An alchemist's Bible purchased for Christ Church Library in 1676

A closer look at the Christ Church copy of the so called 'Vizsoly Bible’ has revealed a few interesting facts. This is the first Bible printed in Hungarian. It was translated by Gáspár Károli and printed in 1590. The sources of this translation are many. They are named in the foreword: the Vulgata, the Septuaginta, commentaries by Franciscus Vatablus, Sebastian Münster, Santes Pagninus and Immanuel Tremellius, and earlier, incomplete Hungarian translations, mainly those by Gáspár Heltai and Péter Melius Juhász. Beyond all this however, Károli's translation is seminal for establishing Hungarian as a literary language. The printing of the Vizsoly Bible is also of utmost importance. It is an example of smooth European collaboration, with the press, based at Vizsoly, in Hungary, using paper from Poland and type pieces from the Netherlands. Bálint Mantskovit, a Polish typographer, coordinated the printing of a volume including 2,412 pages of text weighing about 6 kg. Less than 50 of the c.700 copies of the first edition of the Vizsoly Bible have survived today.

The second edition is even scarcer, but a copy of this extremely rare book is now at Christ Church. The volume was printed at Hanau, Germany, in 1608. The copy now at Christ Church has an interesting history. This can be reconstructed to a certain extent. Fortunately, there are several manuscript notes, so there is plenty of information available, First of all, and most importantly, we have two presentation inscriptions. One, on a piece of paper glued to the upper board, in Latin. The other, on a similar looking piece of paper, but this time glued to the lower board, in Hungarian. Both are written by the same elegant humanistic hand.

The Hungarian inscription describes a certain Bánfihunyadi János, born in NagyBánya (Baia Mare, Romania), giving the book to the Bodleian Library on 15 July 1617, so that he is remembered forever. The text also mentions the donor living in London for nine years at the time.

The Latin inscription starts with a poem, dedicating the volume to the University of Oxford - "Ad Antiquissimam & Celeberimam Academiam Oxoniensem [...]". At the end there is a short text giving some biographical information on the donor, by his Latinised name, Johannes Banfihuniadinus, the son of  Benedict, minister supervising the Protestant churches in the region of Tiszántúl.

So, who is this Bánfihunyadi János / Johannes Banfihuniadinus?  He gives us the most important clue as to his identity, both in Hungarian and Latin: he describes himself as " Eötvös" / "Aurifaber", meaning "goldsmith". Starting from here, one can quickly confirm that the man who donated this rare Bible to the Bodleian is none other than a well-respected Hungarian alchemist, also known by his pseudonym Hans Hungar (1576-1646).

He appears to have been truly popular and highly regarded during his lifetime, for five portraits, one of them kept in the National Portrait Gallery, have been identified. Four are engravings seemingly based on a lost painting by Jacob Peter Gowy (three by Wenceslaus Hollar, all dated to 1644, and one by William Marshall, dated 1646). The fifth is a small silver medallion struck in 1645. The engraved portraits show a bearded figure holding a glass vessel enclosed within a frame of alchemical instruments, symbols and quotations, revealing the sitter's name and birthplace.

There are accounts of Bánfihunyadi leaving the Kingdom of Hungary for an European tour in 1606. The inscription in the Hungarian Bible kept at Christ Church reveals that he arrived in England in 1608. Here he is documented to have associated with figures such as the alchemist Arthur Dee (John Dee's son), William Lilly, Jonathan Goddard and Kenelm Digby.

Though fully active and happily married in England, Bánfihunyadi  kept in touch with his Hungarian roots not only by corresponding with scholars such as Medgyesi Pál and Haller Gábor, but even by occasionally travelling back to his native land. Thus, in Arcana Arcanorum, Arthur Dee mentions sending a friend to Hungary to collect some "prima materia" for his alchemical work. Given their documented connection, this friend is very likely to have been Bánfihunyadi himself. Moreover, we needn't look further than the copy of the Hungarian Bible in hand to see that the book happened to be a parting gift. In the provenance note at the end of the book the donor mentions that he was soon to be on his way back to his home in Hungary.

Scrutinising the book, with all its bibliographic information and marginalia, is an endlessly rewarding exercise. The edition Bánfihunyadi gave to the Bodleian Library was published in Hanau, near Frankfurt, in 1608. This is precisely the time when the alchemist would have been crossing Germany. The book was completed in the principality of Kassel under the patronage of its ruler, Landgrave Maurice of Hesse, whose many scholarly attributes included a mastery of the Hungarian language. Tellingly, in dedicating his copy to Oxford University, the Latin autograph inscription at the beginning of the volume refers to Maurice's fluency in Hungarian, patronage of the arts and his status as a "princeps doctissimus", whose court was one of the greatest centres of alchemy in Europe. Its links with England were surprisingly close. The godmother of Maurice's daughter was Queen Elizabeth and Maurice himself claimed kinship with Elizabeth's successor, King James I. Interestingly, the latter is also part of the story that this particular item tells.

His presence looms large in this striking copy of the Bible in Hungarian. The volume is set in seventeenth-century calf binding, with gold tooled armorials of King James I (the king ruling at the time), the date 1617, and the initials "H * I * NB". The initials stand for "Hunyadinus * Iohannes * NagyBánya". This suggests that the donor also had the book bound before inscribing it as a gift to the Bodleian Library.

Bánfihunyadi's presence in Oxford may be explained by a possible meeting with Thomas Allen, a mathematician, astrologer and Fellow of Gloucester Hall. Allen is also known as an important collector. At least 250 items from his library can still be traced. He is particularly remembered as having acquired manuscripts from dissolved monasteries. A considerable part of Allen's collection was presented to the Bodleian Library by Kenelm Digby (with whom Bánfihunyadi collaborated extensively). This bequest was strong in works by early English scientists, including Roger Bacon, Simon Bredon, John Eschenden, Robert Grosseteste, John Sharp, and Richard Wallingford. Allen's library was in extensive use during his lifetime, with many of its holdings in circulation among scholars. One of the items from Allen's library is documented to have reached  William Lilly (another famous astrologer of the period) from Bánfihunyadi. There is a plausible chance therefore that the Hungarian alchemist met Thomas Allen directly and benefited from the latter's library during a visit to Oxford. This visit could have happened in July 1617, when Bánfihunyadi gave his rare Bible to the Bodleian.

Its presence there is attested by the shelfmark - Arch B.77 - on the flyleaf, as it appears in the old Bodleian catalogue. What happened and why is the volume no longer there, this is another story. It appears that the Bodleian Library at the time had another copy of the second edition of the Vizsoly Bible. This is lost now, but because there were two copies initially and possibly because the volume donated by Bánfihunyadi had annotations, therefore did not look as new, it might have been disposed of as duplicate. Most likely, it was sold by the Bodleian Library in 1676. At that sale there is reason to believe that Christ Church was a considerable purchaser. Further research is currently under way in connection to the 1676 Bodleian sale of duplicates in the hope that we might discover other titles acquired by Christ Church. Until then, the handsome presentation copy of this rare edition has found its home under a new shelfmark - NA.5.2 . Far from spoiling its beauty and value, the manuscript notes placed inside by a very careful donor have given the book a voice and the ability to tell a story and thus reach its readers in the future in a very tangible way. It is exactly as Bánfihunyadi wished it to be, a volume meant to remind us of his presence forevermore...

Dr Cristina Neagu
Keeper of Special Collections
Christ Church Library


Further reading

Appleby, John H., "Arthur Dee and Johannes Bánfi Hunyades: Further Information on their Alchemical and Professional Activities", Ambix, 24 (2): 96–109, doi:10.1179/amb.1977.24.2.96, PMID 11615611
Gomori, George, "New Information on Janos Banfihunyadi's Life", Ambix, 24 (3): 170–174, doi:10.1179/amb.1977.24.3.170
Gomori, George, "Bejegyzések Bánfihunyadi János oxfordi bibliájában és adalékok angliai működéséhez" [Entries in János Bánfihunyadi's Bible in Oxford and Additions in England] (PDF), Magyar Könyvszemle (1): 93–99
Gomori, George, "János Bánfihunyadi: Goldsmith, Alchemist, Chemist" (PDF), Modern Filológiai Közlemények, 6 (2): 92–96
Josten, C. H.; Taylor, F. Sherwood , "Johannes Banfi Hunyades, 1576–1650", Ambix, 5 (1–2): 44–52, doi:10.1179/amb.1953.5.1-2.44
Rady, Martyn, "Marginalia: a Transylvanian alchemist in seventeenth-century London. (Janos Banfi-Hunyadi)", Slavonic and East European Review, Jan, 1994, Vol.72(1), p.140-151


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