yes, there are indeed plenty of theories about this page!

In 2006, I proposed that the top-right castle (with its Ghibelline swallowtail merlons, ravellins, accentuated front gate, spirally text, circular canals, etc) was Milan; that the three towers just below it represented Pavia (specifically, the Carthusian Monastery there); and that the central rosette represented Venice (specifically, an obfuscated version of St Mark’s Basilica as seen from the top of the Campanile). Of course, even though this is (I think) remarkably specific, it still falls well short of a “smoking gun” scientific proof: so, it’s just an art history suggestion, to be safely ignored as you wish.

In 2009, Patrick Lockerby proposed that the central rosette might well be depicting Baghdad (which, along with Milan and Jerusalem, was one of the few medieval cities consistently depicted as being circular). Alternatively, one of his commenters also suggested that it might be Masijd Al-Haram in Mecca (but that’s another story).

Also in 2009, P. Han proposed a link between this page and Tycho Brahe’s “work and observatories”, with the interesting suggestion that the castle in the top-right rosette represents Kronborg Slot (which you may not know was the one appropriated by Shakespeare for Hamlet), with the centre of that rosette’s text spiral representing the island of Hven where Brahe famously had his ‘Uraniborg’ observatory. Kronborg Slot was extensively remodelled in 1585, burnt down in 1629 and then rebuilt: but I wonder whether it had swallowtail merlons when it was built in the 1420s? Han also suggests that other features on the page represent Hven in different ways (for example, the three towers marked ‘PAVIA?’ above); that the pipes and tall structures in the bottom-right rosette represent Tycho’s ‘sighting tubes’ (a kind of non-optical precursor to telescopes); that one or more of the mill-like spoked structures represent(s) Hven’s papermill’s waterwheel; and that the central rosette represents the buildings of Uraniborg (for which we have good visual reference material). Han’s central hypothesis (on which more another day!) is that the VMs visually encodes information about various supernovae: the suggestion here is that the ‘hands’ of Brumbaugh’s clock are in fact part of the ‘W-shape’ of Cassiopeia, which sits close in the sky to SN 1572. Admittedly, Han’s portolan-like ‘Markers’ section at the end of the page goes way past my idea of being accessible, but there’s no shortage of interesting ideas here.

Intriguingly, Han also points out the strong visual similarity between the central rosette’s ‘towers’ and the pharma section’s ‘jars’: D’Imperio also thought these resembled “six pharmaceutical ‘jars'”. I’d agree that the resemblance seems far too strong to be merely a coincidence, but what can it possibly mean?

Finally, (and also in 2009) Rich SantaColoma put together a speculative 3d tour of the nine-rosette page (including a 3d flythrough in YouTube), based on his opinion the VMs’ originator “was clearly representing 3D terrain and structures”. All very visually arresting: however, the main problem is that the nine-rosette page seems to incorporate information on a number of quite different levels (symbolic, structural, physical, abstract, notional, planned, referential, diagrammatic, etc), and reducing them all to 3d runs the risk of overlooking what may be a single straightforward clue that will help unlock the page’s mysteries.

All in all, I suspect that the nine-rosette page will continue to stimulate theories and debate for some time yet! Enjoy! 🙂

Following up the recent post here on Tycho Brahe’s moustache, Jan Hurych emails in to point out that a team of Czech researchers has also been forensically analyzing Brahe’s handkerchief. Disturbingly, their interim results indicate that he may have been addicted to Brasso.

(OK, OK, so it’s a joke: but as it made me laugh, onto the blog it goes.)

For more on Brahe’s silver/gold (or very probably copper) nose and the adhesive gunk he used to stick it to his duel-scarred face, here are links to a short 2004 article from the Annals of Improbable Research and to an entertaining (though not entirely reliable) 1998 Q&A from the Straight Dope.

(Incidentally, the first handkerchief was used in Europe in 1503, according to this timeline: while Brasso first went on sale in Australia circa 1904. Brand-wise, “Silvo” would have been more accurate, but less funny. Oh, suit yourself.)

Enciphered diaries & a murdered famous astronomer? No, it’s not Enrique Joven’s book out unexpectedly early, but this gem of a story from Der Spiegel: it describes how enciphered / encoded sections of the 400-year-old diary of Tycho’s distant cousin Erik Brahe seem to allude to Brahe’s murder. Brahe’s body is about to be exhumed to find out the truth, though the cyanide (at 100x the toxic level) already found in his moustache seems fairly slamdunk to me.
Details remain fairly sketchy: but of course, I’ll pass on more of the story as it emerges… I can barely wait! 😉

As regular Cipher Mysteries readers will know, I’ve recently become particularly interested in early modern correspondence as a way of peering into the dispersed scientific networks that began to develop and extend during the late sixteenth century (the so-called “invisible colleges”), very much along the lines described for Tycho Brahe’s familia by Adam Mosley in his recent book Bearing the Heavens.

However, one key problem is that there’s an awkward quiet between the (early sixteenth century) Republic of Letters and the (mid-to-late seventeenth century) Scientific Revolution correspondence where relatively few letter-writers really stand out – Tycho Brahe (of course), Marin Mersenne, Tadeas Hajek, Fabri de Peiresc.

Incidentally, Peiresc (“the Prince of Erudition”) left more than 10,000 letters, of which only about 3,200 have been published. Fascinatingly, the Annales historian Robert Mandrou tried several decades ago to use this to chart the “geography of ideas” implicit in Peiresc’s correspondence network, through what Robert Hatch calls “simple yet eloquent maps”. There’s more on how Peiresc’s set of letters was split into two here.

Also, QMC has an initiative on this topic called the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters (“CELL”), with subprojects on the correspondence of Francis Bacon, Thomas Bodley (as in the Bodleian Library, of course), and the relatively little known Elizabethan intelligencer/diplomat William Herle. One recent CELL, errrm, inmate called Samuli Kaislaniemi has a nice set of links on the topic, including one to a National Archive wiki!

But I’m digressing (arguably even more than normal).

I recently found another Renaissance letter collection which I had been unaware of: the Clusius Correspondence Project at Leiden University, which holds most of botanist Carolus Clusius’ letters. Intriguingly, this was particularly focused on plants and gardening, and so was the kind of place where a mention of everyone’s favourite enciphered-early-modern-herbal manuscript might plausibly appear – and so I emailed Florike Egmond whether she had come across anything remotely like the VMs mentioned in Clusius’ letters.

Sadly, her answer was no: in fact, she pointed out that the letters contain “almost no references at all to herbals / manuscripts about plants“. Having said that, she also noted that a reference might yet surface in some of the letters with Clusius’ book-focused Italian correspondent Pinelli, or (rather less probably) with Hugo Blotius. All the same, as they say in showbiz, “‘No’ only means ‘no today’“.

Hmmm… as a final aside for the day, I really wish there was some kind of “meta-list” of early modern correspondence projects out there, one that listed started, planned or proposed, started-but-abandoned and as-yet-unstarted correspondence projects – a kind of correspondence project project, if you like.

Back in May this year, I suggested to my friend Philip Neal that a really useful Voynich research thing he could do would be to translate the passages relating to Jacobus Tepenecz (Sinapius) that Jorge Stolfi once copied from Schmidl’s (1754) Historiæ Societatis Jesu Provinciæ Bohemiæ (though Stolfi omitted to the section III 75 concerning Melnik) from Latin. The documentation around Sinapius is sketchy (to say the the least), yet he is arguably the earliest physically-confirmed owner of the Voynich Manuscript (even if Jan Hurych does suspect his signature might be a fake): and Schmidl’s “historical” account of the Jesuits in Prague is the main source of information we have on this Imperial Distiller.

So today, it was a delightful surprise to receive an email from Philip, pointing me at his spiffy new translations of all the primary 17th & 18th century Latin sources relating to the Voynich Manuscript – not just the passages from Schmidl, but also the Baresch, Marci and Kinner letters to Athanasius Kircher (the ones which Rene Zandbergen famously helped to uncover).

Just as I hoped, I learned plenty of new stuff from Philip’s translation of Schmidl: for example, that Sinapius was such a devout Catholic and supporter of the Jesuits in Prague that he even published his own Catholic Confession book in 1609 – though no copy has yet surfaced of this, it may well be that nobody has thought to look for it in religious libraries (it’s apparently not in WorldCat, for example). (Of course, the odds are that it will say nothing useful, but it would be interesting to see it nonetheless.) Sinapius was also buried in a marble tomb “next to the altar of the Annunciation” in Prague, which I presume is in the magnificent Church of Our Lady before Tyn where Tycho Brahe was buried in that same decade.

Interestingly, rather than try to produce the most technically accurate translation, Philip has tried to render both the text and the tone of each letter / passage within modern English usage, while removing all his technical translation notes to separate webpages. I think this was both a bold and a good decision, and found his notes just as fascinating as the translations themselves – but I suppose I would, wouldn’t I?

One thing Philip wasn’t aware of (which deserves mentioning independently) is Kircher’s “heliotrope”, mentioned in Marci’s 1640 letter to Kircher. The marvellous “heliotropic plant” which Kircher claimed to have swapped with an Arabic merchant in Marseille “for a watch so small that it was contained within a ring” (“Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything”, Paula Findlen (2004), p.13) was the talk of the day: this was a nightshade whose seeds allegedly “followed the motions of the sun when affixed to a cork bobbing in water”, in a kind of magnet-like way. This seems to have occupied the letters of natural philosophers even more than Galileo’s trial (from the same period). Yet to this day, nobody knows if Kircher was conning everyone with this heliotrope, or if he had been conned by someone else (but was perhaps unable to admit it to himself).

Then again, Kircher’s inclusion of the “cat piano” in his Musurgia Universalis might be a bit of a giveaway that he was a sucker for a tall tail tale. 🙂

I’ve just come back from 24 hours in Swansea, a town where, bizarrely, almost every road is one way (usually the opposite way to which you want to go). At the top of Mount Pleasant, students eke out their existence, one drunken stumble away from a 5-minute death-roll down Constitution Hill’s 45 degree gradient. Swansea is the kind of place where (ideally) you’d like a hang-glider to get to town, a satnav implant to get around, and a cable-car to get home again. But still, the beer’s good, so I can forgive all that… 😉

All of which springs to mind simply because I’ve just read a book on Tycho Brahe by Adam Mosley, history lecturer at the University of Swansea. From his office, most of the bright lights in the evening sky are doubtless not stars or planets, but roomlights in digs at the top of the hill, full of students massaging their aching quads and calves, & wondering why their 50cc scooter’s clutch burnt out in only two days.

In many ways, Mosley’s book – “Bearing The Heavens: Tycho Brahe and the Astronomical Community of the Late Sixteenth Century” (2007), Cambridge University Press, ISBN13: 9780521838665, £55.00, US$105.00 – dovetails quite neatly with “On Tycho’s Island”, as reviewed here recently: whereas the latter looks inwards at Brahe’s insular life on Hven, the former instead looks outwards to Brahe’s links with the external world. To do this, Mosley focuses on three things – Brahe’s letters, his books, and his instruments.

The writing is brisk and accessible throughout (though I felt devoting the first chapter to a justification of why he chose the punning title “Bearing the Heavens” was somewhat superfluous), and the two big chapters on books and instruments cover the ground well. But I have to say that this is all a bit of a feint, a distraction from Mosley’s actual thesis – which is concerned solely with the importance to the history of science of Brahe’s letters in their context. This is the real deal, the stuff that you can tell he’s excited about here.

And, I think, rightly so – Mosley’s book essentially sends out a ‘call to adventure’ to historians of Renaissance science, that they have woefully undervalued the usefulness of letters. Book publishing is just the tip of the iceberg of ideas – even these days, printing your own books is no walk in the park (trust me, I’ve tried it), and the difficulties involved 400-500 years ago were far greater, even for driven people of significant means such as Brahe. Renaissance letters were often copied and circulated, or even collated for later publication: and so Mosely argues that it is the huge interconnected web of letters that form the underwater bulk – and it is to this largely unseen mountain we should be devoting our attention.

Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a zeitgeisty angle (though perhaps still falling just short of being trendy), exemplified by (for example) Josef Smolka’s ongoing study of Tadeas Hajek’s letters to/from Andreas Dudith. What separates Mosley’s exposition is that he simply does not accept that it is a marginal area for study – for him, correspondence is king, and should occupy centre stage for our understanding of science pre-1600.

For a while, I’ve been thinking along these lines: I even tried creating a database in Freebase to try to map out & visualize the connections between various 16th century letter-writers, to try to glimpse the “invisible colleges” as they formed, flourished and faded. Yet when I saw Mosley’s Figure 2.1 on page 36 (which tries to do this for Brahe’s immediate network), I suddenly realised the staggering enormity of the challenge and gave up on the spot.

Fig 2.1 from Adam Mosley\'s \

Ultimately, what historians of science would need is a gigantic collaborative correspondence database, that could be used as a cross-archive finding aid. Even though a few people’s letters have been studied in depth (such as Christopher Clavius, Tycho Brahe, Athanasius Kircher, etc), libraries and archives (particularly private archives) must still have an enormous collection of pearls of which historians are unaware.

Perhaps others have already advanced Mosley’s thesis just as eloquently and persuasively: but it is an idea whose time (I believe) has now come. Will others heed his call? I hope so…

People don’t generally know a lot about Tycho Brahe, which is a shame. In most accounts of the history of astronomy, his bright star tends to get eclipsed by the twin 17th century supernovae of Kepler and Galileo. But scratch the surface of the story, and it’s really not that simple…

Brahe was a Danish nobleman with a singleminded desire – to understand why the motions of the planets in the heavens failed to match what the best astronomical tables (based both on Ptolemaic and Copernican systems) predicted. Somehow, he engineered an arrangement by which King Frederick II granted him the island of Hven to pursue his astronomical studies for the glory of Denmark: yet what Brahe set up there was as much a social institution (like a postgraduate research community) as a technical observatory – to get the job done, he needed people just as much as equipment.

In fact, Tycho tried to get all the brightest young astronomers of the time to work on his island (for peanuts, it has to be said, but that’s research for you), and to correspond with everyone who was anyone in astronomy. Even so, things didn’t always work out as planned, most notably with Ursus (though I believe the question of whether Ursus was as big a scoundrel and weasel as Brahe tried to make out is far more open than most historians credit).

Methodologically, Brahe’s biographers and historians have tended to focus on the man and his writings: yet until recently none specifically focused on his ever-changing familia (family) of research assistants that passed through Hven. John Robert Christanson’s book “On Tycho’s Island: Tycho Brahe and His Assistants 1570-1601” (Cambridge University Press, 2000) changed all that: what started out (quite literally) as Christianson’s shoe-box of notecards to pull together the numerous fragmentary mentions of Brahe’s coworkers slowly grew into a database, and then (25 years on) into the present book.

But there’s a problem: however interested you are in the subject, after a while the database-like origins of the book – in the infinitessimal ebbs and flows of the set of assistants – start to grate on the reader. And let’s face it, what Brahe was running was as much a kind of “observation factory” as anything else, turning (taking a Marxist-Leninist spin) a input stream of idealistic researchers into a output stream of data. After around 150 pages of on-island minutiae, you start to wonder: where is this all going? How much more can I take?

And then on page 171, Christianson’s book explodes in a direction you simply won’t (unless you’re extraordinarily well-read on Brahe’s life) have seen coming. Brahe tries to marry off his eldest morganatic daughter (“morganatic” means that when a nobleman marries a commoner, his children won’t inherit his nobility or money) to Gellius Sascerides, a clever (but church-mouse poor) member of his familia. And then everything – and I mean everything – starts to go wrong for Brahe (and at some speed), to the point that he ends up dismantling his beloved observatory and fleeing the country. Thanks to his Europe-wide network of contacts (particularly Tadeas Hajek), he finally ended up working for Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague (though only briefly) – but even so, Brahe’s swings in fortune are really quite staggering.

It’s only once you reach the end of the book that you can appreciate what happened in terms of his two familiae. Given that neither his morganatic children nor his set of researchers and coworkers seemed likely to him to give him the continuing legacy he desired, what was Brahe to do? He tried to finesse a best-of-both-worlds scenario, but the attempted union of his morganatic family and his (almost adoptive) intellectual family was simply never going to work within his societal context. It is only really a proper appreciation for his constellation of assistants on Hven that gives his whole story poignancy.

Writing teachers often say that the beginning of a story is rarely the best place to start: and so many writers would start “Brahe: The Novel” with the attempted negotiations for the wedding (and bring in all the preceding history in flashbacks etc), because this is where the wedding train (sorry!) starts to come off the rails – and where oh-so-controlling Brahe begins to lose the plot. Yet what Christianson has produced is rather more valuable than a novel: a rich, dense, vividly-detailed historical stage upon which the reader can imagine and construct their own dramas.

Overall verdict: Highly Recommended (but don’t give up in the middle!)

Here’s a little piece of Voynichiana pinging on the edges of the VMs research radar, concerning Tadeáš Hájek z Hájku (1525-1600), who I thought had not to date been speculatively linked with the VMs. It came from the text accompanying the “Earth and Sky: Astronomy and Geography at the University between the 15th and the 18th centuries” exhibition at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest in 2005, but also (mostly) reappears in the Wikipedia page. (Which came first? I don’t know!)

Why flag Hájek at all? Jan Hurych once put up a page on him on his Hurontaria site, but (I thought) only as a piece of background research data. It’s true that as personal physician to Maximilian I (in Vienna) and to Rudolf II (mainly in Prague), Hájek would have vetted or commented on anything alchemical, astronomical, astrological or medical entering the Imperial Court prior to 1600. But might there be more to it?

If (as I do) you see a Northern Italian art history link in the VMs’ drawings, then Hájek’s Prague-Bologna-Milan-Prague travels probably jumps out at you too: so, please go on…

In the words of The Joker, “I like him already“. But, errrrm, what about the VMs, then?

[…]Hájek eagerly collected manuscripts, especially those by Copernicus, and may have been the one to convince Rudolf II to procure the infamous Voynich manuscript. […] Throughout his life he also published numerous astrological prognostics in Czech and that is why he was until recently viewed as an „occultist” rather than a great scientist.

I think we can safely say that, apart from the absence of any actual evidence, Hájek is a great candidate manuscript carrier to add to the Voynich story, far better than Dee and Kelley. And what would make it even more poignant is that the pair of them visited Hájek’s house in Prague, which was (according to a fascinating 1999 post on levity.com by Michael Pober) “‘by Bethlem’, first mentioned in “A True and Faithful Relation’ p. 212, Prague 1584, 15th August.

Might Hájek have owned the VMs, perhaps buying it during his time in Italy? It would be interesting to see his handwriting and marginalia commentary style, just in case there’s some kind of unexpected link between that and what we see in the VMs. I’ve asked Jan Hurych, but he hasn’t examined Hájek’s handwriting: so I’ll have to pursue this with the Czech libraries myself (more on that soon).

Given that Hájek translated Mattioli’s famous herbal into Czech, it is certainly interesting that the marginalia at the top of f17r appears to have been miscorrected to read “mattior”. I had always guessed that it was George Baresch who had done this – but perhaps it might have been Hájek instead? Something to think about, anyway…

“Hájek was in frequent scientific correspondence with the recognized astronomer Tycho and played an important role in persuading Rudolf II to invite Brahe (and later Kepler) to Prague. His voluminous writings in Latin were mostly concerned with astronomy and many regarded him as the greatest astronomer of his time.”


“In 1554 he studied medicine in Bologna and went to Milan the same year to listen to lectures by Girolamo Cardano, but he soon returned to Prague, where he became a professor of mathematics at the Charles University of Prague in 1555.”


A nice edition of “In Our Time” on Radio 4 this morning (a tip of the blogging hat to Chris R and Paul C, who both wished the morning Guildford traffic jam had been slightly worse so that they could have heard it all), all about our old Holy Roman Emperor pal, Rudolph II. You can also download the mp3 (20MB, 42 minutes) and listen to it off-line. Which is nice (genuinely).

Discussing the Rudolphine court with Melvyn Bragg were Peter Forshaw (always good value for money – Voynichians may remember him from the Mentorn Voynich documentary on BBC4), Howard Hotson, and Adam Mosley: the topics ranged across alchemy, the occult, Hussite heresy, astronomy, Cabinet of Wonders (including a dodo!), botanical collections, automata, natural magic, paintings, Cornelius Drebbel, Tycho Brahe, Charles University, astrology, John Dee, Kepler, etc etc… oh yes, and the Voynich Manuscript as well (about 5 minutes in), which Melvyn Bragg seemed particularly fascinated by. Maybe he’s seen the Big Fat List of forthcoming Voynich novels? 😮

The programme-makers thoughtfully included a Rudolph-centred bibliography here, which you may find useful (though with Hugh Trevor-Roper listed, I have to say it’s not particularly contemporary).