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Special Topics: The history of the Voynich MS

Did John Dee bring the Voynich MS to Prague?

When Voynich researched the history of the MS, he eventually came to the conclusion that it was brought to Prague by the English scientist and magus John Dee. This research by Voynich is presented in some detail here, and the first mention of Dee's name by Voynich that I have seen is in a letter written in 1919 (1).

This theory of Voynich related to John Dee became well known through his publication in 1921 (2), and has been repeated ever since, in many books and articles as if it were probable or even true. As a result of Voynich's theory, the lives of Dee and his associate Edward Kelly have been scrutinised by many researchers, in order to find evidence for:

This scrutiny has resulted in the following pieces of circumstantial evidence:

In older literature about the Voynich MS it is usually assumed that the MS was indeed sold to Rudolf by John Dee and/or his associate Edward Kelly, but this assumption is based entirely on the theory of W.Voynich. Rafal Prinke was the first to analyse this more in depth, and his first analyses may be found at his web site (5). This has also been published in Zandbergen and Prinke (2011, 2016) (6). The following is a summary of the relevant part of this publication.

In general terms, Dee did meet Rudolf II once, but this interview was not particularly successful for him. He was even expelled from the kingdom by Rudolf, but he did find a safe haven in Trebon, in the house of Vilem of Rosenberg.

As regards the first point, while it may seem challenging to identify the person who wrote a series of numbers on the MS, this has been done by a respectable authority: Andrew G. Watson (see note 3). However, significant and consistent differences are found between the way the figure 8 is drawn in the MS (i.e. always starting at the bottom) and how both Dee and Kelly wrote it (always starting at the top).

With respect to the book in Hieroglyphics, the source is a letter from Sir Thomas Brown to Elias Ashmole written in 1675, which is quoted here. The words are from Dee's son Arthur, and when Dee and family left Bohemia, Arthur was 9 years old. The word 'hieroglyphics' could not have been used by him for the unknown writing, but has to refer to "ideograms". The book that, in reality, Arthur almost certainly referred to can be identified from Dee's diaries, where he writes about the Angelicum Opus:

... all in pictures of the work from the beginning to the end.

Unfortunately, he also writes that it went up in flames, so we cannot verify anymore what it looked like.

Dee's possession of 630 ducats appears in his diary on 17 October 1586. This has been taken as evidence that he possibly just received 600 ducats from emperor Rudolf. The date actually coincides with the time that Dee had already been banished from Prague since a few months, so it is already extremely unlikely that this money came from Rudolf. Instead, the diary entry actually explains that Dee has two bags of money containing 2000 ducats and 400 thalers respectively, and he hands over 800 florins (equivalent with 630 ducats) to his adversary Francesco Pucci, in front of wintesses. It is clear that this has nothing to do with the 600 ducats that Rudolf supposedly paid for the MS.

In summary, none of the three points can be substantiated. The year 1586 is occasionally mentioned in older literature as the year in which Rudolf bought the Voynich MS, but this year derives entirely from the above-mentioned hypothesis of Voynich, and it is therefore equally unsubstantiated.

One mysterious MS that Dee really possessed during his time in Bohemia has received some special attention, namely his "Book of Soyga". He once wrote in his diary: 'Oh, if only I could read the tables of Soyga'. The combination of the fact that this book was lost, and that this quote refers to an undeciphered text, has led to some speculation that the "Book of Soyga" could be the Voynich MS. This speculation has, however, been proven to be wrong. The book of Soyga has been found again in two copies by Prof. Harkness. Indeed, it includes diagrams consisting of tables of letters, and, surpassing Dee, Jim Reeds has been able to decipher these (7).

Notes

1
In a letter to Miss Louise Loomis, preserved in the Beinecke library.
2
See Voynich (1921).
3
According to A.G. Watson
4
Arthur Dee is quoted by Sir Thomas Browne. The full quote is replicated at another page at this site.
5
The original work by Rafal Prinke is >>available online here
6
See: Zandbergen and Prinke (2016).
7
See Reeds (1996), also available online. The MS itself has also been >>edited online.

 

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Copyright René Zandbergen, 2017
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Latest update: 17/04/2017