Unknown history of 600-year-old, coded Voynich Manuscript revealed by researcher

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A researcher studying centuries-old account records may have identified an early owner of the Voynich Manuscript. Famous for its unique, still undeciphered script, and its unusual illustrations, this book is often referred to as the world’s most mysterious manuscript.

To add to the mystery, little is known about the Voynich Manuscript’s origins. Thanks to a 17th-century letter written by the royal doctor Johannes Marcus Marci, scholars can trace its ownership back to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who bought it from an unnamed seller for 600 ducats, or gold coins, sometime between 1576 and 1612. But as the manuscript was created in the early 15th century, this leaves around 150 years of ownership unknown.

Now, after scouring imperial account journals kept by Rudolf’s court, Stefan Guzy of the University of the Arts Bremen, Germany, has identified records that could shed further light on the manuscript’s sale to the emperor, tracing its ownership back a little further.

“My idea was to compile all book-related transactions by analysing the imperial account books of the Hofkammer (Imperial Chamber) in Vienna and Prague, where all ingoing and outgoing letters were registered,” Guzy says. “If there was any transaction involving 600 gold coins, then the chance was pretty high that this acquisition was the one mentioned in the Marci letter.”

The letter from Johann Marcus Marci to Athanasius Kircher, found with the Voynich Manuscript Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

Luckily, out of almost 7,000 journal entries, including 126 book transactions, only one case involved a book sale for 600 gold coins.

The records revealed that in 1599, the physician Carl Widemann sold a collection of manuscripts to Rudolf for 500 silver thaler, an amount cited in another record by its equivalent in gold, 600 florin—another type of gold coin. A further record refers to the collection as “remarkable/rare books” and that they were transported in a small barrel, Guzy writes in his research paper, published in the proceedings of the first International Conference on the Voynich Manuscript 2022.

“Almost all of the emperor’s money transactions were made in guilders (florin), usually Rhenisch guilders, with only very few in thaler or ducats; so I believe that the information in the [Marci] letter was just meant to be ‘gold coins,’ which both florin and ducats are,” Guzy says. “Even if a deal was made with ducats or thaler, florins were usually used for the final transaction.”

A spread from the Voynich Manuscript Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

The 600 gold coins mentioned in Marci’s letter was also an extremely expensive price for a single book, so it would make sense for the Voynich Manuscript to have been sold as part of a small collection.

But if Widemann was the manuscript’s owner before Rudolf, how did it come into his possession? One intriguing option stands out. “[Widemann] lived in the Augsburg house of the well known botanist Dr Leonard Rauwolf, and he started selling books to the emperor immediately after the death of Rauwolf and his widow, who both had no children,” Guzy says. “I assume that he probably inherited some books from him (it also seems that both families were somehow related).”

Newly found archival material has revealed that Rauwolf owned a small collection of books, Guzy adds. “So the Voynich Manuscript could be one of the books Widemann got his hands on and sold to the emperor, because, for sure, it would have already looked valuable back then to a collector of weird and precious things like emperor Rudolf.”

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