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Voynich MS - 17th Century letters related to the MS

Introduction

The earliest known reference to the Voynich MS was the 1665 letter from Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher, which was found by W. Voynich together with the MS itself. From 1912 to 2000 this was also the only known reference to the MS. In this letter, Marci refers to a previous owner of the MS, and already W.Voynich himself considered that a likely candidate should be one Georg Baresch, as he had left his alchemical library to Marci. I found that a letter from Baresch to Kircher was listed in Fletcher, 1988, however, it was impossible to obtain a copy of this letter, until the year 2000, where the entire Kircher correspondence was digitised and published. This letter was finally able to confirm Voynich's suspicion.

Originally, the present page provided the transcribed text and translation of these two most important letters, however, these are now treated more fully at the excellent >> web site of Philip Neal, together with other letters that have been found in the mean time. I will not repeat information from that web site here, but rather include pointers to it.

More information about the most important people mentioned in this page may be found in the biographies page.

Georg Baresch (and Theodor Moretus S.J.), 1637-1639

The first owner of the Voynich MS who is known to have written to Kircher was Georg Baresch (or Barschius). He wrote two letters, in 1637 and 1639, of which only the second has come down to us. It is useful to start with a discussion of this second letter.

Baresch to Kircher, April 1639

This letter is stored in the Archives of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana in Rome, shelfmark APUG 557, fol. 353. It was originally transcribed by M.J.Gorman, and informally presented in the Voynich MS mailing list. It was first published in Smolka and Zandbergen, 2010. In the following, as for all subsequent letters, transcription, translation and comments are from Philip Neal.
>> Transcription.
>> Translation.
>> Notes.

>> IMAGE: recto side of letter.
>> IMAGE: verso side of letter.
>> IMAGE: wrapper with seal and address

Baresch writes that he already sent a letter 1.5 years before (making it end 1637), and got confirmation from the mathematician Theodor Moretus S.J. that this letter actually reached Rome. His description of the MS makes it clear that he is indeed talking about the Voynich MS. He presents his view about the MS, and urges Kircher to translate the unknown writing. For that purpose, he had sent a copy of some of the MS text to Kircher.

Kircher to Moretus, 1639

According to the above-mentioned letter, Baresch wrote in 1637, prompted by the appearance of Kircher's 'Prodromus Coptus', hoping that Kircher might be able to decipher the Voynich MS. This letter has not been found. However, Kircher's response to this letter was discovered around 2008 by the Czech historian Josef Smolka. It is included in the scientific notebooks of Th. Moretus, preserved as MS VI B 12b of the Czech National Library. It was equally first published, with a detailed discussion, in Smolka and Zandbergen, 2010, and the Latin text is included below.

(Sign. VI B 12b, fol. 70)
Reverende Pater in Christo
Pax Christi
E literis Reverentiae Vestrae nuper ad me datis (quibus quam medullitus delectatus sum vix dici potest) luculenter sane apparuit; Reverentia Vestra officiosum quoddam mihi belli genus indixisse, quo mutua beneficiorum collatione non me vincere tantum, sed et prorsus devincere, devincireque sibi ? velle videtur; ego certe in hoc laudabili certamine ultra ipsi herbas porrigo, dum exiguitas mea me superiorem esse non permitit. Porro observationes magneticae, quas literis suis inclusas mihi transmisit, adeo animum meum potenter traxerat, ut in unam eandemque cum illa sententiam pariter coaluerim, ingeniorumque [Greek:] homoiois satis declaraverit, magneticum quoddam in mundo latere, quod uti omnia heracleotica illa catena, ita et similia ingenia coniungantur cum itaque mecum in orbibus ? consentiat certe ea vel hoc capite dignissimae visae sunt quae cum honorifica nomine sui mentione publici quoque iuris fierent.
Caeterum libellum nescio quibus steganographici mysteriis repertum, quem literis suis copiendum mihi transmisit, obiter examinatum, non tam ingeniosum, quam laboriosum Oedipum requirere comperi; multas huius scrinae scripturas variis occasionibus me dissolvisse memini, imo et iam circa hanc quoque molientur ingenii; penitus ? aliquid tentaret, nisi nimiae urgentissimorum occupationum ab importuno hujusmodi labore me revocarent, ubi tamen maius otium, oportuniusque tempus nactus fuero aliquid, genio praesertim enthusiasmoque favente in ea dissolvenda me tentaturum confido. Alterum denique folium quem ipsi ignoti characteris genere scriptum videbatur illyrico idiomate, charactere quem D. Hieronymi vulgo vocant, impressum sciat; utuntur eodem charactere hic Romae in missalibus aliisque sacris libri illyrico sermone imprimendis.
De mensuris diversorum pedum, quas ipse haud dubie avide exspectat cum ex Sicilia aliisque locis responsum necdum receperim, modo sileo; ubi eas recepero, una cum sustentis litteris Reverentiae Vestrae propediem transmittam. Nihil igitur restat nisi ut me Reverentiae Vestrae, sacrosanctis sacrificiis et omnibus valde commendem. Datum Romae 12 Martii 1639.
Reverentiae Vestrae servus in Christo Salutare humiliter me vero impertiri ne Athanasius Kircher gravetur Reverendo Patri Rectori, ita et Reverendo Patri Santino aliisque viris.

Given that Kircher responded to Moretus, we know that Barschius' first letter to Kircher was actually sent by Moretus. It is of interest that this is the earliest surviving letter from a Bohemian scientist to Kircher, and the start of a very extensive correspondence between at least 20 Bohemians and Kircher, spanning 4 decades. Moretus sent two more letters to Kircher, before receiving the above response. From the earlier letters, we know that the contact between Moretus and Kircher was established by Martinus Santinus S.J., who will be mentioned again below.

From Kircher's response we know that he had seen the transcribed writing, and had given it some thought. He could not read the script, but considered that it should not be too difficult. The reference to Illyrian writing, as commonly called "from Hieronymus" i.e. Glagolitsa or the Glagolitic alphabet, does not appear to refer to the copy of the Voynich MS writing sent by Baresch.

Johannes Marcus Marci

Marci's visit to Kircher from 1639 or 1640 to 1640 was the start of a long friendship, and the two corresponded regularly in the years to come: 37 letters from Marci to Kircher have come down to us, spanning the time from 1640 to 1665. They are discussed in a publication by John Fletcher.

Marci to Kircher, 1640 and 1641

Marci's first letter was sent while still on the way back from Rome to Prague. His second letter was sent from Prague and includes another attachment from Baresch, with a recommendation from Marci (certe vir optimus), and indicating the Barschius is only interested in advancing medicine, not in money.

>> Transcription.
>> Translation.
>> Notes.

>> IMAGE: recto side of letter.
>> IMAGE: wrapper with seal and address (probably, but not necessarily of this letter.)

The third letter just mentions Baresch and Santini.

>> Transcription.
>> Translation.
>> Notes.

>> IMAGE: recto side of letter.
>> IMAGE: wrapper with seal and address (possibly, but not necessarily of this letter.

Marci to Kircher, 1665

Finally, after the death of Baresch, which must have occurred before 1662, Marci inherited the Voynich MS, and in 1665 he donated it to Kircher. The accompanying letter, now preserved in the Beinecke Library of Yale University (MS 408A), has been discussed already at length in various publications. It is his penultimate letter to Kircher, as far as we know, and both last letters were not written by himself, but only signed by him. They were both written by the same scribe.

>> Transcription.
>> Translation.
>> Notes.
>> A further note.

Godefrid Aloys Kinner to Kircher, 1666 and 1667

Both early 1666 and early 1667, Godefrid Aloys Kinner, a friend of Marci, inquires on Marci's behalf whether Kircher has made any progress in translating the mysterious book which Marci had sent the year before. These were written shortly before Marci's death and it is possible that Marci's eyesight prevented him from writing himself.

>> Transcription.
>> Translation.
>> Notes.

>> Transcription.
>> Translation.
>> Notes.

Epilogue

Acknowledgment

I am indebted to M.J. Gorman of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, Florence, for providing the initial Latin transcription of the letter from Baresch.

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Copyright René Zandbergen, 2014
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Latest update: 11/08/2014