So why did Kircher ignore the Voynich Manuscript?

Inside the Voynich Manuscript (VM) front cover, Wilfred Voynich found a letter dating from 1665, written in Latin, which purports to be from Prague scientist Johannes Marcus Marci in 1665 in which he gave the manuscript to the Roman Jesuit priest and polyglot Athanasius Kircher. Kircher already knew about the manuscript, he’d been given copies of certain pages by one Georg Baresch in the 1630’s.

You can read my analysis of the letter here.

However, the question remains: why did Kircher never do anything with this book? We know he received it, because it appeared amongst some of his personal correspondence in 1873 in the private collection of P. Beckx.

It was not catalogued amongst his possessions when he died. It was never mentioned in his writings. Nobody has ever mentioned seeing it on his shelf. To all intents and purposes, he stuffed it in a drawer and never looked at it again, despite being reminded about it on one, possibly two, occasions by Godefrid Kinner on Marci’s behalf. He owned it, but he never put it in the main body of his work. Why?

Well, to answer this question, let’s look at who Kircher was, what he was doing in 1665, and if, indeed, this book would ever have interested him. (more…)

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The Marci letter found inside the VM

Inside the Voynich Manuscript (VM) front cover, Wilfred Voynich found a letter dating from 1665, written in Latin, which purports to be from Prague scientist Johannes Marcus Marci in 1665 in which he presents (gifts) the manuscript to the Roman Jesuit priest and polyglot Athanasius Kircher. This letter is the main provenance for the VM. It is archived at the Beinecke Library at Yale with archival number Beinecke 408A. There are other “Marci letters” found in the archives which may relate to the VM but these are peripheral to my analysis here (A very complete history of them is presented here.).

Let us remember that this letter was dictated to a scribe, the same scribe who wrote other independent letters for Marci at this time (according to independent analysis of different Marci letters).

This letter has been claimed as a fake by the “Voynich hoaxed it” proponents. This claim can be dismissed if the letter can be linked to the VM. The letter itself has been the study of several examinations by relevant experts, who say it is authentic. Of course, the letter could have been found elsewhere and inserted into the VM. So let’s see if we can link the letter to the VM.

The letter is transcribed as follows in Latin:

Beinecke 408A
Reuerende et Eximie Domine in Christo Pater.
Librum hunc ab amico singulari mihi testamento relictum, mox eundem tibi amicissime Athanisi ubi primum possidere coepi, animo des tinaui: siquidem persuasum habui a nullo nisi abs te legi posse. Petijt aliquando per litteras ejusdem libri tum possessor judicium tuum parte aliqua a se descripta et tibi transmissa, ex qua reliqua a te legi posse persuasum habuit; uerum librum ipsum transmittere tum recusabat in quo discifrando posuit indefessum laborem, uti manifestum ex conatibus ejusdem hic una tibi transmissis neque prius huius spei quam uitae suae finem fecit.Verum labor hic frustraneus fuit, siquidem non nisi suo Kirchero obediunt eiusmodi sphinges. Accipe ergo modo quod pridem tibi debebatur hoc qualecunque mei erga te affectus indicium, huiusque seras, si quae sunt, consueta tibi felicitate perrumpe. Retulit mihi D. Doctor Raphael Ferdinandi tertij Regis tum Boemiae in lingua boemica instructor dictum librum fuisse Rudolphi Imperatoris, pro quo ipse latori qui librum attulisset 600 ducatos praesentarit, authorem uero ipsum pu tabat esse Rogerium Bacconem Anglum. ego judicium meum hic suspendo. tu uero quid nobis hic  sentiendum defini, cujus fauori et gratiae me totum commendo maneoque.
Reuerentiae Vestrae.
Ad Obsequia
Pragae 19. Augusti
Anno 1665.
Joannes Marcus Marci a Cronland.

I present above the original text which I have re-translated below. The original and popular translation by Philip Neal can be found here. I have translated the letter afresh in order to a) improve my Latin and b) examine certain points of the letter in the original language. Here is my translation, with numbered bullet points inside the text which I discuss afterwards.

Reverend Lord Father in Christ

This book was relinquished to me by a singular friend in his will, soon after my possession began (1) I destined the same to you my dear Athanasius: indeed I am persuaded none but you can read it.     The then possessor has sent you letters seeking your judgement about it in which he transmitted his description of it, for he was convinced it could be read by you; the true book in which he put such untiring work into deciphering (2) he objected to sending, attempting to use the same experience (method) you are sent here not giving up hope until his life reached its final limit. But the effort was in vain, for such sphinxes (3) obey only their own Kircher. Please accept what was long due to you now as some small token of my affection for you, and may you break through its bars with your habitual ease.

Doctor Raphael, the Czech language tutor of King Ferdinand III as they both then were, once told me that the said book belonged to Emperor Rudolph and that he presented 600 ducats to the messenger who brought him the book(4). He, Raphael, thought that the author was Roger Bacon the Englishman. I suspend my judgement on the matter(5). You be the judge of what we should think about it. I commend myself to your favour, etc etc etc.

Notes:

  1. Neal’s translation reads ever since I first owned it I have destined it for you my dearest Athanasius. I read this as “soon after my possession began I destined the same to you“, for being present active in the infinitive. The distinction is interesting – how long has this book been in Marci’s possession? Baresch died in around 1662 and left his library to Marci (source and full biography of those involved here). So yes he could have sent the books to Marci, Marci receiving them in 62/63 and keeping them for a couple of years. As an old and ill man by then, Marci may not have gone through the whole catalogue for some time.
  2. discifrando is not in my Latin dictionary. It appears to be a neologism from Italian (or Spanish) and its meaning is clear: deciphering. Marci has used a very specific word here: not translating, nor reading. A word that is not in classic Latin, he had to search his memory for the exact word he wanted.
  3. Sphinxes (properly sphinges, but my auto correct changes this) is the plural of the sphinx, who in Egyptian mythology tells a riddle. Those who fail to solve the riddle are eaten. Kircher was at this time famous for his interest in hieroglyphics, and had just published his Oedipus Aegyptiacus (the final volume had just been published the year before). Is Marci appealing to his intellectual curiosity and making a pun here, or is he also thinking that the book is a human made riddle, rather than a straightforward translation from an unknown language?
  4. A complicated phrase, as Philip Neal notes. Read his explanation of the translation of this sentence here. I have copied the Neal translation of this sentence. But note this: once told me. Marci has discussed this book a long time ago with Doctor Raphael! More below.
  5. A very clear statement: I suspend my judgement on the matter. Marci is simply repeating what he has heard and has no comment on the matter.  But if Doctor Raphael (who died in 1644) discussed this book with Marci before his death, then this is at least 20 years before the book is sent to Kircher. Marci has known about this book for decades, and it has been interesting enough for it to remain in his mind this long time.

Some conclusions

From this letter, I think we can deduce the following points:

  • Marci is talking about a mysterious book whose previous owner has spent a lot of time and effort in “deciphering” (point 2). Not reading or translating but trying – and failing utterly – to decipher. He is talking about a suspected unbreakable code book. The previous owner was obviously obsessed with it, hence the phrase about not giving up hope until his death.
  • Marci has recently inherited this book and fairly quickly sent it on to someone who has corresponded with the previous owner on it before. Marci had little interest in it. (On the other hand, he may just not be admitting that he too tried and failed to do anything with it).
  • Marci attempts to explain why he is sending the book to Kircher: he thinks he is the only one able to decipher it. There is no mention of a request from the previous owner. He smoothly says that the book “is due” to Kircher, that only he can riddle the sphinx.
  • Marci repeats the story that he was told about the provenance of the book and makes it clear he is simply repeating the story.
  • Marci has known about this book for decades. Dr Raphael died in 1644, this letter was sent in 1665. But Marci says [he] once told me. Over 20 years before writing this letter, Marci was discussing this book with Raphael!

It seems clear that the letter refers to a very specific mysterious book that has intrigued several intellectuals during decades without an answer becoming apparent and here the torch is being passed to a new generation. Sound familiar?

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