THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT - DO WE REALLY HAVE ANY PROVENANCE?
Jan. B. Hurych
For almost one hundred years were VM researchers attempting to get together supportable, verifiable provenance as a helpful tool for the deciphering its text and pictures. However, several valuable discoveries were made lately that brought many points of the "official" provenance (or rather a scenario of it) in serious doubt.
Let me list here the critical points and supportive evidence to of their doubtful validity.
We will discuss here the points of misinformation (1 to11) and then the sources of misinformation (12 to 19), listed below.
The famous Marci's letter (to Kircher)
The assumption that Missowsky rumor deals with facts
The obscure role of Kircher
The obscure role of Baresch
The statement that Marci's letter was found with the manuscript
The assumption that the VM is the same manuscript Marci wrote about in his letter
The circumstances of finding the VM in Mondragone villa and the role of Strickland brothers
The sale of Marci's letter abroad
The unclear conditions of the VM exporting from Italy
The disinterest of Societas Jesu (The Jesuit Society) in the loss of the document belonging to Museo Kircheriano
The "miraculous" discovery of the hidden "signature" in the VM
Mrs. Ethel Voynich and Miss Nill
Professor William Romaine Newbold.
The manuscript itself
The "erasure" of the "signature"
The rumor about Rudolph and Dee
The rumor about Bacon
And then came Horczicky . . .
Modern, unsupported stories and books
Some of above points cannot be properly verified, others are just doubtful and the rest is contradicted by some other facts. We deliberately do not deal with Wilfrid Voynich as a separate point or source, since he was involved in many if not all of them. All in all, as we shall see, the existing official provenance is still only a provisorium rather than a serious research document.
THE POINTS OF MISINFORMATION
Let us scrutinize the individual points. Only the summaries are written here, the detailed work would probably require much longer document, but for our purpose of criticism only, such extent is not necessary.
1) The famous Marci's letter (to Kircher) was obviously not written in his hand nor has is usual format (compare with his other letters in Museo Kircheriano). Neither is the signature, even if it is rather similar to those in other letters, accompanied with his sign of manu propria (i.e. signed with his own hand) present in earlier letters. Apparently it was written by a scriber which is also explained by the fact that Marci was, at that time, most likely already blind. The information in the letter is of course crucial to the provenance. Some data there agree with facts: he did inherited the library of Baresch and yes, he was his longtime friend. While Marci claimed he sent the VM "soon after he inherited it", this may create the discrepancy of several years, since it was apparently sent much later. There is nothing in the letter however that would help to identify the manuscript he is talking about as the VM, located in Beinecke library. The pertinent, identifiable details are provided only in Baresch's letter to Kircher, discovered during the past ten years.
2) The assumption that Missowsky rumor deals with facts . The part where Marci quotes Missowsky is of course just a hearsay, as Marci readily admits in the letter and he especially warns Kircher to "make his own mind" about it. That part of course can be qualified only as a third hand information i.e. a "rumor" at best. Several researchers never doubted those are the real facts since they conveniently cover otherwise missing information about the arrival of the VM in Prague and its possible origin. Since there are no supporting facts to the story, is should be always described as "unconfirmed". The similarity between 600 ducats mentioned in the letter and 630 ducats in Dee's diary is only superficial, since Dee never wrote from where, when and how he obtained that money.
3) The obscure role of Athanasius Kircher. Baresch wrote two letters to Kircher, both about the VM and with some samples of the script. No samples were ever found and only the second letter survived. From that letter, we know that Baresch already wrote to Kircher before and since he sent to him by messenger, he was politely suggesting that Kircher must have got it but never bothered to answer. We do not even know if Kircher answered the second letter or if he ever did some research of his own, even if it is evident he got Marci's letter and some manuscript with it. In spite of the fact the VM was not discovered in Museo Kircheriano, the same manuscript was described by Baresch in his letter in some detail. We may also safely assume that Voynich never saw the recently discovered letter by Baresch, otherwise he would use it in his provenance as a proof of identity of both manuscripts (i.e. that the manuscript he owned is indeed the VM).
4) The obscure role of Georgius Baresch. Baresch apparently obtained the VM illegally and did not know anything about the author or former owners (except maybe the rumor he heard from Missowsky). If he knew more, he apparently did not tell Marci who would certainly tell Kircher - who was also his good friend - in his famous letter. The "erasure" of the "signature" (see later) was never mentioned by Baresch nor Marci and not even by Voynich before its discovery. In existing state, the folio is quite visibly damaged so we may safely assume that the whole visible damage was done by his people. That of course masked the original erasure so much that we cannot identify which is which. There was certainly no reason for Marci or Kircher to erase anything. For Baresch however, if he got the VM illegally, there would be a good reason (or for the thief who sold it to him). There are also several deliberate misinformations in his letter to Kircher, due to the fact he apparently wanted Kircher to solve the cipher but not the content of the VM, a quite impossible task.
5) The statement that Marci's letter was found with the manuscript. While Voynich claimed Marci's letter was found with the manuscript, he was quite vague about the details (was it attached by string, inserted, glued to the cover or just found in the same box with the VM?). We know that such coincidence is quite unusual - how many manuscripts are that lucky? - but it is quite probable. However, why was not there the letter by Baresch as well? It surely says much more about the manuscript content then Marci's letter. Too bad there was no witness to the event. It was suggested it was probably attached with wax or glue to the inside of the front cover to the manuscript (the dating of the cover of course was not determined yet either). Another interesting clue is that typed tabs with the name Petrus Beckx are found in the documents to accompanying the VM at the Beinecke Library (see also alter). After the letter was separated from the manuscript, there was no proof that the same letter was ever inserted or attached to the VM (except for matching of the glue spots, which was never done). As for the other facts: Voynich promised the seller not to reveal any "details" of the sale in public and he apparently kept his word till his death. This sounds unnecessary since there was at least one competitive buyer who could tell anyway - so what was the whole secrecy actually about? And who was Voynich really protecting by that promise ? (see also later)
6) The assumption that the VM is the same manuscript Marci wrote about in his letter.
While it seems obvious, it is not: at the beginning, there was only one proof - Voynich's statement that letter was found with the VM. For that, we have only Voynich's word, since now the letter is separated and it could have been found anywhere else. Also, there is nothing in the letter to associate it with what we can see in the VM. Another proof was therefore needed and then, miraculously, the hidden "signature" was found. Of course the whole story around it is clouded as much as the particular folio, particularly the area in question which shows chemical damage that apparently continued during past decades. Again, we have only xerox copy of the original photostat showing what actually saw Voynich in his time, of course only with rather small resolution. Little less is apparently seen today under ultraviolet light and less again in the resent scan of the folio (in color). Incidentally, the chemical treatment was really not necessary if the "signature" appeared clearly on the photostat.
7) The circumstances of finding the VM in Mondragone villa and the role of Strickland brothers.
Voynich bought the VM from Jesuits of Villa Mondragone in 1912, with the help of a Reverend Father Strickland under the promise of secrecy and such secret was apparently to be kept forever. Based on facts revealed by Miss Nill after Voynich's wife Ethel death, the until then unknown correspondence made public. It is the correspondence between Voynich and both Father Giuseppe (Joseph) Strickland and his brother Paolo (Paul) Strickland. Full name was actually Strickland-Scerberras. Giuseppe was the Prefect of Collegio Mondragone in 1888, 1893 and 1894, then Reverend Father there in 1903 and in 1912-1916). Paolo who also studied at Mondragone (there were four brothers and they all studied there) was apparently known to Voynich from England. We may possibly guess that it was him who knew about sale from Giuseppe, informed Voynich and maybe even had to do some convincing of his brother Giuseppe. We know only it was "Fr. Strickland, S.J. who introduced Voynich to Mondragone padres", but first name is not mentioned. It could also be some other Strickland (there was several of them in England at the time of Voynich and at least one of them was a Jesuit). The secret promise of course could have covered some other facts than the location of the sale and persons involved, namely the conditions of the sale, it's legality, the bypassing of some legal procedures or even non-existence of the export permit by Italian government (the laws against artifact exports were strict then already). The secrecy of the sale was however already violated by the fact that there was also another bidder (or was he just invented?). Either way, after the location of the sale was publicly known, the sale at Mondragone entered the official provenance as well.
8) The sale of Marci's letter to foreign buyer. The letter was clearly addressed to Kircher (e.g. "My dear Athanasius" . . .) who was a Jesuit and the rest of Marci's letters was already the property of famous Museo Kircheriano that he himself started from his collections. It is obvious the letter should have been offered first for sale to the Museo and not to Voynich. Also, there is a serious doubt if the letter was treated during the sale as a separate item and was really approved for the sale by superiors of the Mondragone. It looks like it was glued inside the manuscript to suggest it is a part of the manuscript since it might otherwise complicate the whole sale. Voynich was apparently adamant to get it since he badly needed it for the VM provenance. The question is then if the letter was really inserted in the VM by Kircher or only later by Fr. Strickland, to make it inconspicuous. Strangely enough, all Marci letters were originally Kircher's property and all of them - except the one found with the VM - are still the part of Museo Kircheriano (where is also located the letter by Baresch).
9) The unclear conditions of the VM exporting from Italy As we said, all sales of artefacts to foreigners needed the approval by Italian government officials. That could have been the most difficult point of the sale, even for the letter alone. There are really no details about the transaction and if there were some discrepancies, they could cause trouble later, even to Voynich. In that case, the promise given by Voynich was actually designed to protect himself as well. Interestingly enough, his wife was also waiting till her death before she revealed his secret in her letter. Was she afraid she might be forced to return the VM or getting penalized as well? The VM was jointly, as per last will, inherited by both women, maybe to make them share the secret as well.
10) The disinterest of Societas Jesu (The Jesuit Society) in the loss of the document belonging to Museo Kircheriano. Apparently all worries were baseless since neither Italian Government, nor Societas Jesu or even Vatican ever bothered anybody nor claimed the return of the VM or the letter. Of course, in the case the VM was fraud, there was nothing to claim. Jesuits would also have difficulties to claim rightful ownership: the VM was already tagged as personal property of the Father Petrus Beckx, 22nd general of the Society of Jesus. The tagging itself was done apparently illegally on many documents to prevent their repossession by Italian government at the time of Risorgimento and they were also moved from Collegio Romano to Mondragone. Nothing is known also about the VM fate during the years of Society suppression by Vatican (1773 till 1814). Their hiding of the documents is understandable, but surely the documents were planned to be returned back after the danger was over. The situation was quite normal in 1912 when Pie X purchased many of the documents for Vatican. The other option would be to for Mondragone padres to offer both directly for sale to Museo Kircheriano (or at least Marci's letter). Instead, they were the very same year sold to the outsider (and that may not be a coincidence). Last but not least, even Voynich himself should have (even later) offered Marci's letter for a sale to Museo Kircheriano, where the collection of other letters was. The bogus tagging operation might not have been known at Mondragone and in their eyes, they had a right to sell it, at least the VM. Of course Marci's letter is a different case: it contained the name "Athanasius" and it was well known who it belonged to. That must have became public knowledge when Voynich made a photostat of the letter and displayed it long time before his death. Societas Jesu apparently found no record of it anywhere, therefore no action was taken, or they might probably suspected even some fraud in which case it was better to do nothing at all.
11) The "miraculous" discovery of the hidden "signature" in the VM. At the beginning, Voynich had only his word to prove the VM is really the Prague manuscript. Marci's letter does not quote any details about the VM and details about the sale he promised to keep secret. There was clearly not enough proofs for a credible provenance. And then, the real "miracle" happened: the erased "signature" with the name Horczicky was resurrected by his people, fulfilling at the same time several desperately needed links with the Marci's letter and the VM at the same time:
a) The name of Horczicky, a Prague nobleman, confirmed that the VM was once in Prague
b) Horczicky was a rich courtier of Rudolph II, there we have a link to Rudolph
c) It also provided the needed timing for the missing link between Dee with Emperor Rudolph and Baresch with Marci, followed by Kircher. Horczicky fit therefore very nicely as a last owner before Baresch (Voynich knew about Baresch from Marci's letter, but apparently did not know his name).
While there was a motive, means and opportunity, this is not say that it was Voynich himself who fabricated the "signature". It surely might have been there long time before, being later erased, even if we do not know by whom. By the same token, a joke might have been played on Voynich by his assistant. Such things are more common then we would expect: see similar joke played on toads of Paul Kammerer or even the joke played by somebody on Kircher. Voynich of course immediately considered "the signature" to be a dedication by Rudolph II, in spite of the fact it was in wrong place and in wrong hand. He apparently never saw Horczicky signature. Two of them were discovered quite recently, see my article "THE NEW SIGNATURE OF HORCZICKY (and the comparison of them all)" in the JVS library. What he should have noticed however was the grammatical error in the Latin declination - Jacobi is a genitive, suggesting an ownership, and not a dative. To suggest a dedication, a gift to somebody, one should use the term Jacobo.
Considering, that the "signature" is written in non-connected script and in rather modern font in unknown hand, we may exclude Rudolph as well as Horczicky and we may also put the origin of the "signature" at any date, even much later. It is also suspicious that no erasure was noticed before the reappearance of the "signature" and its traces cannot be clearly identified even now. The miraculous "signature" appearance of course has all marks of a fraud and the botched one as that. Was there ever any erasure? We are told about it in some detail only by Voynich alone while there certainly must have been many witnesses too. As is proven by his secret promise, he surely had some hidden secrets, which he apparently time by time masked by misinformation. For instance, the story about the promise "to keep the secret" was only told to Ethel Voynich by her husband and we do not know if she really repeated it word by word to Miss. Nill. Was his "promise" real or just a red herring? It is quite doubtful that the Societas Jesu would ever ask for any such promise - more likely it was the promise given to some conspirators or again, Voynich might have invented it for his own protection.
THE SOURCES OF MISINFORMATION
12) Mrs. Ethel Voynich and Miss Nill. Very little can be verified about those two ladies. While the release of additional information after Mrs. Voynich death was provided by Miss. Nill apparently for the benefit of public, the info may be still incomplete, thanks to some controversial points there. It is also interesting that Voynich never sold the VM - maybe because it was impossible to verify its "provenance", maybe for some other reasons. For instance, he could never sell the fraudulent or illegally obtained document; his integrity would be surely at stake. Unusual is also the fact that after his death, both ladies became - by his will - joint owners of the VM. Were there supposed to be bound together to keep a common secret? In that case both Mrs. Voynich and Miss. Nill broke the promise Voynich gave. Miss Nill of course might have only pretended she did not know the secret before 1960. It is quite possible that she not only knew it but also gave that information to de Ricci in 1937 (In De Ricci catalogue MS 8 is thought to be the VM and De Ricci's census also mentions Anne M. Nill's help - 23 years before Ethel's death!). After all, we have no record about the VM before De Ricci in the whole Italy. As for the sale of the VM to H.P. Kraus, he was Miss. Nill employer at that time and he tried for several years afterwards to sell the VM, but could not. And so the VM ended as a gift to Yale University.
13) Prof. William Romaine Newbold. He carried the rumor in Marci's letter to the extreme and wrote a book (1921) where he "confirmed" that the VM author was really Roger Bacon. He also claimed he broke the VM code and assigned to Bacon some extraordinary discoveries. For some time, he was celebrated, in spite of the fact he never disclosed his method and nobody could double check it. The first researcher who did it was J.P. Manly and his judgement was deadly: Newbold was totally wrong. There is one minor point related to the provenance: Newbold claimed that Voynich told him (1928, two years before his death!) that he found the VM in some Austrian castle. If that is true, then he would have a hard time to explain how the VM got there from Italy (i.e. from Kircher) and why the secret Mondragone cover up was necessary. On the other hand, Bohemia was in 1912 still a part of Austrian Empire so that was probably another misinformation to put Newbold off the scent. Or did Newbold invented it himself as just another cover up? I doubt it, it is more likely he was already a victim of another rumor, the one in Marci's letter. The whole mysterious atmosphere around the provenance could have been of course just a sale pitch by Voynich who may have wanted to sell the VM. But he actually did not try too hard to sell it anyway, so there must have been some other reason for such misinformation.
14) The manuscript itself. Almost every VM researcher noticed the controversies in the VM. First, the manuscript does not yield to the usual investigation. Not only due to the fact it has unknown author, unknown script and unknown language, but also that some findings are either coincidental, circumstantial, ambiguous or even controversial. As one of researchers said: every new discovery brings at least two new problems. The mysterious points are everywhere: the numbering of folios, the elegant, experienced handwriting of the script and yet quite amateurish pictures. The text that does not fit any plain language and yet impossible to decipher, even by famous experts. Enigmatic pictures of naked ladies and weird "plumbing" are reminding more anatomical sections of human body or anything else. Astronomical/astrological circles with some, but definitely not all, features of horoscopes, sky maps or what else are still waiting to be solved. No wonder that some researchers considered the VM to be a purposeful fraud and some even came with quite nonsensical theory of "encoded gibberish". Needless to say, after almost hundred years, we are still at the very beginning: every method stopped either before any serious results were achieved or - that is much worse - was carried on into senseless mystifications.
15) The "erasure" of the "signature".As we already mentioned, the erasure itself cannot be properly scrutinized, since the area is covered up by chemical damage caused by Voynich "treatment". Again, his story is only vague and it is commonly assumed that somebody used the wrong chemicals and/or ultraviolet light and the "signature" then suddenly appeared. In Voynich own admission, it was like this: the photostat (he was using apparently some other technology than photography) paper was accidentally underdeveloped and the mysterious letters became visible. Further developing of course made them to disappear again. Somehow it did not satisfy Voynich people and they used some extra chemical, applied directly to the folio. The idea about the visibility under ultraviolet light was used of course later. The application of chemicals to the original was highly unprofessional (there might have even be even several applications and experiments) and what's more, probably not even necessary. The chemical damage apparently still continues today - see my article in the JVS Library, quoted above.
16) The rumor about Rudolph II and Dee.
The rumor quoted in Marci's letter, definitely originated in Prague and is based on third-hand information by Missowsky. Who was the originator is hard to tell, but it could not be Dee, since he did not sell the VM to Rudolph after all and even his participation in the VM history is rather doubtful. True, he collected manuscripts in English monasteries and true, he was once personally visiting Rudolph while he was in Prague. But as he himself wrote in his diaries, his visit was unsuccessful and the only book he talks in connection with the visit was his own, The Hieroglyphic Monad and Rudolph admitted to him that he did not quite understand it anyway. Still, unless the letter by Marci is forged, the rumor would provide two important links in already doubtful provenance of the VM. Needless to say, the rumor prevails even today and is repeated over and over, so it is already considered by some as irrefutable fact.
17) The rumor about Bacon. While also present in Marci's letter, the rumor could most likely come from a foreigner and if true, it would be even more valuable: it points to the possible author of the VM. While it is rather ludicrous - even if Roger Bacon enciphered the text, the pictures would reveal their dangerous connection with esoteric and magic connection. We know that Franciscan monk Bacon was many times disciplined for his writings so it would be rather foolish for him to expose his work to unnecessary risk this way. The script, style and pictures are of course not resembling Bacon at all. It is also dubious if Dee - here the inseparable part of the rumor - would sell such valuable English document (probably the most valuable of all other manuscripts he owned) to foreigner and what's more to the papist Rudolph. Interesting point however is this: Guiseppe Strickland, whose father was an Englishman, wrote the article about Boniface of Savoy, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the contemporary of Roger Bacon - so he was apparently an expert on that period of history and Bacon as well. He certainly could not overlook Bacon's name in Marci's letter, if he ever saw it and he surely had the opportunity for many years in Mondragone. Also, if it was by Roger Bacon, it would be a real treasure for Jesuits or even Vatican!
18) And then came Horczicky . . . There is no other connection between Horczicky and the VM except for the "signature" with his name in the VM. We know it is his name: the title Tepenec was given only to him and was not transferrable to his children. And while the Castle Tepenec existed for two hundred years before he got his nobilitatio, it was in ruins already, not being ever used for the title for any other person. Horczicky apparently picked it for that special reason. We already mentioned the "signature" was not in his hand and its font cannot be identified with any particular epoch either. It however provided necessary link (see point 11) for the official provenance. As an author, Horczicky is definitely out of the scope (for the pamphlet he wrote once he needed the assistance of some educated Jesuits) and as an owner, he was rich enough to buy the manuscript from Dee directly. Yes, he was rich enough that he actually lended money to Rudolph himself. Still, Voynich insisted the VM was donated to him by Rudolph II, for some obscure reason. More likely, it could have been a retainer for the loan or even the pay out after Rudolph's death. But we know that Horczicky already got from Rudolph the Melnik Castle, which he kept before only as a collateral and the VM cost was much less in comparison. If the VM was ever owned by Horczicky, it was apparently after Horczicky's death when it was bought - or any other way obtained - by Baresch. Horczicky's library and the most of his worldly possessions went after his death to Societas Jesu in Prague, but they have no record about the VM either. Needless to say that the role of Horczicky in the provenance would be only the passive one, i.e. as an owner and collector of books. The "signature" was considered by many as his exlibris, however it has no accompanying logo and date, while other books owned by Horczicky have it. If it is genuine, it was most likely written by some archiver and erased by somebody who had good reason to hide that Horczicky was once the owner.
19) Modern, unsupported stories and books. Voynich provenance lead to many misunderstandings, theories and fantasies that were - and many still are - accepted as amazing insights or even visions. It is understandable that researchers had to use some inspiration to bridge the gaps, but too many speculations were taken as verifiable facts, especially those connected with the pictures in the VM. Some illusions keep popping up over and over. For instance, none of the plants was ever identified "as a whole" to be from this planet. Still, this will not deter even the botanists from the claim that those pictures create some useful herbal. But herbal is mainly used for identifying real plants so their pictures must be true and with every necessary detail (compare with Mathioli's herbal from 16th century). No such care was taken in the VM, pictures look like being a collage from different parts of different plants, some even defying the biology as we know it. Another example: the linguists are trying to prove that the VM is written in plain, natural language - in spite of the fact they cannot come up with any language, vocabulary, more or less consistent grammar and neither they can even agree on the alphabet.
The recently published books are either compilations of already known facts or the literature resembling "Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown: they are very exciting reading and they also pretend they are based on facts. In reality, they are nothing more than the smorgasbord of rather exotic ideas.
Is the VM real thing? It depends: even in the Middle Ages there were many shops manufacturing bogus manuscripts, the monks writing them as fast as they could. But they always made them inconspicuous, looking very real and also quite readable. The VM apparently did not use anything of that and it is obscure from the beginning to the very end. Apparently it was made for some special purpose, most likely not to be sold at all. Also, in medieval times, the manuscripts were very expensive commodity and nobody would go to such tedious work unless he had already a certain sale in mind, especially of the manuscript nobody can read. As for Voynich manufacturing the bogus manuscript, I doubt it very much. Would he go through all the hard and time consuming work and then keep it without selling it? On the other hand, those two Jesuit brothers could have made it as a prank, but I do not see any particular reason. Voynich of course might have discovered something they did and suspected them till the end of his life. For the same reason, he might have never told the whole truth, not even to Ethel . . .
I do not think we may ever find the complete provenance based on facts and facts only. Fortunately, we can try to decode the VM, both the text and pictures, irregardless what the provenance says or not. Apparently the hardest task is still in front of us.
Reference: The article "THE NEW SIGNATURE OF HORCZICKY (and the comparison of them all), by Jan B. Hurych, JVS Library."
Note:. I would like to thank the following researchers whose observations that I used here as well: John Reynolds, Dana Scott, Berj N. Ensanian and Xavier Ceccaldi (from his page at