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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).

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 (8), 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 (9) 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 (10). 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 (11), 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.


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.
The original work by Rafal Prinke is >>available online here
See: Zandbergen and Prinke (2016).
See Reeds (1996), also available online. The MS itself has also been >>edited online.
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).


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Copyright René Zandbergen, 2019
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Latest update: 08/03/2019