Light relief: inventing a German-Byzantine-Turkish-Mongol solution theory

Among the books you see listed in ‘Recommended Reading’ is one that tells of the life and adventures of Johann Schiltberger.

  • The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger, a Native of Bavaria, in Europe, Asia, and Africa, 1396-1427. Translated from the Heidelberg MS edited in 1859 by Professor Karl Friedrich Neumann, by Commander J. Buchan Telfer, R.N., F.S.A., F.R.G.S. With Notes by Professor P. Bruun of the Imperial University of South Russia, at Odessa, and a Preface, Introduction and Notes by the Translator and Editor. 1879 (1878). includes map.

Five or six years ago, having come to feel rather frustrated and irritated by seeing the results of days, or weeks (and in sense, I suppose, a lifetime’s) research being met by little except a combination of theft and insult, I toyed for a while with the idea of doing what Jacques Guy had done and creating a fake ‘theory’.   Guy’s motives were, I think, to bring home to his contemporaries that  deciding matters of history and codicology and even cryptography by no more than subjective judgements of ‘plausibility’ was a complete waste of time.   Well – perhaps that was his motive; one cannot know.   Still, it led to collateral damage which he, scarcely less than Stolfi, would regret.

The example was enough to deter me from pretending the  ‘Schiltberger theory’ was a genuine one.

Now, though, it might serve as something of an object lesson for newcomers, so let me tell you how that ‘theory’ was formed.

I simply used a large academic database, typed in a motley lot of search terms. Half were honest, reflecting my own findings and the rest came from theories then circulating.

Among the listed results  – articles and books containing all those terms  –  I decided on a book already on my shelves. The Haklyut edition of Schiltberger’s account of his slave-years and final escape.

Schiltberger’s story has been ‘gentrified’ by the wiki article’s author, but the facts are these.

Schiltberger’s family had put him into, or let him serve in, the army of a certain lord when he was fourteen.

He was captured and enslaved when barely sixteen (1396).

He lived as a slave for the next thirty-two years.

His work was to serve the succession of Turkish, then Mongol rulers as a courier ‘runner’.  That he was also permitted use of a horse is clear and, in fact, it was on horseback that he finally made his escape around 1426 or so.

He reached  Constantinople and was kindly received and treated by the Palaeologan emperor but, being still a slave, he was still the property of his owner and liable to be reclaimed if found, so he remained in hiding for a time, until finally assisted to return to his native home in Bavaria in 1427.

So there you are.  I’m sure you see that it would not difficult to work that up into all-encompassing Germanic-Mongol-Genoese-…and most other things… Voynich theory.

It would offer a plausible reason for the chap’s writing in a peculiar script, and speaking a form of language otherwise unattested – we’d posit that he’d spent so long with the Mongols that his speech and writing had been influenced by the ‘Tatar’ tongue.

Or it might be imagined that his role as a slave – runner or courier – had led him to know some clever non-:Latin cipher method… and though there’s no evidence one might argue that it wasn’t Rudolf but Sigismund (also king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor) who had given the poor ex-slave the sum of 600 ducats.

And that’s pretty much how Voynich theories are made.

Life being full of annoying ironies,  who knows… maybe I’m right without meaning to be, as perhaps Guy also was about the Asian character of the Voynichese. Stolfi’s subsequent study led him to suggest Jurchen.

He may be right, too.

To shift the focus of attention from a ‘central European Christian’ theory to one with regions east of the Bosporus at their heart  might be easier were the chief actor a ‘central European’ – and for the sake of the thing,  Schiltberger was a candidate as good as any other.

Postscript:  I see that now the same Hakluyt edition as that referenced at the head of the post is now at the internet archive. (here)



3 thoughts on “Light relief: inventing a German-Byzantine-Turkish-Mongol solution theory

  1. I’m afraid the ‘Schiltberger’ idea is proving far too popular – but in response to readers wanting to know more about points of connection…
    others of the search-terms included ‘Franciscan’ (the order charged with dipliomatic-missionary activities, and that to which Roger Bacon belonged) and ‘Codex Cumanicus’ about which I had posted a piece. (and would post another at voynichimagery on Jan.26th., 2017). At the time, the latter – i.e. the Codex Cumanicus – didn’t turn up with the rest, but today it does. See:

    James D. Ryan (ed.), The Spiritual Expansion of Medieval Latin Christendom: The Asian Missions ( 2017 ) pp.355-356


  2. The relevant part of the text (in English translation) reads, in the Hakluyt edition:-

    ” a place called, in the Tartar tongue, Temurtapit, which is as much as to say, the Iron Gate. This divides Persia and Tartary. Then he passed through a city called Origens [usually equated with Urgench]; it is powerful, and lies in the middle of a river called Edil. Then he travelled through a mountainous country called Setzulet, where there are many Christians who have a bishop there ; their priests belong to the Order of t he Shoeless, who do not know Latin, and they sing and read their prayers in the Tartar tongue. It is found that thus the laity become stronger in the faith, and also many Infidels are confirmed in the Christian faith, because they understand the words that the priests sing and read. After that, he went into Great Tartaria, ” Ch.25 of the narrative – p.34 in the Haklyut English translation.

    re “Setzulet” (which Ryan renders Stzulet). For myself, I am inclined to identify that place with Amaligh – not least by reference to the results of my own research into certain details of the Voynich manuscript’s imagery in one of the later strata – though also of course in consequence of the historical context and its implications. Translators of Schiltberger’s narrative have all identified the ‘Shoeless’ with the Franciscan order and while I accept that, I must add that I do so with some reservation. To emphasise the value of employing the vernacular in all regions is a characteristic of the ‘Church of the East’, otherwise called Nestorians. – O’D.


  3. About Cuman and Voynich+Codex Cumanicus:

    The ‘Cuman’ theme has been around for a while – in a comment to forum( 01-03-2018 ) I said:

    “2004. First ‘Cuman-related’ item. Not sure what got Leonard Fox onto that track, but on November 6th. of that year he wrote to the Jim’s [first] Voynich mailing list about his own friend and colleague Peter Golden who had already written several essays on the Codex Cumanicus and who had already pointed out that the text’s Turkic language was “quite closely related to Karaim”… ‘Karaim’ is how Golden and Fox speak of the Karaite dialect spoken by Jews of the Crimea. Fox said in that message that he could confirm the the similarity, because Karaim (or Karaite) was the language of his own childhood.

    Other results of hunting Voynich+Codex Cumanicus produced a comment by bdid1dr to a post at Nick Pelling’s blog (March 16, 2014 at 3:46)

    and another by Darren Worley to Stephen Bax’ (June 7th. 2016: 10:24pm)

    – I had thought Emma Smith wrote a post mentioning Cuman, but the title doesn’t appear in her sidebar; her site has no ‘search’ option, and my ‘page search’ doesn’t work on her site. So … maybe she did and maybe she didn’t. Emma’s wordpress blog is entitled ‘Agnostic Voynich’.


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