The Primer for the Voynich Forgery

The modern forgery hypothesis for the Voynich Manuscript is to some extent based on the many striking similarities between illustrations in the work to those found or described in many other works of all ages. Most of the comparisons are anachronistic, and so they should not be in the Voynich if it is genuine and as old as suggested. And some of these comparisons have been made by me, but a great many more have been made by dozens of others over the last century, whether or not those people suspect or suspected the Voynich is a fake. These comparisons alone are not the only reasons to damn the Voynich, but they are a powerful foundation for this understanding, as they are and should be for many other historical fakes. I intend to list many of these sources in a future post, in many cases showing the actual illustrations and their locations, and how and why they were probably used in the Voynich.

But this post is about the book I believe is the “primer”, or “outline”, for the construction of the Voynich Forgery. It does not actually have good image comparisons, because it was not directly used as a source for them. But what I’ve come to believe that this book was the core influence and framework to create the Voynich around, to build it on. I think the stories and references in it, about the people, sciences and literature mentioned in it were the guides used to collect the very many illustrative elements used to build the Voynich. This book was the very popular 1904 The Follies of Science at the Court of Rudolph II, 1576-1612, by Henry Carrington Bolton.

Rudolf with his alchemist

Almost each and every one of the items, sciences, people, events, and more, which a great many people have suspected appear in the Voynich, can also be found in “Follies”. When I first read the book I found myself saying, page after page, “That’s in the Voynich, and that, and that...”.

I believe Wilfrid’s original intent was to make the Voynich look as though it was a work from the hand of the (probably invented) Christian Hořčický, a character who Bolton places as the owner of the (also imaginary?) “The City Pharmacy” in the Capitol of Bohemia. Perhaps Wilfrid’s intention was that it looked to have been owned or written by him, or written and/or owned by his son, Jakub Hořčický. The latter is real, and was actually the chief botanist and physician to Rudolf II. In any case, the Voynich manuscript practically leaps from the pages of the faulty but imaginative Bolton work, and specifically seems to be related to the work of these two men in relation to the Court. As icing inked on the proverbial cake, Jakob Hořčický actually “signed” the Voynich, as Jacobus de Tepencz.

And both Hořčický’s figure largely in “Follies”, for their skills as a botanist and pharmacist. As an example, on page 150, “Jacob’s knowledge of botany was of great assistance to Christian Horcicky in the collection and identification of medicinal plants, both indigenous and exotic…”

Read that last and think, among many things related to the VMs plants, the phrase from the Letters of the Kircher Carteggio, “plants unknown to the Germans”. And think of the work of Jim and John Comegys, and Tucker, Janick, Bax, and others, in identifying many Voynich plants as Native American species. In fact, Native American plants and remedies are actually mentioned in Bolton, on page 146, “The little explored New World across the Atlantic had begun to contribute its valuable remedies, notably china root, cosa, sarsaparilla and tobacco”.

Bolton’s book is full of errors and imaginative reconstructions, as we have long understood. Nonetheless it was very popular in the early part of the 20th century, and provided the basis for most people’s understanding of Rudolf’s Court. And “surprise”, it was a favorite of Voynich’s, and he even claimed to “know it by heart”. Furthermore, Voynich himself cited the book for a presumed/projected connection to the court, as early as 1921, in his lecture “A Preliminary Sketch“. He does not place the origins of the book in the Court, but had by then been projecting the familiar “provenance” that it passed through it. He cites Bolton to firm up a Dee/Rudolf II connection. 

Furthermore, in Voynich’s notes, now kept in the Beinecke library, is a list of about twenty names mentioned in “Follies”. They are listed in Voynich’s hand, in order, and with the page numbers they appear on in Bolton. This has been cited as evidence that Wilfrid turned to the work to find answers about his Bacon Cipher, but of course it can equally be seen the other way around: That he listed the people in Follies in order to look them up, and build the Voynich from further research based on them. In my opinion, the latter is far more likely, considering the more than coincidental similarity between the Voynich and The Follies at the Court of Rudolf II. It would have been pretty surprising to me if he was using Bolton to identify the Voynich, but that he somehow missed the great similarities between the two.

The Voynich community has not missed it. Whether or not they are willing to admit or acknowledge it, they have noted these similarities, even though often dismissing them with deeply ingrained preconceptions about what the Voynich “is”, and what it “should not” and “cannot” be.

Ed Kelly with Shew-Stone? Bolton, pp. 5, 6, 7, 8, 21, 32, 39 (illus.)& 43.

Among the items in Follies which mirror items seen or suspected in the Voynich, or are thought by many to have some connection with it, are: Medicinal plants, plants and animals of the New World, microscopes and telescopes, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, dried herbs, pharmaceuticals, medicine, human anatomy, the Zodiac, the microcosm and macrocosm, Cabbalistic Philosophy, the New Atlantis, the works and practices of John Dee and Edward Kelly, Cornelis Drebbel, Utopian-ism, Roger Bacon, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Francis Bacon, Rosicrucian-ism, Hebrew sciences, art and lore, and far more. Many of these are quite specific, showing a plausible thread to the specific source mentioned in Follies. As just one example, Conrad Gessner’s 1551 “History of Animals” is mentioned on page 212. Then, among the illustrations in Gessner is one of the closest armadillo matches to the f80v Voynich animal, showing the particular use of the pointy ears and upturned snout.

Semi-curled F80V animal on left, 1551 Gessner Armadillo on right.

But the list of connections between Bolton’s work and the Voynich is tremendous, and too long for the purposes of this post. I would recommend anyone interested in the Voynich to read Bolton’s book. Whether they think the Voynich rock-solid genuine, or a forgery, or are on the fence, the references in Follies undeniably reflect the entire history of research into the manuscript. I think that in order to believe there is no connection between the two, that this many “Voynich-like” references are all just happen to be in this one book, simply strains credibility.

But if this is the primer used to create the Voynich Manuscript, how did it come about? Well most forgeries don’t appear out of thin air. They are often copies of other works, or styles, and often draw on previous known genuine items, or illustrations of them from books and catalogs. And in some cases, primers like this have been used. One good example is the Vineland Map forgery, which was revealed because of several errors of the forger: Stylistically, and by using wrong materials, by copying errors from source materials, and with literary “tells”. One mistake in particular identifies the possible primer used for source material, and as an overall inspiration. From Wikipedia,

“Another point calling the map’s authenticity into question was raised at the 1966 Conference: that one caption referred to Bishop Eirik of Greenland “and neighboring regions” (in Latin, “regionumque finitimarum”), a title known previously from the work of religious scholar Luka Jelic (1863–1922). An essay by British researcher Peter Foote for the Saga Book of the Viking Society (vol. 11, part 1), published shortly after the conference, noted that German researcher Richard Hennig had spent years, before the Vinland Map was revealed, fruitlessly trying to track Jelic’s phrase down in medieval texts. It seemed that either Jelic had seen the Vinland Map and promised not to reveal its existence (keeping the promise so rigidly that he never mentioned any of the other new historical information on the map), or that he had invented the phrase as a scholarly description, and the Vinland Map creator copied him. In practice, because Jelic’s work had gone through three editions, Foote was able to demonstrate how the first edition (in French) had adopted the concept from the work of earlier researchers, listed by Jelic, then the later editions had adapted the anachronistic French scholarly phrase “évèque régionnaire des contrées américaines” into Latin.”

Whomever created the Vinland Map Forgery was probably using the work of Luca Jelic as a primer. Well, among other influences, such as the Bianco World map as engraved in the work of Fromaleoni,

“[John Paul] Floyd also contends that the creator of the Vinland map must have made use of an 18th-century engraving of the 1436 Bianco map by Vincenzio Formaleoni (1752–97), since the Vinland map appears to reproduce several of Formaleoni’s copying errors.”

Probable source engraving for the Vinland Forgery (author photograph, NYPL 2013)

For anyone interested in the story of the Vinland map forgery story, I strongly recommend the works Maps, Myths, and Men, by Kirsten A. Seaver, and A Sorry Saga: Theft, Forgery, Scholarship… and the Vinland Map, by John Paul Floyd.

So like this example, and many others in the history of forgery, forgeries are often created using information and illustrations from specific, identifiable source materials. Then, by the type and quantity of those materials, the forgery can both be uncovered, and those sources revealed. In the case of Wilfrid, and his Voynich, I contend that the evidence points to the Bolton work as the primary source, although as I pointed out, I feel I have identified dozens of others used to “flesh out” the forgery. But deserving mention is the oft cited letters of the Kircher Carteggio, used as “proof” that the Voynich existed as far back as the 17th century, and is therefore not a modern forgery.

Well the problem with this supposed evidence is multi-fold: First of all, as I have pointed out, the information in those letters is not only a very poor description of the Voynich, but when comparing those descriptions to the Voynich, they actually work against it being the work described there. For more information on that, please read The Voynich has no Provenance. However, I do believe that Voynich was quite aware of those descriptions in those letters, and did use the presence of them to invent a thread of provenance, as tenuous as it is. In any case, it worked. It may have happened long after Voynich was gone, but he did give little winks and nods in the direction of the Carteggio, hoping I am sure that such a “discover” would have been made in his lifetime.

Many historical forgeries were created to “replace” a missing item, which mentioned in some record. Doing so serves the purpose of creating instant provenance, while keeping the forger reasonably certain the original will remain lost or unidentified. Some forgers have gone as far as to forge the historical reference, too! The power of even the weakest provenance cannot be underestimated, and forgers have always been quite aware of this.

So along with the primer The Follies of Science in the Court of Rudolf II, I think that Voynich’s knowledge of a “lost herbal” mentioned in the Carteggio both served and were combined to begin the forgery, which was then constructed from the myriad of sources we see in that work, today. Follies was a best seller, and created great interest in the wild and colorful world of the controversial Emperor Rudolf II. An equally colorful work springing from that now popular pseudo-history would be very appealing, and thus valuable, to many collectors… if found and identified. And since not known nor found, Voynich simply created it, as forgers often do.

But it seems, for some reasons both obvious, and some others still unclear- but perhaps understandable- Wilfrid Voynich dropped Jakob and “Christian” Hořčický, and the Bolton version of Court of Rudolf II as sources for his forgery, and instead substituted a new projected and false provenance, and authorship at the hand of Roger Bacon. Well, among the reasons was certainly the growing interest in Bacon, roughly coinciding with the 700th anniversary of that man’s birth, coming soon in 1914.

But that is a topic best left for another time.

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2 Responses to The Primer for the Voynich Forgery

  1. Pingback: The Sources for the Voynich Forgery |

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