“dictio probatorio” – catalogue descriptions and the Vms

People interested in the Voynich manuscript have sometimes tried to find a reference to it within the lists and inventories  remaining from medieval libraries, private or communal. I believe that members of the first Voynich mailing list worked together to that end, without result.

The question, though, is whether it would be recognised even if such a description were found. This partly because over the centuries, methods employed for noting a library’s holding changed,[1]  and partly because we have enough difficulty now finding a neutral way to describe the manuscript which no-one can read.

[1] For an account of methodologies, see e.g. Kenneth W. Humphreys, “The Early Medieval Library,” in Gabriel Silagi, ed., Paläographie 1981. Colloquium des Comité International de Paléographie, München, 15.-18. September 1981, Münchener Beitrage zur Mediävistik und Renaissance-Forschung 32 (Munich, 1982), 67-70.  or Albert Derolez, Les catalogues de bibliothèques, Typologie des sources du Moyen Age occidental 31 (Turnhout, 1979), 17-20, 29-30, 40-42.

It isn’t as if the Voynich manuscript has any known comparison, or presents as just another flock-a-dozen school text, such as a copy of Augustine or Euclid.

Finding the manuscript in secondary lists would be much, much easier after the first two hundred and thirty years (1438-1666), but even then, apart from one possible allusion to a system employed by the early twentieth century in the Collegium Romano (also ‘-Romanum’) no evidence exists for its ever having been described or formally catalogued.

We know that in 1666, Marci sent the volume to Kircher as a gift.  Kircher was then teaching at the Collegium Romano in Rome (21/03/15)In that a Roman library the manuscript is generally thought to have been in the late nineteenth century when a newly formed Italian state decided to take, or hold to ransom, the property of religious institutions.

Since the Vatican was a separate state, its holdings were more secure, and we know that Pope Pius X bought back (or ‘ransomed’) as much as he could, including some volumes from the Collegium Romano.  So far so good.

Not all the manuscripts were in urgent need of this sort of preservation – many (like copies of text books) would have been duplicates and private buyers, of whom Wilfrid was one, were invited quietly to purchase some.

Another volume that was probably bought from the College via Fr. Beckx by Wilfrid Voynich [c.1912] is a nice but fairly ordinary copy of Aristotle’s works.  Rene Zandbergen has presented what is known of that manuscript’s story, and in the process suggests that a pencilled “J1022” in the Voynich manuscript, earlier said to be written at the time of rebinding, is a private annotation by Wilfrid himself.

However, overall, that Aristotle manuscript is  interesting only in having at some time ended up in the College library, then kept as part of Fr. Beckx ‘private library’ and so been available for purchase by the same book-dealer. It offers an interesting footnote to the history of the dispersed College collection, but sheds no obvious light on the Voynich manuscript, its text or imagery.

From 1666 onwards, though, the Voynich manuscript’s story is now fairly clear and pretty simple: from Marci to Kircher – to library of the College – to Fr. Beckx (as nominal owner) – to Wilfrid Voynich – and .. eventually… donated by Hans P. Kraus in 1969 to Yale University, where it is presently held by the Beinecke Rare Books Library. 


More interesting is the question of how it was that, some time after Voynich had bought our manuscript, it is said to be ‘still listed’ with the Collegium Romano.  How was it listed, or described, and where on the manuscript is that annotation? How did the person who went to look for it on the shelves know which book he was looking for? Perhaps someone, some time, has answered this question. If so, I should be very glad to know the answer.

I have never seen any written description, in any catalogue or listing, which lets us know where the manuscript was held between c.1438 and the early twentieth century. We know that it belonged to Tepenec, andthat it was later in the possession of Barschius, and then bequeathed to Marci and finally given to Kircher… but what about the earlier centuries?

If it were to be mentioned in any catalogue or list between c.1438 and about c.1614, how would it be recorded?

Well, how about this:

fol 2r

first three ‘words’ from folio 2r


The picture shows the first three groups of glyphs on folio 2r, and since there is a recent, if sadly anonymous, assertion that the manuscript’s stitching is original  fifteenth century, then this was folio 2r all along.

That is important because there arose a practice by which the first words of a second folio, or (less often) a second quaternion, were taken and used as a sort of password, to ensure not only that a book was the right book, but that it was the right *copy* of a given text.  And since that custom was recognised by modern scholars, these “secondo-folio notes” have led to the successful verification of  provenance for “thousands of manuscripts”. [1]  The ‘password’ is also known as  ‘dictio probatorio’.[2]

[1] Here I am indebted here to Daniel Williman, ‘Some additional provenances of Cambridge Latin Manuscripts’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographic Society, Vol. 11. No. 4 (1999), pp.427-448.

[2] John Whytefield, in his catalogue of the library of Dover Priory (1389) designated the password phrase a ‘dictio probatorio’ whether it quoted from the second folio or elsewhere. If the unattributed opinion of that unnamed codicologist may be relied upon, then the fifteenth-century’s stitching’s being still in place, our chances are so much higher that any recorded note of the dicto probatorio will be a reference to our manuscript and no other.

As it happens, and despite there being any recognised work in a western manuscript which can be compared with the Voynich – in part or in toto – I am convinced that represents an anthology or ‘florilegium’ drawn from earlier sources.  Which brings up the matter of earlier attitudes to copying.

The first ‘public library’ of which I know is the Vatican library. I’ll quote from an online history of the Vatican Library:

Scholars were allowed to borrow volumes up until the early 17th century. The circulation system consisted of registers that recorded loans and their return. Some of these registers still exist, and we can see scholars such as the philosopher Pico della Mirandola, borrowing and returning the works of Roger Bacon. When a scholar would borrow a volume, they also had to take the chains that held it to the table, as a reminder to bring them back. When books were not returned in a timely fashion and the librarians themselves were not able to persuade the borrower to return them, the Pope himself would have to send out a recall notice, which would usually produce results.

For our purposes, this allowance is rather late; the Vatican Library was established in practice by Sixtus IV (1471- 1484).

What it does show is that a manuscript could be taken, and copies made, without any obligation towards the owner of the original.  This is contrary to the norm, which held that a copy remained by default with the owner of the exemplar and/or the person who had provided the copying materials.

Ficino was held to that rule on leaving the employ of the Medici, and in some universities still all work done by students is considered copyright to the educational institution.  Even to this day, in some northern European universities, a professor can assume, and publish under his own name, any of his students’ hard work and thinking, without so much as acknowledging intellectual copyright.   What one person calls outright plagiarism, another might see as a natural prerogative held by reason of some actual, conferred, or imaginary social superiority.

So ~ if, as I believe, the Voynich manuscript represents the copying from one or more earlier works, then there is a chance, faint as it may be, that somewhere there will be a record of one or more exemplars, and of their having been lent or sent for copying – perhaps later even for printing.  And “that” means there’s just some chance that the work will be identified not by a vague impression of what it’s about, but by the more exact “secondo folio note”.   Maybe.

Before the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and even later, the usual rule was that a copy made had to be returned after use to the person, library, institution or  stationer which had held the original(s). What other manuscripts were there bequeathed by Siniapus to the Jesuit community of Prague? Do we know? I don’t believe the copy was made in Prague; I do think it possible that it remained with the works from which it had been made. For how long, or how far the exemplar and copy travelled, no-one can predict.  It’s just a possibility.

On the supposed origin of the ‘copy stays’ rule as a dictum “every cow its calf”, see  here.


Postscript: For the observations, reasoning and opinions about the Aristotle manuscript(s), as presented on Rene’s website, i have assumed, by default, that all are to be considered Rene’s, though of course Rich Santacoloma is thanked for his labour in various archives.

Richard has, in the past, felt improperly credited here, so to be clear about it, I reproduce the relevant paragraph from Rene’s site, together with its footnote.

… What appears to be his catalogue entry (a8665) is visible on illustrations kindly provided by the University of Illinois and the Huntington Library (in one case with an attached ‘a’). The pencilled number 992 on fol.131 is also of interest. According to the Huntington library catalogue, the front pastedown of the MS also has J991 and J992. Without having seen them, these seem inevitably related to the J1022 written on the inside cover of the Voynich MS. These annotations on the Aristotle manuscript(s) must have been made at a time when it was already split into two parts. They are modern, and can also be tentatively be associated with Voynich, who used (among others) H and J catalogue marks before moving to America, and A catalogue marks for his American stock (14)

(14) From information collected by Rich SantaColoma in the Grolier Club Library in New York. Voynich evidently used several labels for his manuscripts. The older H- and J-series, were renumbered into an A-series during his move to America. This is further confirmed in: Wikins, Ernest H.: The University of Chicago Manuscript of the Genealogia Deorum gentilium of Boccaccio, University of Chicago Press, 1927, p.79. It still requires further analysis.


3 thoughts on ““dictio probatorio” – catalogue descriptions and the Vms

  1. Although, actually, the Aristotle find is fairly exciting in another way. The manuscript (as Rene thinks) is one that might have been owned by an important person, a physician called Pier Leone, who was a friend of Marsilio Ficino’s, and he (as I’ve mentioned in connection with eastern medicine) hoped to be able to unite priesthood with the practice of medicine. Unfortunately, his first successful defence by appeal to canon law was followed by a less successful one, and he was executed as a heretic. This is probably one reason why, later in Prague, the chaps who end up with the Voynich manuscript seem to decide, at the last stage of their education, to drop theology in favour of pharmacy and its ‘alchemy’.

    Just so you know..


  2. Some years ago I wrote a paper about Ficino, showing that some of his recipes, and that for rhubarb pills in particular, was gained straight from the Nestorian (Syriac) Book of Medicines. Alas, my only copy of the paper went up in flames a while ago, but something of it may be floating about in the cloud..


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