In or around October 1637, the Prague alchemist Georgius Barschius decides to get help from Athanasius Kircher in Rome, in order to be able to read a MS that he owns, which is written in an unintelligible script. He believes that Kircher might be able to help because of Kircher’s investigations into the languages of the East, in particular Egyptian. He makes copies of the writing in the MS and has these sent to Kircher by the mathematician Theodor Moretus. This submission is part of a letter from Moretus to Kircher towards the end of 1637.
In March 1639, Kircher finally responds to Moretus, saying that he has received the mysterious writing, and has not yet been successful in interpreting it. This is the letter. (extracted from voynich.nu).
This letter has been claimed as the “missing link” that establishes a 1639 connection for the Voynich Manuscript. But is it?
No proper translation of this letter has yet been made, so I made one myself with my schoolboy Latin. The usual disclaimers apply. Here’s the original:
Reverende Pater in Christo
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.
Here’s the annotated translation
Reverend Father in Christ,
The offering your Reverence recently gave me (with what quintessential delight for me it is difficult to explain) comes into sight; Your Reverence obliged me by giving me this beautiful set, for our mutual benefit we compare (analyse) together, but even if we move forwards together to conquer, I expect you understand my wish for me to conquer [it by myself]; Certainly it is for this laudable prize that I offer my (herbs? mistranscription?), if my shortness does not mean that this is not permitted for it may be higher than I can reach. From “magnetic observations“, which offering it is mine to include to transmit to you, I extract its powerful vitality, that in one and the same sentence which comes together, whose magnetic character has been reported over the whole world, to make use of this whole Heracleotica chain, and so the ingenious conjoin with me in their orbits ? consent or so it seems to be that they were worthy of this chapter so that the honourable mention of my name be made public. 
As for the booklet containing steganographic  mysteries unknown to me, (whose letters were handcopied  | which you predicted good omens to my understanding of )
and sent to me, after brief examination, it was not so ingenious that it required a hard working Oedipus to solve it  I remember that I have upon various occasions paid the fine  of these written shrines , I rouse my talent to this now; I would try something (?) entirely, except that I have some pressing engagements which recall me from this unsuitable labour, however as soon as leisure permits, and such an opportune time should be reached, I am confident that my talents will permit the especially enthusiastic unloosening [of these secrets].
Finally the other leaf upon which are written types of unknown characters I observe are in the Illyric language, characters the printing of which I know are commonly called D. Hieronymi ; characters used here in Rome in various Holy Books and Illyrician printed sermons.
About the measurements of diverse areas , which we await with great expectation from Sicily and other places we have not yet received a response, [so] I am presently silent; when you receive any such letters would your Reverence proceed to send them on.
Nothing remains therefore from but to wish Your Reverence Holy Sacrifice and send my best wishes to all. Salvation in Christ to your Reverences and humble salutation from Athanasius Kircher to the Reverend Father Rectri and to the Reverend Father Santino and all other men.
- This rather self serving paragraph I have literally translated. I haven’t tidied up the phraseology due to time constraints.
- Steganographic! More below. Kircher also clearly separates this subject from the previous paragraph (as for the…) so we don’t have to worry about his magnetic observations book, that is a separate subject.
- which letters were handcopied and sent to me: Kircher does not have the original, he has an extract that was copied. Does he have the whole thing or just an extract? Unknown from the context. The use of “letters” suggests that he is aware there are illustrations that were not included in the copying. See point  for further discussion on the translation of this phrase.
- A strange turn of phrase “hard working Oedipus”. It occurs to me that he is quoting the term used by the person who sent him the original letter- this would be an indication of which letter he is referring to. Why would he call himself “a hard working Oedipus”?
- Not sure about the translation of this paying the fine bit, I think this is a phrase which I don’t know. Its meaning can be inferred.
- André Szelp: opinions that “shrines” refers to the concealment of text by encryption which has to be cracked, i.e. opened like a shrine/cabinet? In particular, in Latin “scrinium (neuter)” means ‘case, chest for a book’, so has a connotation with knowledge and writing which I agree with. Kirchner uses a non-standard gender form (feminine) “scrina”. The idea here seems to be that there is a chest of knowledge – ie, plain text hiding a secret message. I have come across the same concept in Spanish, ie, abrir el gabinete de los secretos para revelar sus secretos.
- Missing word in transcription
- Kircher is talking about the typeset used by printers in Rome for the Glagolitic alphabet. Read more about this here.
- The word pedes (which literally means feet, plural) can also refer to the base of a mountain or an indeterminate area of territory; they are talking about some surveying that crops up elsewhere, it’s not important to the manuscript.
- The traditional translation is “which letters were handcopied and sent to me”. But this reading would require Kircher to make two egregious errors. First he would have to misspell litteris (letters) as literis (good omens) (OK – not a big point at the time, I admit); secondly, he would have to misuse the word copiendum. It is argued that this word is a accusative gerundium of copiare and means “copying”, but it doesn’t make sense. Why would a fluent Latin speaker like Kircher make this mistake and say “which letters were handcopying and sent to me”? Instead, my alternate translation says that copiendum is simply a misspelling (or mistranscription!) of capiendum. Changing just one letter gives us: which you predicted good omens to my understanding of.
quem: msc sing accusative > who,what,which
literis: sec person sing pps > promise good omens to, to make an offering, make atonement to,
Capiendum : accusative masc sing > which is to taken on, which is to be understood
suis: (dative/ablative plural possessive)> its
Furthermore, this is the third time Kircher uses the word “Literis” in the meaning of offering or proffering in this letter, so it’s a word that’s on his mind.
- Kircher refers to two requests for information.
- The first is something that has been copied from a book and sent to him; he calls it steganographic writing. He does not analyse it, but says it would be easy enough, except that at the moment he has not the time; he promises to return to it when leisure allows.
- This strongly suggests to me that Kircher is not looking at something unintelligible like cipher text, but something with a hidden meaning. Steganographici as a word existed since Tristhemius’s 1499 Stagnographii. This book was on the Prohibited List of the Church so Kircher would not, as a devoted Jesuit, have been able to read it; notwithstanding that, there were several popular books examining the work that weren’t banned and were freely available. As a linguist and a mathematician, Kircher would certainly be aware of the difference between steganographici and descifrando – he uses the latter term in his 1665 letter to Marci (see my translation and analysis of that letter here).
- The second he identifies as a sheet of Illyric (Croatian) writing. It has been assumed, since he is comparing them to a printers typeset, that he has a printed sheet in front of him; I do not make that assumption as the word used in talking of the writing does not have any particular connotation of “manuscript or machine”, unlike the second half of the sentence when the printed character is clearly implied. In any case, Kircher seems very sure of the identification.
- Kircher repeats an unusual phrase – hard working Oedipus. I am assuming that whoever sent him the papers flattered him by calling him that, and he is repeating the phrase in smug satisfaction. Is there a letter in which he is called that? If we find such a letter, it will link it to this response. Barschius repeats the phrase to him in a later letter sent after this one, so it’s starting to attach itself to him, but is Barschius in turn parroting the phrase from this letter in order to flatter Kircher? The term would be attached to Kircher by the public in the 1650’s after his many Egyptian books, but 1639 would be too early for the nickname to have been attached (unless Kircher is attempting, like the unpopular boy in the class, to make up his own nickname!).
Can we link this letter to the Voynich Manuscript; or even to the Baresch letter of 1637? Well, I think we are missing too much information to be definite on this. It is possible, but it is still a supposition.
The “other sheet” can, I think, be discarded, Kircher is very definite on it and it is not the VM from his description.
The transcription of a book he was sent? The word staganographici, together with “a shrine of text”, worries me. It implies that the cover text was legible and had an apparent meaning, but that there was a hidden message to those who could “open the doors” and read it. That would not fit the VM, which was later to be described by Kircher himself as encrypted (he uses a definite term in 1665, decrypting). Furthermore, Kircher made no attempt to identify the alphabet or suggests that it is unknown (unlike in the next paragraph, where he does so for “the other sheet”), which seems to indicate that the alphabet was recognisable to all parties concerned. Again, this hinges entirely on the use of one word; but if Kircher had a choice of terms to use (encrypted or steganographic), and as a prominent linguist and mathematician, why use the more obscure term?
What I think we can take away from this letter is that in 1639 Kircher replies to Moretus saying he’s glanced at a handwritten excerpt or copy of a book he has been sent; that it is steganographic; that he has solved such problems before and is sure he could solve this one, except that he’s quite busy at the moment.
And we know that 17 month before Moretus was asked to pass on a handwritten excerpt from a book we assume to be the Voynich Manuscript to Kircher for his analysis. 17 months for this request to go across Europe across three parties, be looked at, then replied is not overly excessive I suppose, although it would far outlive my attention span in our digital age. Correspondents in the Republic of Letters were used to waits of months for their letters to be sent and replied to, and Barschius was not a member of the Republic, but acting through Moretus as his intermediary. Kircher had spent several months travelling around southern Italy in 1638, although I don’t know at which end; no doubt a lot of correspondence built up at the Colegio Romano for his attention when he returned.