Jan. B. Hurych

In this article, I am returning again to the person of Dr. Raphael Mnishowsky. According to English Wikipedia (and also repeated with minor variations in French, Spanish and Czech Wikipedia), he was . . .

" . . . the friend of Marci who was the reputed source of Bacon's story, was himself a cryptographer (among many other things), and apparently invented a cipher which he claimed was unbreakable (ca. 1618). This has led to the theory that he produced the Voynich manuscript as a practical demonstration of his cipher—and made poor Baresch his unwitting "guinea pig". After Kircher published his book on Coptic, Raphael (so the theory goes) may have thought that stumping him would be a much better trophy than stumping Baresch, and convinced the alchemist to ask the Jesuit's help. He would have invented the Roger Bacon story to motivate Baresch. Indeed, the disclaimer in the Voynich manuscript cover letter could mean that Marci suspected a lie. However, there is no definite evidence for this theory." (end of quote, no original source listed, j.b.h.).

Now that certainly looks like a far fetched story, but before we discuss it, we have to talk more about Mnishowsky himself. He is of course the famous Dr. Raphael from Marci's last letter to Kircher, even if Marci did not mention his family name. However, since he added that Dr. Raphael was the Czech tutor of Emperor Ferdinand III, it is definitely our Mnishowsky. We may therefore safely assume that Kircher knew who was Marci talking about, as well as he knew about Baresch whose name is not mentioned in the letter at all (since Baresch wrote two letters about the VM to Kircher already). Mnishowsky is in Czech records called Sobiehrd - Mnishowsky, since his original name was Raphael Sobiehrd. Soon he changed his name to Mnishowsky, long time before he got his nobility title "from Sebuzin and Horstein (Horshuv Tyn in Czech)". Of course, there was another branch of Sobiehrds, they were Protestants who went to exile and fought with Danish army against Habsburgs, while Raphael was staunch Catholic.

His life story is very well described on the VM Biography page of René Zandbergen, but we will not dwell here too much on official history. According to Czech records, he was born in Horshuv Tyn (Horstein) in Bohemia, so apparently the information by Eugenia Berezhanskaya, in "The Voynich Manuscript", 2004, that he was born into a Polish family is not correct unless Sobiehrds were originally form Poland. While we know he studied with Jesuits in Prague and later in Rome and Paris, I spotted somewhere the information that he studied at Polish Crakow university as well. That is probably not accurate either, but since he translated the book "Diodachos" (the genealogy of Bohemian and Moravian nobility) by Bartholomeo Paprocki from Polish to Czech, we may assume that he knew Polish well, so he apparently spent some time in Poland after all. However, according to preface to contemporary Czech publication of "Diodachos", it was Paprocky himself who wrote the book in Czech language and Mnishowsky only did language corrections. Either way, he did not stop there but wrote some parts of the book himself, especially the one about monasteries and abbots, which he also signed with his name.

Paprocky's Diodachos

His speedy carrier started long time before the Thirty Year War, but it took much higher during the war time. After the defeat of Protestants in the battle of White Mountain ( November 8, 1620) he got his nobility soon, within a month after public execution of defeated Protestant Directorium, in June 1621. he was a devoted Catholic and he participated in forcible catholization of Bohemia and Moravia. As was usual at that time, the properties of defeated Protestants and their titles were then for grab. His coat of arms (registered as late as 1628) was split vertically into two equal fields, the left being divided in three rows (red, white and red), the right (yellow) containing half of black eagle (with red tongue), looking to the right. On the top was the helm with colors yellow/black (Austrian) and white/red (Czech) with the golden crown at the top. Interestingly enough the place Sebuzin he really owned, but Horstein was an empty title since he did not own the place, but was only born there. After becoming the royal procurator, he made himself well known as a curator fisci for executing the case of treason by generals Wallenstein and Trcka. That was of course after they were both murdered (1634) and he had to justify their killings (it took him 14 moths just to get together all the witnesses).

We know about his employment as a teacher of Czech language for Ferdinand III. As for his writing skills, beside his involvement with Paprocki's book, with some parts written by himself, he also wrote - apparently very good - poetry. He was also involved in alchemy, being a strong admirer of Michal Sendivogius who was for long time in employ by Rudolph II (another reference to Poland maybe?) and later even recommended two alchemists (Glauber and Cyprian Kinner from Poland) to Royal service in Viennese Court. Mnishowsky also claimed (as per Czech sources) he "studied alchemy for thirty years and was seeking the manuscripts associated with Rudolph and working in monasteries in Braunau and Kremsmunster". He died on 21th November 1644 and his body was put to rest in the crypt of St. Salvator, the same place where was already resting Jacobus Horczicky. Later they were both joined there by Marci as well.

Mnishowsky was never considered to be seriously involved in cryptography, but we can now assume he sharpened his skills there as well. The proof is in his book "Construction sive strues Trithemiana" (1828), the handwritten manuscript which is in Uppsala, Sweden. The book was until now generally presented as being only the textbook of Czech language. Partly it was caused by abbe Dobrowsky, who wrote a note in the book: "Constructio grammaticae bohemicae secundum methodum thrithemianam a Raphaele Mnishowsky anno 1628". Some authors stressed its function as a handbook (e.g.Carin Davidsson, "Johannes Tritemius' Polygraphia als tschechisches Lehrbuch, Cod. Slav. 60 der Universitätsbibliothek in Uppsala", 1959). True, in its subtitle Mnishowsky actually promises it will teach one how to write Czech in very short time: "Qui nullum unquam idiomatis bohemici calluit verbum, per eam in momento scribet convenienter bohemice quantum volet" (as per quotation by Rafal Prinke in VML). It would sound like a modern advertisement, but if we read further, Prinke points to sentence "Occultus occulti scribendi modus quem nemo mortalium queat penetrareo" (Method of hidden writing, which no mortal can penetrate) suggesting the other purpose of the book as well.

Fortunately, there is the sample picture of two handwritten pages from that book on Net (see my article The Handwriting Analysis of Some Possible Authors of the VM, 2007, in J.VS). In the sample, we do not see anything even remotely similar to the possible textbook and at best, we may suspect it is only a vocabulary, with corresponding Latin translation (right column) of Czech words (in the left column). What should however catch our attention is actually the third column in the middle, containing only one letter of the alphabet and going alphabetically down from the top to the bottom of the page. I have found in some Slovak sources on Net that the book is considered to be the first Czech treatise in cryptography.

So I contacted leading Czech cryptographer Mgr. Pavel Vondruska in Prague and he confirmed to me that the sample certainly looks like a code book - and he even quoted the similar cipher by Thrithemius, named AVE MARIA! Of course it may be more complicated than the simple variation of Ave Maria (one cannot judge it from two pages only), but if we add the fact that Mnishowsky even named Trithemius in the title of his book, we are apparently on the right track. Of course, original Ave Maria cipher does not give a sensical text, but still may look like a prayer, being in Latin and consisting mostly of religious words. Mnishowsky is using Czech words that are far from any religious ones (they look more like from everyday life) and the text would be surely non-sensical for any knowledgeable Czech person. Also, the letter shown "A" is coded by adjectives only which would be a clear giveaway.

So was it a textbook or not? Again, the subtitle says it all: apparently it would do no good to his Royal pupil - or anybody else - to pretend this way to Czech person he really knew Czech language, but it could surely impress the foreigners. Of course, to advertise openly the real purpose of the book, i.e. to use it as steganography coding in order to hide it, would be dangerous to author - even Trithemius got in trouble because of that.

What actually was Ave Maria cipher? It was a simple substitution of each character of plaintext by word, each time of course by different word taken from the word page. The Ave Maria looked rather inconspicuously thanks to complicated Latin grammar so it could be easily mistaken for some prayer (hence its name). What Mnishowsky really improved was the fact that by using not so common language, i.e. Czech language, he made the cipher even less conspicuous to foreigners. He might have even improved the main rule by which the next word was selected. In his case, one wordpage was assigned to each plaintext letter and contained substitute words totaling 24 (the same as his alphabet does, leading probably to biographic substitution).

Each page was assigned its own letter of the alphabet and each letter (or two) of plaintext was therefore encoded by the whole word. That would of course may be a vehicle for only short messages, the longer ones would require to write quite long document :-). Not seeing the rest of Mnishowsky's book, we cannot judge how more advanced his codebook really was in comparison to Trithemius's. But since he already improved and extended Paprocky's book by his own writing, we may assume he did not rest with Trithemius ideas only. The decoding of course would require reversal process, rather cumbersome unless he had another trick in his pocket. Of course publishing of the book would make it a common knowledge and using exactly same set of words would make the cipher useless.

Our discovery leads to another suspicion: did Mnishowsky know about the VM more than Marci quotes in his letter? Could he had been for instance the owner of the VM before Baresch? I already made another observation in my article "The Handwriting Analysis of Some Possible Authors of The VM" (see also the samples there) that the "signature" in the VM could have been been written by Mnishowsky - the font and handwriting of the "signature" really looks like his own. That is for the word "Tepenec" only, the word "Jacobi" was not analyzed, since is very difficult to distinguish to outlines of the letters, as is shown in this picture:

Word "Jacobi" in the VM "signature"

Also, there is something very special in both handwritings: the script is not a "joined-up writing" or so called "running writing", but a simple, not connected cursive. While analyzing personal handwritings of Baresch, Kircher or Horczicky, we see they are almost always connected their characters and Marci' is only a little bit more disconnected, but within a reason. Nothing like that is Mnishowsky's handwriting. It is always completely disconnected, same way as in the "signature" in the VM. So we may assume that it was not a common feature to write this way, but personal specific. Also, his script is simple, almost modern, same way as it is in the "signature". What's more, I already mentioned previously that the letter "n" has the first arch higher than the second arch (not always but frequently enough), also the same way as it is in the "signature". Unfortunately, there are two serious reasons we cannot say "without reasonable doubt" that it is Mnishowsky handwriting: the script is so simple that even the variations from reason to person would be very small and besides, we have only 4 characters to compare ("T", being capital, does not show in Upsalla sample).

We do have however the other coincidences: Horczicky and Mnishowsky were contemporaries (Horczicky: *1575, +1622 ; Mnishowsky: *1580 +1644), they both attended Imperial court and surely had some common interests, namely alchemy . As for his knowledge about Baresch, René Zandbergen observed in VML that both Mnishowsky and Baresch studied about the same time in Italy. If Mnishowsky really wrote Horczicky's name in the VM, he would have owned it at one time. Then his official "story" will be probably more than just hearsay - but on the other hand, he would not tell Marci the whole truth, certainly not about his part in the story. And if he did not tell the truth, could the rest of his story be really trusted? And how much would this fact change the existing provence? What if he actually knew the author or at least the true place of the VM origin? Would he tell Marci the truth? And if not, why? And who then erased the "signature" and why?

Now when we know for sure Mnishowsky was skilled in cryptology, what about him trying to solve the VM himself? How much he tried we may never know, neither we can confirm his alleged statement (in Wikipedia) that he discovered unbreakable cipher. Even if we could, there is still long way to the VM authorship. However, what we have found already (that his book is mainly cryptographic and that he possibly wrote the "signature" in the VM) is rather interesting and if proven, it may be crucial to the VM provenance: we may suspect that Mnishowsky was more than just the spreader of the court stories about the VM.

When Marci quoted Mnishowsky, he said "he told me" so it must have been before Mnishowsky died (1644). We know Horczicky died in 1622 and Baresch wrote his first letter to Kircher in 1637 and his second letter to Kircher in 1639. Baresch knew Marci already some time before 1622 and he died probably before 1662 (all dates per R. Zandbergen). Can we then establish the date Baresch got the VM in his possession? Most likely somewhere between 1622 and 1637. Now interesting is that Mnishowsky ended writing of his book in 1628, almost in the middle of this interval. When he told Marci his story about the VM we do not know either, but it may be in about the same time. He apparently didn't tell Marci from whom he heard his story but apparently it was not from Baresch who would have told it Marci himself if he knew.

Being interested in cryptography and knowing about the VM, Mnishowsky surely followed the fate of the manuscript very closely. If it was him who bought (or any other way obtained) the VM from Horczicky that part of his story might have come directly from Horczicky himself and Mnishowsky could have just written Horczicky's name there himself. If he then sold manuscript Baresch, he could erased it. He could have passed the story on him, but apparently he did not. Of course Marci does not mention Horczicky either. Or didn't Mnishowsky know about his ownership either? And was there at least somebody who did?

On the other hand, if Mnishowsky created a fraud, his story would be apparently false from the very beginning. However, it looks more likely that he was not the author of the VM, but he might still own it before Baresch. So he might have known more about its origin and that may put the old story in the new light . . .

10th November, 2007.