“It belonged to a Jew, the son of Hamon…”


page from the Anicia Juliana codex


Thus Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, writing of the Anicia Juliana codex, after seeing it in Constantinople and coveting it:

It belongs to a Jew, the son of Hamon, who, while he was still alive, was [court] physician to Soleiman.”

The following notes are for two reasons, apart from our present interest in Constantinople.

First because Alain Touwaide’s first impression on seeing the Voynich manuscript was that it resembled something from the iatrosophion genre: these being physicians’ handbooks used in Byzantine hospitals. [1]

and secondly because a frequent contributor to Nick Pelling’s blog (writing as “bdid1dr”) had earlier, and often asserted that the Voynich manuscript was among  those volumes acquired by Ogier de Busbecq –  who is described as an ‘avid collector’ –  and who determined to remove the Anicia Juliana codex from its physician-owner after seeing it in Constantinople.  That he was in a position to insist was due to his being imperial  ambassador to the Ottomans, and visiting Constantinople in that capacity in 1554 and again in 1556.

Ferdinand I

Though de Busbecq is said in his later years to have “observed the development of the French Wars of Religion on behalf of Rudolf II” ( king of Bohemia 1575–1608/1611), his active service had been to Rudolf’s predecessor, the Castilian Ferdinand I, who carried the title ‘King of Bohemia’  from 1526 until his death in 1564. I find no mention of de Busbecq’s ever having travelled to Prague in those years – but he might have done.

Ferdinand’s son, the unimaginatively named Ferdinand II, followed Frederick as ruler in Bohemia (1619–1637), by which time de Busbecq had died in Comines in northern France (1592).

Jakub Hořčický  of Prague was then less than twenty years old, having been born in 1575.

For those who are new –  Hořčický’s name,  (as Jacob of Tepenecz) is the first certainly linked to the Voynich manuscript, being written on its first folio.

(Photo Credit: © ORF)

However, the first person  indisputably to have had the Voynich manuscript in his possession was  Georg Baresch, also of Prague, who had it by the early decades of the seventeenth century.

Ferdinand III

Yet it was not the son but the grandson of de Busbeq’s employer  – (Ferdinand III) who in Prague, as king of Bohemia,  received instruction in the Bohemian language by  the sole and not-entirely-reliable source given for three assertions about the Voynich manuscript. That tutor, Mnishovsky, was said  by an ailing Marcus Marci, in an off-hand note written decades after the alleged conversation, to have said:

(i) the Voynich manuscript was carried to Prague by an anonymous traveller in the days of Rudolf II (ii)  Rudolf arranged for the traveller to be given 600 ducats  (iii)  the manuscript was written by Roger Bacon, the Englishman.

Mnishovsky could not have witnessed any such event – so what we have is the recollection of a long-ago conversation by an ailing man reporting what is at best a rumour, at worst a lie and certainly  of dubious  weight  as historical evidence.

A majority of researchers now doubt that 600 ducats would have been paid for any manuscript, let alone by Rudolf and certainly not for one as unprepossessing as Beinecke MS 408;  we know certainly that Roger Bacon couldn’t have written it personally, and so the persistent retention of the third unsupported item –  the  ‘Rudolf’ association – must be attributed more to sentimental attachment to the idea of Holy Roman emperors than to cool historical thinking, and it was a serious mis-judgement on the part of the Beinecke library to allow inclusion in a technical essay in their facsimile edition, of the gross overstatement that the Voynich manuscript  “was known [sic] to have been in Rudolf’s library”. It is alleged to have been alleged is what.

In one way or another those items of rumour might turn out to be true in some sense or another, but none has found objective or documentary support so far –  despite decades of determined effort by those devoted to a ‘Rudolf’ theory.

So it’s not for Rudolf’s sake that I’ve turned to links between rulers of Bohemia and medical works, or Constantinople. It’s because Constantinople is of interest for other reasons; and de Busbecq was there;  the Anicia Juliana codex belonged to palace physicians of Spanish origin … and Touwaide thought the Voynich manuscript looked somewhat like a Greek medical handbook. And as I pointed out some time ago, a page layout most unusual in Latin works finds its echo in the 6thC Anicia Juliana codex.

So.. the Hamons.

In the Ottoman Empire..

from alchetron.com

Mehmed II, the Conqueror (Fatih) reigned from 1444 to 1446. His father occupied the throne for some years, Mehmed returning in 1451 and conquering  Constantinople in 1453.

In documents of 1451-1481 he names as his appointed physicians –   Moses Hamon, Isak Pas a Galeon, Hekim Yakup, Ephraim Sandji and Hekim Abraham.

Some may have been physicians in Constantinople before Mehmed took it. Though records are sparse, we know that Rabbi Solomon Mahitari was physician to the Byzantine emperor when Benjamin of Tudela came to Constantinople in the twelfth century and Jewish physicians are often mentioned as preferred in the courts of kings. Further, the Anicia Juliana codex had been rebound in 1408 on behalf of a certain Nathaniel, termed an apprentice physician or attendant – ‘nurse’.

Thus it could, possibly, have been the possession of Jewish physicians in Constantinople’s palace and/or public hospitals even before the city fell to Mehmet. Court physicians  served as physicians in charge of the city’s hospitals in addition to court service as such.

Mehmed had also invited  Ashkenazi Jews of Transylvania and Slovakia to the Ottoman Empire, though the massive migrations occurred during the reign of his successor, Bayezid II (r.1481-1512), when again the Hamon family is mentioned.

Under Bayezid II:  (click to enlarge)

The next Ottoman Sultan, Yavuz Sultan Selim (r.1470 -1520)  again named  Joseph Hamon and his son Moses as his palace physicians. Both had come from Granada as refugees. Joseph was killed during the conquest of Palestine in 1516 but  Moses Hamon (b. 1490) was retained as palace physician under the next Ottoman ruler of Istanbul, Sulaiman I, ‘the Magnificent’. Their relationship to the Moses Hamon who’d earlier been appointed physician by Mehmed is unknown.

Suleiman ‘The Magnificent’ (ruled 1520- 1566). He named several others court physicians, along with Moses Hamon: Levi Migas, Tam ben David Yahya and his sons Gedalya Yahya and Joseph Yahya, Yehuda de Kugers, Moiz Butaril and doctor Menashe.

So, if we posit that the Anicia Juliana  codex, though owned by the Hamons, was made available to fellow palace- and hospital physicians, so its various inscriptions seem less heterogeneous: French, Greek, Arabic, Turkish  and Hebrew.  The Granada-born Moses Hamon  had in addition to Spanish –  Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Persian and (obviously)  Greek.

(Soliman had also brought the Jews of Ancona into the Ottoman empire on learning that the whole community was to be handed over to the Inquisition, by order of the current pope).

– Information on the Ottoman royal physicians from  this site.

I can’t agree with bdid1dr’s assertion that the Voynich manuscript is written in Nahuatl,  but her linking it to Constantinople and particularly to the environment of Byzantine court-and-hospital texts via de Busbeq’s link to the Anicia Juliana  is consistent with Touwaide’s observation.  At the very least this reminds us that we  do not know how the Voynich manuscript came to be in seventeenth century Prague.

It could have been brought there by de Busbecq as by anyone else – just as it might have come from Constantinople as from anywhere else.   We simply do not know.



[1] in which  field Touwaide is an expert.  Most examples date from the 17th-19thC.  That shown as our header is from Crete and is dated to the 16thC.  Iatrosophion:  “widely used in Byzantine and Ottoman Greece, was a physician’s notebook of recipes and treatments or was the collective compendium of classical and Byzantine medical and pharmacological texts consulted in hospital settings. Some iatrosophia included medical cures and drugs, but also spells, exorcisms, magic, astrology, and practical advice”. definition from S.M. Oberhelman,  ‘Iatrosophia and an eighteenth-century oneirokritēs in the National Library of Greece’, Medicina nei seoli, Vol. 21, No. 2 (2009) pp. 477-501.

Another potentially usefully source

  • Andreas Lardos, José Prieto-Garcia, Michael Heinrich. ‘Resins and Gums in Historical Iatrosophia Texts from Cyprus – A Botanical and Medico-pharmacological Approach’,  Frontiers in Pharmacology, (2011) pp. 2- 32. online.

  • btw. the ‘Georg Baresch’ wiki article is very poor  – e.g.
    • no, Baresch didn’t  say that the Voynich manuscript was ‘about Egyptian science.’
    • no, Zandbergen didn’t ‘locate’ Baresch’s letter – it was never mislaid;
    • In fact, Zandbergen saw it  online in the digitised  Kircher archive;
    • and – no, not ‘recently’ but in the 1990s.

    Neal’s translation of Baresch’s letter to Kircher,  with other valuable material on Neal’s website  (copyright 2002-2017).

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