The Secret History of the Rosicrucians – 8. Stories From The Margins

Though the Voynich Manuscript was clearly made in the fifteenth century, its historical provenance only goes back as far as the court of Rudolf II. We can tell this because the name of Rudolf’s Imperial Distiller – “Jacobij à Tepenecz” – has been erased from the manuscript’s front page (though this is still visible under UV light).

Johannes Marcus Marci also noted in his 1665 letter that (in Philip Neal’s translation):

Doctor Raphael, the Czech language tutor of King Ferdinand III as they both then were, once told me that the said book belonged to Emperor Rudolph and that he presented 600 ducats to the messenger who brought him the book.

At that time, 600 ducats would have been a large sum of money to be paying for a book that could not be read. (The issue of how to price such a thing dogged both of the antiquarian booksellers who ended up owning it in the 20th century).

It therefore does seem very likely that the Voynich Manuscript first surfaced during Rudolf II’s reign as Holy Roman Emperor. However, extensive research by many people (most notably René Zandbergen) over many years has failed to uncover even a single further piece of evidence attesting to the manuscript’s presumed presence at Rudolf’s Imperial Court.

The most promising approach yet taken was to go through the correspondence of Tadeáš Hájek z Hájku (1525-1600, Rudolf’s Imperial Astronomer) for mentions of anything sounding broadly like the Voynich Manuscript at the Imperial Court. Sadly, nothing emerged from the effort. The only weak inference that can genuinely be drawn from this absence of findings is that the Voynich Manuscript probably arrived at court fairly late in Rudolf’s rule (say, after 1600).

Note also that Rudolf died in 1612, though his brother Matthias had previously imprisoned him in his own castle in Prague in March 1611, marking the actual end of his rule. So March 1611 is arguably the latest date when Rudolf could sensibly have acquired it.

Yet when the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum was radiocarbon-dated in 2009 by the University of Arizona, the final calculated value was 1428 ± 17 years. (I should briefly add that that I have argued that technical problems with one of the four samples taken may mean that this date range is much narrower than it should be).

We therefore have a roughly 150-year gap between the Voynich Manuscript’s likely construction date and its reappearance at Rudolf’s Imperial Court. With no external evidence to work with, we have to rely on what we can infer from the various writing layers added by later owners (i.e. on top of the construction layers of the original document).

For example, there is strong evidence that the Voynich had at least two German-speaking owners – for as Philip Neal has pointed out, the two German-like emendations in the marginalia are in quite different dialects. Additionally, the early-looking “augst” month-name in the Occitan-like zodiac hand suggests a yet further owner whose language was made up of elements of both German and Toulousian Occitan, perhaps in Savoy or South-West Switzerland.

Moreover, the closest match for the Voynich Manuscript’s highly unusual quire numbering scheme was found by Thomas Sauvaget in 2012, in the top margin of f176r of Cod. Sang. 839 (at St Gallen); and then again in a 1467 music book by Hugo Spechtshart from Esslingen.

All of which would seem to imply that the Voynich’s physical trajectory passed from Northern Italy through Savoy to Switzerland, around Lake Constance, and finally to the Imperial Court Prague, perhaps via a bookseller.

Given that Tübingen is a mere 90 kms north of Lake Constance, this points to an intriguing hypothesis: that Andreae and/or his fellow Rosicrucian authors might have seen the Voynich Manuscript in Switzerland while on its way to Prague…

The Secret History of the Rosicrucians (c) 2012, 2015 Nick Pelling.
1. Introduction
2. The Three Texts
3. Dating The Fama And The Confessio
4. The Fama’s First Draft
5. So… What Was The Point Of It All?
6. ‘Book M’
7. Another Mysterious Manuscript
8. Stories From The Margins
9. Andreae’s Two Journeys
10. The Limits Of Evidence