Kircher’s sieve

You’ve heard of Occam’s razor: this is Kircher’s sieve.

Very useful for testing probability for ideas floated about the manuscript (mine, or yours, or theirs..).

It’s a simple test:

“Would Kircher want …”

  • a normal medieval herbal, brought all the way from Prague? – Not likely.
  • a book about nubile ladies frolicking in healthy baths of pea soup? – No way.
  • one totally devoted to heretical or occult beliefs? –  highly unlikely.
  • one that explained classical or other pre-Christian ideas? – Yes, almost certainly.
  • an ‘Alchemical herbal’? – possibly, but it’s not highly likely unless there was more to it. Kircher’s interest in plants was not pronounced and living and teaching in the Vatican, he had access to herbals of all kinds much closer than Prague.
  • a book about science, reputedly owned (or allegedly made) by Roger Bacon? – yes, I think he’d want that.
  • a book about things Egyptian and/or Asian – definitely.
  • a book about observations in the New World? – almost certainly.

These are examples, not progressive stages for eliminating a theory, and they only weed out the most unlikely.

The sieve has another stage, too.

Why would Kircher have first ignored Baresch’s offer, then changed his mind?

Baresch sent copied pages in response to Kircher’s initial appeal for matter elevant to his own  current studies. Kircher’s Aegyptica restituta was later published through 1652-1654. His China illustrata was published in Amsterdam in 1667.

Baresch offered it before 1637.  Kircher finally received the manuscript, so far as we know, in 1665.

– I admit that I have often wondered whether some of what we have is not from the copy Baresch had made by professional copyists in the 1630s, to send Kircher.

In such a case,  use of scrap- or old parchment would be understandable. It would also explain  why one folio in the bathy section  shows a glaring difference of style from the rest: a bad copyist given short shrift.

But since imagining  scenarios does not advance understanding of the manuscript’s imagery, or original matter, and cannot be proven, so it is effectively irrelevant to the process of researching ms Beinecke 408, whether true or not.

Already in Aegyptica Kircher had argued that Chinese script was derived from Egyptian, an argument he then developed in China illustrata.

As Szczezsniak says, Kircher..

Kircher clip blog

Also ~

  • Why had Kircher initially believed that the script might be ‘Illyrican’? And what did he mean by that description?
  • What happened in Kircher’s life that so greatly changed his attitude about the book, between the time Baresch sent him the first copies in 1631, and that later time when (as Marci’s correspondence suggests) Kircher had begun urging it be sent to him?

Kircher was a deeply conservative Jesuit priest, an active opponent of Galileo, and a person who was part of a community which renounced claims to any personal property beyond necessities: all else while Kircher  lived and everything including his clothes after his death, reverted to being communal property.

So ‘collector-fever’ and cupidity are effectively out of the equation when one asks why he wanted the manuscript; collector-fever is out, because he refused the manuscript in the first instance, and cupidity is out because when it was given him by Marci, it was in effect donated to the community as a whole, and even then might be resumed by the papacy.

So I think the reasons that he wanted the manuscript reduce to three:

(i) he believed it should always have been church property and that Rudolf  Baresch acquired it improperly and if he believed Mnishovsky, as Marci plainly did not, then Rudolf too;Kircher's Mermaid

(ii) it was associated with a figure having some personal attachment to the church or one of its religious orders ~ in effect, a sentimental reason;

(iii) the book contained matter which Kircher had come to believe directly relevant to his own interests, his order, or himself.

Kircher himself lived  too late for his interest in the manuscript to aid my research into its imagery.

That is to say, that although the ‘mer-god’ pictured in his China illustrata may be related to fish-and-female  in ms Beinecke 408, one cannot simply assume so, nor suppose the Voynich image was named  ‘Machauter’ (an error, in any case).

Kircher’s character, profession and published writings are a useful yardstick to lay against the history of the manuscript’s translation between Prague and Rome, and thus indirectly indicative of the manuscript’s origins, content and – hopefully – original script and language.

Any effort to describe the Voynich manuscript must, finally, accord with that indisputable fact –   Kircher eventually wanted it.

For information about Marci, Baresch and Kircher see correspondence translated by Philip Neal.

Picture below made in 18thC China by a Jesuit missionary, Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). image courtesy of

botanical paeonies Castiglione in China 17thC

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