Here’s what I think the Voynich Wikipedia page ought to look like. Enjoy! 🙂

* * * * * * *

History of a Mystery

Once upon a time (in 1912) in a crumbling Jesuit college near Rome, an antiquarian bookseller called Wilfrid Voynich bought a mysterious enciphered handwritten book. Despite its length (240 pages) it was an ugly, badly-painted little thing, for sure: but its strange text and drawings caught his imagination — and that was that.

Having quickly convinced himself that it could only have been written by one particular smart-arse medieval monk by the name of Roger Bacon, Voynich then spent the rest of his life trying to persuade gullible and/or overspeculative academics to ‘prove’ that his hunch was right. All of which amounted to a waste of twenty years, because it hadn’t even slightly been written by Bacon. D’oh!

Oh, so you’d like to see some pictures of his ‘Voynich Manuscript’, would you? Well… go ahead, knock yourself out. First up, here’s some of its ‘Voynichese’ script, which people only tend to recognize if they had stopped taking their meds a few days previously:

A nice clear example of Voynichese

Secondly, here’s one of the Voynich Manuscript’s many herbal drawings, almost all of which resemble mad scientist random hybrids of bits of other plants:-

Finally, here’s a close-up of one of its bizarre naked ladies (researchers call them ‘nymphs’, obviously trying not to mix business and pleasure), in this case apparently connected up to some odd-looking plumbing / tubing. Yup, the right word is indeed ‘bizarre’:

voynich f77v central nymph Q13 and Voynich balneology sources...?

Did any of that help at all? No, probably not. So perhaps you can explain it now? No, I didn’t think so. Don’t worry, none of us can either. *sigh*

Back to the History Bit

Anyhow, tucked inside the manuscript was a letter dated 1665 from Johannes Marcus Marci in Prague, and addressed to the well-known delusional Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. Marci’s letter said that he was giving the manuscript to Kircher both because of their friendship and because of Kircher’s reputation for being able to break any cipher. The manuscript seems then to have entered the Jesuit archives, which is presumably why the Jesuit college near Rome had it to sell to Wilfrid Voynich several centuries later, just as in all the best mystery novels.

But hold on a minute… might Wilfrid Voynich have forged his manuscript? Actually, a few years back researchers diligently dug up several other 17th century letters to Kircher almost certainly referring to the same thing, all of which makes the Voynich Manuscript at least 200 years older than Wilfrid Voynich. So no, he couldn’t have forged it, not without using Doc Brown’s flux capacitor. (Or possibly the time machine depicted in Quire 13. Unless that’s impossible.)

Incidentally, one of those other letters was from an obscure Prague alchemist called Georg Baresch, who seems to have wasted twenty or so years of his life pondering this curious object before giving it to Marci. So it would seem that twenty lost years is the de facto standard duration for Voynich research. Depressing, eh?

So, Where Did Baresch Get It From?

Well… Marci had heard it said that the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II had bought the manuscript for the ultra-tidy sum of 600 gold ducats, probably enough to buy a small castle. Similarly, Wilfrid Voynich discovered an erased signature for Sinapius (i.e. Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, Rudolf II’s Imperial Distiller) on its front page. You can usefully assemble all these boring fragments of half-knowledge into a hugely unconvincing chain of ownership going all the way back to 1600-1610 or so, that would look something not entirely unlike this:-

Which is a bit of a shame, because in 2009 the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum was radiocarbon dated to 1404-1438 with 95% confidence. Hence it still has a gap of roughly 150 years on its reconstructed CV that we can’t account for at all – you know, the kind of hole that leads to those awkward pauses at job interviews, right before they shake your hand and say “We’ll let you know…

Hence, The Real Question Is…

Fast-forward to 2012, and Wilfrid Voynich’s manuscript has ended up in New Haven at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yet many Voynichologists seemed to have learnt little from all that has gone before, in that – just as with Wilfrid himself – they continue to waste decades of their life trying to prove that it is an [insert-theory-here] written by [insert-historical-figure-here].

If repeatedly pressed, such theorists tend to claim that:
* the ‘quest’ is everything;
* it is better to travel than to arrive; and even
* cracking the Voynich might somehow spoil its perfect inscrutability.
All of which, of course, makes no real sense to anyone but a Zen Master: but if their earnest wish is to remain armchair mountaineers with slippers for crampons, then so be it.

Yet ultimately, if you strip back the inevitable vanity and posturing, the only genuine question most people have at this point is:

How can I crack the Voynich Manuscript and become an eternal intellectual hero?

The answer is: unless you’re demonstrably a polymathic Intellectual History Renaissance Man or Woman with high-tensile steel cable for nerves, a supercomputer cluster the size of Peru for a brain, and who just happens to have read every book ever written on medieval/Renaissance history and examined every scratchy document in every archive, your chances are basically nil. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Honestly, it’s a blatant exaggeration but near enough to the truth true: so please try to get over it, OK?

Look, people have been analyzing the Voynich with computers since World War Two and still can’t reliably interpret a single letter – not a vowel, consonant, digit, punctuation mark, nothing. [A possible hyphen is about as good as it gets, honestly.] Nobody’s even sure if the spaces between words are genuinely spaces, if Voynichese ‘words’ are indeed actual words. *sigh*

Cryptologically, we can’t even properly tell what kind of an enciphering system was used – and if you can’t get that far, it should be no great surprise that applying massive computing power will yield no significant benefit. Basically, you can’t force your way into a castle with a battering ram if you don’t even know where its walls are. For the global community of clever-clogs codebreakers, can you even conceive of how embarrassing a failure this is, hmmm?

So, How Do We Crack It, Then?

If we do end up breaking the Voynich’s cipher, it looks unlikely that it will have been thanks to the superhuman efforts of a single Champollion-like person. Rather, it will most likely have come about from a succession of small things that get uncovered that all somehow cumulatively add up into some much bigger things. You could try to crack it yourself but… really, is there much sense in trying to climb Everest if everyone in the army of mountaineers that went before you has failed to work out even where base camp should go? It’s not hugely clear that even half of them even were looking at the right mountain.

All the same, there are dozens of open questions ranging across a wide set of fields (e.g. codicology, palaeography, statistical analysis, cryptanalysis, etc), each of which might help to move our collective understanding of the Voynich Manuscript forward if we could only answer them. For example…
* Can we find a handwriting match for the marginalia? [More details here & here]
* Can we find a reliable way of reading the wonky marginalia (particularly on f116v, the endmost page)? [More details here]
* Can we find another document using the same unusual quire numbering scheme (‘abbreviated longhand Roman ordinals’)? [More details here].
* Precisely how do state machine models of the Voynich’s two ‘Currier language’s differ? Moreover, why do they differ? [More details here]
* etc

The basic idea here is that if you can’t do big at all, do us all a favour and try to do small well instead. But nobody’s listening: and so it all goes on, year after year. What a waste of time. 🙁

A Warning From History

Finally: I completely understand that you’re a busy person with lots on your mind, so the chances are you’ll forget almost all of the above within a matter of minutes. Possibly even seconds. And that’s OK. But if you can only spare sufficient mental capacity to remember a seven-word soundbite from this whole dismal summary, perhaps they ought to be:

Underestimate the Voynich Manuscript at your peril!

Now ain’t that the truth!?

As a Voynich Manuscript marginalia cognoscente, I’m always alert for new angles on the various incidental marks apparently added by its later owners. So, when Tim Tattrie left a comment about the “chicken scratch” marginalia on my recent Voynich-frontiers-circa-2010 post, I thought it was probably time to revisit them here.

Tim’s query was whether anyone had pursued the initials scribbled on f66v and f86v3: he noted that these were “clearly the same downward swept doodle of two or three letters (h?r), and because it is repeated in two folios, leads one to speculate its the initials of either the author, or an owner.” This almost exactly echoes what Jon Grove said on the Voynich mailing list (11 Sep 2002), that “It seems to consist of three connected downstrokes followed by a longer upstroke with a loop and final flourish, almost like ‘wR’ but not quite. It’s certainly not a random scribble. If it is a signature or monogram then it might help to establish dates and/or locations for the MS. ” To which Dana Scott replied at the time: “Notice that the single line ‘signature’ in f66v is essentially the same as the top line ‘signature’ in f86v (there are some differences to the right of each line).

OK, so let’s look at them in all their hi-res glory. Firstly, the chicken scratches on f66v:-

And now here are the chicken scratches on f86v3. Palaeographically, I think this is much more interesting, because you can see what looks like a scribal line ending stub (in red), and lots of places where the quill has opened up under pressure in different directions (in blue). Some years ago, I suggested that these scratches might be an ink blot transfer of Georg Baresch’s signature, because if you rotate and flip them you can see letter-sequences that vaguely resemble “g///g”:-

However, there is a codicological nicety to consider here, which is that if you reorder Q8 (Quire #8) to place the astronomical (non-herbal) pages at the back, and also follow Glen Claston’s suggestion by inserting the nine-rosette quire between (the reordered) Q8 and Q9, what you unexpectedly find is that the f66v and f86v3 chicken scratches move extremely close together. If this is correct, it would imply that the doodles were added very early on in the life of the VMs, probably earlier even than the fifteenth-century hand quire numbering (and hence probably early-to-mid 15th century). And this would rule out Baresch by a couple of centuries or so. 🙂

But I have a possible bombshell to drop here. If I once again rotate and reverse the f86v3 chicken scratch, this moves the ornate scribal line-ending to the start, implying that it was the start of a line. Following the lines through from there on a Retinex-enhanced version of the page, I now suspect we know enough to separate out the letters one at a time:

If I’ve got this correct, then the letter sequence here is:-

  • (blue) “S
  • (green) downstroke
  • (red) “i
  • (green) downstroke
  • (orange) “m
  • (green) downstroke
  • (purple) “o” / “n” / “t” [though it’s not entirely clear which]

So, something like “Simon”, then. What is particularly curious is that I have elsewhere suggested that the top-line marginalia on f116v reads “por le bon simon sint” in what I suspect was the handwriting of either the original author or someone very close to him/her. If that is right, then we can piece together a little bit of the VMs’ early 15th century provenance: that what we are looking at here is the ink blot signature of someone named (something close to) “Simon Sint”, who was very possibly the person to whom that original author gave the manuscript. Though it’s hard to be sure, this person may well be the same one who added the earliest set of quire numbers (which I called “Quire Hand 1” in The Curse)… but we’ll leave that issue for another day, that’s probably quite enough wobbly inferences for one post! 🙂

OK, as explanations go it’s not 100% convincing as yet, but all the same it’s a pretty joined-up historical hypothesis that could (and indeed should) be codicologically tested, which is more than can be said about most speculative VMs theories. I’m pretty sold on the idea that this is telling us we should be looking for someone (possibly a monk) in Southern France / Savoy called something not too far from “Simon Sint” circa 1450, and that this is his signature (i.e. he cared so little about the VMs that he used it as blotting paper, shame on him). Jeez, how specific do I need to be? 🙂

There are colours in my eyes, history flickering and sputtering as a beautiful infinity reaches out to hold my bloodsoaked hand…

* * * * * *

The Brazilian girl’s plan is stone-cold in its vision, fractal in its detail, awesome in its thinking. Yes, the organizers have put the necessary overnight protection squad in place: but the two guards merely notice a curious mélange of hard-to-pin-down antique odours: spirit of hartshorn, hepatic air, green vitriol, all distinct yet merging awkwardly between one another, like jelly and ice cream in a child’s pudding bowl. They both feel the nausea slowly roll over them, but neither thinks to raise the alarm, as the aqua tofani weaves its dizzying, nauseous, near-fatal spell on them both. Of course, we don’t intend killing them: tonight’s sacred mission is one of life, not death.

Our filter masks firmly in place, we silently ease out of the concealed block behind the disabled toilets and past the sabotaged air-conditioning unit. The girl’s preparation has been good, for there is no klaxon, no lights, no alarm: following her confident lead, I guide the wheely bag carefully past the two tumbledown security-suit mannequins and onwards through the exhibition. Looking ahead, always ahead, we glide swiftly past countless Ouroubos-filled stands and up the wheelchair ramp to the locked glass plinth in the arena’s central raised area – yes, to the book. Or rather, to ‘The Book’.

She reaches into her pocket and pulls out the diamond-edged ring we made together over the shimmering orange dawn-lit fire on the mountainside: looking in her eyes, I take it and slide it quickly onto my middle finger. The girl – is she young, or old? Suddenly I can’t tell any more – nods, flicking her renegade, emptily-hungry eyes at me, and deftly touches my shoulder, her fingertip feeling for all the world like a butterfly landing and quickly gently launching itself away, far away into the curious half-light. On cue, I turn my attention to the security glass, and carefully use the hard-edged symbol of our union to etch its front face with four good-size concentric circles.

The hall is starting to fill, now: our small army of alchemists is emerging one by one from their hiding places behind occult bookstalls, beneath pagan stall covers and carefully-positioned wizard cloaks, each with a red or yellow hood and a surgical mask tightly fastened down, just as she had specified. As the last of the twelve completes the circle around us, I step sharply forward and punch the ring’s diamond tip right at the centre of the design. The glass buckles a little, yet doesn’t quite give way – No, I think, something is wrong, and for an instant a cloud of burnt cinnamon doubt swirls around me, enveloping me in the riptide of fears I’ve worked so hard to suppress these past three years.

Yet perhaps sensing my edginess, the alchemists start to clap and chant, and before long I feel their resolve coursing through my veins. The bull in my soul charges forward and I punch, punch, punch the toughened glass until it starts to yield to my attacks, and its etched central circle finally gives way. Impatiently, I widen the glassy gap with my bare hands just enough to remove the book and to raise it over my head in triumph, tersely spattering its centuries-rigid vellum cover with my blood as I do so. The alchemists swoop in too to hold it aloft and to turn it to The Page, that one, marvellous page we have been waiting to see all our lives.

I look over to the girl: she nods once again and I bring out the ceremonial firebowl from the bag. Adam – dear, ever-reliable Frater Adamus – deftly removes the page with his pocket knife, folds it to shape, fills it with regulus of antimony, and ties up its gathered top using aqua vitae-impregnated handmade blue twine from his workshop. We are all trembling now, for everyone (even Baresch) was right – the Philosophers’ Stone is indeed hidden inside The Book: yet this is neither a metaphorical truth nor a pharmacological truth, but instead a literal truth. For once you have – as we have, over so many decades – worked to decode its carefully layered and allusive visual symbolism, the Voynich’s pages form a map spiralling in on itself… all pointing to one place, the single slightly-thicker-than-average vellum herbal bifolio inside which the tiny fragments of Stone were sealed all those centuries ago. We, then, are its 21st century liberators, its alchemical revolutionary freedom front: all we have to do now is light the blue touchpaper, and see the long-promised fireworks. And this ceremony marks the end of alchemy’s epic struggle, the chequered flag at the finishing line of two millennia of The Work. My queen nods once more for me to step forward with my lit taper, so that we can all make the ultimate step – beyond History, beyond pain, beyond Time itself. And I do, but…

* * * * * *

There are colours in my eyes, history flickering and sputtering as a beautiful infinity reaches out to hold my bloodsoaked hand… In this moment, I don’t know if I’m living forever or dying forever, if the girl is really human or some selfish dark spirit that is guiding me I know not where. Am I releasing her or creating her? Is she part of me or am I part of her? A flash from the the burning vellum page suddenly lights up our faces and I lay down beside her on the floor, the alchemical king and queen finally together, just as the Ancients foretold. A fire alarm finally goes off, its sprinklers lurch into action with a indoor cloudburst, but it is all too late, far too late, the Stone is here, The Stone Is Here! For all the burning, twisting sensations, we know for certain that the Stone is merely giving us a taste of ultimate Death to deliver its promise of ultimate Life. Yet though the colours in its flames are more intense than ever now, so too is the agony: I turn to the girl and see the same things I’m feeling reflected in her sprinkler-soaked face, and as we hold each other tightly I know it is both the end and the beginning, and our eternal future together lies in and beyond the Stone…

* * * * * *

Why on earth, mused the firemen, policemen, and paramedics, would anyone have gone to the trouble of placing all those strangely-posed lifelike statues in the middle of the hall? And why was just a single page missing from the precious Voynich Manuscript, on a rare two-day loan to this alchemy conference? File it under ‘M’ for ‘mystery’…

Fifteen hours in the air coming back from Taiwan (even if it was ultimately to the wrong airport) does lead you to click through all (and I really do mean all) the listings on China Airlines’ seatback audio/video on demand gizmo. And so it was that I listened to Eminem’s 2009 album Relapse (Bagpipes in Baghdad, etc), and watched not only Avatar (hi-tech pants, but all the better for not being in 3d), Shakespeare in Love (Gwyneth Paltrow gains a moustache, Shakespeare loses a muse, the end)… but also a rather splendid documentary on Jesuit missionary Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666).

[No, he didn’t write the VMs (nor the Rohonc Codex): but he was in Rome between 1611 and 1618, so there is an outside chance that he met Georg Baresch, who started at La Sapienza in 1605, Voynich trivia fans.]

It was the Jesuit mathematician and cartographer Matteo Ricci (1552-1610, so note that 11th May 2010 will mark the 400th anniversary of his death) who made the first real breakthrough into mainland China: as a result of his long-term efforts in understanding Chinese language, writing and culture, he became the first Westerner allowed into the Forbidden City (though he never actually met the Emperor). He co-compiled the first Westernized Chinese dictionary (around 1583-1588, though it got lost in the Jesuit archives until 1934) as well as the second one (1598, this time round with diacritical marks, but this one has yet to surface), and the first European-style map of the world in Chinese (in 1584, but only six copies of the 1602 printing survive). A pretty impressive set of cultural landmarks.

According to this interesting paper by Zhang Baichun:

“Ricci was the first to introduce European astronomical instruments to the Chinese. He made a copper celestial globe in Zhaoqing 肇 慶 (Guangdong) and explained astronomy to visitors in the 1580s. He also taught students in Shaozhou 韶 州 (Guangdong), Nanking, and Peking how to make a celestial globe, an astrolabe, a quadrant, and a sundial. In 1605, Ricci and Li Zhizao 李 之 藻 (1565-1630) wrote the Qiankun tiyi 乾 坤 體 義 (Cosmological epitome), describing the use of a copper armillary sphere to demonstrate the relation between the heavens and earth and to help calculate the coordinates of the celestial bodies (fig. 1). Two years later, Ricci and Li explained the astrolabe and its method of coordinate projection in another work, the Hungai tongxian tushuo 渾 蓋 通 憲 圖 說 (Explanation of the coordinates of the celestial sphere and vault). Prior to this, the demonstrational armillary sphere, the quadrant, and the astrolabe were unknown in China.”

Matteo Ricci tried to determine eclipses, but this was the limit of his abilities: and so noted that a future Jesuit approach to China should include missionaries who were able to construct accurate planetary calendars.

In many ways, calendar-making was a huge political problem in China: the practice had long been for a calendar to be set up at the start of a new dynasty, but this had the downside that over time its usefulness would slip and slide, causing faith in the Emperor (and indeed in the whole ruling class) to recede. For if the Emperor could not predict eclipses, what kind of control did he have over the universe? In fact, you could argue that this specifically Chinese calendrical drift was one of the key factors that helped drive the (vaguely Spengleresque) changes in dynasty.

This was essentially why Johann Terrenz Schreck (did he have a son called Shreck Two?), Giacomo Rho and Johann Adam Schall arrived in Macau in 1619. They came in ships laden with 7000 volumes containing a vast amount of up-to-the-minute Western scientific knowledge, plus numerous trendy and useful technical instruments (such as telescopes): yet the journey aboard their year-long, ummm, slow boat to China had been harrowing, and only six of the crew made it all the way.

The immediate problem they faced was that, after Matteo Ricci’s death in 1610, the Jesuits in Macau weren’t actually welcome on the mainland. However, after a few years this situation was (somewhat curiously) turned around by a war breaking out: Adam Schall compiled a book in Chinese on the latest European war machines (such as cannons) to advise the ruling Ming dynasty, and all of a sudden doors opened to the Jesuits once more.

Later (between 1631 and 1635), Adam Schall helped compile the 137-chapter “Chongzhen Calendar”, which applied the European learning the missionaries had brought with them to the problem of constructing a truly Chinese calendar. However, Emperor Chongzhen decided not to use it: the Ming Dynasty was in huge difficulties, and he judged that introducing it would have added more difficulties to the (already long) list. When the dynasty finally fell and the new Qing Dynasty began, Adam Schall bravely decided to stay on in Beijing – and (after some hair-raising troubles) became a close confidant of the newly installed Shunzhi Emperor. The calendar he had helped construct for the Ming Dynasty was finally introduced by the Qing Dynasty, and remained in use for hundreds of years afterwards.

[Of course, Adam Schall died fairly unhappy because he had failed to convert many people to Christianity, which ultimately had been the whole point of the expensive exercise. But let’s not dwell on that.]

* * * * * *

As far as assessing VMs “Chinese” theories goes, I learnt a great deal from all this. For one, Chinese astronomy of the day had long been based around dividing the equatorial sky in 365 and 1/4 divisions, and the Jesuits had difficulty transitioning over the instruments that were being made to use a somewhat less laborious 360 degree division: so I’m somewhat skeptical that the 30 x 12 = 360 nymphs/stars/labels of the VMs’ zodiac pages can have anything at all to do with Chinese astronomy pre-1640 or so.

I’m also now extremely skeptical about any Voynich Chinese language theory (and, yes, I was already pretty skeptical beforehand – after all, Jacques Guy had originally proposed the notion as a froggily linguistic canard). Socially and culturally, creating any kind of multi-letter Romanized transcription of Chinese or other similarly languages would be a major undertaking that would have attracted great attention. The idea that this could have been done on the quiet (and solely for the VMs) just seems flat-out wrong, particularly if you date the VMs to well before Matteo Ricci’s 1583-1588 first dictionary.

Furthermore, it was fascinating to read in Zhang Baichun’s article that even though (back in Europe) Johann Hevelius had telescopes, he used other equipment and naked-eye obervations in preference to them: citing Hepsold (1908), he notes that “In 1679, Hevelius and Halley had made comparative observations in Danzig. The results showed that the data obtained by Halley with the telescope were not more precise than those obtained by Hevelius with his own sights.” Telescopes, even by the mid 17th century, were still generally very poor quality.

Of course, you’re entirely free to make up your own mind on the origins of the VMs – but personally, I simply don’t see anything Chinese there whatsoever.

When Wilfrid Voynich bought his (now eponymous) manuscript in 1912, it was accompanied by a 1665 letter from Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher. In that, Marci noted three things that Raphael Mnishovsky (King Ferdinand III’s Czech language tutor) had told him about the strange artefact:-

  1. that the said book belonged to Emperor Rudolf
  2. that [Rudolf II] presented 600 ducats to the messenger who brought him the book
  3. that Raphael “thought that the author was Roger Bacon the Englishman

Voynich, perhaps seduced by a private ambition to sell a Roger Bacon manuscript, subsequently insisted that everyone should call it “The Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript”, and even went to the trouble of reconstructing a (probably completely wrong) Anglo-centric provenance based around John Dee’s selling a Roger Bacon manuscript to Emperor Rudolph II. However, since Voynich’s death, the whole notion that Roger Bacon was connected with the VMs has slipped ever further into the background, to the point that no Voynich researcher has considered Bacon a viable possibility for years (if not decades), basically because we all thought 1450 was the earliest workable date for it.

However, with the recent Austrian documentary vellum dating (1405-1438 @ 95% confidence), it seems we may all have been wrong about that. OK, not necessarily by much, but enough to be a tad annoying. Which is why I decided to revisit the whole Roger Bacon / VMs claimed linkage: might there actually be something in it, however tangential?

The first issue to consider is Raphael Mnishovsky’s idea that the VMs had anything to do with Roger Bacon. When did Mnishovsky form or conceive this opinion? There seem to be five main scenarios to consider:

  1. Mnishovsky had seen the VMs pre-1612 at court and had formed that opinion on his own
  2. Mnishovksy had seen the VMs in Jacobus de Tepenecz’s possession
  3. Mnishovksy had seen the VMs in Baresch’s possession
  4. Mnishovsky had seen the VMs in Marci’s possession and had formed that opinion only then
  5. Mnishovsky had not seen the VMs, and was passing on a second-hand opinion

The problem with Scenario #1 is that I don’t think Mnishovsky was quite old enough to have been at Rudolph’s court. Similarly for #2, my understanding is that Mnishovsky was essentially a post-1612 courtier, and de Tepenecz was never close to court after Rudolph II’s death. The problem with #3 is that Baresch doesn’t mention any link with Roger Bacon in his 1637 letter to Kircher: while the problem with #4 is that it seems inconsistent with Marci’s letter (unless I’m subtly misreading it).

Which leads me to point my stick of historical judgment at Scenario #5: and to assert that the manuscript was probably linked to Roger Bacon while still at Rudolph II’s court (though Baresch probably knew nothing of this). Might the VMs have been sold to Rudolph as having been composed by Roger Bacon?

Given that Roger Bacon (genuinely) constructed his own computus and that the first manuscript copies of the famous “Mirror of Alchemy” (Speculum Alchemiae) ascribed (falsely) to him appeared in the fifteenth century, the suggestion that the (early-to-mid-fifteenth century) VMs could also have been (falsely) ascribed to Roger Bacon is hardly that far-fetched. Yes, I agree the claim is false – but where and when did that claim originate?

I wonder… is there a list anywhere of lost (genuine or ascribed) Roger Bacon works? Perhaps there are references to a Roger Bacon herbal in correspondence close to the Imperial court 1600-1612 that might have been overlooked. Something to think about, anyway. 🙂

PS: here’s a 1928 article on Newbold’s claims that recently popped up in JSTOR. Enjoy (the first page, at least)! 🙂

Following on from Philip Neal’s translations, I wondered to myself: what might be lurking in Jesuit archives (specifically to do with Jacobus de Tepenecz / Sinapius)? And so I thought I’d have a quick snoop…

For Jesuitica in general, has a useful list of Jesuit archives, of which the big three are (1) Georgetown University’s numerous Special Collections [Maryland District of Columbia]; (2) Loyola University Archives [Chicago]; and (3) the Maurits Sabbe Library at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven [Belgium]. Incidentally, Georgetown has a very cool favicon, hats off to their web designer. 🙂

A slightly wider web-trawl yields more resources: an EBIB article on a giant Jesuit library in Poland (with an online catalogue), and the Library Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt am Main. Doubtless there are many more to be found, but that is at least a starting point.

As an aside, the Society of Jesus was born at the height of the Republic of Letters, with its missionary empire spanning the globe supported by extensive letters (I saw Matteo Ricci’s Lettere [1580-1609] flash past during my unproductive Jesuit catalogue searching), so in some ways one might expect that Sinapius might be plugged in to that whole network. Yet he emerged from the [presumably unlettered] kitchen staff at Krumlov, and may have not been primarily inclined to write as much as others. It may well be that there simply are no Sinapius letters out there to be found (probably a bit of Melnik-related decree signing, but not a great deal else).

Yet on the other (Paracelsian) side of Yates’ Rosicrucian divide, we see Georg Baresch’s 1637 letter to Athanasius Kircher which praised the latter’s “unprecedented efforts for the republic of letters”. Plainly the idea of the Republic of Letters was still very much alive in the pre-Kircher years: but the question inevitably remains, hanging awkwardly in the air – where have all those letters gone? Were they lost or destroyed, or are many simply lying uncatalogued in private archives?

Incidentally, Christopher Clavius is a famous letter-writing Jesuit mathematician: while François De Aguilon first used the word “stereographic” (for astrolabe-style projections), and his book on optics (Opticorum libri sex philosophis juxta ac mathematicis utiles ) had illustrations by Peter Paul Rubens.

For the voluminous scientific correspondence of Peiresc (1580-1637) who left about 3200 letters and Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) who left around 1100, you might try trawling through the “Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne”, 16 vols. (1932-1986) or Ismaël Boulliau’s (1605-1694) 5000 unpublished letters. Even though these may well all fall just past our particular time-frame of interest, you’ll never know if you don’t look. [For Boulliau, see Robert Hatch’s chapter 4 in The formation and exchange of ideas in seventeenth-century Europe].

I don’t know: basically, I experience alternating waves of optimism and pessimism about the Voynich Manuscript’s post-1600 history – there’s too little and too late. I get the feeling that Sinapius is a bit of a cul-de-sac, and that we should be looking earlier and towards Southern France for a brief flash of our mysterious herbal manuscript inside the correspondence of the day. But what letters are out there? How would we ever find them?

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. 🙂

While writing my MBA dissertation a few years ago, I spun off a short paper called “Justified True Belief: Three Words, Three Lies?“, where the abstract explained its title:-

Cornelius Castoriadis once famously described the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as “four words, four lies”: here, I examine each of the three words of “justified true belief” in turn to see if that too might be based on a fatally flawed discourse. In fact, “three lies” turns out to be a little strong – but the evidence strongly points to “two-and-a-half lies”. We deserve better than this!

My guess is that Castoriadis, for all his pithiness, was ripping off Voltaire, who in 1756 wrote:

This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

So now, by applying the same pattern to the Voynich Manuscript, I’m extending the chain of ripping yet further. Just so you know!

What’s in a name? Wilfrid Voynich never called it “The Voynich Manuscript”: right from the start, he called it “The Roger Bacon Manuscript”. Which was a bit of a shame, given that it originally almost certainly had nothing to do with Roger Bacon.

However, because Voynich desperately wanted it to contain Bacon’s encrypted secrets, he was convinced it had to be medieval. It was in this context that he referred to it as a “manuscript”, because manuscripts are technically defined as being handwritten documents that predate the start of printing, which means 1450 or so. And so you can see that the word “Manuscript” in “Voynich Manuscript” presupposes a medieval document, or else it would have to be called “an early modern handwritten document” (which, for all its precision, is not quite so punchy). And worse, the range of dates it could sensibly have been made goes over this 1450 mark, so we have no real certainty to work from here.

As for “Voynich”: in one sense it should be “Wojnicz”, the book dealer’s surname before he ended up in London. But we sophisticated moderns should perhaps more sensibly name it after the Jesuit Villa Mondragone (where Wilfrid Voynich found it), or Johannes Marcus Marci (who inherited it and whose letter to Kircher travelled with it all the way to New Haven), or George Baresch (arguably the first obsessive Voynich researcher to be documented), or Sinapius / Jacobus de Tepenecz (whose erased signature still faintly remains on the first page), or even Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (who was said to have paid well for it).

All of this still rather panders to an implied need for naming, as if by giving it a name it somehow helps us understand its origins (it doesn’t, can’t, and won’t). It’s an itch we don’t actually need to scratch: we need to learn to be more comfortable about remaining in a state of uncertainty.

My dissertation was all about knowledge and uncertainty: the work I’ve done since then points to my own three-word definition for knowledge – “hopefully useful lies“. Calling this enigmatic object the “Voynich Manuscript” is indeed “two words, two lies” – but as long as we never forget that they are both lies, its name is a most useful tool.

My fellow Voynich old-timer Jan Hurych has long been interested in various Prague-linked research strands: after all, Prague was home to the first three properly-documented owners of the Voynich Manuscript (Jacobus de Tepenecz, Georg Baresch, and Johannes Marcus Marci), as well as its most illustrious claimed owner (Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II).

It is certainly true that Rudolf’s interests and obsessions acted as a powerful magnet to draw wonders from all over Europe to his court. Yet given that the claimed link with John Dee and Edward Kelley is gossamer-thin, it is no less sensible to wonder whether the VMs had been brought to Prague by someone from the town: perhaps someone well-travelled?

I mentioned Rudolf II’s manuscript-collecting astronomer / astrologer / herbalist / physician Tadeás Hájek here recently (who studied in Italy), but Jan Hurych regales me with tales of several others: for one, Hájek’s father (Simon Baccalareus) studied alchemy and collected manuscripts… though what happened to his library after his death is not currently known.

Jan has put together a nice page on one of his favourite Renaissance Czech travelling knights, Krystof Harant de Polzic and Bezdruzic, and his travels from Venice to Crete to Cyprus to the Holy Land to Egypt (etc). But I have to say that if a writer had picked up an intriguing cipher manuscript on their travels, it would be one of the first things they would write about: yet there is no mention. So we can probably rule Harant out, sorry Jan. 🙁

But Jan brings up a rather more full-on Czech Voynich theory, courtesy of Karel Dudek’s Czech webpage (though I used Google Translate, Dudek also put up his own English translation here). Dudek discusses Georg Handsch of Limuz (1529-1578), whose 1563 German translation of Mattioli’s Latin herbal came out a year after Tadeás Hájek’s Czech translation (it even used the same nice woodcuts!) Like Hájek, Handsch was a physician living in Prague, but whose main client was instead Ferdinand II Tyrolský (1529-1595) and his wealthy wife Filipina Welserová (1527-1580).

Dudek got his information from Leopold Selfender’s “Handsch Georg von Limuz – Lebensbild a Arztes aus dem XVI.Jahrenhunderts”: but after a bit of a false start (linking Handsch directly to Baresch, which I doubt would convince anyone), he proposes a possible chain of ownership from Handsch -> Welserová -> Ferdinand II Tyrolský -> Rudolph II -> Jacobus de Tepenecz, before Tepenecz’s estate got looted in the chaos of 1618 and the manuscript somehow ended up with Baresch (with the signature erased).

OK… but why Handsch? Dudek points to the VMs’ botany, and Handsch’s translation of Matthioli’s herbal (though I’d have to say that Hájek fits that bill even better). Dudek also discusses a book by Handsch based on his trips to visit medicinal baths and spas in 1571 called “Die Elbfischerei in Bohmen und Meissen” (eventually published in Prague in 1933), and sees parallels with the VMs’ water section there.

But Dudek gets even more speculative, talking about whether Bartoloměj Welser was financed by Charles V to undertake a (possibly Lutheran?) mission to South America, and drew pictures inspired by exotic plants he saw beside the Orinoco (hey, I thought he was a Womble?)

It’s a good story, but a little lacking in connection to the VMs: and doesn’t really explain why we see (for example) 15th century handwriting in the quire numbers, or even the Occitan-like month names on the zodiac, etc. Perhaps we should really admit that looking for an origin for the VMs in Prague may be a little too hopeful, not dissimilar to the way 19th century German historians’ looked to see if Nicholas of Cusa might secretly have been some kind of Teutonic Leonardo. Nice try… but no cigar.

When the Voynich Manuscript misdecipherer William Romaine Newbold died, his friend & colleague Roland Grubb Kent decided to bring all his late friend’s notes together into a book: this was published in 1928 by the University of Philadelphia Press under the title “The Cipher of Roger Bacon”. If you’d like your own copy, Kessinger sell a modern print-on-demand reproduction of it, with quite reasonable quality pictures (apart from the awful picture of Newbold right at the start).

And it was from Newbold’s and Kent’s book that the story of the modern missing pages sprang.

You see, there’s an innocuous-looking table in page 45’s footnote 2 that describes the physical make-up of the manuscript: in particular, it lists the first (what we would now call the “Herbal”) section (“Part I. Botanical, ff. 1-11, 13-66″) as having 65 folios (“leaves”), with 125 drawings and 5 text-only pages.

However, the manuscript as now owned by the Beinecke only has 59 leaves: Rene Zandbergen’s page on this lists folios 12, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, and 64 as missing. Might folios 59 to 64 (at the centre of a quire) have gone missing in the 20th century, sometime between Newbold examining them and being given to the Beinecke by Hans Kraus? If so, might Newbold have had any reproductions of them?

While researching my book, en route to New Haven I stayed with some old friends near Philadelphia: and so used the opportunity to drop by the University of Pennsylvania’s archives, which I happened to know held several boxes of Newbold’s records. At last, I thought, I would be able to see if these missing pages might be there.

The good news was that the set of photostats Wilfrid Voynich had given Newbold were still there: yet the reproduction of the Herbal section contained precisely the same pages as we see nowadays – the same pages that are missing now were missing then.

So what actually happened? Simply, I’m reasonably sure that the table on page 45 was miscopied from an intermediate handwritten count, and that Newbold or Kent (whichever of the two) just got it wrong. The missing folios were long gone, decades (probably centuries) before Wilfrid Voynich bought it in 1912.

I suspect that the folio numbers were added between 1580 and 1600, around the time that the manuscript was rebound into its current order and repainted (probably to gain a higher price): and that many (if not all) of the missing pages-as-numbered were sent by George Baresch to Athanasius Kircher, as per the correspondence.

Perhaps Kircher’s collection of cipher notes will turn up one day (which would be very nice), and will turn out to contain many/all of these missing pages: but perhaps it is safer to assume that somewhere along the way, some well-meaning Jesuit administrator destroyed them – after all, something you can’t read surely has no value?