positing a pre-Rudolfine history – biographies and a pattern

1. Marcus Marci.

Note: – For some obscure reason, an idea has emerged that Marci had a ‘secret grudge’ against the Society of Jesus, even though all our evidence both direct and circumstantial points to precisely the opposite conclusion.

His association with the Society and other religious persons is a constant theme of his correspondence and his books.  Nor does his having a different point of view on the subject of chemistry in medicine appear to have caused serious rifts in those friendships.  In Philosophia Restituta, for example, he writes of..:

that great man, famed for his teaching, holiness of life and merits, Fr Martinus Santinus of the Society of Jesus, once my honoured professor of sacred theology, who shunned chemistry so much that when he read my theses for the doctorate in medicine, which were purely chemical, he spoke these words to me: “Good God, when did he get into this Labyrinth?” And when I replied that I had just fallen in love with these truths he groaned.

.. as wiser and older professors are wont to do.

Marci remained devoted to Europe’s first Christian church, having intended to be ordained into the Jesuit order but at the last choosing instead to complete his higher degree in medicine. It speaks to his affection for both his teacher and his science that he should have asked Santinus to read his thesis.

Late in life, the Society conferred on Mari the rare honour of an honorary membership. If anyone could have persuaded Kircher to spend time deciphering the manuscript, it was surely he or Father Santini ~ but both failed.

Marci’s  interest in the manuscript and his faith in Kircher’s knowledge never wavered. Neither is there any sign of anxiety about its contents being heretical.  Marci still hoped Kircher might decipher it as late as   January 1667, when Kinner wrote that letter earlier cited.

Had Kircher  been able to identify even the script, I do not think he could have refrained from announcing that fact, even if only in a letter to  Kinner.

Marci’s earlier life had followed a path close to that of the previous possessor, Georg Baresch and both have a surprising number of similarities to that of Jakub Hořčický before them.

– for factual details in these biographies I am indebted to the Biographies page at voynich.nu –

2. – Baresch

Born in Bohemia, Georg Baresch had studied first at the Jesuit College of the Clementium, taking his Bachelor’s degree (baccalaureate) in 1602 and his Doctorate only a year later.

After a gap of three years he went to Rome and entered the university of La Sapienza on  April 27th., 1605.

Had he ended by completing a Doctorate in Theology, he should have been eligible for ordination, but like Marci after him, Baresh turned instead to study of pharmaceutical medicine and  chemistry.  His correspondence is not extant, but it is plain that he remained in touch with both Marci and  Father  Moretus, whose own introduction to Kircher was made by Fr. Santini – the same who was a teacher in theology and who had read Marci’s theses.

When  Baresch first saw the Voynich manuscript we don’t know, but perhaps it was already in his possession before the riding accident which resulted in Jakub’s unexpected death in  1622 at the  Clementium in Prague.

3.- Jakub Hořčický

Jakub’s signature is believed to be that which was inscribed on folio 1r an which still appears under ultra-violet light. He is the first person certainly to have owned the manuscript, and his  life also followed that model which informs the lives of the next three generations of owners, until  Marci gave the manuscript to Kircher.

Raised by the Jesuit community, Jakub was evidently an orphan or foundling, or had perhaps been  rescued from starvation or illness. Like the majority of Europe’s religious orders, the Society of Jesus shouldered responsibility for the poor in the days when governments were chiefly concerned with taxation and making war, less than ensuring their subjects’ well-being.

Jakub thus became effectively adopted by the community and he remained close to two local Jesuit  communities for the rest of his life, bequeathing them his possessions (or most of them) as if to a family.

Though a natural assumption would be that he had given, or entrusted the manuscript to Baresch in fact neither Baresch himself nor anyone else actually  says  that Baresch owned it: only that it was in his house. It may have been kept there, or lent to him as preliminary to an intended gift or bequest. History doesn’t relate, but given that  Marci knew Baresch well and held a high opinion of his character (another common element in the line of successive owners), I do not think it necessary to imagine that Baresch had come by the manuscript improperly. Had that been the case, he would have asserted ownership and made the claim (which he does not) that it had been given to him to keep.  His not adding it to Hořčický’s estate in 1622 may indicate that Jakub had intended to bequeath it to him. But to speculate further  is unproductive.

That he had a good character may be understood by Marci’s description of the man he had known for forty years. He  writes warmly of him in Philosophia Restituta, expressing his joy at hearing that  Kircher read it:

When, 40 years ago, I made the acquaintance of Mr Georgius Barschius, a man of great experience in chemical matters, which we often discussed, I bitterly resisted the things he would say, which were then new to me and not so concordant with my philosophy. He was more versed in the works of nature than in sophistry of that kind and replied that I would feel differently when I had experience of these things. In short order he became my faithful friend for all those years. He was a man of upright life, which he lived out as a bachelor until his seventieth year. When he was dying he made me the inheritor of his collections and chemical library.

It has to be kept in mind that Baresch never managed to read the manuscript. Whatever his ‘chemical philosophy’ it was not derived directly from our text, though if Sinapius had known the key, it is possible that Barschius had learned much of the same matter indirectly.

In these accounts and correspondence within and around the circle of the Jesuits in Rome and Prague, it is striking that there is an absence of pressure to conform.  In this internet age, it is not uncommon to find that holding a philosophy or point of view which differs from another person’s is assumed  to preclude any friendship developing – and not rarely taken as  a declaration of war.  Not so  in seventeenth century Europe – at least not inevitably.

Boys with the requisite interest and intelligence among those adopted by the Jesuit community were, as these instances show,  assisted through higher school and even through university if they wished.  At the same time – again as Jakub’s example shows – when an individual decided against entering the priesthood, their chosen vocation was just as positively encouraged.

Jakub was first entered into the  Poor Students’  Seminary at Krumlov (1590). For an orphan or foundling, this  opened a way out of the lower castes in European society.  The church had been the chief (almost the only) vehicle for social mobility from the time of Charlemagne until the rise of the mercantile class.

However, Jakub seems to have found the style of academic  philosophy uncongenial, even as his interest grew stronger in botany and pharmacy.  He was given use of a garden owned by the Jesuit community, together with the space and equipment needed to pursue his interest in pharmacy.

Now, to complete his  formal qualification and apprenticeship, the community appointed as his mentor a well-known and respected chemist named Martin Schaffner (1564- c.1608).  In that way,  Jakub went on to become a man of  considerable renown and wealth himself, twice rewarded and elevated to the ranks of nobility by the Emperor, though he continued to live chiefly  in the community, as it were in his childhood  home.

Exactly when Jakub first came to own the manuscript we don’t know, but it is inscribed with the name granted him in the year that Schaffner died (1608), and when Jakub had been called to attend the Emperor and had cured him of a serious illness. I do not think it unreasonable that he was called as Schaffner’s successor, nor to posit that just as Baresch and Marci would have it as fellow pharmacists and ‘alchemists’ so too Jakub might have inherited it from Schaffner.

It is also possible that Rudolf did have it, and gave it as a gift in that year, but the fact remains that Jakub himself could have afforded to buy it at some time thereafter, even at Mnishovsky’s fabulous price of 600 ducats.

What makes me strongly disinclined to believe Mnishovsky’s story is not only the lack of any supporting factual evidence, but also the evident fact that no-one else ever suggested or recalled such a thing, and a notable book with so notable a provenance could scarcely go unremarked. Jakub has to be supposed not to have mentioned it to any of his friends, or none of them to have ever recalled that this young man, though so lowly, had been so honoured.  Nor was Baresch told it, apparently, nor Marci after him – except at some stage by Mnishovsky. It is important that Marci adds no other name as reference or confirmation, though Jakub’s signature in those days was plainly visible.

Whether Jakub had the key to the cipher we don’t know.

I think it was – and may be  – in the manuscript still. (More on this, subsequently).

Schaffner’s history, if it were better known, might reveal the same pattern: brought up or educated under the auspices of Jesuit scholars, a scholar at the Clementium and perhaps in Rome; initially considering the priesthood but at the last turning from theology to medicine.

Perhaps one day we’ll know.

* In a post dated Nov.27th., 2004, a correspondent to the old mailing list also cautions:

. .we do not even know if Jacobus was born near Krumlov: there are two Bojanovice in Moravia and one in Bohemia (not too close to Krumlov, but not too far). Tepenec of course is in Moravia, but it was in ruins when Horczicky was born..

In sum:

If Mnishovsky’s assertions are ignored, as I believe they were until Voynich’s time, then a realistic line for the manuscript’s transmission becomes evident through the period 1608 to 1665 and possibly – if Schaffner is posited as previous owner – from 1570 or so.

In each case, we find that the manuscript’s current owner is a man of good character, within the circle of scholars and members of the  Society. He is a person of intelligence, having a high level of education for those times; has studied philosophy and even some theology but stopped short of ordination, instead to follow a vocation in  pharmacy.

The manuscript’s certain provenance before Wilfrid Voynich thus begins and ends among that  wider circle attached to, or very closely associated with, the Society of Jesus and its educational institutions.

Of them all, Baresch stood at the  greatest distance from this circle, but had also studied at the Clementium and La Sapienza. To Marci (whose own life followed the same pattern) Baresch bequeathed the manuscript.

Its working life may have ended with Kircher, but without Kircher it would probably not have survived. To European eyes it appears bizarre, even ugly – and definitely ‘not one of ours’. The Jesuit College preserved it, and Beck chose it to be among those salvaged above what were certainly hundreds just as old.

To the Church then, as now to the Beinecke Rare Books collection at Yale, we are all indebted for the manuscript’s survival.