The 1665 Marci Letter: A Forgery?

September 11, 2015

One of the keystone items of evidence used to support the claims that the Voynich Manuscript is a genuine, ancient work, is the 1665 Marci-to-Kircher letter which Wilfrid Voynich said he found in the book. But does this letter deserve the  important, foundational aspect it has been imbued with? Or is it rather a somewhat shaky document, with numerous troubling anomalies, which deserves to be questioned?

I will below list some of the letter’s problems. But first, let us look at what the letter tells us, and the claimed circumstances surrounding its discovery.

Wilfrid Voynich claimed he purchased his “Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript” from the Jesuits at the Villa Mondragone about 1911/12. This was the story he privately imparted to his wife, Ethel, but only to be revealed after her death. Before that, he claimed that the book was found, alternatively,  in “A castle in Southern Europe”, and “An Austrian Castle”. By the time Wilfrid exhibited his Cipher Ms. at the 1915 Chicago Exhibition, he was telling people that he had noticed the letter… sometime after purchase of the ms…. either attached to the inside cover of the book, and/or folded within it. The letter now resides in the Yale Beinecke Library, as part of the Voynich collection there.

This letter is the source of information for the rumor that the Voynich Manuscript was written by Roger Bacon, and also that it was brought to the Court of Rudolf II by a “bearer” who was given the enormous sum of 600 ducats.

Here are the issues and concerns I have:

1. Voynich said he paid little attention to it, at first: His claim is somewhat implausible, considering how stunning and mysterious the Voynich Ms. is, and seemed to be to him. So of course any included documents would have also been of tremendous interest. This, especially, considering that an even cursory scanning of the letter would reveal the phrase, “Rogerium Bacconem Anglum” (“Roger Bacon, the Englishman”, Philip Neal translation). I think his claim would actually suggest that this letter actually did not exist earlier, and so he needed to also claim he only noticed it at a later date… or how else would he explain not mentioning it earlier, to whomever he may have described, or shown, the ms.?

2: He walked out of the Villa with it: The Villa Mondragone was the repository of the Jesuit’s precious Kircher Carteggio, a 2,000+ item collection of correspondence, in 12 to 14 packages, between various individuals and their esteemed and iconic Athanasius Kircher. So we must believe that not only did Voynich not notice that letter inside his stunning find, but also that no Jesuit took the time to examine the work he was offering to purchase from them. At least, well enough to notice one of their precious Kircher letters was inside. On the contrary, I think this also suggests this letter was forged later, by Wilfrid (or someone else), to create, change, add and/or cement his desired provenance.

3: Marci held back information?: When reading the other letters to Kircher which are presumed by many to describe the Voynich Ms. (I would contend they are probably describing some other work, NOT the Voynich Ms.), i.e., the Baresch, Kinner and other Marci letters, it is clear that these men are very interested in getting an opinion from Kircher about this work. So then why would they not mention, and why would Marci wait to mention until his last, dying years, and only in his last request to Kircher, the important clues contained in that letter? Voynich’s 1665 Marci letter first mentions the rumor of Rudolf II buying it from a bearer, or otherwise paying that bearer, 600 ducats. And it mentions the guess that Roger Bacon wrote it! But confoundedly, Baresch, Kinner and a younger Marci fail to mention any of this to Kircher, for decades.

I would contend this implies that this information was made up, for a forged letter… and further, that that forged letter had to be dated much later than the others, because it would have been even more incomprehensible that the included information was not a part of earlier (and genuine) missives in the Carteggio.

4: That Latin: Many who are proficient in Latin have had difficulty with various aspects of the Latin phrasing and/or grammar in the letter. I know little about Latin, and cannot intelligently contribute to any translation. But I can point out that others have had trouble making heads-or-tails of it. This is not to say any of these people suspect the letter as I do, but of course I consider this an important observation. For instance, in the list of Philip Neal translations, this letter is the only one that demands “extra notes”, in some attempt to better understand the problematic logic of the Latin phrasing. Neal calls it “vexing”, in fact. I would suggest the logistical problems with this Latin phrasing are a result of a modern forger who was not proficient enough to create a trouble-free version.

5: The Folding: There were two basic ways a letter was prepared for delivery in the times before manufactured envelopes became available: One, the letter itself was folded into an envelope, with the writing to the inside and the address on the outside. Then this was usually secured with a “wax” seal, impressed while hot with the emblem of the sender. Another way was to fold the letter, but then place it in a dedicated envelope made from another sheet of paper or vellum, which was then addressed and sealed. The second way seems to have usually been used when the letter had writing on both sides, or one had multiple sheets. I have seen images of all the letters of the Kircher Carteggio, and the fold lines and seals make sense for one of these two uses. There are small variations in the size of the sections folded, or whether or not a flap is made for the seal, and so on, but they still make sense.

The 1665 Voynich/Marci letter seems different, and odd, in this area. So I printed out the 1666 Marci letter, and tried to fold it on its apparent fold lines. There are ways to fold it, but they do not make sense. It is as though the letter was trimmed down from a larger source, that was previously folded, with new fold lines added. The fact that the Beinecke lists the letter as being blank on the reverse (hence no address) does imply this was meant to be included in another sheet, folded as an envelope… but then, why are there seals on it? It has been suggested that the seals were used to attach this letter inside the cover, or some pages, of the Voynich… but this is also not a usual practice, and then, since the cover is considered newer than the book, and newer than the letter for that matter, why do the seals and their marks line up as though they were part of the letter itself, when folded?

I think these anomalies suggest that the 1666 Marci letter was created from another source sheet, which was possibly trimmed down. This source may have had seals on it for some purpose, perhaps as an unmarked envelope. Perhaps an original address was trimmed off, or erased. This source had some folds, but others may have been added to create what we see today… an odd format with seals and folds that cannot be made sense of. Related to this is the known fact that Voynich had access to a tremendous amount of blank paper from the end-sheets of books, and possibly other sources. In fact it is related both by James McBey, the famous etching artist, and Millicent Sowerby, a Voynich staff member and biographer, that Voynich sold ancient, blank paper to McBey.

6: The “Signature” & Date: It has long been known that the “signature” of Marcus Marci is not by him, as it seems to be different on his other, earlier letters. This has been explained by the fact that Marci was very old, and ill at this point, and some scribe wrote and signed the letter for him. But interesting to me is the almost pantographic ability of this scribe… because in the Kircher Carteggio is one, later, Marci letter, dated September 10, 1665, seemingly by this same scribe… but if so, why are the signatures an exact overlay?

Further, the year overlays perfectly, bringing to mind the consternating problem of old difficulty in determining if the Voynich-Marci letter was dated 1665 or 1666. This, because the last “5” lines up, but then it seems a small loop-closing line was made to this “5”, turning it into a pseudo-6. Could this be because a second-thought caused someone to think 1666 would be better? In a similar manner, the “10” of September 10th also lines up perfectly, but the Voynich-Marci letter has a tail, seemingly added to turn the “0” into a “9”.

1665 Voynich/Marci Letter

Opinions & Interpretations: Whether or not the Voynich Manuscript is a genuine 15th century cipher-herbal, I think the above problems and anomalies suggest that the 1665 Voynich/Marci letter was created to either change or cement a provenance and authorship which Wilfrid Voynich desired: To imply that his Cipher Manuscript was in the Court of Rudolf II, and that it was possibly a lost manuscript of the great polymath Roger Bacon. A motive could have been the tremendous potential increase in value, because while an interesting herbal of the time might have been worth as much as, say 1,000 pounds, Voynich wanted over $100,000 for his lost “Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript”. Helping feed his hopes may have been the excitement of the upcoming 700th birth anniversary of Roger Bacon, in 1914, and the surrounding media attention.

But if this is correct, I would contend it further undermines the case for authenticity of the Voynich Manuscript itself. It would not only further impugn the already shaky word of Voynich, so often relied upon for the little we know of his famous manuscript, but it would also leave the other letters, genuine and still in the Carteggio, supposedly describing the Voynich, as little isolated islands, barely describing anything close to the Voynich manuscript we see today. In fact, if we did not have this 1665 Voynich/Marci letter, no one would ever suspect the genuine Baresch, Kinner and other Marci letters would have anything at all to do with the Voynich Manuscript.


The Three Quire Theory

August 4, 2015

Over the last year or so I’ve begun to wonder if the bifolios of the Voynich Manuscript may actually be cut from some larger folio stock, which was originally in the form of three or four large, blank quires. If I am correct, I personally think the implications of it, and the opportunities afforded by it, are enormous.

The seed of this idea was in wondering just what form the blank vellum stock might have been in, if found by a 20th century forger. Somehow, finding a pre-bound, blank quarto-size book with 18 quires, and over 200 pages (as the Voynich is, today), not to mention fold outs, did not seem so likely. So I thought, perhaps the maker found a large, blank roll, or a stack of vellum. But after studying the problem, and noting various observations by others, I think the source may have simply been three or four blank quires, of 4 or 5 bifolios each. Here is a list of the observations which led me to this theory:

1) Odd Quire Numbers: The quire numbers of the Voynich have some notable problems. Nick Pelling, in his book, The Curse of the Voynich, has an excellent and very complete description of these numbers, and why they are somewhat unusual. He feels that some seem to be original, but some may have been added later, in different hands, and in an odd mix of styles. Nick even feels some were written with a steel nib pen, making them quite modern. But then one might ask, why would the Voynich have needed quire numbers added? That is, it is composed of 18 quires, so why didn’t the original creator originally use quire numbers on all quires? I began to wonder if this was because the source of the calfskin was from a limited number of quires… larger quires, cut down, but with some original quire numbers still being used. And then, there simply were not enough of them to number all of the Voynich’s 18 quires.

Also, the quire numbers are in an odd place on the Voynich, in the lower corner of the pages. According to the book Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Clemens & Graham, 2007), quire numbers are normally centered at the bottom of the first or last page of a quire. But in the Voynich, on the side, they are about where they would be if an existing, folio-size quire was cut into quarters, and folded. These resulting, smaller bifolios could be folded next to the original quire numbers, and they would end up near the edge or a fold of a page.

2) The size: A usual folio page, it turns out, can range from between about 12 inches to 16 inches wide, or even more, and be 18 to 24 inches high. The bifolios can be, therefore, 24 to more than 32 inches wide, and taller than two Voynich pages are high. This would mean that one could easily cut four Voynich’s quarto bifolios from one full size bifolio. Since one bifolio is two leaves and four pages, 16 pages could be got from one large bifolio. This then means that a five bifolio large quire could produce 80 Voynich pages, and so only three such quires would be needed to make the whole manuscript, as it originally consisted of 240 pages.

3) Fold outs: The somewhat anachronistic use of fold out pages, and folded “rosettes” map of the Voynich, have been noted by various scholars. It is either rare, or unheard of, to see such fold outs used in the 15th century. And so, for me, it has been one of those “Nagging Signs of Newness”, which I feel point to a modern origin of the Voynich. But beyond that, they make sense with my Three Quire Theory: Large folios would offer enough material, of the correct dimensions, to cut these from. Below see the rosettes fold out, laid against a (very) approximate large folio.

Was the Rosettes page cut from an existing, large, Bifolio?

Was the Rosettes page cut from an existing, large, Bifolio?

4) White edges: While I was mulling all of this over, Dana Scott related an interesting observation he made when he examined the Voynich Manuscript years ago: That some edges of the pages seemed to be much “whiter” than others, as though they were cut more recently than other edges, and therefore showing the cleaner inside of the animal skin. My thought was that perhaps this meant that the sheets were more recently cut along those edges, from larger stock, as per this theory. Dana did not note which edges looked lighter, but of course I would now be curious to know. And furthermore, if this theory is correct, it might be an aid to “reassembling” all the Voynich’s bifolios into the state they were before being cut.

5)  Repairs & Scars: A few days ago I was wondering at this theory again, and went back to read Mr. Pelling’s book again. I wanted to see what other clues it may offer… especially as I remembered that he had “virtually” lined up various scars and repairs, hoping they might be a clue as to the placement of the bifolios on the original skins they were cut from. Of course Nick and I have entirely different conclusions based on his observations, as we do on many issues. To make it clear, Nick does not support my forgery theories in any way. But his observation that certain repairs and scars on some bifolios seem to imply their being from the same source, and show their original relationship, as the repairs line up across them, supports not only his idea that some bifolios are from the same skin, but also, my idea they may be from the same, original, larger folios: Because Nick’s alignment not only allowed for the placement of some bifolios on the same skins, but even placed them both next to, and below and above one another! You can see this on his illustration on page 54, in Chapter 4, “Jumbled Jigsaws”, in which the bifolios f16r/f9r and f10v/f15r have tear repairs that line up, as thought they were originally next to one another. Then, on the ensuing pages, he shows how the f38v/f35r and f36v/f37r bifolios line up in a similar way, this time, on top of one another. Below I show the first example, with the approximate alignment of the repairs marked, as Nick notes. But rather than use Nick’s skin outline, I’ve placed these two Voynich bifolios on my speculative, larger, blank bifolio.

Conclusions, testing, and implications: Given the above points, I think it is plausible that the original source of the Voynich material may have been a few blank quires. I further think it possible they were found by Wilfrid Voynich when he purchased the Libreria Franceschini in Florence, in 1908. It was a vast repository of over a half a million items, from useless scrap, to valuable treasures, which were accumulated by the previous owner over a four decade span. It is not at all unreasonable to consider, I think, that a few unused quires might have been found among these mountains of materials.

"Dark Room" of the Libraria Franceschini

“Dark Room” of the Libraria Franceschini

And very importantly, if the Voynich was cut from larger, blank stock, originally in the form of blank quires, I think it can be proven to a reasonable extent. This can be done by the alignment of repairs, the position of the whiter (newer) cut edges, the relative thickness of the skin along those edges, the positions of the original quire numbers, and possibly other clues which would occur to one during such an attempt. And then, if this theory is found correct, I feel there is no reasonable alternative explanation to this having been done, other than that old, existing blank stock was used to create the Voynich as a modern forgery.

Pitfalls of Decipherment

July 26, 2015

I am barely a cipher amateur. Nonetheless, I’ve read and studied about many historical cipher attempts, both successes and failures, and over the last few years, and I’ve been privy to a great many decipherment attempts on the Voynich, both in public and in private. And so even if I have not made any significant decipherments of my own, the successes and failures of others have still taught me many useful signs of error in the process of decipherment. The failure of many of these attempts may be obvious to me and others, but is often not at all apparent to their proponents. This should not be so, as there is available a very simple two-step test one can use to determine a the correctness of any proposed solution. These tests are derived from several sources, but most notably the works of Elizebeth and William Friedman. Both of these conditions MUST be met in order for a claimed decipherment to be deemed correct:

1) Repeatability: If one can explain the system used, to a second person, and then they derive the same cipher text as the solution’s proponent, then part one has been passed.

2) Meaning: If the system is repeatable, as above, then the results must have meaning.

But the problem is that, in a very many instances, a decipherer believes they have met the above two-step criteria, and passed the test, when they have not. As I asked, why? It usually is because they have been trapped by various pitfalls, in which “ways around” the tests… although invalid… seem to obviate a need to meet those basic requirements, or convince them that they have met them. I’d call these “pitfalls” then, and are very dangerous. By not recognizing them in one’s own work, by stepping over or around them, one can become victim to spending huge amounts of life and effort continuing to work on what is a failed scheme.

List of potential pitfalls to decipherment:
1) Defending subjective input: It is normal, in many cases, for a decipherer to insert speculative plain text characters, words or phrases in order to test cipher schemes: Such as using the name of an item in an illustration, or a word which might make sense in the context of the work in general. But then a problem arises if the system is not seen as flawed when it needs to alter itself in order to allow for new results from new cipher text. That is, if the scheme needs to be altered to fit the new, speculative plain text, then this should be seen as a test of the scheme, and that the scheme has failed. It this “red flag” is missed, there is no limit to the complexities that that a decipherment scheme/system can grow to, in order to continue to adapt to speculative, desired, plain text. But we know the solution is wrong, because no cipher system needs to adapt for individual words. No matter how complex, a proper cipher will work consistently to decipher the text without needing to adapt as it progresses.

The signs to look for are if the decipherer will not try new text, and only sticks to small section of selected text. Another is if the system is not shared, often said to be “too complicated” for others, or if there is no expressed, relatable system at all. Sometimes a system is shared, but cannot be used to create meaningful text by a second party, and then this shows the solution is wrong.

2) Multiple Plain Text Choices: If at any point in the decipherment process, choices of multiple possible plaintext letters or words are needed, the number of outcomes quickly rises. The level of subjectivity in such decipherment schemes can be so high that many different translations of meaning, or near meaning, can be derived from the same cipher text. What to look for are charts with columns or rows of alternate “translations” for one cipher character or word.

Often the pitfall is that the translator has a concept of what they think the content is, or should be, so then the choices they make for the output don’t seem subjective to them, but the only logical possibility from the many variations conceivable during the process. In these cases, a proposer may believe the “repeatability” requirement must be bent, as there needs to be a mutual understanding of what choices should be made in the process, and that the original users of the cipher would possess that understanding. Another excuse is that the original creator alone possessed the necessary understanding, as they never intended anyone else to read the plain text. They then feel that, possessing this understanding, they alone come to the proper results. This is a dangerous pitfall, as there is really no way to convince oneself, or others, that this is unlikely to be the case. But it is  historically unknown as a concept, if that helps.

Another good test is falsification, as if many other results can be derived by using other choices of characters, then at the very least it should be apparent that any particular results cannot be known if correct or if in error. That is, any such results are virtually indistinguishable from guesswork, and therefore, the solution can be assumed incorrect.

3) Anagrams: Similar to the above, if any string of plain text results needs to be reordered to derive meaning, the chance are the derived meaning is purely speculative on the part of the decipherer. It is true that anagrams have historically been used to hide information, but rarely used to hide it in a way that another person could readily derive the meaning without help. This is a common misconception about various historic uses of anagrams, such as those by Roger Bacon and Galileo. They were using anagrams to insert a “watermark” of sorts in the test, so that they could later reveal that they were privy to some knowledge, so that they could later claim precedence to that knowledge, but without revealing it to unwanted eyes. But the purpose was not for another party to discern the meaning on their own, as it needed help from the creator to find it.

But if for whatever reason anagrams might be suspected, after only a few characters the possible translations quickly rises beyond any sensible use of hiding plain text, since many alternate plain texts can be derived from even short strings of plaintext characters. This means it becomes purely subjective, and almost from the start of the process. This was one of the pitfalls that William Romaine Newbold fell into, when attempting to decipher the Voynich Manuscript cipher text.  He derived long strings of characters, from which he, or really anyone, could assemble some resemblance of meaningful text. Newbold was assuming Roger Bacon content, however, and so he manipulated his anagrams until he found it.

4) Small Set of Input/Output: If a scheme seems to work for a select few words, usually under 20 (and rarely approaching it), and then the decipherer stops attempting their scheme on new words, it then becomes a pitfall. There are several such claims of translation, some of which have made it into mainstream media. In order to avoid this, one must make certain that their scheme continues to work on a larger set of cipher words, and that they do not stop at early, perceived, “successes”. Likewise, for those attempting to determine the validity of such small set solutions, they should first insist that the proponent apply their method to a larger set (editors and producers take note). Until they do so, the solution should not be taken seriously.

5) Lack of plain text meaning: This is only a pitfall if it is not seen as a failure of a decipherment, as per the two step test at the top of this post.

It is of course easy to translate the Voynich text, or any cipher I suppose, in a way that produces “something”. But if that something has no discernible meaning, it is wrong. The pitfall comes when one does not accept that this lack of meaning exists, or that it is important. For the former, one may think the encipherer must have had a meaning in mind for the resultant ramblings; for the latter, that it is simply not a problem that there is no meaning- that is, they simply do not address it, to themselves or to others. But if one wants to self test their scheme, or the scheme of others, then lack of meaning is a sign of an incorrect solution.

Nonetheless, there are many claimed solutions which produce meaningless text… in the case of the Voynich, this almost always involves long strings of repetitive words and phrases, as the cipher text of the Voynich has much repetition. It is often claimed that these meaningless solutions must be either song, chants or poetry we don’t understand, or lists of recipe ingredients or formulas, which we simply do not know how to use due to our modern viewpoint. In reality, they are simply gibberish, and not the solution.

6) False Patterns: It is human nature to seek, and then find, patterns in randomness. But the ability can become a pitfall when left unchecked in the practice of decipherment. This pitfall not only arises in seeing patterns in the text, but in illustrations, also. And a very good self-test is, again, if the results have meaning. There has to be a greater context for the pattern, or it is probably purely subjective. If one does not make an attempt to find that greater context, or diminishes the importance of doing so, they may never see the error in the scheme. But also, like many schemes which are vulnerable to subjective errors, a pattern may be “seen” which matches a preconception for meaning and context, and this then is mistakenly thought to be validation of the pattern. Another good check in that case is falsification… that is, seeing if other patterns can be also found, with other meanings, in the same text or illustration… by oneself, or better yet, by others. If they can, then there is no way of knowing which one, if any, may be correct, and the solution is in error.

7) Skipping the process: This is rare, but there are cases of decipherers simply inserting plain text for cipher characters or words, purely speculatively (or maybe loosely based on some belief of what the Voynich may be about): This can be food sources, if one thinks it a cookbook; or chemical names, if one believes it a formula book; or maybe herbal and plant names, if one believes it a pharmacopeia. Great lists of meanings for characters or words may be offered. The tests as usual are repeatability and resultant meaning, but these are often avoided in this case. One case I’ve seen is that the proponent wrongly claims repeatability because of anyone using the list will arrive at the same exact results as they do. But the point being missed in this case is that the list is the decipherment, and the list must therefore be repeatable, and is not. And so, repeatability has actually failed. Another danger is that one may simply surmise there is a missing code book that was originally used to derive the lists of meanings; and that the results are (again) simply not understandable to a modern mind. But if one is objective, and realizes that any list of words can be substituted for one’s own (for any speculative code book), and that any results can be claimed meaningful, as in #5, they will see the error, and so can avoid this pitfall.

Conclusion: There are many historical, and even contemporary, instances of decipherment attempts which have consumed large portions of their proponent’s life and effort. In the case of the many failed Baconian theories, several individuals spent decades in a fruitless pursuit of hidden meanings in Shakespeare’s texts. But there are many other cases like this, and unfortunately even in our time. The Voynich cipher has engendered many dozens, if not hundreds, of its own instances of this unfortunate effect. I’ve personally witnessed several cases in which very brilliant and sincere people have fallen into the traps I relate above, and so are expending their precious life energy, year after year, to baseless chimeras so easily avoided- if but a small amount of careful introspection would be applied. I offer my observations, above, as a well-meant and helpful warning to them.

The Origins of the Dee Myth

July 22, 2015

A commonly recurring element of the Voynich provenance story is that the famous astrologer, alchemical and seer, John Dee, probably owned the manuscript, and brought it to the Court of Rudolf II in the late 16th century. This anecdote is not only related in just about every article on the subject of the Voynich, but it is also used as a supporting argument for the rumor in the 1665 Marci letter, which states that a “bearer” was given 600 ducats when they brought the book to the Court. So in effect, the Dee story is also used as a supporting argument for the speculative provenance from the time of Rudolf and later. But where did the Dee rumor originate? What is its basis? Are we correct to place any weight on it at all? It is true that Dee owned a vast library, kept at his home at Mortlake, but do we know the Voynich Manuscript was among the books there?

John Dee, From Bolton, 1904

John Dee, From Bolton, 1904

The earliest reference to the Dee ownership can be found in Wilfrid Voynich’s lecture, A Preliminary Sketch of the History of the Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript. He presented it to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, on April 20th, 1921. And not just this Dee reference, but almost the entire skeleton of the manuscript’s provenance was laid down by Voynich on that day. Much of what he said there is still regarded as a solid starting point for any understanding of what the Voynich is, and where it came from. I don’t believe that the trust in this source is at all warranted, and the Dee portion of it is just one good example. In the lecture, Voynich relates that Dee owned various Bacon works in his library, and adds,

“It is, I think, also reasonable to deduce from these facts that in the collection of Bacon manuscripts, which unquestionably came into his possession as early as 1547, he found the cipher manuscript.* The sequence of events which suggest themselves is that, having failed to decode it, he carried the manuscript to Prague, where he parted with it as a “present” to Emperor Rudolf.”

The footnote in the transcription explains the evidence Voynich uses to support this contention,

” * Perhaps it is to this cipher manuscript that Dr. Arthur Dee (John Dee’s son) refers in the following: Sir Thomas Brown relates in 1675 to Ashmole, “That Dr. Arthur Dee (speaking about his father’s life in Prague) told about . . . book containing nothing but heiroglyphicks, which book his father bestowed much time upon, but I could not hear that he could make it out,” Fell-Smith (Charlotte), John Dee, pp. 311-312″

That is Voynich’s interpretation of the Brown statement to Ashmole, and which has been repeated hundreds of times. It is the core of early belief that the Cipher Ms. may have been Dee’s, then went to the Court of Rudolf II with him, and so on. But I wanted to read the quote by Brown, exactly, so I downloaded a copy of Fell-Smith’s 1909 book, John Dee, (1527-1608). Here is the entire statement written by Brown, to Ashmole,

“I was very well acquainted with Dr. Arthur Dee [John Dee’s son], and at one time or other he has given me some account of the whole course of his life. I have heard the doctor say that he lived in Bohemia with his father, both at Prague and other parts. That Prince or Count Rosenberg was their great patron, who delighted much in alchemie. I have often heard him affirme, and sometimes with oaths, that he had seen projection made, and transmutation of pewter dishes and flaggons into silver, which the goldsmiths at Prague bought of them. And that Count Rosenberg played at quoits with silver quoits, made by projection as before. That this transmutation was made by a powder they had, which was found in some old place, and a book lying by it containing nothing but hieroglyphicks ; which book his father bestowed much time upon, but I could not hear that he could make it out.”

What jumped out at me was that the portion of the quote which Voynich left out of his footnote, “That this transmutation was made by a powder they had, which was found in some old place, and a book lying by it…”. Why was that important point omitted by Voynich?

A telling problem with Voynich’s hopeful claim is that the book referenced by Brown is the same book described in Bolton’s 1904 Follies at the Court of Rudolf II,  which is a book Voynich admits to being intimately familiar with. On pages 6 & 7,

“The fame of Dee and Kelley as magicians spread rapidly, and was enhanced by their claims to success in the manufacture of gold from base metals, a claim that ill-accorded with the chronic poverty in Dee’s household. The Philosophers’ stone used in transmutation had been found by digging in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey [Arthur Dee’s “some old place”], together with a book explaining the process, written by St. Dunstan, the same:— ‘who in his cell’s repose; Plucked the devil by the nose.'”

This ridiculous story then seems to stem from the various legends associated with the ruins of Glastonbury, combined with the background of Saint Dunstan, “As a young boy, Dunstan studied under the Irish monks who then occupied the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Accounts tell of his youthful optimism and of his vision of the abbey being restored.” This, combined with the fact that, “He functions as the patron saint of goldsmiths and silversmiths, as he worked as a blacksmith, painter, and jeweller.”

I’ve no interest or need to track down how this legend morphed into an interest for the nefarious alchemists of the Court of Rudolf II, or into someone’s attributing some old book and bit of red powder to Saint Dunstan, supposedly found in the ruins of Glastonbury. Rather, suffice it to say that Voynich would have known the Dunstan book was the same one inaccurately referenced by Brown, to Ashmole, in 1675; that his knowing this is backed up by his conveniently leaving out the parts which showed that this reference was actually to an alchemical transmutation text and NOT his cipher ms.; or that it was a book claimed to be by Saint Dunstan, and clearly not by Roger Bacon. Voynich obviously knew all this, from what he says he read (Bolton, Fell-Smith), so hinting that the book Arthur Dee referred to could be Wilfrid’s Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript was a purposefully disingenuous reference. But doing so was probably considered safe by Voynich, based on the hope that the Thomas Brown book, and the Dunstan book, would not be correlated. He was right: it was not connected, to my knowledge, until I noted it several years ago, so his faith in doing so was borne out.

Glastonbury Abbey, but no Voynich Ms.

Now knowing that the source of the John Dee ownership rumor was simply invented by Voynich, and backed up by an purposely incorrect reference, leads us to the question, “Why should we think John Dee may have owned the Voynich Manuscript, and possibly brought it to the Court of Rudolf II?”. It turns out there is no reason at all. Well, unless one would like to say it is because Dee owned a library, or “might” have been interested in such a book, or visited the Court. But that is a very thin nail to hang one’s heavy coat of provenance on, as there were many libraries, many interested in the occult, and certainly very many book owners went to the Court. So really, knowing the clever misdirection of Voynich in that 1921 lecture was the only reason at all to look to John Dee, there is actually no reason to leave “Dee’s ownership” in the slim thread of Voynich provenance.

Sowerby’s Philippovitch

June 2, 2015

In E. Millicent Sowerby’s 1967 autobiography, Rare People and Rare Books, she gives us a wonderful insight into the world of bookselling in the 20th century. We are lucky that she includes a vivid description of her time with Wilfrid Voynich, his personality, and the workings of his concern just before WWI. Such descriptions are scarce, and when found, are often sketchy and inaccurate- such as Orioli’s (of Davis & Orioli, Booksellers) description of Voynich in his 1938 work, Adventures of a Bookseller. In contrast to this unfortunate case, Ms. Sowerby has done a great job in coloring out a seemingly accurate portrayal of Wilfrid, Ethel, and the many friends and associates who passed through the London offices.

And Sowerby is an impressive figure in her own right. She prepared the bibliography of the Thomas Jefferson collection for the Library of Congress, and before that, became the first woman in an expert workforce of an auction house, Sotheby’s. Her career in books spanned 30 years, including her stint with Voynich, Birkbeck College, Sotheby’s, The American Art Association, The New York Public Libary, the prestigious A. S. W. Rosenbach booksellers, and finally her magnum opus, the Jefferson Catalog for the LOC. She knows the field, and was a fortunate witness and recorder of what it was to live a life in this world. So it is with great interest that I read her chapter on Voynich, over and over again, to see what clues to his life and activities I can glean from it. And thanks to the modern internet, it becomes possible to fit Sowerby’s view of events against what we now know happened at her time, if maybe just out of reach of her understanding.

One such case is that of a mysterious “Mr. Philippovitch”. Sowerby relates that many different associates of the Voynich’s passed through the London office… various outcasts and possible revolutionary compatriots of Wilfrid, but this Philippovitch was a bit different: He was described by Voynich as the manager of his Florence branch, the Libraria Franceschini. This interested me most of all, because Voynich’s operations in that branch are somewhat clouded. He purchased it in 1908, left it by WWI, and it is unclear when he sold it (one account says about 1921). Considering it had over 500,000 items, for which we have no description, let alone any catalog, and the ultimate dispersal of which is unclear, I have been trying to find out anything I can about it. Certainly I was interested in finding out more about the branch manager, if I could.

My most recent attempt paid off: It turned out that Mr. Philippowitch is actually Tytus Filipowicz, a Polish national, and one of Voynich’s fellow anti-Tsarist revolutionaries. It was the version of his name that confused me, and as you will see, may have confused Ms. Sowerby also, who seems unaware of the man’s other accomplishments outside of bookstore manager and Revolutionary foot soldier. In fact, he became the first Polish ambassador to the United States.

But Sowerby’s knowledge of the man was reliant on what Wilfrid was willing to share with her. He was understandably secretive about his associates from that part of his life… the underground Revolutionary side of his life… and Filipowicz was a case in point. When Millicent had asked Wilfrid if she could go to Florence and catalog the Libraria’s books, considering it a potentially fantastic adventure, he refused her. And the excuse he used was Filiopwicz, “… he gave me as his chief reason that I should inevitably fall in love with his manager, and he with me!”. What Wilfrid failed to mention was that Filipowicz was actually married at the time (about 1911), and had been since 1908, and that his wife was actually in Florence during this time! But it seems, to poor innocent Ms. Sowerby, as she says “As I was young and unmarried, I could not see any objection to this, but Mr. Voynich was adamant”, the idea that anyone would suggest the possibility that a married man might become her love-interest had not occurred to her.

And when she did meet Tytus, she was somewhat wowed by him. She tells us, “When I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Philippovitch I quite saw the point. He was definitely one of the most fascinating men I have ever met. Tall, handsome, with charming manners, and moreover the Manager of a rare book shop in Florence– what more could anyone want.” Well, if she knew, I would guess she would have wanted a single man.

Years later, by my estimate about 1914/15, Millicent was at a party in London. She had not been an employ of Voynich’s for a couple of years, but at the party were Mr. & Mrs. Garland. Herbert Garland was manager of the London office, while Wilfrid was in New York City. She still had Filiopowicz on her mind, and asked Mrs. Garland about him, “After talking about him for some time, she took me aback somewhat by saying, ‘I wonder how she is and the baby'”. It was explained to her that Filipowicz had married “a Polish girl who in a burst of enthusiasm had shot a high Russian official. She had been rescued from the resulting predicament by an Austrian gentleman, who had made a ‘white marriage’ with her, thus giving her Austrian citizenship.”

Of course now it was possible to learn who this “Polish girl” was, and I was even more impressed by her story than Millicent was: She was Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz, code name “Alinka”: Polish revolutionary fighter, would-be assassin, writer, editor, entrepreneurial publisher, and later a hero of WWII, as a pivotal member of Zagota, assisting in the escape of many Jews from Warsaw. After the War, she was active in the Warsaw reconstruction efforts.

Millicent got a few things wrong in relating these stories, and part of my interest was in trying to determine why that was. There can be many such reasons for this, in cases like this: Reluctance of the relater’s sources to reveal details, for one reason or another; a long passage of time between their being told the story to when they finally put it down on paper; and possibly, in some cases, a personal reason on the part of the relator to omit or embellish facts on their own. I get the sense from her book, though, that Millicent was not the type to shape an account to her own purposes. She seemed a very sincere, forthright narrator to her understanding of events. So I looked at the discrepancies, and tried to determine how they may have happened.

As for the belief that Wanda Filipowicz “… in a burst of enthusiasm had shot a high Russian official”, she was wrong with the “shot” part. Wanda, along with two associates, had actually dropped three bombs from a balcony onto the motorcade of one Georgi Skalon, who survived. No doubt she was “enthusiastic”, however: She was of course filled with hatred for the Russians, for both patriotic and personal reasons, not the least of which her previous husband had been tortured at their hands. And once released, he committed suicide. And one can imagine that while being told of her attempting an assassination, by Mrs. Garland, Millicent may have assumed a gun, and not bombs, were used.

As for Tytus Filipowicz, there are to me more troubling implications to her errors, but not with the fine Ms. Sowerby herself. Well, in the case of an earlier story about Tytus, that he had to be spirited away to the Continent by Mr. Garland and Mr. Voynich, in order to avoid extradition from England by the Russian police, she told of his joining the “Austrian Legion”. In point of fact, he, “In 1914–1915, he fought in the Polish Fifth Infantry Regiment of the Polish Legions.” I wrote to my friend Greg Stachowski, who is well-versed in the military history of Europe, to see why there might be this discrepancy. His explanation clears it up,

“… the Polish Legions were established by Pilsudski in 1914 in the Austrian-controlled partition of Poland. Nominally they were an independent unit of the Austrian army, hence Sowerby’s mistake (she probably wasn’t all that aware of the details, and in the 60s in the Cold War it was not something the Soviets particularly publicized).”

But then I come to the difficult problem of Voynich telling Sowerby she could not go to Florence, because she and Filiopwicz would fall in love, and not, apparently, telling her that he was married. And, also not informing her that this unnamed wife was actually in Florence, while he was supposedly the manager of his bookstore there. Wanda Filipowicz was, “… since 1911 in the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts. 30 May in Florence in 1913 was godmother Monica , the daughter of Stefan Żeromski. In Florence, she and her husband representative of the Temporary Confederated Independence.”

But there is more to the story than this simplistic admonition from Wilfrid, and so in understanding the situation, I can speculate on a possible motivation to the deceit on his part. First of all, in calling Mr. Filiopwicz his “manager” of his Libraria, I think is downplaying the man’s larger roles. For one thing, before, during and after the time Filipowicz was in Florence, supposedly “managing a bookstore”, he was actually writing. He wrote, “Poland and Autonomy” in 1907; “Political Dreams” in 1909; “The Problems of Progress” in 1910; “Confidential Documents of the British Government concerning the Insurrection in Poland 1863” in 1914. But Millicent, it seems, did not know this. She did not know much about Filiopowicz, trusting Voynich and Garland for her sources, and, I think, not making a connection between her “Philippovitch” and “Filipowicz” by herself, or she would have colored out her description with his other, many, accomplishments. Certainly she would have been interested to learn that “her man” had become the Polish Ambassador, and may have been in Washington D.C. while she was working at the Library of Congress.

Polish Ambassador Tytus Filipowicz, right of center

Polish Ambassador Tytus Filipowicz, right of center

In my opinion, these anomalies are because of an attempt to keep her from poking around Florence, and have more to do with the possible, actual, role of the Libraria, than with any worries Voynich would have had about Tytus Filipowicz himself. The thing is, before Voynich purchased the store in 1908, it had been a working enterprise for decades, under its founder, Franceschini. And as such, it was not simply a quirky little bookstore (as Helen Zimmern attempted to portray it, and its founder, in her article), but a meeting place for left-wing activists and intellectuals. I have to wonder if its role as such continued under the auspices of Wilfrid Voynich, and that his reluctance to allow his unknowing Millicent Sowerby to be privy to such operations… which she surely would have been, working long hours there, digging through the mountains of interesting items.

That is, I think his ruse was to protect the Libraria as a Revolutionary operations center, a meeting house for activists, and maybe, a safe-house of sorts. And I do muse on an even darker, more secret use of this establishment, which is so far only the loosest of theoretical germs in my mind. This is of course all speculation on my part, and part of a much larger story I’ve been accumulating information for, and for which I think this little innocent and interesting anecdote our wonderful and trusting Millicent Sowerby has preserved for us. It is, to me, a “toe in the door” of what was really going on there. If not for her, that is, we would have no clue about Voynich, nor his relationship with Tytus and Wanda Filipowicz, nor their relationship with the Libraria. And I think Wilfrid Voynich would have liked it to stay that way.

Palazzo Borghese in 1822

Palazzo Borghese in 1822

Inking Pox Leber

May 31, 2015

There are several issues to address in this post, although they are intertwined: Certain characters in the Voynich which may read “pox leber”, the ink which was used to write them, and the various evidence behind both. But as is usual in many of these cases, the story of the inking of “pox leber” is, to me, more about the reaction to the evidence, than anything the evidence alone may be able to tell us. But still, the evidence itself is pretty cool.

Above you can see the characters referred to. They are the first “words” on the last page, f116v, of the Voynich Manuscript. That page only has a few lines, which use some Voynich characters, yet also intermingle them with Latin characters, and possibly Christian crosses meant to be word dividers… such as was commonly done in the distant past. I should interject here that I do not know what these words may be, or if they are words at all. On that, I’m pretty much sitting on the sidelines.

The reason it mattered little to me what this is, or when it was put there, is because the last page writing was long assumed by many to have been added at a later date, by a different person, than the main writing of the manuscript. It was considered be in a different style, or “hand”, with different content (which it does have), and also, for that matter, to be different than the other Voynich marginalia. So really who put it there, and when, and what it is, would have little bearing on any theories. Or so I thought.

First I’ll point out one of the more prevalent theories about this last page marginalia. At the Voynich 100 Anniversary Conference in Frascati, Italy in 2012, one Johannas Albus gave a lecture on his idea that this marginalia was a recipe,

“The present paper presents a new transcription and tentative reading of this text. It is written in a mixture of mostly Latin, some old German (and two unreadable words in Voynichese) representing the memorandum of a medieval medical recipe. The rather abbreviated style of the Latin words is typical for such a recipe. With the illustrations on the margin referring to the text, the recipe´s ingredients as well as the title point out to a wound plaster with a billy goat´s liver as its main remedy.”

And Albus is using “pox leber”, in the sense of “bocks leber”, or “billy goat’s liver”. I didn’t, and still don’t, necessarily have an opinion as to the plausibility Mr. Albus’s theory. Well maybe as far as to feel it loosely falls into the category I’ve often noted: Something looks a lot like something we know, but is just different enough to keep us guessing as to what it really is. But his claims did get him into the conference, and are interesting, and are accepted as plausible by many. And I was and I am fine with that. But then an interesting and unexpected thing happened.

The first inkling (pun) I had that something was up about pox leber was after I tried to track down the first use of the phrase. I was surprised to find that “pox leber” also grabbed the attention of at least one early 20th century scholar, who was studying the works of the poet Hans Sachs. In a discussion on the Voynich Mailing List in September 2014, a link to a blog post was suggested: The author of that blog wrote,

“In a philosophy thesis submitted to the University of Wisconsin in 1902, Charles H. Handschin references the phrase from a poet, “Ey, schendt sie pox leber und lung” and equates “pox” to “bock(s)” (buck/male animal/Billygoat) which, in turn, he equates to “teufel” (devil). It brings to mind the image of a man-goat (satyr).

“Handschin’s interpretation of a 16th century phrase might shed light on the meaning of pox leber, or it might be a stretch to assume similar meanings. Perhaps the VM is not “pox leber” at all, but “pox, leber, und lung” as in pox, liver, and lung but with minimal punctuation as is common to quickly written notes and many older manuscripts.”

So I looked up the reference… the work of Charles H. Handschin… and I wrote to the list,

“… it interests me that the form “pox leber”, which is so commonly assumed from the last page marginalia, actually exists in “… Handschin’s interpretation of a 16th century phrase.” I was curious to know where this paper is, and what poem he was referencing, and whom it might have been written by. Handshin probably got it from the 1883 “Neudrucke Deutscher Literaturwerke Des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts”… …by Max Neimeyer: The line is on page 61, line 326…

“The play appears to be by Hans Sachs. However, a Walter Tauber gives some possible substitutes, which I think he means that Sachs may have derived “pox leber” from other forms…

“From page 123: “potz laus, botz mauss, botz corper, potz grind…”. Perhaps the work of these scholars, in trying themselves to determine the source of “pox leber” in literature, could give a clue as to what was meant by the Voynich marginalia author? I mean, that work seems to have been done already, long ago… and perhaps one of these forms mentioned could fit with some other phrases we think we see there.”

Innocent enough, right? I’m noting that 19th and 20th scholars were curious about the Hans Sach’s usage of “pox leber”, which they noted was first used in the 16th century, and I was wondering if this will help us understand where the phrase may have been derived. And also, since the “marginalia was added”, no one should care less that it was first used in the 16th century. Oh how wrong I was. The Vms-list erupted in a cacophony of varied objections, among them, “we don’t know how much earlier pox leber may have been used”, and the contrary, “it may not be pox leber”, and “google can’t find everything because everything has not been scanned”, and so on and so forth. In short, objections to when the phrase “pox leber” may have been inked on the last page of the Voynich.

This confused me for a time. I was trying to figure out why it suddenly mattered when this marginalia was applied. What difference did it make if the phrase came in the mid to late 16th century? Why was there this argument against this, against this seemingly useful and solid previous scholarship, from experts no less? I thought that everyone would be happy. But the negative reaction made me realize there must be something to this… if now the argument, mostly among “15 century genuine herbal” theorists, were adamant that this phrase might date to the Voynich radiocarbon date range (1404-1438), that this meant there was clue somewhere that they were aware of, but that I had missed. It was as though the protagonist in Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” kept telling me to go away, but also kept staring at the floorboards. So I pried up the floorboards.

I went back to the McCrone report for the Voynich ink, and re-read it with this curious concern in mind: What exactly did Joseph Barabe conclude about the marginalia ink, which may have caused such a radically new view on the marginalia? After matching up the sample numbers with the pages they were taken from, it turned out that sample 16, from the marginalia’s “black ink on text”, was included in the reports conclusion,

“All of the inks used for text or drawing were identified as iron gall inks. The variability of the amounts of iron present is not unusual in iron gall inks. We found no significant differences between the writing inks and the drawing inks used throughout the document and tentatively conclude that the text and drawings were most likely created contemporaneously.”

And Barabe also concluded that certain quire and page numbers were different than the main text inks, telling us that if the f166v ink were different, we would have been so informed. In effect, the conclusion tells us that the marginalia was applied “contemporaneously” with the main text ink! And there was my “smoking gun”, and the root cause of the paradigm shift from “marginalia added sometime later, by some later person”, to “marginalia added by the Voynich author, or from his/her inkwell”. And then, of course, anyone (me) pointing out that “pox leber” is about 130 years “too new” for the main text, if applied near the C14 dates range of 1404 to 1438, will be starting a fire.

In any case, I soon poured gasoline on that fire: By now pointing out that the ink of the main text and the “pox leber” marginalia are the same, according to the well-respected scholarship of McCrone, I found a new wave of objections. But as I also note, and have noted in the past, many of those objections are mutually, logically, exclusive of one another. That is, if person A believes in “pox leber” existing earlier than the scholarship tells us it did, but person B believes it does probably date from the 16th century, then A attacks “pox leber”, and B attacks the McCrone report, while they both claim the Voynich is a genuine, 15th century herbal. That is, something has to “give” in order for it all to make sense, and that something might be different for multiple genuine theorists. A list of some of the various arguments I met with, used against this uncomfortable conclusion:

  1. It’s not “pox leber”
  2. It is “pox leber”, but the phrase may have existed early enough for the C14 range
  3. I’m reading the ink report of McCrone wrong
  4. McCrone must have information they did not reveal, which will show the ink is not the same
  5. I’m reading it right, but ink always looks similar enough to be deemed the same
  6. “So what?” if the Voynich author also penned the f166v marginalia? They just decided to use a different style and characters
  7. Nobody ever said the marginalia was added later, anyway, and don’t look…

And remember, it really does not matter to me whether or not “pox leber” was written, nor when it was inked there. I was happy as a clam to accept that someone may have added the marginalia later, even, much later. Well almost, but there is another point I have made, which did make me suspicious of the marginalia: It is unreadable. It is as confounding, if in a different way, as the bulk Voynich text. And normally, in other cases, marginalia is usually understood to some extent: If not what it means exactly, then at least why it is there, or what it is referencing. But in the Voynich, we have at least three examples of marginalia, in different hands, claimed applied by different persons at different times… all as unreadable as the text. This is very odd, and so, has long suggested to me that the marginalia is there for a look, an effect, only… to make the Voynich look like other medieval or Renaissance manuscripts, poured over and marked on by centuries of subsequent scholars… but to not be readable. Readable text is a danger to all forgeries. If a forger does not copy verbatim, an existing example, they run the risk, a risk which only increases the more they add, of introducing a “tell” to their deceit. It is a toe in the door. It is key to many forgery reveals, and something a good forger would avoid.

So is “pox leber” one such “tell”, that crept through the normally careful attempt to hide the crime? Is the use of the same ink as the text a tell? Is it making the marginalia unreadable? In a purposefully different style and content? That is, are all of the above valuable evidence to forgery, our “tell tale hearts”, beating under the floorboards? I hear them, do you?

Harry Clarke, “Tell-Tale Heart”, 1919

“It’s Newer Than You Think”

May 24, 2015

The title of this post is a play on the frequent claim by my friend and fellow Voynich researcher, Steve Ekwell, who often warns us, “It’s older than you think”. However, ever since the beginning of Voynich research in the early 20th century, both professional and amateur investigators have noted the presence of images which look “newer” than one might expect, given the general style of the manuscript. That is, many think it looks pretty much like a 15th or 16th century herbal, in general, but then striking comparisons to items which could only be there if they were copied from much later are made. Near the beginning of Voynich research these included microscopic and telescopic observations, such as cellular structures and celestial nebulae. Then O’Neil famously believed that certain plants were an American sunflower, and a pepper.

More recently, in 2006, I noted the similarity of many of the cylinders to modern optical devices. Others have noted imagery from medical texts, and from other works, which should not be in a text which matches at all the radiocarbon dating of the leaves of the 15th century. As a side note, since very publicly working on my very controversial modern forgery theory, there seems to be an increased reluctance to posting such (supporting?) comparisons. That is, when there was no such theory being seriously proposed, and only casually mentioned in passing as a sort of quirky side not, it was common to read comments along these lines, “Look at how much this illustration looks like ABC! Of course it can’t be ABC, because ABC is too new“. So I imagine that these thoughts are still occurring, if not shared. Below is a list of past observations, both by me and others, which have been either posted on this blog, or on the Voynich Mailing List, or elsewhere. On the associated blog posts of mine, I may have earlier theories of why they are there, because of course my theories have evolved into what they are today.

Voynich Cylinders and 17th Century Spanish Microscopes

Since posting the above comparison, years ago, I have found the source of the engravings to the right: They are from a 1763 Spanish “Broadsheet” by a Pablo Minguet. It turns out that figures 8 and 9 are not of microscopes, but of a type of low power monocular, or “opera glass”. Nonetheless, the comparison I to these optical devices is striking to me, and also, clearly not alone in the Voynich. Many of the cylinders seen also exhibit the very “optical-like” features of parallel sides, multiple diameters (for sliding focus?), recessed tops (inset lenses?), “rimmed” sections, some with legs, similar coloration and decoration to early optics, and even, the much later knurling for “grip” when focusing. I show a page of some such comparisons here, but I will post one more on this current overview list:

Microscope Comparsion 1

The above is doubly interesting to me, because not only does the Voynich illustration show enough similarities to pass as a drawing of the actual microscope (actually a field tube from inside a microscope), but that same microscope was on display about a quarter of a mile from Voynich’s Libraria (his Florence Book Store) during the time he owned that store, and during the time he said he “found” the Voynich. In the past it was said that this microscope was “too new” for the Voynich, and also, “too new” for even my Drebbel and New Atlantis theories. Eventually I agreed with my critics, because the similarity is so good, especially in the context of everything else found in the Voynich. But it is not “too new” to have been copied from the display, at the time it was on display, about 1908 to 1910. As an appropriate aside, all of these observations, mine and those of others, always fit the requirements that they were accessible to Wilfrid Voynich: They were either in print before 1910, or were in a place he was known to have visited, if not in print (such as London, Rome, Paris, Florence, etc.). And further, no good comparisons have been made to items after 1910… no automatic transmission parts, no toaster ovens, no rockets, and so on. This latter observation implies that the modern comparisons are not coincidental, for if they were, they would not know a 1910 upper boundary.

f27v Root: What a puzzler!

f27v Root: What a puzzler!

Here is one that helped nudge me into the future, so to speak. It was one of those nagging signs of newness which I began to feel I was dismissing, as so many others were, based on only one basic premise: The Voynich must be old. Once one steps over that virtual line, so many hundreds of features make sense, and so many problems with the manuscript immediately evaporate. It is like many problems and puzzles in this way: Often, one single, and seemingly immense obstacle, stands in the way of understanding what it is; while many smaller obstacles, far more palatable ones, are stepped over to avoid it. What I read now, in my puzzle-root blog post from 2011, are among my first steps in understanding this. But at the time, truly believing this could be a modern work was still quite an outlandish thought. The post about the below image was similar, but from 2009:

Voynich Manuscript f79r

Voynich Manuscript f79r “floating man”

The thing is, I was still attempting to force-fit the comparison into my early 17th century New Atlantis theory (I still believe that the presence of many NA items is not a coincidence, however I feel they are there for a different reason than before). I mean, I argued that this 1636 illustration was close enough to “my” time frame of 1610 to 1620 to allow that someone may have seen an early version of it, or the actual device. But now that I’ve moved up to the 20th century, it clicks neatly into place: Like many of the illustrations of the Voynich, I believe they were collected and copied, accurately and not, from many previous sources, in print and person. And I think whomever copied Schwenter’s swimming girdle did not quite understand that is was supposed to be wrapped around the body, then inflated! So they had their Voynich nymph simply hook an arm on it.

Here is the Schwenter engraving:

Early Swimming Aide... the

Back to optical comparisons: The below comparison between a diatom engraving, and a “wheel” from the Voynich.

The thing is, I found myself once again seeing a great comparison, but being troubled by the fact that it came later than my theories. I was forced to assume that someone had seen one of these diatoms, discovered off the coast of Japan in the 19th century, and only apparent at over 500 times magnification, and only found illustrated in a late 19th century book. Like many of these comparisons, though, the problems fall away when we accept that the Voynich post dates the illustration (from William B. Carpenter’s 19th century “The Microscope and its Revealations”. The scientific name of this diatom is Arachnoidiscus Japonicus). But an odd thing now happens… while no comparisons have been made between thousands of illustrations, from thousands of books, several Voynich illustrations often resemble several illustrations from a few books. And while the detractors of the modern hoax theories have struggled very hard to come up with alternative comparisons, they always fail to match as well, on so many points, as these microscopic engravings. It is good, though, that the effort to do this is so strong, because if not for that, it might have been assumed better alternatives exist.

Too Close for Comfort?

The above is one of many examples of this effect… the comparison is also found in the same Carpenter microscope book (in error I wrote “Carters” on the image). There are at least two more, from that same book. And two other microscope books provide several other, and I feel very good, comparisons, to Voynich illustrations.

Above we see one of these comparisons, between the f85r2 circular illustration, and a microscopic cross-section of a wheat stem, from a 1909 book. But the comparison goes beyond that, for within the Voynich illustration are four people, one of whom could be clutching a bunch of wheat. They are arguably standing in a garden, and if so, the model of the microscopic cellular structure of the wheat stem may have been chosen as the microcosm to the garden’s macrocosm. In any case, there was no seeing such structures before the mid-18th century, when microscopes became powerful enough to do so. In any case, the illustration of this cross section first appears in a book from 1909, along with two other close matches to Voynich illustrations.

Well it is

Well it is “Spiral”, Anyway

Above we have one of the well known Mr. Romaine Newbold, the famous “nebula”. Again, “too new” for the Voynich, although he and Wilfrid, and others, tried to shoehorn the comparisons into an even earlier dating than we now know possible: the 14th century, and at the hand of Roger Bacon. But I think there is another possible explanation: The word nebula was whispered in Newbold’s ear, and he just picked the wrong one! But photographs of what were thought nebula… now known as galaxy’s, were in print by the end of the 19th century. Another possible, and very good, comparison to this illustration was made by Elitsa Velinska, to an illustration by D’Oresme, in the 15th century. So was the D’Orseme illustration used, and updated and adapted (spirals added) to represent a “nebula”, or is it an innocent, early work, influenced by D’Orseme, at the time? For another take, look at some notes by Robert Teague. But I suspect, like many images in the Voynich, they are copied, and modified, to both look like their original counterparts, but be “not quite enough” like them for a direct identification. Enough to suggest, little enough to be sure. And you see, we are not sure, on this, nor anything.

And the famous “armadillo” rears it’s pretty head. The interesting thing is, this looks much like an armadillo to almost everyone who does not know of the Voynich, nor care when it was made, but looks nothing like one to anyone who believes the Voynich was written and illustrated before Columbus. It becomes a pangolin, wolf, or one of many other creatures that were known to Europeans in the 15th century. You decide. But since writing about the armadillo “sighting”, and since opening myself to the early 20th century, I have noticed that there are stylistic similarities to several armadillo sources, all, if used, impossible for a work any earlier than the 17th century or so.


An early (1944), and as usual controversial, comparison, was made by Hugh O’Neill. From Mary D’Imperio’s An Elegant Enigma,

“The most startling identification… …was folio 93, which is quite plainly the common sunflower. Helianthus Annuus L. Six botanist have agreed with me on this determination. This immediately recalls the date 1493, when the seeds of this plant were brought to Europe for the first time (by Columbus on his return from his second voyage). Again folio 101v shows a drawing which does not resemble any native European fruit, but suggests plainly Capsicum, a genus strictly American in origin, known in Europe only after the above date… …It seems necessary to consider this manuscript as having been written after 1493”.

Others have thought that the f33v plant may represent a sunflower, also. And, of course, there was a furor over O’Neill’s claims… long before the C14 dating placed the creation of the calfskin of the manuscript firmly in the 15th century. One may note, though, that even if O’Neill and his supporters, are correct, it does not place the Voynich in the 20th century, to me it is another indication that the images of the Voynich are drawn from, and modified from, many sources both before and after the radiocarbon dating of the leaves, up to 1909, when the newest such comparison can be made. That is, for anyone continuing to argue “15th century genuine European herbal”, they have quite a corpus of comparisons to dismiss, far beyond the few I alone have made, and dating back long before I was born.

The above are a selection of some of the more obvious comparisons that could possibly be made. But there are many possible such illustrations, and also writing styles, and other evidence in the Voynich, which support the possibility that the work is from Voynich’s time, and only copied from many sources, both printed and in person, from right up until it was created, as a modern forgery. And they come from all over: Nick Pelling has noted a possible toilet, which he attributes to the architect Averlino, in his theory. He also notes modern notation used for some numbers, and the quire notations, even pointing out that some quire numbers may have been made with a steel nib, only he feels that all these were added later. And he has long noted the similarity of many Voynich “jars” to Majorca… but with legs, which are from a much later time than the calfskin. And Nick even explored the possibilities of my optical comparisons, looking for instances “early enough” to be explained by an early Voynich ms., but like me, found none that satisfied from an early date. We just have different reasons they are not found, and so, I keep the comparisons, as I think they are modern, while Nick now (I believe) rejects them. Elitsa Velinska, while voicing strong objections to my modern theories, has come up with many very good comparisons with various anatomical details with illustrations in the Voynich. She does not believe these images are modern, while I would counter-argue (and do!) that the use and representation of many of them is more likely from a text more modern than the era of the calfskin they are applied on.

To this we can add so many more, only a few of which I can think of while writing this: My comparison of a certain version of the Heidelberg crest, and the f46v root being rejected as “too new”; the observation by several that the Voynich “foldouts” are too new for the 15th century; the possible presence of various people, such as Martin Luther by me, and Tycho Brahe and Kepler by Robert Teague. Robert also notes various possible celestial observations which can only been seen much later than the vellum. Tim Mervyn, who famously argues this as a possible work by John Dee and Edward Kelley, has made the same observation I have, that one of the men in the f57v “wheel” seems to be holding a speculum, and so, seemingly representing one of them.

And the list goes on… many people have voiced impressions giving them what I call “The Nagging Sense of Newness”, in many different ways, for decades… although they usually firmly reject what they seem to feel is a disturbing conclusion. And I ironically agree with their observations. In fact, I probably agree with more observations and comparisons, by more people, than anyone in the field. The difference with me is that I no longer find those observations at all disturbing, and so, I come to a very different conclusion as to why they are made in the first place.

Modern Voynich Myths

May 8, 2015

When I first learned of the Voynich Manuscript back in 2006, there was a certain, accepted baseline understanding of what it might be. This foundation was supported by many different factors, both real and assumed, or some combination of both. As my theories progressed, and as I examined the theories of others, part of the process of doing so was to examine that foundation, and the reasons it existed.

But over time I came to realize that many of the commonly accepted, and widely repeated, claims about the Voynich… often stated as facts… were not facts at all. In some cases they were simply wrong. In other cases, they turned out to be assumptions, and the assumptions were either based on errors, or simply guesses, based on the preconceptions of those stating them. Nonetheless, many of these errors are still “in print” on the internet, remain uncorrected, and are therefore a serious impediment to anyone trying to learn about the Voynich ms.. This is not to say that many of them are not still possible, only that the importance of them, and any belief in them as fact, is largely unwarranted. I call these, “Modern Voynich Myths”, and list them, here. I may still add to this list, as more of them occur to me and others.

1) Athanasius Kircher described the Voynich script as “Illyrian” in his 1639 letter to Th. Moretus: Not true, he was describing another work in this way, and possibly a printed sheet at that. In a 2014 translation of the letter by André Szabolcs Szelp, agreed upon by others, this is now clear. However, this untruth is continually repeated to support the fact that Kircher actually did see the Voynich, as many have thought the script shows a similarity to Illyrian, or Glagolitic.

2) That vellum/parchment was very expensive: It can be shown that vellum and parchment has, throughout history, often been rather inexpensive. Using the cost of vellum to create one of the first Gutenberg bibles, the material for the Voynich may have cost only a dozen shillings or so.

3) Vellum/Parchment was always used soon after preparation: Not true. I and others have been able to find dozens of cases of blank parchment being unused for centuries…. up to 400 years, and used up to 350 years after creation. When C14 tested in the 1970’s, several works were found to be made as many as 153 years after material creation.

4) The Kircher Carteggio (letters) was under “lock and seal”, so Wilfrid could not have seen it: Not known, in any case. There is no evidence that the Jesuits did, or would have, treated the Letters any differently than the Voynich (if they ever owned it, which is also not known), or the other books they sold to Voynich in 1911. In fact, the Villa Mondragone… where both the Voynich and the letters were stored… was a popular and respected college, which took students from the general (even non-Jesuit) population. In the summer it was a retreat for high ranking Jesuits, and even, a tourist attraction. Really anyone could get permission to visit. The photographer who took pictures of it for a 1912 tourist book was the same photographer who took pictures of Voynich’s bookstore in 1908. And Voynich was close friends with Father Joseph Strickland, the head of the Mondragone. And also, considering the great importance of Kircher to the Jesuits, it is implausible to consider they did not have some interest, and probably studied, his letters… while in their care.

5) Arthur Dee described the Voynich, which his father, John Dee, owned: Voynich posited this theory in his 1921 Philadelphia talk, and it has lingered ever since. But Voynich was well aware… as we know from his own notes on the transcript of the talk, because he cited the works that explain this… that Dee was describing an entirely different work, and even, what that work was. This “Dee Myth” took root way back then, becoming the basis for the idea that Rudolf II bought the Voynich from Dee as early as 1586. The thing is, even though a false claim, with no basis whatsoever, it has a life of its own. That is, although many do not realize the origin of the myth was in a purposeful error in a 1921 speech, the “idea” that Dee owned the Voynich continues to this day.

6) The Letters of the Carteggio describe the Voynich: The 1639 Baresch letter describes a manuscript, but it is too incomplete and poor a description to be known that he meant the Voynich. The other letters to not make a physical description at all, while are describing whatever Baresch saw. But the Baresch description only mentions “plants unknown to the Germans”, “stars”, “unknown script” or language, and possible chemical symbolism. This would describe many other herbals and pharmas of the time, in many of the languages unknown to these men, at the time. Left out are the Zodiac, the baths, the nude women, the weird animals, the strange cylinders, and really hundreds of other features that would have been of great interest and importance to anyone trying to impart even a hint of what the nature of the Voynich is. Could the Baresch Manuscript be the Voynich? Yes. But stating it is the Voynich is incorrect, and based on poor evidence.

7) The Voynich was owned by Tepenencz, or Horcicky, botanist and physician to Rudolf II: This is based on the name of Tepenencz written on the first page of the Voynich. But this is not provably a signature at all, and of course easily copied by anyone with minimal skills who may have seen one of the several copies of the true signature. And there is reason to believe it was not actually there at one point, since Baresch/Kinner/Marci/Kircher did not mention it, and Voynich himself says it was not visible… when it was. But today we still read, over and over, “Tepenenz owned it”, and, “Tepenencz was the first known author”. Read Jan Hurych’s excellent analysis before making up your own mind:

8) The C14 dating shows the vellum/parchment is from 1420-1438: The published range is actually a conclusion determined by combining the very different results of the four samples tested. But when looked at separately, as would have been done if not found bound together, nor assumed to be made as the same time, the results show they could be 50 to 60 years apart. And taking into account the extremes of the error range of the samples, they actually could date to as much as 132 years apart:

Folio 8: 490±37, which works out to 1423 to 1497
Folio 26: 514±35, which works out to 1401 to 1471
Folio 47: 506±35, which works out to 1409 to 1479
Folio 68 (cleaned): 550±35, which works out to 1365 to 1435

The assumptions used to combine the results were clearly explained by Rene Zandbergen:

“A combined dating of the Voynich MS

The dating of each folio doesn’t allow a very precise dating of the MS. The uncertainty in age for each folio is some 50-60 years, and in the case of fol.68 even spans two centuries due to the above-mentioned inversions of the calibration curve. The book production process is likely to have taken considerably less time than these 50-60 years. Under the assumptions that:

– The MS was indeed created over a time span not exceeding (e.g.) 10 years
– It was not using parchment that was prepared many years ago

each sheet provides a measurement or ‘observation’ of the MS creation. Since they are likely to be from different animal hides, these are indeed independent observations. Combining these observations leads to a combined un-calibrated age of 1435 ± 26 years (1 sigma).”

From (explanation since removed). From the above, it is clear that various unknowns were “assumed”, in order to “combine” the results into one, palatable range. These assumptions included a short range of creation time, and the use of fresh vellum… both things we may or may not assume, at our discretion, and which are in any case, not known (see points #2 and #3, above).

9) When the dates were revealed, it showed that the experts were correct about the age of the Voynich: Incorrect. Tallying the expert opinions, pre-C14, the majority of experts… I think it works out to about 14 out of 16 of them, by D’Imperio’s book, were dead wrong. In fact this was noted soon after the C14 was announced, in the 2009 ORF documentary, and its surrounding promotions: the results were touted as toppling the previous expert opinion, and being a total surprise. It was a surprise. But in a very short time, this reality morphed into “The experts got it right”, by using the two or so experts who did happen to have opinions near or in the C14 range, and ignoring the majority that were wrong. This new mythology is often used to support the false premise, “It cannot be a forgery, because how could a pre-C14 forger have happened to choose the ‘right parchment’?”. The thing is, they did not choose “the right parchment” for the work they laid on it, if forged.

10) Voynich found the book in the Villa Mondragone: This is still stated as fact, when most mainstream researchers understand this is not known, and, at best, based on shaky ground. Voynich himself claimed several, mutually exclusive places of origin for the ms., including “Castle in Southern Europe” and “Austrian Castle”. “Villa Mondragone” was to Ethel, in private, and only to be revealed after her death.

11) It was part of the Beckx library: There is no Beckx reference in or about the Voynich Manuscript, nor any written, descriptive tag assuring this. Only a printed Beclx “ex libris” tag, claimed by Voynich to be with the Voynich when he found it. The problem is, he owned many of these printed tags, known because a pile of them were found loose in his papers after his death. And, for that matter, also found were many of the written tags for other Beckx books… but none for the Voynich. That is, there is absolutely no evidence that the Voynich was part of this collection, yet it continues to be repeated as a known fact.

12) The Voynich contains structure of language: Well, it may… but we don’t know if the structure found… by Dr Marcelo A Montemurro, Tucker & Talbot, and others, cannot also be attributable to random written human output (RWHO). This, because RWHO has never been tested for its possible structure, and/or to see it is resembles actual language structure in any way. It may, it may not, contain said structucture. But evidence that it could is found in the compelling observations by different researchers interested in Glossolalia, such as the one of Hélène Smith, who believed she was channeling Martian in the late 19th century. There are other cases… but in short, it has been noted that the random spoken outputs resemble language structure to some degree. That is a hint it may be so, for RWHO. But the point is, we don’t know, and therefore immediately renders any claim that the Voynich must have an underlying meaning, because of any language structure found, moot.

13) The Voynich Ms. Cover was added in the 17th Century: While generally accepted that the cover supposedly found on the Voynich ms. does not date to the time of calfskin manufacture of the leaves, just how old, or when and where this cover was added is not known. It was never tested, and so any statements about any age of the cover, or when it was added… often claimed as known… simply are not known (thanks Berj Ensanian).

14) It is not a palimpsest: It may not be one. But I have been having trouble determining the basis for this claim, except for the observation that the signs of scraping of the surface, usual in palimpsests, are not there. However, there were various later chemical processes used to “bleach”, or erase writing on documents, and I worry that these were assumed to not be applicable, based on the preconceptions that the writing was applied long ago. Whether or not it is possible to test for the chemicals, I do not know.

15) Wilfrid Voynich never tried to sell the Voynich: In the strictest sense, that he did not list the ms. in his catalogs, nor otherwise publicly advertise the ms., this is true. But this becomes a myth in the way in which it is used: To imply that he did not intend to sell it eventually, nor intend to profit from it, and so stated so as to imply that he could not have forged it, because he didn’t want any money for it. But this is incorrect: Wilfrid wanted as much as $160,000 for it. And in a letter, he promised Romaine Newbold that if he, Newbold, could make a case for Roger Bacon as author, Wilfrid would pay him 10% of the first $100,000 realized, and 50% of any amount over that.

16) The ink was dated to the time of the calfskin: The McCrone report on the ink composition does not date the ink. There were no radiocarbon dating tests performed on the ink samples, perhaps because of their inorganic composition makes this impossible. So although it is frequently reported that the ink tests dated the ink to the 15th century, this is based on the fact that reviewers of the McCrone report have noted that the compositions found are consistent with ink formulas used during that time, and determined that no modern substances were found. However, such ink could have been produced at any time since the manufacture of the Voynich calfskin, up until the announced discovery, by Voynich himself. In fact, such inks were normally used for centuries after the C14 date ranges of the calfskin leaves. Furthermore, the report does include various tantalizing suggestions, such as the discovery of “copper and zinc” which are “a little unusual”, and an unidentified “titanium compound”. These are not explained, either by McCrone (and I have written to them about both, and not received a reply), or any reviewer of the report.

17) The Voynich would be time consuming and/or difficult to pen: (added to the list, May 25, 2015) In the few attempts I and others have made, it is clear that this it incorrect. Gordon Rugg took under two hours to make a fairly complex “botanical” page. I drew a much cruder, simpler, page in 13 minutes. When we were up in Toronto, helping with the Shatner “Weird or What?” episode on the Voynich, the professional calligraphers all blazed through a very good simulation of Voynichese, using Gordon’s grille method. And just this morning, I made the below practice sheet in under 15 minutes… coloring and all. And that is a short time, considering I was trying to emulate the style of the Voynich author… they didn’t have to, as it was their style. I made this with the intent to continue practicing, and eventually make a large, rosettes fold-out size complex page in the style of the Voynich.

First, fast, practice sheet: 15 minutes

First, fast, practice sheet: 15 minutes

There are many other beliefs and misconceptions about the Voynich, some unique and some related to the above, which may not rise to the level of outright myths. Perhaps they could be deemed “opinions misstated as certainties”. But many of those opinions are based on the above, not knowing they are formulating opinions based on chimeras. Eventually, blog posts, articles, and even documentaries and books state these falsehoods and opinions as known, true facts. I feel it does a grave disservice to present and future researchers by forcing them to expend untold hours, and even years, never realizing that the foundation they are basing their hard work on may not be as sturdy as long presented to them.

You Say “Tspenencz”, I say “Topenencz”

November 14, 2014

A recurring theme to many of the inquires which Voynich made, to various curators and expert scholars, was to ask questions which pointed them into certain directions, while at the same time professing to not know where that direction ultimately led. The result was that the answer he received would usually be “on target”, while the question would retain the impression… genuine or not… that Voynich himself did not already possess the answer he was seeking.

This effect is almost universal in Voynich’s dealings. And the archival remains of this process are almost indistinguishable from genuine inquiry, if not for the high number of really great, perfectly phrased, seemingly innocuous, questions, which actually contain most of the answer he was after. I feel the number of times I’ve observed this effect rises far above simple coincidence, or some sort of brilliant intuition, on his part. But there is to me a “smoking gun” in some of the inquiries, in that the question asked is just so close to the proper one, that it stretches credibility that he would not have already guessed it. One case I feel borders on the ludicrous, so I wanted to outline it, here.

I had written “A New Look at the Tepencz Signature”, after finding among the Voynich Papers at the Beinecke what seem to be the earliest images of the Tepencz name on f1r of the Voynich Manuscript. There is both a pre-chemical, and seemingly very early, and clear, post-chemical treatment images. Here is a close up of one of them (click for full size):

Pretty Crisp Looking, No?

Pretty Crisp Looking, No?

So Voynich saw this, and claimed to want to determine whose name this was. What would one think, though, on seeing this? What letter would one guess is between the capital “T” and the “p”? What do you see? And more importantly, what makes sense, in the context of the claimed provenance of the Voynich? Here is what Voynich wrote to the Director of the National State Archives of Bohemia, Prague, Czecho Slovakia, on February 9, 1921:

“I should be very much obliged to you if you could give me some information about a man who lived in Bohemia in the 17th century. His name appears on the first leaf of a very important manuscript in my possession, which he apparently owned at some time during the 17th century. As nearly as I can read the name it is Jacobij a Tspenecz or Topenecz, and I am enclosing [a] photograph of it.”

So whether or not one thinks that letter can be mistaken for an “o”, we have as his first guess, “s”. “Tspenecz”? Not only does that character look nothing like an “s”, but “Tspenecz” makes no sense… not as a name, nor as any word. We might allow “o”, though, as that makes some bit of linguistic sense. But then there is the problem that the letter, in that picture, actually does look somewhat like an “e”, with the downward points at the bottom, at the beginning and end of the “e” loop. So why no guess “Tepenecz”, when that makes so much more sense than Tspenencz, and also, looks pretty much like it?

Not to mention that Voynich got most of the other letters correct, when they are less visible. No, all in all, I find this a disingenuous request, meant to elicit a desired answer. The letter goes on:

“Through indirect evidence [1666 Marci letter?] I gather that he was a friend of the celebrated Prague professor, Joh. Marcus Marci, but although I have looked in every possible book in the British Museum and in the New York libraries I can find no reference to him. I also think he was personally acquainted with or at the Court of Ferdinand III, King of Bohemia, and that he knew a certain Dr. Raphael who taught Bohemian to the children of Ferdinand III [yep, the Marci letter…]. Incidentally I should be very grateful if you could give me some information about this Dr. Raphael, apart from ‘Jacobij a Tspenecz’.”

Well that is an awful lot of effort then, no doubt… but I might have suggested that while expending a search in “every possible book in the British Museum and in the New York libraries”, he might have wanted to try Tapenecz and Tepenecz, too.

Voynich ends the letter by saying he wanted the information to use in a talk that April 20th. That would be his famous lecture on the Voynich before the Philadelphia College of Physicians. I didn’t see the answer from Prague, but we we know it worked, because Voynich later thanked him for his answer, and mentions “Tepenecz”, who he says, “signed” his manuscript. But here is what Voynich had to say about it, in his lecture:

“Chemicals were applied to the margins and the autograph, Jacobus de Tepenecz, became visible, with some illegible figures below it”.

So now there is no mention of “s”, or “o”, only “e”. He goes on,

“Bohemian biographical dictionaries yielded the information that Jacobus Tepenecz was a Bohemian scientist, ennobled by Emperor Rudolf in 1608. He had the right only from that time to sign himself as ‘de Tepenecz.’ Earlier he was known as Horcicky, or, in the Latinized form, Sinapius.”

After this, he outlines in more detail the story of Tepenecz, and then gives credit to the source, “The director of the Bohemian State Archives has very kindly supplied me with a copy of Emperor Rudolf’s patent of nobility to Horicicky.”

Well at least the answer from the Archives cleared up the name, but without seeing the whole response from them, I am unclear just how much of the biography of Tepenecz was imparted by them, to Voynich, and how much of the “Bohemian biographical dictionaries” were used, by Prague in its answer, or found by Voynich, by other means. However, on May 27th, 1921, Wilfrid finally gets around to thanking him.. one “Dr. L. Kicman”,

“I feel under great obligation to you for sending me the information about Horcicky and Raphael Missowski, and also for the trouble you took to send me photographs of these men.

I am glad to say that all the material which you sent to me arrived in time for my paper before the College of Physicians, Philadelphia, in connection with the history of a Roger Bacon MS. in cipher which I possess.
“You are quite right in supposing that the MS. is connected with Bohemian history for to all practical purposes this remarkable MS. is preserved to the world thanks to the keen interest in it manifested by several seventeenth century Bohemian scholars.”

Do we see what happened there? Now it is the official director of the Prague Archives who was “… quite right in supposing that the MS. is connected with Bohemian history…”, not Wilfrid Voynich, who actually outlined the answer, before he received it!

In any case, make of it what you will, as I do. But with all these types of inquiries that Voynich made, and the wording and inconsistencies to the claims of provenance for this, and other works he owned, sold or not, I really have my doubts that many of these requests were little more than fishing for official opinions, which he could later append to future descriptions, signed by the provider. And each was was constructed with built-in, automatic disclaimers, in the somewhat parsed wording, hiding the reality that he was simply writing his own answers from the beginning.

UPDATE: A fellow researcher recently posted an excerpt from a letter Voynich sent from New York, to his London office manager, Herbert Garland, on February 25th, 1921:

“My Dear Mr Garland,

I most sincerely thank you and congratulate you upon the information you found about Tepenecz. Without your help I should have been unable here to discover that Sinapius was Tepenecz. I had all the details about Sinapius as I have the details of everyone connected with the court of Rudolph. In fact I even have the names of the lovers of his daughter, but I never connected Sinapius with Tepenecz.”

So it seems that Wilfrid Voynich had at least two people helping him on this, the Prague historian, and Garland, in London. But what this passage does is reinforce the possibly disingenuous nature of Wilfrid’s claim that he could not find anything on Tepenecz… because Garland had no problem. Whether Garland had a copy of the photograph, and thought that it read “Tepenecz” on his own; or whether he took it on himself to try “Tepenecz” in additions to Voynich’s suggested “Tspenecz” and “Topenecz”, without seeing the photograph… or lastly, whether Voynich himself suggested “Tepenecz” to Garland, when he did not, to Prague, we don’t know. But the fact that Garland was able to find the information, in London, when Voynich claims he could not, supports the idea that Voynich knew very well that this was Tepenecz, and only pretended to be confused, in order to elicit an answer from others, that he could then use to support his claim of provenance… while effectively insulating himself from any claim that he was in fact, simply inventing that provenance.

Voynich’s Forgery

September 22, 2014

Well that got your attention! But my title does not refer to the famous Voynich Manuscript, which a handful of people… myself included… have suspected of being a forgery. Nor is it one of the half dozen items which Voynich owned, and sold, or tried to sell, which I personally feel could be called under question.

I’m referring to a lesser known work which Voynich owned, and sold, which happens to be a forgery. So far it is the only known forgery which passed through his hands, as far as I’ve been able to determine. And I would point out here that this is a really wonderful record, because the world at the time of Voynich was rife with forgeries. For such a prolific dealer as he, one would naturally expect a few examples to be, even mistakenly, sold by him… but he seems to have an indisputably good record in that regard. And so, I don’t imply that this is any indication that Voynich would willingly deal in a forgery… there is no evidence he would have. That being said, there are a few questions I would raise, relating to the way he explained owning this work, which are not easily answerable. But first, the work itself…


This miniature is in the British Museum, to whom Voynich sold it in 1905 for £75. Curiously, the museum description does not state that this is a forgery… but gives a description as though it is genuine,

“A MINIATURE in colours apparently representing the landing of Hernando Cortés in Mexico in 1519; with a foliated border on two sides, containing a second portrait of Cortés to the shoulders, within a medallion. The actual miniature measures 6 1/8 in. by 4 1/4 in., and it was probably, prefixed to some nearly contemporary account of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The style is Spanish, and the artist must either have personally seen natives of the country and its forms of vegetation or have had before him some picture painted on the spot.”

The BL needs to seriously update that. It seems to be based on Voynich’s original description of the work, and ignores that this has long since been identified as fake. But it is. It was originally identified as a work by the Spanish Forger, a very prolific artist… or more than likely, a group of artists, who worked somewhere in Europe from the late 19th through the early 20th century. I’m unclear who originally identified this as forgery, or a work by the Spanish Forger, but even in Voynich’s time it was questioned… in fact, he was questioned about it.

At least by 1948 it was listed as a fake by Otto Kurz, in his book, Fakes (London, 1948). And by 1968, Janet Backhouse in her article, “The Spanish Forger” (The British Museum Quarterly, XXXIII, 1-2, 1968, 65-71), uses it as a good example of the work of that forger. However, by the time William Voelkle compiled the book, “The Spanish Forger” for the Pierpoint Morgan Library in 1978,  the attribution of this work was not so clear: It is pictured, and listed in that work as “OL4”, for “Other [forger than the Spanish Forger] Leaf 4”. However I’m not myself adequately prepared to judge exactly which forger this is by, although I have my lay opinions on the subject. Suffice it to say that the consensus is that this is a forgery.

Forged Map on Reverse

Forged Map on Reverse

While the Spanish Forger, and the mystery of their identity (or identities), their nationality, and the location of operation, are all interesting historical questions, I am mostly focused on our Wilfred, and how he described the work, and explained its provenance. From the 1968 Backhouse article, Voynich,

“… said that he had bought it from another bookseller, at a high price, as a picture of the landing of Columbus. He himself suggested that it might in fact be meant for Cortéz, probably on account of the rather eccentric coat-of-arms on the flag, which appears to quarter the arms of Castile, Aragon, Granada, and Navarre. Navarre was not in Spanish hands until 1512… … Voynich thought that the miniature might have been a frontispiece to Cortés’s official report to the King of Spain”.

But this minature of “Cortéz” was questionable from the start, apparently, as the Art Historian G.F. Warner had some problems with it. He inquired of Voynich further, as to its provenance. According to Backhouse again,

“Voynich wrote again to say that it had come to England from a dealer in the south of France. He seemed to have it either from a Basque or from a ‘Polish Count’, but the English bookseller who sold it to Voynich had said that the transaction was so long ago that the French dealer’s name and address were no longer available. This provenance, particularly the reference to a Polish count, is not very convincing.”

I agree with Ms. Backhouse, it is not at all convincing. Note the broken chain of ownership, which isolates Voynich from any possible blame. I would go further than that… I think that fuzzy and bizarre provenance is so sketchy that I sense Voynich also knew it was very poor… or, dare I say, he knew it was a lie?

The phrase “Polish Count” struck me in much the same way as it did the author, but it goes further than that. Very early in Voynich’s bookselling career, which started about 1892, he seems to have been promoting himself as a “Polish Count”. As an example, in the Anaconda Standard, September 11, 1899 edition, there is a review of Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly. The reviewer states,

“Mrs. Voynich is an English woman and is married to a Polish Count”.

Such references seem too fade out by the early years of the 20th century, however. They are soon replaced by the more exciting reality of Wilfrid’s revolutionary background, and his extraordinary success as a renowned book dealer and collector. So then I find it doubly odd that he was suggesting that this forgery may have been sold to the (by then nameless) French dealer (who sold it to the nameless British dealer) by a “Polish Count”. Go figure.

In any case, this is a forgery, and really… like most Spanish Forger works, and associated works, not really that good a representation of what was real. And of course I can’t, and don’t, say this is a clear smoking gun in Voynich’s hands. But in light of the questions about it and its provenance, and the really poor answers that Voynich gave in response, when seen in the back drop of his other vague, and ever-changing stories of provenance for other works, are for me, all serious causes for concern. He is even caught in a provenance lie or two… think, “Castle in Southern Europe”. So for me, this example adds to the question of just how much Voynich really knew about the sources, and authenticity, of what he was willing to sell… and what he was willing to say to do so.

One assumed model for the Voynich/Cortéz forgery: De Bry, America, 1594

One assumed model for the Voynich/Cortéz forgery: De Bry, America, 1594


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