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Voynich MS - 17th Century letters related to the MS

Introduction

From 1912 to 2000, the only known reference to the Voynich MS was the 1665 letter from Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher, which was found in 1911 or 1912 together with the MS. In this letter, Marci refers to a previous owner of the MS, from whom he had inherited it. Wilfrid Voynich already considered in 1921 that this may have been one Georgius Barschius, because this man had left his alchemical library to Marci (1). In 1998 I noted in Fletcher (1988) (2), that the Kircher correspondence he had been studying included a letter to Kircher from one Georg Barsch. At that time it was impossible to obtain a copy of this letter, until the year 1999, just before the entire Kircher correspondence was digitised and published. I obtained a transcription of the letter through the kind aid of the historians running this digitisation project (3). This letter was written in 1639, i.e. 26 years before the above-mentioned letter from Marci, and it finally confirmed Voynich's suspicion that Barschius was the earlier owner of the MS. Additional letters of interest for the Voynich MS were later found in the same collection after it was completely digitised (4). Some years later, the Czech historian Josef Smolka told me that he had found a mention of the Voynich MS in an even earlier letter from Athanasius Kircher to the Prague mathematician Theodor Moretus S.J., which has been preserved in Moretus' mathematical diaries.

Most of these letters are treated in detail at the excellent >>web site of Philip Neal. I will not repeat information from that web site here, but include pointers to it. Before going to each letter in more detail, the following overview summarises the letters and their relationship to each other and to the Voynich MS.

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

Overview

Some time around October 1637 (5), the Prague alchemist Georgius Barschius decided to get help from Athanasius Kircher in Rome, in order to be able to read a MS that he had in his library, which was written in an unintelligible script. He believed that Kircher might be able to help because of Kircher's investigations into the languages of the East, in particular Egyptian. Barschius had copies made of the writing in the MS and had these sent to Kircher by the mathematician Theodor Moretus S.J.. This submission was part of a letter from Moretus to Kircher towards the end of 1637. This letter (we may refer to it as letter 37) has been lost, but we know about its existence from references to it in two other letters that have been preserved (letters 39a and 39b below). What we may infer about this lost letter is described under those headings.

In March 1639, Kircher finally responded to Moretus, saying that he had received the mysterious writing, and had not yet been successful in interpreting it. This is letter 39a described below.

Six weeks after that (21 April 1639), Barschius wrote to Kircher directly (letter 39b), saying that he heard from Moretus that his earlier submission had reached him. He reiterated his questions and provided some insight into his own ideas. In particular, he wrote that he believed that the MS deals with medicine, and he summarised the illustrations in the MS. The tone of this letter is described by Philip Neal as patronising and self-important.

We don't know about any response from Kircher to this letter, but it seems to have prompted him to inquire with Marci about Barschius. We may infer this from at least one letter of Marci to Kircher from 1640, in which Marci includes a positive recommendation of Barschius' character (letter 40 below).

We have no further correspondence about this topic until 1665, when Marci, already at an advanced age and with his eyesight declining, sends the MS to Kircher with an accompanying letter. This is the well-known 'Marci letter' which is included as letter 65 below. Marci was clearly very eager to know Kircher's opinion, because after sending this letter he had his friend Godefrid Aloys Kinner ask Kircher on two occasions if he had made any progress with his mysterious book (letters 66 and 67 below).

Letter 39a: Kircher to Moretus, 12 March 1639

Moretus had written to Kircher in 1637, on behalf of Barschius. From a later letter we know that Barschius was prompted by the appearance of Kircher's Prodromus Coptus in 1636 (6), and he hoped that Kircher might be able to decipher his mysterious MS. This letter has not been preserved. However, Kircher's response to this letter was discovered by the Czech historian Josef Smolka. It is contained in a letter that has been glued into one of the scientific notebooks of Th. Moretus, now fol.73 (previously fol.70) of MS VI B 12b of the Czech National Library. This letter was first published, with a discussion, in Smolka and Zandbergen (2010) (7). In May 2016 I was able to consult the notebook myself, and I obtained permission to show a copy of the letter here (click on the image to see the entire letter).

Following is still the old transcription published in Smolka and Zandbergen (2010) (see note 7), which will soon be replaced by a new one (8).

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.

It is of additional interest that this is a response from Kircher to the earliest known letter from any Bohemian scientist to Kircher. That (now lost) letter marks the start of a very extensive correspondence between at least 20 different Bohemians and Kircher, spanning 4 decades (9). Moretus had sent three more letters to Kircher, and probably got one response from Kircher on other topics, before receiving the above response (10). From these earlier letters we know that the contact between Moretus and Kircher was established by Martinus Santinus S.J., who will be mentioned again below.

Kircher's response covers three topics: magnetism, a booklet with unintelligble writing, and the various dimensions of the measure 'foot'. The first and third topic recur in other letters between them. Unfortunately, until today no reliable, complete translation of this letter is available and we are left with some uncertainties. It is clear that Kircher 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 form of the submission of sample text by Barschius is not fully clear just from this letter. There is reference to a booklet (libellum), but that does not necessarily mean that a booklet was sent. There is reference to a sheet (alterum folium), but is this 'another sheet' or 'the second sheet'? The reference to Illyrian writing, as commonly called "from Hieronymus" (i.e. Glagolitsa or the Glagolitic alphabet) on this sheet therefore may or may not refer to a copy of the Voynich MS writing sent by Barschius. On the balance, this does not seem likely, since Kircher first talks at some length on the booklet, before going to this 'other sheet', though its precise role in this context is not yet explained in a satisfactory manner. On the material submitted by Barschius, see also the following letter.

Letter 39b: Barschius to Kircher, 21 April 1639

This letter is preserved 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 discussed in internet communications. Like the previous letter it was first published in Smolka and Zandbergen (2010) (see note 7). 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

To add a few comments in addition to those from Philip Neal cited above: Barschius, who signs his name as M. Georgius 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 is very brief:

From the pictures of herbs, of which there are a great many in the codex, and of varied images, stars and other things bearing the appearance of chemical symbolism, it is my guess that the whole thing is medical...

Still, there can be little doubt that he is indeed talking about the Voynich MS (see also below). He presents his views about the MS (11), and urges Kircher to translate the unknown writing. For that purpose, he had sent a copy of some of the MS text to Kircher:

And so I ordered a certain old book to be transcribed in part, with the writing closely imitated...

Thus, he specifically writes that he had not sent any original parts of the MS, but copies of the text made by someone else than himself. Without the original letter from Moretus, we don't know what form this submission took, e.g. whether any drawings were included, how many pages/sheets were sent, and whether it was presented as a 'booklet'.

Another point of interest is who took this letter to Rome. Barschius writes:

Since a clerical individual is setting out for Italy and Rome itself I have seized the occasion to get him to take this letter with him. [...] (the bearer of this letter will inform you that he saw it with his own eyes).

In 1639 Barschius and Marci were already close friends, and Marci was preparing for his trip to Kircher, but Marci does not fit the description of a 'clerical individual'. Other participants to the same journey were Baron Franciscus Sternberg and Fr. Ignatius Roio S.J..

Letter 40: Marci to Kircher, 3 August 1640

This letter is also preserved in the Archives of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana in Rome, shelfmark APUG 557, fol. 124r. Marci's visit to Kircher around the year 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 been preserved, spanning from 1640 to 1665. They are discussed in Fletcher (1972) (12). Marci's first letter to Kircher 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 that 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.)

Letter 41: Marci to Kircher, 12 January 1641

This third letter from Marci is equally preserved in the Archives of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana in Rome, shelfmark APUG 557, fol. 64r. It just briefly mentions Barschius and Santinus.

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

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

Letter 65: Marci to Kircher, 19 August 1665

After the death of Barschius, which must have occurred between 1646 and 1662 (13), Marci inherited (among other items) the Voynich MS from him (see note 1), and in 1665 he donated it to Kircher (14). 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. Both this letter and the last one preserved (15) were not written by himself, but by a scribe. From the handwriting it is clear that both are from the same scribe, who has not yet been identified. The signature of both letters seems to have been added by Marci himself. It is known that his eyesight detoriorated badly towards the end of his life.

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

>>IMAGE: recto side of letter

Beside the MS itself, Marci sends the attempts by Barschius in translating it, which should demonstrate to Kircher how much he has tried over the years. These notes have not been preserved.

Letter 66: Kinner to Kircher, 4 January 1666

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. The first letter is preserved in the Archives of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana in Rome, shelfmark APUG 562, fol. 138.

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

>>IMAGE: recto side of letter.
>>IMAGE: verso side of letter.

Letter 67: Kinner to Kircher, 5 January 1667

This letter is preserved in the Archives of the Pontificia Università Gregoriana in Rome, shelfmark APUG 562, fol. 151.

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

>>IMAGE: recto side of letter.
>>IMAGE: verso side of letter.

From this letter we learn the interesting detail that the Voynich MS with letter 65 were brought to Rome by the father provincial of Bohemia. In 1665 this was Fr. Daniel Krupsky (16).

Concluding analysis

Let us assess whether we can be certain that all above letters are referring to the Voynich MS. Are the three instances of a book with unintelligible writing (the Voynich MS as we know it, the book sent by Marci to Kircher and the book referred to by Barschius / Moretus) all one and the same? The silence of Kircher about the Voynich MS has been seen by several authors as an indication that Kircher never received the book (17). However, we are helped by the fact that the several letters include clear references to each other, and by the excerpt of Marci (1662) (see note 1) identifying Barschius as at least one person from whom Marci inherited books. The cross-references are visualised in the following figure:

Green arrows are references of the letters to 'a book with unintelligible writing', or naming Barschius. Blue arrows are references from letters to earlier letters. The yellow reference to Barschius means he is referred to, but not explicitly named, while the red arrow means he is the author of the letter in question. That Marci refers to Barschius in letter 65 is beyond reasonable doubt, by the reference in Marci (1662) (see note 1) and the close match between the contents of his letter with that of letter 39b.

Letters 39b, 40, 41, 66 and 67 are all preserved together in the Kircher correspondence. Letters 37 and 65 could or should have been in the same collection but they are not. Letter 65 appeared under relatively mysterious conditions, as Voynich never explained where he found it, and the MS. Both this letter and letter 37 were apparently not filed by Kircher in his volumes of correspondence. This, however, is not extraordinary, as it is known from studies of Kircher's correspondence that many letters are missing from it (18). Kircher clearly did not file all letters consistently into his bound correspondence.

From letters 66 and 67 it is certain that Marci had indeed sent a book for translation or decipherment to Kircher. This does not prove that Kircher also received this book, but we can safely conclude that he did from the fact that the collection in which Voynich found the MS (with the letter) was one hidden by P. Beckx in 1873. This collection included other books and MSs owned by Kircher. In particular, before they were hidden, both Kircher's correspondence and the Voynich MS were together in the library of the Collegium Romanum. They may not have all been hidden together, but in the collection of 380 MSs from which Voynich acquired the Voynich MS in 1911-1912, another MS previously owned by Kircher was included. This is now preserved in the Vatican Library as Vat.Lat.11698 (19). Another concern that has been raised is that the Voynich MS is not listed in the museum catalogue by De Sepi (20). This is not an issue, becuase we know that this catalogue does not at all list all his books and MSs. Equally not listed is Vat.Lat.11698, or another number of MSs that trace back to Kircher, and which are still preserved in the National Library of Rome or the archives of the Society of Jesus, equally in Rome.

The description of the MS with unintelligible writing found in letter 39b is a brief but adequate description of the Voynich MS. Some people have wondered about the lack of mention of the conspicuous small naked women in the MS (21). This is, however, very easy to explain. In Barschius' short description his intention is not to provide a complete description of the MS. His intention is to highlight those points that support his thesis that it is a book concerning medicine.

From the pictures of herbs, of which there are a great many in the codex, and of varied images, stars and other things bearing the appearance of chemical symbolism, it is my guess that the whole thing is medical...

The small naked women simply do not (obviously) fall into that category, which explains their omission in this sentence. Apart from that, everything is there: the unintelligle writing, the great many herbs, the stars and the 'other things bearing the appearance of chemical symbolism'.

The reference in letter 39b to letter 39a consists of Barschius mentioning that father Moretus had just confirmed to him that his earlier submission had reached Rome (after having waited for a response for a long time). All other references are clear and plain, and there can be no doubt that all letters refer to the same MS, which we now know as the Voynich MS.

Acknowledgments

The letter from Kircher to Moretus is fol.73 of MS VI B 12b of the National Library of the Czech Republic, who own the rights to this image. It is shown here with the kind permission of the library. Further distribution is not allowed.

I am indebted to M.J. Gorman, then of the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, Florence, for providing the initial Latin transcription of the letter from Baresch. Philip Neal has provided a great service by transcribing a multitude of letters and translating and commenting on many of these.

Notes

1
The inheritance by Marci of the alchemical library of Georgius Barschius is mentioned by Marci in his book Philosophia Vetus Restituta (1662). The relevant parts are quoted here.
2
See Fletcher (1988).
3
Michael John Gorman and Nick Wilding.
4
Primarily by Jorge Stolfi.
5
Barschius writes in his letter of 21 April 1639 that this was 1.5 years earlier.
6
Barschius explains this in his letter of 21 April 1639.
7
See Smolka and Zandbergen (2010).
8
In preparation, by Philip Neal.
9
For more information, see a >>dedicated page at Philip Neal's site.
10
These letters from Moretus were dated 25 December 1638, 8 January 1639 and 19 February 1639. He probably received one response from Kircher between the latter two, but it has so far not been found among Moretus' papers.
11
For some of my interpretations on Barschius' theories, see also here.
12
See Fletcher (1972).
13
See the biography of Barschius.
14
The year was initially reported incorrectly as 1666 in the earliest correspondence of Voynich, and listed as '1665 (or 1666)' in Voynich's 1921 paper. This inaccuracy has been propagated through literature. From the presently available digital scans of the letter, it is clear beyond doubt that the year should be read as 1665, and this is consistent with the first letter from Kinner (letter 66 above).
15
This letter is dated 10 September 1665 and it is preserved in APUG 562 f114. It can be >>seen here.
16
From Prinke (2012).
17
For example Haakman (1991).
18
As explained in Fletcher (1988), p.139:
A further problem with the Gregoriana holdings is that they are incomplete. We know this not only from internal references in the letters that have survived, but also from other discrepancies.
19
This is demonstrated in great detail on a page dedicated to the books acquired by Voynich.
20
De Sepi (1678).
21
For example Philip Neal, who presents his own >> interpretation of this point.
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Copyright René Zandbergen, 2016
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Latest update: 03/12/2016