Consider this.. (cont.). Numerals, networks, Spain and something of Kabbalah.

This post is almost 2800 words.

The earliest close examples of an upright ‘4’ numeral noted so far come from Florence at the beginning of the fourteenth century and then in Cresques’ great pictorial compendium of 1375, which includes various diagrams and a great worldmap, gridded by the ‘rose’ and containing what is still the first known inset ‘compass rose’ (see further below).

Contrary to what you might find said elsewhere, Cresques’ map is not a ‘mappamundi’ and its connection to the rutters or ‘portolans’ is certainly debateable, given that the same notion was rejected on technical grounds as early as the mid-twentieth century.

The recent, astounding assertion by one writer, on a nicely presented and official looking website was that Cresques had all his information from a couple of northern European Christian missionaries and that is surely pure invention. The sources of Cresques’ inscriptions for that map are already known, and include sources such as Ibn Jubayr’s journeys and the Alf Layla wa Laya. Allusions are also made to Jewish legends, such as that Noah settled north Africa after the flood and began viticulture again from there.

One cannot now discover how that modern author came to entertain the ‘Christian missionaries’ notion, for he died during the pandemic and I know only that he claimed some connection to the Central European university of Prague. With both authors of that project now lost, the translation of all the labels into English may be stopped or at least halted for the foreseeable future, but we do not have to rely on that material to consider the problem of the ‘4’.

IN the same way that Genoa was under Milanese control by the time the Voynich manuscript was made, so it was with two more of the four once-independent Italian maritime states.

Amalfi had earlier been taken by Pisa (August 6th., 1136) and in 1406 Pisa itself was taken, by stealth, by the Florentines. Amalfi had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Naples during the late fourteenth century.

Oddly enough, Florence did not develop Pisa as its maritime arm, but on the contrary suppressed the naval activity of both Amalfi and Pisa.

The significance of Florentine control of Pisa, Neapolitan control of Amalfi and Milanese rule in Genoa, is that direct political power meant access to all technical secrets, skills and any system of ciphers earlier held exclusively by the neighbour. Trade secrets were treasure then, just as now.

When we find the ‘4’ form appear briefly in Florence, early in the fourteenth century, within a copy of the Pisan ‘Liber abaci’ we know the exemplar might have been a local copy, or an earlier one acquired directly from Pisa or indeed from Amalfi, noted for its schools of mathematics. The best copies were known to be ones closest to the date of composition.

It should be noted here too that (to quote an online tourist site) “by about the 1230s Amalfi became one of the first locations in Europe to produce paper…. [which] was soon sold all over the Mediterranean. Paper making continued as an important local trade throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.”

My own view of the ‘4’ numeral’s history, at present, is that we shall probably never know absolutely who first wrote the numeral as ‘4’ in Europe and that if there were a single key to the problem it may well have been lost in 1343, when a tidal wave obliterated Amalfi’s harbour and lower town, ushering in a period of decline from which the town never recovered. It s relevant, in my opinion, that all four – Genoa, Amalfi, Pisa and Venice had allotted quarters in medieval Constantinople. (see interactive map by Saffran and Nicolescu)

However, we may still regard Amalfi or Genoa as likely to have brought that ‘4’ form to Italy, because of a demonstrable connection between those maritime states and Cresques’ great work.

The semi-legendary Amalfitan surnamed ‘Gioia’ is popularly credited with having first placed a magnetised needle over a diagram of the western wind-rose and enclosed all in a glass-covered box. Properly, that was not the ‘compass’ but the bussola (buxula), and the true navigational compass (as qumbas) the eastern navigator’s ‘rose’ whose points were named for stars. In my opinion it was in that sense Cresques describes himself as ‘master of bussola and compass’. The islands of Majorca and Minorca were remarkably cosmopolitan at that time and Arabic had been the island’s official language until just 70 years before. What is more, the original ‘Barbary’ pirates of the north African coast around Sicily, who were Berber and Arabs, are said by Ibn Majid to share the same skills and know-how as he – an Arabs master of the eastern seas.

Seen in daylight, Cresques’ great worldmap shows the world below, but at night with no illumination save a few candles what one sees is as if a veil scattered with golden dots were laid over the darkened world. Makers of terrestrial maps and marine charts also made maps of the heavens. Bussola and qumbas.

You may think such technicalities aren’t needed here but, as I first discussed some years ago in the course of providing a detailed analysis and commentary for the Voynich map, there is a precedent for Cresques’ inclusion of his ‘angel of the rose’ and for his map’s mirroring along its centre line. I won’t elaborate on the last point here, but refer again to the fourteenth century Genoese cartographer, Pietro Vesconte (sometimes found as ‘Vesconti’).

In one of his ‘rose-gridded’ charts, composed in 1311 1318 – that is, about or shortly after the time of that Florentine ‘4’ – there is another faint allusion to the same motif found in Cresques’ work and in the Voynich map and in all three cases – that is, the Vesconte carte marine, Cresques’, and the Voynich map, the motif of its ‘surveying angel’ is even placed within the same – north-west – quarter.

Note (added 5th. Dec. 2021] Pietro Vesconte’s date of birth is uncertain, but he is described as ‘flourishing’ c.1310-1330. Genoese by birth and education, his earlier charts and maps were produced there, but most of his extant work was produced in Venice.

This is less obvious in the Voynich map because it presents with its east and west reversed from the European norm. Western custom permits such east-west reversal with a constant North only in literal representations of the night sky.

I apologise to long term readers for again repeating points first made by me and in research published before 2020, but some of that research was treated as if its conclusions were just ‘an idea’ to be imitated, and its illustrations to be re-used without their context – so what was ‘lifted’ by the imitators was invariably – perhaps inevitably – badly mangled, and has never been well used by Voynich theorists and so must be repeated here. I regret having to deface the illustration for the same reason.

(left) detail from the Voyich map, its North-west roundel (upper right) detail from Abraham Cresques rose-gridded world-map, its north-western quadrant; (lower right) detail from a chart by Pietro Vesconte (sometimes found as ‘Vesctonti’, its upper-west corner). From the 1318 Vesconte atlas (Museo Correr, Venice)

and so, again..:

Since I have already said that the final recension of the Voynich map should be dated to c.1350, with our present copy dated to the early fifteenth, I think here again we may narrow the environment for the ‘4’ shape as numeral and, just possibly its use in the Voynich manuscript, to the specific environment of calculation and geometry gained in service to navigation and trade.

In other words to apprenticeships and the ‘abaco’ school rather than in schools offering a more literary, theoretical or philosophical education. More evidence may demand that opinion be altered, but that’s where I stand so far.

It might even be that the Voynich ‘4’ shape is meant in the manuscript as a numeral, even if also used, or originating, as an alphabetic sign, though I should be wary of assuming that the Voynich script’s other glyph of similar form – that with a more curved ‘eye’ – is necessarily to be read as it is.*

*a question I’ve not ever looked into, but which arises from time to time, is a possible origin for the ‘Cistercian’ numerals in a version of Syriac script. See later note on a mixed alphanumeric system.

For those who enjoy the slog of using pictorial archives of kind typified by the Index of Christian Art (as was), it might be fun to see what else turns up for ‘4’ in European sources around 1300.

In any case, the story which puts Leonardo of Pisa and his ‘Liber abaci’ centre stage is an over-simplified one. That story’s short version runs something like ‘Arabs brought the Hindu numerals westwards. Leonardo (‘Fibonacci) saw them, and brought them to Europe’.

But Leonardo didn’t use that ‘4’ shape. His relevance to our present problem is rather the pattern of his travels, which illustrate nicely contemporary networks of trade and travel.

The Pisan Leonardo first learned Arabic numerals in a major Berber-speaking city of North Africa, during the last decade of the twelfth century. His sobriquet ‘the traveller’ was well earned.

Fibonacci states that his father wanted him to stay and be taught “for some days” in a “calculation school” in Bejaïa, where he was introduced to the “art [of calculation] by the nine figures of the Indians”. The knowledge of this art pleased him so much that he learned all he could about how it was studied in Egypt, Syria, Greece, Sicily and Provence when going there for the sake of trade.

So there it is. Those ‘Indian’ numerals were already known in Greece, in Sicily and in Provence before the end of the twelfth century. I’ve used the quote only so I can reference:

  • Charles Burnett, Numerals and Arithmetic in the Middle Ages (Variorum Collected Studies Series CS967) 2010.

There were especially close ties between Pisa and Béjaïa during the twelfth century. In c.1350, it was rather with Tunis and Cairo that the Venetian traded who wrote the zibaldone now Beinecke MS 327.

Béjaïa, formerly Bougie and Bugia was by Roman times known as  Saldae.    Béjaïa is still among the centres where the Berber language Kabyle is in daily use.  

Poor Ramon Lull would arrive in Béjaïa during the early fourteenth century (in 1314) as an 81 year old Dominican friar hoping to make converts to the Latin Christian church. He was dead within a twelvemonth, though accounts of his death differ, some saying he was executed for trying to persuade Muslims to become apostates to their faith – something prohibited in every region under Muslim governance as indeed it would have been in regions under Latin Christian governance had the reciprocal occurred.

Other accounts have Llull dying on the ship returning him to Majorca.


Correction. (December 15th., 2021).

I see that my sources are out of date, superseded by an updated (Feb.2021) entry in Stamford University’s Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, where it says that Llull did not enter the Dominican order, nor the Franciscans’ and gives the following account of his fruitless trip to Béjaïa.

‘De vita’ narrates this trip in detail. Llull spent most of the time in prison. Instead of seeking to meet intellectuals, as he did on his first trip to Tunisia, right after disembarkation, he went to the main square and harangued passersby and anyone present at the time. The crowd was infuriated, and Llull was placed under arrest. The authorities questioned and imprisoned him. He would stay there for six months, receiving visits from sages who sought to convert him to Islam. He was later expelled from the city, but his hardships would not end there. His ship sank on the trip back to Genoa, but Llull and another passenger managed to survive by reaching the coast. He would then remain in Pisa, where he would finish texts he had previously began writing, such as ‘Ars generalis ultima’.


Llull has his place in western Europe’s history, but unless one of his works contains examples of Majorcan-Florentine ‘4’ he is less relevant to our present question than the more congenial, secular, interactions between Berbers, Jews, Arabs and Italians before 1300, including within the naval, commercial and cartographic schools.

Voynich writers interested in the possibility that the Voynich ‘alphabet’ may be composed of elements taken from a number of other systems may be interested in an account of the invention, during second quarter of the twelfth century, of a new mixed system of mathematical notation.

Burnett writes:

*Charles Burnett, ‘The Semantic of Indian Numerals in Arabic, Greek and Latin’, Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 34, No. 1/2 (April 2006) pp.15-30. [JSTOR]

 For those who’d like to see what Greek script of the fourteenth century looked like, here’s a detail from a Greek fourteenth-century map in Codex Vatopedinus 655.

“Europe gained its numerals from the Jews”

“The Jewish community… reconstituted in 1306” from ‘Amalfi’ in the Encyclopaedia Judaica JVL online. 2005.

As early as 1891, when European scholars were just beginning to enquire into the history of the forms for their numerals, it was already being accepted as fact that they had come from Spain. (See for example the off-hand “or rather, from Spain” in a review published in the Scottish Antiquary (Vol. 6, No. 22, (1891) p.54).

But even more unexpectedly, an association was made with Kabbalah as early as 1839!

I’ve just learned the last fact thanks to Phineas Mordell’s meticulous documentation of his sources and precedents in a very brief note of 1925. For its historical value, I’ve reproduced this note in full.

  • Phineas Mordell, ‘Note on the Theory of the Kabbalistic Origin of “Arabic” Numerals’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Oct., 1925), p. 207.

Of course it is possible that by 1932, Erwin Panofsky had read one or more of those sources listed above, or even an article published late in 1931; in addressing Friedman’s list of Questions more than twenty years later, Panofsky mis-remembered the year in which he’d seen the manuscript – writing ‘1931’ when it can only have been in 1932, as explained in an earlier post.

  • Solomon Gandz, ‘The Origin of the Ghubār Numerals, or the Arabian Abacus and the Articuli’, Isis, Nov., 1931, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Nov., 1931), pp. 393-424.

Panofsky was never so vapid as to mistake for an ‘idea’ the conclusions of genuine research, nor was he obliged to parrot others’ assertions for want of ability to form balanced and well-informed opinions of his own – but he may well have read one or more of those articles for the same reason that G.F. Hill wrote his monograph (see previous post) that is – to assist in accurately provenancing artefacts and quickly identifying fakes.

I think Panofsky could have known those precedents- not that he would say anything of the sort unless it were suggested to him by aspects of the materials, pigments, imagery and vellum which he observed during the two hours he spent studying the manuscript itself. But now to that list of things observed we may add (with a query) the form of one or more of the Voynich glyphs – perhaps even the ‘4’. We don’t know. All we do know is what some long-term readers of my blogs probably know by heart now, but for newcomers..

Panofsky’ freely-given opinion was given to Mrs. Voynich and Anne Nill, the latter soon reporting it in a letter to her friend, Herbert Garland. She wrote*

“he is convinced that the MS. is Spanish (or something southern near Spain) and shows strong Arabic and Jewish influences. He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!!

**for details of Nill’s letter, see the transcription made by Rich Santacoloma which I believe was the first published transcription. See his post. ‘Anne Nill speaks‘.  For my earlier comments, in this blog, about the letter and about Rich’s thoughts see here. 

To the question,  ‘What exactly had Panofsky seen in the manuscript which led him to mention Kabbalah’? I never did find a clear answer, and ran into unexpected difficulties, such as the lack of modern scholarly articles about the medieval commentaries or even modern translations of those commentaries that I could quote in an English-language blog.

As with many other research questions, one sometimes has to leave a problem aside for a time, until new information or pure serendipity offers a way forward.  Very recently, a single article in n online journal has explained the apparent barriers and, quite incidentally, offered a line to another and quite different question that I’d laid aside pending better information. I’ll try to get to that journal article in the next post.

For a short comment and an initial bibliography for the question of any influence from Kabbalah in Beinecke MS 408 see  (Post #15). 

With this question, as with the history of European forms for its numerals and most other fields of historical research, the public’s idea of a positivistic ‘forward march’ is deceptive.

Very often a study moves over time more like a pretty complicated sort of quickstep, involving  not a few trodden toes, losses of direction and ‘excuse-me’ interruptions, backwards moving which takes one forwards and some few straight-forward passages.  In the history of European numerals, for example, there was a period in the 1950s and in America, where the story was badly misdirected by an ideological fixation on the Babylonians and a transmission-theory gone berzerk.  As example, here’s one such paper, though if you don’t feel like reading it all, here’s a taste of that author’s ‘commonsense amateur theory’ approach.

… a casual inspection of the Arabic numerals suggested that these symbols might have evolved from forms such as are shown in Fig. 10, hereafter termed Ancestral Arabic numerals. It is evident that they are a variation of the Prototype numerals which the writer later derived from hand-signs, and still later discovered had been widely employed..

from: W. Clyde Richey, ‘On the Origin and Development of the Arabic Numerals’,  Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science , Vol. 26 (1952), pp. 134-146. [quote shortened .. 5th Dec. 2021]

Not ‘handsigns’ but methods of finger-calculation may, in fact, prove relevant to our efforts to read Voynichese.

But I digress.

When quite early insights are overlooked or shrugged away in favour of worse ones, as happens more often than laymen suppose, it is also true that they may be recovered or re- discovered again later thanks to properly documented work in the meantime, or because the sum of historical evidence requires it.  

As example, here’s Charles Burnett, writing in 2006, and after years of close study of the question…  and evidently arriving at a view held by at least one person in 1891, in Scotland. 

One can observe, too, that, during the course of the twelfth century, alternative forms of the Indian numerals dropped out of use, especially the ‘eastern forms’ which were briefly shared by Arabic scholars in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greek scholars, and Latin scholars in Italy. The forms which drove out their competitors (in my view) were developed by scholars in Toledo, and quickly spread to northern Italy, where they were used by Fibonacci. (p.21)

  • Charles Burnett, ‘The Semantic …’ op.cit

except for that form of ‘4’, which Fibonacci did not use….

(detail and enlargement) Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275 f. 334

MS Burney 275 is described as

Scholastic miscellany, Central France (Paris), 1309-1316. Priscian, Cicero, and Pseudo-Cicero, Boethius, Aristotle, Euclid, Adelard of Bath, Ptolemy, translated [nominally – D.] by Gerard of Cremona.

Note – after some thought, I’ve altered the spelling of the Genoese cartographer’s name from ‘Vesconti’ to ‘Vesconte‘ as less likely to create confusion with the Milanese Visconti family, though researchers hunting secondary sources should search both versions of Pietro’s name.

One thought on “Consider this.. (cont.). Numerals, networks, Spain and something of Kabbalah.

  1. I realise I should have included more detail about the ‘surprisingly multicultural’ nature of Majorca after 1229, when the island passed from Muslim to Christian governance as a result of its being taken in that year by James I of Aragon.

    The following is taken from J.N. Hilgarth, ‘Sources for the History of the Jews of Majorca’, Traditio, Vol. 50 (1995) pp.334-341, though other recent sources will include the same information.

    “James I appears to have chosen Majorca as his first target because of the island’s geographical importance and its closeness to the Spanish coast. Almost equidistant from Catalonia, the north of Africa, and Sardinia, the island’s ports dominated the trade routes of the western Mediterranean. James’s army included … large numbers of townspeople from the main trading cities of Catalonia and southern France, especially Barcelona, Marseilles, and Montpellier. Unlike the barons, who soon became absentee landlords, many townspeople actually settled in Majorca and contributed to its prosperity. Some of the settlers came from further afield. While Catalans were the most numerous, there were also Aragonese, Navarrese, men from southern France, Italians (from Naples, Sicily, Genoa, and Pisa), Castilians, and Portuguese. In addition to the conquered Muslims, there was also an important Jewish community in Majorca from very shortly after the Christian conquest of 1229. This community had ties not only to Catalonia and southern France, from which many of its members had come, but also to north Africa, and Italy.” (p.335)


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