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The Voynich MS - Biographies

1. Introduction

Following are biographies of a number of people related to the Voynich MS. These biographies are not intended to cover all aspects of the lives and careers of each of them, but to emphasise areas for potential connections with the history of the Voynich MS. For all but one of them, more complete biographies are available in the printed literature. A portrait gallery including all of the people discussed in this page is available via this link. Footnotes are provided separately for each biography.

A. Rudolf II

(Sources, see note A.1).

For Rudolf II a proper biography is completely outside the scope of these pages. Here, I will concentrate only on some aspects of his life, as far as they may be relevant for the Voynich MS.

Rudolf II was born in Vienna on 18 Juli 1552 as the son of Maximilian II and Maria, daughter of emperor Charles V. At the age of 11 he moved to the court of his uncle, King Philip II in Spain. He stayed in Spain from 1564 to 1571, and both the Spanish ceremony used at the court, and the art collections of Philip II made an everlasting impression on him. In 1572 Rudolf became the King of Hungary and in 1576 he was crowned king of Bohemia in the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. On 27 October of the same year he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the Cathedral of Regensburg (Ratisbona).

In 1578 he suffered a stomach ailment and this marked the start of his melancholic depressions. His first serious depression occurred in 1582. One year later he decided to make Prague his permanent residence, as it was better defended against the ever dooming danger of Turkish attacks.

Rudolf II had a long list of imperial physicians taking care of him over the several decades till his death. Jacobus de Tepenec, the next known owner of the Voynich MS, reputedly once cured him from a grave disease, and he is occasionally called one of his personal physicians, but he was not. Many of these physicians are treated in great detail in dedicated chapters in Purš and Karpenko (2016) (see note A.1).

Rudolf collected a large group of artists and scientists at his court. Wilfrid Voynich writes that he studied the lives of many of them in order to identify the one(s) most likely to have sold the Voynich MS to Rudolf. He concluded that John Dee was the one, however, this is no longer considered likely. Voynich based his opinion on a historical novel rather than serious studies of the court of Rudolf (A.2). In reality, the list of candidates is extremely long. Just to give a short impression of this, following is a summary list of names (sorted alphabetically) of people who were related with the court of Rudolf II, and had something to do with books, alchemy, medicine, or botany (A.3). This list could be extended very signficantly.

Blotius, Hugo
Librarian, responsible for the Hofbibliothek in Vienna. See also Richterová (2016) (A.4).

Boethius de Boodt, Anselmus
Alchemist and mineralogist, who reputedly owned some powder that allowed the transmutation (A.5).

Bruno, Giordano
Italian philosopher who was executed in Rome by burning at the stake, in 1600, because of his views which conflicted with the church. He visited Prague in 1588 and received a few hundred silver Thaler from Rudolf for a book dedicated to him.

de Busbecq, Ogier Ghislain
Busbecq was a person of very diverse talents. His letters include observations on plants, customs, religions, languages, and much besides. He undertook all kinds of commissions for Rudolf in Paris, from the recommending of personnel to dealing in clocks and Hermetic literature. Rudolf was especially favourably disposed to him: Busbecq's letters to Prague from 1582 to 1586 demonstrate their close contact, as well as being full of valuable information on the French scene. He is famous among others for bringing the Juliana Anicia codex (Vienna Dioscorides) to Prague, and introducing the tulip into Europe (both before Rudolf's time).

Drebbel, Cornelius
Dutch inventor, invited to Prague for his invention of a perpetual motion machine (A.6).

Fröschl, Daniel
(1573-1613). Imperial antiquarian, successor to Octavio Strada since 1 May 1607. Wrote a catalogue of Rudolf's Wunderkammer. Was suspected of theft after Rudolf's death, and imprisoned.

Hajek, Taddeas
(1525-1600) Polymath (primarily astronomer and botanist) at the court of Rudolf II, acting as his private physician for some time. Helped with translation of Mattioli's herbal into Czech in 1562. Astronomer and friend of Tycho Brahe. Son of Simon Baccalaureus Hajek (1481 - 1551). He hosted Dee and Kelley in his (or his father's) house near Betlem square (A.7).

Horčický de Tepenec, Jacobus
Nickname: Sinapius. See biography below.

Jessenius, Jan
(1566-1621) Studied medicine in Padua between 1588 and 1591. Lived in Wittenberg. Worked in Prague from 1600-1608. Became private physician to Rudolf II in 1602. Close friend of Kepler and Brahe. Leading anatomist of his time. Performed first section in Prague in 1600. Was one of the Bohemian noblemen executed after the battle of White Mountain.

Mattioli, Pietro Andrea
Italian botanist who moved to Bohemia in 1554. His herbal is considered the most important natural history of plants since Dioscorides. Rudolf strongly supported the publication of its Czech translation.

Misseroni, Octavio
Came to Prague in 1588 (from Milan) upon invitation by Rudolf. Famour gem cutter and artist - later also treasurer (Schatzmeister). He was the father of Dionysius Misseroni, an equally famous gem cutter, and he was the father in law of Johannes Marcus Marci.

Private physician of Rudolf II.

Pontanus, Jiri Barthold ~ of Breitenberg
(1559?-1614). A devout Catholic (Jesuit), a very familiar person at court - the Emperor granted him a patent of nobility in 1588 - and a well-known poet in the circle of Westonia et al. Friend of Sinapius. It is most of all his large library which shows how far Pontanus's breadth of interest exceeded that of any pure disciple of the Council of Trent. We cannot now be precise about the contents of his collection - its vicissitudes have been too great - but a study of the surviving library of the Archbishops of Prague reveals many volumes autographed by him and others to which he must have had access.

Ruland, Martin (Jr.)
(1569- ), private physician of Rudolf II (A.8).

Sambucus, Joannes
(1531- ) Joannes Sambucus (Janos Zsamboky) was born in Nagyszombat (Trnava) and received a broad education both in Germany, studying under Melanchthon and Jan Sturm, and France. He then spent much time in the Netherlands, where a lifelong partnership with Plantin began, and Italy, where he graduated in medicine at Padua; he also became a close associate of Clusius, who dedicated a work to him as early as 1561. From 1564 he occupied the post of court historiographer to Maximilian II and later Rudolf.
His own diary comprised largely a compilation of the political events of the day. He was deeply interested in medicine - his own training had been medical - and botany (he prepared an edition of Dioscorides); while from the annotations in his copy of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus it appears that he accepted the Copernican astronomy.
His library became one of the most notable of the age (by far the largest of any Hungarian, it stands comparison with the best in Europe), and its importance is two-fold: it affords an insight not only into the interests of Sambucus himself, but also into those of Rudolf his patron, since on the death of the historiographer in 1584 the Emperor and Blotius took the utmost trouble to secure it. It therefore survived as an integral part of the Viennese Hofbibliothek and can be largely reconstructed, thanks to the efficient cataloguing of its volumes begun by Blothius. Sambucus' famous holding of classical manuscripts was also bought by Rudolf, for the price of 2500 gold ducats. Sambucus died without ever seeing this money.
His library included major works in astronomy, botany, magic and occult.

Sendivogius, Michael
One of the most famous alchemists of his time, and probably the most famous one associated with Rudolf's court. He was never properly paid for his services to Rudolf. He was later supported by Mnišovský (A.9).

Strada, Jacopo
Imperial antiquarian.

Strada, Octavio
Imperial antiquarian.

Strein von Schwarzenau, Richard
(1538-1610). Strein seems to have been an intimate of the Emperor (remains survive of a holograph correspondence between them) and he held a position at the Prague court; he was also an antiquarian who exchanged letters with Maximilian about Habsburg history, and a student of nature. Strein's collections enjoyed fame in their day. He was no less a bibliophile who bought books for Rudolf and amassed a large library of his own which itself passed to the Habsburgs on his death. In particular he was the intermediary in the sale of the Rauwolf herbals to Rudolf.

Notes - Rudolf

The main sources for Rudolf II used here are: Purš and Karpenko (2016), Evans (1973) and Prag um 1600 (1988).
Bolton (1904), as discussed here.
The list is primarily from Evans (1973). The many people involved with alchemy are treated in significant detail in Purš and Karpenko (2016).
See Richterová (2016).
See also Purš and Karpenko (2016), pp. 535-579.
See also Purš and Karpenko (2016), pp. 625-646.
See also Purš and Karpenko (2016), pp. 423-457.
Both father and son were private physicians to Rudolf. See Purš and Karpenko (2016), pp. 581-605.
See Prinke (2016).

B. Jacobus Horčický de Tepenec (Sinapius)

(Sources, see note B.1).

The early life of Jacobus Horčický is quite vague. While almost all sources state that he was born in or near Český Krumlov, S. Bohemia, in 1575, he is more likely to be of Moravian origin (B.2). There is no doubt that he was born in a lower-class family. For some time he served with the Jesuits of Český Krumlov as a scullion, but the rector Bernard Koch found out his capabilities and young Horčický was admitted to the Krumlov seminary of poor students in 1590.

Here, he spent most of his time in Krumlov's college pharmacy, which was managed at the time by a lay father who was very well versed in chemistry and pharmacy: Martin Schaffner (born in Olomouc around 1564, died in Krumlov in 1608), who not only cured the members and students of the college with the medicine he prepared, but also had a flourishing practice in the city and its surroundings. Under the guidance of this experienced man, after having graduated from the Krumlov Gymnasium, Horčický completed his training in the art of pharmacy in two years.

In or after 1598 he was sent to the Clementinum in Prague, where he passed the introductory stage in logic in 1602 (see note B.2). All other sources say that he studied Aristotelian philosophy, but he was not impressed by the manner of teaching and preferred to continue his chemical work. The Jesuits finally allowed him to grow various herbs in their gardens in Smichov - the later botanical garden of the University (B.3) - to set up a laboratory there, and to sell his distillations, which were popularly known as 'Aqua Sinapis'. His sales were good, and he was no charlatan (B.4). The Aqua Sinapis brought him such wealth that he was able to lend the emperor enormous sums of money (B.5), (see also note B.7).

At the Jesuit properties of Nebusic and Kopanina he acquired some knowledge of economy, as a result of which in 1600 he became the administrator of the new college in Jindrichuv Hradec (Neuhaus in German), not far from Cesky Krumlov. From there, probably through the influence of the main landowner of Neuhaus: Wilhelm Slavata, he became, shortly before 1606, 'capitaneus' and administrator of the properties of the St. Georg monestary of the Prague Castle. Here, he continued spending most of his spare time in the alchemist laboratory.

His fame finally reached Rudolf who called him to his court and named him imperial chemist in 1607. He became a favourite of the emperor and received numerous presents. When, in 1608, he managed through his botanical knowledge to cure the emperor from a grave disease, he was raised to the nobility and received the title 'de Tepenec' (B.6). In spite of this, Horčický stayed a modest person (see note B.4). From Rudolf's court records it is known that Jacobus Horčický was enrolled by the emperor as a 'knight with two horses', and a monthly remuneration of 20 florins, from June to October 1608. He was paid in 1612.
The record of his nobilitation, dated 20 October 1608, has been preserved.

In the religious fights that then broke out, he took a staunch Catholic position and in 1609 he even wrote a book titled "The Catholic Confession, or Description of the Right Common Christian Confession, About Hope, Credence and Love" (with the help of some doctor from the Clementinum, dedicated to chancellor Lobkowitz) which went through several editions.

Under the rule of Emperor Matthias he became the leader of the township of Melnik in 1616 (B.7), in compensation for Rudolf's debts, but he made himself hated by the Utraquists. In 1618 he is found in prison in the 'white tower' (B.8) where he writes several pleas for his release to the empress. Later (in January 1620?) he was exchanged, together with a Dr. Ponzon, for Jessenius (who was imprisoned in Vienna), and thrown out of the country (B.9).

He came back after the battle of White Mountain made it possible and lived at his Melnik estate until he died in 1622, as a result of falling from his horse. He died in the Jesuit college in Prague (Clementinum) on 25 September 1622 (B.10), leaving the Jesuits the sum of 50,000 gold coins and his Melnik estate. His grave is in the St.Salvator church in the Clementinum, near the altar of Maria's annunciation.

Some of the books once owned by Jacobus can be recognised by his ex libris which he apparently tended to write on the first page, just as he did with the Voynich MS. This is described in more detail on a dedicated page. According to Pelzel, in 1777 there existed several manuscript writings by Jacobus Horčický de Tepenec on the subject of chemistry and botany (B.11).

Notes - Tepenec

Jacobus was a great benefactor to the Jesuits in Prague. Because of this, their historian Jean Schmidl dedicated a long section to him (Schmidl (1754)). This was based both on material in the archives of the Jesuit University (Clementinum) and on Balbín (though no specific reference is available). This material has been propagated in many subsequent accounts of his life, with some additional information: Podlaha (1896) has additional details about his life. I have not seen Böhm (1892), pp. 325-327. Further details are found in Pick (1916), p.217, note 1, which seems to use the same source(s) as Skala (1984). Contradicting, but reliable information is found in Winter (1889), for which see the following footnote.
The most recent publication is by Smolka and Purš (2014).
The information presented here is a synthesis of the above sources. (The reference to a portrait of Jacobus (called Sinapius) in Drugulin (1860) is possibly spurious as the information appears to refer in part to Jacobus and in part to the earlier German humanist Johannes Sinapius).
Prinke (2012) refers to Winter (1899), who refers to records of the Clementinum, where he is listed as 'Jakub Sinapis Bojanovicensis Moravus', indicating that he orginates from the Moravian town Bojanovice. Nowadays there are two Moravian towns with this name, a larger one near Brno and a much smaller one south of Olomouc.
According to Voynich he was director of the imperial botanical gardens from 1601 onwards. This could be a mistake for the Jesuit botanical gardens.
This line is from the Otto encyclopedia.
Source: Voynich (1921).
The name Tepenec refers to Tepenec hill, about 4 km S.E. of Moravian Šternberk. It used to have a castle with the same name (formerly Twingenberg), once owned by King Charles 4. Now, this is only a badly preserved ruin (from Smolka and Purš (2014)).
According to Otto he was district administrator in 1612, owner (Hejtman (Czech), Hauptmann (German), capitaneus (Latin)) in 1616. This is more reliable than the conflicting statement in Voynich (1921).
See Pick (1916).
From Skála (1626). Otto (1897) says to Germany.
In August according to Wraný (1902).
Their whereabouts are currently unknown.

C. Raphael Mnišovský

(Sources, see note C.1).

His career

The Doctor in Law, Raphael Sobiehrd-Mnišovský de Sebuzín & de Horstein, Czech lawyer and writer, was born in 1580 in Horsuv Tyn, in W. Bohemia. He studied in Prague with the Jesuits. At the age of 20 he became acquainted to Barthelemy Paprocky de Hlohol & de Paprocka Vule, exiled Polish writer, whom he helped with the composition of the Czech text of the latter's work 'Diadochus, or the succession of princes and kings in Bohemia' (appeared in Prague in 1602). Raphael completed the work himself with a dissertation about the cloisters and abbeys of the Bohemian kingdom.

After that, he continued his studies in Paris and Rome (C.2) and he became doctor in law abroad. At this time he changed his name from Sobiehrd to Mnišovský.

After his return he became royal secretary to the famous diplomat and politician cardinal Melchior Klesl, who at that time was governour in Austria. In this fuction he delivered important services as a political agent, during the war of Ferdinand II (then duke of Styria) with the Venetians. In return for his services he was appointed counsel to the government in Styria. At this time he was instructed to teach the young archduke (later emperor) Ferdinand III the Czech language.

During the troubled years of 1618-1620 he was employed by Ferdinand II for state affairs. On 1 January 1621 he obtained the title 'de Sebuzin', on 2 May 1622 he was installed as counsel in the royal appeals court of Prague "on the doctors' bench".

He was also sent to various towns in Moravia and in the Glatz County, as a commissioner of reformation, to force the protestant population to become catholic. In recompense the emperor gave him 4000 florins from the royal chamber, for which sum he was given the domain of Bulikov near Dacice in Moravia, which had been confiscated from Jan Dvorecky of Olbramovice.

In 1628 he was named secretary to the aulic [=court] chancellery where he translated into Czech the ordinances, laws and patents concerning the kingdom of Bohemia and its incorporated territory. In 1635 he became royal procurator.

When the Saxon invasion was repelled, the imperial general Albert of Wallenstein, duke of Friedland named him meber of the "Friedland commission of confiscation", which was charged in 1632-1634 to punish the emigrants and those Czech nobles who had accompanied and helped the Saxons in their expedition into Bohemia. When, on 25 February 1634, Albert of Wallenstein, duke of Friedland, and his general Adam Erdman Trcka count of Lipa were murdered in Cheb, being suspected of high treason, Raphael was put in charge of the criminal process of both men, with the aim to justify the confiscation of their goods.

In 1637 he was named counsel in the royal appeals court of Prague "on the royal bench" and in 1640 he became vice-chamberlain of the cadastre of the noble countries in the Bohemian Kingdom.

Apart from Bulikov he owned Lochkov, which he had bought from Venceslas Michna in 1637, two houses in Prague, vineyards near Prague and near Litomerice, end finally a farm at Vrsovice. All this was inherited by his wife Rozina de Hirsov and two daughters, one of which was married to Daniel Pachta de Rajov.

He died on 21 November 1644 and was buried in the St. Salvator church in the Clementinum in Prague.

His interests

Mnišovský was strongly interested in alchemy and in secret writing. Possibly for Ferdinand III he wrote the Latin work: Constructio seu strues Tritemiana. Qui nullum unquam idiomatis bohemici calluit verbum, per eam in momento scribet convenienter bohemice quantum volet (etc). This is an adaptation of the method of Trithemius using the Czech language (C.4). The manuscript is now preserved in the library of the University of Uppsala, where it was transported by the Swedes during the 30-years war (C.5).

In 1630 he wrote two letters, to Vilem Slavata and to emperor Ferdinand II, to seek support for the famous alchemist Michael Sendivogius (C.6). In the second letter, we find many interesting statements: that he had studied alchemy for more than 30 years, that he studied many manuscripts of Rudolf, both in plaintext and cipher, and that he himself found many such manuscripts in the cloisters of Braunau and Kremsmünster. Furthermore, that he is one of the very few people with whom Sendivogius speaks freely. This is of interest as Sendivogius was long active in the service of Rudolf II.

The physician and minor poet Joannes Christofer Daisigner, composed a verse which included an epigram about Mnišovský, in which he describes the latter as: Vincit Trithemium atque Gebrum: he defeats Trithemius and Geber(C.7). Daisigner was in Italy in 1639 or 1640, as one of the travel companions of Marci.

Mnišovský was an apt Latin poet who has composed 540 Latin poems, mostly epigrams. Shortly before his death he composed a funerary poem for himself. All are collected in: "Funebria Raphaelis - Mnissovsky de Sebuzin, quae sibi vivens adhuc valensque fecit". He had his own funerary poem printed with the instruction to distribute it at his funeral (C.8).

The historian Bohuslav Balbin, good friend of Marci, wrote about Missowski:

I knew the man, and for all his grave and stern face he was extremely kind and witty: I could give many examples of the fact.

One of his houses, called "at the three old women", was located round the corner from Marci's house (IMAGE).

Notes - Raphael

Most details of his professional career are based on a reply by the Czechoslovak State Archives to an inquiry by W. Voynich, in 1921. This reply quotes the following sources:
He appears to have been in Rome at roughly the same time as Barschius.
The same (Jesuit) church where Jacobus de Tepenec and Johannes Marcus Marci were buried.
This point is also addressed briefly in Voynich's research of the history of the MS.
Uppsala University library MS Slav. 60.
The letter is preserved in the Haus- Hof und Staatsarchiv in Vienna; Hausarchiv (Fam.Korr. A, Kart. 8, ff. 279-84). The letter is briefly mentiond in Evans (1979). I am grateful to Rafał Prinke for having been able to use a copy of this letter.
I am grateful to Josef Smolka for this text.
For details about this book, see here.

D. Georgius Barschius (Baresch)

(Sources, see note D.1).

Relatively little is known about Barschius. Most of what we know we owe to Rafał Prinke and Josef Smolka. He was born in the village Synkov, which belongs to Častolovice in Bohemia (D.2). His birth year is certainly between about 1576 and about 1592, given that he lived to be 70 (D.3), and he was still alive in 1646 (D.4), but died before 1662 (see note D.3). He was born most probably between 1580 and 1585, knowing that he received his baccalaureate in 1602 (see note D.2).

Despite his rural origin, he studied at the Jesuit college of the Clementinum and received his bachelor's degree on 9 May 1602 and his master's degree on 14 May 1603, both in "liberal arts and philosphy" (see note D.2). On 27 April 1605 he started studies in Rome, at the Sapienza (D.5).

Barschius must have first met Marci some time before 1625 (D.6). Since that time they have been engaged in philosophical discussions. As from 1624, Barschius was registered in the Prague old city (D.7). It could well be that this is the time he met Marci. Due to the absence of Barschius's name in the tax rolls called 'Berní Rula' (D.8), we know that he did not own a house there. From 1630 to 1646 Barschius worked as relator at the Highest Prague Burgrave court of justice (soud nejvyssiho purkrabstvi prazskeho) (see note D.4).

In 1637 Barschius wrote his first letter to Kircher using the famous mathematician Theodor Moretus S.J. as an intermediary, and from his later reference to it we may conclude that he was familiar with Kircher's Prodromus Coptus, which appeared in 1636. This letter (which should have been accompanied by some transcriptions of the Voynich MS) is lost. When he found the reply from Kircher in March 1639 (D.9) not adequate, he sent a second letter in 1639. This letter has been preserved (D.10), though another batch of transcription material of the Voynich MS, which he sent to Kircher with this letter, is also lost. In this second letter he presents Kircher with his view that the Voynich MS represents 'Egyptian medicine' brought to Bohemia by a traveller.

In Marci's 1640 letter to Kircher, he describes Barschius as his friend. He also called him 'greatly skilled in chemical matters', the same epithet that he used in "Philosophia Vetus Restituta". With this letter, Marci sent some drawings of Barschius to Kircher, but also these have been lost. It is not certain that these drawings were copies of Voynich MS pages. Barschius was primarily a spagyric alchemist, interested in extracting medicine using alchemical procedures. He managed to convince Marci of the value and usefulness of this, though Marci was originally opposed to alchemy (see note D.6).

Both in a letter written in 1641, and in his book of 1662, Marci mentions Barschius 'in the same breath' as Martinus Santinus S.J.. The relation between these two men has not yet been fully explored, but we know that Th. Moretus, when sending Barschius' first reqeust to Kircher was introduced to Kircher by Santinus. Furthermore, Barschius, possibly aided by Marci, also managed to convince Santinus of the usefulness of (spagyric) alchemy, after he was also originally skeptical (see note D.6). Note that they never managed to convince Kircher of the same.
Santini also wrote to Kircher about an alchemical puzzle, using the usual 'Oedipus' terminology (D.11).

J. Fletcher mentions (in Fletcher (1972) (see note D.1)) that Barschius had visited Kircher in Rome and on his way back wrote that he "admired Kircher's apparatus", but this quote has not been found back in the correspondence. It seems that Fletcher was mistaken, but this needs to be further investigated.

Apart from the one letter to Kircher, there is no extant writing of Barschius, and he seems to have spent the last years of his life studying the Voynich MS (D.12). At Barschius' death he left Marci his alchemical collection and library (D.13) and we know that he died between 1646 and 1662, but we don't know more precisely when. Extrapolating his most probable birth years results in the time frame 1650-1655. No references to his death have been found in the Marci letters.

Notes - Barschius

Sources for Barschius are:
He is called 'Sincoviensis Boem.' in the records of the Clementinum. In addition Rafał Prinke found his registration in the Prague old city in Liva (1637), p. 10.
From Marci: Philosophia Vetus Restituta (1662), quoted here.
He was occupied until 1646, as reported in Prinke (2012). He discovered this information in Teige (1893).
As he writes in the signature of his letter to Kircher.
In "Philosophia Vetus Restituta" (1662), quoted here, Marci says that when he met Barschius, he was quite opposed to the principles of alchemy, yet in his thesis he already used it. He graduated in 1625.
See Liva (1937).
Rafał Prinke has investigated the Berni Rula.
See here.
See here.
A fair copy of his letter is found in APUG 557 fol.30r.
From Marci's letter accompanying the Voynich MS.
From Marci: Philosophia Vetus Restituta (1662), quoted here.

E. Johannes Marcus Marci of Kronland

(Sources, see note E.1).

Marci was born on 13 June 1595 in Landskron (German: Kronland). At this time, Rudolf was 43 years old and had in front of him another 17 years of life. In 1608 Marci began his studies at the Jesuit college of Jindrichuv Hradec, and after that he studied philosophy and theology at Olomouc, which he completed in 1618.

Some time after 1618 (but we don't know how long) he came to Prague to study medicine, but there was no medical faculty before 1622. There has been some controversy about the reason why he selected a medical study rather than a Jesuit career. The suggestion from his Jesuit biographer, that this was because of his poor health and weak voice, so that he would never be able to deliver a sermon, is no longer believed. Marci only had some eye problems and reached the advanced age of 72.

What Marci did between 1618 and 1622 is unknown. As soon as the Prague University came into the hands of the Jesuits, in 1622, the medical faculty was opened and Marci became one of its first students. At this time the university chancellor was Martinus Santinus S.J. (E.2). He graduated on 17 April 1625 with the defence of his outstanding thesis "De temperamento in genere". In this, he already used some principles of alchemy, suggesting that he would have known Barschius by then (see note D.6).

He had important protectors such as the family of Zdenek Lobkovic and the Archbishop Harrach. Immediately after receiving his doctor's degree he was lecturing at the medical faculty of the university, which would remain his place of work for the rest of his life. Also in 1626 he was appointed Chief Physician of the Bohemian Kingdom. (He eventually passed this office to his son Johannes Georgius.) In 1630 he became professor at the Charles University.

In 1631 Marci's first son was born.

In 1635 he published his book "Idearum Operatricium Idea", on the questions of conception and the development of the embryo. It was heavily attacked by the Jesuits and in particular the philosopher Rodericus de Arriaga S.J. This was the start of a long-lasting difference of opinion between these two men. Marci was branded a heretic, and the book could only be published after the intervention of the Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Harrach.

In 1638 he first became dean of the faculty of medicine, after the separation of the Charles University from the Clementinum. He held this office for many years.

By the end of 1638 Marci undertook a journey to Rome as member of a mission whose task it was (among others) to get support from the church hierarchy in the fight against the Jesuits. His fellow travellers included Baron Franciscus Sternberg, Fr. Ignatius Roio S.J. and the physician Joannes Christopher Daisigner, who has left an account of this trip. On his way, he met the mathematician Paul Guldin in Graz and had a chance to read Galilei's freshly published 'Discorsi'. It was during this journey that he met Athanasius Kircher and this marked the start of their long friendship, and 25 years of correspondence. While in Rome, Kircher introduced him to the study of Oriental languages, in particular Arabic.

In 1639 he published his first work as a physicist: De proportione motus, which deals with motion and dynamics.

In 1646 he visited the newly formed medicinal springs in Hornhausen. He used the occasion to try to cure his eye problems. He also wrote a letter to Kircher about this visit, from Hornhausen. This letter was not written in his own hand but by a scribe (E.3).

Marci also could not escape becoming involved in the war. Some time in 1641 Marci tried to decipher some intercepted code letters from the Swedish army commander Gustav Banner, and eventually sent them on to Kircher for decipherment, being certain that this omniscient man would be up to that task. (We do not know if he was). In 1648, when Prague was besieged by the Swedish army, Marci in person took part in the defence of the city, at the command of a student military unit which he himself had organised. For merit gained in the field he was promoted to the nobility in 1654 and given the title 'de Kronland'.

In his fight against the Jesuit supremacy over the Prague University he was less successful. He was delegate of a special commission of the medical faculty to negotiate the merge of both parts of the university (the secular Charles University and the Jesuit Clementinum). The Jesuits favoured the merge and the seculars declined it. Marci had worked out new statutes for the university on the assumption that authority be given to the emperor. Anyway, in 1654, the merge did take place, by command of the emperor Ferdinand III.

In 1648-1650 Marci published three books on optics. These, as well as his earlier work on dynamics have been accused of lacking clarity and the precision of observation and the genius that would have allowed him to make the discoveries that eventually befell to Newton. The most famous of the three was Thaumantias, liber de arcu coelesti. Marci was also very much aware of his isolation in Prague, and the lack of contact with the main scientists of his days. His correspondence with Kircher shows a continuous stream of requests for books, mostly, but not uniquely, the ones written by Kircher himself.

As a doctor, Marci was very successful. He was appointed official physician to Ferdinand III, and after he soon died, to his successor Leopold I. In 1655 he cured the historian Bohuslaus Balbin from smallpox, a serious illness, after he had already been given up by three other doctors. Since that time the two men became good friends and Balbin started to write extensively about Marci's medical practices (E.4).

After a few minor publications, including works on squaring the circle, on longitude and a polemic against the Jesuit B.Conrad, Marci abandoned publication for a long period, until 1662.

In his book "Philosophia vetus restituta" of 1662 Marci confirms his original philosophical ideas that had upset the Jesuits, particularly Arriaga. In this book he also mentions that Baresch had been his friend for 40 years, had died and had left him his alchemical library, which apparently included the Voynich MS (E.5).

There is a gap in the correspondence to Kircher from 1658 to 1665. It is not clear whether Marci did not write to Kircher during these years, or whether these letters have been lost. Marci's penultimate letter to Kircher is the one accompanying the Voynich MS, written in August 1665 (E.6). This letter, like the last surviving one that was sent one month later, were again written by the same scribe who wrote the letter from Hornhausen (see note E.3). In December 1666 he wrote his last will, in which he bequeathed his entire valuable library to his son Johannes Ludwig (E.7). Because of his degraded eye sight he could not sign his will at all. It was signed only by 3 witnesses - 2 professors of the medical faculty (Marci's former students Franchimont and Forberger) and by the relatively unknown Christophorus (Krystof) Kyblin. Two letters written by G.A. Kinner to Kircher in early 1666 and early 1667 include questions by the ailing Marci, about Kircher's success in decipering the mysterious MS that he had sent to him (E.8).

Marci died on the 10th of April 1667, in the 72nd year of his life, from a cerebreal haemorrage. A Jesuit biography of Marci states, that a few days before his death he became a member of the Society of Jesus. Modern historians are skeptical about these events, and it is considered possible, that he was no longer conscious when this happened, if it did at all. Marci was buried in the Jesuit crypt in the S.Salvator church in the Clementinum, close to his adversary Arriaga, who died at about the same time. His grave is no longer there (E.9).

Some works of Marci have been published posthumously by his student J. Dobrzensky de Nigro Ponte (himself later Rector Magnificus of the Charles University), who used Balbín's notes. This included Liturgia Mensis, devoted partly to epilepsy, published 11 years after Marci's death.

Marci's library, which should have also included the remains of Barschius' library, and possibly the letters he received from Kircher, was inherited by his son Johannes Ludwig. The latter entered the Augustinian monastery of Zahan (Sagan in Silesia), where he deposited this library. From there it disappeared without trace (see note E.2). The letters from Kircher to Marci have also never been found. Marci was survived by his pupils Sebastian Christian Zeidler, Jacobus Forberger and Nicolaus Franchimont of Franckenfeldt. None of them have written to Kircher, or at least no such letters are extant. One letter from Dobrzensky to Kircher has been preserved (E.10). Another letter from Ardensbach to Kircher, written in 1668 and disussing Marci's interest in alchemy, is published in Smolka (2016) (see note E.2).

Notes - Marci

The main sources for Johannes Marcus Marci used here are:
Svobodný (1998), and its many references to the unfinished work by the most outstanding expert on Marci: Zdeňek Servít (1989).
Nový and Folta (1967) (the proceedings of a symposium on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Marci's death);
Fletcher (1972) (describing the correspondence of Marci and Kircher) and Ivo Schneider in: "Neue Deutsche Biographie";
Smolka (2016).
Not available to me and therefore not used are: Litterae Annuae of the Prague Jesuits written shortly after his death, Aiton (1970) and Jiri Marek (1968).
From Smolka (2016).
For more details about the significance of this see here.
In Balbín: (reference still needed)
The relevant section is quoted here.
This is discussed in detail here.
As written in article 15 of Marci's last will and testament, published in Ryba (1969).
According to P.Neal, who has transcribed all letters by Marci in Kircher's correspondence, his last two letters are not in his own hand. He does suggest that the 1665 letter to Kircher was signed by Marci. This analysis is made difficult by the fact that there is a gap in Marci's correspondence (as it has been preserved) from 1659 to 1665.
Marci's grave in the St.Salvator church in the Clementinum has been investigated by initiative of Zdenek Servít, and is described in Servít (1989). (Source: Josef Smolka who was also present at the investigation).
APUG 562, fol.132.

F. Athanasius Kircher S.J.

(Sources, see note F.1).

Athanasius Kircher was a contemporary of Marci, and while he was significantly more famous than Marci in his days, also he has left little impact on modern times. He began life at three in the morning on 2 May 1602 (the Feast of St Athanasios) at Geisa near Fulda, just inside what is now East Germany. His father Johann was also something of a polymath and possessed a large library which was lost in the Thirty Years' War; he was a Doctor of Divinity, and taught the Benedictine monks at nearby Heiligenstadt. Athanasius was the last of his nine children, and precocious enough as a boy to be given Hebrew lessons from a Rabbi in addition to the regular curriculum of the local Jesuit school in Fulda. Athanasius' childhood was full of incidents which he recounts with all the relish of favorite tales. At least four times he escaped an early death. Once while swimming in a mill-pond he was suddenly caught by the current and swept towards the mill-wheel, and his companions expected to see him emerge mangled from the machinery. He passed through harmed by nothing worse than a bad shock. A little later, at a horse race, the pressure of the crowd pushed him under the feet of the oncoming horses. The spectators feared the worst, but he crouched motionless and emerged untouched. The spirit of adventure must have been strong in him, for once he made a two-day journey to see a play in a neighboring town. On the way back he lost himself in a forest and for fear of robbers, wild boars and bears spent the whole night up a tree. When he was fifteen he caught chilblains and contracted a hernia while skating. In those pre-antiseptic times his chilblains had still not healed after several months: his skin turned gangrenous and his life was despaired of. But he prayed earnestly to the Blessed Virgin, and the next morning he was cured. Kircher says, when recording these incidents, that his early deliverances from death were nothing short of miraculous, and that already in his youth he felt favored by God and marked out for some special destiny (F.2).

After failing in his first application to the Jesuit College in Mainz, he was admitted as a novice to the College at Paderborn in 1618. For reasons of misplaced humility he disguised the fact that his intelligence was far above that of his fellows, and his teachers actually thought him rather a dull youth. By 1620 his novitiate was completed, his first vows taken, and he began the study of scholastic philosophy. But soon his education was interrupted by the onset of the Thirty Years' War. In late 1621 Duke Christian of Brunswick, a notorious Jesuit-hater, was approaching Paderborn. In January 1622 Kircher and two others could wait no longer to see what would happen: they fled the city and thus escaped while many other Jesuits were caught and gaoled. Yet their lot was hard enough: for three days they struggled through deep snow, ill-clad and penniless, begging their food, until a friendly Catholic nobleman gave them shelter and aid. After a week at the Jesuit College at Munster they were advised to continue their journey to Cologne. Passing through Düsseldorf they came to the frozen Rhine and proceeded to cross on the ice. The locals had assured them that it was safe, but as they were half way across a piece of ice broke off and Kircher was borne away downstream. His companions lost sight of him and, like the playmates of his youth, felt sure that they would never see him alive again. But his resilience triumphed he swam through the freezing water to the bank and walked for three hours, until he reached the haven of the Jesuit College in Neuss.

Three days later he was ready to go on to Cologne, where he resumed his education and completed his course in philosophy. In 1623 he was transferred to Koblenz to pursue his studies in the humanities and teach Greek at the Jesuit School there. Abandoning his pose of mediocrity he now allowed his true intellect to show; but the general astonishment soon turned to envy, and he was transferred again to the College at Heiligenstadt, the town where his father had taught. The journey there was a dangerous one through Protestant territory, but Kircher obstinately refused to travel disguised in lay clothes, saying " I would rather die in the robes of my order than travel undisturbed in worldly dress ..." This is what nearly transpired, for a party of Protestant soldiers ambushed him, he was stripped and beaten, and they prepared to hang him from the nearest tree, while he commended his soul to God. His calm demeanor so moved one of the soldiers that he spoke out for the young novice and persuaded his comrades to spare Kircher's life. Not only did they leave him with his clothes and books intact, but the compassionate soldier returned, gave him money, and urged immediate flight.

Heiligenstadt was reached without further incident, and here Kircher taught mathematics, Hebrew and Syrian. Being only twenty-three, he quickly attracted the attention of his superiors. When the Elector Archbishop of Mainz paid a visit to the College, Kircher, who already loved mechanical inventions, arranged an astonishing display of moving scenery and fireworks. So impressive were they that there were whispers of black magic until he explained their workings. The Elector relieved the Jesuits of their promising student, summoning him to his court at Aschaffenburg to make more such curiosities and to draw up a survey of the Principality, which Kircher completed in only three months. He also pursued researches into the phenomena of magnetism, out of which was to come his first book, Ars Magnesia (1631), and then, on the Elector's death, returned to his college in Mainz for another four years. Although nominally studying theology, he managed to acquire a telescope in 1625 through which he observed the then unexplained phenomenon of sunspots.

In 1628 he was ordained priest, and entered his Tertianship at Speier. Until now his leanings had been scientific, but a new world of humanistic learning opened for him when, in a book on the Sistine Obelisk, he saw for the first time pictures of Egyptian hieroglyphs. This planted the seed that was one day to flower as Oedipus Aegyptiacus; but for the time being it had to lie dormant: he was moved yet again, this time to teach in Würzburg. Doubtless frustrated by this, in 1630 he petitioned the Superior General of the Order to let him go as a missionary to China; but his request was refused and he had to rest content with collecting materials sent back by other missionaries. Excitement was not far off, however, for in 1631 the Swedish army entered the region. One night Kircher had a premonition: he looked out of the window and saw armed men drilling in the courtyard. Wakening his colleagues, he found that it must have been an hallucination, for no one else saw or believed anything amiss. But almost immediately Gustavus Adolphus invaded with his Protestant troops, the College was hastily disbanded, and Kircher had to flee to Mainz with his disciple Caspar Schott, leaving behind all his manuscripts.

In those difficult times there was obviously no future in Germany for a bright Jesuit scholar. Kircher's superiors allowed him, presumably in the same year, to go to France, where he passed through Lyons and came to Avignon, there to teach mathematics, philosophy and oriental languages. Accident-prone as ever, he was nearly killed within the very walls of the Jesuit College by getting caught in a water-wheel which his natural inquisitiveness had compelled him to investigate. At Avignon he began his entry into the cosmopolitan world of learning, thanks to meeting Nicolaus Claude Fabri de Peiresc, a wealthy patron of scholarship who had heard of Kircher's linguistic prowess and of his interest in the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Peiresc invited him to help in the decipherment of some Egyptian manuscripts in his possession: he provided books and a copy of the Bembine Tablet of Isis, and Kircher in turn was to borrow some rare books from the Jesuits' library in Speier. Their combined researches were well under way when in 1633 Kircher was suddenly given the unwelcome honour of a summons to Vienna, to succeed Johannes Kepler (d. 1631) as Mathematician to the Habsburg Court. While Kircher obediently packed for the journey, Peiresc wrote protesting letters to the authorities, including Pope Urban VIII and Cardinal Barberini.

Since Germany was still dangerous for Jesuits, Kircher was to take the route through North Italy. He embarked with some other brothers for the first stage of the journey, from Avignon to Marseilles. They were all ill, so the captain landed them on an island for a rest - and promptly sailed away with all their possessions. They managed to hail some fishermen who took them the rest of the way to Marseilles, whence they started for Genoa in a more respectable boat. A storm blew up and for tree days they had to shelter in a cove until it subsided. No sooner had they set sail again than a violent storm again drove the boat towards the coast, where the captain only just avoided shipwreck by guiding it into a narrow cavern. When at last Kircher reached Genoa, he stayed there two weeks and, apparently in no hurry to reach Vienna, set out on another boat for Leghorn, ninety miles to the south. His presence alone seems to have been a certain guarantee of a storm, and sure enough, the ship was blown to Corsica and back before docking far past its destination at Civitavecchia, the main port for Rome. Obviously Kircher could not miss the chance of seeing the Eternal City, so he set out on foot for the forty-mile pilgrimage. On reaching Rome in 1635 he found to his amazement that he was expected there: Peiresc's petition had succeeded, his orders had been changed, and he was to stay at the Roman College, the hub of the whole Jesuit Order, with a special commission to study hieroglyphs. This was to be his home now until his death, and here he had at last all the facilities he needed to conduct his scientific and humanistic investigations: leisure, assistants, and money.

In 1636 Friedrich, Landgraf of Hesse-Darmstadt, the ruler of Kircher's home state, was converted to Catholicism, largely through Kircher's efforts. He was received into the Church with great solemnity in Rome, and soon afterwards made a Cardinal. Wishing to travel in Italy, he selected Kircher as his father-confessor and traveling companion, and a fascinating one he must have been. The party moved south to Sicily and touched at Malta. Everywhere Kircher took the opportunity to explore new areas of natural science: mirages, zoology, vulcanism and much else. He was eager to see Syracuse, in order to ascertain for himself whether Archimedes could have burned the Roman ships by focusing the sun's rays on them with a mirror (see plate 78). In March 1638, as they were setting out on the return journey, Etna and Stromboli erupted. After they landed at Tropea there was an earthquake, and they witnessed the destruction of the island of St Euphemia. When they reached Naples, Vesuvius threatened to erupt, too. The insatiable Kircher climbed to the top of the volcano and had himself lowered into the crater to observe the process more closely.

That was his last adventure. From 1638 onwards his travels were merely local. He was made Professor of Mathematics at the Roman College, a post which he held for eight years before he was completely relieved of teaching duties. Now he began to publish his major works, apparently concentrating on a different subject every three or four years. His reputation brought scholars, letters and specimens to his study from all over the world, and he amassed a veritable museum of artefacts, curiosities of natural history, and scientific apparatus. Before his death, in fact, a large hall was provided to house the "Museo Kircheriano", which ranks with Elias Ashmole's foundation in Oxford as one of the first public museums.
IMAGE: Kircher's museum

Despite the floods, plagues and civil disturbances that beset Rome, Kircher was able to work steadily, publishing one book after another, writing hundreds of letters and interviewing innumerable visitors. Some of these included princes, who could not be refused when they asked for souvenirs from the collection. Others were more welcome, such as the English Jesuit and Royalist William Gascoignes (inventor of the micrometer eye-piece for telescopes), the French painter Nicolas Poussin, whom Kircher instructed in perspective, and Caspar Schott, Kircher's pupil from Würzburg days and the editor of his unpublished papers.

As he grew older, Kircher's piety was more outwardly expressed. In 1661, while searching for antiquities near Marino, he found the ruins of an old church, pronounced in an inscription to have been built by the Emperor Constantine on the place where St Eustace saw his vision of Christ in a stag's horns. Kircher decided to restore and reinstate it as a place of pilgrimage, and his fame and connections brought ample contributions to the work. He and other Jesuits received pilgrims there every year at Michelmas (29 September), and it became his favorite resort at other times. Here again, his excavations and field trips led to the publication of a book on Latin antiquities.

By the 1670s his work was mainly being published by Schott and others. Johann Stophan Kestler made a digest of his experiments, Physiologia Kircheriana Experimentalis, an excellently concise textbook which, as Father Reilly says, shows what a good editor could and should have done with the rest of Kircher's works. Kircher himself suffered in his late years from the attacks of alchemists and others who no longer had any fear of disputing Jesuitical authority; he also had his share of the ailments of old age. From 1678 he was mainly occupied with spiritual exercises, and he died on 27 November 1680. His body was buried in the Gesù, and his heart in the church he had so lovingly restored.

Notes - Kircher

Most literature about Kircher is concerned with his many publications. His best bibliography is still Sommervogel and De Backer (1893). Biographical sources are Langenmantel (1684), Reilly (1955) and Godwin (1979). The latter follows Langenmantel, and its on-line internet copy has been used largely here. For his correspondence, see all articles by Fletcher, but especially the digitisation project of his correspondence: >>The correspondence of Athanasius Kircher.
Haakman (1991) argues that Kircher included such statements in his autobiography with the aim to be canonized after his death.

G. Joseph Strickland S.J.

(Sources, see note G.1).

Father Joseph Strickland SJ was born in Malta from noble parents: his father was Naval Commander Sir Walter Strickland of Sizergh, and his mother was heiress of the fifth Count della Catena in Malta. He entered the college of Mondragone in 1869, but was called home immediately after. Before returning in 1875, he was a student at the colleges of Feldkirch in Austria and Stonyhurst in England. He stayed at the Mondragone until 1879. Two of his brothers, Paul and Gerard, equally studied there.

In the four years between his graduation and entry in the Socity of Jesus (in 1883) he travelled a lot, and at the end he was fluent in five languages: Italian, English, French, German and Arabic.

He remained enrolled in the Roman province of the Jesuits, but studied in England, the University and the Gregorian in Rome and in Croatia. He obtained his degree (literature) in 1892 at the university of Turin. In 1893 and 1894 he taught philosophy at the Mondragone, while continuing further studies at the university of Rome. After further periods in France and Italy he was back teaching philosophy and history at the Mondragone.

From September 1903 till 1911 he was in Florence. Here, he initiated and successfully completed the setup of the so-called ‘Ricreatorio di San Giuseppe’, which he himself used to call his boys' club (in his letters to Voynich). It was based in two locations. The first (preliminary) location was in Via Pier Capponi where he collected a group of boys that essentially lived on the streets, to give them a Christian education. The second, more official location was at an open area near the dam at the ‘Cure’ area, at the foot of the hills of Fiesole. He erected the building that now is Via Cirillo Domenico 2. It included a chapel, school rooms, a music school and a theatre.

In 1908 his group participated at a gymnastic contest in Rome which was attended by pope Pius X. In 1911 he returned to the Villa Mondragone, and during the first World War he voluntarily served as a chaplain to the English soldiers in Malta. He died 15 July 1917 in Malta, at the age of 53. The society of ex-students of the Ricreatorio erected a bronze bust of him in the atrium of the institute, in his memory.

Notes - Strickland

Summarised from Bondani (1996), >>available on-line

H. Wilfrid Michael Voynich

(Sources, see note H.1).

Wilfrid Michael Voynich was born on 31 October 1865 as Michal Habdank-Wojnicz, in Telsze (now Telšiai in present-day Lithuania), into a Polish noble family. To reflect his nobility, he occasionally also wrote his name as Wilfrid de Voynich (at a later age). He attended the gymnasium of the Polish town Suwałki (H.2). He studied at the universities of Warsaw, St. Petersburg, and Moscow. He graduated from Moscow University in chemistry and became a licensed pharmacist. In 1885 he returned to Warsaw where he joined Ludwik Warynski's revolutionary organization, 'Proletarjat'. He was strongly influenced by the revolutionary Sergius Stepniak. In 1886 he assisted in an attempt to free fellow-conspirators Piotr Bardowski and Stanislaw Kunicki, who had both been sentenced to death, from the Warsaw Citadel. The plot was betrayed by a police spy in the group, and Voynich was arrested by the Russian police and himself put in solitary confinement in the citadel. The others were all executed. As a result of this imprisonment, he contracted tuberculosis and acquired a permanent stoop.

When he witnessed the execution by shooting of one of his friends, he decided to escape. This he indeed managed to do and he continued his anti-Russian activities. He was captured again, and this time his noble birth could not save him. He was sent to the salt mines in Tunka, in Siberia (H.3). While in nearby Irkutsk, he met the Karauloff family who convinced him that he must escape to England. They gave him a piece of paper with Stepniak’s name and London address, along with the name ‘Lily Boole’, asking Voynich to greet her for them. They had met Ethel Lilian Boole while she was in St.Petersburg.

After two failed attempts Voynich managed to escape. There is a popular story that he made his way to Mongolia where he joined a caravan and spent months wandering with them until he reached Peking, but this is not credible, as already pointed out by Rafał Prinke (H.4). The date of his escape is 12 June 1890 and his arrival in London 5 October 1890. This is only 115 days, and a normal boat trip from Shanghai to London in those days took about as much. Instead, he went straight West through Russia, until he reached Hamburg, Germany, where he sold his coat and glasses to buy some herring and bread and pay for a third class ticket on a fruit boat bound for England. After a treacherous journey Voynich arrived at the London docks hungry, dirty, without any money and speaking no English. Once in London, he showed the piece of paper with Stepniak’s name and address to passers-by. A Jewish student who understood Russian brought him to Stepniak.

In London, Voynich quickly became part of the circle of Russian political exiles (including his future wife Ethel Boole) centered around Stepniak. Wilfrid also used the pseudonym Ivan Klecevsky. In 1891 he was one of the founding members of the Russian Free Press Fund, set up to translate and publish Polish revolutionary propaganda for clandestine distribution in Russia. In 1894 he resigned, because he felt that he did not have enough influence in the affairs of the group and set up the rival organisation called the Booksellers’ Union, but this was not successful due to lack of funds. By 1895, Ethel and Wilfrid Voynich were living together seemingly as man and wife. She had adopted his name earlier. She mostly identified herself as E.L.V..

Some time later, the Voyniches met another Russian exile, Sigmund Rosenblum, who eventually became known as Sidney Reilly. According to legend, Reilly and Ethel ran away to Italy where they carried on a passionate affair. He supposedly told her the story of his life and then abandoned her in Florence. She then would have returned to Wilfrid, and began writing The Gadfly inspired by Reilly’s life. In reality, Reilly was not who or what he claimed to be. He manufactured the details of his early life to explain much later (1918/19) how he was recruited to British Intelligence (H.5). In December 1895 Stepniak was killed by a train and the Voynichs apparently withdrew from active participation in revolutionary movements (H.6).

Wilfrid became an antiquarian book dealer, selecting this career on the recommendation of Richard Garnett, Keeper of printed books at the British Museum. Garnett's argument was: you just need to travel and pick up incunabula and rare books and sell them in London. He issued his first catalogue ('first list of books') in 1898 in partnership with Charles Edgell, a young Cambridge graduate, who presumably helped him with cataloguing and possibly co-funded the enterprise. This first catalogue was an incredible piece of work for a beginner. It included a great amount of bibliographical detail, and was the first English catalogue to use Proctor numbers for incunabula (a system that had been divised in the same year). Only Baer in Frankfurt did this earlier than Voynich. In 1900 he opened his first London book store on 1 Soho Square (IMAGE). Later that year he issued his second catalogue, which was even more impressive than the first, and started the trend of including a section of 'Unknown, Lost or Undescribed books'. Wilfrid and Ethel eventually married in 1902, which may be connected to his (successful) application for British citizenship 1904. At this time he officially adopted the name Wilfrid Voynich.

Following up on the advice of Garnett, Wilfrid became a regular visitor to the Continent, in particular to Italy. He was able to buy large quantities of old books and manuscripts from religious houses and other places. On one occasion he visited a convent in Italy and the monks showed him their library of early printed books and codices. He told the monks they could have a most interesting and valuable collection of modern theological works to replace their dusty rubbish. Within a month he owned the whole valuable library in exchange for a lot of modern garbage (H.7). On another occasion he visited Corsica and reputedly came back with 600 incunabula (H.8).

His first great achievement in the book trade was his 8th catalogue ("eighth list of books" as he calls it), issued June 1902, consisting entirely of ‘unknown and lost books’, or, to be more precise, books not recorded in any bibliography or located in any library. The British Museum was interested in acquiring the lot, but while they generously valued it at 800 pounds (including a 50% increase due to the fact that all books were unique), this was only about half of Voynich’s asking price. Voynich then wrote to several wealthy collectors to buy the lot and donate it to the British Museum, which is indeed what happened. Voynich became one of only two UK book dealers to have their own shelf mark in the British Museum, and most of this collection is now known as Voyn.1 through Voyn.137.

In 1905 Voynich sold a sheet of painted parchment to the British Museum for 75 Pounds. He had acquired it from another English dealer, supposedly representing Columbus landing in America. However, he (or his staff) recognised that the flag on the illustration must have been from much later, so suggested that it represented Cortez. Upon inquiry from the British Museum, the provenance could not be convicingly traced back further than a previous French dealer. Some time after 1930, this was first suspected to be a forgery from the hand of the so-called 'Spanish Forger' (H.9), but later it was ascribed to an unknown forger. All this happened after Voynich's death.

In 1908 he acquired the famous antiquarian book store Franceschini in Florence, located in the Palazzo Borghese (IMAGE). It was a vast treasure trove, absolutely filled with incunabula (see note H.7). His 24th catalogue was published in 1908, after opening the Florence shop, and it was titled: "A Catalogue of rare books, printed in the XV., XVI. and XVII. Centuries, not to be found in the British Museum". In 1909 he moved his London office from Soho Square 1 to the more upmarket address of 68 Shaftesbury Avenue. After this, he moved his interest from cheap 15th C prints to illuminated MSS. He carefully approached Belle da Costa Greene of the Morgan Library with some 20 illuminated MSS for sale which he rated at values of 400-800 pounds. In December 1912 he makes his first sale to the Morgan: Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (1467) for 1200 pounds (H.10). He also developed the habit of looking for items hidden in the bindings of newly acquired old books and MSS (H.11), leading to several interesting discoveries such as the earliest xylography from Cracow (in cyrillic), a map related to Magellan's voyage around the globe and sets of early playing cards.

One aspect of Voynich’s business approach is that he was a slow payer who heavily relied on credit arrangements with other book sellers. In 1910 he owed Quaritch more than 1300 pounds and in 1913 more than 500, some of which was still unpaid 2 years later. In addition, he used stock-sharing techniques with the firm of J&J Leighton, and possibly also Olschki in Florence. For this, he was viewed by Quaritch as a ‘small operator’, primarily dealing with other dealers, in second-rate early printed books. He issued at least one catalogue consisting entirely of incunabula ranging in price between 5 and 10 pounds sterling (H.12).

In 1912 he retuned from another European trip with probably his best catch ever, a collection of valuable MSs supposedly from an unspecified castle in Austria, which attracted very regular visitors to his book shop (H.13). This included his famous cipher MS, and the Vitae Patrum supposedly with paintings from Giotto, possibly the most valuable item he ever handled (H.14). Two valuable MSs from this collection, originating from the library of Matthias Corvinus, had already been sold (via two intermediary dealers) to the Morgan Library in July 1912.

Late spring 1914 Voynich returned prematurely from a trip to the European continent, as he recognised that a war was about to break out. When this happened (World War I), his trips to the continent came to an abrupt halt. He made his first voyage to New York City in November 1914, crossing the Atlantic on the Lusitania. His home base there became New York, where he stayed initially in the Waldorf Astoria, and later in Manhattan Hotel. In January 1917 he set up an office on the 16th floor of the Aeolian Hall, on 29 W. 42nd Street (IMAGE). (H.15). Ethel Voynich emigrated to New York some time in 1920-1922.

The American Anne M. Nill became his new secretary and managed the New York office of his book business. He brought his prime collection of MSs and early printed books over to the US in January 1915. Early that same year he was offering the above-mentioned Vitae Patrum to Belle Greene for US$ 150,000 (30,000 pounds) which she considered preposterous. One year later, it was sold to the Morgan for half the price. After settling in New York he gradually transferred more stock across the Atlantic. He retained a small shop in London, which was managed by Herbert Garland.

In the course of 1915, Voynich organised a series of exhibitions of his most interesting items (manuscripts and early prints), which always attracted a lot of visitors and media attention. After exhibitions in Princeton University and New York city, in October he exhibited about 260 items at the Art Institute of Chicago and continued at the University of Michigan (early Nov.), the University of Illinois (mid Nov.), the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo (mid Dec.) and other museums. During this tour he sold a number of his items to the places visited.

By this time, Voynich had published at least 34 catalogues, usually well over 100 pages (H.16). Many of these have become rare collector's items themselves. Complete sets of these can be found in the Grolier club in New York (which preserves the documentation of Voynich's business from 1916 till after his death), and in the State University of New York, Binghamton University Libraries. By the time he issued catalogue 31, he ran (or was associated with) book stores in London, Paris, Florence, Warsaw and Vienna. In the course of his antiquarian career he sold a total of 3800 volumes to the British Museum (H.17).

At some point during their marriage, the Voyniches unofficially adopted a daughter Winifred Eisenhardt, who later became Winifred Gaye. Towards the end of the 1920's both his business and his health started to deteriorate. The physical hardships he had endured as a prisoner in Poland and Siberia had compromised his health. His lungs were damaged by tuberculosis and heavy smoking, and in 1929 he contracted pneumonia while in England, from which he would not recover. After his return to the USA he died on 19 March 1930. His long-time secretary-manager Anne M. Nill became Ethel’s 'companion'. The two women lived together for thirty years in an apartment at London Terrace on West 24th Street in the heart of Manhattan, continuing Voynich's rare book business with moderate success. Ethel died in 1960 and Anne Nill in 1961.

By all accounts, Wilfrid Voynich was a brilliant man whose 'seductive' personality, facility with languages (he supposedly spoke 18 languages), wide-ranging knowledge, and keen entrepreneurial skills made him a highly successful book dealer. An interesting assessment of his character was made by Stefan Juszczynski, a member of the London polish socialist party (see note H.4):

He [Wojnicz] had exuberant phantasy and took its results for reality, in which he solemnly believed. Later he became [...] a very practical antiquarian books dealer and made a considerable fortune, which he was always happy to share with anyone. And so in that man lived in agreement – incredible phantasy (others call it lies), truly American pragmatism and good heart.

Notes - Voynich

Most of Voynich's early life (i.e. prior to his arrival in London) is largely based on his own, partly inconsistent, accounts to different people, though it is confirmed in important details by Russian police records, and by Russian biographical sources. The present biography is based on 24 different sources, many of which on the internet. Important sources have been collected on a >>web site by Colin MacKinnon. In addition, the following were found most informative: Kennedy (2016), Sowerby (1967), Hunt (2006) and Hunt (2016), Blevins, Zimmern (1908), >>Voynich biography by R. Prinke and Prinke (2012). Other references still need to be consulted.
Rafał Prinke and Adam Bordzio (priv.comm.).
See >>wikipedia.
From Prinke (2012).
Source: Blevins.
Blevins states that they continued, more covertly.
As reported in Orioli (1937), which I have not yet seen.
As related by his friend James Westfall Thompson during an 'In Memoriam' presentation one year after Voynich's death.
The Spanish Forger was so called because his first identified works were intended to represent a Spanish painter. He is more commonly believed to have been based in Paris. He was first 'identified' by Belle Da Costa Greene of the Morgan library in 1930. He has been studied more intensively by W. Voelkle, equally of the Morgan library, who concluded that the piece sold by Voynich was not from him. There is extensive literature about him. Most details about Voynich's acquisition of this document are in Backhouse (1968).
He had acquired this item during an auction at Sotheby's, as described in Sowerby (1967).
From Zimmern (1908).
As reported in the biography of William H. Allen.
As described in Sowerby (1967).
For this collection see here.
His residences are given in the Bureau of Information file puplished in a >>PDF file at the web site of Colin MacKinnon.
They are usually undated. Catalogue 31 was issued before he set up his business in the USA.
From Whiteman (2006), p.25.


The text of Jacobus' Nobilitatio was kindly sent to Wilfrid Voynich in March 1921 by the councellor of the Prague archives of the Ministry of the Interior.

Valuable contributions were gratefully received from the following persons, in alphabetical order:
Lubos Antonin (Prague), Marcela Budíková (Brno), Jan Bedrich Hurych (Ontario, Canada), Denisa Kera (Prague), Colin MacKinnon (USA), Philip Neal (UK), Michal Pober (Kutna Hora), Josef Smolka (Prague), Rafał T. Prinke (Poznan, Poland), Jorge Stolfi (University of Campinas, Brazil).

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Latest update: 30/03/2018