The 1665 Marci Letter: A Forgery?

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.


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19 Responses to The 1665 Marci Letter: A Forgery?

  1. Excellent analysis!

    If you read the 1665 Voynich/Marci letter, the way the supposed Voynich manuscript is describe is as if someone were newly introducing the object to someone else. It reads like a description that is meant to stand on its own, not as a description that follows after a long line of previous correspondence. The types of details included (such as the nention of Roger Bacon) are vital things that would have either:
    A. been included in the first correspondence regarding the manuscript.
    B. prefaced with more of an expression of surprise or novelty, such as, “you know that old manuscript you’ve been looking at? Well, I’ve found an important new piece of evidence…”

    • proto57 says:

      And that, in turn, is a very excellent new viewpoint. I had not thought of your “B”, which is a new and I think valid facet to the argument. Thank you for giving this some thought, and for your input. Rich.

  2. I just re-read through all of the Kircher correspondences that have been highlighted by Philip Neal as having any relevance to the Voynich:
    And a couple of things stood out to me:

    1. Wilfrid Voynich, if he did indeed forge the 1665 Marci to Kircher letter, would have had to have obtained a look at some point at Kircher’s earlier correspondences because the 1665 letter specifically refers to those earlier letters:

    “The then possessor of the book once sent you letters seeking your judgment about a part of it which he wrote down and sent to you, being convinced that the rest of it could be read by you. He refused to send the actual book…”

    Which perfectly accords with the 1637 Baresch letter. Wilfrid Voynich would have had to have seen this 1637 letter. I could this as a point in favor of the idea that the 1665 letter is genuine. After all, would Wilfrid Voynich have really had access to the 1637 Baresch letter back then?

    Except I find it odd that in the 1665 letter Marci does not mention Baresch by name, but just says, “This book was left to me by a close friend in his will…” which seems odd. Why not refer to Baresch by name, considering that Kircher also knew Baresch? Why refer to him as if Baresch were just some private friend of Marci’s that Kircher wouldn’t know? Why not at least say “our close friend” rather than “a close friend”?

    2. Where are Baresch’s attempts to decipher the Voynich? Sure, they might have been written on a separate sheet, and maybe they got thrown away at some point as hopeless junk, but why wouldn’t have Kircher held onto them? Especially if Kircher (according to Wilfrid Voynich) held onto this letter of Marci’s and kept that in the book for all those years up to 1912 when Wilfrid Voynich “discovered” the 1665 Marci to Kircher letter in the manuscript. If Kircher was going to hold onto that letter, why not hold onto the decipherment attempts that were sent along with it? This isn’t a big deal, but just a little odd.

    3. There’s nothing to specifically identify the Voynich MS in any of the letters. The 1637 Baresch letter is the most descriptive, mentioning: an unknown script, herbal pages, and stars. How many other manuscripts from that time period would have ticked those boxes? (I have no idea myself…)

    On a somewhat related note, why doesn’t Torsten Timm’s work on the Voynich MS get more attention? I thought his explanation of the most likely way that the MS was written was a slam-dunk. For example, I have yet to see Nick Pelling fully engage with Timm’s paper on the Voynich. (Pelling has only obliquely mentioned it once on his ciphermysteries website, as far as I can tell). I would love to get his, or especially your take on it. ; )

  3. Also, Rich, you are 100% correct that other Voynich scholars have devoted insufficient skepticism towards the Beckx stickers, and the fact that the one for the Voynich happened to be conveniently missing.

    It’s almost as if Voynich MS research needs to go right back to square one and revisit every facet of the provenance with a fine-tooth comb.

  4. proto57 says:

    Well I have to say that in short order you have effectively cut through about 95% percent of the BS that has been hampering this investigation for decades… it is very refreshing to hear your thoughts. As for access to the other letters in the Carteggio, after writing this post, I put my thoughts on the issue together, for a post to the Voynich net… just this week. It will be a blog post at some point. But for your interest, I copy it here. The subject line was “The Missing Link”:

    I’ve thought about relating this concept a few times, and pictured doing so a placing my head on the chopping block of my critics: It is one of those ideas that has a subtlety to it, and as such, can be misappropriated, easily misstated, then thrown back at me. That probably sounds like a negative attitude… sorry, but of course I have to be careful. And that in turn is actually the good thing… this problem causes me to think carefully about the semantics of my wording, and the points themselves in fact, to come up with better explanations.

    In this case, a “missing link” is some element which I think my hypothesis suggests may exist, but has not been seen, and/or looked for, and/or otherwise previously suspected. But the way such a suspected element can be misused is for one to claim it is necessary for the hypothesis to work. No, the hypothesis stands on its own, I feel: But there are of course missing elements, and points which need addressing, questions which need answering, and other evidence which could help explain the hypothesis…. if it exists or did exist, that is.

    Here is a major one, which I’ve been thinking about while writing my Voynich/Marci letter post: It has been claimed, by my critics, that there was no way that Voynich could have seen the Baresch/Kinner/Marci letters in the Carteggio, because they were “under lock and seal” by the Jesuits. As it turns out, there is absolutely zero evidence that the 2,000 plus letters where treated any differently than those books which Voynich claims to have seen and/or bought from them. And, BTW, it turns out the Carteggio was also in the Villa Mondragone! When this was made clear, that there was nothing known to stop Voynich from seeing the letters… THAT WE KNOW OF… the claim was modified, and I paraphrase, “Well if he did see the letters, he did not have the time, and/or the knowledge of Latin, to successfully peruse the Carteggio so to find the letters necessary to forge a Voynich. It would just be too difficult and time-consuming”.

    I disagree to some extent… we don’t know, for instance, if Voynich may have had that access, that time… he may have. But the challenge did cause me to think about this issue, and do more work on it, and keep it in mind when doing other work on other issues. And taking this rebuttal as correct, for the sake of argument, I wondered: Could there be a “missing link” which would better explain a hypothetical Wilfrid knowledge of the Baresch/Kinner/Marci letters? Could there have been a person, and/or a work, probably unpublished, which would have contained enough information to grease the way for the creation of the Voynich, based on the letters of the Carteggio, by someone other than Voynich? Then shown to Voynich?

    The points which I think support this idea are:

    1) The Villa Mondragone was, at the end of the 19th, and beginning of the 20th centuries, an active and respected Jesuit college. The students were not all Jesuits, in fact, many citizens sent their sons (I do not know if daughters) there for the good education it afforded. This means there were respected professors, and respected professors… Jesuit or not… don’t get that way by spending their time in silent prayer, with blinders on, pacing dusty, dark hallways: They study.

    2) Students also study, and students historically study the archives afforded to them. The archives at the College at the Villa Mondragone contained the correspondence of Athanasius Kircher. Students write student papers, too, about the things they study.

    3) Joseph Strickland, Voynich’s friend, became the head of the College at the Villa, but was closely associated with it previously. See Rene’s site: As Rene points out, not only did Joseph, but his three brothers also, studied there, “As mentioned above, the four brothers studied in Collegio Mondragone.”

    4) During part of the time which Voynich owned the Libreria in Florence Italy, 1908 to 1911, Strickand was in Florence, running a boy’s soccer club (??? I may be in error with the soccer… I can’t find that information at the moment… but he was in Florence during this time), and was politically active. Considering this, and the fact that Voynich was operating a well-known public bookstore in the city, it is not at all improbable that they knew each other at this time.

    5) Voynich is known to have been very good at digging up unknown, rare, works of literature. Certainly part of this ability is always “networking”… you let others know what you are interested in, to “keep their eyes out” for items you want. Every collector does this… when I was an antique camera dealer, I always handed out my cards to people of all types to look out for me, and it paid off quite often. The point being, that since Voynich knew Strickland, and was friends with him… which he was… it is perfectly normal to expect that Strickland would be fully aware that Voynich would be very interested in collections of rare books… but also, rare book leads.*

    So this “missing link” would be something like this: Strickland would have known that the Villa Mondragone contained the Kircher Carteggio, of course. Perhaps then there was also some knowledge of the specific content of the letters: either a thesis, or other report, or list of the contents, prepared by a student… Strickland or his brothers?, or by a professor, or other, at the College. Then, the mention of various works of literature in the collection would have been known, including the Baresch Manuscript, mentioned in his letter to Kircher (with plants unknown to the Germans, in unknown characters, with stars and chemical symbolism). Such information was then passed on to Wilfrid, for his interest… possibly, for his opinion, too. At some point, Wilfrid was afforded access to the collection, by Strickland or other… or to the paper prepared about the collection.

    This “missing link” would address concerns about Voynich’s ability in Latin, and the thought that he may not have the time and/or ability to find this information directly, himself. It is not, in my opinion, strictly necessary that this information exists, but it is, also in my opinion, implied by the chain of events as we know them.

  5. proto57 says:

    As for your other point, where are Baresch’s attempts to decipher the letter… that concern hinges on the belief that the “Baresch Manuscript” (as I call it, as we do not know that this IS the Voynich)… it hinges on the belief that the Baresch Manuscript was some sort of cipher or code writing, as the Voynich appears to be. However, Baresch only writes of “unknown characters”. This is another point I have made: What would have been “unknown” to a 17th century scholar is quite different than what would have been unknown to someone in 1908. That is, most of the scripts that would have baffled Baresch, Kinner, Marci and even Kircher, have long since been understood. So the Baresch Manuscript, whatever it was, by all odds, is something that by now is probably known and readable.

    If that seems a stray, wild, thing to claim, then think of it this way: What are the odds that one of the many scripts not known to these 17th century men, just happened to be one that no one can read, today?

    No, I think it far more likely that someone reading about this “unknown script” had to create an “unknown script” in the 20th century… and we were plum out of them. One had to be invented, that is. I hope I explained that OK, so you understand my point there.

  6. proto57 says:

    As for your point #3, bravo again: Yes, the scanty Baresch description could describe many other works, I think. I can’t go into all my candidates, but in general I believe he could have been describing an Ilyrian herbal. But there are many scripts copied in loose sheets even in the Carteggio, listed by Mr. Neal under exotic scripts, but also not there… just found by perusing the letters. I’m not saying this one is the Holy Grail, but as an example… we have at least an “unknown script” (with notational guesses, it seems), and what might be construed as “chemical symbolism”:

  7. Thank you for the responses, Rich! Your “missing link” idea seems plausible. I had no idea that Wilfrid Voynich’s relationship with the Villa Mondragone in the time before the revelation of the Voynich MS was so…incestuous (in terms of having a close friend running the place). Nowadays, that would NOT fly. If a rare book dealer popped up with a book for auction from a library that his close friend owned, there would be all sorts of questions. (Even more questions if the book dealer were flatly unwilling to disclose his source, as Wilfrid Voynich was during his own lifetime). I find it unbelievable how much people were willing to take Wilfrid Voynich’s word on things back then. I mean, people even thought it was okay to let him continue to traipse around with the original copy and do destructive amateur chemical tests on it. I guess we live in a different day and age now. Nowadays, such antics would immediately call into question an artifact, and any respectable artifact dealer would immediately put the original copy in some sort of scholarly third-party escrow or museum curating while he pitched a carbon-copy to would-be buyers.

    Would it be possible to carbon date the Kircher letters, especially the 1665 one? Imagine if all of them turned out to be dated to roughly around the dates listed on the letters, except for the 1665 one…what a bombshell that would be! Especially if the 1665 letter dated from significantly after 1665, then it would be a more modern forgery for sure! But even if it dated to significantly before 1665, one would have to explain why Marci would use new paper for all of his other letters to Kircher, only to happen to use a piece of already dingy old paper for the 1665 letter.

  8. proto57 says:

    Hi: I have wondered, myself, why Voynich… and this ms. in particular… was not suspected from the start. “A different time” explains some of it, with the initial judgments carrying through to today, with a marked absence of real critical thinking in this area…IMHO.

    But that being said, there are many hints that it was not always so… I cannot find specific source material impugning his reputation, or any work he owned or sold… save the one forgery he did sell.. but have seen many related thoughts on the subject… many “what ifs” over the years. Then it was not until a 1986 article in Cryptologia that the question was raised in print.

    I can’t go into more here, but it goes much further than this work, and what people think, or what they know, about it. The broader picture includes many questions about Voynich, his time, and many other works owned by him and his associates, and so on, and the world of forgeries in general, at this time. But that is another whole can of fish. Suffice it to say that there I believe there is quite another reality than the one known or accepted today, that has not been properly assembled all in one place.

    As for carbon testing the letters, or any other items, that is another subject that I won’t publicly comment on in any detail… although of course it would answer many questions. First of all, it would not be desired, on the part of the owners of these things, to do such tests… for many reasons. But also, it is not… I don’t think… necessary, because there are many other ways to make a better circumstantial case here, without further tests.

    That being said, I do believe I have already made a fine circumstantial case, which is clearly concerning to many… we are at a crossroads in this research, that is… and a large schism has developed, with different groups locking down their positions on this issue. Going forward, that is a good thing for me, in a sense… while the effort has been to freeze the research in a desired outcome, it will actually have the opposite effect… the genuine paradigm, I mean, can no longer properly address these anomalies and concerns, but it cannot survive… I do not believe… by attempting to end the discussion. It only means that progress will only be made in with the alternatives.

  9. Hmmm, this is frustrating…

    I went to reply to Nick Pelling’s latest post:

    And for some reason his spam filter rejected my comment! I really want Nick to see this and engage with it, so I wonder if you could repost this on Nick’s site for me (since you seem to be able to post on there)? Thanks!


    Interesting thoughts, Nick! But there was one thing that I was sure you would mention that you skipped over when talking about “supra-orthographic” structures: the regularities found by Torsten Timm in this paper “How the Voynich Manuscript Was Created.”

    Namely, Torsten Timm put forward three main observations that I find very convincing:
    1. Almost all of the words of the Voynich are a very small “edit distance” away from three core words: dain, ol, and chedy.
    2. Words within a line and words in adjacent lines are more likely to have smaller edit distances.
    3. There are a small number of predictable rules for “allowed” (observed) variations stemming from the three core words.

    Then there’s Brian Cham’s “Curve/Line System”.

    Then there’s Jorge Stolfi’s “Crust/Mantle” paradigm.

    What do I make of all this?

    1. I agree with you that the Voynich Manuscript cannot possibly be a monoalphabetic single-substitution cipher of a natural language. No natural language behaves like this. The Voynich Manuscript is too highly ordered, and there are too many possible combinations of words that DON’T appear simply because the edit-distance rules prohibit it. For example, one could write “defminka” (EVA transcription) in the Voynich alphabet. The Voynich alphabet has all the letters for it. Something like that COULD be a perfectly legitimate word. But you will never find anything like that in the Voynich manuscript because it happens to be too many “edit-distances” away from the three core words. Why only three core words?

    2. The Voynich Manuscript could be encoding music. That’s the only thing I could think of that would fit with the three-core-word paradigm and the highly-orderedness of the text, such that words within lines and lines tend to repeat themselves with very slight variations in between. I know that others have surmised this as well. Perhaps the three core words denote something like certain octaves of C, and the edit-distances away from the core words denote pitch distance from that octave of C, rhythm for that note (eighth, quarter, or half, etc.), and/or other special things for each note? This is the only possibility that I can think of that ISN’T a hoax that would explain the repetitiveness of the text within lines and between lines.

    3. The Voynich Manuscript might be a hoax. You say that the “flatness” of the text goes against this, but Torsten Timm points out in his paper how it would be very easy to produce text that is seemingly random and nonsensical but also ordered, just by starting with three core words and doing many different variations on them following certain edit-distance rules.

    Right now, I lean towards hoax. Still split between “ancient hoax” (c. 1400) of nonsense text, vs. “modern hoax” (c. 1910) of nonsense text using old vellum. Rich SantaColoma’s work is something I eagerly anticipate this coming year.

    And I would find your take on things in this new year of 2016 fascinating IF you would perhaps see it worth your while to engage with the Torsten Timm paper in particular (and perhaps Brian Cham’s work linked above) and, if you disagree with their arguments, explain a little more fully what you find lacking in their arguments. Then I and a few others might be persuaded to back off from the hoax idea.

    P.S. when I tried to submit this comment, it triggered the website spam filter. That kind of frustrating…..

    • proto57 says:

      Hi, Citizen: It is possible that Nick will see your post and comment. I know it can be difficult to pass the filters over at his site.

      As for my future work on this idea, thank you for your support. I have much “in the hopper”, and I think that I can be very productive on a few fronts in the near future.

      Many doors in Voynich research have closed down in response to my advancements on the Modern Voynich hypothesis. Like no other theory, it has caused a great disruption… a schism… in this whole field. Many “genuine 1420 cipher herbal” adherents have withdrawn from the debate in protest, and will no longer discuss this probability.

      To me it is a golden sign that it has real value, to others and not just me (us?), because it seems to worry many genuine theorists a great deal more than any other alternate theory that has come along in the last 100 years.

      Thanks as usual for your comments.

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