In his 1665 letter to Athanasius Kircher accompanying what we now call the Voynich Manuscript, Johannes Marcus Marci wrote [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. He, Raphael, thought that the author was Roger Bacon the Englishman. I suspend my judgement on the matter.

You be the judge of what we should think about it. […]

All very well: but surely this begs a huge question, one that everyone has seemed content to duck for the last century. Let’s not forget that Raphael Sobiehrd-Mnishovsky de Sebuzin & de Horstein was a lawyer, writer, poet, cryptographer, and even a favourite at the Imperial Court: basically, a smart, super-literate, well-connected cookie. So why on earth did he think this odd manuscript had anything whatsoever to do with Roger Bacon, of all people?

Of course, now that we have a 15th century radiocarbon date for the manuscript, Voynich researchers are a little inclined to be sniffy about Bacon, thinking this mostly a sign of Wilfrid Voynich’s personal folly – or, more specifically, WMV’s antiquarian obsession with finding any link that could be proven between his “Roger Bacon Manuscript” and Roger Bacon himself. Perhaps it was WMV’s burning desire that ultimately claimed poor William Romaine Newbold’s life, drained by his pareidoiliac compulsion to reveal its craquelure shorthand, with his friend Lynn Thorndike then unwillingly laying Newbold’s hopeful nonsense to rest.

But all the same, Roger Bacon is mentioned right there in Marci’s letter: and this is one of the very first things we have that describes the Voynich, as well as the manuscript’s earliest provenance link with Rudolf II’s Imperial Court. So why Bacon? What possible candidate explanations have been put forward?

Actually, surprisingly few of any great credibility, it has to be said. Some people have argued (without great enthusiasm) that the manuscript might possibly be a 15th century copy of a lost work by Roger Bacon. However, its tricky cryptography seems light years beyond Bacon’s era, while the near-complete absence of religious imagery (combined with the nakedness of its ‘nymphs’) also seem sharply at odds with Bacon’s monastic severity, let’s say.

In “The Curse of the Voynich” (2006), I speculated [p.219] that Roger Bacon might have been part of a cover story deliberately planted by the original author. Certainly there is reasonable evidence that the Voynich’s cipher alphabet was consciously constructed to look somewhat archaic to mid-fifteenth century eyes: say, 100 to 150 years older than its physical age. Bacon’s familiarity with Arabic sources and even possibly his (alleged) link with alchemy might then have commended him to the real author as a fake author… back then history was a little more forgiving, let’s say, over such issues as authenticity.

However, a key problem with this hypothesis is that many of the previous objections (the lack of religious imagery, the nymphs) apply just as strongly. Moreover, I’m now fairly sure that Bacon only had alchemical works (falsely) ascribed to him many decades later (around 1590-1600), which further weakens the argument. Hence six years on, I’m not so convinced any more… oh well!

And yet Dr Raphael thought it was Bacon ‘wot dun it’. How can that be? What reasonable explanation might there have been for this otherwise inexplicable lapse of judgement? Well, here’s my 2012 attempt to form an Intellectual History account of all this…

Could it be that the link with Roger Bacon wasn’t in the content of the manuscript but in something to do with Bacon’s Franciscan order? Simply put, might the Voynich Manuscript have been owned by Franciscans? Might it have lived in a Franciscan library? Even more specifically, might it have lived in a Franciscan Library not too far from Lake Constance?

I suspect that the deliberately plain brown habit and white belt of a Franciscan or Capuchin monk would have been an unusual sight at the Imperial Court, where the white and black habits of the Benedictine, Cistercian and Augustinian orders were very much more usual. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but Wikipedia’s list of Imperial Abbeys seems not to contain a single Franciscan friary, monastery or convent.

So, might the messenger bearing the Voynich Manuscript have therefore been a Franciscan monk? If it was, then I think Dr Raphael could indeed have reasonably inferred that the author of the Voynich Manuscript might well have been Roger Bacon: for if it was an enciphered manuscript of the right age from a Franciscan library with an unknown early provenance, Roger Bacon’s authorship could well have been a perfectly reasonable inference, and in fact no less wobbly than most of what has generally been passed off as 20th / 21st century Voynich theorizing.

Hence I’m pretty smitten by this Franciscan Voynich Theory: if true, it would explain Dr Raphael’s testimony in a parsimonious and reasonable way, even if it doesn’t actually help us read the manuscript itself. It may also be the case that the back page (f116v) was a little more readable circa 1610: the presence of what looks like “six pax nax vax ahia maria” interspersed with crosses then might have had far more religious import back then than it does to us moderns.

A reasonable next step might well be to start looking for Franciscan libraries in the Lake Constance area circa 1600-1610: I asked the well-respected Franciscan historian Bert Roest where to look next, and he very kindly directed me to the extensive online list of Works/info on medieval and early modern Franciscan libraries he helps maintain. I should mention quickly that it’s, errrm, a bit big.

Does anyone want to kindly volunteer to trawl through it to compile a preliminary list of candidate Franciscan libraries? For example, Bad Kreuznach, Thuringia, Gottingen, and Frankfurt are all in there, but I suspect that these might all be a little bit too far North, while Fribourg was also perhaps a little too far West. I’m not sure if there are many left! Perhaps this would best be done as some kind of Google Maps overlay?

However, I should caution that real history often turns out to be an unexpected anagram of all the things we suspect: that is, all the right ingredients, but arranged in an order that subtly confounds your expectations and carefully laid plans. Here, the historical ingredients are:
* a Franciscan Library
* Lake Constance (i.e. the Bodensee)
* Rudolf II’s Imperial Court
* a Chinese Whispers-like process whereby the original provenance was forgotten over many decades.

Given all that, I did notice one rather intriguing alternative possibility: Lindau, an Imperial Free City on its own island in the Bodensee. This was formed from the core of a Franciscan Library that was given over to the city in 1528 as part of the Protestant Reformation: it’s now part of the Reichsstädtische Bibliothek Lindau. Once again, do I have any volunteers for looking through the library’s early catalogue?

Really, the question comes down to this: might a representative of the Imperial Free City have taken a strange herbal-like book to Prague circa 1605-1610 from the former Franciscan library in Lindau as a splendidly odd gift for Emperor Rudolf II? Personally, I think it’s entirely possible and – best of all – something that might well be checkable against the historical record. Testable history: it’s something I can’t get enough of! 🙂

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!?

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)! 🙂

Though the Dean at All Saints in the Citadel of Prague was one of the earliest people to mention the Voynich Manuscript (in two letters to his old friend Athanasius Kircher), poor old Godefridus (Gottfried) Aloysius Kinner of Löwenthurn hasn’t really featured much in the discussion so far.

In Kinner’s letter dated 4th January 1666, he mentions to Kircher that their mutual friend Johannes Marcus Marci asked after “that arcane book which he gave up to you“, which itself seems to mark Marci’s (rather more famous) letter to Kircher as genuine. Kinner also expresses cynicism about alchemy, judging it to be as “worthless” as judicial astrology has proved to be.

Kinner’s letter dated 5 January 1667 from the following New Year finds him still battling with asthma and a cough, and notes that even though Marci “has lost his memory of nearly everything“, he still “wishes to know through me whether you have yet proved an Oedipus in solving that book which he sent via the Father Provincial last year and what mysteries you think it may contain“. He also laments the recent death of Gasparus Schott.

Up until now, most Voynich-related archival search has been carried out by relentlessly trawling through Kircher’s obsessively overflowing (and increasingly well-documented and accessible) inbox. However, for all its interest, this is rather like hearing only one side of a phone conversation – there’s only so much you can reliably infer. I wondered: might there be other letters from/to Kinner out there, or perhaps even books (as these often contained copies of letters)?

A quick online trawl turned up some Kinner letters from 1664-1665 with Christiaan Huygens, reproduced in book V of his “Œuvres complètes”. Curiously, Huygens’ correspondence was published in 22 volumes (from 1888-1950!) yet doesn’t seem to get mentioned much (I ought to add it to my list of correspondence projects): presumably we’d be most interested in looking at “Tome Sixieme: Correspondance 1666-1669” (which I don’t think is online)…

The mention of the Jesuit Gaspar Schott in Kinner’s 1667 letter is also interesting: not only did Schott study under Kircher, he also (while a Professor at Palermo) corresponded with Guericke, Huygens and Boyle, compiling it all into the “Organum mathematicum“, a massive collection of novelties and things of contemporary interest… which Kinner helped edit. Such are the bonds which tie a community together.

Incidentally, the nine volumes of the Organum are: (1) Arithmeticus, (2) Geometricus, (3) Fortificatorius, (4) Chronologicus, (5) Horographicus, (6) Astronomicus, (7) Astrologicus, (8) Steganographicus, (9) Musicus. Of course, book eight might be the most interesting for Voynich researchers. 🙂

WorldCat lists other books by Kinner, such as his (1653) “Elucidatio geometrica problematis austriaci sive quadraturæ circuli“, and his (1664) “Stella Matutina In Medio Nebulae, Sive Laudatio Funebris“, but I somehow doubt that these will produce anything useful.

From all the above, it should be clear here that we are talking about an active community of people continually corresponding across Europe: and indeed, over recent decades letters have become perhaps the most fashionable form of historical documentation amongst early modern / Renaissance historians.

So, you would have thought it would be useful to find out if there is an archive somewhere that just happens to have more correspondence from Kinner, right?

However sensible an idea, this immediately runs into a brick wall: the lack of any kind of cross-collection finding aid for early modern historical correspondence. In fact, libraries’ and private collections’ programmes for scanning and indexing letters are decades behind the many (far more high-visibility) book-scanning programmes. Funding-wise, it seems that books are “sexy”, while letters are “unsexy”: but actually, ask working historians and you’ll find that this is just wrong.

My guess is that the right place to start such a quest would be Book VI of Huygens’ Oeuvres Complètes, to see if it says where Huygens’ correspondence to/from Kinner is held. It may well be that this points the way to more of the same, who knows?

UPDATE: thanks to Christopher Hagedorn’s exemplary persistence in the face of the BnF’s flaky servers, we now have a direct link to Book VI of Huygens’ Oeuvres Complètes. From this we can tell that Kinner’s correspondence seems to stop dead in 1667, the same year that Marci died. My guess is that perhaps this too marked the end of Kinner’s life (and the likely end of this avenue). Ah well. 🙁

A vast constellation of curious books revolves around the hazily uncertain core of the Voynich Manuscript: as with most things, some are outright good, some are just plain bad, while most live in a mixed-up zone in the middle.

Henry Carrington Bolton’s (1904) ” The Follies of Science at the Court of Rudolph II” is a poster-child for that mixed-up zone – equal parts fact and fiction, Bolton’s oeuvre contains more than a dash of both historical sense and hysterical nonsense. Though it does go on to cover many varied aspects of Rudolph’s court, the first half of it amounts to a greatest-hits compilation of the credulous alchemical mythology surrounding John Dee’s Bohemian adventure – “Now That’s What I Call Bohemian Alchemy #1“, if you like. 🙂

However, for all the hallucinogenic tableaux he conjures up via the shewstone of his historical imagination (and for all the brazen liberties he takes with the facts), Bolton clearly did go to a great deal of trouble to fabricate his Ikea mansion out a lot of, well, basically good stuff. Hence the reader (though often deeply suspicious) finds hundreds of genuine factual nuggets embedded into the walls of the proto-scientific passageway Bolton has tunnelled through the Rudolfine era.

So, my question to you is this: is the following particularly shiny nugget (pp.37-38) gold or lead?

[...] when conversation was interrupted by the
entrance of Martin de Rutzke, bringing with him a beautifully
illuminated and rare manuscript rescued at the dispersal of
the library of Wresowitz, who was reputed to have been a
successful experimenter. The work was entitled "The True

Path of Alchemy," and was written by Antonio of Florence
in the year 1475; being couched in exceedingly obscure and
mystical language, hinting only at the secrets of the black
art, it was particularly admired by Rudolph who ordered his
treasurer to pay the high price demanded for it, and instructed
his librarian to add it to his valuable collection.

For a start, this “beautifully illuminated and rare manuscript… couched in exceedingly obscure and mystical language, hinting only at the secrets of the black art” bought by Rudolph for a “high price” does sounds terrifically like the Voynich Manuscript as described by Dr Raphael Mnishovsky (according to Johannes Marcus Marci in 1665).

Furthermore, even if I just happened to have a time machine in my shed I could barely have engineered a more blatant archival link between Rudolph II and a mid-Quattrocento Florentine called “Antonio”. (Note that Antonio Averlino is reported by Giorgio Vasari to have died in Rome around 1469, but given that there is no documentation to support or refute this, 1475 is entirely possible.)

As far as the book’s 16th century provenance goes, Wolfgang von Wresowitz died on 21st March 1569, while Bernhard Wresowitz died in 1571, and presumably the alchemical “library of Wresowitz” Bolton mentions was dispersed not long after: Rudolph moved his court to Prague in 1583, but it would probably take someone like Rafal Prinke to trace the Wresowitz alchemical library connection any further.

All in all, the big research question then becomes: did Bolton just make up this whole thing (the document name, author name, date, price, and provenance), or was he reporting something he found while trawling relevant books for intriguing-sounding alchemical stories? He comments elsewhere that he made use of the books by Czech historian Josef Svatek (1835-1897), so perhaps that’s one place to start.

Normally, the first proper place one would look for this would be the 1607-1611 Kunstkammer inventory drawn up by miniaturist Daniel Fröschl, as described in detail in Rotraud Bauer and Herbert Haupt’s (1976), “Die Kunstkammer Rudolfs II“. Unfortunately, the relevant gifs have long disappeared from the Bauer-Haupt page, so doing this will probably require someone (i.e. probably me) to spend a day at the library. However, I should also caution that, because Rudolph II may well have presented the same book to Sinapius around 1608 when he gave him the “de Tepenecz” title (i.e. while Fröschl was drawing up the inventory), it is entirely possible that it may not appear there – so, absence of evidence there would (as ever) not be evidence of absence.

However, the problem with this is that Fröschl’s inventory was completely unknown to historians until the middle of the twentieth century, and hence was unknown to Bolton: so, whatever Bolton’s source for this story, the one place we can be sure it didn’t (directly) come from is that inventory.

But all the same: if not there, where on earth did Bolton happen to read about “The True Path of Alchemy“? If we could answer that question, we might well be able to find out about the Voynich Manuscript’s very early history… definitely worth a closer look, I’d say… 🙂

PS: quick reminder not to forget the London Voynich pub meet at 5pm tonight!

PPS: thanks to a high-speed reply from Rafal Prinke, it now looks as though this is not (after all) the Voynich Manuscript (which is a shame, but what do you expect if you rely on Bolton?) – and possibly closer to a chicken nugget than to a gold nugget. Even so, expect a further post on this shortly! 😮

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.