positing a pre-‘Rudolfine’ history 1 – Kircher

[end note and details of illustration added. typos corrected]

It is evident that between its manufacture early in the early fifteenth century and its appearance in seventeenth-century Prague the manuscript travelled.

Something can be gleaned about that intervening century and a half, but our solid documentary evidence begins with Jakub Hořčický, whose name is Latinised as Sinapius (‘Mustard-ine’ or ‘little mustard’) and who would be ennobled as Jakub of Tepenec.

Like everyone else who is certainly associated with the manuscript before its purchase by Wilfrid Voynich, Hořčický was very closely connected with the Society of Jesus.

It is unlikely always to have been so*: the Society was formed about a century after the manuscript is presumed made.

*  though it’s theoretically possible that some person had brought the manuscript with him on entering the  Society and that Jakub received it from the community itself.

But with the Society’s formal recognition soon came assignment of those tasks which had formerly been the preserve of other peripatetic preaching orders and chiefly of  the Franciscans and the Dominicans.

Franciscans had served as the western world’s ambassadors to the east, where Dominicans had been appointed chief arbiters in theological discussions, having had the initial aim of using Aristotelian logic and classical rhetoric to persuade others by a process of reasoning to adopt their religion as  superior to all others.

Becoming in this way trained to understand the languages and religious ideas of other peoples, they were even asked by the Jews of Toledo to arbitrate when feelings ran high between Talmudic and Kabbalistic Jews.

However, when the Spanish throne began its program of hunting and eliminating all religious dissent as a threat to itself,  Dominicans were assigned to first judge whether accusations of heresy were reasonable or valid. In this way they became, increasingly, a tool of the Spanish throne’s Inquisition and that role too was passed later to the Jesuits, who took it up with considerable energy in Europe.

From the Dominicans, the Jesuits gained their custom of studying languages and rhetoric; from the Franciscans knowledge of the wider world and the earlier missionary-ambassadors’ routes and networks. As has been noted, Franciscans had been found as far as modern Afghanistan and Southern China by the early 1300s.

In addition, the Jesuits by Kircher’s time had access to what the conquests of Spanish and Portuguese brought back and the diplomatic and practical resources of the Papacy:  its libraries, printery and letters of permit.

This was the situation when  Kircher rose to personal fame. Despite all this, and his own high levels of social contact, that excerpted section from ms Beinecke 408 left him indifferent and apparently guessing at the script’s origin.

Kircher had been a priest little more than a decade in 1639. Even before ordination, his competence in natural sciences, classical Greek and Latin was enough for him to have been invited to teach those subjects at the Jesuit colleges at Coblenz and Heiligenstadt.

Completing his Degree in Theology – a prerequisite for ordination in those days –  he was immediately offered a full University chair at Würzburg in ethics and mathematics. His duties included lecturing in Hebrew and “Syrian”.

It is important, given the direction of research into Voynichese, that while his languages to 1639 included Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Syriac as well as a number of European languages, Kircher saw none of these in the extract sent him.

His initial dismissal of that extract  might have been influenced too by Baresch’s emphasis on a supposed link to pharmaceutical medicines; Kircher seems generally to have been uninterested in the transient business of ordinary men: of living, breathing humanity,  his attention attracted rather by the abstract, the schematic, the theoretical and inanimate.

By 1631, his interest had already been engaged by Egyptian hieroglyphics. His official biographies say that his acquaintance with Egyptian script began in Germany and was fostered at Aix by Pieresc. But he himself says he learned hieroglyphics in Avignon and contemporary documents show a clear rift with Pieresc because Kircher (unlike the generous scholar, Pieresc) refused to share his resources. Pieresc begged in vain for a loan, even for a copy of the Coptic dictionary which Kircher had acquired.  Kircher was – at that time at least –  fiercely competitive and somewhat vain, unwilling to consider views which threatened to eclipse his own, and not averse to using his personal influence to harm the reputation of any.  Galileo is the best known example, but Kircher’s letters constantly demean others – and Baresch was one recipient of such treatment.

Baresch’s ‘consignment’ arrived while Kircher’s mind was – for the moment –  all on volcanoes. He may have been absent from Rome when Moretus’ letter arrived, or busy preparing to leave.  Kircher was off to  southern Italy and Sicily and thereafter doubtless busy writing for the Knights of Malta his  “Specula Melitensis Encyclica sive syntagma novum instrumentorum physico-mathematicorum” (Messina, 1638).

And Kircher now became an antiquarian, collecting classical and ancient relics for the Roman College, to which he was by now formally attached.

So it  was very likely on his return, and while his head was still filled with Egyptian, with Volcanoes and with the marvels of ancient bibs and bobs, that the letter with its ‘libellum’ arrived asking his advice on some rough-looking text that vaguely resembled a bill and struck him, I think, as originating from a printed ‘Illyrian’ tract.  One can just imagine him dismissing it as shoddy, second-rate fake and not in the least like what he knew of either Coptic or ‘ancient’ Egyptian.

Nor does Kircher ever seem to have been greatly interested in medicine, though twenty years later he would write a tract on plague. “Scrutinium physico-medicum contagiosæ luis, quæ pestis dicitur” (Rome, 1658).

As he was at the age of thirty, being sent from the wilds of somewhere beyond Rome, and via a provincial Jesuit, this inclusion touted as a mysterious ancient Egyptian steganography was obviously (seen in retrospect) unlikely to impress.

When eventually he did write back to Moretus, he did not mention Baresch and indeed seems never afterwards to have spoken, nor to have responded to  mention of Baresch’s name. One gathers that after a few early attempts even mutual friends stopped trying to change Kircher’s mind on the point.

Marci’s last letter now omits the name of that ‘former possessor’ too.

In so many ways,  Kircher was still a man of the medieval world.  Until his last years,  he  believed that the world east of Suez had gained all its culture – its languages and religion – from antediluvian Egypt, either through one of Noah’s sons or (as he later thought) from an original Adam-ite heritage, China being situated beyond what Kircher calculated had been the tidal line of the biblical Flood.

Within that framework he set his own studies of languages which included Sanskrit and Chinese, encouraging in Rome language studies for Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaic, Syrian, Samaritan, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Persian, Ethiopian, Italian, German, Spanish, French and Portuguese.

Kircher was able to further his interests in language without that unlikely-looking manuscript owned by ‘some chemist’.

But later, or so it would seem from the apologetic tone that Marci would use in sending it in 1665, Kircher seems to have begun feeling some interest in the manuscript. Marci’s letter goes to the trouble of explaining that the ‘former possessor’ had been occupied till the end of his life in attempting to decipher the manuscript – as if that prevented the thing’s being simply commandeered.

About this time, the idea possessed Kircher that he might create or reconstruct a single universal language, an ur-language embracing all others. It was typically Kircher:  an idea on the grandest scale, far beyond the dreams of an  Esperanto.

I think it was this idea, rather than Baresch’s attributing the matter to ancient Egypt’s medicine, which awakened Kircher’s interest in the manuscript: his interest in medicine per se seems never to have been pronounced, and his  “Polygraphia seu artificium lingarum, quo cum omnibus totius mundi populis poterit quis correspondere” was printed in 1663, three years before he finally received the manuscript and thus – as it seems – when he began wanting it.

Kircher’s attempt at a universal multi-lingual speech was not the first. English itself is a polyglot, though one which evolved rather than being invented.  The Irish ‘Hisperica Famina’ is more like what Kircher aimed at.  Earlier still, in a play by Terence,  some Phoenicians are said to ‘know all languages but pretend to know none’, and indeed a couple of scraps that were dismissed during the nineteenth century as ‘magical gobbledygook’ pretending to be Phoenician have since  been found genuinely to be a polyglot religious litany – and one which reveals genuine knowledge of names for the Dea Syria or equivalent from India to Spain.

I shan’t digress on that point, but while I’m here, I might mention that in Kircher’s correspondence  are sketches  of what appear to be medallions or coins.  One is inscribed with the name of  Doclea, which is perhaps that on the Adriatic Sea  – but see end note.

Adjacent to that are other examples, one showing an unusual variant of what appears to be the Dea Syria, but if the drawing is to be trusted, the original melds two better-known types, one the lion-holder and the other known to the Romans as ‘Diana’ of Ephesus, distinguished by having her  chest covered with large pieces of amber (formerly supposed breasts).

Another of the sketches shows a seated figure on a wine-skin, which appears to celebrate the wine for which Doclea has long been famous, but  the type itself derives from the sort of  Hellenistic image inset – a personification of the traders’ ships, sometimes called a triton.

(I owe thanks here to a post on the old Voynich mailing list dated Jan 31st., 2009, where a member drew attention to the page from which these figures reproduced below are taken. It came from the  Kircher archives in the Collegium Romanum).

Kircher composite page

Assuming that Kircher had not  discarded Moretus’ letter of 1639 and its enclosure before the 1660s, then if one should find any echo of Voynichese or comparable figures, they should occur not much earlier than Kircher’s  Polygraphica.. or perhaps that tract on plague. There is no obvious sign of his having any earlier interest in the matter.

That Kircher kept in the manuscript, the letter sent with it by Marci may have been a personal reminder that his initial disdain and indifference had in the long run deprived himself of another potential victory and his friends of a kindness.

Kinner had written to Kircher in the last months of Marci’s life:

Dominus Marcus .. wishes to know through me whether you have yet proved an Oedipus in solving that book which he sent via the Father Provincial last year and what mysteries you think it may contain. It will be a great solace to him .. (1667)

Marci died, and Kinner too, without receiving any word of Kircher’s succeess.

I doubt that Kircher ever did succeed. He died in 1680.


As always – translations from the Latin are Philip Neal’s.

End note:

The Catholic Encyclopaedia notes existence of an old diocese of Doclea, (also as Doklea, or Dioclea in Phrygia of Asia Minor.

“A titular see of Phrygia in Asia Minor. Diocleia is mentioned by Ptolemy (V, ii, 23), where the former editions read Dokela; this is probably the native name, which must have been hellenized at a later time; in the same way Doclea in Dalmatia is more commonly called Dioclea. The autonomous rights of Dioclea are proved by its coins struck in the reign of Elagabalus (Head, Hist. Num., 562). It figures in the “Synecdemus” of Hierocles, in Parthey, “Notitiae Episcopatuum” (III, X, XIII), and in Gelzer, “Nova Tactica”, i.e. as late as the twelfth or thirteenth century, as a bishopric in Phrygia Pacatiana, the metropolis of which was Laodicea. Only two bishops are known, in 431, and 451 (Lequien, Or. Christ., I, 823). An inscription found near Doghla, or Dola, a village in the vilayet of Smyrna, shows that it must be the site of Dioclea, though there are no ruins.

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