My stance on the rumour of Rudolfine ownership.

If, tomorrow, some document – such as a ledger or catalogue book should turn up which proved that someone had given or sold the manuscript to Rudolf, I’d be perfectly content to accept it after the usual checks for authenticity.

The reason I object to the emphasis which has been placed on what is no more than a single alleged allegation by Mnishovsky is that the study of this manuscript has been badly skewed by an obsession with that rumour of connection to him.

I say ‘obsession’ because it has led to the publication of statements that are simply not true – even in publications from the Beinecke library. It is simply untrue that “‘the manuscript is known to have been in Rudolf’s library” or that “Rudolf is the first known owner of the manuscript.”

Determination to maintain ideas unsupported by evidence, whether documentary or contemporary, creates an unbalanced attitude in historiography and in the study of this manuscript. We have seen the ‘rudolfine’ obsession lead to a continual skewing of both research and of assertions and lines of investigation. The lack of objectivity and failure to consider fairly the primary evidence and the balance of historical evidence can only take us ever-further from those avenues of research which might prove fruitful, but on the contrary insist on ideas derived partly from historical theorising but chiefly from pure imagination and romantic ideas about the aristocracy and medieval emperors of Europe.

So we have a situation in which that rumour – about some unnamed messenger bringing the manuscript to Rudolf – becomes the line between information that adherents will, and will not absorb and accept, artificially distorting the direction of research and what is reported as the balance of evidence.

The ‘rudolfine-and-nobility’ fantasy (or, to be kind, ‘theory’) automatically excludes all things which adherents are unable to view as suitably imperial and noble.

The manuscript might be, for all we know, a Jews’ textbook on dyes and fabric patterns with Quire 20 quire listing ..for all we know … regular clients and their preferred colours.

This is among the innumerable historical possibilities which those dedicated to the ‘Rudolf-and-nobles’ [aka central European] theory cannot possibly countenance. What – Rudolf pay for a Jewish mercantile handbook- impossible!!’ – ergo (from their point of view) a possibility to be ignored and certainly never investigated or, if investigated by others, to be ignored.

The manuscript entirely a product of England, France or Italy? Impossible!! Why? Because the ‘Rudolfine’ theory is all about the manuscript as expression of an imagined central European and high society culture.

I call fanatics those who pre-empt the process of historical research and discovery by demanding in advance that any conclusions must be compatible with their vision of the mad emperor as a paragon of science, the era of Enlightenment in central Europe and so on.

In terms of historiography and intellectual discourse the ‘Rudolfine’ position is unbalanced.

It shows, in what is produced for its support, an ingrained habit of airily dismissing, of actively suppressing, of deliberately ignoring and distorting all evidence and all research which denies it. It is rare indeed that the most vocal adherents will engage in debate or will permit their habitual bald assertion to be questioned, or will even admit that these are mere speculations and assertions without any basis in fact.

Instead, one encounters a habit among them of crying to their own audience ‘pay no attention to x’ and ‘y is only dissenting because their character is bad’ or arguments along those lines. More than once a ridiculous argument is produced whereby that theory is deemed to be superior either by the imagined ‘nobility’ of proponents, or by some fantastic assertion that the theory holds some moral highground which removes any obligation to demonstrate the truth of what it asserts.

Once you reach a point where debate is effectively prohibited, and no argument is offered save comments ad.hominem you know you’re in the realm of propaganda, not investigative scholarship.

So another reason I oppose the continual over-emphasis on Mnishovsky’s alleged Rudolf rumour is that it has not only skewed the nature of Voynich research, but has fostered a style of discourse unresponsive to fact and increasingly opposed to research, balance of evidence and evidence as such.

We have seen the most dedicated ‘Rudolfine’ theorists simply refuse to accept the opinions of earlier specialists in codicology and palaeography; refuse to accept the radiocarbon-14 range; refuse to accept the consensus of statistical analyses of the written text and of persistently ‘blanking’ or attempting to minimise contributions made by scholars qualified and experienced if their opinions do not suit that theory.

Over-emphasis on that mere rumour has led to such extreme bias, so often, that I consider the ‘Rudolfine’ rumour to have been greatest single hindrance to meaningful advance in the manuscript’s study since 1912.

Time and energy that might be spent on discovering where the first known owner obtained this material is spent instead on attempting to weave circumstantial narratives aimed at persuading us that there is some good reason to believe Rudolf had once owned it.

The first known owner was long agreed to have been Jakub Hořčický, a pharmacist-physician. A great deal was made of this by the ‘Rudolfine’ theorists until it was made clear to them that Hořčický, though ennobled by Rudolf, had been a ward of the local Jesuit community and possibly one orphaned as a result of a then-recent pogrom. In other words, he was not one of Rudolf’s employees, nor a courtier, nor a member of the nobility by birth – and may possibly have been of Jewish descent.

Since that became clear, we have seen retrospective minimisation of his importance by the loudest voices online and as writers of ‘wiki’ style articles, and to replace it a revival of the formerly discounted/ignored theory that the inscription of Hořčický’s name on the manuscript was faked.

For this, however, there is no evidence offered either, and even if his name (as  “Jacobj z Tepence” had been inscribed by another person, no evidence is offered about when this is imagined to have been done, only vague insinuations of bad intent on the part of persons unspecified.

The whole of the ‘central European Rudolfine’ narrative is like that. Ask the “where-and-when-this-happened” sort of question about some confidently asserted/insinuated item, and it evaporates like the Fata Morgana.

IN any case, even if it the inscription had been by another seventeenth-century hand (for example) that cannot be presumed proof of dishonest intention.

If (for example) the next person known to have had it – Georg Baresch – had written the name in it after Hořčický’s sudden death, or if the manuscript had been loaned to Baresch by the Jesuit community to whom Hořčický bequeathed all his possessions, such an inscription might be taken as evidence of the community’s normal practice, perhaps, or of Bresch’s integrity and the fact is that neither he nor any other person of whom we know even once suggested it was his own by right.

Marci’s oddly apologetic letter of gift to Kircher (in 1665-6) says that the previous possessor had been working on understanding the manuscript to the day of his death. Within the Jesuit community (of whom Kircher was one) that was sufficient reason for any scholar to continue using a book.

Such possibilities, however, are also just possibilities.

The point is that because they do not suit the ‘Rudolfine-nobility’ atmosphere, they are arbitrarily and/or deliberately omitted from the narrative being built on foundations consistently imaginative and speculative. There is no evidence to justify the assertions, and strings of assertions created to give Mnishovsky’s alleged rumour the appearance of historical validity.

Unless the date of that inscription can be proven, and proven a product of the twentieth century rather than the seventeenth, the invention by such theorists of another slander – that Wilfrid Voynich faked the signature – are just another example of how ‘Rudolfine’ theorists employ the methods of propaganda and vilification, rather than any balance of physical and historical evidence, to persuade others to believe. Far too little which informs the narrative is the end-result of investigation, and far too much the result on which the theorists were already determined. That pattern has been evident since the ‘Prinke-Zandbergen’ theory (aka central European theory) first emerged two decades ago.

Balance of Evidence.

The fact is that the manuscript first appears in the early 1600s on the shelves of a pharmacist-chemist (termed in those days an ‘alchemist’) named Georg Baresch who never claimed to own it but who had had it lying (as he said) on his library shelves. By the time he wrote to Kircher in about 1637, he had already approached specialists in the history of European herbals and botany, and found from them that the plant-pictures were unidentifiable. He says, in writing to Kircher in 1639 that they were ‘exotic’ plants.

From this we learn that Baresch had not attempted to conceal his possession of the manuscript, and that his having it was known to the same Jesuit community in which Hořčický had been fostered and had studied.

Moreover, Kircher’s correspondent, Marcus Marci was also a member of that community and (as we learn from his letter to Kircher in 1641, before Marci had lost his memory) Marci himself was in a position to write to, and receive a reply from, the Emperor – who was at that time Ferdinand III, a monarch whose knowledge of the Bohemian court and language had been so poor when he became king of Bohemia in 1627 that he had been obliged to hire tutors to teach him the language. Mnishovsky had been one of those tutors.

By 1627, however, Hořčický was already five years dead, and his possessions bequeathed to the Jesuit community or in the keeping of such persons as he might have earlier lent or given them to.

Since Mnishvosky comes into the picture only as a one-time tutor to Ferdinand, you can see how wobbly the older version of the ‘Rudolf owned it’ rumour becomes.

The solution resorted to my the Rudolfine theorists has been to invent another ‘theory-patch’ by wiping or diminishing Hořčický from the story, and simply asserting the signature is fake by picking up a single opinion offered twenty years ago by just one Voynich writer and which the same theorists had determinedly minimised or treated as ridiculous for almost twenty years.

Evidence? – one person’s perception that the signature doesn’t look, to him, like other examples of Hořčický’s signature as “Jacobj z Tepenec”. That’s it. There’s no range of opinion, no particular specialist consulted, no debate permitted. The core makers of the Rudolfine (central European) theory didn’t like that opinion, so they ignored it. Now they like it, so they adopt it. Evidence – none; balance of informed opinion – none.

It’s not historical research in the usual sense of the word.

Others among Kircher’s correspondents were part of the same community in Prague, though some spent a greater or a lesser time in Rome.

They include, importantly, Aloysius Kinner, who on 5 January 1667 (the year after Marci spoke of Mnishovky’s rumour), reports that:

” Dominus Marcus has lost his memory of nearly everything but still remembers you. He … wishes to know through me whether you have yet proved an Oedipus in solving that book which he sent via the Father Provincial last year and what mysteries you think it may contain. It will be a great solace to him if you are able to satisfy his curiosity on this point.”

All evidence – I mean hard, documentary evidence – indicates that the book sent via the Provincial in 1666 was the one we call the Voynich manuscript.

Now, by this time Baresch was dead, and of course Hořčický was dead, but not all were dead who were in a position to know whether the manuscript had ever been owned by Rudolf.

The ‘Rudolfine’ theory, however, does not so much demand we accept so much as merely assume that all these men, with their religious principles, their close connections to the court, to Hořčický and Baresch, and to Kircher had either remained entirely ignorant of any link between the manuscript and the imperial court, or that they did know of it and over a period of more than forty years had either forgot the fact, or concealed it.

For those insinuations which infuse the narrative, not the faintest scent of historical evidence is to be found. It appears to rely chiefly on a vague notion that all Jesuits are bad people, just as all scholars whose research comes to conclusions inconvenient for the ‘central European’ theory are bad people, best ignored.

One has to ask why those men would behave so? Of what benefit could it be to Kinner, Moretus or Marci to hide some link to Rudolf?

None of them wanted the book for themselves (or the quires that would become the book); none had any investment in its being deciphered or left to gathered dust, except that they agreed to help their friends, among whom were both Kircher and Baresch.

Consider too that far from attempting to conceal the book’s existence, everyone concerned of whom we know advertised its existence – as Baresch himself did and as, later, on behalf of Baresch (and later Kinner on behalf of Marci) would do.

They knew perfectly well that Kircher was also in a position to enquire into the book’s origins, and to correspond with members of the nobility, active scientists, and other Jesuits in Prague and elsewhere. Including (after 1665-6) persons charged with maintaining and checking records of Rudolf’s library. Whether Kircher attempted to do any of this we don’t know. It would be worth the effort of looking more closely at all Kircher’s letters to persons in Prague between the late 1630s and the late 1660s.

An early part of the Prinke-Zandbergen narrative had it that Jesuits ‘stole’ the manuscript from Rudolf’s library, but time and wisdom seem to have eroded that particular flight of fancy somewhat and if the idea hasn’t been completely abandoned, it is at least dormant or asserted ‘between the lines’ rather than openly as it formerly was. Another constant of that theory is that all who seem to prevent its triumph are bad, ignoble and inferior persons – so be aware of that quirk in some of the theory’s proponents who constantly speak of personalities rather than bodies of evidence or of research.

There is another factor which is too rarely considered in this matter of alleged connection to Rudolf, and that is Kircher’s position and attitudes. In all his correspondence, both received and written, one sees that he expects to receive as well as to confer, flattering remarks and that he is an out and out snob for whom social standing is of enormous importance. One cannot see why, if any hint of imperial connection we known, those commending the manuscript to Kircher would not have mentioned it. Imperial associations could be calculated to increase rather than lessen any interest Kircher might feel.

Why then, one might ask, did Baresch or Kinner not refer to any such imperial glamour in the 1630s? It was no skin off their nose if (say) Hořčický had been given it by Rudolf or even if he had taken it. It was no problem for them if, instead, the text had been lent to Baresch or to whoever occupied that house and library before him. If it had been among those bequeathed to the Jesuits by Baresch, or had been left in Baresch’s keeping by Hořčický before the latter’s death or loaned to Baresch by one of the Jesuits (as a book bequeathed to them by Hořčický) – it made no difference to whether or not Kinner, or Marci or Baresch used that association as lure to attract Kircher’s interest. None did.

The bottom line is that no matter how it came to turn up in Baresch’s house, there was no effort made by him or anyone else to conceal it. Kinner appears to know of no imperial connection for the material in 1637-9, which is only 15 years after Hořčický’s death and the following bequests to the Jesuits of Prague.

There is also the fact that when, in 1665-6, Marci recalled Mnishovky’s relation of that rumour of the fabulous sum supposedly paid (600 ducats) and a nameless courier or messenger to Rudolf etc., no member of the Jesuits’ communities in Prague seems to have heard a word of it.

Mnishovsky is said to have said this less than twenty years after Hořčický’s death. Given the close interaction of Jesuit communities in the city, I find it very difficult to believe that the transfer of a book with such a legend attached to it to one of the community’s orphans would not have been long remembered and celebrated: ‘one of our own made good’ . It would be enough that had Hořčický had occasionally attended the emperor; but he was also ennobled and then received an imperial gift of supposedly staggering price.

All good selling points if one is trying to get Kircher sold on the idea of helping Baresch. But none seems to know anything about a link to Rudolf. Is it probable that Marci wouldn’t, after hearing Mnishovsky spin is yarn, go the Jesuits and ask if any knew about an alleged link between the manuscript and Rudolf (presumably via Hořčický)?

What do the ‘Rudolfine’ theorists do? Simple – they just wipe or minimise these factors. If the price is difficult to justify, they drop that bit of the Mnishovsky tale; if the anonymous bearer is a bit awkward to explain – for one thing, no indication is given of the direction from which he is imagined to come – he is also dropped Mnishovsky’s alleged rumour. And Mnishovsky’s having allegedly said he thought it the work of Roger Bacon is dropped too, because the whole point of the Rudolfine theory is to argue the entire work an expression of the imagined ‘Rudolfine-Prague-imperial’ cultural atmosphere. In other words, to argue that a shoddy-looking set of quires on early fifteenth-century vellum which informed assessments attribute to a period between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, and to England, Italy or ‘somewhere southern’ is to be imagined a product of Rudolf’s imperial court and its library.

And in this jaw-dropping manipulation of evidence and logic, the Beinecke catalogue has sadly played a part – not to mention the editorialising hand which interfered with the technical ‘Materials’ essay in the Yale facsimile edition. Shameful, that.

But wait, there’s still more on the other side of the scales.

We have the equally awkward fact that the letter in which Marci noted but refused to endorse what he thought he recalled had been told him decades earlier by Mnishovsky, was a letter written about eighteen months before the letter in which Kinner reports that Marci has now “lost his memory of nearly everything’.

So we cannot reasonably treat Marci’s recollections of what Mnishovsky may have said decades earleir – or whether indeed it had been Mnishovsky who said them. This isn’t a theory that his account is wrong, only reason to exercise still greater caution in what weight should be given that alleged allegation.

On the positive side, the ‘Rudolf-owned-it’ theory has nothing but the unsupported rumour reported by a man in the last stages of a condition which affected his memory.

On the negative side, as I hope I’ve outlined fairly, we have more evidence. Most of it, I agree, is argument from silence, but when that silence could have no benefit for any of those concerned, and none for their mutual desire to have Kircher work on reading the manuscript, it is a silence which argues against the value we should give the ‘Mnishovsky-Rudolf’ rumour.

I would also note, in passing, that Newbold’s greater experience led him to suppose not that the manuscript had been sold to Rudolf, but that it had been taken to Rudolf’s court and there given as a gift to Rudolf’s gardener. Given the manuscript’s unprepossessing appearance, and the outrageous idea of demanding payment from an emperor in person, Newbold’s take was, at least, better in keeping with the way monarchs were wont to behave, and to expect others to behave towards them. There are volumes of primary documents describing what happened in one, and another, royal court when visitors or ambassadors or menial couriers fronted up. Mad as Rudolf was, he was still an emperor.

Add to this that though Rudolf certainly did collect curiosities, including curious foreign writings and artefacts, so did a great many other persons who had ‘cabinets’ of that kind – from Aldrovandi to Kircher. It was all the fashion. One would like to have seen some serious historical study of the primary documents to give a clear idea of the way Rudolf’s libraries and collections were organised and administered, including the system for registering acquisition. That might have been one useful thing to come from the Rudolfine corner.

It now suits makers of the ‘Rudolfine-Voynich’ narrative to wipe so much from their account of the historical evidence that they wish to ‘wipe’ or minimise the relevance of the carbon-14 dating, wipe the relevance of Hořčický’s name inscribed on the volume, and assert once more that the whole manuscript was first created in Rudolf’s court. For this there is no evidence whatsoever. Not … a … skerric.

And – pace the unknown editor of the Beinecke’s ‘Material Science’ essay – it is simply an untrue statement to assert, as that person did, that Rudolf is the ‘first known owner’ of the the manuscript now at Yale as Beinecke MS 408 “is known [sic] to have been in Rudolf’s library”. It is simply not true. Not ‘fairly true’ or even ‘very possibly true’. It is simply UNtrue.

It is not any conclusion from primary evidence or from scholarship and, as I said earlier, the whole Rudolfine tale has proven a ball and chain on this manuscript’s study since 1912.

The balance of evidence is what counts, and when you ask questions of the ‘exactly-where-and-when’ kind about any, or all, of that theory’s chained assertions, you find that each relies on the next, and all evaporate on closer inspection. Like the Fata Morgana, indeed.

As I said at the outset, if we turn up some documentary evidence which supports the Mnishovsky rumour – all of it – then well and good, we may say that Rudolf once paid 600 ducats to a certain carrier who brought it to him – possibly from England. It would be good to know how it was described in any catalogue (including any held by Jesuit library).

But at present the weight of evidence and probability is against the Rudolf rumour, and those who continually advocate it are to be criticised for the means being taken to promote what remains a theory based on nothing more than a highly dubious rumour.

Manipulating the historical record, suppressing and demeaning researchers who cannot accept it, and ‘wiping’ evidence while replacing it with invention, cherry-picked opinion, and attacks on the personality of any and all who stand in its way is unconscionable. I find no excuse for suggestions that Wilfrid Voynich inscribed ‘Jacob z Tepenec’ in the manuscript, and the fact that even those circulating that calumny cannot even own to their inventing that speculation is proof enough that what we are seeing is not the conclusion of genuine efforts to understand this manuscript, or its history before 1637.

My core objection to those obsessed by the rumoured ‘Rudolfine’ link is that they constantly forget that the aim of researchiing Beinecke MS 408 is not to gain wide credence for their theory but to study a manuscript which all evidence indicates was inscribed no later than the mid-fifteenth century and which both evidence and opinion indicate contains matter of considerably earlier origins.

Until Wilfrid Voynich made the ‘Rudolf rumour’ his chief selling point in 1912, there is no evidence that anyone connected with the manuscript or those who knew of the manuscript during the seventeenth century had ever heard such a rumour, save Marci, who refused to endorse it and seems to have added it only as an afterthought though he had known of the manuscript, and known Kircher for thirty years and more. He simply reports something he recalls Mnishovsky having once said.

And that’s still all there is to the whole ‘Rudolf owned it’ story.

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