The Voynich has no Provenance

There is no written evidence that can be used as provenance for the famous and enigmatic Voynich Manuscript. Although it is claimed that certain 17th century mentions of a manuscript are the Voynich, on close examination these fail to satisfy the most basic standards of proof that the work existed back then.

This claimed provenance is in a small selection of 17th century letters to and from the Jesuit Polymath, Athanasius Kircher. These include mentions of a mysterious, unintelligible manuscript. From them, we learn that a Georg Baresch is the first assumed owner of the manuscript they describe. But these descriptions do not actually come close to identifying it as the Voynich Manuscript, which is why I’ve long suggested that a more proper name for it would be the “Baresch Manuscript”.

But is the Baresch Manuscript also the Voynich? We cannot know, because the descriptions alone are very poor, as you will see. In fact, there is even good reason to believe that these descriptions work against it being the Voynich.

Let’s look critically at the actual wording of the sources, and what they tell us. Philip Neal’s excellent page, listing the letters, with transcriptions, translations and notes, is a valuable resource to understanding these issues. The letter portions describing the Baresch Manuscript, as translated by Philip are:

1639, Athanasius Kircher to Theodorus Moretus

As for the book filled with some sort of mysterious steganography which you enclosed with your letter, I have looked at it and have concluded that it requires application rather than insight in its solver. I can recall solving many writings of this kind when the occasion presented itself, and the itch of my mind working would have tried out some ideas on it if only many very urgent tasks did not call me away from unsuitable work of this kind. However, when I have more free time and can take advantage of a more suitable moment, I expect I shall try to solve it when the mood and inspiration take me.

This probably is referring to the Baresch Manuscript by context, but the only descriptive in it is “mysterious steganography”. Since Kircher was often tasked by many people, to resolve many different mysterious unknown languages and ciphers in his lifetime, this in no way points to the Voynich itself.

Finally, I can let you know that the other sheet which appeared to be written in the same unknown script is printed in the Illyrian language in the script commonly called St Jerome’s, and they use the same script here in Rome to print missals and other holy books in the Illyrian language.

This passage from the letter has, in the past, been used to infer that this is the Voynich, as that manuscript’s characters do share some vague similarities to Illyrian, or “Glagolitic”. However, it is not the “same unknown script”, but refers to another item entirely. That is “… the other sheet”, and not, “… the book filled with some sort of mysterious steganography” itself.



So even if the book mentioned here was the Voynich, the sheet is a different item, so any resemblance to “Illyrian” is irrelevant anyway.

1637, Georgius Barschius to Athanasius Kircher:

Using Philip’s entire translation is unnecessary, although interesting, and can be read here. But the only descriptive phrases are as follows, and constitute the majority of the descriptions often claimed to identify this work as the Voynich:

“Now since there was in my library, uselessly taking up space, a certain riddle of the Sphinx, a piece of writing in unknown characters…”

“From the pictures of herbs, of which there are a great many in the codex, and of varied images, stars and other things bearing the appearance of chemical symbolism, it is my guess that the whole thing is medical…”

“In fact it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine (he would have grasped that popular medicine here in Europe is of little value). He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany”

“… and bring forth the good (if any there is) buried in unknown characters in this book.”

“I here append a line or two of the unknown script to revive your memory of it, having previously sent a whole file of similar characters.”

First of all, there are the obvious omissions of many Voynich features which would better identify it. Where are the naked women, the zodiac, the pipes, tubes and “cylinders”, and so much more. Also, there is no mention of the “signature” of Tepencz, which was visible to Voynich in 1912, and therefore should have been even more visible to these men.

As for the phrase, “chemical symbolism”. It has been noted that the Voynich is particularly lacking of anything which would fit this description, at least that a 17th century polymath would ordinary recognize as such. So what possible content, in the Voynich we know today, would be described this way?

17c Alchemy Symbols

Actual “chemical symbols” to a 17c Polymath

Yet another problem is the statement, “unknown characters”. Yes, there are many which may have been unknown to our 17c writers. But the Voynich Ms. also has many “known” characters, such as the Latin letters a, c, m, o, and so on. Likewise, the common Latin plural shorthand suffix, the “9-like” figure, appended to the end of many words. There are also several numbers, such as the “4”, and possibly “4o”. But this may be a smaller point.

Nonetheless, for all the reasons above, I strongly disagree with the common claim that there is “no doubt” at all that this letter was referring to the Voynich manuscript. René Zandbergen uses this claim as the main pillar of written provenance, which I feel it in no way deserves. From Smolka, J. and R. Zandbergen: Athanasius Kircher und seine erste Prager Korrespondenz (Google translation),

His description of the manuscript, with numerous illustrations of herbs, and various other things, including constellations, leave no doubt that it is the Voynich manuscript.

For one thing, the actual term from the letter is “Astrorum”, which translates to “stars”, not “constellations”. Here is just one example in which the evidence is altered and adapted to better fit what we see in the Voynich, thus seeming to strengthen its value. In this case, because the Voynich does appear to show constellations, although there is argument as to the identity (Pleiades is the best match for one, though). But the point I am making is that the spare and almost universally applicable descriptions in the letters are tailor-fit to what we see in the Voynich, when they do not actually constitute anything close to an adequate description.

These meager and mostly inapplicable descriptions very much “leave doubt” that the Voynich was seen and described by these men, in the 17th century.

1640, Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher:

“The Sph*nx will understand from the attached sheet what my friend Mr Georg Barschius wanted to have written by me.”

This is the only reference to the manuscript in this letter, and does not describe it.

1665/66, Johannes Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher:

This letter is the one that Wilfrid Voynich claimed to have found in the manuscript itself. I personally find this letter highly suspect for many reasons, which may be found here:

But whether or not one considers the letter real or a forgery, this is the only description in it, and it relates to provenance:

“Doctor Raphael, the Czech language tutor of King Ferdinand III as they both then were, once told me that the said book belonged to Emperor Rudolph and that he presented 600 ducats to the messenger who brought him the book. He, Raphael, thought that the author was Roger Bacon the Englishman.”

Clearly, this letter does not offer any description of the referenced book, let alone any which could remotely identify it as the Voynich Manuscript. At best, even if this letter is real, it refers to the Baresch Manuscript, and we do not know if that is the Voynich.

1666, Godefridus Aloysius Kinner to Athanasius Kircher:

“You will be the occasion of even greater joy if your craft and skill can uncover the interpretation of that arcane book which he gave up to you, and I would dearly like to know myself.”

Again, this letter offers no useful description which would identify it as the Voynich Manuscript. A great many works would have seemed “arcane” to even the greatest minds of the time.

And the above comprises the full extent of all written provenance for the Voynich. Well, there is one other claim made, but of even lesser value, and I don’t feel it should be considered.

An additional point is that of the great many characters, languages, plants and sciences that were “unknown” to these men, most of them were well known by 1912, when Wilfrid “found” the Voynich. It is too much of a coincidence for me to accept that Wilfrid Voynich just happened to “find” a work, in 1912, which would be considered both unintelligible and unidentifiable to Baresch/Marci/Kinner and Kircher, and still would be the unknown, to a scholar, by 1912! Or for that matter, today.

For the remaining, unknown, still indecipherable scripts, in 1912 or even to this day, we have some idea about them. They fit in some historical context. We might know family origin, the age, geography, chronology or have an idea of the culture behind them. That is, they are explainable to some degree, although unknown. Scripts and languages such as Linear A, or Rongo Rongo. For the Voynich, it fits nowhere into our understanding of the entire history of human language.


So these men were describing some manuscript they could not interpret. That is not in dispute. But the descriptions in these letters do not come close to a level of proof that the manuscript being discussed is also the Voynich Manuscript. Yes, a few items loosely match lesser elements of the Voynich, such as the stars, the unknown script and plants. But this content would also describe a great many other works, and yet more important identifying features of the Voynich are not even mentioned. It also stretches credibility that of all the unknown works which confronted and confounded these men in their time, and considering that most of them were solved or at least understood, in the ensuing centuries, we just happen to have appear on the scene in 1912 the one work they (supposedly) saw, that would still be unidentifiable.

No, if one even believes there is any connection between the Voynich and these letters, it far more likely that they were an inspiration to create the Voynich as a forgery, and so create the impression of written provenance. If so, spare as that evidence is, it worked, and is inexplicably working even today. And my scenario would be far from rare, as forgers throughout history have created fakes which matched genuine descriptions of recorded, but missing items, and even created and inserted false provenance in catalogs and collections. I think both were done here, by using the genuine letters of the Kircher Carteggio for the former, and the forged 1665/66 Marci-Kircher letter for the latter.

I’ve often said that if the Voynich Manuscript, with Wilfrid’s implausible and contradictory tales of discovery, along with the sketchy “provenance” of the Letters, let alone the anomaly- and anachronism-riddled manuscript itself… if they all suddenly appeared for the first time today, they would be laughed off the stage of literary scholarship as a strikingly transparent hoax. Faith in this manuscript only survives because it is propped up by the unfortunate baggage of a more than a century of wishful thinking, along with an unfounded trust in, and reliance on, the word of Voynich. And this is all processed using long outdated, far lesser standards of acceptance and judgment than we would come close to accepting today.

By any rational, common sense standards, the Voynich Manuscript clearly has no provenance at all.


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18 Responses to The Voynich has no Provenance

  1. john sanders says:

    Another fine pursuave argument from proto 57, our always affable intuitive and most thought provoking proponent for a rather poorly replicated medieval imposter more correctly titled Voynich’s 1910 Manuscript. Apart from not having even one proven element of prior ownership that might be considered provenance, except possibly for the Mondragone assistant keeper of aged bovine velum (half joking); it is well apparent it’s creator wasn’t overly perturbed that his ‘ugly duckling’ could not fool a person average intellect forever…little did he realise how degraded future scholastic reasoning would become in the decades following his little well meant deception.

    So much has been offered in weight of evidence by proto 57 and in attempting to convince otherwise those poor blind souls who are yet to agree on a variety of alleged past VM owners. Methinks our ever patient advocate of NO pre Wilfrid Voynich provinance as a reality, is whistling in the wind when it comes to renegade Rene Z and his supplicates. Such a pity that our good ol’ boy from Tennessee was short changed on essential C3/4 & Cam transfer data when he fed those four slivers of UNIDENTIED calf skin into that dumb ASA C14 number crunching gizmo. Had the hide been from Australian merino sheep, test results could not have been in any doubt, alas.

    • proto57 says:

      Hi John! Thank you for your comments.

      I choose to not be quite as harsh on anyone who accepts and promotes these meager references as anything useful, because there is a sense on the part of many that they are “protecting” the Voynich from “attacks”. Like protecting a family member in a way, from slanderous accusations. That is not a guess on my part, I’ve seen it worded that way… that a forgery theory is “impugning” the Voynich, and the reputations of Wilrid and anyone since, who believes this “solemn mockery” is real.

      And that defense is noble in a way, and understandable in that context.

      But it is nice to realize that many, as you do, see through this. It is stunning to be told, by so many, over and over, that this provenance is “not in doubt”, while all the great many problems with the Voynich simply don’t exist. Of course the evidence against this being real FAR outweighs the evidence it could be real (well, there is none, really), but we are not to notice, or relate that “Sorry Saga”, as the recent book on the Vinland Map calls that other Yale forgery (I often think of poor Yale, whose two most famous holdings are both bad forgeries… there is a HUGE reputation incentive to keep the dust down on that reality).

      And on the flip side, it is amazing to me to see people digging in every little dusty corner of every collection in the world, for over a century now, and while not finding one bit of acceptable evidence this manuscript was actually on the planet before about 1910 (let alone anything remotely similar, that would show it is a part of anything other than a “one man” show), they STILL defend the nothings that have been found as the gospel truth, and say WE are the misguided ones.

      But like the old joke that has the punch line, “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your own lying eyes?!”…

      We have eyes, and a bit of simple common sense.

      • proto57 says:

        Great quote, which sums up the above:

        “Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find professionals— art historians, museum curators, and even well-known archaeologists— championing these fake works. Some of these erstwhile defenders suffer from the “missing link of history” syndrome, in which the most glaring errors of a forgery are dimsissed in the desire to see a fraudulent work as a legitimate copy of some now-lost, previously unknown, ancient manuscript. The discovery of said manuscript— or at least its ever so faithful copy— is guaranteed to plug major holes in scholarship as well as rocket its discoverer to fame, fortune, and guest appearances on the Today Show— or even better, invitations to weekends at well-heeled collectors’ country estates. Those suffering from the “missing link” syndrome are perhaps the most dangerous because their misplaced enthusiasm, coupled with their professional reputations, presents the greatest opportunities for the pollution of science to arise.”- Nancy L. Kelker & Karen O. Bruhns, “Faking Mesoamerica”

  2. john sanders says:

    I’m personally worried that, with regard to our resident collection of Voynich authorities of an early fifteenth century creation bent; that they may not be still entitled to boast of their oft cited scholastic and academic credentials after the Medieval walls come a tumblin down around their hitherto undeniable fancies….As for Dianne’s removal from VN input, I might not agree with almost anything she brings to the table, but she’s more polite in her arguments than most and it would not be fair to have her voice stifled.

  3. john sanders says:

    One interesting point that Dianne did raise quite some while ago that I immediately jumped upon gleefully was with regard to the presence of a compass point used in constructing the quite perfectly formed concentric rings of f57v. She of course was not questioning the age criteria for the post medieval invention of the modern day lead pencil type instrument which did not come into common useage until the late eighteenth century, as those of historical invention knowledge should be well cognisant. Not withstanding compasses for similar purpose, without lead had been around since Pythagoras was a lad..

    I commented on this additional anomally in a post along similar lines only a month or so ago on Nick’s site, to no accompanying acclaim or even response to which I’ve become well used. Just a few days back however another mostly unsung VM voice in the form of Tamam Shud contributor Byron Devesion, raised a thinly disguised innocent question along these very same lines. Byron of course being a little more senior than I and with undoubted better scientific credentials was given fair hearing, albeit in a fob offish manner by Pelling who cited previous discussion from the past to qualify his rebuttal that the matter was resolved in the medieval affirmitive.

  4. john sanders says:

    Finally we have someone of impecable credentials coming right out and revealing with well earned authority that Voynich’s Manuscript …” is only a century old problem “. Of course proto57 has been saying that for ten years which would allow for the ten year (give or take) discrepency, but nonetheless it takes courage to fly in face of one’s medievally bent peers and finally admit the non provencial truth. We can only hope that others besides Koen might too see the same fake writing on the suspect velum and come out to celebrate their new awakening..

    • proto57 says:

      Hi John: My understanding is that Koen believes the Voynich to be from the fifteenth century, lock stock and barrel. I can’t find the quote, “… it is only a century old problem.” by him anywhere… could you point me to it? Thanks…

  5. john sanders says:

    Speak abiut the quick and the dead Rich. It was up on Ninja just yesterday and a misquote in all probability which I grabbed with glee, though it’s gobe now.. Anyway who sez Wilfrid’s manuscript has no provinance; Hows about H. P. Kraus, Lily’s estate and her direct ownership from the uncintested will of the original owner/author.

    • proto57 says:

      Oh that’s fine, John, and thank you. I was of course curious. Was it in the second Marci thread that I started? You probably saw that. As you can see there, the same thing has happened that always happens: The problems, as in anomolies, anachronisms, with images, materials, and provenance, are never addressed with any degree of satifaction.

      These problems, and the questions I pose about them, are either misunderstood or misstated, and the answers don’t apply to the actual problem… or, if they do apply, they don’t make rational or logical sense.

      I’m always trying to filter and parse through the answers, by the different respondents, to try and figure out who does not understand the question, truly, and who actually does, and is simply deflecting from the implications of that question. I think I can sometimes tell, but not always.

      For instance, I truly believe that the questions about the Marci letter folds was not understood. Instead, there was a deflection into the definition of “envelope”, and the projection that I must simply not understand what sort of epistles were sent back in the 17th century, and that I was somehow trying to equate these folded letters of the Carteggio with a letter I might “drop in a mailbox”.

      So: Did this person not read, with care, my Marci post? Or did they read it, and chose to misstate the question and problem? In that case, I believe the person didn’t take the time to understand the folding problem with the Marci letter, that they were genuinely assuming I was an idiot, and blind, and simply didn’t know enough about letters in the 17th century. Also, that they had not tried to fold their own copy of it, which makes it a slam dunk… and the question would not have been asked.

      On the contrary, the person who chooses to IGNORE the folding question, and continues to falsely claim they have “answered all questions”, I believe, DOES understand this problem, and the others, but also continues to choose to either ignore those questions, or misstate the problems, or give answers that SEEM to address them, but never really do.

      So I always have to stay focused… because what the motivations, or practice, or view of these anomalies of their paradigm are, and whether or not they are actually absorbing, correctly, the problems, and then, whether they are really, critically thinking about them, with no bias, and answering, without prejudiced…

      … is a huge rabbit hole I cannot be sucked into. It does not matter. All that matters is that I do address the problems, and questions posed, and rebut the rebuttals accurately. Why? Why does that matter, when the people involved, for whatever reason, will not really think about nor ever properly address the anomalies?

      And that is the nut of it, the “why?” it matters: This is not about them, it is about what the Voynich is. My form of discussion, or argument, or what have you, is to test my own ideas against those who strongly believe the Voynich to be genuine, and 1420, and/or European. So I beg and cajole and argue with these believers, in an attempt to get them to tell me why I am wrong, why we are wrong, so that I can regroup if necessary. It is a constant test to see if I am wrong, that is. In the past, it has been very helpful, to jog me loose from some incorrect ideas… and I’ve moved forward, partially because of such arguments. Good arguments against my ideas, I mean, have come from the defenders of the 1420 Paradigm, as to why it was not by Drebbel, and was not from the 17th century, and was not a reflection of Bacon’s New Atlantis, and so on…

      I mean, I do listen to good arguments, and I can prove that by my willingness to move. But what has happened these last few years is that they have stalled… they either ignore the question, or cannot answer it. I get illogical and/or moot responses, or simply implausible, often hypocritical and mutually contradictory opinions… sometimes, from the same person, in the same rebuttal! I get snarkiness, or insult, mockery, accusations, what have you.

      What I DON’T get in return is a good argument as to why this thing is not from 1908/10, and not, probably, by Wilfrid. They have now stalled, and for a long time. All this, all these responses, and the inability to support their case, and rebut mine… whether they know it or not, or care or not, that they have not made their case, is irrelevant. Who or how many believe them, is irrelevant. What this all tells me, these arguments tell me, is that they are wrong.

      Whether they realize it or not, whether they truly believe this very obvious dog of a forgery is real or not, whether they think me smart, stupid, agenda driven, or right on target are all irrelevant. That they cannot counter this theory is what becomes increasingly obvious by the responses… whether anyone or no one notices is not the question, nor should be of concern to me. That is a distraction I try to avoid: What is of importance is the continuing inability of ANYONE to defend 1420 Genuine European Cipher Herbal, or anyone to properly and convincingly explain why 1910 Forgery is wrong.

      I think I can pretty much say they have had enough time to do one, or both, and have failed.

  6. john sanders says:


    You know it, I know it, one simply can’t reason with the blind eyed obstinance displayed by those types who have been cajoled and conditioned to accepting views expressed by those authorities they rely on for guidance with total acquiescance. Those so called all knowing superior entities thus provide a subtle path for other lesser lights to offer some of their own nebulous non contentious points which satisfy their egos and ultimately the status quo, allbeit with little to show apart from continued harmony within the clique…Does anyone remember the song about Vincent (Van Gough) or Stary stary night…They don’t listen, their not listening still..I guess they never will..

  7. john sanders says:


    Why you continue to pursue the planted Marci letter, particilarly with the likes of Rene Z. I know not. For mine the man lost all credibility when he fudged the carbon dating tests with Greg at A.U. in 2009. Whether deliberate, which I’d like not to believe, or by ineptitude ( more likely) in misleading apropos calogen test samples, dietry intake of the donor variables ie. c3/c4 transfers which are still an unknown, he had the chance to come clean and didn’t. Even when the possibility of error was countenanced, by me on more than the one occasion, the guy didn’t budge. Baring in mind Beneike may have forked out for a service more likely as not to be 450 years south of the correct period ie. circa 1910, Rene Z must bare the brunt of culpablility.

  8. Sharon Jones says:

    Hi Richard, There is an exact quote from the Voynich Manuscript that is about eight words long and transposed into the Latin script (exactly matching Eva!) that was published in a governmental historical record in about the 1850’s. If its a 1850’s fake insertion that would mean these 8 Voynich words were planted and buried in a 1200 page book waiting for someone to find it, which is in-congruent to the context the quote was given in, which ridiculed using the ‘Voynich’ language! Anythings possible but I’ve lost my source and need the help of a librarian. I’m not going to publish the quote but if your interested in researching it you can have the eight words and a few details. My focus is on translation. If all the early claimed provenance is pure invention then perhaps this is also, but perhaps not, it’s a completely different story, there are no fantasy castles, no Italy, no Siberian prisons and no indication the quote was not completely understood! My focus is on the language and translation because the unending volume of hypothetically related history while interesting may all be completely irrelevant.

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