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Special Topics: The history of the Voynich MS

The main page related to the history of the MS is here. The present page has the following topics:

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 Wilfrid Voynich. Rafał Prinke has analysed this in more depth, and his results have been published in Zandbergen and Prinke (2011, 2016) (5). The following is a summary of the relevant part of this publication.

In general terms, Dee has met Rudolf II only 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 (6).

Did Rudolf II really buy the Voynich MS?

The source of the information that emperor Rudolf II bought the MS is Raphael Mnišovský. He is introduced by Marci in his letter to Kircher as "Dr. Raphael, who was once teacher to the young Ferdinand III". Kircher knew very well who was Ferdinand III. He was the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and he had dedicated some of his books to him. Mnišovský died in 1644, so this piece of information was more than 20 years old when Marci wrote his letter to Kircher. Furthermore, Mnišovský was referring back to events that took place decades before he mentioned them to Marci. One may wonder whether both Marci and Mnišovský would have remembered the essential details correctly.

There are good reasons to believe that they did. Mnišovský, who was already active during the reign of Rudolf II, was a lawyer, but he had a great interest both in alchemy and in secret writing.

Biography of Dr. Raphael Mnišovský.

In 1630 he wrote a letter to emperor Ferdinand II in which he expressed his support for the famous Polish alchemist Sendivogius, whom he knew personally, and whom he greatly admired (7). Sendivogius was one of the most important alchemists at the court of Rudolf. In this letter he refers to his own 30-year interest in the topic (i.e. since around 1600), and his interest in the manuscript collection of Rudolf, mentioning that he had been reading in manuscriptis, in charakteribus et Cifris Rudolphi Imperatoris. Mnišovský was also very familiar with the work of Trithemius, and even wrote a book applying the methods of Trithemius using the Czech language (8).

Regarding Marci, the Voynich MS was something that had deeply interested him (and the close friend he mentioned in his letter, for which see the main history page) for many decades. Most importantly, all details in the Marci letter that could be verified have turned out to be correct: his inheritance of books from the previous owner of the MS, the fact that this previous owner had written to Kircher, transcribing parts of the book, and the fact that Dr.Raphael was a tutor to Ferdinand III. We may safely trust that he correctly remembered Mnišovský's words.

Rudolf II had amassed a great collection of natural and cultural artefacts known as his Kunstkammer, essentially a vast private museum. Several inventories of it have been made (9). The most detailed manuscript catalogue of it was found in Liechtenstein in the 1960's. This catalogue includes a section describing books and manuscripts in the Kunstkammer. I have prepared a summary page describing it.

The catalogue of Rudolf's Kunstkammer.

If the Voynich MS could be identified in this catalogue, we would be certain that it once belonged to Rudolf, but it turns out that it can't be positively identified. This does not mean very much though, as the books in the Kunstkammer are mostly books concerned with art, and it is known to be incomplete (see note 9). It lists only very few of the many alchemical books that Rudolf is known to have collected. A large number of these books is still preserved in Leiden, after having passed through the hands of Queen Christina of Sweden and the Dutch humanist Isaac Vossius (10).

Marci's scribe

The letter from Marci to Kircher, that accompanied the Voynich MS to Rome and is now preserved in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University, was not written in Marci's own hand, but by a scribe. This letter may be viewed at the Beinecke digital library via >>this link.

It has also been observed that another letter from Marci to Kircher has been written in the same hand. This second letter is included in the Kircher correspondence preserved at the historical archives of the pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. It was written on 10 September 1665, less than a month after the above-mentioned letter, and it is also the last letter from Marci that has been preserved in this collection. The letter may be viewed on-line via >>this link.

The reason that Marci did not write in his own hand, but used the services of a scribe, is that his eyesight had deteriorated. All he was capable of was signing these two letters in his own hand. In fact, one year later, when he drew up his last will and testament, he was not even capable anymore of signing that document. The testament says that Marci, because of the weakness of his eyes, could hardly write or even read:

D. Joannes Marcus Marci a Kronland propter oculorum debilitatem ipse haud scribere, nec ad sigil_
landum bene videre potuerit.

Interestingly, one of the much earlier letters from Marci to Kircher also appears to be in the hand of the same scribe as these two letters of 1665. Referring to the 1972 publication by John Fletcher (11), this is letter nr.20 written on 8 September 1646 from Hornhaus, or Hornhausen. Fletcher indicates that the letter exists in vol. APUG 557 of the Kircher correspondence in two copies: as fol.100 being a fair copy, and fol.117 as another fair copy with slight additions. Philip Neal, who has transcribed all letters from Marci to Kircher, writes (12) that fol.117 is a copy of a lost original and fol.100 is a copy of fol.117.

I tend to agree with Philip, in the sense that the copy on fol.117, which has several annotations and appears to be in the hand of Marci's scribe, is the earlier of the two, and fol.100 looks to be a fair copy in what seems to be Kircher's own hand (13). All items may be viewed on-line, but are of low quality: >>fol.117 (recto), >>fol.117 (verso), >>fol.100 (recto) and >>fol.100 (verso). Would fol.117 have been written in Rome, or in Hornhausen? We can come back to that question later. Let's first look at what this letter is about.

The letter describes Marci's trip as part of an imperial envoy to the medicinal springs in Hornhausen, near Halberstadt. These springs had appeared in the city in 1646 and were believed to have very strong medicinal powers. Already in 1647 they had dried out, only to come back into existence again some forty years later, to dry out again. Marci describes several of these baths, and points out that there is one bath that should heal the eyes, and he is using this treatment in order to cure his own eyesight problems.

Interestingly, there is a copperplate print of this town, made in the same year (1646) showing a great number of people visiting the baths, and some of the surrounding activities such as the sale of bread, beer and books, people praying before applying their treatment, and many other details. This print is available without copyright restrictions >>via this link.

At the bottom of the legend of this print is written:

Disz ist auch zu mercken das alle blinde gehen und haben die augen mit dieszem waszer angeneszten Tuchern verbunden.

Meaning: also to be noted is that all blind people [...] have bound their eyes with cloth soaked in this water.

This means that, as Marci was using the eye treatment of these baths, he was having his eyes bound, and any letter he would write to Kircher would have to be dictated to a scribe. This is what we see in the copy of the letter on fol.117, and due to its slightly disorganised nature, Kircher probably decided to make a fair copy.

It is of interest that apparently, when Marci was finally losing his eyesight almost 20 years later, he could again (or still) rely on the same scribe. Given that the person who wrote the letter accompaying the Voynich MS to Kircher is someone whom Marci knew for almost 20 years, it becomes of greater interest to try to find out his identity. It is yet another person in Bohemia who must have known more about the Voynich MS and may have left some writings about it.

I at first assumed that this person should be at least 18 years of age in 1646, so he should have been born before 1628. Obviously, he certainly died after 1665. He visited Hornhausen in 1646 and must have been in Prague in 1665. When I consulted the great Marci expert Josef Smolka whether Marci ever had any personal assistant, he said he was almost certain that he did not, but also suggested to consider Marci's oldest son, who was born in 1631, so at the time of the trip to Hornhausen he was only 15.

Marci had several students, who became his colleages and successors at the medical faculty of the Charles University. Of these, Nicolaus Frachimont de Frankenfeldt (1611-1684) and Jacobus Forberger (1609?-1682) co-signed Marci's testament, and their hand does not look like that of the scribe. However, a larger sample should still be checked to be more certain, since on this document they would certainly have made an effort to write elegantly and not in their natural hands. A third, Jacobus Dobrzenski de Nigro Ponte (1623-1697), wrote a letter to Kircher (14), which clearly shows that he was not the scribe. Of Sebastian Christian Zeidler (1620?-1689) I have not yet seen any sample.

Many friends of Marci can be excluded either because 1646 is too early (Balbín, Daisigner), they died before 1665 (Stransky, Barschius) or their handwriting is known from the Kircher correspondence, and different (Kinner). Finally, the person could be a personal secretary or clerk of Marci. Further research will be necessary here.

Speculation about the unknown history of the MS

Various details in the known history of the MS provide some hints about what may have happened in the intervening periods. In the following, I am assuming that Rudolf II owned the MS, and that, indeed, it was sold to him by Karl Widemann, as described in the main page.

Raphael Mnišovský spoke about the Voynich MS with Marci while Barschius was its owner, and Mnišovský knew more about the sale of the MS to Rudolf, so it is likely that he provided more details to both Barschius and Marci. Unfortunately, neither give us the name of the seller, at least not in the extant correspondence. Marci just gives the amount of the sale, though not perfectly accurately, and the hypothesis of Mnišovský that the MS traces back to Roger Bacon. This differs from the opinions of Barschius, of which we see some elements in his second letter to Kircher. Specifically, he considers the herbs in the MS to be from the orient, e.g. Egypt, and refers to a person travelling these areas. This inevitably reminds us of Rauwolf, who was such a traveller, collecting herbal information from these areas, and now we find that Widemann lived in the house of Rauwolf and is a potential earlier owner. This allows for a first piece of speculation:

Speculation 1: Perhaps Rauwolf was indeed the prior owner of the Voynich MS. Perhaps Mnišovský knew this from the same source that provided him with the price Rudolf paid, and perhaps he told Marci and Barschius about this. Perhaps this is the source for Barschius' statements in his second letter to Kircher.

If nothing else, this matches with all known facts, but of course there is no evidence. Now, if Rauwolf did own the MS, we may wonder where and when he acquired it. Rauwolf studied medicine at the University of Montpellier, among others under the famous botanist Giullaume Rondelet. This allows for a second piece of speculation:

Speculation 2: Perhaps Rauwolf acquired the Voynich MS during his stay in France, in Montpellier or elsewhere. If the MS was previously in France, this could explain the French month names written in the zodiac illustrations in the MS.

This is certainly a very weak argument, and does not really help us a lot in understanding the earlier history of the MS. The next point concerns Mnišovský's source of information about Rudolf's acquisition of the Voynich MS. When the MS was given to Hans Popp, Mnišovský was certainly too young to have been involved. Mnišovský has stressed his close acquaintance with Michael Sendivogius, who had been perhaps the most famous alchemist at Rudolf's court. He would be a more likely source. The great Sendivogius expert Rafał Prinke has recently published a paper about correspondence between Sendivogius and Popp (15), showing that the two knew each other well. If we add to this the multiple events related to the year 1636, we may phrase our third piece of speculation:

Speculation 3: Perhaps Sendivogius and Mnišovský together are the missing link in the history of the Voynich MS between Jacobus de Tepenec and Barschius. Sendivogius may have known about the MS from the beginning, and Mnišovský appears to have been his only confidant. Perhaps the MS was in his hands until his death in 1636. Perhaps it was owned by Mnisowsky and lent out to him for study. The year of Sendivogius' death coincides with the year in which Barschius wrote his first letter to Kircher. It is also the end of the tentative period in which Mnisowsky spoke to Barschius and Marci about the MS. Perhaps, in 1636, Mnisowsky gave the MS to Barschius for further study.

This piece of speculation fits numerous tentative items together, but it has one major shortcoming: Rafał Pinke, already introduced before and perhaps the foremost Sendivogius expert, has not seen any evidence of a book similar to the Voynich MS in Sendivogius' possession, while some lists of his books exist. However, Sendivogius as source of information rather than as temporary possessor of the MS remains a valid option in my humble opinion.

A final piece of speculation concerns what happened with the MS upon the death of Tepenec. However, this is part of on-going research by Stefan Guzy, so that will have to stay outside this page for the time being.


In a letter to Miss Louise Loomis, preserved in the Beinecke library.
See Voynich (1921).
According to A.G. Watson
Arthur Dee is quoted by Sir Thomas Browne. The full quote is replicated at another page at this site.
See: Zandbergen and Prinke (2016).
See Reeds (1996), also available online. The MS itself has also been >>edited online.
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 mentioned in Evans (1984). I am grateful to Rafał Prinke for having been able to use a copy of this letter. For Sendivogius, see e.g. Purš and Karpenko (2016), in particular Prinke (2016).
See his biography for more details about this work.
See especially Richterová (2016).
There is considerable literature about this, e.g. Callmer (1977) and Richterová (2016). The collection that was taken as war booty to Stockholm suffered from a severe fire in that library a few years later. The extent of the losses is known from catalogues made before and after the fire. Part of the collection was given to the Dutchman Isaac Vossius by Queen Christina of Sweden, for services delivered to the library. This was later left by his heirs to the library of the University of Leiden. The collection of (al)chemical books among these is discussed further at a >>web page of Philip Neal.
Fletcher (1972): Johann Marcus Marci writes to Athanasius Kircher.
On >>this web page.
It should be possible to have this confirmed by someone more familiar with Kircher's handwriting.
This is included as fol.132 in APUG 562, visible >>here (recto) and >>here (verso, with signature).
See Prinke and Zuber (2018).


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Copyright René Zandbergen, 2022
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Latest update: 13/12/2022