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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 (1). In his research of the history he used the following leads:

Until the late 1990's, the letter from Marci was the only documented source for the history of the Voynich MS. In order to set the stage, the relevant parts of it are presented first (3). They will be discussed in more detail below. 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 in many areas. We now know that Voynich acquired the MS from a collection that was labelled as the 'private library of P. Beckx'. P. Beckx S.J. was General Superior of the Society of Jesus in the second half of the 19th Century. Voynich never mentioned this fact to anyone, as we shall see below.

There are still large 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 (4).

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 alpine region, but for the time being the origin of the MS remains speculation.

Month names written near each of the zodiac illustrations in the zodiac section of the MS were most probably added some (unknown) time later. These have been written in a Romance language, which is most probably Northern French (5). This could indicate that the MS travelled through N. France, or was owned at some point in its early history by a native of this area.

The road to Prague

The John Dee hypothesis

The next evidence takes us to Prague. 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 hypothesis of W.Voynich. This is discussed in some depth in Zandbergen and Prinke (2011) (6). The following is a summary of parts of this publication.

As a result of Voynich's hypothesis, the lives of Dee and Kelley have been scrutinised by many researchers in the past, 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 R. Prinke (see note 6), showing that none of the three can be substantiated. The year 1586 is occasionally quoted in literature as the year in which Rudolf bought the Voynich MS, but this also derives entirely from the above mentioned hypothesis, and it is therefore equally unsubstantiated.

One MS owned by Dee has also received 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 (9).

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 provides 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 Bolton (1904) (10). For more details about this particular topic, see the following page.

Voynich then went on to show how it is possible to trace, through Dee, the path of the MS from 13th Century England and Roger Bacon to the court of Rudolf II. It should not be forgotten, however, that Voynich specifically wished to prove that the MS originated with Roger Bacon, so he had been looking especially for such a connection.

Summary ledgers of the accounts of the court of Rudolph are still preserved in the Austrian National Archives in Vienna (11). A large part of these has been transcribed, and I have searched these transcriptions for records of Rudolph acquiring books and manuscripts. I could find only 18 different named sellers of books. In some cases, an author presented a book to Rudolph II with a dedication to him, and received a sum of money in compensation.

One complication in the interpretation of these accounts is the confusion surrounding 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.

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

It is clear from these examples that Rudolf spent very large sums of money on books, certainly also 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 other items, it is entirely possible that the the 600 ducats (if this was indeed the price paid) was not just for the Voynich MS, but for a set of books including it.

Did Rudolf II really own the MS?

The source of the information that Rudolf 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 it to Marci. One may wonder whether both men would have remembered the essential details correctly.

There are good reasons to believe that that was the case. 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 (12) 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 manuscriptis, in charakteribus et Cifris Rudolphi Imperatoris. Mnišovský was very familiar with the work of Trithemius, and even wrote a book related to his methods (for which see his biography).

As regards Marci, the Voynich MS was something that had deeply interested him (and his close friend 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 MS owner, the fact that the latter had written to Kircher, the fact that Dr.Raphael was a tutor to Ferdinand III... Still, the amount of 600 ducats could be an exaggeration to increase Kircher's interest (13).

One of many things for which Rudolf II has become famous is his 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. It includes a large section describing the books and manuscripts in the Kunstkammer. I have prepared a summary page describing this catalogue. Obviously, if the Voynich MS could be identified in it, 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 known to have belonged to Rudolf. A significant collection of these is still preserved in Leiden, having passed through the hands of Queen Christina of Sweden and the humanist Isaac Vossius (14).

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 in a poor family, raised by the Jesuits and eventually became a successful and wealthy chemist, and a pharmacist at Rudolf's court (15). According to tradition, in 1608 he cured Rudolf from a grave disease. Certainly, in that year he was granted a minor nobility, and was allowed to call himself 'de Tepenec'. He wrote his name in the Voynich MS in this manner, so he must have added it after 1608. In recent years, several books and manuscripts have been found bearing a more or less similar ex libris (16). These ex libris are all accompanied by a number, and such a number may also be observed beneath his name on folio 1r of the Voynich MS. This strongly suggests that a catalogue of his books was made at some point in time, but this has not yet been found.

We don't know how and when Horčický obtained the Voynich MS. Did Rudolf give him the MS in the hope that he could study and understand it? When the emperor abdicated in 1611, and died the year after, he still owed Horčický (and many others) a significant amount of money (17). 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. From Matthias, Rudolf's successor, Horčický eventually obtained the rule over the community of Melnik, and lived in its castle as its Hauptmann (governor). When Horčický died (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 MSs that still bear his ex libris also include an ownership note of the Jesuit college of Prague, but the Voynich MS does not.

The next known owner of the Voynich MS is the person indicated by Marci in his 1665 letter to Kircher. Marci wrote that he wanted to send it 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 at an earlier date.

The identity of the benefactor of Marci was first guessed by Wilfrid Voynich himself, when he wrote in a letter to Prague (18), 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 presentation of the history of the Voynich MS, and apparently never received a reply to the above letter, which he sent after his presentation. 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 published catalogue of Kircher's museum (19), when it was still bound in 12 volumes, but it was 'lost' since then until about 1930. From then, until about the year 2000, this collection has only been available for study by scholars in piecemeal fashion (20). 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 (21), 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, 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 (e.g. draft letters from Kircher), and are now freely available to the scientific community.

One of the fourteen volumes (APUG 557) bears a paper attachment saying: 'From the private library of P. Beckx' (22). This is the volume that contains 35 of 36 letters from Marci to Kircher, and many other letters from Prague and Bohemia (although the general organisation of the collection appears to be fairly arbitrary). This volume also contains the letter from M. Georgius Baresch (23). From this important letter written in 1639 it is clear that Barschius did indeed own the MS and that, 18 months earlier, he had sent Kircher a partial transcription of it, exactly confirming the details known from the 1665 Marci letter. At that time, Kircher had only just arrived at the Roman College, and was not yet the famous 'man who knew everything'. Barschius was prompted 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. He was unknown to Czech historians until recently (24). He was working as a court relator until 1646. Marci mentions him in his book "Philosophia Vetus Restituta" (1662) (25), 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, i.e. he died between 1646 and 1662. Barschius is also mentioned in two letters (of 1640) from Marci to Kircher (26). We still 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 (German: Kronland). He studied medicine and became professor at the Prague Charles University. Around 1639 he undertook a journey to Rome and this is when he met Athanasius Kircher, marking the start of their long friendship. The two men corresponded for some 25 years and one of the last letters from Marci, written in August 1665, is the one accompanying the Voynich MS (27).

Marci inherited the Voynich MS from Barschius between 1646 and 1662. He also discussed the Voynich MS with Mnišovský before 1644, when Barschius was still alive and still the owner of the MS. From the wording of the Marci letter it even appears that this should have happened between 1626 and 1636 (while Raphael was tutor to Ferdinand III). It is clear that the MS was a topic for discussion between various Bohemians.

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 before he actually sent it. Marci's eyesight deteriorated significantly towards the end of his life. The last two letters from Marci to Kircher that have been preserved are no longer in his own hand but were written by the same scribe. He just signed them in his own hand. One of these is 'our' Marci letter, that was contained in the Voynich MS (28). After Marci sent the Voynich MS to Kircher, one of his Prague friends Godefrid Aloys Kinner (who was also one of Kircher's most prolific correspondents) asked Kircher once in 1666 and once again in 1667 on Marci's behalf whether Kircher had made any progress in deciphering the book that Marci had sent to him (29). Marci died in April 1667. His last will and testament was drawn up on 31 December 1666, when his eyesight had gone completely and he was not even capable of writing his own name anymore.

The Roman period

Athanasius Kircher and the Voynich 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. From 1638 onwards he was professor in mathematics, but his interest covered 'everything under the sun'. Since the early 1630's he published a multitude 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 is also well known as the curator of the Museo Kircheriano, which became one of the top attractions in Rome in the 17th Century, about which will be said more below.

We don't know much about what Kircher did with the Voynich MS. We do know that Kircher responded to Barschius' first (and now lost) request, which was contained in a letter of 1637 by the Prague jesuit mathematician Theoror Moretus. This episode is discussed in more detail in another page (see also here). It is certain that Kircher received the MS together with the letter from Marci in 1665, because the collection in which the MS was included in 1912 can be traced back to the library of the Collegium Romanum, which included several other MSs 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 (30).

Already before 1670 De Sepi started the edition of the first catalogue of this museum (31). The frontispiece (shown above) probably represents the museum in this 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 his 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 MSs known to have been in Kircher's possession, which are still preserved today. They were probably not considered part of his museum.

After Kircher's death in 1680 the museum was handed over to a Jesuit 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 (for which see below). Buonanni also published a more elaborate catalogue (32) of Kircher's museum, but this, as all future catalogues, no longer lists any of Kircher's books. Several of his MSs were moved into the Collegium Romanum library (Bibliotheca Maior) already before 1870.

The vicissitudes of the Society of Jesus

The Society of Jesus experienced two suppressions, in 1773 and 1873, and had more difficult years around 1848. Many of their belongings were confiscated. Still, somehow, they managed to preserve many of their important books and MSs. 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.

In 1773 the Society of Jesus was suppressed in Rome. Lazzari, the librarian of the Roman College, joined cardinal Zelada (one of the main actors in the anti-Jesuit movement), who took some of the books (mainly prints) from the Roman College to his library in Toledo. Other parts of the library were dispersed in Rome. The archives of the Society, kept to that time in the Casa Professa, adjoint to the Gesù church, were sealed off by the Vatican authorities.

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 Curia (the central administrative entity of the Society of Jesus, also located in the Casa Professa). As reported in a blog entry of the Historical Archives of the Gregorian University in Rome (33), sometime between 1824 and 1870 a large number of MSs in the library of the Roman College were rebound with new covers since their old wooden boards had been infested by wood worms. It is almost certain that the Voynich MS was one of them. Ruysschaert (1959) (see note 50), describing the collection in which the Voynich MS was found, also mentions this collective rebinding, and the worm holes in the Voynich MS were already mentioned on the previous page. We may safely conclude that at this time the Voynich MS received its present unimpressive parchment cover.

In 1853, the Belgian father P. Beckx S.J., provincial of Austria, was elected as the new general of the society IMAGE: Portrait of P. Beckx S.J.. 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. The donation agreement was signed by P. Beckx. This library was thereafter stored (in boxes) in the Casa Professa, which housed another major Jesuit library.

Second suppression of the society, 1873

On September 20, 1870, the troops of Vittorio Emanuele II captured the city of Rome. Initially, the indication was that the various religious orders would not be affected, but 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, including the novitiate of S. Andrea al Quirinale and the church Il Gesù with the adjacent Casa Professa, which included the archives and the two libraries mentioned above.

The Jesuits had already moved the archives from the Curia, via the now lost Palazzo Bolognetti Torlonia near Piazza Venezia, to the Palazzo Borromeo, a palace not far from the Collegium Romanum, which was then hosting the German college. The government had agreed that personal belongings could be kept, while belongings of the society needed to be handed over. These events were witnessed by the Russian Jesuit fr. Paul Pierling S.J., who wrote a report about this in a letter that has been preserved (34). About 4000 books were thus 'evacuated' from the Casa Professa (35). The government was close to confiscating also this collection, but thanks to the personal intervention of King Vittorio Emanuele II, P. Beckx was allowed to keep it (36). The absence of detailed catalogues of the Jesuit library of the Casa Professa (37) aided the Jesuits in salvaging these documents. The above-mentioned library of the Duchess of Sachsen was protected by the donation contract, and was therefore transferred into Austrian custody, to its embassy in the nearby Palazzo Venezia, and shipped to Austria several years later (see also note 35).

The main part of the Collegium Romanum library was confiscated on October 20, 1873, and the new government set up the new national library 'Vittorio Emanuele II' in the very building of the Collegium Romanum. During 1874-1875 some 400,000 volumes from over 60 libraries were transferred to it and it was officially inaugurated on 15 March 1876, still in the palace that used to house the Collegium Romanum. Some parts of the original Collegium Romanum collection were, however, saved from confiscation in various ways, as we shall see below.

Kircher's museum was also confiscated, though before this happened some of his books and MSs had already been moved to the Collegium Romanum library (in the same building) (38). Some of the museum items are now in the Museo Pigorini in the EUR. Only the famous astronomer Angelo Secchi and his observatory (Vecchia Specola) were allowed to stay in the building of the Collegium Romanum.

A personal friend of Fr. Beckx, Don Alessandro of Torlonia, helped the society by providing his palace at Castel Gandolfo (the Villa Torlonia) to the Jesuits in order to continue the activities of the above-mentioned novitiate of S. Andrea (39). 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 MSs from the Biblioteca Maior of the Collegium Romanum were saved from confiscation, that is, at least for a while. The books and MSs of two of these collections received typescript labels ex Bibliotheca privata P. Petri Beckx (40). One of these two was a collection of classical and humanist manuscripts which included the Voynich MS. So far, no evidence has been found about the precise moves of this collection (41). The other is a significantly larger collection of 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 (the so-called Fondo APUG).

The third set was dicovered in 1877, when a trap door was found in what used to be Collegium Romanum library, revealing a large collection of Jesuits books and MSs that had been hidden in a secret compartment, the so-called Ripostiglio. 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. They are now equally preserved in the historical archives of the Gregorian University as the Fondo Curia.

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

Between 1882 and 1885 Henri Hyvernat was teaching theology at the Gregorian University. He later obtained a copy of the Voynich MS from Mrs. Voynich, and showed a clear interest, but there is no indication that he had ever seen it before.

In 1884 P. Beckx abdicated and he returned to Rome, where he lived in the Belgian College at S.Andrea al Quirinale, even though the prince of Torlonia offered his Villa in Castel Gandolfo. He died three years later, at the age of 92. One of Beckx's last activities was to assign the duty of re-issuing De Backer's bibliography of all Jesuit works (42) to Carlos Sommervogel, who was transferred to Leuven (Belgium). By 1886, Sommervogel realised that important references for him were contained in the hidden archives of the Society. He temporarily obtained access to some documents from these and from this episode we know that they were stored somewhere in the Roman province (43). The third issue of the "Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus" (44) started appearing in 1893, but it does not mention the Carteggio Kircheriano (which was mentioned in De Sepi (1678) (see note 31) while it does describe many other less significant items of his correspondence. From this we know that this collection was hidden even from Jesuit historians.

In 1892 Luis Martin became the new General of the society, 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 the German novitiate in Exaten, in 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. Still, 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, originating from the Collegium Romanum library, to the Vatican (45). This sale, which included the Voynich MS, was only completed in 1912. By this time, the book dealer Wilfrid Voynich had entered the stage (46).

The English / American period

Wilfrid M. Voynich enters the stage

As from 1908 Voynich owned an antiquarian book store in Florence. This was previously known as the Libreria Franceschini, named after its previous owner who sold it to Voynich. 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 (47). How the two came into contact with each other is not known, but in 1911 or 1912 (48), Voynich obtained the opportunity to acquire a number of valuable MSs from the Jesuits, upon Fr. Strickland's recommendation and under promise of absolute secrecy about this deal. Because of this secrecy, Voynich had to construct another story about the source of these MSs, which included a claim (which he repeated until his death) that he had discovered this collection himself (49), in chests of which the guardians themselves did not know what they contained. Since the Jesuits already prepared a catalogue of the items for sale in 1903, we now know that this is not true.

The entire collection 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 MSs was acquired by pope Pius X, who donated them to the Vatican library in 1912. The 300 Latin MSs among these are described in a catalogue issued by Mgr. J. Ruysschaert in 1959 (50). Ruysschaert also writes that the English book dealer W. Voynich had acquired a number of them (51). The location of the entire collection prior to this sale was not recorded by Ruysschaert (52). It is generally assumed to be Villa Mondragone in Frascati. This question is analysed in detail here.

The MSs 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. From many of the MSs acquired by Voynich similar notes are now preserved in the Beinecke library. Voynich had removed these from the MSs he obtained, obviously in order to fulfil his promise to the Jesuits not to divulge the origin of the MSs.

He initially kept this collection in Florence, and already in the spring of 1912 showed it to the famous art critic Bernard Berenson (53). 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 (54). These seven MSs appear in De Marini's 1913 catalogue, though two of the most valuable items were already sold in July 1912 to John Pierpont Morgan (Sr.) (55). Voynich's main store was still London, and he took the remaining new valuable items there and showed them to interested potential buyers (56). 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, some time in or after 1911 (57).

When the first World War broke out, Voynich decided to move to the US and expand his business there. Here, he organised several exhibitions, where he showed some 280 of his most valuable books and MSs. This included several of the MSs he bought from the Jesuits, also his Roger Bacon cipher MS, which he tried to present as a major document in the history of science. After exhibitions in Princeton University and in New York his most well-known exhibition was in October 1915 at the Art Institute of Chicago, which was followed by a short publication (58). Immediately following this, starting 3 November 1915, he had two exhibitions in Michigan (59), and during these events, he spread the story that he had discovered the MSs in a castle in Austria, where they had been hidden, supposedly unknown to the owners of the castle (60).

Two years later (1917), in a letter to Prof. Wilkins of the University of Chicago, who was studying one of the MSs sold during these events (Boccaccio's "Lives of the Saints"), Voynich provided additional details, such as a list of previous owners of the Jesuit MS collection, still without mentioning the Jesuits (61). 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 which was mentioned at the top of this page. Voynich still stuck to his promise not to tell from whom or where he acquired the MSs, but on this occasion 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 (62), 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.

From letters and notebooks still preserved in the Beinecke library, it is evident that Voynich eventually did all he could to find out the truth about this MS, as reported in some detail here.

After the death of Wilfrid Voynich

Voynich died in 1930, and his widow Ethel Voynich, (henceforth ELV as she liked 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 current 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, adorned 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 (63), suggesting that it had been stored there (64). 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.

Following is a graphical representation of the various moves of libraries to the extent that I have been able to find out. A similar figure could be drawn for the various moves of Jesuit archive material. 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 MSs were stored and moved together, for which see here. The path of the Voynich MS can be traced from Kircher to Voynich for which see here.

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 MSs must originate from the Roman Jesuit college. Anne M. Nill, Voynich's secretary since his move to the US, had remained 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 (65), 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 the role of Fr. Strickland.

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. As she 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 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 took 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 took part in a trip to Italy visting important libraries and book collections, which was organised by the Grolier Club (66). 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 (67). Ruysschaert, as seen above, 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 (68).

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 buniness, including catalogues, accounts, notebooks, correspondence into two parts. The part apparently related to the Voynich MS (including the Marci letter) was equally donated to the Beinecke library, where it is still kept today. 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 Università 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)
Text and English translation of this letter are available here. The year of the letter is variously reported as 1666 (or 1665), or v.v.. 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.
And a portrait gallery is provided as well.
Sergio Toresella, quoted in an E-mail to the Voynich MS mailing list, suggests French. An >> analysis presented here strongly suggests Northern French.
Zandbergen and Prinke (2011), which was unfortunately published only in Czech. The original work by Rafal Prinke is >> available online here
According to A.G. Watson
Arthur Dee is quoted by Sir Thomas Browne. The full quote is replicated at another page at this site.
See Reeds (1996), also available online. The MS itself has also been >>edited online.
See Bolton (1904).
I am very grateful to Manfred Staudinger for making it possible for me to visit these archives.
As witnessed by his 1630 letter to Ferdinand II, reported in Evans (p.361). For more details, see his biography.
This is explored in more detail in Zandbergen and Prinke (2011) (unfortunately only available in Czech).
This is discussed in significant detail at a >>web page of Philip Neal.
For more details see the biographies page
For all details about these books and MSs see here.
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.
In De Sepi (1678), p.65.
See e.g. Fletcher (1969), Fletcher (1972) and Fletcher (1988).
The Kircher correspondence project by Michael John Gorman and Nick Wilding (>>New site, >>Original site).
See Fletcher (1988).
APUG 557, fol.353, from Fletcher (1972). This letter is discussed in detail here.
R. Prinke has uncovered most of the information. See the biography of Barschius for details and references.
See Marci (1662).
APUG 557, fol.127r, and fol.64r, see also here.
For more details see his biography.
See >>web site of Philip Neal (scroll down about one page).
The letters were translated by Philip Neal. See link here.
Sources used are Garrucci (1879), R. Garcia Villoslada (1954) and Lo Sardo (2001), pp.257-260.
Published later as De Sepi (1678)
Buonanni (1709)
See >>the blog of the historial archives of the Gregorian University in Rome (in Italian). For more details see also here.
The letter from Pierling has been published in several instances, and has been transcribed and partly translated by Xavier Ceccaldi
The number 4000 is quoted in Carini Dainotti (1956). She also mentions about 60 chests of additional material, which most probably refers to the library of the Duchess of Sachsen (previously of De Rossi).
Information provided by Michele Smith, from Ghiron (1882)
Catalogues of printed books of the Collegium Romanum have been preserved as Ant.Cat.21 and Ant.Cat.23 in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma.
The fate of these MSs is described in more detail here
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 sould therefore be considered more a 'virtual library'.
A possible hint in favour of their move directly to Villa Mondragone is, that at this time the rector of the Jesuit college at the Mondragone was father Alessandro Ponza di S.Martino S.J., who was the brother of count Gustavo Ponza di San Martino, one of the trustees of King Vittorio Emanuele II, who had already shown his support to P. Beckx (source: Xavier Ceccaldi).
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.
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. Ref: Danieluk S.J., La Bibliotheque de Carlos Sommervogel: le sommet de l'oeuvre bibliographique de la compagnie de Jesus (1890-1932), 2006. I personally believe that the most likely location was the Collegium Germanicum.
Sommervogel and De Backer, 1893
The catalogue of this material, written in 1903, is preserved in the archives of the Vatican library. It is described in more detail here.
See his biography.
See the biography of Strickland.
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.
In Ruysschaert (1959).
The list of books acquired by Voynich is reconstructed here.
In Batllori (1962), the Jesuit historian Miquel Batllori declares that he has not been able to find any detail about the sale of the MS's to the Vatican library, despite searching for it in the Roman Archives of the Society (ARSI).
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.
Two Corvinus MSs that used to be in the Collegium Romanum library (and were seen there by a Hungarian historian) were passed by Voynich to De Marinis, and by 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 a 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 a Kansas City newspaper.
See the letter to Wilkins: "... part of the Malatesta library, part of the Matthias Corvinus library, and part of the Libraries of the Dukes of Parma, Modena and Ferrara, part of the collection of Borso, Alfonso D’Arragonia, and several others". This list has been verified, for which see also here.
Definitely, latest in 1927, one of the MSs was identified as such in a publication: Holmes van Mater (1927).
Source: APUG (Rome, Historical Archives of the Pontifical Gregorian University/ Roma, Archivio storico della Pontificia Università Gregoriana). >> see also here.
Presumably the Villa Torlonia in Castel Gandolfo that was already mentioned earlier.
The letter is discussed here.
See Austin (1963).
See Kraus (1978), though here he mentions the year 1963.
The letter from Kraus to Friedman and the autobiography are discussed here.


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