Q: Who first said that? A: Wilfrid Voynich (Pt 1)

Intrigued by a short reference in one of Philip Neal’s invaluable pages, I’ve now read a paper that was delivered to the Philadelphia College of Surgeons by Wilfrid Voynich in 1921.

So many ideas still current about the manuscript and commonly repeated without reference to Voynich, find their origin in this paper and as a result, I think it fair to give the man his due, for whether right or wrong he was plainly ready, and able, to research the manuscript’s history.

Here are some of his original conclusions, observations and ideas – now repeated as commonplaces but in fact a result of his own labours.

“the collection [of manuscripts among which was the Voynich manuscript] had apparently been stored in consequence of the disturbed political condition of Europe during the early part of the nineteenth century” (p.415)

“it was such an ugly duckling…” (p.415)

“it was written entirely in cipher” (p.415)

“Even a necessarily brief examination of the vellum upon which it was written, the calligraphy, the drawings and the pigments suggested to me as the date of its origin the latter part of the thirteenth century.” (p.415)

“The drawings indicated it to be an encyclopaedic work on natural philosophy.” (p.415)

“The number of only two scholars who could have written on such a variety of subjects occurred to me: first, Albertus Magnus, whom I at once eliminated… because… it could not have been necessary for him to conceal any of his writings in cipher, and, secondly, the Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon…. [who] himself referred in his works to the necessity of hiding his great secrets in cipher.” (p.416)

“The fact [sic] that it was a thirteenth century manuscript in cipher convinced me that it must be a work of exceptional importance” (p.416″

“to my knowledge the existence of a manuscript of such an early date written entirely in cipher was unknown, so I included it among the manuscripts which I purchased from this collection.” (p.416 )


Now, here you see the laudable habit – all too rare in contemporary Voynich writings – of placing any written text in the boundaries set by the manuscript’s writing materials, drawings,  pigments and ‘calligraphic’ style. But on the other hand, Wilfrid here introduces a lamentable practice – all too common in contemporary Voynich writings – of failing to mark clearly the stages of accuracy from fact to observation, from observation to speculation, and thence to sheer imagination and story-telling.

He does not question his own first impression that the content of the manuscript, as well as its materials, derive from a mainstream Latin tradition, nor that the unreadable text is unable to be read because it is in ‘cipher’.

Both things might have been so, but neither is necessarily so.  Yet once these ideas were established (as they were in Wilfrid’s mind by 1912), they passed from pure speculation to being accepted as fact.  No proof of either proposition has ever been established, though the question of ‘cipher’ has been addressed readily, thoroughly and often during the century and more since Wilfrid presented his paper.

Wilfrid wisely passed the matter of ciphers over to persons better able to address it, but he was the first to recognise the importance of that other side of the question – establishing provenance.

He says, “for my part, I began to work on the less important but extremely fascinating problem of ferreting out the history of the work.”

It was Voynich who first published a translation of the letter addressed to Athanasius Kircher, and signed ‘Joannes Marcus Marci of Cronland’. (p.417)

Voynich provided first the valuable information that Marci was “among his contemporaries.. held in great repute as a physician, mathematician, physicist and orientalist, and he was rector of the University of Prague.” (p.417)

He records Marci’s date of death as April 10,1667 and notes that Marci joined the Jesuit Order a few months before his death. (p.417)

Now, this last indication of attachment to the Jesuits is of considerable importance, for the manuscript’s history provides this attachment as the item in common with all the persons known certainly to have owned the manuscript from the time it emerges in Europe in the seventeenth century after several centuries in which its whereabouts and movements are unknown.

Voynich does not much admire Kircher, though gives the eclectic scholar his due and more importantly, notes that:

“Marci had studied under [Kircher] in Rome”. (p.419).

Voynich is also responsible for the false impression often given even today that ‘someone’ would have inherited the manuscript after Kircher’s death.  This is not likely in the least.  Members of the Jesuit Order had no personal property save the clothes they wore. All else was deemed common property of the Order, and after a member’s death was resumed by the Order, unless it had been a temporary loan from some third person, an inalienable inheritance that the member was permitted to use in his lifetime, or unless the item(s) were resumed from the Order itself by Rome.

After Kircher’s death, all the books he worked from became part of the Order’s common property, and today it is generally believed the manuscript had remained in the Mondragone Jesuit College at Frascati until the need to preserve what they could under the forced acquisitions policies of the new Italian government led members to claim as ‘personal property’ such manuscripts as the law allowed them.

But because Wilfrid Voynich imagined that the manuscript which was sent as a gift to Kircher must have been bequeathed elsewhere upon Kircher’s death, Voynich soon passed on from recording his impressions to indulging in that habit that has bedevilled Voynich writing ever since, of asserting probabilities in order to provide chimerical support for some more ornate story-line. He writes:

“My impression  is that Kircher left the manuscript to someone at the court of Parma… and it probably remained in the possession of a member of the Farnese family until, with other manuscripts, it was removed to the collection in which I found it.” (p. 419)

Evidence? none – but modern Voynich writers might pause to realise that Wilfrid, at least, acknowledged his gaps:

“I have no direct evidence as to what Kircher did with the manuscript”.



More later, but you can read the whole paper online.

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