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Special Topics: History of Research of the Voynich MS

Wilfrid Voynich's research

Parts of Voynich's own research can be reconstructed from his notes and letters preserved in the Beinecke library, and from his 1921 publication (1). Remarkably, for at least six or seven years after he acquired the MS, he did not pay much attention to the history of the MS, and he can only have paid a passing attention to the Marci letter. From a 1917 letter to cryptologist Edith Rickert, and some 1918 newspaper reports, it appears that by this time the Prague history of the Voynich MS was still completely unknown territory for him. Until 1918, Voynich believed that the Rudolf mentioned in the Marci letter was Rudolf I (1218-1291), contemporary of R.Bacon, and also that beside Kircher, only kings had owned the MS. He did not yet realise who exactly was Johannes Marcus Marci. But let's follow his steps.

Voynich took the MS to the US in November 1914, and as he reports in his 1921 publication (see note 1) at this time he had not yet seen the ex libris of Jacobus de Tepenec. From 1915 onwards he organised a series of exhibitions showing also his "Roger Bacon cipher MS", and his statements about this MS and the collection to which it belonged have been published in several newspapers. They attracted the interest of the historian of medicine Fielding H. Garrison, who wrote to Voynich on 2 November 1915, asking for permission to use the MS in his discussion of medicine around the time of Rudolf II. On 8 November, Voynich answered him saying that the Rudolf in question is Rudolf I (1218 – 1291) not Rudolf II.

Two years later, on 18 September 1917, Voynich answered a letter from Edith Rickert, a cryptography expert interested in the Voynich MS, and a collaborator of John Manly. In his answer he mentioned that the Rudolf in the Marci letter died in 1291 (i.e. he still believed that it is king Rudolf I).

By 1919, however, he had clearly realised that the Rudolf in the Marci letter was Rudolf II. He had asked a certain Miss Louise Loomis to translate the Marci letter for him, and he had started his search for the unknown seller of the MS to Rudolf. In a thank-you letter to her dated 10 April 1919 he announced his theory that it was John Dee who had sold the MS to emperor Rudolf II. This is also the time that Newbold started to work on his translation attempts, so this probably marks the time that the research of the Voynich MS really took off.

Early 1921 we see that Voynich is preparing for a presentation about the MS to be held on 20 April that year. In his preparations he concentrated on tracing the history of the MS by investigating the people associated with it. To research the Prague part of the history, he wrote to the Bohemian state archives on 9 February, inquiring primarily about Jacobus de Tepenec and Johannes Marcus Marci, suggesting that the two may have been associated with each other. He also inquired about 'Dr. Raphael', mentioning that he once taught Bohemian to the children of Ferdinand III (2).

In parallel he had his London employee Herbert Garland research Tepenec. The correspondence between Voynich and Garland has largely been preserved. The first answer from Garland is dated 14 February 1920, but from context it is clear that this should be 1921. Garland names some of the references he has used: Bolton, Jungmann, Balbin, and Backer (3). Garland writes again on 22 February, and Voynich sends him a thank-you letter on 25 February. The last two letters most probably crossed. From these letters we see that Voynich based all his knowledge about the court of Rudolf on a romantic account by Bolton (1904) (see note 3), and Garland points out that it is largely based on the work of a certain Josef Svatek. The most important result for Voynich was that the mysterious Tepenec who put his name on the MS was none other than the 'Sinapius' whom Voynich knows from Bolton, and Voynich boasts that he knows that work 'by heart' (4). He is exuberant that this proves that his MS was indeed at the court of Rudolf.

Voynich is still completely in the dark who is 'Dr. Raphael'. Garland seems to have spent most of his time in the library of the British Museum and was very effective, and Voynich continues to ask for information about people whose names he picks from Bolton: Mardochaeus de Delle (5) and Jacopo di Strada.

There is a handwritten note of Voynich in the Beinecke library, which contains a list of names of candidate sellers of the MS to Rudolf. This was probably already written ealier, perhaps in 1919. The interesting part of this is that the names can be matched against Bolton, and we see that they appear in the right page order of that book. Names I noted are (6): Christ von Hirschberg (p.19), Daniel Prandtner, alchemist (p.19), Magister Jeremias (p.19), Salomena Scheinfplug(p.20), Claudius Syrrus (p.20), Ch.Guarinonius Ital. alchem. (p.23), Wresowitz (library) (p.37), George Kretschmar (p.39), Drebbel - was imprisoned - (p.93), Typotius Libr. To Rudolph (p.160), Sebald Schwertzer [long] (p.65), Sendivogius (p.123).

His conclusion from this research, as we had already seen, was that a Roger Bacon MS was most likely brought to Prague by John Dee. Ironically, his list included the name Sebald Schwertzer (7), who had really sold (or given) a Roger Bacon MS to Rudolf II (8).

Research from Garland futher went into the correspondence of Kircher, and he admits that he has not been able to find any letters to or from Marci, and suggests they have been lost. The correspondence of Kircher is listed extensively in De Backer (see note 3), and the entry is largely identical to that of Sommervogel (9), of which we know that it fails to mention the Carteggio Kircheriano that includes the letters from Marci. Garland also mentions that Miss Howe (who was working in the same London office of Voynich (10)) had written to Voynich about Marci's book 'Philosophia Vetus Restituta'. I have not seen this letter, but its importance is that this book mentions that Marci inherited the alchemical library of Georgius Barschius (11). Voynich must have remembered the statement in the Marci letter that Marci inherited the MS from its previous owner.

Fortunately for Voynich, he received a very long and detailed answer from Prague, from Dr. Ladislav Klicman in March 1921, still in time for his presentation. This included the many details about Tepenec and Marci (pointing out that they were not contempraries as Voynich had preseumed) that Voynich later used in his presentation and his paper (see note 1). It also finally resolved who was Dr. Raphael. Voynich was particularly interested to learn that Raphael Mnišowský was deeply interested in cryptography and had written a book in Trithemian style, and he put several exclamation marks in the margin of the letter at this point.

In his thank-you letter to Dr. Klicman, Voynich also inquired about Barschius, mentioning the inheritance, but there does not appear to be any answer.

From correspondence between Voynich and James Westfall Thompson, a historian of the University of Chicago, which took place after his 1921 presentation, we find that Voynich was still very seriously investigating the life of Dee, and Dee's ownership of Bacon manuscripts. Thompson managed to find out quite a lot about the origin of many Bacon manuscripts that Dee once owned, including hints of an encrypted MS, but this was only a few years before Voynich's death, and it is not clear what happened with this information.

The search for Kircher's correspondence also continued, for Voynich found out from a catalogue of Kircher's museum: De Sepi (1678) (12) that there used to be a 12-volume binding of Kircher's correspondence, and immediately realised (correctly as we have seen) that this must be a valuable source for additional information about his MS (13). When Garland could not find any trace of this collection, Voynich decided to find out more about this from Henri Hyvernat, who was in Rome at the time. For an as yet unknown reason, Voynich did not write to Hyvernat directly, but asked his friend Wiliam W. Bishop to do that for him. Hyvernat then inquired in Rome about Kircher's correspondence, and his request reached the foremost expert, Fr. P. Tacchi Venturi (historian of the Jesuits). The latter's answer was that he himself had already searched for it in all the principal libraries in Rome, didn't know anything, and was not even aware of the fact that this was a 12-volume collection. He suggested that it was probably lost sometime between 1773 and 1824. In reality, the collection of some 2000 manuscripts including this correspondence had been moved from outside Rome to the German college just a few years before, so his response indicates that the collection was still kept under lock and seal by this time, and he was not at liberty to talk about it.

Erwin Panofsky

The famous Renaissance Art expert Panofsky (1892 - 1968) first became interested in the Voynich MS in 1931. This is recorded in correspondence of Anne Nill and ELV, preserved both in the Beinecke Library and in the Grolier Club (14).

Sometime in 1931 he came to New York as a visiting professor at New York University. In the course of his first half year term there, Miss Belle Greene of the Morgan Library showed him a photostat of one of the zodiac pages of the Roger Bacon cipher MS. The dating of this event is uncertain, but it must have taken place in 1931 (15). He at once recognised it as bearing a close resemblance to one page in a MS made in Spain for Alfonso the Wise, and asked to see the other pages. Miss Greene then contacted ELV, who came to meet him at the Morgan Library where she showed him the photostats. (According to Nill these were negatives and in poor condition, having greatly faded in some parts). After satisfying himself that no other page resembled either the Spanish MS or any other MS known to him, he became intensely interested and seemed to think that the MS was early, perhaps as early as the 13th century. He asked to see the original, and met with ELV and Anne Nill at the safe deposit vault on a Friday, where he spent two hours examining the MS. His first impression was still that it was early, but as he came to the female figures (in conjunction with the colours used in the manuscript) he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century. A summary of his first impression after the two hours of investigation, was written down by ELV sometime letter, in a letter to James Westfall Thompson, written probably in 1932 (16):

  1. That it is neither Bacon, nor English work.
  2. That it was written in the south-western corner of Europe: Spain, Portugal, Catalonia, or Provence; but most probably in Spain.
  3. That the date is later than has been supposed: probably somewhere about 1410-20-30. When looking at the Photostats he felt convinced that it was definitely earlier than the 15th century; but, on seeing the female figures more clearly in the original, changed his view.
  4. That it shows Jewish or Arab influence, probably in connection with the Kabbala; but also Dutch or Flemish influence in the female faces and figures and some Spanish or anyhow southern qualities. This last impression was strengthened in his mind by the character of the greens and red.
  5. That it is probably the surviving one of two volumes: the plant and star half of the work which doubtless included also beasts and stones.
  6. That it is, except for one page partly taken from Alfonso’s MS, entirely unlike any MS known to him.
He regarded it, in any case, as interesting and important. He went back to Hamburg, taking with him a complete set of photostats, and promising to ask some of his colleagues there to try if they can solve the problem.

It may be of interest to show the draft of this part of the letter in the hand of ELV, suggesting that she was struggling to correctly formulate his statements.

On 6 April 1932 ELV wrote a letter on the same subject to Belle Da Costa Greene. Following are some excerpts of it:

Dear Miss Greene,
I owe you a thousand apologies. It is upon my conscience that I never even wrote to tell you the final result of Professor Panofsly's examination of the cipher MS.
but no sooner had he sailed, taking with him a complete set of photostats and promising to enlist the help of his colleagues at the Warburg Institute - the very best thing that could possibly have happened - then first I and then Miss Nill went down with influenza. Since then we have been struggling to keep up with our work
Professor Panofsky will write to us when he has had the time to consult his colleagues. His present view is that the cipher MS is quite likely Spanish about 1420 (roughly), which would certainly account for the elaborate precautions against legibility.

The main importance of the above opinion of Panofsky lies in the fact that this is a very clear statement against the Roger Bacon theory of Voynich, only one or two years after Voynich's death.

Two decades later, Panofsky appears to have changed his mind on a number of aspects. On 16 March 1954 W. Friedman sent him a questionnaire with 15 questions. Panofsky sent a detailed response back to Friedman on 19 March, in his own words. Following is a summary of the questions and a full transcription of the answers (17).

Have you examined the VMS itself?
I saw the Voynich manuscript in 1931
What is it written on; with what writing tool?
If you apply the words "parchment" and "vellum" in the strict sense (that "vellum" has to be made of the skin of calves rather than other animals) I am not sure . However, the medium was certainly vellum in the more general sense and characterized by a fairly coarse-grained texture which in places caused individual strokes to appear like a series of dots when looked at with a magnifying glass. This, incidentally, may have caused the late Professor Newbold to believe that each of these dots stood for a letter and each letter for a whole word. The instrument used was doubtless a quill pen, the writing and the contours of the drawings being done in ink, the coloring, so far as I remember, in the kind of pigment usually described as "wash."
What's the date?
Were it not for the sunflower which, if correctly identified (18), would date the manuscript after 1492, I should have thought that it was executed a little earlier, say, about 1470. However, since the style of the drawings is fairly provincial, a somewhat later date, even the first years of the sixteenth century, would not seem to be excluded. I should not go lower than ca. 1510-1520 because no influence of the Italian Renaissance style is evident.
Why do you think so?
The above date is based on the character of the script, the style of drawing and on such costumes as are in evidence on certain pages, for example folio 72 recto.
What's it about?
So far as can be made out before the manuscript has been decoded, its content would comprise: first, a general cosmological philosophy explaining the medical properties of terrestrial objects, particularly plants, by celestial influences transmitted by astral radiation and those "spirits" which were frequently believed to transmit the occult powers of the stars to the earth; second, a kind of herbal describing the individual plants used for medical and, conceivably, magical purposes; third, a description of such compounds as may be produced by combining individual plants in various ways.
Are there any plain text books sort of like the VMS?
Manuscripts in plain language remotely comparable to the Voynich manuscript are, unfortunately, of at least four kinds: first, herbals; second, cosmological and astrological treatises; third, medical treatises in the narrower sense of the term; fourth, possibly treatises on alchemy. As for the first kind, you seem to have more knowledge than I can claim. As for the second, I should advise to consult Sir Charles Singer, From Magic to Science, London 1928, and various publications by the same author; furthermore, it may be useful to consult Richard Salomon, Opicinus de Canistris, London, 1936; and F. Boll and G. von Bezold, Sternglaube und Sterndeutung, Second Edition (F. Gundel, Ed.), Berlin and Leipzig, 1926. As for the third kind, ample material is found in two serial publications, both edited by the late Carl Sudoff: Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin and Studien zur Geschichte der Medizin; of alchemy I know very little and can only refer you to the Entstehung und Ausbreitung der Alchemie by E.O. von Lippmann, Berlin, 1919 ff., as well as a fairly recent book by the famous psychologist C.O. Jung.
What plain text have you found in the VMS?
So far as I know, plain language writing is found: first on the pages showing the signs of the zodiac (folio 70 ff.) which seems to be provincial French; second, on folio 66; and third, on the last page, folio 116 verso. The entry on folio 66 reads, as discovered by Professor Salomon of Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, "der mus del," which seems to be ancient German for "der Mussteil," which is a legal term referring to household implements and stock of victuals which, after the death of a husband, cannot be withheld from his widow. The little figure and receptacles accompanying this entry may or may not refer to this idea. The entry on the last page reads: "So nim geismi[l]ch o." This is again old German, the first word generally introducing a sentence following a conditional clause; the translation would be: "[If such and such a condition prevails], then take goat’s milk." The last letter "o" is most probably to be completed into "oder," which means "or." The inference is that the sentence is unfinished and that some alternative substance was proposed in case goat’s milk should not be available. I may add that recipes of this kind are quite customary in mediaeval and Renaissance medicine.
What plants, astronomical, etc, things have been recognized?
To the best of my knowledge, only the sunflower has been identified thus far. (see note 18).
Is it all in the same hand?
In my opinion the whole manuscript is by the same hand with the possible exception of the last page; but I am by no means sure of that.
Why was it written?
My idea always was that the manuscript was written by a doctor or quack trying to impart what he considered secret knowledge to a son or heir.
Where & when?
My guess is that the manuscript was produced in Germany, which is supported by the fact that the goat’s milk sentence is continuous with the text of at least the last page of the manuscript.
What do you think of the Roger Bacon theory?
The Roger Bacon theory is in my opinion at variance with all the available facts and has been convincingly disproved by Mr. Manly. Further endorsement of Mr. Manly’s adverse criticism is found in a brief review of his article by the above-mentioned Professor Salomon which appeared in: Bibliothek Warburg, Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliographie zum Nachleben der Antike, I, Leipzig and Berlin, 1934, page 96, No. 386.
The dictionary of abbreviations is by Adriano Cappelli, Dizionario delle Abbreviature Latine ed Italiane; my edition is the second, published 1912, but there may be more recent ones. The book on forgery in art is by Hans Tietze and entitled Genuine and False; Copies, Imitations, Forgeries, New York, 1948. As far as the book by Mabillon is concerned, I am afraid that I did not express myself with sufficient clarity. He did not write a book on “The History of Diplomatics” but his famous De re Diplomatica of 1681 laid the foundations of palaeography starting out with the investigation of documents which were supposed to be genuine and which he proved to be forgeries by studying the development of script. I should like to reiterate my opinion that the Voynich manuscript, whichever its place of origin, date and purpose, is certainly a perfectly authentic document.
What other scholars are interested in the VMS?
The only scholar who still takes some interest in the Voynich manuscript is, so far as I know, Professor Salomon, already mentioned twice.
What do you think of the artificial language theory?
I do not feel qualified to pronounce about the probability of your “artificial language” theory. I must confess that, for the time being, I am a little skeptical in view of the fact that, so far as I know, no attempts to construct such an artificial language can be shown to have been made until the beginning of the seventeenth century, whereas cipher scripts were developed and employed at a very much earlier date. As I mentioned in conversation, the Italian humanist, Leone Battista Alberti, welcomed the newly discovered “hieroglyphs” as a kind of writing that was independent of language differences and was therefore understandable to all initiated; but this would seem a rather different proposition because the hieroglyphs were not an artificial language developed, on systematic grounds, by a contemporary author but were reputed to be a sign language actually used by the Egyptians and therefore particularly attractive to the humanists who credited the Egyptians with a wisdom even more profound than that of the Greeks and Romans (19).

In conclusion, Panofsky first thought the MS to be Spanish, with Jewish or Arab influences, and later changed his opinion that it could be German, probably influenced by his friend and mentor Richard Salomon (for whom see below). He believed the origin to be in the 15th Century, but allowed a later date in consideration of the tentative sunflower identification.


The images of the handwritten letter by ELV have been shown here with the kind permission of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University, New Haven (CT).


See Voynich (1921).
A mistake of Voynich. The Marci letter clearly says Ferdinand III and not his children.
Bolton is Bolton (1904). Jungmann is undoubtedly the Czech poet and linguist Josef Jungmann (1773-1847) but the title of his work is not given. Balbin is the great historian Bohuslav Balbin (1621 - 1688), friend of Marci. Some of his works have been transcribed and translated by Philip Neal. "Backer" is: A. and A. De Backer (1853-1861), the great bibliography of the Jesuits, a work that was re-published by Carlos Sommervogel as Sommervogel and De Backer (1893) (see also here).
In Bolton (1904) Sinapius is also called Horcicky, but never "Tepenec".
The supposed author of a poem about the alchemists at the court of Rudolf, whose name is variously given as "De Delle" or "De Nelle". For more about this confusing topic, see Prinke and Zuber (2020).
I saw this note in 2012 and at the time I did not note some of the more obvious names such as Dee and Kelley.
There is a section about Schwertzer in Purš and Karpenko (2016), pp.671-690.
This MS is now preserved in Leiden, see a >>web page of Philip Neal.
Sommervogel and De Backer (1893).
As we know from Sowerby (1967).
For the research about Barschius, see also: source material: Marci about Barschius and source material: Voynich about Barschius.
De Sepi (1678), p. 65. More about this volume, see the history page
He was specifically hoping to find further evidence that his was a Bacon MS, but that has not materialised from Kircher's correspondence.
The relevant letter preserved in the Grolier Club was already described by Rich SantaColoma at his blog. The following description is a combined summary of this letter with the one preserved in the Beinecke library.
Panofsky reports elsewhere that he met Belle Da Costa Greene in 1931. He writes about her: "„tolle Person, schrecklich hässlich, aber kolossal klug und temperamentvoll und von einem nicht zu beschreibenden überlegenen Cynismus".
Both draft and typewritten versions of the letter are now preserved in the Beinecke Library. Neither version is dated, and Anne Nill added some pencil notes near the top of the typewritten copy, first guessing that it was written after November 24, 1931, then striking this out and replacing it with Mar. 10 1932. This suggests that the visit of Panofsky may have taken place in November 1931 but it remains uncertain.
The letters are preserved among the correspondence of W. Friedman, in the George C. Marshall Foundation in Lexington (Va). They were initially summarised by J. Reeds. I am grateful to W. Sherman for the complete copy of Panofsky's response.
As regards the sunflower, Panofsky is referring to the publication of O'Neill (1944)
The famous renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti (1404 - 1472).


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