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These included the claim that Bacon, in the thirteenth century, had understood and made use of both the compound microscope and the telescope, and with their aid had anticipated the discoveries of twentieth-century scientists about germ cells, spermatozoa, and other mechanisms of organic life.
Newbold’s supposed decryption of the Voynich manuscript was taken at face value by world-class scholars like the French medievalist Étienne Gilson, but it was in fact based on an elaborate set of misunderstandings and unfounded hypotheses.
Kircher told another Prague-based Jesuit mathematician, Theodor Moretus, that he had indeed tried unsuccessfully to decipher the text: marginal traces of an early effort to supply equivalents from the Latin alphabet for the mysterious letters in the manuscript itself may be relics of these attempts at decryption. His knowledge of the court of Rudolf II was not very deep, and largely derived from a popular history of scientific and alchemical studies at the Prague court published in 1904 by Henry Carrington Bolton, an American chemist, bibliographer, and historian of science.
Bolton’s book, The Follies of Science at the Court of Rudolf II, 1576–1612, gave a prominent place to the English magician and alchemist John Dee, who with his assistant and “scryer,” Edward Kelley, spent years attempting to communicate with angels, in order to learn the universal language spoken by Adam in Paradise before the Fall.
The precise circumstances surrounding Voynich’s acquisition of Beinecke 408 are obscure, but it had certainly been one of a group of manuscripts and books from the library of Athanasius Kircher, the seventeenth-century Jesuit polymath and scientist.
Kircher’s books were rescued from confiscation by the new state of Italy during its stand-off with the church in the years after unification in 1871, along with other rarities from the library of the Jesuit university in Rome, the Collegio Romano, where Kircher had been a professor for forty years.
After a further group of large foldout pages with more astronomical images, there follows another cluster of “herbal” images.
These consist of multiple small drawings embedded in the text of each page, alongside objects in the margin that resemble pharmacological jars, perhaps suggesting that this part of the manuscript refers back to the opening herbal, and was intended as a collection of medical recipes.
To Voynich, here was the obvious background for his mysterious new acquisition, and Dee’s presence in Rudolfian Prague seemed to provide a plausible conduit for the transmission of a mysteriously encrypted text by Roger Bacon to the court of the alchemist emperor.It was at Garnett’s suggestion that Voynich put his omnivorously eclectic learning, his cosmopolitan personal connections, and his gifts as a linguist to use as a buyer and seller of rare books, a field in which he rapidly established himself as a piratical and successful entrepreneur.A flamboyant personality regarded with hostility or condescension by less successful dealers and more orthodox bibliophiles, Voynich packed his catalogs with arcane bibliographical detail, which established his reputation for near omniscience: he was soon making money.More than three hundred of these hidden Jesuit treasures ultimately ended up in the Vatican Library, but in 1912 Voynich, who regularly toured Italy in search of incunabula and manuscripts, managed to buy a few.One of these, described by Voynich as the “ugly duckling” of the former Collegio Romano collection, was the future Beinecke If Voynich labeled his acquisition an ugly duckling, he was nevertheless convinced that he had acquired an exceptional swan in the making, for he believed its baffling text concealed a scientific treatise of major importance by one of the greatest minds of the high Middle Ages.