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.

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!)

A nice little thing just arrived in the post: I had contacted the Prague-based Society for the History of Sciences (“DVT” = dějiny věd a techniky) to ask how to get hold of a copy of its 2000 monograph on Tadeáš Hájek z Hájku. To my surprise, the DVT’s Igor Janovský said – don’t worry about paying, we’ll just send you a copy (which they did).

It’s a rather pleasant little blue-covered volume: though all in Czech, there is a contents page at the back in English. As this doesn’t appear anywhere on the Internet, I thought I’d copy it here:-

5 … Introduction
7 … Zdenĕk Beneš: Lifetime of Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek – his personality, time and milieu
15 … Jaroslav Soumar: Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek and his time
25 … Michal Svatoš: Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek and Prague University
35 … Martin Šolc: Astronomy in activity of Tadeáš Hájek
41 … Alena Hadravová & Petr Hadrava: Observation devices in the time of Tadeáš Hájek
49 … Petr Hadrava: Tradition in Czech stellar astronomy (Conclusion to the astronomy of Tadeáš Hájek and foreward to S. Štefl’s article)
51 … Stanislav Štefl: Stelar studies of Be-stars with spectrograph Heros
55 … Voytĕch Hladký & Martin Šolc: Tadeáš Hájek and the calendary reform of Pope Gregorius
61 … Karel Krška: Tadeáš Hájek as meteorologist
67 … Zdenĕk Tempír: Cultivation of hop-plants up to 16th century and Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek
79 … Gabriela Basařová: Contribution of Tadeáš Hájek to Czech and world brewing
93 … Pavel Drábek: Aspects of medicine in Hájek’s treatise on beer
95 … Václav Vĕtvička: Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek as botanist
103 … Jaroslav Slípka: Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek and his “Methoposcopy”
109 … Milada Říhová: Treatise on methoposcopy of Tadeáš Hájek of Hájek
115 … Pavel Drábek: Antonius Mizaldus an interpreteur of Hájek’s Methoposcopy into French
117 … Bohdana Buršiková: “Actio medica”, or the professional dispute of Tadeáš Hájek
125 … Josef Smolka: Andreas Dudith (1533-1589) – penfriend of Tadeáš Hájek
169 … Josef Petráň: Tadeáš Hájek’s relation to practice
175 … On bibliography Hageciana
189 … Obsah
[i.e. “Contents” in Czech]
190 … Contents

By far the biggest (44-page long) piece is Josef Smolka’s article (pp.125-168) on Hájek’s correspendence from Andreas Dudith: the table on p.137 lists 47 extant letters dating from 1572 to 1589. Dudith’s correspondence is currently being edited by L. Szczucki a T. Szepessy: parts I to IV were published in 1992, 1995, 2000, and 1998, with the last two corresponding just to 1574 and 1575 (which must have been busy years). Note that Smolka has examined the letters to Hájek past 1575, not just the ones that have been edited & published.

I must admit that all this changes what I thought about the 16th century. I had previously got the impression that there was a huge explosion in scientific letter writing only in the mid-17th century, triggered by the Royal Society and Kircher’s encyclopedic output. My impression of the preceding century had been that its letters had been more literary and political. But here we can see a 16th century group corresponding intensely: this pushes the boundary right back in time.

Was this an “invisible college”? Owen Gingerich received light flak for using the phrase (“The Book Nobody Read“, p.82), which he defines (pp.178-179) as “tutorial and mentor relationships that transcended institutional boundaries“: though in modern sociological usage, it is usually a rather more hand-waving way of expressing undocumented (but implicitly present) loose connections between members of an extended community through which ideas flow. For once, the Wikipedia entry is mostly helpful (well, up until its final summary, anyway).

I’d point out that ‘mentoring’ is a somewhat inexact term (as well as being a modern back-projection onto history, with “mentor” dating only from 1699, and becoming trendy in the 1990s): and that the whole “invisible college” notion comes with extensive occult, Rosicrucian, and secret society baggage which perhaps we would be better off not carrying on our journey forwards. Basically, I fail to see how using “invisible” to denote “non-academic” is helpful to anyone: I’ve met plenty of essentially invisible academics, haven’t you?

For the most part, I think that what is meant by “invisible college” is no more than a geographically- extended community of letter-writers, trading ideas rather than goods. Others might prefer to call this a “community of letters” (though I’m not sure if this is helpful either).

And so we come to Rene Zandbergen’s comment on my earlier post on Tadeáš Hájek. He writes that “According to Dr.Smolka, if Hajek had had access to the MS now known as the Voynich MS, it should be expected that he would have mentioned it to Duditius, but this is not the case.” [Smolka’s article on Duditius and Hájek is the one discussed above].

Actually, I do buy into this: if the VMs did get bought by Rudolph II (who, let’s say, then gave it to Horcicky), we may be able to rule out the pre-1590 (and indeed the pre-1600) period. In fact, I’d say the best place to look would probably be in the community of scientific letter-writers around Europe circa 1600-1612, and particularly before 1606-1609 when Rudolph II’s grip on the court started to yield to his brother Matthias. So rather than Duditius and Hájek themselves, we ought to be hunting down their successors’ letters. But who would that be?

It would need someone with a better grasp of ‘unpublished Bohemian scientific correspondence 1600-1610’ than me to know where best to look next. All the same, I have some ideas… 😉

Google only finds about ten pages where Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577) is linked with the Voynich Manuscript. Here’s a short research note to fill that gap…

If you look at Mattioli’s CV, you’ll see plenty of echoes with other people linked to the VMs. Though a renowned herbal compiler & writer in his spare time, he was also a physician to the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand II and to Emperor Maximilian II (who was, of course, Rudolph II’s father), which is broadly similar to both Hajek and Sinapius.

Brumbaugh once compared Mattioli’s famous 1544 herbal (the one that Hajek and Handsch translated in 1562/1563) with the VMs’ herbal drawings, and concluded that the two had (I think) at most one half of one plant in common. And so it seems relatively certain there is no connection: neither one is derived from the other, nor do both emanate from a common source.

Yet even though Rene Zandbergen avers demurs in this, I am quite certain (from closely examining it at the Beinecke) that the first word of the faded marginalia at the top of f17r has been emended from “melhor” to read “mattioli“. That is, a later owner (who was probably unable to read Occitan and French) misinterpreted the word as a garbled reference to Mattioli, and decided to correct it on the page.

Marcelo Dos Santos’ page on f17r (in Spanish) mentions much of this. He also mentions Sean Palmer’s assertion that the waterstain on f17r must have happened after the f17r marginalia were added, but before the f116v ‘michitonese’ marginalia: but no, sorry, I don’t accept that idea at all. If you look at the following pages, you can see where the waterstain fades away: it’s a localised piece of damage.

Marcelo also pulls down my suggested link with fennel for the picture on f17r (the one with a pair of “eyes” in the roots): yet he seems not to grasp that there the herbal literature of the late Middle Ages / Renaissance repeatedly connects fennel with eyes – finnochio / occhio in Italian, but similarly in Occitan and other languages. Oh well.

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.

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 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.”