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Who whom? Rudolph II, Raphael Mnishovsky and the 600 ducats

Discussion of the Voynich manuscript often returns to the well-known sentence in which Johannes Marcus Marci tells Athanasius Kircher what he knows about it.

Retulit mihi D. Doctor Raphael Ferdinandi tertij Regis tum Boemiae in lingua boemica instructor dictum librum fuisse Rudolphi Imperatoris, pro quo ipse latori qui librum attulisset 600 ducatos praesentarit, authorem uero ipsum putabat esse Rogerium Bacconem Anglum. ego judicium meum hic suspendo.

How should we interpret this complex sentence? Why not start with a shortened version in which we cut out people's titles, omit one clause which is certainly ambiguous, and modernise the punctuation.

Retulit mihi ... Raphael ... 'librum fuisse Rudolphi'. 'Authorem' uero 'ipsum' putabat 'esse Rogerium'. Ego judicium meum hic suspendo.

This is straightforward. Two verbs of speech introduce two pieces of reported speech in the accusative and infinitive construction.

  • Verb: retulit (perfect indicative, 'he once told me')
  • Direct speech: liber erat Rudolphi, 'the book was Rudolph's'
  • Verb: putabat (imperfect indicative, 'it was his opinion')
  • Direct speech: author ipse est Rogerius, 'the author is Roger'

By the accusative and infinitive rule, erat (imperfect indicative) becomes fuisse (perfect infinitive) and est (present indicative) becomes esse (present infinitive). The final sentence is simple.

So far Marci has told us three things.

  1. What Raphael once told him about Rudolph.
  2. What Raphael thought was the identity of the author.
  3. That Marci has no opinion of his own.

But the first piece of reported speech continues: pro quo ipse latori qui librum attulisset 600 ducatos praesentarit Since this is a relative clause (pro quo...) inside reported speech the accusative and infinitive construction does not apply. Instead nominative and accusative remain as they were and the verbs become subjunctive. To reconstruct the direct speech we must convert the verbs back to indicative. The obvious way of doing so is this: pro quo ipse latori qui librum attulerat 600 ducatos praesentavit

  • attulerat (pluperfect indicative) becomes attulisset (pluperfect subjunctive)
  • praesentavit (perfect indicative) becomes praesentarit (perfect subjunctive, also written praesentaverit)

In that case Raphael, having said that Rudolph owned the book, continued 'and he personally gave 600 ducats to the person who brought the book'. This makes perfect sense. Rudolph loved books and had the funds to pay extravagantly for them.

Unfortunately, here for the first time the Latin is ambiguous. It might also be that the direct speech form of praesentarit is praesentavi (first person not third person). Raphael may be saying that he, Raphael, presented the ducats. Can we resolve the ambiguity? The word ipse, which sometimes disambiguates the accusative and infinitive construction, is no help here. The key, it seems to me, is to consider why this piece of reported speech is a relative clause in the first place. The reason, clearly, is to attach it to the words that went before, not the words which come after. We have been told one thing about Rudolph, that he owned the book, and now we are being told another, that he paid for it in person. If, on the other hand, Raphael is supposed to be saying two unrelated things, that Rudolph owned the book and that Raphael paid for it, it would be natural and unambiguous to use two accusative and infinitive clauses: librum fuisse Rudolphi, seipsum autem latori, qui librum attulisset, 600 ducatos dedisse. On either interpretation, there is nothing to say that the information about Rudolph is first hand: Raphael may be passing on what he himself heard say.

Dates are important here. Marci also tells us when he held his conversation with Raphael, Ferdinandi tertij Regis tum Boemiae in lingua boemica instructor, 'at that time the Czech language tutor of the then King Ferdinand III of Bohemia'. This puts the conversation between 1627 and 1637. Marci only reported it in 1665, at least 28 years later, when he was on the brink of senility. Rudolph II died in 1612, when Raphael was 32, so Raphael was speaking of events at least 15 years previously when he was a young provincial and only just beginning to find royal favour. Lastly, Raphael was too young to have witnessed any dealings between Rudolph and Dee and Kelly in the 1580s.

To sum up, this vexed sentence is a second hand story about events 30 and 50 years previously and is slightly ambiguous. One definite fact emerges from it, that the only source for the Roger Bacon story is Raphael Mnishovsky and that he was only speculating. If the nested sentences are all true, they also tell us that Rudolph II once owned the manuscript. On the most grammatically natural and historically plausible interpretation, it was also Rudolph who paid the 600 ducats but it just may have been Raphael who came up what was plainly a memorable sum of money.