Thursday, 11 June 2015

Master Kelley's Big Joke? by Laurie Graham

If you love books and you enjoy a mystery the Voynich manuscript is right up your street. It’s a delicious little book, part herbal, part guide to the cosmos, and lavishly illustrated. The only problem is that no-one can identify any of the plants featured in the drawings and no-one can read a word of the text. 

Wilfred Voynich was a Polish bookseller who claimed to have picked up the mysterious volume at a book sale in Italy in 1912.  As attempt after attempt at deciphering it failed he was accused of fakery but science has eventually exonerated Mr Voynich. The vellum on which the book is written has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century, the gall ink and pigments are also from the 15th or 16th century. So although it does appear to be an elaborate hoax, it predates Voynich by at least 400 years.

The history of ownership of book is patchy. It seems to have gathered dust on the shelves of a Jesuit college for at least two hundred years, but the trail leads back to Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia during the 16th century. Rudolf was a dabbler and a collector. He was interested in astronomy and alchemy, he collected plants and animals and well, any oddities that took his fancy. The Voynich manuscript seems like just the kind of thing that would have appealed to him. But how did he come by it?

There have been as many suggestions about the authorship of the book as there have attempts at deciphering it  -  it defeated even the Bletchley Park code crackers  -  but in my opinion there’s quite a compelling case for bringing in Messrs Dee and Kelley for questioning.

Dr Dee
Dr John Dee is famous as Elizabeth I’s astrologer and scientific advisor. Less well-known is Edward Kelley who became Dee’s collaborator in the 1580s. Kelley was a crystal-gazer or scryer, and as John Dee’s stock as a scientist fell he turned more and more to investigating the supernatural. Kelley claimed to be able to commune with angels and to understand their Celestial or Enochian language which he translated for Dr Dee. They made quite a team.

 In the 1580s Dee and Kelley left England to try to make some money  -  there was no job security in Queen Elizabeth’s court. Their travels took them across central Europe and they are known to have visited Emperor Rudolf in Prague.  It isn’t a long stretch to imagine how they might have cooked up a scheme to sell the Emperor something for his cabinet of curiosities: a book in an unknown language.  

Edward Kelley
Kelley had a prior conviction for coining so confecting a language wouldn’t have been a big career move. He was also, by the way, the step-father of Elizabeth Weston. Weston was that rare creature, a published 17th century female poet and she apparently owed her education to her enlightened step-father.

But to return to the Voynich manuscript, it is a singular thing. The script runs from left to right with no obvious punctuation and the language has about 25 characters. The illustrations, sometimes fantastical, sometimes very close to but not faithful images of known plants, are liberally decorated with stars and strange nymph-like figures. There are similarities with the images Hildegard of Bingen drew when she was seeing visions, or suffering from migraines, whichever you prefer.

Emperor Rudolf is reckoned to have paid 600 ducats for the book, which would have been about 2 kilograms worth of gold. Could it be the handiwork of Kelley and Dee? They would certainly have been glad of the money. But the case remains open and I suppose always will. This little book of mysteries now resides at Yale, in the Beinecke Rare Book Library. A cynical, money-making fake or a glorious 16th century joke? I leave you to decide.


Sue Bursztynski said...

It would have been a LOT of work, surely? Mind you, for all that gold, perhaps it was worth the bother. ;-) Thanks for this, I have never heard of it!

Susan Price said...

I never heard of it either! - and it's fascinating.

Sue Purkiss said...

What an intriguing story! I love the thought of Kelly and Dee on a road trip through Europe, squabbling and scheming and having fun... now there's a book I'd like to read!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Sooner or later someone will write it. Have patience! :-)

Joan Lennon said...

Cool! Thanks for this!

Elspeth Scott said...

How fascinating! and how tantalising...I so want to know what it is about.