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The history of the Voynich MS


The history of the Voynich MS is described in three parts, on three pages:

This page addresses the second part, the history of the manuscript, its whereabouts and its owners.


The first account of the history of the Voynich MS was published by Wilfrid Voynich in 1921, nine years after he acquired the MS. He made a presentation in front of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which was subsequently published in their proceedings (1). In his research of the history he used the following two leads:

Voynich had a third lead, but he never used or even mentioned it. The collection of books from which he acquired the Voynich MS had paper attachments saying "from the private library of P.Beckx". Its significance will become clear in the course of this page.

Until the late 1990's, the letter from Marci was the only documented source for the history of the Voynich MS. By way of introduction to this history, the most important parts of this letter are quoted first (3). In the following, this letter will simply be called the 'Marci letter', even though other letters from Marci to Kircher exist, and play a role.

This book, bequeathed to me by an intimate friend, I destined for you, my very dear Athanasius, as soon as it came into my possession,
The former owner of this book once asked your opinion by letter, copying and sending you a portion of the book from which he believed you would be able to read the remainder
To its deciphering he devoted unflagging toil, as is apparent from attempts of his which I send you herewith, and he relinquished hope only with his life.
Dr. Raphael, tutor in the Bohemian language to Ferdinand III, then King of Bohemia, told me the said book had belonged to the Emperor Rudolph and that he presented the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman. On this point I suspend judgment.

Since the time of Voynich's publication, our knowledge of the history of the MS has increased significantly. Numerous aspects of Voynich's reconstruction of the earlier history of the MS are no longer accepted, and the later history of the MS is much better understood now.

There are still gaps in our knowledge of the history of the MS. Biographical details of the known owners of the MS may be relevant, so they are presented on a separate page.

Biographies of the key people in the history of the MS.
Portrait gallery of the key people in the history of the MS.

Following is a schematic overview of the whereabouts of the Voynich MS, according to our present knowledge. Small grey blocks indicate the range of uncertainty of the year written above them.

The earliest history of the MS

As presented on the previous page, the MS was almost certainly created in the early 15th Century. Its illustrations appear to have both Italian and German characteristics, so perhaps it originates from the wider alpine region, but at the very best the location where the MS was created remains speculation.

Month names have been written near each of the zodiac illustrations in the zodiac section of the MS. These were most probably added some unknown time after the creation of the MS. They have been written in a Romance language, most probably Northern French (4). This could either indicate that the MS travelled through N. France, or that it was owned at some point in its early history by a native of this area. We have no further evidence about the earliest history of the MS until it appears in Prague.

The road to Prague

The John Dee hypothesis

The Marci letter clearly suggests that the MS was owned by Rudolf II of Habsburg, who reigned in Prague from 1576 to 1611. This means first of all that there is a gap in our knowledge of at least 150 years. That the MS was in Prague in the early 17th century is confirmed by the ex libris of Jacobus de Tepenec on the first folio. Tepenec was associated with Rudolf's court from 1608 to 1611. In older literature about the Voynich MS it is usually assumed that the MS was sold to Rudolf by John Dee and/or his associate Edward Kelley, but this assumption is based entirely on a theory of W.Voynich, which he presented in 1921 (see note 1), and which is no longer accepted nowadays. This theory is analysed in more detail on a separate page (which also cites all references used). This analysis is summarised in the following.

Did John Dee bring the MS to Prague?

As a result of Voynich's hypothesis, the lives of Dee and Kelley have been scrutinised by many researchers, in order to find evidence for:

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

The above three points have been critically examined by Rafal Prinke, showing that none of the three 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 also 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 Deborah Harkness. Indeed, it includes diagrams consisting of tables of letters, and, surpassing Dee, Jim Reeds has been able to decipher these (5).

Who brought the MS to Prague?

The Marci letter indicates that the MS was bought by Rudolf II for the sum of 600 ducats. The reliability of this information will be analysed below. If we accept for the moment that Rudolf did indeed buy the MS, it would be of great interest to know from whom he bought it, because this would provide a possible trace further back in time. Voynich mentioned in his 1921 paper that he had investigated the biographies of several hundred of the known visitors to Rudolf's court, and that according to him the most likely candidate was John Dee. Voynich is certainly exaggerating here. From his notes, which are still preserved in the Beinecke library, we know that he picked up about two dozen names from a novel set at the court of Rudolf II (6). The story of Voynich's research belong to another page, which also refers to a dedicated page with more details.

Voynich's research of the history of the MS

In any case, Voynich went on to show how it is possible to trace the path of the MS from 13th Century England and Roger Bacon, through John Dee, to the court of Rudolf II. We have to keep in mind, however, that Voynich was already convinced that the MS originated from Roger Bacon, so he had been looking specifically for a connection to him.

We may further wonder whether Rudolf II ever spent 600 ducats on a book, and see if we may identify the seller in this way. Summary ledgers of the accounts of the court of Rudolf are still preserved in the Austrian National Archives in Vienna (7). Large parts of these have been transcribed, and I have searched these transcriptions for records of Rudolf acquiring books and manuscripts. I could find only 18 different named sellers of books. These also include cases where an author presented a book to Rudolf II with a dedication to him, and received a sum of money in compensation.

A complication in the interpretation of these accounts is the confusion about the monetary units in Bohemia around this time. The most frequently used coins were the silver Taler (usually worth 70 Kreuzer, but this varied with time), the gold florin (worth 60 Kreuzer), and the gold ducat or Venetian ducat and the crown, both gold coins generally worth a bit more than a florin, but also with a variable exchange rate.

In the parts available to me no transaction could be identified that definitely referred to the Voynich MS. A complete list of these book sales cannot be presented here, but it is of interest to look at a few examples.

It is clear from these examples that Rudolf spent very large sums of money on books, also significantly more than the 600 ducats that Marci quotes he paid for the Voynich MS. Since all of the above examples are sales of several books, or a book with some additional items, it is entirely possible that the 600 ducats (if this was indeed the price) was not just for the Voynich MS, but for a set of books including the MS.

Did Rudolf II really own the MS?

The source of the information that emperor Rudolf II bought the MS is Dr. Raphael Mnišovský, who was once teacher to the young Ferdinand III. The latter became one of Rudolf's successors as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and while he was emperor Marci was his private physician and Kircher corresponded with 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 men would have remembered the essential details correctly.

Biography of Dr. Raphael Mnišovský.

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. In 1630 he wrote a letter to Ferdinand II in which he expressed his support for the famous alchemist Sendivogius, whom he knew and admired. In this letter he refers to his 30-year interest in the topic, 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 very familiar with the work of Trithemius, and even wrote a book applying the methods of Trithemius using the Czech language (8).

In the case of Marci, the Voynich MS was something that had deeply interested him (and the close friend he mentioned in his letter, as we shall see below) since many decades. 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 (9). 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. The most detailed manuscript catalogue of it was found in Liechtenstein in the 1960's. This catalogue includes a large section describing the 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 can't be positively identified. This does not mean very much though, as the books in the Kunstkammer are mostly books concerned with art. It does not list any of the many alchemical or magical books that Rudolf is known to have collected, as mentioned already above. 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).

The Bohemian period after Rudolf II

Jacobus Horčický de Tepenec

The first positively identified owner of the Voynich MS is Jacobus Horčický de Tepenec. He was born as Jacobus Horčický in a poor family, raised by the Jesuits and eventually became a successful and wealthy chemist, and a pharmacist at Rudolf's court. By that time, he used to call himself by his latinised name "Sinapius".

Biography of Jacobus de Tepenec.

According to tradition, in 1608 he cured Rudolf from a grave disease, and consequently became a favourite of the emperor. This may be apocryphal, but he was certainly raised to the nobility in that year, and was allowed to call himself 'de Tepenec'.

He wrote his name in the bottom margin of the first folio of the Voynich MS using the noble form, so he must have done that after 1608. In recent years, several books and manuscripts have been found that include a more or less similar form of his ex libris.

Books once owned by Jacobus de Tepenec.

In each of these books, his ex libris is accompanied by a number, and such a number is also visible below his name in the Voynich MS. Both name and number have been erased or have faded, and are now only visible under UV illumination. These numbers strongly suggest that there must have been a list or catalogue of his books, but this list has not yet been found. That is a great pity, since his description of the MS might include valuable details about its provenance.

We don't know how and when Horčický obtained the Voynich MS. Many possibilities have been proposed. Perhaps Rudolf gave it to him hoping that he would be able to understand it. Alternatively, when the emperor abdicated in 1611, and died the year after, he still owed Horčický (and many others) a significant amount of money (11). Did Horčický take the law in his own hands and did he take some of Rudolf's possessions with him (including the Voynich MS)? This very dangerous approach was followed by quite a few of his contemporaries with very serious consequences.

Emperor Matthias, Rudolf's successor, eventually presented Horčický with the rule over the community of Melnik, and Horčický lived in its castle as the Hauptmann (governor). When Horčický died, in 1622, he left all his belongings to the Jesuits in Prague and Melnik by testament, but the Voynich MS seems to have escaped from their hands. Several of the books and manuscripts that still bear his ex libris also include an ownership note of the Jesuit college of Prague, but the Voynich MS does not have this.

The next known owner of the Voynich MS is the person mentioned by Marci in his 1665 letter to Kircher. Marci wrote that he wanted to send the MS as soon as it came into his possession, as the result of an inheritance from an intimate friend. This friend, who is not named, is further reported to have sent some transcribed portions of the manuscript to Kircher.

The identity of the benefactor of Marci was first guessed by Wilfrid Voynich himself, when he wrote in a letter to Prague (12), that he would like to find out more about the identity of one Georgius Barschius, who, some time after 1622, left his alchemical library as an inheritance to Marci. Voynich did not include Barschius' name in his 1921 presentation of the history of the Voynich MS, and apparently he never received a reply to the above-mentioned letter. The search for Barschius was briefly taken up by Brumbaugh in the 1970's, but again forgotten after that.

Georgius Barschius

Fortunately, in 1998 I found out from the publications of the historian John Fletcher that one letter from a certain Georg Barsch was preserved in the correspondence of Kircher, which at that time was still unpublished. This collection of letters is mentioned in the first catalogue of Kircher's museum issued in 1678. This catalogue will be described in more detail below (13). The correspondence, which at that time consisted of 12 bound volumes, disappeared, only to surface again in 1930. From then, until about the year 2000, this collection was only available for study by scholars in a piecemeal fashion (14). In 1998 it turned out to be impossible to obtain access to the few existing microfilm copies of the Kircher correspondence, but when a project was started to digitise and publish this correspondence (15), I was again fortunate that I could obtain a copy of the letter from Barschius in June 1999, which finally confirmed that he was indeed the earlier owner of the Voynich MS, and the friend that Marci referred to in his letter.

The letters are now (bound into fourteen volumes) preserved in the historical archives of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana (APUG). This collection of letters, known as the Carteggio Kircheriano, contains more than 2000 letters from over 750 different correspondents, which include emperors, (future) popes and Jesuit missionaries all over the world. Many letters are from scientists reporting on their discoveries. These letters have been bound together with other material, such as draft letters from Kircher. As a result of the above-mentionend digitisation project they are now freely available for consultation by the scientific community (see note 15).

One of the fourteen volumes of the Kircher correspondence bears a paper attachment saying: 'From the private library of P. Beckx' (16). This is the volume that contains most of the letters from Bohemian scientists to Kircher, including many from Marci, and also the single letter from M. Georgius Baresch (17). From this important letter, written in April 1639, it is clear that Barschius was indeed the owner of the MS. In addition, we learn that he had sent Kircher a partial transcription of the MS year and a half before that, confirming what we had read in the Marci letter of 1665. Barschius also writes that he decided to contact Kircher because of the recent appearance of Kircher's "Prodromus Coptus", and he writes that he believes that the MS was from someone who had travelled the Orient.

We do not know very much about Barschius. Most of what we know stems from the research of Rafal Prinke, and of the Czech historian Josef Smolka.

Biography of Barschius

Barschius was essentially unknown to Czech historians until recently. He worked as a court relator until 1646. Marci mentions him in his book "Philosophia Vetus Restituta", which appeared in 1662 (18), calling him a very good friend, indicating that they were friends for 40 years, and that Barschius left Marci his alchemical collection and library in his will. This means that Barschius must have died between 1646 and 1662. Barschius is also mentioned in two letters from Marci to Kircher, written in 1640 and 1641 (19). We don't know how the Voynich MS passed to Barschius, whether Horčický knew Barschius, or if anyone else owned the MS between Horčický and Barschius.

Johannes Marcus Marci of Kronland

Marci was born in 1595, in the Bohemian town of Landskron. He studied medicine and became professor at the Prague Charles University. Around 1639 he undertook a journey to Rome and there he met Athanasius Kircher. This meeting marked the start of a long friendship and the two men of science corresponded for 25 years. One of the last letters from Marci, written in August 1665, is the one he sent together with the Voynich MS.

Biography of Marci

We saw above that Marci inherited the Voynich MS from Barschius between 1646 and 1662. He also discussed the MS with Mnišovský before 1644 (the year Mnišovský died), so on that occasion Barschius was still alive and still the owner of the MS. From the wording of the Marci letter it even seems as if this discussion with Mnišovský should have taken place between 1626 and 1636, while Raphael was tutor to Ferdinand III, but this is less certain (20).

Marci wrote to Kircher that he destined the MS for Kircher as soon as he got it, but in reality he kept it for a number of years. We have no record of what he did with the MS, or of any personal insight from him. Marci's eyesight deteriorated significantly towards the end of his life. The last two letters from Marci to Kircher are no longer in his own hand but were written by a scribe or a friend, and are both in the same hand. Marci just signed them. One of these two is the 'Marci letter', that was sent together with the Voynich MS.

After Marci sent the Voynich MS to Kircher, his friend Godefrid Aloys Kinner (who was also one of Kircher's most prolific correspondents) asked Kircher on two occasions and on Marci's behalf whether Kircher had made any progress in deciphering the book that Marci had sent to him (21). Marci died in April 1667. His last will and testament was drawn up on 31 December 1666, when he had completely lost his eyesight and he was not even capable of writing his own name anymore.

The Roman period

Athanasius Kircher and the Voynich MS

The recipient of the MS, the Jesuit scientist Athanasius Kircher was a contemporary of Marci. He was born in 1601 or 1602 (he himself did not know) in Geisa in Germany and after some adventurous travels he arrived in Rome in 1635, where he would stay, until his death, at the Roman College.

Biography of Athanasius Kircher.

From 1638 he was professor in mathematics, but his interest covered 'everything under the sun'. Since the early 1630's he published a large number of books, concentrating on a different topic every three to four years. He received visits and letters from scientists, royalty and clergy from all over Europe and beyond. He also curated the Museo Kircheriano, which became one of the top attractions in Rome in the 17th Century, and about which more will be said below.

We don't know much about what Kircher did with the Voynich MS. We do know that he responded to Barschius' first (and now lost) request, which was contained in a letter of 1637 by the Prague jesuit mathematician Theoror Moretus.

Kircher's letter to Moretus.

Kircher's possible thoughts about the MS are briefly discussed in the next page.

That Kircher received the MS together with the letter from Marci in 1665 is confirmed by the fact that the collection in which the MS was included in 1912 can be traced back to the library of the Collegium Romanum, which also included many other manuscripts of Kircher, as we shall see in the following.

The Roman College and its Museum

In 1651 a collection of various curious items was donated to the Jesuits, and stored in a more than 20m long corridor on the second floor of the building of the Roman college, close to the library. Athanasius Kircher was considered the one most appropriate for curating this collection. These are the beginnings of the Kircher museum (22).

Already before 1670 a Jesuit named De Sepi started the edition of the first catalogue of this museum (see note 13). The frontispiece (shown above) probably represents the museum in its original location, but in 1672 it was moved to another, shorter corridor on the first floor. De Sepi probably died in 1674, after having left Rome in 1670, and never witnessed the publication of this catalogue. It was further edited by Kircher himself and issued in 1678. The relevance of this first catalogue is that it is the only one that gives an insight in the collection of books contained in Kircher's museum. Beside Kircher's own published books it mentions twelve bound volumes of letters from all over the world, and books in many languages, but not specifically the Voynich MS. It also does not mention several other manuscripts known to have been in Kircher's possession, which are still preserved today.

After Kircher's death in 1680 the museum was handed over to a Jesuit father who didn't properly take care of it, and it gradually fell into disarray. In 1698 Filippo Buonanni became the new custodian. The museum was again moved to a different corridor, this time on the third floor of the same building, where it was to stay until 1870. Buonanni also published a more elaborate catalogue (23) of Kircher's museum, but this, like all future catalogues, no longer listed any of Kircher's books. Already before 1870 several of Kircher's MSs were moved to the Collegium Romanum library (the Bibliotheca Maior). The Voynich MS most probably was one of these manuscripts.

The vicissitudes of the Society of Jesus

The Society of Jesus was suppressed twice, in 1773 and 1873, and experienced more difficult years around 1848. Many of their belongings were confiscated. This part of the history of the Society of Jesus in Rome is highly complicated due to numerous moves of libraries and archives, and a complete study of this is clearly outside the scope of this page. Still, it is important for us as the Voynich MS was caught in the middle of this. I have collected as much information as I could about all these moves in a dedicated page, and in the following I will present what seems most relevant.

Supressions of the Society of Jesus.

In 1773 the Society of Jesus was suppressed in Rome. Numerous books were removed from the famous library of main college, the Collegium Romanum. The Curia, the central administrative entity of the Society of Jesus, which was based in the Casa Professa, a house directly beside the Gesù church, was sealed off by the Vatican authorities. This also housed the archives of the Society. The Gesù and the Casa Professa are shown on the left in a 1756 etching by G.Vasi.

In 1814 the Society was officially restored and from 1824 the Jesuits could gradually retrieve their old possessions, including their churches and schools, and the Casa Professa.

Sometime between 1824 and 1870 a large number of manuscripts in the library of the Roman College were rebound with new covers because the wooden boards that were part of their old covers had been infested by wood worms. It is almost certain that the Voynich MS was one of these rebound manuscripts.

The binding of the Voynich MS.

In 1853, the Belgian father P. Beckx S.J., provincial of Austria, was elected as the new general of the society. In 1855 the Duchess of Sachsen, widow of Francesco Giovanni de Rossi, donated her late husband's extensive private book and MS library to the Jesuits. A very formal donation agreement was signed by P. Beckx. This library was thereafter stored (in boxes) in the Casa Professa, which also housed another major Jesuit library.


Second suppression of the society, 1873

On 20 September 1870 the troops of Vittorio Emanuele II captured the city of Rome. In June 1873 the law relating to confiscations of Jesuit possessions was extended to the Roman province, taking effect on 20 October. One by one the Jesuit houses in the city were confiscated. The Jesuits had already moved their so-called 'old archives' (i.e. prior to 1824) to the Palazzo Borromeo, a palace which then housed the German college and wihch was not far from the Collegium Romanum. The government had agreed that personal belongings of the Jesuit fathers could be kept, while belongings of the society needed to be handed over. The above-mentioned library of the Duchess of Sachsen was protected by the donation contract signed with Beckx, and was eventually shipped to Austria.

The main part of the Collegium Romanum library was indeed confiscated on October 20, 1873, and the new government set up the new national library 'Vittorio Emanuele II' in the same building. Kircher's museum was also confiscated, but many of his books and manuscripts had already been moved to the Collegium Romanum library. Some of the items from his museum are presently still preserved in the Museo Etnografico Pigorini in the EUR. Some parts of the original Collegium Romanum library, however, escaped confiscation in various ways.

A personal friend of Fr. Beckx, Don Alessandro of Torlonia, helped the Jesuits by offering them the use of his palace in Castel Gandolfo (the Villa Torlonia), where they could continue the activities of the novitiate of S. Andrea (24). The university activities moved to the above-mentioned German college in Palazzo Borromeo, where it would be known as the Pontificia Università Gregoriana del Collegio Romano. P. Beckx moved to Fiesole, where the new Curia was established, including the modern (i.e. post-1824) section of the archives of the Society.

At least three collections of books and manuscripts from the Biblioteca Maior of the Collegium Romanum were saved from confiscation, or at least for a while. The books and manuscripts of two of these collections received typescript labels ex Bibliotheca privata P. Petri Beckx (25).

The first, and smaller of these two collections consisted of old classical and humanist manuscripts, and it included the Voynich MS. So far, I have found no evidence about the exact moves of this collection, until it appeared in a summary catalogue in 1903 and was sold in 1912 (26).

The second, larger collection contained more recent manuscripts, including letters and University course materials of Jesuit Professors. This collection is now preserved in the historical archives of the Gregorian University, where it is known as the Fondo APUG). The Kircher correspondence that was already described above is included in this collection.

The third collection was hidden in a secret room behind a trap door in the Collegium Romanum building. It became known later as the Ripostiglio. This room was dicovered in 1877, revealing a large collection of Jesuits books and manuscripts. The most important of these (including some Kircher autographs) were moved to the National Library, where they now form the Fondo Gesuitico. Others, considered less important, were stored in an attic of the same building, the so-called soffitta, and subsequently largely ignored. These are now equally preserved in the historical archives of the Gregorian University, known as the Fondo Curia.

All three collections included manuscripts that used to be owned by Kircher. From remains of shelf marks written on many of these manuscripts it is certain that they used to be part of the Bibliotheca Maior of the Collegium Romanum.

Between 1882 and 1885 Henri Hyvernat was teaching theology at the Gregorian University. Almost 50 years later, while working in the US, he was approached by Mrs. Voynich, the widow of Wilfrid Voynich, and she gave him a copy of the Voynich MS. He showed a clear interest, but there is no indication that he had ever seen it before.

In 1884 P. Beckx abdicated and returned to Rome. He died three years later, at the age of 92. One of Beckx's last activities was to assign the task of updating and re-issuing De Backer's bibliography of all Jesuit works (27) to Carlos Sommervogel. By 1886, Sommervogel temporarily obtained access to some of the hidden archival documents and from this episode we know that the archives were stored somewhere in the Roman province (28). Sommervogel's work (29) started appearing in 1893, but it does not mention the Carteggio Kircheriano, which was mentioned in De Sepi (1678) (see note 13) while it does describe many other less significant items of his correspondence. This tells us that this collection was hidden even from the eyes of Jesuit historians.

In 1892 Luis Martin, the new General of the Society of Jesus and the Curia were still based in Fiesole. There were increasing concerns about further confiscations of Jesuit material by the state, and he decided to secretly move the early archives of the Society from the German college in Rome to Holland. The same ruse was used as in 1873: the items were treated as the private library of the father general. Finally, in 1895, it was considered safe enough for the General and the Curia to return to Rome. Nonetheless, moves of Jesuit archive material continued all the way through the 1920's.

In 1903, the Jesuits decided to sell the above-mentioned collection of classical and humanist books and MSs that originated from the library of the Collegium Romanum to the Vatican. The catalogue of the material for sale, written in 1903, is still preserved in the archives of the Vatican library (30). The sale, which included the Voynich MS, was only completed in 1912. By this time, the book dealer Wilfrid Voynich had entered the stage.

The English / American period

Wilfrid M. Voynich enters the stage

The antiquarian book dealer Wilfrid Voynich was a person with a very colourful past, who started in the book business in 1898.

Biography of Wilfrid Voynich.

Initially, he did most of his business with the British Museum. In 1908 he acquired an antiquarian book store in Florence. This was previously known as the Libreria Franceschini, named after its previous owner. From 1903 to 1911 the Jesuit father Joseph Strickland, ex alumnus of the nobile collegio Mondragone and still associated with the college, was also working in Florence.

Biography of Joseph Strickland.

How the two came into contact with each other is not known, but in 1911 or 1912 (31), Voynich obtained the opportunity to acquire a number of valuable manuscripts from the Jesuits, upon Fr. Strickland's recommendation and under promise of absolute secrecy about this deal. Because of this secrecy, Voynich had to make up another story about the source of these manuscripts, which included a claim (which he repeated until his death) that he had discovered this collection himself (32), in chests of which the guardians themselves did not know what they contained. Since we saw that the Jesuits already prepared a catalogue of the items for sale in 1903, we know with certainty that this is not true.

The entire collection (the first of the three mentioned above) consisted of approximately 380 MSs and some 30 printed books. They had all been labelled as belonging to P. Beckx's private library and they originated from the Jesuit Collegium Romanum library. The majority of these books and manuscripts was acquired by pope Pius X, who donated them to the Vatican library in 1912. The 300 Latin manuscripts among these are described in a catalogue issued by Mgr. J. Ruysschaert in 1959 (33). Ruysschaert mentions in a footnote in this catalogue that the English book dealer W. Voynich had acquired a number of them, with a tentative list of them including the Voynich MS. The list of manuscripts Voynich acquired is analysed and tentatively reconstructed in a dedicated page.

List of manuscripts that Voynich acquired from the Jesuits in 1911/1912.

The 'hiding place' of this collection prior to this sale was not recorded by Ruysschaert, and a later Jesuit historian, Miquel Batllori, declares that he has not been able to find any details about this sale of MSs to the Vatican library, despite searching for it in the Roman Archives of the Society (34). It is generally believed that the collection had been stored in Villa Mondragone in Frascati. This is also analysed in a dedicated page.

Was the Voynich MS hidden in Villa Mondragone?

The manuscripts now preserved in the Vatican have bibliographical notes, handwritten on a piece of paper, attached to their inside cover, with an additional typescript note: Ex Bibliotheca privata P.Petri Beckx glued on top. For many of the manuscripts acquired by Voynich similar notes are now preserved in the Beinecke library. Voynich had removed these from the manuscripts he obtained, obviously in order to fulfil his promise to the Jesuits not to divulge their origin.

He initially kept this collection in Florence, and already in the spring of 1912 showed it to the famous art critic Bernard Berenson (35). He sold 7 items to colleague rare book dealer Tammaro De Marinis, who also had his book store in Florence, though the sale appears to have taken place in Rome (36). These seven manuscripts are listed in a catalogue of De Marinis issued in 1913 (37), though two of the most valuable items, namely two manuscripts that originated from the library of Mathias Corvinus, were already sold in July 1912 to John Pierpont Morgan (Sr.) (38). Voynich's main bookstore was still London, and he took the remaining items of his new valuable collection there, showing them to interested potential buyers (39). At this time, the MS was of course not known as the "Voynich MS", but as the "Roger Bacon cipher MS". Also this MS appears to have been in the hands of another colleague book dealer: Baer from Frankfurt, sometime in or after 1911 (40).

When the first World War broke out, Voynich decided to move to the US and expand his business there. Once established there, he organised several exhibitions, where he showed some 280 of his most valuable books and manuscripts. This collection included several of the manuscripts he bought from the Jesuits as highlights, in particular also his Roger Bacon cipher MS. After exhibitions in Princeton University and in New York his most famous exhibition was in October 1915 at the Art Institute of Chicago, which was followed by a short publication (41). Immediately after the Chicago event he had two exhibitions in Michigan (42), and during these events, he explained that he had discovered the MSs in a castle in Austria, where they had been hidden, supposedly unknown to the owners of the castle (43).

Two years later, in 1917, Voynich provided additional details of his famous acquisition in a letter to Prof. Wilkins of the University of Chicago, who was studying one of the MSs sold during these events, namely Boccaccio's "Lives of the Saints". These details included a list of previous owners of the Jesuit MS collection, still without mentioning the Jesuits (44). Also here, he suggested that the MSs had been stored outside Italy.

Voynich presented his Roger Bacon cipher MS in 1921 at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, with accompanying presentations, among others from Newbold. These presentations have been published in the proceedings of that event. The paper by Voynich is the presentation that was mentioned at the top of this page (see note 1). Voynich still stuck to his promise not to tell from whom or where he had acquired the MSs, but on this occasion he explained that he was keeping the location a secret because he was hoping to return there to buy more MSs. It is possible that people had already begun to suspect that the MSs used to belong to the library of the Collegium Romanum (45), so saying that he had made a secret deal might be more damaging to the Jesuits and/or the Vatican. However, this remains speculation. The only person whom he appears to have told (in confidence) what really happened was his wife.

It is evident from letters and notebooks still preserved in the Beinecke library that Voynich eventually did all he could to find out the truth about this MS. His research is reported in some detail on a dedicated page, and it is also summarised on the next page.

Voynich's research of the history of the MS

After the death of Wilfrid Voynich

Voynich died in 1930, and his widow Ethel Voynich, (henceforth ELV, as she preferred to be called), inherited the MS. About one year later she took photostats of the MS to the Catholic University in Washington, to show it to Prof. Henri Hyvernat. Both he and his assistant Theodore Petersen were immediately intrigued by it, but there is no indication that Hyvernat had seen, or even known about the MS before (specifically when he was in Rome). Petersen kept the copy for a while, and made a complete hand transcription of it.

Also in 1930 the new Pontificia Università Gregoriana was opened at its present address in Piazza della Pilotta in Rome. The historical archives of the University received over 2000 Jesuit manuscripts (the second collection mentioned above, i.e. the Fondo APUG, with the typescript ex libris of P. Beckx). These included among others course material of the Collegium Romanum, the already mentioned correspondence of Kircher, other autograph MSs of Kircher, and autographs of many important Jesuits. This collection had been moved to the palazzo Borromeo (German college) in 1919, and is presently still known as the Castel Gandolfo collection (46). This strongly suggests that the collection had been stored there, presumably in the Villa Torlonia in Castel Gandolfo that was already mentioned earlier. The new Curia was opened in the Borgo, near the Vatican, including the new archives (ARSI). The Jesuit Curia and archive material, previously dispersed over Exaten and Valkenburg in the Netherlands, in the German College in Rome, and in the Italian state archives equally in Rome, were gradually moved to this location, as has been described in the already mentioned dedicated page about the history of the Society of Jesus.

Supressions of the Society of Jesus.

The following graphical representation of the various moves of Jesuit library items was derived on that page. In this illustration, blue boxes refer to Jesuit collections, and red boxes to other collections. Orange arrows are 'involuntary' moves, typically confiscations. The boxes that still bear question marks are rather likely to be correct, but some doubt remains whether all manuscripts were stored and moved together. This is analysed in more detail in this page, sections 3 and ff.. The path of the Voynich MS has been traced as one of the manuscripts originating from Kircher (the black arrows).

In 1937 Voynich's London shop was closed, and during the round-up the shopkeeper Herbert Garland discovered the above-mentioned handwritten bibliographical notes with the stickers: Ex Bibliotheca privata P.Petri Beckx. He sent these to ELV and Anne Nill in the US, who immediately realised that the manuscripts must have originated from the Jesuit college in Rome. Anne M. Nill, who was Voynich's secretary since his move to the US, had become a close friend of ELV and, upon ELV's death, inherited the Voynich MS. Since ELV realised that she was the only one who knew some of the details of the sale of the MSs, she had written a letter, only to be opened after her death, giving the details she remembered. Anne Nill opened that letter in 1960, to read that the mysterious castle where Voynich acquired the MS was located in Frascati, about the fact that Voynich had to promise absolute secrecy about this, and about the role of Fr. Strickland.

ELV's letter 'to be opened after her death'.

However, already in 1937, more than two decades prior to the opening of ELV's letter, the first issue of De Ricci's "Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada" lists that the Voynich MS (as part of 'The Estate of Wilfrid M. Voynich') originated from the Collegium Romanum in Rome. This information must have been derived from the paper slips that Herbert Garland had sent to Anne Nill in the same year (see also note 45). As Nill was working for one of the co-authors of the "Census", who was personally interested in the Voynich MS, this information could have been added at the last moment.

After the death of ELV, Anne Nill looked for a buyer of the MS. Wilfrid Voynich had stipulated before his death that a buyer would have to be agreed by a committee of 5 persons: his wife, Anne Nill, Manly, Bishop and James Westfall Thompson. It is not certain whether this rule was applied, but when the buyer, Hans P. Kraus, was agreed upon, Anne Nill started sending out letters to all those people who had ever received copies of the MS to please return them, because the potential buyer wanted to buy only on the condition of exclusive rights to the publications about the MS. Evidently, he also had some hope that the MS was of major scientific importance. Some owners of the copies returned these (e.g. Petersen, and the N.Y. Public Library). Most of the others simply responded that they wouldn't make further copies for others, or publish anything about it without first asking the new owner.

The New York book dealer Hans P. Kraus, who decided to take Anne Nill as his secretary, bought the MS on 12 July 1961. He valued it very highly and tried to sell it for $160,000 (equivalent with the amount Voynich had asked for it before), but he did not succeed. He had promised that a large part of the profit he would make would be given to Anne Nill, but she died only three months later, on 24 September 1961. The MS spent most of this part of its history in a bank vault in New York.

In 1962 Kraus participated in a trip to Italy visiting important libraries and book collections, which was organised by the Grolier Club (47). It was largely facilitated by Tammaro De Marinis, the same person who had acquired some of the Jesuit manuscripts from Voynich in 1912. In a letter to Friedman (and later in his autobiography) Kraus mentions that, while visiting the Vatican library, he talked to Mgr. Ruysschaert. The latter had published the catalogue of the Latin manuscripts which the Vatican library acquired in 1912 from the Collegium Romanum. Kraus asked him about the Voynich MS. Ruysschaert apparently thought that the Vatican library owned it, a surprising mistake (48).

In 1969, Kraus decided to donate the Voynich MS to the Beinecke Rare Book and MS library of Yale University. At the same time, he divided all the collateral material from Voynich's antiquarian business, including catalogues, accounts, notebooks and correspondence into two parts. The part that was apparently related to the Voynich MS (including the Marci letter) was donated to the Beinecke library together with the MS, and it is still kept there today and is available for consultation. The remainder, more related with his (and ELV's) antiquarian business, was donated to the Grolier Club in New York. Both collections have been browsed by many people, and some of the material has been used at this site, but there is still a lot of unexplored material in these collections.

From 10 November 2014 to 26 February 2015 the MS was on public display for the first time since many decades, as part of an >>exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. The detailed list of items that was on display is >>described here.


I am grateful to the Beinecke Rare Book and MS Library of Yale University for access to their material, and to APUG (Rome, Historical Archives of the Pontifical Gregorian University/ Roma, Archivio storico della Pontificia UniversitÓ Gregoriana) for helpful information about the history of Jesuit library and archive material.

In addition, valuable contributions were gratefully received from the following persons, in alphabetical order:
Claudio Antonini (USA), Monica Blanchard (Catholic Univ. of America), Marcela Budíková (Brno, Chech Republic), Stefano Casotto (Univ. of Padova), Xavier Ceccaldi (USA), Noel Golvers (Leuven, Belgium), Michael John Gorman (Stanford Univ, USA), Jan Bedrich Hurych (Ontario, Canada), Gabriel Landini (Birmingham Univ., UK) Joseph McDonnell S.J. (Fairfield Univ), Philip Neal (UK), Rafal Prinke (Poznan, Poland), Jim Reeds (USA), Rich SantaColoma (USA), Michelle Smith (Frascati), Josef Smolka (Prague), Manfred Staudinger (Vienna), Jorge Stolfi (University of Campinas, Brazil), Elitsa Velinska (USA), Felix Villarreal S.J. (Sogang Univ., S.Korea).

They have been reflected either on this page, the page about the origin of the Voynich MS, or the biographies page.


See Voynich (1921)
The transcribed text and an English translation of this letter are available here. The year of the letter is variously reported as 1666 (or 1665), or vice versa. The reading 1665 is clear from the image shown on this page.
Several translations have been made. The text quoted here is from Voynich (1921). I do not know who made this translation.
Sergio Toresella, priv. comm. to Jim Reeds (1995), suggests French. An >>analysis presented here strongly suggests Northern French.
See Reeds (1996), also available online. The MS itself has also been >>edited online.
Namely Bolton (1904).
I am very grateful to Manfred Staudinger for making it possible for me to visit these archives. He is also one of the historians who have transcribed large parts of it.
See his biography for more details about this work.
This is explored in more detail in Zandbergen and Prinke (2011, 2016).
This collection is discussed in significant detail at a >>web page of Philip Neal.
From Podlaha (1896), also discussed in Zandbergen and Prinke (2011).
A copy of this letter is still preserved in the Beinecke library. It has been transcribed here.
See De Sepi (1678)
See e.g. Fletcher (1969), Fletcher (1972) and Fletcher (1988).
The Kircher correspondence project of 1999-2000 by Michael John Gorman and Nick Wilding. See the >>Original site and the >>present (official) site.
As reported in Fletcher (1988). Possibly, it is also true for most of the other volumes.
APUG 557, fol.353, from Fletcher (1972). This letter is discussed in detail here.
See Marci (1662).
APUG 557, fol.127r, and fol.64r, see also here.
This point depends on the translation of the latin word 'dum', for which >>see here.
The letters were translated by Philip Neal. See here and here.
Sources I have used are Garrucci (1879), R. Garcia Villoslada (1954) and Lo Sardo (2001) pp.257-260.
Buonanni (1709)
From Verstraeten (1889)
According to sources in the Archives of the Gregorian University (APUG), these collections were most probably already removed before, and the labels were added later as an additional safety measure. P.Beckx' private library should therefore perhaps be considered more of a 'virtual library'.
For details see this page.
The first two issues are from the brothers Augustin and Alois De Backer, both Belgian Jesuits. Sommervogel already assisted in the preparation of these issues. See: A. and A. De Backer (1861).
This refers to bibliographical notes about the Collegium Romanum library made by S. Beorchia. The Roman province included the city of Rome, Frascati, but also Florence/Fiesole. See: Danieluk (2006). I personally believe that the most likely location was the Collegium Germanicum.
Sommervogel and De Backer, 1893
It has the shelf mark Arch.Bibl.109. It is described in more detail here.
The year 1912 comes from Voynich (1921), but 1911 is attested in ELV's letter to be opened after her death and in Voynich's letter to Wilkins.
In Voynich (1921), ("...had lain buried in the chests in which I found them...") and in his letter to Wilkins ("...As far as I know, from that period until discovered by me, they were not disturbed, and not seen by anyone..."), and also during his exhibitions in 1915.
See Ruysschaert (1959).
As described in Batllori (1962).
From a 1912 letter from Voynich to Belle Da Costa Greene, as recorded in Hunt (2006), p.252.
As recorded by De Marinis in De Marinis (1947), Vol. II, p.3.
De Marinis (1913)
These two MSs passed from Voynich to De Marinis, and from De Marinis' partner Forti to Alexandre Imbert of Rome. Forti had already travelled to Hungary in order to give them an opportunity to acquire these two MSs of national interest, but they could not raise the requested money. The invoice from Imbert to Morgan is dated 29 July 1912. This further shows that Voynich must have acquired the MSs at the very latest in early 1912.
As described by Sowerby in Millicent Sowerby (1967). She worked in the London shop from late 1912 to early 1914
From a letter preserved in the Grolier Club and seen by Rich SantaColoma (>>see his blog entry about this), it is apperent that Charles Singer was shown the Voynich MS by "Baer of Frankfurt". If this was in the latter's shop in Frankfurt, Singer must have been there after spring 1911 (when he first became interested in the history of science and medicine) and before August 1914 (when he had to flee because of WW I).
See Bulletin of the Art Institute (1915).
The first in the Alumni Memorial Hall of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the second in Detroit.
As reported in several newspapers.
The letter is transcribed here and discussed in this page. The list of previous owners is discussed in detail here.
Definitely, latest in 1927, one of the MSs was traced to the Collegium Romanum library in a publication: Holmes van Mater (1927).
Source: APUG (Rome, Historical Archives of the Pontifical Gregorian University/ Roma, Archivio storico della Pontificia UniversitÓ Gregoriana). >> see also here.
See Austin (1963).
The statements in the letter from Kraus to Friedman and in his autobiography are discussed here.


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